Things To Do in Barnes, Battersea, Cheam, Clapham, Epsom, Fulham, Kingston, Putney, Surbiton, Sutton, Wandsworth, Wimbledon

Petrina Banfield

When Petrina Banfield was looking into her father’s history, little did she know that digging into the old hospital files at the London Metropolitan Archives would provide an intoxicating idea for a story that would later spawn into a book deal with Harper Collins.

“I was researching my father’s history, who grew up in care and he was separated from his twin as a child,” says Petrina, who is a 48-year old mum to three. “I recall one day, there was a knock at the door and a man who looked exactly like my dad was standing there. So that was a big shock for us all! As my dad got older, we asked more questions about his childhood, but he didn’t really know a lot. He remembered some of the names of the care homes he was in so I went to the Metropolitan Archives in London because I thought it might give us a clue about some of his family history. I started looking up the hospital records and then I got drawn into reading the almoner’s reports.”

As Petrina explains, almoners were the forerunners to the social workers of our time because, before the NHS existed, patients were expected to pay for their own treatment. Almoners were employed from 1895 in order to help alleviate the pressures on the burgeoning outpatient departments – and they would go into people’s homes to financially assess them as well as observe the intricacies of family life. It was the almoners who would notice if something was amiss, or if a child was being neglected, for instance.

“As I looked into the files they were just so interesting and there were so many fascinating cases. I was just so moved by all the stories and some of them were funny as well,” says Petrina. “There was one elderly watchman who patrolled the streets and he had really bad eczema and the cold was affecting his hands badly. But he didn’t have enough money to buy a pair of gloves. So the almoners took money from the Samaritan fund and brought him a pair. His reaction to it was amazing - he was just so grateful and it changed his life.”

After being inspired by the true-life stories she was reading, Petrina came up with an idea and, after putting a proposal together and sending it off, was shocked and delighted to be offered a book deal.

“I was over the moon. I’ve been ghostwriting for many years, so to finally have something in my own name is really exciting. I am so thrilled,” Petrina smiles.

Petrina set about collating the tons of research she needed in order to write her story – which includes lively social history and excerpts from newspaper articles – at the same time as juggling motherhood. She even had to put on hold taking in any more foster children, something she has been doing since 2007. But, after a year of hard work, Letters from Alice will finally be released on 26 July.

“I can’t wait,” says Petrina. “We’re going to have a little launch party at a local teashop and celebrate.” But does she think her novel will be made into a primetime Sunday night period drama? “Only if Tom Hardy is in it!,” she laughs. “With Letters from Alice, from the beginning I could just visualise it, it was like the whole story was coming to life in front of me. And I just hope other people can see that, too.”

Set in 1920s London, newly qualified almoner, Alice Hudson, steps into the home of Charlotte Redbourne, a terrified teenager who has just given birth out of wedlock, and they both make a pact that will change Alice’s life forever. Alice is determined to keep Charlotte and her newborn baby safe, but when a threatening note appears, she realises that Charlotte may need more protection than she first thought.

Letters from Alice will be available to buy from 26 July at £7.99

Petrina BanfieldAn almoner pours tea at Guy’s Hospital in 1941