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The Sailing Ship Tree

The Sailing Ship Tree is set in Liverpool just before the First World War. Twins Walter and Dorothy are children of the butler and a housemaid in the mansion of the owners of an important shipping line. They befriend Tweeny, a child servant, and also young Master George from the House, and together they embark on a daring adventure. Part family history from my own father’s life. 10+ Carnegie nominated.


Available from Amazon.

Published in by Catnip, 2008, ISBN 978-1-84647-044-8. Previously published by Hamish Hamilton, 1998 and Puffin paperback.

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Sometimes there would be a message for us hidden in a secret hole in one of its branches.

This beautifully crafted, elegiac novel operates equally successfully on two levels – as a work of fiction and as a social document. Highly recommended.

Books for Keeps

Foreign editions

The Sailing Ship Tree was also published in France and the USA.


The Sailing Ship Tree was nominated for the Carnegie medal and shortlisted for the Lancashire Award, 2000.

‘The Sailing Ship Tree’ is partly about my own family

One of my most treasured possessions is a diary of my grandfather’s. I never met him, as he died before I was born. It’s just a simple little notebook covered in worn black leather, and the copper script inside is faded and very difficult to read. It is about a journey he made by steamship to Australia to join his wife in 1892. When he arrived he discovered that she was dead.

He remarried, and became a butler in a large house called Barkhill Mansion in the Mossley Hill area of Liverpool. It now belongs to Liverpool John Moores University. Below you can see me standing on the steps as if I were lady of the mansion! In those days it was surrounded by countryside. In 1902 my father, Walter Alfred William Hollingsworth, and his twin sister Dorothy were born in the lodge cottage there. My father used to tell me about his ‘country’ childhood, and about the big ships he could see on the River Mersey from the gardens of the Big House.

He told me that as children of the butler they weren’t really supposed to play with the children of the other servants, such as the coachman or the gardener or the cook. They definitely couldn’t play with the young servants. And it was never even imagined that they and young Master George would even think of becoming friends!

But they did.

My father loved writing, and would have loved the acknowledgement of being published. When he died at the age of 93 I discovered some stories that he had written, some set on the Barkhill estate of his childhood. The discovery of these story fragments, and Grandad’s diary, all put me in touch with the recent past of my own family, the grandfather I had never met, a vanished lifestyle, my dad’s childhood. And so I decided to write The Sailing Ship Tree. It’s a made-up story, but it’s set firmly in my father’s childhood.

What happens in The ‘Sailing Ship Tree’?

It’s a daring adventure story. Four children are connected to a mansion in Liverpool. One is the son of a wealthy owner of a shipping line. That’s lonely, rich Master George. He has a very strict upbringing, is taught by a tutor, and gazes longingly out of the window when he hears the children playing in the grounds. 

One is a young servant called Tweeny. She works below stairs, in the kitchens, and above stairs, dusting and polishing. She sees everything that’s going on.

The other two are twins, Dorothy and Walter, the children of the butler of the house.

After a time they all get to know each other, and meet in secret. They leave messages for each other in the trunk of a huge tree that’s shaped like a sailing ship, and it’s their meeting place whenever they get the chance to meet up.

When something awful happens to Master George they dream up such a cunning plan to help him that you’ll never believe it till you read the story.

Another triumph from Berlie Doherty.

Sunday Telegraph

Why did I want to write this book?

Dad was the greatest influence in my career, in that he encouraged me to write from a very early age. He used to type up my poems and stories for me and send them to the Liverpool Echo, and he shared all my excitement when they were published on the children’s page. And he was always writing himself. To me there was nothing unusual about creating a story – it was something my dad did. So when I found his stories all parcelled up with their rejection slips I decided to write a book that would celebrate Dad’s life, and that would also incorporate his own memories. They became a kind of springboard for my novel. In a sense, The Sailing Ship Tree is a collaboration between my father and myself.

It sounds easy. In fact I found it harder to write than anything else I’ve attempted, and despaired many times of being able to bring it off.

Getting the story right

The Sailing Ship Tree is set in the years between 1902 and 1914 – a period in history that is well-documented. Like a film-maker, I browsed and interviewed and researched, I visited the kitchens of the Big House, talked to many people who were also children of servants, or had been servants themselves.

But it’s also family history – I imagined that Dad was leaning over my shoulder, his other children and grandchildren and greatgrandchildren were eager to pick up the pages as they dropped out of my printer. What did my grandfather look like? Did he have a temper? What was my grandmother’s christian name? What colour eyes did she have? Did Dad like eggs?

Help – but hang on – it’s not a biography. It’s not a social document. It’s a story! What about the children that it’s intended for? What about all the things that have to happen to make a story work – all those characters and hopes and all that love and fun and fear and crisis and adventure? There’s only one place to look for those, and that’s my imagination.

So when I panicked over what I called in my head ‘the Dad book’, I remembered that. I could actually do anything I wanted with this material, in order to make the story work. Let go of the facts, and ‘wing it’. After all, that’s what you ask the reader of fiction to do, every time.

But where do you start, and how do you draw fiction from fact?

In this case, I needed to step back a bit from my Dad, in order to invent him as a fictional character.

That was the hardest thing. I invented two more children, Tweeny, the maid, and Master George. The Big House itself became a kind of character, because it was the only thing that the four children had in common. And from that came their meeting-place, where secrets were exchanged – a chestnut tree, the sailing ship tree.

Unusually, ‘The Sailing Ship Tree’ has four narrators or ‘voices’

I tried at first to write the book as the ‘we’ of the opening chapter – the twins, but I soon found that it was impossible to keep the story going if I couldn’t split the twins up from time to time. I thought I would let Dorothy and Walter share the story-telling, but then I thought that as Master George and Tweeny were just as important, they could be narrators too! Dorothy weaves the other three voices and their very different stories together.

So, I had resolved the problem of the voice – but what was the main story to be about? And then, looking back to that diary of my grandfather’s, I realised what the driving project of the story could be – a boat passage to Australia. I researched the immigration boats at the Liverpool Maritime Museum, and found out what kind of conditions people would have sailed in during the early 20th century – very uncomfortable, and a long journey lasting ten or twelve weeks. My never-met grandfather helped me with the facts, and my imagination did the rest.

If you enjoyed reading ‘The Sailing Ship Tree’…

You might enjoy Far From Home, as Emily and Lizzie also have to work in a Big House for a time.

And if you enjoy family stories, you might like Jeannie of White Peak Farm, Granny was a Buffer Girl and Deep Secret.

Writing tip

Family history is so important – how much do you know about your family? Talk to your grandparents, and ask them to help you to write a story set in their childhood. Memories are very powerful – and so is the imagination. You need to use both.

Classroom uses

The Sailing Ship Tree is recommended for KS2 and KS3 social and family history projects.

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