Robert Neill (writer)

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Robert Geoffrey Neill was a popular writer of historical fiction, best known for his debut novel, Mist over Pendle, published in 1951, which has remained in print since first appearing. The novel presents a fictional account of the events leading up to the famous Lancashire Witches trial in 1612.

Neill was born in Manchester, England, into a family with long-standing local connections. His great-grandfather, also called Robert Neill, was a former Mayor of Manchester (two terms, 1866–68), though his mother came from Colne, in Central Lancashire, an area to which he would return continually in his novels. His aunt, Emmeline Morrison, was also an author, publishing 60 novels between 1921 – 1970.[1]

Neill was educated at King Edward VII School, Lytham, on the Lancashire coast, before reading Natural Science at Cambridge (a choice he would later describe as a mistake). He became a research worker for the Scottish Marine Biological Association, a schoolmaster at Burton-on-Trent, and an Electrical Lieutenant in the RNVR during World War II.

Neill moved to Cheltenham, Gloucestershire in 1946, becoming a lecturer in Biology and Zoology at St Paul's College of Education. He also joined the management committee of the Cheltenham Literary Festival.

Neill had always had an interest in historical fiction, which he described as arising from his liking for historical buildings and for Lancashire history and legend. He was a critical reader, alive to errors in detail and accuracy, and began, with his aunt's encouragement, to consider that he could do better himself. Mist over Pendle was accepted for publication by Hutchinson, and became an immediate world-wide success, enabling Neill to become a full-time writer.

His work was based upon extensive research into original sources, such as Parish Registers, and contemporary documents, using textbooks only as a means of identifying such sources. He would visit the scenes of intended novels, going over the ground personally, to ensure that his books would be completely authentic. Neill told a tale of one Lancashire bookseller who, before putting Mist over Pendle on display, checked all places and distances in the book, stating that if there were any inaccuracies, his customers would bring the books back.[2]

In 1952, Neill gave his view that “The historical novel should not be a straightforward chronicle, that would be most dull, but should be a blend of recorded fact and plausible imagination.” [3]

Neill continued to live in Cheltenham for several years but eventually returned to the northwest, settling in Cumberland, stating that he was too much of a northerner to ever feel properly comfortable south of the River Mersey. He died in Keswick in 1979.

Though the majority of his books were set in and around Lancashire, Neill was equally convincing with books set in Worcestershire (Rebel Heiress), Northumberland (Black William) and Kent (Hangman's Cliff). He ventured outside historical fiction with two novels: So Fair a House, set in 1958 but concerned with historical events that intrude into the present, and the wholly contemporary Wonder Winter.

Books by Robert Neill [4]

  • Mist over Pendle (1951) (American title, The Elegant Witch)
  • Moon in Scorpio (1953) (American title, Traitor's Moon)
  • Rebel Heiress (1955)
  • Black William (1955)
  • Hangman’s Cliff (1956)
  • Song of Sunrise (1958) (re-titled in paperback, The Mills of Colne)
  • So Fair a House (1960)
  • Wonder Winter (1961)
  • The Shocking Miss Anstey (1965)
  • The Devil’s Weather (1966)
  • Witch Bane (1967)
  • Crown and Mitre (1970)
  • The Golden Days (1972)
  • Lillibullero (1975)
  • Witchfire at Lammas (1977)
  • The Devil’s Door (1979)

Critical reviews of all the above novels and some background information are to be found at


  1. ^ [1]
  2. ^ [Lancashire Life Vol. 3 no. 25 (1955) Profile by Joan Pomfret, retrieved from Lancashire Public Records Office, Preston ]
  3. ^ [Promenade no. 3 (4 October 1952) Interview by Wilf Cox, retrieved from Lancashire Public Records Office, Preston]
  4. ^