And now, a little about me.


Where I was born ... 


I was born in Barnsley, South Yorkshire, England and have spent most of my life in the area. To give some historical context it might be good to go back in time a bit. Barnsley, which has for many years been associated with coal mining, was better known during the Industrial Revolution (late 18th to mid-19th century) as one of the largest linen manufacturing centres in the country. My father's family, surname 'Rooke', is one of Barnsley's most ancient surviving lines dating as far back as 1506. My good old 13th great-grandfather, Nicholas Rooke, was living in Barnsley as early as 1523. He was around to witness the closing of Monk Bretton Priory in 1538 during Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries, and died in Barnsley in 1546.

From the 16th to the mid-18th century, the Rooke family were woollen merchants and woollen drapers in the town, holding land and property there. (Yes, we were merchants and gentlemen back then - a cut above, you might say!) My family lived on May Day Green in the centre of town in what has been described as 'an ancient wood and plaster building' and also 'a modest looking Elizabethan mansion'. The building was called St Ann's and had a warehouse to the rear and a courtyard to the front surrounded by a four foot wall. The public used to sit on this wall to watch bull and bear baitings on May Day Green, before the practice was eventually banned. The building appears to have been upgraded with chimneys and stonework, probably during the late 17th century. Alas and alack, St Ann's was eventually demolished in 1826 following which the Kendray family of Barnsley, who had since inherited the property, built their new residence with gardens stretching up to Eldon street. An engraving is all we have left to remind us of our distinguished past.

In the mid-18th century, the Rooke estate passed down into the hands of nieces and out of the family name. The Rooke name continued through cousins living in the town, but their trades and wealth followed the path of many working class families. My ancestors suddenly changed from being woollen merchants and drapers to being tailors, colliers, wiredrawers and the like. They even came to be classed as paupers! Ah well.











A couple of other interesting facts about Barnsley ...


Before I finish with the history and move on, let me give a couple of other interesting facts about my hometown. Did you know that John Wesley, the father of Methodism, preached in Barnsley on 30th June 1786? Here's a short extract from his journal:

Friday 30 - I turned aside to Barnsley, formerly famous for all manner of wickedness. They were then ready to tear any Methodist preacher in pieces. Now not a dog wagged his tongue. I preached near the market-place to a very large congregation; and I believe the Word sunk into many hearts: they seemed to drink in every word. Surely God will have a people in this place.

Sure enough, less than half a century later, James Hudson Taylor, founder of the China Inland Mission, was born in Cheapside in the centre of town in 1832. In fact, news hot off the press suggests that Barnsley could soon become a popular attraction for Chinese visitors wanting to honour the memory of the man who helped bring the Christian gospel to their country.





A little about my childhood …


Well, I’m the eldest of four children, having two sisters and a brother. I grew up in a very artistic household, surrounded by books, classical music,  and colourful half-painted canvases. In my early years I attended St Joseph’s Roman Catholic School near Kendray and, in my final year of primary education, Holy Rood School on Castlereagh Street (both buildings have since been demolished). I wrote prolifically in those days, always vigorously encouraged by my paternal grandmother who wrote even more prolifically than I did. I loved books. If you’d asked me about my hobbies back then, I would have listed writing, reading and thinking (I did an inordinate amount of thinking for a young ’un). It was at quite an early age that I conceived the dream of writing a book.

In my senior years, I attended Hall Balk School for Girls (formerly Barnsley Girl’s High School). I have vivid memories of the place, not least of all because so many of the staff seemed, in my opinion, to belong to a bygone era. At the time I started there, big changes were afoot in the British education system, and I believe the school had only just been absorbed into the comprehensive framework. Even back then, I sensed that a number of teachers (some of whom still sported academic gowns on occasion) were really finding the transition from grammar school status a little baffling. Sadly, the old order was changing; I’m glad I caught at least the tail end of it. It was here, incidentally, that my classmates and I were taught French by a certain Madame Short, and German by her husband, Mr Short. I mention this couple as an interesting aside. Their daughter, a girl two years younger than me, eventually went on to become the novelist, Joanne Harris.




Me at the tender age of eighteen

(This photo was taken for my first student railcard, before I succumbed to the urge to have my hair black and spiky - but that's another story) 

My French university student card.

Looks a little basic by today's standards, eh? 


In 1980, I bade adieu to our beloved town (for a few years anyhow) and went off to Hull University. I graduated in 1984, gaining a BA (Hons) in Special French Studies. After finishing at university, I returned to the South Yorkshire area where I met Alan (who was already the father of two lovely teenage daughters). We married in 1987. We were soon blessed with three wonderful children – Aaron, Rebecca and Naomi – and thus began a totally new phase in my education! On the writing front, it must be said that during their growing-up years my output was mainly confined to poetry and scribbled cogitations. To be fair, poetry has always been my first love (creatively speaking), so it was hardly a sacrifice. As for the scribbled cogitations, well, I still have literally files of stuff in desperate need of some serious sorting out. But even if I’d been bursting at the seams to get my novel started, the sheer logistics of such an endeavour would have prevented me getting off the starting block. Bring up children, keep house and write a book … are you kidding? Frankly, you would have to know me to understand that my organisational skills are seriously limited (as I said, I come from a very artistic family – in our case I think disorganised and artistic are two sides of the same coin. Folk that love us think it’s rather endearing.) Anyway, during those child-raising, housekeeping days, I devoted my energies to being the best mum I could and trying to make sure my hubby had a decent meal to come home to and a clean shirt for work every day. I stuck to writing my neat, bite-size chunks of poetry, and reserved all dreams of being a novelist for those languorous fantasy moments one enjoys when forced to do something really boring – washing dishes, vacuuming etc.

Well, the years went by (too fast), my lovely children grew up, and suddenly my husband was given early retirement. This meant the two of us could be together at home (hoorah); furthermore, it meant that I was freed up to be able to give more time to serious writing and the fulfilment of my childhood dream.

To bring things up to date; as well as five children, Alan and I now have three granddaughters - two American and one living in Spain! All we need is our own little private jet ...



A little note about my spiritual journey (well, maybe not

quite so little ...)


I was brought up in a Roman Catholic family with strong Irish connections on my mother’s side. We were devout churchgoers. I remember spending many childhood holidays at Thicket Priory, Thorganby, near York, where my great uncle, Father Eddie, was priest to the Carmelite Nuns residing there. As a child I always had a strong sense of the reality of God, coupled with a deep yearning to know him better. I consistently tried, in my own limited little way, to please him through prayer and acts of penance and self-sacrifice. However, from a young age and despite all the sincerity of my religious observations, I was desperately conscious that my pious attempts to reach him were somehow not enough. For me, the big questions started early. I pondered and ruminated far more than was good for me. Even at that young age I’d already conceived a strong sense of futility about the human condition and soon found myself on that timeworn quest to discover the meaning of life. Why were we here? Why had God put us on this planet? Was he so distant and remote from us that his existence made little difference anyway? What happened afterwards? What about heaven? Hell?  Like I said earlier, I did an inordinate amount of thinking for a young ’un. I envied other children who seemed to get on with life without the burden of such existential despair. I’m afraid that pretty much sums up the course of my spiritual journey during my growing up years. Every so often I would make an extra special effort to reach out to God – increased attendance at non-obligatory church services (as well as Sunday Mass, I mean), increased prayer, increased anything I could think of … but it made little difference to my peace of mind. While I knew deep down that something wasn’t right, I was completely clueless as to how to change the situation. And so I soldiered on, hoping that God might take pity on my feeble efforts and at least appreciate the fact that I was trying. Just occasionally, I would be harried by doubts as to whether he was actually there at all but, being the good Catholic girl that I was, I didn’t entertain such nonsense for very long.

Well, let’s skip forward a decade or so. At last I trundled off to university to do a French degree. Within a very short time, I found myself immersed in literature that began to drive some pretty hefty nails into the coffin of my already struggling childhood faith. Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and a bunch of others soon had me facing up to philosophical possibilities that I'd never previously seriously considered. Call me sheltered, but suddenly, for the first time, I was encountering folk who genuinely did not believe in a divine being. Not only that, but I soon discovered there were whole schools of thought out there that were so alien to the tenor of my own upbringing, I couldn’t help wondering where I’d been all my life. Little by little, I found my whole outlook changing; the more I studied, the more I questioned everything I’d ever been told. During tutorials, the lofty topics that served to spark energetic banter amongst my fellow students were, for me, no longer subjects of mere academic interest. They were fast becoming matters of life and death. If these guys were right, I reasoned, was there any point in living? (I seem to think this was about the time I studied Camus’ essay on the Absurd, The Myth of Sisyphus. Incidentally, my fellow students would never have guessed at my inner turmoil. I coped with my spiritual/philosophical meltdown by throwing myself into as much social life as I could. Party animal comes to mind. No one could have known the real picture.) Desperate to find the truth, I became consumed with trying to understand the nature of existence, the nature of man, the nature of thought etc. etc. I hardly cared that I was supposed to be studying for a degree; my quest went so much deeper than just getting a piece of paper.

Anyway, as a language student, I was required to spend my third university year in France. This was to prove a turning point for me. A series of horrible things happened that year which conspired to bring me to my knees.  My faith in God already in complete tatters and my sense of self now in a state of fragmentation, I felt terrifyingly alone in a cold, dark, and pointless universe. I returned to England absolutely broken. Desperate to find some sort of cosmic reference point, I sought refuge in the writings of René Descartes (not the lightest of reading but it seemed about the only thing holding my head together at that point). Try as I might, I could not pull myself out of the philosophical black hole into which I was sliding. Fearing for me, my mother did the only thing she knew – sent me to see a priest. By this time too weak to argue, I duly went to talk with him. Now you have to understand that talking with priests was nothing new for me. I’d had loads of deep spiritual discussions with priests (and nuns) during my lifetime. But this guy was different. He actually talked about God with a sense of reality. He told me I needed to turn my life over to Jesus – give him all of my mess and ask him to come and live inside my heart. Now, this was a new concept for me. Especially as I was no longer convinced that God even existed. Then something happened that was to change my life. The priest read a passage of Scripture to me.


18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

    19 For it is written:

   I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate

 20Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?

    21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.


1 Corinthians 1 vs 18-21 New International Version UK


Those words hit me like a lightning bolt. Never having owned a Bible, I could hardly believe they were in there. They spoke to the very deepest part of me. As a child, I had failed to find God through my own piety. As an adult, I had failed to find him through the pursuit of philosophy. I had hit a brick wall. When the priest asked me if I wanted to do business with God, I found myself saying yes. My prayer was simple and honest. I didn’t try to pretend. I began by telling God that I didn’t even know if he was there. Then I threw out my feeble invitation; if he was listening – if he really cared – could he please come and take over my life ’cause I was just about at the end of it.

I honestly think that if God hadn’t responded at that point, I wouldn’t be here today. But he did respond. Sitting there in my dark, suffocating emptiness, it was as though someone switched on a light bulb. Suddenly, in a moment of epiphany, I knew that he really was there. Not just as some distant onlooker, unmoved by the trials and miseries of mankind. No. He was powerfully yet tenderly there, and had been all along, just waiting for the moment when this fragile creature would come to her senses and admit her need of his grace. It had never been about earning his favour and approval as I had imagined. Years before, I had thought that I could win heavenly brownie points by my religious strivings. When that had failed to bring me close to him, I had begun to doubt his interest in humankind. My later delving into existential philosophy had only served to expose the fatal flaws in my performance-based religiosity. He had to let me come to the end of myself, even to the point of doubting his very existence, before he was able to let me see that, in Jesus Christ, he himself had provided all I needed for salvation. There was absolutely nothing I could add to the mix. I know that thought can cut at the root of our human pride, but if you’ve never been to the edge of hell, let me tell you, pride really doesn’t come into it. 

That day, God reached down into that little room and literally rescued me. I have loved and followed him ever since. I'm not going to say that life hasn't thrown me any curves since then, but I am going to say that God has been completely faithful throughout. He is my closest, dearest friend. He is my everything.

As far as church is concerned, my journey has been interesting. Straight after my conversion, I spent some time in a Charismatic Catholic community (known as the Maltfriscan Community) in Maltby, near Rotherham, before joining the Assemblies of God Pentecostal Church. My husband and I, along with our children, were part of AOG for over twenty years. For the last three years we have been members of Rock Christian Centre, a lively, growing, multi-cultural church in inner-city Sheffield. 

Much as I love being part of the Church (and believe me, I do), I know it would have little worth if I as an individual were not in a living, ever-deepening relationship with my Creator. Attending church (even  spending great chunks of time there as I often did in my younger days) no more made me a Christian than going to football matches would have made me a footballer. I realise now that Christianity was never meant to be a spectator sport. God is not after our efforts to appease or impress him; he's after our hearts. After all these years I can truly say that the more I walk with him, the more I love him. Trust me, there are no safer arms into which we can fall.     


If you'd like to know more about any of this, click on the link below. You've got nothing to lose - and who knows? It might just change your life.





Copyright © Julie Maria Peace 2012