Tag Archives: Historical Fiction

The Victorian Underworld by Kellow Chesney

If any one book inspired me to write my William Quest Victorian thrillers it’s this one, Kellow Chesney’s very readable and scholarly book on the Victorian underworld. It was first published in 1970 and – for me – is the standard work on this fascinating subject.Victorian Underworld: Chesney, Kellow

I first encountered it when I was an undergraduate at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. Although I majored in literature, I did a minor in nineteenth-century social history. The underworld was only a small part of my studies, but discovering Kellow Chesney’s book sent me of on a wider reading programme, both in secondary reading and the primary sources.

When I’m asked to recommend a book on the Victorian underworld this is the one I suggest as a first read. There are several other titles I like – and I hope to give these a mention on the blog in the coming months – but Kellow Chesney’s book is the most comprehensive and the best introduction.

It’s all here, starting with a walk through the mid-century streets of London – and how vividly the author portrays the place. This is no dull work of scholarship, it’s a page-turner as exciting as all the best mystery thrillers.

Then from the main streets frequented by the richest members of society, Kellow Chesney takes the reader to the borders of the underworld, the places where the dispossessed and those forced into crime to survive are obliged to lurk – and the boundaries between the rookeries and the smart streets of society are often back to back.

We are then taken on a journey into the rookeries themselves. Kellow Chesney conjures them up in all their awfulness. It is impossible to understand the Victorian criminal underworld unless you can understand the causes of crime.

Here are the beggars, the pick-pockets, the footpads and the swell mob. The skilled cracksmen who break the safes and steal the jewellery of the richest members of society. Here are the magsmen, gonophs, macers and shofulmen. The screevers and the Newgate mob. (I’ll talk more about these in a blog early next week.)

There were perhaps 80000 prostitutes in Victorian London alone. Kellow Chesney deals sympathetically with their plight, whether they were working the poorest streets in the East End for pennies or selling themselves for much more in the night houses in the West End.

The book is wonderfully illustrated, mostly with the sketches of the great Gustave Dore, adding to the feeling of being there so brilliantly evoked in Mr Chesney’s words. If you can, seek out one of the original hardback editions – the pictures are not so well reproduced in the paperback editions.

When I came to write William Quest, Kellow Chesney’s book was the first I re-read. If you want a good understanding of the Victorian underworld, I commend it to you.


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Our Christmas Mystery

If you enjoy curling up by the fireside with a seasonal mystery, you might like to try our Inspector Abbs novella A Christmas Malice. Set in 1873 during a Victorian country Christmas in Norfolk, our introspective sleuth has a dark puzzle to be solved. As is traditional at this time of year, there will be hope and a happy ending of a sort.Christmas-Malice-Kindle-Cover Reduced

Several readers have asked if the setting is based on a real Norfolk village. Aylmer is completely fictional though the descriptions of the railway line across the empty Fens, an ancient flint church and carrstone cottages fit the real area of beautiful West Norfolk. The towns of King’s Lynn and Hunstanton featured are described as befits their fascinating history.

In the way of any large British county, there are several Norfolks. The saltmarshes, the Broads and the Brecks, to name just three areas are very different from one another. Our story is set on the edge of another, the Norfolk Fens or Fenland. Norfolk is famed for its spectacular wide skies where a fairly flat landscape allows the traveller to see long vistas for miles in every direction. We use fairly advisedly because Norfolk isn’t as pancake flat as is often said. Much of the landscape has gentle undulations and many a fetching slope topped with an old copse or church tower.

On the western edge of the county the Fens (a local word meaning marshland) reach into Norfolk, though their greater part lies in Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire and the lost county of Huntingdonshire. Flat, few trees, remote and haunting. An empty landscape of long, straight rivers and dykes. Historically a land of windmills, pumping houses, wildfowling and eels. A place of refuge for monks and rebels, the most famous being Hereward the Wake. Cromwell too was a Fenlander. Artificially drained by Dutchmen in the 17th century, the Fens are the lowest-lying land in England and have some of the most fertile soil.

Border places are intriguing, having a face in two directions. A Christmas Malice is set in a village with the Fens starting at its back and a more pastoral landscape on the other side towards the North Sea, then known as the German Ocean. Our Inspector Josiah Abbs is a Norfolk man, living in Devon when the story begins. He comes to spend Christmas with his widowed sister Hetty. Although they grew up on an estate where their father was head gardener, this lonely part of the county is unknown to him. Abbs has only a few days to resolve the mystery, preferably without ruining his sister’s Christmas.

It was an interesting challenge to write a novella-length story (33,000 words) where our detective is alone, without the help of his sergeant or the resources of his county force. Fortunately he does find an ally.
Inspector Abbs and Sergeant Reeve formed an unlikely partnership in our novel A Seaside Mourning, set in Devon in 1873. We hope they’ll return next year – we’ve been sidetracked by writing a detective novel set sixty years later.

It’s available now on most ebook readers and in paperback if you are looking for a stocking-filler.

Just click on the link below:



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Francis Frith and the Writer

One of the most useful tools for the writer who sets the scenes for his or her work in Britain’s recent past are the photographs of the Victorian photographer Francis Frith (1822-1898). Frith was one of those Victorian entrepreneurs who made a fortune in one field – a grocery empire – and then sold up to pursue and turn a hobby into a new business.

An avid taker of pictures, Frith photographed most of the great sights of Europe, and even ventured into relatively unexplored parts of Africa.

In 1859 he established the Francis Frith Company with the considerable ambition of photographing everywhere in the British Isles, partly to cater for the Victorian passion for picture postcards.

His legacy is vastly important for historians and writers. If you want to know what some English village looked like in, say 1887, how the people were dressed, what modes of transport they were using, then the pictures of Francis Frith and his firm of photographers are a vital primary source.

The archive of tens of thousands of pictures are of national importance and are now preserved by the Francis Frith Collection http://www.francisfrith.com/ Photographs are available in a variety of ways, as illustrations for books, pictures for your wall at home or business, and as books based on various parts of the British Isles.

Around the turn of this century, I became involved with the work of Francis Frith when I was commissioned to write the accompanying text to the pictures in a series of popular books, giving some history of the places concerned; volumes on towns and villages, counties, tourist attractions, and stretches of coastline etc. I also wrote a couple of more detailed histories for the Devon towns of Torquay and Newton Abbot (just back in print in a partnership between the Frith Collection and Sainsbury’s).

It was one of the most pleasant tasks I’ve had in a long writing career, journeying to some fascinating places with the Frith pictures to hand, to try and identify where the photographer had stood and what had changed since. Seeing how places had changed over a period of time from the 1860s until the 1950s (which the broad range of pictures cover) and indeed up to date.

Despite some hideous modern developments, quite a lot of places would still be recognisable to the Frith photographers. Type my name (John Bainbridge) into the “Search” on the Frith website and you can see some of the titles I did.

Here is a Britain of horse-drawn cabs and farmers’ carts, bathing machines on a hundred beaches, old trains and battleships, the grand hotels of British resorts, the workplaces, the homes of the rich and the poor, ancient churches, cathedrals and abbeys, hilltop views and a countryside often still being worked as it had been for generations.

Here you see real-life Victorians, caught in a moment of time, doing much of the things we do today; busy at work, seeing the sights, just standing around holding conversations. All of these people long dead and gone, but still there for us, just as we see people on today’s streets.

Well worth a look if you are writing a novel set in the British past, not just so you get the settings right, but also so you can discover the way people dressed and the transport that was in use at the time. A good browse of the Frith photographs of your setting will really get you in the mood for writing that historical novel or crime mystery set in the past.

The Frith Collection is a very precious archive indeed.


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