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The Victorian Underworld

A little while ago, I blogged about Kellow Chesney’s classic book The Victorian Underworld, one of the best and most readable introductions to the subject for the general reader.

Donald Thomas’s book has the same title and covers some of the same ground, but it’s well worth a read as well. Reading both books will give you a good working knowledge of the subject and suggest avenues of research you might care to follow.

Mr Thomas is well known as an academic, an historian and biographer, and as a writer of crime fiction – I reviewed his novel Jekyll, Alias Hyde recently. He has also written a detective series and some Sherlock Holmes stories.

The Victorian Underworld, was first published in 1998 and was shortlisted for a CWA Golden Dagger.

Thomas begins with a prologue entitled “Darkest England,” setting the scene for the Victorian townscapes and countryside where the underworld thrived.

Mr Thomas pulls no punches in exposing of the hypocrisy of Victorian Britain. Sheer poverty drove people towards crime because of the basic need to survive.

On a personal note, I must say I get a little weary of present-day politicians preaching the merits of Victorian values,  and yearning to recreate such a world. Victorian Britain must have been an interesting place to live if you were very wealthy – but for the vast majority, it was a long struggle often just to put bread on the table.

As Aristotle pointed out a few thousand years ago, “poverty is the main cause of crime and revolution.” The Victorian Establishment suppressed – often with considerable brutality – most attempts to even up the odds.

The Underworld of the Age was an inevitable reaction to a Victorian lack of decency and fairness. Although there was a great deal of casual crime, there was also a considerable amount of criminal organisation. Mr Thomas looks at both in great detail.

Here we have the thieves, the swell mob and the pornographers, the way justice was loaded against the poor and there’s a lengthy examination of corruption at the heart of the Establishment and, in particular, at Scotland Yard.

There is a very good chapter on the stealing of the Crimean gold from a moving train, fictionalised in a book and a film by Michael Crichton as The First Great Train Robbery. The reality of the crime is much more sensational than any work of fiction.

Mr Thomas deals well with the subject of Victorian sexuality – there were, after all, tens of thousands of prostitutes on the streets of London.

He devotes a chapter to the mysterious memoirist called Walter, whose voluminous My Secret Life, gives some vivid pen-sketches by a man who was a customer of these women. There’s also a look at W.T Stead’s exposure of child prostitution and a glance at Victorian homosexuality.

Mr Thomas’s book was first published a few years after I first studied the Victorian Underworld as an undergraduate, doing a minor in Victorian social history at the University of East Anglia.

I seem to recall that, apart from the Kellow Chesney book, I was obliged to seek out primary sources – and so one should. But for the general reader without a great deal of time, these two books by Mr Chesney and Mr Thomas, offer a very readable and fascinating introduction.

My interest in the history of the Victorian Underworld has never wavered. I’ve read a lot more since graduation and tried to portray this world as accurately as possible in my own novels The Shadow of William Quest and Deadly Quest.

 

 

 

 

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The Country of Balmoral Kill

I always like to root my plots and characters in a real landscape whenever that is possible. I might alter it, fictionalise it, or just change the odd feature – but I like to start with a reality. And at some point in my fiction I like to use an actual place I know, walk around it and imagine my characters playing out their adventures upon it.

Loch Muick (c) John Bainbridge 2015

Loch Muick (c) John Bainbridge 2015

I always knew, right from the beginning, that my Victorian thriller The Shadow of William Quest would come to a dramatic conclusion on Holkham Beach in Norfolk. And I knew that the final duel between my hero and villain in Balmoral Kill would have to be in some remote spot in the Cairngorms, though within easy reach of the royal residence of Balmoral Castle.

But I wasn’t sure where.

In all my Scottish stravaiging I had never been to Loch Muick (pronounced without the u), though I had read about it in my numerous Scottish books and looked at it on the map. It seemed an ideal location for the conclusion of a thriller.

Glas-Allt-Shiel House (c) John Bainbridge 2015

Glas-Allt-Shiel House (c) John Bainbridge 2015

So last summer, when we were staying in Ballater, we walked up to take a look, circling the loch and examining the wild mountains and tumbling rivers round about. Plotting a gunfight (even a fictional one) takes some care. I wanted it to be as probable and realistic as possible. This is, after all, a book about experienced assassins. I wanted the line of sight of every rifle to be exact.

We also had to check out the hills around. Both my hero and villain are great walkers and “walk-in” to places where they expect to see some action

And a beautiful wild place Loch Muick is. It was a favourite picnicking place of Queen Victoria, who used to linger for days on end at the lonely house of Glas-Allt-Shiel, in mourning for her beloved Prince Albert. Today’s royal family picnic there even now. The house is as I describe it in the book, as is the surrounding scenery. Believe me, I checked out those sightlines. Every shot described in the book could be taken in reality. Even now when I think of that loch and the Corrie Chash above it, I think of my characters being there. Sometimes they are all very real to me.

Loch Muick looking up towards where Balmoral Kill comes to its conclusion. (c) John Bainbridge 2015

Loch Muick looking up towards where Balmoral Kill comes to its conclusion. (c) John Bainbridge 2015

We also revisited Balmoral Castle (actually they only let you into the ballroom!), strolled through its grounds and examined the countryside round about. I was able to work out the exact routes taken by all of the characters who found themselves on the shores of Loch Muick on a late summer day in 1937.

Other areas of Scotland feature in the book too. I partly fictionalised the places I used in the Scottish Borders, though those scenes are based on the many walks I’ve done around Peebles, the Broughton Heights and Manorwater. In one flashback scene in the Highlands I have a character journey from Taynuilt and out on to the mighty twin peaks of Ben Cruachan, and then into the glens beyond, to kill a man in Glen Noe. Some years ago I did a lot of walking in that area and had considerable pleasure in reliving my journeys as I penned those scenes.

Balmoral Castle (c) 2015 John Bainbridge

Balmoral Castle (c) 2015 John Bainbridge

The book begins in London and journeys into the East End. I’ve walked the streets and alleys of Whitechapel, Stepney and Limehouse by day and night over the years. Balmoral Kill is set in 1937, so there has been a great deal of change in nearly eighty years. The East End was very badly bombed in the War and thoughtless planners have destroyed a lot more. But enough remains to give you the picture. Once more, I could take you in the steps of my characters through every inch of the places mentioned.

Very often going to these locations inspires changes to the writing. Balmoral Kill was half-written by the time we explored Loch Muick. The real-life topography of the place inspired me to make several changes to the novel’s conclusion.

And now I’m writing an historical novel set in the 1190s. The landscape where it is set has changed very considerably in the centuries since. So more imagination is needed, though I still try to root my scenes in reality.

As a walker as well as a writer I find going on research trips is the best way to conjure up locations with the written word.

If you haven’t yet read Balmoral Kill please do give it a try. It’s out now in paperback as well as in eBook form on Kindle, Kobo and Nook. I’d be pleased to know what you think of it. And if you ever do get the chance do take the journey from Ballater up to Loch Muick. It’s well worth while.

Click on the link below to read Balmoral Kill.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Balmoral-Kill-Sean-Miller-Adventure-ebook/dp/B00Q8I7LGO/ref=sr_1_1_twi_1_kin?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1427296531&sr=1-1&keywords=balmoral+kill

 

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