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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 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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My Victorian Writing World

Just over a month now to the publication of the sequel to my novel The Shadow of William Quest. The new title will be available for pre-order at a special price a little while before that, so do keep visiting the blog for all the latest news. forgotten_00051-Kindle-Fina

From now until then, I’ll be putting out a few items both about the new book, and the first in the series.

How did it all come about?

I’d long wanted to write a book set in Victorian times, not least because much of the Victorian world is still familiar to those of us living in the UK. As we wander through the streets of Britain we can – if we lift our eyes above the modern fascias on the shops – still see what our Victorian forebears saw.

The same street patterns, by and large, many of the same buildings, and the much of the landscapes they knew. Too much has been lost, and we should be saving what is left, but the Victorian street map may still be traced.

If we could travel back in time, we could enter the world of William Quest – the new book is set in 1854 – with little difficulty. Though there would be some surprises. It could be a brutal world, not as settled as some people have implied. There are many Victorian Values that deserved to be relegated to the history books.

My William Quest is a bit of a reformer. His ideas bore fruit, though it doesn’t always seem like it.

I’ve always been interested in Victorian Britain, since the subject was taught at my primary school. Much of our great literature was written in the 19th century. Reading those classic books plunges back into that world. We are – for good or bad – still little Victorians in so many ways.

I knew some Victorians, of course, though they were all born late in the period. Nevertheless, I remember them well, their attitudes and the way they talked. My grandparents were Victorians, though they were all very young when the old Queen died.

For quite a time, I moved away from Victorian history, into other periods. As some of you will know, I also write historical novels about Robin Hood – Loxley and Wolfshead, with a third book out next year, so I have a passion for the that period. For a long time I’ve had an interest in the English Civil War. I like the Anglo-Saxons too.

The Victorians tended to go on the back-burner.

Then, nearly thirty years ago I became an undergraduate of the Open University, doing an arts course that was almost entirely Victorian. After a couple of years, I went as a full-time undergraduate to the University of East Anglia.

My major was literature, though I did a minor in 19th century social history, some of which looked at the Victorian underworld. It all stayed in my mind, though work pressures kept the writing of fiction at bay. I did, however, write the texts for a series of topographical books about the towns and landscapes of England.

I spent nine years working as chief executive of the Dartmoor Preservation Association, founded in 1883 and very proud of its Victorian campaigning roots.

The Victorians never quite went away.

I wanted to write a novel with a slightly dubious hero set in Victorian times, a kind of Penny Dreadful, the kind of pulp literature of action and derring-do that the Victorians themselves enjoyed reading – though they’d often pretend that their literary tastes were a tad more pretentious.

I’ve always loved such tales myself, and used to hunt them out when I was an undergraduate. They were all good fun, sometimes morally dubious. But a reading of them tells a lot about Victorian popular taste. I go as far as to state that you cannot grasp the complexities of Victorian society if you don’t read them.

While I enjoy the finer works of literature I also worship their slightly more questionable cousins – and that in itself is something I have in common with my Victorian ancestors…

To order the FIRST William Quest novel, The Shadow of William Quest, please just click on the link below. And if you have read it and enjoyed it please do leave a review. The new Quest novel will be available to pre-order in September:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Shadow-William-Quest-Victorian-Thriller-ebook/dp/B00JEA3E64/ref=sr_1_4?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1472138246&sr=1-4&keywords=John+Bainbridge

 

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The Detective Novels of Michael David Anthony

I’ve chatted to many devotees of crime fiction who haven’t come across Michael David Anthony (1942-2003), probably because he died far too young at sixty-one and published only three detective novels. Sadly, British bookshops and libraries mostly only stock newer titles these days which means readers have little chance of finding overlooked authors.

Anthony was an outstanding writer, superb on plot, character and background. His novels are in print, thanks to Felony & Mayhem Press, the wonderful American publishers, but it’s a shame he’s forgotten by the British publishing industry. The novels could be described as literary detective fiction, classic English and the setting for all three is one of my favourite sub-genres, clerical crime.

Anthony created an unusual amateur sleuth, Colonel Richard Harrison, secretary to the Diocesan Dilapidations Board at Canterbury Cathedral. This post gives Harrison an outsider’s view of the clergy who live in the Close. Through his eyes we see the Church of England struggling with the changing demands of modern life – the clergy’s schemes and antipathies being closer to Trollope than P.D. James’s Death in Holy Orders. Harrison’s work gives him lots of scope to tour around the diocese, visiting church properties in lovely East Kent villages while investigating.

Richard Harrison is a really interesting character, a tall figure, grey-haired and spare. A traditionalist who wants a quiet life, though he has his secrets. His army career was spent as a spy in military intelligence during the Cold War and in two of the novels The Becket Factor (1990) and Dark Provenance (1994), a connection from his past draws him into the present mystery. His wife Winnie is an art teacher, wheelchair-bound after contracting polio early in their marriage. Their relationship has in the past been strained by his work and guilt.

The clever, subtle plotting means that although the novels are about murder, the reader sees through Harrison’s eyes (in third person) and the police are minor characters. There’s no need for a friendly detective or any sidekick. Full of ambiguity and moral dilemma, they’re intelligent, thought-provoking and the unmasking of the murderer is always deeply satisfying. They’re the sort of novels where you’re avid to know whodunit but you don’t want them to end.

Michael David Anthony had an extremely good understanding of human nature. (Possibly because he grew up in a vicarage.) His characters are fully-drawn and motivations – murderous or otherwise – are completely believable. Like Agatha Christie, he knew how to write about evil. His murderers are chilling in their ordinariness.

His sense of place is wonderful, immersing the reader in Harrison’s world of the cathedral precincts, bustling city and surrounding countryside.

All day the fog had lain across Canterbury, obscuring the sun and giving a more than usually dank and melancholy feel to the autumn streets. Along the oozy, winding banks of the twin-channelled Stour, the mist had steadily wafted up and thickened as the short day waned, curling up under the overhanging gables and around the weed-draped and lichened piles of the medieval pilgrims’ hostel known as the Weavers (now an almshouse for the elderly) spanning the sluggish stream. Smothering in turn the venerable remnants of Greyfriars, Blackfriars and the ruined Dominican Priory, it had spread like some foul exhalation or conjured ectoplasm out from the river into the surrounding streets. Blending with the steaming exhausts of the city traffic, it proceeded to creep its way through a host of ancient backways and lanes, finally reaching out across the greasy, worn cobbles of the Buttermarket through the ancient Christ Church Gatehouse and on into the grounds of the cathedral itself.

These are very Kentish novels. As you can guess, The Becket Factor has a theme relating to Thomas A’ Becket’s murder at Canterbury. The final novel Midnight Come (1998) has parallels with the life of Christopher Marlowe. I’d recommend reading in order as for me,  each novel gets even better. They build a feeling of tension about Harrison which culminates in Midnight Come. This in particular is one of the most superb detective novels I’ve ever read.

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