Tag Archives: Victorian Crime

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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Busting Jack the Ripper

I’ve spent a fair bit of the past month reading Bruce Robinson’s book They All Love JackBusting the Ripper. A mammoth work of over 800 pages, filled with great detail and excellent illustrations. I hadn’t read a Jack the Ripper book for several years and was pleased I found this.Product Details

Wind back the clock: A couple of decades ago I spent a great deal of time studying Jack the Ripper and the Whitechapel Murders. I read all the books, studied quite a lot of primary sources, and walked Whitechapel by day and night visiting the murder scenes. I was never a Ripperologist, but being interested in Victorian crime I felt that I couldn’t miss out these killings.

In the end I got rather fed up with it. I got tired of books appearing every year claiming this candidate or that for Jack, some of them by reputable authors who should have known better.

I also got fed up with writers who tended to treat Jack’s identity as nothing more than an academic puzzle, seemingly forgetting that the puzzle is only there because several women – each one of them a million times better than their murderer – died brutal and unnecessary deaths.

But I was intrigued by the premise of Bruce Robinson’s book, that really there is no mystery at all – except a very carefully manufactured one. Bruce Robinson’s book is like a tornado of fresh air blowing away the rubbish and misconceptions that have clustered around this miserable serial killer for the past 130 years.

I thought I knew a great deal about Jack the Ripper, but I’d forgotten much that Bruce Robinson mentions and there was a lot in this book I never knew.

Mr Robinson picks away at the “mystery” until it is a mystery no more. Along the way – often in very forthright and politically incorrect terms – he tears open the rottenness of Victorian Values, portraying what a corrupt and nasty society it actually was. I’ve spent much of the past 35 years studying Victorian Britain. I write a great deal about it, both fictionally and otherwise. There is much about the everyday Victorians to admire, particularly the poor and those who tried to make the world a better place. But what our politicians of today lovingly and yearningly call Victorian Values deserve no respect at all.

Bruce Robinson exposes the way the Victorian Establishment of 1888 – a nasty bunch I’ve always thought – conspired to send people in totally the wrong direction in the search for the Whitechapel murderer. All to protect one of their own and not caring about any of the innocent people they implicated instead.

He shows how police inquiries were muffled, how vital evidence that could have brought the killer to book was deliberately destroyed. How coroners at inquests suppressed vital proof and broke the law themselves by refusing to call witnesses who might have identified the murderer. He demonstrated that the politicians in the government of the day worked with a bent police force to make sure that the Establishment figure behind the killings gained protection.

It is a deeply angry book and all the better for that. For these poor women victims had already – like so many of the poor – been ripped apart by a greedy and patrician society long before Jack the Ripper got his hand on them.

Could the police and the Establishment really conspire in this way to cover their backs? Yes they could. We have seen elements only too recently in the Hillsborough tragedy and many other such instances how politicians, police and parts of the press will do anything to suppress the truth.

If you only read one book about Victorian crime and society this year make it this one. Bruce Robinson takes the whole case apart with the kind of forensic skill any barrister would envy. His critique of the more miserable elements of the Victorian Establishment is spot on.

Bruce Robinson is a superb writer and a wonderful historian.

A real page-turner of a book.




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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:



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Dick Donovan – Detective

Before Sherlock Holmes there was Dick Donovan, hugely popular first in Scottish and national newspapers, and then – like Sherlock – in the pages of the Strand magazine. Donovan, who is not just the detective but the purported author of these tales, was thought by many early readers to be a real detective, relating actual cases.

In fact they are fiction, penned by a quite fascinating author called Joyce Emmerson Preston Muddock (1842-1934), the author of some fifty books and 250 detective stories. For a time, in the Strand, Sherlock and Donovan appeared in subsequent issues. A joy for the reader, I would think. If you can’t have Sherlock, have Donovan.

Now, I’d often heard of Dick Donovan. His exploits feature in many books on Victorian detective fiction. But until a month ago, I’d never read any. Then, on holiday in Oban, I found a wonderful new edition of the earliest stories, set when Donovan is a detective in Glasgow, with a quite superb introduction by Bruce Durie. Mr Durie gives a splendid account of Muddock’s colourful life and relates how the character of Dick Donovan came about. This is certainly the edition to get.

Muddock was a prolific journalist and fiction-author, who led an extraordinary life, being present in major historical events such as the Indian Mutiny and travelling through parts of the world that were considerably dangerous at the time, all grist to the writer’s mill, before settling down as an editor and writer. I’ll say no more here, for you should read Mr Durie’s account of this fascinating man’s life for yourself.

It’s easy to understand just why early readers thought these cases were accounts of real-life detection. There is a verisimilitude about the cases that certainly suggest that there is a real detective at work here. Dick Donovan, in the course of this volume alone, deals with murders, man-slaughterers, embezzlers, grand and petty thefts and encounters some memorable characters along the way.

We never, at least not in these early stories, learn much about Donovan himself, except that he is a likeable detective who works by instinct and his experience of human frailties and character. What does come shining through, from the author and his creation, is a huge compassion for the messes that ordinary people get into. In several of the stories you feel sympathy for the criminals, some of whom are trapped in crime by the unfair circumstances of Victorian society. But Donovan never hesitates to do his duty, though always with an understanding and sense of fairness

Muddock’s sense of place is excellent too. He has that rare writer’s gift for describing a setting in a few lines. I was quite lost in the Victorian Glasgow of so many of these tales. Almost like a kind of fictional time-travelling.

These stories, and the works of this author, are too good to be lost on the dusty sleeves of second-hand bookshops. They are of the highest quality of fiction. J.E.Preston Muddock and Dick Donovan deserve a renaissance.

To order a copy just click on the link below:


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Ripper Street

Ripper Street first aired on BBC television in 2012-13 to considerable applause, gaining a second series later in 2013. At the end of that year the BBC announced that they had dropped the show. But a third series was commissioned by Amazon Prime, with an intended later showing on the BBC later this year.

The first series of Ripper Street was set in 1889 in Victorian Whitechapel in London’s East End, just a few months after the last killing of Jack the Ripper. The horror of the Ripper crimes still haunts the Leman Street police station, though the actual incidents are not dealt with directly.

The real life Ripper investigator Inspector Fred Abberline (Clive Russell) appears occasionally as a rather sad and lonely character obsessed with the killer who got away. But the three leads are Detective Inspector Edmund Reid (Matthew Macfadyen), his sergeant Drake Bennett (a mind-blowing performance by Jerome Flynn) an ex-soldier and bare-knuckle fighter, and an American surgeon and ex-Pinkerton man Homer Jackson (Adam Rothenburg), who handles the forensics, has a mysterious past, and is handy with a revolver. Rather like with Doc Holliday’s relationship with Wyatt Earp in the Wild West, Jackson sometimes comes out to join the others in a shoot-up.

Many of the staples of Victorian low-life crime are here, including pornography, white slavery, illicit boxing, prostitution and vicious murders. The programme deals with Victorian social problems very graphically and with considerable fidelity; hunger and destitution, worker’s strikes, the exploitation of women and children, outbreaks of cholera. All gritty stuff. Ripper Street occasionally falls down in its depiction of women and in particular prostitutes, who don’t always have the same depths of character as the male leads.

The programme was filmed in and around Dublin where so many Victorian buildings remain. Sadly, London’s East End was butchered almost out of recognition, first by Hitler’s Luftwaffe and the careless planners of subsequent decades.
Ripper Street as a television series improves as it goes on as the characters are allowed to develop. Although it may on occasion juggle history, show incidents out of their actual time, it does give a flavour of the period – a far cry from the Victorian values that certain British politicians ignorant of real history, are always harking back to.

As a writer of Victorian crime fiction, I tend to ignore the errors and just enjoy the Ripper Street experience. My own William Quest character roams the same street some forty years earlier and I have a kind of professional interest in how these matters are handled. Some years ago I investigated the original locations of the Ripper crimes myself, often walking the streets of Whitechapel by day and by night. Watching Ripper Street reminds me of a great deal that had slipped my mind from these fascinating excursions.

The differences between the period of William Quest and Ripper Street are very obvious. London was much better policed in 1889 than it was in 1854. We tend to think of the Victorian period as one long era of similar styles and values. In reality, each decade was very different from the one before.

I have been re-watching Ripper Street on the Drama Channel, the second series starts tonight. If you haven’t seen it it’s worth seeking out, either on DVD or on view-on-demand.

I’m currently writing the second William Quest novel, so my mind is very much in Victorian London. Exciting, fascinating, but – on reflection – not a period we should yearn for.

If you haven’t yet entered the mysterious world of William Quest do click on the link and take a look:


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