Tag Archives: Whitechapel

The Sherlock Holmes Book of Self-Defence – The Manly Art of Bartitsu

The Sherlock Holmes Book of Self-Defence – The Manly Art of Bartitsu, as used against Professor Moriarty is a fun-filled little book from the Ivy Press, based upon the original Edwardian articles and other writings of E.W. Barton-Wright, the devisor of Bartitsu.The Sherlock Holmes school of Self-Defence: The Manly Art of Bartitsu as used against Professor Moriarty by [Barton-Wright, E.W.]

While it’s a fun read, this delightfully-illustrated little book is practical too, and you might pick up a hint or two on defending yourself.

I spent a couple of decades indulging in martial arts, including Wado Ryu Karate, Kung Fu, boxing, wrestling, Jiu-Jitsu and Savate (French kick-boxing). Elements of the later two make up much of the ethos of Bartitsu. I’ve used similar techniques in training and the real world – they do work, though you really do need to practice and not just read a book.

Contrary to popular belief, Victorian and Edwardian society was not particularly safe. There were places in town and country where you might be attacked. Personal safety did prey on people’s minds.

Barton-Wright (1860-1951) was an interesting character. He was a consulting engineer by profession, work which took him all around the world, including Japan where he took up Jiu-Jitsu. Returning to London in 1898, Barton-Wright devised the hybrid Bartitsu (named after himself), publishing magazine articles and opening a Bartitsu Club in Shaftesbury Avenue. It didn’t last long, no doubt because of competition from many other schools of many other martial arts disciplines that became popular at the same time.

It did, however, make its mark on one famous writer – Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes. When Doyle brings Holmes back from his supposed death at the Reichenbach Falls, Holmes explains to Watson how he escaped the grip of the fiendish Professor Moriarty:

We tottered together upon the brink of the fall. I have some knowledge, however, of Baritsu, or the Japanese system of wrestling, which has more than once been very useful to me…

Notice that Doyle gets the name of the art wrong, Baritsu rather than the proper Bartitsu, though this could well have been a proofing error rather than the author’s fault. Interesting to see how widely Barton-Wright’s martial art had become known.

This present book presents us with a number of these techniques, from how to “Deal With Undesirables”, such as evicting a troublesome man from a room, to how to escape when grabbed from the rear or by the throat. There are short chapters on how to fight with a walking stick, dealing with an attacker armed with a knife, how to throw and hold an assailant on the ground, and even self-defence using a bicycle as a weapon.

All very interesting, though if you want to take this up seriously you should perhaps enrol in a club and learn hands-on.

But this little book is a delight and well worth a read for devotees of historic crime fiction.



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The Limehouse Golem

Last week, we went to see the film The Limehouse Golem, based on Peter Ackroyd’s novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, which I blogged about a couple of years ago. (I’ve put my original blog on the novel below to save you searching.) The Limehouse Golem [DVD] [2017]

It’s a terrific take on the novel, with some great acting, a literate script by Jane Goldman, and some excellent sets that take you right back into Victorian London. The photography is superb.

I’m not going to say much about the plot, because I’ve mentioned the salient parts in the book blog below. Jane Goldman has made a few minor alterations to the plot for film purposes, but these make no difference to the story.

I’m always wary of filmed Victorian crime stories, because the slightest error jars. But there are no errors here. I was completely absorbed by the telling of the tale. Rarely have I seen a crime novel set in this period so well done.

This film stars Bill Nighy as Inspector Kildare, his role slightly expanded from the novel. The part was to have been played by Alan Rickman – one of our favourite actors – who sadly died early in the project. But Nighy makes an excellent Kildare, every inch the Victorian policeman. And how good to see Nighy get a lead credit.

There’s a great deal of British acting talent here – familiar faces such as Daniel Mays, Clive Russell, Eddie Marsan and Henry Goodman. All looking as though they’ve emerged from the streets of Limehouse.

But the film rises with the talents of two newcomers to me. Douglas Booth is quite stunning in the role of Dan Leno, totally believable as perhaps the greatest of music hall showmen. I’ve always had a great interest in Leno, a fascinating individual who forged the way we perceive popular entertainment of this kind, from straight entertainment, jests and songs, pantomime to burlesque, Leno was the grand master. His relatively early death in 1904 shocked the nation.

The tragedy of music hall before this period is that we have only scratchy recordings of some of the best acts (we’ve got just such a recording of Leno). Not being able to see these stars visually makes it hard to grasp how good they might have been. I’m old enough to have seen some of the early twentieth century stars live on the stage. They were good indeed – we’ll not see their likes again. But few of the Victorians were filmed, then only silently.

But Douglas Booth surely captures a great deal of Leno’s magic. Here’s an actor to watch out for in the future.

The key role of Elizabeth Cree goes to Olivia Cooke. Cooke is as good as Booth in portraying the growing confidence of a music hall singer, caught up in the murderous twists of the tale.

Try and see it at the cinema if you can with an audience around you – more like a music hall atmosphere than watching it at home on DVD.

Though we’ll be adding it to our DVD collection when it’s out.

Here’s my blog on the original novel…

Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem

Peter Ackroyd’s novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem has now been out for over twenty years. Given my interests in Victorian crime and the history of the music hall I’ve always been meaning to read it.

Now I’ve finally got round to it and I can say that it’s a terrific read, evoking a real feel of the Victorian underworld in Ackroyd’s usual and very vivid writing style.

As a writer Ackroyd is well-known not just as a novelist but as an historian and biographer. If you haven’t read it I commend to you his London – A biography – perhaps the best of all recent histories of the city.

Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem is not your usual crime read. It’s a deeply literary novel which happens to be about crime and the low-life and middle-class existence of Victorian London. And there’s a lot more to it than that. Ackroyd has a way of plunging you deep into this imagined vision of a past age.

For those who don’t know, Dan Leno was perhaps the greatest star of Victorian music hall. But he is not the only real-life character encountered in this book. We also see the struggling writer George Gissing and a glimpse of Karl Marx during his London exile.

This is a book which begins with a hanging and works backwards. We see how his key character Elizabeth Cree progresses as a music hall turn, the murders of a serial killer, the legend of the Jewish golem, a trial at the Old Bailey and pages from the diary of John Cree delineating many aspects of Victorian life – for this is a novel of multiple viewpoints.

Ackroyd is so very good at exploring the sinister hinterlands of the Victorian underworld. The author’s great knowledge of London shines through on every page. Terrible secrets are revealed and the ending is just stunning.

A novel you’ll want to read more than once – thoroughly recommended!

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Francis Thompson as Jack the Ripper

It’s a very long time since I last read any of the poetry of Francis Thompson, though his work is probably worth another look if you are interested in fin de siecle London. He still has his admirers and I recall that there used to be a Francis Thompson Society, and that Thompson was a leading figure celebrated long after his death by The 1890s Society.Jack the Ripper: The Works of Francis Thompson by [Patterson, Richard]

I’d almost forgotten about him until I was sent a copy of Richard Patterson’s book Jack the Ripper: The Works of Francis Thompson. A most enjoyable and intriguing read, even if it doesn’t altogether convince me that Thompson was the Whitechapel killer.

However, were I a police detective at the time, looking at Mr Patterson’s evidence, I would certainly put Thompson in the frame for further investigation.

Now, about twenty years ago, I spent a great deal of time researching Jack the Ripper. I remember long days (and nights) walking the streets of Whitechapel and many hours in dusty archives, including those of the British Library and Museum of London.  I came to no particular conclusion as to the identity of the murderer, and I thought then – and I think now – that there will never be a definitive answer as to just who Jack was.

Jack the Ripper books tend to follow the same pattern; a few chapters on the misery of the East End at the time, followed by detailed accounts of the discovery of each victim and the immediate aftermath and the police investigations. Most Ripper books then try to put a favoured suspect in the frame. Some authors go to extraordinary lengths to twist the facts to represent their chosen candidate as the Ripper.

Mr Patterson’s book takes a different approach, which I welcome. He certainly writes about the East End and the victims of this maniac but he wisely assumes that the Ripper reader is already familiar with much of the background. He then spends much of the book looking at the biography of Francis Thompson himself and explaining just why he thinks Thompson could be the Ripper.

At first glance the fragile Thompson, plagued by ill-health, seems an unlikely candidate. But Thompson was a medical student who enjoyed dissecting cadavers, wrote poetry about prostitutes, indulged in a spot of arson when he was young and was an opium addict. He was haunted by the hell-fire of an over-religious upbringing,  lived on the streets of London during the relevant period and fell in with a prostitute who at first looked after him and then betrayed him, sending him – Mr Patterson suggests – into a murderous rage.

However, even such a promising background doesn’t necessarily create a serial killer.  There are a great many sad individuals who do much of the above but don’t take it to the final extreme of murder. Though, Mr Patterson doesn’t try to force his candidate down the reader’s throat (unlike one or two Ripper authors I could mention).  The author wisely invites readers to make up their own minds.

The evidence is, as it has to be, circumstantial. There is no killer blow (no pun intended) which definitively puts Francis Thompson in the frame for the Whitechapel murders.

One problem I have with all Ripper candidate books is that we always get the case for the prosecution, but hardly much of the defence brief. And I cling to the principle that anyone accused of murder should get a fair trial. Sadly, there is no modern biographer of Francis Thompson who could look at this evidence and give an opinion.

That being said, Mr Patterson is fairer than most Ripper authors to his subject, and at the end of the day every reader and Ripperologist must make up his or her own mind.

This is a very enjoyable, well-written book and a  fascinating contribution to the age-old debate. Recommended reading for anyone interested in late Victorian crime and society.




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My Latest Book Is Out!

William Quest is back! Deadly Quest (A William Quest Victorian Thriller Book 2) by [Bainbridge, John]

My new novel, DEADLY QUEST, the second in the William Quest series, is now available for pre-order on Kindle at a special offer price.

Publication day is Friday September 30th. The paperback version will be out at the same time. The price will increase that weekend so please do order today for the bargain price.

And if you haven’t read the first novel, The Shadow of William Quest, it’s available both as a Kindle e-Book and in paperback.

Please share this post with your friends, whether they enjoy historical fiction, crime fiction or just have a love of adventure stories…

Regards, John

Here’s more about DEADLY QUEST, with a few readers’ comments on William Quest:

“A reign of terror sweeps through the Victorian underworld as a menacing figure seeks to impose his will on the criminals of London.

On the abandoned wharves of the docklands and in the dangerous gaslit alleys of Whitechapel, hardened villains are being murdered, dealers in stolen goods and brothel keepers threatened.

The cobbles of the old city are running with blood, as pistol shots bark out death to any who resist.

Who can fight back to protect the poor and the oppressed? The detectives of Scotland Yard are baffled as the death toll mounts. There is, of course, William Quest – Victorian avenger. A man brought up to know both sides of the law.

But Quest faces dangers of his own.

Sinister watchers are dogging his footsteps through the fog, as Quest becomes the prey in a deadly manhunt, threatened by a vicious enemy, fighting for his life in a thrilling climax in the most dangerous rookery in Victorian London.

Dead Quest or Deadly Quest?”

An historical crime story by the author of The Shadow of William Quest, A Seaside Mourning and Wolfshead.”

What readers are saying about William Quest…

A page turner of a mystery from the start… I couldn’t put this one down for long as I was caught up in the twists and turns of this richly constructed tale.

Great author, fantastic book. Such a unique story and very well told.

A new hero for these times has entered literature, and is destined to capture the attention of all those yearning for a better chapter within the human saga – it is William Quest.

Great read! Couldn’t put it down.

Superb plotting, believable characters, and a very effective writing style

…a real feel for history and storytelling.

Here’s the Link to Order:






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Emanuel Litvinoff’s A Death Out of Season

It must be over thirty years since I first read Emanuel Litvinoff’s exceptional novel “A Death Out of Season” – the first book of his Faces of Terror Trilogy. I remember being overwhelmed by the quality of the writing at the time. Not just a fine thriller but a literary novel of the first order. It’s vivid portrayal of Whitechapel in 1910/11 and its deeply-drawn characters have stayed in my mind ever since.

When I first read the book I had never been to Whitechapel. The novel inspired my own explorations in the 1990s, and, although the area has changed a great deal since the time Litvinoff was writing about, you can still get echoes of the Whitechapel he portrays by exploring its streets and alleys, and meeting the people there.

Emanuel Litvinoff was born in 1915 of immigrant parents. He grew up in the Jewish community of the East End leaving school at the age of fourteen, working in professions such as tailoring and carpentry, interspersed – as so many lives were in the 1930s – with periods of unemployment. He was mostly self-educated. He served in the British army during World War Two, reaching the rank of Major. He also served in West Africa and the Middle East. He was one of the best war poets of that conflict. Throughout his life he was a great champion of human rights and a far-sighted commentator on politics of humanity.

Since his death in 2011 his work has been curiously neglected. As far as I can see many of his books are out of print – a scandal! – though the Penguin editions of a few decades ago are readily available from second-hand book dealers. Apart from his own works he was a ghost writer to Louis Golding, which is an interesting tale in itself. There were two early and autobiographical novels “The Lost Europeans” set in post-war Berlin, and “The Man Next Door” which deals with anti-Semitism in suburban England. Litvinoff also wrote “Journey Through a Small Planet” one of the finest autobiographies of the twentieth-century.

But now I want to look at his 1973 novel “A Death Out of Season”. It is set mostly in Whitechapel during the winter of 1910/11 and deals with the background to the Houndsditch killings and the famous Siege of Sidney Street, when Latvian anarchists were besieged and finally killed by police officers and eventually the army after holding out for many hours.

Litvinoff’s book is a consummate spy-thriller dealing with the background to the two above events. It plunges the reader into a world of spies, Russian revolutionists, East End anarchist clubs and doubtful cafes where refugees fleeing Tsarist oppression congregate.

He fictionalises some of the characters who gained notoriety during the famous siege, such as Fritz Svaar and Peter the Painter. The latter character has been the subject of much debate by students of the Sidney Street Siege. Peter the Painter may not actually have existed at all, though he could possibly have been the Comrade Peters who played a role in the Russian Revolution.

More of that another time. If you want a good history of these events do seek out Donald Rumbelow’s excellent account “The Houndsditch Murders and the Siege of Sidney Street” (revised edition 1988).

In the novel Litvinoff portrays him as Peter Piatkov, alias Stern. At the beginning of the novel Piatkov is a lieutenant of the Okhrana, the Tsarist secret police and is sent to London to incite an incident which the Tsarist regime hope might result in the revolutionists who have sought shelter in England being expelled. But is Piatkov playing a double or even a treble game? I won’t spoil this read by telling you.

This is very much Peter’s book. It tells how he falls in love with a Russian countess turned revolutionary Lydia Alexandrova, and their relationship, full of sexual tension, but thwarted by events, is very well-drawn. The kind of affair that might grow when people with secrets are trapped together.

Litvinoff does very well what I would describe as the claustrophobia of terror. The difficulties of the wanted man and woman who have to seek shelter in insalubrious slum dwellings, who have to seek recruits at revolutionary gatherings that might be full of spies and traitors, who develop almost a paranoia about being followed as they walk the crowded streets of the East End.

In the hands of a lesser writer this might almost have turned into a fairly average thriller. But Litvinoff is much better than that. He is a literary master who can create characters with such depth that you can empathise with them even if you don’t agree with their motives. In modern parlance we would describe many of the people portrayed in “A Death Out of Season” as terrorists. But Litvinoff’s humanity never lets us write off his characters in such a simplistic way. He forces you to care, to understand how people get caught up in the sweep of history – for good or bad.

The novel culminates in the Siege of Sidney Street. Litvinoff shows that he can do action as well as he does depth of character. Showing the Siege from both sides, we see only humans, not caricatures. This desperate last fight in a struggle that will go on without them, gives us an understanding that a poorer writer might never be able to bring forward. The Siege is thrillingly depicted. But we are never allowed to forget that the men being destroyed are human beings, whether or not we agree with their motivations.

So if you want to read a thriller that also happens to be a considerable literary novel do try “A Death Out of Season” and its two sequels – which I hope to review very soon – “Blood on the Snow” and “The Face of Terror”.

Emanuel Litvinoff was too good at writer to consign to the dusty shelves of second-hand bookshops. Let’s see him back in print!

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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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