The shady side of Victorian London
My about-to-be-released book, A Case of Possession, is set a slightly alternate Victorian London. There’s magic, but otherwise it’s not unlike the real city. So, since the Wellcome Collection have just made an incredible archive free to use, here’s a glimpse of what Stephen and Crane’s London looked like.
My hero, Lord Crane, is a smuggler, China trader and recently promoted earl. That means he gets to live somewhere very nice, with things like gas and hot water and personal space. He is more interested in his business than high society and glittering parties, so he’s generally at his office in Limehouse, in the East End, right where the Thames does its bendy thing and the Da! Da! Dadadada’ drum starts off. (If you have never watches EastEnders, that will make no sense to you, but console yourself with the thought that you have never watched EastEnders.)
In the 1870s and 80s, the East End had taken over from the now-demolished rookeries as the place with the worst reputation in the country. The (tiny) Chinese immigrant population became the centre of novelists’ lurid imaginings and newspaper racism. Dickens put an East End opium-den scene in the Mystery of Edwin Drood. Here’s the popular image (note the three kinds of scary foreign people for extra racism).
Interestingly, it seems that all the newspaper reports of opium dens were based on just one place, run by a Chinese man and his English wife, and presumably doing a roaring trade in getting lazy journalists stoned.
The East End was the dark, foreign, dangerous bit of London, the no-go area, where gentlemen went to slum it and Jack the Ripper added to the appalling total of murdered women. Oscar Wilde sent Dorian Grey off to Shadwell and the Docks, and had him hanging around ‘foreign sailors in a low den in the distant parts of Whitechapel’ to show just how debased he was. Mostly, it was horrifically, disgustingly poor. This image of Whitechapel is pretty romanticised, in that the kids look quite clean and not drunk.
London was grossly overcrowded, and it didn’t help that vast swathes of slum housing were torn down to make way for railways, without any provision for rehousing. At the same time immigrants were piling into the city (mostly from other parts of England), which led to a chronic housing shortage.
There was enough poverty and desperation and brutality that it’s amazing anybody needed to invent any. I like to write horror and grotesque dark magic in my books, but the real stories of the seething, overcrowded, callous Victorian city beggar belief.
Here’s one of my favourite examples of that. Let me tell you about Enon Chapel.
Enon Chapel was a chapel built over a burial vault. Its minister had offered burials for a bargain price, and made the sums add up by cramming twelve thousand corpses into a pit measuring twelve by sixty feet. Right under the chapel. Separated only by a board floor. Where they stayed, rotting, for seventeen years before people wondered why the smell was so bad. (Worshippers regularly passed out. You have to wonder what the rest of London smelled like that it took seventeen years for anyone to say, ‘Do you think there might be something dead under there?’)
Unsurprisingly, the chapel was closed as a place of worship. Slightly more surprisingly, it was bought by new owners who reopened it, in an impressive PR coup, as…a party venue.
Enon Chapel – Dancing on the Dead – Admission Threepence. No lady or gentleman admitted unless wearing shoes and stockings.
Which is something to think about the next time a politician talks about Victorian values.
(All images courtesy of Wellcome who have just made a vast swathe of images freely accessible. )
A Case of Possession by KJ Charles comes out on 28 January. KJ is on Twitter @kj_charles and blogs at kjcharleswriter.wordpress.com.
A Charm of Magpies, Book 2
Lord Crane has never had a lover quite as elusive as Stephen Day. True, Stephen’s job as justiciar requires secrecy, but the magician’s disappearing act bothers Crane more than it should. When a blackmailer threatens to expose their illicit relationship, Crane knows a smart man would hop the first ship bound for China. But something unexpectedly stops him. His heart.
Stephen has problems of his own. As he investigates a plague of giant rats sweeping London, his sudden increase in power, boosted by his blood-and-sex bond with Crane, is rousing suspicion that he’s turned warlock. With all eyes watching him, the threat of exposure grows. Stephen could lose his friends, his job and his liberty over his relationship with Crane. He’s not sure if he can take that risk much longer. And Crane isn’t sure if he can ask him to.
The rats are closing in, and something has to give…