A better workhouse (or the joys of doing a prequel)

You know you’re in sympathy with your protagonist when you need to put him in a workhouse, and the one to hand has horrible conditions and you want to move the whole plot to a borough with a better workhouse so he’ll be more comfortable.

I’m researching my fourth mystery, which is a prequel to the first one. It’s 1860. I’ve already set up that the character spent time as a boy in a workhouse, and that he was allowed to work in a gasworks, where the murder occurs. I’ve also set up that the policeman on the case is a Detective Sergeant who’ll make Inspector by the end of the book. So it all becomes about location: the Detective Sergeant’s station house, the boy’s workhouse, and the gasworks all need to be in proximity to each other.

Because the boy’s father is in Queen’s Bench Prison for debt, I initially looked at Southwark, and was able to find the Phoenix Gasworks on the river and St. Saviour’s workhouse less than a mile away. The Division M station, hard upon the prison, was a wonderfully rowdy place where the young constables living there raised a ruckus and were often told to pipe down by the police court next door, and likely frequented the brothel on the other side.

But that puts me in Southwark, where my first mystery is already set, and half the fun for me is exploring new parts of Victorian London in each book. And in 1860 most (possibly all) detectives were run out of Scotland Yard, north of the river in Westminster, so likely detective sergeants were too, although the whole detective division had actually begun in Bow Street, near Covent Garden. I just got some books on police history, so I’ll have an idea soon how it was set up.

As it happens, my first book puts the inspector’s old home in Covent Garden (it’s not published yet — I can change it). Covent Garden would be a new area for me, but the workhouse near there is St Martin’s in the Fields, which was so horrible that the Lancet ran articles about it and it was shut down a few years later. Children died there of preventable diseases because of the filth. I can’t put the boy there, can I? Especially once I found out that in Kensington there was actually a good workhouse, with a school and medical facilities . . .

Let’s just say it’s very strange when you start worrying this way about a character.




2 comments to A better workhouse (or the joys of doing a prequel)

  • jmm

    When I was 10 or 11, I came downstairs to dinner sobbing uncontrollably because Charlotte had just died. She was a spider.

    Books are amazing.

  • Lisa M Lane

    Now that’s even stranger, how I can totally see that for a character someone else created — in a sense they’re as real for me as E.B. White, whom I haven’t met any more than I met Charlotte. But when I created the character it feels somehow sillier. But maybe no sillier than being terribly concerned that one’s invisible friend also be served a cup of tea.