Dividend Day

I was looking for something else, of course, something about the Bank of England in 1860 that I could use in my fourth mystery, Murder at the Gasworks. My tome for this is The City of London, Volume I by David Kynaston. And in it I found a description of something at the Bank called Dividend Day, as noted by David Morier Evans in 1845. He anonymously wrote a book that Kynaston relies on quite a bit, The City; or, the Physiology of London Business; with sketches on ‘Change, and at the Coffee Houses. He described an old man with a wooden leg sitting all day waiting for his dividend.

[An aside: I’ve learned a bit about the coffee houses in the City, especially Garraway’s, which was near the Exchange (the ‘Change). Some actually served coffee during the day. Garraway’s at one point was a wine place, and it laid out sandwiches sliced up on a side counter for lunch. Many of the coffee houses used their ground floor as exchanges where products like coffee and tea were bought in bulk. Some kept collections of all the newspapers, which could become large archives. Deacon’s Coffee House kept files with every issue of the Times, so I’ve set a scene where my detective goes there to do research and overhears something interesting.]

So, the Bank. I search for “dividend day bank of england” and find this artwork:

George Elgar Hicks created this in 1859, the year before my novel, and it looks like fun. All those different kinds of people at the Bank! The dog! The child! I know they aren’t just customers, because the Bank of England wasn’t that kind of bank. They didn’t take ordinary deposits and they didn’t pay interest. So what is Dividend Day, anyway?

Evans describes the scene:

At least fifty clerks are sitting in a circle in a high vaulted saloon, well provided with a cupola and lanterns. They do nothing whatever but pay and weigh, and weigh and pay. On all sides, the rattling of gold, as they push it with little brass shovels across the tables. People elbowing and pushing in order to get a locus standi near the clerks; the doors are continually opening and shutting.

It turns out that it was the way for ordinary people to invest in the Bank of England and the government. According to the National Trust, “‘Consols’, as the Consolidated Government Annuities yielding an unvarying interest of 3% per annum were known, were the only investment permitted to the trustees of widows, orphans, and the like…” Even these days, I can see why people would be excited about 3%.

Kynaston says this was a half-yearly event, but in trying to find the exact date for 1860, I discovered it was more likely quarterly. Why is the date important? Because my book takes place between June 9, when Eliza Feltham stole doilies from Lady Emily Peel’s table at the Crystal Palace, and July 9, when she was tried at the Old Bailey*. I’d love to have a scene take place during Dividend Day and yes, as near as I could tell, this was always on July 5.

There is a subplot about a spy in the Bank, you see, so this will fit.

* Both Lady Emily Peel and Eliza Feltham were real people, and these were real events

A convenient pub

Sometimes your characters just need a drink or meal. Mine is about to go to the office of the London Times, trying to find out about recent legislation on gasworks in 1860. My character, Sergeant Slaughter, recently fired for insubordination, needs to know about reports on Parliament. I need to know what the place was like, the people, the buildings, etc.

Looking for the history of the London Times wasn’t an easy task. I did much better looking for the place, Printing House Square. I knew approximately where it was located, but it doesn’t show on the several maps I have of 1857 or 1860. But I found this map on Wikipedia, from 1886:

I was also able to find some etchings of the square at all those places that take public domain art and charge you for it, and a photograph at Lee Jackson’s brilliant online Dictionary of Victorian London.

And at that same site were several wonderful descriptions, this from a German observer in 1853:

The young reporters take the upper house, the old guard do duty in the House of Commons, whose sittings are longer, while its motions and speeches are of greater importance, and its debates more intricate. In either house it is a rule that reporters relieve one another by turns, from half-hour to half-hour. Mr. H., for instance, takes his seat at the commencement of the sitting with Mr. C. who comes next by his side. The first thirty minutes over, Mr. H. retires; Mr. C. takes his seat, and Mr. Ft. takes the place which has just been vacated by Mr. C. The summary-man takes a position in the rear. To-morrow evening the turn commences where it left off this night, so that each reporter has an equal share of the work.

Apparently the place was hard to find. From George Augustus Sala in 1859:

The best way to reach the office is to take any turning to the south side of London Bridge, or the east of Bridge Street, Blackfriars, and then trust to chance. The probabilities are varied. Very likely you will find yourself entangled in a seemingly hopeless net-work of narrow streets; you will be jostled into chandlers’ shops, vilified by boys unctuous, black, and reeking from the printing-machine; pursued by costermongers importuning you to purchase small parcels of vegetables; and, particularly after sundown, your life will be placed in jeopardy by a Hansom cab bouncing up or down the narrow thoroughfare, of course on its way to the “Times” office, and on an errand of life and death; the excited politician inside, frantically offering the cabman (he, even, doesn’t know the way to the “Times,” and has just asked it of a grimy cynic, smoking a pipe in front of a coal and potato shed) extra shillings for speed.

That’s so good that I may make Sala a character, hanging around the place and taking notes. Turns out he was quite a character, and even wrote a pornographic book at one point.

But I digress. Take a look at the Wikipedia map. There are two places on Printing House Lane that look to be marked as restaurants. Can I find out which restaurants, and whether one was there in 1860 for my character to have a beer?

I searched the words “Printing House Lane London pub”, and ended up at the wonderful pubwiki, where I’ve been before. Lists and lists of London pubs with who owned them when, if known. I know the parish is St. Ann’s from the larger version of the map, I know it’s near Blackfriars Bridge (where for some reason my characters always end up), and I know the street name. So that’s Printing House Lane, St. Ann’s Blackfriars.

I found one, called the Lamb & Lark. Run by either Alfred Munby (1857) or James Peal (1861)–I’ll have to do some more research. But it has an address: 5 Printing House Lane. Took me a minute to see the house numbers on the map above (they’re on the street–it looks like the 3-1/2 and 4-1/2 might be the number of floors). But there it is!

It’s always nice to find a place to have a drink after archival research. I think I’ll join Sgt. Slaughter in a pint.


Those wine merchants

One of the best things about writing historical novels is deciding the location of things. Which police station for the inspector? where should he and his wife live? where did the murder take place?

The joy of this is in the tangle of old maps and sources to be sought out and studied. Sure, a street in London may look like this now, but what about then? You can’t set something on Shaftesbury Avenue when the street didn’t exist in 1860.

[My first mystery, Murder at Old St. Thomas’s, was actually based on a question involving location. Old St. Thomas’s hospital had existed quite nicely in Southwark, not far from London Bridge, for many years. Then it was forced to move because of the railway, and spent 9 years at Surrey Gardens before a new hospital was built on the Embankment, where it now stands. What dislocations and confusions would that cause? Traditional histories skipped right over the Surrey Garden period, and I was curious.]

So now I’m working on the fourth book, a prequel. I needed Sergeant Slaughter and his wife Ellie to reside in the City, because doing so was required for everyone working on the City of London police force. I read about the City then, and I “walked around” in Google street view, because I like to use buildings that still exist when possible (one of the joys of abandoning the medieval era for the Victorian). Much of the area is banks and businesses, but I needed a home, and one you could have for a sergeant’s pay. I liked the look of Philpot Lane, then I found this entryway:

It leads to Brabant Court, so I looked it up to make sure it was still named that. Then I found several current ads for flats on Brabant Court and Philpot Lane. I read that one building had recently been converted into flats as “its original use” after the private 18th century home had been divided up. A good place, then. I had read somewhere else that there there had been a wine merchant there. So I started writing a scene where the sergeant’s wife is sick of the smell of sour wine drifting into their lodgings. Then later I wrote a scene where she is out of kindling, and goes downstairs to borrow some straw, figuring straw would have been used in crates for wine bottles. So I needed the name of a wine merchant.

And the London Directory (thanks, Google Books!) helped me out. Now of course I couldn’t find one for 1860 (whatever year you really need, you won’t find it) but I could find the 1852 and the 1862 versions. I began with 1862. Google wouldn’t let me download it (oh I do miss Google Books Downloader) but I could search, so I put in “Brabant”:

Hard to read, I know, but in 1862 we have a Frederick John Duckworth and Co., wine merchants in Brabant Court. Were they there back in 1852 also? I searched for Brabant Court and read each listing, and found not one, but quite a few wine merchants (and a solicitor, and a tea merchant).  And yes, he’s one:

He’s moved from #2 to #3 but it’s the same one. So I can be pretty sure that if Ellie goes downstairs, it can be to Mr. Duckworth’s business. Plus I can have the solicitor and tea merchant there as well. And at best guess there were at least three wine merchants in the court, so yes, it would smell like musty wine.

A thumb-print among wagtails

I confess I am struggling to write my current mystery, and when this happens I sometimes allow myself to disappear down rabbit holes of historical research, following a trail.

Deciding that my victim was to be poisoned instead of garroted (which would have been unlikely for the accused to have achieved), I began researching poisons. Arsenic would be the obvious choice, but I was tired of arsenic: in 1860 it was in everything from wallpaper to rat poison, and there had been an accidental case of poisoning in commercial candy in Bradford two years before. The more I read about it, the more I realized it was appropriate for a slow poisoning, given in small doses over time to look like a natural illness. I needed a quick death. So, cyanide. It turns out many people cannot detect the trademark “burnt almond” smell, and it was quick and easy to obtain as “prussic acid”.

A bottle lying around the victim’s flat? Perhaps. If so, finger-prints would be nice. But everyone knows 1860 is too early for that; it wasn’t until 1887 that finger-prints were part of police methods. As a historian, however, I’m aware that things are often known earlier than we suspect. So what was the state of forensic science in 1860? Wikipedia mentioned that Sir William Herschel was doing it in 1858:

I followed that footnote and sure enough, I found The Origin of Finger-printing by Sir William Herschel, explaining how he knew that finger-printing ideas were much older, and that there had been isolated cases of a handprint or even a tooth being used to verify identity.

Sir Francis Galton, however, has pointed out that in our own times the engraver Bewick had a fancy for engraving his thumb-mark, with his name attached, as vignettes, or as colophones, in books which he published. As a boy I had loved Bewick on Birds: I regret that it is not now to be found in our library. Galton’s remark has reminded me that I used to see a thumb-mark there, as well as I recollect, in an ornamental title-page.

So naturally I had to find Bewick on Birds, in my library of the web. They had a copy of A History of British Birds (1832) at Google Books and I looked through the first few pages, but no luck. Certainly it wasn’t on any title page. So I image searched for “Bewick Bird thumb-print” and found two images. The Cleveland Art Museum said it was on page 180, so I went to look at a prettier version, at the Wellcome Collection, an 1847 edition. Not in the title pages nor on page 180, so I began scrolling through every single page.

Bird after bird scrolled by. Each bird had his/her portrait at the top of a section, then at the bottom of each section was some other illustration: a house in the snow, a team of oxen ploughing. Some of these images were rather strange, like one man carrying another, or a funnel in a bottle. But on a page about the Wagtail, which had no bird image at all, it was at the bottom:

A lovely thumb-print which, I must assume, was Thomas Bewick’s.  (I have a bit of a soft spot for Bewick anyway, not because I know his bird books but because I’m very fond of the Bewick’s wren. One nested on a counter outside my kitchen, and I accidentally flooded her out watering a plant, and since then I watch for them and am more careful, understanding that they nest a few feet from the ground and sing the most lovely song.)

Obviously Sir William’s memory was a bit off as to the thumb-print’s location, but there it is.

So now I have every intention of working Herschel and Bewick and finger-prints somehow into my mystery. When writing fiction, research rabbit holes are rarely traversed in vain.

Now, about that prussic acid . . .

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.