Shadowbox: London in 1832

While half of the action in SHADOWBOX, my latest novel, takes place in Paris, the other half of the story happens in London.

In fact, London is at the heart of the story.

A mighty mass of brick, and smoke, and shipping,
Dirty and dusty, but as wide as eye
Could reach, with here and there a sail just skipping
In sight, then lost amidst the forestry
Of masts; a wilderness of steeples peeping
On tiptoe through their sea-coal canopy;
A huge, dun cupola, like a foolscap crown
On a fool’s head—and there is London Town. ― Byron, Don Juan

London Bridge by George Yates (1832)

London Bridge by George Yates (1832)

London in 1832 has a strange feel about it. Neither late Georgian nor early Victorian, the city almost hangs in limbo between two great eras, holding its breath, while William IV reigns.

Waiting for the tide to turn.

Huddled in the shadows of a waning moon, before the splendour to come.

“It was a city in which the very old and the awkwardly new jostled each other, not uncomfortably, but without respect; a city of shops and offices and restaurants and homes, of parks and churches, of ignored monuments and remarkably unpalatial palaces; a city of hundreds of districts with strange names…and oddly distinct identities; a noisy, dirty, cheerful, troubled city…inhabited by and teeming with people of every colour and manner and kind.” ― Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere

Of course, the city was neither waiting nor in limbo.

It began to sprawl and to swarm with the great swelling of people that would turn it into the pinnacle of Empire by the time of Jack The Ripper.

Already by 1832, London was home to a great range of peoples, from all religions and nations, some brought to Britain as refugees, and some as slaves.

GODEFROY DURAND (b.1832) London Bridge, 1st May

GODEFROY DURAND (b.1832) London Bridge, 1st May

“It is difficult to speak adequately or justly of London. It is not a pleasant place; it is not agreeable, or cheerful, or easy, or exempt from reproach. It is only magnificent. You can draw up a tremendous list of reasons why it should be insupportable. The fogs, the smoke, the dirt, the darkness, the wet, the distances, the ugliness, the brutal size of the place, the horrible numerosity of society…” ― Henry James

Within the goldsmiths quarter around Hatton Garden, many of the craftsmen and artisans had continental names. Jewish and Huguenot refugees came in the 16th century, fleeing religious intolerance.

Some of those firms survive to this day.

Godfrey Woolverham, the secondary hero of SHADOWBOX, has a heritage of Walloon Catholics and Danish Presbyterianism. His girlfriend is Polish, and his contemporaries are Jewish, Irish, Scots.

Godfrey works for a living. His family background is essential to the story, his situation as a second-generation immigrant essential to his character.

Louis Beauregard, on the other hand, has an independent income and has no need of work, or earning a living, and can travel as he pleases. His background, what we know of it, is privileged, gentrified, the sort which populates the corridors of power.

At the start of the novel he is fleeing a crime he cannot forget, committed in London. And the Thames is at the heart of his troubles.

York Water Gate and the Adelphi from the River by Moonlight (c. 1850, oil on canvas) by Henry Pether

York Water Gate and the Adelphi from the River by Moonlight (c. 1850, oil on canvas) by Henry Pether

The London of 1832 had yet to solidify around the river.

The embankments which trammel the Thames through the city had not yet been built.

Construction of the Thames Embankment in 1854 with London Bridge in the background

Construction of the Thames Embankment in 1854 with London Bridge in the background

Bridges spanned the wide Thames from the Tower of London to Westminster.

Regent’s Canal entered from the north, bringing goods from the Midlands and the Home Counties to be stocked by London’s shops or exported through the deep-water port to the cities of Empire.

The great sandstone terraces in the west end curved around unpaved streets which had no names.

The city’s reputation as a centre of world power was on the rise.

But on the maps of the time there are still green spaces in the inner city.

Lincoln’s Inn Fields has a square of parkland which has vanished by the latter half of the 19th century.

The Ratcliffe Highway is unpaved, reaching out to the Essex marshes in a long dirt track eastwards, matched by the dirty King’s Road through the suburbs of Chelsea to the turnpike gate.

A walled city, London, in 1832 – but not so firmly constrained as Paris, the barriers less tangible, more of the mind than bricks and mortar. Lack of violent invasion or the threat thereof, and a strong navy defending the Channel ports, meant there was no need for anything more than the turnpikes and excise roads.

Barclay and Perkins's Brewery, Park Street, Southwark. Oil on canvas. This view shows the entrance to the Brewery in Park Street with the office block at the rear of the yard. On the extreme right is Great Brewhouse, with its eight huge windows and light suspension bridge that connected it with buildings on east side of the street. This scene shows the barrels on horse-drawn sleds, a butcher's boy carrying a wooden tray and to the right is a hansom cab.

Barclay and Perkins’s Brewery, Park Street, Southwark. Oil on canvas. This view shows the entrance to the Brewery in Park Street with the office block at the rear of the yard. On the extreme right is Great Brewhouse, with its eight huge windows and light suspension bridge that connected it with buildings on east side of the street. This scene shows the barrels on horse-drawn sleds, a butcher’s boy carrying a wooden tray and to the right is a hansom cab.

The most villainous rogues prowled the streets in cloaks, rich and poor, and notoriety followed the wealthy further than the nameless destitute.

“London, that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained” ― Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet

In the great slum of the central parish of St Giles, known as the Rookery, sat London’s bane. A thieves’ den, as it’s painted, but like the slums of Paris also a place filled with people who were, simply, too poor to afford anything better.

“Sir, if you wish to have a just notion of the magnitude of this city, you must not be satisfied with seeing its great streets and squares, but must survey the innumerable little lanes and courts. It is not in the showy evolutions of buildings, but in the multiplicity of human habitations which are crowded together, that the wonderful immensity of London consists.” ― Dr Johnson

Of course, nobody can write about London without describing the weather.

“We are far from liking London well enough till we like its defects: the dense darkness of much of its winter, the soot on the chimney-pots and everywhere else, the early lamplight, the brown blur of the houses, the splashing of hansoms in Oxford Street or the Strand on December afternoons.” ― Henry James

In THE LAST RHINEMAIDEN the action takes place within a single Spring day, and the most important passage of time is measured by the tides which rule the Thames.

In SHADOWBOX, late October descends into November as the story unfolds, and the darkness which follows the year towards its end has a strong bearing on the lives of my characters.

But we all think we know what London weather was like in the 19th century:

“It was a foggy day in London, and the fog was heavy and dark. Animate London, with smarting eyes and irritated lungs, was blinking, wheezing, and choking. Inanimate London was a sooty spectre, divided in purpose between being visible and invisible, and so being wholly neither.” ― Charles Dickens

London also has its rain, and snow, and glorious sunny days that brighten the parks and gardens and lift the spirits. One of the joys of British seasons is the variety within each, so that winter can be crisp and bright while a poor summer drags on under endless grey skies.

I was in London in October to January: autumn, sliding into winter.

My most enduring memory of that time is of standing by the waterfront under the shadow of Blackfriars Bridge, watching the sleet driven upriver from the North Sea, sodden flakes the size of a half-crown falling onto the cold brown surface of the Thames that was whipped into pale-tipped waves.

Old London Bridge during its demolition, 1832

I never lived in London. I can’t describe the little things which make up a city’s soul the way a native city-dweller can; as with Paris, so with London, for the most part.

My descriptions are invented, but how could I lose sight of the essential spirit of the place when other writers have been there for longer, loved the city more than I every could, accepted London for being London without wishing it were somehow better?

“London is a chaotic patchwork of history, architecture, style, as disorganised as any dream, and like any dream possessing an underlying logic, but one that we can’t quite make sense of, though we know it’s there. A shoved-together city cobbled from centuries of distinct aesthetics disrespectfully clotted in a magnificent triumph of architectural philistinism… full of parks and gardens, which have always been magic places, one of the greenest cities in the world, though it’s a very dirty shade of green –and what sort of grimy dryads does London throw up? You tell me.” ― China Miéville

For my story, SHADOWBOX, London in 1832 threw up a very grimy dryad indeed.

Next in this series: Le Roi Sacré.
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Shadowbox: Rivers of Paris, Rivers of London

One of the central facets of my novel, SHADOWBOX, is the river goddess known as the Lady, first introduced in THE LAST RHINEMAIDEN.John William Waterhouse - a mermaid

As a core concept, this river goddess interacts with the main character in subtle ways, and thus the rivers of Paris and London take their place within the novel. In fact, both the Thames and the Seine – with the Rhine completing the picture – shaped the underlying concept behind both novels.

But first: mythology aside, how important are the Seine and the Thames in the landscape? What are their similarities, and their differences, at the point where the river intersects with the city?

The major river in each city is fed from a large catchment area. There are tributaries within the city walls of both Paris and London, some of these minor rivers and streams channeled into the underground drainage systems even as far back as 1832.

Paris lies on the Seine far inland.

Although still navigable, the river is narrow enough to place a gate across the water to allow Customs and Excise duty to be extracted from the river-borne trade. Henry IV fortified the Ile de la Cité in 1514, creating a citadel within the outer boundaries of Paris, and defined the shape of the island.

Around this island – and the Ile St-Louis to the east – the Seine flows westward. A freshwater river, the mesmerising effect of the water rolling at the tip of the Ile de la Cité was described by Tim Powers in “Declare” as:

Standing above the sloped cement piling at the very tip of the island… it had been easy… to imagine that he was at the bow of a vast stone ship pointed downriver towards the distant sea, and that the Ile St-Louis on which he lived was a barge towed behind.

Being narrower, the Seine in Paris has many bridges. Transport moves across its breadth by cart, on foot or on horseback in 1832. Only the smaller Ile Louvier is served by boats, its bank-side flanks silted up, making road transport easy.

The ancient course of the Seine runs in a broad loop of marshland known as Le Marais, where in 1832 the market-gardens flourished. This ancient river-course is a lazy loop of a meander, similar to the curve on the western edge of Paris where the Bois du Boulogne fills a pendulous isthmus. In the past, the loop of the Marais silted up, as do most meanders over time, and the water flows through the straight cut.

You can see how close London came to having a similar landform in this map by Thomas Reveley, which proposed a cut through the Isle of Dogs to create a fast channel.

Thomas Reveley's proposed Thames cutting, 1796

Thomas Reveley’s proposed Thames cutting, 1796

In London, the Thames is a broad river, with salt water in its blood.

The tidal rise and fall helps remove detritus and refuse but also enables larger ships to sail upriver almost to the City. Massive dock complexes built in the Victorian period on the Isle of Dogs are matched by a crenellation of smaller wharves along the river’s upper reaches far inland.

By the nature of its breadth, the Thames in London has fewer bridges. I’m no civil engineer, but I imagine that forging a tidal river with permanent bridge struts has different pressures and architecture than a river with a single direction of flow.

There are no islands in London.

Paris has the advantage of shorter spans, thereby enabling bridges with earlier technology to take hold of the river crossing.

The Thames was wider, too, before the construction of the embankments which came later than those in Paris. The picture below (from 1677) shows a broad river with shallow banks, not the wharves and jetties of a wholly constructed city riverside.

The Frozen Thames, 1677 by Abraham Hondius

The Frozen Thames, 1677 by Abraham Hondius

Paris, too, has a series of small wharves, visible on the map from De Bruyant, but there’s nothing to match the Isle of Dogs and the expansion – later in the 19th century – of the massive docks complex. The East India Dock and St Katherine’s Dock almost complete Reveley’s proposed cutting.

Thames Docks 1882

Thames Docks 1882

Visibly, the differences are obvious. Standing in the shadow of Blackfriars Bridge, where I first envisaged the opening chapter of THE LAST RHINEMAIDEN, you can see the wide tidal Thames sweeping downriver past mudlarks and HMS Belfast, pouring the rain from the southern half of England into the North Sea.

“The Thames shouldered its way past Blackfriars Bridge, impatient with the ancient piers… a rush of ugly water that had scented the open sea and was ready to make a run for it.” ― J.G. Ballard

In Paris, seen from the Metro where it crosses the Seine between Quai de la Rapée and Gare d’Austerlitz, the river which drains the northern half of France rushes through domestic embankments, channeled, narrow, busy with tourist boats, under the eye of Notre Dame cathedral.

Smaller streams feed each mighty river within the city boundaries.

London’s Lost Rivers, a lovely book which I thoroughly recommend, shows where you can track down the underground streams across the city. Paul Talling explains where the little rivers give their names to streets and roads and parks.

Susanna im Bade by Franz von Stuck, 1913

Susanna im Bade by Franz von Stuck, 1913

There is one little river within Paris mentioned in The Invention Of Paris: A History In Footsteps by Eric Hazan. The Bièvre (brilliant article with copious photos) is still visible on Google Earth, tracing its way through the landscape to discharge into the Seine, upstream of the islands.

Different rivers, then, with their own particular character.

In mythology, both of these rivers have goddess-names, associated spirits, which reflect their pan-Celtic background.

Thamesis, goddess of the Thames (and the Isis, which is the name for the same river upstream of Oxford).

Sequana, goddess of the Seine, named so by the Parisii who settled on its banks and fought the Romans at Alesia.

Both names have been Latinised – the first taming of the wild Celtic spirit which so revered water-courses, rivers and trees, who Tacitus tells us worshipped a sacred king who ruled until sacrificed by one who would take his place.

But that’s a story for another day.

Next post in the SHADOWBOX series: Paris in 1832.

Join me on the trip by subscribing to the RSS feed or sign up in the form on the right to receive posts by email. And bring a lantern.

P.S. Check out the SHADOWBOX page for a full list of posts in this series so far.

Shadowbox: The Maps I Used In 1832

SHADOWBOX takes place in two cities which have very different characters, even in 1832.

Paris, and London.

Both cities are long-established national capitals. Paris has a head start on London, having been absorbed into the Roman Empire earlier by sheer geographical proximity. Over the course of a couple of millennia, both cities were shaped by their landscape, their people and by their wars.

La Bièvre, by Charles Marville c.1865

La Bièvre, by Charles Marville c.1865

While I’m acquainted with the streets of central London (to a very limited extent) from the time I worked in Southwark, as well as visiting for shopping or the odd night out, I have next-to-no knowledge of Paris.

The only time I visited the city for any length of time, other than passing through, was in 1990. At that time I was on a budget that makes austerity look positively decadent.

The other few times I’ve been through Paris, it’s been a short trip on the Metro from the Eurostar at Gare du Nord to one of the other international stations. Not much time for dawdling when you have a sleeper to catch…

On the other hand, my knowledge of London also consists of traversing the city from modern transport hubs to specific other places – museums, offices, a friend’s house, shops. I haven’t the innate knowledge that someone has when they’ve lived in a place all their life, or even just taken the time to explore their neighbourhood on non-motorised transport.

Street Scene in London with Saint Paul's Dome. by Samuel John Hodson (1836-1908)

Street Scene in London with Saint Paul’s Dome. by Samuel John Hodson (1836-1908)


I needed maps.

And guidebooks.

And possibly a trip to visit Paris, although I haven’t made it so far.

In the event, mainly to stop using the lack of a Eurostar ticket as an excuse to stop writing, I made do with a number of online and offline resources that I hope have given me enough flavour of the city to paint its details in words for the reader without affecting the story. For example, is it essential to tell you that:

  • Belleville and Montmartre are in their own respective arrondisements, when those parts of the city don’t feature in the novel?
  • the Ile de la Cité is covered with telegraph wires (which it wouldn’t have been in 1832)? and
  • semaphore towers stretched across the country from Marseilles to Cherbourg, hubbing at Paris Montfaucon (an early technology abused to such devastating effect in The Count Of Monte Cristo)?

Readers only need to know details when they act in service to the story. While factoids like those above are fascinating, if they don’t help me paint you a picture or tell you a tale, I’ve left them out.

So, to the maps.

How far back did I have to go? And how detailed?

First off I found a very basic map of Paris, showing the Ile des Cignes. One of the Seine’s smaller islands, downstream of the heavily-fortified Ile de la Cité, by 1832 this had pretty much been joined to the mainland.

While the Ile des Cignes has some nice supernatural echoes, it isn’t significant in the city’s cosmopolitan circles – the circles within which Charles Lyell and Louis Beauregard mingle, along with Adolphe d’Archiac, Garibaldi and other notables.

Then I took a download of the Plan de Paris en 1787 par Brion de la Tour, and examined the basic street layouts. Much of the streetage in the centre of Paris was laid out by Henri IV in the early 1600s, and wasn’t significantly disturbed until the reforms under Hausmann following the revolution of 1848.

The French revolution of 1848 at the age of the sage site

Lamartine in front of the Hôtel de Ville, Paris, on 25 February 1848, refusing the red flag, by Félix Philippoteaux

But there’s a huge gap between 1787 and 1832 – 55 years, in fact – during which the political landscape changed significantly in France. Did it affect the geography of Paris?

Then I found the highly useful oblique projection of the Plan de Turgot, which shows what sort of farms and houses and river traffic to expect in Paris in 1832. You can see how much detail the map-maker has included, although the scale of this map isn’t great.

The map that gave me much more was the Picquet map of Paris 1814. The link takes you to the wikipedia page for the the full map, which is a massive 89Mb. It’s closer in date to the time of SHADOWBOX. The file is larger, which means you can see more detail. For example, look at the little trees and furrows of the market gardens in this sample:

The tributary rivers of the Seine are clear, and the barrieres across each major road. I originally mistook these for the barricades of the revolutionaries, but after a bit of rootling around I realised they were more like the turnpike gates of Britain.

For London, I used a WikiPedia download of the 1848 Crutchley Pocket Map of London (again, another large file).

This was one of the maps I used in 1888 when I was editing THE LAST RHINEMAIDEN, but there was more in common with 1832 than the later period.

In 1848, for example, there was still an open square of parkland in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, which had mostly disappeared under buildings by 1888. The railway stations had yet to be completed in 1848 – but in 1832, they didn’t exist, so where they do appear on the map I had to ‘imagine’ them away, or avoid the area altogether.

Goodmans Fields

What I do find rather interesting is how both London and Paris developed most strongly on their northern banks. The Tube map of London shows this most clearly. The map of the Paris Metro doesn’t have the same projection.

But the reasons for that development aren’t found on any maps.

“London is a riddle. Paris is an explanation.” ― G. K. Chesterton

I adore maps. I’m grateful to my childhood geography teachers for showing me the language of maps, how to read within their folded sheets the secrets of cities and landscape and geology, developed over centuries.

I like being able to see the history of a place laid out in its streets and gardens, the names and patterns of all ages mingling to bring each town and city a flavour of its own.

And in 1832, both Paris and London had very distinctive spirits, as well as similarities.

Next: The 5th post in the SHADOWBOX series: Rivers of Paris, Rivers of London, a supernatural and physical journey across time and faith.

Join me on the trip by subscribing to the RSS feed or sign up in the form on the right to receive posts by email. And bring a lantern.

P.S. If you want to find the rest of the posts in this series so far, click on the link to the SHADOWBOX page. When the novel’s available I’ll add links there too.

The maps I used in 1888

One of the best parts of writing the sort of historical fiction I write is the research. I love reading about history – I’ve got a degree in ancient history, for goodness’ sake – and I also love the geography of the past.

Anyway, this post is about MAPS.

The internet is a brilliant source of maps. Online, I can find images of maps from ancient times to the most up to date of Google earth.

Writing “The Last Rhinemaiden” sent me researching not only the historical facts around which the story is based, but the details of where events in the story take place. I didn’t write the book with that in mind – too much distraction when pouring words onto the paper to go away and look at a visual resource – but when the act of refining and adding details is required, out come the maps.

For example, at one point I make two of the characters walk from the East End of London to the South Bank of the Thames. I could have just let them take the journey as I’ve described it in that last sentence and many readers would be none-the-wiser. The detail doesn’t add to the suspense of the scene and it isn’t important in the overall outcome. So why did I bother?


My initial draft is like a plain warp-and-weft. It’s a canvas. Does what it says on the tin – covers what needs to be covered, and nothing more. But I like details. You like details. Readers like details. Otherwise, most stories would be nothing more than boy meets girl, boy loses girl, girl turns into blob, boy gets blob back again. Or, bloke kicks ass in an empty warehouse and collects a few bruises while the bad guys lose.

The canvas has to be filled in with details. I’m a visual reader, and as such I’m a visual writer too. I see pictures when I read books, and my writing is a description of what’s playing in my head. I need to feel the blood trickling down my character’s ribs, see the sunrise over the river, feel the chill sandstone under my fingers.

So do you, readers.

Maps are part of this. It makes more sense to me that my two characters stop for a smoke in the shadow of a church on East Cheap, proceed to Cannon Street and when they cross London Bridge to the South Bank, they find themselves on Montagu Street, then Bankside. Don’t you think that makes for a more interesting journey?

Historical note: when the original idea for this story came into my head, I was working in Southwark on an HR/IT project with The Workmates From Purgatory (nowhere near as impressive as The Workmates From Hell – they at least sound lively). I had the initial image for a long time – years, in fact, until I wrote out a storyboard and started writing the novel.

I was quite surprised when The Last Rhinemaiden started to take those two characters down to the south side of the river and along to Cannon Street railway bridge. They were following a route I’d once taken, in reverse, to get to an Oddbins off-license in order to buy a bottle of whisky for a birthday present.

It helped, of course, that I could picture exactly the landscape of the street as it was in the mid-1990s. I can picture where they end up by the river, because I stood on that spot not far from the Globe Theatre and watched the sleet of a January lunchtime fall on the mudlarks working the shoreline beneath the embankment. I know instinctively how high the railway bridge is above me, how far and how clearly the dome of St Paul’s CAthedral is visible from the riverbank.

It’s not the same, of course, as it was in 1888. For that, I needed maps.

In the end I used two separate maps. My school geography lessons turned out to be more useful than my archaeology training. The maps I used were the 1848 Crutchley Pocket Map or Plan of London and the 1899 Bacon Pocket Plan or Map of London, and by cross-referencing them I was able to work out approximately what the picture would have looked like in 1888. I also had use of an 1888 Jack The Ripper map which I’d bought in 2001 (at Murder One on the Charing Cross Road, IIRC).

The changes are fascinating. Here’s two shots of the same place on both maps, for comparison. The earlier map is on the left.

See how Rosemary Lane becomes Royal Mint Street, even though the Royal Mint buildings were there in the early map and it’s only later that the name changes? See how the odd rectangle of Goodman’s Fields has been filled in with buildings in 1899?

In the difference between the two maps we see the explosion of industrialisation and its effects on London as a cityscape.

Green spaces are filled with housing.

Tower Bridge appears (although as recent pictures show its construction in 1892, it wasn’t there in 1888).

And the railway termini have brushed out parts of the landscape to become landmarks in their own right, bridging the river like Cannon Street Railway Station. On the early map, before the railways were constructed, there is no station, no bridge, no railway lines snaking out towards Kent. On the later map, there it is: Cannon Street Station, with a frontage on Cannon Street itself.

The railway bridge is now known as Southwark Railway Bridge and amongst the heritage venues under its shade is the Clink Prison, at the site of the old gaol in Clink Street, and the Golden Hinde, forever encased in a little berth of its own. I walked along there every lunchtime to buy sandwiches from the newsagent. I know what it’s like: the colour of the bricks, the ironwork on the bridge piers, the texture of the mud along the shore.

I don’t live in London, but since I started writing The Last Rhinemaiden I’ve come to learn more about the city than I thought I wanted to.

Here’s the modern map of London. And here’s the earliest map of London we have. You can still plot the outlines of the city under the flesh of the modern layout. It’s fascinating how much it has changed.

However, the most fascinating thing is how little has changed. And the most significant part of that is the river.

London, 1888: last chapter completed…

I’ve done it.

I’ve finished the last chapter of the not-a-Jack-the-Ripper-novel, tonight, about twenty minutes ago.

It’s been a long time coming.

Since I wrote the first/second draft I’ve added another 20,000 words, sifted in layers over the story like a fine dusting of ash. I was aiming to have it completed by Yuletide, so that’s a small success I can celebrate: I stuck to my plan.

Am I happy with it? Almost. (I defy anyone who’s ever written anything to say they can’t find something to tweak…)

Is it the best I can do at this moment in time, with this level of skill and experience? Yes, I believe so.

More soon. Oh, so much more.

Published in: on December 20, 2011 at 11:16 pm  Comments (1)  
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