All’s Well in Clerkenwell

After two hours spent mudlarking on the Thames foreshore, I might be thought to be ready to return to the twenty-first century. Not so! Granted, I was ready to crash in my hotel room for a while, but as it happened, the hotel where I was staying was like stepping back in time.

The Rookery Hotel’s unassuming entrance on Peter’s Lane.

Anyone of John Pickett’s day would have balked at reserving a room at any place calling itself the Rookery; in the nineteenth century, the word was synonymous with poverty, overcrowding, and general squalor. Today, however, it’s the name of a boutique hotel comprising three houses built in 1764 and still retaining a Georgian atmosphere. It’s located in Clerkenwell, a section of London due north of the City (“the City,” capitalized, refers to the portion of central London that was once enclosed within the old Roman wall) and a part of town I’d never visited before.

The Rookery Hotel as seen from Cowcross and St. John Streets. It’s the three gabled brick buildings at center left. Peter’s Lane, where the entrance is, is so narrow you can barely even make it out. (It’s just to the left of the brick building with the red lettering above its ground floor.)

The hotel’s address—12 Peter’s Lane, Cowcross Street—gives a clue as to the area’s history. I discovered this on my first afternoon there, when I took an exploratory walk in search of the nearest Tube station. (It proved to be Farringdon, in quite the opposite direction.) I turned a corner and found myself facing the Smithfield Market, London’s stockyard and meat market since the Middle Ages, and possibly as early as Roman times. Regency readers may know it best from the disparaging term “Smithfield bargain,” meaning a marriage made as a financial transaction. Suddenly Cowcross Street’s curious name made sense; cattle would have been driven right up the street here on their way to the market. (Can you imagine living in one of these houses, and stepping out your front door just as a drover was coming past, herding cows to market?)

Smithfield still operates today as a wholesale market, the only market in continuous operation since medieval times. The elaborate arched building dates to the second half of the 19th century; prior to that, it would have been an open-air market.

Turning back to the north, I soon came across a bit of still earlier history. St. John’s Gate, dating from 1504, is just about all that remains of the former headquarters of the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitaller. After Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries a few decades later, it was used for a number of different purposes, and in 1731 was the birthplace of the Gentleman’s Magazine, one of whose early writers—Dr. Johnson, no less—would later investigate the hoax known as the “Cock Lane Ghost,” which also took place nearby.

St. John’s Gate (And yes, I walked through it. Because of course I did.)

If any ghosts roam up and down the stairs or lurk about the corners of the Rookery hotel, I was blissfully unaware of them. I slept soundly until morning, when I checked out somewhat reluctantly, headed for the airport at Heathrow and twenty-first century life.

The library, one of the ground-floor common rooms.
Look closely: that’s not a door, just a very clever way to make sure guests don’t wander into places they don’t belong.
Another common area. This one has an “honesty bar” and opens out onto…
…the terrace.

Mudlarking!

As I mentioned in a recent post, my trip to the UK last summer was specifically to research John Pickett Mystery #9, Into Thin Eire. Still, I already knew what Book 10 would be about, and one of my experiences on this trip provided a spark for that book as well. For while I was in London, I went mudlarking!

In case you’re unfamiliar with the term, mudlarking was an early form of recycling in which people, often children (called mudlarks), scavenged along the exposed riverbank of the Thames at low tide for anything they could sell. John Pickett was an occasional mudlark in his misspent youth, so I thought it would be fun to try something that he would have done. (The other option, pickpocketing, is, alas, frowned upon.)

I went online to learn what I could about modern-day mudlarking, and discovered that, for one thing, you have to have a permit from the London Port Authority. I also learned that they don’t recommend you go by yourself. If you do, you should at least be aware at all times of the location of the nearest stairs; when the tide turns, the river rises very swiftly, and it’s possible to be cut off.

So I searched for a guide to take me out. (Another advantage of going with a guide is that he has the permit issue taken care of.) I eventually made a date with Steve Brooker (aka the “mud god”), who’s been featured on the History Channel and written up in Time magazine and elsewhere. But while searching, I came across an article on mudlarking that quoted a curator at the Museum of London as saying (I’m quoting here as nearly as I can remember), “almost everything we know about childhood in the Middle Ages comes from finds the mudlarks have brought in.” It’s often said that times may change, but human nature doesn’t. Children lose things, whether in the twelfth century or the twenty-first.

Steve Brooker, aka the “mud god,” my mudlarking guide.
The skyscrapers in the background make up the
Canary Wharf business district on the Isle of Dogs.

Still, the idea of those toys, lost somehow in or along the river only to be washed up decades or even centuries later, started me thinking. In Book 10, Brother, Can You Spare a Crime?, John Pickett discovers he has a ten-year-old half-brother. That half-brother, I knew, would have had an upbringing very similar to John’s; what if he, too, had been an occasional mudlark, and had found a toy of some kind—one not necessarily of any monetary value, but something that he, a poor child having so little, prizes? And what if he (like all those medieval children) dropped it—not in the River Thames, but at the scene of a crime? I hadn’t even gone on my own mudlarking adventure yet, but thanks to the internet, I already had a head start on my next book!

You’ll be able to see how this element fits into the book when it releases on June 12, but in the meantime, here are a few photos of my own mudlarking finds. Contrary to what you might expect, we did not use a metal detector (in fact, the “mud god” has strong views about the use of metal detectors along the foreshore, and the role they play in erosion); instead, he taught me how to read the tides as the nineteenth-century mudlarks would have done.

I met up with Steve in Greenwich at the Cutty Sark, and we walked through the tunnel beneath the Thames to the Isle of Dogs, the peninsula formed by a deep bend in the river east of the City. (Incidentally, whenever you see London referred to as the “City”—capitalized—it refers to the portion of central London, roughly one square mile, that was once contained within the old Roman wall.) Why that particular spot? Because once upon a time, the Isle of Dogs was the site of a dumping ground for one of Henry VIII’s palaces. Dead people’s garbage dumps are a historian’s playground; so much can be learned by what people threw away, either by accident or deliberately. Which makes me wonder what historians will learn about us someday, but that’s a topic for another blog, written by another blogger.

THE PHOTOS:

My favorite out of all our haul: a Victorian penny, about the size of a US half-dollar.
The reverse side gives the date as 1900.
A clay pipe, the “cigarette butts” of their era and one of the most common of all mudlarking finds.
George V half-penny from 1934,
just a bit larger than a US quarter.
A “sea biscuit” fossil; some modern-day mudlarks search for them exclusively.
George VI half-penny from 1939. (If you’ve ever seen the film The King’s Speech, he was its subject.)
Fragments of garnet, although not gem quality. In fact, these are industrial waste; the “sand” on sandpaper is actually finely crushed garnet. All waste products should be so pretty!
This half-penny says “new penny” because the UK had just switched from the old pounds/shillings/pence monetary system to
100 pence = 1 pound. (The half-penny was not removed from circulation until 1984.)
Dress pin from the Tudor era. (Ink pen included to show scale.) We found three pins in all, and Steve seemed surprised/disappointed that there weren’t more. Apparently they’re usually very plentiful in the area, thanks to that Tudor-era garbage dump.
Not all of the coins we found were British. Here’s a 1 rupee coin from India, dated 1999.
WWII bullet & casing. We found a whole cache of these, and I told Steve, “Well, there was your problem: you were supposed to put the bullets into the guns and then fire them at the Germans!”
10-cent piece from West Germany, 1970.
A fragment of Blue Willow china. This stuff was all over the place! Most of it was blue, but there were a few shards of rose pink, too. And I wish so badly that I’d snagged a whole bagful of it! I’m sure I could have found something to do with it.
5-ruble coin from Russia, 2016.
We found several pieces of petrified wood. Here are two of them.

There was more, including modern coins from the UK as well as a US quarter, a small brass button, a number of 19th-century nails. . In fact, I haven’t yet got around to cleaning it all! We were on the foreshore for about two hours before the tide made it necessary for us to curtail our hunt. Here’s a photo of all our finds:

I can’t wait to go again! Hmm, I wonder what I’ll find next time…

The Making of a Regency Costume

Part 1 of 4:

The Dress & Pelisse

My plans for this year (2018) include going to both the Romantic Times Booklovers Convention in Reno and the Romance Writers of America conference in Denver (including the 1-day Beau Monde Mini-Conference featuring all things Regency)–not just one, but two occasions to wear historical costume. So I decided at the beginning of the year to create a Regency costume—not just a full-length, high-waisted gown, but the whole shebang. This post is the first of a 4-part series on the construction of that costume, its accessories, and, finally, the results as seen in the professional photo shoot to which I treated myself after the three-month-long project was complete.

Having decided to make the costume, I went shopping right after New Year’s for a pattern and fabric. Unfortunately, there aren’t many Regency patterns available at present, as these tend to be directly proportional to the number of Jane Austen adaptations on the big screen at any given time; as of this writing, 18th-century patterns tend to be more prominent, thanks to Outlander and Poldark.

McCalls #7493, the pattern I used to make my costume.

I did find a few, though, and settled on McCalls #7493. I liked the fact that it offered, in addition to the aforementioned full-length, high-waisted gown, either a short spencer with a pleated peplum in the back or a full-length pelisse with a cutaway front, pleats in the back, and a double-breasted bodice with a draped collar in a contrasting fabric. Both had two-piece sleeves, and both were fully lined. In other words, this was not a pattern for beginners. But I’ve been sewing since I was nine years old. Few patterns have the power to defeat me—and I’m rather a snob about that. So this fairly complex pattern was right up my alley.

Now that I had the pattern, it was time to shop for fabrics.  In my opinion, fabric stores have gone downhill in recent years, with more focus on crafters (especially quilters) than on people who sew, you know, actual clothes. Thanks to all those quilters, I knew it would be no problem to find a cotton print that looked reasonably accurate for the period; fabric for the pelisse (I’d decided to go for the pelisse rather than the spencer, because harder. Yeah, I’m a snob that way.) was likely to prove the greater challenge, so I concentrated on that first. I looked at both Walmart and Joann’s Fabrics (my only local options) for a coat-weight fabric that wasn’t an anachronistic polyester or an obvious poly blend, but without success. In desperation, I went to the back corner of Joann’s, where the upholstery fabrics were kept on enormous cardboard rolls against the wall. And there I found a dove-gray fabric with a slight nap. It was certainly coat weight—in fact, my first thought was that it weighed a ton—but upon reflection, I decided it was no heavier than denim, and lighter than some denims I’ve worked with. For the lining, I bought a length of gray broadcloth that would conceal the wrong side of the fabric while keeping the added weight to a minimum. The upholstery department also yielded another treasure: a relatively lightweight brocade whose color would match the body of the pelisse while the weave provided a contrast.

Clockwise from top left: the gray pelisse fabric; the cotton print I chose for the gown; the silver-gray brocade I used for the contrasting collar of the pelisse.

Now, for the gown. As I had expected, there was no shortage of cotton prints. I’m not generally a fan of sweet little floral patterns, and given that I’m *ahem* past the first blush of youth, I wouldn’t be presenting myself as a young lady in her first Season, but a fashionable society matron. Still, I wanted something that looked reasonably accurate to the period. I finally found a somewhat bolder print, a gray-on-gray pattern punctuated by yellow-and-brown birds and butterflies along with yellow roses and green leaves. This would not only match my pelisse, but also give me additional colors for accessorizing without looking like I was in half-mourning.

Detail of pelisse back view, showing princess seaming & pleated skirt

True to the fashions of the period, my pattern contained no zippers or snaps; the pelisse buttoned in the front, and the gown buttoned in the back. (This also meant that I would be unable to get in and out of the dress without assistance; I made a mental note to make sure to have plans in place before the event for someone to help me into and out of it.) I knew that fabric-covered buttons were popular during the Regency, so I decided to make covered buttons. Alas, both the gown and pelisse called for ½-inch buttons, and I couldn’t find covered-button forms in that size locally. Thank goodness for Amazon! I was able to buy a button-making kit in the correct size, plus a bag of additional button forms—a good thing, too, as I would need eighteen buttons for the pelisse alone (four for each sleeve and ten for the double-breasted bodice), plus another four for the gown. Then, too, there was that pelisse fabric. I suspected it would be too thick for buttons that small, and when my button kit arrived, one practice attempt was enough to prove that I was right. I decided to use remnants of the gray broadcloth I’d used for the pelisse lining. The color was so near a match that they looked identical, and the lighter weight was much better suited to the purpose.

Detail of pelisse sleeve showing covered buttons

As for the gown, I ended up making a couple of small additions after it was complete, one to the bodice and another to the skirt. It was important for the bodice to fit closely, and since I’ve always had a small bustline relative to the rest of me, this meant placing the buttons considerably farther inside than the markings indicated on the pattern. I was afraid this would make it look somewhat off-centered from the back, so I added a second row of buttons on the outside of the bodice, a couple of inches from the buttonholes. They don’t really do anything—that is, there are no corresponding buttonholes—but they do give it a sense of symmetry and, as my proofreader and fellow seamstress pointed out, they reflect the double-breasted construction of the pelisse. This brought my total button count to twenty-six, so I was especially glad to have all those extras.

Detail of gown showing hem with double rows of tasseled trim.

Finally, when I stumbled across a braided trim with tassels in exactly the same color combinations as my dress fabric, I couldn’t resist buying enough to put a double row around the bottom of the skirt, reflecting the ornamented hemlines characteristic of the late Regency period.

In Part 2, I’ll be sharing what was, for me, the most challenging part of the costume: the bonnet.

 

On the Trail of Patrick Colquhoun in Scotland

Last time I was in London, I posted a blog sharing some of the places that would have been familiar to John Pickett, the young Bow Street Runner who is the hero of my Regency-set mystery series. Since I had a chance to visit Scotland this past summer as part of a 2-week British Isles cruise, it only makes sense to give his magistrate, the real-life Patrick Colquhoun, equal time.

While our ship was docked at Greenock, my husband and I arranged for a car and driver—Mike made it very clear that he did not intend to spend his vacation learning how to drive on the wrong side of the road!—to take us to some of the places that would have been familiar to Patrick Colquhoun.

Dumbarton Castle, as seen from across the River Clyde

Our first stop was Dumbarton, where Patrick Colquhoun was born in 1745. You can see Dumbarton Castle long before you get there, as it is situated on the north bank of the River Clyde—directly across the river from the road that connects Greenock to Glasgow, which means you must go some way past it before you can cross the river and backtrack. It is visually quite imposing, built on a volcanic plug that has been fortified since the Iron Age, and would certainly have been a familiar sight to our man.

Me, standing on a bridge overlooking the River Kelvin.

His wife, Janet (whose maiden name was also Colquhoun), was also from here; in fact, her father was the provost (think “mayor”) of Dumbarton. Going his father-in-law one better, Patrick Colquhoun became Lord Provost of the much larger Glasgow—a position which meant he was also Lord-Lieutenant of the County of the City of Glasgow and a Commissioner of Northern Lighthouses. He built an estate in Glasgow’s West End, along the River Kelvin, and called it Kelvingrove. The house no longer stands (and, alas, he sold it in 1792, some years after moving to London, which means I can never send John Pickett there), having become Glasgow’s first municipal museum in 1872 and demolished in 1899, when the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum was built in its place. Its grounds were absorbed into what is now Kelvingrove Park. I spent a very pleasant hour wandering through the park and along the river, imagining myself following in his footsteps.

Kelvingrove Park. The spires of the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum are visible in the background.

One thing I noticed was that the locals seemed very gratified to discover that I knew how to pronounce “Colquhoun” correctly! (For the record, it’s “Ca-HOON.”) Upon learning what I was doing there, more than one boasted that, yes, “Glasgow is Colquhoun country,” and asked if I had visited Luss. I was pleased to tell them that I had.

Luss, besides being a picturesque little village on the shores of Loch Lomond, is the ancestral home of Clan Colquhoun. Although he was never chief of the clan, not being in the direct line of succession, Patrick Colquhoun would certainly have been aware of the connection, and might well have visited the village or the ancestral seat, a fine Georgian manor called Rossdhu House.

Rossdhu House. Since I didn’t get to see it in person, I looked it up online!

(Rossdhu, by the way, now serves as the clubhouse of the Loch Lomond Golf Club, and still contains many of the original furnishings and artwork, on loan from the family. My driver tried to get me close enough for a glimpse of the house, but the gates were locked, and the landscaping blocked any view; apparently they’ve seen me driving off the tee.)

Picturesque cottages of Luss.

Loch Lomond.

Foiled in my attempt to get a look at Rossdhu, I had to content myself with strolling through the village and down to the loch, finishing up my time in Luss by trying haggis (yes, really!) at the Loch Lomond Arms Hotel, a former coaching inn owned by the present clan chief, Sir Malcolm Colquhoun, 9th baronet of Luss.

Lunch at the Loch Lomond Arms Hotel: haggis (center) with neeps (turnips, at bottom) and tatties (potatoes, top).

Patrick Colquhoun, London magistrate

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Some of my favorite comments from readers regarding the John Pickett mystery series concern the father-son relationship of Pickett and his magistrate, and how much the reader enjoys it. In fact, of the questions I’m asked most frequently about the series (aside from the obvious ones about if, when, and/or how Pickett and Lady Fieldhurst will ever get together), several concern the character of Pickett’s magistrate, Patrick Colquhoun. Readers want to know how his name is pronounced, and why I chose to give a character such a difficult name. To answer the first question, according to Debrett’s Correct Form, the name is pronounced “Ca-HOON,” at least in the United Kingdom.

 As for the second question, I chose it because Patrick Colquhoun was a real person, and a real magistrate at the time the books are set. And while I could find no evidence that he ever served in that capacity in Bow Street (in fact, my research sources place him at Queen Square), certain aspects of his life dovetail so nicely with that of John Pickett that I thought he would make a good mentor for my fictional Bow Street Runner.

Patrick Colquhoun was born in Dumbarton, Scotland, on 14 March 1745 (making him 63 years old in 1808, where the John Pickett mysteries begin). He was orphaned at age 16, and traveled to the British colony of Virginia to seek his fortune. He returned to Scotland in 1766 and settled in Glasgow, going into business for himself in the linen trade. When war broke out in the colonies ten years later, he joined with thirteen other Glasgow businessmen in financing a local regiment, contributing £100 of his personal funds to fight the colonists—possibly one of the few bad business decisions he ever made.

In 1775, at age 30, he married Janet Colquhoun, a distant cousin. They had seven children, but only four—one son and three daughters—lived to adulthood.

Patrick Colquhoun was a keen collector of statistics as well as a prolific writer, first on economic issues and later on topics relating to crime. His economic activities in Scotland—he formed the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce and Manufactures, and served as its first chairman—brought him into contact with political circles, into which he was soon throwing his considerable energy. He moved his family to London in November 1789, and was appointed as a Police Magistrate in 1792.

His first reform efforts involved trade on the River Thames, where an estimated half-million pounds worth of cargo was stolen every year. Colquhoun made the shocking claim that fully one-third of the 33,000 river workers were known criminals who were in on the take—a claim which seemed to be confirmed when a mob attempted to burn down the office of the newly formed Thames River Police.

The English people were suspicious of a standing police force, citing abuses by the police in France. By couching the debate in pragmatic terms, often as a matter of cost-benefit, he was able to allay many of these concerns, leading eventually to Robert Peel’s Metropolitan Police in 1829. Of Colquhoun’s many books and pamphlets, perhaps the most significant was his Treatise of the Police of the Metropolis, which emphasized the ineffectiveness of the old London “charlies” as a deterrent to crime.

Patrick Colquhoun retired from his magistracy in 1818 and died two years later on 25 April 1820, at age 76. He is revered in England as a police reformer; in fact, the Metropolitan Marine Police—the modern incarnation of the Thames River Police—has a police boat named the Patrick Colquhoun.

One biographer notes that “although Mr. Colquhoun bore externally a somewhat pompous and domineering aspect . . . there never, perhaps, was a heart more alive than his to the domestic interests of the poor, or a mind more actively bent upon improving both their physical and moral condition.”


On the Trail of John Pickett in London

I recently had the pleasure of going on a cruise on the English Channel—stops in Rotterdam and on the island of Guernsey, culminating in a couple of days in London before heading back home. This was actually my second visit to London. During the first, thirteen years ago, I’d concentrated on places that would have been fashionable during the Regency period, including day trips to Brighton and Bath.

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But that was before my reinvention as a mystery writer. This time around, I decided to focus on places that would have been familiar to John Pickett. The logical place to start, then, was Bow Street, where he and his fellow Runners were based, and Drury Lane, where he hired rooms. (Warning: You may notice that I refer to my characters as if they are/were real people. I’m sorry if this strikes you as pretentious or silly, but I don’t know how else to do it—they ARE real to me!)

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Anyway, my husband and I set out early Tuesday morning, navigating the Tube until we reached Bow Street. We hadn’t walked far until we came to the Bow Street Magistrates’ Court, where I was determined to have my picture taken! Pity my poor husband, who admits he is no photographer: I made him take this picture
four times before he got one that suited me!


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Next, we walked northeast to the upper end of Drury Lane and began following it southeast. I already knew that I wouldn’t find John Pickett’s hired lodgings; besides the fact that I made them up out of whole cloth, the entire lower end of Drury Lane was razed around the turn of the 20th century to make room for the area now known as Aldwych. For the sake of my trip, this might have been a good thing: better, surely, not to find it at all than to discover I’d gotten it wrong! In fact, there was a theatre situated just about where I’d pictured Pickett’s flat as being located—and that theatre was staging a production of Top Hat, based on the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musical of the same name! Later that day, we rushed off to Leicester Square and bought tickets, and returned to Drury Lane that night to see the show.

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But that’s a subject for another blog. I took a picture of the Drury Lane street sign, just to prove I had really been there, and we continued
southwest along Russell Street past the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane. Just to show what a good sport my husband is, when I told him that this theatre was the one built in 1812, he said, “Oh, is that the one that replaced the one you burned
down?” Naturally, I replied with an enthusiastic “Yes!” (In fact, the theatre did burn in 1809, which is a major plot point in the as yet untitled John Pickett mystery #5. But we sure gave all the other tourists something to think about!)

We had a few extra hours that afternoon, so we spent them walking up and down many of the streets my Regency characters would have known. This may not have meant much to my husband, but it was a real kick in the pants for me to see the street names and say, “Oh, look, Mike! Audley Street! Lady Dunnington lives there!” (Have I mentioned what a good sport Mike is?)

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One of the places we walked through was Berkeley Square. Those who have been following the John Pickett mysteries from their beginning (In Milady’s Chamber) may remember that it is in the Fieldhurst town house in Berkeley Square that Lord Fieldhurst is murdered, leaving Lady Fieldhurst (a) a
widow; and (b) a suspect in her husband’s death. It is here that John Pickett first sees her and is instantly smitten. Now, as I looked around Berkeley Square, I found this house and
decided it looked like it might have been the one.


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Finally, we returned to our hotel, which happened to be located just around the corner from New Scotland Yard—appropriate enough, since it was the Metropolitan Police Service, formed in 1829 and headquartered at Scotland Yard, that eventually replaced the Bow Street force.