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.
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 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?)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 current ban on international travel makes me especially
glad that I managed to visit the UK last year, although pleasure wasn’t the
first thing on my mind when I made the trip. I’d been working on Into Thin
Eire (aka John Pickett mystery #9), and I’d just finished the chase through
England, Wales, and finally Ireland that makes up a good deal of the book. But
when I read back through those chapters, I realized there was one big problem.
“This could be set anywhere in the world,” I complained to
my husband, “and it wouldn’t matter! It needs detail to ground it in a
particular place.” I looked online, but internet research has its limitations;
I just wasn’t finding what I needed.
“Do you need to go?” my husband asked. “If you do, book a
flight. I’ll see you when you get back.”
And so I did. Since my husband didn’t have enough vacation time to take a week off (we’d taken a South American cruise back in February, and he’d used most of it up on that trip), I went alone—my first solo trip out of the country. (Mom was convinced I was never coming back alive.) I’d bought a BritRail pass at the same time I’d booked my flight, and so after taking a day to recover from jet lag, I set out from my hotel to Euston Station. My objective: to follow the path of my characters, making notes on topographical changes along the way.
After boarding the train and finding a window seat with a
good view, I pulled out a little notebook I’d bought for the trip. As the train
traveled westward, I made notes on the landscape: the flat green fields of the
Midlands, dotted with sheep and occasionally bisected by canals (the latter sometimes
affording glimpses of brightly colored narrowboats) giving way to the steep
slopes of Snowdonia, the peaks hidden beneath a blanket of clouds, until
finally setting me down in Holyhead, Wales, where I’d booked a room for two
nights at a quaint bed and breakfast called Witchingham.
Once in my room, I walked the short distance to the water and strolled along the Anglesey Coastal Path, stopping to eat dinner at the Yacht Club restaurant. From the water’s edge, I could see the ferries returning; this was the reason I’d come to Holyhead.
Early the next morning, I called for a taxi to take me to the port, and took the Swift ferry to Dublin. The name refers to Jonathan Swift, not to the boat’s speed, although that would fit, too: I made the Irish Sea crossing in just over three hours, whereas for John Pickett and his traveling companions, even a smooth crossing would have been seventeen hours or more. The boat itself was like a small cruise ship, with a buffet brunch included in the fare, along with comfortable seats and big picture windows along the bow and sides. But I wasn’t the only person making a work-related trip: one entire deck was reserved for commercial trucks (lorries), with lounges set aside specifically for their drivers.
When we arrived in Dublin, I realized that in one instance, at least, John Pickett would have had the advantage over me: his packet sailed right up the River Liffey into the heart of Dublin, whereas my ferry docked along a rather nondescript commercial waterfront, from which we walk-on passengers had to take a bus into the city proper. After a day in Dublin, it was back to the ferry for the return trip, arriving in Holyhead just after midnight. (And me, with my north-Alabama/Appalachian-foothills accent trying to communicate by telephone with a Welsh taxi driver was the only real problem I had on the whole trip!)
In the morning, I took the train back to London for my next adventure—mudlarking along the Thames foreshore! But that’s a subject for another blog . . .
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.”
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.
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!)
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!
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.
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?)
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.
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.