The London of the The Frankenstein Chronicles

If you’ve watched the Netflix horror series The Frankenstein Chronicles you might be wondering what part of London were all those sordid and foul alley ways and run down houses? Well, it might surprise you to know that it was a district very close to Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament.

Frankenstein Chronicles

I’m a latecomer to The Frankenstein Chronicles so you have to excuse my belated interest. But watching it, I was keen to know where all those squalid slums were set. And it turns out to have been an area of Westminster that Charles Dickens referred to as the Devil’s Acre. Those of you who have watched The Frankenstein Chronicles will recall that Dickens appears in the TV series (seasons one and two) as a young journalist using his pen name “Boz”.

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The Devil’s Acre is very near where I worked for a few years at the Home Office (equivalent of the US Department for Homeland Security). And that’s ironic because the Home Office is all about law and order while the Devil’s Acre was notorious for its thieves and beggars. In the early 19th century, it was a part of London that you entered at your peril – at the very least, you would be robbed blind.

Pye Street, Duck Lane, Anne Street and Stretton Grounds were full of ramshackle buildings that were overcrowded and insanitary. As early as the 18th century, the area was getting a disagreeable reputation. One member of parliament, Lord Tyrconnel, said in 1741 that it was an embarrassment to have this seething den of iniquity so close to parliament where foreign visitors couldn’t fail to note the “herd of barbarians” who lived there.

At the state opening of parliament, the king’s coach had to whip through the area – no doubt His Majesty holding a perfumed hanky to his nose! So deep were the ruts in the muddy road that piles of wood had to be thrown into the holes to stop the king’s coach toppling over and ejecting the monarch into the mud.

The buildings in this massive slum district were often made of wood and illegally constructed. They might once have been ground houses in the 17th century but now reduced to tenements where people slept on the floors and several to a bed.

Much of the area was below the level of the nearby river Thames and so was prone to flooding. And the unhappy folk lived by their wits providing cabs by day then counterfeiting money and possibly picking pockets by night. This is a description by the journalist Thomas Beames in 1852:

Wherever you turned, the inhabitants were to be seen, in groups of half-dressed, unwashed men and women, loitering at doors, windows, and at the end of narrow courts, smoking, swearing, and occasionally fighting; and swarms of filthy, naked, and neglected children, who seemed well trained to use languages as profane, and do deeds as dark as those of their parents.

The problem of the Devil’s Acre was solved in a familiar way by the Victorians. Firstly, they rammed a massive road through it – Victoria Street – which is still there today. Then having sliced through the slums, they began redeveloping the area piecemeal. But it took a long time.

To wander those streets, get out at Victoria Station and meander behind Westminster Cathedral (the centre of British Roman Catholicism) up to Westminster Abbey. Very different today but see if you can spot any London Ghosts!

What did Victorians think of Jack the Ripper?

My study is bursting with books, newspapers and manuscripts going back over three hundred years. I’m a terrible hoarder!! And I’ve got a couple of Jack the Ripper related publications from the 1880s that tell us what Victorians thought about this serial killer in their midst.

The first is a bound volume of Punch magazines from 1888. This was a satirical publication that tickled the Victorian sense of humour and pioneered the use of cartoons. The year 1888 was when Jack the Ripper began his killing spree. And Punch spared no punches when it came to this story.

Here I am reading Punch and below – let me share the cartoons and the clues they give us to what the Victorians made of this ghoulish man!

The first cartoon was entitled The Nemesis of Neglect. It’s an incredibly haunting image of a spectre rising out of the stinking gloom of the capital. It was drawn by John Tenniel – who was the first illustrator of the children’s novel Alice in Wonderland. So this was a bit of a departure from rabbits and Red Queens!

What this illustrator does is link vicious crime like that of Jack the Ripper to the appalling neglect of the London slums by the authorities. Victorians knew that the London poor were living in squalid conditions. Authors like Charles Dickens exposed the poverty repeatedly. In this cartoon, the Ripper – and other violent murderers – are described as “a phantom on the slum’s foul air”.

Other Victorians mocked the inability of the police to get to grips with Jack the Ripper and other crimes. So in the same volume of Punch magazines, we have criminals playing blind man’s buff with a blindfolded police officer.

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The inference being that the real life cops are incompetent buffoons operating in the dark.

Jack the Ripper

I also have a copy of The Times newspaper from that year that includes a complaining letter from a vicar. His vicarage had been burgled and he thunders that if the police hadn’t been wasting so much time on the “Whitechapel Murders” – as they were called – his property might have been better protected.

Two years before Jack the Ripper terrorised the Victorians – the author Robert Louis Stevenson published his hugely successful horror novel, the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. In the story, a respectable doctor is transformed into a killing monster by drinking a potion.

A theatrical version of the book was scripted and first performed in Boston – in the United States. It then crossed the Atlantic but with terrible timing, the play opened exactly at the same time that Jack the Ripper committed his first murders.

While Victorians flocked to see the play – they also professed to be horrified by the poor taste of staging it. So much so that the producer even found himself suspected of being Jack the Ripper. At which point, he closed the production down after ten weeks.

But it fixed in the minds of Victorians the notion of Jack the Ripper possibly being a society gentleman who had gone off the rails – and unable to control his basest passions was slaughtering working class women in the East End of London.

This line of thought about the true identity of Jack the Ripper touched every raw nerve of the Victorians with regards to class and sex. And it’s persisted to the present day.