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”.

FIND OUT MORE: How to talk like a Victorian Londoner

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!

Dog dung used to make books look good!

Before the advent of synthetic products, some very odd natural materials had to be used for processes we take for granted today. Take curing leather bindings on books. In the good old days, getting a nice brown sheen on the cover of books was achieved by using dog dung.

And that dung had to be supplied by somebody. Well, there were people on hand happy to provide the raw materials!

The people who collected dog dung for books

Collecting dog dung for a living has to be about the most revolting job ever created. I’ve been re-reading the works of a Victorian Londoner called Henry Mayhew who, in 1851, published a book describing the appalling ways in which people were forced to make a living. The scraping of “Pure” (the slang word for dog excrement) from the streets has to be the worst.

Why on earth, you may reasonably ask, was dog dung referred to as “Pure” and what possessed anybody to go out and collect it? Well, it’s all to do with turning animal skins into leather. In the Victorian period, this would be done at a tannery.

That would be a workshop where animal skins were delivered to be cleaned; the fat and hair scraped off and then fermented using dog or pigeon dung.

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Needless to say, tanneries stank. I mean, really reeked. And so they were normally placed out of the centres of town by the 19th century – though not always. The leather created using dog dung transformed goat and calf skins into book covers, gloves and other quality items.

So, if you have a leather bound book from the Victorian era, I’m afraid dog dung may have been involved in its production. Canine excrement was essential for quality books.

The supply of dog poo was done by people called “Pure Finders”. The brown stuff was called “Pure” because it cleansed and purified the animal skins turning them into leather.

Getting dog dung for books was good business

In 1851, Mayhew tells us that Pure Finders could make between eight and ten pennies per bucket – and maybe more if the quality was good. The highest price was for something described as the “dry-limy-looking sort”. That apparently had more alkaline and so reacted better with the animal skins to make good leather.

There was always a temptation to doctor the dung to make it look more “limy”. That was done by mixing a bit of mortar with it. I can’t imagine how that was done – actually I can but I’m trying not to!

A lucky Pure Finder might have an arrangement to regularly clean some kennels and could make ten to fifteen shillings a week – good pay in the 1850s. But most had to scour the streets picking up what they could find. Their income was pretty miserable – this was a job you did if you’d fallen on hard times.

A typical tannery in the south London district of Bermondsey might employ 300 to 500 tanners – and in addition, retain 20 or so Pure Finders. Many of the finders were struggling to keep out of the workhouse by doing any job on the streets that was available. Mayhew heard about one finder who was totally unaware up until he died that he was the beneficiary of a vast legacy of thousands of pounds. Lawyers even placed advertisements in the newspapers to find him.

Fittingly, this man’s name was Mr Brown – I’m not kidding.

Tony Robinson is a TV historian and presenter in the United Kingdom and a few years back, he broadcast a series on horrible jobs in history. Here is his episode on the Victorians!

Georgian London

A horrific day trip to Georgian London!

Imagine you have decided to take a day trip to London two hundred years ago. What do do? Well, let me be your guide as we take a horrific day trip to Georgian London!

If you enjoyed the BBC series Taboo – you’re probably wondering what London was really like at that time. Could it really have been so bleak and awful. Well, in large part it certainly was.

That violent drama is set in 1814, the late Georgian period, and as luck would have it, I own several guides to London from the first two decades of the nineteenth century. One from 1804 is especially descriptive and I’ll quote liberally below.

These books were intended to guide a visitor around the city taking in places of interest, like a prison for example or a mental asylum. Yep, you really could pay to go and gawp at criminals and the insane. So – here’s a selection of oddities from the period of Taboo.

YOUR DAY TRIP TO GEORGIAN LONDON STARTS HERE!

Visiting a prison: You’ve arrived in London and wondering what to go and see. How about a prison? You could pop along to Newgate prison – where the Old Bailey now stands – and pay the “turnkey” two or three shillings to go in and stare at the unfortunates behind bars. One guide I have to London laments the overcrowded part of the prison for debtors, who were treated worse than thieves and other felons. Those who were condemned to death were normally held in irons, which must have been a thrilling sight for the Georgian tourist!

Then watch a public execution: My 1804 guide bemoans the attitude of Londoners to the growing number of executions. They’d become quite indifferent to them! “Among the many nuisances which disgrace the metropolis, there is not perhaps one which excites more horror than the frequency of public executions. The numbers of unhappy culprits that annually forfeit their existence by violation of the laws, afford sufficient proofs that an ignominious death is no longer our safeguard. Six, eight and ten criminals executed in the public streets, even in the heart of the metropolis, in the broad light of day, before the eyes of the multitude, scarcely excite emotion.”

You’re a victim of crime during your visit to London: There’s no police force at the time of Taboo so having been robbed, beaten up or defrauded by a fortune teller – you could take your case to one of the places where magistrates were in session every day of the week like the Mansion House, Bow Street, Hatton Garden or Guildhall. In a “summary way” they would deal with everything from murder to “disorderly houses”, “persons of ill fame found in avenues to public places with an intent to rob” and “vagabonds”.

Pop into a workhouse: In the early 1800s, Dr Hooper was the resident doctor at the St Mary-le-bone Workhouse and was happy to show any gentleman round if they were interested. There was also the St Martin’s Workshouse in Castle Street, near Leicester Square (roughly corresponding to the National Portrait Gallery). In my 1804 guide to London, it’s pointed out that one of the inmates was 104 years old! If you made a proper application to the master of the house or the churchwardens they were prepared to “readily gratify the curious”.

Strange entertainments: Like today, Londoners loved the theatre. Some of it was very bawdy while other houses put on fine operas and plays. Then there was just the plain bizarre. For example, Mr Cartwright could be found at the Lyceum putting on a display of “philosophical fireworks” while Miss Cartwright played the musical glasses. In the absence of movies, you could also go and watch The Phantasmagoria  – also at the Lyceum. Basically, images projected on to a screen from a “magic lantern”. No CGI I’m afraid.

Moral societies for bettering Londoners: If you were aghast at the depraved ways of Georgian London, you could join a society to improve things. In one guide to London I own the author recommends The Society for giving effect to His Majesty’s Proclamation against Vice and Immorality founded in 1787. There was also The Society for Promoting Religious Knowledge by distributing books among the Poor and The Society for Preventing Crimes by prosecuting Swindlers, Sharpers and Cheats, based in the Strand.

Observe the diseases killing Londoners:  In 1802, Londoners died of an interesting variety of ailments. Nearly six thousand had perished before reaching two years of age; 266 died of apoplexy; 3,503 died of “convulsions”; 559 were spirited away by measles; 1,579 succumbed to small-pox and 107 died of the condition that hit heavy drinkers of port wine – gout.

Cheer the chimney sweeps!: Children were still being sent up chimneys at this time. And there were plenty of chimneys to clean with most houses using filthy fossil fuels. There was a growing awareness that this was a terrible thing to do to young kids but nobody seemed to have come up with an alternative. Still, once a year, the chimney sweeps of London – on MayDay – dressed up in their finery (whatever that amounted to) and paraded through the streets to the cheers of London’s citizens. Only to be sent back up the chimneys the following day.