When I first started writing the Sinclair’s Mysteries, while I loved the idea of Edwardian girl detectives, I had a feeling that it was unlikely that my heroines Sophie and Lil had many real-life counterparts. Although I’d come across works of fiction like Revelations of a Lady Detective, and The Female Detective published in the mid-19th century I suspected that real lady detectives at this time had in fact been few and far between. And although many new opportunities were opening up for women in the early 20th century, I couldn’t somehow imagine that there were really many young women who had the opportunity to work as professional detectives as Sophie and Lil do in my stories – never mind setting up their own detective agency. However…
Reader, I was entirely wrong.
In my research for the Sinclair’s Mysteries and Taylor & Rose Secret Agents series, I’ve discovered that there were many women engaged in detective work both in London and further afield in the late 19th century and early 20th centuries. In fact, one of the first lady detectives Kate Warne got a job at the famous Chicago agency Pinkerton’s as early as 1856. By 1894, Henry Slater (head of one of London’s largest detective agencies) was advertising Slater’s Women Detectives and at around the same time, Moser’s Ladies Detective Agency was set up by his rival, the ex-Scotland Yard inspector Maurice Moser. Meanwhile, Kate Easton was one of the first lady detectives to set up her own agency in London, which she established in 1905, declaring: ‘Blackmail, divorce, evidence, robbery, I undertake it all; I have touched everything except murder.’
Meanwhile, although women could not officially work for the police in the UK, Scotland Yard had been quietly hiring lady detectives to help with their cases as early as 1899. And across the pond in the USA, Isabella Goodwin was hired as New York’s first woman police detective in the 1900s, investigating burglars and swindlers; whilst Frances Benzecry worked as a detective for the medical societies of Brooklyn and Manhattan to expose fake medical pracitioners.
Anyone who has read the Sinclair’s Mysteries and Taylor & Rose Secret Agents will be interested to hear that another place women detectives could often be found in the 1900s was in London’s department stores! Stores like my own (fictional) Sinclair’s would frequently hire women to help prevent shoplifting, as women detectives were better able to blend in with the customers. When it opened in 1909, Selfridges hired a detective named Matilda Mitchell as the head up its very own ‘secret service’. She and her staff helped to catch thieves and frustrate the efforts of gangs like the ‘Forty Elephants’ who would sweep into the shop and cause a rumpus, while others quickly stuffed furs and expensive trinkets into outfits fitted with pockets especially for the purpose.
Maud reportedly set up her own detective agency in 1905: she had a number of both male and female detectives working for her, and an office in Bloomsbury. She had a particular eye for publicity, placing advertisements in the press (‘Maud West, Lady Detective. Are you worried? If so, consult me! Private enquiries and delicate matters undertaken anywhere with secrecy and ability’) but also writing colourful newspaper stories about her cases, seeking out publicity stunts, and circulating pictures of herself in various disguises.
According to her own accounts, her detective work involved everything from unmasking blackmailers to foiling jewel thieves to infiltrating dangerous gangs. She frequently used disguises, changing her appearance with wigs and make-up, and often dressed as a man, occupying rooms in a hotel as a ‘titled Englishman’ and following her suspects ‘into their clubs, playing baccarat beside them at the Monte Carlo Casino. She would reportedly disguise herself as ‘a shabby old scrubwoman’ at 5pm before being at the Ritz elegantly dressed for dinner by 7pm. She even claimed to have been involved in catching foreign spies, and just like Sophie and Lil, apparently worked for the British intelligence services during the First World War.
Something else that I was particularly intrigued to discover about Maud is that just like Sophie she appears to have started her career as a shop assistant – possibly even working in millinery – and that just like Lil she may have spent some time on the stage.
Later, her two daughters also came to work for her as detectives. One newspaper reported that her daughter Vera (described as ‘a pretty fair-haired girl of 17’ when she first started working for Maud) was such a clever young detective that she was dubbed ‘Miss Sherlock Holmes’.
It seems that my idea of Edwardian girl detectives was not so very far-fetched after all!
If you’ve read Taylor & Rose Secret Agents: Peril in Paris, you’ll know that an air race plays a very important part in the story. The Grand Aerial Tour of Europe, which appears in the book, is fictional – but it’s inspired by some of the real-life air races which really did take place during the 1910s.
In this post as part of my Behind the Scenes series, I’m going to talk a little bit more about these air races, and why they were so important. In the 1910s aeroplanes were still a very new invention: although people had been experimenting with aviation for some time, it was only in 1903 that the Wright Brothers had achieved ‘sustained, controlled, powered flight’ – in other words, the first proper aeroplane flight.
In the years that followed, aviation rapidly became popular. France was one of the nations that quickly embraced the new technology, producing many young pilots known for their daring and vitesse (speed). In Germany, Prince Heinrich (the Kaiser’s brother) became the first Royal to take to the air – and in 1910 learned to fly an aeroplane himself. Aviation quickly gained popularity in America, and Japan also took a keen interest, sending army officers to France and Germany to train as pilots. (The character of Captain Nakamura in Peril in Paris is loosely based on the real-life Captain Yoshitoshi Tokugawa who went to France to learn to fly and then piloted the first ever flight in Japan, which took place in Tokyo in December 1910.)
Initially Britain was more cautious: rather than the government, it was actually newspaper magnate Lord Northcliffe who pointed out the particular importance of flight for Britain, declaring that ‘England is no longer an island’ after Louis Bleriot’s successful crossing of the Channel by plane (fun fact for fans of the Sinclair’s Mysteries -Bleriot’s plane was later exhibited at Selfridges department store so that people could come and see it for themselves, which I can well imagine happening at Sinclair’s!) With this in mind, it was Lord Northcliffe who initiated one of the most important British air-races – the Daily Mail Circuit of Britain – to boost the popularity of aviation in the UK.
By 1911, when Peril in Paris is set, air races had become very popular, offering bold young pilots the chance to show off their skills, test out their new planes – and win impressive prizes. Real-life examples that helped inspire my fictional Grand Aerial Tour of Europe include the 1911 Circuit of Europe Race, which covered a distance of almost 1,000 miles, and was sponsored by the French newspaper Le Journal. 500,000 spectators turning out to see the start of the Circuit of Europe Race.
Many of the pilots who took part in these races soon became famous, including the likes of Louis Bleriot, Hubert Latham, Eugene Lefebvre and Leon Delagrange. However, early aviation was tough: whilst 43 pilots took part in the Circuit of Europe Air Race, only nine of them managed to complete the whole course successfully. Three of them were killed in fatal accidents – early aviation was dangerous, and plane crashes and fires were relatively common. Air races could be dangerous for spectators too: during the Paris-to-Madrid Air Race which also took place in 1911, the French Minister of War, Henri Berteaux, was killed, and others were injured when an aircraft lost power and crashed into the crowd at the start of the race.
At around the same time that these air races were taking place, governments around the world were beginning to see the potential of aviation for military and intelligence use – as journalist Roberta Russell points out to Sophie in Peril in Paris. The Italians were the first to use planes for surveillance, in their war with Turkey in 1911. Just a few years later, when World War I broke out, aeroplanes would have a crucially important role to play.
If you’re interested in finding out more about aviation during this period, I’d recommend KM Peyton’s Flambards books for young adults, in particular The Edge of the Cloud. You might also be entertained by the 1965 film ‘Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines’, a comedy set in 1910 based around a fictional air-race from London to Paris. It seems very dated now, but it’s fun and intriguing to see one of the 1910s air races brought to life on screen!
The pictures in this post come via my Peril in Paris Pinterest board (click the image for the source) where you can also find lots more images that helped inspire the book.
It’s been a while since I’ve written one of my ‘Behind the Scenes’ blog posts, exploring the real-life historical background to my books, the Sinclair’s Mysteries and new series Taylor & Rose Secret Agents. However, today I thought I’d write a little bit about the Secret Service Bureau – the top-secret government spy organisation which appears in my latest book Taylor & Rose Secret Agents: Peril in Paris.
If you’ve read the ‘Author’s Note’ at the back of the book, you’ll already know that this organisation takes its inspiration from the real-life Secret Service Bureau, which really was set up secretly by the British government towards the end of 1909, to carry out intelligence work. Although it was initially small, the SSB soon grew, and was divided into two separate divisions – one which focused on counter-espionage at home in Britain, another gathering intelligence abroad. Today, we know those two divisions as ‘MI5’ and ‘MI6’.
My version of the SSB is very much fictional, but has some basis in real-life history. In Peril in Paris, we rejoin young detectives Sophie and Lil in 1911, and find them working for the newly-formed Secret Service Bureau as secret agents, helping to track down German spies. Early in its history, the real SSB actually did employ private detectives to carry out their work in this way – although I’m afraid that in all my research, I didn’t come across any real-life examples of young women detectives working for them!
The focus on routing out German spies is also based on real history. In the run-up to the First World War, there was growing tension between Britain and Germany. Suspicion abounded about a network of German spies working undercover in Britain, gathering secret information to pass back to the German government. Interestingly though, today there is some debate amongst historians about how established or successful this German ‘spy network’ really was. Some have suggested that the government officials who first set up the SSB may have been influenced by wild rumours circulating about spies: Lord Esher famously commented ‘spy catchers get espionage on the brain’. These rumours could have been stimulated by the writings of novelists such as William Le Queux, who wrote hugely popular novels such as The Invasion of 1910 and Spies of the Kaiser, which whipped people into a frenzy about the threat from Germany. (Other popular spy books from this period include the likes of The Riddle of the Sands and The Thirty-Nine Steps.)
In the same way, whilst he is also very much fictional, ‘C’, the boss of the SSB who appears in Peril in Parisowes a little something to the two directors of the real-life SSB – Vernon Kell (sometimes known as ‘K’) who headed up the domestic branch (later MI5) and Mansfield Cumming (known as ‘C’) who looked after foreign affairs (later MI6).
The two men were very different and sometimes clashed with each other. ‘K’ spoke many languages, and had served in the military in both Russia and China before returning to London to work for the War Office, before being chosen to head up the SSB while still only in his mid-30s. He was known to be quiet, tactful, diplomatic and charming – a strategic thinker, highly organised. ‘C’, by contrast, was an extrovert – cheerful and amusing, who considered intelligence work ‘capital sport’. He had several eccentricities, some of which I borrowed for my own fictional ‘C’, including that he always signed his name in green ink. (‘C’ was later to become a customary name for all later directors, coming to stand for ‘Chief’).
In my research into the real SSB, I also found out about some of the people who worked for them. These included William Melville (sometimes known as ‘M’) a former police detective and Superintendant of Scotland Yard’s Special Branch who had helped foil an assassination plot against Queen Victoria. He officially retired in 1903 but went on to secretly carry out intelligence work for the government, later becoming an important part of K’s department who focused on searching out German spies. He eventually even founded a ‘spy school’ in Whitehall to help train other secret agents. (One of my favourite facts about him is that he apparently befriended the illusionist Harry Houdini, who taught him to pick locks!) Other key figures included Sidney Reilly, the famous ‘Ace of Spies’ who worked undercover in Tsarist Russia, and was involved in so many dramatic incidents that many have speculated he was the original inspiration for the most famous fictional spy of all – James Bond.
What’s more, the fictional German spymaster Ziegler who is mentioned in Peril in Paris also has a real-life counterpart – Steinhauer, who was the head of the German intelligence service from 1901. He had spent a lot of time in America and spoke fluent English. Ironically he actually worked alongside Melville in the early 1900s to prevent an assassination of the Kaiser organised by Russian anarchists. He was responsible for placing German spies in Britain before World War I and is supposed to have recruited many of them himself, travelling to Britain under various secret identities, often in disguise.
There’s lots more that I could write about the real-life Secret Service Bureau – there are dozens of books about it, including both official and unofficial histories. Some that I read included MI5 in the Great War edited by Nigel West, Spooks: The Unofficial History of MI5 by Thomas Hennessey and Claire Thomas, The Defence of the Realm: The Authorised History of MI5 by Christopher Andrew and Spies of the Kaiser: Counter-Espionage before the First World War.
Ultimately, however, in Peril in Paris I had a lot of fun imagining my own version of the SSB, inspired partly by this research, but also by the traditions of the spy thriller. Because of course, no classic spy story would be complete without a visit to a mysterious head office, where the secret agent receives their instructions from the charismatic director – whether it’s ‘M’ in James Bond films, ‘Control’ in John Le Carré’s novels, or Alan Blunt and Mrs Jones who appear in Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider books.
Of course, that’s exactly what happens to Sophie at the beginning of Peril in Paris when she goes to the SSB to meet ‘C’ and be given an exciting new assignment – which will soon see her setting out to Paris on an undercover mission to investigate a mysterious murder …
This post was originally published on the Foyles website to celebrate the publication of Rose’s Dress of Dreams
The last year has seen an explosion of brilliant new children’s books telling the stories of women from history – from the bestselling Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls to books about women in space, in sport and in science. It’s been brilliant to see these books shine a spotlight on women’s achievements – and I’m delighted that this month, my own book based on the life of an inspiring female figure from history will join them. Rose’s Dress of Dreams is published by Barrington Stoke as part of their super-readable Little Gems series, with gorgeous illustrations from Kate Pankhurst – herself the creator of the Fantastically Great Women picture books, introducing young readers to heroines of history from Amelia Earhart to Rosa Parks.
The real-life female figure who inspired Rose’s Dress of Dreams is perhaps a little different – and her name is certainly less well-known, although there’s no doubt that she continues to exert a huge influence on her field today. Rose Bertin is often described as the world’s first fashion designer, and the inventor of haute couture as we know it. From humble beginnings, she had a meteoric rise to become France’s most famous dressmaker, and a member of Marie Antoinette’s inner circle. Her incredible designs have influenced contemporary designers including the likes of Vivienne Westwood, John Galliano and Karl Lagerfeld.
As a writer of historical fiction for children, I’ve always got an eye out for interesting characters and stories from history, and the idea of writing about Rose Bertin first came from an anecdote I heard about an occasion early in her career when she mistook a princess for a maid. This sweet story of mistaken identities seemed like a fun starting point for a children’s story – but as I discovered more about Bertin’s life, I became increasingly fascinated by this story of an ambitious young businesswoman with an immense talent for fashion, who became one of the most important figures of the French Court.
Born in 1747, Bertin moved to Paris at a young age, where she was apprenticed to a milliner. She excelled at her work, and was quickly promoted to partner, before moving on to open her own dress shop, where she employed 30 women. Already very popular with the ladies of the court, she soon began dressing the young Queen of France, Marie Antoinette.
Bertin’s bold designs helped the queen make an immediate sensation – and she rapidly became not only her favourite dressmaker, but an intimate friend. Together, they understood the political power of fashion: the enormous skirts of Bertin’s magnificent dresses transformed the teenage queen into an imposing figure at the Royal Court. The towering hairstyles Bertin designed for her, with the help of coiffeur Leonard Autie, made her an even more formidable presence: measuring up to three feet tall, they were often decorated with objects relating to important current events such as the American Revolutionary War.
Soon Bertin had her own workshop at Versailles, and she and the queen met several times a week to discuss her designs, which she frequently compared to masterpieces in art. Her outfits set trends not only in France, but all around Europe: dolls dressed in miniature versions of her designs were sent to foreign courts to help them keep up with the latest styles. Bertin soon became known as the queen’s ‘Minister for Fashion’ and a powerful figure in Royal circles – this at a time when women very rarely wielded any influence in politics. What was more, Bertin was a commoner, making her important position at Court even more remarkable.
In fact, Bertin was not the only prominent professional woman in the circle around Marie Antoinette – which also included the likes of portrait painter Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun. In this context, it’s especially interesting that in 1776 Bertin was granted Royal permission to head up a new and largely female guild of milliners, feather-sellers and flower-peddlers, quite separate from the established male-dominated mercers guild, which would help to give working women more power.
But of course, the days of rococo splendour at the French Court were numbered. The Revolution was just around the corner; both the queen and her lavish wardrobe were increasingly criticised; and pamphlets denounced Bertin herself as ‘a corrupt and corrupting merchant of luxury’. Soon the Royal family were placed under house arrest, but still Bertin remained a loyal friend, supplying Marie Antoinette with clothes including a mourning outfit for her to wear after the execution of Louis XVI. At her own execution, Marie Antoinette reportedly wore a lace cap Bertin had made for her.
Today, Marie Antoinette’s wardrobe has been endlessly discussed and criticised – but regardless of the role fashion may have played in the queen’s downfall, I was excited to shine a light on the story of her amazing dressmaker. Rose’s Dress of Dreams is a celebration of the joy of fashion, but also of a young woman of huge artistic talent, who made history with her passion, determination and limitless imagination. Rose Bertin was a true trailblazer – and I hope this story will help her to find a deserved place amongst the historical heroines that are currently inspiring the next generation.
The clock on the mantelpiece had chimed four o’clock and the light was already fading, but down below her, all along the street, the shop windows were bright and twinkling, and the pavements were thronged with people, wrapped up in overcoats and mufflers. Groups were gathering before the windows of Sinclair’s to admire the parade of Christmas trees, beautifully dressed with gleaming silver stars, candied apples and bonbons wrapped in shiny paper…
Beyond, uniformed porters hurried out to waiting motor cars and taxi cabs, their arms piled high with Sinclair’s parcels, and all the while, Sidney Parker, the Head Doorman, stood at the top of the steps ringing a bell to welcome people in.
When I was writing the Sinclair’s Mysteries I knew that the final book, The Midnight Peacock was going to be set at Christmas in 1909. I was excited to write about snowy Edwardian London and Sinclair’s department store during the festive season – but although I already had a good idea of how the Edwardians celebrated Christmas, before I got started, I wanted to learn more about their festive traditions.
Here’s an overview of the Edwardian Christmas:
Christmas trees were a firm fixture of the festive season, having become popular in the UK from the 1850s onwards. Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, who was German, is usually credited with having introduced them to the UK. Many people put up their Christmas trees on Christmas Eve itself. Christmas decorations would typically have included plenty of evergreens – holly, ivy, laurel, and mistletoe – as well as paper-chains and other home-made paper decorations.
Christmas crackers were first invented in the 1840s by a confectioner called Tom Smith. Originally they were sweets wrapped in pretty paper, containing a motto or message: the idea of making them ‘crack’ is supposed to have been inspired by the crackle of logs burning in the fireplace. Later the sweet inside was replaced by a small gift. Smith’s growing cracker business was later taken over by his sons, Tom, Walter and Henry: Walter introduced paper hats into the crackers, and travelled in search of new ideas for gifts to put inside them. The company went on to develop many different ‘themed’ crackers, including some specially designed for the Suffragettes! By 1900, Tom Smith & Co sold 13 million crackers each year.
Christmas cards were also sent in the UK from the 1840s onwards. Postage was cheap and as a result, sending Christmas cards became very popular: by 1880, 11.5 million cards were sent in the UK each year. But not all of the designs were quite what we’d expect today: far from the traditional images we might imagine, Victorian and Edwardian Christmas cards could feature rather more surreal pictures like these…
Hanging up stockings for Father Christmas to fill was a relatively new tradition, which didn’t begin in the UK until the late 19th/early 20th century. Children’s stockings would have included toys and sweets as well as the traditional orange and nuts. Father Christmas himself looked a little different on Edwardian Christmas cards – often shown wearing a blue hooded robe rather than the red-and-white suit we think of today. Sometimes he was also depicted with a wreath of evergreens around his head.
Christmas dinner wouldn’t necessarily be turkey. Many people in the 1900s would eat roast beef or roast goose for their Christmas meal – but a grand Edwardian Christmas dinner could have included a vast array of dishes such as pheasant pie, an ox-heart in aspic, or even a whole roasted pig’s head. Mince pies and plum pudding would certainly have featured on the Edwardian Christmas menu.
The idea of Christmas shopping was still fairly new. The Edwardians did exchange gifts at Christmas, but not on the same scale that we do today. Many people would give handmade gifts; however, by 1909 department stores like Selfridges were becoming popular for buying Christmas gifts. They had sumptuous Christmas window-displays which for the first time were lit up at night, for passers-by to admire. The first Christmas illuminations arrived a few years later, in 1912.
For more about Edwardian Christmas-time, there is a lovely little book of illustrations called An Edwardian Christmas by John S. Goodall, shown above (sadly now out of print but available secondhand). Lots of Edwardian children’s books have wonderful Christmas scenes – try The Story of the Treasure Seekers by E Nesbit, A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett or The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graeme. Less well known is Christmas with the Savages by Mary Clive which is a funny tale about a little girl’s Christmas holiday in a large Edwardian country house.
Or of course you could also read The Midnight Peacock which as well as Sinclair’s at Christmas will take to a Christmas country house party at snowy Winter Hall, and to Mr Sinclair’s very glamorous Midnight Peacock Ball for New Year’s Eve!