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Behind the Scenes: The Edwardian East End

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The docks of London’s East End

In The Mystery of the Jewelled Moth, the high society whirl of the debutantes and the London Season is set in contrast with a very different side of 1900s London.

Whilst The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow focuses closely on the people and goings-on of Sinclair’s, The Mystery of the Jewelled Moth represents a kind of ‘zoom out’ – allowing readers to see more of both the wealthy Sinclair’s customers, such as Veronica Whiteley and her friends, but also something of London’s flip-side – the docks of the East End, where the beautiful goods that were sold at Sinclair’s would first have arrived in the city.

At this time, East End was one of the poorest parts of the London. Whilst just a few miles away, London’s richest grew ever richer thanks to trade with the Empire, life here was tough. Living conditions were poor – some families lived ten to a room, with no access to clean water – wages were low, and disease flourished.

Children’s lives were especially hard – nearly 20% died before their first birthday – and they were often left to fend for themselves and their younger siblings from a very young age, running errands, sweeping streets or helping to make matchboxes to bring in a few much-needed pennies to buy a little stale bread.

061189fe4a5b70ffd554180531e30f58East End child, 1911

In spite of all this, the East End was hugely important to London, as the place where goods from all over the world arrived in Britain. Whilst today our docks are largely automated, in the Edwardian era, they employed many thousands of people. Communities of sailors sprung up around the docks – itinerant populations who came and went on the big ships that sailed out of the London docks and travelled all over the world. As such, the East End fast became one of London’s most diverse and multi-cultural quarters.

It was also a place where crime was rife: perhaps not surprising given that for many people ‘honest work’ would mean working 14 hour days at the docks for low pay. The East End has a long history of famous criminals and gangsters (ranging from the Kray brothers to the ‘racetrack gangs’ of the 1920s and 1930s) but in the Edwardian era, probably the best-known was Arthur Harding, who was born in the slums of the Old Nichol in 1886.

Harding became a petty thief early in life and earned his first prison sentence aged 16, before becoming an East End ‘captain of thieves’ on his release. His major rival was Isaac ‘Ikey’ Bogard – a flamboyant character who strode the streets of Spitalfields in a cowboy outfit, with a six-shooter stuck in his back and an assumed American accent to match. (Later in life, Harding wrote his memoirs about his life of crime, which make for entertaining reading.)

There are lots of stories told about the East End of London in the 19th and early 20th centuries. These range from the dark and sinister tales of the Jack the Ripper murders, to the writings of authors like Charles Dickens and Henry Mayhew, who passionately wanted to draw people’s attention to the abject poverty of the East End, and the inequalities of British society.

A little later, and closer to the time that The Mystery of the Jewelled Moth is set, Arthur Morrison published a powerful novel A Child of the Jago, set in a fictional version of the Old Nichol slums, whilst Jack London wrote a book called The People of the Abyss, about his experience of living the life of an East End Londoner for a few months, staying in workhouses or sleeping on the streets.

Today, it’s difficult to read accounts like these without being struck by the awful contrast between the lavish lives of the Edwardian ‘super-rich’ – with their grand balls, elaborate fashions and extraordinarily extravagant meals – and the daily struggles of the Edwardian poor. In The Mystery of the Jewelled Moth, I wanted to explore this contrast, and to write about the Edwardian East End as well as the West. However, I also wanted to tell a slightly different story from the dark tales we might have previously encountered about this area.

I chose to focus particularly on Chinatown, which in this period was situated in the East End, in Limehouse, close to the London docks. You can read more about why I specifically wanted to write about Edwardian Chinatown on the Guardian website here.

In particular, Jewelled Moth introduces us to a young East End girl, Mei Lim and her family. Compared to many children of the East End, Mei is very fortunate – she’s been able to stay on at school until the age of 13, and her parents have their own business, a small grocer’s shop, making them comparitively affluent. But life is still tough and precarious – especially when the Baron’s gang of thugs appear in Chinatown, and start making their presence felt…

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A real Chinese shop in Limehouse, 1920s.

The adventure that follows shows two contrasting sides of Edwardian London – the glamorous West End, and the more dangerous and down-at-heel East. The Lim family grocery shop certainly couldn’t be much more different from the glittery, glamorous surroundings of Sinclair’s. Yet I hope the story also points to some of the ways that the carefully-maintained social barriers of the Edwardian era were just beginning to unravel. Although they may live in very different worlds, Mei and her family become unexpectedly entangled with Veronica and her debutante friends, and before long, they find themselves helping each other. Perhaps the people of the West and East Ends of London are not necessarily so very different from each other, after all?

If you’re interested in reading more about London’s East End during the 19th and early 20th centuries, I’d particularly recommend the following books:

London Labour and the London Poor by Henry Mayhew. Written in the mid-nineteenth century, this is an in-depth and very influential exploration of the lives of the London poor based on Mayhew’s interviews with street traders, entertainers, thieves, beggars, sewer-scavengers, chimney-sweeps and many more.

The People of the Abyss by Jack London. Author Jack London was a passionate social activist and in 1902 he decided to experience hands-on how the London poor lived, exploring the slums, sleeping rough and staying in workhouses. This is the book he wrote about his experiences, which makes for a powerful and thought-provoking read.

Lost Voices of the Edwardians by Max Arthur. This wide-ranging book captures the day-to-day lives of working people in Britain throughout the 1900s. It brings together information about many different people and places, but includes lots of memories about what daily life was like in the East End of London during the Edwardian era – including some snippets from Arthur Harding’s memoirs.

You might also want to check out the fascinating blog Spitalfields Life, and in particular amateur photographer Horace Warner’s portraits of East End children in the 1900s.

This post is based on some content first produced for the Jewelled Moth blog tour. You can read the original post on MG Strikes Back.

The pictures in this post all come via my trusty Edwardiana Pinterest board (click the image for the source) where you can also find lots more pictures of the Edwardian era.

Check out my other ‘Behind the Scenes’ posts exploring the historical background of the Sinclair’s Mysteries

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Behind the Scenes: Debutantes and the London Season

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Illustration from The Mystery of the Jewelled Moth © Júlia Sardà

In the next installment of my ‘Behind the Scenes’ series I wanted to write in a little more detail about the London Season and the Edwardian debutante – both of which play an important part in The Mystery of the Jewelled Moth.

Each year from the mid-nineteenth century right up until the Second World War, the focal point of Britain’s high society calendar was the London ‘Season’. Every May, wealthy society folk would leave their country houses and travel to their London residences for a three-month whirl of balls, parties and events, that lasted until the end of July.

Highlights of the Season included: the opening of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, visits to the Royal Opera House, the Chelsea Flower Show, the Henley Regatta and Ascot – as well as all kinds of balls, parties and dinners, at which members of the aristocracy could meet, mingle and show off.

‘The Season’ was of particular importance for debutantes – young ladies who were making their first appearances in society. For the aristocatic girls of the Edwardian era, growing up happened almost overnight. The Edwardians had no concept of being a teenager or young adult – so until the age of seventeen or eighteen, girls were treated like children and kept to the nursery or schoolroom. Then, all at once, it would be time to pin up their long hair, lengthen their skirts and exchange the schoolroom for the ballroom, as they were plunged into their very first Season.

This sudden transition from childhood to adulthood must have been quite alarming. First of all, there was the etiquette to master. Edwardian society was governed by a strict code of conduct, and woe betide any debutante who put a toe out of line! Sometimes it would be a young lady’s governess who would be responsible for instructing her so that she was ready to navigate the complex social rituals of the London Season – or perhaps she might be sent to a Finishing School to learn dancing, deportment and the proper way to behave.

Etiquette guides were also popular, like Lady Gertrude Elizabeth Campbell’s Etiquette of Good Society, published in 1893, which contained chapters on ‘Letter-Writing’, ‘Private Theatricals’ and ‘Field Sports’ amongst many others. Tips and advice on important matters including fashion, manners and what a girl should expect from her first Season were also published in magazines such as The Lady. (For  Jewelled Moth, I had a lot of fun inventing my own etiquette guide inspired by some of these real-life writings. Snippets from my fictional Lady Diana DeVere’s Etiquette for Debutantes: a Guide to the Manners, Mores and Morals of Good Society appear throughout the book though Sophie and Lil don’t often follow them! )

During the Season, debutantes would be accompanied by a chaperone at all times – usually someone like their mother, an aunt or an older sister, who would watch them with an eagle eye to make sure they were behaving properly. They were expected to dress beautifully and appropriately, to display perfect manners, and to be able to dance – but not to do a great deal else!

A very important occasion in a girl’s first season was being presented at Court. For this special (and nerve-wracking) ritual, each debutante wore a head-dress of three curled white ostrich feathers, a white dress, and a pair of long white gloves. Accompanied by a sponsor – a lady who had already been presented  – she would attend the Court Presentation, and when her turn came, be formally ‘presented’ to the King and perform her curtsey.

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The Edwardian debutante in her court ensemble

Once this ceremony was out of the way, a debutante could embark on the whirl of balls, parties, dinners, afternoon teas and events that made up the Season – by the time the three months were up, many a debutante found herself completely exhausted by the frenzy of social activity!

During the Season, she would have the chance to dress in beautiful gowns, mingle with London’s high society, and most importantly, meet eligible young men – though of course, never without the supervision of her chaperone! For many young ladies, finding a suitable husband was the ultimate goal of the Season – years earlier, Lord Byron famously called the London Season ‘The Marriage Mart’, and so it still was during the Edwardian period.

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The Edwardian Ball

Balls were an especially important part of the London Season. They usually began later in the evening – guests might have already attended a dinner party or another event before arriving. They were often held in grand London houses, where guests would dance, eat a delicious supper, and perhaps stroll out onto a terrace to cool off between dances.

On arrival at the balls, young ladies would be given a dance programme: a small card listing all the evening’s dances, with a tiny pencil attached. They then had to wait patiently by the side of the dance-floor with their chaperones, hoping for a young man to approach and ask them to dance – ladies were never allowed to ask men! He would then write his name in the appropriate space on her dance-card. Many debutantes dreaded being left to sit on the sidelines, and their great hope would be to fill their dance-card up as much possible before the dancing actually began.


Illustration from The Mystery of the Jewelled Moth © Júlia Sardà

The most important of all the dances was the supper-dance, because after this, a young lady’s partner would take her through to have supper, meaning that they would have chance to spend more time together. But even this was not really an opportunity to talk privately with a potential suitor: even whilst chatting over supper, a debutante knew that her chaperone was always watching! The sharp eyes of Edwardian high society were always on the look-out for even the smallest signs of what it considered ‘improper behaviour’.

As well as more traditional balls, the Edwardians enjoyed themed dances such as the Royal Caledonian Ball, where men dressed in Highland attire and everyone danced Scottish reels. They also loved fancy-dress balls like the one that takes place in Jewelled Moth – though their costumes were perhaps a little different to those we might wear at a fancy-dress party today.

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An impressive fancy dress costume from the Duchess of Devonishire’s Fancy Dress Ball of 1897

For some girls, the highlight of their first Season would be their own ‘coming-out ball’ which was usually organised by their parents in their honour, as a celebration of their coming-of-age. In Jewelled Moth, debutante Miss Veronica Whiteley’s coming-out ball has an especially important part to play in the story.

Writing about Veronica and her fellow debutantes – and the ritzy, glitzy world of the London Season they inhabit – was great fun, but it also gave me chance to explore what I can only imagine must have been the turbulent ups-and-downs of a girl’s first appearances in society. Tightly-corseted (in more ways than one!), the debutantes had to contend with strict rules, high expectations, the pressure to look perfect, and a complete lack of any kind of freedom or independence. What was more, they were constantly pitted against each other in a competition for social triumph that makes Mean Girls look tame.

My debutante character, Veronica, is a bit of a Mean Girl herself – but who can blame her when she has been so suddenly plunged from the sheltered, comfortable world of childhood and home into the unfamiliar adult world of London society? In this story, she soon finds herself grappling with some dark and shocking secrets, and alarmingly sinister schemes – but with the help of Sophie, Lil and friends, her first Season becomes an opportunity for a coming-of-age of a very different kind.

If you’d like to find out more about debutantes and the London Season during the Edwardian era, I’d recommend The 1900s Lady by Kate Caffrey. It’s sadly out of print now but if you can find a copy second-hand or in a library it’s a fascinating and entertaining (if rather idiosyncratic and not altogether factual) portrait of the lives of upper class girls and women of the Edwardian period.

Debutantes and the London Season by Lucinda Gosling is a great little summary of the history of the debutantes and the Season – from their eighteenth century origins right up until the final Court presentations in 1958.

This post is based on some content first produced for the Jewelled Moth blog tour. You can read the original posts in full here:

The pictures in this post all come via my trusty Edwardiana Pinterest board (click the image for the source) where you can also find lots more pictures of Edwardian society.

Check out my other ‘Behind the Scenes’ posts exploring the historical background of the Sinclair’s Mysteries

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Behind the scenes: Mr Selfridge and Mr Sinclair

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Harry Gordon Selfridge

Following my previous ‘Behind the Scenes’ post about how real-life 1900s department stores helped to inspire Sinclair’s in The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow, I wanted to write a bit more specifically about one of the most famous of the Edwardian department stores – Selfridges, and in particular its owner, Harry Gordon Selfridge.

Like my own fictional department store-owner Mr Sinclair, Selfridge was an American. Born in Wisconsin in 1856, he left school at 14, first finding work as a junior book-keeper in a bank. He had several other jobs before aged 22, he took on a position at Marshall Field, then one of Chicago’s biggest and most successful new department stores.

Selfridge’s initial position at the store couldn’t have been much lowlier – he was employed as a ‘stock boy’ working in the wholesale department. But his energy and ambition led him to quickly climb the ladder, bringing lots of new ideas to help the store to grow and thrive. Within eight years he was promoted to manager, gaining a reputation for clever innovation, a flair for publicity, and the highest standards of customer service. In fact, whilst working at Marshall Field, he is supposed to have come up with the maxim ‘the customer is always right’.

Marshall Field in the 1800s

Marshall Field department store in the 1800s

Before long ‘mile-a-minute Harry’ as he had become known had risen through the ranks, and had become a junior partner. He revelled in his new wealth and status, enjoying dressing elegantly and living the life of a Chicago society gentleman.

In 1890, he married Rose Buckingham, the daughter of a prominent Chicago family. Rose too had a head for business, having already enjoyed some success as a property developer – at that time unusual for a young woman. The couple had a spectacular wedding, and went on to have five children.

But after being refused a full partnership at Marshall Field, Selfridge began to look beyond Chicago. A holiday to London had given him the opportunity to observe a gap in the market –  although London was at that time one of the most important cities in the world, its department stores had nothing to compare to their luxurious American equivalents, or to the elegant grand magasins of Paris.

After finding a site on Oxford Street, at what was then considered the ‘unfashionable end’, Selfridge invested some £400,000 in developing it. The costs of his project were huge, and there were all kinds of complications to overcome before his dream of opening London’s largest department store could become a reality – but at last, Selfridges opened in March 1909, in a blaze of publicity.

A newspaper advertisement from Selfridges opening in 1909

A newspaper advertisement from Selfridges opening in 1909

Meanwhile, Selfridge himself had become something of a celebrity in London. When he arrived at the store each morning – always very promptly at 8.30am – a crowd would have gathered on the pavement to see him. He always doffed his hat to his watching admirers.

He had a large corner office on the fourth floor of the store, with its own lift and a private dining room where he could entertain important guests. As well as a personal secretary, he had his own social secretary and a valet who would visit him in his office each morning to make sure he was always perfectly dressed.

Each day he would walk the store’s six acres. The department managers would anxiously telephone ahead to warn staff that he was approaching. He sent messages to his staff in special yellow envelopes – and he also famously used an hourglass in all his meetings, to stop people taking up too much of his time.

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Selfridge hard at work

He also continued to bring all kinds of new ideas to his store – from exhibiting the aeroplane in which Louis Bleriot first crossed the Channel, to later on in 1925, hosting one of the first ever demonstrations of live television.

Selfridge captured some of his ideas about shops and shopping in a book, The Romance of Commerce which was published in 1918. The book included chapters exploring ancient commerce, Lorenzo de Medici, the East India company, and much more!

Flush with his success, Selfridge enjoyed a glamorous London life in the 1910s and 1920s. But in the later years of his life, his extravagance began to catch up with him. After losing much of his fortune in the Great Depression, and struggling to compromise on his luxurious lifestyle, he soon became heavily in debt. He was eventually forced out of Selfridges in 1941 on a reduced pension – and when he died just six years later, he was almost destitute.

His intriguing life story has since inspired a biography – Lindy Woodhead’s Shopping, Seduction and Mr Selfridge which I mentioned in my last post – and a TV series as well. (I can’t help thinking that their version of Mr Selfridge looks a little different from the real-life man himself, pictured above!)

Jeremy Piven as Mr Selfridge in the ITV series

Jeremy Piven as Mr Selfridge in the ITV series

And of course, Selfridge also helped to inspire The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow.  I was fascinated by the story of this charismatic character, who was often in my mind when I was creating my own fictional department store-owner, Edward Sinclair.

Although he’s also a wealthy American, Mr Sinclair ended up being quite a different character to the real-life Selfridge. He’s a younger, single man-about-town who lives in elegant apartments over the store, whose unknown past is much speculated upon by his employees – and who is always a little bit of a mystery…

But I did enjoy giving my Mr Sinclair a few of Mr Selfridge’s idiosyncracies. For example, Selfridge famously loved pug dogs – so I’ve given Mr Sinclair his very own pet pug, Lucky. And just like Mr Selfridge, Sinclair wears an orchid in his buttonhole and takes great pride in being immaculately dressed at all times.

Here’s where we first hear about Mr Sinclair, in Chapter 1 of The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow:

The owner of Sinclair’s department store was Mr Edward Sinclair, who was as famous as the store itself. He was an American, a self-made man, renowned for his elegance, for the single, perfect orchid he always wore in his buttonhole, for the ever-changing string of beautiful ladies on his arm, and most of all for his wealth. Although most of them had only been working for him for a few weeks, and most of them had barely set eyes on him, the staff of Sinclair’s had taken to referring to him as ‘the Captain’ because rumour had it that he had  run away to sea in his youth. There were already a great number of rumours about Edward Sinclair. But whether or not the stories were true, it seemed like an apt nickname. After all, the store itself was a little like a ship: as glittering and luxurious as an ocean liner, ready to carry its customers proudly on a journey to an exotic new land.

Will we learn more about the mysterious Mr Sinclair (and his secrets)? You’ll have to wait for next year’s The Mystery of the Jewelled Moth to find out…

All the photos in this post come from my gigantic Edwardiana Pinterest board. See also my previous post: Behind the Scenes – The Edwardian Department Store

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Behind the Scenes: The Edwardian Department Store

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Edwardian shoppers (illustration via Pinterest)

At lots of the events I’ve been doing this autumn, I’ve been talking about some of the real-life historical background to The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow. I thought it would be fun to share some of this here on the blog too.

If you’ve read the author’s note at the back of The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow, you’ll know that although Sinclair’s Department Store is fictional, it was partly inspired by the real history of London’s Edwardian department stores.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, department stores were still a new phenomenon. Before this time, shopping generally meant buying from local markets and small shops, which tended to sell only a limited range of goods. It wasn’t until the 18th century that shops became grander, with enticing shop-fronts to tempt customers inside.

Even then, ‘shopping’ as we know it today didn’t really exist. Most shops specialised in just one thing – the confectioner’s sold sweets, the baker’s sold bread, the bookshop sold books, and so on. Shopping was a straightforward transaction, with many shops even employing ‘floorwalkers’ whose job it was to actively prevent people from browsing around looking at merchandise without buying anything.

With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, things started to change. People had more money to spend, cities were growing, and affordable manufactured consumer goods became more readily available. Glamorous, elegant new ‘department stores’ began to open up, offering people an exciting and very modern new way to shop.

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Lots of Edwardian shoppers

For the first time, customers were encouraged to wander around a range of different departments, all together in the same building, admiring a tantalising range of different goods to buy. Department stores had beautiful displays, gorgeous windows designed to catch the attention of passers-by, and even their own restaurants where customers could enjoy lunch or afternoon tea.

These were exciting places. In 1898, Harrods boasted the first escalator ever to be seen in a British shop – on the day it was launched, staff members stood at the top ready to dispense smelling salts and cognac to anyone who had been frightened by this new experience!

New advertising helped to spread the word about these glamorous new department stores. During the week that Selfridges opened, a total of 38 different advertisements designed by well-known graphic artists appeared on over a hundred pages of eighteen national newspapers, costing the equivalent of £2.35 million in today’s money.

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Selfridges, of course, was one of the most famous of the Edwardian department stores – and was certainly the biggest influence on my fictional store, Sinclair’s, though I also took inspiration from other famous stores like Fortnum and Mason, Liberty’s, Harrods, and the now-defunct Whiteley’s.

Selfridges first opened on Oxford Street in 1909, and was the brainchild of Harry Gordon Selfridge. An American who had previously worked in department stores in New York, he had grand ambitions for his store, which he wanted to be the largest and most glamorous in London. As well as the usual departments, it boasted all kinds of other facilities, including a post-office, a library, and even a ‘quiet room’ where people could relax if shopping became too overwhelming! Rather than being just a shop, Selfridge thought of his department store as something more akin to a cultural centre, and it soon became a fashionable destination.

house-of-selfridge-and-co-post-card

The story of Selfridges (and Selfridge himself) is a fascinating one, and of course has also inspired the recent ITV series Mr Selfridge. I didn’t know about the series when I first started working on The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow, though it was no surprise to me to discover that the story of the Edwardian department stores had grabbed others’ imaginations as well as my own! At first, I deliberately avoided watching so that I wouldn’t be influenced while I was writing, but I’ve since seen a few episodes and though it’s a very different story, the sets and costumes give you a great idea of what a department store like Sinclair’s might really have looked like:

At around the same time, the BBC also broadcast The Paradise, another series based on the rise of the department store – though this time set a little earlier, in the late 1800s. This series was loosely based on the novel Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies’ Paradise) by Émile Zola and again gives a good flavour of the early department stores:

I loved finding out all about the history of the department store when I was researching Clockwork Sparrow. I wanted to make sure that my own fictional store, Sinclair’s, would feel as real as possible to the reader, and I had a lot of fun adding in some of the true-life details and facts I discovered.

As well as reading about the late Victorian and Edwardian department stores, I was influenced by lots of other reading about shopping in general – such as the lovely scene in one of my favourite books, I Capture the Castle, where Cassandra and Rose visit a 1930s London department store, which I wrote about for the Waterstones blog here.

Of course I also had to visit some contemporary department stores too – I spent lots of time wandering around the likes of Liberty’s, Harrods and Fortnum’s – and of course, sampling the odd afternoon tea along the way!

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Harrods afternoon tea

If you’re interested in finding out more about the history of the department store, here’s are a few good places to start:

  • Shopping, Seduction and Mr Selfridge by Lindy Woodhead
    This is the book that inspired the Mr Selfridge TV series – an entertaining and very readable biography of Harry Gordon Selfridge, packed full of facts about Selfridges’ history.
  • Au Bonheur des Dames by Émile Zola
    In this classic French novel, Zola captures the impact of the new grand magasins upon Paris in the 19th century
  • The Department Store by Claire Masset
    This little book from the Shire Library series is a succinct summary of the history of the department store – from its earliest origins right through to the department stores of the present day.

The pictures in this post come via my trusty Edwardiana Pinterest board, where you can also find lots more pictures of Edwardian department stores.

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