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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
I couldn’t resist sharing some pictures of a boating excursion that I recently had with my agent Louise and editors Ali and Hannah from Egmont.
Boats – and in particular, a boat race – feature prominently in the sequel to The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow, The Mystery of the Jewelled Moth, so for research purposes it seemed only appropriate to do a little rowing ourselves – in this case on the Serpentine lake in Hyde Park.
Hannah and Ali take to the oars
Louise is taking this rowing business seriously
Are you sure you’re up to this, Woodfine?
Hilarity sets in
As it turns out, my characters are much better at rowing than I am. I don’t think I am going to be winning any boat races anytime soon, unless it is a competition to see who is best at rowing in a circle!
But in spite of my less-than-brilliant rowing abilities (and interruptions from some very curious geese) we had a fantastic afternoon – very Swallows and Amazons!
Naturally we followed our boating excursion with a delicious afternoon tea, which I think Sophie and Lil would definitely approve of.
It’s been so difficult to keep this one a secret – but the news is finally out! Next year my publishers Egmont are releasing Mystery & Mayhem a brand new anthology of mystery stories by twelve children’s authors, including… me!
The other authors featured (our very own Crime Club) include Robin Stevens, who as well as being a fantastic mystery author is also an assistant editor at Egmont, Helen Moss, Elen Caldecott, Frances Hardinge, Clementine Beauvais, Susie Day, Julia Golding, Caroline Lawrence, Helen Moss, Sally Nicholls and Harriet Whitehorn.
The stories are all absolutely fantastic – and I feel very lucky that I’ve already had the chance to read them, to help me write the introduction to the anthology! Here’s a few tantalising hints from some of the authors about what you can expect to find:
My story is called ‘Emily and the Detectives’ & it is part Sherlock Holmes, part Inspector Gadget, all the writing funtimes. #kidscrimeclub
As for my own story, it’s a solo adventure for Lil – the Edwardian chorus-girl turned detective who appears in The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow. Lil has already attracted herself a lot of fans, and I had so much fun writing a story from her point of view.
The anthology will be published in May 2016 – stay tuned for more news from the Crime Club!
Exciting news – this morning my publishers Egmont announced that Sophie and Lil will be continuing their adventures in two more books!
I’m so delighted to be writing two more books in the series, which will follow on from The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow and The Mystery of the Jewelled Moth, which comes out in March 2016. The new books will follow the gang as they solve even more crimes in Edwardian London, and will be publishing in spring and autumn 2017.
I couldn’t be happier that the series will continue and that there will be more in store for Sophie, Lil and company! Writing The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow has been such fun, Egmont has been a wonderful publishing ‘home’ and it has been amazing to have such a great response to the book from readers. I was also very excited about this part of the announcement:
Katherine Woodfine’s debut, The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow has been one of the runaway hits of 2015. Selected as the Waterstones Book of the Month for June, and reaching number 13 in the Nielsen BookScan charts, it was the fastest selling debut children’s book across all ages for the first half of 2015.
As if that wasn’t enough, The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow is going interational! It will be published in the US by Kane Miller in June 2016, and publishers Ravensburger have also snapped up the rights to publish it in Germany. Audio rights have also been sold, so an audio version is also in the offing. Hurrah!
[This celebratory photo of ladies performing some sort of 1900s beach gymnastics comes via my ever-expanding Edwardiana Pinterest board!]
I am a huge fan of Waterstones. I vividly remember my frenzied excitement about getting to go to the big Waterstones shop in Preston when I was a child; and my first real job was working on Saturdays at Waterstones Lancaster when I was in the sixth form at school.
To this day, there is little I enjoy more than a rummage round flagship store Waterstones Piccadilly, where I can easily spend far too much money. It’s so important that we have such a fantastic high street bookseller, and I couldn’t be prouder that The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow has been chosen to be a Waterstones Children’s Book of the Month, and will now be available in Waterstones stores up and down the land!
I have already been absolutely blown away by the enthusiasm of Waterstones booksellers for the book. I’ve been posting pictures of their amazing Clockwork Sparrow themed displays and windows on social media like crazy – and have now started gathering them together on a special Pinterest board (if you see one, please do snap a picture and send it to me!)
Here’s just a few of the many incredible displays so far:
It was particularly special to see this amazing window display at Waterstones Piccadilly this week, complete with a plate of bon-bons and of course a gorgeous jewelled sparrow as a centrepiece.
As a few keen-eyed readers have already spotted, Sinclair’s Department Store is located on Piccadilly, and although it’s a very different building, I’ve imagined it roughly in the spot as Waterstones Piccadilly (which itself was once the home of a famous former London department store, Simpson’s).
This makes it all the lovelier to see such a beautiful Sinclair’s style display in the windows of Waterstones Piccadilly.
Here’s the display in progress, created by the super talented @annieopalfruit …