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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.
East 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…
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
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.
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.
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.
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
Over the last few months, I’ve been busy going out and about to lots of events, and talking about The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow and The Mystery of the Jewelled Moth. I haven’t had much time for blogging – but I have been capturing my adventures via Instagram!
Here are a few highlights:
2016 got off to a great start with a trip down to Falmouth, in Cornwall, with Louise. The visit had been organised by Falmouth University, who had invited us to talk to their creative writing students about getting published and getting an agent. The perfect opportunity for a winter trip to the seaside!
As well as a lovely event at the university, where we had the chance to meet and chat with lots of students, we also visited a fantastic local school, where Year 5 had turned a corner of their classroom into the Millennium Falcon!
I wasn’t at all surprised to discover lots of lively imaginations in the class when we got started coming up with ideas for mystery stories.
Afterwards there was even chance for a quick paddle on the nearby beach (it was a bit cold though!)
In February I spent lots of time out and about visiting schools. One highlight was my day out with Little Star Writing: a fab organisation that runs award-winning children’s creative writing workshops.
I visited two fantastic schools with the lovely Mel, for author talks and signings – as well as as the chance to join some of the Little Star Writers for an after-school writing group.
I was really inspired by talking to them about their writing and hearing them read aloud – what a wonderful initiative. It happened to be the day of the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize shortlist announcement, and the children enthusiastically helped me celebrate!
Also in February, I travelled up to Chester for the WayWord Festival. I had a really fun afternoon in Chester Town Hall, which had been gorgeously decorated with book-themed bunting and vintage suitcases exploding with books and book characters for the occasion.
I talked to an audience of children and families about Clockwork Sparrow and Jewelled Moth – with a little help from some young detectives in the audience. But my favourite thing of all was the music they played when I came on stage… now I feel like the Jurassic Park theme should be playing every time I enter a room!
Soon after, Jewelled Moth was officially published – and then it was time for World Book Day!
I headed out for several days of school visits, including a visit to the Lady Eleanor Holles Junior School in Hampton, where as well as meeting lots of keen readers, I also had the chance to meet the school archivist, who showed me some amazing Edwardian photographs from the school archives – like this one:
I also headed out to The Weald School in Billingshurst, who were celebrating World Book Day with their annual Weald Book Awards. Local primary schools take part in the awards, reading all seven books on the shortlist, and voting to choose the winner – as well as making lots of brilliant work inspired by the shortlisted books.
The awards culminate with a special evening event hosted by the pupils themselves, with some of the authors in attendance. I had a great evening and really enjoyed meeting the two other shortlisted authors who were tehre – Jennifer Grey and Kim Slater.
Although none of our books scooped the top prize – that honour went to Danny Wallace for Hamish and the World-Stoppers – we all had a fantastic evening, and I especially loved seeing some of the amazing work that pupils had created inspired by Clockwork Sparrow.
And for World Book Day itself, I headed out with the brilliant Just Imagine for some events at primary schools in Billericay in Essex. Everyone got involved, putting their detective skills to the test, trying their hand at my new secret code puzzle, and even helping to come up with some amazing ideas for titles for my next book!
I saw some truly amazing World Book Day costumes (the teachers had pretty great outfits too). I wished that I’d dressed up as well, but at least I had my trusty straw sailor hat with me as an accessory:
And to complete World Book Day… I was on TV!
Back in London after a busy day, I headed over to Channel 5’s studios to be a guest on their 6.30pm news programme. I joined presenter Matt Barbet for a chat about World Book Day, and why celebrating reading is so important.
You can watch the interview here:
Being on live TV was a little bit nerve-racking, but fun – a great conclusion to World Book Day week! Now I’m looking forward to a couple of quiet weeks … and oh yes, perhaps doing a bit of writing…!
PS Follow my next round of author adventures on Instagram at @followtheyellow
Illustration from The Mystery of the Jewelled Moth by Julia Sarda.
To celebrate the publication of The Mystery of the Jewelled Moth, what better than a blog tour? During publication week I popped over to one of five fantastic blogs each day, to share some insight into the book – the background to the story, and the real-life Edwardian history that helped inspire it.
Check out the blog tour here:
If you’d like to find out more about the background to The Mystery of the Jewelled Moth, you can also check out this piece for the Guardian, about why I chose to write about Edwardian China Town.
I also took part in this celebratory Happy Book Birthday blog post over at MG Strikes Back.
And finally, I wrote this classics-inspired piece for Ya Yeah Yeah about how the classic detective story The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins helped to inspire The Mystery of the Jewelled Moth.
Thanks so much to all the lovely bloggers who took part for hosting me – and for helping to celebrate The Mystery of the Jewelled Moth!
World Book Day is coming up next week, on Thursday 3 March and there are all kinds of exciting things going on to celebrate reading! Like most authors, I have a busy World Book Day week in store, including the Weald Book Award ceremony, as well as lots of events in schools.
For anyone who might be looking for some extra Sparrow and Moth themed World Book Day fun, with perfect timing, I’ve just added some lovely new resources created by my publishers, Egmont, to my website:
Code cracking activity
Fancy yourself a bit of a detective? Put your code-cracking skills to the test and see if you can find the solution to this secret code puzzle, which will also reveal the title of the third book in the series, coming in early 2017! Download the puzzle
I love a bit of colouring-in myself, and if you do too, you can download one of three lovely colouring sheets with artwork from the books.
Choose from a Clockwork Sparrow, a Jewelled Moth, or a mysterious mask that you can then cut out and wear, perfect for a fancy-dress party like the one that Sophie and Lil attend undercover in The Mystery of the Jewelled Moth.
If you have a go at one of the colouring sheets, then don’t forget to send me a picture of the finished product – I’ll be making a new Pinterest board of your colouring creations!
On the subject of fancy-dress, I also wanted to share a few ideas for anyone who wants to dress up as a character from The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow or The Mystery of the Jewelled Moth for World Book Day!
There are lots of characters to choose from, but here are a few ideas to get you started – plus a couple of pictures to help inspire you (click the image to find the source). Of course you can find lots more inspiration for your Edwardian costumes on my Pinterest board here.
‘… she lifted her chin and set off smartly round the corner of the great building, the little heels of her buttoned boots clicking briskly over the cobbles. As she approached, her heart began to thump, and she put up a hand to check that her hat, with its blue ribbon bow, was at exactly the right angle, and that her hair was not coming down.
Dress up as Sophie on her way to work in the Millinery Department at Sinclair’s! Sophie would wear a long, dark-coloured skirt; a white blouse with a lace collar; and a straw hat with a ribbon round it. Sophie usually wears her long hair pinned up, but when she isn’t at Sinclair’s, she might wear it loose or in a plait.
‘Her cheeks were flushed with excitement: it had been her first night at her show at the theatre… and now she was on her way to the party. She was wearing a hat wreathed in poppies and she had a crimson scarf at her neck.’
Lil might wear glamorous clothes when she’s working as a mannequin at Sinclair’s, or performing in the theatre – but for ordinary life, she would wear an outfit very similar to Sophie’s. She likes bright colours – so you might want to add a colourful ribbon, or some brightly-coloured flowers to her hat.
‘He was wearing the Sinclair’s porters’ uniform – trim, dark blue trousers, a matching jacket with a double row of brass buttons and a peaked hat – but the jacket looked a bit too big for him, the trousers a bit short, and the hat was askew on his untidy, straw-coloured hair.’
Create your own version of Billy’s uniform from a dark-coloured jacket with shiny buttons, and dark coloured trousers – plus maybe a cap. Don’t forget that as a shop porter, he’ll need some brown-paper parcels or boxes to carry – and of course, a story stuffed into his pocket for when he can sneak away to read in secret!
‘He stood up in the gallery, high above the throng below. A champagne glass was in his hand, and he wore an exquisite dress coat over a snowy white waistcoat, against which a gold watch chain gleamed.’
Why not dress up as the Captain himself? Mr Sinclair is always very elegant: he wears a smart suit with a shirt and a bow-tie. You could add a pocket-watch, a top-hat, and a flower for his button-hole. Don’t forget a soft toy dog to be Lucky, Mr Sinclair’s pug!
Miss Veronica Whiteley
‘…she was dressed very beautifully in a much-ruffled, lace-trimmed ivory gown. She must be one of this season’s debutantes, and a particularly wealthy one at that.’
If you’ve read Jewelled Moth, you’ll have met new character Veronica – a debutante in Edwardian high society. Fashionable society ladies would wear long dresses, decorated with lace and ribbons. Debutantes like Veronica and her friends would usually wear light colours like white, pale pink or pale blue – bright colours would have been considered in very bad taste!
Remember to acccessorize with white gloves, a pearl necklace, or a lacy parasol – and of course, a hat decorated with flowers, bows or feathers. If you want to dress up as Veronica, you could even add a sparkly brooch to your costume to be the mysterious jewelled moth itself …
If you do dress up as a characters from Clockwork Sparrow or Jewelled Moth, be sure to send me a picture!
And if you’re looking for more ideas for fun bookish costumes, check out the Guardian’s gallery here.
However you plan to celebrate this year’s World Book Day, I hope you have a wonderful time!