Follow the Yellow

Behind the Scenes: The Edwardian Theatre

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For my short story for the Mystery & Mayhem anthology, I wanted to try something a little different. Unlike the other Sinclair’s Mysteries,  ‘The Mystery of the Purloined Pearls’ is written in the first person – from the point of view of aspiring actress Lil.

The action of the story takes place in between Clockwork Sparrow and Jewelled Moth. As well as being a fun opportunity to see Lil doing some solo detective work,  this story also allowed me to explore another area of Edwardian London – the Edwardian theatre!

We see something of the theatre in Clockwork Sparrow when Sophie goes to see Lil performing in the chorus line of a new show called The Shop Girl (fun fact: there really was a popular Edwardian musical comedy with this title – in real life it was originally performed in 1894!) However ‘The Mystery of the Purloined Pearls’ shows us more of the theatre world – and takes readers behind the scenes with Lil and the other performers.

Theatre was incredibly popular in Edwardian London. Before cinema or television, it was one of the most important form of entertainment; and whether they preferred the lively music halls of the East End, or the grand theatres of the West, the people of London flocked to see all the latest productions. Many theatres took advantage of exciting new techologies, such as electric light, to create impressive spectacles for their productions.

One of the most important of the West End’s theatres at this time was The Gaiety on Aldwych. Run by George Edwardes, known as ‘The Guv’nor’, it became famous for its frothy musical comedy productions – and in particular its dancing, singing chorus line of ‘Gaiety Girls’. Shows like A Gaiety Girl, and Our Miss Gibbs were hugely popular and were soon copied by many other theatres, both in London and beyond.

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Gabrielle Ray on the cover of a 1909 edition of the Illustrated London News

Theatre stars like Gabrielle Ray (above), Gertie Millar, and Phyllis Dare, were the celebrities of their day – much like (the fictional) Miss Kitty Shaw, whose pearls dramatically go missing in ‘The Mystery of the Purloined Pearls’.

Theatre also had a huge influence on Edwardian fashion and style – The Merry Widow, which opened at Daly’s Theatre in 1907, not only helped make a big star of actress Lily Elsie, but also inspired a widespread fashion for wide-brimmed and plumed ‘Merry Widow’ hats which were an essential accessory for any fashionable lady over the next few years.

Lily Elsie’s costumes for the production were designed by leading London fashion designer Lucile who went on to design her personal clothes as well as costumes for several of her other shows. Lucile wrote: ‘That season was a very brilliant one… And just when it was at its zenith, a new play was launched with a new actress who set the whole town raving over her beauty.’ Lily Elsie soon became one of the most-photographed women of the Edwardian era.

There are lots of pictures of Edwardian theatre stars on my Edwardiana Pinterest board – as well as theatre programmes, tickets and photographs of what the theatres looked like. I found it fascinating to explore all this visual material about the glamorous world of the Edwardian theatre – but I particularly love these pictures of Lily Elsie, because she looks rather like how I imagine Lil!

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If you like reading about the Edwardian theatre in this story, you might also enjoy reading Lyn Gardner’s Rose Campion mysteries, which are set a little earlier than the Sinclair’s Mysteries, and take place in the exciting world of the Victorian music hall!

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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Mystery & Mayhem on tour

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To celebrate the publication of Mystery & Mayhem this month, I headed out on tour! With my author essentials all packed up, it was time to hit the road…

The tour began with the Tales on Moon Lane Festival. Robin Stevens and I hosted two fun mystery-themed sessions with groups from local schools at the gorgeous Dulwich Picture Gallery.

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En route to the Dulwich Picture Gallery!

In between events, we had time for a bunbreak in the sun, and a wander around the beautiful gallery. Their collection includes paintings by the likes of Rembrandt, Gainsborough, Canaletto and Poussin – perfect inspiration for me, since I’m currently working on The Mystery of the Painted Dragon, which centres around an art world mystery!

Our day finished up with an after-school event, where lots of lovely readers came along to meet us and hear us chat about why we love mystery stories, and the inspiration behind our contributions to Mystery & Mayhem.

Many thanks to Tales on Moon Lane for a really lovely day of events!

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Lots of lovely books for sale from Tales on Moon Lane

The next day, I headed to Sevenoaks for an afternoon event at the Sevenoaks Bookshop.

Brilliant bookshop owner Fleur had planned an extravaganza of an afternoon, including Jewelled Moth-inspired cakes and biscuits, complete with jelly moonbeam diamonds, and Clockwork Sparrow and Jewelled Moth badges to create!

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The highlight was a secret code competition which gave everyone the chance to put their own detective skills to the test, with the winner receiving a fabulous prize –  their very own jewelled moth! Congratulations to prize-winner Amelie!

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I loved meeting lots of readers, and having the chance to chat to them – including blogger Miss T Recommends who wrote this lovely post about the event.

Thank you so much for having me Sevenoaks Bookshop, and for organising a super fun afternoon!

On Sunday, it was time to head to Leeds, for the Leeds Book Awards ceremony on Monday. I was so pleased that The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow was in the running for the 9-11 category of these awards, which are voted for by children – you can see all their brilliant reviews of the shortlisted books here.

The event was huge fun –  there were 500 children attending as well as the shortlisted authors. There were questions from the schools who took part, a spot of live poetry, and author Gill Lewis even taught us all how to communicate with gorillas, inspired by her shortlisted book, the wonderful Gorilla Dawn.

Finally Gill was announced as the winner (congratulations Gill!) and we spent time signing lots of books and meeting lots of the school groups that took part. Such a fun day and a great awards scheme – thanks so much to Leeds SLS and Leeds Public Libraries!

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All the shortlisted authors were presented with their own special Leeds Book Awards crystal!

Next stop on my mystery tour was Liverpool!

On Tuesday, I visited Edge Hill University with Just Imagine, to meet trainee primary teachers, and talk to them about books, reading and writing. It’s always great meeting students, and as a bonus I also got to hear Just Imagine’s brilliant Nikki Gamble talking about the power of picture books. There was time to sign a few books for some of the students and staff before I was on the road again.

On Wednesday, I was in Oxford, where I joined up with Robin and our fellow Crime Club member Julia Golding for an event as part of Oxford Bookfeast.

Our session took place at the amazing Pitt Rivers museum, which is one of my favourite places in Oxford. We had a great fun event (including a detective quiz!) and a highlight for me was the chance to say hi to author M G Leonard, author of the amazing Beetle Boy, in the Green Room.

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Selfie time in the Green Room!

Back in London, I headed to the Greenwich Book Festival. I zipped up the river on the Thames Clipper for a solo session as part of the festival’s schools programme, in the beautiful Old Royal Naval College.

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Me and Mystery & Mayhem on the Thames Clipper

I had such a lot of fun meeting local school groups, talking everything from Enid Blyton books to Edwardian hats.


If that wasn’t enough, on the same day, Mystery & Mayhem was reviewed in The Sun who gave it four stars! Check out the review here, as well as a review of Robin’s new book, the fab Jolly Foul Play.

The final stop – Hay Festival! I was there for a mystery-themed event, this time teaming up with Frances Hardinge, Lyn Gardner and Emma Carroll.

I had a great time chatting all things mystery with Frances, Lyn and Emma. On the same day, I was also really pleased to be able to go along to the YA Book Prize announcement at Hay – I was lucky enough to be one of the judges for the prize this year, which was a huge privilege. It was fantastic to hear from all ten amazing shortlisted authors at the event, and to see the Prize awarded to this year’s winner Sarah Crossan.

It was pretty amazing to remember that just a year ago I was at Hay for my first ever author event (which you can read about here). That was also the first time I saw The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow on a real bookshop shelf – so it felt extra special to be back at the Hay Festival bookshop, and this time to see not just one book, but three!

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What could be a better finale to a brilliant tour to celebrate Mystery & Mayhem? Thanks to Hay Festival and everyone I visited!

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A mysterious launch for Mystery and Mayhem!

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Yesterday, Daunt Books in Cheapside hosted the launch of the brand new Crime Club anthology Mystery and Mayhem!

The book features twelve authors, and twelve original short stories for ages 8+. Inside, you’ll find everything from a fantastic historical mystery from Helen Moss, to a contemporary crime story from Robin Stevens – as well as a brand new story from me. Set in the world of The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow, and taking place between the end of the first book and its sequel, The Mystery of the Jewelled Moth, ‘The Mystery of the Purloined Pearls’ is told from the point of view of chorus-girl turned detective Lil and takes us behind the scenes in the Edwardian theatre.

I also wrote the introduction to the new book, which is all about why crime stories make such brilliant reading. I’m so excited to be part of the Crime Club with so many brilliant authors, and it was a real privilege to write the introduction to the book.

We managed to gather one third of the Crime Club together, as well as lots of friends, for a launch party to celebrate the new book. Here I am with three of the other authors –  Harriet Whitehorn, Helen Moss and Robin Stevens:

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Robin and Egmont publicist extraordinaire Maggie Eckel were beautifully coordinated with the book cover:

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Lovely window display!

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Some detective work in action:

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Robin and Helen with crime fan Yu

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And of course, no launch is complete without a spread of cakes, biscuits and buns! The pineapple decorations come courtesy of Helen (you’ll have to read her Mystery & Mayhem story to find out why pineapples are significant!)

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What a fab evening! Thanks so much to Daunt Books and to everyone who came for helping to welcome Mystery and Mayhem into the world. Find out more about the new book here.

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.

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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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