This is an historical novel that has the normal features of the genre with the added benefit of a discussion of some of the social ills of the time. I always think that this adds an extra element of interest as I enjoy reading about social or political history.
Set in London and around Kensington, which is of course, one of the most expensive and poshest areas of London, it was also notorious in the late 19th century for the Jennings Buildings.
Just FYI Magpie is slang for a thief – as we all know what magpies do, and magpies lived in the Jennings Buildings, hance the name Old Pye Street. Jennings built 81 two storey wooden tenements grouped over 5 courts, meant for 200 or so inhabitants. He built 49 toilets to serve the 5 courts.
At the time this story was set there were probably over 1000 people living in the Irish Rookery as the Jennings Buildings became known. At least 800 of the inhabitants were known to be Irish. The Irish peasants and labourers and their families had emigrated to London in vast numbers over the 19th century due to poverty, illness and famine and crowded into what accommodation they could get however unsanitary. The men tended to be construction workers and fruit pickers and the women worked the laundries.
Here’s an interesting historical note to add to this, in the early 20th century the Irish immigrated a little further afield many into Kilburn, North London, which became known as Little Ireland and were supporters of the IRA. But the men were still labourers and ‘bogtrotters’ ie from farm land, and the women who emigrated tended to go into the care and nursing industries and wouldn’t marry them! Too poorly educated and bad tempered. I know this from my Irish friends in that area…
As for the Jennings Buildings they were so notorious they were demolished in 1873 and a very large house was built on the many acres, by a gentleman called Grant . Grant was riding high and generally enjoyed public confidence. In this period he resolved to build a vast house in its own grounds close to Kensington Palace, on the combined sites of the previous Kensington House, Colby House, the slums of Jennings Buildings and associated plots. In 1872 he proceeded to buy the freeholds of Kensington House and Colby House and to demolish them. (British History Online.)
Next year he purchased the freeholds of Jennings Buildings and other properties on and behind the east side of Kensington Square. Here the prices are known: £14,000 for one tract including Nos. 2 and 3 Kensington Square, £11,000 for another, and £2,000 for a ragged school run by the parish. Commentators of the time marvelled that Grant did not resort to law to eject the tenants of Jennings Buildings. He simply paid them off as necessary and let them carry off any woodwork they wanted, so accelerating the work of destruction.
Grant’s expenditure on buying the land and building his new Kensington House was estimated to have been about £300,000 but by 1882 the house was up for sale by Grant’s creditors as he owed so much and In June the first sale of materials occurred; portions of the marble stairs were acquired for installation at Madame Tussaud’s,
So after the history lesson, did I enjoy the book? Yes, not only because it enabled me to delve into some social history, but also because it was true to life and well written.