Read All About It: Victorian Crime News

Image from a broadsheet

Just wanted to share some interesting bits from what I’m reading now: The Art of the English Murder by Lucy Worsley. It’s a very entertaining account of nineteenth-century attitudes towards crime and violence, and the enduring fascination that lawlessness holds for human beings.

She traces the relationship between crime and entertainment, from word of mouth gossip to broadsheets  (printed accounts of a murderer’s crimes and confessions). Literacy was spreading among the people of Britain, but this didn’t prevent those who couldn’t read from enjoying a vicarious thrill. Often their friends would read the broadsheets aloud, and some street sellers of crime news had interesting ways of enticing their customers. Worsley writes:

“Henry Mayhew, one of the co-founders of Punch, was also the compiler of a tremendous work of oral history gathered from the people on the streets of London in the 1840s. One of his interviewees was a street ‘patterer.’ Posted on a street corner, he kept up a lively constant ‘patter’ of verbal information, and worked with a partner to perform dramatic mini-reconstructions of crimes: ‘He always performs the villain, and I take the noble characters. He always dies, because he can do a splendid back-fall, and he looks so wicked when he’s got the moustaches on.’

“These two were ‘standing-patterers,’ who took up a fixed spot on a street corner. They were complemented by ‘running patterers,’ who moved constantly through the crowds, shouting out details of what was in their broadsides, emphasizing words such as ‘horrible,’ ‘barbarous,’ and ‘murder’. They made a vital contribution to the very distinctive aural landscape of the Victorian city.”

She goes on to add that these two kinds of performers were joined by singing or chanting patterers, who made songs out of their news reports.

Although I knew about newsies shouting, “Read all about it!”, I never knew that some street  newspaper sellers went so far as to act out the details of the crime. They must have been horribly fun to watch.

I also see strong parallels between these long-ago street hawkers and today’s wall-to-wall news on TV and the Internet. I guess it’s always been the case that “If it bleeds, it leads.”

What do you think? Let me know in the comments.



Image: By Probably a supplement of the Edinburgh Courant – Victorian broadsheet, Public Domain,


W.S. Gilbert – Kidnapped!

Sometimes real life imitates art. Or it inspires art.

William S. Gilbert’s plots involving stolen babies were inspired by his own life: As a baby, he was kidnapped by bandits.

When Gilbert was not yet 2 years old (as the story goes), and a few months before his sister Jane was born in October 1838, his parents were traveling around the Continent and they stopped in Naples, Italy.

In Naples, his parents had hired a maid to look after their young son. As the maid and baby were out on a walk, a couple of men approached her and said that the “English gentleman” wanted his child returned to him right away. The foolish nursery-maid handed the boy over, and the brigands took off with “Bab.”

1024px-Napoli6Many years later, Gilbert said he remembered riding in front of a mounted man along a street toward some mountains. As a grown man, he identified that street as the Via Posillipo, a main road through one of Naples’ residential areas, which is high enough on the hillside overlooking the Bay of Naples to provide a clear view of Mount Vesuvius in the distance.

His parents paid a ransom of £25, and a detachment of carabinieri returned the boy to his no doubt frantic parents.

What a great story! But is it true? Nobody is sure – no official record of the event has turned up. We only know about it because Gilbert himself told his first biographer the tale, when he was 70 years old. At the very least, the story had probably been told and re-told in the Gilbert family for years.

But whatever might have happened originally, there is no doubt that the story had a profound influence on Gilbert’s story-telling: think of Ruth, the foolish nursery-maid in the Pirates of Penzance, who apprenticed her small charge to a pirate instead of a pilot. Or think of The Gondoliers, which centers on the problem of identifying the heir to the throne, who was kidnapped as a baby and raised as a gondolier.

In The Gondoliers, Don Alhambra sings:

I stole the Prince, and I brought him here,
And left him gaily prattling
With a highly respectable gondolier,
Who promised the Royal babe to rear,
And teach him the trade of a timoneer*
With his own beloved bratling.

(*a helmsman; someone who steers a ship)

Gilbert's drawing of the baby's abduction in The Gondoliers.

Gilbert’s drawing of the baby’s abduction in The Gondoliers.

The Gondoliers was Gilbert and Sullivan’s twelfth opera together, and was the last of the G&S operas that would achieve wide popularity. It opened on December 7, 1889 at the Savoy Theater and ran for 554 performances.

First night reviews of The Gondoliers were glowing, and even Queen Victoria enjoyed the show when the entire company went to Windsor Castle for a command performance.

Despite Gilbert’s obvious love of topsy-turvy plots, the notion of a kidnapped baby might have seemed even more logical to Gilbert than some of his other plot devices. Whether or not the story was true as he told it to his biographer, or if it had undergone some modifications over the years of repeated telling, it still is a fascinating little story.

30 Victorian Mystery Novel Series to Read Now!


Just let me finish this chapter

Just let me finish this chapter

The following books are some of the best Victorian-set historical mysteries that I know about. The books named are the first in each series – the sleuth named appears in all the books. Most are set in Victorian England, but a few are set in the USA and some others (particularly the Sherlock Holmes-related ones) spill over into the Edwardian period.

You can read more about them on Goodreads and Amazon. I’ll include links to Goodreads so you can find out more about the ones that interest you.  For even more historical mysteries, you can check out this amazingly comprehensive list (just watch out for the pop-ups):

Enjoy your armchair sleuthing!




Female Sleuths

  1. Elizabeth Peters – Amelia Peabody – Crocodile on the Sandbank
  2. Deanna Raybourn – Lady Julia Gray – Silent in the Grave
  3. Robin Paige – Kathryn Ardleigh – Death at Bishop’s Keep
  4. Nancy Herriman – Celia Davies – No Comfort for the Lost
  5. Tasha Alexander – Lady Emily – And Only To Deceive
  6. Emily Brightwell – Mrs. Jeffries –The Inspector and Mrs. Jeffries
  7. Martin Davies – Mrs. Hudson – Mrs. Hudson and the Spirit’s Curse
  8. Carole Nelson Douglas – Irene Adler – Good Night, Mr. Holmes
  9. Anne Perry – Charlotte and Thomas Pitt – The Cater Street Hangman
  10. Kate Parker – Georgia Fenchurch – The Vanishing Thief
  11. Ann Granger – Lizzie Martin – The Companion (aka A Rare Interest in Corpses)
  12. Susan Wittig Albert – Beatrix Potter – The Tale of Hill Top Farm
  13. Carol Carr – Madam India Black – India Black, Madam of Espionage
  14. Lee Jackson – Sarah Tanner – A Most Dangerous Woman
  15. Alanna Knight – Rose Quinn – The Inspector’s Daughter


Male Sleuths

  1. Barbara Hambly – Benjamin January – A Free Man of Color
  2. Gyles Brandreth – Oscar Wilde – Oscar Wilde and a Death of No Importance
  3. Oakley Hall – Ambrose Bierce – Ambrose Bierce and the Queen of Spades
  4. Anne Perry – William Monk – The Face of a Stranger
  5. Peter Heck – Mark Twain – Death on the Mississippi
  6. Charles Finch – Charles Lenox – A Beautiful Blue Death
  7. David Ashton – Inspector MacLevy – Shadow of the Serpent
  8. Peter Lovesey – Albert Edward, Prince of Wales – Bertie and the Tinman
  9. Peter Lovesey – Inspector Cribb – Wobble to Death
  10. Edward Marston – Inspector Robert Colbeck –The Railway Detective
  11. Amy Myers – Chef Auguste Didier – Murder in Pug’s Parlour
  12. Francis Selwyn – Inspector Verity – Cracksman on Velvet
  13. Ray Harrison – Detective Sergeant Bragg – Why Kill Arthur Potter?
  14. Alanna Knight – Inspector Faro – Enter Second Murderer
  15. Joan Lock – Inspector Best – Dead Image


Have I missed any of your favorites? Please let me know in the comments.

Victorian Time Travel: H G Wells vs. Jack the Ripper

So on New Year’s Day, I traveled back in time.

To be accurate, I watched the 1979 movie “Time after Time,” starring Malcolm MacDowell, David Warner and Mary Steenburgen. It was mind-blowing, being flung 37 years into the past, all the way back to the late 70s.

Well, back to the late 1800s as well. In the movie, the late Victorian era is portrayed as gritty and dangerous, the gaslit alleyways hiding the specter of hideous death in the form of disease, deprivation, and Jack the Ripper.

H.G. Wells is portrayed not as a fantastic storyteller bur as an actual Victorian inventor who built a working time machine. When his friend Dr. John Stevenson is unmasked as the Ripper, Stevenson steals the machine and travels forward into time to 1979 San Francisco, where the Time Machine is on display in a museum.

Here’s the trailer:

Fortunately, the Time Machine will return to its proper time unless the driver has a key to hold it in the alternate time. This will allow the nerdy and idealistic H.G. Wells to pursue Jack the Ripper into the future, in order to bring him back to face justice.

But in 1979, the marvelously evil Ripper takes one look at the horrors of modern life and knows that he’s where he belongs. In the best lines in the movie, he declares, “I belong here completely and utterly. I’m home…The world has caught up with me and surpassed me. Ninety years ago I was a freak. Today I’m an amateur.”

Watching this movie really made me think about how the Victorians must have felt about themselves: So modern, so fast-moving. Crossing the Atlantic Ocean in less than a week! Talking instantly to someone miles away by telephone! Traveling from one end of Britain to another by train in a single day!

And then the two characters journey into the future and discover that it’s not the peaceful paradise that H.G. Wells had so confidently envisioned. The world was moving faster than ever but violence was everywhere, even in cartoons (cartoon violence was a big issue in the 70s, as I recall. Victorians would have sympathized with that, since they had a very sentimental view of childhood). War continued to plague humanity – as was demonstrated when the camera closed in on the forearm of a San Francisco jeweler, who bore the tattoo of a concentration camp survivor.

On the positive side, H.G. Wells meets Amy Robbins (actually Wells’ wife’s name), played by Mary Steenbergen. During the late 70s Women’s Liberation was in full swing. Women were experiencing a heady feeling of sexual freedom, thanks to new, more effective birth control methods. It was delightful to see thoroughly modern Amy putting the moves on Herbert the Victorian nerd.

In sum, the old adage rings true: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Here is an interesting commentary on the film from Alan Spencer:

21 Good Books on Art, Crime, Women, and Life in Victorian London

Here are a few favorites from my personal list of reference books. Have I missed any books that you particularly enjoy? Let me know!


1. The Aesthetic Movement, by Lionel Lambourne (2011)
In the second half of the Victorian era, artists of all varieties became inspired by the writings of Baudelaire and Walter Pater to focus more on ornamentation and aesthetic concerns. The pre-Raphaelite artists, Queen Anne architectural styles, blue-and-white china and Japanese influences all were part of the Aesthetic Movement in both fine and decorative arts. The text of this book provides fascinating insights into the historical personages – such as Oscar Wilde, James McNeill Whistler, Dante Gabriel Rosetti and Ellen Terry – who led and shaped the Aesthetic Movement and the color photographs are beautiful. Lionel Lambourne was Head of Paintings at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London from 1986-1993.


2. The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde 1860-1900, Eds. Lynn Federle Orr and Stephen Calloway (2011)
Lively, interesting essays on various aspects of Victorian life and art, coupled with gorgeous color photographs of art by pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic Movement artists, along with items from other decorative arts: vases, furniture, wallpapers, books and architectural elements, as well as satirical cartoons and drawings.



3. Life in Victorian Britain, by Michael Paterson (2013)
A big subject, but the wealth of material is summarized and presented in a very readable and engaging way. A great introduction.

4. The Victorian Studies Reader, Eds. Kelly Boyd and Rohan McWilliam (2007)
Excellent collection of essays by historians on various aspects of Victorian life, including religion, gender and social mores.

5. Daily life of Victorian Women, by Lydia Murdoch (2013)
A scholarly tome – but still interesting to read – on Victorian women’s life and experiences, covering such areas as family and home, politics and the public arena, health and welfare, and beauty, status and wealth. Interesting insights that present Victorian women as more actively engaged in the culture at large than one might think.

6. Daily Life in Victorian England, by Sally Mitchell (2008)
Another easily readable and engaging text on Victorian life in general, covering how people of all classes lived and celebrated the milestones of life.

7. Inside the Victorian Home, by Judith Flanders (2005)
I really enjoyed this book – the topics covered are organized according to the rooms in which those activities might be expected to occur: Cooking and food in the dining room, courtship in the parlor, and so on.

8. Victorian London, by Liza Pickard (2007)
Liza Pickard has authored a number of very interesting and entertaining books on life in London during various periods of history – Elizabethan London, Restoration London, Dr. Johnson’s London – and she brings her trademark wit and insight to the Victorian era. This is about the city, its expansion and development into a modern urban center, as opposed to a domestic view of life.

9. A History of London, Stephen Inwood (1999)
This covers all of London’s 2,000-plus year history from Roman times to the present. But it’s worthwhile reading and helps to get a perspective on the city as a whole.

10. London The Biography, Peter Ackroyd (2003)
A sprawling book covering London’s two millenia of history and development, with lots of anecdotes and perspectives on how the past has left its mark on the present.

11. London Past and Present, by Chiara Libero (2005)
A nice hardcover book with glossy photos of London.

12. London, by Iain Thomson (2000)
Another nice book of photographs of London landmarks.

13. London, by John Russell (1994)
An idiosyncratic memoir of London told through witty anecdotes by a distinguished art critic. Plenty of gorgeous paintings, interesting photographs and other depictions of life in London.

14. Crime and Society in England 1750-1900 (2d Edition), by Clive Emsley (1987)
A densely-written history of crime with statistics and graphs. The second edition has a new chapter on crime and gender.

15. City of Dreadful Delight, by Jane Walkowitz (1992)
A history of gender, exploring the experiences of women in the city. From poor streetwalkers to well-off “shopping ladies,” women have become more visible in the public areas of the city, and that leads to changes in the relationships between men and women.

16. The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, by Kate Summerscale (2009)
Detective-Inspector Jonathan Whicher is Scotland Yard’s best investigator in their new criminal investigation division, but his conclusions about who committed a shocking murder in 1860 challenged public perceptions so much that it cost him his career. Fascinating true crime story.

17. Scotland Yard Casebook, by Joan Lock (1993)
By the 1870s, Scotland Yard’s Detective Branch was discredited and corrupt, and in 1878 it was replaced by the Criminal Investigation Division. Police officer and historian Joan Lock tells the story behind the change, and the new division’s successes and failures including Ernest Southey’s four murders, the dockland killings of 1869, and the Neill Cream and Jack the Ripper murders.

18. Rise of Scotland Yard, Douglas G. Browne (1956)
Starting with the very beginning of the Metropolis, around about 1050, Browne covers the origins of policing in England – the posse comitatus, the hue and cry, the Bow Street Runner, and on up to the creation of an actual publicly-funded police force. He details the early years of Scotland Yard – the cases and the scandals – and then continues on to the events and dealings of Scotland Yard in the mid-1950s.

19. Calling Scotland Yard, by Arthur Thorp (1954)
Chief Superintendent Arthur Thorp wrote this book about his own career at the Yard, and discusses cases that he personally handled in the 1940s and 1950s. So even though it’s not from the Victorian era, I found it interesting to look at how cases were investigated and solved.

20. The Marlborough House Set, by Anita Leslie (1973)
The author, a great niece of Jenny Jerome Churchill, had a ring-side seat when it came to observing life in the highest echelons of British society – and here she’s collected a wide variety of anecdotes and photographs from her Edwardian-era relatives, who intimately knew the scandalous goings-on of the friends of the Prince of Wales (Queen Victoria’s son, later Edward VII), known as the Marlborough House set. Fun to read.

21. The English Companion, by Godfrey Smith (1984)
I picked this up on a whim at a used book store, because I figured it would help to understand some “Englishisms” that an American might not otherwise learn. It’s a fun and lighthearted look at English culture, circa 1984.

So that’s my list! Make sure to add any suggestions you may have in the comments below.

15 Victorian-set Movies and TV shows to Watch


If you’re looking for visual and aural inspiration about the clothing, manners and day-to-day activities of Victorian people, the following movies and TV miniseries will help you!  Here are fifteen of my favorite choices.

The painting at left is so typical of the Aesthetic period, with the blue and white china, the color scheme, and the young woman’s distinctively pre-Raphaelite eyebrows, that I thought I’d just add it here.


1. North & South (2004 TV mini-series) BBC production starring Richard Armitage and Daniela Denby-Ashe. Based on the novel by Elizabet Gaskell, this is the story of Margaret Hale, a gently-bred parson’s daughter from the pastoral South of England who is uprooted and moved to “dark Satanic mills” of industrial Milton in the North, where she meets the stern, outwardly cold cotton-mill owner John Thornton. Their clash of wills produces sparks that soon turn into a conflagration. Excellent performances by all involved.

2. Mrs. Brown (1997 movie) BAFTA-winning performance by Judi Dench as widowed and grieving Queen Victoria, who finds her joy in life reawakened by her Scots ghillie, or groom, John Brown (played by an excellent Billy Connolly). This true story traces their 20-year friendship, which began when the Queen’s closest advisers brought Brown to the Isle of Wight to encourage her to go out riding for a little fresh air. Brown proved to be a loyal, protective and utterly devoted friend to his Queen, despite the rumors and catty remarks about their relationship.

3. The Young Victoria  (2009 movie) Emily Blunt brings to life the young princess and heir to the English Throne who falls in love with Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, and finds enduring happiness with him despite the political machinations and intrigues going on all around them.

4. Jane Eyre  (2006 TV miniseries with Toby Stephens and Ruth Wilson) A “poor, obscure, plain and little” governess falls in love with her complicated, brooding employer. But the secrets of his past will not stay hidden, and will threaten their happiness.

5. Tess of the d’Urbervilles (2008 TV mini-series with Gemma Arterton and Eddie Redmayne; see also the 1979 movie version with Nastassia Kinski and Peter Firth). Tragic story of a young peasant girl torn between the rich man who seduced her and the conventional man who married her without knowing about her past.

6. Cranford  (2007 TV mini-series) Judi Dench, Imelda Staunton, and many other prominent British actresses appear in this delightful series of tales about life, love and gossip in a rural market-town in the 1840s, just on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution.

7. Wives and Daughters (1999 TV mini-series) Another wonderful story from Elizabeth Gaskell, this time about a country doctor’s daughter who finds herself dealing with a flighty new step-mama, an impetuous step-sister, the gossip of their neighbors, and her own unrequited love for a man who thinks of her just as a friend.

8. Our Mutual Friend (1998 TV mini-series) Paul McGann stars in Charles Dickens’ tale of love, greed and secret identities in 1860s London.

9. Penny Dreadful  (2014-present TV series with Eva Green and Timothy Dalton) Gothic horror series in which an adventurous explorer, a psychic medium and an American gunslinger team up to battle all kinds of unnatural evil threatening London, including Frankenstein, werewolves and deathless Dorian Gray.

10. Copper  (2012-present TV series) In the 1860s, a rugged Irish policeman must navigate New York City’s tumultuous immigrant neighborhood, the fancy residents of uptown Manhattan, and the black community. Starring Tom Weston-Jones

11. Murdoch Mysteries  (2008-present TV series) Starring Yannick Bisson. In the 1890s, Detective William Murdoch uses brand new forensic crime techniques like fingerprinting and trace evidence to solve the most baffling crimes.

12. Effie Gray  (2014 movie) Starring Dakota Fanning, directed by Emma Thompson. After a six-year courtship, teenage Effie Gray marries the much older Victorian art critic John Ruskin. But when Ruskin refuses to consummate their marriage, Effie finds herself drawn to Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais. It was a true story that shocked Victorian society.

13. Ripper Street  (2012-present TV series) Starring Matthew MacFadyen. Scotland Yard detectives in 1889 are investigating a series of Jack the Ripper-style copycat murders in London’s East End.

14. Desperate Romantics  (2009 TV series) Starring Aidan Turner, Rafe Spall, Samuel Barnett and Zoe Tapper. The vibrant lives and loves of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood as they grow from penniless artists wooing their models and their Muses with equal fervor, into the most celebrated painters of their generation.

15. The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: The Murder at Road Hill House  (2011 TV movie) Based on the true story of Mr. Whicher, one of Scotland Yard’s first detectives, who is called upon to investigate a dreadful murder in a quiet rural area. The unpalatable truth shocks the community and shakes their faith in the nascent science of criminal investigation.

Five Great Victorian Studies Reference Sites, plus blogs


If you’re like me, you want to know all the fascinating tidbits and details about life in the Victorian Era. Well, fear not – there are plenty of great reference sites out there on the Internet. I’ve collected five useful general sites here.

1. Victorian Voices – The list of lists. Find articles, websites and blogs on every aspect of Victorian life from America, Gardening, and Country/Village life to Royalty, Women’s Issues, Work, and World Cultures.

2. Victorian Research – Find the libraries and other places where primary sources and archival records are housed. Also, under the heading “Discussion” there are many groups and blogs on Victorian matters.

3. The Victorian Web – Arranged by topic in a diamond shape, the site offers information both about the UK and other nations during the Victorian era on topics including social history, political history and gender matters, philosophy, religion, science and technology, writers, artists, and theater and entertainment as well as much more.

4. Victorian London – The Victorian Dictionary, Lee Jackson’s website, has a wonderful archive of primary sources describing various aspects of London life during the Victorian era.

5. Victorian Literary Studies Archive – Professor Matsuoka of Nagoya University, Japan, has put together a huge collection of links on the Victorian era in London, Manchester, Knutsford, and the U.K., English Department in Japan, English department overseas, Dickens Fellowship, Victorian Studies Society, Victorian authors Dickens, Gaskell and Gissing, Victorian Websites, 19th century authors, English literature, British Authors and American Authors.

You might also want to explore the Victorian-era information on British History Online


I compiled the following list of blogs at random over the course of my previous searches. I have identified the blogger where I could, but I don’t know any of these folks.

The Cat’s Meat Shop (Lee Jackson)
Crime and Insanity in Victorian England (David Vaughan)
The Curious World of Victorian Collecting (Mary Addyman)
Dickens Blog (Gina Dalfonzo)
The Digital Victorianist (Bob Nicholson)
The Floating Academy: A Victorian Studies Blog
The Hoarding (Andrew Stauffer)
The Hour of Mask and Mime (Diane Magras)
Journal of Victorian Culture Online: Editors’ Blog
The Little Professor (Miriam Burstein)
Looking Glasses at Odd Corners (Amber Regis)
Charlotte Mathieson
Neo-Victorian Thoughts (Louisa Yates)
Novel Ideas: Modern Musings on the Long 19th Century (Emily K. Cody and Trey Conatser)
Novel Readings (Rohan Maitzen)
Of Victorian Interest (NAVSA)
Rag-Picking History (Paul Dobraszczyk)
Royal Holloway Victorian MA (Adam Roberts)
Romantic Circles Blog
The Salt Box (Jason Jones)
The Victorian Commons (History of House of Commons Project, 1832-68)
The Victorian Era (Geerte Koeznbasje)
Victorian Geek (Catherine Pope)
Victorian History (Bruce Rosen)
The Victorianist (“Amateur Casual”)
The Victorian Peeper (Kristan Tetens)
The Victorian Poetry Network
Wuthering Expectations

Happy researching!