‘No wonder the Londoners don’t believe in ghosts any more. They just believe in London!’


More than half of The Mourning Emporium is set in London. So what was London like in 1901, when the Venetian children see it for the first time? What was it like to be a child in London at that time?

London was the biggest, busiest, noisiest, richest city in the world. Everything was on a vaster scale than in Venice – even the entertainments.

The Mourning Emporium is quite a long book, so cuts had to be made before it could be printed. One thing that was cut was a section about Teo and Renzo being taken out on the town by the London children, and shown just how many places there were to enjoy themselves for very little money.

Here is that 'lost' passage:

When all possible doings, investigations and funerals were done, the Mansion Dolorous children – including Teo and Renzo – enjoyed a glut of cheap entertainments on offer to anyone audacious enough to take them. London opened its streets, its markets, its shops (‘Anyone can look! An’ even touch!’ explained Tig), its parks and its music halls to them. The only places religiously given a wide berth by the Mansion Dolorous gang were the Refuges for Homeless and Destitute Children – the boys’ one at Great Queen Street and the girls’ in Broad Street.

They crept into the blackness of the back gallery at the Mogul Music Hall in Drury Lane to watch what Greasy called ‘a fillim, doan yew know’. Behind the rails, the working men cackled like monkeys and hung their elbows out to dry at the strange, flat moving pictures, real as life but twenty times as big.

The Mansion Dolorous gang generously treated Renzo and Teo to penny-looks at the peep-shows of Mazeppa and Paul Jones the Pirate, not noticing how the Venetian children flinched at the scenes of murder and mayhem. Teo also found the menagerie of murdered and stuffed animals at the Kensington Museums too sad a spectacle to enjoy, but they both loved watching Mrs Beckwith eat sponge cake under water at the Royal Aquarium at Westminster and visiting the lion house at London Zoo. Renzo looked hopefully at the lions’ flanks but there was no sign of a wing.

Entranced, they watched spectral optical illusions at Maskelyne and Cook’s Theatre of Mystery at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly. They endured an evening of ‘musical theatre’– the passion of the District Disgrace – at which the juvenile lead, Minnie Cunningham, done up in a frilly red dress to look utterly innocent, warbled ‘I’m an Old Hand at Love, Though I’m Young in Years’.

Renzo’s eyes were downcast as they came out of the theatre. Absent-mindedly, he trod on Rosibund Greyhoare’s toe and then commenced an ornate apology.

‘Away an’ bile yer head, ye bletherer!’ squeaked Rosibund, hopping on one leg. ‘Ah didne care about me gammy toe. I jist canna abide yon greet sackless cuddy Renzo when he’s a clatterin’ away loik that.’

Ann Picklefinch comforted her, ‘Dinnae bother aboot him, he’s nobbut a daftie. Oot iv his head, loik he’s been dram-drinking.’

‘He’s not drunk. He’s thinking about Sibella,' Teo thought. ‘That girl is like London stone, he has spent too much time close with her and she has begun to absorb his goodness.’



Petticoat Lane


‘London once had more Ghosts per Square Mile than any other Place on Earth. But Victoria was not amused by the Idea of Fairies, Ghosts or Good Spirits. The English Queen’s little Mouth has always enjoyed a Sulky Pout more than a healthy Scream of Fright or Wonder. For the Londoners, ’Tis Manifest that Industry works, makes Money, builds Factories. They have mistaken Speed & Grand Scale for Magic.

‘So Britannia’s own Magic has gradually Stilled to almost Nothing. Her Haunted Houses have been Razed to build Railway Arches. Paved over are her Plague Cemeteries & the Graves of Those who died in the Great Fire of 1666. London’s Ghosts have been Dispossessed, & have given up the Ghost, as It were. Now there are just a few Fairies at the Bottoms of Surburban Gardens.’

      The Polytechnic, Alhambra, Empire and Mogul Music Hall in Drury Lane also showed ‘moving picture’ films from 1896.

The vast Royal Aquarium and Summer and Winter Garden was opened in 1876, across the road from Westminster Abbey. It was supposed to be a rather refined place of cultural education, but soon needed to drum up business in more exciting ways. A new manager, the ex-trapeze artist ‘The Great Farini’, introduced acts like a ‘human cannonball’, ‘Pongo the Gorilla’ and gymnastic displays. In the aquarium tanks were put sensational displays of manatee ‘mermaids’ and members of the Beckwith family ‘undressing, smoking, and eating two sponge cakes under water’. But ‘The Aq’ never managed to stay abreast of public taste and was demolished in 1902.




Rotten Row

Some information about other places and things mentioned in the book ...


This structure, despite its Gothic lines, opened only in 1894. So many tall-masted ships went under it at that time that it was forced to open up 655 times in the first month, allowing them into the so-called Pool of London, between Tower and London Bridges. (St Mary Overie Dock is on the St Paul’s side of the relatively low London Bridge. So technically it would have been impossible for a masted ship like the Scilla to get there. However, the Scilla does many things that ordinary vessels could not, so I considered this a valid liberty to take.)





Southwark Bridge







At the beginning of the twentieth century, London buses, trams and cabs were all still horse-drawn. The two-storey London omnibuses were introduced in 1897. By 1901, there were over 3700 horse-drawn omnibuses in London, each needing eleven horses a day to keep it running. The roads were crowded with all kinds of vehicles, such as Hansom cabs and crawlers, slowing traffic to a standstill sometimes.

An Act of 1896 laid down a maximum speed of twelve miles per hour for self-propelled vehicles, including the just-born motor car, which was still a rarity.

The telephone was just coming into use at this time, but more for business than in private homes.

An earlier Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, once referred to Hansom cabs as the gondolas of London.



A towering vehicle rolled down a road towards the dock. Drawn by horses, the black box was crammed with tiny people in two layers.

‘A vaporetto?’ laughed Emilio. ‘A land vaporetto with wheels!’

‘A London omnibus,’ corrected Renzo. ‘My father rode in one once.’

‘Omblibus!’ Sebastiano held his head. ‘I think my brain just died of one English word too many.’


London Bridge


Tower Bridge



The latest bucket of water had dislodged a tinkling object from the mud. Renzo knelt to pick it up. He cradled the small china money-box against his chest, even though it was clotted with dirt.

One corner had been smashed, and all the money had washed out. Renzo ignored the coins scattered underfoot. Tenderly, he wiped the mud off one side of the money-box, revealing ‘A Present from London’ stamped beneath an etching of Tower Bridge’s gothic ramparts. The money-box had been a gift from his father…




In The Mourning Emporium, a hundred Venetian Incogniti are despatched to London in the guise of pumpkin-sellers. They sell hot spiced pumpkin on street corners, which enables them to gather information about what people are saying and thinking.

At the time this book is set, Londoners were accustomed to the sight of Italian street musicians, acrobats and vendors of hot potatoes, chestnuts and particularly ice-cream.

The first Italians arrived in the wake of the Napoleonic wars. By the middle of the nineteenth century, they had settled in large communities in London, as well as in major Scottish cities.

In London, the two biggest clusters of Italians were to be found in Soho, where they worked in the food trades, and in the Hatton Garden/Saffron Hill area around Holborn. Here Italians rented houses which they sublet to their countrymen, cramming in as many people as possible. And it was here that the ‘padroni’ brought the young boys and girls they recruited from the poor areas of Italy. These children came principally from Emilia and Tuscany in the early part of the Victorian period, and later, from further south.

The most visible (and audible) occupation of the London Italians was as itinerant musicians: of the 2000 living in London in 1860, 600 worked as organ-grinders. They strolled around the streets playing hand-organs, violins and harps. Some rented performing animals from their padroni, in exchange for their day’s takings. Writers recorded seeing little Italian boys with white mice, squirrels, monkeys, dancing dogs in costumes and even a porcupine.

The noise made by these street musicians enraged many Londoners, particularly the inhabitants of the prosperous inner-city suburbs. Campaigns against them were launched, and even legislation. In fact, by the end of the century, more and more Italian musicians were returning to their traditional trades: as glass-blowers, picture-framers, makers of mirrors, musical instruments, barometers and thermometers. Immigrants from Tuscany were especially known for making and selling old religious figures. Others entertained with puppets called fantoccini.

Italians were also famous for their ice-cream: in 1860 around 200 were working in the trade, selling ice-cream in small glasses (in portions called ‘penny-licks’) or in paper wraps, known as ‘hokey-pokey’. This expression comes from the Italian ‘ecco un poco’– ‘here [try] a bit’. Unfortunately, the confections were sometimes made with unsanitary water, and could cause serious sickness.

The Italian Benevolent Society was set up in 1860, to help gangs of children brought over to London. There were instances of the padroni starving and beating their little musicians. If found guilty of begging and vagrancy, Italian children were repatriated to Italy. There were also Italian social clubs, an Italian free school and even an Italian newspaper, La Gazzetta Italiana di Londra.

Venice was never a big exporter of people to London. But, interestingly, Lucio Sponza’s research shows that between 1900 and 1902, the number suddenly jumped from fourteen to 129. I’m happy to claim those extras as my Venetian pumpkin-sellers, the Incogniti.



The sailors had not finished hugging each other when an old man appeared. He looked at their flags. ‘Eyetalian, eh? How long you stay-ee here? You pay-ee now-now in advance, all good, bene? … Fresh water well there. Clink Street thataway. Horses – gee-gees – thataway. Hatton Garden, all your Eyetalian friends, over river. Food, beer. La Gazzetta Italiana di Londra for read! You got barrel organs, bene? You got monkeys? You play good? Good, good. Ropes you tie here.’ He indicated an iron ring on the wharf. He was still muttering instructions as he walked off. The Venetians had not needed to say a word.


Tobias Putrid spends a brief time here before he is rescued by Signor Alicamoussa. The Priory of St Mary of Bethlehem was originally founded at London’s Bishopsgate in the thirteenth century. The hospital moved to Moorfields in the seventeenth century and in 1815 to St George’s Fields, which is not far from Clink Street. By the mid-nineteenth century, the hospital was accepting mostly poor middle-class patients, while paupers were sent to the new county asylums.


A stay in the lunatic asylum had not sweetened Tobias’s personal aura of sewer, but even he got his generous share of kisses on the cheek, and a lingering application of Turtledove’s tongue.


Newgate Prison



'Have you heard of Newgate Prison, whelp?’

Renzo nodded wordlessly. His father had told him of its grim gates and grimmer history.

‘It’s the last place most criminals see before they are hanged. Fine high and spiked walls it has, too. It’s a stinking, brooding, windowless place.

If the Londoners were not so supremely rational, they would say it was haunted. So many dreadful deaths there!’ Miss Uish smiled sweetly.

Bethlehem Hospital at St George's Fields



This was London’s most notorious prison. The French writer Flora Tristan, who visited in the 1830s, described it thus: ‘Newgate has a singularly repulsive appearance: it is how one would imagine a prison of the Dark Ages.'

The punishments that awaited convicted pirates in London were just as described in this book. In earlier times, notorious buccaneers like Captain Kidd were hanged at Execution Dock on the Thames. Three tides were allowed to flow over their corpses before they were removed to unmarked graves or sent off for dissection by the anatomists. Marshalsea Prison was the usual holding place for pirates awaiting trial, but Captain Kidd spent his last days at Newgate.

Public executions at Newgate ended in 1868, and the condemned were thereafter hanged in an enclosure. James Billington and his son William were the last Newgate executioners. Naturally, they never tried to prolong the death of a prisoner. In any case, for this story, the hooded executioner is a Ghost-Convict who’s taken over the role temporarily. I imagine the poor Billingtons bound and gagged in a cellar that day …

In fact, children had not been hanged at Newgate for many years. Indeed, after 1899, British children were no longer sent to adult prisons.

The last execution of an adult prisoner took place in May 1902. The prison was demolished later that year. The current Old Bailey law court was built on the site, reusing some of the prison’s stones.

Cleopatra's Needle





Teodora uses this as her landmark when she swims down the Thames. This ancient obelisk has nothing to do with the real Cleopatra, except that it really is Egyptian. It was brought to London and set up on the Victoria Embankment in 1878. A plaque below it lists the names of six sailors who lost their lives on the journey from Alexandria, when, during a tempest, the specially built vessel that carried the obelisk broke loose from its tug.

A tall black obelisk loomed, its unlikely silhouette jolting her thoughts. Cleopatra’s Needle! Using Cleopatra’s Needle as her compass, Teo swam towards the shore. Dawn was breaking. Dirty streaks of light showed her empty streets.



When they accuse Turtledove of having rabies, the London mermaids still have in mind the very bad outbreak of that terrible disease in 1885. All dogs within six miles of Charing Cross were ordered by law to wear muzzles.


At the sight of Turtledove and the ragged orphans, the lips of the London mermaids unanimously curled into expressions of distaste... One particularly pale mermaid cried, ‘Dirty street children! And a dog! Look at those sallow complexions! They’re sure to have brought some dreadful disease in with them. Or some eruptive condition! A dose must be taken!’

About the book  Meet the cast   The floating orphanage  Unspeakable eatables  London in 1901   Victorian mourning  Quack cures and corsets