The Happy Prince

The Happy Prince

Ever since I came across his eye-catching gravestone in Père Lachaise cemetery for the first time thirty years ago, I’ve been fascinated by Oscar Wilde. Rupert Everett’s acclaimed film The Happy Prince explores the final days of the exiled writer in France.     Wilde left Britain for good after his release from Reading Prison in 1897, where he served the majority of his two-year sentence for gross indecency following his affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, the 3rd son of the 9th Marques of Queensbury. It was during his incarceration there that the execution of jealous lover Charles Wooldridge for killing his wife, inspired the poet to write The Ballad of Reading Gaol. After spending time in Pentonville and Wandsworth prisons, Oscar Wilde arrived in Reading on 20 November 1895 (according to prison records). The previous day he’d attended the Bankruptcy Court in London and, although he was thinner than he had been before his imprisonment, he was ‘as proud as ever’, dressed in a long, dark overcoat and wearing a silk hat. He later described his arrival at Reading station on that cold winter’s morning: ‘For half an hour I stood there in the grey November rain surrounded by a jeering mob.’ It was an inauspicious start.     Finally at the prison Wilde was allocated to C-ward, which was for convicted prisoners. As was customary, his cell number C.3.3. became his name throughout his stay. His cell was 13 feet long by 7 feet wide, with a stool, table, shelves and a drawer. There was a hammock made of coconut fibre for sleeping and a chamber pot...
How to Plot a Murder

How to Plot a Murder

I’m embarking on my third historical true crime case and this time, I’ve been carefully plotting my chosen murder, rather than simply following the gruesome events as they unfolded. Here’s what I’ve learnt so far about planning ‘a real-life murder’: 1. X marks the spot – I’m always drawn to specific locations with a personal link for my murder investigations. My first true crime book, Amelia Dyer and the Baby Farm Murders, took place in my adopted town of Reading, and my second, Who Killed Constable Cock? happened in Manchester, near where I grew up. My current project is set in Victorian London, one of my favourite cities. As a reader, I like to follow a writer around the key locations to see how they’ve changed and how the present compares to the past, so I’d like to include more of that in my next book.     2. Character-building – characters are just as important in non-fiction as they are in fiction, especially to move the plot forward. However, it can be difficult to find out enough detail about a less well-known historical character. It’s important therefore to research the individuals involved in a real-life crime case as much as you can. Contemporary newspaper accounts often speculated on a suspect’s motivation or personality and, although they’re not always an accurate representation, they are a good starting point, from which you can tease out any conflict to drive the plot. 3. Beginnings, middles and ends – just like fiction, historical accounts need a strong, engaging hook to attract the reader, a gripping middle to sustain interest, and a powerful...
CSI Whitechapel

CSI Whitechapel

I’ve been to Whitechapel many times but I’ve never investigated its history in detail. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to work with Year 11 GCSE history students at a local secondary school to find out more about this infamous district. Here’s what we discovered… We began our explorations with the social commentators and writers who spent time in Whitechapel in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Charles Booth’s poverty map of 1889 provided a useful starting point and helped us pinpoint the labyrinthine streets and courts where the murders took place in 1888. It was interesting to note the difference between the more affluent dwellings around Whitechapel High Street with the notorious rookeries tucked just behind.     We then turned to American novelist and journalist John Griffith London, known simply as ‘Jack London’ who lived in the East End for several weeks and wrote about his experiences in The People of the Abyss. His firsthand account covers many aspects of life in turn-of-the century Whitechapel, including the inhabitants, their employment, lodging houses and the workhouse. The colour of life is grey and drab. Everything is helpless, hopeless, unrelieved and dirty…Strange, vagrant odours come drifting along the greasy wind, and the rain, when it falls, is more like grease than water…The very cobblestones are scummed with grease.     We focused on the living conditions in Whitechapel in 1888 by reading a Home Office report published in October of that year, during the time of the murders. The report highlighted the common lodging houses, of which there were 233, inhabited by 8,530 people, most of whom were sex workers,...
The Criminal Detective

The Criminal Detective

In the history of detectives, Eugène Vidocq is one of the most important and controversial figures of all (and one of my favourites!). A convicted criminal and legendary escape artist, he turned thief-taker and later established the first detective department in the world. Eugène François Vidocq was born in Arras on 24 July 1775, the son of a wealthy corn merchant. As a young man, he became renowned in the local area for his fencing skills, earning the nickname, Le Vautrin (wild boar). He also developed a skill for theft and, at the age of 13, spent his first short spell in prison after stealing his father’s silver.     His early adult life was one of adventure, including travelling with a band of entertainers – he played the role of a Caribbean cannibal – working as a pedlar and fighting for France against Austria. But trouble was never faraway and Vidocq committed a string of offences and misdemeanours: he had an affair with his employer’s wife, struck a fellow officer in the army and deserted from his regiment, and this was all before he’d reached the age of 18.     Vidocq spent much of the 1790s and 1800s in prison for assault, theft and forgery. He attempted to escape repeatedly, using disguises and subterfuge. When he was arrested once again in 1809, he brokered a deal with the authorities and agreed to act as a police spy. After he’d finally regained his freedom, he continued to work undercover as a secret agent, using his contacts in the criminal underworld.     In 1812, Eugène Vidocq founded the...
Holloway Unlocked

Holloway Unlocked

My criminal investigations often end up in Holloway and at last I’ve been able to glimpse inside its walls, through Caitlin Davies’ new book, Bad Girls. HMP Holloway opened its doors in 1852, as a mixed prison. Its female population at that time was about 20 inmates but, in 1902, it was re-categorised a women-only prison and became the largest and most famous women’s prison in western Europe. It closed in 2016. In her fascinating and shocking book, Caitlin Davies explores women’s lives and their rights, through the history of Holloway and its dark past.     Early Victorian female prisoners at Holloway included petty thieves, sex workers and the nefarious baby farmers. Amelia Dyer, who murdered hundreds of babies in her care, was transferred to Holloway from Reading Prison, on 2 May 1896, to await her trial at the Old Bailey. During the next two weeks she appeared ‘quite broken down in health and spirits’. According to Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, she aged considerably and her hair became whiter. She wept constantly and threatened to take her own life.     On the second day of Dyer’s trial, the medical experts were called to the stand to give evidence about her mental health. One was Dr James Scott, Holloway’s medical officer. He had observed the prisoner closely since her arrival and concluded: ‘I consider she has not been insane during the time she has been under my observation.’ When the defence counsel suggested that it was possible ‘for a lunatic suffering from homicidal mania to be free from excitement’, Scott denied such behaviour, saying that Dyer had not even...