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Book Review: Bloody London by David Fathers.
’20 Walks in London, Tracing its Gruesome and Horrific History’

coverLondon’s history is nothing if not turbulent. Over the years, authors and historians in their dozens if not hundreds have latched onto this city’s violent past to produce books which are often sensationalised or speculative or both. Equally, there have been a shedload of guide books, also varying in quality. A sub-genre of this – becoming quite popular in recent times –  are the self-guided walk publications. This new book, by David Fathers, combines all of this in a volume which is of exceptionally high standard in all departments.

The book’s title and indeed his informative introduction, focuses strongly on death, murder and execution. I’ve always been quite interested in execution and even more so on duels. Yet there’s a lot here that’s new to me, for example the mid 18C axeman John Thrift who was particularly unpopular even by the standards of his trade; and on the very same page, the sword duel between Beau Wilson and John Law. All good, bloody stuff.  But actually you’ll find a huge diversity of topics. Riots, raids, disasters. The 1878 Princess Alice disaster is, of course covered. In the immediate aftermath of my previous review, it was pleasing to see a six page treatment of the first Zeppelin bombing of London on 31 May 1915 with the murderous route of LZ38 and every single one of its bombs mapped.

zeppelin page

So you’ll find both the familiar and a pleasing amount of the unfamiliar here, but the point is, all of it comes across as fresh.

The walks vary in distance from just under a kilometre to around 10K. Of course, one isn’t obliged to stay the distance. Each route is laid out by the author in elegant, easy-to-read maps which spread across the pages, skilfully integrated with the text descriptions and illustrations.

Bloody London is written in an interesting and matter-of-fact style, compelling material handled in a non-sensational way: as the reader, you feel in good hands. But for me the most impressive thing about this book is that the author has designed and illustrated it himself, and done it quite beautifully. Very few people indeed can do this. Ben Schott is the only other writer I can think of who does this successfully. The upshot is that the pages here are fit to bursting without seeming cluttered. And there are nice touches; every spread contains a tiny diagram telling you the exact distance of that part of the walk. Little additions which produce a very satisfactory whole.

At 174 x 150 mm the book is slightly larger than what one might call pocket size, but still small enough for easy handling and legibility on  your walks.
composite

This is definitely a book worth owning, whether you use it on the road or simply to have an enjoyable read.


Bloody London (128pp) by David Fathers is published by Conway in paperback, fully illustrated in full colour, with a cover price of £9.99.

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Review: Death Diary: A Year of London Murder, Execution, Terrorism and Treason, by Gary Powell.

death diaryThis less-than-cheerful and macabre title actually belies the light reading which exists between its covers. I say this, because there are 365 stories of between half to a page each. So the reading is easy and can be done in any order without losing any narrative thread. You may be on the train, bus stop, about to switch off the bedside lamp. Whatever: light reading. I love books like this.

The content, as described in the title, comprises one death-related story (mostly murders) for every single day of the year going way back in London’s history.

There are the high profile cases, as you would expect. The execution of Charles I at the Banqueting House; the shooting of WPC Yvonne Fletcher at the Libyan Embassy; the murder by a down-on-his-luck rival of actor William Terriss outside the Adelphi Theatre; the Krays.

But for me it’s the more mundane, everyday tragedies which resonate. The landlady strangled and stabbed by her lodger; the heartbreaking story of a man who killed his own toddlers because he literally could not afford to feed his family – in a book where hangings abound, at least this tortured soul went to an asylum.

A great deal of these accounts fall between the mid 19th and mid 20th centuries. It is noticeable that the motive is so often tied to money – or the lack of it. Grinding poverty, money worries – they existed on a level that we would find difficult to comprehend today. The ultimate state sanction was not sufficient deterrent, clearly. The gallows at Wandsworth, Pentonville and elsewhere were kept rather busy, even to relatively recent times.

There are many stories of a man killing his wife or lover in a domestic, or very occasionally the other way around. As I say, on the face of it, mundane. So the danger is these accounts becoming a bit samey. In Death Diary, author Gary Powell – a retired Met officer of decades standing – skillfully avoids this with matter-of-fact narratives which are never boring and yet neither are they ever sensationalised. It’s a difficult one to explain, perhaps the policeman’s knack of succinctly delivering detail.

An excellent third London book from this author. It includes a short bibliography and “index of offenders” at the end and there’s a generous section of illustrations and photos in the middle. Recommended.


Death Diary: A Year of London Murder, Execution, Terrorism and Treason (288pp) by Gary Powell is published in paperback by Amberley with a cover price of £14.99. An author-signed copy was featured as London Historians monthly book prize for February 2017.

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The second Newgate in a 19th-century print: A ...

Image via Wikipedia

While desperately searching for items to populate On This Day on our main website, I came across a story which really deserves the TV blockbuster treatment. It  has murder, detective work, courtroom drama, a twist and – not entirely inevitably – an execution.

It involves the violent murder by his servant’s hand of the Whig politician Lord William Russell on 5 May 1840. It took place at the peer’s London residence. Members of Russell’s personal staff – Francois Courvoisier (valet) and Sarah Mercer (housemaid) – discovered what appeared to be a burglary and their master’s body the following morning. But the authorities smelled a rat, suspecting an inside job. Courvoisier in particular was in the frame although during his trial he continued to profess his innocence and point the finger at Mercer. 

While the evidence was relatively scant, he stood a chance. But when new evidence came to light, he privately confessed to the crime to his barrister while continuing to protest innocence in open court. To no avail. Courvoisier was eventually found guilty and hanged outside Newgate Prison on 6 July 1840.

So what was the motive? It turns out that during his private confession, Courvoisier revealed that Russell had sacked him for theft and his solution to the predicament was this rather ham-fisted staged burglary and murder.

A bit more detail here.

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