Something is not quite right in London A Matter of Dead Ends Book 7 of the Lady Caroline Mysteries by Isabella Bassett
Historical Notes

Elizabethan Mermaids, Victorian Sewers and Twentieth Century Escalators: Historical Notes for “A Matter of Dead Ends”

The idea for this book developed gradually. I’d heard about London’s lost rivers and London’s sewers, but it wasn’t until I began research in earnest that I discovered that London rests on a honeycomb of tunnels: from the long-covered — and perhaps forgotten — Thames tributaries, to the Victorian sewers, to Tube tunnels. But the real surprise came when I began to uncover old articles and obscure blog posts about another set of tunnels — the secret ones. It appears that for a long time, royalty and government have been constructing tunnels under London to get around unnoticed. Here is a brief summary of the historical research that went into “A Matter of Dead Ends“.

Elizabeth I’s Spanish Armada Portrait

The Elizabeth I portrait mentioned in the book, featuring a mermaid, is real and at least two versions of it exist. The one referenced in the book is housed in the Royal Museums Greenwich. 

The portrait commemorates Elizabeth I’s victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588. The symbolic meaning of the mermaid painted on the Queen’s lefthand side is unclear. According to the research I did, it seems that a mermaid was sometimes used to symbolize Elizabeth I herself — a reference to her virginity (as a mermaid does not have a lower female half, and therefore has no female reproductive parts, she’s virginal by default). 

The Royal Society’s conspiracy theory based on the portrait is entirely of my own invention.

Elizabethan Mermaids

The mermaid was a recurring symbol in Elizabethan times. In addition to symbolizing virginity (as explained above), it also was used, surprisingly and confusingly, to represent a woman with loose morals. Therefore, there are records of Elizabeth I’s cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, being depicted as a mermaid, alluding to her promiscuity and all-round condemnable character.

Mermaid Tavern

The discussion of Elizabethan mermaids would not be complete without a mention of the Mermaid Tavern. It is now famous for the literary/drinking club — the Fraternity of Sireniacal Gentlemen — that met there during Elizabethan times. One of the club’s most famous members is supposed to have been William Shakespeare. While the tavern, the drinking club, and the regular meetings of literary luminaries, are all historical facts, whether Shakespeare frequented those meetings is debated by scholars.

London Sewers

I spent some time researching London sewers. Information about them is scarce — probably for security reasons, as hinted at in the book. But I did find images online of sewer networks/plans from the late 19th and early 20th century that showed the layout of the various sewer tunnels in London. The description of the route through the sewers the Royal Society was taking in the book is a pretty accurate representation of the actual layout of sewer tunnels. Whether they are walkable all the way from Embankment to Chelsea pumping station is another matter.

It goes without saying that going into the sewers and exploring them is not allowed, and all references to explorations I found in online seem to have been done clandestinely. Sometimes short tours of sewers and pumping stations are organized by historical societies, for anyone interested.

London’s Lost Rivers

Finding information about London’s lost rivers was much easier than finding information about the city’s sewers. Fleet River is one of the most famous lost rivers of London, so called because these tributaries of the Thames have long been covered over and integrated into the sewerage system. Out of sight, out of mind.

Of all the lost rivers, the one that is of paramount interest to the Royal Society is the River Westbourne. The River Westbourne was dammed in 1730 to form The Serpentine lake in Hyde Park. If there were a mermaid in The Serpentine, she would have gotten there through the River Westbourne. Nowadays, the river doesn’t feed into The Serpentine. It became quite polluted, and is now conducted through a pipe under the lake.

Though now covered, the River Westbourne marks the boundary between Kensington & Chelsea and Westminster. You can also see evidence of it at Sloane Square Tube Station. Look up at the green conduit running overhead over the track of the station — it’s the River Westbourne.

Secret and Private Tunnels 

In addition to Tube tunnels, sewers, and lost rivers, there are also many private and hidden tunnels running under London. The tunnel connecting St James’s Palace to the wine merchants (named Berry Brothers and Rudd in reality) is a historical fact. The wine merchants are housed in what used to be a high-class brothel at the time of Charles II. Apparently, there is a bricked up entrance in the cellars of the wine merchant that connects to this tunnel. There is also a tunnel running to a perfumer (Floris Perfumes) on Piccadilly.

That there might be other tunnels in the area is not much of a stretch to imagine. 

Also, as stated in the book, a lot of private gentleman’s clubs are found in the area of the St James’s neighborhood. Many of these clubs started out as gambling places, or brothels, and gentlemen needed a discreet was to enter them, hence the secret tunnels from houses in the neighborhood.

In addition to these private tunnels, there are also rumors of government tunnels connecting Whitehall to Parliament, and to various Royal buildings.

Imagine the network of tunnels under the feet of London’s populice. In addition to the Tube and sewers, there are also tunnels for telephone lines and electricity, secret government tunnels, and private tunnels. The Royal Mail also had tunnels constructed to make mail transfer and delivery faster. And this is before the government constructed additional secret tunnels and bunkers during WWII and the Cold War. 

Information on all of these is patchy, most likely for security reasons, as stated in the book.

Escalators on the London Tube

Beginning in 1924, London Tube stations were starting to be equipped with escalators to replace lifts (elevators). The escalator at Trafalgar Square Tube Station, so central to the story, came into use on April 13, 1926. To make the story work, I moved the date up by a few weeks in the book. 

The first escalator in England was introduced in 1898 in Harrods, the department store.

What Parliament was Discussing in February of 1926

Minutes of Parliament sittings going back over 100 years, and more, are available online. In 1926, an Encephalitis lethargica epidemic and rising unemployment were the most pressing topics.

Parliament Act 1911

Parliament Act 1911 is a historical fact, and as described in the book, it curtailed the powers of the House of Lords. Uncle Albert and all other Lords members of the Royal Society would have belonged to the House of Lords. The power of the House of Lords was reformed further, and nowadays not every titled member sits in the House of Lords, only 92.

Gifts to Government, Politicians and the Royal Family

The Royal Family, politicians, and diplomats have been presented with gifts from other countries for centuries. One can easily imagine all the treasures and curiosities that have accumulated over the years. There is little information on what happened to gifts in the 1920s. As the first “Ministerial Code” of conduct pertaining to gifts was introduced in 1992, one would imagine that most gifts were kept by the individuals they were presented to.

Nowadays, politicians and the Royal Family do not get to keep the gifts. The gifts become property of the Government. Anyone wishing to keep a gift, has to pay its market value. The rest of the items are either sold at auction or placed in various museums across the country, as stated in the book.

Vaults

The vaults mentioned in the book are made up, but quite plausible.

Dover Street Tube Station

Is now called Green Park Tube Station.

Port of Aden and Gulf of Aden

The Port and Gulf of Aden are real places, and have long been strategically important to Great Britain, as stated in the book. The Sultanate of Wahili is made up.

Embankment Tube Station

Was called Charing Cross at time. The station was then renamed Embankment 1976, and the name Charing Cross was used for a new station.

Embankment

The construction of the Embankment was part of the Victorian sewerage project to contain the city’s effluent. It’s a marvel of engineering that is still used today. It follows the Thames and runs quite close to the Embankment Tube Station.

From Tube tunnels to sewer tunnels, modern Londoners truly live in a Victorian town.

Park Keepers

London parks were locked at sunset (a practice still popular today). Each park had a Park Keeper who lived in a lodge in the park, and whose responsibility — along with a group of deputies — was to not only maintain the grounds, but also to patrol the park and ensure its security. Entry to the parks was forbidden after sunset, and anyone caught in the park would have been handed over to the police. Fishing was also forbidden and an arrest-able offense.

The Hyde Park lodge still exists today, and is called Serpentine Lodge.

Mail Delivery

Mail delivery again plays a role in the book. With regards to the letters Marston recieves, it might surprise the reader that at the time, it was typical to post a letter in morning and receive a reply by the evening post. In the 1920s there were four deliveries a day, the last one at 9:30 pm. In Victorian times there were 12 deliveries a day!

The Rt. Hon.

Lastly, a note on Marston’s title. The Right Honorable title identifies him as a member of the Privy Council — a formal body of advisors to the sovereign, and thus quite powerful.

Lady Caroline Book 7 by Isabella Bassett A Matter of Dead Ends

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