We’ve now arrived at the next point in our explorations of Joan Aiken’s Dido and Pa, an alternate history fantasy set during the 1830s in a parallel London. A review of the novel appeared here and a discussion of the convoluted chronology was posted here. I’d now like to introduce you to the geography of the locations the author puts into Dido and Pa and how they compare and contrast with what existed in our London then and how it is now.
The East End of London was a rapidly developing area of London between the late 18th and early 19th century. The Ratcliffe Highway (named from red cliffs above the Thames) overlooked the Wapping marshes on the north bank of the river. Here new docks were carved out in a series of basins, with new warehouses to house the goods brought upriver to the capital. The area also attracted shady characters and gained an unsavoury reputation: the famous Ratcliffe Highway murders in 1811 (examined by P D James, co-author of The Maul and the Pear Tree) were, in terms of notoriety, just the tip of the iceberg.
It is here that Joan Aiken chose to set most of the action of Dido and Pa.
A series of contemporary London maps show how the area developed, from for example 1795 up to 1834, just before Dido returns to England. Several key sites and roads are mentioned in the novel and can be located in in the street plans.
Starting by the river we have Wapping Dock (now Wapping High Street) with access to the Thames via numerous ‘stairs’, similar to those Dido hauled herself up when escaping from Bart’s Building. Wapping High Street was where Dido went shopping and where she met David (‘Podge’) Greenaway who was painting the inn sign for The Feathers (perhaps originally The Prince of Wales though there’s no record of such a pub).
Parallel to ‘Wapping High Street’ (as Dido knew it) is Cinnamon Street, site of Cinnamon Court; this Jacobean brick palace, another invention by the author, is inhabited by Wolfgang von Eisengrim, the murderous Hanoverian ambassador. The Pear Tree Inn on Cinnamon Street was where a blood-stained knife was discovered among the belongings of John Williams, the principal suspect in the 1811 Ratcliffe Highway killings, a fact which may have encouraged the author to place the ambassador’s residence here.
One anomaly is that we’re told that Cinnamon Court lies “by an outer bend of the river bank where the current cut in”. Clearly the Margrave’s residence is long enough to reach from the street down to the shore line: as it’s seven minutes on foot for our heroine from Bart’s Building perhaps the aptly named Frying Pan Stairs represents the dilemma Dido finds herself in.
The other major site mentioned in Dido and Pa is Bart’s Building, where Abednego Twite took Dido after he’d abducted her from a pub just north of Petworth in West Sussex. As far as I can see there is no such building in Wapping, and none that may have existed there in the 1830s. It may have been inspired by St Bartholomew’s Hospital, a medieval institution which, after the Dissolution, became the “House of the Poore in Farringdon in the suburbs of the City of London of Henry VIII’s Foundation” and later, as Bart’s, a famous London hospital. In the 1830s the imposing buildings had a balustrade similar to that behind which Dido contemplated escape.
However, Bart’s is nowhere near Wapping, so we have to look elsewhere for clues to Bart’s Building. We discover that it overlooks the Thames, lies east off Wapping Lane and is fronted by Farthing Court. Needless to say there is nothing now that can be identified from that description, much of the East End having been destroyed by the Blitz. Modern Wapping Lane was formerly known as Old Gravel Lane–an indication of the underlying geology–and ended at the Thames in the vicinity of Wapping Dock Stairs, just to the east of Execution Dock and south of Cinnamon Street.
What has happened here is that Joan Aiken has amalgamated a number of places and included some related ideas. Just south of the then new East London Dock, off Old Gravel Lane, stands Farthing Fields, a narrow thoroughfare joining Princes Street (now Raine Street) with Silver Street (now Penang Street). This is very close to the artificial basin, now filled in, of the East London Dock, part of the Georgian expansion of the docks between 1799 and 1815.
Now the aforementioned Raine Street takes its name from a brewer called Henry Raine, who in 1719 built a school for poor children. Raine’s House gradually expanded to include separate buildings for boys (St George’s School) and girls (Raine’s Asylum). Nearby and to the south was St George in the East Workhouse, first built in 1766: the male dormitories are now flats in Penang Street. In 1823, ironically on Bonfire Night, fire broke out with some loss of life: in Dido and Pa the only victim in the Bart’s Building fire is the ferocious Mrs Bloodvessel. Charles Dickens in Chapter III (“Wapping Workhouse”) of The Uncommercial Traveller describes what are referred to as “the foul wards” of the workhouse:
They were in an old building squeezed away in a corner of a paved yard … they were in a building most monstrously behind the time – a mere series of garrets or lofts, with every inconvenient and objectionable circumstance in their construction, and only accessible by steep and narrow staircases, infamously ill-adapted for the passage up-stairs of the sick or down-stairs of the dead.
He continues with compassionate observations on the sickly unfortunates of the workhouse. It seems to me that Joan Aiken’s descriptions of Bart’s Building in Farthing Fields by the Thames, its cellars filled every night with young ‘lollpoops’, must have owed a lot to Bart’s — Henry VIII’s “House of the Poore” — and to Raine’s charity school for poor children by the East London Dock as well as to Wapping Workhouse with its destitute men, women and children.
Finally we come to the other major London landmark that features in Dido and Pa, the 396 metre long Thames Tunnel. Begun in 1825 by the Brunels, this for us was the first tunnel built under a navigable river when it was completed in 1841 and opened in 1843 (it’s already marked in Mogg’s 1834 Strangers Map pictured above, by the way).
For Dido there had already been the tunnel under the English Channel (allowing wolves to enter Britain, as we’re told in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase) and another just for pedestrians linking Chelsea and Battersea (as described in Black Hearts in Battersea); just as with our Thames Tunnel the link between north and south is initially planned for carriages and pedestrians but in 1865 it too will no doubt be adapted for railway use.
There are other London sites mentioned but they’ll be listed in a separate post: here I’ve chosen to feature the places in Wapping in which most of the action of the novel is focused. I hope that this post will help you envisage where Dido’s adventures occur when next you pick up Dido and Pa.