Rabbit Holes, Puddles & Pubs

I love a good rabbit hole. I fell into this one with a mouldering duke and came out with the chills.

Back in 2015, for the first time ever, I started writing with the barest bones of a partial outline. For me, that was a list of six scenes with a short paragraph explaining what happened in each scene. It was the least organised I’d ever been when I started writing. That book was NTSR 3—Of Blood and Oil.

A throwaway line gave me the identity of the main antagonist.

“Ask her what happened when she tried to ride Mara’s stallion, or when she set off to find the mouldering duke. Ask her what happened when she tried to tame Boxer.”

From there, I outlined the rest of the book.

The mouldering duke needed a name. I decided on James Stewart—it sounded evergreen, noble and Scottish—a perfect name for the last bloodborn vampire in Scotland. Stewart gets his kicks illegally breeding werewolves for dog fights and hunting games. He uses his book of wagers to blackmail other men into committing depraved acts for entertainment. He preys on the weak and vulnerable. He murdered his own children and would have had his wife committed had she not run away. None of this happens on the page; this is all backstory.

Ribbet collage

One of the joys of writing immortal villains is that you can take them back in time and write new adventures. So, when I started writing The Lion & the Wolf (set in 1795), other ideas popped into my head: first, Puddles (I still haven’t thought of a better name—set in 1891) and then Two Souls & a Pocket Watch (set in 1900). I like the “Something something & a something” format, so I might use that for the three Victorian stories. The third story is currently a seed.

I started writing Puddles without an outline during the July NaNo camp, but stalled at 2K, mostly because I was working on five different things as usual. Since then, I’ve outlined the story properly. James Stewart appears as the idle immortal duke, one of the three beings responsible for the man-eating puddles springing up around London. It’s become something of a tradition to reference Jack the Ripper in London-based Victorian tales, so I did. Why wouldn’t I when it’s set in the area between Limehouse, Bethnal Green and the Tower of London? Why wouldn’t I when this is the area in which I was born?

By the time I decided to write a second story featuring Uriel and Bel, this time set at the turn of the century, I figured it was time to research more. I wanted to get more specific about the locality. I needed to know what was standing then and what wasn’t there yet. I decided to set key scenes from Two Souls & a Pocket Watch around the old London Dock and set about finding some local pubs that are still standing now for a bit of added colour.

My favourites back onto the river. The oldest, the Prospect of Whitby, has stood on the north bank of the Thames through the Cromwell episode and the reigns of twenty-one monarchs, and is two years away from its 500th birthday. One of the Ripper suspects allegedly drank there.

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Photo from A London Inheritance.

Yes, there really is a secret beer garden beneath that tree. To the left of the pub is Pelican Stairs. A lot of the stairways in the alleys between buildings aren’t there anymore, but there used to be dozens of them on this stretch of the Thames, leading from the street to the foreshore on both sides of the river. Mudlarking used to be an occupation, mostly for children and the elderly, but these days, you need a licence to explore the foreshore.

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Photo from the pub’s Twitter timeline, taken c. 1900.

The Grapes at Limehouse was a dockers pub opened in the 1720s, though there’s thought to have been a pub onsite since the 1580s. It is now part-owned by Sir Ian McKellen, and Gandalf’s staff from The Hobbit stands behind the bar, along with a furry, mechanical cat, a present from Sir Patrick Stewart. Sir Walter Raleigh set sail on his third voyage to the new world from directly below its balcony, and the pub is thought to be the one described by Charles Dickens in Our Mutual Friend.

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Photo from Messy Nessy.

James Stewart wouldn’t have visited the pubs near the river though. In my lore, vampires tend not to get too close to tidal waters because it brings on a lust that has undesirable consequences. I can easily imagine the duke, overflowing with entitlement and swagger, swishing into the pub, his intimidating reputation causing punters to hide themselves in the shadows lest he call on them to settle their debts. It just wouldn’t be any of the pubs on the river. These would’ve been the perfect places to hide from the mouldering duke.

Moving north, the history of public houses gets messier. The closer you get to Whitechapel, the more likely it is that pubs were frequented by Ripper victims and suspects, or the Krays, or somebody likely to stab you in the eyeball with an umbrella.

The Blind Beggar on Whitechapel Road was built in 1894, serving as the tap room for the Albion Brewery next door (now converted to flats). The first Brown Ale was brewed there in the early twentieth century. William Booth held his first open air sermon outside the pub, leading to the formation of what is now the Salvation Army. In 1966, George Cornell was murdered in the pub by Ronnie Kray. Today, the landlord dresses as Henry VIII, but who has the ear of this king? Pub landlords overhear everything and pretend to hear nothing. Discretion is part of the job.

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Photo from Spitalfields Life.

The Ten Bells in Spitalfields has connections to Annie Chapman and Mary Kelly, two of the Ripper’s victims. Some accounts say the former was drinking in the pub the night she was murdered, and the latter regularly picked up clients outside. After an ill-advised stint when the owners renamed the pub after the infamous murderer of women, and a lengthy campaign by Reclaim the Night to have the name changed, The Ten Bells branding lost all traces of its Ripper connections. The pub features beautiful original tiling and an artwork by Tracey Emin, a neon sign which aptly reads Keep Me Safe.

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Photo from Travels with Beer.

The Romford Arms (renamed The Pride of Spitalfields in the 1980s) has links to two Ripper suspects. The first, James Hardiman, was a regular at the pub and a “cats meat vendor.” Nice. The second suspect, George Hutchinson, was drinking in the Romford Arms the night Mary Kelly was murdered. He later admitted to talking to her that night, then following her home because he thought the man she was with looked suspicious. He claimed to have stood across the street for forty-five minutes, but said nobody came out. His presence was corroborated by a neighbour. Some thought he was the Ripper himself; some thought he was an attention seeker. Inspector Abberline, the man in charge of investigating the Whitechapel Murders, believed Hutchinson’s account.

Mary Kelly was the last of the canonical five murders, though the Whitechapel Murders file continued to grow. Two more murders were committed, the last in February 1891. Yes, that is when Puddles is set. Yes, the Ripper will come face to face with my immortal duke. No, he will not like it. He’ll like the God-Wolf even less. He’ll really wish he’d kept his mouth shut down the pub.

the-victims

The renamed pub has virtually no online presence, certainly no historic photos. I did find out something about it though. I found out the name of the landlord in 1900, the year in which I set Two Souls & a Pocket Watch.

The landlord’s name was James Stewart.

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