If you wander down the right bank of the River Thames from Tower Bridge, you’ll come to a block of luxury flats, close to the old St Saviour’s Dock, that is still called Jacob’s Island. It is one of those anonymous dockland blocks, where each individual property costs a great deal of money. To live there would cost the kind of wealth that would have been unimaginable to the folk who lived around Jacob’s Island in the early part of Queen Victoria’s reign.
For, until the 1850s, this was one of the worst slums in Victorian England. A rookery too, in many ways. A place where people were forced to resort to crime in order to exist.
I’ve always been fascinated with Jacob’s Island, ever since I first read about it in the works of Charles Dickens, Charles Kingsley, and the social commentator Henry Mayhew. Having walked around the site of the old rookery, I wanted to write about it too.
In my new book, Deadly Quest, which is published this Friday, I’ve featured Jacob’s Island quite a bit. My novel has its climax there.
I first heard of Jacob’s Island when I was a boy, and first read Oliver Twist, a novel which reaches its conclusion there. It’s portrayed as the last refuge of Fagin and his gang of pickpockets. It’s the place where Bill Sikes meets his end. Charles Dickens visited the place several times, though it changed over his time. I’ve walked there a few times as well, though there is nothing of the old Victorian rookery to see. But then, when I walk the streets of London, I live in an imaginative past, constructing from a few old buildings the city that has long gone. Here is some of Dickens’ description (I urge you to re-read it in full):
...surrounded by a muddy ditch, six or eight feet deep and fifteen or twenty wide when the tide is in, once called Mill Pond, but known in these days as the Folly Ditch… in Jacob’s Island, the warehouses are roofless and empty; the walls are crumbling down; the doors are falling into the streets; the chimneys are blackened, but they yield no smoke… the houses have no owners; they are broken open, and entered upon by those who have the courage; and there they live, and there they die. They must have powerful motives for a secret residence… who seek a refuge in Jacob’s Island. Oliver Twist, Chapter 50.
So outraged were some London officials by Dickens’ description of Jacob’s Island that they attacked him quite publicly. One city Alderman denied that Jacob’s Island even existed. But it did, and it was probably much worse than even Dickens described. The then Bishop of London, concerned about the appalling conditions, agreed that Dickens’ description was accurate.
Influenced by the social commentary of Henry Mayhew, Charles Kingsley gives his own description of Jacob’s Island in his social novel Alton Locke. If you want to understand the full horror of the place all three writers’ works are well worth seeking out.
Given these descriptions by some of our greatest writers, I was daunted at the thought of portraying Jacob’s Island in Deadly Quest. But, in a way, my portrayal of Jacob’s Island is much later than theirs. Oliver Twist is set during the reign of William IV, Kingsley and Mayhew’s work a trifle before my book, where the events take place in 1854.
At that time the old rookery of Jacob’s Island was going through its death throes. The London authorities had recognised that the conditions were too appalling to be tolerated any longer.
There had been an outbreak of cholera in the early 1850s – not surprising given that the residents took their drinking water from the Folly Ditch. Some of the island’s buildings had been demolished. Parts of the Folly Ditch, a foul waterway that penetrated to the heart of the district, had been filled-in by 1854. In fact, I’ve taken a few liberties and preserved – for the sake of Deadly Quest – a little more than probably actually survived in 1854.
In my novel, only the truly desperate are still living on Jacob’s Island. I’ve made it the haunt of criminals – after all, my book is a thriller. The sad truth is that only the most pitiful would have still been clinging on, criminals only in the sense that they had to survive.
My book Deadly Quest is now out in paperback and will be published on Kindle from Friday. It’s cheaper if you buy it on pre-order before the actual publication date. Just click on the link for more information.