Page 56. " ferocity worthy of Abyssinia or Ashantee "
Ashanti warrior 1873
Public DomainAshanti warrior 1873 - Credit: Saint-Elme Gautier

Abyssinia is the former name for modern day Ethiopia.


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The Ashanti (or Asante) Empire (1701–1896) in West Africa stretched from modern day central Ghana to Benin and Côte d'Ivoire. The Ashanti were the major ethnic group of what was a powerful and highly disciplined military power, benefiting from an early adoption of European Firearms.


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Page 57. " Hanging-sword-alley, Whitefriars "
Fleet Street today
Public DomainFleet Street today - Credit: Mahlum

Whitefriars is named for a pre-Reformation house of the Carmelites (Whitefriars) that used to be located in the area. The area originally fell under the jurisdiction of the friars.  The area’s residents continued to claim exemption from the city's jurisdiction long after the friars had moved on, but their anomalous status was abolished in 1697.

Hanging-sword Alley lay south of Fleet Street and ran east off Whitefriars. It has been built over since Dickens’ time.  Even then, however, it would have been difficult to locate - its opening was a mere crack in the wall. The Hanging Sword house, from which the street took its name, can be traced to the 1560's.

For many years the alley hosted ‘Blood Bowl House’. In 1743 Captain George Morgan was returning home along Fleet Street in the early hours of the morning when he spotted a lost old lady. He offered to escort her home. She led him round the corner to Blood Bowl House where he was set upon by a gang, robbed and thrown into the Alley almost dead.


Page 59. " I'm as sleepy as laudanum "
Opium poppies, (2005)
Creative Commons AttributionOpium poppies, (2005) - Credit: SuperFantastic

Laudanum is a solution of opium and alcohol with pain-relieving properties, first invented in a rough form by 16th century alchemist Paracelsus.  Rediscovered in the late 17th century, it was widely available and prescribed enthusiastically as a treatment for various physical and psychological ailments, including insomnia.  Opium's highly addictive properties were not fully recognised; its medicinal formulation as laudanum allowing respectable members of society to dabble in its recreational use.

   Some quietly nurtured lifelong habits, like Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose work is consequently sometimes regarded as having emerged from a drug-fuelled haze. 

Online edition of Thomas de Quincey's 'Confessions of an English Opium Eater', (1822)

Page 62. " They hanged at Tyburn, in those days "
The Tyburn Tree
Public DomainThe Tyburn Tree - Credit: wikimedia commons

 Tyburn was a village in Middlesex, close to London, with a long history as a place of execution. In 1571 the ‘Tyburn Tree’ was erected and first used to hang the Catholic Dr John Story, who refused to recognise Elizabeth I as rightful Queen. It was a wooden triangular frame held up on three legs, from which several criminals could be hanged at once. Many Catholic priests of the Elizabethan period were executed at Tyburn for high treason, to the full extent of the law. This meant being hanged, drawn and quartered. Executions were public and were a popular spectacle; large stands were even erected by the villagers for spectators. The bodies of the criminals were often displayed as an example to others, to be seen by travellers on the road into London.

Page 63. " the Old Bailey was famous as a kind of deadly inn-yard "

The Old Bailey, Known Also as the Central Criminal Court
Public DomainThe Old Bailey, Known Also as the Central Criminal Court - Credit: The Microcosm of London: or London in Miniature, 1808

The Old Bailey is London's Central Criminal Court. It is located just off Newgate Street, next to the site of Newgate Prison, just outside the former western wall  of the City of London.  This fortified wall was termed a "bailey". 

The original medieval courthouse was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666. In 1673 the Old Bailey was rebuilt as a three level Italianate brick building. In front of the courthouse was the Sessions House Yard, where people could gather. The ground floor, where the courtroom was located, was open on one side to allow fresh air to circulate, thus inhibiting the spread of gaol fever (typhus). Spectators had easy access, and trials attracted large crowds. 

In 1737 the building was remodelled and enclosed, limiting access for casual spectators. This saw a rise in infections.  In 1750, an outbreak of gaol fever led to 60 deaths, including the Lord Mayor and two judges. Subsequently, the judges spread nosegays and aromatic herbs to keep down the stench and prevent infection.

The Old Bailey today
Creative Commons AttributionThe Old Bailey today - Credit: TB Murray
Spectators still flocked to the trials; courthouse officials charged fees for entry.

In 1774 the court was again rebuilt, further controlling public access and improving security.  In 1877, the courthouse and Newgate Prison were demolished to make room for a larger building, opened in 1907. This was heavily damaged by bombing in 1941 and rebuilt. Trials are still held in the building. 

Page 63. " they paid to see the play in Bedlam "
Scene of Bethlem Hospital from A Rake's Progress (c. 1732-35)
Public DomainScene of Bethlem Hospital from A Rake's Progress (c. 1732-35) - Credit: William Hogarth

A reference to London’s Bethlehem Hospital, the oldest public hospital specialising in the treatment of insanity, whose origins dated back to the 14th century. Its name was soon contracted to Bethlem, which became in familiar speech the notorious ‘Bedlam’. Here, inmates not only suffered brutal ill-treatment, but, until long into the 18th century, were put on show for the amusement of fashionable society and for the profit of the proprietors.

For a penny per head, people could pay to see 'the play in Bedlam’, while hucksters sold fruit and nuts, and obliging keepers brought in beer for a small charge. It is estimated that the hospital brought in about £400 a year through this means. It was only in 1770 that the first restrictions were placed on visitors to Bedlam. From then on admission was granted only by special permission of one of the governors of the asylum.