This map plots the settings and references in Nights at the Circus

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London, 1899

In 1899, London was the centre of the British Empire and thrived at the heart of Queen Victoria's realm.  City dwellers saw bandstands spring up in parks, enjoyed theatre, music and art, parties and shops.  Yet the wealth of some areas of the city hid squalid miles of slums, poverty and filth.  The streets were filled with horse drawn carriages and cabs, with street sweepers attempting to keep walkways clear of manure; chimneys spouted black smoke, raw sewage was emptied into the Thames and the back streets thronged with pickpockets, prostitutes and thieves.  

The map on the right shows the detail of the area close to the Alhambra, where the novel opens.  A detailed pocket map and further information on Victorian London can be found at www.victorian.london.org.

The Alhambra, where the novel opens, was an important music hall which dominated London's Leicester Square.  It was demolished in 1936, and the Odeon Cinema now stands on its former site.  Leicester Square itself was in the more affluent areas of London, although it lay close to the more dubious Soho.  

Whitechapel, the site of Ma Nelson's brothel, was in a more dubious area of London and one famed for prostitution.  The worst slums, however,  lay mainly south of the river, and around Spitalfields and Cheapside.  Charles Booth mapped the relative affluence of London's districts between 1898 and 1899, which was part of a growing social awareness among the educated classes, some of whom began taking action to improve the living conditions of their poorer neighbours.  Charles Dickens' novels, written earlier in the 19th century, played an important role in raising awareness of the city's poor among the literary classes.  In 1870 laws were passed providing compulsory education for children aged 5-12; until this work began to take effect around one in five children born in the poorest areas died before its first birthday.

Industrial as well as social change was afoot as the 19th century drew to a close.  Gas street lamps across London were gradually being replaced with electric light; a rail network crossed the city and allowed all classes to enjoy trips to the country and seaside on their newly created bank holidays.  Engineering thrived, new sewers, water and gas pipes were laid, and sanitation improved public health and mortality.

 

      

 

A film crew recreates a Victorian smog
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeA film crew recreates a Victorian smog - Credit: Andrew Dunn
A surviving Victorian shopfront
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeA surviving Victorian shopfront - Credit: Stephen McKay