Pimlico is a grid of largely residential streets filled with white stucco terraces near Victoria Station. It was built as the southern extension of Belgravia, although it never achieved the grand reputation of the latter area.
Thomas Cubitt began work on Pimlico in 1825. Previously the area was marshland, primarily used for growing vegetables.
The nineteenth century was a period of great change for Britain. In 1783 she lost her American colonies; in 1801 Ireland became a part of the Union. The Napoleonic Wars were fought and won at great economic and military cost from 1803 to 1815, and another war broke out against America in 1812.
However, by the time Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837, Britain had become far more stable, entering into an era of economic prosperity and imperial expansion. During this period the effects of the Industrial Revolution became more pronounced, modernising Britain's factories and transport systems. Britain benefited from political turbulence in France and the rest of continental Europe, becoming the world's only stable industrialised economy until around 1870. The population of England doubled over the course of Victoria's reign, and domestic politics can be characterised by a move towards greater liberalism and social reform. It was an era of technological rather than cultural progress: the development of the railways, factories and canals introduced great Victorian figures such as the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Yet the nineteenth century also saw some of Britain's best writers, including Charles Dickens, the Brontë sisters, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson, William Thackeray, and Thomas Hardy.
However, rapid urbanisation coupled with appalling factory conditions led to a sharp increase in poverty, and many people were forced to live in slums. Overseas, Britain was constantly at war in one part of her empire or another, frequently with devastating results for the local populations over whom she sought dominion.
For more on Victorian London, see Matthew Plampin's essay England's Foulest Graveyard: The London of The Devil's Acre in the novel.
Although we never visit the United States in The Devil's Acre, Colt's home country has a profound influence on the characters in the novel. By the time of the novel, the country had concluded its period of Western expansion, beating off Mexico and Great Britain and subduing the country's indigenous populations. Although the War of 1812 is little known in Great Britain, overshadowed as it was by the Napoleonic wars, America's victory was of huge importance, forging a sense of growing power and independence. Yet by the middle of the century, tensions between the slave-owning South and the North had put the country on the path to civil war.
Despite this, the advances of the Industrial Revolution combined with an abundant immigrant workforce enabled a strong new industrialised economy that would flourish after the civil war. This was also the time of the California Gold Rush, when it seemed as though the United States truly was a land of opportunity, where great wealth could be had by anyone; of course, it was also the time of slavery and oppression for its black population, and of disease, genocide and warfare for Native Americans.
Samuel Colt was born in Hartford, Connecticut, in New England. During the early part of the nineteenth century, Hartford was known as a centre for abolitionists; Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin, came from this area. Colt established the Colt's Patent Fire-Arms Manufacturing Company factory in Hartford, moving it to a site by the Connecticut River in 1855, where it was renamed the Colt Armory.
Martin Rea and his fellow Molly Maguires come from Roscommon in Ireland. Between 1801 and 1923 the whole of Ireland was united with Britain, though not successfully: the period is marked by campaigns for Home Rule, by conflict between Protestants and Catholics, by economic troubles, and by the devastating Great Famine of 1845-1852.
Although Ireland had fallen under British control before the nineteenth century, the Act of Union, brought about in response to the Irish rebellion at the end of the eighteenth century, formalised this subjugation. Instead of quelling rebellious feelings in Ireland, the Union merely strengthened Irish nationalism, leading to many campaigns for Home Rule.
The question of Irish independence was complicated by the religious rift between Protestants and Catholics, as Ireland's Protestants stood to lose power and security if Protestant England no longer defended their interests. The Catholics resented paying tithes to the Protestant Church of Ireland, and wanted a return to the Church of Rome alongside political independence.
Anti-British feelings in Ireland were intensified during the Great Famine, when the effect of the collapse of potato harvests was exacerbated by British neglect. While thousands were dying of hunger, the British government continued to export food from Ireland; relief efforts were feeble and ill-judged, and the government refused to let other countries deliver aid as it would reflect badly on Britain. When the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire offered £10,000, Queen Victoria requested that he send only £1,000 as she herself had offered just £2,000. The British government under Lord John Russell blockaded Irish ports to prevent Ottoman aid from reaching the Irish people. Incidents such as these, coupled with the trauma of the famine, created desperate, vengeful men such as the Molly Maguires of Devil's Acre, and plunged Ireland into the years of violence and division from which she is only just emerging.