Page 5. " TO H.G. WELLS "

Conrad dedicated his novel to fellow writer H.G. Wells. A prolific writer, particularly known for such early twentieth century science fiction works as The War of the Worlds, Wells was a great friend of Conrad’s and encouraged him in his literary efforts.


Page 9. " we recalled the already old story of the attempt to blow up the Greenwich Observatory "

Ford Madox Ford
Public DomainFord Madox Ford

In his Author’s Note, written in 1920 in response to the outrage which The Secret Agent drew from some quarters, Conrad recalls a discussion with Ford Madox Ford about the 1894 bombing in Greenwich Park. Struck by the senselessness of the act, in which French anarchist Martial Bourdin died, Conrad cites the attack as the inspiration for his book.






Page 13. " before the era of reconstruction dawned upon London "

Over London by Rail by Gustave Doré (1870)
Public DomainOver London by Rail by Gustave Doré (1870)

Between 1831 and 1925, London was the largest city in the world. The decline of manual techniques in agriculture after the Industrial Revolution, combined with the burgeoning opportunities in factories around the capital, brought hundreds of thousands of people to the city, necessitating a flurry of construction to house them all. The house in which the Verlocs live was built before this rush and so by 1886, when the story takes place, it would have been quite run down and grimy, smeared with soot from the city factories.



Page 16. " The change from the Belgravian square to the narrow street in Soho "

A street in Belgravia
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeA street in Belgravia - Credit: amandabhslater
  Belgravia, where Winnie Verloc’s mother kept her lodging house, is a genteel part of central London. By contrast, Soho, where the Verlocs set up shop, was (and to some degree still is) a seedy entertainment district frequented by prostitutes, pimps and shady characters.

Wardour Street, Soho
Creative Commons AttributionWardour Street, Soho - Credit: markhillary


Page 17. " Under our excellent system of compulsory education "

William Forster MP
Public DomainWilliam Forster MP

In 1870, William Forster MP drafted the Elementary Education Act. This was the first ever piece of legislation to make schooling compulsory for all children aged between 5 and 12 in England. School boards were established to provide schools in all areas where there were not sufficient numbers of buildings to cope with the need. Stevie would have been among the first generation of children to benefit.






Page 19. " men and women riding in the Row "

Rotten Row by James Valentine (1894)
Public DomainRotten Row by James Valentine (1894)

A reference to Rotten Row, a broad track running the length of Hyde Park’s south side. Established by William III in 1690, it was the first ever artificially-lit road in the UK, and was once a very fashionable place to be seen. Today it is still maintained as a place to exercise horses in central London.


Page 19. " Hyde Park Corner "

Hyde Park Corner by Thomas Shotter Boys
Public DomainHyde Park Corner by Thomas Shotter Boys

A major intersection at the south east corner of Hyde Park. The constitutional arch there was originally built as a northern gate to the grounds of Buckingham Palace. It would have been topped by a statue of the Duke of Wellington on horseback when Mr Verloc passed it.

Google Map
Page 21. " to the sellers of invigorating electric belts and to the inventors of patent medicines "

Quack doctors. Conrad clearly had a very dim view of the people who peddled dubious wonder cures such as electrohomeopathy as he uses them for negative comparisons several times in the narrative. Between 1880 and 1930 there were two electric remedy devices on the market, both of which claimed to combat fatigue and aging by administering electric shocks and vibration to various parts of the body.

Page 21. " London’s topographical mysteries "

Unlike gridplan cities, such as New York, where streets and buildings are numbered consecutively, London has many quirks when it comes to house numbers. Because of the city's long history and rapid bursts of growth, it is common for buildings with consecutive numbers to be far apart from each other. Conrad makes a joke of this, implying that the houses have wandered off from where they were supposed to be. The fact that the unnamed embassy is located in Chesham Square invites readers to connect it with Russia (the real-life Russian Embassy was in Chesham Place).