At the heart of The Secret Agent, and as memorable as the characters that walk its streets, is Victorian London. By 1886, the year the novel takes place, the city's population had swelled to nearly 5 million as workers poured in from the countryside to take up the factory jobs created after the Industrial Revolution.
With so many people flooding into it, the city became a sprawling warren of alleyways and side streets, lined with hastily erected dwellings where families were packed sometimes as many as eight to a room. People who had once known stability and a sense of community in rural towns and villages now found themselves thrown together with anonymous strangers. This, combined with the smoke and smog from London’s factories, could make London’s streets a lonely and sometimes eerie place.
Space wasn’t the only thing at a premium. Clean water and decent sanitation were equally scarce as the city groaned under the strain of its millions of new inhabitants. With raw sewage being pumped into the Thames and diseases such as cholera rife, London was a place of strong and often unpleasant smells. The stench from the river got so bad that in the summer of 1858 Parliament closed because of it. By 1886, a more extensive sewage system was in place, but the smell from horses, meat markets and the ubiquitous coal fires still dominated the streets.
Poverty was extreme in nineteenth-century London, with many people forced into difficult and dangerous occupations to make ends meet, even going as far as scavenging in the sewers to find coins and objects they could sell. Although Verloc’s shop is a front for his anarchist activities, it wouldn’t have looked strange in London’s backstreets where anything and everything was packaged up and flogged to anyone prepared to pay.
For those not cut out for hard graft, crime was the alternative. Although violent criminals, such as the notorious Jack the Ripper, were relatively rare, petty thieves and prostitutes frequented the streets. In 1829, in an attempt to maintain law and order among the burgeoning population outside the square mile, Sir Robert Peel founded the Metropolitan Police, whose officers are still known as “bobbies” because of him today. By the time Chief Inspector Heat and the Assistant Commissioner get on the trail of Conrad's Greenwich bomber, the force has been going nearly sixty years.
The Royal Observatory at Greenwich, the object of Verloc’s bungled terrorist attack, was commissioned in 1675 by King Charles II. It was the centre of British astronomy (see Longitude), and in 1884 an international conference established that the Prime Meridian running through it should be used as the baseline measurement for time, becoming known as Greenwich Mean Time. In 1894, the French anarchist Martial Bourdin blew himself in Greenwich Park when the device he was carrying exploded. This apparently motiveless attack was the inspiration for Conrad’s novel.