Ratcliffe Highway Revisited

In Victoriana, I describe a piece of ink-black satire written by the Romanticist, Thomas De Quincey, entitled, “On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts.”

“On Murder” purports to be a lecture given to a gentleman’s club whose members are connoisseurs of death. They appreciate killings that conform to Aristotle’s theory of catharsis in drama. “The final purpose of murder,” the lecturer says, “is precisely the same as that of tragedy in Aristotle’s account of it; viz. ‘to cleanse the heart by means of pity and terror.’” De Quincey wrote at length about the Ratcliffe Highway murders which occurred in Wapping, East London, in December of 1811. A sailor named John Williams slaughtered Timothy Marr, a shopkeeper, Marr’s wife, infant son, apprentice, and servant girl in their home at night. A week later he did the same to John Williamson, proprietor of the King’s Arms tavern, Williamson’s wife, and servant. Williams was arrested for the crimes and hanged himself while in police custody.

The entire chapter, “Modern Origins of the Mystery Genre,” can be read here on the blog.

The Ratcliffe Highway murders took place two hundred and ten years ago this month. At Spitalfields Life, The Gentle Author has a serialized account of the events running roughly coterminously with the 1811 dates. So far he has published three chapters: “The Death Of A Linen Draper,” “Horrid Murder,” and “The Burial of the Victims.”

Introduction to Victoriana

Hardcover, 160 pp (New York: Castle Imprint, 2019)
Barnes & Noble

“That after men might turn the page / And light on fancies true & sweet / And kindle with a loyal heat / To fair Victoria’s golden age”—Alfred, Lord Tennyson, To the Queen (draft), 1851.

The reign of Queen Victoria from 1837 to 1901 coincided with an unprecedented flourishing of invention, industry, and creativity in Britain. The transatlantic telegraph, Bessemer steel, modern sewage systems, and the first forays into analytical computing were all introduced during this time, when the British Empire governed a quarter of the globe. In the Anglosphere of the twenty-first century we have inherited the technologies of the nineteenth century but we have not inherited the culture that once contained them. The World Wars obliterated that culture. In the crisis of the early twentieth century the context in which the modern world had been developing was suddenly removed.

Was a different modernity possible? Something more romantic? Something more authentic? A future of dirigibles, telephones, Prussian and Russian monarchy on the Continent, railways (instead of motorways), heritage crafts, muscular Christianity, classical education, art and architecture that continued to develop within the Western vernacular not against it?

The Victorian period occupies a special place in our popular culture. Every year it is recreated on page, stage, and screen in pastiche. No other era is revisited with such regularity. What is it that fascinates us? I believe we see in the Victorian past a future that might have been. Or that might yet be. The Victorians were forced by the exigencies of history to find a balance between tradition and innovation, hierarchy and populism, community and individuality, the old and the new. These forces coexisted, if not always comfortably, then at least sympathetically and effectively. We have lost that balance. Sooner or later the exigencies of our own history will demand that we strike it again.

This book involves a cultural history of nineteenth-century Britain. I write “a” cultural history and not “the” cultural history because it is by no means exhaustive. The major figures in arts and letters are examined in detail: Charles Dickens and the Pre-Raphaelite painters particularly. But you will read nothing of Darwin, Marx, or Freud. And you will read rather more about Thomas De Quincey than you might in another book about the period. Insomuch as I have written a general introduction to Victorian arts and letters, I have also, necessarily, written a very personal one. I trust that you will encounter in these pages interesting people and works previously unfamiliar, and familiar ones from unexpected angles. If I am successful you will come any with a touchstone to that lost future that still fascinates us. What you will make of it (indeed, what we will make of it as a society) remains to be seen.

Knocking at the Gate

Writing in the New Republic, Colin Dickey describes the influence of Thomas De Quincey’s 1823 essay “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth” as it relates to the suspense genre:

There’s a moment in Alfred Hitchcock’s penultimate film, Frenzy, when the murderer Robert Rusk, a serial sexual predator, finds himself in a bit of a bind. Having just loaded the corpse of the hero’s girlfriend onto a truck carrying sacks of potatoes, Rusk realizes he’s left some incriminating evidence on the body. He climbs back up to retrieve it, but the truck begins moving, taking him further from London and into the country. As Rusk struggles to retrieve his tie-pin from his victim’s hand, he discovers rigor mortis has set in and he’s forced to break her fingers to get it free. It’s an elaborate, perversely comic scene in which a loathsome monster is strangely empathetic: Like any workaday slob, he’s made a small mistake in his job, and fixing it has turned into an increasingly complex comedy of errors. Who couldn’t sympathize with him? This is one of the great hallmarks of Hitchcockian suspense: The moment when, against all your instincts, you find yourself developing some measure of sympathy with the Devil.

More than a hundred years before Hitchcock began making films, Thomas De Quincey first pegged this affect in an 1823 essay, “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth.” The essay turns on the moment when Macbeth is in the process murdering King Duncan. Macbeth is momentarily disturbed by MacDuff’s knocking at the gate, and he panics that his crime might be discovered. Why, when we know Macbeth’s crime to be immoral, do we switch allegiance, ever so momentarily, from the victims to the murderers?

De Quincey had no language available in the canon of Shakespearean criticism to describe how such a moment engendered “a peculiar awfulness and a depth of solemnity,” it fell to him to invent it. “Murder, in ordinary cases, where the sympathy is wholly directed to the case of the murdered person,” he reasons, “is an incident of coarse and vulgar horror; and for this reason that it flings the interest exclusively upon the natural but ignoble instinct by which we cleave to life.” This attitude to primal panic would never “suit the purposes of the poet.” What, then, must a poet do to elevate such a scene to high art? The only option: “He must throw the interest on the murderer.”

De Quincey and his subsequent essay “On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts” are treated at length in a chapter on the origins of the mystery genre in my new book Victoriana.

Victoriana, Coming Soon

My second book, Victoriana, will be published later this month by Castle Imprint. The official release date is May 21. From the Castle Imprint website:

The reign of Queen Victoria from 1837 to 1901 coincided with an unprecedented flourishing of invention, industry, and creativity within her realm. This volume offers a general introduction to the arts and letters of nineteenth century Britain with authoritative analysis. Historian Nick Louras describes a civilization involved in a process of renewal, whereby historical forms and traditions were drawn into a culture of innovation, to create a society that was both rooted and forward-looking, traditional and vital. He examines the influence of Charles Dickens, the Pre-Raphaelites, Lord Tennyson, John Ruskin, Thomas De Quincey, and the Queen herself to reconstruct that society for the reader.

A Photograph of Thomas De Quincey


Frances Wilson writes in Guilty Thing that Thomas De Quincey “was the only Romantic to have had his photograph taken.” The daguerreotype was done by James Howie in Edinburgh in 1850. De Quincey was around sixty-five years old at the time. An engraving was subsequently made from it by Frank Croll.

In a letter to the Editor of The Instructor dated September 21, 1850, De Quincey gives his amusing opinion on the likeness:

My Dear Sir,—I am much obliged to you for communicating to us (that is, to my daughters and myself) the engraved portrait, enlarged from the daguerreotype original. The engraver, at least, seems to have done his part ably. As to one of the earlier artists concerned, viz. the sun of July, I suppose it is not allowable to complain of him, else my daughters are inclined to upbraid him with having made the mouth too long.

A De Quincey on the Bookshelf in ‘The House of Fear’

Last year I wrote a long post about the influence of Thomas De Quincey on the mystery genre, broadly, and Sherlock Holmes, specifically. Thus I was pleased to catch a reference to De Quincey in the 1945 film The House of Fear starring Basil Rathbone. This was the tenth film in the long-running series with Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Watson.

The screenplay is an original story very loosely based on Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Five Orange Pips.” In the film, Holmes and Watson are summoned to a remote castle in Scotland where seven men live together under a strange agreement by which they benefit from each other’s life insurance policies. Someone is murdering them one by one.

While searching for clues Holmes inspects the volumes on a bookshelf, selecting one titled Murder As a Fine Art. This is obviously De Quincey’s 1827 classic, “On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts.”



A Note on Flânerie

To walk, to meditate, to observe, to explore: these are simple but precious joys. The French have a certain type of man: the flâneur. This is translated as “stroller,” “saunterer,” or “lounger.” The flâneur is a man who walks—not, like the boulevardier, to make an exhibition of himself—but aimlessly, with cultivated leisure and openness to his surroundings. Charles Baudelaire described the flâneur as a “gentleman stroller of city streets” and “botanist of the sidewalk.”

Writers are often flâneurs because flânerie—the act of strolling—is such a useful stimulant to the creative mind. The great writers of the nineteenth century were all heroic pedestrians. Dickens walked fifteen miles per day. His nightly perambulations around London provided him with characters, scenes, and bits of dialogue for his books. He once set out at two o’clock in the morning and walked the thirty miles from London to his country home in Gad’s Hill, Kent. Thomas De Quincey walked fifteen to twenty miles per day, in part to alleviate the effects of withdrawal from laudanum. Coleridge on occasion walked forty miles. Thomas Carlyle might have held the record at fifty four miles in a single day.

Many of these writers addressed flânerie in their works. Sketches by Boz consists in part of a long, lounging stroll across the length and breadth of London, as seen by Dickens. Arthur Machen wrote directly and thoughtfully on the subject. For Machen, flânerie was an almost religious experience: the attentive flâneur could see through the landscape to the genius loci, and to the various intersections of life and history and imagination and place. “For if you think of it,” Machen wrote, in The London Adventure, “there is a London cognita and a London incognita.”

Machen spent his formative years walking the fairy-haunted landscape of rural Wales. When he arrived in London he at first despaired of the change. But he found that he found by walking and exploring that he could move beyond the imposing and claustrophobic limits of the urban environment. In one of his earliest essays, “Rus in Urbe,” published in 1890, he writes of the imagination piercing “through the unlovely streets, the dark fogs, the grimey mists.” In the novella, A Fragment of Life, he gives a description of the city transfigured in the second sight of the flâneur:

London seemed a city of the Arabian Nights, and its labyrinths of streets an enchanted maze; its long avenues of lighted lamps were as starry systems, and its immensity became for him an image of the endless universe. He could well imagine how pleasant it might be to linger in such a world as this, to sit apart and dream, beholding the strange pageant played before him; but the Sacred Well was not for common use, it was for the cleansing of the soul, and the healing of the grievous wounds of the spirit. There must be yet another transformation: London had become Bagdad; it must at last be transmuted to Syon, or in the phrase of one of his old documents, the City of the Cup.

In his 1923 memoir, Things Near and Far, Machen insists, “it is utterly true that he who cannot find wonder, mystery, awe, the sense of a new world and an undiscovered realm in the places by the Gray’s Inn Road will never find these secrets elsewhere.”

I love to walk. I walk everywhere. There are exceptions for practicality, of course. In the country I often bicycle. Over long distances I travel by train, plane, or boat. But I spend as little time as possible in automobiles. I think everyone would be happier if they walked more. The upheaval of our infrastructure, economy, and way of life to accommodate the automobile in the twentieth century was a tragic mistake.


Baudelaire, Charles, (1972) Selected Writings on Art and Literature. New York: Viking.

Machen, Arthur. (1923) The Works of Arthur Machen (Caerleon Edition). London: Martin Secker.

Machen, Arthur. (1924) The London Adventure, or The Art of Wandering. London: Martin Secker.

Machen, Arthur. (1992) Ritual & Other Stories. Carlton-in-Coverdale: Tartarus Press.


Modern Origins of the Mystery Genre

The Woman in White, illustration by Frederick Walker, 1871

I am a passionate reader of mystery stories, particularly from that long golden age of English mysteries that ran from the nineteenth century until the mid-twentieth, when the genre was characterized by gentlemen detectives, period atmosphere, eccentricity, and strangeness, before the advent of American police procedurals and hardboiled prose. The literary “mystery” as we know it today began with the work of three writers in the early and middle decades of the nineteenth century. A line can be drawn from Thomas De Quincey (1785-1859) to Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) to Wilkie Collins (1824-1889), from them to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), and from Doyle to all of the major mystery writers that came after.

De Quincy was born into a prosperous Manchester mercantile family in 1785. Upon the death of his father, control of his education and inheritance was entrusted to several guardians, who saw that he was furnished with a classical education. By the age of fifteen he had distinguished himself as a student at King Edward’s School in Bath. “That boy,” said one of the dons, “could harangue an Athenian mob better than you or I could address an English one.” De Quincey was ready for higher education and hoped to go on to Oxford. In this ambition his guardians prevaricated, postponed, and generally stymied him. They sent him to continue his preparatory education at Manchester Grammar School where he was miserable. By nature he was a sensitive and depressed young man. De Quincey resolved to run away from school and his guardians, which he did, just before his seventeenth birthday, relying on what little money he had in his possession, or could borrow, to make his way across the country. When this money ran out he took odd jobs to survive and could often afford only one small meal per day.

Eventually, De Quincey made his way to London. He was homeless at first, sleeping in the rough, unable to appeal to family acquaintances, for fear that his guardians would find him. He was given occasional crusts of bread by a man who took pity on him. With the onset of winter, the same man allowed him to stay in an unused house on Greek Street near Soho Square. This house was large, empty of furniture, and infested with rats. A neglected young girl also lived in the house, and she and De Quincey huddled together for warmth during the cold nights. De Quincey’s benefactor was a lawyer of dubious character and practices: he moved around frequently and, when present, regarded anyone who appeared at the door with suspicion.

During the day, De Quincey sat in parks or on doorsteps, slowly wasting away from hunger and malnutrition. He got along amiably with the prostitutes in the area, which was, at the time, London’s red light district. They protected him from the watchmen. One of these prostitutes, a fifteen year old girl named Ann, became his close friend and probably the love of his life. They spent as much time as they could walking the streets or sitting in places of shelter together. Ann was kind to De Quincey and tried to care for him. On one occasion, when he came near fainting from hunger, Ann spent her own meager resources to buy a cup of spiced wine to revive him. She told De Quincey about her past. She had been treated unjustly and he suggested that she might find restitution if she presented her case to a magistrate. He offered to help “avenge her on the brutal ruffian who had plundered her little property,” but she was hesitant.

De Quincey was in desperate need of money, for himself, and now for Ann. He appealed to a Jewish moneylender who agreed to advance him a large sum on the condition that De Quincey’s school friend, a young earl, stand as guarantor for the loan. De Quincey needed to travel to Eton to enlist the help of his friend. He had fortunately just received ten pounds from a family acquaintance. He gave a significant amount of this money to Ann, and used the rest to further his borrowing scheme.

Ann walked with De Quincey to Piccadilly, where he would catch the mail coach to Eton. As they sat together in a nearby square, De Quincey felt hopeful about his prospects and assured her of his intention to share whatever funds he was able to acquire with her. He told her he “would never forsake her as soon as [he] had power to protect her.” Ann was nevertheless miserable. She hugged him and cried as they said goodbye. De Quincey expected his trip to take around a week, and so he made plans to meet Ann again when he returned. She agreed to wait for him at the bottom of Great Titchfield Street, which was their “customary haven,” every night at six o’clock in the evening, beginning five days after his departure. Confident in this plan—after all, they had found each other every day for weeks without any more elaborate arrangements—De Quincey did not think to ask Ann her family name or address.

He set off on the journey to Eton, nearly falling from his place on top of the mail carriage due to weakness and exhaustion. Arriving at last, he succeeded in finding his friend the Earl. Though he sat down with his friend to a lavish breakfast, better than any meal he had eaten for months, De Quincey found that he was hardly able to keep food down after so long without. His friend agreed to partially guarantee the loan, a compromise that the moneylender later rejected, and De Quincey returned to London earlier than expected, after only three days. He waited for Ann at their rendezvous point on Great Titchfield Street. When she did not appear after several days, he made inquiries about her and tried to trace her based on the vague information he had, such as the street (but not the house) where she lived. He could find no trace of her. It was as though she had disappeared.

De Quincey left London soon after, the loan having fallen through. Before departing, he gave his forwarding address to an acquaintance who had also known Ann. For a long time, he still hoped he might hear from her and find her again. He never did.

After attending Worcester College, Oxford, De Quincey moved to Grasmere in the Lake District, where he sought out the Lake Poets, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth. He had read their Lyrical Ballads while still a student at King Edward’s School and the poems had made a deep impression upon him. De Quincey quickly became a member of their circle; they mentored him, and he later contributed greatly to their reputations with a series of essays on their work. He married during this period, eventually fathering eight children, and lived for ten years at Dove Cottage, where Wordsworth had written his most famous poems.

By the late 1810s De Quincey had become a professional essayist and journalist in his own right. He was hired in 1818 as editor of The Westmorland Gazette, a Tory journal published in the Lake District. Like Coleridge, Wordsworth, the poet laureate Robert Southey, and other members of his circle, De Quincey was an avowed conservative. In The Guardian, James Purdon writes that De Quincey held, “reactionary views on the Peterloo massacre and the Sepoy rebellion;” he was against “Catholic emancipation and the enfranchisement of the common people.” In personal correspondence, De Quincey “reserved ‘Jacobin’ as his highest term of opprobrium.” Purdon calls him, “a fascist avant la letter.” Hardly. He was, like Coleridge, a sensible Protestant Tory. Purdon quips, “Champagne socialists are so common as to be unremarkable; De Quincey was a laudanum Tory.” Laudanum is a solution of opium dissolved in alcohol. This is an allusion to the circumstance with which De Quincey is most commonly associated: his lifelong dependence on the drug.

Portrait of Thomas de Quincey by Sir John Watson-Gordon, undated (before 1864)

Although he lived to the age of seventy-four, De Quincey never physically recovered from the period of sustained, border-line starvation that he had suffered in London during his teenage years. His stomach had atrophied to the extent that he could hardly eat without being sick and recurring pain in his abdomen made it difficult to lie down. These problems were obviously exacerbated by the laudanum he began taking to treat them when he was nineteen years old.

In 1820 De Quincey published Confessions of an English Opium Eater which made him instantly famous—or infamous. The book detailed his ongoing and increasingly debilitating use of opium, being in part autobiography, in part a dispassionate record of self-medication and addiction, and in part a feat of remarkable self-analysis (De Quincey coined the term “subconscious” mind).

The Confessions called attention to the worrisome side effects of a drug that was sold over the counter by druggists and grocers at the time. It also made opium use into a romantic literary trope, popular with the Sensation and Decadent writers of the later nineteenth century. De Quincey’s descriptions of the effect of opium on his dreams suggested recreational uses for the drug. He had been susceptible to unusually vivid dreams and nightmares even before he began taking it. Under the influence of laudanum his dreams became even more vivid and intense. Time seemed to warp. He had visions of a universe of beauty and horror. He suffered nightmares that felt as though they lasted for years. He described one unsettling dream in which, “upon the rocking waters of the ocean [a] human face began to appear; the sea appeared paved with innumerable faces upturned to the heavens—faces imploring, wrathful, despairing, surged upwards by thousands, by myriads, by generations, by centuries: my agitation was infinite; my mind tossed and surged with the ocean.” His dreams began to reflect the Oriental aesthetic associated with the drug. He wrote, in language redolent of Coleridge’s Kubla Khan,

I ran into pagodas, and was fixed for centuries at the summit or in secret rooms: I was the idol; I was the priest; I was worshipped; I was sacrificed. I fled from the wrath of Brama through all the forests of Asia: Vishnu hated me: Seeva laid wait for me. I came suddenly upon Isis and Osiris: I had done a deed, they said, which the ibis and the crocodile trembled at. I was buried for a thousand years in stone coffins, with mummies and sphinxes, in narrow chambers at the heart of eternal pyramids. I was kissed, with cancerous kisses, by crocodiles; and laid, confounded with all unutterable slimy things, amongst reeds and Nilotic mud.

Mystical and outré passages like these have always been the most popular part of the Confessions, which is otherwise a restrained and profoundly humane book. De Quincey emerged from the minor scandal that it provoked with a reputation as a writer of dark sensibilities. This was confirmed in 1827 when he published a piece of ink-black satire entitled, “On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts,” in Blackwood’s Magazine. It was this essay probably more than any other that inspired later writers of mystery fiction.

“On Murder” purports to be a lecture given to a gentleman’s club whose members are connoisseurs of death. They appreciate killings that conform to Aristotle’s theory of catharsis in drama. “The final purpose of murder,” the lecturer says, “is precisely the same as that of tragedy in Aristotle’s account of it; viz. ‘to cleanse the heart by means of pity and terror.'” De Quincey wrote at length about the Ratcliffe Highway murders which occurred in Wapping, East London, in December of 1811. A sailor named John Williams slaughtered Timothy Marr, a shopkeeper, Marr’s wife, infant son, apprentice, and servant girl in their home at night. A week later he did the same to John Williamson, proprietor of the King’s Arms tavern, Williamson’s wife, and servant. Williams was arrested for the crimes and hanged himself while in police custody.

De Quincey examined the details of these murders, calling attention to crime scene investigation and the identification of clues, themes crucial to the later development of the detective genre.

The fictional Society of Connoisseurs in Murder represents a foreshadowing of the modern mystery and detective genre, but the creation of that genre was the work of another author: Edgar Allan Poe.

Poe’s character C. Auguste Dupin, a clear-thinking, puzzle-solving investigator even before the word “detective” came into common use, was the model for later characters in the genre. Dupin is the prototype of the gentleman detective: a scholar from a once wealthy family, now fallen on hard times, who conducts investigations, not as a professional, but with varied motives and in conjunction with the anonymous narrator of the tales in which he appears. Dupin is famous for his method, which Poe dubbed “ratiocination.” He is a close observer of details and makes inferences through extreme rational and logical thinking. Dupin uses these skills to put himself in the minds of criminals, solving crimes by thinking from the their point of view.

The first story in which Dupin appears, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” was published in 1841. Dupin and his friend the narrator live together in Paris, and they become interested in newspaper accounts of the mysterious and gruesome murder of two women. When a former acquaintance of Dupin is arrested for the crime on only circumstantial evidence, Dupin steps forward to help. The clues have the police baffled: one body in a chimney and one outside the house, a murder scene in a locked room, tufts of non-human hair, and witness reports of two voices—one speaking an unintelligible language. Dupin infers from the super-human agility and strength of the murderer, and the tufts of hair, that the culprit is an orangutan. He proves this by tracking down the sailor who controls the beast.

The Murders in the Rue Morgue, illustration by Harry Clarke, 1923

Poe followed “Rue Morgue” with a second Dupin story a year later, “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt.” This complex tale was based on the real-life murder of Mary Cecilia Rogers in New York City in 1838 and represents an attempt by Poe to solve the case. The third and final story in which Dupin is featured, “The Purloined Letter,” was published in 1844. Here the police seek Dupin’s help on a case where a Minister “D–” is blackmailing a woman with a revealing letter that “D–” has stolen. The police assume that “D–” must have the letter readily accessible, and they have thoroughly searched every potential hiding place in the hotel rooms where he is staying without success. A month later, after a huge reward is offered for the letter, the police return to visit Dupin, who produces the letter. He explains to the narrator that the police underestimated their opponent, who knew their methods and instead left the letter disguised in plain sight. Dupin, recognizing the letter even with its external alterations, arranged a distraction, took it, and left a decoy in its place. Poe called the story, “perhaps the best of my tales of ratiocination.”

The Dupin stories were the direct model for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. Holmes and Dupin use the same method of deductive and inferential reasoning to connect clues. Holmes, like Dupin, is a gentleman amateur. Holmes, like Dupin, is assisted by a friend and fellow lodger, Doctor Watson, who narrates the stories. In the first novel in which Holmes appears, A Study in Scarlet, Watson compares his method to that of Dupin. Holmes balks, “In my opinion, Dupin was a very inferior fellow…He had some analytical genius, no doubt; but he was by no means such a phenomenon as Poe appears to imagine.” But Sir Arthur himself was well aware of the debt that he owed to Poe. “Each is a root from which a whole literature has developed,” he said of the Dupin stories. “Where was the detective story until Poe breathed the breath of life into it?”

There is no doubt that Poe was influenced by De Quincey in the broadest sense. He read the English magazines in which De Quincey was published and expressed admiration for the Confessions. In a piece of humor that Poe composed for the American Museum in December of 1838, entitled, “How to Write a Blackwood’s Article,” he noted, “Then we have the Confessions of an Opium Eater—fine, very fine!—glorious imagination—acute speculation—plenty of fire and fury, and a good spicing of the decidedly unintelligible.”

In at least one instance Poe was directly inspired by De Quincey. Poe’s short story “The Masque of the Red Death” is based on an episode from De Quincey’s novel Klosterheim, or the Masque. In her 1937 thesis, The Influence of Thomas De Quincey on Edgar Allan Poe, Ruth Kelly explains,

The situation from Klosterheim which Poe borrowed for “The Masque of the Red Death” is a masqued ball found in Chapters XIV, XV, and XVI. A mysterious masked marauder has been bringing destruction and death of a bloody nature throughout the country. It has been impossible to apprehend him, and the country is stricken with fear. The prince con­sequently barricades the castle during a great masqued ball to which he has issued twelve hundred invitations. A chal­lenge of defiance has been hurled at the “Masque,” as the invader is called. Feeling runs high. Midnight approaches. A whisper begins to circulate that an alien presence is in the room. The whisper grows into a buzz. The music ceases abruptly. The order to seize him is given. The “Masque” discloses his identity to the prince who cries out and falls full length upon the ground bereft of consciousness. All rush toward the “Masque” in order to seize him, but in the confusion he disappears.

Poe built upon this premise, and transformed it, making the masked figure an allegory for plague in his own story. But it is clear that he read De Quincey closely and borrowed from him. In turn, Wilkie Collins read, and borrowed from, both of them. If Poe wrote the first detective stories, Wilkie Collins wrote the first modern mystery novels. T.S. Eliot famously praised The Moonstone as “the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels.” Collins drew on the earlier gothic tradition but also on the new literary strands being teased out of that tradition by De Quincey and Poe.

In Collins’s 1859 novel, The Woman in White, a young artist, Walter Hartright, takes a position as drawing master for two young ladies, half-sisters, who live with their uncle at a manor house in Cumberland. One night before he leaves London to begin his employment, he encounters a distressed woman dressed entirely in white and helps her; later he learns that she escaped from an insane asylum. In Cumberland, Walter and his student, Laura Fairlie, fall in love. She bears an uncanny resemblance to the woman in white, whose name is Anne Catherick. However, Laura is engaged to another man, Sir Percival Glyde, and marries him. When the couple returns from the honeymoon, Laura’s half-sister Marian discovers that Sir Percival is in financial trouble. Since Laura has refused to sign over her marriage settlement, Glyde and his friend, Count Fosco, are planning to take Laura’s money by other means.

At the same time, the terminally ill Anne promises to share a secret with Laura that could ruin Glyde. Before she can do so, Fosco and Glyde carry out their plan, switching the identities of Laura and Anne. Laura is drugged and sent to the asylum, and Anne dies and is buried as Laura—leaving Laura’s money to Glyde. Fortunately, Marian finds and rescues Laura. They live in poverty in London with Walter until, at last, they discover Glyde’s secret and find a way to re-establish Laura’s identity, restoring their fortunes.

Collins’s 1868 novel The Moonstone concerns the theft of a large diamond that a British officer has brought from India and bequeathed to his niece, Rachel. The diamond is taken from Rachel’s room on the evening of her birthday, after she wore it to a party. Suspects abound: three Indian jugglers are in the vicinity; a maid, Rosanna Spearman, acts suspiciously; Rachel refuses to let the police search her room and spurns the man with whom she was in love, Franklin Blake.

During the following year, Blake leaves England. Rachel accepts the proposal of another man who was at the party, the philanthropist Godfrey Ablewhite, but later breaks the engagement. When Blake returns, he discovers that Rosanna was in love with him. She found stains on his clothes from the wet paint on Rachel’s door and tried to cover for his assumed crime, eventually killing herself in despair. He then confronts Rachel, who tells him that she saw him take the stone. Blake is entirely confused, but with the help of a doctor’s assistant, and a probing, clever police detective, Sergeant Cuff, he pieces together that he had been drugged with opium on the night of the robbery. In a trance, Blake took the Moonstone from Rachel’s room to protect it, with no memory of the event, and no memory of where he put it.

Franklin and Rachel learn that the stone is in a bank, pledged to a moneylender. They watch the bank to see who will redeem the diamond, and follow this line of investigation to the discovery of Godfrey Ablewhite’s body. He has been murdered and the stone stolen again. They realize that Godfrey, on the brink of financial ruin, took the diamond from the drugged and sleepwalking Blake on the night it disappeared. Godfrey was murdered by the three Indians—in fact Brahmin priests in disguise—who return the stone to its rightful place on the statue of a moon god in India.

“He opened the bedroom door, and went out,” illustration of Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone, by John Sloan, 1908

The influence of Poe on Collins is subtle but pervasive. In a review of Collins’s novel After Dark, George Eliot made a connection between the two authors, writing, “Edgar Poe’s tales were an effort of genius to reconcile the two tendencies—to appal the imagination yet satisfy the intellect, and Mr. Wilkie Collins in this respect often follows in Poe’s tracks.” A.B. Emrys identifies Collins as,

the bridging figure between Poe and Conan Doyle, but not because of Sergeant Cuff. Not only did Collins reprise plot from Poe multiple times but the influence of Poe’s prose monologues is a key factor in Collins’s successful development of the casebook form. The vivid voices of The Woman in White and The Moonstone are central to the continued popularity of these novels and their being ranked as Collins’s best works, and their dramatic monologues are built on those of Poe’s criminals.

The influence of De Quincey is more specific. The plot twist involving opium in The Moonstone hinges upon the Confessions. “There,” the doctor’s assistant tells Blake, handing him a book, “are the far-famed Confessions of an English Opium Eater! Take the book away with you and read it.” Episodes from De Quincey’s memoir, creatively interpreted by Collins, provide an explanation for the goings on in The Moonstone.

In 1887 Doyle published A Study in Scarlet. He would go on to write a total of four novels and fifty-six short stories featuring Sherlock Holmes over a period ending in 1927. Throughout this canon of works, references, not just to Poe, but to De Quincey and Collins, appear. Doyle seems to have been inspired by his reading of De Quincey to give Holmes a drug habit.  In “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Watson notices that Holmes has “risen out of his drug-created dreams,” a concept taken straight from the Confessions, “and was hot upon the scent of some new problem.” Watson, as a disapproving physician, describes another character’s addiction to opium in “The Man With the Twisted Lip.” Here, the doctor observes, “The habit grew upon him, as I understand, from some foolish freak when he was at college; for having read De Quincey’s description of his dreams and sensations, he had drenched his tobacco with laudanum to produce the same results.”

Likewise, plot elements from the novels of Wilkie Collins echo through the Holmes canon. As Charles Rzepka notes, “The plundered Moonstone inspired Doyle’s choice of the Agra treasure as incentive to crime in the Holmes novella, The Sign of Four, where the three Brahmins that Collins set in pursuit of the gem reappear as three Muslim and Sikh conspirators who seize the treasure during the height of the Mutiny.” Doyle had already written an homage to The Moonstone: his early novel, The Mystery of Cloomber. In that book three vengeful Buddhist priests take the place of the three Brahmins.

The Sherlock Holmes series was the wellspring of the whole modern mystery genre. But it too had its source in earlier works. Without De Quincey, Poe, and Collins there might have been no Holmes. And no genre.


Collins, Wilkie. (1860) The Woman in White. London: Sampson Low, Son & Co.

Collins, Wilkie. (1868) The Moonstone. London: Tinsley Brothers.

De Quincey, Thomas. (1822) Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. London: Taylor and Hessey.

Emrys, A.B. (2011) Wilkie Collins, Vera Caspary and the Evolution of the Casebook Novel. Jefferson [NC]: McFarland & Company.

Kelly, Ruth. (1937) The Influence of Thomas De Quincey on Edgar Allan Poe (Unpublished master’s thesis). University of Southern California, Los Angeles, California. http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/ref/collection/p15799coll20/id/385613

Doyle, Arthur Conan; Klinger, Leslie (ed). (2005-2006) The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes. New York: W.W. Norton.

Purdon, James. (December 6, 2009) “The English Opium Eater by Robert Morrison,” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/dec/06/opium-eater-de-quincey-morrison

Rzepka, Charles. “‘A Deafining Menace in Tempestuous Uproars’: De Quincey’s 1856 Confessions, the Indian Mutiny, and the Response of Collins and Dickens,” in Morrison, Robert (ed); Roberts, Daniel Sanjiv (ed). (2008) Thomas De Quincey: New Theoretical and Critical Directions. New York: Routledge.

The Last of the Coaching Inns

The Tabard Inn, Southwark, photographed shortly before it was demolished in 1873

It is remarkable that the Tabard Inn mentioned by Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales was still doing business on Borough High Street in Southwark as late as 1873. It was at the Tabard, then under the proprietorship of a man named Harry Bailey, that Chaucer’s pilgrims first met as they began the pilgrimage from London to Canterbury. Chaucer was writing between 1387 and 1400, at which point the Tabard, founded in 1307, was an established presence on the south bank of the Thames.

In the prologue to The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer writes:

Befell that in that season, on a day, / In Southwark at the Tabard as I lay / Ready to wenden on my pilgrimage / To Canterbury with full devout courage, / At night was come into that hostelery / Well nine-and-twenty in a company / Of sundry folk, by adventure fallen / Into fellowship, and pilgrims were they all, / That toward Canterbury would ride.

The Medieval structure was destroyed in the fire that razed much of Medieval Southwark in 1676, ten years after the Great Fire of London. It was immediately rebuilt on the same foundations. We do not know how much salvaged materials from the original structure were incorporated into the second. Presumably some.

As Chaucer’s verse suggests Southwark was a point of entry into the City of London where journeys would begin and end. Many similar inns catered to travelers there. Next door to the Tabard was the George where it is said that Shakespeare drank and dined while he lived in the Borough. In fact the inn yards, often surrounded on three sides by the galleried façade of an inn, served as theaters in the Elizabethan period.

The rebuilt Tabard Inn and its neighbors would have enjoyed a brisk business as stagecoach lines were established in the seventeenth century. The word stagecoach refers to the “stages” by which the route was divided. A coach, normally pulled by four horses, would travel from one station to another, change horses, allow the passengers to rest, then continue to the next station. In this way a coach could maintain an average speed of about five miles per hour, traveling sixty or seventy miles in a day.

At each station would be a coaching inn. An innkeeper with capital, or a family of innkeepers, might run coaches between establishments in multiple cities. The American author James Fenimore Cooper traveled between four different inns kept by members of the Wright family on a coach journey between Canterbury and London in 1828. At coaching inns travelers found comfort and refreshment. Cooper praised the simple pleasures of tea “served redolent of home and former days. The hissing urn, the delicious toast, the fragrant beverage, the warm sea-coal fire, and the perfect snugness of everything, were indeed grateful.”

In the late eighteenth century mail coaches began to carry postal deliveries throughout Britain. This was brought about by the instigation of John Palmer, a theater impresario from Bath, who suggested and successfully demonstrated the idea to the Post Office in the early 1780s. Prior to that date mail was carried by relay riders on horseback. By coach the distances could be traversed in half the time. By 1785 there was service from London to Norwich, Liverpool, Leeds, Dover, Portsmouth, Poole, Exeter, Gloucester, Worcester, Holyhead, and Carlisle. At first private contractors operated the mail coaches but by the early nineteenth century the Post Office had its own fleet.

Mail coaches carried passengers, but unlike regular passenger coaches they were not operated for the comfort of travelers, but for the swift delivery of the mail. This meant they traveled much faster. The experience of riding on a mail coach could be exhilarating or harrowing. That experience inspired one of the great literary essays of the nineteenth century, “The English Mail-Coach,” by Thomas De Quincey.

Robin Jarvis, a Professor of English Literature at the University of the West of England, Bristol, wrote an excellent account of the piece and its composition for The Public Domain Review:

In the last quarter of 1849 Thomas De Quincey published two separate essays in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, a leading Tory periodical. These two essays, entitled “The English Mail-Coach, or the Glory of Motion” and “The Vision of Sudden Death,” were revised and amalgamated five years later to produce one of the author’s most memorable and idiosyncratic pieces. “The English Mail-Coach” is at once a celebration of that form of transport and an elegy for its demise, since by the time De Quincey published his essay the railways had already spread across the country and shunted the mail-coach into the sidings of history…

“The English Mail-Coach” is in four parts. In the first, De Quincey explains his fascination with mail-coaches and recalls his delight in using them – insisting always, against the grain of class preference, on an outside seat – to go to and from Oxford in his student days. He relates his obsession to the pleasures of unprecedented speed, with the thrill of “possible though indefinite danger”; the visual stimulation of “grand effects,” as deserted roads at night are momentarily lit up by coach-lamps; the sheer spectacle of “animal beauty and power”; the sense of participating in a great national system, akin to a living organism; and the additional excitement of bringing news, good or bad, from the battlefront (during the Napoleonic Wars) to local communities far and wide.

In the second section of the essay, “Going Down with Victory,” De Quincey elaborates on the adrenalin-fuelled experience of bearing tidings of war, kindling joy all along the route “like fire racing along a train of gunpowder,” and describes the more ambivalent experience of giving one woman a partial account of the “imperfect victory” at Talavera, a costly battle in which her son’s regiment has, he believes, been virtually wiped out. In the third section, “The Vision of Sudden Death,” he narrates an incident at night on the Manchester-to-Kendal mail in which the coachman nods off and, with De Quincey seemingly unable to seize the reins and take evasive action, the vehicle narrowly avoids collision with two lovers in an oncoming gig. It is only the young man in the gig who can avert disaster, and he responds with only seconds to spare. In the final section, the celebrated “Dream-Fugue,” De Quincey tells the reader how the figure of that same terrified young woman, glimpsed for just a few moments, subsequently entered into the “gorgeous mosaics” of his dreams, featuring in a variety of perilous or fatal situations. In the final, apocalyptic, dream-sequence De Quincey’s mail-coach becomes a “triumphal car” proceeding at supernatural pace down a cathedral aisle of infinite length; a female infant who temporarily obstructs its path somehow becomes synonymous with all the victims of war, past and present, while her apparent survival or exaltation stands not only for the material gains of “Waterloo and Recovered Christendom” but also for the spiritual end of resurrection and eternal life.

De Quincey mourned the passing of coach transport. He believed that trains had altered the rhythm of human life. “Out of pure blind sympathy with trains, men will begin to trot through the streets,” he predicted, “and in the next generation, they will take to cantering.” In his severe, though not humorless, judgement, “iron tubes and boilers have disconnected man’s heart.” One consequence of this revolution in transportation became apparent within decades of the publication of “The English Mail-Coach.” The inns that had served the old system would not survive.

In The Pickwick Papers, which contains many wonderful nostalgic scenes of coach travel, Charles Dickens describes the state of the inns in London at the end of the coaching era:

There are in London several old inns, once the headquarters of celebrated coaches in the days when coaches performed their journeys in a graver and more solemn manner than they do in these times; but which have now degenerated into little more than the abiding and booking places of country wagons. The reader would look in vain for any of these ancient hostelries, among the Golden Crosses and Bull and Mouths, which rear their stately fronts in the improved streets of London. If he would light upon any of these old places, he must direct his steps to the obscurer quarters of the town; and there in some secluded nooks he will find several, still standing with a kind of gloomy sturdiness, amidst the modern innovations which surround them.

In the Borough especially, there still remain some half dozen old inns, which have preserved their external features unchanged, and which have escaped alike the rage for public improvement, and the encroachments of private speculation. Great, rambling, queer, old places they are, with galleries, and passages, and staircases, wide enough and antiquated enough, to furnish materials for a hundred ghost stories, supposing we should ever be reduced to the lamentable necessity of inventing any, and that the world should exist long enough to exhaust the innumerable veracious legends connected with old London Bridge, and its adjacent neighbourhood on the Surrey side.

Beginning in the 1870s developers began to tear down the coaching inns of London. The Tabard Inn was demolished in 1873. The Oxford Arms in Warwick Lane, near St Paul’s Cathedral, was demolished in 1875.  The King’s Head in Southwark was demolished by 1885. The White Hart in Southwark was demolished in 1889. The list goes on and on.

Today the only surviving galleried coaching inn in London is The George. Even this is a partial survival. Only one of its three sides is still standing. The other two were pulled down by the Great Northern Railway Company in 1889 to build warehouses. These were later replaced with modernist constructions. But the one side that remains is perfectly preserved and is still a working pub.

For my own part I share Sir John Betjeman’s love of railways but I think De Quincey makes a point well taken. The coach services were an economy and a society almost unto themselves. Passengers, coachmen, innkeepers, and tradesmen supported and linked together innumerable little communities across the country to an extent that no amount of efficiency can justify disrupting. But for all that the railway was a loud, smoking, violent shock to men and women of De Quincey’s generation, it operated along similar principles to the old coach lines, employed a comparable number of people, and linked communities in a way that was harmonious with the needs of society, nature, and the landscape.


Bruning, Ted. (2000) Historic Inns of England. London: Prion Books.

De Quincey, Thomas. (1889-90) The Collected Writings of Thomas De Quincey. Edinburgh: A. and C. Black.

Dickens, Charles. (1837) The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. London: Chapman & Hall.

Jarvis, Robin. (2013) “Still Booking on De Quincey’s Mail-Coach,” The Public Domain Review. http://publicdomainreview.org/2013/02/20/still-booking-on-de-quinceys-mail-coach/

Louras, Nick. (2016) James Fenimore Cooper: A Life. Winchester, UK: Chronos Books.

A Subterranean Mystery on Oxford Street


Subterranean London is a fascinating subject. The city has been inhabited for millennia, built and rebuilt over itself. A lot of history has ended up underground: once-navigable rivers, lengths of the Roman Wall, a Roman amphitheater, Medieval catacombs, Shakespearean theaters. Back in 2005 a commenter on the All In London forums asked:

Does anybody know anything about the supposed Victorian High Street underneath the present Oxford Street? Evidently Oxford St was raised up years ago but there is a tunnel underneath where the original cobbled road still stands and the part facias of Victorian shops. Or is this just an urban myth?

The question was provoked by a recently-aired television interview with the actor John Altman. Altman played Thomas De Quincey in a segment of Malcolm McLaren’s film, The Ghosts of Oxford Street, which aired on British television around Christmastime in 1991. It was a portmanteau film that combined music and short narrative vignettes to tell the history of the titular London street. De Quincey frequented Oxford Street as a teenager at the turn of the nineteenth century, while living alone in poverty in the capital. There he struck up a tender and doomed relationship with a young prostitute named Ann. In Ghosts of Oxford Street Altman delivers a monologue as De Quincey in what appears to be a ramshackle shop with arched masonry ceilings and what might be windows and a doorway. Clips from the film were later broadcast in 2004 as part of The 100 Greatest Christmas Moments, a “best of” program on Channel 4. During an interview for that program, Altman recalled being led through a hole under Selfridges department store by McLaren to the tunnel in question.

Other commenters remembered seeing the buried “shops” in Ghosts of Oxford Street. One commenter wrote that his mother worked on Oxford Street in the 1930s and confirmed that there were “roads underground. Down ladders to [U]nderground, postal workers sent goods to customers. You could come up to other streets like Harley street. She used to walk them herself.” But this seems to be a reference to the Post Office Railway which operated, between 1927 and 2003, very near by.

It is certainly not unreasonable to imagine that the raising of a street would bury an older portion. If one looks through a metal grate on Charing Cross Road at Old Compton Street one sees part of the former Little Compton Street. Two tiled signs bearing the name are visible, set in a brick wall. But this is immediately below street level, not at a depth lower than the sub-basements of a department store.

Author Antony Clayton investigated the claims in a long piece on his blog in 2013:

At the time that I was writing my folklore book I tried to obtain a copy of The Ghosts of London but it wasn’t out on dvd and didn’t appear on You Tube or anything similar; nobody I knew had recorded it. Last week, however, another audience member told me that it could now be seen on Channel 4’s tv on demand website here. So yesterday I finally managed to see this intermittently entertaining former rarity (with a ridiculous performance from Leigh Bowery) on my laptop and guess what? I cannot find the scene filmed in a preserved street of Victorian shops under Oxford Street…

The main candidate must be the section on Thomas de Quincey (1785-1859), played by John Altman, filmed in what looks like a set dressed to signify decadent dilapidation—it may be intended to represent shops as an obviously non-authentic sign reads ‘Boots apothecary’. There are however no ‘perfectly preserved’ Victorian shop fronts, nothing to indicate that it lies beneath Selfridge’s and, owing to the camera position, no view of a cobbled street.

Clayton ends by asking the most obvious question: “Could this now firmly established piece of subterranean folklore be based on a misremembering of a small part of the Ghosts of Oxford Street that was, as far as I know, only shown on the one occasion in 1991; the urban legend does not appear to predate that year.” In 2016 the press office of Selfridges told Clayton that the story “was a myth started by the Ghosts of Oxford Street film.”

And yet there are still those who claim to have seen the subterranean street. A reader of Peter Watts’s blog claimed in 2013 that the street was located beneath Lilley & Skinner, not Selfridges. Watts quotes the following correspondence from Steve Lloyd:

‘In the early 80s I was manager of Lilley & Skinner at 356-360 Oxford Street (the largest shoe store in the world according to the Guinness Book of Records). The staff entrance to the store was at the rear along Barrett Street. Here was a short driveway downhill into the building where I used to park. Also situated here was the maintenance department and adjacent was a concrete staircase which led down to several lower levels that were really no more than cellars. The lads in maintenance had told me about the ‘old street’ that was down there and took me down one day to have to have a look.

Though of course very interesting there was not a lot to see, just a bit of old shop front under some arches and some cobbled street. The lads said that the council had put a preservation order on it and that we weren’t allowed to use the space in any way.

I found some stills from The Ghosts of Oxford Street a couple of years ago after I saw it discussed on this forum and I have to say that they are exactly how I remember the site at Lilley & Skinner.

The first is one of the arches and the second is the piece of shop front and window frame. Entering the right of the store from Oxford Street you’d go downstairs to the Mens department on the lower ground floor and then there was another department (Tall and Small) at lower lower ground floor, which was on the left hand side of the building. Our secret street was a couple of levels down from that.’

A still from the Thomas De Quincey segment of The Ghosts of Oxford Street, 1991.

A still from the Thomas De Quincey segment of The Ghosts of Oxford Street, 1991.

Founded in 1835, Lilley & Skinner moved to the Oxford Street location in 1921. The company went out of business in the 1990s and the building is, at the time of this writing, an outlet of Forever 21. Clayton visited the store in January of 2017, writing, in an addendum to his original post:

The building has only one lower ground floor—this was confirmed by asking a member of staff—there are no lower levels—at least not accessible these days, if they ever were. It is on the side of Stratford Place, a fascinating historical cul de sac and close to the route of the Tyburn. I couldn’t use Bond Street station as the area adjacent to the store is being prepared for Crossrail.

The reference to Stratford Place opens up an interesting possibility. In 1875 an unexpected archaeological discovery was made at this very spot. An article in The Builder, of August 14, 1875, reported:

As the workmen in the employment of the Chartered Gas Company were laying down a main pipe opposite to Stratford-place, Oxford-street (in the middle of the road) they came in contact with some brickwork of a very hard nature. Having ascertained that there was no sewer in that part of the road, the men applied their pickaxes with vigour, and it was discovered that they had come upon the crown of the arch of a brick subterranean building, containing several rooms in a fairly good condition. The principle chamber…contained some freestone pillars, the angles of which were chamfered, and some small (window?) openings. The apartments communicated one with another, and had about 2 ft. of water in them and much foul air. It is to be regretted that no one able to pronounce as to the age or purpose of the construction appears to have seen it. The Tyburn, a brook that rose near Hampstead, and ran south to the Thames…crossed Oxford-street at this same spot, namely, opposite Stratford-place, and made its way by Lower Brook-street to Green Park. It may be supposed, therefore, that the constructions to which we have referred had some conexion with the brook. Another suggestion is that they were connected with the Lord Mayor’s Banqueting House, which formerly stood near the spot.

In fact, both of these associations turned out to be correct. As London expanded in the thirteenth century, the water supply became increasing polluted. A reservoir was constructed at what is now Stratford Place to collect water from fresh springs and feed it through pipes to the City. Two years after the report in The Builder a full explanation appeared in The Journal of the Society of Arts:

[T]he first conduit erected in the City of London was that in Westcheap (now Cheapside), and the water with which it was supplied was brought from Paddington. The building of this was commenced in the year 1235, but it was not completed until 1285. The cost of laying the water-pipes being found to be heavy, the several Lord Mayors invited the principal citizens to contribute, and in 1235 some foreign merchants, being desirous of landing and housing wood, &c., purchased the privilege they desired by a yearly payment of fifty marks, and the donation of one hundred pounds towards the expense of bringing water in a six-inch leaden pipe from Tyburn to the City. The various springs of the district which fed the Tye-bourne were gathered together in a reservoir on the spot where Stratford place now stands. In course of time the reservoir was arched over, and a banqueting house was erected upon the arches, where the Lord Mayor and Corporation feasted when they annually visited the reservoirs and hunted the hare or the fox in the fields of Marylebone. The banqueting house was pulled down in the year 1737, and in course of time the existence of the cisterns was generally forgotten.

Could the long memory of this discovery have contributed to a legend about a building or buildings under Oxford Street? Could that legend have became entangled with more recent memories of The Ghosts of Oxford Street?

On the other hand, might some structure really have been accessible under one of the Oxford Street shops? The cistern unearthed in the nineteenth century was apparently left as it was found when work on the gas main was completed. It was rediscovered in the twenty-first century during excavation for Crossrail, the new tube line running through parts of London and the home counties. The Economist mentions “a medieval reservoir under Oxford Street” among the archeological finds since digging began in 2009. In her book, The Tunnel Through Time, Gillian Tindal writes: “digging at Stratford Place for the Crossrail station at Bond Street they did turn up the remains of the medieval water cistern just as their predecessors had. It seemed to have been reused much later, when Oxford Street became built up, as a cellar or ice-house.” That means the cistern was accessible from a nearby building, or buildings. Lilly & Skinner on the same corner, perhaps?

There may also have been other ancient structures, perhaps connected to the reservoir system, in the area. Tindall recalls that historian Michael Harrison mentioned

an apparently quite separate Oxford Street discovery of what sounds like a very similar underground vaulted structure, with water in the bottom (this time ‘a bubbling spring’) and ‘chamfered gothic arches’. This one was said to be a little further west, at the corner of North Audley Street. Harrison quotes what he describes as ‘a contemporary source’ but with no reference, giving the impression that the discovery was about the same time as that of the medieval reservoir but offering no firm date. His anonymous Victorian source appears to have decided that this second underground water construction was of Roman origin and ‘from all appearances the place was originally a baptistry’. A remarkable example of the complete preservation of an extremely ancient construction—if true.

Tindall is skeptical of this latter discover, however, as no documentary evidence could be found to corroborate it.

If there is a buried structure underground that people have gained access to, it would seem logically to be the cistern (or in some way connected with the Medieval reservoir system). Recall how those who discovered the cistern in the nineteenth century mistook it for a series of rooms or apartments. Why not a row of shops? Nothing else could reasonably be at the depth described; certainly not whole buildings that were once at street level.

See also: A Solution to the Oxford Street Mystery.


Beddoes, Susan Minton (ed). (Aug 25, 2016) “More than just getting from A to B,” The Economist. London.

Clayton, Antony. (April 10, 2013) “The Mystery of Subterranean Selfridge’s (Repost),” The Antonine Itineraries. http://theantonineitineraries.blogspot.co.uk/2013/04/the-mystery-of-subterranean-selfridges.html

Godwin, George (ed). (August 14, 1875) “Underground Apartments, Oxford Street,” The Builder. London.

Tindall, Gillian. (2017) The Tunnel Through Time: A New Route for an Old London Journey. London: Random House.

Various. (November-December, 2005) “Under Oxford Street.” Messages posted to: https://www.allinlondon.co.uk/knowledge/posts.php?thread=523

Watts, Peter. (November 21, 2013) “Secret London: more streets beneath London streets,” The Great Wen. https://greatwen.com/2013/11/21/secret-london-more-streets-beneath-london-streets/

Wheatley, Henry (ed). (September 5, 1879) “Old London Water Supply,” Journal of the Society of Arts. London: George Bell and Sons.