The 19th Century Underworld

My latest book, The 19th Century Underworld: Crime, Controversy and Corruption (published by Pen & Sword), goes on sale today.

The book is available on Amazon here

Or you can buy direct from the publisher

Here’s a brief extract…

The Real Harry Flashman

Edward Sellon was a particularly colourful public school Dugdale writer. A subaltern in the 4th Regiment of the East India Company Madras Infantry and a libertine of the old school, Sellon could have been a character in one of George MacDonald Fraser’s ‘Flashman’ novels, perhaps even the hero. Born in Brighton in 1818, ‘the son of a gentleman of moderate fortune, whom I lost when quite a child,’ Sellon enlisted at sixteen and spent several years in India (1). There he developed a taste for prostitutes and the bored wives of officers and diplomats, thus embarking on a series of sexual adventures and at least one duel of which he wrote with wit and candour in his autobiography The Ups and Downs of Life, published posthumously in 1867. As a product of the Regency, Sellon was probably unaware of how out of step he was with the early Victorian England to which he returned in the early 1840s. While he continued to dally with Society hostesses – gaming, drinking and whoring – industry, trade and sobriety were swinging into fashion. Though they didn’t yet realise it, Corinthians, plungers, and dandies like him were becoming extinct.

Prolonged mismanagement of his late father’s estate by the family lawyers had left Sellon in need of an income. He tried his hand at novel writing with Herbert Breakspear: A Legend of the Mahratta War in 1848, a Kiplingesque adventure that, had it been published either earlier or later in the century, might have done quite well, but which was buried by a new generation of literary novelists that included Disraeli, Mrs Gaskell, the Brontë sisters, and Dickens and Thackeray at the height of their powers. His marriage was a disappointment, as both parties believed the other to be rich, and with an impoverished mother and a growing family he was reduced to driving the mail between London and Cambridge, under an assumed name to protect what was left of his family’s reputation. The railway forced him out of business, and his next venture was a fencing school in London like that of the old soldier Mr George in Dickens’s Bleak House. But Sellon’s brand of swordsmanship was falling out of fashion too, and his school did not prosper. By the 1860s, drifting into middle age, his marriage and continuing affairs alternately running hot and cold, Sellon’s wicked ways and his literary background led him to start penny-a-lining for William Dugdale.

Sellon was an educated man, and while he wrote for Dugdale he was also working on scholarly projects, most notably ‘The Monolithic Temples of India’ and ‘On the Phallic Worship of India’, papers presented before the Anthropological Society of London, Annotations on the Sacred Writings of the Hindus (privately published in 1865), translations of Boccaccio and the Bhagavad-Gita, and the posthumously published Ophiolatreia: an account of the rites and mysteries connected with the origin, rise, and development of serpent worship in various parts of the world (1889). His erotica, meanwhile, seemed to reflect both spirit and experience, being by turns bawdy, funny, cultivated and elegant. Sellon wrote about what he knew: army life, the sexual intrigues of the gentry, and the exotic otherness of the colonies. His first outing was The New Epicurean: The Delights of Sex, Facetiously and Philosophically Considered, in Graphic Letters Addressed to Young Ladies of Quality in 1865. The book begins, ‘I am a man who, having passed the Rubicon of youth, has arrived at that age when the passions require a more stimulating diet than is to be found in the arms of every painted courtesan’ (2). The New Epicurean is a Georgian pastiche, documenting the exploits of the debauched aristocratic couple Sir Charles and Lady Celia, both of whom have a predilection for young girls which they procure from poor families and a local orphanage. The action takes place in an Elysium villa in a fashionable suburb with extensive and beautiful grounds behind walls high enough to guarantee privacy, which the author describes as their ‘happy valley’. The language is pastoral and classical, revealing the cultured and conflicted soul of the luckless author. Henry Spencer Ashbee wrote of it that, ‘The scenes depicted, many of which are doubtless from the author’s own experience, and may be to a certain extent autobiographical, are remarkable for an ultra-lasciviousness, and a cynicism worthy of the Marquis de Sade’ (3).

The following year, Sellon worked on three books for Dugdale. He illustrated The Adventures of a Schoolboy, a queer novel (apparently censored by Dugdale) written by James Campbell Reddie, and wrote both the The New Ladies’ Tickler, or Adventures of Lady Lovesport and the Audacious Harry (fladge), and Phoebe Kissagen; or the Remarkable Adventures, Schemes, Wiles and Devilries of une Maquerelle, billed as a sequel to The New Epicurean. Once more estranged from his wife and children, and having flogged Dugdale the manuscript of his thinly veiled autobiography, Sellon agreed to act as the companion to another ‘Epicurean’ called Scarsdale on a tour of Egypt. The trip, however, came to grief on the boat train to Vienna, when Sellon was caught seducing Scarsdale’s underage mistress while his employer was asleep in the same carriage. ‘I made a desperate effort to throw her on the opposite seat,’ he later wrote to Dugdale, ‘but it was no go, he had seen us. A row of course ensued’ (4). Sellon was dismissed with fifteen quid in his pocket; he remained in Vienna until the money ran out, returning to London destitute. He took a room at Webb’s in Piccadilly, where he shot himself with his service revolver. His suicide note, addressed to his latest mistress, was a short poem entitled No More, which concluded ‘Vivat Lingam/Non Resurgam’ – ‘Long live cock. I shall not rise again.’ To those that knew only the brash, ebullient and rakish old soldier this was a shock, but Ashbee’s final word on the subject could be the epitaph for all disappointed men who, through want of luck or money, fail to achieve their full potential and finally tire of repeated defeat: ‘Here then is the melancholy career, terminating in suicide at the age of 48 years, of a man by no means devoid of talent, and undoubtedly capable of better things’ (5).

NOTES

  1. Sellon, Edward, The Ups and Downs of Life, Wordsworth, London, 1996 (original work published 1867), p.17. In what few brief biographical accounts of Sellon exist, all of which appear to be based on Henry Spencer Ashbee’s remarks in the first volume of his Index of Forbidden Books (which is in turn largely based on Sellon’s memoir), he is said to have spent ten years in India and risen to the rank of captain. Sheryl Straight, meanwhile, the ‘Erotica Bibliophile’, cites East India Company records that indicate Sellon left the army much earlier and at a much lower rank having been court-marshalled in 1836 for ‘scandalous and infamous behaviour, unbecoming the character of an officer and a gentleman’. The charge was that Sellon had used ‘grossly abusive and highly insulting language’ towards Lieutenants Herbert William Wood and Henry Colheckat while at the same time threatening Wood with a loaded pistol. He was found guilty on both counts, but acquitted and discharged with a pension as ‘the evidence afforded a strong presumption that Ens. Sellon was insane at the time’ (qtd. in Straight, 2010). Although Ashbee had Sellon returning to England in 1844 – ten years after joining the military – parish records show him home in 1840, when he was married in Brighton, his first child being born there two years later. As the epithet ‘Captain’ was also a courtesy granted to dashing males in the period – W.H. Ainsworth was frequently accorded this honorary rank though he’d served in no army – it is possible that a certain amount of exaggeration crept into Sellon’s CV over the years and much of his ‘autobiography’ is clearly fictionalised.
  2. Sellon, Edward, The New Epicurean. The Jack Horntip Collection, 2017 (original work published 1865), available at: http://www.horntip.com/html/books_&_MSS/1860s/1865_the_new_epicurean/index.htm (accessed 29 September 2017).
  3. Ashbee, Henry Spencer, Index of Forbidden Books, Sphere, London, 1969, p.416.
  4. Quoted in Fryer, Peter, Forbidden Books of the Victorians, The Odyssey Press, London, 1969, p.203.
  5. Ashbee, 1969, p.417.The 19th Century Underworld cover
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