Review of The 19th Century Underworld by Derek James…
He was one of the most infamous killers in the country and a wax effigy of John Thurtell was displayed in Madame Tussaud’s ‘Chamber of Horrors’ well into the 20th century… such was the horrific nature of his crime.
The gruesome and fascinating story of this Norwich man from a posh background seems to have been lost in the mist of time but it is told in all its gory detail in a fascinating new book by a former UEA lecturer turned author Stephen Carver in The 19th Century Underworld.
Stephen has certainly done his homework and has produced a brilliant offering which lifts the lid on a dark part of our history which is all too often forgotten about… we enter a world where children were worth more dead than alive and the Thames held more bodies than the Ganges.
This is a raw, compelling, and at times, extremely upsetting look at the way we were a couple of hundred years ago – and Stephen has pulled no punches.
Vicious criminals, sickening poverty, drugs, pornography and prostitution. Urchins with haunted eyes, ruthless and vicious men, and the broken remnants of once fine girls. Welcome to the 19th century underworld. Not forgetting the slang of the day.
So why write this book?
‘I used to teach this subject at university and I always wanted to write a book about it,’ said Stephen, of New Costessey.
‘My interest in the subject goes back to childhood, most notably the discovery of a family collection of The Illustrated Police News that probably came from my maternal grandmother and which were compelling and utterly terrifying.
‘My grandparents were all born in the late 19th century as well, and at family gatherings in the early-70s older relatives loved to relate lurid tales of terror, a muddle of true crime, gothic stories and old movies. When you’re a little kid, this stuff sticks with you,’ added Stephen.
He was approached by Jonathan Wright at publishers Pen & Sword, who had read his literature and history blog – and wanted him to write a book.
‘The idea was for me to stop being so academic and to write something that was scholarly but accessible. I’m a literary historian, so I’m very interested in writers who depicted the urban underworld, from journalists, novelists and social explorers to the forgotten purveyors of penny dreadfuls,’ he said.
Opening the pages of this book Stephen takes us on a journey from the Regency to the late-Victorian eras, framed by two seismic crimes, the Radcliffe Highway murders of 1811 and the Whitechapel killings of 1888, starting with the formation of the modern police force.
Stephen takes us on a rough and tumble rollercoaster ride through the whole of the 19th century ending up with an exploration of ‘Jack the Ripper’ as a gothic icon and a continuing media event which takes a fresh take on the much-covered subject.
For anyone interested in a walk on the wild side, this is a book which must be read by a such a talented author.
The 19th Century Underworld: Crime, Controversy & Corruption by Stephen Carver is published by Pen & Sword (www.pen-and-sword.co.uk) and is in the shops now at £19.99.
The murderer everyone was talking about.
Just who was John Thurtell and what led to his public hanging which caught the imagination of the whole country?
To read the full Eastern Daily Press article by Derek James, please click here