Day Seven: In which I feel like I’m in an episode of The Sandbaggers

All right, so what I did today wasn’t nearly so exciting as a Sandbaggers episode, and for this I am duly grateful. But I spent my morning in an office that called to mind Willie and Denson’s exchange when Diane walked into their hutch — “Sorry, ladies’ loo is down the hall;” “Somewhat larger and better appointed” — sorting through folders of paper not unlike the ones stacked up on Burnside’s desk, listening to guys with English accents discuss topics include the Home and Foreign Offices. Is it any wonder I make the comparison?

Those of you with no idea what I’m talking about may be more interested in (and jealous of) this: I got to page through Inspector Abberline’s personal scrapbook. Yes, the Inspector Abberline who worked on the Whitechapel murders. Sadly, the scrapbook actually makes no mention of Jack the Ripper; in fact; it leapfrogs over that period, going from 1887 to 1891. Maybe he had another scrapbook for those years, kept somewhere more interesting than a bottom drawer in an obscure office in West Brompton. But it was full of carefully-glued newspaper clippings and notes in Abberline’s own handwriting, which affected me as it always does: he immediately stopped being a Historical Figure and became a real person, which never stops being cool.

My actual purpose here isn’t Ripper-related; I’m chasing info on the Special Branch, or Special Irish Branch as it was at the time. Two helpful gentlemen of the Metropolitan Police Historical Collection explain the various cabinets to me — “that one’s done by subject; this one’s people; over here are the Police Orders; ask us before you go photographing anything the Home Office has marked ‘secret'” — and then turn me loose for hours of silly glee. I read confidential documents from 1883, write down a list of Special Branch officers in 1887, become familiar with several different people through their handwriting. (One of them, whom I dub Scribble Man, remains nameless — for reasons his nickname makes obvious. I think he may have been Howard Vincent, Assistant Commissioner for Crime, but I’m not sure. And no, his title doesn’t mean he commissioned crime; he was commissioned to stop it. But yeah, that’s a funny phrase.) People wander in and out; I mostly ignore them, except when I have to stop and exercise my extremely broken Spanish to help out a lost tourist, because I’m the only person there who speaks a lick of it. My superhero moment done, I dive back in, digging up biographical info and loving the Met for recording the height, hair color, eye color, and complexion of its officers. Not only will I be able to name names in the appropriate scenes, I’ll be able to say what Patrick Quinn and Chief Inspector Littlefield looked like.

What I won’t be able to do is tell you what exactly Special Branch did in the course of pursuing the Fenian bombers terrorizing London in 1884 — but it turns out there’s a good reason for that. And by “good,” I mean not only “valid” but “kind of awesome.” It seems that some years ago, the Home Office gathered up the records of what Special Branch was up to in the Victorian period, and pulped them. Why? Because apparently the SB boys “misstepped” occasionally, in their zeal to catch the bad guys. I’m more or less going to take that as carte blanche to have Quinn and Littlechild do whatever suits my plot, legal or not. Within reason, of course — I’m not setting them up to be total assholes — but, well, if they don’t follow the fragments of procedure I was able to glean from an 1862 police manual (removed from a locked display cabinet just for me . . .), then I can justify it as being historically plausible.

After a quick wander through the tiny museum exhibit, it’s off to Clerkenwell, and the London Metropolitan Archives at last. Things there are mildly chaotic, as the item I want is in the collection transferred up from the Guildhall Library a while ago, and I’m told those things haven’t all been properly sorted yet. But I show the helpful librarian what I wrote down, and he tells me to go sit in the archive room while he goes and asks for help, and the next thing I know there is a cart being wheeled into the room with my order on it. Librarian #2 heaves the shallow table-sized box off and flips it open to remove a folded map that is not quite so big as the box would lead you to expect, but still big enough that to photograph it in its entirety, I have to hold my camera at full extension above my head. (And then take about eighteen photos until I get one that’s aimed right. I’d stand on a chair, but they have signs specifically telling you not to.)

The map is an 1893 survey of the sewers in the City of London. Which sounds absolutely thrilling, I know — don’t you wish you were me? — but in truth, it is kind of cool, especially because it also shows where the Underground runs, with an overlay of the streets (and some of the principal buildings) on top. So now I know the precise relationship of a whole bunch of elements that may end up being very important to this book.

(No, I can’t lay the Onyx Hall over it. The palace doesn’t map straight onto the City; two points of connection between the worlds might lie very close together on one side, and quite far apart on the other. But don’t think the idea didn’t cross my mind.)

Anyway, I had to swear on my immortal soul not to reproduce those photos in any fashion including posting them online, so I can’t share it with you; you’ll just have to take my word for it. I then poked around the archives a bit, wondering if they had any of the railway-related newspapers and magazines I’d like to look at, but no luck there. Of the half a dozen things I might be doing with my day tomorrow, one is going to the British Library to read up, but I fear too much of what I want would be stored far enough away that I couldn’t usefully requisition it in a day. We’ll see.

Leaving the LMA, a trick of building alignment presents me with the dome of St. Paul’s, silhouetted dramatically against a cloudy sky. Dammit, Clerkenwell isn’t that far from the City, and the Ankle Incident was days ago. I set off down Farringdon Road, and arrive at the cathedral without any difficulties whatsoever, which has the pleasant effect of making me feel like I’m back on track again. Only a little while before I leave, of course, but still. Better late than never.

0 Responses to “Day Seven: In which I feel like I’m in an episode of The Sandbaggers”

  1. wilhelmina_d

    Hi! Reading my friends of friends list to pass the time. i just wanted to say that this is so very, very cool! Thanks for taking the time to write about your research!

    • Marie Brennan

      Glad you’re enjoying it! My first research trips, I was writing a narrative during the day to a) keep track of things and b) give me a reason to sit down for a while. Then I decided to type the notes up for LJ, and since then it’s been tradition. (If you click “london trip” among the tags, you can see all the old posts.)

  2. diatryma

    Posts like this are why I say you’re a god of research.

  3. gollumgollum

    …..I’d murder my mother for that map.

Comments are closed.