Jour­ney to the un­der­world

Jackie McGlone shad­ows Jake Arnott on a tour of the Hog­a­rthian streets that in­spired his new novel

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THE metal door clangs shut, plung­ing the tiny, mis­er­able space I have just en­tered into inky dark­ness. I am im­pris­oned in a cell buried be­low an old “booz­ing-ken” close to the Old Bai­ley – “the great the­atre of crime and pun­ish­ment” – which stands on the site of New­gate prison.

Thank­fully, I am not alone in the murky cel­lars of the Vic­to­ria Tav­ern, de­spite a mis­chievous bar­man’s at­tempts to in­car­cer­ate us. I am ac­com­pa­nied by the nov­el­ist Jake Arnott, who is tak­ing me on a three-hour long, walk­ing tour of Ge­or­gian Lon­don’s ter­ri­fy­ing un­der­world, from gaol to gin palace, from cof­fee house to bawdy house, from the site of stinking sew­ers to the stately Sur­geon’s Hall, where the ca­dav­ers of con­demned vil­lains were “anatomised”.

We visit churches, turn­stiles and the god­dess of the gut­ter as we fol­low the un­der­ground bed of the filthy River Fleet. We make many de­tours down labyrinthine al­ley­ways. I am in­tro­duced to a “Thief-taker Gen­eral”, de­scribed by Arnott as “a cross be­tween Dea­con Brodie and Don­ald Trump”. And we wan­der en­thu­si­as­ti­cally around the Hun­dreds of Drury – the labyrinth of in­famy around Drury Lane once known for vice and pros­ti­tu­tion – to our grim jour­ney’s end on a traf­fic is­land at clan­gor­ous Mar­ble Arch.

Here, a sad lit­tle plaque, sur­rounded by three sickly oak trees, marks “The Site of Ty­burn Tree”, the gal­lows oth­er­wise known as “The Fa­tal Tree”, the ti­tle of Arnott’s lat­est novel.

Arnott, 55, who was born and ed­u­cated in Aylesbury, orig­i­nally pitched the book as “Moll Flan­ders meets A Clock­work Orange”. Set in the Beg­gar’s Opera world of the 1720s shortly af­ter the South Sea Bub­ble has burst, it’s a daz­zling mix of fact and fic­tion told in thieves’ cant or “flash”, a glo­ri­ously in­ven­tive street slang to which Arnott sup­plies a six-page glos­sary, although the reader rapidly at­tunes to the lex­i­con – bene (good), phiz­mon­ger (por­trait artist), queerbluffer (de­vi­ous inn-keeper) ... The lat­ter could, of course, ap­ply to the fel­low who at­tempts to bang up Arnott and me in those dole­ful cells.

The Fa­tal Tree is the Hog­a­rthian tale of a Har­lot’s Progress. El­iz­a­beth Lyon is a comely, re­spectable coun­try lass se­duced by her mas­ter’s son. She fetches up in “Romevil­lle” – un­der­world Lon­don – where she be­comes a pros­ti­tute at Mother Breedlove’s Vault­ing School. She meets the sin­is­ter thief-taker Jonathan Wild, who names her Edg­worth Bess, “that lewd soul”. Soon she’s duck­ing and div­ing, booz­ing and whor­ing while thiev­ing with the likes of Jack Shep­pard, with whom she falls in love. They marry but their ro­mance is in­evitably doomed.

BESS, Shep­pard and Wild are, of course, real fig­ures. Shep­pard, a true Jack the Lad, was a Hou­dini-like petty crim­i­nal who es­caped New­gate Prison twice. “He’s the in­spi­ra­tion for the char­ac­ter of Macheath, the cap­tain of a gang of rob­bers, in John Gay’s 1728 The Beg­gar’s Opera, which in turn spawned Brecht’s The Three­penny Opera,” notes Arnott.

He dis­cov­ered Bess while re­search­ing the 18th-cen­tury cul­ture of celebrity crim­i­nals for whom he has a pen­chant any­way. His ac­claimed de­but novel The Long Firm (1999) was set in the East End gang­land among the likes of Jack “The Hat” McVi­tie and slum land­lord Peter Rach­man in the 1960s. Arnott had been asked to par­tic­i­pate in an ex­hi­bi­tion, Ge­or­gians Re­vealed, for the Bri­tish Li­brary and he found Bess, along­side Shep­pard and Wild, in the Pro­ceed­ings of the Old Bai­ley, 1674-1913.

There are few men­tions of her in these court re­ports but then Arnott read that Shep­pard had said of her: “A more wicked, de­ceit­ful & las­civ­i­ous wretch is not known in Eng­land.” Arnott was cap­ti­vated. “I thought, here’s a femme fa­tale, a bad girl. But she turned out to be much more in­ter­est­ing than that. She’s not just Jack’s side­kick. She has such agency be­cause she’s in­stru­men­tal in help­ing him es­cape. I wanted to know the story be­hind all that. They are Bon­nie and Clyde and I’ve al­ways been in­ter­ested in the un­der­world any­way, be­cause it’s a dark re­flec­tion of the over­world, which in­ter­ests me too.”

While Daniel De­foe is the al­leged au­thor of Shep­pard’s au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, which was sold at his ex­e­cu­tion in 1724, at­tended by some 200,000 on­look­ers, Arnott has given Bess her own amanu­en­sis, Billy Archer, a hack writer grub­bing a liv­ing in Grub Street, where he hangs out with the great wits of the day: Swift, Pope and John Gay.

The fic­tional Archer’s own tragic story is woven into Bess’s nar­ra­tive. He’s a ho­mo­sex­ual or a “molly”, a fre­quenter of molly-houses, who also has an un­happy love af­fair, and a denizen of Wild’s den of thieves.

“Crim­i­nal nar­ra­tives were all the fash­ion, pro­vid­ing much work for hack­ney-scrib­blers like Archer and there was an ex­plo­sion of new me­dia,” ex­plains Arnott. “Cof­fee houses were known as penny uni­ver­si­ties. For the price of a cup you could get all the jour­nals of the day – which is like in­ter­net ac­cess be­cause we also get that by buy­ing a cof­fee. There were pam­phlet pa­per wars pro­vid­ing the buzz of gos­sip. A pam­phlet could be pub­lished in a day. Some­one would be at­tacked in print; within two days they’d an­swer back. It’s like in­ter­net trolling. It seems too much of a clever thing to say but the pam­phlets were also small, about the size of a tablet.

“Look at Hog­a­rth, he in­vented the graphic novel. In my book the ob­ser­vant reader will spot a num­ber of al­lu­sions to his Har­lot’s Progress.”

Which brings us to Jake’s Progress as he leads me to a “gospel-shop”, the Church of St Sepul­chre-With­out-New­gate, where there’s a grue­some se­cret: hid­den be­hind a pil­lar is the hand­bell rung 12 times at mid­night on the eve of an ex­e­cu­tion, “whose sound car­ried through an un­der­ground pas­sage to the very cell of the doomed wretch”.

“Pad­ding” – walk­ing – to Hol­born Viaduct, we pass Ye Old Mitre, near the site of Mother Clapp’s molly-house. Across Hat­ton Gar­den we head onto High Hol­born, where Shep­pard planned to make his last es­cape at Lit­tle Turn­stile, an al­ley­way off the main thor­ough­fare. He was to have made his way to Lin­coln’s Inn Fields. Once lo­cated next to the Old Bai­ley, Sur­geon’s Hall is now the Royal Col­lege of Sur­geons with its Hun­te­rian Mu­seum.

“There’s some­one I want you to meet here,” says Arnott, bound­ing up the sweep­ing stair­case. He’s tall so he blocks the glass case, then he stands aside and with a the­atri­cal ges­ture – Arnott has had many jobs in­clud­ing be­ing a mor­tu­ary

tech­ni­cian and an ag­it­prop ac­tor and even played a Mummy in The Mummy – he ex­claims: “Meet Jonathan Wild!”

I am face to face with the skele­ton of the thief-taker and gang­land boss of a nest of vil­lains, who wove a spi­dery web of theft and ven­ery across Lon­don from his of­fice at the Old Bai­ley. A man of du­bi­ous morals – “the near­est you have to him in Scot­land is Dea­con Brodie. He’s a bit like Trump, promis­ing that he would drain the swamp”.

Wild was hanged, how­ever. “His re­mains were dug up and his ca­daver turned over to the sur­geons,” says Arnott.

“The great fear among crim­i­nals was that sur­geons would take their bodies and dis­sect them – this is a cen­tury be­fore Burke and Hare. Look, next to Wild’s skele­ton is a print of Hog­a­rth’s The Re­ward Of Cru­elty, show­ing a sur­geon watch­ing the vis­cera of a murderous high­way­man be­ing re­moved.”

Time for a restora­tive drink, so we re­pair to the An­gel Tav­ern, next to the site of the old Bowl Inn, in the slums of St Giles, the last church be­fore Ty­burn. Here, the con­demned were of­fered their fi­nal drink, a tra­di­tion started in the 15th cen­tury.

Leap­ing onto a 21st-cen­tury cart (a Cen­tral Line train from Tot­ten­ham Court Road to Mar­ble Arch) we avoid “that dis­mal through­fare that is Ox­ford Street”. In the dre­ich, late-af­ter­noon smir we stand where the gal­lows cast their fear­ful shadow and where Bess’s story be­gins and per­haps ends.

Notes Arnott: “The pro­ces­sion to Ty­burn takes a cen­tral place in my novel. It is the fate of so many of its char­ac­ters af­ter all, and it formed a fear­some spec­ta­cle for the city of that time. In this dan­ger­ous world all dwelt in the shadow of the fa­tal tree.” The Fa­tal Tree, by Jake Arnott, is pub­lished by Scep­tre, £16.99.

Pho­to­graph: Alamy

Rake’s Progress by Wil­liam Hog­a­rth. Jake Arnott’s The Fa­tal Tree is set in the de­bauched un­der­world of 1720s Lon­don and is de­scribed as a Hog­a­rthian Har­lot’s Progress

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