Exclusive Interview With Author Catharine Arnold

London, as we all know, is brimming with history, and author Catharine Arnold is well known for writing about the less -than-savoury aspects of our nations capital. Throughout her ‘London’ series, Arnold explores the history of prostitution, crime, murder and the dead. 

Writing about such dark topics is an art, of which Catharine is a master. And after devouring her books, we were inspired to get in touch and find out more about the inspiration behind the gruesome series!

HH: In your ‘London’ series, you have shown the darker side of London from prostitution to crime & punishment. What was your inspiration behind the series and have you always had a fascination with city itself?


CA: After publishing two literary novels and writing three crime novels – which have not yet been published – I became intrigued by the genre known as ‘psychogeography.’ This multi-disciplinary approach really appealed to me, drawing as it does on history, autobiography, the natural sciences, literature and other elements to convey the essence of a location or great institution. I was particularly inspired by Peter Ackroyd’s writing about London, and the unique way in which he manages to convey historical fact but combine it with a novelist’s eye and the legacy of earlier writers to bring to a particular place and time to life. When I decided to write a book about the history of Highgate Cemetery, it was very much in Ackroyd’s style but following my own vision: I wanted to be able to write about Highgate Cemetery as it is now, but also describe what it had been a like a century earlier, and a century before that.

The biography of Highgate Cemetery eventually morphed into Necropolis, London and its Dead which is the first book in my London quartet. It was not an easy book to write and I had many setbacks, the first of which was actually gaining sufficient access to Highgate Cemetery itself. My principle task consisted of persuading the cemetery’s formidable gatekeeper, the late Jean Pateman, that I was a serious writer and not a tabloid journalist out for sensationalism. Jean was subsequently very helpful and the Friends of Highgate Cemetery are now one of the most active groups of cemetery friends in London with a really positive attitude towards researchers.

HighgateCemHighgate Cemetery

Source: en.wikipedia.org

Once Necropolis had been commissioned, as a 2,000 year study of death in London, I faced a gruelling research schedule and agonising decisions over which material to include. In physical terms, I spent weekends walking the graveyards of London in the coldest and wettest of weather, while many friends openly doubted the sanity and merits of my project.  However, before Necropolis was even published, Simon & Schuster commissioned Bedlam, London and its Mad, which was a tremendous vindication. By this stage, I had developed enough faith in myself to explore my particular interests in the dark side of London life, and to envisage a quartet of books focussing on death, madness, the sex industry and capital punishment.

My choice of subject matter will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me. I’ve always had a dark side, the legacy of a childhood spent in a big Victorian house near a big Victorian cemetery. Every day, I walked to and from school past ranks of marble angles, their wings outstretched and their faces turned to the east. Our house was crammed with heavy oak and mahogany furniture, monumental wardrobes, sideboards like sarcophagi, faded velvet curtains, dusty books and paintings. From my earliest days I was surrounded by ancient objects, Turkish carpets and Chinese vases. The fashions of the time dictated that I was dressed like a Victorian milkmaid, so I must have been a spooky little thing, an only child surrounded by books, devouring the Sherlock Holmes stories and Colin Wilson’s Encyclopaedia of Murder. Most Friday nights were spent with my best friend, scaring ourselves with old horror films on the TV.

I recall this as a montage of Jack the Ripper disappearing into the fog with a flick of his black cape, and the silhouette of a top hat and cane; Dr Jeckyll transforming into beastly Mr Hyde; Peter Cushing resolving to bring all to justice, and Christopher Lee being terrifying yet strangely seductive. And then there were bizarre permutations on original plots, such as Hands of the Ripper (Angharad Rees as the Ripper’s accursed daughter) and Dr Jeckyll and Sister Hyde where poor Ralph Bates is transformed into a – woman!  Another inspiration were 1950s British noir crime films, and we adored anything involving fog swirling above the Thames, black cabs, police whistles and shots echoing from the roof of a deserted warehouse. So absorbed did I become with this vision of London that my earliest ambitions included becoming a detective or a forensic scientist.

From my first days in London in the early Eighties I was aware of the city’s intensely melancholy side. The cool indifference of the Kensington terraces, which served as a reminder that W8 did not care, one way or the other, whether I lived or died. The moth-boys and the runaways flocking to Piccadilly Circus; the commuters descending into the Hades of the underground, their eyes fixed on their feet. And yet I loved this, spent weekends roaming the deserted City and its ancient churches, and the Victorian cemeteries that surround London like a necklace of death. London’s melancholy comes as no surprise when you realise that London is one giant graveyard. We live on the remains of previous generations, from the Romans and Saxons to the plague victims of 1665 and the forgotten Victorians, shoehorned into overcrowded burial grounds and used as landfill.

One giant graveyard, London is a city of ghosts. Famous and infamous, they called to me from the shadows before I even knew who they were. The ghosts of forgotten scribblers and dead lawyers outside the Wig & Pen on Fleet Street; the platoons of Scottish soldiers, prisoners of Cromwell, who died of the plague and were buried in mass graves near Westminster Abbey; the ghost of Mary Pearcey, pushing a perambulator through Camden Town, containing the murdered body of her rival, Phoebe Hogg, and Phoebe Hogg’s suffocated baby daughter. When arrested, Mary had merely described her terrible crime as ‘Killing mice! Killing mice!’

During the late Eighties I went to work for the Reader’s Digest, next door to the Old Bailey. Within days, I had been overcome by an intense sadness which had nothing to do with the relatively undemanding task of working as a sub-editor on the Road Atlas of Great Britain. Nonetheless, every time I entered the building I was overwhelmed with despair. After a short period of research, I understood just why I felt so overwhelmed with grief. The central criminal court of the Old Bailey is more than the most famous court in the land. The Bailey is built on the foundations of Newgate gaol, once the most notorious prison in London. For centuries, thousands of men and women made their final journey from the condemned cells through Deadman’s Walk to die on the scaffold. Their bodies were later covered in lime and buried under Deadman’s Walk itself. For me, it was as though their collective pain had seeped into the very foundations of the Bailey. An old TV play, entitled The Stone Tape, proposes a similar theory: if an event has been sufficiently traumatic or remarkable the surrounding landscape itself will take an imprint. That’s certainly how I felt about the Bailey. We are living among ghosts.

HH: Our favourite out of the series is ‘City of Sin’. Which book are you most proud of and which has been the most fun to write?

CA: City of Sin was the most fun to write and research, because many of the characters I wrote about were such remarkable women. I’m thinking of redoubtable characters such as Alice le Clatterballock, or the resourceful Priscilla Fotheringham and her celebrated ‘chucking office’ or the actresses who became ‘Toasts of the Town’ and married into the aristocracy.  The most painful book to write in many respects was Bedlam because I became aware of the pain so many people have suffered over the centuries from mental illness and barbaric treatment.  Some terrible abuses took place in the name of medical science well into the twentieth century. I had to face some of my own demons writing Bedlam, including bereavement depression and stress, but I get a lot of positive feedback from fellow sufferers.

I’m most proud of Underworld London Crime and Punishment in the Capital City, although much of the research into capital punishment proved harrowing in the extreme. I was particularly moved by the terrible miscarriages of justice suffered by Timothy Evans (wrongly hanged for the 10 Rillington Place murders) Derek Bentley and Ruth Ellis.

HH: The London series span long periods of history. How do you go about researching the series and what resources do you use?

CA: I take a panoramic view of each topic, and the hardest part is deciding what to leave out. Focusing on London inevitably means I can’t include every character or event that I would like to, and many items have to be discarded for reasons of length. Given the opportunity, all four of these books could have been twice the size. While primary sources were invaluable for Necropolis – there is no substitute for traipsing around windswept graveyards to get the real feel of London’s dead – I also draw on the literature and journalism of the day. For instance, although there are some useful 19th century patients’ records at the Royal Bethlehem Hospital museum in Kent, and I was able to see around the Imperial War Museum (formerly Bethlehem Hospital) many of the historic spaces I write about are long since gone. I have to draw upon secondary sources to help bring them to life. I’m not ashamed to say my method is that of a ‘mash-up,’ intended to create a vivid picture of people, places and events.

HH: Have you any plans to release further books about London; are there any particular stories you still want to tell?

CA: I have so many ideas, it’s a question of which to write next. My next published book represents a slight change of focus. I’ve just completed Globe, the World of Shakespeare’s London, which is actually about the building of the first Globe theatre in 1599 and about the events that made this possible, from James Burbage’s first ever Theatre (built 1575) to the tremendous outpouring of dramatic writing that made Shakespeare and his contemporaries the stars of the London theatre scene. Writing Globe was a huge challenge because although I studied Shakespeare at Cambridge, and admire his work, there is something very daunting about writing about England’s national poet. For the first time, I understood why actors always felt humbled when cast as Cleopatra or King Lear. In terms of content, I still found a sufficiently dark quality about the London theatre world of the 1590s. For instance, writers and actors ran a real risk of prosecution and even death if they fell foul of the censors. Plague was an everyday reality, and it was a violent age: Ben Jonson killed another actor, Gabriel Spenser, in a brawl and the greatest playwright of them all, apart from Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, was murdered in circumstances that have never been fully explained. A production in Dulwich of Doctor Faustus, Marlowe’s most famous play, ended in uproar after it was believed that real devils had been conjured up on stage. Ned Alleyn, the leading actor, founded Dulwich School as an act of atonement!

HH: We love to provide the young people visiting our site with industry advice. What advice would you give to young writers looking to undertake a factual piece of writing, akin to your London series?

CA: Visit the site or location, not just once, but on at least two different days to get the feel of it. And go on your own, if possible, to seep up the atmosphere. It’s extraordinary how, even now, Highgate Cemetery or the exterior of the Old Bailey or Bunhill Fields Burial Ground makes an impact if you put yourself in the right frame of mind. Don’t start off with a theory or an argument but allow the place and the conditions to dictate it to you. Keep an open mind. Read as much as you can about your chosen topic, popular as well as academic, and study it in other media – newspapers, paintings, photographs. The internet is a wonderful resource but there’s no substitute for getting out there and communicating with the spirit of the place.

HH: And lastly, you are hosting a macabre Halloween party. Which three gruesome figures from London’s past would you invite and why?

CA: I’d need security! I would invite Jack the Ripper, William Calcraft the hangman of Newgate and Jonathan Wilde, the Thief-taker General who was actually on the take. To balance out these bad-ass types, I’d also invite Sherlock Holmes, Henry Fielding, the creator of the Bow Street Runners and William Garrow, the first real defence barrister in the modern sense. It would be quite an evening and we’d have to make sure we didn’t run out of wine. But William Garrow would come in useful if Sherlock was targeted by sniffer dogs on the way home and found to be in possession of Class A drugs.

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