The Devil in the MarshalseaAntonia Hodgson, Hodder & Staughton, 2014

The-Devil-in-the-MarshalseaA murder-mystery set among the desperate and dangerous denizens of London’s Marshalsea Prison in 1727, The Devil in Marshalsea tells the story of lad-about-town Tom Hawkins who is tossed into the notorious prison for debt.

Hawkins’ only chance of escape is to find the killer of one Captain Roberts, who died in the jail before his arrival, and it’s a task that brings him into conflict with, and under the suspicion of, many within the prison walls.

There’s plenty of historical detail and the book delivers an insightful look into what life in Marshalsea would have been like – although as Hodgson points out in an historical note at the start, this is not the Marshalsea of Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit – that wasn’t opened until 1800 on a different site while this one was located between Mermaid Court and what is now Newcomen Street in Southwark.

The characters are largely based on actual people – Hodgson goes to the trouble to describe the background to each in some explanatory endnotes – and their stories criss-cross the main narrative.

There’s plenty of twists along the way and the story plunges on at a cracking pace as Hawkins has to confront his worst fears and struggles to discern who is friend and who is foe in a world where everyone appears to be driven by their most base desires.

An enlightening read and, as is the case with a good murder-mystery, hard to put down. A terrific debut.

To buy this book, follow this link The Devil in the Marshalsea.

One of those somewhat confusing placenames where the ‘w’ is effectively silent, Southwark (pronounced something like Suh-thuck) is a sizeable district south of the River Thames and one of the city’s oldest areas.

The area, which was settled as far back as Saxon times, takes its name from the Old English words suth or sud weorc which translates as “southern defensive work” and relates to the fact that the site is south of the City of London and at the southern end of London Bridge (the first bridge here was built by the Romans). While it was this name which was recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086, in the 900s the area was recorded as Suthriganaweorc which meant ‘fort of the men of Surrey’.

The name Southwark was also applied to borough which sat south of the river and still exists today – the Borough of Southwark. This in turn became shortened to just Borough, hence the name borough still exists as an alternative for part of Southwark even today (think of Borough Market and Borough High Street).

Part of Roman Londinium, Southwark was effectively abandoned after the end of Roman rule and then reoccupied by Saxons in the late 800s when the ‘burh’ (borough) of Southwark was created. It developed considerably in the medieval period and became known for its inns (think of the pilgrim inn, The Tabard, in The Canterbury Tales).

The area, particularly Bankside – part of the Borough of Southwark, also become known as an entertainment district with theatres and bear-baiting pits as well as a red-light district. It was also known for its prisons, in particular The Clink (controlled by the Bishop of Winchester), Marshalsea and the King’s Bench.

The area was also a centre of industry – everything from brewing to tanning – and came to boast numerous docks and warehouses (when it also became a centre of the food processing industry). With the closure of the docks, it’s retail, tourism, creative industries and the financial services which are dominant in the area today.

Landmarks are many thanks to the area’s long and colorful history (far too many to list in this short piece) but among major sites are Southwark Cathedral, Borough Market, and the George Inn as well as the Old Operating Theatre, Guy’s Hospital, and a replica of Sir Francis Drake’s ship, the Golden Hinde. Personalities associated with the area (again far too many to list here) include Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens.

PICTURE: Southwark Cathedral © Copyright Kevin Danks and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

For more, check out Southwark: A History of Bankside, Bermondsey and the Borough