The year is 1759 and London is shrouded in a cloak of fear. With the constables at the mercy of highwaymen, it’s a perilous time to work the already dangerous streets of Soho. Lizzie Hardwicke makes her living as a prostitute, somewhat protected from the fray as one of Mrs Farley’s girls. But then one of her wealthy customers is found brutally murdered… and Lizzie was the last person to see him alive.
Constable William Davenport has no hard evidence against Lizzie but his presence and questions make life increasingly difficult. Desperate to be rid of him and prove her innocence Lizzie turns amateur detective, determined to find the true killer, whatever the cost.
Yet as the body count rises Lizzie realises that, just like her, everyone has a secret they will do almost anything to keep buried…
…..Fingers of sunlight poked their way through the shutters of my room. I lay in bed, listening. The house was very still, which meant the girls were probably still asleep. Ma and the servants would be long gone, buying more food for the party. I strained to make out the different noises from outside. An oyster girl was on her way home, crying out to anyone who would listen that she had but a few left. I imagined the girl weaving her way, basket balanced on her head, shawl knotted around her shoulders to keep out the chill. It was the end of March, and the sun, although bright, would surely be weak. A church bell, somewhere, began to ring and then others took the hint and joined in. Noon.
I didn’t fancy oysters, but bread and cheese would be welcome, or a pie. My stomach growled. The kitchen would be forbidden to anyone except those prepared to chop and cook, so there was nothing to be done except wander out to find something from the streets. It was probably wiser to leave for an hour or two, anyway. Very soon a predictable chaos would strike the house and suck me into a whirl of people wielding hair curlers, powder and gowns with all the energy of a wild storm. I wanted to avoid that for as long as possible.
There was a pitcher outside my door. The water had probably been hot a couple of hours ago, but now was decidedly cool. I washed my face, used my pot and dressed. Ma would have been horrified at how little attention I paid to my toilette, but hunger was tugging me outside. There was no need to make myself too attractive: I was searching for pies, not business.
Stepping out of the house and down the stairs onto Berwick Street I could hear a crowd in the distance, off to the left, towards Oxford Street. My favourite pie seller is usually in Thrift Street or Greek Street around midday, but, sufficiently intrigued, I turned and walked in the opposite direction to see what was going on. Oxford Street was filled with scores of people, many of them women. They were waiting for something, or someone, chattering with excitement, laughing and squealing. While they waited for whatever it was, local traders obligingly sold them food. Costermongers, oyster girls, pasty sellers, all moved in and out of the throng with baskets and carts full of tasty treats.
‘What’s happening?’ I asked the thin-faced man who put down his pasty cart for a moment. ‘A pie, please. Beef if you have it, mutton if not.’ I reached for my purse.
‘One beef pie left, sweetheart, just for you. Here you go!’
‘Why the crowd?’ I asked again before he moved off.
‘They’re bringing John Swann to Newgate today,’ he said, nodding towards the west. ‘It’s why all the ladies are here. Didn’t you know?’
I knew well enough who John Swann was. It had been difficult to hold an intimate or intelligent conversation in the taverns for the past week without my ears being assaulted by the latest ballads offered in his honour, or loud announcements of his capture. Highwaymen are no longer quite the scourge for travellers they once were, but the fascination for them has not dimmed. They attract a ridiculous amount of attention; much of it female. I’ve never seen the attraction myself but, apparently, they are extremely dashing, and usually handsome. John Swann was especially so, at least according to the musicians.
‘Ah. Of course. I’d forgotten it was today. You must be doing brisk business.’
He was. I was talking to the back of his coat as he trundled off to find love-sick women in need of warm pies.
You can suffocate in crowds like this. Elbows rammed into my ribs and boots trod over my skirts, making it difficult to move, let alone breathe. Every so often a voice cried out ‘’Ere he is!’ and the masses cheered and swelled forwards like a wave to catch a glimpse, only to ebb back with a sigh when they realised it was not him at all.
A few feet along the street there was a gap between the buildings. It was a place of assignation after dark, and normally to be avoided by the more decent working ladies, but there was a chance it would be empty. I pushed hard against the tide, head down and pie in hand, until finally I popped up like a cork. I was right: there was no one there. No wonder; it stank of the grime and waste of the previous occupants. There was a discarded box further into the cleft. It would be useful to stand on to see the procession. I held my breath and pulled in my skirts, still clutching the pie, and inched towards it. With my toe, I flipped it over. A rat bowled thorough my feet towards the crowd, twitched its tail and scurried off. The box was strong enough to hold my weight and, several inches taller, I leaned my back against the alley wall, watching the crowd, and eating the pie. It was no longer warm, and it had never been beef, but it wasn’t bad, and it was good enough for breakfast. Where had these people come from? From across London and beyond, by the look of it. All bewitched by the myth of John Swann the highwayman.
The talk of the taverns was that he had been working the roads north of London with a small band of men, attacking carriages and robbing houses – taking money from terrified property-owners at pistol point. His weakness, of course, had been women, whom he had loved a little too widely. One disgruntled doxy, no doubt unhappy at sharing him, had decided to reveal his whereabouts to the law men. The means of his capture – naked, save for a bed sheet and his hat – had only added to his charm and notoriety.
There was a shout from somewhere west and then the noise began to build, steadily this time, a low hum becoming a full-throated cheer. Faces suddenly appeared in the windows of the houses opposite. Those who dwelt in this part of town knew the right moment to gaze upon criminals who journeyed up the road to face their trial or back down it to their doom. No disappointment this time: here came John Swann. Indeed, he was handsome; dark curls hanging about his shoulders, waving his hat to the people, behaving more like their newly-crowned monarch than a violent thief. No wonder the ladies had swooned. The constables in the cart remained seated, allowing him this moment in the sun, confident that he would be riding back down the road towards Tyburn before the summer.
The masses pushed forward, clamouring for his attention, his benediction. The cart struggled to move down the street, so the constables stood up and shooed away the people as if they were excitable dogs.
Behind the onlookers, one young girl threaded swiftly in and out of the crowd. She navigated her way easily in her rags, where I had been encumbered by my full skirts. I watched her, fascinated. She was tiny; limp-haired and thin from lack of food. As men and women swayed and stood on their toes to see the criminal, she moved with them, deftly sneaking her hands into bags and pockets. They were oblivious of her; their attention was fixed on their charismatic king riding off to court. The scrawny girl could not see, as I could from my vantage point, that the cart had nearly passed. In a moment, the company would disperse, and she would be caught loosening the strings of someone’s purse.
We all play with fire in this city, but, on an impulse, I decided that this little one would not be burned today. I sprang from the crack in the wall and grabbed her wrist just as she was about to make another dive. Her head jolted up, eyes wide with panic.
‘I wasn’t doing nothin’, miss, really.’
We needed to get away as quickly as possible. I held her wrist tighter and pulled her behind me.
‘Don’t struggle,’ I turned and hissed in her face as she began to whine. ‘And don’t cry at me. I’ve probably just saved your life, stupid child. Come on.’
We marched firmly along until the crowd were far behind us. Some were only now beginning to feel for their purses and realising that, even as they cheered the great thief, a lesser one had relieved them of their goods.
I kept hold of her wrist but slowed the walk.
‘How much have you lifted today?’
‘I’m not a thief, miss. Honest.’
‘Of course not. You accidentally fall into people’s pockets.’ I glared at her. ‘That’s what you’d tell the magistrate, obviously.’
Large globes of tears began to drop from her eyes. She would get no sympathy from me until I had heard the truth – although I could probably guess it.
‘I mean, I’m not normally a thief. I don’t take from people’s pockets. It’s just that …’
She sniffed back some of the snot that was now running along with the tears and wiped a grubby sleeve across her face.
‘I’ve not had much luck with the gentlemen recently. I haven’t eaten for days.’
One of us – except without the decent clothes, the good food and the bed. If she didn’t have the pox she was certainly riddled with lice. I could see them in the lank strands of brown hair. She stank of stale drink. No wonder she wasn’t making any money.
‘Where have you been working?’
‘I was on the Strand for a while, but some new girls moved in and took my regulars, so I moved out west. Covent Garden was too busy.’
You can hardly move for the whores around there, it’s true.
‘I just got hungry. And I saw the crowd and they were all watching the cart and I just, well I just had a go at it.’
‘You’ve lifted purses before, though, surely? If a gentleman has had too much ale?’
She looked at her feet and then peeped up at me from under her lashes. The street girls all do it. Gives the rest of us a bad name.
I frowned, and then tucked her arm firmly under mine, releasing my hold on her wrist.
‘I’ll take you to a decent tavern and fill you up with food. Then you can use your stolen money for some new clothes and a pretty ribbon. Perhaps you’ll have more luck with a better gown … and a wash. What’s your name?’
‘How do you do, Sallie.’ I turned, made a deep curtsey and winked at her. ‘Delighted to make your acquaintance. I’m Lizzie Hardwicke, of Mrs Farley’s establishment on Berwick Street.’
She tugged her arm from mine and looked me up and down, recognising me for what I was.
‘Miss Lizzie Hardwicke, I am forever in your debt.’
‘You are. You’d better learn to keep your hands out of other people’s pockets, or you’ll be following John Swann to Tyburn.’
Her face darkened with fear again.
‘Cheer up, Sallie, there are taverns and bawdy houses opening further west every day. There’s more than enough work to go around.’ All the smart bawds, like Mrs Farley, were moving out of Covent Garden.
She had fallen too far for me to find her a respectable trade – any more than I could find one for myself – but I could help her out as best I could. There, but for the grace of God, walked I, after all.
We turned off Wardour Street into Compton Street, stepped around the young lad grinding knives in his usual spot, and into the White Horse tavern, where there was always a warm welcome for Ma’s girls – even in the early afternoon. Anne Bardwell, mistress of the tavern, was standing, hands on wide hips, watching over her domain with flinty eyes. Harry Bardwell, round-faced and equally portly, but jollier than his wife, was carrying a tray of beer to a group of customers. He saw us and hurried to set down the tray before bustling over to greet us.
‘Lizzie! My favourite lady in the whole of London!’
Every woman was his favourite, especially if she was sitting in his tavern and attracting men through the doors. But he was decent and fair, and had not once, in the time I had known him, tried to shove his hand up my skirts. He wouldn’t dare with a wife like his. I laughed back at him.
‘Mr Harry Bardwell, allow me to present to you my newest friend, Miss Sallie … Sallie, do you have a name?’
‘If I do, then I’ve forgotten it. I’m always just Sallie.’
He lifted her hand to his lips as if it belonged to the queen herself. As he did, I saw him take in her sparrow-thin arms and hollow cheeks.
‘Well then, Just Sallie, as a friend of Miss Hardwicke you are most welcome here. I assume you would like a bite to eat?’
Sallie barely had time to nod before Harry swept her away to a corner table.
‘I found her picking pockets in Oxford Street.’ I stood next to Anne as we watched her husband bring out two pies and a jug.
‘You’re soft-hearted,’ Anne folded her arms. The look on her face suggested that she had smelled something bad. ‘Whoring is one thing; thieving is quite another.’
You can’t argue with logic like Anne’s.
‘Thieves never stop, once they’ve got a taste for it,’ she said, not to be interrupted. ‘Take that John Swann, for instance. He started out as a diver, but he got too big for his boots, didn’t he? Wanted more money, more jewels, and soon enough he was robbing the coaches.’
Anne was not charmed by looks and reputation.
‘The only thing she’s got a taste for is food,’ I nodded over to Sallie, who was wolfing down the first pie. ‘She was picking pockets because her usual trade had dried up.’ I sighed. ‘She wasn’t much good at it, as far as I could see. If she’d done any more she would have been caught. I’ve told her that there’s more work around here every day.’
She didn’t look impressed.
‘I don’t want a thief in here. It’s enough that Swann’s men are roaming around, grabbing what they can.’
‘Really? John Swann’s men are here?’ I scanned the room, wondering who they were. Most were regulars. A couple of respectable types were having a quiet drink and there was a young woman I didn’t know cuddled up to an old gentleman in the far corner.
‘Not in here.’ She looked at me as though I were an idiot. ‘Out on the streets. House-breaking. Everyone knows he has associates. It’s only a matter of time before they kill again.’
His associates were cut-throats and hard-faced whores, most of whom operated in the dark, not in broad daylight. If they had, indeed, been drawn to Soho, they wouldn’t be wandering at this hour.
‘I don’t think Sallie is one of his associates, Anne.’
‘I’m just saying,’ she hissed. ‘We can’t afford a bad reputation. This is a smart part of town. People won’t come if it’s full of criminals – like Covent Garden.’
I thought it best to indulge her.
‘Don’t fret Anne,’ I put a hand on her meaty shoulder. ‘Even when it’s full of Ma’s girls, even when we’re dancing on the tables with barely a stitch on, even when everybody here is screaming drunk, this is still a respectable house.’
She looked at me sharply. ‘It’ll be quiet tonight, then. Aren’t you all supposed to be polishing yourselves up for a party?’
God’s teeth! I’d forgotten about it. Ma would be furious if I didn’t get home soon.
‘Thank you for reminding me,’ I said, rolling my eyes and pulling some coins from my pocket.
I went and sat next to Sallie, who was now finishing off the beer. She gave a large belch, giggled, and wiped the heel of her hand across her mouth. I laid the coins on the table by her pot.
‘This should cover whatever you eat and drink here, Sallie. You’ll do as I suggested, though? Put what you’ve taken to good use and have a bath?’
She looked at the coins and then up at me. Her face, I saw, was covered with a film of dust. She had been out on the streets for a long time.
‘I had a sister like you – always telling what to do and how to do it.’ She slid the coins off the table and into her lap. ‘Not as pretty as you, though. Nor as fancy.’
I had brothers once.
‘You can earn well if you look as fancy as I do.’ I shrugged, pointing to the purses on the seat next to her. ‘You can buy some clothes, or you can blow the money on gin and die in the gutter. It’s your choice, sister.’
There was nothing more I could do for her. She was on her own.
Mr Bardwell landed another pot of beer in front of Sallie.
‘How was your young man last night, then?’ He nudged my shoulder and laughed.
‘Old and incapable,’ I said, getting to my feet, rolling my eyes, but laughing with him. ‘I think I nearly killed him.’
‘Better luck at the party tonight, then.’ He chortled in his amiable way as he carried his tray to another table.
‘No luck for me,’ I called after him. ‘He’s coming back for more. The least I can do is finish him off and put him out of his misery.’ I was still laughing as I fell out of the door; one of very few occasions when I had left that tavern both sober and alone.
I am really pleased to bring you this extract from the book – my review was published a few days ago so I hope that this extract and my review will pique your interest enough to find out about Lizzie.
Georgina Clarke has a degree in theology and a PhD in history but has only recently started to combine her love of the past with a desire to write stories. Her Lizzie Hardwicke series is set in the mid-eighteenth century, an underrated and often neglected period, but one that is rich in possibility for a crime novelist.
She enjoys running along the banks of the River Severn and is sometimes to be found competing in half marathons. In quieter moments, she also enjoys dressmaking.
She lives in Worcester with her husband and son, and two extremely lively kittens.
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