A Look at Regency England with Todd M. Johnson

Historical fiction fans, rejoice! Today, we have Todd M. Johnson here to share some behind-the-scenes details about the famous Regency period, the setting of his new historical legal thriller, The Barrister and the Letter of Marque. If you’re intrigued by barrister William Snopes and his adventures, you can get a signed copy by pre-ordering the book from Baker Book House before the book releases on August 3, 2021. But now, I’ll turn it over to Todd.

Grand King George III of England finally went fully insane in 1811. People saw it coming. After all, he’d suffered bouts of incapacity for decades – including, some believe, during the American Revolutionary War. Still, England’s parliament had no precedent for replacing a mature but incapacitated sovereign. After much wringing of hands, they settled on the strategy of making the King’s son, George IV, his “regent” to rule in his stead.

That period, 1811 to 1820, became known as England’s “Regency Period.”

Why is such a short period in British history so famed? Probably because it was a time of rapid, unprecedented change—in English literature, music, architecture, courts, and concern for the poor. It was also vividly depicted in the books of Jane Austen– and echoed in the later writings of other great English authors, including Dickens, Thackeray, the Bronte Sisters, and Collins. 

Which is why, in my latest book The Barrister and the Letter of Marque, barrister William Snopes, a lawyer with a heart for the poor and a troubled link to high society, insisted upon being featured in London during this period.

So, what was William’s Regency Period London like?

Early 1800s London was the heart of the growing English empire and a mix of old wealth and rising mercantile affluence; bone crushing poverty and an aspiring middle class of merchants, bankers, priests, doctors, civil servants, solicitors, and (yes) barristers.

As depicted in The Barrister, London’s carriages, cabs, and walkways were shared by the well-dressed wealthy, equally well-dressed pickpockets, investors, muggers, tradesmen, sailors, stable hands, and kidnappers. Restaurants, bars, hotels, and pubs were ubiquitous. Wide areas were unsafe to walk at night (Whitechapel), while a few miles away were neighborhoods of beautiful public gardens and gas lit townhomes (Mayfair).

With that summary in mind, here are some London locales featured in The Barrister.

Gray’s Inn

“Impartial justice, guardian of equity, mistress of the law, without fear or favour rules men’s causes aright.” – The Motto of Gray’s Inn

William Snopes is a member of Gray’s Inn, one of the four “Inns of Court” which British barristers were (and still are) required to join in order to practice as barristers. William’s offices were at Gray’s Inn and, at one point in the story, he is threatened with severe discipline by the Inn for his conduct at court.

Gray’s Inn is the smallest (some would say the most elite) of the four Inns of Court in England. It is located at in posh Central London. Like the other three Inns of Court (the Middle Temple, the Inner Temple, and the Lincoln Inn), Gray’s Inn was (and is) at once a professional body, a source of discipline for its members, and a provider of office accommodations for many of its barristers.

Some more fun trivia:

  • The Hall at Gray’s Inn has a large, carved screen at one end over the vestibule entrance. That screen was given to the Inn by Elizabeth I. It was carved from the wood of a Spanish galleon captured from the Spanish Armada.
  • The Inn is known to this day for its sumptuous gardens, which have existed since at least 1597. William Shakespeare is believed to have first performed The Comedy of Errors there because his patron was a member.

Newgate Prison

How dreadful its rough heavy walls, and low massive doors, appeared to us – the latter looking as if they were made for the express purpose of letting people in, and never letting them out again.” – Charles Dickens describing Newgate Prison in 1836

Before the events in The Barrister, William Snopes, an experienced lawyer, had been forced to visit clients in the horror that was Newgate Prison on many occasions.

The original Newgate prison was built in 1188, but was rebuilt many times, including in 1770 and again in 1782. Divided into two sections, it housed a “Common area” for poor prisoners and a “State” area for those who could afford more comfortable accommodation. These sections on the prison were further divided between debtors and felons. The women’s section alone usually contained 300 women and children. The foul, crowded conditions spread misery and disease—including the dreaded “gaol fever” that took swaths of the prison population at intervals.

In The Barrister, Captain Harold Tuttle, William’s client, is held, inexplicably, in the most isolated cells of the prison: in a basement gallery without fresh air or natural light. It isn’t necessary to conjure a vision of the place—you can visit it. Although Newgate was demolished in the early twentieth century, a Victorian gin house called the “Viaduct Tavern” sits across the street from the former prison site. In its cellar, you can find some of Newgate’s original basement cells, still replete with rusty bars and damp walls.

Perhaps the very ones poor Captain Tuttle once occupied.

The Thames Docks


But she still repeated the same words, continually exclaiming. “Oh, the river!” over and over again. “I know it’s like me!” she exclaimed. “I know that I belong to it. I know that it’s the natural company of such as I am! It comes from country places, where there was once no harm in it—and it creeps through the dismal streets, defiled and miserable—and it goes away, like my life, to a great sea, that is always troubled—and I feel that I must go with it!” –
Charles Dickens, describing the Thames in 1844

Much of The Barrister takes place in and around the Thames Port of London. At the time, that port was the lifeblood not only of London, but of the British Empire and even greater Europe.

As William Snope’s and Lady Madeleine Jameson’s experiences in the book demonstrate, the Thames port in 1818 seethed with cross currents of people and intrigue, commerce and crime. 

At that time, the port regularly squeezed in as many as 2000 vessels at a time. River navigation was “frequently impeded, and the losses, damages, accidents, and plunder” sustained were huge. Cargo was at the mercy of “river pirates,” “scuffle hunters,” and “mudlarks” who stole and smuggled goods from ships waiting up to two weeks to be off-loaded – much of that stock of goods in the form of tea, spices, textiles and furnishings carried by the fleet of 1,000-ton East India Company ships from Bengal and China.

Workers at the port and transient sailors often lived in nearby tenements, ancient and rickety buildings on fouled streets surrounded by wasted pastures. A far cry from London today.

***

So there’s a bit of the London world that barrister William Snopes and his friends and occupied. I hope you enjoy their adventures across the breadth of the city which launched a thousand stories and which, for all its growing pains, each of the characters loved.

Plot Summary of The Barrister and the Letter of Marque: As a barrister in 1818 London, William Snopes defends the poor against the powerful—but that changes when a struggling heiress arrives at his door with a mystery surrounding a missing letter from the king’s regent and a merchant’s brig. As he digs deeper, he learns that the forces arrayed against them are even more perilous than he’d imagined.

Have you ever visited London? If so, what did you enjoy about it? If not, what would you love to travel to see?

2 thoughts on “A Look at Regency England with Todd M. Johnson

  1. Yes! I traveled there years ago when I was a teenager. I didn’t appreciate it back then and don’t remember a lot about it. I thought it was so strange to go to a McDonalds and it was very different set up than in America. I remember we did these huge rubbings of old world English people that my parents brought home. I need to go back and take it in for all its worth!

  2. I used to think folks in England and Europe in general were not as “advanced as Americans”. Ha, that was some strange notion I had when I was younger. Little did I know until my first trip to London. More recently, I followed the book by Louise Allen, “Walking Jane Austen’s London”. There are 8 wonderful walks around London when the book provides photos and information about London in the time of Jane Austen. I did all the walks and loved the connections with Regency England.

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