The Port of London Murders
When I hear that an interesting person lived in Greenwich (and let’s face it, most of ‘em come here eventually, and if they spend more than an afternoon round these parts I claim ‘em for our very own…) then I just have to find out more about them. Writers and artists seemed to have found the place fascinating and though these days property prices are beginning to send them down the road to Deptford we still have a few.
Josephine Bell was one of the earlier of the modern authors (contemporary with another, more famous writer with whom she must have been neighbours, I’ll come onto him another day) and she’s particularly fascinating because, like so many writers even today, she juggled two jobs. I confess that I haven’t read any of her prolific crime series, but I was drawn to the one-off Port of London Murders because, although it is never named, I’ll put money on Greenwich being the deeply seedy, run-down world of slums and squalor the action turns around. I’ll even wager that this is one of the more personal books for her; it’s certainly one of her earliest.
Doris Bell Collier wasn’t actually from Greenwich. She was born in Manchester, and studied to become a medical doctor at Cambridge and University College Hospital. But somewhere along the way and slightly confusingly, Bell married a chap called Ball and between 1927 and 1935 they practiced medicine in Greenwich. Now, I can’t actually find out where she practiced – whether she was a GP or perhaps a hospital doctor, but as I read the Port of London Murders I found my mind drawn to the Royal Kent Dispensary, which I’ll talk about another day, as it’s worth a post on its own (not least in that the Miller Hospital, which it was part of, was the first place to have circular wards to stop dirty corners) as the story is based around a pre-NHS world where poverty meant that people went for years without medicine, ignored chronic illnesses and relied on charity handouts.
This story has been written by someone who has not only seen the misery and suffering of London’s underclass, but has seen the other side of the system too – the fakers, the hypochondriacs, the skivers – and the keepers-up-with-the-Joneses. The two main families, living next door to each other in condemned housing by the river (which if they are not the slums just behind Wood Wharf that Ronald Richards and Derek Bayliss describe in their wonderful Victorian Wood Wharf and Greenwich Riverside I’ll eat my tricorn) compete with each other for ailments – and the doctor’s attention. The doctor in question practices from what I’ll swear is somewhere along Greenwich High Road and is constantly beleaguered with cases both tragically real and comically fake.
I’ve just realised how hard it is to review a crime novel without spoilers, so I’ll stick to what I am convinced is the Greenwich stuff. According to Richards and Bayliss (whose mention made me go out and find her), Bell, her husband and four children lived locally and clearly knew the Thames Street/Wood Wharf area intimately. She talks about (perhaps from her own doctorial visits) the same cottages that Richards and Bayliss describe in detail; the truly condemned – literally falling apart around their occupants’ ears.
They are grim, despised places, and the residents are under pressure to move out so they can be demolished by the great and good (the book takes place just as the demolition is beginning) but Bell is careful to show the attachment the people feel to them – and the fear of what will happen to them if they go (think the Kidbrooke saga – plus ça change…)
Actually Greenwich itself (okay, okay, the unnamed Thames-side town) is pretty grim. The Thames is at the same time a source of income, a highway, a playground and a deadly foe. People survive however they can. Children play among the daily wreckage - of ships and cargo and human flotsam.
All this could have made for a rather worthy study of poverty and a shock exposé of working (and middle) class crime, both petty and larger scale, and for, frankly, a grim read. But Josephine Bell has managed to create real people here – people who don’t let daily desperation rule their lives. They even surprise themselves on occasion with unexpected acts of heroism, random generosity and the odd moment of honesty.
I don’t think I’ll be revealing too much to say that the murderer is flagged up reasonably early for a crime novel, and that part of the story is watching everything disintegrate. And it’s only mildly depressing that at the end, despite the ‘optimistic’ beginning of demolition to build the
Meridian unnamed new estate, the last image we are left with is another tide’s worth of flotsam and jetsum.
If you’re going to read this book (and I recommend you do, it’s pretty cheap in secondhand book stores and it’s an interesting crime story) I suggest you read it alongside Richards and Bayliss’s Victorian Wood Wharf and Greenwich Riverside, available in the Tourist Office, where you can entertain yourself with photos of what may well be the pub the old geezers all meet in, diagrams of the stoves inside the cottages and anecdotal snippets of the world Josephine Bell describes.
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