Joan Lock’s first Victorian crime novel, Dead Image, was set against the real-life tragedy: The Regent’s Park explosion of 1874 in which a canal boat exploded as it passed under a bridge. For the second, she chose the background of Britain’s biggest ever civilian disaster, the sinking of the Princess Alice in 1878. This pleasure steamer was rammed by Tyne collier the Bywell Castle resulting in the loss of over 600 lives. Problem was, how to get her charismatic Detective Sergeant Ernest Best onto the doomed boat and have him discover a murder victim amongst all that accidental death?
As it happened, baby farmers were much in the news. These were merely much needed childminders who took in babies for a fee on a weekly basis or offered to ‘permanently adopt’ them or facilitate the procedure. But the suspicion had grown that once fees were handed over some of the babies were deliberately neglected or even murdered. When no less than sixteen bodies were found scattered around Camberwell within the space of a few weeks a baby farmer named Margaret Waters was arrested, tried for murder and hanged.
Joan’s research amongst the police baby-farming files at the National Archives when writing her books about Scotland Yard’s first detectives had alerted her to the fact that a police officer had gone under cover in Islington close to ‘suspected premises’ which were only a couple of streets away from where Joan now lives.
Detective Sergeant Best was duly allotted such a task. From his lodgings next door he followed Martha, the baby farm’s domestic. She was carrying a valise in which, Best is convinced, is the body of a baby which she is about to discreetly deposit behind a hedge or a shed at Laycock Street Farm. But, to his surprise, Martha climbs onto an omnibus and leads him down to the Thames where she boards the Princess Alice which is carrying pleasure-bound day-trippers downriver to the celebrated Rosherville Pleasure Gardens and the resorts of Gravesend and Sheerness.
Whilst on board Martha makes no attempt to open her valise but alights at the extraordinary Rosherville Pleasure Gardens which are set in an old chalk quarry: cliffs to the rear, the busy Thames life to the front, and numerous entertainments in its grounds. Here, at last, Martha opens her valise to reveal the surprise purpose of her expedition.
On his return journey the terrible collision occurs and Best has to fight for his life. Later, amongst the many dead, he finds the body of a young woman whom he knows had not been on board and he realises that she has been murdered.
(This is not such an unlikely scenario. There were suspicions about the state of a few of the victims. However, as almost no individual post mortems were carried out and the authorities were desperate to get the decaying bodies quickly identified and buried, it was remarked that, should you have a body you needed to get rid of, this was a good time and place to do it.)
Dead Born is published by the History Press