Bringing obscure sources of history to life

I have a deep and passionate love of old books. Sitting now in my office my walls are covered with shelves and a collection of antiquarian books I call my library are my companions every day. These old books, some four hundred years old, are priceless rare treasures in which I view my role for their preservation as that of guardianship. In our times of unfettered worship of money for the sake of money itself, some may be confused when I say these books are priceless. In less subtle minds ideas of rare and priceless treasure conjure up huge piles of cash in the attic. Such scenarios of material wealth are not what I am talking about. My books are gathered at book fairs and charity shops, they are mostly unwanted texts whose more probable destination is a furnace rather than a bookshelf. These books are refugees drowning in digital seas.  The Mysteries of London page 385 small detail 03

For a book collector to throw them a lifeline they would need to be in top condition, probably written by a famous author and own the pedigree of a first edition. Only the first-class passengers from the sinking ship of old books are deemed worthy to be saved and therefore command high prices for their souls. But I am not a collector of books, I am an historian, I am a collector of content and context. 

Though few of my old books have cost me more than £2.50 and none have ever been above the £20 price I paid for The Boys Industrial Information Illustrated (circa 1860), their value cannot be estimated with coins. These old works are packed tight with history, sociology, science, and human biographies. In their pages the ink of human lives now but dust still speaks to us whilst their bones lie beneath worn and illegible gravestones. My shelves are a mausoleum in which I protect and guard those whispers from the past. Not a gloomy room but more in keeping with the tomb of King Mausolus, from where we take our term, a magnificent celebration of his life and one of the seven wonders of the world. 

True, the pages in my mausoleum are from much more humble sources and there is no royal grandiosity about the planks of wood they all find sanctuary on. Yet the spirit of their keeping is a celebration rather than a mourning. My purpose here is to open the door into this festival of the past so that you can look inside and make your own judgement of the value I am placing on these old and sometimes shattered spines. We are going to take a look at one of my earliest recruits, The Mysteries of London by George W. M. Reynolds (1848). The Mysteries of London page 385 small detail 01

A flea-bitten cover which may once have been green sandwiches dirty brown edges of page. This unattractive looking book, about B5 in dimensions, is grubby to the touch and has that strange smell which old books carry after sitting in neglect on shelves doing nothing more than absorbing the atmosphere of their abuse. The paper within is a history of spillage and dirt but every word is legible in a small tight font. Just looking at any one page you know that they have been read, touched and shared. My own valuation of what I have on my table here increases every time I open it up.

The most basic of Google searches will reveal that what we have is a bound volume of the most popular penny dreadful of the 19th century. This is a salacious set of stories accompanied by lurid illustrations aimed at the literate lower classes but sometimes secretly titillated over by respectable middle-class eyes. These weekly publications sold 40,000 copies a week at a penny a time. That’s £277 17 shillings a week approximately when a wage of £10 a week in London was enough to raise a family and eat well. 

George Reynolds was an ex-army officer, well-travelled with as many failures as successes to his name by the time he produced The London Mysteries. As Wikipedia notes: 

Almost forgotten now, during his lifetime he was more read than Dickens or Thackeray in his obituary, the trade magazine The Bookseller called Reynolds “the most popular writer of our times” (“Obituary” 600)” 

You can buy reprints of this work, there is a popular trade in taking up old books free from copyright and then reproducing them on a print to order basis for, in this case, £25 a book, but getting an original, whilst not impossible, is not easy. If you are at all like me then you want the texture the 1848 edition gives you and smile as you touch pages turned by people 174 years ago. 

Perhaps you can see what the strange conundrum is about these texts. Reynolds was churning them out like a sausage factory, he was the flavour of the day, a famous man, a celebrity and when he finished The Mysteries of London story in his Penny Dreadfuls, he turned them into bound volumes and one of those sits before my keyboard here. These were not expensive books in their day, they have never been high value in monetary terms and as with all things celebrity, human memory is short. The Mysteries of London page 385 small detail 02

Once forgotten, once stories of blushing maidens, hot-blooded Irish officers in the military and murderers stalking the streets of London have gone well past their sell-by date, then the books are seen as valueless. They get thrown out. Yes, commercial interests, in my opinion, without a spark of creativity to stem their greed can republish old texts on the cheap but they do so without passion and with little idea other than to make a few bucks from somebody else’s work. In this environment we find that what was mass-produced can actually become rare by virtue of the low-value time has placed on the work. I cannot see an 1848 copy for sale anywhere on the internet.

This is all well and good but two factors are required to now press home my claim of value beyond the pleasure of holding in one’s hands such an artefact. The first is that these books need to be read. You can’t just place them on a shelf, unlike as most ‘book collectors do with their pristine purchases and leave them there. As I have said, the condition is not important but what is important, the content and context can only be understood by reading the works. That is when you find the treasure. 

Let’s consider page 385 and its wonderfully stained and mottled illustration of what looks like the inside of a London pub sometime in the 1840s. We have to consider that this work is cheap fiction but we should not let ourselves be put off the historical scent by that fact. There was no television, radio or cinema for entertainment. All you had was the music hall if you were in the literate lower orders, that or the Bible classes where most learned to read. The Penny Dreadful was the soap opera of its day, like Eastenders, or Coronation Street and like our contemporary ‘dreadfuls’, the script is written by one who is not from those lower orders. These soap operas are middle-class idealisations of life below the scriptwriter’s social Plimsoll line.

The Mysteries of London page 385 small

Consequently, the text itself is always coloured, embellished and in the case of the nail-biting terrors awaiting those falling socially overboard, they are shocking and frightening. They are Penny Dreadfuls after all. Yet the thing about soap operas is that whilst the narrative of characters may be a fiction lost in its own absurdity the settings have to look real. The pubs of Eastenders and Coronation Street have to look like the real thing or the audience will not be taken in by the story. In a genuine setting, you can get away with the most preposterous of dramas.

The image of a pub on page 385 tells us much with its bare floorboards, wooden table and chair, pint tankard, clay pipes, the glass with what looks like a straw, the thrown food, the plates on the wall, the gas burner, the wall pictures, style of clothes and demeanour of the characters. You can almost smell that pub which, it turns out in the narrative a few pages along, is The Bengal Arms. Now we can trace that pub; 

Bengal Arms Tavern  


Status: Closed and demolished
Address: 2-4 White Lion Court, EC3V
London borough: City of London
Former address: [now Bengal Court]
2 White Lion Court (1856)
3 White Lion Court (1839)
Historical parish: St Michael Cornhill
Dates open: [1839]-[1874]
Notes: This is listed as a “dining rooms” by the 1882 directory, and later as the “Cornhill Restaurant”, although it is marked as a public house on the1896 and 1916 Ordnance Survey maps.  



We know this is exactly the pub in question because the text tells us; 


“Passing in front of the Exchange and up Cornhill, they turned into Birchin Lane. There Jack Rily hesitated for an instant which way to proceed: but suddenly recollecting that in a little passage to the left there was a public house called The Bengal Arms, he said: “There’s a crib here where they sell capital ale.” page 391. 


Reynolds was a military man, a man who had seen the world and the world had seen him. Clearly, he knew of The Bengal Arms and whilst we cannot be sure it is not unreasonable to assume that he may well have been there. A pub tucked away in a court off a lane in the City of London is unlikely to be something a safe middle-class writer could just conjure up in his imagination. All through the Mysteries of London, Reynolds topographical knowledge underlies the travels and travails of his characters. This was no blushing poet writing romance, this was an ex-soldier writing gritty fiction. 


I have spoken of the voices these old books contain. Perhaps we can sit back and listen not so much to the story but to George Reynolds describing The Bengal Arms:  

“The parlour at The Bengal Arms is – or at least was at the time whereof we are writing – a long, low dingy room, very dark in the day-time and indifferently lighted in the evening. It is always filled with a motley assembly of guests; and ale is the beverage most in request – while to one who indulges in a cigar, at least ten enjoy the unaffected enjoyment of the clay pipe.” page 391.  

This has much more the sound of reporting than fictional storytelling. Yet even when he moves into his story can we still sense that the idea of the pub envisaged by the writer is not one imaginatively constructed but more experienced?  

“On the present occasion the company was numerous: the tobacco-smoke hung like a dense mist in the place, the gas burners showing dimly through the pestiferous haze, and the heat was intense.  

Jack Rily and Vitriol Bob contrived to find room at one of the tables; and a slip-shod waiter supplied them in due time with a pot of ale and bread and cheese,…” page 391.  

All I could find about the history of The Bengal Arms is expressed in the source from and some records at pubwiki. We can certainly say that at the time of writing and in the moment of the story, Thomas Godsell was the publican of the Bengal Arms and probably there is a good case for either Robert France or Walter Adams being a ‘slip-shod waiter’. There are certainly no photographs of this London pub so all we have left which speaks to its architecture, ambience, and humanity is to be found in this drawing and the lines of a penny dreadful.  

The title of this short essay is “Bringing obscure historical sources to life” and by that, I meant to demonstrate the value of the old books I collect and save. There are 416 pages in The Mysteries of London by Reynolds and almost every page is rich with all sorts of information woven into his sensational tales. All it requires to turn what appears obscure into something relevant is the will not only preserve but read and enjoy. If we add to that the excitement and joy to be had trawling through book markets and not turning away from gems because they do not shine brightly in the light of our day, then the occupation of book hunting brings more to our lives than watching soap operas!