The Mystery of Edwin Drood

Drawing from the hard cold stones a spark of that mysterious fire which lurks in everything.... (the tower of St George's)

Charles Dickens' last novel, set in East London, is doubly mysterious, because he never completed it. (Allegedly he had revealed the plot to Queen Victoria when they met!) He died of a stroke on 9 June 1870, exhausted by overwork and his gruelling public readings. Two-thirds of the book was finished, but he left only a sketch for the rest. Who killed Edwin Drood, who had mysteriously vanished? Was it his uncle John Jasper, an opium addict and choirmaster at Cloisterham Cathedral (perhaps based on Rochester Cahedral in Kent, near his last home at Gad's Hill - the city features in many of his other books - but see below for an alternative theory)? Was it the Ceylonese twin Neville? Both of these were rivals for the affection of the heiress Rosa. Or was it some combination of the fog, the opium and the quicklime pit that give the book its sinister character?  Various completions have been made, and in the summer of 2011 the BBC screened the latest, by Gwyneth Hughes.

Frederick Kitton
The Novels of Charles Dickens: A Bibliography and Sketch (Elliot Stock, London 1897), chapter 13
A prominent feature of Edwin Drood is the graphic account of opium-dens and their frequenters, which are still to be found in the East End of London. Dickens's American friend, Mr J.T. Fields, has recorded that, during his stay in England in the summer of 1869, he accompanied the novelist one night (under police escort) to some lock-up houses, watch-houses, and opium-dens, it being from one of the latter that he gathered the incidents which are related in the opening pages. "In a miserable court," says Mr. Fields, "we found the haggard old woman blowing at a kind of pipe made of an old penny ink-bottle. The identical words which Dickens puts into the mouth of this wretched creature in 'Edwin Drood' we heard her croon as we leaned over the tattered bed on which she was lying. There was something hideous in the way this woman kept repeating 'Ye'll pay up according, deary, won't ye?' and the Chinamen and Lascars made never-to-be-forgotten pictures in the scene." We also have Dickens's statement that what he described he saw--exactly as he had described it--down in Shadwell in the autumn of 1869. "A couple of the Inspectors of Lodging-houses knew the woman, and took me to her as I was making a round with them, to see for myself the working of Lord Shaftesbury's Bill." Relative to his sketch of opium-smoking, Sir John Bowring (who had been British Ambassador to China and Governor of Hong Kong) pointed out to Dickens what appeared to him an inaccuracy in his delineation of that scene, and sent him an original Chinese sketch of the form of the pipe and the manner of its employment. While thanking him for the information, the novelist replied that he had only chronicled what actually came under his own observation in the neighbourhood of the London docks. Sir John's comment upon this is as follows: "No doubt the Chinaman whom he [Dickens] described had accommodated himself to English usage, and that our great and faithful dramatist here as elsewhere most correctly portrayed a piece of actual life."

Dickens placed the scene of Jasper's opium-smokings in a court just beyond the churchyard of St. George-in-the-East, Stepney. The Rev. Harry Jones, rector from 1873 to 1882, mentions that the old crone was known as Lascar Sal, and was living at the time he wrote (1875). The John Chinaman of whom she was so jealous in her trade was George Ah Sing, who died in 1889, he resided at 131, Cornwall Road, St. George's-in-the-East, and at the inquest it transpired that death was due to the rupture of a blood-vessel accelerated by destitution [1].  When the novelist visited him, he kept an opium-den in New Court, Victoria Street, E., which used to be a house of call for Chinese seamen coming to this country and others who indulged in the use of the drug.  The particular den described in the story was pulled down some years ago to make room for a Board-school playground, while the bedstead, pipes, etc., were purchased by Americans and others interested in curious relics.

In January 1890 the inquest was held at the Vestry Hall of George Ah Sing, also known as Johnson (after the captain of the vessel on which he had served as steward when he came to England). Aged 64, he died of exhaustion consequent on privation. Reports at the time, based on interviews with his widow, said that he had given up his 'lodging house' in New Court, Victoria Street sixteen years before, having broken his arm, and struggled to survive with his English wife of 25 years, who had taken in boarders, many of them Lascars, in two houses opposite; outdoor relief was refused, and he would not go into the workhouse. They moved to a room at 131 Cornwall Street, paying 2s. a week rent. He was a chapel-going Christian and would not let his wife run a shop because it would have meant working on Sunday. He had spent Christmas sitting by the fire singing hymns and reading the Bible (John 3 was his favourite passage), and was buried with Church of England rites at Bow Cemetery by one Arthur Bradford. His wife was a neat and attractive women, unlike 'Lascar Sal' of the book, and according to another report, John Johnston, born in Amoy, and his wife Hannah, born in Bath, who were living at 6 New Court in 1871, were a more likely source for Dickens. As so often, his references are not straightforward.
(See here for the text of Harry Jones' account, and here for further comments in relation to his campaigning for the demolition of these courts.)

2. In Dyer's Court, a detailed monograph from the 1980s, local architect and historian Mark Willingale argued that (a) the opium den that was Dickens' model was indeed that in New Court, Victoria Street, just to the east of St George's church and gardens, (b) that the 'cathedral' he mentions was the church of St George-in-the-East, and (c) identifies various sites from the book, including The Highway, Cable Street, the burial ground, the Rectory, a local inn, a watchmaker's shop and a toy shop, and 'Jasper's Gate House'.]

3. The street was originally Blue Gate Fields, as was a stretch of Cable Street, both of them abutting this when it was still open space. The map [right] shows the little warren of streets west of what had become Victoria Street / Court [now
Dellow Street], including Palmer's Place / Folly leading into Perseverance Place; the area in the centre was New Court (known colloquially as Chinaman's Court), with Gregory's Rents adjacent. See further p119 of Sander Gilman Smoke: A Global History of Smoking (2004). Like Betts Street a few hundred yards away, it was also a notorious centre of prostitution.

4. In the first half of the 20th century Drood Yard lay between John's Hill and Chigwell Hill on the other side of The Highway. Highway Cooperage, registered in 1939 (now dissolved), operated from nos.1-8, and later in Barking.

See here for comment on one of Dickens' two historical novels, Barnaby Rudge, set at the time of the 1780 Gordon Riots in London.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle also visited the local opium dens, 'for research', as did Oscar Wilde. In The Picture of Dorian Grey, describing its dissolute title character's journey to an opium den in Bluegate Fields, Wilde wrote of the streets like the sprawling web of some spider ... over the low roofs rose the black masts of ships. See too this anonymous 1868 account and this account by James Greenwood. However, some have claimed that the extent of the Chinese population in and around Limehouse, and the number of opium dens, has been over-stated.

Some of the earlier residents of Palmer's Folly included:

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