This post originally appeared on the Dashing Duchesses. For more information about resurrection men, fencing stolen goods, and various other unsavory things, check out my Pinterest board.
Thank you so much to Darcy for inviting me to come back to the Duchesses! It’s always fun to be here.
When writing my debut novel A Dangerous Invitation, I did a lot of research into the rookeries that existed in 1830’s London. A rookery, derived from the word “rook” which means to steal, is a poorer area where crime and vice flourished. Because of the architectural layout of London, these pockets often occurred right in between the middle class and upper class areas of the ton. Stories of aristocrats and travelers wandering onto the wrong street and being accosted by footpads are not that far off from fact. If you didn’t know how to conduct yourself accordingly, you definitely didn’t want to end up in a rookery, for fear you’d lose more than just your purse. These areas were hotbeds of illegal activity, hosting anywhere from housebreakers (ken crackers), pickpockets (files), and ark ruffians (men who would murder and then toss the bodies of their victims into the Thames).
Of course, some people lived in the rookeries simply because they couldn’t afford to live anywhere else. You’d have six people crowded into one room in a crumbling tenement house. But to the aristocracy, who lived in stately manors and didn’t often concern themselves with the poor, these people didn’t exist. They were to be forgotten about, condemned for their origins and the crime they eventually turned to. With little other options, the children were often raised to steal from birth.
While all of this sounds wretched, there were parts of living in the rookeries that could give one hope. The simple triumph of the human soul over adversity. The bonds formed between thieves—often, they became like family to each other, as I show later in my Rookery Rogues series with the Chapman Street gang I’ve invented (though Chapman Street is indeed a real street in Ratcliffe). My heroine Kate’s best friend has associations with Chapman Street, and because of those connections, Kate is able to get a few goods received in that she wouldn’t otherwise have had.
You see, the heroine of A Dangerous Invitation is a fence for stolen goods. When her father’s shipping company went bankrupt after his death, Kate Morgan was stripped of the upper middle class life she’d had. She had no money, no living connections, and no one wanted to associate with her because of the infamy surrounding her betrothed’s arrest for murder and subsequent escape from London, and her father’s business failure. With nowhere to turn, Kate finds herself in the Ratcliffe rookery, which was located near Wapping and the London Docks. Kate spent her youth cataloguing her father’s imported inventory, and so she uses that knowledge to set herself up as a fence. She takes in goods the thieves need to resell quickly and anonymously, and she then turns over those goods for her own profit.
It’s not a particularly lucrative existence when compared with her former, but it affords Kate a certain amount of independence. After two and a half years of living in Ratcliffe, she knows the back alleys to take to afford the newly formed Metropolitan Police (debuting in 1829). She’s learned to pick locks and how to shoot with shocking accuracy. She can go into the flash houses, dens where thieves congregate, and she sits in the public house with little censor because she’s already so far removed from her middle class origins.
When Kate’s past betrothed, Daniel O’Reilly, returns to regain her heart and prove his innocence in the murder he was accused of three years prior, she thinks she must choose between her new independent life and the old one she had.
But as she learns, love isn’t about choosing—it’s about an acceptance of your identity, whether you’re a fence for stolen goods or an alcoholic struggling to remain sober.