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Literary Locations of Once A Monster with Robert Dinsdale – London’s Lost Districts

  • Submitted: 21st September 2023

Literary Locations of Once A Monster with Robert Dinsdale – London’s Lost Districts

The second part of Robert Dinsdale’s brilliant tour of his London as featured in Once a Monster:

BookTrail locations in Once a Monster

Literary Locations of Once A Monster 

BookTrail locations in Once a Monster

London’s manifold districts began to feel set in stone by the coming of the railways, and in particular the London Underground, in the later decades of the 19th century – the decades just after Once a Monster is set. But a map of the city from earlier times would show districts wholly unfamiliar to us. Which Londoners in 2023 talk about the rookery of St Giles?

Who would think of London as comprising of the various marshlands – the Lambeth Marshes, the Low Marsh, Stratford Marsh and St George’s Fields – that existed before the city’s rivers were corralled? Who has heard of Devil’s Acre and Cripplegate, Battle Bridge and Pedlar’s Acre? All parts of London lost to the past, as the city grows and changes and builds upon its own history.

BookTrail locations in Once a Monster

Old Pye Street -runs through the area of ‘Devil’s Acre’ today

BookTrail locations in Once a Monster

One particular lost area became of great significance to Once a Monster. Ratcliffe, and the Ratcliffe Highway, is perhaps best known in modern times for a spate of infamous murders that took place there in 1811 – and might even have gained even longer lasting notoriety if a certain serial killer in Whitechapel hadn’t come along seventy-seven years later.

Ratcliffe Highway today – The Highway

BookTrail locations in Once a Monster

Ratcliffe as a district is now all but forgotten, subsumed into the neighbouring Limehouse and Wapping, but in the middle of the 19th century it was a bustling hive of slums and industry, close enough to the docks to be a warren of lodging houses, opium dens, bars, brothels and music halls. In Once a Monster, it is the place where Nell and her fellow mudlarks are housed, and where they search for lost treasures on the river – which, in an era before the embankments were built, was subject to great tides and open mud flats.

Once a Monster Robert Dinsdale

BookTrail locations in Once a Monster

Relics of that time still exist, though few would call the place Ratcliffe any longer. The Ratcliffe Highway, the site of those infamous murders, is now simply ‘the Highway’, a busy thoroughfare of East London – and, though the red cliffs after which the district was named are long gone, the stretch of river beneath the Highway is the very same one upon which Nell and her fellow mudlarks toiled.

Alhambra Circus

The Alhambra Circus (pic above)

Cities are living, evolving things. Just look at Leicester Square, originally a gentrified residential square in the 17th century – the home of the then Prince of Wales – and, in later centuries, a centre of entertainment, thuggery and criminal activity. If any place typifies the changing face of a city, this is it.

Leicester Square today

BookTrail locations in Once a Monster

In the time of Once a Monster, Leicester Square was dominated by a structure you won’t find there today. The Alhambra Circus, originally constructed as the Royal Panopticon of Science and Art in 1854, was built in a lavish Moorish style, crowned with a great dome and two striking towers to give it the impression of a luxury, exotic palace.

BookTrail locations in Once a Monster

Here was a centre of art and performance for London. In Once a Monster, the Alhambra hosts a touring ballet company – ballet being an established art from in Europe and Imperial Russia, but not yet formalised in the United Kingdom – and across the years it would host music, dance, equestrian spectaculars, and even some of the country’s first cinematic experiences. An institution that seemed to be plagued by drama – the Alhambra was destroyed by fire in 1882 and rebuilt several times after that – it was eventually demolished in 1936, but across eighty years it dominated the skyline of Leicester Square.

BookTrail locations in Once a Monster

In Once a Monster, the way a city changes over the centuries is a direct mirror to the way people morph and change across their lifetimes. What are the constants in us, and the places we live? Will Nell be the same person she was as an orphaned mudlark when she is old and lined? Will the mysterious stranger, who might just be the Minotaur of legend, die as the same beast he was born? And do all of us have our own lost rivers coursing through us, buried beneath the people we have become?


Thank you so much Robert for this. Stunning!!


BookTrail Boarding Pass:  Once a Monster

Twitter: @Robert_Dinsdale

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