I’m delighted to welcome a new guest to All Things Georgian, the lovely Leonora Nattress to tell us more about her first book, Black Drop which certainly makes for a gripping read, with plenty of twists and turns throughout, but I won’t spoil it and will leave you with Leonora to tell you more, but I would highly recommend reading it and I look forward to the next instalment.
Leonora Nattrass studied eighteenth-century literature and politics, and spent ten years as an English Literature lecturer, including eight at Nottingham Trent University. During this time she published several works on William Cobbett, and was a reviewer for The Year’s Work in English Studies journal. She then moved to Cornwall, where she lives in a seventeenth-century house with seventeenth-century draughts, and spins the fleeces of her traditional Ryeland sheep into yarn. Black Drop is her first novel.
Laurence Jago, the hero of my historical mystery Black Drop, is a young Foreign Office clerk who finds himself caught up in the dramatic political events of 1794 as he attempts to solve the murder of a fellow clerk.
Laurence’s investigations take him all around London, from his lodgings opposite the rickety waxworks on Fleet Street, to the meetings of the Corresponding Society radicals in backstreet taverns, but the heart of the story is the old Foreign Office (FO) in Downing Street. I have always loved novels set in small worlds, and when it came into existence after a reorganisation of the old ‘Northern’ and ‘Southern’ Departments in 1782, the FO had only eleven members of staff, including the Secretary of State himself, and the cleaning or ‘Necessary’ woman.
In 1794 Cabinet meetings took place in a FO room with a fine carved fireplace, and at its table the fear of a copycat revolution in imitation of the French, drove the fierce Government clampdown on dissent, which is at the heart of my novel.
But accounts of the old building and its day-to-day business at first proved frustratingly elusive. The old building itself is long gone, replaced by the monstrous behemoth of the current Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which was built between 1861 and 1868, and only a painting of Downing Street in the eighteenth century shows the square of handsome Georgian brick houses which once stood there, alongside a Number 10 as yet un-blackened by Victorian soot.
In the end, I was lucky enough to stumble upon Recollections of the Old Foreign Office by Sir Edward Hertslet, KBE, published in 1901. Though the author’s own tenure as librarian to the FO only began in 1840, his father had preceded him in the same post from 1801. This gives Hertslet marvellous second-hand knowledge of the place within a handful of years of my setting. The Foreign Office in Black Drop is based on this treasure trove of a book, and all the best and most delightful details come from Sir Edward’s memory, or his father’s.
The old Foreign Office stood in the left corner of Downing Street, looking down from Whitehall, and initially comprised two buildings thrown together into one rather inconvenient set of offices. ‘The most important rooms in the office were those assigned to the Secretary of State [and] the Private Secretary … on the first floor …’ whose windows looked into St James’s Park.
‘The walls of the Secretary of State’s room were hung around with fine old tapestry, a portion of which had been purposefully cut through on one side … to conceal a doorway that led into the Private Secretary’s room adjoining.’ In the Permanent Under-Secretary’s room, a hidden door was disguised ‘by imitation backs of books, handsomely bound, and inserted in the door, which gave it the appearance of forming part of the mahogany bookcase.’
The windows of the clerks’ rooms ‘looked either into the small “square” so-called, which formed a cul-de-sac at the end of Downing Street, or into Fludyer Street’, a back alley where ‘it was not an uncommon practice for the occupants of the upper rooms … to let down strings of red tape from the upper windows and haul up pottles of strawberries which they had purchased from fruit sellers in the street.’
One day, a mischievous young clerk in the attic ‘nursery’ dared another to cut the strings – an escapade that ended in a row and demands for reimbursement. Hertslet asks an elderly library messenger if he remembers this escapade. ‘Yes Sir, I remember it well … and didn’t we have a feast off those strawberries when they fell!’
It is marvellous to have pen portraits of the long-forgotten servants and clerks who worked under the Foreign Secretary, such as the old butler reduced, in Hertslet’s early days, to the task of lamplighter. ‘He was a very stout man, and being troubled with asthma, was so short-winded that when he went his daily rounds of the office to light the oil lamps in the various rooms in the winter months (for there was no gas in those days) it was painful to hear him panting for breath.’
We are well-enough acquainted with the pale and intense Pitt (‘accustomed to consume a quantity of port wine surprising in those days and incredible in these’ according to his Victorian biographer Lord Rosebery), the cuttingly satirical figure of George Canning, and the ‘broad-bottomed’ Foreign Secretary Lord Grenville beloved of the satirists in his turn, but it would be hard to match the drama of another supernumerary clerk, Mr George Lennox Conyngham who entered the FO in 1812 and spent his long career ‘hopping’ about the offices on a crutch and a walking stick, having met with a severe gun accident as a young man.
Riding on the outside of a coach bound for Cambridge, for a day’s shooting, with his accidentally-loaded gun leaning nonchalantly against his left leg, the inevitable happened. ‘He was at once removed from off the coach into the hotel where his leg was amputated near the hip joint. Some days later the surgeons discovered that it had not been cut off quite high enough, and Mr Conyngham submitted, with wonderful courage, to having another slice taken off …’ Tormented by rheumatism on rainy days, Hertslet recalls, Conyngham dulled the agony with large doses of opium.
These domestic details might make it easy to forget that the Foreign Office sat at the centre of a network of spies and informants, but Hertslet also catalogues the dangers faced by the King’s Messengers who brought news to the Foreign Secretary from all across war-torn Europe:
‘In September 1797 two messengers were drowned off Calais attempting to land at night in an open boat … In the same year another messenger was killed by a carriage accident near Augsburg … In 1807 another was stabbed by boatmen, who were conveying him along the coast of Sicily, and it was believed that he fell a sacrifice to a most heroic defence of his dispatches…’
Daring maritime escapades like these provided further brilliant inspiration when I came to write Black Drop’s sequel, Blue Water, which is set at sea and will come out in autumn 2022.
This is the confession of Laurence Jago. Clerk. Gentleman. Reluctant spy.
July 1794, and the streets of London are filled with rumours of revolution. Political radical Thomas Hardy is to go on trial for treason, the war against the French is not going in Britain’s favour, and negotiations with the independent American colonies are on a knife edge.
Laurence Jago – clerk to the Foreign Office – is ever more reliant on the Black Drop to ease his nightmares. A highly sensitive letter has been leaked to the press, which may lead to the destruction of the British Army, and Laurence is a suspect. Then he discovers the body of a fellow clerk, supposedly a suicide.
Blame for the leak is shifted to the dead man, but even as the body is taken to the anatomists, Laurence is certain both of his friend’s innocence, and that he was murdered. But after years of hiding his own secrets from his powerful employers, and at a time when even the slightest hint of treason can lead to the gallows, how can Laurence find the true culprit without incriminating himself?
 Hertslet, Sir Edward, Recollections of the Old Foreign Office, London: John Murray, 1901