The Sounds and Smells of Newgate

This series on settings for books has produced many intriguing pieces, and this week popular historical crime novelist Kate Braithwaite takes us to 17th century London, maps and all. Over to you, Kate.


The Road to Newgate is almost exclusively set in London. It’s a story based around a political crisis that took place in Restoration England when Titus Oates, an unknown preacher, claimed to have uncovered a vast Catholic conspiracy to assassinate Charles II and make the country Catholic again.

In some ways, 17th century London was not so different from London today. Much of the ‘bones’ of the city were well-established – the parks, some of the main thoroughfares and, of course, the Thames. In one scene in The Road to Newgate, my character Anne is determined to walk across the city from her home to Tyburn to watch an execution. I had decided her home would be on Love Lane (mainly because I wanted them to live near Pudding Lane and the monument to the fire!), and Tyburn was where Marble Arch is now. A couple of taps in Google maps and I was able to see how long it might have taken her to walk there. When writing something set in a real location, whether contemporary or historical, I think it is really important to get the details right. If a character is on their way from A to B, then they shouldn’t walk past C, if C is across the other side of town.

Section from Ogilby and Morgan’s map showing Love Lane, London Bridge and “The Pillar of where the fire began”

With that in mind, I checked every location on Ogilby and Morgan’s Large Scale Map of the City as Rebuilt in 1676, and a section of this map is on the cover of the novel. The map has been digitised by British History Online, and it is wonderful to zoom in and out of all the different streets. I also now have a print of the map, hanging on my dining room wall!

In The Road to Newgate, my characters have several locations that they return to regularly. Anne’s husband, Nathaniel Thompson, for example, is a busy writer who frequents London’s coffee shops to gather the gossip and news of the day. These coffee shops were highly popular during the late 17th and 18th centuries, at one point considered such dangerous hotbeds of sedition that Charles II tried to close them down. I’ve written about that in this article. Nat’s favourite coffee shop, Sam’s, was near the Royal Exchange, tucked in between Cornhill and Lombard Street.


Wikicommons image – interior of a London Coffee House, 17th century

Nat’s actual office, however, was in the bookseller’s area known as Little Britain. There is still a street in the City of London called Little Britain, but centuries ago it was a small area, well enough known to get a mention from Dickens in Great Expectations and Sir Walter Scott in Waverley. Many of the locations I describe in the novel are still there, at least in name. Somerset House, for example, is exactly where it has always been, but the Somerset House of today was built in the late 18th century. The Somerset House of The Road to Newgate had been built in the sixteenth century and redeveloped at the Restoration following a design by the architect Inigo Jones.

No surprise in a book called The Road to Newgate, there is of course Newgate prison – a location no character wants to go to, but a recurring setting throughout the story. The prison was first built in 12th century. A casualty of the Great Fire of 1666, it was rebuilt in the Italianate form described in the novel by Sir Christopher Wren. In the seventeenth century, Britain was in transition. Many aspects of society were advanced and modern but in terms of crime and punishment, things were still fairly medieval. Heads were still displayed on spikes and traitors were hung, drawn and quartered. The sounds and smells of Newgate are an important aspect in my efforts to create a believable picture of life in London at the time – warts and all.


Wikicommons image, The Manner of Execution at Tyburn

There are only two episodes in The Road to Newgate when Nat leaves London. Near the end of the story, as Nat closes in on the truth about Titus Oates and the murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey, he takes a trip to Ely in Cambridgeshire. I used to live in Suffolk and really enjoyed returning to the area in my book, even if only for a short time. But my real favourite is the time Nat is forced to spend in Edinburgh. He has to leave London in order to avoid arrest and let public disgust with his actions subside – and it could not be at a worse moment for him and Anne. I’m originally from Edinburgh and I loved writing this description:

“It is abominably cold in Edinburgh; colder than I expected. With such nipping winds whistling about their chops and that boggy dampness mouldering in their boots, it’s no wonder the Scots are so miserly. Even the most ebullient character must eventually be brought low by the unkind drizzle, the sleet, and the fog. I’ve been in Edinburgh for months, and every day this mist they call the haar has hung about the place like a gloomy spectre, blotting out any train of thought that might have lifted my spirits out of the mire.”


Photo from Dave Morris (Flikr)

Rd to Newgate

THE ROAD TO NEWGATE, a story of love, lies and the pursuit of justice in 17th Century London (Crooked Cat, 2018).

Kate Braithwaite

Kate Braithwaite was born and grew up in Edinburgh, Scotland. Her first novel, Charlatan, was longlisted for the Mslexia New Novel Award and the Historical Novel Society Award. The Road to Newgate was published by Crooked Cat in 2018. Kate lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and three children.

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