I did not have to think very long about where I wanted to place my detective Sidney Grice. Like most authors I needed to feel confident about the location and Gower Street was one area I knew very well. I had lived in what was then the Medical School Hostel at No 125 for the best part of 5 years.
Like my narrator, March Middleton, I was raised in Parbold, Lancashire and went to London by train, changing at Wigan and disembarking at Euston Station. And like March in ‘The Mangle Street Murders’ this was my first stay in the city. London to me existed in the works of Dickens, Conan Doyle and streets that I had only seen named on Monopoly boards and I hope I portrayed some of the wonder that we both felt on arriving.
The hansom cabs had been replaced with black cabs by the time I landed in the metropolis and the buses were no longer horse-drawn but the bustle and excitement were still there for me.
Gower Street is long, wide and straight and as I passed up from Euston Road I was struck by the multi-turreted redbrick UCH hospital on my left and the great neoclassical stone-pillared structure of University College on the other side. In the latter building I was intrigued to see the preserved body of Jeremy Bentham sitting in his best clothes in a glass case and I believe he is still carried out once a year on his chair to attend special meetings.
The frontage of 125 remains as March and I both knew it, a hole-in-the-wall Georgian Terrace, separated from the road by a ‘ditch’ allowing access to the coal cellar and basement rooms one of which I occupied. When I lived there, however, six houses had been knocked into one. Here I cheated a little. The feel and fundamental layout of the house are as I remember them but, for my own purposes, I cut down the number of rooms and made my detective, Sidney Grice’s home a mirror image of the real thing.
I loved Gower Street, especially at night when there was little traffic and I could walk along its corridor of white buildings past the houses of the famous. Millais, founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood had his studio there and Charles Darwin lived at 110 (later irreparably damaged in the blitz). Millicent Fawcett the suffragette was a resident. Though I did not know it at the time, the nondescript grey building on the corner with Euston Road housed M15.
At No 52, Bonham Carter House, the first General Anaesthetic in England was administered which, as a dental student, should have fascinated me but I was more interested in the basement swimming pool we could use for free and the adjacent bar that sold Tuborg Beer at 24p a pint.
Behind the hostel was Chenies Mews with a row of old stables marked by a white ring as the only indication that this was the home of the Magic Circle. Parallel to that ran Huntley Street, site of the UCH Medical Students Union, an uninspired 60’s building. Roughly opposite the union I placed a lady’s club where March goes to drink and smoke and meet her great friend, Harriet Fitzpatrick.
In ‘The Curse of The House of Foskett’ March climbs on to the roof of No 125 and I used to do the same. The street is very different from four stories up, looking down on the buses and the ambulances rushing towards A&E.
I go back to Gower Street sometimes to refresh my memory and also on a couple of happy occasions to sign books at the Waterstones’ Christmas festival.