By Daniel Griliopoulos
The Victorian Era stretched over sixty years, a huge time frame even for an Assassin’s Creed game. The population of the city increased sevenfold, much of the city was rebuilt, and a huge community of Irish, Jewish and Chinese immigrants settled in the East End of the city. Outside the city, the British Army was conquering the world, by money or by force, so that it became ‘The Empire on which the sun never sets’, and all that stolen wealth poured into London. So Ubisoft has, again, a gigantic subject to tackle here. And here’s what I think they shouldn’t miss out.
Presiding over this era was a single woman, Alexandrina Victoria. She inherited the throne at the age of 18 in 1838, married her beloved first cousin, Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha in 1840, and had nine children by him over the next twenty years. When Albert passed away, in 1861, she went into mourning and isolated herself from the nation, which lasted until her death in 1901. Forty years. That’s one hell of a mourning period.
Though she reigned for this entire time, she didn’t do so directly: her Prime Ministers, including Disraeli and Gladstone, ruled through parliament, pursuing expansionist policies. Still, that didn’t stop people blaming her. There was a strong republican movement throughout her life, and many thwarted assassination attempts. We’d bet that you’ll be involved in some of those - or perhaps preventing them.
The serial killer named ‘Jack The Ripper’ was a nasty piece of work, murdering at least five and probably many more victims in the late 1880s before disappearing again. He solely targeted female prostitutes, slitting their throats before removing their internal organs in a way that implied anatomical knowledge. A media frenzy made it an international story, and the fact he was never caught has meant the story has stayed famous.
Theories abound as to who he was and why he did it, ranging from a deranged army surgeon to a member of Royalty. If you want to know more about him, buy Alan Moore’s seminal graphic novel From Hell. It’s not all true, but it’s a fun read. I’d bet my right kidney that he’ll feature in the game.
The New Bobbies
To hunt the Ripper, there was Britain’s first proper police force. It’s worth noting there were (and are) two authorities in London: the old City of London, a rich elite with their own police force and government; and the wider boroughs, a higgedly-piggedly mass of different authorities and local councils (which are these days unified under a greater London council).
The novelist Henry Fielding had introduced the first true London detectives, the Bow Street Runners, in 1753, but that consisted of just eight men. Apart from them, policing was a mix of parish constables, yeomenry, and the army. So in 1829, the Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel introduced a new large-scale civilian force, The Metropolitan Police. Though initially armed only with truncheons and rattles, they were soon equipped with pistols and then revolvers. You’ll almost certainly be facing off against them in your travels.
The Immense Overcrowding
I mentioned this earlier, but Victorian London was more overcrowded than a handbag shop on Black Friday. The population increased sevenfold over the century, to nearly seven million people by the end of Victoria’s reign. Like many modern megacities, the infrastructure didn’t keep up, so the population mainly lived in sprawling, cramped slums, always at risk of tumbling down or catching fire.
If living was bad, dying was worse. The small city-centre graveyards couldn’t keep up with the number of dead, so that the ground was more corpse than soil, and the smell spread for miles. The government eventually built huge out-of-town cemeteries and special railway lines (like the ominously-named London Necropolis railway) to shunt the dead out.
The Great Stink and Bazalgette's sewers
If you have overcrowding on the surface, you have it in the sewers too. If you have sewers, that is. London had some left over from Roman times, but in the great tradition of medieval towns, most of the crap ended up in the rivers and street. Indeed, at this time, there were over 200,000 cesspits in London. The once-huge Fleet river became so clogged with rubbish that it was called the Fleet Ditch by the 1730s, and was turned into a sewer proper in this era. The poet Alexander Pope said of it: “To where Fleet-ditch with disemboguing streams / Rolls the large tribute of dead dogs to Thames”. Now that’s what I call poetry.
It wasn’t until the Great Stink of 1858 (when the smell was so bad that the parliament and law courts considered relocating out of the city), and a bunch of unrelated cholera outbreaks, that Londoners decided they needed a sewerage and water system. Joseph Bazalgette, the city’s chief engineer, proposed a huge sewer network totalling over 13,000 miles in length, incorporating several rivers, and dumping all the muck into the Thames Estuary, way to the East. It’s still in use today. I’d bet that, given Unity and AC III’s love of the sewers, we’ll be spending some time in Bazalgette’s palaces.
The Pea Soupers
The smell might have been bad, but at least it didn’t kill you. The choking smog (a mix of smoke and fog) could, though. Not only did the heavily polluted air contain soot, it also contained lethal sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide from burning soft coal. Anyone young, old or with a lung condition was at constant risk of suffocation, and mass deaths were common on foggy days.
Amazingly, the first recorded smog problems in London were in 1306, when Edward I briefly banned coal fires. The smog stuck around until at least 1952, when 4,000 people died in two days, and the Clean Air Act was brought in. It’s worth remembering that, until that point, every building in London was effectively covered in soot; all the historical buildings have been gradually cleaned up over the last fifty years. But for AC: Victory, this should be a black city.
The New Industry
From the underground trains that started in the 1860s, to the crazy bridges and iron boats of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, to the spreading national railway networks, this was the real steampunk era. Indeed, steam power meant that engineers could now run whole factories from single machines. At the same time, Henry Bessemer invented a quick method for turning rusty old iron into steel, cement was invented, and gas lighting became widespread.
However, people were also still cheap, so the workers who operated the machines or kept them going were on or below the bread line.
The darker side of the industrial revolution was child labour. While the rich of London marvelled at the Great Exhibition, elsewhere poor children were forced to work long hours from a very young age. Chimney-sweeps, errand boys, shoe blacks, match sellers – this was a cruel era. It was worse in the coal mines of the countryside, where life expectancy was as low as 25. Similarly, families who were homeless or just plain poor could be forced into the workhouse, an environment designed to be harsh to deter families from resorting to it.
The burning of the Houses of Parliament
In 1834, just before the Victorian era started, there was an attempt to get rid of a huge number of tally sticks – that is, old wooden records used by illiterate clerks. Because there were concerns about the neighbours complaining about smoke, they were burned in a stove in the House of Lords. The stove set fire to nearby wood panelling, which set fire to the House of Lords, which set fire to the House of Commons, which led to the destruction of the entire Palace of Westminster by fire.
The new building, which stands today, was built over thirty years from 1840, so might well be in pieces during this game. Incidentally, during the Victorian Era the new clock tower, which is today known as Big Ben, was called St Stephen’s Tower. (Apparently, it was renamed Elizabeth Tower in 2012 by MPs, but no-one noticed.)
The Great Exhibition
In 1851, the first of the World’s Fair exhibitions took place in London, organised by Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s German husband. It brought together industry and culture from around the world, to show off the glory of the Empire. The Queen herself opened the exhibition, with famous figures of the time in attendance, in newly built iron and glass exhibition hall, dubbed The Crystal Palace.
Over six million people attended – a third of the UK’s population – and the proceeds from entrance fees built London’s museum district. Everything was on show, from Colt’s new revolvers, to the Koh-i-Noor (the world’s biggest diamond), to early versions of cameras and faxes, to the first public toilets.
The building of Empire
Outside of London, the Empire bloomed during Victoria’s reign. Following the defeat of Napoleon, there were no real international rivals, and the armies and navies of Empire went everywhere. They may have lost the American colonies, but they gained trading footholds in Asia and Africa, which were eventually swallowed up by the Empire. The entirety of India and much of Africa fell under its sway. Australia and Canada were still part of the Empire.
By the early 20th century, one fifth of the world’s population was ruled from London. Which meant huge wealth and immigration flowing into the city.
The real heroes...
The Assassin’s Creed games love to integrate the stories of the era, and particularly the famous names of the era. Over this sixty years, a huge number of famous people lived, including Florence Nightingale, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the explorer David Livingstone, John Stuart Mill, Emmmeline Pankhurst, Charles Darwin, Oscar Wilde, and more poets than you can shake a quill at.
Many of these heroes were made more famous by Madame Tussaud, the French waxworker, who has already appeared in Assassin’s Creed: Unity, and who created replicas of the day’s heroes for the populace to visit.
...and the fictitious characters
Victorian London has a rich seam of literature, from explorer Phineas Fogg to The Man Who Was Thursday to Oliver Twist and Samuel Weller. Sherlock Holmes hunts criminals on Baker Street and Dorian Gray hid his twisted portrait in his fashionable attic. Dr Henry Jekyll attempts not to turn into Mr Hyde, whilst Ebenezer Scrooge attempts to turn into a better person. The Martians land in Woking, and march up the Thames in War of the Worlds. And Dracula arrives to seduce Mina Harker.
Dickens, chronicling it all
If there was a man who defined the Victorian era, it was Charles Dickens. Raised in a poor middle-class family, he had to leave school to work in a boot-blacking factory at the age of 12, when his family were thrown into a debtor’s prison. (In Victorian Times, if you got into debt, you were thrown into prison until you could pay it off – which was tough, as you were in prison!)
Luckily, the family inherited some money and Dickens eventually returned to school, training as a lawyer’s clerk. In his spare time, he attempted acting and writing. The latter was more successful and he became first a political journalist, then an editor and writer. His fame started with the Pickwick Papers and then Oliver Twist, which received widespread acclaim, with even Queen Victoria (herself a prolific writer) reading them. As his fame grew, he took to the lecture circuit, acting out his characters for audiences across the world.
Almost all of his writing is set in or around London, and it shows the city for what it was: squalid, bizarrely varied, mercenary, but very much a live working city. If Victory can capture Dickens’s writing, it’ll have done it’s job