Despite Britain’s long years of peace and prosperity under King Edward VII, London in the early 1900s was anything but peaceful. 20th Century mass immigration saw a wave of Jews and Italians arrive from overseas, plus a homegrown influx from English northern cities. Soldiers returning from the Boer War swelled the number of unemployed. As a result, the capital saw a steady movement towards more serious forms of street gangs. With neighbourhood rivalries and racial tensions simmering, the heavier street thugs graduated to organised crime. From Clerkenwell’s ‘Little Italy’ to the Jewish Quarters of Camden Town and Whitechapel, the bustling city provided ample opportunities to profit from gambling and extortion rackets. The majority of street shops were family-owned businesses, which were vulnerable to intimidation from street gangs. The narrow streets were crammed with dilapidated dwellings and twisting alleyways weaving through the slums, making it easier for criminals to evade the police.
Jewish gangs – such as the Bessabarabian Tigers of Whitechapel – frequently targeted shopkeepers and stall owners, levying a protection toll and blackmailing prospective wedded couples. Anyone who protested at this bullying and extortion would find themselves beaten up, threatened with knives and broken bottles or have their stalls smashed up.
Elsewhere, the Italian gangs of Clerkenwell favoured protection rackets from illegal betting, extorting vast sums from racecourse bookmakers by using thugs to deter rival punters on race day at Epsom and Derby. They became infamous for slicing cheeks with barbers’ cutthroat razors.
How does this influence the events of Slumdog Soldier?
The story is set in a fictional pre-WWI London rife with street gangs and a seedy criminal underworld beneath the facade of a thriving metropolis. I hope to create a believable world of both heroes, villains, and morally grey characters.