Birdcage Walk: A Novel

Birdcage Walk: A Novel

by Kate Riordan

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781938120671
Publisher: Diversion Books
Publication date: 04/11/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 378
Sales rank: 184,904
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Kate Riordan is a writer and journalist from England. Her first job was as an editorial assistant at the Guardian Newspaper, followed by a stint as deputy editor for the lifestyle section of London bible, Time Out magazine. There she had assignments that saw her racing reindeers in Lapland, going undercover in London’s premier department store and gleaning writing tips (none-too subtly) during interviews with some of her favorite authors. After becoming a freelancer, she left London behind and moved to the beautiful Cotswolds in order to write her first novel. Now at work on her second, a ghost story, she is visiting haunted pubs as part of her research.

Read an Excerpt


The Previous September, 1901

Only in the dankest corners of the tenement street, where the sun never quite penetrated, did the silt of muck, canal slop and coal-rake shine wetly between the uneven cobbles. Elsewhere, all was as dry as dust, baked by a late summer sun that shone as relentlessly in late September as it had on Midsummer's Day.

Periodically removing his hat to press a damp handkerchief to his brow, a silver-bearded gentleman made his way slowly up Avebury Street, occasionally stopping to consult the policeman who accompanied him. Replacing the handkerchief in his top pocket, he retrieved a small, leather-bound notebook and a slender pencil from the same pocket. The constable, who had been unwittingly stooping towards the older, shorter man in his attentiveness, now pointed at a grimy window on the neglected street.

"That there, sir, was home to a notorious criminal in the area. Until we put him away, that is. He's now doing five years hard labour for committing armed robbery up Hampstead way."

"A highwayman at the Spaniard's Inn, eh?" asked the gentleman, chuckling to himself as he wrote in his book. "What was the name of this rogue?"

"Tom Swain. He was known to us before, though on previous occasions he had evaded capture," replied Constable Ryeland, enunciating the last two words with care, and no small amount of pride. "He was always up to something, some knavery or other. One of his tricks was to sell canaries up Hoxton Street Market, except they weren't canaries," he paused dramatically. "They was chaffinches, painted yellow to look like 'em! He'd sold dozens before someone reported it, saying the paint had come off on her hand."

"Quite an enterprising chap, then?" asked Booth.

"You might say that, sir, but these parts have gone down in the last ten years. Since I joined the force twenty years ago after working on the GWR, the well-off that was here have left, the poor are still poor and a new, rougher class has come in." Booth looked up from his notes.

"And what do you think are the reasons for this deterioration?'

"I wish I could tell you, sir. I've puzzled over it for many hours. The baker over the way thinks he's a bit of a wag, and he likes to call it 'the overflow of the Nile' – you know, folks moving north from the Nile Street area where it's got overcrowded. Others blame the schools. In my opinion, education makes good people better even if it makes the bad ones more cunning. Now, my two boys was taught at the technical school in Shoreditch and learnt their trade as cabinetmakers. They won £8 worth of prizes between them in their time there. Now they're earning a bit they come home and says to me, 'dad, what shall we invest our savings in?' I told them they're best off buying a couple of small free holdings down Essex. No good buying round here while things are going down."

As Ryeland talked, the men continued down the unprepossessing street, its west side dominated by an umbrella and stick factory, from which could be heard the whine and thwack of machinery. Towards the end of the destitute row of houses on the opposite side, one door stood open. Leaning against the jamb, a hazel-eyed woman eyed them lazily, one long fingernail picking at the peeling paint.

"Charlotte, isn't it?" called Ryeland. "Sister of Annie Matthews?"

"Charlotte Cheeseman," the young woman replied in a clear voice. "Matthews is Annie's husband's name, Ted Matthews." She looked away and resumed her paint stripping.

"Not in work today then, miss?" persisted Ryeland.

"I had a job at Lipton's but they don't need me no more. Annie says I've got to go down the tobacco factory later and see if they've got any places. They want my keep money, so I suppose I'd better, eh?" She laughed at that, and then her smile vanished as abruptly as it had arrived as she disappeared into the house. Ryeland and Booth had moved off again before Ryeland spoke.

"Not criminal," he said conspiratorially. "In fact, Ted Matthews works on the railways as an engineer. That Charlotte's his sister-in-law, moved in when her and Annie's mother died. Annie's a good woman, very neat and tidy, but Charlotte ... Well, I'll just say this, she's been seen at the Rosemary Branch public house a few more times than is good for a girl's reputation. I don't touch the stuff myself, Mr. Booth, I believe that way lies plenty of grief."

Booth sighed. He was a good man, Ryeland, with his heart in the right place, but, as he'd noted during the previous week's tours around east Shoreditch, he was rather on the righteous side. Seeing they had reached the end of Avebury Street, Booth took the opportunity to move the conversation on.

"Ah, now we're almost at the canal," he said. "There's the bridge and the packing factory. What street is this?"

"Wiltshire Row, sir, and the Regent's Canal runs right behind it, parallel-like."

"Well, it looks no better than Avebury Street and it smells slightly worse, I should say."

"That'll be the canal, sir. It's been smelling something dreadful down here on these hot days and I'm sure it makes folk more likely to misbehave. When the factories let out at the moment, there's fights breaking out all over. At least in winter they can't muster the enthusiasm for brawling."

Booth looked up at the tenement block that backed onto the canal, its façade at this time of the morning draped in a welcome fall of shade. The signs of chronic, though not desperate, want were here: rags at best for curtains, children badly shod or barefoot, and enough of them to hint at a family to every room or two. At one end of the street the buildings had been abandoned altogether, and sagged as if they knew it.

He sighed and wrote, North into Wiltshire Row. West end all closed, has been condemned. Poor, rather rough, but does not look worse than Avebury Street. Perhaps 18-20 shillings a week for a moderate family.

Surveying the eastern stretch of gloomy, smoke-stained brick once again, his eye alighted on a solitary item of adornment in one window halfway along. It was a birdcage, hung high so it might be noticed. Unusually in these streets, the window next to it was not only intact but open, though not to project any birdsong; the cage stood empty, its wire door wide open.

"Perhaps it escaped," Booth muttered to himself. "One could hardly blame it."

"What was that, sir?" asked the eager constable.

"I was just wondering about the birdcage up there. Another of your chaffinch painters, do you think?"

"Oh no, sir. That's Mr. Woolfe's room up there and he's a decent sort. Quiet, and since his wife died last winter you hardly see him about. He's no criminal. Them birdcages is his trade — he makes them and sells them on when he can. But, like I say, he don't get out much, and his boy works at the printers, so he can only sell what his daughter Cissy can take for him. I know them because there was a baby farmer and her feller living below them for a while. Godless people, them, sir — she's in Pentonville now — but the Woolfes are a decent family. Never given me any trouble. Sarah's his youngest, though everyone knows her by Cissy. She must be fifteen now and she makes lampshades as her trade. Nothing special, really, but Woolfe's birdcages are a cut above. He's known for 'em, I should say." Booth looked thoughtfully up at the window.

"Well, perhaps one might do for my goddaughter. It's her birthday in a few weeks and I'm sure she doesn't need another hat. Let us go in and see if I can buy one from your Mr. Woolfe." Constable Ryeland furrowed his brow and shook his head.

"I don't think it's wise for you to go in, Mr. Booth, sir, it'll probably, well, it's shocking how some of them live, quite filthy it can be."

"I'm quite aware from my work during the last years what deplorable conditions these people must endure. Move aside please, Constable, and let's see if I can't make a purchase."

With that, Booth rapped smartly on the door, the constable puffing out his cheeks in disapproval behind him. After some moments with no answer, the policeman reluctantly took out his truncheon and banged on the door three times before hollering in the direction of the open window.

"Mr.Woolfe! Cissy! It's Constable Ryeland here. Open up!" A pattering of feet could soon be heard on a creaky staircase and the door was tentatively opened to reveal a thin girl with large brown eyes already filling with tears.

"Is it my brother, sir? Has something happened to him?" she asked in a quavering voice.

"Don't be silly, girl. Nothing's happened to no one. This gentleman here is Mr. Charles Booth, who is writing a great series of books about London. I am showing him around my patch." He smoothed his moustache, half bowed to his guest and continued. "Now, he might want to buy one of your father's birdcages like he's seen hanging up. Is he in?" "Oh, yes sir, he is. Thank you, sir. Please do come up." Flustered, the girl bobbed an awkward curtsey before scuttling up the stairs ahead of the men and into the Woolfes' mean lodgings.

"Dad," she hissed in an urgent whisper. "It's Constable Ryeland and a gentleman who wants to buy your cage in the window." She pushed some dirty plates into a pile, clattered them down next to the small range and threw a cloth, spotted with grease, over the table just as the two men entered.

Mr. Woolfe got to his feet at this, nodded at his visitors, and made a failed attempt at an audible greeting. Ryeland made to speak but Mr. Booth got there first.

"I apologise for intruding like this, Mr. Woolfe, but I saw a birdcage at your window and thought I might buy something like it for my goddaughter Clemency, who turns sixteen next month. Might I take a closer look at it?"

After an awkward moment, when Mr. Woolfe seemed not to have heard or at least digested what had been said, he finally roused himself and moved off towards the window with the careful shuffle of a man far older than himself. Gently, as though it were wrought from glass, he lifted down the cage. Though unpainted, it was delicately crafted, with fine tendrils of metal wound into the likeness of roses at its tapering top and ivy leaves threaded around the base. It was the grandest cage he had ever made and it had been his late wife's idea, to serve as an advertisement in the window. Of course, not much custom passed on Wiltshire Row, and certainly not of the calibre to appreciate this more intricate work, so it had never sold and, though he had never let on, he had been secretly glad.

"It's fine work" said Booth after a careful inspection. "How much are you asking for it?" When her father didn't speak, Cissy spoke out in a shaky voice.

"It's fifteen shillings, sir. There's a lot of work gone into that cage. It was made very special, see."

"I do," replied the gentleman, "and I think it a fair price. I won't take it now as we are on foot and I have my notes to make. Perhaps it could be delivered? Mr. Ryeland here said you have a son, Mr. Woolfe. I will write down my goddaughter's address, where the birthday party will take place. If he could deliver it there on the 25th of next month — I believe it's a Thursday — at 6 o'clock, it will be a fine surprise for her. I will give him another couple of shillings for prompt delivery — will that do?"

He tore out a page with the address scrawled on it and then fished in his inside pocket to bring out a battered wallet. Finding the correct money, he gave it to Mr. Woolfe and shook his hand, smiling amiably. Then, assuming the arrangement was agreed, Booth strode out to the dingy stairwell, closely pursued by the constable.


George Woolfe had deliberately taken the long way back from work. The light was clearer than it had been for weeks and, while it was still too warm for anything but shirtsleeves, he could sense a freshening in the air, as if the reluctant autumn approached at last. As he strolled idly along, the sun sank lazily towards the jagged city skyline, its rays illuminating the scanty clouds in gaudy shades of lilac and rose.

The streets were busy at this hour, crowded with men like George, trudging home after a long shift at the factories. Their eyes, blank with exhaustion, were lowered to the ground in front of them while the sunset blazed on, ignored. Carriages occasionally rolled by at a stately pace, the horses spared in the heat. Most were travelling from the north, from days out in the countryside, and they seemed to bring some vestige of it back with them. Only ten miles away their wheels would have brushed the cowslip and baby's breath that grew amongst the ancient hedgerows, where the smell of clean, warmed earth would have risen up as the horses' hooves clattered down.

George stopped and stared as one slowly approached, a large open barouche occupied by an elderly, but upright gentleman and three ladies who, with their pale dresses and coils of dark hair, he supposed were a trio of sisters. Although the sun was no longer strong, one of them still held a white parasol aloft. As her carriage passed, just a few feet from where George stood, she looked directly at him. He expected her to look down demurely as their eyes met but she didn't, she held his gaze, even turning her head slightly as she went by. Long after they'd gone George stayed rooted to the spot, his eyes fixed on the wheel ruts the carriage had made in the dusty surface of the road. As he ruminated, someone jostled him from behind.

"Sorry, mate," a voice called.

George didn't turn to acknowledge the apology. A noisy gang of men, really just boys, continued on their way, laughing and shoving each other. The crowds were beginning to thin now and the shadows had perceptibly lengthened. After noticing the sun for the first time, now teetering fatly on the rooftops, George put his head down and fell into step with the remaining workers around him. He had half a mile to walk yet and the meal would already have been started.

After the soft caress of the late summer air, the Woolfes' cramped lodgings were thick with smoke and noisy with the spit and roll of hot fat in the pan. Years of congealed grease had turned the iron black, particles of which were transferred as a carbon speckle to any food cooked in it. George's father had drawn a stool up to the range and was moving a couple of sausages about the pan in a listless way, his eyes hooded and staring unseeing into the heat.

"Alright dad?" George asked, pulling out a chair and sitting wearily down at the square table. "Been busy today?"

"Ah, you know," replied his father, as he did almost every day. He had always been a quiet man, happier listening and rolling his chewing tobacco around his mouth while George's mother had chattered on. Now that she was gone, dead of cancer two days before the new century dawned, his reticence was oppressive rather than soothing, and George couldn't resist filling the voids with banal comments and questions. Sometimes the futility of it got too much and his careful questioning became belligerent. It didn't matter; his father remained oblivious to it all, caged in his private thoughts. It couldn't be said that he was miserable because that implied some effort at emotion; in reality he was simply absent.

It hadn't always been this way between father and son. 'Thick as thieves, the pair of 'em,' was what George's mother had said irritably to neighbours, when George was still a boy who preferred his dad's company to anyone's. When she was feeling more kindly disposed she might say, with something closer to fondness, 'Oh, here they come, the organ grinder and his cheeky little monkey'.

On Saturdays George and his father would go on what they had come to call their 'jaunts,' just the two of them, and usually to the marshes. George had felt safe with his father as they wound their way home through the streets after dusk had fallen, when the gloom between the tenements had grown deep and accommodating to the bad men George imagined might lurk there. Although he never voiced his worries of what might lurk in the places where the twisted roads tapered, and the buildings crowded towards each other like rotten teeth in a cramped mouth, his dad seemed to know and would take his hand. Once at their own door, intact and unmolested, Mr.Woolfe never dropped the smaller hand without first squeezing it gently in silent acknowledgment.

It was rare when Saturdays didn't take them to the marshes, occasionally those at Hackney but more usually Tottenham, where the birds were more numerous. Sometimes they went to watch, but more often they were there to trap, so that George's father could put a bird in each of his cages and fetch an extra shilling or two for it. There seemed no sense in buying them at the market on Sclater Street when they could trap them for free on the marsh.


Excerpted from "Birdcage Walk"
by .
Copyright © 2012 Kate Riordan.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Birdcage Walk 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 21 reviews.
Darren83 More than 1 year ago
A really excellent and engageing storyline. I genuinely cared about the characters and more than once had a lump in my throat! Couldn't put it down, can't wait for more from this writer!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A pretty good read though a little slow in places. I am fine with the way it ended but a little disappointed in the way it sort of just stopped. The book was great but the epilogue did not resolve the loose ends left by the story denying the reader the satisfaction epilogues generally convey. I would recommend the book but maybe skip the epilogue as it is frustrating.
Ziggle More than 1 year ago
This book was fantastic!!! The imagery was top notch! Would recommend to anyone!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Nice storyline and interesting characters
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book started out very slowly. The author took great lenghs to make sure that all of the characters and their traits were developed. She did a superb job doing that. Towards the end of the book, the author really fast-paced the story. I could not read it fast enough! Real life does not always go the way you want. What a great storyteller this author is!
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lockedwall More than 1 year ago
A mesmerizing book, very well written and keeps you coming back for more! I didn't want this book to end and was not prepared for the ending - the very definition of well written book! I would read more from this author. I have not read anything that really comes near this subject and finds you rooting for the underdog all the way! A definite must read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Unfortuntately by the time I realized this book was going nowhere, that an interesting twist to plot was not in the next pages, I was too vested in the over-abundance of pages to "give up". It is an unfortunate habit that I have that once I am so far into a book I should finish it. However if you too have this habit - abandon ship. It never gets more interesting, plodding along until you are relieved that it is over.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
So far this book has been very slow. I will try to keep reading, but if it does not start to move. Not sure i will finish it. Just have not been able to get into it yet.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was disappointed midway through this novel. Too much jumping around in the middle of the book. But would recommend for a Book Club.I would like to know how they would rate this novel.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
MyBookAddictionandMore More than 1 year ago
BIRDCAGE WALK by Kate Riordan is an interesting historical fiction based on a true crime story set in 1900 Victorian London. Wonderful and exciting story based on a true London crime. When lines are drawn between social classes,trouble begins,murder occurs, tragedy and a true miscarriage of justice. Well written where detail research is obvious. Engaging characters and vivid descriptions. If you enjoy true crime,historical events,London's criminal courts,and a compelling read than "Birdcage Walk" is for you. Received for an honest review from the publisher. RATING: 4 HEAT RATING: MILD REVIEWED BY: AprilR, My Book Addiction and More/My Book Addiction Reviews
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I could not finish the book, it started being too depressing for me.
Sue43 More than 1 year ago
I bought this for my Nook and it sounds great. Can't wait to read it.