The real history behind Victorian thriller ‘The Limehouse Golem’

Starring Bill Nighy, Olivia Cooke and Douglas Booth, The Limehouse Golem is a Victorian murder mystery thriller in UK cinemas now. Based on a novel by Peter Ackroyd, the story follows a seasoned detective as he hunts a ruthless serial killer through the streets of Victorian London.

Here, the film’s producer Stephen Woolley talks to History Extra about the real history behind the film, including the murky underworld of Victorian music halls and life in 19th-century Limehouse, east London…

Bill Nighy and Olivia Cooke in 'The Limehouse Golem'.

Bill Nighy and Olivia Cooke in 'The Limehouse Golem'.

 

Q. What inspired you to take this film on board?

A. The film is based on a book — Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem by Peter Ackroyd, which I was given in the mid-90s. What attracted me to the story was the subversion that takes place. You may think it’s just another Victorian murder mystery, but it’s actually so much more than that. It turns what you expect on its head.

One aspect that really interested me in the book was the setting, Limehouse [a district in east London]. Ackroyd is a great writer and an obsessive London enthusiast – he’s written terrific biographies on Oscar Wilde, Charles Dickens and Nicholas Hawksmoor [a leading figure of the English Baroque style of architecture in the late 17th and early 18th centuries]. So as a Londoner myself, and as someone who has made films that are set in and around the city, I immediately thought that this would make a really fun movie. 


Vintage engraving showing the steam cranes at Limehouse Dock in East London. (iStock/Getty Images)

 

Q. What sort of Victorian London do we see in this film?

A. Limehouse was one of the poorest districts in London, but it was also very cosmopolitan and attracted people from a broad variety of backgrounds. There were people in Limehouse who had political ideas, such as Karl Marx [played by Henry Goodman in the film], and there were people who had ideas about the future, including [novelist and teacher] George Gissing [played by Morgan Watkins].  And, of course, there were crazy people – psychopaths and people who treated human life like it was nothing – such as the ‘Golem’ in the film. 


A 19th-century portrait of German philosopher Karl Marx, a revolutionary and sociologist whose work includes 'The Communist Manifesto'. A fictional Marx features in 'The Limehouse Golem' as a murder suspect. (Keystone France/Getty Images)

 

Q. Three out of four of the Golem suspects are real people from history (Karl Marx, George Gissing and comedian and entertainer Dan Leno). What was the reason for this and what did it add to the story? 

A. This was Peter Ackroyd’s choice, as he wrote the book. I believe he wanted to show how much Limehouse was part of a bigger universe and how ‘big minds’ played there. I also think it’s a lot of fun for the audience to imagine Karl Marx murdering someone.

It was also very important for us to have a sort of ‘reality’ to the story. Although it’s a fantasy in terms of what Gissing and Marx do in the film – we see that when Inspector Kildare [played by Bill Nighy] imagines them killing the Golem victims – it’s a reality that they were in Limehouse and a part of Victorian London. When a nun tells Kildare: “you’re not fit to wipe the boots of Karl Marx”, that gives us an insight into how he was known. 


George Gissing, pictured here circa 1890, was an English author who wrote unflinchingly about the lower middle class. Like Marx, a fictional Gissing appears in 'The Limehouse Golem' as a murder suspect. (Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In the case of George Gissing, he was genuinely living in Limehouse and visiting opium dens – those aspects of the film are true. His wife Nell [played by Edythe Woolley] features very briefly in the film, and some of what we see of the couple is based on real events. Nell was a prostitute, and George was trying to find out as much about the world as possible. 

 

Q. One of the main settings in the film is a music hall. What can you tell us about the history of music halls and how did you go about creating the one we see in the film?

The history of music halls is an astonishing thing and I loved the work we did researching this. It’s hard to compare to now; when you think of a music hall today you think of a place where you can sit down and have a programme and so on. It was never like that in the Victorian times. 

The music halls originated as public ventures. People would come to public houses and perform an act – be it singing a song, playing an instrument or performing a trick. Eventually the landlord might offer the performer money to return. There were no dressing rooms at this point; performers would just run on stage from the crowd. 


Maria Valverde plays fictional theatre performer Aveline Ortega in 'The Limehouse Golem'. 

After a while, the landlord would expand his pub and buy the house next door. The emphasis would then be about making the acts more varied and special, different from the competitor’s music hall down the road. The whole enterprise was about alcohol and how much landlords could sell, so the music halls were a sort of cross between a supper club and a variety circus. 

It was a fantastic period of time. The music halls were all closed down eventually because there was so much crime going on and people were outraged. I think at one point there was something like 10,000 music halls in London. There’s still a few going today – one in Leeds and one in Glasgow. They’re very posh though; they have seats, which the Victorian music halls never had. We built our music hall based on Ackroyd’s descriptions in the book. It’s a very dirty and down-to-earth place; closer, I think, to the real thing. 

 

Q. What sort of acts would you see in the music halls and what sort of people visited them?

A. The bawdiness of it all was very important. Many acts would be a satirical take on the world. Dan Leno [played by Douglas Booth in the film] was a great example of this type of performance and he was amazingly popular; people would come from miles around to see him. At the height of his career, he was one of the most highly paid performers in the world. 

Douglas Booth plays Dan Leno, who was a real Victorian theatre performer, in 'The Limehouse Golem'.

 

Although originally designed for commoners, the music halls attracted very well-to-do people who wanted to come and witness the entertainment of the time. The wealthy would traditionally be found in the galleries, while the ordinary people were down on the ground, in a sort of mosh pit. It was more expensive to go into the galleries because you could walk around. Women weren’t allowed in the galleries (apart from the prostitutes), and you couldn’t sit down. There were, however, dark areas where the men could go with the prostitutes. It was very seedy.

 

Q. What can The Limehouse Golem tell us about what life was like for women in this time? 

A. It was a really horrific time for women. Domestic violence was rife: it happened every day. There was a lot of alcohol, despair and horror behind closed doors. You see some of this in the way that the character Lizzie [played by Olivia Cooke] is treated. She is in a really bad place in the film – any woman of that time would be. When she gets married, that’s the end of her life. Her inability to have sex means that she will never be a mother, making it impossible for her to fulfil society’s expectations of her. She was a ‘freak’.


"The song that Dan Leno (Douglas Booth) performs in the film about the brutality and appalling behaviour of men towards women is real," says Stephen. "It was written by the real Dan Leno (below), and is an original song of the time."

 

Q. Dan Leno, the popular Victorian performer, is a major character in The Limehouse Golem. He is also one of the only male characters who is kind to the film’s second protagonist Lizzie, an aspiring actress. What was the real Dan Leno like and what was his relationship like with women?

A. Strangely, Dan Leno represented a voice for women. At that time, it was easier for a man dressed as a woman to voice women’s troubles than women themselves. A woman saying the same thing would have been booed off the stage: it would have been considered ‘unfemale’ or ‘unfeminine’. But Dan Leno was able to talk about women’s issues (such as domestic violence) on a public platform and that was accepted. 


The real Dan Leno, pictured here, was a popular English entertainer in the 19th century. By the end of his career, he was earning around £300 a week, the equivalent of £29,000 today. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In the film, Dan Leno understands Lizzie. He was an incredibly bright man: he knew that you were never going to go far as a woman and he knew that Lizzie would never be treated as a proper actress. That was her glass ceiling. The message from society was: “This is where you are now, Lizzie, and this is where you will stay – don’t imagine you’ll get higher than this.” And, of course, she couldn’t.

 

Q. Why do you think modern audiences are so interested in stories that reflect the social history of Victorian London?  

A. It’s hard to know, but I think it’s probably something to do with the industrial revolution and the cosmopolitan nature of London. At this point in time, London was a melting pot of ideas, home to many different nationalities, religions and thoughts. It was a time when the world as we know it today was just beginning: a world of steam and trains and harnessing power from people.


Olivia Cooke plays aspiring theatre performer Elizabeth 'Lizzie' Cree in 'The Limehouse Golem'.

 

In the film, we try to show this cosmopolitan aspect of London. You see the Chinese opium dens; you see the Jewish influence in Limehouse; you see the Irish influence and people speaking Irish on the streets. Limehouse was a real smorgasbord of different ideas and cultures, and this makes it a fascinating place. 

I think people are also fascinated by the idea of secrecy. Keeping things secret, particularly in terms of sexualities and desires, was something that the Victorian era encouraged. So, in the film, when you discover the character Uncle’s [played by Eddie Marsan] secret, you get an idea of the kind of thing that was going on behind closed doors. People had secrets; it was a world driven on the idea of secrecy. The whole idea of everything Victorian being ‘prim and proper’ is nonsense – it really wasn’t. People were crazy; certainly in Limehouse.


The Limehouse Golem is currently showing in cinemas across the UK.

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