The Irregulars: the real history behind Netflix’s supernatural Sherlock spinoff

Netflix’s The Irregulars is a supernatural Sherlock Holmes story where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s great detective fades into the shadows, replaced by the plucky Baker Street Irregulars. But although it is also a fiction, it is underpinned by some hefty fact – from secret societies and poor laws to a reimagined royal…

The Irregulars. From left to right: Prince Leopold (Harrison Osterfield), Jessie (Darci Shaw), Bea(Thaddea Graham), Spike (McKell David), and Billy (Jojo Macari)

It is safe to say that Netflix’s The Irregulars isn’t a typical Sherlock Holmes imagining, and not least because the pipe-smoking, deerstalker-donning detective isn’t the hero of the piece.

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Front and centre this time around are the Baker Street Irregulars, though they are not the same as the network of beggar children who, in the canon, are corralled by Holmes to act as his eyes and ears on the streets of Victorian London.

Warning: spoilers ahead for season one of Netflix’s The Irregulars

Here there are just five ‘irregulars’ – street urchins Bea, Jessie, Billy and Spike, plus an unlikely bedfellow in the form of royal prince Leopold.

In this iteration, they are approached by much-less benevolent depiction of Holmes’s sidekick Doctor Watson. He enlists the irregulars in the hunt for a baby thief – leading them into a web of crimes that are far from elementary. How can they be, when they revolve around a rip in the fabric between worlds?

The cases are gruesome, ghostly and ghoulish. The baby thief of episode one, we discover, can kill you with an unkindness – an unkindness of ravens who act as avian assassins (though perhaps a murder of crows would have been more apt). Next we meet a tooth fairy who’ll collect all your teeth, whether you have left them under the pillow or they’re still in your mouth. And so it continues.

Despite the supernatural air, the Victorian city that underpins the story is quite real. Here are six historical questions we had after watching The Irregulars, answered.

1

How real is the character of Prince Leopold?

Prince Leopold was a real historical figure. Born in 1853, he was the fourth son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and as depicted in The Irregulars he was frail character. He had inherited haemophilia (a genetic condition that affects the body’s ability to form blood clots) from his mother – illustrated on the show by his easy bruising and use of a cane. But there is no evidence that he liked to sneak out of the palace to walk among the people, much less fight crime, supernatural or otherwise.

2

What is the monster in Jessie’s nightmare?

Jessie’s recurring nightmare forms a central plot point that runs through The Irregulars: she wakes underground, holding a torch surrounded by skeletons, and is hunted down by a bird-faced monster.

But it isn’t really monster: it’s a plague doctor – a physician who attended those struck down by the plague in the 17th century. Some doctors chose to wear bird-like masks, the beaks of which were hollow, stuffed with substances such as lavender and camphor, which were believed to ward off disease.

3

What is the Golden Dawn?

Introduced in episode three, The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was a real ‘secret’ society, found by a trio of freemasons in 1887 – though unlike the freemasons, women could be admitted as equals. As depicted in The Irregulars, it was dedicated to the study of the occult and paranormal activity, with the rank of ‘magus’ second only to that of ‘ipissimus’.

Though in the show Leopold was as surprised about the order as everyone else, the real prince was a freemason. Could he have known about the Golden Dawn? The answer is an emphatic no, as he died in 1884, three years before his brother masons created the Golden Dawn. But Sherlock Holmes’s creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was rumoured to be a member.

4

What was the workhouse?

At least three of the Irregulars lived in the workhouse as children, where they were subject to mistreatment and beatings. It’s an experience that is mentioned often as being both transformative and scarring. Certainly Charles Dickens wasn’t a fan, with Oliver Twist being a thinly veiled excoriation of what he saw as myriad injustices meted out on the poor.

Workhouses gained infamy following the passing of 1834 New Poor Law, which curtailed the provision of ‘outdoor relief’ maintained by parishes, meaning the only option for the impoverished was ‘indoor relief’ – entering a workhouse, where they had to earn their keep.

“The workhouse system was designed as a deterrent in the sense that life inside was not supposed to be any easier or more pleasant than life as one of the lowest paid workers who lived in the community,” says Samantha Shave in a piece exploring the history of the workhouse. “And with saving money at the heart of the provision of ‘indoor relief’ and inspections into the accounts and running of such institutions taking place on a regular basis, it’s not surprising that conditions inside many workhouses could be very harsh indeed.”

But while adults could choose to enter a workhouse or take their chances on the streets, infants and babies who were orphaned or otherwise abandoned ended up in workhouses almost by default.

5

Does the Queen own all of Britain’s swans?

It’s a throwaway line in the penultimate episode, but Spike briefly questions whether Queen Victoria ‘owns’ all of Britain’s swans – and the answer is she did, as has every monarch as far back as the 12th century through to the incumbent Elizabeth II.

The Crown specifically retains the rights to every unmarked mute swan swimming in open water. This has given birth to a tradition – ‘swan upping’ – performed every July, in which an attempt is made to catch, count and check the health of every swan on the River Thames.

6

What is Bedlam?

The action moves to an asylum towards the end the series, which is only briefly identified as Bedlam. It is properly known as Bethlem Royal Hospital, and for much of its history was the only dedicated mental institution in Britain, but it was colloquially described as a ‘lunatic asylum’.

It acquired a fearsome reputation for the mistreatment of patients, even though this only accounted for a portion of its history, and at one point became a popular tourist attraction for morbidly entertained, well-to-do Londoners, who could pay to ‘visit’ the inmates.

Kev Lochun is a section editor of HistoryExtra and deputy editor of BBC History Revealed

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This content was first published by HistoryExtra in 2021