While many of the buildings referred to in A Skin of a Dragon are fictional, the London that Tom and Eliza live in is (I hope) a faithful representation of seventeenth-century London. The Great Fire of London in 1666 destroyed most of the old medieval city, but contemporary images and descriptions before the fire paint a picture of a sprawling, congested and disorganised metropolis built almost entirely of wood. Claes Van Visscher’s 1616 engraving of a panoramic view of London, and Wenceslaus Hollar’s etching of the same, created only a year before A Skin of A Dragon is set, show a city of tightly packed houses, shops, churches and the distinctive London Bridge with its assortment of buildings running across its width.
Without modern sanitation, London must have been a filthy, smelly place to live, perhaps bad enough to make the subterranean city an attractive alternative. Sadly, the catacombs described in A Skin of a Dragon are entirely fictional; London’s existing catacombs were mostly constructed in the Victorian era and don’t cover the entire city as they do in the novel. Nonetheless, a curious fact emerged in G W Lambert’s 1960 survey The Geography of London’s Ghosts. He found that three quarters of reported hauntings in the city occurred in close proximity to the buried rivers and streams that have been directed through pipes and tunnels as the city and Underground expanded. Perhaps there is more than what we believe lurking beneath the paving slabs of London’s streets.