Joan Lock: crime writer

10 Sep

Joan Lock: “When I finished Dead Born and read it again I thought: ‘I did a lot of research’, so that’s why I wrote the history of The Princess Alice Disaster.

Everyone on Islington Faces Blog has a story.  So far during 2013, crime writer Joan Lock has had two books published – a Victorian crime novel, Dead Born, and a non-fiction book about The Princess Alice Disaster. Later this year she is to have a book re-released. She has also been a winner in a John Lewis art competition. Not bad for someone just about to celebrate their 80th birthday.  Join in the competition to win a copy of these books, see how below. Interview by Nicola Baird

Dead Born – the latest in Joan’s popular Detective Sergeant Best mystery series to be issued in paperback – starts with the handsome hero, Sgt Best, living in Barnsbury next door to a suspected Islington baby farm. The plot deepens when Sgt Best ends up on the Princess Alice, a pleasure steamer which sinks on the River Thames, in 1878, after being rammed by another boat at near Woolwich. Around 650 people drowned, making it Britain’s worst-ever inland waterway disaster.

“The Princess Alice went down in two minutes, taking with it a lot of people from Islington who were enjoying the sudden improvement in the weather with a day out on the river. Their chances of survival were hampered by the fact that both sexes wore boots, the women  wore long skirts – and  most of them could not swim. Islington vestry (parish council) had turned down the suggestion of public swimming baths so, after the disaster, they were severely criticised by the Islington Gazette,” says Joan from her desk in her Barnsbury flat.

Mixing real Victorian news events with fiction has become Joan’s speciality.

“When I first decided to do some fiction I wasn’t sure I had enough imagination so based my first crime book, Dead Image, around the real Regent’s Canal boat explosion in 1874,” she says with a wicked chuckle. Joan is being modest though. Her first two books were autobiographies about her experiences working, first as a nurse in the north-east and then as a policewoman in Mayfair and Soho.

Joan Lock’s flat is full of books she's written, and pictures she's painted. She is a member of a local art group and also paints when she stays at the John Lewis’ staff and ex-staff holiday hotel Brownsea Castle on an island in Poole harbour.

Joan Lock’s flat is full of books she’s written, and pictures she’s painted. She is a member of a local art group and also paints when she stays at the John Lewis’ staff (known as partners) and ex-staff holiday hotel Brownsea Castle, wich is on an island in Poole harbour.

Lady of the night
She left nursing because she was “underpaid, overworked, and the conditions were awful”. She then left policing when the feeling of novelty was overtaken by recognition of the limited work and career opportunities for women. “It’s all in the book,” says Joan patting her hardback copy of Lady Policewoman. “As a police woman in the West End I went to film premiers and all the Royal occasions, like Princess Margaret’s wedding, which was all rather fun but the work was probably less interesting than that in the poorer and more residential areas such as the East End or Islington. At the time, the West End was teaming with prostitutes but when the Street Offences Act came into effect the authorities were anxious to find out how the women would now seek customers. I had had this disastrous red hair rinse, which rather clashed with my new salmon pink duster coat, which may have been why they asked me to pose as a prostitute and go to newsagents to enquire how much they would charge to advertise ‘my’ services.”

Reluctant Nightingale, to be renamed Please Nurse! (which is about Joan’s student nursing life in the 1950s) is due to be re-published by Orion this autumn in part due to the popularity of the TV show Call the Midwife. A new edition of her The British Policewoman may be published soon, while her only modern crime novel Death in Perspective and the non-fiction Blue Murder (about police officers suspected of murder) are about to come out as eBooks.

“Policing and nursing are very similar. A large part is dealing with people under stress and pretending you know what to do next,” said Joan with characteristic good sense. “As a police woman I saw some sad things such as the senile, mentally retarded couple who had not been seen for a couple of days. When we broke into their flat we found them in bed.  The woman was cuddling and talking to the old man’s lifeless body and she refused to be parted from him, or to believe that he was dead. The mentally disturbed seemed to gravitate towards me. I also dealt with quite a number of attempted suicides.”

20130906_112445Joan is well-known in policing circles for her history of The British Policewoman: Her Story (published in 1979, 60 years after first police woman joined the Metropolitan Police), as well as campaigning articles and radio programs asking questions such as ‘When would the first female chief constable be appointed?’ Her efforts paid off when Pauline Clare was appointed to run Lancashire’s policing in 1995. Though there’s clearly a way to go as of the 52 chief constables only seven are currently women.

After finishing as a police woman Joan opted to work part-time on a John Lewis in-house journal to give herself enough time to do her freelance writing.

Early life
Joan was six and had just started school in New Malden, Surrey, when World War Two started. “I remember a test siren and all this panic,” she says. “We moved to my father’s home Barrow-on-Furness and settled there in the middle of the shipyards as people thought the German bombers wouldn’t have enough fuel to get that far. They were wrong and we were bombed to bits. I wasn’t allowed to go to school there because my legs were too short – I just couldn’t run fast enough to reach the bomb shelter in time,” remembers Joan with regret.

“We slept under a steel table but were constantly being dragged out to go to the air raid shelters.  I have a vivid memory of my mother, Ena, screaming for us to get out of bed blending with the scream of a dive bomber…”

The family managed to escape to an aunt’s house in Cartmel in the Lake District – now famous for sticky toffee pudding – and then moved to Tyneside where they were duly bombed again. “I attended 10 schools, but not to grammar school because I failed the entrance exam. After leaving I did various jobs and then went into nursing the same as my mother,” she explains.

Take a break
Joan might have stayed working as a nurse at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Gateshead if it hadn’t been for a fantastic birthday present. “My parents gave me a trip to Paris for my 21st. On the way we passed through London where I saw a police woman sheltering in a doorway and thought ‘That’s an idea!’ It wasn’t exactly a vocation, but I wanted to go to London so I joined the Metropolitan police and was posted to West End Central, just behind Regent Street. There were 20 of us women at the station and six hundred men – which was very good for our social life! It’s where I met my husband, Bob. We married when I was 24.”

“My relatives in Alnwick, Northumberland say all their friends are jealous that they can borrow my flat in Islington right at the heart of London. When they are here they like to breakfast at Carluccio’s. I like the egg and chips at the Workers’ Café opposite the Town Hall.”

“My relatives in Alnwick, Northumberland say all their friends are jealous that they can borrow my flat in Islington right at the heart of London. When they are here they like to breakfast at Carluccio’s. I like the egg and chips at the Workers’ Café opposite the Town Hall.”

Q: What do you love doing?

I write for around four hours a day. I go to the RA, Tate and the Mall Gallery exhibitions; play board games with neighbours and I’m a long-time member of Book Circle at Islington Central Library.

Q: Where’s good to eat?
Recent very good finds have been the John Salt in Upper Street with very innovative food, and the Pig and Butcher, Liverpool Road – hate the name but loved the food.

A favourite Turkish is The Gem in Upper Street – nice family place with wonderful lamb (a farmer relative was most impressed!) and it is a very convenient place to meet friends alighting at the Town Hall bus stop.

Q: What about shopping?
I use the shop and drop service at Waitrose, Holloway Road so I don’t have to carry my shopping home.

At The Sampler wine shop in Upper Street you can taste before you buy and get a chance to at least savour wines well above your price range.  Wish it had opened before my husband died – he would have loved it.

Moving to Islington
Joan has lived in London since that birthday trip, moving to Islington in the 1970s. “I’d been to the Tower Theatre with friends and thought Canonbury looked very attractive, so when we had to move out of our police flat near Tottenham Court Road we asked for one of the police flats in Canonbury Park South.” When Bob retired the couple found a Barnsbury Housing Association flat, on the other side of Upper Street, where Joan still lives.

“I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. London is the best city in the world and Islington is perfect – it’s very lively and so near the West End and all my research places:  the British Library; Guildhall and the marvelous London Metropolitan Archives where I found the Princess Alice disaster inquest papers.  The local Coroners who drew attention to Islington baby farming were Dr Thomas Wakeley (founder of The Lancet and MP for Finsbury) and Dr Edwin Lankester who carried on Wakeley’s work by insisting on proper post mortems and inquests for the babies and encouraging murder verdicts.*

While researching in The Islington Gazette about the finding of baby’s bodies behind hedges and railings Joan came across a report on the Police Fete at Alexandra Palace.  “This set me off writing Dead Letters (2003) which is to be the next in the Sergeant Best series to come out in paperback – except that he is now an inspector – a reward for the hard time he had in Dead Born!”

Find out about all Joan’s books and life story at Also see Joan Lock’s amazon page, here

COMPETITION & BOOK GIVEAWAY: If you would like a FREE copy of Dead Born and/or The Princess Alice Disaster please add a brief comment below stating (1) which book/s you want and (2) whether you knew anything about Islington baby farms or the Princess Alice sinking before reading this interview. (3) You’ll also need to include your email. Names will be picked out of a hat two weeks after this interview is published (so last comp entries will be at midnight on 24 September 2013). Entry only accepted if you have a UK address the books can be posted to.


Islington Vestry – the Vestry criticized by the Islington Gazette would be the Parish Council – similar to today’s Islington Council.

 The Book Circle at Islington Central Library also known as The Central Library Reading Group meets monthly on the penultimate Monday of the month between 6-7.30pm. Meetings are held in the Gallery at the Central Library. New members are always welcome. The next meeting will be on Monday 23 September, and the group will be discussing Bring up the bodies by Hilary Mantel.

Islington baby farming – there was one at College Cross, N1. According to Joan: “Amongst the last of the baby farmers to be hanged (in 1903) were Annie Walters of Danbury Street, N1 – behind Islington Green near the canal and Amelia Sachs of Hertford Road, East Finchley.”

Over to you

If you’d like to feature on this blog, or make a suggestion about anyone who grew up, lives or works in Islington please let me know, via Thank you. 

If you liked this interview please SHARE on twitter or Facebook. Even better follow (see menu top right).

This blog is inspired by Spitalfields Life written by the Gentle Author.

If you enjoyed this post you might enjoy the most popular of all islingtonfacesblog posts, Nina Marcangelo from Alfredo’s Cafe on Essex Road which had 800 viewers in a week, 187 views on its 2nd day up and 97 facebook shares.


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