Margery Allingham’s first published novel, Blackkerchief Dick, was set on Mersea Island, where her family spent many holidays. England’s easternmost inhabited island, Mersea Island is a few hundred yards off the Essex coast, about 7 miles from Colchester.
In the 1920s, the island was a popular destination for Londoners. One house (now the sailing club) was jokingly known as “Journey’s End” because the journey from London took so long in the days before motorways and bypasses. The island is reached by a causeway, which is underwater for an hour or so at high tide.
Dustwrapper for Blackkerchief Dick
Margery and her family spent the summer holidays of 1921 at a house in Seaview Avenue, West Mersea. During 3-13 August, they held a series of table-turning sessions. Some of the participants claimed to have contacted the spirits of smugglers who had lived in Mersea in the late seventeenth century. This inspired seventeen-year-old Margery to write Blackkerchief Dick, a historical novel about Essex smugglers. She completed the book in April 1922, and it was published by Hodder and Stoughton the following year. A review in the Bookman of October 1923 praised it as a “thoroughly entertaining” story, written “with an ease and finish given to few young writers.” In later life, Margery was embarrassed by the book, and did not wish it to be republished.
Mersea also provides the setting for Mystery Mile, a Campion adventure published in 1930. Margery disguised the location as Suffolk, but the island is easily recognisable. The novel’s dramatic climax takes place in the saltmarshes near the island.
From Mersea, Margery sailed with Pip and her brother Philip to nearby Tollesbury, which provided the setting for her ghost story, “The Sexton’s Wife” (published in The Allingham Minibus) as well as scenes in Cargo of Eagles and The Tiger in the Smoke.
The area has further literary connections. Next to Mersea Island is the peninsula known as “The Ray,” the setting for Sabine Baring-Gould’sMehalah. Dorothy L. Sayers spent her honeymoon in nearby Maldon, which is famous because of the Anglo-Saxon poem, “The Battle of Maldon”.
West Mersea from the sea