Amid all the squabbling and back-biting that surrounds the UK’s prolonged exit from the European Union one of the more depressing traits that has arisen is a revival of anti-European sentiment. Even the newly appointed Foreign Secretary was quick off the mark in warning the Brussels negotiators that any failure to achieve a good deal for both sides, leading to the “very real risk of a Brexit no deal by accident’, would be blamed on the EU by the British people.
Anti-European rhetoric has been stoked up over the past few years building on decades of often fake news stories peddled by some sections of the English press. All those tales of straight bananas, renaming ‘Bombay mix’ or there being more words on cabbage regulation than there are in the Gettysburg Address were false. If that is added to the drip feed of tabloid articles blaming ‘foreigners’ for an upsurge in crime, pressure on the NHS or even the number of traffic jams on English motorways and you have the underlying xenophobia that fueled the rise of UKIP and, ultimately, won the Brexit referendum.
Not that any of this is new of course; being unpleasant to, or making jokes at the expense of our European neighbours is as a British as fish and chips (which was probably invented by Jewish migrants but let’s not go there). In 1828 Londoners at least remembered a time when they or their parents had fought a war in Europe; a decade after Waterloo the scars of the Napoleonic Wars were still quite angry even if the chief protagonist had been dead for 7 years.
In July of 1828 two men appeared before the magistrate at Marlborough Street Police court, one French and the other German, following an altercation in the street. Louis Courquin was a ‘French cook and confectioner’ and he accused Philipe Bohn, a German tailor, with assaulting him. The magistrate, Sir George Frannat, asked the pair to explain what had gone on between them. The Morning Post’s reporter chose to render the exchange in dialect, for maximum comic effect, something we still see in the occasional tabloid headline.
Bohn told the court that he was standing in the street talking to an English friend when Courquin approached. His friend supposedly said to him, ‘here is one oder fereigner, you can talk together’. Bohn then addressed the chef in German which he didn’t understand, speaking only French (and Bohn said he spoke no French).
Bohn’s English pal presumably thought that all ‘foreigners’ would be able to understand each other, because the English couldn’t understand any of them.
As the pair tried to communicate it seems that the Frenchman’s umbrella fell over and either hit the German or Bohn was blamed for tipping it over (Bohn said that ‘de ombrella, he fall down’ when Courquin ‘he schict his ombrella on de iron shpike, to take a pinch of shnoff’). The argument – if it even was an argument – carried over as both men proceeded to a nearby washhouse.
A parish constable saw the two of them quarrelling, decided the German was to blame, and took him in charge. In court Louis denied bringing a charge against the other man but did say that he’d now lost his ‘parapluie’ (his umbrella) and his hat. In the confusion both men had left their possessions at the public washhouse and Sir George thought the best solution to it all was for the pair to go back together to retrieve them.
They discovered that they had lived close to each other for several years, with the Frenchman resident in London for nine years and Bohn for five. They were part of a European community in the British capital, and of a wider immigrant populace that included migrants from all over the known world. Nineteenth-century London was, like the modern city, a multi-cultural society.
I like to think they wandered off, arm in arm, muttering about the peculiarities of ‘ze Engleesh’.
[from The Morning Post, Saturday, July 26, 1828]