A ‘rabble rouser’ or someone standing up for his fellow man? Unemployment and hardship in 1880s Deptford

the-unemployed

In today’s case (from January 1888) a man was summoned for ‘using abusive language’ and inciting a crowd in Deptford. It is interesting for several reasons, because it brings up issues of class, unemployment, and because one of the principal witnesses was a journalist who was reporting on the incident for the local press.

We very rarely hear the names of those writing reports for the newspapers but in this case we have the name Harold A. Hargreaves (although it is not clear whether which paper he was reporting to, or whether he was freelance).

Hargreaves was in the Greenwich Police court to testify in the case of John Elliott who had been brought in on a summons for abusing Major J.C. Cox in Deptford Broadway on the 10 January. The reporter explained that a large crowd had gathered and Elliott was addressing them. It was, he said, a ‘mass meeting of the unemployed’ and the mood was grim. We don’t know where the men used to work or why they were laid off but at some point major Cox arrived.

Elliott was blaming Cox for the situation the men and their families found themselves in, declaring that ‘He (Major Cox) promised them payment, but defrauded them’. As the crowd became aware that the major was present they turned their anger towards him. According to Hargreaves and Elliott, the speaker (Elliott) did his best to clam the crowd down but Cox was not in a conciliatory mood and strode up to the speaker and blew cigar smoke in his face.

John Elliott defended himself and said he wasn’t frightened of anyone, and certainly not Cox. There were scuffles and a suggestion (made by Elliott) that Cox had made unpleasant remarks about Elliott and the wives of the men gathered there, before squaring up to him and challenging him to a fight.

Under examination by Mr Marsham (the sitting justice at Greenwich) Major Cox denied any such behaviour but the bulk of witnesses supported the notion that it was he that was acting badly, in a disorderly manner in fact, not the convener of the meeting. It was said that it was only Elliott’s control of the crowd that prevented things turning very ugly and the major from being set upon. The major’s behaviour was insulting, Elliot insisted, towards him and the man that the major had promised unemployment relief to.

The late 1880s were a difficult time for working class Londoners. The British economy was experiencing a slump, if not a full-blown depression, and very many people struggled to find work, and opportunistic employers cut wages. It was the period in which the term  ‘unemployment’ entered the dictionary and there were large demonstrations across the capital and encampments of the poor in Trafalgar Square and London’s parks. Dark voices raised the ‘spectre’ of socialist revolution and strikes broke out at Bryant and May (in July) and then at various places before the Great Dock strike in the following year seemingly defined the mood of resistance to rampant uncaring capitalism.

For John Elliott however, the magistrate had little sympathy. Ignoring the testimony that suggested he was more peacemaker than trouble maker Mr Marsham told him that his behaviour towards a social superior was reprehensible. However, so long as he promised not to repeat it he would only fine him a nominal sum with costs. Elliot agreed and paid just 7s, leaving court with his head held high and his reputation amongst his peers at least, enhanced. As for Major Cox, I rather suspect he took care to watch his back around the streets of Deptford.

[from The Standard, Saturday, January 21, 1888]

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