I am writing this on Monday and at this point we still don’t know what is going to happen with regards to Brexit. As it stands though, unless the PM has managed to persuade enough MPs to back her deal, we are still scheduled to leave the European Union at 11 o’clock tonight. We joined the EU (or rather the European Common Market as it was then) on 1 January 1973 after a referendum was held to test the public’s desire to enter or not. Today we may leave on the basis of another such referendum, or we may not.
I thought it might be interesting to find out what was happening in the Metropolitan Police courts 100 years before we joined the European club. After all in March 1873 Britain was a very different place. Instead of being a declining world power we were THE world power, an empire upon which ‘the sun never set’. Queen Victoria had been on the throne for almost 36 years and had been a widow for 12 of those. William Gladstone was Prime Minster in his first ministry and he was opposed at the dispatch box by Benjamin Disraeli who he had beaten by 100 seats in the 1868 election. Oh what Mrs May would give for a majority of 100 seats, or any majority for that matter
Britain was stable, powerful, rich and successful in 1873 and Europe was a collection of individual nation states of which republican France, under Adophe Thiers, and Germany, (under Kaiser Wilhelm I and his able chancellor Bismark), were dominant. Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire represented the old guard by comparison. No one was talking about a European union in 1873 but the slide to European war (in 1914) could already be predicted by those able to read the runes.
1873 in Britain saw the opening of the Alexandra Palace in London, and Londoners watched in horror as it burned down a fortnight later. The Kennel Club was created in April , the first of its kind in the world. Another first was the opening of Girton in Cambridge, as an all female college.
Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (right) also became the first woman to be admitted to the British Medical Association, an honor she retained uniquely for almost 20 years. In Africa British colonial troops went to war with Ashanti king, ostensibly because of the latter’s continued trade in human slaves.
On the 24 March Mary Ann Cotton (left) , one of history’s most unpleasant murderers, was hanged in Durham goal for the murder of her stepson (and the presumed murder of three former husbands); her motive was to cash in on their life insurance money.
Over at Clerkenwell Police court things were a little less dramatic as a tea dealer named Brown was set in the dock before Mr Barker, the incumbent police magistrate. James Neighbour, the sanitary inspector for St Luke’s, testified that he had purchased tow sample of tea from Brown’s shop and had taken them away for analysis. Dr Parry certified that both had been adulterated.
The adulteration of food was common in Victorian Britain and the authorities were keen to prevent it, not least because of the risk it posed to the health of population. Dr Parry’s verdict was that one sample of tea contained ‘iron filings and clippings, gritty matter, and foreign stalks’ while the other was made up of ‘tea dust’ and ‘small fragments of wood’ as well as all the other substances found in the first one. The tea was described variously in signs in the shop window as ‘capital’ and ‘noted’ mixtures but they were very far from it.
However, when pressed the doctor would not or could not say that the tea was ‘injurious to health’, it just wasn’t what it was advertised to be. Whether it had been adulterated by the defendant or had arrived in that state from China was also something he couldn’t comment on with authority. This led Brown’s defense lawyer (Mr Ricketts) to argue that the prosecution had failed to prove its case against his client. Mr Barker disagreed. He said it was self-evident that the tea dealer either knew his product was adulterated with ‘foreign matter’ even if he hadn’t adulterated it himself. This was done, he declared, to bulk up the actual tea and cheat the customer. Had it been dangerous to health he would have fined him £20 but as it was not he let him off with a £10n and ordered him to pay the inspector’s costs.
Of course one of the things the EU protects is our consumer and environmental rights, through its stringent laws on trade. Indeed one of the fears some have is that if we open ourselves up to a genuine free market we might have to accept products (such as bleached American chickens) that would not pass EU food standards. We might also note that in 1873 that Britain dominated world trade and that most trade passed through British ports, making money and creating work as it did so. But in 1873 we had an empire and a navy that was the envy of the world.
Today not only do we longer have an empire but we also have a navy that has been stripped back to the bare bones, to the extent that we only have one aircraft carrier and that is unable to launch the sort of planes we have available. In 1873 we were the major power in the world, truly GREAT Britain. In 1973 we joined a trading community to ensure our future prosperity. In 2019 we may be about to leave that club having grown frustrated with its attempts to evolve into something that resembles a United States of Europe rather than the trade club we signed up to.
Who knows where we go from here and whether this will prove to be a smart move or a disaster that will haunt us forever. History will judge us, and those that made the decisions that led us to this point.
[from The Morning Post, Saturday, March 29, 1873]