One man stands up for London’s poorest and lands himself in court

police in TS

On Sunday my copy of Haille Rubenhold’s book on the victims of ‘Jack the Ripper’ arrived in the post. By the end of yesterday I’d consumed just under half of it, fitting it in around marking and my other work duties. I will write a full review of it at the end of this week but so far it is a captivating piece of popular social history.

She starts by contrasting the celebration of Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee in 1887 with the encampment of hundreds of homeless people in Trafalgar Square and ‘Bloody Sunday’ when dozens were injured (and one or two or more killed) when the policing of demonstrations against unemployment ended in violence. The underlying theme of her book (or the theme I most identify with) is the problem of homerless and poverty in the capital of the world’s greatest empire.

The word ‘unemployment’ entered the dictionary in 1888 and that reflected the reality that Britain, and Europe, was suffering from one of those periodic slumps (or ‘depressions’) that have always affected the lives of the poorest disproportionally to their richer neighbours. In the 1880s this resulted in demonstrations, in rough sleeping (in the Square and the capital’s parks, and anywhere suitable), and in political rhetoric.

John Benham Parker was a journalist, or at least some of the time he was. He described himself as an auctioneer and surveyor so perhaps his journalism, like his political activism, was a new or a part-time thing in his life. In March 1889 he was in Trafalgar Square to listen to the speeches made as thousands gathered to protest about the lack of work. As he left he drew a crowd of around 150 men and boys away with him.

Parker stopped outside St Martin’s-in-the-Fields and raised his arms, beckoning his followers to gather round him. He told that he would ‘represent them’, be their voice, tell their stories to those that needed to listen. As he warmed to his theme he was cut short by the approach of Inspector Burke of the Metropolitan Police. Burke and his men had been trying to clear the square of demonstrators (albeit in a more gentle way than they had in November 1887).

EPSON scanner imageIn 1887 the new head of the Met, Sir Charles Warren (pictured left with Mr Punch) , had attempted to ban meetings in Trafalgar Square and it was his heavy-handed approach to protest that had led to the violence there. By March 1889 Warren was a footnote in police history, having resigned in November 1888 soon after (but not apparently connected to) the killing of Mary Kelly by the Whitechapel murderer.

Inspector Burke requested, politely, that Parker move along as he was ‘causing great disorder and obstruction’. The auctioneer turned activist refused, and when the policeman insisted shouted: ‘I will not go; I shall do as I like’. He continued to address the crowd, telling them they had every right to be there, every right to protest. The inspector ordered his men to arrest him and he was led away to be processed before a magistrate in the morning.

At Marlborough Street Poice court Parker explained that he had no desire to break the law and had no knowledge that the police had been trying to clear protestors from Trafalgar Square (which seems somewhat unlikely). He just wanted to draw the attention of the government to the problem of unemployment which ‘seemed to be puzzling all nations at present’.

Mr Hannay had some sympathy with him and was prepared to accept he had acted in good faith. The question of the right to protest in Trafalgar Square was still under discussion, he said,  but regardless of the outcome of that debate there was certainly no right to assemble in the streets adjoining the square. That had been established by a recent test case (Rack v. Holmes) sent from the Worship Street Police court. Parker had broken the law by obstructing the highway but since it was his first offence and because he didn’t expect him to repeat it, Mr Hannay ordered him to pay a ‘nominal’ fine of 10sor go to prison for a week.

It was a sensible judgment, one aimed at diffusing political tensions while maintaining the rule of law. Rubenhold is right to highlight the problem of homelessness and poverty in late nineteenth-century London, it is something we need to remember and it was at the core of my own work from 2010, London’s Shadows, which dealt with the Trafalgar Square episode. I am continually ashamed, as an Englishman, that 130 years from 1889 we still have rough sleepers, unemployment and poverty in London while the wealthy (and not just the Queen) live lives of the most opulent luxury.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, March 05, 1889]

My new book on the ‘Ripper’ murders, co-authored with Andy Wise, is published by Amberley in the summer. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s