Knife crime: a salutary lesson from 1888

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In 2010 I started writing an article which eventually saw the light of day in May 2015 in a journal called Cultural and Social History. It concerned a murder case in London in 1888. No, not the ‘Ripper’ or even the ‘Thames Torso mystery’, instead this was the killing of a young man, stabbed to death in Regent’s Park by another young man.

This is how my first draft started:

In the recent 2010 election campaign government and opposition spokesmen traded insults and apportioned blame for what is a perceived increase in youth crime and gang violence over the past decade. Chris Graying, as the Conservative shadow home secretary, declared in February 2010 that, ‘the Government’s policies on crime have failed. After eleven years of claiming to be tough, these figures show shocking levels of violent crime’ and he cited statistics showing that the number of under 16s fatally stabbed has doubled since 1997. In 2007 alone, one teenager was killed each week in gang related attacks. Gang related violence in London claimed the lives of 28 young people aged under 20, while a further 1,237 were injured by guns or knives between April and November of that year. Commentators, politicians and parents have agonised over the causes of this increase in youth violence and, more particularly, about the rise of youth gang culture. Social workers, police, and gang members themselves have offered explanations for why our children are suddenly carrying guns and knives but with very little effect. 

Today, nine years later, we are once again ‘agonising’ over knife crime with the death of two more teenagers in the last week, one in Romford, the other in Greater Manchester. The Tories are now in charge and the current PM (Teresa May) finds herself answering probing and difficult questions on her role in cutting police numbers during her time as David Cameron’s Home Secretary.

I went and spoke to the Whitechapel Society about the murder (and the press coverage that surrounded it) in 2011, on the night that (coincidently) that the Tottenham riots erupted following the shooting, by police, of Mark Duggan a local black youth. I’ll try and set out the story of the ‘Regent’s Park Murder’ below because, in the wake of the recent spike in gang related violence, I think it is worth reflecting on what history can (or cannot) tell us.

On May 23 1888 Cissy Chapman and Francis Cole were walking out together on the Marylebone Road and had reached the junction with Lisson Grove when two young men approached them. Cissy and Francis were loosely involved with a youth ‘gang’ that claimed territorial rights in that area. They had unwittingly crossed into territory claimed by another however, and the two young men soon became a small crowd. The pair were called out, identified as the ‘enemy’ and beaten up.

The next day Francis was out with his mates and told them what had happened. His gang (the ‘Tottenham Court Road’ lads) decided they couldn’t let this attack on one of their number go unanswered and so they set out to ‘get’ the Fitzroy Place Lads or the Seven Dials Lads (the groups they deemed responsible).

It seems (and reports are  not clear) that they set off for nearby Regent’s Park, a location where trysts, dangerous liaisons, petty crime, and gang warfare was relatively common. If the newspaper images are to be believed the lads were tooled up – carrying clubs and sticks and coshes – but only one took a knife with him. Peter Lee had a large sheath knife attached to his belt and George ‘Garry’ Galletly (the youngest member of the gang) asked him to lend it to him. Lee handed the knife over.  ‘This will do for them’ Galletly swore before he set out to look for the rival gang members.

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Meanwhile Joseph Rumbold, a printer’s machinist who lived just a few streets to the west of Regents’ Park, was walking out with his sweetheart Elizabeth Lee, her sister Emily and her young man, Alonzo Byrnes. Alonzo and Emily had hung back as they promenaded around the Outer circle of the park, while Joseph and Elizabeth walked on ahead. Shortly afterwards they heard a scuffle up ahead. They hurried on and saw James Rumbold trying to fight off a group of lads. Rumbled, tried to escape by running off towards the York Gate but he was pursued by most of the gang.

Alonzo demanded to know what had happened. He was told that Rumbold had been attacked because the ‘other night we were up here and we and the girls were struck, and we thought he was one of them from the Dials’. He wasn’t but before they realised that Joseph Rumbled had been fatally wounded, knifed in the neck by George Galletly, perhaps keen to make a name for himself in front of his older chums.

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Rumbold’s death, widely reported in the media, led inevitably to a murder trial at the Old Bailey. There were eight young men in the dock of the Central Criminal court on 30 July 1888 but only Galletly was convicted.* The judge leaned forward and addressed the 18 year-old in the dock:

You and the gang that accompanied you found this unfortunate young man walking with a girl in Regent’s Park. He had done you no harm, had not wronged one of your party, but simply because you thought he lived in the district where some men resided who had insulted and outraged two of your comrades on the previous evening, you cruelly stabbed him twice, defenceless as he was

He then sentenced him to death.

Galletly’s execution was set for the 18 August but he was spared the rope on account of his youth. He served 10 years instead, being released on license in 1898 at the age of 27. The story shocked society and later that year the Pall Mall Gazette ran a feature on the ‘gangs of London’ and the inability of the police to deal with them.

What does the Regent’s Park Murder tell us? Well, the obvious truth that youth violence, testosterone fuelled bravado, and senseless killing is nothing new. And also that the media likes to fan the flames of incidents like this, creating moral panics that help raise awareness but also sell newspapers. It also reminds us (as does Grayling’s attack on Labour in 2010) that governments have systematically failed to tackle the causes of youth violence. The current incumbent of Downing Street’s pledge to host a summit sounds like more excuses to do nothing about a really serious societal issue.

This is probably because the issue is far too complicated for any government to ‘solve’. I don’t pretend to have any solutions either but while increasing police numbers, with more stop and search, and a knife amnesty might all be valid strategies I doubt increasing sentences for offenders or putting he army on the streets will do much good. Fundamentally however I suspect we need better opportunities for those that live in the areas where gang and knife crime festers, more social mobility, more ‘good’ jobs, better education (academic and vocational), more community cohesion, things for young people to do after school, and more support for beleaguered parents, teachers, police and social workers.

All of that costs money, lots and lots of money, and that comes from taxation (unless you want to cut the money we spend somewhere else) and no government wants to pledge to raise your tax. And then we have the small matter of the fact that Britain is facing up to the reality that austerity might go on a lot longer than Cameron and  Osborne promised us it would, given that over half the population voted to pull us out of a union with our closest trading block.

So, I fear, there will be a lot more victims like Joseph Rumbold, Damiola Taylor, Stephen Lawrence, Yousef Makki, and Jodie Chesney. The press will wail and the government will wring its hands, and our young people will continue to be murdered under our noses.

[from The Pall Mall Gazette, Saturday, May 26, 1888]

For other posts on gang crime see:

A London ‘scuttler’ in the dock at Marylebone?

Gang violence in Dalston as a new year dawns : an echo from 1877

*several of the others pleaded guilty to unlawful assembly and assault.

One thought on “Knife crime: a salutary lesson from 1888

  1. Such a wise and timely comment on the horrendous knife crimes currently occurring with depressing regularity in our cities.

    Like

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