A little local difficulty: ‘political’ violence in early Victorian Stepney

vestry-meeting-john-ritchie-1867

Politics, as we have seen recently, can sometimes get a little heated and nothing gets more heated than local politics. Having stood as a candidate for local elections in the recent past I can attest to long running petty squabbles between party workers, elected and defeated councilors, and their friends and families.

In one large east Midlands town there were dark mutterings about a Conservative councilor who had defected from Labour several years earlier simply because he thought it more likely to be re-elected if he stood for ‘the other side’.  The suggestion (made by his Conservative colleague, against whom I was contesting a seat) was that he only entered politics for the rewards it brought in terms of his local standing in the community; it mattered not whether he was part of a left or right political party, what mattered was being in government.

I’ve no idea if this was accurate or fair (and indeed I wondered at the time if there was a smack of racism in the comment) but historically the exercise of local government has involved a deal of self aggrandizement. It is also accurate to say that local politics has probably always been fractious though it doesn’t always end in violence as this particular example from 1847 did.

Charles Williams, a general dealer from Mile End, was attending  meeting of the Stepney parish vestry on Easter Monday 1847 when a man rushed into the room and interrupted them. Williams and his colleagues were tasked with electing parish officers when James Colt (a local undertaker and carpenter) interrupted them.  Colt pulled the chair out from underneath one of the candidates for the role of churchwarden, tipping him on to the floor, before slamming shut the room’s shutters – plunging it into darkness – and throwing the ink pot into the fire. He called everyone present ‘the most opprobrious names’ and challenged them all to a fight.

It was a quite bizarre episode and it seemed that Colt’s intention had been to close down proceedings because he believed they were being conducted either illegally or unfairly. An argument then ensued about the manner of the meeting and whether it conformed to the rules as they were understood. James Colt was, like the man he’d tipped out of the chair, been seeking election as parish officer (an overseer in Colt’s case) and he may have believed he was being excluded form the meeting so as to have missed this chance at a bit of local power.  Perhaps he was, and perhaps with good reason.

Eventually Colt was summoned before the magistrate at Thames to face a charge of assault. The paper concentrated on the shenanigans at the parish meeting and heard several claims and counter claims regarding the legitimacy or otherwise of the proceedings but for Mr Ballantine the magistrate the question was simple: had Colt committed an assault or not? It was fairly obvious to all present that he had and so the justice fined him £5 and let him go. I would suggest James Colt had demonstrated by his histrionics that he was entirely unfit for public office.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, April 9, 1847]

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