A small tragedy averted as over 600 drown in the Thames’ foul waters

FeaturedA small tragedy averted as over 600 drown in the Thames’ foul waters

On Saturday 14 September 15, 1878 Henry Sharpe, whose occupation was simply recorded as ‘labourer’ , was set in the dock at Mansion House and charged with trying to kill himself. 

On Friday night (ominously perhaps, the 13th) a City policeman was on patrol by London Bridge when a man rushed up and grabbed him. The man (Sharpe) was clearly at his wits end and very drunk. He tried, incoherently, to explain that his wife and two children were dead – both drowned in the sinking of the Princess Alice earlier that month. 

The SS Princess Alice  was a Thames paddle steamer that sank after a collision with a collier, (the Bywell Castle) on 3 September. It was a terrible tragedy that claimed the lives of over 600 people: men, women, and children. The steamer went down in a stretch of the river that was heavily polluted with raw sewerage; many of those that died must have suffered an awful death. 

Having poured out his grief to the policeman Sharpe was persuaded to go home and sleep off his sorrow. Convinced he’d averted another tragedy (however small by comparison) the policeman resumed his beat. Imagine his surprise then when 30 minutes later he saw Sharpe scrambling up the parapet of the bridge, seemingly intent on launching himself in the Thames’ murky waters. 

With the help of some passers-by the lawman affected a rescue, dragging the drunken labourer back from the precipice by his ankles. He was taken back the station, charged and left to sober up. 

Sharpe was joined in court by his wife in children who had clearly not perished in the disaster and must have been shocked that Henry would suggest such a thing. His desperate actions perhaps reveal a deep seated mental illness but he told the magistrate – Sir Thomas Dakin, Lord Mayor of London – that he had been drinking with a close friend that evening, consoling him for the loss of his family in the sinking. 

Who knows if that was the truth either; we have no passenger list for the Princess Alice  we don’t know exactly how many souls perished or what all of their names were. One of Jack the Ripper’s victims claimed to have lost her husband in the tragedy; Elizabeth Stride may have been hoping to gain the sympathy of others for her loss, or perhaps even to benefit from the generosity of Londoners who raised thousands of pounds for the bereaved families.  In Liz’s case as in Henry’s it was a false claim but it shows how this disaster touched so many lives in the late Victorian capital. 

The Lord Mayor declared that Sharpe was ‘a dissipated fellow’ and decided the best course of action was to lock him on remand for a few days so the alcohol could work through his system. It wasn’t a conviction or a sentence as such, but at least it was some sort of intervention that might have saved his life.  

From Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday 15 September 1878

‘Let finish the bastard!’ : Drunkenness and violence in the Victorian capital

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Seven Dials, a Victorian slum 

It was drunkenness and its consequences that filled the first column of reports on the Police Courts in the Morning Post on 6 August 1863. Drunk and disorderly behaviour, especially if it involved any form of violence, was regularly punished by the city’s magistrates and featured often in newspaper reports. This morning the reports, while they had a common theme, involved a range of defendants and circumstances.

The most serious (at least in the eyes of the law at the time) was heard at Bow Street before Mr Henry. Two ‘young rough fellows’ – Reardon and Sullivan – were accused of being drunk and assaulting a police officer. The officer involved was a Inspector Brimmacombe of F Division Metropolitan Police. Brimmacombe was on duty in Seven Dials, one of the capital’s poorer and more criminal districts.

What he was doing there is unclear but he wasn’t operating under cover because when he came upon Reardon and Sullivan and a half dozen other men who were drunk and disturbing the peace, he instructed them to go home quietly.

They laughed in his face, refused to comply, and attacked him. Sullivan swung at the officer but missed, striking a nearby carthorse on the nose instead. Sullivan now tried to grab at the policeman and spat full in his face, cursing him. Brimmacombe seized the man’s collar and made to drag him way but he called for his mate’s to help him ‘throw him down’.

The ‘mob’ now piled in on the policeman, joined he said by many more so that he was kicked on the ground as he was surrounded by upwards of 20 assailants. Inspedctor Brimmacombe was kicked, ‘beaten, and dragged about, his coat and cape covered with mud, and so torn as to be unserviceable’. The assault continued for about 10 minutes and Reardon then drew a knife and muttered darkly:

‘Let’s finish the __________’.

Just then the Westminster Police court prison van drove by, on its may to the House of Detention. The sergeant driving the van saw what was happening and rushed to help the inspector. The crowd of roughs scattered but Sullivan was arrested. Reardon was identified and picked up in a pub later that evening. In court both prisoners apologized but it didn’t save them from punishment: Mr Henry ordered them to pay a hefty £3 fine each or go to gaol for a month.

The next two cases are from the City of London, which had two courts – at Mansion House (where the Lord Mayor presided, unless he was unavailable) and Guildhall, which was staffed by aldermen in rotation.

Ellen Murray was charged before Alderman Gabriel with being drunk and causing criminal damage. She was prosecuted by a Mr Hough, who kept a licensed public house on Giltspur Street. Hough said that Ellen had come to his house and had been drinking until he decided she’d had enough. Ellen was becoming rowdy and landlords were mindful of running orderly establishments for dear of losing custom and their licenses.  When she wouldn’t calm down he threw her out.

The young woman was drunk and enraged and put her fist through his window, breaking what he described as a ‘valuable pane of embossed glass’. He called for a policeman and had her arrested. In court he told the alderman magistrate that he was particularly upset because he had helped Ellen in the recent past. She was poor and he had approached the West London Union on her behalf to secure her some outdoor relief, meaning she could stay out of the workhouse. He thought it very ungrateful of her to repay him in this way.

Ellen apologized but again; it wasn’t enough to save her. She had no money to pay a fine or the damages she owed for the window so she was sent to prison for a fortnight.

Our final case concerned a young man at the other end of the social scale. James Wilson was the name he gave at Mansion House but that may not have been his real name. He was a – he said – a solicitor and had a ‘genteel’ appearance as he stood in the dock before the Lord Mayor.

He too was charged with being drunk and, in addition, with ‘assaulting several females’. This was his second appearance that week but when he was set in the dock on Tuesday he’d been too drunk to stand and so was remanded overnight. Wilson had been seen by a 15 year-old boy in Bucklersbury (a street in the city quite close to the Bank of England – pictured right c.1845 ) with a young girl. It was reported that he had assaulted her in ‘an indecent manner’ and the witness had gone off to fetch a policeman.

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Meanwhile Wilson ran off and groped a passing woman before boarding a moving omnibus where he assaulted another female passenger. The bus was stopped and Wilson removed and warned by a constable. Taking no notice – presumably because he was so drunk – Wilson ran up to another women in the street and threw his arms around her neck.

That was his lot and the police took him into custody. On Wednesday, sober and repentant, he apologized although he said he was so drunk he could hardly remember anything from that night. He begged not to be sent to gaol, as ‘it would ruin him mentally, he was sure’. The Lord Mayor said drunkness was no excuse and he’d have to be punished in some way.

Wilson said he was ‘a poor man’, living off his friends with very little funds of his own but he’d happily make a donation to the poor box if His Lordship requested him to. The Lord Mayor fined him 40but warned him that a failure to pay would earn him a month in prison. Hopefully for him – if not for his victims – his friends rallied round and paid his fine.

So, three cases of drunken behaviour, three different sorts of victim and quite different circumstances, but all ‘rewarded’ in much the same way. Violence, often fuelled by drink, was endemic in the Victorian capital and must have proved depressingly repetitive to the  men who served as Police Court magistrates.

[from Morning PostThursday, 6 August 1863]

Cowboys in the dock at Westminster as the ‘Whitechapel fiend’ makes his first appearance.

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On the 3 August 1888 two Americans appeared before the magistrate at Westminster Police court. John Dunn was probably every small boy’s idea of an American – a cowboy and ‘professional horseman’, part of Buffalo Bill’s travelling Wild West Show, he would have cut an exotic figure in the dock. The other man was darker skinned, described as a Mexican and giving the name Richard Chester Dare.

Dare (described as ‘a powerful man’ with the press) was charged with assault, and Dunn with aiding him. On the Thursday night both had been drinking at a pub on the Broadway when they had fell into an argument with a gun maker’s assistant called William Head. We can probably imagine the nature of the dispute, two US citizens in London arguing with a local about the merits of American vs British firearms.

Head left the pub but Dare hadn’t finished the quarrel and took it outside. As the gun maker walked home Dare and two others came up behind him and pushed him. A fight ensued and Head was knocked to the ground. Head and Dare grappled together before William escaped and made his way home.

He had been wounded quite badly, sustaining a bruise to the side of his face which had closed his left eye and had been stabbed in his side. It is likely that in the chaos of the moment and being a little the worse for drink he hadn’t noticed the American pull out a knife at the time. However, in court before Mr Partridge he testified to seeing a knife in the cowboy’s hand.

Both men were remanded to appear again but on application Dunn was granted bail. His was the less serious charge and Mr Partridge was told that Dare was supposed to be on his way to Brussels to join up with ‘Mexican Joe’s’ troupe, so perhaps the chance that he might slip away from justice was uppermost in the magistrate’s mind. He also instructed the police to inform the American consul of the men’s arrest.

William ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody toured Europe several times between 1887 and 1906, the first in 1887 which coincided with Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. One of the reviews of the 1887 show in London (at the American Exhibition) gives us a flavour of the event:

The size of the enclosure was one element of the impressiveness of the coup d’œil and this was cleverly increased by the picturesque scenery which enclosed half of the circle. At the edge of the ash-covered circle in the center were drawn up on parade the whole strength of the Wild West company. There were the various tribes of Indians in their war-paint and feathers, the Mexicans, the ladies, and the cowboys, and a fine array they made, with the chiefs of each tribe, the renowned Sergeant Bates, the equally celebrated Buffalo Bill, the stalwart Buck Taylor, and others who were introduced by Mr. Frank Richmond who, from the top of an elevated platform, described the show as it proceeded. 

Cody took his troupe back to the USA in May of 1887 having performed for both the Queen and the Prince of Wales. Yet some of the performers stayed behind, enjoying the life they found in London’s bustling city streets. Presumably two of these were Dare and Dunn. Sadly, at this point they both vanish from the pages of the Victorian newspapers so we don’t know what happened to them.

A few days later the body of Martha Tabram was discovered on a landing in George Yard, in the heart of the Whitechapel slum. She had been viciously stabbed and her killer was nowhere to be seen. Although there is considerable dispute as to whether Martha was the first victim of ‘Jack the Ripper’ a consensus is developing that suggests she was killed but he same person that murdered five or more women that summer and autumn.

As the police searched for a serial killer in 1888 the idea that the killings might have been perpetrated by a native American or another member of Buffalo Bill’s travelling Wild West circulated. After all, it was said, what Englishman could do such a terrible thing?

[from The Standard Saturday 4 August 1888]

A drunken mother loses her temper and then her liberty

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Royal Army Clothing Factory 21/6/1918 during a visit by King George V and Queen Mary (IMW collection)

On Wednesday 28 July 1875 Emma Leven was set in the dock at Westminster Police court to face a charge that she had tried to kill her own baby. She was remanded overnight by the sitting magistrate Mr Arnold, who wanted to hear from a number of people, including the key witness, who had not appeared that day.

The case hadn’t been reported at the time but we should read nothing into that. Hundreds of summary hearings took place every day at London’s police courts and the papers only carried reports of one or two from each of them daily. This case was ‘of interest’ however, so when Emma was brought back from the cells on Thursday a scribbler from the Morning Post described the hearing for his readers.

Emma was married and – according to Mrs Elizabeth Turner, Thomas Tullogh, and William Rush – on the night of 27 July she was drinking in the Eagle public house on Grosvenor Road¹ and was ‘very drunk’. Her baby had been left outside and it was crying its eyes out. One imagines Emma was under some pressure to deal with the crying infant, and no doubt felt a mixture of anger, resentment, and embarrassment as all the eyes of the pub were turned on her.

Suddenly he declared that she would throw the child in the Thames, and rushed out of the pub. She lifted the child into her arms and set off at a run in the general direction of the river. Alarmed, Mrs Turner hurried after her and managed to catch up with Emma just before she hurled the poor thing over the railings and into the water.

A policeman was summoned and Mrs Turner took charge of the baby as Emma was led away. While Mrs Turner suckled her child Emma screamed abuse at her all the way back to the police station. For some reason however, Mrs Turner did not appear in court on the Wednesday, while Tullogh and Rush did. Turner somehow managed to sign the register of witnesses attending that day, despite not doing so, this would impact on her, as we shall see.

In court on the Thursday Emma Leven had sobered up and was contrite. She was ‘too fond of her children’ to ever intend to hurt them she told Mr Arnold. She had gone to the pub that evening to meet her husband and some friends; one drink had led to another and she had drunk too much. She was sorry.

Her husband was more belligerent. He told the magistrate that he didn’t believe a word of what Mrs Turner had said. Perhaps there was some bad blood there; local jealousies and neighbor disputes were all too common, feuds could develop out of the smallest slights amplified over time.

What mattered here though was not what  Mr Leven believed but what Mr Arnold (as presiding magistrate) did. And he believed the case was proven.

He rebuked Mr Leven for ‘having little regard for his child’ and challenged Emma’s declaration of ‘fondness’ for her child. If, he said, ‘she chose to get so drunk that she rushed to the side of the river to throw the child in she must put up with the consequences’.  She had been drunk and disorderly and he would send her to prison for a month. On her release she would have to find sureties of £20 against her good behavior for the following six months.

Having dealt quite severely with Emma Leven he turned his attention to the witnesses.

He was full of praise for Turlough and Rush but very disappointed to hear that their employer had stopped their wages for coming to court the previous day. The pair worked at the Royal Army Clothing Factory on Grosvenor Road in Pimlico (where the Eagle pub was) and he instructed the chief inspector of B Division to pay the factory a visit.

‘The men had attended in the performance of a public duty’, he said, and ‘if they were stopped of their wages it would have the effect of deterring people from coming forward and giving evidence in the public cause’.

Arnold recognised that justice relied on the participation of the general public. The men deserved praise not a penalty.

The same was not the case for Mrs Turner however. When she asked for her expenses (presumably for attending court and looking after Emma’s baby) Mr Arnold dismissed her abruptly. He had ‘no fund at his disposal expect the poor box; he told her but as she ‘had not attended the court on Wednesday, although she had signed the sheet, he should not allow her expenses’. The suspicion is then that the magistrate, while keen to recognize public spiritedness was less impressed by self-interest and dishonesty.

The Royal Army Clothing Factory was established in Pimlico in the 1850s to make and supply the British Army. It was part of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps and remained in Grosvenor Road until 1932, when it closed.

Today the site is covered by the private housing development Dolphin Square which was erected in the 1930s following the factory’s demolition. In recent years it has been home to a number of famous people (including the tennis star Rod Laver and Princess Ann – not together I hasten to add) and several politicians including Harold Wilson and David Steel. Oswald Mostly, the most prominent British fascist of his generation, was living in the Square in 1940 when he was detained as an enemy of the state during the Second World War. Having once stayed in an apartment in Dolphin Square I can attest to its general air of opulence, but I never met any celebrities

from Morning Post Friday 30 July 1875

¹ The Eagle is still operational in Pimlico, now renamed the Grosvenor though.

The artist’s model who left no trace

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An incident in the Revolutionary War of America (The Fraser Highlanders at Stone Ferry) – Robert Ronald McIan (1854)

Robert McIan probably thought he was doing someone else and himself a good turn when he ‘rescued’ John Coster from his perilous condition on the streets of central London. It was the dawn of the Victorian age – 1837 – and the comedian and artist was strolling near his home on Newman Street, off Oxford Street, he saw a man in ‘a wretched state of constitution and starvation’. He decided to take him home and feed him.

McIan would later admit that his motivation was more than just that of a good Samaritan; he recognized that Coster’s ‘picturesque appearance’ made him a perfect subject for artist study. Coster was an Indian from the Bengal, who had been born a ‘Mohametan’ but had converted to Catholicism. He spoke English, but with a heavy Indian accent.

He was treated with some compassion by McIan who made him a servant in his household but he was also a ‘curiosity’ and was shown to the artist’s friends, several of whom painted him themselves. Coster then was drawn and painted by no lesser figures than ‘Sir David Wilkie, Landseer, Etty, Ewins, and most of the celebrated painters of the day’.

In McIan’s head he had done the man a great service so it must have come a terrible betrayal of trust to discover that the man he had saved from the streets had robbed him. Yet in March 1840 that is exactly what he alleged. A pistol had disappeared from his painting room and, since Coster (who had also vanished) was familiar with the room and its contents, and the door had been forced open, suspicion fell on him.

A description of the missing servant and the gun – a ‘Highland pistol’ – were circulated and several months later both were recovered. The pistol had been pawned on Tottenham Court Road and it was easy to trace that back to Coster given his distinctive appearance as an Asian in London.

At his appearance at Hatton Garden Police court Coster was also accused of a second robbery. Since he’d quit McIan’s service he had been living in lodgings St Giles and his landlady deposed that he had plundered her rooms before running out on her as well. Coster admitted stealing the pistol but vehemently denied any knowledge of the other charge.

Mr Combe, the sitting magistrate that day, told Coster he would be remanded in custody while further enquiries were made and other witnesses sought. But he informed the prisoner that if he was convicted all of his luxurious long black hair would be shaved off.

‘No!’, Coster exclaimed from the dock, ‘da neber sall; me die first before da sal cut de hair off’.

Robert Ronald McIan (1802-1856) was a popular artist in the Victorian period known for his romanticized depictions of Highland life and history. He had trod the boards in the theatre in his youth (which may explain why he still described himself as a ‘comedian’ in 1840). He is most well known for his “Battle of Culloden’ and ‘A Highland Feud’ (both 1843) and in the same year he exhibited ‘An Encounter in Upper Canada’ which depicted the heroic fight between Clan Fraser and a larger French and American Indian force. The Highland pistol that Coster probably featured in some of these paintings and, who knows, maybe his former servant did as well in some way.

Edwin Landseer (1802-1873) also had his Scottish connections – his ‘Monarch of the Glen’ (1851) is one of the most famous images of nineteenth century art. In 1858 he was commissioned to create the four bronze lions that guard Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square.

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Sir David Wilkie (1785-1841) was, famous for his historical paintings. Like McIan he was a Scot, born in Fife the son of a clergyman. Soon after the court case that involved Coster and his acquaintance McIan he travelled abroad, painting the portrait of the Sultan in Constantinople and various others on including Mehemet Ali in Alexandria, Egypt. He fell ill at Malta and died on the return voyage.

As for John Coster I’m afraid history doesn’t record what happened to him. There’s no record of a jury trial for this theft of an artist’s pistol or the robbery of a St Giles lodging house. Once again, the mysterious Indian with the ‘long black hair and dark piercing eyes’ vanished.

Above right: ‘General Sir David Baird Discovering the Body of Sultan Tippoo Sahib after having Captured Seringapatam, on the 4th May, 1799,’ by Sir David Wilkie (1839) – National Gallery of Scotland

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday 10 March 1840]

Cruelty to bears is not ‘entertainment’

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Given the Victorians’ love of animals and the efforts (from 1824) of the RSPCA to stamp out animal cruelty, I was a little surprised to see that dancing bears were still a sight seen on London streets in the last decade of the 1800s.

It must have been quite a sight as well which explains why over 200 people were drawn to Bridge Street in Homerton in May 1890. Two Frenchmen – De Love Chamary and Agas Jean – who both gave addresses in Edmonton – were charged at the Dalston Police court with obstructing the highway and refusing to ‘move along’.

A huge crowd had gathered on Bridge Street to see the  men prod the muzzled animal into performing, which had blocked the street entirely. PC Munro asked them to move along but they only went a few yards before starting up the entertainment again. When they failed to comply again he arrested them. Goodness know what they did with the bar but presumably the poor animal had to be taken into custody as well. I can well imagine the desk servant’s face when the trio arrived at the station!

A gentleman named Edward Young took the stand at Dalston to complain that along with the obstruction the bear represented a threat to the public. He himself had seen the beast ‘make for a servant girl twice that morning’. The bear was, he conceded, muzzled, but he wanted to let the court know that with bears it was ‘the hug that did it’. His intervention added to the entertainment element of this prosecution and prompted some laughter.

The defendants were ‘picturesquely-dressed’ as French ‘peasants’ and were, the reporter suggested, of ‘the gipsy class’. It is likely them that they lived in the countryside north of the capital, in caravans and tents at Edmonton rather than in suburban housing.

They assured Mr Haden Corser that the bear was harmless, and so the magistrate said there was little he could do to them beyond making them aware that were to obey the police’s instructions in future.  He cautioned them and let them go.

The practice of forcing captive bears dance was prohibited in Britain in 1911 but sadly continues in many countries in the world, even after prohibition. An organisation called Bear Conservation monitors the abuse of these magnificent animals worldwide and you find out how to support their efforts here

Daily News, Saturday 3 May 1890; Illustrated Police News, Saturday 10 May 1890

A beggar fights back and racism rears its ugly head in 1830s London

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Slaves on a West Indian plantation being freed following passage of the Slavery Abolition Act (1833)

Assaults were prosecuted frequently in London’s police courts in the 1800s, and many of them involved attacks on the police or other authority figures. So the violence meted out to Samuel Daniels, a Mendicity Society officer, is, on the surface at least, not particularly notable.  What makes this case – from 1836 – noteworthy is the language used to describe the attack and perpetrator of it. Because, as we shall see, this was shot through with early Victorian notions of race and prejudice.

The Mendicity Society had been founded in 1818 with the intention of preventing begging in London. It gave out alms to those that agreed to move away and brought prosecutions against those that did not. As a charity it relied on donations but was doing very well by the 1820s, to the extent that it drew down criticism that not all of its funds were reaching those it purported to help. By the time this case came before a magistrate at Marlborough Street, the society had acquired a corn mill where some of those swept from the streets could be given work.

Mr Daniels had been looking for beggars in Soho in September 1836 and found Domingo de Sousa. De Sopusa was known to him as an ‘incorrigible vagabond’ and ‘imposter’ and presumably that meant he had tried to ‘help’ him off the streets previously, without success. Now he determined to take him into custody and have him taken before a magistrate to be charged under the Vagrancy Act. He did not count of de Sousa’s resistance however.

The officer was sensible enough to recognize that the beggar was a powerful man and so enlisted a nearby policeman for support. The presence of the constable failed to have the desired effect and de Sousa declared that:

‘Me no go wid mendacity ________!’ and then thumped Daniels hard on his chest.

He grappled with him trying to throw the charity officer the ground as the police tried to pull him off. In the process PC Sullivan received a bite wound which drew blood and the beggar was only subdued when a second constable arrived.

It wasn’t the end of the violence; a few yards down the road de Sousa escaped the clutches of the law and turned on the Medicity man. He through him down so violently that he broke his right leg in two places. He then attacked PC Sullivan, kneeing him in the groin before the other officer managed to secure him once more.

It was clearly a violent attack but it is the language used to describe it that reveals contemporary prejudice.

PC Marchant (the second officer) was ‘attacked with all the activity and ferocity of a tiger’, the report stated. De Sousa ‘sprang away’ and his attack resembled that of a ‘wild beast than of a human being’. While the policeman was ‘strong and resolute’ de Sousa was described in animalistic terms:

‘His physiognomy, which closely resembled an ouran-outang’s [sic] , was hideously distorted; his eyes rolled furiously, and he bit at his opponents, using a kind of growl’.

De Sousa was a ‘black man of horrid aspect and powerful structure’. He was clearly seen as a threat to public safety just as many nineteenth-century people feared that freed slaves would be a threat to their former masters and the communities around the plantations on which they worked.   It seems that rhetoric was in use in London in the 1830s just as slavery was being abandoned after centuries of exploitation.

In 1834 the British parliament finally agreed to abolish slavery in British colonies but the process took another four years to complete. When the slaves were freed they did not rise up and slaughter their former abusers, they went to church to give thanks to God though the religion they had adopted in captivity.

Domingo de Sousa was treated not just as a violent beggar – cause enough to bring him to court – but as a member of an ‘inferior’ and ‘sub-human’ race. Mr Dyer, the sitting magistrate, committed him for trial at the next sessions and as he was led away he had one last blow to strike against his oppressors:

‘Me berry glad me break de medicity’s man’s leg’ he shouted as the gaoler dragged him back to the cells.

[from London Dispatch, Sunday 9 September 1836]

‘A very good idea’? Charity and race in mid nineteenth-century London

Some Inmates of the Strangers' Home for Asiatics, Africans, and South Sea Islanders

Anyone familiar with print culture in the nineteenth century will probably be able to testify to its underlying racism expressed most often in statements of white (or rather British) racial superiority and in ‘ethnological studies’ of the many ‘others’ found in British society or in the vast reaches of the Empire.

This is most evident in the colourful descriptions of immigrant Jews in East London and in reports of the port communities that stretched the length of the Thames and its docks.

The racism may be familiar but it still has the capacity to shock. Take for example an article from the Daily News published in May of 1872 that was headlined ‘“Darkies” from the Deep’. What followed was a fairly sympathetic report of a visit to the Strangers Home for Asiatics,  Africans, and South Sea Islanders, which was then situated in the West India Dock Road.

The home was established in the 1850s; set up by charitable donations to create a haven for destitute Chinese and Indian (Lascar) seamen who, abandoned by ship-owners, struggled to find work in the capital. According to the author they fell prey to ‘crimps, mostly of their own colour’, who fleeced them of their meagre wages and left them nothing with which to support themselves.

‘Their bodies were found in out-of-the-way corners, under railway arches, or in common yards, whither the poor creatures, enfeebled by hunger, and their marrow chilled in their bones by the rigours of our climate, had crept to die’.

In three years (1854-56) hundreds had died and many more had been admitted to hospital. A huge donation by the Maharajah Duleep Singh was followed by donations from the Queen, Indian merchants and others, before Prince Albert laid the foundation stone for the Home, which opened its doors in 1857.

When the Daily News’ reporter visited in May 1872 he described it thus:

‘A group of Lascars, with their bushy looks and swarthy skins, contrasts strangely with the solitary Chinaman who leans thoughtfully against the wall, his pigtail over his shoulder; a Malay with yellow eyes, long straight hair, and strong jaw, is conversing pantomimically with a tall, straight, hawk-eyed New Zealander, whose cheeks and forehead are fantastically tattooed. There are full-blood negroes from Gambia, and half-caste Portuguese from Goa, natives of the Friendly Islands, and lissome Cingalese [Singhalese], and representatives of perhaps a dozen other races neither easy to be distinguished at a glance, nor capable of being understood by any Englishman not endowed with the gift of tongues’.

The reporter noted the sounds and smells of the Home, the peculiar foods (’curry and rice’) that mingled with more familiar stuffs (like bread and butter and tea). He commented on the arrangements for bathing (‘the Oriental takes his bath every morning as religiously […] as he says his prayers’). And the article ended by noting that the Home had a good stock of Bibles and New testaments ‘in a variety of Eastern languages’.

A newspaper report from June 1857 described the opening of the Home (on 3 June) and noted that it had space for 230 inmates plus a superintendent and various officers and staff. The opening was formally marked by the singing of the psalm 67 (‘May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face shine on us— so that your ways may be known on earth, your salvation among all nations’), and a scripture reading.

This underpinned the Christian missionary ethos of the charity.

Almost all Victorian charity which operated to help the poor, the homeless, or the friendless, did so under the aegis of the church (in one form or another). There was a space for Muslim prayer in the back yard of the Home but while the writer of the 1872 article noted this, it seems clear that the hopes of those involved in this ’mission’ was that here were ready coverts to Christian religion and (perhaps even) Western ‘civilization’.

In the 1850s and throughout the century London was home to very many people of all races and creeds. It is likely that in the eighteenth century there had been many more, and that while they were denied the limited support available to the indigenous poor, they were not subject to the racism that developed from the end of the 1700s. With the expanse of Empire in the Victorian period that racism became more entrenched as white superiority was increasingly held up as a justification for subjugating ‘inferior’ races.

I am reminded of what Mahatma Gandhi supposedly replied when asked what he thought of Western civilization?

‘I think it would be a very good idea’, he said.

[from Daily News, Wednesday 29 May, 1872; Daily News, Thursday 4 June, 1857 ]

A magistrate has the chance to make a difference to one Black life; will he take it?

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The Demerara rebellion of 1823

On 26 July 1832 there was an unusual appearance at the Marlborough Street Police court. A man named only as ‘Burgess’ (no first name, no title), was brought in for begging in Charing Cross.

Placed in the dock the magistrate (Mr Gregorie) asked him where he lived. Begging was an offence that fell under catch-all legislation, the Vagrancy Act (1824). This act, passed in the reign of George IV, is still on the books. It makes it an offence to sleep rough or to beg in the streets. It took no account of why someone would be on the streets and begging for money or food.

The original legislation was passed in the wake of the economic distress that followed the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. The period after Waterloo was a turbulent one for the British state with many people forced off the land and into urban centres where poverty was common. In addition thousands of discharged and disabled soldiers returned, many of them unable to find work.

Not for the first or last time the reaction of the ruling class to the economic distress of the majority was to pass laws that protected the wealth and privilege of the minority and, after 1829 in London, they had Peel’s ‘New Police’ force to enforce them.

But let us return to Burgess; what did have to say for himself when Mr Gregorie asked him where he lived?

Burgess replied that he had lived abroad, in Demerara, on the north coast of South America in what is now Guyana. In the 1800s Demerara was under the control of the British (although it had been a Dutch colony). In 1823 there had been  a large scale slave revolt (echoing a previous one in 1795). The revolt had the effect of bringing the plight of slaves in Demerara to the attention of the British public and the British parliament.

Although the slave revolt was not violent the reaction of the governor, John Murray, certainly was. As many as 250 slaves were killed in putting down the rebellion and more deaths followed as ringleaders were hanged. Their bodies were left in public view as a warning to others and the leader of the revolt – Jack Gladsone – was sent to St. Lucia. It is likely that it was Gladstone’s father, Quamina who was the real leader of the slave uprising and he was later to be acknowledged as such by an independent Guyanan nation.

So who was Burgess and what had he to do with all of this?

Burgess told Mr Gregorie that he was a runaway slave, who had escaped his master and come to England.  In 1823 many of the slaves that revolted reportedly believed that Britain had abolished slavery in the colony (when in reality all Britain had abolished was the trade in slaves in 1807). Britain did not abolish slavery in its colonies until 1833 (effective from 1 August 1834).

Burgess – mostly referred to throughout the report as ‘the negro’ – said his master was named ‘Porter’ and he believed he was now in London. Not surprisingly then what Burgess wanted was to be allowed to return home, to Demerara. Perhaps he believed that he would be safer there, perhaps he was simply homesick. The move towards abolition was underway and he might have believed that he would return to freedom.

Freedom was a little way off however. Since he had no money and so no means of paying his passage to south America the magistrate said he would send  a message to the Colonial Office to see what the British state could do for him. In the meantime  Burgess was locked in a cell at Marlborough Street while the representatives of the wealthy decided what to do with him, a poor enslaved beggar.

The answer came back later that day and Burgess was once again set in the dock. The Colonial Office replied that they ‘could not interfere’. Could not or would not, it mattered little. No one was about to pay Burgess’ fare home. We don’t know his age but it is likely that Demerara was his home, his place of birth. But of course his ancestors, perhaps his parents and almost certainly his grandparents, had been taken from Africa against their will and brutally shipped across the seas to work on European plantations. It mattered little whether it was a Dutch or British plantation; the experience for Burgess and thousands of others was the same.

At least now the British state had the chance to make some amends. Sadly it chose not to. The Colonial Office would not help and neither would the magistrate at Marlborough Street. Burgess had infringed the Vagrancy Act and so he was sent to prison for a month. If, Mr Gregorie told him, ‘at the expiration of that time’, he ‘wanted to get back to Demerara, he must get there as well as he could’.

The slaves in Guyana were not freed until 1 August 1838, 6 years after Burgess appeared at Marlborough Street ‘begging’ to be allowed to return home. Whether he ever made it back to enjoy his freedom is unknown.

London was home to plenty of former slaves in the 1800s most of whom never came near a police court or in any other way troubled the record keepers. They often adopted the names of their masters or had names their master had given them – European names not African names – so they don’t stand out in the records. But they were here, as they had long been here. Anyone who believes Black Britons arrived on the Windrush and found an entirely ‘white’ country (or a country that had always been White) are  mistaken or misinformed and I suggest they  watch David Olusoga’s Black and British BBC TV series (and read the accompanying book).

This particular Black life might not have mattered to the early Victorian authorities, but Black Lives and Black history should matter to all of us.

[from Morning Post, Tuesday 27 March 1832]