Angry shoemakers take to the streets of Hackney

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One Sunday in early October 1892 a grim looking band of men started marching up and down a street in Hackney, north-east London. The men marched to the musical accompaniment of a motely band playing the ‘death march’ and every now than then the group turned to point accusingly at towards the occupants of the houses they passed, shouting out ‘scabs!’, ‘rats!’ and ‘gaol birds!’

Several men broke ranks and rushed over to the homes shoving handbills under the portals. These printed bills carried a foreboding message:

‘To all Trade Unionists, – Under the auspices of the National Union of Boot and Shoe Clickers and Rough Stuff Cutters, a few Sunday morning demonstrations against sweaters, and scabs, rats and other vermin will be given in the London Fields district, commencing on Sunday October 2, and will be continued until further notice’.

London Fields was large open area that had once been home mainly to sheep and highwaymen in the previous century. By the late 1800s it was ‘a hard unsightly, dismal plain’, when it rained it became an ‘impassable swamp’. It was uncultivated and so idea for demonstrations.

The handbill continued:

‘All Unionists […] who believe in giving sweaters, scabs, rats, and other vermin a musical lunch will confer a favour on the above Union by meeting on London Fields next Sunday at 10.30, when they will form in procession, headed by bands and banners, and pay each of these social parasites and bloodsuckers a visit’…

The noise and the threats prompted at least two individuals to complain at the North London Police court. Both men said they had been targeted directly. They said they worked in a shop where a dispute was underway but denied being scabs (strike breakers).  Mr Bros (presiding) suggested that they applied for a summons against those responsible for a breach of the peace, and sent them on their way.

The actions of the trades union members seems to be a cross over from traditional acts of ‘rough musicing’ (literally banging pots and pans outside someone’s home to show community disproval) and more ‘modern’ acts of picketing (as demonstrated during the 1889 Dock Strike).

The Boot and Show Union had formed in 1873 and within a decade boasted 10,000 members. It had merged with the Rough Stuff and Clickers Union in 1892, the year this case occurred, but split soon after. They had one big strike, in 1897, in support of a minimum wage and 54 hour week but unlike the Match Girls (in 1888) and the Dockers (1889) they weren’t successful.

We don’t have a large scale boot and show industry anymore, but several firms in Northamptonshire (where I teach) continue to produce top quality leather shoes many of which are exported across the world. In London in the late 1800s the competition form cheap foreign labour (‘sweaters’) was intense and only the larger factories (in Northants) survived into the 1900s.

[from The Standard (London, England), Tuesday, October 04, 1892]

An open window is an invitation to thieves

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Ellen Dunn was sitting at her desk in the evening, doing her household accounts. She had her receipts and an account book open in front of her, and a bag containing around £12 in cash on the floor beside her chair. The widow lived at 68 Warden Road in Kentish Town and her daughter was in a room upstairs.

At about eight o’clock Mrs Dunn heard a noise in the room. Looking up she watched with horror as the window ‘was thrown open’ and someone entered the room. Ellen ran out of the room to the front door to see who was breaking in but couldn’t get out; someone or something was preventing her from opening her own front door.

She went back into the room and leaned out of the open window and yelled ‘police!’ This brought her daughter running downstairs to see what the matter was. There was no one visible in the street but Mrs Dunn’s bag of money was missing. The next morning the empty bag was found in the front garden – Mrs Dunn realized had been burgled.

Fortunately the police had a witness from within the Dunn’s own household. Amy Sefton was a 14 year-old serving girl, probably very junior, but she proved to be a very capable young woman. She said she had seen a group of lads watching the house just before the robbery had taken place. She saw a boy she recognized as someone who lived locally run away from the house clutching a bag that seemed very similar to the one found that morning.

He took the bag to his mates who were clustered around a lamppost. Using the light it offered the boys peered inside. ‘Here is a go: there is some money!’ one of them cried, clearly delighted with the prize.

Then they removed the cash, stuffed it in their pockets and dashed off. One of them was dispatched to throw away the bag and this is when they spotted Amy watching them. They swore at her but she held her ground and made sure she got a good look at them. This resulted in the police picking up a lad one 17 named William Hine, who was produced at Marylebone Police court on the following day.

Hine was charged (along with several others in absentia) with entering a dwelling house and stealing £12. It was a serious property crime and the magistrate remanded William in custody so the police investigation could continue. The justice made a point of commending Amy for her quick thinking and bravery.

This would be a hard case to prove however; Amy said she would be able to identify William and one or other of the lads but without forensics or any of the money being found on them the police may have struggled to build a case against them. Hine doesn’t feature in the Old Bailey records or in the Digital Panopticon. His absence from both doesn’t mean he wasn’t prosecuted further but without a clear trail I wonder if, on this occasion, the lads got away with it. On thing is likely however: Mrs Dunn would have been careful not to leave her windows open in future.

[from The Standard, Thursday, September 28, 1893]

A curious (and confusing) case of a two bob’ fraudster and his mate.

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There are plenty of cases of fraud that came before the Metropolitan Police courts in the Victorian period. From individual attempts to extort money from gullible ‘punters’ to full-blown and well-organized ‘long firm’ scams, the courts were kept busy with the full gamut of fraudsters. Some had quite elaborate ruses but William Jewell and Joseph Richards simply relied on talking fast and confusing their victims.

Jewell was a 38 year-old waterside labourer from Bethnal Green while Richards was a simply ‘labourer’ from nearby Mile End. In September 1895 both were placed in the dock at the North London Police court on a charge of being ‘suspected persons’ and with attempting to defraud tradesmen. Being ‘suspected’ was a catch-all term which allowed the police to pick up people they thought were up to no good.

Jewell was the main player in this case, Jackson seems to have acted as his accomplice, or look out. The scam went something like this:

Jewell entered a shop (such as Henry Amos’ confectionary shop in Well Street). He put a sixpence on the counter and asked for a pennyworth of sweets. The shopkeeper’s wife served him and  handed over the sweets and 5 pennies in change.

Now Jewell took a penny form his pocket, added it to the pile already there and asked Mrs Amos to please change it for a sixpence. Before she had time to scop up the pennies Jewell said: ‘Give me a shilling instead of the sixpence and the coppers’.

He was trying to confuse the poor lady and would have succeeded in gaining an extra sixpence had not Mr. Amos been listening in. He came in from the back room and Jewell scarpered. The eagle eyed confectioner spotted Jackson just outside the shop as Jewell ran off, he was nonchalantly pretending to read a newspaper.

Unsuccesful here, the pair tried the same ruse at Mrs Muffett’s newsagent’s in Hackney Wick. Again it was Jewell who entered the shop and engaged Mrs Muffett in conversation. He asked for the evening paper (which cost a halfpenny)

and put a shilling on the counter. The newsagent gave him ‘eleven pence halfpenny change’. He then asked for his shilling back and Mrs Muffett obliged, assuming he’d found the 1/2d  for the paper in his pocket. But Jewell pushed the money back over to her and asked her to change it for a florin (a two shilling piece).

She didn’t have one she told him.

‘Then I have to give you a halfpenny’ he replied. ‘No, you have to give me a shilling’ she said, as he’d wanted to get back 2sf rom her. Again his attempt had failed but probably worked on other occasions. Shop assistants had (and have) to be alert  to possible attempts by customers who try to persuade then that that have given them large amounts than they have (‘I gave you a £20 note…’) or accused them of shortchanging them.

In these days of contactless debit transactions and a virtually cashless society we forget sometimes how easy it was to trick someone who is not expecting it.

Mrs Muffett called the police and with Mr Amos help the two men were picked out of a police identification parade. There wasn’t sufficient evidence to prosecute Jackson but Mr Taylor (the duty magistrate) decided there was ample proof of Jewell’s fraudulent intent, and he sent him to prison for three months at hard labour. Three months, for trying to trick two women out of two bob seems pretty harsh to me.

[from The Standard, Friday, September 27, 1895]

Ripped trousers and little thanks as a guardsman ignores a drunk’s request to ‘go for the policeman’.

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Frank and the fabulously named Tirquinia Keeling were drunk, and soon quite disorderly. It was a Monday night in Septemebr 1890 and the pair were wandering through Hyde Park with their friend Rose Allsopp, probably after an evening of drinking somewhere nearby.

As can often happen when people have had too much to drink, an argument broke out. Frank and his wife exchanged words, then shouts, then blows. Soon they were wrestling and creating quite a scene, so much so that it attracted the attention of the local bobby on his beat.

PC 319A hoved into view and presumed he saw a man knocking a woman about a bit while another woman intervened from time to time. He moved in to separate the couple but received little thanks for his efforts. Eventually he decided he had to arrest Frank and collared him. Frank resisted and the policeman was in danger of being overpowered when a passing soldier and his mate came to his aid.

Private Clarke of the 2ndbattalion Coldstream Guards ran over to help. Soon another brace of policemen arrived and together they all fought to subdue Frank and his wife. It was quite the bar room brawl, just without the barroom setting. Finally Frank and Tirquinia were under the police’s control and were led off in the direction of a police station.

As the pair were led away Rose piled in to try and affect a rescue. The trio spent an uncomfortable night sleeping off their drinking before being presented before Mr Hannay at Marlborough Street Police court in the morning.

They must have looked dejected in the dock and hopefully shamefaced as well. Private Clarke told the magistrate that when he went aid the policeman Keeling had growled that he was helping the ‘wrong side’. Frank was a musician but had served in the army and expected a fellow soldier to recognize a common enemy. But Clarke was a former copper and so he knew where his loyalties lay.

He had fared badly in the fight though: he had been thrown to the ground, damaged his knee, and tore his trousers. He was most upset about the latter however because he would have to pay for a new pair out of his meager army pay. Mr Hannay thought that was very unfair and asked the inspector on duty ‘to report the matter to the Police Commissioner to see what recompense could be made’ to him. The court had a poor box but it wasn’t meant to be used for that purpose.

As for the Keelings, who refused to give their address but stated that they were musicians (and so were possibly itinerant), he fined them 40seach or a month’s imprisonment. Allsopp was fined 20sor ten days. It doesn’t say whether they paid up or not but they would have had a few hours to find the money as that seems to have been the standard practice. They don’t appear in any records of imprisonment for that or any other year so I imagine they found the money soon enough.

Some form of drunk and disorderly behaviour was by far the most common reason for being arrested and presented before a magistrate in late Victorian London. The courts were dealing with dozens every day, very many more after a weekend or – worst of all – a Bank holiday.

Today is the beginning of freshers’ week at my and many other universities and sadly, I fear there will be plenty of  drunkenness on display. So, if you are about to start your studies this autumn, enjoy freshers but spare a thought for the police and bouncers that are (usually) there to help you get home safely, in one piece, and without upsetting the locals too much. Have fun, but know your limits folks!

[from The Standard, Wednesday, September 24, 1890]

The histrionic farrier from Luton who drank himself silly at Barnet Fair

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I grew up in Finchley in North London. It was then (and is now) a multi-cultural  suburban centre with a busy high street, a couple of nice parks, and good transport links to central London. However, a quick glance at G. W. Bacon’s atlas of the capital (see below right) shows that in 1888 (when the map was published) there was very little of the modern Finchley in evidence.

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Church End (where I went to school) is just a small village and there are open fields all the way to what is now East Finchley. The railways (The Edgware, Highgate & London line) is there, as is the main southbound road towards Temple Fortune, Golders Green and then the main metropolis. Barnet, in the late nineteenth century then, was a largely rural place with pockets of suburban growth. This is reflected in this case from Highgate Police court in September 1898.

Thomas Hopkins, a 48 year-old farrier was brought up to answer a charge of being disorderly and of damaging a police cell.  The man wasn’t from Highgate or Finchley but had travelled down to the Barnet Fair from Luton in Hertfordshire. He’d been found at Whetstone on a Monday night, drunk as a lord, ‘behaving in a very disorderly manner’. The local police arrested him and locked him in a cell to sober up overnight.

Hopkins was belligerent however and made a great deal of fuss. He demanded water and complained that he was being allowed to die in the cell. When Sergeant Goodship went to see what all the noise was about the farrier threatened him saying:

‘If you don’t let me out, you will be hung in two minutes’.

It was an empty threat but typical of Hopkins’ histrionic manner. Throughout his arrest, incarnation and appearance in court Thomas managed to embroider his tale with exaggeration and melodrama. It amused the court’s audience if not the magistrates sitting in judgement on him.

‘I’m dying’, he told the police who had locked him up.

As he attempted to destroy his cell he promised to pay for all the damage, ‘even if it’s a thousand pounds’.

For context £1,000 in 1898 equates to about £78,000, which would pay a skilled tradesman wages for almost a decade!).

In court he was asked to explain himself and told the bench that on the previous Sunday he’d got two horses ready in Luton. One he intended to ride, the other would led by his assistant. But his wife refused to allow ‘his man’ to travel as well (perhaps thinking she’d need him at the stables).

He rode for 20 miles and called ahead for someone to meet him (who never showed up). He carried on and said he’d now walked for 200 miles, which collapsed the court in laughter. Luton is about 30 miles from Barnet so Hopkins was exaggerating wildly for effect. He wanted to show how far he’d tramped and how thirsty he was.

He was worried about falling victim to robbers as well. ‘There are any number of roughs lying about there’, he explained and revealed that he always carried a knife up his sleeve. When the police arrested him they took his knife away, and he lay still on the floor and pretended to be dead, ‘but I knew I wasn’t’, he added with perfect (if not necessarily deliberate) comic timing.

As the magistrates struggled to contain the laughter in the courtroom Hopkins played his final card. He claimed the police had try to kill him.

‘They gave me enough poison to kill the whole world’ he told his enthralled audience.

Sergeant Goodship gave a more rational explanation:

‘He told me he’d been drinking hard for a fortnight’.

The court was told that a doctor had been supposed to examine him in Luton before he left for the fair but hadn’t managed to before the farrier set off. Perhaps his wife and friends had been worried about the sate of his mental health. The bench could see that all was clearly not quite right with Thomas Hopkins and remanded him to the nearest workhouse infirmary so he could be checked out by a doctor. Ultimately, ‘mad’ or not, he would be sent back to Luton and his wife, though what fate awaited him there was unclear.

Barnet has had a horse fair since the middle ages and it would have drawn men like Thomas Hopkins from all over the south east of England. Horses and cattle were traded there and there was racing as well, at least till 1870. Now it exists as annual local festival, not a horse fair. The name of course is probably better as coated with cockney rhyming slang – Barnet Fair = Hair. So on Friday, after work, I’m off to get my Barnet snipped.

[from The Standard , Tuesday, September 13, 1898]

A report from 1890 shows little difference in casual racism today: an (historical) note to Mr B. Johnson.

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Racism takes many forms, (as the comments of a former secretary of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs demonstrated yesterday). When we look back at the past we are apt to comment that ‘it was another country’ where ‘they did things differently’. London was a multi-cultural city in the late Victorian period and while there were pockets or moments of racial tension (such as during the Whitechapel murder panic in 1888) for the most part the different communities got along.

Nevertheless the idea that white Britons were superior to pretty much anyone else was a persistent trope in contemporary discussions. Britain ‘ruled the waves’ after all and had an Empire ‘on which the sun never set’. This was a time when the world map was heavily tinged with pink and when we, and not the USA or Russia, were the World’s chief ‘superpower’.

I do wonder how much of today’s angst about Europe is born of a desire to regain our imperial past. The EU leave campaign’s slogan ‘we want our country back’ is a curious one; what country were they talking about? The one that stood alone at the start of WW2? The one that was experiencing economic disaster in the mid 1970s? Or perhaps the nation that operated an empire on five continents?

The newspapers were certainly ‘casually racist’ in the 1800s. Most ‘foreigners’ are either seen as inferior, dangerous, or amusing. This seems to have persisted right up to the 1980s when things began to change in the way people described others. It is no longer acceptable to poke fun at people on account of their race, ethnicity or religion now, but that doesn’t seem to have filtered down to Mr Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, that American born champion of British liberties.

In 1890 no such ‘political correctness’ existed and so the The Illustrated Police News ‘headlined’ its report of a case of domestic violence at the Thames Police court ‘The Heathen Chinee all over’. The case concerned two Chinese immigrants: Ah Wei (a young ship’s steward) and Ah Tuing (a fireman). Both worked on the ships coming in and out of the London Docks and belonged to the small but well established Chinese community in Limehouse.

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It was this community that inspired Sax Rohmer’s ever-so-slightly racialist crime series about the criminal mastermind Fu Man Chu. Contemporary depictions of Limehouse as an area overrun by the ‘yellow peril’ and clouded in opium smoke owe much to Rohmer and Dickens’ Mystery of Edwin Drood, but the reality was that most people there lived in reasonable harmony with each other, regardless of their background.

Ah Tuing had accused the ship’s steward of assaulting him and was asked to swear an oath before he gave his evidence. Speaking through an interpreter (interpreters were common in the police courts, given the proliferation different languages spoken from Chinese to Yiddish, to German or Italian) Ah Tuing explained that as a Buddhist the ‘only oath he respected was the extinguishing of a lighted candle’.

This meant that ‘if he did not speak the truth his soul would be blown away in the same way as was the light’.

Mr Cluer (the magistrate) asked if a ‘wax vesta’ (a match) would ‘do as well’ and reached into his pocket to fetch one. No, the interpreter insisted, it had to be a candle so one was fetched and Ah Tuing was ‘sworn’.

The case now unfolded and Mr Cluer was told that the prosecutor had lent Ah Wei a waterproof coat to protect him from a shower of rain, extracting a promise of sixpence for the loan. The steward refused to pay up when the rain ceased and an argument ensued. This descended into a fight in which Ah Wei was deemed to be the aggressor. One witness – most of whose evidence was given in translation – saved some English for the man in the dock. Turning to him he shouted:

‘You _______ liar. You one loafer!’

All the evidence then pointed to Ah Wei being guilty of assault but then all the evidence had come from the Chinese community. The key witness (for Mr Cluer at least) was Joseph Brown, a greengrocer on Limehouse Causeway. He testified that Ah Wei had been in in his shop when Ah Tuing entered carrying a child in his arms. He thrust the child in the steward’s face and ‘kept irritating him’ and then ‘afterwards [they] had a fair fight’.

The English of course, had very clear ideas about what a ‘fair fight’ was. This did not involve weapons and usually meant the two parties were roughly equally matched. Mr CLuer wasn’t interested in what the Chinese community’s idea of a ‘fair fight’ was, just as he seemingly dismissed the evidence of those that came in to back Ah Tuing’s version of events. An Englishman’s word was of much higher value than a foreigner’s and so he dismissed the charge.

The press reportage reminded the reader that ‘Johnny foreigner’ was a strange and exotic creature, and Boris Johnson’s equation of Muslim women wearing the Burkas with ‘bank robbers’ or  ‘letter boxes’ belongs to this tradition of English xenophobia; one ‘tradition’ we could do with ditching as soon as possible.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, August 7, 1897]

Skinny-dipping in the Serpentine: Two brothers end up in hot water as they try to beat the capital’s heatwave.

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I imagine that you, like me, are suffering from this prolonged bout of hot weather. The British trend to grumble whatever the weather of course; it is either too hot, too cold, too wet, too dry, rarely ‘just right’. But weather like this is causing problems, from moorland fires and potential crop shortages, to increased levels of pollution and higher mortality rates. Now perhaps, skeptics are waking up to the idea that global warming is a reality and not just scaremongering by environmentalists and climate change experts.

This year is not exceptional however, we’ve had heatwaves before. In 1976 temperatures sored to 35.9C, in 1990 they topped 37C in Cheltenham. There were similar heatwaves when the temperature reached the mid 30s: in July 1933, August 1932, July 1923 and August 1911 but this one may be one of the most sustained.

What do people do when the weather gets so hot? Well in July 1900, at the tail end of Victoria’s reign, two brothers decided to cool off by going for a swim in the Serpentine. However, their actions scandalized the public and so the pair found themselves up before the magistrate at Marlborough Street Police court.

Reginald Ingram, a 32 year-old medical practitioner, and his brother Malcolm (25) lived at the same address in Pimlico. On Tuesday 24 July they were seen swimming in the Serpentine in Hyde Park. Not only was it against the rules of Royal Park to swim or bathe in the lake at that time and place, the men were also stark naked!

Police constable 74D was called to the incident and witnessed the men running ‘about in a nude condition’. He arrested them, secured their clothes, and ferried them to the nearest police station where they were charged.

Both men pleaded guilty to swimming in the lake but said they were unaware that they’d broken the regulations, not realizing that bathing was prohibited in certain areas of the lake. Ignorance of course, is no defense in law and Mr. Denman fined the brothers 40each for their offence.

I’m a little surprised he didn’t add an extra penalty for indecency, but perhaps that is making assumptions that the late Victorians were more obsessed with decorum than they were. Regardless, their attempt to cool down by skinny dipping in a public park had landed them in hot water.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, July 25, 1900]