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]

‘Let me finish mother off, and I will do for you’; a desperate attempt on a defenceless woman.

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Prisoners quarrying at Portland Prison c.1880s

Celia Harrison was having tea with her aunt and her grandmother, Emma Harrison, on 22 July 1895 when there was a knock at the door. It was 6 o’clock the 10 year old recalled and when her grandmother answered the door it was father who stood in the doorway. The visitor (William Harrison) demanded to know if his brother Jack was at home. He wasn’t and the elderly woman seemed nervous and wasn’t inclined to let her son in.

William seemed angry and perhaps a little under the influence of alcohol. Celia heard him say: ‘I mean doing for him when he does come home’ and she saw that he was holding a knife. Celia, in fear, ran out into the garden.

Charles Rattison was a tram driver who lived upstairs from the Harrisons at 6 Salisbury Road, Highgate. Just after 6 o’clock he heard raised voices coming from below. When he heard a cry of ‘murder!’ he leapt up from his chair and rushed downstairs. To his horror he saw Emma Harrison flat on her back on the floor with her son William sitting cross-legged on top of her, slashing at her throat with a knife.

Rattison acted swiftly, wrestling the man off of her. In his rage William, who couldn’t see who his attacker was, growled at him: ‘Are you Jack?’ ‘No’, Rattison replied, ‘I am Charley’. William Harrison now said:

Let me finish mother off, and I will do for you’.

Fortunately he didn’t get the opportunity because another neighbour arrived and managed to take the knife from him. Harrison fled before the police could get there but PC Thomas Russant (637Y) caught up with him as he tried to escape. The copper was threatened by the would-be assassin who told him:

Where is my bleeding knife; I wish I had a sharp-shooter, I would put some of your lights out’.

On the 23 July Harrison was in court before the North London Police magistrate. Detective Sergeant Godley testified that the victim was too ill to attend but that she was thankfully recovering well in the Great Northern Central Hospital. He added that Emma was the widow of a policeman who had been pensioned off in 1876 after ‘many years service’ to the force. I imagine Y Division viewed this attack as if it was perpetrated against ‘one of their own’.

William Harrison stood impassively as others, including his daughter, gave their evidence. The magistrate remanded him for a week so that his victim had more time to mend in hospital before giving her version of events. This took some time, she was, after all, 68 years of age and so the case didn’t come before a jury until September that year where William Harrison was convicted of causing grievous bodily harm. The jury rejected his plea that he was drunk at the time, not that it was an excuse anyway. Harrison had form as well, having previously been prosecuted for wounding his wife. On that occasion he’d gone down for 11 months. This time the judge sent him away for 7 years of penal servitude.

William Harrison, who was simply described as a labourer, served five years and three months of his sentence, much of it at Portand Prison. He was released on 1 December 1900 at the age of 44. Thereafter he seems to have escaped trouble with the law but whether his wife and family were happy to have him back is less clear.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, July 24, 1895]

An elderly kleptomaniac in North London

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From about the middle of the nineteenth century mental weakness was used to explain some forms of petty offending, usually by women. The idea that female shoplifters were impelled to steal as a result of their ‘inferior’ or ‘weak’ minds helped explain, if not entirely excuse, those ‘respectable’ women caught stealing small items from London’s new department stores.

I’ve nearly always heard kleptomania associated with women but in this case the suggestion was that an elderly man could also be susceptible to this form of ‘brain fever’. This fits the underlying narrative however: women, children and the elderly were all ‘weak’ in the eyes of Victorian society. All required some level of protection, and sometimes from themselves.

Robert Lacey was working in his yard on Hertford Road in Kingsland one evening in July 1892 when an old man entered. The visitor offered  Lacey a whip socket for sale but he wasn’t interested and the man went away. As he was leaving however Lacey saw him take a waterproof knee-length apron from the ‘rail of a pleasure van’. The old man calmly folded the apron up, ticked it under his jacket, and walked away.

Lacey followed after and caught him, waiting until a policeman came into view before handing him over. When he was searched at the station the police found the apron (worth just 6s) and the whip socket plus ‘four carriage-handles, three knives, a billiard-ball case, eight pawn-tickets, and two bottles of oil’. Quite how he carried all these is a mystery!

In court before the North London Police Magistrates the man gave his name as John Clark, 60 years of age and said he was very sorry. He’d only recently been released from Banstead Lunatic Asylum ‘where he had been detained as a kleptomaniac’. The magistrate – Mr Bros – called for enquiries to be made by the surgeon at the gaol to determine ‘the state of his mind’. He remanded him in custody in the meantime.

Judging by the eclectic list of things that Clark had in his possession he certainly seems to have been someone ‘collecting’ things by impulse rather than a determined thief but one wonders if the unforgiving justice system of the time was able to appreciate that.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, July 9, 1892]

‘Marry in haste’:An unhappy husband and his reluctant bride

The Metropolitan Magistrates

Police Magistrates had to deal with all sorts of things on a daily basis. As well as often being the first stage in most serious criminal prosecutions police court magistrates had the power to lock up drunks, vagrants, wife beaters and a host of other petty offenders who opted to have their cases dealt with summarily. In addition the magistrate was also assumed to know everything about the law, and so people came to him to ask advice on all manner of issues.

In early July 1898 a man turned up at the North London Police court to ask for Mr D’Eyncourt’s counsel. The man, whose name wasn’t reported by the The Standard newspaper, told the experienced magistrate that he’d only been married for fours months and he’d just discovered that his wife ‘was a wrong ‘un’.

In what way?” D’Eyncourt enquired.

When we was courting’, the man began, ‘we agreed that she was to get up and boil the kettle and I was to fry the bacon. But she won’t do either’, he complained.

This glimpse in to the mundane provoked laughter in the courtroom.

She lies in bed whilst I get my own breakfast, and when I ask her to get up she threatens to do all sorts of things’.

Asked to elaborate the poor young husband continued.

‘The other night she started breaking up the home, and threatened to knife me. She then went to bed with the landlady…last night she went to Sadler’s Wells with a woman, and came home at half-past twelve. I was in bed and asleep, and she and the woman came home and pushed their fists into my face, and swore they would chuck me out’.

Mr D’Eyncourt was sympathetic but also puzzled that  the young man had married ‘a woman about who  you know very little’. He advised him to move out, take rooms elsewhere and ask his wife to join him (without her friends of course). If she didn’t comply ‘within a reasonable time’, he should have no more to do with her.

The poor lad mumbled ‘she says she don’t want me’.

‘I can tell you know more’ said the justice, dismissing him.

[from The Standard, Monday, July 04, 1898]

An avoidable tragedy as a builder’s misplaced retaliation ends in death.

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James Hall was working as a builder in a yard on Manresa Road in Westminster. He was climbing the scaffolding to readjust it when a piece of wood sailed past his ear. The wood had been thrown by one of his mates, as a prank no doubt, but he couldn’t see whom at the time and then he noticed a group of small boys playing nearby.

Grabbing a flint stone from he found lying by the poles he aimed it at the boys and let fly. It hit one of them, a lad named Frederick Littlewood, who  fell the ground. As his friends gathered round him he simply groaned ‘take me home’ and they ran for help.

Fred passed away the next morning, he was eight years old.

The inquest heard what had happened and the police arrested Hall and on the 10 June 1891 he was stood in the dock at the Westminster Police court for Mr Sheil to decided what to do with him. Hall was desperately sorry for what had happened; he clearly had no intention of killing the boy, or anyone for that matter. He said he only wanted to frighten the boys.

The magistrate decided he needed more information, more witnesses if possible, and so he released Hall on his promise to return to court in seven days and took his own recognizance to the value of £10.

It was a stupid thing to do but ultimately it was an accident. Hall himself was only 18, not that that would prevent him from hanging if a jury deemed that he had committed murder.

[from The Standard, Thursday, June 11, 1891]

 

‘I did it for love!’ Jealousy, xenophobia and murder in Bermondsey.

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In late May 1891 Franz Joseph Munch, a 31 year-old baker living in Bermondsey appeared at Southwark Police court to answer a charge of murder. According to the policeman that arrested him he had shot a Mancunian named Heckey who had been making his life a misery and who, he believed, had been stealing from his employer. On his way to the police station the German asked Sgt. Ayerst (of M Division, Metropolitan Police) how badly injured the other man was.

I think he is dead‘ the sergeant replied.

A _______ good job‘, responded Munch (and we can imagine the deleted expletive), ‘he called me a German bastard‘, adding ‘I suppose I shall swing for it in a month‘.

The papers dubbed the case ‘the Bermondsey Murder’ and Munch was hauled off to prison to face a trial at the Old Bailey.

Munch was tried at the Old Bailey on the 29 June 1891. Much of the evidence was repetitive (as trials often are) and concerned the events of the night Hickey died. He and a friend (an engine named Joel Dymond) had been drinking in the Lord Palmerston pub opposite Mrs Conrath’s bakery where Munch was employed Several people saw Hickey and Dymond cross the road to the bakery.

Hickey got out his key and entered the building. Almost immediately there was a bang and a flash and Hickey staggered out on two the street and collapsed. He’d been shot and Munch followed him out holding a gun in one hand and a knife  in the other. He was quickly overpowered and led away; Hickey was taken to the pub where he died before medical help could arrive.

The key to the story is Bridget Conrath, the bakery’s proprietor. She was Hickey’s cousin and, for some time at least, Munch’s lover. It seemed that when Hickey arrived in the capital from Manchester he was looking to start his own business and perhaps he had designs on his cousin’s. He certainly didn’t approve of her relationship with a foreigner and it plain. He insulted Munch at every opportunity and refused to be in the same room as him.

Hickey also moved to get the German baker the sack, insisting that Bridget get rid of him. In the end she was persuaded (perhaps by force or familial pressure) to give Franz his notice. She didn’t want to she told the court, and it had a terrible effect on Munch. He’d proposed to her and she rejected him but they’d stayed close friends and she valued him as an employee. He was trusted with the shop’s money and perhaps he’d noticed Hickey helping himself to the takings as he swanned around the place. When Bridget gave him his marching orders he got drunk – the only time she’d seen him lose his control in all the years she’d known him.

In the days leading up to the murder Munch was also suffering from tooth ache and this physical agony, combined with the upset and shame of losing his job and seeing the woman he loved being manipulated by a racist bigot probably pushed him over the edge.

The jury clearly thought so. They found him guilty (as he undoubtedly was) but recommended him to mercy on the grounds of provocation. The judge donned the black square of cloth and sentenced Franz Joseph to death. Berry-1

Munch appealed his sentence to the German Embassy but they did nothing to help him. He’d left Germany to avoid being conscripted into the army and having supposedly abandoned his country, his country left him to die at the end of James Berry’s rope. He was executed on the 21 July 1891 at Wandsworth Prison.

                                           James Berry, the executioner

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, May 31, 1891]