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]

Tables turned as a complainant becomes the focus of complaint

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Mr Selfe was the presiding magistrate at the Westminster Police court in June 1863 and he was not a man to be trifled with. So when James Cowen appeared not once but twice in his court to complain against another local man for criminal damage he was dismissed with a flea in his ear.

Cowen ran an ‘establishment called Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ in Greycoat Street, Westminster. It isn’t clear what sort of place (shop, beer house, cafe, or club) this was but the name suggests that Cowen was politically motivated in some way. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel had a powerful anti-slavery message and in 1863 America was in the middle of its bloody Civil War.

James Cowen described himself as a ‘medical reformer’ and on his best visit to the court on Saturday 13 June he complained that John Theophilus Rowland had broken a board he was exhibiting outside his premises. Cown produced the damaged board and gave it to Mr Selfe to examine.

The reaction of the magistrate was not the one Cowan hoped for however. Mr Selfe read the words on the board (which were not recorded by the reporter) and declared that he was amazed that Rowland hadn’t broke it over the complainant’s head! The message it carried apparently defamed the British royal family and, in Selfe’s opinion, Rowland was quite right to get angry and smash it up. He dismissed the charge and the accused.

Cowan could (and probably should) have left it there but he didn’t. A few hours later he was back at Westminster to ask the magistrate if he would help him to bring a case to the court of Queen’s Bench.

He stated that ‘no man a right to prevent the expression of his political opinions, and he would certainly make an application to the Secretary of State upon the subject’.

Mr Selfe was scathing in his response and dismissal of the idea. While he was entitled to take his case wherever he wished he didn’t think it would get very far. He told Cowan of a recent case where ‘a person had exhibited an offensive caricature in a shop window which a relative had destroyed’. The man brought an action for damages which was dismissed, and he thought that this one would be as well.

However, ‘a man who insulted the public by the exhibition of an outrageous and disgusting placard could not complain of its destruction’, and once again James Cowan was sent packing from the Westminster courtroom with his tail between his legs.

If only we knew what the sign had said…

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, June 14, 1863]