History in the making as the Match Girls’ strike meets the Police courts

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On occasion ‘bigger’ history touches the reports from the metropolitan police courts as the magistracy sought to deal with everyday issues in London. This is one of those.

Lewis Lyons appeared at Worship Street Police court in July 1888 to answer a charge that he had obstructed the highway in Fairford Row, Bow. The law of obstruction was one of the most frequently prosecuted actions at summary level since it was a misdemeanor that was usually brought by the police. They patrolled the streets and so anyone blocking the road, whether by selling from a coster’s barrow, gambling with dice, busking with an organ and monkey, or lecturing the public on politics or religion, was liable to be asked to ‘move on’ by a policeman. If they refused then they would have their name and address taken and be escorted to the nearest police station.

Lyons was addressing the crowd that had gathered there to listen, most of them young women who worked nearby. He was talking to them about their conditions of work, how they were being exploited by their employers and, presumably, urging them to resist. He was a well-known socialist agitator who counted Annie Besant amongst its circle of acquaintances. Fairford Road was the home of Bryant and May, the match manufacturers. The firm paid their workers very little and forced them to work in appalling conditions. Lyons told the gathered crowd that Bryant and May were ‘sweaters’, who ‘employed girls who had no organization at low wages, and reduced that wage by fines’.

Trouble had started in June when Annie Besant’s article on conditions in the factory had been published in The Link, a radical newspaper. The article had been informed by whistle blowers amongst the match girls and when Bryant and May reacted by sacking an employee a strike committee was organized.

Lyons was speaking on the 6 July 1888 which was the day when nearly the whole factory had downed tools and come out in solidarity to protest the conditions and poor pay they had to put up with. While Besant’s article might had helped precipitate the action she wasn’t the leader of the Match Girl’s strike. As Louise Raw has shown this was an action organized by the working-class women of Bryant and May themselves, although with support from middle class Fabians and socialists like Besant, Lyons and Charles Bradlaugh, the Northampton MP. Besant helped broker a deal with Bryant and May’s management and on 16 July the strike ended with the employers acquiescing on all of the women’s demands. Meals would be taken off the ‘shop floor’ (and so away from the noxious phosphorus that was central to the manufacturing process), unfair deductions and fines were stopped, and grievances were no longer to filtered through the male foreman on the shop floor but would go directly to management.

Lyons was unable to persuade the magistrate at Worship Street that he was not guilty of obstruction. He claimed that the crowd was caused by the police not by himself, that the crowd was already there, and that anyway the police had ensured that carts and wagons could get in and out of the factory the whole time. He had plenty of support in court, including a woman named Sarah Goslin who several of the watching match girls in court mistook for Besant, rushing over to say ‘It’s all true!’.

Mr Bushby was unmoved, perhaps unsurprisingly given the challenge to his class that the Match Girls strike represented. He fined Lyons 20s or 14 days imprisonment. I imagine he paid because he wasn’t a poor man. He later bailed out Besant when she was arrested. The strike was an inspiration for the trade union movement and the 6 July 1888 was a key point in that ongoing battle between workers and bosses, with the following year saw the successful Great Dock Strike, which also started in the East End of London.

The scenes of police grappling with protestors in Fairford Street must have shocked the reading public, especially those with property and businesses but within a few weeks a new story would dominate the newsstands of the capital. By the end of August 1888 it was clear that a brutal serial killer was stalking the streets of the East End, the killer known to history as ‘Jack the Ripper’.

[from The Standard, Saturday, July 14, 1888]

Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) . It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is is published by Amberley Books and is available on Amazon

The pillar box thief comes unstuck

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Today I am going to begin a week of posts all drawn from the equivalent week in 1884 (when the calendar matched with ours). For some context in 1884 Great Britain’s empire was at its height, Queen Victoria (who had been Empress of India since 1876) was in the 47th year of her reign. Her husband had died in December 1861, she had survived an assassination attempted two years earlier, then a bad fall at Windsor Castle which prevented her from walking properly for several months. This was compounded by the death of her servant John Brown, whom she mourned quite publicly, stoking rumours that the pair had been having an affair.

In politics Gladstone was in power, the second and longest of his four ministries. Disraeli (Victoria’s favourite) was dead and so the opposition was led by the future Tory PM Lord Salisbury. Socialism was becoming a force to be reckoned with on the European continent and in London on the 4 January 1884 the Fabian Society was founded with its particular brand of gentle democratic socialism. It attracted some of the leading thinkers and writers of the day, including George Bernard Shaw,  H. G. Wells, Annie Besant, Emmeline Pankhurst and Sidney and Beatrice Webb. The future Labour Party PM Ramsey MacDonald was also an early convert.

In January 1884 Gilbert and Sullivan’s eight comic opera, Princess Ida, opened at the Savoy Theatre in London’s West End and on the 18th, with less success, General Charles Gordon set off for Khartoum to quell an uprising in what is now Sudan; he never returned. In the world of sport 1884 saw the establishment of Derby County as a professional football club while in tennis William Renshaw won the Wimbledon men’s singles and Maud Watson beat her sister Lillian in the ladies final.

Over at Westminster Police court, on the morning of January 2, William Henderson was brought up for the second time having been remanded in custody charged ‘with intent to commit a felony’. Henderson, who gave his home address as a house in York Street, had been reported acting suspiciously on several occasions in and around Belgrave Square.

According to these reports Henderson was loitering near a pillar box which was later discovered to have been tampered with. When he’d realized a policeman was watching him he had run away and a letter addressed to ‘a lady in Scotland’ was found discarded by the post box, it was smeared with something sticky.

Henderson was picked up some hours afterwards and when he was searched he was found to have a pair of gloves with the fingers cuts off, also sticky with some sort of adhesive. There were also some hooks made from copper wire and more evidence of glue on his handkerchief.

A search of his lodgings revealed yet more adhesive material and ‘a contrivance for abstracting letters from pillar-boxes’. In addition to the mechanism he’d apparently been using to steal the post was a large collection of letters and stamps. Mr D’Eyncourt remanded him once more so the police investigation could be continued, in the meantime the letter thief (or avid philatelist) was returned to prison to await his fate. If you stick with my posts for the next few days (no fun intended) we may discover what happened to him.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, January 25, 1884]

Sex and the Alderman: Besant & Bradlaugh at the Guildhall in 1877

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On most days the reports from the Metropolitan Police courts concerned the lives of very ordinary Londoners. The criminal, the mentally ill, the aged, the poor, the abused and the frightened all appeared in the witnesses box or dock from Mansion House to Thames, Southwark to Marylebone to be dealt with swiftly by the magistrates that sat there. In many cases hearings were completed in a few minutes whilst in others prisoners were remanded or bailed so that a fuller investigation could be undertaken.

Just occasionally however, a case appears that touched history because of its national significance. One of these happened in April 1877 when Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant were summoned to appear before the aldermen magistrates at Guildhall in the City of London.

On Thursday 19 April Bradlaugh and Besant (two of the most significant radical figures of late nineteenth-century society) were called to defend themselves against a charge of publishing an obscene publication. The case had been reconvened that day and Alderman Figgins presiding heard final statements of defence from both Besant and Bradlaugh; Alderman Sir Robert Carden and Sir James Lawrence MP sat with him as this was such an important case. It was prosecuted by Douglas Straight and the Mr. Collette from the Society for the Suppression of Vice observed the proceedings.

The Guildhall Police court was packed, as it had been for the previous appearance of the pair a week earlier for the start of the hearings. Everyone liked a good sex scandal.

The publication in question was ‘The Fruits of Philosophy: Or the private Companion of Young Married People ’ by a Dr Charles Knowlton, a ‘physician of high standing and position, residing in Boston, U.S.A’. It had originally been published in 1832 in America, where it was ‘circulating widely’ in 1877 the court was told, and had first been published in England in 1834 and no one had then been prosecuted for so doing Ms Besant explained (erroneously as it turned out).

Knowlton was an atheist (as was Bradlaugh who famously refused to swear on the Bible when elected MP for Northampton three years later in 1880.) and his pamphlet advocated birth control. Knowlton had initially been prosecuted and fined (and later imprisoned) in Massachusetts for obscenity but was afterwards acquitted. So Besant and Bradlaugh, strong advocates of birth control, whilst aware that the subject was highly controversial, were probably confident that opinion was turning.

From the start Alderman Figgins was determined that his court was not about to be party to a discussion of the topic of birth control, for or against, which probably disappointed some of those in the public gallery. As with crim.con(divorce) cases, the subtext of sexual relations (rarely spoken of publicly in Victorian society) had probably brought many of them to the Guildhall.

At this news Bradlaugh announced that he could now send away the very many medical experts who he’d gathered to speak in his defence. They could now wait for the full jury trial that took place later that year. The most prominent scientist of the day, Charles Darwin, did not support Bradlaugh and Besant however. Darwin pleaded ill-health on the week of the trial but in his apologetic letter to Bradlaugh he said he wasn’t himself an advocate of birth control.

Many were however, because the Victorians were worried about rapid population growth and the impact this had on society and the poor in particular. The Malthusian League was established in 1877 to promote contraception and family planning believing that poverty was caused directly but the inability of the working classes to control the size of their families. But for most people the discussion of birth control – as with the discussion of anything to do with sex – was taboo, hence the prosecution.

In the end Alderman Figgins was always going to commit the pair for a jury trial which took place later at the High Court. The jury ‘were unanimous in the opinion that the book was calculated to deprave public morals, but at the same time said that they “entirely exonerate the defendants from any corrupt motives in publishing it.”’* However while the foreman responded to the judge’s question as to guilt in the affirmative, a juror told Annie Besant afterwards that they had not actually agreed a guilty verdict. She thereafter interpreted this as ‘not guilty, but don’t do it again’.

Six months later the cases was overturned in the Court of Appeal and the defendants were effectively vindicated by the fact that the exposure gained from the case saw sales of Knowlton’s pamphlet rise from ‘fewer than 1,000 to more than 250,000 per year’.** The genii was out of the bottle.

Bradlaugh went on to represent Northampton from 1880-1891 although it took him years to take his seat because of his refusal to swear. Because of him the rules of Parliament were changed and members were allowed to affirm, a privilege that was also then extended to those giving evidence in court. Annie_Besant,_LoCAnnie Besant also continued to champion the rights of the underprivileged. A socialist, she  was present at ‘Bloody Sunday’ in November 1887 and played a significant role in the 1888 matchgirls’ strike at Bryant & May.

Poor Alderman Figgins was probably quite glad to get back to the ordinary flotsam and jetsoms of the City streets however, when his court was less full and the proceedings less controversial.

 

Annie Besant in later life

[from The Morning Post, Friday, April 20, 1877]

* [from http://what-when-how.com/birth-control/bradlaugh-besant-trial-birth-control/]

** [https://www.britannica.com/biography/Charles-Knowlton#ref69378]

Seven immigrant workers are caught gambling for their supper

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Seven men were sat around a table in house in Whitechapel at 10.30 at night, playing at cards when there was a loud knock at the door. The knock was followed by the cry of ‘Police, open up!’ and the arrival of Inspector Frederick Abberline and H Division’s finest.

Abberline was acting on a tip off that the house was being used as an illegal gambling den, which sounds quite exotic but was actually very far from that. The seven men were poor ‘jobbing tailors’. All were Polish Jews, recently arrived from the Russian Pale, escaping from economic misery and religious persecution. They had come to the East End (as so many of their fellow congregationalists had, before and since) because there was an established Ashkenazi community there where they could find work, kosher food and others that spoke their language. Many dreamed of making the longer journey to the ‘golden medina’, the promised land of America, land of the free.

They worked very long hours, often in cramped conditions for little pay. The ‘sweating system’ of small workshops was endemic in Whitechapel and Spitalfields and drew the attention of Parliament and campaigners like Annie Besant. On this occasion however, they had drawn a different sort of attention and it had brought the police to the house that Harris Straus owned in New Castle Street.

The men were arrested and brought before the Police Magistrate at Worship Street on the following Monday morning. Straus (a 36 year-old tailor) was charged with keeping a gaming house’ and the others, with being found there, ‘contrary to the Act’.

None of the men spoke English and so an interpreter (Mr Carameli) was called to translate proceedings. The lack of English amongst the Jewish community was something which frustrated the local police during the Ripper investigation, and a few officers were eventually trained to speak Yiddish. The seven men were named as Barnett Coplin (28), Morris Green (18), Louis Gasoniviter (19), Morris Friedman (25), Abraham Lewis (28), Simon Nathan (19) and Hyman Lawer (19).

Nearly all of them lived at the house and they insisted they were only playing cards to pay for their supper.

The police case was presented in court by superintendent T. Arnold. Arnold explained that men Abberline and his men had gained entry they had found the men sat around a table in a back room. ‘Money and cards were on the table’, and in a drawer they found yet more cards and ‘about the room more cards’. This was not then, simply a case of some friends meeting at home to pass the time with a harmless game, he argued, this was organised gambling.

Arnold said the police had received an anonymous letter informing them of the gambling den, which Abberline had acted upon. He understood the game they were playing was called ‘sixty-six’ (or schnapsen, a game of German origin). If you want to know how to play it (not for money of course!) then the rules are here.

Straus admitted allowing players to gamble in his house and further admitted to charging them to do so. He didn’t ask for much, ‘a penny or a halfpenny from each of them to use the room’, was all, but that was illegal just the same. A witness appeared for the police, named Albert Stern, and he said he had played  other games such as Faro and Bank there, for upwards of four hours for ‘stakes of 1d up to 4d‘.

Mr Busby, the magistrate, said it was clear all were guilty as charged and Straus would be fined £5 for running the house. He accepted that most of the others lived there and were only playing for small stakes, so would be lenient. He fined them 20s each. To put this in some sort of context this meant that the arrest had cost each man about £25 in today’s money, and their host 10 times that amount. For the police it was a victory in the ongoing war against illegal gambling but I hope that Abberline and his team were just as assiduous in busting employers that forced their staff to work in sweated industry for long hours at substance pay; sadly I doubt it.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, July 08, 1879]

Exploiting workers in the late 19th century ‘rag trade’.

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Contemporary cartoon on the evils of ‘sweated’ factory labour

Yesterday’s case looked at the regulation of living conditions and featured two landlords who were fined heavily for allowing their rental properties to fall into a ‘filthy’ state, ‘unfit for human habitation’. That was in Bermondsey, south London, an area identified with poverty and poor housing in Charles Booth’s poverty maps.

North of the Thames the East End, and in particular the narrow streets and courts of Whitechapel were equally synonymous with degradation. Here too  in the 1880s there was a contemporary concern about the ‘sweating’ in the clothing trade.  ‘Sweating’ referred to the exploitation of (often foreign) workers, forced to work long hours in cramped and unhealthy conditions, for very low pay.

In 1890 a House of Lords select committee reported that ‘the evidence tends to show much evasion of the Factory Acts and overtime working of females’ in the clothing industry in London. The Factory Acts, widely flouted and largely ineffectual, were supposed to prevent dangerous or unhealthy conditions in the workplace, and to limit the amount of hours men, women and especially children, could be asked to work in any given week.

In May 1886 a Whitechapel tailor, Harris Solomons, was summoned to the Thames Police Court to answer charges that he was overworking some of his female employees.

Solomons, most probably one of the East End’s well-established Jewish community, operated from 8 Fieldgate Street, Spitalfields, close to the Bell Foundry and not far from the London Hospital.  In just a few years this area would become forever associated with the unsolved murders of ‘Jack the Ripper’.

The summons against the Whitechapel tailor was prosecuted by a factory inspector, Gerald Slade. He gave evidence that he had visited the defendant’s property four times in the last two months. This suggests either that the authorities were operating a crackdown on the clothing industry or Mr Solomons was a name on a targeted hit list.

Slade discovered that along with himself, Solomons employed two women. He found that these women were required to work until 9 o’clock most days, sometimes as late as 10. On Sundays they worked till 4 in the afternoon.

The inspector informed Solomons that if he expected his workers to toil on a Sunday he must let them leave no later than 8 in the evening on weekdays. Given that Solomons was in all likelihood Jewish and assuming his workers were, then they would not have worked Saturdays or late on a  Friday night, because of religious restrictions.

This constrained the working week and competition was great in the period so it seems Solomons was flouting the regulations of the Factory Acts that had been passed in part to protect labourers from such exploitation.

When Slade visited the premises on the following Sunday he had found both women, and the tailor, hard at work at half-past five, well beyond the 4 o’clock cut off point. As a result he had summoned Solomons for infringing the act.

Solomons pleaded innocent and tried to argue that there were special circumstances. He had a deadline, and since ‘the holidays’ were imminent he needed to get this job finished. In total Slade brought 3 charges, all similar, against the tailor and Mr Lushington found against him. He fined him 206d in the main case, and 1 plus costs in the other two. It was an expensive day in court for the tailor and a day lost in the workshop to boot.

Whether this, or similar cases, had any real immediate or long term effect on the operation of the ‘rag trade’ or on workshop conditions in London is debatable. The select committee noted that the worst offenders were very hard to prosecute. Evidence had to produced  which usually meant an inspector had to catch an employer ‘red handed’ or an employee had to be a ‘whistle-blower’. The latter were extremely hard to find because work was at a  premium in the late 1800s and many of those recruited to work in these ‘sweat shops’ were desperate for the few pennies they earned.

Contemporaries like Annie Besant attempted to explore the trade but the huge numbers of ‘greeners’ (newly arrived Eastern European refugees, escaping persecution or famine in Russia) meant that there was a ready-made surplus of labour. A whistle-blower risked their job and their survival for little or no reward.

The way to fight ‘sweating’ then, was collective action. Given the small numbers of unionised labour in the 1870s and ’80s this was hard. Besant and the women that worked in Bryant & May match factory in the East End did, however, later show the capital and the world how determined and well-organised collective action could force an employer to address the concerns about pay and conditions.

The lesson was not lost on the dockers who organised successfully in 1889. The Match Girls and the Great Dock strikes probably represented the high point of late Victorian Trades Unionism. Over the next century workers’ rights would be championed, protected, and then gradually eroded from the 1980s onwards. We might remember then why we need to protect workers from exploitative employers: women being asked to work 6 days a week from early morning to late at night, with no rest, no lunch break, and very low pay is reason enough.

Exploitation has not gone away, and never will under the model of capitalism that exists in Britain and the world. Anyone that is any doubts about this need only look at trafficked workers, the existence of sweatshops in the developing world, the need for a minimum wage, and the modern phenomena of the ‘gig economy’ and zero-hour contracts. Capitalism has never been able to successfully police itself, which is why we need the state to do that.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, June 5, 1886]