A mutiny at the Royal Albert & Victoria Docks reveals the hidden DNA of the capital

Lascar-Crew_Ballaarat_c1890

Since the 1980s London has lost what remained of its working port on the Thames. The massive docklands development wiped away the last vestiges of warehouses and quays and transformed the area into smart housing, commercial centres and leisure outlets. It is still possible to see some of the buildings that survived the Luftwaffe and the developers but often they are little more than a façade and their function has changed.

In the 1880s however London was still a bustling port, the greatest in Europe if not the world. Thousands of ships were loaded and unloaded here, and teams of stevedores directed gangs of dockers in hard manual labour to bring in products from all over the Empire and the rest of the globe.

It wasn’t only the goods that were imported: the docks teamed with people from all over the world – Portuguese, Cypriots, Chinese, Arabs, American, Africans and south east Asians amongst them – a reminder that London has been a multi-cultural society for well over 150 years.

Most of those that were not white were collectively known as Lascars. Most of these were from India and many from Gujarat and Malabar or from what is now Bangladesh. They were recruited in large numbers to serve on British registered ships but often treated poorly by comparison to white European sailors. Lascars were paid less and often left virtually homeless while they waited to get a ship back home. The shipping companies treated them so badly because the lascars had a reputation for being ‘trouble free’. I would imagine that contemporary racism played a part in all of this as well.

Before we dismiss the lascars as submissive however here is an example of them standing up en masse and, while it was ultimately unsuccessful, it demonstrates that they were more than capable of doing so.

In early July 1884 four lascars sailors were brought before Mr Philips at West Ham Police court charged with being the ringleaders of a mutiny on a British vessel docked in London. The formal charge was that they had refused to obey their captain, William Turner of the Duke of Buckingham, a steamer operated by the Ducal Line Company.

The ship’s crew was made up of 45 seaman, all ‘coloured’ who had signed articles in January 1884 to serve on the Hall Line’s steamer Speke Hall, for a year. The ship docked at Liverpool for repairs and the owners decided to transfer the men to the Duke of Buckingham while they were completed. When the crew reached London and discovered that this ship was headed for India via Australia they protested. Some argued that their contract (articles) was with the Hall Line not the Ducal Line while others complained that the journey would be too long, and they would be beyond their 12 months of employment.

18 of the 45 men refused to work and four were identified as ringleaders and arrested, hence the court appearance in West Ham. The four were: ‘Amow Akoob a serang, Manged Akoob, a tindal, and Fukeera Akoob and  Adam Hussein, Lascars’. ‘Serang’ probably meant that Amow Akoob was a captain or boatswain while Tindal is a town in Tamil Nadu in southern India.

Perhaps unsurprisingly the English magistrate wasn’t about to get deeply involved in an industrial dispute. He pointed out to the men that at the current time they were under contract and warned them that they were liable to ‘penalties’ if they and they rest of the crew continued to refuse to work. In the end the four men decided that they’d made their point and had little to gain by continuing their protest. They agreed to return to work and were discharged.

We have heard a lot about Caribbean migration this year, with the anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrushand the revelations of the Home Office’s scandalous treatment of some of their descendants. Immigration is often seen as a mid to late 20thcentury phenomenon, a product of the end of empire. But for London, and other port cities like Bristol and Liverpool, immigration has been part of the fabric of our history and our success for hundreds of years. London is built on the backs of migrant labour – migrants from all over Britain, Europe and the World; migrants of all nations, all races and all faiths. If we could analyze London’s dna it would reveal us to be the children of a global trading people and that is why it is the greatest city in the world.

[from The Morning Post , Monday, July 07, 1884]

Stark contrasts as privilege triumphs on the back of human misery

How-the-Poor-Live-by-George-R.-Sims-1883-1

Elizabeth Avery had committed a very common crime in early Victorian London and received a very usual sentence for it. When she was brought before the Queen’s Square Police court on 25 June 1837 (just five days after the queen acceded to the throne) she was accused of stealing a silver spoon. The theft was discovered when Elizabeth had attempted to pawn the item and the ‘broker had become suspicious.

The spoon belonged to Philip John Miles, the sitting Conservative MP for Bristol who kept a house in London as many provincial members did. Miles owed his position to wealth and his money derived from banking and his family’s sugar plantations in Jamaica. Until 1833, Miles, like many rich and powerful men in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century England, was a slave owner. The honourable member for Bristol (who had previously held seats at Westbury and Corfe Castle) was a millionaire in his day and had acquired the slaves he had owned indirectly, as his bank took possessions of them when their owners defaulted on their mortgages.

Slavery had been finally abolished in 1833 after a long campaign and owning slaves was now illegal (the trade itself had been banned in 1808). But it left the thorny question of compensation. Not for the enslaved of course, but for the men that would have to give up their ‘property’, such was early nineteenth-century logic. A project at University College London reveals that around 10-20 of Britain’s wealthy elite have links to slavery in the past; ours was an economy built on the forced labour of millions of African slaves – something we might remember more often.

Conservative-MP-slave-registration-files-auction-817435

Philip John Miles did very well out of the compensation scheme that was enshrined in law in 1837 (by a parliament in which he sat of course). His son became a baronet who also sat as a Tory at Westminster. Throughout his political career he never once had to contest an election and only resigned his seat so his son could ‘inherit’ it.

This son, Sir Philip Miles (2ndbaronet), also pursued a career in politics and was a little more active than his father or grandfather. He was more ‘liberal’ than either, even supporting votes for some women in 1884.

The Miles’ then were a wealthy, privileged family who handed that wealth and influence down to their children so they could enjoy the benefits that it brought. Contrast this then with Elizabeth Avery, who stole a spoon from John Miles’ dinner table. She was the daughter of a charwoman – a lowly servant who had worked for the family for 14 years, doing their laundry. Avery regularly went to see Mr Harding, a pawnbroker on York Street, Westminster, sent by her mother to pledge things so they could pay their rent and feed themselves.

On the night the spoon was lifted John Miles had thrown a lavish party and the Averys had come round to clear away the lined to wash. Elizabeth must have been tempted by the huge array of silver on show and, having seen such things in the pawnbrokers and knowing they could be transformed into money, pocketed it.

She was only seven years old after all.

In court Mr White the sitting magistrate, having heard the case against Elizabeth (presented by Miles’ butler and the pawnbroker’s assistant), called for the girl’s mother. He admonished her for sending her daughter to a pawnshop, saying that she ‘most probably would not have stolen the spoon had she not known a method of disposing of it’. In order to emphasize his message and the lesson he wanted Mrs Avery to learn he sent Elizabeth to prison for seven days.

So, for taking a spoon from the table of a man who owed his possession of it to a trade in human beings a little girl of seven, raised in poverty, was condemned to spend a week away from her mother in the squalid conditions of the Westminster House of Correction.

While the Miles family prospered I wonder what happened to the Averys? I suspect that Mrs Avery may have lost her job cleaning linen for the Miles household. That would have thrown a poor family into crisis and Elizabeth may have been forced to turn to some form of crime to survive thereafter. Many of London’s prostitutes started that way, and in 1842 a teenager called Elizabeth Avern, alias Avery, was convicted of stealing a boot valued at 29d.

Of course it may have been a different Elizabeth Avery but the court noted she had a previous conviction and as a result they through the book at her. She was sentenced to 7 years transportation to Australia. Transportation was a form of forced migration, which effectively enslaved those condemned to work for the British state as it built its empire ‘down under’.

I suppose that is what we might call poetic ‘injustice’.

[from The Morning Post , Monday, June 26, 1837]

Can we have our balls back please mister? No, says a Mr Grumpy near the Oval

VictorianEraCricketGrace

The cricket season is upon us and England have already won and lost a couple of home tests this summer. In London test matches are usually played at either Lords (in St John’s Woods) or south of the river at the Kennington Oval. I’ve mentioned the first test between England and the Australians (who are on their way over again) before on this blog but today’s story takes us further back into cricket’s history, to 1868 12 years before the test series began.

Surrey have played county cricket at the Oval since 1845 when the current site (then a market garden) was acquired. We all know that professional cricket has been on the decline in England in recent years but the proximity to a ground can be inspirational, especially for the young. However, it seems that in 1868 one local man living close to the Surrey CC’s ground suffered a rather unfortunate loss of perspective, one that eventually landed him in court.

In early June 1868 a ‘house proprietor’ based adjacent to Kennington Oval, a man named William Wades, was summoned before Mr Elliot at Lambeth Police court to answer a complaint.

The boys of St Paul’s School had been playing a cricket match on the Oval’s pitch throughout the day and several balls had been struck over the boundary and into the buildings or gardens nearby. Wades became fed up at the number of cricket balls that escaped the Oval and started to refuse to throw them back. He collected several and told the lads that they’d have to wait until the end of the day to retrieve them. The staff of St Paul’s prosecuted him for detaining their property.

In court Wades was indignant. He complained that  cricket balls could do a lot of damage and that it was an all too frequent occurrence to see them come sailing over the walls of his premises.

Mr Elliot was not sympathetic, perhaps suggesting he was a fan of the thwack of leather on willow. He told Wades that it was entirely possible that a ‘hard hitter’ might occasionally send a ball clear of the fences but hardly intentionally, any damage that was done would be the responsibility of the club’s management and he should seek redress in the normal way. He told Wades to hand over the balls and awarded costs to the school.

I used to live behind Northamptonshire’s ground in Abington, Northampton and until they extended their fences we quite often got practice balls landing in our car park. If they hit the cars they did no damage and the only problem we ever really had was when their scarifying of the grass covered all our vehicles in a dark red dust – for which the club immediately apologized and offered compensation.

Aboriginal_cricket_team_Tom_Wills_1866

Interestingly, while England didn’t play the Australian national team until 1880, a team of native Australians (left) did tour England in 1868 and played their first game at the Oval in May that year. The ‘Aboriginals’ were met with some skepticism by the public and a good deal of Imperialist racism by the press, but they acquitted themselves well, playing 47 matches and winning a third of them. There are no accounts of them using sandpaper to tamper with balls or resorting to sledging to put the opposition off their strokes.

 

[from The Morning Post , Monday, June 08, 1868]

A lovers tryst in Chelsea, or a cunning deceit?

CDG1_090

With the memory of the royal wedding fading away but leaving, by all accounts, a warm romantic glow behind it, I thought I’d continue the theme a few days later.

In April 1887 Emma Banks took a room in a house in Smith Street, Chelsea. She had arrived with a man who purported to be her brother, but certainly wasn’t. The landlady, Mrs Jessie Gantlett, believed him however and his story that Emma only needed the lodgings temporarily while she found a position (in service).

All was well until the day that Emma left. Mrs Gantlett was shocked to find that another of her residents, Miss Price, had lost some items from her room. For whatever reason she suspected Emma and she searched the 22 year-old’s room.

There she discovered clothes belonging to Miss Price and some items of hosiery (stockings most probably) that were later identified as belonging to a hosier in Hammersmith. The police soon ascertained that Emma Banks had left the employment of Frederick Payne, a hosier, in March of that year, and he’d missed stock and £10 in cash from a locked desk in his shop.

When she was questioned by the police Emma broke down and admitted she’d been planning to abscond to Western Australia with the young man that had been visiting her. They’d bought the tickets for the journey she said and named him as James Tucker. So, he wasn’t her brother, but her lover.

Moreover, and perhaps Emma wasn’t aware of this, James wasn’t exactly free to elope to the other side of the world with his paramour. James Tucker was already married.

When the pair were brought before the Police Magistrate at Westminster Emma was initially charged with the theft, but it soon became clear that Tucker was also involved. He testified to knowing Emma for about two months and to ‘paying her attentions’. But he denied ever promising to marry her.

He had thought of leaving his wife, he admitted, and going to Australia. The clerk was outraged at his brazen admission of infidelity and his rejection of his responsibilities. He supposed ‘his wife was not a consenting party to this arrangement’ he inquired of the young man in the dock. ‘She was not’ he replied.

He’d bought the tickets with the money Emma had given him so he was guilty by association of the theft. Mr D’Eyncourt, the justice, told him he’d behaved terribly.

He ‘had deceived and led the young woman into trouble. As two felonies were proved he could not sentence him to less than six months’ hard labour’. In an odd  example of the changing nature of punishment in the 1800s Emma and James’ criminality meant that they would not be going to Australia after all, when 40 or so years earlier they would almost certainly have been sent there for doing exactly that.

So, was this a love tryst that ended badly or was Emma deceived as the magistrate suggested? I wonder how Mrs Gantlett felt knowing that she had effectively allowed a young unmarried couple to spend several nights alone together under her ‘respectable’ roof. Oh, the shame of it!

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, May 22, 1887]

‘None will doubt but that our emigration, has proved most useful to the British nation’*. A lack of opportunity at the end of transportation.

convicts-leave-england

In April 1867 two teenagers appeared at the Greenwich Police court accused of the possession of  a variety of items that didn’t belong to them and being unable to ‘give a satisfactory account; of where they acquired them. Basically then, it was assumed they’d stolen them.

Arthur Edmonds was just 13 and lived in Birdcage Walk, Hackney while Thomas Taylor was older (at 16) and gave his address as Oakford Terrace, Boston Street, Goldsmith’s Row close to what is now Haggerston Park. So what were these two doing south of the river in Greenwich?

Well, as the court was told at 5 o’clock on Friday evening, 26 April, Thomas walked into a pawnbroker’s shop in Deptford and attempted to pledge 13 silver spoons. The assistant was suspicious and called the police. When PC Savage (484A) arrived he quizzed Thomas about the spoons and didn’t believe the lad’s explanation that he had found them while across Blackheath.

Thomas was arrested and Arthur picked up soon afterwards. When they were searched Thomas was found to have a small clock on him while his younger partner in crime was in possession of a huge haul. The police found:

‘an eye glass, £1 12s6d. in money, seven silver, and four brass coins, a syringe’ plus ‘a watch, [and] eight shirt studs’.

The pair were charged before Mr Traill and Edmonds’ father identified most of the goods his son had on him as his own. He explained that Arthur had run away on the previous Thursday (25/4) taking with him a writing desk in which most of those items had been stored. He’d also taken some clothes and the watch, which belonged to one of his other sons.

Taylor had previously been before the magistrates at Worship Street, which was much closer to home, so perhaps his desire to pawn the goods in South London was a deliberate move to avoid detection. Thomas told the court that he’d met Arthur and the younger boy had asked if he could join up with him. It sounds as if Arthur Edmonds was an unhappy youth or perhaps just a troublesome one. Did he run away for the adventure or because home was a place he feared?

The magistrate decided that the state needed to intervene here and sent both lads for trial at the next Sessions so that Arthur could be committed to a juvenile reformatory where he might learn some discipline and be removed from bad influences. Thomas was too old for a reformatory so if was convicted he’d face prison and probably lose all chances of leading an ‘honest’ life in the future.

One option for the pair might have been to transport them to the Australia and earlier in the century it is entirely possible that this is where they might have wound up, Thomas Taylor especially. But by the 1860s fewer and fewer convicts were being transported overseas and the last ship (the Houguomont) sailed in October 1867 with 280 ‘passengers’ on board.

Taylor is not an uncommon surname and Thomas a very frequently used first name but in December 1867, just 8 months after this incident, a Thomas Taylor was committed for trial at the Old Bailey by justice Newton at Worship Street. The17 year-old brushmaker was convicted of stealing 4 pairs of boots and sentenced to 4 months in Cold Bath Fields house of correction. The age is about right as is the area, so this may well be the same young man. His brush with the law at Greenwich clearly didn’t do enough to put him off.

Last night I went to the theatre, the Theatre Royal at Stratford to be precise. There I watched a production of Our Country’s Good by Timberlake Wertenberger performed by the Ramps on the Moon players in collaboration with the Nottingham Playhouse. The play is focused on the experience of a group of convicts transported to New South Wales in 1787 as part of the First Fleet to reach Botany Bay. In what is a play within a play a small number of transported felons battle prejudice and systemic abuse to put on a performance of Farquhar’s The Recruiting Sergeant, a restoration comedy that involves nearly all the cast playing more than one role.

It is based on a true story and is a reminder that it was those banished to Australia in the late 1700s and early 1800s that carved out a new life for themselves that did so much to establish the colony on the other side of the world. Transportation officially ended as a punishment in 1868, with the Houguomont being the very last transport ship to arrive in Western Australia in January that year. Thereafter most of those convicted by English courts would be sentenced to varying terms of imprisonment in the increasingly rigid British penal system. The opportunity for a new life, despite the fears it brought with it, would have to wait until British society was sufficiently affluent – about 100 years later – for some members of the working classes to choose to emigration ‘down under’.

Our Country’s Good is an excellent play and the Ramps on the Moon troupe are fantastic players, so do go and see it if you can, in London or elsewhere.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, April 29, 1867]

*Wisehammer’s prologue to The Recruiting Sergeant, Our Country’s Good, (1988)

‘A Reckless Blackguard’ in the dock for a murder on the Isle of Dogs

1840_w600_h642

Today’s case took up almost the entirety of the Morning Chronicle’s  crime news coverage when it was published in April 1838. The story concerned a murder and, if that was not sensational enough for the paper’s readers, a murder that had taken place nearly a year earlier. The case had surfaced on the previous Monday when it had been brought before the magistrates at Greenwich, but when it was determined that the victim had been murdered by the banks of the River Thames, they transferred it to the Thames Police Court.

The victim was an engine smith named Duncan Crawford and he had met his death opposite Greenwich, on the Isle of Dogs on the 9 April 1837. His killer had remained unknown and at liberty ever since but on 10 April 1838 Thomas Paul (alias Scott) was placed in the dock at Thames to be formally examined by two justices: Mr Ballantine and Mr Greenwood.

Paul looked rough but the paper wanted to show him as suitable murder suspect. He was bruised and battered from some recent scuffle (suggestive of his violent tendencies) but he still cut a ‘tall, athletic’ figure in the courtroom. However the reporter was at pains to point out that the prisoner at the bar had the appearance of ‘a reckless blackguard’. He was clearly agitated by his public examination:

‘he betrayed considerable emotion, and his legs and arms frequently crossed and re-crossed each other, and his countenance underwent several changes’.

Here was a man ill at ease with himself, was his failure to control his emotions and sign of inner turmoil and his guilt? I think that is what the writer wanted his audience to think. Murderers had to look different from the rest of civilised society; a monster amongst us and Paul’s inability to keep control over his own body was surely a sign of his animalistic nature desperately trying to break out.

The arrest had been made by PS Benjamin Lovell (15R) who’d picked him up at his lodgings in Deptford. He had given the name Paul but apparently this was  alive, his ‘real name was Scott’ and he went by the nickname locally of ‘Scottey’. It seems as if ‘Scottey’s downfall was that after attacking Crawford and robbing him, he sent a female friend off to pawn the gold watch seals he’d  stolen. She took them to a pawnbroker but this had been discovered by the police and the watch identified as the victim’s. When sergeant Lovell arrested Paul/Scott he admitted giving a woman a watch to pawn.

Mr Ballantine wanted to be sure that Lovell had not tricked his man into revealing what he’d done. He hadn’t the policeman assured him. He had arrested him (on a tip off from a woman – the woman who pledged the watch perhaps?) and when he’d searched him he’d found a number of suspicious items including one or two more duplicated for items pledged at Mr Perry’s pawnshop in Flagon Row.

All of this evidence was backed up by James Cooper (191R) another police officer who’d been present at the arrest and presumably involved in the Greenwich police’s investigation. The court now heard from Anna Philips who lived in the same street where Paul had lodged, Dock Street.

Anna recalled that a year earlier a young woman named Jane McCarthy had popped in to ask her advice. Jane had three gold watch seals and she wanted to find out if they were genuinely gold, of just fake. Jane was Thomas Paul’s lover, the pair cohabited Anna explained, and so it must have been her (Anna Philips) who’d given the information that led to Paul’s arrest.

Why had it taken her a year though? Well it seems she had quarrelled with Thomas Paul a few weeks after the seals were brought to her house. Paul had thrown a jug at her and in her rage she’d said she knew that the watch seals were stolen and had heard they came from a  man that had been murdered. Paul then seized her and ‘swore he would murder her if she said so again’, so she said she’d keep her thoughts to herself.

Two other women had been involved with Paul: Mary Davis had taken the watch to Perry’s (where the pawnbroker had ‘stopped it’ – in other words seized it because he thought it to be stolen). She reported this to Paul. Elizabeth Tiller had lived with Jane McCarthy and so knew her side of the story. Paul had told her he’d found the seals in the river, she had nothing to do with the robbery. Not that it mattered much anyway, since Jane had died four months earlier, how or of what Elizabeth didn’t reveal in court (although we do discover this later).

Possibly the most dramatic moment in court was when the next witness came forward. She was Mrs Charlotte Johnson, a respectable woman that lived in Rotherhithe Street with her elderly father. Duncan Crawford had lodged with them for seven months, so she knew him well. Mr Ballantine handed her a silver watch case inscribed with the initials ‘J.R.K’.

‘Now look carefully at this watch-case’ the magistrate told her, ‘and don’t let me mislead you. Tell me whether this is the deceased’s watch-case or not’.

The case produced was that detained at the pawnbrokers and so it could be traced back to Paul and the murder. The public in court must have held their collective breath.

‘That is it, sir’ replied Mrs Johnson, ‘He had it on the day he left my father’s house’.

She was handed several other items found at the ‘brokers and believed to be Crawford’s. She identified some of them but couldn’t swear to everything there. There seemed to be enough evidence though that these things were Crawford’s, but that didn’t mean that Paul/Scott had killed him. He had claimed he’d found the items in the river and Crawford had ben found dead in a pond by the river, maybe Paul had simply robbed an already dead body? Callous yes, but criminal? Not clearly.

The magistrate asked what the coroner’s verdict had been. After some hesitation he was informed that the victim had ‘been found drowned, with marks of violence on his person, but how or by what means they were caused was unknown’. This was long before effective forensics remember.

Mrs Johnson’s father had identified Crawford’s body in the Poplar dead house. He aid he ‘had no doubt he’d been robbed and murdered’.

‘He had received a tremendous blow under the left ear, another on the forehead, and the legs were bruised from the ankles up to the knees, as if they had been trodden upon’.

Mr Ballantine thanked him and turned to the prisoner. Did he wish to say anything at this stage? The matter was serious and ‘affected his life’. Paul was well aware of that and declined to offer a defence at this point. Mr Ballantine remanded him to appear again, with all the witnesses and the pawnbroker Mr Perry, on the following Wednesday.

It was left for the reporter to paint his readers a picture of the discovery of Crawford’s body and reflect on what was known about the murder (if that’s what it was, and the Morning Chronicle had no doubt it was). Crawford’s body had been found ‘in a lonely spot’ on the island, covered in mud close to the muddy pond.

‘It was extraordinary’ the report continued, ‘that the facts relating to the murder of Crawford have not come to light before’. Scott (Paul) had many quarrels with his neighbours, and with Jane McCarthy and it was said that his violent outbursts ‘hastened her death’. Two days before Jane died she told one of the women who gave evidence that day that Scott had confessed to the murder.

In the end however, the magistrates must have decided there was insufficient evidence to charge Paul with Crawford’s murder. He was indicted instead for simply larceny and tried at the Old Bailey in mid May of that year. The jury convicted him and the judge sentenced him to be transported to Australia for seven years. He was 36 years old and, if the records are accurate, he did ok ‘down under’ living to the ripe old age of 88. As for Duncan Crawford, he must go down as one of thousands of murder victims in the Victorian period whose killers escaped ‘justice’ as contemporaries would have understood it.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, April 11, 1838]

Huge numbers of special constables are sworn in London. Why?

CHkennington1

We all love a mystery don’t we? When you dip into a newspaper that was published 170 years ago sometimes things just don’t make sense on their own. Take this report from April 1848 at Marlborough Street Police court for example. The report is headed ‘Special Constables’ and starts by declaring that:

‘The swearing in of special constables continued throughout the day, without intermission, in consequence of the large numbers of persons of all ranks that presented themselves at this court’.

Historically special constables were sworn in to police particular events (notably public executions) or at a time of crisis (during riots for example). The practice both preceded the introduction of the New Police in 1829 and continued afterwards. You can still serve as a ‘special’ today so long as you can give four hours of voluntary service a week.

In April 1848 the press reported that hundreds of men had come forward in London to swell the ranks of the professionals: ‘There could not have been fewer than twelve or fourteen special constables sworn in yesterday’ the The Morning Post noted. Men were joining en masse from businesses that employed large numbers – not unlike the ‘Pals’ battalions later raised during the First World War.

‘Messers. Cottam and Hallam’s men, to the number one hundred, were sworn in. About 120 men in the employ of Messers. Dowbiggin, the upholsterers, were also sworn in; and Mr. Lumley, the lessee of the Opera, furnished 63 able men’.

But it was not just the working men of London that were signing up in their droves to represent their communities and employers, ‘men of rank’ were also volunteering for action.

‘Lord Colchester, Lord Wharncliffe, Lord Cawdor, Lord Sondes, the Marquis of Blandford, B. Neville Esquire, Sir Moses Montefiore, Mr. Fox Maule, the Hon. F. Baring, Colonle Sir E. Cust, Colonel C. Hutchinson, Hon. C. Hardinge, Colonel Wood, Henry Agar, A.E. Lockhart MP, etc..’ all signed up.

A tradesmen approached the sitting magistrate at Marlborough Street with a query. He said he had men who were keen to serve but were concerned that they would not, as he believed was the principle of specials, be used to support policing in their own community, but instead be deployed elsewhere. Mr Bingham thought to reassure him:

‘It was perfectly well understood’ he said, ‘that special constables were for the protection of their own immediate neighbourhood only, and so long as they assisted to preserve the peace of their own locality, they need be under no apprehension of being called elsewhere’.

This calmed the tradesman who said he now suspected many more of his employees would be presenting themselves at the court in due course. The paper reported that Mr Bingham would now sit in tandem with his colleague Mr Hardwick tomorrow, so they could get through the numbers of men wishing to be sworn.

Nowhere, however, does it explain why so many specials were being called for or were volunteering. For this you need to know your history, particularly the political history of Britain in the mid 1800s. 1848 has been described as the ‘year of revolutions’ because of events in Paris, Sicily, Germany, the Habsburg Empire and elsewhere. Everywhere the desire for liberal democracy clashed with autocracy and in Britain, a nation more ‘democratic’ than some, we had our own taste of a popular movement for change: Chartism.

This is not the place for a careful analysis of Chartism but it was both a democratic movement and a revolutionary one. The Chartists wanted to extend the vote to all men, by secret ballot, and the abolition of the property qualification that effectively excluded all but the wealthy from standing for parliament. Indeed of the six demands they made only the call for annual elections has come into being. At the time however, these were radical demands and while Lord Russell (the sitting Prime Minister) was sympathetic to an increase in the franchise Britain wasn’t ready for one-man-one-vote (and wouldn’t be until 1918).

Chartists were split internally, between those that believed change had to come from persuasion and rhetoric and those that agitated for direct action to force change. The most extreme example of this would be the Newport Rising in November 1839 the failure of which which led to arrests and the transportation of the ringleaders to Australia. By 1848 Chartism was on its last legs but one of its leaders, Feargus O’Connor, decided that the best way to achieve their aims was by a combination of public demonstrations and a petition to Parliament.
He called a mass meeting of Chartists at Kennington Common, south of the river Thames, to rally his supporters and then a march to Parliament to present the petition. It echoed the events of 1780 when Lord George Gordon summoned his rag bag of anti-Catholic protestors to the Common to rail against attempts to repeal anti-Catholic legislation. In the end his supporters ran riot for a week burning down several prominent buildings (including Newgate Gaol) and attacking the Bank of England.

This may have been in the minds of the government and public in 1848 (as would Newport of course) and a call went out for volunteer constables. Lord Russell pleaded with O’Connor not to address the rally and agitate the crowd, nor to march on Parliament. He also arranged for 8,000 troops to be on hand and 150,000 special constables.

chartistsThe meeting went ahead on the 10 April 1848 without trouble, the Chartists claimed 300,000 turned up by other estimates put the numbers at a more conservation 20,000 – 50,000. O’Connor also claimed he had gathered over 5,000,000 signatures but in reality the petition contained just 1,975, 496 many of which were fake.

 

The whole thing did little for the cause and Chartism died a death after that.

So now we know why there were so many men signing up to be specials in April 1848, but without this little bit of historical knowledge (which I remember studying as a schoolboy) nothing in this newspaper report would make sense.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, April 08, 1848]