A simple case of imposture or a glimpse into the transgender community of Victorian London?

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I often wonder what the Victorians would make of our society if they could visit it. I imagine they’d be both awed and shocked if they were able to time travel forward to 21stcentury London. Awed by the technology perhaps: the cars, neon lights, television, mobile phones. Shocked by what they would see as irreligion, immorality and a lack of deference.

Of course the idea that the Victorians were prudish and all went to church has been successfully challenged by historians but it remains a fact that they were more conservative and less tolerant of some behaviours than we are today. Homosexuality was made illegal in 1885, and men could be sent to prison for engaging in sexual relationships with other men, as Oscar Wilde was. Suicide was a crime and there was considerably less understanding of mental illness throughout the period. The criminal justice system was harsh: many more people were incarcerated for relatively minor property offences and the death penalty existed, and was used, for murderers.

The newspaper reports of the metropolitan Police Courts are an excellent way to peer into this world. To quote Hartley, ‘the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’, and we can see this at Bow Street, Lambeth, Marylebone and all the other magistrate courts.

At the end of June 1886 two individuals were brought up at Lambeth Police court charged with begging. Begging remains an offence punishable under nineteenth-century legislation (the Vagrancy Act of 1824) but it no longer carries the risk of prison and is often ignored by the police unless it is aggressive or causing a particular nuisance. So while retain the power to prosecute beggars we rarely use it. Instead the emphasis is on helping those that beg, or (more cynically) in arguing about how best we should help them.

In 1886 there was a Mendicity Society; an organisation dedicated to the prevention of begging, especially by those it deemed to be imposters. I’ve written about them before  and their officers crop up frequently in cases that came to court. Joseph Boseley was one such officer and on the evening of Monday 28 June he was watching two beggars in Church Street, Camberwell.

Both appeared to be women and they held a Bible out to read from. As passers-by approached they would ask for a donation and if it was forthcoming they would reward the donor with a verse of scripture. However, if they were refused money, then, ‘as soon as the person walked on [they] made use of foul language to one another’. Boseley smelled a rat and he arrested them for impersonation.

Boseley knew this pair well and was watching them to gather sufficient evidence against them to prosecute. He knew also that they weren’t both women: one of them was a man dressed up as a woman, and this was assumed, I think, to be a ruse to separate pedestrians from their hard earned cash, as a pair of females asking for charitable donations to a ‘good cause’ seemed more believable.

In court the pair cut a sorry looking vision in the dock. Mary Ann Saunders was 55 and her partner, Henry Bennett ten years younger. Bennett was set in the dock still wearing ‘female clothing, with hat and ribbons, and hair hanging down his back’. When questioned he continued to speak in a high-pitched impersonation of a female voice, as he had being doing as he stood beside the kerb in Camberwell.

Boseley told the magistrate (Mr Biron) that there had been multiple complaints about the duo and that they ‘were old mendicants’. Saunders could often be seen pushing Bennett around in ‘a perambulator’, always dressed as a woman, and always begging for money. He saw them as a couple of charlatans who were entirely underserving of the public’s sympathy, let alone their money.

Today however, I wonder what we would make of them. Was Bennett merely donning female attire as a ruse to con people, or was he cross-dressing because he felt more comfortable in women’s clothes? We have only very recently begun to accept that gender is more fluid and the term ‘transgender’ wasn’t coined until 1971. In 1870 two men were put on trial for transvestism, but there was insufficient evidence to convict them.After 1885 men who dressed as women were sometimes prosecuted as homosexuals, again demonstrating a contemporary misunderstanding of those that cross gender boundaries.

The beginnings of attempts to understand transgender issues can be seen in the late nineteenth century but for a sympathetic understanding we have to wait till late into the twentieth century. Even now those that feel uncomfortable in the gender they were born into and who are brave enough to present themselves as the person they know and believe themselves to be can find it a very tough experience. We are only very slowly adjusting to the idea of all gender toilets and allowing people to be whom they want to be.

Was Henry Bennett ‘trans’? It is impossible to know of course. Mr Biron was convinced he was a beggar and said he would remand the pair for further enquiries. At this Bennett fainted in the dock, although the papers saw this as a yet another example of imposture and an opportunity to poke fun at him for the amusement of its readership. On the 9 July they were brought up again and the magistrate sent them both to prison for a month for begging, declaring them to be ‘rank imposters’.

As he was led away Bennett cried out: ‘A month, what for? I didn’t beg; I only give bits of scripture comfort’.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, June 30, 1886; Reynolds’s, Sunday, July 11, 1886]

‘My God, what I say is true’; how should a ‘Hindoo’ swear an oath in court?

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In the 1800s those giving evidence in the Police courts were sworn on the Bible. This worked fine for most prosecutors and witnesses but occasionally someone stepped into the box who was clearly not a Christian, so what happened then?

Nowadays those swearing can do so on a religious text of their choice if the Bible is not appropriate, and those without a religion can affirm. In 2013 the courts rejected a move to abandon the oath in favour of a promise to tell the truth and it remains core to all trials and summary hearings in England.

In 1879 two men were charged at Marylebone Police court with stealing 100 rabbit skins, and with conspiring with another (not in custody) to sell them. The skins weren’t of particularly high value (just 8s) but the novelty of the case was that the chief witness was Indian.

Ballee Bhatter was described as a ‘Hindoo cook’ working at the home of ‘his Highness Suchait Singh of Chumla’. The Chumla valley is in the Punjab and British troops passed through here in 1863 what one officer described as a ‘frontier war’. By the 1870s the Imperial project in India was complete; the British had survived the 1857 Indian revolution, the Sikhs had been defeated and turned into allies, but some pockets of resistance continued from hill tribes in the far north. Afghanistan had never been successfully subdued and after the debacle of 1842 and loss of so many British and Indian troops the empire chose to avoid any major campaigns north of the Punjab until the late 1870s.

The question for Mr Cooke, the sitting magistrate at Marylebone, was whether it was appropriate for Ballee Bhatter to swear on the Bible before giving his evidence. Although described in court as a ‘Hindoo’ Mr Cooke thought he ought to swear on the Koran. The Rajah’s secretary confirmed that the cook wasn’t a Christian, but did that make him a Muslim? Was this a case of contemporary English ignorance or was the prince’s servant a Muslim working in the kitchens of a Sikh household? While today we would normally associate the word with the Hindu religion (for which the Koran would be an inappropriate text) in 1879 it may simply have been (mis)used to mean any native of the Indian sub-continent.

A police detective suggested that it was proper for the man to be able to swear the following oath: ‘My God, what I say is true’, but the justice wanted to be clear that Bhatter understood what was being asked of it. He decoded to adjourn the case so that a translator could be called for; someone that spoke ‘Hindostanee’.

Later that day the cook returned and the situation was explained in his native language. He swore an oath (on which text it is not stated) and explained that on the 7 April one of the prisoners and another man came to the Rajah’s house in Richmond Road, Paddington, and ‘asked him if he had any rabbit skins to sell’. Bhatter told him he had 100 and he was offered 2deach for them. Well, that is what he understood they’d offered, he added, his English wasn’t that good.

Since he wanted to be sure he went next door to find someone to translate for him but when he got back the men and the skins were gone. Two other local servants testified to seeing the two men and a barrow that day and Mr Cooke remanded the prisoners for a week.

This shows us that there were Indians living in London in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. The British Empire involved a migration in both direction then, not simply a movement of British troops and administrators to India but families and their servants in the other direction. They would have added to the cultural melting pot that was London in the late 1800s and act as a reminder that this country (and particularly our capital) has been a multi-racial community for a very long time.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, May 14, 1879]

Blasphemy, Race and Empire collide as an undertaker appears before the Southwark court.

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I am often reminded of how tremendously ignorant I am of some aspects of history. Most of my  study has been concerned with Britain and Europe and the world conflicts that involved them. I studied some American history to A level and some aspects of colonial history as part of my undergraduate degree, but for the last decade or so I have been firmly rooted in the period between about 1750 and 1900 and rarely stray much beyond London.

So until I read about him today I’d never heard of John William Colenso (1814-1883) or his important influence on African history. Colenso was born in St Austell in Cornwall where his father lost money in the mining industry when a sea flood deluded the works. After several false starts Colenso eventually took a career in the church and in 1853 became the first Church of England Bishop of Natal in what is now South Africa.

Throughout the 1850s Colenso travelled around Zululand meeting its people and writing up his experiences. Unlike many colonial travellers and officials Colenso was sympathetic to the cause of Africa rights and equality and this brought him plenty of criticism from the church and colonial authorities and eventually led to his removal from office in 1863.

And this is where he came across my radar, appearing (albeit not in person) in the Southwark Police court in April, in a case heard by Mr Combe the sitting magistrate.

As the newspaper report noted:

‘An elderly Scottish gentleman entered the court to complain of a blasphemous placard placed outside the shop of an undertaker’. The notice declared “Colenso right and the Bible wrong’, and the complainant wanted it taken down immediately. It was, he said, ‘full of blasphemy’ as it denied the truth written down in the scriptures.

At first Mr Combe was reluctant to get involved in this, as he didn’t think he had any jurisdiction to interfere but the Scot was instant. The magistrate sent a warrant officer out to fetch the placard and ask the undertaker to attend to explain himself.

Once the offending message and the undertaker’s men ( a Mr Antill) were present Combe asked him whether he was aware what it said. Antil was, he explained that he related to a series of lectures due to be given over the next six Sunday evenings. We don’t learn what the lectures were about but given what I now know about Bishop Colenso I think I might make an educated guess.

Colenso was a polygenist, in other words he believed that mankind had evolved from more than one initial source. The Bible, of course, states that man descends from Adam and Eve. Science and history made it hard, Colenso argued, to accept that all races were descended from the same single pair of human beings. Instead he suggested that God had created several races, but all of them were created equal. As with others that held this belief he argued that monogenism lay at the heart of racism and slavery.

The Colenso controversy sparked huge religious debate in Britain and southern Africa in the 1860s and we can see from this small snippet in the news that this manifested itself even in daily life in the capital of Empire.

Mr Combe asked the undertaker if he had gone to these lectures. Yes, he had, Antill replied, and he ‘took considerable interest in them’ which was why he’d put out the placard to advertise them to others.

The magistrate told him he’d committed an offence by ‘exposing such a blasphemous’ notice. It was ‘not at all respectable for a tradesman to allow it, and more especially an undertaker’.

Mr Antill apologised and said he would not put it out again in the future and left with a warning that if he did he could expect to be punished for it. The unnamed ‘Scottish gentleman’ thanked the magistrate and left the court, his mission accomplished. One wonder what he would have made of Darwin’s Origins of Species, which had been published just 4 years earlier in 1859. Religion and science were locked in an intellectual debate throughout the second half of the nineteenth century with evolution and God’s role in it firmly at the heart of that debate.

That debate continues still, as does the question of racial equality and the rights of peoples. Colenso was a friend of the Zulu people and supposedly argued against the war that broke between Cetshwayo and the British state in 1877. After the Zulu’s had been defeated Colenso agitated on the defeated kings behalf and successfully got Cetshwayo released from imprisonment on Robben Island. His continued challenge to authority and exposure of racism at the heart of the imperial project did nothing to endear him to politicians and senior clergy at home but it earned him the title of Sobantu (father of the people) amongst native Africans in Natal. He died in Durban in 1883, aged 69.

[from The Morning Post , Friday, April 24, 1863]

The ‘Peculiar People’ and the tragic death of little Alice

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After yesterday’s bank holiday violence and drunken disorder the reports from the London police courts returned to more criminal topics. At Bow Street a fugitive from Cape Town in British South Africa was refused bail on a charge of stealing diamonds and £1300 in cash. while at Mansion House John Thompson was committed to face trial at Old Bailey for several thefts in and around the Inner Temple law chambers. In the end he was convicted of stealing a hat brush and a coat, while seven similar charges were taken into consideration. He was gaoled for nine months.

Over at Lambeth an unusual case unfolded. It had come before the magistrates before but was now to be resolved the paper reported. It concerned the death of a child and the suggestion of negligence on behalf of the parents.

Robert Cousins, a 27 year-old man living in Orient Street, West Square, Lambeth was presented before Mr Chance and charged with the manslaughter of Alice Maria Cousins, his 11 month old daughter. Dr Price from Guy’s Hospital said that his post mortem examination revealed that baby Alice had died from tuberculosis and pneumonia. The magistrate quizzed him as to whether the child might have lived had the father summoned a doctor, which he clearly hadn’t. She may have, the doctor confirmed, but it was far from certain.

Why hadn’t Cousins sought medical help? Was he too poor or was there another reason?

This became apparent when the next witness took the stand. She was Matilda Taylor and she said she belonged to a Christian sect called the ‘Peculiar People’. A branch of Wesleyanism, the Peculiar People (sometimes conflated with Quakers) did not believe in medicine. Instead Matilda insisted, they chose instead to pray for Alice’s recovery and leave her fate to God.

‘Supposing your leg is broken’ Mr Chance demanded, what would she do then? ‘The Lord has not told us what to do in that case, but he does tell us in sickness what to do’.

So we must presume that the Cousins were also members of this branch of Christianity.

Mr Chance was not impressed:

‘It is really wonderful how persons can have such narrow-minded fanaticism’ he quipped, before adding that ‘it is a most guilty and unfeeling conduct to adopt. You take just one passage or so from the Bible, instead of taking it as a whole’.

Nevertheless he dismissed the charge of manslaughter on legal grounds, suggesting instead that the Public Prosecutor might wish to bring a case of endangering life by neglect, which brought a sentence of six months upon conviction. The ‘peculiar people’ then upped and left his court, presumably followed by dark looks and murmurings of righteous indignation from the public gallery.

[from The Standard, Thursday, March 29, 1883]

This isn’t the only reference to the Peculiar People and clashes with the legal system in Victorian London as this blog suggests

A man with a mission and some chalk

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It was not Edward Barnbrook’s first time in court. He had appeared before the magistrates at Marylebone Police court on a number of occasions. He was described on the charge sheet as having ‘no home’ and ‘no occupation’, but he certainly believed he had an important task to complete.

His crime?

– ‘defacing walls and hoardings by chalking verses from Scripture on them, [and] also sentences  satirising our statesmen and country’.

In late August 1861 he was brought up before Mr Mansfield having been arrested by PC Gaze (356S) between one and two o’clock that morning in Little Albany Street, close to Regent’s Park. The constable had interrupted the men while he was chalking a message on a wall. What was that message, the magistrate asked.

‘What nation can fight?’ replied the policeman to stifled laughter in the courtroom. Since Barnbrook had refused to stop writing the constable had arrested him and taken him back to the station to charge him.

Thomas Taylor, a man with the wonderful title of ‘inspector of nuisances’ appeared next, to explain that Barnbrook was  serial offender and his daubing was a constant source of irritation to local residents.

Mr Mansfield asked the slogan writer why he did it.

‘Prisoner (solemnly): To fulfil the prophets and prophecy, also the saints, and to make the Bible universal. I have a mission’.

Religious zeal was as prevalent in Victorian society as it appears to be in our own and seemingly dismissed or tolerated as harmless unless it was attached to violence. The magistrate remanded the prisoner for two days. In effect the man was being imprisoned without being convicted of any offence,a fairly standard practice for those caught doing something but not really guilty of doing that much.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, August 23, 1861]

Bakery wars and anti-semitism in the East End

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The Levy Brothers Jewish Bakery, 31 Middlesex Street, Whitechapel: c.1900

 

We are now (perhaps sadly) used to the reality that Sunday is no more special than any other day. In the 1990s the Sunday trading laws were relaxed allowing even large stores to open (albeit with some restrictions on their hours). Bank Holidays are only holidays if you don’t work in retail and we have very few (if any) days in the year when everything shuts.

In the nineteenth century things were different, although businesses and those that worked in them worked extremely long hours and in much poorer conditions. Workers’ rights were much less well protected than they are today (although these are been systematically eroded in the name of competitive global capitalism).

The key difference was that trading on a Sunday was against the law. Sunday was the Lord’s day and on the sabbath you did no work. Instead it was a day to rest, to be with the family, and, of course, a day to go to church.

Not everyone kept Sunday as the sabbath however. The seventh day in the Old Testament is Saturday, and this was the Jewish holy day, not Sunday. So, for Jews, working on a Friday night and Saturday was against their religion. Unfortunately for them English law followed the tenets of Christianity not Judaism.

In February 1891 this affected several traders in East London directly, and landed them in the Thames Police Court.

Morris Kosminsky, a Jewish baker who lived (ironically) at 35 Christian Street off the Commercial Road, was summoned under the 16th section of the Bread Act (1822). This forbade the making or baking of bread on the sabbath. Bread could be sold but only between 9 and 1 and there were tight restrictions preventing the delivering of bread to premises other than the baker’s own shop.

Kominsky had been seen delivering bread contrary to the terms of the act and the prosecution was brought by a representative of the Bakers and Confectioners’ Co-opertaive Union (BCCU).

The representation told the magistrate that the law was there to protect bakers from being required to work more than six days a week. But it was pointed out that Jewish bakers always shut up shop on Saturdays (their ‘Lord’s day’) and it was unfair that they could not be allowed to continue baking on Sundays, since they were not contravening the spirit of the law. ‘Our law said a Jew should not open on a Sunday’, said Mr Blanchard Wontner, who appeared as counsel for Kominsky and the other men, while ‘his religion said he should not open on a Saturday’.

Blanchard argued that this was a vindictive prosecution brought privately by the BCCU who were, he added, ‘probably composed of Christian bakers’. He suggested that the justice issue a small fine to deter future unnecessary prosecutions under the act.

Kominsky pleaded guilty, hoping for leniency. He was followed by Ascher Levy of Cable Street who had made rolls on a Sunday, A Freedman (who admitted being a baker trading on Sundays) and Mark Rosenbaum of Umberston Street likewise guilty of not obeying the Bread Laws.

If they hoped that the blatant unfairness of the law would guide the justice’s decision they were to be disappointed. Mr Mead told them they had clearly broken the law, regardless of whether it was there for commercial, moral or any other purpose and he was going to make an example of them.

He fined them each 10s (the full penalty) and awarded 5s costs in each case to the prosectors.

There was plenty of anti-semitism about the 1890s and I rather suspect that Mr Mead was happy to side with his co-religionists and fellow Anglo-Saxons against the ‘alien’ presence in East London.

[from The Standard, Thursday, February 11, 1897]

Mendicity and casual racism in 19th century Bloomsbury

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Just who Samuel Sharp really was, the police court report of The Morning Post was not sure. Sharp had also been heard to call himself Thomas Thompson, Frederick Augustin and even William Williams.

It is much clearer what he was however: a charlatan – at least in the eyes of the reporter and the officers of the Mendicity Society that engineered his appearance in Marlborough Street Police Court.

Sharp presented himself as Christian missionary. He was also ‘a man of colour, with the habiliments of the clerical cut’, it was reported. He earned his living by going door-to-door and obtaining sums of money for his stated aim of returning to Africa to preach the Gospel.

The Mendicity Society (or the Society for the Suppression of Mendicity) had been founded in 1818 to bring the practice of begging to an end. It was a fairly futile purpose in a city with thousands of paupers, vagrants and the destitute. One of its officers, a Mr. Horsford, saw through what he thought was Sharp’s facade and decided to set a trap for the so-called missionary.

Horsford discovered (from letters of complaint sent to the society) that as well as calling on householders and asking for money, Sharp also promenaded with a lady friend . So Horsford assumed the disguise of a ‘sporting character’ (complete with ‘cigar in mouth’) and began to watch his prey. Sharp (‘the sable defendant’ as the paper dubbed him) and ‘his white lady set out on their morning excursion’. The pair stopped at a pub and ordered food. While the ‘beefsteaks’ were being cooked Sharp left his companion (who was dripping with jewellery and sporting a ‘handsome watch at her side’) to ‘try his luck in Fitzroy Square’.

Horsford watched as the fake missionary called at one a house and left a pamphlet and then made as if he was returning to his own home just as Sharp approached. Turning to him and and asking his ‘business’, Horsford pretended that he was the homeowner.

Immediately Sharp, who was completely fooled by this ruse, presented the officer with a printed petition for funds and added, in ‘a canting tone’:

‘A penny, or as much more as he might please to give, to enable him to enter on his blessed ministration of enlightening the heathen blacks with the truth of the Gospels’.

Before the would-be man of the cloth could react Horsford and another officer seized him. There was a struggle and Sharp temporality escaped but was recaptured and taken to a police station. His dwelling was searched and he was found to own a ‘handsome carpet bag’ along with other  luxury items including a ‘silk umbrella’ and ‘a good silver watch and chain’, the proceeds it was assumed of a life of impersonation.

I suspect Sam Sharp was everything the mid Victorians detested: a man who exploited the ‘goodwill’ of Christian Englishman; a foreigner (and a ‘savage’ black at that) who consorted with a white woman of dubious reputation (she had rings on all her fingers); and a mendicant to boot.

He was remanded in custody so that his victims could be traced and a case built against him.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, January 31, 1845]