‘An offence that must be put down’: an attack on trade unionism in 1889

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I am currently teaching a third year history module that focuses on London in the 1880s. Crime and Popular Culture in the Late Victorian City uses the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders of 1888 as a prism through which to explore the social and cultural history of the East End.

On Monday my students were looking at radical politics, strikes, and demonstrations. We focused on the rioting in and around Trafalgar Square in 1886 (the so-called ‘West End’ or ‘Pall Mall’ riots) and the events of ‘Bloody Sunday in 1887. We then went on to look at the Match Girls Strike (using the work of Louise Raw) and the Great Dock Strike of 1889.

It is always harder to get students engaged in this sort of ‘political’ history than it is in crime and punishment history, although of course the two are very closely related. Much of the crime and its prosecution in the 1800s was linked to the inequalities which drove radical politics and the demands of men like Ben Tillett who led the dockers’ dispute. It is too simplistic to see the Police Courts of London as a disciplinary arm of the state but, in part at least, they functioned as that.

The courts served their communities and all of those that lived in them, but their fundamental purpose was as part of the mechanism that preserved the status quo in Victorian London. Poverty, unemployment, homelessness, alcoholism, crime and other social ills were self-evidently a product of a capitalist system which failed to provide for the poorest, regardless of any sense of being ‘deserving’ or ‘underserving’, but it was a system the government, police, and courts were determined to uphold regardless.

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In mid August 1889 the Great Dock Strike (right) broke out and tens of thousands of dockworkers downed tools and followed Ben Tillett and John Burns (and others) in demanding better pay and a better system of work. They drew tremendous support, both from the East End communities in which they lived and worked and further afield. Australian workers sent donations of £30,000 to help the cause.

There were numerous prosecutions of dockers and their supporters as the police tried to prevent secondary picketing and the intimidation of strikebreakers. The strike emboldened other workers in the area, just as the Match Girls strike a year previously had inspired the dockers to take action.

On 21 August 1889, just a week after Tillett’s call for action ignited the strike on the docks, Mark Hacht found himself in front of Mr Saunders at Worship Street Police court. Hacht was a tailor who lived at Wood Street in Spitalfileds. He was just 18 years of age and was accused of assaulting a police officer.

The court was told that the premises of a Mr Koenigsberg, a local furrier, was being picketed as his workers were out on strike. Hacht was part of the picket it seems, gathered outside the factory on Commercial Street preventing some employees from entering.

However, Hacht didn’t work for Koenigsberg, he had no connection at all to the furriers, instead he was, the prosecution lawyer alleged, merely ‘a paid agitator’. When one worker went to enter the building Hacht grabbed at him and said:

‘You shall not go to work there’.

‘I have got no food’, the man replied.

Hacht supposedly dismissed this saying that he ‘would murder him if he went there’. As the man continued Hacht hit him over the head with an umbrella. A policeman (PC 337H) intervened and the tailor tuned his attention to attacking him. As they struggled a ‘mob of Jews’ tried to pull the policeman off of his prisoner, impelling PC Littlestone to brandish his truncheon and ‘hold back the crowd’.

Having successfully secured his prisoner he took him into custody. There were witnesses who denied Hacht had done anything at all but the magistrate decided to believe the policeman and the furrier’s lawyer.

It was, Mr Saunders said, ‘one of the worst cases of the kind he had heard’ and it was ‘an offence that must be put down’. With the dock strike occupying so many column inches at the time it is was hardly surprising that a representative of middle class and elite society should choose sides quite so obviously. the young man was sent to prison for three months with hard labour.

In September 1889 the employers caved in and agreed to the dockers’ demands for sixpence an hour and a fairer system of choosing casual workers. The demands were not that radical, the impact on the employers’ profits fairly minimal. It was a rare victory for organized labour and led to a groundswell in trade union membership in the 1890s. Its longer-term affect was less positive however; in fact we might see the 1890s as the apogee of trade unionism in England.

The General Strike of 1926 showed labour could still organize but two world wars failed to change British society in any truly radical way. In the late 1970s the newly elected Conservative government set about dismantling trade union power, something unions have never really recovered from. Workers rights were more effectively protected by Britain’s membership of the European Union, and now even that has gone.

Yet again capitalism and corporate greed has triumphed at the expense of those that create the wealth. Until workers truly understand that their best interests lie in sticking together against a common foe (as the match girls and dockers did) rather than blaming immigrants for their woes, it will continue to dominate and make the few wealthy on the backs of the many.

[from The Standard, Wednesday,  August 21, 1889]

‘What would become of the little children?’: charity and kindness make a rare appearance in a Police Court

John Tenniel The Nemesis of Neglect

Tomorrow is the last day of February meaning that (as we do every four years) we get a 29thday of this month. Did you know that 1888 was a leap year? Making a very tenuous link today is also the artist John Tenniel’s birthday. Had he lived he would be 200 years old today.

On 29 September 1888 the magazine Punch published a cartoon by Tenniel alongside an article on slum living in the East End of London. Tenniel’s iconic image of the Nemesis of Neglect (above), was published at the height of the Jack the Ripper murders, while London reeled from the terror created by a serial killer the police seemed unable to catch.

Tenniel’s drawing and the text that accompanied it suggested that the murderer was a product of the degraded environment in which all the victims had lived, and died. It also warned polite society of the dangers of not doing ‘something’ about the abject poverty of the East End, which risked the ‘contagion’ spreading to reach the wealthier parts of the metropolis.

In February Whitechapel was relatively quiet; the series lodged in the National Archives at Kew as the ‘Whitechapel Murders’ had not yet started, but poverty was very much in evidence.

At Westminster Police court a 76 year-old man appeared to ask Mr D’Eyncourt for a summons. He wanted to bring a charge against the one of the officers at St Luke’s workhouse in Chelsea. The elderly man moved slowly and spoke with difficulty, clearly suffering as he was from fresh injuries. He told the magistrate that he’d sustained these when he was turfed out of his bed at 6.45 in the morning by a workhouse attendant.

He was, he said in response to the justice’s questioning, 15 minutes late in getting up after the bell rang at 6.30. But he had only just got to sleep having been kept awake by others’ coughing and cramp in his legs.

‘I am so badly bruised that I have not been able to walk upright since’ he complained.

The poor man had no family or friends and had been an inmate of the workhouse for six years. Mr D’Eyncourt granted his summons and said he would not have to pay for it. He would hear what other inmates said and call the accused party before him.

At Southwark Sarah Ann Davis stood in the dock with a baby in her arms. She was accused of begging in London Road, having been arrested by a police sergeant. Sarah denied the charge, she ‘was selling some pins to get some food for her children’ she explained.

Sergeant Ireland told Mr Slade that the prisoner’s husband was currently serving a prison sentence for begging. As if that compounded the woman’s crime and demonstrated she was guilty.

The magistrate asked her why she didn’t turn to the workhouse.

‘I don’t want to break up the home while my husband is away’, she replied.

Mr Davis was, she said, and out of work carpenter who’d do any job if he could get one. 1888 was not a good year for work: this was the year that the word ‘unemployment’ entered the dictionary and for the past few years large numbers of unemployed men and women had gathered in Trafalgar Square to listen to socialists and free traders bemoan the state of the economy and the capitalist system that had seemingly failed so many.

Slade called her landlord to the stand and asked him about the family’s character. He was told that the Davis’ were good, respectable and quiet tenants, but were two weeks behind with their rent.

‘You are not going to turn them out?’ The magistrate asked.

‘On no, sir, certainly not. What would become of the little children?’ the landlord replied.

‘Very well, I will discharge her now. You can go know, Mrs. Davis. You will receive some coal and bread tickets from the Poor-box Fund, and you had better apply to the Relieving Officer for some out-door relief’.

Then he warned her against begging in future, and she left, with applause for the magistrate ringing out in court.

Individual acts of decency by men like Mr Slade and Sarah’s landlord were not enough of course to mitigate the realities of abject poverty in late nineteenth century London. On another day Sarah might have gone to gaol and had her children taken away.  Another magistrate might have told her it was the ‘house or nothing, and she would have again lost her children.

Tenniel’s image of the ghoul raising from the ‘slum’s foul air’ was so powerful because it reflected a sort of stark reality, even if it was as fantastical as his more famous illustrations for Alice in Wonderland.

[from The Standard, 28 February 1888]

‘There’s never a policeman here when he is wanted’: criticism of the police is nothing new

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Police Court magistrates didn’t work for the police and often didn’t even support the police, even when they brought accusations against individuals for assaulting them. I think the law is much more likely today to protect officers, even those who, like the case I bring you today, could be said to have acted rashly or at least, might have made better decisions.

Police constable 405T (no name is given sadly) was off duty and had gone to fetch himself a jug of beer to enjoy at home. As he reached his home in Rock Avenue, Fulham one of his neighbours from across the road hailed him.

‘There’s never a policeman here when he is wanted’, cried Mrs Baxter, who may have just been on the end of bit of verbal or even physical abuse from her husband. Frederick Baxter was drunk and he wandered out of his home just in time to see the officer, standing toe-to-toe with his missus, declared: ‘One here’.

Tearing off his shirt Baxter squared up to the policeman and challenged him to fight. The constable carefully took off his hat and coat and put up his fists. Baxter struck first and, despite being the worse for drink, connected powerfully. The policeman reeled backwards sporting a rapidly blackening eye. A small crowd watched as they fought for four or five ‘rounds’ like a couple of prizefighters. Eventually, and possibly because he was coming off much the worst, the PC revealed who he was and told his opponent his was arresting him for assault.

The next morning Baxter was brought from the cells to face an examination before Mr Paget at Hammersmith Police court. Baxter claimed he had no idea that his opponent was a policeman, even though he lived opposite. He said he believed that his wife was being insulted, and perhaps was being propositioned. The officer thought he would have known but he wasn’t in uniform so, in his drunken state, he may not have. Mrs Baxter had no complaint against the office but he had ‘knocked up against her’ so we can see why Baxter might have been angered.

The magistrate reserved his ire for the policeman who he clearly believed had acted inappropriately. He should have declared that he was a police officer straight away, not halfway through a fistfight. ‘He was not entitled to because he was a constable off duty to take the law into his own hands’.

To put it mildly, he concluded, the officer had behaved ‘most injudiciously and in an improper manner’. He discharged the prisoner and recommended that the constable’s conduct should be investigated by his inspector, to see if any disciplinary action was necessary.

This incident happened in early September 1888 and by the end of that autumn the reputation of the metropolitan Police had been dragged through the mud yet again as they failed to catch ‘Jack the Ripper’. This – mostly unfair criticism – was added to deep-rooted working-class dislike of the police for their role as instruments of enforcing moral and economic rules, and as ‘class traitors’ in their own communities.

The 1880s, with Bloody Sunday, the Great Dock Strike, Fenian Terrorism and a serial killer on the loose, was not a happy decade for the ‘boys in blue’.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, September 06, 1888]

Creative protest in Trafalgar Square: an echo of Extinction Rebellion from 1888

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In July 1888 Robert Allen, a 64 year-old cabinetmaker, was charged at Bow Street, with ‘resisting the police and riotous conduct’. He’d been arrested in Trafalgar Square amid what seemed to have been a rather unusual form of demonstration.

Demonstrations in Trafalgar Square were all the rage in the 1880s. In 1886 a public meeting had ended in chaos as a ‘mob’ had moved off to smash up property in nearby Pall Mall. Then in 1887 the heavy-handed response of the authorities to a peaceful protest had left at least one person dead and very many more injured in what was dubbed ‘Bloody Sunday’ by the press.

Not surprisingly then by July 1888 the police were a little jumpy about protestors and speakers in the square. In fact unauthorized gatherings were banned and no one was supposed to set themselves up to address crowds in the square. If they wanted to do that they had only to move along to Speakers Corner (close to Marble Arch on Hyde Park) where it was permitted.

At four o’clock in the afternoon of the 21 July 1888 (a Saturday) Allen was walking around the square ‘speaking in a loud voice’. What he was saying we don’t know but it had drawn a large crowd to him, and they were following the orator on his ‘perambulation’.

Superintendent Sheppard (of B Division, Metropolitan Police) was on duty in the square that day and was alarmed by what he saw. This seemed like a clear breach of the laws governing assemblies and he tried to intervene. Around a thousand men and boys were now listening to Allen and there was, Sheppard later told the Bow Street magistrate, ‘a good deal of horse play’.

‘Meetings are prohibited’, he explained to Allen, ‘and I cannot allow you to have a crowd following you causing danger and obstruction. I must disperse them’.

‘I am only having a conversation with my friend’, replied Allen, pointing at someone in the crowd nearby.

‘That is sheer nonsense’ the policeman told him. If he wanted to continue to talk to his friend he’d clear a gap in the throng and the two could leave peacefully. But Allen didn’t want to do that.

‘No’, he said, ‘I shall not do that; I claim my right to do as I am doing now’.

Sheppard called over some officers who went to disperse the gathered crowd and Allen walked away. However, far fro stopping what he was doing he just continued on a new circulation of Nelson’s Column, drawing a fresh group of followers. Now they were singing the Marseillaise and Sheppard described them as ‘very rough’. Again he tried to have them broken up, again Allen created a disturbance by speaking loudly to no one in particular.

The superintendent had run out of patience and told Allen that he had been warned but now he would be arrested, by force if necessary. The cabinetmaker went quietly, followed by a large crowd all the way to the police station.

In court Allen denied holding a meeting, rejected any accusation that he was a troublemaker, and said while some of the police had always acted reasonably, others ‘gloried in brutality’.  His politics were clear, however, when he declared that ‘a society of millionaires and paupers could not be formed on a sound basis’. He was about to launch into a political speech at this point but Mr Bridge (the magistrate) cut him off. Allen was bailed while further enquiries were conducted.  A week later Allen was discharge after promising not to disturb the public peace in the future.

I recently watched Ben Zand’s insightful documentary about the Extinction Rebellion movement and it occupation of central London this year. The co-founder of ER – Roger Hallam – described their tactics as “Criminal inaction.” If you witnessed it live on the news you’ll be aware that thousands of protestors of all ages staged a series of peaceful sit down occupations of London landmarks. They brought traffic to a standstill in the capital for an unprecedented 11 days but no one was hurt (although it cost the public and authorities millions of pounds in lost business and policing).ER

It was ‘remarkably effective’ as Zand agreed, it made the government listen and Climate Change is now firmly on the agenda. It galvanized tens of thousands of people, many of them young people who weren’t involved in politics or protest before but now are. At one point in the April take over the head of the Metropolitan Police – Cressida Dick – is seen imploring the protestors to go  home or go to Marble Arch (where they can protest legally), warning that otherwise they will be arrested.

But arrest was one of their tactics. By being arrested and charged they get publicity, a day in court, and their cause is highlighted. They are non-violent, they are creative, determined, and they are not going away. They are also part of a well-established tradition of protest in this country (not all of it peaceful of course) that stretches back hundreds of years. I met some of them in London and then later this summer in Edinburgh. These are intelligent, passionate, and well organized people and while they provide a temporary headache for the likes of Cressida Dick and Superintendent Sheppard we should be very proud that our nation continues to produce young people who are prepared to put their lives and liberty on the line to achieve a better future for all of us.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, July 24, 1888]

Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. 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 1880s London. The book is available on Amazon here

A ‘demented’ socialist picks a fight with the police

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Throughout the late 1880s Trafalgar Square was the site of numerous political demonstrations, protests and gatherings of the poor and homeless. It is hard for us to imagine the capital without the square; it is one of the top ten tourist sites that visitors flock to now, but it was only laid out in the 1830s and Nelson’s Column wasn’t erected until 1839-42 and the base sculptures were not completed until 1849. By then the square had already borne witness to Chartist demonstrations in 1848. What Nelson himself would have made of the political rhetoric than unfolded below him is hard to say. England’s greatest naval hero would probably have disapproved though, since he was an arch conservative and no champion of liberty or democracy.

In 1886 demonstrations in the square had been badly mishandled by the police and groups of rioters had caused chaos in nearby Pall Mall. Shortly afterwards the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police had resigned amid calls for a parliamentary enquiry. Determined that a similar chain of events should not engulf him the new commissioner, Sir Charles Warren, tried to ban gatherings in the square the following year (in November 1888) but without success. When protesters did congregate in large numbers Warren resorted to excessive force and several people were injured and 2 or 3 killed in the melee that resulted from police baton charges and the use of the military.

Earlier in the year, in July 1887, Trafalgar Square had become a sort of temporary shantytown, occupied by London’s homeless who spilled over from the square into the parks close by. Local residents complained about the sight and radical politicians railed about the poverty that had caused them to flock to the centre of the city in such numbers and desperation. The police were ordered to sluice the bench with cold water, to discourage rough sleepers, and to clear the parks of the human detritus that ‘infested’ it.

In May 1888 meetings were back on, and the newspapers reported that there had been a ‘Conversational meeting’ in the square on Saturday 12th. These had been organized to assert the rights of free speech in the face of Warrens’ attempts in the previous year to close the square to public gatherings. Members of the Bloomsbury branch of the Socialist League (which included William Bartlett, a prominent figure in the British Labour movement) deliberately held meetings in the square to discuss the issues of the day and the importance of being to air their views in a public space.

However, police attempts to curtail this supposed freedom led to scuffles and occasionally to accusation of assault on both sides. At the meeting on 12 May Walter Powell was arrested by the police in the square and charged at Bow Street Police court with disorderly conduct.

Evidence was presented that he had been followed into the square by ‘a crowd of roughs’, whom he had then attempted to address. The term ‘roughs’ was applied widely in the late 1800s, to mean youth gang members, political ‘muscle’, or simply members of the ‘residuum’ or ‘underclass’. It was always used disparagingly and Powell was being depicted as a ‘rabble rouser’ who probably deserved to be arrested for inciting crowd trouble.

Since he had been locked up in the cells overnight the magistrate decided he’d been suitably punished already and let him go with a warning.

Whenever crowds gathered in London however, there was always the possibility of other forms of criminality taking place. Once Powell had been discharged tow others were stood in the dock accused of picking pockets. Both men were remanded in custody so the police could continue their enquiries.

The last appearance related to Trafalgar Square that morning was Alexander Thompson, who was charged with disorderly conduct and assaulting the police. He was probably a member or supporter of the Socialist League that had insisted on championing the right of citizens to occupy the square for political protest but he had run foul of the police stationed to prevent trouble.  By 1888 the Socialist League, which had been founded by Henry Hyndeman and had included William Morris, was suffering from internal schisms. The Bloomsbury branch would split in the face of a takeover from anarchists who were more revolutionary in their outlook.

Back at Bow Street Mr. Vaughan looked the man up and down and must have decided he was very far from being a dangerous and ‘disorderly’ ruffian.

He said that ‘unless the man was demented he could not imagine his attacking a man of the constable’s calibre’ and dismissed the charge.

This was a backhanded compliment to the police officer, and a dismissal of the threat posed by ‘revolutionaries’ like Thompson. It was probably also an attempt to diffuse tensions in the spring of 1888 so as to avoid a repeat of the very real violence of the previous autumn.

However, events overtook the police in 1888 and the right to protest, while remaining a key issue, was subsumed by the murders of five or more women in the East End of London, where many of the rough sleepers had tramped from the previous summer. Warren, who was so determined not to be brought low by criticism of his failure to act against  protestors was soon to face much more serious criticism of his ability to run a police force capable of catching a brutal serial killer. In November 1888, just a  year after ‘Bloody Sunday’, Warren resigned as Commissioner.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper , Sunday, May 13, 1888]

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]