Black Lives Matter: a very personal view

This blog is normally concerned with the police courts of nineteenth-century London. It may therefore seem a world away from the current Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests that are echoing around the globe. But my research touches on inequality and oppression in so many ways that I see so many connections to current debates on prejudice, racism, and anti-immigrant sentiment that I feel that to stay quiet is impossible. So this blog post is going to be a little different, and I make no apology for that.  

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The killing of George Floyd was a disgrace, an outrageous act, an example of oppression, and one that demonstrated that for some people black lives really don’t matter. There can be no justification for Floyd’s killing just as there can be no justification for the hundreds of black lives that are taken every year by over zealous and, let’s admit it, often institutionally racist, police forces.

Before we think that this is an American issue, or even an old one, let’s remind ourselves that these killings have taken place in the UK, a country that our Prime Minister swears is ‘not racist’. Not everyone in the UK is racist, not every institution is either, but racism is endemic in Britain and so I find it completely understandable that acts of violence have resulted from the groundswell of anger that followed the news of Floyd’s killing.

On Sunday 7 June 2020 protesters in Bristol hauled down the statue of Edward Colston, an eighteenth-century merchant who owed his huge personal wealth to slavery, and dumped it into the Avon.

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The removal of Colston’s statue was not an eradication of history, it was history.

Colston’s statue was only erected in 1895 when his links to slavery were well known. In recent decades there has been a local campaign to remove his statue and rename Colston Hall. This campaign has been ignored and so it is no surprise to me that events in the USA sparked protesters here to react as they did to years of frustration.

The destruction of the statue has been condemned as ‘criminal damage’ and as an attempt to ‘eradicate history’.

It may, technically, be the former; it most certainly is not the latter.

Moreover, the actions of those involved have to be seen in historical context. History is not static; it is not somehow encased only in the monuments left behind by our ancestors, it is changing every day.

Which is why we need historians (those we have and future ones) to research, write, explain, and interpret that history.

Let us take the history of protest as just one example of the collective history of humanity over the past few thousand years. If we take the long view we can immediately see how ridiculous and insulting it is to dismiss Sunday’s ‘rioters’ as ‘criminal’.

Pretty much all of the rights we cherish in this country and throughout the world were won not given. These include the right to free speech (something championed by Far Right activists as much as those on the Left of politics); the freedom to practice whatever religion (or none) we choose.

To which we can add the right to political representation, and the right (of nations) to self-determination; the more modern rights to sexual freedom, gender equality, to freedom from discrimination on the grounds of race or disability.

Protest is not a recent invention.

History reminds us that people have protested about all sorts of things for as long as records exist  (and presumably longer). I work on the period 1700-1900 and there are plenty of examples in my area of individuals, communities, and groups protesting about access to common land, to food resources, the right to vote, the right to form a trades union, and against the forcible examination of the female body, to name but a few.

There have been notable eruptions of popular rebellion against oppression: most particularly given the current news agenda, in the Caribbean against slavery. Too often the emancipation of slaves has been credit to a handful of well-meaning white men (like Wilberforce) and to the neglect of the black actors (named and unnamed) who contributed to it.Unknown

The actions of the enslaved have often been written out of history, and the efforts of white men lauded instead. 

And we can see the role that violent direct action has played in winning votes for women, LGBTQ rights, and in winning freedom from oppressive regimes in Europe and elsewhere.

It would be lovely if protest was always gentle and respectful of property and persons. If governments would listen and consult with the oppressed and the exploited. History teaches us that they don’t; the reality is that for change to happen persuasion has to take place. Why should the rich and powerful conceded any of their wealth or privilege to those they control unless they fear the consequences of not doing so?

But power is very rarely given away, it is taken.

And before we get too precious about the violence that we’ve seen on the streets of Britain and America in reaction to the killing of George Floyd (and allowing for the fact that much of that violence cuts both ways – police ‘brutality’ and the ‘criminality’ of the activists), let us again remind ourselves of how states like the US and UK came into and have maintained their existence.

The USA was born in conquest. British, Spanish, Portuguese and French invaders (or settlers, discoverers if you prefer) brutally subdued the native indigenous peoples and seized their land. Then in 1776 a violent revolution took place and white colonial Americans overcame the lawful English government and (with the help of the French) established their own republic.  They continued to build a nation using slave labour imported (violently) from Africa.

The British state is even more rooted in violence. England was born from dynastic wars reaching back to the 700s or earlier. Britain only exists because English armies subdued the Scots and Welsh and Irish. The British Empire (‘overwhelmingly a force for good’ apparently) was really a product of violent land grabs in Africa and the Indian subcontinent, maintained by gunboat diplomacy and periodic warfare.

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The British Empire’s response to a national uprising in India was brutal

We owe our place in the world to violence: destructive, exploitative, nationalistic, imperialist, violence often justified on the basis that we (I mean white Britons) were members of a ‘superior’ race with a ‘civilizing mission’.

I could go on but I think the point is made.

Nowhere on earth has peaceful protest been the ‘norm’ for effecting change. Everywhere the nations that exist valorize violence in their national history. Yes, we might rightly laud the battle for freedom on D-Day, or the sacrifice of 60,000 British lives on day one of the Somme, but let’s not forget that war is the ‘extension of diplomacy by others means’ and power is equated to force.

If the marginalized fight back (or others take up arms on their behalf) we can hardly be surprised, nor, I would argue, can we deny them the rights and privileges that our ancestors won for us.

Black Lives Matter is a movement born of hundreds of years of exploitation and the frustration of the denial of equality and, in some cases, basic human rights. I cannot condemn them or those that support them, and can only hope that, as historians, we are part of the solution not a part of the problem.

 

Street gambling and the law in 1850s London

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The nature of the law is at the centre of discussions this morning. Yesterday judges sitting in the highest court in the land – the Supreme Court – ruled that the highest political figure in the country (the Prime Minister) had acted unlawfully (illegally) in proroguing Parliament. The proroguing was declared null and void  and parliament will reconvene this morning at 11.30 to hold the executive to account.

This – despite what some newspaper editorials and unhappy government representatives might say – is democracy in action. We are not a dictatorship, and no one is above the law. This means that the law protects us – the people – from misrule by those that govern us.

This may be a frustration to the small majority of voters who voted to leave the European Union in 2016 but I hope they will recognize that the alternative – giving the executive carte blanche to ride rough-shod over parliamentary sovereignty – would have set an extremely dangerous precedent for the future. Many people voted to be free of the constraints of rule from Brussels (however misguided that might have been) I’m not sure they voted to ‘take back control’ only to surrender it to a modern day Hitler or Stalin.

This blog is concerned not with the highest court of the land but with some of the lowest. The Police Magistrates courts of Victorian London tended to deal with the more trivial problems of daily life in the capital. But here too law was important and central, and its application was supposed to be given without fear or favour, regardless of class.

In 1857 two justices sat in judgment on a man accused of organizing gambling in public. This was an unusual case; in part because two City magistrates were present but also because they quite clearly disagreed with each other.

Davis was arrested by City constable 325 for obstructing the footway at Bride Lane. Davis was with two other men and when the officer searched him he found betting books and £5 17sin coin on him. The case turned then on whether Davis (or the other men) were using the books and actually taking bets at the time. It was established that he wasn’t so the question arose of why the constable had arrested him. Alderman Copeland thought it a ‘monstrous interference with the liberty of the subject’ that the policeman  had arrested a ‘gentleman’ for doing nothing illegal at all.

He went on to say that not far away the officer might have found persons selling goods on the street and trading illegally by the Stock Exchange, yet they were not being arrested.  Abraham Davis had been stopped, moved on, and searched on several occasions by the same City policeman and alderman Copeland was clearly implying that the constable was enforcing the law selectively, and with bias.

Alderman Hale took a different view. He noted that gambling was a problem. It led to idleness, to debt, and to crime as well as causing large crowds to gather and block the streets. There were laws against it and he was determined to enforce them regardless of the class of individual brought in front of him.

Alderman Copeland agreed that gambling was a public nuisance but argued as well that other infringements of the law – such as the illegal trade in tallow (carried out just yards from where Davis was arrested, and ignored by the police) must also be prosecuted. He also felt that having a betting book in one’s possession was not the same thing as organizing illegal gambling and he clearly felt that the policeman had overstepped by searching a gentleman’s pockets on the street.

In the end alderman Hale agreed that while the officer was within his rights to attempt to suppress the ‘evil’ of street gambling Abraham Davis had not been found to be doing anything illegal. Under the law he was innocent and so he discharged him. The law was, even at this level, supposed to be applied  fairly and it seems that this is what the officer had been doing. Had he brought in some working class men for illegal trading I wonder whether alderman Copeland would have tried to defend them as vociferously as he attempted to defend a ‘gentleman’?

[from The Morning Post, Friday, September 25, 1857]

Of the hidden curriculum, ignorance and prorogation

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Having just dealt with two gentlemen who had been found drunk and drawing a crowd around them near Cremorne Gardens, Mr Arnold’s Westminster Police court was now filled with a motely collection of working class men and women. They answered summons for not sending their children to school. The cases were brought by the Chelsea School Board in the person of Mr Cook the board officer.

In most of the cases the magistrate agreed that their had been neglect of duty on the part of the parents, and he fined them small amounts and extracted promises that in future they would ensure their children went to school. In one case however, he had to take a different line. This involved a very poor woman who said that despite her best efforts her son kept playing truant and there was nothing she could do about it. Her husband left for work very early in the morning and she too worked, so she could not make sure that when he set off for school he didn’t sneak back later on while his parents were out.

Mr Arnold was sympathetic and called the boy to the dock to explain himself. The lad said he was sent to school but didn’t go. The justice now ‘explained to the little fellow the advantages of going to school’.

He added that ‘poor people who had to work hard for their living could not be expected to to take their children to school and sit on a door-step to see that they remained there; and in cases where the parents did their utmost to comply with the law he should not convict them, because their children were rebellious’.

He went on to say that in some instances ‘those children were proper subjects for an industrial school’, where education would be combined with more severe discipline. This might have been a veiled threat to the boy to not play truant again but he wrapped it up in a wider warning to parents that thought sending their offspring away was an easy solution to avoiding prosecution and a convenient means of having them educated and cared for at the state’s expense.

Parents of children sent to industrial schools (or reformatories) were expected to contribute to their upkeep he reminded the court (and the reading public of course). For ‘those children ought not to be easily got rid of by their parents and become a burden to the ratepayers’ and he instructed Mr Cook to make his views clearly known to the School Board. The reporter finished his account by stating that:

‘The system of parents getting rid of their children by complaining that they are beyond their control is becoming very prevalent’.

The education offered to working-class children in the second half of the nineteenth century was basic and not designed to lift them up above their social status. Children were taught to read and write but also not to challenge their superiors and to learn to accept ‘their place’ in society. It has taken a very long time for this to change in Britain, arguably it is only from the 1960s or later that education has really affected the status quo, and some might reasonably suggest the effect is limited at best.

Education – and the encouragement of independent thinking – is crucial if society is to develop and not simply replicate the traditional hierocracies of the past. It is not an accident that public (private) schools are given charitable status to enable them to prosper, or are excluded from the national curriculum taught to most children. It is no accident either that the children of the wealthy and ennobled are much more likely to go to our top universities, while children from disadvantaged communities – notably BAME ones – are largely excluded.

Education is political – it always has been – and it probably suits the ruling elite for the majority of the population to be under education, to believe what the tabloids tell them, not to challenge the words of their ‘superiors’. There has been a clear move to silence the voices of ‘experts’ in political debate recently – on climate change, on political democracy, and on brexit most notably.

‘Ignorance is bliss’ some say; I would say it is dangerous and plays into the hands of those that rule us, those – if you but scratch the surface – who went to private schools like Eton, Harrow and Westminster, before finishing their studies at Oxford and Cambridge, before proceeding into positions of wealth and privilege because their parents were rich and powerful already. The attack on the Westminster bubble by disenchanted members of the public is misplaced in my opinion. Today the ‘old school tie brigade’ is ripping up democracy in front of our very eyes to serve the old order’s desire for continued wealth and privilege. If you see the proroguing of our sovereign elected parliament by an unelected cabal of unrepresentative privileged individuals as anything other than a coup in all but name, then I respectfully suggest you look beyond the tabloids and read a little more history.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, August 29, 1873]

Upper class boisterousness Bloomsbury Square and a reminder that double standards persist

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Police constable Fisher (32E) was on duty in Great Russell Street in the early hours of Friday morning, 26 July 1867. As he approached Bloomsbury Square on his beat he heard what sounded like gunshots, and he rushed towards the sound. Nearby PC Vindon (34E) had also heard the sounds and was hurrying to investigate.

As the two officers converged on the square they saw two young men aiming rifles at the gas lamps. They had missed more than once but had now succeeded in putting out two of the square’s lamps. When they saw PC Vindon they turned tail and ran, one of them running straight into the arms of constable Fisher.

‘That is nice conduct for a young man like you – firing off powder and putting the lamps out’, PC Fisher admonished his prisoner.

‘There you are mistaken’, the young man replied, ‘it was only caps’.

Looking down PC Fisher saw 12 exploded caps on the ground, six by each lamppost. He arrested the lad, who gave his name as Frank Hughes, and took him back to the police station to be charged.

At the station he explained that he’d just returned from Wimbledon where he’d won a prize for shooting. He claimed he didn’t know there was any powder in the rifle (which seems unlikely). However, he was clearly ‘respectable’, being described as having a ‘gentlemanly appearance’ and this probably helped him when he was brought before Sir Thomas Henry at Bow Street Police court.

There he apologize and said he hoped the magistrate might overlook his indiscretion. No, said Sir Thomas, he could not possibly do that but he only fined him. The sum was large, 40s, but not hard to find for someone with deep pockets like young Frank. He paid up at once and was released.

This is a reminder that class determined outcomes in the summary courts of the capital. Working class ruffians were mostly sent to prison (many would not have afforded such a fine anyway) because their behavior was deemed disorderly and a sign of latent criminal intent. By contrast the transgressions (however serious) of the upper class were put down to ‘youthful excess’ and deemed in some way ‘natural’.

I’d like to say we’d left those class distinctions behind but when we have our second Old Etonian and ex-Bullingdon Club Prime Minister in a decade I doubt we have.

Today my current cohort of students graduate from the University of Northampton with degrees in History. Young people, students especially, can get a very bad press but that is unfair and unjustified. I’ve taught most of these students over the past three years and while I know some better than others they are all a bright, hardworking and thoughtful bunch of young people. I wish them all the best for their future and hope they take some of the things they’ve learned forward with them, whatever they do, and stay in touch with us here.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, July 26, 1867]

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 Victorian London. The book is available on Amazon here

The democratic process under stress: riots at the Middlesex Election of 1852

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With a new prime minister about to be announced this morning thoughts turn to a possible General Election. British politics is going through a tumultuous time and it was interesting to hear the new leader of the Liberal Democrats describe the Conservatives and Labour as the ‘two old parties’ when the Liberals are just as ancient and established as the Tories. They used to be the radical party of British politics, a tag they still like to revive when it suits them (as it does today with their opposition to Brexit).

In the mid 1800s parliament was made up of Conservatives (Tories) and the Whigs; the parties that had dominated politics for a century. But within the Whigs there was a splinter of MPs who described themselves as ‘Radicals’. They were dedicated to extending the franchise to include the working classes (who were largely excluded from the vote until the 1860s) and had been agitators against the hated Corn Laws (which kept food prices high for the poorest).

At the general election in 1852 the Radicals stood candidates against the Whigs and the Tories in the two seats that served the London constituency of Middlesex.  Middlesex had been a hotbed of radical politics from at least the late 1600s. The most famous radical MP for Middlesex was probably John Wilkes, and widespread rioting accompanied his election in 1768. Wilkes was a fierce opponent of the government of the day and had to flee to Paris to avoid prosecution for libel and debt. When he returned and stood for parliament he was elected but then promptly imprisoned in the King’s Bench prison. His supporters went on the rampage. Wilkes was a populist with great appeal but deep down he was also a cynical self-serving politician who would later order troops to fire on the Gordon Rioters as he was, by then, one of the City’s magistrates.

In 1852 there were more riots in Middlesex as supporters of the Radical candidate Ralph Bernal Osborne (below right) clashed with those of John Spencer-Churchill (the Marquis of Blandford) who stood for the Tories. An effigy of the Marquis was carried through the streets along with a stuffed fox and a pole with the label ‘a Derby puppet’ attached to it. Lord Derby had become PM in February 1852 following the fall of Lord Russell’s Whig ministry. It was a minority government and it too collapsed in December that year. He is sometimes credited with creating the modern Conservative party (an honour more usually credited to Disraeli). 220px-Ralph_Bernal_Osborne,_Vanity_Fair,_1870-05-28

The riots resulted in a series of arrests and led to three men appearing before Mr Paynter at Hammersmith Police court. Thomas Hall (25) was a sweep; Edward Hewett (33) and William Cook (19) were labourers, so all were working class. After the poll had closed disturbances had erupted at Hammersmith and the police who were there to keep order were attacked. Some of the police were in plain clothes, watching the crowd, and Hall was seen parading with the stuffed fox. PC John Jones (210T) stated that he was assaulted by Hall and as he tried to arrest him a ‘mob’ closed in on him.

PC Petit (194T) went to help and was thrown to ground by Hall. The prisoner then kicked him in the face, bruising his chin. The other two defendants joined in the fracas. PC John Searle (69T) was threatened by Cook who carried a large stick, which had been used to carry a flag, but was now simply a weapon. The police had taken the men into custody after a struggle and at the station it the men had bragged that any fine they got would be paid by the candidate they’d supported, Ralph Osborne.

Gangs of ‘roughs’ were a feature of election campaigns in the period just as they had been in the eighteenth century. Intimidation was common in elections – there were no secret ballots until 1872 so everyone knew who you voted for. The magistrate established that none of the trio were voters and the police said that all of the were known ruffians who’d appeared for assault before. Perhaps they were hired by the radicals, although they would have denied this. Politics was a dirty business in the 1800s, although one wonders whether it is much better today.  Even if Osborne had agreed to pay any fines it didn’t help the men. Mr Paynter told them their behavior was ‘disgraceful’ and said they had ‘interfered with the freedom of the election’, by preventing voters for going to the hustings.  He sentenced Cook to a month in gaol and the others to three weeks each.

After sentencing Cook claimed that he been employed to cause trouble by Dr Simpson and Hall said he was bring paid by a man named Rainbow. It neither of them any good as they were all led away and to be locked up.

The election returned the two incumbent MPs, Osborne for the Radicals and Robert Grosvenor for the Whigs. John Spencer-Churchill (the grandfather of Winston) came a narrow third. He entered Parliament in 1857 when the death of his father meant that he inherited the title of the duke of Marlborough. There were only 14, 610 registered voters in Middlesex in in 1852, returning two MPs. Only about half of them turned out to vote. Now the former Middlesex seat has been broken up into 8 separate seats in London, from Uxbridge to Hornsey.

If the voting system of the 1850s seems undemocratic to modern eyes then perhaps we should note that our next Prime Minster has just been elected by a tiny handful of the electorate, roughly 180,000 people out of 47,000,000 (or less than 1%).

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, July 23, 1852]

A report from 1890 shows little difference in casual racism today: an (historical) note to Mr B. Johnson.

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Racism takes many forms, (as the comments of a former secretary of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs demonstrated yesterday). When we look back at the past we are apt to comment that ‘it was another country’ where ‘they did things differently’. London was a multi-cultural city in the late Victorian period and while there were pockets or moments of racial tension (such as during the Whitechapel murder panic in 1888) for the most part the different communities got along.

Nevertheless the idea that white Britons were superior to pretty much anyone else was a persistent trope in contemporary discussions. Britain ‘ruled the waves’ after all and had an Empire ‘on which the sun never set’. This was a time when the world map was heavily tinged with pink and when we, and not the USA or Russia, were the World’s chief ‘superpower’.

I do wonder how much of today’s angst about Europe is born of a desire to regain our imperial past. The EU leave campaign’s slogan ‘we want our country back’ is a curious one; what country were they talking about? The one that stood alone at the start of WW2? The one that was experiencing economic disaster in the mid 1970s? Or perhaps the nation that operated an empire on five continents?

The newspapers were certainly ‘casually racist’ in the 1800s. Most ‘foreigners’ are either seen as inferior, dangerous, or amusing. This seems to have persisted right up to the 1980s when things began to change in the way people described others. It is no longer acceptable to poke fun at people on account of their race, ethnicity or religion now, but that doesn’t seem to have filtered down to Mr Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, that American born champion of British liberties.

In 1890 no such ‘political correctness’ existed and so the The Illustrated Police News ‘headlined’ its report of a case of domestic violence at the Thames Police court ‘The Heathen Chinee all over’. The case concerned two Chinese immigrants: Ah Wei (a young ship’s steward) and Ah Tuing (a fireman). Both worked on the ships coming in and out of the London Docks and belonged to the small but well established Chinese community in Limehouse.

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It was this community that inspired Sax Rohmer’s ever-so-slightly racialist crime series about the criminal mastermind Fu Man Chu. Contemporary depictions of Limehouse as an area overrun by the ‘yellow peril’ and clouded in opium smoke owe much to Rohmer and Dickens’ Mystery of Edwin Drood, but the reality was that most people there lived in reasonable harmony with each other, regardless of their background.

Ah Tuing had accused the ship’s steward of assaulting him and was asked to swear an oath before he gave his evidence. Speaking through an interpreter (interpreters were common in the police courts, given the proliferation different languages spoken from Chinese to Yiddish, to German or Italian) Ah Tuing explained that as a Buddhist the ‘only oath he respected was the extinguishing of a lighted candle’.

This meant that ‘if he did not speak the truth his soul would be blown away in the same way as was the light’.

Mr Cluer (the magistrate) asked if a ‘wax vesta’ (a match) would ‘do as well’ and reached into his pocket to fetch one. No, the interpreter insisted, it had to be a candle so one was fetched and Ah Tuing was ‘sworn’.

The case now unfolded and Mr Cluer was told that the prosecutor had lent Ah Wei a waterproof coat to protect him from a shower of rain, extracting a promise of sixpence for the loan. The steward refused to pay up when the rain ceased and an argument ensued. This descended into a fight in which Ah Wei was deemed to be the aggressor. One witness – most of whose evidence was given in translation – saved some English for the man in the dock. Turning to him he shouted:

‘You _______ liar. You one loafer!’

All the evidence then pointed to Ah Wei being guilty of assault but then all the evidence had come from the Chinese community. The key witness (for Mr Cluer at least) was Joseph Brown, a greengrocer on Limehouse Causeway. He testified that Ah Wei had been in in his shop when Ah Tuing entered carrying a child in his arms. He thrust the child in the steward’s face and ‘kept irritating him’ and then ‘afterwards [they] had a fair fight’.

The English of course, had very clear ideas about what a ‘fair fight’ was. This did not involve weapons and usually meant the two parties were roughly equally matched. Mr CLuer wasn’t interested in what the Chinese community’s idea of a ‘fair fight’ was, just as he seemingly dismissed the evidence of those that came in to back Ah Tuing’s version of events. An Englishman’s word was of much higher value than a foreigner’s and so he dismissed the charge.

The press reportage reminded the reader that ‘Johnny foreigner’ was a strange and exotic creature, and Boris Johnson’s equation of Muslim women wearing the Burkas with ‘bank robbers’ or  ‘letter boxes’ belongs to this tradition of English xenophobia; one ‘tradition’ we could do with ditching as soon as possible.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, August 7, 1897]