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]

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]

It is 75 years before D Day and a German collapses in court

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An anti-German riot in Crisp Street, London in 1915

Today is the 75thanniversary of the D Day landings in Normandy, more properly known as Operation Overlord. In June 1944 thousands of allied troops landed on beaches on the French coast and began the liberation of Europe from Nazi occupation. It was moving to listen to the interviews with veterans, most of them in their nineties with a few centurions, who remembered their feelings that day but most of all focused on those that didn’t make it.

In all the reports of the commemorations the enemy on the beaches was referred to as the Nazis, or more broadly – Fascism. British, American, Free French and Commonwealth troops were not fighting Germans they were fighting Nazis and Fascists. There has also been a lot made of alliances, which is understandable as we look to sunder one of the key alliances that has meant that Europe has been largely free of the sort of war that all those brave soldiers, sailors and airmen risked and gave their lives fighting.

The EU was never just a trading block it was always meant to be a way of resolving differences between states by diplomacy and shared common value. I find it very sad that we look likely to the ones that start the process of dismantling that union in some misguided belief that it makes us stronger, more prosperous, or more independent.

Nearly all of our history is linked to the European continent in some way or another and we have always tried to influence events there. Whether that was by claiming all of France as a part of the English crown for 100s of years, standing side-by-side with fellow Protestants in the 1600s, or funding the war (and then helping winning it) against Napoleon in the early 1800s, we have always been closely involved with European matters.

By contrast we have fought two wars against the USA (in 1776 and 1812), backed the losing side in the Civil War, and had to wait a long time to see ‘dough boys’ help us out in 1917. It took a great deal of persuasion and a catastrophic piece of misjudgment by the Japanese and Hitler to bring the US into the war in 1942, and ultimately to be our allies on 6 June 1944. The ‘special relationship’ started then not before. So our relationship with Europe is about 1000 years old or longer, that with America is just over 100.

One point I did find interesting on the news last night was that while today we are 75 years from 1944 as those troops landed on the beaches of Utah, Omaha, Sword, Gold and Juno that society was 75 years from 1869 and the height of the Victorian age. In looking through the newspapers at June 1869 then, I was interested to find a German immigrant in court for theft.

Interested but not surprised because London, like New York, had a large German population in the 1860s and throughout the century. On my father’s side of the family I have German relatives; my great aunt married a German immigrant in the capital in the 1890s.

Carl Auguste was a 50 year-old boot maker (as very many of the Germans in London were, many others being bakers). He’d being buying leather and parts of boots from Mr Felix’s shop on the Euston Road for many years but something made him decide to stop paying for them. In late May the manager noticed that some items had gone missing after a visit by Auguste so he made a point of watching him carefully the next time he came in.

He asked for some leather and while the shop assistant had his back turned he slipped a pair of Wellington boot tops (they were leather then, not rubber of course) and a piece of leather under his coat. As he was about the leave the manager pounced and searched him. Having been found in possession of the stolen items it was pretty inevitable that he would wind up in court before Mr Cooke at Clerkenwell.

The magistrate didn’t have much of a decision to make and sentenced him three months hard labour in the house of correction. This came as quite a shock to Carl, who ‘fell down in a swoon, and it was some time before he could be brought to’.

Germans living in London were part of the community and, as my ancestor’s actions shows, they were fully integrated into London society. There was no bad feeling towards immigrants until the late 1800s when fears over the influx of poor migrants from the Russian Pale surfaced and racist politicians like Arnold White whipped up popular hatred and prejudice. This led to the passing of the first immigration act in 1905 that restricted the numbers of poor eastern European immigrants that were allowed in.

The real antipathy towards German communities in England broke out during the First World War. German businesses were attacked and many people were interned as threats to the state, which in London meant they were housed in a makeshift camp at Alexandra Palace.   The second war has defined British and German relationships ever since but we shouldn’t remember that before 1914 our two peoples were much closer and we didn’t indulge in some of the prejudices that still divide us today.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, June 6, 1869]

On June 15 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 to order on Amazon here

 

From Kennington Common in 1848 to the People’s Vote in 2019; 171 years of democracy in action

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A nation divided against itself, unhappy with its political masters; tens of thousands of people marching though the capital with banners held aloft; a petition signed by thousands of ordinary people which the Prime Minster chooses to ignore. We’ve been here before haven’t we, in 1842 with Chartism. In May of that year a 100,000 people (Maybe 150,000) turned out to accompany a petition supporting the Charter on its way to Parliament. This was a ‘good-humoured and “teetotal”’ procession but later that year, and subsequently, things turned ugly as the Victorian state not only rejected the six demands of the people but deployed the police and military to guard against insurrection.1

By March 1848 Chartism was in decline but radical revolution was very much in the air in continental Europe. 1848 was the ‘year of revolutions’  and in March 1848 London witnessed large gatherings of Chartists in places with long histories of popular protest (like Clerkenwell and Bethnal Green) and a mass demonstration on Kennington Common later that spring, on 10 April. kenningtoncommon-standardThis drew another 150,000 people (right) but the authorities made sure it didn’t go anywhere: troops were stationed throughout the capital at hot spots and no one was allowed to cross the Thames to march on Parliament.

The Charter demanded the following reforms, all but one of which have been achieved today:

  1. Universal suffrage
  2. Abolition of property qualifications for members of parliament
  3. Annual parliamentary elections
  4. Equal representation
  5. Payment of members of parliament
  6. Vote by secret ballot

I doubt anyone (especially Brenda) wants to see annual general elections but in 1848 the government was not inclined to grant any of the Chartists’ demands. The 1832 Great Reform Act had extended the franchise to the middle class but the idea of making it universal was not properly contemplated until the 1860s when Disraeli took his ‘leap in the dark’ and enfranchised very many more working class men.

The 1848 petition was claimed to have 5m signatures but it reality it had fewer than 2m and some of these were faked (it was apparently signed very many times by Queen Victoria). This undermined the Chartists just as much as the violence that some Chartists deployed (in the Newport Rising of 1839 for example) hardened some hearts against them and divided the leadership.

Yesterday (23 March 2019), 171 years after 1848 something like a 1,000,000 people marched through central London and tried to squeeze into Parliament Square. There was no violence and it was all very good humoured.032319-london-brexit-march-01

The police presence on the ground was minimal (the police have other ways to watch crowds these days, evidenced by the helicopters that circled overhead and the ubiquitous CCTV). People came from all over Britain not just from ‘Remoaning’ London, and they brought their children and pets with them.

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There was a carnival, pro-European, feel to the march albeit with a lot of deep felt anger and frustration at the cavalier attitude of the ruling party (and indeed the opposition in Parliament). This was a protest with a very similar purpose to that of the Chartists in that both wanted to see a shift in power from the executive to the people, and both would argue that they were not being listened to.

The petition to revoke Article 50 had passed 4.5m signatures by teatime Saturday (as most of the marchers were making their way home) and the woman that had posted it was hiding in Cyprus after receiving death threats for having the audacity to call for a democratic vote by the people. Today the government doesn’t need to send in the troops to break up demonstrations or have the secret service infiltrate political groups, there are enough trolls and anti-democratic keyboard warriors to do their dirty work for them.

Everything we have achieved as a people in terms of winning concession from our royal or our political masters has been achieved through protest and campaigning. The rich and powerful did not (and will not) give up their privileges easily but we the people are many and they are few, and ultimately they recognize this and bow to pressure when they have to.

From the Peterloo massacre and the first mass movement for electoral reform, through the Chartists to the Suffragettes and beyond this country has a proud history of social protest aimed at holding our rulers to account. A lot has been said recently about what democracy is and what it means to be democratic. Understandably the present occupant of 10 Downing Street believes she is democratically obliged to deliver the will of the people as expressed in June 2016 in the referendum.

At what point however, did anyone sign up to a democracy in which we were are only asked for our opinion once?

1.Jerry White, London in the Nineteenth Century, (London, Jonathan Cape, 2007), p.365

‘A fever amongst people living under the mockery of a poor-law which recognizes no right to relief in destitution’: reflections on the Irish Potato Famine from 1846

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Today is St Patrick’s Day and there will be drinking galore in Dublin, London and Boston and throughout the Irish diaspora. The island of Ireland is small, just 32, 500 square miles, and today it is home to around 6.5m people, but it bats above its average in terms of political importance and influence. This is due in no small part to its strategic significance, situated as it is between continental Europe, Britain and the Atlantic, and also of course, because of its long and troubled history. It is not for nothing that the Brexit wrangling in recent months has focused so much on the so-called ‘Irish backstop’; the determination not to recreate a hard border between Eire (the Irish Republic) and the six counties of Northern Ireland.

The Irish influence is widespread however, because of the waves of Irish emigration from the ‘emerald isle’ that took place, for the most part at least, in the nineteenth century. Millions of Irish men and women left their homes to travel in search of food, shelter and work – a better life – in the wake of famine, persecution, and religious intolerance.

St. Patrick's Day Parade in America, Union Square, 1870s (colour litho)

Many went to their nearest neighbours, settling in England and Scotland (in London, Liverpool and Glasgow in particular) while many others traveled to the United States (especially New York and Boston). They took their culture with them, hence the St Patrick’s Day parades in US cities today (as above from Boston in the 1870s).

The famine began in September 1845 so by the winter and spring of 1846 it effects could be felt throughout Ireland and the British Isles. England had always had a large Irish immigrant population and they were generally regarded as second-class cousins at best and dangerous Catholic troublemakers at worst. Most of all perhaps the Irish were generally poor and considered to be ‘feckless’ ‘work-shy’ and a burden on the rates. When the numbers of the existing populations were swelled by tens of thousands of new migrants in the mid 1840s antagonisms were heightened.

The Police courts of the English capital were often visited by members of the Irish community, who gravitated to the poorer areas around St Giles, Covent Garden, Whitechapel and Southwark. The Irish had a reputation for hard drinking and ‘fair fights’ (when they were drunk). Brawls in pub spilled over into the streets and there altercations with the police were inevitable.  So arrests would be made for drunken and disorderly behaviour, refusing to quit licensed premises, and assaults on the constabulary. Many Irish ended up in the workhouse or as vagrants and beggars and this could also lead to an appearance before a magistrate.

The situation in Ireland was caused by the failure of the potato crop but exacerbated by the actions of the English landowners, poor law authorities  and government that failed to help the people affected. This was hotly debated in Parliament (just as today’s MPs debate Brexit and the ‘backstop’). Discussions turned around debates between those seeking trade tariffs for imported corn and those opposed to them. Peel wanted to repeal the Corn Laws but this split the Tory party (rather like Brexit has) meanwhile Irish people were literally starving to death. This is a flavor of the debate as reported in the Daily News on the day following St Patrick’s Day 1846:

This measure is an impressive commentary on the time occupied by the Protectionists [those that wanted to keep tariffs] in their long protests. It is fever against which Parliament has to provide. An infliction of fever so national, that Government must interpose to prevent the dying and dead from making the Green Isle a very Golgotha.

It is fever induced by starvation; and hastening on, with giant strides, while week after week is wasted in describing and deprecating the horrors of a superabundant influx of food from foreign countries. Moreover it is a fever amongst people living under the mockery of a poor-law which recognizes no right to relief in destitution’.

Peel’s early attempt to import American corn in secret failed because the quality of the grain was so poor that it was virtually inedible, causing widespread digestive problems so it became known derogatively as ‘Peel’s brimstone’.    At least 800,000 Irish men, women and children died as a direct result of the famine and the failure of the British government to support them, the figure is probably closer to 1-1.5m. A further million (at least) emigrated. If you ever wondered why anti-English feeling remains prevalent at all in the Ireland and amongst Irish communities elsewhere perhaps a reflection on the events of 1845-49 would be instructive.

And that is without considering the actions of the early modern rules of England, the atrocities committed by Oliver Cromwell’s troops, the long battle over Home Rule in the late 1800s, the brutal repression following the Easter Rising in 1916, the ‘black and tans’, ‘Bloody Sunday’, Diplock courts and all the other measures used to govern the northern counties in the Troubles, and of course decades of jokes at their expense.

Happy St Patrick’s Day folks – God save Ireland!

[from Daily News, Wednesday, March 18, 1846]

Knife crime: a salutary lesson from 1888

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In 2010 I started writing an article which eventually saw the light of day in May 2015 in a journal called Cultural and Social History. It concerned a murder case in London in 1888. No, not the ‘Ripper’ or even the ‘Thames Torso mystery’, instead this was the killing of a young man, stabbed to death in Regent’s Park by another young man.

This is how my first draft started:

In the recent 2010 election campaign government and opposition spokesmen traded insults and apportioned blame for what is a perceived increase in youth crime and gang violence over the past decade. Chris Graying, as the Conservative shadow home secretary, declared in February 2010 that, ‘the Government’s policies on crime have failed. After eleven years of claiming to be tough, these figures show shocking levels of violent crime’ and he cited statistics showing that the number of under 16s fatally stabbed has doubled since 1997. In 2007 alone, one teenager was killed each week in gang related attacks. Gang related violence in London claimed the lives of 28 young people aged under 20, while a further 1,237 were injured by guns or knives between April and November of that year. Commentators, politicians and parents have agonised over the causes of this increase in youth violence and, more particularly, about the rise of youth gang culture. Social workers, police, and gang members themselves have offered explanations for why our children are suddenly carrying guns and knives but with very little effect. 

Today, nine years later, we are once again ‘agonising’ over knife crime with the death of two more teenagers in the last week, one in Romford, the other in Greater Manchester. The Tories are now in charge and the current PM (Teresa May) finds herself answering probing and difficult questions on her role in cutting police numbers during her time as David Cameron’s Home Secretary.

I went and spoke to the Whitechapel Society about the murder (and the press coverage that surrounded it) in 2011, on the night that (coincidently) that the Tottenham riots erupted following the shooting, by police, of Mark Duggan a local black youth. I’ll try and set out the story of the ‘Regent’s Park Murder’ below because, in the wake of the recent spike in gang related violence, I think it is worth reflecting on what history can (or cannot) tell us.

On May 23 1888 Cissy Chapman and Francis Cole were walking out together on the Marylebone Road and had reached the junction with Lisson Grove when two young men approached them. Cissy and Francis were loosely involved with a youth ‘gang’ that claimed territorial rights in that area. They had unwittingly crossed into territory claimed by another however, and the two young men soon became a small crowd. The pair were called out, identified as the ‘enemy’ and beaten up.

The next day Francis was out with his mates and told them what had happened. His gang (the ‘Tottenham Court Road’ lads) decided they couldn’t let this attack on one of their number go unanswered and so they set out to ‘get’ the Fitzroy Place Lads or the Seven Dials Lads (the groups they deemed responsible).

It seems (and reports are  not clear) that they set off for nearby Regent’s Park, a location where trysts, dangerous liaisons, petty crime, and gang warfare was relatively common. If the newspaper images are to be believed the lads were tooled up – carrying clubs and sticks and coshes – but only one took a knife with him. Peter Lee had a large sheath knife attached to his belt and George ‘Garry’ Galletly (the youngest member of the gang) asked him to lend it to him. Lee handed the knife over.  ‘This will do for them’ Galletly swore before he set out to look for the rival gang members.

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Meanwhile Joseph Rumbold, a printer’s machinist who lived just a few streets to the west of Regents’ Park, was walking out with his sweetheart Elizabeth Lee, her sister Emily and her young man, Alonzo Byrnes. Alonzo and Emily had hung back as they promenaded around the Outer circle of the park, while Joseph and Elizabeth walked on ahead. Shortly afterwards they heard a scuffle up ahead. They hurried on and saw James Rumbold trying to fight off a group of lads. Rumbled, tried to escape by running off towards the York Gate but he was pursued by most of the gang.

Alonzo demanded to know what had happened. He was told that Rumbold had been attacked because the ‘other night we were up here and we and the girls were struck, and we thought he was one of them from the Dials’. He wasn’t but before they realised that Joseph Rumbled had been fatally wounded, knifed in the neck by George Galletly, perhaps keen to make a name for himself in front of his older chums.

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Rumbold’s death, widely reported in the media, led inevitably to a murder trial at the Old Bailey. There were eight young men in the dock of the Central Criminal court on 30 July 1888 but only Galletly was convicted.* The judge leaned forward and addressed the 18 year-old in the dock:

You and the gang that accompanied you found this unfortunate young man walking with a girl in Regent’s Park. He had done you no harm, had not wronged one of your party, but simply because you thought he lived in the district where some men resided who had insulted and outraged two of your comrades on the previous evening, you cruelly stabbed him twice, defenceless as he was

He then sentenced him to death.

Galletly’s execution was set for the 18 August but he was spared the rope on account of his youth. He served 10 years instead, being released on license in 1898 at the age of 27. The story shocked society and later that year the Pall Mall Gazette ran a feature on the ‘gangs of London’ and the inability of the police to deal with them.

What does the Regent’s Park Murder tell us? Well, the obvious truth that youth violence, testosterone fuelled bravado, and senseless killing is nothing new. And also that the media likes to fan the flames of incidents like this, creating moral panics that help raise awareness but also sell newspapers. It also reminds us (as does Grayling’s attack on Labour in 2010) that governments have systematically failed to tackle the causes of youth violence. The current incumbent of Downing Street’s pledge to host a summit sounds like more excuses to do nothing about a really serious societal issue.

This is probably because the issue is far too complicated for any government to ‘solve’. I don’t pretend to have any solutions either but while increasing police numbers, with more stop and search, and a knife amnesty might all be valid strategies I doubt increasing sentences for offenders or putting he army on the streets will do much good. Fundamentally however I suspect we need better opportunities for those that live in the areas where gang and knife crime festers, more social mobility, more ‘good’ jobs, better education (academic and vocational), more community cohesion, things for young people to do after school, and more support for beleaguered parents, teachers, police and social workers.

All of that costs money, lots and lots of money, and that comes from taxation (unless you want to cut the money we spend somewhere else) and no government wants to pledge to raise your tax. And then we have the small matter of the fact that Britain is facing up to the reality that austerity might go on a lot longer than Cameron and  Osborne promised us it would, given that over half the population voted to pull us out of a union with our closest trading block.

So, I fear, there will be a lot more victims like Joseph Rumbold, Damiola Taylor, Stephen Lawrence, Yousef Makki, and Jodie Chesney. The press will wail and the government will wring its hands, and our young people will continue to be murdered under our noses.

[from The Pall Mall Gazette, Saturday, May 26, 1888]

For other posts on gang crime see:

A London ‘scuttler’ in the dock at Marylebone?

Gang violence in Dalston as a new year dawns : an echo from 1877

*several of the others pleaded guilty to unlawful assembly and assault.