‘De ombrella, he fall down’; the British press amuse themselves at the Europeans’ expense.

stmarylebonebaths

Amid all the squabbling and back-biting that surrounds the UK’s prolonged exit from the European Union one of the more depressing traits that has arisen is a revival of anti-European sentiment. Even the newly appointed Foreign Secretary was quick off the mark in warning the Brussels negotiators that any failure to achieve a good deal for both sides, leading to the “very real risk of a Brexit no deal by accident’, would be blamed on the EU by the British people.

Anti-European rhetoric has been stoked up over the past few years building on decades of often fake news stories peddled by some sections of the English press. All those tales of straight bananas, renaming ‘Bombay mix’ or there being more words on cabbage regulation than there are in the Gettysburg Address were false. If that is added to the drip feed of tabloid articles blaming ‘foreigners’ for an upsurge in crime, pressure on the NHS or even the number of traffic jams on English motorways and you have the underlying xenophobia that fueled the rise of UKIP and, ultimately, won the Brexit referendum.

Not that any of this is new of course; being unpleasant to, or making jokes at the expense of our European neighbours is as a British as fish and chips (which was probably invented by Jewish migrants but let’s not go there). In 1828 Londoners at least remembered a time when they or their parents had fought a war in Europe; a decade after Waterloo the scars of the Napoleonic Wars were still quite angry even if the chief protagonist had been dead for 7 years.

In July of 1828 two men appeared before the magistrate at Marlborough Street Police court, one French and the other German, following an altercation in the street. Louis Courquin was a ‘French cook and confectioner’ and he accused Philipe Bohn, a German tailor, with assaulting him. The magistrate, Sir George Frannat, asked the pair to explain what had gone on between them. The Morning Post’s reporter chose to render the exchange in dialect, for maximum comic effect, something we still see in the occasional tabloid headline.

Bohn told the court that he was standing in the street talking to an English friend when Courquin approached. His friend supposedly said to him, ‘here is one oder fereigner, you can talk together’. Bohn then addressed the chef in German which he didn’t understand, speaking only French (and Bohn said he spoke no French).

Bohn’s English pal presumably thought that all ‘foreigners’ would be able to understand each other, because the English couldn’t understand any of them.

As the pair tried to communicate it seems that the Frenchman’s umbrella fell over and either hit the German or Bohn was blamed for tipping it over (Bohn said that ‘de ombrella, he fall down’ when Courquin ‘he schict his ombrella on de iron shpike, to take a pinch of shnoff’). The argument – if it even was an argument – carried over as both men proceeded to a nearby washhouse.

A parish constable saw the two of them quarrelling, decided the German was to blame, and took him in charge. In court Louis denied bringing  a charge against the other man but did say that he’d now lost his ‘parapluie’ (his umbrella) and his hat. In the confusion both men had left their possessions at the public washhouse and Sir George thought the best solution to it all was for the pair to go back together to retrieve them.

They discovered that they had lived close to each other for several years, with the Frenchman resident in London for nine years and Bohn for five. They were part of a European community in the British capital, and of a wider immigrant populace that included migrants from all over the known world. Nineteenth-century London was, like the modern city, a multi-cultural society.

I like to think they wandered off, arm in arm, muttering about the peculiarities of ‘ze Engleesh’.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, July 26, 1828]

Knife-wielding Belgians run amok in central London

Most if not all of the Belgians I know or have ever met are gentle, intelligent and considerate individuals and we rarely associate violence with that particular European nation. Recently there have been terrorist incidents and Belgium itself has been trampled over in two world wars (neither of which had been caused by its own actions).

So it was rather odd to pen that headline and I apologise to any Flemish speakers that were outraged by it but in 1853 it seems at least two Belgian nationals did cause a scene in the English capital.

An ornamental painter was strolling with his wife on Oxford Street at 11 at night, presumably on the way back to their home at 98 Dean Street, when two men rushed by. One seemingly deliberately shoved the unnamed painter and the artist, believing he had been insulted, turn down him. He put his fists in that most British of stances (adopting a ‘defensive attitude’) only for his assailant to pull out a knife.

According to the victim’s testimony at Marlborough Street Police Court the aggressor, named as Richard Demaine, ‘drew a stiletto, and held it up as to stab him’. Fortunately no one was hurt but one of the men escaped. The other was remanded in custody until he could find bail.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, February 07, 1853]