‘A very good idea’? Charity and race in mid nineteenth-century London

Some Inmates of the Strangers' Home for Asiatics, Africans, and South Sea Islanders

Anyone familiar with print culture in the nineteenth century will probably be able to testify to its underlying racism expressed most often in statements of white (or rather British) racial superiority and in ‘ethnological studies’ of the many ‘others’ found in British society or in the vast reaches of the Empire.

This is most evident in the colourful descriptions of immigrant Jews in East London and in reports of the port communities that stretched the length of the Thames and its docks.

The racism may be familiar but it still has the capacity to shock. Take for example an article from the Daily News published in May of 1872 that was headlined ‘“Darkies” from the Deep’. What followed was a fairly sympathetic report of a visit to the Strangers Home for Asiatics,  Africans, and South Sea Islanders, which was then situated in the West India Dock Road.

The home was established in the 1850s; set up by charitable donations to create a haven for destitute Chinese and Indian (Lascar) seamen who, abandoned by ship-owners, struggled to find work in the capital. According to the author they fell prey to ‘crimps, mostly of their own colour’, who fleeced them of their meagre wages and left them nothing with which to support themselves.

‘Their bodies were found in out-of-the-way corners, under railway arches, or in common yards, whither the poor creatures, enfeebled by hunger, and their marrow chilled in their bones by the rigours of our climate, had crept to die’.

In three years (1854-56) hundreds had died and many more had been admitted to hospital. A huge donation by the Maharajah Duleep Singh was followed by donations from the Queen, Indian merchants and others, before Prince Albert laid the foundation stone for the Home, which opened its doors in 1857.

When the Daily News’ reporter visited in May 1872 he described it thus:

‘A group of Lascars, with their bushy looks and swarthy skins, contrasts strangely with the solitary Chinaman who leans thoughtfully against the wall, his pigtail over his shoulder; a Malay with yellow eyes, long straight hair, and strong jaw, is conversing pantomimically with a tall, straight, hawk-eyed New Zealander, whose cheeks and forehead are fantastically tattooed. There are full-blood negroes from Gambia, and half-caste Portuguese from Goa, natives of the Friendly Islands, and lissome Cingalese [Singhalese], and representatives of perhaps a dozen other races neither easy to be distinguished at a glance, nor capable of being understood by any Englishman not endowed with the gift of tongues’.

The reporter noted the sounds and smells of the Home, the peculiar foods (’curry and rice’) that mingled with more familiar stuffs (like bread and butter and tea). He commented on the arrangements for bathing (‘the Oriental takes his bath every morning as religiously […] as he says his prayers’). And the article ended by noting that the Home had a good stock of Bibles and New testaments ‘in a variety of Eastern languages’.

A newspaper report from June 1857 described the opening of the Home (on 3 June) and noted that it had space for 230 inmates plus a superintendent and various officers and staff. The opening was formally marked by the singing of the psalm 67 (‘May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face shine on us— so that your ways may be known on earth, your salvation among all nations’), and a scripture reading.

This underpinned the Christian missionary ethos of the charity.

Almost all Victorian charity which operated to help the poor, the homeless, or the friendless, did so under the aegis of the church (in one form or another). There was a space for Muslim prayer in the back yard of the Home but while the writer of the 1872 article noted this, it seems clear that the hopes of those involved in this ’mission’ was that here were ready coverts to Christian religion and (perhaps even) Western ‘civilization’.

In the 1850s and throughout the century London was home to very many people of all races and creeds. It is likely that in the eighteenth century there had been many more, and that while they were denied the limited support available to the indigenous poor, they were not subject to the racism that developed from the end of the 1700s. With the expanse of Empire in the Victorian period that racism became more entrenched as white superiority was increasingly held up as a justification for subjugating ‘inferior’ races.

I am reminded of what Mahatma Gandhi supposedly replied when asked what he thought of Western civilization?

‘I think it would be a very good idea’, he said.

[from Daily News, Wednesday 29 May, 1872; Daily News, Thursday 4 June, 1857 ]

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.

Romer_-_Mystery

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]

‘He is excited when he gets anything to drink, and is not responsible for his actions’; arson and sibling rivalry in Victorian Limehouse

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When PC Walter Stratford (K 376) arrived at Nesbit’s Rents, off Three Colt Street, Limehouse he found chaos and confusion. The property was owned by Mary Charlton and her husband and there were three other families living there. PC Stratford was directed up to the room occupied by the Cullens (two brothers – John and Micheal – and their sister, Elizabeth).

Elizabeth was screaming her head off and a small fire had engulfed one of the two beds. Michael Cullen was sitting quietly on a chair smoking his pipe. Soon afterwards a second officer arrived and he tried to calm the situation as the household, many of them dressed only in their nightgowns milled around outside.

The policemen, John Cullen and Mary Charlton all helped beat out the flames and then the finger of blame was pointed at Michael who was arrested and taken to the nearest police station for questioning. There he apparently admitted setting the fire in the bed because he wanted more space. He shared with his brother while Elizabeth slept in her own bed. When John had refused to move over, Michael had set light to the bed clothes to force him to. John had been woken by his sister’s cries of ‘fire!’ and had leapt up, grabbed his brother, and punched him hard.

By all accounts Michael was drunk and when he was drunk he changed from being the quiet and inoffensive character his married sister, Ellen, later testified to, into a very different person. ‘He is excited when he gets anything to drink, and is not responsible for his actions’, she told an Old Bailey judge when her brother was eventually tried for arson in April 1889.

Fortunately tragedy was avoided and no one was hurt by Michael’s reckless desire to have a more comfortable sleep that night but at the Thames Police court the 12 year-old cabinet maker was still formally indicted for the offence by Mr Lushington.

Michael Cullen apologised for his actions at the Old Bailey and claimed he never intended to do anyone any harm. He admitted his inebriated state and claimed to remember little of what had happened. He added that it was the first time he’d been in trouble with the law. The jury believed his version of events and acquitted him.

The circumstances reveal the reality of living conditions for many of those living in the East End of London in the later 1800s. Three siblings, all in their early twenties, shared one room in  house of multiple occupation. In total somewhere between nine and 15 or more individuals lived in Nesbit’s rents, and tensions must have flared at times.

In the late 1800s Limehouse had a poor reputation as a centre for drugs and crime and Three Colt Street, where the Cullens lived, was at the heart of London’s Chinese quarter. More recently Limehouse has featured in a major film version of Peter Ackroyd’s novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem. The film is fun but the book is much better.

[from The Standard, Monday, March 25, 1889]

Art theft in the Caledonian Road – a Frenchman is questioned at Bow Street

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Caledonian Road market, late 1800s

London was a cosmopolitain city in the nineteenth century. I have been tracing my family tree and have discovered that one of my grandfather’s sisters married a German tailor who lived and worked around Marylebone. There was a large Russian/Polish community in Whitechapel alongside many previously settled German Jews. In Limehouse you could find a small but well established Chinese community, while Frenchmen, Italians and other Europeans were well represented throughout the capital.

Henry Sanders was a 21 year-old Frenchman who lived in Stanmore Street, off the Caledonian Road. He described himself as a watchmaker but was brought before Sir James Ingham at Bow Street Police Court accused of obtaining artworks from a  Belgian painter under false pretences.

Sanders (which may not have been his real name) was brought in by the police having been tracked and arrested in Liverpool by Inspector Moser. The Belgian authorities had approached the Metropolitan Police and were formally requesting that Sanders be extradited to the Low Countries to face trial.

Three other men were involved in the deception; fellows Belgians named Leroy, Marten and Merney. They had been apprehended in a pub in Tottenham Court Road five days earlier but Sanders had escaped north.

Questioned by Sir James Sanders admitted obtaining two paintings by the artist Hoezort. The pictures (Le Lundi and L’Attende) had cost him £60 which he said he had secured the rights to sell. Three other watercolours were found however, ‘alleged to have been obtained by fraud from Continental artists’, and evidence relating to at least one of these was found in a notebook at Sanders’ premises. The police also uncovered  series of letters and notes written by Sanders but under a variety of different aliases.

For the time being the police requested a remand so they could pursue their enquiries and the magistrate granted it. Henri Sanders (if that was indeed his name) and his three associates, would continue to enjoy the hospitality of the English police and prison system until such a time as a decision was made as to whether to send them home or dismiss the charge against them.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, January 02, 1883]