Refections on VE day – looking back over 150 years of change and continuity

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Today marks 75 years since VE Day (Victory in Europe) 1945. Historians and commentators are writing all sorts of things about the significance of this anniversary and about celebrating it at a time when the country (and the world) is experiencing the most serious health emergency for 100 years.

I thought – with my Victorian social history hat on – that I would reflect on what life was like in Britain 150 years ago; or 75 years prior to VE Day 1945.

As we look back at the footage of 75 years ago (as we’ve all been doing recently) we can see a world, and a UK, that, while it is different from our own in many ways, is not that unfamiliar.

In 1945 most people got their news from the BBC (via the radio or ‘wireless’), most would have read a newspaper that still exist today (such as The Times, Daily Telegraph or the Daily Mirror). Fashions were different but not dramatically so – the zip fastener was a fairly new innovation from the late 1930s, hats were widespread, lycra unheard of (thankfully!).

The country was (as it is today) a parliamentary democracy and everyone over 21 had the vote (meaning that many of those that fought in the war couldn’t have a say in who ran the country in the election of 1945) . Women’s rights were not recognized as they are today, gay rights were hardly discussed, and racism was endemic (and the Empire still existed). The car was well established in society but not ubiquitous as it is today; most people in London got about on public transport. Nationally we still enjoyed rail travel in the pre-Beeching days. Holidays were taken at home (by which I mean in the UK, not as they are now – at home) not abroad; airplanes existed but commercial air transport was still largely in the future.

My point is that if we landed (Dr Who-like) in 1940s Britain we would recognize and feel mostly at home in it (as least if we were white British). Many social changes would come in the next 15-20 years – from the Welfare State to Windrush to sexual equality – but it is not ‘another country’.

Or at least it is not as much of ‘another country’ as May 1870 would seem to any of us landing there nor, even, to anyone from 1945 looking back 75 years.

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In 1870 Queen Victoria was in the 33rd year of her long reign and William Gladstone was her prime minister. This was his first term as PM, having taken over from Victoria’s favourite – Disraeli – in 1868. In 1870 the American Civil War was in recent memory; there were plenty alive who fought in the Crimean, and others who remembered Waterloo.

The horrors of the Western Front were nearly 50 years in the future.

1870 was the year that the elementary education act was passed allowing local authorities to provide education for all children aged 5-12. Despite the fact that this was not a compulsory piece of legislation and historians have debated its effects it does mark an important milestone in state provision of education. We take free education for granted now, as many in 1945 would have (if not with the opportunities that students of all classes have today).

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1870 also saw another significant statue pass into law: the Married Women’s Property Act. This allowed married women to own their own property (both that they had earned and inherited). Previously on marriage all of this was legally surrendered to their husbands; a case of ‘what’s mine is mine, and what’s yours, is mine too’!

Of course women still did not have the vote, let alone equal pay, but it was step in the right direction.

Competition was introduced into recruitment to the civil service in 1870, presumably to tackle claims of nepotism and favoritism. I wonder to what extent that has really changed anything (then or now). That year also saw the establishment of the Red Cross (known then as the British National Society for Aid to the Sick and Wounded in War). It would very busy in the decades to come, as it remains so today.

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The Oval hosted the first ever international football match – a 1-1 draw – Wembley was not even conceived of and television coverage way off in the future. Nowadays we seem to obsessed with football, so much so that government ministers make statements about the need to get it back on our TVs so the nation can better cope with this lockdown. Football was very far from being a national obsession in 1870, but its popularity was on the rise.

With no television and no radio in 1870 entertainment was live (like the music hall for the masses or opera and theatre for the well-to-do) or provided in print. In May 1870 readers avidly sought out the latest Dickens novel – The Mystery of Edwin Drood – in regular instalments. Sadly they were to be disappointed: Charles Dickens passed away on the 9 June 1870 leaving the ‘Mystery’ unfinished.  As one great entertainer died two others were born: Marie Lloyd (on 12 February) and Harry Lauder (4 August).

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In London the Tower subway opened – offering Londoners a route underneath the Thames – linking east and southeast London by means of the very first passenger ‘tube’ railway. The underground – such a powerful image of the 1940s capital – was seeded 75 years previously.

On Friday 6 May 1870 the front page of the Morning Post (as was normal) carried mostly adverts and short notices. Page two reported parliamentary news in detail – including items on the ‘Scotch lunacy commission’, ‘Betting on Horse Races’, and the Irish Land Bill (a big political story throughout the later 1800s). Politics continued over the page, all delivered with minimal headlines, discussion, and in tight close type with no pictures.

On the next page readers could learn what was on at the opera and the capital’s West End theatres (although it was really a listing of performers and plays etc, not a review of them). The police intelligence – the news from the capital’s courts – was relegated to page 7 (of 8) although of course we have no real idea of how people read the papers then.

At Bow Street a man was committed for trial for stealing £9 from the Royal Commissioners of the Patriotic Fund, which gave money to the widows of soldiers serving abroad. I suppose the modern equivalent would be pinching the funds from an organization like Help For Heroes so I hope he got what was coming to him. At Marlborough Street a cab driver was cleared of a charge of ‘furious driving’ and his loss of earnings for the day compensated to him by his accuser.

Finally I noted that the press reported that the Prince and Princess of Wales had attended a charity concert at the Guards’ Institute. Then, as now, the royal family was the subject of press attention – if with (generally at least) more deference than is shown today.

So, I would conclude that 1870 would have seemed much more alien to folk in 1945 than 1945 would appear to us should me visit it. This reminds us of the incredible pace of change in the twentieth century, particularly from the outbreak of war in 1914.

It was a terrible century for very many people and the years of war between 1939 and VE Day in May 1945 saw millions die across the world.  The UK alone (not counting our allies in the Empire) suffered just under 400,000 direct causalities in the war, with a further 67,200 deaths on the home front. For context that represents 0.94 of the population as a whole. Other countries much more badly than we did: the Soviet Union lost 20m (13.7% of its populace), Germany 4-5.5m soldiers alone.

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And six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.

The Second World War was a tragedy for everyone involved and victory in 1945 was won by a combined effort of many nations and peoples. I think the lesson I take from it is that never again should we allow hate to dominate politics on a national or world stage, and that only by coming together and sharing our resources can we – as humanity – hope to defeat those that would endanger our lives and freedoms.

If we forget those lessons then I fear we will have let down all of those that gave their lives in the Second World War, and those that survived, in trying to ensure we could live in a society free from tyranny and race hatred.

I’ll raise a glass to them at 3 o’clock with pleasure.

Happy VE Day!

It is a year before the first ‘Ripper’ murder but the portents are visible in East End life

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In August 1887 London had little inkling of the terror that was to haunt the East End in just a year’s time. There was violence and crime aplenty of course, but no more or less than usual, and nothing to suggest that Whitechapel and the East End was soon to be the focus of world attention as a serial killer struck again and again with impunity.

Despite the ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders being extraordinary by any standards I wonder if the foundations for the unknown killer’s actions were already well established in the community he later terrorised. Domestic violence was endemic; linked to alcoholism and poverty, and patriarchal attitudes towards women. With the campaign against contagious diseases and the well-publicized attack on vice and immorality prostitution was also in the spotlight with sex workers demonized as the carriers of diseases which had decimated the army in the Crimea.

But it was the causal, commonplace brutality eked out daily by working-class men towards their wives and common-law partners that really empowered the actions of the ‘Ripper’.

Men frequently beat and abused their womenfolk in the East End and while murders might have been relatively unusual, manslaughter and grievous bodily harm was not. Unless the police actually saw it happen they weren’t able to interfere and even then many if not most were reluctant to get involved in a ‘a domestic’.  The survivors were also reluctant to press charges against their abusers; in fear of retaliation or the loss of the main breadwinner. Magistrates were frustrated but there was little they could do save deal with offenders when they did come before them.

Frederick Smith was a 35 year-old milkman living in Britannia Street, off the City Road. In late August 1887, a year before the Ripper murdered Polly Nicholls in Bucks Row, Smith was brought before Mr Bushby at Worship Street Police court. The milkman was accused of violently assaulting his wife.

PC 63G testified that he had been called to an incident at the defendant’s home and found Mrs Smith ‘lying insensible and bleeding on the pavement’. A few people had gathered and they told him that she fallen out of a window above. He got her into a cab and took her to the London Hospital to be treated. She regained consciousness on the journey and told him that he husband had attacked her and thrown her out of the window to the street below.

When he’d deposited her at the hospital he went back and arrested Fred who, he now realized, had been part of the crowd gathered around Mrs Smith’s body in the street. When he’d seen the policeman the milkman had quickly made himself scarce. Since Mrs Smith was still in hospital and unable to give evidence Mr. Bushby remanded the prisoner for a week and the gaoler locked him up.

We don’t know if Mrs Smith made a full recovery or, if she did, whether she pressed charges against her husband. There’s no record of a Frederick Smith being prosecuted at the Old Bailey for murder or manslaughter, which makes me hopeful that his wife survived.  Fred Smith is hardly an unusual name however, so newspaper searches are problematic.

I think it does indicate the casual nature of violence meted out to working-class women in the 1800s; when ‘ordinary’ me could do this and (mostly) get away with it then surely its not too far of a leap to understand why a disturbed individual could feel emboldened to take that violence much further.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, August 27, 1887]

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

The milk man, the general, and his trousers.

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General Robert Onesiphorus Bright (above) was an unlikely occupant of a Police Court dock but that is where he found himself in June 1888. General Bright had enjoyed an illustrious military career since he’d joined the 19 Regiment of Foot in 1843. He had seen service in Bulgaria in 1854 before taking command of the 2nd Brigade of the Light Division in the Crimea. According to the regimental record Bright was one of the very few officers who remain in service throughout, never succumbing to the disease that ravaged the forces fighting and Russians.

After the Crimean War Bright went on to see service on India’s northwest frontier and was cited in despatches. When he left the 19thFoot in 1871 he was given a commemorative silver cup engraved with a scene from the battle of Granicus, one of Alexander’s victories over the Persians. Bright fought in the 2nd Afghan War of 1878-80 and again was mentioned in despatches. He became colonel of the Green Howards/19th Foot in 1886 and then was raised to the knighthood by Victoria in 1894.

So how did a man with his pedigree end up in front of Mr De Rutzen at Marlborough Street? Well, perhaps not that surprisingly the general was there for losing his temper.

He was summoned to court by Charles Heffer who had been pushing ‘a milk perambulator’ in Oxford Street and he made his way towards Hyde Park. He was waiting to cross Duke Street and the general was waiting in front of him. As a carriage came close by the general stepped back to avoid it and collided with Heffer’s barrow. The wheel scraped against Bright’s leg, soiling his trousers with the mud from the road.

It was an unfortunate accident but the military man’s instincts took over and he swiveled in the street, raised his walking cane and ‘dealt [Heffer] a severe blow across the face’. Whether he had apologized at the time or not is unknown but clearly Heffer had been hurt enough to demand satisfaction from a magistrate.

In court the general was apologetic and admitted the fault was his. Mr De Rutzen said he would take into account the fact that the assault was committed in ‘the heat of the moment’ but regardless of the general’s status he had to treat this case as he would any other. He fined General Bright £4 and awarded costs to Heffer of £1. Having faced the Russians and the Afghans I doubt this was the worst moment of Robert Bright’s life, he paid and left with his head held high.

Today is Queen Elizabeth II’s official birthday and, as I type this, the regimental colour of the 1st battalion Grenadier Guards is being ‘trooped’ on Horse Guards Parade in London.  The Grenadiers have a long history, being the first guards regiment to wear the bearskin following their actions at Waterloo when, under the command of Major General Peregrine Maitland, they repulsed the attack of Napoleon’s elite ‘Old Guard’. Wellington supposedly gave the command for the guard to stand and face the French, crying ‘Up Guards, and at them!’ although like so many moments in history the exact words are disputed.

Trooping the colour has been linked to monarch’s official birthday since 1748 (when George II was on the throne) but no one has done it as many times as the present queen, and I doubt anyone ever will. It wasn’t always held, partly because the British weather is so unreliable, and this caused Edward VII to move the day to June when (hopefully) the watching crowds might not get soaked.

Happy (official) birthday maam.

[from The Standard, Friday, June 08, 1888]

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

‘A lawless rabble’: A jeweller is charged as guardsmen riot in Knightsbridge

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Police constable James Jacobs (404B) was on his beat in Knightsbridge at 11.30 on Tuesday 8 May 1877. He was quickly alerted to the behaviour of a large group of soldiers who were abusing passers-by and causing a breach of the peace. The 15 or 16 men of the Coldstream Guards were drunk and Jacobs ordered them to move along and go back to their barracks as quietly as possible.

The guardsmen were in no mood to obey a policeman’s order or cut short their fun and games so instead they headed for the nearest pub, the Queen and Prince tavern. As soon as they pushed their way in though the landlord refused to serve them, ordered them out, and closed up. PC Jacobs once again told them to go home and they again refused him.

A confrontation was now brewing and another officer came to assist his colleague. PC Smith (273B) waded into the dispute and got his ears boxed for his trouble. He seized the solider that had hit him and the pair fell to the ground wrestling. As the officer was down a solder kicked him in the head and another attacked Jacobs, punching him in face, splitting open his cheek and temporarily stunning him.

More police arrived and several of the soldiers were arrested and dragged off towards the police station. By now a crowd of onlookers had gathered and decided to hiss and boo the police and call them names. Shouts of  ‘cowardly beasts’ were heard and sticks and stones were hurled at the backs of the officers who were trying to escort their captives to custody. A jeweler named Frederick Buxton tried to haul an officer away from his charge and was himself arrested.

James Vince, a groom, also intervened trying to rescue one of the guards and swearing at the policeman holding him. A woman named Harriett Ansell rushed up and struck a policeman over the head with one of the sticks the soldiers had discarded. Both she and Vince were also arrested.

It had turned into a riot with dozens of people involved and utter chaos on the streets. Eventually the soldiers and the three civilians were brought back to the station house but at least one of the guardsmen had to be carried face down ‘kicking and biting like a wild beast’. The soldiers were probably collected in the morning by their regimental sergeant at arms to face whatever punishment the army had in store for them. Meanwhile the three civilians were set in the dock at Westminster to be summarily tried by Mr Woolrych the sitting Police Court magistrate.

He dismissed the charge against Harriett for lack of concrete evidence and suggested that the young groom had been set a ‘bad example’ by Buxton who, as a respectable jeweler, should have known better. Buxton was fined £4 (or two months goal) and Vince was told he would have to pay £2 or go to prison for a month. He described the soldiers, who were members of one of the finest regiments in the British army, as a ‘lawless rabble’ who had attacked two policeman who were only doing their duty. It was the soldiers  who were ‘cowardly’ that night, not the police.

Twenty years earlier the Coldstream Guards had distinguished themselves in service in the Crimean War, fighting at the battles of Alma, Inkerman and the siege of Sebastopol. Four soldiers won the Victoria Cross, the highest award for gallantry, in that conflict. So I like to think the army punished the men that disgraced the uniform of such a famous regiment, the oldest in the history of the army, for brawling drunkenly in the streets of the capital of Empire.

[from The Standard, Thursday, May 10, 1877]

If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders which is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here:

‘You are one of Colonel Henderson’s ruffians!’:one of the ‘Devil’s Own’ takes his anger out on the police

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The Albert Embankment under construction in 1869

As two police constables patrolled the Albert Embankment on Saturday evening in May 1879 they heard and then saw a horse and rider approaching. The man was smartly dressed but seemed to be swaying in the saddle as if a little the worse for drink. PC Vaughan (143L) commented to his companion that they should keep an eye on him.

Soon afterwards, as the coppers watched, the equestrian turned off the embankment into Gloucester Street, a dead end street that led only to some dust yards. They followed him into the dimly lit street and saw that a large crowd of dustmen and small boys had gathered around him. He was throwing them silver coins which they were scrambling for the in dirt of the street.

This was a potentially dangerous situation; if the man was drunk it was quite possible, PC Vaughan thought, that he might be hauled off his mount and robbed. The officers moved in through the throng and advised the rider, firmly, to desist and go home. Instead of obeying the constable’s request however, the man growled at him:

You are one of Colonel Henderson’s ruffians, I should like to have a turn with him in Belgium, choose our own weapons, and stand six yards apart’.

Sir Edmund Henderson was commissioner of the metropolitan police from 1869 to 1886. He resigned following the embarrassment of the West End (or ‘Pall Mall’) riots of 1886. He had a military background (as did his successor, Charles Warren) and had also served in Australia with a responsibility for the government of convicts before returning to England to run the prison system. henderson2

The police themselves did not enjoy the affection of the public that they do today and this clearly extended beyond the lower working class. The rider was a barrister, William Belt, aged 53, and resident in Bedford Square. As a man of some means and position he had no obvious reason to dislike the police but referring to them as ‘ruffians’ was fairly unambiguous. His comment about ‘six yards’ suggested he was spoiling for a fight  (since it referenced the classic duel) and when he hit PC Vaughan over the head with his riding whip all doubt of his belligerence towards the police was dispelled. I imagine he was cheered by the assembled dustmen but not by the two policemen who grabbed the reins of the horse and pulled him away.

With difficulty, and with Mr Belt refusing to dismount, the two constables escorted their captive to a police station and charged him with being drunk and with assaulting a police officer. Belt gave his name, address and occupation (barrister) and appeared in court at Lambeth before Mr Chance where he denied everything.

He said he had been riding on the Embankment to meet up with his old regiment – the ‘Devil’s Own’ – at Wimbledon. He wasn’t drunk he said, but ill. He had nothing more than ‘two spoonsful of brandy’  that day and despite the fact that – as PC Vaughan reported – he was riding without the use of his stirrups he was entirely in control of his horse. Medical evidence was heard which supported both his and the police’s claim about him being inebriated that night so it was left to Mr Chance to decide the outcome.

The magistrate was pretty clear an assault had taken place, and sure that the police were justified in trying to remove the barrister from a tricky situation where he might have been the victim of crime. But in part because the man had managed to ride so far without the use of his stirrups and because he was, after all, a gentleman, he dismissed the charge of drunkenness. Belt was ordered to pay a fine of £3, which he did, and discharged.

I wondered about the ‘Devil’s Own’ that Belt referred to as his old regiment. During the Napoleonic Wars the Connaught Rangers (88thRegiment of Foot) were nicknamed the ‘Devil’s Own’ and earned a fearsome reputation in the Peninsula. But William Belt was too young to have served in the wars against Napoleon, being born in 1826. There was, however, a volunteer corps of Inns of Court troops that had been formed during the Crimean War – the 23rd Middlesex Rifles – and this may have been the barrister’s regiment.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, May 06, 1879]

If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders which is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here

No help for heroes at Westminster, just a prison cell

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In 1892 Rudyard Kipling published a collection of poems called ‘Barrack Room Ballads’. This included ‘Tommy’ which he’d penned a coupe of years earlier and contrasted the public view of the Victorian soldier in wartime and peace. This is best summed up by this line:

O it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, go away”;

But it’s “Thank you, Mister Atkins”, when the band begins to play,.

Soldiers – as Kipling’s poem suggested – were to be valued when there was fighting to be done but were considered a nuisance at other times. I grew up watching the annual Festival of Remembrance that honours the dead of two world wars (and subsequent conflicts) but while the British Legion have done much for ex-servicemen and their families it was still deemed necessary to create the Help for Heroes charity in 2007 to support men and women wounded in the course of serving in the armed forces.

We might well ask why such a charity is needed in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, a country which is a founder member of NATO and that has an arms trade that generates billions from the sale of lethal weapons across the globe. Then again we might ask ourselves why over half a million people used food banks in Britain last year, or why the DWP (Department for work and pensions) concluded that in 2016 over 21m Britons were living in ‘relative poverty’.

But back to ‘Tommy Atkins’ and public attitudes in the 1800s. There was no ‘help for heroes’ then, or a British Legion. All the ex-soldier without work could rely on at mid century was his army pension (if he had one) charity, the Poor Law, and his wits. George Hill had no pension because he’d been kicked out of the army for getting drunk and assaulting an officer.

Hill was lucky; if he’d attacked the officer whilst on active service he’d have faced a court martial and the possibility of a firing squad. Instead he’d been released ‘with ignominy’ and no pension and had subsequently found it difficult or impossible to secure gainful employment. As a result Hill sat himself on the streets of London with a painted sign that read:

9th Regiment of foot.

I have served 22 years in the 9thFoot – 20 years in India, and have been in eight general engagements, and am now discharged without a pension’.

Begging was a summary offence and so when PC James Light (128B) discovered him on his beat he asked him to move along and, when this request was ignored, arrested him. The former infantryman was brought before Mr Broderip at Westminster Police court where his previous military indiscretion was revealed. In the eyes of Victorian society Hill was a violent drunk who deserved nothing from a society he had served for 22 years expect condemnation and a prison cell. The magistrate duly obliged and sent him down for three months.

George Hill may well have been a ‘impudent, violent beggar’ and he certainly had previous convictions for vagrancy but today we recognize that ex-servicemen suffer mental as well as physical wounds as a consequence of what they’ve been through. Perhaps Hill’s 22 years in the colours had left him similarly scarred and unable to function as a part of ‘normal’ Victorian society.

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He had probably fought at the battles of Mudki and Ferozeshah during the First Anglo-Afghan War and so, like many modern soldiers, had been to Kabul. He would also have been with the colours at the battle of Soprano (right) in the First Anglo-Sikh war. Technically of course he was fighting under the general banner of the East India Company but that matters little, the danger and suffering is the same.

In 1852 then soldiers like George Hill were not valued by the society they had served. Within two years however thousands of then were fighting for ‘Queen and Country’ once more as Britain took on the might of Imperial Russia in the Crimea and then the challenge to the Empire in India in 1857. So once again it was ‘ “Thank you, Mister Atkins”, when the band begins to play’.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, 5 January, 1852]

A Scots Grey is charged…

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Lady Elizabeth Butler, Scotland Forever, (1881)

A porter at Shoreditch station was walking along the platform when he saw a man on the tracks. It was about 10.30 at night and the passenger was running down the slope at the end of the platform on to the rails. The porter called out a warning and when this was ignored he quickly ran to alert the signalman so he could stop the incoming train.

The man on the tracks was behaving reactively, jumping and running between the lines and he only stopped when he saw the train approaching. Fortunately for him the driver was able to halt the locomotive just in time just as the young man threw himself of it.

The porter helped the man up from the track and it soon became obvious that the man was drunk. He was arrested by a policeman and held overnight in the cells before being taken before Mr Hannay at Marlborough Street Police court the next day.

The man gave his name as John McIntyre and appeared dressed in his army uniform as a private in the Scots Grey, he was charged with being drunk and disorderly and with attempting to take his own life. McIntyre was too old to have been involved in the famous charge of the Scots Greys at Waterloo (so famously rendered in oils by Lady Elizabeth Butler just a few years after this incident) but many would associate him with the heroism of his regiment. He denied trying to kill himself but admitted being drunk and out of control, so much so that he couldn’t remember anything.

The magistrate  (perhaps mindful of McIntyre’s military background) was sympathetic and accepted that his actions had been merely stupid not suicidal. As a result he fined him 10s. The soldier didn’t have the money to pay his fine however, and so the gaoler led him away to start a default sentence of seven days in prison. Hopefully that was the end of his troubles and he could return to the Greys.

Two years after the private’s personal disgrace the Greys were renamed  as the 2nd Dragoons (Royal Scots Greys), making the nickname they had enjoyed for so long official. McIntyre may never have seen battle since the battalion enjoyed 50 years of peace between the Crimean War and the second Anglo-Boer War in 1899. If he had gone to the Cape then John may have seen service in the relief of Kimberly and the battle of Diamond Hill. By then he would have been an old trooper, and perhaps – in 1875 – he was simply sick and tired of the tales of heroism told by veterans of Waterloo and the Crimea, and bored at having nothing much to do. If you signed up for glory and all you got was barrack room banter, endless parades and drilling, and mucking out the horses perhaps we can understand  his drunken brush with death.

[from The Morning Post, Friday 22 October, 1875]

A real life ‘Long Susan’ is booked at Marlborough Street

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In 1864 Parliament passed the first of three Contagious Diseases Acts (the others were enacted into law in 1866 and 1869). These were the result of a two year investigation into the causes and spread of sexually transmitted infections in the armed forces. In the aftermath of the Crimean War the British state had been shocked by the state of soldiers and sailors and the high levels of disease amongst them.

This prompted attempts to curb prostitution, or at least regulate the trade. The Contagious Diseases Acts (CDA) allowed local authorities to take women off the streets and forcibly examine them for signs that they were carrying an STI such as syphilis or gonorrhoea. The women could be kept in lock hospital for up to three months to ensure they were ‘clean’ before they were released. This was later extended to one year.

In effect then this amounted to medical imprisonment, without trial, for working class women who were deemed to be prostitutes (which in itself was not a crime). It was only applied in garrison and port towns and this, and the obvious fact that men were not forced to be examined and treated (although they were encouraged) meant the acts had limited effect.

The CDA were not applicable to London in 1864 and the capital was synonymous with vice and crime. Prostitution was a problem, particularly around the theatre district and Haymarket, where prostitutions mingled with respectable women in their attempts to attract business. Street prostitution was often tolerated by the police so long as it was not overt: operate quietly and you would be left alone – make yourself too visible (i.e being drunk and disorderly) and you could expect to be ‘pinched’.

A safer and more comfortable option was a brothel. Here a small group of women could ply their trade under one roof and be afforded some small protection from violence and police interference. Of course the police raided brothels but those in the West End, which catered for a higher class of client, were often protected and paid for that protection.

From time to time however, even these felt the touch of the long arm of the law. In October 1864 Anne Melville – a ‘stylishly dressed female’ – was brought before the sitting magistrate at Marlborough Street charged, on a warrant, with keeping a bawdy house (a brothel). The case was brought by the vestry of St Martin’s and conducted by a solicitor, Mr Robinson. Anne, who clearly had the funds, was defended by her own legal representative, Mr Abrams.

A policeman (Sergeant Appleton 26 C) gave evidence and the court quickly established that 32 Oxendon Street was indeed a brothel. The warrant against Anne had two other names on it and Mr Robinson explained to Mr Tyrwhitt that they had both been before the Sessions of the Peace the day before but Anne had been hard to find. In absentia the Sessions had decided that Anne also had a case to answer. He asked that the prisoner be sent directly to the Sessions to take her trial.

Mr Abrams objected to this course of action. He said the Sessions would be over by now and he asked for bail, saying there was no reason to suppose his client would not give herself up. The brothel was now closed up, he added. His intention was to keep Anne out of prison if he could possibly help it. The prosecution and police were unhappy with this suggestion: Anne had led Sergeant Appleton a merry dance thus far and they had no confidence that she would respect bail in the future.

Mr Tyrwhitt was persuaded by the defence however, although he opted to set bail at a very high amount. Anne was obliged to stand surety for herself at £80 and find tow others at £40 each. In total then her bail amounted to £160 or nearly £10,000 in today’s money. Prostitution at that level was evidently a lucrative business.

He also commended the vestrymen for pursuing a prosecution against one of the larger brothels and not simply concentrating on the ‘smaller ones’. I imagine he meant he was keen to see action being taken against the sort of premises often frequented by ‘gentlemen’ of the ‘better sort’ and not simply the rougher houses used by the working classes. At the quarter sessions Anne pleased guilty to keeping a brothel and was sentenced to six months at Westminster’s house of correction. She was 26 years of age and reminds me of Susan from the BBC’s Ripper Street.

The CDAs were finally repealed in 1886 after a long campaign by Josephine Butler and the Ladies National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts . Butler’s campaign politicised hundreds of women and gave them an experience which they would later take into the long running battle for women’s suffrage. Meanwhile madams like Ann continued to run brothels which were periodically the  target of campaigns to close them down. Notably there was just such a campaign in the late 1880s which resulted in women being forced out of the relative safety of East End brothels and onto the streets, where ‘Jack the Ripper’ was waiting for them.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, October 06, 1864]

 

Little help (and no sympathy) for Heroes

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In October 2007 the charity Help for Heroes was launched. On its front page its makes this powerful statement:

‘Today, seven people will be medically discharged from the Armed Forces and their lives will change forever. In an instant, these highly-trained individuals will lose the camaraderie, purpose and career which has been their life’.

This is not a new phenomenon of course, but has perhaps been given greater focus and attention since the Gulf War and growing number of related experiences of men and women who have served in the armed forces and come home with both physical and mental injuries. This has permeated all levels of society, and become a topic for film and TV dramas (such as the most recent BBC series, The Bodyguard ).

Between October 1853 and March 1856 Britain was at war in the Crimea, battling with France and Turkey against the Russian Empire and its allies. Ultimately Britain and France prevailed but there was a high cost in lives lost and others altered forever. This war is often remembered as one in which more soldiers died of disease than of wounds sustained by enemy action; its symbolic ‘hero’ is Florence Nightingale, the ‘lady with the lamp’ and not Lord cardigan, the officer that led the doomed charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava.

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During the Crimean War the island of Malta served as a hospital base for British casualties returning from the front. Given the huge numbers of men needing care the Valletta Station Hospital (one of four military hospitals on Malta) was quickly overrun and deemed inadequate. Sadly the necessary reform and rebuilding required to upgrade Malta’s institutions to cope with the numbers wounded in ‘modern’ conflicts  didn’t open until after the Crimean war was over.

Nor was there adequate support for veterans who returned from the Crimean carrying the scars of their involvement with them. When Henry Arlett was discharged from the Royal Artillery at Christmas 1857 he had been given a sovereign and sent on his way. Henry had served in the Crimea and had been invalided home after spending  time at a military base on Malta  recuperating.

Back in Lambeth he had struggled to find work as his back pain continued to make manual work all but impossible. Without an obvious trade and deprived of the support of his regiment all Henry could rely on for money was his wife. She took in laundry, one of the lowest paid domestic trades, and in the summer of 1858 even that work was scarce.

Faced with grinding poverty Henry donned his uniform (which he’d kept in pristine condition) and went out on to the streets to beg. He did quite well by comparison to the usual run of vagrants that infested the capital. According to an officer of the Mendicity Society (which campaigned against begging and brought private prosecutions against  those that practised it) ‘in a short time he got as much as half-a-crown in coppers’.

The officer had him arrested and brought before Mr Norton at Lambeth Police court where the magistrate asked the former artilleryman to explain himself. Henry told him of his service and his discharge, of his family’s troubles and his reasons for begging but instead of sympathy or charity he received only the scorn of the man on the bench.

Mr Norton told him that if he was unable to support himself through work then he should go to the workhouse to be relieved. On discovering that Arlett was born in the City and had no settlement elsewhere he instructed him to return there with his wife; in effect washing Lambeth’s hands of any responsibility for his care.

You must be a mean-spirited person to disgrace the uniform of the finest corps in her Majesty’s service by begging in it’, he told him. ‘I shall give you a light sentence of seven days and on the termination of your imprisonment you must go to your parish, and if you are caught begging again your punishment will be much more severe’.

Arlett was unfazed by the magistrate’s condemnation of him:

This uniform suit is mine, and while there is a single shred of it together I shall not cease to beg’,

he declared before he was led away.

Just over 100,000 British and Imperial troops went to the Crimea. Of these 2,755 were killed in action and a further 1,847 died of their wounds. A staggering 17,580 died of disease. Henry Arlett was one of 18,280 British troops wounded in the conflict. In total then, of the 107,865 on the British strength 22,182 didn’t come home (around 22%) and another 18% were directly wounded in some way. That means that 40% of those sent to fight the Russians were casualties in some way or another.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, September 10, 1858]