Black Lives Matter: a very personal view

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

Unknown

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

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

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

Unknown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Protest is not a recent invention.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

indian-mutiny

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A riot caused by a clergyman’s violence

e217d19b522bcdba67dd536203865081

Mary Barrow surrendered her bail and appeared before the magistrate at Highgate Police court to answer a charge of being ‘drunk and riotous’. However, what was often a fairly straightforward example of working-class inebriation clashing with police attempts to ‘keep the peace’ seems to have been rather more complicated in this case.

Sergeant Fickling was called to an incident in the Archway Road on the 11 November 1885 because a woman, much the worse for drink, was creating a disturbance outside the house of Major Platt. A crowd had gathered and some bricks had been thrown at the major’s windows, breaking some of them.

The police sergeant asked the crowd to disperse and told Mary to go home. When she refused he arrested her, taking her back to the station where she was charged. Oddly it seemed that major Platt did not want to press any charges of damage against the woman and the reasons for this only became clear when the case was heard in court.

Mary denied being drunk that night and instead accused a clergymen (not present) of assaulting her. She said that she’d been standing at her gate on Landsdowne Terrace when a man of the cloth had run up to her, used offensive language, and kicked her to the ground. As he ran away she followed after, a crowd joining in with the pursuit. He’d taken refuge in the major’s property.

Major Platt explained that the clergyman in question was his brother, Thomas, who had been staying with him that week and had indeed come home chased by a mob led by Mary.  Given this new information Mary was bailed, the sum put up by her husband, and the case adjourned while a summons was issued to bring the Reverend Thomas Platt before the court to answer Mary’s allegation.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, November 29, 1885]

‘Where are your father and mother?’ A young girl, broken by poverty, breaks windows and then breaks down in court

13583674_f520

I know that there are people in this world that believe that society has become too soft: too soft on crime, on beggars, on children, on immigrants. They will often look back to the distant past and make specious pronouncements on how there was more respect or deference in the past. It is part and parcel of a lack of empathy for others – perhaps best (or rather worst) expressed by Jacob Rees-Mogg in his hateful comments about the ‘stupidity’ of the victims of the Grenfell Tower disaster.

Before the Liberal reforms of the early twentieth century and the transformative Labour government of 1945 this country treated its poorest with callous unconcern. This indifference to the suffering of the poor was extended to the mentally ill, the sick poor, elderly, and orphaned children. If you weren’t wealthy you simply didn’t matter in the eyes of the elites that ran the country.

I think we can see this in the treatment of one young teenage girl in east London in 1865.

Priscilla Herman was an inmate of the Bethnal Green workhouse. She was under 16 years of age and in November she was brought before the magistrate at Worship Street Police court charged with criminal damage.

The court heard that Priscilla, described as ‘placid’ but displaying ‘features indicative of aught but abandoned and vicious conduct’, had smashed five panes of glass and verbally abused a female overlooker.

That was Ann Summers, who testified that when she’d asked her to do some cleaning work Priscilla had refused and threatened her. Summers was old and the girl had threatened, she said, ‘to beat my _______ old head in’.

The magistrate asked the overlooker why she hadn’t found Priscilla work as a domestic servant outside of the workhouse. She’d tried, Summers explained, but she kept getting dismissed.

‘A great many of the girls turn out bad after leaving us; the language of this one is most shameful and disgusting’.

The police constable that had escorted Priscilla to court agreed that her language was ‘dreadful’. He added that she’d admitted braking the windows but no one knew why she did it.

I doubt anyone really cared why she did it, they simply wanted to punish her for doing so. The magistrate did ask her some questions however:

‘Why did you leave your last place, girl?’

No answer.

‘Did you do wrong?’

No answer.

‘Where are your father and mother?’

At this Priscilla broke down in the dock and started sobbing.

‘I haven’t any’, she cried.

She admitted behaving badly at her last job and promised to do better and ‘be a good girl’ if she were given another chance.

As an orphan under 16 I would hope we would give Priscilla a chance today although given the large numbers of teenagers sleeping rough on our streets I’m not confident that our society would do much better by her.  However, I doubt even  the most heartless of Rees-Mogg’s chums would do as the magistrate here did, and send Priscilla to prison for three weeks, effectively minimalizing any chance of her finding an honest living outside of the ‘house in the near future.

She was led away, still sobbing he eyes out, her future looking bleak as winter approached.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, November 24, 1865]

‘I always do what I say I will do’: the dark murmurings of a troubled mind

29885

The owner of Deacon’s Coffee House and Tavern on Walbrook in the City was disturbed by the sound of shattering glass. It was nine in the evening and Mr. Howell rushed out into the front room of his establishment to see to his horror that his window was completely destroyed. His clientele were in uproar and outside a small group of onlookers were gathering around a ‘little old woman’.

A policeman had arrived in a hurry and a small boy pointed out the elderly lady as the culprit. The constable arrested her and led her off to the nearest police station to be questioned and charged. She had already admitted throwing a brick through Mr. Howell’s window telling the proprietor:

‘I said I would break your window and I have done it. I always do what I say I will do’.

While in custody the woman, who gave her name as Emily Howard, told the police should would have liked to have smashed ‘every ______ pane of glass in the house’, and would make good on her promise when they released her. The constable later told the Lord Mayor at Mansion House that she was swearing throughout the interview but seemed perfectly sober.

In court the Lord Mayor heard that Emily had previous for criminal damage. The court’s gaoler (a man named Partridge) said he’d known her for 20 years and that she was someone who’d been in and out of gaol for doing similar things in the past. Emily’s only defense was that someone had thrown water over her but no one seemed to believe her.

The Lord Mayor sent her back to prison for two months at hard labour and she was led away ‘uttering threats of vengeance’ against the coffee house owner and the policeman that arrested her. She sounds like someone that needed help, not a month or two picking oakum.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, October 16, 1875]

Panic on the river as a steamboat heads for disaster.

Unknown

Imagine the scene if you can. You are on board a Thames steamer heading towards Battersea Bridge, it is nighttime, on a Sunday, the ship is packed and it is quite dark on the river. Suddenly the boat veers off course and starts to head directly towards the piles of the new bridge, sticking up out of the murky waters of London’s river. As the crew tries to slow the boat or alter its course the passengers panic, screams are heard, and everyone rushes about blindly.

Inevitably the steamer slams into the bridge but fortunately only sustains relatively minor damage. No one is badly hurt and the ship stays afloat. This is no repeat of the Princess Alice disaster of 1878 when 650 people lost their lives. However, that was only 10 years previously and very many of those onboard would have remembered that awful event.

Having secured the ship and its passengers the crew’s next thought was to find out what happened. It quickly became clear that the boat had been sabotaged. The lock pin of the rudder had been unscrewed and removed, causing the vessel to become steer less. Suspicion fell on a group of young men who had been rowdy all evening, pushing and shoving people and generally acting in an anti-social manner as gangs of ‘roughs’ did in the 1880s.

One youth was blamed and brought before the magistrate at Westminster Police court. Remanded and then brought up on Monday 3 September 1888 Sidney Froud, an 18 year-old grocer’s assistant, was accused of ‘maliciously and wantonly interfering with the steering gear’ of the Bridegroom, a Kew steamer. He was further accused of endangering life and causing £30 worth of damage (around £2,500 in today’s money).

The prosecution was brought by the Victoria Steamboat Association (VSA) who were represented by a barrister, Mr Beard. He asked that the case be dealt with under section 36 of the Merchant Shipping Act, where a fine of up to £20 was the penalty. Several members of the crew gave evidence describing the lads as ‘full of mischief’ and testifying to hearing the defendant laugh as the pin was removed.

Froud did not deny his action but his defense brief claimed he had not acted maliciously, saying he had no idea that the consequences would be so severe. His conduct was ‘stupid’ but the ship’s company was negligent in allowing the youths to get so close to such an important part of the ship’s steering mechanism.

Mr D’Eyncourt, presiding, rejected any negligence on the part of the crew or the VSA and found against the lad. The only thing to be considered was his punishment. Mr Dutton for the defense, said he was only being paid 5sa week at the grocers so couldn’t possibly afford a huge fine like £20. His friends were ‘very respectable’ and several persons would testify to his good character. Perhaps a sound thrashing would have sufficed if he was younger he added, but at 18 he was past that.

Mr D’Enycourt listened to all of this carefully and in the end awarded the company 23scosts and fined Froud a further 50s. In total that amounted to almost 15 weeks’ wages for the grocer’s boy, if indeed he kept his job after such a public display of recklessness. I suspect he did because the fine was paid up on the day and he was released to his friends. He was lucky, as were the 100 or more souls that his stupidity had endangered the lives of.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, September 04, 1888]

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

Bullies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available on Amazon here

A desperate life which is no life at all

Clerkenwell_prison,_London,_during_visiting_hours

Clerkenwell Prison 

Margaret Raymond was someone who needed help. Unfortunately for her she lived in the late Victorian period where support for people like her was extremely limited. As a result she existed on the margins of society, alternating from periods of imprisonment and spells in the parish workhouse.

When she appeared at Clerkenwell Police court in late June 1871 it was about the 50th time she’d been there. Most of her arrests had been alcohol related: drunk and disorderly, drunk and incapable, resisting arrests, assault, abusive langue and so on. She was an alcoholic but there was no effective social care system to help her off her addiction so she continued to spiral between different forms of incarceration.

On this occasion she was charged with bring drunk and disorderly and assaulting the landlord of the White Swan pub in Islington High Street. Margaret had entered the pub in the evening, already drunk, and demanding he serve her. When he refused she became violent and he tried to throw her out. In the process he got hit about the head and body and his coat was torn. Eventually Margaret was frog-marched away to the local police station to sober up.

In the morning before Mr Baker at Clerkenwell Police court she had no memory of the incident, it having been carried out in a drunken haze as always. The magistrate listened as her previous convictions were read out. These included no less than 31 charges at Upper Street Police station and two years imprisonment for criminal damage. That was for breaking the windows of John Webb’s shop at a cost of £8. She pleaded guilty, gave her age as 42 and her occupation as a ‘washer’. That was a casual trade at best so may simply have been her attempt to avoid saying she was unemployed.

The magistrate looked down at the drunken women in his dock and could see little else to do with her but fine her 5s that she almost certainly didn’t have. Instead Margaret would go back to prison – this time the Middlesex House of Correction for a week with hard labour – and continue her cycle of desperate existence. I’ve no doubt she would have continued to appear before the London bench or at the gates of the workhouse until the inevitable happened, and she she succumbed to her addiction and died, probably destitute, homeless, and on the streets.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, July 1, 1871]

Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available on Amazon here

 

‘Such a state of things is not permitted in any town in Europe. The sooner a stop was put to such places the better’: Soho in 1888

History_The_Market_Image2

Berwick Street market in the 1950s or 60s.

Much of the housing would’ve been there in the late 1800s

Madame Akker Huber ran a lively club in Soho, ostensibly for members only. Le Cercle des Etrangers (or Circle of Strangers) was situated in Berwick Street and seems to have attracted a mixed clientele, especially from London’s multinational immigrant community.

One such person was Nestor Lacrois who enjoyed the hospitality of the club but didn’t always have the funds to pay for it. On the evening of 19 May 1888 Nestor was at the bar of the club pleading with Madame Huber to lend him some money so he could carry on enjoying himself.

Madame Huber was disinclined to help however. Lacrois already owed her money and wasn’t at all forthcoming about when that debt would be settled. Her refusal only enraged him; he picked up a glass and threw it at her. As she evaded the missile he tried again, then swept several glasses from the bar, smashing on the floor before storming out.

It took a while (and possibly some failed attempts at reconciliation or recompense) but in June Madame Huber obtained a summons against Lacrois and she and him appeared together at Marlborough Street Police court. Lacrois was accused of the criminal damage, assault and challenging her to a fight when drunk. Lacrois counter-sued, claiming that the landlady had smashed a glass in his face, drawing blood.

Apparently ‘five or six fights occurred in the club’ that night and Mr Newton listened with mounting alarm to the description of the club as a chaotic, drunken and disorderly venue. Several women were produced who claimed they could come and go as they pleased without being members and it was alleged that drinking continued late into the small hours.  In the end he declared that he didn’t believe any of the witnesses before him in the case between Huber and Lacrois and dismissed the summonses.

As for the club itself: ‘such a state of things is not permitted in any town in Europe. The sooner a stop was put to such places the better’.

One imagines the local police and licensing officers took note.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, June 10, 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 strange encounter at the British Museum (Natural History)

2070822379_d3d6251a0f

I recently visited the Natural History Museum in South Kensington and while it is one of my favourite collections I’d never before gone into the minerals sections. The old cabinets full of precious metals, rocks and crystals were beautiful and fascinating, even if they looked as if they’d been placed there more than a 100 years ago and had never been disturbed. It was in stark contrast to much of the rest of the museum which has seen a series of modernization which appear to aimed at attracting its core visitor, small children.

The Natural History Museum opened its doors in 1881 after a building project that lasted eight years. It was really an offshoot of the British Museum but the natural history element of that collection, which had its roots in a large donation of items by Sir Hans Sloan in the mid 1700s, were being lost, sold off or damaged and the decision was made to find a new home for them.

It retained its link to the British Museum until 1963 when it became fully independent. Until then it was termed the British Museum (Natural History) which explains the puzzling context of this curious case from 1861, which would have taken place in Bloomsbury, not South Kensington.

Edward Stokes worked as an attendant at the museum and was keeping an eye on visitors to the minerals collection when he noticed an agitated man approach one of the cabinets. To his horror the large man suddenly smashed the glass of the display with his elbow, exposing the valuable crystals it contained. It was the act of thief but the man made no attempt to escape, and just stood there gazing at the wondrous items below.

Stokes rushed over and seized the would-be thief who claimed his arm had slipped and he had no intention to cause any damage. He didn’t seem drunk to the attendant but he was ‘a little strange in his manner’. The arrest led to the man being charged with damage and the intent to steal items valued at £15. The case was heard at Bow Street Police court before Mr Corrie, the sitting magistrate.

The museum was represented by a solicitor, Harding, and he explained that the prisoner in the dock was well known to the staff there. The man, who gave his names as George Gates, a one time butcher from Brighton, had been seen early  in the morning on more than one occasion, waiting to be admitted into the museum. As he was being led away by police after the incident on the 23 May he was recognized by two of his friends and they promised to let his relatives on the south coast know what had happened to him. Clearly there was some concern that Gates was suffering from a form of mental illness.

With its usual tact Reynolds Newspaper referred to Gates as a ‘lunatic at large’ and described him as ‘half-crazy looking’ as he stood in the Bow Street dock. However there had been nothing from his relatives to suggest that he was undergoing any treatment for his mental health and while he had been held in police custody he’d been examined by ‘a medical gentleman’ who had ‘declined to certify that he was insane’.

Once again Gates insisted that it was an accident; his foot had slipped, he told the magistrate, just as he was calling out to a friend to come and look at a particularly beautiful diamond, and he’d fallen onto the glass. Mr Corrie accepted that there had been no intent to steal the rock and he suggested the man was ‘probably half stupid from previous drink’.

He decided that Gates would have to pay for the damage, which was valued at 5sor else go to prison for 14 days. Searching his pockets Gates could only produce half that amount so he was duly committed. He handed the gaoler a note which said:

‘dear gal, have dinner ready for six’. It had no address, and he was taken down.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, June 2, 1861]

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