Inconsistency and the legacy of slavery as two assaults come before the courts

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Memorial to the Demerara slave rebellion of 1823, which commemorates the Guyanan resistance hero, Quamnina.

I suppose it is too much to ask for consistency from the criminal justice system when cases come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and the circumstances of each can be quite different. This is especially true when it concerns violence, specifically violence which fell under the very broad terms of ‘assault’ in the nineteenth century.

Assault was always a very fluid term in law, made clear in instructions to magistrates from Dalton to Burn from the 17th to the early 19th century. Even the advent a professional police and the creation of a Police Code book did little to cement a clear understanding of what assault really was. By the later 1800s there was at least distinction between ‘common’ and ‘aggravated’ assault, but the former definition was as vague as it had been in the 1700s:

‘A common assault is the beating, or it may be only the striking, or touching of a person’.

Police were advised not to arrest aggressors in these cases, ‘but leave the party injured to summons’ them. If actual violence was evident (wounds were obvious for example) the officer was obliged to take culprits into custody, even if they hadn’t seen the incident themselves.1

This allowed a lot of leeway and makes it quite hard for us, as historians, to compare assault cases. When we add to this the fact that most – almost all in reality – were prosecuted before the magistracy (where records are scant at best) we are at a severe disadvantage in understanding the contexts and causes of non-fatal violence in history. It makes it equally difficult to understand why some cases resulted in fines and others led to long prison sentences. It isn’t always as simple as looking at the level of violence used, as this pair of cases from 1843 illustrate.

Violence was often associated with drunkenness, and this took many forms. Mary Denyer was strolling along the Mile End Road, minding her own business one afternoon, when two young men approached her.

Thomas Webb and George Todd had been drinking, enjoying a holiday from work. They grabbed hold of Mary and ‘twirled her abou, but rather too vigourously. Perhaps this was ‘high jinks’, or two boorish young men behaving badly towards a vulnerable female that happened to cross their path.

Regardless of their motives – sinister, or simply crass and stupid – the young tailoress was pregnant and the shock and rough handling she received by being ‘twirled about’ caused her to faint to the pavement.

The men quickly ran off instead of helping her, not the best idea under the circumstances because they’d been seen by a policeman. The officer, having left Mary in the care of a passerby, set off in pursuit. The pals were quickly captured and when brought before the Thames magistrate, were very apologetic, but said they were  only having ‘a lark’. They were drunk, they’d seen a pretty girl and they’d had a dance with her. They didn’t intend to hurt her, and they had no idea she was with child.

None of this cut much ice with the magistrate, Mr Broderip. He condemned their behaviour and said they had committed a ‘gross outrage’ on the poor girl. As a result he fined them £5 each, money he almost certainly knew they didn’t have. That condemned them to spend the next two months in prison. 

I’ve no defence for Todd and Webb, they acted very badly and deserved punishment. But I am interested in justice Broderip’s seemingly inconsistent treatment of assault in his courtroom.

Broderip’s fury at the action of two ‘ruffians’ towards a pregnant women was not matched by his reaction to an assault on a sailor who complained at his court the following day.

Joseph Beale has signed up as an ordinary seaman on the Ludlow a merchant vessel sailing from Demerara (modern day Guyana) to London. On more than one occasion the captain, William Johnson, had abused Beale and accused him of failing to do his job properly.

There were two key incidents that Beale accused his master of:

beating him with a stick and punching him and smashing him in the face with a ‘spitting-box’ (a spittoon).

The violence he’d suffered was, by his own account, severe and certainly aggravated. It was also deliberate, related and sustained. Beale told Mr Broderip he had been struck more than a dozen times with a stick. Had he counted the blows he’d received the magistrate asked him Yes, the sailor replied, he had, or at least until he reached 12 when he stopped counting.

The captain was defended in court by Mr Price, a barrister who cross examined Beale and  discovered that the captain had also lowered his wages, on the grounds that he was only a ‘ordinary’ season not an ‘able’ one (as Beale had apparently claimed).

Beale said he’d never claimed any such thing but perhaps the damage was done and it certainly convinced the magistrate that the man was full of resentment towards his superior.

Broderip accepted that an assault had occurred but decided (with no corroborating evidence at all – indeed at least one crew mate corroborated Beale’s account) that Beale was exaggerating it. As a result the magistrate imposed a small fine and advised Captain Jonson to not ‘strike a man in the heat of passion’ in future or get involved in arguments with his crew on deck.

Compare this fine (10s) for actual and severe violence from a person in authority with the (relatively) minor assault that landed two working class men in gaol the day before.

There was another factor here though, Demerera had been a slave colony. In 1823 a rebellion of 10,000 slaves was crushed by the authorities and many of those accused of involvement were hanged. The revolt probably helped finally undermine slavery and the callous treatment of those involved and the horrors it exposed it undoubtedly ruled the abolition movement. In 1834 slavey was officially abolished in Demerera (under the terms of the 1834 abolition act), so just 9 years before this incident reached Broderip’s court.

We might note that while slavery was an abomination in many people’s eyes parliament still saw fit to compensate the plantain owners for the loss of their ‘property’. In Demerara this amounted to £4,297,117 10s. 6½d (or close to £300m in today’s money).

Joseph Beale was ‘a man of colour’, and so maybe one of those freed in 1843, or the son of freed slaves at least. So just perhaps, in the eyes of Mr Broderip, he was not worthy of more ‘justice’ in his courtroom, especially not when the subject of his complaint was a white man in a position of authority.

[From Morning Post, Wednesday 11 January 1843; The Standard, Thursday 12 January 1843]

  1. Sir Howard Vincent’s Police Code 1889 edited by Neil R A Bell and Adam Wood, (Mango Books, 2015), p. 25

Drew’s latest book, Murder Maps: Crime Scenes Revisited is available from all good bookshops (if you can find one open!) and online via various outlets: e.g Waterstones and Amazon

A magistrate has the chance to make a difference to one Black life; will he take it?

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The Demerara rebellion of 1823

On 26 July 1832 there was an unusual appearance at the Marlborough Street Police court. A man named only as ‘Burgess’ (no first name, no title), was brought in for begging in Charing Cross.

Placed in the dock the magistrate (Mr Gregorie) asked him where he lived. Begging was an offence that fell under catch-all legislation, the Vagrancy Act (1824). This act, passed in the reign of George IV, is still on the books. It makes it an offence to sleep rough or to beg in the streets. It took no account of why someone would be on the streets and begging for money or food.

The original legislation was passed in the wake of the economic distress that followed the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. The period after Waterloo was a turbulent one for the British state with many people forced off the land and into urban centres where poverty was common. In addition thousands of discharged and disabled soldiers returned, many of them unable to find work.

Not for the first or last time the reaction of the ruling class to the economic distress of the majority was to pass laws that protected the wealth and privilege of the minority and, after 1829 in London, they had Peel’s ‘New Police’ force to enforce them.

But let us return to Burgess; what did have to say for himself when Mr Gregorie asked him where he lived?

Burgess replied that he had lived abroad, in Demerara, on the north coast of South America in what is now Guyana. In the 1800s Demerara was under the control of the British (although it had been a Dutch colony). In 1823 there had been  a large scale slave revolt (echoing a previous one in 1795). The revolt had the effect of bringing the plight of slaves in Demerara to the attention of the British public and the British parliament.

Although the slave revolt was not violent the reaction of the governor, John Murray, certainly was. As many as 250 slaves were killed in putting down the rebellion and more deaths followed as ringleaders were hanged. Their bodies were left in public view as a warning to others and the leader of the revolt – Jack Gladsone – was sent to St. Lucia. It is likely that it was Gladstone’s father, Quamina who was the real leader of the slave uprising and he was later to be acknowledged as such by an independent Guyanan nation.

So who was Burgess and what had he to do with all of this?

Burgess told Mr Gregorie that he was a runaway slave, who had escaped his master and come to England.  In 1823 many of the slaves that revolted reportedly believed that Britain had abolished slavery in the colony (when in reality all Britain had abolished was the trade in slaves in 1807). Britain did not abolish slavery in its colonies until 1833 (effective from 1 August 1834).

Burgess – mostly referred to throughout the report as ‘the negro’ – said his master was named ‘Porter’ and he believed he was now in London. Not surprisingly then what Burgess wanted was to be allowed to return home, to Demerara. Perhaps he believed that he would be safer there, perhaps he was simply homesick. The move towards abolition was underway and he might have believed that he would return to freedom.

Freedom was a little way off however. Since he had no money and so no means of paying his passage to south America the magistrate said he would send  a message to the Colonial Office to see what the British state could do for him. In the meantime  Burgess was locked in a cell at Marlborough Street while the representatives of the wealthy decided what to do with him, a poor enslaved beggar.

The answer came back later that day and Burgess was once again set in the dock. The Colonial Office replied that they ‘could not interfere’. Could not or would not, it mattered little. No one was about to pay Burgess’ fare home. We don’t know his age but it is likely that Demerara was his home, his place of birth. But of course his ancestors, perhaps his parents and almost certainly his grandparents, had been taken from Africa against their will and brutally shipped across the seas to work on European plantations. It mattered little whether it was a Dutch or British plantation; the experience for Burgess and thousands of others was the same.

At least now the British state had the chance to make some amends. Sadly it chose not to. The Colonial Office would not help and neither would the magistrate at Marlborough Street. Burgess had infringed the Vagrancy Act and so he was sent to prison for a month. If, Mr Gregorie told him, ‘at the expiration of that time’, he ‘wanted to get back to Demerara, he must get there as well as he could’.

The slaves in Guyana were not freed until 1 August 1838, 6 years after Burgess appeared at Marlborough Street ‘begging’ to be allowed to return home. Whether he ever made it back to enjoy his freedom is unknown.

London was home to plenty of former slaves in the 1800s most of whom never came near a police court or in any other way troubled the record keepers. They often adopted the names of their masters or had names their master had given them – European names not African names – so they don’t stand out in the records. But they were here, as they had long been here. Anyone who believes Black Britons arrived on the Windrush and found an entirely ‘white’ country (or a country that had always been White) are  mistaken or misinformed and I suggest they  watch David Olusoga’s Black and British BBC TV series (and read the accompanying book).

This particular Black life might not have mattered to the early Victorian authorities, but Black Lives and Black history should matter to all of us.

[from Morning Post, Tuesday 27 March 1832]

 

 

 

 

 

A snake trader charms the Mansion House

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The summary courts of the capital didn’t always deal with crime or antisocial behaviour; some of those that came before so did so for advice or to ask for help. One such person, named, was a traveler from the Caribbean, who appeared before the Chief Clerk at Mansion House in some distress.

The unnamed visitor, described by the press reports as a ‘respectable-looking young negro’, said he had arrived in London from his native Demerara via a circuitous route. He told  Mr Oke, the clerk that he had left Demerara (in what was then British Guiana and is now Guyana) in an attempt to make some money.

Whilst ‘out in the woods’ in Demerara he ‘had discovered a nest of boa-constrictors that had only just been hatched, and having heard that such objects were of value in foreign countries, he carefully secured his prize… and resolved to take the “little strangers” to the Zoological Gardens at Moscow, where he was told he would be paid a good price for them’.

It seems that there was nothing deemed wrong in the young man’s actions, the Victorians hadn’t yet determined that trading in live exotic animals was cruel. The RSPCA (who are concerned about such a trade in snakes today) had been in existence for around 50 years by 1873 (when this application came before the Mansion House Police Court) but perhaps they were busy enough dealing with cruelty to domestic animals.

Unfortunately for the adventurous snake dealer things didn’t go quite to plan however. He made his way to Hamburg where he was supposed to make a connection to take him on to Russia but the boas fell sick. Despite ‘all his endeavours’ the ‘young “boas” all died’.

With nothing to trade and most of his money gone the lad used the rest of his funds to get himself to England and the capital where he now asked for the Empire’s help to secure a boat back home. He had found ship at the West India dock that was prepared to carry him back to Guiana in return from him working his passage but he had no clothes. He asked the court therefore, if he might have some money from the poor box to purchase the necessary clothes for the voyage.

Mr Oke sent an assistant to check his story and, having ascertained that he was telling the truth, agreed to help. He was given a small sum and ‘left the court apparently highly delighted with the result of his application’.

There is a footnote to this story: Mr George Colwell OKe (1821-1874) served as the Chief Clerk to the magistrates in the City from 1864 onwards having started as a clerk in 1855. He was widely respected for his knowledge of the criminal law and assisted many aldermen and lord mayors in their decision making. Moreover, as a result of his deep understanding of statue law and practice Oke produced several volumes on the subject.

The best selling and most well-known of these was his Synopsis of Summary Convictions,(1858) which ran to 8 volumes and was popularly known as Oke’s Magisterial. You can find this online and while it is hardly an exciting read, it is invaluable to historians in understanding the legal structure under which all Police Court business was conducted. Oke rarely appears in the pages of the newspapers so it is nice to see such an influential figure pop up and act in a charitable way, demonstrating the alternative function of these central summary courts.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, October 23, 1873]