A ‘young hero’ engages in an ‘attaque à outrance’ near Battersea Bridge

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On Sunday afternoon, the 7 October 1860 PC John McGuire of V Division was called to attend an incident in Lindsay Place close to Battersea Bridge.  When he got there he saw a huge crowd of youths, possibly as many as 200, which formed a ring. As he forced his way through the throng he found two young lads, aged about 10, slugging it out in the centre.

He stopped the fight and soon discovered that the boys had been at it for ages, being dragged apart on no less that six occasions already. They seemed very determined to fight and it took all of PC McGuire’s physical and persuasive abilities to get them to stand down and to take them into custody.

Both lads were bailed to appear the following morning at Westminster Police court but only one of them, James Wood, turned up.    The court heard that ‘the mantles of Sayers and Heenan’ had ‘descended upon their shoulders’ and that they had ‘made up their minds to do battle à l’outrance’ (or attack to excess as the expression translates).

The reference to Sayers and Heenan was to what has been termed the world’s first title fight which took place in April 1860. The American champion John Carmel Heenan came to England to fight the British boxer Tom ‘Brighton Titch’ Sayers. Thousands flocked to Farnborough to see the fight that ended in a bloody draw as the police raided the venue. The fight was illegal and no rules on the length of ‘rounds’ applied then. However, the fight prompted questions in Parliament and led to the formation of the ‘Dozen Rules’ by the London Amateur Athletic Club in 1865. These were approved in parliament and were sponsored by John Sholto Douglas, the Marquess of Queensbury.

As for James Wood the magistrate at Westminster, Mr Paynter, asked why the fight had occurred. James explained that he had caught his opponent trying to drown a dog and when he had tried to stop him the pair had agreed to settle it with their fists. It was a noble gesture in the eyes of the press who described him as a ‘young hero’ (perhaps a little tongue in cheek), and Mr Paynter perhaps agreed. However, fighting on a Sunday was against the law and the justice warned him not to engage in it again, and then let him go, his reputation significantly enhanced by his day in court.

The other lad (who remained unnamed) suffered by comparison. The papers suggested that ‘the long arm of the law [was possibly] too strong for his juvenile constitution’.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, October 09, 1860]

Like this? You might enjoy these other posts that involve boxing:

Illegal boxing in North East London

‘They fought very severely for little boys’; tragedy in Rotherhithe.

The Marlborough Street magistrate helps Big Ben’s missus deliver a knock-out blow

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.

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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]

A ‘friendly quarrel’ ends in a broken leg and a prosecution for assault

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A Drummond Street grocer 

Assault was one of the most common charges to be heard before the Police Courts of nineteenth-century London. Assaults varied however, and the definition in the police handbook allowed for a considerable amount of discretion on the part of the victim, police or the courts. Assault could mean something as minor as a shove or a threat, but it could also involve a real attempt to harm.

Definitions were tightened during the later 1800s and the Offences Against the Person Act (1861) enshrined in law the modern forms of violence that are prosecuted today, such as grievous bodily harm (GBH), actual bodily harm (ABH) and wounding. All of these could be prosecuted at a higher jury court while common assault was routinely dealt with my the magistracy.

A dispute ‘over shillings’ had broken out between Daniel Skelton and Frederick Flint and the pair squared up to each other in Drummond Street. It was about 11 o’clock at night and so perhaps alcohol was involved. Both men divested themselves of their jackets and a so-caleld ‘fair fight’ began.

So far, so good – there was no need for the police or the law to get involved.

‘They had several rounds’ before ‘both men fell’. Flint got up to continue the fight but Skelton was unable to – he had broken his leg in the fall.

The injured man was carried to the nearby University College Hospital while Flint was arrested and taken into custody. The next day Flint was hauled before the magistrate at Marylebone Police Court and charged with the assault.

Flint explained that Skelton was his friend and they had both been ‘the worse for drink’ which had contributed to the squabble. He’d intended no harm however and he’d spoken to Skelton who had accepted that he was as much to blame for his own injury as Flint was. Nevertheless, the court was told that Skelton’s broken leg was serious and he would be laid up for five or six weeks as a result.

If Flint was hoping he would walk away from court without sanction he was to be disappointed. The policeman that arrested him was determined he should face some punishment and told the magistrate that the 25 year-old was not telling the truth and requested a remand until his victim could appear in court to testify. The magistrate agreed but said he was prepared to release Flint if he could find ‘substantial bail’.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, March 08, 1883]

Gang violence in Dalston as a new year dawns : an echo from 1877

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Joseph Allen was walking out with his ‘sweetheart’ on Kingsland Road in Dalston in early January 1878. It was just after midnight when the couple found their route barred by a large group of youths, about 20 strong. According to Allen’s report the gang of ‘roughs’ were: ‘occupying the breadth of the pavement , and pushing all persons into the road’.

This is quite familiar as the behaviour of youth groups or gangs in the late nineteenth century. In the 1870s and 80s they were usually referred to as ‘roughs’ (although that term was also applied to agitators in political crowds and other unruly elements of society). By the turn of the century the word ‘hooligan’ was used, being coined in the early 1890s, and immortalised by ‘Alf’, from Lambeth, in Clarence Rook’s Hooligan Nights

As the gang of youths reached Allen and his girl they pushed him about as they had done everyone else. When he objected he was surrounded, beaten about the head and knocked to the ground. He was forced to ‘fight his way out’ he later explained, but that was not the end of his troubles.

One of the ‘roughs’, a 22 year-old man named Thomas Robson, ‘rushed upon him and struck him two blows on the lest side of the head above the temple’. As he took his hand away from his wounded head Allen realised he was ‘bleeding freely’. Robson ran away but Allen chased after him and wrested with him. Despite the efforts of his fellows Robson was eventually handed over to a nearby policeman who took him into custody.

In front of the Police Magistrate at Worship Street Robson challenged Allen’s version of events. He suggested instead that Allen had sustained his wounds ‘by falling in a fair fights’ and asked those present to back him up. The magistrate decided to believe the victim in this case, who appeared in court with his head heavily bandaged. Robson was committed to take his trial before a jury.

Tried at the Sessions on 8th January Thomas Robson was convicted of wounding and sentenced to nine years imprisonment. The case has echoes of the Regent’s Park murder of 1888, when Joseph Rumbold was stabbed to death outside the gates of the park in a gang related incident. It is also a timely reminder that youth violence has a very long history in the capital. In the last few days we have heard that four young people were murdered on New Year’s Eve which brought the total of knife killings in London in 2017 to 80, the highest number in a decade.

Sir Craig Mackay, Deputy Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police made a statement, saying:

‘We need to find out why some young people think it is acceptable to carry knives, and this is where community organisations and local initiatives, charities, schools and educators, youth workers and families all have an important role to play in changing this mindset’.

I agree with his message but wonder what exactly we have been doing for the past 10, 20, 50 or even 100 years? Youth violence isn’t something we are suddenly going to understand or easily be able to solve. When my wife and I got home from a quiet New Year’s Eve with family we were disturbed by cries for help from two young men in the street. The pair were wrestling in the road and we called 999. Fortunately it was a case alarm; the pair were simply drunk and incapable and not killing each other. We aborted the call and apologised to the operator.

Joseph Allen was lucky, he survived being stabbed in the street. Joseph Rumbold was not so fortunate, dying in his girlfriend’s arms. As for the protagonists, Thomas Robson would have served most of his nine years and found work very hard to come by ever after. The consequences of his brutish behaviour would very likely dog his future. Joseph Rumbold was stabbed to death by George Galletly. He was sentenced to death at the Old Bailey in 1888 but reprieved on account of his age, he was just 18 years old.

Those murdered last Sunday night were 17, 18 and 20 years of age. The killers were probably young men of a similar age, and their lives have also been dramatically changed as a result of what they’ve done.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, January 03, 1878]