A Parisian romantic in a London court

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London was a cosmopolitan city in the nineteenth century. Just as today it was home for thousands of Europeans who lived and worked alongside native Londoners and migrants from all over the British Isles. It was, and is, one of the things that makes the English capital such a vibrant and exciting place to be.

One young Frenchman in 1844 was not enjoying life despite his best efforts to live it to the full. Frederick Marigny had found himself on the wrong side of the law, locked up in a cell and brought before a magistrate at Marlborough Street Police court on a charge of theft.

The theft was fairly petty but and Marigny believed that there had been a misunderstanding occasioned by the fact that he spoke little or no English. He appeared in court on the 24 October 1844 having been remanded in custody by Mr Maltby, the sitting justice at Marlborough Street.

The magistrate had been told that Marigny was a regular at Pamphilon’s Coffee house in King Street, off Golden Square (in Soho). There had been a series of thefts of newspapers from the café and so the proprietor had set a watch on customers. Marigny had been seen leaving the coffee house with a copy of National hidden under his arm. A waiter stopped him and he was arrested.

In court an interpreter was supplied to translate from French to English and back. The young man said the waiter had given him permission to borrow the paper, he had not stolen it. The magistrate had him locked up and while he was custody Marigny wrote to the French ambassador on London, asking for his help in gaining his freedom. He claimed that his actions had been lost in translation and that he’d been sent to prison by mistake.

When he reappeared the ambassador’s secretary was there to support him. However, the magistrate was told that in the intervening days a search had been made of Marigny’s rooms and several missing papers had been found. Moreover, the waiter that the young man had suggested had given him license to borrow the café’s reading material denied it. It was also suggested that Marigny was ‘not exactly in his right mind’.

Mr Malby now told the ambassador’s man that he had remanded Frederick for a few days on the understanding that if no one came to press charges against him after that he would be released. The café owner had been informed of this and, since he’d not turned up in court that morning, Marigny was free to go.

With that the young man – resplendent in a ‘high sugar-loaf hat, hair on [his] head close cropped, with beard and mustachios covering the lower part of his face’, left court, his head held high.

The papers described him as a ‘member of la jeune France’.

While this might literally translate as ‘the young France’ I think that here it refers to young members of Parisian society, satirized by Théophile Gaulier in an 1831 work of the same name. Les Jeunes France were part of the romantic arts movement in France, flamboyant and passionate, based in a belief that the revolution had failed to liberate the individual in the way that he at promised to do.

Frederick Marigny was liberated, in the literal sense, if only from a dark and uncomfortable prison cell in London.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, October 25, 1844]

“Oh Monsieur, if you don’t take care you will lose your handkerchief out of your pocket!’: A Frenchman amuses the reading audience at Mansion House

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I was watching the news a week or so ago and (surprise, surprise) Brexit was being discussed. The BBC had sent a roaving reporter to Stoke to ask locals what they felt about Britain leaving the EU and at the delays that seemed to be undermining the process. One elderly couple (who self-identified as Leave voters) reflected a fairly common view that it was ‘about time’ the politicians just got on it with, and executed the will of the 52% that voted out.

When asked why he thought it was taking so long the man replied that it was the fault of the Europeans, in particular the French. ‘I’ve never liked the French’ he said.

This version of Francophobia has a long history in British (or rather English) culture.   As our nearest European neighbours France has been perceived as an enemy and economic rival for much of the last 1000 years. This is despite the reality that the long wars of the medieval period were dynastic (effectively French French kings versus English French kings) and the wars with the Bourbons were as much about religion as they were about nationalism, and those that benefited from them were the wealthy, not the poor that fought them.

Similarly the wars with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France were fought to preserve the power and wealth of the English aristocracy and mercantile class, not the ‘scum of the earth’ (as Wellington dubbed some of his infantry) who died in their thousands on foreign soil. Napoleon was a ‘monster’ and the revolutionary ideas of the French were supposedly inimical to English ‘liberty’. The reality was that had the revolution been exported to Britain we’d be quite a different nation today, arguably one without the House of Lords, the monarchy and all the trappings of class privilege.

In the early 1830s Waterloo was still a recent memory. Napoleon had died in 1821 (in exile on St Helena, possibly as a result of poison). France was no longer an enemy, even if it was still an economic rival, but Francophobic views persisted. London was home to plenty of Frenchmen and women and, in March 1835, one of the appeared at the Mansion House Police court to prosecute a pickpocket he’d caught red-handed on the street. The report of the case before the Lord Mayor reveals the casual anti-French sentiment which, I think, (as that man in Stoke demonstrates), continues to this day.

Monsieur Colliard had captured Edward Brown as he attempted to steal a handkerchief from his pocket in Lombard Street near the Bank of England. He described what happened in excellent English but with a heavy French accent. The Morning Post’s reporter wrote it up for the amusement of his readership so that both the working-class thief and his intended French victim  appeared as comic characters in a popular music hall skit.

‘My Lor’ said M. Colliard, ‘I vas going doing Lombar-street, Friday veek, and I felt tug, tug; and ven I turned to see vat it vas, I saw a vera leetle garçon run away with my handkerchief’.

I am now imagining the gentleman in his club or the worker at the bar of the pub amusing his friends by reading this aloud, with perfect comic timing.

Having lost one hankie Colliard was on his guard the following day.

‘So, I thought [this time] I would pin my handkerchief to my pocket, so de leetle garcon should not get him out. So when I go to the place were I vas tugged I felt another tug, and I turned about, and this garcon had a hold of my handkerchief. “Ah” I says, “I have caught you!”

“Oh Mounsier, “ says he, “if you don’t take care you will lose your handkerchief out of your pocket;” but I says to him, ‘I vill take care not to lose you,” and I held him fast, and I bring him here for your Lordship to try him’.

Young Edward Brown attempted to wriggle out of the charge by saying he was only trying to warn the Frenchman that he was in danger of dropping his ‘wipe’ or having it pinched by one of the many ‘bad characters’ that lurked around the Bank.

His show of altruism fooled no one, especially not the Lord Mayor, who told him that if he made ‘the communication without the slight of hand all would have been all right, but he must go to Bridewell for two months for going too far in in his endeavour to protect his neighbour’s property’.

So in the end a very ordinary story of petty theft was dressed up as an amusing tale that allowed the readers to chuckle at the funny accent of our continental neighbours and the misfortune of a ‘street arab’ whose poverty had probably driven him to steal in the first place. For me it is a reminder that some elements of our society continue to enjoy demonizing or ridiculing ‘foreigners’ even at the same time as we enjoy their wine, cheese, countryside, and culture and benefit from the trade between our countries.

The ‘little Englander’ has become a little more prominent as a result of Brexit and, regardless of whether being a member of the EU is a good or bad thing in your opinion, anything which serves to divide peoples who have much more in common than they have in difference, is a sad thing which does no one any good.

Expect, of course, for those that profit from nationalism and division. And that little club contains the real enemies of the people, the far right, religious extremists, and arms traders.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, March 02, 1835]

Fined for disturbing a mathematical genius

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Charles Babbage (1791-1871)

Most of you will be reading this post on a computer, or a tablet, or perhaps even a smart phone. It is too much of a leap to say that without Charles Babbage’s ground-breaking work in creating his Analytical Engine in the early 1800s such devices may not have been invented, but Babbage is often heralded as the father of computing.

Babbage was born in the eighteenth century (as the ‘terror’ was sweeping Paris in fact) and died in 1871 (as Germany completed its emergence as a major European power. His life then, neatly bookmarks the end of the ancient regime and the birth of modern Europe.

But of course, scientific genius also comes with the normal traits of human life. Babbage had to eat and drink, he married and had children. He also hated being disturbed, and had a particular antipathy to street musicians, as this quote, from 1864, show:

‘It is difficult to estimate the misery inflicted upon thousands of persons, and the absolute pecuniary penalty imposed upon multitudes of intellectual workers by the loss of their time, destroyed by organ-grinders and other similar nuisances’.

Babbage campaigned against ‘public nuisances’, not only musicians but children playing in the street and drunks rolling home after a night in the pub. He even produced a mathematical calculation to show the likely number of windows broken by drunks and contributed to a drive to ban children from playing with hoops in the street, because of the potential damage they could do to horses’ legs. He reminds me a lot of an elderly teacher at my North London grammar school who railed against paper darts on the grounds that ‘they will have someone’s eye out, boy!’

Babbage was well known for his hatred of street musicians, often Italian organ grinders, who played for the money they could extract from passers-by (or perhaps householders who gave then coins to go away). In December 1866 he appeared at the Marylebone Police court, near his home, to  bring just such a complaint before Mr Mansfield.

Joseph Jenanin and Andrew Roadling were charged with ‘refusing to desist from playing musical instruments when requested to do so’. Babbage testified that on the 29 November Jenanin and Roadling, along with seven others, were performing in Paddington Street, just 200 yards from the mathematician’s home.

He went out and asked them to stop but they ignored him. He called a nearby policeman who then confirmed his story in court. In defence of the men their attorney, Mr Sayers, called upon several local tradesmen who told the magistrate that the musicians had in fact stopped playing when Babbage asked them to. They added that the men were not a nuisance in the neighbourhood, in fact we might suppose they quite enjoyed the concert and perhaps it attracted some trade.

On this occasion Babbage was thwarted by the justice system, to some degree at least. While the magistrate was prepared to accept that the men were causing a nuisance to him, they were too far from his home to have done so deliberately. As a result he couldn’t or wouldn’t punish them with the full force of the law but simply fined them 10s each and Mr Babbage’s costs. This would probably mean they avoided the great man’s home in future, but would not have ruined them or forced them to sell their instruments.

We can imagine Charles Babbage returning home from court still fuming at the outrage. He was 75.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, December 10, 1866]