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

images

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.

Unknown

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).

Unknown

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.

source6a

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).

Unknown

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.

17641337_303

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!

‘Fake news’ or fools’ news?’: a drunken news vendor in the dock

newsvendors

Tomorrow is April Fools’ Day, the one day in the year when ‘fake news’ is supposed to be disseminated by the news media. In the past we’ve had the amazing Swiss spaghetti harvest of 1957, the invention of instant water pills that could save lives in droughts, and of course the discovery of the dead body of the Loch Ness monster (in 1972). Now, sadly, false or fake news has become ubiquitous with the advent of social media, the click-bait culture of the internet, and the ridiculous Trumpery of certain politicians.  In fact given the political events in England over the last few weeks it is quite hard to think what the press could tell us that we wouldn’t believe, regardless of its veracity.

In 1889 Frederick Stubbs decided to go early with the whole April Fools thing. At midnight on Sunday 24 March 1889 he was found marching about at Piccadilly Circus  (not under the gaze of Eros of course, as it was not installed until 1894) shouting “Death of Mr. Gladstone” ‘with the utmost strength of his lungs’.

He was carrying the following morning’s Sunday Edition and the 19 year-old newsvendor was as drunk as a lord, and reeling about. Drunks were routinely rounded up by beat policemen and asked to go home  if they were capable or, taken to the nearest station house if they were not. Stubbs was not and so PC 16 C (reserve) took him by the arm and escorted him to ‘the nick’.

The next day Stubbs was brought up, possibly still the worse for his excesses and with a sore head, to face Mr Hannay’s inquisition. The magistrate noted that the eminent statesman was very much alive but Stubbs was adamant that he’d seen an article in the paper marking his death. That was Gladstone’s brother, Mr Hannay explained, not the ‘Grand Old Man’ himself.

220px-Gladstone_being_kicked_in_the_air_by_angry_men_Wellcome_V0050369Gladstone, who had split the  Liberal Party three years earlier (in 1886) over Irish Home Rule, would be in opposition until 1892 when he regained the keys to Downing Street for the fourth and final time at the age of 82. He died on 19 May 1898 at Hawarden in Wales, aged 88.

In March 1889 Mr Gladstone was ‘enjoying excellent health’ the paper had actually said.  So Stubbs had made a mistake and not deliberately tried to fool anyone, and the justice recognized this. However, he had also got drunk and caused a disturbance in a public place and for that he would pay a fine of 5 shillings (or about £20 today).

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper , Sunday, March 31, 1889]

Riotous behaviour in Hyde Park and a cobbler is sent packing

In March 1878 there was a ‘row’ in Hyde Park. So far I can find no particular  reason for this although the park was often used for demonstrations, political gatherings,military parades and bank holiday celebrations.

In late February of that year there was  large demonstration of public antipathy towards Russia (on account of its aggression towards Turkey). Demonstrators and counter-demonstrators argued for and against British involvement in the war between the two powers and crowds spilled into Downing Street.

However,  the 9 persons who appeared at Marlborough Street Police Court on 17th charged with some form of disorderly conduct don’t seem to have been linked to this directly. Perhaps they were celebrating St Patrick’s Day early but that too seems unlikely.

Alfred Barrett (a ‘respectable looking lad’) was charged with gambling with dice and fined 2s 6d (or 3 days in prison). More seriously Alfred Williams and James Liddell were accused of ‘disorderly and riotous conduct’ and a police detective gave evidence against them.

Detective Croucher of C Division told Mr Newton (the magistrate) that while the police were escorting some of those they had arrested to the station Liddell and Williams had started throwing stones at the officers. Several hit the police but also struck ‘a gentleman’ (clearly a much worse offence!). The pair were eventually secured and marched off to the nick.

Both men denied doing anything of the sort but a second witness identified them while a third reported that there was a ‘great disturbance’ and a number of people were so badly hurt they had to be taken to hospital. ‘Of course there was’, interrupted Mr Newton, ‘and no doubt the prisoners were the cause of it’. He fined them 20s each.

Next up was William Turner, another young lad, who was seen (along with several others not in court) throwing stones ‘at persons wearing “high hats”‘. He too got a 20s fine with the alternative of 14 days in gaol if he was unable to pay.

Henry Woodbridge had come to London from Northampton and was a shoemaker, as many in that town were in the 1800s. Woodbridge was accused of disorder and was arrested. He was heard shouting ‘come on lads, six months in the House of Correction is better than being out of work’, before piling into the assembled lines of police.

He was seen attacking  reserve constable Reader (6A division) with a stick and kicking another officer before he was subdued. Mr Newton sentenced him to 2 month’s hard labour and added  that ‘the sooner he went back to Northampton the better’.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, March 17, 1878]

Of disorderly elections, drunkeness, and a ‘borrowed’ Hanson cab

In February 1880 the death of John Locke, the sitting Liberal MP for Southwark seat brought about a by-election. In due course 15,312 eligible voters turned out to cast their ballot and the seat was won by the Conservative candidate,  Edward (later Sir Edward) Clarke. Clarke is most famous for being the barrister that represented Oscar Wilde in his unsuccessful prosecution of the Marquis of Queensbury for libel (which ultimately ended with Wilde being tried and then imprisoned for ‘gross indecency’ in 1895.

Elections can be rowdy affairs even today and in the past (especially in the 18th century) they were raucous, sometimes fairly corrupt and drink tended to play a significant role. It seems the by-election in Southwark led to at least two Police Court appearances that month.

The first was a bricklayer named Frederick Evans, who ‘borrowed’ a Hanson cab when he was drunk. Evans admitted to having ‘got too much drink’ at the election (which caused much laughter in Wandsworth Police Court. He noticed that William Cheeney (a cab driver) was slumped in a chair in the Ballot room the worse for alcohol, and presumably thought he wouldn’t mind if he borrowed his vehicle.

Cheeney did mind. He appeared in court to give evidence that he wasn’t drunk at all and had only stopped off in the Ballot room to collect his fees for the night (presumably he had been ferrying voters of the receiving officers).

Mr Paget, the magistrate, wasn’t convinced by his story and while he fined Evans for being drunk in charge of a vehicle (so drunk in fact, that he fell off the cab!), he refused the cabbie’s request for expenses and told him to expect a summons from the police for ‘leaving his cab unattended’.

The second case was heard at Southwark and again involved drunkenness.

Ellen Harley (a 49-year old ‘stalwart Irishwoman’), was charged with being drunk and disorderly at the by-election, and ‘causing a mob to assemble’. PC Anker (305 M) was on duty outside a polling station in Fair Street, Horselydown, and witnessed Harley ‘on several occasions’ whipping up the voting public.

She marched up and down shouting ‘Home rule and Irish independence’ (a hot topic in the late 19th century) and the policeman asked her to go away and stop causing an obstruction and a nuisance. At six o’clock she was back and clearly quite inebriated and had gathered a ‘mob’ around her. PC Anker felt ‘obliged to take her into custody’.

In court she apologised and said she had been plied with drink by ‘some of her countrymen; and had got ‘rather excited’. The justice asked if she was known to the court or the gaoler. Fortunately it was found that she wasn’t; this was her first time in court. She was fined 10s or 7 days in prison.

Having stood for my local council at the last general election in 2015 I can attest that the process is a lot more sober these days but the campaigns can be quite lively for all that. Of course poor Ellen couldn’t vote. Although about 2.5 million more Britons had been enfranchised by the Parliamentary Reform Act (1867) this didn’t include women, she would have to wait to 1918 , if she lived that long (she would have been 87 so I doubt it).

p.s The loss of Southwark was temporary. in the 1880 general election (where Disraeli’s Conservatives were trounced by Gladstone, the Liberals regained the seat under Arthur Cohen MP)

[from The Standard , Monday, February 16, 1880]