‘An offence that must be put down’: an attack on trade unionism in 1889

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I am currently teaching a third year history module that focuses on London in the 1880s. Crime and Popular Culture in the Late Victorian City uses the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders of 1888 as a prism through which to explore the social and cultural history of the East End.

On Monday my students were looking at radical politics, strikes, and demonstrations. We focused on the rioting in and around Trafalgar Square in 1886 (the so-called ‘West End’ or ‘Pall Mall’ riots) and the events of ‘Bloody Sunday in 1887. We then went on to look at the Match Girls Strike (using the work of Louise Raw) and the Great Dock Strike of 1889.

It is always harder to get students engaged in this sort of ‘political’ history than it is in crime and punishment history, although of course the two are very closely related. Much of the crime and its prosecution in the 1800s was linked to the inequalities which drove radical politics and the demands of men like Ben Tillett who led the dockers’ dispute. It is too simplistic to see the Police Courts of London as a disciplinary arm of the state but, in part at least, they functioned as that.

The courts served their communities and all of those that lived in them, but their fundamental purpose was as part of the mechanism that preserved the status quo in Victorian London. Poverty, unemployment, homelessness, alcoholism, crime and other social ills were self-evidently a product of a capitalist system which failed to provide for the poorest, regardless of any sense of being ‘deserving’ or ‘underserving’, but it was a system the government, police, and courts were determined to uphold regardless.

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In mid August 1889 the Great Dock Strike (right) broke out and tens of thousands of dockworkers downed tools and followed Ben Tillett and John Burns (and others) in demanding better pay and a better system of work. They drew tremendous support, both from the East End communities in which they lived and worked and further afield. Australian workers sent donations of £30,000 to help the cause.

There were numerous prosecutions of dockers and their supporters as the police tried to prevent secondary picketing and the intimidation of strikebreakers. The strike emboldened other workers in the area, just as the Match Girls strike a year previously had inspired the dockers to take action.

On 21 August 1889, just a week after Tillett’s call for action ignited the strike on the docks, Mark Hacht found himself in front of Mr Saunders at Worship Street Police court. Hacht was a tailor who lived at Wood Street in Spitalfileds. He was just 18 years of age and was accused of assaulting a police officer.

The court was told that the premises of a Mr Koenigsberg, a local furrier, was being picketed as his workers were out on strike. Hacht was part of the picket it seems, gathered outside the factory on Commercial Street preventing some employees from entering.

However, Hacht didn’t work for Koenigsberg, he had no connection at all to the furriers, instead he was, the prosecution lawyer alleged, merely ‘a paid agitator’. When one worker went to enter the building Hacht grabbed at him and said:

‘You shall not go to work there’.

‘I have got no food’, the man replied.

Hacht supposedly dismissed this saying that he ‘would murder him if he went there’. As the man continued Hacht hit him over the head with an umbrella. A policeman (PC 337H) intervened and the tailor tuned his attention to attacking him. As they struggled a ‘mob of Jews’ tried to pull the policeman off of his prisoner, impelling PC Littlestone to brandish his truncheon and ‘hold back the crowd’.

Having successfully secured his prisoner he took him into custody. There were witnesses who denied Hacht had done anything at all but the magistrate decided to believe the policeman and the furrier’s lawyer.

It was, Mr Saunders said, ‘one of the worst cases of the kind he had heard’ and it was ‘an offence that must be put down’. With the dock strike occupying so many column inches at the time it is was hardly surprising that a representative of middle class and elite society should choose sides quite so obviously. the young man was sent to prison for three months with hard labour.

In September 1889 the employers caved in and agreed to the dockers’ demands for sixpence an hour and a fairer system of choosing casual workers. The demands were not that radical, the impact on the employers’ profits fairly minimal. It was a rare victory for organized labour and led to a groundswell in trade union membership in the 1890s. Its longer-term affect was less positive however; in fact we might see the 1890s as the apogee of trade unionism in England.

The General Strike of 1926 showed labour could still organize but two world wars failed to change British society in any truly radical way. In the late 1970s the newly elected Conservative government set about dismantling trade union power, something unions have never really recovered from. Workers rights were more effectively protected by Britain’s membership of the European Union, and now even that has gone.

Yet again capitalism and corporate greed has triumphed at the expense of those that create the wealth. Until workers truly understand that their best interests lie in sticking together against a common foe (as the match girls and dockers did) rather than blaming immigrants for their woes, it will continue to dominate and make the few wealthy on the backs of the many.

[from The Standard, Wednesday,  August 21, 1889]

‘You will meet a tall dark stranger’: a fortune teller fails to predict her own demise.

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Did you watch the recent BBC drama, The Pale Horse? It is an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1961 murder mystery in which a dying woman leaves a list of names of people who die in unexplained circumstances.

The drama centres around three ‘witches’ in the village of Much Deeping (below right) , who tell fortunes and (at least in the mind of one of the characters) place curses on victims, causing them to die.images

The idea of having one’s fortune told has a very (very) long history. From ancient times those with the gift of prophesy or ‘sight’ have been sought out by kings and chieftains, and those who just want to know who and when they’ll marry.

Until the eighteenth century those deemed to be practicing witchcraft could hanged if convicted and although the laws against witchcraft were repealed in 1736 so-called witches were still targeted well into the 1800s. The 1735 Witchcraft Act had effectively abolished the crime of witchcraft but made it illegal to claim magical powers. This continued to be used against those who said they could ‘summons spirits’, as both Helen Duncan and Jane Yorke discovered in 1944 when they were last two people to be prosecuted under the act.

According to the Police Code Book of 1889 fortune telling was also prohibited. The section reads:

‘Every person pretending of professing to tell fortunes, or using any subtle craft, means, or device, by palmistry or otherwise, to deceive and impose on any one, may be treated as a rogue and vagabond, and sentenced to imprisonment with hard labour’.1

This offence fell under the ‘catch all’ terms of the Vagrancy Act (1824) and in February 1884 it ensnared an elderly woman called Antonia Spike. Spike appeared before Mr Lushington at Thames Police court. She’d been brought in on a warrant by sergeant White of H Division who’d been watching her for weeks.

White testified in court that he’d often seen women going coming and going at the house where Spike lived, sometimes as many as 8 or 9 in a single day. On the 18 February Eliza Weedon (a tenant on Whitechapel High Street) and Annie Wheeler, who lived in Shadwell, were among Spike’s visitors.  Somehow the police sergeant persuaded them to give evidence before the magistrate.

They said that they had entered the house and Antonia  Spike asked them if they wished to have their fortunes told. They said they did and Spike proceeded to shuffle and a pack of cards before giving them to Wheeler to cut

‘Are you married?’ she asked Annie, who said she was.

‘You will have a letter from a fair man, with a present, and you will be pleased. You will hear of the death of a dark woman, and you will come into some money. You will cross the ocean, and be married a second time, and be very well off’.

She also read Eliza’s fortune but presumably that was less interesting so the reporter didn’t write it down. Both women paid Antonia sixpence for reading their futures.

Mr Lushington, not a man to suffer fools or charlatans easily, sent the old lady to prison for a month with hard labour.

I had my fortune read once, in Aylesbury by a man who described himself as a warlock. He used the tarot and had an impressive statue of Anubis over his front door. He said I’d travel overseas, and that someone close to me, and elderly, would die. I paid more than 6d.

[from The Standard, Monday 25 February, 1884]

  1. From Sir Howard Vincent’s Police Code 1889, (ed by Neil. A Bell and Adam Wood, Mango Books, 2015), p.88

William Booth in court, for doing something about homelessness

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The Salvation Army is a well-established charity doing good work with the poor and homeless for well over a century. It was set up in London by William Booth in 1865, adopting the name Salvation Army (formally the Christian Mission) in 1878. Booth was an evangelist Christian who took his religious beliefs seriously, believing that the teachings of Jesus Christ impelled the better off to look after the poor.

As several articles in this blog series have shown the ‘Army’ wasn’t always well received. Their military structure and marching bands drew opprobrium and ridicule from all levels of society but by the turn of the century they were clearly established as a fixture in both British and American society.

In 1888 Booth, who started his mission in the East End of London, preaching in rooms above what is now the Blind Beggar pub on Whitechapel Road, set up a temporary night shelter in Hanbury Street, for the homeless female poor. He was prompted by the murders of Jack the Ripper, who preyed on vulnerable and often homeless prostitutes in the area.

The shelter was basic, and cost users 3d a night (2for children, and just a penny for infants in arms). In December 1889 Booth himself was summoned to the Worship Street Police court to answer a summons brought against him by the police, for running a shelter that wasn’t registered as a ‘common lodging house’, and therefore fell foul of the regulations.

This was the police’s report of their visit to the shelter, delivered by a sergeant (32H) and Inspector Ferrett:

‘The sergeant said that each sleeper had a “box like an egg-chest.” minus the bottom. A mattress made of American cloth and seaweed was in this, and the coverlet was sheepskin the size of the mattress, the sleeper putting their head through a hole at one end’.

The property, an old bath house, was well ventilated and quite warm, served as it was by hot water pipes. It had space for 192 women and for their three pence they got a light supper as well. The mattresses were cleaned regularly and the place was orderly, so what was the problem?

Well the summons seemed mostly concerned with it not being registered and that this ‘temporary’ solution to a crisis becoming permanent by default. The police did bring along some witnesses that to argue that the Salvation Army were operating not merely as a refuge but as a de facto lodging house but Mr Bushby wasn’t convinced by their line of argument.

He dismissed the summons and let Booth go back to his charity work.

We are once again in a period where homelessness and poverty are in focus. Winter is here and people are dying on the streets of British cities. Homelessness is a growing problem in the UK, despite us being in the top 10 richest nations on earth.

Changes to the benefits system (the introduction of Universal Credit and the bedroom tax) by the Conservative government (and before them the Tory and Liberal Democrat coalition), and a decade of austerity economic policies driven by a succession of Conservative chancellors from George Osborne to Sajid Javid have directly impacted the lives of the poorest.  726 people are known to have died on the streets in 2018, the highest number since recording began in 2013.

Something to think about when we cast our votes on December 12.

[from The Standard, Saturday, December 07, 1889]

The ‘Swell mob’ is undone by two ‘intrepid’ females

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Samuel Harris and George Edwards were, it was alleged, members of a notorious gang of smartly dressed criminals who targeted the  pockets of the wealthy at fairs and other large public gatherings. In July 1855 the two were out and about in Whitechapel and Harris had just taken a purse from a woman’s pocket when a sharp voice rang out:

‘You vagabond, you have just picked the lady’s pocket!’

The cry came from a servant girl, Emma Shearman, who was walking out with her mistress the widowed Mrs Whittaker. Emma moved swiftly to try and catch hold of Harris and in the process he dropped the purse he’d stolen. As he tried to pick it up she stood on it. Harris and Edwards fled with the two women in hot pursuit.

One of them grabbed Harris by the collar and spun him round, he lashed out with his cane hitting her on the head. The women persisted despite the violence and were eventually assisted by the arrival of PC H66 and the High Constable of Tower Hamlets, Thomas Reynolds. The two thieves were removed to the station house.

When they appeared for their hearing at the Worship House police court the station gaoler told the magistrate that the two were well-known to the police as members of the ‘swell mob’ who with a ‘gang’ of others turned up to races and the like, dressed in fine clothes and in a hired ‘stylish-looking chaise’ so they pass themselves off as moneyed and ‘respectable’. This ruse allowed them to get close to their victims. He added that recently one of them had a attended a confirmation at church where a man  was robbed of a £50 gold watch.

They were fully committed for trial.

The ‘swell mob’ was a term in common usage during the nineteenth century. It was applied to those criminals that lived well off the pickings they made as thieves and con-men. They saw themselves as the ‘elite’ of criminals and dressed to ape the habits of the middle-class. They were part of the so-called ‘criminal class’ of Victorian London – a term that historians of crime have warned us to not take too literally.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, July 14, 1855]

This post first appeared in July 2016

‘It was a bigger boy, sir’: youthful pranks in Rosemary Lane

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Rosemary Lane had a reputation for criminality throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The street was one of several in Whitechapel where the police were cautious about patrolling at night and where they would often turn when they needed to locate the ‘usual suspects’ for a bit of local thievery.

In 1847 PC H180 was passing nearby when he heard a terrible noise emanating from the lane and decided to investigate. He soon found almost two dozen young boys gathered together as some sort of impromptu orchestra, making an awful racket.  Some were banging pots and pans, others clashing knives and cleavers together; even bones were being used to pound out a rhythm on kettles and saucepans.

The policeman waded into this row and tried to get the lads to disperse. The boys were in high spirits and in no mood to listen. That day there had been a wedding – a Jewish marine store dealer, unpopular in the neighbourhood had married, and the reaction of the boys might have been some sort of youthful communal protest.

From the early modern period right up to the early twentieth century it was not uncommon for communities to express their displeasure or antipathy towards those they disliked or disapproved of by way of a charivari or skimmington. This was an old folk custom involving a mock parade with discordant (or ‘rough’) music.

As the policeman tried to stop the noise and make the crowd of boys go to their homes several of them turned on him and attacked him. One in particular hit him over the head with a kettle, knocking his hat into the gutter (before 1864 the police wore tall top hats, not helmets like they do today). He grabbed the boy and took him into custody, the others ran away.

The next day the child was brought before Mr Yardley at the Thames Police court charged with assaulting a policeman. Isaac Gardiner was so small his face could hardly be seen as he stood in the dock. When the magistrate was told that the boy had uttered the words ‘take that blue bottle!’ as he aimed a blow at the constable there was laughter in court. Isaac denied the charge, claiming some other boy was to blame.

‘It was a bigger boy, sir’, he said; ‘How could I reach up to a tall policeman’s head?’

It was a fair comment even if it was probably untrue. Mr Yardley was in no mood to have his court turned into a comic music hall act however, nor was he about to condone bad behavior by street urchins like Isaac. He told the prisoner that ‘boys must be taught to conduct themselves properly’. Isaac would be fined 5s and, since he had no money to pay, he’d go to prison for three days.

The poor lad was led away whimpering that it was unfair and he ‘didn’t see much harm in having a lark on a weddin’-day’.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, October 20, 1847]

A drunken German attracts the attention of police hunting Jack the Ripper

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Given the prevailing climate of fear that gripped the East End in the autumn of 1888 it is hardly surprising that Charles Ludwig found himself in court. He’d been in custody for two weeks by the time he was reexamined before Mr Saunders at the Thames Police court on the morning of the 2 October. This was just a day after news broke about the discovery of the bodies of two more victims of ‘Jack the Ripper’ and this effectively exonerated Ludwig of any connection to the murder series.

He was in custody because he was accused of threatening two people with a large knife whilst he was drunk. Mrs Elizabeth Burns had been confronted by Ludwig near the Minories on the outskirts of the City of London. When she saw the knife in his hand she screamed and two policemen came running up.

Elizabeth was so scared by the incident she quite forgot to tell constable John Johnson (366 City Police) that the man had got a  knife. PC Johnson said he been alerted to Elizabeth’s screams of ‘murder!’ as he perambulated his beat on the Minories. The sound came from a nearby alley that led to some railway arches, well known as ‘a dangerous locality’, he told the court. He found the woman but it was only after he had escorted her to the end of his beat that she mentioned that the strange man who had confronted her had ‘pulled a big knife out’.

‘Why didn’t you tell me that at the time?’ PC Johnson asked her.

‘I was too much frightened’, Elizabeth replied.

The copper raced off to see if he could find the man but he’d long gone. He gave a description to other officers he found but it was  a constable from K Division (PC 221K) that eventually made an arrest. He was called to a disturbance at a coffee stall on the Whitechapel Road. A drunken German (Ludwig) was remonstrating with the coffee stall owner who had refused to serve him.

Another customer, Alexander Finlay, was stood nearby and perhaps said something which brought him to Ludwig’s attention. Turning round Ludwig growled at him: ‘What are you looking at?’ and pulled out a long bladed knife which he threatened Finlay with. When the policeman arrived he took the ‘excited’ man into custody and since then they had been investigating his circumstances.

They may have thought he was the ‘Ripper’ or simply believed he was a possible suspect. He was potentially dangerous at least, so he was remanded in custody, being brought before the magistrate on a number of occasions. Now Inspector Pimley of H Division told Mr Saunders that Ludwig had ‘fully accounted for his whereabouts on the nights of the recent murders’ (meaning those of Polly Nichols and Annie Chapman presumably) and so all that rested against him was the charge of threatening behavior.

Ludwig was clearly guilty of that charge but since he’d already served two weeks in gaol the magistrate told him he was now free to go. Ludwig was just one of many men arrested on suspicion of being the Whitechapel murderer. In those months, when tensions were so high, the police and public were seeing killers in every dark corner of the East End and immigrants like Ludwig were top of the list of possible suspects.

In reality it is much more likely that ‘Jack’ was part of the indigenous population of the capital, someone who didn’t attract the attention that a drunken knife-wielding foreigner might.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, October 03, 1888]

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

‘Skylarking’ leaves one youth in hospital when he picks on the wrong victim

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Historians of crime have estimated that in the 18thand 19thcenturies only a small percentage of assaults (even fairly serious ones) reached the courts. Even when prosecutors did bring assaults before the magistracy in 18thcentury London the most common outcome was a settlement between the two parties, often brokered by the justice.

Arguably, this was mostly because inter-personal non-fatal violence was treated as a civil rather than a criminal offence, and so did not always need a jury’s deliberations. In the previous century and for much of the 1800s it was property crime that occupied the minds of legislators and the justice system. However, it seems to be the case that over the course of the nineteenth century violence increasingly became the focus of concerns about crime.

Perhaps this is reflected in this case from the Thames Police court in 1864 which occurred just 3 years after parliament had consolidated the various laws concerning interpersonal violence in one piece of legislation: the Offences Against the Person Act (24 & 25 Vict. c.100).

Herman Menus, a German immigrant, was charged with cutting and wounding Timothy Bryan, an Irish labourer. The victim was not in court to press the charge and Mr Partridge was told this was because ‘he either did not care about the wound as a serious one’ or had been compensated by some of Menus’ friends.

Nevertheless the case against the 38 year-old skin-dresser proceeded because, as Mr Partridge said, it was serious. He stated that ‘cutting and wounding cases had become so alarmingly common that the investigation must be continued’ and he remanded the German in custody.

The facts presented were that a police constable from H Division was called to a disturbance in Lambeth Street where he found Bryan lying in the gutter with a long cut to his face. He took the injured man back to Leman Street police station where he was treated. Whilst there he had some sort of fit but was now stable.

John Conley, a surgeon living on Whitechapel High Street, deposed that the wound was serious but not life threatening. In his defence Menus told the court that he had been attacked by a group of lads as he was going home from work. He was struck twice about the head and reacted, using the two cans he was carrying with him. One of these connected with Bryan’s cheek causing the injury. He used no knife at all.

The police confirmed that Bryan was one of the groups of lads that were involved in baiting the skin-dresser, which perhaps explains his reluctance to appear in court against him. Bryan was most likely part of the gang or group of ‘roughs’ who were known to pick on foreigners or anybody else they might like to terrorize on the capital’s streets. Unfortunately for him he had selected a victim who was quite capable of defending himself.

The prisoner was brought up the following day to be questioned again and so Mr Partridge could finally decide his fate. Now the court heard that Bryan was a fireman on a steam ship bound for Bordeaux in France. Menus had hired a solicitor to represent him.

Bryan appeared and said he was having some difficulty in speaking due the injuries he’d sustained in the attack on him. He told the court that he and his mates had just been ‘skylarking’ when Menus had said something to him. One thing led to another and blows were exchanged. He was drunk at the time he admitted, so his memory of the events was hazy at best. Several witnesses for both parties testified that there was equal fault on each side.

In the end the magistrate decided the best thing was this to be sorted out by a jury and so he committed Menus to take his trial.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, September 24, 1864; The Standard, Monday, September 26, 1864]