The democratic process under stress: riots at the Middlesex Election of 1852

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With a new prime minister about to be announced this morning thoughts turn to a possible General Election. British politics is going through a tumultuous time and it was interesting to hear the new leader of the Liberal Democrats describe the Conservatives and Labour as the ‘two old parties’ when the Liberals are just as ancient and established as the Tories. They used to be the radical party of British politics, a tag they still like to revive when it suits them (as it does today with their opposition to Brexit).

In the mid 1800s parliament was made up of Conservatives (Tories) and the Whigs; the parties that had dominated politics for a century. But within the Whigs there was a splinter of MPs who described themselves as ‘Radicals’. They were dedicated to extending the franchise to include the working classes (who were largely excluded from the vote until the 1860s) and had been agitators against the hated Corn Laws (which kept food prices high for the poorest).

At the general election in 1852 the Radicals stood candidates against the Whigs and the Tories in the two seats that served the London constituency of Middlesex.  Middlesex had been a hotbed of radical politics from at least the late 1600s. The most famous radical MP for Middlesex was probably John Wilkes, and widespread rioting accompanied his election in 1768. Wilkes was a fierce opponent of the government of the day and had to flee to Paris to avoid prosecution for libel and debt. When he returned and stood for parliament he was elected but then promptly imprisoned in the King’s Bench prison. His supporters went on the rampage. Wilkes was a populist with great appeal but deep down he was also a cynical self-serving politician who would later order troops to fire on the Gordon Rioters as he was, by then, one of the City’s magistrates.

In 1852 there were more riots in Middlesex as supporters of the Radical candidate Ralph Bernal Osborne (below right) clashed with those of John Spencer-Churchill (the Marquis of Blandford) who stood for the Tories. An effigy of the Marquis was carried through the streets along with a stuffed fox and a pole with the label ‘a Derby puppet’ attached to it. Lord Derby had become PM in February 1852 following the fall of Lord Russell’s Whig ministry. It was a minority government and it too collapsed in December that year. He is sometimes credited with creating the modern Conservative party (an honour more usually credited to Disraeli). 220px-Ralph_Bernal_Osborne,_Vanity_Fair,_1870-05-28

The riots resulted in a series of arrests and led to three men appearing before Mr Paynter at Hammersmith Police court. Thomas Hall (25) was a sweep; Edward Hewett (33) and William Cook (19) were labourers, so all were working class. After the poll had closed disturbances had erupted at Hammersmith and the police who were there to keep order were attacked. Some of the police were in plain clothes, watching the crowd, and Hall was seen parading with the stuffed fox. PC John Jones (210T) stated that he was assaulted by Hall and as he tried to arrest him a ‘mob’ closed in on him.

PC Petit (194T) went to help and was thrown to ground by Hall. The prisoner then kicked him in the face, bruising his chin. The other two defendants joined in the fracas. PC John Searle (69T) was threatened by Cook who carried a large stick, which had been used to carry a flag, but was now simply a weapon. The police had taken the men into custody after a struggle and at the station it the men had bragged that any fine they got would be paid by the candidate they’d supported, Ralph Osborne.

Gangs of ‘roughs’ were a feature of election campaigns in the period just as they had been in the eighteenth century. Intimidation was common in elections – there were no secret ballots until 1872 so everyone knew who you voted for. The magistrate established that none of the trio were voters and the police said that all of the were known ruffians who’d appeared for assault before. Perhaps they were hired by the radicals, although they would have denied this. Politics was a dirty business in the 1800s, although one wonders whether it is much better today.  Even if Osborne had agreed to pay any fines it didn’t help the men. Mr Paynter told them their behavior was ‘disgraceful’ and said they had ‘interfered with the freedom of the election’, by preventing voters for going to the hustings.  He sentenced Cook to a month in gaol and the others to three weeks each.

After sentencing Cook claimed that he been employed to cause trouble by Dr Simpson and Hall said he was bring paid by a man named Rainbow. It neither of them any good as they were all led away and to be locked up.

The election returned the two incumbent MPs, Osborne for the Radicals and Robert Grosvenor for the Whigs. John Spencer-Churchill (the grandfather of Winston) came a narrow third. He entered Parliament in 1857 when the death of his father meant that he inherited the title of the duke of Marlborough. There were only 14, 610 registered voters in Middlesex in in 1852, returning two MPs. Only about half of them turned out to vote. Now the former Middlesex seat has been broken up into 8 separate seats in London, from Uxbridge to Hornsey.

If the voting system of the 1850s seems undemocratic to modern eyes then perhaps we should note that our next Prime Minster has just been elected by a tiny handful of the electorate, roughly 180,000 people out of 47,000,000 (or less than 1%).

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, July 23, 1852]

‘These cabmen always drive furiously’: Lord Rothschild has a lucky escape

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An 1891 caricature of Nathan (‘Natty’) Rothschild by Lockhart Bogle in The Graphic

It seems as if traffic accidents were just as likely to occur in late nineteenth-century London as they are in the modern capital, and that the roads were just as crowded. Moreover the image of the policeman directing the flow of vehicles – one we probably now associate with the 1950s and 60s – may be just as appropriate for the 1890s.

In early March 1890 Nathan, the first Baron de Rothschild, was being driven in brougham coach along Queen Victoria Street in the City. A policeman was holding the traffic and had his arm extended up, palm out to signal this. Lord Rothschild’s driver eased his horses to a halt to wait for the officer’s signal to continue.

Suddenly, and seemingly without warning, the coach was hit from behind by a hansom cab. One of the shafts of the cab broke through the brougham, narrowly missing its occupants. Rothschild was shaken, but unhurt. The baron stepped down from the damaged coach and approached the policeman. He handed him his card and said, possibly angrily:

‘These cabmen always drive furiously. Take my card and give it to the Inspector. It will be all right’.

The incident ended up with the cabbie, James Povey, being summoned before the alderman magistrate at Guildhall Police court where he was charged with ‘driving a hansom cab wantonly’. Povey pleaded ‘not guilty’ and one of his passenger that day, a gentleman named Palmer, was in court to support him.

Mr Palmer testified that the baron and his driver could not possibly have seen what happened as they were facing the wrong way. He said that Povey had tried to stop and it was entirely an accident, not ‘wanton’ or dangerous driving. The alderman agreed and dismissed the summons, adding that a claim for the damage to the brougham could be made in the civil courts. There was no need, Povey’s representative (a Mr Edmonds, solicitor for the Cab Union) explained, as that had already been settled.

Rothschild was an important figure in late nineteenth-century Britain, a banker and the financial backer of Cecil Rhodes, he was a noted philanthropist as well, helping fund housing (in the form of model dwellings) for poor Jews in Spitalfields and Whitechapel.

Rothschild sat in parliament for the Liberals, although he had been a close friend of the Conservative Prime Minster Benjamin Disraeli. By 1896 he was a peer, sitting in the Lords (as he had since 1885) an honour bestowed by that other great Victorian premier, William Gladstone. He then left the Liberals in 1886, joining forces with Joseph Chamberlain’s Liberal Unionists as the Liberal Party split over Home Rule for Ireland. He died in 1915 and the current baron, Jacob, is the 4th to hold the title.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, March 11, 1896]

Exploiting workers in the late 19th century ‘rag trade’.

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Contemporary cartoon on the evils of ‘sweated’ factory labour

Yesterday’s case looked at the regulation of living conditions and featured two landlords who were fined heavily for allowing their rental properties to fall into a ‘filthy’ state, ‘unfit for human habitation’. That was in Bermondsey, south London, an area identified with poverty and poor housing in Charles Booth’s poverty maps.

North of the Thames the East End, and in particular the narrow streets and courts of Whitechapel were equally synonymous with degradation. Here too  in the 1880s there was a contemporary concern about the ‘sweating’ in the clothing trade.  ‘Sweating’ referred to the exploitation of (often foreign) workers, forced to work long hours in cramped and unhealthy conditions, for very low pay.

In 1890 a House of Lords select committee reported that ‘the evidence tends to show much evasion of the Factory Acts and overtime working of females’ in the clothing industry in London. The Factory Acts, widely flouted and largely ineffectual, were supposed to prevent dangerous or unhealthy conditions in the workplace, and to limit the amount of hours men, women and especially children, could be asked to work in any given week.

In May 1886 a Whitechapel tailor, Harris Solomons, was summoned to the Thames Police Court to answer charges that he was overworking some of his female employees.

Solomons, most probably one of the East End’s well-established Jewish community, operated from 8 Fieldgate Street, Spitalfields, close to the Bell Foundry and not far from the London Hospital.  In just a few years this area would become forever associated with the unsolved murders of ‘Jack the Ripper’.

The summons against the Whitechapel tailor was prosecuted by a factory inspector, Gerald Slade. He gave evidence that he had visited the defendant’s property four times in the last two months. This suggests either that the authorities were operating a crackdown on the clothing industry or Mr Solomons was a name on a targeted hit list.

Slade discovered that along with himself, Solomons employed two women. He found that these women were required to work until 9 o’clock most days, sometimes as late as 10. On Sundays they worked till 4 in the afternoon.

The inspector informed Solomons that if he expected his workers to toil on a Sunday he must let them leave no later than 8 in the evening on weekdays. Given that Solomons was in all likelihood Jewish and assuming his workers were, then they would not have worked Saturdays or late on a  Friday night, because of religious restrictions.

This constrained the working week and competition was great in the period so it seems Solomons was flouting the regulations of the Factory Acts that had been passed in part to protect labourers from such exploitation.

When Slade visited the premises on the following Sunday he had found both women, and the tailor, hard at work at half-past five, well beyond the 4 o’clock cut off point. As a result he had summoned Solomons for infringing the act.

Solomons pleaded innocent and tried to argue that there were special circumstances. He had a deadline, and since ‘the holidays’ were imminent he needed to get this job finished. In total Slade brought 3 charges, all similar, against the tailor and Mr Lushington found against him. He fined him 206d in the main case, and 1 plus costs in the other two. It was an expensive day in court for the tailor and a day lost in the workshop to boot.

Whether this, or similar cases, had any real immediate or long term effect on the operation of the ‘rag trade’ or on workshop conditions in London is debatable. The select committee noted that the worst offenders were very hard to prosecute. Evidence had to produced  which usually meant an inspector had to catch an employer ‘red handed’ or an employee had to be a ‘whistle-blower’. The latter were extremely hard to find because work was at a  premium in the late 1800s and many of those recruited to work in these ‘sweat shops’ were desperate for the few pennies they earned.

Contemporaries like Annie Besant attempted to explore the trade but the huge numbers of ‘greeners’ (newly arrived Eastern European refugees, escaping persecution or famine in Russia) meant that there was a ready-made surplus of labour. A whistle-blower risked their job and their survival for little or no reward.

The way to fight ‘sweating’ then, was collective action. Given the small numbers of unionised labour in the 1870s and ’80s this was hard. Besant and the women that worked in Bryant & May match factory in the East End did, however, later show the capital and the world how determined and well-organised collective action could force an employer to address the concerns about pay and conditions.

The lesson was not lost on the dockers who organised successfully in 1889. The Match Girls and the Great Dock strikes probably represented the high point of late Victorian Trades Unionism. Over the next century workers’ rights would be championed, protected, and then gradually eroded from the 1980s onwards. We might remember then why we need to protect workers from exploitative employers: women being asked to work 6 days a week from early morning to late at night, with no rest, no lunch break, and very low pay is reason enough.

Exploitation has not gone away, and never will under the model of capitalism that exists in Britain and the world. Anyone that is any doubts about this need only look at trafficked workers, the existence of sweatshops in the developing world, the need for a minimum wage, and the modern phenomena of the ‘gig economy’ and zero-hour contracts. Capitalism has never been able to successfully police itself, which is why we need the state to do that.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, June 5, 1886]

Technology and pornography clash in the summary courts of the capital

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Today’s story from the London Police Courts combines two changes in the mid nineteenth century; one technological and the other legal.

In 1851 David Brewster exhibited his stereoscope at the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace. His stereoscope, invented by an Edinburgh mathematics teacher named Elliot and developed by  Jules Dobosqc, was not the first but it became very popular very quickly. The stereoscope allowed people to view 3D images on a handheld device, and had obvious entertainment and educational possibilities (sound familiar?).

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Brewster’s stereoscope

However, as with the still relatively new science of photography, some people soon realised that the stereoscope had other, less high brow or wholesome applications. In short, it opened new avenues for pornography.

The problem of pornography and its capacity to corrupt the morals of the population (especially young minds) was not lost on the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Campbell. While he presided over a trial for the sale of pornographic material Campbell was also involved in a  Lords’ debate on the restrictions of poisons. He recognised parallels between them and condemned pornography as ‘a poison more deadly than prussic acid, strychnine or arsenic’.

He introduced a bill of parliament that became law in 1857 as the Obscene Publications Act, the first of its kind. The sale of offending material was now an offence and powers were given to seize and destroy obscene publications. The offence came under the powers of summary jurisdiction and was therefore dealt with in the Police Courts before a Police magistrate.

Lord Campbell may not have had the stereoscope in mind when he conceived his legalisation but technology and the obscene publications law were soon interwoven at Bow Street Police Court.

In February 1858 Sidney Powell of Chandos Street, Covent Garden appeared at London’s senior Police Court charged with the sale of obscene ‘representations’ in stereoscopic form.

The court report doesn’t detail exactly what these slides contained but Powell was adamant that they weren’t pornographic. He argued that they were intended for ‘medical men, being of an artistic nature’. They were no more explicit, he contended, than the poses adopted by artists models.

He assured his worship that he had plenty of experience of selling images and of the law and he was ‘well known amongst artists, who told him that the representation of a single figure would not be deemed “obscene”.’

Mr Henry, the magistrate, rejected his case out of hand. He had seen the slides. There was, he concluded, ‘a very wide distinction between the representation of a nude in a  graceful attitude, and the coarse disgusting pictures produced in this case’. While he gave Powell leave to appeal his decision he ordered the slides to be destroyed. The unhappy Powell accepted the decision and made his exit from the court.

He was not the only person prosecuted under the term of Lord Campbell’s act that morning. Two men were prosecuted for selling pipe heads which were indecent. One of the sellers, a Mr Bush, complained that the pipes were not covered by the act and had been licensed for sale by Customs House. Henry was having none of it and order the entire stock destroyed.

One wonders why someone would want to own (or smoke from) a pipe with ‘indecent’ images on it, but then again our society uses sexually explicit images of women to sell just about anything so who are we to judge our Victorian ancestors? We might also reflect that the invention of new technology, from the printing press to photography, to moving pictures and the internet, has allowed pornographers to find new and creative ways to exploit a new medium.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, February 18, 1858]