No help for the weakest from a society which simply didn’t care

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There are so many dreadful stories of poverty and distress in the pages of the nineteenth-century press that it would possible for me to write about that topic every single day. The number of attempted suicides in London in the 1800s reveals the struggle that so many people had with poverty, mental illness and a society that simply provided no proper system of support for those that didn’t ‘win at life’.

For me it is a constant reminder that the greatest achievement of the British state was the creation of the Welfare State in the aftermath of the Second World War. Clement Atlee’s post war government presided over a broken Britain, one battered by war which, while it had emerged victorious, had come perilously close to defeat and invasion by Hitler and fascism. Churchill is rightly credited with pulling us together through that dark period of our history but, for me, it was Atlee’s government that secured the peace by setting in place the foundations for rebuilding society.

In the early 1860s Britain was not at war – we’d had seen off the might of Imperial Russia in the Crimea several years earlier and the Indian Mutiny (or, more properly, war of independence) was a fading memory as well. Great Britain had an empire that covered the globe and our wealth was unsurpassed. Yet despite this our rulers did very little to support the poorest in society or recognize the contribution that others (‘foreigners’) had made to the nation’s success.

The Poor Law of 1834 had been designed to penalize the poor and to deter people from asking for help by effectively locking them up in a workhouse and breaking up their families if they did so. We had no NHS either, there were charities that helped the poorest with medical care but no universal right to free healthcare at the point of need. The understanding of mental illness was still in its infancy, and without private means an individual suffering with any form of mental illness was likely to be thrown into a workhouse or public asylum to be mistreated by doctors and nursing staff that knew very little and cared much less.

Muhomed Ali Khan was a member of the British Empire who felt he was entitled to its support. After 1857 and the failure of the Indian uprising the British state had taken full control of the Indian subcontinent. The British ruled for the benefit of the Queen and the motherland, not for the millions of indigenous Indians that lived there. Khan must have come to England to work, perhaps as a sailor, or soldier in the Queen’s army, or even as an employee of the East India Company.

Whatever the reason in 1862 he was in a parlous state. Destitute and suffering with physical and mental illness he was found at 11.30 in the morning outside the office of the East India Company in Victoria Street by a policeman. When asked what he was doing Khan told PC John Fever (255A) that he ‘had a claim on the government, and had determined to die at the door of those offices’. Fearing the man would make good on his promise PC Fever picked him up and helped him to the nearest workhouse.

Two days later Khan was back outside the EIC offices and had to be dragged back to the care of the workhouse staff. He had nothing to eat in between and was causing ‘annoyance’ by ‘walking about day after day in front of them’. The poor man was embarrassing the company that had profited so much  from the exploitation of India, its people  and its natural wealth. So he was brought before Mr Arnold at Westminster in a case the paper headlined ‘the Troublesome Indian’.

Here we learn that Khan had been ‘troublesome’ before: he had gained entry to the House of Lords and made an attempt on his own life. He had also appeared at Horse Guards during the Queen’s procession to open Parliament and had tried to cut his own throat. On both occasions, the magistrate was told, the poor man was sent to prison but it clearly hadn’t had the effect intended.

Mr Arnold was sympathetic but unable to do anything of real use for Khan. He hadn’t committed  an offence by wandering outside the EIC’s offices so he discharged him from court, but he didn’t help him much either. The man was given a shilling to get some food and sent on his way. It was almost inevitable that he would end up dead in the river or a workhouse infirmary before long and Victorian society, frankly, didn’t care which.

The British Empire and state was built on the backs of the vast majority who did not benefit from it but this was not properly recognized until Atlee and that first Labour administration.  I rather fear that lesson has been lost over the years as we worry about ‘benefit scroungers’ and continue to underfund the NHS and social care. For Mohamed Khan in 1862 we have the unnamed Hungarian who collapsed and died outside Parliament in December 2018.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, 4 January, 1862]

‘An assault of an unmanly character’ as a trio of ‘gentlemen’ drag a Turk about by his beard

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I imagine that most owners of Indian curry houses have had to put up with a lot of bad behaviour from drunken customers who stumble into their establishments late on a Friday night demanding ‘the hottest thing on the menu’. The boorish actions of English men was satirized wonderfully in the BBC comedy sketch show, Goodness Gracious Mewhere the team talked about ‘getting tanked up and going for an English’.

It plays on the reality that for many immigrants to Britain being abused or made fun of by the native population has only recently been deemed unacceptable both in law and by the majority of the British populace. Until now those running curry houses (and other shops and eateries) have pretty much had to take whatever they were given.

Thankfully that past is (largely) behind us, although the spectre of xenophobia has re-emerged emboldened perhaps by Brexit and the ongoing debate about migration. Looking back we can find plenty of examples of racism and nationalism in British history, especially in the heady days of Empire when Great Britain really did rule half the globe and the map of the world was covered in swathes of pink.

Three friends, overtly respectable and well-dressed men, had been out drinking in central London in the run up to Christmas 1855. It was a Friday night and Charles Bowley, Henry Nation and John Tickell weren’t quite ready to call for a cab home to their wives. They were on the Haymarket, in London’s entertainment district and they decided to head for a tobacco house, or divan, where they could relax, smoke a cigar to two, and perhaps enjoy a brandy. There were several of these ‘cigar divans’ in the centre of London and they provided a range of entertainment for men with money to pay for it.

But being intoxicated and full of British swagger and arrogance they barged their way into Youssef Ben Ibrahim’s divan and upset the prevailing calm atmosphere of the club. Concerned for her establishment’s reputation and the peace of her customers, Youssef’s wife, Ayesha, told them to be quiet or leave.

It was a reasonable request but, in liquor, these were not reasonable men. Ayesha Youssef was  verbally abused with ‘course epithets’ and Nation (a Naval officer) struck her in chest and almost sent her flying. Her husband leapt to her assistance and was assaulted by the trio.

One of the men grabbed him by his beard and then the tree amused themselves by pulling him to and fro ‘by that honoured appendage’. It was both violent and insulting, and deliberately so; the men clearly thought very little of Youssef and his wife, dismissing them as mere foreigners not worthy of the respect due to Englishmen.

In the end a member of Youssef’s waiting staff got involved and, despite being hit several times, managed to pull his master free. The men were later arrested and brought before the sitting magistrate at Marlborough Street on the following day.

Mr Hardwick didn’t believe the men’s protestations of innocence and sided entirely with the Turkish couple. He was ‘satisfied that an assault of an unmanly character had taken place’ and he fined each of the men £3. That made their evening out that little bit more costly but, and more importantly, the declaration that the assault was ‘unmanly’ and the description of the attack on a defenseless woman were both made public in the papers. That would have made uncomfortable reading for the trio, their families, and their circle of friends. That was probably a better punishment than the fine which no doubt they each found in their deep pockets.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, 22 December, 1855]

The police magistrate as a teaching tool

Today was the first time that I’ve used this blog in my own teaching. I’ve discussed it at conferences and with colleagues but thus far I hadn’t exposed undergraduates to it.

I am coming to the end of a 10 week module for third year undergraduates at Northampton University which explores the social and cultural history of late Victorian London. It takes the 1888 Jack the Ripper murders as it focal point and verse off to look at a variety of interconnecting themes.

So we start with London in the late nineteenth century (the ‘infernal wen’) as the capital of Empire and the expanding metropolis that seemed to many contemporaries to represent everything they feared about society in the later 1800s. Here was a huge urban area, densely packed with hundreds of thousands of people, many drawn from outside of London, living cheek by jowl, and struggling for air beneath the coal smog.

Here were colourful migrants and visitors from every corner of the Empire and the globe, bringing the riches of other lands along with their culture, language and radical politics. Tensions rose with unemployment – a new word in the 1880s – and competition for space. So we explore the themes of immigration and anti-alienism as well as poverty, charity, and housing reform.

We look at the Ripper murders and the impact they had; at the way the press manipulated the story and how this fitted with other contemporary concerns about violence, prostitution, immorality and the plight of the poor. Hopefully the module challenges some preconceptions about the Victorian age (and about who might have been the ‘Ripper’) and next week we are tackling the mythology associated with the case and its impact on history and Ripperology, head on.

This week I chose to concentrate on the notion that a criminal ‘class’ existed in the Victorian period. This is how contemporaries like Henry Mayhew and James Greenwood described the ‘underclass’ (the residuum); a class below the ‘respectable’ and ‘honest’ working class who were eulogised in Ford Maddox Brown’s painting ‘Work’. These were the Londoners who ‘will not work’ and earned their living instead by thievery and deception.

We discussed how this view was created by writers like Mayhew and Greenwood (and others0 and perpetuated by a media driven by a  mix of sensationalism and early investigative journalism. I asked them to search through this blog to see the ways in which I’d interpreted the newspapers that contributed to the rhetoric of criminality and got some others to mine the database of nineteenth-century newspapers to discover the reportage of the police courts for themselves.

It was interesting to see my own research reflected back at me, (and to have my typos pointed out!) and to hear their own interpretations of what they read and found. I’m trying to use more digital resources in teaching as I recognise that this is how this generation access historical material. Where I once spent hours, days and weeks hunched over dusty volumes in a archive, the next cohort of historians are turning to the computer screen to make their own discoveries.

There’s a instant quality to this method of data searching but it all still requires context: some of the things they found didn’t make sense to them – in places I was able to draw on what is now over three years of looking at the London Police courts to help them make sense of it. In the end I thought it was a useful expertise which I will repeat next year, and perhaps in the spring with my second years (who study a longer broader period of crime history).

Angry shoemakers take to the streets of Hackney

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One Sunday in early October 1892 a grim looking band of men started marching up and down a street in Hackney, north-east London. The men marched to the musical accompaniment of a motely band playing the ‘death march’ and every now than then the group turned to point accusingly at towards the occupants of the houses they passed, shouting out ‘scabs!’, ‘rats!’ and ‘gaol birds!’

Several men broke ranks and rushed over to the homes shoving handbills under the portals. These printed bills carried a foreboding message:

‘To all Trade Unionists, – Under the auspices of the National Union of Boot and Shoe Clickers and Rough Stuff Cutters, a few Sunday morning demonstrations against sweaters, and scabs, rats and other vermin will be given in the London Fields district, commencing on Sunday October 2, and will be continued until further notice’.

London Fields was large open area that had once been home mainly to sheep and highwaymen in the previous century. By the late 1800s it was ‘a hard unsightly, dismal plain’, when it rained it became an ‘impassable swamp’. It was uncultivated and so idea for demonstrations.

The handbill continued:

‘All Unionists […] who believe in giving sweaters, scabs, rats, and other vermin a musical lunch will confer a favour on the above Union by meeting on London Fields next Sunday at 10.30, when they will form in procession, headed by bands and banners, and pay each of these social parasites and bloodsuckers a visit’…

The noise and the threats prompted at least two individuals to complain at the North London Police court. Both men said they had been targeted directly. They said they worked in a shop where a dispute was underway but denied being scabs (strike breakers).  Mr Bros (presiding) suggested that they applied for a summons against those responsible for a breach of the peace, and sent them on their way.

The actions of the trades union members seems to be a cross over from traditional acts of ‘rough musicing’ (literally banging pots and pans outside someone’s home to show community disproval) and more ‘modern’ acts of picketing (as demonstrated during the 1889 Dock Strike).

The Boot and Show Union had formed in 1873 and within a decade boasted 10,000 members. It had merged with the Rough Stuff and Clickers Union in 1892, the year this case occurred, but split soon after. They had one big strike, in 1897, in support of a minimum wage and 54 hour week but unlike the Match Girls (in 1888) and the Dockers (1889) they weren’t successful.

We don’t have a large scale boot and show industry anymore, but several firms in Northamptonshire (where I teach) continue to produce top quality leather shoes many of which are exported across the world. In London in the late 1800s the competition form cheap foreign labour (‘sweaters’) was intense and only the larger factories (in Northants) survived into the 1900s.

[from The Standard (London, England), Tuesday, October 04, 1892]

The old ‘money changing’ scam on the Docks

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For many people arriving in London in the 1880s the capital was a stopover en route to somewhere else; for many European Jews that ‘somewhere else’ was the golden medina, the United States of America. This had been the case for thousands of Irish migrants in the 1840s, fleeing famine and poverty after potato blight devastated their lives. Very many settled in London, Liverpool and Birmingham but plenty had the ambition to make a fresh start outside of the British Empire, an empire that had palpably failed to support them when they needed it.

London’s docks must have heaved with people looking for a passage across the Atlantic in the 1800s and a similar scene would have played out at Liverpool. Men like Messers, Koosch and Schack, two German travellers, asked around to find a berth on a steamer bound for Ellis Island. These two had struck lucky and secured a place on the Etna which had been built and launched in Greenock in August 1854.

However their luck was soon to run out when they were taken in by a fairly straightforward conman. John Louis befriend the pair and explained that he was a provisons dealer and was also travelling on the Etna. They had plenty of English money but no American dollars. That was no problem, Louis assured them, he was in an ideal position to change the money for them so they’d welcomed on to US soil with open arms.

Delighted, the two friends handed over all their money (about £10)  and arranged to meet Louis the following day. Of course he never showed up and they soon realised they’d been scammed and  robbed.

With the help of the local police Koosch and Schack traced Louis and he was arrested and brought before the Lord Mayor at Mansion House Police court. He was represented by a solicitor and he promised to return every penny that his client had taken. This must have been a relief for the two Germans whose chances of making a new life in America would have been devastated before they’d even arrived had they been force to travel with nothing.

But for the Lord Mayor this wasn’t enough; he needed to demonstrate to the public that anyone behaving in such a ‘villainous and disgraceful way’ could expect no mercy in his court. He sent Louis to prison for four months with hard labour.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, September 18, 1883]

German aggression receives short shrift from Mr Hannay

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Out of curiosity I’ve been following a few links in my own family history this year. One of these is a discovery that at some point in the early 1880s one of my ancestors married into a large German family that was living in Marylebone in central London. They seem to have been a family of traders, clerks and at least one dentist but, as yet, I’ve not found out when they immigrated to England from Germany. Today’s blog concerns three German migrants but not (as far as I am aware anyway) ones that were related to me.

Johannes Etskitt (22), Dominians Etskitt (20) and Ernst Carl Otto Brauer (45) were all charged, in August 1874, with assaulting Elias Hawkins, a tramcar conductor. The Etskitts were both wine merchants and Brauer described himself as an artist. The trio had hailed Hawkins’ tram and hopped on as it stopped.

Brauer was smoking and so when he sat down inside the tram the conductor asked him to go upstairs (and thus outside). The artist who, like his companions, had been drinking that evening, refused. Hawkins brought the car to a standstill with the intention of either making the three men comply with his request or, presumably, throwing them off.

This backfired rather badly as Dominians Etskitt decided to get his retaliation in first and launched a violent assault on the conductor. The tram driver, Frederick Claxton, watched in horror as the younger man started to hit his colleague with a stick, beating him several times over the head. The attack was so fierce that it was Hawkins who was forced off the tram, not the unruly passengers.

The two other men joined in the attack and when Claxton went to help his conductor they turned on him as well. Brauer and the older Etskitt were not as violent as Dominians and this was taken into account when they later all appeared in the dock at Clerkenwell Police court in front of Mr Hannay.

The Germans were represented in court by a solicitor but the evidence presented was fairly damning. Their violence was not excused by their drinking and Mr Hannay was not about to sanction the abuse of the North London Tramway Company’s employees, who were also represented by the firm’s lawyer.

Since Dominians was the obvious aggressor he received the most severe punishment being sent to prison for a month at hard labour. His older brother got off with a warning and Brauer (who was older and supposedly wiser) was given 14 days to reflect on his loss of control.

By the early 1860s there were about 15,000 German-born Londoners, and small groups of Germans had settled in other British cities like Manchester and Bradford. On the eve of the First World War the number of Germans in Britain had risen to a peak of about 54,000 but this fell considerably after the conflict. Not surprisingly the Great War led to suspicion falling on German migrants and many were interned during the war, some of those living in London being held at Alexandra Palace for the duration. German businesses were attacked and German speakers made the target of ‘patriotic’ abuse.

Two world wars have contributed to a generally negative view of Germany that has persisted despite the incredible changes that German society has undergone since 1945. In reality of course we are very close to each other as peoples and perhaps this closeness was more obvious in the nineteenth century than it is today.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, August 05, 1874]

Lessons from the 1840s should remind us that refugees are welcome here

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1848 was another hard year for the Irish people. The potato blight continued to bring famine to Ireland and tens of thousands left their homes and communities to make the journey to England and Scotland or America. The impact of this on a city like London is evident in the newspaper reports of poor relief in the capital and elsewhere.

The Marylebone vestry was told that between December 1846 and December 1847 huge numbers of migrants had appeared in London needing to be supported by the city’s parishes. 5,941 had arrived in St George’s-in-the East, 2,761 in the East London Union, 6,253 in Whitechapel and 7,783 in Stepney.

In central London the numbers were similarly high. There were almost 5,000 arrivals in St. Giles and 7,864 in Marylebone and a staggering 11,574 in St Martin’s-in-the-fields. In total in that one year the parochial poor law authorities spent thousands of pounds in relieving around 80,000 to 100,000 migrants from Ireland.

The vestry heard that several parishes hadn’t kept records of those they’d helped (or those records were not available) and noted that a further 30,000 Irish men and women had been relieved in Glasgow.

The Irish potato famine killed about one in eight of the population and forced two million others to leave. It was also entirely unnecessary. A combination of high grain prices, over dependence on the potato crop, and a deeply rooted and ideological resistance by the English landowners and government to help the poor led to the death of a million people, and the migration of many more.

The British Imperial state failed to deal with a humanitarian disaster on its own doorstep, allowing grain to be exported from Ireland when it could have used to feed its people, and refusing to intervene when Irish landlords turfed impoverished families off the land. The Poor Law system was rooted in deterring pauperism rather than helping those in need and the prevailing economic doctrine was laissez-faire ruled out government interference. Underlying all of this was Protestant evangelism that believed in ‘divine providence’ and underscored a deep-seated anti-Catholic prejudice in large sections of British society.

When the Marylebone vestry heard that St Martin’s-in-the-fields had relieved 11,574 Irish at the cost of £144 13s6d(or about £12,000 today, £1 for each person) ‘laughter followed’. Were they laughing at the fact that St. Martin’s ratepayers were paying out so much, or that so many had ended up there? Why were they laughing at all?

Today the news is filled with images of refugees and economic migrants huddled into overflowing boats, or carrying their belongings along dusty roads, fleeing war or disaster. We shouldn’t forget that in the 1840s this was the reality within the British Isles.

Disasters like Ireland in the 1840s or Syria in the 21st Century are not simply ‘natural’ disasters. They are often caused by, or exacerbated by the actions of governments or individuals, sometimes motivated by religion, ideology or greed, but the people most affected are invariably the poorest and least able to cope. For that reason migration is a World issue where borders are irrelevant. We should have helped the Irish in the 1840s and we should help the Syrians today.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, July 31, 1848]