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]

Two knife assaults in the East End: evidence of targeted police action to find the ‘Ripper’?

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One can imagine that with tension riding high in September 1888 violence was on everyone’s mind, even violence that might have seemed ‘commonplace’ previously. Assault was one of the most frequently prosecuted crimes at the police courts but penalties were usually small – fines or short period of summary imprisonment – it wants normal to send cases up into the trial court system unless they were serious.

However, in times of ‘moral panics’ the authorities tend to react by clamping down on even small acts of anti-social behavour and petty theft, using the courts as a blunt instrument to reassure the public that they are ‘doing something’. In 1888, with a serial killer on the loose and the police unable to catch him pressure was building on the forces of law and order to do something about it.

So perhaps that’s how we should read the fact that the Morning Post chose two assault cases to feature as its daily look into the work of the Thames Police court on 14 September that year.

The first was the case of Suze Waxim, a Japanese sailor who was charged with stabbing a local woman, Ellen Norton. Ellen was drinking in a Limehouse beerhouse when she heard screams from across the street. She ran out towards the noise and found Waxim standing over her friend Emily Shepherd about to thrust a knife into her.

Ellen tried to intervene and was stabbed in the head. The sailor ran off but was captured nearby, in the backyard of the Stranger’s Home, by PC 448K. The man was washing his hands when the officer found him and arrested him. Ellen had only suffered a superficial flesh wound and wasn’t in danger but a knife wielding foreigner on the streets was not what society needed. Waxim spoke no English and while they had translators for languages such as Italian and Yiddish, I doubt the police would have found anyone able to speak Japanese.

Waxim was committed for trial.

Next up was a local man, Frank Kersey, who was also accused of assaulting a  woman, Frances Cocklin. She testified that on the 3 September he had stabbed her and beaten her while they were at Canning Town. She’d suffered bruising and cuts but was not seriously injured. He had multiple previous convictions for assault and wounding and it seemed he had also tried to rob her. Mr Lushington also committed him for trial.

Both cases were serious but I have seen cases like this dealt with summarily before, with the defendants being fined or sent to gaol for a few weeks or months.  That Lushington decided to send them to the Old Bailey is indicative, I believe, of a wider concern about violence, especially violence involving knives. It may also reflect police practice – were they particularly targeting assaults where a knife was used in the hope of finding the ‘Ripper’? It is possible, if not provable.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, September 14, 1888]

‘Nobody could say any good of him’: A stateless German at Bow Street

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Map of Prussia and the German States in 1862 (nine years before Unification)

Mrs Lavinia Roberts lived with her husband above his photographer’s studio in Charing Cross. One evening in August 1862 she went upstairs to their bedroom around 7 or 8 o’clock. To her horror a man was in the room, rifling through her drawers. Clothing was strewn all over the floor and he was holding some of her jewelry in his hands.  She demanded to know what he was doing there.

Ich spreche kein Englisch. Ich verstehe nicht’, he replied.

Mrs Roberts knew just enough German to make sense of this. The burglar didn’t speak English and so couldn’t understand what she’d said.

He understood that he’d been discovered though and was now in trouble and he fled. Lavinia followed him downstairs and called for a policeman. Another resident of the house heard the commotion and came out of a room and helped restrain the unwanted visitor. When the police arrived – in the person of PC Killick  (511A) the German thief was escorted to the nearest police station and charged with attempted burglary.

The man’s name was Fritz Tuell and he said he was from Prussia. Fortunately A Division had a German born officer on the strength – PC Reimers (595A) – and he was able to translate for the prisoner. When the case came before Mr Henry at Bow Street Police court the next day PC Reimers explained that Tuell was fairly recently arrived from Prussia.

After Mrs Roberts had described the events that night as she experienced them PC Killick deposed that he found a bracelet, chain and a French coin dropped just close to where the gentleman was detaining Tuell on the stairs.  All of this was translated so the German could understand and he was asked if he wished to cross-examine either of the witnesses. He did not and admitted stealing the items in question, which were valued in total at over £5.

Tuell now spoke (via PC Reimers) to explain that he was a nail maker who had arrived in London 10 days earlier. He’d not had any work in Prussia or Germany for the past three years and had moved around that country, going from place to place (presumably seeking work). He had come to England when his options seemed to have run out there.

Mr Henry asked to see his passport but Tuell didn’t have one. That was odd the magistrate said, why was this?

‘He has sold it’, Reimer told him. Apparently it was common practice for foreigners to sell their passports to someone who wanted to travel back to the continent but had lost (or sold) their own.

There are a good many foreign thieves in this country’ he explained; ‘and when one of wants to go to his own country he buys a passport from some one newly arrived – taking care that the description answers. He then returns to his own country, and pretends he has only been in England a few days, and that the passport is his own’.

He added that he wasn’t sure that this is what Tuell had done, nor was he suggesting he was a bad character with any previous convictions; it was just that he was aware ‘that there is such a system’.

It was news to Mr Henry and he was clearly disturbed to find it out. It added to his conviction that the Prussian nail maker should stand trial in London for his attempted theft and not be dealt with summarily – which was the man’s preference  and the reason he’d confessed so readily.  Having said that he intended to indict Tuell Mr Roberts piped up, saying that it would be inconvenient for him to attend a trial as he was travelling abroad very soon. That was ok, the justice said, it was his wife’s testimony that was required. Unfortunately Mrs Roberts was going with her husband he was told.

Really the case must go for trial’, Mr Henry insisted, ‘it is much too important to be dealt with summarily’.

Tuell had broken into a house and raided a bedroom, despite only arriving in London a few days earlier. It was a ‘daring’ robbery attempt and would have to be judged before the sessions because that court could hand down a much stuffer sentence.

He then concluded by asking PC Reimer to explain to the prisoner that he could send to Germany for character witnesses to support him in court. The prisoner looked just as dismayed as he had for the whole of the proceedings and responded to the policeman in his own language.  Translating Reimer said ‘nobody could say any good of him’, and he was taken down to wait for his trial.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, August 07, 1862]

Casual racism from the lips of someone who should know better: Anti alienist in nineteenth-century Whitechapel

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This morning I’m off to Whitechapel to show some friends of mine around the area. If the weather is kind to us (and it’s not looking good!) I will take them to see the strange sights of one of the most interesting parts of the capital. This was the area where Jack the Ripper selected and killed his victims, from amongst some of the poorest people in London.

In the nineteenth century it was an area that was home to a vibrant community of mixed ethnicities, and it must have been filled with a cacophony of competing languages. It was dangerous, exciting, troubling and fascinating and it drew visitors from across London of all classes to gawp at what they saw there. Soon after the Whitechapel murders began ‘dark’ tourists started to come to see where ‘Polly’ or ‘Annie’ were attacked and left mutilated, a phenomenon that has continued to this day.

We’re not going on a ‘Ripper tour’; while very good ones exist I’m not entirely comfortable with the whole industry that surrounds the case and anyway, I know the sites well enough to show my friends should they want to have a look. Hopefully I can contextualize them within the social history of the 1880s.

One thing I hope they do notice today (given that they are coming south from ‘middle England’) is the diversity of the modern East End and how this echoes the Whitechapel of the 1880s. In the last quarter of the century this was home to tens of thousands of immigrants fleeing persecution and hoping for better life in the West. Ashkenazi Jews from the Russian Empire (from modern day Lithuania, Poland, and Ukraine) escaped from the Tsar’s terror and came to London and settled (or continued their journey to the USA).

Most stayed close to docks where they arrived and where there was already a well established Jewish community (so they had places to worship, kosher food they could eat, people that understood their language, and opportunities to work). They found work as boot and shoemakers, bakers, and in ‘rag trade’ sweat shops. They certainly impacted the area and tensions were often raised – no more so than during the Ripper case when some people pointed the finger of blame at the Jews, suggesting ‘no Englishman could have done this’.

While England in the 1880s had no laws against immigration there was racism, better known then as ‘anti-alienism’. Men like Arnold White stoked the fires of xenophobia, publishing lies and preying upon people’s fears of the ‘other’ and arguing that the new arrivals took locals’ jobs or deflated wages. Just like the lies spread by modern racists the claims were not true but the lies stuck. When times are hard it is easy to blame those that look different from the majority for all the problems in society.

This clearly wasn’t helped by the attitudes of those in positions of authority, or by the actions of influencers like the editors of newspapers. In 1891 The Standard newspaper reported the daily news from the Police Courts with the following story from the East End.

The sitting magistrate that day was Montagu Williams , QC. The clerk had handed him a list of summonses, the first six of which were applications from ‘foreign Jews’ who had taken them out against their co-religionists for threats and assaults. The report went on to say that, ‘as usual in such cases, some of other of the parties was unable to speak the English language, and there was a rush of persons to offer their services’ as translators.

Mr Williams had a rule that only one person should act as interpreter for the court, and he charged a fee. A solicitor for one of the men in court told the justice that his client could not afford that fee as he was a poor man. Williams said ‘he did not care’, adding:

It was not for the Court to pay the interpreter in these wretched squabbles. If these foreigners were allowed to flock into this country and, when settled here, were to disturb the peace by quarrelling and fighting among themselves, it would soon be necessary that they should have a Court with the officers and Magistrate speaking their language’.

This drew laughter from the public gallery.

As the cases were heard the same solicitor (Mr Bedford) was attempting to make his case about the threatening language used by one of the accused, referring to the ‘hard swearing’ that was common in the community.

‘You need not trouble about the language, Mr. Bedford’, Montagu Williams told him. ‘These people cannot speak the truth in any language. They are none of them to be believed on their oath’.

This then was the prevailing attitude towards Eastern European immigrants in late nineteenth-century London and it contributed towards the passing of the first anti-immigrant legislation (the Aliens Act) in the early twentieth century. Nowadays the dews have mostly gone from Spitalfields  (although there are traces of them in old shops signs and other buildings). They worked hard and prospered and moved north into the suburbs. Other groups followed them and now this area is home to many Bengalis.

Racism and xenophobia has not moved on sadly, and continues to blight society. London’s success (and that of Britain as a whole) is built on the industry of millions of immigrants over a thousand years or more and we would do well to remember and celebrate it, not immediately point the finger at ‘them’ when times are hard.

[from The Standard, Thursday, July 30, 1891]

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 here

A report from 1890 shows little difference in casual racism today: an (historical) note to Mr B. Johnson.

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Racism takes many forms, (as the comments of a former secretary of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs demonstrated yesterday). When we look back at the past we are apt to comment that ‘it was another country’ where ‘they did things differently’. London was a multi-cultural city in the late Victorian period and while there were pockets or moments of racial tension (such as during the Whitechapel murder panic in 1888) for the most part the different communities got along.

Nevertheless the idea that white Britons were superior to pretty much anyone else was a persistent trope in contemporary discussions. Britain ‘ruled the waves’ after all and had an Empire ‘on which the sun never set’. This was a time when the world map was heavily tinged with pink and when we, and not the USA or Russia, were the World’s chief ‘superpower’.

I do wonder how much of today’s angst about Europe is born of a desire to regain our imperial past. The EU leave campaign’s slogan ‘we want our country back’ is a curious one; what country were they talking about? The one that stood alone at the start of WW2? The one that was experiencing economic disaster in the mid 1970s? Or perhaps the nation that operated an empire on five continents?

The newspapers were certainly ‘casually racist’ in the 1800s. Most ‘foreigners’ are either seen as inferior, dangerous, or amusing. This seems to have persisted right up to the 1980s when things began to change in the way people described others. It is no longer acceptable to poke fun at people on account of their race, ethnicity or religion now, but that doesn’t seem to have filtered down to Mr Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, that American born champion of British liberties.

In 1890 no such ‘political correctness’ existed and so the The Illustrated Police News ‘headlined’ its report of a case of domestic violence at the Thames Police court ‘The Heathen Chinee all over’. The case concerned two Chinese immigrants: Ah Wei (a young ship’s steward) and Ah Tuing (a fireman). Both worked on the ships coming in and out of the London Docks and belonged to the small but well established Chinese community in Limehouse.

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It was this community that inspired Sax Rohmer’s ever-so-slightly racialist crime series about the criminal mastermind Fu Man Chu. Contemporary depictions of Limehouse as an area overrun by the ‘yellow peril’ and clouded in opium smoke owe much to Rohmer and Dickens’ Mystery of Edwin Drood, but the reality was that most people there lived in reasonable harmony with each other, regardless of their background.

Ah Tuing had accused the ship’s steward of assaulting him and was asked to swear an oath before he gave his evidence. Speaking through an interpreter (interpreters were common in the police courts, given the proliferation different languages spoken from Chinese to Yiddish, to German or Italian) Ah Tuing explained that as a Buddhist the ‘only oath he respected was the extinguishing of a lighted candle’.

This meant that ‘if he did not speak the truth his soul would be blown away in the same way as was the light’.

Mr Cluer (the magistrate) asked if a ‘wax vesta’ (a match) would ‘do as well’ and reached into his pocket to fetch one. No, the interpreter insisted, it had to be a candle so one was fetched and Ah Tuing was ‘sworn’.

The case now unfolded and Mr Cluer was told that the prosecutor had lent Ah Wei a waterproof coat to protect him from a shower of rain, extracting a promise of sixpence for the loan. The steward refused to pay up when the rain ceased and an argument ensued. This descended into a fight in which Ah Wei was deemed to be the aggressor. One witness – most of whose evidence was given in translation – saved some English for the man in the dock. Turning to him he shouted:

‘You _______ liar. You one loafer!’

All the evidence then pointed to Ah Wei being guilty of assault but then all the evidence had come from the Chinese community. The key witness (for Mr Cluer at least) was Joseph Brown, a greengrocer on Limehouse Causeway. He testified that Ah Wei had been in in his shop when Ah Tuing entered carrying a child in his arms. He thrust the child in the steward’s face and ‘kept irritating him’ and then ‘afterwards [they] had a fair fight’.

The English of course, had very clear ideas about what a ‘fair fight’ was. This did not involve weapons and usually meant the two parties were roughly equally matched. Mr CLuer wasn’t interested in what the Chinese community’s idea of a ‘fair fight’ was, just as he seemingly dismissed the evidence of those that came in to back Ah Tuing’s version of events. An Englishman’s word was of much higher value than a foreigner’s and so he dismissed the charge.

The press reportage reminded the reader that ‘Johnny foreigner’ was a strange and exotic creature, and Boris Johnson’s equation of Muslim women wearing the Burkas with ‘bank robbers’ or  ‘letter boxes’ belongs to this tradition of English xenophobia; one ‘tradition’ we could do with ditching as soon as possible.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, August 7, 1897]

A migrant woman’s lament: ‘He drinks very hard, and I can’t get rid of him’.

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Today’s post is a sadly typical tale of domestic violence but one that also sends some light on immigrant communities and working-class attitudes towards marriage and illegitimacy in the 1860s. We shouldn’t assume, for example, that everyone married in the past, even when they wanted to start a family. Nor does it follow that migrant families were more socially conservative than those of the indigenous English population. Instead what we can find is that there was a much greater degree of continuity in relationships than a discourse that sees the 1960s’ ‘sexual revolution’ as a dramatic catalyst for changing moralities.

At the beginning of October 1867 a German shoemaker named John Martz was brought before the magistrate at Thames Police Court in the East End. Martz may have been a Jewish immigrant but we can’t determine that with any certainty from his surname. We do know that he was cohabiting with a woman who also came from Germany however, Sarah Leiss and given they have migrated to East London it is at least plausible that  they were members of the growing German Jewish population of Whitechapel.

Whilst John and Sarah were not married they did have two children, one of them an infant. On 1 October Sarah appeared in court with her baby in her arms to accuse Martz of beating her. He had come home drunk on the previous night and ‘scolded and swore at her little boy, and threatened to beat him’. When she tried to take the boy away he grabbed it and threw the child down the stairs. Thankfully the boy was uninjured but it was this act of violence that probably prompted her to come to court.

It was not the first time he had hit her or threatened the children and it always occurred when he had been out drinking. It was a familiar story and Mr Benson, the justice, had heard it all hundreds of times before.

‘Why don’t you leave him?’ he asked.

‘I have left him several times’ Sarah replied, ‘and he comes after me again. He drinks very hard, and I can’t get rid of him’.

When sober, she added, he was a ‘very good man’ but when he was intoxicated, he ‘was furious and cruel’.

On the night in question Martz had been seen coming out of his house Merton Place, St George’s-in-the-East, brandishing a knife. PC Joseph Newman (166H) had shouted to him as the shoemaker approached, warning him to drop the weapon. Drawing his truncheon he declared:

‘If you advance another step with that knife I will murder you’.

This had the intended effect and a terrified Martz dropped his knife in the street.

In court Martz needed a translator to make sense of everything that had been said and in his defence merely said he had been drunk and wasn’t aware of what he was doing. Mr Benson instructed the interpreter to explain carefully to the shoemaker that he was clearly responsible for more than one act of violence and that he must now find sureties for his good behaviour towards his wife for three months. If he failed to find two persons that would vouch for him and pledge money then he would go to prison for 14 days.

If Martz was (and I expect he was)  the main breadwinner then a term of imprisonment, whilst giving Sarah some peace, would have severe consequences for her and her children. Hopefully this brush with the law would chasten the German and provoke a change in his behaviour. But it does have the feeling of trying to place a sticking plaster over an open wound; a case of doing the minimum without really trying to solve the situation.

It is the other elements of the case that I find useful as a social historian; the detail that John and Sarah were not married, the open statement that they had children together nevertheless and cohabited, with no comment being passed by either magistrate or the papers. This seems very ‘modern’ but perhaps the reality is that marriage (and divorce) were luxuries that many very poor working class Londoners could not afford in the Victorian period.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, October 02, 1867]

Seven immigrant workers are caught gambling for their supper

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Seven men were sat around a table in house in Whitechapel at 10.30 at night, playing at cards when there was a loud knock at the door. The knock was followed by the cry of ‘Police, open up!’ and the arrival of Inspector Frederick Abberline and H Division’s finest.

Abberline was acting on a tip off that the house was being used as an illegal gambling den, which sounds quite exotic but was actually very far from that. The seven men were poor ‘jobbing tailors’. All were Polish Jews, recently arrived from the Russian Pale, escaping from economic misery and religious persecution. They had come to the East End (as so many of their fellow congregationalists had, before and since) because there was an established Ashkenazi community there where they could find work, kosher food and others that spoke their language. Many dreamed of making the longer journey to the ‘golden medina’, the promised land of America, land of the free.

They worked very long hours, often in cramped conditions for little pay. The ‘sweating system’ of small workshops was endemic in Whitechapel and Spitalfields and drew the attention of Parliament and campaigners like Annie Besant. On this occasion however, they had drawn a different sort of attention and it had brought the police to the house that Harris Straus owned in New Castle Street.

The men were arrested and brought before the Police Magistrate at Worship Street on the following Monday morning. Straus (a 36 year-old tailor) was charged with keeping a gaming house’ and the others, with being found there, ‘contrary to the Act’.

None of the men spoke English and so an interpreter (Mr Carameli) was called to translate proceedings. The lack of English amongst the Jewish community was something which frustrated the local police during the Ripper investigation, and a few officers were eventually trained to speak Yiddish. The seven men were named as Barnett Coplin (28), Morris Green (18), Louis Gasoniviter (19), Morris Friedman (25), Abraham Lewis (28), Simon Nathan (19) and Hyman Lawer (19).

Nearly all of them lived at the house and they insisted they were only playing cards to pay for their supper.

The police case was presented in court by superintendent T. Arnold. Arnold explained that men Abberline and his men had gained entry they had found the men sat around a table in a back room. ‘Money and cards were on the table’, and in a drawer they found yet more cards and ‘about the room more cards’. This was not then, simply a case of some friends meeting at home to pass the time with a harmless game, he argued, this was organised gambling.

Arnold said the police had received an anonymous letter informing them of the gambling den, which Abberline had acted upon. He understood the game they were playing was called ‘sixty-six’ (or schnapsen, a game of German origin). If you want to know how to play it (not for money of course!) then the rules are here.

Straus admitted allowing players to gamble in his house and further admitted to charging them to do so. He didn’t ask for much, ‘a penny or a halfpenny from each of them to use the room’, was all, but that was illegal just the same. A witness appeared for the police, named Albert Stern, and he said he had played  other games such as Faro and Bank there, for upwards of four hours for ‘stakes of 1d up to 4d‘.

Mr Busby, the magistrate, said it was clear all were guilty as charged and Straus would be fined £5 for running the house. He accepted that most of the others lived there and were only playing for small stakes, so would be lenient. He fined them 20s each. To put this in some sort of context this meant that the arrest had cost each man about £25 in today’s money, and their host 10 times that amount. For the police it was a victory in the ongoing war against illegal gambling but I hope that Abberline and his team were just as assiduous in busting employers that forced their staff to work in sweated industry for long hours at substance pay; sadly I doubt it.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, July 08, 1879]

A ‘hideous noise’ in the street and early concerns about immigration

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If  you have ever been out for dinner when a singer with a guitar has begun to serenade the restaurant, uninvited, then you will have some appreciation of this story from Marylebone Police Court. Similarly if you are trying to work, watch TV or sleep and your neighbours are having a party (loudly) then you can imagine how Mr H. G. F Taylor was feeling on the evening of the 28 June 1887.

At about 7.30 pm Mr Taylor, a private secretary who resided at 17 Manor Mansions, Belsize Park, (a fashionable address that would today set you back a cool £1.5m) heard a noise in the street outside. Peering out of his window he saw a young woman with an accordion.

According to him she wasn’t playing it, but ‘simply pulling the instrument in and out, and making a hideous noise with her mouth, not singing’. Taylor was completing his income tax return and had frequently been disturbed by street musicians. In fact it was getting to his nerves to such an extent that he had even considered going ‘the country’ for a few days to escape it.

Opening the window he leaned out and told her to go away. She ignored him, so he tried shouting at her, and motioning for her to move away. The girl simply crossed the road and moved  little way further up and continued her performance.

Frustrated, Taylor called the police. When PC 79S arrived he arrested the girl (whose name was  Catherine Demassi) and took her to the station. The next day Catherine was up in court before the Marylebone police magistrate on a  charge of ‘playing an accordion to the annoyance of the public’.

In court Taylor complained that ‘these street musicians [were] a great annoyance’ and blighted his life. Catherine spoke no English it seems and a translator was present so she could understand the charges brought against her, her sister was also present. Through the translator Catherine said that she didn’t understand what Taylor was saying to her, something the secretary found incredulous.

The magistrate, Mr Newton, wanted to know how long Catherine had been in England to not understand the language. Her sister explained she had only been here three months, having been sent for by her sibling. This brought the magistrate’s rebuke:

‘Mr Newton told the Prisoner’s  sister that it could not be allowed that children should be brought from foreign countries to England simply to play instruments about the streets’.

He remanded Catherine and sent the translator (M. Albert) to to the Italian consul in London, to arrange the girl’s repatriation to Italy. In the end then what had started as a case of a nuisance in the streets had turned into a discussion about the validity of migration and the ‘right’ to work in the UK. Catherine probably had little choice in whether she came to London or not, she was being used by her family as a means to generate funds to survive.

Her story – as an economic migrant in a foreign country – was replicated tens of thousands of times in the 1880s and 1890s and fuelled a debate which would eventually lead to legislation to restrict immigration into Britain for the very first time. The passing of the Aliens Act (1905) represented the end of Britain’s cherished ‘open door’ policy towards the people of the world, and immigration has remained a contentious issue ever since.

[from The Standard, Friday, July 01, 1887]

If you enjoyed this case you find find these interesting as well.

Two Italian musicians in a row about a monkey

Cruelty to a performing monkey in Marylebone