Three cheers for health and safety as the ‘filthy’ reality of Bermondsey is exposed.

Russell-Street

Mr. A’Beckett’s courtroom at Southwark was packed in late September 1854 as the Bermondsey Improvement Commissioners brought a series of ‘health and safety’ actions against local businesses. We tend to think of ‘H&S’ as being a modern thing, often something forced on society by European bureaucracy. The reality is that it has a very long history in Britain, at least as far back as the Victorians.

The complaints, presented by Mr Ballantine of Messrs. Drew and Gray, solicitors, lasted several hours and focused on activities being carried out underneath the railway arches of the South Eastern Railway Company, near Russell Street.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth century this area of south London was associated with the leather trade. There were numerous tanneries and curriers in this ‘Land of Leather’ and some of these trades, such as Garner’s jappanning workshop, were operating from under the arches of the railway.

This was a problem for locals because the fumes were, according to the commissioners, causing a nuisance. By nuisance Mr Ballantine meant illness, injury and death. Not only to locals but to anyone travelling on the railways above, and especially those coming into London from the countryside.

James Oates operated a bone boiling works under the arches and this was particularly unpleasant to travellers. At present it was, the prosecution alleged, ‘dangerous in the extreme’:

‘and parties coming in from the pure air in the country […] were sickened by the noisome effluvia emitted from the defendant’s premises below’.

Jane Prior’s work involved melting used cooking fat and the smell was obnoxious. The commissioners condemned her trade as ‘filthy in the extreme, and dangerous to the health of the locality’. Ralf Sockhart had a similar business. His involved boiling offal to make pet food and was equally disgusting and offensive to locals.

The magistrate listened carefully as a string of cases were brought against the occupants of the arches, many of whom must have been practicing their trades for several years. The second half of the nineteenth century was witnessing a coordinated effort to remove ‘nuisances’ from the densely occupied parts of the capital. The cattle market at Smithfield – part of London life since the medieval period – was moved out of the centre to clear the thoroughfares. This series of actions against the ‘dirty trades’ of Bermondsey has to be seen in the context then of ‘improvement’.

In all the cases the magistrate sided with the Commissioners even if he sympathized with the businesses, none of whom were rich.  All were given time – a month – to find new premises, hopefully far away from the homes of residents. Mr Ballantine hoped that press coverage of the proceedings would also warn the railway companies that they were expected to take more responsibility in letting out the arches they owned.

‘It was monstrous’, he declared, ‘that these arches should be kept for such purposes, merely for their profit, much to the injury of the public health’.

And there of course was the point of these proceedings and, I might suggest, the point of health and safety legislation. The laws existed (indeed exist) to protect the public from dangerous practices. When chemicals and gases are being used in enclosed premises there is a risk of diseases, fire, explosions and the Victorians recognized that some trades had to be separated out and placed a long way from peoples’ homes. The people concerned were, more often than not, those that could not afford to bring private prosecutions against large companies and rich businessmen. So the Commissioners, for all their interference and accusations of ‘nannying’, were standing up for those who were otherwise rendered silent.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, September 28, 1854]

It is 75 years before D Day and a German collapses in court

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An anti-German riot in Crisp Street, London in 1915

Today is the 75thanniversary of the D Day landings in Normandy, more properly known as Operation Overlord. In June 1944 thousands of allied troops landed on beaches on the French coast and began the liberation of Europe from Nazi occupation. It was moving to listen to the interviews with veterans, most of them in their nineties with a few centurions, who remembered their feelings that day but most of all focused on those that didn’t make it.

In all the reports of the commemorations the enemy on the beaches was referred to as the Nazis, or more broadly – Fascism. British, American, Free French and Commonwealth troops were not fighting Germans they were fighting Nazis and Fascists. There has also been a lot made of alliances, which is understandable as we look to sunder one of the key alliances that has meant that Europe has been largely free of the sort of war that all those brave soldiers, sailors and airmen risked and gave their lives fighting.

The EU was never just a trading block it was always meant to be a way of resolving differences between states by diplomacy and shared common value. I find it very sad that we look likely to the ones that start the process of dismantling that union in some misguided belief that it makes us stronger, more prosperous, or more independent.

Nearly all of our history is linked to the European continent in some way or another and we have always tried to influence events there. Whether that was by claiming all of France as a part of the English crown for 100s of years, standing side-by-side with fellow Protestants in the 1600s, or funding the war (and then helping winning it) against Napoleon in the early 1800s, we have always been closely involved with European matters.

By contrast we have fought two wars against the USA (in 1776 and 1812), backed the losing side in the Civil War, and had to wait a long time to see ‘dough boys’ help us out in 1917. It took a great deal of persuasion and a catastrophic piece of misjudgment by the Japanese and Hitler to bring the US into the war in 1942, and ultimately to be our allies on 6 June 1944. The ‘special relationship’ started then not before. So our relationship with Europe is about 1000 years old or longer, that with America is just over 100.

One point I did find interesting on the news last night was that while today we are 75 years from 1944 as those troops landed on the beaches of Utah, Omaha, Sword, Gold and Juno that society was 75 years from 1869 and the height of the Victorian age. In looking through the newspapers at June 1869 then, I was interested to find a German immigrant in court for theft.

Interested but not surprised because London, like New York, had a large German population in the 1860s and throughout the century. On my father’s side of the family I have German relatives; my great aunt married a German immigrant in the capital in the 1890s.

Carl Auguste was a 50 year-old boot maker (as very many of the Germans in London were, many others being bakers). He’d being buying leather and parts of boots from Mr Felix’s shop on the Euston Road for many years but something made him decide to stop paying for them. In late May the manager noticed that some items had gone missing after a visit by Auguste so he made a point of watching him carefully the next time he came in.

He asked for some leather and while the shop assistant had his back turned he slipped a pair of Wellington boot tops (they were leather then, not rubber of course) and a piece of leather under his coat. As he was about the leave the manager pounced and searched him. Having been found in possession of the stolen items it was pretty inevitable that he would wind up in court before Mr Cooke at Clerkenwell.

The magistrate didn’t have much of a decision to make and sentenced him three months hard labour in the house of correction. This came as quite a shock to Carl, who ‘fell down in a swoon, and it was some time before he could be brought to’.

Germans living in London were part of the community and, as my ancestor’s actions shows, they were fully integrated into London society. There was no bad feeling towards immigrants until the late 1800s when fears over the influx of poor migrants from the Russian Pale surfaced and racist politicians like Arnold White whipped up popular hatred and prejudice. This led to the passing of the first immigration act in 1905 that restricted the numbers of poor eastern European immigrants that were allowed in.

The real antipathy towards German communities in England broke out during the First World War. German businesses were attacked and many people were interned as threats to the state, which in London meant they were housed in a makeshift camp at Alexandra Palace.   The second war has defined British and German relationships ever since but we shouldn’t remember that before 1914 our two peoples were much closer and we didn’t indulge in some of the prejudices that still divide us today.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, June 6, 1869]

On June 15 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 to order on Amazon here

 

A ‘long firm’ swindle on Kingsland Road

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The long firm fraud – where a criminal organisation sets up a seemingly legitimate business (such a distribution warehouse) for illegitimate purposes – was a noted practice of 1960s gangsters like the Kray brothers, Reggie and Ronnie. The deception featured at the heart of Jake Arnott’s 1999 novel about the fictional criminal gang leader, Harry Starks. But long firm frauds weren’t new in the 1960s as this case demonstrates, they were well known in the 1880s if not earlier.

William Hammond (an agent in the leather trade) appeared at Worship Street Police Court in March 1883 charged with ‘having conspired [with two other men] to cheat and defraud Samuel Chittick by fraudulently removing certain goods with an intent to prevent an execution for an unsatisfied judgement’.

In layman’s terms what this meant was that Hammond had run up large debts (to the tune of £167 the court heard) and Chittick had been forced to take him to law to recover his money. Hammond operated out of premises on Kingsland Road in north-east London but when a sheriff turned up to remove goods and chattels to the value of the debt he ‘found them empty’.

Chittick’s lawyer declared that he would prove that Hammond had:

‘actively assisted in removing the goods, leather and machinery, and further that he had said Mr Chittick would not get a farthing of his money’.

But there was more the lawyer insisted. He didn’t believe that Hammond’s co-accused (a man named Thomas Marshall) was as culpable, the real villain was the leather salesman.  He told the magistrate – Mr Bushby – that he could prove that Hammond had set up the business as a fraudulent venture. Marshall had already been convicted in the previous year of fraud at this address but now he was able to provide evidence that Hammond was the main operator. It was Hammond who had set up the false business and installed Marshall to run it.

He said that ‘goods were obtained merchants ostensibly for the purposes of legitimate business, but instead of the goods being used in the way of fair trade, they were removed in bulk from the premises soon after delivery, and sent to a firm carrying on business as Lodes and Son at Norwich, and sold under cost price’.

This was, he hoped Mr Bushby would official record, a ‘mere “long firm” swindle.

Hammond had escaped the law for some time by relocating himself to Norfolk but had made the mistake of suing a local newspaper there for libel because it had accused him of carrying on  similar racket in Norwich. This backfired and he had been arrested and convicted there. After his conviction he had been handed over the Metropolitan Police who were keen to question him about the Kingsland Road case.

Several people testified to the truth of the lawyer’s allegations and the magistrate remanded Hammond in custody, waiving away the prisoner’s request to be granted bail. Hammond was eventually tried at the Old Bailey in April that year. He was convicted and sentenced to nine months imprisonment at hard labour.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, March 06, 1883]