‘A fever amongst people living under the mockery of a poor-law which recognizes no right to relief in destitution’: reflections on the Irish Potato Famine from 1846

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Today is St Patrick’s Day and there will be drinking galore in Dublin, London and Boston and throughout the Irish diaspora. The island of Ireland is small, just 32, 500 square miles, and today it is home to around 6.5m people, but it bats above its average in terms of political importance and influence. This is due in no small part to its strategic significance, situated as it is between continental Europe, Britain and the Atlantic, and also of course, because of its long and troubled history. It is not for nothing that the Brexit wrangling in recent months has focused so much on the so-called ‘Irish backstop’; the determination not to recreate a hard border between Eire (the Irish Republic) and the six counties of Northern Ireland.

The Irish influence is widespread however, because of the waves of Irish emigration from the ‘emerald isle’ that took place, for the most part at least, in the nineteenth century. Millions of Irish men and women left their homes to travel in search of food, shelter and work – a better life – in the wake of famine, persecution, and religious intolerance.

St. Patrick's Day Parade in America, Union Square, 1870s (colour litho)

Many went to their nearest neighbours, settling in England and Scotland (in London, Liverpool and Glasgow in particular) while many others traveled to the United States (especially New York and Boston). They took their culture with them, hence the St Patrick’s Day parades in US cities today (as above from Boston in the 1870s).

The famine began in September 1845 so by the winter and spring of 1846 it effects could be felt throughout Ireland and the British Isles. England had always had a large Irish immigrant population and they were generally regarded as second-class cousins at best and dangerous Catholic troublemakers at worst. Most of all perhaps the Irish were generally poor and considered to be ‘feckless’ ‘work-shy’ and a burden on the rates. When the numbers of the existing populations were swelled by tens of thousands of new migrants in the mid 1840s antagonisms were heightened.

The Police courts of the English capital were often visited by members of the Irish community, who gravitated to the poorer areas around St Giles, Covent Garden, Whitechapel and Southwark. The Irish had a reputation for hard drinking and ‘fair fights’ (when they were drunk). Brawls in pub spilled over into the streets and there altercations with the police were inevitable.  So arrests would be made for drunken and disorderly behaviour, refusing to quit licensed premises, and assaults on the constabulary. Many Irish ended up in the workhouse or as vagrants and beggars and this could also lead to an appearance before a magistrate.

The situation in Ireland was caused by the failure of the potato crop but exacerbated by the actions of the English landowners, poor law authorities  and government that failed to help the people affected. This was hotly debated in Parliament (just as today’s MPs debate Brexit and the ‘backstop’). Discussions turned around debates between those seeking trade tariffs for imported corn and those opposed to them. Peel wanted to repeal the Corn Laws but this split the Tory party (rather like Brexit has) meanwhile Irish people were literally starving to death. This is a flavor of the debate as reported in the Daily News on the day following St Patrick’s Day 1846:

This measure is an impressive commentary on the time occupied by the Protectionists [those that wanted to keep tariffs] in their long protests. It is fever against which Parliament has to provide. An infliction of fever so national, that Government must interpose to prevent the dying and dead from making the Green Isle a very Golgotha.

It is fever induced by starvation; and hastening on, with giant strides, while week after week is wasted in describing and deprecating the horrors of a superabundant influx of food from foreign countries. Moreover it is a fever amongst people living under the mockery of a poor-law which recognizes no right to relief in destitution’.

Peel’s early attempt to import American corn in secret failed because the quality of the grain was so poor that it was virtually inedible, causing widespread digestive problems so it became known derogatively as ‘Peel’s brimstone’.    At least 800,000 Irish men, women and children died as a direct result of the famine and the failure of the British government to support them, the figure is probably closer to 1-1.5m. A further million (at least) emigrated. If you ever wondered why anti-English feeling remains prevalent at all in the Ireland and amongst Irish communities elsewhere perhaps a reflection on the events of 1845-49 would be instructive.

And that is without considering the actions of the early modern rules of England, the atrocities committed by Oliver Cromwell’s troops, the long battle over Home Rule in the late 1800s, the brutal repression following the Easter Rising in 1916, the ‘black and tans’, ‘Bloody Sunday’, Diplock courts and all the other measures used to govern the northern counties in the Troubles, and of course decades of jokes at their expense.

Happy St Patrick’s Day folks – God save Ireland!

[from Daily News, Wednesday, March 18, 1846]

An unwanted admirer on Regent Street

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Edith Watson, a young lady who was employed as a bonnet trimmer had made a big impression on one foreign immigrant in London. Alick Korhanske was infatuated with her but what might have ended in marriage and domestic bliss actually ended up in front of a Police Court magistrate at Westminster.

It isn’t clear when Korhanske, who ran the London, Chatham and Dover Toilet Club at Victoria Station, first fell for Edith but the pair met, by accident, on Regent Street in June 1885. Edith was on her way home to Pimlico from Madame Louise’s millinery shop when Korhanske approached her.

‘I have been watching you for some time’, he said, ‘and I love you. May I pay my addresses to you?”

Edith was careful not to start up a conversation with a strange man she had never met before, especially in Regent Street where women (notably Elizabeth Cass in 1887) could easily be assumed to be prostitutes if they were unaccompanied, so she ignored him and walked on.  The 33 year-old hairdresser was not so easily rebuffed however, and he followed all the way back to Tachbrook Street.

A few nights later he turned up at her door and asked to see her. She again refused and he went away, but not far. As she walked along York Street later that evening with a female companion he grabbed her by the arm and tried to force her into a cab. Fortunately her friend helped her escape. The women set off in hurry back to Tachbrook Street but Korhanske followed after them and hit out at Edith from behind, knocking her to the pavement with his walking cane.

The next day he again accosted her in the street and this time asked her to marry him. She declined.

This state of affairs evidently continued for several months until, on the 2 March 1886, Edith was again stopped by Korhanske in the street and threatened.

‘I will kill you the first time I see you out, and myself afterwards’.

That was more than enough for Edith who took out a summons to bring him before Mr Partridge at Westminster. The hairdresser produced a number of ‘love letters’ from Edith to challenge her version of events, suggesting that his overtures had been welcomed, not rejected. They showed that she had ‘made appointments’ to see him and had signed them ‘With love, your affectionately, Alice’.

This produced a burst of laughter in the courtroom. Her name was Edith, not Alice, was she deliberately giving him a false name or even channeling the eponymous fantasy character of Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel? Edith admitted writing the letters but only out of fear of him, ‘to pacify him, and for her own protection’. She had not meant a word she’d written.

Korhanske would be considered to be a stalker today, and that can be a very dangerous situation for the prey. He may simply have been another love struck suitor whose passions were unrequited, but it might also have made good on his threat to kill the object of his affection and then end his own life.

Mr Partridge decided that enough was enough and demanded he enter into recognizances of £50 to keep the peace and ‘be of good behaviour’ for six months. Otherwise he would lock him up. Let’s hope he stayed away and let the young milliner get on with her life.

[from The Standard, Friday, March 12, 1886]

A young postman is overwhelmed by Valentine’s Day

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Amidst all the commercial celebration of Valentine’s day, with every supermarket making special ‘dine in’ offers, shops filling their windows with hearts and chocolates, and florists selling red roses at double the normal price, it is easy to see that for some of these traders this has become one of the key income generating weeks of the year.

Once Christmas and the sales are over there is usually a slump in trade before Easter that [St] Valentine’s Day has now assumed such an importance to the retail industry. But do we have an idea of how busy it was in the past I wonder? We know the Victorians celebrated the occasion and sent love tokens as we do, but what effect did that have on everyday life?

Well we can get an idea of how it affected the people that delivered those messages, the postmen of the Victorian capital, in this case from 1871. An unnamed postman was prosecuted at Westminster Police court for drunkenness whilst on duty. His offence was minor but had the potential for serious consequences, his defense however, was most illuminating.

Mr Woolrych, the sitting magistrate at Westminster that day, was told that a crowd of ‘disorderly persons’ had gathered around a postman, drawing the attention of a passing police officer. As the bobby pushed his way through the throng he found the postman sorting a pile of letters under a lamppost. It was late at night, past 10.30, which was why he needed the gaslight to read the addresses on the mail.

Most of the letters ‘were valentines’ and they should have been delivered much earlier in the day by a colleague but that postie had failed to find the addresses and so they had gone back in the system, and our man was now tasked with uniting them with the correct (and probably by now quite desperate) recipients.

As the postman at last moved off to make his deliveries the policeman noticed that he was rather unsteady on his feet, and stopped him. He quickly realized that the man was under the influence of alcohol and he arrested him. In court the postman apologized but said he had been on duty since four in the morning, had had very little if anything to eat all day, and so when a kindly woman had treated him to a ‘tumbler of sherry’ it had ‘produced an effect over which [he] had no control’.

His supervisor appeared to confirm that the young man had an exemplary record in his four and a half years with the Post Office:

‘He was a steady, honest, and industrious servant, against whom no complaint had ever been made; and should he be convicted…dismissal from the service would certainly follow’.

In this case common sense prevailed. Mr Woolrych accepted that while drinking on duty rendered the man  ‘blamable’ for the offence there were mitigating factors. There was no need to ruin a young man with such a previously unblemished record and so he discharged him (which is probably why the papers decided not to reveal his name).

The evidence revealed that (as noted earlier):

the ‘defendant had been on duty since four o’clock in the morning without intermission or opportunity of taking a meal, as the valentine delivery was very heavy, and the reserve men had even been called upon to perform the duties of letter-carriers’.

Valentine’s Day was a big day then in Victorian England with very many people using the postal service to send their tokens of affection to their sweethearts. After Christmas this was probably the busiest period of the year for the men of the Post Office, just as it is today for the florists, chocolatiers and restaurateurs of the capital.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, February 16, 1871]

The great Clerkenwell stink of 1862: a warning for modern Londoners

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Just occasionally the reports from the Police courts of the Metropolis don’t report a crime – a theft, stabbing, fraud or domestic abuse – or even a tragedy such as an attempted suicide or abandoned baby. Instead the police courts are used as a place where the visitor knows he or she will be able to grab the attention of the reading public if their story is sensational enough to make the newspapers.

This was what happened in February 1862 when a ‘respectably attired man’ presented himself at Clerkenwell Police court and asked the magistrate to help him. He wanted to raise awareness of an issue that affected everyone in London, but the children of the poor in particular.

The man, whose name wasn’t recorded, stated that ‘should any person wonder why the mortality amongst children runs so high at the present time, they have only to take a walk to the church of St Peter, Great Saffron Hill’.

If they carried on towards the rear of St Peter’s – ‘across the ruins of to the arches of Victoria Street’ they would find ‘an issue of sewerage of the most abominable description, not a mere oozing but a bona fide flowing out at the rate of several gallons per minute’.

The effluence had filled the arches around Victoria Street for 100 yards  and created a ‘pool of large dimensions, into which has been thrown dead dogs, cats, fish, etc., till no words can convey an idea of the abomination that exists’.

The pool was next to a school and daily 100 or more school children breathed in the ‘fever-engendering miasma’ from the swamp. Of course in the 1850s and early 60s the Victorians did not yet quite understand how disease was speared but had a belief that airborne particles might spread disease.

The anonymous complainant said the pool had now existed for over a month and nothing was being done about, and it was a disgrace.   The magistrate agreed but merely told him to take up his complaint with the parish. Meanwhile the gaoler told him that fever had broken out in the nearby house of correction. One prisoner, Jemima Smith who was being held for a felony, was too sick to be brought up to court to be charged.

Clearly this was a wider problem but it took the Victorians into the second half of the century to properly address it.  A lot of children and adults died in the meantime.

I think there is an echo here with today’s polluted air in the capital. Plenty of activists have been campaigning about it but it has taken Sadiq Khan’s mayoralty to really address it. This year a new ultra low emission zone comes into place in April with the aim of helping a long-term project to improve air quality. Every year thousands of Londoners die from respiratory problems that can be directly related to pollution. We need to ban traffic from the capital as much as is possible and clean up the underground. If not we are simply dirtying our own backyard in a modern version of the Clerkenwell sewerage pool of 1862.

[from Daily News, Thursday, 6 February, 1862]

The fight to get to work

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Since Friday I have been following one week’s ‘police intelligence’ in the London newspapers in 1884, a year which followed the same calendar as 2019. On Monday the newspapers reported a selection of cases heard at the capital’s Police courts on the preceding Saturday (since the courts were closed on a Sunday).

On Saturday 24 January 1884 one of these was the reappearance after a couple of days of Henry Brayne, a clerk from Leytonstone who worked in the City. Brayne had been accused of assault by his (unnamed) victim, another City worker. The pair had been walking independently along the Poultry – one of the City streets that leads past Mansion House to the Bank of England – when they bumped into each other.

The other man was carrying some parcels and nearly toppled over. He turned on Brayne and said that had he got both his hands free he would ‘teach him better’ than to nearly knock people over in the street. Brayne took exception to this and punched the man in the eye.

When the pair had appeared in court on the Thursday the Lord Mayor (who sat as Chief Magistrate for the City of London) advised the pair to settle their differences by negotiating some compensation for the wounded man’s injury. Failing that, he said, he would hear the action for assault against the clerk.

It now transpired that the pair had agreed a financial arrangement that was mutually acceptable. The amount of this was not disclosed in court (or at least it was not reported) but given that Brayne’s attack had left the other party without the ability to see in one eye (albeit, we hope, temporarily) it must have been a fairly hefty settlement.

It reminds us that London was an exceptionally busy place in the Victorian period. The streets were as rammed with traffic as they are today and all the photos we see of the capital’s centre show thousands of commuters fighting (clearly sometimes literally) to make their ways to and from work.

Plus ça change, eh?

[from The Morning Post, Monday, 26 January, 1884]

‘We got a little list’:’SmartWater – nineteenth-century style – foils a burglar

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A news report last week suggested that Londoners were up in arms because the police had concentrated so much of their attention on knife crime that burglars were able to loot properties with impunity. Of course the police refuted this but it does seem that given the huge cuts that the Home Office have made to the Met’s budget over the past decade have impacted the force’s ability to fight crime in England’s capital. Quite obviously the police can’t be everywhere all at the same time, and so they have to prioritize. However frustrating that might be for victims of burglary (and having been burgled in the past I can appreciate how they feel) tackling record levels of knife crime must come first.

The solution, some say, is in preventing burglary and much of that responsibility lies with the homeowner. From the last quarter of the nineteenth century burglar alarms (which were advertised in the national press) have been on the market for those than can afford them. Now we are also being urged to use ‘smart water’. According to the website of the leading manufacturer of this anti-theft technology:

SmartWater contains a ‘unique code within the traceable liquid [which] provides an irrefutable forensic link back to the owner of stolen goods and also links criminals with the scene of their crime’.

So if thieves do break in to your home and steal your stuff you stand a reasonable chance of getting it back and seeing them caught and prosecuted.

Wind back to the 1880s however and no such technology existed. If the police wanted to catch burglars they had to do so through traditional policing methods (such as information gleaned from informers, surveillance, and the alertness of ‘bobbies’ on the beat) and a good deal of luck.

Fortunately thieves weren’t always that ‘smart’ themselves. Having stolen goods they then had to get rid of it, usually via a ‘fence’ (a receiver like Fagin in Oliver Twist) or at a pawnbrokers. Some pawnbrokers probably turned a blind to a watch or bracelet’s provenance, happy to make a bit of money themselves.  Others were much more honest, tipping off the police when something (or someone) ‘dodgy’ turned up.

And it seems the police also had a list of stolen items, which they circulated amongst the trade (‘brokers, jewelers, chandlers, and other dealers who might be offered stolen property for resale). This was the undoing of one burglar, Henry Moore, who was charged at Bow Street with the unlawful possession of an aluminum watch.

Moore had gone to a pawnbrokers in Broad Street, in Bloomsbury, and tried to pawn the watch which had a resale value of 10s. The ‘broker quickly identified it as being on the ‘Police List’ and called out for an officer.  The watch belonged to a haul of 120 watches that had been stolen from John Lock’s jewelry shop at 78 Tottenham Court Road on 10 January 1884. Moore was arrested and taken before Sir James Ingram at the Bow Street office on 26 January, a little over a fortnight after the raid.

The police couldn’t prove that Moore had carried out the burglary but he couldn’t explain how he had come to have one of the missing watches in his possession. Unlawful possession was an offence in its own right, albeit a lesser one than burglary. It came under the jurisdiction of the magistrate, meaning he didn’t need to test Moore’s guilt before a jury. Instead he sentenced him to three month’s imprisonment and the gaoler led him away.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly, Sunday, 27 January 1884]

‘Two fine candidates for the Reformatory’: a pair of ‘street arabs’ are sent to sea

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HMS Cornwall, a floating juvenile reformatory

As you may know if you are a regular visitor to this blog space, I teach a module on the history of crime at the University of Northampton. It covers the period 1700-1900 and looks at a variety of topics including different types of offending (from petty theft to murder), the evolution of the court system, development of policing, and the changing nature of punishment (from hanging to the prison). We also explore a number of themes – such as gender, class, continuity and change, and youth.

This week’s topic is youth crime and the suggestion that in some respects the Victorian’s ‘invented’ juvenile delinquency. Arguably ‘Victorian’ is incorrect but there is a persuasive argument that it was in the nineteenth century that commentators really focused their attention on youth crime and that it was then that the word ‘delinquent’ emerged.  The 1815 report of the ‘committee for investigating the alarming increase in juvenile delinquency in the metropolis’ followed its research into the state of youth crime in London.

In the post war period the fear of crime had risen, as it is always had at the end of Britain’s major European conflicts. Returning soldiers always occasioned a heightened tension around criminality and the tense political period after Waterloo lasted for several years. The creation of the Metropolitan Police (which some early historians attributed, in part, to this tension) meant that there was a more regularized police presence on the capital’s streets, and this directly impacted juveniles.

The Committee had focused on youth because many – believing in the reality of a ‘criminal class’ – felt the obvious thing to do was to nip offending in the bud by making efforts to reform young criminals to prevent them becoming older, more dangerous ones. The police, under pressure to justify the rates spent on them, focused on easy targets to boost arrest figures, and these were often the ‘urchins’ that ‘infested’ the city’s streets.

Charles Nye (14) and William Pincombe (13) were just such a pair of delinquents and in January 1878 they were set in the dock at Clerkenwell Police court charged with theft. They were accused of stealing sixpence from a five-year-old boy, simply named as ‘Hunt’.

The thieves were already known offenders and were under police surveillance. Tow detectives from N Division (Vincent and Armstrong) had been following them at a distance for an hour and a half, watching carefully as they approached, stopped, and chatted to several children. They stopped to chat in a friendly way to the little boy called Hunt then suddenly snatched the bag he was holding and ran away. The police set off after them.

The pair were soon caught but detective Armstrong saw Pincombe discard a sixpence as he fled, trying not to be caught with any evidence. In court the police told Mr Hosack that the lads were suspected of committing a string of robberies and had previously been birched and sent to prison for six weeks for other crimes they’d been convicted of. On this occasion the magistrate was loath to send them to gaol, saying they ‘were too young to undergo a long term of imprisonment’.

Instead he was determined that they should go to a reformatory where they might stand some small chance of being rehabilitated. The Reformatory Movement, led by Mary Carpenter, had flourished from mid century and was founded on the principle that juveniles like Charles and William were better suited to an environment where they could learn some useful skills, alongside discipline and a sense of religious morality, to keep them out of trouble in the future, rather than being dumped into an adult prison where they would simply learn to be ‘better’ thieves.

The court clerk made some enquires and later that day Mr Wills, an Industrial Schools officer appeared in court to say that there were some vacancies on the Cornwall Reformatory Training ship. Happy with this option, Mr Hosack sentenced each lad to 14 days hard labour in prison; thereafter they were to be sent to the Cornwall for two years. Magistrates handing down a reformatory sentence had to include a period of hard labour, to soften up defendants and remind them that they were being given a chance at reform. Carpenter had argued against sending children to prison but society demanded that  they were punished, and so punished they would be.

[from The Standard, Thursday, January 24, 1878]