Creative protest in Trafalgar Square: an echo of Extinction Rebellion from 1888

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In July 1888 Robert Allen, a 64 year-old cabinetmaker, was charged at Bow Street, with ‘resisting the police and riotous conduct’. He’d been arrested in Trafalgar Square amid what seemed to have been a rather unusual form of demonstration.

Demonstrations in Trafalgar Square were all the rage in the 1880s. In 1886 a public meeting had ended in chaos as a ‘mob’ had moved off to smash up property in nearby Pall Mall. Then in 1887 the heavy-handed response of the authorities to a peaceful protest had left at least one person dead and very many more injured in what was dubbed ‘Bloody Sunday’ by the press.

Not surprisingly then by July 1888 the police were a little jumpy about protestors and speakers in the square. In fact unauthorized gatherings were banned and no one was supposed to set themselves up to address crowds in the square. If they wanted to do that they had only to move along to Speakers Corner (close to Marble Arch on Hyde Park) where it was permitted.

At four o’clock in the afternoon of the 21 July 1888 (a Saturday) Allen was walking around the square ‘speaking in a loud voice’. What he was saying we don’t know but it had drawn a large crowd to him, and they were following the orator on his ‘perambulation’.

Superintendent Sheppard (of B Division, Metropolitan Police) was on duty in the square that day and was alarmed by what he saw. This seemed like a clear breach of the laws governing assemblies and he tried to intervene. Around a thousand men and boys were now listening to Allen and there was, Sheppard later told the Bow Street magistrate, ‘a good deal of horse play’.

‘Meetings are prohibited’, he explained to Allen, ‘and I cannot allow you to have a crowd following you causing danger and obstruction. I must disperse them’.

‘I am only having a conversation with my friend’, replied Allen, pointing at someone in the crowd nearby.

‘That is sheer nonsense’ the policeman told him. If he wanted to continue to talk to his friend he’d clear a gap in the throng and the two could leave peacefully. But Allen didn’t want to do that.

‘No’, he said, ‘I shall not do that; I claim my right to do as I am doing now’.

Sheppard called over some officers who went to disperse the gathered crowd and Allen walked away. However, far fro stopping what he was doing he just continued on a new circulation of Nelson’s Column, drawing a fresh group of followers. Now they were singing the Marseillaise and Sheppard described them as ‘very rough’. Again he tried to have them broken up, again Allen created a disturbance by speaking loudly to no one in particular.

The superintendent had run out of patience and told Allen that he had been warned but now he would be arrested, by force if necessary. The cabinetmaker went quietly, followed by a large crowd all the way to the police station.

In court Allen denied holding a meeting, rejected any accusation that he was a troublemaker, and said while some of the police had always acted reasonably, others ‘gloried in brutality’.  His politics were clear, however, when he declared that ‘a society of millionaires and paupers could not be formed on a sound basis’. He was about to launch into a political speech at this point but Mr Bridge (the magistrate) cut him off. Allen was bailed while further enquiries were conducted.  A week later Allen was discharge after promising not to disturb the public peace in the future.

I recently watched Ben Zand’s insightful documentary about the Extinction Rebellion movement and it occupation of central London this year. The co-founder of ER – Roger Hallam – described their tactics as “Criminal inaction.” If you witnessed it live on the news you’ll be aware that thousands of protestors of all ages staged a series of peaceful sit down occupations of London landmarks. They brought traffic to a standstill in the capital for an unprecedented 11 days but no one was hurt (although it cost the public and authorities millions of pounds in lost business and policing).ER

It was ‘remarkably effective’ as Zand agreed, it made the government listen and Climate Change is now firmly on the agenda. It galvanized tens of thousands of people, many of them young people who weren’t involved in politics or protest before but now are. At one point in the April take over the head of the Metropolitan Police – Cressida Dick – is seen imploring the protestors to go  home or go to Marble Arch (where they can protest legally), warning that otherwise they will be arrested.

But arrest was one of their tactics. By being arrested and charged they get publicity, a day in court, and their cause is highlighted. They are non-violent, they are creative, determined, and they are not going away. They are also part of a well-established tradition of protest in this country (not all of it peaceful of course) that stretches back hundreds of years. I met some of them in London and then later this summer in Edinburgh. These are intelligent, passionate, and well organized people and while they provide a temporary headache for the likes of Cressida Dick and Superintendent Sheppard we should be very proud that our nation continues to produce young people who are prepared to put their lives and liberty on the line to achieve a better future for all of us.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, July 24, 1888]

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 1880s London. The book is available on Amazon here

An execution brings out the crowds – and the pickpockets

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A public execution on the roof of Horsemonger Lane prison 

Until 1868 executions – the hanging of criminals for murder – took place in public. There had been calls for this practice to end in the previous century but while capital punishment had been removed from nearly all crimes by the late 1830s, the public element was retained.

Critics (including novelists like Dickens and Thackeray) argued that the spectacle of seeing a man or, more rarely a woman, being hanged before a large crowd had a negative effect on those watching. Instead of learning the lesson that crime didn’t pay, or sharing in the collective shame of an offender the crowd drank, laughed, mocked the police and the condemned, and generally behaved as if they were at a carnival.

The large crowds that gathered were also the targets of thieves, who willfully picked the pockets of those whose attention was focused on the events taking place on the raised platform before them. This had worried William Hogarth 100 years earlier and in his final engraving for his ‘Industry and Idleness’ series he had included a pickpocket amongst the crowd that watched a thief being ‘turned off’ at Tyburn. His message was clear: the gallows was hardly an effective deterrent if thieves robbed those watching their fellow criminals being executed for the very same offence.

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William Hogarth’s image of an execution at Tyburn (modern Marble Arch) you can see the pickpocket on the left, next to the man on crutches, two small boys are pointing him out. 

Detective William Cummings of M Division, Metropolitan Polce, was on duty at 8 in the morning outside Horsemonger Lane prison. A gallows had ben erected to hang Samuel Wright. Cummings was in plain clothes and was there to watch the crowd for any disturbances or criminality. Wright had been convicted of murdering his lover, Maria Green, by cutting her throat after they had both been drinking heavily. He had handed himself in three days after the murder and there were public pleas for clemency in his case. Maria was known to have a temper and it was suggested that she had threatened him on more than one occasion. Despite this the home secretary remained unmoved and Wright’s execution was set to go ahead as planned.

His case was compared at the time with that of George Townley who also killed a woman close to him. In Townley’s case it was his ex-fiancé, Bessie Godwin, who had rejected him. Townley stabbed Bessie in the throat and then helped carry her home, declaring to her father: She has deceived me, and the woman who deceives me must die’. He too was convicted and sentenced to death but reprieved by the home office after his legal tram effectively fabricated evidence that he was insane.

So in 1864 we had two murderers with very different outcomes and the fact that the man left to swing was working class while the man saved was ‘respectable’ was not lost on the public outside Horsemonger Gaol. I suspect that is partly why the detective inspector was there.

However, he had not been there long when he saw when he saw two rough looking men trying to push their way through the crowds. They seemed to be being pursued by a more smartly dressed man. The man was loudly accusing them of robbing him, so the policeman intervened and collared the pair.

In court at Southwark James Walter Fisher (a commercial traveller) told the sitting magistrate (Mr Burcham) that he’d been waiting for the execution and had seen the tow defendants (John Jones and Richard Johnson) pick the pockets of a man standing in front of them. The pair moved off and he didn’t see what they’d taken but he quickly alerted the victim. The man checked his pocket and declared his handkerchief was missing. Fisher went off in pursuit and pointed them out to inspector Cummings.

Whilst John Jones was being searched at the local police station PC Reed (235M) said he noticed Johnson pull out something from his own pocket and chuck it away. It was a silk pocket-handkerchief. Johnson denied ever having one and said it must have been planted there by the copper. PC Reed said other officers were ready to give evidence that they had seen Johnson throw it away. Inspector Cummings told the court that the victim, a gentleman, had identified the item as his own but was unable to come to court today. He would, however, be able to attend on Friday. Mr Burcham therefore remanded the two men until then.

At this point both of them disappear from the records. John Jones is such a common name that it would be difficult to trace him anyway but while there are a number of men with the name Richard Johnson in the records of the Digital Panopticon I’m not convinced any of them are this man.

So perhaps the gentleman that lost his handkerchief decided that a few nights in a cell was suitable punishment for the pair of opportunistic thieves. He had got his property back by then and maybe chose not to give up a day taking them through the justice system. Equally Mr Burcham may well have chosen to punish them as reputed thieves using the powers given to him under the terms of the Vagrancy Act (1824) that allowed him to punish those merely suspected of doing something wrong.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, January 13, 1864]

‘A contemptible, ill-conditioned fellow’ attacks a woman near Marble Arch

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Horses were a familiar site in mid-Victorian London. They pulled omnibuses and carts, hackney carriages and coaches, and – since this was still an age without the automobile – plenty of individuals daily rode their horses across and about the city. So, just like today when there are thousands of learner drivers struggling to negotiate the busy streets while remembering to change gear and indicate, there must have been dozens of people learning to ride.

Of course, most of these would have been wealthy because it was only the rich and aristocratic who could’ve afforded to keep and ride horses in London and so its not surprising to see that the victim in today’s case was Lady Elizabeth Chichester (née Dixon), the wife of Francis Algernon Chichester, captain in the 7th Hussars.

Lady Chichester was out riding with her riding master, William Jackson, and the pair were on Cumberland Street when a man rushed at them close to Marble Arch. He bumped into Lady Chichester and then staggered away, it seemed obvious to Jackson that the man was quite drunk.

As he moved away Elizabeth exclaimed that the fellow had cut her clothes. The man now started to run and Jackson shouted ‘stop him’  and he was soon captured by a nearby policeman.

The following morning the man – James Johnson, a 24 year-old upholsterer living at 40 Marylebone Lane – was brought before Mr Yardley at Marylebone Police court charged with being  drunk and ‘cutting the riding habit’ of Lady Chichester. Elizabeth revealed that she’d spotted a knife in his hand as he lurched towards her, which must have been frightening.

In court Johnson had little to say for himself and didn’t challenge any of the evidence of the witnesses that spoke there. He said he couldn’t remember much about it as he was drunk or, as he put it, he’d ‘had a drop too much to drink’.

Mr Yardley sad drunkenness was no excuse for what he’d done and Johnson accepted this adding that he was prepared to pay for a new riding habit for the lady. This wasn’t enough for the magistrate who was determined to show how disgusted he was by the man’s behaviour.

Can you show any reason why I should allow you to go upon that paltry excuse?‘ he asked the defendant in the dock.

Well, no sir‘, was the reply.

You seem a contemptible, ill-conditioned fellow, and I should not be doing my duty if I allowed you to go upon the payment of a fine, or  to pay for the damage. I shall sentence you to one month’s hard labour‘.

James Johnson looked shocked, but before he had time to react he was led away and taken down to start his sentence.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, July 22, 1863]

A Dartmoor prison warder has an expensive encounter with a ‘lady of the town’.

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Tothill Street, Westminster in the early 1800s (from http://spitalfieldslife.com/2014/04/01/more-long-forgotten-london/)

London was a huge draw for visitors in the nineteenth century, especially after the nation’s railway network was built. London was also the country’s criminal justice hub and many of those sentenced to terms of penal servitude were processed in the capital before being sent to institutions as far away as Devon or the Isle of wight. So Daniel Mahoney, a principal warder (prison officer in today’s terminology) at Dartmoor may have been in the capital for work or pleasure. Regardless of which it was he soon fell victim to one of the oldest tricks in the book.

As he was walking in Tothill Street (not far from where St James’ Park station is today) he was ‘accosted’ (his words) by Mary Brown. Mary was a ‘woman of the town’, a prostitute, but Mahoney (who was wearing his uniform) later made out that he didn’t realise this at first. According to the warder Mary asked him if he was looking for somewhere to stay and when he said he was she ‘told him she would take him to a nice clean place’ and went with him to an address in Orchard Street (near Marble Arch).

Once at the house she asked him if ‘he would treat her with some gin’. This was part of the usual transaction of prostitution and for Mahoney to later pretend otherwise was risible. Gin was fetched and two other women joined the party. The warder relaxed and took off his neck-stock (an uncomfortable early version of the stiff collar) and placed it on the table along with his handkerchief, watch and a purse of money.

Without detailing what happened next it must have been pretty obvious to the readership of The Morning Chronicle that Mahoney was enjoying the company of these ‘ladies’ and not paying attention to the danger he was in. London’s prostitutes had been decoying men into low lodging houses, getting them tipsy and parting them from their valuables for hundreds of years and a prison officer must have offered a particularly tempting prospect.

Before he realised what was going on the women had seized his goods and ran off with them. The next day (after Mahoney had reported the theft to the police) one officer made his way undercover to Orchard Street to make some enquiries. He probably had a fair idea from the warder’s description of who he was looking for even if Mary had not revealed her real name.

As police constable John Toomer (221B) strolled along Orchard Street Mary Brown came out into the street from her lodging at number 57 and spoke to him. Seemingly not realising who he was she started to brag about her successful exploits the night before.

Clutching a glass of brandy, ‘She told him she’d had  “a good pull” on the previous night’, that her victim was  ‘one of the Penitentiary officers; and she had got £3 10s in money, a beautiful watch and gold guard, and other things’.

The policeman asked her what she had done with he things and she admitted passing them on to one of her ‘companions’, Emma and spending some of the cash.  She then invited the policeman to go and have a drink with her. He agreed so he could pump her for more information and they walked on for a while. However, as soon as they got within striking distance of the nearest police station PC Toomer revealed himself and took her into custody.

Charged with robbery before the Westminster magistrate (Mr Paynter) Mary denied everything. In her version of events she had summoned by the warder to a house in Almonry. He had apparently paid a lad a shilling to fetch her, for sex one presumes. He had left his handkerchief there she told the justice. Thereafter they had continued on to Tothill Street where they met up with some other women and the warder bought them all something to drink. The last time she had seen Mahoney he was enjoying the company of one these women in a room in Orchard Street but Mary had left and knew nothing of the robbery.

Whatever the truth was the weight of evidence was fairly damning for Mary; especially her supposed confession to the plain-clothes policeman. But Mahoney did not come out of this very well either. The magistrate said he ‘was sorry to see a person of the prosecutor’s official position capable of such conduct’. He remanded Mary for a week for further enquiries.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, September 24, 1857]