Gang fights and assaults on the police – taking the long view

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With all the trouble surrounding the release of Blue Story, Andrew Onwubolu’s (aka ‘Rapman’) new film about love and friendship amongst rivals London gangs the issue of youth violence is back in the news. As this blog has touched on several times already in last few years, none of this is anything new. London has a history of gang violence that stretches back at least 150 years.

Plenty of the early concerns about youth violence and gangs focused on the ‘roughs’ and (later, in the 1890s) ‘hooligans’ who terrorized districts such as Southwark. Marylebone and the East End.

Christopher Eaton and John Marr (both just 16 years of age) were apparently connected to ‘a gang of roughs’ that were ‘infesting Bermondsey New Road’ in November 1875.

An elderly man named Richard Carney testified before the magistrate at Southwark Police court that on Friday 23 November he was walking home when he saw two boys fighting with a crowd gathered around them. He – rather unwisely it had to be said – pushed his way through the throng to try and separate them.

The crowd now turned on him and started to kick and punch him. As he collapsed a reserve policeman came running up to help, only to be subjected to the same treatment by the lads.

As the youths ran away PC Robert Atkins managed to secure the two boys and, having summoned a fellow officers to help, got them to the station and Mr Carney to Guy’s Hospital. Fortunately neither man was badly hurt although the youths had attempted to escape, kicking out at the officers that arrested them.

Mr Benson in the chair commented that ‘these street outrages must be put a stop to, as the peaceable inhabitants of Bermondsey could not pass along the streets without being assaulted after dark’. He sentenced Eaton to 21 days hard labour and Marr to 10.   Whether it did any good is anyone’s guess but given that several police were injured as gang’s clashed in Birmingham just this weekend it would seem that 144 years later little has improved.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, November 28, 1875)

‘I like the workhouse, they give me good food there’: two stray waifs on London Bridge

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George W. Martin was a music teacher with a social conscience, a man that comes across as a real-life ‘Mr Brownlow’, the benevolent savior of ‘Oliver Twist’. In early November 1872 Mr Martin was walking across London Bridge when he spotted two street urchins begging.

They were tiny, virtually without clothes, and seemed to be siblings. One of them – a boy of 7 named Patrick Davey – asked him for a halfpenny and George bought them both some food. As they ate he asked them why they were out on the streets begging they told him that they had no choice; ‘they must take money home or [their] father would thrash them’.

The kindly gentleman now called over a constable who took them to a police station house so investigations could be made. Once their address was determined an officer was dispatched to fetch their father and the following day the trio were brought before Mr Benson at Southwark Police court.

Whilst Patrick and his sister Bridget (6) shivered in the dock ‘almost in a state of nudity’, they did not seem to be starving. Their father – ‘a tall powerful man’ – promised his worship that the children were well-fed, and he assured him he never sent them out to beg.

However, it was not the first time Davey had been summoned about his wandering offspring. The man agreed and apologized but said their was little he could do. He had to go to work early each day and they children had no mother at home to look after them.

Patrick had lost his jacket and told the magistrate he’d sold it. Overnight the children had been kept in the workhouse and Patrick said he quite liked the place because, he explained, ‘they give me good food there’. Clearly food was his driving force.

Mr Benson ordered that they be taken back to the workhouse for a week and hoped (perhaps as a result of the coverage of the story by the press) that ‘some benevolent person’ might help support getting them into school. Perhaps Mr Martin would, having already shown a willingness to get involved where other had not.

Of course they should never have been in such a situation. Two small children should not have been out unaccompanied and begging in the streets of the capital. This was exactly the sort of social problem that Dickens was keen to expose in his writings. Patrick and Bridget deserved an education and a proper childhood, goodness knows what might have happened to them had not the music teacher intervened.

Two years earlier, in 1870, the Forster (or Elementary Education) Act had introduced compulsory primary education for children aged 5-13 but attendance was only enforced by school boards and it wasn’t free. After 1876 the poorest pupils could get free education if they were provided with a certificate by the parish. In 1880 the rules on attendance were tightened, putting the responsibility for ensuring it on local authorities and not simply the school boards.

In 1884 a commission reported that 50,000 London school age children were hungry. Free primary education arrived in 1891 when the Elementary Education Act required the government to pay a ‘fee grant’ of 10for each child aged 5-13 and prohibited schools from charging fees themselves.

So before 1891 education was a luxury that many families could not afford. Moreover, there was nothing provided in terms of childcare or nurseries for the poor, and many families relied on their children’s labour to supplement low incomes or help with caring responsibilities.

This Victorian lack of education is however, a thing of the past. Now children can be educated at the state’s expense in state of the art schools up and down the country. Yes they lack facilities, and many still go to school hungry, and truancy levels and exclusions remains a problem, but we do have free schools.

If only the poverty that Bridget and Patrick experienced – with a father that was in work remember – was also a thing of the past. It is not of course; over the last decade child poverty rates have risen to the point that we now have something like 4,000,000 UK children living in poverty. This is one of the worst rates of poverty in the industrialized world, not my words but those of the Children’s Society.

The election that is looming is one of the most important in a generation, and more important for the future of our children than any I can remember. We have the thorny subject of Brexit and our economic prosperity; we have the climate emergency and the need to take urgent radical action; and we have child care, health care and social care – three key issues that help support families in the UK.

This is an election about the future not about narrow and limited party political battles or the individual careers of over privileged politicians. Like 1945 this is an opportunity to change society for the better, and to change it so it works for the many, not the few.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, November 02, 1872]

‘What a shame for four men to beat one’: One woman’s brave but foolish intervention

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Violence was topic for most of the cases reported in the evening Standard newspaper on 13 October 1877. Just as modern readers are shocked by hearing of stabbings and attacks on defenseless elderly people and children, our ancestors must have shaken their heads and wondered what the world was coming to.

Of course the accounts of assaults and domestic violence were both real and relatively unusual; it was this that made them newsworthy. So we do have to be aware that when we read the nineteenth-century papers we are looking at a selection of ‘crime news’ that the editor thought his readership would ‘enjoy’. Plenty of less sensational news was generated by the ‘doings’ of  the metropolis’ police magistrate courts.

But let’s return to October 1877.

The first report that evening was of ‘an unprovoked assault’ on Mrs Jane Nash. Jane was walking out with a friend to meet her husband for Friday night drinks. As she made her way along Newington Causeway a drunken man collided with her, and ‘nearly knocked her down’. Jane gave him a piece of her mind, telling him to watch where he was going.

The man turned round, punched her in face twice, and would have started kicking her as she lay on the ground if two men hadn’t intervened and pulled him off her. At Southwark Police court he was sent to prison for 14 days by Mr Benson.

Staying south of the river Edward Richards surrender his bail and appeared at Wandsworth Police court charged with ‘a gross outrage’. He was accused, along with three other men not in custody, of attacking a man at a farm in Merton. John Ebliss, a ‘native of Bengal’, was sleeping at Baker’s End farm when Richards and the others hauled him out in a blanket and threw him in a ditch. Whether this was a prank or they had discovered Richards sleeping rough on their property wasn’t made clear in the report. The magistrate, Mr Paget, remanded Richards for a week so that the other men could be apprehended.

At Marlborough Street George Webster was charged with assaulting William Bowden, one of the surgeons attached to St John’s Hospital in Leicester Square. Webster had been making a disturbance in the hospital, probably drunk, and was thrown out. This sort of behavior still happens in hospitals today and every  night NHS are abused and assaulted by members of the public who’ve had too much to drink. Webster had come back into the hospital and in an argument with the surgeon he punched him in the ear. Mr Cooke warned him that behaviour like that could get him a prison sentence but on this occasion, and with the surgeon’s agreement, he merely bound him over to keep the peace for a year.

The final case was the worse. At half past midnight on the previous Friday (the 5 October) Emily Withers was passing the corner of Cannon Street Road when she saw a street robbery in progress. Four young men had set on another. When they discovered he had no money that started beating him up and Emily, unwisely decided to intervene.

‘What a shame for four men to beat one’, she cried, drawing the attention of one of them.

‘What is it to do with you?’ Robert Martin asked, moving over to her.

He kicked out at her, landing a blow on her knee. As the young man struggled free of his attackers and ran for help Martin now kicked Emily in the stomach. The violence knocked her off her feet and ‘she was in such agony that she could neither move nor speak’. It took some moments before a policeman came running up and arrested Martin.

Emily spent four days confined to bed as a result of the attack but recovered sufficiently by the following Friday to give evidence against her abuser in court. Mr Chance, the presiding magistrate at Thames Police court sentenced the 17-year-old lad to six month’s hard labour.

So here were four acts of violence to unsettle the readers of the Standard as they digested their supper. It would remind them that while crime had fallen considerably since the early decades of the century there was still plenty to fear on the capital’s streets. However, the reports were also reassuring  in that in each case someone was in custody or was being punished for their acts of violence. They were off the streets and no threat any more.

Today I think we operate in a similar way. I live in London and stabbings are reported weekly, sometimes more.  Every death is a tragedy, a young life cut short, and a family bereaved.  It is made worse because the culprits are rarely caught and so remain at large, as an ongoing danger. But are they are a danger to me and my life? The news reports suggest that this sort of violence – knife crime committed by teenagers on each other – is unlikely to affect me directly because I am a white man in my fifties. That said local reports suggest that there was a stabbing just up the road from us, and several muggings (by youths on scooters) had also been reported.

London can be dangerous; anywhere can be dangerous, just ask the victims of the recent assaults in Manchester. But violence is still rare and reported because it is rare, and therefore newsworthy. As Nick Ross always used to say, ‘don’t have nightmares’.

[from The Standard, Saturday, October 13, 1877]

‘MeToo’ in the 1870s as some brave young women fight back

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The MeToo movement in the US and over here has helped expose the widespread exploitation of power by men for their own sexual gratification. Several prominent female actors have testified to being sexually assaulted or otherwise manipulated into performing sex acts by men who had the power and influence to further, or finish, their careers.

It took considerable courage for the survivors of these attacks to speak out and help bring their abusers to court. Victims are not always listened to, even today, and we did see instances where victims were effectively abused again, notably by the incumbent president of the United States, simply for daring to speak truth to power.

Given how difficult it remains for women to bring accusations against men for sexual abuse in the twenty-first century one wonders just how easy it was 150 or more years ago?

Victorian Britain was a much less female friendly society after all. It was a male dominated society where women did not only lack the right to vote, they lacked pretty much any rights at all. There were no female judges or magistrates, no policewomen, women were expected to look after children and the home, obey their husbands and fathers. They earned a lot less than men, were not allowed to study at university, and not encouraged to study at all. Queen Victoria was an exception in being a woman who held power (or sorts) and even she deferred to her husband in domestic matters.

So the young women that worked for Messrs. Fourdrinier and Hunt at their paperhanging works on Southwark Bridge Road deserve a mention this morning. In August 1875 James Fellows, a 34 year-old employee of the firm, was brought before Mr Benson at the Southwark Police court. He was accused of ‘disgraceful conduct towards several young girls’ working at the paperhangers.

Just what that ‘disgraceful conduct’ was soon became clear as a number of the women testified in court. Alice Page was just 16 and still lived at home with he parents. She worked making paper collars for Fourdrinier & Hunt’s in the same building as Fellows. She was working on her own on the previous Wednesday when Fellows came into the workshop and exposed himself. He did it again on Saturday and she informed her foreman.

I think we sometimes used to consider ‘flashers’ as a ‘bit of a laugh’; they featured in 70s comedy routines and perhaps weren’t taken that seriously. But Fellows was an active ‘sex pest’ using his position, as a male employee in a firm full of female workers, to gratify his own sexual urges at the expenses of his co-workers. His abuse did not end with ‘flashing’ either.

Alice Gillings told the magistrate that on the previous Saturday Fellows had entered the room where she worked and had thrown her down and sexually assaulted her. Caroline Smith had seen what happened to Gittings and rushed over to help. She scratched the man’s face in the process. Alice then managed to get away from Fellows, slapping his face and pushing him off, and told the foreman. Sadly, he did nothing about it.

Other girls had complained of Fellows’ conduct but were too ‘ashamed to tell it’ in court. Sexual predators and abuser like Fellows often rely on the silence of victims too scared or embarrassed to speak of what had happened to them. Just as in the MeToo movement it took a handful of brave survivors to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Unfortunately in this case they had left it a bit too late. Mr Benson was disgusted by Fellows’ behaviour but since it had been over a week since the alleged attack on Alice Gillings he could not proceed with that charge. He reprimanded the foreman, James Collier, telling him that he should have sacked Fellows straight away after the first offence was reported saying that ‘he should not have remained in the place an hour’.

The indecent exposure had only been seen by Alice Page and he could not simply take her word for it uncorroborated. He suggested that the firm terminate his employment and ordered Fellows to enter into recognizances against his future behaviour for 12 months. It was a limited victory for the women at the paperhangers and hopefully prevented others from being victims of Fellows in the near future. It is deeply depressing to know that similar and worse episodes of male sexual violence and exploitation are still occurring in our ‘modern’ and ‘civilized’ society.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, August 15, 1875]

An avoidable tragedy at Christmas

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James Arthur and Timothy Howard worked together at a charcoal factory in New Gravel Lane, Shadwell. They were workmates and drinking buddies but not close friends. That said, they rarely quarreled and both were hard workers who were well spoken of by their employer.

They were employed to work on a platform which stood 18 feet above the factory floor and on Christmas Eve 1868 both were working there even though it was late in the evening. Perhaps with their minds on how they would celebrate Christmas and the Boxing Day holiday they started to talk about beer and how much they might drink. A ‘chaffing match’ ensued as each man boasted about the amount of drink he could get on credit (a measure of their financial worth of sorts) and this escalated into a row.

Howard taunted Arthur, suggesting that in the past he’d used a woman poorly and run up a debt on her behalf before leaving her. What had began as friendly ‘banter’ quickly descended into open hostility and Arthur looked dagger at his mate. He reached for a shovel and threatened Howard with it.

Realising he’d gone too far Howard tried to calm things and told his workmate to put the makeshift weapon down. When Arthur declined the two came to blows and the pair swore at each other. Howard struck him once or twice without return and Arthur staggered backwards. He missed his footing, slipped, and tumbled over the edge of the platform, plummeting the 18 feet down to the floor.

Howard clambered down the ladder and ran over to his mate, ‘who was quite dead’, his neck broken.

The foreman arrived on the scene and, seeing what had occurred, called the police. Howard was arrested while the police surgeon examined the deceased. Howard tried to say he’d not hit his friend but there had been at least two witnesses who’d been drawn to the noise the pair had made in their arguing.  Mr Benson (the magistrate at Thames Police court) remanded Howard in custody so that these witnesses could be brought to give their testimony.

At a later hearing Timothy Howard (described as an ‘Irish labourer’) was fully committed to trial for the manslaughter of his work colleague. On the 11 January 1869 he was convicted at the Old Bailey but ‘very strongly’ recommended to mercy by the jury who accepted that it was really a tragic accident, their was no intent on Howard’s part. The judge clearly agreed as he only sent the man to prison for a fortnight, a shorter term than many drunker brawlers would have received at Thames before the magistrates.

[from The Standard, Monday, 28 December, 1868]

An unhappy arsonist is rescued by a brave constable.

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When Edward O’Connor got home from the pub he was disappointed that his wife hadn’t got his dinner ready. Mrs O’Connor was pretty used to this sort of situation, Edward was frequently drunk and when he was, he was unbearable. The 45 year-old shoemaker was a ‘quarrelsome’ fellow and not above taking out his frustrations on his spouse and their children.

This was nothing out of the ordinary for Victorian London of course, many women were victims of their husband’s unwarranted anger and violence and the summary courts bore witness to their occasional attempts to ‘get the law on them’.

However, on this occasion Mrs O’Connor hadn’t brought a charge against Edward, he had gone so far over the bounds of acceptable behaviour that he had found himself up before Mr Benson at Southwark Police court without his wife having to file a complaint.

This was because he’d come home to 18 Potter Street, Bermondsey in a drunken state and flew into a rage when he realized his supper wasn’t ready. He shouted at his wife and told her he would burn the house down with her and the children in it. She fled, clutching her offspring close to her and raised the alarm.

Meanwhile Edward stumbled over the fire and shoveled up a portion of burning coals which he then tossed onto the bed. As the fire began to take he staggered back to admire his handiwork. Soon afterwards the window was forced open and a policeman’s head appeared. PC Fred Palmer (45M) had arrived on the scene and rushed inside. Pushing Edward aside he quickly extinguished the flames and dragged Edward outside. The copper’s bravery undoubtedly saved the property and the lives of Edward and anyone else living there.

In court Edward was apologetic and said he had no memory of what he’d done. Mrs O’Connor spoke up for him (as wives and partners frequently did) saying that if the magistrate was lenient she would make sure her husband took the temperance pledge. She was sure he hadn’t intended to destroy their home or hurt her and the kids. The magistrate cautioned the shoemaker, warning him to stay off the drink and take better care of his wife and family. He then told him to find bail for his good conduct over the next six months and let him go.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, November 22, 1872]

A man with (literally) no legs to stand on gets little sympathy from the ‘beak’.

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Richard Wright had lost both his legs. How, is not made clear but he may have lost them in an accident, war or through disease. Wright was also elderly and struggled about the East End on two sticks. His only remedy for the pain and ill humour his disability and advanced age brought him was alcohol. However when he drank he became drunk and disorderly and sometimes quite violent, which brought him no end of abuse and considerable trouble with the law.

He had been court on a number of occasions, once for smashing the windows of a doctor’s shop with his walking supports.

Wright had become the butt of local jokes and pranks, especially those of the street children of East London. A policeman reported that on one occasion he’d come across Wright, back to the wall, fending off 300-400 youths swinging his sticks towards them as they teased and berated him.

In August 1867 he was drunk and facing down another group of children who were ‘shouting, jeering, and laughing at him’. The group had followed him as he staggered his way through Stratford, Bromley and Bow and he’d had enough of them. As he flourished his sticks again, one struck a lad on the head, tearing his cap and drawing blood. The boys scarpered as the police arrived and arrested the old man.

In front of Mr Benson at Thames Police Wright was unrepentant. Some of the boys had pelted him with mud and pulled him around, so he was provoked. He told the magistrate that the boys ‘would never let him alone’.

Because you get drunk and make a fool of yourself’, the beak told him.

Mr Benson had little or no sympathy with the old man and told him he was:

a dangerous, ill-conducted man, and that if did not get drunk, and make a nuisance of himself he would be an object of pity, not of violence’.

He then sentenced him to three days in prison for the assault on one of his tormentors. Wright grumbled a response:

What am I to do, your Worship, when I come out of prison? The boys won’t leave me alone’.

Keep sober’, was the justice’s response, ‘and the boys will not molest you’.

‘Fat chance’ Wight might have replied, but he wisely kept his mouth shut and shuffled off to the cells. I can imagine this happening today but I would have expected to find the lads in the dock not an old man with no legs to stand on.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, August 27, 1867]