An incredible story as a nonagenarian hero applies for help from the Lord Mayor

Trafalgar, 21 October 1805: 'Situation of HMS 'Bellerophon'

Trafalgar, 21 October 1805: ‘Situation of HMS ‘Bellerophon by William Joy

On Saturday 27 June 1840 the Mansion House Police court was held enthralled as a very old man told his life story in the hope that he would get some support form the City coffers. Isreal Furmen was 91 years of age – impressive in 2019 and even more so the mid nineteenth century – and he was down on his luck. He told the incumbent Lord Mayor of London that he was a native American Indian who had been living in Wales for several years after previously serving with the British Royal Navy.

He had to leave Wales, he said, because he have been implicated in ‘Frost’s treasonable outbreak’ (the Chartist rising in Newport) even though he claimed to have wanted nothing to do with and had been ‘compelled’ to join the rebellion. The Newport Rising in November 1839 had ended in the death of 22 or more Chartists as they attempted to seize the Westgate Hotel in Newport and were fired on by troops stationed there.

The rising was organized and led by John Frost but was probably doomed to fail. Rumours of the rising had alerted the authorities and many of those involved had mixed feelings about the revolt. Chartism itself was divided on the merits of using ‘physical force’ to achieve its laudable aims of enfranchising all men and introducing (amongst other things) a secret ballot to the voting process.

John Frost was one of several Chartists arrested and sentenced to death as traitors after the rising but was spared and sent to Australia. He was pardoned in 1856 and returned to Britain. He died in 1877 at the ripe old age of 93.

His fellow nonagenarian, Israel Furmen now told the Lord Mayor he had first gone to Bristol then travelled up to the capital. On arrival in London he’d applied to the Whitechapel parish for relief but had been set to ‘break stones at a penny a ton’. Despite his age he’d had a go but because he was slow they cut his pay. He only wanted to get back to America and his people. He then outlined his life story in the hope that the Lord Mayor help him. His story was quite amazing.

Furmen claimed to be the son of an India chief and to have been apprenticed to a blacksmith in Philadelphia when he was 15 (in 1764). In 1776 he had fought against the British in the American War of Independence, but had later switched sides to fight the rebels. After the war he’d gone to Europe and visited France and Spain. He said he was in Paris and saw Louis XVI being guillotined.

He signed up as a sailor for the Americans and served aboard a brig named Pelly where he was later capture by the British and pressed into the Royal Navy.  That was in 1794 and he served until 1816. This meant, he explained, that he had been on board the Bellerophon at Trafalgar under captain John Cooke, who died bravely in the encounter, one of 27 men of that ship that died that day.  However, the Bellerophon is probably most famous for being the naval vessel that took the formal surrender of Napoleon after his defeat at Waterloo. If Furmen’s account is to be believed he was present at that key moment in history as well.

Not only was he present at Trafalgar (where he was badly wounded) Furmen also said he had served at the battle of Copenhagen and at Flushing, and had been in the same sick bay at Lord Nelson. This then was a man with a knack for being in the right (or perhaps wrong) place to see history unfold before his eyes. He had been captured twice by the French but had escaped and finally ‘retired’ to Wales to live out the rest of his days in peace. That was until John Frost and his Chartist rebels decided to coopt him into their ranks of course.

He said his Indian tribe was ‘very long-lived’ and (as proof) added that just 10 years earlier he had received a letter from his father, who was still alive. He was also very strong and proved this in court by performing ‘several difficult feats of agility, to the surprise of all present’.

In 1840 the Morning Chronicle reported this case without comment or embellishment but can we take the facts at face value? It is entirely possible that a man born in 1749 could have witnessed history at such first had as he claimed, but is it probable? I expect that is what the Lord Mayor had to decide. The Bucks Herald added that Furmen was accompanied by his wife (39) and their three-year-old child.

In none of the papers could I find the outcome to this case but I imagine that Furmen’s story (real or imagined) was such a rich and compelling one that someone reading it would have paid him for the rights to publish it in full. If so then even if the City didn’t find it in their hearts or pockets to pay his passage back to the USA some speculative London printer would have.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Monday, June 29, 1840; The Bucks Herald, Saturday, July 04, 1840]

P.s A man named Isreal Furmen was indeed implicated in the Newport Rising and appears in the records at Newport Reference Library. He is also mentioned in a treatise on longevity published by John Charles Hall in 1841. I can’t find a crew list for the Bellerphon in 1805 or 1815 but perhaps others can?

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

From Kennington Common in 1848 to the People’s Vote in 2019; 171 years of democracy in action

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A nation divided against itself, unhappy with its political masters; tens of thousands of people marching though the capital with banners held aloft; a petition signed by thousands of ordinary people which the Prime Minster chooses to ignore. We’ve been here before haven’t we, in 1842 with Chartism. In May of that year a 100,000 people (Maybe 150,000) turned out to accompany a petition supporting the Charter on its way to Parliament. This was a ‘good-humoured and “teetotal”’ procession but later that year, and subsequently, things turned ugly as the Victorian state not only rejected the six demands of the people but deployed the police and military to guard against insurrection.1

By March 1848 Chartism was in decline but radical revolution was very much in the air in continental Europe. 1848 was the ‘year of revolutions’  and in March 1848 London witnessed large gatherings of Chartists in places with long histories of popular protest (like Clerkenwell and Bethnal Green) and a mass demonstration on Kennington Common later that spring, on 10 April. kenningtoncommon-standardThis drew another 150,000 people (right) but the authorities made sure it didn’t go anywhere: troops were stationed throughout the capital at hot spots and no one was allowed to cross the Thames to march on Parliament.

The Charter demanded the following reforms, all but one of which have been achieved today:

  1. Universal suffrage
  2. Abolition of property qualifications for members of parliament
  3. Annual parliamentary elections
  4. Equal representation
  5. Payment of members of parliament
  6. Vote by secret ballot

I doubt anyone (especially Brenda) wants to see annual general elections but in 1848 the government was not inclined to grant any of the Chartists’ demands. The 1832 Great Reform Act had extended the franchise to the middle class but the idea of making it universal was not properly contemplated until the 1860s when Disraeli took his ‘leap in the dark’ and enfranchised very many more working class men.

The 1848 petition was claimed to have 5m signatures but it reality it had fewer than 2m and some of these were faked (it was apparently signed very many times by Queen Victoria). This undermined the Chartists just as much as the violence that some Chartists deployed (in the Newport Rising of 1839 for example) hardened some hearts against them and divided the leadership.

Yesterday (23 March 2019), 171 years after 1848 something like a 1,000,000 people marched through central London and tried to squeeze into Parliament Square. There was no violence and it was all very good humoured.032319-london-brexit-march-01

The police presence on the ground was minimal (the police have other ways to watch crowds these days, evidenced by the helicopters that circled overhead and the ubiquitous CCTV). People came from all over Britain not just from ‘Remoaning’ London, and they brought their children and pets with them.

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There was a carnival, pro-European, feel to the march albeit with a lot of deep felt anger and frustration at the cavalier attitude of the ruling party (and indeed the opposition in Parliament). This was a protest with a very similar purpose to that of the Chartists in that both wanted to see a shift in power from the executive to the people, and both would argue that they were not being listened to.

The petition to revoke Article 50 had passed 4.5m signatures by teatime Saturday (as most of the marchers were making their way home) and the woman that had posted it was hiding in Cyprus after receiving death threats for having the audacity to call for a democratic vote by the people. Today the government doesn’t need to send in the troops to break up demonstrations or have the secret service infiltrate political groups, there are enough trolls and anti-democratic keyboard warriors to do their dirty work for them.

Everything we have achieved as a people in terms of winning concession from our royal or our political masters has been achieved through protest and campaigning. The rich and powerful did not (and will not) give up their privileges easily but we the people are many and they are few, and ultimately they recognize this and bow to pressure when they have to.

From the Peterloo massacre and the first mass movement for electoral reform, through the Chartists to the Suffragettes and beyond this country has a proud history of social protest aimed at holding our rulers to account. A lot has been said recently about what democracy is and what it means to be democratic. Understandably the present occupant of 10 Downing Street believes she is democratically obliged to deliver the will of the people as expressed in June 2016 in the referendum.

At what point however, did anyone sign up to a democracy in which we were are only asked for our opinion once?

1.Jerry White, London in the Nineteenth Century, (London, Jonathan Cape, 2007), p.365

The Chartist press reports the return of a convict to the city

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Yesterday myself and a colleague from the University of Northampton visited the London Academy school in Edgware to talk to their Sixth form students about Chartism (a topic they are study for A level history). We found them to be a very engaged and articulate group of young people, who had some firm opinions about the world they live in.

The Charter  was supported by several petitions to parliament and its signatories demanded 6 things from the government of the day:

  • a vote for all men (over 21)
  • the secret ballot 
  • no property qualification to become an MP
  • payment for MPs
  • electoral districts of equal size
  • annual elections for Parliament

All but one of these are now things we pretty much take for granted but in the 1830s they were deemed quite revolutionary.

The Chartists knew the value of good media and had to put up with some very biased reporting which portrayed them as alternatively dangerous and violent, or inept and disorganised. The Chartist Land Scheme was ridiculed and those responsible  for the Newport Rising in November 1839 harshly punished.

On 2 February 1839 James Thompson began publication of a short-lived 4 page newspaper that reported the Chartist movement from a positive perspective. Unlike some more famous organs of Chartism The Chartist was cheap (at 2 and half pence), so arguably it had the potential to be more accessible to working people.

It seems to have existed briefly though (it died out in July of 1839, at the end of the Chartist Convention), and it seems Thompson  was very concerned at the actions of so-called ‘physical force’ Chartists that dominated the news agenda after riots in Birmingham following the general strike of that year (the so-called ‘sacred month’).

In February 1839 The Chartist reported the goings on at the London Police Courts just like every other paper did. At Mansion House a ‘dejected man’ named Thomas Lee was presented to the magistrate by the police as a returned convict.

Lee had been picked up by a City of London copper (PC 133) when he found him ‘loitering around the neighbourhood of Watling-street’. The Lord Mayor criticised the policeman; telling him he had ‘exceeded his duty’ by arresting a man for doing nothing.

The officer’s sergeant now interjected to say that he had instructed his man to detain Lee because he had seen him going into shop and suspected he was a thief. At the station the man had told the sergeant that he was a ‘returned convict’ and had only recently arrived back in England from Australia.

‘Is that true, prisoner?’ asked the Lord Mayor.

‘Yes, my lord, it is’.

‘How did you get back?’ asked the justice.

Lee replied that he had worked his passage on a ship.

Now the clerk asked him how long ago he had been sentenced. It was eight years previously Lee explained. Did he have a discharge order? No, he didn’t.

The Lord Mayor was clearly perturbed by this. If he had no papers how was he to know that he hadn’t escaped from his sentence of transporttaion (rare as it was to escape from Australia, unlike the Americas in the previous century)?

Lee said nothing.

The sergeant informed the court that Lee had originally been convicted in Cornwall and  added that the prisoner had admitted that he was so destitute if was quite likely to commit a crime that would have seen him transported again anyway.

The magistrate ordered a message to be sent to Cornwall to check the validity of the man’s story and sent him to Newgate gaol in the meantime. Did Lee have to make the long journey back to Oz? I’m afraid I will have to leave that to someone else. If he had he may well have met with some of the ringleaders at Newport. Following their trial at the Shire Hall in Monmouth John Frost, Zephaniah Williams, and William Jones, were found guilty on the charge of high treason and were sentenced  to be hanged, drawn and quartered. Fortunately for them this was commuted to transportation for life.

We asked the pupils at the London Academy for their six points and among their responses were the abolition of university fees, better opportunities for graduate employment and the lowering of the voting age to 17. All of these are sensible ‘demands’ (as were the Chartists’) and demonstrate that 17 year-olds can identify with politics outside of party and we should probably trust them with the franchise in the way that working men demanded to be trusted in the 1830s and 40s.

[from The Chartist, Saturday, February 2, 1839]