‘He is taking the bread out of the mouths of Englishmen’: racism in 1880s’ Whitechapel

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Anti-immigrant sentiment was on the rise in the 1880s fueled by racists (anti-alienists) like Arnold White, a populist politician in the Farage mold. White attempted to undermine a parliamentary committee investigating ‘sweating’ (the use of cheap labour in poor conditions in the East End) by paying witnesses to lie under oath. He also gave public speeches that blamed the  problems of society on those migrating to London from Eastern Europe.

In reality London was experiencing a large influx of foreign Jews in the late 1800s because of the persecution they were suffering at the hands of the Russian Tsar and his policies towards non-Christians. Many fled pogroms and forced enlistment in the Imperial army to seek a better, safer, life in England and, hopefully in the USA if they could get there.

Many settled in Whitechapel and Spitalfields because it was close to the docks, where they landed, and because there was an established Jewish community here. That meant there were people that spoke their language, practiced the same faith, and observed the same customs. ‘Ghettos’ exist because people naturally gravitate towards those that understand and support them.

Arnold White wasn’t the only anti-alienist in London. One of the East End’s Police Court magistrates seems to have held very similar and equally distasteful views.  When a poor Polish man applied at Worship Street for help he was summarily dismissed by the justice. The man spoke no English so a friend was there to help him. He said his employer had refused him his wages and wanted the court to intervene.

‘Why doesn’t the man speak for himself?’ Mr Saunders demanded.

‘He can’t, he is a native of Poland’, his friend replied.

‘Well, let him go to Poland’.

‘He has no business in this country’ declared the magistrate. ‘He is taking the bread out of the mouths of Englishmen. You may have a summons, but I hope you won’t succeed’.

It was a typical response for someone ignorant of the ways of working in the Jewish community but Saunders should have known better. Jewish businesses did not employ gentiles (non-Jews) and – generally speaking – vice versa. Jews needed to keep the Sabbath sacred and so did no work after sundown on a Friday and throughout Saturdays. English businesses could not operate like that and so tended not to employ the immigrants. So immigrants worked in established Jewish firms (like this man’s tailors) and were taking no Englishman’s job at all.

In the autumn of 1888 the prevalent anti-immigrant feeling encapsulated by Saunder’s comments and exacerbated by men like White help fuel anti-semitism and violence towards the Jewish community. This was exacerbated by the Whitechapel murders that year and then, and since, it has been common to blame a Jew for the killings. Currently that suspect is Aaron Kosminsky even though there remains little evidence to tie him to the killings. Some people want it to be an outsider like Kosminsky, because the alternative, that ‘Jack’ was an local and an Englishman, means we have to examine our own society rather than blaming it on others.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, September 13, 1888]

A daring jewel thief on Houndsditch

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An old clothes shop in the Jewish community of Houndsditch 

In 1883 Mr Samuel Morris Samuels ran a jewellers shop at 157 Houndsditch in the City of London. The street was to become infamous in the early twentieth century when a gang of politically-motivated robbers raided a similar establishment at number 119 killing three City policeman in the ensuing attempt to arrest them. The criminals escaped and were later surrounded the following January leading to what has become known as the Siege of Sidney Street.

Samuel Morris Samuels was a member of East London’s large jewish community in the late 1800s. The great synagogue was close by, at Bevis Marks, and thousands of his co-religionists lived in the crowded houses of nearby Spitalfields. The 1800s saw waves of Jewish immigration from the Russian Pale of Settlement but Samuels family had probably been in England for decades, if not centuries.

He knew a man called George Wyatt quite well. Wyatt, who dressed well and so was fairly comfortably off, worked for the Electric Light Company as an engine fitter. Im190102Cass-Edi1883 was the year that the Edison & Swan Electric Light Company was founded in London and Sunderland but Wyatt may have worked for a lesser known firm. Edison bulbs (like the one in this advertisement from 1901) have become fashionable again today – they must have seemed like ‘magic’ for our Victorian ancestors.

Wyatt was a regular customer at Samuels’ shop and so the jeweller didn’t pay that much attention to him when he came in at about one o’clock on Sunday 14 January 1883 and asked to look at some watch movements. He bought one for 2s and left. While he was browsing however, the jeweller was busy with another customer who he was ‘showing a parcel of jewellery and other things’. He soon realised after the engineer had left that he was missing a number of things from his counter. Locking up, he chased after Wyatt, caught him and took him back to the shop and called for the police.

At 1.30 PC Foc (55 City) arrived and Mr Samuels handed him a number of things that Wyatt had admitted having in his possession. It was quite a haul:

‘Six gold weddings rings,  which had been stolen from a  tray of eight, a silver watch, and two sets of watch movements’ were surrendered.

When he got him back to the police station PC Fox searched him and found another four watch movements, all later identified as belonging to the Houndsditch jeweller. But this was not the extent of Wyatt’s light-fingered activity.

When detective Robert Leeman searched Wyatt’s rooms he found: ‘a large quantity of miscellaneous property, consisting of gold and silver watches, watch cases, watch movements, and earrings’.

Not surprisingly this haul landed Wyatt in court before the alderman magistrate at Guildhall Police Court. There he was asked to explain himself. He provoked considerable laughter in court when he admitted taking the goods but stated that the prosecutor had ‘sold him £90 of worthless goods, and he was only serving him as he had been served’. The magistrate remanded him in custody while he decided what to do with him.

This week I am going to attempt an experiment in my methodology. I have selected the year 1883 because its calendar corresponds with our own and so I should be able to track a week’s reportage of the Police Courts just as a contemporary reader would have done. So let’s see if Mr Wyatt turns up again as he is not in the Old Bailey that month.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, January 28, 1883]

You can use this site to search for specific crimes or use the Themes link in the menu on the left to look for areas or topics that interest you. If you are interested in a particular court (such as Bow Street or Marylebone) you can also limit your search to one court in particular. Please feel free to comment on anything you read and if something in particular interests you then please get in touch. You can email me at drew.gray@northampton.ac.uk

‘Half a loaf better than none’: a little local difficulty at Thames

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Jewish immigrants on Petticoat lane, by George Eastman House

The newspaper reports of the late Victorian police courts offer us a window into a past society. They throw up all sorts of things that can seem strange, or familiar to the modern reader. London is revealed as a busy and bustling city with all sorts of opportunities for conflict between its denizens. We get an idea of how people lived, where they worked, and how they moved around. We can also see that the capital was, as it is today, one of the world’s most multicultural and vibrant cities.

The East End of London had a large and well established Jewish community. Many of London’s Jews were fairly recent arrivals; coming over during the late 1870s and 1880s to escape persecution in eastern central Europe. Jews living in the Russian Pale (modern day Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland and some parts of Latvia and Russia) were oppressed by laws which prescribed where they could live, how and when they could work, and that forced them to serve in the armies of Tsarist Russia.

Life was extremely hard in the Pale of Settlement and communities were subject to periodic violent outbreaks of anti-semitic pogroms. Not surprisingly tens of thousands chose to leave their homes and travel across Europe in a search for a better and safer life. Many settled in London, particularly around Whitechapel where they established a community, while others tried to find the money to pay their passage to the ‘golden medina’, the United States of America.

London was no paradise however. Prejudice here was rife and periodic instances of anti-semitism continued to plague the Jewish community. But it was not as lethal as the oppression they had suffered in the Russian Empire, nor was the poverty as grinding. Hard work and persistence meant that the Ashkenazi people of the East End set down strong routes in the capital of Empire and gradually moved out of the East to the North and West of London as their prosperity grew.

In 1897 we get a glimpse of this community and, at the same time, a contemporary English view of them and their traditions. I wouldn’t say the report is racist or ‘anti-alien’ (to use a late Victorian expression) but it does perhaps reflect a contemporary curiosity about the ‘other’ in society.

In January 1897 Joseph Moseley, a Jewish sponge maker, appeared at Thames Police Court to prosecute a summons against Evelina Cohen. The pair had met in January 1896 a year earlier and after a brief courtship Joseph had proposed marriage. He gave Evelina a valuable  diamond engagement  ring and another ‘buckle’ ring as a symbol of their friendship. They agreed to marry in March of that year.

However, something must have gone wrong or Evelina changed her mind because instead of marrying the sponge maker, she married someone else in March 1896 leaving poor Joseph high and dry, and missing two rings. This was why he took her to court.

Mr Dickenson presided at Thames in early 1897 and he was less than pleased that this case had come before him. It did no credit to either of them, he said, to be dragging each other through the courts in this way. He understood that it was the ‘custom among most people, especially ladies, to return rings when an engagement was broken off’.

‘It would be a graceful act on the part of the young lady’ he said, ‘to say “Take back the ring thou gavest,” and give the complainant [Joseph] the diamond hoop, keeping the buckle ring as a trophy of her conquest’.

Moseley was represented by a lawyer, Mr Deakin, who explained that the matter had now been settled. The magistrate was pleased to hear it: ‘half a loaf was better than no bread’ he added referring to the return of one of the rings. Deakin wasn’t convinced that the sponge maker had recovered much from the encounter. ”In this case’, he grumbled, ‘it is only a fifth of a loaf’. After all he had hoped to marry and benefit from Evelina’s dowry, which was reported to be £500 plus a property.

The whole report smacks then of a business deal reneged upon rather than a man jilted ‘at the altar’. The fact that this had to go to law would seem to reflect contemporary negative views of the Jewish community as being built around trade and money, with this being seen as a ‘bad’ thing. Joseph had missed out of a ‘good deal’  and was now trying to get his investment back and I suspect many middle-class English readers reading this had some of their prejudices affirmed by the whole episode.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, January 16, 1897]

Seven immigrant workers are caught gambling for their supper

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Seven men were sat around a table in house in Whitechapel at 10.30 at night, playing at cards when there was a loud knock at the door. The knock was followed by the cry of ‘Police, open up!’ and the arrival of Inspector Frederick Abberline and H Division’s finest.

Abberline was acting on a tip off that the house was being used as an illegal gambling den, which sounds quite exotic but was actually very far from that. The seven men were poor ‘jobbing tailors’. All were Polish Jews, recently arrived from the Russian Pale, escaping from economic misery and religious persecution. They had come to the East End (as so many of their fellow congregationalists had, before and since) because there was an established Ashkenazi community there where they could find work, kosher food and others that spoke their language. Many dreamed of making the longer journey to the ‘golden medina’, the promised land of America, land of the free.

They worked very long hours, often in cramped conditions for little pay. The ‘sweating system’ of small workshops was endemic in Whitechapel and Spitalfields and drew the attention of Parliament and campaigners like Annie Besant. On this occasion however, they had drawn a different sort of attention and it had brought the police to the house that Harris Straus owned in New Castle Street.

The men were arrested and brought before the Police Magistrate at Worship Street on the following Monday morning. Straus (a 36 year-old tailor) was charged with keeping a gaming house’ and the others, with being found there, ‘contrary to the Act’.

None of the men spoke English and so an interpreter (Mr Carameli) was called to translate proceedings. The lack of English amongst the Jewish community was something which frustrated the local police during the Ripper investigation, and a few officers were eventually trained to speak Yiddish. The seven men were named as Barnett Coplin (28), Morris Green (18), Louis Gasoniviter (19), Morris Friedman (25), Abraham Lewis (28), Simon Nathan (19) and Hyman Lawer (19).

Nearly all of them lived at the house and they insisted they were only playing cards to pay for their supper.

The police case was presented in court by superintendent T. Arnold. Arnold explained that men Abberline and his men had gained entry they had found the men sat around a table in a back room. ‘Money and cards were on the table’, and in a drawer they found yet more cards and ‘about the room more cards’. This was not then, simply a case of some friends meeting at home to pass the time with a harmless game, he argued, this was organised gambling.

Arnold said the police had received an anonymous letter informing them of the gambling den, which Abberline had acted upon. He understood the game they were playing was called ‘sixty-six’ (or schnapsen, a game of German origin). If you want to know how to play it (not for money of course!) then the rules are here.

Straus admitted allowing players to gamble in his house and further admitted to charging them to do so. He didn’t ask for much, ‘a penny or a halfpenny from each of them to use the room’, was all, but that was illegal just the same. A witness appeared for the police, named Albert Stern, and he said he had played  other games such as Faro and Bank there, for upwards of four hours for ‘stakes of 1d up to 4d‘.

Mr Busby, the magistrate, said it was clear all were guilty as charged and Straus would be fined £5 for running the house. He accepted that most of the others lived there and were only playing for small stakes, so would be lenient. He fined them 20s each. To put this in some sort of context this meant that the arrest had cost each man about £25 in today’s money, and their host 10 times that amount. For the police it was a victory in the ongoing war against illegal gambling but I hope that Abberline and his team were just as assiduous in busting employers that forced their staff to work in sweated industry for long hours at substance pay; sadly I doubt it.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, July 08, 1879]

‘Disagreeable’ but not quite mad enough to be locked up: a violent husband at Marlborough Street

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Joseph Jesnoski was one of thousands of Polish immigrants living in  London in the 1800s. The fact that Joseph seemed to speak good English (or at least to understand) it suggests he was part of the well-established Jewish community that existed well before the huge waves of immigration that followed after 1880. Tens of thousands of Ashkenazi Jews fled the Russian Empire during the nineteenth century to escape persecution and forcible conscription in the Tsar’s army.

The Ashkenazim were restricted to one part of Russia known as the Pale of Settlement, which covers the modern countries of Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland, and Ukraine. Many Jews left their villages as refugees and economic migrants hoping to make a better life in England and the USA. A quick scan of the genealogy site Ancestry reveals Jesnoskis serving in the Union army during the American Civil War and living in Montana in the 1870s; so at least some of Joseph’s extended family traveled a very long way from the Shtetlekh of Eastern Europe.

For Joseph however, life in London was hard, and even harder for his poor wife. Jesnoski was, like so many of his fellow migrants, a boot maker by trade. In the nineteenth century cobblers and shoemakers had a fearsome reputation for independence, radical politics and – less positively – domestic violence. Anna Clark’s study of working-class relationship revealed the commonality of spousal violence that formed part of the ‘struggle for the breeches’ in the long nineteenth century.

The Police Courts of London (and elsewhere) were dealing with accusations of wife beating and abuse on a daily basis, but in many cases the magistrates were unable to do much more than broker settlements between man and wife, given that the consequences of sending an abusive husband to prison were often catastrophic for the family economy. Many wives were seemingly prepared to accept a considerable amount of ‘unacceptable’ behavior before they resorted to the law and even then most were prepared to forgive their partner’s often drink inspired abuse.

Some on the other hand were looking for a working-class version of divorce. Divorce was beyond almost every woman in Victoria society; it was hard to prove grounds against your spouse and prohibitively expensive. The best a working-class wife could hope for was a separation ordered by a magistrate with a maintenance order to help keep herself and her children housed and fed. The alternative if one had no support network, was often the workhouse, and no one went inside those walls if they could help it.

So Mrs Jesnoski took her husband to Marlborough Street Police Court in April 1862 because she probably ‘wanted rid of the burden of him’, as Mr Selfe (the magistrate) put it. She charged him with ‘threatening to cut her throat and his own afterwards’, and added that he had ‘beaten her and her children black and blue , and struck her in the eye’.

She also handed the justice a certificate from Thomas Young, a government medical officer at the Polish Emigration Society (which looked after the interests of Poles in Britain and the US). This stated that her husband had been admitted to the St Giles Workhouse as a lunatic who was ‘dangerous to others’ but that he had been discharged because the workhouse master there did not believe he ‘was sufficiently insane’ to be detained.

Mr Selfe was not sure that his police court was the proper place for him either, but he was loath to lock him up unnecessarily. A police constable testified that Jesnoski had often been seen behaving strangely – ‘dancing and kicking about’ in the early hours of the morning – and added that the other tenants in his lodging house were scared of him. Mrs Jesnoski told the magistrate that her husband had not worked for months and was ‘spiteful and dangerous’.

Still the magistrate was unconvinced or unsympathetic. ‘It is a very strong measure to deprive a man of his liberty because he is a little queer’, he said, and instead ordered him to be bailed for £10 (a large amount in 1862) but warned him that any repetition of his violent behavior would not be tolerated. If he ‘behaves unruly again’ Selfe concluded, ‘he will go to prison for three months’.

Given the high levels of spousal abuse in Victorian society and the number of homicides that occurred in domestic settings I hope that Mrs Jesnoski was not let down by the inaction of the Marlborough Street court and the reticence of Mr Selfe to apply the law.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, April 28, 1861]