‘The weakness of the dangerous classes’: attitudes to poverty are at the heart of my teaching this term

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This week I will begin teaching my third year module at Northampton which focuses on the Whitechapel Murders and East End society in the 1880s. 

It is going to be different this year: with a full national lockdown in place all of my classes will be remote, online. The way we do this at Northampton University is to host online teaching sessions – live, not recorded (although there is always plenty of pre-recorded content for students to access before and after sessions). So I will be in my ‘virtual classroom’ with my normal seminar group, who will all be tuning in from their homes.

It isn’t ideal, it makes discussion harder, but not impossible. There are the inevitable tech problems, and issues with WiFI and simply having a suitable space to study. I’m lucky, I have a home office and a decent chair and desk; some of my students are using the kitchen table in their parental home, with parents trying to use the internet to work, while their younger siblings are home schooled. 

But this is a national (an international) emergency and needs must. As Tony Soprano would say, ‘what a ya gonna do?’ 

This week we will start by looking at the East End through the maps of Charles Booth, who mapped poverty in the capital in the 1880s and 1890s. He famously colour coded individual streets according to their levels of wealth or deprivation: black or dark blue for the ‘worst’ parts, red or yellow for the ‘best’. Much of Whitechapel, Stepney, and Bethnal Green was black or blue. There were red streets – signifying commercial or middle class relative affluence – but these tended to be along the main thoroughfares (like Commercial Road/Street or the High Street). The very heart of the ‘abyss’ (as the American writer jack London later termed it) was very dark and here poverty was endemic. 

Charles Booth undertook his investigation into poverty as a result of what he thought were spurious claims, by the socialist leader Henry Hyndman, that poverty was rife in the capital. In fact he discovered the situation was much worse than even Hyndman had alleged. 

Alongside Booth’s maps my students will study contemporary accounts of poverty and the very many views of the ‘the poor’ expressed by (mostly) middle-class ‘well-to-do’ (to borrow a phrase from Booth) commentators. 

These are revealing because they show us what some middle class people felt about the inhabitants of the East End; it reveals their prejudices, their fears, and how these all came together to shape their thoughts about what could be done about poverty. For example, one report – in the Pall Mall Gazette from January 1888 – of an interview with the Rev. G. S. Reaney is illuminating. Reaney had run the Stepney Congregational Church in the East End for six years by 1888, and was leaving the church for pastures new.  He was both ‘hopeful and hopeless’ about the people he was leaving behind. 

One section of the populace, the native Londoners of the East End, he described as ‘a hopeless class’. He had no idea how they managed to survive the poverty that engulfed them. ‘I imagine they eat a great deal less than we think necessary’, he told the Gazette as he continued packing up his effects to move. ‘I think they occupy very little house room’ and ‘by constant flitting [i.e. moving at night when they were in rent arrears] they escape a good deal of rent’. 

‘They have so little character’, he continued, and were ‘the most drunken and dissolute class of people’. In fact, ‘were it not for their physical and mental feebleness they would form a dangerous class’. 

This gets to the heart of one of the themes I explore with my students: the threat posed by endemic poverty in the late nineteenth century, as seen by the wealthy and elite. Should a state intervene to help these people out of poverty, help give them the ability to support themselves, educate them, pay they better? Or was it hopeless to even try? Would the provision of state support undermine their independence, and help create a dependence culture? 

These continue to be questions we ask today. 

The Rev. Reaney – a Christian man we must assume – suggested that while the ‘hopeless class’ of the East End was possibly beyond saving we might take away their children (following the example of the ‘splendid’ Dr Barnado) and provide them with an education, preferably a long way from the slums of the East End.

Reaney, not surprisingly, had more faith in religion to change society than in politics. Socialism was on everyone’s lips in the 1880s, Marx was in London and the waves of central European immigrants that arrived in the East End brought radical political beliefs with them. These are also things we discuss in the module. 

Perhaps this year, with everyone suffering in so many ways under this pandemic, the struggles of ordinary people in the 1880s will chime more loudly than they normally would. Hopefully, our discussions and debates, albeit fractured by the difficulties of the online platform, will be even more focused and interesting than they usually are. 

[from The Pall Mall Gazette, Wednesday 4 January 1888]

No happy ending for buttons in this East End pantomime

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Throughout the history of crime the roles of ‘fences’ (receivers of stolen goods), pawnbrokers, and those involved in the second hand clothes market, are frequently cited by commentators as problematic. Put simply, if thieves didn’t have somewhere to easily dispose of their ill-gotten goods then they might not steal in the first place. 

This was certainly the underlying theme in the Morning Post’s report of a theft hearing at the Worship Police court in late December 1870. Elizabeth Brown (aged 22), Charlotte Quigly (20) and her 45 year-old mother, also called Charlotte, were presented before Mr Bushby accused of stealing and selling a quantity of buttons from the younger Quigly’s employer. 

Mr Williamson, a wholesale manufacturer of buttons based in Hackney, East London, had noticed that his stock was going missing. Having been unable to pinpoint where the theft was occurring he called in the police. Detective Chapman of W Division (which was the Clapham force) soon discovered that a large quantity (‘several gross’) of buttons had been sold to traders in Bethnal Green, Shoreditch, Hoxton, and Hackney by younger Charlotte Quigly’s sister. This gave him a clear link to the source of the depredations. 

He pursued this line of inquiry and found out that Charlotte and Elizabeth Brown had both sold parcels of buttons to shopkeepers in Bethnal Green Road. Armed with this evidence he arrested and questioned the two young women. Brown had left Williamson’s employment a year earlier and quickly admitted her crime; she had been driven to it by poverty she declared, and threw herself on the mercy of the detective.

With the two younger women in custody Chapman continued his investigation and soon arrested Mrs Quigly, charging her with selling some of the buttons in the full knowledge that they were stolen. Why her younger daughter was not arrested is not clear, but perhaps she was considered to have been acting on instructions from her mother or older sister, or there was simply insufficient evidence against her. Whatever the truth the three women appeared in the dock at Worship on the 29th having been remanded for the theft a few days earlier. 

The remand gave time for Willaimson’s solicitor to bring a motely collection of shopkeepers to court as witnesses. Isaac Levine (of 17 Bethnal Green Road) and tailor, and  Mr Hyams of Brushfield Street, Hoxton (a tailors’ trimming seller), plus another half-dozen traders were called to confirm the detective’s evidence. 

Examined by Mr Beard (the prosecuting solicitor) they said they had been offered the goods as ‘job lots’, as damaged or faulty, or some other story to explain why the buttons were available so cheaply. Few of them had asked any questions, or sent the women away, let alone pass on any suspicions to the police. Moreover, none of them wrote down their purchases in their account books. Clearly they must have known that the stock they were buying was ‘dodgy’ at best, but chose to do nothing and profit from it regardless. 

Mr Bushby was suitably appalled at their behavior, and said so.

‘[T]he system they pursued was  eminently calculated to foster crime like this’ he thundered, and ‘he fervently hoped the time would come when they and such as they would be looked after by the police’.  

‘The were as much answerable for the crime of the prisoners as the prisoners themselves’, he added, and told them he was astounded that they had the nerve to come to his court and swear that they had believed these goods were merely ‘damaged’ and not – as they clearly were – stolen.   In future they had better start recording all purchases in their logs books or they would find themselves in the dock as receivers. 

Having finished his tirade he granted the police a further remand to continue to gather evidence against the three defendants.  Sadly, this is where their trail goes cold. None of them appear in the papers after that and I can see no jury trial either. I suspect they were either summarily punished or that Charlotte Quigly (the younger) was simply dismissed from Mr Williamson’s employ. 

Here then was one Christmas season story involving buttons that didn’t have a happy ending. 

[from The Morning Post Thursday 29 December 1870]

‘Let finish the bastard!’ : Drunkenness and violence in the Victorian capital

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Seven Dials, a Victorian slum 

It was drunkenness and its consequences that filled the first column of reports on the Police Courts in the Morning Post on 6 August 1863. Drunk and disorderly behaviour, especially if it involved any form of violence, was regularly punished by the city’s magistrates and featured often in newspaper reports. This morning the reports, while they had a common theme, involved a range of defendants and circumstances.

The most serious (at least in the eyes of the law at the time) was heard at Bow Street before Mr Henry. Two ‘young rough fellows’ – Reardon and Sullivan – were accused of being drunk and assaulting a police officer. The officer involved was a Inspector Brimmacombe of F Division Metropolitan Police. Brimmacombe was on duty in Seven Dials, one of the capital’s poorer and more criminal districts.

What he was doing there is unclear but he wasn’t operating under cover because when he came upon Reardon and Sullivan and a half dozen other men who were drunk and disturbing the peace, he instructed them to go home quietly.

They laughed in his face, refused to comply, and attacked him. Sullivan swung at the officer but missed, striking a nearby carthorse on the nose instead. Sullivan now tried to grab at the policeman and spat full in his face, cursing him. Brimmacombe seized the man’s collar and made to drag him way but he called for his mate’s to help him ‘throw him down’.

The ‘mob’ now piled in on the policeman, joined he said by many more so that he was kicked on the ground as he was surrounded by upwards of 20 assailants. Inspedctor Brimmacombe was kicked, ‘beaten, and dragged about, his coat and cape covered with mud, and so torn as to be unserviceable’. The assault continued for about 10 minutes and Reardon then drew a knife and muttered darkly:

‘Let’s finish the __________’.

Just then the Westminster Police court prison van drove by, on its may to the House of Detention. The sergeant driving the van saw what was happening and rushed to help the inspector. The crowd of roughs scattered but Sullivan was arrested. Reardon was identified and picked up in a pub later that evening. In court both prisoners apologized but it didn’t save them from punishment: Mr Henry ordered them to pay a hefty £3 fine each or go to gaol for a month.

The next two cases are from the City of London, which had two courts – at Mansion House (where the Lord Mayor presided, unless he was unavailable) and Guildhall, which was staffed by aldermen in rotation.

Ellen Murray was charged before Alderman Gabriel with being drunk and causing criminal damage. She was prosecuted by a Mr Hough, who kept a licensed public house on Giltspur Street. Hough said that Ellen had come to his house and had been drinking until he decided she’d had enough. Ellen was becoming rowdy and landlords were mindful of running orderly establishments for dear of losing custom and their licenses.  When she wouldn’t calm down he threw her out.

The young woman was drunk and enraged and put her fist through his window, breaking what he described as a ‘valuable pane of embossed glass’. He called for a policeman and had her arrested. In court he told the alderman magistrate that he was particularly upset because he had helped Ellen in the recent past. She was poor and he had approached the West London Union on her behalf to secure her some outdoor relief, meaning she could stay out of the workhouse. He thought it very ungrateful of her to repay him in this way.

Ellen apologized but again; it wasn’t enough to save her. She had no money to pay a fine or the damages she owed for the window so she was sent to prison for a fortnight.

Our final case concerned a young man at the other end of the social scale. James Wilson was the name he gave at Mansion House but that may not have been his real name. He was a – he said – a solicitor and had a ‘genteel’ appearance as he stood in the dock before the Lord Mayor.

He too was charged with being drunk and, in addition, with ‘assaulting several females’. This was his second appearance that week but when he was set in the dock on Tuesday he’d been too drunk to stand and so was remanded overnight. Wilson had been seen by a 15 year-old boy in Bucklersbury (a street in the city quite close to the Bank of England – pictured right c.1845 ) with a young girl. It was reported that he had assaulted her in ‘an indecent manner’ and the witness had gone off to fetch a policeman.

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Meanwhile Wilson ran off and groped a passing woman before boarding a moving omnibus where he assaulted another female passenger. The bus was stopped and Wilson removed and warned by a constable. Taking no notice – presumably because he was so drunk – Wilson ran up to another women in the street and threw his arms around her neck.

That was his lot and the police took him into custody. On Wednesday, sober and repentant, he apologized although he said he was so drunk he could hardly remember anything from that night. He begged not to be sent to gaol, as ‘it would ruin him mentally, he was sure’. The Lord Mayor said drunkness was no excuse and he’d have to be punished in some way.

Wilson said he was ‘a poor man’, living off his friends with very little funds of his own but he’d happily make a donation to the poor box if His Lordship requested him to. The Lord Mayor fined him 40but warned him that a failure to pay would earn him a month in prison. Hopefully for him – if not for his victims – his friends rallied round and paid his fine.

So, three cases of drunken behaviour, three different sorts of victim and quite different circumstances, but all ‘rewarded’ in much the same way. Violence, often fuelled by drink, was endemic in the Victorian capital and must have proved depressingly repetitive to the  men who served as Police Court magistrates.

[from Morning PostThursday, 6 August 1863]

The artist’s model who left no trace

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An incident in the Revolutionary War of America (The Fraser Highlanders at Stone Ferry) – Robert Ronald McIan (1854)

Robert McIan probably thought he was doing someone else and himself a good turn when he ‘rescued’ John Coster from his perilous condition on the streets of central London. It was the dawn of the Victorian age – 1837 – and the comedian and artist was strolling near his home on Newman Street, off Oxford Street, he saw a man in ‘a wretched state of constitution and starvation’. He decided to take him home and feed him.

McIan would later admit that his motivation was more than just that of a good Samaritan; he recognized that Coster’s ‘picturesque appearance’ made him a perfect subject for artist study. Coster was an Indian from the Bengal, who had been born a ‘Mohametan’ but had converted to Catholicism. He spoke English, but with a heavy Indian accent.

He was treated with some compassion by McIan who made him a servant in his household but he was also a ‘curiosity’ and was shown to the artist’s friends, several of whom painted him themselves. Coster then was drawn and painted by no lesser figures than ‘Sir David Wilkie, Landseer, Etty, Ewins, and most of the celebrated painters of the day’.

In McIan’s head he had done the man a great service so it must have come a terrible betrayal of trust to discover that the man he had saved from the streets had robbed him. Yet in March 1840 that is exactly what he alleged. A pistol had disappeared from his painting room and, since Coster (who had also vanished) was familiar with the room and its contents, and the door had been forced open, suspicion fell on him.

A description of the missing servant and the gun – a ‘Highland pistol’ – were circulated and several months later both were recovered. The pistol had been pawned on Tottenham Court Road and it was easy to trace that back to Coster given his distinctive appearance as an Asian in London.

At his appearance at Hatton Garden Police court Coster was also accused of a second robbery. Since he’d quit McIan’s service he had been living in lodgings St Giles and his landlady deposed that he had plundered her rooms before running out on her as well. Coster admitted stealing the pistol but vehemently denied any knowledge of the other charge.

Mr Combe, the sitting magistrate that day, told Coster he would be remanded in custody while further enquiries were made and other witnesses sought. But he informed the prisoner that if he was convicted all of his luxurious long black hair would be shaved off.

‘No!’, Coster exclaimed from the dock, ‘da neber sall; me die first before da sal cut de hair off’.

Robert Ronald McIan (1802-1856) was a popular artist in the Victorian period known for his romanticized depictions of Highland life and history. He had trod the boards in the theatre in his youth (which may explain why he still described himself as a ‘comedian’ in 1840). He is most well known for his “Battle of Culloden’ and ‘A Highland Feud’ (both 1843) and in the same year he exhibited ‘An Encounter in Upper Canada’ which depicted the heroic fight between Clan Fraser and a larger French and American Indian force. The Highland pistol that Coster probably featured in some of these paintings and, who knows, maybe his former servant did as well in some way.

Edwin Landseer (1802-1873) also had his Scottish connections – his ‘Monarch of the Glen’ (1851) is one of the most famous images of nineteenth century art. In 1858 he was commissioned to create the four bronze lions that guard Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square.

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Sir David Wilkie (1785-1841) was, famous for his historical paintings. Like McIan he was a Scot, born in Fife the son of a clergyman. Soon after the court case that involved Coster and his acquaintance McIan he travelled abroad, painting the portrait of the Sultan in Constantinople and various others on including Mehemet Ali in Alexandria, Egypt. He fell ill at Malta and died on the return voyage.

As for John Coster I’m afraid history doesn’t record what happened to him. There’s no record of a jury trial for this theft of an artist’s pistol or the robbery of a St Giles lodging house. Once again, the mysterious Indian with the ‘long black hair and dark piercing eyes’ vanished.

Above right: ‘General Sir David Baird Discovering the Body of Sultan Tippoo Sahib after having Captured Seringapatam, on the 4th May, 1799,’ by Sir David Wilkie (1839) – National Gallery of Scotland

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday 10 March 1840]

‘A very good idea’? Charity and race in mid nineteenth-century London

Some Inmates of the Strangers' Home for Asiatics, Africans, and South Sea Islanders

Anyone familiar with print culture in the nineteenth century will probably be able to testify to its underlying racism expressed most often in statements of white (or rather British) racial superiority and in ‘ethnological studies’ of the many ‘others’ found in British society or in the vast reaches of the Empire.

This is most evident in the colourful descriptions of immigrant Jews in East London and in reports of the port communities that stretched the length of the Thames and its docks.

The racism may be familiar but it still has the capacity to shock. Take for example an article from the Daily News published in May of 1872 that was headlined ‘“Darkies” from the Deep’. What followed was a fairly sympathetic report of a visit to the Strangers Home for Asiatics,  Africans, and South Sea Islanders, which was then situated in the West India Dock Road.

The home was established in the 1850s; set up by charitable donations to create a haven for destitute Chinese and Indian (Lascar) seamen who, abandoned by ship-owners, struggled to find work in the capital. According to the author they fell prey to ‘crimps, mostly of their own colour’, who fleeced them of their meagre wages and left them nothing with which to support themselves.

‘Their bodies were found in out-of-the-way corners, under railway arches, or in common yards, whither the poor creatures, enfeebled by hunger, and their marrow chilled in their bones by the rigours of our climate, had crept to die’.

In three years (1854-56) hundreds had died and many more had been admitted to hospital. A huge donation by the Maharajah Duleep Singh was followed by donations from the Queen, Indian merchants and others, before Prince Albert laid the foundation stone for the Home, which opened its doors in 1857.

When the Daily News’ reporter visited in May 1872 he described it thus:

‘A group of Lascars, with their bushy looks and swarthy skins, contrasts strangely with the solitary Chinaman who leans thoughtfully against the wall, his pigtail over his shoulder; a Malay with yellow eyes, long straight hair, and strong jaw, is conversing pantomimically with a tall, straight, hawk-eyed New Zealander, whose cheeks and forehead are fantastically tattooed. There are full-blood negroes from Gambia, and half-caste Portuguese from Goa, natives of the Friendly Islands, and lissome Cingalese [Singhalese], and representatives of perhaps a dozen other races neither easy to be distinguished at a glance, nor capable of being understood by any Englishman not endowed with the gift of tongues’.

The reporter noted the sounds and smells of the Home, the peculiar foods (’curry and rice’) that mingled with more familiar stuffs (like bread and butter and tea). He commented on the arrangements for bathing (‘the Oriental takes his bath every morning as religiously […] as he says his prayers’). And the article ended by noting that the Home had a good stock of Bibles and New testaments ‘in a variety of Eastern languages’.

A newspaper report from June 1857 described the opening of the Home (on 3 June) and noted that it had space for 230 inmates plus a superintendent and various officers and staff. The opening was formally marked by the singing of the psalm 67 (‘May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face shine on us— so that your ways may be known on earth, your salvation among all nations’), and a scripture reading.

This underpinned the Christian missionary ethos of the charity.

Almost all Victorian charity which operated to help the poor, the homeless, or the friendless, did so under the aegis of the church (in one form or another). There was a space for Muslim prayer in the back yard of the Home but while the writer of the 1872 article noted this, it seems clear that the hopes of those involved in this ’mission’ was that here were ready coverts to Christian religion and (perhaps even) Western ‘civilization’.

In the 1850s and throughout the century London was home to very many people of all races and creeds. It is likely that in the eighteenth century there had been many more, and that while they were denied the limited support available to the indigenous poor, they were not subject to the racism that developed from the end of the 1700s. With the expanse of Empire in the Victorian period that racism became more entrenched as white superiority was increasingly held up as a justification for subjugating ‘inferior’ races.

I am reminded of what Mahatma Gandhi supposedly replied when asked what he thought of Western civilization?

‘I think it would be a very good idea’, he said.

[from Daily News, Wednesday 29 May, 1872; Daily News, Thursday 4 June, 1857 ]

A magistrate has the chance to make a difference to one Black life; will he take it?

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The Demerara rebellion of 1823

On 26 July 1832 there was an unusual appearance at the Marlborough Street Police court. A man named only as ‘Burgess’ (no first name, no title), was brought in for begging in Charing Cross.

Placed in the dock the magistrate (Mr Gregorie) asked him where he lived. Begging was an offence that fell under catch-all legislation, the Vagrancy Act (1824). This act, passed in the reign of George IV, is still on the books. It makes it an offence to sleep rough or to beg in the streets. It took no account of why someone would be on the streets and begging for money or food.

The original legislation was passed in the wake of the economic distress that followed the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. The period after Waterloo was a turbulent one for the British state with many people forced off the land and into urban centres where poverty was common. In addition thousands of discharged and disabled soldiers returned, many of them unable to find work.

Not for the first or last time the reaction of the ruling class to the economic distress of the majority was to pass laws that protected the wealth and privilege of the minority and, after 1829 in London, they had Peel’s ‘New Police’ force to enforce them.

But let us return to Burgess; what did have to say for himself when Mr Gregorie asked him where he lived?

Burgess replied that he had lived abroad, in Demerara, on the north coast of South America in what is now Guyana. In the 1800s Demerara was under the control of the British (although it had been a Dutch colony). In 1823 there had been  a large scale slave revolt (echoing a previous one in 1795). The revolt had the effect of bringing the plight of slaves in Demerara to the attention of the British public and the British parliament.

Although the slave revolt was not violent the reaction of the governor, John Murray, certainly was. As many as 250 slaves were killed in putting down the rebellion and more deaths followed as ringleaders were hanged. Their bodies were left in public view as a warning to others and the leader of the revolt – Jack Gladsone – was sent to St. Lucia. It is likely that it was Gladstone’s father, Quamina who was the real leader of the slave uprising and he was later to be acknowledged as such by an independent Guyanan nation.

So who was Burgess and what had he to do with all of this?

Burgess told Mr Gregorie that he was a runaway slave, who had escaped his master and come to England.  In 1823 many of the slaves that revolted reportedly believed that Britain had abolished slavery in the colony (when in reality all Britain had abolished was the trade in slaves in 1807). Britain did not abolish slavery in its colonies until 1833 (effective from 1 August 1834).

Burgess – mostly referred to throughout the report as ‘the negro’ – said his master was named ‘Porter’ and he believed he was now in London. Not surprisingly then what Burgess wanted was to be allowed to return home, to Demerara. Perhaps he believed that he would be safer there, perhaps he was simply homesick. The move towards abolition was underway and he might have believed that he would return to freedom.

Freedom was a little way off however. Since he had no money and so no means of paying his passage to south America the magistrate said he would send  a message to the Colonial Office to see what the British state could do for him. In the meantime  Burgess was locked in a cell at Marlborough Street while the representatives of the wealthy decided what to do with him, a poor enslaved beggar.

The answer came back later that day and Burgess was once again set in the dock. The Colonial Office replied that they ‘could not interfere’. Could not or would not, it mattered little. No one was about to pay Burgess’ fare home. We don’t know his age but it is likely that Demerara was his home, his place of birth. But of course his ancestors, perhaps his parents and almost certainly his grandparents, had been taken from Africa against their will and brutally shipped across the seas to work on European plantations. It mattered little whether it was a Dutch or British plantation; the experience for Burgess and thousands of others was the same.

At least now the British state had the chance to make some amends. Sadly it chose not to. The Colonial Office would not help and neither would the magistrate at Marlborough Street. Burgess had infringed the Vagrancy Act and so he was sent to prison for a month. If, Mr Gregorie told him, ‘at the expiration of that time’, he ‘wanted to get back to Demerara, he must get there as well as he could’.

The slaves in Guyana were not freed until 1 August 1838, 6 years after Burgess appeared at Marlborough Street ‘begging’ to be allowed to return home. Whether he ever made it back to enjoy his freedom is unknown.

London was home to plenty of former slaves in the 1800s most of whom never came near a police court or in any other way troubled the record keepers. They often adopted the names of their masters or had names their master had given them – European names not African names – so they don’t stand out in the records. But they were here, as they had long been here. Anyone who believes Black Britons arrived on the Windrush and found an entirely ‘white’ country (or a country that had always been White) are  mistaken or misinformed and I suggest they  watch David Olusoga’s Black and British BBC TV series (and read the accompanying book).

This particular Black life might not have mattered to the early Victorian authorities, but Black Lives and Black history should matter to all of us.

[from Morning Post, Tuesday 27 March 1832]

 

 

 

 

 

Another man who shirked his parental responsibilities and thought he’d get away with it

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The church of St Lawrence Jewry in the 1930s

William Dell was having a bad day and it was about to get worse.

In the first week of June 1869 he had been presented with a summons to attend at the Guildhall Police court. Being summonsed was one of the ways you ended up before a magistrate in nineteenth-century London, and was certainly preferable to being brought there from a cell by a policeman or gaoler, but was still unpleasant and embarrassing.

Dell’s ‘crime’ was that he was behind with his child support payments, or, as the Victorians would have termed it, he was in ‘bastardy arrears’. Having impregnated Emma Barrett but not being inclined to marry her, he had left her and her baby ‘chargeable to the parish’.

In other words, without the financial support of William Dell Emma would have been forced to exist on money raised from amongst the local ratepayers. Where possible, and when a father could be identified, the overseers of the poor much preferred to avoid this. If Dell wouldn’t marry Emma he could at least be expected to stump up the money to support her bastard. The amount was at 26a week.

Dell either thought he should pay or didn’t have the spare cash to do so, so he ignored the bastardy order that had been imposed on him and had ran up arrears of £2 5by the beginning of June (suggesting that he had paid nothing for about 18 weeks).

Hence the court summons in June.

He was stood outside the Guildhall court waiting to be called in when a woman approached him. She was Sophia Barrett, Emma’s mother. She berated William for ruining her daughter and abandoning his child and, when Dell protested that the child was not his but his brother’s, she lost her temper completely.

Sophia started to hit Dell with the only weapon she had to hand, her umbrella. He tried to fend her off and then ran away to the rear of St Lawrence Jewry church (which stands in Guildhall Yard) to escape her.

Sophia Barrett was not so easily shaken off, and went round the church the opposite way and attacked him again in Gresham Street. Here she ‘pulled his hair and struck him’ again and again until William Dell was rescued by a passing policeman. Sophia Barrett was now arrested and both parties appeared in the Guildhall Police court together.

Sophia Barrett was charged with assault but showed no remorse. Indeed she went on the attack complaining to the alderman magistrate that Dell had neglected his obligations and left her, a poor widow,  to care for both her daughter and the child. Dell, she said, had ‘never contributed one farthing to the support of the child and had declared that he would not’.  She felt entirely justified in letting the man know exactly how she felt.

Alderman Finnis seemed to largely agree with her. He sympathized with her and dismissed the assault charge on the grounds of provocation. As she stepped down from the dock, her reputation enhanced rather than tarnished, Dell took her place.

Alderman Finnis asked him why he had failed to obey the order of the court to support Emma Barrett and her baby? Dell wriggled in the dock and claimed he had no money to do so. The money ‘he earned’, he stated, ‘was barely sufficient for himself’. It was a lame excuse even if for many in Victorian London barely subsistence wages were the norm. He had ‘had is way’ with Emma and was obliged to face the consequences.

In the alderman’s eyes if he allowed Dell to avoid his responsibilities he would be exposing the good ratepayers of the City to a flood of claims for child support. So he glared down at the man in the dock and told him that he could either pay his arrears now or go to prison with hard labour for two months. Dell refused to pay and so was led away to start his sentence.

It is worth noting that his incarceration did not cancel his debt, on his release he would still be expected to support Emma’s child unless she married and found someone else to pay for its upbringing. So Dell faced an uncertain future if he continued to refuse to pay. Once out of prison he was still liable and unless he found the money he might well end up being sent back to gaol. Moreover, having been inside once his chances of finding regular well-paid work were diminished. If he thought he was merely scraping by beforehand then his outlook after prison was hardly improved.

But at the same time the situation was little better for Emma; any hope that she might have had that Dell would recognize that his best interests lay in marrying her were probably killed stone dead by this prosecution and the animosity that came with it. She would also find it hard to persuade a suitor to take on another man’s bastard. So she would continue to live with her mother in a household with no male breadwinner, and few prospects of avoiding an impoverished existence.

At the heart of this was a child. A child whose father didn’t want her and who the ‘state’ (which in the 1860s meant the parish) didn’t want to have to pay for. Today Emma would be better supported, although our own society still struggles to make fathers take responsibility for the children they beget on women prefer not to marry or support.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday 6 June 1869]

A murder confession, 13 years too late

The "Rookery", St. Giles's, 1850

Nineteenth-century St Giles

The reporter from Reynold’s newspaper, or his editor, captioned George Skinner’s behavior as ‘EXTRAORDINARY CONDUCT’.

Skinner, a 39 year-old resident of south London was brought before Mr Chance at Lambeth Police court charged with being drunk. It wasn’t his first appearance in court and had only recently been released from prison where he’d served a month inside for being an ‘habitual drunkard’.

On this occasion Skinner had presented himself at the desk of Gypsy Hill Police station, telling the sergeant that he was responsible for a murder that took place 13 years earlier. The station inspector sat him down and took a statement from him. He confessed to killing a ‘woman named Jackson’ in 1863 but when he was handed the statement to sign, he refused.

He was ‘very drunk’ when he spoke to the police and subsequent enquiries had ‘ascertained that the prisoner had before given himself up at Bow Street in a similar manner’.

But had a woman named Jackson been murdered in 1863, the magistrate asked? Indeed they had.

Sergeant 4ER gave evidence that a woman named Jackson had been murdered in George Street, Bloomsbury in 1863 and that in 1870 George Skinner had confessed to the crime. The police had investigated his confession however, and found it to be false.

Whoever had killed Ms Jackson the police didn’t believe it was Skinner, even if he seemed to. Mr Chance turned to the prisoner and told him that he had acted in a ‘most disgraceful manner’, presumably by being drunk and wasting police time. What had he to say for himself?

‘Commit me for trial’, Skinner replied. ‘I don’t care what you do. Let it go for trial’.

‘Let what go for trial?’, the magistrate demanded to know.

‘Send me for trial as an habitual drunkard. You know you can do it if you like. That’s the law’.

Mr Chance may well have had considerable discretionary power in 1880 but he could hardly send someone before a jury for being a drunk, however annoying the man’s behaviour was. Instead he was able to send him back to prison and/or fine him and this is what he did. Skinner, described as an able if ‘lazy’ shoemaker, was fined 20s  and told if he did  not pay up he would go to prison for 14 days at hard labour.

‘Only fourteen days for confession of a murder?’ Skinner quipped, ‘All right’.

In April 1863 a carpenter was charged at Bow Street with the murder of an Emma Jackson in St Giles. The court was crowded as the locals clearly felt this was the killer. They were mistaken however, as the police quickly established that the man confessing to murder, John Richards (a 31 year old carpenter) was, like Skinner, a drunken fantasist. He had confessed whilst drunk but later retracted and the magistrate, a Mr Broddick, warned him but let him go without further penalty.

The murder of Emma Jackson excited ‘intense interest in the miserable neighbourhood in which it took place’, Reynold’s  had reported at the time. As a result the tavern where the inquest was held was as crowded at the police court where Richards was examined a few days later. St Giles was a notoriously poor area (below), on a par with Whitechapel and Southwark in the 1800s, and a byword for degradation and lawlessness.

A_Scene_in_St_Giles's_-_the_rookery,_c._1850

Emma was murdered in a brothel, although it was also described as a lodging house; in some respects it was hard to discern much difference between the two. Jackson had arrived there with a client (a man wearing a cap was all the description the landlady could manage) and asked for a room for two hours.

It was a very brutal murder, there was blood everywhere, but no sign of the killer. Perhaps it was intensity of this murder and the lack of a suspect that prompted some disturbed individuals to confess to it, just as several people confessed to being the Whitechapel murderer in 1888.  That they were drunk when they did so might also indicate that they ware suffering from a form of mental illness, understood today but not in the 1800s.

Skinner had confessed to a murder in 1863 in Bloomsbury, Jackson was killed in St Giles, which is near enough to allow it to be the same murder.

[from Reynold’s Newspaper, Sunday 7 March 1880; Daily NewsThursday 23 April, 1863; Reynold’s Newspaper, Sunday 19 April 1863 ]

‘What would become of the little children?’: charity and kindness make a rare appearance in a Police Court

John Tenniel The Nemesis of Neglect

Tomorrow is the last day of February meaning that (as we do every four years) we get a 29thday of this month. Did you know that 1888 was a leap year? Making a very tenuous link today is also the artist John Tenniel’s birthday. Had he lived he would be 200 years old today.

On 29 September 1888 the magazine Punch published a cartoon by Tenniel alongside an article on slum living in the East End of London. Tenniel’s iconic image of the Nemesis of Neglect (above), was published at the height of the Jack the Ripper murders, while London reeled from the terror created by a serial killer the police seemed unable to catch.

Tenniel’s drawing and the text that accompanied it suggested that the murderer was a product of the degraded environment in which all the victims had lived, and died. It also warned polite society of the dangers of not doing ‘something’ about the abject poverty of the East End, which risked the ‘contagion’ spreading to reach the wealthier parts of the metropolis.

In February Whitechapel was relatively quiet; the series lodged in the National Archives at Kew as the ‘Whitechapel Murders’ had not yet started, but poverty was very much in evidence.

At Westminster Police court a 76 year-old man appeared to ask Mr D’Eyncourt for a summons. He wanted to bring a charge against the one of the officers at St Luke’s workhouse in Chelsea. The elderly man moved slowly and spoke with difficulty, clearly suffering as he was from fresh injuries. He told the magistrate that he’d sustained these when he was turfed out of his bed at 6.45 in the morning by a workhouse attendant.

He was, he said in response to the justice’s questioning, 15 minutes late in getting up after the bell rang at 6.30. But he had only just got to sleep having been kept awake by others’ coughing and cramp in his legs.

‘I am so badly bruised that I have not been able to walk upright since’ he complained.

The poor man had no family or friends and had been an inmate of the workhouse for six years. Mr D’Eyncourt granted his summons and said he would not have to pay for it. He would hear what other inmates said and call the accused party before him.

At Southwark Sarah Ann Davis stood in the dock with a baby in her arms. She was accused of begging in London Road, having been arrested by a police sergeant. Sarah denied the charge, she ‘was selling some pins to get some food for her children’ she explained.

Sergeant Ireland told Mr Slade that the prisoner’s husband was currently serving a prison sentence for begging. As if that compounded the woman’s crime and demonstrated she was guilty.

The magistrate asked her why she didn’t turn to the workhouse.

‘I don’t want to break up the home while my husband is away’, she replied.

Mr Davis was, she said, and out of work carpenter who’d do any job if he could get one. 1888 was not a good year for work: this was the year that the word ‘unemployment’ entered the dictionary and for the past few years large numbers of unemployed men and women had gathered in Trafalgar Square to listen to socialists and free traders bemoan the state of the economy and the capitalist system that had seemingly failed so many.

Slade called her landlord to the stand and asked him about the family’s character. He was told that the Davis’ were good, respectable and quiet tenants, but were two weeks behind with their rent.

‘You are not going to turn them out?’ The magistrate asked.

‘On no, sir, certainly not. What would become of the little children?’ the landlord replied.

‘Very well, I will discharge her now. You can go know, Mrs. Davis. You will receive some coal and bread tickets from the Poor-box Fund, and you had better apply to the Relieving Officer for some out-door relief’.

Then he warned her against begging in future, and she left, with applause for the magistrate ringing out in court.

Individual acts of decency by men like Mr Slade and Sarah’s landlord were not enough of course to mitigate the realities of abject poverty in late nineteenth century London. On another day Sarah might have gone to gaol and had her children taken away.  Another magistrate might have told her it was the ‘house or nothing, and she would have again lost her children.

Tenniel’s image of the ghoul raising from the ‘slum’s foul air’ was so powerful because it reflected a sort of stark reality, even if it was as fantastical as his more famous illustrations for Alice in Wonderland.

[from The Standard, 28 February 1888]