‘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]

It is 75 years before D Day and a German collapses in court

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An anti-German riot in Crisp Street, London in 1915

Today is the 75thanniversary of the D Day landings in Normandy, more properly known as Operation Overlord. In June 1944 thousands of allied troops landed on beaches on the French coast and began the liberation of Europe from Nazi occupation. It was moving to listen to the interviews with veterans, most of them in their nineties with a few centurions, who remembered their feelings that day but most of all focused on those that didn’t make it.

In all the reports of the commemorations the enemy on the beaches was referred to as the Nazis, or more broadly – Fascism. British, American, Free French and Commonwealth troops were not fighting Germans they were fighting Nazis and Fascists. There has also been a lot made of alliances, which is understandable as we look to sunder one of the key alliances that has meant that Europe has been largely free of the sort of war that all those brave soldiers, sailors and airmen risked and gave their lives fighting.

The EU was never just a trading block it was always meant to be a way of resolving differences between states by diplomacy and shared common value. I find it very sad that we look likely to the ones that start the process of dismantling that union in some misguided belief that it makes us stronger, more prosperous, or more independent.

Nearly all of our history is linked to the European continent in some way or another and we have always tried to influence events there. Whether that was by claiming all of France as a part of the English crown for 100s of years, standing side-by-side with fellow Protestants in the 1600s, or funding the war (and then helping winning it) against Napoleon in the early 1800s, we have always been closely involved with European matters.

By contrast we have fought two wars against the USA (in 1776 and 1812), backed the losing side in the Civil War, and had to wait a long time to see ‘dough boys’ help us out in 1917. It took a great deal of persuasion and a catastrophic piece of misjudgment by the Japanese and Hitler to bring the US into the war in 1942, and ultimately to be our allies on 6 June 1944. The ‘special relationship’ started then not before. So our relationship with Europe is about 1000 years old or longer, that with America is just over 100.

One point I did find interesting on the news last night was that while today we are 75 years from 1944 as those troops landed on the beaches of Utah, Omaha, Sword, Gold and Juno that society was 75 years from 1869 and the height of the Victorian age. In looking through the newspapers at June 1869 then, I was interested to find a German immigrant in court for theft.

Interested but not surprised because London, like New York, had a large German population in the 1860s and throughout the century. On my father’s side of the family I have German relatives; my great aunt married a German immigrant in the capital in the 1890s.

Carl Auguste was a 50 year-old boot maker (as very many of the Germans in London were, many others being bakers). He’d being buying leather and parts of boots from Mr Felix’s shop on the Euston Road for many years but something made him decide to stop paying for them. In late May the manager noticed that some items had gone missing after a visit by Auguste so he made a point of watching him carefully the next time he came in.

He asked for some leather and while the shop assistant had his back turned he slipped a pair of Wellington boot tops (they were leather then, not rubber of course) and a piece of leather under his coat. As he was about the leave the manager pounced and searched him. Having been found in possession of the stolen items it was pretty inevitable that he would wind up in court before Mr Cooke at Clerkenwell.

The magistrate didn’t have much of a decision to make and sentenced him three months hard labour in the house of correction. This came as quite a shock to Carl, who ‘fell down in a swoon, and it was some time before he could be brought to’.

Germans living in London were part of the community and, as my ancestor’s actions shows, they were fully integrated into London society. There was no bad feeling towards immigrants until the late 1800s when fears over the influx of poor migrants from the Russian Pale surfaced and racist politicians like Arnold White whipped up popular hatred and prejudice. This led to the passing of the first immigration act in 1905 that restricted the numbers of poor eastern European immigrants that were allowed in.

The real antipathy towards German communities in England broke out during the First World War. German businesses were attacked and many people were interned as threats to the state, which in London meant they were housed in a makeshift camp at Alexandra Palace.   The second war has defined British and German relationships ever since but we shouldn’t remember that before 1914 our two peoples were much closer and we didn’t indulge in some of the prejudices that still divide us today.

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

On June 15 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 to order on Amazon here

 

Lessons from the 1840s should remind us that refugees are welcome here

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1848 was another hard year for the Irish people. The potato blight continued to bring famine to Ireland and tens of thousands left their homes and communities to make the journey to England and Scotland or America. The impact of this on a city like London is evident in the newspaper reports of poor relief in the capital and elsewhere.

The Marylebone vestry was told that between December 1846 and December 1847 huge numbers of migrants had appeared in London needing to be supported by the city’s parishes. 5,941 had arrived in St George’s-in-the East, 2,761 in the East London Union, 6,253 in Whitechapel and 7,783 in Stepney.

In central London the numbers were similarly high. There were almost 5,000 arrivals in St. Giles and 7,864 in Marylebone and a staggering 11,574 in St Martin’s-in-the-fields. In total in that one year the parochial poor law authorities spent thousands of pounds in relieving around 80,000 to 100,000 migrants from Ireland.

The vestry heard that several parishes hadn’t kept records of those they’d helped (or those records were not available) and noted that a further 30,000 Irish men and women had been relieved in Glasgow.

The Irish potato famine killed about one in eight of the population and forced two million others to leave. It was also entirely unnecessary. A combination of high grain prices, over dependence on the potato crop, and a deeply rooted and ideological resistance by the English landowners and government to help the poor led to the death of a million people, and the migration of many more.

The British Imperial state failed to deal with a humanitarian disaster on its own doorstep, allowing grain to be exported from Ireland when it could have used to feed its people, and refusing to intervene when Irish landlords turfed impoverished families off the land. The Poor Law system was rooted in deterring pauperism rather than helping those in need and the prevailing economic doctrine was laissez-faire ruled out government interference. Underlying all of this was Protestant evangelism that believed in ‘divine providence’ and underscored a deep-seated anti-Catholic prejudice in large sections of British society.

When the Marylebone vestry heard that St Martin’s-in-the-fields had relieved 11,574 Irish at the cost of £144 13s6d(or about £12,000 today, £1 for each person) ‘laughter followed’. Were they laughing at the fact that St. Martin’s ratepayers were paying out so much, or that so many had ended up there? Why were they laughing at all?

Today the news is filled with images of refugees and economic migrants huddled into overflowing boats, or carrying their belongings along dusty roads, fleeing war or disaster. We shouldn’t forget that in the 1840s this was the reality within the British Isles.

Disasters like Ireland in the 1840s or Syria in the 21st Century are not simply ‘natural’ disasters. They are often caused by, or exacerbated by the actions of governments or individuals, sometimes motivated by religion, ideology or greed, but the people most affected are invariably the poorest and least able to cope. For that reason migration is a World issue where borders are irrelevant. We should have helped the Irish in the 1840s and we should help the Syrians today.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, July 31, 1848]

‘You rascal you’: An early tale from Bow Street reveals contemporary prejudices

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This case is amongst the earliest I’ve looked at for the Metropolitan Police Courts predating in fact, both the beginning of Victoria’s reign and the creation of the Metropolitan Police. The style of the early reports from the Police Courts seem to suggest that the writers are working out how to present their stories in an entertaining way, while by 50 or 60 years later a more formulaic style of reporting has developed.

In the 1820s and 30s the audience for newspapers was smaller and less demographically brand;  papers were generally read by the well-do-do and wealthy. By the second half of Victoria’s reign the improvements that technology brought both to the production of newspapers and their distribution, along with a rise in literacy, meant that the reports of the summary courts (along will all other news) reached a much larger and better read audience.

Many of those reading the reports from the Police Courts in the 1880s (where I have spent much of this year so far) were members of the working class and they were often reading about people just like them. In the 1820s I suspect most of those reading about the goings on at Bow Street and elsewhere were reading about people  not like them, unless they were the prosecutors in these courts.

Regardless, editors still operated on the principle of mixing information with entertainment and a heavy dose of social comment. Class is clearly important, as is the maintenance of social position and ‘respect’. This case provides plenty of opportunity to smirk at the pretensions of youth, at respectability, and class, all served with a dash of prejudice on top.

Mr Merix was a ‘dashingly dressed young man’ who appeared at Bow Street to make a complaint about another young man that he said had assaulted him. For no obvious practical reason the The Morning Post’s reporter tells us that Merix was ‘a Jew’ and describes him as self-obsessed and vain: ‘no man or boy ever appeared on better terms with himself’, notes the writer. In addition Merix spoke with a mild stutter which the report delights in rendering in print.

It is pretty clear then from the start of this short court report that the editor is using this story as entertainment and an opportunity to poke fun at Merix and those like him.

The person accused of assaulting Merix was a Mr Zinc, a ‘Musician in the Orchestra at Covent Garden Theatre’. He appeared ‘voluntarily’ we are told, and this helps establish where the paper’s sympathy lies.

Merix complained that on the previous Thursday evening he had met Zinc in the street and the other man had knocked him down without the slightest provocation.

Mr Halls, again for no obvious reason, asked him who he was.

‘Why, Sir – a – I, Sir – a – the fact is, Sir – I am – a – no – thing, Sir’

he answered, provoking a laugh in the court.

‘How do you live’, asked the magistrate, ‘are you of any business or profession?’

‘I am – under the protection of – a – my father – who is a diamond merchant’, stammered the complainant.

At this point we might well remember that Mr Merix was the supposed victim in this case, yet it seems to be him who is on trial.

Next the magistrate turned his attention to the defendant who seemed perfectly relaxed and happy to be in court. He admitted knocking Merix down but said he had plenty of good reasons to do so.

He told Mr Halls that he had lodged with the prosecutor and after a quarrel, Merix had challenged him to a duel which he declined ‘with silent contempt’. Thereafter Merix never missed an opportunity, he said, to insult him. This happened regularly at Zinc’s place of work, the theatre, as he described in detail:

He (Merix) ‘sometimes placed himself in a  conspicuous situation in the Theatre and curled his nose, and directed the most offensive gestures towards him, and when he met him in the street, it was his constant practice to spit on the ground in a marked manner, and turn up his nose as he passed’.

Given Merix’s ethnic background I think it is pretty clear that Zinc is making as much of the young man’s physical appearance as he could to denigrate him. Nearly every depiction of Jews in nineteenth-century popular culture make a point of emphasising the size and curl of their noses (see Fagin in Oliver Twist as just one example).

On the night in question Zinc says he reacted to Merix’s now routine insults by threatening to pull his nose, prompting the other man to call him a ‘rascal’. This was enough for Mr Halls; the magistrate thought it outrageous that a respectable citizen like Zinc should be called a ‘rascal’ and said Merix deserved the treatment he had received.

‘Any man who called another rascal, deserved to have his nose pulled’ he declared, ‘or to be knocked down, and still more did he merit punishment who could be guilty of such a filthy, low, blackguard trick as that which was ascribed to the Complainant’.

He would not remand or even bail Zinc for the assault but if Merix wished he could indict him at the next Session of the Peace, not that he thought he ‘was likely to get any good by it’. He dismissed the case and left Merix looking ‘very crestfallen’ as a result’.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, April 15, 1826]

Mendicity and casual racism in 19th century Bloomsbury

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Just who Samuel Sharp really was, the police court report of The Morning Post was not sure. Sharp had also been heard to call himself Thomas Thompson, Frederick Augustin and even William Williams.

It is much clearer what he was however: a charlatan – at least in the eyes of the reporter and the officers of the Mendicity Society that engineered his appearance in Marlborough Street Police Court.

Sharp presented himself as Christian missionary. He was also ‘a man of colour, with the habiliments of the clerical cut’, it was reported. He earned his living by going door-to-door and obtaining sums of money for his stated aim of returning to Africa to preach the Gospel.

The Mendicity Society (or the Society for the Suppression of Mendicity) had been founded in 1818 to bring the practice of begging to an end. It was a fairly futile purpose in a city with thousands of paupers, vagrants and the destitute. One of its officers, a Mr. Horsford, saw through what he thought was Sharp’s facade and decided to set a trap for the so-called missionary.

Horsford discovered (from letters of complaint sent to the society) that as well as calling on householders and asking for money, Sharp also promenaded with a lady friend . So Horsford assumed the disguise of a ‘sporting character’ (complete with ‘cigar in mouth’) and began to watch his prey. Sharp (‘the sable defendant’ as the paper dubbed him) and ‘his white lady set out on their morning excursion’. The pair stopped at a pub and ordered food. While the ‘beefsteaks’ were being cooked Sharp left his companion (who was dripping with jewellery and sporting a ‘handsome watch at her side’) to ‘try his luck in Fitzroy Square’.

Horsford watched as the fake missionary called at one a house and left a pamphlet and then made as if he was returning to his own home just as Sharp approached. Turning to him and and asking his ‘business’, Horsford pretended that he was the homeowner.

Immediately Sharp, who was completely fooled by this ruse, presented the officer with a printed petition for funds and added, in ‘a canting tone’:

‘A penny, or as much more as he might please to give, to enable him to enter on his blessed ministration of enlightening the heathen blacks with the truth of the Gospels’.

Before the would-be man of the cloth could react Horsford and another officer seized him. There was a struggle and Sharp temporality escaped but was recaptured and taken to a police station. His dwelling was searched and he was found to own a ‘handsome carpet bag’ along with other  luxury items including a ‘silk umbrella’ and ‘a good silver watch and chain’, the proceeds it was assumed of a life of impersonation.

I suspect Sam Sharp was everything the mid Victorians detested: a man who exploited the ‘goodwill’ of Christian Englishman; a foreigner (and a ‘savage’ black at that) who consorted with a white woman of dubious reputation (she had rings on all her fingers); and a mendicant to boot.

He was remanded in custody so that his victims could be traced and a case built against him.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, January 31, 1845]