‘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 ]

‘Iron filings clippings, gritty matter, and foreign stalks’: some of the things found in a very British cup of tea

grocers

I am writing this on Monday and at this point we still don’t know what is going to happen with regards to Brexit. As it stands though, unless the PM has managed to persuade enough MPs to back her deal, we are still scheduled to leave the European Union at 11 o’clock tonight.  We joined the EU (or rather the European Common Market as it was then) on 1 January 1973 after a referendum was held to test the public’s desire to enter or not.  Today we may leave on the basis of another such referendum, or we may not.

I thought it might be interesting to find out what was happening in the Metropolitan Police courts 100 years before we joined the European club. After all in March 1873 Britain was a very different place. Instead of being a declining world power we were THE world power, an empire upon which ‘the sun never set’. Queen Victoria had been on the throne for almost 36 years and had been a widow for 12 of those. William Gladstone was Prime Minster in his first ministry and he was opposed at the dispatch box by Benjamin Disraeli who he had beaten by 100 seats in the 1868 election. Oh what Mrs May would give for a majority of 100 seats, or any majority for that matter

Britain was stable, powerful, rich and successful in 1873 and Europe was a collection of individual nation states of which republican France, under Adophe Thiers, and Germany, (under Kaiser Wilhelm I and his able chancellor Bismark), were dominant. Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire represented the old guard  by comparison. No one was talking about a European union in 1873 but the slide to European war (in 1914) could already be predicted by those able to read the runes.

1873 in Britain saw the opening of the Alexandra Palace in London, and Londoners watched in horror as it burned down a fortnight later. The Kennel Club was created in April , the first of its kind in the world. Another first was the opening of Girton in Cambridge, as an all female college.

220px-Elizabeth_Garrett_Anderson,_MElizabeth Garrett Anderson (right) also became the first woman to be admitted to the British Medical Association, an honor she retained uniquely for almost 20 years. In Africa British colonial troops went to war with Ashanti king, ostensibly because of the latter’s continued trade in human slaves.  Mary_Ann_Cotton

On the 24 March Mary Ann Cotton (left) , one of history’s most unpleasant murderers, was hanged in Durham goal for the murder of her stepson (and the presumed murder of three former husbands); her motive was to cash in on their life insurance money.

Over at Clerkenwell Police court things were a little less dramatic as a tea dealer named Brown was set in the dock before Mr Barker, the incumbent police magistrate. James Neighbour, the sanitary inspector for St Luke’s, testified that he had purchased tow sample of tea from Brown’s shop and had taken them away for analysis. Dr Parry certified that both had been adulterated.

The adulteration of food was common in Victorian Britain and the authorities were keen to prevent it, not least because of the risk it posed to the health of population. Dr Parry’s verdict was that one sample of tea contained ‘iron filings and clippings, gritty matter, and foreign stalks’ while the other was made up of ‘tea dust’ and ‘small fragments of wood’ as well as all the other substances found in the first one. The tea was described variously in signs in the shop window as ‘capital’ and ‘noted’ mixtures but they were very far from it.

However, when pressed the doctor would not or could not say that the tea was ‘injurious to health’, it just wasn’t what it was advertised to be.  Whether it had been adulterated by the defendant or had arrived in that state from China was also something he couldn’t comment on with authority.  This led Brown’s defense lawyer (Mr Ricketts) to argue that the prosecution had failed to prove its case against his client. Mr Barker disagreed. He said it was self-evident that the tea dealer either knew his product was adulterated with ‘foreign matter’ even if he hadn’t adulterated it himself. This was done, he declared, to bulk up the actual tea and cheat the customer. Had it been dangerous to health he would have fined him £20 but as it was not he let him off with a £10n and ordered him to pay the inspector’s costs.

Of course one of the things the EU protects is our consumer and environmental rights, through its stringent laws on trade. Indeed one of the fears some have is that if we open ourselves up to a genuine free market we might have to accept products (such as bleached American chickens) that would not pass EU food standards. We might also note that in 1873 that Britain dominated world trade and that most trade passed through British ports, making money and creating work as it did so.  But in 1873 we had an empire and a navy that was the envy of the world.

Today not only do we longer have an empire but we also have a navy that has been stripped back to the bare bones, to the extent that we only have one aircraft carrier and that is unable to launch the sort of planes we have available. In 1873 we were the major power in the world, truly GREAT Britain. In 1973 we joined a trading community to ensure our future prosperity. In 2019 we may be about to leave that club having grown frustrated with its attempts to evolve into something that resembles a United States of Europe rather than the trade club we signed up to.

Who knows where we go from here and whether this will prove to be a smart move or a disaster that will haunt us forever. History will judge us, and those that made the decisions that led us to this point.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, March 29, 1873]

The pillar box thief comes unstuck

royal-mail-penfold-post-box

Today I am going to begin a week of posts all drawn from the equivalent week in 1884 (when the calendar matched with ours). For some context in 1884 Great Britain’s empire was at its height, Queen Victoria (who had been Empress of India since 1876) was in the 47th year of her reign. Her husband had died in December 1861, she had survived an assassination attempted two years earlier, then a bad fall at Windsor Castle which prevented her from walking properly for several months. This was compounded by the death of her servant John Brown, whom she mourned quite publicly, stoking rumours that the pair had been having an affair.

In politics Gladstone was in power, the second and longest of his four ministries. Disraeli (Victoria’s favourite) was dead and so the opposition was led by the future Tory PM Lord Salisbury. Socialism was becoming a force to be reckoned with on the European continent and in London on the 4 January 1884 the Fabian Society was founded with its particular brand of gentle democratic socialism. It attracted some of the leading thinkers and writers of the day, including George Bernard Shaw,  H. G. Wells, Annie Besant, Emmeline Pankhurst and Sidney and Beatrice Webb. The future Labour Party PM Ramsey MacDonald was also an early convert.

In January 1884 Gilbert and Sullivan’s eight comic opera, Princess Ida, opened at the Savoy Theatre in London’s West End and on the 18th, with less success, General Charles Gordon set off for Khartoum to quell an uprising in what is now Sudan; he never returned. In the world of sport 1884 saw the establishment of Derby County as a professional football club while in tennis William Renshaw won the Wimbledon men’s singles and Maud Watson beat her sister Lillian in the ladies final.

Over at Westminster Police court, on the morning of January 2, William Henderson was brought up for the second time having been remanded in custody charged ‘with intent to commit a felony’. Henderson, who gave his home address as a house in York Street, had been reported acting suspiciously on several occasions in and around Belgrave Square.

According to these reports Henderson was loitering near a pillar box which was later discovered to have been tampered with. When he’d realized a policeman was watching him he had run away and a letter addressed to ‘a lady in Scotland’ was found discarded by the post box, it was smeared with something sticky.

Henderson was picked up some hours afterwards and when he was searched he was found to have a pair of gloves with the fingers cuts off, also sticky with some sort of adhesive. There were also some hooks made from copper wire and more evidence of glue on his handkerchief.

A search of his lodgings revealed yet more adhesive material and ‘a contrivance for abstracting letters from pillar-boxes’. In addition to the mechanism he’d apparently been using to steal the post was a large collection of letters and stamps. Mr D’Eyncourt remanded him once more so the police investigation could be continued, in the meantime the letter thief (or avid philatelist) was returned to prison to await his fate. If you stick with my posts for the next few days (no fun intended) we may discover what happened to him.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, January 25, 1884]

The mad lady and the Queen

colney hatch

In 1871 Queen Victoria had been on throne for 34 years. Her husband Albert had been dead for a decade and she was yet to adopt the title of Empress of India. Victoria had a big influence on her subjects but her withdrawal from much of public life following the loss of her consort increasingly isolated her from public affection. 1870 had seen the overthrow of the French monarchy and the creation of the Third Republic, dark echoes in England called for a similar revolution, one that never transpired. In late November Victoria’s eldest son, Albert Edward, fell ill with typhoid (probably the same disease that had killed his father) and Victoria must have feared she would lose him as well.

Meanwhile, for ordinary Londoners life went on as usual. The ‘widow of Windsor’ was almost an abstract concept since she’d ducked out of view but her name, and what she symbolised, mattered  considerably.

It certainly mattered to an elderly seamstress called Mrs Lyons. She told the magistrate at Clerkenwell that she had been promised work by her Majesty but ‘court intrigues’ were preventing her from pursuing it. Mrs Lyons lived off the Caledonian Road in north London, close to where the new St Pancras terminal was being constructed. She was poor and in ‘want of money’ she explained, but was confident that with the queen’s patronage she would be fine.

Sadly Mrs Lyons was not very well; she suffered from some form of mental illness, as a police inspector told Mr Cooke, the justice sitting on her case at Clerkenwell Police Court.

‘About two years since the poor woman began to get strange at times in her speech, said that her room was full of rats, that she had an interview with the Queen and members of the royal family, and that her Majesty had promised her money, but that she was prevented from getting it by court intrigues’ .

He went on to say that up until recently Mrs Lyons had lived quietly but in the last few months her condition had worsened and she had started threatening people, including her landlady. A doctor had been called to examine her and he’d declared she was ‘not right in her head’ and she’d been carried off to Islington workhouse. From there she was to be sent to the Colney Hatch Asylum, Europe’s largest such institution.

She had left her room with rent arrears and her landlady was refusing to give her sister leave to take away her sibling’s few possessions until that was paid. Mr Cooke said he was glad the woman was now in safe hands (although I’m not sure I’d consider being in the ‘care’ of a Victorian asylum ‘safe’. I suppose he might have meant the public were safe from her). He ordered the court to pay the arrears so she could be reunited with her ‘things’ and dismissed the case.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, November 28, 1872]

for another story that features Queen Victoria see: “Let me see the Queen, I know who the ‘Ripper’ is!”

 

Officer down! Two policemen are stabbed with a sword stick by a crazed revolutionary

220px-Lama,_Domenico_(1823-1890)_-_Giuseppe_Mazzini

Giuseppe Mazzini

A crowd had gathered outside 7 Hardington Place, Portman Market in Marylebone. It was about 10.30 at night and a man was at a first floor window in a highly agitated state. He was hurling ‘bricks and missiles in all directions’ and several policemen were soon on the scene.

Two officers, PC Robert Dobell (237D) and PC Thomas Tice (40D) entered the building and rushed upstairs accompanied by some others, possibly from the ‘mob’ outside. The door to room in which the man had been seen was locked so they put their shoulders to it, and broke it down.

At this the man came charging towards them brandishing a walking cane which he thrust at them. PC Dobell cried ‘I am stabbed’ and then fell in front of his colleague. PC Tice was also wounded but in the chaos and with his adrenaline pumping he didn’t realise this at first.

The policemen shouted for help and the man was soon overpowered. The weapon, a sword stick, was picked up from the floor where the attacker had dropped it. PC Dobell was taken to hospital and the prisoner to the station. When he removed his uniform top coat PC Tice discovered his injury, a stab wound to the ‘fleshy part of my right arm, between the elbow and the shoulder’.

The following morning PC Tice was in court at Marylebone to give his evidence in front of Mr Long, the sitting magistrate. He showed the court his bloody coat and testified that PC Dobell was still gravely ill, and not yet out of danger.

Their attacker was also in court and gave his name as John Phillips, occupation – painter. He’d been brought to court in a cab, handcuffed with two other officers guarding him. He was clearly a dangerous man.

Not only was he dangerous it was also evident that he was suffering from a mental illness or, as the court reporter described him, demonstrating ‘unsoundness in his intellect’. He raved in court, shouting out:

‘Kossuth, Mazzini, let me have justice. It was not a Roman dagger or a poisoned dagger, and I stand upon the liberties of my country. Had Prince Albert have been there at the time his blood would have flowed, and so would yours (alluding to the magistrate), had you been there’.

Lajos Kossuth was a Hungarian revolutionary who briefly ruled his nation in the tumultuous period of 1848-9, he was widely revered amongst British radicals and so may have been an inspiration for Phillips. Similarly Giuseppe Mazzini was a well known Italian political activist who was driving force in Italian Unification.

Philips was eventually sent for trial at the Old Bailey but his ‘madness’ was deemed too great and the jury found him unfit to plead. He was therefore found not guilty by dint of being non compos mentis. I believe that PC Doble survived the attack but he was lucky if he did, because the stab wound was very close to his heart. Philips, one imagines, was confined to an asylum.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, April 14, 1853]

Ever fallen in love with someone you shouldn’t have fallen in love with? (especially a queen)

437px-Queen_Victoria_(after_E_T_Parris_1837)

Queen Victoria in the Royal Box of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane (after the oil painting by E. T. Parris, 1837)

At Christmas 1837 the young Queen Victoria had been on the throne for just six months. She was not to marry until 1840 and so remained an object of desire, and for one person at least, a fantasy. James Ash was certainly smitten by her. He had visited Windsor and caught a glimpse of the eighteen year-old monarch and had fallen her over heels in love with her. It would do him no go at all.

Sadly for James he was a pretty unsuitable candidate. He was ‘about forty years of age, rather ill-favoured and something above the mechanic class’, as the reporter at Marlborough Street Police court described. He had been brought into court at the request of the parish authroories of St Giles who wanted to send Ash to a lunatic asylum.

Mr Dyer, presiding as magistrate on the 22 December 1837, was unclear why he was being asked to adjudicate in this case. It would normally, he said, be a decision for ‘a medical man’ whether someone was sent to an asylum or not.

victoria-jenna-louise-colemanA surgeon gave evidence to say that Ash was, by all accounts quite normal and rational with the notable exception that he had declared not only that he was love with the queen but insisted that his affections were returned in full.

Mr Dyer questioned Ash about his lifestyle. Did he drink? Not at all, Ash insisted. Was he married or otherwise involved with any other woman? Ash declared that he:

‘was deeply in love with her Majesty , and he had the happiness of knowing that the passion was mutual’.

I suspect at this point the magistrate was convinced of the man’s delusional state but he asked him to continue. Had he expressed his affection by letter perhaps? He hadn’t but as  soon as the queen and her ministers had completed the ‘arduous task of setting the Pension and Civil Lists he should apply to them for suitable provision, in order that he might be enabled to throw himself at the feet of her Majesty’.

Mr Dyer had no intention of letting James Ash anywhere near the young queen and was entirely satisfied that he was ‘mad’. He signed  a warrant  to have Ash confined in the Hanwell lunatic asylum* where he might tell his story to all the other residents until the authorities there decided it was safe or expedient to let him go.

I suspect that might have been some time in the future. Meanwhile Victoria married Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha and the couple had nine children who married across the European continent earning the queen the epithet of ‘grandmother of Europe’.  Victoria’s reign was peppered with attempts on her life, the earliest in 1840 when Edward Oxford shot at her carriage as it made its way on Constitution Hill. There were a further six assassination attempts, none of which succeeded. So perhaps Mr Dyer and the St Giles authorities were right to err on the side of caution and lock poor James away.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, December 23, 1837]

*For more about the asylum at Hanwell see Mike Paterson’s post for the London Historians blog.

The sad story of an elderly seamstress and her Majesty

365836_1

In the light of yesterday’s happy announcement of a royal engagement I thought I’d feature a (sort of) royal story from Victorian London’s Police courts.

In 1871 Queen Victoria had been on throne for 34 years. Her husband Albert had been dead for a decade and she was yet to adopt the title of Empress of India. Victoria had a big influence on her subjects but her withdrawal from much of public life following the loss of her consort increasingly isolated her from public affection. 1870 had seen the overthrow of the French monarchy and the creation of the Third Republic, dark echoes in England called for a similar revolution, one that never transpired. In late November Victoria’s eldest son, Albert Edward, fell ill with typhoid (probably the same disease that had killed his father) and Victoria must have feared she would lose him as well.

Meanwhile, for ordinary Londoners life went on as usual. The ‘widow of Windsor’ was almost an abstract concept since she’d ducked out of view but her name, and what she symbolised, mattered  considerably.

It certainly mattered to an elderly seamstress called Mrs Lyons. She told the magistrate at Clerkenwell that she had been promised work by her Majesty but ‘court intrigues’ were preventing her from pursuing it. Mrs Lyons lived off the Caledonian Road in north London, close to where the new St Pancras terminal was being constructed. She was poor and in ‘want of money’ she explained, but was confident that with the queen’s patronage she would be fine.

Sadly Mrs Lyons was not very well; she suffered from some form of mental illness, as a police inspector told Mr Cooke, the justice sitting on her case at Clerkenwell Police Court.

‘About two years since the poor woman began to get strange at times in her speech, said that her room was full of rats, that she had an interview with the Queen and members of the royal family, and that her Majesty had promised her money, but that she was prevented from getting it by court intrigues’ .

He went on to say that up until recently Mrs Lyons had lived quietly but in the last few months her condition had worsened and she had started threatening people, including her landlady. A doctor had been called to examine her and he’d declared she was ‘not right in her head’ and she’d been carried off to Islington workhouse. From there she was to be sent to the Colney Hatch Asylum, Europe’s largest such institution.*

She had left her room with rent arrears and her landlady was refusing to give her sister leave to take away her sibling’s few possessions until that was paid. Mr Cooke said he was glad the woman was now in safe hands (although I’m not sure I’d consider being in the ‘care’ of a Victorian asylum ‘safe’. I suppose he might have meant the public were safe from her). He ordered the court to pay the arrears so she could be reunited with her ‘things’ and dismissed the case.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, November 28, 1872]

*(and now my gym!)

for another story that feature Queen Victoria see: “Let me see the Queen, I know who the ‘Ripper’ is!”