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]

A glimpse into history: an Irishwoman’s flight from the siege of Paris in 1870

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Parisian women queue for food during the Prussian siege of Paris, 1870

Sometimes the cases that are reported in the London Police Courts reveal glimpses of the wider history that was taking place both in Britain and around the world.

In July 1870 Napoleon III, emperor of the French, declared war on the kingdom of Prussia. Napoleon’s decision to take on his powerful European neighbour was prompted by his failing popularity at home and the (inaccurate as it turned out) advice of his generals. The Prussians (under Bismarck) saw the war as an opportunity to push forward the cause of German unification and, ultimately, begin to shape the continent in their favour.

The war went badly for the French from the start and ended in ignominious defeat at Sedan at the end of August, just over a month after it started. Napoleon was deposed and national government was declared which continued to resist the Prussian forces. This led to the siege of Paris which lasted until it too surrendered on 28 January 1871. In the aftermath of the war Prussia annexed Alsace-Lorraine and left  festering sore that when combined with mutual distrust and competing imperial ambitions, contributed to the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914.

Within all national and international conflicts of course there are personal stories and individual tragedies. An unnamed Irish woman (a ‘native of Cork’) appeared at the Marylebone Police Court in mid September 1870 having fled Paris and the advancing Prussian forces. Her husband was a French national she explained to Mr Mansfield, the sitting magistrate, and had been forced to remain in Paris to man the defences.

She described the situation in the French capital:

‘bills were posted up on the walls stating that those that did not wish to expose themselves to the siege must leave. My husband is a tradesman, and he was bound to go to the fortifications. I had no means of subsistence, and I had to leave and go to my mother at Cork’.

Sieges were hard on all the occupation of a city and the Paris siege was notable for the hardships the French suffered. There were later reports of people starving and eating cats and dogs and even the animals in the Paris zoo. Ultimately the siege led to further revolution and civil war, so it is no surprise that those that could opted to flee and become refugees.

The woman had traveled to London with her five children but had run out of money and was now desperate. That she turned to the Police Courts is indicative of the public’s use of the the London magistracy as centres of advice and aid in a crisis. Sadly for her, there was little Mr Mansfield could, or was inclined, to do for her.

She told him she was staying at a house at 57 Praed Street and had applied to the French authorities for help on several occasions. They had simply directed her from one ‘society’ to another; in all probability with the country at war and Paris under desire there was little they could do to help the Irish wife of one of their citizens. But the lady believed that there was more to it than this; she felt they didn’t want to help her because she was Irish and ‘they say they have so many of their own country-people to see to’.

Since Ireland was still part of the British Empire she therefore sought support from the British state. Mr Mansfield replied that the best he could do, since several charities had not helped her, was send her to the relieving officer at Paddington. In other words she could enter the workhouse. That was clearly not something she, as a ‘respectable’ tradesman’s wife, wanted to do. Mr Mansfield said he would send her instead to see Archbishop Manning’s chaplain, to see what he might do for her.

Archbishop Manning had a good reputation in Victorian London. As the senior Catholic cardinal in England and Archbishop of Westminster he had considerable influence. In 1889 he intervened and helped broker a settlement to the Great Dock Strike and so hopefully he (if his chaplain was prepared to get him involved) he may well have helped a fellow Catholic find the means to return home to Ireland and thence perhaps to France once the situation had claimed down. Presuming, of course, that the lady’s husband survived both the siege and then the Commune and its overthrow in May 1871.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, September 17, 1870]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The grass is not always greener on the other side of the Channel

As PC Martin (406B) patrolled his beat in Grosvenor Place he saw a man going from door to door begging for money or food. As each front door turned him away he started to try at the lower, or trade door. The policeman now decided to move in an arrest the beggar, as he was branch of the vagrancy laws.

The man was not English and once an interpreter was found it was discovered that his name was Adophe Blesche and that he came from Austria. Blesche was produce din court at Westminster in early March 1881 charged with begging.

He admitted his offence but said he didn’t know what else to do. He was starving and had nowhere to turn. He told the magistrate that he was a labourer and had been working in Lille in France at a picture frame manufacturers. He had left, he said, ‘because they told him a foreigner could get a living and money in England’. Adoplhe was one of millions of migrants that traveled to Brain and America in the the late 1800s, attracted by the prospect of a better life in a more stable society.

The Westminster magistrate was curious however, as to what had driven him from his native Austria. The chief clerk suggested enquiries should be made with he Austrian authorities in London; he thought Blesche might be an army deserter.

When this was relayed to him by the interpreter Blesche admitted as much; he had served in Bohemia (his birth place) for 12 months but had run away from his unit. Given that the punishment for such an offence was six years’ imprisonment, it was not surprising that he didn’t want to return home.

Mr D’Eyncourt, the sitting justice, remanded him in custody and asked for the Austrian consul to be informed. Sadly for Adolphe he had pinned too many of his hopes on British hospitality. I wonder how many current refugees and economic migrants are similarly regretting their decision to cross the Channel.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, March 07, 1881

An echo of Oliver Twist in Bethnal Green

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If you are familiar with the plot of Oliver Twist you will remember that young Oliver is bound as an apprentice to Mr Sowerberry, an undertaker, by the magistrate (who takes pity on the boy and saves him from the clutches of the brutish chimneysweep, Mr Gamfield). Of course Oliver is far from safe at the Sowerberrys, because of the callous nature of the undertaker’s wife and the other apprentice, Noah Claypole. Eventually Oliver runs away and tramps to London.

Dickens published the first chapter of Oliver Twist in 1837 (the year Queen Victoria came to the throne) and – as a former court reporter himself – he drew upon his experiences and those of the people he observed in the courts, debtors prisons, and workhouses of early Victorian London.

At the every end of 1839 the sitting justice at Lambeth Street Police Court, Mr Hardwick, heard an application to apprentice a pauper boy (just like Oliver) to a silk weaver in Spitalfields. The application was made by the Beadle of St George’s in the East whose name was not Bumble, but Overton. He wanted the boy off the parish books (and therefore its costs) and apprenticed to a weaver so he could earn a useful trade.

However, the Beadle of Bethnal Green, a man named Christie, appeared in court to object to the application. He told Mr Hardwick that the local silk weavers (the descendants of the Huguenot refugees that had fled persecution in France after 1685 when Louis XIV revoked  the  Edict of Nantes) were in a parlous state. The weavers had prospered in the East End until their monopoly on trade began to unravel in the second half of the 18th century. By the 1830s many of them were facing desperate times.

Christie told the court that in the last few weeks the Bethnal Green Poor Law Guardians had been forced to offer relief to 200 families, ‘and of those upwards of 150 were silk weavers’.  The weavers simply could not afford to take on apprentices at this time as there was not enough work to support their families as they were, let alone to feed more hungry mouths. Even if a weaver worked 15 or 16 hours a day he was unable to earn more than 7 or 8 shillings a week (about £17 in today’s money).

The beadle confirmed that the Worship Street magistrates had stopped binding apprentices in the area because of the hardship. Mr Hardwick agreed to the objection and refused to bind the lad, sending him back to the workhouse. The poor law guardians would have to wait for an improvement in the local economy if they were going to get their ‘Olivers’ off the books.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, January 1, 1840]