A rabble rouser threatens the peace of the Lord Mayor’s Show

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Today it is the annual Lord Mayor’s show in the City of London. This event has been repeated at this time for hundreds of years and when I was a boy I always made a point of watching it on television, fascinated by the floats and military bands. The ceremonial point of the parade is to swear in the new Lord Mayor at the Royal Courts of Justice, but the ‘show’ is an opportunity to demonstrate the City’s wealth, power and diversity of talent to the nation as a whole. All the livery companies of the City take part and their floats and costumes often make links to the crafts they practice (tailors, grocers, ironmongers etc) or reflect a social or historical theme.

So today Peter Estlin will be sworn in as the 691stLord Mayor of London and head of the City’s Corporation. Amongst many roles the Mayor is appointed chief magistrate of the City and throughout the nineteenth century this meant that office holders routinely sat in judgment on offenders and others brought before them at the Mansion House Police court.

In 1892 one of the Lord Mayor’s fellow police court magistrates, Mr Mead, was the presiding justice at Thames Police court east of City the heart to London’s docklands. On day before that year’s Lord Mayor’s Show Daniel Keefe was put in the dock at Thames and accused of disorderly conduct and of inciting a crowd to disorder.

PC Isles had come across a gathering crowd outside the Sailor’s Home on Well Street. This establishment had been founded in 1828 on the site of an old theatre (the Brunswick) to help the plight of destitute seamen. A man had stood himself on a box so he could be seen and was addressing his audience.

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He was berating the authorities for allowing so many men to be unemployed and told them to boycott that year’s Lord Mayor’s Show in protest. Instead of waiving and cheering the mayor and his aldermen why not ‘test the right of free speech’ instead by demonstrating their discontent with the state of the economy that left so many people impoverished in the East End.

This was just three years after the Great Dock Strike that had seen working men flex their collective muscles and secure small but significant gains from the Dock companies. Throughout that dispute the police had been used to try and break up demonstrations and prevent secondary picketing. The magistracy had played their part too, in fining and imprisoning active participants whenever their saw a way to use the law to do so.

It was evident to PC Isles that regardless of the politics here that Keefe was in breach of the law. By calling a crowd together he was causing an obstruction to the footpath and, under the terms of the Police Code (1889), the officer was obliged to ask him to desist and to require the crowd to disperse. When Keefe refused he arrested him.

In court Mr Mead had little time for Keefe’s attempts to justify himself. Keefe said he had as much right to be on the street as anyone else and that he was hemmed in by the crowd and so couldn’t move when the constable had asked him to. He was ‘vindicating the rights of the unemployed’ (a term that only entered the Oxford Dictionary in 1888) and so his cause was noble. He had even started a ‘labour bureau’ to help men find work.

Mead was uninterested and chose to bind Keefe over in the sum of £5 (about £400 today) which he would forfeit if he broke the peace again within six months. He was, in effect, stopping any attempt by Keefe to ‘rabble rouse’ in the East End and issuing a warning to him and others not to disturb the annual pageantry in the City.

[from The Standard, Thursday, November 10, 1892]

The pitfalls of being a newly arrived sailor in Victorian London

Sailors' Home, Well Street, London Docks

The Sailors’ Home, Penny Illustrated Paper, (29 August 1868).

London was the world’s largest and busiest port in the Victorian period, and ships and sailors from all over the globe traveled to and from it. Merchant seamen were generally paid off when they arrived in port, getting their money from the Mercantile Marine Office that was situated in the Minories, close to the borders of East London and the City.

After weeks or months at sea many sailors simply blew their hard earned cash in a  matter of days or even hours on drink or women or both. Others fell victim to thieves. These were often the prostitutes that picked them up in the many pubs and lodging houses along the Ratcliffe Highway.

As a result (either of criminality or their own carelessness and profligacy) many sailors found themselves destitute and in danger of falling into crime themselves, especially if they couldn’t quickly find another ship to take service on. In 1827 the Destitute Sailor’s Asylum was founded in Dock Street but welcome as it was it soon became inadequate to the needs of the hundreds of seaman that required its help. In 1835 a second institution opened its doors: the Sailors’ Home in Well Street.

The Home also helped sailors avoid some of the dangers associated with being a fresh face (and a potential meal ticket) for unscrupulous locals in the dock area. They did this by sending agents or arranging for others to meet sailors at the Marine Office and escort them to safety at the Home. We can see this in operation in a case that reached the Mansion House Police Court in 1868.

On the 19 August a  sailor presented himself at the Marine Office to collect his wages of £6. He wanted to get home to Liverpool as soon as possible and was worried about getting distracted or robbed  and so he asked if an agent could escort him to the Sailors’ Home.

John Williams, who was employed by the Marine Office as a messenger, was directed to accompany the seams through the throng of ‘loose characters waiting outside’. However, ‘the moment they got into the streets they were mobbed by a number of crimps, touters, and lodging-house keepers’. The sailor was bundled into a waiting cab and driven away.

One of the crowd of vultures was identified as William Lee and he was later arrested and brought before Alderman Causton at Mansion House on a summons.  The justice fully convicted him of using ‘threatening and abusive language’ towards the Marine Office messenger and condemned the fleecing of newly arrived sailors. He told Lee that these ‘poor fellows who received their money after long and severe labour should be protected’ and he fined the lodging-house keeper 40s and made him enter into a recognisance of £10 to keep the peace for six months.

It is unlikely that it would have done much good however, the sailor was probably already parted from his £6 and if he made it to Liverpool there were just as many ‘crimps and touters’ there to exploit him. Lee would have chalked it off to bad luck at getting caught, I doubt it would have altered his behaviour much. The Ratcliffe Highway was a notorious area for crime and prostitution and a magnet for discharged seamen throughout the 1800s and beyond. The Sailors’ Home itself only closed its doors in 1974, more than 100 years later.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, August 27, 1868]