Refections on VE day – looking back over 150 years of change and continuity

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Today marks 75 years since VE Day (Victory in Europe) 1945. Historians and commentators are writing all sorts of things about the significance of this anniversary and about celebrating it at a time when the country (and the world) is experiencing the most serious health emergency for 100 years.

I thought – with my Victorian social history hat on – that I would reflect on what life was like in Britain 150 years ago; or 75 years prior to VE Day 1945.

As we look back at the footage of 75 years ago (as we’ve all been doing recently) we can see a world, and a UK, that, while it is different from our own in many ways, is not that unfamiliar.

In 1945 most people got their news from the BBC (via the radio or ‘wireless’), most would have read a newspaper that still exist today (such as The Times, Daily Telegraph or the Daily Mirror). Fashions were different but not dramatically so – the zip fastener was a fairly new innovation from the late 1930s, hats were widespread, lycra unheard of (thankfully!).

The country was (as it is today) a parliamentary democracy and everyone over 21 had the vote (meaning that many of those that fought in the war couldn’t have a say in who ran the country in the election of 1945) . Women’s rights were not recognized as they are today, gay rights were hardly discussed, and racism was endemic (and the Empire still existed). The car was well established in society but not ubiquitous as it is today; most people in London got about on public transport. Nationally we still enjoyed rail travel in the pre-Beeching days. Holidays were taken at home (by which I mean in the UK, not as they are now – at home) not abroad; airplanes existed but commercial air transport was still largely in the future.

My point is that if we landed (Dr Who-like) in 1940s Britain we would recognize and feel mostly at home in it (as least if we were white British). Many social changes would come in the next 15-20 years – from the Welfare State to Windrush to sexual equality – but it is not ‘another country’.

Or at least it is not as much of ‘another country’ as May 1870 would seem to any of us landing there nor, even, to anyone from 1945 looking back 75 years.

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In 1870 Queen Victoria was in the 33rd year of her long reign and William Gladstone was her prime minister. This was his first term as PM, having taken over from Victoria’s favourite – Disraeli – in 1868. In 1870 the American Civil War was in recent memory; there were plenty alive who fought in the Crimean, and others who remembered Waterloo.

The horrors of the Western Front were nearly 50 years in the future.

1870 was the year that the elementary education act was passed allowing local authorities to provide education for all children aged 5-12. Despite the fact that this was not a compulsory piece of legislation and historians have debated its effects it does mark an important milestone in state provision of education. We take free education for granted now, as many in 1945 would have (if not with the opportunities that students of all classes have today).

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1870 also saw another significant statue pass into law: the Married Women’s Property Act. This allowed married women to own their own property (both that they had earned and inherited). Previously on marriage all of this was legally surrendered to their husbands; a case of ‘what’s mine is mine, and what’s yours, is mine too’!

Of course women still did not have the vote, let alone equal pay, but it was step in the right direction.

Competition was introduced into recruitment to the civil service in 1870, presumably to tackle claims of nepotism and favoritism. I wonder to what extent that has really changed anything (then or now). That year also saw the establishment of the Red Cross (known then as the British National Society for Aid to the Sick and Wounded in War). It would very busy in the decades to come, as it remains so today.

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The Oval hosted the first ever international football match – a 1-1 draw – Wembley was not even conceived of and television coverage way off in the future. Nowadays we seem to obsessed with football, so much so that government ministers make statements about the need to get it back on our TVs so the nation can better cope with this lockdown. Football was very far from being a national obsession in 1870, but its popularity was on the rise.

With no television and no radio in 1870 entertainment was live (like the music hall for the masses or opera and theatre for the well-to-do) or provided in print. In May 1870 readers avidly sought out the latest Dickens novel – The Mystery of Edwin Drood – in regular instalments. Sadly they were to be disappointed: Charles Dickens passed away on the 9 June 1870 leaving the ‘Mystery’ unfinished.  As one great entertainer died two others were born: Marie Lloyd (on 12 February) and Harry Lauder (4 August).

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In London the Tower subway opened – offering Londoners a route underneath the Thames – linking east and southeast London by means of the very first passenger ‘tube’ railway. The underground – such a powerful image of the 1940s capital – was seeded 75 years previously.

On Friday 6 May 1870 the front page of the Morning Post (as was normal) carried mostly adverts and short notices. Page two reported parliamentary news in detail – including items on the ‘Scotch lunacy commission’, ‘Betting on Horse Races’, and the Irish Land Bill (a big political story throughout the later 1800s). Politics continued over the page, all delivered with minimal headlines, discussion, and in tight close type with no pictures.

On the next page readers could learn what was on at the opera and the capital’s West End theatres (although it was really a listing of performers and plays etc, not a review of them). The police intelligence – the news from the capital’s courts – was relegated to page 7 (of 8) although of course we have no real idea of how people read the papers then.

At Bow Street a man was committed for trial for stealing £9 from the Royal Commissioners of the Patriotic Fund, which gave money to the widows of soldiers serving abroad. I suppose the modern equivalent would be pinching the funds from an organization like Help For Heroes so I hope he got what was coming to him. At Marlborough Street a cab driver was cleared of a charge of ‘furious driving’ and his loss of earnings for the day compensated to him by his accuser.

Finally I noted that the press reported that the Prince and Princess of Wales had attended a charity concert at the Guards’ Institute. Then, as now, the royal family was the subject of press attention – if with (generally at least) more deference than is shown today.

So, I would conclude that 1870 would have seemed much more alien to folk in 1945 than 1945 would appear to us should me visit it. This reminds us of the incredible pace of change in the twentieth century, particularly from the outbreak of war in 1914.

It was a terrible century for very many people and the years of war between 1939 and VE Day in May 1945 saw millions die across the world.  The UK alone (not counting our allies in the Empire) suffered just under 400,000 direct causalities in the war, with a further 67,200 deaths on the home front. For context that represents 0.94 of the population as a whole. Other countries much more badly than we did: the Soviet Union lost 20m (13.7% of its populace), Germany 4-5.5m soldiers alone.

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And six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.

The Second World War was a tragedy for everyone involved and victory in 1945 was won by a combined effort of many nations and peoples. I think the lesson I take from it is that never again should we allow hate to dominate politics on a national or world stage, and that only by coming together and sharing our resources can we – as humanity – hope to defeat those that would endanger our lives and freedoms.

If we forget those lessons then I fear we will have let down all of those that gave their lives in the Second World War, and those that survived, in trying to ensure we could live in a society free from tyranny and race hatred.

I’ll raise a glass to them at 3 o’clock with pleasure.

Happy VE Day!

‘We didn’t live – we starved’: Poverty and ‘foreign markets’ in 19th Century Whitechapel

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In my last post I started walking the streets of East London with Charles Booth’s poverty survey as my guide. Moving on from Gunthorpe and Flower and Dean Walk (which in the 1880s was George Street and Flower and Dean Street respectively) in this post I’ve arrived at Wentworth Street.

In the late nineteenth century Wentworth Street was extremely poor. In Booth’s original map (above) it is a mixture of colours from red to pink to blue but since it abuts George Yard, Thrawl Street and other courts and alleys associated with the ‘Abyss’ we can confidently assume that most people living here were living close or below what Seebohm Rowntree was later to define as the ‘poverty line.

This story, reported in the Manchester press, gives us some idea of exactly what conditions were like in and around Wentworth Street in the last decade of the 1800s.

In early November 1893 Mr Wynne Baxter, the local coroner (and the man that had presided over the inquests into most of the Whitechapel murder victims in 1888), convened an inquest on the death of Elizabeth Newton.

Elizabeth was only four months old; she was the illegitimate daughter of Martha Newton who lived at 75 Wentworth Street. The paper described Martha as a ‘poor, miserable-looking girl’ who lived with her mother.

At the time little Elizabeth had been born Martha was living in a local lodging house, and went to the infirmary to give birth. Once the child and mother left hospital they went to live with Martha’s mother Margaret but the conditions were awful.

‘Her mother only occupied one room’, the inquest was told. So Martha and her baby joined her ‘sister, aged eight years […] and her other illegitimate child, aged two’, in the room.

Margaret Newton was desperately poor and the augmented family struggled to feed itself. Margaret told Mr Baxter that Marth fed her newborn on ‘cornflour, arrowroot, or anything the mother could get for it’. She herself only earned 1s3d to 1s 6da day.

How much was the rent, the coroner asked her. ‘Five shillings’, was the reply.

‘How do you live’?

‘We didn’t live – we starved’, Margaret Newton told him.

The final witness was the doctor who declared Elizabeth dead. She weighed only 3lb 12oz when he examined her. He told a stunned court that she should have weighed at least 11b by then. The coroners’ jury delivered a verdict of ‘death by malnutrition’.

Sadly Elizabeth’s death was not uncommon in late nineteenth-century London. Without an effective system of state benefits or health service that was free at the point of need, many children succumbed to poverty and lack of nutrition in Victoria’s Britain.

In the 1880s and 1890s Wentworth Street was busy during the day and early evening. As Charles Booth observed it was:

 ‘thronged every day by stalls, both buyers and sellers nearly all but not altogether Jews, women bareheaded, bewigged, coarse woolen shawls over shoulders, more like a foreign market scene than anything English’.

The red on the map probably refereed to ‘the small shops and houses on the North side’, the poor were absent except in the nearby courts.

Today, as I found out on my walk, there is very little remaining of nineteenth-century Wentworth Street. This is hardly surprising when you consider that this area was very heavily bombed during the Second World War (see map from www.bombsight.org) and post war council rebuilding and slum clearance.

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There was still a strong Jewish community in and around Wentworth Street during and after WW2. Helen Shaw (Schevitch) remembered life back then:

We had one kitchen at the back of our house, which was like a scullery. We only had cold running water, a gas cooker and wooden table, and back yard. The whole family, nine of us at the time had to wash there, but when it was bath time we only had a metal bath with water poured from the fireplace, and the three younger girls were bathed together in this boat like tub. There was a time when there was a shortage of fuel when I was about eleven and every family was rationed one sack of coal. We had to go and collect the coal from Flower and Dean Street (or Fashion Street) and had to line up.

Now, as my walk confirmed, there is hardly any sign of the Jewish presence in Wentworth Street. Instead this area is home to a new set of immigrants and their British born descendants. The larget and most visible migrant group (akin to the Jewish residents in the 1880s that Booth remarked upon) are the Bangladeshis, most of whom trace their roots to Sylheti in the northeast of the country. They are Muslim and established their first roots in the area as early as 1910 and it took them until the early 1980s to win permission to build a mosque.

If you want to have any sense of the Wentworth Street that Booth described as ‘a foreign market’ in the 1890s then take the underground to Whitechapel and wander along the market stalls that throng beside Whitechapel High Street opposite the London Hospital. Close your eyes, and imagine yourself transported back in time.

Stoke Newington ‘has a great reputation’; ‘anything will sell or let there’.

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In the last two blog posts I explored the murder of John Broome Tower, whose lifeless body was dragged from a reservoir in Stoke Newington. No one was ever prosecuted for the clerk’s murder and the police eventually seem to have decided that he’d taken his own life, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary.

In 2020 this blog will change tack from the course it has been on since I started writing it in April 2016. All the stories from the capital’s police magistrate courts will remain and I will probably revisit those sources from time to time, rich as they are. Having completed writing two books in 2019 (both of which should reach the shops before the end of 2020) I will now be concentrating my writing efforts on a new work for Reaktion books on the police courts. I suspect this to go to print in about 12-18 months, and I’ll post updates on this site.

In the meantime I am going to use the notebooks left by Charles Booth (and held by the LSE) to explore London’s streets and communities in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Booth’s Inquiry into the Life and Labour of the People in London was carried out between 1886 and 1903 and the most outstanding result of his research were his poverty maps revealing the distribution of wealth in the late Victorian capital.

Booth, working with a small team of investigators, many from the Toynbee Hall settlement in Spitalfields, walked the streets with police and London School Board visitors, interviewed employers, trade unionists, clergymen, and others in his attempt to understand individual circumstances of poverty and want. All of this went into his notebooks, 450 of them, and the level of detail is fascinating.

My aim is to explore an area mapped by Booth and compare its conditions today to those at the end of the nineteenth century. I have already looked at the area around Tufnell Park (where I was born in the 1960s) and today I’ll explore the streets where my wife’s family settled in London having migrated here from Cyprus in the 1950s.

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William Patten School on Dynevor Road (formally Church Street Board School). It had a open air playground on the roof, built deliberately – as others were – to bring fresh air to London’s children in a period when levels of TB were dangerously high.

I think migration (from overseas, the Empire and Commonwealth, what is now the EU, and the rest of the UK) is likely to be one of the themes of this project, as London has always been a multi-cultural city. Another is the diversity of wealth in the capital: Booth’s maps reveal that poverty and relative affluence existed side-by-side in the 1880s just as they do today, and I hope that will come out in this blog.

Another theme that I suspect might feature is that of change. When the houses in St George’s Avenue, Tufnell Park were built in the last quarter of the 1800 the aspiring middle class inhabited them. When Booth mapped them in the early 1890s the area was on the brink in his view; at risk of sliding downwards economically as poor housing and cheaper rents prompted the ‘better sort’ to move elsewhere. When my parents moved in to their house in St George’s in about 1960 the area was far from prosperous.

They moved out in the early 1970s seeking the more open spaces of Finchley (and in so doing echoing the paths trodden by countless Londoners from the late eighteenth century onwards, in fleeing the congested centre for the suburbs to the north and south). Now Tufnell Park is desirable and expensive. A house that might have cost under £2,000 in 1960 will cost you close to £2,000,000 today.

The same is true for Stoke Newington. My wife’s family sold their property there in the late ‘70s and now an equivalent house would be worth around £1,500,000. They left because the area was ‘rough’ and in the 1870s (when the board school at the end of their road was built), poverty was endemic and life expectancy one of the worst in London. By the 1890s Booth thought that the streets behind Church Street Stoke Newington were largely ‘comfortable’ and we saw (in the last two posts) that in the mid 1880s the area was a ‘rapidly expanding’ suburb on the up.

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Old public house on Nevill Road

What you will notice today is the overwhelming concentration of domestic property. Of course there are plenty of shops and pubs, most of which are on Stoke Newington Church Street and the High Street, but few if any commercial buildings exist beyond there. In Booth’s walks he or his team noted the existence of Maynard’s confectionary factory (on Gordon Road) that had once been a factory.

The area south of Maury Road was one of the ‘roughest’ in the area according to the notebooks. Ottway Street, Mellington Street, Stellamn and Landfield Street varied in cloulor from blue to pink and were nicknamed ‘Tiger’s Bay’ and ‘Spike’s Island’ at the time. The inhabitants were ‘low-bred English of no particular occupation’. Their problem was the lack of a regular wage, an uncertainty that remains a problem today and is a causal factor in poverty. The policeman that accompanied Booth or his researcher told him that ‘some of the women washed but others, “you’d better judge for yourself”.’

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I concentrated my walk the other day around Nevill Road and Dynevor Road, ending up back on Church Street via Dumont Road and Kersley Road. For the most part the properties are fine late Victorian ones in good condition. There are some modern builds, mostly post war social housing some of which are probably a result of enemy bombing. A ‘doodlebug’ hit Defoe Road for example, and parts of Dynevor Road were destroyed or badly damaged by enemy action.

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For Booth in the 1890s this was a decent respectable part of the district. It ‘looks pink and clerical’ he said but was actually largely occupied by ‘artisans’. Dynevor Road was pink (‘fairly comfortable. Good ordinary earnings’) and it was here (at 106) that John Broome Tower lodged in 1884. Chesholm and Broughton Road were both similar. Oldfield, Harcombe, Woodland, and Sandbrook Roads were occupied by artisans and shop workers, most of whom presumably employed by businesses on the High Street or Church Street (or those communing into the West End of London). It was pink in the 1890s, it is probably similar today, although the cost of living makes this an expensive place to live now (true for much of London of course).

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An echo of the area’s past: a Victorian post box by Walford Road (next to a synagogue – another reminder of the mixed community that existed in the 1890s and still exists today).

Stoke Newington was – in the 1880/90s – ‘very healthy’ Booth wrote. ‘It has a great reputation’. The houses were small but nearly all of them were occupied. That is still true in the streets I walked around. There were properties for sale and estate agents boards advertising letting opportunities but relatively few. It feels ‘well-heeled’, quite and ‘desirable’. ‘Anything will let or sell in Stoke Newington’ the police constable accompanying Booth on his travels told him with confidence.

One imagines the same is true today.

 

 

Who lived in 1880s Holloway? Milkmen, posties and the police it seems

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On Wednesday this week I began a slightly different blog series, which, while it will still focus on London in the nineteenth century will not always use the metropolitan police courts for its primary sources material. Today I’m using Charles Booth’s poverty maps and notebooks from the late 1880s and early 1890 to explore the roads around Tufnell Park (where I was born in the 1960s) to see what sort of a district it was at the time.

The previous blog was a reminder that while modern Upper Holloway is a densely populated urban sprawl, in the 1880s open green space still existed and drovers still brought flocks of sheep through the streets to the Metropolitan Meat Market at Caledonian Road.  A friend also pointed out that sheep herding continued in Finchley (where I later grew up) right up to the middle of the last century, the 1950s although the last recorded incident of sheep ‘rustling’ was in 1839.

My family lived in St George’s Avenue in the early 1960s, moving there just before or during the Second World War from a property not that far away. I can’t find Booth’s notebook entries for St George’s Avenue but we do have them for nearby street like Lady Margaret Road. Booth coloured Lady Margaret Road pink, meaning it was ‘fairly comfortable’ with ‘good ordinary earnings’. It was a better off street to some of those around it, notably Fulbrook Road (which was ‘not quite so good, used to be rough’ and Brecknock Road which had elements that were purple (meaning some residents were poor).

The people living in Warrender Road in 3 storey sub-letted houses were paying £34 to £40 rent per annum and were mostly milkmen, police and postmen. The two storied houses in Brecknock Road had seven rooms, so clearly houses of multiple occupation are not a ‘modern’ thing at all. It cost more to live in Southcote Road and Lady Margaret Road (£40-45 in the former, £52 in the latter) and so we’d expect the residents there to be clerks and better paid artisans and shop workers. For comparison £52 in 1889 would equate to about £4,250 today.

This area of North London was the setting for George and Weedon Grossmith’s Diary of Nobody (serialized in Punch in 1888-9, later published as a book in 1892). The fictionalized diary is kept by Charles Pooter, a London clerk, and records his misadventures in social climbing and reflects a contemporary view of the sort of people that were buying and renting property in the expanding Northern suburbs of London.  Pooter and his wife end son lived at ‘The Laurels’ (pictured, right below). It is very funny and well worth your time if you haven’t read it.

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Going east from Lady Margaret Road, Booth’s enumerators noted that while the people living in Celia Road, Corinne Road and Hugo Road were all ‘mostly comfortable’ the property they were living in was ‘all badly built’. Despite the houses being ‘not 10 years old’ they were ‘cracking above the windows’, had ‘very small backs’ and would ‘probably go down in character’. This might reflect rapid expansion in the area with builders and developers keen to cash in on the growth of London’s population and the desire to move out of the East End and centre.

He went on to comment that while the north west end of Upper Holloway was pink and the south red, suggesting comfortable living and some relative affluence, the north east was light and dark blue, revealing poverty. Moreover he reflected that ‘the best people are leaving’. Adding that if good new small houses for rent were built then the area could maintain its ‘pink’ status (like Stamford Hill) but if not there was a risk that it would only attract the poorer elements and ‘go rapidly down’.

Today the street layouts around Lady Margaret Road remain almost identical to the 1880s so in my final blog of the first trio I will head off to the area on foot to see what it looks like today. Hopefully you’ll see the results on Sunday or Monday of next week.

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

 

No help for the weakest from a society which simply didn’t care

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There are so many dreadful stories of poverty and distress in the pages of the nineteenth-century press that it would possible for me to write about that topic every single day. The number of attempted suicides in London in the 1800s reveals the struggle that so many people had with poverty, mental illness and a society that simply provided no proper system of support for those that didn’t ‘win at life’.

For me it is a constant reminder that the greatest achievement of the British state was the creation of the Welfare State in the aftermath of the Second World War. Clement Atlee’s post war government presided over a broken Britain, one battered by war which, while it had emerged victorious, had come perilously close to defeat and invasion by Hitler and fascism. Churchill is rightly credited with pulling us together through that dark period of our history but, for me, it was Atlee’s government that secured the peace by setting in place the foundations for rebuilding society.

In the early 1860s Britain was not at war – we’d had seen off the might of Imperial Russia in the Crimea several years earlier and the Indian Mutiny (or, more properly, war of independence) was a fading memory as well. Great Britain had an empire that covered the globe and our wealth was unsurpassed. Yet despite this our rulers did very little to support the poorest in society or recognize the contribution that others (‘foreigners’) had made to the nation’s success.

The Poor Law of 1834 had been designed to penalize the poor and to deter people from asking for help by effectively locking them up in a workhouse and breaking up their families if they did so. We had no NHS either, there were charities that helped the poorest with medical care but no universal right to free healthcare at the point of need. The understanding of mental illness was still in its infancy, and without private means an individual suffering with any form of mental illness was likely to be thrown into a workhouse or public asylum to be mistreated by doctors and nursing staff that knew very little and cared much less.

Muhomed Ali Khan was a member of the British Empire who felt he was entitled to its support. After 1857 and the failure of the Indian uprising the British state had taken full control of the Indian subcontinent. The British ruled for the benefit of the Queen and the motherland, not for the millions of indigenous Indians that lived there. Khan must have come to England to work, perhaps as a sailor, or soldier in the Queen’s army, or even as an employee of the East India Company.

Whatever the reason in 1862 he was in a parlous state. Destitute and suffering with physical and mental illness he was found at 11.30 in the morning outside the office of the East India Company in Victoria Street by a policeman. When asked what he was doing Khan told PC John Fever (255A) that he ‘had a claim on the government, and had determined to die at the door of those offices’. Fearing the man would make good on his promise PC Fever picked him up and helped him to the nearest workhouse.

Two days later Khan was back outside the EIC offices and had to be dragged back to the care of the workhouse staff. He had nothing to eat in between and was causing ‘annoyance’ by ‘walking about day after day in front of them’. The poor man was embarrassing the company that had profited so much  from the exploitation of India, its people  and its natural wealth. So he was brought before Mr Arnold at Westminster in a case the paper headlined ‘the Troublesome Indian’.

Here we learn that Khan had been ‘troublesome’ before: he had gained entry to the House of Lords and made an attempt on his own life. He had also appeared at Horse Guards during the Queen’s procession to open Parliament and had tried to cut his own throat. On both occasions, the magistrate was told, the poor man was sent to prison but it clearly hadn’t had the effect intended.

Mr Arnold was sympathetic but unable to do anything of real use for Khan. He hadn’t committed  an offence by wandering outside the EIC’s offices so he discharged him from court, but he didn’t help him much either. The man was given a shilling to get some food and sent on his way. It was almost inevitable that he would end up dead in the river or a workhouse infirmary before long and Victorian society, frankly, didn’t care which.

The British Empire and state was built on the backs of the vast majority who did not benefit from it but this was not properly recognized until Atlee and that first Labour administration.  I rather fear that lesson has been lost over the years as we worry about ‘benefit scroungers’ and continue to underfund the NHS and social care. For Mohamed Khan in 1862 we have the unnamed Hungarian who collapsed and died outside Parliament in December 2018.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, 4 January, 1862]