A runaway slave at Bow Street has a fascinating story to tell the magistrate

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In yesterday’s post I discussed the casual racism and anti-Semitism that was endemic in late nineteenth-century London and led to the passing of the Aliens Act in 1905 (the first legislation aimed at controlling immigration). Throughout the 1800s Britain was a beacon of hope for refugees from persecution on political, religious or other grounds. It was also in Britain that the campaign to abolish slavery had found its political leadership.

Of course England and Britain more broadly had arguably profited most from the use of slave labour and the ‘triangular trade’. The passing of the Slave Trade Act in 1807 abolished slavery in all British Colonies, but compensated slave owners heavily. It was an important first step.

In the 1860s slavery still existed in the USA and in 1861 war broke out in America, in part as a result of efforts to abolish the practice. A year after England had abolished the trade in African slaves the US passed a law to prevent importation of slaves to America, but this did not free those slaves already working on (mostly) southern plantations. In fact Northern owners simply started to sell their slaves to southerners. Gradually a situation emerged (made law after 1820) that divided America into southern slave owning and northern ‘free’ states.

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In 1860 Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the USA, the 16th to hold that office. A Republican and a dedicated abolitionist, Lincoln did not win a single southern state. A month later South Carolina seceded (left) from the Union and cited Northern ‘hostility to slavery’ as a reason for doing so. Between January and February 1861 Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas  followed and the Confederacy was born.

War followed in April that year with the attack on Fort Sumpter and it raged until the south was finally surrendered at Appomattox courthouse on 9 April 1865. Slavery was finally abolished in all US states by the 13thAmendment to the  constitution, passed on 18 December 1865. By that time its key champion, Lincoln, was dead, shot in Washington by John Wilkes Booth.

Britain watched the Civil war with interest. America was slowly becoming a rival economic power and British merchants continued to trade with the south after secession. But anti-slavery was also now written into the English legislature and voices here supported the North in its ambition to end the inhuman practice once and for all.

In July 1863 as war continued across the Atlantic a former slave appeared in court at Bow Street. George Washington was a young black man that had arrived in London with his father, fleeing from the war and slavery. He was in court because he’d been arrested whilst begging in Whitehall. He was stood in the street with a placard around his neck that explained his fate and aimed to draw sympathy from passersby.

He was having some success it seems because PC William Waddrupp noticed that a crowd had gathered around him and were placing money in his cap. Begging was illegal and so he took him into custody.

At Bow Street it emerged that Washington and his father had found lodgings with a costermonger in Mint Street, in the Borough. The coster had arranged for the placard to be printed and ‘managed’ the ‘appeal’ for funds. Whether he did so out of the goodness of his heart or because he saw an opportunity to take a slice of the income is a question we’ll have to keep hanging in the air. He wasn’t prosecuted for anything at Bow Street anyway.

Mr Hall was keen to hear how George and his father had come to be in London. Mr Washington senior said that he had been a drummer in the Confederate army and that his son had been servant to ‘one of the rebel captains’. In the aftermath of the battle of Bull Run (probably the first one in July 1861) they escaped and ran to the north making their way to New York.

They hoped to find a sympathetic ear and help but got neither until they met a man named General Morgan. He told them to go to England ‘where they had a great affection for slaves, and would no doubt provide for them comfortably’. Working their passage they found a ship and landed in London at some point in 1863. There they met the costermonger and he suggested the strategy of asking for alms in public. They had no idea it was against the law to beg in England and said they would be happy to return to New York if a ship could be found to take them under the same terms as they had arrived.

Mr Hall was minded to believe them. They were in breach of the law but he accepted that they had been badly advised (here and by General Morgan) so he discharged them. I wonder if by highlighting their plight they might have got someone to help them – either to return to the US or to stay and prosper in London.

There was sympathy and no obvious racism on show at Bow Street (in stark contrast to Mr Williams’ comments on Jews appearing at Worship Street nearly 30 years later. This is possibly explained by the relative lack of black faces in 1860s London. Black people were a curiosity and not a threat in the way waves of Eastern European immigrants were seen in the 1880s. Moreover the politics of anti-slavery were still very strong in London at mid century and while some merchants and sections of government might have had economic or geopolitical reasons for supporting the Confederacy there was widespread sympathy for the plight of the slaves.

For these reasons , and perhaps simply for the fact that George Washington and his father had entertained Mr Hall and his court with a fascinating story of courage and ‘derring-do’, they won their freedom all over again.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, July 31, 1863]

A snake trader charms the Mansion House

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The summary courts of the capital didn’t always deal with crime or antisocial behaviour; some of those that came before so did so for advice or to ask for help. One such person, named, was a traveler from the Caribbean, who appeared before the Chief Clerk at Mansion House in some distress.

The unnamed visitor, described by the press reports as a ‘respectable-looking young negro’, said he had arrived in London from his native Demerara via a circuitous route. He told  Mr Oke, the clerk that he had left Demerara (in what was then British Guiana and is now Guyana) in an attempt to make some money.

Whilst ‘out in the woods’ in Demerara he ‘had discovered a nest of boa-constrictors that had only just been hatched, and having heard that such objects were of value in foreign countries, he carefully secured his prize… and resolved to take the “little strangers” to the Zoological Gardens at Moscow, where he was told he would be paid a good price for them’.

It seems that there was nothing deemed wrong in the young man’s actions, the Victorians hadn’t yet determined that trading in live exotic animals was cruel. The RSPCA (who are concerned about such a trade in snakes today) had been in existence for around 50 years by 1873 (when this application came before the Mansion House Police Court) but perhaps they were busy enough dealing with cruelty to domestic animals.

Unfortunately for the adventurous snake dealer things didn’t go quite to plan however. He made his way to Hamburg where he was supposed to make a connection to take him on to Russia but the boas fell sick. Despite ‘all his endeavours’ the ‘young “boas” all died’.

With nothing to trade and most of his money gone the lad used the rest of his funds to get himself to England and the capital where he now asked for the Empire’s help to secure a boat back home. He had found ship at the West India dock that was prepared to carry him back to Guiana in return from him working his passage but he had no clothes. He asked the court therefore, if he might have some money from the poor box to purchase the necessary clothes for the voyage.

Mr Oke sent an assistant to check his story and, having ascertained that he was telling the truth, agreed to help. He was given a small sum and ‘left the court apparently highly delighted with the result of his application’.

There is a footnote to this story: Mr George Colwell OKe (1821-1874) served as the Chief Clerk to the magistrates in the City from 1864 onwards having started as a clerk in 1855. He was widely respected for his knowledge of the criminal law and assisted many aldermen and lord mayors in their decision making. Moreover, as a result of his deep understanding of statue law and practice Oke produced several volumes on the subject.

The best selling and most well-known of these was his Synopsis of Summary Convictions,(1858) which ran to 8 volumes and was popularly known as Oke’s Magisterial. You can find this online and while it is hardly an exciting read, it is invaluable to historians in understanding the legal structure under which all Police Court business was conducted. Oke rarely appears in the pages of the newspapers so it is nice to see such an influential figure pop up and act in a charitable way, demonstrating the alternative function of these central summary courts.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, October 23, 1873]

A drunk explains how ‘Going native’ in New Zealand saved his life

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When a man named Burns appeared before the Union Hall Police magistrate on a  charge of being drunk and disorderly, he caused quite a stir. Burns (his first name was not recorded by the court reporter) declared himself as English, and he spoke perfect English, but his appearance was that of Maori warrior.

His face was tattooed in the Maori fashion so that he resembled ‘a New Zealand chief’. How had he come to allow himself to ‘be so disfigured’, the Chief Clerk wanted to know. Well, he replied, ‘it was better than being eaten’. With that dramatic start Burns then gave a brief account of his life and travels, and of what had brought him to London in July 1835.

In 1829 Burns was a sailor on a ship that ran into trouble and was wrecked off the New Zealand coast. He and six others made it to shore but everyone of his companions were killed by the natives. For some reason however, Burns’ life was saved on the intervention of one of their captors and he quickly adopted the local ‘manners and customs’ in order to survive, with, he added, one exception. He refused to eat ‘the bodies of the enemies of his tribe slain in war’.

There were contemporary reports that the Maoris practised cannibalism up until the early 1800s so Burns may have witnessed this. He may also have been playing on popular representations of the savage for effect.

Having settled into the community, he continued, he was soon adopted as a chief. In order to take up this new position he ‘was compelled to undergo the painful operation of tattooing, which was performed with such skill that it is now impossible to distinguish his visage from that of a native’.

As a senior member of the tribe he also learned to master the Maori war canoe and this led to his escape. One day, when he and several other canoes were patrolling along the coast looking for enemies, he spotted a western ship in the distance. He tricked the others into canoeing  off in one direction before turning his own canoe towards the sailing vessel and paddling hard. He quickly got himself out of reach of his former companion’s spears and made it to the ship. The crew helped him on board but it took him some time to convince the Spanish captain that he was indeed and Englishman and not the Maori warrior he appeared to be.

Eventually the Spanish ship had dropped him off in England and he had made his way to London where he now intended to exhibit himself at the Surrey Zoological Gardens. He told the justice at Union Hall that he would be dressed in the ‘costume of New Zealander, and [would] display his dexterity in the management of the canoe, and perform other feats which he had acquired during his six years residence amongst them’.

The magistrate declared that he could not deprive the public of such an entertainment and dismissed the charge against him.

The early 1800s were a time of war for the Maori peoples. Much of this was bloody internal fighting as the rival tribes acquired and used Western guns on each other. ‘Tens of thousands’ died in the so-called ‘musket wars’ of the 1810s, 20s and 30s, at just the time Burns was shipwrecked. Western weaponry was not the only killer however: disease also took its toll of the native population.

From the 1840s onwards tribal rivalry was expressed less in warfare and more in economics but by then New Zealand was increasingly being dominated by European interests. After the purchase of land at Auckland in 1840 the European population grew steadily, and many Maoris left. By 1858 there were more white faces than Maori ones. British policy was to acquire land the Maori deemed worthless or ‘wasteland’, and while there was continued fighting between the Maori settlers and the newer European colonists for most of the rest of the century, there was only ever going to be one final victor.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, July 23, 1835]

A ‘very intelligent’ detective and the use of a telegram, more than 30 years before Crippen

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Walter Dew was the policeman who famously caught ‘Dr’ Crippen and Ethel le Nève as they tried to escape from England on a ship bound for Canada.  The pair were wanted in connection for the murder of Crippen’s wife at their North London home in 1910. The captain of the Monstrose recognised the pair from descriptions of them in the press and sent a wire by telegraph to Scotland Yard. Dew boarded a faster ship and intercepted them. The rest, as they say, is history.

In March 1862 Samuel Higgs and Henry Wilkinson were brought before the Lord Mayor at Mansion House charged with deserting their positions on board the Camarthanshire, a merchant ship lying at anchor in Portsmouth harbour.

The pair had fled the ship and made their way to London. Desertion was one thing but they had compounded their crime by stealing a ‘chronometer watch’ valued at £35 (about £1600 in today’s money). The ship’s captain, Atkinson, had sent a telegram (rather than a telegraph wire) to the police in London and detective Hancock (described by the press as ‘very intelligent’) had set off to intercept the men.

He went to Paddington station and searched the evening train as it came in. Recognising Wilkinson and Higgs he approached them and body stated: ‘How do you do, Wilkinson?’ Although the former ship steward pretended not to be the man in question he couldn’t keep up his ruse for long. Wilkinson and Higgs confessed to having abandoned their roles as steward and ship’s cook respectfully, but denied stealing anything.

They were taken to Bow Lane police station and searched. The police found £6 18s shillings on them but no watch. Wilkinson was then asked to remove his boots. As he bent down to try and ease one off an object fell out from his sleeve.

It was the missing watch.

 

[from The Morning Post, Monday, March 15, 1869]

Murder on the high seas 200 years ago

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One unusual aspect of the English law in the 19th century was that crimes committed on the high seas were not tried before the normal jury courts but were dealt with elsewhere. Piracy, mutiny and murder onboard merchant vessels were heard by the Admiralty Sessions (which sat as an when necessary, rather than having a set timetable as other courts did). After 1834 these took place at the Central Criminal Court  (the Old Bailey ), but in a separate sessions. Which means that the records of these trials are not with all the other Old Bailey Proceedings (held by the London Metropolitan Archives – and online) but instead are at the National Archives at Kew.

However, the London Police courts still had a role to play in the pre-trial examination of those accused of Admiralty offences. Bow Street was the senior Police Court for the capital and its magistrate (in 1816 Sir Nathanial Conant) was the de facto chief justice of the peace in London.

In 1816 two sailors and a soldier were brought before Conant at Bow Street on two separate charges of murder. The sailors (unnamed in the newspaper report) were charged with murdering the captain of a schooner which had been sailing from Smyrna (modern day Izmir on the Aegean) to England. The sailors had taken control of the boat and its small crew, cutting the captain’s throat and heaving his body overboard.

They then locked (or indeed ‘nailed’) the first mate in his cabin and threatened him. They demanded to know where the ‘wealth was in vessel’, until he promised to share the booty (described as a quantity of ‘doubloons’) with them.

He then proceeded to get them drunk so that he could overpower them and sail the schooner into Gibraltar where he handed them over to the British authorities. The pair were described as being ‘very penitent’ but also regretted not taking care of the mate properly! Conant committed them for trial.

His next prisoner was a soldier in the 18th Irish Regiment who had been brought from Woolwich. This man was also charged with murder, this time it was the killing of an unmanned crew member on a ship sailing from St Helena. He too threw his victim over the side and was also charged with piracy. The paper reported that ‘a great deal of proof against this man arises from his own voluntary confession’. He too was sent for his trial.

St Helena, of course, was to become a prison for the defeated French emperor, Napoleon, who died on the isolated island in 1821, with some scholars suggesting that he too was murdered – on the orders of the British government.

These reports in the Morning Post remind us that there were various layers to the justice system in the 1800s, with military courts and admiralty sessions which operated slightly differently to the jury courts of assize and quarter sessions. While we have have considerable work on the jury courts we still lack the same attention for the military and naval ones and a close study of the Admiralty records might shed some interesting light on  way in which certain cries were punished in the nineteenth (and eighteenth) centuries.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, November 12, 1816]