A foolish young man amongst the ‘roughs’: police and protest in late Victorian London

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This morning my History and Criminology undergraduates sit their exam on my third year module on the Whitechapel murders. The module uses the ‘Jack the Ripper’ case as a prism through which to explore a number of themes in the social and cultural history of late Victorian London. We look at the murders, think about the representations of ‘Jack’, of the mythmaking that surrounds the case, and consider policing, prostitution, poverty and popular culture (among other things). I am considering creating an online version of the module that the public might be able to sign up, so do send me an email if you think this is the sort of thing that might interest you.

One of the events we cover is ‘Bloody Sunday’ in November 1887 when a demonstration in Trafalgar Square was broken up by police and elements of the military on the order of Sir Charles Warren, the chief commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. Many people were injured and two or three killed as the police charged protestors. It was a mixed day for Warren who was castigated in the radical and popular press but praised by establishment organs such as The Times. He’d acted firmly following a debacle in 1886 when demonstrators had run amok in Pall Mall, smashing shops and the smart West End gentleman’s clubs that were situated there.

Demonstrations of all sorts happened in the 1880s: for Irish Home rule, or socialism, against unemployment, or for free trade – all brought hundreds and thousands of people onto the streets. The 1880s was a turbulent decade or poverty and austerity, and hundreds slept rough in the streets, squares and parks of the capital. Police soused the benches in Trafalgar Square to  deter the homeless from using them as beds and local residents demanded action to clear the area of the unwanted ‘residuum’ or ‘dangerous classes’.

There must have been some sort of protest or demonstration in Trafalgar Square close to May Day 1888 because two men appeared at Bow Street Police court on charges connected to disturbances there. First up was Alexander Thompson, a ‘respectably dressed youth’ who was accused by the police of being ‘disorderly’. PC 82A deposed that on Saturday evening (5 May) at about 6 o’clock Thompson was being arrested by two sergeants when a group of ‘roughs’ tried to affect an impromptu rescue.

According to the police witness Thompson was egging them on  by ‘groaning and hooting’ and some stones were thrown at the officers. As the constable tried to hold back the crowd Thompson lashed out at him, striking him on the shoulder. His escape was prevented by another PC who rushed in to help but it was devil of job to get him to the station house. The young man had enough money to be represented by a lawyer, a Mr E Dillon Lewis, who secured bail of £5 for his appearance at a later date.

Next to step into the dock was Walter Powell and he was charged similarly with disorderly behaviour. Powell had been selling ‘a weekly periodical’ in the square. He’d drawn a crowd of ‘roughs’ about him and the policeman who arrested him said that while he couldn’t hear what he was saying it was clear he was addressing them, and possibly exhorting them to some sort of nefarious action. The police sergeant from A Division told Powell to go home and when he refused, or at least did not comply, he took him into custody. He’d been locked up overnight and all day Sunday and for Mr Vaughan, the magistrate presiding, that was punishment enough. He told him he was foolish but let him go with a flea in his ear.

Hopefully today my students will not have been ‘foolish’ and will have prepared themselves for the 90-minute examination I’ve set them. They have to write one essay (from four choices) and analyse  one of two contemporary sources. If they’ve done their revision and paid attention all year I should get some interesting papers to mark. I wish them all the best of luck, but hope they don’t need it.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, May 08, 1888]

If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders which is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here:

‘You are one of Colonel Henderson’s ruffians!’:one of the ‘Devil’s Own’ takes his anger out on the police

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The Albert Embankment under construction in 1869

As two police constables patrolled the Albert Embankment on Saturday evening in May 1879 they heard and then saw a horse and rider approaching. The man was smartly dressed but seemed to be swaying in the saddle as if a little the worse for drink. PC Vaughan (143L) commented to his companion that they should keep an eye on him.

Soon afterwards, as the coppers watched, the equestrian turned off the embankment into Gloucester Street, a dead end street that led only to some dust yards. They followed him into the dimly lit street and saw that a large crowd of dustmen and small boys had gathered around him. He was throwing them silver coins which they were scrambling for the in dirt of the street.

This was a potentially dangerous situation; if the man was drunk it was quite possible, PC Vaughan thought, that he might be hauled off his mount and robbed. The officers moved in through the throng and advised the rider, firmly, to desist and go home. Instead of obeying the constable’s request however, the man growled at him:

You are one of Colonel Henderson’s ruffians, I should like to have a turn with him in Belgium, choose our own weapons, and stand six yards apart’.

Sir Edmund Henderson was commissioner of the metropolitan police from 1869 to 1886. He resigned following the embarrassment of the West End (or ‘Pall Mall’) riots of 1886. He had a military background (as did his successor, Charles Warren) and had also served in Australia with a responsibility for the government of convicts before returning to England to run the prison system. henderson2

The police themselves did not enjoy the affection of the public that they do today and this clearly extended beyond the lower working class. The rider was a barrister, William Belt, aged 53, and resident in Bedford Square. As a man of some means and position he had no obvious reason to dislike the police but referring to them as ‘ruffians’ was fairly unambiguous. His comment about ‘six yards’ suggested he was spoiling for a fight  (since it referenced the classic duel) and when he hit PC Vaughan over the head with his riding whip all doubt of his belligerence towards the police was dispelled. I imagine he was cheered by the assembled dustmen but not by the two policemen who grabbed the reins of the horse and pulled him away.

With difficulty, and with Mr Belt refusing to dismount, the two constables escorted their captive to a police station and charged him with being drunk and with assaulting a police officer. Belt gave his name, address and occupation (barrister) and appeared in court at Lambeth before Mr Chance where he denied everything.

He said he had been riding on the Embankment to meet up with his old regiment – the ‘Devil’s Own’ – at Wimbledon. He wasn’t drunk he said, but ill. He had nothing more than ‘two spoonsful of brandy’  that day and despite the fact that – as PC Vaughan reported – he was riding without the use of his stirrups he was entirely in control of his horse. Medical evidence was heard which supported both his and the police’s claim about him being inebriated that night so it was left to Mr Chance to decide the outcome.

The magistrate was pretty clear an assault had taken place, and sure that the police were justified in trying to remove the barrister from a tricky situation where he might have been the victim of crime. But in part because the man had managed to ride so far without the use of his stirrups and because he was, after all, a gentleman, he dismissed the charge of drunkenness. Belt was ordered to pay a fine of £3, which he did, and discharged.

I wondered about the ‘Devil’s Own’ that Belt referred to as his old regiment. During the Napoleonic Wars the Connaught Rangers (88thRegiment of Foot) were nicknamed the ‘Devil’s Own’ and earned a fearsome reputation in the Peninsula. But William Belt was too young to have served in the wars against Napoleon, being born in 1826. There was, however, a volunteer corps of Inns of Court troops that had been formed during the Crimean War – the 23rd Middlesex Rifles – and this may have been the barrister’s regiment.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, May 06, 1879]

If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders which is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here

‘No income tax, no monarchy!’ The cry of protestors in Trafalgar Square

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G W M. Reynolds

In March 1848 (a year noted for turbulence throughout Europe) there was a demonstration called in Trafalgar Square to protest about income tax. The protest had already been ruled ‘illegal’ by the commissioners of police and and the convener, Charles Cochrane, had tried to call it off. Men carrying placards were dispatched by the police to instruct the gathering crowds to disperse and go home. By this time however, 1,500 to 2,000 had gathered and didn’t seem to be in the mood to go anywhere.

According to the Daily News reporter very few (‘not above 50’) would have been affected by the imposition of income tax on incomes of over £30 a year and soon it became apparent that elements of the assembled had their own agendas. One man mounted the balustrade in front of the National gallery and started to harangue the ‘mob’ with calls for the end of the monarchy. He was quickly hauled down. The self-appointed ‘president of the meeting’, G W M (William) Reynolds, then took the stand and denounced ‘the income tax’ and let several other speakers add their voices to the protest. Reynolds was a major figure in the Chartist movement, an advocate of republicanism, and the founder of Reynold’s  newspaper.

By 3 o’clock the police, who had been watching but not acting decided it was time to bring the whole thing to a close. As the police moved in to clear the crowd trouble flared. There were scuffles and the officers under Commissioner Mayne’s command had to use force.

‘Resistance was offered’, the reporter noted, ‘and they had recourse to their staves, which they found it necessary to exercise somewhat roughly, stones being thrown at them, in addition to manual violence used’.

There were injuries on both sides and several arrests were made. The protest had taken place on the Monday and on Wednesday two young men, James Turner and William Allis, appeared at Bow Street Police court before Mr Henry to answer charges of unlawful assembly.

Commissioner Mayne was in court to press the case and testified that the men had acted to obstruct his officers and had ‘conducted themselves in a very rude and disorderly manner’. They’d been arrested and when searched later at the police station Turner was discovered to be carrying a pistol, with ‘a powder flask, balls, and wadding’.

Turner denied refusing to quit the square as charged but admitted to being rude to the police. As for the weapon he carried he said he always did, having been the victim of a highway robbery in Fulham Fields some time ago. He armed himself, he argued, against common footpads that infested some areas of the capital. I think this suggests that the police were still establishing their control in the 1840s and were far from being accepted as the city’s bulwark against criminality.

The men were released on their own sureties (and those of Turner’s master and Allis’ father) but because they verbally abused the police inspector as they were leaving, they were hauled back in and find 30each. There are times, they hopefully learned, when it is better to keep your mouth shut.

Banning a protest in Trafalgar Square was deemed controversial (as a future commissioner of the Met – Sir Charles Warren – was to discover in 1887) but the press noted that in 1848 it was illegal for assemblies to be held there whilst Parliament was sitting).

[from Daily News, Tuesday, March 7, 1848; The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, March 9, 1848]

One man stands up for London’s poorest and lands himself in court

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On Sunday my copy of Haille Rubenhold’s book on the victims of ‘Jack the Ripper’ arrived in the post. By the end of yesterday I’d consumed just under half of it, fitting it in around marking and my other work duties. I will write a full review of it at the end of this week but so far it is a captivating piece of popular social history.

She starts by contrasting the celebration of Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee in 1887 with the encampment of hundreds of homeless people in Trafalgar Square and ‘Bloody Sunday’ when dozens were injured (and one or two or more killed) when the policing of demonstrations against unemployment ended in violence. The underlying theme of her book (or the theme I most identify with) is the problem of homerless and poverty in the capital of the world’s greatest empire.

The word ‘unemployment’ entered the dictionary in 1888 and that reflected the reality that Britain, and Europe, was suffering from one of those periodic slumps (or ‘depressions’) that have always affected the lives of the poorest disproportionally to their richer neighbours. In the 1880s this resulted in demonstrations, in rough sleeping (in the Square and the capital’s parks, and anywhere suitable), and in political rhetoric.

John Benham Parker was a journalist, or at least some of the time he was. He described himself as an auctioneer and surveyor so perhaps his journalism, like his political activism, was a new or a part-time thing in his life. In March 1889 he was in Trafalgar Square to listen to the speeches made as thousands gathered to protest about the lack of work. As he left he drew a crowd of around 150 men and boys away with him.

Parker stopped outside St Martin’s-in-the-Fields and raised his arms, beckoning his followers to gather round him. He told that he would ‘represent them’, be their voice, tell their stories to those that needed to listen. As he warmed to his theme he was cut short by the approach of Inspector Burke of the Metropolitan Police. Burke and his men had been trying to clear the square of demonstrators (albeit in a more gentle way than they had in November 1887).

EPSON scanner imageIn 1887 the new head of the Met, Sir Charles Warren (pictured left with Mr Punch) , had attempted to ban meetings in Trafalgar Square and it was his heavy-handed approach to protest that had led to the violence there. By March 1889 Warren was a footnote in police history, having resigned in November 1888 soon after (but not apparently connected to) the killing of Mary Kelly by the Whitechapel murderer.

Inspector Burke requested, politely, that Parker move along as he was ‘causing great disorder and obstruction’. The auctioneer turned activist refused, and when the policeman insisted shouted: ‘I will not go; I shall do as I like’. He continued to address the crowd, telling them they had every right to be there, every right to protest. The inspector ordered his men to arrest him and he was led away to be processed before a magistrate in the morning.

At Marlborough Street Poice court Parker explained that he had no desire to break the law and had no knowledge that the police had been trying to clear protestors from Trafalgar Square (which seems somewhat unlikely). He just wanted to draw the attention of the government to the problem of unemployment which ‘seemed to be puzzling all nations at present’.

Mr Hannay had some sympathy with him and was prepared to accept he had acted in good faith. The question of the right to protest in Trafalgar Square was still under discussion, he said,  but regardless of the outcome of that debate there was certainly no right to assemble in the streets adjoining the square. That had been established by a recent test case (Rack v. Holmes) sent from the Worship Street Police court. Parker had broken the law by obstructing the highway but since it was his first offence and because he didn’t expect him to repeat it, Mr Hannay ordered him to pay a ‘nominal’ fine of 10sor go to prison for a week.

It was a sensible judgment, one aimed at diffusing political tensions while maintaining the rule of law. Rubenhold is right to highlight the problem of homelessness and poverty in late nineteenth-century London, it is something we need to remember and it was at the core of my own work from 2010, London’s Shadows, which dealt with the Trafalgar Square episode. I am continually ashamed, as an Englishman, that 130 years from 1889 we still have rough sleepers, unemployment and poverty in London while the wealthy (and not just the Queen) live lives of the most opulent luxury.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, March 05, 1889]

My new book on the ‘Ripper’ murders, co-authored with Andy Wise, is published by Amberley in the summer. 

A ‘demented’ socialist picks a fight with the police

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Throughout the late 1880s Trafalgar Square was the site of numerous political demonstrations, protests and gatherings of the poor and homeless. It is hard for us to imagine the capital without the square; it is one of the top ten tourist sites that visitors flock to now, but it was only laid out in the 1830s and Nelson’s Column wasn’t erected until 1839-42 and the base sculptures were not completed until 1849. By then the square had already borne witness to Chartist demonstrations in 1848. What Nelson himself would have made of the political rhetoric than unfolded below him is hard to say. England’s greatest naval hero would probably have disapproved though, since he was an arch conservative and no champion of liberty or democracy.

In 1886 demonstrations in the square had been badly mishandled by the police and groups of rioters had caused chaos in nearby Pall Mall. Shortly afterwards the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police had resigned amid calls for a parliamentary enquiry. Determined that a similar chain of events should not engulf him the new commissioner, Sir Charles Warren, tried to ban gatherings in the square the following year (in November 1888) but without success. When protesters did congregate in large numbers Warren resorted to excessive force and several people were injured and 2 or 3 killed in the melee that resulted from police baton charges and the use of the military.

Earlier in the year, in July 1887, Trafalgar Square had become a sort of temporary shantytown, occupied by London’s homeless who spilled over from the square into the parks close by. Local residents complained about the sight and radical politicians railed about the poverty that had caused them to flock to the centre of the city in such numbers and desperation. The police were ordered to sluice the bench with cold water, to discourage rough sleepers, and to clear the parks of the human detritus that ‘infested’ it.

In May 1888 meetings were back on, and the newspapers reported that there had been a ‘Conversational meeting’ in the square on Saturday 12th. These had been organized to assert the rights of free speech in the face of Warrens’ attempts in the previous year to close the square to public gatherings. Members of the Bloomsbury branch of the Socialist League (which included William Bartlett, a prominent figure in the British Labour movement) deliberately held meetings in the square to discuss the issues of the day and the importance of being to air their views in a public space.

However, police attempts to curtail this supposed freedom led to scuffles and occasionally to accusation of assault on both sides. At the meeting on 12 May Walter Powell was arrested by the police in the square and charged at Bow Street Police court with disorderly conduct.

Evidence was presented that he had been followed into the square by ‘a crowd of roughs’, whom he had then attempted to address. The term ‘roughs’ was applied widely in the late 1800s, to mean youth gang members, political ‘muscle’, or simply members of the ‘residuum’ or ‘underclass’. It was always used disparagingly and Powell was being depicted as a ‘rabble rouser’ who probably deserved to be arrested for inciting crowd trouble.

Since he had been locked up in the cells overnight the magistrate decided he’d been suitably punished already and let him go with a warning.

Whenever crowds gathered in London however, there was always the possibility of other forms of criminality taking place. Once Powell had been discharged tow others were stood in the dock accused of picking pockets. Both men were remanded in custody so the police could continue their enquiries.

The last appearance related to Trafalgar Square that morning was Alexander Thompson, who was charged with disorderly conduct and assaulting the police. He was probably a member or supporter of the Socialist League that had insisted on championing the right of citizens to occupy the square for political protest but he had run foul of the police stationed to prevent trouble.  By 1888 the Socialist League, which had been founded by Henry Hyndeman and had included William Morris, was suffering from internal schisms. The Bloomsbury branch would split in the face of a takeover from anarchists who were more revolutionary in their outlook.

Back at Bow Street Mr. Vaughan looked the man up and down and must have decided he was very far from being a dangerous and ‘disorderly’ ruffian.

He said that ‘unless the man was demented he could not imagine his attacking a man of the constable’s calibre’ and dismissed the charge.

This was a backhanded compliment to the police officer, and a dismissal of the threat posed by ‘revolutionaries’ like Thompson. It was probably also an attempt to diffuse tensions in the spring of 1888 so as to avoid a repeat of the very real violence of the previous autumn.

However, events overtook the police in 1888 and the right to protest, while remaining a key issue, was subsumed by the murders of five or more women in the East End of London, where many of the rough sleepers had tramped from the previous summer. Warren, who was so determined not to be brought low by criticism of his failure to act against  protestors was soon to face much more serious criticism of his ability to run a police force capable of catching a brutal serial killer. In November 1888, just a  year after ‘Bloody Sunday’, Warren resigned as Commissioner.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper , Sunday, May 13, 1888]