‘That sink of iniquity Bluegate Fields, where so many outrages and robberies’ occur.

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Bluegate Fields by Gustave Doré, 1872

‘Walter Hill aged 26, a man of colour and late cook and seaman on board the ship Ben Nevis, from Surinam, was charged with attempting to murder Honara Morris, a woman of this town, better known as Mad Norah, on Sunday morning in that sink of iniquity, Bluegate Fields, Shadwell, where so many outrages and robberies have been committed’.

So began the Daily Newsreport on the proceedings of the Thames Police Court on July 29, 1862. There is so much information here for the social historian before we even get to grips with the case itself.  Bluegate Field features in Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray: 

‘Then, suddenly, some night he would creep out of the house, go down to dreadful places near Blue Gate Fields, and stay there, day after day, until he was driven away. On his return he would sit in front of the picture, sometimes loathing it and himself…”

The Picture of Dorian Gray, (1890)  p.112

The area was a byword for vice and crime, with opium dens and brothels, the haunts of seamen, thieves and those seeking the seedier side of life, like Dorian. Nowadays it is only remembered in the name of nearby school but in the 1860s it was a slum district over which Nicholas Hawksmoor’s impressive church of St George’s in the East loomed.

So we learn that this attempted murder took place in a notoriously rough and criminal area, and that its supposed victim, ‘Mad’ Norah was quite likely to have been closely connected with prosecution.

The ship, the Ben Nevis, is listed in a catalogue of fast sailing ships for the period 1775-1875 and the fact that it had sailed out of Surinam might give us a clue to its cargo. Surinam (or Dutch Guiana) was an economy built on the labour of slaves and then indented workers (by the late 1800s from Java) to replace the supply of slaves once that trade was abolished. In fact slavery was only abolished in 1863, a year after this case appeared in the London press and it took another decade for slaves to be emancipated. The slaves and later free workers farmed sugar, cotton and indigo so we might imagine the Ben Nevis was bringing these to the London docks.

We also learn of course that the defendant in this case was black. As a ‘man of colour’ the reporter felt it necessary to distinguish him from other ‘cooks’ and ‘seamen’ either as a conscious act of Victorian racism or simply because it was newsworthy, as something ‘different’. Either way it reminds us that in the second half of the nineteenth century London was a melting pot of peoples from all over the world.

According to one witness, a local labourer named James Hayward, Walter lived in Ratcliffe Highway where many sailors had lodgings close to the docks. Hayward saw him arguing with Norah outside her house in Bluegate Fields. He had accused her of stealing clothes and money, something she vehemently denied. It was 5 in the morning and must have wakened many nearby. Hayward said he saw Hill land a punch on the woman before running off.

He came back about two hours later armed with a knife. Grabbing Norah from behind he threatened to murder her. Hayward, addressing the magistrate at Thames, described how he saw Hill strike:

‘her blow after blow with the knife  until it stuck into her shoulder, and he could not get it out again’.

Hill fled but was chased and caught. His clothes had been stolen, Hayward agreed, but not by Norah. Someone else had snuck into the room while the seaman and the woman (clearly a prostitute) slept off the drink they had consumed the night before.

The police were called and PC Edward Dillon (18K) arrived. He fetched a surgeon and Norah was taken to the London Hospital where she was treated for multiple stab wounds. When she had received sufficiently to be questioned by the police she confirmed she had entertained Hill but had not pinched his belongings. She knew who had however, ‘Irish Annie and Black Sall’, and said she told Hill that he had better go home (since he was pretty much naked) and come back later. She must have been shocked when he had returned with a  knife.

The house surgeon at the London, David Hyman Dyte, testified that Norah’s wounds were serious but hopefully not life threatening, as all her organs had been missed in the stabbing. It had also taken ‘enormous force’ to extract the 5 inch blade from her shoulder. She had lost a lot of blood, and was not fit to appear in court. This would mean Hill would be remanded to wait for her to recover and the next appearance was set for the 5 August. Hill was held in Clerkenwell and when he came before the Thames court again he was again remanded by Mr Woolrych as Norah, although recovering, was still too ill to come to court.

The case eventually made it to the Old Bailey later that month and we get a little more detail from Honora (who was recorded as Myers not Morris, these mistakes are common in the press). She said that Hill had been brought to the house by Sank Smith (a ‘coloured girl’) and it was her that had taken his money. Her landlady had pinched his clothes she added, so perhaps these were ‘Irish Annie’ and ‘Black Sall’ who were mentioned earlier.

We don’t learn much else new about the incident and there were only the same witnesses as before, but the jury were told that while Hill admitted attacking Norah he was provoked and didn’t mean to cause her as much harm as he did. He added that it was his first time in England.

Whether this swayed them much is unlikely, but the reputation that the area had and the trade that Norah followed possibly did. They found him guilty but recommend him to mercy. The judge sent him to prison for a year.

[from Daily News, Tuesday, July 29, 1862]

Is this freedom? The ‘Adventures of a Slave’ at Worship Street Police Court

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Margaret Clayton was 50 years of age, or so she thought, when she appeared at Worship Street Police Court in June 1847, seeking the magistrate’s help and advice. Margaret was married to a soldier but she wanted a divorce.

Divorce was no easy thing in mid-Victorian England, particularly for a working-class woman of limited means. Until 1857 the Church of England conducted divorces and were very reluctant to grant them, and only on the grounds of adultery. As a result the number of divorces were small, around 300 a year even as late at the 1870s.

In some parts of the country working class men and women got around this by conducting ‘wife sales’ (as described by Thomas Hardy in the Mayor of Casterbridge). This form of plebeian divorce, which Hardy’s novel exposed to a disbelieving and shocked public, were often the only way for couples to legitimately separate and move on.

There was little the magistrate at Worship Street could do for Margaret, but he was interested in her background because she was not not like most of the women that came before him.

Margaret Clayton was ‘a woman of colour’. She was black, and Mr Broughton wanted to know her history.

She had been a slave she told him. She born into slavery as her mother was a slave also, and was first sold at 15 years of age, to ‘a captain’s lady at St Helena’. This would have been in 1812 during the long wars between the French 1st Empire and the Allies, led by Britain. These had ended at Waterloo in June 1815, and the French emperor, Napoleon, was sent into exile – on St Helena.

Margaret recounted how the lady had bought her for £50 to serve as a nurse for her children. Her mistress was good to her, she ‘was kindly treated but she was thoughtless and giddy, she said, as girls would be, and she ran away’.

She was soon found and brought back but sold on to another mistress who was far less considerate. She was treated ‘brutally’, she explained, before she was again sold – this time for £33 – to a soldier. He married her and set her free.

Sadly her husband, who seems to have cared for her, died and so she was free but without any support, and already having a family, she married another private in the St Helena Regiment. When this husband decided to return to England, Margaret and her children went with him. By 1847 they were living in London and he was working at the London Docks, and clearly they were not getting along very well. The eldest of Margaret’s five children was a man of 20, the youngest a baby just18 months old.

The magistrate was curious to know if she had known or met Napoleon. The Corsican ‘Ogre’ had been a prisoner on the small South Atlantic Island from October 1815 to his death (rumored to have been hastened along by his captors) in May 1821. Yes, she said, she had seen him but added nothing further the reporter could embellish his article with.

Napoleon remained a powerfully iconic figure in European history and politics. When he had died there were calls to repatriate his ashes (‘cendres’) to France but the ruling monarch Louis XVIII and his government feared a popular uprising of Bonapartist sentiment. Napoleon’s supporters would have to wait until 1840, seven years before Margaret appeared at Worship Street, to see their hero’s remains entombed in the magnificent structure at Les Invalides in Paris, where they rest to this day.

Having satisfied his curiosity about the woman there was nothing much more Mr Broughton could do. He asked one of the warrant officers present to enquire into the case and speak to the husband, to see if anything could be done to reconcile the (or perhaps even arrange a mutually acceptable separation) and ordered that Margaret be given some money from the poor box.

The Standard‘s reporter wrote it up as the ‘adventures of a slave’ as if it was somehow a tale of a woman’s exciting life upon the high seas. But in reality of course Margaret – who had been ”sold many times’ (as she had told the court) – had very little choice in where these ‘adventures’ led her. She had been taken to St Helena as a slave, sold again as a slave, and then bought against her will as a wife. Free or enslaved it made little difference; as the wife of a serving soldier she went where he went.

Her appearance (at 50) in a summary court in the capital of the nation that had abolished slavery and the slave trade was probably her first real opportunity to declare her independence. Unfortunately as a poor woman, legally married with no rights to property of her own, she found there was nothing the law could do for her except to hope that her husband ‘let her’ go, or treated her better in the future. We might ask ourselves then, from Margaret’s perspective, whether she was ‘free’ at all?

[from The Standard , Monday, June 28, 1847]

An anti-slavery ‘missionary’ is exposed as a fraud

Thomas C. Cook was an American. In fact he described himself as a “a missionary from America for the abolition of slavery”. This was a noble purpose so one wonders why it had landed him at the bar of the Union Hall Police Court in November 1839.

Britain had abolished the slave trade in 1807 and thereafter the Royal Navy intercepted slaving vessels and policed the now illegal trade. In 1834 slavery itself was formally abolished in all of Britain’s colonies and territories, and hundreds of thousands of slaves were freed. So by 1839 slavery had been abolished in Britain and its empire yet it persisted in the United States. Within a few decades the defenders of slavery would find themselves engaged in a bitter civil war that left America divided and millions thousands dead or wounded.

Cook had come over to either lend his support to the opponents of slavery or to learn from them so he could continue to campaign against the practice in the US. Sadly its not really clear what his position was because his appearance in court suggests he was something of a charlatan.

The landlord of a pub in Camberwell (The Perseverance) brought Cook to court to answer a charge of not paying for his drunks and dinner. Richard Petch told the Union Hall magistrate that Cook had entered his establishment and ordered a rump steak with oyster sauce. Having enjoyed his meal he supped on beer and smoked a cigar, while the the public bar filled up.

He soon engaged the locals in conversation and got involved in a long argument on ‘theological matters’ which , at some point, he then declared himself the winner of. He drank heavily and told anyone who would listen that he was an American recently arrived in London to ‘lend the aid of his talents to the abolition of slavery’.

As he became louder Mr Petch suggested he had drunk  enough and might like to settle his bill and leave. At this the missionary replied that ‘he had no cash on him’ but that he was promised some money by the Lord mayor of London. He promised to pay what he owed just as soon at his lordship settled with him. Petch was not inclined to wait on such a nebulous promise however and demanded payment; when that was refused he called for the police and Cook was taken into custody.

The magistrate asked him where he lived and how he maintained himself. ‘I have no home’, Cook replied, ‘I go about from place to place and sleep at those places that suit my convenience’. He added that, ‘I have been driven to great extremities since I landed on British shores, and my funds are all expended’.

When the justice admonished him for living way beyond his means and at others’ expense Cook claimed that he had come over with a manuscript to publish but had not the funds to do so. He had presumably intended (or hoped) that he could live off the proceeds of his polemic writing.

A police inspector testified that Cook had been seen going from place to place behaving in a similar manner, eating and drinking and claiming to be destitute at the end or promising to pay later when in a better situation. In legal terms it turned on whether Cook at wilfully committed fraud, in making the landlord believe he had the funds when he did not. In the end the magistrate (Mr Jeremy) gave the American the benefit of the doubt and possibly did so because Cook promised to endeavour to return to the US as soon as possible if he was released.

However, Mr Jeremy warned him that he came before him again for a similar action he would prosecute him under the Vagrancy Laws and he would face gaol. He advised the landlord to pursue a civil claim for the loss of payment.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, November 15, 1839]H