A theatre heckler makes a pantomime of himself

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The Grecian Theatre, Shoreditch (1875) – (Islington Public Library)

Reginald H. Burkett of 1 Field Court, Gray’s Inn Road was that most ‘pooterish’ of nineteenth-century characters, a lower middle-class clerk. In mid January 1878 he and some friends had taken a box near the stage at the Grecian Theatre (a music hall on the City Road) to enjoy the festive pantomime.

However, it would seem they had enjoyed plenty of drink as well, as they were in a very boisterous mood, Burkett especially so.

The stage manager (a Mr Gillet) had his eye on them because of the noise and disorderly behaviour coming from their seats and when he observed that Burkett was smoking he moved in to tell him it was not allowed.

For a while there was calm and the pantomime continued but when the ballet dancers took the stage Burkett started to interrupt the performance. According to Mr Gillet, Burkett ‘behaved in a disgusting way, making motions to the dancers’ and, when they came in range, ‘he leaned out of his box and with his stick tried to hook the legs of one of the ballet women’. She burst into tears and ran from the stage.

When Mr Nicholls, one of the actors the show, began to sing Burkett started to abuse him, ‘using some nasty expressions’. Nicholls wasn’t having this and approached Burkett demanding to know exactly what he was insinuating.

Burkett swore at him and then leapt out of his box, onto the stage! Nichols aimed a punch at him and suddenly there was a full-blown fist-fight on stage. This almost brought the house down and the stage manager was quick to lower the curtain, ending the performance prematurely.

Burkett was held until the police could come and take him away and a few days later he appeared at the Worship Street Police Court. Here Mr Bushby, the presiding magistrate considered the case. He could see that Burkett had been disorderly but technically Mr Nicholls (the actor) had assaulted him first. In the end he decided to bind the clerk over and find sureties against his good behaviour in the future. A friend of his, a Bloomsbury-based solicitor named Warren stepped up to stand surety for him.

One imagines the Grecian took note of his name and appearance and barred him from all future performances.

[from The Standard, Monday, January 21, 1878]

‘An assault of an unmanly character’ as a trio of ‘gentlemen’ drag a Turk about by his beard

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I imagine that most owners of Indian curry houses have had to put up with a lot of bad behaviour from drunken customers who stumble into their establishments late on a Friday night demanding ‘the hottest thing on the menu’. The boorish actions of English men was satirized wonderfully in the BBC comedy sketch show, Goodness Gracious Mewhere the team talked about ‘getting tanked up and going for an English’.

It plays on the reality that for many immigrants to Britain being abused or made fun of by the native population has only recently been deemed unacceptable both in law and by the majority of the British populace. Until now those running curry houses (and other shops and eateries) have pretty much had to take whatever they were given.

Thankfully that past is (largely) behind us, although the spectre of xenophobia has re-emerged emboldened perhaps by Brexit and the ongoing debate about migration. Looking back we can find plenty of examples of racism and nationalism in British history, especially in the heady days of Empire when Great Britain really did rule half the globe and the map of the world was covered in swathes of pink.

Three friends, overtly respectable and well-dressed men, had been out drinking in central London in the run up to Christmas 1855. It was a Friday night and Charles Bowley, Henry Nation and John Tickell weren’t quite ready to call for a cab home to their wives. They were on the Haymarket, in London’s entertainment district and they decided to head for a tobacco house, or divan, where they could relax, smoke a cigar to two, and perhaps enjoy a brandy. There were several of these ‘cigar divans’ in the centre of London and they provided a range of entertainment for men with money to pay for it.

But being intoxicated and full of British swagger and arrogance they barged their way into Youssef Ben Ibrahim’s divan and upset the prevailing calm atmosphere of the club. Concerned for her establishment’s reputation and the peace of her customers, Youssef’s wife, Ayesha, told them to be quiet or leave.

It was a reasonable request but, in liquor, these were not reasonable men. Ayesha Youssef was  verbally abused with ‘course epithets’ and Nation (a Naval officer) struck her in chest and almost sent her flying. Her husband leapt to her assistance and was assaulted by the trio.

One of the men grabbed him by his beard and then the tree amused themselves by pulling him to and fro ‘by that honoured appendage’. It was both violent and insulting, and deliberately so; the men clearly thought very little of Youssef and his wife, dismissing them as mere foreigners not worthy of the respect due to Englishmen.

In the end a member of Youssef’s waiting staff got involved and, despite being hit several times, managed to pull his master free. The men were later arrested and brought before the sitting magistrate at Marlborough Street on the following day.

Mr Hardwick didn’t believe the men’s protestations of innocence and sided entirely with the Turkish couple. He was ‘satisfied that an assault of an unmanly character had taken place’ and he fined each of the men £3. That made their evening out that little bit more costly but, and more importantly, the declaration that the assault was ‘unmanly’ and the description of the attack on a defenseless woman were both made public in the papers. That would have made uncomfortable reading for the trio, their families, and their circle of friends. That was probably a better punishment than the fine which no doubt they each found in their deep pockets.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, 22 December, 1855]

German aggression receives short shrift from Mr Hannay

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Out of curiosity I’ve been following a few links in my own family history this year. One of these is a discovery that at some point in the early 1880s one of my ancestors married into a large German family that was living in Marylebone in central London. They seem to have been a family of traders, clerks and at least one dentist but, as yet, I’ve not found out when they immigrated to England from Germany. Today’s blog concerns three German migrants but not (as far as I am aware anyway) ones that were related to me.

Johannes Etskitt (22), Dominians Etskitt (20) and Ernst Carl Otto Brauer (45) were all charged, in August 1874, with assaulting Elias Hawkins, a tramcar conductor. The Etskitts were both wine merchants and Brauer described himself as an artist. The trio had hailed Hawkins’ tram and hopped on as it stopped.

Brauer was smoking and so when he sat down inside the tram the conductor asked him to go upstairs (and thus outside). The artist who, like his companions, had been drinking that evening, refused. Hawkins brought the car to a standstill with the intention of either making the three men comply with his request or, presumably, throwing them off.

This backfired rather badly as Dominians Etskitt decided to get his retaliation in first and launched a violent assault on the conductor. The tram driver, Frederick Claxton, watched in horror as the younger man started to hit his colleague with a stick, beating him several times over the head. The attack was so fierce that it was Hawkins who was forced off the tram, not the unruly passengers.

The two other men joined in the attack and when Claxton went to help his conductor they turned on him as well. Brauer and the older Etskitt were not as violent as Dominians and this was taken into account when they later all appeared in the dock at Clerkenwell Police court in front of Mr Hannay.

The Germans were represented in court by a solicitor but the evidence presented was fairly damning. Their violence was not excused by their drinking and Mr Hannay was not about to sanction the abuse of the North London Tramway Company’s employees, who were also represented by the firm’s lawyer.

Since Dominians was the obvious aggressor he received the most severe punishment being sent to prison for a month at hard labour. His older brother got off with a warning and Brauer (who was older and supposedly wiser) was given 14 days to reflect on his loss of control.

By the early 1860s there were about 15,000 German-born Londoners, and small groups of Germans had settled in other British cities like Manchester and Bradford. On the eve of the First World War the number of Germans in Britain had risen to a peak of about 54,000 but this fell considerably after the conflict. Not surprisingly the Great War led to suspicion falling on German migrants and many were interned during the war, some of those living in London being held at Alexandra Palace for the duration. German businesses were attacked and German speakers made the target of ‘patriotic’ abuse.

Two world wars have contributed to a generally negative view of Germany that has persisted despite the incredible changes that German society has undergone since 1945. In reality of course we are very close to each other as peoples and perhaps this closeness was more obvious in the nineteenth century than it is today.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, August 05, 1874]

‘He is excited when he gets anything to drink, and is not responsible for his actions’; arson and sibling rivalry in Victorian Limehouse

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When PC Walter Stratford (K 376) arrived at Nesbit’s Rents, off Three Colt Street, Limehouse he found chaos and confusion. The property was owned by Mary Charlton and her husband and there were three other families living there. PC Stratford was directed up to the room occupied by the Cullens (two brothers – John and Micheal – and their sister, Elizabeth).

Elizabeth was screaming her head off and a small fire had engulfed one of the two beds. Michael Cullen was sitting quietly on a chair smoking his pipe. Soon afterwards a second officer arrived and he tried to calm the situation as the household, many of them dressed only in their nightgowns milled around outside.

The policemen, John Cullen and Mary Charlton all helped beat out the flames and then the finger of blame was pointed at Michael who was arrested and taken to the nearest police station for questioning. There he apparently admitted setting the fire in the bed because he wanted more space. He shared with his brother while Elizabeth slept in her own bed. When John had refused to move over, Michael had set light to the bed clothes to force him to. John had been woken by his sister’s cries of ‘fire!’ and had leapt up, grabbed his brother, and punched him hard.

By all accounts Michael was drunk and when he was drunk he changed from being the quiet and inoffensive character his married sister, Ellen, later testified to, into a very different person. ‘He is excited when he gets anything to drink, and is not responsible for his actions’, she told an Old Bailey judge when her brother was eventually tried for arson in April 1889.

Fortunately tragedy was avoided and no one was hurt by Michael’s reckless desire to have a more comfortable sleep that night but at the Thames Police court the 12 year-old cabinet maker was still formally indicted for the offence by Mr Lushington.

Michael Cullen apologised for his actions at the Old Bailey and claimed he never intended to do anyone any harm. He admitted his inebriated state and claimed to remember little of what had happened. He added that it was the first time he’d been in trouble with the law. The jury believed his version of events and acquitted him.

The circumstances reveal the reality of living conditions for many of those living in the East End of London in the later 1800s. Three siblings, all in their early twenties, shared one room in  house of multiple occupation. In total somewhere between nine and 15 or more individuals lived in Nesbit’s rents, and tensions must have flared at times.

In the late 1800s Limehouse had a poor reputation as a centre for drugs and crime and Three Colt Street, where the Cullens lived, was at the heart of London’s Chinese quarter. More recently Limehouse has featured in a major film version of Peter Ackroyd’s novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem. The film is fun but the book is much better.

[from The Standard, Monday, March 25, 1889]

An act of kindness or a juvenile prank?

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Westminster Bridge and the new Houses of Parliament, 1858

As a mother and her daughter walked along the banks of the Thames in October 1858 two young men hailed them from their cart and asked them if they’d like a ‘ride to the new bridge’.

I imagine the ‘new bridge’ in question was Westminster which was under construction in 1858. By the middle of the 1800s the old Westminster Bridge (which dated from the middle of the previous century) was in a bad state of repair. Thomas Page was commissioned to design a new bridge and the structure, with decorations by Charles Barry (the architect of the new Gothic Houses of Parliament) opened in May 1862.

The young men, named Shearing and Lloyd may have an ulterior motive in picking up the women but it certainly wasn’t robbery. The women were poor, being alter described as of ‘very humble position’. Moreover the younger woman was carrying an infant and so they gratefully accepted the lads’ offer and climbed aboard.

The men were smoking and probably showing off, or ‘larking about’ to use a term contemporaries would have understood. One of them threw his pipe away once he had finished with it and the cart rattled on towards the bridge.

Suddenly to their horror the women realised that there was a fire in the cart and their clothes quickly ignited. It seemed to have spread from a piece of paper, maybe lit from the discarded pipe. Since it was so shocking and had burned right through the women’s clothes to their undergarments they decided to press charges at the Westminster Police Court.

Mr Arnold, the sitting justice, was told that ‘the old lady’s hands were burnt in extinguishing the fire, and she and her daughter, who appeared very creditable people, were much grieved by the loss they had sustained to their clothes, amounting to at least £2’.

So the case turned on whether the fire was an accident, or set deliberately, perhaps as a prank.

Was that the reason the men had offered the women a lift, to lure them into the cart to play an unpleasant joke on them? It is certainly possible but Mr Arnold was unsure. Had he been sure, he said, that the fire was intentional ‘he would have visited it with the severest punishment of the law’. But there was not enough evidence against the pair so he was unable to order compensation, and so the lads were released. Regardless of whether there was any intent or not this judgement did nothing at all to help the poor women who probably could ill afford to lose their clothes to a fire, however accidental.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, October 05, 1858]

Smokers rights championed in the 1870s

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The new Paddington railway station, c.1866-70

Mr D’Eyncourt had only just taken his seat on the bench at the Marylebone Police Court when his first hearing of the day presented itself. It was late January 1871 and Mr Michael Pope, a solicitor from Great James Street, Bedford Row, requested that the magistrate issue him with a summons to bring in the directors of the Great Western Railway.

He cited statute law (31 and 32 Vic. cap.119, sec.20) which stated that all railway companies (excepting the Metropolitan underground railway) were obliged to provided smoking carriages for ‘each class of passengers’.

Smoking has of course been banned entirely on all British railways since 2007 but in the 19th century no such prohibition was in place. However, it was clearly ‘not the done thing’ to smoke in a compartment that was not labelled as ‘smoking’. Here is the advice from a contemporary etiquette guide:

‘One may smoke in a railway-carriage in spite of by-laws, if one has first obtained the consent of every one present; but if there be a lady there, though she give her consent, smoke not. In nine cases out of ten, she will give it from good-nature. One must never smoke in a close carriage; one may ask and obtain leave to smoke when returning from a picnic or expedition in an open carriage’.

                                                               The Habits of Good Society (1864)

Mr Pope recounted the story his daily commute from Ealing to Paddington, and at how he had walked the length of the train looking for a ‘second-class’ smoking carriage but could not find one. The guard directed him to a carriage but as it did not say ‘smoking’ and there were several occupants already, he did not lite up.

He wanted to summon the directors because he felt they were as much in breach of the law in not providing separate spaces for smokers as the ‘poor persons’ who were bring fined for smoking where they should not.

The magistrate said he couldn’t sympathise (as he wasn’t  smoker) and he couldn’t help as a summons would be of no use. The law was not a compulsion but a direction; the railways were encouraged to provide separate coaches but they were not compelled to do so. It would be  waste of time summoning them to court. Better instead that Mr. Pope wrote to them directly, as Mr. D’Eyncourt was sure they would ‘see into the matter’.

The solicitor went off grumbling that there was little point in a law that had no effect and presumably lit is pipe (or cigar) as soon as he was outside.

Nowadays we are getting used to smoke-free environments and there is no obligation for companies to provide their employees or the public with smoking areas , although they do exist (often at airports). ASH (Action on Smoking & Health) continue to campaign for restrictions on smoking on health grounds. By contrast Forest campaigns on behalf of the smoker, and oppose blanket bans.

Whatever your personal standpoint (and I’m a reformed smoker glad of the cleaner air around me) it is interesting to see that this debate has bene going on for a long time. I don’t want to share my railway carriage with a single or group of active smokers, and nor did my Victorian ancestors. Do I think the railway companies should provide a coach for those that want to smoke? Yes, if they can provide enough alternative space so the rest of us can actually find seat on a rain that runs to time for once.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, February 01, 1871]

A theatre heckler makes a pantomime of himself

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The Eagle Pub (Grecian Theatre Music Hall, c.1841)

Reginald H. Burkett of 1 Field Court, Gran’s Inn Road was that most ‘pooterish’ of nineteenth-century characters, a lower middle-class clerk. In mid January 1878 he and some friends had taken a box near the stage at the Grecian Theatre (a music hall on the City Road) to enjoy the festive pantomime.

However, it would seem they had enjoyed plenty of drink as well, as they were in a very boisterous mood, Burkett especially so.

The stage manager (a Mr Gillet) had his eye on them because of the noise and disorderly behaviour coming from their seats and when he observed that Burkett was smoking he moved in to tell him it was not allowed.

For a while there was calm and the pantomime continued but when the ballet dancers took the stage Burkett started to interrupt the performance. According to Mr Gillet, Burkett ‘behaved in a disgusting way, making motions to the dancers’ and, when they came in range, ‘he leaned out of his box and with his stick tried to hook the legs of one of the ballet women’. She burst into tears and ran from the stage.

When Mr Nicholls, one of the actors the show, began to sing Burkett started to abuse him, ‘using some nasty expressions’. Nicholls wasn’t having this and approached Burkett demanding to know exactly what he was insinuating.

Burkett swore at him and then leapt out of his box, onto the stage! Nichols aimed a punch at him and suddenly there was a full-blown fist-fight on stage. This almost brought the house down and the stage manager was quick to lower the curtain, ending the performance prematurely.

Burkett was held until the police could come and take him away and a few days later he appeared at the Worship Street Police Court. Here Mr Bushby, the presiding magistrate considered the case. He could see that Burkett had been disorderly but technically Mr Nicholls (the actor) had assaulted him first. In the end he decided to bind the clerk over and find sureties against his good behaviour in the future. A friend of his, a Bloomsbury-based solicitor named Warren stepped up to stand surety for him.

One imagines the Grecian took note of his name and appearance and barred him from all future performances.

[from The Standard, Monday, January 21, 1878]