A magistrate has the chance to make a difference to one Black life; will he take it?

Plate_2_Retreat_of_Lt_Brady

The Demerara rebellion of 1823

On 26 July 1832 there was an unusual appearance at the Marlborough Street Police court. A man named only as ‘Burgess’ (no first name, no title), was brought in for begging in Charing Cross.

Placed in the dock the magistrate (Mr Gregorie) asked him where he lived. Begging was an offence that fell under catch-all legislation, the Vagrancy Act (1824). This act, passed in the reign of George IV, is still on the books. It makes it an offence to sleep rough or to beg in the streets. It took no account of why someone would be on the streets and begging for money or food.

The original legislation was passed in the wake of the economic distress that followed the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. The period after Waterloo was a turbulent one for the British state with many people forced off the land and into urban centres where poverty was common. In addition thousands of discharged and disabled soldiers returned, many of them unable to find work.

Not for the first or last time the reaction of the ruling class to the economic distress of the majority was to pass laws that protected the wealth and privilege of the minority and, after 1829 in London, they had Peel’s ‘New Police’ force to enforce them.

But let us return to Burgess; what did have to say for himself when Mr Gregorie asked him where he lived?

Burgess replied that he had lived abroad, in Demerara, on the north coast of South America in what is now Guyana. In the 1800s Demerara was under the control of the British (although it had been a Dutch colony). In 1823 there had been  a large scale slave revolt (echoing a previous one in 1795). The revolt had the effect of bringing the plight of slaves in Demerara to the attention of the British public and the British parliament.

Although the slave revolt was not violent the reaction of the governor, John Murray, certainly was. As many as 250 slaves were killed in putting down the rebellion and more deaths followed as ringleaders were hanged. Their bodies were left in public view as a warning to others and the leader of the revolt – Jack Gladsone – was sent to St. Lucia. It is likely that it was Gladstone’s father, Quamina who was the real leader of the slave uprising and he was later to be acknowledged as such by an independent Guyanan nation.

So who was Burgess and what had he to do with all of this?

Burgess told Mr Gregorie that he was a runaway slave, who had escaped his master and come to England.  In 1823 many of the slaves that revolted reportedly believed that Britain had abolished slavery in the colony (when in reality all Britain had abolished was the trade in slaves in 1807). Britain did not abolish slavery in its colonies until 1833 (effective from 1 August 1834).

Burgess – mostly referred to throughout the report as ‘the negro’ – said his master was named ‘Porter’ and he believed he was now in London. Not surprisingly then what Burgess wanted was to be allowed to return home, to Demerara. Perhaps he believed that he would be safer there, perhaps he was simply homesick. The move towards abolition was underway and he might have believed that he would return to freedom.

Freedom was a little way off however. Since he had no money and so no means of paying his passage to south America the magistrate said he would send  a message to the Colonial Office to see what the British state could do for him. In the meantime  Burgess was locked in a cell at Marlborough Street while the representatives of the wealthy decided what to do with him, a poor enslaved beggar.

The answer came back later that day and Burgess was once again set in the dock. The Colonial Office replied that they ‘could not interfere’. Could not or would not, it mattered little. No one was about to pay Burgess’ fare home. We don’t know his age but it is likely that Demerara was his home, his place of birth. But of course his ancestors, perhaps his parents and almost certainly his grandparents, had been taken from Africa against their will and brutally shipped across the seas to work on European plantations. It mattered little whether it was a Dutch or British plantation; the experience for Burgess and thousands of others was the same.

At least now the British state had the chance to make some amends. Sadly it chose not to. The Colonial Office would not help and neither would the magistrate at Marlborough Street. Burgess had infringed the Vagrancy Act and so he was sent to prison for a month. If, Mr Gregorie told him, ‘at the expiration of that time’, he ‘wanted to get back to Demerara, he must get there as well as he could’.

The slaves in Guyana were not freed until 1 August 1838, 6 years after Burgess appeared at Marlborough Street ‘begging’ to be allowed to return home. Whether he ever made it back to enjoy his freedom is unknown.

London was home to plenty of former slaves in the 1800s most of whom never came near a police court or in any other way troubled the record keepers. They often adopted the names of their masters or had names their master had given them – European names not African names – so they don’t stand out in the records. But they were here, as they had long been here. Anyone who believes Black Britons arrived on the Windrush and found an entirely ‘white’ country (or a country that had always been White) are  mistaken or misinformed and I suggest they  watch David Olusoga’s Black and British BBC TV series (and read the accompanying book).

This particular Black life might not have mattered to the early Victorian authorities, but Black Lives and Black history should matter to all of us.

[from Morning Post, Tuesday 27 March 1832]

 

 

 

 

 

The sweep’s boy who wasn’t all he appeared

sweep_boy_960x540

London’s police magistrate courts were created (officially) by the passing of the Middlesex Justices Act (1792). This established seven new ‘Police Offices’ throughout the capital in addition to Bow Street (and Mansion House and Guildhall in the old City of London). The press reported on these courts as they reported on all the other criminal and civil courts, but it took them a little while to start doing so in a systematic way.

As a result the earliest reports are patchy, not always easy to find, and short on detail. Thereafter, and especially from the 1840s onwards, court reporting settled into a pattern that hardly changed throughout the century. Reports became longer; those from Lambeth and the East End often involved poverty or drunken violence, those based at Guildhall or Mansion House dealt with fraud and other financial themes. As the senior magistrate court Bow Street often had the most serious cases, but Clerkenwell, Marylebone, and Westminster were all very busy.

Everyday the reader would be exposed to a mixture of information, cautionary tales, pathos, and humour.

On January 1st 1818, 200 years ago today, underneath a report from Argentina of the retreat of  Spanish forces in Chile, was a short item of new from the police courts. Spain had suffered a ‘complete defeat’ the paper noted, in a war that had raged since 1810. 1818 was to see the end of the war which culminated in the battle of Maipu on 5 April. Argentina, Chile and Peru all won their independence from Bourbon Spain.

Meanwhile in London The Morning Post  reported from just two police courts: Bow Street and Marlborough Street.

John Cook was charged with robbing a woman at the pit entrance to Covent Garden theatre. The court was told that he had cut ‘her pelisse and other clothes to get at her purse’. He then removed a ‘Bank-note, a half-Sovereign and six shillings’. The Bow Street justice committed him for trial.

A ‘familiar’ face appeared at Marlborough Street charged with being drunk and riotous. John McNaughton had been a Commissary General in the Peninsula (linking this story to that of the South American war of independence above). The charge was brought by Mr Molloy, who ran the Grosvenor Coffee House in Bond Street. McNaughton was a regular customer but a troublesome one. Having once held a position demanding respect and authority the magistrate was lenient with him; he awarded damages to Molloy but released the former army man on his promise to stay away from the coffee house in future.

Finally, after tales of serious crime and drunken behaviour the paper ended on a whimsical story to amuse its readers. A Mr Brown had called in a sweep to clean his chimney. Westwood, based in St Pancras, sent his ‘boy’ who climbed up and cleaned the chimney. Brown remarked that it had never been cleaned as well by anyone previously and took the time to praise and question the lad that had done it. It soon became clear that this was no boy at all, but ‘a poor girl of 12’.

She explained that ‘her uncle had turned her out of doors to look for work, and she had engaged herself to a sweep rather than be chided, as she could get no other work’.

The paper doesn’t tell us what happened to the young girl, whom Mr Brown had brought to Marlborough Street to hear the advice of the magistrate on the issue. I suspect a summons for the uncle or her being placed in the parish workhouse were both possible outcomes. Perhaps however, such a sad and touching story might have prompted someone reading to offer her a place in service. Maybe even Mr Brown might have taken her in.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, January 01, 1818]

‘Limping Bill’ and the case of the stolen armadillo

 

zoo

London Zoo in 1837

Two cases for you these morning, both from the Marylebone Police Court in the year of Queen Victoria’s accession to the throne. The first features a fair of ‘fashionable’ young men and a street trader, the second involved a theft from London Zoo.

Captain Ferguson (alias Collegian Fred) and Lieutenant Grant (also known as the Lady Killer) were summoned before the magistrate by a stall holder who operated at the corner of Paradise Street in Lambeth. The complaint was brought by Billy Bucket (commonly known locally as ‘Limping Bill’) and he alleged that while he was selling his wares the two came along and whilst play fighting with each other they managed to knock over his stall of seafood.

The Morning Post‘s court reporter rendered Billy’s testimony in dialect, for maximum comic effect and I think this demonstrates one of the functions of these early reports from the metropolis’ police courts, that of entertaining a middle-class or elite audience. To give you a sense of this I shall simply set it down as it was printed in 1837.

‘Please your vorships (said the little bandy-legged complainant) I vos standing at my stall last night in the hact of sarving a customer with a harpeth of pickled heels of the best quality, when up comes these regular swells well primed with lush [he meant the worse the wear for alcohol] , and one of un shoves the other right bang against my stall, not was not strong enough by no means to stand such a heavy “swell” and over it goes’.

The result was that the street was scattered with ‘shrimps, periwinkles, welks, pickled eels, and other delicacies’, Billy’s stock and any chance he might have had to make his living that day was either ruined or stolen as the jars of eels broke and the local children rushed in and picked up and ate whatever they could lay their hands on. Billy estimated the cost of the collision as ‘at least 10s‘ and so he came to court to get compensation.

The two ‘swells’ then negotiated a price with the costermonger, settled their account and left.

Next up was a ‘well-dressed middle-aged’ hairdresser and perfumer named Joel Lazarus. Lazarus gave his address as 20 Upper Cleveland Street, Fitzroy Square. If the first case at Marylebone was amusing because of the characters involved (a cockney costermonger and ‘a couple of swells’) then this one entertained because it was quite bizarre.

While Lazarus stood in the dock the witness stand was occupied by an armadillo, ‘a remarkably fine specimen of its kind’, which the hairdresser was accused of stealing from the zoo.

YLW1_022

The magistrates (there were two in attendance, Mr Shutt and Lord Montford) were told that at seven o’clock the previous evening the gate guard at Regent’s Park Zoo had noticed Lazarus leaving the zoo and was suspicious. John Henry White stated that he observed him ‘making his egress from the grounds carrying before him his hat, around which was tied a handkerchief’.

White stopped him and asked him what he had under the ‘kerchief. Lazarus told him to mind his own business and seemed ‘in a  great hurry to reach his gig, which was standing in the road’. Before he could get to the waiting transport however, White called for help and the man was swiftly captured.

He was searched and an armadillo was found concealed in his hat. This was identified then and in court by Mr Alexander Mullins the ‘superintendent of the gardens’. He told the bench that the animal was valued at £5 and that it had recently been imported from South America.

When questioned Lazarus admitted taking the animal but would say no more. A surgeon appeared to testify that he was aware that the hairdresser ‘occasionally suffered from an aberration of mind’. There was no proof of madness at the time of the theft, the magistrates declared, and  regardless it was the ‘duty of his friends to look after him’ if he was indeed suffering in the way described.

However, they felt a fine was a sufficient punishment in this case and they imposed one of £5 for the theft plus another £5 to reflect the value of the armadillo. The monies were paid and Lazarus was free to go. The armadillo was taken back to the zoo, and was probably the subject of greater close attention than it had been previously. After all ‘bad’ publicity is better than no publicity and I imagine Londoners would have been quite keen to see the armadillo that a hairdresser had tried to steal.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, July 10, 1837]