An incredible story as a nonagenarian hero applies for help from the Lord Mayor

Trafalgar, 21 October 1805: 'Situation of HMS 'Bellerophon'

Trafalgar, 21 October 1805: ‘Situation of HMS ‘Bellerophon by William Joy

On Saturday 27 June 1840 the Mansion House Police court was held enthralled as a very old man told his life story in the hope that he would get some support form the City coffers. Isreal Furmen was 91 years of age – impressive in 2019 and even more so the mid nineteenth century – and he was down on his luck. He told the incumbent Lord Mayor of London that he was a native American Indian who had been living in Wales for several years after previously serving with the British Royal Navy.

He had to leave Wales, he said, because he have been implicated in ‘Frost’s treasonable outbreak’ (the Chartist rising in Newport) even though he claimed to have wanted nothing to do with and had been ‘compelled’ to join the rebellion. The Newport Rising in November 1839 had ended in the death of 22 or more Chartists as they attempted to seize the Westgate Hotel in Newport and were fired on by troops stationed there.

The rising was organized and led by John Frost but was probably doomed to fail. Rumours of the rising had alerted the authorities and many of those involved had mixed feelings about the revolt. Chartism itself was divided on the merits of using ‘physical force’ to achieve its laudable aims of enfranchising all men and introducing (amongst other things) a secret ballot to the voting process.

John Frost was one of several Chartists arrested and sentenced to death as traitors after the rising but was spared and sent to Australia. He was pardoned in 1856 and returned to Britain. He died in 1877 at the ripe old age of 93.

His fellow nonagenarian, Israel Furmen now told the Lord Mayor he had first gone to Bristol then travelled up to the capital. On arrival in London he’d applied to the Whitechapel parish for relief but had been set to ‘break stones at a penny a ton’. Despite his age he’d had a go but because he was slow they cut his pay. He only wanted to get back to America and his people. He then outlined his life story in the hope that the Lord Mayor help him. His story was quite amazing.

Furmen claimed to be the son of an India chief and to have been apprenticed to a blacksmith in Philadelphia when he was 15 (in 1764). In 1776 he had fought against the British in the American War of Independence, but had later switched sides to fight the rebels. After the war he’d gone to Europe and visited France and Spain. He said he was in Paris and saw Louis XVI being guillotined.

He signed up as a sailor for the Americans and served aboard a brig named Pelly where he was later capture by the British and pressed into the Royal Navy.  That was in 1794 and he served until 1816. This meant, he explained, that he had been on board the Bellerophon at Trafalgar under captain John Cooke, who died bravely in the encounter, one of 27 men of that ship that died that day.  However, the Bellerophon is probably most famous for being the naval vessel that took the formal surrender of Napoleon after his defeat at Waterloo. If Furmen’s account is to be believed he was present at that key moment in history as well.

Not only was he present at Trafalgar (where he was badly wounded) Furmen also said he had served at the battle of Copenhagen and at Flushing, and had been in the same sick bay at Lord Nelson. This then was a man with a knack for being in the right (or perhaps wrong) place to see history unfold before his eyes. He had been captured twice by the French but had escaped and finally ‘retired’ to Wales to live out the rest of his days in peace. That was until John Frost and his Chartist rebels decided to coopt him into their ranks of course.

He said his Indian tribe was ‘very long-lived’ and (as proof) added that just 10 years earlier he had received a letter from his father, who was still alive. He was also very strong and proved this in court by performing ‘several difficult feats of agility, to the surprise of all present’.

In 1840 the Morning Chronicle reported this case without comment or embellishment but can we take the facts at face value? It is entirely possible that a man born in 1749 could have witnessed history at such first had as he claimed, but is it probable? I expect that is what the Lord Mayor had to decide. The Bucks Herald added that Furmen was accompanied by his wife (39) and their three-year-old child.

In none of the papers could I find the outcome to this case but I imagine that Furmen’s story (real or imagined) was such a rich and compelling one that someone reading it would have paid him for the rights to publish it in full. If so then even if the City didn’t find it in their hearts or pockets to pay his passage back to the USA some speculative London printer would have.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Monday, June 29, 1840; The Bucks Herald, Saturday, July 04, 1840]

P.s A man named Isreal Furmen was indeed implicated in the Newport Rising and appears in the records at Newport Reference Library. He is also mentioned in a treatise on longevity published by John Charles Hall in 1841. I can’t find a crew list for the Bellerphon in 1805 or 1815 but perhaps others can?

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

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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]

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]