Lessons from the 1840s should remind us that refugees are welcome here

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1848 was another hard year for the Irish people. The potato blight continued to bring famine to Ireland and tens of thousands left their homes and communities to make the journey to England and Scotland or America. The impact of this on a city like London is evident in the newspaper reports of poor relief in the capital and elsewhere.

The Marylebone vestry was told that between December 1846 and December 1847 huge numbers of migrants had appeared in London needing to be supported by the city’s parishes. 5,941 had arrived in St George’s-in-the East, 2,761 in the East London Union, 6,253 in Whitechapel and 7,783 in Stepney.

In central London the numbers were similarly high. There were almost 5,000 arrivals in St. Giles and 7,864 in Marylebone and a staggering 11,574 in St Martin’s-in-the-fields. In total in that one year the parochial poor law authorities spent thousands of pounds in relieving around 80,000 to 100,000 migrants from Ireland.

The vestry heard that several parishes hadn’t kept records of those they’d helped (or those records were not available) and noted that a further 30,000 Irish men and women had been relieved in Glasgow.

The Irish potato famine killed about one in eight of the population and forced two million others to leave. It was also entirely unnecessary. A combination of high grain prices, over dependence on the potato crop, and a deeply rooted and ideological resistance by the English landowners and government to help the poor led to the death of a million people, and the migration of many more.

The British Imperial state failed to deal with a humanitarian disaster on its own doorstep, allowing grain to be exported from Ireland when it could have used to feed its people, and refusing to intervene when Irish landlords turfed impoverished families off the land. The Poor Law system was rooted in deterring pauperism rather than helping those in need and the prevailing economic doctrine was laissez-faire ruled out government interference. Underlying all of this was Protestant evangelism that believed in ‘divine providence’ and underscored a deep-seated anti-Catholic prejudice in large sections of British society.

When the Marylebone vestry heard that St Martin’s-in-the-fields had relieved 11,574 Irish at the cost of £144 13s6d(or about £12,000 today, £1 for each person) ‘laughter followed’. Were they laughing at the fact that St. Martin’s ratepayers were paying out so much, or that so many had ended up there? Why were they laughing at all?

Today the news is filled with images of refugees and economic migrants huddled into overflowing boats, or carrying their belongings along dusty roads, fleeing war or disaster. We shouldn’t forget that in the 1840s this was the reality within the British Isles.

Disasters like Ireland in the 1840s or Syria in the 21st Century are not simply ‘natural’ disasters. They are often caused by, or exacerbated by the actions of governments or individuals, sometimes motivated by religion, ideology or greed, but the people most affected are invariably the poorest and least able to cope. For that reason migration is a World issue where borders are irrelevant. We should have helped the Irish in the 1840s and we should help the Syrians today.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, July 31, 1848]

A chance theft adds insult to a widow’s grief

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London was an extremely busy port city in the Victoria period. Goods came in and out of the docks and the river teamed with shipping, bringing travellers to and and from the various parts of the British Empire, and the rest of the world. This provided all sorts of opportunities for criminal activity: from smuggling, to pilfering from the docks, or the theft of sailor’s wages, and all sorts of frauds. The Thames Police and the Thames Police office then, were kept just as busy as the port and river was.

In June 1859 Susan Breeson appeared in the dock at Thames to be questioned about her possession of a pair of gold framed spectacles we she insisted had been given to her in part payment of a debt.

Breeson had taken the spectacles to a pawnbroker in mid May but he’d become suspicious and refused to give her the money she’d asked for. This wasn’t the first time apparently; another ‘broker had refused to lend her the 7s she asked for them.

Breeson’s story was that her husband worked on the docks as a ‘searcher’ (literally a man working for the Customs who searched ships for contraband etc.) He’d found the, she said, at Victoria Dock in Plaistow but she didn’t know their value or even whether they were gold or brass. Samuel Redfern, who ran the pawn shop in Cannon Street Road with his father-in-law, didn’t believe her story and so he retained the glasses and alerted the police.

Questioned before Mr Yardley at Thames Susan now changed her account and said that the spectacles had been given to her by a sailor. However, the court now discovered that Breeson wasn’t married to a customs officer at all, instead – according to the police – she ran a brothel in Stepney. the specs were given to her, but in payment of money owed, for lodgings or something else it seems.

Sergeant John Simpson (31K) deposed that Breeson was well-known to the police of K Division. She was a ‘bad character, and she cohabited with a man who worked in the docks many years’.  So some elements of her story had a hint of truth about them but now she elaborated and embellished it. The sailor in question, she explained, had been given the spectacles as a gift from a poor dying parson on board a ship ‘for kindness exhibited, towards him in his illness’.

Now the hearing took a more interesting turn. From a simple case of a brothel madam trying to pawn goods either lifted from a client, or pilfered from the docks and used as payment for sexual services or drink, it now became clear that the spectacles were part of a larger and more serious theft.

The next witness was Mrs Barbara Wilson Morant and she had travelled up from Sittingbourne in Kent to give her evidence. She testified that the glasses and the case they were in had belonged to her husband, who had died in the East Indies. She had been in the Indies with him but had traveled back overland, sending the spectacles and other things by sea. She told Mr Yardley that she had arrived in England by screw steamer after a voyage of several months (she’d left the East Indies in August).

The keys of her luggage were sent to Mr Lennox, her agent‘, she explained, and now ‘she missed a diamond ring, a gold pencil-case, a pair of gold-mounted spectacles, and other property‘.

The sergeant conformed that Mrs Morant’s luggage had been examined at Victoria Dock on its arrival, where it was then repacked ready for her to collect it. It would seem that someone pinched the items in the process. Samuel Lennox worked as a Custom House agent and confirmed that he had collected 15 pieces of the Morants’ luggage and checked them off to be collected but he couldn’t say who had unloaded them or carried out any other searches. The company employed casual workers who were hired without checks being made on them. Perhaps one of these was Breeson’s partner in crime?

Mr Yardley recognised that this was serious. While Breeson may not have stolen the spectacles (and perhaps the other items) but she was certainly involved in disposing of it. He remanded her for further enquiries for a week but said he would take bail as long as it was substantial and was supported by ‘reputable sureties’. It would be very hard to prove that anyone had stolen the Morants’ possessions or that Breeson was involved. She doesn’t appear at the Old Bailey although a ‘Susan’ and a ‘Susannah’ Breeson do feature in the records of the prisons and courts of London throughout the 1850s and 60s.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, June 9, 1859]

‘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]

When authority figures clash in the Thames Court there can be only one winner

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St George’s in the East, London

Today’s case is of a complaint about the hearing of a complaint and, if that is not confusing enough, the complaint was levelled against a magistrate who then refused to listen to it!

Unpacking the story I think what happened was this:

In very early January 1847 the sister of a man named as Haggerty Jenson threw herself off the London Dock and drowned in the Thames. Suicides such as this were all too common in the 1800s and the reports from the Police Courts regularly  cover attempted suicides, almost all of them by women.

Haggerty Jenson then approached Reverend Bryan King, the rector of St George’s in the East , to arrange a funeral. His request was refused and Haggerty went to the Thames Police Court to complain to the sitting justice. The case was written in up in the newspaper where the rector was also accused of taking a fee and refusing to reimburse the family.

However, either the press seem to have misinterpreted the story or the one presented in court was not accurate, or at least did not fit the Rev. King’s version of events, and so he too went to the Thames Court to set the record straight. However, he probably went about it the wrong way.

He must have bristled with indignation as he stood before the magistrate to condemn the behaviour of his brother JP, a Mr Yardley. He told the bench that he had not refused Haggerty’s request and had certainly not taken his money.

The report in the paper was also wrong in recording the coroner’s verdict as ‘found drowned’. In fact the inquest had concluded that poor Miss Haggerty  had thrown ‘herself into the waters of the London Dock, but in  what  state of mind she was at the time there was not sufficient evidence before the jury’.

When he had heard that verdict he despatched the parish clerk to inform Haggerty that ‘I could not, consistently with my sacred calling and the Christian feelings I possess, perform the burial rights’.

The Victorian church did not always bury suicides, and certainly not in the churchyard. In the early century those who took their own life were interred outside of graveyards, at crossroads, and sometimes even with a stake through their heart, and even after rules were relaxed suicides were still buried at night until 1882. It wasn’t until the change in Canon law in 2015 that the Anglican church allowed for the full rites to be given to those that had taken their own lives, another example if one is needed, of how slowly religion adapts to changing attitudes in society.

The rector stood before the magistrate at Thames railing against the actions of his fellow justice, and tried to thrust a copy of the newspaper at him before the ‘beak’ silenced him and said:

‘I am Mr. Yardley, the person you complain of…I think any person of common sense, on reading the report you complain of, would come to a very different conclusion to the one you have arrived at’.

The rector was not not done however and tried to press his complaint arguing that the press report was false and that Yardley had allowed its publication. The magistrate denied that he had anything to do with its publication (‘I deny it sir! It’s false!’, he responded).

More than this Yardley added that ‘I saw nothing in the report that was incorrect or unfair, and I shall not listen to anymore you say’. The Rev. King ‘hastily withdrew’, well beaten in that particular engagement.

Perhaps Mr Yardley reflected a changing attitude towards suicides or maybe he simply saw far too many poor young and desperate women come through his courtroom who could have ended up like Haggerty’s sister. He may of course have merely been outraged that someone was challenging his authority, and a rival authority figure at that.

St George’s in the East was one of the churches built in the 18th century to bring Christianity (and the Anglican form of it particularly) to the ‘Godless’ people of the East End. Designed (like Christ’s Church, Spitalfields) by Nicholas Hawksmoor it dominates the skyline along Cannon Street between Cable Street to the north and what was the notorious Ratcliffe Highway below.

In 1850 (a few years after Rev. King;s appearance in court) the Church appointed a lay preacher as rector at St George’s. This didn’t go down very well with the congregation. According to the London Encyclopaedia (Weinreb & Hibbert, 1983):

‘As a protest, there were catcalls and horn blowing, and some male members of the congregation went into the church smoking their pipes, keeping their hats on, and leading barking dogs. Refuse was thrown onto the altar. The church was closed for a while in 1859, and the rector, owing to his poor health, was persuaded by the author Tom Hughes [the author of Tom Brown’s Schooldays] to hand over his duties to a locum’.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper, Sunday, January 10, 1847]