One man stands up for London’s poorest and lands himself in court

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On Sunday my copy of Haille Rubenhold’s book on the victims of ‘Jack the Ripper’ arrived in the post. By the end of yesterday I’d consumed just under half of it, fitting it in around marking and my other work duties. I will write a full review of it at the end of this week but so far it is a captivating piece of popular social history.

She starts by contrasting the celebration of Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee in 1887 with the encampment of hundreds of homeless people in Trafalgar Square and ‘Bloody Sunday’ when dozens were injured (and one or two or more killed) when the policing of demonstrations against unemployment ended in violence. The underlying theme of her book (or the theme I most identify with) is the problem of homerless and poverty in the capital of the world’s greatest empire.

The word ‘unemployment’ entered the dictionary in 1888 and that reflected the reality that Britain, and Europe, was suffering from one of those periodic slumps (or ‘depressions’) that have always affected the lives of the poorest disproportionally to their richer neighbours. In the 1880s this resulted in demonstrations, in rough sleeping (in the Square and the capital’s parks, and anywhere suitable), and in political rhetoric.

John Benham Parker was a journalist, or at least some of the time he was. He described himself as an auctioneer and surveyor so perhaps his journalism, like his political activism, was a new or a part-time thing in his life. In March 1889 he was in Trafalgar Square to listen to the speeches made as thousands gathered to protest about the lack of work. As he left he drew a crowd of around 150 men and boys away with him.

Parker stopped outside St Martin’s-in-the-Fields and raised his arms, beckoning his followers to gather round him. He told that he would ‘represent them’, be their voice, tell their stories to those that needed to listen. As he warmed to his theme he was cut short by the approach of Inspector Burke of the Metropolitan Police. Burke and his men had been trying to clear the square of demonstrators (albeit in a more gentle way than they had in November 1887).

EPSON scanner imageIn 1887 the new head of the Met, Sir Charles Warren (pictured left with Mr Punch) , had attempted to ban meetings in Trafalgar Square and it was his heavy-handed approach to protest that had led to the violence there. By March 1889 Warren was a footnote in police history, having resigned in November 1888 soon after (but not apparently connected to) the killing of Mary Kelly by the Whitechapel murderer.

Inspector Burke requested, politely, that Parker move along as he was ‘causing great disorder and obstruction’. The auctioneer turned activist refused, and when the policeman insisted shouted: ‘I will not go; I shall do as I like’. He continued to address the crowd, telling them they had every right to be there, every right to protest. The inspector ordered his men to arrest him and he was led away to be processed before a magistrate in the morning.

At Marlborough Street Poice court Parker explained that he had no desire to break the law and had no knowledge that the police had been trying to clear protestors from Trafalgar Square (which seems somewhat unlikely). He just wanted to draw the attention of the government to the problem of unemployment which ‘seemed to be puzzling all nations at present’.

Mr Hannay had some sympathy with him and was prepared to accept he had acted in good faith. The question of the right to protest in Trafalgar Square was still under discussion, he said,  but regardless of the outcome of that debate there was certainly no right to assemble in the streets adjoining the square. That had been established by a recent test case (Rack v. Holmes) sent from the Worship Street Police court. Parker had broken the law by obstructing the highway but since it was his first offence and because he didn’t expect him to repeat it, Mr Hannay ordered him to pay a ‘nominal’ fine of 10sor go to prison for a week.

It was a sensible judgment, one aimed at diffusing political tensions while maintaining the rule of law. Rubenhold is right to highlight the problem of homelessness and poverty in late nineteenth-century London, it is something we need to remember and it was at the core of my own work from 2010, London’s Shadows, which dealt with the Trafalgar Square episode. I am continually ashamed, as an Englishman, that 130 years from 1889 we still have rough sleepers, unemployment and poverty in London while the wealthy (and not just the Queen) live lives of the most opulent luxury.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, March 05, 1889]

My new book on the ‘Ripper’ murders, co-authored with Andy Wise, is published by Amberley in the summer. 

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]