A little local difficulty: ‘political’ violence in early Victorian Stepney

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Politics, as we have seen recently, can sometimes get a little heated and nothing gets more heated than local politics. Having stood as a candidate for local elections in the recent past I can attest to long running petty squabbles between party workers, elected and defeated councilors, and their friends and families.

In one large east Midlands town there were dark mutterings about a Conservative councilor who had defected from Labour several years earlier simply because he thought it more likely to be re-elected if he stood for ‘the other side’.  The suggestion (made by his Conservative colleague, against whom I was contesting a seat) was that he only entered politics for the rewards it brought in terms of his local standing in the community; it mattered not whether he was part of a left or right political party, what mattered was being in government.

I’ve no idea if this was accurate or fair (and indeed I wondered at the time if there was a smack of racism in the comment) but historically the exercise of local government has involved a deal of self aggrandizement. It is also accurate to say that local politics has probably always been fractious though it doesn’t always end in violence as this particular example from 1847 did.

Charles Williams, a general dealer from Mile End, was attending  meeting of the Stepney parish vestry on Easter Monday 1847 when a man rushed into the room and interrupted them. Williams and his colleagues were tasked with electing parish officers when James Colt (a local undertaker and carpenter) interrupted them.  Colt pulled the chair out from underneath one of the candidates for the role of churchwarden, tipping him on to the floor, before slamming shut the room’s shutters – plunging it into darkness – and throwing the ink pot into the fire. He called everyone present ‘the most opprobrious names’ and challenged them all to a fight.

It was a quite bizarre episode and it seemed that Colt’s intention had been to close down proceedings because he believed they were being conducted either illegally or unfairly. An argument then ensued about the manner of the meeting and whether it conformed to the rules as they were understood. James Colt was, like the man he’d tipped out of the chair, been seeking election as parish officer (an overseer in Colt’s case) and he may have believed he was being excluded form the meeting so as to have missed this chance at a bit of local power.  Perhaps he was, and perhaps with good reason.

Eventually Colt was summoned before the magistrate at Thames to face a charge of assault. The paper concentrated on the shenanigans at the parish meeting and heard several claims and counter claims regarding the legitimacy or otherwise of the proceedings but for Mr Ballantine the magistrate the question was simple: had Colt committed an assault or not? It was fairly obvious to all present that he had and so the justice fined him £5 and let him go. I would suggest James Colt had demonstrated by his histrionics that he was entirely unfit for public office.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, April 9, 1847]

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]

A poor woman pleads not to be sent to ‘a country which was foreign to her’

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1848 was a tumultuous year in Europe. There were revolutions in Italy, Germany,  Denmark and the Habsburg Empire (in Hungary). Louis-Phillips was forced from his throne in France and fled to England, while there was rioting in Sweden and a short civil war in Switzerland. Britain didn’t escape trouble as Chartists assembled across the country in large numbers including a ‘monster’ rally in Kennington Park in April when tens of thousands demanded the vote.

Over in Ireland the ‘great famine’ was forcing thousands to flee the island and leaving almost  million dead; reducing the population overall by 20-25%. Many of these travelled to England finding their way to London or one of the other other large urban areas of Victorian Britain.

So 1848 saw political unrest, nationalism, poverty, and the mass migration of peoples fleeing all these events. We get an inclining of how this might have impacted society in a brief report of business from the Thames Police Court in October of that year.

‘THAMES – Complaints are almost daily made by aged natives of Ireland, whose necessities compel them to apply for parochial relief, of the hardship of being sent back to Ireland after a long stay in England’.

One case in particular was brought to the attention of the Thames Police Court magistrate, Mr Yardley. A ‘poor Irish widow’ who had been resident in England for 40 years applied to the Stepney Poor Law Union for relief only to be refused help and told to go home to Ireland. She explained to Mr Yardley that she had been away so long she ‘did not know a soul there. She hoped the magistrate would interpose , and prevent her being sent to a country which was foreign to her’.

The woman had been before him to ask for help a week earlier and he had directed a letter to the union on her behalf, so he asked what had happened in the interim. A police officer attached to the court confirmed that the letter had been delivered but one of the reliving officers said they were only following the instructions handed down to them by the board of guardians of the poor.

The policy in a time of huge pressure on the parish purse was, it seems, to try and get rid of as many unwanted paupers as possible. The court was told that while this woman  claimed she had lived in England for 40 years her ‘residence was a broken one, and not continued for five years in any one parish’. In short she had moved around and so did not ‘belong’ anywhere.

Mr Yardley was sympathetic to the woman’s plight but could only assure her that he would intercede on her behalf and hope the guardians relented. She thanked him for his time and left the court.

I think this reveals some of the problems facing the authorities in mid Victorian Britain but also the callous lack of care for the people of the wider empire. Stepney was poor, as was most of the East End in the 1800s. Poor relief fell on the parish rather than the national purse. So it was individual ratepayers who were supporting the huge numbers of impoverished East Londoners whose ranks were undoubtedly swollen by migrants from Ireland (and perhaps from further afield in such a troubled decade).

Poverty, war and famine always lead to migration and this inevitably puts pressure onto communities that are themselves often struggling to survive. Whether migration is fuelled by economic necessity, or by persecution, or simply a desire to get away to a ‘better place’, it is part of the human condition. Human beings have always migrated in search of better land, greater resources, improved living conditions, or a more tolerant society. Whether it was the Irish in the 1840s or Polish Jews in the 1880s, or South Asian Kenyans in the 1970s, or indeed Syrians in the last decade; all of these people have left their homes, sometimes their families, everything they know and love, to find a refuge overseas.

That this puts pressure on the country and community that receives them is self-evident. Tensions flare, xenophobia rears its ugly head, and people make political capital out of the situation. But the answer is not to close the borders, to turn one’s back on people in need, to refuse to help. The attempt of the Stepney guardians to send a poor Irish woman back to her country of birth and therefore into a situation where thousands were dying every week was simply wrong. It was wrong in 1848 and it remains wrong today.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, October 24, 1848]

The jilted rifleman, the gipsy and the ungrateful lodger’: ‘a shockingly immoral case’ at Thames

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A murderer and a villain,
A slave that is not twentieth part the tithe
Of your precedent lord, a vice of kings,
A cutpurse of the empire and the rule,
That from a shelf the precious diadem stole,
And put it in his pocket—
                             Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 4

When Samuel Ford stood in the dock at the Thames Police Court he was flanked on one side by the prosecutor, Peter Stephens, and on the other by a woman whose name was given as Mrs Bullock. Ford was charged with theft; specifically the theft of ‘a shirt and other articles belonging to Stephens. In court Ford was defended by Mr Pelham while the prosecution was conducted by Stephens himself.

Stephens explained that until recently he had lived with Mrs Bullock (who was not his wife) at his home in Eltham Place, Stepney. Ford was a friend of his, he told the magistrate (Mr Yardley) and when he heard that he had been turned out of his lodgings he invited him to come and live in his rooms until he got another place.

It was an act of kindness but it rebounded on him. It very soon became clear that Ford and Mrs Bullock were getting closer and within a short space of time, he had ‘undermined him’ in her ‘affections’.

However, this had not been noticed at by Stephens and so when he left home early on a Saturday morning and did not return until midnight on the Sunday he had no real suspicions about the couple. Imagine his shock then when he got back to find that ‘his friend and his mistress had taken French leave’*. Not only had they fled but they had taken some of his property with them.

As Pelham cross-examined the prosecutor an alternative view of the relationship between Mrs Bullock and Stephens emerged. It seems that her mother had given them quite a lot of help in the form of (quite possibly money) and domestic goods and other ‘gifts’. Ford’s lawyer suggested that Mrs Bullock’s mother had recently given them a clock  and other things, which the eloping couple had taken with them.

Mrs Bullock was, it seems, something of a character. In court she was described as a ‘handsome, well-dressed’ but rather bold-looking woman, whose beauty was of the gipsy kind’. She intervened in the course of the cross-examination and at several points reportedly shook her parasol in Stephens’ direction. Mr Yardley was forced eventually to tell her to be restrain herself.

Mr Yardley didn’t appear to have much more time for the prosecutor though. He discovered that Stephens had met up with Mrs Bullock (a widow with three children) whilst he was on his travels with a rifle show. Perhaps the magistrate felt that he had reaped what he’d sown by picking up a gipsy woman at a travelling fair; maybe he simply regards the whole sordid thing as a ménage à trois which he would have preferred never to have demeaned his courtroom.

In the end there was little the justice could do anyway. It was clear that Mrs Bullock did not want to live any longer with Stephens and had instead chosen Ford as her new ‘paramour’. Stephens had benefited from the relationship materially and in other ways for nine months, but had never made the woman his wife. Ford had stepped up and asked her to marry him so she and her children would have the respectability and stability she desired.

As for the stolen property well, ‘the shirt alleged in the charge-sheet was made and sent up by Mrs Bullock, and as that lady has made her selection [in choosing Ford over Stephens]’ the magistrate declared, ‘she has a right to dispose of it as she pleases’.

‘It is a shockingly immoral case altogether’, he concluded. ‘Let them go away. Give the prosecutor the shirt, the woman the clock, and the prisoner his liberty’.

The reporter finished his article by stating:

‘The woman went away in triumph, hanging on the arm of her new paramour, who, in outward appearance, was not a “twentieth part of the tithe of her precedent lord”.’

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, August 21, 1853]

*French leave: ‘to go away without permission’ (OED)

A mysterious case of arson in Mile End

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The spinning room in the Shadwell rope works c1880

This week I am looking at the business of just one of London’s police courts, Thames (in East Arbour Lane) over the course of seven days in June 1881. After yesterday’s wounding at sea and violent assault at home we have another two cases from the East London courtroom.

Francis Kearns and Thomas Risdale were accused of assaulting Henry Osborn. All three were milkmen, the former worked for the Farmers’ Dairy Company (based in Stepney) and while Osborn was employed by an unnamed rival. They clashed in a pub in Cotton Street, Limehouse and Kearns hurled a can containing eight quarts of milk at Osborn. As a fight began to escalate the police were called and the men arrested. Mr Saunders, the magistrate presiding that day, sent both defendants to prison for a month at hard labour.

However it was the other story I found more interesting because it involved arson, a crime historians have , relatively speaking, largely ignored.

At 4 o’clock on Saturday 11 June the gates of Joseph Johnson’s rope and twine factory in Wade’s Place on the Mile End Road were locked. All the hands had gone home at 2 having finished for the day, as was the normal pattern of working in the 1800s. Workers generally worked Monday to Saturday afternoon, having the latter off along with Sunday.  Joseph Johnson ran the factory with his brother William but they didn’t live there. At 11 at night William checked the premises, as he always did, and found everything in order and nothing out of the ordinary. He returned to his home which was close by the business.

However, at one o’clock on Sunday morning a fire was seen burning in the factory and the alarm was raised. William rushed over accompanied by his carman (effectively a nineteenth-century van driver) and they found the whole place on fire. They also discovered a man lying on the ground, ‘face downwards, close to the shed door’. William asked him what he was doing there but his reply was inaudible and Johnson and the carman left him and ran off to try and save the horses that were stabled there.

When they had secured the horses – all safe and well I’m glad to say – they looked for the mysterious man but he had gone. He hadn’t gone far however, and they soon caught up with him near the gates. Johnson and his employee seized the man and handed him over to the police. On the way to East Arbour Square Police station the man, who gave his name as John Redding (a cooper from Stratford), desperately tried to escape his situation.

‘I hope you will not swear against me’ he pleaded with Johnson, ‘I did not intend to do any hard. If £1000 will get me out of it, I can get it’.

£1000 in 1881 was a huge sum of money, the equivalent to nearly £50,000 today so I’ve no idea how a cooper thought he would lay his hands on that amount, and it all adds to the mystery.

At Thames Police Court Mr Saunders was told the police thought Redding had been drinking and was sporting a black eye. Was this an explanation of his behaviour or evidence of him seeking some ‘dutch courage’ to carry out a deliberate act of arson, perhaps one inspired by revenge? When he was searched no ‘lucifers’ (matches) were found on him; in fact nothing (not even a pipe) was found that might have enabled him to start the blaze. It was a curious case and clearly there was more to be discovered. As a result Mr Saunders remanded him in custody for further examination.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, June 12, 1881]

‘Twas Christmas Eve in the Police court’…

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In the 1860s the Police Courts closed at Christmas but just as we are used to that last minute rush for a present so the Victorian court system (and those caught up in it) were clean to clear the decks and settle down for the goose and the crackers.

At Worship Street in Stepney on Christmas Even 1866 the sitting magistrate was busy. As usual the cells were full of night charges brought in by the police in the evening and small hours, many of them drunk and incapable. The morning visitors were often those seeking the support or the protection His Worship; paupers, the elderly or abused wives.

On the 24 December 1866 the court reporter from the Morning Post noted decided to dispose with the usual reflection on one peculiar or otherwise interesting case and instead give a flavour of the courtroom before the holiday:

‘Mr Newton was engaged for a long time’ he wrote, ‘in hearing applications from the poor-box, and disposing of cases against the incurably drunk and the drunk and disorderly’.

Most of those threatened with incarceration did what they could to avoid being locked up at Christmas, offering ‘all sorts of excuses for their misbehaviour. In most circumstances they were discharged, with the caution, “Don’t come here again”.

However, two men were not so lucky. One (a ‘dirty-looking looking fellow’)  had approached two girls in the street holding a bunch of mistletoe and demanding a kiss from each. When they refused he struck out, hitting one of them in the eye and causing her to faint. The bully was sent to prison for 14 days.

The other man had been conning punters on the Mile End Road with the ‘three-card trick’. His ‘confederates’ had kept an eye out for the police which had almost saved him from arrest. Unfortunately for him an officer in plain clothes infiltrated the crowd and when he witnessed one of the onlookers being cheated out of a sovereign he pounced and the fraudster was now going to spend the Christmas season in gaol.

Happy Christmas everyone and thanks for reading – more tales will continue tomorrow!

Drew

[from The Morning Post , Tuesday, December 25, 1866]