Fined for disturbing a mathematical genius

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Charles Babbage (1791-1871)

Most of you will be reading this post on a computer, or a tablet, or perhaps even a smart phone. It is too much of a leap to say that without Charles Babbage’s ground-breaking work in creating his Analytical Engine in the early 1800s such devices may not have been invented, but Babbage is often heralded as the father of computing.

Babbage was born in the eighteenth century (as the ‘terror’ was sweeping Paris in fact) and died in 1871 (as Germany completed its emergence as a major European power. His life then, neatly bookmarks the end of the ancient regime and the birth of modern Europe.

But of course, scientific genius also comes with the normal traits of human life. Babbage had to eat and drink, he married and had children. He also hated being disturbed, and had a particular antipathy to street musicians, as this quote, from 1864, show:

‘It is difficult to estimate the misery inflicted upon thousands of persons, and the absolute pecuniary penalty imposed upon multitudes of intellectual workers by the loss of their time, destroyed by organ-grinders and other similar nuisances’.

Babbage campaigned against ‘public nuisances’, not only musicians but children playing in the street and drunks rolling home after a night in the pub. He even produced a mathematical calculation to show the likely number of windows broken by drunks and contributed to a drive to ban children from playing with hoops in the street, because of the potential damage they could do to horses’ legs. He reminds me a lot of an elderly teacher at my North London grammar school who railed against paper darts on the grounds that ‘they will have someone’s eye out, boy!’

Babbage was well known for his hatred of street musicians, often Italian organ grinders, who played for the money they could extract from passers-by (or perhaps householders who gave then coins to go away). In December 1866 he appeared at the Marylebone Police court, near his home, to  bring just such a complaint before Mr Mansfield.

Joseph Jenanin and Andrew Roadling were charged with ‘refusing to desist from playing musical instruments when requested to do so’. Babbage testified that on the 29 November Jenanin and Roadling, along with seven others, were performing in Paddington Street, just 200 yards from the mathematician’s home.

He went out and asked them to stop but they ignored him. He called a nearby policeman who then confirmed his story in court. In defence of the men their attorney, Mr Sayers, called upon several local tradesmen who told the magistrate that the musicians had in fact stopped playing when Babbage asked them to. They added that the men were not a nuisance in the neighbourhood, in fact we might suppose they quite enjoyed the concert and perhaps it attracted some trade.

On this occasion Babbage was thwarted by the justice system, to some degree at least. While the magistrate was prepared to accept that the men were causing a nuisance to him, they were too far from his home to have done so deliberately. As a result he couldn’t or wouldn’t punish them with the full force of the law but simply fined them 10s each and Mr Babbage’s costs. This would probably mean they avoided the great man’s home in future, but would not have ruined them or forced them to sell their instruments.

We can imagine Charles Babbage returning home from court still fuming at the outrage. He was 75.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, December 10, 1866]

 

A ‘hideous noise’ in the street and early concerns about immigration

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If  you have ever been out for dinner when a singer with a guitar has begun to serenade the restaurant, uninvited, then you will have some appreciation of this story from Marylebone Police Court. Similarly if you are trying to work, watch TV or sleep and your neighbours are having a party (loudly) then you can imagine how Mr H. G. F Taylor was feeling on the evening of the 28 June 1887.

At about 7.30 pm Mr Taylor, a private secretary who resided at 17 Manor Mansions, Belsize Park, (a fashionable address that would today set you back a cool £1.5m) heard a noise in the street outside. Peering out of his window he saw a young woman with an accordion.

According to him she wasn’t playing it, but ‘simply pulling the instrument in and out, and making a hideous noise with her mouth, not singing’. Taylor was completing his income tax return and had frequently been disturbed by street musicians. In fact it was getting to his nerves to such an extent that he had even considered going ‘the country’ for a few days to escape it.

Opening the window he leaned out and told her to go away. She ignored him, so he tried shouting at her, and motioning for her to move away. The girl simply crossed the road and moved  little way further up and continued her performance.

Frustrated, Taylor called the police. When PC 79S arrived he arrested the girl (whose name was  Catherine Demassi) and took her to the station. The next day Catherine was up in court before the Marylebone police magistrate on a  charge of ‘playing an accordion to the annoyance of the public’.

In court Taylor complained that ‘these street musicians [were] a great annoyance’ and blighted his life. Catherine spoke no English it seems and a translator was present so she could understand the charges brought against her, her sister was also present. Through the translator Catherine said that she didn’t understand what Taylor was saying to her, something the secretary found incredulous.

The magistrate, Mr Newton, wanted to know how long Catherine had been in England to not understand the language. Her sister explained she had only been here three months, having been sent for by her sibling. This brought the magistrate’s rebuke:

‘Mr Newton told the Prisoner’s  sister that it could not be allowed that children should be brought from foreign countries to England simply to play instruments about the streets’.

He remanded Catherine and sent the translator (M. Albert) to to the Italian consul in London, to arrange the girl’s repatriation to Italy. In the end then what had started as a case of a nuisance in the streets had turned into a discussion about the validity of migration and the ‘right’ to work in the UK. Catherine probably had little choice in whether she came to London or not, she was being used by her family as a means to generate funds to survive.

Her story – as an economic migrant in a foreign country – was replicated tens of thousands of times in the 1880s and 1890s and fuelled a debate which would eventually lead to legislation to restrict immigration into Britain for the very first time. The passing of the Aliens Act (1905) represented the end of Britain’s cherished ‘open door’ policy towards the people of the world, and immigration has remained a contentious issue ever since.

[from The Standard, Friday, July 01, 1887]

If you enjoyed this case you find find these interesting as well.

Two Italian musicians in a row about a monkey

Cruelty to a performing monkey in Marylebone