Stark contrasts as privilege triumphs on the back of human misery

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Elizabeth Avery had committed a very common crime in early Victorian London and received a very usual sentence for it. When she was brought before the Queen’s Square Police court on 25 June 1837 (just five days after the queen acceded to the throne) she was accused of stealing a silver spoon. The theft was discovered when Elizabeth had attempted to pawn the item and the ‘broker had become suspicious.

The spoon belonged to Philip John Miles, the sitting Conservative MP for Bristol who kept a house in London as many provincial members did. Miles owed his position to wealth and his money derived from banking and his family’s sugar plantations in Jamaica. Until 1833, Miles, like many rich and powerful men in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century England, was a slave owner. The honourable member for Bristol (who had previously held seats at Westbury and Corfe Castle) was a millionaire in his day and had acquired the slaves he had owned indirectly, as his bank took possessions of them when their owners defaulted on their mortgages.

Slavery had been finally abolished in 1833 after a long campaign and owning slaves was now illegal (the trade itself had been banned in 1808). But it left the thorny question of compensation. Not for the enslaved of course, but for the men that would have to give up their ‘property’, such was early nineteenth-century logic. A project at University College London reveals that around 10-20 of Britain’s wealthy elite have links to slavery in the past; ours was an economy built on the forced labour of millions of African slaves – something we might remember more often.

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Philip John Miles did very well out of the compensation scheme that was enshrined in law in 1837 (by a parliament in which he sat of course). His son became a baronet who also sat as a Tory at Westminster. Throughout his political career he never once had to contest an election and only resigned his seat so his son could ‘inherit’ it.

This son, Sir Philip Miles (2ndbaronet), also pursued a career in politics and was a little more active than his father or grandfather. He was more ‘liberal’ than either, even supporting votes for some women in 1884.

The Miles’ then were a wealthy, privileged family who handed that wealth and influence down to their children so they could enjoy the benefits that it brought. Contrast this then with Elizabeth Avery, who stole a spoon from John Miles’ dinner table. She was the daughter of a charwoman – a lowly servant who had worked for the family for 14 years, doing their laundry. Avery regularly went to see Mr Harding, a pawnbroker on York Street, Westminster, sent by her mother to pledge things so they could pay their rent and feed themselves.

On the night the spoon was lifted John Miles had thrown a lavish party and the Averys had come round to clear away the lined to wash. Elizabeth must have been tempted by the huge array of silver on show and, having seen such things in the pawnbrokers and knowing they could be transformed into money, pocketed it.

She was only seven years old after all.

In court Mr White the sitting magistrate, having heard the case against Elizabeth (presented by Miles’ butler and the pawnbroker’s assistant), called for the girl’s mother. He admonished her for sending her daughter to a pawnshop, saying that she ‘most probably would not have stolen the spoon had she not known a method of disposing of it’. In order to emphasize his message and the lesson he wanted Mrs Avery to learn he sent Elizabeth to prison for seven days.

So, for taking a spoon from the table of a man who owed his possession of it to a trade in human beings a little girl of seven, raised in poverty, was condemned to spend a week away from her mother in the squalid conditions of the Westminster House of Correction.

While the Miles family prospered I wonder what happened to the Averys? I suspect that Mrs Avery may have lost her job cleaning linen for the Miles household. That would have thrown a poor family into crisis and Elizabeth may have been forced to turn to some form of crime to survive thereafter. Many of London’s prostitutes started that way, and in 1842 a teenager called Elizabeth Avern, alias Avery, was convicted of stealing a boot valued at 29d.

Of course it may have been a different Elizabeth Avery but the court noted she had a previous conviction and as a result they through the book at her. She was sentenced to 7 years transportation to Australia. Transportation was a form of forced migration, which effectively enslaved those condemned to work for the British state as it built its empire ‘down under’.

I suppose that is what we might call poetic ‘injustice’.

[from The Morning Post , Monday, June 26, 1837]

Striking workers in West Ham are thwarted with the help of the bench

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If the Match Girls’ strike of 1888 and the Great Dock Strike of August 1889 can be seen as two of the most important victories for the British Trades Union movement then another dispute in 1889 must go on record as equally important, if only for demonstrating the limits of that success.

The Silvertown strike, by workers at Silver’s India Rubber and Telegraph factory in West Ham, lasted for 12 weeks as the workers, emboldened by the success of other unionists in the capital, demanded better pay and conditions. However, the owners of the factory, S.W.Silver and Co, resisted the best efforts of the striking workforce to force them to negotiate and succeeded, in the end, in breaking the strike.

The workers were aided by Eleanor Marx, the daughter of Karl, and Tom Mann the co-author of New Unionism, the defining work of the new Labour movement in London. But the bosses in this case held firm and refused to capitulate, using the press to criticise the actions of the strikers and questioning the use of picketing. This had been a tactic used in the Dock Strike but then it had failed to dent public  support for the dispute; in 1889 at Silvertown it was seemingly much more effective.

We can see the ways in which the courts were used to break the strike in this report from   The Standard, in November. A number of summoned were heard by the sitting magistrates at West Ham concerning employees of the factory who were accused of ‘intimidation and riotous conduct’.

The summonses were brought by Mr Matthew Gray, an employee of the firm, and prosecuted by the company’s legal representative, Mr St. John Wontner. The strike had ben underway for six weeks and the legal questions turned on the legitimacy (or otherwise) of picketing. St. John Wontner explained the tactics used by the striking workers:

‘The entrance to the works was in a cup de sac‘, he told the bench, ‘and every day hundreds of the workers collected at the top and and hooted at the people as they came out, and shortly afterwards the women left their employment’.

Mr Baggallay warned the strikers that if they continued with this sort of behaviour they would be severely dealt with. ‘They were perfectly entitled to go on strike’ he conceded, ‘but they had no right to threaten others who desired to go to work’. He bound them all over on their own recognisances for £5 each and dismissed them.

In January 1890, unable to support their families through the strike and with a hardline attitude from management continuing, the workers were literally ‘starved back to work’ and the strike collapsed. Other firms were quick to congratulate Silver’s management for their fortitude and equally quick to learn the valuable lessons it taught them.

[from The Standard, Saturday, November 09, 1889]

Today the site of S.W.Silver and Co is the Tate & Lyle sugar refinery on the banks of the Thames

‘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]