A little bit of clarity on Sunday trading

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One of the delights of the Police Court reportage is the additional information it gives me about the way society operated in the Victorian period. Because Police Court magistrates were called upon to deal with such a large amount of ‘civil’ business we get a real insight into how people lived and worked.

One of the things that interested me when I was writing about immigration to the East End in the 1880s was the patterns of work for Jewish businessmen and their employees. Because Jewish law forbids the faithful from working after sunset on Fridays and all day Saturday I wondered if they closed their shops and factories or employed gentile (non Jewish) workers to keep them running. Moreover since the laws forbade Sunday trading did this seriously impact Jewish businesses which would have had to shut?

I was also interested to know whether Jews would be able to work for non-jewish businesses given the restrictions their religion placed on them. This matters because accusations of ghettoisation often stem from fears that migrant groups stick together and don’t integrate. However, its quite hard to integrate if you were unable to find work that allows you to have time off to practice your religion.

Isaac Rishfield was a cap maker. He ran a workshop on Houndsditch, on the edge of the City of London close to the large Jewish community in Whitechapel and Spitalfields. In July 1884 Rishfield was summoned to appear at the Guildhall Police Court charged with ‘having contravened the Factory and Workshops Act’.

Prosecuting, Mr Lakeman told the court that under law Jewish businesses were entitled to employ people to work for them on Sundays, for half a day. This mirrored the time lost on Saturdays when workers tended only to work from early morning to the afternoon.

Very many Jewish owners took advantage of this legal loophole, Lakeman explained, and some, like Rishfield, were exceeding the regulations by employing too many. This, he continued, gave them an unfair advantage over gentile businesses in the area and complaints were made. The cap maker had employed ‘one Gentile on the Saturday and two Jewesses on the Sunday, which he was not entitled to do’.

Rishfield didn’t dispute the facts and pleaded guilty to the charge. He said he wasn’t aware he’d done anything wrong but ignorance is no defence in law so he was fined 20for each breach with 10s costs. In total he was fined the equivalent of £300 in today’s money. We know that Jewish households in the East End employed non-Jewish women as casual servants and now I’ve confirmed that this extended to other areas of the world of work and business.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, July 08, 1884]

Whitecross Street, ‘one of the most disgraceful streets in the metropolis’.

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In today’s Britain we are used to a 24/7 retail culture. We can shop every day of the week from dawn to early evening and beyond and the notion of keeping Sunday ‘special’ has long gone. Yet I can remember when Sunday trading was not ubiquitous and even a time when most shops still shut for a half day or closed early during the week.

Victorian London was a busy commercial city and shops and businesses opened early and shut late. The working day was long and, for much of the century, there was little protection for workers who had few rights. The rights we enjoy today were hard won in the twentieth century by the trades unions and the emerging Labour Party.

Nevertheless Victorian Britain was also a more religious society than is the case today. Even if fewer people regularly attended church than we might assume, there were laws in place – some going back to the reign of King Charles II – to maintain Sunday as a day of rest as stipulated in Christian teaching.

It would seem though that the laws surrounding Sunday trading were only partially obeyed or enforced. The New Police had fought a long running battle with small businessmen from the 1830s onwards to keep the Sabbath sacred, and it was a battle (according to Stephen Inwood) in which they frequently had to concede defeat.

Edward Varuvain and George Martin were shopkeepers who fell foul of the law in February 1873. The men ran shops in Whitecross Street and were summoned at the request of the St Luke’s vestry for ‘pursuing a worldly avocation on the Lord’s day’. Charities and essential services were exempt from the laws but Varuvain and Martin did not come under that category.

Whitecross Street had been a problem for the vestry for some time. There were several shops there and plenty of costermongers who plied their trade there. There had been a market there for centuries (and there is still a thriving food market there today and lots of trendy shops and eateries). The police had tried to move the costers off and shut the shops, but tensions had flared. Eventually an uneasy truce had broken out. The costers were allowed to operate up until 11 on a Sunday morning and the shopkeepers agreed to stay closed.

Then in early 1873 some of the retailers began to open on the sabbath and others, presumably emboldened or simply not wishing to miss out, followed suit. The costermongers, seeing their compromise agreement being effectively abandoned, resumed trading all day long.

The local sanitary inspector visited the street on the previous Sunday and found it cluttered with barrows and with several shops open. Martin was out in the street crying his wares, shouting ‘buy! buy! buy! What will you buy?’ and so ‘rendered the street a Babel’ as the inspector put it.

Mr Pedder from the vestry said it had become ‘one of the most disgraceful streets in the metropolis’ and the case against the two men was proved. However, given that Mr Ricketts (the sitting magistrate at Clerkenwell) only fined them 1s each plus costs, I doubt it deterred them from similar behaviour in the future. After all, they had a living to make.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, February 9, 1873]

The ‘people of the East End: a distinct class’ in need of ‘exceptional kindness’

Wentworth Street 1895 postcard

Middlesex Street (‘Petticoat Lane’) market c.1894

On most occasions London’s police  magistrates (men from a legal background with clear middle class roots) upheld the law the of the land without question. Men like Mr Lushington at Thames had little time for petty thieves, drunken brawlers, or wife beaters and dealt with then swiftly and dismissively. But now and then they displayed a level of good sense tinged with human kindness that reminds us that they were, as justices had been for hundreds of years, figures of authority whose overriding role was to maintain social cohesion in their communities, as far as that was possible.

Worship Street Police court (along with Thames) served the poor districts of the East End of London. Here were the overcrowded dwellings of tens of thousands of native and immigrant working-class Londoners, many living in what Charles Booth had identified as poverty. Here was the crime and degradation that Victorian ‘slummers’ went to gawp at on their visits to the area, here too were the dirty trades of slaughter men and tanners that had made their home in the east since medieval times. This was Whitechapel and Spitalfields and the killing grounds of ‘Jack the Ripper’, who preyed on the ‘unfortunates’ who plied their desperate trade on its ill-lit streets.

It is easy to depict the East End as down trodden and degenerate – and that is almost always the picture that emerges from contemporary reporters and later historians – but while the poverty and overcrowding was very real, so was the famed East End spirit and toughness. Nor was the entire area poor and forgotten. Booth’s poverty maps reveal plenty of ‘red’ streets where ‘respectable’ traders and the middle classes lived and worked. The Charity Organisation Society and the Salvation Army were active and local priests like Canon Barnett worked amongst their ‘flocks’.

There was also a vibrant street culture, which centred around the markets in Wentworth Street and ‘Petticoat Lane’ (Middlesex Street), which catered for all the ethnicities and pockets in the East End.

Markets, however, were also a bone of contention because the traders who set up their stalls, and stood individually elsewhere, often competed for use of the streets with other road users. The job of the keeping the streets clear for traffic and so moving on these traders – London’s costermongers – fell to the parish officials and then to the police.

As Stephen Inwood has shown, from their earliest days the Metropolitan Police soon released that resources meant that they needed to pick their battles. While their middle-class leaders wished them to enforce the law, close down Sunday markets and move on barrows, the local populace resisted and so for the sake of good relations many a blind eye was turned.

In 1889 a representative of the local parish authority appeared at the Worship Street Police court to complain about a number of costermongers who he had summoned to court for obstructing the streets with their barrows and stalls. The cases were heard by Mr Montagu Williams, the sitting magistrate.

Mr Besley, on behalf of the parish, told the court that several traders were in the habit of placing their stalls on the streets of Bethnal Green ‘where  a sort of fair was held every Sunday morning’. The market set up early but was often still there long past 11 in the morning. This was an infringement of the by-laws but the police were doing little or nothing about it.

The traders complained that they had been earning their living in this way for years, some for 25 or even 40 years; it was a tradition and the local people approved of it. Mr Besley argued that many of the costers were not ‘local’ at all, but came from other parts of the capital to sell their wares.

Mr Williams said he had himself walked the streets and seen the market, and those at Middlesex Street and Wentworth Street, and saw no harm in it. While it might infringe the by-laws of the parish it was of use.

He was convinced ‘that the people of the neighbourhood found it a great boon to be able to buy food in the markets on Sundays. One heard a great deal about the “Sweating” life led by the East-End poor, and it was precisely those people who, kept at work till midnight perhaps, needed to get their food on a Sunday’.

He thought that the vestry were being rather hard on the traders and while he recognised that laws were laws a little discretion was in order for the people of the area. He declared that the ‘people of the East End had a harder time of it than any class in the Metropolis, and therefore required an exceptional kindness’.

Mr Besley went off frustrated, quite possibly muttering under his his breath.

[from The Standard, Thursday, March 14, 1889]

Bakery wars and anti-semitism in the East End

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The Levy Brothers Jewish Bakery, 31 Middlesex Street, Whitechapel: c.1900

 

We are now (perhaps sadly) used to the reality that Sunday is no more special than any other day. In the 1990s the Sunday trading laws were relaxed allowing even large stores to open (albeit with some restrictions on their hours). Bank Holidays are only holidays if you don’t work in retail and we have very few (if any) days in the year when everything shuts.

In the nineteenth century things were different, although businesses and those that worked in them worked extremely long hours and in much poorer conditions. Workers’ rights were much less well protected than they are today (although these are been systematically eroded in the name of competitive global capitalism).

The key difference was that trading on a Sunday was against the law. Sunday was the Lord’s day and on the sabbath you did no work. Instead it was a day to rest, to be with the family, and, of course, a day to go to church.

Not everyone kept Sunday as the sabbath however. The seventh day in the Old Testament is Saturday, and this was the Jewish holy day, not Sunday. So, for Jews, working on a Friday night and Saturday was against their religion. Unfortunately for them English law followed the tenets of Christianity not Judaism.

In February 1891 this affected several traders in East London directly, and landed them in the Thames Police Court.

Morris Kosminsky, a Jewish baker who lived (ironically) at 35 Christian Street off the Commercial Road, was summoned under the 16th section of the Bread Act (1822). This forbade the making or baking of bread on the sabbath. Bread could be sold but only between 9 and 1 and there were tight restrictions preventing the delivering of bread to premises other than the baker’s own shop.

Kominsky had been seen delivering bread contrary to the terms of the act and the prosecution was brought by a representative of the Bakers and Confectioners’ Co-opertaive Union (BCCU).

The representation told the magistrate that the law was there to protect bakers from being required to work more than six days a week. But it was pointed out that Jewish bakers always shut up shop on Saturdays (their ‘Lord’s day’) and it was unfair that they could not be allowed to continue baking on Sundays, since they were not contravening the spirit of the law. ‘Our law said a Jew should not open on a Sunday’, said Mr Blanchard Wontner, who appeared as counsel for Kominsky and the other men, while ‘his religion said he should not open on a Saturday’.

Blanchard argued that this was a vindictive prosecution brought privately by the BCCU who were, he added, ‘probably composed of Christian bakers’. He suggested that the justice issue a small fine to deter future unnecessary prosecutions under the act.

Kominsky pleaded guilty, hoping for leniency. He was followed by Ascher Levy of Cable Street who had made rolls on a Sunday, A Freedman (who admitted being a baker trading on Sundays) and Mark Rosenbaum of Umberston Street likewise guilty of not obeying the Bread Laws.

If they hoped that the blatant unfairness of the law would guide the justice’s decision they were to be disappointed. Mr Mead told them they had clearly broken the law, regardless of whether it was there for commercial, moral or any other purpose and he was going to make an example of them.

He fined them each 10s (the full penalty) and awarded 5s costs in each case to the prosectors.

There was plenty of anti-semitism about the 1890s and I rather suspect that Mr Mead was happy to side with his co-religionists and fellow Anglo-Saxons against the ‘alien’ presence in East London.

[from The Standard, Thursday, February 11, 1897]