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 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]

A returning hero of the Syrian war is robbed and left in a London gutter

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HMS Powerful

In 1840 Britain was embroiled in war in the middle east, fighting at sea off the coast of Syria in the Egyptian-Ottoman War (1839-41). Britain was allied to Turkey and when the the Ottoman fleet surrendered to the Egyptians at Alexandria the Royal navy entered the fray. A naval blockade, led by the British with support from the Austrian Empire, eventually secured a truce and the return of the Turkish vessels. A peace treaty followed in which the chief British negotiator was Admiral Charles Napier who managed to get the Egyptian ruler, Muhammed Ali, to renounce his claims to Syria in return for British recognition of his legitimate right to rule Egypt.

Napier had established his reputation in June 1839 (when he was plain Captain Napier) by bringing his command, HMS Powerful, to the defence of Malta when it was threatened by Egyptian forces. HMS Powerfulan 84-gun second rate ship of the line went on to lay a significant role in the war, being part of the force that bombarded Acre ultimately allowing Allied force to occupy the city.

So the Powerful  and the men that served on her were valorised as heroes and one of those men was Henry Collier, who returned to England in 1841 after being wounded in the conflict. Collier had been treated at the navy Haslar hospital at Gosport ‘in consequence of wounds sustained in actions on the coast of Syria, but by July 1841 he was in London.

As part of his recuperation able-seaman Collier decided he would take in the sights of the capital and headed for the Surrey Theatre with ‘a messmate’. He took his naval kitbag with him which contained some new clothes he had bought in town to ‘take into the country’, and his retirement from service.

Collier found the entertainment boring however, and left the theatre hailing a cab. He got talking to the cabman and the latter invited the sailor to join him and a fellow driver for a few drinks. Soon Collier was on a pub cruise with William Collison and John Stone and quite the worse for drink. He anded over a guinea to Collison to pay for his travel but only got 56s in change, not nearly enough. However by this stage the sailor was ‘so groggy’ that he didn’t really notice.

He was soon abandoned by the pair and when he was found, dead drunk on the street by a policeman, he had no money and no bundle of clothes. He described the men and they were soon apprehend and the whole case was taken before the police magistrate at Union Hall.

When the evidence was presented to him, the magistrate (Mr Cottingham) described it as a ‘scandalous robbery’ and asked if any of Collier’s possessions had been found in the possession of the cab drivers. They hadn’t the police replied, but Collison was discovered to have considerable funds on him, 10s 6d in fact. The cabbie, never the most popular figure in the pages of the Victorian press, claimed that this was simply his daily earnings for his trade. He not only denied stealing the sailor’s money or bundle of clothes but said that when he had picked him up he had nothing but the clothes he stood up in.

Had the sailor already lost his kit bag, was he drunk before he met up with the drivers? Both were possible of course but Collier ‘persisted in the truth of his account’. It was a familiar story of an unwary visitor to the capital being parted from his wealth by the locals and sadly, there was little in the way of proof on either side. It would probably come down to reputation and the appearance of anyone that could verify either of the conflicting accounts. Mr Cottingham therefore chose to remand the cabbies while other witnesses for the prosecution (or defence) could be found.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Monday, July 5, 1841]

Normal service will be resumed…maybe

This weekend my university is doing essential upgrading work and so my access to the database of newspapers I use to create this blog is disrupted. I may get in back later today, or tomorrow, or not until Monday, who knows?

In the meantime I thought I’d go ‘off piste’ (so to speak) and write a few thoughts on what has been going on in the world. We had a university open day on Friday and one of the obvious questions parents ask is ‘why should my son or daughter study history’, rather than a more traditional vocational subject (such as law, or business studies for example).

Well, I answer, history equips them for either of those careers and more. It gives them analytical skills, writing and oral presentation skills; it builds up their confidence and ability to argue and persuade others; History allows us the ability to look at different cultures and understand different backgrounds and belief systems. A historian can look beyond the simple answer and discover and understand nuance, he or she is is able to evaluate the merits of a range of different sources and can marshal them to support their arguments.

In fact I can’t think of a better subject for an 18 year-old to study for 3 or more years if we want informed, rational, creative and well rounded people running our businesses, institutions, schools, and country in the future.

Look at the world this week and at how events have completely foxed our political commentators, journalists and leaders. A long perspective (a historical perspective) on the war on terror would be useful rather than a knee jerk reaction. Historians can help explain why events in Nice when they are so inexplicably awful. Historians could give us a perspective on the struggle between secularism and religion, between democracy and military rule in Turkey. Likewise the war in Syria, the rise of Putin, the clash of civilizations, austerity and the banking crisis, and the breakup of European solidarity are all better understood from a historical perspective.

Too often politics is all about the moment and the next few months; history is about the past and taking ‘the long view’. I wonder what sort of Foreign Secretary Simon Schama would make? A better one that Boris Johnson I’ll wager. Timothy Garton-Ash’s perspective on Brexit was the best thing I read on the topic and he knows a thing or two about European tensions.

In 1914 the power vacuum caused by the decomposing Ottoman Empire (the ‘Sick man of Europe’) was one of the underlying causal factors in the slide towards the Great War. In the 1930s the rise of fascism was assisted by the collapse of world economies and the instability of democracies. The fall of the ‘great’ European overseas empires and each of the great powers’ attitudes towards the peoples they had attempted to integrate or exploit (or both) has very real consequences for  the French, Belgian, British and German states of today.

So we need more historians and we need to listen to more historians because around the corner lie more ‘lone wolves’, more truck suicide bombers, more Putins, more military coups, more Marine le Pens, more Farages, and Donald Trump.