Refections on VE day – looking back over 150 years of change and continuity

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Today marks 75 years since VE Day (Victory in Europe) 1945. Historians and commentators are writing all sorts of things about the significance of this anniversary and about celebrating it at a time when the country (and the world) is experiencing the most serious health emergency for 100 years.

I thought – with my Victorian social history hat on – that I would reflect on what life was like in Britain 150 years ago; or 75 years prior to VE Day 1945.

As we look back at the footage of 75 years ago (as we’ve all been doing recently) we can see a world, and a UK, that, while it is different from our own in many ways, is not that unfamiliar.

In 1945 most people got their news from the BBC (via the radio or ‘wireless’), most would have read a newspaper that still exist today (such as The Times, Daily Telegraph or the Daily Mirror). Fashions were different but not dramatically so – the zip fastener was a fairly new innovation from the late 1930s, hats were widespread, lycra unheard of (thankfully!).

The country was (as it is today) a parliamentary democracy and everyone over 21 had the vote (meaning that many of those that fought in the war couldn’t have a say in who ran the country in the election of 1945) . Women’s rights were not recognized as they are today, gay rights were hardly discussed, and racism was endemic (and the Empire still existed). The car was well established in society but not ubiquitous as it is today; most people in London got about on public transport. Nationally we still enjoyed rail travel in the pre-Beeching days. Holidays were taken at home (by which I mean in the UK, not as they are now – at home) not abroad; airplanes existed but commercial air transport was still largely in the future.

My point is that if we landed (Dr Who-like) in 1940s Britain we would recognize and feel mostly at home in it (as least if we were white British). Many social changes would come in the next 15-20 years – from the Welfare State to Windrush to sexual equality – but it is not ‘another country’.

Or at least it is not as much of ‘another country’ as May 1870 would seem to any of us landing there nor, even, to anyone from 1945 looking back 75 years.

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In 1870 Queen Victoria was in the 33rd year of her long reign and William Gladstone was her prime minister. This was his first term as PM, having taken over from Victoria’s favourite – Disraeli – in 1868. In 1870 the American Civil War was in recent memory; there were plenty alive who fought in the Crimean, and others who remembered Waterloo.

The horrors of the Western Front were nearly 50 years in the future.

1870 was the year that the elementary education act was passed allowing local authorities to provide education for all children aged 5-12. Despite the fact that this was not a compulsory piece of legislation and historians have debated its effects it does mark an important milestone in state provision of education. We take free education for granted now, as many in 1945 would have (if not with the opportunities that students of all classes have today).

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1870 also saw another significant statue pass into law: the Married Women’s Property Act. This allowed married women to own their own property (both that they had earned and inherited). Previously on marriage all of this was legally surrendered to their husbands; a case of ‘what’s mine is mine, and what’s yours, is mine too’!

Of course women still did not have the vote, let alone equal pay, but it was step in the right direction.

Competition was introduced into recruitment to the civil service in 1870, presumably to tackle claims of nepotism and favoritism. I wonder to what extent that has really changed anything (then or now). That year also saw the establishment of the Red Cross (known then as the British National Society for Aid to the Sick and Wounded in War). It would very busy in the decades to come, as it remains so today.

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The Oval hosted the first ever international football match – a 1-1 draw – Wembley was not even conceived of and television coverage way off in the future. Nowadays we seem to obsessed with football, so much so that government ministers make statements about the need to get it back on our TVs so the nation can better cope with this lockdown. Football was very far from being a national obsession in 1870, but its popularity was on the rise.

With no television and no radio in 1870 entertainment was live (like the music hall for the masses or opera and theatre for the well-to-do) or provided in print. In May 1870 readers avidly sought out the latest Dickens novel – The Mystery of Edwin Drood – in regular instalments. Sadly they were to be disappointed: Charles Dickens passed away on the 9 June 1870 leaving the ‘Mystery’ unfinished.  As one great entertainer died two others were born: Marie Lloyd (on 12 February) and Harry Lauder (4 August).

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In London the Tower subway opened – offering Londoners a route underneath the Thames – linking east and southeast London by means of the very first passenger ‘tube’ railway. The underground – such a powerful image of the 1940s capital – was seeded 75 years previously.

On Friday 6 May 1870 the front page of the Morning Post (as was normal) carried mostly adverts and short notices. Page two reported parliamentary news in detail – including items on the ‘Scotch lunacy commission’, ‘Betting on Horse Races’, and the Irish Land Bill (a big political story throughout the later 1800s). Politics continued over the page, all delivered with minimal headlines, discussion, and in tight close type with no pictures.

On the next page readers could learn what was on at the opera and the capital’s West End theatres (although it was really a listing of performers and plays etc, not a review of them). The police intelligence – the news from the capital’s courts – was relegated to page 7 (of 8) although of course we have no real idea of how people read the papers then.

At Bow Street a man was committed for trial for stealing £9 from the Royal Commissioners of the Patriotic Fund, which gave money to the widows of soldiers serving abroad. I suppose the modern equivalent would be pinching the funds from an organization like Help For Heroes so I hope he got what was coming to him. At Marlborough Street a cab driver was cleared of a charge of ‘furious driving’ and his loss of earnings for the day compensated to him by his accuser.

Finally I noted that the press reported that the Prince and Princess of Wales had attended a charity concert at the Guards’ Institute. Then, as now, the royal family was the subject of press attention – if with (generally at least) more deference than is shown today.

So, I would conclude that 1870 would have seemed much more alien to folk in 1945 than 1945 would appear to us should me visit it. This reminds us of the incredible pace of change in the twentieth century, particularly from the outbreak of war in 1914.

It was a terrible century for very many people and the years of war between 1939 and VE Day in May 1945 saw millions die across the world.  The UK alone (not counting our allies in the Empire) suffered just under 400,000 direct causalities in the war, with a further 67,200 deaths on the home front. For context that represents 0.94 of the population as a whole. Other countries much more badly than we did: the Soviet Union lost 20m (13.7% of its populace), Germany 4-5.5m soldiers alone.

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And six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.

The Second World War was a tragedy for everyone involved and victory in 1945 was won by a combined effort of many nations and peoples. I think the lesson I take from it is that never again should we allow hate to dominate politics on a national or world stage, and that only by coming together and sharing our resources can we – as humanity – hope to defeat those that would endanger our lives and freedoms.

If we forget those lessons then I fear we will have let down all of those that gave their lives in the Second World War, and those that survived, in trying to ensure we could live in a society free from tyranny and race hatred.

I’ll raise a glass to them at 3 o’clock with pleasure.

Happy VE Day!

 ‘Silently, swiftly, and remorselessly’: the mythologising of a serial killer in the London press

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On the evening of the 1 October 1888 the Standard newspaper carried this report on page four:

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This was the infamous ‘double event’ when the killer known only as ‘Jack the Ripper’ killed twice within a matter of hours. We might it strange that it wasn’t ‘front page news’ as such a crime would be today but then nineteenth-century newspapers tended to carry adverts on the cover page, not news.

The Whitechapel murders were the news story of the day, relegating almost all other stories to ‘second best’ and bringing hoards of journalists, ‘dark tourists’, and ‘slummers’ to the East End to see where it all happened and to talk to the nervous locals.

The Standard went on to discuss the murders in a longer article on the same page. It described the killer as having an ‘absolutely demonical thirst for blood’ and dubbed him ‘a human fiend’. It also credited the murderer with ‘a swiftness, a dexterity, a noiselessness, and, we might almost say, a scientific skill’ which it suggested was a ‘very rare accomplishment in the class from which murderers are commonly drawn’.

Given that most of the murderers convicted at the Old Bailey in the nineteenth century might reasonably be described as working class and given that the Victorians blamed most serious crime on the so-called ‘criminal class’ (a class existing below the ranks of the working class), it follows that this editorial’s writer held a fairly low opinion of the ordinary working class man in the street.

The Standard launched in 1827 as an evening paper, and later a morning edition as well. It briefly challenged The Times for daily circulation and we might see it as a serious conservative organ. It was hardly likely then to be widely read by the working man.

The report of Catherine Eddowes’ murder in Mitre Square is full of quiet admiration for the ‘skill’ of the murderer:

 ‘Silently, swiftly, and remorselessly , the murderer performed operations which a practiced surgeon, working with all his appliances about him, could hardly have effected in the time; and then, as usual, disappeared, leaving not a shred of evidence behind by which he could be traced’.

The Standard was, like many of the other papers of the day, helping (albeit indirectly) to create the myth of ‘Jack the Ripper’; he was (so this rhetoric suggested) a fantastical figure who roamed the streets and attacked women at will, right under the noses of the impotent police force. He possessed almost super human skills, had a bestial nature, and an intelligence or animal cunning that far exceeded any of the other denizens of the East End or the ‘plod’ that were searching for him.

The Standard did call for calm and dismissed ideas (circulating elsewhere) that the murders were a reflection of the state of Britain in the 1880s:

‘Terrible as they are’, it said, the murders ‘do not show either that society is rotten to the core, or that human life is less safe in the centre of London than it is in the wilds of Texas. We are not all liable to be hacked to pieces in the streets, or murdered in our beds, because some diabolical maniac can decoy the outcasts of the pavement into dark corners and kill them’.

Finally the paper wrote that the killer must be caught and it urged the police to concentrate their efforts on the area in which the murders took place. The killer must be local it stated:

He was either a ‘resident of in a particular quarter of the East End, or, at any rate, an habitué there. He must have a haunt near the western portion of the Whitechapel-road, from which he issues before the commission of one of his crimes, and to which he ventures swiftly after the deed is done’.

The paper was at pains to dismiss the idea that the killer was a doctor or surgeon but it believed that he must have a working knowledge of anatomy, or at least was familiar with the dissection of ‘of the human or animal body’. He could be caught however, by persistent and determined police work, a task the Standard declared, that it had confidence the police could and would fulfil.

So, in this brief editorial from the day after the ‘double event’ we get very many of the themes associated with the Ripper murders. There is the notion of the mythical killer, the press attention, the moral panic that consumed London, the impotence (or otherwise) of the Metropolitan Police, the nature of the victims, elite attitudes towards the lower class, and the idea that the East End of London and killings there reflected in some ways the cancer at the heart of the British Empire.

This is why I continue to research and teach about the Whitechapel murders, because it is a rich source of discussion and debate about so many things in late Victorian London, and this is why so many people remain fascinated by the topic.

[from The Standard, Monday, October 01, 1888]

Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available on Amazon here

A ‘terrible nuisance to respectable persons’: the selling of ‘ladies tormentors in late Victorian London

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The Marlborough Street Police court dock was pretty crowded on the last day of May 1887. William Waller, William Bryan, Margaret Loosley, John Dean, William Smith, John Coleman, John Reardon, Michael Donnellan, Samuel Maidwell and Thomas Gambier all started up at Mr Mansfield as he listened to the evidence against them.

They had been rounded up by the police and charged with selling ‘squirts’ and ‘thus enabling persons to commit assaults’. The prosecution was brought individually, as they had all been involved but in different places. A Mr Alsop said that he had first complained about the problem but the law was unclear on whether their activities were prescribed or not.

He clearly wanted something done about the ‘squirt nuisance’, but what was it? It seems that the men and women were selling what we would describe as water pistols but these were filled with something unpleasant, not necessarily dangerous, but a liquid that stained or had a very bad smell. The Times described it (in 1876) as ‘a peculiarly abominable scent’1and the pistols sold as ‘ladies tormentors’.

After similar complaints by residents the police had posted up notices prohibiting the sale of such ‘weapons’ but the accused had ignored them. The previous night had seen London’s parks lit up by illuminations and this had drawn crowds on to the streets. Crowds brought mischief and opportunities to sell ‘squirts’ and occasioned this mass occupation of the Marlborough Street dock.

The magistrate agreed that the use of squirts was a ‘terrible nuisance to respectable persons’ but he wasn’t clear that any law had been broken by selling them. It wasn’t as if they were lethal weapons – like guns – which already had restrictions on their sale.  It was, he said, akin to the school playground where things were commonly thrown around but not intended to cause real harm. An educated man, he regaled the court with the history of the carnival in Rome where ‘bon-bonsetc, were thrown at passers-by’.

He was sure the police were right in trying to suppress the problem but until the legislature acted to prohibit it there was very little he could do to stop it and punish anyone for selling squirts. If, however, those using them were brought before him he would do his utmost to punish them as the law allowed. So the crowded dock was cleared and the squirt sellers dismissed.

1 The Times 1879 from a tweet by Lee Jackson, [24/5/16]

[from The Standard, Tuesday, June 01, 1880]

On June 15 Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available to order on Amazon here

A foolish young man amongst the ‘roughs’: police and protest in late Victorian London

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This morning my History and Criminology undergraduates sit their exam on my third year module on the Whitechapel murders. The module uses the ‘Jack the Ripper’ case as a prism through which to explore a number of themes in the social and cultural history of late Victorian London. We look at the murders, think about the representations of ‘Jack’, of the mythmaking that surrounds the case, and consider policing, prostitution, poverty and popular culture (among other things). I am considering creating an online version of the module that the public might be able to sign up, so do send me an email if you think this is the sort of thing that might interest you.

One of the events we cover is ‘Bloody Sunday’ in November 1887 when a demonstration in Trafalgar Square was broken up by police and elements of the military on the order of Sir Charles Warren, the chief commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. Many people were injured and two or three killed as the police charged protestors. It was a mixed day for Warren who was castigated in the radical and popular press but praised by establishment organs such as The Times. He’d acted firmly following a debacle in 1886 when demonstrators had run amok in Pall Mall, smashing shops and the smart West End gentleman’s clubs that were situated there.

Demonstrations of all sorts happened in the 1880s: for Irish Home rule, or socialism, against unemployment, or for free trade – all brought hundreds and thousands of people onto the streets. The 1880s was a turbulent decade or poverty and austerity, and hundreds slept rough in the streets, squares and parks of the capital. Police soused the benches in Trafalgar Square to  deter the homeless from using them as beds and local residents demanded action to clear the area of the unwanted ‘residuum’ or ‘dangerous classes’.

There must have been some sort of protest or demonstration in Trafalgar Square close to May Day 1888 because two men appeared at Bow Street Police court on charges connected to disturbances there. First up was Alexander Thompson, a ‘respectably dressed youth’ who was accused by the police of being ‘disorderly’. PC 82A deposed that on Saturday evening (5 May) at about 6 o’clock Thompson was being arrested by two sergeants when a group of ‘roughs’ tried to affect an impromptu rescue.

According to the police witness Thompson was egging them on  by ‘groaning and hooting’ and some stones were thrown at the officers. As the constable tried to hold back the crowd Thompson lashed out at him, striking him on the shoulder. His escape was prevented by another PC who rushed in to help but it was devil of job to get him to the station house. The young man had enough money to be represented by a lawyer, a Mr E Dillon Lewis, who secured bail of £5 for his appearance at a later date.

Next to step into the dock was Walter Powell and he was charged similarly with disorderly behaviour. Powell had been selling ‘a weekly periodical’ in the square. He’d drawn a crowd of ‘roughs’ about him and the policeman who arrested him said that while he couldn’t hear what he was saying it was clear he was addressing them, and possibly exhorting them to some sort of nefarious action. The police sergeant from A Division told Powell to go home and when he refused, or at least did not comply, he took him into custody. He’d been locked up overnight and all day Sunday and for Mr Vaughan, the magistrate presiding, that was punishment enough. He told him he was foolish but let him go with a flea in his ear.

Hopefully today my students will not have been ‘foolish’ and will have prepared themselves for the 90-minute examination I’ve set them. They have to write one essay (from four choices) and analyse  one of two contemporary sources. If they’ve done their revision and paid attention all year I should get some interesting papers to mark. I wish them all the best of luck, but hope they don’t need it.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, May 08, 1888]

If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders which is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here:

A welcome new insight into the lives of the ‘Ripper’s victims

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Book Review, The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, Hallie Rubenhold (London, Doubleday, 2019) 416pp; £16.99

This may not be the first study to look at the lives of the five canonical victims of ‘Jack the Ripper’ but it is certainly the first published by such a prestigious printing house as Penguin/Doubleday. Hallie Rubenhold has written about prostitution previously and is also a novelist and she brings both of these skills to bear in this excellent popular history. Rubenhold takes the lives (not the deaths) of the ‘five’ murdered women – Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly – as her subject and traces them from birth, detailing their highs and lows.

She uses a range of archival material, augmented by a strong selection of secondary reading, to map out the lives of these working-class women as they grew up, went into work, married and had children, before – in all cases it seems – beginning the descent into poverty, alcoholism and homelessness that led them to Whitechapel (and their deaths) in 1888.

However, Rubenhold does not describe their murders or give any space to their killer: ‘Jack the Ripper’ is entirely absent from the book, except for a discussion of the mythology and industry that has grown up around him since the murders.  This is deliberate and fitting in the context of the book. While in recent years studies have been at pains to provide context on the ‘Ripper’ case a great many of the books that have received media attention have been those which focus on naming a suspect, and most of these do so with very little attention to the victims.

This is a book with a clear central message, namely that the five ‘canonical’ victims of the unknown murderer known to history as ‘Jack the Ripper’ were real people, with real lives, and that they deserve better than to be dismissed as ‘just prostitutes’.  Rubenhold writes that ‘in the absence of any evidence that Polly [Nichols], Annie [Chapman] and Kate [Eddowes] ever engaged in common prostitution, many have taken to claiming that these women participated in “casual prostitution”: a blanket term cast over the ambiguities of the women’s lives that is steeped in moral judgment’ (p.343).

It is fair to say that it is this assertion, namely the lack of ‘any evidence’ that three of the five were prostitutes (however we define that term for the 1880s) that has caused most dissent amongst the Ripperology community (another term that can be broadly defined). I am not a Ripperologist but I have researched the case and its contexts, have written and lectured on the subject, and often discuss aspects of the murders and the existing archival evidence with researchers that would classify themselves within that group. I am also a trained historian, like Rubenhold, with an interest in the social history of London in the nineteenth century.

I would say that plenty of evidence exists to suggest (if not prove conclusively) that all of the five canonical victims* in the Whitechapel murder series were, at one time or another, engaged in prostitution. This evidence has been presented by a number of researchers over very many years and while we might reasonably ask questions about police and public attitudes at the time (a point Rubenhold raises), we can’t simply ignore sources that don’t fit our particular view of the past. This book is notable both for the new information it highlights about the lives of the women murdered in 1888 and by the information (mostly about their deaths) that it omits.

Researchers like Paul Begg and very many others have been questioning our accepted narrative of the case for over 20 years and so it is wrong to suggest that it has always been assumed that all of the victims were sex workers. Moreover even a casual engagement with the information that is in the public domain (at the National Archives for example) would us cause to question whether Rubenhold’s assertions are entirely accurate.

I might ask why it matters whether the women were, or were not prostitutes? They were still human beings and innocent victims of a brutal, misogynist killer. As Judith Walkowitz’s work on prostitution in the nineteenth century has shown communities like that in Spitalfields and Whitechapel did not themselves denigrate those poor women who, at times of desperate need, were forced to sell themselves for the price of a bed, a meal, or a drink. The sneering tone of The Times certainly condemned those ‘unfortunates’ for bringing such horror on their own heads but then it was equally scathing about most of those living in the Whitechapel slum.

Rubenhold certainly makes an interesting suggestion when she argues that the victims were killed while they were sleeping rough on the streets. In my conversation with her in the summer it was this new interpretation of ‘street walking’ (from the comments made by Kate Eddowes’ partner John Kelly) that gave me cause to consider how this might affect our understanding of the case. I had previously thought of ‘street walking’ as a euphemism for prostitution but what if it simply it was sometimes meant literally: walking the streets because they had nowhere to sleep indoors?

It is an interesting angle on the killings and certainly one I was looking forward to seeing developed in the book. Once again though, I’m bound to say that I wasn’t presented with any real evidence that these women were killed whilst sleeping rough, let alone evidence that effectively challenges the considerable existing evidence that suggests otherwise. This partly because of her understandable decision not to detail the circumstances surrounding their murders. But it is within the information – such as exists – about the killings that evidence arises that might challenge this second assertion.

So in terms of the two key discoveries in her research I am unconvinced on the basis of the evidence she presents. This leaves her open to criticism by those researchers who know a great deal more about the case than I do, and that is a shame because she has made a significant contribution to the study of the murders in highlighting the lives of five of the victims. While we have had studies of the murdered women before we have never had such a high profile and well written study before.

As a result of Rubenhold’s book very many more people will know about the lives of poor working-class women (and men) in late Victorian London. Bringing these stories to a much wider audience is important, especially in highlighting that the problems of homelessness, poverty, substance abuse, and domestic violence (all current issues) have a long history.

This is a book that will get a large and a different readership to those that have knowledge of the ‘Ripper’ case before. The sympathy with which Rubenhold writes about the ‘Five’ is evident and her ability as a writer to bring these lives to life, to paint a picture of their struggles in the society in which they lived, is great popular history. She has a novelistic style which fills in the gaps left by the paucity of source material there is for almost any working-class life in Victorian Britain. I’m not surprised this has been selected for a television drama, it reads like a screenplay in places.

This sort of book engages new audiences with history and that has to be a good thing. Will anyone with a strong working knowledge of the Whitechapel case learn much from it? Maybe not, but if it asks them to question the way they approach the case then that too can only be a positive.

Finally, the book has made waves. Partly, of course because of Rubenhold’s bold assertions. But also because of the way that she and some elements of the Ripperology community have clashed both before and after the publication of The Five. Some of the social media exchanges have been unpleasant (to say the least) and seems to be dividing into two camps – those that support her and those that attack her ideas. I find this quite depressing and indicative of our modern society where the quality of intellectual debate is at the lowest I can remember it and where even complex questions are reduced to binary ones. So a lot of mud has been slung about and one comments on the book with caution, for fear of being dubbed a ‘heretic’ by either side.

I enjoyed reading The Five and would recommend that anyone with an interest in well-written popular history would enjoy it also. It is not fair to judge it as an academic study because that it not what it is, whether it is a ‘Ripper’ book is also open to question. It is however a very readable and engaging book about working–class women’s lives, and there are too few of them about so Rubenhold deserves a lot of credit for what she has produced here, I’d like to see more.

*And other women listed  in the Police File (held at the NA).

NB in June 2019 my own joint authored book on the Whitechapel murders will be published by Amberley. In it we argue that the killer known as ‘Jack the Ripper’ murdered 13 women and attempted the lives of at least 3 more. 

A well-read thief hides his plunder in his hat

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A Victorian coffee house, note the lack of female customers.

Francis Nicholls was a young man of about 25 years of age. He sounds like he possessed a certain degree of cunning and a great deal of cheek. At the end of October 1845 Nicholls was brought before the magistrate at Greenwich Police Court and charged with a number of counts of theft.

On Tuesday afternoon (28th October) Francis visited a beer shop on Blackheath Road (run by William Gentry.  He sat himself down and ordered ‘some bread and cheese and a pint of beer’. Having downed his pint he called for another and for a “screw of tobacco” to enjoy with it. He then took out a notebook and asked for a pencil and proceeded to write something in it.

Mr Gentry now had ‘occasion to go out’ of his shop so asked his customer to settle his account, at which point the young man ‘rummaged in his pockets’ and admitted he had no money and couldn’t pay. He handed over his waistcoat and handkerchief in lieu of his bill (saying the publican could pawn them) and left.

Soon after he’d gone Gentry realised he had taken the pewter pint post he had been drinking out, so made a complaint to the nearest policeman.

Later, in the early evening, Francis entered the Victoria Coffee Rooms, also on Blackheath Road, and this time asked the serving woman, Mary Ann Wells, for ‘some coffee, a rasher of bacon, and a roll’. Having served him Mary Ann asked him to pay and again he pleaded poverty and apologised for having nothing to give her.

The servant called her mistress, Mrs Atkinson, who immediately sent for a police constable. The policeman, who happened to be passing by, was detective constable  John Evans (189R) and he secured the young man. Suspecting that Nicholls was concealing something DC Evans asked him to remove his hat. Nicholls refused and so Evans swept it from his head, whereupon out fell a squashed up piece of metal that had once been Mr Gentry’s pewter pint pot.

Back at the station a proper search was conducted and  a copy of The Times newspaper tucked inside Nicholls’ trousers, which was subsequently identified as belonging to the coffee house’s owner, Mr Atkinson. The young thief was locked up for the night.

Brought before Mr Grove at Greenwich it looked like a fairly straightforward case of theft and of the non payment of bills. But the magistrate suspected that Nicholls was a serial offender so ordered that he be locked up for a week so that the officers of the Toothily Fields Bridewell could come down and identify him. If he was a recidivist thief then he faced a few months in gaol rather than a few days of weeks.

Let’s hope he had a ready supply of newspapers or paper, because he was, unusually for London’s so-called ‘criminal class’, seemingly quite well educated.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper, Sunday, November 2, 1845]

An excitable militia man and the shadow of Napoleon III

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In mid July 1859 there was something of a panic about a potential French invasion of Britain. This had been stirred up by the press after Louis Napoleon had become Emperor Napoleon III in 1852 and had operated as an autocrat for the first six or so years of his reign. As Louis Napoleon (the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte), he had been elected president in 1848 but had seized power in a coup d’etat when he was denied the opportunity to run for a second term.

Invasion fears may well have prompted some in England to enlist in the army or the local militias. The latter were not ‘proper’ soldiers although they played an important role in defending the state throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. They never enjoyed the popularity that the Navy or Army did however, even in the hey day of Victorian militarism.

In July 1859 Reynold’s Newspaper reported several views from other papers about the situation in France. Reynold’s was notably more radical than many of its competitors and often served an audience that was more plebeian in character. The Morning Advertiser warned that ‘the country is in imminent danger of invasion from the ruler of France’ and a force of over 100,000 men. The Daily News wrote of ‘Louis Napoleon’s perfidy’ and noted that the governments ‘of Europe regard him with increased suspicion and dislike’. Even the sober Times claimed that ‘war and peace hang by a thread’.

Meanwhile in Bethnal Green the over excited militia seem to have been trying out their martial skills on the local passers-by.

On Monday 18 July an iron merchant named James Webster appeared in court to complain about a brutal assault he had suffered on the previous Saturday evening. Webster, who worked at premises in Digby Street, stood in the witness box at Worship with his head bandaged in black cloth.

He told Mr D’Eyncourt, the sitting magistrate, that he was on his way home from work at about half past 5 o’clock when he encountered several members of the Tower Hamlets Militia. They might have been a bit ‘tipsy’ he said, but he wasn’t sure. One of them threw a hat at him which hit him in the face and fell to the floor. He reacted by kicking it out of his way and carryied on walking.

As he went a few yards he felt a ‘heavy blow’ on the back of his neck, which knocked him off his feet. He got up and grabbed hold of the man he thought was to blame, a militia private by the name of Charles Lowe. As the two grappled others joined in and he described a scene of chaos with several men rolling around on the ground before he was overpowered and subjected to what seems to have been a pretty brutal kicking.

Webster told Mr D’Eyncourt that:

‘As I lay on the ground I was beaten and kicked so badly about the body that I am covered all over with bruises and cannot lie down with ease, and also, while I lay on the ground’ a woman had ‘somehow got her ear into my mouth and so nearly bit the upper part of it off that it only hung by a mere thread, and I have been since obliged to have it sewn on’.

This woman was Anne Sherrard who was described as married and living in Old Ford, a poor area of Bethnal Green associated with the new industries on the River Lea and the railways. Both Ann and Charles Lowe appeared in court to answer the charges against them.

Mr D’Eyncourt clearly thought this was a particularly serious assault because he chose not to deal with it summarily, as most assaults were, but instead sent it on for jury trial at the next sessions.  He noted for the record that:

‘This is a most brutal assault and it is high time that these raw recruits should be taught better; men like these fancy that as soon as they have a soldier’s coat they must commence fighting someone immediately, whereas an actual soldier would not be guilty of such infamous conduct’.

D’Eyncourt then was drawing a clear line between the professionals and the amateurs and finding the latter a much poorer specimen overall. History tells us that there was no invasion in 1859 or indeed ever again in British history to date. Had there been we might have been able to see how private Lowe and his companions fared when confronted by a real enemy rather than a perceived one. As for Napoleon III, his reign was the longest in French history after 1789 but came to the end in ignominious defeat by the Prussians at the battle of Sedan in September 1870. He ended up living out the rest of his life in England, but not as an all conquering victor but as a former head of state in exile.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, July 24, 1859]

This one is for Bill and Jim, and their family – I can only think that Charles must have been a very distant relative, and not at all like his modern ancestors.