‘An offence that must be put down’: an attack on trade unionism in 1889

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I am currently teaching a third year history module that focuses on London in the 1880s. Crime and Popular Culture in the Late Victorian City uses the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders of 1888 as a prism through which to explore the social and cultural history of the East End.

On Monday my students were looking at radical politics, strikes, and demonstrations. We focused on the rioting in and around Trafalgar Square in 1886 (the so-called ‘West End’ or ‘Pall Mall’ riots) and the events of ‘Bloody Sunday in 1887. We then went on to look at the Match Girls Strike (using the work of Louise Raw) and the Great Dock Strike of 1889.

It is always harder to get students engaged in this sort of ‘political’ history than it is in crime and punishment history, although of course the two are very closely related. Much of the crime and its prosecution in the 1800s was linked to the inequalities which drove radical politics and the demands of men like Ben Tillett who led the dockers’ dispute. It is too simplistic to see the Police Courts of London as a disciplinary arm of the state but, in part at least, they functioned as that.

The courts served their communities and all of those that lived in them, but their fundamental purpose was as part of the mechanism that preserved the status quo in Victorian London. Poverty, unemployment, homelessness, alcoholism, crime and other social ills were self-evidently a product of a capitalist system which failed to provide for the poorest, regardless of any sense of being ‘deserving’ or ‘underserving’, but it was a system the government, police, and courts were determined to uphold regardless.

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In mid August 1889 the Great Dock Strike (right) broke out and tens of thousands of dockworkers downed tools and followed Ben Tillett and John Burns (and others) in demanding better pay and a better system of work. They drew tremendous support, both from the East End communities in which they lived and worked and further afield. Australian workers sent donations of £30,000 to help the cause.

There were numerous prosecutions of dockers and their supporters as the police tried to prevent secondary picketing and the intimidation of strikebreakers. The strike emboldened other workers in the area, just as the Match Girls strike a year previously had inspired the dockers to take action.

On 21 August 1889, just a week after Tillett’s call for action ignited the strike on the docks, Mark Hacht found himself in front of Mr Saunders at Worship Street Police court. Hacht was a tailor who lived at Wood Street in Spitalfileds. He was just 18 years of age and was accused of assaulting a police officer.

The court was told that the premises of a Mr Koenigsberg, a local furrier, was being picketed as his workers were out on strike. Hacht was part of the picket it seems, gathered outside the factory on Commercial Street preventing some employees from entering.

However, Hacht didn’t work for Koenigsberg, he had no connection at all to the furriers, instead he was, the prosecution lawyer alleged, merely ‘a paid agitator’. When one worker went to enter the building Hacht grabbed at him and said:

‘You shall not go to work there’.

‘I have got no food’, the man replied.

Hacht supposedly dismissed this saying that he ‘would murder him if he went there’. As the man continued Hacht hit him over the head with an umbrella. A policeman (PC 337H) intervened and the tailor tuned his attention to attacking him. As they struggled a ‘mob of Jews’ tried to pull the policeman off of his prisoner, impelling PC Littlestone to brandish his truncheon and ‘hold back the crowd’.

Having successfully secured his prisoner he took him into custody. There were witnesses who denied Hacht had done anything at all but the magistrate decided to believe the policeman and the furrier’s lawyer.

It was, Mr Saunders said, ‘one of the worst cases of the kind he had heard’ and it was ‘an offence that must be put down’. With the dock strike occupying so many column inches at the time it is was hardly surprising that a representative of middle class and elite society should choose sides quite so obviously. the young man was sent to prison for three months with hard labour.

In September 1889 the employers caved in and agreed to the dockers’ demands for sixpence an hour and a fairer system of choosing casual workers. The demands were not that radical, the impact on the employers’ profits fairly minimal. It was a rare victory for organized labour and led to a groundswell in trade union membership in the 1890s. Its longer-term affect was less positive however; in fact we might see the 1890s as the apogee of trade unionism in England.

The General Strike of 1926 showed labour could still organize but two world wars failed to change British society in any truly radical way. In the late 1970s the newly elected Conservative government set about dismantling trade union power, something unions have never really recovered from. Workers rights were more effectively protected by Britain’s membership of the European Union, and now even that has gone.

Yet again capitalism and corporate greed has triumphed at the expense of those that create the wealth. Until workers truly understand that their best interests lie in sticking together against a common foe (as the match girls and dockers did) rather than blaming immigrants for their woes, it will continue to dominate and make the few wealthy on the backs of the many.

[from The Standard, Wednesday,  August 21, 1889]

‘Get out the _____ staff, and let’s kill the ______’s : anti-Police violence in central London

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Throughout the nineteenth century there were parts of London that were almost off limits to the police. Almost all of Seven Dials (near Covent Garden) was such a myriad of back alleys and decrepit housing that the police were afraid to venture too far inside, in the East End places like Thrawl Street, Old Nichol or Dorset Street were equally notorious. In the centre of town Husband Street enjoyed a fierce reputation as a place feared by the bobby on the beat.

It was in the early hours of Tuesday 7 April 1863 when PC Carpenter (36C) heard and saw two men ‘hammering at the shutters’ on Husband Street and causing a disturbance. He called to them to desist and was treated to a mouthful of invective. The pair were drunk and in no mood to go home quietly as PC Carpenter suggested. When he insisted they went for him.

‘Take that you ____’ said one of them as he piled into the officer striking him mad knocking him to the ground. The constable had managed to shout loudly enough to summon help and William Green (76C) was soon on the scene. Both men struggled to arrest the drunks and a rough and tumble fight ensued. PC Carpenter was kicked in the eye as another officer arrived to lend his help to his colleagues. William Hellicar (171C) was grabbed by the hair from behind, wrestled to the floor and kicked as he lay prone on street.

‘Get out the _____ staff, and let’s kill the ______’ cried one of the assailants; ‘Murder the ______’ was also heard. Before PC Hellicar was attacked he heard one of the men say: ‘I’ll go and get  something to settle the _______’.

Eventually the drunken men were overpowered and dragged off to the station house. On the following morning they were produced before Mr Tyrwhitt at Marlborough Street Police court and charged with an assault on the police. They gave their names as John Biggens and John Dirken and said they lived at 6 Husband Street. There were ‘rough fellows’ and the street was described as being ‘notorious for assaults’.  Neither offered anything by way of a defense.

Inspector Bowles of C Division was in court to testify that all three of his officers had been hurt and Carpenter and Hellicar seriously enough to have been signed off sick by the surgeon. The magistrate noted that Biggens head was swathed in bandages and asked how he’d received his wound. PC Carpenter said it had been inflicted by mistake when Dirken had been trying to strike him; in his drunken lunge, he said, Dirken had missed the copper and hit his chum, splitting his head open.

Mr Tyrwhitt commended the police for their restraint in the face of such a ‘brutal’ attack and sent the prisoners to gaol for a month. Perhaps the police account was exactly as events had unfolded but I’m bound to say I’d be surprised if they hadn’t applied a little force of their own. Maybe Durkin’s fist did connect with his mate’s skull but that injury seems more likely to have been inflicted with a police stave (or truncheon).

Not that I blame the officers  in the least and nor, from the account in the papers, did Biggins or Dirkin. They seem to have seen this as one battle in a long running war between the police and the rougher elements of working-class London, a war – its fair to say – that is ongoing.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, April 08, 1863]

NB: The officer in the illustration above is wearing the new pattern helmet that was not introduced until 1864, a year after this case. 

‘What business do you have in kicking my boy and ill-using my wife?’ An Eastender’s challenge to a local bobby.

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Who’d be a policeman? Especially in mid Victorian London, and in the East End at that. There a policeman’s lot was most certainly not a happy one, as the song goes. In 1847 the Metropolitan Police had been established for less than 20 years and while they may have ridden out the crisis of the first decade, where allegations of corruption and drunkenness had meant that many of the early recruits had to be replaced, they were still very far from being popular or respected.

The working class resented them for interfering in their day-to-day lives and for being ‘class traitors’, while the middle classes were unhappy at having to pay for them and disliked being told what to do by an ‘inferior’. The upper classes had no more time for time for them either, having effectively lost the control they had over policing to the home office.

So pity poor PC Edward Jessop (215H) who had Thrawl Street as part of his beat in 1847. Thrawl Street was a very poor street in a very poor area, populated by the residents of low lodging houses who lived a precarious hand-by-mouth existence. Thrawl Street was to be home to several of the victims of Jack the Ripper in the 1880s but its reputation for poverty went back much longer than 1888.

On Sunday 10 October 1847 PC Jessop approached Thrawl Street proceeding as he was obliged to do, at a steady walking pace. It was half past eight in the evening and, as he later reported, he saw a group of young men playing a game of chance under a street lamp. He moved in to stop them (gambling was a misdemeanor and punishable by a fine) but as he did a lad scaled the lamp for the purpose, he believed, of turning it out and making it impossible for him to see what was going on.

He grabbed at the boy and pushed him away, the lad fell over and yelped. The gathered crowd let out a chorus of insults and threats, and suggested he might have killed the child. A man – who turned out to be the boy’s father – raced out of a nearby house and started hitting the constable, who did his best to resist. As he tried to arrest the man the boy’s mother appeared and now he was assailed on two fronts. Since she scratched his face he retaliated and hit her about the head with his truncheon.

That was the version of events that PC Jessop told the inspector back at the station when he and a colleague had managed to capture the father and mother and charge the former with assaulting a policeman. However, when the case came before Mr Hammile at Worship Street Police court an alternative story was laid out for public consumption. I doubt very much that 20 or 30 years later, when the police were more widely accepted (and the idea of the ‘criminal class’ had gained greater purchase in Victorian society) this would have played out in this way, so this case is interesting from a police history perspective.

Mr Hammile was told, by the defence’s solicitor (and this in itself is interesting because it suggests that a poor community had somehow clubbed together to defend one of its own) that the real villain was PC Jessop himself.

PC Jessop told the court that he was assailed by a crowd of up to 150 persons, many of whom were throwing stones and brickbats but he seemed to have escaped injury while the boy’s mother, Mrs Hurley had been left ‘bleeding in the arms of a neighbour’ and was still too weak to give evidence in court the next day.

Witnesses (several of them) testified that PC Jessop had been the aggressor. He had had seized the boy while he was playing with some others and had kicked him, knocked him to the floor and then hit him about the head with his open hand. This had brought Mrs Hurley out to remonstrate with the officer who had struck out at her in return. She was punched in the face, the justice was told, and later beaten with a truncheon. As she cried for help her husband arrived and demanded to know ‘what business [the constable] had to kick his boy and ill-use his wife’.

At that the policeman had attacked Patrick Hurley and the whole scene descended into a brawl. Hurley resisted arrest until another officer arrived and he went willingly with him but refused to be led by PC Jessop. A number of witnesses claimed the policeman was drunk and was staggering along his beat and leaning against the walls to steady himself. This was denied by PC Jessop and his inspector who said he was ‘perfectly sober’ and not one to take liquor. ‘He was a remarkably well-conducted young man’.

So now it was left to the magistrate to determine who was telling the truth and whom he should believe. In the end he sided with the Hurleys, which might seem surprising. He discharged Patrick Hurley on the grounds that he was provoked by PC Jessop’s attack on his son and wife. He instructed Inspector Ellis to report the matter to the police commissioners for them to investigate as they thought fit and gave Mrs Hurley leave to bring an assault charge against the constable if she wished.   PC Jessop wasn’t reprimanded but I doubt he would be so keen to return to Thrawl Street in a hurry.

By 1888 it was reported that streets like the nearby Dorset Street were so dangerous for the police that they would only patrol them in groups of four; I rather suspect that this would also apply to places like Flower & Dean and Thrawl Streets and policeman would have been more careful to at least be assured that a colleague was nearby.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, October 12, 1847]

‘Fracas in the Seven Dials’: Police hurt as a mob runs riot in London

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Street fight in Seven Dials, by George Cruikshank c.1839

Seven Dials was notorious in the 1800s as a place of desperate poverty and criminality. It was an area that the police were not inclined to go, full of rookeries with traps set for the unwary and locals whose antipathy towards anyone in authorities made it a very dangerous place for the ‘boys in the blue’.

To give just one example of the risks officers took in entering the district we can look at this case from the middle of June 1883.

Officers were called out from the police station at Great Earl Street to tackle a riotous crowd that had gathered in the Dials. One of those involved had apparently been thrusting a muddied cloth into the faces of random passers-by in an aggressive manner. When the police moved in to arrest this man they were attacked and pelted with stones, ‘ginger beer bottles, and pieces of iron’.

The instigator of the violence – the man with the muddy cloth – was rescued by the crowd and it took police reinforcements to recapture him along with another man that had been identified as a ringleader in the riot.

Eventually, and not without a struggle, the two of them were conveyed to the station house. On the way the officers were kicked at, bitten and wrestled with as their prisoners ‘behaved like wild beasts’. A passing solicitor and an off duty police officer came to the aid of the lawmen and helped subdue their charges.

All the while the crowd had followed from Seven Dials and continued to try to affect a rescue of their friends. Stones rained down on the officers and one struck the off duty copper, PC Bunnion, on the ear. He was hurt so badly that he lost his hearing (hopefully only temporarily) and was placed on the police sick list. A woman rushed in and grabbed one of the officers’ truncheons and started to beat them with it – she too was eventually arrested.

After a night in the cells both men and the woman were brought up before Mr Vaughan at Bow Street Police court. William Learey was given four months at hard labour for his part in the assaulting on the police but the other man was cleared. John Hurley’s solicitor was able to persuade the magistrate that his client had taken ‘any part in the original disturbance’. He’d been falsely arrested therefore, and so was excused his subsequent behaviour.

Mary Taylor – the woman who’d used the police’s own weapon against them – didn’t escape justice however. She was given 21 days for one assault and 14 for another, a total of just over a month in prison. An unnamed gentleman who gave evidence in court challenged this decision. He alleged that the police had used unnecessary force in arresting Mary but Mr Vaughan upheld his decision while suggesting that the man take his complaint to the Commissioners of Police.

It is always hard to know who is to blame in a riot. The very nature of the event makes its hard to identify those who are active participants and those who are innocent bystanders, or even individuals whose motive is simply to stop the riot escalating.  One of the functions of the New Police after 1829 was to deal with exactly this sort of disorder but it was not until over 100 years later that the police began to receive the sort of specialist training and equipment they needed to be able to do so.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, June 17, 1883]

‘The very image of the Devil himself, with horns and eyes of flame’; Spring Heeled Jack in Kentish Town

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At some point in the late 1830s a new monster appeared in the public consciousness. A humanoid figure with glowing eyes, that breathed fire and leap over walls attacked and frightened women across the capital. The fearsome creature – dubbed ‘Spring Heeled Jack’ – disappeared almost as quickly as it arrived, leaving the police baffled and the public in terror.

In February 1838 Lucy Scales and her sister were terrified by ‘Jack’ as they walked home in Limehouse. The cloaked monster shot ‘a quantity of blue flame’ into a face, temporarily blinding her and bringing on what sound like epileptic fits for several hours.

In Kentish Town in March 1838 PC Markham (S24) was walking his beat one Saturday evening when he screams and shouts ahead of him. Suddenly he saw ‘women and children running in all directions, screaming out “Here’s Spring-heel’d Jack’.

The constable drew his ‘staff’ (his truncheon) gathered his wits and courage and set off to confront the demon. Several women who had run to the policeman for safety pointed at a man in the street as the ‘terror of London’ in person.

‘Perceiving that a sort of blue froth was at his mouth, and his features were not altogether natural, [PC Markham] went up to him, and seizing him by the collar, dragged him to a butcher’s shop, by the light of which he discovered that he wore a mask, embellished at the mouth with blue glazed paper’.

The brave constable grabbed his man by the collar and frog-marched him off to the nearest police station. The next morning the monster, who went by the name of Daniel Granville, was set in the dock at Marylebone Police Court. He cut a strange and sorry figure: ‘a simple-looking fellow, with a most bewitching obliquity of vision’ as the paper described him. Granville apologised for frightening the public and said it was never his intention. The magistrate dismissed him with a warning, presumably as a sad rather than bad individual who was trading on the publicity that the real ‘devil’ had generated.

Sightings of Spring Heeled Jack multiplied across the 1830s and into the 1840s, and the phenomenon spread beyond the capital. Jack was spotted in Brighton later in 1838 and by the 1840s had traveled to East Anglia and Northampton Jack became a feature of contemporary popular culture – headlining in several penny dreadfuls and a number of plays and melodramas. ‘Jack’ eventually passed into myth (if he even existed at all) and by the 1950s was appearing in popular comics as a sort of dark vigilante, a caped anti-hero rather similar to Gotham’s Batman.

No one has ever been formally identified at the culprit and the reality may be that there were several ‘Jacks’. For me it is an example of how a growing urban populace retained some of the folk beliefs and ‘monsters’ from their rural past and merged them with the threats posed by the modern city environment. ‘Spring Heel’d Jack’ was embodiment then of the fears of the City at the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign just as ‘Jack the Ripper’ was to become symbolic of urban degradation towards its end.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, March 20, 1838]

A migrant woman’s lament: ‘He drinks very hard, and I can’t get rid of him’.

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Today’s post is a sadly typical tale of domestic violence but one that also sends some light on immigrant communities and working-class attitudes towards marriage and illegitimacy in the 1860s. We shouldn’t assume, for example, that everyone married in the past, even when they wanted to start a family. Nor does it follow that migrant families were more socially conservative than those of the indigenous English population. Instead what we can find is that there was a much greater degree of continuity in relationships than a discourse that sees the 1960s’ ‘sexual revolution’ as a dramatic catalyst for changing moralities.

At the beginning of October 1867 a German shoemaker named John Martz was brought before the magistrate at Thames Police Court in the East End. Martz may have been a Jewish immigrant but we can’t determine that with any certainty from his surname. We do know that he was cohabiting with a woman who also came from Germany however, Sarah Leiss and given they have migrated to East London it is at least plausible that  they were members of the growing German Jewish population of Whitechapel.

Whilst John and Sarah were not married they did have two children, one of them an infant. On 1 October Sarah appeared in court with her baby in her arms to accuse Martz of beating her. He had come home drunk on the previous night and ‘scolded and swore at her little boy, and threatened to beat him’. When she tried to take the boy away he grabbed it and threw the child down the stairs. Thankfully the boy was uninjured but it was this act of violence that probably prompted her to come to court.

It was not the first time he had hit her or threatened the children and it always occurred when he had been out drinking. It was a familiar story and Mr Benson, the justice, had heard it all hundreds of times before.

‘Why don’t you leave him?’ he asked.

‘I have left him several times’ Sarah replied, ‘and he comes after me again. He drinks very hard, and I can’t get rid of him’.

When sober, she added, he was a ‘very good man’ but when he was intoxicated, he ‘was furious and cruel’.

On the night in question Martz had been seen coming out of his house Merton Place, St George’s-in-the-East, brandishing a knife. PC Joseph Newman (166H) had shouted to him as the shoemaker approached, warning him to drop the weapon. Drawing his truncheon he declared:

‘If you advance another step with that knife I will murder you’.

This had the intended effect and a terrified Martz dropped his knife in the street.

In court Martz needed a translator to make sense of everything that had been said and in his defence merely said he had been drunk and wasn’t aware of what he was doing. Mr Benson instructed the interpreter to explain carefully to the shoemaker that he was clearly responsible for more than one act of violence and that he must now find sureties for his good behaviour towards his wife for three months. If he failed to find two persons that would vouch for him and pledge money then he would go to prison for 14 days.

If Martz was (and I expect he was)  the main breadwinner then a term of imprisonment, whilst giving Sarah some peace, would have severe consequences for her and her children. Hopefully this brush with the law would chasten the German and provoke a change in his behaviour. But it does have the feeling of trying to place a sticking plaster over an open wound; a case of doing the minimum without really trying to solve the situation.

It is the other elements of the case that I find useful as a social historian; the detail that John and Sarah were not married, the open statement that they had children together nevertheless and cohabited, with no comment being passed by either magistrate or the papers. This seems very ‘modern’ but perhaps the reality is that marriage (and divorce) were luxuries that many very poor working class Londoners could not afford in the Victorian period.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, October 02, 1867]

When drunk and disorderly behaviour almost results in an attack on the police

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Yesterday a tragedy unfolded in central London. I am writing this in the evening of the 22 March 2017 as the news of what seems to have been a major terrorist incident is still unfolding. What I know now (at 8 o’clock) is that at least 5 people are dead, and many more are injured, some critically. I’m not going to comment on the attack and its consequences because I only know what I’ve heard on the BBC and Channel 4. But I feel much as I did after 7/7: outraged, saddened, disgusted, and determined that this sort of inhuman, indiscriminate, and cowardly attack should not, and will not, change the way myself and millions of other Londoners behave as we go about our daily lives. I am proud to live in a liberal democracy which supports free speech, free association and the rights of  everyone.

One of those that died today was a policeman, PC Keith Palmer and today’s blog is respectfully dedicated to his memory.

PC Palmer was unarmed and standing on duty at Carriage Gates, outside the Palace of Westminster. He was simply doing his job and in the process he was stabbed to death in front of his colleague. The fact that he was unarmed is significant because it demonstrates that in this country, from their inception in 1829, the Metropolitan Police do not routinely carry firearms. The British ‘bobby’ is armed with a truncheon (albeit a modern version), just as they have been for 188 years. Questions are bound to be asked this week about whether in future such officers should be equipped with lethal weapons; personally I hope they are not but I will understand why that question is posed.

In 1884 (in a period when a different terrorist threat plagued London – that of Irish nationalism) another policeman was attacked in the capital – this time not fatally, although it could have been worse.

PC Shananhan (36XR) was on his beat in Kilburn at about 20 to 10 in the evening when he heard a disturbance ahead. He came across a crowd of people outside a public house on Cambridge Street and tried to calm things down.

Several of the angry group of persons were complaining that they and been assaulted by a woman. The woman was identified as Mary Ann Howley, an ironer, was clearly drunk and very disorderly. PC Shananhan arrested her and then tried to convey back to the police station.

However, as he took her by the arm and started to walk her away a man rushed up to him to try and affect a rescue. He drew a knife and threatened the constable, but the alert policeman simply knocked the weapon out of the assailant’s hand with his truncheon.

Having secured both offenders PC Shanahan duly appeared with his captives at Marylebone Police court on the following morning. There the sitting justice was told that Howley had started the affray by knocking some coins out of the hand of another drinker , Mary Grace Nottle. She complained and Howley then spat out some unpleasant invective and a full-on ‘barney’ ensued. Probably at the this point the publican intervened and the whole dispute escalated on to the streets, drawing the attention of the police.

It was a common enough disturbance in Victorian London, what elevated it to being newsworthy was probably the use of a knife. Police magistrates were as seldom tolerant of attacks on the police as they were on ‘civilians’ (at least as long as a so-called ‘fair fight’ was the outcome); assault that involved weapons were quite another thing, and an attempt to stab a policeman doing his duty was anathema.

Mr de Rutzen sentenced Mary to 14 days in prison for her behaviour but committed her would be saviour to hard labour for two months.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, March 23, 1884]