A little local difficulty: ‘political’ violence in early Victorian Stepney

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Politics, as we have seen recently, can sometimes get a little heated and nothing gets more heated than local politics. Having stood as a candidate for local elections in the recent past I can attest to long running petty squabbles between party workers, elected and defeated councilors, and their friends and families.

In one large east Midlands town there were dark mutterings about a Conservative councilor who had defected from Labour several years earlier simply because he thought it more likely to be re-elected if he stood for ‘the other side’.  The suggestion (made by his Conservative colleague, against whom I was contesting a seat) was that he only entered politics for the rewards it brought in terms of his local standing in the community; it mattered not whether he was part of a left or right political party, what mattered was being in government.

I’ve no idea if this was accurate or fair (and indeed I wondered at the time if there was a smack of racism in the comment) but historically the exercise of local government has involved a deal of self aggrandizement. It is also accurate to say that local politics has probably always been fractious though it doesn’t always end in violence as this particular example from 1847 did.

Charles Williams, a general dealer from Mile End, was attending  meeting of the Stepney parish vestry on Easter Monday 1847 when a man rushed into the room and interrupted them. Williams and his colleagues were tasked with electing parish officers when James Colt (a local undertaker and carpenter) interrupted them.  Colt pulled the chair out from underneath one of the candidates for the role of churchwarden, tipping him on to the floor, before slamming shut the room’s shutters – plunging it into darkness – and throwing the ink pot into the fire. He called everyone present ‘the most opprobrious names’ and challenged them all to a fight.

It was a quite bizarre episode and it seemed that Colt’s intention had been to close down proceedings because he believed they were being conducted either illegally or unfairly. An argument then ensued about the manner of the meeting and whether it conformed to the rules as they were understood. James Colt was, like the man he’d tipped out of the chair, been seeking election as parish officer (an overseer in Colt’s case) and he may have believed he was being excluded form the meeting so as to have missed this chance at a bit of local power.  Perhaps he was, and perhaps with good reason.

Eventually Colt was summoned before the magistrate at Thames to face a charge of assault. The paper concentrated on the shenanigans at the parish meeting and heard several claims and counter claims regarding the legitimacy or otherwise of the proceedings but for Mr Ballantine the magistrate the question was simple: had Colt committed an assault or not? It was fairly obvious to all present that he had and so the justice fined him £5 and let him go. I would suggest James Colt had demonstrated by his histrionics that he was entirely unfit for public office.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, April 9, 1847]

A row over the adulteration of the great British banger (and its got nothing to do with the EU!)

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What percentage of a pork sausage should be made up of meat? It’s a good question now and it was a good question in 1882 when Henry Newman was dragged before the magistrate at Southwark by the sanitary officer of the Bermondsey vestry.

The officer, a Mr Thomas, testified that he had bought a pound of sausages from Newman’s shop on Southwark Park Road for nine pence. He told the butcher he was ‘going to have them analyzed’ (which seems a waste for a packet of well made bangers). He took them to a Dr Muter who issued a certificate  that declared they were made from 82 per cent meat and fat and 12 per cent bread. The doctor confirmed however, that while the sausages contained bread they were not in any way ‘injurious to health’.

In court the vestry’s legal team contended that the bread was used ‘so that inferior parts of meat could be used’ to manufacture the sausages. Newman’s  brief challenged that and brought along two other sausage makers to explain to Mr Slade (the justice) that it was impossible to make proper sausages without adding bread to the mix.

The magistrate agreed that bread was an essential part of the process and said the question turned on whether 18 per cent constituted adulteration under the act. In his opinion it didn’t and so he dismissed the summons and two further similar cases that the overeager vestry had brought against other butchers. In the end the vestry were required to pay costs of £2 2sand Mr Thomas probably chose to buy his supper somewhere else in future.

So is 18 per cent too much bread in a sausage? I don’t know. Why don’t you have a look at the next packet you buy from a supermarket or ask your local butcher (if you still have one).

[from The Standard, Thursday, March 23, 1882]

The ‘gospel according to the nineteenth century moralists’ brings the end of a popular entertainment

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I have often wondered what the Victorians would make of our society should a character like H G Wells’ ‘time traveller’ actually manage to create a machine to visit the future. While one imagines that he would probably find some things to be predicable (motorized transport, even airplanes), others largely unchanged (like Parliament and the judiciary), it would be the leveling of daily life and the permissive nature of relationships that might give cause for shock.

Victorian society was not as buttoned up and prudish as it has sometimes been perceived. In fact, as Matthew Sweet argues in Inventing the Victorians (2001) even that oft repeated suggestion that they covered up the legs of their pianos is a myth; a joke aimed at themselves and at Americans (whom they felt were more obsessed with suppressing sexuality).

Nevertheless vice and obscenity were prosecuted in the courts and their definitions of what constituted ‘obscene’ were certainly narrower than our own. This is where I think the ‘time traveller’ would struggle to make sense of society: when he viewed television, looked at a tabloid newspaper, causally searched the internet, or simply walked down a busy London street, he would have been assaulted by images of (in his mind) semi-nudity everywhere.

In 1872 Frederick Shore was summoned to Bow Street Police court to answer accusations that he had published an indecent periodical. Shore, who was represented by a barrister, Mr Laxton, was the publisher of Days Doings and short-lived sensational magazine that carried all sorts of stories, romances, gossip, sports and entertainment news. The prosecution, brought by the Society for the Suppression of Vice, alleged that it was obscene.

Shore had been in court three months previously and had then promised that ‘all nude pictures and matters suggestive of indecency’ would be removed from all future editions of the paper. This then was a hearing designed, in part, to ensure he had kept his word.

Mr Bealey, the barrister instructed by the Society, argued that he had not. He produced a copy of the latest edition and read a selection of it to the court before showing the magistrate (Sir Thomas Henry) a nude image. The defense argued that the image in question was ‘a well known picture’ and that the editors had ‘added drapery to it’ to ‘decrease its nudity’. Sir Thomas said this only made it worse, it was now ‘even more obscene’.

He concluded that the proprietors of Days Doingshad  ‘not kept good faith’. ‘There was no doubt’ he declared, ‘that the proprietors of the periodical pandered to a depraved taste’. He bound the witnesses form the Society over to prosecute and accepted bail of £150 from the defendant. The whole sorry issue would now have to go before a higher court.

Just how ‘obscene’ was  Days Doings?Well not very would be the conclusion of a modern audience. It was risqué certainly, and humorous, catering for  amiddle-class decadent readership. On its May 1871 cover it featured ‘Derby Night at Cremorne’ [Gardens] with a sensational scene of well dressed gentlemen drinking with women that might well have been prostitutes. Cremorne Gardens enjoyed a reputation as a lively and disreputable entertainment venuewhere the classes could mix. The 1871 article in the Days Doings supported Cremorne in the face of a sustained attack by organisations like the Society for the Suppression of Vice and the Cheslea Vestry who wanted it closed down.

This brought Shore into the cross hairs of anti-vice campaigners who saw his periodical as part of the problem. In early 1872 Days Doings was (as this case shows) under constant attack and eventually caved in. It remerged as ‘Here and There’ a much milder version of itself but it still had room to comment on the attempts to close down Cremorne Gardens. It condemned the threats to popular entertainment ‘by the prudery of aldermen, ministers and police inspectors. Dancing is banned at Cremorne’ and other venues it stated, ‘for this “is the gospel according to the nineteenth century moralists”.*

Goodness knows what those same moralists would have made of most Britain today.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, February 02, 1872]

*quoted in Lynda Nead, Victorian Babylon (2005), p.139

The Regent’s Canal might be polluted but there’s no cause for alarm say the committee

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Something different caught my eye this morning and so this is not a case from the Police Courts but possibly one that could develop into a prosecution if it was not resolved. The Daily Telegraph (which in the 1870s was not the same Conservative Party organ it is today) ran a story about pollution in the Regent’s Canal.

The article reported on a meeting of the St Pancras vestry who were responsible for the canal that ran through central London and was used by all sorts of people in the 1800s. Several complaints had been registered about the state of the canal and the smells that emanated from it. As a result the sanitary committee had been asked to investigate and report back to the vestry with its findings.

The medical officer of health and the chief surveyor of the parish were both consulted and they gave evidence to the committee and vestry. The surveyor had undertaken an examination of the main area of the canal where the problems had been highlighted. This section was where the drains of the nearby  Gardens emptied into to canal. The suggestion was that the zoo was polluting the watercourse.

The committee heard that each year the zoo emptied 16 million gallons of water into the canal: seven million gallons from their well and an additional nine million which was supplied to them by the West Middlesex Water Company. On top of all of this water was the annual rainfall, all of which contributed to swelling the canal.

Into this water had been washed a variety of deposits from the various tanks used by the zoo, along with animal and human waste. During the dry summer months the committee was told, it was likely that mud had been washed into the drains, adding to the general discolouration of the water.

The investigation  had arranged for some fish to be caught and examined, to check for any health concerns. Five gudgeon were studied and found to be healthy. The report concluded that:

‘the water of the canal is turbid and unsightly, but no offensive exhalations could be detected, even when it was disturbed by a passing barge, and it was being fished at the time of the medical officer’s visit’.

So all things considered  the committee felt that no action (which would incur an expense of course, if only in a legal prosecution of the zoo) was necessary. They adopted a ‘do-nothing’ approach by 37 votes to 8 and left locals to continue grumbling about the unpleasant odour of the canal.

[from The Daily Telegraph, 12 November, 1874]

A real life ‘Long Susan’ is booked at Marlborough Street

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In 1864 Parliament passed the first of three Contagious Diseases Acts (the others were enacted into law in 1866 and 1869). These were the result of a two year investigation into the causes and spread of sexually transmitted infections in the armed forces. In the aftermath of the Crimean War the British state had been shocked by the state of soldiers and sailors and the high levels of disease amongst them.

This prompted attempts to curb prostitution, or at least regulate the trade. The Contagious Diseases Acts (CDA) allowed local authorities to take women off the streets and forcibly examine them for signs that they were carrying an STI such as syphilis or gonorrhoea. The women could be kept in lock hospital for up to three months to ensure they were ‘clean’ before they were released. This was later extended to one year.

In effect then this amounted to medical imprisonment, without trial, for working class women who were deemed to be prostitutes (which in itself was not a crime). It was only applied in garrison and port towns and this, and the obvious fact that men were not forced to be examined and treated (although they were encouraged) meant the acts had limited effect.

The CDA were not applicable to London in 1864 and the capital was synonymous with vice and crime. Prostitution was a problem, particularly around the theatre district and Haymarket, where prostitutions mingled with respectable women in their attempts to attract business. Street prostitution was often tolerated by the police so long as it was not overt: operate quietly and you would be left alone – make yourself too visible (i.e being drunk and disorderly) and you could expect to be ‘pinched’.

A safer and more comfortable option was a brothel. Here a small group of women could ply their trade under one roof and be afforded some small protection from violence and police interference. Of course the police raided brothels but those in the West End, which catered for a higher class of client, were often protected and paid for that protection.

From time to time however, even these felt the touch of the long arm of the law. In October 1864 Anne Melville – a ‘stylishly dressed female’ – was brought before the sitting magistrate at Marlborough Street charged, on a warrant, with keeping a bawdy house (a brothel). The case was brought by the vestry of St Martin’s and conducted by a solicitor, Mr Robinson. Anne, who clearly had the funds, was defended by her own legal representative, Mr Abrams.

A policeman (Sergeant Appleton 26 C) gave evidence and the court quickly established that 32 Oxendon Street was indeed a brothel. The warrant against Anne had two other names on it and Mr Robinson explained to Mr Tyrwhitt that they had both been before the Sessions of the Peace the day before but Anne had been hard to find. In absentia the Sessions had decided that Anne also had a case to answer. He asked that the prisoner be sent directly to the Sessions to take her trial.

Mr Abrams objected to this course of action. He said the Sessions would be over by now and he asked for bail, saying there was no reason to suppose his client would not give herself up. The brothel was now closed up, he added. His intention was to keep Anne out of prison if he could possibly help it. The prosecution and police were unhappy with this suggestion: Anne had led Sergeant Appleton a merry dance thus far and they had no confidence that she would respect bail in the future.

Mr Tyrwhitt was persuaded by the defence however, although he opted to set bail at a very high amount. Anne was obliged to stand surety for herself at £80 and find tow others at £40 each. In total then her bail amounted to £160 or nearly £10,000 in today’s money. Prostitution at that level was evidently a lucrative business.

He also commended the vestrymen for pursuing a prosecution against one of the larger brothels and not simply concentrating on the ‘smaller ones’. I imagine he meant he was keen to see action being taken against the sort of premises often frequented by ‘gentlemen’ of the ‘better sort’ and not simply the rougher houses used by the working classes. At the quarter sessions Anne pleased guilty to keeping a brothel and was sentenced to six months at Westminster’s house of correction. She was 26 years of age and reminds me of Susan from the BBC’s Ripper Street.

The CDAs were finally repealed in 1886 after a long campaign by Josephine Butler and the Ladies National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts . Butler’s campaign politicised hundreds of women and gave them an experience which they would later take into the long running battle for women’s suffrage. Meanwhile madams like Ann continued to run brothels which were periodically the  target of campaigns to close them down. Notably there was just such a campaign in the late 1880s which resulted in women being forced out of the relative safety of East End brothels and onto the streets, where ‘Jack the Ripper’ was waiting for them.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, October 06, 1864]

 

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]

An episode of ‘officious bumbledom’ as an 1890s dustman gets into hot water

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John Rooney had ‘parked’ his dust cart as he often did while he went to see he if there was any need for his services. The Lambeth based dustman had not been gone long but when he returned he found it had moved. As he looked around he saw the horse and cart being led away slowly by another man in the direction of the Vestry Hall.

Rooney ran after the cart and remonstrated with the man. The pair wrestled as the dustman attempted to get hold of the reins and the other resisted. In the melee the other man claimed he was ‘struck a violent blow in the chest and also behind the ear’. As a result he pressed charges against the dustman and Rooney found himself in court at Clerkenwell in front of Mr Bros the sitting magistrate.

His victim was a vestryman, a member of local (parish) government whose name was Joseph Walton. Walton explained that he had seen the dustcart standing unattended and had watched it for 10 minutes. When no one returned to it he decided to impound it and drew it away to the Vestry Hall.

Rooney’s lawyer, a Mr Cowdell, said his client had no idea who Walton was and so was understandably annoyed to see him ‘stealing’ his cart. It was normal custom for dustmen to leave their carts unattended ‘in a manner difficult for the horse to run off’ while they searched out work. In his client’s view, ‘it was a piece of “officious bumbeldom” for [Walton] to inferrer’ in this way.

We’ve all encountered a jobsworth at one point or other in our lives and know how annoying they can be. Walton was probably just following procedure however, and he could count on the support of the magistrate. Mr Bros determined that it was a violent assault and sentenced the prisoner to 21 days in prison. He later relented and changed this to a 40s fine.

I doubt it made Rooney much happier though; he had been dragged through the courts and fined for reacting to seeing his livelihood being taken away. I suspect Harold Steptoe would have sympathised with him.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, February 28, 1892]