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:

‘You are one of Colonel Henderson’s ruffians!’:one of the ‘Devil’s Own’ takes his anger out on the police

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The Albert Embankment under construction in 1869

As two police constables patrolled the Albert Embankment on Saturday evening in May 1879 they heard and then saw a horse and rider approaching. The man was smartly dressed but seemed to be swaying in the saddle as if a little the worse for drink. PC Vaughan (143L) commented to his companion that they should keep an eye on him.

Soon afterwards, as the coppers watched, the equestrian turned off the embankment into Gloucester Street, a dead end street that led only to some dust yards. They followed him into the dimly lit street and saw that a large crowd of dustmen and small boys had gathered around him. He was throwing them silver coins which they were scrambling for the in dirt of the street.

This was a potentially dangerous situation; if the man was drunk it was quite possible, PC Vaughan thought, that he might be hauled off his mount and robbed. The officers moved in through the throng and advised the rider, firmly, to desist and go home. Instead of obeying the constable’s request however, the man growled at him:

You are one of Colonel Henderson’s ruffians, I should like to have a turn with him in Belgium, choose our own weapons, and stand six yards apart’.

Sir Edmund Henderson was commissioner of the metropolitan police from 1869 to 1886. He resigned following the embarrassment of the West End (or ‘Pall Mall’) riots of 1886. He had a military background (as did his successor, Charles Warren) and had also served in Australia with a responsibility for the government of convicts before returning to England to run the prison system. henderson2

The police themselves did not enjoy the affection of the public that they do today and this clearly extended beyond the lower working class. The rider was a barrister, William Belt, aged 53, and resident in Bedford Square. As a man of some means and position he had no obvious reason to dislike the police but referring to them as ‘ruffians’ was fairly unambiguous. His comment about ‘six yards’ suggested he was spoiling for a fight  (since it referenced the classic duel) and when he hit PC Vaughan over the head with his riding whip all doubt of his belligerence towards the police was dispelled. I imagine he was cheered by the assembled dustmen but not by the two policemen who grabbed the reins of the horse and pulled him away.

With difficulty, and with Mr Belt refusing to dismount, the two constables escorted their captive to a police station and charged him with being drunk and with assaulting a police officer. Belt gave his name, address and occupation (barrister) and appeared in court at Lambeth before Mr Chance where he denied everything.

He said he had been riding on the Embankment to meet up with his old regiment – the ‘Devil’s Own’ – at Wimbledon. He wasn’t drunk he said, but ill. He had nothing more than ‘two spoonsful of brandy’  that day and despite the fact that – as PC Vaughan reported – he was riding without the use of his stirrups he was entirely in control of his horse. Medical evidence was heard which supported both his and the police’s claim about him being inebriated that night so it was left to Mr Chance to decide the outcome.

The magistrate was pretty clear an assault had taken place, and sure that the police were justified in trying to remove the barrister from a tricky situation where he might have been the victim of crime. But in part because the man had managed to ride so far without the use of his stirrups and because he was, after all, a gentleman, he dismissed the charge of drunkenness. Belt was ordered to pay a fine of £3, which he did, and discharged.

I wondered about the ‘Devil’s Own’ that Belt referred to as his old regiment. During the Napoleonic Wars the Connaught Rangers (88thRegiment of Foot) were nicknamed the ‘Devil’s Own’ and earned a fearsome reputation in the Peninsula. But William Belt was too young to have served in the wars against Napoleon, being born in 1826. There was, however, a volunteer corps of Inns of Court troops that had been formed during the Crimean War – the 23rd Middlesex Rifles – and this may have been the barrister’s regiment.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, May 06, 1879]

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