Casual racism from the lips of someone who should know better: Anti alienist in nineteenth-century Whitechapel

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This morning I’m off to Whitechapel to show some friends of mine around the area. If the weather is kind to us (and it’s not looking good!) I will take them to see the strange sights of one of the most interesting parts of the capital. This was the area where Jack the Ripper selected and killed his victims, from amongst some of the poorest people in London.

In the nineteenth century it was an area that was home to a vibrant community of mixed ethnicities, and it must have been filled with a cacophony of competing languages. It was dangerous, exciting, troubling and fascinating and it drew visitors from across London of all classes to gawp at what they saw there. Soon after the Whitechapel murders began ‘dark’ tourists started to come to see where ‘Polly’ or ‘Annie’ were attacked and left mutilated, a phenomenon that has continued to this day.

We’re not going on a ‘Ripper tour’; while very good ones exist I’m not entirely comfortable with the whole industry that surrounds the case and anyway, I know the sites well enough to show my friends should they want to have a look. Hopefully I can contextualize them within the social history of the 1880s.

One thing I hope they do notice today (given that they are coming south from ‘middle England’) is the diversity of the modern East End and how this echoes the Whitechapel of the 1880s. In the last quarter of the century this was home to tens of thousands of immigrants fleeing persecution and hoping for better life in the West. Ashkenazi Jews from the Russian Empire (from modern day Lithuania, Poland, and Ukraine) escaped from the Tsar’s terror and came to London and settled (or continued their journey to the USA).

Most stayed close to docks where they arrived and where there was already a well established Jewish community (so they had places to worship, kosher food they could eat, people that understood their language, and opportunities to work). They found work as boot and shoemakers, bakers, and in ‘rag trade’ sweat shops. They certainly impacted the area and tensions were often raised – no more so than during the Ripper case when some people pointed the finger of blame at the Jews, suggesting ‘no Englishman could have done this’.

While England in the 1880s had no laws against immigration there was racism, better known then as ‘anti-alienism’. Men like Arnold White stoked the fires of xenophobia, publishing lies and preying upon people’s fears of the ‘other’ and arguing that the new arrivals took locals’ jobs or deflated wages. Just like the lies spread by modern racists the claims were not true but the lies stuck. When times are hard it is easy to blame those that look different from the majority for all the problems in society.

This clearly wasn’t helped by the attitudes of those in positions of authority, or by the actions of influencers like the editors of newspapers. In 1891 The Standard newspaper reported the daily news from the Police Courts with the following story from the East End.

The sitting magistrate that day was Montagu Williams , QC. The clerk had handed him a list of summonses, the first six of which were applications from ‘foreign Jews’ who had taken them out against their co-religionists for threats and assaults. The report went on to say that, ‘as usual in such cases, some of other of the parties was unable to speak the English language, and there was a rush of persons to offer their services’ as translators.

Mr Williams had a rule that only one person should act as interpreter for the court, and he charged a fee. A solicitor for one of the men in court told the justice that his client could not afford that fee as he was a poor man. Williams said ‘he did not care’, adding:

It was not for the Court to pay the interpreter in these wretched squabbles. If these foreigners were allowed to flock into this country and, when settled here, were to disturb the peace by quarrelling and fighting among themselves, it would soon be necessary that they should have a Court with the officers and Magistrate speaking their language’.

This drew laughter from the public gallery.

As the cases were heard the same solicitor (Mr Bedford) was attempting to make his case about the threatening language used by one of the accused, referring to the ‘hard swearing’ that was common in the community.

‘You need not trouble about the language, Mr. Bedford’, Montagu Williams told him. ‘These people cannot speak the truth in any language. They are none of them to be believed on their oath’.

This then was the prevailing attitude towards Eastern European immigrants in late nineteenth-century London and it contributed towards the passing of the first anti-immigrant legislation (the Aliens Act) in the early twentieth century. Nowadays the dews have mostly gone from Spitalfields  (although there are traces of them in old shops signs and other buildings). They worked hard and prospered and moved north into the suburbs. Other groups followed them and now this area is home to many Bengalis.

Racism and xenophobia has not moved on sadly, and continues to blight society. London’s success (and that of Britain as a whole) is built on the industry of millions of immigrants over a thousand years or more and we would do well to remember and celebrate it, not immediately point the finger at ‘them’ when times are hard.

[from The Standard, Thursday, July 30, 1891]

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

“Oh Monsieur, if you don’t take care you will lose your handkerchief out of your pocket!’: A Frenchman amuses the reading audience at Mansion House

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I was watching the news a week or so ago and (surprise, surprise) Brexit was being discussed. The BBC had sent a roaving reporter to Stoke to ask locals what they felt about Britain leaving the EU and at the delays that seemed to be undermining the process. One elderly couple (who self-identified as Leave voters) reflected a fairly common view that it was ‘about time’ the politicians just got on it with, and executed the will of the 52% that voted out.

When asked why he thought it was taking so long the man replied that it was the fault of the Europeans, in particular the French. ‘I’ve never liked the French’ he said.

This version of Francophobia has a long history in British (or rather English) culture.   As our nearest European neighbours France has been perceived as an enemy and economic rival for much of the last 1000 years. This is despite the reality that the long wars of the medieval period were dynastic (effectively French French kings versus English French kings) and the wars with the Bourbons were as much about religion as they were about nationalism, and those that benefited from them were the wealthy, not the poor that fought them.

Similarly the wars with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France were fought to preserve the power and wealth of the English aristocracy and mercantile class, not the ‘scum of the earth’ (as Wellington dubbed some of his infantry) who died in their thousands on foreign soil. Napoleon was a ‘monster’ and the revolutionary ideas of the French were supposedly inimical to English ‘liberty’. The reality was that had the revolution been exported to Britain we’d be quite a different nation today, arguably one without the House of Lords, the monarchy and all the trappings of class privilege.

In the early 1830s Waterloo was still a recent memory. Napoleon had died in 1821 (in exile on St Helena, possibly as a result of poison). France was no longer an enemy, even if it was still an economic rival, but Francophobic views persisted. London was home to plenty of Frenchmen and women and, in March 1835, one of the appeared at the Mansion House Police court to prosecute a pickpocket he’d caught red-handed on the street. The report of the case before the Lord Mayor reveals the casual anti-French sentiment which, I think, (as that man in Stoke demonstrates), continues to this day.

Monsieur Colliard had captured Edward Brown as he attempted to steal a handkerchief from his pocket in Lombard Street near the Bank of England. He described what happened in excellent English but with a heavy French accent. The Morning Post’s reporter wrote it up for the amusement of his readership so that both the working-class thief and his intended French victim  appeared as comic characters in a popular music hall skit.

‘My Lor’ said M. Colliard, ‘I vas going doing Lombar-street, Friday veek, and I felt tug, tug; and ven I turned to see vat it vas, I saw a vera leetle garçon run away with my handkerchief’.

I am now imagining the gentleman in his club or the worker at the bar of the pub amusing his friends by reading this aloud, with perfect comic timing.

Having lost one hankie Colliard was on his guard the following day.

‘So, I thought [this time] I would pin my handkerchief to my pocket, so de leetle garcon should not get him out. So when I go to the place were I vas tugged I felt another tug, and I turned about, and this garcon had a hold of my handkerchief. “Ah” I says, “I have caught you!”

“Oh Mounsier, “ says he, “if you don’t take care you will lose your handkerchief out of your pocket;” but I says to him, ‘I vill take care not to lose you,” and I held him fast, and I bring him here for your Lordship to try him’.

Young Edward Brown attempted to wriggle out of the charge by saying he was only trying to warn the Frenchman that he was in danger of dropping his ‘wipe’ or having it pinched by one of the many ‘bad characters’ that lurked around the Bank.

His show of altruism fooled no one, especially not the Lord Mayor, who told him that if he made ‘the communication without the slight of hand all would have been all right, but he must go to Bridewell for two months for going too far in in his endeavour to protect his neighbour’s property’.

So in the end a very ordinary story of petty theft was dressed up as an amusing tale that allowed the readers to chuckle at the funny accent of our continental neighbours and the misfortune of a ‘street arab’ whose poverty had probably driven him to steal in the first place. For me it is a reminder that some elements of our society continue to enjoy demonizing or ridiculing ‘foreigners’ even at the same time as we enjoy their wine, cheese, countryside, and culture and benefit from the trade between our countries.

The ‘little Englander’ has become a little more prominent as a result of Brexit and, regardless of whether being a member of the EU is a good or bad thing in your opinion, anything which serves to divide peoples who have much more in common than they have in difference, is a sad thing which does no one any good.

Expect, of course, for those that profit from nationalism and division. And that little club contains the real enemies of the people, the far right, religious extremists, and arms traders.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, March 02, 1835]

‘An assault of an unmanly character’ as a trio of ‘gentlemen’ drag a Turk about by his beard

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I imagine that most owners of Indian curry houses have had to put up with a lot of bad behaviour from drunken customers who stumble into their establishments late on a Friday night demanding ‘the hottest thing on the menu’. The boorish actions of English men was satirized wonderfully in the BBC comedy sketch show, Goodness Gracious Mewhere the team talked about ‘getting tanked up and going for an English’.

It plays on the reality that for many immigrants to Britain being abused or made fun of by the native population has only recently been deemed unacceptable both in law and by the majority of the British populace. Until now those running curry houses (and other shops and eateries) have pretty much had to take whatever they were given.

Thankfully that past is (largely) behind us, although the spectre of xenophobia has re-emerged emboldened perhaps by Brexit and the ongoing debate about migration. Looking back we can find plenty of examples of racism and nationalism in British history, especially in the heady days of Empire when Great Britain really did rule half the globe and the map of the world was covered in swathes of pink.

Three friends, overtly respectable and well-dressed men, had been out drinking in central London in the run up to Christmas 1855. It was a Friday night and Charles Bowley, Henry Nation and John Tickell weren’t quite ready to call for a cab home to their wives. They were on the Haymarket, in London’s entertainment district and they decided to head for a tobacco house, or divan, where they could relax, smoke a cigar to two, and perhaps enjoy a brandy. There were several of these ‘cigar divans’ in the centre of London and they provided a range of entertainment for men with money to pay for it.

But being intoxicated and full of British swagger and arrogance they barged their way into Youssef Ben Ibrahim’s divan and upset the prevailing calm atmosphere of the club. Concerned for her establishment’s reputation and the peace of her customers, Youssef’s wife, Ayesha, told them to be quiet or leave.

It was a reasonable request but, in liquor, these were not reasonable men. Ayesha Youssef was  verbally abused with ‘course epithets’ and Nation (a Naval officer) struck her in chest and almost sent her flying. Her husband leapt to her assistance and was assaulted by the trio.

One of the men grabbed him by his beard and then the tree amused themselves by pulling him to and fro ‘by that honoured appendage’. It was both violent and insulting, and deliberately so; the men clearly thought very little of Youssef and his wife, dismissing them as mere foreigners not worthy of the respect due to Englishmen.

In the end a member of Youssef’s waiting staff got involved and, despite being hit several times, managed to pull his master free. The men were later arrested and brought before the sitting magistrate at Marlborough Street on the following day.

Mr Hardwick didn’t believe the men’s protestations of innocence and sided entirely with the Turkish couple. He was ‘satisfied that an assault of an unmanly character had taken place’ and he fined each of the men £3. That made their evening out that little bit more costly but, and more importantly, the declaration that the assault was ‘unmanly’ and the description of the attack on a defenseless woman were both made public in the papers. That would have made uncomfortable reading for the trio, their families, and their circle of friends. That was probably a better punishment than the fine which no doubt they each found in their deep pockets.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, 22 December, 1855]

Hardly the perfect ‘gentleman’: a waiter is ‘coshed’ by an impatient toff.

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The Café Royal, by William Orpen, 1912)

It was not the sort of behaviour one expected to see at the Café Royal on Regent’s Street, so other diners must have been shocked when Henry Fitzgerald rose from his seat and smashed a glass bottle over the head of a waiter.

As another waiter ran to intervene the assailant warned him to back off:

‘If you come near me I will smash one on your head as well’, he threatened.

The police were called and Fitzgerald was led away, admitting his crime but muttering darkly that the fellow had deserved it for his insolence.

At Marlborough Street Police court Henry Fitzgerald gave his address as 75 Chester Square in Begravia, his victim was Otto Kettler, a German national living in London and working at the café. The case reveals the cosmopolitan nature of late Victorian London: Kettler was supported in court by a fellow waiter (Fritz Temme – also most probably German or Austrian) and his manager M. Eugene Lacoste who was certainly French.

According to Fitzgerald’s defense counsel Mr Abrahams his client had been provoked. The waiter had not served him quickly enough, telling him instead that he was busy at another table. The policeman (PC Walters 187C) deposed that the man wasn’t drunk, just ‘excited’; perhaps he objected to being made to wait for his drinks by a foreigner, perhaps (more likely even) he was a just a very rude and self-entitled oaf.

The lawyer knew his client was in the wrong and offered (on his behalf)  a half-hearted apology and compensation for any harm done. Mr Newton, the magistrate, was in no mood for financial settlements however; a man had been assaulted violently with a glass bottle and Mr Fitzgerald – regardless of his fashionable address and clothes – would face trial at the Old Bailey.

However, I’m not sure it came to that. No Henry Fitzgerald appears in the printed records of the Bailey. Perhaps it was not published in the Proceedings or perhaps he was acquitted, but I rather suspect he came to an agreement outside of court – a hefty financial one at that – to keep his ‘good name’ out of the criminal courts.

The press did enjoy this fall from grace. The Hampshire Telegraph reported the incident as an amusing anecdote commenting that ‘after this we shall not be particularly anxious to be called “a gentleman” – it will sound roughish’.

Quite.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, October 26, 1880; Hampshire Telegraph and Sussex Chronicle etc , Saturday, November 6, 1880]

‘Leather Apron’ at Marylebone Police court?

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As London woke up to the news that two women had been murdered in one night of horror in the East End the search for the murderer known to history as ‘Jack the Ripper’ continued. The police pursued all the leads they got, some of which were clearly red herrings.

In the immediate aftermath of Catherine Eddowes’ murder a policeman found a piece of bloodied cloth in Goulston Street. Above it was a chalked message which seemed to infer the murders were being committed by a member of the Jewish immigrant community.

The idea that the killer was Jewish had surfaced soon after Annie Chapman’s inquest when one witness said the man she had seen with Annie just before her death ‘looked foreign’. Anti-alienism (racism) was endemic in Victorian society and it was easy to point the finger of blame at local Jews.

One man in particular felt the pressure of this local xenophobia. John Piser was arrested and questioned when he was thought to be a suspect. The Star newspaper even ran with the story, claiming that the mysterious character ‘leather apron’ was in custody for the killings. leatherapron

‘Leather Apron’ was the name given to a local Jewish man who had a reputation for violence against women. He may well have been an unpleasant character and he may have attacked women but that hardly made him unique in Whitechapel. As for whether Piser and ‘Leather Apron’ were one and the same person, the jury is out’.’

In the end Piser was able to provide Sergeant Thicke for an alibi to cover his movements at the time of the murders so he was released. Many local Jews ran the gauntlet of being arrested by the police or chased through the streets by lynch mobs. It is always much easier to pin the blame for something awful that happens on an outsider, rather than look for the suspects within your own community.

On the day that news of Stride and Eddowes’ murders hit the newsstands a man appeared at Marylebone Police court seeking compensation. The complainant was ‘a man of the artisan class’ and if accused a ‘gentleman’ of injuring him while making a citizen’s arrest. No names were given but the court heard that the man had been working on repairs to the organ at St Saviour’s church  in Paddington. As he walked home a stranger ran up to him and declared that he was ‘Leather Apron’ and tried to take him into custody.

He was dragged to the nearest police station, held for three and half hours, and then released. He wanted compensation for the hurt done to him but the magistrate was unable to help him. Mr De Rutzen explained that he would have to take his claim to a county court.

I wonder how often men were chased, abused, arrested and falsely accused in that ‘autumn of terror’? The press whipped up a storm with their wall-to-wall coverage of the story and the wild speculation as to the murderer’s identity must have caused dozens or more men to be looked on with suspicion.

In reality the killer was probably must closer to home and to the community within which all the victims lived and worked. It is highly unlikely that he was a ‘champagne Charlie’ or a ‘mad doctor’, or even a ‘desperate foreigner’. I believe he was a local Gentile who had grown up in Whitechapel and knew its streets like the back of his hand.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, October 02, 1888]

A report from 1890 shows little difference in casual racism today: an (historical) note to Mr B. Johnson.

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Racism takes many forms, (as the comments of a former secretary of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs demonstrated yesterday). When we look back at the past we are apt to comment that ‘it was another country’ where ‘they did things differently’. London was a multi-cultural city in the late Victorian period and while there were pockets or moments of racial tension (such as during the Whitechapel murder panic in 1888) for the most part the different communities got along.

Nevertheless the idea that white Britons were superior to pretty much anyone else was a persistent trope in contemporary discussions. Britain ‘ruled the waves’ after all and had an Empire ‘on which the sun never set’. This was a time when the world map was heavily tinged with pink and when we, and not the USA or Russia, were the World’s chief ‘superpower’.

I do wonder how much of today’s angst about Europe is born of a desire to regain our imperial past. The EU leave campaign’s slogan ‘we want our country back’ is a curious one; what country were they talking about? The one that stood alone at the start of WW2? The one that was experiencing economic disaster in the mid 1970s? Or perhaps the nation that operated an empire on five continents?

The newspapers were certainly ‘casually racist’ in the 1800s. Most ‘foreigners’ are either seen as inferior, dangerous, or amusing. This seems to have persisted right up to the 1980s when things began to change in the way people described others. It is no longer acceptable to poke fun at people on account of their race, ethnicity or religion now, but that doesn’t seem to have filtered down to Mr Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, that American born champion of British liberties.

In 1890 no such ‘political correctness’ existed and so the The Illustrated Police News ‘headlined’ its report of a case of domestic violence at the Thames Police court ‘The Heathen Chinee all over’. The case concerned two Chinese immigrants: Ah Wei (a young ship’s steward) and Ah Tuing (a fireman). Both worked on the ships coming in and out of the London Docks and belonged to the small but well established Chinese community in Limehouse.

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It was this community that inspired Sax Rohmer’s ever-so-slightly racialist crime series about the criminal mastermind Fu Man Chu. Contemporary depictions of Limehouse as an area overrun by the ‘yellow peril’ and clouded in opium smoke owe much to Rohmer and Dickens’ Mystery of Edwin Drood, but the reality was that most people there lived in reasonable harmony with each other, regardless of their background.

Ah Tuing had accused the ship’s steward of assaulting him and was asked to swear an oath before he gave his evidence. Speaking through an interpreter (interpreters were common in the police courts, given the proliferation different languages spoken from Chinese to Yiddish, to German or Italian) Ah Tuing explained that as a Buddhist the ‘only oath he respected was the extinguishing of a lighted candle’.

This meant that ‘if he did not speak the truth his soul would be blown away in the same way as was the light’.

Mr Cluer (the magistrate) asked if a ‘wax vesta’ (a match) would ‘do as well’ and reached into his pocket to fetch one. No, the interpreter insisted, it had to be a candle so one was fetched and Ah Tuing was ‘sworn’.

The case now unfolded and Mr Cluer was told that the prosecutor had lent Ah Wei a waterproof coat to protect him from a shower of rain, extracting a promise of sixpence for the loan. The steward refused to pay up when the rain ceased and an argument ensued. This descended into a fight in which Ah Wei was deemed to be the aggressor. One witness – most of whose evidence was given in translation – saved some English for the man in the dock. Turning to him he shouted:

‘You _______ liar. You one loafer!’

All the evidence then pointed to Ah Wei being guilty of assault but then all the evidence had come from the Chinese community. The key witness (for Mr Cluer at least) was Joseph Brown, a greengrocer on Limehouse Causeway. He testified that Ah Wei had been in in his shop when Ah Tuing entered carrying a child in his arms. He thrust the child in the steward’s face and ‘kept irritating him’ and then ‘afterwards [they] had a fair fight’.

The English of course, had very clear ideas about what a ‘fair fight’ was. This did not involve weapons and usually meant the two parties were roughly equally matched. Mr CLuer wasn’t interested in what the Chinese community’s idea of a ‘fair fight’ was, just as he seemingly dismissed the evidence of those that came in to back Ah Tuing’s version of events. An Englishman’s word was of much higher value than a foreigner’s and so he dismissed the charge.

The press reportage reminded the reader that ‘Johnny foreigner’ was a strange and exotic creature, and Boris Johnson’s equation of Muslim women wearing the Burkas with ‘bank robbers’ or  ‘letter boxes’ belongs to this tradition of English xenophobia; one ‘tradition’ we could do with ditching as soon as possible.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, August 7, 1897]

‘De ombrella, he fall down’; the British press amuse themselves at the Europeans’ expense.

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Amid all the squabbling and back-biting that surrounds the UK’s prolonged exit from the European Union one of the more depressing traits that has arisen is a revival of anti-European sentiment. Even the newly appointed Foreign Secretary was quick off the mark in warning the Brussels negotiators that any failure to achieve a good deal for both sides, leading to the “very real risk of a Brexit no deal by accident’, would be blamed on the EU by the British people.

Anti-European rhetoric has been stoked up over the past few years building on decades of often fake news stories peddled by some sections of the English press. All those tales of straight bananas, renaming ‘Bombay mix’ or there being more words on cabbage regulation than there are in the Gettysburg Address were false. If that is added to the drip feed of tabloid articles blaming ‘foreigners’ for an upsurge in crime, pressure on the NHS or even the number of traffic jams on English motorways and you have the underlying xenophobia that fueled the rise of UKIP and, ultimately, won the Brexit referendum.

Not that any of this is new of course; being unpleasant to, or making jokes at the expense of our European neighbours is as a British as fish and chips (which was probably invented by Jewish migrants but let’s not go there). In 1828 Londoners at least remembered a time when they or their parents had fought a war in Europe; a decade after Waterloo the scars of the Napoleonic Wars were still quite angry even if the chief protagonist had been dead for 7 years.

In July of 1828 two men appeared before the magistrate at Marlborough Street Police court, one French and the other German, following an altercation in the street. Louis Courquin was a ‘French cook and confectioner’ and he accused Philipe Bohn, a German tailor, with assaulting him. The magistrate, Sir George Frannat, asked the pair to explain what had gone on between them. The Morning Post’s reporter chose to render the exchange in dialect, for maximum comic effect, something we still see in the occasional tabloid headline.

Bohn told the court that he was standing in the street talking to an English friend when Courquin approached. His friend supposedly said to him, ‘here is one oder fereigner, you can talk together’. Bohn then addressed the chef in German which he didn’t understand, speaking only French (and Bohn said he spoke no French).

Bohn’s English pal presumably thought that all ‘foreigners’ would be able to understand each other, because the English couldn’t understand any of them.

As the pair tried to communicate it seems that the Frenchman’s umbrella fell over and either hit the German or Bohn was blamed for tipping it over (Bohn said that ‘de ombrella, he fall down’ when Courquin ‘he schict his ombrella on de iron shpike, to take a pinch of shnoff’). The argument – if it even was an argument – carried over as both men proceeded to a nearby washhouse.

A parish constable saw the two of them quarrelling, decided the German was to blame, and took him in charge. In court Louis denied bringing  a charge against the other man but did say that he’d now lost his ‘parapluie’ (his umbrella) and his hat. In the confusion both men had left their possessions at the public washhouse and Sir George thought the best solution to it all was for the pair to go back together to retrieve them.

They discovered that they had lived close to each other for several years, with the Frenchman resident in London for nine years and Bohn for five. They were part of a European community in the British capital, and of a wider immigrant populace that included migrants from all over the known world. Nineteenth-century London was, like the modern city, a multi-cultural society.

I like to think they wandered off, arm in arm, muttering about the peculiarities of ‘ze Engleesh’.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, July 26, 1828]