Entertainment mingled with disaster in 1880s Spitalfields

Scene of the late Disaster in Spitalfields, at the Hebrew Dramatic Club, Princes-Street

All sorts of business came before the Metropolitan Police courts, much of it very far from what we might describe as ‘criminal’. The reportage of these courts therefore offers us an interesting glimpse into London life in the nineteenth century.

Take this case for example: three men from Spitalfield’s Jewish immigrant community were brought before a magistrate for staging unlicensed entertainments.

The hearing, on 12 November 1889, was the second one before Mr Bushby so most of the arguments had already been made a week earlier.  Several witnesses, including the police (represented by Inspector Reid1) testified that they had watched dramatic productions and imbibed ‘spirituous liquors’. The defendants, most notably the proprietor Solomon Barmash, had argued that the performances were ‘for social improvement’, but this didn’t convince the magistrate.

All venues putting on plays had to have a license issued by the Lord Chamberlain of letters patent, from the Queen, allowing them to do so. Barmash and his Hebrew Dramatic Club on Prince’s Street had no such license. He and his fellow defendants were accused of staging The Double Marriage and The Convict and selling drinks to the paying customers, which was prohibited under the licensing laws of the day.

The magistrate, Mr Bushby, fined Barmash £36 plus £3 costs, some of which was to be born by his co-defendants Joseph Goodman and Charles Dickerson (the younger). This covered both the sale of alcohol and the staging of plays without a license.

I found it interesting that both plays were performed in Yiddish and these made the magistrate question whether they were in fact ‘educational’. Although he agreed with the prosecution that the law had been broken it does show us that there was a thriving local immigrant community which wanted to see and hear cross cultural entertainments. The Double Marriage was apparently a ‘French’ play according to the court report although there was a Jacobean play of this name.

In January 1887 17 people lost their lives at the Hebrew Dramatic Club when a reported gas leak and fear of fire and explosion caused panic in the club.

‘The scene at the time was one of intense excitement’, reported the Pall Mall Gazette. ‘Screams of terror and cries of appeal and advice mingled while the mass wedged in the doorway struggled and surged’.

Although three of the victims were unidentified the other 14 were all ‘foreign’ Jews, and were mourned by their community in the days that followed.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, November 13, 1889]

  1. Possibly Edmund Reid (of ‘Ripper Street’ fame) or the less well known Joseph.

Seven immigrant workers are caught gambling for their supper

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Seven men were sat around a table in house in Whitechapel at 10.30 at night, playing at cards when there was a loud knock at the door. The knock was followed by the cry of ‘Police, open up!’ and the arrival of Inspector Frederick Abberline and H Division’s finest.

Abberline was acting on a tip off that the house was being used as an illegal gambling den, which sounds quite exotic but was actually very far from that. The seven men were poor ‘jobbing tailors’. All were Polish Jews, recently arrived from the Russian Pale, escaping from economic misery and religious persecution. They had come to the East End (as so many of their fellow congregationalists had, before and since) because there was an established Ashkenazi community there where they could find work, kosher food and others that spoke their language. Many dreamed of making the longer journey to the ‘golden medina’, the promised land of America, land of the free.

They worked very long hours, often in cramped conditions for little pay. The ‘sweating system’ of small workshops was endemic in Whitechapel and Spitalfields and drew the attention of Parliament and campaigners like Annie Besant. On this occasion however, they had drawn a different sort of attention and it had brought the police to the house that Harris Straus owned in New Castle Street.

The men were arrested and brought before the Police Magistrate at Worship Street on the following Monday morning. Straus (a 36 year-old tailor) was charged with keeping a gaming house’ and the others, with being found there, ‘contrary to the Act’.

None of the men spoke English and so an interpreter (Mr Carameli) was called to translate proceedings. The lack of English amongst the Jewish community was something which frustrated the local police during the Ripper investigation, and a few officers were eventually trained to speak Yiddish. The seven men were named as Barnett Coplin (28), Morris Green (18), Louis Gasoniviter (19), Morris Friedman (25), Abraham Lewis (28), Simon Nathan (19) and Hyman Lawer (19).

Nearly all of them lived at the house and they insisted they were only playing cards to pay for their supper.

The police case was presented in court by superintendent T. Arnold. Arnold explained that men Abberline and his men had gained entry they had found the men sat around a table in a back room. ‘Money and cards were on the table’, and in a drawer they found yet more cards and ‘about the room more cards’. This was not then, simply a case of some friends meeting at home to pass the time with a harmless game, he argued, this was organised gambling.

Arnold said the police had received an anonymous letter informing them of the gambling den, which Abberline had acted upon. He understood the game they were playing was called ‘sixty-six’ (or schnapsen, a game of German origin). If you want to know how to play it (not for money of course!) then the rules are here.

Straus admitted allowing players to gamble in his house and further admitted to charging them to do so. He didn’t ask for much, ‘a penny or a halfpenny from each of them to use the room’, was all, but that was illegal just the same. A witness appeared for the police, named Albert Stern, and he said he had played  other games such as Faro and Bank there, for upwards of four hours for ‘stakes of 1d up to 4d‘.

Mr Busby, the magistrate, said it was clear all were guilty as charged and Straus would be fined £5 for running the house. He accepted that most of the others lived there and were only playing for small stakes, so would be lenient. He fined them 20s each. To put this in some sort of context this meant that the arrest had cost each man about £25 in today’s money, and their host 10 times that amount. For the police it was a victory in the ongoing war against illegal gambling but I hope that Abberline and his team were just as assiduous in busting employers that forced their staff to work in sweated industry for long hours at substance pay; sadly I doubt it.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, July 08, 1879]