‘A very good idea’? Charity and race in mid nineteenth-century London

Some Inmates of the Strangers' Home for Asiatics, Africans, and South Sea Islanders

Anyone familiar with print culture in the nineteenth century will probably be able to testify to its underlying racism expressed most often in statements of white (or rather British) racial superiority and in ‘ethnological studies’ of the many ‘others’ found in British society or in the vast reaches of the Empire.

This is most evident in the colourful descriptions of immigrant Jews in East London and in reports of the port communities that stretched the length of the Thames and its docks.

The racism may be familiar but it still has the capacity to shock. Take for example an article from the Daily News published in May of 1872 that was headlined ‘“Darkies” from the Deep’. What followed was a fairly sympathetic report of a visit to the Strangers Home for Asiatics,  Africans, and South Sea Islanders, which was then situated in the West India Dock Road.

The home was established in the 1850s; set up by charitable donations to create a haven for destitute Chinese and Indian (Lascar) seamen who, abandoned by ship-owners, struggled to find work in the capital. According to the author they fell prey to ‘crimps, mostly of their own colour’, who fleeced them of their meagre wages and left them nothing with which to support themselves.

‘Their bodies were found in out-of-the-way corners, under railway arches, or in common yards, whither the poor creatures, enfeebled by hunger, and their marrow chilled in their bones by the rigours of our climate, had crept to die’.

In three years (1854-56) hundreds had died and many more had been admitted to hospital. A huge donation by the Maharajah Duleep Singh was followed by donations from the Queen, Indian merchants and others, before Prince Albert laid the foundation stone for the Home, which opened its doors in 1857.

When the Daily News’ reporter visited in May 1872 he described it thus:

‘A group of Lascars, with their bushy looks and swarthy skins, contrasts strangely with the solitary Chinaman who leans thoughtfully against the wall, his pigtail over his shoulder; a Malay with yellow eyes, long straight hair, and strong jaw, is conversing pantomimically with a tall, straight, hawk-eyed New Zealander, whose cheeks and forehead are fantastically tattooed. There are full-blood negroes from Gambia, and half-caste Portuguese from Goa, natives of the Friendly Islands, and lissome Cingalese [Singhalese], and representatives of perhaps a dozen other races neither easy to be distinguished at a glance, nor capable of being understood by any Englishman not endowed with the gift of tongues’.

The reporter noted the sounds and smells of the Home, the peculiar foods (’curry and rice’) that mingled with more familiar stuffs (like bread and butter and tea). He commented on the arrangements for bathing (‘the Oriental takes his bath every morning as religiously […] as he says his prayers’). And the article ended by noting that the Home had a good stock of Bibles and New testaments ‘in a variety of Eastern languages’.

A newspaper report from June 1857 described the opening of the Home (on 3 June) and noted that it had space for 230 inmates plus a superintendent and various officers and staff. The opening was formally marked by the singing of the psalm 67 (‘May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face shine on us— so that your ways may be known on earth, your salvation among all nations’), and a scripture reading.

This underpinned the Christian missionary ethos of the charity.

Almost all Victorian charity which operated to help the poor, the homeless, or the friendless, did so under the aegis of the church (in one form or another). There was a space for Muslim prayer in the back yard of the Home but while the writer of the 1872 article noted this, it seems clear that the hopes of those involved in this ’mission’ was that here were ready coverts to Christian religion and (perhaps even) Western ‘civilization’.

In the 1850s and throughout the century London was home to very many people of all races and creeds. It is likely that in the eighteenth century there had been many more, and that while they were denied the limited support available to the indigenous poor, they were not subject to the racism that developed from the end of the 1700s. With the expanse of Empire in the Victorian period that racism became more entrenched as white superiority was increasingly held up as a justification for subjugating ‘inferior’ races.

I am reminded of what Mahatma Gandhi supposedly replied when asked what he thought of Western civilization?

‘I think it would be a very good idea’, he said.

[from Daily News, Wednesday 29 May, 1872; Daily News, Thursday 4 June, 1857 ]

A magistrate has the chance to make a difference to one Black life; will he take it?

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The Demerara rebellion of 1823

On 26 July 1832 there was an unusual appearance at the Marlborough Street Police court. A man named only as ‘Burgess’ (no first name, no title), was brought in for begging in Charing Cross.

Placed in the dock the magistrate (Mr Gregorie) asked him where he lived. Begging was an offence that fell under catch-all legislation, the Vagrancy Act (1824). This act, passed in the reign of George IV, is still on the books. It makes it an offence to sleep rough or to beg in the streets. It took no account of why someone would be on the streets and begging for money or food.

The original legislation was passed in the wake of the economic distress that followed the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. The period after Waterloo was a turbulent one for the British state with many people forced off the land and into urban centres where poverty was common. In addition thousands of discharged and disabled soldiers returned, many of them unable to find work.

Not for the first or last time the reaction of the ruling class to the economic distress of the majority was to pass laws that protected the wealth and privilege of the minority and, after 1829 in London, they had Peel’s ‘New Police’ force to enforce them.

But let us return to Burgess; what did have to say for himself when Mr Gregorie asked him where he lived?

Burgess replied that he had lived abroad, in Demerara, on the north coast of South America in what is now Guyana. In the 1800s Demerara was under the control of the British (although it had been a Dutch colony). In 1823 there had been  a large scale slave revolt (echoing a previous one in 1795). The revolt had the effect of bringing the plight of slaves in Demerara to the attention of the British public and the British parliament.

Although the slave revolt was not violent the reaction of the governor, John Murray, certainly was. As many as 250 slaves were killed in putting down the rebellion and more deaths followed as ringleaders were hanged. Their bodies were left in public view as a warning to others and the leader of the revolt – Jack Gladsone – was sent to St. Lucia. It is likely that it was Gladstone’s father, Quamina who was the real leader of the slave uprising and he was later to be acknowledged as such by an independent Guyanan nation.

So who was Burgess and what had he to do with all of this?

Burgess told Mr Gregorie that he was a runaway slave, who had escaped his master and come to England.  In 1823 many of the slaves that revolted reportedly believed that Britain had abolished slavery in the colony (when in reality all Britain had abolished was the trade in slaves in 1807). Britain did not abolish slavery in its colonies until 1833 (effective from 1 August 1834).

Burgess – mostly referred to throughout the report as ‘the negro’ – said his master was named ‘Porter’ and he believed he was now in London. Not surprisingly then what Burgess wanted was to be allowed to return home, to Demerara. Perhaps he believed that he would be safer there, perhaps he was simply homesick. The move towards abolition was underway and he might have believed that he would return to freedom.

Freedom was a little way off however. Since he had no money and so no means of paying his passage to south America the magistrate said he would send  a message to the Colonial Office to see what the British state could do for him. In the meantime  Burgess was locked in a cell at Marlborough Street while the representatives of the wealthy decided what to do with him, a poor enslaved beggar.

The answer came back later that day and Burgess was once again set in the dock. The Colonial Office replied that they ‘could not interfere’. Could not or would not, it mattered little. No one was about to pay Burgess’ fare home. We don’t know his age but it is likely that Demerara was his home, his place of birth. But of course his ancestors, perhaps his parents and almost certainly his grandparents, had been taken from Africa against their will and brutally shipped across the seas to work on European plantations. It mattered little whether it was a Dutch or British plantation; the experience for Burgess and thousands of others was the same.

At least now the British state had the chance to make some amends. Sadly it chose not to. The Colonial Office would not help and neither would the magistrate at Marlborough Street. Burgess had infringed the Vagrancy Act and so he was sent to prison for a month. If, Mr Gregorie told him, ‘at the expiration of that time’, he ‘wanted to get back to Demerara, he must get there as well as he could’.

The slaves in Guyana were not freed until 1 August 1838, 6 years after Burgess appeared at Marlborough Street ‘begging’ to be allowed to return home. Whether he ever made it back to enjoy his freedom is unknown.

London was home to plenty of former slaves in the 1800s most of whom never came near a police court or in any other way troubled the record keepers. They often adopted the names of their masters or had names their master had given them – European names not African names – so they don’t stand out in the records. But they were here, as they had long been here. Anyone who believes Black Britons arrived on the Windrush and found an entirely ‘white’ country (or a country that had always been White) are  mistaken or misinformed and I suggest they  watch David Olusoga’s Black and British BBC TV series (and read the accompanying book).

This particular Black life might not have mattered to the early Victorian authorities, but Black Lives and Black history should matter to all of us.

[from Morning Post, Tuesday 27 March 1832]

 

 

 

 

 

Barrow wars: competing for territory in the world of fruit and veg

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The difference between a fixed trader – generally but not always a shopkeeper – and a costermonger became the key distinction in a case heard before Mr Woolrych at Westminster Police court in early December 1870.

William Haynes, a fruiter and potato dealer with premises on  Churton Street and Tachbrook Street in Pimlico, was summoned to explain why he had obstructed the carriageway. He was prosecuted under the ‘new Street Act’ for ‘allowing two barrows to rest longer than necessary for loading or unloading’. The court heard he had left them there for five hours.

His defense lawyer (Mr Doveton Smyth) accepted the facts of the case but tried to argue that since his client sold apples from these barrows he might be classed as a costermonger, and therefore be allowed to do so.

Mr Woolrych might have admired the creativity of the brief but he rejected his reasoning. The word ‘costermonger’ might have derived from “costard,” a large apple’, as the lawyer suggested but ‘that term had become obsolete’.

There was ‘no doubt the present acceptation of the word costermonger was an itinerant trader who hawked perishable articles, such as fruit, vegetables , and fish, etc., and in the course of that vocation went from place to place’.

The magistrate pointed out that Mr Haynes owned two shops and didn’t move them around. Mr Woolrych left the fruiterer off the fine but insisted he pay the costs of the summons. The lawyer said he would take the question of ‘whether a tradesman cannot be a costermonger if he please’ to the Court of Queen’s Bench for a higher authority to determine.

Two weeks later Haynes was back in court and again defended by Mr Doveton Smyth. Again the charge was the same, as was the defense. This time the defendant was fined.

Two years later, in April 1872 William Haynes was one of three Pimlico greengrocers brought before the Westminster magistrate for obstructing the pavements.

The court heard that they occupied premises ‘where costermongers are allowed to assemble in accordance with the  provisions of the Metropolitan Street Act’ and that the area was a ‘a regular market on a Saturday night’. Once again Mr Smythe presented the argument that his clients had as much right to trade from stalls outside their shops as the costermongers did to sell from barrows nearby, so long as ‘did not infringe the police regulations’.

But it seems they did infringe the law.

Inspector Turpin from B Division said that Haynes’ stall was fully 50 feet long while Joseph Haynes (possibly his son or brother), had one that was 35 feet long. Both stalls forced pedestrians to walk out into the road to get past.

The defendants pleaded guilty, promised to ‘make better arrangements’ in the future, and were fined between 10 and 40s each, plus costs. They paid up but with some protest.

This was not something that was going to go away however. The greengrocers could afford to keep paying fines and may well have thought it a necessary expense to be able to compete for trade with the costermongers.

Ultimately, as we know, the grocer in his shop would win the battle for the streets with the coster and his barrow. The latter were eventually restricted from selling wherever they liked and confined to fixed markets; the grocers developed a network of independent shops that ultimately grew into small and then larger chains, displacing very many of the independent traders that they competed with.

Today we have a high street  with very few independent grocers and greengrocers; most of that business has been captured by the supermarkets.

[from Morning Post, Wednesday 7 December 1870; Morning Post, Friday 19 April 1872]

 

‘The only way we have of earning bread for our families is by selling fruit in the streets’: a costermonger’s lament

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This week, just ahead of the next round of marking that will fall due in mid July, I’ve managed to return to my current research project. Nether World is a study of late Victorian London through the lens of the Police Magistrate courts. Commissioned by Reaktion Books it will explore the rich culture of everyday life in the metropolis in the period c.1840-1900.

Today I have mostly been looking into the lives of costermongers, the people that sold fruit and veg and other ‘perishables’ from barrows. Increasingly their tradition of wheeling and then stationing their barrow on the street, so their customers could easily come and buy from them, came into conflict with property owners and local authorities who wanted to keep the thoroughfares of the city free and open to a growing commercial and private transport network.

From 1829 onwards the capital had a new weapon to use against this form of itinerant trading: the men of Peel’s Metropolitan Police. Given that the ‘New’ Police were tasked with patrolling the streets during the day (when the old watch had only done so at night) it was inevitable that they would quickly clash with these traditional street vendors.

Costermongers were fiercely independent, rebellious in their dress and outlook, and had little time for ‘middle class moralizing’ and attempts to suppress or restrict their way of life. As a result the police engaged in a long running battle to force them to conform to set pitches and markets rather than be allowed to trade where they liked. Using the wide-ranging powers given by the highways acts costers were constantly being asked to move along and were arrested or summoned to court if they refused.

This caused considerable resentment within the costermonger community and  it is hardly surprising that one trader admitted to Henry Mayhew (the celebrated journalist and social investigator) that it was considered legitimate to punch a policeman.

‘To serve out a policeman is the bravest act by which a coster-monger can distinguish himself. Some […] have been imprisoned upwards of a dozen times for this offense […]’, one explained.

Henry Mayhew, London Labour And The London Poor, (London, 1851),

In November 1858 Lloyd’s Newspaper reported the sitting magistrate at Clerkenwell was ‘engaged for some considerable time’ in processing the costermongers that the police had arrested on the preceding Saturday evening. No less than 17 costermongers had been brought before Mr Corrie. They had been locked up and their barrows and stock removed to the Green Yard.

One defendant had been locked up for 36 hours before being bailed at 11 in the morning. When he went to collect his barrow he was at first refused it and then later, when he returned, he found all his stock of apples had been carelessly thrown into a sack so that they were now bruised and unsalable. Another man, that sold fish, got out of lock-up to find is stock left in the yard without any care and so, similarly, spoiled and valueless.

‘Some of the defendants’, the paper reported, ‘remarked that the only way they had of earning bread for their families was by selling fruit in the streets’.

They were given little or no notice by the police to move along, and most times their barrows were ‘causing no obstruction’ and yet they were ‘treated and pushed about like felons’.  Despite having some sympathy for their situation the magistrate still found for the police and although he waived the fines for those locked up for hours, imposed a shilling fine on everyone else.

No wonder them that the costermongers of London viewed the capital’s police with contempt. In their eyes they were only trying to earn a living, which was being thwarted by the police who they must have seen as the friends of their rivals, the lower middle class grocers that had fixed places to sell their wares.

Nowadays of course we are used to the idea that most trade takes place in shops and while markets exist, these are mostly periodic not daily concerns. The modern retailer’s grumbles about the unrestricted and low-cost competition offered online might find an echo in the grumbles of costers forced off the streets by Victorian shopkeepers and their ‘friends’, the police.

[from Lloyd’s Illustrated Newspaper, Sunday 7 November 1858]

The Salvation Army refuses to a leave a sick woman in peace

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I’m sure we have all had to put up with annoying disturbances at some point in our lives; last year an inconsiderate neighbour chose to party hard until the wee hours as she celebrated her 40th birthday. At about 4 in the morning I was obliged to ask her guests (she had retired to bed) to turn the music off.

I might have expected it from a student house but not a group of middle aged professionals.

If you live in a big city (like London or Paris, or New York) you are likely to be disturbed by the sound of traffic, railways, the sirens of emergency vehicles, and the refuse collectors. These are the normal everyday sounds of urban living however, and we get used to them or accept them as necessary. It is quite different then if someone sets up a band outside your house and plays music incessantly for hours on end.

This was the scenario that brought a vet to seek help from Mr Shiel at Westminster Police court in June 1889.

The vet (described only as a ‘gentleman’, his name not being recorded in the newspaper report) lived in Turk’s Row, Chelsea where he ran ‘an infirmary for horses and dogs’. He told the magistrate that a ‘band of Salvationists’ (meaning the Salvation Army) had congregated outside his property on several occasions recently to perform.

‘There were’, he explained, ‘at least 20 persons singing to a tambourine accompaniment’ and he had called the police after they refused to stop. A policeman had intervened and ‘begged the people to go further off’ but they refused. Instead they just continued making more of their ‘hideous’ noise than they had previously.

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The poor vet described how he had told the group’s leader that his wife was ‘lying dangerously ill’ having had complications in her pregnancy. He just wanted her to be able to rest but the officer in charge of the Salvation Army band refused to believe him, and called him a liar.

He asked for a summons to bring the ‘Army’ to court.

Mr Sheil was sympathetic but not very helpful. Couldn’t the police have done more, he asked? ‘They have no power’, the vet replied, or at least ‘they don’t like to interfere’. Had an (often Italian) organ grinder stood opposite his house the police would have happily taken them away, but not, it seems, the men and women of the ‘Sally Army’, however disruptive they were being.

The magistrate would not grant a summons and instead suggested the applicant visit the ‘headquarters of this so-called Salvation Army, and see, in the name of religion, they will continue to disturb a person who is ill’. In other words, challenge their Christian principles and beliefs rather than apply the same rules to them as would have applied to itinerate street musicians.

If it seems hypercritical to us it certainly did to the vet. He left court muttering that ‘he did not see why he should not have a summons, and that the he considered the law ought to protect him’.

It is very hard not to agree with him. Once again it is a case of one rule for some, and another for others.

Today of course the Salvation Army is a well respected charity organization with branches all over the world; in the late 1880s it was an embryonic and divisive group which found itself in court quite frequently on charges of disturbing the peace or obstructing the streets. How times change eh?

[from The Standard, Wednesday 26 June, 1889]

For an interesting blog post on the involvement of Black Britons in the Salvation Army see Jeffrey Green’s post here

For other stories from me about the Salvation Army see these related posts:

‘A great nuisance’ but a dedicated body of men and women. How the Salvation Army got their message to the people

An ‘infernal din’ disturbs the peace on the Sabbath and lands the Salvation Army in court

‘I may be wrong but I think a man can be a Christian and march along without a uniform’: theft and imposture brings the Salvation Army into court

Brickbats and stones ‘welcome’ the Salvation Army to Hackney

William Booth in court, for doing something about homelessness

‘I will give him a blow that he won’t be able to hit me’: a family squabble turns sour

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On the 15 May Ann Fadden was standing outside her front door, at one in the morning, as her brother Jeremiah Coghlan came by with a friend that he lodged with. Jeremiah was drunk, and an argument broke out. Truth is always hard to discern in court records where accusations of ‘he said, she said’ are thrown about, but it seems that Coghlan has some sort of long running feud with Ann’s husband, James Fadden.

At some point Ann and her brother Jeremiah started grappling with each other and she called him names. He may have had a rather distinctive nose because she later admitted shouting:

“Go along, you long-nosed vagabond and look out, he is down the street, and if he hits you he will give you something”.

She was referring to the fact that her spouse, James, was visiting friends just a little way off (‘listening to the newspaper being read’) and she was expecting him home anytime soon. In fact James had heard all the souting and was already on his way. When he saw Coghlan fighting with his wife, James intervened telling his brother-in-law to go home.

When the young man refused, Fadden threatened to punch him on his (quite distinctive) nose.

Ann again tried to stop things escalating, warning her brother off a fight with a stronger man but ‘Jerry’ wasn’t interested in being talked down. According to John Coghlan, brother to both of them, he was in a belligerent mood and growled that ‘I will give him a blow that he won’t be able to hit me’.

With that he shoved his sister out of the way and rushed at Fadden. Coghlan threw a punch and Fadden fell to the ground, where he lay senseless for several minutes. As soon as everyone recovered their wits they released James was bleeding from a cut to his neck and he was taken to Guy’s Hospital.

There the house surgeon, Mr James Wood, treated him but the bleeding couldn’t be stopped and his patient ‘gradually sank’. On the 3 June James Fadden died and now the charge against Jeremiah had become one of murder or manslaughter.

Coghlan was arrested the next morning by PC George Vellacott (M224). Coghlan was still in a rage and in no mood to apologies for what he had down. At this stage of course he was being arrested for wounding, not for killing the other man but he hardly helped his own case. As the policeman explained that he must take him to the station the young man declared:

‘If I am given in charge I shall do for the b—; if I get over this I shall do for him’.

A knife was found at his lodgings that seemed likely to have been the murder weapon and the police took it as evidence to be produced later at trial.

Having been remanded several times by the magistrates at Southwark on 11 June 1859 he was fully committed for trial.

Jeremiah appeared at the Old Bailey on 13 June, just days after his committal by Mr Burcham. He was accused of ‘willful murder’ but convicted of manslaughter. Only one person spoke up for him there, William Jennings a leather dresser, who had known him for ten year and lived with him. Jeremiah was only 22 in 1859 but it wasn’t his first brush with the law. He had been imprisoned the year before, although it is not clear why.

From the records of the Digital Panopticon we also learn that Coghlan was Roman Catholic (and so probably of Irish ancestry) and worked as a dyer (and industry closely connected to the Thames by Bermonsdey).

He was transported to Australia for a sentence of 20 years, arriving in Western Australia in 1862 after a spell of imprisonment in England. Both his sister and his brother gave damning evidence against him in court.

What was wrong with this young man? Was he unable to control his temper? Had he completely alienated his family? It is a very sad story

[from The Standard, Monday 13 June 1859]

Black Lives Matter: a very personal view

This blog is normally concerned with the police courts of nineteenth-century London. It may therefore seem a world away from the current Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests that are echoing around the globe. But my research touches on inequality and oppression in so many ways that I see so many connections to current debates on prejudice, racism, and anti-immigrant sentiment that I feel that to stay quiet is impossible. So this blog post is going to be a little different, and I make no apology for that.  

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The killing of George Floyd was a disgrace, an outrageous act, an example of oppression, and one that demonstrated that for some people black lives really don’t matter. There can be no justification for Floyd’s killing just as there can be no justification for the hundreds of black lives that are taken every year by over zealous and, let’s admit it, often institutionally racist, police forces.

Before we think that this is an American issue, or even an old one, let’s remind ourselves that these killings have taken place in the UK, a country that our Prime Minister swears is ‘not racist’. Not everyone in the UK is racist, not every institution is either, but racism is endemic in Britain and so I find it completely understandable that acts of violence have resulted from the groundswell of anger that followed the news of Floyd’s killing.

On Sunday 7 June 2020 protesters in Bristol hauled down the statue of Edward Colston, an eighteenth-century merchant who owed his huge personal wealth to slavery, and dumped it into the Avon.

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The removal of Colston’s statue was not an eradication of history, it was history.

Colston’s statue was only erected in 1895 when his links to slavery were well known. In recent decades there has been a local campaign to remove his statue and rename Colston Hall. This campaign has been ignored and so it is no surprise to me that events in the USA sparked protesters here to react as they did to years of frustration.

The destruction of the statue has been condemned as ‘criminal damage’ and as an attempt to ‘eradicate history’.

It may, technically, be the former; it most certainly is not the latter.

Moreover, the actions of those involved have to be seen in historical context. History is not static; it is not somehow encased only in the monuments left behind by our ancestors, it is changing every day.

Which is why we need historians (those we have and future ones) to research, write, explain, and interpret that history.

Let us take the history of protest as just one example of the collective history of humanity over the past few thousand years. If we take the long view we can immediately see how ridiculous and insulting it is to dismiss Sunday’s ‘rioters’ as ‘criminal’.

Pretty much all of the rights we cherish in this country and throughout the world were won not given. These include the right to free speech (something championed by Far Right activists as much as those on the Left of politics); the freedom to practice whatever religion (or none) we choose.

To which we can add the right to political representation, and the right (of nations) to self-determination; the more modern rights to sexual freedom, gender equality, to freedom from discrimination on the grounds of race or disability.

Protest is not a recent invention.

History reminds us that people have protested about all sorts of things for as long as records exist  (and presumably longer). I work on the period 1700-1900 and there are plenty of examples in my area of individuals, communities, and groups protesting about access to common land, to food resources, the right to vote, the right to form a trades union, and against the forcible examination of the female body, to name but a few.

There have been notable eruptions of popular rebellion against oppression: most particularly given the current news agenda, in the Caribbean against slavery. Too often the emancipation of slaves has been credit to a handful of well-meaning white men (like Wilberforce) and to the neglect of the black actors (named and unnamed) who contributed to it.Unknown

The actions of the enslaved have often been written out of history, and the efforts of white men lauded instead. 

And we can see the role that violent direct action has played in winning votes for women, LGBTQ rights, and in winning freedom from oppressive regimes in Europe and elsewhere.

It would be lovely if protest was always gentle and respectful of property and persons. If governments would listen and consult with the oppressed and the exploited. History teaches us that they don’t; the reality is that for change to happen persuasion has to take place. Why should the rich and powerful conceded any of their wealth or privilege to those they control unless they fear the consequences of not doing so?

But power is very rarely given away, it is taken.

And before we get too precious about the violence that we’ve seen on the streets of Britain and America in reaction to the killing of George Floyd (and allowing for the fact that much of that violence cuts both ways – police ‘brutality’ and the ‘criminality’ of the activists), let us again remind ourselves of how states like the US and UK came into and have maintained their existence.

The USA was born in conquest. British, Spanish, Portuguese and French invaders (or settlers, discoverers if you prefer) brutally subdued the native indigenous peoples and seized their land. Then in 1776 a violent revolution took place and white colonial Americans overcame the lawful English government and (with the help of the French) established their own republic.  They continued to build a nation using slave labour imported (violently) from Africa.

The British state is even more rooted in violence. England was born from dynastic wars reaching back to the 700s or earlier. Britain only exists because English armies subdued the Scots and Welsh and Irish. The British Empire (‘overwhelmingly a force for good’ apparently) was really a product of violent land grabs in Africa and the Indian subcontinent, maintained by gunboat diplomacy and periodic warfare.

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The British Empire’s response to a national uprising in India was brutal

We owe our place in the world to violence: destructive, exploitative, nationalistic, imperialist, violence often justified on the basis that we (I mean white Britons) were members of a ‘superior’ race with a ‘civilizing mission’.

I could go on but I think the point is made.

Nowhere on earth has peaceful protest been the ‘norm’ for effecting change. Everywhere the nations that exist valorize violence in their national history. Yes, we might rightly laud the battle for freedom on D-Day, or the sacrifice of 60,000 British lives on day one of the Somme, but let’s not forget that war is the ‘extension of diplomacy by others means’ and power is equated to force.

If the marginalized fight back (or others take up arms on their behalf) we can hardly be surprised, nor, I would argue, can we deny them the rights and privileges that our ancestors won for us.

Black Lives Matter is a movement born of hundreds of years of exploitation and the frustration of the denial of equality and, in some cases, basic human rights. I cannot condemn them or those that support them, and can only hope that, as historians, we are part of the solution not a part of the problem.

 

Another man who shirked his parental responsibilities and thought he’d get away with it

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The church of St Lawrence Jewry in the 1930s

William Dell was having a bad day and it was about to get worse.

In the first week of June 1869 he had been presented with a summons to attend at the Guildhall Police court. Being summonsed was one of the ways you ended up before a magistrate in nineteenth-century London, and was certainly preferable to being brought there from a cell by a policeman or gaoler, but was still unpleasant and embarrassing.

Dell’s ‘crime’ was that he was behind with his child support payments, or, as the Victorians would have termed it, he was in ‘bastardy arrears’. Having impregnated Emma Barrett but not being inclined to marry her, he had left her and her baby ‘chargeable to the parish’.

In other words, without the financial support of William Dell Emma would have been forced to exist on money raised from amongst the local ratepayers. Where possible, and when a father could be identified, the overseers of the poor much preferred to avoid this. If Dell wouldn’t marry Emma he could at least be expected to stump up the money to support her bastard. The amount was at 26a week.

Dell either thought he should pay or didn’t have the spare cash to do so, so he ignored the bastardy order that had been imposed on him and had ran up arrears of £2 5by the beginning of June (suggesting that he had paid nothing for about 18 weeks).

Hence the court summons in June.

He was stood outside the Guildhall court waiting to be called in when a woman approached him. She was Sophia Barrett, Emma’s mother. She berated William for ruining her daughter and abandoning his child and, when Dell protested that the child was not his but his brother’s, she lost her temper completely.

Sophia started to hit Dell with the only weapon she had to hand, her umbrella. He tried to fend her off and then ran away to the rear of St Lawrence Jewry church (which stands in Guildhall Yard) to escape her.

Sophia Barrett was not so easily shaken off, and went round the church the opposite way and attacked him again in Gresham Street. Here she ‘pulled his hair and struck him’ again and again until William Dell was rescued by a passing policeman. Sophia Barrett was now arrested and both parties appeared in the Guildhall Police court together.

Sophia Barrett was charged with assault but showed no remorse. Indeed she went on the attack complaining to the alderman magistrate that Dell had neglected his obligations and left her, a poor widow,  to care for both her daughter and the child. Dell, she said, had ‘never contributed one farthing to the support of the child and had declared that he would not’.  She felt entirely justified in letting the man know exactly how she felt.

Alderman Finnis seemed to largely agree with her. He sympathized with her and dismissed the assault charge on the grounds of provocation. As she stepped down from the dock, her reputation enhanced rather than tarnished, Dell took her place.

Alderman Finnis asked him why he had failed to obey the order of the court to support Emma Barrett and her baby? Dell wriggled in the dock and claimed he had no money to do so. The money ‘he earned’, he stated, ‘was barely sufficient for himself’. It was a lame excuse even if for many in Victorian London barely subsistence wages were the norm. He had ‘had is way’ with Emma and was obliged to face the consequences.

In the alderman’s eyes if he allowed Dell to avoid his responsibilities he would be exposing the good ratepayers of the City to a flood of claims for child support. So he glared down at the man in the dock and told him that he could either pay his arrears now or go to prison with hard labour for two months. Dell refused to pay and so was led away to start his sentence.

It is worth noting that his incarceration did not cancel his debt, on his release he would still be expected to support Emma’s child unless she married and found someone else to pay for its upbringing. So Dell faced an uncertain future if he continued to refuse to pay. Once out of prison he was still liable and unless he found the money he might well end up being sent back to gaol. Moreover, having been inside once his chances of finding regular well-paid work were diminished. If he thought he was merely scraping by beforehand then his outlook after prison was hardly improved.

But at the same time the situation was little better for Emma; any hope that she might have had that Dell would recognize that his best interests lay in marrying her were probably killed stone dead by this prosecution and the animosity that came with it. She would also find it hard to persuade a suitor to take on another man’s bastard. So she would continue to live with her mother in a household with no male breadwinner, and few prospects of avoiding an impoverished existence.

At the heart of this was a child. A child whose father didn’t want her and who the ‘state’ (which in the 1860s meant the parish) didn’t want to have to pay for. Today Emma would be better supported, although our own society still struggles to make fathers take responsibility for the children they beget on women prefer not to marry or support.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday 6 June 1869]

A Waterloo veteran is desperate to regain his medal, as a reminder of better times.

Light-Dragoons

Light Dragoons at Waterloo 

On the 24 June 1851 two young lads were brought up before the magistrate at Marylebone Police Court charged with having stolen property valued at over £100. Benjamin Lawrence was 16 years of age, and his confederate, John Jones, just 15.

The charge sheet presented by the police listed the stolen items (not all of which had been recovered) as follows:

‘a gold snuff-box, Waterloo medals, gold lace off cavalry jackets, two gold lace pouch belts, a cornelian ring, an opera glass, and other articles of much value in jewellery, gold lace, etc’.

The boys had worked as grooms for a Miss Walter at 9 Devonshire Place and the property, which belonged to Major Morse Cooper, had been stored in a room above the stables where the prisoners had worked. Miss Walter was not sworn at Marylebone but a statement was read on her behalf.

This explained that she had employed Lawrence as a live-in groom but had sacked if on the 8 April. Jones had replaced him but lasted only a few weeks. She reinstated Lawrence in May (‘after application had been made by him’) but he repaid her trust by absconding on the 19. It was soon after this that the theft of Major Cooper’s possessions was discovered.

The lady’s butler, informed that a robbery had been perpetrated, had been up to the storeroom to find the place ransacked, with a  ‘number of boxes and drawers had been broken open […] evidently […] forced by means of a chisel’.

This was no petty pilfering, the sort of thing that servants were often accused of. This was a serious robbery and the nature of the items stolen meant that the thieves would have had to dispose of them through a ‘fence’, someone acting as a receiver of stolen goods.

The first police witness, sergeant Battersby of D Division, said that he had been informed that the lads had sold some of the goods to ‘a Jew in Hounsditch’.

Houndsditch, on the edge of the City of London and close to the large Jewish community in Spitalfields, was a well-established jewelry and second hand clothing quarter, and so an obvious place to try to exchange stolen goods for ready cash. The ‘Jew’ (unnamed) did not appear in court but the police sergeant had visited him and he had admitted buying (and the selling on) some clothes from Devonshire Mews. It seems the clothes (a ‘pair of hunting breeches and a blue frock coat’) had been sold on to an actor at the Surrey Theatre (now the Old Vic) and the sergeant had retrieved them and brought them to court.

Sergeant Battersby had tracked Jones down to another mews in Belgrave Square where he had found work with the Marquis of Ely. He denied any involvement and tried to blame the theft on his friend ‘Ben’. Battersby arrested him. Lawrence was picked up in Clapham Rise by PC Spice (47V), who recognized him from a description that had been circulated to police districts. Lawrence was clearly ‘known’ to the local police because PC Spice put his hand on his shoulder and said:

‘Ben I want you, you must go along with me, for you have absconded from your service, and a great deal of property has been stolen’.

PC Spice told Mr Broughton (the sitting magistrate at Marylebone) that the boy had denied stealing but admitted receiving one shilling, out of the four that the lads had received for selling the property.

Having heard all the evidence presented by the police Mr Broughton turned to the young prisoners in the dock to hear what they had to say for themselves. Lawrence admitted being ‘there when it was done’ but denied having anything to do ‘with the gold lace or the other valuable things’. Jones said he wasn’t there when the robbery was committed and denied knowing about the sale to ‘a Jew’.

This caused sergeant Battersby to interject: ‘Why, you told me you were present when the sale took place’. Jones was either confused, or was changing his story as the seriousness of his situation finally dawned on him.

Both boys were remanded for further examination where, the report suggested, it was hoped or expected that a ‘great portion of the stolen property will be produced’. This was because the police had told the magistrate that they were keen to pay another visit to Houndsditch, believing that ‘property of considerable value might be met with at the Jew’s premises’.

The case came to trial at the Old Bailey on the 18 August. It probably took this long because the police were tracking down a third culprit, James Morton, who now appeared with the others.  Morton was also a groom and he admitted being present when the major’s boxes were forced open, but  denied being culpable.

The defense was that another lad – a ‘sailor boy’ – had carried out the robbery, they had simply profited from it, a lesser crime. They were also at pains to deny having anything to do with the theft of the gold lace or a gold snuff box, the ‘valuable things’ that Major Cooper had lost.

A local tailor testified that one of the prisoners had brought him a pair of trousers to alter. ‘I believe they were dark-blue trowsers—some stripes or braiding had been taken off the sides of them, and they were torn, as if in taking off the stripes’, he told the court. These sounded like part of a cavalry uniform.

Elias Moses (the ‘Jew’ mentioned the summary hearing) also testified at the Bailey. He was a secondhand clothes dealer from Sandys Row, Bishopsgate and he remembered buying a number of pairs of breeches from Lawrence for 4s. He couldn’t recall the date but it was in May at Devonshire Mews, and Morton ‘was with him’.  He said Lawrence had assured him that the goods were his to sell so whether he suspected they were stolen or not, he was covering himself.

The final witness in court was Major Leonard Morse Cooper himself. He was related to Mrs Walter by marriage (she was his mother–in-law) and had left his property there for safekeeping.  While everything had a value (‘one hundred guineas would not replace what I have lost’ he said) he was most concerned to retrieve his Waterloo medal.

Jones was acquitted of the robbery but the other pair were convicted. Benjamin Lawrence was sent to prison for six months, and it seems he had a short life, dying in 1866 at the age of 31. Morton was recommended to mercy by the jury, who clearly held him to be less culpable than his fellow defendant. He still went to gaol though, and for the same period.

According to Hart’s Army List for 1849 Major Cooper entered military service in 1814 as an ensign. He was promoted to lieutenant in the 20th Light Dragoons June 1819, rising to captain in the 11thLight Dragoons on 25 February 1831 and thence to major (which he purchased) in 1840. Cooper was cited in divorce proceedings in 1850 (so a year before this case). Cooper was said to have been a frequent visitor to Mrs Frances Cautley, the wife of Lieutenant-Colonel Cautley, who was serving abroad in India, and she to him. The accusation was that Mrs Cautley had carried on ‘an adulterous intercourse and criminal conversation’ with Major Cooper. The major had subsequently settled a court case by paying £1000 in damages to Lieutenant-Colonel Cautley.

So perhaps his reason for storing his property with his mother-in-law was to keep it out of the hands of any creditors he might have, especially his highly prized Waterloo medal.

There were 39,000 Waterloo medals created but not all were awarded. As a cavalryman Cooper was amongst 6,000 who were recognized for their service at the final battle of the Napoleonic wars. They were made of silver, had the prince Regent’s head on one side and the figure of victory on the reverse (with the words ‘Wellington’ and ‘Waterloo’ and the date – 18 June 1815).

150px-Waterloomedaille_1816_Verenigd_Koninkrijk

At Waterloo the 11 Light Dragoons ‘under the command of Lt Col Money were sent into action when it looked as if the enemy were breaking up. They broke a French infantry square and carried on with the pursuit of Napoleon’s fleeing soldiers’. If Cooper was part of that attack, and carried his troop’s colours, then it is understandable that he would want to get his medal back. It was, after all, a part of his life that was above reproach, unlike his more recent history.

[from Morning Post25 June 1851; Collection of Nineteenth Century British Divorce Proceedings, Volume 2]

I am very grateful to my colleague at Northampton, Dr Caroline Nielsen, who uncovered the Old Bailey case against the trio of boys while researching for her own work on disabled military veterans in the 18thand 19thcenturies. Caroline is currently finishing a book entitled Old Soldiers: The Royal Hospital of Chelsea, Military Pensions and British Society, 1660-1834.