‘A fever amongst people living under the mockery of a poor-law which recognizes no right to relief in destitution’: reflections on the Irish Potato Famine from 1846

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Today is St Patrick’s Day and there will be drinking galore in Dublin, London and Boston and throughout the Irish diaspora. The island of Ireland is small, just 32, 500 square miles, and today it is home to around 6.5m people, but it bats above its average in terms of political importance and influence. This is due in no small part to its strategic significance, situated as it is between continental Europe, Britain and the Atlantic, and also of course, because of its long and troubled history. It is not for nothing that the Brexit wrangling in recent months has focused so much on the so-called ‘Irish backstop’; the determination not to recreate a hard border between Eire (the Irish Republic) and the six counties of Northern Ireland.

The Irish influence is widespread however, because of the waves of Irish emigration from the ‘emerald isle’ that took place, for the most part at least, in the nineteenth century. Millions of Irish men and women left their homes to travel in search of food, shelter and work – a better life – in the wake of famine, persecution, and religious intolerance.

St. Patrick's Day Parade in America, Union Square, 1870s (colour litho)

Many went to their nearest neighbours, settling in England and Scotland (in London, Liverpool and Glasgow in particular) while many others traveled to the United States (especially New York and Boston). They took their culture with them, hence the St Patrick’s Day parades in US cities today (as above from Boston in the 1870s).

The famine began in September 1845 so by the winter and spring of 1846 it effects could be felt throughout Ireland and the British Isles. England had always had a large Irish immigrant population and they were generally regarded as second-class cousins at best and dangerous Catholic troublemakers at worst. Most of all perhaps the Irish were generally poor and considered to be ‘feckless’ ‘work-shy’ and a burden on the rates. When the numbers of the existing populations were swelled by tens of thousands of new migrants in the mid 1840s antagonisms were heightened.

The Police courts of the English capital were often visited by members of the Irish community, who gravitated to the poorer areas around St Giles, Covent Garden, Whitechapel and Southwark. The Irish had a reputation for hard drinking and ‘fair fights’ (when they were drunk). Brawls in pub spilled over into the streets and there altercations with the police were inevitable.  So arrests would be made for drunken and disorderly behaviour, refusing to quit licensed premises, and assaults on the constabulary. Many Irish ended up in the workhouse or as vagrants and beggars and this could also lead to an appearance before a magistrate.

The situation in Ireland was caused by the failure of the potato crop but exacerbated by the actions of the English landowners, poor law authorities  and government that failed to help the people affected. This was hotly debated in Parliament (just as today’s MPs debate Brexit and the ‘backstop’). Discussions turned around debates between those seeking trade tariffs for imported corn and those opposed to them. Peel wanted to repeal the Corn Laws but this split the Tory party (rather like Brexit has) meanwhile Irish people were literally starving to death. This is a flavor of the debate as reported in the Daily News on the day following St Patrick’s Day 1846:

This measure is an impressive commentary on the time occupied by the Protectionists [those that wanted to keep tariffs] in their long protests. It is fever against which Parliament has to provide. An infliction of fever so national, that Government must interpose to prevent the dying and dead from making the Green Isle a very Golgotha.

It is fever induced by starvation; and hastening on, with giant strides, while week after week is wasted in describing and deprecating the horrors of a superabundant influx of food from foreign countries. Moreover it is a fever amongst people living under the mockery of a poor-law which recognizes no right to relief in destitution’.

Peel’s early attempt to import American corn in secret failed because the quality of the grain was so poor that it was virtually inedible, causing widespread digestive problems so it became known derogatively as ‘Peel’s brimstone’.    At least 800,000 Irish men, women and children died as a direct result of the famine and the failure of the British government to support them, the figure is probably closer to 1-1.5m. A further million (at least) emigrated. If you ever wondered why anti-English feeling remains prevalent at all in the Ireland and amongst Irish communities elsewhere perhaps a reflection on the events of 1845-49 would be instructive.

And that is without considering the actions of the early modern rules of England, the atrocities committed by Oliver Cromwell’s troops, the long battle over Home Rule in the late 1800s, the brutal repression following the Easter Rising in 1916, the ‘black and tans’, ‘Bloody Sunday’, Diplock courts and all the other measures used to govern the northern counties in the Troubles, and of course decades of jokes at their expense.

Happy St Patrick’s Day folks – God save Ireland!

[from Daily News, Wednesday, March 18, 1846]

Murder in Wales but business as (depressingly) usual in London

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In mid March 1866 the trial of Robert Cox was concluding in Swansea. The body of John Davis had been discovered by police in Dyffryn Wood a long time after his disappearance. The body had been decapitated and the evidence led the police to Cox (or Coe). The jury had convicted Cox after deliberating for 12 hours and the judge, Justice Blackburn, ‘passed sentence of death in the usual manner’. The so-called ‘Mountain Ash murder’ resulted in the execution of Cox outside Swansea gaol on 12 April 1866. Cox confessed to killing his workmate after they had both been drinking. His was the last public execution in Wales.

Meanwhile the reports of the London Police courts reminded readers that most crime in the country was much more mundane. At Marlborough Street  Henry Baynes, a publisher’s clerk, was brought up again on a charge of defrauding his employers. He was accused of obtaining cheques by false presences from a number of publications including The Morning Post, the Owl, and Notes and Queries.  The prosecuting counsel was a Mr Wontner who was to go on to become a magistrate later in the century. On this occasion he managed to persuade the sitting justice that there was sufficient evidence against Baynes to send him for a jury trial.

At Southwark Mary Ann Vanna was accused to stealing a clock, coat and ‘other articles of wearing apparel’ from a house in Cole Street. She pleaded guilty in the hope of having the case heard summarily (and therefore getting a reduced sentence) and said it was the first time she’d been before a magistrate. The justice said he doubted that as she was a ‘well known character’ who lived with a ticket-of-leave man. He sent her to prison for six months at hard labour.

Over at Worship Street Mary Ann Taylor appeared in the dock charged with destroying her clothes in the casual ward at Shoreditch workhouse. She raised eyebrows in court because of the state of her dress:

‘beneath a dark wrap of a shawl and old bonnet she wore what was immediately recognizable as having been long since a nipped counterpane, but perfectly white and carefully patched and darned so as to exclude the clemency of the weather’.

When the magistrate asked the poor law officers why she was dressed like that they told him that when paupers destroyed their own clothes, with the expectation that the house would give them new, better ones, they supplied one of these ‘nice white dresses’ instead.

The effect was to humiliate the wearer and it seemed to have worked on Mary Ann who looked miserable and wept openly as she explained that she’d cut up her own clothes because they were ‘so filthy’. The magistrate sent her to prison for 14 days.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, March 16, 1866]

Jealousy, divorce and vitriol throwing in late Victorian Paddington

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Divorce was a not at all an easy thing to obtain in the nineteenth century. This meant that many couples either stayed together long after relationships had broken down or separated to live with someone else, but were then unable to remarry. For women this was a particular problem as it was harder for them to be seen as ‘respectable’ if they lived, unmarried, with a man. It was even worse should they have children by him, and that, in age before effective contraception, was fairly likely.

The breakdown of any relationship is traumatic and rarely entirely mutual so there is almost always an ‘injured party’. This sometimes leads today to long drawn out divorce cases, to jealousies, feuds, and even violence. So I imagine this might have been even worse in a society where divorce was much rarer than it is today. In the Victorian period then, there was much more scope for long lasting jealousies between jilted and abandoned wives and husbands and their new paramours.

This was the situation that Margaret White, a 44 year-old shopkeeper found herself in in March 1886. Margaret was married but her husband had left her 11 years previously, complaining about her ‘immorality’.  This may have referred to an affair or simply her behaviour (perhaps her drinking and staying out late in the evening). Of course it may have been a false accusation, we have no proof that Mrs White was in any way ‘immoral’.

Whether White left his wife for another woman in 1875 or not by 1886 he was living with Rose Simpson in her rooms at Burlington News in Paddington. Margaret had discovered this and on more than one occasion in 1886 she had confronted Rose and, supposedly threatened her. On the 3 March she had visited the property and called on Rose.

When she opened the door she allegedly produced  a small bottle which she claimed contained ‘vitriol’ (acid) and said she would throw it in the face of her rival if she ever stepped out of the house. She then stood outside for three hours while Rose cowered inside.

As this was the culmination of a series of threats to her, Rose decided to go to law to get protection or redress. On 13 March Margaret was brought, by warrant, to the Marylebone Police court to answer a charge of threatening her husband’s lover with an acid attack. Margaret pleaded not guilty and claimed that she’d never threatened Rose. She did admit that she had met her husband at open of their daughter’s house, by accident not design, and that he had told her he would never go back to her. This may have prompted her to  confront Rose but she steadfastly rejected claims that she had produced a bottle or vitriol or had ever ‘had anything to do with it’ in her life.

Rose Simpson, perhaps persuaded by her husband,  told Mr Cooke that she didn’t want to press charges and would be content so long as her rival was bound over to keep the peace towards her. She merely wanted, she said, for the threatening behavour to stop. The magistrate agreed, noting that there was no evidence that Margaret ever owned let alone threatened to throw acid at her. He accepted Mrs White’s sureties of £20 for six months but warned her that she faced a month in prison if there was any further intimidation of Ms Simpson.  Throughout this case involving his previous and his current object of affection, Mr. White was nowhere to be seen.

Acid throwing was not unusual in the 1800s and has resurfaced in modern Britain, as this report from the Guardian in February 2017 shows. If you would like to read more about this disturbing phenomena I can suggest no better source than Dr Katherine Watson at Oxford Brookes University.

[from The Standard, Monday, March 15, 1886]

She said, “You are a couple of old wh—s,” and hit me in the forehead with the brush! Violence in mid century Whitechapel

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Yesterdays’ blog detailed the everyday mundane violence meted out to working class women by men in the capital in the year of the Whitechapel murders, 1888. Today I’ve chosen a case from mid century, which involves violence committed by a woman on another woman.

Margaret Griffin was placed in the dock at Worship Street Police court (in the East End) charged with assaulting Mary Bryan (or Bryant). Griffin was described as a ‘decent looking Irishwoman’ and the alleged assault had taken place in mid January, some two months before the case came up before Mr Hammill, the justice on duty.

The reason for the delay was that Mary had been so badly hurt in the attack that she’d been hospitalized and was only now out of danger and sufficiently recovered to face her abuser.  The magistrate was told that Griffin – who worked as a cleaner – had forced her way into a house in Whitechapel and had demanded to see a women that lived or worked there. She was brandishing a scrubbing brush and calling for the ‘bitch’ to be sent out to confront her. When Mary Bryan got in her way she beat her severely with the scrubbing brush and denounced her (and the other woman) as a ‘ couple of old whores’.

Given the state of Mary’s injuries (which had been treated at the London Hospital on Whitechapel High Street) Mr Hammill decided this was far too serious a case to be dealt with summarily and he fully committed Griffin to take her trial at the Old Bailey.

The case was heard on 7 April 1851 and she was acquitted by the jury. It seems that Margaret was set upon in the house and the injuries handed out were in part deemed to be in self defense by the all male jury.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, March 14, 1851]

‘He’s a good man, when he’s sober your worship’: Little support for an abused wife at Guildhall

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As many posts on this blog and research elsewhere, including recently published work on the victims of  ‘Jack the Ripper’ have detailed, violence against women was a depressingly familiar aspect of daily life in late Victorian London. Everyday, women were abused, beaten, sexually assaulted, and killed by men and a great deal of this violence went unprosecuted and unpunished.

Very many women were in a perilous position with regards to confronting their husbands or partners when it came to domestic violence. If they chose to fight back, they could expect not only more and worse violence, but were likely to lose the tacit support of their communities. If they went to law they risked not only a beating, but the economic hardship of losing the family’s main breadwinner or his being fined, another charge of the domestic budget.

As a consequence few women prosecuted their spouses unless they were desperate or recognized the relationship was unrecoverable; they went to law as a last resort, and often, once in front of magistrate, retracted their charges or spoke up in mitigation of their abuser’s actions: ‘he’s a good man, when sober your worship’, was familiar refrain.

Honora Rush decided to go to law when her husband, John, beat her up for the umpteenth time. Honora knew what her laboring spouse was like when he was in his cups and on Sunday night, the 11 March 1888, when she heard his staggered boots ascending he stairs to their room she barred the door with the bed. ‘She knew that he was drunk, and would most likely knock her out’ she told the alderman at Guildhall Police court, and she was right.

John barged his way inside, breaking through the wooden door, and confronted her. He ‘knocked her about’ with his fists and she ran past him but he grabbed her and threw her down the stairs. As she struggled to her feet and began to dust herself down he came out of the room holding a paraffin lamp. Alarmed she asked him to put it down. Instead he came down to her, kicked her in stomach and threw the lamp at her. The flames set her petticoats on fire and ignited the stairs. The other residents of the building rushed out to fetch water and a police constable and John was arrested.

It took some time to put out the fire, PC Cooper explained, but then he questioned the man and the woman and their 11 year-old son. The boy supported his mother’s account but the magistrate was keen to enquire whether she’d given him any provocation for the assault.  Had she been drinking, he wanted to know? Honora said she hadn’t (and the boy confirmed this) but  John said otherwise and Alderman Knill was inclined to believe him.

Both the court’s gaoler and the police confirmed that John Rush had been prosecuted previously for abusing his wife, although on several occasions Honora had not pressed charges, perhaps hoping that the shock of being arrested would do the trick. Sadly she was mistaken. The magistrate seemed not to be inclined to throw the book at this brutal specimen of a husband but he had to do something. Turning to the prisoner in the dock the alderman told him that:

‘it was a most outrageous thing that he, a great burly fellow as he was, should assault his wife in the way I which he had done’. However, the court recognized that since in his opinion, she was ‘not a temperate woman’ there ‘might have been some slight provocation’. He bound Rush over to keep the peace towards her for six months on pain of having to find £5 if he did not. The only person satisfied with that outcome was the labourer himself who tipped his cap to the bench and said, ‘thank sir, I am very much obliged’

Poor Honora must a have been left fearing the worst and any woman reading this would surely have thought that the law offered her no protection whatsoever. This was 1888 and within eight months at least six women in the capital would have been brutally murdered by an unknown killer.  In dingy rooms all over the capital brutish husbands threatened to ‘do for their wives’ like the ‘Ripper’ had. The Whitechapel murderer killed at a time when working-class were cheap, and those of the poorest and most vulnerable, mostly women, were considered cheapest of all.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, March 13, 1888]

An unwanted admirer on Regent Street

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Edith Watson, a young lady who was employed as a bonnet trimmer had made a big impression on one foreign immigrant in London. Alick Korhanske was infatuated with her but what might have ended in marriage and domestic bliss actually ended up in front of a Police Court magistrate at Westminster.

It isn’t clear when Korhanske, who ran the London, Chatham and Dover Toilet Club at Victoria Station, first fell for Edith but the pair met, by accident, on Regent Street in June 1885. Edith was on her way home to Pimlico from Madame Louise’s millinery shop when Korhanske approached her.

‘I have been watching you for some time’, he said, ‘and I love you. May I pay my addresses to you?”

Edith was careful not to start up a conversation with a strange man she had never met before, especially in Regent Street where women (notably Elizabeth Cass in 1887) could easily be assumed to be prostitutes if they were unaccompanied, so she ignored him and walked on.  The 33 year-old hairdresser was not so easily rebuffed however, and he followed all the way back to Tachbrook Street.

A few nights later he turned up at her door and asked to see her. She again refused and he went away, but not far. As she walked along York Street later that evening with a female companion he grabbed her by the arm and tried to force her into a cab. Fortunately her friend helped her escape. The women set off in hurry back to Tachbrook Street but Korhanske followed after them and hit out at Edith from behind, knocking her to the pavement with his walking cane.

The next day he again accosted her in the street and this time asked her to marry him. She declined.

This state of affairs evidently continued for several months until, on the 2 March 1886, Edith was again stopped by Korhanske in the street and threatened.

‘I will kill you the first time I see you out, and myself afterwards’.

That was more than enough for Edith who took out a summons to bring him before Mr Partridge at Westminster. The hairdresser produced a number of ‘love letters’ from Edith to challenge her version of events, suggesting that his overtures had been welcomed, not rejected. They showed that she had ‘made appointments’ to see him and had signed them ‘With love, your affectionately, Alice’.

This produced a burst of laughter in the courtroom. Her name was Edith, not Alice, was she deliberately giving him a false name or even channeling the eponymous fantasy character of Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel? Edith admitted writing the letters but only out of fear of him, ‘to pacify him, and for her own protection’. She had not meant a word she’d written.

Korhanske would be considered to be a stalker today, and that can be a very dangerous situation for the prey. He may simply have been another love struck suitor whose passions were unrequited, but it might also have made good on his threat to kill the object of his affection and then end his own life.

Mr Partridge decided that enough was enough and demanded he enter into recognizances of £50 to keep the peace and ‘be of good behaviour’ for six months. Otherwise he would lock him up. Let’s hope he stayed away and let the young milliner get on with her life.

[from The Standard, Friday, March 12, 1886]

‘These cabmen always drive furiously’: Lord Rothschild has a lucky escape

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An 1891 caricature of Nathan (‘Natty’) Rothschild by Lockhart Bogle in The Graphic

It seems as if traffic accidents were just as likely to occur in late nineteenth-century London as they are in the modern capital, and that the roads were just as crowded. Moreover the image of the policeman directing the flow of vehicles – one we probably now associate with the 1950s and 60s – may be just as appropriate for the 1890s.

In early March 1890 Nathan, the first Baron de Rothschild, was being driven in brougham coach along Queen Victoria Street in the City. A policeman was holding the traffic and had his arm extended up, palm out to signal this. Lord Rothschild’s driver eased his horses to a halt to wait for the officer’s signal to continue.

Suddenly, and seemingly without warning, the coach was hit from behind by a hansom cab. One of the shafts of the cab broke through the brougham, narrowly missing its occupants. Rothschild was shaken, but unhurt. The baron stepped down from the damaged coach and approached the policeman. He handed him his card and said, possibly angrily:

‘These cabmen always drive furiously. Take my card and give it to the Inspector. It will be all right’.

The incident ended up with the cabbie, James Povey, being summoned before the alderman magistrate at Guildhall Police court where he was charged with ‘driving a hansom cab wantonly’. Povey pleaded ‘not guilty’ and one of his passenger that day, a gentleman named Palmer, was in court to support him.

Mr Palmer testified that the baron and his driver could not possibly have seen what happened as they were facing the wrong way. He said that Povey had tried to stop and it was entirely an accident, not ‘wanton’ or dangerous driving. The alderman agreed and dismissed the summons, adding that a claim for the damage to the brougham could be made in the civil courts. There was no need, Povey’s representative (a Mr Edmonds, solicitor for the Cab Union) explained, as that had already been settled.

Rothschild was an important figure in late nineteenth-century Britain, a banker and the financial backer of Cecil Rhodes, he was a noted philanthropist as well, helping fund housing (in the form of model dwellings) for poor Jews in Spitalfields and Whitechapel.

Rothschild sat in parliament for the Liberals, although he had been a close friend of the Conservative Prime Minster Benjamin Disraeli. By 1896 he was a peer, sitting in the Lords (as he had since 1885) an honour bestowed by that other great Victorian premier, William Gladstone. He then left the Liberals in 1886, joining forces with Joseph Chamberlain’s Liberal Unionists as the Liberal Party split over Home Rule for Ireland. He died in 1915 and the current baron, Jacob, is the 4th to hold the title.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, March 11, 1896]