The ‘people of the East End: a distinct class’ in need of ‘exceptional kindness’

Wentworth Street 1895 postcard

Middlesex Street (‘Petticoat Lane’) market c.1894

On most occasions London’s police  magistrates (men from a legal background with clear middle class roots) upheld the law the of the land without question. Men like Mr Lushington at Thames had little time for petty thieves, drunken brawlers, or wife beaters and dealt with then swiftly and dismissively. But now and then they displayed a level of good sense tinged with human kindness that reminds us that they were, as justices had been for hundreds of years, figures of authority whose overriding role was to maintain social cohesion in their communities, as far as that was possible.

Worship Street Police court (along with Thames) served the poor districts of the East End of London. Here were the overcrowded dwellings of tens of thousands of native and immigrant working-class Londoners, many living in what Charles Booth had identified as poverty. Here was the crime and degradation that Victorian ‘slummers’ went to gawp at on their visits to the area, here too were the dirty trades of slaughter men and tanners that had made their home in the east since medieval times. This was Whitechapel and Spitalfields and the killing grounds of ‘Jack the Ripper’, who preyed on the ‘unfortunates’ who plied their desperate trade on its ill-lit streets.

It is easy to depict the East End as down trodden and degenerate – and that is almost always the picture that emerges from contemporary reporters and later historians – but while the poverty and overcrowding was very real, so was the famed East End spirit and toughness. Nor was the entire area poor and forgotten. Booth’s poverty maps reveal plenty of ‘red’ streets where ‘respectable’ traders and the middle classes lived and worked. The Charity Organisation Society and the Salvation Army were active and local priests like Canon Barnett worked amongst their ‘flocks’.

There was also a vibrant street culture, which centred around the markets in Wentworth Street and ‘Petticoat Lane’ (Middlesex Street), which catered for all the ethnicities and pockets in the East End.

Markets, however, were also a bone of contention because the traders who set up their stalls, and stood individually elsewhere, often competed for use of the streets with other road users. The job of the keeping the streets clear for traffic and so moving on these traders – London’s costermongers – fell to the parish officials and then to the police.

As Stephen Inwood has shown, from their earliest days the Metropolitan Police soon released that resources meant that they needed to pick their battles. While their middle-class leaders wished them to enforce the law, close down Sunday markets and move on barrows, the local populace resisted and so for the sake of good relations many a blind eye was turned.

In 1889 a representative of the local parish authority appeared at the Worship Street Police court to complain about a number of costermongers who he had summoned to court for obstructing the streets with their barrows and stalls. The cases were heard by Mr Montagu Williams, the sitting magistrate.

Mr Besley, on behalf of the parish, told the court that several traders were in the habit of placing their stalls on the streets of Bethnal Green ‘where  a sort of fair was held every Sunday morning’. The market set up early but was often still there long past 11 in the morning. This was an infringement of the by-laws but the police were doing little or nothing about it.

The traders complained that they had been earning their living in this way for years, some for 25 or even 40 years; it was a tradition and the local people approved of it. Mr Besley argued that many of the costers were not ‘local’ at all, but came from other parts of the capital to sell their wares.

Mr Williams said he had himself walked the streets and seen the market, and those at Middlesex Street and Wentworth Street, and saw no harm in it. While it might infringe the by-laws of the parish it was of use.

He was convinced ‘that the people of the neighbourhood found it a great boon to be able to buy food in the markets on Sundays. One heard a great deal about the “Sweating” life led by the East-End poor, and it was precisely those people who, kept at work till midnight perhaps, needed to get their food on a Sunday’.

He thought that the vestry were being rather hard on the traders and while he recognised that laws were laws a little discretion was in order for the people of the area. He declared that the ‘people of the East End had a harder time of it than any class in the Metropolis, and therefore required an exceptional kindness’.

Mr Besley went off frustrated, quite possibly muttering under his his breath.

[from The Standard, Thursday, March 14, 1889]

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One thought on “The ‘people of the East End: a distinct class’ in need of ‘exceptional kindness’

  1. Fascinating insight into Sunday trading – very different from nowadays. A nice example of a magistrate not being confined by the law, but using his position wisely. Thanks.

    Like

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