A vociferous campaigner against alcoholism is treated gently at Clerkenwell

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As a crowd gathered around a speaker at Packington Street, Islington, one Sunday in 1866 the police felt obliged to intervene. It wasn’t the first time that William Henry Edwards had been at the centre of a furore; he had been standing on his soap box in Islington for the past two month’s of Sundays.

Edwards was a tarpaulin maker by trade but his actions had nothing to do with his profession. He had taken it upon himself to publicly condemn what he saw as one of the scourges of Victorian society – the over consumption of cheap alcohol. He described drunkenness as an societal ‘evil’; claiming also that ‘our prisons were filled through drink’. Edwards was a member of the Temperance Movement that grew to prominence in the mid to late 1800s, and like many a lay preacher in the Victorian age (and since)  he was prepared to take his message to the streets.

Men like William Edwards advocated abstinence from all forms of alcohol and while the middle classes also enjoyed a ‘tipple’ the movement was clearly aimed at the urban poor and working class who were seen to be the worst offenders, and the main victims of alcoholism. The police courts were full of drunk and disorderly people because the police cleared them off the streets at night and dragged the before the justices in the morning. Drunkenness then was a failing of the working man and woman, a failing that manifested itself in public.

On Sunday 25 March 1866 the police who moved in to the clear the obstruction on Packington Street found Edwards ‘standing on a chair, singing’. Having thus assembled a crowd about him he then swiftly warmed to his theme of temperance, and refused to stop and go away when the officers asked him to.

As the crowd grew the police again invited him to step down but again he insisted on continuing and by this time many people were arguing with him, while his supporters cheered his words. He was quickly becoming a nuisance and so the police were forced to arrest him and take him to the nearest police station.

When he appeared in the Clerkenwell Police court two days later he was unrepentant; because of the social problem of drink and drunken behaviour (and the effects this had on family budgets, tempers and so the persons of many working-class wives and partners) he felt justified in ‘holding open-air meetings on the subject’.

As for causing an obstruction (and that was the charge laid against him) he had, he told the magistrate, made all efforts to ask his audience to stand to one side so pedestrians could pass by. Today Packington Street is a through road that leads to the busy Essex Road, but the houses on it (smart Victorian terraces) suggest that in the 1860s this was a wide street which may have carried considerable local traffic.

The police, in the person of Inspector Wiseman, argued that while it wasn’t Edwards himself that was causing the obstruction he was responsible for the crowd of well-wishers and nay-sayers that had surrounded him. It was happening on such a regular basis, Wiseman continued, as to have become a nuisance even if that wasn’t the preacher’s intention.

Edwards apologised and said he would certainly ‘not go there again if it was wrong’. Mr Barker, the magistrate, told him that he had committed an offence which carried a potential fine of £5 but he would not, on this occasion, impose it. However, if he appeared before him again he could expect the full weight of the law to fall upon him.

Mr Edwards ‘thanked his Worship’ and left with his supporters. The cause of Temperance had been highlighted in the newspapers, and that, perhaps, was part of his strategy.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, March 27, 1866]

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