If you have ever been out for dinner when a singer with a guitar has begun to serenade the restaurant, uninvited, then you will have some appreciation of this story from Marylebone Police Court. Similarly if you are trying to work, watch TV or sleep and your neighbours are having a party (loudly) then you can imagine how Mr H. G. F Taylor was feeling on the evening of the 28 June 1887.
At about 7.30 pm Mr Taylor, a private secretary who resided at 17 Manor Mansions, Belsize Park, (a fashionable address that would today set you back a cool £1.5m) heard a noise in the street outside. Peering out of his window he saw a young woman with an accordion.
According to him she wasn’t playing it, but ‘simply pulling the instrument in and out, and making a hideous noise with her mouth, not singing’. Taylor was completing his income tax return and had frequently been disturbed by street musicians. In fact it was getting to his nerves to such an extent that he had even considered going ‘the country’ for a few days to escape it.
Opening the window he leaned out and told her to go away. She ignored him, so he tried shouting at her, and motioning for her to move away. The girl simply crossed the road and moved little way further up and continued her performance.
Frustrated, Taylor called the police. When PC 79S arrived he arrested the girl (whose name was Catherine Demassi) and took her to the station. The next day Catherine was up in court before the Marylebone police magistrate on a charge of ‘playing an accordion to the annoyance of the public’.
In court Taylor complained that ‘these street musicians [were] a great annoyance’ and blighted his life. Catherine spoke no English it seems and a translator was present so she could understand the charges brought against her, her sister was also present. Through the translator Catherine said that she didn’t understand what Taylor was saying to her, something the secretary found incredulous.
The magistrate, Mr Newton, wanted to know how long Catherine had been in England to not understand the language. Her sister explained she had only been here three months, having been sent for by her sibling. This brought the magistrate’s rebuke:
‘Mr Newton told the Prisoner’s sister that it could not be allowed that children should be brought from foreign countries to England simply to play instruments about the streets’.
He remanded Catherine and sent the translator (M. Albert) to to the Italian consul in London, to arrange the girl’s repatriation to Italy. In the end then what had started as a case of a nuisance in the streets had turned into a discussion about the validity of migration and the ‘right’ to work in the UK. Catherine probably had little choice in whether she came to London or not, she was being used by her family as a means to generate funds to survive.
Her story – as an economic migrant in a foreign country – was replicated tens of thousands of times in the 1880s and 1890s and fuelled a debate which would eventually lead to legislation to restrict immigration into Britain for the very first time. The passing of the Aliens Act (1905) represented the end of Britain’s cherished ‘open door’ policy towards the people of the world, and immigration has remained a contentious issue ever since.
[from The Standard, Friday, July 01, 1887]
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