An excitable militia man and the shadow of Napoleon III

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In mid July 1859 there was something of a panic about a potential French invasion of Britain. This had been stirred up by the press after Louis Napoleon had become Emperor Napoleon III in 1852 and had operated as an autocrat for the first six or so years of his reign. As Louis Napoleon (the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte), he had been elected president in 1848 but had seized power in a coup d’etat when he was denied the opportunity to run for a second term.

Invasion fears may well have prompted some in England to enlist in the army or the local militias. The latter were not ‘proper’ soldiers although they played an important role in defending the state throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. They never enjoyed the popularity that the Navy or Army did however, even in the hey day of Victorian militarism.

In July 1859 Reynold’s Newspaper reported several views from other papers about the situation in France. Reynold’s was notably more radical than many of its competitors and often served an audience that was more plebeian in character. The Morning Advertiser warned that ‘the country is in imminent danger of invasion from the ruler of France’ and a force of over 100,000 men. The Daily News wrote of ‘Louis Napoleon’s perfidy’ and noted that the governments ‘of Europe regard him with increased suspicion and dislike’. Even the sober Times claimed that ‘war and peace hang by a thread’.

Meanwhile in Bethnal Green the over excited militia seem to have been trying out their martial skills on the local passers-by.

On Monday 18 July an iron merchant named James Webster appeared in court to complain about a brutal assault he had suffered on the previous Saturday evening. Webster, who worked at premises in Digby Street, stood in the witness box at Worship with his head bandaged in black cloth.

He told Mr D’Eyncourt, the sitting magistrate, that he was on his way home from work at about half past 5 o’clock when he encountered several members of the Tower Hamlets Militia. They might have been a bit ‘tipsy’ he said, but he wasn’t sure. One of them threw a hat at him which hit him in the face and fell to the floor. He reacted by kicking it out of his way and carryied on walking.

As he went a few yards he felt a ‘heavy blow’ on the back of his neck, which knocked him off his feet. He got up and grabbed hold of the man he thought was to blame, a militia private by the name of Charles Lowe. As the two grappled others joined in and he described a scene of chaos with several men rolling around on the ground before he was overpowered and subjected to what seems to have been a pretty brutal kicking.

Webster told Mr D’Eyncourt that:

‘As I lay on the ground I was beaten and kicked so badly about the body that I am covered all over with bruises and cannot lie down with ease, and also, while I lay on the ground’ a woman had ‘somehow got her ear into my mouth and so nearly bit the upper part of it off that it only hung by a mere thread, and I have been since obliged to have it sewn on’.

This woman was Anne Sherrard who was described as married and living in Old Ford, a poor area of Bethnal Green associated with the new industries on the River Lea and the railways. Both Ann and Charles Lowe appeared in court to answer the charges against them.

Mr D’Eyncourt clearly thought this was a particularly serious assault because he chose not to deal with it summarily, as most assaults were, but instead sent it on for jury trial at the next sessions.  He noted for the record that:

‘This is a most brutal assault and it is high time that these raw recruits should be taught better; men like these fancy that as soon as they have a soldier’s coat they must commence fighting someone immediately, whereas an actual soldier would not be guilty of such infamous conduct’.

D’Eyncourt then was drawing a clear line between the professionals and the amateurs and finding the latter a much poorer specimen overall. History tells us that there was no invasion in 1859 or indeed ever again in British history to date. Had there been we might have been able to see how private Lowe and his companions fared when confronted by a real enemy rather than a perceived one. As for Napoleon III, his reign was the longest in French history after 1789 but came to the end in ignominious defeat by the Prussians at the battle of Sedan in September 1870. He ended up living out the rest of his life in England, but not as an all conquering victor but as a former head of state in exile.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, July 24, 1859]

This one is for Bill and Jim, and their family – I can only think that Charles must have been a very distant relative, and not at all like his modern ancestors.

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