Is this freedom? The ‘Adventures of a Slave’ at Worship Street Police Court

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Margaret Clayton was 50 years of age, or so she thought, when she appeared at Worship Street Police Court in June 1847, seeking the magistrate’s help and advice. Margaret was married to a soldier but she wanted a divorce.

Divorce was no easy thing in mid-Victorian England, particularly for a working-class woman of limited means. Until 1857 the Church of England conducted divorces and were very reluctant to grant them, and only on the grounds of adultery. As a result the number of divorces were small, around 300 a year even as late at the 1870s.

In some parts of the country working class men and women got around this by conducting ‘wife sales’ (as described by Thomas Hardy in the Mayor of Casterbridge). This form of plebeian divorce, which Hardy’s novel exposed to a disbelieving and shocked public, were often the only way for couples to legitimately separate and move on.

There was little the magistrate at Worship Street could do for Margaret, but he was interested in her background because she was not not like most of the women that came before him.

Margaret Clayton was ‘a woman of colour’. She was black, and Mr Broughton wanted to know her history.

She had been a slave she told him. She born into slavery as her mother was a slave also, and was first sold at 15 years of age, to ‘a captain’s lady at St Helena’. This would have been in 1812 during the long wars between the French 1st Empire and the Allies, led by Britain. These had ended at Waterloo in June 1815, and the French emperor, Napoleon, was sent into exile – on St Helena.

Margaret recounted how the lady had bought her for £50 to serve as a nurse for her children. Her mistress was good to her, she ‘was kindly treated but she was thoughtless and giddy, she said, as girls would be, and she ran away’.

She was soon found and brought back but sold on to another mistress who was far less considerate. She was treated ‘brutally’, she explained, before she was again sold – this time for £33 – to a soldier. He married her and set her free.

Sadly her husband, who seems to have cared for her, died and so she was free but without any support, and already having a family, she married another private in the St Helena Regiment. When this husband decided to return to England, Margaret and her children went with him. By 1847 they were living in London and he was working at the London Docks, and clearly they were not getting along very well. The eldest of Margaret’s five children was a man of 20, the youngest a baby just18 months old.

The magistrate was curious to know if she had known or met Napoleon. The Corsican ‘Ogre’ had been a prisoner on the small South Atlantic Island from October 1815 to his death (rumored to have been hastened along by his captors) in May 1821. Yes, she said, she had seen him but added nothing further the reporter could embellish his article with.

Napoleon remained a powerfully iconic figure in European history and politics. When he had died there were calls to repatriate his ashes (‘cendres’) to France but the ruling monarch Louis XVIII and his government feared a popular uprising of Bonapartist sentiment. Napoleon’s supporters would have to wait until 1840, seven years before Margaret appeared at Worship Street, to see their hero’s remains entombed in the magnificent structure at Les Invalides in Paris, where they rest to this day.

Having satisfied his curiosity about the woman there was nothing much more Mr Broughton could do. He asked one of the warrant officers present to enquire into the case and speak to the husband, to see if anything could be done to reconcile the (or perhaps even arrange a mutually acceptable separation) and ordered that Margaret be given some money from the poor box.

The Standard‘s reporter wrote it up as the ‘adventures of a slave’ as if it was somehow a tale of a woman’s exciting life upon the high seas. But in reality of course Margaret – who had been ”sold many times’ (as she had told the court) – had very little choice in where these ‘adventures’ led her. She had been taken to St Helena as a slave, sold again as a slave, and then bought against her will as a wife. Free or enslaved it made little difference; as the wife of a serving soldier she went where he went.

Her appearance (at 50) in a summary court in the capital of the nation that had abolished slavery and the slave trade was probably her first real opportunity to declare her independence. Unfortunately as a poor woman, legally married with no rights to property of her own, she found there was nothing the law could do for her except to hope that her husband ‘let her’ go, or treated her better in the future. We might ask ourselves then, from Margaret’s perspective, whether she was ‘free’ at all?

[from The Standard , Monday, June 28, 1847]

The Salvation Army wins few friends in 1880s Islington

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When William Booth founded his Christian mission in Whitechapel in 1865 it was just just another example of nineteenth-century evangelical religious fervour. It was not until 1878 that he, with inspiration from his son, Bramwell, came up with the concept of an ‘army’ to give the movement a distinct and lasting mission. The Salvation Army grew from a small congregation in the East End to a worldwide movement promoting its own brand of aggressive Christianity served with a large helping of brass band music and singing.

In its early days, however, it would be fair to say that many people found it an unpalatable mixture of ‘rough music’ and rather un-English lay preaching. For some it was a welcome and much needed force for good, while for others it was a subject ripe for ridicule. This contrast is played out in a court case heard by the sitting magistrate at Clerkenwell Police Court in 1881, just a few years after Booth’s Army took to the streets.

As a Salvation Army band marched along Victoria Road in Islington one Sunday afternoon in early May, supported by about 100 ‘cadets’, ‘privates’, lieutenants’, and ‘captains’ John Roswell and others in the watching crowd hooted and poured derision on them. This was an ‘army’ in name only, and it aped the uniforms of Victoria’s finest, which may well have upset those who had served under the colours or who had sons or brothers, or husbands fighting for the Queen overseas.

As three of the young Salvation Army ‘cadets’ (those training for ministry)  passed by the crowd they were pelted with rotten fish and mud. Two of the cadets managed to identify those they thought responsible and on the following Wednesday John Rosewell was brought in front of the magistrate to answer a charge of assault.

His accusers were William Powell and Daniel Baugh. Baugh also alleged that when he remonstrated with Rosewell the youngster attacked him, beating him across the back with a stick. He was helpless, he insisted, to defend himself.

This brought about laughter in the courtroom because Daniel was a man mountain, whilst the defendant was a small lad, about half his size. He had pointed Rosewell out to a police inspector but the police could find no corroborating evidence against him. He was accused of throwing mud but had no mud on his hands or his clothes.

So, there was a case of disputed identification which would ultimately undermine the case against John Rosewell but the magistrate then demonstrated his own dislike of the Salvation Army and its activities.

It was a Sunday, Mr Ricketts asked, and you were singing songs?

Songs such as “My Grandfather’s clock”, “The Old Armchair”, and “Jim Crow”  he continued. The cadets looked confused. Amid more laughter they told him that they were ‘singing the songs of Zion, set to tunes for showing people the direct road to the Captain above’.

Did they work?, the magistrate asked. No, they marched and sang and were rewarded with lodgings and food for doing the ‘Master’s work’.

The justice didn’t like this at all:

‘Then I suppose these processions, these popular songs on a Sunday, and all this turning of religion into a mockery, is done solely for the purpose of getting money?’ he alleged.

It was to raise money for their work, for the mission and the Salvation hall protested the cadets, but to little effect. The magistrate, as a follower of a more traditional form of ‘sober’ worship clearly had little time for General Booth and his followers. He dismissed the charge against Rosewell (as unproven) and grumbled that ‘scenes like those caused by the Salvation Army were likely to lead to riot and tumult’.

Widely disliked in the late 1800s the Army changed tack and started to provide social welfare as well as evangelism and popular music. It survived the critics and the brickbats and now claims to have 1.5 million members across the world.

[from The Standard), Wednesday, May 04, 1881]

An elderly lady is driven to despair in a society that didn’t care

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As PC 99 L Division made his usual patrol by the Surrey side of Blackfriars Bridge  (i.e south of the River Thames) he saw a woman sitting on the steps by the water. As he approached he could see that she was in condsiderable distress and asked her what she was up to.

The elderly lady, who gave her name as Elizabeth Briant, admitted that she had been so ‘cruelly beaten by the man whom she had lived with for thirty-eight years that she was tired of her existence’. Elizabeth was working up the courage to throw herself into the river to drown.

Attempting suicide was a crime and so the policeman arrested her and, the next day, brought her before the magistrate at Southwark Police Court.

Elizabeth cut a forlorn figure in the dock: her arms were covered with bruises, as was her face. She told the magistrate that her husband had ‘ill used her to a great extent’ in recent weeks. On the previous Saturday he had ‘knocked her down, kicked her, and blackened both eyes’. Having assaulted her the man then ‘thrust her out of the house, and left her to starve in the streets’. She had run down the steps at Blackfriars and it was only the lucky intervention of the beat bobby that had saved her from ending her miserable life.

The magistrate asked her if she had any children, and she told him she had eight, ‘but only one was living, and she hoped he was serving Her Majesty in India’. So this poor old lady had lost seven sons or daughters and her only surviving son was in the imperial army thousands of miles away.

It was a desperately sad story but also a fairly typical one for the time. There was little the justice could do expcept order the arrest of the husband (who might expect a short prison sentence if summarily convicted, hardly benefiiting Elizabeth) and send the poor woman to the workhouse to be cared for. Once there, she could hardly expect to leave and was effectively being condemned to live out the remainder of her days as an inmate before being given a pauper burial when she finally passed away.

Nevertherless, Elizabeth looked up from the dock and thanked ‘his Worship for his kindness’. She had probably lived most of her life in grinding poverty and could now expect to see out her remaining days in a ‘pauper bastille’. It would be another 45 years before the government of the day introduced the Old Age Pension and, since she would have been a recipient of Poor Law funds, Elizabeth would not have been entitled to it anyway.

For me, the Victorian period is a savage reminder of what our society looked like before we had a welfare system; it was a society that often left women like Elizabeth Briant to choose the only option that ended the pain of everyday life. For all the calls for belt-tightening in the face of self-imposed austerity we should remember that today this country is one of the top 25 richest countries in the world and we can well afford a decent welfare system, whatever politicians tell us in the next few weeks and months. The divide between rich and poor is as wide as it has ever been and it is frankly appalling that so many ‘ordinary working people’ have to resort to food banks in the 21st century. So before we look back with horror at a Victorian age that drove women like Elizabeth to attempt suicide which she take a long hard look at ourselves.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, May 1, 1860]

 

A ‘suspicious person’ at Woolwich, but ‘not clever enough’ to be a terrorist.

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In the 1880s Woolwich was home to the Royal Arsenal, as it had been since the 17th century (and in fact earlier as there had been used for gun storage from the mid 1500s). After 1886 it was also home to what was to become one of London’s most successful football clubs, Arsenal FC.

Given that artillery and shells were manufactured at Woolwich in the 1800s the site was an important one for the Victorian military, but also a target for the enemies of the state. Security, then, as now, was an issue of national importance and the Victorian state was concerned about internal threats just as much as it was about  those posed by rival imperial powers.

In the 1880s there were  a series of terrorist incidents in London, all part of a long running campaign by Irish nationalists in the cause of independence. It is a subject I have looked at as part of my research into late Victorian London and I drew heavily on the capital’s newspapers and the work of K. M. Short, whose study of Fenian terrorism remains the most comprehensive one out there, despite its age.

So, given the background, we might expect the authorities at Woolwich to be on the look out for potential terrorists, and in April 1881 they thought they might have caught one.

Two constables from the Arsenal were patrolling by the river front when they saw a man rowing up and down, seemingly watching the shoreline. It was particularly suspicious because this was at just after one o’clock int he morning and they could not see what legitimate purpose he had for being there so late (or early). At three he was still there so they called to him and asked him what he was about.

He replied that he was lost and was it possible for him to land. The constables directed him to a pier, and when he docked and climbed the steps they arrested him. The police were called and they questioned him. It was soon discovered that the boat he was in had been stolen from an MP who lived at North Woolwich, Mr (later Sir) Thomas Brassey the member for Hastings.

The man’s name was Michael Sullivan and his peculiar behaviour and Irish background raised concerns that he was a Fenian bent on mischief at the Arsenal. However, when Inspector McElligot was called to give evidence he ‘repudiated any supposition that Fenianism had anything to do with the case, and complained that the most extravagant and unfounded rumours had been circulated’.

The magistrate agreed, he commented: ‘I agree with you that he is not a Fenian. I doesn’t look clever enough’, which was met with much laughter in the Woolwich Police Court, before his worship (Mr Balgey) sent him to prison for a for a month at hard labour.

1884 saw a number of terrorist outrages in London. A bomb was placed at Victoria Railway Station and other London termini, and a fairly inept attempt to blow up London Bridge resulted in the death of the bombers. In May 1884 two boys kicking an abandoned briefcase attracted the attention of a policeman who found they were playing with a case containing dynamite, fuses and a detonator! These incidents followed attacks in 1882 (at the Lord Mayor’s residence, Mansion House) and at the offices of The Times newspaper in 1883. In January 1885 the Houses of Parliament were targeted  along with he Tower of London, and the new underground railway was also subject to a bomb attack, as the Hammersmith train left Aldgate station.

There were few deaths and nothing like the serious level of injury that modern terrorists have inflicted recently, but it still reminded Victorian society that as long as Britain insisted on claiming Ireland as a colony Victoria’s subjects would not be safe in their homes or their streets. It also contributed to wider prejudice and the stereotyping of Irish immigrants in London and elsewhere, something that we see repeated in the demonisation of moslems today.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, April 20, 1881]

An ex-solider’s debt sheds light on my research query…

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The Shaftesbury Training Ship (or Industrial School)

I spent yesterday in the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) pouring over one of few surviving registers we have for the London Police Courts. Most of what we can know about the ways these courts operate comes from the pages of the newspapers or the memoirs of a handful of Police magistrates or court visitors. The ledgers in the LMA are fairly dull and a  little confusing to the uninitiated.

One of the cases I noted at Thames was of a young lad of 12 named Bartholomew who was found wandering the streets unable to give a good account of himself. As a vagrant he was rounded up and taken before Mr Saunders. The record seems to say that the magistarte had sent him somewhere until he was 16 but I couldn’t work out where that ‘somewhere’ was from the almost illegible scrawl of the clerk.

However, by chance I solved the problem.

For today’s blog I chose the case of Thomas Seymour, an ex-soldier who drew a pension of 9d a day. Seymour lived with his wife and children at Flood Street, Chelsea but found himself in court at Westminster in February 1881 (the same year that Bartholomew was caught ‘wandering’).

Seymour was summoned to show why ‘he should not be committed to prison in default of paying the sum of £3 12s’ since when bailiffs had seized his goods and chattels they had failed to raise that amount.

The army pensioner owed such a large amount because in October 1879 (some 16 months earlier) he had been ordered to pay 2s 6d a week towards the upkeep of his son. The boy had been sent to an industrial school (so had presumably had his own run in with the law) and then to the ‘Shaftesbury Training Ship‘ until he turned 16.

The Shaftesbury housed around 350 ‘problem’ boys, often those that just would not go to school and preferred to play truant. Perhaps this was why Seymour’s son was sent there. This was also where young Bartholomew went I realised, the Thames’ magistrate’s answer to his wandering aimlessly no doubt.

Seymour complained that he had been out of work ‘for over 12 months’ and his army pension did not give him enough to live on. let alone pay for his estranged son.

Unfortunately for Seymour the evidence presented by the industrial schools officer, Jonathan Lawrence, proved damning. He told the court that Seymour had been:

‘more than once sent to gaol for wife beating, and was a drunken man. He had earned good wages in the employ of the London General Omnibus Company, but had been discharged 12 months ago for drunkenness. His eldest daughter was married, and helped the mother and a boy of 16 worked and brought home 10s. the only other child dependent being one 11 years old. Thus the home was comfortable and the only obstacle to its entire happiness was the presence of a lazy drunkard’.

Ouch.

The magistrate sent Seymour to Holloway Prison (then a mixed establishment) for a month.

I am however grateful to Mr Seymour for providing me with the answer to my tricky palaeographic conundrum.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, February 22, 1881]

 

A Militiaman’s enthusiasm is rewarded with hard labour of a different kind

Yesterday’s post concerned the antics of two members of the Royal Artillery who apparently used the Police Court to get themselves a free trip back to their barracks in Woolwich. Today’s post also shows the variety in caseloads at these London summary courts and again relates to the military of the Victorian period.

This time, however, it was the civil defence force that predated the Home Guard (immortalised as Dad’s Army on television), the militia.

Perhaps because of the excellent work of my Northampton colleague Matthew McCormack, I have always associated the militia with the eighteenth century, but they existed right up until the early years of the twentieth century. While the eighteenth-century force had been recruited by ballot (and so was something men were compelled or at least obliged to join) by the Victorian period it was an entirely voluntary force.

After 1881 (and the Childers reforms) militia units were reorganized ‘as numbered battalions of regiments of the line, ranking after the two regular battalions’. After Haldane’s reforms (in 1905) they became the official ‘reserves’.

In the 1880s anyone joining the militia was entitled to a bounty – a one off payment of cash and a uniform and equipment. This was probably an attractive offer given that joining up was relatively risk free in terms of actual fighting. In the 1700s members of the militia risked real engagement with a potential invader (Bonaparte’s French) or being used to quell civil unrest; by the late 1800s the risk of a foreign invasion had long gone and the New Police were well established and able to deal with problems from rioters and other domestic revolutionaries. There had been a brief spell in the late 1850s when the chance of invasion (by a different Napoleon this time) was heightened but this produced a flurry of men signing up for the Volunteer Force not the traditional Militia.

So when Thomas Moore, a labourer from Camberwell, signed on the dotted line to join the Middlesex Militia at the St George’s Street barracks, he must have been confident that he would get his 20s and ‘a free kit’ without much effort.

However, something about Thomas raised suspicions in the mind of Captain Crutchley when he asked him the ‘usual questions’ and the officer called for Sergeant Major Morgan to interrogate him a little more closely outside.

Now it transpired that ‘Thomas Moore’ was actually Martin Headley of Stockwell Street, Old Kent Road and that he had already served in the Surrey Militia and so was not entitled to the money or the ‘kit’. Headley claimed that he had tried to sign up to the ‘regulars’ (the ‘proper’ army) but had been refused. Perhaps he was too old, or not up to scratch, or they simply didn’t need troops in 1887 (although they soon would, as the South African – or Boer War – loomed).

Headley was brought before the Marlborough Street Police magistrate on a day when the reporter noted that the court was at its least busy ‘for thirty years’. The lack of business didn’t help the ex-militiaman, not did his previous history of volunteering; the justice sent him to prison for three months at hard labour.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, January 05, 1887]

The butler did it (and more than once)

A frenchman, with the colourful name of Emile Delessert, was a butler, but a disgraced one. In 1884 (two years before he appeared on a charge of theft and fraud at the Westminster Police Court) Delessert had been sacked by his then employer the Marquis of Clanricarde, for being drunk.

Being dismissed without a reference was serious because it was unlikely that anyone would employ him as a servant after that, but this did not stop Emile. He wrote his own letter of introduction and forged the Marquis’ signature. This he used to gain employment with an  officer in the British Army.

Major Sangster was taken in by Delessert’s ruse and he became a butler in his London home at 66 St George’s Road. However, he didn’t last long being dismissed a few days later  ‘for stealing liquor’. Delessert clearly had a drink problem.

He also had an issue with other people’s property because when his luggage was examined before he left the major’s house several items were found that did not belong to him, but instead to Sangster’s stepson, Captain Goldfrap of the 10th regiment of foot.

The police were called and a detective searched Delessert’s last known lodgings. Here he found pawn tickets that led him to a pawnshop where he discovered two gold rings (that were identified by the Marquis of Clanricarde as items he’d lost soon after he dismissed his butler) as well as a ‘yachting cap, a flannel jacket’ and other things believed stolen from persons unknown.

Emile Delessert was exposed as a serial thief and fraudster and now he confessed to the charges and Mr D’Eyncourt sentenced him to nine months at hard labour.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, November 03, 1886]

NB The 2nd Marquis of Clanricarde was Hubert George de Burgh-Canning, an anglo-irish politician who had a dreadful reputation in Ireland as an absentee landlord. The Chicago Tribune reported (in  1906) that: ‘Never had Clanicarde visited his estates, despite the many thousands of families that had been evicted from them during that time, resulting in mass destitution. “So universal is the execration in which this particular nobleman is held by people of every political party that when the question of this bill was put to the vote by the speaker, liberals, liberal unionists and conservatives all voted with the Irish party, only three of the nearly 700 members of the house of Commons opposing the vote, which would otherwise have been unanimous.”