A den of dangerous anarchists in North London

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In  November 1895 two women living in and around Harringay Park received disturbing letters in the post.  The letters contained threats and were written in black and red ink, with ‘rude drawings of skulls and cross bones’, reminiscent of some of the missives sent to the police during the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murder case a few years earlier.

The first person affected was a Mrs E. Brooks, of Green Lanes. She received two letters, the first of which read:

“We find you are no longer wanted in the world. We are going to blow you up, house and all. You may not believe it. You may laugh at it. But sure as there is a God, your end will come. We shall not name the day when we shall carry out the deed; and all the detectives in London will not stop us. You can laugh, but beware”.

The letter was signed “the Captain” and written on paper with the heading, ‘the Anarchists Secret Society’.

Mrs Brooks received a second letter, this time from the ‘Anarchists Society’, written in red ink, which warned that ‘we have resolved to blow you up with dynamite  next Saturday‘.

Needless to say poor Mrs Brooks was unnerved by the threats so contacted the police. Detective sergeant Alexander, of Y Division, investigated and found that another woman had had a similar communication.

Mrs Amy Fisk’s letter purported to come from the ‘Red Cross Society’ and said:

‘We have been watching your house , 93, Umfreville-road, Harringay, for some weeks past; in fact, since your husband’s death… some months ago. And we have had a meeting at our den in in France, and, as your husband was a member of our Society at Holloway, when he, in a fit of temper, murdered one of our band, we have made up out mind to avenge him by taking your life’.

Eventually the letter writer was traced and found to be a young lad, aged 16, who lived in the same street as Mrs Fisk. On 18 November William Ross, a ‘well-dressed boy’ appeared in the North London Police Court, accompanied by his father. The two women he was accused of threatening were also present and when they realised who the letter writer was, they both declared that they were not inclined to wish him any harm.

It seems that the boy had threatened Mrs Brooks because she ran a sweet shop and William owed her money. She had said she would be obliged to inform his parents if he didn’t pay up. She ‘was not alarmed’ by the letters but did want the ‘annoyance’ to stop.

The boy was defended in court by a lawyer who accepted that his actions were wrong but said they were ‘a boyish freak’. DS Alexander said that William had ‘partially admitted the allegation, but added that he did not do it single-handily’. He didn’t think that he had done anything wrong.

Mr Fenwick, the magistrate, thought otherwise. This was a serious affair and the lad would stand trial for it, regardless of the fact that his father was a ‘most respectable man’ who had lived in Umfreville Road for 25 years. He committed him to trial but accepted bail to keep him out of prison in the meantime.

The 1890s were rife with stories of anarchist cells and bomb-throwing terrorists and this must have fired young Bill’s imagination. The Pall Mall Gazette commented that:

‘It is sad that this finished stylist should be wasting his time in being committed to trail when the British public is clamouring for high-class fiction’.

A decade later two great thrillers were published which drew on some of the themes highlighted by fears of anarchists and others: G. K. Chesterton’s The Man who was Thursday (1908) and Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907). Both are worth the time and trouble to rediscover.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, November 19, 1895; The Pall Mall Gazette, Tuesday, November 19, 1895}

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A poor woman pleads not to be sent to ‘a country which was foreign to her’

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1848 was a tumultuous year in Europe. There were revolutions in Italy, Germany,  Denmark and the Habsburg Empire (in Hungary). Louis-Phillips was forced from his throne in France and fled to England, while there was rioting in Sweden and a short civil war in Switzerland. Britain didn’t escape trouble as Chartists assembled across the country in large numbers including a ‘monster’ rally in Kennington Park in April when tens of thousands demanded the vote.

Over in Ireland the ‘great famine’ was forcing thousands to flee the island and leaving almost  million dead; reducing the population overall by 20-25%. Many of these travelled to England finding their way to London or one of the other other large urban areas of Victorian Britain.

So 1848 saw political unrest, nationalism, poverty, and the mass migration of peoples fleeing all these events. We get an inclining of how this might have impacted society in a brief report of business from the Thames Police Court in October of that year.

‘THAMES – Complaints are almost daily made by aged natives of Ireland, whose necessities compel them to apply for parochial relief, of the hardship of being sent back to Ireland after a long stay in England’.

One case in particular was brought to the attention of the Thames Police Court magistrate, Mr Yardley. A ‘poor Irish widow’ who had been resident in England for 40 years applied to the Stepney Poor Law Union for relief only to be refused help and told to go home to Ireland. She explained to Mr Yardley that she had been away so long she ‘did not know a soul there. She hoped the magistrate would interpose , and prevent her being sent to a country which was foreign to her’.

The woman had been before him to ask for help a week earlier and he had directed a letter to the union on her behalf, so he asked what had happened in the interim. A police officer attached to the court confirmed that the letter had been delivered but one of the reliving officers said they were only following the instructions handed down to them by the board of guardians of the poor.

The policy in a time of huge pressure on the parish purse was, it seems, to try and get rid of as many unwanted paupers as possible. The court was told that while this woman  claimed she had lived in England for 40 years her ‘residence was a broken one, and not continued for five years in any one parish’. In short she had moved around and so did not ‘belong’ anywhere.

Mr Yardley was sympathetic to the woman’s plight but could only assure her that he would intercede on her behalf and hope the guardians relented. She thanked him for his time and left the court.

I think this reveals some of the problems facing the authorities in mid Victorian Britain but also the callous lack of care for the people of the wider empire. Stepney was poor, as was most of the East End in the 1800s. Poor relief fell on the parish rather than the national purse. So it was individual ratepayers who were supporting the huge numbers of impoverished East Londoners whose ranks were undoubtedly swollen by migrants from Ireland (and perhaps from further afield in such a troubled decade).

Poverty, war and famine always lead to migration and this inevitably puts pressure onto communities that are themselves often struggling to survive. Whether migration is fuelled by economic necessity, or by persecution, or simply a desire to get away to a ‘better place’, it is part of the human condition. Human beings have always migrated in search of better land, greater resources, improved living conditions, or a more tolerant society. Whether it was the Irish in the 1840s or Polish Jews in the 1880s, or South Asian Kenyans in the 1970s, or indeed Syrians in the last decade; all of these people have left their homes, sometimes their families, everything they know and love, to find a refuge overseas.

That this puts pressure on the country and community that receives them is self-evident. Tensions flare, xenophobia rears its ugly head, and people make political capital out of the situation. But the answer is not to close the borders, to turn one’s back on people in need, to refuse to help. The attempt of the Stepney guardians to send a poor Irish woman back to her country of birth and therefore into a situation where thousands were dying every week was simply wrong. It was wrong in 1848 and it remains wrong today.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, October 24, 1848]

A case of French ‘immigrants’ coming over here and conducting themselves disgracefully

Prostitution on the Haymarket, c.1861

We are fairly use to the modern tabloid complaint that ‘this country is being ruined’ by an influx of foreign workers. Much of the rhetoric of Brexit concerned arguments about immigration and competition for jobs and resources. There is nothing very new in this of course, the first piece of anti-immigration legislation (the Aliens Act 1905) came about after a long anti-immigrant campaign which targeted poor European migrants like Jews from the Russian Pale.

Foreigners (broadly defined) are also often blamed for a range of social problems from bad driving, to overcrowded housing, to child abuse, and international terrorism. The reality is that while immigrants can and have been associated with all of these things, so are British born natives, from all parts of the country.

In October 1851 the Marlborough Street Police Court magistrate was exercising his particular example of the sort of casual racism and xenophobia that continues to form the basis of much anti-immigrant sentiment. In dealing with a large number of women brought in for soliciting prostitution and acting in a disorderly manner on the Haymarket, Mr Hardwick turned most of his ire on the non-English women before him.

The increased number of prostitutes in court had been the result of a clampdown by the police, as The Morning Chronicle’s readership were informed:

‘it appeared that owing to the great increase of loose women, principally foreign, and their shameless conduct in the public streets, the inhabitants had made complaints to the Police Commissioners, and instructions had, in consequence, been issued to the constables to apprehend all persons so offending’.

Mr Hardwick first dealt with the indigenous ‘disorderlies’ and then addressed the ‘foreign’ French contingent directly. He lectured them, ‘remarking that they well knew that in France they would not be permitted to conduct their profession openly, or to outrage public decency in the streets’. He fined each of them 7s and warned them that if they came before him again ‘severe measures would be resorted to’.

I’m not sure that his facts were correct; prostitution was just as much  problem in Paris as it was in London and was as likely to be prosecuted here as much as there. France was about to experience another political upheaval, as Louis-Napoleon launched his coup d’etat in December of 1851 to make himself Napoleon III, but I hardly believe that is why so many French sex workers chose to ply their trade in London. The Haymarket was notorious in the period as a place where prostitutes openly touted for business, on the streets and in the bars and theatres of the West End.

That so many of these women were foreign nationals should come us no surprise, as today many of those working London’s streets and clubs are migrants, most trafficked by criminal gangs and forced in what is effectively slave labour. I’m not sure what ‘severe measures’ Mr Hardwick had in mind, but I doubt it would have deterred the demoiselles of the Haymarket, well not for long anyway.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, October 18, 1851]

A glimpse into history: an Irishwoman’s flight from the siege of Paris in 1870

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Parisian women queue for food during the Prussian siege of Paris, 1870

Sometimes the cases that are reported in the London Police Courts reveal glimpses of the wider history that was taking place both in Britain and around the world.

In July 1870 Napoleon III, emperor of the French, declared war on the kingdom of Prussia. Napoleon’s decision to take on his powerful European neighbour was prompted by his failing popularity at home and the (inaccurate as it turned out) advice of his generals. The Prussians (under Bismarck) saw the war as an opportunity to push forward the cause of German unification and, ultimately, begin to shape the continent in their favour.

The war went badly for the French from the start and ended in ignominious defeat at Sedan at the end of August, just over a month after it started. Napoleon was deposed and national government was declared which continued to resist the Prussian forces. This led to the siege of Paris which lasted until it too surrendered on 28 January 1871. In the aftermath of the war Prussia annexed Alsace-Lorraine and left  festering sore that when combined with mutual distrust and competing imperial ambitions, contributed to the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914.

Within all national and international conflicts of course there are personal stories and individual tragedies. An unnamed Irish woman (a ‘native of Cork’) appeared at the Marylebone Police Court in mid September 1870 having fled Paris and the advancing Prussian forces. Her husband was a French national she explained to Mr Mansfield, the sitting magistrate, and had been forced to remain in Paris to man the defences.

She described the situation in the French capital:

‘bills were posted up on the walls stating that those that did not wish to expose themselves to the siege must leave. My husband is a tradesman, and he was bound to go to the fortifications. I had no means of subsistence, and I had to leave and go to my mother at Cork’.

Sieges were hard on all the occupation of a city and the Paris siege was notable for the hardships the French suffered. There were later reports of people starving and eating cats and dogs and even the animals in the Paris zoo. Ultimately the siege led to further revolution and civil war, so it is no surprise that those that could opted to flee and become refugees.

The woman had traveled to London with her five children but had run out of money and was now desperate. That she turned to the Police Courts is indicative of the public’s use of the the London magistracy as centres of advice and aid in a crisis. Sadly for her, there was little Mr Mansfield could, or was inclined, to do for her.

She told him she was staying at a house at 57 Praed Street and had applied to the French authorities for help on several occasions. They had simply directed her from one ‘society’ to another; in all probability with the country at war and Paris under desire there was little they could do to help the Irish wife of one of their citizens. But the lady believed that there was more to it than this; she felt they didn’t want to help her because she was Irish and ‘they say they have so many of their own country-people to see to’.

Since Ireland was still part of the British Empire she therefore sought support from the British state. Mr Mansfield replied that the best he could do, since several charities had not helped her, was send her to the relieving officer at Paddington. In other words she could enter the workhouse. That was clearly not something she, as a ‘respectable’ tradesman’s wife, wanted to do. Mr Mansfield said he would send her instead to see Archbishop Manning’s chaplain, to see what he might do for her.

Archbishop Manning had a good reputation in Victorian London. As the senior Catholic cardinal in England and Archbishop of Westminster he had considerable influence. In 1889 he intervened and helped broker a settlement to the Great Dock Strike and so hopefully he (if his chaplain was prepared to get him involved) he may well have helped a fellow Catholic find the means to return home to Ireland and thence perhaps to France once the situation had claimed down. Presuming, of course, that the lady’s husband survived both the siege and then the Commune and its overthrow in May 1871.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, September 17, 1870]

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.

A very different sort of entertainment in Covent Garden

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Covent Garden in 1864

If you are familiar with the modern Covent Garden then I expect you are fairly used to the sorts of entertainment on offer there. Much to the amusement of two of my nieces I became part of a circus act last year when I was plucked from the crowd to help support a knife juggler. I have seen her since but have never made the mistake of watching her act from the front row again!

Along with jugglers, busking musicians and magic acts there are always a ‘gallery’ of human statues (invariably including at least one Yoda) vying for our attention and any loose change. Quite possibly there are others mingling with the crowds with much less honest desires on our pennies, and Covent Garden has long associations with petty criminality as this blog has noted before.

I’m not sure when the ‘modern’ phenomenon of human statues first emerged but I don’t believe they existed in the Victorian age. Covent Garden was a much less wealthy area in those days when the poverty of Seven Dials and the district’s reputation for vice were much more widely known and discussed than its attractiveness as popular tourist destination. It had ceased to be a ‘market’ in 1974 when the old flower market moved, and fell into disuse thereafter before being rescued later in the twentieth century. What we see now is far removed (except for the buildings) from how it would have looked to our Victorian ancestors.

One building that still remains today is St Paul’s church, which provides a haven of peace in this busy London space. In 1859 the land outside the church was owned by the duke of Bedford and he had granted use of it to the church and its vicar to preach sermons to the public. Thus, on Saturday afternoon, the 9th July 1859, the Rev. Hutton was preaching to an assembled crowd close to the market.

Nearby another preacher was attempting to make his voice heard but he was having some problems with the local police. PC Vernor (of F Division) interrupted the man, later named as Dr William Evans, to ask him to stop. When Evans asked him why he was allowing the Rev. Hutton to continue but interfering with his own lecture. PC Vernor simply explained that the reverend had permission to do so, while he did not.

Dr Evans ‘did not seem to understand the distinction’ and carried on regardless. The policeman, ‘in order to put a stop to the disorder’  arrested him and took him back to the station house where he was later bailed by two of his friends.

Appearing in front of Mr Henry, the sitting justice at Bow Street, Evans eschewed a defence of his actions in favour of an opportunity to carry on his lecture to a captive audience.  He drew out a pamphlet entitled ‘A prophetic declaration by W. Evans‘ which he preceded to read aloud.

While he claimed to have ‘a mission’, his delivery was ‘so rambling and unintelligible that it afforded no cause’ as to what that ‘mission’ was, reported the Chronicle‘s hack.

‘It commenced by comparing the Emperor of the French [presumably Napoleon III] to our Saviour, and the prisoner himself to several historical characters, and contained a denunciation against England and the English; first because he (Dr. Evans) had been imprisoned; and secondly, because the people, while they would not listen to his counsel, “wise counsels, the counsels of God”, yet were ready to “receive bastard prophets and false Christs.”

England, he declared, had but a short time for repentance, and even America should not escape the “general judgements”.

It was quite a speech but the magistrate was not at all impressed. He reminded the doctor that they were there to consider his breach of the law and asked him to cut short his ‘ramblings’. Dr Evans simply declared he had as much right as the Rev. Hutton to preach in public but added that his own suffering under the law were comparable to the sufferings of Christ himself.

Mr Henry begged to differ and bound him over to keep the peace and refrain from speaking in Covent Garden again. In future, if he wished to avoid arrest that is, the good doctor would have to rely on passers-by buying and reading his religious tracts whilst remaining as silent as one of the ‘Yodas’ that infest the Piazza today.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, July 12, 1859]

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]