Author: the Police Magistrate

I am a Senior Lecturer in the history of crime at the University of Northampton. My research focuses the role of the justice of the peace in 18th and 19th century England. I have published books and articles on that and other topics relating to the history of crime.

I’m not sure I want THIS country back…

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In seems appropriate to be writing about racism and xenophobia this winter, appropriate but quite disturbing. I was prompted to write this blog post by one of my third year History students who had read my book London’s Shadows over the summer in preparation for his studies.

In Chapter three I look at the mixed communities of the East End of London in the 1880s, and at the tensions arising from the considerable influx of poorer immigrants from the Russian Empire. Those migrants were mostly Ashkenazi Jews fleeing from persecution and seeking a better life in the West. It is very easy to draw comparisons between their plight and those of modern migrants who risk their lives to cross continents by road, rail and sea.

I may have been prompted by my student’s comments but today I feel this has been reinforced by current events. As Parliament continues to debate the Prime Minister’s forlorn attempts to secure a Brexit deal that does not plunge the country into yet more chaos and uncertainty, the newspapers this morning were full of the coverage of the racist abuse suffered by one of our leading international footballers.

In the 1880s there was a rise in anti-Semitism and anti Alien feelings, much of it stirred up by right wing agitators like Arnold White. White twisted facts and misled parliament in his attempts to blame the Jews for the problems of a British society facing its worst economic period in a generation. Unemployment (a new term in 1888) affected thousands of people and since immigrants were seemingly prepared to work for less pay it was an easy accusation to level at them that were taking English jobs.

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White and his ilk cried out that England was being swamped by foreigners who ‘were working the English right out’. It is the same rhetoric we have been hearing from Nigel Farage for years now, and the same rhetoric that impelled very many otherwise decent people to vote Leave in the 2016 Referendum. Many people will tell you that immigration was not at the heart of Brexit vote but it was at the heart of the campaign and UKIP never missed an opportunity to mention it.

When times are hard communities close ranks and ‘look after their own’ and, collectively, that is what some chose to do in 2016. Shutting the door to immigrants seemed to some to be the solution to completion for jobs and falling pay. To others of course – the likes of Farage and Stephen Christopher Yaxley-Lennon (better know as Tommy Robinson – because it sounds more working class and British) – xenophobia was justification enough. The extreme right wishes to end all immigration and, if possible, deport large numbers of those that have already settled here.

In 1888 the Whitechapel murders and the belief that ‘no Englishman could do such a thing’ fueled xenophobia on the streets and led to Jewish men (and other ‘furriners’) being chased through the courts and alleys by lynch mobs. The short-term suspect John Piser (the man the papers called ‘Leather Apron’) was arrested by Sergeant Thicke, as much for his own protection as because the police thought he had anything to do with the killings.

Racism runs through our society and is rarely very far from the surface. Brexit, the rise of UKIP, Donald Trump, and the legitimacy afforded to extreme right wing voices (like Robinson and Arron Banks) by mainstream media has undoubtedly emboldened some nasty elements in British society.

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Just over a week ago a banana skin was tossed at the feet of the Arsenal striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who was born in France to Gabonsese parents. Football has taken big strides to kick out racism but this incident was followed by clear racial verbal abuse directed at England and Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling on Saturday at Stamford Bridge, the home of Chelsea FC.

Sterling made an important statement about the role of the press in fueling racism and he was supported by many voices including the Professional Footballers Association (PFA) who accused the papers of contributing to the rise in racism on the terraces.

What my study of the immigrant communities in Whitechapel in the 1880s showed me was that the city where I was born has a very long history of integrating new arrivals. That we as a country have benefitted from immigration is a verifiable fact and yet we still have fight against the bigoted views of people like Arnold White who would tell us otherwise. It is easy to hate, easy to find fault, easy to view foreigners as ‘different’, ‘strange’ and ‘threatening’.

It is tempting also to believe that when times are hard and uncertain (as they are today) that the answer is an easy one: kick out those that don’t belong here. But the real answer lies in addressing the fundamental inequality that blights our society. Austerity impacts the poorest and those without the chances to change their lives, it leaves virtually untouched the wealthy and powerful. This was true in the 1880s as well, the homeless sheltering in Trafalgar Square were the victims of a capitalist class that exploited them not their working-class brothers and sisters who fled the Tsar’s pogroms.

If you imagine for one moment that Brexit will benefit the poor communities that largely voted for it then I respectfully suggest you are at best naive, if not deluded. The men that will profit from Britain leaving the EU will be the speculators (like Farage and his City chums), the populist politicians  (like Boris Johnson and Rees-Mogg), and the bankers and very rich who are protected by their huge reserves of wealth. Immigration always was and still remains the political tool of the far right. Less extreme politicians on the right are also culpable in using immigration for populist political purposes when they could and should be dialing down the rhetoric of difference.

We saw this in the late 1800s, in the 1930s and it is again a dominant theme today. I was shocked when I attended a football match at Elland Road, Leeds in 1980 or 81.  I went with my dad as we were staying with friends. We normally went to see Arsenal but thought we’d take in a local match. The abuse of a black footballer, with monkey chants and showers of bananas, was disgusting to us both. We never saw that in London. The abuse was directed at a Leeds player and was coming from his own supporters. They simply didn’t want a black person playing for their club; such was the level of racism in South Yorkshire in the late 1970s and early 80s.

I thought we’d left all that behind but we clearly haven’t. I suspect and fear that things will have to get worse before they get better and I am not sure that leaving a progressive community of ‘foreigners’ which was established in part to prevent xenophobic wars from ever threatening the European continent again, to go it alone, is really a very wise idea.

If ‘getting our country back’ means returning to the race riots and anti-Semitism of the 1930s and 1970s then I think we should all stay put and calm down.

Drew Gray, Subject lead, History

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Putting Undergraduates on Trial (this time with feelings)

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For several years now I’ve been putting undergraduates on trial. Before you get excited I only mean as an exercise in understanding the criminal trial in the past, I don’t lock them up or send them to Botany Bay!

Each year I set an assessment which involves groups of 2nd year History and Criminology students at the University of Northampton working together to recreate a trial from among the thousands available via the Old Bailey Online website. Students have to think about how the transcript they are provided with by the site should be adapted to work in a 15-20 minute presentation and are then asked to reflect on what they have learned (about the crime, the process and the wider justice system of the 1700s or 1800s). Finally each of them will submit a short written essay which explores the context of their chosen case in more detail.*

The presentation element has always taken place outside of the classroom. At Northampton this usually involved taking the UGs to the university’s Moot Room on Park campus where the police and law students practised in a room set up rather like a modern family court. Since we moved this summer to the new Waterside campus I’ve lost this resource and was wondering whether I might be able to utilise a more appropriate venue instead.

With the help of Jane Bunce and her team at Northampton we secured the use of the Sessions House, one of England’s most authentic surviving courtrooms. Sessions House has two courts, one for civil cases and the other for criminal ones. The courts are situated within the Northamptonshire County Council offices in town and comprise courts, eighteenth and nineteenth century prison buildings and extant cells below.

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On Thursday last I took my current second years into town where we were given a tour of the premises by Alan Clarke, a local historian and expert on Sessions House and his architectural significance. He showed us where the last public hanging took place, explained the layout of the two courts (including the wagging tongue above the criminal court) and the students explored the graffiti in the dingy cells underground.

Then we recreated a trial from the Old Bailey archives.

The case I chose was that of Robert Campbell, Antis Horsford and Henry Stroud  for the murder of Daniel Clarke in April 1771. The case was well known in the late eighteenth century and arise out of the ongoing disputes between the silk weavers of Spitalfields (in London’s East End) and their masters. As weavers took direct action to defend their livelihoods (which involved cutting silk out of looms and intimidating those who worked silk under the price the collective had set for it) the state imposed heavy penalties on offenders.

Weavers were arrested, put on trial, condemned and executed, mostly as a result of informers being pressured or bribed to give evidence. The community closed ranks and one commentator described Spitalfields and Bethnal Green as having been ‘rendered almost ungovernable’. Daniel Clarke had been ‘an evidence’ against William Eastman and William Horsford, two weavers that had been executed in early 1770 for their part in the troubles. Now, in April 1771 Clarke was to face the consequences of his actions.

The Gentleman’s Magazine reported what happened on a wintry day in the East End:

‘Yesterday, between four and five o’clock a mob assembled in a field bear Bethnal Green, consisting of upwards of two thousand, when they sat upon one Clark, a Pattern Drawer, who was the principal evidence against the two Cutters that were executed at BG some time since;  they continued pelting him with their brickbats, & for three hours, which laid his skull entirely open. Never did any poor mortal suffer more than he did; he begged of them several times to shoot him; but they kept stoning him till he died in the greatest agonies’.

It took the authorities several  weeks to take anybody into custody. Once again the magistrates met a wall of silence which was only broken when two men decided to take up the offer of a large reward and give the authorities some names.

As a result Antis Horsford (the widow of the executed William), Robert Campbell (a weaver down on his luck and trying to escape to America), and a gardener named Henry Stroud (who was married to the sister of the man hanged with Horsford, William Eastman) were put on trial in July 1771.

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In our version the students took on the roles of prosecution and defence barristers, witnesses, judge and jury. It took us about two hours to read though the case. In reality the trial lasted ‘from nine in the morning till eight at night, after which the court adjourned to dine’ (as the Gentleman’s Magazine tells us). They found Antis Horsford and Bob Campbell not guilty and recommended Stroud to mercy as they felt the community was responsible for Clarke’s death, no one individual.

In reality Antis was acquitted but the men were convicted and ‘turned off’ in public close to the scene of the crime near Brick Lane a couple of days afterwards.  The weaver’s dispute ground to a halt after that and the government acted to protect the industry from foreign competition. It was too little, to late, silk weaving in Spitalfields was in terminal decline; although it staggered on into the next century, weavers remained poor and got poorer.

The state had needed scapegoats for the wilful destruction of property and the communal murder of its agent of ‘justice’ (Clarke). I suspect all three were innocent to some degree, and Stroud even helped drag Clarke from the pond where the ‘mob’ were stoning him to death. I gave this story to my mother a few years ago, as fodder for her creative writing course. This year she has published her version of events (entitled ‘Rough Justice’) which pictures a happier future for Henry Stroud.

I find that the process of thinking through a case like this by acting it out helps us understand what is going on. Some of the language is strange but speaking it aloud helps it became intelligible. The courtroom is a strange and symbolic place, not easily recreated in our heads or in a sterile classroom. If you stand in the dock or the witness box, or address a court from the judge’s seat you can feel the difference (as Tim Hitchcock so effectively explained last year in Liverpool at the launch of the Digital Panopticon).

This year (or rather next, in early 2019) my students will – for the very first time – perform their own Old Bailey reconstructions in an eighteenth-century courtroom. Sessions House will come alive again as the voices of the Old Bailey Proceedings are given oxygen by the breath of Northampton undergraduates. I will sit in the judges’ chair and ‘judge’ how effective they are.

Drew Gray, Subject Lead in History, University of Northampton

*my 2016 textbook has an online section which details this exercise and others that might be of use to students and tutors. You can find that here

 

Inside Wandsworth Gaol: A historian’s perspective on prison visiting

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As a academic historian who works on the history of crime (and most of that in London) when I was offered the chance to take a peek inside a working English prison I could hardly refuse. I run modules on crime and punishment at the University of Northampton and help students explore the changing nature of penal policy over 200 or more years from the late 1600s to the early 20th century.

So when the nice people at London Historians organised a behind-the-scenes visit to Wandsworth Prison Museum I was quick off the block and bagged one of the 10 places on offer.WPmain gates

Last Sunday I trekked across the capital to the imposing gates of Wandsworth Prison to meet up with the other lucky visitors and our guide, Stewart McLaughlin a serving Prison Officer and curator of the small prison museum.

We started in the museum which is about the size of a scout hut, and packed solid with neatly labelled exhibits. Stewart has gathered together an impressive collection of prison relics which he’s arranged chronologically so that it tells the story of Wandsworth from its early days (as the Surrey House of Correction) through the nationalisation of prisons (in 1878),to  its use as a military prison during the First World War, and on to the present day.

We ‘met’ famous inmates like Oscar Wilde and the man that killed Dr Martin Luther King (James Earl Ray), and some of those that ended their days inside on the end of a rope. Wandsworth was a hanging gaol and this is where George Chapman (aka Severin Klosowski – a ‘Ripper’ suspect), John Haigh and the wartime traitor William Joyce (‘Lord Haw-Haw’) were all executed. We saw Albert Pierrepoint’s execution rope and other memorabilia that reminded us that until 1961 murderers were still being ‘dropped’ at Wandsworth.

 

The exhibition is a fascinating glimpse into the prison’s long history and Stewart has pieced it together with considerable skill (and limited resources!) This is an example of one man’s efforts to preserve and display history and one wonders what will happen when he decides to hang up his keys for good.

It is one thing to be allowed to peer into the past via an exhibition of the artefacts of penal history, it is quite another to be invited to walk through the  gates of a working prison. This is exactly what we all did next though, carefully moving under Stewart’s guidance from the reception area to the large open star that links the five man wings (A to F) together. This central boss used to allow officers (then warders) to see right down each wing and control the prisoners. Not quite a panopticon as Jeremy Bentham envisaged his ‘inspection house’ but effective all the same. We stood while Stewart explained the prison’s history and working structure and patiently answered a stream of questions.

As he did so the prison carried on all around us, with the sounds of cell doors clanging, keys (and more keys!) and male voices. All of this was permeated by the smells of a closed institution: Sunday (‘school’) dinner, laundry, stale air, but (surprisingly given all the media coverage of prisons) not a trace of drugs. This was a calm space as far I could see. Outside in the exercise yard men were chatting in the sunshine, no one paid this small group of visitors any attention, they just seemed to be getting on with life.

As we wandered through Stewart took us to the staff room in one wing. Quite an ordinary space with kettle, cups and tupperware lunch boxes. Well ‘ordinary’ except that this was one one of two condemned cells in Wandsworth and so suddenly we were left to imagine how some people may have struggled to relax while they waited to see if an appeal was successful or the executioner would lead them off to the gallows.

Outside, as we stared up at the razor wire that is intended to prevent modern prisoners emulating the Great Train robber Ronnie Biggs and scaling the high walls, our attention was brought to the concrete paths that cover the ground between the walls and the prison itself. Under here, we were told, lie the remains of those who were executed within the confines of the gaol. Since the abolition of hanging families have been able to exhume their loved ones and rebury them, but many don’t. As our guide pointed out most murderers kill people close to them and so the hanged are often the second deaths in a tragic set of events. Let sleeping dogs lie is often the most obvious reaction.

One young man whose remains were taken away to be cremated outside was John Amery, the son of Leo Amery the Conservative politician and (like Churchill) a noted opponent of appeasement. Unlike his father John Amery was attracted to the Nazi cause and became a fascist and follower of Hitler. He was hanged at Wandsworth in December 1945 for his treasonable activities during the war.

The final place we visited was the set of smaller wings that used to make up the women’s prison until the late 1800s. During the First World War this was utilised by the military as a detainment camp. Here the prison held squaddies that broke the rules or absconded as well as conscientious objectors and (following the Easter Rising in 1916) upwards of 200  Irish Republicans accused of ‘betraying’ their king and country.

And then – and I have to admit this was quite a relief – we were back to the reception house and, once we’d handed over our passes, the doors were opened and we exited into the afternoon sun. The walk across Wandsworth Common took me past couples of all ages, children playing, dogs running free, ice cream vendors and people sitting outside the nearby pub enjoying a pint with their friends. It was a sobering reminder of what everyone in that prison had given up – albeit not all voluntarily.

Wandsworth Prison museum is not open to the public but is open for academic visitors, researchers and local history groups. All you have to do is make an appointment and be curious (and brave) enough to cross the threshold.

Drew Gray (Subject lead, History, University of Northampton).

The ‘Female Blue Beard’?: Rumour and sensationalism in the case of Sarah Dazley

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This week is the 175 anniversary of the execution of Sarah Dazley at Bedford Gaol, the first and only woman to be hanged in public at the prison. Sarah’s crime was the murder of her second husband (William) and the suspected killing of her previous one (Simeon Mead) and their son Jonas. Dazley may well have been guilty but I rather suspect she was convicted for what she was seen to be rather than for any actual crime she carried out.  Sarah’s story also exposes a early newspaper industry that was far from particular about which ‘facts’ it reported as ‘truth’ and which it allowed to be aired for sensational effect.

Let’s start with what we think we know.

Sarah Reynolds was born in 1819 in Potton in Bedfordshire. Her farther died when she was very young and her mother had a series of relationships with other men following her husband’s death. This seems to be significant as it contributes to the backstory of Sarah’s life that the newspapers later presented to their readers.

When she was 19 Sarah married Simeon Read and they had a son (Jonah) who died within the year.  In October 1840 Simeon died after a short illness. Sarah remarried two years later, but her relationship with William Dazley was apparently fraught. It was suggested that he hit her and that she wasn’t inclined to put up with it (as many wives and partners did in the nineteenth century).

It seems that Simeon Mead had been just as abusive as Dazley was, and the newspapers later revealed a long history of violence against Sarah from both her partners. There were also dark rumours that Sarah had decided to take her revenge on William for his mistreatment of her.

So, when he fell ill and died in October 1842 suspicions began to circulate. When Sarah upped sticks and headed for London to escape from difficult questions a warrant was issued for her arrest and she was picked up and returned to Bedford to face the music.

Now this is where it all gets a little confused and where conjecture and rumour seem to trump facts. Both Jonas and William Dazley were exhumed so that their bodies could be examined for any signs of poisoning. Simeon’s corpse was far too decomposed to be able to be examined but clearly Sarah was suspected of poisoning him as well.

It was alleged at her trial that she’d bought arsenic and mixed it to make pills to use to poison William. On one occasion her step daughter (Ann Mead) had supposedly eaten one of the pills and Sarah had scolded her for it to prevent her taking any more. The Times thought that Jonas was a ‘daughter’ and repeatedly refereed to Sarah as ‘the Female Blue Beard’. A usually sober paper, the ‘thunderer’ was playing this case for every sensational twist it could get.

The papers reported that arsenic was found in the remains of William Dazley but this was also contradicted in some articles so clearly there was some doubt. Forensics was hardly an exact science in the 1840s and Sarah may well have been subjected to the prejudices that surrounded a young woman who had married twice (and was apparently on the verge of marrying again).

Quite simply Sarah Dazely was seen as a promiscuous woman who wanted to control her own life rather than let herself be controlled by men. Having lost her father at seven she’d grown up without that strong paternal figure that all young girls ‘needed’ (or so the rhetoric went). Both her husbands had abused her and while that was hardly unusual in Victorian Britain, her refusal to accept it also spoke to her combative nature.

Sarah was no passive victim, either of domestic abuse or the criminal justice system and a society that had condemned her. She strongly protested her innocence and refused to meekly accept her fate. It did her no good of course and she was hanged at Bedford on the 5 August 1843 in front of thousands of spectators.

The papers reported that 10,000 people watched her last moments:

the signal was given, and the moment the drop fell, and the unhappy wretch, after a few convulsive struggles, ceased to exist in this world’.

Well at least that’s what the papers say happened. Given that they also reported she’d been hanged for the murder of two husbands and her daughter (which was false of course) we might take their reportage with some skepticism at least. In fact nearly all reports of executions are the same: the crowd is quiet at the point the executioner ‘turns off’ the condemned; they ‘struggle’ briefly, ‘expire’, and are cut down. There is no description of the awful trauma that a body can experience in a hanging like this, almost as if no one dared to look upon the person dangling at the end of a rope.

Sarah Dazley fitted the image of the Victorian murderess: she used poison, refused to bow to male authority, and seemingly took control of her own sexuality. In other words she challenged the patriarchy and paid for it with her life.

Drew Gray (August, 2018)

References:

Judith Flanders, The Invention of Murder

Freeman’s Journal and Daily Commercial Advertiser, Wednesday, August 9, 1843

The Morning Post , Monday, August 07, 1843

 

 

 

Farewell Park and Avenue (and hello Waterside!)

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On Wednesday this week I will be moving into my open office space in the Learning Hub at the University of Northampton’s new Waterside Campus. I’m pretty excited about the change because I’ve been down to Waterside and it looks fantastic. In fact it has exceeded my hopes so far and I hope and believe that this is going to really place Northampton on the university map.

But it wouldn’t be right to make this change without looking back at the time I’ve enjoyed at Park (and Avenue) campus over the years. For me its been quite a journey as well; I arrived on Park campus in September 1996 as one of the first new freshers on Nene College’s new BA History degree.

I’d decided (at 33) to finally get around to taking the History degree I should have taken at 18 had ‘life’ not interfered with my A levels. I was certainly older than some of the tutors and many (but not all) of my peer group. We were a good year I think – not too many troublemakers and mostly hard workers. We had no e-books then, no access to journals online either, so everything we read we read in the library or were given by the lecturers (who must have spent half their lives photocopying!).

I haunted the library because it was easier to work there than at home in my shared house. Eventually they must have taken pity on me because they gave me a job. Now I was stacking shelves and soon issuing books at the counter (yes, there were no automatic issue machines then folks). I also got a job at Waterstone’s in town so I had my book supply completely covered!

I got involved in other things at university, did some volunteering at the local school, interviewed the VC (Professor Gaskill) for the SU magazine, but mostly I studied. That paid off because I graduated with a first class degree.

I’d been inspired by the tutors that taught me, one of whom (Cathy Smith) is still here, as Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Education and Humanities. Cathy, Peter King and Elizabeth Hurren encouraged me to stay on and  do a PhD. I finished that in 2006 and became one of the first year of new doctorates awarded by the University of Northampton. Previously degrees had been awarded by the University of Leicester but now we had the power to confer our own.

So in my time I’ve seen Northampton go from being a HE college to a University College to a full blown university. And in 2006 Sally Sokoloff (the head of History) employed me on a part time basis to teach history. From student to tutor in 10 years!

I’ve seen the departure of some brilliant historians – Peter King, Matthew Seligmann and Matthew Hughes (now at Brunel), Elizabeth Tingle, Elizabeth Hurren (at Leicester), Tim Meldrum (who gave up history for business), Heather Shore (professor at Leeds Beckett), Matthew Feldman (fighting the good fight against the far right) and many others.

All of them have come and gone but the ethos in the history department remains the same as it was when I started as a student. Everyone is enthusiastic about their area of history, and they bring that into the classroom. Everyone cares about the students they teach. And (and this is unusual in academic departments) we all get on.

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Waterside is exciting but it is also challenging. It is a very different environment to the place we know so well. We won’t have offices like we have been used to, we’ll have to work harder to connect with each other and our students. But I’m very confident we’ll manage that and continue to deliver an excellent set of modules at undergraduate and masters levels.

So, farewell Park and Avenue and thank you for helping me find what it is I really like doing. I wasn’t sure what that was at 33 but 22 years (OMG!) later I’m delighted not only to be teaching in the History department but also to be leading it. And if you are starting a History degree with us this September then just think, you could be wearing my shoes someday. Well, you never know eh?

Drew Gray

Tragedy as ‘Wilkes & Liberty’ results in the death of the innocent

Today is the 250th anniversary of an event well known to historians of eighteenth-century politics, but not, I suspect, to the wider public. Mostly it is recounted as part of the mercurial career of the radical populist John Wilkes, who bestrode the world of politics in the late 1760s and early 70s. The event was a riot, in St. George’s Fields, south London, which took place on the 10 May 1768, in a period of considerable unrest in the Georgian capital. Roque_1746_London_d3

The riot and its aftermath were manipulated by Wilkes and his supporters in their long running battle with the government of the day, who they saw as corrupt and unconstitutional. In among this however, there were a number of tragic deaths, and it is these I’d like to concentrate on in this post, because, like Alfred Linnnel in 1887, Ian Tomlinson in 2009, and Richard Mannington Bowes, Haroon Jahan, Shahzad Ali, and Abdul Musavir in 2011, they were entirely innocent bystanders.

I am not going to revisit the complex life history of John Wilkes, there is plenty of reading material out there if you want to know more about this fascinating if divisive figure. It is suffice to say that in April 1768 Wilkes was sent to the King’s Bench prison by St. George’s Fields, Lambeth on account of having been found guilty (in absentia – he’d fled to the continent in 1764) of libel and seditious libel. Wilkes was also in debt and simply couldn’t afford to remain in France any longer for fear his creditors would catch up with him. Simply put, he had to face the music in England where he hoped if he was elected to parliament he could somehow reverse the penalties levied against him.

London in 1768 was in turmoil. Huge numbers of workers were facing hardship and industrial action was breaking out all over the capital. In 1768 there were strikes by coal-heavers, Thames watermen, sailors, and, most famously, the Spitalfields weavers. Wilkes and his supporters rode the wave of discontent and thousands turned out to back ‘Wilkes and Liberty’, seeing the radicals’ cause as somehow aligned to their own.

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The whole came to a boil on the 19 May 1768. Wilkes was imprisoned in the King’s Bench and hundreds of his supporters were camped outside. All was fairly peaceful by mid-morning when several Surrey magistrates turned up. They had come to make sure no one broke the peace and brought a party of constables with them.

What happened next is subject to some confusion and there are mixed accounts but, this is my best guess, from reading a variety of reports.

The justices noticed that the walls of the prison had been festooned with posters in support of the radical politician. They sent the constables to take down the offending papers, which upset the hitherto peaceful crowd. Abuse was leveled at the constables and magistrates (never the most popular figures in eighteenth-century society) and the crowd demanded the posters were handed over. ‘Give us the papers!’ they shouted.

When this was ignored they started throwing things: mud, stones, fruit, whatever they could lay their hands on. The situation was deteriorating fast and the justices sent messages to bring in a company of foot guards that had been stationed nearby, for just this eventuality. ‘Presently’ as one paper reported ‘a company of foot guards advanced towards the prison, and planted themselves with their backs to it, and faced the populace’. [1]

The stage was now set and the tragedy duly unfolded.

One of the magistrates, Mr Gillam, decided that the stone throwing had become too much and authority had to be asserted. He tried to tell the crowd (always a ‘mob’ in eighteenth-century newspaper reports) to disperse. When they returned his demands with more abuse and missiles he tried to read the Riot Act. This meant he actually read out the words of the proclamation, from which we get the phrase ‘reading the riot act’.

It did no good, and several more stones flew in his direction as he tried to make himself heard. One hit him on the arm, another struck his fellow justice Mr Ponton, before ‘a third hit one of the sergeants upon the lip, and cut it through’. One of the guards officers asked if his men should fire on the crowd but Ponton was reluctant because of the chance of injuring bystanders. But an hour and a quarter later the situation was no better and so Gilliam read the act again and warned the crowd that if any more stones were thrown the military would act.

This time the soldiers did fire. Standing in ranks at least two deep they fired a volley, quite possibly over the heads of the protestors since none of those directly involved in the riot that day were killed. But must have been chaos as bystanders tried to get out of the way, and amongst the newspaper coverage, is a story of a woman who was only saved from death by the quick actions of a stranger who pulled her out of the way of a passing gun shot.

She was lucky, but others weren’t. There were over a dozen injuries, some very serious and I can identify six people who died; each of them innocent of any direct involvement in rioting.

The most prominent (in terms of the press reaction at least) was William Allen, the son of a Southwark innkeeper, who was seemingly targeted by the soldiers by mistake. Allen was described as one of the ringleaders by one correspondent, whose report lacked both detail and accuracy. Allen who ‘was said to be one of the most forward in attacking the Military, was fired upon and shot, on which the populace thought proper to disperse’.[2]

The ‘populace’ might well have decided to run away at that point but Allen wasn’t shot in St. George’s Fields. He had joined a group of others who ran for their lives with some of troops in hot pursuit. Allen tried to hide in a ‘cow-house’ but he was found and shot dead where he stood. The inquest held into his killing was the only one to bring in a verdict of ‘willful murder’ and concluded that William Allen, a youth of just 17, was merely a ‘spectator’ and that one of the soldiers, Donald Maclane, was responsible for his death. One paper claimed that as many as 50,000 people attended William’s funeral a week later and his father’s agony was compounded by the death of his wife, who was injured in the stampede caused by the troops’ firing on the crowd.

Mary Jeffs was also killed that day. She and her daughter had gone to St. George’s Fields to sell oranges to the people gathered there. When the rumour spread that the guards were going to fire on the people Mary started to move away but she was too slow, burdened as she was by the basket of fruit. When the volley rang out she fell to the ground and several people rushed to help her.

At first she said she was ‘only frightened, not hurt’ but then she fell silent and collapsed again. When she was examined at the nearby St Thomas’ hospital ‘a large gunshot wound was discovered a little below her navel’, and she soon died. Margaret Waters was knocked down by the panicked crowd and trampled underfoot. The drayman wife, who was seen months pregnant, died of her injuries five days later.

A farrier, who was amongst the extended crowd of people close to St George’s Fields, but not part of the ‘mob’ was also hit by a stray musket ball. His name was Lawley and he expired late on Monday night. So too did a weaver named Redmond who may have been one of Wilkes’ supporters. He received a musket ball in the thigh and ‘died in great agony, leaving a wife and ten children unprovided for’.[3]

The Public Advertiser had little sympathy with those, like James Boddington (a Coventry trader who was in London on business) or William Bridgeman, who was watching events from his hay cart. Both men died after being hit by stray shots fired not at them, but indiscriminately nevertheless. Eighteenth-century muskets were notoriously inaccurate, so you were as likely to be hit by a stray as by a ball that was aimed at you. The Advertiser thought it unfortunate that people had been killed or wounded but they could have avoided it ‘by staying at home, and minding their business!’[4]

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The St George’s Fields massacre (as it was dubbed by the radical press) had claimed six innocent lives (seven if we add Mrs Waters’ unborn child). Wilkes and the radicals used the incident as another means to hammer home the injustice of a government that was only able to rule by force, and even made a spurious attempt to prosecute one of the magistrates for murder. Wilkes published letters which suggested the events of that day had been orchestrated by the government and this all helped him be reelected as the MP for Middlesex (even if the government refused to recognize his victory).

As I noted, much has been written about ‘Wilkes and Liberty’ and about the wider struggle for the rights of the press, the franchise, ministerial corruption, and the links between the radicals at home and in America. What often gets missed however, is the story of the ‘ordinary people’, six of whom tragically lost their lives when the authorities decided to use force to deal with a situation that was very far from being out of control.

Drew Gray

[1] Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, 17 May, 1768

[2] St James’ Chronicle, 11 May, 1768

[3] Gazetteer and New daily Advertiser, 13 May 1768

[4] Public Advertiser, 12 may 1768

‘f****** untouchable’?: the downfall of the Kray Twins in May 1968

On the 8 May 1968 a series of dawn raids were carried out by ‘more than 100’ Metropolitan Police detectives, led by DS Leonard ‘Nipper’ Read. The target of these raids was organized criminal gang that surrounded two East End gangsters that have passed into London folklore and garnered more column inches, True Crime books and documentaries, than almost any other ‘villains’ in the modern age.

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Ronnie and Reggie Kray are the archetypal British gangsters, up there with American ‘anti-heroes’ like Al ‘Scarface’ Capone, Johnny Torrio, and ‘Lucky’ Luciano. Two blockbuster biopics have presented the ‘Twins’ as violent and troubled rogues whose criminality and ruthlessness is still tempered with some sense that were not ‘as bad’ as modern criminals are today. They only hurt ‘their own’, and they were nice to their mum (Violet Kray), so the story goes, and they didn’t deal in drugs.

Let’s start with some of the facts about Ronnie and Reggie before considering quite why it is we remain so fascinated with them 50 years after their arrest. Born in October 1933 the Twins grew up in the East End of London, going to school in Brick Lane. They were very much a product of the mixed demography of Whitechapel and Spitalfields, with English, Jewish, Irish and Romani Gypsy ancestors. The East End was somewhere you ‘survived’ more than lived in the 1930s. This was an area long associated with poverty, overcrowding, immigration, and crime.

The Twins became involved with violence and street gangs very early in their lives and even a spell of national service in 1952 did little to tame them. The bought a snooker hall in Mile End and by the end of the 1950s were well-established local gangsters with a reputation for violence. But the boys were not content to be one of several gangsters they wanted to be THE firm in London.

As the post war austerity gave way to the ‘swinging sixties’ Ronnie and Reggie became part of the London ‘scene’. Their West End nightclub attracted the stars of the day many of whom enjoyed the infamy of being pictured with the Krays. For the Twins themselves their celebrity status gave them some much needed ‘respectability’ within London society.

It is hardly surprising that Ronnie later wrote that at the time ‘me and my brother ruled London. We were f****** untouchable’.

Of course such high profile behaviour brought the Twins into the cross hairs of the police, especially when their rivalries with other London gangsters (like the Richardson brothers in the south) or their own internal and personal issues ended in murders. On 9 March 1966 Ronnie Kray shot dead a member of the Richardson gang as he sat at the bar in the Blind Beggar pub on Whitechapel High Street. George Cornell’s murder was a very public act, demonstrating Ronnie’s belief that he was ‘untouchable’. He wasn’t.

Then in October 1867 Reggie, egged on by his twin, murdered Jack ‘the hat’ Mcvitie, a member of the Kray’s criminal organization who had supposedly tried to swindle them.  From this point on the Twins were wanted men and it was only a matter of time before the police managed to arrest and charge them.

In March 1969, after a trial at the Old Bailey, Justice Stevenson famously declared that ‘society  has earned a rest from your activities’ and sent the pair to prison for life. The next time they saw the outside world was in 1982 when they attended their mother’s funeral. By that time Ronnie was in Broadmoor, having been certified ‘insane’ in 1979. Ronnie died in 1995. His twin was interned in Maidstone Prison until 1997 when he began a series of moves before his death in 2000.

Most people have heard of the Krays and have seen that iconic David Bailey photograph. They rose to prominence in the 1960s and their celebrity status has perhaps helped to mask the reality that these were two very brutal individuals. Both of the recent film biopics present the violence (and Ronnie’s mental illness) but temper it all with the prevailing notion that they were somehow ‘decent’ working class lads simply trying to survive in a harsh world. They loved their mum and they never forgot where they came from. This is a very similar narrative to the one that surrounds the rise of the Mafia firms in New York and Chicago after the First World War.

We have popular culture and the rise of the movie to thank for this. Some of the most watched films of the 1930s (Hollywood’s golden age) era featured gangsters at home and abroad, and the image of the suited criminal complete with ‘Tommy’ gun, homburg hat and the obligatory ‘dolly bird’ became synonymous with ‘cool’.

Perhaps because the early gangsters traded in ‘bootlegged’ alcohol (banned by the US government in one of the worst decisions it ever made) and then desperately tried to reinvent their operations as legitimate businesses, we don’t see them for what they really were: ruthless, murdering, criminal organizations. It was when they thumbed their noses at the authorities or their activities impacted ordinary citizens that the authorities felt they had no choice but to hunt them down.

The Krays (much more so than the Richardsons it seems) were OUR gangsters. They showed that we too could have some ‘proper’ criminals to rival the Mafiosi across the pond. In recent years the BBC have revived the memory of Birmingham’s Peaky Blindersand transformed their relatively mundane criminal careers, turning them into gangsters that were able to give the Mafia a run for their money. The ‘Blinders have become anti-heroes to be looked up to which is exactly how the Twins wanted to be seen: as respectable businessmen who only used violence when it was absolutely necessary.

Like all True Crime myths, the idea that the Krays were ‘respectable’, ‘decent’ or eschewed violence expect when it was ‘absolutely necessary’ is a fiction and it is the job of History and Criminology to keep reminding us of that.

Drew Gray, Subject Lead History, University of Northampton

‘O monstrous traitor! I arrest thee!’: From Guy Fawkes to the Brexit ‘betrayers’ a short history of treason in England

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The execution of the Gunpowder Plotters, by Claes (Nicolaes) Jansz Vissche (1606)

Today is the 412th anniversary of the execution of Guy Fawkes and his fellow Gunpowder plotters. As every school boy knows Fawkes was arrested on the 5 November 1605 as he prepared to blow up the Westminster Hall and send King James I and his ministers to an early grave. Instead it was Fawkes, along with Thomas Wintour, Ambrose Rookwood, and Robert Keyes who were to die in a gruesome public execution on the 31 January the following year. The other conspirators (Everard Digby, Robert Wintour, John Grant, and Thomas Bates) had been despatched a day earlier, while Robert Catesby (the ringleader) and Thomas Percy escaped punishment altogether.*

The gunpowder plotters were traitors; they had conspired to kill the reigning anointed monarch and replace him with a Catholic more to their liking. It is hard to see the Gunpowder Plot then, as anything other than a traitorous attempt to overthrow the legitimate ruler and his government and install a foreign power.

In this blog I’d like to reflect on the nature of treason in history, on how the form of punishment of traitors changed over the centuries,  and make an observation on how the word ‘traitor’ has been very publicly misused in recent months.

But let’s start with the execution of Fawkes and the penalty for treason in the 1600s.

The Gunpowder Plotters were sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered in a very public display of the power of the state and king. Traitors such as Fawkes were ‘drawn’ to the place of execution on a plank or cart which was pulled backwards by a horse, as a symbolic shaming of the individual. This practice continued throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as those sentenced to a more ‘normal’ death by hanging would be paraded through the streets on a ‘rattling cart’ for the crowd to see. Execution was intentionally public – ‘justice’ was to be seen to be done because that both consolidated the power of the state and deterred others from committing similar crimes.

Once the condemned had reached the place of execution they were dragged up on to the scaffold which was a raised platform that allowed the watching crowd an excellent view of the event. The ‘victim’ was then hanged, but not as offenders were hanged in the last years before the death penalty was suspended. There was no carefully calculated drop through a trap door to snap your neck; instead prisoners were slowly strangled.

The state executioner would have to time it just right. He wanted to ensure maximum pain and fear of death without actually killing his charge. When he judged that the traitor was  nearly dead he would be cut down and stretched out on the platform. Taking a large knife the executioner would then start to mutilate the body, while the culprit was still alive.

The genitals would be cut off – another deeply symbolic gesture – followed by the putting out of the eyes and the cutting open of the abdomen to remove the bowels. Finally he would rip out the heart and, if the condemned were not dead by then, that would finally end their suffering.img_2243

The final humiliation – in an age where burial and the afterlife were so important  – was to cut the body into quarters (literal quartering) for it to be distributed to the four points of the compass for display as a warning to others. The head would often be attached to some obvious public place, like London Bridge.

Guy Fawkes actually managed to escape this awful fate because as he mounted the scaffold he thrust his head through the noose and threw himself off, breaking his own neck and effectively committing suicide. His co-conspirators were not so fortunate.

Plenty of others suffered a similar fate in the 1600s. You didn’t actually have to commit such an obvious act of treason either; merely minting your own money (‘coining’) could earn you a similar punishment until the early 1700s. Women were spared the humiliation of being publicly dismembered , and were burned at the stake instead.

By the 1800s we had effectively abandoned hanging, drawing and quartering. Indeed the early 1800s saw a gradual move away from capital punishment and the infliction of pain  and an increased use of transportation (effective banishment) and imprisonment. So what did we do with those that committed treason?

On the 22nd February 1803 Colonel Edward Despard was hanged (with six others) on the roof of Horsemonger Gaol in front of 20,000 people for attempting to assassinate George III. Despaired wanted to overthrow the king and government but the authorities had got wind of the plot and waited for their chance to arrest him. A huge crowd turned out to see him hang.

In 1820 Arthur Thistlewood was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered for his part in organising the so-called Cato Street Conspiracy. Thistlewood (along with James Ings, James Brunt, William Davidson and Richard Tidd) had plotted to overthrow the government of the day – so this was clearly treason – but again their intentions had been discovered  and the group infiltrated by government spies.

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In 1813 the punishment for treason had been altered to remove the particular unpleasant element of public disembowelling but Thistlewood and his gang still faced an awful end. The government relented however, and their fate was commuted to hanging and post mortem decapitation. They were executed outside Newgate Gaol with their severed heads being shown to the large number of onlookers gathered outside.

This was the last public execution of a traitor in London but we have had some traitors since.

In August 1916 Roger Casement was hanged for negotiating with Germany to aid Irish revolutionaries during the First World War. Casement’s is a tale of a dramatic fall from grace, only five years earlier he had been knighted by King George V for his humanitarian aid work in Africa. It was in Africa that he came to question the validity of the imperial project however, and perhaps this propelled him towards the cause of Irish nationalism. Arrested just before the Easter Rising Casement was held in the Tower of London (where all traitors end up) while attempts to get a reprieve for him went on. They failed, in part because of revelations that he was not only a traitor but a homosexual as well, and on the 3rd August he was duly executed.

William Joyce (better known as Lord ‘Haw Haw’) was the penultimate person to executed for treason when he was hanged at Wandsworth Prison by Albert Pierrepoint on 3 January 1946. The very last person to be hanged for treason was Theodore Schurch, an Anglo-Swiss soldier in the British army who was executed the day after Joyce for working for German and Italian intelligence. No one has been executed in England for anything other than murder since Schurch.

Oswald Moseley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists (BUF) was interred from 1940-1943 amid fears that he might undermine the war effort against Nazi Germany but he was wasn’t sintered to death for his crimes. Yet Moseley had flirted with Hitler and argued Britain should make peace with the Germans, and in some minds this made him a traitor, but the government chose not to take this to the test of law. Moseley survived the war and had a late flurry in the 1950s before disappearing into obscurity.

Like Edward Windsor (the would-be Edward VIII) there is a valid argument for seeing Mosely as a traitor because he negotiated with an enemy power against the interests of the ruling monarch, the government of the day, and the people.

Which brings me to the misuse of the word ‘treason’ or ‘betrayal’ today.

The High Court judges and politicians that acted to ensure that proper procedures were followed during the recent Brexit debates, were not guilty of treason under the law and it would be helpful if the tabloid press were able to set that record straight. They acted to uphold British law and our democracy and not undermine it yet they were labelled as ‘enemies of the people’ by the Daily Mail. This was taken up by some pro-leave protesters who declared that those opposing Brexit in the courts were ‘traitors to democracy’. Cwa8B4MXgAANcNj

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Given that, historically, some elements of the British newspaper media themselves flirted with treason in the 1930s (by supporting, or at least championing, fascists like Hitler and Mussolini) it is perhaps at least ironic that they seek to condemn a modern defence of parliamentary democracy as treasonous.

CsoYfH1WYAAZgW7The popular press (and some hard line pro-brexit politicians and commentators) are therefore complicit in whipping up public condemnation and abuse (especially on social media) of those that dare to present an alternative to Britain leaving the European Union. A narrow majority for change is being used as if it was landslide revolution with a few discordant voices. To label active ‘remainers’ as ‘traitors’ is not only a misuse of legal terminology it is in itself an undermining of our hard one democratic rights as a people. Given that we are supposed to be getting ‘our country back’ after march 2019 this is at the very least, paradoxical.

But then Guy Fawkes himself has mutated as a historical figure. From being a religiously motivated mercenary terrorist he has become a symbol of libertarianism. The man that dodged ‘a fate worse than death’ four centuries ago has been reinvented as a sort of anti-hero for those that see the Westminster ‘bubble’ as an undemocratic and corrupt institution in need of a modern revolution that puts ‘the people’ first for once.

Drew Gray, University of Northampton

*although their graves were later opened and their bodies exhumed and exhibited as traitors.

What about the victims, why are they so rarely included in the history of crime?

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I have been researching and teaching the history of crime and punishment for well over a decade now and the field now covers considerable ground. There are excellent studies of the criminal justice systems of the past, from the medieval to the modern age, ranging across a wide geographical area from Britain and its empire, to Continental Europe, Africa and the Americas.  There are articles and books on the evolution and development of policing, the rise of the prison, and on different types of criminal activity. Researchers have studied homicide, highwaymen, fraud and forgery, shoplifting and pocket picking; they have looked at juvenile criminals, at female felons, and at (most recently) at the huge numbers of men and women transported to Australia.

Some of the earlier work in the history of crime – and I’m going back to the 1970s and 19780s now – set the scene for much of what has followed. Researchers like Douglas Hay and others that studied under Edward Thompson at Warwick, produced wonderful polemic work that critiqued the hanoverian justice system. They exposed the class bias at the heart of the English criminal justice system that selected its targets from the young working class men who robbed and stole from those better off than themselves.

Peter Linebaugh’s study of eighteenth-century London (The London Hanged) and Thompson’s  own Whig’s and Hunters are, with Hay’s seminal edited collection (Albion’s Fatal Tree), examples of left-wing revisionist histories of a Georgian justice system that seemed to have very little to do with ‘justice’ itself. As another firebrand of this sort of history, VAC Gatrell,  declared that the history of crime is a dirty subject because it is about power, not about crime itself.

Gatrell’s own magnum opus, The Hanging Tree, remains one of my favourite books both for its depth of research and the power of his prose. These pioneers in the history of crime redefined the way we studied this history, borrowing as they did from the wider field of social history, to place the criminal centre stage and, and this is important, raise him up as a victim of the justice system.

The Digital Panopticon, which launched late last year, traces the steps of those uprooted from their communities and dumped on the unforgiving continent of Australia in the late eighteenth and early to mid nineteenth centuries. Michel Foucault and later Michael Ignatieff’s work on the Victorian prison system also paints a bleak and desperate picture of men and women ground down and destroyed by a heartless penal system.

In short then the history of crime and punishment has mostly (since the 1970s at least) been a history of how the state has brutalised those caught up in the criminal justice machine. What is largely missing from the story is that of the victims of crime.

Now, I understand why this was the case in the early years. Historians (particularly those of the left) were keen to show that working-class people had agency, that they were not simply condemned to the ‘condescension of history’ (as EP Thompson put it). Along with work that highlighted the fight for customary rights, the vote, resistance to oppression and creeping capitalism these historian created ‘social bandits’ and heroic highwaymen. More clearly, and less controversially, they attacked the state and its mechanism of social control.

But is it now time to think about the victims of crime? After all, since the late twentieth century the right of the victims of crime have increasingly been placed on the agendas of legislators and criminal justice commentators. Modern criminology does acknowledge that victims need to be both seen and heard; restorative justice has gained ground and recent debates about the release of John Worboys have re-energised calls for victims to be better informed or consulted when offenders are let out of prison.

I think we need to start to try and place the victims at the centre of our studies of crime and punishment, or at least to better understand their role and their experience. We have had excellent work that looks at the role victims have played as prosecutors, which acknowledges their ability to help secure pardons (or conditional pardons) for property offenders sentenced to hang under England’s ‘bloody code’. But what about some work on the shopkeepers in London that appear in the Old Bailey? Or the men and women  robbed and beaten by highwaymen, or those fleeced in city taverns by ‘cunning’ prostitutes? Could we try to present a history from their perspective?

It is not easy of course. We have ended up knowing a lot more about the criminals than we have the victims. Even when it comes to the most famous unsolved murder case in history – the Whitechapel (or Jack the Ripper) murders of 1888 – there is precious little on the five (or more) women who were killed, at least by comparison to the endless commentary on who the assassin might have been. At least Haille Rubenhold is working on this as I write, so that may be addressed fairly soon.

So this is a call if you like, to prospective PhD students, and others working in the field. I’m not asking us to stop exposing the cruel penal systems of the past (or those of the present for that matter), nor am I saying that everyone executed, transported, flogged or imprisoned deserved their fate, but perhaps we now need to redress the balance a little and begin to research those that suffered in a different way from the prevalence of crime and paucity of protection from it that a deterrent based system in the past offered them.

Drew Gray

Drew writes a daily blog on the Victorian Police Courts and teaches the History of Crime at the University of Northampton.

indicative bibliography

Foucault, Michel (1975). Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison.

Gatrell, V.A.C, (1994) The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People 

Hay, D (1975), Albion’s Fatal Tree

Ignatieff, Michael (1978) A just measure of pain: the penitentiary in the industrial revolution, 1750-1850.

Thompson, E.P (1975) Whigs and Hunters: The Origin of the Black Act 

 

‘Future focused’ not stuck in the past: Study History because we don’t know what’s going to happen next

As we approach the end of another year I thought I’d reflect on what, if anything we might learn from the events of 2017. This has been (another) tumultuous annum with terrorism, the threat of nuclear war, and political turmoil at home and abroad. What I’d like to discuss though, is the value of History as a discipline and the dangers posed by the circulation of fake news and other forms of misinformation.

I’d like to start however, with something I heard on the radio last week. This was an interview aired on Radio Four’s PM show with Sebastian Balfour, historian and Emeritus Professor of Contemporary Spanish Studies at LSE. In the course of Eddie Mair’s interview Professor Balfour explained that told his undergraduates that ‘history is about the future, politics is about the past’.

He suggests, a little tongue in cheek perhaps, that social sciences (like sociology, anthropology and political science) have largely based their studies on looking at the past, at past societies, which is then used a way of predicting the future. History, he argues, ‘warns as that the future is not predictable in any way’. The great events of the past are the result of the ‘coming together’ of so many unforeseeable and ‘totally unexpected processes’ and ‘individual decisions’.

I like his analysis because it seems to chime loudly in the modern world. Few political pundits predicted that Donald Trump could actually win the presidency because they weren’t looking in the right places for the clues. David Cameron’s attempt to solve a ‘little local difficulty’ in the Conservative Party gave millions of previously disenfranchised Britons the opportunity to stick it to the metropolitan elites and the European bureaucrats. Across the world we have seen the rise of the Far Right, of extremist religion and populism, all defying the rational logic of very well educated and very well-paid commentators and ‘experts’.

Indeed 2016 and 2017 have been synonymous with the marginalisation of the expert. The psephologists got it wrong in 2015 and 2017 and (mostly) in Brexit and indeed abroad. Guessing the results of elections had assumed the status of a science but recent events have relegated it back to being an art, akin to predicting the outcome of a horse race or even the effects of the planets on our love life.

Of course, there will be some reading this who will claim to know all of this was going to happen. I thought Trump would get in because I have a deep seated (and possibly unfair) low opinion of Americans. Hilary was poor candidate and a woman. Trump was white, sexist, offensive, and racist; a shoe-in in some parts of the USA.

None of what has happened was predictable however and Historians should know that. I think my study of the past (spent mostly it has to be said in the courtrooms of the 18th and 19th centuries) tells me a lot about how people interacted and what they valued and feared. This in turn reveals that while our Georgian or Victorian ancestors didn’t have television, the internet or mobile phones they shared very much more with ourselves than we often consider to be the case.

The people that turned up in the metropolitan police courts that I write about daily, as defendants, victims, police officers or witnesses, were largely just like you and I. They were generally trying to survive in a changing and sometimes scary world, where bad people did bad things, and good people tried to stop them. They had hopes and fears, and they loved and lost, laughed and cried.

The vast majority of people were significantly worse off than the small minority who owned most of the wealth. Society was deeply unequal just as it remains today. History helps me understand the present and its problems very well because it shows me that humanity has been exploiting each other for centuries. Prejudice and xenophobia – both rife in modern Britain – were present in the 1800s as well. Waves of immigrants (from Ireland and Eastern Europe in particular) were marginalised, caricatured, and discriminated against.

The poor were demonised because they were, well, poor basically. They were a burden on the parish (today it is the tax payer’s state) and their poverty and need seen as a personal failing. The only way to incentivise the poor men like Owen Chadwick believed, was to threaten them with the workhouse if they had the audacity to ask for help. Today the ‘benefit scrounger’ will only be ‘helped’ if we remove his benefits and force him to take any job, however menial.

However, if you want to incentivise a rich person you need to pay him more for doing exactly the same as he was doing before. This is capitalist logic.

Marx (Karl not Groucho) argued (and I paraphrase) that it is in the economic interest of the capitalist to pay his workers as little as possible, just enough, in fact, to keep them alive and productive.

I’m not a Marxist (no one is since the Berlin Wall came down – not even John MacDonald and Jeremy Corbyn, despite what the Daily Mail  tells us). But I do think Marx’s explanation of the economic system he saw operating and developing in the nineteenth century is valid today. Even the growth of the ‘gig economy’ and zero-hour contracts is explained by Marx’s critique of capital.

Finally then I want to turn to the phenomenon of ‘fake news’ and misinformation. None of this is new of course. This year the BBC unveiled a statue of George Orwell outside Broadcasting House in London. Orwell understood the value of propaganda and misinformation. He had lived through the Second World War and seen Hitler and Stalin’s propaganda machines in full flow, he even worked for one himself, the good old BBC. Orwell’s 1984 was a chilling vision of the future when it was published in 1948, it’s almost become a handbook for misleading the people today.

There is so much news now and so many ways to disseminate and receive it that it is becoming harder and harder for those that want to, to control it. More and more (as Boris Johnson’s trip to Moscow this week shows) it is becoming ‘weaponised’; a tool in the armoury of warring states and political activists. Isis use fake news, the Russian state uses fake news, the Far Right uses fake news, and now it has permeated ordinary daily life. The British press daily carry false news stories, just as the American press does. Donald Trump selects which bits of news he wants to believe or to ignore, the revelations about cabinet ministers and their extra-curricular activities are dismissed as inventions by the police, or held up as evidence of corruption and nepotism in high office.

So who are we to believe? Believe no one? Trust nobody?

That would make for a very scary world (if a world with Kim Jong Un, Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump could get any scarier that is). I think we have to educate ourselves and our children so that we are equipped with the tools we need to make sense of what we are being told. The study of History as a discipline gives students the tools they need to unpick the words of tyrants and demagogues; to cut through the rhetoric of clever wordsmiths and orators; to work out who is telling us stuff and why they want us to believe it (as Hilary Mantel recently noted).

So if you have a son or daughter who is thinking of going to university to study a subject that will help them survive and prosper in the 21st Century send them to me and my team at the University of Northampton’s History department and I promise that they will get the chance to question the world around them, understand what they are being told, and learn the skills they need to make up their own minds about what the future might bring.

Merry Christmas and a Happy (if unpredictable) New Year 2018!

                                      Drew Gray (Head of History, University of Northampton)

 

*other History departments are available.