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.

Racism, diversity and contested histories: some reflections on Christmas (just) Past

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The Cratchits sit down to Christmas dinner 

If, like me, you tuned in to watch the BBC’s latest adaptation of Charles Dickens’ novella A Christmas Carol, I’m sure it will have left a lasting impression.  Over three nights a star-studded cast presented a much darker version of the tale of Scrooge than we are used to. It was uncomfortable at times, rude, crude even, but funny and also very poignant and political.

I’m not an expert on Dickens and have only recently read the novella that bears limited similarity to the scripted version I watched over Christmas. This seemed to annoy some people, who took to social media to complain that students studying it at school today would have been confused by Steven Knight’s retelling of an old classic. Personally, I loved it. I found Guy Pearce’s Scrooge a more complex character than Dickens had presented him and Vinette Robinson’s Mary Cratchit was a study in controlled anger.

Most of all I think Dickens would have approved as it had a powerful message about the concerns of the day, combining as it did themes of poverty and inequality, abuse, exploitation, and the callous nature of unrestrained and immoral capitalism.

But what really seemed to upset some keyboard warriors was that the Cratchits were presented as a mixed race family. This was compounded when the BBC released a modern version of Worzel Gummidge complete with two black children as the central characters (below right). For some this was diversity gone mad, a deliberate attempt by ‘auntie’ to meddle with our cultural past and present. Unknown

I’ve been musing on this for a few days now. At the time I responded to a tweet I saw by @WhoresofYore (aka Dr Kate Lister) which had shared several images of interracial marriage to challenge the claim (by some) that the BBC’s drama presentation of the  Cratchits was ‘PC nonsense and historically inaccurate’.

I wrote:

‘Some people would like to believe Britain was entirely white before 1950. It wasn’t. It’s just that we’ve written black people out of history’.

That tweet had had over 2000 ‘likes’ and nearly 200 retweets but it also drew a few people to comment that they had never seen black people when they were growing up. ‘If a black of Asian man ever came down the street [in 1950s Birmingham]’, one wrote, ‘people ran out of their houses to look at him. They’d never seen one, except in pictures’. Another commented that ‘it largely was white’ adding, ‘now my home town has 300 languages and there are very few white school kids’.

It didn’t take much searching on twitter to find some pretty disgusting racist comments about the dramas and the BBC’s use of black faces in them. Which begs the question for me at least, why are people so unhappy about the depiction of diversity on our television screens?

After all history can tell us (should tell us) that Britain has had a very diverse population for hundreds of years. There have been people from all parts of the world in England from Roman times to the present; in medieval England, in Tudor England, in the 1700s and nineteenth century, and right through the twentieth. Moreover all of these immigrants to Britain have contributed to the success of these islands, economically, culturally and politically.

Black troops fought in the last world war, and the one before that, directly contributing to the defeat of Nazi Germany and the survival of our ‘British’ way of life. Estimates suggest also that around a third of Nelson’s crew on HMS Victory were not white. The records of the Old Bailey (London’s central criminal court) reveal the presence of Black Londoners in significant numbers throughout the 1700s and 1800s. In many cases of course contemporary prejudice and notions of racial superiority mean that Black voices have been silenced or muted, or erased completely but this does not mean they didn’t exist at all.

We know this. History has been telling us this for decades at least so why do some people have such a problem accepting it?

Sadly I think it is because Britain is a country where racism remains endemic. When the grime artist Stormzy was asked if there was racism in Britain he replied: ‘definitely. 100 percent’. Reactions to that comment and its misreporting pretty much sum up the problem we have.

UnknownStormzy was condemned for labeling Britain as ‘100 percent racist’, which he never did. All sorts of people who should have known better leapt to the country’s defense accusing him of all sorts of outrages without stopping to read or listen to what he had actually said. There is racism in Britain, I agree with that statement completely (100%). Not everyone in Britain is a racist, and Stormzy never suggested that they were.

A day later racist abuse was directed at a black footballer, as he played for Chelsea in a local London derby at Tottenham. When I ‘liked’ a tweet from Jolyon Rubinstein, comedian and TV producer, that condemned the racism at his club and then added a comment that it needed to be challenged everywhere, a handful of comments took issue with me. There was no racism at ‘our club’ some said; please don’t condemn us all with the same brush.

It seems like this and the Stormzy incident are part of the same problem. Some people are more outraged at being called racist than they are at racism existing in our society. Some are so scared of seeing black faces on the TV screens that they feel the need to complain that the BBC is misrepresenting the nation and its history.

The reality is that actors are actors and it doesn’t matter what colour their skins is anyway. We’ve been used to white actors playing black characters, to Americans playing Germans, to able bodies actors portraying disabled people, and to all sorts of dramatic interpretations and adaptations of texts from the past.

The reason some people got their collective knickers in a twist about Stormzy, and the BBC’s A Christmas  Carol  and Worzel Gummidge is because they are either ignorant or prejudiced, or both. I’m sorry but that is self-evident.

What worries me is what we are doing to combat this. How do we educate people so that that this racism dies a death now, in the 2020s, along with all the other intolerances that continue to blight our society?

Diversity is a good thing, not something to be afraid of and we have to get that message out there from nursery, to primary and secondary school to university, though the shop floor, in all forms of the media, in sport, culture, and, most of all, in politics.

Racism has no place in our society, none whatsoever, and it is the responsibility of all of us to call it out wherever we see it.

Drew Gray, Subject Lead Humanities

 

 

 

 

Should we teach ‘difficult’ history in schools?

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One twenty-two-year-old (Instagram ‘influencer’ Freddie Bentley, pictured above) recently caused consternation by suggesting topics such as climate change and Brexit should be taught in schools rather than the history of the Second World War. It followed comments by contestants on the reality show The Apprentice that revealed that they weren’t sure of the dates of the conflict. Not surprisingly Bentley drew down a wave of criticism (much of it from tabloid newspapers and their readers) for suggesting current events were more important than historical ones.

Naturally, as a historian, I would argue that history is important, and should be taught in schools but surely children ought to learn about current affairs as well? Of course, there is a debate to be had about what history (who’s history perhaps) is taught and what lessons are drawn from it, and how it is taught.

Bentley commented that learning about the horrors of the world war and the deaths of millions of people had been traumatising and he worried for children’s mental health.

That shouldn’t mean it isn’t taught.

Future generations need to understand the sacrifices made by previous ones and they need to understand how something like the Holocaust could come about. Teaching should always be age appropriate, but we can’t completely shield our children from the tragedies of the past. Human history is shot through with inhumanity and the next generation is entitled to know about it.

However, I am a little suspicious of the reaction to Bentley’s Good Morning Britain interview. It seems as if those commentators have been quick to say that history is important whilst at the very same time ignoring or misrepresenting history when it suits them.

Surely one of the lessons of the second world war is that we should have a closer relationship between European nations to avoid future wars? Surely the lesson to be learned from the Holocaust is that singling out people on account of their religion, race, sexuality or disability leads to state sponsored murder and is abhorrent?

Surely the lesson we might draw from the war in the Pacific is that nuclear weapons are disproportionally destructive and should be banned?  Indeed, we also might learn that warfare is abhorrent and so all arms manufacture should be tightly restricted at least, and perhaps even prohibited?

None of these suits the agendas of the politicians that most tabloid editors give their support to however. These lessons from history are simply ignored or reinterpreted to suit a narrow world view that allows race hate, unbridled arms dealing, nationalism, and economic inequality, to persist.

Moreover, the real challenge to our children’s future – the climate emergency – is side lined and relegated to a discussion of the rights of people to protest. Climate change is the single most important issue for our society and I think Bentley was probably right to say that it should be taught in schools. Not at the expense of learning about WW2,, however, but as well as.

The reality is that Climate Change is terrifying, and we risk traumatizing our children just as much as learning about Belsen and Auschwitz does. But since the general public doesn’t seem to have woken up to the dangers of the climate emergency, and the tabloids and most politicians don’t seem to be doing a very good job of educating us on it, the only hope we have is for our schools to inculcate a concern for the planet at an early age.

History is vital to a rounded education but if we don’t look – and look urgently – to the future no one will be around to learn the lessons that history teaches us anyway.

Drew Gray, Subject Lead Humanities

Taking teaching outside the classroom: crime and punishment in situ

 

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On Monday this week I removed my second-year class on crime and punishment from the confines of a Waterside campus classroom (lovely as they are) and transported it to a real life courthouse in the centre of Northampton.

Northampton’s Sessions House was built after the fire that destroyed much of the town in 1675. This gave the local authorities the opportunity to create a purpose-built space to hold the biannual county assizes and the quarterly sessions of the peace.  There are two courts in the complex – one for criminal and one for civil cases – both have had some significant modernization since the late 1700s but plenty of the original courtrooms have survived.

Below the courts are holding cells, and it is still possible to access the ‘walk of shame’ that would have conveyed commended prisoners to the gallows that was situated towards the rear of the complex.  Still possible, that is, so long as you have a friendly and well-informed guide like Dr Alan Clarke, our friendly expert in local English history.

About 30 history undergraduates take my level 5 module (HIS2010) at the University of Northampton and in last week’s class we had looked at the nature of the court trial in the eighteenth century, at the role of the judge and juries, and considered the importance of architecture in the process of the administration of ‘justice’.

This is quite limited in a modern classroom when your key resources are contemporary written accounts and images like this one (of the Old Bailey in the early 1800s).

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My students have just embarked on a project that will see them reenact a real trial using the published records of London’s Central Criminal Court in the past and so I was keen to let them get a sense of what a trial might have been like. I rather enjoy the idea of ‘experiencing’ history where possible, even if (thanks goodness) I can’t begin to experience the fear of being tried for an offence for which I might pay with my life if convicted.

Alan took us on a tour of the court complex – the cells (where evidence of their recently past can be seen in the surviving graffiti from the 1970s and 1980s), the judge’s chambers, and the nineteenth-century gaol block.

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He also described the interior of both courts, pointing out and explaining the symbolism woven into the intricate plaster work (the work of Edward Goodge). Over the judge’s chair in the criminal court are emblems representing truth, justice, material wealth (and its opposite), as well as the image of the devil complete with a tongue which supposedly wags when someone tells a lie in court.

Having settled the class back down after our tour I now gave individuals roles to play as we reconstructed two short cases from the Old Bailey Proceedings in the 1700s. The first was the trial of a domestic servant who had given birth in secret and was accused of ‘destroying’ her illegitimate child. The trial took hardly any time at all to find her guilty and to condemn her death and anatomization. The evidence was limited, the few witnesses that spoke up for her were ineffectual, and this made a deep impression on the class as we unpacked it afterwards.

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The second case was no less brutal; another young woman, this time accused of killing man because he called her ‘a whore’. Despite the evidence of intent being almost nonexistent and contentious (the knife she used had a rounded blade, hardly likely to have inflicted the wounds described by the witnesses that spoke against her) she too was convicted and sentenced to hang.

Both cases revealed that respectability and class played a more important role in the eighteenth-century courtroom than evidence did. But more than this the very act of voicing the words spoken in a real court space helped us understand how the various actors were perceived. There is a very different perspective sitting (as the student playing the judge did) at the apex of the court looking down on everyone else, than there is looking up from the dock, knowing that behind you is a staircase (merely ladder when the court was built) to the dark cells below.

In January these students will be back in court so that they can put on their own assessed trials. They have 15-20 minutes to reenact a case of their choosing before myself and a colleague will discuss what they have learnt from the process and how it has shaped their understanding the criminal justice system of the past.

Of course, we can’t possibly experience history in the way that people did in the past: there were plenty of giggles as students placed in the dock or ‘locked’ into a cell but engaging with history in this way does bring it alive. Taking students out of the comfort of a classroom changes perspectives, mine as well as theirs, and I think we ought to do it more often.

Drew Gray (Subject lead, Humanities)

 

 

 

 

 

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