oldbaileyonline

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

images

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

 

 

 

 

Putting Undergraduates on Trial (this time with feelings)

IMG_0197

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.

IMG_0186

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.

IMG_0199

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