Spitalfields weavers

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

 

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