Whitechapel murders

I’m not sure I want THIS country back…

_90025744_033583881-1

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.

PastedGraphic-1

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.

Unknown    811d8e975c04ce196afe756fb2517bdf.png

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

811d8e975c04ce196afe756fb2517bdf.png

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

newgat5

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