146: Victorian reports of crime as a source on minorities

Victorian newspapers reveal all manner of people in their reports of crimes and criminals. A few of them, including witnesses, were black.

Cleaning shoes – shoeblacks – included minority Victorians. The charge against Alfred Gaptain was dismissed but the report of his trial in Southampton in 1870 indicates he worked cleaning boots and shoes near the docks (Hampshire Advertiser [Southampton], 9 July 1870, p 6). In 1879 a shoeblack named John Jones placed his box in front of the gate to the parish church in Clerkenwell, London. Churchwardens had complained to the police before for several shoeblacks did this and annoyed the congregation, using bad language. Jones said he had to do this work to feed his wife and children, but was fined ten shillings (if unpaid, he would go to prison for seven days) according to the Pall Mall Gazette (London), 21 July 1879. Another shoeblack and beggar was Harry Lewis of Sheffield, who died there in July 1882 (Sheffield and Rotherham Independent, 12 July 1882, p 2).

Reports reveal all manner of occupations. One ‘negro’ tailor in London in 1861 was a West Indian named John Delobe. He and his common law wife Charlotte Sullivan were sent to prison for fifteen years having pleaded guilty to rape, aiding in that and for attacking Samuel Hooper with a poker (Morning Chronicle [London], 12 April 1861; oldbaileyonline.org ref t18610505-436 5 May 1861). The Times reported he was a ‘black sailor’, was aged 29, and had pleaded guilty.

There were professional beggars. The Mendicity Society (a mendicant lives solely on charitable gifts) brought charges against two men before the Marlborough   Street magistrate in London in September 1867 charged with accosting ladies and gentlemen in North   Audley Street, Mayfair. John Apple, a coloured man and ‘a well known beggar’, attacked the two Society officers. The magistrate said there was no need to beg in London when there was plenty of work, such as harvesting and collecting hops. He sent them to prison for one month each (Morning Post [London], 16 Sept 1867, p 7).

Frank Conroy who lived in Northam, a railway and shipbuilding district of Southampton, was aged 47, had been a fireman or stoker on the Royal Mail line, and then worked for the South Western Railway in Northam. He was taken ill and died. The doctor who knew him and his family thought he had died from apoplexy. Death from natural causes was recorded at the January 1873 inquest (Hampshire Advertiser [Southampton], 11 January 1873, p 5). A man named Edward Williams who worked at the Britannia Iron Company in Middlesbrough had fallen behind with his rent. When threatened with eviction Williams waved a hatchet and was sentenced to one month in mid-1872, reported the Evening Gazette (Middlesbrough) of 2 July 1872.

Unemployed and homeless people could find refuge in workhouses. Conditions could be abysmal.  The Heath Town (near Wolverhampton) workhouse suffered from an outbreak of smallpox in late 1871. The guardians heard the death toll now included an old man and a man of colour ‘who had been brought in from the streets’ (Birmingham Daily Post, 23 December 1871). In 1882 coloured man Thomas Brooks walked to Darlington, found there was no room in common lodging houses and so obtained a ticket for the workhouse at the police station. Exhausted he died within twenty hours. No medical attention or doctor had been made available, claimed a protesting letter in the North-Eastern Daily Gazette on 27 June 1882 which noted an inquest had been refused. Its writer suspected neglect. An ‘aged man of colour’ at the workhouse in Southampton in September 1884 named John Phillips claimed to have been ill-treated but other inmates did not support him. This was printed by the Hampshire Advertiser (Southampton), 13 September 1884, p 8. He had been there for years, it seems for www.workhouses.org.uk. entry for Southampton lists 63 year old Philips (sic) present among the 463 residents when the 1881 census was taken: but no place of origin was noted. The oldest inmate was aged 91, and another was a seaman born in Australia.

William Williams who sold firewood and lived in West Hartlepool is known because he tried to jump on a moving train – he failed but nearly pulled a police officer under its wheels. He was fined five shillings and costs or seven days with hard labour in January 1878 (Daily Gazette [Middlesbrough], 29 January 1878, p 4). Another black firewood dealer, John Stevens of 42 Princess Street, Chester was attacked at his ‘wood-chopping shop’ in Commonhall Street on 6 October 1888, and saw his attacker fined five shillings or one week in prison according to the Cheshire Observer (Chester), 20 October 1888, p 6.

In Oxford in May 1878 the story of Joseph Etter Stanley attracted considerable sympathy. Born in Nevis and working as a stone mason in Trinidad, he said he had saved £200 and had taken a ship to Southampton in April 1878. He left London by stopping train for Oxford, planning to spend three years there, studying architecture. He left the train en route to go to the toilet, it moved off without him and when it reached Oxford his luggage was located but not his bag containing his money. Destitute, a subscription was taken up, and police and railway authorities sought news of the bag. Although an arrest was made, Stanley had actually been working as a mason on the new Royal Courts of Justice in London until July the previous year. Facing a charge of obtaining money by false testimonials, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six weeks in prison, with hard labour (Jackson’s Oxford Journal, 25 May 1878; Jackson’s Oxford Journal, 8 June 1878; Jackson’s Oxford Journal, 29 June 1878). He has to be the architect, a ‘man of colour’ named Charles Etty, Joseph Stanley and also Stephen Etter Stanley noted in The Times in June 1880 charged over a bank note.

Thomas Bailey from Antigua had been in England two years when he was robbed of £21 on a train from Waterloo to Southampton. The five accused said the money had been won by playing cards with Bailey. They were professional criminals, and in March 1879 one was sentenced to ten years and two to fourteen years. The two detectives who had tracked them down were each awarded five pounds by the court at Kingston on Thames (Morning Post [London], 6 March 1879, p 7). William Harvey worked as a butcher’s assistant in Loughborough in mid-1879, and was a witness in a case over the theft of a gun which Harvey had purchased and handed to the police. The thief went to prison for three months (Nottinghamshire Guardian, 20 June 1879, p 8; Derby Mercury, 25 June 1879).

Government construction projects used convict labour, and the gang extending the docks at Chatham, Kent included a man of colour who escaped in September 1879, using and meeting considerable violence in the process. Threatened by a smith with a red-hot poker, the convict ran off again and bit off the thumb of a workman who grabbed him. He was restrained. There were 1,500 convicts employed on this project (Hull Packet, 12 September 1879; Illustrated Police News [London], 13 September 1879; Reynold’s Newspaper [London], 13 June 1880; Philip Priestley, Victorian Prison Lives [London: Pimlico, 1999], pp 131-133).

Harvey, Conroy, Gaptain, Brooks, Lewis, Philips/Phillips, Stevens and Bailey were innocents; the others whose names have been published above were fined or imprisoned. Etter Stanley and John Delobe were hard criminals.

Also look at pages 094, 100, 110 and 114.


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