The Standard (London), 14 September 1857, p 3 had this page’s title when reporting an incident involving a black person. Some blacks (like all others) were living on the margins, and some became professional criminals. Through the tittle-tattle and scandal-mongering unexpected aspects of the black presence in Britain are revealed.
George Daniels earned his living in St Helens by transporting people in an old carriage drawn by donkeys, but was named in the Liverpool Mercury (30 January 1877) because he had been accused of stabbing a medical student. Playing a street organ was how John Peters earned a living for several years. He married a woman who had a child; their own children came later and they lived in Nottingham. In 1875 he was with his barrel organ in Ipswich where he was playing it in the street, one foot in the gutter, when a wagon driven by an intoxicated man damaged it. From earning about one pound a week Peters was reduced to labouring (probably stoking coal into the furnaces) in the gas works and selling tracts, and his income dropped. He wanted compensation for repairs. Peters was South African and had lived in Britain for over twenty years, and had volunteered to serve on ships in the Crimean War. He had purchased the organ for twelve pounds. He was awarded over five pounds plus costs, and the driver was told that it would have been better if he had talked with Peters to reach a fair arrangement. In 1877 Peters took his barrel organ to Manchester and on returning home found his wife Kate had taken a lodger, a ‘negro’ or ‘African’ named Harry Johnson. Back in Manchester his child appeared, saying that Johnson and Kate had gone to Edinburgh. Peters returned to Nottingham and discovered they had sold his home. He tracked the pair to Stephenson Street, West Hartlepool and the police arrested them for stealing and sent them to Nottingham. Peters had to pawn his organ to raise the money for all this travelling; he was helped by another Black male in Darlington. Johnson was released as the woman was to blame. This ‘singular elopement case’ was mentioned in the newspapers in March 1877. However in 1895 a London newspaper commented that it was rare to see a Black man with a barrel organ.
The numerous horses on the streets of towns and cities gave employment to crossing sweepers who swept horse droppings out of the way of pedestrians. They would be tipped for this service, and although it was a very long day out in the open, a good pitch could supply a steady income. Asian crossing sweepers were noted in London by Henry Mayhew in the 1850s. Burlington Gardens in central London was such a place, and its crossing sweeper in the early 1870s was Frederick Wilson, a ‘man of colour’. A local resident entrusted Wilson with small tasks, and had given him £1 2s to pay for some fowls he had purchased. Wilson did not return, but wrote he had lost the money. The Marlborough Street magistrate put Wilson on remand to await trial. Another Black crossing sweeper was George Samuel Roach, sent to prison for three weeks in Bristol in 1878, having created a nuisance and attacked a policeman. A lengthy article on crossing sweepers published in 1884 noted that ‘the old black man’ who swept a crossing in Farringdon Street (London) left £800 to the daughter of an alderman who had been very kind to him. A second man who swept a crossing at Conduit Street and Regent Street was said thave owned two or three houses at the time of his death. ‘There is no doubt that, other things being equal, a black crossing-sweeper would take a good deal more than a white man. A negro is a stranger in a strange land; he is presumably friendless, and, being pretty certainly a native of a hot country, he may be supposed to suffer more from the wet and cold of our climate than an English-man. All these considerations would enable a steady blackman to make a good thing of a well-located crossing’. [Morning Post, London, 24 January 1873, p 7; Bristol Mercury, 20 April 1878; Daily News, London, 8 December 1884.]
Even with crossing sweepers footwear became dirty, and the numerous shoeblacks included black people. 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. 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 – 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). Another shoeblack and beggar was Harry Lewis of Sheffield, who died there in July 1882. [Hampshire Advertiser, 9 July 1870, p 6; Pall Mall Gazette (London), 21 July 1879; Sheffield and Rotherham Independent, 12 July 1882, p 2.]
Reports of alleged criminals 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 t18610505-436 5 May 1861.]
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. [Reynold’s News (London) 15 September 1867; Morning Post (London), 16 September 1867 p 7.] In June 1869 a beggar whose trick was to lay on the pavement and cry out ‘pity a poor cripple’ was exposed at the Marlborough Street court in London. He had an assistant who would warn when the police came near, and they had gone into local pubs for a drink. Widely reported but rarely with his name, which seems to have been Thropp, he went to prison for one month [Bristol Mercury, 26 June 1869; Wrexham Advertiser, 26 June 1869; Blackburn Standard, 30 June 1869].
Glimpses can be seen elsewhere. 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 knew him and his family, and thought he had died from apoplexy. Death from natural causes was recorded at the January 1873 inquest noted by the Hampshire Advertiser of 11 January 1873, p 5. A man named Edward Williams worked at the Britannia Iron Company in Middlesbrough but had fallen behind with his rent. When threatened with eviction Williams waved a hatchet and was sentenced to one month in mid-1872, duly reported in the Evening Gazette (Middlesbrough), 2 July 1872, p 3.
Unemployed and homeless people could find refuge in workhouses. 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’ noted the 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. [Hampshire Advertiser, 13 September 1884, p 8. http://www.workhouses.org.uk lists 63-year-old Philips [sic] among the 463 inmates of the workhouse on census day 1881 but no place of origin was noted.]
Other individuals emerge from the mists of history through reports in the Victorian press. 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. Government construction projects used convict labour, and the gang extending the docks at Chatham 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; Philip Priestley, Victorian Prison Lives (London: Pimlico, 1999), pp 131-133].
John Moment took bark from spruce and fir trees which he soaked in perfume and sold as sandalwood. Charged in Stroud in March 1881 with damaging trees, Moment ‘a black man’ pleaded guilty and was fined (with the alternative of seven days on each account) according to the Bristol Mercury of 12 March 1881. The public often associated such trickery with fairs and travelling shows. We know the ‘black man’ John Francis Shorter impersonated a South Sea Islander at a fair in Blackburn because he stole the skins which he had worn. He was arrested at the railway station with the costume in his possession and went to prison for one month in April 1882. A newspaper headed its report ‘A coloured impostor’ [ Manchester Times 15 April 1882].
In April 1887 a ‘barrow puller’ who worked at Billingsgate Fish Market was drowned in the Thames. He lived in the Borough (South London), was a ‘negro’ aged 36, and had been to Blackheath with a barrow of oysters. He seems to have drunk the proceeds according to the London weekly scandal sheet Illustrated Police News of 23 April 1887. And yet another individual exposed through a newspaper report: Ben Rowe said he had reacted to a policeman telling him to move on, when he was arguing with some white men who had hit him when he was playing his bone clappers (rib bones, producing rhythmic beats) in Birmingham in June 1891. He had lived in England for over twenty years – when the constable said ‘Now then, move on, darkie’ his African blood mounted to his head and he struck out. He had never been in trouble before. He went to prison for six weeks. This was noted by the Birmingham Daily Post of 23 June 1891.
These individuals, out and about in Victorian Britain, strongly suggest that historians have not yet grappled with the black stratum in British life. For every alleged criminal there has to have been more innocents.
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