267 : Some petty crimes in late Victorian times

The Victorian journalists’ habit of mentioning the colour (or race) of persons alleged to have committed crimes has the single advantage of identifying Britain’s visible minorities and the massive yet unquantifiable contribution to a social stereotype of criminal or illegal activities. It was well into the twentieth century before the habit ended. But despite the accounts of mayhem, squabbles, street violence and urban unrest there are some glimpses of black people as victims, who received a balanced and just decision in Victorian law courts. It seems likely that black victims of crime would not have attracted the comments on alleged offenders, of course.

The Islington Gazette of north London noted on 27 May 1885 (page 2) that George Alexander ‘a coloured man’ had been assaulted by George Rayner of Alfred Street, Clerkenwell. Rayner was bound over to keep the peace. Far to the north of England the Jarrow Express of 13 September 1889 (page 7) reported from the local police court that Alfred Dawson ‘a coloured man’ had been assaulted by Peter Trainor on 31 August 1889. He had called Dawson ‘snowball’ and was told that that was not his name. Trainer then hit him. Trainor was found guilty, and fined ten shillings plus costs with the alternative of fourteen days in prison. Thirdly in October 1893 in Liverpool John Goff was accused of tricking two pounds from ‘a coloured man names Edward Davis’, selling him an out-of-date ticket to New York. He was fined thirty shillings (a good week’s wage) plus costs, or a prison sentence of ten days.

A cook shop at 10 Frederick Street in central Cardiff was owned by a black man named David Roberts who reported that a woman had attacked it, breaking window frames and the glass – which meant that the food could not be sold. She had a police record. (South Wales Echo, 8 June 1892, page 3.)

Widely reported was an occurrence at a coroner’s court in Poplar, east London when a juror complained about a black juryman: ‘he is not a native of this country, and has no right here’. The man advised he had lived in England for sixteen years and had got married in England, adding ‘I am not sitting here from choice, but of necessity’. The coroner, who later thanked the juror for his service, said ‘he shall not be insulted here’. (Lichfield Mercury, 8 January 1892, page 7; Croydon Chronicle, 9 January 1892, page 7.)

This evidence makes a simple conclusion about Victorian racism almost impossible to support.

See also pages 155 and 255