In September 2016, I wrote a London’s Protest Stickers blog post about the EU Referendum. Little did I know that not only would we still be talking it about Brexit two and a half years later, but that we would be no closer to a resolution. The Brexit debate has rumbled on, getting more bitter and divisive as time goes on. As with any significant political issue, Brexit had become a popular topic for London’s protest stickers.
Sarah Wise. The Italian Boy: Murder and Grave-robbery in 1830s London. London: Pimlico, 2005. RRP £7.99 paperback
Most people have heard of Burke and Hare, the infamous Edinburgh murderers. Fewer people know that London had its own episode of ‘burking’ in 1831. In the early 19th century, London’s anatomists and medical schools needed many more bodies for dissection than could be provided by legal means. A lucrative trade in corpses developed, and ‘Resurrectionists’ could make a good income by digging up the recently buried and selling them to hospitals and medical schools. In late 1831, two Resurrectionists in Bethnal Green decided to cut out the middle man, and began murdering London’s poor and neglected in order to sell the bodies. They were caught trying to sell the body of a young boy to the anatomy department at King’s College. The ensuing court case, and eventual conviction and execution of two of the men, John Bishop and Thomas Williams, caused a morbid scandal that enthralled London. It led to the passing of the 1832 Anatomy Act, which eventually put an end to the illicit trade in corpses. In The Italian Boy: Murder and Grave-robbery in 1830s London, Sarah Wise tells the story of the murderers, their apprehension, trial, and execution in impressive detail. She also uses the story as a springboard, branching out to look at many elements of London in the first half of the nineteenth century, including poverty, housing, healthcare, and even animal welfare. The result is an interesting account of a gruesome story that captures London on the verge of rapid and dramatic transformation.
The case of the Italian boy (it was quickly decided, although never decisively proven, that the final victim was an Italian street performer) captured the public imagination in a way that only an incredibly gory crime can. As such, a significant amount of archival material about the case, largely court records and newspaper articles, has survived. As such, Wise is able to provide an incredible amount of detail about the events surrounding the case. At some points, it was almost a little too much detail; I got distracted trying to keep track of the sheer number of pubs that the men visited in the days before they were arrested at King’s, and the order in which they visited them. Despite all this detail, there are still many elements of the case that are unknown, and will never be known. It will never be possible to confirm exactly how many people were killed, for example, nor to find out what happened to John Bishop’s children after their father was executed. Wise was able to trace the some of the children to Shoreditch workhouse in 1835, but then they disappear without trace.
It is a well-known frustration amongst researchers who use archives that the voices of the poor rarely get preserved. In the Preface of The Italian Boy, Wise argues that she saw this story as an opportunity to find out about the poorest residents of nineteenth century London: “The story appeared to me to be a window on the lives of the poor at a period of great change: a window that is badly damaged – opaque in places, blocked out or shattered in others – but offering a glimpse of those who have left little authentic trace of themselves” (Wise, 2005; p. xvii). It is true that you have to use archives creatively in order to find out about the lives of the poor in the past, but this might be the most creative method I’ve come across. Whilst I’m not sure it is representative of the lives of the vast majority of London’s poor, it does provide an insight into the society in which they struggled to survive.
The Italian Boy strikes a good balance between academic rigour and popular appeal. Wise tells the story of the London burkers well, but also uses it to look at broader themes in a way that is more common in academic journal articles or books. If you are interested in the history of London, crime and the criminal justice system, or indeed the development of modern healthcare, then I recommend you give it a go.
Most people have probably never heard of John Wilkes, but in the eighteenth century he was one of London’s most popular radicals. On the 10th May 1768, soldiers opened fire on some of his supporters outside the King’s Bench Prison in Southwark where Wilkes was being held. 6 or 7 people were killed, including bystanders, in an event that would become known as the Massacre of St. George’s Fields.
John Wilkes was a radical MP, and in June 1762 he started a newspaper, The North Briton, which was very critical of both the government and the monarchy. He was protected by parliamentary privilege, which means that MPs have legal immunity for things they do or say in the course of their duties. This only protected Wilkes up to a point, however, and he eventually went too far, publishing a poem that the House of Lords deemed to be obscene and blasphemous. They started the process of expelling Wilkes from the House of Commons, which would have removed his parliamentary privilege and left him open to prosecution. Wilkes fled to Paris before this could happen. In his absence he was found guilty of obscene and seditious libel and declared an outlaw on the 19th of January 1764.
Wilkes hoped that a change of government would lead to the charges against him being dropped. He ran out of money before that happened, however, and had to return to England. He wasn’t immediately arrested, as the government feared it would only increase his support base. Wilkes was elected as MP for Middlesex, but in April decided to waive his parliamentary privilege and hand himself over to the court of the King’s Bench. He was sentenced to 10 months in prison and given a £500 fine.
Wilkes was taken to the King’s Bench Prison in Southwark, on the edge of a large open space called St. George’s Field (an area stretching from Waterloo Station to Borough High Street today). As news of Wilkes’ imprisonment spread, his supporters began to gather on St. George’s Fields. The numbers increased daily, and by the 10th of May there were around 15,000 people there. Fearful of the large crowd, four Justices of the Peace requested military support, and a detachment of Horse Grenadier Guards were sent. This only increased tensions, however, as the crowd taunted the soldiers.
A group of soldiers chased one man who was being particularly offensive into a nearby barn. They opened fire, killing William Allen, an innocent bystander. As news of Allen’s death spread, the situation on St. George’s Fields only got worse. The Riot Act was read and more soldiers were called for, amongst fears that the crowd would attempt to break Wilkes out of prison. The crowd began to throw stones at the soldiers, who opened fire. In total, 6 or 7 people were killed, including another innocent bystander, and about 15 people were injured. Admittedly this isn’t a large number of casualties, but at the time it was quite significant. Understandably afraid for their lives, the crowd on St. George’s Field broke up, but as news of what had happened spread through London, sporadic rioting broke out across the city.
Two soldiers were charged with the murder of William Allen, but they were not convicted. Allen’s father presented a petition to parliament asking for justice for his son, which led to a debate about whether the government, who had supported the soldiers, was too oppressive. Nothing came of it though. In a letter to some of his supporters in America, Wilkes suggested that the massacre may have been pre-planned by the government, although there is no evidence of this. Wlkes was released from prison in March 1770. He was re-elected as an MP several times, and each time Parliament expelled him. Instead, he was appointed a Sheriff of London, becoming Lord Mayor in 1774. During the 1780 Gordon Riots, Wilkes fought against the rioters, which significantly damaging his reputation with the people and other radicals.
John Wilkes was a champion of anti-government feeling and the right to free speech. His popularity with the people of London terrified the authorities, which may explain why the situation on St. George’s Fields escalated so quickly. Or, it could just be an example of poor policing exacerbating a crowd, which has happened on many other occasions. Either way, it was a dramatic and deadly episode in the constant struggle between the authorities and the people for London’s streets.
Sources and Further Reading
German, Lindsey, and John Rees. A People’s History of London. London: Verso, 2012.
Harris, Sean. “The Massacre of St. George’s Fields and the Petition of William Allen.” UK Parliament. Last modified 31 October 2016, accessed 23rd April 2019. Available at https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/petitions-committee/petition-of-the-month/the-massacre-of-st-georges-fields-and-the-petition-of-william-allen-the-elder/
Simkin, John. “St. George’s Fields Riot.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified August 2014, accessed 23rd April 2019. Available at https://spartacus-educational.com/LONstgeorge.htm
TeachingHistory.org. “Boston’s Bloody Affray.” No date, accessed 7th May 2019. Available at https://teachinghistory.org/history-content/ask-a-historian/23472
White, Jerry. London in the Eighteenth Century: A Great and Monstrous Thing. London: The Bodley Head, 2012.
Wikipedia. “Massacre of St George’s Fields.” Last modified 15th March 2019, accessed 23rd April 2019. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Massacre_of_St_George%27s_Fields
Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past, with a particular focus of women, whose contribution to history is often overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. Next up is Emily Faithfull, a women’s rights activist and publisher
Many discussions about women’s rights in the second half of the nineteenth century focus on the campaign for the right to vote. However, there were other parallel campaigns related to women’s legal and employment rights. Emily Faithfull was a publisher and activist who supported the suffrage campaign, but was more concerned with fighting for gender equality in the world of work.
Emily Faithfull was born on 27 May 1835 in Surrey. She was the youngest of 8 children, and her father was a reverend. Her family were clearly relatively high status, as she was presented at court in 1857, a ceremony associated with turning 18 that was reserved for elites and those with royal connections.
Emily joined the Langham Place Circle, a group of prominent women who advocated for legal, educational, and employment reform for women. Other members included Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, Emily Davies, and Bessie Rayner Parks. The group founded the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women (or SPEW, although not to be confused with Hermione Granger’s Society for the Protect of Elfish Welfare in the Harry Potter series); Emily Faithfull was Secretary.
In 1860, Emily founded an all-female publishers with the goal of expanding employment opportunities for women. The Victoria Press quickly gained a good reputation, and the following year was appointed printer and publisher in ordinary to Queen Victoria. Emily’s actions greatly upset the London Printer’s Union, who argued that women weren’t strong or intelligent enough for typesetting work. Between 1860 and 1866, the Press published the English Woman’s Journal, a feminist monthly periodical discussing women’s employment and other equality issues. From 1863 until 1881, the press published the monthly Victoria Magazine, which also advocated for women’s employment. Emily was a prolific journalist as well as a publisher; she wrote for the Victoria Magazine, the Lady’s Pictorial and the Pall Mall Gazette.
In January 1864, Emily published the first annual report of the Ladies London Emancipation Society. The Victoria Press would go on to publish more material for this group. 1864 was a difficult year for Emily, however. She was implicated in the scandalous and very public divorce of Admiral Henry Codrington and Helen Jane Smith Codrington. The exact role Emily played was never revealed, but the gossip was damaging enough. Her reputation suffered, and she was shunned by the Langham Place Circle.
Emily’s social isolation didn’t stop her campaigning, however. In 1868, she published a novel, Change Upon Change, a tragic romance that emphasised the need for women’s education. She was also a successful lecturer, giving talks to further the interests of women. This included two tours of America, in 1872 and 1882. In 1875, she joined the Women’s Trade Union League.
Emily moved to Manchester in her later years, and died on 31st May 1895. Throughout her life, she used speech, print, and her own business to argue that women deserved, and were capable of, a much wider range of employment than was accessible to them at the time. She deserves to be remembered as one of the pioneers of British feminism.
Sources and Further Reading
Simkin, John. “Emily Faithfull.” Last modified January 2015, accessed 3rd April 2019. Available at https://spartacus-educational.com/Wfaithfull.htm
Wikipedia, “Emily Faithfull.” Last modified 7th January 2019, accessed 3rd April 2019. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emily_Faithfull