Thomas Erskine – Georgian Animal Rights Activist

“They are created indeed for our use, but not for our abuse.”

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A young Thomas

After 1815, the British were much more likely to condemn animal cruelty, especially towards horses and dogs, who were very much their favourites. Dogs were pets and horses were visible in the streets being clearly overburdened. Donkeys received some sympathy, especially when they were yoked to carts to avoid paying fees when going through toll gates.

Opposition to animal cruelty had a few roots; a new emphasis on human feeling ; religion; and social prejudice. The barbaric sports of the vicious lower orders needed to be eliminated. As this article from the Bath Chronicle ( 1810) shows, motives were mixed

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“Throwing at Cocks” did what it said. A cock was tethered to a post and people threw stones at it. The winner was the one who finally killed it. Mayor of Bath John Palmer- the man who also invented Britain’s first efficient Post Office- opposed for humanitarian reasons, but one that has its basis in religion. There was no licence to treat even the meanest of God’s creatures in this way. It made you insensible to the sufferings of humanity. Both arguments resonate today and most people’s opposition to animal cruelty derive from one or both of these propositions.
Palmer fails to mention that many of the ruling class were worried by orchestrated examples of the lower orders enjoying themselves in this manner; but there is some indication here of a slight reformation in manners that was evident in the late Georgian period. It is also interesting that there was no assault on hare coursing or fox-hunting in the early nineteenth century; both as barbaric as cock throwing, but enjoyed exclusively by the upper classes.

Thomas, Lord Erskine was the “morning star” of the new movement to be kind to animals. He deserves much of the credit for changing deep-seated traditional views. It was he who tried to push  “A bill to prevent cruelty to brute animals”  through the House of Lords  in 1809.  His speech on the 15 May 1809 was perhaps the first speech in a British Parliament to put the intellectual case against animal  cruelty.

Like John Palmer and the leading citizens of Bath, part of Erskine’s argument was that prevention of cruelty was needed to redeem the lower orders- they, in their unthinking state, were responsible for much of the cruelty and were the hardest to reform- the law was needed as they would not be capable of doing it themselves. Erskine was referring to the mistreatment of dogs and horses; he deliberately omitted bull-baiting and cock throwing from his bill because he knew that too many Lords believed that these activities encouraged manly vigour.

These unmanly and disgusting outrages are most frequently perpetrated by the basest and most worthless; incapable, for the most part, of any reproof which can reach the mind, and who know no more of the law, than that it suffers them to indulge their savage dispositions with impunity.”

When animal abusers were challenged, according to Lord Erskine- “ what is it to you?”- was their answer. In order to refute this argument, Erskine had to reject two key Georgian beliefs; the immunity of the servant when ordered to do something  by a master; and that owning a creature was a justification for any kind of treatment. His denial of the absolute right of a property was radical for the time. His 1809 speech called it a “stupid defence”

Erskine used theological arguments too. Mankind, despite his “ God- like qualities” would be helpless without the contribution of animals. They were creatures created by God, and the dominion over the animals that is declared in Genesis is not a carte blanche to do anything. The very usefulness of the lower creatures was perfect evidence that they were a gift from God’s creation; looking after them was a trust and abusing them was a sin- there was already a Georgian society called the Society against the Sin of Cruelty to Dumb Animals

Animals had rights because they were created with similar features to humans. This did not imply equality, but inequality was no justification for abuse”

Almost every sense bestowed upon man is equally bestowed upon them; seeing, hearing, feeling, thinking; the sense of pain and pleasure; the passions of love and anger; sensibility to kindness, and pangs from unkindness and neglect, are inseparable characteristics of their natures as much as of our own”

Erskine was not a vegetarian. He did not imbue animals with the same characteristics of man, but did not see this a justification for their suffering;

They have, besides, no knowledge of the future, and their end, when appropriated fitly for our food, is without prolonged suffering.”

Although Erskine had intellectual agreements in favour of kindness to animals, he also liked them to an extent that modern readers would recognise. In 1811, he rescued a dog from the street that was about to be killed by some boys. He had his own adored Newfoundland dog, Toss, who he taught to do tricks. He had a macaw, a goose that followed him around and two leeches who he believed had saved his life in a medical procedure. He gave the leeches names, could distinguish between them and believed that they knew and liked him. So he was “guilty” of anthropomorphism way before it became popular.

Erskine’s Bill failed in the Commons on two occasions in 1809 and 1810. It was lost very narrowly in the Commons, because too many members were worried that horse racing and fox hunting would be next on the list.

Despite the defeat, Erskine predicted that future generations would treat the lower orders of animals with more respect. He did not have to wait long. The first animal protection law ( for cattle) was passed in 1821; an organisation for the protection of animals, the forerunner of the RSPCA, was formed in 1824. The crude Georgian attitudes to living creatures were passing.

Further reading
International Vegetarian Union
https://ivu.org/history/england19a/erskine.html

My book (Out November 2017, Pen and Sword Books)

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https://www.amazon.co.uk/Dark-Days-Georgian-Britain-Rethinking/dp/1526702541/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1498384239&sr=1-3&keywords=James+Hobson

Twitter
@about1816
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The Last Luddite Executions; April 17th 1817.

The Luddite were victims of press vilification two hundred years ago, and the tradition continues. They were much more than mindless machine breakers, although they did attack both property and people. These machines were destroying skilled jobs and emboldening the master manufacturers to treat their workers with contempt. The Luddites may have been wrong in their belief that they could hold back technological change, but they were organised and principled people who were trying to restore some social justice.

“Luddite” is used here as a badge of honour rather than a term of abuse.

With the help of the excellent ludditebicentenary.blogspot.co.uk I have written a brief history of the events leading to the last executions. It is here;

http://ludditebicentenary.blogspot.co.uk/2017/04/james-hobson-last-luddite-executions.html

The primary sources, covering the whole period, are highly recommended!

“Your Grace cannot be admitted in trousers” Almack’s in the Regency

 

Almack’s, a set of assembly rooms in King Street, St James, was the very centre of the fashionable and beautiful Regency world. It consisted on two large and two smaller rooms for dancing and facilities for music and a place for some rather unprepossessing food. During the summer season, finishing in mid July, there would be balls with music, with the occasional concert and masque.

Almack’s could hold about 800 people when completely and intolerably full, but most balls would attract about 400 people. This was a similar number to the other balls organised by the aristocracy, but there were none more important than Almack’s. To gain admittance to Almack’s  was to have made it to the very top of Regency society. The Morning Post would publish a weekly list of the upcoming social occasions dancing, music, tea and cards, conversazione and routs ( drinks receptions). There would be many each day, but people mostly avoided Wednesday as that when Almack’s would be open during the season. The top 400 people would be there, no matter what sumptuous brilliance was on offer at your James Street address.

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Almack’s membership  was mostly by annual subscription. You asked to join; or to be more precise, you asked for a licence, priced around £10 a year and waited. You would not be contacted by the aristocratic women who ran it. You would sent your servant around to see if there was a ticket for you or a curt refusal and no reason given or correspondence entered into. Most people would not even bother to apply; those who gained a licence would  live in fear of it being withdrawn. The £10 licence was designed to be so low to prove that this was not about the money .

Merely being rich and famous was not enough to guarantee you entry. Despite being the target audience being those who made the laws, nobody could gain entrance after 11pm. This was a time when parties started late, opening   at ten with supper and one in the morning   and calling your carriage to go home at 6am was normal.

In March 1819,  the Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh and the victor of Waterloo, Wellington failed to gain entry into the establishment at 11.05 pm, despite Castlereagh’s own wife Emily being one of the phalanx of society ladies who decided who got in and who didn’t. The aristocratic ladies in charge would meet every Wednesday afternoon to revise the list of who was going in this week.

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What did this elite establishment provide? There were two large rooms roped off for dancing and before 1812, rustic   Scottish country dances and reels   were  most common. In 1813 the waltz was introduced, causing some moral consternation at first and later there was an emphasis on the quadrille. Rooms would be very brightly illuminated to allow people to see each other carefully in the place that was almost the bon ton tindr of its day. There would be artificial flowers in great number and perhaps an exotic foreign theme depending on the fashion of the time. Other balls were just as lavish, and the food was often better, but they were not Almacks. Dancing would start at 11.30 with supper at 1.30 and home time would be a relatively early   3.30 am.

 The Duke of Wellington was refused entry on another occasional when he arrived in trousers rather than knee breeches, even though he was wearing the required white cravat and three pointed  silk chapeau bras. He walked away without protest; he did not hold a grudge against the club as her later suggested that the hold a ball in fancy dress without masks of any time. In June 1817, 800 people turned up to a fancy dress with the themes of the “costumes of all nations”. Wellingtom may have invented the English fancy dress ball.

It was a marriage market to some extent, although less so than other gatherings as the bar was so high. Nobody was allowed to bring a friend everybody had to be vetted. This mock serious poem of the time describes a woman trying to break into society.

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One major beneficiary of Almack’s was the orchestra leader James Paine.  He capitalised on the fame of Almack’s by publishing the music for the quadrilles, but also producing fans that were illustrated with the moves needed to perform the quadrille for those whose dancing skills did not match their social ambitions. Whether you could look at your fan and dance at the same time is a moot point. Mr Paine’’ Band ( “Paine’s of Almacks”) also rented themselves out to add lustre to less prestigious events. Paine advertised in London but also in Taunton and Worcester so it seems clear that you were meant to buy the music and the fans and produce your own Almack’s- style entertainment in your own more modest residence.   

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The Reverend Isaac Williamson – did Jane Austen know him?

The Reverend Isaac Williamson died on November 15th 1816, and a lot of jobs became available, because he had more than one. It was no scandal; it was money and connections that decided whether you made it in the Regency world of the Church of England. Some qualified people never gained a parish; others had more than one. It was just tough.

Isaac was not a historically important figure. This blog may be the first time his name is mentioned in a hundred years , but how his life developed tells us a great deal about a world we have mostly lost. He may have had some lasting literary influence, however!

He was the rector of Estrop, near Basingstoke   in Hampshire and Master of the Free School there. In an age of absentee and plural tenancies, he was also a   Chaplain, licensed for the instruction of men and boys at the Chapel of the Holy Ghost in Basingstoke.  He had other jobs. They are all listed in the C of E clergy database. He   was curate at Winslade, Tadley and Pamber in Hampshire .His salary as curate of Winslade was £25 a year and more than £ 40 from Estrop.  He received £35 for not being present at Pamber, due to the “shortage of accommodation” at Pamber. He was also “unable to find anywhere” to live in Tadley, but was able to pick up the stipend of £50 per year “plus Easter offerings”   Records seem to suggest that he did not provide a curate as a substitute for the places he could not be. Even for an age of pluralist and absentee clergy, this was “pushing it”.

How had Isaac become a Church of England   cleric?  He did a degree in Theology and either Cambridge or Oxford University; this is not stated anywhere; it was simply impossible to do so without this qualification.

 He had been educating young men for most of his career. This comes from 1795.image002

Lots of Church of England clerics had a private school as part of their income- Jane Austen’s father   George Austen had a school at Steventon. From 1773 until 1796, he supplemented this income by teaching three or four boys at a time, who boarded at his home. Isaac may have done the same.

He died of a “severe affliction” in November and in March all of his possessions were sold over two days by Tolfree and Sons   the Auctioneers. The list tells us so much about the life of the gentlemen-farmer –vicar.

 His Alderney cow was auctioned; it was five and was having a calf in April; his other horse, his donkey, his other cow, his heifer   and his donkey cart. He had a carriage for sale, hopefully to get to all the places where he was in charge of people’s spiritual welfare. His brewing equipment, storage for beer and his drinking vessels; all   open to offers. His three beds and seven sets of bed sheets were up for sale ( It was common for the very wealthy to have many spare set of sheets so they could all be washed together and stored for future use). He had goose and down bed linen, so he had feathered his nest in the literal sense of the word. Isaac had dining and gaming tables, expensive carpets and   had just bought an eight day clock in a wainscot oak case produced by the desirable James Staples of Odiham. The whole inventory took half a column of the Hampshire Chronicle.   

Isaac had a wife and children but his belongings were sold from under them. The details are hard to fathom, but it is clear that Isaac was bankrupt and all of his money went to pay his debts. It could have been his severe affliction that caused the bankruptcy; the number of respectable people who helped the family suggests it was not a moral weakness. I have not been able to find out.

 Mrs Williamson was incurably   blind and had been so for several years. Now she was a pauper; and the Church of England did absolutely nothing officially to help. It was all left to charity.

On the 17th July 1817, as Jane Austen was having her last day on earth   , this advertisement appeared in the Hampshire Chronicle. Despite the apparent ” J Williamson”, it is our Isaac.

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The clergy of Hampshire rallied around, including the Reverend James Austen, Jane’s older brother. If James   knew Isaac, then it is very likely that Jane had met him as well. Williamson had been a Hampshire cleric in the same decade as Jane was at Steventon, and it was a small world.

All three of her main fictional clergy- Elton, Grant and Collins- had strengths and weaknesses, but did Isaac have any influence on her characterisations? It would help if we knew more; we know that Williamson was rich; liked nice things and had a blind wife who he seemed to have made no consideration for. Is it   possible that Isaac Williamson is Mr Collins, interested in money more than anything? Or were there just so many clergy like this in   late Georgian era. We do not know what severe affliction killed the Reverend Williamson-perhaps it was similar to the digestive complaints that kept the Rev James from attending his own sister’s funeral- but the misery for the widow continued.

Mrs Williamson was now poor and blind. She became a widow of Morley’s College, Winchester, which despite its name was an alms house for ten widows of Church of England whose husbands died in post working for the Winchester diocese.  By 1818 £430 had been raised, of which £161 had been paid out to pay for “ H Williamson” to be apprenticed to a surgeon in Winchester-presumably a son. This was a prestigious appointment; Williamson was a great man; we just don’t know whether he was a good man or if he has appeared in any Regency novels…

Life didn’t improve for Mrs Williamson. In 1819 further advertisement in the paper raised a subscription for her to be lodged in a “ cheap lunatic asylum” That was another £138. Life was all about the money, even more than now, perhaps

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Women’s rights and rape; a breakthrough in 1811 and a lesson for 2016?

Two hundred years ago, rape was a capital crime and dealt with very severely. However, convictions were rare because of the nature of the questions that the women could be asked and the likelihood, as in other cases, that witnesses would be paid to defame those giving evidence.
There was a case in 1811. William Hodgson was found guilty of the “ravishment” of nineteen year old Harriet Halliday. Her evidence was strong; witnesses had seen her dragged into a stable by Hodgson; a local surgeon had heard her screams, rescued her afterwards and financed the prosecution against Hodgson. Halliday was a servant, and would not have the money to prosecute Hodgson herself; another weakness of  the regency justice system.

After Harriet had given her evidence in support of the prosecution she was cross examined by the prisoner’s counsel. In the face of such strong evidence, Hodgson’s defence became aggressive. They called Halliday’s former employer and were about to ask why she had discharged the servant after a mere two weeks work, they were stopped by Baron Wood. The judge ruled this and told it was not relevant to the case. Then the defence asked her whether she had had any “connection” with any boy in the past. Judge Baron Wood then made a novel and important ruling;

The learned judge allowed the objection on the ground that witness was not bound to answer these questions as they to criminate and disgrace herself and said that he there was not any exception to the rule in the case  of  rape

The prisoner’s counsel called witnesses and among others a witness to prove that the girl had been caught in bed a year before this charge with a young man
This second piece of evidence was ruled inadmissible and Harriet’s evidence stood. The new rule (called Hodgson) was extended in 1817 to attempted rape and although it did not ban general questions about the women’s lifestyle, it did rule inadmissible specific ones, such as were asked in this case.

The court was utterly aghast at these comments. One lawyer commented that his main method of attack in these cases had been taken away from him. It turned out to be a turning point in women’s legal rights in cases of sexual assault.

Until now?

“He was still bleeding when he was put in his coffin”. John Lees is killed, 1819.

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“Briton’s strike home”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

He told me he was the Battle of Waterloo, but he was never in such danger as at this meeting, for at Waterloo it was man to man, but in Manchester it was downright murder”………..William Harrison, 27th September 1819, Inquest of John Lees

John Lees, born about 1797, was the son of a successful cotton master, Robert Lees, of Oldham. He started spinning for his father aged about 14, but in 1812 he suddenly enrolled into the army that was fighting Napoleon. We don’t know why, but the reasons was never good. It might have been a family problem; his father was a formidable figure; however, he fought in France and was at Waterloo, and at the age of 19 he was an “old soldier”, demobilised by the state who had no further need for him, and grudgingly accepted by his father in his former job as a cotton spinner. This was an unsentimental age about children’s work, and it is clear that John had to work. He also shared a bed with his half brother, Thomas Whittaker, and lived less than a hundred yards from his spinning machine.

On Monday 16th August, he did not appear at work until past six o’clock in the evening and his father was angry. John had been to the mass protest for the reform of Parliament at St Peter’s Field. His father was angry; the meeting, though legal, came with warnings from the authorities about the danger; he had done no work today and was clearly in no fit state to do any this evening. He send his son angrily to report to the overseer, as John held his bloodied head and injured arm. John decided to minimize his injuries to his father, who was in any case, not interested

John was to continue as normal for a few days. A few days later he was to be seen in the pub, neither drunk nor sober, but in the phrase of a friend  “ lightish”. He offered to show people the wound on his left arm. John, as normal, stuck to beer and brandy with water, he was never a big drinker and never took spirits.

It took a week before he started to refuse drinks and then he started throwing up his food. He was constantly hot; his wound was not healing and his left arm and leg were numb. His left foot went purple. By Thursday 2ndSeptember   he took to his bed and never got up again, dying in the early hours of the morning of 6th September, blind in one eye, lame, retching with a putrid wound on his left elbow and his lungs suffocated with fluid.

How had John Lees died? He was killed by the malice and incompetence of the magistrates of  Manchester, who ordered the amateur, angry and intoxicated Manchester Yeomanry cavalry to charge the 80,000 crowd  of which John was a member on Monday 16th August. He had travelled, walking stick in hand to negotiate the rough cobbles between Oldham and Manchester, and arrived just before the main speech at 1pm. He was surrounded by women and children, out for the day to support a cause they believed in. They were the weavers and factory workers of Manchester and surrounding towns whose standard of living had collapsed over the last two years and now believed that reform of political representation was part of the solution.

It was decided by the magistrates to arrest Henry Hunt, the main speaker, and that the army was needed to do this. Unfortunately for the 400 crushed and 11 killed, the first people to get the order where the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry, who hated the protesters and were  hated back in return. They slashed their way through the crowd with the newly sharpened swords, and John was one of their victims. At his inquest, witnesses saw him sabred by the soldiers on the arm, then beaten by the special constables   and trampled by a horse. He was one of hundreds. He  limped away back to Oldham. He expected no sympathy from his father, but his worried mother watched him decline and die.  Betty Ireland, a servant, saw the bruises and festering wounds; he was bleeding internally when he died..” he was still bleeding when they put him in his coffin”

The government inquest was a farce. The assertion that John had died from wounds received at Peterloo were not believed; it was argued that his drinking and failure to see a doctor were the real cause. As the Inquest drew to an inevitable conclusion of deliberate killing, it was discovered that the Coroner had made procedural errors; he had not viewed the body at the same time as the jurors; he had not sworn in the jury himself , as he had not bothered to turn up for the first two days. The Inquest was cancelled and no verdict was reached. As it was a “mistake”, the government forgave the coronor, but it meant that there was no justice for John Lees, or any other victim of Peterloo.

 

Remembering Peterloo

View of St Peter's Place, 1819

I’m writing this on the anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre, which took place here in Manchester on August 16th 1819.

The events of that day took place on St Peter’s Fields, close to the present day site of the former Free Trade Hall.

Much has been written about Peterloo. It is a significant event in the history of democracy. Similar events continue to take place on the world stage. It has an international dimension.
While it’s an important chapter in Manchester’s story, it’s more than local history.

Maxine Peake recently performed the poet Shelley’s work The Masque of Anarchy, written in response to the shocking events of that day. Today, on the anniversary, she will read the names of those who died. Eighteen died and as many as seven hundred were injured when the cavalry charged the crowd. They had gathered to listen to the orator Henry Hunt. Intended…

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Who shot Edward Vyse in the head? The Corn Law Riots, 1815

In 1815 the soldiers and sailors won the war against Napoleon but the government handed the victory to the landlords. They had profited from the high price of   grain during the war blockade, and so the government passed the Corn Law to forbid the import of Wheat until it reached 80 shilling a bushel. This was a de facto ban; it meant that the aristocrats could continue to benefit from high prices and the high rents that they supported.  It was passed by the Commons and Lords with the building surrounded by bayonets. The poor of London rioted because they knew that, having had 20 years of high food prices and poverty, the end of the war was not going to make their life easier.

The rioters were politically literate and aimed for the houses of those MPs who had actively supported the Corn Law. None of them died but their property was severely damaged. Two innocent bystanders did outside the house of Frederick John Robinson MP in Old Burlington Street. From earlier evening on a Tuesday his house was surrounded by a mob of about 60 throwing .Robinson was paying the price of introducing the Corn Bill to Parliament. However, his price was less than that of nineteen year old midshipman Edward Vyse, who was walking past the house and was hit with a shot from the pistol that was designed to scare the mob of boys outside. He died immediately at the scene.

Although this was a partisan class based piece of legislation, the rule of law meant that there would be an inquest, and an attempt to find the killer. One witness at the inquest was an Edward Howe, a messenger at the Board of Trade who asked one of the mob if he feared the soldiers shooting at them-“No, they dare not fire ball” he replied. It is clear that the rioters did not think they were living in a despotic state where the military fired at civilians.  Perhaps he also though that the firing of lethal shot was not part of the traditional choreography of the urban riot.

On the second day of the inquest a Corporal   Richard Burton gave evidence about the action of the six soldiers stationed there. The officer himself stressed that he was taking the advice of the constable, the civil power, and they both agreed to fire powder only. At eight thirty, when most of the Right Honourable member’s windows had been broken and his shutters were under attack, the soldiers opened fire, bit the balls of their cartridges so they were only producing smoke, and the young “rioters” cheered.

In this case, the cheerful rioters were wrong. About 10pm Edward Vyse, aged about 18, a navy midshipman, was shot in the head by persons unknown who were defending the Robinson house. Edward had been walking past the house, not towards it, in full uniform; there was no rioting or disturbances at that time-lots of witnessed attested to this. He had been killed instantly by a single cartridge ball from a pistol. A witness saw a soldier in the parlour wearing a foraging cap, who seemed to be responsible for the death. There were two other shots.

Corporal Burton admitted that there was at least one soldier with a foraging cap in the parlour at the time of Vyse’s death. There seemed to have been a real contradiction in evidence here; a soldier had fired under duress from the mobs attack at 8.30- but Edward Vyse had been killed at ten while he was merely passing the house, not trying to enter it. He father, a respectable artisan printer appeared as a sorrowful witness, backing up this narrative of events. The jury, clearly knowledgeable about these inquests, asked the coroner to keep the soldiers separate from Burton until the inquest continued. The Coroner regretted that he had no such power to do so.

Evidence from the Butler, James Ripley, suggested it seems that the fatal shot had not come from a military weapon but from rifles belonging to the household that had been loaded with the day before. Around 9pm an unidentified soldier had borrowed the rifle from Ripley and it was this that had been discharged into the street at about 10pm at Edward Vyse.

Corporal Burton could not offer any information about which of the six privates had fired the shot, so they we questioned individually. The witness George Ulph, private in the third regiment of Guards, was issued with 21 rounds of ball which he returned the next morning. He had not even fired shot. William Graves had returned all but one of his cartridges; he still had the balls he had bitten off in his pocket at home.

 With four soldiers left, the coroner separated those who had been nearest to the shooting from those who had been further way, and those further away were interrogated. These two could account for their ammunition, had never seen the man in the foraging cap, and were dismissed. Mathews and Herbert were clearly in the frame.

It proved impossible to prove who did the shooting. The Jury’s verdict was that Vyse was unlawfully murdered by persons unknown, and that the actions of the military were unconstitutional, as they had permission neither to enter   the house nor fire on the civilians outside.

James Ripley, the butler who provided pistols, Mathews and Herbert who were nearest the parlour and Richard Burton the corporal in charge must have breathed a sigh of guilty relief.

 

 

Let them eat stale bread. The diet of the poor in the Regency

Britain was running out of bread in 1800.The Napoleonic blockade was beginning to have an effect and British domestic production had not yet started to increase. Bread filled the bellies of the poor; children had dry bread for breakfast; workers had bread and cheese for their lunch; the workers wife’s had bread and lard ; drinkers had a salted herring and a slice of bread in the pub; everybody had  bread was the main accompaniment for scraps of bacon. Only on Sunday afternoon did bread not rule the house.

Something needed to be done, so in 1801 the government passed the Stale Bread Act. This did not, as the name may suggest, ban the sale of bread that was old and hard. Indeed it was the opposite; it was fresh bread that was banned. Bakers had to keep all loaves for 24 hours before selling them. This logic here was sound, but brutal. Stale bread did fill people up more, and added about 20% to the stomach filling capacity of the loaf. The government believed that up to 50% of all bread sold in the streets of London was hot, and eaten immediately as a snack. This indulgence by the poor could no longer be allowed

Bread consumption fell. Stale bread was also less pleasant to eat, so the government was also able to stop poor people being greedy. However, the Act lasted less than a year. Like many governmental panic measures through the ages, it turned out to be impossible to enforce. The government did try; they had draconian punishments for bakers and offered rewards to people offered fresh bread. They would receive half of the 5 shilling fine; the other half would be given to the poor. A second offence would mean that the bailiffs would take all   of the baker’ property. Many criminals made a living entrapping bakers into breaking the law.  

News of the arrest of bakers was always popular. People were very suspicious of them throughout the eighteenth century.  They were accused of   giving short weights (hence the bakers dozen being 13). Local city authorities, not usually ready to interfere in business, were more than happy to raid bakers and check their weights and measures. Some towns like Derby insisted that the bakers put their initials into each loaf so the bakers could be tracked down if necessary.

People did not, as a rule bake their own bread, so the bakers had a near monopoly. Most fireplaces in Britain were calamitously   inefficient   and it made no economic   sense to use fuel to bake at home. By 1800 poor people could no longer buy small amounts of flour at a reasonable price, as it was more profitable for millers, who were as unpopular as the bakers, to sell it to middlemen.

Bread consumption was reduced by people starving and living off other staples. The potato was unpopular; some people still believed that it was poisonous   and many resented the link with the Catholic Irish. It was regarded as watery and tasteless; outside of Lancashire, it was merely boiled to death. The North West had the advantage of a potato   industry in from the early eighteenth century, and then later on, am Irish diaspora which knew slight more about the tuber through regular and monotonous contact.

 By 1812, large numbers of farmers in Scotland were saved from death by the potato, and the working classes of Manchester were living off potatoes, bread, bacon, gruel, tea and beer- a similar diet to the Irish farmer, who had the same but probably a little more milk.

 Millers and bakers were still the scapegoats after 1815, when the government artificially maintained the price of wheat by banning imports until the price reached a level that could maintain aristocratic rents and profits. Most   rural riots in the period 1815-1817 would converge on the millers. Armed with sharpened agricultural implements, they would demand that prices returned to an earlier level. In towns, sellers in the markets would have their food stolen as a protest at the price. The normal cry was   “Bread or Blood” , often with a loaf on a stick as a symbol of the problem and a way of breaking windows.

 

Killed by Beer; the Meux brewery flood of 1814

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At about 5.30 pm on Monday October 17th 1814, a clerk inspected the huge vat of Porter- a strong black beer- at Meux’s Brewery, near the Tottenham Court Road in London. A large iron hoop supporting the outsize barrel had fallen off an hour earlier; however, there was no real concern- this had happened before. The barrel was huge – the size of a two storey building. And, as it turned out later, rotting away.

The huge fermenting barrel then exploded, and a million pints of beer, mixed with bricks and timber, streamed through the brewery at waist height and spread into the nearby streets of New Street and George Street. The lethal stream of beer, beer fumes, bricks and wood filled the basement cellars of New Street where people where having their tea, and destroyed three houses in George Street. Bricks from the brew house also rained down on New Street. The explosion weakened the facades if the houses and the inundation destroyed the walls, partitions and roof supports.

Eleanor Cooper, aged about 14 was working in the Tavistock Arms public house at 22 George Street. She was scouring pots and pans at a water pump when she was drowned by the incoming wave or crushed by a collapsing 25 foot wall. The beer wave filled the cellar first and then smashed into the yard where she was working. She was found at 8.20, clinging to a water-butt. The Surgeon Ogle was present to help but Eleanor was quite dead.

The newspapers added to the distress by lamenting that 60 pans were smashed beyond recognition. Early newspaper reports gave Eleanor’s age as 10; while this turned out to be incorrect, it did not seem implausible to the press that ten-year old would be working as a servant in the pub. Other reports suggest she was nearer 16; once again the lack of knowledge shows how important a young woman like this was to Regency Society. Her body was sent to the local workhouse and her aged was settled at a guess of 14.

At the partially demolished 3 New Street, the body of the child Sarah Bates was discovered at 1 am in the morning. She was between 3 and four years old .This was part of a heroic campaign by the locals and the brewery servants to locate bodies in the rubble. As today, there were constant calls for silence as people listened to noises from the destroyed buildings. The local working class poor behaved well throughout.

In another part of the house, a Mary Banfield, wife of a coal heaver, her daughter and another child was   having tea and the wave of beer washed the mother out of a tenement window and pushed the daughter into another room, where she was smashed into a partition and killed. Her name was Hannah Banfield and she was about 4 years old; the other child was found nearly suffocated but alive; the mother was sent to the Middlesex Hospital in a serious state but eventually recovered.

Most of the deaths were in New Street.  This was the home of many poor, predominantly Irish families, many of whom lived in cellar dwellings.  At midnight, the corpse of Elizabeth Smith was found on the first floor of one of the two houses in New Street that was completely destroyed.  Elizabeth was a 27 year old bricklayer’s wife. Elizabeth had been in the cellar of No 2 New Street with other local Irish at a wake for a child who had died 2 days before. He was John Saville and his mother Ann Saville was one of the victims. Ann was found floating but drowned in the actual brew house itself at 7.30 on the first evening; her house was immediately behind the brewery.

She was placed with her son in one of the 5 black coffins put in the open air to solicit donations for the funeral of these victims who were drowned in the cellar-   Mary Mulvey (30), her son by an earlier marriage, Thomas Murray (3) and Catherine Butler , a widow(65) . There were no adult men in the cellar for the wake of John Saville; however, if the explosion had happened two hours later, the men would have  been back from work. However, John Saville, wife of Ann, John Bates, father of Sarah and Thomas Smith, husband of Elizabeth, were present at the coffins of their loved ones. They formed, according to the papers “a doleful group”

Anne and her child were buried at St Giles Churchyard on 21 October and the other coffins lay a bit longer at the Ship Inn, Banbury Street, were £33 was raised for their burial.

This was more than enough money for pauper funerals; however the money was more or less extorted from the crowd rather than being a charitable donation. It was more of an entrance fee; two police offers were stationed at the door with a plate in hand to collect sixpences and shillings.  The money was to be used for the general welfare of the local poor too, who had lost an estimated £3000 in property- which puts the £33 into some perspective.

The local working poor who survived were soon forgotten; and the backlash began a little. On October 25th the Bury and Norwich Post reported that the “lower class of Irish” that lived in the area were seen by Wednesday “busy employed putting their claim to their share…every vessel from kettle to cask were used…many were seen enjoying their share at the expense of the proprietor”

However, there was, on the whole a lack of victim blaming in this case. Many of the reports of drunkenness and beer looting do not originate from the primary descriptions and I was unable to find the claims of about the Irish repeated in any other papers. The newspaper could-shock horror- have invented the story to pander to the prejudices of its readership.

By November, the emphasis continued to turn away from the victims. The inquest jury at St Giles workhouse had taken only a few moments to declare that the eight were killed “accidently, and by misfortune”   The newspapers reported with relief that the Horseshoe Brewery of Henry Meux was insured, and that in November 1814 the company successfully asked the Treasury for the rebate of £7664   of excise duties that had already been paid for the beer

Another £800 in aid was raised in the next two months from local people, including a substantial donation from the Young Brewery at Wandsworth. Meux’s brewery made no contribution. The victims were, after all, merely the poor, and the Irish poor at that.