Untold lives blog

84 posts categorized "Crime"

30 June 2020

Remembering the Vere Street Coterie: a story of gay community, a police raid and library censorship

During Pride Month especially, it is vital that we remember the injustices and hardships faced by the British gay community over the centuries.  On 8 July 1810, the lives of a group of gay men in London were turned upside down.

The Bow Street Runners, an early version of the police force, launched a surprise raid on the White Swan in Vere Street, a molly house.  Many were arrested, six were convicted of sodomy and two others were later hanged.  This has become known as one of, if not the most, brutal public punishments of gay men in British history.

In 1813 a lawyer called Robert Holloway tells the story, somewhat disapprovingly, in a book called The Phoenix of Sodom, or the Vere Street Coterie. The British Library has two copies of this book, and both were secreted away in the Private Case, a collection of forbidden books, as soon as they arrived.  

The Phoenix of SodomThe Phoenix of Sodom, or, The Vere Street Coterie. Sold by J. Cook, at and to be had of all the booksellers, 1813.  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Homosexual activity was illegal and heavily prosecuted during the 19th century.  Gay men were treated with derision and disgust, and their punishment often involved public humiliation.  Molly houses were meeting places for gay men.  They were taverns, public houses, coffee houses and brothels where men could meet, socialise and find sexual partners.  Gay couples could even get married.  Even though same-sex marriage was not legalised in the United Kingdom until 2014, unofficial ceremonies were conducted at the White Swan by a minister called John Church, arguably the first openly gay ordained Christian minister in England.  Needless to say, visiting these places was risky.

On 8 July 1810, amidst the chaos and panic, the Bow Street Runners arrested many men at the White Swan.  Six were charged with sodomy: William Amos, whose alias was Sally Fox, Philip Kett, William Thomson, Richard Francis, James Done and Robert Aspinall.  They were sentenced to an hour in the pillory and some were also sentenced to imprisonment.

On 27 September, the streets surrounding the Old Bailey were crammed with angry, self-righteous and moralistic people waiting with bated breath for the prisoners to appear.  The mob was armed with mud, the corpses of cats and dogs, rotten fish, spoiled eggs, dung and whatever else they could get their hands on.  Soon the men were bleeding and beaten insensible.

But the authorities didn’t stop there.  Two men who had visited the White Chapel in the past were betrayed by an informer and were sentenced to death.  They were Thomas White, a 16-year-old drummer of the Guards and John Newbolt Hepburn, a 42-year-old ensign in a West India regiment.  They were hanged at Newgate prison on 7 March 1811.

The terrible fate of these men, who became known as the Vere Street Coterie, terrorised the gay community in London.  Meanwhile, the mainstream press revelled in it, denouncing the men as “monsters” before the trial had even begun.  Raids like this were unfortunately all too common and were part of a general crackdown on immoral behaviour in the first half of the 19th century.

The British Museum Library was part of this; the Private Case collection was created in response to the Obscene Publications Act, which made the spread of obscene material illegal.  Library staff decided that The Phoenix of Sodom was obscene, obviously because it was about homosexuality, and locked both copies away.  Since then, they’ve been removed from the Private Case and restored to the general collection, where anybody can call them up and examine their account of a disturbing piece of our history.

Maddy Smith
Curator, Printed Heritage Collections

 

24 June 2020

A fraudulent shipwreck

When Commander John Porter heard of a case of shipwreck in the summer of 1843, there seemed to be nothing remarkable about the case.  Shipwrecks were common, and navigation in the Gulf could be dangerous.  But this shipwreck was different.  Porter went to offer what assistance he could to the stricken ship, the Mary Mallaby (also written Mary Mullaby).  He offered to assist Captain Charles Fisher with attempting to refloat his ship, which he thought would be possible.  Instead, Fisher rejected his offer, and insisted on selling the Mary Mallaby to the Shaikh of Qeshm.

Bandar Abbas from the sea

Bandar ‘Abbas from the sea - image from Philip Howard Colomb, Slave-Catching in the Indian Ocean (London, 1873) BL flickr

The ship’s log records that when the ship ran ashore, a ‘party of Arabs’ arrived in a small boat to offer assistance, but then refused to help by taking the anchor.  A few of them stayed on board overnight, but in the morning, they had vanished – along with two treasure boxes.

Fisher’s version of events differed markedly from that of the Shaikh of Bandar ‘Abbas.  Fisher claimed the Shaikh had refused to help, whereas the Shaikh claimed he had assisted as much as he was able to, given that it was the date harvesting season, and indeed countered that some of his offers of help had been refused.  Fisher even went so far as to object to the Shaikh sending the letter to Porter informing him about the wreck.

Brigantine by Oswald Walters Brierly - National Maritime Museum'A Brigantine' by Oswald Walters Brierly - image courtesy of National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London PAD9215 

Looking into the circumstances of the wreck carefully made Porter more suspicious.  The ship had run aground at a location that had been properly mapped, and yet Fisher had not let go the anchor early enough.  The incident had occurred during the afternoon, in calm, sunny weather.  He had then hoisted his sails, driving his ship further on shore.  Both the crew and the people watching on shore agreed that it looked deliberate.

Following the event, more facts began to emerge.  Fisher was seen in Muscat retrieving a chronometer and a sextant which he had left there before the incident, and which could have been damaged by the sudden impact of the wreck.  A traveller on the same ship to India as Fisher and his wife heard her say that her husband told her to hold tight just before they hit the shore.

Letter from the Chief Secretary at Bombay Castle  20 March 1844 to Captain Samuel Hennell  Resident in the Persian Gulf  giving his suspicions about Fisher

Letter from the Chief Secretary at Bombay Castle, 20 March 1844 to Captain Samuel Hennell, Resident in the Persian Gulf, giving his suspicions about Fisher IOR/R/15/1/102, f. 34r

The final piece of evidence came when two treasure boxes matching Fisher’s description were dredged up from the wreck site while the new owner of the Mary Mallaby, Sultan Thuwaini bin Sa’id, was looking for the anchor that had been lost.  These were carefully carried to be opened in the presence of the shaikhs of Bandar ‘Abbas and Qeshm, and all other local dignitaries, including Captain James Cromer of the Columbia.  Cromer described the opening of the boxes, and the astonishment of the room, when they were found to contain only copper dross ‘such as I have sometimes seen ships have for ballast’.  The opinion of the Bombay Government was clear: this was attempted fraud, and they conveyed as much to Fisher’s insurers.

Anne Courtney
Gulf History Cataloguer -British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership

Further reading:
The story of the Mary Mallaby is told over multiple files: IOR/R/15/1/100; IOR/R/15/1/102; IOR/R/15/1/103, which are all available on the Qatar Digital Library.

Articles about the insurance fraud case can be found in the British Newspaper Archive - also available from Findmypast.

 

22 June 2020

Solving a suffragette mystery – who was Miss Wolff van Sandau?

In 2019 a Women’s Social and Political Union medal was sold at auction in London.  It was awarded in 1912 to Elsie Wolff van Sandau in recognition of ‘ a gallant action, whereby through endurance to the last extremity of hunger and hardship, a great principle of political justice was vindicated’.

WSPU membership card from the scrapbook of Maud Arncliffe SennettWomen’s Social and Political Union membership card from the scrapbook of Maud Arncliffe Sennett


On 4 March 1912 Miss Wolff van Sandau broke a window of the post office in Howick Place, Victoria.  She was sentenced to two months’ hard labour in prison for wilful damage.

 

Arrest of Miss Wolff Van Sandau reported in 'Votes for Women' 29 March 1912
Votes for Women 29 March 1912 British Newspaper Archive

Miss Wolff van Sandau had previously been imprisoned in February 1907 after taking part in a suffragette deputation, and again in November 1910 when she was arrested in Parliament Square on ‘Black Friday’.

The name van Sandau rang bells with me.  We published a blog post featuring Lewis van Sandau of the Bengal Army who was shot dead when mistaken for a ghost.  I wondered if I could find a connection between our unfortunate officer and the suffragette.

There are references to both Elsie Wolff van Sandau and Mathilde (or Matilda) Wolff van Sandau in suffragette records, leading some to conclude that there were two sisters campaigning.  But I believe that there was only one Miss Wolff van Sandau.

Votes for Women published a brief biography in 1910 stating that ‘Miss Wolff von Sandau’ had worked for women’s suffrage for nearly 30 years.  She was a music teacher.  Her grandfather Reverend Dr Ernst Schwabe had been private chaplain to Queen Victoria’s mother.

Biographical note from 'Votes for Women'
Votes for Women 25 November 1910 British Newspaper Archive

I found the marriage in London in 1832 of Ernst Schwabe’s daughter Bethia Friedericke to Ernst Woolf, who was a flax manufacturer in Leeds.  In the early 1840s Ernst and Bethia moved with their children to Dresden in Germany.  Their daughter Elise Eugenie Mathilde Wolff was born there in 1843.

In the 1881 census Elise Eugenie M. Wolff is a music professor aged 37 living in Clapham, South London.  In 1891 she is listed in Kensington as Mathilda Wolff, pianist.

A newspaper advertisement in 1888 names her as Fraulein Mathilde Wolff of the Dresden Conservatoire.

Advertisement for the Hastings and St Leonards College of Music in The Hastings and St Leonards Observer 22 September 1888Advertisement for the Hastings and St Leonards College of Music in The Hastings and St Leonards Observer 22 September 1888 British Newspaper Archive

There are reports of her concerts, such as this one in 1888 at Collard’s Rooms in Grosvenor Street London.


Report of concert in 'The Era' 16 June 1888Report of concert at Collard’s Rooms in Grosvenor Street London The Era 16 June 1888 British Newspaper Archive

 

Miss Wolff advertised in newspapers for pupils and for lodgers. She entertained members of the Women’s Vegetarian Union at her home.

Meeting of Women's Vegetarian Union reported in 'The Queen' 20 July 1895Meeting of Women's Vegetarian Union - The Queen 20 July 1895 British Newspaper Archive

 

In 1889 she used the name Wolff  van Sandau when publishing a song ‘David’s Message’.

 Article mentioning song 'David's Message' in 'The Graphic' 12 January 1889
The Graphic 12 January 1889 British Newspaper Archive

 

It was reported in 1895 that Miss Mathilde Wolff van Sandau was managing the new Equitable International Chess Club for Ladies.


Newspaper article about Equitable International Chess Club for LadiesMorning Post 10 June 1895 British Newspaper Archive

 

In 1911 she refused to provide information to the 1911 census and is recorded as simply ’Miss Wolfe – Suffragette’.

Her brother Henry William Wolff (1840-1931) also left Germany to live in England. He was a well-known journalist and writer and founder of the Co-Operative Alliance.

Portrait of Henry William Wolff writing at the Reform Club

Henry William Wolff at the Reform Club by Eyre Crowe, 1905 NPG D6688 © National Portrait Gallery, London National Portrait Gallery Creative Commons Licence

In the 1920s Matilda van Sandau of Brooklyn Road, Shepherds Bush, was offering typewriting and translation services.  Is this the same woman?

By 1926 our Matilda was lodging in Putney.  She died in a local nursing home on 29 August 1926 aged 83 and was buried in Putney Vale Cemetery as Matilda Wolff.

One mystery remains.  Why did Matilda adopt the name van Sandau?  I have found one connection between the families.  Andrew van Sandau, brother to Lewis, was a witness at her parents’ marriage.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
Her recorded surname varies between Wolff and Wolff van/von Sandau in census returns, electoral registers and directories, and her first names are any combination of Elise Eugenie Mathilde with variant spellings. It appears she is named as Elsie only in suffragette records and related newspaper reports.

British Newspaper Archive - also available via Findmypast.

The National Archives papers from Home Office, Director of Public Prosecutions, and Metropolitan Police Commissioner – see the Suffragette Collection on Findmypast .

Entry in Who Was Who for Henry William Wolff.

Researching Suffragettes in the British Library’s Modern Manuscripts and Archive Collections.

 

17 June 2020

The treasures of King Thibaw of Burma

In 1885, British forces sailed up the River Irrawaddy in Burma to force the abdication of King Thibaw.  On 28 November, General Sir Harry Prendergast and Colonel Edward Sladen entered Mandalay Palace and accepted the King’s surrender.

King Thibaw and two royal ladiesKing Thibaw and two royal ladies Illustrated London News 14 April 1894 British Newspaper Archive

Thibaw’s palace in Mandalay was a magnificent carved and gilded structure with a great seven- roofed spire.  Whilst the government reported a largely peaceful and mutual transfer of power, other accounts suggested an unruly takeover.  The palace was brimming with priceless treasures, and there was a scramble for its riches as British soldiers took control.

Royal Palace MandalayRoyal Palace at Mandalay Illustrated London News 14 April 1894 British Newspaper Archive

Thibaw was exiled to Ratnagiri in India and saw out the remainder of his life in some degree of comfort.  He wrote to King George V, claiming Colonel Sladen had promised to secure his crown jewels for safe custody and return them when it was safe to do so - a pledge he did not keep.

Many of the regalia were shipped to Britain, but some royal treasures simply disappeared.  Rumours began to circulate of rogue British soldiers securing a portion of it.  They were said to have buried loot in bags within the palace compound, being unable to sneak it past the guards at the gates. Amongst the missing treasures was a gold calf weighing several hundredweight, a crown studded in rubies and diamonds surmounted by a peacock, quantities of precious stones, and an enormous and valuable ruby formerly on the forehead of a giant golden statue of Gautama Buddha.

On 9 January 1893, John Mobbs, an estate agent in Southampton, wrote to the Earl of Kimberley at the India Office regarding a rumour he had heard from a Charles Berry.  William White, alias Jack Marshall, was a private in the 2nd Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment.  He spent two years in Burma on the signalling staff, spoke the language, and left a wife and son there.   White lodged for some time with Berry’s mother-in-law at Wandsworth, and disclosed that he and another soldier had hidden away King Thibaw’s crown jewels and regalia.  The second soldier had given a death bed confession, admitting the theft and burial.

White was working in Kent and Surrey as a labourer and dock worker.  Mobbs sought him out to ascertain details of his story.  White agreed to cooperate so long as the government indemnified him from punishment for the theft.  The government, unsure of the situation and unwilling to participate in a treasure hunt, offered Mobbs a percentage of the treasure’s worth should he retrieve it.

The situation was complicated when White decided to retrieve the jewels alone.  He deemed the government reward insufficient and intended to move permanently to Burma.  Having received his indemnity, he took his last pension payment and disappeared.

Report on the Burma regalia The Glasgow Herald 3 April 1894

Report on the Burma regalia The Glasgow Herald 3 April 1894 British Newspaper Archive

Reports stated White left England for Rangoon in May 1894.  The India Office did not believe he could recover the hidden treasure without their knowledge, though Mobbs feared some could be accessed with ease.

Information on the hunt is as elusive as the jewels themselves.  Where did White go?  Did Mobbs make the journey to Mandalay?

The missing treasure also remains shrouded in mystery.  Did the Government hide it?  Did soldiers retrieve the buried loot?  Maybe palace staff discovered it?  Perhaps it is buried there still?

Craig Campbell
Curatorial Support Officer, India Office Records

Further reading:
British Newspaper Archive also available through Findmypast -
Illustrated London News 7 April & 14 April 1894
Englishman's Overland Mail 9 May 1894
The Lincolnshire Echo 21 May 1894
The Glasgow Herald 3 April 1894, p.7 and 6 April 1894, p.8
The Sphere 28 March 1959
Southern Reporter 7 June 1894
Photo 312 : 1885-1886 - Burma - One hundred photographs, illustrating incidents connected with the British Expeditionary Force
Photo 472 : 1870s-1940s - Sir Geoffrey Ramsden Collection: Photographs relating to the life and career in India of Sir Geoffrey Ramsden
Photo 1237 : 1885-1886 - Lantern slides relating to the 3rd Anglo-Burmese War
IOR/L/PS/20/MEMO38/14 : 4 Dec 1885 - Memorandum by His Excellency the Governor [on Upper Burma, following occupation of Mandalay by British forces] M E Grant Duff, 4 Dec 1885
IOR/L/MIL/7/9167 : 1885-1888 - Collection 205/7 Reports by General Prendergast and his officers on operations up to fall of Mandalay.
IOR/L/MIL/7/9162 : 1885 - Collection 205/2 Telegraphic reports of operations until fall of Mandalay, November 1885.
IOR/L/PS/20/MEMO38/14 : 4 Dec 1885 - Memorandum by His Excellency the Governor [on Upper Burma, following occupation of Mandalay by British forces] M E Grant Duff, 4 Dec 1885
Mss Eur E290 : 1845-1891 - Papers of Col Sir Edward Sladen

 

12 April 2020

The Bunny Family of Berkshire

The Bunny Family was well-known in the Newbury area of Berkshire in the late 18th and 19th centuries.  Descendants of grocer Blandy Buck Bunny became prominent members of local society working as bankers and in the legal profession.

Blandy’s grandson Jeré Bunny was a solicitor in Newbury.  In 1813 he married Clara Slocock, the daughter of a brewer.  Clara died in 1835 at the age of 46.  Ten of their children, born between 1815 and 1834, survived to adulthood, and their lives took many different paths: vicar’s wife, soldier, farmer, fugitive, solicitor, gold miner.

The Bunny daughters were Clara, Caroline Eliza, Laura, Gertrude and Alice.  Clara married Charles Hopkinson, a wealthy banker.  Gertude and Alice became the wives of clergymen Henry Towry White and Douglas Belcher Binney.  Caroline Eliza and Laura remained single and lived as annuitants.

Eldest son Charles farmed at East Woodhay in Hampshire on land passed down the family. 

The next brother Brice Frederick trained as a barrister.  He emigrated to Australia in the early 1850s and worked as a gold miner at Forest Creek in Victoria, but gave up after six months, moving to Melbourne to resume his legal career.  Brice became a highly regarded equity lawyer.  He served as an MP and then became a judge.


Forest Creek Victoria
S. T. Gill, Forest Creek, Mount Alexander Diggings 1852- from National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

Edward William Bunny studied at Oriel College Oxford and trained as a solicitor. He had to have a leg amputated because of a diseased knee joint.  In 1861 Edward moved to New Zealand, becoming Registrar of the Supreme Court.

Henry Bunny also qualified as a solicitor and worked with his father in Newbury.  By 1853 he was the town clerk.  Then he suddenly disappeared with his family to escape his debts.  A special messenger was sent by his creditors to the Duke of Portland which was about to sail from Plymouth to New Zealand.  Mrs Bunny and her children were found on board but there was no sign of Henry.  It was rumoured that he was on the ship but disguised in women’s clothes.

In New Zealand Henry set up business as a solicitor but was suspended when a case for fraud was brought against him in the UK.  However he bounced back and then entered politics.  He was elected a representative in the Provincial Council of Wellington and served in the New Zealand Parliament.  Sadly Henry committed suicide in 1891 whilst suffering from ‘melancholia’ and sciatica.   The inquest returned a verdict of temporary insanity.  A monument funded by public subscription was erected in his memory.

Youngest son Arthur Bunny had a distinguished career in the Bengal Artillery.  He fought in many campaigns and received awards for bravery.  At the battle of Multan in 1848 he was wounded by a musket ball in the shoulder and had his horse shot under him.  Arthur was made a Companion of the Order of the Bath in 1873.

Siege of MultanHenry Martens, The Siege of Multan, January 1849 British Library Foster 198 Images Online


Jeré Bunny died in 1854.  Newspapers speculated that his death had been hastened by the strain of the legal proceedings against his son Henry.  Jeré’s will was made in May 1851, but a codicil dated November 1853 revoked all bequests to Henry, except 20 shillings.   Another codicil the following month withdrew all bequests to Charles, Brice, Henry and Arthur as their entitlement had been already been spent on their ‘advancement’.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
British Newspaper Archive also available via findmypast
Trove  - Australian newspapers
Papers Past  - New Zealand newspapers

 

27 March 2020

Witch Trials in British India

Papers at the British Library shed light on the belief in witchcraft in 19th-century India.  The India Office Records contain a wealth of correspondence and reports about the processes for discovering witches and the brutal techniques used to determine guilt or innocence.  The proceedings of criminal trials offer a unique insight into attempts by the British administrators to stamp out these practices.

File cover from a witchcraft murderIOR/F/4/830/21967 A Kol Sirdar in Sambalpur murders an entire family because of their alleged witchcraft, Feb 1822-Sep 1823 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


Commonly, villagers sought advice from a local witch hunter, or Bhopa, who would identify the witch. The favoured punishment was witch swinging. One report offered the following description:
‘Without trial or being heard in defence, the supposed witch is seized, her eyes stuffed with red chillies and bandaged and ropes are tied firmly round her legs and waist.  She is then taken to a tree and swung violently, with her head downwards …till she confesses to a falsehood or dies under the barbarous infliction’.

In 1842, a woman in Palachpoor was murdered in the jungle close to her village by her stepson. When cross examined, he claimed she had been practising witchcraft and had ‘eaten two buffaloes of mine and 10 persons of the village, including my brother’s wife and sister’s daughter’.  The victim’s daughter admitted her mother had been a witch, announcing ‘she used to bite people and they died in consequence’.  It emerged the unfortunate woman had reported her stepson’s involvement in a robbery.  In his fury, he forced her into the jungle and beat her to death.  Despite this knowledge, the witchcraft accusation meant a short prison sentence and hard labour was agreed upon as punishment.

In the village of Chapra in 1849, a woman called Eullal was accused of witchcraft.  It was claimed her eye had fallen upon a villager who contracted an illness and died eleven days later.  A gathering of village officials concluded Eullal was guilty.  Once they had agreed to distribute her possessions and properties amongst themselves, Eullal was seized and charged.   She had chili paste rubbed into her eyes and bandages applied to prevent her evil glare afflicting further victims.  Eullal survived this ordeal and was tied to a tree at 6pm.  By 9pm she was dead.   It was argued a slave killed Eullal under the instruction of the Thakore.  A punishment of 25 Rupees was suggested by the Raja.

Report of the murder of KunkooIOR/L/PS/6/567, Coll 240 Papers regarding a case of 'witch-swinging' and murder which took place at the village of Rohimala, Udaipur State Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

In 1868, a Bhopa accused an elderly lady, Kunkoo, of making a soldier’s wife sick.  Villagers seized Kunkoo, forced her hands into boiling oil and swung her for days.  The soldier’s wife died and the old lady was released, only to be murdered shortly afterwards.  During questioning the soldier denied killing Kunkoo, exclaiming ‘Nugga told me that she had eaten his uncle and his mother and a cow, so he killed her’.

These and other cases were reported by British authorities.  Captain John Brooke wrote in 1856: ‘I would remark that there is little hope of the custom ceasing till it becomes dangerous to follow the profession of Bhopa’.  The reports indicate the government was keen to stamp out the practice, but were wary of interfering with indigenous beliefs and traditions.  Local leaders admitted that in some areas 40-50 women a year could be punished as witches. The response was to target Bhopas.  By convicting ‘professed sorcerers’ and fining community leaders, the authorities hoped to quell the torture and murders.

Craig Campbell
Curatorial Support Officer, India Office Records

Further reading:
IOR/L/PS/6/567, Coll 240 Papers regarding a case of 'witch-swinging' and murder which took place at the village of Rohimala, in Panurwa District, Udaipur State, on or about 9 August 1868
IOR/R/2/700/39 File Q/6 6 Witch craft cases from 1850
IOR/F/4/2016/90185 Mahee Caunta [Mahi Kantha]: Political Agent's Court of Criminal Justice, case No 1 of 1842, trial of Narajee Ruggajee charged with putting his stepmother to death on account of her being accused of witchcraft, Sep 1841-Jun 1843
IOR/F/4/830/21967 A Kol Sirdar in Sambalpur murders an entire family because of their alleged witchcraft, Feb 1822-Sep 1823

21 January 2020

George Orwell and the Strange Case of the Three Anarchists Jailed at the Old Bailey

In 1945 George Orwell signed up as a sponsor of the Freedom Defence Committee in defence of three anarchists who had been jailed at the Old Bailey.

List of members of Freedom Defence CommitteeList of members of Freedom Defence Committee from pamphlet 1899.ss.4.(29.) Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

It was just before the end of the Second World War, and a small group of anarchists in Britain had been publishing anti-war articles in a publication called War Commentary since 1939. The anarchists believed that governments with a strict top-to-bottom hierarchy were to blame for war and that Britain’s mistreatment of colonies in the empire was unjust. They didn’t approve of borders, and thought that private property caused conflict.

The intelligence service MI5 had been aware of the anarchists’ subversive publications for many years, but it wasn’t until the end of the war neared in 1944 that MI5 began to be concerned.  They feared that returning soldiers might try to overthrow the British government, and that the anarchists were telling servicemen to hold on to their guns for the revolution!

Freedom is it a crime? Header from pamphlet about trial of anarchists at Old Bailey 1945Freedom - Is it a Crime? Header from pamphlet 1899.ss.4.(29.) Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Eventually, four anarchists—Marie Louise Berneri, Vernon Richards, John Hewetson, and Philip Sansom—were charged on 22 February 1945 with dissemination of seditious materials.  Only three anarchists were prosecuted, however, as Marie Louise Berneri was married to Vernon Richards and technically could not conspire with her husband.  Outside their trial, art historian Herbert Read gave speeches in support of their cause: ‘I speak to you as an Englishman, as one proud to follow in the tradition of Milton and Shelley –the tradition of all those poets and philosophers who have given us the proud right to claim freedom of speech and the liberty of unlicensed printing’.

In addition to Herbert Read’s speeches, the Freedom Press Defence Committee was set up to help raise funds for legal fees.  George Orwell was a part of this committee which stated its aims as existing as a ‘vigilance’ against cases ‘concerning the infringement of civil liberties’.  While MI5 were worried about revolutions, many well-known writers and politicians were worried about the British government keeping military law after the war was over.  Famous sponsors of the committee included Aneurin Bevan (who would go on to establish the NHS) and Alex Comfort (who would go on to write The Joy of Sex).

A copy of the speeches was kept by Orwell in his collection of political pamphlets which is now held at the British Library.  He himself would go on to write Nineteen Eighty-Four, a novel about a government suppressing the free speech of citizens in England.

Claudia Treacher
University of Brighton PhD candidate on conscientious objection during WWII
@ClaudiaTreacher

Further Reading:
Read, Herbert. Freedom, Is It a Crime?: The Strange Case of the Three Anarchists Jailed at the Old Bailey, April 1945. London: Freedom Press Defence Committee, 1945.
Honeywell, Carissa. ‘Anarchism and the British Warfare State: The Prosecution of the War Commentary Anarchists, 1945’. International Review of Social History 60, no. 2 (2015): 257–84.
George Orwell 
Collection of pamphlets, mainly political, formed by George Orwell 
Pamphlet literature by George Orwell

 

30 December 2019

The Ruby Mines Murders

Amongst the Public and Judicial records of the India Office, there are glimpses into a darker side of life at the edge of Empire.  Three files recently caught my eye.  They deal with the case of a British Army soldier in a remote outpost in Burma sentenced to death for murder in 1888. 

Paloung women and Shans Paloung women and Shans in the Ruby Mines District Illustrated London News 27 August 1887 British Newspaper Archive ©Illustrated London News Group

John William Grange was a private in the 2nd Battalion Cheshire Regiment.  According to his military records, he was 5 ft 3 ins with dark hair, grey eyes and two scars above his right eye. He was illiterate.  He had joined the 3rd Battalion Manchester Regiment Militia aged 17.  At 18 he transferred to the Cheshire Regiment, serving two years in Europe and two years in India before arriving in Burma in November 1887.  He was stationed in the Ruby Mines District in Upper Burma.
 

Plan showing the posiiton of the Ruby Mines in Burma 1887 Maps 159 Plan showing the posiiton of the Ruby Mines in Burma 1887 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The Rangoon Gazette Weekly Budget of 30 November 1888 gave a full report of Grange’s trial at the High Court in Rangoon.  Grange was tried for the murder of two Lishaw women named Saw Phoo Mah and Saw Lay Mai.  On 15 September 1888, a mother, daughter and son were walking along a road in a remote area on their way from Leu to Bernardmyo to sell potatoes when they encountered a British soldier.  The soldier approached the young girl, took her by the hand and offered her money. Terrified, the girl refused to take it and called to her mother for help.  Her mother struck the soldier with a large stick and he shot her in the chest.  The young girl cried out for her brother to run, so he fled into the forest and hid in a deserted village.  Another witness working a in a nearby paddy field heard two gunshots, six or seven minutes apart.

Grange testified that he had gone out with a rifle to shoot pigs.  He claimed a fit of madness overcame him as he didn’t recall killing the women, just seeing that they lay dead.  He threw their bodies into a ravine and covered them with banana leaves.  A soldier called Swindels arrived, bringing Grange his breakfast.  Grange confessed to him that he had committed murder, the two men hid the rifle and returned to barracks.

After bodies were discovered, the truth came out and Grange was arrested for murder.  He was convicted on 21 November and sentenced to death.  He appealed, and there was a dispute over the validity of the court proceedings.  A special court in Rangoon declared the trial good but the case was referred to the High Court in Bengal in March 1890 on another point of law.  In April 1890 it was decided to commute Grange’s sentence to penal servitude for life.

File entitled The case of soldier Grange IOR/L/PJ/6/276, File 744 The case of soldier Grange Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

A common location for penal servitude was Kālā Pānī on the Andaman Islands, a nightmarish prison.  Many tried to escape because of the cruelty of the confinement. Torture, starvation, medical testing and murder were commonplace.  I assume that John William Grange died in prison – or does an Untold Lives reader know otherwise?

Craig Campbell
Curatorial Support Officer, India Office Records

Further reading:
IOR/L/PJ/6/274, File 603 Case of a European soldier named Grange tried at Rangoon in November 1888 for murder of two Burmese women, 2 April 1890
IOR/L/PJ/6/276, File 744 The case of soldier Grange; convicted of murder by the Recorder of Rangoon; sentence commuted to penal servitude for life, 26 April 1890
IOR/L/PJ/6/281, File 1280 Case of John William Grange, a British soldier sentenced to death for the murder of two women in Upper Burma, 8 July 1890
Maps 159 Plan of the Ruby Mine Districts of Burma. Surveyed by R. Gordon ... 1887. (Burma, showing the position of the Ruby Mines.) H. Sharbau del. London, May 1888
IOR/V/24/2240 Criminal justice report of Lower Burma. Rangoon: Judicial Department, 1885-1889
Microform. MFM.MC1198 Rangoon Gazette Weekly Budget
Microform. MFM.MC1160 The Englishman

 

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