Food: A quick history of the British curry

Nothing–as Brits are fond of saying with a straight face–is as British as a curry. 

The first time someone said that to me, I had to recover from the mental jolt of curry/India running its voltage through Britain/not India, but after that I could see the truth of it. Go into any small town in Britain (she wrote, as if she’d been to all of them) and you’ll find an Indian restaurant. 

Britain has 12,000 curry houses according to the BBC, which knows all–and probably more–so we’ll take their word for it. By way of comparison, Britain also has 47,000 pubs. That’s not entirely relevant, but with a little work I could make it sound as if it was.

Oh, hell, forget the numbers. Let’s indulge in a little food history.

Irrelevant photo: cistus

 

How did the curry get to Britain?

The first mention of curry in Britain dates back to the end of the sixteenth century: to 1598, if you want to be precise. To anchor that a bit, Queen Liz wasn’t dead yet but her mechanism was winding down and King James hadn’t yet trotted down from Scotland to sit–awkwardly, I’d think–on two thrones simultaneously, because Britain wasn’t Britain yet. England was England and Scotland was Scotland. Even once James owned them both, they had separate thrones and were separate countries.

[Acknowledgement: When I first posted this, I killed Elizabeth off a few years early. Thanks to April Munday, who caught my carelessness.]  

I throw that in partly to fill in the picture and partly because I haven’t been able to find anything more about that first mention of curry, so I’m distracting you from the blank space.

You’ll never notice. 

 

History and food collide 

Why was curry being mentioned in England? Well, the English East India Company (which when England and Scotland became Britain became the British East India Company) started out by trading with India from there moved on to taking it over piece by piece and governing it. 

I really do need to write a post about that. In the meantime, though, by way of a promissory note, we have curry. And the knowledge that England had extensive contact with India.

From the British point of view (which makes considerably more comfortable reading than the Indian one, since it doesn’t focus on the unpleasant stuff), that meant thousands of British men and women had lived and, more to the point, eaten in India. Some of them lived in grand style there, with Indian cooks and servants. Others weren’t as high up the colonialist ladder and would have met Indian food in less grand settings, but it was still Indian food, in all its stunning variety.

Inevitably, some of those Brits did their damnedest to recreate Britain on the dining room tables they sat at in India, but others noticed that Indian food had a range of tastes that pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold hadn’t prepared them for. Their taste buds woke up and understood that they’d been installed on the human tongue for a purpose, which was to taste things. And they wanted to keep doing that. 

It’s an odd thing how the contempt you need if you’re going to take over someone else’s country can coexist with admiration for parts of their culture, or at least for their cooking. But sometimes it does.

And no, the British didn’t really live entirely on pease porridge before they met Indian food. That’s from a nursery rhyme. But by comparison with the range of tastes Indian food offered them [biased writing warning here] they might as well have. So, many of the conquerors were primed to want Indian food after they returned home. British food had somehow become bland and boring.

And a few people did their best to recreate Indian food for them. As early as 1733, people could buy curry in London’s Norris Street Coffee House. 

How Indian was it?

My best guess is, not very, and I’m basing that on the first recipe for curry published in England, in 1747, when it appeared in The Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy, by Hannah Glasse. In the first edition, the only spices were black pepper and coriander seeds. Let’s try not to be snooty about it. Spices were expensive. And Hannah had never been to India, so this was like someone painting a picture of an elephant when they’ve never seen one. (A later edition added turmeric and ginger.) 

It’s probably fair to say that even at this early stage curry had become a British dish, because I’m reasonably sure India would’ve disowned the stuff. Admittedly I’m not Indian and I don’t know Indian cooking in any depth. Comments, especially from people who are and do, are always welcome, as always.

Authentic or not, though, by the 1780s, a few London restaurants were selling curry and rice.

In 1810, Sake Dean Mahomed, who’d served in the East India Company’s army, opened a curry house, the Hindoostanee Coffee House, which tried to recreate India in London, complete with bamboo chairs, paintings of India, and a separate room for people who wanted to smoke hookahs. I get the impression that the food was more authentically Indian than it was in the more general restaurants that served curry. 

The Epicures Almanak described as a place “for the nobility and Gentry,” complete with an inexplicable capital G. 

But Mahomed had to compete with the already established curry houses and he went broke in 1812. https://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/The-British-Curry/

Curry became popular enough that between 1820 and 1840, imports of turmeric (a central spice in curry) increased threefold. By the 1840s, it was popular enough that any damn fool could’ve told you that curry stimulates the stomach and invigorates blood circulation, which would lead to a more vigorous mind.  

Curry was also a good way to use up leftover meat, so whatever you thought of the health claims, it had a good, practical argument in its favor.

Then an 1857 mutiny against British rule soured the British attitude toward all things Indian. Englishmen (no mention of women–or the Scots, the Welsh, the Irish) in India weren’t allowed to wear Indian clothes. “Going native” was an insult–and eating curry was frowned upon. The upper classes abandoned it, although if you weren’t in fashion to start with you’d probably go on eating what you liked. 

That shifted, though, at least in Britain, when Queen Victoria became fascinated by India. What the hell, playing monarch over the place had elevated her from queen to empress, so why not be impressed with it? She lent Indian food some class among anyone who took that sort of thing seriously, thereby reviving the curry’s fortunes. 

In the early twentieth century, some 70,000 people from South Asia moved to Britain. A few high-end-of-the-market Indian restaurants opened in London. How are those two statements linked? I don’t know, but after World War II some of those migrants opened cafes and canteens serving their own communities. And another group of them–Bangladeshis, for the most part–opened restaurants aimed at the British market, selling food at prices working people could afford. Curry went enthusiastically downmarket. Among other things, the restaurants became places to stop and grab a meal when you staggered homeward from the pub. 

In recent years, curry’s been trying to go back upmarket, with expensive wine lists and menus that draw on India’s range of regional cooking.

Some 80% of Britain’s Indian restaurants aren’t owned or run by people from India. The owners are from Bangladesh and their food is from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. 

 

So how Indian is the curry?

You know what happens when a word from one language gets adopted into another, right? The pronunciation changes. Sometimes the meaning changes. After a while, it’s hard for the original language to recognize its offspring.

It happens to food too. People who have to sell it to a new public adapt it to suit their tastes. And to match the ingredients at hand. That happened to Indian food when it got to Britain.

According to a HuffPost writer whose name I couldn’t find on the article, curry isn’t Indian at all.  “ ‘Curry’ is not even a word in India. . . . There are a few specific dishes in India whose names sound like ‘curry.’ One is ‘Kadhi,’ and another is ‘Kari.’ Both of them are sauce-like with a gravy.” 

From one or both of those words, the British generalized and anglicized and used the word curry to mean anything vaguely Indian with a spiced gravy. It’s sort of like calling all noodle dishes spaghetti, our nameless author says. 

And just to prove that no one’s listening, HuffPost follows her article with a link to curry recipes.

Some days you can’t win.

What about curry powder? It takes, the writer says, a bunch of spices used in Indian food and dumps them all together, but no Indian cook would use them all. They’d use some and leave out others, depending on the dish. 

That means that using curry powder to get the flavor of Indian food is sort of like pouring all the words in the dictionary into your document and calling it a novel. The trick that real writers have learned is to select some of the words and leave others out.

I just let you in on the secret of good writing. Are you blown away?

But authenticity be damned, Britain had grabbed hold of the curry and it isn’t letting go.

Indentured labor in the British Empire

Abolishing slavery left Britain with a problem: How was it going to produce sugar without lowering profits? 

Because of the second part of that sentence, I don’t think paying a livable wage entered into the conversation. 

This was an issue for both planters and theBritish government itself, because sugar was a huge part of the economy. And the monied class that owned the plantations was a huge part of the government. You know the old saying, money talks? Well, it doesn’t have a physical voice, but it does this odd way of amplifying the voices of people with a lot of it.

Last week, if you’ll stretch your minds back to that distant time, now passing almost into myth we looked at the apprenticeship system that, for a while, replaced–and closely reproduced–slavery in the Caribbean colonies. This week, lucky us, we come to indentured labor, which replaced it more widely and for longer. 

Irrelevant photo: geranium

 

Indenture

Britain abolished slavery in 1833 and the first indentured laborers arrived in British Guiana in 1836. They were from India, and Indian indentured laborers were also sent to Fiji, Natal, Burma, Ceylon, Malaya, British Guiana, Jamaica, and Trinidad–to nineteen countries in all. Eventually indentured workers replaced enslaved Africans on plantations throughout the British Empire. 

Was I bullshitting you about the government being involved? Sorry, but no. According to the National Archives, the secretary of state for the colonies, Frederick Stanley, known as Lord Stanley by his nearest and dearest, ordered the scheme.

Scheme, in American English, has an unpleasant whiff of sneakiness, but as far as I can tell it doesn’t in British English. British governments introduce schemes all the time and are happy to brag about them, and this was very much a government project. British colonies–which is to say, plantation owners–had appealed to the government for help and it ordered and approved the plan. The whiff you’re picking up isn’t one of sneakiness but–forgive me if I use an old-fashioned word here–exploitation.

Initially, Guiana’s indentured workers were treated pretty much the way slaves had been–as they were elsewhere, but I happened onto a small stash of detail about Guiana. Their contracts were for five years, and during that time they couldn’t leave the plantations where they worked. They were paid 1 shilling a day. I can’t tell you what a shilling’s buying power was, but the National Archives calls it a pitiful sum. 

Those who didn’t work were left to starve.

If they were found to have breached their contract in any way, they faced automatic penalties: two months in prison and a £5 fine. 

How many shillings in a pound? Twenty. So the fine was more than three months’ pay. 

A special magistrate in British Guiana wrote that the laborers were “with few exceptions . . . treated with great and unjust severity, by overwork and by personal chastisement.” And historian Hugh Tinker wrote that, “the decaying remains of immigrants were frequently discovered in cane fields.” 

Importing contract labour from India was suspended in 1840. They tried importing Europeans but couldn’t find enough willing people, and the plantation owners pleaded with the government for a new supply of labor. Freddy Stanley tried recruiting Chinese workers from Malacca and African workers from Sierra Leone, but again they couldn’t round up enough people and turned back to India, this time under an new act setting out minimum standards for housing, food, clothing, and pay. 

How well those standards were enforced is–in the absence of a source I didn’t manage to find–anyone’s guess. The plantations were a long way from governmental supervision, and that’s assuming that the government officials had the will to enforce standards. 

A hefty proportion of indentured labor involved Indian workers and the sugar industry, but the Transvaal gold mines brought 64,000 indentured workers from China, and in Australia the indentured workers were Aboriginal and from the South Sea islands.

 

A nasty little bit of economic and political information

In 1846, Britain got rid of a tariff that had kept the domestic price of sugar up and prevented non-British colonies from selling sugar cheaper than the stuff produced in British colonies. That lowered the cost inside Britain, making it a popular move, but it also meant that British colonies were competing against sugar produced by slave labor, which put pressure on the indenture system to be more like slavery. Not, I suspect, that plantation owners needed much of a push, but it’s worth mentioning all the same.

Doesn’t studying history make you feel good about your fellow humans?

 

Recruitment in India

Until 1858, India was run by the British East India Company, making it a huge country governed by a corporation from a much smaller country. 

Give yourself a minute to take that in.

Between 1834 and the end of World War I, India was Britain’s recruiting ground for indentured laborers. To put that in human terms, my father would have fought in World War I if his parents had agreed to sign for him–which fortunately for me (and him) they didn’t. It’s not much more than a hundred years ago. 

This is not ancient history. It’s not all that far outside of living memory.

Why was India such a fertile recruiting ground? The simple answer is desperation, poverty, famine. Land that had been in Indian hands had, with the country under British control, miraculously, found itself in the hands of British owners. Famine was no longer uncommon. 

Most recruits were from the lower castes, but not all. 

By way of an example, take the people who worked on the indigo plantations. In the off season, they’d migrate to towns and cities looking for work, and recruiters would pick them up, lie to them about where they were going, the length of the trip, and the work they’d be doing, and get them to sign a contract. Or since most of them couldn’t read, put their thumb prints on one, with no idea what it really said. Then they’d be held in depots until a ship was ready. 

They were called coolies, and if the word didn’t start out as an insult it became one quickly enough. 

Conditions at sea were bad enough that in 1856-57, 17% of the Indian workers travelling to the Caribbean died on the way. In 1870, 12% died on the way to Jamaica and to Mauritius. 

To understand the mindset of the people who established, ran, and profited from the system, consider what the recruitment firm Gillanders Arbuthnot & Co wrote to a planter who was considering using it. Its recruits, it said, had “few wants beyond eating, sleeping and drinking.” It said the Adivasi, the indigenous people of India, were “‘more akin to the monkey than the man.”

In the fifty years between 1860 and 1910, 150,000 indentured Indian laborers went to Natal–now part of South Africa–to work on the sugar plantations. So many indentured laborers went to Mauritius that the Indian community now accounts for two-thirds of the population.

They were promised pay, sometimes land at the end of their contract, and in some cases passage home. What their contracts promised would have varied over time, but one source says that the promises often weren’t met. 

 

Australia

Australia’s history is different but it borrowed the indenture system. Starting in 1863, it brought in some 62,000 South Sea Islanders to work on sugar plantations. Some went by choice and others were kidnapped, coerced, or lied to. Their conditions weren’t particularly different from slaves’. They were kept apart from the rest of the population and their languages were banned. Between malnutrition and exposure to European diseases, some 15,000 died within a year. 

The practice continued for forty years. Then in 1901 most of them were deported–and their deportation was funded by their own pay, which the Queensland government had appropriated.

 

The Kenya-Uganda Railway

Indian indentured laborers built the Kenya-Uganda Railway, and 7% died before their contract was up. Many tried to escape but were recaptured and imprisoned, and some had their contracts doubled to ten years.

Many contracts specified that workers would be returned home, and the majority did return, but some stayed, especially women who–according to one article–had left home after a disagreement with their parents and might not be welcomed back into the family.

 

The end of indentured labor

Throughout its history, the indenture system was under attack by the same people–or the same sorts of people–who’d campaigned against slavery and defended by the same sorts of people who’d defended slavery (including the write the novelist Anthony Trollope, for whatever that shippet of information’s worth). And it was under attack from indentured workers themselves, who went on strike, who fled, who–sorry, what’s the verb for staging an uprising? Uprose? They resisted in whatever ways they could. Unfortunately, although I can find references to all that, they’re light on the specifics.

It also came under attack by Indians from higher castes and classes, who found that in the colonies they were swept into the same category as indentured workers. 

Toward the system’s end, opinion in India was turning against it, and one reason it was ended was to improve Britain’s image there.

Of course–she added cynically–another factor was the sugar industry’s increased reliance on sugar beets instead of cane.

Britain formally abolished indentured labor in 1917, although it carried on for some years after that. The last ship carrying indentured laborers left for Mauritius in 1924.

By then, over a million Indians had been sucked into the system.

What happened after Britain abolished slavery?

We’re living through a time when one part of Britain is talking about slavery’s role in making the country a world power and another part is accusing the first part of rewriting history and also of being politically correct and no fun at all. But we’re going to skip over the argument and look at the history itself. 

Britain abolished slavery before its former thirteen colonies and takes some official pride in that, and in the role of its abolitionists, but history’s always being rewritten, otherwise we could have one book on every topic and call it enough. So let’s look at one of the less acknowledged things the British Empire did after it abolished slavery. (That was in 1834, since you asked). Because the story of slavery doesn’t end with abolition. 

Screamingly irrelevant photo: Thrift. I have no idea why it’s called that.

 

The apprenticeship system

When slavery ended, Britain’s Caribbean colonies shifted to an apprenticeship system, which basically said to the slaves, Look, you’re now free, but you’re also so ignorant you need years-long apprenticeships to teach you the ways of freedom. During that time, of course, you’ll work for your former masters and get paid nothing. You don’t know how to handle money anyway. And your former masters will still be your masters, but this is different from slavery because–

Oh, let’s not worry about the details. You wouldn’t understand the subtleties.

Most of the sources I’ve read repeat the system’s rhetoric about getting the slaves used to freedom. It’s the justification was used at the time. One source, though–an academic paper–talks about it as a way for the slaves to buy their freedom from their masters by working forty-five unpaid hours a week for their former masters. That was the behind-the-scenes rhetoric. 

That would’ve been in addition to the money Britain paid slave owners as compensation for having let their property walk free. 

After their forty-five hour weeks, the former slaves could work for themselves or for someone who’d pay them. 

Field slaves would be apprenticed for six years and house slaves for four. 

Why the difference? Not because one group needed more training than the other but because the work of the field slave was more important to the economy. Sugar plantations were central both to the economies of both the colonies and Britain itself. Many a respectable British fortune came from the sugar plantations run by slave labor.

Former slave children under six were freed immediately. 

That’s good, right? 

Well, no, because if you give children under six enough time they become children over six, and as soon as that happened the kids entered into apprenticeships that would last not four years and not six years but until they were twenty-one. 

Many former slaves refused to work as apprentices, at which point the justice system, in the form of local magistrates, stepped in. And who were the local magistrates? People of stature in the community, of course, which is to say planters. Which is to say former slave owners–the people who’d lose money if the former slaves refused to shift quietly into the new system and work for free as apprentices. 

Magistrates could and did impose flogging–a punishment widely used under slavery–or a new punishment, the treadmill, which involved strapping a person to a bar so that their feet had to keep a drum rotating. If they didn’t keep it rolling, it would hit them, hard. A governmental commission sent from Britain to investigate conditions called it an instrument of torture.

Antigua and Bermuda skipped over the apprenticeship system–not for noble motives but because slave owners realized they could make more money by freeing their slaves immediately, paying them a very small daily wage, and leaving them to  feed and house themselves as best they could on the inadequate amount they were paid. Since sugar plantations dominated the economy, other jobs were somewhere between hard and impossible to come by and people were trapped. So slavery ended and–

Have you ever read about wage slavery and rolled your eyes at the overblown rhetoric? Antigua and Bermuda could make a person regret that eye roll. 

 

The end of the apprenticeship system

The apprenticeship system was abandoned early, in 1838, and the former slaves were granted their full freedom. That was due in part to the resistance that former slaves put up, which ranged from “disquiet” and “unrest” to full-scale rioting. Not a lot is written about that–at least not that I found–but at one point St. Kitts declared martial law. Much more is written about abolitionists who shifted over to campaign against the apprenticeship system, and they tend to get the credit for the system’s early end. To historians in Britain, they were more visible than the rebels, and more familiar, and they left a kind of documentation that the rebels couldn’t. 

In Jamaica, where land was going uncultivated, many freed slaves abandoned the plantations and took over what was considered waste land. In other parts of the Caribbean, though, there was no waste land to be had and no alternative to working on the plantations at whatever wage was offered. 

Yes, I do regret that eye roll.

Indentured servitude and slavery in Britain & its colonies

Now that discussions about structural racism are more widespread than they used to be, every so often I see someone mentioning that whites were brought to the New World as indentured servants. If you listen carefully, you’ll hear a whisper underneath the argument. It says, “We had a hard time too but we’ve gotten over it. So what’s your problem?”

Sometimes you don’t have to listen all that carefully. The whisper gets a little shouty.

So let’s look at the condition of indentured servants in the American colonies. I know I’m supposed to be doing British history here, but I’m limiting myself to the British colonies, so I don’t even have to cheat. 

Irrelevant photo: a rose

 

Indentured servants in Virginia

We’re talking about the seventeenth century, when indentured servants got to be that way by agreeing to a deal: passage to the New World in exchange for a fixed number of years working for a master–usually between four and seven years. During that time they got housed and fed and clothed and so-forthed. And they got worked–hard, with no choice about what they did or whether they did it. They didn’t get to leave. They didn’t get to choose who they worked for: Their contracts could be bought and sold, and they were. At the end of their contracts, though, they got a freedom package (also called freedom dues–take your choice). 

We’ll come back to that in a minute.

In the Virginia Colony, some half to two-thirds of the settlers arrived as indentured servants. By some estimates, half the European immigrants to the thirteen colonies came under indentures. That needs a time period tucked into it, but I don’t have one. Sorry. That’s what you get for reading a non-historian. 

People agreed to indentures for a variety of reasons. The first was that the passage to the New World was only slightly less affordable than a seat on the space shuttle. (I know; they’re not up for sale, but you get the picture.) 

The second was that at the end of the Thirty Years War England’s economy was depressed and both skilled and unskilled workers were desperate enough to take the gamble. Seven years’ work in exchange for meals and a new start someplace else? Sign me up.

The Thirty Years War? It ended in 1648 and lasted a nice, even thirty years. They’d have ended it sooner but were afraid of being sued for false advertising.

The third reason draws us into the understanding that the choice to enter indentured servitude wasn’t always made freely. A person might have a debt to pay off or be a prisoner who accepted indentured servitude as an alternative to a prison sentence.

The system was perfect for a country–that’s Britain–that was anxious to get rid of undesirables: beggars, debtors, convicts, “disorderly persons,” the defeated soldiers of this war or that. 

And the colonies were hungry enough for indentured servants that people were sometimes kidnapped and sold as indentured servants. Occasional undesirables from other countries were scooped up and indentured as well.

In Virginia, at least, the law gave some protection to indentured servants–or at least to some of them–but if you’d been one you might not have felt particularly protected. Indentured servants faced harsher punishments for breaking the law than non-indentured people did, and their contracts could be extended for serious infractions, which included running away or getting pregnant. 

That last infraction probably only applied to women, and it was perfectly reasonable. You know what women are like about getting pregnant. They’ll do it just to spite people.

On the other hand, if indentured servants survived first the passage and then the number of years they were contracted for, they got that freedom package, which would also have been specified in their contracts. It might have been 25 acres of land, a year’s worth of corn, tools, a cow, new clothes. Not all of those at once, I think–that’s a list of possibilities–but whatever they got might have put them in a better position than the newly arrived immigrant who’d spent everything on his or her passage.

Emphasis on might. That’s one historian’s take on it. Another one I’ve read disagrees. That’s the problem with the past. You can’t go back and check.

 

Categories of indentured servants

Indentured servants who’d entered into their contracts voluntarily were treated better than the ones who hadn’t. They could own property, testify in court, trade. The law offered some protection from abuse, although I don’t know how effective it was, but even so their contracts could be bought and sold without them having a word to say about it. 

The involuntary indentured servant faced a whole different system, although the details would vary from colony to colony. They might be forbidden to leave home without a pass. By way of punishment for running away, their indentures might be extended or their freedom dues reduced. They might be branded. In Maryland, they could be executed. 

At times, suspicious-looking characters who couldn’t prove they were free were arrested as runaways.

Mark Snyder, in his paper on the education of indentured servants in colonial America, counts the experience of indentured servitude as dismal and the success stories of those who served out their indentures as few and far between.

 

Apprenticeship

How was indentured servitude different from apprenticeship? The most obvious difference is that apprentices were children and indentured servants, adults. The apprentice was bound to a master craftsperson and couldn’t leave but was owed an education in the craft. The indentured servant was there to work and presumably knew enough of a craft, whether skilled or unskilled, to be made use of. The two systems overlap, though. Both apprentices and indentured servants were bound by a contract. Both had, at least theoretically, agreed to the deal–or in the case of an apprentice, a parent or some other adult had agreed for them. 

But apprenticeship had set the pattern that indentured servitude followed.

 

Slavery

The first African slaves were brought to Virginia in 1619 (the colony was founded in 1606), and initially the law didn’t have a category for them and they were sold as indentured servants. But they hadn’t entered into a contract–they’d been kidnapped from Africa and then stolen from Portuguese ships by privateers. 

Some of that first group of slaves did eventually become free, but not all. Even the number of people in the group is vague–twenty to thirty. Some fell out of recorded history, but in 1640 one became visible when was sentenced to a lifetime of slavery for rebelliousness. What form that rebelliousness took I don’t know. He was called John Punch, his original name having been hung, drawn, and quartered. Even then slaves were separated from their histories, their languages, and their names.

While they were still (legally speaking) indentured servants, any children they had were born free, but after Virginia’s first slave laws were passed in 1661 a court ruled that children born to enslaved mothers were the property of the slave owner. 

Massachusetts passed its first slave laws earlier than Virginia, in 1641. Massachusetts later became a center of anti-slavery sentiment and organization, but initially it was allowed slavery, as all thirteen colonies did. It didn’t abolish slavery until 1783.

With these new laws, landowners now had a source of labor that didn’t walk free in four to seven years, that didn’t have to be given land and tools and whatevers, and that didn’t have the small legal protections of indentured servants. And whose children were pure profit.

Basically, slavery was more profitable and indentured servitude was on its way out. And since slaves were a visibly distinct group, this quickly became a race-based caste system, which wove itself so deeply into the culture that–at least to many people who weren’t on the wrong end of it–it seemed like the natural order of things.

 

Finding the line between slavery and indentured servitude

Now let’s take a quick look at England in 1659, when Oliver Cromwell was the Lord Protector. [Oops. For a correction that dates and deaths and Cromwells, see below, in the comments.] The king–the one who came before Cromwell–was dead. The king-in-waiting was alive but sulking because he wanted a throne and couldn’t have it yet. And a group of royalist former soldiers had petitioned parliament: 

Four years earlier, they’d been sent to Barbados–an English colony, even if it’s not one we’ve been following–as indentured servants after having taken part in a failed royalist uprising. They complained that in spite of the assurances they were given their condition was, essentially, slavery. They were sold for more than half a ton of sugar each and were put to work in the sugar mills and furnaces.

Parliament debated their petition. One MP argued that indentured servants were “civilly used” and had horses to ride. Most of the work, he said, was done by Black slaves and so (he didn’t need to say) that was okay. 

Another–one of parliament’s leading republicans–argued that the petitioners had been treated barbarously. A third objected to the buying and selling of men, but only when it applied to white ones. That race-based caste system had already taken root. And a fourth reminded the house that the men had all agreed to be sent to the colonies. 

After a day’s debate, nothing was resolved and, in a triumph of parliamentary process, the issue was forgotten. 

When slavery was finally abolished in most of the British empire, in 1834, the freed slaves were not compensated as indentured servants had been. But the slaveowners were, for the property they’d lost.

Britain borrowed £20 million–about 5% of the country’s gross domestic product–for that compensation. According to the Treasury, the country only finished paying off the loan in 2015. 

By 1834, as you will have already figured out, the thirteen colonies had become the United States and gone their–or its–own way. The U.S. didn’t free its slaves until 1863, although in practice freedom was slow in coming and didn’t reach Texas until 1865. As for compensation, some land was distributed to former slaves under an army field order, and the army lent the new landowners some mules, but the program was reversed under President Johnson, who followed Lincoln, and the land was returned to the former slave owners.. 

That was the end of any compensation to former slaves in the U.S. and it’s why Spike Lee calls his movie production company Forty Acres and a Mule. 

The story of indentured servitude continues when British colonies looked around for a source of cheap labor to replace slaves, but we won’t follow it there, at least in this post.

 

Britain meets Napoleon and they fight a few wars

The Napoleonic Wars dragged on for some 15 years, and although you can draw a neat line between them and the wars with revolutionary France that came before them, it’s not an important line for our purposes. All told, the wars went on for some 23 years.  

Which is a long damn time for the people who had to fight them, for the people at home, and for the person who’s trying to winnow it all down to one or two thousand words. What do you say we focus on the wars’ impact on Britain? Even there we can only slide along the surface. 

What were the wars about? In part they were about France overthrowing a king, along with the aristocracy that used to flutter around him, setting up a republic in its place. That set the ruling classes in the rest of Europe on edge.

Screamingly irrelevant photo: An African violet

But the wars were also the European powers fighting over who was going to be king of the mountain. 

King of the mountain?That’s a kids’ game, or at least it is in the US. It’s simple: Kid A pushes the usually unsuspecting Kid B off of something and pretends it’s a game instead of just Kid A being a jerk. The only rule is that Kid A has to yell, “I’m the king of the mountain.”

Kid B usually retaliates, but Kid A’s expecting it and is harder to push off. Kid A also has a habit of being bigger than Kid B.

Yeah, we knew how to have good, innocent fun when I was young.

The mountain, in the case of both the Napoleonic Wars and the wars with revolutionary France, wasn’t just Europe, though. It included the seas, everybody’s colonies, and international trade. Which is a bigger mountain than we ever fought for when I was a kid. 

 

Eeek! Revolution!

Before we go on, though, we need to nod a little more deeply to the French Revolution, because it scared the pants off the British ruling class. Remember how I said It had overthrown a king and his fluttering aristocrats? It also killed him. Mind you, England had done the same thing some time before, but it had sewn a new king securely onto its throne and was playing nice again, leaving revolutionary France out there on its own among the European powers. 

As Roy Strong puts it in The Story of Britain, “Everywhere the French army went the old order of things crumbled.” 

Scary stuff if your income and possibly existence depends on the old order. So the British upper classes looked at Britain’s restless and impoverished industrial and farm workers, as well as at its skilled artisans who had no political representation, and thought, You know, we could have a problem here.

And in fact they did. All three of those groups were demanding change. And once things start to change, you can’t control the direction they go in, can you?

The obvious solution wasn’t to pay them better or expand the right to vote but to keep them in line more effectively. An assortment of repressive laws were passed: Habeas Corpus was suspended in 1794. (If you’re in the mood for a translation, Lord Google has obligingly led me to a dictionary.) The next year, they passed the scary-sounding Treasonous Practices and Seditious Meetings Acts and a few years after that the more gently named but equally extreme Combinations Acts. Associations of workers were now illegal. Criticizing the king was treason. 

The acts weren’t enforced often, but they didn’t have to be: They drove the radical movement underground, and there we’ll leave it. It’ll dig their way out later. It’s not up to us.

 

The military

It’s bad manners to write about war and not talk about blood, gore, strategy, alliances, and fighting, but my manners are pretty awful and we’re going to skip the battles, the shifting alliances, and the peace treaties. They’d only make you dizzy and I’ve already gotten dizzy for you. Why should we both suffer? By way of a summary: Britain’s interests were centered on keeping its power at sea, protecting its colonies (not as in protecting them from harm but as in protecting them from some other power snatching them away), and protecting trade. 

The fighting was both land- and sea-based, and it spread across Europe and reached into Asia, Africa, and the Americas. In The Story of Britain, Roy Strong says the nature of warfare changed. Armies became citizen armies, drawing in a huge chunk of the fighting-age male population.

That Britain’s power was mostly at sea didn’t keep it from expanding its own army and fighting on land as well. In the past, its army had been made up of professionals and mercenaries. Now it drew in men from every class, every religion, every region. In 1789, Britain had 40,000 soldiers. In 1814, it had 250,000.

If you add the volunteers training to repel an invasion, you’ll get 500,000 people carrying weapons. (That may or may  not include the navy. Toss a coin.) Strong says it was the first time the population of the British Isles had been “forged together in martial unity on such a scale.” Basically, that’s a lot of people swinging their support behind the war. 

In the last paragraph, I casually mentioned the possibility of a French invasion. Did you spot that? If you take a quick run through British history, you can hit Control C on “Britain was worried about a [             ] invasion,” then in some random number of places hit Control V and fill in the blank with the appropriate country. Think of the time you’ll save in case of an actual invasion. You’ll be an entire sentence ahead of everyone else.

I can’t swear that the fear of an invasion has always been justified, but it often was, and in 1803 Napoleon had gathered his Army of England in Calais–that’s on the French side of the English Channel–where they dipped their booted toes in the sea and chanted, “I’m the king of the mountain.”

Did any country ever do more to provoke a war?

No, you can’t believe everything I say here. Salt water does terrible things to leather, so that’s a pretty good hint that I’m messing around. But a French army genuinely was sitting on the coast in Calais, eyeing Britain and justifying Britain’s long-standing fears. 

Britain responded to its fears by building fortifications along the coasts, organizing militias, and spreading rumors: The French were digging a tunnel under the Channel. The French were coming on a fleet of rafts powered by windmills. The French were coming in balloons.

No, that I didn’t make any of that up. And France really did consider the balloon plan. These were the early days of hot-air ballooning. 

The invasions never happened. They were sidelined by other, more important battles, by a peace treaty, by the weather, by a test fleet of barges sinking.

Still, even invasions that don’t happen cost money, and these–at least the ones after 1803–were funded by the Louisiana Purchase. That was when the U.S. bought French land and made it part of the U.S. It was funded with a loan from a British bank, Baring Brothers, which basically means that the British were funding the invasion of Britain.

But hey, that’s capitalism for you. There was money to be made.

I had to go to WikiWhatsia for that, but it’s too good to pass up. It’s decently footnoted and seems to be legit.

The invasion finally foundered on sharp rock of British control of the Channel.

 

The money

But it’s not only invasions that cost money, so do all the other bits and pieces involved in waging war–food, weapons, ships, those defensive towers along the coast, and anything else you can think of. Britain raised its taxes. Food prices rose drastically. Unemployment went up, which the opposite of what I’d expect during a war, but this one put a crimp in trade and also happened at a time when labor-saving machinery was being introduced on a large scale. 

You can multiply all that by some suitable number after Napoleon closed European ports to British trade. Bankruptcies grew, and so did the price of grain. So did industrial unrest and food riots. 

Some people joined the army out of sheer desperation. They were cold, they were hungry, and if they joined upnthey could at least get themselves fed.

What happened to the wives and families left behind when married men enlisted? According the British Library, they earned what they could, they turned to the parish for the little help it gave, or they starved. The Duke of Wellington weighed in against recruiting married men because it would “leave their families to starve.”

He lost that battle.

The later years of the Napoleonic Wars were marked by strikes, riots, and attacks on all that lovely labor-saving machinery that put people out of work. In Yorkshire and Lancashire, the militia was called in not to fight Napoleon but to put down dissent.

When the war ended, the taxes that had been imposed to pay for the war didn’t go down and returning soldiers flooded the labor market. All that fed into the Peterloo Massacre and assorted efforts to raise pay and win the vote for ordinary people. 

 

The settlement

You probably know how the movie ends: France lost. Think of Napoleon’s troops slogging through the Russian snows, defeated by General Winter. Think of Waterloo. Hell, think of rabbits if you like. It’s your mind. Napoleon was exiled. He slipped out of exile and raised an army. He lost again. He was exiled again and eventually he died, as we all do sooner or later. Turn the page.

What happened to everyone else? The peace did a careful job of maintaining the balance of power in Europe–it lasted for forty years–and land grabs outside of Europe were solidified. Britain got Singapore, Malaya, the Cape of Good Hope, Malta, Guiana, Trinidad and Tobago, and St. Lucia. Its hold on India was, for the time being, unchallengeable. 

The cult of Britain’s king and queen expanded beyond court circles and became a focus of popular patriotism, with the king cast as the father of the nation (so what if he went mad every so often?) and the queen as the model of British womanhood. And the aristocracy, having entered into the Napoleonic Wars a hard-drinking, hard-gambling, dissolute bunch, emerged pinched and puritanical. 

Some day I’d love to understand how those changes sweep through a culture or a class.

According to Strong, it was a matter of having seen what happened to the aristocracy in France and recasting itself as deserving of respect–and all the more so because its right to rule continued to be under attack at home. 

In 1802, Debrett’s Peerage sorted through the aristocracy and presented it as a more visibly coherent group than it had been. And the growth of public schools–those weren’t schools for the likes of you and me but for the upperest of the upper crust–brought the sons of the aristocracy together, unifying their attitudes and experience, forming lifelong networks that reinforced their awareness of themselves as a class that was meant to rule.

Yeah, I know. It makes me want to throw things too.

A quick history of town criers

The pandemic dictated that this year’s Town Crier Championships had to be held in silence, so this might be a reasonable time to stop and ask about town criers’ history in England.  

 

The Normans. Doesn’t everything trace back to the Normans?

In England, we can trace town criers at least back to 1066, when the Normans invaded the country and put themselves in charge, adding an overlay of the Old French they spoke to the Old English that everyone else did.

While they were at it, they also took over the land, the government, and anything that was left after that was parceled out.

The reason I mention their language, though, is that roughly a thousand years later town criers still start their cries with “Oyez, oyez,” which is French for “Listen up, you peasants.” 

Okay, it’s French for “Hear ye, hear ye,” which is English for “Listen up, you peasants.” And it’s pronounced, “Oh yay,” for whatever that information may be worth. 

Whatever they say after that, they’re supposed to end with “God save the queen.” Or king. Or whatever. 

Screamingly irrelevant photo: primroses.

The reason we can trace town criers back to the Norman invasion is that two of them were woven into the Bayeux Tapestry, which tells the tale of the invasion in–um, yeah–tapestry. You can pick out the town criers because they’re carrying hand bells, which they rang to gather people around them. Because, loud as they were, a bell was even louder. 

They were sometimes called bellmen. 

Even today, town criers open their cries by ringing a hand bell, although historically some used drums or horns. 

But in spite of their Frenchified call,  it wasn’t the Normans who introduced the town criers–at least not according to the website maintained by the Loyal Company of Town Criers, which says the town criers in the tapestry were Anglo-Saxons carrying King Harold’s news about the Norman invasion to the populace.

Harold? He’s the guy who not long after sending out news of an invasion lost the battle, the war, and his life. 

If the loyal company is right and the town criers in the tapestry were Anglo-Saxon, then the tradition predated the Normans.

And who am I to question a loyal company? 

Well, I’m the person who stumbled into the Windsor and Maidenhead Town Crier site, which also mentions the tapestry but says its town criers came into the country with the Normans. 

That’s the trouble with drawing your history from visual art. A lot of interpretation is involved.

A third site ducks the issue by saying the town criers’ position was formalized after the Norman invasion. 

So we’re going to be cagey about this. Go eat a cookie or something and I’ll move us along while you’re distracted.

 

The town crier’s role

With the medieval period we can pick up more verifiable information about town criers. At a time when most people were illiterate, word of mouth was the social media of its day. Also the newspaper, the radio station, and the TV set. As Historic UK explains,  “most folk were illiterate and could not read.” 

Well, holy shit. As if being illiterate wasn’t bad enough, they couldn’t read either. Talk about multiple handicaps.

So the town crier would ring their bell or blow their horn or pound their drum, gather people around, and bellow out the news, proclamations, bylaws, thou-shalt-nots, thou-shalts, and whatever else the person pulling their strings felt was important. 

They had strings? Who pulled them? 

I haven’t found a direct answer, so I’m patching this together as best I can. Sprinkle a bit of salt over it, would you? 

The string puller(s) would probably have varied with the period we’re talking about. At at least some times and in some places, town criers were paid by the proclamation. Some sites talk about a city or town having a town crier, which makes it sound less like a casual job, and one site talks about town criers proclaiming ads. You know, “Oyez, oyez. Lidl is selling three lettuces for the price of two, but hurry or they’ll all be gone. God save the salad dressing.” 

But local government would also have come into the picture, wanting its announcements cried out, wanting the reason for a hanging made public, passing on announcements it received from the king or queen, which gives me a nifty excuse to mention that town criers were considered to be speaking in the name of the monarch, so attacking one was an act of treason.

Generally, once the crier had read out a proclamation, they’d nail it to the door post of the town pub. (Come on, where else are you going to gather the citizenry?) That gives us the word post in the sense of news and communication. 

Okay, they also made their proclamations at markets and town squares and anyplace else people could be counted on to gather. But an inn? If people gathered and listened, they might well step inside, buy a beer, and talk over what they’d heard. And a smart landlord might well offer the town crier a free beer after a well-placed announcement, although that’s the purest of speculation.

One site says town criers also patrolled the streets at night, looking for troublemakers (who else would be out after dark?) and making sure fires were damped down after the curfew bell rang. 

The origin of the word curfew lies in the Old French for covering a fire: cuvrir and feu. Fire was a constant threat in medieval towns. Having an old busybody with a bell making sure everyone really did cover theirs would be annoying but also useful. It’s believed (which is to say, it’s not exactly known) that one reason more people didn’t die in the Great Fire of London is that town criers warned people about the fire. It’s also believed that many more people died in the fire than were ever counted, so if you’ve still got some salt left, use a bit more of it here, because a good part of what I’ve found on the topic was written by nonhistorians. And speaking as a nonhistorian myself, we screw up more often than we like to admit.

Towns did organize unpaid overnight patrols (you’ll find a bit about that here), and the watchmen were sometimes called bellmen, but all men were expected to volunteer or to pay someone else to take their shift. They could all have been town criers, in spite of sometimes being called bellmen. I’m going to crawl out on a thin branch and say that some nonhistorian got fooled by the word bellman being used for two different jobs.

So who got to be a town crier? Someone with a loud voice who could sound authoritative. And someone who could read, because proclamations would come in written form and needed to be read out accurately. 

Town criers haven’t, historically, all been men. Some were husband-and-wife teams, and some were women. The Northwich 1790s records mention a woman who’d been carrying out the role “audably and laudably” for more than twenty years.

The collective noun for a group of town criers–of course you need to know this–is a bellow of criers. 

As literacy spread, town criers became less important, and where they continued, more decorative. These days, if you find them at all you’ll find them dressing in three-cornered hats (or other gloriously outdated headgear) and all the clothes that go with them. They’re most likely to show up to open local events or at contests.

 

And that brings us back to the silent championships

And so we return to this year’s silent championships: If the contestants couldn’t make a noise, what were they judged on?

Organizer Carole Williams said it was “a return to the bare bones of crying. . . .It’s a real skill to write a cry that sticks to the theme, that enlightens people, and doesn’t bore the audience. And it all has to be done in 140 words.”

That makes it sound like a shouted tweet, doesn’t it?

Williams, by the way is a crier from Bishops Stortford, which I include that because place names don’t get any more English than that, and a member of the Loyal Company of Town Criers, which I include because it hosts the competition and because organization names don’t get any more English than that. Even if you make them up.

Normally, the contest is judged on sustained volume and clarity, on diction and inflection, and on content, but this year’s entries had to be recorded and since not everyone could be expected to get their hands–or their cries–on good recording equipment, the organization decided to make sure everyone had an even chance.

The contest raised money for a mental health organization called–appropriately enough–Shout. 

*

Thanks to Bear Humphreys at Scribblans for sending me a link to the silent crier championships. 

The London police strikes of 1918 and 1919

In true man-bites-dog style, the London police went out on strike in 1918 and 1919. 

Why is that man bites dog? Because when a government wants to break up a strike (or a demonstration, or a meeting) the police are the first people they think of. 

Why do I ask so many questions in my blog posts? Because it’s a cheap and easy way to organize my material. It’s a lazy habit but it works.

And I’m lazy but I work. It’s a good match.

The strike was so man bites dog that when the much-arrested suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst heard about it, she said, “The London police on strike? After that, anything can happen.” 

She’d been arrested multiple times for campaigning for women’s right to vote. The police, in her experience, were the ultimate in Thou Shalt Not. When they went out on strike it must’ve looked like the moment when parts of the Russian army joined the revolution.

Spoiler alert: It wasn’t.

Semi-relevant photo: To the best of my knowledge, no one human has bitten this dog. 

Background to the strike

At the time, a London policeman was paid roughly what an agricultural worker or an unskilled laborer would earn–in other words, not much. And to make it worse, the cost of living had more than doubled during the war, but their pay hadn’t done anything like keep pace.

What war are we talking about? World War I, which killed 886,000 young men in Britain (or by another count, over 700,000) and left I have no idea how many mangled. 

If you want more background on policing at the time, I’ll refer you to that noted expert on nothing, myself, in an earlier post.

Before I go on: You’ll notice I’m talking about police men. The war drained away enough men that women were pulled into the police forces to fill in. I can’t put my hand on any figures, but I’d bet the most important piece of furniture in the house (that’s the couch) that they were paid less. Probably considerably less. And told that this was the natural order of things. Because as women, they’d only go out and spend their pay on silly things like rent and food. There’s no point encouraging them.

So we’ll stick with the men’s wages. Especially since those are the figures I find quoted.

In case low pay wasn’t enough of a problem, the cops (gender neutral word marker there) who remained on the force were working a 96-hour week, with one day off every two weeks.

So basically, you’re looking at an unhappy workforce.

The National Union of Police and Prison Officers (called NUPPO by its friends and family) was founded in 1913. The central figure was John Syme, a former inspector in the Metropolitan Police who’d been fired for

Well, by one account it was for threatening to write to his MP (that’s his Member of Parliament) and by another it was for “undue familiarity” with his men. By a third account he was fired for supporting two constables who’d been fired. Those could easily be different ways of describing the same incident. So take your pick. I like “undue familiarity” myself. It has such a suggestive, Victorian ring to it, leaving me to wonder if they locked themselves in a toilet stall and had entirely too much fun or sat down with a cup of tea together after work.

And a biscuit. That’s where the real trouble comes from: biscuits. By which, if you’re American, you should understand that we mean cookies. I know you associate cops with donuts, but remember, this was a long time ago. Work cultures change.

By way of full disclosure, “undue familiarity” may have a Victorian ring, but Vic herself had been dead since 1901. It took a long time, though, to sweep away the traces she’d left behind.

Whichever it was, he’d been campaigning to get reinstated ever since.

The union stayed underground–wisely, given that five cops were fired for being members and that in 1917 the military police (who do you turn to when you want to police the police?) raided a meeting and seventeen more members were fired.

 

The 1918 strike

The 1918 strike started on August 30, two months before the end of the war, and it had two demands: increased pay and the reinstatement of Tommy Thiel, who’d been fired for union membership. 

Why Thiel in particular? 

Things happen that way. One person after another is fired, then someone who’s no more worthy gets canned and all hell breaks loose. 

You can’t predict this stuff.

The strike spread wildly and within a few hours over 6,000 cops had walked out, including members of the Special Branch, which worked–and still works–on national security issues. 

When those guys join your strike, the foundations of government tremble. Or maybe it’s the politicians who tremble. Either way, trembling gets done. Politicians look at each other and say things like, “We’ve got a problem here, don’t we?”

A day later, strikers marched to Whitehall, the center of government. A Scotland Yard official described them as “mutinying in the face of the enemy.” 

Scotland Yard? That’s the headquarters of London’s police force. It has nothing to do with Scotland. 

And mutiny? The war was still on, remember, even if the enemy wasn’t marching down London’s streets. If you want to win an argument during a war, drag the enemy into a sentence. 

By way of context, it’s worth remembering that the Russian Revolution had revoluted less than a year before, and the people running the country lost more sleep over the Bolsheviks than over the Kaiser. 

Of course I know that. I took a survey. It all happened well before I was born, but that didn’t stop me.

The prime minister, David Lloyd George, met with union delegates and agreed to their demands, promising to reinstate Thiel and raise their pay.

The strike ended triumphantly, without anyone noticing that they hadn’t won union recognition. 

Okay, they did notice but thought recognition would follow. Hadn’t the prime minister just met with them? How much more recognized than that can you get? And Lloyd George had said that union recognition would have to wait for the war’s end. 

Right, they said. Fair enough. Everything in due time.

Meanwhile, police in Manchester threatened to strike unless they were given a raise too. By October, police on several forces had gotten raises and by November union membership had gone from 10,000 to 50,000.

 

Round two

As far as the government was concerned, the strike had been roughly as predictable as a piano falling out of the sky, but by postponing union recognition it bought itself some time. It dedicated the next six months to defeating the union. The command structure of the police was reorganized, militants were isolated, moderates were won over, and partial reforms were introduced. 

Approved boards were established to represent the men, which gave them representation while edging the union off to the side. And although the ban on joining the union was lifted, its members weren’t forbidden to interfere with police discipline or to ask cops to withdraw from duty. Translation: You can join your poxy union if you want to, but there’ll be no more of this strike nonsense. 

Those phrases  about interfering with police discipline or withdrawing from dury didn’t come to me in quotes, but they have a starchy, quotationish sound, so I’ve left them as is. And with apologies, I’ve had to fall back on WikiWhatsia here. It’s usually reliable although it is subject to unpredictable fits of madness. I couldn’t find enough detail elsewhere and what it’s saying generally aligns with the other sources.

But back to our topic: The government set up a committee under Lord Desborough.

Was Lord Mr. Desborough’s first name? 

Of course it was.

The committee called for uniformity in police pay across the country, citing instances where cops were paid not just no more than unskilled workers but less.  

In 1919, the government passed the Police Bill, which established the Police Federation of England and Wales. In effect, this was a company union. It would represent the police but couldn’t strike. The law’s renewed periodically, most recently in 1996. 

The bill also prohibited cops from joining NUPPO, forcing the union into a strike. 

It was a disaster. Out of more than 18,000 London cops, just over 1,000 walked out.

In Liverpool, though, about half the force went on strike for several days. And although there’d been no violence or disorder during London’s 1918 strike, Liverpool saw both looting and rioting. The military was called in, working with cops who hadn’t gone on strike. Some 200 people were arrested and several were killed.

Smaller strikes took place in other cities and towns. 

Every last one of the nation’s striking cops was fired and the union was broken. 

On the other hand, policemen’s pay doubled and they became politically visible in a way that they hadn’t been before. 

What happened to the people who were fired? For most of them walk off the screen and disappear. A very few, though, I can account for. Several stayed active in the union movement. If I had to guess in what way, I’d say as organizers–it would have made them visible all these years later. Some became active in the socialist movement. The two strands wouldn’t have been entirely separate. Socialists were mainstays of the early union movement. One became the mayor of Hackney, running on the Labour Party ticket. At least one–Tommy Thiel himself–joined the Communist Party.

And one became a gentleman’s tailor and seems to have done well at it. He’d been banned from the City of London police station and In 1920 he asked for the ban to be lifted so he could visit old friends and try to pick up some customers.

His request was turned down. 

The nineteenth-century English cop

We can date the beginnings of Britain’s police forces back to the nineteenth century, but let’s not talk about how they were organized. Let’s talk about what kind of person became a cop in those early days and what life was like for–and I use the pronoun advisedly–him. 

The first women weren’t hired until World War I. We’ll come back to that.

If you want some background on the origin of the police forces themselves, you’ll find it in an earlier post. I’m referring you to myself here. You know, to that noted expert on everything. 

Irrelevant photo: hellebore

 

Your average copper

Until the end of World War II, your average cop came from an unskilled or semi-skilled working class background, and he was almost invariably white. He was likely to have joined when he was out of work, because the pay was low, although it was at least steady. 

Joining the police force doesn’t seem to have been anybody’s first choice. If you’ve seen Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance, you might remember the song “A Policeman’s Lot Is Not a Happy One.” Yes, they were kidding around, but they had something there to work with.

Semi-relevant factoid: The first recruit to London’s police force lasted four hours before being found drunk while he was on duty and getting his hind end fired.

The cop’s work involved patrolling on foot, regardless of the weather, and at least in larger cities that would have been under the supervision of a sergeant who checked every so often to see that he was where he was supposed to be. In London, he was supposed to walk a regulation 2.5 miles an hour on a regular beat. After about a century of organizing the work that way, it occurred to someone that any burglar with half a brain would plan their work for the moment when the cop on the beat went past. 

A century? That’s not me exaggerating for the fun of it. It really did take them that long to shake the pattern up a bit. 

The job did have benefits, however, both legal and il-. Some forces offered help with the rent or free medical care for the family, and many a cop got freebies from local shops or–more lucratively–cash in return for not noticing a bit of illegal activity here and there. 

In places, cops might also add to their income by working as knocker-upppers–the folks who tapped on windows to wake people in time for their shifts at work. Why not? They were already awake and walking a predictable beat. It made them some extra money, even if it sometimes took priority over policing. And it wasn’t forbidden.

What was forbidden was for a policeman’s wife to work. The theory was that having her own job might mean she’d influence her husband in some untoward direction. I can’t entirely make that argument come together, but hell, it was the nineteenth century. Women were, by common agreement, such frail creatures. Let them out into the world and, silly little things, they’d believe any words that were poured into their ears and then go home and use their wiles on their husbands. 

Never mind the logic. It was a rule. And besides, the wives of respectable working men didn’t have jobs of their own–or not ones that paid them money, anyway. You know how women get it they have money of their own. So even if the police forces didn’t pay as well as a respectable working class job, policemen and their wives were expected to follow the era’s social media influencers and forgo that second income. In villages, a policeman’s wife acted as his office, taking messages for him if he was out. But that was respectable, because she didn’t get paid.

In some forces a wife might get away with a bit of dressmaking or domestic service. If, of course, it didn’t interfere with her wifely duties at home. 

So the wives didn’t work for the police forces but had to live by their rules anyway. 

If the low pay and the insistence on a couple having only one income sounds like a perfect formula for corruption, it was. Whee.

It also led to police forming unions. During World War I, the police went on strike twice, and it’s an interesting tale but too long to wedge in here. I’ll get to it soon.

 

Chief constables

In the tradition of Britain’s class hierarchy, the chief constable in cities and in some counties would be someone who could mix comfortably with the elite. He would often have a military background and be used to commanding others. 

It wasn’t until after World War I that it occurred to anyone in power that it might be useful for him to know something about police work. That probably speaks to how much systematic thought was given to policing.

Only in smaller forces was the chief constable likely to be someone who’d risen up through the ranks–which is to say, someone from the working class and someone who knew what was involved in the job.

 

The police forces open up–however reluctantly

Women didn’t join police forces until World War I, when they were recruited to (and I’m quoting History Extra here) “supervise young women who either worked in munitions factories or were feared to be ‘pursuing’ young men in uniform.”

If I’d made that up, I’d scold myself for being too heavy handed and I’d tone it down. But yes, they were recruited to keep an eye on those shameless hussies who worked in the factories. We’re coming out of an era, remember, when a hefty percent of the women who worked outside the home were in domestic service–in other words, in the houses of people who had more money than them and who would, the world assumed, police their sexuality. 

Or that was the theory. In practice, they might be sexually assaulted or seduced at work, then fired if they got pregnant. It was common enough to have become a cliche, but saying that it’s a cliche doesn’t make it untrue.

World War I, though, offered women jobs outside the domestic sphere, and that made some folks nervous. 

With the end of the war, though, the police forces didn’t need the women they’re recruited anymore. Let’s quote History Extra again: “Many chief constables were delighted to be able to get rid of women at the war’s end in 1919, and regretted having to recruit them again in 1939 [that’d be World War II in case you’ve lost track]. Chief constables did their best to limit women’s activities to typing, filing and making tea.

“The women officers who remained or who joined after the Second World War were largely limited to looking after women and children until the equality legislation of the 1970s, which made their role legally and practically the same as their male colleagues.” 

Well, legally anyway. I doubt I can tell you anything you don’t already know about what that was like in practice. 

It was in the 1970s that the police forces also opened up to Black and Asian recruits, and they were about as welcome as the women were. 

 

Archeological finds and treasure from a country knee deep in history

The last few years have been good ones for British detectorists.

For British whats?

Detectorists. Those people who wander around with glazed eyes, waving metal detectors above the ground and listening to them beep. They’re looking for buried treasure. Or the tops that people break off aluminum cans. The metal detectors, as opposed to the detectorists who wave them, aren’t discriminating. They’re like gun dogs that point not just at game birds but also at feathered hats, feather dusters, and feathers tattooed on people’s arms. Metal is metal. Let the humans sort it out.

Irrelevant photo: camellia buds.

More people have turned to metal detecting in recent years and they’re uncovering some serious archeological finds, which are making their way into museums. The increasing interest is due in part to–of course–a sitcom. Reality limps along behind the representation of reality. And that, my friends, is what passes for real life. 

In 2018, 96% of the treasure dug out of the British earth was found by people with glazed eyes and metal detectors.

Okay, they don’t necessarily have glazed eyes. It just sounds better that way. And treasure has a narrow official definition–coins; precious metals; that sort of stuff–so archeologists have found plenty of other stuff, but it appears in a different column on the sreadsheet.

A 1996 law that required finders to report treasure also allowed them to split any profits with the landowner, and that’s meant that they’re likely to actually report their finds instead of squirreling them away somewhere or selling them through shady antiquities dealers in back alleys.

Sorry. I don’t know any antiquities dealers, shady or otherwise, so I’m falling back on cheesy stereotypes there.

So when we count up the reasons new people are being drawn to metal detecting, the sitcom isn’t the only one. We can add potential profit. 

A very small and random selection of what’s been found lately: 

  • More than a thousand silver coins in a field behind a pub in Suffolk. The best guess is that they were buried there during the Civil War. 
  • And 69,347 Iron Age coins in a field in Jersey. They date back to 50 B.C., give or take a few months. 

But enough about treasure. It’s the smaller part of the historical riches waiting to be discovered. Let’s talk about archeology.

 

The neolithic era

In Yorkshire, archeologists have uncovered a saltern–an industrial-scale salt-making site–that dates back 6,000 years. Or to put that another way, it predates Stonehenge. It’s the earliest one that’s been found in Britain.

The pottery that’s been found there shows traces of milk, indicating that the people who built it were settled, growing crops and raising animals. And the scale of the saltern says that they were selling salt, not just making it for themselves. 

“It changes how these people are seen,” said Steve Sherlock, the archeologist who led the dig. They were “people who are undertaking a level of industrial processing and distributing.” 

Because of salt’s use in preserving food, the people who produced and distributed it would have been among the wealthier groups of their time. 

Neolithic salterns have been found in Europe–especially Poland and the Balkans–but this is the first found neolithic one found in Britain, possibly because rising sea levels and coastal erosion have swallowed the others. They have a habit of being coastal, since seawater has a habit of being salty.

The pottery found at the site matches a type introduced by people who migrated from what’s now northern France at around 4000 BC. The saltern technology may well have come with them.

 

The bronze age

With the old stuff out of the way, let’s move south to Stonehenge

A major road, the A303, runs alongside Stonehenge, and for years there’s been a fight over whether to dig a two-mile tunnel and run the road through it. Opponents argue that it will do lasting damage to a world heritage site and that millions of artifacts will be lost. On the other hand, once the tunnel’s built, you’ll be able to take a selfie at Stonehenge without a big red bread truck showing up in the background. Which makes it all worthwhile.

After an assortment of court challenges and the use of a lot of newsprint, the opponents lost and the work’s been started. The current stage involves 1,800 test pits, 400 trial trenches, 150 archeologists, 18 months, and some uncounted amount of mud. Construction on the tunnel itself won’t start until 2023. 

Is the tunnel a good idea? Probably not, but what do I know? As long as they’re digging, though, they’re finding some interesting stuff. Let’s not ignore it just because we’re sulking. They’ve found graves, pottery, burnt flint that suggests metal or leather working. (No, I don’t know what the connection is either.) It’s probably too early to know what this tells them about the site or the people. 

 

The iron age and the Roman era

In Oxfordshire, the excavation of a hillfort turned up an iron age settlement that dates from 400 to 100 BCE, not to mention a Roman villa built at the end of the third century CE or the beginning of the fourth. They were found when the Earth Trust, which cares for the hillfort, decided to redevelop its visitor center.

Because no place that welcomes visitors is complete without a visitor center. Where else will people spend their money?

The site was occupied from the bronze age through the Roman era, so the trust hadn’t just planned to just plow through with heavy equipment–they figured they’d find something interesting–but they also hadn’t expected anything quite so rich. What they found included well-preserved iron age pots, Roman bone combs, surgical instruments, and lots of pottery shards. It seems like pottery shards are always in there somewhere.

Chris Casswell, the dig’s head, said, “It’s a substantial iron age settlement. It’s probably no surprise because we’re right at the foot of Wittenham Clumps, an enormous hillfort. The settlement probably continues well into the landscape beyond where we’ve looked.

“Normally we go out and do geophysics, which gives an image of what might be under the ground. But on this site, it didn’t show up any of this. . . . So it’s completely unexpected.”

The Roman villa is still partially buried, and there are at least two Roman cemeteries and stone-built ovens for drying grain.

And in case you’re wondering, the bronze age came before the iron age because copper and tin, which make bronze, melt at lower temperatures than iron. It took humans a while to pull together the technology to melt iron. I had to look it up too.

 

The medieval period

King’s College in Cambridge tore down some 1930s-era student housing and found an early medieval graveyard

According to Bede’s Ecclessiastical History, which was written in the eighth century, Cambridge was abandoned in the fifth century, when the Romans left. A lot of Roman towns were. But take that with a grain of salt. Dr. Caroline Goodson, a professor of medieval history, said, “We already know that Cambridge wasn’t fully abandoned. But what we’re seeing now is a greater and clearer picture of life in the post-Roman settlements.” 

They’re finding lots of goodies in the graves: bead necklaces, swords, pottery, glass, bronze brooches, short blades, mostly from the early Anglo-Saxon period–say 400 to 650 C.E. And because the soil’s alkaline, the bodies are well preserved, so they may be able to extract information about people’s diets and DNA, which should give them information on migration patterns. 

Goodson’s best guess at the moment is that the people were the descendants of Roman Britons along with more recent migrants from Europe. 

“They are no longer living as the Romans did,” she said. “They’re eating differently, dressing differently, and finding different ways of exploiting the land.”