Wednesday, April 18, 2012

History Corner: Police clash with Deptford Irish 1869

Deptford had a significant Irish population in the 19th century with a frequently antagonistic relationship with the police. According to Kent historian Carolyn Conley: 'the Irish at Deptford frequently gathered on Saturday night for street dances. If local merchants complained, the police came in to disperse the dancers, with predictable results. The Irish resisted police interference, a brawl broke out between the Irish and the police, and at least one Irishman was arrested as a an example' (The Unwritten Law: Criminal Justice in Victorian Kent, Oxford University Press, 1991).

One incident along these lines took place in 1869 with riotous scenes in Deptford being the subject of two court cases. Although dancing is not mentioned, the police dispersing a social gathering was the spark for the conflict. And while the nationality of the accused is not specifically stated, it is evident from the surnames of those arrested and of the witnesses that at least some of them were Irish. The case was first heard at Greenwich magistrates, as reported in The Times (9 August 1869):

'At Greenwich, Patrick Connolly, aged 26, Thomas Mansell, 34, John Kirkby, 55, and Johanna Welling, 35, were brought up for final examination charged with being concerned in a riot in Deptford, and seriously assaulting several constables of police... It appeared that on the night of Thursday the 22nd [July] the prisoner Connolly, who has been nine times convicted of assaults upon the police, was causing a disturbance in the High Street, Deptford and when requested to leave by Police Constable Garley he made use of vile language. PC Beard went to Garley's assistance, and on being asked by him to leave, Connolly struck him a violent blow in the mouth and ran away.

The constable pursued him and recaptured him, and then a crowd assembled, bricks and stones were freely thrown at police, by which time others had arrived, and the tradesman in the locality had to close their shops. On police constable Edwards attempting to get Connolly to the staton he was thrown by him violently on the curbstone and Connolly again ran away, but was recaptured. Beard received a violent blow in the eye, which blinded him for the time, and had rendered him unfit for duty since.

The prisoner Mansell then took a prominent part, and attempted to rescue Connolly from Edwards, who received a violent blow upon the face, which knocked him down. When on the ground he was kicked in the ribs, and Mansell, Kirby, and the female prisoner were distinctly sworn to as throwing stones which struck the police'.
The scene of the events, pictured in 1865. According to Old Deptford History, this was taken from the north End of Deptford High Street 'slightly right shows the entrance into Old King St which went into Watergate St at the far end. To the left we can see New King St. All this area was demolished to make way for Evelyn St to join up with Creek Road' . The buildings pictured would be about where the Harp of Erin pub and Methodist Hall now stand.

The prisoners were refused bail and committed for trial at the Old Bailey. The transcript of the trial  on 16 August 1869 at Old Bailey Online shows that the police version of events was contested by witnesses.

PC Frederick Gurley told the court there: 'On 22nd July, at 7.30 p.m., I was on duty in High Street, Deptford, and saw thirty or thirty-five persons at the bottom of the street, blocking up the thoroughfare on the pavement, and causing an obstruction—I spoke to Connolly who was there, and told him to move on—he said that he should not—I said that the shop-keepers complained that respectable people could not pass, and begged he would move away—he said, "No, I shall not, not for you; I shall stand here just as long as I like"—I asked him civilly to move again—he said, "No, I shall not, not for a b—like you"—I went into High Street and got the assistance of Beard, we returned together, and Connolly used very bad language—Beard asked him to move away and not make a disturbance there, upon which Connolly struck him a violent blow on the mouth with his fist, and ran twenty yards down King Street—I ran after him and caught him... a mob got round, and stones and brickbats were thrown in all directions.'

Other police officers described the crowd as about 100 strong and claimed that they had not use their batons. However, witnesses for the defence told a different story. Elizabeth Mansell told the court: 'I live at 18, New King Street, Deptford, and am Mansell's brother's wife—on the night of the 22nd July, when the police attempted to take Connolly, Mansell was standing by but took no part in it—I was looking at the man who knocked the policeman down, it was none of the prisoners... they had Connolly down and had their knees or their boots on his stomach—I have been fifteen years in this country and I never saw such treatment before—their staves were out and they knocked him about fearfully—to the best of my opinion they were drunk... they had all got their staves out, hitting Connolly over the head, and kicking him—I did not see him do anything to them'.

Mary Leary of  22 Barnes' Alley, Deptford said that 'I saw Connolly lying on his back in the road, and the four policemen beating him with their staves—I asked a policeman not to kill him, and he turned round and struck me on the arm'.

Kate Mahoney denied that the female accused had thrown any stones: 'I live in Queen's Court, opposite Mrs. Willing—on 22nd July, when the mob came, her door was shut; her lodger came and opened it and she came out and folded her arms, and never stooped or turned, and I saw the police pass by a step or two, and drag her by the shoulders—there are no loose stones in the court—she did not throw stones—she had her arms folded till the policeman dragged her by the shoulders'.

At the end of the trial, Connolly and Mansell were found guilty of assaulting police and sentenced to two years and one year in prison respectively, but Willing and Kirby were found not guilty.

[nb The Times reports refers to Johanna Welling aged 35; the Old Bailey reports to Johanna Willing aged 37]

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