Tragedy as Jews expelled from England 700 years ago

This is a curious and terrible story I heard about years ago and found again in an old book on London history dating from the 1870s in my library. The story goes that when King Edward I of England expelled all the Jewish people from his kingdom, one ship captain deliberately murdered a group of Jews on the river Thames in London.

Under King Edward I in medieval London a terrible murder of a group of Jewish people took place on the river Thames as retold by historian Tony McMahon
Jewish people faced discrimination in medieval London

The book is called Old and New London and dates from about 1875. It details how Jewish people at that time still spoke in hushed terms about a terrible event that occurred near London Bridge in the 13th century.

After the Norman conquest of England in 1066, Jewish families were protected by the Norman kings and prospered. But things started to turn two hundred years later and then Edward I – famous as the king who executed Braveheart – decided to expel every Jew from England.

A group of Jewish Londoners hired a “mighty tall ship”, loaded all their possessions and sailed off down the Thames to an uncertain exile abroad. Accounts vary as to what happened next. One report claimed that at a place called Queenborough – near the mouth of the river Thames as it meets the sea – the captain set down the anchor.

They were on dry sands and the captain popped over the side to take a walk. Then he suggested that the Jewish exiles might want to join him and stretch their legs. And so they did. But without noticing that as the tide rose, the captain shot off back to the ship and was hauled up quickly by a rope.

This took the Jewish group by surprise. As the water rose rapidly, they cried out to him for help. And he gave them a sarcastic response:

He told them that they ought to cry rather unto Moses by whose conduct their fathers passed through the Red Sea

“Raging floods” then gradually engulfed them and the captain with his crew made off with their goods. In some accounts, the captain and his fellow mariners went to see King Edward I and were rewarded for their murderous cruelty. But another account claims they were hanged for their “fraudulent and mischievous dealing”.

In the 1875 book I have, it claims that “the spot in the river Thames where many of the poor exiles were drowned by the perfidy of a master-mariner is under the influence of a ceaseless rage”. That no matter how calm the Thames was elsewhere, this stretch of water was always “furiously boisterous”.

And some tellings of the tale had this unusual river current occurring under London Bridge, for some reason. Apparently it became a point of pilgrimage with young and old Jews rowing out to the supposed location to see if the river really did rage non-stop as a constant reminder of the killing.

Top movies about London!

Since the dawn of cinema, London has featured over and again in the movies. It’s provided an inspiring backdrop to thrillers, comedies and dramas. Here’s a selection of films you may not have seen and the introduce different aspects of London. The styles are very varied – enjoy!

LONDON MOVIES: Frenzy (1972)

This was a late Alfred Hitchcock directed thriller with the master of suspense returning to his home city, London, to make this movie. It’s not his greatest work but I love it. Frenzy involves a series of murders committed in and around the fruit and vegetable market of Covent Garden. That area of London has now been gentrified and the market has gone. So, it’s a real period piece – and fascinating to watch.

LONDON MOVIES: Quatermass and the Pit (1967)

London based Hammer Film Productions is best known for its horror movies often featuring Dracula or Frankenstein. But in 1967, it brought out a classic science fiction drama. Based on a BBC TV series, the main protagonist was the very fatherly Professor Bernard Quatermass. He is called to a London Underground station where a Martian space craft has been discovered. It’s millions of years old but has a grim secret, which it decides to share in a devastating manner.

LONDON MOVIES: Passport to Pimlico (1949)

This film was produced by the Ealing Studios – which created a series of “Ealing comedies” in the 1940s. In 1949, Britain was still reeling from the economic after shocks of the Second World War. A group of disgruntled working class residents in the Pimlico district find out they have ancient rights that allow them to proclaim independence from the rest of Britain – but the government has other ideas.

LONDON MOVIES: Clockwork Orange (1972)

Legendary film director Stanley Kubrick took us to a dystopian London where extreme youth thuggery is tackled by the government using psychological torture. The movie included scenes shot in Chelsea and the Thamesmead estate – a brutalist housing development. Clockwork Orange was massively controversial for years after its release.

LONDON MOVIES: Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Robert Downey Junior and Jude Law were teamed up to play Dr Watson and Sherlock Holmes in this high octane rendition of the classic detective tale from the author Arthur Conan Doyle. As everybody knows, Sherlock lived in Baker Street and it’s a huge tourist draw today. The incisive detective has been portrayed in very different ways from the sedate to the manic. What I liked about this movie was the capturing of Victorian London including the construction of Tower Bridge in the background.

Elizabeth Brownrigg – torturing her apprentices to death

Elizabeth was married to James Brownrigg, a plumber who moved with his wife in to Flower-de-Luce Court off Fleet Street. It was the year 1765 and plumbers seemed to have been doing as well back then as they are today. James was coining it sufficiently to afford a little house in Islington as a retreat from the City of London.

IMG_6141Elizabeth gave birth to a staggering 16 children and having been a midwife, she was appointed by the overseers of the poor of St Dunstan’s parish to take care of the poor women in the workhouse. On the surface, Elizabeth Brownrigg looked like a fairly prosperous Mum with a hard working husband and a sense of civic today. What wasn’t to like? Plenty as it turned out.

She started to take pregnant women into her house to lie-in as private patients. To look after them, Elizabeth needed servants so she moved in some of the poor girls of the parish as cheap home helps – or slave labour if you prefer.

These apprentices were treated appallingly from day one. A girl called Mary Jones, an orphan from the Foundling Hospital, was laid across two chairs in the kitchen and beaten ferociously until Elizabeth had to stop because she was tired. Mary escaped and got back to the Foundling Hospital where she was examined by a surgeon who was shocked by the extent of her wounds. The hospital’s solicitor wrote to Elizabeth asking her to explain what on earth was going on – but she ignored the letter and the matter was dropped.

Another girl in the house, Mary Mitchell, was also being beaten and managed to escape into the street but was caught by Elizabeth’s son and returned to the house – where things got a great deal worse. Incredibly, the overseers of the poor for the parish of Whitefriars sent another girl, Mary Clifford, to be an apprentice to the evil Elizabeth.

This individual was tied up naked and set about with a hearth broom, horsewhip and a cane. She was forced to sleep on a mat in a coal-hole. Her diet was bread and water. One night, aching with hunger, Mary Clifford open a cupboard looking for food. Elizabeth discovered this and forced her to work naked the next day with a chain around her neck.

Now you might be asking – what did Elizabeth’s husband and aforementioned son make of all this? Well, the answer is they were willing accomplices. One of Elizabeth’s favourite punishments was to bind the girls hands and haul them up with a rope slung round a water pipe. When that gave way, Elizabeth’s husband hammered a hook into a ceiling beam.

Mary Clifford eventually confided to a French lady lodging in the house that she was being abused terribly. Inevitably, Elizabeth found out and flew at Mary with a fury that included cutting at her tongue with scissors. The parish authorities were persuaded that there was a problem at the Brownrigg house and took the husband into custody. Elizabeth and her son John fled to Wandsworth in disguise renting a room.

Poor Mary Clifford died a few days later. Elizabeth and John’s landlord recognised his lodgers as murderers and turned them in. All three were put on trial where Elizabeth was found guilty of murder but her husband and son got away with just six months in prison. After being hanged, Elizabeth’s body was put in a hackney carriage and taken to Surgeon’s Hall where it was dissected and her skeleton hung up to be viewed by medical students.

Unsolved murders in 1930s Soho

In a seventy year old guide to Soho in my London book collection, there’s a great chapter entitled: Wide Boys, Spivs, Dippers and Steamers. It details the murky criminal underbelly of London’s entertainment district. Because mid-twentieth century Soho was a dangerous place. But also exciting. As the book puts it:

One has only to take a short walk from Great Windmill Street to Charing Cross Road via Old Compton Street to see fifty faces that would fit into the Police Gazette with no trouble at all.

On a street corner, you might see a fence with a jeweller’s magnifying glass screwed into his eye regarding a watch or ring that somebody wanted to sell in a hurry for cash and no questions asked. A former Special Branch officer Detective Inspector Harold Brust stated: “Regarding criminal haunts in London, there are districts which are known as haunts of vice and depravity full of bolt-holes for hunted men. Soho is one such region.” That was his opinion in 1937.

Not surprising really as the previous two years had seen a series of brutal murders in Soho – mainly of prostitutes. “French Fifi” was strangled by a silk stocking in Archer Street. “Red” Max Kassell, who was believed to be the head of a supposed White Slave ring was also killed. Jeanette Cotton was strangled by a silk hanky in her flat on Lexington Street on Thursday, April 16th, 1936. Connie Hine (spelt Hind in another account) was garrotted with piano wire.

In a rather melodramatic turn of phrase, my Soho guide claims:

This trail of homicide led to the formation of the CID’s Vice Squad, which managed to get a line on Soho’s white slavers and dope kings in double-quick time.

In fact, the crimes went unsolved. Local ladies of the night talked to police but it all came to nothing. Once the police lost interest, Soho clammed up on itself. This may be a Soho that’s hard to imagine now – one of poverty, crime, seedy cafes and violence – but it certainly existed. At the close of World War Two, for example, a Canadian officer was killed by a blow to the head with a brick while walking down Bourchier Street – linking Wardour Street and Dean Street. As he lay dying, he was relieved of his wallet.

Who was the notorious London Monster?

Everybody knows about Jack the Ripper but there have – regrettably – been other men who have attacked women in the metropolis. And they had equal notoriety.

One such was the London Monster.

He didn’t actually murder women, unlike the Ripper, but slashed at them in the face or backside. The knives or daggers were reputedly strapped to his knees – as the illustration shows – or concealed in other ways to take his victims by surprise.

London Monster

The London Monster at work – note knives attached to his knees!

Most of the women he attacked seemed to have been ladies of substance – unlike the prostitutes targeted by Jack the Ripper.

And he appears to have suffered from some psychopathic condition that necessitated this curious lashing out.

Eventually, a man, Rhynwick Williams, was apprehended after allegedly attacking a spinster called Ann Porter. It seems to have been his intention to rip at her clothes more than the person inside them.

The court proceedings stated:

RENWICK WILLIAMS , was indicted, for that he, on the 18th of January last, with force and arms, at the parish of St. James, Westminster, in the king’s highway, in a certain public street there, called St. James’s-street , unlawfully, wilfully, maliciously, and feloniously, did make an assault on Ann Porter , spinster , with an intent to tear, spoil, cut, and deface her garments and clothes; and on the same day, with force and arms, in the same public street, wilfully, maliciously, and feloniously, did tear, spoil, cut, and deface her garments: to wit, one silk gown, value 20 s. a pair of stays, value 5 s. a silk petticoat, value 5 s. one other petticoat, value 5 s. a linen petticoat, value 5 s. and a shift, value 5 s. her property, part of her apparel which she had on her person, against the form of the statute, and against the king’s peace, &c.

The opening of the trial was full of hyperbole. The Monster had captured the jaded imaginations of Londoners who had feigned terror at being set upon by this madman. Here’s the opening comments from the trial (source: Old Bailey online):

It is an unpleasant task to call your minds to a scene so new in the annals of mankind; a scene so unaccountable: a scene so unnatural to the honour of human nature, that it could not have been believed ever to have existed, unless it had been demonstrated by that proof which the senses cannot resist: but while we are trying the prisoner at the bar, for this unnatural, unaccountable, and until now, unknown offence, we should not forget that he is our fellow being, and give him an attentive hearing.

The attacks, the prosecution railed, had been against women who were “the most beautiful! the most innocent! the most lovely!” But what puzzled the court was that William didn’t seem to be after their money or any riches.

His attack on Ann Porter had occurred as she returned from a ball in St James’s, Westminster. Unfortunately for Williams, having torn at her clothes, he then paused to stare at her. As a result, his face was etched on her mind. A little later, she spotted Williams in St James’s Park and a male friend chased him to his dwellings. From there he was arrested and put on trial.

Only some historians cast doubt on whether Williams was the London Monster or indeed if such a person even existed. Was it an example of a kind of urban hysteria? Was Ann Porter leaping on the bandwagon of other reported attacks? Or was Williams just mistakenly identified?

Whatever the truth – he got six years in prison.

Teenagers hanged in London – our brutal past!

It’s appalling yet sadly true that in the past, teenagers and even children were hanged at the gallows for crimes like theft and arson. Murder didn’t have to be involved. There was a wide variety of crimes you could be judicially put to death for. And many teenagers were hanged as a consequence.

We don’t know the youngest person to be executed in Britain. And we probably never will as records could be patchy or lost. And names of very young criminals might not have been recorded. However, a certain John Dean was hanged in 1629 for an arson attack on two houses in Windsor. He was either eight or nine years old.

HANGED TEENAGERS – Martha Pillah

Martha Pillah – which might be a misspelling or cockney pronouncing of “Pillow” – was hanged at Tyburn aged 18 in the year 1717. According to the records of the Old Bailey (the London Central Criminal Court), she took six Guineas and 15 shillings from a woman called Elizabeth White. That would have been quite a sum in those days.

Martha was born in Brewers Yard in the parish of St Margaret, Westminster. That’s quite near the Houses of Parliament and full of shops and office blocks today. But up until the mid-19th century, the area was a massive slum lapping on to the steps of parliament. So not the greatest place to grow up.

Still, Martha had got herself apprenticed to a tailor and then left his service to make a living mending men’s clothes. But clearly that didn’t pay enough or she just wanted more money – faster. In the Old Bailey record, she is described as “lewd and lascivious” and ignorant of moral goodness.

That said, it’s also stated that she cried to God for mercy as she was put on the cart from Newgate prison and taken off to Tyburn to entertain the crowd at the end of a rope. This was the grim procession that ordinary Londoners had to make to their execution. First, leaving Newgate prison and then trundling down High Holborn and what is now Oxford Street to be executed at Tyburn – roughly where Marble Arch now stands.

HANGED TEENAGERS: John Lemon and Christopher Ward

Some other teenagers joined her on the same day – 20 May 1717. John Lemon aged 18 and Christopher Ward aged 17. They were both Eastenders from Whitechapel. Their crime was burglary. It’s a familiar commentary in these records that the court notes they knew nothing or little of “religion” or “Christianity”. The assumption being that if they did – they’d have led good lives.

Thomas Price, aged 17, was yet another teenager on the same day – in the same cart from Newgate – off to be hanged. Despite his youth, he’d already served four years at sea. Maybe not so surprising given he’d grown up on the Isle of Wight. But having been discharged from naval service, he went up to London to make his fortune.

Unfortunately what he actually ended up doing was stealing a load of silverware from a certain Dr Guy Mesmin. He tried to deny his involvement in the robbery but eventually caved in and confessed. Furthermore, to the delight of the court, he admitted his wickedness and prayed for divine forgiveness. He was told this would improve his chances of not going to hell – but he was still hanged.

And what a terrible day for teenagers was the 20 May 1717!

HANGED TEENAGERS: Josiah Cony

Because also in the cart with Thomas, Christopher, John and Martha was 18 year-old Josiah Cony. He had broken into the house of William Roy and stolen three “flaxen” sheets and some other goods. Josiah didn’t seem to have any trade. When asked how he made a living, Josiah said part of his time was spent “drawing drink at an Alehouse” and then helping his mother carry “greens” and flowers around the streets.

Well, his poor mother would have to do without his assistance in future. Josiah and the others were just a handful of the thousands of teenagers who undoubtedly swung at Tyburn over the centuries. Life was shorter. More brutal. And teenagers were held to be accountable for their crimes.

Sadly, so were children.

In the year that my house was built – 1829 – a 12-year-old was sentenced to death at the Old Bailey. He had been accused of theft and murder. As was quite common in those days, an advertisement was produced giving all the gory details. Plus a helpful illustration.

In case you’re wondering – surely there would have been some sympathy for a 12 year-old by the year 1829 – think again. Here’s a quote from the advertisement:

With horror we attempt to relate the progress of evil, generally prevailing among children, through the corrupt example of wicked parents: though we are constrained to confess that many a child through bad company, wickedly follow the dictates of their own will, and often bring the hoary heads of honest parents with sorrow to the grave. 

The Dreadful Life and Confession of a Boy aged 12 years

Thanks to the British Library for this dreadful gem!