I sometimes feel like I’ve spent the last three years trying to figure out my place within history. I still feel like there’s probably a huge mountain of scholarship that I’ve completely missed, but in general I’m starting to work out what historiography is (I’m not a historian by background – everyone else just calls it ‘the literature’ or something, it’s only history that has managed to historicise it. Imagine finding your place within the geographography) and what the big debates I need to place myself amongst (and against) are.
In my case, one of the major recent works is James Vernon’s Distant Strangers (2014, University of California Press). Vernon was a speaker at the last MBS conference and was a somewhat confrontational, but definitely thought-provoking, presence. This is not a book review (other than to say 150 pages is a great length) but there’s some really interesting points made. Vernon’s thesis is fairly straightforward: modernity has become a vastly complex concept within history but for him, its apotheosis is that when we became ‘modern’ we became a society of strangers. Vastly higher numbers of people and much greater mobility drove economic, political and cultural changes from the late 18th century more potently than technological change, the imposition of capitalism, or anything like that. By the 20th century we were a society characterised by an abstracted form of government, economy and culture that cannot possibly hope to treat people as individuals with a set of relationships anymore: we are strangers.
It’s pretty persuasive. The whole idea reminds me of names from my geography days: Georg Simmel on alienation and anomie; Ferdinand Tonnies on gemeinschaft and gesellschaft; even back to Adam Smith and Marx on the impact of capitalism on our social worlds. In historiographical mood, I like where this sits in relation to historians like Patrick Joyce, Tom Crook, Chris Otter, Mary Poovey, etc., although I think they would tend to argue that governmentality was enacted more purposefully than accidentally. Myself, I’d argue for a greater focus on the spatial, cultural and psychological effects of urbanisation (I guess my BAVS blog sits in here somewhere).
Complicating the narrative
I’m currently going through my thousands of newspaper clippings to immerse myself in the perceived world of the Stafford Street area of Wolverhampton. These are key sources for me, if highly partial and potentially only reflective of the values of the newspapers themselves. I’m reading them for the information behind the stories – who lived in this area, what were they doing there. Crime stories are useful for this; there’s often an abundance detail to pick through about my neighbourhood and its residents. I came across the murder of Anne Spencer in December 1824, and I think it shows what I mean. Thomas Powell (c.1793-1825), “a young man of florid complexion and mean appearance” was charged with murdering the elderly lady “by striking her upon the right temple with a hammer, and under the left ear, with a pitchfork” and stealing clothes. He was found guilty and sentenced to death by Mr Justice Littledale the following year.
The murder of Anne Spencer
The Gorse-house, where the Spencers lived, was described by Anne’s husband Edward as a “very bad neighbourhood,” and they had been robbed before. (For reference, this was roughly at the island near Tarmac, just off the M54). This was a very rural area, and it’s hardly a surprise that many of the witnesses called from the area knew all of the others. Wolverhampton was evidently the market town – John Stubbs had been there and was heading back home along Stafford Street when he met two strangers carrying a bundle of clothes. But Mary Nichols knew them. She lived in Canal Street and was drinking at the Leathern Bottle on 22nd December. By this time, she says, Powell was alone and carrying the clothes when she looked out of the window at half past three. She recognised him as a fellow-patron of the Leathern Bottle, where he would often come to play cards.
Mary Harding also knew Powell. She lived in Carribee Island at the time, and Powell came to her home between 6 and 7pm with some clothes for her to mend (the court had established he had pawned the stolen items). His left hand was covered in blood (“he was subject to bleeding at the nose” and this was the reason given on that night) and his request for water shows something of the character of the house: Harding had none. He washed it in potato water instead, dried himself off and stated his intentions: off to the Leathern Bottle for a card game.
Harding was not alone in the house, and other statements corroborated hers: Anne Richards was there, and Sarah Purshouse. Harding no longer lived in Carribee Island by the time of the trial: she was “now kept by a young man” but had to stipulate that she “never was intimate with the prisoner.” The implication of the line of questioning is clear: someone living in such a place must have been prone to immorality (poverty being closely related in the public eye at this time), and the presence of two other young women: well!
Assistant Constable John Sparrow enters court now. He was helping PC Diggory who was leading the investigation, and had searched a “house of ill fame” near Darlington Street that same evening. He had seen a “wild” looking Powell in bed with one Ann Griffiths there, but as the murder investigation was not yet underway, had not made any link. He had been living at the Wheat Sheaf, they discovered and anyway couldn’t have been murdering anyone – he was at the Three Crowns on Dudley Street from 12 to 1 on that day. Sparrow walked to the Spencer’s house to test out the theory – it took 55 minutes. Mrs Spencer had been seen alive at 2pm on the day, so it was certainly feasible to get there in time…
Mary Spilsbury, landlady at the Three Crowns, knew Powell too. He had been employed there as a brewer, and was seen by her the morning of the murder, then later, at around 4pm. At that point he turned up asking whether she’d heard of the murder, where it was, how long it would take a man to get there, and so on. Mrs Spilsbury had heard wrong, but gave an interesting answer anyway: that the site was 6-7 miles away, but a man could do it in just over an hour. That’s about twice as fast as I usually walk, although this possibly says more about me… Jane Lansdale – Mary Spilsbury’s niece – had seen him then too. Another pub gets a look in too, as an alibi – William Edwards (aka “Codsall Will”) was accused by the prisoner of handing him the clothes, but he had been with Charles Leeke. They had gone first to the coal pits (perhaps to look for work) then to the Minerva, just outside town, then to the Spread Eagle on Cock Street (that’s about where Beatties is now).
For his part, Powell denied everything, alleging a personal vendetta by PC Diggory who had, he claimed, been caught in an act of impropriety by Powell for which this was revenge. It cut little mustard with the judge or jury.
Thomas Powell and the distance of strangers
A prosecutor looks for witnesses that can corroborate her or his case, and it’s no surprise that several people here knew the accused. Nevertheless, we can trace networks of employment, of leisure (both on the right and wrong sides of law and contemporary morality), of credit, and of sociability just by looking at Thomas Powell’s day around Wolverhampton. He had acquaintances like Mary Nichols who knew him from the pub, and Ann Griffiths from the brothel. Mary Harding he knew perhaps as a seamstress, perhaps as something more (a Terry Pratchett fan would be able to make the obvious link here). He had worked as a brewer, but I wonder if at other times he’d wandered the coal pits with William Edwards looking for employment.
James Vernon’s thesis of a society of strangers is a compelling one, and there’s much in this story to suggest that as the world was growing and cities becoming, things were getting ‘stranger’. Powell wasn’t recognised out at Gorse Cottage, or by the pawnbroker in Darlington Street, and the connections between other witnesses were tenuous at best. But this shows another side to the modernity of strangers: that networks and relationships of various qualities and depths were still at the heart of everyday life in the 19th century; as they remain.
I think Vernon would take his own thesis as a starting point rather than a grand meta-narrative. As this (and, I suspect, a lot more of my research) shows, ‘distance’ and ‘strangeness’ were fluid. People knew each other on different levels: some not at all, some by sight, some as employers, some as friends, some as clients, some as lovers. Teasing those relationships apart and thus representing the everyday world of the ‘ordinary people’ is a vital exercise. It challenges the abstraction that undoubtedly was a characteristic of modern governance; and it puts back into history the life worlds of those that are otherwise seen as alienated victims of modernity.
 The Times, 17th March 1825; Staffordshire Advertiser, 19th March 1825