Jeffrey Green

Jeffrey is a historian
based south of London

038: Uncle Tom and the Chinese laundryman

Following up a Home Office file dated November 1905 (National Archives, Kew HO 144/803/134036 “Executions: Coloured Men Sentenced to Death – Memo of cases of Negroes and other foreigners sentenced to death”) my paper presented at the Institutute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London on 16 September 2009, dealt with the four males of that file, Charles Arthur whose name is pencilled in the file as a case “that might be worth looking at if this question arises again”, and an American actor playing the old slave Uncle Tom who had been arrested after an attack on him in west London in mid-1903.

Charles Arthur, a 34 year old sailor from Barbados (taken on in London), stabbed Captain David Bailie, master of his ship The Dovenby Hall of Liverpool when sailing from San Francisco in 1888. Charged with willful murder he had not been sent to the gallows due to the sheer provocation he had suffered. Thomas Thompson, “a coloured man from the West Indies” killed his wife and lodger David Isaac Phillips in West Hartlepool on 15 May 1899. Brought to England “when I was young”  Thompson, a sailor, had worked out of Liverpool but had moved in 1895. He was spared hanging as he had been provoked by his wife’s relationship with Phillips (who was noted by the newspapers as “coloured” – the HO file is silent on the ethnicity of this victim).

The second man whose name is typed in the government file was William Augustus Lacey who cut his wife’s throat and found no mercy from jury, judge or Home Secretary. “The fact that Lacey was a negro was not regarded as a circumstance requiring to be taken into account”. Newspaper reports add details. He was a 29 year old Jamaican who worked at the Great Western Colliery at Pontypridd and his trial had been in Swansea in early August 1900. A Mr Evans petitioned the Home Office which noted “he is not aware of any negro ever having been reprieved in this country”.

The third man was Ping Lun sometimes spelled Pong Tun and Pang Lun, who had shot a Chinese laundry owner John Go Hung (his business was in Rock Ferry, Birkenhead) on 20 March 1904 in a gambling dispute in Liverpool. His defence lawyer claimed he was drunk. He was hanged.

The fourth man was an Algerian Ferat Mohamed Ben Ali, sentenced to death in July 1905. As with Ping Lun, the defence had no success with the argument that the court should consider that their attitudes to the value of life differed to those held by Britons. Newspaper investigation (not the HO file) reveals that Ben Ali was one of five Algerians who were hawking carpets around villages and towns in Kent, that the trial was in Maidstone 13-14 July 1905, and the Algerian victim had been bludgeoned to death for the money he had collected. Charges against two other Algerians were withdrawn.

That the British Home Office knew that people of colour had been tried for murder between 1888 and 1905 suggests that either there was a cross-indexing system or that departmental memory was at work. If the former then an absence of official segregation cannot be claimed. The evidence from this HO file strongly suggests that justice was fair: two men having their life sentences reduced to imprisonment, three men going to the gallows. But a quick study of the Old Bailey (Central Criminal Court, London) files (oldbaileyonline.org) shows that “Negro” was used to describe individuals (witnesses, victims, the accused) without justification and that some blacks are not described by their ethnicity in these official transcripts up to 1913.

Departmental memory or an index, neither had noted Thomas Allen, a Zulu who was hanged in Swansea in 1889 (see page 088).

What led the Home Office to open this slim file in 1905 is not known.

The black actor Benjamin Curzerpursong is detailed in page 39 of this site. See also page 091 for more details.

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