life stories

Henry Hanshard, 1822 – 1848

Henry Hanshard had been among the crowd at a meeting of Chartist and Irish Confederates in Novia Scotia Gardens, but was most likely already on his way home when he was attacked by a contingent of London policemen. He is remembered as one of the three Bethnal Green Chartist Martyrs.

The summer of 1848 saw the last of London’s great Chartist monster meetings take place at Bonner’s Fields on the borders of Bethnal Green and Hackney. It was here on 4 June that Henry Hanshard was bludgeoned by the police so badly that he died of his injuries.

St Matthew’s, Bethnal Green, where Henry Hanshard was baptised.

Hanshard was 26 years old. Born in Bethnal Green on 23 February 1822 and baptised at the parish church of St Matthew’s on 17 March, he was the son of William and Sarah Hansard. The family were silk weavers, and on his father’s side Henry was descended, as was common among London silk weavers, from Huguenots who had fled France some hundred and fifty years before he was born.

Silk weavers formed a significant body within London Chartism, and particularly in the ranks of the radical London Democratic Association. The first historian of Chartism, W. G. Gammage wrote that ‘the main strength of the Democratic Association lay among the distressed and starving Spitalfields weavers’. So though Hanshard’s name does not appear in records of the movement before 1848, it is likely that he was at the very least a supporter of the cause and more than possible that he considered himself a committed Chartist. He would certainly be claimed as such by the movement after his death, and no one seems to have dissented.

The meeting Hanshard attended on 4 June had been called primarily to protest at the conviction of the editor of the United Irishman John Mitchel under the oppressive new Treason Felony Act. Though small in size, attracting probably no more than 8,000 protestors, the meeting’s mood was, according to the historian Malcolm Chase, ‘confrontational’.

Among the speakers were Feargus O’Connor’s loyal deputy Ernest Jones; the veteran London Democrat Joseph Williams; and Alexander Sharp, who represented Tower Hamlets in the Chartist National Assembly, all of whom would be imprisoned for sedition as a result.

The initial ‘monster meeting’, called for 10am at Novia Scotia Gardens, attracted just a few hundred protesters, according to the historian David Goodway, ‘yet the police decision to disrupt proceedings roused the adjoining neighbourhood of Bird Cage Walk, Virginia Row and Gibraltar Walk (between Hackney Road and the eastern half of the modern Bethnal Green Road)’. Forty constables, six sergeants and a police inspector, backed by eight or ten with drawn swords and numerous special constables were confronted by a crowd of thousands.

Later that day, there would be further violence between police and crowds at Bonner’s Fields, and when thousands of protesters refused to disperse, detachments of the police brought in from divisions elsewhere in London ran amok. ‘They moved into the surrounding streets of Bethnal Green pursuing fugitives from the Fields, bursting into houses and assaulting churchgoers in their indiscriminate attacks,’ writes Goodway. Many reports say that the police were drunk, and a thick file of letters of protest about their behaviour survives in the archives of the Home Office.

Inquest report: Weekly Dispatch, 25 June 1848. Click for larger version.

But it appears that Hanshard came by his injuries in the morning’s unrest.

Making his way home, Hanshard met Mary Simpson, ‘a married woman, residing in Great-garden-street, Mile-end’ who had known him since he was a boy of ten, as the Weekly Dispatch later reported (26 June 1848). He showed her his back observing ‘see how they have served me’. He told Mrs Simpson that he had been in Birdcage-walk that morning when he was struck by three policemen. ‘He was “knocked by one like a bullock,” and was afterwards struck by the other two policemen’.

Just over a week after the meeting, on 12 June, the injured man’s friends took him to Bethnal Green Workhouse, where he died. The surgeon there, Frederick Agar, was dismissive, later claiming that Hanshard had been suffering from typhus fever, and that this was what killed him. Hanshard, he told a coroner’s inquest, had been ‘delirious’ when he talked about the events of 4 June (Weekly Dispatch, 25 June 1848).

However, the inquest heard very different evidence from a Dr Moore, who had carried out a post mortem on Hanshard’s body. He said he had seen ‘considerable puffiness’ on the back of Hanshard’s head, and that when he removed the top of the skull he found further evidence of swelling in the brain. He concluded: ‘I should say that the injuries at the back and side of the head were the effects of external violence by a blow from some person or by a fall.’ The jury returned a verdict, ‘that the deceased died of violence received from blows in and upon his body on the 4th of June; but how and by what means such violence was caused, no evidence appeared to the said jury’.

Police in Bonner’s Fields, June 1848. From the Illustrated London News (17 June 1848).

There was, of course, no further official attempt to find out who might have been responsible. But the Morning Advertiser (26 June 1848) reported that a meeting of the Broad-silk Hand-loom Weavers Union at the Crown and Anchor in Waterloo Town, Bethnal Green, had claimed Hanshard as one of their own. Mr Vandome, a good Hunguenot name, told the meeting that ‘for some time the deceased man had worked with him, and he could bear testimony to the deceased’s loyal feeling, and general good character. Indeed, he was a steady, well-disposed man, and respected by all who knew him.’

A Mr Gurnell added: ‘They, as brother tradesmen, well knew the deceased man, who was a quiet, inoffensive person, and they would not have taken up the case had they not known such to be the fact.’ Though the inquest had been unable to say who struck the blows that killed Hanshard, other witnesses had since been found who could give ‘most satisfactory testimony’ as to who was responsible. Mr De La Force, another French name, proposed that the union should make its own inquiries and present any evidence it found to the coroner in the hope of reopening the case.

The funeral that followed was in the best tradition of Chartist and radical ceremonies. The Northern Star reported that before 2 o’clock on Sunday 25 June, ‘the Whittington and Cat, Crown and Anchor, Globe and Friends, Sir Walter Scott, Grey’s Coffee House, and other Chartist houses were crowded with persons anxious to testify their respect to the worth of their departed brother’ (1 July 1848). The Morning Advertiser too reported that ‘a large concourse of people’ had gathered in Abbey Street and Bethnal Green Road for the funeral, adding that it had been paid for by ‘men connected with the silk trade’ (26 June 1848).

Shortly before four o’clock in the afternoon, a procession several thousand strong set off for Victoria Park Cemetery. ‘The committee of interment headed the procession, bearing wands, upon the tips of which were tied the insignia of mourning. Dr M’Douall, Mr M’Crae, and other well known Chartists, led the vast column of attendants, which reached nearly the whole length of the Bethnal-green-road,’ reported the Advertiser. According to the Star, the Emmett Brigade of Irish Confederates had been ‘most conspicuous’ among the crowd.

The coffin, on which was a plate carrying an inscription noting that Hanshard had met his death by violence which he himself had declared was inflicted by the police, was taken to the cemetery beneath a black cloth studded with white nails. At the graveside, Mr Higgins, who had been dismissed from a role the City Mission for his criticisms of the police actions at Bonner’s Fields, ‘in a pious address’, committed the body to the earth. M’Doaull in turn gave ‘a long address’ of his own, while M’Crae concluded the ceremony with ‘a protracted prayer’.

Advertising leaflet for Victoria Park Cemetery, c 1850.

The Star reported that, ‘the effect was much heightened by the appearance of the aged father and mother of the deceased, who was the main support of his venerable parents’. It added: ‘We learn that a considerable sum was collected on the occasion, which we understand is to be devoted to the support of the aged couple who have been so mercilessly deprived of their only son.’

Hanshard’s killer was never brought to justice. In due course, however, a monument to Hanshard and his fellow ‘Chartist martyrs’ Joseph Williams and Alexander Sharp would be erected above his grave. The monument was probably still there when the cemetery was cleared and turned into a park in 1894. The park is known today as Meath Gardens.

Sources and further reading
London Chartism: 1838-1848 by David Goodway, Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Police conduct: Complaints Against, Mar-Aug 1848, Records of the Metropolitan Police (MEPO 2/66)

The Northern Star, Morning Advertiser and Weekly Dispatch are all available in digital format in the British Newspaper Archive.