Police Brutality, Race and Racism in the 1885 Nottingham Election

In 1885, a black American was convicted as the ring-leader of an election riot in Nottingham. This blogpost describes the accusations of police brutality which likely sparked the riot, examines how a black American come to be arrested and prosecuted, and explores associated accusations of racism.

Did police brutality spark the riots?

It is in many ways unexceptional that there was a riot in the 1885 election in Nottingham. As Richard Floyd (2008) notes, ‘outright bribery and riot’ were routine features of elections in the city. Our Election Violence database records that Nottingham experienced some form of violence in nine of the ten general elections between 1832 and 1885. This included several riots.

Earlier election riot in Marketplace, Nottingham (1865)

There is no uncontested account of the cause of the 1885 election riot in Nottingham, but there was considerable evidence presented in court that police brutality played a role. Rev J.H. Hollowell, a Nonconformist minister who was authorised to watch the counting of the votes, gave evidence. He asserted that he saw only one streetlamp broken by locals, having watched the disturbance for some hours from a committee room. He did, however, notice four or five policemen repeatedly run up to detached knots of people who were standing quietly, proceeding to strike them violently with staves.

There were calls for a public enquiry into the conduct of the police because of the many allegations of ‘reckless charging of the people by the police’, and the ‘brutality with which they used their truncheons on the evening of the polling’. During the election, the local force had been augmented by drafts of policemen from the surrounding county, as well as Birmingham, Derbyshire and Lancashire. Sixty-four people injured by the police employed Mr W.H. Stevenson to represent them at a hearing.

Who was the black American in Nottingham?

Andrew Drayton (c.1853-1914?) was born in Charleston, South Carolina around 1853. He had travelled to England by the age of 18, when the national sporting press covered his loss in a two-man, four-mile race, to the well-known runner Jack Brighton. The prize on offer had been £20 – roughly £1250 today, or 100 days wages for a skilled tradesman.

He was first arrested for being drunk and riotous a month after this defeat, charged with attacking a police officer who threw him out of a bar in Watford. By 1885, he had worked as a collier in Nottingham for a decade – newspapers record a long history of arrests for drinking and fighting (often with police). He was charged with various combinations of drunkenness and fighting in May 1875, November 1878, April 1882, November 1883, April 1884 and July 1885, as well as for stealing fowls in January 1880. After the 1885 election, he married a presumably white ‘Englishwoman’, Elizabeth, in 1887. In 1892 he was convicted of assaulting her when drunk.

What was Drayton’s role in the riots?

Drayton was accused of marshalling the rioters (allegedly numbering 4-500) through the streets of Nottingham and directing their actions. The police reported that he was seen ‘leading the people, waving his hat and shouting ‘Come on lads, follow me’ .. [and then later] directing the crowd to ‘charge here’ and ‘fire a volley there’”. There are numerous accounts of Drayton, together with other drunken working-class men, running through the streets of Nottingham outwith election periods, and clashing with the police as they sought to rescue each other from arrest. One possibility is that this prior experience caused Drayton to take a leading role in advising the crowd how to avoid contact with the police.

Is there evidence of racism in the treatment of Drayton?

Drayton was identified as the ring-leader of the election riot, though many others were charged and prosecuted. His case alone was thought to be serious enough to merit referral to the Quarter-sessions. Although Drayton was very familiar to the police, there was little to distinguish his actions from the other participants in the riot whose cases were treated differently. It is difficult to believe that racism did not play a part in these decisions. Certainly that is the way in which Drayton himself saw things – though the newspaper reporter disregarded his sincerity. In his defence Drayton ‘addressed the jury in a somewhat amusing manner, asserting that he was innocent of the charge brought against him and that there was prejudice against him in consequence of his being a man of colour.’

Gidon Cohen is Associate Professor in the School of Government and International Affairs, Durham University, and Co-Investigator on the Victorian Election Violence project. He researches British political development using qualitative and quantitative methods, and is Director of the Centre for Institutions and Political Behaviour. His latest article is Gidon Cohen and Sarah Cohen (2019) ‘Depolarization, Repolarization and Redistributive Ideological Change in Britain, 1983-2016’, British Journal of Political Science, https://doi.org/10.1017/S0007123419000486

Newspaper sources retrieved 2019, via British Newspaper Archive. Newspaper Images © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED)

Sporting Life, 4 August 1869

Herts Advertiser, 25 September 1869

Nottingham Journal, 29 May 1875

Derby Mercury, 31 July 1878

Derbyshire Advertiser and Journal, 9 January 1880

Nottinghamshire Guardian, 8 November 1878

Nottingham Evening Post, 11 April 1882

Nottingham Evening Post, 16 November 1883

Nottingham Evening Post, 16 April 1884

Nottingham Evening Post, 8 July 1885

Nottingham Evening Post, 15 January 1886

Nottingham Evening Post, 22 October 1892

J. V. Beckett, ‘Parliament and the Localities: The Borough of Nottingham’, Parliamentary History (1998), 17:1, pp. 58-67

J. V. Beckett, ‘The Nottingham Reform Bill Riot of 1831’, Parliamentary History (2005), 24:51, pp. 114-138

Richard Floyd, ‘Religion and Politics in an Industrial Midland City: The Case of Nottingham’, in Church, Chapel and Party: Religious Dissent and Political Modernization in Nineteenth-Century England (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).

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