A CAST OF THOUSANDS
BY CHRISTOPHER SCOTT
Albert Backert is a fascinating character in the course of the Whitechapel murders. He hovers round the edges of the case and the investigation like a moth drawn to Jack's ghastly flame. Whether he was a public minded individual who, by way of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee and his other involvements, did all he could to protect the area where he lived and its inhabitants, or a self-publicist who intruded himself into the investigation to the point of obsessive behaviour, one has to decide for oneself.
He was certainly very actively involved in the activities of the Vigilance Committee, eventually becoming its Chairman and he participated directly in the apprehension of one suspect arrested in the Aldgate area, disarming the man himself. He was also the source of a very early version of what was to become the "lodger" story, claiming to have been approached by an unnamed woman who was convinced that a boarder at her house was, in fact, the Whitechapel murderer.
Backert is also unusual in that press accounts enable us to follow his activities after the period of the Whitechapel killings. He became an activist in the labour movement, moved in exalted circles, having meetings with the Lord Mayor of London and the Dean of St. Paul's, was involved in a counterfeiting case and eventually was committed to prison for theft.
We must first consider the matter of Backert's surname. This is regularly rendered in the records as either Backert or Bachert. What I believe to be the record of his birth, in 1860, the surname is recorded as Bachert. Both the 1871 and 1881 census records give his surname as Bachert but in 1891 he is listed as Backert in the 1891 return. In 1901 his surname is rendered differently, as will be explained below.
Press reports, despite some instances of the Bachert spelling, give his name most often as Backert. Albert was of German origin, his father being born in Mecklenburg and his mother in Hanover. I suspect that this makes the Bachert spelling more likely to be the original form, but I will adopt the Backert variant as this is by far the more common in the available records.
The question of Albert's date of birth and age is not an easy one to resolve. In the 1871 data his age is given as 8 years of age, which would place his birth in or around 1863. However, I have checked the BMD registers for the period 1860 to 1865 and the only possible entry that could refer to him is the record of a William Albert Bachert, whose birth was registered in Whitechapel in the last quarter of 1860. If this is indeed the Albert Backert under discussion, then his actual age at the time of the 1871 census would have been 10 years old.
However, the extraordinary nature of the ages recorded for Backert in successive censuses make this two-year discrepancy seem positively trivial. In 1871 he is recorded as 8 years old, in 1881 he is 18 years old, in 1891 he is 22 years old and in 1901 his age is given as 26! I have in the course of my researches seen some wildly varied ages given over the course of different returns for what is undoubtedly the same individual, but this is probably the most extreme example I have encountered.
In 1871 the household is noted as living at 49 Duke Street, Aldgate, and the details are given as follows:
John Bachert aged 39 born Mecklenburg - Tailor
Georgina Bachert aged 36 born Hanover
Augusta aged 15
Albert aged 8
Emily aged 6
Flora aged 1
All children listed as born in London
By 1881, the family had moved to 13 Newnham Street, London, where they were to stay for some considerable time. Their details are given as follows for that year:
John Bachert aged 49 born Germany (BS) - Tailor
Georgina Bachert aged 48 born Germany (BS)
Albert aged 18 born London - Engraver (Art)
Emily aged 16 born Tower Hamlets- Tailoress
Flora aged 11 born Tower Hamlets
(The abbreviation BS indicates that the person is a British Subject, although foreign born.)
The Backerts were still at 13 Newnham Street at the time of the 1891 census:
John Backert aged 50 born Meckleburg, Germany (BS) - Tailor
Georgina Backert aged 49 born Hanover Germany
Albert aged 22 born Whitechapel - Copper plate engraver
Flora aged 19 born Whitechapel
Arthur Steff aged 36 born Stettin, Germany - Mercantile Clerk
Charles Wagner born Steetin, Germany - Wine traveller
It was no easy task to find Albert in 1901, a situation complicated by the fact that his name was recorded as Albert Becker. But I am confident that I have found him. By that year he had moved to Sidney Street and was living with his sister Flora. The following facts convince me he is the right person:
- His trade is given still as engraver
- he is listed as brother of the head of household who is one Flora Stiffens. We know from the 1891 census that Albert Backert had a sister named Flora and there is a listing in June 1894 of a Flora Bachert (sic) marrying a Robert Charles Steffen.
The address for Albert in 1901 is 42 Sidney Street, Mile End. This was the scene of the famous siege of 1911. The listing is as follows for 1901:
Stiffens aged 31 - married - born Mile End
Robert aged 6
George aged 4
Rosa aged 2
Annie M aged 1 month
Albert Becker aged 26 - single - born Mile End - Engraver.
Two press accounts recount Backert's direct involvement of the Whitechapel case. The first is from The Times of 20th July 1889, shortly after the murder in Castle Alley of Alice McKenzie.
The neighbourhood of Castle alley, the scene of Wednesday's murder, was last night again thrown into the wildest excitement by an attack on another of the class of women who have been selected for the victims of the recent murders in this district. A woman was heard crying in East Aldgate for help. In the frame of mind that the populace were then it needed but little alarm to bring a thousand persons together in a remarkably short time, especially in the main thoroughfare at 10 o'clock in the evening.
It was about a quarter to 10, when a woman - one of those females whose attire is peculiar to the district - was seen to approach with a man from a dark portion of the thoroughfare near the Aldgate East Station, Whitechapel. The pair did not remain long at the corner before the woman was heard to cry aloud, "No! I won't." The man then seized her, dragged her a short distance along the ground, and flung her upon the kerb.
He seized her hair with one hand and with the other produced a knife, with which he struck her. Her screams of "Jack the Ripper" and "Murder" soon attracted attention, and crowds of men and women ran from all directions to the spot when the screams proceeded. The woman was struggling with her assailant, and the blood with which she was covered gave rise to the dreadful suspicion that she was in the hands of the dreaded and mysterious murderer.
Amongst those who first arrived on the scene were several members of the local vigilance association, who have only just recommenced their work, and before the man had time to get far he was seized, and a struggle ensued. It was seen that the man had a long knife in his hand, and it was some time before he could be deprived of it. It was eventually taken from him, but even then his fight for liberty was determined, and in the fray the woman crawled away.
Police whistles were heard in all directions, and soon a great number of officers, both of the City and metropolitan force, were on the scene. When the police came up the man was cut and bleeding profusely from wounds inflicted by the mob, who had raised the cry of "Lynch him," and were throwing all kinds of missiles at him. Under a strong escort of City and metropolitan police he was got to the Commercial street police station, where he was charged.
When asked whether he had anything to say in reply to the charge he replied, "The woman robbed me." When asked why he drew the dagger, he replied, "In self defence." He said he was a sailor and gave a Scotch name, and said he arrived from South Shields about a week ago. When asked where he was on the morning of the 17th inst. he said he could not say. He did not know where he had stayed whilst in London. On being searched a smaller knife was found in his possession, together with a seaman's discharge.
Albert Backert, of 13 Newnham street, Whitechapel, one of the Vigilance Committee, who seized the knife and whose clothes were blood stained, has made a statement which tallies in every respect with the foregoing account and in the course of which he says that the assailant held the woman's hair in the right hand and the knife in the left."
The second account relates in great detail the story of Backert's being approached by a woman who gave him details of a lodger of hers whose behaviour had given her grave cause for concern. This is a long account but I am quoting it in full as I feel it is of importance as an early incarnation of what was to become a familiar motif and surfaced in the stories of G. Wentworth Bellsmith, Sickert's lodger story as recounted to Osbert Sitwell, and, of course, the story and film of "The Lodger" as recounted by Mrs. Belloc Lowndes. The account below was published in an Australian newspaper, The Port Philip Herald, and appeared on the 22nd November 1890.
REPORTED CLUE TO THE MURDERER
A SENSATIONAL STORY
"The People", a London Conservative paper, has the following remarkable statement regarding the supposed perpetration of the Whitechapel murders in the issue of 12th October last:
"A number of curious and interesting details have transpired with regard to the story of a woman who, in an interview with Mr. Blackert (sic), chairman of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee, declared that she knew the man who committed the late mysterious murders. The letter sent by Mr. Blackert to the press for publication is quoted below, and the statement therein contained are of an extraordinary character. A reporter, in the course of inquiries yesterday, however, ascertained some important facts.
The police have for the past fortnight been exceedingly vigilant, and owing to the recurrence of the threatening letters various extra precautions have been taken in order to detect the offender should another murder be attempted. Though the authorities have protested against attaching any importance to the strange communications, the latter have produced much sensation in the East end, and are one of the causes which have led to the extraordinary statement of the woman.
Her story, the chief fact of which she has endeavored to keep secret, is a very strange one. Much difficulty was experienced in obtaining it, the chief reason being that she is hiding her identity, as she does not wish to be mixed up in the affair, and declares that she is afraid the man she suspects will do her bodily injury. So careful has she been that the police had not up to yesterday afternoon, succeeded in finding her, or obtaining the following details of her statement.
It appears that while living on the top floor of a block of model dwellings in the neighborhood of Aldgate, a man engaged on the floor below a bed-room, with lumber-room adjoining, and paid her to keep the former clean, her occupation being that of an office cleaner. The lumber-room, which maintained a sink, was always kept locked, and although she did a portion of his washing, it was evident he did much of it himself.
She describes him as young, of middle height, well built, with a small, fair moustache and light brown hair, although she had frequently remarked that he had means by which he made his moustache and eyebrows much darker on some occasions than others. His movements during the time the murders were occurring were very mysterious. He had not the appearance of a workingman and admitted that his parents, although in a good position, would have nothing to do with him, as he had been a scapegrace. His brother, who she understood was a doctor, visited him on two occasions and appeared much older than he.
She has no doubt the man she suspects is English, but he spoke with a nasal twang, evidently affected, and used the word "Boss" very frequently in conversation. He usually rose at two in the afternoon, and would go out about five o'clock, invariably wearing a tall hat and dressed very respectably, but as he had a large number of suits of clothes, he often dressed differently, or as she puts it: "He was a man who could so alter his appearance that if you met him in the street once you would not know him again."
His clothes were mostly of the best quality, and included dress, shooting and morning suits. On one occasion he gave the woman a dark-coloured overcoat to sell, and she offered it to the wife of a workingman. The latter, however, pointed out that it was so stained with blood that she would not let her husband wear it. The patches, which were of a dull brown, were thought by the woman to be paint, but when she returned it to the mysterious lodger with an intimation that she could not sell it because of the blood, he laughed lightly, saying the stains were nothing.
Nevertheless he burnt the coat, for she subsequently discovered the remains, together with the horn buttons, in the grate. As the murders were committed, her suspicions were increased, but she did not communicate them to anyone until the day following the discovery of the body in Pinchin Street. She went to clean the bedroom as usual, when she found upon the three mats footmarks of blood, and upon one a large clot of the same substance.
She then spoke of her suspicions to an official connected with the model dwellings but he evidently believing that an arrest would bring the buildings into disrepute, advised her to say nothing of the matter. As time went on, and the murders continued, she saw in his room many articles which were blood stained, although he never would allow her to enter the room alone, but remained with her while she performed her work.
The lumber-room she never entered, for he kept the key, and on occasion when she wished to enter it for various purposes he always told her to go upstairs to her own apartments. With regard to the "Jack the Ripper" post-cards, the man always wrote his letters in red ink, of which he had a large bottle on the mantel-shelf. Upon the same shelf, too, she first noticed one brass wedding ring, but the number was afterwards increased until there were five, and these he left when he suddenly disappeared.
On one occasion she found a piece of dirty rag screwed up and concealed behind a chest of drawers. This she discovered to be a portion apparently from a woman's print apron, and on taking it upstairs she saw it was blood stained. She washed it, and has it still in her possession. The pattern of the apron may form an important clue. The most remarkable fact, however, is that on the night of each of the murders he was absent, returning at early morning. On the morning of the Castle Alley murder he disappeared, having previously sold the whole of his belongings.
A representative of the "People" who visited Whitechapel last night succeeded in obtaining some additional particulars which add considerably to the sensational character of the woman's story. She states that several times during the period the man lived in the model dwellings she informed her husband of her suspicions, but until the discovery of the blood upon the mats, he treated the matter indifferently.
Afterwards, however, he urged her to make a statement to the police, but the reason she refused was owing to the representations made to her by the official connected with the buildings. The strange man she describes an accomplished linguist and able to speak French and German fluently as she frequently heard him in conversation with some foreigners who lived on the same floor.
His general demeanour was sullen and uncommunicative, although at times he would speak freely of his relations, who, according to his account, were in good positions, one brother, the doctor who visited him, residing in the neighborhood of Oxford street. He also told her he had travelled for several years in the United States and Canada, and that the refusal of his relations to recognise him preyed upon his mind. One incident she relates is particularly gruesome.
His favorite dish was sheep's liver, which he usually ate several times a week, and on entering his room on one occasion he had a quantity of it upon the table. He offered her some, which she accepted. She cooked it for dinner for herself and her husband, but after they had both eaten a small quantity the latter remarked upon its unusual color. They agreed that it tasted peculiar, and subsequently she threw it away.
Later the same day she again went into the man's room, and it was then she observed him packing up a portion of the liver, and addressing it to the Chairman of the Vigilance Committee. Her horror when it was afterwards stated that the packet the committee received contained a portion of human viscera, may readily be imagined. Upon another occasion she found secreted in the room a colored linen shirt, the cuffs and sleeves of which were still wet with blood.
She did not remove it, but on the next day, when entering the room, she observed that the shirt, which had been washed, was hanging upon a chair and drying before the fire. She also states that the man was in the habit if spending his evenings at the Tuns (?), at Aldgate, and was well known among the regular customers at that house. He usually sat in the private bar, and on many occasions she saw him carrying beer in cans up to his room.
Another fact that increased her suspicions was that immediately after one of the murders he locked up his rooms and remained away for about two months, during which period no crimes of this particular character were reported in the vicinity. When he returned, he remarked that he had been living in the West End, but was glad to return to his old lodgings, as in the West people kept such a strict watch over a person's movements, when in the East he was not subjected to that annoyance.
Three nights afterwards another murder was perpetrated with the same daring, and enshrouded in the same mystery as its predecessors. So convinced was she that he was the Whitechapel murderer, and so frequently did she observe blood in his room that she gradually grew to regard him with awe, and this, in a great measure accounts for her previous silence. Throughout the whole period his conduct was so strange that it could scarcely fail to awaken suspicion, and this, together with the licked room, and the mysterious boxes, which he admitted contained things he could not allow to be seen even if it cost him his life, were circumstances, which caused both husband and wife much conjecture. There was little doubt, too, that he sent communications to the Press Association and Central News, for she declares that she once saw either envelopes or postcards addressed to them, although she believes that those she saw were subsequently destroyed.
After he had disappeared so mysteriously prior to the Castle Alley murder, he sent her a letter, which she received on the following day, stating that he had met with an accident, and that she need not expect him home. It was eventually discovered, however, that before his departure he had sold all his belongings - including many suits of clothes and several revolvers - to a ship's mate, who, a few days later, called and took them away.
After the lapse of a few weeks, the woman and her husband removed from the model dwellings to the house in which they now reside, and as the sensation caused by the mysterious crimes died out of the public mind, so the suspicion seems to have died out of her's until three days ago.
On Wednesday evening she was walking in Commercial road, when, to her astonishment, she recognised the man, standing on the kerb in conversation with a well known tradesman of the district, whose name she declines to divulge, but who, she has ascertained, is a friend of his. The fact of the recent "Jack the Ripper" letters, coupled with his sudden reappearance, again aroused her suspicions and she subsequently discovered his abode, also that during his absence from the East End he has married.
She has seen his wife, and had entered into conversation with her. The latter she describes as a rather pretty young woman of about twenty-five, but whose face wears a strange look; and by whose manner she same to the conclusion that it was slightly deranged. The woman has not the slightest doubt as to the sanity of the man. She firmly adheres to her statement, and, according to the person who was present when she told her story to Mr. Backert, she declares herself unable to keep the secret any longer.
Although she is endeavoring to avoid being interrogated by the police, there is reason to believe that the latter are already making most diligent inquiries into the truth of the statement and endeavoring to discover the individual she refers to. It is known that he lives near Aldgate Station.
Mr Albert Backert, Chairman of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee, has written the following letter to the Chronicle:
"In connection with the late Whitechapel murders, the most remarkable and sensational statement was made to me this morning at my place. At eleven o'clock this morning a very respectable middle-aged woman called at my house, and wished to see me. She was asked in, and then made the following statement to me, which she declared was all quite true:
About two years ago, she said, she was living in the model dwellings close by here and had a bedroom to let, furnished. A young man called and engaged the room. After living some time with her he stated that he had been to sea, and that at the present time he was receiving £1 a week from his father, and was also receiving an allowance from his brother, who was a doctor, and that he did not work himself.
She also noticed that he had plenty of clothes, including hunting breeches, revolvers, guns, and many other articles, which an ordinary workingman would not have. He had the door key, and could go out and in at all hours of the night, and used generally to get up about 5 p.m., but she could not say what time he arrived home at night.
On several occasions she noticed that his towels were very bloodstained, for which he accounted by saying that he was fond of painting, and had wiped his brush on them. She also stated that she knew he had sent the liver, because one afternoon she happened to go to his room, and saw him with several pieces of liver on a newspaper, which he stated he had got from a New Zealand boat, as he knew a friend who was on board a frozen mutton boat.
She saw him pack it in the box and address it to the then Chairman of the Vigilance Committee. He also put some papers into different envelopes, which he intended sending to the Central News and the Press Association, and the police, but he forgot them, and she threw them into the dustbin. She noticed also that he had several brass wedding rings on the mantel shelf, and on one or two occasions he brought home a white apron blood stained, and gave them to her, which she has at the present time.
He always seemed to have plenty of money, and on the morning of the last murder (the Castle Alley) he left and has never returned. He left a pair of silent shoes, several bags, which she says are blood stained, and a long overcoat, which is also blood stained. I asked her if she had been to the police, and she said she had not, as she was afraid of getting into trouble for not having given information before. She said she could hold the secret no longer, and also feels convinced that the man she had lodging with her was the real "Jack the Ripper" and Whitechapel murderer.
I feel sure that she was in earnest about this statement and she appeared very nervous, and did not wish her name to be published. I have no doubt that the police will make inquiries into the statement at once, and I directed her to go to Leman street to give all particulars. I may add that there was another person present when this statement was made this morning." Backert attracted the attention of a writer claiming to be the killer himself and alluded to an incident reported in the Times in which Backert gave details of a conversation with a "shabby genteel" man in the Three Nuns Hotel, Aldgate, on the night of Catherine Eddowes' murder in Mitre Square. This man asked questions about "loose women" in the area and where they could be found. On the 20th October 1888 Backert received a postcard (addressed to "Toby Baskett") at 13 Newnham Street. This letter read;
"Dear Old Baskett,
You only tried to get yer name in the papers when you thought you had me in the Three Tuns (sic) Hotel. I'd like to punch yer bleeding nose.
Jack the Riper (sic)."
Backert's reaction to this communication is not recorded.
I noted above that Backert was unusual among the minor character in the Whitechapel case in that we can follow his story after the main event is over. Albert began his career in the labour movement, speaking at meetings and rallies for the unemployed, in 1886 and he witnessed the Trafalgar Square riot of 1887. However, his main successes as a demagogue did not mature until after the period of the Whitechapel murders, from the end of 1891 onwards. The account below is compiled for articles in The Times and includes his labour movement activities, two court cases and an inquest.
11 November 1886
Albert seems to have made his first abortive attempt at public speaking. There was a meeting at the Great Assembly Hall, Mile End Road, chaired by Frederick Charrington, to protest against the sale of intoxicating drinks in the People's Palace. The Times reports "Mr. Bachert attempted to move an amendment, but a declaration of his that Mr. Charrington, after having made a rich harvest out of liquor, had now turned against it, resulted in the meeting refusing him a hearing."
1 December 1887
Backert was himself present at the Trafalgar Square riot of 1887, the infamous Bloody Sunday that did so much to blacken the name of Warren. He appeared as a witness at the hearings at Bow Street, but does not appear to have been charged with any offence himself. The Times reports:
"Albert Bachert, bank note engraver, said he went towards the square. He was not going to take part in the meeting. He was opposed to it. He reached the Strand entrance, where the police were hitting people right and left. He got as far as Morley's Hotel; here the mounted police were charging people on the pavement. He saw a friend there, and while speaking to him the police charged again and they were separated.
Shortly afterwards witness took up his position within a yard of the police opposite Morley's Hotel. While standing there he heard a policeman say, "There's Burns," and in a moment the front rank put their hands to their truncheon cases and made ready to pull their truncheons out. Then they rushed past witness, pushing him to one side and one of the police shouted out, "Give it to the _____; smash their _____ skulls in." Witness saw they were becoming desperate and did what he could to get away.
He saw the defendants coming from the direction of the Grand Hotel towards the square. He was then himself running across the road away from the police. When he looked round he saw the police had their truncheons out striking at the defendants; one policeman himself had a blow from his comrade's truncheon. They were all trying to have the first blow at the defendants.
The police then fell back on the square, taking with them the defendants. Witness jumped on an omnibus to get away from the square, but found that that afternoon the omnibuses were only driving up and down, charging 6d. each time for the people to see the fun. When on the omnibus he saw the defendants. He did not see either of them strike the police. It was perfectly impossible, as they were seized at once by the men who broke out of the front ranks."
5 December 1889
Backert was in court on a charge relating to counterfeit money.
5 December 1889
SOUTH EASTERN CIRCUIT
Albert Backert, Henry Norman, Albert Waple and John Smith were indicted for uttering counterfeit florins at Barking and Hornchurch on November 3 last year. Mr. Wightman Wood prosecuted for the Mint. Mr. J Harvey Murphy defended Norman and Mr. C.E. Jones Waple. The facts were shortly these. Waple and Smith hired two dog carts, and in company with the other two drove down into Essex. Various public houses were called at, and several bad florins were after prisoners had paid for refreshments. The jury acquitted Backert and Norman and convicted Waple and Smith, who were sentenced to four months' and 15 months' hard labour respectively.
16 February 1891
Backert was involved in an altercation with the Coroner at the inquest on Frances Coles. Backert volunteered to sit on the jury but Wynne Baxter refused this offer.
On the names of the jurymen summoned being called out by the Coroner's officer, it was found that only eight answered, the remainder of those present being substitutes. Some of the latter were accepted, but when Mr. Backert, the chairman of the so called Whitechapel Vigilance Committee, offered himself as a substitute in place of a Mr. Fielder, the Coroner declined to allow him to serve.
Mr. Backert: Why?
The Coroner: Because I decline.
Mr. Backert: You decline simply because I happen to be chairman of the Vigilance Committee and you think I shall fully investigate this matter. I have a right to be on the jury.
The Coroner: I have decided you are not to serve on this jury.
Mr. Backert: Yes - because you know I shall inquire into this case.
The Coroner: You have already been told I shall decline to accept you.
Mr. Backert (walking to the back of the court): You will hear more of this.
The jury, having been sworn, proceeded to view the body. On their return, Mr. Backert, addressing the Coroner, said, "It was only after you heard who I was that you would not allow me to serve on the jury."
The Coroner: If you do not keep quiet I will have you ejected from the room.
Later that same year, 1891, Backert was witness to an inquest into an accidental death, an accident in which Backert himself was also injured.
19 November 1891
At St. Bartholomew's Hospital, yesterday. Mr. Samuel F. Langham, the City Coroner, held an inquest with reference to the death of Arthur Charles Puleston, aged 14 years, a printer's boy, who was killed while passing through the Poultry during the gale on the 11th inst. Albert Edward Backert, an engraver, residing at Aldgate, stated that on the afternoon in question he was in the Poultry.
The deceased was walking in front of witness, and was about to pass Pimm's restaurant when some iron ornamentation fell off the roof and struck the deceased on the head felling him to the ground. Witness was also struck and injured by some falling boards. The boy was at once removed to the hospital. It was subsequently that the piece of ornamental iron was a "griffin" made of cast iron, and it had evidently become loosened by being struck by the boards, which had composed the lid of the cistern on the roof of Nos. 1 and 2, Poultry. The jury, in returning a verdict of "Accidental death" expressed an opinion that better precautions ought to have been taken to secure the lid of the cistern.
1892 was busy year for Backert in the labour movement. The first mention we see is in a Times article of 26 January 1892. There was on the previous day a mass meeting of unemployed waiters at Tower Hill. The article reports:
"Mr. Backert said that there was already considerable distress among the "extra" waiters and many had had to enter the workhouse. He moved: 'That this meeting of London unemployed waiters calls for the sympathy and support of the British public, considering they are deprived of employment at one of the busiest times of the year through the official mourning consequent upon the death of the Duke of Clarence, and further requests that a portion of the money collected for wedding presents should be devoted to relieving the wants of the unemployed waiters.' The motion was carried."
On 6 April 1892, the Times reported there was a meeting of unemployed artisans on Tower Hill.
"Mr. Backert, who described himself as an unemployed engraver, said that they were determined to carry this agitation to a successful issue despite the brutality and insolence of the police. They went as peaceable citizens to see the representatives they had elected, and were treated violently by the men whom they had to keep."
Just two days later, 8 April 1892, the Times reported a large meeting of unemployed workers at Tower Hill at the invitation of a body, which called itself the "Unemployed Committee."
"Shortly afterwards a man named Backert mounted the extreme end of the parapet, and, surrounded by his supporters, commenced an opposition meeting amid much excitement. He said he was what could truthfully be called an unemployed man and so were his supporters. The other meeting was not composed of genuine workingmen, and was got up by the Social Democratic Federation for purely party motives.
Some of the leaders of the original meeting here interfered, and for a time the greatest confusion prevailed. The police were on the point of interfering, but Backert, being surrounded by a crowd, was compelled to leave the parapet and then went away."
On 9 April 1892 the Times reported two opposing unemployed meetings on Tower Hill. "Mr. J. (sic) Backert and his supporters immediately after the termination of the first meeting took possession of the improvised platform, and the leader of the opposition movement began to address the crowd amid a perfect storm of hisses and groans.
He made a violent attack upon the Social Democratic Federation, and asked his hearers whether they were willing to support a movement, which did not discountenance the manufacture of bombs, which were to be used for the destroying of human life. Such man, he exclaimed, ought to be beheaded in the Tower. Mr. J. Lloyd replied to the remarks made by Mr. Backert and a disorderly scene ensued. The police, however, did not interfere and the meeting gradually dispersed."
Although this article refers to a J. Backert, other mentions of an Albert Backert, and description of him as an unemployed engraver when it is apparent that the same demagogue is being referred to, make the identification certain.
9 May 1892.
The Times reports on a meeting of London Anarchists in Hyde Park.
"A man named Backert mounted the chair which served for a platform, and, addressing the crowd as "Friends and lovers of life," began a bitter attack on anarchy. Amid considerable interruption he said that the Anarchists were men who publicly and privately advocated force and murder. They were men whom honest persons should shun. He knew all about them from personal experience. Persons who advocated the use of dynamite to destroy life and property were dangerous to the country and should be kept in hand.
He was not going to stand by and see his fellow men torn to pieces and terribly injured, while property was ruthlessly wrecked. Anarchists were people who had no hearts. They set men to execute the vilest crimes and then were proud of the fact. He trusted that in the near future the workers would stamp out of existence such a class of people, who were in reality only the scum of the earth.
He would move the resolution "That this meeting of English men and women, assembled in Hyde Park, views with horror the action of the so called London Anarchists, and condemns the principles of anarchy, which are in reality murderous and unmanly." Only half a dozen hands were held up in favour of the motion. Then Backert invited all those present who were in favour of blowing up houses and murdering innocent people to hold up their hands. He soon afterwards left the meeting amid hoots and jeers."
The next meeting of the unemployed at Tower Hill, which the Times reports, was on the 2 November 1892.
"Mr. Albert Backert, who spoke amid continual uproar, moved an amendment calling upon all genuine unemployed men to abstain from being led by a body of Socialist agitators. He, too, had communicated with the Commissioner of Police, and in spite of the letter he had received, which neither gave nor withheld permission; he would attend in Trafalgar Square with his supporters on Saturday next and move an amendment. His letter was as follows:
"New Scotland Yard
Oct. 31, 1892.
I am directed by the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis to acknowledge receipt of your letter of the 30th inst. requesting permission to hold a meeting of the unemployed in Trafalgar square at 3 p.m. on Saturday, November 5, and to acquaint you in reply that the Commissioner has already received notice of another meeting proposed to be held in the square at 3 p.m. on the day named by you, and under Rule IV of the regulations made by the First Commissioner of Her Majesty's Works only one meeting can be allowed to take place at the same time.
I am, sir, your obedient servant,
To Mr. A. Backert."
In reply to this Mr. Backert wrote to say that he intended holding a meeting at 4 o'clock on Saturday afternoon in the square, and that he hoped that the Commissioner would notify the leaders of the federation that they would have to bring their 3 o'clock meeting to an end by that time.
Backert was active again the very nest day as reported in the Times of 3 November 1892. This article reported on yet another meeting of the unemployed at Tower Hill.
At the conclusion of the meeting a scene of great excitement was occasioned by a man named Backert mounting the parapet and endeavouring to address the meeting. His appearance was greeted with a storm of yells, groans and hisses, the crowd assuming a threatening attitude. Notwithstanding this, Backert maintained his position, although several of his friends endeavoured to persuade him to retire.
Backert made several attempts to address the meeting, but for a long time the noise was too deafening. Cries were raised of "Throw him over," the hooting and yelling meanwhile continuing. One man who was standing immediately behind Backert endeavoured to push him off the parapet, and Backert only succeeded in maintaining his position by clinging to the lamppost at the extreme end.
At this juncture another man jumped up alongside Backert, and called for order, which after a time he, to some extent, succeeded in obtaining. He denounced Backert, who, he said, had broken a pledge given by him on the previous day to refrain from interrupting their meetings provided he was then allowed to speak.
In consequence of renewed manifestations of hostility on the part of the crowd it was, at this point, deemed expedient by the police to clear the mob from the rear of the parapet, and a number of constables charged the crowd and cleared that portion of the ground. Thus protected, Backert, amid terrific hooting and groaning, commenced to speak.
He said that the so-called leaders of the unemployed would be unable to affect any practical good.
They had no regard for the rights of property, and thought only of promoting strikes. (Groans and uproar during which a quantity of mud was thrown at the speaker, but, missing him, struck a reporter.) The meeting broke up abruptly. A few moments afterwards Backert was seen making his way in the direction of Eastcheap, and was immediately pursued by a large portion of the crowd.
Seeing he was followed, he commenced to run, the crowd still in pursuit. The contingency, however, had evidently been foreseen by the police, two parties of whom were drawn across the road, thus preventing any further progress. Backert afterwards took refuge in a warehouse in Mincing Lane.
The meeting mentioned for Saturday 5 November indeed took place with some distinguished speakers, including Keir Hardie. Backert again attempted to speak.
The Times, 7 November 1892
A Mr. Albert Backert who was stated to belong to a vigilance committee in the east end formed after the Whitechapel murders, with a small knot of dissentients, attempted to address the meeting. But he was hustled and hooted, and two or three others who tried to second his efforts met the same fate. Inspector Peters asked him to produce his authority for holding a meeting. No such authority being produced, the man was quietly conducted from the square and the throng rapidly and peacefully dispersed.
On the 9th November Backert had assumed the title of President of the Anti Socialists at another meeting at Tower Hill.
The Times, 10 November 1892
Before the meeting called by the Social Democratic Federation Committee of the Unemployed, the Anti Socialists gathered together under the presidency of Mr. Albert Backert and passed the following resolution:
"That this meeting of London unemployed calls upon Her Majesty's Government to fulfil the promises they made at the late general election, whereby they obtained the powerful support of the working classes, and to at once call Parliament together to discuss the labour question and introduce the Eight Hours Bill: and further calls upon the Government to at once stop the importation of foreign labour into the United Kingdom."
Mr. Backert announced that he had sent a letter to the Queen, of which the following is a copy:
"May it please Your Majesty
We, the undersigned members of the Anti Socialist Unemployed Committee, beg to cal, your attention to the great distress, which exists in London amongst the working classes in consequence of their being unable to obtain employment.
At present there are thousands of your loyal subjects in a state of starvation, and if nothing is done at once to relieve the distress of the starving, hundreds will shortly die of hunger in this, the richest city in the world. We therefore trust that Your Majesty, with your usual kindness and benevolence, will see your way clear to assisting your unemployed and starving subjects."
On the 10 November, Backert headed a deputation to St. Paul's cathedral.
The Times, 11 November 1892
At 2 o'clock yesterday afternoon Backert and about a dozen of his followers waited upon the Dean of St. Paul's. Three of them were introduced into the presence of the Dean, who inquired what he could do to further their wishes. Backert asked whether it was not in the Dean's power to influence the church, as far as the metropolis was concerned, to have special sermons and offertories on behalf of the unemployed, and so to some extent to relieve the prevailing distress.
Dean Gregory, in reply, expressed his sympathy with the genuine unemployed. He thought, however, that a public subscription on behalf of the unemployed would do more harm than good. The last Lord Mayor's subscription for the unemployed men had been very hurtful, as it had brought from the country into London poor people who wished to participate in the fund, and who were left to compete with the workers in the capital.
Backert asked whether it was not possible to start a registry office for unemployed in the City. The Dean, in reply, said there was already a registry office at St. Mary at Hill. He also pointed out that a great many men were at present employed upon church repairing and restoration work, and also upon work in connexion with church schools.
Backert, on behalf of the deputation, thanked the Dean for receiving them and listening to their remarks, and then quietly withdrew.
Albert's moving in such high circles continued on the 16th November when he had a meeting with the Lord Mayor.
The Times, 17 November 1892
Yesterday the man Backert, who described himself as the representative of the Anti Socialist unemployed of London, was received by the Lord Mayor at the Mansion House. He stated in effect that there were 600 men on his register anxious and willing for work - especially ay waterside occupations - who had no sympathy with the paid agitators by whom the unemployed were being misled, and he suggested that the Corporation, the City Companies, and all the large employers of labour might ascertain what necessary works could be begun with a view to giving employment to as many persons as possible during the winter.
He further suggested the starting of a Mansion House relief fund to help those who had been six months or more in London. Replying to the Lord mayor, he said he himself was a lithographer out of work. The Lord Mayor, in the course of a brief conversation, said that as a wharfinger himself he was at present employing a large number of men, but he was afraid that the result of recent strikes had been not only to send trade away from the port, but to decrease the number of men required, as, with higher wages, they were obliged to pick and choose their men and not hire them as they came.
He had no power or control over the City Companies, but he felt sure that the Corporation would see what works they could start in connexion with their landed and house property. He was very strongly opposed to opening any Mansion House fund, which would attract people to London and swell the ranks of the poor and destitute. He confessed he was puzzled in comparing the alleged decrease in pauperism, as exhibited by statistics, and the statements as to the distress in London. He should be ever ready to do all in his power to remedy the condition of the poor, but he must be careful that what was done did not aggravate the present state of things. At the Lord Mayor's request, Backert promised to supply him with certain typical cases of distress, and the Lord Mayor said if he did he would have them investigated.
Backert seems disillusioned with the Lord Mayor, for the following report concerns another Tower Hill meeting held on 29 November.
The Times, 30 November 1892
The man Backert came upon the scene and induced the crowd to linger. He denounced the Lord Mayor for having, instead of fulfilling his promise to help the unemployed, set an army of detectives at work to pry into their private affairs. He asked the unemployed to meet at Tower Hill one night this week, according to the weather, in order to take part in a midnight torchlight procession to the houses of the rich people who, lying comfortably on their warm feather beds, might thus have brought home to them the condition of their starving brethren, who had not the wherewithal to secure even a two penny doss.
If the police made them put out their torches they would know how to relight them. It was said that the police would take advantage of the occasion to land a few "thick 'uns" on the heads of some of their friends, and he mentioned this rumour as a warning to them to come prepared for such an emergency.
However, his plans seem to have changed in the cold light of day.
The Times, 1 December 1892
The section of the unemployed led by Backert, propose to meet at 11 o'clock tonight and to march in procession through the City, Fleet street, and the Strand, by Trafalgar square to the West End, but the idea of carrying lighted torches - and there seems to be some doubt as to whether these would in any case have been forthcoming - has been abandoned, in deference, it is explained, to the objections of the police.
The march went ahead, as reported the next day.
The Times, 2 December 1892 The midnight march of the unemployed took place last night. At 11 o'clock a number of persons had assembled on Tower Hill, and when Backert, the leader of the Anti Socialist agitation gave a brief address, the crowd numbered about 400. There were about 150 City police on duty. On the stroke of midnight a procession was formed, and, headed by Backert, marched, via Eastcheap, Cannon street, St Paul's churchyard, Ludgate hill, and Fleet Street as far as the Law Courts in the Strand. The police accompanied them as far as the western City boundary, where a cordon of police of the Metropolitan force not only barred the way but effectually broke up the procession just before half past 12.
Albert followed this up with a complaint the following day.
The Times, 3 December 1892
The man Backert, who organized the midnight procession of the unemployed, which was dispersed by the Metropolitan police on Thursday night, went yesterday to Scotland yard and lodged a complaint of the conduct of the police.
Backert announced new plans at the Tower Hill meeting of 10 December.
The Times, 12 December 1892
Backert announced that he had obtained the use of a hall in Cable street, St. George's, where the unemployed could meet in comfort. He said a committee was in course of formation for the purpose of receiving funds in behalf of he unemployed. If they could not get money by fair means they must get it by foul. He said there were between 2000 and 3000 foreign paupers on their way to England, and he proposed to take a deputation to the docks to show these paupers what amount of misery and destitution existed in the land they were coming to. He had given notice of a midnight march on the 14th inst but he would not give the police any information about it. If necessary they would this time take the means of defending themselves with them.
Inspector Vedy here warned Backert against the use of inflammatory language, and he shortly afterwards brought his speech to a close.
Backert's powers of oratory appeared to be growing.
The Times, 14 December 1892
There was a considerable muster of the unemployed on Tower Hill yesterday, and Backert addressed them in a violent harangue. Shortly after noon a procession was formed which marched to Millbank, where the sale of the buildings of the old prison was going forward. Here an attempt was made to interview the buyers of the different portions of the structure with the view of obtaining employment for the processionists in the work of demolition. Those who were approached declined to consider the question at present.
The constitution of the new committee that Backert joined was commented on.
The Times, 22 December 1892
The Unemployed Relief Committee, which was recently formed at the St. Augustine's Hall, Settle Street, Commercial street east, and of which the Rev. H. Wilson is chairman, has now got into working order. After exhaustive inquiries a number of cases have been selected, and relief has been granted in a number of instances, in the shape of orders on local tradesmen for food.
The committee consists of three avowed Socialists - Juchua, Burrows and Waite - and three anti Socialists - Williams, King and Backert. The members of the committee, who receive an equivalent to a salary in kind, investigate all cases submitted, and as there are some hundreds if names on the books it is anticipated that their labours will extend over a somewhat lengthened period.
The first mention of the case that was to lead to Backert's imprisonment appears in February 1893.
The Times, 16 February 1893
At Thames, Albert Backert, who has figured at the Tower Hill meetings of the unemployed, was further examined and remanded on a charge of obtaining bread and flour from a baker in the Commercial road by false pretences.
Further details were given in the same issue:
At Thames, Albert Backert, 26, well known in connexion with the Tower Hill meetings of the unemployed, who stated that he was an engraver, of Bristol, was charged, on remand, with obtaining a quantity of bread and flour from Mrs. Elizabeth Pascoe, baker, of Commercial road, by means of fraud. Mr. Bryan (Messrs. Waters and Bryan) prosecuted; and Mr. F. Deakin defended.
Mrs. Pascoe said that on January 14 Backert, whom she knew as secretary of the Tower Hamlets Unemployed Relief Committee, went to her shop and produced an order for bread and flour, which, he said, were to go to Limehouse for an urgent case. Witness said that she could not execute the delivery that night. Backert, therefore, got a man, to whom were delivered six quarterns of bread and six quarterns of flour.
On the following Tuesday her attention was called to the order, which she then found had not been signed by Mr. Wilson. Witness believed the prisoner came from Mr. Wilson with a genuine order, or she would not have let him have the goods. The value of the goods supplied was 4s 6d. The Rev. Harry Wilson said he was chairman of the committee and Backert was employed by him as secretary at a salary of 25s a week. Backert's duty was to take all forms to him for approval. He then took the orders to the tradesmen. He had no authority to take the one produced. Mr. Mead again remanded the prisoner.
The paper does not appear to carry a full account of the trial but the saga of Backert ends on this note:
The Times, 8 March 1893
London County Sessions:
Before Sir P.H. Edlin, Q.C., Albert Backert, 25, engraver, formerly salaried secretary of the Unemployed Investigation Committee, was convicted of having obtained a quantity of bread and flour by false pretences, and was sentenced to three months' imprisonment with hard labour.
Thus ends Albert's brief notoriety.