Today in London rebel history: John de Morgan goes over Plumstead Common enclosure riots, 1876.

For centuries Plumstead Common belonged to the Provost and Scholars of Queens College, Oxford. Freehold tenants had enjoyed rights of cattle-grazing, and collection of gravel, turf, loam etc for centuries. It was a wild and picturesque place, loved by locals, especially kids. Troops had been allowed to exercise here in the 19th Century, leading to “the present ruinous condition of the remoter half” (WT Vincent).

In 1816 two plots of land were enclosed where Blendon Road and Bramblebury Road are now, and in the 1850s an area between The Slade and Chestnut Rise was sold. There were “distant rumblings” of protest in parish meetings, but no more. Some small plots enclosed on the fringes of the Common were given to poor widows to keep them out of the workhouse (more to cut expenses to the ratepayers than from generosity possibly). From 1859 however, the College aggressively pursued a policy of excluding freeholders, asserting they were practically the owners of the waste land. Various encroachments were made, reducing the Common by a third: in 1866 the whole of Bostall Heath and Shoulder of Mutton Green were enclosed.

This led to local outrage, meetings of residents of East Wickham, and the forming of a protest committee, led in March 1866 to the forcible removal of the fences around the Green, and also destruction of fences near the Central Schools around Heathfield and Bleakhill. In a legal challenge by Manor tenants to the College, the Master of the Rolls ruled the enclosures on the Common and Bostall Heath out of order.

‘Illegal’ encroachments continued though – often facing unofficial demolition by locals. The Plumstead Vestry even passed motions in favour of the demolitions! The main targets were the property of William Tongue, a rich local builder who had bought the land here and put fences up, & his crony, magistrate Edwin Hughes, Chairman of the Vestry (later Tory MP for Woolwich). Hughes was said to have “had the key to the Borough in his pocket” – a very powerful man locally. He had bought land off Tongue to add to his garden. Tongue had already been the focus for trouble in 1866 over his enclosing ways. On a Saturday in May 1870, “a number of the lower class, who were resolved to test their rights” demolished fences and carried off the wood. “A party of women, armed with saws and hatchets, first commenced operations by sawing down a fence enclosing a meadow adjoining the residence of Mr Hughes…”
Fences belonging to William Tongue were pulled down. There was talk of pulling down Hughes’ house as well. Hughes called the coppers, and some nickings followed. The next day 100s of people gathered and attacked fences put up by a Mr Jeans. When the bobbies arrived many vandals took refuge in the local pubs.

From 1871, the military from nearby barracks took over large sections for exercises and drilling, as Woolwich Common was too small and swampy: the squaddies soon trashed the place, stripping all the grass and bushes and brambles. Protests followed, but nothing changed.

In 1876, Queens College decided to lease the greater part of the common permanently to the army for extensions to the Woolwich Barracks/parade grounds. Local people, including many workers from Woolwich Dockyard, objected to the plans; notices appeared around the town in late June calling for a demonstration. The main organiser of the demo was John de Morgan, an Irish republican & agitator, who had been involved in struggles against enclosures in Wimbledon and over the resistance to enclosure of Hackney Downs in 1875. De Morgan was a charismatic, self-publicising and provocative figure, a freelance editor, orator & teacher, who had been driven out of Ireland for trying to start a Cork branch of the International Workingmens Association (the First International). He had long been a Secularist and Republican, but had fallen out with some radicals and other Secularists.

On July 1st over 1000 people held meetings in the Arsenal Square and the Old Mill pub, marched up to the north side of the Common (around St Margaret’s Grove) and peacefully tore down fences. Again fences belonging to Edwin Hughes and William Tongue were destroyed – the crowds now had added grudges against them. Both had recently been involved in crushing an 1876 strike by local carpenters and bricklayers over pay and piecework, making then doubly hated. Tongue had brought in scabs to break the strike and Hughes prosecuted strikers for leaving work (under the notorious Employers and Workman’s Act.) A widely disliked Mr Jacobs, who leased a sandpit off the College, also had fences broken.
The following day (Sunday) a crowd returned to demolish the already rebuilt fences: a police attack led to a battle with stones thrown and fires started. Monday saw more rioting: according to a hostile witness there were 10,000 there on Monday and Tuesday, and “I never saw a scene so disorderly and lawless.” The furze on Tongue’s land was set on fire. While the cops brought it under control, enthusiastic meetings continued.

Although many rioters were costermongers, local coalheavers, labourers from the Woolwich Arsenal (700 men took the day off from one department here to hear a de Morgan speech), many more ‘respectable’ workmen were up there trashing the fences.

Hughes used his influence to press for charges against the organisers of the demonstrations: John de Morgan and several other organisers were charged with incitement to riot (although de Morgan had not even been present after the July 1st events).

There was clear disagreement locally over methods of saving the Common: obviously the more respectable campaigners plumping for legal means and disapproving of the rioting. Local secularist Robert Forder (another defendant in the Riot trial) also bitterly criticised De Morgan, accusing him of pocketing defence funds. He did however have previous issues with De Morgan; in the bitter splits in the Secularist movement, the Irishman had opposed Charles Bradlaugh, while Forder had supported him.
At the trial, in October 1876 at Maidstone, 3 men including Forder were acquitted, but de Morgan was found guilty. Sentenced to a month in jail, he was unexpectedly released early: a planned 20,000-strong march to demand his release turned into a mass celebration with bands. Effigies of Hughes and Kentish Independent journalist (and later historian of the area) WT Vincent, who had given evidence against de Morgan, were burned on the Common at the Slade. Hughes also sued the liberal Woolwich Gazette and the Man of Kent newspapers for printing de Morgan’s ‘libellous’ speeches.

In the aftermath of the riots, the constitutional campaigners stepped up their negotiations with the Queens College, in an attempt to prevent further rioting. The upshot was that the Metropolitan Board of Works bought Plumstead Common for £16,000, and remains a public open space.

John de Morgan’s fantastic rollercoaster career continued after his release from prison; attempting unsuccessfully to stand for Parliament, to set up a national ‘people’s party’ under the banner of the People’s Political Union. He then emigrated to the United States in 1880, abandoning his wife and children; where, apart from continuing a vaguely radical political trajectory, he became a writer of dime novels, mostly for the adolescent market, varying from pseudo science fiction, to colonial and American revolutionary war stories, and may have influenced Edgar Rice Burroughs… and later was appointed as a Deputy Tax Receiver on Staten Island.

Rob Allen, who wrote a classic account of the struggle to preserve Plumstead Common, is currently working on a biography of John de Morgan… should be a tumultuous read… His blog is worth a look…


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online


Today in London’s unruly history: a bursting brewery vat turns St Giles into a free festival, 1814.

The St Giles Rookery, was one of central London’s most notorious slums for centuries, a harbour for rebels & criminals: “ one dense mass of houses, through which curved narrow tortuous lanes, from which again diverged close courts”… Largely contained between Great Russell Street, Bloomsbury Street (then Charlotte St) Broad Street and St Giles High Street, a warren of cheap lodging houses, “set apart for the reception of idle persons and vagabonds.”, a haunt of coiners and thieves, costermongers (pedlars and street hawkers) , fish-women, newscriers, and corn-cutters. A major bugbear of authorities and moralising reformers, supplier of large numbers to the gallows at Tyburn and the convict transport ships… It teemed with the poorest, the most desperate.

On the edge of the Rookery’s most notorious streets, a large brewery, originally built by Blackburn & Bywell, though later known as Stevensons (and also possibly Manx & Co), used to occupy the land where the Dominion Theatre stands, between the end of Bainbridge Street and Great Russell Street, backing onto some of the ‘darkest spots’ of the old rookery.

“a great day for the Rookery”

On October 17th 1814, this was the scene of a disaster which is said to have turned into a free festival: “the great porter vat, which stood 22 feet high and contained 3555 barrels (or 135,000 imperial gallons)… the talk of the town when first erected… burst, flooding the Rookery.” Other vats burst as the debris collapsed, and several flimsy garret walls collapsed under the tremendous force of thousands of gallons of dark beer, killing several inhabitants [seven, possibly; it also damaged the Tavistock Arms pub]. But the rookery-dwellers weren’t likely to pass up such an opportunity, as described by local chroniclers Gordon and Deeson, (with typical loaded language: again, note the immediate likening of the residents to verminous animals): “Like rats out of their holes came the mob and lapped at the porter as it ran along the gutters, or cupped their hands and poured it down their throats…” The more enterprising grabbed whatever containers they could to collect the porter for later consumption, “even the children, in the scantiest of rags or more more frequently nothing at all, ran out to do their share with spoons… it was a great day for the Rookery.” In court it was held to be an Act of God!

Allegedly along with those crushed and drowned by the initial flood, a couple of St Giles folk drank themselves to death, bringing the official number of deaths to eight. While the images of a free piss up for the poor warm the heart, you have to wonder if this is all entirely true, especially as it bears an uncanny resemblance to the earlier story of the burning of Langdale’s Gin Distillery in Holborn in the Gordon Riots, not a mile east and just thirty-odd years before; you can’t help feeling maybe the incidents have been confused, and spiced with a dose of moral come-uppance by temperance-swilling historians.


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online


Today in London’s rebel history: Mass escape attempt foiled, Newgate Prison, 1771.

For 100s of years Newgate Prison was the most potent symbol and reality of state repression in London, the ultimate representation of terror for the poor. From those driven to crime by the economics of serfdom or capitalism, rebels, political activists, smugglers, poachers, heretics and reformers, transgressors of the moral codes… (and obviously a lot of very nasty folk too…)

Opened in the 12th century, originally as part of one of the gates in London’s wall, but gradually expanded to a massive complex of cells and courts. It became a place of hate and fear… generating a thousand nicknames (the Whit, the Burrowdamp Museum, the College, the rumbo-ken, the Start, the Jug, the Sherriff’s Hotel, the Stone Tavern, the Stone doublet…)

From here thousands left in the morning to be drawn in the cart to the hanging tree; thousands more to be transported to bonded labour overseas; tens of thousands to be whipped, pilloried, locked in the stocks…

A shadow of doom… and inevitably of resistance. Throughout its history the Newgate terror complex faced constant resistance, in the form of riots, escapes, and attacks from outside by rebellious crowds.

Escape attempts, solo and collective, were common, even endemic. Jack Sheppard’s famous breakouts became the most legendary, but the centuries were filled with plans, plots and the occasional success.

An example, from 1771:

“October 10: About ten o’clock at night, a conspiracy was detected at Newgate: a number of transports, to the amount of thirty, had, for some time, formed a design to break out; they attempted to put their scheme in execution about nine, and luckily, were discovered, at the time above mentioned, by the keeper; who having some suspicion of their intent, went in among them, and found them at work with two iron crows (weighing about thirty of forty pounds each) to effect their purpose. The ring leaders were closely confined, immediately after, and everything ended peaceably. Great numbers of files, saws, pins &c. were found on several of the transports.”
(from the Gentleman’s Magazine, 1771.)

By transports, is meant those under sentence of transportation to the penal colonies.

Only three weeks after this foiled escape, another plot was uncovered: “Oct. 31: About eleven o’clock at night, a conspiracy was discovered in Newgate among the felons, four of whom had found means to saw off their irons, and had formed a desperate resolution to fight their way out; they were immediately secured by the keepers, who took from them a number of files, saws, etc.”


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online


Today in London history: Duke of Bedford closes his private road, 1798.

“The Duke of Bedford… has stopped up the road from Southampton-row to Somers-Town. This, though called a private road, and as such, not open to carriages, has been a footway from time immemorial. It is hoped therefore, that the Duke, without waiting for a legal process, will restore that privilege…”
(Annual Register, 29th September 1798)

The fourth Earl of Southampton first started to develop the area around his mansion in modern Bloomsbury in the 1650s, pioneering a trend for hereditary landlords to develop new London streets and whole neighbourhoods by employing speculative builders; new houses for Lords, knights and other worthies began to spring up. By 1665 the Bloomsbury area was already described as “A fit place for the nobility and gentry to reside”. The 1666 Great Fire of London brought well-to-do refugees seeking new, safer housing out of the City – the next twenty years saw houses spread along what is now Great Russell Street.

According to local resident J. P. Malcolm,  “Squares, and spacious streets of the first respectability are rising in every direction; and the north side of the parish will, in a few years, contain an immense accumulation of riches, attracted by the grand structures in Russell Square now almost complete….”

Inheriting the estate in 1669, the Russells, the Earls of Bedford, named the new streets of their estates after their various titles and estates, and banned the building of pubs and shops, which they thought would lower the tone of the neighbourhood. Even a genteel bookshop was apparently closely screened before being allowed to open. In fact they not only attempted to control the atmosphere of their streets: they imposed barriers on who could even pass through it. Upper Woburn Place, originally a private road for the Dukes, had gates in the eighteenth century. By 1798 this road was closed off to traffic, and from the early 19th Century, parts of the Bedford Estate had gates at all entrances. In 1826, gates at the northern edge were erected so as to “shut out the low population” of the working class neighbourhood of Somers Town.

Uniformed gatekeepers were employed by the Russells to keep out undesirables; only those with tickets issued by the Estate, (silver discs, embossed with the Bedford coat of arms, obtainable by tenants or certain other privileged people for a guinea deposit), could pass down the roads. Empty cabs, or carts, drays, wagons, cattle and exercising horses were banned from entering; gentlemen’s carriages, cabs with fares and persons on horseback were allowed through. For decades the Bedford Estate managed to prevent trams and omnibuses from being run through their streets, even main streets like what was then Hart Street (now Bloomsbury Way). Private Acts of parliament banned hackney cabs from ‘standing for hire’ within 300 feet of some of the Estate’s poshest squares.

The gates stood at the north end of Gordon Street, half way down Taviton Street, (then called Georgiana Street, after the wife of the sixth Duke) and Endsleigh Street, and Upper Woburn Place, and at Torrington place near the corner of Torrington Square. Lodges built for the gatekeepers can still be seen on the west side of Endsleigh Street.

The Bedford Estate’s continued attempts to maintain the wealthy and ultra-respectable character of Bloomsbury must have been to some extent influenced by the sharp (and growing) contrast of this prosperous island with the neighbourhoods that surrounded it. St Giles to the south-west, Holborn to the south-east, Clerkenwell to the east, ‘Fitzrovia’ to the west, and, later, parts of St Pancras and Agar Town, to the north, all had an overwhelmingly working class population by the 19th Century; many of their streets were labeled as slums, rookeries or criminal haunts by the better-off classes. No doubt the increasing sense of being surrounded by the poor, desperate and possibly rebellious must have had some bearing on the gradual flight of the rich westward, to areas further from the dark threat of mob violence. The successive invasions of Bloomsbury in 1765, 1780 and 1815 by riotous crowds may only have been the sharp reminder of a deeper held fear and loathing… The increased control over open spaces, building on fields used for rowdy recreation, fencing off of squares’ gardens, can be seen partially as responses to both the class violence of the London Mob, AND the widely perceived ‘immoral’ nature of unlandscaped space – two sides of the same coin to the wealthy. The gates were popular with the mainly up-market tenants of the Bedfords; in fact some residents were pushing the Estate to toughen up the social control. Around 1750 a petition to the Duke from Silver Street, (roughly where Barter Street is now) complained that an alley running behind their street through to High Holborn, was frequented by “wicked and disorderly people of both sexes”, and called for it to be bricked up at both ends. This area, around the now-disappeared Bloomsbury Market (under the eastern end of present-day New Oxford Street), was increasingly lowering the tone of the Russells’ vision: although we couldn’t discover if this petition was acted on, the building of New Oxford Street through the St Giles Rookery would later obliterate some of these unrespectable streets.

Gradually opposition to the Dukes’ gates built up: they were obviously unpopular with cabbies and poorer folk, and even some local official bodies. The St. Pancras Vestry, under whose administration part of the Estate fell, became fed up with applying for permission to the Duke to enter the streets for works, cleaning etc. However the two other Vestries covering the area, St Giles and St George’s, defended the gates, mainly because removing them would lower rateable values and increase pavement costs, thus hitting the Vestry and wealthy ratepayers hard in the pocket.

The private road built for the duke’s personal use alone, Woburn Place, led to disputes even with other local nobility. It was originally laid in the 1750s, to connect to the spanking New Turnpike Road (now Euston Road) to the north so the duke could travel between his London pad and his country estates in Bedfordshire. At the edge of his land, however, to reach the new thoroughfare, it had to cross land owned by the Duke of Grafton, who wasn’t keen to allow it to bisect his property. For a while in 1759 there was a mini-civil war between the respective servants of the dukes, with Grafton’s men building barricades with instructions to block anyone coming over the border between the two estates; barriers repeatedly broken down by lackeys of Bedford (the words ‘hoist’ and ‘own petard’ springing to mind), but they settled in the end, with Bedford’s road being permitted to cross Grafton’s estate to meet the Turnpike road.

Eventually in slightly less forelock-tugging times, private gates across streets in a busy capital became unsustainable. Barring the majority of traffic from a strategically placed area just south of two main London railway stations had become economically anomalous. Even the prime minister complained in 1890 about the inconvenience of having to travel around the estate: “I am a constant passenger of the Great Northern Railway… and I must say that I have never passed the Sacred Gates in going to the Great Northern Station without mental imprecations against the persons who originally set them up and the persons who have since maintained them there.” (Which is interesting – was even the prime minster considered not respectable enough to pass through?)

Legislation ended this restriction of access, in 1893, and the gates came down. The Duke’s posh tenants, still keen to keep the riffraff out, campaigned for the gates’ retention, writing letters of protest, but happily in vain.


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online


Today in London’s theatrical history: playing Bottom on a Sunday gets Mr Wilson into trouble, 1631.

The branches of protestant Christianity generally lumped together and described (particularly when discussing the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Britain) as puritanism were in fact widely variable.

But we’re not going to go into that… What follows may include a lot of simplification.

Puritans were generally concerned to reform and ‘purify’ the existing church, or to separate themselves as an elect apart from those they considered unsaved or unsaveable.

One well-known aspect of puritan belief was their attack on popular culture; a widespread attempt to close down many of the festivals, holidays, pastimes, performances and other daily pleasures that had characterised everyday life for centuries. Puritans were far from alone in campaigning to shut down the teeming rambunctious whirlwind of drink, dancing, sex, satire and abandon that made life bearable – catholic and protestant authorities were also often jointly keen to clean up daily life and its immoralities. The puritans were pretty dedicated however…

Puritan activists had tried and failed in the late sixteenth century to capture and reform the national church according to their program… However to some extent they fell back on what has been called the “puritan reformation of manners” – attempting to impose their moral reforms on the communities around them at a local level. This took the form of denouncing what they saw as the excesses of popular culture, trying to enforce restrictions as to how people were allowed to behave in their daily and weekly life, especially their pleasures. Most notably on Sunday, the Sabbath, the day Christians considered holy, a day puritans thought should be spent in worship of God only. But Sunday was most people’s only day off, so where they could, large numbers would spend the day in pleasure, whether taking part in games and sports, drinking, meeting up and hanging out… The puritans did not originate the idea of the Sabbath as holy, or a day that should be upheld morally, it had a long history on various branches of Christianity

So on a local level, puritans attempted to enforce the ‘holiness’ of the Sabbath; in the early 17th century, they were successful in London (and elsewhere) in making links with constables and justices, through whom they administered their moral agenda, which became translated into ‘county and corporation orders’…

Attempts to repress culture they considered immoral and ungodly took many forms, and formed a constant barrage of local laws, agitation, denunciation… Another aspect of life many (though not all) puritans took a dim view of was theatre. Between the late sixteenth and mid-seventeenth century, sections of puritan opinion waged a propaganda war against the putting on of plays; when a Parliament with a substantial ‘godly’ element came to power as the English Civil War was fermenting and breaking out, the banning of theatre in 1642 was among its early acts relating to social policy.

For many of the Godly, theatre encouraged disorder, immorality, sexual banter and frivolity. Philip Stubbes in his Anatomie of Abuses, (1583), levelled a barrage of charges against plays: “Do they not maintain bawdry, insinuate foolery, and renew the remembrance of heathen idolatry? Do they not induce whoredom and uncleanness? Nay, are they not rather plain devourers of maidenly virginity and chastity? For proof whereof mark but the flocking and running to Theaters and Curtains, daily and hourly, night and day, time and tide, to see plays and interludes, where such wanton gestures, such bawdy speeches, such laughing and fleering, such clipping and culling, such winking and glancing of wanton eyes, and the like is used, as is wonderful to behold.”

It wasn’t just the content of the plays themselves, it was also the nature of the threatres, spaces where crowds of man and women gathered together, jostling and unruly, encouraging intimacy, levity, intermingling… But the huge popularity and attention given to plays was also time and energy that should be directed to more serious matters – theatre is mocking godliness, in that “the attention which the plays commanded is not unlike worship… there are analogies between dramatic and and religious expression in the ritual participation of actor and audience, in the use of heightened language and dressing up…” (Margot Heinemann). Theatre is setting itself up as dangerously close to a mockery of true religion.

Puritan repression could fall not only on the licensed theatres. On the 27thSeptember, 1631, a Sunday, Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream was privately performed in the house of John Williams, the Bishop of Lincoln, in London, “by order of the right reverend prelate, and for the amusement of himself and divers knights and ladyes…”, beginning about ten at night and ending about two or three in the morning.

Putting on plays on Sunday was bad enough – a definite breach of the Lord’s Day; however there is also a suggestion that Mr Wilson, the actor playing the character of Bottom (said to have been the brains behind the event), had perhaps offended against other mores.

The Puritans had become a powerful force in London life by this time, though still in opposition to the hierarchy of the established church. Their political influence led to an inquiry into the affair. Puritan preacher John Spencer condemned the bishop, wrote at least one letter a letter of reproof from John Spencer, a Puritanical preacher, to a lady who was amongst the audience; and Mr Wilson was punished.

Although puritans are sometimes labelled as being humourless, as the writer of the Chambers Book of Days commented: “there is something rather humorous in what was decreed to the performer of Bottom the weaver”:

‘We do order that Mr. Wilson, as he was a special plotter and contriver of this business, and did in such a brutish manner act the same with an ass’s head, shall upon Tuesday next, from six o’clock in the morning till six o’clock at night, sit in the porter’s lodge at my lord bishop’s house, with his feet in the stocks, and attired with an ass’s head, and a bottle of hay before him, and this subscription on his breast:

‘Good people, I have played the beast,
And brought ill things to pass;
I was a man, but thus have made,
Myself a silly ass.”

Mr Wilson was described as a ‘cunning Musition’… It has been suggested that he could be John Wilson, known as having written songs for theatre company the Kings Men from 1614, and as being a lutenist in this company in 1635. He was later a professor of music at Oxford in 1656.

To some extent, its thought that this may have been an episode in an ongoing culture war, which also played out in political faction fighting in London in the tense years pre-civil war. Bishop Williams was a major player in church and state hierarchies, an opponent of the high church authorities like Archbishop Laud, and tolerant towards puritanism, but a liberal, who tried to steer a middle course in the civil war years… Whether this played part in the puritan denunciation of the play in September 1631 is hard to discern.


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online


Today in London’s rebel history: ruckus at a Clerkenwell school ends in arrests, 1969.

On September 26th 1969 a mini-riot broke out among pupils at Philip Magnus School, Clerkenwell, after they had got into conversation with some young rebels who were leafleting outside.

One of those arrested relates the events…

“An hour or so after St.Paul’s we went off to a secondary modern school in Clerkenwell, near Kings Cross, where an anarchist friend of ours was a pupil. During the previous school year, after a molotov had burnt a hole in the door of the Head’s study, the head decided to ban boots in the school, an attack on the skinheads in the school, who were in the majority. They responded: boot prints appeared around the school, on the floors and walls and ceilings, drawings of boots were chalked up on blackboards, and finally the Head was presented in assembly with a gigantic papier mache boot. The Head felt compelled to unban the boots. So we longhairs arrive at this skinhead school, shortly after the eviction of ‘hippies’ from Endell St. squat, where the London Street Commune had gone after the eviction of 144 Piccadilly. We stay outside the school, because our friend hadn’t turned up and because a lot of the school seemed to be hanging around outside in a small square just outside the gates. We start the play but amidst cries of “Go back to Endell St!.” and stone throwing from some of the kids, we end it quickly as some of the skinheads start lifting a great big paving stone (we find out later that the Endell St. ‘hippies’ had appeared earlier that day at Clerkenwell Magistrates Court, just around the corner). We hand out leaflets, start talking to the boys about conditions in the school and what we think the education system’s all about. They all want an end to physical punishment, which wasn’t to be abolished in this country until the late 80s (not that humiliating kids in other ways isn’t equally miserable). No one wants school uniforms, but many want a smoking room and everyone wants “proper biology lessons”, which at that time were pitiful (probably they still are, but in a different modern way).

A tall spindly man appears, tells the boys to get out of the square and starts pushing them around. I say, “They’re allowed to be here. Who are you to tell them what to do? They can decide for themselves what to do.” The man, who turns out to be the Head, ignores us and strides angrily away back through the school gates to cries of “Bastard…cunt!”. The boys are more sympathetic towards us. “Let’s burn down the school!”, a couple of them say. Being a bit of Lefty still, I said, “What’s the point? – they’ll only send you to another.” “Shall we occupy the school?” one of them asks. “Yeah – if you want – we’ll help, but it’s up to you” was the gist of our different replies. Then the cops arrive. “Back into school!” the Sergeant orders. I say loudly, “They’re allowed out in lunchbreak. Why should they get back inside?”, (not the kind of mouthy role I’d play nowadays probably, but…)”Because I say so”. “Do you make the laws?”, “No, I interpret them”, “Maybe you bend them a little to suit your own ideas” – I was talking loudly – as much to him as to the boys of the school, performing the rabble rouser a bit.. After resuming ordering the boys about, he hurries after me when I’m a bit away from the others and says softly, “Look here, young Barabas, if ever I see you again I’ll pull off your beard and cut off your hair, you fucking long-haired wierdo.” I reply in a loud theatrical voice so others can hear – “What? Did you call me a fucking long-haired wierdo?”. “Are you calling me names? Are you calling me names?”, says the sergeant, putting on a better show of outrage, and promptly nicks me.

The cops meanwhile threaten everyone with being nicked for obstruction – both us “guerrillas”(it sounds better than ‘street theatre actors’) and the schoolkids, so everyone moves off from the square to a small park up the hill, and start sitting around in groups discussing schools, the cops and so on. A cop comes into the park and, pointing to one of us – Michael, says to the mainly skinhead schoolkids, “Do you want to grow up to be like them – filthy, long-haired, unemployed…? Silence. Michael asks them, “Well, would you prefer to be like him or like me?” “LIKE YOU!” they all shout back, and the cop (us politicos called them ‘pigs’ at the time) storms off.

Eventually all of us get nicked and one of us gets beaten up a bit by the cops. The cops who arrest the last two of us get thumped on the back by some of the skinhead kids. The kids swear and hiss and boo at the cops, some of them fling themselves at the gates round the back of the police station, trying to break them down. Solidarity, unity in anger – one of the best things in the world. Later on, the Evening News came out with the headline “Boys Incited To Burn Down School!”, whilst the Evening Standard said we’d offered the boys drugs and that a hundred schoolboys had chased two hippies and shouted and jeered at them. When the papers appeared, some of the boys were so pissed off they tore them up outside the school. Meantime, we were packed off to Ashford Remand Centre, even though our parents had turned up in court to put up surety for the bail which most of us had been granted (the only one of us that wasn’t was a couple of years older than us, the only one of us who was from a working class background – he went to Brixton for a week before bail was granted). There we were made to have a public cough ‘n’ drop medical inspection and a semi-public bath and then we had to wear prison clothes: my trousers were far too big – I had to permanently hold them to stop them falling down, and my shoes were far too small, cramping my toes. It was only 24 hours, but when it’s your first time in prison and you’ve got no idea how long you’ll be there, and you’ve never known anyone who’s been inside, it was a little worrying, though it was the boredom I remember most, because we were kept isolated for most of the time. I was so naïve, I remember being really outraged at the fact that teenagers were kept in prison without bail for 6 months or more before trial, at which they were often let off.

The leaflet we’d handed out in the four days of our guerrilla theatre actions advertised a meeting at my house on the afternoon we’d got nicked: 12 kids turned up, we didn’t, but the cops did, staying in a van outside, whilst one stood outside the front garden. For several months afterwards, my phone was tapped. The trial was almost 3 months later, and took 3 days. Like the whole of that summer, I suppose it was a kind of revelation for naïve little me. I hadn’t expected such a degree of lying on the part of the cops and hypocrisy on the part of the magistrate, though since then it’s something I take for granted. For instance, so that the Headmaster wouldn’t have to appear as a witness, and to give greater authority to the police, a Chief Superintendant claimed to have been there, and described everything that had happened to the Headmaster, though elaborating with a few extra lies. We were so taken aback by his convincing performance, and perhaps also stressed by the whole trial, that we began to question our own memories – had he been there and we hadn’t noticed? Was it not the Head who’d first remonstrated with us? The whole trial was awash with lies, of course, but the strange thing were the words they put into our mouths, words that had nothing to do with the way any of us would speak – e.g. the Sergeant said I’d shouted from the police car, “Go, lads, and burn down your school – we shall support you”. “Go lads” – like I was some public school prefect.”

Taken from a personal account of activities in this period, including the rebirth of squatting, the London Street Commune, and a series of interventions at schools, which can be found here

There’s a fun text there of an article from the Kilburn Times, relating the trial that ensued from the events detailed above… somewhat differently to the account given here…


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online


Today in London’s psychogeographical history: Situationist International‘s fourth conference opens, Limehouse, 1960.

Upon their arrival in the English capital, delegates were set the ‘psychogeographical’ task of locating the British Sailors Society, where the conference was to be held.

The following report appeared in Internationale Situationniste #5 (December 1960)
[Edited from translations by Ken Knabb and Reuben Keehan]

THE 4TH CONFERENCE of the Situationist International was held in London, at a secret address in the East End, 24-28 September 1960, seventeen months after the Munich Conference (April 1959). The situationists assembled in London were: Debord, Jacqueline de Jong, Jorn, Kotányi, Katja Lindell, Jörgen Nash, Prem, Sturm, Maurice Wyckaert and H.P. Zimmer. In fact, to ensure that the proceedings were kept well away from any contact with London journalists or artistic circles, the conference took place at the British Sailors Society hall in Limehouse, “an area famous for its criminals” (Spur #2).

The first session began on 25 September with a debate on the adoption of an order of the day on seventeen integral points, the discussion of three of which was postponed and rescheduled for a later SI debate. Asger Jorn acts as this session’s chairman, a function he performs for the remainder of the conference.

The conference then hears a report by Attila Kotányi; it lasts a only few minutes but is followed by two days of discussion. For Kotányi, the SI is characterised primarily by the appropriation of resources for constructing fields of encounter. Commenting on the definitions he has proposed, he shows that the philosophical concept of dialogue and the encounter as alienation and tragedy, as attempted communication filtered negatively through its means, is an insufficient critique because “we know that, for very different reasons, these encounters don’t produce themselves.” The role of the void, of lost time, in possible displacements can be calculated statistically.

The lack of encounters is expressible by a concrete figure, which could characterise the historical state of the world . . . Following this analysis, our activity must undertake a practical critique of the reasons why there are no encounters (independent of any “progress” of the means of communication, for example); create bases (situationist “castles”) representing an accumulation of the elements of the encounter and the dérive: more concretely, buildings of our own; and facilitate communication — permanent or otherwise — between these bases. This is the minimum requirement for the construction of situations.

Kotànyi proposes that this plan be considered within definite limits, and thus the limits of time: a planning of the time necessary for the installation of this basic network that subordinates other situationist instruments, including the devices of its propaganda and its publications.

The discussion of these perspectives leads to posing the question: “To what extent is the SI a political movement?” Various responses state that the SI is political, but not in the ordinary sense. The discussion becomes somewhat confused. Debord proposes, in order to clearly bring out the opinion of the Conference, that each person respond in writing to a questionnaire asking if he considers that there are “forces in the society that the SI can count on? What forces? In what conditions?” This questionnaire is agreed upon and filled out. The first responses express the view that the purpose of the SI is to establish a program of overall liberation and to act in accord with other forces on a social scale. (Kotányi: “To rely on what we call free.” Jorn: “We are against specialisation and rationalisation, but not against them as means. . . . Movements of social groups are determined by the character of their desires. We can accept other social movements only to the extent that they are moving in our direction. We are the new revolution . . . we should act with other organisations that seek the same path.”) The session is then adjourned.

At the beginning of the second session, on September 26, Heimrad Prem reads a declaration of the German section in response to the questionnaire. This very long declaration attacks the tendency in the responses read the day before to count on the existence of a revolutionary proletariat, for the signers strongly doubt the revolutionary capacities of the workers against the bureaucratic institutions that have dominated their movement. The German section considers that the SI should prepare to realise its program on its own by mobilising the avant-garde artists, who are placed by the present society in intolerable conditions and can count only on themselves to take over the weapons of conditioning. Debord responds with a sharp critique of these positions.

An evening session returns to the examination of the German declaration. Nash speaks against it by affirming the SI’s capacity to act immediately when it comes to social and political organisations. He recommends systematically organising infiltration by clandestine situationist elements into such groups wherever it would be useful. Nash’s proposal is approved in principle by everyone, with a few circumstantial reservations. The debate on the German positions, however, does not end there, returning to its nucleus: the hypothesis of the satisfied worker. Kotányi reminds the German delegates that even if since 1945 they have seen apparently passive and satisfied workers in Germany and legal strikes organised with music to divert union members, in other advanced capitalist countries “wildcat” strikes have multiplied. He adds that in his opinion they vastly underestimate the German workers themselves. Jorn responds to Prem, who has made a distinction between spiritual and material questions, that this distinction to be done away with, that it is necessary “for material values to regain a ‘spiritual’ importance, and for the value of spiritual capacities to be increased only through their materialisation; in other words, it is necessary for the world to become artistic in the sense defined by the SI.” In order to simplify the discussion, which is becoming obscure, and complicated further by certain translations (the dominant language at the conference is German), Jacqueline de Jong requests that every participant declare whether or not they approve of Jorn’s statement. All are in favour of it. Debord proposes that the majority openly declare that it rejects the German theses. It is agreed that the two tendencies separately decide on their positions. The German minority withdraws to an adjoining room to deliberate. When they return Zimmer announces, in the name of his group, that they retract the preceding declaration, not because they think it unimportant, but in order not to impede present situationist activity. He concludes:

We declare that we are in complete agreement with all the acts already done by the SI, with or without us, and with those that will be done in the foreseeable future. We are also in agreement with all the ideas published by the SI. We consider the question debated today as secondary in relation to the SI’s overall development, and propose to reserve further discussion of it for the future.

Everyone agrees to this. Kotányi and Debord, however, ask that it be noted in the minutes that they do not consider that the question discussed today is secondary. The German situationists agree to delete their reference to it as such. The session is adjourned, very late at night.

The fourth session, on the 27th, adopts a resolution on the imprisonment of Alexander Trocchi; and decides on what attitude to take the following night toward the Institute of Contemporary Arts, where Wyckaert is to make a public declaration in the Conference’s name. Everyone is of the opinion that this circle of modernist aesthetes should be treated with contempt. With regard to the Manifesto of 17 May, approved by all, Jorn stresses that for us, “the liquidation of the world of privation, in all its forms” means that the end of privation also involves the freedom to deprive oneself, to refuse every obligatory comfort, no matter what; failing which, the disappearance of privation will introduce a new alienation.

The Conference decides to re-organise the SI by instituting a Central Council that will meet in different European cities at six to eight week intervals. Any member of the SI can participate in the affairs of this Council, which must communicate related information and decisions made to everyone immediately after each meeting; but the essential feature of this institution is that a majority of its members — named by each Conference — may make decisions on behalf of the entire organisation. The federative concept of an SI founded on national autonomy, established by the influence of the Italian section at the time of the group’s founding in Cosio d’Arroscia, is thus abandoned. The clarity of discussions on the SI’s direction within such an organism seems preferable to the arbitrariness of an unchecked de facto centralism — inevitable in such a geographically widespread movement — as it leads to real collective action. Every year, the SI Conference, which remains the movement’s highest authority, must gather all situationists together and, insofar as this is not realisable in practice, it is decided that, as soon as possible, those absent should either submit a precise mandate to the conference in writing, or nominate another situationist to represent them by proxy. Theoretical debates will usually be dealt with at the Conference, while the Council’s primary role should be to ensure the development of the SI’s powers. Between Conferences, however, the Central Council does have the right to admit a new section into the SI, and in this case, can invite a delegate of this section to become a Council member.

The first Council, chosen by the London Conference, is composed of members of the old Editorial Committee of the SI bulletin, plus Nash, unanimously named to represent the Scandinavian countries, and Kotányi, invited to occupy the place left vacant by the resignation of Constant.

The session concludes with the choice of where to hold the next conference. Several proposals are turned down, with the vote settled as between Berlin and Gotëborg, in Sweden. Gotëborg is the favorite.

On 28 September, the fifth session adopts a Declaration on Insanity, presented by the German section, which asserts:

As long as society as a whole is insane . . . we will by all means oppose the definition of insanity and the consequences that it may entail for members of the SI. With modern psychiatry’s criteria for reason and madness being based, in the final analysis, on social success, we refuse absolutely the definition of insanity when it comes to any modern artist.

The conference adopts a resolution transferring the Bureau of Unitary Urbanism to Brussels, with Attila Kotányi named as director.

Kotányi then declares that he will concern himself with the legislative control of urbanism: “All that is currently built is built not on the ground, but on the law,” and failing that, never progresses beyond the stage of maquettes. Jorn talks about establishing a new geometry, for there is an obvious relationship between Euclidian geometry and current legislation. The session ends with a few practical decisions, notably concerning the takeover of UNESCO.

At the Institute of Contemporary Arts the same evening, Maurice Wyckaert closed the conference by reading an official declaration which was, in this instance, not followed by a discussion. As Jorn pointed out to the audience, “the discussion lasted four days; everything is now clear and we are all agreed.” Furthermore, the first translation made by the ICA for the evening was found to be so bad, its meaning altered so much that the situationists refused to take the floor until a completely satisfactory translation had been provided. As the SI occupied the place with enough force, and as time was visibly on their side, the ICA’s officials immediately set about the task, taking around two hours. The audience began to lose its patience, especially during the last hour, but very few people left in the course of this long wait; far more walked out during Wyckaert’s excellent discourse. This was because the text had finally been very well translated.”

We particularly like this eyewitness account of the final night at the ICA though…

“The meeting, from beginning to end, was a parody of a normal ICA evening. Toni del Renzio was the ICA’s chairman that night. He opened the meeting by giving some of the historical background of the Situationist movement. When he mentioned the conference in Alba there was loud applause from the Situationists. At the mention of the ‘unification conference’ at Cosio d’ Arroscia the clapping was terrific, accompanied by loud foot stamping. The ICA audience was clearly baffled by this senseless display of euphoria. Del Renzio then introduced the S.I. spokesman Maurice Wyckaert.
“Instead of beginning with the usual compliments, Wyckaert scolded the ICA for using the word ‘Situationism’ in its Bulletin. ‘Situationism’, Wyckaert explained, ‘doesn’t exist. There is no doctrine of this name.’ He went on to tell the audience, ‘If you’ve now understood that there is no such thing as ‘Situationism’ you’ve not wasted your evening.’
“After a tribute to Alexander Trocchi, who had recently been arrested for drug trafficking in the United States, Wyckaert launched into a criticism of UNESCO. We were told that UNESCO had failed in its cultural mission. Therefore the Situationist International would seize the UNESCO building by ‘the hammer blow of a putsch’. This remark was greeted with a few polite murmurs of approval.
“Wyckaert ended as he had begun, with a gibe at the ICA. ‘The Situationists, whose judges you perhaps imagine yourselves to be, will one day judge you. We are waiting for you at the turning.’ There was a moment’s silence before people realized that the speaker had finished. The first and only question came from a man who asked ‘Can you explain what exactly Situationism is all about?’ Wyckaert gave the questioner a severe look. Guy Debord stood up and said in French ‘We’re not here to answer cuntish questions’. At this he and the other Situationists walked out.”


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online


Today in London’s history: Nicholas Amhurst nicked for writing seditious libels in the ‘Craftsman’, 1737.

As we wrote in a previous post, the satirical magazine, the Craftsman, opposed to the corrupt regime of prime minster Robert Walpole, was repeatedly prosecuted by the authorities.

In July 1737, the Craftsman was prosecuted once again, for its satire on the new Theatre Licensing Act (1737) in the issue of 2 July 1737. This had taken the form of a letter, supposedly from opportunist social climbing poet and actor-manager Colley Cibber, suggesting many plays by Shakespeare and the older dramatists contained passages which might be regarded as seditious, and advocating extending the Licensing Act to include old plays, most notably Shakespeare’s plays, as also seditious and “a danger to good order”. The letter then proposed Cibber be appointed censor of all plays brought on the stage.

This was regarded as a “suspected” libel, and a warrant was issued for the arrest of the printer, Henry Haines (who had succeeded Richard Francklin as printer of the journal, after Francklin’s repeated arrests and imprisonment). Printers then could be held responsible for any content in anything they printed, even if it was published by someone else.

Haines was immediately arrested and held on £600 bail, which he could not raise. He was not tried until February 1738, when he was brought “before a special jury and sentenced to one year’s imprisonment”  In the meantime, the Craftsman’s founder Nicholas Amhurst surrendered himself instead, on (September 20th 1737) and suffered a short imprisonment.

A poet and political writer, Amhurst had become a prominent pamphleteer on the opposition (whig) side against Walpole and the Tories. In 1726 he issued the first number of the Craftsman, as a weekly periodical, which he conducted under the pseudonym of Caleb D’Anvers. The paper was aimed mainly towards the overthrow of Sir Robert Walpole’s government; there is some debate about its effects, with most historians agreeing it did little more than preaching to the converted. Nevertheless it reached a circulation of 10,000 copies and was one of the biggest magazines of its time with authors such as Henry Fielding, John Gay and Alexander Pope contributing to it. For this success Amhurst’s editorship was not perhaps chiefly responsible. It was founded, and in the beginning financed, by Henry St John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke and William Pulteney, the latter being a frequent and caustic contributor.

The incident seems to have caused bad feeling between Henry Haines on the one side, and Amhurst and Francklin. Haines published a pamphlet in 1740, with the snappy title of Treachery, baseness, and cruelty display’d to the full, in the hardships and sufferings of Mr. Henry Haines, Late Printer of the Country Journal, or, Craftsman; Who now is, and for above Two Years has been, in close Imprisonment in the King’s Bench, for a Fine of Two hundred Pounds, at the Suit of the Crown, for Printing and Publishing the Craftsman of July 2, 1737, In which he criticised Amhurst and Francklin.

More on the history of the Craftsman can be found here


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online


Today in London’s rebel history: Jane Housden & William Johnson hanged, 1714, for killing Spurling, a screw.

Sometimes, open defiance is the only option. And even if they see you, you might as well deny it.

“WILLIAM JOHNSON was a native of Northamptonshire, where he served his time as a butcher, and removing to London he opened a shop in Newport Market; but business not succeeding to his expectation, he pursued a variety of speculations, until at length he sailed to Gibraltar, where he was appointed a mate to one of the surgeons of the garrison. Having saved some money at this place, he came back to his native country, where he soon spent it, and then had recourse to the highway for a supply.

Being apprehended in consequence of one of his robberies, he was convicted, but received a pardon. Previously to this he had been acquainted with Jane Housden, his fellow in crime, who had been tried and convicted of coining but had obtained a pardon, but who was again in custody for a similar offence.

On the day that she was to be tried, and just as she was brought down to the bar of the Old Bailey, Johnson called to see her; but Mr Spurling, the head turnkey, telling him that he could not speak to her till her trial was ended, he instantly drew a pistol and shot Spurling dead on the spot, in the presence of the Court and all the persons attending to hear the trials, Mrs Housden at the same time encouraging him in the perpetration of this singular murder. The event had no sooner happened than the judges, thinking it unnecessary to proceed on the trial of the woman for coining, ordered both the parties to be tried for the murder; and, there being many witnesses to the deed, they were convicted, and received sentence of death.

 From this time to that of their execution, which took place on 19th of September, 1714, and even at the place of their death, they behaved as if they were wholly insensible of the enormity of the crime which they had committed; and notwithstanding the publicity of their offence, they had the confidence to deny it to the last moment of their lives. Nor did they show any signs of compunction for their former sins. After hanging the usual time, Johnson was hanged in chains near Holloway, between Islington and Highgate.”

From the Newgate Calendar.


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online


Today in London’s theatrical history: Old Price Riots begin, 1809.

As we commented in a previous post London’s eighteenth/early nineteenth century theatre audiences were often rowdy, unruly, fond of breaking down the supposed line of separation between performer and spectator. They often disrupted plays or actors they took a dislike to, organised themselves to resist attempts to control them and impose order and quiet, and violently objected to any rise in ticket prices…

The most famous struggle that erupted from this disorderly audience was the Old price Riots, which began on 18 September 1809. Over sixty-seven nights of protest at Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, often collectively referred to as the OP war, crowds protested against a rise in seat prices, a reduction of the size of the gallery (all working class people could afford), and the increase in the size of private boxes taken by the rich.

The audience divided themselves into the supporters of the cheaper ‘old price’ tickets, the ‘OPs’, and those who supported the management, the NPs.

As the name ‘Old Price’ suggests, the riots were sparked by the dissatisfaction of London’s theatregoers with the new price of admission to the theatre. As had been the case throughout the eighteenth century, these theatregoers believed in the common ownership of theatre prices, and were prepared to act to defend low prices as a matter of principle. “Theatre protest was intertwined with long eighteenth-century multi-class metropolitan political expression and theatre-going in this period was not the passive, solemn experience we take for granted today. In these lively, volatile metropolitan spaces the justification for and exclusiveness of new theatre pricing regimes, the resentment of theatre monopolies, and the suspicion of impositions along class lines had been issues before”… in the 1763 Half-Price Riots at Drury Lane and Covent Garden, the 1755 Drury Lane riots against Garrick’s Chinese Festival… 1743, 1750, 1770, and 1776 saw comparable, violent protests at Drury Lane…

Theatre in the 18th century played an entirely different social role than it does today – open to all classes, it addressed them and catered for them… The theatre was hugely popular in late Georgian Britain: every fair-sized town had a theatre; schools, the armed services, different trades, aristocrats and gentry all had their own amateur groups. There was no assumption that visiting the theatre was, or should be, an elite activity. The opposite view, in fact, prevailed – there was a conscious and widespread feeling that it was and should be open to all, and almost that it was a service, that should be open to everyone, rather than being a money-making concern.

The auditorium of a Georgian theatre was encircled with tiers of enclosed seats known as boxes, with a gallery above. The gallery was the cheapest; the first row of the boxes the most expensive. The floor of the theatre was furnished with simple benches and called the pit. The best view of the stage was from here, and it was only later that theatre managers realised that they could put the most expensive seats there and call them the stalls.

Theatre programmes often started at about 6.30pm and could go on until after midnight. The main play was preceded by songs, dances and perhaps a tightrope walker or juggling act, with a shorter play (usually a comedy) at the end. The scenery was spectacular, particularly for pantomimes, and often painted from eye-witness drawings. Tickets were half price if you came at the interval.

In London there were two Theatres Royal: Covent Garden and Drury Lane (the ‘major’ theatres). They were the only two royal patent theatres sanctioned to stage five-act spoken word drama within Westminster, even though, in reality, the Lord Chamberlain’s jurisdiction extended to the whole of London and its environs. In the 1790s Drury Lane was completely rebuilt and Covent Garden renovated. Both were enlarged to seat approximately 3,000 people.

In December 1808 Covent Garden burned down, with a loss of thirty lives, the destruction of Handel’s organ and much scenery and costumes. Forced to fund an entirely new theatre, the management solicited donations from the rich – including £10,000 from the Duke of Northumberland – and borrowed extensively. More space was devoted to boxes for richer patrons, the most expensive private boxes being luxurious with curtains. They hired the top soprano, Angelica Catalani, at an enormous fee to attract wealthier patrons. Prices in the gallery remained the same, but had a restricted view.

While Covent Garden was being built, the other major theatre, Drury Lane, also burnt down (in March 1809). Covent Garden was now the only theatre permitted to perform plays.

A crowd of thousands was waiting to get in to the theatre when it opened on 18 September 1809. Perhaps only a quarter managed to do so. But many were there not to spectate – they had grievances, and were determined to air them. These included “the removal of the cheapest section of the house, the one shilling gallery, to a ‘pigeon hole’ on high; the expansion of private boxes and the enclosure from prying eyes of areas only affordable to the elite; and the cessation of sales of half-price tickets after the third act, a custom that had hitherto opened up the theatre to a multitude – if not the very poorest – of Londoners and made the space egalitarian in its usage.” Added to this, rumours of financial mismanagement and embezzlement, anger that increased prices seemed to be paying for expensive foreign actors as lead players…

When the theatre’s actor-manager/owner John Kemble, appeared on stage, he was received with applause, but when he began to speak he was drowned out by roars, hisses and hoots whistles, shouts, calls, songs, and stamps which continued right through Macbeth.

Magistrates were called from Bow Street magistrates’ office to read the Riot Act, which would have allowed them to force the crowd to leave. The crowd did not disperse promptly, only a few were removed, and, as they had begun, the audience closed their performance with stirring renditions of ‘God Save the King’ and ‘Rule, Britannia!’ But a debate began as to whether a paying audience could legally be ordered to disperse.

After the disruption of the opening night, Bow Street officers patrolled the corridors of Covent Garden Theatre (this lasted into the new year). Invited in by the Theatre’s doorman, James Brandon, they were tasked with keeping order and removing anyone disrupting the plays.

But the disturbances continued. The OPs arrived with ‘musical’ instruments – frying pans, tongs and a dustman’s bell, and performed the ‘OP dance’, a kind of wild welly dance, on the benches, accompanied by shouts of ‘OP!’ Horns and bells were sounded.

Kemble closed the theatre for six days to allow a neutral committee to decide on the prices. But they supported the new prices, so when the theatre re-opened the OPs returned with banners, placards, songs and chants. Running races along the benches and mock fights were started, and the ‘OP rattle’, (satirically inspired by the rattle watchmen carried) used to drown the actors out.

Policing became a crucial issue. Many OPs were arrested, night after night, and prosecuted privately by the theatre staff… There was a close relationship between the theatres and the Bow Street magistracy. Bow Street had become central to the state’s maintenance of public order and morality, in an era when the French revolution had sown a fear of radicals and of the disorderly working classes had among the British establishment.

Heavy policing and repression of rights became, if anything, more of a central issue as the weeks of Old Price protest went on. By October, the Ops were rioting “not because of an increase in admission price by itself but rather because of a perceived affront to their freedoms and associated customary rights as ‘Free-Born Englishmen.’”

For their part, the authorities began to see the OP riots as more even of a threat than the Gordon riots (according to Attorney General Vicary Gibbs, who intervened to support the Theatre’ position, denounce the OPs as rioters and label the dispute ‘the greatest riots that had every disgraced the Metropolis.)

By early October 1809, anyone found in possession of or using horns or bells within the theatre to be arrested; as was anyone distributing handbills among the audience, and soon, outside the theatre,

OPs repeatedly changed tactics so as to avoid arrest, and, in response, officers amended their grounds for arrest. Arrests in the pit, the corridors, the gallery, the one-shilling gallery, and the private boxes of Covent Garden Theatre continued unabated. As the protest moved into November 1809, men and women were brought before the Bow Street magistrates charged with having caused or incited disturbance, riot, and tumult for singing ‘God Save the King,’ using rattles, blowing whistles, gesturing, walking about, sneezing loudly, and wearing the words ‘O.P’ or ‘N.P.B’ (No Private Boxes) in their hats.

When arrested, men and women were brought to Bow Street, and there the magistrates expressed themselves by demanding bail. Bail ranged from £100 to £500, plus sureties.

With this kind of noise going on throughout the performance, Kemble employed boxers to throw people out. This back-fired however: when the doorkeeper, Brandon, detained a well-known radical barrister, Henry Clifford, he was found guilty of false arrest. This gave the advantage to the OPs, and although Kemble had originally vowed not to give in, by 14 December 1809 he had met Clifford for dinner and agreed peace terms. The following night Kemble apologised for raising the prices, and for employing the boxers. Charges against the rioters were dropped. The OPs had won.

It would be too simplistic to frame the Old Price Riots in terms of class struggle. More accurately “a multi-class rejection of perceived elite chicanery was a crucial feature of the OP war.”

Just as those from every class attended the theatre, so OPs were drawn from all classes. Apprentices, clerks, both skilled and unskilled workers, business and professional men and even an earl’s daughter were among those arrested throughout the two and a half months of riots.’

However the theatre’s location was perhaps crucial. Many of the OPs lived near to the theatre, in Westminster, an area then known for its radical ethos, fond of electing radical MPs and constantly teeming with riotous mobs and home to pubs full of debating reformers…

A common idea of what kind of space the theatre was, and for who, lay at the heart of the riots. “Private boxes, for example, were novel, constructed zones of ambiguity whose mechanics – private, hidden, aloof, seemingly beyond reproach – upset values the OPs saw as central to London theatregoing, to see and to be seen in a public theatre, open exchange, and the equality of all under the law.”

In some ways this aspect reflected the conservative and reactionary aspects of the Old Price campaign. While there was an egalitarian spirit, it was also balanced by a dose of moral judgmentalism – private boxes were opposed as being set up to encourage infidelity. The OP campaign also brought up bilious gouts of anti-semitism and xenophobia – ‘foreign’ talent hired to adorn the Theatre, and the hiring of some jewish boxers to act as bouncers, were seized on and turned into additional outrages to be protested. So in some ways the OPs wanted to be seen, and can be viewed, as patriotic defenders of the status quo – “a multi-class public suspicious of novelty”.


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online