Today in London’s radical past: A bread riot in Deptford, 1867.

You can’t live by bread alone… but we can have more than the crumbs from their tables…

In January 1867, at a time of high unemployment, with people going hungry, some folk in Deptford, in south-east London, revived the old tactic of the bread riot.

On the 23rd, parish officers from St Paul’s parish had been distributing bread to the needy, and a large number of people were clustered around their depot at Mary Ann’s buildings… When the bread ran out, and the announcement was made that there would be no more that day, the crowd got angry, and marched down Deptford High Street. They looted one baker’s shop of all its loaves; a second baker gave away everything in fear of his windows getting smashed. A third bakery was attacked near Deptford Broadway.

Police Commissioner Richard Mayne sent detachments of ‘A’ Reserve – mounted police – with one Chief Superintendent Walker in charge, who cleared the street, but the next day, crowds gathered again, and the bakers closed up shop.

This time the butchers were also attacked, one of whom saved himself by waving a cleaver at the crowd. Another was pushed aside by one ringleader who proclaimed to the assembled crowd, ‘There you are; walk in and help yourself.’ The crowd duly did so without the police interfering. A tobacconist was then burgled…

The crowds then marched off to the Greenwich Union Workhouse, to petition the Poor Law Guardians meeting taking place there. Police maintained a strong presence in the streets that evening, and the day after that, the crowds were not much in evidence. However five tons of bread were given away free that day, so ends achieved, you might say…

The bread riot has a long history. At times of high wheat prices and (since bread was the main diet of the poor) widespread hunger, bakers and millers would be the target of rioters, often accused along with farmers and landowners of hoarding grain to jack up prices. Bread riots could involve the whole community, though, they were often led by women. In previous centuries, it was common for rioters to seize stocks of bread and force bakers to sell it at a price they thought fair, or a long-established price; this was the strongest example of the so-called ‘moral economy’ (discussed by EP Thompson and other radical historians) a set of economic and social practices based in a popular view of how certain basic needs ought to be fairly and cheaply available.

The idea of a moral economy was one that crossed class boundaries, a reflection of the paternalist society, where all knew their place, but all classes had responsibilities and there were certain given rights to survival. Although the kind of moral economy that selling bread at a price considered fair, was bound up with pre-capitalist society – which were being superseded by the growth of capitalism, of social relations based solely on profit and wage labour, clearly as late as the 1860s, hungry people considered that such a staple should be freely available, and were prepared to enforce that if charity wasn’t gong to meet their needs. In Deptford, they didn’t bother with negotiating a fair price – they just took what they could…

Once the disturbances calmed down, local businesspeople and magistrates were quick to vindicate local people. ‘The hardworking individual classes took no part in this disgraceful movement’, and J. J. Barker of the Council made it clear that non-locals caused all the trouble (those pesky outside agitators again!).
A convenient whitewash would thus save High Street business. That notwithstanding, sentences for those caught were harsh and clearly motivated by personal animosity towards ‘bolshie’ indentured apprentice boys. On 25 March the magistrate Mr Traill handed down a sentence of three weeks on ‘bread and water’ to fifteen-year-old William Yarnell, an apprentice of a Mr Russell of New Cross who had accused him of being ‘obstreperous’ and being ‘a perfect terror’. The actual offence was the careless leaving open of a door!

Worth a read: Jess Steele, Turning the Tide: A history of Everyday Deptford.

E.P. Thompson , The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century (Past & Present No. 50 (Feb., 1971), pp. 76-136). It’s online at:

In a strange echo of these events, between 2002 and 2004, an empty bakery in Deptford High Street was squatted and used as a social centre, named, with terrible humour, Use Your Loaf. Among many other social, political events and more, it was at Use Your Loaf that the South London Radical History Group, a project closely tied to past tense, began its life in 2003:


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



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