“The reason given for this outrage… is that it deprived many persons in that branch from being employed.”
In Limehouse, on May 10th 1768: Dingley’s Steam-powered Sawmill was burnt down by 500 sawyers who claimed it was putting them out of work.
This was clearly a highly organized act; possibly decided on at some kind of mass meeting. When the sawyers marched on the Mill, Christopher Robertson, Dingley’s clerk, confronted the crowd and asked them what they wanted. “They told me the saw-mill was at work when thousands of them were starving for want of bread. I then represented to them that the mill had done no kind of work that had injured them, or prevented them receiving any benefit. I desired to know which was their principal man to whom I might speak. I had some conversation with him and represented to him that it had not injured the sawyers. He said it partly might be so, but it hereafter would if it had not; and they came with a resolution to pull it down, and down it should come.”
The mill, the first steam-powered sawmill to open in London, had been operating since early 1767, but the installation of new machinery there during a slack period in the trade when large numbers of sawyers were out of work pushed them into action. On May 6th, the sawyers had informed Dingley they intended to stop the mill working, presumably he ignored the threat.
Traditionally, sawyers had many privileges, perks of the job, notably the right to take and use offcut wood (especially in shipbuilding). This perk tended to be exploited, er, somewhat liberally – management accused the sawyers of often abusing the custom, and making off with huge lengths of wood. Hence sawyers’ houses could often be better built than they financially could afford. However, sawyers’ wages were also generally considered relatively high.
The steam mill was clearly intended to gradually impose a more disciplined industrial process and do away with the perks and customary rights. While owner Charles Dingley received comensation from the government, and completed the rebuilding of the mill, it didn’t seem to re-open: in 1795 it was described as having been standing empty for many years. A generation passed before another such attempt to replace the sawyers’ labour was made in London.
Like the contemporary Spitalfields silk-weavers, and the Luddites after them, the London sawyers were able to clearly see how new technology was being used against them, and made rational decisions to defend existing wages, conditions and customs with a bit of sabotage. Collective bargaining by riot and vandalism. Nuff said. The destruction of the mill took place in a year when industrial unrest was widespread in London; inspired by the violent struggle of the coalheavers for better pay (the ‘river strike’), hundreds of trades were in dispute. The reform agitation in support of ‘radical’ demagogue John Wilkes’ attempt to get elected to Parliament as MP for Middlesex, and the determination of the pro-court establishment to keep him out, was also raging – the infamous massacre of St George’s Fields, when the militia opened fire on a pro-Wilkes crowd, took place on the same day as the Limehouse attack.
Interestingly, the mill’s owner, Charles Dingley, had just recently been John Wilkes unpopular opponent in the Middlesex elections: he couldn’t even get near the hustings some days, being kept out and abused by Wilkes-supporting crowds, and was beaten up by Wilkes’ lawyer. He is said to have died of shame at being so vilified.
On 6th July 1768, Edward Castle was tried at the old Bailey for Breaking the Peace and riot during the attack on Dingley’s mill:
- (M.) Edward Castle was indicted for that he, together with divers others to the number of one hundred or more, their names unknown, on the 10th of May unlawfully, tumultuously, and riotously assembled to the disturbance of the public peace, did demolish or pull down, or begin to pull down a certain out-house called a saw-mill, the property of Charles Dingley , Esq ; against the peace of our Lord the King, his crown and dignity . ||
Christopher Richardson . I am principal clerk or superintendant of this work, that is Mr. Dingley’s saw-mill, it is at Limehouse , almost in the center of his timber-yard; it had been erected about 14 months; there is a brick counting-house joins to it where the books are kept relating to the mill; there is a room under the mill for the two watchmen to sleep in by turns; there is a fire-place in each, and under it is a chest in which was a place to lay the arms; it is all one building, they opened one into the other; the mill was to saw large pieces of timber, oak, deal, or wainscot, it could saw larger quantities of timber than could be done any other way; the mill was built of wood, the counting-house of brick. We had information on the Friday before Tuesday the 10th of May last, it was in writing sent to Mr. Dingley, to inform him a number of people were assembled together with intent to pull down this saw-mill; I immediately went down to Limehouse and got assistance; I had not been gone above half an hour before one of our servants came and told me they had entered the yard; I met the mob of sawyers and other people pretty near the mill; I asked their demands, what they came there for; they told me the saw-mill was at work when thousands of them were starving for want of bread; I then represented to them that the mill had done no kind of work that had injured them, or prevented their receiving any benefit; I desired to know which was their principal man to whom I might speak; I was shewed one; I had some conversation with him, and represented to him that it had not injured the sawyers; he said it possibly might be so, but it would hereafter if it had not, and they came with a resolution to pull it down, and it should come down.
- Should you know that man again?
Richardson. I should if I could see him again, but I have not seen him since.
- What time of the day was this?
Richardson. This was about eleven o’clock in the morning after they had entered the yard, when they were got pretty near the mill.
- What might the number of the people be?
Richardson. As near as I can guess there might be about 500 come into the yard; immediately they went to work and broke into the mill; they did not pull it down, but destroyed the inside; one man had a long adze, another a hatchet; I did not see a saw; one of our men says he saw a saw; I saw them at work demolishing the mill, they cut the shafts of the sail, and several other things; they destroyed all the saws and frames, and pretty near demolished the brick building, that is the counting-house; I cannot speak to the prisoner; they surrounded me immediately.
Benjamin King . To the best of my knowledge I saw the prisoner among the men that were destroying the mill; I think it was he that I saw with his head out at the place where the shaft came out at, with a cross cut saw in his hand, waving it about after the shaft came down; there were a great number of people about at the time, the greatest number were in the field or yard pulling at the sail; I saw the counting-house demolished.
- Did you ever see the prisoner before?
King. No, I never did.
- How far was you from him when you say you think you saw him?
King. Upwards of sixty yards.
Richard Johnson . I was at the mill at the time they were destroying it; I will not be sure of knowing the prisoner; I saw a man at the top of the window of the sails with a saw in his hand, some part of his body out of the mill; he pulled off his hat and waved it, it was like the prisoner, but I did not chuse to go very near the mob, because I am pretty well known among people.
James Brown . After the shaft was down I saw the prisoner with his head out at the window with one leg out and the other in, with a saw in his hand waving it about over the mill.
- How near was you to him at the time?
Brown. I might be about thirty yards from him.
- Did you know him before?
Brown. No, I did not; I never was in the yard before in my life.
Alexander Forbes . I was there at that time; I saw the prisoner, I am sure the prisoner is the person I saw out at the shaft window with a saw in his hand, waving it backwards and forwards, I was about thirty yards distance.
Verdict: Acquitted .
(from the Ordinary’s Accounts, the Proceedings of the Old Bailey).
However, one John Smith was convicted and sentenced to seven years imprisonment for the riot.
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online