John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, was a leading aristocratic politician of the mid-late eighteenth century – successively Postmaster General, First Lord of the Admiralty, and Secretary of State for the Northern Department. An ally of the Duke of Bedford, as Secretary of State for the Northern Department, in 1763 he took a leading part in the successful prosecution of the radical M.P. John Wilkes for obscene libel. Sandwich had been associated with Wilkes in the notorious Hellfire Club (also known as the Monks of Medmenham), a scandalous group of cynical decadents, who indulged in licentious parties, vice, satirising religion and flirted with blasphemy.
However, Sandwich didn’t hesitate to shaft his former friend, enthusiastically fronting up the establishment’s full-frontal on Wilkes, the bogeyman of the day for his outspoken demagoguery. John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera was played in Covent Garden shortly after this. Wits of the day couldn’t help comparing Sandwich’s abandoning of Wilkes to Jemmy Twitcher, betrayer of Macheath in the play; Sandwich found himself stuck with this the nickname.
Wilkes was eventually expelled from the House of Commons, several times, imprisoned, exiled. Sandwich, only remembered today for the claim that he was the eponymous inventor of the sandwich, was targetted by the rampaging crowd in 1780’s Gordon Riots. Initially launched as a rabid protestant protest against the prospect of catholics being given a few civil rights, its bigoted parameters were almost immediately overflowed into a general insurrection of London’s poor against the rich, the prisons, and all authority.
Ironically John Wilkes, once hounded by the elite, thought of as another Wat Tyler, had in the 1770s become gradually respectable, and as an alderman of the City of London commanded a battalion of soldiers who defended the Bank of England against the rioters, who once would have been his ardent followers. Never trust the canny populist who would rise to power on your backs…
On the fourth day of the disturbances, “crowds wearing the blue cockade ‘badge of insurrection’ gathered again outside Parliament after parading the streets ‘with colours, music, cutlasses, poleaxes and bludgeons’. Troops were out in force but only made the mob more insolent. At one point an assault on Buckingham Palace was repulsed by Guards. Frederick Reynolds reported: ‘The crowd were wedged into such firm and compact masses that the cavalry were actually compelled to recede and return at a gallop, to give their career sufficient course to penetrate them. The consequence was that after the cavalry had passed through, the mob lay in the most ludicrous manner one over another like a pack of cards.’
Lord Sandwich was wounded in attempting to go down to Parliament House; around 3pm, in Whitehall, his carriage was demolished, he was set upon and rolled in the mud, and only rescued by the military with difficulty. He was forced to take refuge in a coffee house while his coach was smashed and its lovely glass panels broken.
From here, the gathering crowds set off to attack the Leicester Fields house of Justice Hyde, the magistrate held responsible for the calling in of soldiers who had already killed some rioters; the day would end climactically with the destruction of the Lord Chief Justice Mansfield’s Bloomsbury mansion, and peak with the burning of Newgate Prison, the most hated fortress of class repression, in symbol and reality…
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online