It wasn’t much of a bomb…
In July 1736 an explosive device went off in the Court of Chancery in the Houses of Parliament. Little damage was done; but the explosion projected an attached package of seditious handbills throughout the House of commons. The papers, condemning five recently passed Acts of Parliament, were scattered across the lobby of Westminster Hall. Peers and judges flew into a panic, climbing over each others backs to escape the smoke and confusion, tearing their ornate gowns and losing their wigs in the chaos.
The paper, mocking the language used by Parliament when publicly burning seditious books, read:
‘By a general consent of the citizens and tradesmen of London, Westminster and the borough of Southwark, this being the last day of term, were publickly burnt, between the hours of twelve and two, at the Royal Exchange, Cornhill, at Westminster Hall… and at Margaret’s Hill, Southwark, as destructive of the product, trade and manufacture of this kingdom and the plantations thereto belonging, and tending to the utter subversion of the liberties and properties thereof, the five following printed books, or libels, called Acts of parliament.”
The authorities were worried this was the opening of a popular revolt, especially since the act that headed the list was the Gin Act, introducing heavy excises on gin, and licensing/restricting its production (to try to reduce the English love of getting hammered on ‘Madam Geneva’), which had aroused popular rage.
A spike in gin drinking had become the moral panic of its day. Economic protectionism was a major factor in beginning the Gin Craze; as the price of food dropped and income grew, consumers suddenly had the opportunity to spend excess funds on liquor. By 1721, however, Middlesex magistrates were already decrying gin as “the principal cause of all the vice & debauchery committed among the inferior sort of people”.
As consumption levels increased, an organised campaign for more effective legislation began to emerge, led by the Bishop of Sodor and Man, Thomas Wilson (who, in 1736, had complained that gin produced a ‘drunken ungovernable set of people’). Prominent anti-gin campaigners included magistrate and author Henry Fielding (whose 1751 ‘Enquiry into the Late Increase in Robbers’ blamed gin consumption for both increased crime and increased ill health among children), Josiah Tucker, Daniel Defoe (who had originally campaigned for the liberalisation of distilling, but later complained that drunken mothers were threatening to produce a ‘fine spindle-shanked generation’ of children), and – briefly – William Hogarth. Hogarth’s engraving Gin Lane is a well known image of the gin craze, and is often paired with “Beer Street”, creating a contrast between the miserable lives of gin drinkers and the healthy and enjoyable lives of beer drinkers.
However, it turned out the bomb was the work of Robert Nixon, described as “an unbalanced non-juror” (someone who had refused to swear an oath of allegiance to the king). Nixon was in fact probably attempting to exploit this discontent for other aims; he was the leader of a small bunch of Jacobites, followers of the rival royal claimant to the throne, James Stuart.
This ‘very extra-ordinary insult… a wicked and traitorous design’ and ‘most impudent and daring insult’ embarrassed the authorities, striking at the heart of the kingdom, puny as the device had been.
Although James Stuart’s father had been driven out of England by a concerted coup backed by a more or less popular movement (at least in London), there was a lingering residue of support for the Jacobite cause.
In many ways, as the likelihood of actual restoration of the Stuarts receded, English Jacobitism became muddied with a more general resentment of the authority, so that Jacobitism came to the fore to express discontents and protests of the day, often about more day to day matters. The cause of the ‘king over the water’ became a kind or romantic dream of a better life; “a way of withholding support” from the hated regime of Prime Minister Robert Walpole. Wearing white cockades (a Jacobite symbol) or toasting king James became a satirical way of winding up the establishment.
Nixon and his mates printed another paper proclaiming James the rightful king, which they flyposted everywhere; but they were all nicked, and Nixon was tried in February 1737, and jailed on the 10th, for five years, fined heavily and ordered to provide sureties for life for his good behaviour.
In the meantime, however, anger at the Gin Act sparked rioting, attacks on the magistrates enforcing the rules and lynchings of informers grassing up unlicensed distillers… Illegal gin production rocketed, and exciting new ways of distributing the product clandestinely were developed… Rumours of an impending revolt fuelled by gin terrified the government (In fact it didn’t materialise, though you could make a case that it was delayed 43 years and manifested in the Gordon Riots). But it took fifteen years for gin consumption to substantially decline, after several Acts of Parliament, it was rising grain prices and falling wages that restricted gin’s appeal…
An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.