Effigy burning – although best known now for Guy Fawkes night, twas once one of the most prevalent political symbolic acts. Still gets used now and again too, and not just at the kind of ritualised and acceptable fun-poking/social comment at events like the Lewes bonfire…
Burning or otherwise ‘executing’ a fullsize (or larger) mock up of a real person is obviously extremely effective. When it’s a well-known figure, political, religious, or otherwise, it becomes satire of the highest order: mocking the solemn state rituals of public execution, and turning it round on the powerful. If only in fun and threat…
The eighteenth century was one of the high points of effigy burning in England. Political protest in the form of organised or semi-organised crowd violence was endemic throughout the century; effigies formed part of the vocabulary of many of these events.
One such took place on April 5th, 1771:
“About noon, two carts preceded by a hearse were drawn through the City to Tower-Hill, In the first cart sat a man representing an executioner, having the care of three figures painted on paste-board, near as large as life, hanging on a wooden frame in form of a gallows, which reached quite across the cart. In the front the figures were painted with nightcaps on, and handkerchiefs over their eyes; on their backs were written, in large characters, the names of to persons of rank, and an alderman: in the second cart were four figures painted, and hanging in the same manner, with names also on their backs. When the carts, &c arrived at Tower-hill, the gallows was fixed up, and in a short time after the figures and gallows were set on fire and consumed.
A man in the crowd being observed taking down the names, written on the back of the figures, was seized as a spy, and ducked in the Tower-ditch, till he was almost dead, though he assured the mob he copied them only to satisfy his own curiosity.
An hour after the above transaction, the dying speeches of some supposed malefactors were cried about the streets.” (Annual Register)
This had followed a previous incident days earlier on April 1st, (a more usual date for such foolery) “Two carts filled with persons intended to represent some imaginary criminals of rank, which were followed by a hearse, went through the city to Tower-hill. In the first cart was a chimney-sweeper, who acted the part of a clergyman. When they arrived, the person in the first cart, was pretendedly beheaded, then put into the hearse and carried off. In the second cart were some stuffed figures, which, after having the heads chopped off, were burnt, amidst the huzzas of the mob.”
The writer coyly avoiding naming the ‘personalities’ being thus burned in effigy…
In fact, on April 1st they were the Marquis of Bute, former PM and royal favourite, and the Princess Dowager (mother of king George III), burned because they were held to be staunch opponents of the political reform movement, headed by populist demagogue and darling of the London mob John Wilkes, at that time again at odds with the establishment. Bute’s likeness had been burned a number of times throughout England in the previous few years, “in some counties, they dressed up a figure in Scotch plaid, with a blue ribbon, to represent the favourite, and this figure seemed to lead by the nose an ass royally crowned.” The perceived influence of Bute and the princess over royal policy had been translated by ‘the mob’s Hiero-glyphics’ into the visually recognisable symbols of the Jack Boot (for Bute) and the Petticoat (the king’s ma). Bute’s influence was popularly held to extend to being the princess’s lover; but Bute was also unpopular after concluding a treaty ending the Seven Years War, in which he gave up land in Canada to France and Spain. He also imposed a tax on cider, which understandably faced fierce opposition in the West Country. The Bath Chronicle reported the following on April 14th 1763:
“Last week a great Number of true Lovers of Cyder and Perry assembled in Hereford, and having prepared an Effigy of a certain Great Man, finely plaided, first exposed it in the Pillory, then exalted it on a Gibbet, and lastly threw it into a large Bonfire, where it was consumed to Ashes, amidst a general Huzza.”
The campaign against Bute was fuelled also by his being Scottish, so along with a slightly dubious suggestion of misogyny in the ‘Petticoats’ bit, there was also a blatant anglo-patriotic element to the effigies here. The idea that the politicians are selling out the national interest embodied by an angry crowd has a long ring to it…
Even after his resignation as PM Bute was hounded, mobbed, his windows broken, and was still receiving anonymous threatening letters 20 years later.
The immediate context of these protests in April 1771 was the Lord Mayor of London, Brass Crosby’s showdown with the crown and Parliament, which had led to him being imprisoned in the Tower of London. Crosby had intervened in support of the publishers Miller, Thompson and Wheble, who had printed accounts of debates in Parliament without a licence – something Parliament generally repressed. After warrants were issued to summons the men, but they refused to appear and were being blatantly supported not only by Wilkes (a City of London Alderman) but by the Lord mayor. When Crosby discharged Miller after his arrest by parliamentary agents (who he had assaulted), the Lord mayor himself was summonsed to Parliament (followed by a huge mob) and sent to the Tower.
The pro-Wilkes elements in the London mob feted Crosby as he went off to his cell on March 27th; the effigy burnings were a direct response to what they saw as an attack on the independence of the City of London and the broadly pro-reform party (Wilkes, Crosby and the printers being generally lumped together, though it was more complex than that), by a corrupt and venal court and Parliament. Riotous crowds threatened the minsters of the crown…
Crosby was eventually freed when Parliament was adjourned a month later, and the events led to the relaxing of the rules against unlicensed reporting of debates.
That a chimney sweep was acting as the executioner is interesting. If in romantic back-projection from Charles Kingsley’s scribbles usually seen as pathetic waifs doomed and wan, and by some used as a metaphor to represent submerged or latent Desire: there was a darker more realistic side to the child sweep. They were also often collectively unruly, and individually were known for turning to crime when their work was slack or they grew too big to scramble up chimneys… Sweeps were popular symbols of subversion during the Wilkes agitations of the 1760s and early 70s… Symbolism gathers around them, which they willingly exploited in a bid to beg money; they had evolved a traditional role as guardians of the City’s water conduits, a potent symbol of survival and the intricate moral economy of the urban jungle; and they also became a leading ‘trade’ in parades for the Mayday holidays… In these 1771 charivaris, the sweep combines the spirit of disorder, the sweeps’ link to the holiday of April 1st, and a suggestion of their being in some way a moral guardian, albeit fighting for an unruly collective morality, in defence and defiance…
A final note on effigies: the Marquis of Bute was one of the figures most burned in effigy during the eighteenth century; interestingly, possibly only surpassed by radical writer Thomas Paine, author of the Declaration of the Rights of Man. In response to the ‘threat’ of revolutionary France and reformist/radical ideas at home, loyalist associations of conservative citizens sponsored by the government and local magistrates took to burning Tom Paine. Everywhere. Every week for a few years, in massive shows of force, intimidation and reactionary community solidarity to warn off anyone thinking of putting on a revolution; or even discussing reform.
An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.