Today in London’s xenophobic past: Anti-Irish riot in Spitalfields, 1736

From the Middle Ages, London’s then ‘Northeast Suburbs’, Spitalfields, Bishopsgate and Shoreditch, were well known for industry, which was able to establish here outside the overcrowded City; but also for poverty, disorder and crime. Outside the City walls, they fell outside the jurisdiction of City authorities, so criminals, outcasts, the poor and rebellious clustered here.

After 1500 Spitalfields underwent rapid urban growth. London expanded massively as large numbers of people flooded into the city: many dispossessed by rural enclosures, and deprived of the traditional welfare system by the Dissolution of the Monasteries under king Henry VII. In the City of London, trade was also expanding in many and varied directions, there were numerous jobs to be had, in both legitimate and illegitimate sectors. New rich classes were emerging, with new needs, requiring new services, and opening up exciting new chances to rob them. Neighbouring poor areas like Spitalfields absorbed many of these incomers.

The district between Aldgate and Brick Lane became a centre for homeless and drifting people – “idle, vagrant, loose and disorderly persons” – by the early 18th Century. The Brick Lane area especially remained associated with severe social problems: according to Mayhew, the lane and the streets running off it included not only lodging houses but also considerable numbers of brothels. Brick Lane, said the Rector of Christ Church in the 1880s, was “a land of beer and blood”.

Spitalfields housing was inevitably usually of low quality, overcrowded, run-down, often sub-divided, especially in the slums or ‘rookeries’.

But Spitalfields has also been described as City’s “first industrial suburb”. From medieval times the area’s major employer has been the clothing trade; but breweries have also been major employers since 17th century, and later residents formed a pool of cheap labour for the industries of the City and East End: especially in the docks, clothing, building, and furniture trades. Small workshops came to dominate employment here.

The relationship between the affluent City of London and the often poverty and misery- stricken residents over its eastern border in Spitalfields has dominated the area’s history. More than half the poor in Spitalfields worked for masters who resided in the City in 1816; today the local clothing trade depends on orders from West End fashion shops… The same old social and economic relations continue…

For similar reasons as those that led to the growth of industry and slums here, the area has always been home to large communities of migrants. Many foreigners in the middle ages could not legally live or work inside City walls (due to restrictions enforced by the authorities or the guilds), leading many to settle outside the City’s jurisdiction. Successive waves of migrants have made their homes here, and dominated the life of the area: usually, though not always, the poorest incomers, sometimes competing for the jobs of the native population, at other times deliberately hired to control wages in existing trades… Huguenot silkweavers, the Irish who were set to work undercutting them, Jewish refugees from late nineteenth‑century pogroms in east Europe, and Bengalis who have settled in the area since the 1950s. Many have been identifiably apart in religion or race. In the last decade or two newer communities like the Somalis have added to the mix. Colin Ward described Spitalfields as an inner‑city ‘zone of transition’, a densely populated ‘service centre for the metropolis’ where wave after wave of migrants had struggled to gain a foothold in the urban economy.

By the early 18th Century there were numbers of Irish people living in Spitalfields. Due to their race, their religion (catholic, amidst overwhelmingly protestant English), by language, the Irish were often segregated, wherever they lived in England. London was no different – lodging houses, streets and neighbourhoods became generally Irish in character.

Frequently they were extremely poor or destitute. The extreme poverty of the Irish locally was often noted. This lasted for more than a century: the radical Francis Place remarked in 1816 that the native poor of Spitalfields were better off than the Irish. Irish migrants were blamed for working for cheaper wages, especially in the building trades, and were on occasions attacked by ‘native’ workers.

In summer 1736, reports spread of English builders being let go from the building of Christ Church, to be replaced by Irish workmen, said to be working below the agreed rate (supposedly at somewhere between half and two thirds of what the previous workers had been paid).

In July this sparked three night of anti-Irish rioting in Spitalfields:

“Tuesday 27 July 1736, the alarm was given by the Deputy Lieutenants of Tower Hamlets. They were barricaded inside the Angel and Crown tavern in Spitalfields, and calling desperately for reinforcements. Outside, the East End had erupted in violence. It was feeling against the Irish that triggered it. London was full of Irish workers. They flooded into the capital in search of jobs on building sites or out in the fields and, like all immigrants before and after them, they were accused of stealing English jobs. Within hours of the trouble starting, Walpole had informers mingling with the crowd, and sending back regular reports from public houses. ‘Some of [the crowd] told me,’ Joseph Bell scribbled hastily to his master, there was such numbers of Irish who underwork them, they could not live and that there was an Irish man in the neighbourhood who employed numbers of them & they was determined to demolish him and drive the rest away.’ It turned out that the contractor for Shoreditch Church ‘had paid off his English labourers and imployed Irish because they worked cheaper.’ The same thing was happening in the weaving industry. 

On the first night of the riots, Irish public houses were attacked. A squad of fifty soldiers under Major White, officer on duty at the Tower, found itself up against a crowd he estimated at 4,000. On Thursday, a boy called Thomas Larkin was shot dead in Brick Lane. The next night was even worse. Richard Button, a brewer’s assistant, ‘saw the mob coming down Bell Yard, with sticks and lighted links. One of them made a sort of speech directing the rest to go to Church Lane, to the Gentleman and Porter.’ The crowd was organised by now. These were no longer spontaneous demonstrations. Quite a few of the leaders had papers with lists of Irish pubs on them. ‘One of them was called Captain Tom the Barber, and was in a striped banjan. I would have taken notice of him’ Richard Button told the Old Bailey later, ‘but he turned away and would not let me see his face.’ The authorities were having to take ever stronger measures to deal with the situation. Clifford William Phillips, a Tower Hamlets magistrate, was woken by neighbours about ten o’clock, despatched a message to the Tower for help, and then set off towards the riot. ‘The street was very light,’ he recalled afterwards, ‘and I could see (at a distance) the mob beating against the shutters with their clubs and hear the glass fly … I heard the hollowing at my house, and the cry in the street was Down with the Irish, Down with the Irish.’ As Richard Burton remembered, it was only the appearance of magistrate and soldiers that prevented worse violence. ‘Justice Phillips coming down, and the captain with his soldiers. they took some of [the crowd], and the rest made off immediately, and were gone as suddenly, as if a hole had been ready dug in the bottom of the street, and they had all dropped into it at once.”‘

The Angel and Crown might have been on the corner of Whitechapel Road and Osborn Street.

Several pubs known as haunts of the Irish were trashed or destroyed; crowds of between 2000 and 400 were involved. The Irish armed themselves and fought back, gunfire allegedly killing one attacker and wounding several others.

A scurrilous pamphlet, entitled ‘Spittlefields and Shoreditch in an uproar, or the devil to pay with the English and Irish’, emerged shortly after the riots, listing those killed and injured, but also clearly ranting against the ‘incomers’: “It is shocking to behold the Cruelty or Impudence of some People, who, even in a strange Country, by the Natives thereof they get their Living; yet these ungrateful wretches are ever belching out their most dreadful oaths, Curses and Imprecations against those very People by whom they have Subsistence. The Truth of what is said here will evidently and plainly appear, by a genuine Relation of the fights which have happened between the English and the Irish in Shoreditch and Spittlefields, which will set forth in true light the Insolence of the Irish, who were Aggressors in this hitherto unheard of Action. It is hoped that proper Means will be taken by the Magistrites to quell those audacious Rioters, and to put a Stop to their wicked, cruel, and inhuman Purposes.”

The pamphlet goes on to blame the trouble on Irish provocation – a familiar story which continue wherever racists gather to harass, attack and murder migrants, yet its any migrants who resist who get blamed and arrested.

Although resentment arising from competition for work was said to be the immediate spark for the pogrom, the general culture of anti-catholicism, dominant in Britain from the 16th century, and particularly sharp in London, may have also been lurking in the background. It has been suggested that the presence in Spitalfields of a large community of Hugenots, and their descendants, French protestants expelled from France some 50 years before, played a part in the trouble – though evidence of Hugenot involvement is scanty. In the 1680s, of course, ‘native’ silkweavers in the East End had petitioned to protest the immigration of 1000s of french weavers into their area, competing with them for work. This may not have precluded the Hugenots’ children from joining anti-Irish protests.

Irish folk may by the 1730s have begun to move into the silkweaving trade, which Hugenots dominated, and Irish workers were later accused of undercutting the rate in this occupation (though I am not sure this was an issue in 1736). By the 1760s, however, Irish weavers were violently resisting wage cuts and sabotaging looms alongside the grandchildren of French exiles and the ‘native’ English.

However, there were further attacks on the Irish during the anti-Catholic phase of the Gordon riots in 1780 (in which many local weavers were said be involved). ‘Integration’ was a rocky road, proceeding unevenly, with alliances forged by some in the face of common interests, constantly at risk of being undermined by longstanding prejudices…

Which may well have some lessons for us in our own time. If only we ever learned from history, eh?

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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