Today in London radical history, 1768: 2000 Thames watermen picket Royal Exchange & mansion house, 1768, over a decline in trade.

Ah, ’68, year of tumult, hope and rebellion.

No, not 1968 – 1768.

In London, in 1768, a number of movements came together, grew together, striking fear into the authorities, taking control of the streets. One dispute or flashpoint would influence another, spreading like wildfire… The authorities would attempt to repress some elements, but were afraid to move against other movements.

On the political level 1768 was a year of mass agitation and crowd violence in support of John Wilkes, a populist journalist, a rake of dubious morals, a scandal-mongering writer and agitator, who championed reform of the political system, but won support from both the City of London merchant elite and the ‘Mobility’, the swelling, insurgent and always altering London mob. Wilkes had already been jailed and banished in the early 1760s, for challenging the establishment by libeling the king; in 1768 he stood for election to Parliament for Middlesex, the huge (and consistently politically progressive) constituency north and west of London. Middlesex merged into London: huge crowds flocked there to support him, believing he had their interests at heart. The establishment fear of the potential that Wilkes and his supporters led to a crackdown on the crowds, including soldiers shooting and killing pro-Wilkes demonstrators.

This sparked riots at the hustings, and assaults on Wilkes’ pro-government opponents, which spread to general attacks on the rich and those who refused to light their windows in support of Wilkes. Pro-Wilkes marches became pitched battles, Wilkes was imprisoned…

But Wilkes’ pro-reform and incendiary speeches got him barred from entering the house of Commons, even when elected (he was to be ruled ineligible several times, but re-elected each time).

1768 was also a year of starvation: “the price of bread had doubled. The price of meat had increased by a third. Crowds forced street-vendors to sell vegetables at reasonable prices. The Whitechapel butchers ‘suffered prodigiously’. Elsewhere, butchers ‘were oblig’d to secrete their meat’. Corn-factors were attacked and their wagons stopped. The corn-dealers hid their plate, boarded up their coffee-houses, and closed the Stock Exchange…”

As rising food prices sparked protests, and food riots, a wave of disputes swept London, especially in the East End, over wages, over working conditions and how work was regulated and controlled. Trade after trade erupted into stoppage and demonstration. “The sailors and the glass-grinders petitioned, shoemakers held mass meetings and the bargemen stopped work. The leaders of the tailors were imprisoned for ‘Irritating their Brethren to Insurrection, abusing their Masters, and refusing to work at the stated prices.’”

The political and economic turbulence mingled and sometimes merged; many of the workers in the London trades supported Wilkes, and marched for him… Though in reality, he was only ever mainly interested in the promotion of himself, and his image as the outrageous critic of the monarchy and government, darling of the mob, and would always balk at encouraging violence. [He would end his days as comfortably, and respectable, having served as MP, alderman, Sherriff and Lord Mayor of London, (where he admittedly did work to improve legal protection for prisoners, servants and workers) and taken up arms to command soldiers to shoot down the people who had once been his constituency, the mob attacking the Bank of England during the 1780 Gordon Riots. It’s not just the ‘reactionary populists’ we need to beware of…]

To add to the fears of the ruling classes in 1768, there was unrest and rumours of sedition in the army: “Soldiery may become a political Reverbatory Furnace”… If a regime loses the army, revolt can become revolution. But in the end widespread flogging and repression in the ranks kept soldiers from mainly joining the swirling maelstrom….

The most dangerous disputes from the point of view of the authorities were the wage disputes and battles over mechanisation among the Spitalfields Silkweavers, and the work stoppage by the coal-heavers on the London docks. The silkweavers had been rebelling against wage cuts and increased use of machine looms for nearly a decade, but it was rising to fever pitch, with wage-cutting masters facing sabotage of their looms, intimidation of workers agreeing to low pay, and the formation of clubs of ‘cutters’ branching out into extortion of employers. It would climax the following year with gunfire and the army occupation of Spitalfields.

The coalheavers’ dispute was even more violent. Unloading and moving coal was dirty, backbreaking, and utterly vital for the city to function; wages were low and the trade was organised by magistrates linked to the powerful city merchants. A wage dispute in spring 1768 led to serious violence between strikers and scabs, with pitched battles, arson, murder and hangings. The strike spread to the sailors on ships in the London docks, and became even fiercer.

The disorder and atmosphere of general combination and collective action spread. At any one time throughout the year, but especially between April and July, there seem to have been a cross-hatching of diverse, if often overlapping, crowds, roaming the City, attempting to bargain with employers, impose of negotiate new wages or conditions, as well as bashing opponents of Wilkes. No doubt there was an element of opportunist looting, agro and turbulence mixed in as well. And why not?

Many of the numerous London trades got in on the action.

On the 9th May 1768, “a numerous body of watermen assembled before the mansion House, and laid their complaint before the lord mayor, who advised them, to appoint proper persons to draw up a petition to Parliament, which his lordship promised he would present; upon which they gave him three huzzas and went quietly home. The same night a mob of another kind assembled before the Mansion-house, carrying a gallows with a boot hanging to it, and a red cap; but on some of the ringleaders being secured by the peace-officers, the rest dispersed.” (Gentlemen’s Magazine, 1768)

The watermen were partly cabbies of the day, rowing people up and down the Thames, and across from London and Westminster to the south bank of the river. London’s lack of bridges and rolling marshy landscape to the south and east were perfect for access by boat and the Thames was the main thoroughfare for all kinds of traffic. When there was just London Bridge spanning the Thames, their monopoly on people getting around on/over the water made them powerful. In the 16th century, the Watermen’s Company, was set up, with power to

to set tariffs and reduce accidents, and with jurisdiction over all watermen plying between Windsor (in Berkshire) and Gravesend (in Kent). The Act allowed the London mayor and aldermen to yearly choose eight of the “best sort” of watermen to be company rulers, and to make and enforce regulations: this obviously created a hierarchy with links to the City powers.

Watermen now had to serve a seven-year apprenticeship in order to gain an encyclopaedic knowledge of the complex water currents and tides on the Thames. Watermen freeman were also ordered to pay quarterage – paid quarterly contributions. This was a constant source of grievance and dispute with company rulers who were frequently accused of taking bribes to “free” apprentice watermen.

As in many of the London guilds and companies, the watermen experienced an internal struggle between the company elite and the grassroots over working conditions, and representation, who controlled the trade and set the rules. This had forced the introduction of a form of indirect democracy in 1642, seeing the watermen at the 55 “leading towns and stairs” empowered to each year choose representatives, who would in turn propose candidates to become company rulers. This form of government survived, with vicissitudes, until a new Act of Parliament in 1827 restored an oligarchical rule within the company.

Through these struggles, in a kind of proto-trade union movement, Thames watermen developed tactics that both promoted the trade and encouraged collective organisation, notably the use of petitions or “petitions of grievances”. They won important concessions above and beyond the immediate trade: pointedly, in 1644, they were exempted from land service—the use of watermen in land armies—as a direct result of their pressure (the flip side of this was their tendency to be persuaded or forced into naval service, because of their skills on the water).

Their ability to get together and bargain collectively became legendary, and influenced the way they dealt with authority.

The 1768 protest should be seen in a context of a changing river and altering city. More bridges were gradually being built across the river; more non-company watermen were active, and this was all having an effect on the rate watermen were able to command. This was only to get worse in the following century, as more bridges were built, railways and road transport mushroomed, and steam power revolutionised water travel. The watermen’s hold over Thames trips was soon broken.

It is also worth noting that while famous for their collective defence of their trade in their own interests, the watermen also had a general reputation for patriotism… Not so dissimilar from the black cab drivers of our own era… ? Not sure which newspaper the 1760s watermen mostly read though.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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