In the early 1830s, there was growing pressure for parliamentary reform. A rough alliance of middle class and working class co-operated in pressing for a wider franchise, more representative constituencies, and other measures, to limit the power of the aristocracy… For a couple of years polite political reform, riotous workers and radical demagoguery all seemed to be part and parcel; of course in the end the 1832 Reform Act would later give the vote to the middle classes, who promptly ditched their plebeian allies with a fond fuck you all… Still it was a time pregnant with possibilities.
Starting on 5 November 1830, the middle classes began to petition parliament for reform.
A few days later, armed crowds met at the Rotunda, the pre-eminent radical political meeting place of the era, waving radical newspapers and attempted to march to Parliament.
Home Secretary Robert Peel, mastermind behind the creation of the New Police, had obviously got some ears to the ground, probably spies among the radicals, as he had warned in Parliament earlier that day that the king’s plans to take tea with the Lord Mayor of London might be best postponed due to the agitated state of the London crowds:
“The letter which had appeared in all the newspapers of the day, addressed to the Lord Mayor, was authentic, and the signature to that letter was his. That letter conveyed the deliberate opinion of his Majesty’s confidential servants, that they had felt it to be their duty to advise his Majesty to postpone the visit which their Majesties intended to pay to the City of London on Tuesday next. The opinion was founded on the firm belief entertained by his Majesty’s Government, that a collision of a very serious nature might take place in the attempt to maintain the public peace… information had been received of an intention on the part of evil-disposed persons to make that festival a scene of tumult, and probably of bloodshed… if their Majesties were to visit the city of London, a tumult and riot would ensue, involving consequences of a most deplorable character, and perhaps leading to bloodshed… I learnt that it was also the intention, of a few abandoned and desperate characters, to promote disorder and tumult… who, though few, were still sufficient in number to create very general and extensive alarm.”
The lord mayor of London handwritten to the Prime Minster, the Duke of Wellington, to alert him to a threat to particularly target him, hated reactionary that he was, the arch-champion of the most reactionary tories of the time, dead set against any political reforms or concessions to change of any kind. The class conscious workers’ movement especially considered him one of their main enemies.
Peel continued: “In the course of Saturday, the Lord Mayor elect of London, the chief magistrate of the metropolis for the ensuing year, felt it to be his duty to make to the Duke of Wellington a communication, which I will now proceed to read to the House: My Lord Duke,— a set of desperate and abandoned characters, who are anxious to avail themselves of any circumstance to create tumult and confusion. While all of any respectability in the City are vying with each other to testify their loyalty an the occasion, from what I learn it is the intention of some of the desperate characters above alluded to, to lake the opportunity of making an attack on your Grace’s person— [Very loud cheering, mingled with considerable laughter, from the Opposition benches]. “Good God! A sarcastic cheer!” continued Sir R. Peel; “and made, too, in the House of Commons, on hearing that the Lord Mayor of London has communicated to the Duke of Wellington that he had reason to believe that an attack would be made on his Grace’s life as he accompanied his Majesty to the civic festival!… Is that a salutary state of things, in which it is announced that a Minister of the King cannot go to meet his Sovereign at Guildhall without being exposed, I do not say to the usual symptoms of popular obloquy, but to the risk of an attack upon his person? But this is not all. Intimations reached my office that an attack was to be made upon his Grace’s house in the course of the night, when the police were at a distance, under the pretence of calling for lights to illuminate. I say, that any such attack must be accompanied by riot; and that the attempt to suppress such riot by force, when the streets are filled with women and children, must be accompanied by consequences which all of us would lament… I am now sorry to be obliged to inform the House, that in the course of Saturday and Sunday last, the most industrious attempts were made in various quarters to inflame the public mind against the new police. Thousands of printed hand-bills were circulated, some of which I will read to the House, for the purpose of shewing the means employed to inflame the people against that portion of the civil force which is intrusted with the preservation of the public tranquillity. These are not written papers, drawn up by illiterate persons, and casually dropped in the streets, but printed hand-bills, not ill-adapted for the mischievous purposes which they are intended to answer. One of them is in these terms:— To arms, to arms!—Liberty or Death! London meets on Tuesday next, an opportunity not to be lost for revenging the wrongs we have suffered so long; come ARMED, be firm, and victory must be ours!!! “AN ENGLISHMAN Another of them is couched in the following terms:— Liberty or Death! Englishmen! Britons!! and honest men!!! The time has at length arrived—all London meets on Tuesday — come armed. We assure you from ocular demonstration, that 6,000 cutlasses have been removed from the Tower, for the immediate use of Peel’s Bloody Gang—remember the cursed Speech from the Throne!!—These damned Police are now to be armed. Englishmen, will you put up with this.” ‘
A few days before, on November 2nd, a mob had gathered to attack the police, still wet behind the ears and very unwelcome to the mass of working class people in London… 66 arrests had been made after clashes between the ‘raw lobsters’ and the London mobility…
On November 8th, the trouble Peel had gotten wind of broke out, as crowds attempted to disrupt the lord Mayor’s Parade and march on Parliament:
“On Monday night (8 Nov 1830) a meeting was held at the Rotunda in Blackfriars road… an individual exposed a tricoloured flag, with “Reform” painted upon it, and a cry of “Now for the West End” was instantly raised. This seemed to serve as a signal, as one and all sallied forth in a body. They then proceeded over the bridge in numbers amounting to about 1,500 shouting, “Reform” – “Down with the police” – “No Peel” – “No Wellington.” They were joined by women of the town, vociferous in declamations against the police.”
The Rotunda was the pre-eminent political meeting place of the London working class radicals; where Richard Carlile lectured and denounced religion, where the National Union of the Working Classes gathered.
Note the flying of the French tricolour, the emblem of the first French Revolution, then still used by English radicals who took part of their inspiration from the events of 1789 in France. It was only really superseded as the main workers flag by the red flag in the later 19th century.
“The mob proceeded into Downing-street, where they formed in a line… A strong body of the new police arrived from Scotland Yard to prevent them going to the House of Commons. A general fight ensued, in which the new police were assisted by several respectable looking men. The mob, upon seeing reinforcement, took to flight.
Before noon organised bands of pickpockets were prowling about. About two o’clock in the afternoon a sham fight was attempted to be got up in Fleet Street, and crowds collected. About five o’clock the first indication of a mob was observed round the house of lords. Members got into their carriages without molestation, but were assailed by shouts…
The refuse of the mob, proceeded in a body, vociferating “No Peel – down with the raw lobsters!” At Charing Cross, the whole of them yelled, shouting and breaking windows. They were dashing over heaps of rubbish and deep holes caused by the pulling down of several houses, when a strong body of police rushed upon them and dealt out unmerciful blows with staves on heads and arms.
In the evening another mob made their way to Apsley House, the residence of the Duke of Wellington, hallooing, in their progress thither, disapprobation towards the noble duke and the police. They were met by a strong force of the police, who succeeded in ultimately dispersing them. During the conflict many received serious injuries.
At half-past twelve o’clock, a party were in the act of breaking up [a paling], for purpose of arming themselves, when a body of police made a rush forward and laid unmercifully on the rioters, making many prisoners…”
William Knight, one of those arrested, was found to be carrying a will bequeathing his body, in the event of his death, to the barricades in the cause of Liberty! The Duke Of Wellington considered the battle for the future of society as one of “The Establishment Vs The Rotunda.”
The following day, November 9th, weavers & labourers gathered in huge crowds inside Temple Bar, on the Strand. Despite the cancellation of the King’s attendance at the Lord Mayor’s banquet (Guildhall), the bargain which Peel had struck with the Whigs to ease the passage of the Police Bill through Parliament was bearing unwelcome fruit. By excluding the City of London from the Metropolitan Police area, the Act had provided a sanctuary into which the Police could not penetrate in order to prevent the formation of hostile crowds, or assess the size of a mob. On this occasion the people armed themselves with wood and stones from the Public Record Office in Chancery Lane, then in course of construction. Rowan’s police were further down the Strand, near Charing Cross. He formed his men into a column and, as the mob advanced down the street, he gave the order to move forward. The rioters were quickly dispersed and fled to the security of the City boundaries. None were seriously hurt and Rowan had demonstrated that police, in solid formation, were more than a match for a much larger undisciplined mob.
On the 10th, the military besieged the Rotunda at ten o’clock at night trying to provoke another fight; they ordered Carlile to open the doors, but he refused, so they eventually buggered off.
A week after this triumph the Government fell and the Whigs assumed office. Armed crowds marched to the Rotunda, waving radical papers.