In August 1794, during the war against revolutionary France, crowds over several days attempted to destroy ‘Crimp Houses’, which served as privately run army recruiting offices, in various parts of London. ‘Crimpers’ were widely suspected of stooping to kidnapping and buying up men’s debts to ensnare debtors, and other shady practices; in practice crimping was supported by London magistrates, with the tacit backing of the government. Many crimping houses were based in brothels, whose pimps and madams were suspected of enticing men in, getting them drunk, then selling them while insensible to the press gang. Other ‘houses of rendezvous’ were accused of forcibly imprisoning eligible men till the recruiting sergeants could collect them.
At this time, two years into the war with revolutionary France, the army and navy were suffering a severe shortage of manpower. The navy alone was increased from 16,613 in 1787 to 87,331 in 1794; the army aimed at recruiting another 100,000 into the militia that year. As a result the military offered bounties to the ‘crimpers’ (recruiters) of up to £30 per recruit. Meanwhile, the City of London was in the process of ballotting for the City Militia – any citizen selected would be forced to serve in the Militia or pay for someone to take his place. Despite much opposition, the ballot lists were being compiled in mid-August, as the Crimp House Riots erupted.
These riots saw the most alarming (for the authorities) mob violence since the Gordon Riots of 1780: crowds of hundreds of people, gathered, chanting ‘No War No Soldiers’, and proceeded to pull down five or six crimping Houses and attack a number of others.
The initial flashpoint was a number of crimping houses, in Johnson’s Court, Charing Cross, belonging to a Mrs Hanna; most notably the Turks Head, an inn and brothel. There has been rumours for years that men were kidnapped from here and forcibly impressed; in July 1794 there was a mini-riot after a local journeyman bake vanished into the Turks Head and was supposed to have been ‘pressed’. Shouts for help were allegedly heard from some of the neighbouring houses for the following weeks.
A few weeks later, on 15th August, rumours spread that a young man named George Howe had leapt to his death from a window of a crimp house:
“August 15th. About two o’clock, a melancholy accident happened in Johnson’s court, Charing-cross. George Howe, a genteel young man, was taken to a recruiting-office there belonging to the East-India company to be enlisted; and, upon attempting to make his escape, his hands were tied behind his back, and in that situation he was put into a garret, where he was not many minutes before he jumped from the window, and was killed upon the spot. This circumstance very naturally attracted the attention of passengers, and presently a crowd was collected, who, fired by indignation, pulled down the house. A detachment of the Guards was called in, and with difficulty the mob was dispersed.”
A magistrate ordered a search of another suspected crimp house – a man was found dying of smallpox in a locked room. The crowds dispersed, but regrouped in the evening, and had to be driven off by horseguards.
The violence continued into the next day, Saturday morning:
“August 16th. The populace seemed inclined to attack some other recruiting-houses in the neighbourhood of Charing-cross.”
Several of Mrs Hanna’s houses were stormed, and bedding thrown out of the windows.
Later 50-100 people also attacked the nearby King’s Arms, according to its proprietor:
“a very great quantity of people assembled at the door, and some of them unhinged the front of the door… very riotously throwing stones, and insisted on having some recruits out belonging to the Norwich regiment, that I had there; I suppose there was a hundred people there. I have a middle door, which I barricadoed with a water butt, after they had taken off the hinges of the door at the end of the passage; the door of the house was a very weak door. After they had taken the passage door off the hinges, they took it out into the street, and they had a great difficulty to get it to pieces, and that diverted them some time, they broke it to pieces; after that they had the sign taken down, which they broke also; there was an application then made to the police office, to get the assistance of the military. I remained in the house all the while, I durst not get out for my life myself; I dispatched a man for the military; before the military did come, they came up the passage and brought the pieces of the outer door, and threw it over the middle door, at the windows, and broke the windows and the fashes, and swore they would get in; I had a military officer with me in the house, we threatened to fire at them…”
The crowd broke into a swordmakers/cutlers shop when attacked by soldiers.
“The foot guards had remained upon the spot; and a detachment of the horse guards was added to them who patroled during the night round Charing cross, St. Martin’s lane, and their vicinity. The coroner’s inquest re turned this evening, after a deliberation of eight hours, was, that George Howe, the deceased, had come by his death in consequence of endeavouring to escape from illegal confinement in a house of bad fame.”
On the 17th, more crimp houses attacked in Charing Cross.
On the 18th, a large demonstration took place outside the Guildhall, in the City, as a petition was presented against the Provisions of the Militia Bill.
The authorities were forced to make some show of action over the deaths in the crimping houses:
“August 18th. Mrs. Hanau, the mistress of the house in Johnson’s court, was brought to the public-office, Queen square; but as no evidence was produced to incriminate her, she was consequently discharged. John Jacques, who kept a recruiting office in the next house to that of Mr. Hanau, was also examined relative to a person found sick of the small-pox in his house, who, on the recommendation of Mr. Reynolds, a surgeon, had been subsequently removed to the work-house of St. Martin’s parish, where he died the next morning. He also was discharged.”
Possibly if harsher measures had been taken against the crimpers, the riots would have died away – instead, they continued:
“August 19th. The White-horse public house, Whitcombe-street, Charing cross, a recruiting-house, wherein Edward Barrat, a mariner, had been ill-treated, was saved this evening Tom destruction by the intervention of the military.” Crimping houses in nearby Hedge Lane were also attacked.
The riots spread to other parts of town, including Drury lane, Fleet Street, Holborn, Bride Lane (near St Pauls) Mutton Lane (at the foot of Clerkenwell Green), Shoe Lane (off Saffron Hill), Hatton Garden, Moorfields, Whitechapel, Grays Inn Lane, and Smithfield… Crowds paraded Fleet Street, to cries of ‘No War, No Soldiers!’ and ‘Liberty and no Crimps!’
Dispersed in one area, the crowd would regroup and assemble to attack elsewhere. The riots peaked on the night of the 20th-21st, when at least three crimping houses were destroyed.
Soldiers, including horse guards, were called in to disperse the crowds several times in the course of the week; the Riot Act was also read in Shoe Lane, “to the groans and hisses of the mob”.
The Lord Mayor of London ordered posters to be put up denouncing the rioters:
“August 22d. On this and the preceding days some riots took place in the city, in consequence of which the following hand-bill was posted up and circulated in the city next morning: “The lord mayor sees, with inexpressible concern, that notwithstanding all the caution which has been given, and the endeavours of the good citizens to preserve peace and good order, that the same daring attempts to overpower the civil officers of this city, which were made on Wednesday night, were last might renewed in Shoe-lane. The inhabitants of this city must be convinced that the authors and actors in these tumults have no other view than that of overturning and destroying our laws, our constitution, and the liberties which through them we enjoy, in order to introduce among us the same bloody and ferocious government which France now groans under,
The lord mayor, therefore, gives notice, that, if any farther riots or tumults shall be attempted, he shall feel himself obliged to use the most effortual means to suppress the same, and therefore enjoins you to keep your lodgers, servants, and all others of your family within doors as soon as it is dark, as you will answer for the consequences which may arise from any breach of the peace.
Mansion house, Aug. 22, 1794.”
The radical reformers of the London Corresponding Society (who had opposed the war with France) were accused by some of instigating the riots. Magistrate Patrick Colquhoun, who had played a central part in repressing the riots, wrote to the Home Secretary that he had ‘strong grounds to believe that these riots have been excited by the leaders of the seditious societies whose views extend very far beyond the recruiting houses… a deliberate system originating with the corresponding societies for the purpose of overthrowing the government.” (Colquhoun, frustrated with the widespread resistance to authority and crime in the capital, would shortly go on to found the Thames River Police, an important step on the road to the founding of the Metropolitan Police…)
A number of newspaper echoed the view that the reformers were behind the riots.
Inflammatory leaflets were indeed handed out during the rioting, the language of which was seized on as evidence that there was a ‘hidden hand’ at work stirring up trouble. One read:
“Beware Britons of the hordes of crimps and kidnappers that infest the metropolis and its environs, who rot and imprison its peaceful inhabitants. Oh! Think of the number of parents that are made wretched, in having their blooming sons torn from them by these monsters – Would such atrocious acts have been suffered in the days of Alfred? If you bring the Demons before the magistrates you cannot get redress, they will screen them in defiance of the law. Is this the land so famed for liberty? Did Sydney and Russell bleed for this? – Oh my poor country!”
Whatever the suspicions of the authorities, the disturbances clearly arose from the widespread suspicion of the pressgang and the brothelkeepers and other publicans prepared to sell men into the forces. Resistance to the pressgang was part of the street culture of London and other cities – pressmen could expect a violent reaction if caught enlisting men against their will, unless they were able to ensure their success by superior force.
Twenty-three people were arrested for taking part in the riots. On 17th September 1794, Joseph Strutt was found guilty of riot for the attack on the King’s Arms on 17th August and sentenced to death. The same day, Anthony Warnbeck and Richard Purchase, received the same sentence, having been found guilty of attacking Robert Layzell’s house and recruiting office in Holborn; finally Thomas Biggett was found guilty of leading an attack on the Black Raven in Golden Lane, Cripplegate, and also sentenced to death.
An account of their trials can be read here
However, the trouble impressed the City of London authorities enough to lead to the withdrawal of the Militia Act, with the City authorities deciding to raise money instead to pay recruits rather than implement the ballot lists.
Riots against recruitment were however revived in 1795. In January 18 men were freed by a crowd from a crimping house in Southwark. In April a thousand people were involved in an attack on a crimper in Westminster who had tried to trick a fifteen-year old into signing up. And in July, following a sustained campaign of impressment in the riverside districts the previous month (which had seen much resistance), further crimp house riots took place in Charing Cross, leading to a huge march on Whitehall, and an attack on the Prime Minister’s house…