Today in gay history: Thomas White & John Hepburn hanged in Newgate for ‘buggery’, 1811.

“Yesterday morning, about five minutes before 8 o’clock, Ensign Hepburn, and —— White, the drummer, a lad, only 16 years of age, for the perpetration of an unnatural crime, were brought on the scaffold, in front of the Debtors’ door, Newgate, and executed pursuant to their sentence. Their conduct since condemnation has been such as to evince a sincere contrition, and a just sense of the heinousness of their offence. They behaved in a manner becoming their unhappy situation; and after spending a few minutes in fervent prayer and devotion, with the Rev. Dr. Ford the Ordinary of Newgate, were launched into eternity, amidst a vast concourse of spectators.” (Morning Chronicle, Issue 13051)

Two centuries ago today, two men were hanged at Newgate Prison for ‘buggery’ as a result of one of 19th century England’s most notorious anti-gay police raids.

Homosexuality had been a criminal offence for centuries; sex between two men had been a capital crime since 1533. Gay men wanting to meet and have sex with other men risked imprisonment, violent beatings and death. One option was to hang out at open spaces like Moorfields, then on London’s northern fringe, where ‘sodomites’ could recognise each other… But the uncertainty and discomfort of outdoor cruising wasn’t for all.

To cater for the underground community of gay men in London, a network of secret clubs evolved, known as ‘molly houses’, where gay parties could be held, often featuring dancing, cross-dressing, sometimes marriages (some officiated at by mock clergymen); there would also be rooms for sex…

Though highly illegal, sometimes a blind eye might be turned, thanks to bribery, or depending on the moral obsessions of the times. But the mollyhouses were always vulnerable to being informed on by paid informers, and raids by the authorities.

In July 1810, Bow Street Runners raided a molly house, at the White Swan in London’s Vere Street (off Clare Market, just north of today’s Aldwych). Twenty-seven men were arrested. The club had been operating for less than six months, having been set up in early 1810 by two men, James Cook and one Yardley, who realised the lack of gay brothels in the city offered a business opportunity for them (Yardley claimed to be straight with a wife and purely in it for the money). And fuck you, David Cameron – The Reverend John Church (a genuinely ordained minister, the first gay clergyman ) was said to have performed same sex marriages at the White Swan (though he denied it).

“POLICE. Bow-Street, July 9. – In consequence of its having been represented to the Magistrates of the above office, that a number of persons of a most detestable description, met at the house of James Cooke, the White Swan, in Vere-street, Clare-market, particularly on a Sunday night, a privy search-warant was issued, and was put in execution on Sunday night last, when 23 persons, including the landlord of the house, were taken into custody, and lodged in St. Clement’s watch-house, till yesterday, at eleven o-clock,w hen they were brought before Mr. Read for examination; but the circumstance having transpired, a great concourse of people had collected in Bow-street, and which was much increased by the mob that followed the prisoners when they were brought from the watch-house. It was with the greatest difficulty the officers could bring them to and from the Brown Bear to the Office; the mob, particularly the women, expressing their detestation of the offence of which the prisoners were charged.
         The following persons were first put to the bar, and gave their names and description:-
         Esau Haycock keeps a shop near the Yorkshire Stingo, New Road.
         James Amos, alias Fox, lodger, at the White Swan, (the house in question) a servant out of place, disabled in the arm. N.B. He was convicted and pilloried some time since for unnatural practices.
         William Thopson, waiter at a hotel in Covent-garden.
         Henry Toogood, servant to a gentleman in Portland-place.
         Robert Aspinall, lodger, at No. 1, Brewer’s Court, Great Wild-street, taylor.
         Richard Francis, a corporal in the 3d Regiment of Foot Guards.
         James Cook, landlord of the house, and Philip Hot, the waiter.
         Samuel Taunton, the officer, who had the execution of the warrant stated, that he and other officers went last night to the house about eleven o’clock, and apprehended the before-named persons, except the landlord and waiter, in a back parlour.
         Two of the Patrole gave an account of their being in the house last night previous to the execution of the warrant [i.e. as infiltrators in disguise], and stated the particulars of the conversation and actions that passed while they were in the parlour, but it is of too horrible a nature to meet the public eye.
         These witnesses also stated their having seen similar proceedings in the same parlour on the night of Sunday week, and identified several of the Prisoners as having been present at that time.
         They were ordered to find bail for the misdemeanour, and in default were committed to prison.
         James Spittle, a servant, in Chancery-lane; Matthew Saunders, of Duke-street, Aldgate; James Done, of Curran-road, shoreditch, bricklayer; William Barrow, of Furnival’s-inn; John Reeves, of Castle-street, Leicester-fields, traveller with goods, James Griffiths, Union-court, Holborn, servant out of place (well known at Bow-street); Edward Quaiffe, a soldier in the 3d Guards; George Boat, a waiter, out of place, lodging at the White Swan; John Clarke, Union-court, Holborn, a servant out of place; Timothy Norris, of Temple-street, Whitefriars, a servant out of place; Bernard Hovel, a soldier in the 1st Guards; Thos. Dixon, a soldier in the 3d Guards; Michael Hays, a servant out of place.
         All these prisoners, except Dixon and Hays, who were in a dark kitchen, were found in a room on the first floor, but there being no evidence of what took place, they were all discharged except Done, who was proved to have been in the back parlour with the others, on the night of Sunday se’nnight. He was committed.
         The crowd had, by this time, become so great in Bow-street, particularly facing the Office, that it was almost impossible to pass, and most of those who were discharged, were very roughly handled; several of them were hunted about the neighbourhood, and with great difficulty excaped with their lives, although every exertion was used by the constables and patrole to prevent such dangerous proceedings; and, in doing which, many of them were very roughly treated.
                                    (Morning Chronicle)

The press labelled the apprehended ‘sodomites’ the Vere Street Coterie. Eight men were eventually convicted. Two of them were hanged and six were pilloried for this offence.

Robert Holloway wrote a notoriously unreliable and sensationalist account of the Vere Street coterie, Phoenix of Sodom, “a lasciviously queer-loathing account of the Coterie’s misadventures and of “he vast geography of this moral blasting evil infesting London”:

“The fatal house in question was furnished in a style most appropriate for the purposes it was intended. Four beds were provided in one room – another was fitted up for the ladies’ dressing-room, with a toilette, and every appendage of rouge, &c. &c. A third room was called the Chapel, where marriages took place, sometimes between a “female grenadier”, six feet high and a “petit maitre” not more than half the altitude of his beloved wife! There marriages were solemnized with all the mockery of “bridesmaids” and “bridesmen”; the nuptials were frequently consummated by two, three or four couples, in the same room, and in the sight of each other. The upper part of the house was appropriated to youths who were constantly in waiting for casual customers; who practised all the allurements that are found in a brothel, by the more natural description of prostitutes. Men of rank, and respectable situations in life, might be seen wallowing either in or on beds with wretches of the lowest description.

It seems the greater part of these quickly assumed feigned names, though not very appropriate to their calling in life: for instance, Kitty Cambric is a Coal Merchant; Miss Selina a Runner at a Police Office; Blackeyed Leonora, a Drummer; Pretty Harriet, a Butcher; Lady Godiva, a Waiter; the Duchess of Gloucester, a gentleman’s servant; Duchess of Devonshire, a Blacksmith; and Miss Sweet Lips, a Country Grocer. It is a generally received opinion, and a very natural one, that the prevalency of this passion has for its object effeminate delicate beings only: but this seems to be, by Cook’s account, a mistaken notion; and the reverse is so palpable in many instances, that Fanny Murry, Lucy Cooper, and Kitty Fisher, are now personified by an athletic bargeman, an Herculean Coal-heaver, and a deaf Tyre-Smith: the latter of these monsters has two sons, both very handsome young men, whom he boasts are full as depraved as himself. These are merely part of the common stock belonging to the house; but the visitors were more numerous and, if possible, more infamous, because more exalted in life…”

16-year-old regimental drummer named Thomas White was not arrested on the initial raid or included on the pillory… he was dobbed in by a fellow-drummer, James Mann, for having been a White Swan regular … and in fact, “an universal favourite … very deep in the secrets of the fashionable part of the coterie.”

Mann himself was apparently also a well-known Vere Street attendee, trying to avoid ending up being pilloried or hanged by turning ‘king’s evidence’. His testimony to the magistrates got White and his alleged ‘partner in vice’, Ensign John Newbolt Hepburn hanged for sodomy…

Some contemporary accounts of the trials and the carrying out of the sentences:

“MIDDLESEX SESSIONS, SEPTEMBER 22: Seven of the detestable club of Vere-street, viz. Wm. Amos, alias Fox, James Cooke, Philip Islett, Wm. Thompson, Richard Francis, James Done, and Robert Aspinal, were tried for conspiring together at the Swan, in Vere-street, Clare-market, for the purpose or exciting each others to commit a detestible offence. Mr. Pooley stated the case for the prosecution, and the witnesses against the prisoner were Nichols, and another of the Bow-street patrole, who were sent to the house by the Magistrates, to watch the proceedings of persons assembled there. They gained admittance into the back parlour, which was the principal rendezvous of these miscreants, and were considered as persons of the same propensity, and treated without reserve. For three nights they witnessed such disgusting conduct and language, as to place beyond all doubt the intentions of the company. They gave information of all they had seen, and the prisoners, with a number of others, were brought before the Magistrates. The evidence being closed, Mr. Gurney, who had cross-examined the witnesses while giving their testimony, said that he was placed in the aukward [sic] situation of Counsel for the defendants, and had undertaken that task because he felt himself bound to do so by his oath, and duty as an advocate. In the course of the evidence he had done that duty to the best of his judgment, by giving the defendants every benefit of cross-examination. But he found the testimony so clear and uncontradicted, as to leave no ground of palliation upon which to make any appeal to the Jury, upon circumstances, which, if true, would go to excite an idea that the horrors of Sodom and Gomorrah were revived in London. He must therefore decline trespassing on the time of the Jury, and leave them to form their own conclusions. If the prisoners had any thing to offer in their defence, he had no doubt they would meet with every indulgence. The prisoners being then called on, each told his story, but it could have made no impression on the minds of any discerning Jury, and all the prisoners were found Guilty. Amost, having been trice before convicted of similar offences, was sentenced to three years imprisonment, and to stand once in the pillory in the Hay-market. Cooke, the keeper of the house, Islett, Thompson, Francis, and Done, were sentenced to two years imprisonment, and the pillory in the same place; and Aspinal, to one year’s imprisonment only.
On sentence being pronounced they were all handcuffed, and tied to one chain in Court, and ordered to Cold Bath-fields prison. On leaving the Court, a numerous crowd of people, which had collected at the door, assailed them with fists, sticks, and stones, which the constables could not completely prevent, although they were about 40 in number. The prisoners perceiving their perilous situation, immediately ran in a body to the prison, which they reached in a few minutes, and the constables, by blockading the streets, prevented the most fleet of their assailants from molesting them during their inglorious retreat. (Jackson’s Oxford Journal, Issue 2996)

26 September 1810: An exhibition on the pillory of one of the wretches recently convicted at Clerkenwell took place yesterday, at 12 o’clock, opposite the Mansion-house when this human monster suffered all that could be inflicted by mud, rotten eggs, and potatoes.
          The concourse of people collected upon this occasion was immense. Amongst other places particularly crowded was the ballustrade surrounding the Mansion-house, which, notwithstanding the exertions of constables placed there to keep off the crowd, was filled with spectators, some of whom had melancholy reason to regret their too eager curiosity as several of the rails and a great part of the coping stone gave way from the great weight of those clinging to it, and falling on some of the persons beneath, severely injured three, one of whom is not expected to recover; they were all taken to the Hospital. (The Times, Issue 8098)

On 27 September 1810, William Amos, alias Fox, James Cook (the landlord), Philip Bell (the waiter), William Thomson, Richard Francis, and James Done, six of the Vere-street gang, stood in the Pillory, in the centre of the Hay-market, opposite Norris-street. They were conveyed from Newgate in the open caravan used for the purpose of taking the transports [i.e. those sentenced to transportation] to Portsmouth, in which they were no sooner placed, than the mob began to salute them with mud, rotten eggs, and filth, with which they continued to pelt them along Ludgate-hill, Fleet-street, the Strand, and Charing-cross. When they arrived at the Hay-market, it was found that the pillory would only accommodate four at once. At one o’clock, therefore, four of them were placed on the platform, and the two others were in the meantime taken to St. Martin’s Watch-house. The concours of people assembled were immense, even the tops of the houses in the Hay-market were covered with spectators. As soon as a convenient ring was formed [i.e. a space around the pillory], a number of women were admitted within side, who vigorously expressed their abhorrence of the miscreants, by a perpetual shower of mud, eggs, offal, and every kind of filth with which they had plentifully supplied themselves in baskets and buckets. When the criminals had stood their allotted time, they were conveyed to Coldbath-fields Prison. At two o’clock the remaining two were placed in the Pillory, and were pelted till it was scarcely possible to distinguish the human shape. The caravan conveyed the two last through the Strand, then to Newgate, the mob continuing to pelt them all the way. Notwithstanding the immense concourse of people, we are happy to learn that no accident occurred.
         The horrible exhibition of yesterday must prove to every considerate spectator the necessity for an immediate alteration in the law as to the punishment of this crime. It is obvious that mere exposure in the pillory is insufficient; – to beings so degraded the pillory of itself would be trifling; it is the popular indignation alone which they dread: and yet it is horrible to accustomed the people to take the vengeance of justice into their own hands. We avoid entering into the discussion of a crime so horrible to the nature of Englishmen, the prevalence of which we fear we must ascribe, among other calamities, to the unnecessary war in which we have been so long involved [i.e. the Napoleonic Wars]. It is not merely the favour which has been shown to foreigners, to foreign servants, to foreign troops, but the sending our own troops to associate with foreigners, that may truly be regarded as the source of the evil. For years we have observed with sorrow the progressive revolution in our manners; and we have uniformly and steadily opposed all the innovations that have been admired in our theatres and our select places of amusement, as destructive of their character of the country.
         Many of the most illustrious persons who at first charged us with illiberality, are now convinced of the right view which we took of the subject, and are zealously disposed to exert themselves in stemming a torrent of corruption that threatens to involve us in the gulph of infamy as well as ruin. We trust that the very first object of Parliament, on its meeting, will be the revision of this law.
(Morning Chronicle)

Thursday, 6 December 1810, OLD BAILEY: These Sessions commenced yesterday before Mr. Justice Grose, Mr. Baron Graham, the Lord Mayor, Recorder, and Common Serjeant.
Thomas White and John Newball Hepburn stood capitally indicted for having committed an unnatural offence on the 17th of May last.
         It was formerly mentioned, that the two delinquents were apprehended, shortly after the discovery of the detestable society in Vere-street, upon the accusation of a drummer, named James Mann, belonging to the 3d Regiment of Guards.
         It appeared, from the testimony of Mann, that the Prisoner Hepburn accosted him on the Parade in St. James’s Park, a few days before the day on which the offence charged was committed: he told him that he was very anxious to speak to the boy who was then beating the big drum, meaning White, and said he would reward him if he would bring the lad to his lodgings, at No. 5, St. Martin’s Church-yard. Mann said he would tell White what he had said, and they then parted, Hepburn presenting him with half-a-crown. In the evening Mann and White went to Hepburn’s lodgings, who received them with great cordiality, and informed them that he belonged to a veteran regiment and was shortly going to the Isle of Wight. – Mann then went on to state that Hepburn invited them to dine with him on the ensuing Sunday at his lodgings, but to this White objected, observing it was not a good place, and proposed at the same time that they should meet at the Swan, in Vere-street. To this Hepburn agreed, and an appointment was accordingly made, which was punctually observed by all parties. On their arrival at the Swan, on Sunday, they were shewn into a private room where they had dinner; before and after which, conduct the most vile and disgusting passed between the two prisoners, the particulars of which it is impossible to detail without a gross violation of decency. It was on the detection of the monsters in Vere-street that Mann communicated the facts already stated to his Drum Major [presumably Mann had been linked to those arrested at the White Swan, and had agreed to testify against White and Hepburn to save his own skin], in consequence of which information White was instantly confined, and an officer was sent to the Isle of Man for Ensign Hepburn, the particulars of whose apprehension have already been stated.
         The charge was most clearly and indisputably proved, and the Prisoners were both found Guilty – DEATH.
                   (Morning Chronicle)

Hepburn and White were both hanged on Thursday March 7th, 1811. “White came out first; he seemed perfectly indifferent at his awful fate, and continued adjusting the frill of his shirt while he was viewing the surrounding popoulace. About two minutes after Hepburn made his appearance, but was immediately surrounded by the Clergyman, Jack Ketch [i.e. the hangman], his man, and others in attendance. The Executioner at the same time put the cap over Hepburn’s face, which of course prevented the people from having a view of him. White seemed to fix his eyes repeatedly on Hepburn. After a few minutes prayer, the miserable wretches were launched into eternity. Hepburn spoke to the Shieriff in a very firm and impressive manner, stating that the person who had sworn against him had perjured himself, and that every inta [? piece of evidence?] that he (Hepburn) had said, to prove the perjury, was perfectly correct…” (Hampshire Telegraph and Sussex Chronicle, Portsmouth, Issue 596)

EXCESSIVE GRIEF. — The mother of White, the Drummer, who was executed on Thursday, with Hepburn, the Ensign, died of a broken heart on the day subsequent to her son’s untimely end. She never left her bed after having taken farewell of the culprit on the evening previous to his execution. (Morning Chronicle, Issue 13055)

The Buggery Act 1533 was repealed and replaced by the Offences against the Person Act 1828: buggery remained punishable by death. The last two men to be executed in Britain for this ‘crime’, James Pratt and John Smith, were arrested in August 1835 in London after being spied upon while having sex in a private room; they were hanged on 27 November the same year. In 1861 the death penalty for buggery was abolished. A total of 8921 men had been prosecuted since 1806 for sodomy with 404 sentenced to death and 56 executed.

Sources above were taken from Rictor Norton’s excellent compilation: Rictor Norton (Ed.), “The Vere Street Club, 1810”, Homosexuality in Nineteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook, 7 May 2008, updated 7 September 2008


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

Follow past tense on twitter

Today in London rebel history: riots erupt against the Corn Laws, 1815

The Corn Laws had their origin in the ‘total war’ waged between Britain (and numerous allies) and revolutionary/Napoleonic France between 1793 and 1815. Napoleon’s blockade of Britain after 1806 accelerated enclosure of common lands, as MPs voted in over 1900 enclosure acts to ensure enough grain could be produced to support Britain and her allies. (The legal machinery for enclosure was simplified in an attempt to speed up the process with the 1801 with the General Enclosure Act. This Act saw the peak of the Agricultural Revolution.)

As all trade with Europe was ended, British landowners ended the war with a virtual monopoly of domestic grain markets. The result of this artificial scarcity of foodstuffs, together with a series of bad harvests in Britain, was a rapid rise in prices accompanied by fluctuations in the trade cycle.

At the end of the French Wars, corn prices plummeted to nearly half their war level, causing panic among the farmers – many of whom were also voters. As a result the government of Lord Liverpool government introduced the Corn Laws in 1815, to ensure the high incomes of farmers and landowners. MPs argued that prices had fallen due to an influx of ‘foreign corn’ after the resumption of trade with Europe. Opponents argued that landowners should reduce rents to ease pressure on farmers – a parliament and government representing the landowners reacted as you might expect…

These laws were intended to stabilise wheat prices at 80/- per quarter. They laid down that no foreign grain could be imported until domestic grain reached that price. The laws protected the intensified agriculture and expanded grain farms that had emerged in the war, but predictably failed to solve the problem of high prices. Prices fluctuated at high levels, encouraging the hoarding of corn.

This was class legislation at its most blatant. It made sure aristocrats could continue to benefit from high prices and the high rents that they supported. The Houses of Commons and Lords passed the law with Parliament surrounded by soldiers, knowing well enough what the law meant for the poor.

In response the poor of London rioted – knowing that that, having faced 20 years of high food prices and poverty, the end of the war was not going to make their life easier. High food process were compounded by a trade recession and mass unemployment, as the war economy crashed and hundreds of thousands of soldiers and sailors were demobbed.

Rioting broke out in the area around Parliament as the Acts were being debated, and spread out around London and Westminster as the London houses of the MPs and lords held most responsible were targeted by crowds:

“About the usual hour of the Meeting of Parliament on Monday, there were assembled in different parts, from George-street, to Abingdon-street, various groupes of persons, not numerous at first, all declaring against the Corn Bill, and inveighing against such of the Members as had been most active in support of it. There had previously been a great number of persons in the lobby and avenues of the House, and a considerable quantity of constables have been posted in them, to prevent too great a pressure and disturbance.

The persons who were forced to quit the lobby and passages, took post on the outside of the house. In these groupes were several who were well acquainted with the persons of many leading Members of both Houses, and pointed them out as they came down to attend their duty.—”That is Lord Grenville—that Lord Stanhope—that the Chancellor of the Exchequer”—and hooting or applause followed as the Member passing was known to be friendly or unfriendly to the Corn Bill.—Meanwhile loud shouts of “No Corn Bill!” raised without the House, were distinctly heard within it. For some time the groupes confined themselves to these manifestations of pleasure or displeasure. At length many of the carriages of the Members were stopped, and the Members forced to walk through the crowd amidst hooting and hissing. The civil power now was found to be insufficient for the protection of the Members, and the Magistrates having applied to the Speaker, received an order to call in the military to act under the civil power. Several of the Members, however, had been very roughly handled. They were called upon by the populace to tell their names, and how they had voted or intended to vote. Mr. Fitzgerald, the Chancellor of the Irish Exchequer, was treated in this way. Mr. Croker’s life was more seriously endangered; his carriage was beset by a mob, who made the enquiries to which we have just alluded, he refused to answer them; on his arrival at the house, both doors of the carriages were forced open, and upon stepping out, he was seized by the collar, and received several blows; same question was repeated to him, and the mob said, he should never enter the House alive if he did not tell his name and his sentiments on the Corn Bill. He still refused, and probably would not have escaped without the most serious injury, if at all, if the mob in their violence and confusion, had not directed their rage against each other. Those who suggested one mode, were opposed by others, and enforcing their arguments by blows, Mr. Croker fortunately made his escape into the Coffee-house of the Lords, and from thence into the House of Commons.

The Attorney General, though assailed at first much in the same manner as Mr. Croker, escaped more easily. He gave the mob his name, and told them he should vote as his conscience would direct him.

The military however succeeded in suppressing the tumult near the House, and the immediate vicinity remained clear during the rest of the night. But the populace, driven from this scene, repaired to other parts of the town—”to Mr. Robinsons!” “To Lord Eldon’s!” “To Lord Darnley’s!” “To Lord Ellenborough’s!” was the cry, and groups report repaired forthwith to one or the other of the houses these Noblemen and Gentlemen.

Having supposed the Hon. Mr. Robinson’s residence to be in Charles’s-square, they went thither, and did not leave the street till they learned he had moved to Burlington-street. As soon as they had fixed upon his house, they broke the windows in every floor, demolished the parlour shutters, and split the doors into pieces. The iron rails before the house were torn up, and instantly carried off. Rushing into the house, they then cut to pieces many valuable pictures, destroying some of the larger pieces of furniture, and threw the rest into the street, to be trampled to pieces by their associates.” (Chester Chronicle).

Frederick John Robinson MP had introduced the Corn Bill to Parliament. From his half trashed gaff soldiers stationed to prevent further attacks shot two passers-by who had nothing to do with the violence. Nineteen year old midshipman Edward Vyse, who was walking past the house, was hit with a shot from the pistol that was designed to scare the mob of boys outside. He died immediately at the scene. Another person was also said to have been killed here.

“From Mr. Robinson’s they ran to the house of Lord Darnleys, Mr. Yorke’s, Lord Hardwicke’s, Mr. Meux’s, in Berkeley-square. They broke every window at each place, and demolished the doors, what were prevented from going within.

Another account says, that having mustered about the centre of the street, and not amounting at their arrival to more than fifty or sixty, one (we understand a person well dressed) was selected to ascertain the residence of Mr. Robinson. He knocked at the door, and being informed that Mr. Robinson was not at home, he continued for a short time in conversation with the servant who opened it, when, on a preconcerted signal being given, the others rushed in and proceeded to the work of devastation. The demolition of the furniture occupied little more than an hour.

At ten o’clock, a mob, amounting to about 300, not more, entered Bedford-square, from the corner next Oxford-street, and proceeded to the house of the Lord Chancellor…” (Chester Chronicle).

John Scott, Lord Eldon, Lord Chancellor, had been pursued from the house of Lords to his house. Ironically, Eldon seems himself have been opposed to the Corn Laws, but on balance, he was a bad bad bastard! Early on in his political rise, as Attorney General, Eldon brought in the Act suspending Habeus Corpus in 1794, allowing people to be imprisoned without trial, and acted as chief prosecutor in a treason trial against leading members of the radical reform organisation, the London Corresponding Society – though his case was so weak and his speechifying so hysterical, they were famously acquitted. Appointed Lord Chief Justice and later Lord Chancellor, he became a crucial wedge of the most repressive government in modern times, which repressed numerous working class movements, and quashed several revolts and conspiracies, including the Despard conspiracy, the Black Lamp, the Luddites, among the most famous. Eldon was a notorious advocate of hanging for the most petty offences, an ardent opponent of the abolition of slavery in the Colonies.

So the London Crowd hated his guts anyway, and may have felt they’d seize the chance to do for him in the general ruck. They broke all the windows ; broke into the house and smashed as much as they could, throwing Eldon’s papers into the street; only the arrival of a party of soldiers prevented them from their aim of hanging Eldon from a lamppost in Bedford Square, a noose having been prepared for the same…
Eldon and the soldiers grabbed two rioters and dragged them inside: Eldon told them: “If you don’t mind what you are about lads, you will all come to be hanged.” A rioter replied, “Perhaps so, old chap, but I think it looks now as if you would be hanged first.”
Sadly Eldon was to wear no hemp necklace.

The two arrested men were sent before a justice of peace, but the soldiers refused to be witnesses against them. A garrison of 50 soldiers was stationed outside Eldon’s house for 3 weeks, since “persons in the front of the house from time to time using menacing language and threats, whenever from the streets they saw any persons in the house.”

Other MPs residences received similar treatment:

“The house of Lord Ellenborough in St. James’s square, was also attacked, and considerably injured. Soon after they had commenced their assault upon the house, his Lordship, in the most intrepid manner, presented himself at the door, and inquired the cause of the outrages upon his dwelling? The reply was “No Corn Bill, No Corn Bill:” on which his Lordship addressed them in a few words, the purpose of which we have not heard, but the effect was that the mob instantly cheered the Noble Lord and departed. They next proceeded to assail some other houses in the same square, but a party of the Life Guards approached by this time in full gallop, and the square in a few minutes was completely cleared. This, we understand, was the case in every other part of the town where the assailants appeared, and by one o’clock they were no longer to be seen in bodies; straggling individuals only were observable, and the military continuing to patrole the streets and squares, no further attempt to disturb the public tranquillity was any where made.

THE RIOTS—were renewed on Tuesday night, and with fatal consequences. Every person going to the Houses of Parliament was examined by constables, and no tumult occurred till after the House of Commons adjourned. Afterwards, however, the mob assembled, and made two attacks on Lord Castlereagh’s house; they renewed their violence against the houses of Mr. Robinson, and Lord Darnley; their next objects with those of Mr. Yorke, Mr. Bathurst, Lord King, Lord Lascelles, Mr. Weston, Mr Wellesley Pole, Sir H. Parnell, Sir W. Rowe, &c. The windows of many private persons were demolished by mistake; but none were entered, owing to the activity of the soldiery. It appears that the mob had actually collected some bags of shavings, for the purpose of setting fire to Mr. Robinson’s house, at the moment the guards arrived, and several wheelbarrows full of stones, were emptied in the street, to facilitate the work of destruction!

In these movements, we lament to say, one man and one woman were killed, and three persons wounded. The man was shot through the head with slugs; he was dressed in uniform of a midshipman, and was immediately conveyed to a public house. He proved to be a son of Mr. Dodd, printseller, in Parliament-street, and had gone out shortly before, for the purpose of viewing the operations of the mob. The woman was a widow of a sailor, and had left her friends with a promise to return in half an hour.

A large train of artillery was brought on Friday from Woolwich. More troops have arrived or are on their road. Two fresh regiments of light dragoons are quartered at Kensington and Bow. Ten thousand horse and foot could be called out in an hour, if it were necessary.”

(Chester Chonicle, 17th March 1815).

The riots continued in various parts of the town during the 7th, 8th, and 9th of March. By this time, however, the houses of the Lord Chancellor, and of many other leading members of the Ministry and of the Legislature, were garrisoned with soldiers ; and, London being ultimately surrounded by troops on every hand, the disturbances ended.

Other disturbances around the country commenced with the introduction of the Corn Bill in 1815 and continued intermittently until the end of 1816. In London and Westminster riots ensued and were continued for several days; at Bridport there were riots on account of the high price of bread; at Bideford there were similar disturbances to prevent the export of grain; at Bury by the unemployed to destroy machinery; at Newcastle-on-Tyne by colliers and others; at Glasgow, where blood was shed, on account of soup kitchens; at Preston, by unemployed weavers; at Nottingham by Luddites who destroyed 30 frames; at Merthyr Tydvil, on a reduction of wages; at Birmingham by the unemployed; at Walsall by the distressed; and December 7th, 1816, at Dundee, where, owing to the high price of meal, upwards of 100 shops were plundered. Other riots and demonstrations with an avowedly political bent, like the 1816 Spa Fields Riot, and the 1819 Peterloo massacre, were strongly influenced by the mass poverty of the time, in which the high price of bread was a major factor.

Although rioting died down, over the next three decades, the Corn Laws remained a hot issue economically, with periodic agitations for their repeal, usually driven by a middle class movement based in the manufacturing strata, who saw the introduction of complete free trade as being ideologically and economically in their and the national economy’s best interests. This became focussed with the founding of the Anti-Corn Law League in 1838. The rising class of manufacturers and industrial workers (who were under-represented in Parliament, as compared to he old landowning aristos) wanted to maximise their profits from manufacture by reducing the wages they paid to their factory workers, but complained that the Con Laws kept the price of bread so high, they were unable to reduce wage levels to the pittance levels they desired—men could not work in the factories if a factory wage was not enough to feed them and their families. Lovely. Chartists and socialists accused the anti-Corn Law League of only being interested in reducing wages, but needing to enlist mass support from the working classes so as to put pressure on the Tory protectionists.

Eventually a combination of this long agitation for repeal, a succession poor harvests and the resulting hardship (starvation in Ireland), and the threat of reviving Chartist campaigning, led to the Corn Laws being repealed in 1846, amidst much political shenanigans, and against strong opposition from landowning interests.


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

Follow past tense on twitter

Today in theatrical history: footmen riot after being denied entrance to Drury lane playhouse, 1737.

As previously recounted on this blog, theatres were a leading arena for riots during the seventeenth century. 1737 saw significant disturbances, sparked by restrictions on the right of entry for footmen – the liveried servants of wealthy gentlemen.

Servants were a distinctive part of the eighteenth century theatre audience. From the time of the Restoration, they were regular patrons of the playhouse, arriving early, sometimes in mid-afternoon, to claim places for their mistresses and masters.

In the 1690s, actors discontented with Charles Rich’s management at Drury Lane theatre, established their own company at Lincoln’s Inn Fields with a special licence from the Lord Chamberlain. According to Colley Cibber the new company did well with “the People of Quality” to the detriment of the deserted manager.

To compensate for the loss of part of his audience Rich, “was resolv’d, at least, to be well with their Domesticks, and therefore cunningly open’d the upper Gallery to them gratis: For before this time no Footman was ever admitted, or had presumed to come into it, till after the fourth Act was ended. This additional Privilege… he conceived would not only incline them to give us a good Word in the respective Families they belong’d to, but would naturally incite them to come al1 Hands aloft in the Crack of Our Applauses.”

The innovation achieved its purpose and quickly became an established routine. “The quality” would send their servants in the afternoon to hold a place for that evening’s performance. Once mistress and master arrived, the servants would then retire to their own gallery until the end of the evening’s programme.

However, the practice was not always popular with other theatre-goers… When the footmen’s employers were late in arriving to take their seat, noise and confusion were created as places were being exchanged; the disruption was made more chaotic by the footmen’s habit of not allowing the play to begin until they were settled in their places. This disturbing situation was exacerbated when patrons were more than a little late, leaving their servants in their seats through one or two acts of the main piece, where often they loudly carried on, much to the annoyance of their neighbours.

Other theatre-goers, having two groups to focus their animosity upon, the elite and their servants, found the footmen to be the easier target when protesting the annoyance this caused.

It’s worth noting that there was a hierarchy amongst eighteenth century servants – footmen in livery being near the top (only a rich gentleman’s personal servant would rank higher). In part the footman’s status was due to their being a conspicuous sign of wealth and status for their employers. This was a position that footmen guarded jealously and sometimes abused, which included outrageous behaviour in the playhouse. While trading on the status of their ‘masters’, they were also cheekily able to get away with collectively cocking a snook at other gentlefolk. The class antagonisms and hierarchies expressed becoming very tangled. Throughout the eighteenth century there were numerous conflicts arising from attempts to expel or exclude servants as a group from various public spaces, such as pleasure gardens, and literature is filled with comment on the immorality and disorder that inevitably prevails when the lower classes are allowed access to pleasure and places of leisure. Disputes about the footmen’s occupation of their gallery have to be seen in this context.

In the 1730s, the obnoxious behaviour of servants became increasingly offensive to other theatre-goers. A correspondent to the “Occasional Prompter”, a theatre column in the Daily Journal, described the turn which things had taken. The snobbery in the tone of the letter is barely concealed…

“Not content with assuming their Masters Province, they have, for a long Course of Time, encouraged each other to look upon themselves, during the Time of their sitting to keep Places, as Representatives of those who sent them; and of course, as GOOD as any present in the house.”

Footmen were accused of talking loudly, distracting others in seats around them. Beer was brought in. The servants also sometimes hilariously refused to take off their hats, creating more noise, confusion and complaints. Gentlemen in the pit tried to command quiet, but were answered with hoots of derision.

On another occasion in February 1735, at the King’s Opera House, footmen came into the passages with lit torches. “Offending “the Ladies” and others, with the fumes from their links, they were ordered out of the passageway, but refused to leave, instead confronting “the Centnels” of the house. However, armed troops came to the aid of the latter and it was reported that “in the Fray one of the Footmen was stabb’d in the Groin, and in the Body, and its thought will die of the Wound”.

Problems with footmen at the theatre came to a head through the winter of 1736 – 1737, flaring up as ‘riots’ inside Drury Lane theatre on two separate occasions. The accounts of the dispute describe it as a reaction on the part of London’s theatre-going footmen to the end of their special status within the theatre and the loss of their gallery privileges.

The riots show elements of class conflict as well as the use of traditional popular political tactics and rhetoric on the part of the participants.

The first disturbance took place on Monday February 21, 1737, as a reaction by the footmen to [theatre owner] Fleetwood’s denying them access to their gallery. However, a letter to the Daily Advertiser indicates that the dispute began the previous Saturday and did not originally arise between the manager Fleetwood and the footmen. Instead the conflict developed out of antagonisms between the theatre-going servants and “Gentlemen in the Pit” who were “determined to make the footmen behave with Decency and proper Civility. The confrontation began with members of the pit demanding that the footmen remove their hats when the Ladies and Gentlemen, for whom they were saving seats, began to arrive. The footmen refused and one is reported to have said, “that he would not take off his Hat for anybody” and would knock down anyone who tried to see he did… striking “one of the Gentlemen going to rise.”

After this the confrontation turned into a general ruck: a dozen men from the pit climbed into the boxes and forced the footmen out. However, this meant that the footmen were not able to do the job that their mistresses and masters had sent them to do. And “upon proper Submission from some of them, the Gentlemen suffered them again into the Boxes to keep their Places.

Meanwhile word of hat had happened inside spread to the footmen assembled outside the theatre, and as they came in, they were overheard by audience members making plans to bombard the Pit from the gallery. These threats were in turn communicated to the rest of the pit; “upon which the whole Pit instantly rose, and with one Voice demanded of the director of the Theatre, that there should be either no Footman’s Gallery or no Pit.”

Worried about inconveniencing the ‘quality’, Fleetwood eventually gave in to the pit’s demands and closed the gallery. But the footmen soon broke through the doors, and after sitting through an act of the play, began their threatened barrage of fruit and words .

The well-known magistrate Colonel DeVeil (presiding in the Bow Street office just around the corner from the playhouse) was in attendance, as he often was; he made his way to where the footmen were assembled, and despite threats “to knock his Brains out,” he read out the Proclamation, “admonishing them to retire and desist from so unlawful an Undertaking; for that he came as a Friend, and not as a Foe, to warn them of their Danger. This Admonition, and reasonably reading the Proclamation, had its desired Effect, for they all went off in a few Minutes after the Proclamation was read.”

However, Fleetwood was set on keeping to the new policy. A few weeks after this first encounter, there was another disturbance at Drury Lane involving footmen. On Friday March 4, at the end of the main piece, in trying to make their way to their traditional section, three or four footmen assaulted one of the doorkeepers. Several other house employees came to help; “however, they were mistaken for interlopers by members of the pit, who joined with the footmen in their attack”. The next day, March 5, the footmen returned to continue their protest, during a command performance for the Prince and Princess of Wales. Some 300 footmen disrupted the play, and once again Justice DeVeil made his way to proclaim the Riot Act. “However, on this occasion, fearing the consequences, DeVeil didn’t read the proclamation, but instead arrested a number of those involved on other charges, who were then taken to “a room adjacent to the Playhouse.” After a lengthy examination several of the ringleaders were taken to Newgate. Two were later tried at Hick’s-Hall [the Middlesex magistrates court in Clerkenwell] and were sentenced to hard labour for six months.”

On Thursday March 10, following an announcement the day before, because the riots had “become a Topick of publick Discourse” the Daily Advertiser published ‘a true and exact Account of the Disturbances” as well as an anonymous letter purportedly sent to Fleetwood by representatives of the footmen on March 5 :


We are willing to admonish you before we attempt Our Design; and Provide you will use us Civil, and Admitt us into Our Gallery, which is Our Property, according to Formalities; and if you think proper to Come to a Composition this way, you’ll hear no further; and if not Our Intention is to Combine in a Body in Cognito. And Reduce the play house to the Ground. Valuing no Detection we are

The writers express the footmen’s view that their gallery belonged to them, based on precedent and tradition, and makes an offer to settle the dispute, though with an underlying hint of violent threat.

The threat however carried no weight with the theatre managers, “and with the force of the law assembled against them the footmen were ultimately denied their traditional perquisite in London’s two patent houses.” Footmen noticeably continued to attend the theatre, though possibly their employers now paying for their tickets. But their spirit of disorder was not completely subdued. “In one instance soon after the riot, a servant, keeping places on the stage, hearing audience members in the pit calling to footmen in the boxes to take off their hats, “leapt from his Seat, and opening the Curtain, cry’d out with a loud Voice, bidding the said Footmen keep on their Hats.”

The Footman’s gallery was, however, kept on at the King’s Opera House in the Haymarket. Some twenty-five years later it would seem that there were complaints about the behaviour in that gallery. A notice appeared in the Public Advertiser explaining that because patrons sitting in the Crown Gallery had had their clothes “spoiled, at different Times this Winter, by the Indecency of the Footmen” the manager of the King’s Opera was humbly hoping that “the Nobility and Gentry” would not take it amiss if he had to shut the Footman’s Gallery.”

The collective spirit of the footmen became so culturally significant within the theatre that it impinged upon the material presented onstage. A prologue, spoken by the popular comic actor William Penkethman early in the century, pointed to the power of the footmen assembled in their gallery. “Pinky,” especially revered for his prologues and epilogues, made a lengthy appeal to the “dear Brethren of the Upper Tire [tier]”, reminding them that he was a servant too. He warned all poets “Who writes not up to you [meaning the upper tier], ’tis ten to one will fail,” and then went on rhetorically:

“Your thundring plaudit It is that deals out Fame,
You make Plays run, tho’ of themselves but Lame:
How often have we known your Noise Commanding,
Impose on your Inferior Masters Understanding…”


Much of the above was shamelessly purloined from:

Gentle Riots? Theatre Riots in London, 1730-1780 by Richard Gorrie


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

Follow past tense on twitter

Today on repressive history: habeas corpus suspended in goverment crackdown on radicals, 1817.

The Habeas Corpus Act passed by Parliament in 1679 guaranteed that a person detained by the authorities would have to be brought before a court of law so that the legality of the detention may be examined. In times of social unrest, Parliament had the power to suspend Habeas Corpus. William Pitt did this in May 1793 during the war with France, targetting pro-reform activists, publishers issuing radical texts, and others influenced by the French Revolution. Parliamentary reformers such as Thomas Hardy and John Thelwall were imprisoned as a result of this action.

Habeas Corpus was also suspended in January 1817, during the post-Napoleonic War economic and political crisis.

After the end of the Napoleonic Wars, there was an upsurge in demands for political reform and the extension of the vote. This was also fuelled by the collapse of the war economy into recession and mass unemployment; thousands of soldiers and sailors were being discharged with little prospect of work, too – a dynamic common to large-scale wars: compare the pressures for social change after World Wars 1 and 2 (many sailors and soldiers were also being demobbed unpaid – it was common for navy and army pay to be owed years in arrears then). On top of this a rampant succession of new laws, abolishing old protections for workers and the poor, in the interests of the factory owners, merchants and employers, was introducing unrestrained laissez-faire capitalism, with devastating consequences for the lower classes.

Mass radical agitation – for reform of the notoriously corrupt and elitist political system, but also for improvement in the lives of working people – revived not seen since the 1790s.

Mass rallies in the Autumn of 1816 culminated in the Spa Fields Riot in December, which left the government afraid of the possibilities of radials inspiring mass uprisings of the desperate poor… Sidmouth, the Home Secretary in Lord Liverpool’s government, had been receiving reports from his spies and informers that a revolution was in the making in the north of England.

After a missile (whether a bullet or a stone was never determined) shattered the glass window of the Prince Regent’s coach, as he was on his way to the opening of Parliament, the government accused supporters of parliamentary reform of fomenting political violence: Lord Liverpool’s government rushed laws through Parliament to clamp down on dissent.

On 4 March 1817, Habeas Corpus was suspended; the suspension was not lifted until January 1818. The Seditious Meetings Act was passed and continued in force until 24 July 1818: it was designed to ensure that all reforming ‘Societies and Clubs … should be utterly suppressed and prohibited as unlawful combinations and confederacies’. No meeting of more than fifty persons could be held without the prior consent of the magistrates.

At the same time, home Secretary Lord Sidmouth sent out a Home Office circular informing magistrates of their powers to arrest persons suspected of disseminating seditious libel. He ordered the Lords Lieutenant to apprehend all printers of seditious and blasphemous materials, all writers of the same, and demagogues. However, he failed with the attempt to prosecute the writers and printers because of Fox’s 1792 Libel Act; only one printer was convicted.

The political reformer and trade union activist (and informer!) Francis Place later estimated that between March 1817 and Autumn 1818, 96 people had been detained on charges of treason in England and 37 in Scotland (though Home Office papers show much lower figures). Most of these were later released without being tried.

The Gagging Acts severely hampered the campaign for parliamentary reform. However, as soon as Parliament decided to restore Habeas Corpus in March, 1818, there was an immediate revival in the demands for universal suffrage.

But if the government thought the Gagging Acts would mean the agitation and pressure for change would die down – they were sadly mistaken.

Even if the Acts did silence some vocal reformers others sprang up. Thus, as veteran radical journalist William Cobbett fled the country in March 1817, reckoning the Acts were aimed especially at himself, other newspapers emerged to take on the mantle of his influential Political Register, like the Black Dwarf and Sherwin’s Political Register.

And the repression wasn’t just answered in words… Hampden Clubs, radical debating societies and groups discussing and advocating reform had mushroomed across the country. Amongst those gathering to work for political reform, there were elements who believed only an uprising could deliver political change; to some extent the Gagging Acts strengthened their hand. Hundreds of thousands were facing intense poverty; thousands were incensed by the political repression; among them some were willing to join conspiracies aimed at revolution.

Even as the Acts were being debated in Parliament, the March of the Blanketeers began, in March 1817, a hunger march of its time, calling for government help for Lancashire workers in response to the economic distress and government repression. The marchers were violently dispersed and arrested.

This was swiftly followed by the arrest of alleged conspirators plotting insurrection in Ardwick Bridge in Manchester, and then in June, by the Pentrich Rising, an attempt to launch a revolutionary uprising in Derbyshire, by workers convinced by government spy that a network of similar risings was planned elsewhere. There is evidence that similar plans were afoot in a number of places, but linked only by informers, and the premature events in Derbyshire and some arrests elsewhere led only to disaster.

But plots continued, amidst a rising climate of demands for reform, which climaxed with the violent repression of the massacre of Peterloo in 1819 (where the  Manchester and Salford Yeomanry cavalry, formed to combat any future attempts at insurrection after the Blanketeers march and Ardwick Bridge arrests savagely attacked a mass rally calling for political reform)

… and a final abortive wave of insurrectionary plans that ended with the Cato Street Conspiracy, and a botched Scottish attempt at revolution in 1820…


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

Follow past tense on twitter

Today in London radical history; mass meeting protests threat to Paddington Day Hospital, 1972

Paddington Day Hospital was an important nexus in the UK radical psychiatric community, a ‘space of convergence’ of various progressive counter-cultural forces that were a feature of the period, bringing together radical mental health workers who were attracted to therapeutic communities as an alternative to the conventional psychiatric hospital, ideas of anti-psychiatry, and key figures in the emerging patients’ movement. According to Helen Spandler, Paddington’s story contains “both the possibilities and limitations of the radical psychiatrist as an ‘agent provocateur’ within psychiatry… That the history of Paddington Day Hospital was so clearly riddled with these tensions and paradoxes marks it as an important moment in history. Not only did patients and staff struggle to collectively defend the progressive elements of the day hospital, they were also vociferous in resisting its practices when it failed to meet their expectations.”

The Paddington Clinic and Day Hospital opened in 1962, replacing the Camden Clinic which closed.  It was one of the first NHS units to provide psychoanalytic therapy.

The Clinic and Day Hospital were located in a new 3-storey building next to a petrol station on the Harrow Road, adjacent to the Westway motorway.  The building also housed the Child Guidance Clinic, transferred from the St Marylebone Hospital for Psychiatry and Child Guidance.

Most of the ground floor was occupied by the Day Hospital, which had been established initially as an out-patient facility for the rehabilitation of patients discharged from Horton Hospital.  The cafeteria and the Art Therapy Room on this floor were shared with the other departments in the building. In 1965 an Out-Patients Department opened to provide psychotherapeutic treatment for adults.

In the same year a ‘therapeutic community’ was established in the Day Hospital by a consultant psychiatrist who did not believe in ‘organic’ means of treatment, such as E.C.T. or chemotherapy.  The community was run democratically by both staff and patients and the days were filled with group work and activities, comprising community meetings, shared decision-making and group therapy.

In 1970, Julian Goodburn took over as medical director on the unit, and began to introduce more libertarian methods into the Day Hospital. A conventionally trained psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, Goodburn tried to develop a more informal, egalitarian and libertarian approach to treating patients. He was often associated with famous ‘anti-psychiatry’ figures like R.D. Laing and David Cooper, because of his increasingly radicalised thinking and ideas, though he had little contact with them.

Goodburn aimed to challenge accepted psychiatric, psychoanalytic and therapeutic community thinking at the day hospital; not only questioning the ideologies of the medical professions, but also tackling patients’ own perceptions of themselves in relation to the world and their place within it.

Rather than seeing individuals as victims of ‘mental illness’, Goodburn saw patients as exposing wider social tensions: “There is a correlation between the contradiction, or disquiet that they’re experiencing, and the contradiction or disquiet that everybody ought to be experiencing a propos some factor of society at large, which, you know, they are, through circumstances of their particular experience, the bearer of—the victim of, you might even say—and will subsequently manifest this as if it were something solely going on in them, when in fact it is going on in them, but as a consequence of the fact that these issues are not resolved in the world at large, and it just happens that they are the person standing on that particular street corner at that particular time who’ve copped it, as it were.”

He challenged his own accepted role of the Medical Director (the consultant psychiatrist) in a psychiatric setting, refusing to take ‘medical’ responsibility for the day hospital and carry out official mental health assessments, give out diagnoses, hand out palliatives or sign their medical certificates which would designate patients as ‘mentally ill’. “Not wanting to perpetuate their role as helpless victims and as ‘mental patients’, staff challenged their need to be designated ‘sick’. As a result the staff queried the need to sign medical certificates. Goodburn had a confrontational therapy style, pushing issues to their limits in an attempt to force personal and political awareness. Some of this style was developed from his long-time association with the group psychoanalyst, Henry Ezriel, although Goodburn radicalised Ezriel’s approach in the more politically aware context of the day hospital, following a politicised campaign to save it from closure. Humour was an important and often under-recognised trait of both Ezriel and Goodburn, who presented their ideas and experiences with case studies, stories and selfmocking jokes…. Goodburn used psychoanalytic interpretation and humour in an attempt to reveal underlying interpersonal, social and political dynamics which were impacting on the situation at Paddington… On one occasion Goodburn was reported as being found under a table refusing to make decisions on behalf of the patients, forcing them to take responsibility for their own lives and actions; on another occasion as barricaded into one of the therapy group rooms for refusing to sign patients’ medical certificates.”

This last incident reveals some of the tensions that Goodburn’s approach though up. Questioning the meaning of ‘mental illness’ is one thing – but patients depended on doctors’ signing medical certificates for daily survival, dealing with the dole etc. So refusing to sign them was not always helpful. But the double-edged nature of the ‘anti-psychiatrist’ went even deeper.

“Whilst the radical psychiatrist… can be seen as a positive force for change in contributing to emerging radical mental health movements, it inevitably expresses a number of limitations and problems. Indeed, radical psychiatrists occupy a ‘paradoxical space’ in which they simultaneously subvert, and yet often also reproduce, prevailing power relations… even though the radical psychiatrists frequently used ‘alternative’ psychiatric discourse, they ultimately had more power to do so than patients, or other workers. Their ‘alternative’ could still be considered in the broader lexicon of the ‘psy’ disciplines, which tries to impose particular forms of expert psychological knowledge”.(Helen Spandler)

Some patients and staff at Paddington believed that psychoanalytic interpretation were being imposed, however seemingly democratic… Other commentators viewed Goodburn’s regime as manipulative and ultimately dangerous, with the staff applying “implicit psychoanalytic rules which acted as a coercive regime of truth in the day hospital”. The pursuit of these ideas led to a ‘anarchy, chaos and tyranny’… a situation in which some patients felt neglected, mistreated, eventually leading to an official enquiry and the eventual sacking of the medical director and the closure of the day hospital.

The Day Hospital had little in the way of furniture or ornamentation, and its floors were bare.  The main group meeting room was a large L-shaped room marred by a central pillar.  It contained a sagging sofa and a variety of armchairs of varying degrees of comfort.  Rather surprisingly, the room lacked heating, which was often a source of complaint during meetings.

The consultant felt it was the responsibility of the patients to tidy up after themselves rather leave it all to the cleaner, so the Hospital became increasingly unclean and untidy.  Patients occasionally used materials from the Art Therapy Room to paint graffiti on the walls to express themselves and their opinions about the Hospital.  These were left on the walls so that they could be discussed by the group.  The appearance of the Day Hospital thus contrasted strongly with the more aesthetic environment of the rest of the centre, where it was becoming increasingly viewed as ‘different’.  It was becoming estranged from the traditional psychiatric establishment.

The Day Hospital accepted patients who had been assessed as psychologically unsuitable for psychotherapy.  Its ‘open door’ policy means that people could attend when they wanted.  Staff began to refuse to diagnose psychiatric conditions or to prescribe medication, or even to keep medical records for their patients.  Initially the Day Hospital had received patients from its catchment area, but soon took on those from other areas who had heard of the therapeutic community and self-referred themselves.  Since few records were kept, it was not known where patients came from, but some had come from as far away as Ipswich in Suffolk.  The patients were mainly white, well-educated, young adults, although a number from the local African Caribbean community also attended.  Most patients remained at the unit for about one to two years.

Some patients shared a commune, living together in cheap accommodation.  The Day Hospital supported this, so that the intense group dynamics could continue for 24 hours a day.

In December 1971 the staff and patients formed a protest group, after the impending closure of the Day Hospital and its transfer to the newly opened psychiatric unit at St Mary’s Hospital was announced by the Area Health Authority. At this time the Day Hospital had 50 members of staff and 80 places for patients.  The new facility at St Mary’s Hospital had 60 beds and 80 places for day patients.

The Paddington Day Hospital protest became symbolic of the anti-psychiatric movement; public awareness of mental health issues and resistance to psychiatry was growing at this time, and there were interesting initiatives sprouting around the world.  The campaign’s slogan was Paddington Day keeps madness at bay.

On 25th February 1972 patients and staff invaded a meeting of the Regional Hospital Board to force a discussion of the planned closure. This was followed by a packed public meeting at Sidney Webb College, ‘Madness, A Choice of Treatment’, to protest the closure, organised by the action group opposing the move. The meeting was attended by 700-900 people.

The protest was successful – on April 11th 1972, the action group learned that the closure and transfer had been abandoned. A planned demo turned into an impromptu celebration in the street. The Day Hospital remained open, at a time when similar units around the country closed.

In March 1973 about 100 people, mostly patients or former patients, met at the Day Hospital to discuss forming a union for mental patients.  Following this, the Mental Patients Union was established, with full membership reserved for patients and ex-patients.

In 1974 the Clinic and Day Hospital were renamed the Paddington Centre for Psychotherapy.

In January 1976 the patients called for an inquiry into the functioning of the Day Hospital and its lack of shared decision-making.  This provoked an investigation by the Area Health Authority, which led to the Medical Director being dismissed.

Although the new Medical Director attempted to re-establish a therapeutic community, it failed to gel, and the Day Hospital began to be wound down through 1978, and the patients discharged.

The Clinic and Day Hospital closed in 1979.  Services moved to the Parkside Clinic in Lancaster Road.

Interestingly though the old Day Centre building is still in use, by St Mungo’s Housing Association, providing hostel accommodation for 41 homeless men aged over 50, many of whom are mentally ill.  Breakfast and an evening meal are provided, and residents are permitted to drink alcohol in their rooms and in two communal lounges (another lounge is a designated ‘dry’ area).


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

Follow past tense on twitter

Today in London’s socialist history: a meeting of radical clubs forms the Democratic Federation, 1881.

On March 2nd 1881, Henry Myers Hyndman, a stockbroker recently converted to socialist ideas, and HAM Butler, a Conservative MP, called a meeting of Radical MPs and workingmen opposed to coercion in Ireland. This meeting (which took place at the Rose Street or Social Democratic Club, an organisation primarily of German socialists)

proposed a federation of Radical clubs based on a Chartist-like program of reforms and a committee was formed to make further arrangements, which ultimately led to the formation of the Democratic Federation. This grouping would become the Social Democratic Federation, considered the first Marxist organisation in Britain.

The moving factor in the Federation’s birth was the disillusionment of Radicals with the Liberal government, and the growing need for a separate organisation to represent working class interests. Members of a number of London radical clubs had for some months been urging the need for “a labour party which should be independent of the Liberal party”. The idea was for “a non-Ministerial Radical party” to be led by Joseph Cowen, the radical M.P. for Newcastle. But the gathering would probably not have happened without Hyndman.

A man of independent means, widely travelled, a Cambridge graduate aged nearly 40, Hyndman was by nature a radical imperialist Tory in the tradition of Disraeli. He had been converted to the Marxist standpoint by reading a French translation of Capital in 1880, and was to become an undaunted propagandist of English socialism for the next forty years – as well as a major impediment to its development.

The March 2nd meeting was the first of a series of conferences which resulted in the formation of the Democratic Federation. At the next meeting, on March 5th, Joseph Cowen, a radical MP, presided over a large number of delegates from London Radical clubs, meeting at the Westminster Palace Hotel. The proposal to create a new organisation based on a federation of Radical clubs was made plainer and a sub-committee formed to draft its political program.

The official founding conference of the Democratic Federation took place at Memorial Hall, Farringdon Street, on 8 June the same year.

Hyndman took the chair. The founder members were a disparate body of radicals, former Chartists, Irish MPs and a few socialists. Radicalism was reflected in the program adopted, which included home rule for Ireland, land nationalisation, abolition of the House of Lords (but not, on the objection of Hyndman, the monarchy), and above all adult suffrage and similar political reforms. Hyndman distributed copies of his book England for All, whose title was a foretaste of the nationalism which was to dog the SDF for the rest of its life.

Within a year or so most of the Radicals had been scared off, mainly by the DF’s complete opposition to the Liberals. After this the DF seemed little more than a middle class think tank. A fair number of such intellectuals were attracted, however most of the 500 or so members were working class radicals. Many of these early working class members were former disciples of ‘Chartist socialist’ Bronterre O’Brien (whose ideas roughly came down to Chartism plus land reform). Gradually socialist ideas began to dominate in the organisation.

But the DF/SDF’s entire existence was to be overshadowed or tainted, as some saw it, by HM Hyndman’s mix of dogmatic Marxism and jingoistic Little Englander nationalism. “A natural gambler and adventurer who delighted in political crisis, he totally lacked the personal tact and strategic skill which a successful politician needs. He made numberless enemies, pissing off Marx and Engels, William Morris, and the trade unionist socialist pioneers John Burns and Tom Mann. He opposed the campaign for an Eight Hour Day as a diversion, and denounced the idea of the First of May as  workers day. He saw trade unions as politically unimportant and their leaders as “the most stodgy-brained dull-witted and slow going time-servers in the country”. He opposed both the syndicalists and the suffragists in the 1900s, and suggested that women who struggled for their emancipation as a sex question “ought to be sent to an island by themselves”. He was a persistent anti-semite, became a violent anti-German, supported Carson and the Ulster Protestants and backed allied intervention against the Russian revolution.’

At first the Federation was a negligible force, with only two branches in 1881-2. It quickly lost the support of the radical clubs when Hyndman’s hostility to “capitalist radicalism” was made apparent.

Paul Thompson argues in his book, Socialist, Liberals and Labour (1967) that it was the publication of the book, Progress and Povery by Henry George that increased the popularity of the SDF: “The real socialist revival was set off by Henry George, the American land reformer, whose English campaign tour of 1882 seemed to kindle the smouldering unease with narrow radicalism. This radical voice from the Far West of America, a land of boundless promise, where, if anywhere, it might seem that freedom and material progress were secure possessions of honest labour, announced grinding poverty, the squalor of congested city life, unemployment, and utter helplessness.” The new atmosphere brought important recruits to the Democratic Federation in 1883 and 1884: William Morris, Dr. Edward Aveling, a Darwinian chemist and secularist leader, Harry Quelch, a packer in a city warehouse, H. H. Champion, a former army officer, and John Burns, born in Battersea of Scots parents, a temperance enthusiast who had been influenced by an old French communard in his engineering workshop. By 1885 the organisation had over 700 members.

Some members of the Social Democratic Federation disapproved of Hyndman’s dictorial style and his pro-imperialist and jingoist bollocks. In December 1884 a group including William Morris and Eleanor Marx left to form a new group called the Socialist League… of which more elsewhere…

In the 1885 General Election, Hyndman and Champion, without consulting their colleagues, accepted £340 from the Conservative Party to run parliamentary candidates in Hampstead and Kensington. The objective being to split the Liberal vote and therefore enable the Conservative candidate to win. This strategy did not work and the two SDF’s candidates only won 59 votes between them. The story leaked out and the political reputation of both men suffered from the idea that they were willing to accept “Tory Gold”.

In 1886 the SDF became involved in organizing demonstrations against low wages and unemployment. After one demonstration that led to a riot in London, three of the SDF leaders, H. M. Hyndman, John Burns and H. H. Champion, were arrested but at their subsequent trial they were acquitted.

The SDF was doomed to remain a sect. It participated in the founding of the Labour Party, but withdrew within a year. It suffered continual splits as members attempted to alter its direction or loosen Hyndman’s control and failed; and it failed to significantly gain or keep members during periods of intense class struggle, hampered by its narrow sectarian dogmatism. The racist nationalism of Hyndman and his main support remained as the SDF reformed itself as the British Socialist Party, an organisation which was to be riven by the outbreak of World War 1. Hyndman and a significant minority supported the war; the majority opposed the conflict on internationalist grounds It too them two years to expel the jingoists. The BSP was to form the largest constituent element of the new Communist Party of Great Britain in 1920.


Some of the above was shamelessly nicked from writings by Keith Scholey, and

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

Follow past tense on twitter

Today in parliamentary history: hunger marchers occupy House of Commons, 1934.

In the sharp recession following World War 1, hundreds of thousands of working people were thrown into unemployment, including many who had taken part in strikes and industrial unrest before and during the war. As thousands of soldiers were demobilised from the army, and the war economy was suddenly wound down, struggles over rights to relief, and facilities for the unemployed, broke out all over the UK. Initially organised through local committees of the unemployed, most federated by 1921 into the National Unemployed Workers Committee Movement (usually known as the NUWM), which was to be the main vehicle for unemployed organising for 20 years.

One of the tactics the NUWM became well-known for was organising national hunger marches. Groups of the unemployed would assemble in different towns and converge in contingents on London, to protest unemployment and the restrictions, rules and hardships those on the dole had to face. Hunger marches took place in 1922, 1927, 1930,1932, 1934 and alongside the Jarrow Crusade in 1936. Often the marches would last over a month with thousands marching in bitter winter conditions.

The hunger marches drew the public’s attention to the plight of areas that the politicians and capitalists wished to ignore. Successive Tory, Labour and National Government prime ministers refused to meet deputations of the hunger marchers.

In 1922, over one million people were unemployed and those out of work were confronted with a 19th century poor relief system. It was in these conditions that the first hunger march took place.

The second hunger march from the South Wales coalfield to London concluded a nine month strike following the 1926 General Strike. The march was supported by miners’ leader A.J Cook and by the South Wales Miners Federation but denounced by right wing trade union leaders.

In the midst of the early 1930s Great Depression, unemployment rose to three million with hundreds of thousands even in the ‘prosperous, non-distressed’ south east and midlands joining the dole queues. Successive governments were determined that as much as possible working people should bear the brunt of the recession, and that as little as possible be spent on benefits to those out of work and their families. Savage regulations imposed on claimants made receiving any benefits a humiliating and vicious process. The ‘Not genuinely Seeking Work’ clause was used to cut off dole from anyone deemed not to be looking hard enough for work; the Means Test forced people to sell everything they had before receiving benefits and forced the unwaged to undergo humiliating examinations to prove they were virtually destitute before they could get the benefits.

The 1930 hunger march was organised as unemployment was rapidly increasing in the aftermath of the 1929 economic crisis. The bosses made ‘rationalisation’ agreements with the union leaders that were leading to speed ups in production and many skilled workers being thrown onto the dole queues. The minority Labour government increased attacks on the unemployed.

Again the march struggled to receive support from the official trade union movement. This was partly due to the right wing in the unions but also was a result of the Communist Party and NUWM leaders’ ultra-left policy of denouncing the Labour Party as ‘social fascist’. The Labour government ordered that the 1,000 marchers were to be treated as vagrants.

Of all the hunger marches, the 1932 march, which carried a one million strong petition against the means test (to qualify for the dole), was the most brutally treated, facing constant police harassment. Mass uprisings against the means test in Birkenhead and Belfast in 1932 resulted in confrontations with the police and won concessions from local authorities on poor relief.

The betrayal of Labour leader Ramsay McDonald in joining a national government with the Tories added fuel to the fire. The hunger marchers were met with a police riot in London and the NUWM leadership was jailed. But the march won concessions as benefits were raised.

In 1934 another hunger march against the means test took place, protesting cuts in unemployment benefit, the means test, and demanding decent levels of ‘relief’. A women’s contingent was also organised and demands for maternity benefit were raised.

When the marchers arrived in London, they and the NUWM leadership pressed for the government to meet them to discuss their demands, or allow them to speak in the House of Commons; the government initially refused. However, Ramsay MacDonald, then prime minster, heading a National (coalition government) suggested they lobby their MPs. The marchers decided to take them at their word, and infiltrated themselves into parliament in small groups on 28th February, singing and chanting.

The next day they returned to Parliament:

“The marchers again went to the House on Thursday 1st March. Three hundred succeeded in getting into the outer lobby and twenty-four into the public gallery. The suddenly a cry rang out from the gallery: “Meet the hunger marchers!” “We refuse to starve in silence!” “Down with the National Government!” The House was startled; police rushed to the spot from which the disturbance had come, and when they attempted to evict the marchers struggles ensued. Members of Parliament, looking up, saw what probably few of them had seen before – uniformed police being used in the public gallery in addition to plain-clothes-men. Suddenly, at the other end of the chamber in the ladies gallery, above the Speaker’s chair, a woman was heard shouting, “Don’t knock those men about!” She was removed by the police.

When the news reached the central lobby that fighting had broken out in the gallery, the 300 marchers who had succeeded in gaining admission started vigorously singing the “internationale”. Police reinforcements were rushed from all parts of the House and fighting took place in the lobby. The marchers were eventually ejected and the police thought that they had put an end to the disturn=bances, but there were still marchers in various parts of the House, and three times during the evening scenes broke out in the gallery and in the lobby.”

London was filled with marchers and their supporters; large demonstrations took place virtually daily, and massive pressure was put on the government. In the end, this had some effect: in the 1934 budget, ten per cent cuts to benefit rates were reversed, which had been one of the main demands of the march.

Some aid was also announced for some of the most distressed areas of the country, and to suspend the brutal assessment of benefit claimants by the Unemployed Assistance Board.

The hunger marches did form part of the pressure that was able to win concessions from successive governments. To some extent, however, analysing the history of the NUWM and the unemployed movement of the 1920s/30s, the hunger marches stand out the most, mobilizing thousands and receiving national attention. It is true however that the unemployed movement was more effective when its activities were concentrated locally around practical targets, as in the early 1920s. The increased centralisation of the NUWM, its domination by activists from the Communist Party (reflected in its policies) and its narrowing of focus to high profile stunts like the hunger marches, reduced its innovative early impact somewhat.

It has been speculated that the NUWM’s most important effects were not necessarily in the benefit rates or regulations altered. Bringing a collective approach to unemployment, getting people together and resisting their individual situation as a movement, counters the atomisation that signing on tends to impose. The solidarity, feeling like you are not alone, is a powerful weapon in the face of despair and hardship. NUWM leaders also said later that they believed that the movements’ domination of unemployed politics was a factor in the failure of British fascist groups to seriously recruit the unemployed on a large scale, as happened in Germany and Italy.

For more on the the unemployed struggles of the 1920s-40s, it’s worth reading Unemployed Struggles 1919-36, by Wal Hannington, and We Refuse to Starve in Silence: A History of the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement, by Richard Croucher.


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

Follow past tense on twitter

Today in London radical history: recruits & convicts mutiny, Savoy Gaol, 1776.

“About eleven o’clock while the piquet-guard was off duty, a terrible mutiny happened among the transports and recruits confined in the Savoy Gaol…”

The Savoy Palace was built in the thirteenth century for Edmund Earl of Lancaster, on land between the Strand and the river Thames (close to the modern Savoy Hotel). Successive Earls and Dukes of Lancaster spent lavishly to make the Palace one of the most opulent in the country. Its occupation by John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and then hated head of the government, led to its being attacked by rioters in 1377 and destroyed in 1381 in the Peasant’s Revolt.

After this the palace lay derelict or hardly used until around 1505 when, as one of his last public benefactions, Henry VII set in motion the building of a hospital dedicated to St John the Baptist. Though heavily restored, much of this building remained until 1864 when a fire destroyed virtually everything except the walls. Much of the palace area gradually became a slum, a warren of garrets and crowded courts and alleys, crammed with the poor, lawless and rebellious.

Part of the old Savoy Palace building was converted around 1679 into a barracks, which included a military prison, which particularly held any army deserters due to be shot in Hyde Park. Later the prison also seems to have been used to house civilian convicts.

Unsurprisingly the Savoy Prison became a site of fierce resistance, especially for doomed deserters who had nothing to lose by trying to escape. But the barracks itself also saw trouble. In 1759 a riot of recruits had to be quelled by troops. In 1761 over 200 prisoners here mutinied and a considerable battle developed. The Universal Register noted that ‘An unconcerned spectator looking down from the roof was unfortunately taken for one of the rioters, shot and killed on the spot.’ 

On 27th February 1776 military prisoners joined up with convicts who had been sentenced to transportation to the penal colonies, and were awaiting transfer to prison ships; together at least 40 mutinied, rioted, and made a desperate escape attempt.

“About eleven o’clock while the piquet-guard was off duty, a terrible mutiny happened among the transports and recruits confined in the Savoy Gaol, when near forty found means to escape, by breaking through a back window near the water-side, and getting over the wall, the tide being down, to the craft on the river. A soldier was now ordered to bid them stop, and on their refusal, to fire. The orders were obeyed, and on his killing the last of them, the rest were secured.” (Annual Register, 1776.)

In the same year as this failed breakout, the army barracks seems to have burned down., but the military prison remained. In1798 military prisoners rebelled & rioted for several days.

The site of the prison and palace was cleared from 1816 to 20 to make the approach to Waterloo Bridge.


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

Follow past tense on twitter

Today in London’s religious history: Lollard William Sawtrey ordered to be burnt for heresy, 1401.

The Lollards were religious reformers, heretics against the Catholic Church of the 15th century, proto-protestants, in some ways. Lollardy initially derived from the teachings of John Wycliffe, a 14th-century cleric, who had criticised the worldly wealth of the church and disputed many of the leading catholic doctrines; other students and clerics took up these ideas, calling for a simpler, more down to earthy approach to religion, based among the people, and for much of the high church theology and hierarchy to be abolished or revised.

However, fierce repression of these ideas by the church authorities, backed by the state, rooted many of the ideas out of the universities, where they were first mooted, forcing Lollard students to recant their beliefs or go underground.

From this, these ideas spread into the wider population, often through wandering preachers, teaching secret conclaves of believers, and fleeing repression to spread the word in other areas.

Excommunication, arrest, imprisonment, and eventually executions, were used to try to extirpate Lollardy. Numbers persecuted were relatively small; how widespread these underground ideas became will always be unclear, but substantial communities did develop in various parts of England.

The church feared Lollardy could spread destabilising doctrines which could undermine its spiritual power and its material riches (at this point church institutions in one form or another owned between a third and a half of the land in the country). The secular authorities feared Lollards were also rebels, linking grassroots demands for reform of the church with social and economic dissatisfaction. In the wake of the 1381 Peasants Revolt, this was not an idle or unjustified worry (and Lollards would attempt to launch an uprising a few years later).

Alarmed by Wycliffe’s teachings, the English government passed a new law, the Statute of Heresies Act of 1401, which made burning the penalty for “heresy.”

In 1401, William Sawtrey, a priest from St. Margaret’s in Lynn, Norfolk, became the first Lollard martyr to suffer the death penalty under this new law. He had developed doubts about church practices and dogma, and was arrested in Norfolk on charges of heresy in 1399. Sent to prison, he eventually broke down and gave up his beliefs. His recantation got him released. But it did leave him with mixed feelings. Shortly after his release, he moved to London, and found a job. But he got into trouble again for preaching his unorthodox views.

Archbishop Thomas Arundel ordered William to appear at St. Paul’s on February 12, 1401 and give an account of his teachings. Arundel questioned William closely.

This time, William Sawtrey stood firm. He had said, “Instead of adoring the cross on which Christ suffered, I adore Christ who suffered on it.” He stood behind those words now and it became one of the charges against him by persecutors who considered it proper to bow before crucifixes.

However, it was his beliefs about the mass that finally got him condemned. He agreed that the bread of the Eucharist after consecration was indeed the bread of life, but insisted it was just bread all the same. Roman teaching says it really becomes Christ’s flesh, so he was considered a heretic.

Sawtrey also held that it was a better use of time to preach to the lost than to recite certain prayers. He said that money spent on pilgrimages to save one’s soul would be better spent helping the poor. The independent-thinking priest also said men were more worthy of adoration than angels.

Because of his answers, he was indicted. He answered each charge in the indictment with scriptures. Arundel questioned him for three hours on his interpretation of the mass. The archbishop tried to convince Sawtrey to change his mind, or at least to accept the decision of church authorities, but Sawtrey refused.

Sawtrey was condemned for eight counts of heresy. On February 26, 1401, Sawtrey’s sentence was issued. Condemned as a relapsed heretic, under the new law, this meant he would be burnt to death. Through seven steps called “degradation” he was removed from being a priest and handed over to the secular authorities to be put to death.

Using the defenses at his disposal, William appealed to the king and Parliament. After his appeal was denied, he was burnt at the stake in Smithfield in March 1401, in front of a crowd of spectators.

His death caused many of the early Lollards to recant their views (at least publicly.)

Smithfield, being then a large open space outside the City walls, proved an ideal open space for dealing in livestock – horses, and especially cattle. As this market, and the accompanying slaughterhouses and butchers’ stalls, grew up, so the surrounding area became famous for dirty, unpleasant work and unruly, drunken behaviour. The open space was also handy for hosting sporting gatherings and fairs – as well as executions; where “cows might be sold for slaughter and men slaughtered for religion”. As well as the inevitable disorder that came with the holding of tournaments, fairs, markets and the like, the constant meeting and intermingling of people helped radical social, religious and political ideas to spread: subversive religious and political ideas bubbled under in the Smithfield area for centuries.

Smithfield’s fame as a gathering space made it ideal for use as a public execution ground, mainly for criminals, rebels, and especially religious heretics and dissenters.

But it may have been chosen not simply because it was a convenient large open space. Those in power often had complex psychological reasons for designating where executions and public punishments should take place. Streets or junctions with great symbolic resonance, centres of public discussion and meeting places, were useful; the memory (and thus the public example, to teach others a lesson) could then have a greater impact. Criminals were also often put to death or punished at, or near, the site of their crime. But an additional incentive to use Smithfield may well have been its proximity to troublesome slums and liberties, areas where many heretics, rebels, and criminals were identified as inhabiting. The authorities long had a definite policy of carrying out executions in such areas, partly to overawe the poor, and deter people from following the bad examples of the executed.

In addition, the streets around Smithfield were known as the haunt of Lollard sympathisers, so executing Sawtrey there also served the practical purpose of scaring them in particular. At least nine more Lollards would be executed at Smithfield in the course of the 15th and early 16th centuries; to be followed by protestants, Anabaptists, and the odd catholic later in the 1500s.


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

Follow past tense on twitter

Today in London’s theatrical history: Riot at Covent Garden Theatre against ticket price rises, 1763.

“One Way only is left us, to obtain redress, which is, to assemble at the Playhouses, and demand, with Decency and Temper, an Explanation on this Grievance, which, I am certain, cannot be supported; and owes its Establishment to an Opinion, that every Imposition, not openly opposed, acquires the Sanction of prescription.”

‘The mischief done was the greatest ever known on any occasion of the like kind: all the benches of the boxes and pit being entirely tore up, the glasses and chandeliers broken, and the linings of the boxes cut to pieces. The rashness of the rioters was so great, that they cut away the wooden pillars between the boxes, so if the inside of them had not been iron, they would have brought down the galleries upon their heads. The damages done amount to at least 2000. Four persons concern’d in the riot have been committed to the Gatehouse.’ (The Gentleman’s Magazine)

On 24 February 1763 a mob protesting the abolition of half-price admissions stormed the theatre in the middle of a performance of the opera Artaxerxes.

Visiting the eighteenth century theatre was a very different experience to today. Performances were not received in polite respectful silence – far from it. Audiences were often noisy, rowdy, heckled the actors regularly, brought in food, drink and smokes; started fights and even duels, and on numerous occasions, broke out into rioting. “Depending upon one’s definition of a riot there were thirty-six major disturbances in London’ s three major theatres between the years 1730-1780, or more than one every two years.”

According to Professor Richard Gorrie, riots were an integral part of the total eighteenth-century theatrical experience. “London theatre during the eighteenth century was the site of a highly interactive and wide ranging cultural activity and the theatre riot was a prominent, and not unexpected, part of that encounter.”

The riots had a wide range of causes, but the spark that kept provoking disorder was repeated attempts to put up entry prices.

In the early part of the eighteenth century it was customary to sell theatre seats at full-price if you wished to see the entire show (typically a shorter play, the main feature which might be a play or an opera, and possibly several entr’actes). If you only took your seat after the third act of the main attraction, you could generally get in for half-price. This obviously suited those with less ready cash, amongst others. But in late January 1763 the management of the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden and the Drury Lane Theatre, (the only two theatres fully licensed to show plays), who were effectively running a ticket-pricing cartel, decided to alter this arrangement, and started charging full-price regardless of whatever point in the performance the audience arrived.

In part the aggro that followed arose from a feud between flamboyant and opinionated critic Thaddeus Fitzpatrick the pamphleteer said to be the eminence grise behind the riots) and theatre actor-manage David Garrick, (then running Drury Lane Theatre). Fitzpatrick had criticised Garrick in public and then in print and the latter had satirised him in his plays in return, at first in jest but increasingly bitterly. “Reporters and later historians decided that Fitzpatrick had disrupted the performances at both theatres as a clumsy tactic in this war of wits”. However, this is only a part of the story…

The price changes didn’t go down well with the more plebeian element of London’s theatre audience. Pamphlets were published, and audience members rioted at Drury Lane theatre on January 25th, and a more muted disturbance took place the same night at Covent Garden, which was quickly dispelled when the manager, John Beard, temporarily gave in to the rioters’ demands.

Earlier in the day handbills had been distributed around the various taverns and coffee houses, and other public places, addressed to the ‘Frequenters of the Theatres’; it was a call to arms to protest the new pricing policy.

When the play opened, part of the audience made a great clamour, calling for the theatre managers to appear an account for themselves: “I call on you in the name of the public to answer for your RASCALLY impositions” came the challenge, with the word rascal repeated through the house according to one source.” The theatre next became a sort of parliament… On one occasion the audience were asked to vote on the continuation of the play, but a minority had already started to break up the benches and props… The guard had to be called and the rioters dispersed.

There was clearly a particular concerted effort being made to disrupt performances: there was often much audience traffic between the two theatres during an evening, with boisterous groups of patrons moving rowdily from one venue to the other (though riots generally did not take place simultaneously at both theatres or spread from one house to the other).

However, a month later Beard tried again to implement the new prices. “Once again a handbill was printed and distributed “at all the public places in London:

‘To the frequenters of theatres,
In defiance of the regulation which your resolution and steadiness, lately established at Drury-lane theatre, and in which it was universally understood, that the managers of the other theatre had fully acquiesced, there appeared this day advertised, the opera of ARTAXERXES, with this remarkable notice, viz. Nothing under the full price CAN be taken. It now therefore behooves you, gentlemen, to enforce your decision, and convince the directors of Covent-Garden, that a point once determined by the tribunal of the public, must and shall forever remain a law, subject to no alteration, but by their own authority.

I am gentlemen,
Your Humble servant,
An enemy to imposition.’

However on February 24th, the rioters returned in force to Covent Garden, this time to a performance of Artaxerxes. While women were often a part of theatre riots and generally left or were ushered out only when the situation became violent or destructive, on this occasion it was noted in the press that very few women were present in the first place, perhaps pointing to a more confrontational attitude on the part of the protestors. Beard now refused to back down, and insisted on charging full-price, and in spite of the singers’ best attempts to get on with the opera, the stage was stormed, and the opera stopped. A great noise greeted the drawing of the curtain, and from the beginning of the evening members of the audience demanded that Beard appear to answer their charges. A significant amount of negotiating back and forth took place, with, at one point, someone in the pit declaring that the management “ought to submit in this to the town…”

By 9.30 p.m. when the management were showing no signs of giving into audience demands, the rioters had enough, and started to tear down the chandeliers and the pillars supporting the gallery. They caused £2,000 worth of damage – this at a time when a servant-girl’s annual wage would amount to little more than £4. In addition, several employees of the theatre were hurt. The theatre was dark for four nights.

The Public and Daily Advertiser of the following day contained a statement from Beard with the management’s side of the dispute, arguing that the production expenses of opera justified the change in ticket pricing. Furthermore, after presenting his case to the public, he hoped that no one would think the innovation exorbitant.

The print by L.P. Boitard (see above) to commemorate the Fitzgiggo riot (as it came to be known, taking its name from Thaddeus Fitzpatrick) shows the singers attempting to repel the audience members climbing on to the stage.

The delay occasioned by the extensive repairs gave Beard a chance to temper his stand. By early March Garrick had visited Beard at Covent Garden to see if he was going to insist on full prices as they had agreed in their posted bills. If they were going to remain united, Garrick was prepared to endure another onslaught of protest. However Beard said he had consulted friends who had advised him “to give it up.” With this knowledge, Garrick was prepared to give up the ‘pricing innovation’ as well.

However he was not as quick to drop the charges against the rioters and this rancorous issue was still unresolved at the theatre the following evening. A spirited crowd gathered and once again the orchestra was commanded to play the popular favourites of “Hearts of Oak,” “Britons Strike Home,” and “Rule Britannia.” A clamour followed which precluded any performance and Beard was summoned.

Initially the manager did not guarantee that al1 charges would be dropped, but finally “for the sake of public tranquility” he gave in to the protesters on every point.

Gentle Riots, Theatre Riots in London 1730-1780, Richard Gorrie, is a wondrous read and invaluable reading on the subject…

And London’s theatre audiences would continue to riot in defiance of price rises


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

Follow past tense on twitter