Today in London financial history, 1613: North London’s New River opens – the earliest PFI?

Water, Moral Economy and the New River

North London’s New River was built between 1609 and 1613, in an attempt to alleviate, but also to cash in on, the shortage of water in the City of London.

Looking backwards, the development of piped water supplies, to replace wells and medieval conduits seems to us like an incontrovertibly progressive move. But not everyone was in favour at the time, especially those whose livelihoods were affected…

The digging of the New River subverted existing ‘moral economies’, which operated around water, its availability, and how it was delivered to where it was needed; undermining existing assumptions about the distribution of this vital resource, expectations shared by people from differing classes of society, with forms of exchange based on hard cash only. The New River’s creation was integral to the rise of capitalism, as it was then beginning to replace older forms of class relations – in fact how the river was financed was influential in that process.

But just as capitalism always finds ways to exploit natural resources, opening up markets and avenues for profit where none had previously existed, so the New River itself, and the shareholders’ dividends, were subverted, by locals who lived along its banks. Despite the New River Company’s determination to maintain control over its product – water – the new waterway was ‘unlawfully’ used during its whole existence, for the washing of clothes and bodies, for pleasure and as the centre of a disorderly social life.

…Nor any drop to drink…?

Water has always been a precious commodity, in London as everywhere else. For centuries, until the late Middle Ages, London had relied on supplies from the river Thames, smaller rivers like the Fleet or Walbrook, or from springs (of which a number could be found near to the City), or wells sunk into nearby areas of loam.

From the thirteenth century, as London began to grow rapidly in size and importance, these supplies became insufficient to support the increasing population and industry. Both the Thames and its main tributaries, especially the Fleet, running just to the west of the City wall, became also more and more polluted, since they served as both water supply AND drainage solution all in one. At any given point in the rivers, one lot of folk would be drawing water to drink, wash, clean, cook, while another would be emptying faces and urine, household waste, dead animal parts, blood, washing their clothes and themselves; there was also the dumping of refuse from ships in the Thames, run-off from the gutters in the streets… For centuries London authorities attempted (with varying success) to impose an effective control of this process, legislating as to what could be dumped, where, who was responsible for building toilets, regulating fines for littering the streets, polluting the streams, etc. In the fourteenth century the king, via the City officials, had issued a proclamation banning anyone from chucking rubbish, muck or human/animal waste into the Thames, the Fleet, and other City streams: “without throwing anything into the Thames for the saving of the body of the river . . . and also for avoiding the filthiness that is increasing in the water and upon the Banks of the Thames, to the great abomination and damage of the people.”

That so many orders were issued and fines imposed suggests they were often flouted; it’s also true that people had little alternative but to discharge waste into the rivers. There was no separate sewage system – until the mid-19th century.

The Walbrook, a small river which ran through the centre of the City, was the object of repeated clean-up campaigns and laws against dumping. These regulations though were often contradictory. By the early fourteenth century, individual toilets were built all along its banks, the stream acting as a sewer. Around 1345, those people caught with such facilities were forced to remove them. But by 1374, the authorities recognised people’s right to install privies over the Walbrook – only they were forced to pay for the right to do so, and later, as long as they dumped no other refuse into it. Eventually, however, all latrines over the stream were again abolished.

The Walbrook gradually disappeared under London as it grew and grew: by the seventeenth century, the Walbrook was completely hidden underground.

The official solution was to cart all such pollutants out of the city (and dump it elsewhere?!) or to places where it would be put in “dung boats”. Rakers (medieval bin-men) and gong-fermers (who cleaned cess-pools and gutters) bore the brunt of this enriching work.

On top of this, for the Thames, and the Fleet in its lower reaches, those drawing water had to be careful to take it at the right time in the ebb and flow of the tide; otherwise water used for cooking, ale-making etc could be too salty. One medieval complainant recorded that “the tide from the sea prevailed to such a degree that the water of the Thames was salt; so much so that many folks complained of the ale tasting like salt.”

Although the freedom of water had its place in moral ideology, (see below), there were always entrepreneurs ready to try it on for a quick buck. In 1343, residents living along the streets leading to the Thames tried to close the streets and extract a toll from everyone going to the river for water.

As a result of these issues, the Great Conduit was built (construction began in the mid-13th century). Pipes connected the spring at Tybourne with the Great Conduit House in Cheapside, from which the water flowed through pipes for a distance of a mile or more. At the terminus, the water was stored in a larger cistern equipped with cocks or taps for dispensing the water.

Later several other conduit systems were built, all fed by a natural spring, which supplied a cistern or tank, from which pipes were gradually dispersed the water to another conduit in the city.

Free as Conduit Water

These water conduits, so important to daily life before piped water, had become practically and symbolically central to the areas in which they were situated. They were places people had to go to, especially the poor, who could obtain no private water supply. They became centres of gossip, rumour, meeting points, where collective feeling and strength could become action and protest and riot could arise. A neighbourhood’s common interest was expressed here – collective sanctions against local ‘offenders’, petty crims and moral transgressors were often enacted around the conduit. The importance of water made the conduits representative of the moral economy of a neighbourhood. On top of this, water itself was subject to moral community constraints – it was seen as something that should be freely available: “free as conduit water” was a popular expression. Like bread, it was viewed as an essential; collective opposition to its commercial exploitation was common, and from this came regular direct action to maintain everyone’s recognised right to access to it.

They were also resorts of the young (especially young apprentices) and of women, as carrying water was seen their work. Apprentices resented being forced to carry water; but apprentice culture also built initiation rituals and bonding, mythology around the conduit. Women also clearly found conduits to be places to meet each other, discuss and maybe find common cause; Mark Jenner suggests this represented an alternative power centre maybe in some way, though counter to that, you’d have thought any piped water supply in their home would probably have made their work easier – if only in terms of less carrying to and fro. It has been claimed, though, that the increase in piped water supplies changed the nature of women’s work… piped water led to higher expectations of domestic cleanliness, which would have had a knock on effect on women’s domestic work. (A thorny question, to be sure; one contemporary feminist critic – this writer’s other half – ridicules the idea that lugging water from a tap in the street, no matter how many other women you might meet there, is in any way empowering. However… what makes actual work lighter can change the socialising rituals associated with traditional ways of doing that work… Obvious improvements can sometimes lead to, for instance, an isolation emerging from having a washing machine in your home, where the communal laundry might have meant meeting others, getting to know people, discussing, looking out for each other, and so on…)

The conduits became places with their own ritual – their inspection by city officials became heavily ritualised and potent. Punishments for various crimes were also often carried out near to conduits, and they were used as landmarks for giving directions, orienting you in the City.

Cockney ****in’ Tankards

Water was provided to individual households by water-carriers, sometimes known as “cobs,” which were paid to deliver water from the river or from conduits to customers. Some hawked water through the streets, in a large tankard on their shoulders; others would lug two 3-gallon wooden tubs hung from a yoke over their shoulders. The London tankard bearers or water carriers were an organised force, a fraternity who had their own guildhall in the 1490s, though they had to sell it in 1560 when the fraternity split between freemen and non-freemen. The ‘cobs’ campaigned actively around access to water and their right to carry it… sometimes using violence to maintain their rights, as they saw them, but rooting this firmly in an accepted moral framework.

Around 1600, a water bearers’ petition to Parliament reckoned the number of them and their dependents at 4000.

The petition called the authorities’ attention to some of the failings of the conduit system:

“. . . most of the water is taken, and kept from the said conduits in London by many private branches and cockes, and laid into private dwellings, being suffered also to runne at waste, to the general grievance of citizens, and all others repairing to the same…”

The water bearers complained of a number of specific cases of illicit connection to the conduits, which not only made the supply scarce but also deprived the cobs of part of their traditional livelihood. Apparently water scarcity at the conduits was leading to disputes between the carriers, jostling to fill their tankards before others in the queue:

“At the conduit striving for their turn_              
The quarrel it grows great_        
That up in arms they are at last_              
And one another beat.”

Where There’s a Quill…

The wealthy could obviously get around the hassle of collecting water from conduits (apart from the fact that they’d send their servants!). By the sixteenth Century those who could afford it usually paid water bearers to collect it for them – those who didn’t have their own wells could often pay to have a private pipe or ‘quill’ branched off the supplies to the City conduits. These big users would however often be targeted at times of water shortage, accused of hogging the flow of water or wasting it on frivolous pastimes… Private quills could be cut off by City officials, due to moral pressure exerted by the lower orders.

Beyond the class distinctions that caused obvious resentment, commercial and industrial users of water were also accused of misuse, or overuse, of the precious liquid… After much dispute, the City authorities decided to enforce peace at the taps, by appointing keepers of the conduits, whose main duty was to guard against water being hogged by commercial interests. In the early fourteenth century, an order was issued making brewers, cooks, and fishmongers pay for the water they used, at the discretion of the keeper of the conduit. (This presumably was a classic recipe for bribery, but there you go).

If the rich could, largely (though not always) legally, obtain an authorised quill, having running water piped direct to your home was so desirable that Londoners illegally tapped the conduits. In 1478, a man was brought before city officials and charged with having diverting water from a conduit where it passed his house into his private well. He was found guilty, and the nature of his punishment reflects the moral constraints on water use, which were expressed partly in the legal code, as well as informally. The culprit was “placed on horseback, with a vessel shaped like a conduit on his head. At each of the city’s conduits he was required to proclaim his crime while water from the vessel dripped over his face.”

…There’s A Riot

In 1547, during a time of water supply problems, two girdlers were imprisoned for gathering a crowd at the Cheapside Standard and issuing seditious words on the subject of water and how it was distributed. In 1561, an alleged plot by young men and water bearers to start a water riot, aimed at the destruction of the private quill of Lord Paget, which was popularly believed to have caused the Fleet Street conduit, to which it was connected, to dry up. The riot was prevented by local aldermen (the City of London councillors).

Gradually the moral economy around water distribution was eclipsed by new waterworks. The way these works were dreamt up and financed reflected the growth of capitalism and industrial development in sixteenth century England; technical innovation driven by increased need, population and industrial growth, combined with private finance and investment, in a manner relatively new to London.

As London’s size and population expanded, the city authorities grew more and more worried about how to balance the demand for water with its supply. But even more than today, the expense of beginning on large public works projects was huge, and they were reluctant to commit to such cost and effort. However, they were more amenable to allowing private individuals who were interested in making a profit to take the risk. “Capitalism had arrived in the water supply business.”

In 1574, Dutch hydraulics engineer Peter Morice was granted a lease of the northernmost arch of London Bridge, where he placed a water-wheel, designed to raise water, which was then pumped uphill to nearby parts of the City. The city’s water carriers complained about the scheme, which obviously affected their trade. The wheels also faced early design problems, but gradually became more effective, and Morice was granted a lease on two further arches. Water was lifted to the conduit house in Leadenhall Street, by 1582, then Old Fish Street, and other areas of the city. The wheels could turn both ways (to work with the ebb or flow of the tide), and supplied up to 52 pumps, forcing anything up to 132,120 gallons an hour to a height of 120 feet. Later a competitor called Bevis Bulmer set up a pump engine at ‘Bygot House” (roughly where the Millennium Bridge is now).

An artists impression of one of the water wheels that operated under the arches of London Bridge

Even these hugely innovative (and very profitable) developments were increasingly inadequate for London’s demand for water, however. Hence the New River.

Cash Flow

The New River was built by Hugh Myddleton & Partners, begun in 1609, and finished in 1613. It brought water from springs at Amwell and Chadwell in Hertfordshire, to reception ponds in Islington, from where it was piped into the City. The Company had difficulty in getting investors to support them; many thought it a bad risk financially. Various landowners along the route of the River also opposed the river being cut through their property. This opposition actually stalled the progress of the river for two years between 1610 and 1612.

King James I at New River Head – coming to check on his investments…

However, after an approach from Myddleton, king James I bought a half-share in the Company (and any prospective profits), which influenced other potential investors, cowed any prospective complainants (after all, who wanted to take on the king?). James also leaned on Londoners, backing up the New River Company’s slightly heavy-handed approach to increasing income: “attempts were made to put pressure on the citizenry to take New River water; and a letter was sent to the city asking the corporation to use its authority to require compulsory purchase of the new water supply”!) Even then, it took twenty years for the number of Londoners connected rose high enough to make a profit for the Company.

By 1638 the New River was supplying 10 per cent of water to houses in the City of London’s jurisdiction. Customers paid a yearly rent for access to water, £1 a year in 1629. This was, however, beyond the means of many even middle-income households.

But by the end of the 17th Century many people were purchasing water from new capitalist water companies… this had arisen during the century as demand increased. Hugh Myddleton’s Company rose to become an important economic force in London. In 1695, the three companies with largest capital were the East India Company (the world’s first multi-national), the Bank of England, and the New River Company. The New River Company existed as a private utility until 1904, when the whole of London’s water supply passed to the Metropolitan Water Board. But the Company continues to exist as a property company, managing its considerable land holdings.

“poor men and women that used to get their Bread”

These innovations didn’t go down well with water bearers. The Mayor and the Lord Chancellor had assured them they would still have plenty of work, but in 1592 they were said to be ‘unruly’, protesting their poverty and lack of work. In 1621 the Water bearers complained again to City officials, this time about the New River, after there was a shortage of water at the City conduits.

On Midsummer Day 1654, water bearers of the ward of St Leonard Eastcheap conducted a mock funeral to mourn the absence of water at the conduits.

They were still agitating in 1682: a petition was sent to aldermen about neglect of the conduits. In the same year “poor men and women that used to get their Bread” as water carriers were described as destitute. Clearly they were losing the battle: piped supplies were taking over and the conduits were being run down. A financially stretched City had totally privatised water supplies and resources for five miles around London. In 1693 the City leased ponds and springs at Hampstead, Hornsey and St Pancras to a consortium. The following year ponds in Dalston, Marylebone and Paddington were leased.

In 1698 tankard bearers of St Giles Cripplegate petitioned the water should be restored to the Conduits. But the conduits were on their way out. In 1730 many were demolished as a nuisance and obstruction, probably to allow building and expansion of the highways, but perhaps also to prevent undesirables gathering there (see below).

Many people, however, even some of those who could afford to buy from the New River Company, refused to do so; the old conduit system and paying water bearers to carry water had been strongly linked to charity and vertical social bonds of cohesion. Many bearers were ex-servants, charity cases, the disabled, the very poor; water carrying was in some ways a ‘make work’ scheme, a complex mix of charity and moral obligation. The idea of a water conduit was even used as a symbol for charity in literature. Taking New River water meant severing these bonds, and even many middle class householders were reluctant to do this; not just because of the unruly water bearers, but because they genuinely felt it was breaking with a tradition worth maintaining. In the early years, under pressure from this morality, Myddleton’s Company had to set up standpipes in the street for water bearers to use.

But for many people, in the City and surrounding areas, piped supplies were still totally out of the question due to poverty. The moral economy of the water supply survived into the 1820s; sympathy to water carriers and preference for carried water as against piped supply was grounded in notions of a communality, in which the conduits had become symbolic social symbols.

As the tankard bearers died out, the rituals of conduit culture were taken over by other groups – the spaces they had occupied were colonised by other collectives. For example, by the 18th Century, the Conduit of upper Cheapside had become the haunt of chimney sweeps. This was partly because it was a good place to tout for business, but also a symbolic reversal. The sweeps had overturned the milkmaids old rituals for Mayday and taken them over in an ironic reversal of cleanliness, ruralness and purity associated with milkmaids to ‘filthy urban waste’; placing themselves next to the ‘cleansing waters’ may have been a similar ironic move.

‘Very little prejudicial to navigation”

The New River also managed to alienate the users of another water course – the nearby River Lea. By 1619, the year of the Company’s incorporation, the number of tenants had increased to over 1,000 and the water provided by the springs was insufficient. It was decided to tap the Lea by diverting part of its water into the New River. A dam was built for the purpose in the Lea. But the Lea was an important waterway for trade goods to reach to London, and from the Thames inland to Essex, Hertfordshire and even further. The river bargemen were understandably upset, and they had a long history of fighting for their rights, often violently. Claiming the dam was an obstruction, but also that the Lea’s water-level had dropped as a result, making navigating it harder, they protested by removing these dams; they were however quickly rebuilt. This dispute though rumbled on for decades; around 1667 another dam between Hertford and Ware erected to divert water into the New River was sabotaged by bargemen. In 1670 the king appointed a committee (which included architect and city planner Christopher Wren) to look into the matter and make a final ruling. This proved a knotty problem, as the Lea barge trade kept food and beer prices in London low by bringing corn and malt in from surrounding counties (and had in fact braved the recent 1665 plague to keep the ailing citizens fed); bit the New River’s water supply was also now indispensable.

In the end, perhaps unsurprisingly, this committee came down firmly on the fence, on the one hand claiming their investigations had ascertained that “the pipes drain off from the navigable river (Lea) about one part of thirty parts, which seems to us very little prejudicial to navigation and which could not abate the river half an inch”, but also recommending that two jetties (instead of a dam) be built to divert water, and the Company’s pipes be reduced in size. But this pleased neither side. It may have been that the bargemen were also backed by the powerful London brewers, who relied on their cheap malt supplies, and probably had grudges against the New River Company over the amount they were charged for their water… (This dispute was actually still being debated sixty years later).

In fact, the Committee identified the culprits for the problems of navigating the Lea as being local millers who had deepened their cuts to take more water out of the Lea than they needed, and would charge to let some of this water back into the river when there were complaints about the level.

“Every stream had its mills, most commonly for grinding corn but also for fulling cloth, or in more highly industrialised areas than the Lee for tilt-hammers and for operating the bellows of blast furnaces. A artificial cut was made from the river to bring the water to a water-wheel, and in an effort to ensure an adequate supply of water at all times, the mill owner usually built a weir across the river to hold back the water and form what amounted to an artificial reservoir.

The centre of the weir was made of planks held in place by beams, which could in theory be removed when a boat needed to pass, in practice the miller was reluctant to remove the barrier and so lose his precious water, especially in times of drought. Rather than planks, some weirs had a single pair of swinging gates or one vertical one; they were known as staunches or flash-locks.

Weirs obviously constituted a barrier to free navigation but they could also confer benefits. In its natural state a river passes through alternate shallow rapids and deep quiet pools in high summer these shallows provide insufficient water to float a barge. It is just at these places that mills were usually built because they gave the sharp fall necessary for the working of the wheels. The mill weir which held back the water and forced it into the leat leading to the wheel also deepened the water upstream for some distance which was helpful to navigation. When a barge approached from below, if the miller felt so inclined he could open the weir and let a rush of water through sufficient to float the boat over the shallows. This was termed a “shoot” or “flash” for which the watermen paid the miller a fee.

It is not surprising that a continuous war was fought between the fishery owners and millers, and the watermen who required an unimpeded passage.” (The Navigation of the River Lee, (1190 – 1790), J.G.L.Burnby and M.Parker, Edmonton Hundred Historical Society Occasional Paper New Series No. 36, which recounts several centuries of disputes around navigation and other water uses in the Lea, including much trouble with the New River Company.)

Snow Justice

Of course, looking backwards, piped water supplies were a step forward in terms of public health. But until the nineteenth century, most of London’s working classes and poor were never able to afford a piped connection, and many continued to use conduits out of necessity. In the days before a proper sewerage system this could lay people open to all sorts of water-born diseases, as John Snow found, when he identified the Broad Street conduit, polluted by a local cesspit, to be the origin of a cholera outbreak in 1854 (as well as his comparative study, the year after, of cholera instances in London areas which took some of their water supply from the Thames, and those that moved away from this, which was in many ways more influential in the long term). This discovery not only helped develop understanding of cholera as a disease spread by contaminated water, not miasmas or bad air, but was also pioneering in how statistics and mapping were used to nail down the outbreak’s centre, and was massively influential in the growth of public health and the birth of the science of epidemiology.

Ironically medical journal The Lancet was a major force in doctors’ reaction against these discoveries, initially ridiculing Snow’s findings. Founding editor Thomas Wakley, in many ways a progressive and pioneering doctor (as well as being a radical MP and a supporter of Chartism) thought Snow was obstructing his attempts to clean up foul-smelling industries and improve London’s health. Wakley shared the general belief in miasmas as the cause of cholera and other diseases, and he denounced Snow and questioned his findings as non-scientific. In time Snow was vindicated. The Lancet in fact published such nonsense in its attempt to undermine Snow, and such a curt and ungenerous obituary when he died, prematurely, in 1858, that it had to belatedly apologise.
Very belatedly.
In April 2013 in fact!

Something In the Water

Piped water supplies may have gradually become more acceptable socially, but age-old fears about the vulnerability of settlements and their water supplies persisted. Poisoning the wells was a charge levelled successively at Jews, nobles, foreigners of all descriptions in times of crisis, especially in the late Middle Ages, times of upheaval, social change, war… Piped water supplies in some ways concentrated this fear on new areas of threat. The New River’s importance in London’s growth and daily existence focussed some of this sense of vulnerability.

Possible threats to the water supply led to rumour, paranoia, and often official panic. Rumours spread that Catholic agitators (the major bogeymen of English society for a couple of centuries) had secretly turned off the stopcocks on the New River, just before the 1666 Great Fire. This was only one of the many allegations about the starting and spreading of the Fire: both Catholics and Dutch protestant immigrants were variously blamed, and victimised, at the time, and to this day the Monument to the Fire still displays the sign blaming it all on the papists. And during the (in origin anti-catholic, though subsequently generally anti-establishment) Gordon Riots in 1780, the military was ordered to protect the New River and London Bridge waterworks after rumours that those damn papists were at it again and planned to sabotage the supply. Troops were stationed at New River Head, at Highbury Frame (the embankment built in Highbury to carry the River across a dip in the land: roughly it ran in an arc from the junction of Somerfield Road and Queens Drive, to the junction of Riversdale Road and Wyatt Road, and was know locally as the ‘Boarded River’), and Bush Hill Frame (in Enfield, where the River crosses Salmon Brook).

But alternatively, there was a contemporary claim that Gordon rioters, not catholics, tried to cut off water supplies from the New River: “… in the midst of horror and confusion, there was an attempt to prevent the extinction of the flames by cutting off the water of the New River…”
(Lord Loughborough’s Charge to the Grand Jury in trials of Gordon Rioters, 10th July 1780, Session House, St Margaret’s Hill.)

According to a report in the Mechanics’ Magazine and Journal of Science, Arts, and Manufactures, Volume 55, 1851, “a panic has sometimes been occasioned by a report that the New River was poisoned, as it happened during the excitement occasioned by Lord George Gordon’s riots; all the water was then for a short time red; this, on examination, was found to have arisen from a quantity of refuse madder, thrown in from a dye-house.”

In 1803, at a time of great fear of French invasion and/or radical revolution/uprising, “persons employed to supply the Metropolis with water… are mostly Irish and… have been heard to declare that in the case of invasion or insurrection they should… assist the enemies of this country by preventing the supply of water in cases of fire.”

[This kind of paranoia didn’t die out in the 19th Century: in the 1960s, sections of the media, especially in the US, became obsessed by the idea that subversives, terrorists or radical hippies could paralyse society by dumping loads of LSD in reservoirs, and that plans had even been made to do so… For some of the story behind this, it’s worth checking out this article.]

Cuttinge the bankes

Once established, the new River gradually became a part of the culture of the areas it passed through, in many ways, not all of them legit. The River’s wooden pipes fanned out from New River Head, across the fields and into the City and its outlying suburbs. For some distance the pipes ran on the surface, sometimes overhead. Tapping both these pipes, or digging channels from the River itself, to underhandedly supply your gaff with water for free was common. Similarly, at a time when most houses, especially those of the lower classes, had no water supply of their own, washing both yourself and your clothes in the River was an obvious solution – it was right there, after all, open to be used. The old moral economy, of water as a free right that belonged to all, revived, and people took free advantage.

“(There are) many abuses and misdemeanors daylie committed and onn in and upon said river (“New River”), by lewde and ill-disposed people, in cuttinge the bankes and letting out the said water, to the inconvenience and prejudice of tennantes, casting in dogges and filth, and lettinge in sewers and other fowle and unclean water, to the annoyance of the said water; breakeinge and carreinge away the bridges, vaultes and rayles standinge in upon the river, taking and carryinge water out of the said river in lickquer cartes, tubbs or barrells, and stealing branches and cockes from the pipes, together with many such abuses and annoyances . . “.

It’s uncertain from the above complaint how much of this was people lifting water for their own use, and how much was vandalism, or using the New River as they had the old London rivers – partly as supply and partly as a sewer.

“Persons Trespassing By Bathing”

But another area of conflict between the River’s owners and its immediate neighbours in pre-suburban North London was its popularity for free and disreputable pleasure-time. Swimming in the River was popular, and associated with not only rowdy picnics but a spot of al fresco sex as well.

A watch-house on the New River, built to house the New River Company’s private security guards hired to deter skinny-dippers… Still standing today.

Already a year after its opening, the New River Company had to pay two labourers to keep swimmers – and dogs! – out during the Whitsun holidays. In 1728, the schoolmaster at Enfield, Mr Davies, was warned to stop his Boarding School pupils from bathing in the River, being warned that “Sundry persons have been lately committed to the New Prison for the same.” By 1770, despite the many notice boards “affixed to posts on different parts of the River about Islington… to prevent persons trespassing by Bathing, or otherwise…”, unofficial use of the river had grown to such proportions that the following proclamation was issued: “Whereas a great Number of idle and disorderly persons have assembled together in the Fields between Islington and Newington and parts adjacent and have by bathing and washing themselves in the New River broke down the banks and done other damages to the said river and have also in a most atrocious and indecent and illegal Manner committed many other offences highly injurious to the property of the Company and to the Public in General. This is therefore to give Notice that the said Company are determined to prosecute with the utmost Severity of the Law, all such persons who for the future shall be found so offending.”

A 40-shilling reward was offered for reporting of those caught and charged, and occasional bathers were nicked, but it doesn’t seem to have put a stop to the skinny-dipping, as eleven years later an advert was inserted three times on the front of the Daily Advertiser, offering rewards for dobbing in offenders, and the fee had risen to £2. The Company claimed that bathers were destroying the banks, widening the river to a dirty lake in parts, and disturbing the riverbed, polluting the water.

Bathing was common not only in the River itself but in the reservoirs and ponds it fed. In 1783, householders near Battle Bridge (modern Kings Cross), whose houses were fed by the West Pond at New River Head, above Amwell Street, complained that their water was running “thick and unclean” which they blamed on the large numbers using the Pond as an open air bath. In response the Company Board ordered a brick wall built around the pond. On the section of the River behind the Angel, between Colebrooke Row and Duncan Terrace, the respectable folk living by its banks threatened to sue the Company if the didn’t do something about “a set of Worthless Rascals who are always, especially on Sunday, Washing their nasty rotten Hides in the New River Water near the City Road… a great abominable shame for a rich Company to suffer such indecency.”

“Behaviour Subversive to Public Decency”

The final insult seems to have been the flaunting of nakedness, especially in open view of nice middle class homes. In 1809, John Tyre of Islington was had up at the Middlesex Sessions at Hicks Hall (the old County Court in St John Street, Clerkenwell, itself located close to New River Head); after having gone bathing in the New River, he had allegedly gone for a run, naked, across Highbury Fields, in front of the ultra-posh houses in Highbury Place. He was found guilty of Behaviour Subversive to Public Decency – and sentenced to two months in Newgate Prison.

Such stiff sentences did little to curb the enthusiasm for bathing in the river, though, as in 1830 a report claimed that 800-1000 people were using the river to bathe or swim in every summer. Long term, the only way to reduce the endemic bathing problem was for the Company to supply water free to new public Baths, and to imprison the water in pipes and re-route it underground in places. The River was also fenced in severely in some places. Illegal angling was also a problem: the fishing rights for the whole length of the River were retained by the Company, who granted permits to landowners and the local worthies; however poaching of fish by undesirables was widespread.

This article is greatly indebted to From Conduit Community to Commercial Network: Water In London, by Mark Jenner, in Londonopolis: Essays in the Cultural and Social History of Early Modern London.

 

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LETS DIG UP THE NEW RIVER

Since the nineteenth century, large sections of the New River have gradually been re-routed underground, covered over by the growth of suburban streets. Much of its length is still open, and can be walked… Much more flows through pipes, or even runs above ground but is fenced off. The author of this pamphlet lives on one such stretch, where the River runs beneath a green pathway down the middle of the wide street. In my neighbourhood, the river dives and resurfaces, flitting between a secret conduit and a landscaped narrow green promenade.

Capitalism, a powerful engine driving England’s developing industrial society, played a big part in the development of the New River. Without a doubt the risks taken by capitalists objectively allowed some of London’s most important and useful features to be built. Others were built despite capital and property interests, pushed through by enlightened or foresighted local authorities, or philanthropists and private charitable institutions. Undeniable social progress, over the last few centuries, came about for a myriad web of reasons, including the drive for profit, genuine ideologies of humanitarianism and compassion, or of political conviction of the rights of working people, or a fear of the potential of the poor rising in revolt.

But capital’s needs, the drive for profit, can only produce social progress as long as it’s profitable, as long as it coincides with hard cash… It’s also easy to see how we have benefitted from some developments, long term; but for the people who lived through the actual ‘progressing’ sometimes it made their lives rapidly worse – witness the water bearers in the New River story, but on a wider scale, the industrial Revolution in England was instrumental in the destruction of myriad ways of life, forced people into factories, or workhouses, drove down life expectancy for decades, and robbed working people of security and all the fruits of their labour bar a pittance. Progress in Britain also came at the expense of mass slavery for Africans, pillage and plunder of resources all over the world, the near-destruction of whole races and species of animals. We have to go beyond ‘progress’ based on wealth and profits, to a world where all of us have free access to resources, more than just to survive, but to flourish and prosper. All of life ‘free as conduit water.”

At past tense we have long floated and battled the rapids, as part of currents that saw the possibility of a post-capitalist existence… We have long fought the forces that push all of us towards dealing only with each other through money, competition, getting ahead, the forces that rob us of our time and pay us a grudging fraction of what we earn for them… Against that we build human relations, the needs of people, our creativity, the potential we have to live totally differently to the daily grind.

But a change in society to us doesn’t just mean a bland change in economic relations; we also dream of altering the physical space around us – for use, yes, but also for beauty. The places we live, the space we inhabit, the environments around us where we work and play, are there to transform. We love to walk the banks of the canal from Limehouse to Brentford, the banks of the smaller streams that feed the Thames, the Thames banks themselves. For decades we’ve watched these banks transformed, to some extent opened for all to wander, but lined also with the increasing developments designed overwhelmingly for the rich. We walk the Thames now, yes, from Deptford to London Bridge, but at the sufferance and under the eye of the yuppie towers and ever-multiplying high-rise penthouse playgrounds. It seems a city increasingly beyond our control, rented to us part-time at extortionate rates – because they need us to run the place, make it work; but more and more they see us like the rats that carried the plague.

All this we want to change – all of existence should be free, creative, shared and open to all… Not hipster bars by trendy New Riversides, fake edge for rich kids playing at living in Hackney (until they can turn it into another reprint of whatever suburb they crawled out of)… but a freely running stream for freely dancing folk.

It’s not just landscaped paths we want… wildness is being bred out of the city, green spaces being built on unless they’re protected, or fought for… But the half-wildernesses and empty spaces, demolished buildings left to tumble, the Bricklayers Arms or Beckton after they were knocked down, and before the new estates, were claimed by people and opened up as unofficial playgrounds… In some ways this made for wilder and more fun spaces. The banks of South London’s Wandle, for instance, were more fun to wander when the path was half-wild, half overgrown factories falling down, part-reclaimed by weeds, parts where you had to scramble and trespass. The ordered council walks are probably better for baby-buggies though, and open space is a playground for dodgier elements too, who have to co-exist with kids… So it’s a toss-up, always, a negotiation about who gets to use space, who it’s for… It’s hard to consensus use of space.

We would like to see the New River open throughout its length, not only dug up, but navigable. We desire to drift by dinghy or home made raft, from Wood Green to Angel, stop off and picnic drink by its banks, run naked through Highbury like John Tyre, go skinny-dipping where the River crosses Salmon Brook.

Obviously for this to happen would means the re-instating of the River at points where roads now run… In some places where gardens or allotments grow… Some people living and working, growing there might object. Perhaps the New New River we foresee would only some about in a radically different North London, where roads and cars would be less important, in a social system where work could be transformed too, where time wasn’t driving us always to some other place for the purposes of earning enough to get by… Some of us have wandered almost every mile of the rivers of London, those on the surface and those stretches lost or buried. For some reason waters and waterways call to us, pull us along their ever-onward meandering. Maybe its cause we’re two-thirds water ourselves; though ways that are lost always have a special urge for some humans. For years a vision of a new London, teeming with canals and opened up lost rivers, new waterways and other paths, has haunted us. Snatches of the New River have been part of the inspiration for this – the stretch from St Paul’s Road to Canonbury Road, or … You can walk there, and think: London should be filled with paths like this, in every area there should be hidden paths and secret ways, dark water and willows barely weeping, kids fishing for the one fat carp that has ate the rest. They are in some ways an answer and a rebuttal of the ever-growing M25-ising of the city, as interesting and alternative space is ironed out, everything that is not for profit is slowly dried out and drained of its moisture. We have fought that process for years, a war that continues. Currently we’re losing.

Beyond that, we have stood on Holborn Viaduct and day-dreamt a Fleet river estuary re-flooded, with boats wandering up as far as the Apple Tree pub, to share a pint with some Mount Pleasant postal-workers. Or going further – the streets of the City flooded for ever, with the banks and transnational corporations long fled, new canals linking their abandoned sky-scrapers, squatted and turned into vertical playgrounds for kids (whole floors hollowed out for adventure slides and zip-wires), allotments on the 33rd floor of the Gherkin, open to the wind and weather. All of London one vast waterway, not even as stinking as Venice in the Summer (OK, so we’ll have some gong-ferming to do). The new waterways in fact could be the arteries and veins of new social networks.

But if this vision seems a long way off, remember the thousands who always reclaimed the New River in defiance of the Company. Who says we can’t dig up the hidden stretches ourselves, even if no great social change seems like it’s round the corner? Gates are there to be opened and fences climbed…

 

 

Today in London riotous history, 1617: apprentices celebrate Shrove Tuesday holiday

“On … Shrove Tuesday, the ‘prentices, or rather the unruly people of the suburbs, played their parts in divers places, as Finsbury Fields, about Wapping, by St Catherine’s, and in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, …  in pulling down of houses, and beating of guards that were set to keep rule…” (John Chamberlain)

The London apprentices for centuries had a reputation for their rowdiness, and willingness to cause trouble; for centuries they were famed for getting involved in political upheavals, of all dimensions. Their economic position sparked many grievances; their youth led to much boisterousness. They were also jealous of their traditions; and because their working lives were notoriously long and hard, they celebrated the public holidays drunkenly, loudly, and often riotously.

Apprentices occupied a strange position in medieval/early modern life: badly paid and badly treated, but for some there was the potential that they could rise to become masters. An apprenticeship to a guild member also meant the promise of job security, a limited welfare system within the guild, which out them above many with no trade or guild protection. Apprentices’ collective recognition of their ambiguous common position, and their youth, led to them gathering and sometimes together collectively. Up to a point they were allowed specific days off work, often feast days; their bonds of hard labour briefly loosened. This generally led to drinking, boisterousness and fighting. Nothing like today then.

Apprentices could rally collectively to radical causes that pushed at the restrictions of the tight social and economic structures which bound them to the will of those above them. But in many ways they also to some extent played the roles of both licensed rebels and community police, attacking both unpopular authority as well as unpopular scapegoats within communities/outsiders – foreigners, people working outside guild structures, prostitutes and other non-conforming women… a paradoxical crowd, contradictory and sometimes unpredictable.

Shrove Tuesday, the day in February or March immediately preceding Ash Wednesday (the first day of Lent), is a longstanding holiday, celebrated with carnival or Mardi Gras, a day of “fat eating” or “gorging” before the fasting period of Lent.

In England, Shrove Tuesday became a ritual apprentice holiday, and in the seventeenth century became a day noted for them to riot – often against very specific targets.

Before 1598 there are few records of any disturbances arising out of the Shrove Tuesday games (though riots at other feast days had been known, eg on ‘Evil Mayday’, 1517). In Tudor times riots and rebellions were more likely to erupt in the summer months. However, Lord mayors did often issue warnings to ‘prentices’ to stay indoors, and sometimes doubled the watch to patrol in case of trouble.

Playing football had become a tradition on Shrove Tuesday – a game that caused a headache for the authorities for centuries (which led to its repeated banning). By 1598 the ball games had started to develop into something wider and more socially threatening. There were, Hutton records, riots on 24 out of the 29 Shrove Tuesdays in the early Stuart period (1600s). The riots took place mainly it seems in the ‘northern suburbs’ of London – Shoreditch, Moorfields, Bishopsgate and Finsbury – but also increasingly to outlying areas in Middlesex and Westminster. The disturbances involved mostly apprentices, but also sometimes craftsmen and artisans.

Waterman and poet John Taylor described ‘ragged regiments’ – “youth armed with cudgels, stones, hammers, rules, trowels, and handsaws’ who ‘put playhouses to the sack, and bawdy-houses to the spoil” – they smashed glass, ripped off tiles, chimneys and shredded feather beds.” Often they were opposed by aged constables who were vastly outnumbered.

As ever the riots were not random but aimed at particular targets, in particular brothels and playhouses. Hutton records that between 1612-14 on Shrove Tuesday a Shoreditch brothel was attacked each year until it shut.

1617 saw a particularly violent Shrove Tuesday apprentice gathering. A new Drury Lane playhouse was destroyed and prisoners freed from Finsbury prison by the rioters. Several houses in Wapping were destroyed:

“On … Shrove Tuesday, the ‘prentices, or rather the unruly people of the suburbs, played their parts in divers places, as Finsbury Fields, about Wapping, by St Catherine’s, and in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, …  in pulling down of houses, and beating of guards that were set to keep rule, specially at a new playhouse, some time a cockpit, in Drury Lane, where the queen’s players used to play.  Though the fellows defended themselves as well as they could, and slew three of them with shot, and hurt divers, yet they entered the house and defaced it, cutting the players’ apparel into pieces, and all their furniture, and burnt their playbooks, and did what other mischief they could…  There be divers of them taken since and clapped up, and I make no question but we shall see some of them hanged next week, as it is more than time they were”. (a letter written by John Chamberlain to Sir Dudley Carleton)

Ronald Hutton noted that the targets ‘fitted into a much older tradition of cleansing a community before Lent’. In other words the Shrove Tuesday crowd, in rioting, was seeking to destroy what it saw as the less moral parts of the early 17th century economy. As such, while some rioters and especially ringleaders were fined or jailed, attacks on ‘immoral’ targets could be tacitly supported or at least tolerated by the respectable, and even by some in authority – usually only up to a point, though. To some extent historians see this kind of rioting is as a form of moral ‘community policing’, along the lines of skimmingtons and rituals of humiliation aimed at outsiders, or people who transgressed sexual mores or broke the bounds of accepted social roles or behaviour… Festive riots could veer between attacks on social hierarchies and viciously repressive outbursts against foreigners and the marginalised. Sometimes both would be combined.

Why brothels and playhouses? Prostitutes were an obvious target for respectable disapproval: women acting outside the traditional family, selling sex to survive, were both seen as subversive of social mores, though also barely tolerated as a ‘necessary evil’. Apprentices with little ready money also resented women who might say no unless they had the cash; and there was always an element of men collectively putting women in their place, knowing that their betters would largely turn a blind eye. (Despite the profits that many of the well-to-do could earn by renting out houses they owned as brothels, in certain areas, eg Bankside… this included the church in former times, and in the seventeenth century remained a money-spinner for some on the make. Men of course.)

Playhouses were also hugely disapproved of by those in power and the rising protestant attack on popular culture took a dim view of theatres and those who worked in them, which would persist for centuries. (One accusation levelled at theatres was that it encouraged the riotousness of apprentices…) The apprentices’ assaults on them may have even more orchestrated by the respectable than against the bawdy-houses. Portrayals of apprentices in plays of the times is sometimes unfavourable as a result of this dynamic! However, apprentices’ other targets led audiences and some writers to express a grudging sympathy for them.

As Katherine Romack notes, theatres and brothels were associated in puritan minds:

“Theatre and prostitution had always been closely aligned in the early modern imagination:  each offered pleasurable performative simulation—eroticized illusion—for cash.  Like a brothel, Stephen Gosson observed in 1579, the Renaissance theatre arranged “comforts of melody, to tickle the ear; costly apparel, to flatter the sight; effeminate gesture, to ravish the sense; and wanton speech, to whet desire to inordinate lust” (qtd. in Lenz, 833).  In the theatre, “Ungodly people…assemble themselves […] to make their matches for all their lewd and ungodly practices,” or as John Stow, in his Survey of London (1598), had it: “Good citizen’s Children under Age, [are] inveigled and allured to privy and unmeet contracts” (qtd. in Lenz, 836; 833).

The Puritan antitheatricalists had—for all of their tendencies toward exaggeration and bombastic moralism—offered a highly prescient observation about the rise of reified culture when they insisted on the indistinguishable nature of the theatre and the brothel.  For each of these institutions vividly exposed the workings of the sexual and laboring marketplace.  Both theatre and prostitution in the early modern period, as Joseph Lenz remarks, “emblematize[d] all too vividly, the worldliness of trade, the mercenary nature of all commerce” (842-843).  David Hawkes has shown that the Puritan’s hostility to idols was, at least in part, a deeply ethical response to the rampant objectification that accompanied swiftly escalating commercialism…” (Striking the Posture of a Whore: The Bawdy House Riots and Anti-theatrical Prejudice, Katherine Romack, 2009)

The tradition of festive day rioting died out only slowly, and the mass playing of football on Shrove Tuesday continued on in some areas as a distant echo of earlier times… Often leading to rioting, up to the 19th century

Apprentice crowds were to play a huge part in the street fighting, rioting and political jostling of the English Civil war years, again taking part in events that reflected both radical ferment and support for traditional festivities (the latter taking some of them into the camp of the royalist sympathisers…)

But the end of civil war didn’t mean an end to apprentice riots or attacks on brothels. As we shall see on March 23rd

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Shrove Tuesday was the English equivalent of the continental Carnival; the Shrove Tuesday riots were a reflection of a centuries-long culture of festivity and debauchery that also often slipped in to riot and rebellion.

Carnival was the most important annual medieval festival, especially in Southern Europe, though it was long celebrated in Northern Europe as well.

The Carnival season began in late December or early January, building to a peak of formal events in February. Carnival featured feasting, drinking, dancing, street theatre, and was immediately followed by Lent: forty days of fasting and austerity, imposed according to Christian tradition and enforced by the Church. It was a clear influence and was in turn influenced by the Cokaygne myths of a land of permanent feasting and role reversal (though Cokaygne was also associated with St John’s Eve.)

Carnival was a mix of formal events, plays, processions, pageants, and informal behaviour. The formal events took place mostly in the last week, concentrated in the main squares or central areas of cities and towns, and more organised, usually by specific clubs, fraternities or craft guilds. These events most often included a procession with floats, people in fantastic costumes, singing; a play or theatrical performance; and some kind of competition: races, tournaments, jousts, or football (especially in England).

The informal behaviour that characterised the Carnival season, but built to a pitch in the closing week, saw heavy drinking, massive over-eating (especially of meat – latin carne, meat, probably giving its name to the whole festival – though also of pancakes, waffles, and much more), singing and dancing in the streets, the making of music, and the wearing of elaborate costumes and/or masks. Satire was common – in both formal and informal song and play; costume-wearing could also often involve dressing up as respectable figures – popes, cardinals, doctors, monks, lawyers, merchants – and then taking the piss out of them by over-acting the part.

But carne also means sex, and sex was everywhere in the Carnival, both in innuendo (for example many songs associated with this season were highly suggestive), in the theatrical and ritual games, and in reality – as with most parties, people were having it away all over. Carnival season was second only to early Summer as the peak time for getting knocked up, recent studies of Medieval birth patterns have concluded.

According to Peter Burke: “Carnival may be seen as a huge play in which the main streets and squares became stages, the city became a theatre without walls… there was no sharp distinction between actors and spectators…”

On top of the over-eating, a culture of mockery and mock ritual grew up around Carnival: often poking fun at the Church. Mock saints’ sermons, animals prepared for food portrayed as saints being martyred; there were also satirical rules enforcing carnival excess and decadence.

Carnival brotherhoods and organisations grew up, again taking the mick out of the real pillars of Middle Ages society. Powerful trade guilds were caricatured in societies of fools, incarnations of carnival gluttony, like the one in Holland led by a ‘crazy knight called Ghybbe’ (or Gib), armed with meat skewers, in pot and pan armour, riding donkeys backwards.

Some of those reported may have been slightly mythological, even allegorical, like the wonderful Dutch ‘Aernout brothers’, a fraternity of drifters and spongers, who had rules for scrounging and hymns of praise for kitchens and those who worked there. Some definitely were, like the French ‘grande confrerie des souls s’ouvrier’, the ‘great company of those fed up with working’, who appeared in a ‘lying tale’ of about 1540, in which they inhabit a castle of creamy Milanese cheese speckled with tiny diamonds,

battlements and windows of fresh butter, melted cheese and sugar. In the castle, taking a seat at the dining table, all portions would be the right size; pieces of meat would spring into the mouth, ready to eat birds and beasts grew in the orchards.

Lent is a lean time, involving fasting and hardship, but the excess cheer, sex and carousing of Carnival was not only opposed to Lent, but to “the everyday” the rest of the year, normal life, the usual order of society.

Partly, this explosive release of pent-up pressures was designed to allow that order to function without social tensions breaking out and tearing it apart. In Carnival, “the ruler of Culture was suspended; the exemplars to follow were the wild man, the fool…” But Carnival was not really total liberation – it was policed, controlled, in some places the festival had a specific police force, to keep things just on right side of dissolving.

Carnival and other holidays were first of all an end in themselves, a “time of ecstasy and liberation”, where the three themes of food, sex and violence merged together. But the over-eating, the pleasures of the flesh, and of a bit of rowdiness, insult and vandalism, often sublimated into ritual, banter, skimmingtons or charivari, mock battles or the violence of the English shrove Tuesday football match, also served a vital social function.

That the release that festivals allowed was at least partly a conscious creation is shown by debates over another similar Medieval feast day. The Feast of Fools was a religious affair, quite specific to monastic communities, in which the subdeacons and others in minor orders in certain churches took control of the ceremonies for a day, while the usual authorities were relegated to a subordinate position. Usually held either on Innocents Day (28th December), or on the eve of the Feast of the Circumcision (January 1st – in itself a significant detail, since the New Year has always been a time when the idea of making a change or a new start is powerful). [note: In England, the boy bishop was elected on December 6, the feast of Saint Nicholas, the patron of children. Interestingly the Feast of Fools occurred at one traditional New year, (the one we also use now), but another medieval New Year was often begun at March 25th – not a week from another ‘Fools Day’, April 1st. Turning life on its head socially seems to have been associated on one way and another the turning over of years or seasons…]

At evensong, when the verse from the Magnificat was sung – He hath put down the mighty – the choir and the minor orders would take the bit between their teeth. The verse, always a slogan of revolt, was repeated over and over again. A King of Fools, Lord of Misrule or Boy Bishop, (or King of the Bean, an Abbot of Unreason in Scotland, Abbe de la Malgouverne in France) was elected, to preside over the festivities. Grotesque parodies of Mass were celebrated: an ass would be led into the church with a rider facing its tail; braying took the place of the responses at the most solemn parts; censing was parodied with black puddings: the clergy turned their robes inside out, swapped garments with women or adopted animal disguises; gambling took place on the Altar; licence and uproar would spread beyond the church throughout the town or city.

“Priests and clerks may be seen wearing masks and monstrous visages at the hours of office. They dance in the choir, dressed as women, pandars or minstrels. They sing wanton songs. They eat black puddings at the horn of the altar while the celebrant is saying mass. They play at dice there. They cense with stinking smoke from the soles of old shoes. They run and leap through the church without shame. Finally they drive about the town and its theatres in shabby traps and carts; and rouse the laughter of their fellows and the bystanders in infamous performances, with indecent gestures and verses scurrilous and unchaste.” (Letter from the Theological Faculty of the University of Paris)

The Feast of Fools was prohibited by the Council of Basel in 1431, though it survived due to its popularity. In England it was abolished by Henry VIII, revived under Mary and then abolished again by Elizabeth. It survived longest in Germany as the Gregoriusfest.

“The ruling idea of the feast is the inversion of status, and the performance, invariably burlesque, by the inferior clergy of functions properly belonging to their betters…. Now I would point out that this inversion of status so characteristic of the Feast of Fools is equally characteristic of folk festivals. What is Dr. Frazer’s mock king but one of the meanest of the people chosen out to represent the real king as the priest victim of a divine sacrifice, and surrounded, for the period of the feast, in a naive attempt to outwit heaven, with all the paraphernalia of kingship?” (EK Chambers)

In the later Middle Ages, brotherhoods or guilds of fools grew up to organise the topsy-turvy festivities. (Which recalls the pisstaking Carnival guilds – maybe the same ‘fools’ were involved in both?)

On the one hand, these festivals are widely seen by historians today as a safety valve that allowed anger and rebellious feelings, bound to arise in a static, confined, hierarchical society with wide class divisions, to be diverted into ‘harmless fun’, as well as a “demonstration of the intolerable chaos caused by unrestrained guzzling and gourmandising”, so as to show how the status quo should be maintained: how hierarchy and order were right and necessary.

This licence to misbehave, a time of permitted freedom outside normal bounds of morality and order, was represented particularly by the anonymity of wearing masks and costumes; allowed people to disguise their identity, and thus get away with acting as they normally wouldn’t. This worked on a personal level, as well as for social criticism and protest. This could take the form of social comment against civil or church authorities, but also of repressive action or humiliation against the ‘immoral’ or ‘abnormal’ behaviour of neighbours (for example of women behaving ‘unnaturally’ – bossing around or beating men, being married to the ‘wrong’ people, speaking up for themselves etc – or of other individuals breaking social norms), or insults/attacks against personal enemies. Festive Misrule also easily slipped into scapegoating, of outsiders like Jews, foreigners, Gypsies; mass slaughter of animals was also ritualised or made part of the ‘festivities’.

These elements of Carnival and other festivals are seen by historians as necessary to defuse the knife-edge tensions that bubbled under the rest of the year. More than this, it is suggested that a temporary inversion of roles is a reminder or, even strengthens, everyday hierarchies that life must go back to, when Carnival has been tried and put to death. “The lifting of the normal taboos and restraints obviously serves to emphasise them.” (Max Gluckman)

Both the licence and the bread and circus distraction acted as communal solidarity, reinforcing vertical ties between classes and could be used against outsiders/non-conformists.

But while these festivals served to support the existing hierarchies and codes of behaviour, it is also true that authorities tried for centuries, long without great success, to suppress or tone down these proceedings. The main objections of the reformers were firstly that popular festis were unchristian, that they had pagan overtones; second that they unleashed unacceptable licence, encouraging mass misbehaviour, drunkenness, sex, gluttony, dancing, but also violence and cruelty; third, that it teemed with songs, plays and street performances that glorified rebels, thieves, and other lowlife – not just undermining the proper order of society. One edict in particular claimed that they were ‘rather the unlawful superstition of gentilite [paganism] than the pure and sincere religion of Christe’

Commentators also got worked up about festivals using up resources in days that should have lasted them months.

However the main reason licenced, ritualised freedom was seen as dangerous, and needed tighter control or abolition, was because it could easily slip into real thing. It was a fine line, allowing so much violence sex and disorder could come back to bite the authorities in the ass. Symbolic violence could easily become real violence, not only on a personal level, like settling scores (Carnival all over Europe was a time of increase for murders, fights, violent crime), but also, more worryingly for the upper classes, for collective violence, both social and repressive: riot, rebellion, but also pogrom, animal slaughter, attacks on foreigners.

Riot and rebellion was constantly breaking out from festivals, especially carnival. In Basel in 1376, a Shrove Tuesday riot became known as “evil Carnival”; in 1513, a peasants revolt broke out from the Bern Carnival; during London’s Evil Mayday of 1517, apprentices led a pogrom against foreigners; the Dijon Carnival of 1630 erupted into a riot, led by wine-growers; the Great Catalan revolt against Spanish rule (1640-59) started on Corpus Christi 1640; a mass riot in Madrid broke out on Palm Sunday 1766.

These are just a few examples: for instance virtually every May Day in the build-up to and during the English Civil War saw upheavals, demonstrations and riots.

Beyond the actual threat that crowds gathered for partying represented, the forms of traditional ritual which expressed licensed protest were routinely adapted for real attempts to change things. People saw things through eyes conditioned by experience, and adopted what they knew to express what they wanted or desired… Carnival and the other festivals of reversal meant different things to different people, depending on their background; they could be channelled to express desires, resentments, interests, outlooks. Their meanings also changed as society evolved.

Since its beginnings (as we discussed earlier) Christianity had produced critiques of gluttony and over consumption. But from the sixteenth century on, in a process of reform, repression and social control, Carnival and many other festivals around Europe were gradually abolished, as part of the general disciplining of the lower orders into more productive and less festive and rebellious forms of behaviour, which took place from the 16th to the 19th centuries.

The English Shrove Tuesday, never an official church holiday, was gradually reduced in status, its holiday functions relegated to after hours and the liberties allowed the apprentices restricted. The riotousness of Shrove Tuesdays of the early-mid seventeenth century London was not fully revived after the disruption of the Civil War or the Restoration, though unruly apprentices continued to be involved in riots and protests.

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An entry in the
2015 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online

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