Today in drunken London history, 1736: a rumoured Uprising against the Gin Act

In 1736, the Gin Act, introduced heavy excise duties on gin production, and licensing to restrict its distribution, to try to reduce the English love of getting hammered on ‘Madam Geneva’). These measures aroused popular rage, and led to riots, widespread illegal gin-selling and scares of an uprising…

A spike in gin drinking had become the moral panic of its day. Economic protectionism was a major factor in beginning the Gin Craze; as the price of food dropped and income grew, consumers increasingly had the opportunity to spend their meagre excess funds on liquor.

Much of the gin on sale, though, was not as fragrant as your modern Spiced Pink Rhubarb number… This was often raw stuff, barely twice distilled, sometimes flavoured with turpentine and other industrial solvents if juniper was out of your price range. As parliament had abolished restrictions on distilling the stuff in the late 17th century, there followed a mass proliferation of small-scale distillers, knocking up bathtub gin by dubious methods and selling it at a knockdown price. An explosion of production and an explosion of consumption – soon all sorts of spirits were for sale on every corner. Pissed Londoners abounded.

By 1721, the Middlesex magistrates were already decrying gin as “the principal cause of all the vice & debauchery committed among the inferior sort of people”.

As consumption levels increased, an organised campaign for a crackdown on gin drinking began to emerge, usually envisioned as being effected by more restrictive legislation. The calls for new laws were led by the Bishop of Sodor and Man, Thomas Wilson who, in 1736, complained that gin produced a “drunken ungovernable set of people”. He was to be proved correct…

Prominent anti-gin campaigners from the 1730s to the 1750s included the writer and magistrate Henry Fielding (whose 1751 ‘Enquiry into the Late Increase in Robbers’ blamed gin consumption for both increased crime and increased ill health among children), Daniel Defoe (who had originally campaigned for the liberalisation of distilling, but later complained that drunken mothers were threatening to produce a ‘fine spindle-shanked generation’ of children), and – briefly – artist William Hogarth. Hogarth’s engraving Gin Lane is a well known image of the gin craze, and is often paired with “Beer Street”, creating a contrast between the miserable lives of gin drinkers and the healthy and enjoyable lives of beer drinkers.

Pressure from prominent magistrates in Westminster and Middlesex, and well-connected moral reform organisation the Society for the Reformation of manners had whipped up a campaign of outrage at the drunkenness of the poor, blaming much of the ills of London life on the availability of cheap gin. Their thesis went that poor Londoners were poor and many degenerate or desperate, and drinking gin was to blame. Clearly this is ass-backwards, as even commentators of the time pointed out – poor folk drank gin to blot out the desperate misery and poverty of the daily lives. Puritans generally get cause and effect all wonky, however; and when they managed to persuade Prime Minister Robert Walpole that higher duties on grain used for gin distilling and licences to sell spirits would bring in lots of lovely readies for the government coffers (much of it meant to slosh the king’s way), the way was paved for the Gin Act. It was passed in April 1736, and stipulated a twenty-shilling duty on gin sold in small quantities, a retain licence of £50 (quite a sum at the time), and a £10 fine for anyone selling gin ‘about the streets, highways or fields… on stalls, or ins any shed…’ Sellers who defaulted on the fine could be summarily sent down for two months hard labour.

However, cheap gin had become so much a part of London life that people were simply not prepared to pay more for it or do without it. A rising climate of anger against the Act saw tensions rise across the capital, already troubled with xenophobic anti-Irish rioting and shadowy Jacobite plots. Londoners were boosted by the knowledge that they had already seen off one of Walpole’s schemes to raise cash (the Excise Bill debacle in 1733)…

Anti-prohibition ballads were hawked through the streets. Seditious plays and articles mocked the government’s attack on ‘Madame Geneva’ and satirically compared the plans to heavily tax the cheap pleasures of the poor with the luxurious vice of the upper classes.

And rumours of an impending revolt spread, a rebellion, to be fuelled by gin, and launched on September  29th, Michaelmas Day, the day the Act was to come into force. Letters seized by Excise officers and constables showed that someone had circulated notes to a number of gin sellers and publicans, alerting them to the plans for an uprising and exhorting them to give away gin to the crowds to steel them for the fight. The codeword for the uprising to kick off was to be ‘Sir Robert and Sir Joseph” (namechecking PM Walpole and Joseph Jekyll, the Master of the Rolls, the leading advocate for the Act)… The letters hinted at support in the army for a revolt, and called on

“The dealers in distill’d liquors to keep open shop on Tuesday next, being the eve of the day on which the act is to take place and give gratis what quantities of Gin, or other liquors, shall be call’d for by the populace… then christen the streets with the remainder, & conclude with bonfires… All retailers whose circumstances will not permit them to contribute to the festival shall have quantities of liquor sent before the time… Invite as many neighbours as you can conveniently, & be under no apprehension of the Riot Act, but whenever you hear the words Sir Robert and Sir Joseph joyne in the huzza.”

The suggestions of a revolt, with the implication of possible jacobite influence, and possible disaffection among the troops, terrified the government. Rumours had been spreading for weeks that arms had been landed from abroad on various beaches for distribution among the poor.

The army was called into the capital to be ready for any trouble; a double guard was mounted at Kensington palace, the guards at St James, Horseguards and Whitehall reinforced, and 300 lifeguards and grenadiers were paraded through Covent Garden, to overawe the crowds… Other detachments were stationed in Hyde Park and the Westminster suburbs, and at the Master of the Rolls house in Chancery Lane. The prime minster and other notables had left London a few days earlier, just in case…

However, in the event, the plot came to nothing. There was no uprising. Whether it had been a piece of satirical propaganda, or wishful thinking of behalf of the jacobite underground, no mobs took to the streets to drown the government in gin. There was some rowdiness: “When Discontents express’d the bitterness in their Hearts by committing Violences, the Horse and Foot-Guards and Train’d Bands were order’d to be properly station’d to repel the Populace where it might gather. Some Shots were necessitated to be fired when, after the reading of the Riot Act, those inflamed by the Spirit of Madame Genever, failed to lawfully disperse while seeking to petition his Majesty at St James’ Palace at Midnight. Disturbances occurr’d through the night, in divers Locations, with some of damaging of Property and House breaking, but the Mob dispersed at the merest Hint of Authority and few firm Encounters are reported, though many spent an unquiet Night in pursuit.”

Quite a number did take to the street to carry on drinking, and some arrests were made in the subsequent days, mainly for selling gin. On 1st October a group were apparently nicked for conducting a mock funeral and wake for ‘Madame Geneva’ in Swallow Street, a notorious Soho rookery off Piccadilly. A procession gin distillers also marched to the Excise office. [Possibly shown in the illustration at the beginning of this post…] Apart from this, the only other protest seems to have involved ‘punch’ sellers draping their shops and painting their punchbowls in black. A paper reported that ‘Mother Gin’ had “died very quietly”.

This was, however, a somewhat premature obituary. There may have bene no gin-soaked revolt in September 1736 (though you could make a case that it was delayed 43 years and manifested itself in the Gordon Riots of 1780).  But the struggle against the Gin Act in fact intensified. Over the next year and a half, London saw a spate of attacks on the magistrates enforcing the rules against gin-selling, and violent mobbings and lynchings of informers, a number of whom tried to make some cash grassing up unlicensed distillers… Several informers were killed, rioters grabbed during protests acquitted, and constable put to flight when they tried to arrest ginsellers.

Illegal gin production rocketed, and exciting new ways of distributing the product clandestinely were developed… including the possible invention of the slot machine:

“The Mob being very noisy and clamourous for want of their beloved Liquor, which few or none at last dared to sell, it soon occurred to me to venture upon that Trade. I bought the Act, and read it over several times, and found no Authority by it to break open Doors, and that the Informer must know the Name of the Person who rented the House it was sold in. To evade this, I go an Acquaintance to take a Hosue in Blue Anchor Alley, in St Luke’s Parish, who privately convey’d his bargain to me” I then got it well secured… and purchased in Moorfields the Sign of a Cat, and had it nailed to a Street Window; I then caused a Leaden pipe, the small End out about an Inch, to be placed under the Paw of the Cat; the End that was within had a funnel in it.
When my House was ready for Business… I got a Person to inform a few of the mob, that Gin would be sold by the Cat at my Window next day, provided they put the Money in its Mouth, from whence there was a Hole that conveyed it to me… I heard the chink of Money, and a comfortable Voice say, “Puss, give me two Pennyworth of Gin.” I instantly put my Mouth to the tube, and bid them receive it from the Pipe under the paw, and the measured and poured it into the Funnel, from when they soon received it. Before Night I took six Shillings, the next Day above Thirty shillings, and afterwards three or four Pound a Day…”
(The Life and Uncommon Adventures of Captain Dudley Bradstreet, 1755)

Amidst the riots and murders, what did for the 1736 Gin Act in the end was evasion – the Act was simply widely ignored, and the law could not enforce it as effectively as it could be dodged.

A series of acts of parliament followed the 1736 and law, which variously introduced higher duties on distillers, brought in licences to try to prevent small-scale sellers dealing in cheap drams, or altered these laws (sometimes liberalising and sometimes jacking up the repressive measures – depending on the government of the day’s need for cash, as the licences and duties on grain for distilling brought in tidy sums…) Hardline campaigners for repression on moral grounds sometimes had the upper hand; at others the more pragmatic reformers prevailed.

In the end it was rising grain prices and falling wages that restricted gin’s appeal, and mass consumption began to decline in the 1750s… though it would make comeback in the 19th century with the rise of the Gin Palace, sparking a whole new moral panic.

No-one has yet blamed all our modern troubles on the new 21st century hipster Gin Craze… but there’s still time…


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2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London’s penal history: Daniel Malden escapes Newgate for the second time, 1736.

DANIEL MALDEN was a prison-breaker, who emulating the exploits of jack Sheppard, twice escaped the condemned cell in Newgate Prison in 1736. Malden’s escapes were considered the more remarkable because Newgate had supposedly been ‘strengthened’ after the notorious exploits of Jack Sheppard 12 years before.

From Canterbury, Malden had served in the navy, but after his discharge took up burglary and street robbery, for which he was eventually arrested and sentenced to hang.

“On the morning of his execution he carried out his first escape. A previous occupant of the same condemned cell had told him that a certain plank was loose in the floor, which he found to be true. Accordingly, between 10 and 11 o’clock on the night [of May 24th 1736], he began to work, and raised up the plank with the foot of a stool that was in the cell. He soon made a hole through the arch under the floor big enough for his body to pass through, and so dropped in a cell below from which another convict had previously escaped. The window bar of this cell remained cut just as it had been after this last escape, and Malden easily climbed through with all his irons still on him into the press-yard. When there he waited a bit, till seeing “all things quiet”, he pulled off his shoes and went softly up into the chapel, where he observed a small breach in the wall. He enlarged it and so got into the penthouse. Making his way through the penthouse he passed on to the roof. At last, using his own words, “I got upon the top of the cells by the ordinary’s house, having made my way from the top of the chapel upon the roofs of the houses and all round the chimneys of the cells over the ordinary’s house”; from this he climbed along the roofs to that of an empty house, and finding one of the garret windows open, entered it and passed down three pairs of stairs into the kitchen, where he put on his shoes again, “which I had made shift to carry in my hand all the way I came, and with rags and pieces of my jacket wrapped my irons close to my legs as if I had been gouty or lame; then I got out at the kitchen, up one pair of stairs into Phoenix Court, and from thence the streets to my home in Nightingale Lane.”

Here he lay till six a.m., then sent for a smith who knocked off his irons, “and took them away wit him for his pains.” Then he sent for his wife; but whole they were at breakfast, hearing a noise in the yard he made off, and took refuge at Mrs Newman’s, “the sign of the Blackboy, Millbank; there I was kept private and locked up four days alone and no soul by myself.” Venturing out on the fifth day he heard they were in pursuit of him, and again took refuge, this time in the house of a Mrs Franklin. From thence he despatched a shoemaker with a messenger to his wife, and letters to gentlemen in the City. But the messenger betrayed him to the Newgate officers, and in about an hour “the house was beset. I hid myself,” says Malden, “behind the shutters in the yard, and my wife was drinking tea in the house. The keepers seeing her, cried, “Your humble servant, madam; where is your spouse?’ I heard them, and knowing I was not safe, endeavoured to get over a wall, when some of them espied me, crying, ‘Here he is!” upon which they immediately laid hold of me, carried me back to Newgate, put me into the old condemned hold as the strongest place, and stapled me down to the floor.”

Not put off by this failure he resolved to attempt a second escape. Obtaining a knife from a fellow-prisoner, on the night of June 14th 1736 he sawed through the staple to which he was fastened…

“I worked through it with much difficulty, and with one of my irons wrenched it open and got it loose. Then I took down, with the assistance of my knife, a stone in front of the seat in the corner of the condemned hold: when had got the stone down, I found there was a row of strong iron bars under the seat through which I could not get, so I was obliged to work under these bars and open a passage below them. To do this I had no tool but my old knife, and in doing the work my nails were torn of the ends of my fingers, and my hands were in a dreadful, miserable condition. At last I opened a hole just big enough for me to squeeze through, and in I went head foremost, but one of my legs, my irons being stuck on, stuck very fast in the hole, and by this leg I hung in the inside of the vault with my head downward for half an hour or more. I thought I should be stifled in this sad position, and was just going to call out for help when, turning myself up, I happened to reach the bars. I took fast hold of them by one hand, and with the other disengaged my leg to get it out of the hole.”

When clear he had still a drop of some thirty feet, and to break his fall he fastened a piece of blanket he had about him to one of the bars, hoping to lower himself down; but it broke, and he fell with much violence into a hole under the vault, “my fetters causing me to fall very heavy, and here I stuck for a considerable time.” This hole proved to be a funnel, “very narrow and straight; I had torn my flesh in a terrible manner by the fall, but was forced to tear myself much worse in squeezing through.” He stuck fast and could not stir either backward or forward for more than half an hour. “But at last, what with squeezing my body, tearing my flesh off my bones, and the weight of my irons, which helped me a little here, I worked myself through.”

The funnel communicated with the main sewer, in which, as well as he could he cleaned himself. “my short and breeches were torn in pieces, but I washed them in the muddy water, and walked through the sewer as far as I could, my irons being very heavy on me and incommoding me much.” Now a new danger overtook him: his escape had been discovered and its direction. Several of the Newgate runners had therefore been let into the sewer to look for him. “And here,” he says, “I had been taken again had I not found hollow place in the side of the brick-work into which I crowded myself, and they passed by me twice while I stood in that nook.” He remained forty-eight hours in the sewer, but eventually got out in a yard “against the pump in Town Ditch, behind Christ’s Hospital.” Once more he narrowly escaped detection, for a woman in the yard saw and suspected him to be after no good. However, he was suffered to go free, and got as far as Little Britain, where he came across a friend who gave him a pot of beer and procured a smith to knock off his fetters.

Malden’s adventures after this were very varied. He got first to Enfield, when some friends subscribed forty-five shillings to buy him a suit of clothes at Rag Fair. Thence he passed over to Flushing where he was nearly persuaded to take foreign service, but he refused and returned to England in search of his wife. Finding, the two wandered about the country taking what work they could find. While at Canterbury, employed in the hop-fields, he as nearly discovered by a fellow who beat the drum in a show, and who spoke of him openly as “a man who had broken twice of Newgate.” Next he turned jockey, and while thus employed was betrayed as a man to whom he had been kind. Malden was carried before the Canterbury justices on suspicion of being the man who had escaped from Newgate, and a communication sent to the authorities of that prison. Mr Akerman [then a prison runner, but later the head keeper of Newgate] and two of his officers came in person to identify the prisoner, and, if the true Malden, to convey him back to London. But Malden once more nearly gave his gaolers the slip. He obtained somehow and old saw, “a spike such as is used for splicing ropes, a piece of an old sword jagged and notched, and an old knife.” These he concealed rather imprudently upon his person, where they were seen and taken from him, otherwise Mr Akerman, as Malden told him, “would have been like to have come upon a Canterbury story” instead of the missing prisoner. However, the Newgate officers secured Malden effectually and brought him to London on the 26th September 1736, which he reached “guarded by about thirty of forty horsemen, the roads all the way being lined with spectators… Thus was I got to London”, he says in his last dying confession, “handcuffed, and my legs chained under the horse’s belly; I got to Newgate that Sunday evening about five o’clock, and rid quite up into the lodge, where I was taken off my horse, then was conveyed up to the old condemned hole, handcuffed, and chained to the floor.”

On Friday the 15th October, the last day of the sessions, Malden was called into Court and informed that his former judgment of death must be executed upon him…”
From the Chronicles of Newgate)

Malden had “begged hard that he might be transported, having ‘worked honestly at Canterbury, and done no robbery since last June.’ Instead he was hanged upon the 2nd of November following. his body ‘was carried to Surgeons’ Hall for dissection.


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

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Today in London’s penal history: a prisoner uses quick wits to escape, 1732.

“One Brown, a Prisoner, returning from Hick’s Hall to Bridewel, passing thro’ Clerkenwell Church Yard, desir’d his Keeper to let him speak with the Sexton, who was then making a deep Grave. He consenting, Brown took his Opportunity, threw the Keeper into it, and then made his Escape.” (Gentleman’s Magazine, Friday 21 April 1732.)

Nuff said? A brief news item, and we will never know what happened next. No more is said about it in the magazine. What was his ‘crime’? Was he recaptured? Did the screw who lost him get into official trouble for his ‘grave mistake’ (groan).

Legging it from Clerkenwell Churchyard, Brown could have easily slipped into the sprawling rookeries and slums that lined the nearby river Fleet, where shelter for a fugitive from the law was second nature, whole systems of pulleys and planks were set up within buildings to enable crims being pursued by constables to escape, and where whole communities would gather to frustrate the law in solidarity. If he was wearing irons of any kind a friendly soul could be found to cut them off for him…

There exists a relatively contemporary image of a grave being dug in Clerkenwell Church yard, above.

The venues of law, judgement and control mentioned are more tangible.

Brown was very likely being returned from a court appearance to prison. ‘Hicks Hall’ was The Middlesex County court and house of correction, built in 1614, on what is now St John Street in Clerkenwell. It was known as Hicks Hall, after Sir Baptist Hickes, a Middlesex JP who mostly financed the building. Previous to this the neighbouring authorities in the City of London criticised Middlesex JPs for their disorganisation and lack of a local base to try and hold criminals, which was allowing troublemakers, beggars, the poor etc to commit all sorts of wrongdoing in the City but escape into Middlesex with impunity. Previously the Middlesex Sessions had been held in the Old Castle Tavern, also on St John Street. There was local opposition to the building of Hicks Hall: Gracie Watson, an apothecary’s wife, was hauled into court for “giving reviling speeches against Sir Baptist Hicks touching the building of the Sessions House”.

The Bridewell, where Brown was incarcerated and was being returned, was originally a palace, built in 1515 for Henry VIII, stretching all the way from the Thames to Fleet Street. A big sprawling complex, which gradually came to house ambassadors, and visiting monarchs… But it rapidly fell out of favour as a palace, and in the mid-sixteenth century was converted for the relief of the poor. Huge numbers of poor people were arriving in the city, driven from the countryside by growing enclosure and poverty, and the collapse of the traditional welfare system (through the monasteries and abbeys) as religious reform combined with opportunist land-grabbing altered rural life for ever. The initial joint charitable project of the City and the king, the Bridewell soon, however, became mixed with coercion – the homeless poor, the idle, the ‘workshy’ and alleged drunkards were forced into the institution: “And unto this shall be brought the sturdy and idle: and likewise such prisoners as are quite at the sessions, that they may be set to labour. And for that number will be great the place where they shall be exercised must also be great.”

The way the poor were treated in the Bridewell set a pattern for future workhouse policy, and on a wider scale, for the modern welfare state, at least in its coercive face. Bridewell inmates were forced to spin, sew mailbags, clean the sewers in gangs, tread the wheel; even those who had lost a limb were set to on an ingenious hand and foot mill. Prostitutes and vagrants were whipped on arrival, and any acts of disobedience were punished by flogging. Bridewell became a popular place for locking up rebellious or just idle apprentices.

But it was not seen as a prison by the authorities, until much later, although ‘charitable’ inmates were joined by religious dissidents, Spanish Armada captives, and later local petty criminals. There was some dispute as to the legality of locking up those whose only crime was to be homeless and poor, but nothing came of it. Floggings in fact became novelty viewing: idle sadistic better off voyeurs would visit to get off on the punishment of others – a viewing gallery was built to house them.
The ‘president’ of the Bridewell in the early 17th century was Sir Thomas Middleton. He had the power to halt floggings by knocking on the table; the prisoners’ cry for mercy of ‘Knock, Sir Thomas, Knock’ was taken up by people who used to follow him and hassle him in the street, shouting the words after him…

In the 1610s a wave of prison riots occurred in London. They may have arisen less from a deterioration of conditions, than to the coming together of heretics and thieves, or political and common prisoners, creating new collectives of resistance. Martin Markall, the beadle of the Bridewell, stressed the association of landed offenders, such as Irish rebels, Gypsies, and Roberdsmen (marauding vagrants), with those of the sea, mariners and pirates. English, Latin, and Dutch were the languages of communication in prison. The prison, like the ship and the factory, organised large numbers of people for the purposes of exploitation, but it simultaneously was unable to prevent the prisoners thus massed together from organising against it.

In 1653 the Bridewell became a prison for petty offenders and ‘disorderly women’, particularly prostitutes. Short sentences were the norm here, but floggings were common, including public floggings twice a week; ducking stools and stocks also graced the place. Noted inmates included the Fifth Monarchist prophetess Anna Trapnel in 1654. Later the Bridewell pioneered the introduction of minor workhouse reforms, such as schooling for apprentices and children, introducing a doctor, providing free bedding (1788) and abolishing flogging for women (1791). It was closed down in 1855, and knocked down in 1863.

Although Bridewell was for a long time not called a prison, it formed part of a chain of penal institutions that loomed over the lower Fleet valley for centuries, with the Bridewell, the Fleet Prison, and Coldbath Fields on the river’s banks, and Ludgate, Newgate, the Clerkenwell Bridewell and Clerkenwell House of Detention within a few minutes’ walk.


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

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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.

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Today in London’s legal history: Robert Nixon, bomber of parliament, jailed for 5 years, 1737.

It wasn’t much of a bomb…

In July 1736 an explosive device went off in the Court of Chancery in the Houses of Parliament. Little damage was done; but the explosion projected an attached package of seditious handbills throughout the House of commons. The papers, condemning five recently passed Acts of Parliament, were scattered across the lobby of Westminster Hall. Peers and judges flew into a panic, climbing over each others backs to escape the smoke and confusion, tearing their ornate gowns and losing their wigs in the chaos.

The paper, mocking the language used by Parliament when publicly burning seditious books, read:

‘By a general consent of the citizens and tradesmen of London, Westminster and the borough of Southwark, this being the last day of term, were publickly burnt, between the hours of twelve and two, at the Royal Exchange, Cornhill, at Westminster Hall… and at Margaret’s Hill, Southwark, as destructive of the product, trade and manufacture of this kingdom and the plantations thereto belonging, and tending to the utter subversion of the liberties and properties thereof, the five following printed books, or libels, called Acts of parliament.”

The authorities were worried this was the opening of a popular revolt, especially since the act that headed the list was the Gin Act, introducing heavy excises on gin, and licensing/restricting its production (to try to reduce the English love of getting hammered on ‘Madam Geneva’), which had aroused popular rage.

A spike in gin drinking had become the moral panic of its day. Economic protectionism was a major factor in beginning the Gin Craze; as the price of food dropped and income grew, consumers suddenly had the opportunity to spend excess funds on liquor. By 1721, however, Middlesex magistrates were already decrying gin as “the principal cause of all the vice & debauchery committed among the inferior sort of people”.

As consumption levels increased, an organised campaign for more effective legislation began to emerge, led by the Bishop of Sodor and Man, Thomas Wilson (who, in 1736, had complained that gin produced a ‘drunken ungovernable set of people’). Prominent anti-gin campaigners included magistrate and author Henry Fielding (whose 1751 ‘Enquiry into the Late Increase in Robbers’ blamed gin consumption for both increased crime and increased ill health among children), Josiah Tucker, Daniel Defoe (who had originally campaigned for the liberalisation of distilling, but later complained that drunken mothers were threatening to produce a ‘fine spindle-shanked generation’ of children), and – briefly – William Hogarth. Hogarth’s engraving Gin Lane is a well known image of the gin craze, and is often paired with “Beer Street”, creating a contrast between the miserable lives of gin drinkers and the healthy and enjoyable lives of beer drinkers.

However, it turned out the bomb was the work of Robert Nixon, described as “an unbalanced non-juror” (someone who had refused to swear an oath of allegiance to the king). Nixon was in fact probably attempting to exploit this discontent for other aims; he was the leader of a small bunch of Jacobites, followers of the rival royal claimant to the throne, James Stuart.

This ‘very extra-ordinary insult… a wicked and traitorous design’ and ‘most impudent and daring insult’ embarrassed the authorities, striking at the heart of the kingdom, puny as the device had been.

Although James Stuart’s father had been driven out of England by a concerted coup backed by a more or less popular movement (at least in London), there was a lingering residue of support for the Jacobite cause.

In many ways, as the likelihood of actual restoration of the Stuarts receded, English Jacobitism became muddied with a more general resentment of the authority, so that Jacobitism came to the fore to express discontents and protests of the day, often about more day to day matters. The cause of the ‘king over the water’ became a kind or romantic dream of a better life; “a way of withholding support” from the hated regime of Prime Minister Robert Walpole. Wearing white cockades (a Jacobite symbol) or toasting king James became a satirical way of winding up the establishment.

Nixon and his mates printed another paper proclaiming James the rightful king, which they flyposted everywhere; but they were all nicked, and Nixon was tried in February 1737, and jailed on the 10th, for five years, fined heavily and ordered to provide sureties for life for his good behaviour.

In the meantime, however, anger at the Gin Act sparked rioting, attacks on the magistrates enforcing the rules and lynchings of informers grassing up unlicensed distillers… Illegal gin production rocketed, and exciting new ways of distributing the product clandestinely were developed… Rumours of an impending revolt fuelled by gin terrified the government (In fact it didn’t materialise, though you could make a case that it was delayed 43 years and manifested in the Gordon Riots). But it took fifteen years for gin consumption to substantially decline, after several Acts of Parliament, it was rising grain prices and falling wages that restricted gin’s appeal…


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

Today in London’s criminal history: rowdy innkeeper Mary Harvey escapes the Kings Bench prison, 1731.

Mary Harvey was an innkeeper, a notorious owner of disorderly houses in the 1720s and 1730s. She worked in the Haymarket area of London’s West End, along with her sister, Isabella Eaton (a thief and probable prostitute), Mary Sullivan, and various common-law husbands, including David Harvey, and Isabella’s husband John Eaton. Amassing an impressive record of criminal connections, Mary displayed a canny ability to resist the efforts of the Westminster Justices to contain and prosecute her, both on the streets and in the courts. She and her sister became adept at resisting the law and the moral clean-up campaigns of the era; beating the rap in court, prosecuting their accusers in return, and negotiating with the justices to protect their livelihoods.

In the 1720s and 30s, a widespread campaign to close down immorality in London, sponsored by the Society for the Reformation of Manners, (an alliance formed to impose religious discipline and moral way of life on the poor) had drawn in both the arms of the state, in the form of the magistrates and the constables, and private individuals and local communities. Raids on ‘disorderly houses’, rowdy pubs, brothels, lodging houses where criminals were said to live, gather and plan crimes, went along with private prosecutions of individuals, by the Society or informers it backed.

The keeper of an inn, or tavern, in St Martin’s in the Fields, Mary Harvey was repeatedly accused of theft and of keeping a disorderly house. If not a prostitute herself, her activities brought her into close proximity with them. Between around 1727 and 1733 she was the target of a concerted campaign to control and frustrate her activities, and disperse the “criminal” community to which she belonged. Mary and her confederates appeared in court many times during these years.

Mary’s origin is unknown; she may have been Irish, since during the 1730s Mary’s “gang” were described as being Irish. Her first appearance as a defendant at the Old Bailey was in 1728, when along with her sister, Arabella or Isabella Eaton and her common-law husband, John Eaton, she was indicted for stealing the goods of one Jane Fielding. At the same sessions, Mary Harvey and John Eaton were also tried for assaulting Henry Wilcox on the highway. In both of these trials the accused were acquitted. Wilcox had previously been prosecuted for robbery by John Eaton and Mary Stanley, and it is likely that the jury viewed the prosecution as malicious. These trials mark, if not the beginning, certainly the first public outings, of Mary Harvey, who would go on to be described by the London press as A noted virago.

In 1729 Mary’s house was raided by constables, but she locked them inside, “thereby hindering ’em in their duty”. On 9 October, Justice Cook committed Isabella Eaton to the Gatehouse Prison on the oath of three constables (James Body, and the brothers Michael and Thomas Willis), who she had threatened to shoot in the head at the Crown Tavern. She was also charged with keeping an ill-governed disorderly house. By November 1729 both Mary and Isabella were in Newgate Prison, charged with felonies. Mary Sullivan was nicked the same month, accused of involvement with Harvey in the robbery of a diamond ring and a silver gilt snuff-box. The women were acquitted.

By 1730 a campaign against disorderly houses, vigorously prosecuted by Justice John Gonson and his constables as part of the reformation of manners campaign, particularly targeted Mary Harvey and her confederates. A later report stated, That amongst the disorderly houses so suppressed one formerly kept by one Mary Harvey als Mackeige being the Blackmores head & Sadlers Arms in or near Hedge lane and also the house of Isabella Eaton als Gwyn being the Crown tavern in Sherrard Street St James were two of the most notorious for harbouring and entertaining Gangs of Thieves, pickpockets & desperately wicked persons.

Mary Harvey, Isabella Eaton and Mary Sullivan spent most of the time between August 1730 and autumn 1731 in gaol, faced with a number of charges, some of which may have been spurious. Some of the charges resulted from their habit of violently defending their houses and resisting arrest. During this time when Mary Harvey was variously held in Newgate, King’s Bench Prison in Southwark and the New Prison, she made several escapes.

The first was on 14th January 1731 when she broke out of the King’s Bench Prison and took several other prisoners with her. She was retaken in February, but escaped again. There is some confusion about the timing of these various escapes, but after 12 February 1731 she seems to have once again escaped after being retaken, this time with her sister Isabella. When the women were retaken in May, the Daily Post reported that they had sailed to Rotterdam, but had returned to England upon being threatened with the Rasp-house (a house of correction).

Along with Isabella Eaton and William Mackeig, one of Mary’s “husbands”, Mary was eventually tried and convicted of perjury at King’s Bench, but the conviction against her was overturned. Indeed, throughout the period in which Mary and her confederates were in gaol, escaped from gaol, or arrested and charged, only one indictment was actually proved, when she was found guilty of keeping a disorderly house at King’s Bench. Occasionally assisted by legal counsel, Mary and her confederates were able to take advantage “of the flexibility and discretion inherent in the early eighteenth-century [criminal justice] system” to avoid conviction. They also instigated strategic, and possibly vexatious, prosecutions against their persecutors, such as when they indicted the informing constables Michael and Thomas Willis for highway robbery. Although the two constables were acquitted, these prosecutions may have damaged their reputation.

Mary continued to trouble the authorities for a little longer. In April 1732 she was tried for pickpocketing at the Old Bailey along with Ann Wentland. Although Ann was convicted and sentenced to death, Mary was acquitted. After this Mary disappears from the records. There is some evidence that she may have gone back to Ireland. In January 1733 in a dispatch from Dublin, the Daily Courant reported that “On Saturday last, the notorious Moll Harvey, so often mentioned in the English News Papers, was tried at the Thosel [a court], and found guilty of picking the Pocket of one Mr Morgan of seven Moidores, and was ordered for Transportation”.


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

Today in London’s history: Nicholas Amhurst nicked for writing seditious libels in the ‘Craftsman’, 1737.

As we wrote in a previous post, the satirical magazine, the Craftsman, opposed to the corrupt regime of prime minster Robert Walpole, was repeatedly prosecuted by the authorities.

In July 1737, the Craftsman was prosecuted once again, for its satire on the new Theatre Licensing Act (1737) in the issue of 2 July 1737. This had taken the form of a letter, supposedly from opportunist social climbing poet and actor-manager Colley Cibber, suggesting many plays by Shakespeare and the older dramatists contained passages which might be regarded as seditious, and advocating extending the Licensing Act to include old plays, most notably Shakespeare’s plays, as also seditious and “a danger to good order”. The letter then proposed Cibber be appointed censor of all plays brought on the stage.

This was regarded as a “suspected” libel, and a warrant was issued for the arrest of the printer, Henry Haines (who had succeeded Richard Francklin as printer of the journal, after Francklin’s repeated arrests and imprisonment). Printers then could be held responsible for any content in anything they printed, even if it was published by someone else.

Haines was immediately arrested and held on £600 bail, which he could not raise. He was not tried until February 1738, when he was brought “before a special jury and sentenced to one year’s imprisonment”  In the meantime, the Craftsman’s founder Nicholas Amhurst surrendered himself instead, on (September 20th 1737) and suffered a short imprisonment.

A poet and political writer, Amhurst had become a prominent pamphleteer on the opposition (whig) side against Walpole and the Tories. In 1726 he issued the first number of the Craftsman, as a weekly periodical, which he conducted under the pseudonym of Caleb D’Anvers. The paper was aimed mainly towards the overthrow of Sir Robert Walpole’s government; there is some debate about its effects, with most historians agreeing it did little more than preaching to the converted. Nevertheless it reached a circulation of 10,000 copies and was one of the biggest magazines of its time with authors such as Henry Fielding, John Gay and Alexander Pope contributing to it. For this success Amhurst’s editorship was not perhaps chiefly responsible. It was founded, and in the beginning financed, by Henry St John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke and William Pulteney, the latter being a frequent and caustic contributor.

The incident seems to have caused bad feeling between Henry Haines on the one side, and Amhurst and Francklin. Haines published a pamphlet in 1740, with the snappy title of Treachery, baseness, and cruelty display’d to the full, in the hardships and sufferings of Mr. Henry Haines, Late Printer of the Country Journal, or, Craftsman; Who now is, and for above Two Years has been, in close Imprisonment in the King’s Bench, for a Fine of Two hundred Pounds, at the Suit of the Crown, for Printing and Publishing the Craftsman of July 2, 1737, In which he criticised Amhurst and Francklin.

More on the history of the Craftsman can be found here


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today in London’s past: Riots defeat the Excise Bill & Londoners party all night, 1733.

The army, it was said, could not be relied on because the soldiers believed that tobacco would be raised in price.”

In the early eighteenth century, smuggling of goods into England was rife. Whole communities could be involved in it; large profits were to be made. The government of the time saw a great deal of revenue potentially available to it (in the form of taxation) going unpaid. Effectively the first Prime Minister, Robert Walpole, proposed that the tariff on wine and tobacco be replaced by an excise tax. To countervail the threat of smuggling, the tax was to be collected not at ports but at warehouses.

The Excise Bill of 1733 would have made London a free port, and doubled English trade. The second would have hugely increased the revenue, without any loss to the consumer, enough to enable Walpole to repeal the land-tax. In the case of tea and coffee alone, the change in the mode of levying the duty was estimated to bring in an additional hundred thousand pounds a year. The necessaries of life and the raw materials of manufacture were in Walpole’s plan to remain absolutely untaxed. The scheme was an anticipation of the principles which subsequently guided English finance during the later era of free trade; but in 1733 Walpole was ahead of his time. A violent agitation broke our; riots almost grew into revolt; and in spite of the Queen’s wish to put down resistance by force, Walpole withdrew the bill.

Walpole’s main drive as the dominant force in British politics was to serve the interests of landed proprietors–the country gentlemen who held the fate of ministries in their hands. Walpole was concerned to reduce the burden of taxes on land, which hit the gentry hardest, and shift government revenues to other sources. “The excise scheme of 1733 promised revenues which would permit a permanent reduction of the land tax [which stood at 4 shillings in 1727] to one shilling in the pound” The measure involved converting the customs duties on tobacco and wine into inland duties. It followed on other fiscal measures that moved in this direction – Walpole had already introduced excise duties on tea, chocolate, and coffee in 1724 (“but the transaction had meant more to the East India Company than to the ordinary consumer and voter”), and in 1732 he had revived the salt duty (a more sensitive issue, for which he was accused of “grinding the faces of the poor,” but the measure nonetheless passed easily enough through the House of Commons) So, one can see how Walpole was misled into the idea that the excise bill would not pose any great difficulties.

“Walpole’s attention had been drawn to the state of the customs’ revenue. Since 1723 he had checked the smuggling of tea and coffee by applying to them a compulsory warehousing system under government supervision (see Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, bk. v. ch. ii.), thereby increasing the revenue derived from them by 120,000l. in seven years. No change was made in the name of the duty, and the reform passed unnoticed. He had (14 March 1733) projected the application of the same system to tobacco and wine. By so doing there would not merely be a check put upon smuggling. Under the existing complicated system of discounts, drawbacks, and allowances, with the aid of false weights and false entries, vast frauds, as he pointed out, had been detected, especially upon re-exportation. His proposal was to levy the full tax on tobacco and wine imported only when they were removed from the warehouses for sale. Where imported for re-exportation no tax was to be levied at all. The former of these two measures would, it was thought, check smuggling, because the importer ‘would never run any risk, or be at any expense to evade the customhouse officers at the first gate, when at so many more afterwards he would be equally exposed to be catched by the excise officer’ (Hervey, Memoirs, i. 184). The second would, as Walpole explained, ‘tend to make London a free port, and by consequence the market of the world.’”

As it turned out, the opposition mounted a powerful and effective campaign against the measure. Opponents revived longstanding criticisms of the idea of excise. Excise duties involved giving extensive powers of search to revenue officers, and a wide jurisdiction to magistrates and excise commissioners. The Englishman’s right to privacy on his own property, and also to trial by jury, were put at risk. An entire genre of horror stories, retailed in the press and depicted in broadsheets and prints, exploited such fears”. Moreover, merchants and traders – both those engaged in circumventing the existing customs duties and those who paid them – disliked the prospect of dealing with “officious excisemen”.

The shopkeepers and tradesmen of England were immensely powerful as a class, scarcely less so in electoral terms than those country gentlemen whom Walpole sought to gratify. Whig or Tory, there was no doubt what they thought of more excises. In the spring of 1733 petitions to Parliament and instructions to MPs flooded in from the provinces in support of a vociferous campaign in London itself. . . . In the Commons, when the City [of London] formally presented its petition against the excise on 10 April [1733], Walpole’s majority fell to seventeen. In the Lords there seemed every likelihood of an equally damaging aristocratic revolt. . . . On the following day [Walpole] announced the withdrawal of the excise scheme in the Commons.

The change was, in technical terms, a transfer of customs to ‘excise,’ and therein the opposition saw their opportunity. Excise had at various times been levied with vexatious incidents upon most of the necessaries of life. Its very name was odious. The ‘Craftsman’ and the pamphleteers discerned in the proposals the first approach to an excise upon all articles of food and clothing. Walpole had himself given some colour to the suggestion by reimposing in 1732 (5 Geo. II, c. 6) the salt tax, which he had repealed in 1730 (3 Geo. II, c. 20). Even then, Sir William Wyndham had argued, ‘it is one step towards a general excise’ (9 Feb. 1732), and Walpole had indignantly repudiated the suggestion (Parl. Hist. viii. 960). But the course of events strengthened the public suspicion. Petitions against the scheme poured into the House of Commons. The house itself was besieged by ‘a most extraordinary concourse of people.’ The city of London prayed to be heard by counsel against the bill, and its petition was escorted by a train of coaches that extended from Temple Bar to Westminster. Discontent began to pass into disaffection. The army, it was said, could not be relied on because the soldiers believed that tobacco would be raised in price. Inside the House of Commons the ministerial majorities dwindled from sixty-one, on the introduction of the scheme on 14 March 1733, to seventeen on 10 April. On that night Walpole gave a supper to a dozen friends. ‘This dance it will no further go,’ he said, with tears in his eyes (Chatham Speeches, i. 69).

The following day the Bill was postponed – as it turned out, indefinitely. This announcement was met with exuberant enthusiasm by the public: “On the streets of London Walpole was burnt in effigy, along with Queen Caroline [his supporter… The violence of the populace caused something of a reaction on the back-benches”.

“The monument in London was illuminated, bonfires blazed in every county, and friends of the measure, if discovered, were subjected to all kinds of brutal insolence.”

More crucially, George II stood by Walpole. As a result, Walpole was able to recover from this debacle, despite the damage it caused. Walpole engineered the dismissal of his rivals and opponents at court: “The King felt compelled to remove Lord Chesterfield and Lord Clinton from their posts in the royal household forthwith. There followed further dismissals, the Dukes of Montrose and Bolton, the Earls of Stair and Marchmont, Lord Cobham and his followers. In the upper house the ministry survived with its majority barely intact; it took peerage creations as well as dismissals to restore it to health. In the Commons, recovery was swifter and more complete”.

Nevertheless, Walpole’s power had been shaken. It is true that he could probably have carried the excise bill through the House of Commons. The reason of its abandonment was, as he truly said, that ‘the act could not be carried into execution without an armed force, and that there would be an end of the liberties of England if supplies were to be raised by the sword.’
Or in other words, he feared violent resistance if he pressed ahead.

“What were the causes of the failure of the scheme, or in other words, what gave rise to the great opposition in the House, and among the general public? First, the energy and activity displayed by the opposition in the House and without. Secondly, the united opposition of the wealthy tobacco merchants, who not only used their own influence against the scheme, but furnished large sums of money to flood the country with pamphlets, placards and public speakers. Thirdly, the instilled hatred of the people to excise and everything that was connected with the name. Fourthly, the new theories of the incidence of excise which changed the views of many believers in the excise system. Fifthly, the universal belief that this was a step toward a general excise system. And lastly, the lukewarm support of many wealthy landowners who were in favour of seeing the land tax reduced to one shilling, but were very much against its abolition. One feature of the scheme that attracted many later writers was the extension of the warehouse system. In this Walpole was years in advance of his times, for it was not until the latter part of the century that Pitt succeeded in introducing to an extended degree the system that Walpole designed.’ Walpole’s aim was to improve and to extend the warehouse system to many articles of general consumption.”


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today in London radical history… Richard Francklin arrested for seditious libel

On 8th January 1731, Richard Francklin was arrested, as printer of the Craftsman, a political journal dedicated to attacking the administration of Prime Minister Robert Walpole.

The Craftsman was a leading political journal of its time: Thomas Lockwood describes it as, “the most successful political journal of the first half of the eighteenth century, a must-read for ministers and placemen as well as those who longed to take away their places”. The stated purpose of the paper was to expose political “craft” (meaning graft, corruption, trickery); hence the title – but the real purpose was to unseat Robert Walpole as Chancellor, “or as the new term of abuse (given currency in The Craftsman) called him, ‘Prime Minister'”.

While it was established by figures close to the political opposition to Walpole in parliament, the paper gradually gained readership and support from a broader section of the “middle class, the tenant farmer, the small freeholder, and the merchant. These were the people who posed a threat to Walpole and his kind, not because they could cause him to lose a vote of confidence in the Commons, but because they could and gradually did, help themselves to a share of the power, and the wealth, that he and his fellow ‘plunderers’ preferred to control by themselves”.

Robert Walpole had established the supremacy of his political clique early in the reign of king George I; he and his allies maintained a plutocratic grip on as much of the reins of government, rights to appoint officials and dignitaries and award positions, as they could. As a result they had become extremely rich – and widely hated, most especially by those most immediately aggrieved at being excluded from the process, the rising middle classes; though these were often able to enlist the support of the lower orders in their campaign to unseat Walpole’s regime.

The Craftsman aroused the government’s ire by reporting debates in parliament, publishing provocative essays and pamphlets, particularly exposing the scandal of public corruption, the supposed destruction of the constitution, Britain’s declining international status, and the overall damage alleged to be the effect of Walpole’s policies and his system. “The Craftsman became a manual of vigorous opposition, a feverish attempt to unseat Walpole by discrediting him at home and abroad”.

The journal was prosecuted for seditious libel several times and its trials form an important chapter in the struggle for freedom of the press in the eighteenth century. Richard Francklin, the journal’s printer, was tried and acquitted in 1729, but he was convicted in July 1731 (for publication of the so-called Hague letter in The Craftsman no. 235 [2 Jan. 1731], concerning “Walpole’s supposedly secret negotiations toward the second Treaty of Vienna.”

Having been arrested on January 8th 1731, Francklin was sentenced on 12 Feb. 1732 to one year in jail, fined £100, and required to produce ‘sureties for good behaviour’ amounting to £2,000. Francklin continued to produce the paper while in prison. In July 1737, the Craftsman was prosecuted once again, for its satire on the new Theatre Licensing Act. The issue of 13 October 1739 was also tried for libel.

Walpole also had Richard Francklin arrested every six months; had Francklin’s shop ransacked; he got the Juries Act (1730) passed specifically so that he could pack a Westminster jury with his own sympathizers, and quickly ensured that Francklin was convicted by such a jury. The paper’s circulation was blocked by the Post Office; Walpole also bought rival papers to crush the Craftsman

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