Today in London industrial history, 1769: The Bold Defiance attack looms of silkweavers working below the agreed rate, Spitalfields.

Pretty much everyone has heard of the Luddites, although many people still have a misconception about the reasons why they destroyed machinery. The weavers of Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, Lancashire and Leicestershire smashed machine looms not because they were blindly opposed to progress, or afraid of new technology, but because the introduction of machinery was undermining the livelihoods of themselves and their communities. They viewed new technology through the eyes of artisans accustomed to a certain amount of autonomy: from being well-paid workers working mainly under their own terms, often in their own homes, they were being reduced to poverty, and clearly saw that mechanisation was transforming them into wage slaves, increasingly forced into factories. Their challenge to new technology was based on both desperation and self-interest: machine-weaving was benefitting the masters and increasing their profits, at the workers’ expense, but machines could be used to improve the lives of those who created the wealth, if their use was controlled by the workers themselves.

It’s all about who’s making the decisions, and in whose interests… A question of control, how new technological developments change our work, strengthening us or those who live off our labour; a question that remains alive and crucial today.

Less well known than the Luddites, though, another group of workers also fought the imposing of machinery and the factory system against their interests – the silk weavers of Spitalfields, in London’s East End. Four decades before the Luddite uprisings, the silkweavers’ long battle against mechanisation came to a head in violent struggles. Like the Luddites, their campaign was volatile and violent, and  was viciously repressed by the authorities. But their struggles were more complex and contradictory, in that sometimes they were battling their employers and sometimes co-operating with them; to some extent they won more concessions than their northern counterparts, holding off mechanisation for a century, and maintaining some control over their wages and conditions, at least for a while.

Spitalfields is one of the oldest inhabited parts of London’s East End, and one of the earliest to be built up as the fringes of the City of London spread outward. Described as City’s “first industrial suburb”, from the Middle Ages, Spitalfields, (together with neighbouring areas Bishopsgate and Shoreditch), was well known for industry, which was able to establish here outside the overcrowded City; but also for poverty, disorder and crime. Outside the City walls, outside the jurisdiction of City authorities, the poor, criminals, and outcast and rebellious clustered here.

From medieval times the area’s major employer has been the clothing trade; but breweries have also been major employers since 17th century, and later residents formed a pool of cheap labour for the industries of the City and East End: especially in the docks, clothing, building, and furniture trades. Small workshops came to dominate employment here.

The relationship between the affluent City of London and the often poverty and misery-stricken residents over its eastern border in Spitalfields has dominated the area’s history. More than half the poor in Spitalfields worked for masters who resided in the City in 1816; today the local clothing trade depends on orders from West End fashion shops… The same old social and economic relations continue…

For similar reasons as those that led to the growth of industry and slums here, the area has always been home to large communities of migrants. Many foreigners in the middle ages could not legally live or work inside City walls (due to restrictions enforced by the authorities or the guilds), leading many to settle outside the City’s jurisdiction. Successive waves of migrants have made their homes here, and dominated the life of the area: usually, though not always, the poorest incomers, sometimes competing for the jobs of the native population, at other times deliberately hired to control wages in existing trades… Huguenot silkweavers, the Irish who were set to work undercutting them, Jewish refugees from late nineteenth-century pogroms in east Europe, and the Bengalis who have settled in the area since the 1950s…

For centuries Silk Weaving was the dominant industry in Spitalfields and neighbouring areas like Bishopsgate, Whitechapel and Bethnal Green, spreading as far as Mile End to the east, and around parts of Clerkenwell further west.

Silkweavers were incorporated as a London City Company in 1629. But many foreigners or weavers from northern England or other areas were not allowed to join the Company, and had problems working or selling their work as they weren’t members…

Silk production demanded much preparation before actual weaving began: throwing, where silk that has been reeled into skeins, is cleaned, twisted and wound onto bobbins, employed thousands in London already by the 1660s, though later throwing was dispersed to other towns.

In the early years weaving in Spitalfields was a cottage industry, with many independent workers labouring at home. This quickly developed into a situation with a smaller number of masters, who employed journeymen and a legally recognised number of apprentices to do the work. Numbers of workers, and training, in the Weavers Company were regulated by law and in the Company courts; later wages came to be a matter of dispute and the courts had to deal with this too.

Masters often sub-contracted out work to homeworkers, so that by the end of the 18th Century, many silkweavers were employed in their own homes, using patterns and silk provided by masters, and paid weekly. Later still there developed middlemen or factors, who bought woven silks at lowest prices and sold them to wholesale dealers. This led to lower wages for the weavers themselves.

A twentieth century account described the organisation of weaving in the area, based on reports from the previous century:

“The manufacturer procures his thrown ‘organzine’ and ‘tram’ either from the throwster or from the silk importers, and selects the silk necessary to execute any particular order. The weaver goes to the house or shop of his employer and receives a sufficient quantity of the material, which he takes home to his own dwelling and weaves at his own looms or sometimes at looms supplied by the manufacturer, being paid at a certain rate per ell. In a report to the Poor Law Commissioners in 1837 Dr. Kay thus describes the methods of work of a weaver and his family:-

A weaver has generally two looms, one for his wife and another for himself, and as his family increases the children are set to work at six or seven years of age to quill silk; at nine or ten years to pick silk; and at the age of twelve or thirteen (according to the size of the child) he is put to the loom to weave. A child very soon learns to weave a plain silk fabric, so as to become a proficient in that branch; a weaver has thus not unfrequently four looms on which members of his own family are employed…”

“The houses occupied by the weavers are constructed for the special convenience of their trade, having in the upper stories wide, lattice-like windows which run across almost the whole frontage of the house. These ‘lights’ are absolutely necessary in order to throw a strong light on every part of the looms, which are usually placed directly under them. Many of the roofs present a strange appearance, having ingenious bird-traps of various kinds and large birdcages, the weavers having long been famed for their skill in snaring song-birds. They used largely to supply the home market with linnets, goldfinches, chaffinches, greenfinches, and other song birds which they caught by trained ‘call-birds’ and other devices in the fields of north and east London.”

The wide high windows that shed enough light for their work can still be seen everywhere on older buildings around Spitalfields.

Although skilled, and often reasonably well-paid, the weavers could be periodically reduced to poverty; partly this was caused by depressions in cloth trade (one of the earliest recorded being that of 1620-40). “On the occurrence of a commercial crisis the loss of work occurs first among the least skilful operatives, who are discharged from work.” This, and other issues, could lead to outbreaks of rebelliousness: sometimes aimed at their bosses and betters, and sometimes at migrant workers seen as lowering wages or taking work away from ‘natives’.

For two hundred years, through the 17th and 18th centuries, the Silk Weavers of the East End conducted a long-running battle with their employers over wage levels, working conditions and increasing mechanisation in the industry. One early method of struggle was the ‘right of search’: a power won over centuries by journeymen weavers, and eventually backed by law, to search out and in some cases destroy weaving work done by ‘outsiders’, usually those working below the agreed wage rates, or by weavers who hadn’t gone through proper apprenticeships, by foreigners etc. Silkweavers used it, however, at several points from 1616 to 1675, to block the introduction of the engine loom with its multiple shuttles.

The journeymen weavers also had a history of support for radical groups, from the Leveller democrats of the English Civil War. through the 1760s populist demagogue John Wilkes, to the ‘physical force’ wing of the Chartist movement of the 1830s. This support arose partly from obvious causes – the weavers’ precarious position and sometimes uneven employment were always likely to draw a sizable number towards radical politics. But radical activists, like leveller leader John Lilburne, also camapaigned and agitated on behelf of the silkweavers, and populists like Wilkes easily tapped into their grievances… Their fierce collectivity in their own interests extended, for some, to a wider class consciousness; but also made them vulnerable to exploitation by manipulation by bosses and demagogues.

Through the later 17th to the late 18th century, the silkweavers regularly combined to fight for better conditions, often attacking masters employing machine looms, which they saw as leading to reduction of wages and dilution of their skills. At other times, the journeymen and masters united tactically to press for parliament to pass protectionist laws that kept prices for their finished goods high…

But by the 1760s tensions between masters and workers had grown to eruption point. Dissatisfaction over pay among journeymen silkweavers was increasing; and 7,072 looms were out of employment, with a slump in the trade partly caused by smuggling (carried on to a greater extent than ever). In 1762, the journeymen wrote a Book of Prices, in which they recorded the piecework rates they were prepared to work for (an increase on current rates in most cases). They had the Book printed up and delivered to the masters – who rejected it. Increasingly masters were turning to machine looms, and hiring the untrained, sometimes women and children, to operate them, in order to bypass the journeyman and traditional apprentices and their complex structure of pay and conditions.

As a result of the rejection of the Book, two thousand weavers assembled and began to break up looms and destroy materials,  and went on strike. There followed a decade of struggle by weavers against their masters, with high levels of violence on both sides.

Tactics included threatening letters to employers, stonings, sabotage, riots and ‘skimmingtons’ (mocking community humiliation of weavers working below agreed wage levels: offenders were mounted on an ass backwards & driven through the streets, to the accompaniment of ‘rough music’ played on pots and pans). The battle escalated to open warfare, involving the army, secret subversive groups of weavers, (known as ‘cutters’ for their tactic of slashing silk on offending masters’ looms), and ended in murder and execution. Some of these tactics had long roots in local history and tradition – others could have been imported with irish migrants from the Whiteboy movement in Ireland.

In 1763 thousands of weavers took part in wage riots & machine smashings, armed with cutlasses and disguised, destroying looms: “in riotous manner [they] broke open the house of one of their masters, destroyed his looms, and cut a great quantity of silk to pieces, after which they placed his effigy in a cart, with a halter about his neck, an executioner on one side, and a coffin on the other; and after drawing it through the streets they hanged it on a gibbet, then burnt it to ashes and afterwards dispersed.” [From the “Gentleman’s Magazine”, November 1763]

The military occupied parts of Spitalfields in response.

Riots and demonstrations continued in 1764-5… As a result of these riots, an Act was passed in 1765 declaring it to be felony and punishable with death to break into any house or shop with intent maliciously to damage or destroy any silk goods in the process of manufacture: this was to be used with devastating effect four years later.

In 1767 wage disputes broke out again: masters who had reduced piece rates had silk cut from their looms. At a hearing in the Weavers Court, in November that year, a case was heard, in which a number of journeymen demanded the 1762 prices from their Book be agreed. The Court agreed that some masters had caused trouble by reducing wages and ruled that they should abide by the Book. However this had little effect, and trouble carried on sporadically.

Trouble was also breaking out between groups of workers: single loom weavers and engine looms weavers were now at loggerheads. On 30 November 1767, “a body of weavers, armed with rusty swords, pistols and other offensive weapons, assembled at a house on Saffron-hill, with an intent to destroy the work of an eminent weaver without much mischief. Some of them were apprehended,  and being examined before the justices at Hicks-hall, it appeared that two classes of weavers were mutually combined to distress each other, namely the engine weavers and the narrow weavers. The men who were taken up were engine weavers, and they urged… that they only assembled in order to protect themselves from a party of the others who were expected to rise. As they had done no mischief, they were dismissed with a severe reprimand…”

The events of 1762-7 were, however, merely a curtain raiser, for the cataclysmic struggles of 1768-69. The ‘Cutters’ Riots’ saw a prolonged struggle, with bitter violence, rioting, intimidation of workers and threatening letters to employers, and hundreds of raids on factories and small workshops. Strikers in other trades joined in the mayhem: 1768. Crowds of weavers also forcibly set their own prices in the food markets, in defiance of high prices. It would end in shootouts in a pub, and executions.

In the Summer of 1769, some of the masters attempted to force a cut in rates of pay. In response, some journeymen banded together to organise resistance, forming secret clubs, including one allegedly called the Bold Defiance, (or Conquering and Bold Defiance, or the Defiance Sloop). This group met at the Dolphin Tavern in Cock Lane, (modern Boundary Street, in Bethnal Green).  The Bold Defiance started raising a fighting fund, as part of which they attempted to levy a tax on anyone who owned or worked a loom. Their methods of fund-raising bordered, shall we say, on extortion, expressed in the delivery to silk weaving masters of Captain Swing-style notes: “Mr Hill, you are desired to send the full donation of all your looms to the Dolphin in Cock Lane. This from the conquering and bold Defiance to be levied four shillings per loom.”

One major silk boss threatened by the cutters was Lewis Chauvet, whose factory stood in Crispin Street, Spitalfields. A leading manufacturer of silk handkerchiefs, who had already been involved in bitter battles against striking weavers in Dublin, Chauvet banned his workers from joining the weavers’ clubs or paying any levies, and organised a private guard on his looms. As a result, the cutters gathered in large numbers and tried to force Chauvet’s workers to pay up. Fights broke out and many people on both sides were badly hurt. Then, on the night of Thursday 17th August, the cutters assembled in gangs and went to the homes of Chauvet’s workers, cutting the silk out of more than fifty looms. Four nights later, on Monday 21st, they gathered in even greater numbers and cut the silk out of more than a hundred looms. Throughout the night the streets of Spitalfields resounded to the noise of pistols being fired in the air.

Chauvet’s response to this episode was to advertise a reward of £500 for information leading to the arrest of those responsible. But for several weeks the people of Spitalfields remained silent, either for fear of the cutters, or because they did not wish to give evidence that might send a man to the gallows.

But on the 26th September, a minor master weaver, Thomas Poor, and his wife Mary, swore in front of a magistrate that their seven looms had been slashed by a group of cutters led by John Doyle and John Valline. However, before giving evidence they had inquire with Chauvet about receiving the reward – and Doyle had already been arrested, so they may have been prompted to name them… Certainly Doyle and Valline later protested their innocence.

On 30 September 1769, after a tip off from a master weaver who had had the squeeze put on him, magistrates, Bow St Runners and troops raided the Bold Defiance’ HQ at the Dolphin Tavern, finding the cutters assembled in an upstairs room, armed, and “receiving the contributions of terrified manufacturers.” A firefight started between the weavers and the soldiers and runners, which left two weavers (including a bystander) and a soldier dead; but the cutters escaped through the windows and over rooves. Four weavers who were drinking in the pub downstairs, and one found in bed upstairs were arrested, and held for a few weeks; though no-one was brought to court over the deaths.

But Valline and Doyle were convicted of the attack on the Poor’s looms and sentenced to death under the 1765 Act, despite very dubious identification evidence. They were hanged on the 6th December 1769, at corner of Bethnal Green Road and Cambridge Heath Road opposite the Salmon and Ball pub. Though Tyburn was the usual place of execution, the major silk manufacturers pressured the authorities to have them ‘scragged’ locally, to put the fear of god on the rebellious weavers. An organised attempt to free them was planned, and the men building the gallows were attacked with stones:

“There was an inconceivable number of people assembled, and many bricks, tiles, stones &c thrown while the gallows was fixing, and a great apprehension of a general tumult, notwithstanding the persuasion and endeavours of several gentlemen to appease the same. The unhappy sufferers were therefore obliged to be turned off before the usual time allowed on such occasions, which was about 11 o’clock; when, after hanging about fifty minutes they were cut down and delivered to their friends.”

Doyle and Valline were offed, proclaiming themselves not guilty of the silk cutting. After their execution the crowd tore down the gallows, rebuilt them in front of Chauvet’s factory/house here in Crispin Street, and 5,000 people gathered to smash the windows and burn his furniture.

Two weeks later on December 20th, more cutters were executed: William Eastman, William Horsford (or Horsfield) and John Carmichael. Horsfield had also been implicated by the Poors; Daniel Clarke, another silk pattern drawer and small employer, was paid by Chauvet to give evidence against Eastman, who he claimed had cut silk on Clarke’s looms. Clarke had previously tried to undercut agreed wage rates, and had it seems testified before against insurgent weavers, in his native Dublin. Clarke had originally told friends that he couldn’t identify the men who’d cut his silk, but after contact with Chauvet miraculously his memory changed. It’s possible Eastman was a cutters’ leader Chauvet wanted out of the way; Clarke also named one Philip Gosset, locally suggested to be the chairman of one of the cutters’ committees (Gosset, however, was never caught). Contradictory evidence, protests, a weavers’ march on Parliament to ask for pardon, all fell on deaf ears: the authorities were determined to make examples of the accused. This time, though, afraid of the local reaction after the riots that followed the deaths of Doyle and Valline, they were executed at Tyburn.

Although the repression quietened things down for a year or so, these hangings still had a twist to come. On 16th April 1771, the informer, Daniel Clarke was spotted walking through Spitalfields streets, and chased by a crowd of mainly women and boys, including the widow of William Horsford. He was finally caught, and dunked in the Hare Street Pond, a flooded gravel pit in Bethnal Green; the crowd stoned and abused him, and after they let him out of the pond he collapsed and died.

In Spitalfields this was widely seen as community justice – but the official ‘justices’ had to squash another open challenge to law and order. Two more weavers, Henry Stroud – William Eastman’s brother in law –  and Robert Campbell were hanged on July 8th for Clarke’s ‘murder’; once again, local punishment was deemed necessary to overawe the uppity weavers, and they were stretched in Hare Street. Horsford’s widow, Anstis, was also charged with murder, but wasn’t executed (possibly she was acquitted, I’ve had trouble following the case reports!). Witnesses had to be bribed to testify, and were attacked; Justice Wilmot, who arrested the two men, only just escaped the justice of an angry crowd, and a hundred soldiers had to be posted to ensure the hanging took place.

Although prices were fixed between masters and workers, nothing obliged the masters to keep to them. In 1773, further discontent broke out. Handbills circulated, addressed to weavers, coalheavers, porters and carmen (cartdrivers), to ‘Rise’ and petition the king. Silkweavers met at Moorfields on April 26th, incited by another handbill that read “Suffer yourselves no longer to be persecuted by a set of miscreants, whose way to Riches and power lays through your Families and by every attempt to starve and Enslave you…” Magistrates however met with them, and persuaded them to disperse, promising them a lasting deal.

This materialised in the form of the Spitalfields Acts. The first Act, in 1773, laid down that wages for journeymen weavers were to be set, and maintained, at a reasonable level by the local Magistrates, (in Middlesex) or the Lord Mayor or Aldermen (in the City). Employers who broke the agreed rate would be fined £50; journeymen who demanded more would also be punished, and silk weavers were prohibited from having more than two apprentices at one time. The Acts were renewed for 50 years, and ensured that some weavers, at least, had some security if income and protection for unscrupulous employers… The Acts’ abolition in the 1820s was a cause celebre for the laissez-faire capitalists of the days – and helped to drive silkweavers into catastrophic poverty and decimate the trade locally.

This post is a shortened version of ‘Bold  Defiance’, published as a pamphlet by past tense in 2012 and available from our website

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Today in London radical history, 1768: 2000 Thames watermen picket Royal Exchange & mansion house, 1768, over a decline in trade.

Ah, ’68, year of tumult, hope and rebellion.

No, not 1968 – 1768.

In London, in 1768, a number of movements came together, grew together, striking fear into the authorities, taking control of the streets. One dispute or flashpoint would influence another, spreading like wildfire… The authorities would attempt to repress some elements, but were afraid to move against other movements.

On the political level 1768 was a year of mass agitation and crowd violence in support of John Wilkes, a populist journalist, a rake of dubious morals, a scandal-mongering writer and agitator, who championed reform of the political system, but won support from both the City of London merchant elite and the ‘Mobility’, the swelling, insurgent and always altering London mob. Wilkes had already been jailed and banished in the early 1760s, for challenging the establishment by libeling the king; in 1768 he stood for election to Parliament for Middlesex, the huge (and consistently politically progressive) constituency north and west of London. Middlesex merged into London: huge crowds flocked there to support him, believing he had their interests at heart. The establishment fear of the potential that Wilkes and his supporters led to a crackdown on the crowds, including soldiers shooting and killing pro-Wilkes demonstrators.

This sparked riots at the hustings, and assaults on Wilkes’ pro-government opponents, which spread to general attacks on the rich and those who refused to light their windows in support of Wilkes. Pro-Wilkes marches became pitched battles, Wilkes was imprisoned…

But Wilkes’ pro-reform and incendiary speeches got him barred from entering the house of Commons, even when elected (he was to be ruled ineligible several times, but re-elected each time).

1768 was also a year of starvation: “the price of bread had doubled. The price of meat had increased by a third. Crowds forced street-vendors to sell vegetables at reasonable prices. The Whitechapel butchers ‘suffered prodigiously’. Elsewhere, butchers ‘were oblig’d to secrete their meat’. Corn-factors were attacked and their wagons stopped. The corn-dealers hid their plate, boarded up their coffee-houses, and closed the Stock Exchange…”

As rising food prices sparked protests, and food riots, a wave of disputes swept London, especially in the East End, over wages, over working conditions and how work was regulated and controlled. Trade after trade erupted into stoppage and demonstration. “The sailors and the glass-grinders petitioned, shoemakers held mass meetings and the bargemen stopped work. The leaders of the tailors were imprisoned for ‘Irritating their Brethren to Insurrection, abusing their Masters, and refusing to work at the stated prices.’”

The political and economic turbulence mingled and sometimes merged; many of the workers in the London trades supported Wilkes, and marched for him… Though in reality, he was only ever mainly interested in the promotion of himself, and his image as the outrageous critic of the monarchy and government, darling of the mob, and would always balk at encouraging violence. [He would end his days as comfortably, and respectable, having served as MP, alderman, Sherriff and Lord Mayor of London, (where he admittedly did work to improve legal protection for prisoners, servants and workers) and taken up arms to command soldiers to shoot down the people who had once been his constituency, the mob attacking the Bank of England during the 1780 Gordon Riots. It’s not just the ‘reactionary populists’ we need to beware of…]

To add to the fears of the ruling classes in 1768, there was unrest and rumours of sedition in the army: “Soldiery may become a political Reverbatory Furnace”… If a regime loses the army, revolt can become revolution. But in the end widespread flogging and repression in the ranks kept soldiers from mainly joining the swirling maelstrom….

The most dangerous disputes from the point of view of the authorities were the wage disputes and battles over mechanisation among the Spitalfields Silkweavers, and the work stoppage by the coal-heavers on the London docks. The silkweavers had been rebelling against wage cuts and increased use of machine looms for nearly a decade, but it was rising to fever pitch, with wage-cutting masters facing sabotage of their looms, intimidation of workers agreeing to low pay, and the formation of clubs of ‘cutters’ branching out into extortion of employers. It would climax the following year with gunfire and the army occupation of Spitalfields.

The coalheavers’ dispute was even more violent. Unloading and moving coal was dirty, backbreaking, and utterly vital for the city to function; wages were low and the trade was organised by magistrates linked to the powerful city merchants. A wage dispute in spring 1768 led to serious violence between strikers and scabs, with pitched battles, arson, murder and hangings. The strike spread to the sailors on ships in the London docks, and became even fiercer.

The disorder and atmosphere of general combination and collective action spread. At any one time throughout the year, but especially between April and July, there seem to have been a cross-hatching of diverse, if often overlapping, crowds, roaming the City, attempting to bargain with employers, impose of negotiate new wages or conditions, as well as bashing opponents of Wilkes. No doubt there was an element of opportunist looting, agro and turbulence mixed in as well. And why not?

Many of the numerous London trades got in on the action.

On the 9th May 1768, “a numerous body of watermen assembled before the mansion House, and laid their complaint before the lord mayor, who advised them, to appoint proper persons to draw up a petition to Parliament, which his lordship promised he would present; upon which they gave him three huzzas and went quietly home. The same night a mob of another kind assembled before the Mansion-house, carrying a gallows with a boot hanging to it, and a red cap; but on some of the ringleaders being secured by the peace-officers, the rest dispersed.” (Gentlemen’s Magazine, 1768)

The watermen were partly cabbies of the day, rowing people up and down the Thames, and across from London and Westminster to the south bank of the river. London’s lack of bridges and rolling marshy landscape to the south and east were perfect for access by boat and the Thames was the main thoroughfare for all kinds of traffic. When there was just London Bridge spanning the Thames, their monopoly on people getting around on/over the water made them powerful. In the 16th century, the Watermen’s Company, was set up, with power to

to set tariffs and reduce accidents, and with jurisdiction over all watermen plying between Windsor (in Berkshire) and Gravesend (in Kent). The Act allowed the London mayor and aldermen to yearly choose eight of the “best sort” of watermen to be company rulers, and to make and enforce regulations: this obviously created a hierarchy with links to the City powers.

Watermen now had to serve a seven-year apprenticeship in order to gain an encyclopaedic knowledge of the complex water currents and tides on the Thames. Watermen freeman were also ordered to pay quarterage – paid quarterly contributions. This was a constant source of grievance and dispute with company rulers who were frequently accused of taking bribes to “free” apprentice watermen.

As in many of the London guilds and companies, the watermen experienced an internal struggle between the company elite and the grassroots over working conditions, and representation, who controlled the trade and set the rules. This had forced the introduction of a form of indirect democracy in 1642, seeing the watermen at the 55 “leading towns and stairs” empowered to each year choose representatives, who would in turn propose candidates to become company rulers. This form of government survived, with vicissitudes, until a new Act of Parliament in 1827 restored an oligarchical rule within the company.

Through these struggles, in a kind of proto-trade union movement, Thames watermen developed tactics that both promoted the trade and encouraged collective organisation, notably the use of petitions or “petitions of grievances”. They won important concessions above and beyond the immediate trade: pointedly, in 1644, they were exempted from land service—the use of watermen in land armies—as a direct result of their pressure (the flip side of this was their tendency to be persuaded or forced into naval service, because of their skills on the water).

Their ability to get together and bargain collectively became legendary, and influenced the way they dealt with authority.

The 1768 protest should be seen in a context of a changing river and altering city. More bridges were gradually being built across the river; more non-company watermen were active, and this was all having an effect on the rate watermen were able to command. This was only to get worse in the following century, as more bridges were built, railways and road transport mushroomed, and steam power revolutionised water travel. The watermen’s hold over Thames trips was soon broken.

It is also worth noting that while famous for their collective defence of their trade in their own interests, the watermen also had a general reputation for patriotism… Not so dissimilar from the black cab drivers of our own era… ? Not sure which newspaper the 1760s watermen mostly read though.

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Today in London’s penal history:John Smith gets 7 years in Newgate, for involvement in destruction of Dingley’s Sawmill. 1769.

On May 10th 1768, Dingley’s Steam-powered Sawmill in Limehouse was burnt down by 500 sawyers, who claimed it was putting them out of work.

This was a highly organised act; decided on collectively beforehand. When the sawyers marched on the Mill, Christopher Robertson, Dingley’s clerk, confronted the crowd and asked them what they wanted. “They told me the saw-mill was at work when thousands of them were starving for want of bread. I then represented to them that the mill had done no kind of work that had injured them, or prevented them receiving any benefit. I desired to know which was their principal man to whom I might speak. I had some conversation with him and represented to him that it had not injured the sawyers. He said it partly might be so, but it hereafter would if it had not; and they came with a resolution to pull it down, and down it should come.”

The mill, the first steam-powered sawmill to open in London, had been operating since early 1767, but the installation of new machinery there during a slack period in the trade when large numbers of sawyers were out of work pushed them into action. On May 6th, the sawyers had sent a communiqué to Dingley, announcing that they intended to stop the mill working. If he didn’t take it seriously, he soon learned his mistake…

Traditionally, sawyers had many privileges, perks of the job, notably the right to take and use offcut wood (especially in shipbuilding). This perk tended to be exploited liberally – management accused the sawyers of often abusing the custom, and making off with huge lengths of wood. Hence sawyers’ houses could often be better built than they financially could afford! However, sawyers’ wages were also generally considered relatively high.

The steam mill was clearly intended to gradually impose a more disciplined industrial process and do away with the perks and customary rights. While owner Charles Dingley received compensation from the government, and completed the rebuilding of the mill, it didn’t seem to re-open: in 1795 it was described as having been standing empty for many years. A generation passed before another such attempt to replace the sawyers’ labour was made in London.

Like the contemporary Spitalfields silk-weavers, and the Luddites after them, the London sawyers were able to clearly see how new technology was being used against them, and made rational decisions to defend existing wages, conditions and customs with a bit of sabotage: collective bargaining by riot and vandalism.

The mill’s owner, Charles Dingley, was considered an ally of the government, and had been ‘radical’ demagogue John Wilkes unpopular opponent in the Middlesex elections: he couldn’t even get near the hustings some days, being kept out and abused by Wilkes-supporting crowds, and was beaten up by Wilkes’ lawyer. He is generally said to have ‘died of shame’ at being so vilified.

On January 9th the following year, one John Smith was tried at the Middlesex magistrates Court (‘Hicks Hall’), for ‘riotously assembling with others’ to destroy the mill, and sentenced to seven years imprisonments in Newgate, to pay a fine, and to enter into recognisance for his good behaviour.

Interestingly, three years later, one John Green was petitioning the Treasury to receive a reward for having arrested John Smith.

Edward Castle had previously been tried in July 1768 for Riot and Breaking the Peace for the attack on the mill, but had been acquitted.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London’s history: splits deepen among silkweavers, Spitalfields, 1768.

As previously recounted elsewhere on this blog, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the silkweavers of London’s East End were well known for organising collectively to defend their interests; often using violence if they had to. Their methods of struggle took a number of forms over the several centuries that the trade was strong in Spitalfields and Bethnal Green. Most often the journeymen weavers would be pitted against the masters, usually trying to keep wages high, exclude men working for less than the agreed rate, and sabotaging masters who paid too low… At other times organised violence was used to smash machine looms and threaten those using them, as the looms were seen as also lowering wages

Throughout the 1700s, successive waves of struggles, often turbulent, had kept mechanisation at bay and contributed to laws restricting imports of cheap textiles from abroad considered threatening competition. But by the late 1760s a long-running wage struggle between masters and workers had evolved into all-out war.

Trade fluctuations, widespread smuggling of silks and other pressures had led to widespread unemployment and reductions in wages in East London’s silkweaving districts by 1762. 7,072 looms were out of employment. This led to mass discontent among journeymen weavers, manifesting as attempts to raise wages and impose their Book of Prices, in which they recorded the piecework rates they were prepared to work for (an increase on current rates in most cases).

They had the Book printed up and delivered to the masters – who rejected it. Increasingly masters were turning to machine looms, and hiring the untrained, sometimes women and children, to operate them, in order to bypass the journeyman and traditional apprentices and their complex structure of pay and conditions.

As a result of the rejection of the Book, two thousand weavers assembled and began to break up looms and destroy materials, and went on strike. There followed a decade of struggle by weavers against their masters, with high levels of violence on both sides.

Tactics included threatening letters to employers, stonings, sabotage, riots and ‘skimmingtons’ (mocking community humiliation of weavers working below agreed wage levels: offenders were mounted on an ass backwards & driven through the streets, to the accompaniment of ‘rough music’ played on pots and pans). The battle escalated to open warfare, involving the army, secret subversive groups of weavers, (known as ‘cutters’ for their tactic of slashing silk on offending masters’ looms), and ended in murder and execution. Some of these tactics had long roots in local history and tradition – others could have been imported with Irish migrants from the Whiteboy movement in Ireland.

As a result of these riots, an Act was passed in 1765 declaring it to be felony and punishable with death to break into any house or shop with intent maliciously to damage or destroy any silk goods in the process of manufacture.

In 1767 wage disputes broke out again: masters who had reduced piece rates had silk cut from their looms. At a hearing in the Weavers Court, in November that year, a case was heard, in which a number of journeymen demanded the 1762 prices from their Book be agreed. The Court agreed that some masters had caused trouble by reducing wages and ruled that they should abide by the Book. However this had little effect, and trouble carried on sporadically.

In November 1767 trouble also broke out between distinct groups of workers: single loom weavers and engine looms weavers were now at loggerheads.

To some extent the machine loom weavers mentioned above can be described as identifying with their masters against fellow workers. In the ensuing fierce struggle of the cutters’ riots, organised weavers used intimidation and sabotage to disrupt the income of masters paying less than the agreed wage rate. Because of the nature of much silkweaving in Spitalfields, with piece-work often being allocated to workers weaving on looms in their own homes, these acts of violence inevitably meant targeting workers at home. This enflamed what seem to have been already bitter relations; the masters may well have been rubbing their hands at the angry splits opening up, as the prospects for lowering wages even further might have seemed rosy.

Although accounts of silkweavers’ violence often concentrate on the ‘cutters’ attacking looms of weavers accused of working for less than the rate, or blindly attacking machine looms, the machine loom weavers themselves were hardly passive victims in this struggle.

A month after machine loom weavers fought handloom weavers in Saffron Hill, another fight erupted on the edge of Spitalfields: an organised attempt by machine-loom workers to target others they accused of being behind recent sabotage of machine looms:

“On Sunday night great disturbances happened in Spital-fields, in regard to the masters having lowered the price of work four pence per yard; but at length a dispute arose among the journeymen, dividing themselves into two parties, when breaking of particular houses windows became general, several of whom were taken into custody, to be dealt with according to law, among whom was a publican charged as a ringleader in the affray….

“A large body of journeymen weavers well armed, having assembled on the Sunday night in Bishopsgate-street, they proceeded to the houses of many journeymen weavers, distinguished by the names of single-handed weavers, in resentment, as they declared, for the latter having been lately concerned in destroying the looms and works belonging to the engine-loom weavers. At these houses several of the journeymen single-hand weavers were seized by their antagonists and kept in custody most part of the night; but before morning they all made their escape, except three men, who were on Monday carried before Sir Robert Darling, knt. And George garret esq. at the Angel and Crown in Whitechapel. In the curse of a strict examination of the several parties, it appeared that the engine-loom weavers, who were the complainants, had acted in a very blameable manner, as they had not only assembled and taken people into custody without any legal warrant or authority, but that they had fired into several houses, and committed divers other illegal acts, to the great terror of many persons, and the disturbance of the public peace. Therefore, upon the conclusion of this examination,, which lasted near six hour (in which the magistrates, to their honour, acted with much discretion and impartiality) the above three men, who were charged with having been concerned with many others in destroying some of the engine-loom weavers works, upon giving sufficient security for their appearance, were admitted to bail, to answer the said charge at the ensuing sessions of the peace for county of Middlesex. The mob of journeymen weavers at both parties being the greatest almost ever known, during this long examination, obliged the magistrates to send a party of guards to keep the peace; and at the conclusion of the affair, the single-handed weavers carried off the above three men in triumph. And we are also informed, that the magistrates were unanimous in opinion, that no adequate remedy can possibly be applied to put a stop to these outrageous disturbances between the different branches of journeymen weavers, which threatens destruction to this valuable manufactory, until the legislature shall have established by law the standard prices of labour between the workmen in all the said various branches of business.”

A day later the army were sent in to ‘keep the peace’:

“Yesterday about noon, a party of guards was ordered to march from the Tower into Spital-fields, to preserve peace and good order in those parts, which so irritated a body of the weavers, that they foolishly opposed them, with old swords, flicks, and bludgeons, and even struck some of the soldiery, who were obliged to return the same in their own defence, by which several were slightly hurt on each side, and some of the offenders obliged to surrender at discretion, and were delivered over to the civil power.” (Annual Register, January 1768).

This wasn’t the last time the army was sent in to the area, as the above events heralded the cataclysmic struggles of 1768-69 (the ‘Cutters’ Riots’): a prolonged struggle, with bitter violence, rioting, intimidation of workers and threatening letters to employers, and hundreds of raids on factories and small workshops. Strikers in other trades joined in the mayhem: 1768. Crowds of weavers also forcibly set their own prices in the food markets, in defiance of high prices. It would end in shootouts in a pub, executions, and the revenge killing of an informer. But in 1773, the weavers would win a measure of wage protection, arbitrated by local magistrates, which would last for 50 years.

It would be interesting to pursue research here, into who each side consisted of. To some extent, over previous decades, long-standing communities in Spitalfields and Bethnal Green and neighbouring areas had faced competition for work from new comers. In the 17th century some English weavers had resented the arrival of large numbers of French hugenots, protestants fleeing religious repression in France. Later, this community itself faced cheap labour, as weavers fleeing poverty in Ireland migrated to East London. How much of the division between machine work and handloom work was ‘racial’ in this way I am not sure – though for sure resistance united the descendants of Irish and French weavers, some of whom were hanged side by side in 1769. I hope to look more into this when I can…

If you are interested in reading more about the Spitalfields silkweavers and their collective violence, our pamphlet Bold Defiance, is available to buy on our publications page.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London festival history: illegal attempt to hold Southwark Fair, 1763.

Southwark Fair was for several centuries one of London’s largest and most important annual fairs. Established in the early middle ages, its charter ratified by king Edward IV in 1462, by 1550 it was held on St Margarets Hill (now part of Borough High Street, Southwark), in its later incarnation it moved to the edge of St Georges Fields, next to the Marshalsea Prison. After a riot in 1743, the Fair was held on Borough High St till 1763, when it was abolished.

The Fair had started life slightly further north around St Mary Overie (Southwark Cathedral) and was also known as Our Lady Fair, (for Mary, you know, the mother of God,). It was originally held on 7, 8 and 9 September to coincide with the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary but by the time it reached its heyday in the early 18th Century, it lasted for two weeks. Stalls and booths were erected along St Margaret’s Hill (now a part of Borough High Street) and in the surrounding courts and alleys as far as the church of St George the Martyr and the bowling greens of St George’s Fields.

Originally the Fair was an open-air market with economic functions, such as selling food and the annual hiring of rural labourers. The fair was a vital part of British life, presenting one of the few opportunities for trade and commerce in agricultural England.

The early fairs enabled peasants to obtain necessities, farmers to hire workers, helped the spread of new products… They also widened the gene pool, providing a meeting place for young folk…

As the Agricultural and the Industrial Revolutions progressed and the urban population grew, the fairs’ focus shifted, from trading (which was now possible on a more regular basis in the cities), to popular amusement and entertainment.

Along with the St. Bartholomew and Sturbridge Fairs, the Southwark Fair “was one of the three great fairs of importance described in a Proclamation of Charles I as ‘unto which there is extraordinary resort out of all parts of the kingdom'”.

By the eighteenth century, as with many urban fairs, Southwark Fair had evolved into a place of attractions, and entertainments. By 1720, Southwark hosted various distractions, including mime shows, farces, song and dance shows, conjuring tricks, puppets, acrobats and rope dancers; theatrical performances, both tragedies and comedies, tightrope walkers, boxing competitions, performing animals, magicians, puppet shows and waxworks. Plays were performed in the courtyards of inns. Some of the stall-holders collected money to help the prisoners in the Marshalsea.

Drink was of course rife and drunkenness widespread. Numberless stalls set up for the provision of refreshments; the many pubs of Southwark teemed.

The diarists John Evelyn and Samuel Pepys both wrote accounts of visits to Southwark Fair:

“I saw in Southwark, at St. Margaret’s Faire, monkies and asses dance and do other feates of activity on ye tight rope; they were gallantly clad à la mode, went upright, saluted the company, bowing and pulling off their hatts; they saluted one another with as good a grace as if instructed by a dancing-master. They turned heels over head with a basket having eggs in it, without breaking any; also with lighted candles ” in their hands and on their heads, without extinguishing them, and with vessells of water, without spilling a drop. I also saw an Italian wench daunce and performe all the tricks on ye tight rope to admiration; all the Court went to see her. Likewise here was a man who tooke up a piece of iron cannon of about 400 lb. weight, with the haire of his head onely.” (John Evelyn, 13 September 1660)

“To Southwark Fair, very dirty, and there saw the puppet-show of Whittington, which is pretty to see; and how that idle thing do work upon people that see it, and even myself too! And thence to Jacob Hall’s dancing on the ropes, where I saw such action as I never saw before, and mightily worth seeing; and here took acquaintance with a fellow who carried me to a tavern, whither came the music of this booth, and by-and-by Jacob Hall himself, with whom I had a mind to speak, whether he ever had any mischief by falls in his time. He told me, ‘Yes, many, but never to the breaking of a limb.’ He seems a mighty strong man. So giving them a bottle or two of wine, I away.”  (Samuel Pepys, 21 September 1668)

“The Fair attracted people from all walks of life, from the high class to the low, even royalty, and attracted the highest quality actors and other entertainment.  Some companies advertised their forthcoming performances at the Fair.  In 1731, Lee and Harper advertised their production of Jeptha’s Vow and the Fall of Phaeton which was to take place in their booth on the bowling green behind the Marshalsea.  There was to be a variety of singing and dancing in between acts and in addition a pantomime entertainment entitled the Harlot’s Progress.  Another advertisement described Jeptha’s Vow and The Fall of Phaeton, “the whole intermix’d with Comic Scenes between Punch, Harlequin, Scaramouch, Pierrot and Columbine”. This latter can clearly be seen in Hogarth’s illustration which also shows a large poster for the “most celebrated entertainment called The Siege of Troy”  advertised by Lee’s Great Theatrical Booth in 1734.  Another company, Yeates (Senior and Junior) advertised a performance of the “Ballad Opera” The Harlot’s Progress in 1722 “To which will be added Yeates (Junior) Incomparable Dexterity of Hand … and at a Large Room near Booth, 2 Large Ostriches, lately arrived from the Deserts of Arabia being Male and Female”.

Another entertainment was advertised in 1733 by Pinchbeck and Fawkes:

Divert the Publick with the following surprising Entertainments at their great Theatrical Room at the Queens Arms joining to the Marshalsea Gate … The diverting and incomparable Dexterity of Hand, perform’d by Mr Pinchbeck who causes a Tree to grow out of of a Flower-Pot on the Table, which blossoms and bears ripe Fruit in a Minute … the famous little Posture-Master of nine Years old, who shows several astonishing Postures by Activity of Body …an amazing Musical Clock made by Mr Pinchbeck, 2 beautiful moving pictures and performs on several muscial instruments … a curious Machine being the finest Piece of workmanship in the World for moving Pictures and other curiosities  … while the Booth is filling the little Posture-Master will divert the Company with several wonders on the slack rope…”

 William Hogarth depicted Southwark Fair in an engraving of 1733, (above).

As London expanded rapidly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, fairs increasing lost much of their old rural economic functions, becoming more and more festivals of debauchery, and a public order headache for the local authorities. Increasingly hated by the better off, on moral, disorder and policing expense grounds, there was pressure to restrict and abolish these festivals of wildness and eliminate the waste and common spaces where they were held.

“It is tempting to explain the decline of old sports and festivals simply in terms of the displacement of ‘rural’ by ‘urban’ values. But this is misleading. The more robust entertainments, whether in their ugly form of animal baiting and pugilism, or in more convivial festivities, were as often, or more often, to be found in the eighteenth century in London or the great towns as in the countryside. They continued into the nineteenth century with a vigour which recalls both the unruly traditions. of the London apprentices of Tudor times, and also the very large proportion of nineteenth‑century Londoners who were immigrants from the village. The greatest festival of all was Bartholomew Fair, with its menageries, pickpockets, pantomimes of Harlequin and Faustus, card sharpers, plays, exhibitions of wild men and of horsemanship. In 1825 the Trades Newspaper complained:

For weeks previous it is denounced from the pulpit and the press, and stories are raked up of apprentices led away from the paths of honesty, of ruined maids of all‑work, of broken heads and brawling…

In the previous decade the authorities had feared that the Fair would become ‘the general rendezvous for sedition and the signal for insurrection’.

On the other hand, the Industrial Revolution, which drained the countryside of some of its industries and destroyed the balance between rural and urban life, created also in our own minds an image of rural isolation and ‘idiocy’. The urban culture of eighteenth‑century England was more ‘rural’ (in its customary connotations), while the rural culture was more rich, than we often suppose. ‘It is a great error to suppose,’ Cobbett insisted, ‘that people are rendered stupid by remaining always in the same place.’ And most of the new industrial towns did not so much displace the countryside as grow over.” (EP Thompson)

The attack on fairs went hand in hand with the accelerating enclosure of land; the loss of access to the open space and marginal lands the poor had always used. For the wealthy and powerful, this was knocking off two birds with one stone: more profit, less tumult. Sometimes the disorderly use of greens and commons was a major justification for fencing them off: fairs were a common example of the kind of turbulent practices enclosure and later landscaping/creating laid-out parks could do away with. The ordering of a space could be used to order the people, since the nature of the built/leisure environment was held to have a central moral or immoral effect on those who used it.

Also, by the late eighteenth century, fairs, in fact largescale gatherings were feared by the powers that be, as possible sources of riot, haunts of the ‘Mob’… Not to mention the satirical shows which mocked the government and established mores. Put this together with the concentration of alcoholic debauchery and open-air sex… Repressing the fairs was not only an element of the narrowing of popular culture, a mass movement in European social development, which had been squeezing out carnivals, festivals and rowdy or pagan-tinted traditions for two centuries… By the 1760s, the crusade against rowdy entertainment was also a crucial plank of disciplining the unruly and reluctant lower orders – used to holidays, days off, unruly pleasures – with the aim of forging a more moral workforce, with internalised religious constraints and external forces and ties to keep them sober and more productive.

Southwark Fair was notorious for outbreaks of trouble. A woman had been trampled to death by the crowd in 1733 and a whole farrago of crime was associated with the Fair.

In the course of the 18th century, there were several attempts to restrict the Fair to its original e-day duration – these all proved ineffective. In 1710 several warrants were issued for the arrest of fair stall holders who did not respect the regulated three days. In 1718 it was decreed that fair booths that did not respect the by-law would be taken down and the owners prosecuted. The decree was flyposted on the town walls so that no-one could claim ignorance of the rules. In 1743 the better-off residents of the area, having had enough of the blatant ignoring of the rules by the took the matter to court “in order to preserve the Morals of their Children and Servants from being Corrupted (Daily Post, 23 August 1743). This legal action met with popular hostility – a riot resulted, which deeply alarmed critics of the Fair. This lead to its being moved to nearer to the Mint.

In 1750 a new petition was addressed to the Lord Mayor, which demanded the suppression of this fair “tending only to the Destruction of Youth of both Sexes, and the Encouragement of Thieves and Strollers (Penny London Post, 6 August 1750). The Daily Advertiser of the 18th September warned its readers that the Southwark Fair would, from then on, take place ONLY from the 18th to the 20th September. Any stallholders who would not take account of these new official dates would face arrest. However, the law was once again openly flouted, with as many stalls setting up for longer than three days, as usual. The local authority was forced to re-state the decree the following year, without much more success.

Eventually, the pressure grew too strong. In June 1762, the City of London council decreed that Southwark Fair be closed down. On 19th September 1763, several stall holders who tried to set up their booths in defiance were forcibly expelled by the police. Hundreds of years of fun and frolics were at an end.

If the closing down of Southwark Fair was an early battle in this war, over the next century almost all of London’s street fairs were to vanish, banned by the authorities. Resistance to this process was strong: in some cases attempts to close down fairs on some legal pretext were fought for decades.

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

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Today in drinking history: beer price rise causes tumults in Westminster, 1761.

Eighteenth century Londoners, especially the ‘poorer sort’, had, like many communities before and since, a keen eye for when they were being ripped off, especially for basic commodities.

A certain ‘moral economy’ existed, including a collective view of how much people should expect to pay for basic foodstuffs, and a preparedness to intervene in the marketplace and forcibly readjust prices if they rose too high beyond what was considered affordable and acceptable. Bread was the main staple fought over: at times of high wheat prices and (since bread was the main diet of the poor) widespread hunger, bakers and millers would be the target of rioters, often accused along with farmers and landowners of hoarding grain to jack up prices. Bread riots could involve the whole community, though, they were often led by women. In previous centuries, it was common for rioters to seize stocks of bread and force bakers to sell it at a price they thought fair, or a long-established price; this was the strongest example of the so-called ‘moral economy’ (discussed by EP Thompson and other radical historians) a set of economic and social practices based in a popular view of how certain basic needs ought to be fairly and cheaply available.

The idea of a moral economy was one that crossed class boundaries, a reflection of the paternalist society, where all knew their place, but all classes had responsibilities and there were certain given rights to survival.

Alcohol, too, of course, is a staple part of the diet… and was considered even more so in the 1700s. Although the oft-repeated legend that ‘people in the past drank beer because water supplies were all polluted’ is not completely true, ale, and later beer, was drunk on a daily basis in great quantities. Partly because it was thought to be healthier, more nutritious than water, and people may have felt that brewing processes made it safer; also because it was generally used to lubricate and compensate for the hours of hard, low-paid work many folk did. Many workers in numerous trades were partly paid in ale or beer; this went hand in hand with the traditional use of pubs and taverns as places were people went to look for work (many trades had pubs they used as meeting points), and got paid each day, week or less often… Pubs, alehouses, inns were the one of the main centres of social life. And people like to get pissed.

The price of beer was therefore a crucial daily issue; almost as fiercely watched as the price of bread. With wages generally low in most trades, and rising only slowly if at all, small price rises could make all the difference. In the 1730s, the Walpole government had attempted to slap heavy restrictions on the sale of gin (even more than beer, the tipple of the poorest at the time), partly to restrict its turbulent social effects by pricing it out of many people’s reach. The London poor and many of the slightly better off, had reacted with fury, rioting, attacking informers who were grassing up ginsellers, and determinedly parrying harder on illicit spirits. Beer may have been favourably compared to gin in the contemporary mind (see Hogarth’s Gin Lane/Beer Street prints), but it was even more vital to many more daily existences.

In 1761, some London publicans tried to raise the price; happening all at once, this was clearly a pre-planned cartel trying to spring it on the drinking classes all at once:

“The price of beer was raised to 3d ½ per quart, by many publicans, at the instigation, it is said, of their brewers, on account of the new duty upon malt; but they soon sold it at the old rate of 3d. as they found their houses deserted by their customers. And soon after many of them, at a meeting held by them, came to a resolution to let it remain there. Some tumults were occasioned thereby, in many parts of the town, where labouring and poor people chiefly live, and great discontent and murmuring everywhere. Several of the Westminster publicans were on this occasion carried before a magistrate, and fined 5 shillings each, it being contrary to an act passed in the reign of king William III, which fixes beer at 3d. per quart. The publick alledge that though malt and hops were, about four years ago, at double the price they are now, the brewers, without advancing their price, made great fortunes, and that the additional duty of 3 shillings per barrel, reduces their profits but one thirteenth part of the whole, that is to say, where a brewer heretofore cleared 1300 pounds, h may now, notwithstanding this new tax, clear 1200 pounds, and so in proportion for other sums.” (The Annual Register, June 24th 1761)

The fact that the government in the time of William III had taken the step of limiting the price of beer illustrates how seriously they took this matter; afraid to provoke a very large constituency into uproar? State regulation in 1761 was clearly irritating to the producers, the publicans, who obviously felt the profits to be reaped were being unfairly held down, had a grouse against the brewers, who had them over a barrel, as it were. At this time, the brewing industry was being revolutionised, especially in London; the development of porter earlier in the century, aged in the brewery rather than sent to the pub to age, had tilted the power in brewing towards large breweries, and the great brewing firms had already started to rise, gathering a larger and larger share of the market. It’s possible the pub price rise was a desperate attempt by publicans to garner a bit more as breweries took a bigger slice; alternatively, maybe it was a ploy by the breweries, leaning on pubs to impose a profit-raising measure…

It’s not clear of what nature, and how widespread, the ‘tumults’ mentioned were, but London crowds had a long habit of gathering quickly and acting collectively and decisively on immediate economic issues. So was it local riots, fights in individual pubs? The price rise may have been speculative, let’s try it out and see if we can get away with it – and the lesson was quickly learned, as the price reverted quickly to its prior level.

Attempts to raise prices continued, some of them industry-based, some government revenue-raising measures. But attempts to suddenly raise prices would continue to cause resistance and aggro, for a century and a half (as we have previously related…)

Could do with a few tumults today… every time the price of beer goes up…

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

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Today in London’s entrepreneurial history: ‘pretend weavers’ get in some collective aggressive begging, 1765.

In the 1760s, the silk weavers of Spitalfields and Bethnal Green were engaged in a protracted multi-fronted struggle, sparked by a fierce slump in their trade, widespread smuggling of fine cloth, and social and technological change in silk production. The disturbance and agitation around silk work involved vertical cross-class industry lobbying for protectionist measures to be imposed to support the trade, but also vicious class warfare between masters and journeymen, over wage levels and increasing mechanisation which was driving down pay and conditions. The second of these was complicated by attacks by hand loom weavers on some using newer machine looms, and vice versa.

All these struggles involved high levels of organised violence; on several occasions through the decade huge demonstrations filled the city, attacking Parliament and targeting ministers seem to be blocking the silkweavers’ interests; at other times secret clubs, proto-unions, formed armed gangs to sabotage the work of employers deemed to be paying too little, and of workers considered to be ‘rate-breakers’.

Amidst the ebb and flow of weavers’ aggro, with their economic hardship and their collective protest the talking point of London, some elements, most likely from a – class? caste? layer? – a couple of degrees lower of the social scale thought this was an opportunity to make a little cash:

‘Upwards of 500 fellows assembled in a riotous manner near Battle Bridge, the bottom of Grays Inn Lane, and insulted several persons, both on foot and horseback, passing by, from many of whom they extorted money; they pretended to be weavers, but it appeared at length that no weavers were among them.” Gentleman’s Magazine, 19th May 1765.

On the face of it (and this is pretty much all we know), this seems like a bit of sharp practice from what was seen loosely as the fraternity of beggars, villains and slum-dwellers, the inhabitants of London’s rookeries. Only a few days before, for several days, the East End silkweavers had besieged parliament, demanding new tariffs on imported cloths that were undercutting the silk manufacturing trade. Crowds of weavers had roughed up anti-protectionist ministers and aristos, and attacked the house of the Duke of Bedford, a leading politico and seen as the main mover in refusing to pass measures aiding the weavers. Why not get in on the act, while sympathy among some Londoners for the weavers’ economic plight was high, and while the authorities were to some extent on the back foot, dealing with angry crowds…?

Extortion is as old as the hills, and collective extortion of the wealthy by the less well off a long-established tradition. In the 18th century social crime was at a high level. If anti-social crime can be summed up as robbing everyone without any pretence of attempt at class consciousness or consideration of whether they are better off or worse off than yourself – then you could describe social crime as the poor stealing from the rich, knowingly helping themselves; for many, poaching, smuggling, but just as much pick-pocketting, burglary and other forms of robbery, could not only be a means of survival in a time of vast inequalities of wealth, upheaval and industrial development, enclosure of land… Poachers, for instance, often saw themselves as taking back what was fenced off and denied them, but had once been ‘all men’s birthright’. Smuggling was considered almost victimless, by virtually all classes – united in enjoying both the cheaper goods and thumbing your nose at hated government regulations…

Of course, some of the optimistic glow around ‘social crime’ is also to some extent backwards projection on the part of us modern types. We like the idea of Robin Hood because the myths built up around him play to our own prejudices. Highwaymen, for instance, are dashing figures when described by your history walk leaders, dandies with fine manners freewheeling through the woods, Adam Ant taking your purse but kissing your giggly hand… Whereas in reality blokes like Dick Turpin were nasty fuckers. Turpin, for instance, was probably a grass, maybe a psycho, definitely a bastard who would never have hung if he hadn’t shot a neighbour’s pet cockerel in a rage (so an animal abuser as well!)

The ‘500 fellows’ who exploited the silk-weavers struggle for a quick buck – 500? really? I bet it was less. Rumour only expands numbers when it comes to a ruck. ‘Pretending to be weavers… no weavers were amongst them?’ How does the writer know? Were any arrested? Interviewed? The journo definitely got down into the crowd and did a sociological survey – not. It is possibly true – but also possible that some weavers or ex-weavers, apprentices even, were among this crowd. On balance, artisans like the silk-weavers considered themselves to be a cut above your casual labourer or rookery-dweller, but the line between regular work, irregular employment, and crime was thin, and easily broken where wages were low, trade was seasonal or easily disrupted, where mechanisation was changing the expectations of solid employment at one trade for life. A fair number of silk weavers, or their partners, or their children, ended on the gallows at Tyburn, through the century, having turned to robbery in desperation. For many in the 1760s, a decade of depression, high food prices and political and trade upheaval, social mobility was all one way – down. And we know that at least one group of silk-weavers went from organising to maintain wage levels, to violent warfare against their employers, ending in a protection racket. The ‘cutters’ of the Conquering and Bold Defiance, a society of East End weavers, began by slashing the silk on looms where the accepted wage rates for piece-work were not being paid. By 1768 they had refined this to threatening employers, extracting a levy on the masters: be a shame if this nice silk got cut, guvnor, how about a quid for the weavers’ benevolence fund…

And why not? Overwhelming force was always there the other way, organised and collective ruling class expropriation of the land, the wealth created by the workers and peasants, was ingrained and constant. The terror of the gallows, the prospect of hanging for theft of a tiny amount (say, for nicking a silk hankie), the shadow of Newgate – violence was being used to discipline the lower orders into accepting new and harsher social relations. Some comeback on that was only fair… To get together, pretend to be poor weavers and then basically engage in a bit of mass aggressive begging, shows intelligence and cunning – it’s what you need to survive, duck and dive, think up a scam, carry it out, move on to another…

And it wasn’t the last time… mass class struggle opens up avenues for what some more straitlaced lefties might consider ‘lumpen’ elements to get a slice of the action. Maybe some of the same ‘fellows’ from 1765 were involved in a very similar incident a few years later, when ‘a number of fellows, pretending to be coalheavers, extorted money from gentlemen in London…’, during mass class warfare on the Thames in 1768.
And during the 1978-9 winter of discontent, when the lorry drivers strike was paralysing road transport, as mass pickets blocked roads across Britain – somewhere in Scotland, “a kind of drunken, beer can ‘collective’ of semi-alkies spread across a road and, on the tap, took some money from working drivers in imitation of the pickets!” 

We’ll drink to that…

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For more on the silk-weavers of London’s East End, their struggles and especially the 1760s, see Bold Defiance

On the Winter of Discontent: To Delightful Measures Changed

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

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Today in London’s radical history: coalheavers riot in river strike, Wapping, 1768.

“A desperate fray happened at Wapping among several gangs of coalheavers; many persons were wounded, and several houses almost destroyed.” (Annual Register, 15th April, 1768)

Ah, ’68… year of riot, uprising and turbulence… No 1768, not 1968…

London, in 1768, seemed poised on the brink of apocalyptic revolt, as hunger, poverty and political agitation almost merged to give birth to revolution… Like 1381, 1649, 1780, 1889 during the dock strike, or 1919, was it a possible ‘revolutionary moment missed’, as we once wrote in a calendar? This may be going too far, for 1768, but it’s true that a number of movements came together, or co-existed, striking fear into the authorities, taking control of the streets, and one dispute or flashpoint would influence another, like wildfire…

On the political level ’68 was a year of mass agitation and crowd violence in support of John Wilkes, the rakish journalist, a scandal-mongering champion for reform of the political system, who won support from both the City of London merchant elite and the ‘Mobility’, the swelling, insurgent and always altering London mob. Wilkes had already been jailed and banished for challenging the establishment; in 1768 he was standing for election to Parliament for Middlesex, the huge (consistently politically progressive) constituency north and west of London, near enough for huge crowds to flock there and support him, leading to riots at the hustings, and assaults on Wilkes’ pro-government opponents. But his views got him barred from entering the house of Commons, even when elected (he was to be ruled ineligible several times, but re-elected each time). Pro-Wilkes marches became pitched battles, demonstrators were shot by the militia, Wilkes was imprisoned…

But 1768 was also a year of starvation: “the price of bread had doubled. The price of meat had increased by a third. Crowds forced street-vendors to sell vegetables at reasonable prices. The Whitechapel butchers ‘suffered prodigiously’. Elsewhere, butchers ‘were oblig’d to secrete their meat’. Corn-factors were attacked and their wagons stopped. The corn-dealers hid their plate, boarded up their coffee-houses, and closed the Stock Exchange…”

As rising food prices sparked protests, a wave of disputes swept London, especially in the East End, over wages, over working conditions and how work was regulated and controlled. Trade after trade erupted into stoppage and demonstration. “The sailors and the glass-grinders petitioned, shoemakers held mass meetings and the bargemen stopped work. The leaders of the tailors were imprisoned for ‘Irritating their Brethren to Insurrection, abusing their Masters, and refusing to work at the stated prices.’”

The political and economic turbulence mingled and sometimes merged; many of the workers in the London trades supported Wilkes, and marched for him… Though he was only ever mainly interested in the promotion of himself, and his image as the outrageous critic of the monarchy and government, darling of the mob, and would always balk at encouraging violence. He would end his days as comfortably, and almost respectable, having served as MP, alderman, Sherriff and Lord Mayor of London, (where he admittedly did work to improve legal protection for prisoners, servants and workers) and taken up arms to command soldiers to shoot down his former supporters attacking the Bank of England during the Gordon Riots. It’s not just the ‘reactionary populists’ we need to beware of…

To add to the fears of the ruling classes, there was talk of unrest in the army: “Soldiery may become a political Reverbatory Furnace”. If a regime loses the army, revolt can become revolution. Widespread flogging and repression in the ranks kept them from joining the swirling maelstrom….

The most dangerous disputes from the point of view of the authorities were the wage disputes and battles over mechanisation among the Spitalfields Silkweavers, and the work stoppage by the coal-heavers on the London docks. The silkweavers had been rebelling against wage cuts and increased use of machine looms for nearly a decade, but it was rising to fever pitch, with wage-cutting masters facing sabotage of their looms, intimidation of workers agreeing to low pay, and the formation of clubs of ‘cutters’ branching out into extortion of employers. It would climax the following year with gunfire and the army occupation of Spitalfields.

The coalheavers’ dispute was even more violent. As related in a previous post, for centuries one of the hardest jobs on the London docks was coalheaving: unloading coal from ships to warehouses from where it was sent off to fuel the City and industrial expansion. Coal lay at the heart of eighteenth century London life: not only was warmth, like food, basic to survival, but industry, business and commerce all needed coal to function.

Coal heaving, unloading coal from ships bringing it to London, was hard work, low paid, backbreaking; the heavers had a reputation for disorder and thieving, but faced harsh conditions which they were forced to combat in various ways. The work was centred on Wapping and Shadwell; Gangs of heavers were often controlled and organised by powerful City merchants and local publicans.

The heavers work patterns were being altered to speed up unloading of coal; ‘middlemen’, called undertakers, organised them into work-gangs, which worked to the interests of the coal-ship owners. But under the 1757 Coal Act, the coal heavers’ work was overseen by the aldermen magistrates of Billingsgate Ward, who registered the men, maintained a sickness and burial fund and regulated wages. By 1768 the magistracy was divided between a paternalist faction, interested in continuing protection of the workers (though with social peace and the maintenance of supply also at heart), and the representatives of the ship-owners, and large coal merchants… The latter were headed up by William Beckford, alderman of Billingsgate, largest sugar plantation owner (and thus slave-owner) in Jamaica. Beckford, ‘King of Jamaica’, twice Lord Mayor of London, MP for the City, was concerned to reduce the coalheavers independence to as near to the level of his Caribbean slaves as he could. Beckford is also where the links between the political and economic disturbances of 1768 come round full circle, since he was a stalwart supporters of Wilkes, a leader of the movement for reform in the City of London which saw sweeping changes to the corruption and inefficiency of the old regime as necessary for the unfettered growth of business interests and the pursuit of profit.

The confused mishmash of loyalties and interests here is typical of the time; perhaps some saw clearer than others, however, as striking sailors would by May 1768 sign a declaration ‘No W-. No K-‘ … No Wilkes, No King, breaking with the general support of the organised London workers for Wilkes… Why, isn’t certain: had they seen through the fundamental difference in interests?

Beckford backed the ‘undertakers’ who ran taverns in Wapping and Shadwell where heavers had to collect their wages and the gangs were also organised. “The tavern, even more than the parish, was the elemental unit of social life in London. The arduous nature of coal-heaving necessitated a close relationship with beer. The organisation of coal-heaving gangs, no less, required the public house. Since taverns were places of food and drink, control of them, especially during times of scarcity, was control of the river proletariat.”

The wage dispute erupted into open warfare, and the taverns were often the battlefield; heavers met in rival inns and mobbed the ones run by the gangmasters. Two ‘clerks’ (alderman’s aides), Metcalf and Green,hired by Beckford, ran taverns, organised the work, and drove down wages and conditions by hiring starving men from Ireland. The riverside was filled with Irish migrants (so many lived around one stretch of what is now Cable Street it was nicknamed ‘Knockfergus’)

But revolt against this evolved among the Irish workers, and the underground groupings of rural self-protection and resistance to British landlords in Ireland may have been used to build organised opposition on the docks. A wage dispute broke out and heavers stopped work. Scab labour was sent in from Green’s Roundabout Tavern (on Gravel Lane, now Garnet Street), and Metcalf’s Salutation Inn. In February 1768, the latter pub was gutted, and the war stepped up, as the undertakers allied with the constables and backed by Beckford pushed out the paternalist magistrate, Hodgson.

In April the Roundabout tavern was attacked by coalheavers with guns, fire was exchanged: “A shoemaker bled to death on the pavement; a coalheaver took a bullet in the head, ‘dropped down backwards, and never stirred more.’” This may be the same incident reported as taking place on April 15th in the Annual Register, but gunfire against scab taverns and those pubs where the striking heavers met was frequent for weeks. Green was charged with murder after these deaths, (seemingly the divisions within the magistracy were continuing), but he was acquitted.

The coalheavers were joined in May by sailors working the ships in the docks, agitating for higher wages, and ‘striking’ (lowering) the sails to prevent ship movement. The paralysis of work on the river became so overwhelming that ‘strike’ became general usage for refusing to work… and henceforth…

Further violence on board ships acting as scab labour in May brought mass repression, splitting the sailors and coalheavers; after a sailor was killed in battle on board a scab ship, several coal heavers were hanged, and the strikes were defeated… The army occupied the area to prevent further outbreaks, and ensure coal unloading carried on (two soldiers were murdered for unloading themselves).

In the end the massive agitation and riotous insurgency of 1768 peaked and declined, mostly in the face of massive state repression. The coalheavers continued to be unruly, if never again so effective. The Spitalfields silkweavers would also face vicious clamp-down after they became uncontrollable – but a few years later they would force the state to guarantee their wages, in a paternalist concession that would last 50 years. The class warfare against the changes in working conditions of course continued, though increasingly in other, less violent, forms.

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

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Today in military history: conscripts in Savoy barracks bound for service in East India Company, riot; all shot dead. 1763.

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

Another group seemingly confined here, though as to how regularly is unclear, were ‘recruits’ destined to be shipped to India or other parts of the ‘far east’ to serve in the military forces commanded by the East India Company.

The East India Company formed in the late 16th century, receiving its Royal Charter in 1600. Its original aim was to expand trade in India and in other Asian countries. It was to grow into one of the most powerful transnational businesses ever created, and backed by the British state, to become a major agent of imperial conquest and domination, with its owned private armed forces. “the company rose to account for half of the world’s trade, particularly in basic commodities including cotton, silk, indigo dye, salt, saltpetre, tea and opium.”

Wealthy merchants and aristocrats owned the Company’s shares; the vast profits to be made in commodities the Company handled ensured shares traded at premium prices. The EIC made huge wealth for its shareholders, but also contributed to Britain’s massive enrichment in the 18th and 19th centuries, at the expense of local, regional and transnational economies in the East, which were often shattered, destabilised or re-oriented (arf) in the Company’s interest. This is not even to mention the famines, wars of conquest, the torture and expropriation carried out by the Company and its agents (check the looted contents of a museum or aristocratic mansion near you), and, yes, genocide…

At a similar time other European East India Companies were forming, notably the Dutch and French versions, which became competitors, and later struggles over trade routes and contracts became outright wars.

“During its first century of operation the focus of the Company was trade, not the building of an empire in India. Company interests turned from trade to territory during the 18th century as the Mughal Empire declined in power and the East India Company struggled with its French counterpart, the French East India Company (Compagnie française des Indes orientales) during the Carnatic Wars of the 1740s and 1750s. The Battle of Plassey and Battle of Buxar, which saw the British, led by Robert Clive, defeat the Indian powers, left the company in control of Bengal and a major military and political power in India. In the following decades it gradually increased the extent of the territories under its control, ruling either directly or indirectly via local puppet rulers under the threat of force by its Presidency armies, much of which were composed of native Indian sepoys.”

Although the Company could later often rely on the military support of the British army and navy to back up its trading/military interests, the early days of the wars in India against the French of the 1740s-60s required the Company bolster up its own forces, from a slightly shambolic guard force to a proper army, which was to become the strongest military force in the subcontinent.

The company eventually came to rule large areas of India with its own private armies, exercising military power and assuming administrative functions. Company rule in India effectively began in 1757 and lasted until 1858 when, following the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the Government of India Act 1858 led to the British Crown assuming direct control of India in the form of the new British Raj.

In its first century and half, the Company used a few hundred soldiers as guards, but after 1750, (when it had 3000 regular troops), its military power rocketed. 13 years later it controlled 26,000 soldiers; by 1778, this had risen to 67,000. “The military arm of the East India Company quickly developed to become a private corporate armed force, and was used as an instrument of geo-political power and expansion, rather than its original purpose as a guard force, and became the most powerful military force in the Indian sub-continent.”

Most of its troops were local Indian recruits; however men were also hired in Britain. Some of these may, as was widespread practice at the time, have been ‘volunteered’ rather than enlisting of their own accord.

A problem for the Company was the entrenched opposition to them recruiting in Britain, first and foremost by the British armed forced themselves. (as is suggested in the last line of the brief Annual Register entry).  “The Company’s efforts had long been hampered by Parliamentary feeling against standing armies – indeed an act of 1781 limited the number of recruits who could be held in England awaiting embarkation to 2000 in time of war and 1000 in peace time.” British recruits were also, as late as the 1760s, legislated to make sure they must be Protestants, who could also be part of a general attempt to spread god’s own religion among johnny foreigner, meaning not papistry. But the quality of recruits was often criticised by the Company’s officers on the ground as being poor, though whether this was regarding their health, morals or ability, isn’t clear…

Professional and national forces generally resent ‘amateurs’, private security set-ups, even today (until they have to retire, then they all get lucrative jobs with them).

Another reason for army sabotage of Company recruiting may have been that opportunities for advancement were easier in the Company’s service than with the Redcoats… “The army took responsibility for many civil and social activities in the country, particularly in the vicinity of the cantonments. These responsibilities were undertaken by Warrant Officers generally acting through Sergeants of differing titles. These were positions of significant importance and standing and the chance to attain them was one of the attractions of joining the Company’s army rather than the King’s/Queen’s army. Many NCOs were able to take on other work and attract an extra income. By doing so, they could frequently buy themselves out of their units, could earn more money and qualify for a pension much sooner.”

Whether pressganged, genuinely voluntary, or regretting it, many must have decided early on that service in the EIC’s army wasn’t for them… The brief account that follows suggests less than complete consent:

“Some recruits, confined in the Savoy for the East India Service, rose upon the centinels, wrested their arms from them, and made themselves masters of the keys; but the guards in the barracks being alarmed, another fray ensued, in which three of the recruits were shot dead, some others mortally wounded, and one of the soldiers had his hand so shattered that it had to be cut off. The propriety and justice of confining men in this manner for any service, except his majesty’s, has been matter of much dispute, however favoured by the coroner’s inquest upon this melancholy occasion.” (Annual Register, 1763).

On the face of it, it sounds like the ‘recruits’ were locked up. Not volunteers, then. Press-ganged? Regretting signing up?

The Company was a major player in the colonisation of the world in British interest, and a forerunner and inspiration for the transnationals of today (check out a historian’s comparison with G4S and the scumbag security corporations of today…)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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