(Probably) today in London black history: party celebrates anti-slavery court ruling, 1772

Britain’s central role in the global slave trade is well known. For over 300 years, the abduction of millions of Africans to be used as forced labour, largely in America and the Caribbean, formed a major element of the British economy and was integral to the spread of the British Empire.

The abolition of slavery is often credited to the actions of a small number of white abolitionist activists in Britain. Not only does this long-standing myth cover up the massive resistance to enslavement and rebellious resistance by slaves themselves, through uprising, escape, organised desertion and the building of hidden or independent communities… It also neglects the contribution of black abolitionists, activists in the movement to end the slave trade and abolish slavery itself. London itself was a centre of organised black abolitionism, emerging from the communities of black people that had grown up in London.

There had been significant numbers of Africans in London since Elizabethan times (when good Queen Bess famously attempted to get a law passed to throw all black people out of the country). By the 18th century London had a sizable black population, although it was hard to put a number on, being variously estimated; the Gentleman’s Magazine reckoned on 20,000 in London alone in 1764, while other sources reckon it at only half that for the whole country… Disease, poverty, the hard conditions they had lived in and continued to live in took a regular toll, and so the numbers are likely to have varied wildly… Numbers were swollen by an influx (after 1784) of ‘loyal’ ex-slaves who had been persuaded or forced to fight for the crown against the colonists in the American war of independence… Many were poor and embittered, others who ended up in London had been involved in the rough and tumble of the American Revolution and had taken on many of the ideas about liberty and equality that had been swelling around in the colonies for two decades…

The vast majority of London’s black residents were ex-slaves, or sailors and former sailors. Many may have been both: black sailors were often runaway or freed slaves, who had worked their passage on ships from the West Indies (famous writer and activist Olaudah Equiano being just one example).

The work the black population could do was restricted, especially after 1731 when the lord mayor of London issued a proclamation banning them from being taken on as apprentices – not the last colour bar in the history of employment in Britain.

Many Africans of both sexes worked as domestic servants. This left them still in a difficult legal position, at the mercy of their employers, as even after 1772, when transporting slaves was outlawed in England and they could not legally be deported by their owners, they were not protected from being kidnapped and shipped abroad. Others worked as city porters, watermen, hawkers, and chairmen (carrying the rich from place to place, some employed directly, others touting for business in the days before cabs).

Black women also worked as nurses, or became basket women, selling small items round the streets. But many were forced by poverty to turn to prostitution.

And a huge number ended without work at all, bagging on the street for enough to keep them alive. The Poor Relief system, consisting then of a pittance of financial support from the parish you were born in, did not support black folk, so many were reduced to extreme poverty: many of course would arrive here with nothing, as a slave, runaway or servant. Black people forced into beggary became conspicuous in London in the later 18th century, many crowded into poor areas, ‘rookeries’ like St. Giles or Seven Dials, or Limehouse and Ratcliff down by the river in the East End – all areas of poverty, refuges for the desperate, the skint, the rebellious and so-called ‘criminal classes’. Rookeries were over-crowded, often a mass of sub-divided and sublet rooms, dangerous and unhealthy places to live. But being refuges to those on the run from the law, they were often no-go areas to the law, with a rudimentary solidarity against justices, constables and creditors. Traditions of resistance to the authorities in London slums and rookeries, eg fighting off the press gang or the army recruiters, or posses sent in to areas to seize fugitive criminals or debtors, were long established, and extended to support runaway slaves. Poor white Londoners’ support for fugitive slaves came not from any sentimental or humanitarian feelings, as with the middle class abolitionists. Black people were suffering from treatment meted out by a class many Londoners saw as their own enemies, and alliances were a matter of class solidarity, more or less…
In part because of the gender imbalance in the black community – there being many more African men than women in London, but also because of its social and geographical diffusion, many black men married local white women and merged into existing working communities.

Thus the environment that sparked black involvement in the abolition movement was dual, consisting of a proletarian class in the slums, beggars, ex sailors, and a higher level of African servants, often more educated and literate. We know more about the latter, sometimes because they were servants to prominent figures, or because they wrote their own accounts of their enslavement and other experiences. However, links between these strata may well have existed – interestingly some of the more prominent individuals we do know about, in some ways cross over both milieux, especially later, as with the radical activists Olaudah Equiano and Robert Wedderburn.

Another complaint of white upper class commentators of the time – that slaves were asserting themselves and struggling to be paid wages for their labour – illustrates how the beginnings of collective economic self-organisation led into the abolitionist movement against slavery. Fighting for wages helped them not only attain economic independence (and wages conferred status, also the right of residence within a parish, which could help prevent a slave’s deportation) but also aided social and political self-confidence – which itself fed into political organising. Individual and collective resistance sparked off the abolition campaign from within black communities themselves.

Despite originating from many countries and backgrounds, being divided in many ways, the London black community created not only social links but organised itself politically. Black servants certainly gathered informally, partly to discuss information and common problems (Dr Johnson’s black servant Francis Barber was among them); they also held larger social gatherings, including dances and music in taverns (black domestics of both sexes “supped, drank and entertained themselves with dancing and music… at a public house in Fleet St” in 1764…”No whites were allowed to be present…”)

This community also showed solidarity for its number– for example in 1773, two black men imprisoned in the Bridewell House of Correction for begging were supported financially and visited by 300 others. According to Philip Thicknesse, in 1778, “these black men have clubs to support those who are out of place”. ‘Out of place is an interesting phrase here – on the surface, it means just ‘out of work’, but there is also an implied support for runaways and ex-slaves living under cover. This solidarity is known to have existed. A common complaint from slave-owners was that longer established escapees were influencing newer arrivals to leg it. According to the virulently racist ideologue Edward Long: “Upon arriving in London, these servants soon grow acquainted with a knot of blacks, who, having eloped from their respective owners at different times, repose here in ease and indolence, and endeavour to strengthen their party, by seducing as many of these strangers into the association as they can work to their purpose.”

The Bow Street magistrate John Fielding referred to these subversive ex-slaves as “intoxicated with liberty… the Sweets of Liberty and the conversations with free men and Christians enlarge their minds…” and even worse, they had succeed in allying themselves with “the London Mob”, the rebellious working people of London. This alliance was exposed in times of riot and disorder. Ex-slaves and former black sailors were prominent in several episodes during the 1780 Gordon Riots: Benjamin Bowsey and John Glover were among the leaders of the attack on Newgate; black woman Charlotte Gardiner was hung for her leading part in the Riots…

This embryonic Black community was sharply conscious of legal and social developments – particularly where the courts ruled on cases involving slavery.

In 1772 came a case that excited their interest like no other.

Anti-slavery abolitionists had been waging a campaign of agitation against the slave trade, seeing it as the thin end of the wedge, a vulnerable chink which could be attacked to undermine the existence of slavery as a whole. Legal challenges to the right of an ‘owner’ over individual slaves were a useful battleground, where a precedent might undermine the legal armoury that protected clave owners. The question of whether it was legal to actually own slaves under English law seemed a possible point on which the whole practice could be called into question.

Granville Sharp had almost by chance become drawn into the abolitionist movement through contact with an escaped slave, Jonathan Strong, who he then defended in a long drawn-out court case. This, and subsequent cases, which he became involved in, led to tough court hearings which won some freedom for individual slaves, but failed to end in a conclusive ruling on the legality of slavery. The cases inevitably ended in the court of William Murray, Lord Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice, who, conscious of he vast economic importance of slavery to the British economy and its ruling elites, was reluctant to be pinned down to a judgment that would undermine it. Mansfield was a stickler for the law, however, and appears to have been personally repulsed by slavery…

In 1772, the test case that Sharp had been waiting for came up. James Somerset, an enslaved African, had been bought by customs officer Charles Stewart, in Boston, Province of Massachusetts Bay, then a British colony in North America.

Stewart brought Somerset with him when he returned to England in 1769, but in 1771 Somerset escaped. Recaptured in November, he was was imprisoned on the ship Ann and Mary, bound for the British colony of Jamaica. Stewart intended that Somerset be sold to a plantation for labour; however, Somerset had been baptised as a Christian in England, which was widely held to bar an African from being held as a slave (though this had in fact no standing in law). Somerset’s three godparents from his baptism, John Marlow, Thomas Walkin and Elizabeth Cade, all abolitionists, applied to the Court of King’s Bench in December 1771 for a writ of habeas corpus, in an attempt to force a hearing. Captain Knowles produced Somerset before the Court of King’s Bench on 9 December; the court would now have to determine whether his imprisonment was lawful.

Lord Chief Justice Mansfield ordered a hearing for 21 January; in the meantime he set the prisoner free on recognisance. In February 1772 that the case was heard. The case had attracted a great deal of attention in the press and members of the public donated cash to support the lawyers on both sides of the argument.

When the case was heard, five advocates appeared for Somerset, arguing that while colonial laws might permit slavery, neither the common law of England nor any law made by Parliament recognised the existence of slavery and slavery was therefore unlawful. The advocates also argued that English contract law did not allow for any person to enslave himself, nor could any contract be binding without the person’s consent. The arguments focused on legal details rather than humanitarian principles. When the two lawyers for Charles Stewart put their case, they argued that property was paramount and that it would be dangerous to free all the black people in England, who numbered at the time approximately 15,000.

Mansfield was reluctant to rule against the property rights of slave-owners, as he had proved in previous judgements in cases brought by Sharp; he tried his hardest to give the slave owner Stewart the chance to free the slave concerned and drop the case, so a precedent wouldn’t be set. In the end, as Stewart refused to drop it, Mansfield felt himself backed into a legal corner, since he could find no legal justification for slavery to exist. In fact the ruling didn’t outlaw slavery, it only really meant slavers couldn’t take slaves from Britain to the colonies; in effect existing slaves remained slaves, and continued to be taken from Africa to the plantations in the Carribbean.

However, there was widespread celebration in June 1772 after Mansfield’s ruling; many abolitionists saw it as a harbinger of the end of slavery. This was premature: several more decades were to pass, with slavery continuing, and opposition and rebellion against it growing, before the slave trade was outlawed within British colonies (in 1807) and then slavery itself was outlawed in the Empire (in 1833). In some ways the Mansfield judgement is given too much prominence in the histories of the ending of the slave trade, since it chimes with the long-accepted idea of generous white people eventually politely deigning to stop kidnapping people and living off their forced labour , out of the goodness of their hearts…

But the ruling did make life difficult for slavers, opening up opportunity for legal challenges every time they shipped africans into Britain itself. It also encouraged oppositionists, both in the courts and in Parliament, and slaves in the West Indies (and elsewhere) took heart from it, where they heard of it. Whether it had an effect on the numerous slave rebellions that would rise before slavery was finally ended, is debatable: enough immediate oppressive reasons for violent resistance existed in slaves everyday lives.

London’s growing black community, as previously related politically aware and involved in the abolitionist movement, followed the Somerset case carefully. They sent representatives to follow the hearings, who clapped and hugged each other when the judgment was given… A few days later (probably on June 29th, since it was described as being on a Monday) this victory was celebrated by a gathering of several hundred black men and women in a Westminster pub. This was aimed at the seemingly better off, perhaps black servants, as tickets to get in were sold at 5 shillings…

This community solidarity was to continue, and evolve. Politically African anti-slavery activists became a more visible element in the abolitionist movement. A decade and a half after the Mansfield judgment, former slaves like Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano were touring the country speaking to sympathetic audiences, and setting their proposals for the ending of slavery out in print. And there was clearly an organised group around Equiano and Cugoano, who called themselves the Sons of Africa. Several other black men signed letters and public statements under this banner in the late 1780s, whose names are less well known than Cugoano and Equiano, though they deserve mention here. They included Yahne Aelane (Joseph Sanders), Broughwa Jugensmel, William Green, George Robert Mandeville, Cojoh Ammere (George Williams), Thomas Cooper, Bernard Elliot Griffiths, Daniel Christopher, John Christopher, James Forster, John Scot, Jorge Dent, Thomas Oxford, James Bailey, James Frazer, Thomas Carlisle, William Stevens, Joseph Almaze, John Adams, George Wallace and Thomas Jones. Most of whom are only known by English names, often forced on them by those who had ‘owned’ them, as a way of breaking them from their African identity – though in other cases they could have been adopted on baptism into Christianity (as Olaudah Equiano had taken the name Gustavus Vasa).

This strand of black abolitionist politics would sharpen, form relations with English radical groupings like the London Corresponding Society and the Spencean Philanthropists, reformers who became revolutionaries and plotted insurrection… This cross-fertilisation would produce figures like Robert Wedderburn, who 30 years after Mansfield’s ruling would plot insurrection in London and attempt to spread it to his native West Indies, would link working class agitation against their employers with slave uprising against their owners…

This article owes much to The Many-headed Hydra, Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker; the London Hanged, by Peter Linebaugh, as well as Staying Power, The History of Black People in Britain, by Peter Fryer.

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Note on the image at the top of this post: The New Union: Club, Being a Representation of what took place at a celebrated Dinner, given by a celebrated – society, by George Cruikshank. One of the most racist prints of the 19th century. It purports to show a dinner held at the African Institution becoming increasingly drunken and debauched as the evening progresses. Cruikshank here employs many common 19th-century racist stereotypes of black people – drunkenness, aggressiveness, and sexual promiscuity – and mocks the idea that black people could aspire to behave in a ‘civilised way’. White abolitionists are portrayed as unsuspecting and bewildered innocents, corrupted by their association with black people; becoming ‘uncivilised’ rather than black people becoming ‘civilised’. Meanwhile, the idea of relationships between races is ridiculed. Many familiar and important figures are represented. Abolitionists like Wilberforce, Stephen and Macaulay appear next to the street entertainer Billy Waters and the radical Robert Wedderburn. Cruikshank’s print was influenced by a pamphlet entitled ‘More thoughts still on the state of the West India Colonies and the proceedings on the African Institution with observations on the speech of James Stephen Esq.’, which was published in London in 1818. It was written by Joseph Marryat MP, the agent for the island of Grenada, and was a challenge to the abolitionist cause. 

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Today in London’s unruly history: mock executions of hate figures in effigy, Tower Hill, 1771.

Effigy burning – although best known now for Guy Fawkes night, twas once one of the most prevalent political symbolic acts. Still gets used now and again too, and not just at the kind of ritualised and acceptable fun-poking/social comment at events like the Lewes bonfire…

Burning or otherwise ‘executing’ a fullsize (or larger) mock up of a real person is obviously extremely effective. When it’s a well-known figure, political, religious, or otherwise, it becomes satire of the highest order: mocking the solemn state rituals of public execution, and turning it round on the powerful. If only in fun and threat…

The eighteenth century was one of the high points of effigy burning in England. Political protest in the form of organised or semi-organised crowd violence was endemic throughout the century; effigies formed part of the vocabulary of many of these events.

One such took place on April 5th, 1771:

“About noon, two carts preceded by a hearse were drawn through the City to Tower-Hill, In the first cart sat a man representing an executioner, having the care of three figures painted on paste-board, near as large as life, hanging on a wooden frame in form of a gallows, which reached quite across the cart. In the front the figures were painted with nightcaps on, and handkerchiefs over their eyes; on their backs were written, in large characters, the names of to persons of rank, and an alderman: in the second cart were four figures painted, and hanging in the same manner, with names also on their backs. When the carts, &c arrived at Tower-hill, the gallows was fixed up, and in a short time after the figures and gallows were set on fire and consumed.

A man in the crowd being observed taking down the names, written on the back of the figures, was seized as a spy, and ducked in the Tower-ditch, till he was almost dead, though he assured the mob he copied them only to satisfy his own curiosity.

An hour after the above transaction, the dying speeches of some supposed malefactors were cried about the streets.” (Annual Register)

This had followed a previous incident days earlier on April 1st, (a more usual date for such foolery) “Two carts filled with persons intended to represent some imaginary criminals of rank, which were followed by a hearse, went through the city to Tower-hill. In the first cart was a chimney-sweeper, who acted the part of a clergyman. When they arrived, the person in the first cart, was pretendedly beheaded, then put into the hearse and carried off. In the second cart were some stuffed figures, which, after having the heads chopped off, were burnt, amidst the huzzas of the mob.”

The writer coyly avoiding naming the ‘personalities’ being thus burned in effigy…

In fact, on April 1st they were the Marquis of Bute, former PM and royal favourite, and the Princess Dowager (mother of king George III), burned because they were held to be staunch opponents of the political reform movement, headed by populist demagogue and darling of the London mob John Wilkes, at that time again at odds with the establishment. Bute’s likeness had been burned a number of times throughout England in the previous few years, “in some counties, they dressed up a figure in Scotch plaid, with a blue ribbon, to represent the favourite, and this figure seemed to lead by the nose an ass royally crowned.” The perceived influence of Bute and the princess over royal policy had been translated by ‘the mob’s Hiero-glyphics’ into the visually recognisable symbols of the Jack Boot (for Bute) and the Petticoat (the king’s ma). Bute’s influence was popularly held to extend to being the princess’s lover; but Bute was also unpopular after concluding a treaty ending the Seven Years War, in which he gave up land in Canada to France and Spain. He also imposed a tax on cider, which understandably faced fierce opposition in the West Country. The Bath Chronicle reported the following on April 14th 1763:

“Last week a great Number of true Lovers of Cyder and Perry assembled in Hereford, and having prepared an Effigy of a certain Great Man, finely plaided, first exposed it in the Pillory, then exalted it on a Gibbet, and lastly threw it into a large Bonfire, where it was consumed to Ashes, amidst a general Huzza.”

The campaign against Bute was fuelled also by his being Scottish, so along with a slightly dubious suggestion of misogyny in the ‘Petticoats’ bit, there was also a blatant anglo-patriotic element to the effigies here. The idea that the politicians are selling out the national interest embodied by an angry crowd has a long ring to it…

Even after his resignation as PM Bute was hounded, mobbed, his windows broken, and was still receiving anonymous threatening letters 20 years later.

The immediate context of these protests in April 1771 was the Lord Mayor of London, Brass Crosby’s showdown with the crown and Parliament, which had led to him being imprisoned in the Tower of London. Crosby had intervened in support of the publishers Miller, Thompson and Wheble, who had printed accounts of debates in Parliament without a licence – something Parliament generally repressed. After warrants were issued to summons the men, but they refused to appear and were being blatantly supported not only by Wilkes (a City of London Alderman) but by the Lord mayor. When Crosby discharged Miller after his arrest by parliamentary agents (who he had assaulted), the Lord mayor himself was summonsed to Parliament (followed by a huge mob) and sent to the Tower.

The pro-Wilkes elements in the London mob feted Crosby as he went off to his cell on March 27th; the effigy burnings were a direct response to what they saw as an attack on the independence of the City of London and the broadly pro-reform party (Wilkes, Crosby and the printers being generally lumped together, though it was more complex than that), by a corrupt and venal court and Parliament. Riotous crowds threatened the minsters of the crown…
Crosby was eventually freed when Parliament was adjourned a month later, and the events led to the relaxing of the rules against unlicensed reporting of debates.

That a chimney sweep was acting as the executioner is interesting. If in romantic back-projection from Charles Kingsley’s scribbles usually seen as pathetic waifs doomed and wan, and by some used as a metaphor to represent submerged or latent Desire: there was a darker more realistic side to the child sweep. They were also often collectively unruly, and individually were known for turning to crime when their work was slack or they grew too big to scramble up chimneys… Sweeps were popular symbols of subversion during the Wilkes agitations of the 1760s and early 70s… Symbolism gathers around them, which they willingly exploited in a bid to beg money; they had evolved a traditional role as guardians of the City’s water conduits, a potent symbol of survival and the intricate moral economy of the urban jungle; and they also became a leading ‘trade’ in parades for the Mayday holidays… In these 1771 charivaris, the sweep combines the spirit of disorder, the sweeps’ link to the holiday of April 1st, and a suggestion of their being in some way a moral guardian, albeit fighting for an unruly collective morality, in defence and defiance…

A final note on effigies: the Marquis of Bute was one of the figures most burned in effigy during the eighteenth century; interestingly, possibly only surpassed by radical writer Thomas Paine, author of the Declaration of the Rights of Man. In response to the ‘threat’ of revolutionary France and reformist/radical ideas at home, loyalist associations of conservative citizens sponsored by the government and local magistrates took to burning Tom Paine. Everywhere. Every week for a few years, in massive shows of force, intimidation and reactionary community solidarity to warn off anyone thinking of putting on a revolution; or even discussing reform.

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Today in London’s penal history: breakout attempt at New Gaol, Southwark, 1775.

Various sites around Southwark’s Borough High Street had served as County Gaol for Surrey over the centuries; jostling with a number of other prisons built in a relatively small area of what was for years London’s southern lawless edge… (Some erected here because Southwark was unruly and famed for crime, prostitution and dodgy characters… others just because land was cheaper and available.)

From 1580 onward the county gaol was kept in the house called the White Lion, a coaching Inn, just north of St. George’s Church, in Borough High Street, Southwark’s main drag. Stow, in 1598, speaks of “the white Lyon a Gaole so called, for that the same was a common hosterie for the receit of travellers … This house was first used as a Gaole within these fortie yeares last, since the which time the prisoners were once removed thence to a house in Newtowne, where they remained for a short time, and were returned backe again to the foresaid White Lyon, there to remaine as in the appointed Gaole for the Countie of Surrey.” 

The Gaol had long been a target for rebels and rioters: in 1640, in the run-up to the outbreak of the English Civil War,” the rabble apprentices released the whole of the prisoners in the “White Lion.”

In the 1650s the inadequate state of the Gaol led the magistrates to try to negotiate taking over the old Clink Prison near the river, but this fell through… The Gaol fell into disrepair as the keeper neglected its upkeep. By 1666 the White Lion, at least the part of it as was still available for use as a prison, was in such a bad condition that the sheriff was obliged to commit his prisoners to the Marshalsea. This state of affairs continued, in spite of numerous complaints, for over 50 years. In 1718 the Court of Sessions decided to levy a penny rate to cover the cost of building a new Bridewell and County Gaol, but 2 years later it was reported that no money had been paid in to the Treasurer.

Eventually, “after 70 years of delay and vacillation” the magistrates were threatened with being indicted “for having no county gaol”, and in the early 1720s a new County Gaol was built, on the same site off Borough High Street, next to the Southwark House of Correction (the authorities did love to cluster their lock-ups, prisons, workhouses and other repressive institutions together in them days… Now the fashion is to shove them out in the country where its awkward for relatives to visit.)

Like most of Southwark’s prisons, the New Gaol was to become a venue for resistance and rebellion. In March 1775, several prisoners attempted a collective breakout:

“Robert Rous, one of the turnkeys of the New Gaol, Southwark, seeing a prisoner, who was committed there for different highway robberies, with rags tied round his fetters, ordered him to take them off; and on his refusing to do it, he immediately cut them off; when finding both his irons sawed through, he secured him, and then sent up tow of his assistants to overlook a great number of prisoners who were in the strong room, and all [bound] him with their irons, which they had knocked off. Rous hearing of it, went up with a… pistol, and extricated his fellow-turnkey from their fury, and then locked the door. All the turnkeys as well as constables, now surrounding the door and the yard; and the prisoners fired several pistols loaded with powder and ball at two of the constables; when, the balls going through their hats, and the outrages continuing, one of the constables, who had a blunderbuss loaded with shot, fired through the iron grates at the window, and dangerously wounded one fellow committed for a burglary in the Mint. At length a party of soldiers, which had been sent for from the Tower, being arrived, and having loaded their muskets, the room was opened, and the prisoners were all secured and yoked, and 21 of them chained down to the floor in the condemned room. Some of the people belonging to the prison were wounded.” (Annual Register, 1775.)

By the time of this escape attempt, the ‘New’ Gaol was already in decline, and new fashions both in prison reform and surveillance rendered it out of date. Between 1791 and 1799 a new County gaol was built at Horsemonger Lane, next to County Sessions house (court). At this time it was the largest prison in the country. It remained Southwark’s principal prison until 1878.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Today in London’s medical history: Rioting Tyburn crowd tries to rescue body of executed soldier from dissection, 1770.

• This was mistakenly entered in the hard copy of the calendar as the 15th February… one day out. Oops.• 

“Thomas Dunk, formerly of Bath, late a soldier in his majesty’s foot guards, now nineteen years old… being tired of the army, he solicited his discharge, determined to work at his trade; which proving very dull, he was easily led on to seek money in an unlawful way, for the supply of his necessities. And at the instance of Thomas Marshal, whom he unfortunately got acquainted with, when a soldier, he, in company with him, committed several robberies, for one of which he suffered.

Soon after his being apprehended, he was sent to Newgate, where he, with several others, formed a design to break the goal open, and set the prisoners at liberty; which they partly executed, and would in a very short time have compleated, were it not for the great attention, and watchful care of the master of the prison, to whom the thanks of the public in general, but more particularly of this city, is justly due, not only upon this account, but for his constant assiduity in discharging every part of his duty with justice to his employ, charity and humanity to the wretched criminals who come within his limits. Neither are his servants and turnkeys unworthy of notice, for their secresy and prudent behaviour till the particulars concerned were detected. Some of whom, notwithstanding the mercy and lenity of our most gracious sovereign, are found to be respites from death, not under confinement only for transportation, but full with sanguine hopes of a free pardon, from the pity and compassion of the best of princes, whose mercy and goodness is universally extended, not to his faithful, true, and loving subjects alone, but to those who, by transgressing both the laws of God and man, have forfeited their title to that life, which no mortal man on earth can restore.

This scheme of a general goal delivery, was first planned and attempted in manner following: while the goal smith was fixing and putting a lock on the door of an uninhabited room, one of the parties (under the pretence of curiosity) took the key to look at, and while the smith was at his work, with one of the turnkeys present, he, without the knowledge or notice of either, quickly took off the impression, by which afterwards a key was made, which admitted him and the accomplices (of whom Dunk was one, whose mother, as he confessed, brought in a small crow or tool of iron, for the said purpose) into this apartment, at convenient and fit times for their design, where they filed and cut almost every bar in the window, through which their escape was intended, and would have been accomplished, were it not for the divine favour and protection of almighty God, who always brings to light the hidden things of darkness, and by just and wise providence doth bring sin to shame and punishment, disappointing the hopes of wicked men, visiting their sins upon them in this present life, that he may deter others from their evil ways, and save their souls in the day of our Lord Jesus.” (John Wood, Ordinary of Newgate, 1770).

“After the execution a great disturbance happened, in consequence of a hearse being placed near the gallows, in order to receive the body of Dunk the soldier, which some of his comrades imagining was sent there by the surgeons, they knocked down the undertaker and after beating his men, drove off with the body along the New Road, attended by a prodigious concourse of people till they came to Gray’s-inn-lane, where they buried the corpse, after first breaking its legs and arms, and throwing a large quantity of unslacked lime into the coffin and the grave.” (Annual Register, February 1770)

From at least 1500s, until 1783, Tyburn was London’s main arena for public hangings. Today Marble Arch occupies the place feared and hated like no other in early modern London.

“Death by hanging, like most kinds o f death in the eighteenth century, was public. Not isolated from the community or concealed as an embarrassment to it, the execution of the death sentence was made known to every part of the metropolis and the surrounding villages. On the morning of a hanging day the bells of the churches o f London were rung buffeted. The cries of hawkers selling ballads and ‘Last Dying Speeches’ filled the streets. The last preparations for death in the chapel at Newgate were open to those able to pay the gaoler his fee. The malefactor’s chains were struck off in the press yard in front of friends and relations, the curious, the gaping and onlookers at the prison gate. The route of the hanging procession crossed the busiest axis of the town at Smithfield, passed through one of the most heavily populated districts in St Giles’s and St Andrew’s, Holborn, and followed the most-trafficked road, Tyburn Road, to the gallows. There the assembled people on foot, upon horseback, in coaches, crowding near-by houses, filling the adjoining roads, climbing ladders, sitting on the w all enclosing Hyde Park and standing in its contiguous cow pastures gathered to witness the hanging. By the eighteenth century this crowd had become so unruly that the ‘ hanging match’ became well known to foreign visitors and English alike as both a principal attraction of the town and a periodic occasion of disturbance.
The efficacy of public punishment depends upon a rough agreement between those who wield the law and those ruled by it. Whipping, ducking and the pillory, like public hangings, depended upon the public infliction of ignominy, execration and shame. As hangings were attended with disruptions, threatened rescues, disorders, brawls and riot, by the time of the eighteenth century order at them rested less upon community consensus in the justice of the sentence or in the manner of its execution than by the force of arms and the spectacular terror in the panopoly of a state hanging.”

By the spectacle and terror of public hangings, the authorities were trying to overawe the teeming disorderly lower classes, to impress on them that rebellion, crime, dissent would end badly, that the power of the state was so great and over-arching that to oppose it was futile.

Although this was the intention, resentment, resistance and subversion from below was constantly undermining the shock and awe of public executions. One notable aspect of this was the struggle to keep the bodies of the executed ‘felons’ out of the hands of the dissecting surgeons.

Eighteenth century anatomists struggled to get hold of bodies to dissect. And more and more hospitals in London were being to train students in dissection. Advances in medicine were sprouting all over the place, resulting in pressure for scientific investigation of the human body.

All of which led to an explosion in the demand for corpses. Legally it was difficult to obtain nice warm dead bodies. By a law passed in Elizabethan times and renewed by Charles II the Royal College of Physicians was allowed the bodies of six executed criminals a year, and the Company of Barber-Surgeons were allotted four, for anatomical dissection. Other hospitals and private medical schools had to rely on illegal and dangerous methods – graverobbing, physically fighting the agents of the Company and the College to grab their corpses; or hanging about outside Newgate Prison on a hanging day, offering to buy the bodies of the condemned. A considerable trade in bodies existed.

“With the advance in understanding of anatomy and the corresponding development of private trade in corpses, we can find in the early eighteenth century a significant change in attitude towards the dead human body. The corpse becomes a commodity with all the attributes of a property. It could be owned privately. It could be bought and sold. A value not measured by the grace of heaven nor the fires of hell but quantifiably expressed in the magic of the price list was placed upon the corpse. As a factor in the production of scientific knowledge, the accumulated rituals and habits of centuries of religion and superstition were swept aside. Bernard de Mandeville, himself trained as a physician, but known mainly for demonstrating that ‘private vices are public virtues’ in The Fable of the Bees, wrote a series of articles for the British Journal in the months before Jonathan Wild was hanged in 1725. Addressed to ‘men of business’, they provide the first utilitarian defence in eighteenth-century England of the dissection of condemned criminals.”

Repeated petitions and complaints from the Royal College and the Barber-Surgeons Company, that they just couldn’t get enough bodies, couldn’t pay enough to compete with their rivals, eventually persuaded the government to legislate to increase their ration. The 1752 ‘Murder Act’ introduced dissection as part of the sentence. This was not only a generous concession to the need for medical advance, but was an attempt to introduce an extra deterrent:

“It is become necessary that some further Terror and peculiar Mark of Infamy be added to the Punishment.” Provision was made for dissection as an added punishment after death; and for denying Christian burial to murderers.

“The combined demands o  the Physicians and the Surgeons on one hand and the surgeons of the schools and the hospitals on the other produced an intolerable situation to the ‘loose and disorderly Persons’ gathered beneath the gallows’ tree, whose violence against all types of surgeons intensified. Such were the factors causing the disturbances at Tyburn. The relative peace which settled at the gallows after mid-century resulted from the partial satisfaction of the interests of all parties. The Physicians, as appears from their records, ceased to obtain bodies from Tyburn by the third decade o f the century. After 1752 the Company of Surgeons received a regular supply of them.”

From the perspective of the poor, the people who ended up on the gallows, this ignominy was too much. : “the simple, direct desire for a decent Christian burial, with its concern for order, propriety and the peaceful translation of the soul from this life to the next. Hanging removed a man by violence from this life. At least his soul should be allowed to enter the next in peace.”

“So obvious was the need for proper treatment of the dead for the peaceful departure to an afterlife that it hardly needed to be mentioned. Exceptional and unusual beliefs, however, required stating and do survive in the evidence. Some regarded the resurrection of the flesh in ways quite different from those of the Church of England…. The belief that the dead possessed the power ‘to come again’ was the last revenge of the dead upon the living; as such, it provides us with indications not only about the popular conception of death but also of popular notions of justice.”

“No evidence has come to light to show that the Tyburn crowd thought that somehow the dissection of felons impaired the specific powers of the spirits of the dead to return to the living. However, a belief in life after death, especially in the forms which we have described, was connected with beliefs about justice, the law and the value of life. In these cases therefore the added humiliation of the surgeon’s scalpel to the hangman’s noose rendered the injustice of the law all the more loathsome.”

The condemned appealed to friends, family and wider that their bodies should be saved from the agents of the surgeons… Riots, pitched battles and running fights erupted around the gallows and the hospitals, as crowds fought to rescue the corpses of the hanged from the surgeons knife.

Condemned felons appealed for help through “five kinds of solidarities” – their family, personal friends, fellow workers, the Irish and sailors – though these overlapped, of course, and divisions were often transcended in the general passion of struggle.

Samuel Richardson writing in 1740 described a Tyburn riot:

“As soon as the poor creatures were half-dead, I was much surprised before such a number of peace-officers, to see the populace fall to hauling and pulling the carcasses with so much earnestness, as to occasion several warm rencounters, and broken heads. These were the friends of the persons executed . . . and some persons sent by private surgeons to obtain bodies for dissection. The contests between these were fierce and bloody, and frightful to look at.”

This final act of friendship, of family feeling, of workplace or national solidarity, became a matter of honour and pride as well as solidarity. Just as workers, and some masters, joined a friendly society to save against the danger of lay-offs, sickness or death, the struggle against the surgeons reflected “solidarity in the face of death”. Thus “brick-makers came out to defend the bodies of two felons with several years of good standing in the trade against the surgeons, when bargemen came down from Reading to guard one of their own at his hanging, when the Hackney coachmen rallied to keep the body of a fellow coachman ‘ from being carried off by Violence’, or when the small cottagers and market people of Shoreditch surrounded the tumbril of Thomas Pinks their neighbour in the village, ‘declaring they had no other Intention, than to take Care of the Body for Christian burial’ ”.

The Irish, also appealed to each other, and sailors to their fellow seamen, and since the Irish formed 16 percent of those hanged at Tyburn in the eighteenth century, and sailors around 25 percent, these were no idle allegiances.London’s Irish were generally among the City’s poorest, and already disposed to violence and collective disorder; sailors too were usually skint, to the fore in crowd trouble and riotous occurrences, and also hated the medical profession: “For one, hospitals were used as crimping houses [where men were kidnapped for the armed forces] and detention centres for impressed and runaway sailors. For another, the chief killer of seamen was neither combat nor the hazards of the ocean, but diseases (‘ black vomit’ , ‘ague’ , ‘ship fever’ and ‘the bloody flux’) which were made worse by the tetanus and gangrene caused by the ships’ surgeons. Tobias Smollett, who sailed as a surgeon’s mate to the bloody action at Carthagena (1741), ‘was much less surprised that people should die on board than that any sick person should recover’. In eighteenth-century sailors’ slang the surgeon was called ‘crocus’, an elision of ‘croak us’, meaning to ‘kill us’.

On occasions, crowds gathering at Tyburn to rescue the bodies of the hanged threatened order to the point where hundreds of constables and soldiers were mobilised to prevent them.

But it could cost you – “John Miller was captured and incarcerated in Clerkenwell New Prison for attempting to rescue the body of his friend George Ward from the surgeons. John Clark lost his life for trying to save the body of his friend. He had been to Tyburn ,’ he said, ‘ to assist in carrying off the Body of my Friend, Joseph Parker from the Surgeons, and was seen by the Prosecutor.’ ” He was also condemned to hang.

Beyond the simple defence of the bodies of the dead, there was also always the hope of reviving the corpse. “During the first half of the eighteenth century the cause of death at Tyburn was asphyxia, not dislocation of the spine. A broken neck was decisive. Asphyxia, however, could result in temporary unconsciousness if the knot was tied, or the noose placed around the neck, in a particular fashion. incomplete hangings without fatal strangulation were common enough to sustain the hope that resuscitation (‘resurrection’ as it was called) would save the condemned. In the sixteenth century ‘resurrections’ were so frequent and the costs incidental to them so substantial that the Barber-Surgeons ruled that the expenses thus entailed should be borne by those who brought the body to the ‘Thanatomistes’. William Petty in the seventeenth century attained considerable notoriety when he began to anatomize Anne Green, a murderess, and found that she revived under his scalpel.” John “half-hanged” Smith lived ten years after reviving post-hanging in 1709. In 1724, when famous prison escaper and hero of London’s poor was hanged, a crowd attempted to seize his body to save it from the surgeons, amongst whom were a group of Sheppard’s mates who had promised him they would grab his body and attempt to revive him – a plan that failed when during the riot the hall containing his body, obtained by the surgeons, was surrounded by a crowds. However, some ‘gentlemen’ did rescue his body and he was buried (though his resurrection was prevented).

To the modern mind, there does come the occasional complaint, reading the above – rescuing hanged bodies for proper burial is all very well, but why didn’t the crowd do more to rescue the condemned while they were, er, still alive…?

It’s complicated… Apart from the massive armed force often wheeled out to ensure hangings took place – it is also true that numerous attempts to rescue prisoners did take place, more often when people were arrested, or in aiding escape attempts from Newgate and other prisons; easier to achieve than escape on a hanging day. On occasion the crowds did mob the hangman and beat him up, at least once preventing the execution.

However, a complex set of mores was at work; did the majority in the London crowds accept execution in itself? Was a distinction was made between accepting the death sentence as the righteous judgement of the law and the cutting up of their corpses, which was perceived as crossing a line? There seems to be some evidence that this was the case. But the London crowds were never homogenous, and a wide range of opinion thronged the streets, often evolving and swinging one way and another.

As said earlier, many superstitious people may have believed that the spirits of the dead could exact revenge on the living – but the ‘mobility’ were also capable of embodying that spirit of vengeance themselves., on behalf of the deceased:

“Cornelius Saunders, blind from birth, came to London from Amsterdam at the age of ten in 1740. For years he lived from hand to mouth in the outer eastern and northern parishes of London. In the spring and summer he was casually employed by street carters to call out vegetables and greens. He assisted the white coopers in making wash-tubs during the winter and autumn months; not regular work certainly, but it earned him a few pence and perhaps meals and drink. Even a scratch-as-scratch-can existence if implanted in a network of permanent acquaintances and membership in particular neighbourhoods had its own kind of security. He lodged in Lamb Street, Spitalfields, where he did domestic duties in the household of Mrs White, a victualler, in return for a place to sleep and the important perquisite of the empty wooden packing crates. These he supplied to the coopers in the Minories who remade them into wash-tubs, bathing-tubs, casks and household containers. In the summer of 1763, while fetching salmon kits from Mrs White’s basement he came across her cache of savings, some thirty guineas hidden in a shoebox, and stole it. Blind Cornelius Saunders was well known in the neighbourhood ; so the next day when he paraded himself in Moorfields decked in a new suit of clothes and silver knee-buckles, the constables sent out by Mrs White had no trouble in finding him and recovering the money. W e cannot get closer to the resentments bred of thirteen years’ service and dependence which led to this foolish theft, nor to the venomous spite of his benefactress which seems to have informed her day-to-day dealings with him. We do know that to the inhabitants of Spitalfields, Aldgate and the Minories Mrs White’s prosecution at the Old Bailey was far more brutal than the case deserved, where a ducking at the conduit or a thrashing in the street (an extra-judicial and commonly administered direct punishment) would have been more usual. The strength of feeling against this recourse to the justice o f the Old Bailey showed itself in the attempted rescue o f Saunders on the way to Tyburn (it came to nothing) and again after his body was cut down from the gallows. ‘The giddy multitude’ protected his body from the surgeons and then ‘for the purpose of riot and misapplied revenge’ carried it across London to Spitalfields and Mrs White’s house in Lamb Street. ‘ Great numbers of people assembled’, forced open her door, carried out all her furniture and all her salmon tubs, and burnt them in the street before her house. A guard of soldiers was called; but ‘to prevent the guards from extinguishing the flames, the populace pelted them with stones, and would not disperse till the whole was consumed’ ”.

Much of the above was derived from the classic The Tyburn Riot Against the Surgeons, Peter Linebaugh, from where the quotes are mostly taken.

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

Today in London’s maritime history: the Crew of the ship Glatton fight off press gang, 1770.

In the eighteenth century, Britain’s territorial and commercial empire was expanding in every direction across the globe; this exponential scramble rested heavily on its military might. Throughout the century war was almost constant, by land, and increasingly importantly, by sea. Britain’s navy was increasingly the most powerful on the planet, and protected the ‘national’, ie ruling interests on all continents.
For instance at the beginning of the year war broke out Parliament increased the size of the Navy to 45,000 (the population of Britain at the time was around 9 million). In 1794 this was increased to to 85,000 and in 1799 to 120,000.

But seagoing was always an expensive business, high on wastage, with a high rate of loss of ships – in battle, in storms, shipwreck and through incompetent command, faulty construction or occasional mutiny. A constant source of new sailors was needed to replenish the navy’s forces; but as it was a dangerous life, where your health and safety was in low regard, death was likely, and your pay was often years in arrears. Thus experienced sailors would generally rather plump for any safer and better rewarded forms of shipping (although all in all a sailor’s life was hardly a peach).

To make up the vast numbers, the state resorted to various forms of persuasion – advancing some wages up front (though you were expected to buy clothes and a hammock, known as slops, out of this: ‘At their coming on board they may be supplied by slop clothes, but the value thereof must be deducted out of the said two months advance.’), and making joining the navy a way to escape from the threat of the debtors prison (the navy would protect any man from his creditors if his debt was less than £20).

When this was insufficient, the Impress Service (popularly know as the press gang) was charged with rounding up men. In theory it was limited to seamen, (though this was given a broad interpretation), between 18 to 55 years of age, (frequently these limits were ignored).

In every port in Great Britain, the press gang sought out likely ‘recruits’; usually consisting some of the local hard men as ‘gangers’, not often sailors themselves (and serving on a press gang was the only sure fire way of not being pressed yourself). The Gang roamed the ports and countryside in search of suitable recruits, and were paid money for travel, 3d per mile for officers 1d for men, and money per man pressed, anything up to 10 shillings. The scope for corruption was large, many men would bribe their way out of the gangs clutches, for a prosperous man a £10 bribe to the press gang was a small price to pay for his continued liberty. The press gang was a hated enemy of the poor, in London as elsewhere.

Merchant ships provided obvious targets for the press gang and captains would board merchant ships to take off any men he might want, officers and apprentices were exempt. Merchant captains built hideaways for one or two particularly valuable men to hide in if the press gang came aboard. The rule was that the press gang had to leave enough men on board to ‘navigate the ship‘, again a phrase open to wide interpretation.

The press gang was backed by the state nationally; but local civil authorities on shore would often do everything in their power to disrupt its operations.

But resistance, both individual and collective, to impressment, formed the best defence against this forced co-option. Avoidance of the Press Gang was a practiced art form; warning systems were developed to alert eligible tars to hide when the gangs were on the prowl, and sympathetic inns and houses would shelter men fleeing impressment.

Partly resistance arose from the demographic the press gangs often ended up targeting. Sailors as a social group were accustomed to collective solidarity, arising nor only from there experience of working together to run a ship, but often from acting together in their common interests to combat poor working conditions (from which sailors were also famous for their central involvement in social struggles, riots, revolts, for centuries). But the press gang also sought unwilling volunteers among the residents of slums and rookeries, where sentiments were generally anti-authoritarian and collective self-interest against the powers that be was necessary for daily survival (eg: In April 1721, the inhabitants of Southwark’s Mint rookery took up “Arms in defence of Liberty” & expelled the press gangs from Southwark). The gangs also raided taverns to round up drunk and unwary pub goers… running battles were frequently fought between the Press Gang and locals, often crowds would gather to rescue men captured by the Gang. Women often take the leading part in battles against them: especially prostitutes, as many sailors lived with prostitutes, or women who made part of their living through prostitution.

Whole-scale raids on merchant ships were far from uncommon; for instance, today in 1770, press-gangs raided many ships on on the Thames – not, however, entirely successfully:

“This night there was a very hot press on the river Thames; they paid no regard to protections, but stripped every vessel of all hands that were useful. They boarded the Glatton, East Indiaman; but the crew made a stout defence, got on shore, and came into London about twelve o’clock. It is computed that on the river, and on shore, they took upwards of 700.” (Annual Register, 1770.)

The crew of the Glatton, like many before them, fought off the press man and escaped forced service in the navy.

The high level of opposition to impressment led the navy to resort to intercepting ships carrying freed Britons from imprisonment (eg prisoners exchanged with France) and kidnapping as many men as they needed. The press gangs in the ports where these ships were returning also kept a look out for them. But the exchange ships were hired merchantmen and the crews were sympathetic to the former prisoners often landing them in places they knew there was no press gang. One ship ran up the river into Rye at night and let 300 men flee into the countryside long before the press gang from Folkestone could catch them.

Officially no foreigner could be pressed into service, although he could volunteer. However if he married a Briton or worked in a British merchant ship for two years, he became liable for pressing. The impressment of Americans (in theory protected by sworn certificates) was one of the factors that lead to a British – US war of 1812.

By the 1790s and the titanic struggle between Britain and revolutionary/Napoleonic France, the press gang’s unpopularity and violent resistance to it had made it an unwieldy and impractical method of recruitment. In 1795 the government had to bring in mass conscription, in the form of the Quota Acts, which laid down that each county had to provide a quota of men depending on its population and number of seaports, for service at sea. Again, this produced less than it promised – while counties offered a bounty for men to sign up, few came forward. So instead men convicted of petty crimes were given the option go to sea or go to jail. Since the Georgian code of justice at the time prescribed a harsh jail sentence or death for what we would consider quite trivial offences, the option of going to sea and a pension at the end could appear the least worst option…

Impressment was last used in Britain during the Napoleonic wars of 1803-1815. Although not used after that period, the right to use impressment was retained. In 1835, a law was passed that exempted sailors who had been impressed and had served for five years in the navy from being press-ganged again. In 1853, the navy introduced continuous service for sailors who wished to make a career in the navy. After a fixed number of years, they would receive a pension. This reduced the need for general impressment and it died out in the form that it had been used previously. However, in the twentieth century, during the two world wars, another type of impressment has been used in the form of compulsory national service or conscription and this type of service continued until the early 1960s.

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

Today in London’s rebel history: Mass escape attempt foiled, Newgate Prison, 1771.

For 100s of years Newgate Prison was the most potent symbol and reality of state repression in London, the ultimate representation of terror for the poor. From those driven to crime by the economics of serfdom or capitalism, rebels, political activists, smugglers, poachers, heretics and reformers, transgressors of the moral codes… (and obviously a lot of very nasty folk too…)

Opened in the 12th century, originally as part of one of the gates in London’s wall, but gradually expanded to a massive complex of cells and courts. It became a place of hate and fear… generating a thousand nicknames (the Whit, the Burrowdamp Museum, the College, the rumbo-ken, the Start, the Jug, the Sherriff’s Hotel, the Stone Tavern, the Stone doublet…)

From here thousands left in the morning to be drawn in the cart to the hanging tree; thousands more to be transported to bonded labour overseas; tens of thousands to be whipped, pilloried, locked in the stocks…

A shadow of doom… and inevitably of resistance. Throughout its history the Newgate terror complex faced constant resistance, in the form of riots, escapes, and attacks from outside by rebellious crowds.

Escape attempts, solo and collective, were common, even endemic. Jack Sheppard’s famous breakouts became the most legendary, but the centuries were filled with plans, plots and the occasional success.

An example, from 1771:

“October 10: About ten o’clock at night, a conspiracy was detected at Newgate: a number of transports, to the amount of thirty, had, for some time, formed a design to break out; they attempted to put their scheme in execution about nine, and luckily, were discovered, at the time above mentioned, by the keeper; who having some suspicion of their intent, went in among them, and found them at work with two iron crows (weighing about thirty of forty pounds each) to effect their purpose. The ring leaders were closely confined, immediately after, and everything ended peaceably. Great numbers of files, saws, pins &c. were found on several of the transports.”
(from the Gentleman’s Magazine, 1771.)

By transports, is meant those under sentence of transportation to the penal colonies.

Only three weeks after this foiled escape, another plot was uncovered: “Oct. 31: About eleven o’clock at night, a conspiracy was discovered in Newgate among the felons, four of whom had found means to saw off their irons, and had formed a desperate resolution to fight their way out; they were immediately secured by the keepers, who took from them a number of files, saws, etc.”

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

Today in London’s dramatic history: Garrick refuses justices’ request to change the Beggars Opera, 1773.

In September 1773, the actor and impresario David Garrick got into a dispute with the Westminster magistrate John Fielding, over Garrick’s plan to shortly begin staging John Gay’s Beggars’ Opera (see our previous post). Fielding was trying to persuade Garrick not to put the play on, as the Opera ‘made people laugh at scenes which they ought to condemn’, thus corrupting the morals of the ‘lowers orders’. Writing to Garrick, Fielding suggested changing the ending of the play, proposing that the protagonist Macheath should be hanged instead of being reprieved.

Fielding was keen to censor immorality on the stage – a long tradition in London, where the authorities saw theatres as potential hotbeds of unrest. From Elizabethan times to the nineteenth century the Lord Chamberlain’s office oversaw theatres and regularly closed down plays seen as unruly or immoral. Nor was the widely held view among magistrates and government that the ‘mob’ that gathered to watch plays could easily become a riotous crowd and a political challenge entirely unjustified… Gradually however, the protection of public morality became a bigger concern for the censors.

Fielding claimed that stagings of the Beggars’ Opera had always resulted in a wave of crime and immorality in the city. Critics replied that he had the cart before the horse – John Gay’s Opera was commenting on the state of the world, not responsible for it.

In reply to Fielding, Garrick ‘in return pleasantly remarked, that it did not seem his interest at present to carry conviction to such lengths’…

Commentators of the time were amused by the request, since Fielding himself was thought to be immured in vice, and to tolerate and profit from the bribes from, any number of rackets in the area he nominally policed… As William Augustus Miles pointed out in a letter to Fielding, ‘not endeavouring to suppress the open practice of all manner of vice and immorality in his own neighbourhood, before he made application to Mr Garrick for the suppression of the Beggars’ Opera… considering the uniform practice of your life… your being intrenched up to your very chin in all manner of vice… the request to Mr Garrick was neither decent nor plausible, and what a man, the least conversant with your character, can hear without a mixture of laughter and indignation…. Do you imagine that to expose vice is the same as to encourage it?’

Ironically, although Garrick refused to play Fielding’s game, Fielding could easily have thought Garrick would be up for it, since he was well-accustomed to re-writing famous dramas. He continued the Restoration tradition of adapting Shakespeare’s tragedies to give them happy endings or editing out classic scenes, although he did bring some whole chunks of Shakespeare’s texts that late 17th century playwrights had excised. Garrick also took a dim view of the unruly culture of the theatre-going crowds, who were fond of making a racket, heckling, entering and leaving noisily when they liked, and carrying on in what sounds like a most enjoyable fashion to break down the strict separation of audience and viewer. However Garrick’s attempts to reform the audience – refusing admittance behind the scenes and on the stage and attempted to discontinue the practice of reduced entry fees for those who left early or came late, but these changes resulted in riots. Theatre crowds were made of sterner stuff back then and took no shit when it came to price rises or controls on their behaviour… (We will hopefully come back to this on 18th September).

Fielding’s attempt to censor, or persuade Garrick to censor the Beggars Opera itself inspired drama. Shortly after, an anonymous play was staged in London, called “The Bow Street Opera in Three Acts. Written on the Plan of the Beggars’ Opera”. It featured deeply satirical and scathing attacks on the politics an hypocrisy of the justice system, aimed directly at Fielding, who was portrayed as ‘Justice Blindman’ (he had been blind since an accident at the age of 19), but very much in the style of John Gay, also relating a thinly veiled account of the career of radical demagogue and bogy of the establishment (at least until he joined it), John Wilkes.

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

Today in London radical history: John Horne Tooke gets a year in prison for supporting American Revolution, 1777.

In 1777 John Horne Tooke was sentenced to seven months’ imprisonment for raising a fund to support the American rebels.

John Horne (later Horne Tooke), originally a clergyman, resigned from his clerical position in 1773 and began the study of the law and philology. He had become a pro-reform activist of sorts; having been associated with reforming demagogue John Wilkes, who had already been jailed for libeling king George III, exiled, elected MP and refused entry to parliament, and had various mobs riot in his support and more. Wilkes and Horne had, though, become somewhat estranged. Wilkes’ vague anti-establishment credentials and repeated expulsions from the House of Commons despite being re-elected several times, had made him a hero to both the political reformers and sections of the London artisan classes and the mob… But Horne Tooke grew disillusioned with Wilkes’ character. His attempts to broaden the political aims of the Wilkite  Society for supporting the Bill of Rights led to a split in its ranks: Horne Tooke and a minority left to form the Constitutional Society in 1771. (As a result Horne was for a while very unpopular with the unruly London crowds, and was burnt in effigy…)

The Wilkes agitation, which had convulsed London with riots, demonstrations and contested elections, was dying out, but the Constitutional Society soon found itself embroiled in a new cause. The growing tension between the American colonies and the British government was gearing up towards rebellion and war. Before the war of independence began, support for the colonists’ demands for autonomy and representation and opposition to punitive taxes was fairly widespread among British political reformers, and Horne Tooke joined his voice to this… however, following the outbreak of hostilities in 1775 and the Declaration of Independence in 1776, support in Britain for the American colonies rapidly fell off.

Horne Tooke however remained one of the few vocal supporters of the cause. The Constitutional Society started a fundraising drive to raise money to help residents of Boston affected economically by British policies implemented after the Boston Tea Party. After the Battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775, the Society had another whipround to aid the widows and orphans of those killed by British troops at the two engagements. On 7 June 1775 some of the members passed a resolution which was published in the newspapers. It directed that a subscription should be raised on behalf of ‘our beloved American fellow subjects’ who had ‘preferred death to slavery,’ and ‘were for that reason only inhumanly murdered by the king’s troops.

This obviously enraged the patriotic sentiment aroused in Britain over the war. Horne Tooke’s articles, published in British newspapers, supporting this subscription, were viewed by prosecutors as ‘criminal libel’, since the colonies were in armed rebellion.

In 1776 some of the printers of the newspapers who published the appeal or articles in favour of it were fined, and in the next year Horne was himself tried before Chief Justice Lord Mansfield, on 4 July 1777. Horne Tooke and his supporters contested that the Americans had not been declared “rebels” at the time of the first subscription in 1775; Horne defended himself, disputing points of law, but the court found him guilty, and sentenced him to be fined £200 and to do12 months in prison. Horne Tooke was the only political reformer jailed for support of the Americans during the Revolutionary War. In 1778 he brought a writ of error in parliament, but the judgment was finally affirmed. Many thought Mansfield was taking revenge on him for a 1771 case Horne Tooke had won in the court of common pleas, or for Horne’s blatant escape from prosecution for the pro-Wilkes 1765 publication of “The Petition of an Englishman.”

Horne was imprisoned in the King’s Bench Prison. He was allowed to occupy a house ‘within the rules,’ meaning he was allowed a fair amount of liberty and privilege rather than being locked in a cell. Imprisonment was very different then if you were well off or connected. He was visited by his political friends, and had a weekly dinner with them at the Dog and Duck.

Tooke attributed the gout, from which he suffered ever afterwards, to the claret which he drank in the prison; it on the other hand, cured him of the ‘jail-distemper.’

He would go on to take a part in the reform agitation in the 1790s, be arrested – and cleared – of treason, and briefly serve as an MP… He was however a half-hearted radical at best: “His politics were those of the old-fashioned city patriots, who disliked the whig aristocracy, but would have been the first to shrink from a violent revolution. Major Cartwright quoted at the trial Horne’s familiar remark that he might accompany Thomas Paine and his followers for part of their journey. They might go on to Windsor, but he would get out at Hounslow. He always disliked Paine and ridiculed his theories. He enjoyed taking the chair at the Crown and Anchor and elsewhere to denounce the aristocracy and approve vigorous manifestoes, but he was always cautious and struck out dangerous phrases.”

Read A PDF report of the 1777 trial by Horne Tooke

and a short bio of him

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

Today in nautical history: Rum, sodomy & (on the) lash in Greenwich, 1774.

In the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries a sailor’s life was not a happy one…

Quite apart from the fact that many in the navy had been impressed, ie beaten up and kidnapped by roving gangs of government-sponsored thugs; quite apart from the high chance of death in battle or from disease; not to mention scurvy, chit food often rotten, stale or wormy; apart from the horrific penal system which centred around flogging minor offenders nearly (often not just nearly) to death… Quite apart from all that, they often went unpaid. It was common for pay to be several years in arrears. Sailors were as a result often hungry, angry, and prepared to cause trouble. In all the riots, uprisings and plots from 1626 to 1820, sailors feature heavily, either at the heart of revolt, or said to sympathetic to radical ideas…

Sometimes sailors took to collective bargaining by riot. In May 1774, a newly built warship manned by sailors from Portsmouth and Chatham had been brought to Deptford, home of large naval yards, for fitting out. Unpaid and unfed, some 50 sailors came ashore foraging for food, not, er, planning to pay for any of it. In the market gardens they filled their sacks with cabbages; from the farmers’ yards they grabbed pigs; all was carried off back on board. Someone complained to the authorities and several sailors were captured; five of them locked up in the watch-houses at Deptford Broadway and Greenwich.

The king was conducting a review of troops on Blackheath that morning and the sailors waited till the, guards were gone and the roads clear. Then “about 300 sailors came ashore … armed with handspikes, hatchets, iron bolts, staves and cutlasses and immediately broke down the watch-house at Deptford”. The sailors had found a ready sympathy among the inhabitants of Lower Deptford and by 7 o’clock there were 2,000 menacing people marching towards Greenwich Watchhouse to release the other sailors, “swearing most bitter oaths they would hang in the market place at Greenwich every magistrate and constable they could find”.

At Greenwich they attacked the watch-house but it was strong and they had to rob a butcher for meat cleavers and a blacksmith for hammers before they could demolish it. Meanwhile the people of Greenwich barricaded their shops and houses. Around 10 o’clock a report was spread by a young druggist’s apprentice that Justice Russell was coming at the head of a company of Guards from the Tower. The crowd fled, threatening to return and set the town on fire. The Greenwich people kept watch all night and some of the ladies were apparently in fits of fear. There had been no hangings but it was a dramatic sign of the power of hungry sailors and the volatility of Deptford’s underpaid workers.

An account in the Gentleman’s Magazine reported that the five ‘ringleaders’ previously captured were flogged.

The government should really have took note, and made some changes. Because 23 years later, in 1797, the Royal Navy would be paralysed by two huge mutinies, driven by many of the same grievances…

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