All this week in London riotous history, 1794: crimp house rioters destroy army recruiting centres

In August 1794, during the war against revolutionary France, crowds over several days attempted to destroy ‘Crimp Houses’, which served as privately run army recruiting offices, in various parts of London. ‘Crimpers’ were widely suspected of stooping to kidnapping and buying up men’s debts to ensnare debtors, and other shady practices; in practice crimping was supported by London magistrates, with the tacit backing of the government. Many crimping houses were based in brothels, whose pimps and madams were suspected of enticing men in, getting them drunk, then selling them while insensible to the press gang. Other ‘houses of rendezvous’ were accused of forcibly imprisoning eligible men till the recruiting sergeants could collect them.

At this time, two years into the war with revolutionary France, the army and navy were suffering a severe shortage of manpower. The navy alone was increased from 16,613 in 1787 to 87,331 in 1794; the army aimed at recruiting another 100,000 into the militia that year. As a result the military offered bounties to the ‘crimpers’ (recruiters) of up to £30 per recruit. Meanwhile, the City of London was in the process of ballotting for the City Militia – any citizen selected would be forced to serve in the Militia or pay for someone to take his place. Despite much opposition, the ballot lists were being compiled in mid-August, as the Crimp House Riots erupted.

These riots saw the most alarming (for the authorities) mob violence since the Gordon Riots of 1780: crowds of hundreds of people, gathered, chanting ‘No War No Soldiers’, and proceeded to pull down five or six crimping Houses and attack a number of others.

The initial flashpoint was a number of crimping houses, in Johnson’s Court, Charing Cross, belonging to a Mrs Hanna; most notably the Turks Head, an inn and brothel. There has been rumours for years that men were kidnapped from here and forcibly impressed; in July 1794 there was a mini-riot after a local journeyman bake vanished into the Turks Head and was supposed to have been ‘pressed’. Shouts for help were allegedly heard from some of the neighbouring houses for the following weeks.

A few weeks later, on 15th August, rumours spread that a young man named George Howe had leapt to his death from a window of a crimp house:

“August 15th. About two o’clock, a melancholy accident happened in Johnson’s court, Charing-cross. George Howe, a genteel young man, was taken to a recruiting-office there belonging to the East-India company to be enlisted; and, upon attempting to make his escape, his hands were tied behind his back, and in that situation he was put into a garret, where he was not many minutes before he jumped from the window, and was killed upon the spot. This circumstance very naturally attracted the attention of passengers, and presently a crowd was collected, who, fired by indignation, pulled down the house. A detachment of the Guards was called in, and with difficulty the mob was dispersed.”

A magistrate ordered a search of another suspected crimp house – a man was found dying of smallpox in a locked room. The crowds dispersed, but regrouped in the evening, and had to be driven off by horseguards.

The violence continued into the next day, Saturday morning:

“August 16th. The populace seemed inclined to attack some other recruiting-houses in the neighbourhood of Charing-cross.”

Several of Mrs Hanna’s houses were stormed, and bedding thrown out of the windows.

Later 50-100 people also attacked the nearby King’s Arms, according to its proprietor:

“a very great quantity of people assembled at the door, and some of them unhinged the front of the door… very riotously throwing stones, and insisted on having some recruits out belonging to the Norwich regiment, that I had there; I suppose there was a hundred people there. I have a middle door, which I barricadoed with a water butt, after they had taken off the hinges of the door at the end of the passage; the door of the house was a very weak door. After they had taken the passage door off the hinges, they took it out into the street, and they had a great difficulty to get it to pieces, and that diverted them some time, they broke it to pieces; after that they had the sign taken down, which they broke also; there was an application then made to the police office, to get the assistance of the military. I remained in the house all the while, I durst not get out for my life myself; I dispatched a man for the military; before the military did come, they came up the passage and brought the pieces of the outer door, and threw it over the middle door, at the windows, and broke the windows and the fashes, and swore they would get in; I had a military officer with me in the house, we threatened to fire at them…”

The crowd broke into a swordmakers/cutlers shop when attacked by soldiers.

“The foot guards had remained upon the spot; and a detachment of the horse guards was added to them who patroled during the night round Charing cross, St. Martin’s lane, and their vicinity. The coroner’s inquest re turned this evening, after a deliberation of eight hours, was, that George Howe, the deceased, had come by his death in consequence of endeavouring to escape from illegal confinement in a house of bad fame.”

On the 17th, more crimp houses attacked in Charing Cross.

On the 18th, a large demonstration took place outside the Guildhall, in the City, as a petition was presented against the Provisions of the Militia Bill.

The authorities were forced to make some show of action over the deaths in the crimping houses:

“August 18th. Mrs. Hanau, the mistress of the house in Johnson’s court, was brought to the public-office, Queen square; but as no evidence was produced to incriminate her, she was consequently discharged. John Jacques, who kept a recruiting office in the next house to that of Mr. Hanau, was also examined relative to a person found sick of the small-pox in his house, who, on the recommendation of Mr. Reynolds, a surgeon, had been subsequently removed to the work-house of St. Martin’s parish, where he died the next morning. He also was discharged.”

Possibly if harsher measures had been taken against the crimpers, the riots would have died away – instead, they continued:

“August 19th. The White-horse public house, Whitcombe-street, Charing cross, a recruiting-house, wherein Edward Barrat, a mariner, had been ill-treated, was saved this evening Tom destruction by the intervention of the military.” Crimping houses in nearby Hedge Lane were also attacked.

The riots spread to other parts of town, including Drury lane, Fleet Street, Holborn, Bride Lane (near St Pauls) Mutton Lane (at the foot of Clerkenwell Green), Shoe Lane (off Saffron Hill), Hatton Garden, Moorfields, Whitechapel, Grays Inn Lane, and Smithfield… Crowds paraded Fleet Street, to cries of ‘No War, No Soldiers!’ and ‘Liberty and no Crimps!’

Dispersed in one area, the crowd would regroup and assemble to attack elsewhere. The riots peaked on the night of the 20th-21st, when at least three crimping houses were destroyed.

Soldiers, including horse guards, were called in to disperse the crowds several times in the course of the week; the Riot Act was also read in Shoe Lane, “to the groans and hisses of the mob”.

The Lord Mayor of London ordered posters to be put up denouncing the rioters:

“August 22d. On this and the preceding days some riots took place in the city, in consequence of which the following hand-bill was posted up and circulated in the city next morning: “The lord mayor sees, with inexpressible concern, that notwithstanding all the caution which has been given, and the endeavours of the good citizens to preserve peace and good order, that the same daring attempts to overpower the civil officers of this city, which were made on Wednesday night, were last might renewed in Shoe-lane. The inhabitants of this city must be convinced that the authors and actors in these tumults have no other view than that of overturning and destroying our laws, our constitution, and the liberties which through them we enjoy, in order to introduce among us the same bloody and ferocious government which France now groans under,
The lord mayor, therefore, gives notice, that, if any farther riots or tumults shall be attempted, he shall feel himself obliged to use the most effortual means to suppress the same, and therefore enjoins you to keep your lodgers, servants, and all others of your family within doors as soon as it is dark, as you will answer for the consequences which may arise from any breach of the peace.
Mansion house, Aug. 22, 1794.”

The radical reformers of the London Corresponding Society (who had opposed the war with France) were accused by some of instigating the riots. Magistrate Patrick Colquhoun, who had played a central part in repressing the riots, wrote to the Home Secretary that he had ‘strong grounds to believe that these riots have been excited by the leaders of the seditious societies whose views extend very far beyond the recruiting houses… a deliberate system originating with the corresponding societies for the purpose of overthrowing the government.” (Colquhoun, frustrated with the widespread resistance to authority and crime in the capital, would shortly go on to found the Thames River Police, an important step on the road to the founding of the Metropolitan Police…)

A number of newspaper echoed the view that the reformers were behind the riots.

Inflammatory leaflets were indeed handed out during the rioting, the language of which was seized on as evidence that there was a ‘hidden hand’ at work stirring up trouble. One read:

“Beware Britons of the hordes of crimps and kidnappers that infest the metropolis and its environs, who rot and imprison its peaceful inhabitants. Oh! Think of the number of parents that are made wretched, in having their blooming sons torn from them by these monsters – Would such atrocious acts have been suffered in the days of Alfred? If you bring the Demons before the magistrates you cannot get redress, they will screen them in defiance of the law. Is this the land so famed for liberty? Did Sydney and Russell bleed for this? – Oh my poor country!”

Whatever the suspicions of the authorities, the disturbances clearly arose from the widespread suspicion of the pressgang and the brothelkeepers and other publicans prepared to sell men into the forces. Resistance to the pressgang was part of the street culture of London and other cities – pressmen could expect a violent reaction if caught enlisting men against their will, unless they were able to ensure their success by superior force.

Twenty-three people were arrested for taking part in the riots. On 17th September 1794, Joseph Strutt was found guilty of riot for the attack on the King’s Arms on 17th August and sentenced to death. The same day, Anthony Warnbeck and Richard Purchase, received the same sentence, having been found guilty of attacking Robert Layzell’s house and recruiting office in Holborn; finally Thomas Biggett was found guilty of leading an attack on the Black Raven in Golden Lane, Cripplegate, and also sentenced to death.

An account of their trials can be read here

However, the trouble impressed the City of London authorities enough to lead to the withdrawal of the Militia Act, with the City authorities deciding to raise money instead to pay recruits rather than implement the ballot lists.

Riots against recruitment were however revived in 1795. In January 18 men were freed by a crowd from a crimping house in Southwark. In April a thousand people were involved in an attack on a crimper in Westminster who had tried to trick a fifteen-year old into signing up. And in July, following a sustained campaign of impressment in the riverside districts the previous month (which had seen much resistance), further crimp house riots took place in Charing Cross, leading to a huge march on Whitehall, and an attack on the Prime Minister’s house…

 

Today in London industrial history: uber-factory the Albion Mills burns down, 1791.

The Albion Mills

The Albion Mills, the first great factory in London, formerly stood on the east side of Blackfriars Road, on the approach to Blackfriars Bridge. They were steam-powered mills, established in 1786 by Matthew Boulton & James Watt, featuring one of the first uses of Watt’s steam engines to drive machinery, and were designed by pioneering engineer John Rennie (who later built nearby London Bridge). Grinding 10 bushels of wheat per hour, by 20 pairs of 150 horsepower millstones, the Mills were the ‘Industrial wonder’ of the time, quickly becoming a fashionable sight of the London scene… Erasmus Darwin called them “the most powerful machines in the world.”

But if the trendy middle and upper classes liked to drive to Blackfriars in their coaches and gawp at the new industrial age being born, other, harder eyes saw Albion Mills in different light. They were widely resented, especially by local millers and millworkers…

At one time the Thames bank at Lambeth was littered with windmills – eventually they were all put out of business by steam power. When the Albion opened London millers feared ruin.

Steam was one of the major driving forces of industrialisation and the growth of capitalism. The spectre of mechanisation, of labour being herded together in larger and larger factories, was beginning to bite. Already artisan and skilled trades were starting to decline, agricultural workers were being forced into cities to find work, dispossessed from the countryside by enclosure and farm machinery… Many of those who had not yet felt the hand of factory production driving down wages, deskilling, alienating and shortening the lifespan, could read the writing on the wall.

Mills & millers were often the focus of popular anger. Not only were they widely believed to practice forms of adulteration, adding all sorts of rubbish to flour to increase profits (Significantly in many folk and fairy tales the miller is often a greedy cheating baddie), but at times of high wheat prices and thus, (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 to jack up prices. Bread riots could involve the whole community, though they were often led by women. Rioters would often seize bread and force bakers to 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. But this moral economy, such as it was, was bound up with pre-capitalist society – which were being superseded by the growth of capitalism, of social relations based solely on profit and wage labour…

“Dark Satanic Mills”

Cockney revolutionary visionary William Blake, an artisan himself (an engraver), felt and expressed the powerful mistrust of the growing changes. He lived in nearby Lambeth, and it’s thought that Albion Mills could have inspired his references to “dark Satanic mills”. The name Albion may have set Blake off, as Albion as a symbolic name for an idealised England, played an important part in his radical spiritual mythology. Blake was in the 1790s a political radical, like many artisans, inspired by the French Revolution; he also strongly opposed the rational mechanical Industrial Revolution and devised a mystical creative spirituality which set itself very much against industrialisation

Blake took the traditional mistrust of the symbolic figure of the Miller several steps further: in ‘Milton’ he described Satan as the “Miller of Eternity”, whose mills represent the cold inhuman power of intellect, grinding down and destroying the imagination.

“all sorts of base mixtures”

Dark rumours were spread locally about the Albion Works: “The millers, themselves best aware of what roguery might be practiced in their own trade, spread abroad reports that the flour was adulterated with all sorts of base mixtures.” (Robert Southey)

Powerful watermill owners had attempted to prevent Albion being opened: they had managed to deter venture capitalists in the City from investing in the building, but Watt and Boulton had found the money themselves. In 1791, after a shaky start, the Mills looked like they were hitting profitability…

“Success to the mills of ALBION but NO Albion Mills.”

On 2 March 1791 Albion Mills burned down. The cause was never officially discovered, but it was widely believed to be arson by local millers or millworkers, feeling their livelihood was under threat. It was reported that “the main cock of the water cistern was fastened, the hour of low tide was chosen” when the fire started…

The fire could have been accidental: there had been some concerns about safety, and mills were prone to fire, with sparks and friction caused by grinding, and all that dust, chaff and flour about…

“The fire broke out during the night, a strong breeze was blowing from the east, and the parched corn fell in a black shower above a league distant: even fragments of wood still burning fell above Westminster Bridge.”

The interior of the mills was totally destroyed in half an hour, the roof crashing in quickly. The fire could be seen for miles: burning grains and sparks blew all over the City and Westminster.

A huge crowd gathered and made no effort to save the Mills, but stood around watching in grim satisfaction! “The mob, who on all such occasions bestir themselves to extinguish a fire with that ready and disinterested activity which characterises the English, stood by now as willing spectators of the conflagration…” (Southey)

Later in the day locals & mill workers danced around the flames & “and before the engines had ceased to play upon the smoking ruins, ballads of rejoicing were printed and sung on the spot” (Southey). Millers waved placards which read “Success to the mills of ALBION but no Albion Mills.”

After a soldier and a constable got into a row, a fight broke out, leading to a mini-riot; but firemen turned their hoses on crowd (early water cannon!)

“…it was supposedly maliciously burnt, and it is certain the mob stood and enjoyed the conflagration… Palace Yard and part of St James Park were covered in half burnt grains..” (Horace Walpole)

A flood of speedily printed ballads, lampoons, prints and broadsheets celebrated the burning:

“And now the folks begin to shout,
Hear the rumours they did this and that.
But very few did sorrow show
That the Albion Mills were burnt so low.

Says one they had it in their power,
For to reduce the price of flour,
Instead of letting the bread raise,
But now the Mills are all in a blaze,

In lighters there was saved wheat,
But scorched and scarcely fit to eat.
Some Hundred Hogs served different ways
While Albion Mills were in a blaze.

Now God bless us one and all,
And send the price of bread may fall.
That the poor with plenty may abound,
Tho’ the Albion Mills burnt to the ground.”

(Extract from a popular song, published March 10th 1791)

“…maliciously burnt…?”

Was it arson? The Mills stood in Blackfriars, an area together with neighbouring Southwark long notorious for its rebellious poor and for artisan and early working class political organisation. Just as the Luddites, stockingers of the North & Midlands were soon to smash machinery that threatened their livelihoods, did workers displaced or fearing displacement by the Mills take matters into their own hands? 18th Century London workers undercut by the new industrial processes did destroy the machines taking their jobs… In Limehouse in 1768, Dingley’s mechanical Sawmill was burnt down by 500 sawyers put out of work.  Around the same time Spitalfields silkweavers were also fighting a heavy fight against mechanisation and wage cuts, smashing machinery and intimidating masters and workers undercutting the agreed rate.

It’s also possible that disgruntled small millowners were behind the burning. Although Albion had not entirely replaced local water-powered mills, it had caused disruptions in the price of wheat, which may have hit small mills’ profits.

Albion Mills remained a derelict burned out shell until 1809, when it was pulled down. Most of the Steam-powered flour mills subsequently built in London were much smaller. Whether or not it was arson, whether it was the millers or millworkers who burned it, the fire was long remembered and celebrated locally. Rightly or wrongly, in popular tradition, and maybe in the rhymes of Blake, the Mill stands as a symbol of the disruption and disaffection caused by industrialisation, but also of the powerful if ultimately defeated (thus far) resistance to the march of capitalism.

Some Sources/useful reading

  • William Blake, Milton, A Poem in Two Books (1804)
  • Broadsheet with a popular song celebrating the Burning of the Mills, Published March 1791, by C. Sheppard
  • Robert Southey, Excursion To Greenwich, in his Letters from England, 1802-3.
  • E.P. Thompson: Customs in Common, especially Chapter 4, The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the 18th Century.
  • George Rude, Wilkes and Liberty.
  • Icons
  • Lost Industry

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An entry in the
2014 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online

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Today in London philosophical history, 1793: William Godwin’s Political Justice, first published.

Though largely forgotten now, William Godwin’s tract, ‘Enquiry Concerning Political Justice’, was very widely read and hugely influential when it appeared in 1793, raising philosophical arguments aroused by the French Revolution to whole new levels. Involved in the late 1780s-early 1790s in reforming circles, around groups both inspired by the French Revolution and working for radical reform in Britain, (such as the Revolution Society, the circles around Thomas Paine and the London Corresponding Society), Godwin took a different radical and philosophical direction. Though he expressed a  solid belief in education and its power to free people, he came to doubt the use of organisations and oppose all government, or political effort of any kind.  “A man surrenders too much of himself” in political organisations or associations, he asserted… In some ways he foreshadows both anarchism and extreme laissez faire capitalism… though there’s no evidence he directly influenced any later thinkers of the 19th Century libertarian movement.

Historians and Godwin: AL Morton said that Political Justice “concentrated all the typical ideas of the time into a single work permeated with utopian feeling” – though in fact he ended up widely at variance with many of his contemporaries politically.

Godwin’s background was in hardline Calvinism, and though he discarded the Calvinist doctrine, he retained the way of thinking: logical, deductive, disdaining of sentiment and experience; he also took from this upbringing his ardent belief in the perfectability of humankind. Its obvious too that the history of persecution of dissenters influenced his view on links between state and church… Mark Philp , who made a study of Political Justice, also identifies many of the central ideas of the book as emanating from Godwin’s background in the rational Dissenting movement, to the point where disagreeing with many traditional views of Godwin, he frames his ideas in that context, rather than that of the philosophical debate arising from the French Revolution. Interestingly,  some of Godwin’s philosophical cul-de-sacs, like that concerts and theatrical performances would die out in a free rational society, arrive via ostensibly opposite motives at very similar conclusions to puritanism, which does seem to chime somewhat with Philp’s conclusions.

After a failed early career as a dissenting minister, Godwin became a journalist and writer; while he was immersed in the ideas and way of life of the Rationalist Dissenters, he also came under the influence of french philosophers.

Godwin was on the fringes of movements for electoral and social reform at home, as well as groups in sympathy with the ideals of the French Revolution. While his inclinations were not really towards activism, but to discussion and change through development of ideas, his close friends like Thomas Holcroft and Joseph Gerrard were targeted by government repression of the reformers. He intervened in the trials of London Corresponding Society leaders Thomas Hardy, Horne Tooke, Thelwall and others, accused of treason, in 1794, writing a powerful article in the Morning Chronicle which exposed the attempt to widen the high treason charge to mean any attempt to change society. Godwin’s article was credited by many with influencing the jury’s decision to acquit all those charged: a heavy defeat for the authorities.

But a combination of observation of the repression of the reformists, his own philosphical thinking, and disillusion at the violent turn the French Revolution took, led Godwin to not only theorise that government was an unnecessary evil, but also to extend this to assert that all political combinations were counter-productive. Temporary combinations may be necessary for a time and specific purposes, but left to exist they would foster cabal, party spirit, tumult, demagoguery. He also came to dismiss the possibility of true lasting social change coming from revolutionary upheavals…

‘Political Justice’ was begun in 1791, though not finished till January 1793. Successive editions later in the decade revealed changes in his ideas; though some historians have attributed this to the times growing less radical, or fear of government persecution, it’s also true that his ideas evolved. The book is a hymn to progress, opposition to war, despotism, monarchy, religion, penal laws, patriotism, class inequality; in its place he exhorts the “human will to embark with a conscious and social resolve on the adventure of perfection.” He argues for absolute freedom in political and speculative discussion, against any prosecutions for blasphemy or sedition; for abolition of established religion; he dismisses monarchy, aristocracy, elective dictatorship in the US style (new then). The book also condemned luxury, ostentation, wealth; the pursuit of them he saw as corrupting virtue and degrading others, and thus ourselves; those who live in luxury are parasiting on the labour of others, and claiming that property is bequeathed by their ancestors as a justification is a “mouldy patent”. It is immoral for one man to have power to dispose of produce of another’s toil, and wrong for one to live in ease unless its available to all. Godwin opposed colonialism, advocating universal free trade in its place. Economics was his achilles heel though, He did lack any analysis of economics, or its role in social change; as historian AL Morton pointed out, criticising Godwin’s economic proposals as sketchy Liberalism. Holding that on the one hand its wrong for one man to have superfluous wealth while others go hungry, but equally wrong for anyone to deprive anyone of their property or wealth, takes no account of how wealth is acquired. Godwin thought property should remain sacred, not only so as to emphasise the personal virtue of giving it away, but also because for the poor to take the property of the rich by force would infringe the self-determination of the wealthy.

In opposition to then widely held theories that people are determined by factors such as heredity, social position and environment, and are unable to change themselves, Godwin asserted that man IS a creature of ‘his’ environment, but of conditions ‘he’ can change – education, religion, government and social prejudice. In Godwin’s generation, for the first time, the idea was developing that people are made SOLELY by nurture; an exciting thought, with powerful and radical implications. Godwin recognised that social inequalities and hierarchies ‘poison our minds’ from birth; these ideas he saw as the result of political and social institutions…

Godwin elevated education to supreme importance. Education and its possibilities dominating enlightened thinking then; but in contrast to other reforming thinkers of the time, eg the French philosophers, he argued against national standards of education: state-regulated institutions would stereotype knowledge and lead to beliefs that cease to be perceptions and become prejudices… No government should be entrusted with power to create and regulate opinions.

English writers from Locke to Paine saw government as negative, but relatively uninfluential… Godwin though saw its malign influence everywhere, and thought its abolition would open up exciting chances… Government was wrong as a concept. Out of step with 18th century philosophers, or even the beginnings of 19th century liberalism in Condorcet’s plan for a national education scheme, and Paine’s ideas for pensions; Godwin dismisses all such schemes as infringement and constraint of the individuals’ will and virtue.

Godwin saw the true unit of society as being the parish, a limited area where people would all know each other and each other’s concerns, and ambition couldn’t thrive (he’d obviously never been to a Tenants Association meeting). In this environment, public opinion was to be the supreme authority, acting through juries. He utterly dismissed voting as the enemy of debate: a majority vote or consent does not turn wrong into right.

Godwin developed a dogma of perfection  – a popular sport among late nineteenth century radicals. The voluntary actions of individuals come from their opinions, so it’s vital to show the rational course and teach people to act consciously and rationally; logic and truth would triumph over vice and moral weakness, inevitably! Duty (to the general benefit of all) and sincerity are the highest virtues.

Often out of step in the radical circles of the time: not only in doubting the role of government or political co-operation, he also dismissed the big idea of the era, the ‘natural rights’ of man, holding that we have no ‘right’ to do as we want; either actions are ‘reasonable’ and benefit mankind, or not. There’s no ‘right’ to actions that harm human happiness.  BUT only a virtuous society can create equality of property; laws etc to enact it are futile till men are virtuous.

He attacked the sacredness of the family – not only was cohabitation an evil in itself, but marriage was a mistake, binding people with promises that contradicted general welfare. He thought most people would freely choose one person; but for a child to know who its father was unnecessary, its mother would care for kids with the help of community. Bit of a Dead beat dad’s charter there! The father’s ‘virtuous work’ is more important than the mothers’?

Godwin thought authority would gradually decay as education and reason triumphed. He was opposed to abrupt changes, seizures of power etc, revolutionary upheavals. Change must be based on informed and reasoned consensus and desire. He thought it ‘wrong’ to incite an ‘ill-informed’ mass to revolt – better to wait for virtuous ideas to spread than risk uncertain bloody uprising by ‘non-perfect’ people. There was a moral hierarchy in his world-view; those with essentially virtuous, ‘valuable’ minds are more worthy people. Rational hierarchy should prevail.

Morton says Godwin’s problem is, how do men change: man is shaped by his environment; and thus a contradiction: how do unchanged men (products of this society) change or even imagine change in society… ? Only dialectics, seeing man as part of a class, resolves this, and Godwin never got it, so his ideas were “academic and harmless”…

His individualism was taken to fantastic levels: there was no room in the early editions for personal affection (though he softened on this later); he also almost comes out against performances of music or theatre because the co-operation of musicians, like all co-operation, was an offence against one’s own sincerity. He even thought we could end sleep, sickness and death if we put our minds to it.

His opposition to state action did, (as HN Brailsford sarkily notes) “excuse him from attempting the more dangerous exploits of civic courage”: he escaped the repression that bore down on more active radicals. Although his attacks on monarchy were just as uncompromising as Tom Paine’s, tory Prime Minister William Pitt said Godwin should be left alone, as unable to influence the poor and inflame radical crowds – because “a 3 guinea book could never do much harm among those who had not 3 shillings to spare.” Though in fact ‘Political Justice’ sold for less then three guineas, this was a damning verdict: it was still a learned book for the educated, in contrast to the electric effect that Paine’s book had among the nascent working and artisan classes. In fact 4000 copies of Political Justice were sold, a fair amount, a testament to the middle class eagerness for revolutionary and philosophical ideas at that time.

When Willie met Mary

Godwin’s relationship with Mary Wollstoncraft seems to have been a meeting of equal minds, according to his both own account, and others’; neither dominated the other, they experienced “friendship melting into love”. Initially they lived, seemingly happy, respecting each others minds and intellects and regarding each other with reverence and pride. They lived together unmarried (daringly unconventional then), in accordance with their principles in house in the Polygon, Somers Town (then right on the edge of London), leading partly separate lives, as they frequented different social circles and friends, but overlapping, occasionally meeting by chance at the same social events! 
Only when Mary became pregnant did they reluctantly marry in March 1797. Tragically Mary then died giving birth to their daughter. Around this time Godwin did revise his idea of universal benevolence slightly, putting care for your family first… THEN others, as being the most effective way of securing general good.

Mary W hadn’t had much time for ‘universal benevolence’ – she more practically claimed that “Few have much affection for mankind, who first did not love their parents, their brothers, sisters and the domestic brutes who they first played with.” In other words, radical ideas come from love close to home, from emotional ties. To some extent Godwin’s harsh purity altered under her influence, for a while.

After Mary’s death Godwin’s life went downhill – not only was he often personally unhappy but after the flush of revolution and philosophical ferment, political reaction was triumphing, and his ideas were increasingly attacked and silenced, or became irrelevant, as working class radicalism evolved, based on co-operation and organisation, on class antagonism, and working on the whole practically rather than dithering in the abstract. Many of Godwin’s associates had been transported, jailed, persecuted, others drifted to the right. In later years he ran a  publishing firm and library that went eventually bust and ended up relying on the charity of his friends and dwindling sympathisers, especially his son-in-law, the poet Shelley.

‘Political Justice’ did for a few decades from the 1790s influence a younger generation, most famous among them the romantic poets, Coleridge, Southey and Wordsworth (for a while), and most of all Shelley. They were inspired by his vision of a “free community from which laws and coercion had been eliminated, and in which property was in a continual flux actuated by the stream of universal benevolence.” Though the historian HN Brailsford claimed they lacked the bottle that turned others into agitators, and even welched out of their grand plan to form an ideal Godwin-inspired commune (or ‘pantisocracy’) in the USA. Coleridge later said this plan saved them from doing anything more dangerous and radical, in the meantime they gradually aged and became respectable, disassociating themselves from their youthful enthusiasm for social change. But Godwin’s ideas also lent themselves to the aristocratic romantics, able to see themselves as well on the way to being perfect beings, above the distasteful masses; Political Justice gives plenty of ammunition to those looking to stand aloof, refuse to get involved in the complex daily reality of struggle for social change.

Shelley: Straight Outta Godwin

Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley fell under the influence of William Godwin’s ideas since he read ‘Political Justice’ at Eton, and was captivated by it, as had been Wordsworth, Southey Coleridge before him. For him though this affiliation lasted, until his untimely death. Shelley began to correspond with Godwin in 1811, met him, and gradually started to support his impoverished guru financially. HN Brailsford thought Shelley’s ideas very much derived from Godwin (as well as the French philospher Condorcet), and his poetry belonged entirely to world of politics. To him, ‘Political Justice’ was the “milk of paradise” – his work, from 1812’s Queen Mab to Hellas (1821) was often an imaginative expression of its ideas. To Shelley, thought, ideas , passion, were more real than things of earth and flesh; he lived in philosophy and guided himself by it.

In Hellas, he preaches perfectability, non-resistance, a kind of anarchist individualism, the power of reason, the superiority of persuasion over force, universal benevolence, and that moral evils come from political institutions: straight outta Godwin, basically. Under Godwin’s influence, he asserted, sometimes, that change would come through education and gradual elimination of error, not revolution. As with Coleridge and Southey, Political Justice persuaded him to do nothing political, that action is futile, ideas and spreading them everything. (In fact Godwin himself actually talked Shelley out of forming a radical association in Dublin in 1812); he preached passive non-violent resistance to oppression, in the Mask of Anarchy, and Revolt of Islam, to the point of portraying rebels as living sacrifices, humane missionaries for redemption of man.

But he differed from his mentor, in expression as much as anything: what are cold intellectual ideas in Godwin are emotional and heartfelt in Shelley’s work, and abstract ideas became calls for action. He also didn’t see of change in society as entirely a gradual process of discarding of error, he did believe a sudden emotional conversion or revelation would occur.

Relations between philosopher and his romantic pupil took a rocky turn when the poet met Godwin and Mary Wollstoncraft’s daughter, Mary and they fell in love. Shelley had already eloped with one schoolgirl, Harriet Westbrook, to whom he was still married. So despite his ideas about free individuals, marriage, etc, Godwin played the conventional father, banning them Mary and Percy from meeting, leading to THEIR elopement. Only after the unhappy Harriet’s suicide in 1816 he was reconciled. BUT he continued to take Shelley’s money throughout this estrangement. (Is that unprincipled? He could probably have justified it in terms of rational benevolence and so on.) Shelley never criticised him for this attitude, but he was on weak ground really. Another question for Godwin’s views on freedom to act, how does Shelley’s ability to take up and discard women with little thought for the effect on them fit in; but when they kill themselves its ok because now it can all be made respectable with marriage…? All leaves a bit of a sour taste.

By Godwin’s death in 1836 Political Justice‘s initial fame had already declined and he was almost forgotten.

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

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Today in London riotous history, 1795: king George III attacked by angry crowds.

As related in our previous post, the reforming London Corresponding Society (LCS) held a rally in Copenhagen Fields, Islington, on October 26, 1795, called to protest against the widespread hunger and poverty in the country, and demand that the king and government implement a program of political reform to bring in universal male suffrage and end the expensive and disastrous war with revolutionary France.

With the LCS at the peak of their influence, the speakers threw out hints that the mob should surround Westminster three days later, when the king would go to open the houses of parliament… This climate of rebellion and anger led to a riot and an attack on the king.

An angry crowd to march to Whitehall on the 29th October, determined to confront the king.

King George was traveling to open Parliament, but his coach was surrounded by the angry crowds demanding change. There was a crush around the coach, and as it travelled between St James Palace and Carlton House, there was a sudden rush, and the coach was separated from its guards by demonstrators. Constables tried to secure the gates of Horseguards, but the crowd poured in and over-ran them from different entrances, following after the coach.

As the coach drew into Great George Street, the thick glass of the coach window was suddenly punctured – by a stone? A bullet? A marble?  – which, was never established. It created a smooth round hole in the window; most onlookers thought it had come from an upstairs window in neighbouring Margaret Street, and that it had been fired from a gun. This despite the fact that no one present even pretended to have heard a shot. The coach was finally hauled into the entrance to the House of Lords.

While the government and its favoured newspapers asserted this was an attempt to assassinate the king with some form of airgun, radical commentators dismissed this as yet another ploy to discredit the movement for political reform and opposition to the war against France. No-one had been arrested at the scene (given the sheer size of the hostile crowd, the guards thought it would backfire), and nothing was found when the house in Margaret Street was searched.

However, if the coach trip TO Parliament had been worrying, the return journey was to be worse. Leaving the House of Lords at 3pm, as signal guns sounded out, the king was confused by the ‘silent indifference’ of the massed crowd. Soon, however, the indifference was replaced by a hooting crowd, and a gang of about 30 men moved rapidly toward the coach, groaning and shouting, and gurning at the king. The Life Guards struggled to hold them off.

Then, again, the coach came under bombardment – a volley of stones smashed into the woodwork as it drew level with Spring Gardens Terrace, splintering part of the frame. The crowd gathered more missiles and pelted the coach, the constables and guards; king George waved his arms at the soldiers to keep the mob away. Just in time the guards ushered the coach into the gates of St James’s Palace, as a large stone shattered a coach window and the king’s face was showered with splinters. As he walked to the palace door, a crowd surrounded the coach and all but demolished it.

With the king safe, a group of constables ran out to try to arrest some of the assailants. They grabbed George Gregory and Edward Collins, but witnesses later testified that these men had not throne the last big rock, as accused, but that this had been lobbed by another man who had strolled off. Kyd Wake was grabbed by Carlton Gardens, and John Dinham was arrested showing people shards of glass from the broken windows. Robert Bryant, a shoemaker, was also picked up nearby at the Rose Inn.

However, the king’s nightmare journeys were not yet over for the day. He was determined to join his family a Buckingham Palace, and set out again by a back door, in a smaller coach, with just two footmen. The Guards had accidentally been sent back to their barracks. Very soon after he left, a crowd spotted him and surrounded the king again, hooting and booing, and showering the new coach with stones; then, 16 men halted the coach and pulled its wheels off, shouting ‘Bread! Bread! Peace, Peace!’ One man grabbed the door handle. This group was only scared off by a civil servant who pushed his way through with a pistol to keep them back, while someone else ran of to get the guards, who finally turned up to escort him to Buck House.

This was not an end to the riots. The following day, as the royal family went to Covent Garden to the theatre, a huge crowd gathered again, estimated at 10,000 people, surrounding the theatre, though they were prevented from entering by 200 cavalry, 100 foot guards and 500 constables. Despite keeping people well away from the king’s coach, there was more stone throwing. Several people were nicked for hissing the king, and a number were lifted in the days following for uttering ‘treasonable expressions’. There was some uproar even in the theatre, although it had been carefully packed with loyalists.

The prisoners arrested on the 29th were questioned by the bow Street magistrates over the next two days, with the aim of building a case for a charge of high treason. Kyd Wake maintained he had merely hissed at the king, to show his ‘dissatisfaction with the war’. No-one could say he had thrown anything. John Dinham, a baker, and Robert Bryant were charged with making a riot and throwing stones at the empty coach. George Gregory denied everything and was discharged. The rest were refused bail. Collins was eventually charged with high treason for throwing a stone, but the case was dropped in the following year. However, Kyd Wake was tried and convicted and sentenced to five years hard labour in February 1796.

John Ridley, a London Corresponding Society member, was thought to have been the man who grabbed hold of the coach handle during the final attack on the 29th. The moderate reformer, tailor Francis Place, said he had recognised Ridley but that he had grabbed the handle to steady himself after being pushed in the crowd… Not very convincing, (but then Place was a slippery character, later to spend many years informing to the government on radicals). Another LCS member also claimed to have been the man who grabbed the handle. [Ridley was later to take part in some of the Old Price Riots against theatre price rises in 1809.]

The government and its supporters aimed much of their fury at the LCS. It was a’ mischievous club, where treason is hatched and thoughts of royal massacre rendered familiar’, according to the St James’s Chronicle. The riots and attacks on the king brought to mind only too strongly the last six years of revolution in France, which had seen the royal family and aristocracy largely execute or imprisoned. That movement too had begun with the crowd taking control of the streets, and the government were determined to nip any similar process in the bud. The LCS and the movement for political reform was not that strong or numerous, but it had tapped into the widespread frustration with war, rising food prices and hardship; its influence was not anything like as insidious as the authorities made out – and they really should have known, since the whole organisation was heavily penetrated by informers paid by the government and magistrates, who reported back on meetings and speeches from its many London branches. However, the king and his ministers were determined to prevent their influence from growing. So while they did in fact begin to investigate and ameliorate the conditions of hunger and hardship in the country, they also got underway with repressive measures. Two Acts of Parliament were quickly drawn up and passed to silence the radicals; the moderate ‘Foxite’ Whig opposition’s criticism of the war against France was also muted.

The broader based movement for political reform that had been building was split by the riots and attacks on the king. LCS leaders chose to distance themselves from the assaults, not that this prevented the law from censoring their publications and restricting their meetings.

The scared authorities banned meetings of more than 50 people, & strengthened the powers of magistrates to repress radicals publications, arrest individuals and hold them regardless of the courts. Despite widespread protest around the country these measures would lead to the decline of the democratic movement. Many potential supporters were put off joining. Also at this time, divisions developed in the LCS over the question of religion, with a growing trend of deism influenced by Paine’s Age of Reason. An attempt to publish a magazine in 1796 failed, increasing the Society’s debts. Disillusion was also setting in with revolutionary France, as it became clear that with the fall of the Jacobins in 1794, the most corrupt sections of the bourgeoisie had taken power.

Thomas Evans, (later a founder of the Spencean Philanthropists), became secretary of the LCS in 1796: more radical than many of the members…Scared by the navy mutinies at the Nore & Spithead, the authorities attempted to prove the LCS had been involved, without turning up much evidence. John Bone, an LCS member, was busted with copies of a ‘seditious’ handbill distributed to soldiers at Maidstone. As a result July 31st 1797 the platform was nicked at an LCS public meeting by Middlesex magistrates. On its last legs, as members dropped off, the whole committee was nicked at an April 19th 1798 meeting, and the Society was banned, along with other radical groups. This was the effective end of the Society: their dreams of a representative parliament, elected MPs truly representing all the people of the nation, would have to wait… But many of their former members would carry their ideas into the new century, and new radical movements…

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Attacks on royalty continue. Funnily enough the above is a rare example of a collective attack on a British monarch, (King Charles I’s instant weight loss program from 1649 counts, maybe?) though individuals have had a number of (more or less serious) attempts at offing or doing injury to various crowned heads. I think queen victoria holds the record for attempted assassinations entered into; though George III also had some close shaves with lone angry constituents as well as this October 1795 royal audience in the Westminster streets. Our favourite two are probably James Hadfield trying to rewrite the kings script in the theatre a few years later, and Edward Oxford’s having a pop at Victoria in 1840. The latter because one of our happiest moments at past tense was Oxford’s great-grand neice coming across our 2015 Lindon Rebel History Calendar which contained an entry celebrating him, and she gleefully informed us how proud the whole family are still of him. And why not!?

Another great collective shindig that still warms the cockles: rioting students accidentally bump into Prince Charles & Camilla in Regent Street in November 2010 and try to engage him in a serious discussion on public transport, ie how he’ll get to the palace if his limo gets turned over. Sadly it remains a theoretical discussion, bar the odd bounce on the bonnet. We know riotous attacks on royal parasites are no substitute for collective community class struggle yada yada. Still, every now & again having a go at a privileged poodle is better than a poke in the eye with s sharp stick.

Till the next time…

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Appendix: Gillray’s engraving of the attack on the king’s coach (at the head of this post)

“At a glance, Gillray’s cartoon appears to side with the government’s version of events. But look again. In the bottom right, the figure of Britannia has been trampled under the horses’ hooves. This is a hit and run, and at the reins of the carriage is none other than William Pitt who drives his administration on blindly and ruthlessly, insensible to the irreparable damage he is inflicting. The nation is the casualty here, not the royal passenger. The government, not the protesters, are the real hooligans.” (David Francis Taylor)

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

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Today in London radical history, 1795: a monster rally for political reform, Islington

The London Corresponding Society (LCS) was an important political movement that fought for political reform in the 1790s, that increasingly became more radical, and involved more and more working class men, and faced vicious repression by a government that felt threatened by its ideas.

The Society had been founded in January 1792, by nine ‘wellmeaning, sober and industrious men’ called together by shoemaker Thomas Hardy, who became its first secretary. Its early membership consisted of working men, was politicised by economic hardship & influenced by the movements for reform of the electoral system in Britain, as well by the American & French Revolutions. The LCS was not new as a political debating club: what was new was that its subscription fees were low enough to allow working people to get involved. The emphasis on corresponding with likeminded groups in other towns was crucial: “It was a definite step forward in the rise of the political consciousness of the masses when they no longer felt that they were engaged in an isolated effort” (Robert Birley) The LCS was in contact with similar groups in Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds, Derby, Leicester, Coventry, Newcastle & Norwich, Bath, Rochester, Hertford, among others.

Their basic demands were aimed at Parliamentary reform: universal suffrage & annually elected parliaments. They attacked the system of rotten boroughs with few or no residents being represented by MPs, while large developing industrial towns were not represented at all. These last were reasonably widespread complaints among more moderate reformers. But they also developed ideas well ahead of their time: eg MPs to be paid & recallable by their electorate…

But beyond that the LCS also recognised class antagonism: their demands for reform were aimed at the working class & lower middle class, because they knew the aristocratic elite had a vested interest in obstructing change. The class basis of the organisation was described as “tradesmen, mechanics & shopkeepers.”

The LCS expected that an ‘honest parliament’ elected under the system they proposed would enact popular legislation: notably an end to enclosure of land by the wealthy & the throwing open of common land already enclosed, as well as legal reform to make justice cheaper & more available to the poorer classes.

The LCS was split into divisions throughout London, sending two delegates each to a General Committee. The divisions & the General Committee met weekly. The divisions contained between 16 and 45 members; they divided into two on reaching 45. In September 1792 the Society was said to have 5000 members.

The Society, together with other reform-minded groups, sent messages of fraternity & support to the Convention in France, which was pushing forward the French Revolution. Though they drew back from some of the ‘excesses’ like the massacres of aristocrats in Paris in September 1792, they supported the Revolution against the foreign armies intervening to restore absolute monarchy in France.

The LCS & the Constitutional Society co-operated in rallies against the threat of harsh repressive laws. However the government’s legion of spies & informers were at work, putting together a picture of a revolutionary society prepared to overthrow the state…

In 1794, Government spies reported LCS members making speeches at meetings presented as seditious & republican: and the government acted. Parliament backed repression against LCS meetings, and three Society notables, Thomas Hardy, John Horne Tooke and John Thelwall were all arrested and charged with treason. Hardy’s house was also attacked by an officially-backed ‘loyalist’ mob – his wife died in childbirth as a result.

Many LCS members were frightened off by the increased repression, but others joined out of solidarity, Hardy, Tooke & Thelwall were tried in November 1794, but the evidence was weak & they were acquitted: of treason: charges were dropped against several other radicals. There were great celebrations, but Hardy & Tooke both largely dropped out of activity after this however.

But the Society was growing again: from 17 divisions in March to 70 or 80 in October. In 1795, a failed harvest led to rising food prices and massive hunger throughout the country, which resulted in growing anger against the class of landlords which working people perceived as caring little whether they lived or died and denying them any voice in how society was run. (bearing in mind that massive enclosure of common fields, woods and marginal land, running at a record pace, was depriving thousands of bare subsistence and impoverishing the rural poor,,, driving many into the cities to look for work). This merged with an increased resentment against Britain’s war against revolutionary France, which had not only pulled in thousands of men to fight as soldiers and sailors, but also led to steep rises in taxes which were seen to impact heavier on the poorest folk. The Corresponding Society’s stand against the war and the power of the landlords chimed in with the general resentment – they pointed out that the people benefitting from both high food prices were the same people sitting in Parliament, the same people in whose interests the war was being fought…

One of the LCS’ main organising tactics was holding monster rallies, mass meetings to show the strength of the movement for reform, inspire others, and undoubtedly to demand the attention of the government and persuade it that it needed to make concessions. In 1795 they held several massive rallies in London, centring their demands to the government ministers, that the war be stopped, that a program of parliamentary reform be put in place, and that attention be paid to the hunger in the country.

The king and the government ignored their petitions.

On 21st October the LCS issued an advertisement for a general meeting on 26th October, to be held on Copenhagen Fields, the grounds of Copenhagen House, which stood on the hill to the west of Islington; a well-known place for political meetings to be held.

They listed the business of the meeting – to vote on an address to the nation on the state of public affairs, a remonstrance to the king on the disregard shown toward the address of 29 June… Admission was free; members were urged to ‘exert their usual efforts with strangers to preserve that order and decorum’ which had placed the LCS above the intrigues of their enemies…

This was a very large meeting, possibly the largest of the era, with somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 or more attending. This meeting, addressed by LCS leaders John Gale Jones, Richard Hodgson, radical lecturer John Thelwall and John Ashley, a shoemaker, was possibly the one caricatured by Gillray in cartoon (see above), though alternatively this could represent the monster rally held in the same fields a few weeks later in November that year.

The government had been alarmed by the plans for the June monster meeting, but the 26th October rally seems to have appeared less threatening to them. Nevertheless, the Home Secretary, the Duke of Portland, directed John King to issue orders to Lt. Col Herries of the Westminster Light Horse Volunteers, to the Lord mayor and to Col Brownrigg to have their military forces in readiness: and to the police magistrates to retain extra constable and to send an observer to the meeting.

The LCS published two accounts of speeches made at the rally shortly afterwards, the following is taken from both these accounts.

Proceedings of a General Meeting of the London Corresponding Society,
Held on Monday October the 26th, 1795, in a field adjacent to Copenhagen-House, in the County of Middlesex

The Indifference with which the late Address from this Society to the King was treated; the rapid approximation of National destruction, thro’ the continuation of the present detestable War;- the horrors of an approaching Famine;- and above all, the increased Corruption, and Inquisitorial measures pursued and pursuing, by those who hold the Country in bondage – obliged this Society to appeal once more to their fellow Countrymen… [Accordingly a meeting was advertised.]

Previous to this meeting, the London Corresponding Society, had taken into consideration numerous Communications from different parts of the Country, suggesting the utility that would result from more active and direct communications between the people in those several places, and this Society, by the appointment of Members on deputation to open and regulate Societies for Parliamentary Reform; which was likewise a measure submitted to the public Meeting.

About half an hour after twelve o’clock, the People assembled on the Ground, according to the concurring calculations of several persons, amounted to more than one hundred and fifty thousand persons, at the same time that the Roads in all directions were still covered with people thronging to the meeting.

John Gale Jones opened the meeting by announcing that Citizen John Binns, ‘a well known and long tried Patriot, and an Honest Man’, had been nominated as chairman. After being unanimously approved, Binns took the chair and addressed the meeting, stating that he hoped the contempt shown to their last address would not provoke them,

“… but that you will now coolly and deliberately determine upon a further notice of proceeding, which shall enforce those Ministers, that when the voice of a United People goes forth, it is their duty to attend to it: and if they do not they will be guilty of HIGH TREASON against the PEOPLE…

Three points will be brought forth for rejection, amendment or unanimous approbation: an address to the nation, a remonstrance to the king on the contempt shown to the LCS address presented to his ministers, and resolutions applicable to the present crisis.

Address to the nation

Once more, dear friends and fellow citizens, in defiance of threats and insults – of base suggestions  and unmanly fears – are we met in the open face of day, and call the heavens and earth to witness the purity of our proceedings. Amidst the dreadful storms and hurricanes which at present assail the political hemisphere of our country, with firm and unabated vigour we pursue our avowed and real purpose – the grand and glorious cause of PARLIAMENTARY REFORM!

The rude gales of opposition, and the howling blasts of persecution have served only to assist our career; and where we might have lingered, from choice or indulgence, we now steadily from the heavy pressure of inevitable necessity!

With anxious minds and agitated hearts, we are again compelled to address you, and to solicit your patient attention. There was a time, when we might, perhaps, have been startled at the idea of rendering ourselves so conspicuous, and have fought for refuge under the veil of obscurity. When the timid apprehensions of our friends, the loss of our most valuable interests and connections, the threats of guilty Ministers, and the hostile preparations of armed associations, might have forcibly urged us to remain in silence, and to retreat from the eye of observation. But, alas, it is now too late! When the welfare of society is at stake, what private consideration ought to avail? We have been severely persecuted, it is true, but is our cause became lss clear? We have been cruelly and unjustly treated, but has the majesty of Truth suffered in the shameful contest? No. Away then with the lifeless apathy and pale-faced fear; let every friend of liberty must boldly deliver his real sentiments; and while he professes the virtuous principles of a patriot, assert his independence like a man!

Four months ago we peaceably assembled to deliberate upon the best and most probable of recovering our rights, and redressing our numerous grievances: we addressed you, and we petitioned the king. We believe, if we may judge from the rapid increase in our numbers from the last public meeting, that our sentiments and conduct experienced almost general approbration. From one particular quarter, however, we have not received that attention and regard which as Britons and Freemen, we might not have expected. The late Address to the king has either been artfully and prematurely suppressed, or passed over with contempt. If the former, we hesitate not to say, that HIS MINISTERS have proved themselves GUILTY OF HIGH TREASON against the Lives and Liberties of the Nation! If the latter, his Majesty should consider the sacred obligations he is bound to fulfil, and the duties he ought to discharge; he should recollect, that when he ceases to consult the interests and happiness of the people, he will cease to be respected, and that justice is a debt which the nation hath a right to demand from the Throne!

IN vain do we boast of a Constitution, if its genuine principles be not actively alive in our bosoms; in vain do we talk of rights, if we want courage and firmness to assert them. The true Constitution of a country is the undaunted spirit of its people! The principles of liberty must be established on the solid basis of rational conviction, and the virtues of patriotism cherished and supported by continual exertion! When once the citizens of Britain are become careless and indifferent about the preservation of their rights, or the choice of their representatives, from that moment arbitrary power is essentially introduced, and the utter extinction of individual liberty, and the establishment of general despotism, are inevitable and certain.

To delineate a faithful portrait of the awful situation of our poor distracted country, would only be to exhibit a scene of misery and desolation; a frightful picture of horror that would sicken the imagination, and appal the stoutest heart. The history of the last few months presents indeed to our view, a rapid succession of ill-fated mismanagement, unexampled calamities, and unparalleled disgrace! Baffled and defeated in every miserable project, they have either designed or undertaken, Ministers seem determined to display their pre-eminent power of doing mischief, and as they cannot compass the ruin of France, to contrive at the least, the destruction of England. Emigrant armies and foreign expeditions have been hastily planned and equipped, to ensure only to the one, an horrible and undistinguished carnage; and to the other, a premature and untimely grave! The manufacturer has been seduced from his loom – the militia man swindled from his domestic employment – and the humble cottager kidnapped from the plough. The bread that should support the industrious poor has been exported, either to be abandoned on a foreign shore, or consigned to the bottom of a fathomless ocean – while the helpless widow and orphan are consoled for their irreparable loss, by the scanty allowance of an insolent donation, or a charitable bribe!

The comfortable and pleasing prospects resulting from an abundant harvest have turned out to be vain and fallacious – and were probably held up only to lull the public mind into a delusive and fatal security! The approach of famine seems to be inevitable, and we have almost the melancholy and indubitable assurance of being soon in want of bread.

What is the cruel and insatiate that thus piecemeal tears and devours us? – Wherefore in the midst of apparent plenty are we thus compelled to starve? – Why, when we incessantly toil and labour, must we pine in misery and want? – What is this subtle and insinuating poison which thus vitiates our domestic comforts and destroys our public prosperity? – It is Parliamentary Corruption, which like a foaming whirlpool swallows the fruit of all our labours, and leaves us only the dregs of bitterness and sorrow.

Those whose duty it is to watch over the interests of the Nation, have either proved themselves indifferent to its welfare, or unable to remove the pressure of these intolerable grievances. Let them however be aware in time – Let them look to the fatal consequences – We are sincere friends of Peace – we want only Reform: Because we are firmly and fully convinced, that a thorough Reform would effectually remedy those formidable evils: but we cannot answer for the strong and all-powerful impulse of necessity, nor always restrain the aggravated feelings of insulted human nature! – IF EVER THE BRITISH NATION SHOULD LOUDLY DEMAND STRONG AND DECISIVE MEASURES, WE BOLDLY ANSWER – “WE HAVE LIVES!” AND ARE READY TO DEVOTE THEM, EITHER SEPARATELY OR COLLECTIVELY, FOR THE SALVATION OF OUR COUNTRY.

We trust, however, that Reason and Remonstrance are alone sufficient to produce the desired effects. We have laboured long, and we hope not unsuccessfully. Our Numbers have increased beyond all human expectation: and many who once professed themselves our most inveterate Enemies are now converted into sincere and faithful Friends. A little more Patience, and a little Perseverance, Fellow Citizens, the business will be accomplished, and out Triumph complete. The LONDON CORRESPONDING SOCIETY SHALL BE THE POWERFUL ORGAN TO USHER IN THE JOYFUL TIDINGS OF PEACE AND REFORM; AND UNIVERSAL SUFFRAGE AND ANNUAL PARLIAMENTS SHALL CROWN OUR SUCCESSFUL EXERTIONS!

JOHN BINNS, Chairman.
JOHN ASHLEY, Secretary.”

LCS member and longtime moderate radical activist/government informer, Francis Place, in hindsight labelled this address ‘an absurd declaration… filled with commonplace topics’. In terms of its language he though the speakers ‘did little more… than copy from their betters’ meaning Parliament.

“The Reading of this Address was, from time to time, interrupted by such loud applauses as are but seldom heard, even in public places – and being ended amidst the warmest and most unanimous acclamations of approbation, the Chairman proceeded next to read

THE REMONSTRANCE TO THE KING.

To the King’s Most Excellent Majesty.

The humble and earnest Remonstrance  of Two Hundred Thousand, and upwards , faithful, though greatly aggrieved, Subjects, associated ad assembled  with the CORRESPONDING SOCIETY of London, in a constitutional manner, in behalf of themselves and others.

Sire!

When the treacherous duplicity, and intolerable tyranny of the House of STUART had roused the long-enduring patience of the British People, the expulsion of one restored into their hands into their hands the primitive right of chusing another, as their Chief of many Magistrates.

[At that period the privilege of remonstrating with the Chief Magistrate was established. When Queen Anne died without heirs, the pubic called to kingly office the head of the house from which you are descended. The preservation of the rights, reconfirmed at the Revolution, then became part of the obligations of George I. In spite of the smallness of the majority which established the Hanoverian succession, the nation has supported the decision of their representatives on that occasion. The people of this country hoped that an eternal gratitude would bind your house (transplanted from poverty and obscurity to dignity and opulence) to support the freedom and happiness of this country.

Our present object is to renew a complaint delivered in an address to you, which we put into the hands of the Duke of Portland on 15 July. In that address we expressed our belief that your ministers have plunged the nation into its present calamities and should be dismissed; and that only a reform in representation can restore this country to vigour and happiness.

Our address was not attended to by your majesty’s servants as it should have been. Are we to suffer and not complain? What have we not to fear if there is an impenetrable barrier between the oppressed and the magistrate? Alas, we hoped to find the third sovereign of the Brunswick line an example of royal virtue. We wished you to consider whether your duty to your royal progeny and to your people, whose industry provides the funds for their princely support, will be accomplished by pursuing the measures of odious ministers or by giving the people liberty, peace and reform.

“Listen then, Sire! To the voices of a wearied and afflicted people, whose grievances are so various that they distract, to enormous that they terrify. Think of the abyss between supplication and despair! – The means of national salvation are in your own hands – it is our right to advise as well as supplicate: and we declare it to be our opinion, that a Reform in the Representation of the people, the removal of your present Ministers, and a speedy PEACE, are the only means by which this country can be saved, or the attachment of the People secured.”

Signed by Order of the Meeting,

  1. BINNS, Chairman
  2. ASHLEY, Secretary.

 This being received with an equally unanimous approbation, the Chairman then read the following RESOLUTIONS.

RESOLVED.

1st. That the present awful and alarming state of the British Empire, demands the serious attention of our fellow countrymen.

2nd. That its unexampled distresses call for immediate and effectual redress.

3rd. That we are fully persuaded the present exorbitant price of the necessaries of life, (notwithstanding the late abundant harvest) is occasioned partly by the present ruinous war; but chiefly by that pernicious system of monopoly, which derives protection from the mutilated and corrupt state of the Parliamentary Representation.

4th. That the enormous load of axes, under which this almost ruined country groans, together with its unparalleled National Debt, (which has been and will be greatly encreased by the present war) threatens the British Nation with total ruin.

5th. That the inflexible obstinacy of Ministers, in continuing the present cruel, unjust, and disgraceful war – a war which was has stained the earth and seas with so much human blood – calls aloud for the execration of every friend of humanity.

6th. That the present Government of France, is capable of maintaining the accustomed relations or peace and amity with the King of Great Britain, as with the Elector of Hanover.

7th. That we remain fully convinced that the permanent peace, welfare and happiness of this Country, can be established only by restoring to our fellow Countrymen their natural and undoubted right; Universal Suffrage and Annual Parliaments.

8th. That we are determined at the next general Election, to support such candidates only as will pledge themselves to a radical reform in the Commons House of Parliament.

9th. That the evasive conduct of His majesty’s Ministers, respecting our late Address, convinces us that our fellow countrymen have little to hope from the Executive part of our Government.

10th. That the only hope of the people is on themselves.

11th. That the period is not far distant, when Britons must no longer depend upon any party of men for the recovery of their liberties.

12th. That the publicity of our conduct evinces the purity of our intentions, and is a testimony of our love of peace, and of the sacrifices we would make to spare the blood of our fellow countrymen.

13th. That the events of every day are clearly proving, that we have gained the good opinion of our fellow countrymen, notwithstanding the opposition of our persecutors and calumniators.

14th. That, in order the more effectually to obtain the co-operation and assistance of the whole country, deputies shall be sent from the Society to the principal towns in the kingdom, for the purpose of explaining to our fellow countrymen the necessity of associating, as the only means of procuring a parliamentary reform.

15th. That strong in the purity of our intentions and the goodness of our cause – regardless of the calumny and threats of our enemies – we again solemnly pledge ourselves to the British nation, never to desert the scared cause in which we are engaged, until we have obtained the grand object of our pursuit.

The chairman having left the chair, a motion was made and seconded, that the thanks of the meeting should be given to the Chairman, which was accordingly put and carried into motion.

A motion was also moved and passed, that the thanks of the meeting should be given to Citizen Jones, Thelwall, Hodgson &c for their exertions this day.

Both these Motions were unanimously passed, amidst the greatest acclamations. A little after Five o’clock the Meeting broke up, when the immense Company that was present separated, and proceeded to their respective homes: the utmost harmony, regularity and good order prevailed during the whole time, each and every individual seeming to be impressed with the Idea, that it was a Day SACRED TO LIBERTY.”

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However peaceful and amicable the account above makes the end of the meeting sound, the language used certainly contains veiled threats. The address to the king, for instance, informs George III that his kingship is subject to the approval of the whole people of the nation, and this is a compact than can be revoked unless he wins the people’s approval; also that all the ‘inherited’ wealth of the king and the luxurious living he and his family enjoy is based on the labour of the lower orders… Despite the protestations of loyalty, and appeals to the old trope that the king is being betrayed in his duty to his subjects by the evil ministers that surround him (a well-versed theme going back to the Peasants Revolt), there is a passive-aggressive threat contained in almost every line. And the authorities cannot have missed the use of the title ‘Citizen’ – the term the French Revolutionaries had used, a title that in its very nature implied a people NOT subject to kingly authority, that threatened the guillotine without even mentioning it.

The speakers also threw out hints that the mob should surround Westminster on the 29th, when the king would go to the houses of parliament, to protest the king and government ignoring their petitions. This suggestion would directly lead to a riot and an attack on the king.

We will cover more on the Corresponding Society In October 1795, on October 29th

Today in London’s legal history: Kyd Wake found guilty of heckling the king, 1796.

“In the kings bench came on the trial of Kyd Wake, indicted for a misdemeanor in hissing and booing the king as his majesty was going to the parliament-house, on the first day of the present sessions, and likewise crying “down with George, no war,” &c. Mr Stockdale, the bookseller, and Mr Walford, the linen draper, who acted as constables on the day, were examined, and fully proved the facts charged in the indictment; upon which the jury without hesitation, found a verdict, guilty. A great number of person attended on the part of the prisoner; but as they could only speak to his general character, and not to the case in point, Mr Erskine, the prisoner’s counsel, declined calling upon them, reserving their testimony to be offered in mitigation of the punishment, on the first day of next term, when the prisoner will be brought up to the king’s bench to receive judgment…

Kyd Wake, who was convicted at the sittings… of having… insulted his majesty in hos passage… received the judgment of the court; viz ‘That he be imprisoned, and kept to hard labour in Gloucester gaol, during the tem of five years; that during the first three months of his imprisonment, he do stand for one hour, between the hours of eleven and two, in the pillory, in one of the public streets in Gloucester, on a market-day; and that, at the expiration of his sentence, he do find security for £1000 for his good behaviour for ten years.” (Annual Register, 1796.)

The early days of England’s long wars against revolutionary and Napoleonic France coincided with a growing movement for radical political reform in Britain. As the 1790s wore on, the war brought hardship and recession, and resentment from the lower orders mingled with calls for political change. There were riots against the activities of the ‘crimpers’, who kidnapped men for the armed forces; food riots, and general tumults against war, the government and the king. In response, the government engaged in charging leading radicals with treason, and targeted printers who published anything questioning the status quo – and anyone caught expressing opposition…

In October 1795, while riding to Parliament in a glass-enclosed royal carriage, King George III became the target of a crowd protesting the war and demanding bread. “Like Charles, Prince of Wales and heir to the U.K. throne, and his consort, Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, riding to the theatre in the glass-enclosed Rolls Royce, royalty embodies the sovereignty which led to war and hardship.” Kyd Wake, a bookbinder, hissed and grimaced at the King shouting, “No George, No War!” while the carriage windows became subject to a barrage of pebbles and sticks from a hungry and protesting crowd. Wake was sentenced to five years hard labour – a severe sentence for a moment of angry protest. An example was being set. Wake may have had some background of association with reformers and attending radical meetings.

In prison Wake “had his head shaved, and wore the prison dress, consisting of a blue and yellow jacket and trousers, a woollen cap, and a pair of wooden shoes.”

Kyd Wake’s wife made an engraving to raise money to provide extra food for her husband who was imprisoned in Gloucester Penitentiary. This was captioned with Kyd Wake’s plea against solitary confinement:

Five years’ confinement, even in common gaols must surely be a very severe punishment; but if Judges or Jurors would only reflect seriously on the horrors of solitary imprisonment under penitentiary discipline!! If they would allow their minds to dwell a little on what it is to be locked up, winter after winter.. for 16 hours out of the 24, in a small brick cell -without fire -without light -without employment and scarcely to see a face but those of criminals or turnkeys. No friend to converse with when well; or to consult with or to complain to when indisposed. Above all -to be subjected to a thousand insults and vexations, almost impossible to be described, and therefore scarcely to be remedied; but by which continual torment may be, and often is, inflicted. If they would but consider what an irreparable misfortune it is to have a considerable portion of life so wearisomely wasted; they would surely be more tender of dooming any man, for a long time, to such wretchedness. It is a calamity beyond description, more easily to be conceived than explained.

Wake survived his sentence to become a printer again, but died tragically in 1807, being crushed to death between a post and the wheels of a wagon in St Paul’s churchyard. In his obituary it was suggested that he possibly only served two years. A much more reasonable sentence for heckling, methinks… Not.

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

Today in London radical history: William Stone tried for treason, 1796.

During the French Revolution, when paranoia gripped the British government that something similar could erupt here, those radicals identified as sympathetic to the revolutionary ideals were marked out for surveillance. Their meetings were infiltrated by spies, harassed, banned from pubs; they were arrested and a number were tried for treason.

William Stone was a Unitarian radical accused of being a French agent. He was tried at the Old Bailey, after nearly two years’ incarceration, on January 28 and 29, 1796, for “treacherously conspiring with his brother, John Hurford Stone, then in revolutionary France, to destroy the life of the King and to raise a rebellion in his realms.”

William Stone’s brother, John Hurford Stone, was said to have been present at the 1789 storming of the Bastille, (though he can’t be positively proved to have been in Paris till three years later). He and William worked with their uncle, a coal merchant. John Stone was considered very clever and cultured, and had advanced far beyond the Unitarian doctrines of his family. He joined Dr. Richard Price’s radical congregation in London. In October 1790 he presided at a dinner given by the Society of Friends of the Revolution to a French deputation from Nantes.

In September 1792, John Stone was in Paris, and presided at a dinner of British residents in Paris to celebrate French victories. Thomas Paine was present, as also Irish rebel leader Lord Edward Fitzgerald, whom Stone introduced to his future wife, Pamela. He was however later included in a wholesale arrest by the French revolutionary authorities of British subjects in October 1793, though was released after seventeen days. He was again arrested, together with his wife, in April 1794, but liberated next day on condition of leaving France. He could not safely return to England, for his brother was in Newgate on a charge of treason, and he himself was described in the indictment as the principal. He went to Switzerland.

His brother William Stone had been arrested by 1794, but had to wait until 1796 to be tried for treason. The law of conspiracy was developed rapidly by the judges in these years, and in Stone’s 1796 trial, justices Sir Nash Grose and Sir Soulden Lawrence, also on the bench, persuaded Chief Justice Lord Kenyon to accept evidence of conspiracy that he was at first inclined to exclude.

The truth was, however, that William had “urged his brother, “that seditious and wicked traitor, “as Sir John Scott (afterwards Lord Eldon) styled him, to dissuade the French from invading England, inasmuch as they would find none of the sympathy they expected, but were doomed to failure. Scott argued, indeed, that by warning the French against a hopeless enterprise William Stone had acted as their friend and as the King’s enemy; but Erskine and Adair, his counsel, urged that if promoting an invasion was treason, warding it off must be the reverse. It must, however, be acknowledged that the collecting of opinions on the chances of a French invasion, however openly done, and however adverse those opinions, was sailing very near the wind of treason. The prisoner, too, had sheltered his brother’s emissary, the Irish Presbyterian minister Jackson; had corresponded with Jackson in Ireland, signing his name backwards way (Enots), and had forwarded to the Government garbled extracts from his brother’s letters; but Lord Lauderdale, Sheridan, and William Smith, M.P., testified that he was merely a weak enthusiast, anxious to give himself airs, yet sincerely desirous of a peace with France. Rogers, called as a witness for the prosecution, and asked as to the prisoner’s loyalty to the King and regard for his country, evasively answered that he had always thought him a well-meaning man, and he was not pressed to say more. The prisoner was acquitted, and, after a fortnight’s detention for debt, retired to France, where he became steward to an Englishman named Parker, at Villeneuve St. George.”

His brother John was unlikely to have been acquitted, for in a document read at the trial he spoke through – out of the French as “we,” and of the English as “you,” thus identifying himself, as Chief Justice Kenyon remarked, with France. In a published letter to Dr. Priestley, he made some caustic comments on the prosecution, incidentally extolled the Girondins, and declared his dissent from Paine’s religious views and his belief in an enlightened Christianity. By November 1796 he had returned to France. He later became a publisher, dying in France in 1818.

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

Today in London history: Duke of Bedford closes his private road, 1798.

“The Duke of Bedford… has stopped up the road from Southampton-row to Somers-Town. This, though called a private road, and as such, not open to carriages, has been a footway from time immemorial. It is hoped therefore, that the Duke, without waiting for a legal process, will restore that privilege…”
(Annual Register, 29th September 1798)

The fourth Earl of Southampton first started to develop the area around his mansion in modern Bloomsbury in the 1650s, pioneering a trend for hereditary landlords to develop new London streets and whole neighbourhoods by employing speculative builders; new houses for Lords, knights and other worthies began to spring up. By 1665 the Bloomsbury area was already described as “A fit place for the nobility and gentry to reside”. The 1666 Great Fire of London brought well-to-do refugees seeking new, safer housing out of the City – the next twenty years saw houses spread along what is now Great Russell Street.

According to local resident J. P. Malcolm,  “Squares, and spacious streets of the first respectability are rising in every direction; and the north side of the parish will, in a few years, contain an immense accumulation of riches, attracted by the grand structures in Russell Square now almost complete….”

Inheriting the estate in 1669, the Russells, the Earls of Bedford, named the new streets of their estates after their various titles and estates, and banned the building of pubs and shops, which they thought would lower the tone of the neighbourhood. Even a genteel bookshop was apparently closely screened before being allowed to open. In fact they not only attempted to control the atmosphere of their streets: they imposed barriers on who could even pass through it. Upper Woburn Place, originally a private road for the Dukes, had gates in the eighteenth century. By 1798 this road was closed off to traffic, and from the early 19th Century, parts of the Bedford Estate had gates at all entrances. In 1826, gates at the northern edge were erected so as to “shut out the low population” of the working class neighbourhood of Somers Town.

Uniformed gatekeepers were employed by the Russells to keep out undesirables; only those with tickets issued by the Estate, (silver discs, embossed with the Bedford coat of arms, obtainable by tenants or certain other privileged people for a guinea deposit), could pass down the roads. Empty cabs, or carts, drays, wagons, cattle and exercising horses were banned from entering; gentlemen’s carriages, cabs with fares and persons on horseback were allowed through. For decades the Bedford Estate managed to prevent trams and omnibuses from being run through their streets, even main streets like what was then Hart Street (now Bloomsbury Way). Private Acts of parliament banned hackney cabs from ‘standing for hire’ within 300 feet of some of the Estate’s poshest squares.

The gates stood at the north end of Gordon Street, half way down Taviton Street, (then called Georgiana Street, after the wife of the sixth Duke) and Endsleigh Street, and Upper Woburn Place, and at Torrington place near the corner of Torrington Square. Lodges built for the gatekeepers can still be seen on the west side of Endsleigh Street.

The Bedford Estate’s continued attempts to maintain the wealthy and ultra-respectable character of Bloomsbury must have been to some extent influenced by the sharp (and growing) contrast of this prosperous island with the neighbourhoods that surrounded it. St Giles to the south-west, Holborn to the south-east, Clerkenwell to the east, ‘Fitzrovia’ to the west, and, later, parts of St Pancras and Agar Town, to the north, all had an overwhelmingly working class population by the 19th Century; many of their streets were labeled as slums, rookeries or criminal haunts by the better-off classes. No doubt the increasing sense of being surrounded by the poor, desperate and possibly rebellious must have had some bearing on the gradual flight of the rich westward, to areas further from the dark threat of mob violence. The successive invasions of Bloomsbury in 1765, 1780 and 1815 by riotous crowds may only have been the sharp reminder of a deeper held fear and loathing… The increased control over open spaces, building on fields used for rowdy recreation, fencing off of squares’ gardens, can be seen partially as responses to both the class violence of the London Mob, AND the widely perceived ‘immoral’ nature of unlandscaped space – two sides of the same coin to the wealthy. The gates were popular with the mainly up-market tenants of the Bedfords; in fact some residents were pushing the Estate to toughen up the social control. Around 1750 a petition to the Duke from Silver Street, (roughly where Barter Street is now) complained that an alley running behind their street through to High Holborn, was frequented by “wicked and disorderly people of both sexes”, and called for it to be bricked up at both ends. This area, around the now-disappeared Bloomsbury Market (under the eastern end of present-day New Oxford Street), was increasingly lowering the tone of the Russells’ vision: although we couldn’t discover if this petition was acted on, the building of New Oxford Street through the St Giles Rookery would later obliterate some of these unrespectable streets.

Gradually opposition to the Dukes’ gates built up: they were obviously unpopular with cabbies and poorer folk, and even some local official bodies. The St. Pancras Vestry, under whose administration part of the Estate fell, became fed up with applying for permission to the Duke to enter the streets for works, cleaning etc. However the two other Vestries covering the area, St Giles and St George’s, defended the gates, mainly because removing them would lower rateable values and increase pavement costs, thus hitting the Vestry and wealthy ratepayers hard in the pocket.

The private road built for the duke’s personal use alone, Woburn Place, led to disputes even with other local nobility. It was originally laid in the 1750s, to connect to the spanking New Turnpike Road (now Euston Road) to the north so the duke could travel between his London pad and his country estates in Bedfordshire. At the edge of his land, however, to reach the new thoroughfare, it had to cross land owned by the Duke of Grafton, who wasn’t keen to allow it to bisect his property. For a while in 1759 there was a mini-civil war between the respective servants of the dukes, with Grafton’s men building barricades with instructions to block anyone coming over the border between the two estates; barriers repeatedly broken down by lackeys of Bedford (the words ‘hoist’ and ‘own petard’ springing to mind), but they settled in the end, with Bedford’s road being permitted to cross Grafton’s estate to meet the Turnpike road.

Eventually in slightly less forelock-tugging times, private gates across streets in a busy capital became unsustainable. Barring the majority of traffic from a strategically placed area just south of two main London railway stations had become economically anomalous. Even the prime minister complained in 1890 about the inconvenience of having to travel around the estate: “I am a constant passenger of the Great Northern Railway… and I must say that I have never passed the Sacred Gates in going to the Great Northern Station without mental imprecations against the persons who originally set them up and the persons who have since maintained them there.” (Which is interesting – was even the prime minster considered not respectable enough to pass through?)

Legislation ended this restriction of access, in 1893, and the gates came down. The Duke’s posh tenants, still keen to keep the riffraff out, campaigned for the gates’ retention, writing letters of protest, but happily in vain.

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

Today in London’s rebel past: Irish and English revolutionaries locked in the Tower of London, 1798

On 7th March 1798, insurrectionary leaders of planned Irish and English uprisings were jailed in the Tower of London, having been arrested while travelling to France to invite French help…

In 1798, the United Irishmen were in the final stages of planning an uprising against Britain’s brutal rule in Ireland. But there were also plans afoot for a radical insurrection in England. The plans were based among remnants of democratic movement that had flourished in the 1790s, inspired partly by the French Revolution; most notably the London Corresponding Society, a working class grouping that had formed to agitate for political reform and an extension of the franchise, but had quickly become more radical. It members had been spied on, banned and repressed by government agents, and noted activists had been arrested and charged with treason (though they were acquitted). Frustrated with the heavy repression and with getting nowhere through peaceful agitation, debates and propaganda, factions of the LCS had begun to put together secret cells (usually under the name of United Englishmen or United Britons) to begin plans for revolution…

Many of the Irish and British radicals looked to France, and hoped they could persuade the French revolutionary government to send military support to aid the projected uprisings.

To this end a number of representatives from the United Irishmen and the United Britons, including Arthur O Connor, Father James O’Coigley, and John Binns, formerly of the radical London Corresponding Society, started to secretly make their way to France to open negotiations. O’Connor had already been in touch with the French a year or two previously. Another United Irishman, John Allen, and O’Connor’s personal servant, Jerry Leary, accompanied them.

Arriving in London, O’Connor made contact with the London radicals, though he took a dim view of them (being an Irish aristocrat, he had a sniffy view of many of the Irish revolutionaries a well). O’Connor travelled to the Kent coast to arrange a boat to France, and the group met up in Margate.

However, on 28th February 1798, they were arrested in their inn. Although Binns and O’Connor had despaired of Father O’Coigley as a terrible co-conspirator, being a bit of a blabbermouth and talking too much, they had in fact been betrayed by a spy in the United Irishmen, Samuel Turner. However O’Coigley had been daft enough to carry an address in his greatcoat pocket, from the grandly titled ‘Secret Committee of England’, appealing to the French government to invade England.

The group were taken to London, and imprisoned in Coldbath Fields Prison; on March 7th they were transferred to the Tower, being charged with high treason. They remained there a month; but in April they were moved to Maidstone for their trial. The government was afraid to try them in London, where some sympathy for the radicals, but even more, a hatred of the use of police spies, had resulted in acquittals in the LCS treason trials just a few years before.

Their fears may well have been well-founded, since O’Connor, Binns, Leary and Allen were found not guilty in any case, due to some fancy footwork in the courtroom from good lawyers and heavy character references from O’Connor’s friends and connections in the Foxite party (moderate reform-minded politicos). O’Coigley, having had the treasonable paper on him, was found guilty and hanged. Undoubtedly their case was helped by a certain amount of distancing themselves from him.

The British government, however, was not prepared to let O’Connor, who they feared was a capable opponent, go free; he was immediately re-arrested in the courtroom (despite an attempt to smuggle him away which led to a riot in the court), and detained, later in Ireland. By the time he arrived there, in May 1798, the rebellion he had been part of planning had largely been defeated with savage repression. Without adequate French military support, which may well never have truly been on the cards, it was pretty much doomed. The English uprising never happened; the rest of the plotters, also betrayed by spies, were rounded up and detained. Which didn’t stop some of them trying again in 1802, as Irish rebels were once again trying to organise revolt.

One good book about Arthur O’Connor has a good account of the arrest and trial: Arthur O’Connor: The Most Important Irish Revolutionary You May Never Have Heard Of, by Clifford D. Conner is online here

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

Today in London’s radical history: striking tailors riot in the City, 1792.

The journeymen tailors had a history of solidarity dating back at least to the early 15th century.  What nowadays would be called trade unions were then in existence, under the names of ‘clubs’ or ‘combinations’, although they were much more at the local level than trade unions are today.  They met in ‘houses of call’, which were usually public houses. 1721 was a notably militant year: the master tailors of London presented a petition to the House of Commons, complaining that the journeymen in the trade had formed a combination and gone on strike.  The tailors’ combinations seem to have been quietly in existence for some years, perhaps starting as friendly societies, for them to have achieved by this time the power to challenge their employers in this way.  On five occasions between 1702 and 1720 the masters had appealed to Parliament, but the journeymen were never mentioned in these appeals.  In February 1721 the master tailors of London and Westminster complained that the combination of journeymen numbered 15,000, and that they were striking for better pay and shorter hours.  The result was a Bill passed in June, 1721, which supported the masters and made it lawful for journeymen striking or found to be part of a combination to be fined or imprisoned.  The effect of this act was to suppress overt activity in the combinations for twenty years. But the eighteenth century in the London tailoring trade was a tale of journeymen forming intermittent organisations to struggle for shorter hours and higher pay, and the masters enlisting their class allies in Parliament to repress these combinations.

In 1744, the master tailors again petitioned Parliament in a similar vein, that the journeymen had again organised combinations and were refusing to work for the legally enforced wage levels.  The Government response was to target the publicans on whose premises the ‘houses of call’ met, and to prosecute them for harbouring the members of the combinations.  No further action was taken by the Government, but the effect was that much public sympathy was generated for the plight of the journeymen.   Eventually, in July, 1751, the journeymen secured from the Court of Quarter Sessions in the County of Middlesex an order fixing their wages at “2s.6d. per day from Lady Day till Michaelmas and 2s. per day from Michaelmas to Lady Day, in addition to the allowance of three half-pence for breakfast.  The hours of work, however, were not altered and remained at 6 am to 8 pm with an hour off for dinner.”  The journeymen appeared happy with this, but there was soon further agitation, which gained them an hour’s reduction in their working day.  The masters attempted to undo these reforms on several occasions, but without success.  In November, 1763 the journeymen secured a further small daily wage increase, but the combinations continued to fight for better wages, bringing their activities more before the public gaze.

The masters evaded some of the restrictions of the legal rates of pay by moving some manufacturing out of London and Middlesex, and sometimes by secretly paying their best journeymen additional amounts in cash. The London combination again appealed to the Court in 1772 and received a further wage increase of 6d. per day, and 1s. per day during general mourning (see my ‘General Mourning’ blog).

In this context, another combination was formed, and a strike took place in 1792, both in London, and also in some other tailoring areas, such as Oxford. During this dispute, there was some riotous trouble in the City on February 25th.

In 1795, after further appeals, the Government fixed the journeymen’s pay at 27s. per week, with double during general mourning.   Further disputes over wages and hours ensued during the years.

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