Today in London rebel history: riots erupt against the Corn Laws, 1815

The Corn Laws had their origin in the ‘total war’ waged between Britain (and numerous allies) and revolutionary/Napoleonic France between 1793 and 1815. Napoleon’s blockade of Britain after 1806 accelerated enclosure of common lands, as MPs voted in over 1900 enclosure acts to ensure enough grain could be produced to support Britain and her allies. (The legal machinery for enclosure was simplified in an attempt to speed up the process with the 1801 with the General Enclosure Act. This Act saw the peak of the Agricultural Revolution.)

As all trade with Europe was ended, British landowners ended the war with a virtual monopoly of domestic grain markets. The result of this artificial scarcity of foodstuffs, together with a series of bad harvests in Britain, was a rapid rise in prices accompanied by fluctuations in the trade cycle.

At the end of the French Wars, corn prices plummeted to nearly half their war level, causing panic among the farmers – many of whom were also voters. As a result the government of Lord Liverpool government introduced the Corn Laws in 1815, to ensure the high incomes of farmers and landowners. MPs argued that prices had fallen due to an influx of ‘foreign corn’ after the resumption of trade with Europe. Opponents argued that landowners should reduce rents to ease pressure on farmers – a parliament and government representing the landowners reacted as you might expect…

These laws were intended to stabilise wheat prices at 80/- per quarter. They laid down that no foreign grain could be imported until domestic grain reached that price. The laws protected the intensified agriculture and expanded grain farms that had emerged in the war, but predictably failed to solve the problem of high prices. Prices fluctuated at high levels, encouraging the hoarding of corn.

This was class legislation at its most blatant. It made sure aristocrats could continue to benefit from high prices and the high rents that they supported. The Houses of Commons and Lords passed the law with Parliament surrounded by soldiers, knowing well enough what the law meant for the poor.

In response the poor of London rioted – knowing that that, having faced 20 years of high food prices and poverty, the end of the war was not going to make their life easier. High food process were compounded by a trade recession and mass unemployment, as the war economy crashed and hundreds of thousands of soldiers and sailors were demobbed.

Rioting broke out in the area around Parliament as the Acts were being debated, and spread out around London and Westminster as the London houses of the MPs and lords held most responsible were targeted by crowds:

“About the usual hour of the Meeting of Parliament on Monday, there were assembled in different parts, from George-street, to Abingdon-street, various groupes of persons, not numerous at first, all declaring against the Corn Bill, and inveighing against such of the Members as had been most active in support of it. There had previously been a great number of persons in the lobby and avenues of the House, and a considerable quantity of constables have been posted in them, to prevent too great a pressure and disturbance.

The persons who were forced to quit the lobby and passages, took post on the outside of the house. In these groupes were several who were well acquainted with the persons of many leading Members of both Houses, and pointed them out as they came down to attend their duty.—”That is Lord Grenville—that Lord Stanhope—that the Chancellor of the Exchequer”—and hooting or applause followed as the Member passing was known to be friendly or unfriendly to the Corn Bill.—Meanwhile loud shouts of “No Corn Bill!” raised without the House, were distinctly heard within it. For some time the groupes confined themselves to these manifestations of pleasure or displeasure. At length many of the carriages of the Members were stopped, and the Members forced to walk through the crowd amidst hooting and hissing. The civil power now was found to be insufficient for the protection of the Members, and the Magistrates having applied to the Speaker, received an order to call in the military to act under the civil power. Several of the Members, however, had been very roughly handled. They were called upon by the populace to tell their names, and how they had voted or intended to vote. Mr. Fitzgerald, the Chancellor of the Irish Exchequer, was treated in this way. Mr. Croker’s life was more seriously endangered; his carriage was beset by a mob, who made the enquiries to which we have just alluded, he refused to answer them; on his arrival at the house, both doors of the carriages were forced open, and upon stepping out, he was seized by the collar, and received several blows; same question was repeated to him, and the mob said, he should never enter the House alive if he did not tell his name and his sentiments on the Corn Bill. He still refused, and probably would not have escaped without the most serious injury, if at all, if the mob in their violence and confusion, had not directed their rage against each other. Those who suggested one mode, were opposed by others, and enforcing their arguments by blows, Mr. Croker fortunately made his escape into the Coffee-house of the Lords, and from thence into the House of Commons.

The Attorney General, though assailed at first much in the same manner as Mr. Croker, escaped more easily. He gave the mob his name, and told them he should vote as his conscience would direct him.

The military however succeeded in suppressing the tumult near the House, and the immediate vicinity remained clear during the rest of the night. But the populace, driven from this scene, repaired to other parts of the town—”to Mr. Robinsons!” “To Lord Eldon’s!” “To Lord Darnley’s!” “To Lord Ellenborough’s!” was the cry, and groups report repaired forthwith to one or the other of the houses these Noblemen and Gentlemen.

Having supposed the Hon. Mr. Robinson’s residence to be in Charles’s-square, they went thither, and did not leave the street till they learned he had moved to Burlington-street. As soon as they had fixed upon his house, they broke the windows in every floor, demolished the parlour shutters, and split the doors into pieces. The iron rails before the house were torn up, and instantly carried off. Rushing into the house, they then cut to pieces many valuable pictures, destroying some of the larger pieces of furniture, and threw the rest into the street, to be trampled to pieces by their associates.” (Chester Chronicle).

Frederick John Robinson MP had introduced the Corn Bill to Parliament. From his half trashed gaff soldiers stationed to prevent further attacks shot two passers-by who had nothing to do with the violence. Nineteen year old midshipman Edward Vyse, who was walking past the house, was hit with a shot from the pistol that was designed to scare the mob of boys outside. He died immediately at the scene. Another person was also said to have been killed here.

“From Mr. Robinson’s they ran to the house of Lord Darnleys, Mr. Yorke’s, Lord Hardwicke’s, Mr. Meux’s, in Berkeley-square. They broke every window at each place, and demolished the doors, what were prevented from going within.

Another account says, that having mustered about the centre of the street, and not amounting at their arrival to more than fifty or sixty, one (we understand a person well dressed) was selected to ascertain the residence of Mr. Robinson. He knocked at the door, and being informed that Mr. Robinson was not at home, he continued for a short time in conversation with the servant who opened it, when, on a preconcerted signal being given, the others rushed in and proceeded to the work of devastation. The demolition of the furniture occupied little more than an hour.

At ten o’clock, a mob, amounting to about 300, not more, entered Bedford-square, from the corner next Oxford-street, and proceeded to the house of the Lord Chancellor…” (Chester Chronicle).

John Scott, Lord Eldon, Lord Chancellor, had been pursued from the house of Lords to his house. Ironically, Eldon seems himself have been opposed to the Corn Laws, but on balance, he was a bad bad bastard! Early on in his political rise, as Attorney General, Eldon brought in the Act suspending Habeus Corpus in 1794, allowing people to be imprisoned without trial, and acted as chief prosecutor in a treason trial against leading members of the radical reform organisation, the London Corresponding Society – though his case was so weak and his speechifying so hysterical, they were famously acquitted. Appointed Lord Chief Justice and later Lord Chancellor, he became a crucial wedge of the most repressive government in modern times, which repressed numerous working class movements, and quashed several revolts and conspiracies, including the Despard conspiracy, the Black Lamp, the Luddites, among the most famous. Eldon was a notorious advocate of hanging for the most petty offences, an ardent opponent of the abolition of slavery in the Colonies.

So the London Crowd hated his guts anyway, and may have felt they’d seize the chance to do for him in the general ruck. They broke all the windows ; broke into the house and smashed as much as they could, throwing Eldon’s papers into the street; only the arrival of a party of soldiers prevented them from their aim of hanging Eldon from a lamppost in Bedford Square, a noose having been prepared for the same…
Eldon and the soldiers grabbed two rioters and dragged them inside: Eldon told them: “If you don’t mind what you are about lads, you will all come to be hanged.” A rioter replied, “Perhaps so, old chap, but I think it looks now as if you would be hanged first.”
Sadly Eldon was to wear no hemp necklace.

The two arrested men were sent before a justice of peace, but the soldiers refused to be witnesses against them. A garrison of 50 soldiers was stationed outside Eldon’s house for 3 weeks, since “persons in the front of the house from time to time using menacing language and threats, whenever from the streets they saw any persons in the house.”

Other MPs residences received similar treatment:

“The house of Lord Ellenborough in St. James’s square, was also attacked, and considerably injured. Soon after they had commenced their assault upon the house, his Lordship, in the most intrepid manner, presented himself at the door, and inquired the cause of the outrages upon his dwelling? The reply was “No Corn Bill, No Corn Bill:” on which his Lordship addressed them in a few words, the purpose of which we have not heard, but the effect was that the mob instantly cheered the Noble Lord and departed. They next proceeded to assail some other houses in the same square, but a party of the Life Guards approached by this time in full gallop, and the square in a few minutes was completely cleared. This, we understand, was the case in every other part of the town where the assailants appeared, and by one o’clock they were no longer to be seen in bodies; straggling individuals only were observable, and the military continuing to patrole the streets and squares, no further attempt to disturb the public tranquillity was any where made.

THE RIOTS—were renewed on Tuesday night, and with fatal consequences. Every person going to the Houses of Parliament was examined by constables, and no tumult occurred till after the House of Commons adjourned. Afterwards, however, the mob assembled, and made two attacks on Lord Castlereagh’s house; they renewed their violence against the houses of Mr. Robinson, and Lord Darnley; their next objects with those of Mr. Yorke, Mr. Bathurst, Lord King, Lord Lascelles, Mr. Weston, Mr Wellesley Pole, Sir H. Parnell, Sir W. Rowe, &c. The windows of many private persons were demolished by mistake; but none were entered, owing to the activity of the soldiery. It appears that the mob had actually collected some bags of shavings, for the purpose of setting fire to Mr. Robinson’s house, at the moment the guards arrived, and several wheelbarrows full of stones, were emptied in the street, to facilitate the work of destruction!

In these movements, we lament to say, one man and one woman were killed, and three persons wounded. The man was shot through the head with slugs; he was dressed in uniform of a midshipman, and was immediately conveyed to a public house. He proved to be a son of Mr. Dodd, printseller, in Parliament-street, and had gone out shortly before, for the purpose of viewing the operations of the mob. The woman was a widow of a sailor, and had left her friends with a promise to return in half an hour.

A large train of artillery was brought on Friday from Woolwich. More troops have arrived or are on their road. Two fresh regiments of light dragoons are quartered at Kensington and Bow. Ten thousand horse and foot could be called out in an hour, if it were necessary.”

(Chester Chonicle, 17th March 1815).

The riots continued in various parts of the town during the 7th, 8th, and 9th of March. By this time, however, the houses of the Lord Chancellor, and of many other leading members of the Ministry and of the Legislature, were garrisoned with soldiers ; and, London being ultimately surrounded by troops on every hand, the disturbances ended.

Other disturbances around the country commenced with the introduction of the Corn Bill in 1815 and continued intermittently until the end of 1816. In London and Westminster riots ensued and were continued for several days; at Bridport there were riots on account of the high price of bread; at Bideford there were similar disturbances to prevent the export of grain; at Bury by the unemployed to destroy machinery; at Newcastle-on-Tyne by colliers and others; at Glasgow, where blood was shed, on account of soup kitchens; at Preston, by unemployed weavers; at Nottingham by Luddites who destroyed 30 frames; at Merthyr Tydvil, on a reduction of wages; at Birmingham by the unemployed; at Walsall by the distressed; and December 7th, 1816, at Dundee, where, owing to the high price of meal, upwards of 100 shops were plundered. Other riots and demonstrations with an avowedly political bent, like the 1816 Spa Fields Riot, and the 1819 Peterloo massacre, were strongly influenced by the mass poverty of the time, in which the high price of bread was a major factor.

Although rioting died down, over the next three decades, the Corn Laws remained a hot issue economically, with periodic agitations for their repeal, usually driven by a middle class movement based in the manufacturing strata, who saw the introduction of complete free trade as being ideologically and economically in their and the national economy’s best interests. This became focussed with the founding of the Anti-Corn Law League in 1838. The rising class of manufacturers and industrial workers (who were under-represented in Parliament, as compared to he old landowning aristos) wanted to maximise their profits from manufacture by reducing the wages they paid to their factory workers, but complained that the Con Laws kept the price of bread so high, they were unable to reduce wage levels to the pittance levels they desired—men could not work in the factories if a factory wage was not enough to feed them and their families. Lovely. Chartists and socialists accused the anti-Corn Law League of only being interested in reducing wages, but needing to enlist mass support from the working classes so as to put pressure on the Tory protectionists.

Eventually a combination of this long agitation for repeal, a succession poor harvests and the resulting hardship (starvation in Ireland), and the threat of reviving Chartist campaigning, led to the Corn Laws being repealed in 1846, amidst much political shenanigans, and against strong opposition from landowning interests.

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

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Today on repressive history: habeas corpus suspended in goverment crackdown on radicals, 1817.

The Habeas Corpus Act passed by Parliament in 1679 guaranteed that a person detained by the authorities would have to be brought before a court of law so that the legality of the detention may be examined. In times of social unrest, Parliament had the power to suspend Habeas Corpus. William Pitt did this in May 1793 during the war with France, targetting pro-reform activists, publishers issuing radical texts, and others influenced by the French Revolution. Parliamentary reformers such as Thomas Hardy and John Thelwall were imprisoned as a result of this action.

Habeas Corpus was also suspended in January 1817, during the post-Napoleonic War economic and political crisis.

After the end of the Napoleonic Wars, there was an upsurge in demands for political reform and the extension of the vote. This was also fuelled by the collapse of the war economy into recession and mass unemployment; thousands of soldiers and sailors were being discharged with little prospect of work, too – a dynamic common to large-scale wars: compare the pressures for social change after World Wars 1 and 2 (many sailors and soldiers were also being demobbed unpaid – it was common for navy and army pay to be owed years in arrears then). On top of this a rampant succession of new laws, abolishing old protections for workers and the poor, in the interests of the factory owners, merchants and employers, was introducing unrestrained laissez-faire capitalism, with devastating consequences for the lower classes.

Mass radical agitation – for reform of the notoriously corrupt and elitist political system, but also for improvement in the lives of working people – revived not seen since the 1790s.

Mass rallies in the Autumn of 1816 culminated in the Spa Fields Riot in December, which left the government afraid of the possibilities of radials inspiring mass uprisings of the desperate poor… Sidmouth, the Home Secretary in Lord Liverpool’s government, had been receiving reports from his spies and informers that a revolution was in the making in the north of England.

After a missile (whether a bullet or a stone was never determined) shattered the glass window of the Prince Regent’s coach, as he was on his way to the opening of Parliament, the government accused supporters of parliamentary reform of fomenting political violence: Lord Liverpool’s government rushed laws through Parliament to clamp down on dissent.

On 4 March 1817, Habeas Corpus was suspended; the suspension was not lifted until January 1818. The Seditious Meetings Act was passed and continued in force until 24 July 1818: it was designed to ensure that all reforming ‘Societies and Clubs … should be utterly suppressed and prohibited as unlawful combinations and confederacies’. No meeting of more than fifty persons could be held without the prior consent of the magistrates.

At the same time, home Secretary Lord Sidmouth sent out a Home Office circular informing magistrates of their powers to arrest persons suspected of disseminating seditious libel. He ordered the Lords Lieutenant to apprehend all printers of seditious and blasphemous materials, all writers of the same, and demagogues. However, he failed with the attempt to prosecute the writers and printers because of Fox’s 1792 Libel Act; only one printer was convicted.

The political reformer and trade union activist (and informer!) Francis Place later estimated that between March 1817 and Autumn 1818, 96 people had been detained on charges of treason in England and 37 in Scotland (though Home Office papers show much lower figures). Most of these were later released without being tried.

The Gagging Acts severely hampered the campaign for parliamentary reform. However, as soon as Parliament decided to restore Habeas Corpus in March, 1818, there was an immediate revival in the demands for universal suffrage.

But if the government thought the Gagging Acts would mean the agitation and pressure for change would die down – they were sadly mistaken.

Even if the Acts did silence some vocal reformers others sprang up. Thus, as veteran radical journalist William Cobbett fled the country in March 1817, reckoning the Acts were aimed especially at himself, other newspapers emerged to take on the mantle of his influential Political Register, like the Black Dwarf and Sherwin’s Political Register.

And the repression wasn’t just answered in words… Hampden Clubs, radical debating societies and groups discussing and advocating reform had mushroomed across the country. Amongst those gathering to work for political reform, there were elements who believed only an uprising could deliver political change; to some extent the Gagging Acts strengthened their hand. Hundreds of thousands were facing intense poverty; thousands were incensed by the political repression; among them some were willing to join conspiracies aimed at revolution.

Even as the Acts were being debated in Parliament, the March of the Blanketeers began, in March 1817, a hunger march of its time, calling for government help for Lancashire workers in response to the economic distress and government repression. The marchers were violently dispersed and arrested.

This was swiftly followed by the arrest of alleged conspirators plotting insurrection in Ardwick Bridge in Manchester, and then in June, by the Pentrich Rising, an attempt to launch a revolutionary uprising in Derbyshire, by workers convinced by government spy that a network of similar risings was planned elsewhere. There is evidence that similar plans were afoot in a number of places, but linked only by informers, and the premature events in Derbyshire and some arrests elsewhere led only to disaster.

But plots continued, amidst a rising climate of demands for reform, which climaxed with the violent repression of the massacre of Peterloo in 1819 (where the  Manchester and Salford Yeomanry cavalry, formed to combat any future attempts at insurrection after the Blanketeers march and Ardwick Bridge arrests savagely attacked a mass rally calling for political reform)

… and a final abortive wave of insurrectionary plans that ended with the Cato Street Conspiracy, and a botched Scottish attempt at revolution in 1820…

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

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Today in London’s legal history: William Hone acquitted for writing parodies of religious liturgies, 1817.

Journalist and writer William Hone briefly became a popular hero in December 1817, when he defended himself against government prosecution for blasphemy and sedition, specifically for parodying the forms of church liturgy to attack self-serving government corruption.

Brought up in a strictly religious family, Hone had come into contact with political radicals while working as a “factotum” and legal copyist in the early 1790s, and began to doubt the religious foundations of his upbringing. He became affiliated with a branch of the radical London Corresponding Society (LCS). After an attempt by his father to divert him from this scene (by sending him to work in Chatham for a couple of years), he tried his hand at the book publishing and selling trade.

Together with LCS activist John Bone, Hone set up a book and print shop (after the two had tried and failed to launch a a savings bank/annuity company). Although not a financial success, it did gain Hone a experience in antiquarian books and prints, which stood him in good stead for the future… through thee shop, he also met leading radicals Francis Place and Thomas Spence as well as other figures of literary and political London. However, in 1810, the project ended in the bankruptcy courts. After this Hone earned a living as an auctioneer of private libraries, and later as “Literary Editor” of the venerable Critical Review, a position he held for about 18 months. The status (and salary) afforded to Hone by this position enabled him to open a bookselling shop at 55 Fleet Street, where he moved with his family in December of 1814.

But Hone’s political activism, honed (sorry) in the 1790s, which had taken back seat to his need to earn a living, cropped up now and again: in the early 1810s he worked with James Bevans and Edward Wakefield to develop a new form of asylum for the humane treatment of the insane. The orject failed for lack of funds.

Hone then became involved with exposing the miscarriage of justice over the killing of Edward Vyse, who had been shot dead during the March 1815 street protests about the Corn Laws – shot from the windows of the home of the MP Frederick Robinson. A concerted effort was made in the subsequent trial to make sure no-one of ‘importance’ would be held responsible. Hone took it upon himself to publicise this miscarriage of justice.

He also wrote about the trial and execution of Elizabeth Fenning, a servant girl accused on scanty evidence of poisoning the family of her employer. Hone wrote a short narrative pamphlet about the case – La Pie Voleuse, or the Maid and the Magpie – which was very popular in itself and which inspired Hone to produce other pamphlets documenting the abuses of power within the legal and political systems.

In 1815 to 1817, Hone continued to write and publish journalistic exposes. For example, just days after the Spa Fields Riots of late 1816, Hone published his own account of the affair. His account included a broader social and economic analysis founded loosely on the principles of the radical Thomas Spence, whose followers had been prominent in the riots. But Hone also issued radical critiques of the government, developing a style rich in parody and satire.

At the beginning of 1817, political tensions and the threat of social unrest were running high. Post-Napoleonic War recession and unemployment, and the juggernaut of industrial development and the mechanisation of labour and growth of factories, had produced huge social anger and poverty, which had collided with renewed pressure for political reform. A scared government suspended habeas corpus and tried to jail leading reformers. Hone began publishing a radical weekly newspaper called the Reformists’ Register. The Register formed a part of a burgeoning radical press, an explosion of journals, pamphlets, newspapers recounted aloud by a huge and increasing public, sometimes read aloud by the literate to those who could not read… This popular press terrified the authorities, as the atmosphere was volatile and the appetite of millions for new ideas was a clear threat to the elites of the time.

Early in 1817 Hone wrote and published a series of pamphlets which parodied church liturgy, in which he savaged government corruption and political complacency.

The three pamphlets – Political Creed, Political Liturgy, and Catechism of a Ministerial Member – satirised government ministers as divine beings and MPs as “worshippers at the font of patronage”. The 5000 print run circulated throughout the country, in great demand, rapidly achieving cult status and sparking imitations and rip-offs. The enraged government and its toadies regarded Hone as the worst example of a free press who needed teaching a harsh lesson.

These pamphlets got Hone was arrested in May 1817, and charged with blasphemy and sedition, and briefly held in the King’s Bench prison. Although he managed to get himself released, the Reformist’s Register collapsed in the wake of this due to lack of funds and energy, as he prepared to face his trial.

During the process of selecting a jury, Hone was however able to expose the process by which judges and prosecution collaborated to select the jurors they wanted illegally, and to overturn this nobbling by legal action.

The case came to trial in December 1817, held in the Guildhall, which had a long history of state trials, including prosecutions of Leveller John Lilburne, treason trials of Lady Jane Grey and Thomas Cranmer… But it was also very much a public arena, a centre of political life in London, a forum for debate and pagreantry. The government wanted a show trial in front of the nation – Hone was “the fittest object for prosecution”, an example which would overawe other journalists and radicals – and the authorities believed a guilty verdict a foregone conclusion.

The Attorney General had singled out three of the offending parodies for separate trials, and these occurred on successive days, 18, 19, and 20 December. In each case, the Attorney General’s argued that using liturgical texts as the basis for comic parody was an act of blasphemy, publishing a libel “with intent to excite impiety and irreligion in the minds of his Majesty’s liege subjects”. The sacred quality of religious language was being degraded and mocked by being used for comic satire. In addition, the Book of Common Prayer, from which the church liturgy was filched, was published by authorisation of Act of Parliament, part of he official religion of the nation, and thus satirising it was a criminal and unpatriotic act.

In reply, Hone arrived at court with hundreds of books which contained similar satires on church litanies, written by all sorts of highly respected persons, among them Martin Luther, John Milton, protestant martyr Bishop Latimer, and most damningly George Canning), former Foreign Secretary, and at the time of the trial President of the Board of Control. Parody of religious texts was a recognised literary device, aimed at instruction and ages old. He had no interest in attacking religion, he said, he was a political satirist, and if they government had wanted to try him for that, they should have charge him with seditious libel.

Hone defended himself by reading these parodies in the courtroom. There were frequent eruptions of laughter from the packed galleries, and equally frequent but pompously ineffectual warnings from the presiding judge, Lord Chief Justice Ellenborough. After each day’s trial, the jury returned a verdict of “Not Guilty” which was met by enthusiastic cheers from the gallery.

Hone’s defence was based on common sense and the ridiculousness of the charge, and how he had been singled out by the government, rather than complex legal arguments, and showing that he had a highly skilled knowledge of literary tradition. Next to which the hysterical assertions of the prosecutors that to acquit him would be a victory for atheism, and that the satires were “so injurious… that any man, on the first reading, would start in horror…”, sounded weak and laughable. The judges tried to rule his defence inadmissible, but Hone showed they were wrong in law, and his exposing of the clear bias of the judge Ellenborough won the jury over.

The trials were widely publicised and as a result Hone became a popular hero—a kind of humble common man who had bravely stood up to the political authorities of the day. The forces of repression, as Hone put it later, had been “laughed out of court.”

Hone continued to publish satires and attacks on the government and establishment, often collaborating with the artist George Cruikshank. In early 1819, Hone and Cruikshank published a parodic Bank Note in response to an increase in executions for forgery. The Note received wide acclaim and may well be credited for accelerating a change in the nation’s fiscal policy. Later that year, in the wake of the Peterloo Massacre in August, Hone and Cruikshank published the famous Political House that Jack Built—a pamphlet that went through dozens of editions.

This highly influential pamphlet was followed with The Man in the Moon (early 1820) and a series of illustrated satirical pamphlets on the Queen Caroline affair. (See, for example, The Queen’s Matrimonial Ladder and Non Mi Ricordo!) Finally, Hone capped this phase of his career with two more political parodies: A Slap at Slop and the Bridge Street Gang, and The Political Show-man, At Home!  Each of these works was extremely popular; indeed, Hone and Cruikshank were among the best-selling writers in England during this tumultuous period.

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

Today in London’s radical history: Times compositors jailed for ‘conspiring’, 1810.

On December 11th 1810 nineteen journeymen compositors (typesetters) who worked on the Times newspaper were sentenced to imprisonment for conspiracy, in fact organizing themselves to stick together in their own interests – asking for a rise in wages. The 1799 and 1800 Combination Acts made all trade unions illegal, but in fact prosecution of workers for getting together to campaign for higher wages, better conditions was a long tradition, going back as far as the medieval guilds.

The prosecuting counsel said of the organisation involved:

“It was called a friendly society, but by means of some wicked men among them this society degenerated into a most abominable meeting for the purpose of a conspiracy; those of the trade who did not join their society were summoned, and even the apprentices, and were told, unless they conformed to the practices of these journeymen, when they came out of their times [finished their apprenticeships] they should not be employed.”

The judge who tried and sentenced some of them was the Common Sergeant of London, Sir John Sylvester, commonly known as ‘ Bloody Black Jack.’ … “No judge took more pains than did this judge on the unfortunate printers, to make it appear that their offence was one of great enormity, to beat down and alarm the really respectable men who had fallen into his clutches, and on whom he inflicted scandalously severe sentences.” 

Sentences for the men were heavy: Robert Howlett and John Gee were imprisoned in Newgate for two years (and fined one shilling), William Clifton, Stephen Beckett, George Westray were jailed for 18 months (also fined one shilling), Stephen Burley, Henry Byrne, Thomas Wooley jailed for a year; Roderic Paskin, Edward Kidd, William Williams, Corbet Latham, William Coy, James McCartney, John McIntosh, Nathaniel Collins, Malcolm Craig, John Chapman and John Simpson all got 9 months. Malcolm Craig died in prison.

The prosecution of the compositors impressed Francis Place with the necessity of an alteration in the laws on combination, which 15 years later, he was to manage to push through Parliament.

Combinations like the Times compositors’ friendly society were designed to maintain wages and conditions at a rate agreed by the workers; forced underground by acts of parliament, they resorted to persuasion of other workers and apprentices to stick by what was agreed and not work for less or under worse terms, which would undermine the general rate for all. Employers and the courts, parliament, press and church who supported them, all denounced attempts to make agreements among themselves as coercion, both of the bosses by the workers, and of some workers by others, portrayed as agitators. This depiction of how workers attempt to achieve and maintain reasonable conditions and prevent wage reductions is still very much alive in the 21st century, as anti-union laws continue to divide and obstruct us.

In reality there is nothing wrong at all with uniting to coerce the bosses – they coerce us every day into working for them, use force and threat of starvation against us when we object or try to better our lot. To a certain extent also a kind of coercion of opinion against fellow workers who scab, side with the boss against us, is understandable, especially when up against it. When the laws are against you anyway you need to think about how much of the law you obey.

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

Today in London radical history: Spa Fields reform demo erupts into uprising, 1817.

“In consequence of an advertisement which was placarded throughout the metropolis, stating that a meeting of manufacturers, artisans, etc., would be convened in these fields, to take into consideration the propriety of petitioning the prince regent upon the present distressed state of the country, an immense concourse of people was on Friday assembled.”

Two hundred years ago, Spa Fields, Clerkenwell, described then as “a wild uninclosed space”, was, for a while, a favourite gathering point for radical mass meetings; some of which became riotous demonstrations, and one of which, on December 2nd 1817, erupted into a riot, an abortive attempt at a revolutionary uprising.

After the end of the Napoleonic Wars, there was an upsurge in demands for political reform and the extension of the vote. This was also fuelled by the collapse of the war economy into recession and mass unemployment; thousands of soldiers and sailors were being discharged with little prospect of work, too – a dynamic common to large-scale wars: compare the pressures for social change after World Wars 1 and 2 (many sailors and soldiers were also being demobbed unpaid – it was common for navy and army pay to be owed years in arrears then). On top of this a rampant succession of new laws, abolishing old protections for workers and the poor, in the interests of the factory owners, merchants and employers, was introducing unrestrained laissez-faire capitalism, with devastating consequences for the lower classes.

Mass radical agitation – for political reform, but also for improvement in the lives of working people – revived for the first time since the heady days of the London Corresponding Society in the 1790s. Major movers in organising public meetings and mass rallies were the Society of Spencean Philanthropists, followers of agrarian communist Thomas Spence (died 1814), radicals and revolutionaries who were constantly agitating for an uprising of the poor against their masters. Co-operating with them was a more moderate wing pressing for peaceful change; this uneasy alliance had fallen in and out for many years, and would continue to tentatively co-operate for decades to come.

Although a small remnant of Spa Fields still exists, they were once much larger. Originally known as the Ducking-pond Fields, they later went by Clerkenwell Fields or Spa Fields, and later still acquired the nickname of the Pipe Fields, from the wooden pipes (hollowed-out elm-trees) which radiated from here, dispersing the water from the reservoirs at New River Head to various customers. The small remnant that exists by that name now is a pale survival of a much larger space that stretched across what is now Farringdon Road, and up the hill around what is now Amwell Street to the north.

On the 15th of November 1816, the famous moderate reformer Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt spoke to an enormous crowd of 20,000 demanding reform, from a window in the Merlin’s Cave Tavern, on the edge of Spa Fields (where Merlin Street now stands). The mass meeting was ‘adjourned’ for two weeks until 2 December 1816; on which occasion the third mass radical protest meeting of the year on the Fields ended in a riot.

“Hand-bills were afterwards diligently distributed, and a large concourse of people accordingly took place on the 2nd December, and is supposed to have consisted of at least 10,000 persons.”

The massive turnout on 15th November encouraged the committee organising December 2nd – possibly it led some of them to think the poverty and hardship the working classes were facing could be overturned in one fell swoop. A fair number of leaders and some of the crowd were prepared for a revolutionary uprising; not, fatally, the majority of them, however.

Rumours had spread that ‘something would happen’ at the rally; with some leaders talking of taking control of the Bank of England, the Tower of London and the prisons, police spies riddling the committees and planting weapons, and a genuine climate of rage and desperation, plots were clearly afoot.

“As a prelude to the scene that followed, a coal waggon, filled with persons of mean appearance, was stationed, shortly after 12 o’clock, at that part of the Spafields next the House of Correction. The waggon had two tri-coloured flags borne by its company: on one was inscribed, in large letters, the following inflammatory sentences:

‘The brave Soldiers are our Brothers, treat them kindly.’

On the other were these words:

‘Nature Feeds the Hungry,
   ‘Truth Protects the Oppressed,
   ‘Justice Punishes Crimes.’

Mr Hunt then came forward amid the most tumultuous applause, and addressing the crowd by the usual title of ‘Friends and fellow-countrymen,’ exhorted them in the usual joke to keep silence, by holding their tongues, and not by calling out silence. He then harangued them as before for a considerable time, and in the course of his speech read his correspondence with lord Sidmouth, on the subject of the late petition.”

James Watson, one of the Spencean leaders, addressed the crowd from the cart, then leapt off, and led a crowd to attack the Tower. “Those actually engaged in the excesses, about 200 in number, separated from it about or a little before the arrival of the orator, and proceeded in a tumultuous manner through the streets of the metropolis.” Other groups “surged off in different directions. Several gunsmiths’ shops were looted. Some of the rioters reached the Tower and a man… climbed on the wall and called on the troops to join the people. In the Minories there was rioting for several hours…” But the government was forewarned by spies, and constables were stationed at prisons and other targets. However the majority of the crowd remained at Spa Fields to listen to Hunt, then dispersed.

Many discharged sailors from the wars took part, in the trouble, including a large number of ‘blacks and mulattoes’ (who made up huge chunks of the navy). Black sailor Richard Simmons “harangued the crowd for half an hour”.

The following March, prisoners arrested after the riot were tried for treason, but it collapsed, after the activities of government spies in the crowd and infiltrating radical meetings and pro-reform groups were exposed. However Irish sailor William Cashman was hanged for taking part in the looting of a gun shop in Skinner Street, (on the edge of the Fields) during the riot.

Cashman had, according to his evidence, been discharged from the navy, virtually destitute, owed five years pay, which he had repeatedly tried to chisel out of various Admiralty departments, to no avail… As EP Thompson points out, this contrasts sharply with the huge sinecures and awards to naval bigwigs and army generals in the wake of the victory over Napoleon. When Cashman was hanged in March 1817, in Skinner Street, a huge popular demonstration gathered in support of him: : “the mob expressed the strongest feelings of indignation; groans and hisses burst from every quarter, and attempts were made to rush forward…   When the executioner advanced to put the rope round his neck, the tumult increased to an alarming degree…”

The scaffold had to be defended by barricades and “an immense force of constables”.

Mass meetings continued on Spa Fields in February and March 1818, but the riots triggered vindictive government repression; severe laws restricting the right to gather and suspending other rights were passed, and many leading radicals were interned. But several of the Spenceans and other agitators involved in the Spa Fields affray would go on to take part in future plots and plans for uprisings, culminating in the Cato Street Conspiracy of 1820.

The summer’s evening resort

The modern London Borough of Islington has now been built over now, and these days counts as part of the ‘inner city’; in fact it has the lowest ratio of open green space to built up areas of any London borough. At one time though Islington was well-known for open space, much of it famous for pleasurable gatherings and rowdy political meetings. The area between Clerkenwell and Angel, known as Islington Hill, once teemed with pleasure gardens, resorts and spas. Spa Fields was the most famous – and infamous.

200 years ago, apart from being briefly the epi-centre of a growing movement for political reform, Spa Fields was also notorious for its rowdy and immoral pleasures…

The Fields had a long history.

To Clerkenwell Fields, on 15th June 1381, king Richard II led many of the rebels who had flocked to London during the Peasants’ Revolt, after the murder of Wat Tyler at Smithfield – they were then surrounded by royal troops. After days of disorder, of rebels imposing their will on the authorities, the government now had the upper hand, and executions followed…

“In former times,” according to William Pinks, “the district around the chapel known as Spa Fields, or the Ducking-pond Fields, now intersected by streets of well-built houses, was the summer’s evening resort of the townspeople, who came hither to witness the rude sports that were in vogue a century ago, such as duck-hunting, prize-fighting, bull-baiting, and others of an equally demoralising character. We are informed by an old newspaper that in 1768 ‘Two women fought for a new shift, valued at half a-crown, in the Spaw Fields, near Islington. The battle was won by a woman called ‘Bruising Peg,’ who beat her antagonist in a terrible manner.’ In the summer of the same year ‘an extraordinary battle was fought in the Spa Fields by two women against two taylors, for a guinea a head, which was won by the ladies, who beat the taylors in a severe manner.’ On Saturday, the 28th August 1779, ‘a scene of fun and business intermixed took place in Spa Fields, to which no language can do justice. Bills had been stuck up and otherwise circulated, that an ox would be roasted whole, and beer given to the friends of their king and country, who were invited to enlist; that two gold-laced hats should be the reward of the two best cudgel-players; that a gown, a shift, and a pair of shoes and stockings should be run for by four old women; and that three pounds of tobacco, three bottles of gin, and a silver-laced hat, should be grinned for by three old men, the frightfullest grinner to be the winner.”

Spa Fields became notorious; for centuries it was thought dangerous to cross them “in the dusk of evening, robberies being frequent, and the persons filched were often grievously maltreated by the villains who waylaid them.” Especially in the mid-eighteenth century, footpads (an old name for muggers), knocked down pedestrians passing to and from London, and made off with their hats, wigs, silver buckles, and money. The well-to-do visiting the popular local theatre of Sadler’s Wells hired ‘link boys’ to light them home.

Spa Fields also hosted popular fairs, such as the Whitsuntide “Welsh Fair” or “Gooseberry Fair” (a field in old maps is marked as “the Welsh Field”); specialising in horse and donkey racing. This fair was later moved to Barnet, becoming the Barnet Fair (of cockney rhyming slang fame). This Fair was noted by the Middlesex County Justices (who met at Hicks Hall, in nearby St John Street) as one of a number of places, resorts and events that were guilty of encouraging disorder, in 1744.

Also in 1779, there appeared in the Clerkenwell Chronicle the following notice of sports which took place in Spa Fields: “On Friday, some bricklayers enclosed a piece of ground ten feet by six, for roasting the ox; and so substantial was the brickwork that several persons sat up all night to watch that it did not fall to pieces before the morning. An hour before sunrising the fire was lighted for roasting the ox, which was brought in a cart from St. James’s Market. At seven o’clock the ox was laid over the fire in remembrance of the cruelty of the Spaniards in their conquest of Mexico. By nine o’clock one of the legs was ready to drop off, but no satire on the American colonies was intended; for if it had fallen there were numbers ready to have swallowed it. At seven o’clock came a sergeant and a number of deputy Sons of the Sword. The sergeant made an elegant speech, at which every one gaped in astonishment, because no one could understand it. At half-past two the beef was taken up, slices cut up and thrown among the crowd, and many and many a one catched his hat full to fill his belly.

“Instead of four old women to run for the gown, &c., there were only three girls, and the race was won without running; for two of the adventurers gave out before half the contest was over, and even the winner was a loser, for she tore off the sleeve of her gown in attempting to get it on. Only one man grinned for the tobacco, gin, &c. But it was enough. Ugliness is no word to express the diabolicality of his phiz. If the king had ten such subjects he might fear they would grin for the crown. Addison tells us of a famous grinner who threw his face into the shape of the head of a base viol, of a hat, of the mouth of a coffee-pot, and the nozzle of a pair of bellows; but Addison’s grinner was nothing to the present, who must have been born grinning. His mother must have studied geometry, have longed for curves and angles, and stamped them all on the face of the boy. The mob was so immense that, though the tide was constantly ebbing and flowing, it was supposed the average number was 4,000 from nine in the morning till eight at night; and as this account is not exaggerated, 44,000 people must have been present. All the ale-houses for half a mile round were crowded, the windows were lined, and the tops and gutters of the houses filled. The place was at once a market and a fair; curds and whey were turned sour, ripe filberts were hardened, and extempore oysters baked in the sun. The bread intended for the loyal was thrown about the fields by the malcontents. The beer was drunk out of pots without measure and without number; but one man who could not get liquor swore he would eat if he could not drink His Majesty’s health; and observing an officer with a piece of beef on the point of his sword, he made prize of it, and ate it in the true cannibal taste.

“The feast, on the whole, was conducted with great regularity; for if one got meat another got bread only, and the whole was consumed; but to add to the farce a person threw a basket of onions among the bread-eaters. Some men were enlisted as soldiers, but more were impressed, for the bloodhounds were on the scent, and ran breast-high. If not spring-guns, it might fairly be said that mentraps had been fixed in the Spa Fields. The beef was good of its kind, but like the constitution of Old England, more than half spoiled by bad cooks.”

The number of spas and resorts that grew up on the Spa Fields area had, by the eighteenth century, multiplied and branched out into an astonishing number of taverns, tea houses and gardens, drinking establishments and places of entertainment.

Work Is the Ruin of the Drinking Classes

Open spaces remain areas of contestation. Spa Fields’ long reputation for unruliness has continued long after most of the open land that bore this name was built over. A tiny remnant of Spa Fields has survived the last two centuries of building; of the small area that remains, one half has been turned into a brilliant kids’ adventure playground. The other section is still a park, although extremely landscaped, and heavily controlled. The park is subject to an alcohol control order that allows police to stop you from drinking alcohol, on penalty of a £500 fine if you refuse. This method of dealing with ‘problem drinking’, and the rowdiness that can arise, has been in vogue for 15 years or so.

But the urge to gather, to hang out with your mates, get off your head, is older than all the control orders, temperance movements and moral panics. Open space, in the dark, far from bounced and CCTVed bars and high streets, out of sight of parents and uniforms, the hidden pleasures of the unlit; when so much space is subject to absolute control, restriction and hemming us in, monitoring our movements, tagging us and following our transactions, the struggle for uncontrolled space is a very human one. There’s no doubt booze and other substances have their risks, or that teen dodginess can become turned on other folk for fun or profit; but much of the control on youth, on open space, on our movements, is more about keeping people in line, treading the correct paths of work, obeying the status quo, not challenging the life we’re supposed to lead. Politicos of left and right have fought for centuries to reform our immoral urges; by force, through religion, through uplifting social activities… Still many of us stick two fingers up to all that. Have another drink.

Today, one small and brilliant remnant of Spa Fields history as a gathering point for pleasure continues to sparkle: the Clerkenwell Festival, held every August, a lovely little bash with lots of great live rockabilly and punk, great junk and secondhand clothes stalls, and lots of other fun stuff… Well worth a visit!

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

A short pamphlet we published and gave away at the Clerkenwell Festival 2016 is available from the past tense publications page

Today in London’s unruly history: a bursting brewery vat turns St Giles into a free festival, 1814.

The St Giles Rookery, was one of central London’s most notorious slums for centuries, a harbour for rebels & criminals: “ one dense mass of houses, through which curved narrow tortuous lanes, from which again diverged close courts”… Largely contained between Great Russell Street, Bloomsbury Street (then Charlotte St) Broad Street and St Giles High Street, a warren of cheap lodging houses, “set apart for the reception of idle persons and vagabonds.”, a haunt of coiners and thieves, costermongers (pedlars and street hawkers) , fish-women, newscriers, and corn-cutters. A major bugbear of authorities and moralising reformers, supplier of large numbers to the gallows at Tyburn and the convict transport ships… It teemed with the poorest, the most desperate.

On the edge of the Rookery’s most notorious streets, a large brewery, originally built by Blackburn & Bywell, though later known as Stevensons (and also possibly Manx & Co), used to occupy the land where the Dominion Theatre stands, between the end of Bainbridge Street and Great Russell Street, backing onto some of the ‘darkest spots’ of the old rookery.

“a great day for the Rookery”

On October 17th 1814, this was the scene of a disaster which is said to have turned into a free festival: “the great porter vat, which stood 22 feet high and contained 3555 barrels (or 135,000 imperial gallons)… the talk of the town when first erected… burst, flooding the Rookery.” Other vats burst as the debris collapsed, and several flimsy garret walls collapsed under the tremendous force of thousands of gallons of dark beer, killing several inhabitants [seven, possibly; it also damaged the Tavistock Arms pub]. But the rookery-dwellers weren’t likely to pass up such an opportunity, as described by local chroniclers Gordon and Deeson, (with typical loaded language: again, note the immediate likening of the residents to verminous animals): “Like rats out of their holes came the mob and lapped at the porter as it ran along the gutters, or cupped their hands and poured it down their throats…” The more enterprising grabbed whatever containers they could to collect the porter for later consumption, “even the children, in the scantiest of rags or more more frequently nothing at all, ran out to do their share with spoons… it was a great day for the Rookery.” In court it was held to be an Act of God!

Allegedly along with those crushed and drowned by the initial flood, a couple of St Giles folk drank themselves to death, bringing the official number of deaths to eight. While the images of a free piss up for the poor warm the heart, you have to wonder if this is all entirely true, especially as it bears an uncanny resemblance to the earlier story of the burning of Langdale’s Gin Distillery in Holborn in the Gordon Riots, not a mile east and just thirty-odd years before; you can’t help feeling maybe the incidents have been confused, and spiced with a dose of moral come-uppance by temperance-swilling historians.

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

Today in London’s radical history: Black revolutionary Robert Wedderburn disputes with utopian socialist Robert Owen, (maybe), 1817.

As I have said before, this blog is mainly not written by professional historians (more like talentless amateurs); we are interested in events, ideas, social struggles and rebellious personalities of the past, and try to spread what we learn, often as we learn it. Partly for inspiration, partly as it links to our own experiences, partly to keep memories alive. We don’t claim to be especially original, or even very dedicated in our research; to some extent we don’t have time.

Bearing that in mind, we freely admit that this post contains serious gaps, where we haven’t really had a chance to dig deep to discover what some might consider crucial facts. Because the personalities and ideas involved are interesting to us, here it is anyway. If anyone reading this knows more about the subject of this post, or where to find out more, we’d love to hear from them…

We start with a picture: the image above, which shows black anti-slavery activist, radical agitator, insurrectionist, and blasphemous preacher Robert Wedderburn, climbing onto a platform to argue with utopian socialist Robert Owen.

Despite some investigation, it’s uncertain to us whether this confrontation actually took place or not, or is a representation of an argument that took place in the pages of the radical press… If it did take place, it seems likely was either on the 21st of August 1817, during one of Robert Owen’s public meetings at the London Tavern, in Bishopsgate (the site today occupied by Nos 1-3 Bishopsgate).

Owen was touring the country propagating his ideas in a widely publicised series of public meetings, including a series of celebrated meetings at the City of London tavern in August 1817. A well-attended public meeting on the 14th had been ‘adjourned’ and re-assembled on the 21st.

Robert Owen had risen from artisan beginnings to become first the manager of succession of cotton mills in Manchester, before he found fame running the New Lanark mills in Scotland. Intelligent, self-taught (and somewhat convinced of his own importance) Owen turned New Lanark into a model factory and model village: the 1,300 workmen and their families and between 400 and 500 pauper children were made to adopt new living, working, sanitary, educational and other standards. Under his new regime, conditions in the factory were clean and children and women worked relatively short hours: a 12 hour day including 1½ hours for meals. He employed no children under 10 years old. He provided decent houses, sanitation, shops and so on for the workers, a school for the children (as long as the parents could afford for them not to work). He gave rewards for cleanliness and good behaviour and mainly by his own personal influence encouraged the people in habits of order, cleanliness, and thrift.

New Lanark’s factory and village became famous and by Owen’s count between 1814 and 1824 about 2,000 visitors a year came to observe what he had created.

Owen is often called ‘the father of English socialism’. He is also referred to as a utopian socialist, which is not inappropriate, in that like More’s Utopia, his vision of the ideal society was of an order imposed from above on a people who needed to be told how to live. In his view social change meant trying to create a changed working man. Owen became convinced that the advancement of humankind could be furthered by the improvement of every individual’s personal environment. He reasoned that since character was moulded by circumstances, then improved circumstances would lead to goodness. The environment at New Lanark, where he tried out his ideas, reflected this philosophy. But Owen was intolerant of criticism from below, becoming increasingly dogmatic and coming to regard himself as a prophet and visionary. He was more devoted to his ideals than to any human being and had a greater love for mankind in the mass than for any individual.

“the persons under him happen to be white, and are at liberty by law to quit his service, but while they remain in it they are as much under his management as so many negro slaves…” (Robert Southey, Journal of a Tour of Scotland in 1819)

Owen’s conception of socialism was a society based on a network of ‘Villages of Mutual Co-operation’, which he put began to put into practice in his US utopian colony’ New Harmony in 1825. French utopian socialist Fourier called his similar concept a ‘phalanstery’. Based on the practical developments of New Lanark, the villages were to be the “kernel of a rural community which would be self-sufficient through agricultural and manufacturing produce, a monumental square of terraced housing within which a green, tree-filled space was interspersed with communal buildings – schools, kitchens and a library. Radiating outwards in successive belts were the phalanstery gardens, manufacturing buildings screened by trees, and agricultural land…”

The village or phalanstery would organise labourers and poor people without work into communes of 1000-1200 people, either working in agriculture or in manufacturing; their labour would guarantee them “an ample supply of the necessities and comforts of life”. In addition an important element of the ethos of his communes was to be education in mutual co-operation, moral training and “economy in the lodging and living of people”. While the ethos of a “population united through ideological commitment” would be central to the project, Owen always saw the workforce in these ‘deal communities’ to be a passive mass, motivated by the need to survive. Just as at New Lanark he had run the mills as a “benevolent dictator”, each village would be directed by a Superintendent. His vision was always of a better world brought in from the top down, not created by the occupants of the communes themself. As he wrote in 1816, he believed that “Human character is often formed FOR, and not BY, the individual.” Since human character was the basis of social change as he saw it, he proposed to mould human character, removing the power to change the world from most of the humans involved. In reality, rather than being a utopian socialist, Owen was an originator of a strand of benevolent capitalism.

Owen always saw his socialism as preventing social upheaval and disorder, exerting control by ensuring “a population socialsied into dependence on capitalist benevolence”: “The people were slaves at my mercy; kiabke at any time to be dismissed, and knowing that, in that case, they must go into misery, compared with such limited happiness as they now enjoyed.” Thanks Rob!

An unsympathetic commentator (not a radical) remarked that this was “not far removed from a well-regulated parish workhouse”. Which is ironic, as Owen’s ideas bore fruit in many capitalist enterprises in the succeeding decades. While traditionally Owen’s greatest effect was seen to be his influence on the co-operative movements that spread out in the mid-19th century, the lessons of new Lanark and Owen’s ideas of ‘moral management’ can also be seen in the utilitarians’ developments of social control through architecture, surveillance and, benevolence and force (or at least pressure) mingled together. ‘Enlightened’ employers adopted Owen’s model in their plans for benevolent capitalist model villages like Saltaire; utilitarians drew up plans for coercive insitituions like asylums and prison, but with an eye to Owen’s model. Later still, Owen’s carrot and stick blueprint, the offer of better conditions for those wiling to submit to moral and behaviourial oversight was also integrated into the beginnings of social housing, the model dwellings… Into the 20th century and utopian architects were still drawing up plans for ideal communities in tower blocks.

Ironically, however, in 1817, and for much of his life, Owen’s plans were never taken seriously enough by many of the men of substance he hoped to attract to his scheme. Some because of their initial cost and because they might simply increase the number of unemployed poor by encouraging those already in that condition to have more children. Owen also made ‘a vigorous denunciation of religion’ as part of his address at the meetings, and also questioned the role of the traditional family; this in fact probably alienated more potential supporters, both among the movers and shakers that Owen concentrated on, and among the working class. Christianity was still fundamentally crucial to the daily life of most of the people of Britain (and beyond), drummed into all from an early age, (and if not always enforced, it was still then compulsory to attend church). If people thought Owen’s communes impractical or expensive, attacking religion was seriously shocking. On a purely tactical level, Owen had blundered by bringing god into it- but tactics were never Owen’s strongpoint.

Robert Wedderburn’s bone of contention seems not to have been primarily with Owen’s religious views though. Born in Jamaica, his father a white owner, his mother a slave, raped by his father and then sold after his birth… An ex-sailor, who arrived in London in time to take part in the Gordon Riots, he became a Methodist street preacher, but developed a fierce millenarian radical voice. He became a follower of communist Thomas Spence, who linked opposition to slavery with opposition to the enclosures of the commons in England. Spence was a prolific publisher and distributor of handbills, broadsheets, songs, tracts, pamphlets and periodicals; under his influence Wedderburn became a provocative and blasphemous publisher and agitator, founding a chapel in Soho where tumultuous meetings and theatricals were held… did time in Cold Bath Fields, Dorchester, and Giltspur Street Prisons for theft, blasphemy, and keeping a bawdy house.

He plotted revolution with radicals, former soldiers, and probably narrowly escaped joining his comrades the Cato Street Conspirators on the gallows… His most transcendental activity was publishing his Axe Laid to the Root, powerfully linking the suffering of African slaves in the colonies to the privations felt by the British working class during the establishment of capitalism, and identifying the overthrow of slavery and capitalism as one and the same. A beguiling, harrowing and intensely inspiring figure, Wedderburn represented everything about social change from below that Owen tried to control – insurgent, enraged and apocalyptic.

But did Wedderburn really intervene physically to attack Owen’s ideas? Is the image of him rising to challenge Owen on the stage a drawing from life? He certainly did in print, publishing a letter in the Forlorn Hope warning Owen that “the lower classes are pretty well convinced that he is the tool of the landholders to divert the attention of the public from contemplating on the obstinacy and ignorance of their governors.”

Perceptive, seeing the intimate connections that underlay the daily experience of the poor, knowing unlike Owen that the liberation he desperately saw was needed can only be created by our own hands, from below… Wedderburn hits the nail on the head. He wasn’t alone in suspecting Owen’s doctrines – for the next 40 years, through the early history of co-operation, Owen’s flirtation with trade unionism in the 1830s, and his increasingly wacked out later career, Owen’s dictatorial and messianic approach would divide and alienate even his followers.

This article owes much to Patrick Eyres, Et in Utopia Ego: Social Control: the architectural legacy of Robert Owen, explored through the model villages of Saltaire and Quarry Hill, published in the magnificent New Arcadian Journal (no 28).

For more on the brilliant Robert Wedderburn, a good start is chapter in Peter Linebaugh, The Many Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic, or Iain McCalman, Radical Underworld, Prophets, Revolutionaries, and Pornographers in London, 1795-1840.

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

Today in London’s radical history: Troops fire on crowd protesting arrest of Radical MP Francis Burdett, 1810

Francis Burdett was not an obvious candidate for radicalism… The son of a Baronet, educated at Westminster School from 1786 until his expulsion in 1788, and Christ Church, from 1786 to 1788; married to Sophia Coutts, the daughter of the extremely wealthy banker, Thomas Coutts; handed the rotten borough of Boroughbridge in Yorkshire by his father-in-law…

But Burdett became friends with the radical lawyer, Horne Tooke, and was deeply influenced by his political views. In parliament he refused to join the Whigs or the Tories, and acted as an independent. His maiden speech was on Ireland and he upset most of his colleagues with the claim that the government was guilty of the “oppression of an enslaved and impoverished people”.
Burdett opposed the suspension of Habeas Corpus in 1796 and criticised all attempts by the government to suppress individual freedom.

He campaigned in 1798 and 1800 on behalf of mutinous sailors imprisoned in Cold Bath Fields Prison and his fierce attack on prison conditions won him popular support. During his election campaigns his appearance on the hustings, elegant and long-limbed, brought cheering crowds…
Burdett was one of the few members of the House of Commons that supported the idea of parliamentary reform. Radicals in London approached Burdett and asked him to stand as their candidate for the county of Middlesex, a seat previously held (after famously uproarious elections) by populist demagogue John Wilkes. He was elected there in 1802, but was defeated in the elections held in 1804 and 1806.

Burdett now switched to Westminster, a constituency with a reputation for electing Radicals; partly because it had one of the largest electoral rolls in England. Most of the 13,863 voters were shopkeepers and artisans who had a strong dislike of aristocratic privilege. Sir Francis Burdett easily won the 1807 election, polling more votes than the combined total of the three defeated candidates. He later recalled: “The best part of my character is a strong feeling of indignation at injustice & oppression & a lively sympathy with the sufferings of my fellows”.

Burdett’s close friendship with William Cobbett led to his arrest in 1810. In 1809 he had been charged with a breach of privilege by the House of Commons, after his article in Cobbett’s Political Register attacked parliamentary corruption and the exclusion of reporters from debates on a controversial military expedition. Burdett was defended by Samuel Romilly. On 6 April the Commons voted to commit Burdett to the Tower of London, whereupon he challenged the speaker’s warrant and barricaded himself in his London house, refusing to allow soldiers to arrest him… Crowds surrounded his house, and rioters attacked the residences of Prime Minister Spencer Perceval and prominent Tories. After two days of rioting, armed troops were called in to London, firing on rioters on April the 8th. In the end though, Burdett backed down, and submitted to arrest. He was arrested on the morning of 9th April 1810 and was driven to the Tower of London (sparking more rioting), where he was held until the end of the parliamentary session on 21st June. The government was too afraid to expel him from Parliament. When Burdett was released, he cancelled a march through London, fearing further riots and loss of life. His biographer has argued: “Burdett’s popularity reached its peak after the incarceration; three separate biographies of him were published during that spring. But he proceeded to disappoint his followers by preventing a procession through London on his release, fearing further riots and loss of life, or that he would be assassinated.” Richard Carlile complained that “the mind of the people has marched, and Sir Francis has not been disposed to march with it”.

Sir Francis was now seen as the leader of the Radicals in the House of Commons. He introduced motions for parliamentary reform, supported attempts to expose government corruption, and the campaign against the slave trade. Unlike other anti-slavery MPs he linked slavery of other races to oppression at home. In 1816 he attacked William Wilberforce when he refused to complain about the suspension of Habeas Corpus. Burdett commented: “How happened it that the honourable and religious member was not shocked at Englishmen being taken up under this act and treated like African slaves?”

In 1819 Burdett led the campaign for an independent inquiry into the Peterloo Massacre. Burdett wrote to the Westminster electors on 22nd August 1820 condemning the massacre and calling on “the gentlemen of England” to join the masses in protest meetings. Burdett was prosecuted for seditious libel, found guilty, sentenced to the Marshalsea Prison for three months, and fined £2,000. Samuel Bamford, a weaver from Manchester, wrote during this period that Burdett “was our idol”.
Burdett was also a strong advocate of religious toleration and several times attempted to persuade Parliament to grant Catholics equal rights with Protestants. The Catholic Emancipation Act was finally passed in 1829. Burdett also had the satisfaction of seeing the start of parliamentary reform with the passing of the 1832 Reform Act.

Burdett became friends with Benjamin Disraeli and supported him as the Radical candidate for High Wycombe. Disraeli later wrote about Burdett: “He was tall, and had kept his distinguished figure; a handsome man, with a musical voice, and a countenance now benignant, though very bright… He still retained the same fashion of costume in which he had written up to Westminster more than half a century ago… to support his dear friend Charles Fox; red top-boots, and a blue coat and buff waistcoat.”

As he got older, Burdett became more conservative. In his sixties he began to argue that the Catholic Emancipation Act and the 1832 Reform Act had gone too far. These opinions upset the Radicals and his thirty years as M.P. for Westminster came to an end in 1837. He was approached by the Tories to be their candidate in North Wiltshire. Sir Francis Burdett accepted their offer and he won the election, remaining a tory MP till his death in 1844.

Read a Report of the Committee appointed by the Court of Lord Mayor and Aldermen – “to investigate by what causes and under what Circumstances some persons were killed or wounded by the Military, on Monday the 9th of April, 1810.”

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

Today in London’s rowdy history: the last Frost Fair opens on the Thames, 1814.

The 1814 Frost Fair

“Skittles was played by several parties, and the drinking tents were filled by females and their companions, dancing reels to the sound of fiddles, while others sat round large fires, drinking rum, grog, and other spirits.”

In exceptionally cold winters, especially during the ‘Little Ice age’ (thought to have lasted from about 1300 to about 1850) ‘Old Father Thames’ used to freeze solidly enough for people to walk across. Since Londoners from the year dot have loved nothing better than a party, preferably an unlicensed free-for-all, the holding of fairs on the river on such occasions became a tradition. There were Frost Fairs in 1564, 1608, 1634, 1683, 1715, 1739, and 1789, and finally, in 1814.

The first properly recorded frost fair was during the winter of 1607/08. During December the Thames had frozen enough to allow people to walk between Southwark to the City, but by January the ice became so thick that people started setting up camp on it, and holding football and bowling matches; the Fair hosted fruit-sellers, shoemakers, barbers… even a pub or two. To keep the shopkeepers warm, there were even fires within their tents.

During the Great Winter of 1683/84, where even the seas of southern Britain were frozen solid for up to two miles from shore, the most famous frost fair was held, known as The Blanket Fair. The London writer and diarist John Evelyn described it in detail, writing:

“Coaches plied from Westminster to the Temple, and from several other staires to and fro, as in the streetes, sliding with skeetes, a bull-baiting, horse and coach races, puppet plays and interludes, cookes, tipling and other lewd places, so that it seemed a bacchanalian triumph or carnival on the water, whilst it was a severe judgement on the land, the trees not onely splitting as if lightning-struck, but men and cattle perishing in divers[e] places, and the very seas so lock’d up with ice, that no vessels could stir out or come in.”

However, since holding a festival on a piece of ice, has its risks, there was the occasional tragedy. During the fair of 1739 a chunk of ice gave away and swallowed up tents, businesses and people.

Another tragedy occurred in 1789: melting ice dragged away a ship anchored to a riverside pub in Rotherhithe. As the ‘Gentleman’s Magazine’ wrote at the time:

“The captain of a vessel lying off Rotherhithe, the better to secure the ship’s cables, made an agreement with a publican for fastening a cable to his premises. In consequence, a small anchor was carried on shore, and deposited in the cellar, while another cable was fastened round a beam in another part of the house. In the night the ship veered about, and the cables holding fast, carried away the beam, and levelled the house with the ground, by which accident five persons asleep in their beds were killed.”

In 1811 the river froze hard, leaving only a narrow channel, so that people could walk on it from Battersea Bridge to Hungerford Stairs. But only three years later it froze hard again at the beginning of January after a week long fog. The streets were piled high with snow, the ice on the river dirty and “lumpy” but firm enough on January 30th for seventy people to walk across from Queenhithe to the opposite bank. More people soon ventured onto the ice and by Monday Feb 1st the river was so solid from Blackfriars Bridge to some way below Three Crane Stairs that thousands were tempted onto it.

The Times of 2 February 1814 reported that “in some parts the ice was several feet thick, while in others it was dangerous to venture upon”. The Frost Fair was focused between London Bridge and Blackfriars Bridge in the heart of the city.

By Tuesday the whole area was a fair, built around a main ‘road’, nicknamed the ‘City Road’, which went straight down the middle of the Thames rather than across, and was lined on both sides with about thirty stalls, decorated with streamers, flags and “signs”, set up for the sale of porter, spirits, and other drinks as well as for skittles, dancing, and a variety of games.
By the next day, Wednesday (February 3rd), eight or ten printing-presses had been set up, printing cards and broadsides to commemorate the ‘great frost.’

A small sheep roasted on the ice drew quite a crowd – though they were charged sixpence to view it. The meat was afterwards sold at a shilling a slice as ‘Lapland mutton.’ But the highlight was a roast ox. Mutton was also served – both in slices and in mince pies.

Tea, coffee and hot chocolate were on sale. But alcohol dominated the proceedings. Ginger bread vendors sold cups of gin. There was the strong gin was called Old Tom – “incredibly ardent”; Purl – a mix of gin and wormwood wine, similar to vermouth (drunk hot). There was also a “very spiky” beer called Mum infused with spices, like a wassail or winter ale. The tents – made out of sails and propped up with oars – were called “fuddling tents”, as you were likely to leave fuddled by the strong liquor.

It was still not wise to stray too far. A plumber called Davies tried to cross near Blackfriars Bridge carrying some lead and fell through the ice (plumbers being as daft then as now). Two young women were luckier when they fell in, being rescued just in time by Thames watermen.

On Thursday the ice seemed to be still as solid as rock. The fair continued to grow and attract more visitors. There were swings, bookstalls, skittles, dancing-booths, merry-go-rounds, sliding-barges, just like Greenwich and Bartlemy Fairs. Friday the 4th brought even more, and scores of pedlars, selling books, toys, anything labelled with the words “bought on the Thames”.

The Thames watermen, far from being ruined made a huge profit by charging a toll of twopence or threepence to enter ‘Frost Fair;’ – and demanding a tip on leaving. Some were rumoured to have made up to £6 a day.

That afternoon, however, the ice cracked above London Bridge, a large piece carrying away a man and two boys through one of the arches. They were rescued by some Billingsgate fishermen.

For the remainder of the week the fair remained in full swing, the ‘City Road’ between Blackfriars Bridge and London Bridge crowded till after nightfall.

On Saturday the 5th the wind turned to the south, with a slight fall of snow and sleet. Undeterred, thousands returned to the fair, and were tempted by donkey rides for a shilling. Later that day the crowd thinned as rain began to fall and the ice to crack, threatening stalls, donkeys, printing-presses, and all.

The thaw was rapid. In spite of warning from the watermen two young men went on the ice above Blackfriars Bridge and were carried away. On Sunday morning, February 6th, at an early hour the tide began to flow and to break up the ice. On the Monday huge ice-floes washed to and fro with the tide, carrying off many barges and lighters from their moorings above the bridge so they were quite quickly wrecked and sank. In no time the ice was quite gone and the river flowing as usual though the frost lasted altogether till the 20th March.

So ended the last Frost Fair, possibly one of the most evocative traditions of old London. The demolition of the old London Bridge in 1831, and its rebuilding, allowing a faster flow, put an end to the chance of the river freezing; the Little Ice Age is thought to have come to and end, and the industrial Revolution helped to make the climate toastier too.

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