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

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

No, not 1968 – 1768.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Today in London gay history, 1727: pilloried for ‘sodomy’, Charles Hitchin’s friends defend him against physical attack.

London’s gay subculture is very likely as old as the city itself, but the first gay cruising grounds and gay brothels that evidence can be found are identifiable towards the middle of the seventeenth century. While the famous ‘mollyhouses’ may have begun to develop towards the end of the seventeenth century, almost 100 years earlier, theatres were singled out as haunts of ‘sodomites’.

Michael Drayton in The Moone-Calfe (c.1605) denounced the theatres as the haunts of sodomites. Edward Guilpin in Skialetheia said that the plays were frequented by sodomites, who went to sup with their “ingles” or young male prostitutes after the play. John Florio’s 1611 Italian/English dictionary defines Catamíto as “one hired to sin against nature, an ingle, a ganymede” Stubbs in his notorious Anatomie of Abuses claimed that after the performances in the theatres, “Every mate sorts to his mate, every one brings another homeward of their way very friendly, and in their secret conclaves (covertly) they play the Sodomites, or worse”.

By the 1660s homosexuality had apparently become commonplace in the capital. Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary in 1663 that “Sir J Jemmes and Mr Batten both say that buggery is now almost grown as common among our gallants as in Italy”.

The growth of a gay subculture was something that caused alarm and outrage among the respectable, and together with prostitution, church avoidance, and swearing, was considered a major immoral scourge that had to be stamped out. The Society for the Reformation of Manners (meaning Morals) was formed in Tower Hamlets in 1690, with the a primary aim of suppressing of bawdy houses (brothels) and profanity, but also dedicated to seeking out gay men, discovering where they met each other, socialised and had sex, and prosecuting them and those who ran pubs or clubs to allow them space. The Society gave birth to a network of moral guardians, with four stewards in each ward of the city of London, two for each parish, and a committee, whose business it was to gather the names and addresses of offenders against morality, and to keep minutes of their misdeeds. By 1699 there were nine such societies, and by 1701 there were nearly twenty in London, plus others in the provinces, all corresponding with one another and gathering information and arranging for prosecutions.

Ironically, Charles Hitchin (or Hitchen), the Under City Marshall, formerly a cabinet maker in St Paul’s Churchyard, was a member of the Society. Hitchin, however, was concealing a secret:

“On 29 March 1727, Hitchin met Richard Williamson at the Savoy gate and asked him to have a drink. They went to the Royal Oak in the Strand “where, after we had two Pints of Beer”, according to Williamson, Hitchin “began to make use of some sodomitical indecencies”. Apparently Williamson was not particularly offended, for although he had to leave to carry out some business elsewhere, he left his hat as a pledge to return, and indeed did so. They then went to the Rummer Tavern where, while imbibing two pints of wine, Hitchin “hugg’d me, and kiss’d me, and put his Hand ––”. Then on to the Talbot Inn, and another pint of wine. The Chamberlain made a bed ready for them, and brought two nightcaps. In bed, Hitchin “–– and –– and ––” (our court recorder is strangely reticent, but we get the gist of it).

Hitchin was well known at this inn; according to Christopher French, a servant there, Hitchin came frequently with soldiers and “other scandalous Fellows” and was often seen with them in his room. The day after this incident, Williamson had misgivings, and confessed all to his relative Joseph Cockcroft; together they went to the inn and spied through the keyhole upon Hitchin in bed with one of his menfriends. Cockcroft says “I took him by the Collar, and told him I had some Business with him. He laid his Hand upon his Sword, Sir, says I, if you offer to draw, I’ll whip ye thro’ the Gills”. Hitchin submitted, and in April was acquitted of sodomy but convicted of the attempt, and sentenced to a twenty-pound fine, six months’ imprisonment, and to stand in the pillory near the end of Catherine Street, just off the Strand.

When Hitchin was brought to the pillory on Tuesday, 2 May, his many “Friends and Brethren” had wisely barricaded the side-avenues with coaches and carts so as to impede the angry mob. But such precautions proved futile, for the throng nevertheless broke down these barriers, and blood was spilled in the ensuing battle between them and the attending peace officers. This was the first act of gay resistance in modern times, predating the Stonewall Riot which began the gay liberation movement by almost two hundred and fifty years. For half an hour, according to a newspaper report, a steady “battery of artillery” was aimed at Hitchin by “the Drury Lane Ladies”, the rocks breaking windows when they missed the object of their hatred. One might expect other “sexual minorities” to sympathise with the mollies, but the current of anti-homosexual prejudice flowed deeply through all social groupings, and some of the most virulent molly-haters were the female prostitutes. They always turned out in force when a molly was pilloried, vocally and physically expressing their indignation at the mollies depriving these “more honest whores” of their rightful custom. As seems to be the way of the world, one outcast group tries to salvage some status at the expense of another outcast group, not recognising their common oppressor. Hitchin, thoroughly pelted with filth, his nightgown and breeches literally torn away from his body by the force of the missiles, was finally let down, fainting from exhaustion. Little wonder that he never recovered from this gruelling ordeal, and he died shortly after his release from prison six months later. He died in extreme poverty, and his wife petitioned the courts for relief.

Hitchin’s “friends and brethren” were probably a mixture of mollies and semi-professional criminals, for Hitchin was a prominent “thief-taker”, and his biography provides our surest clues about the overlapping of the molly subculture with the criminal underworld. That notorious criminal Jonathan Wild – who was virtually the director of a crime syndicate which thrived upon robbing people and then returning their goods for a reward, or smuggling them to Holland – began his career as an assistant to Hitchin. “These celebrated co-partners in villainy, under the pretext of reforming the manners of the dissolute part of the public, paraded the streets from Temple-bar to the Minories, searching houses of ill-fame, and apprehending disorderly and suspected persons: but such as compliment these public performers with private douceurs were allowed to practice every species of wickedness with impunity”. Hitchin’s membership of the Society for Reformation of Manners, and access to its network of information, would have added immeasurably to his power in the underworld, but it is nevertheless ironic that he pretended to be an active supporter of the very Society which was responsible for the purge of the molly houses which indirectly led to his downfall.

Hitchin was born about 1675; in 1703 he married Elizabeth, daugter of John Wells of King’s Waldon, Hertfordshire, and may have had one or more children by her. They lived on the north side of St Paul’s Churchyard, where he practised his trade as a cabinet maker. Elizabeth’s father died in 1711, and Hitchin persuaded her to sell her inheritance to enable him to buy the office of Under City-Marshall in January 1712 for £700. This valuable post enabled him to regulate some 2,000 thieves, to blackmail them and others, to receive stolen goods and extract enormous sums of money from their owners for returning them.”

Hitchin’s prosecution came in the context of a major attack on the gay meeting places of the city, especially the mollyhouses. The most well-known of them, Mother Clap’s, had been raided in February 1726, with the arrests of 40 men; Gabriel Lawrence, William Griffin, and Thomas Wright had been hanged in May of that year for sodomy.

There’s much more on London’s gay subcultures, trials, writings at Rictor Norton’s excellent site, Homosexuality in Eighteenth Century England.

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Today in London’s drunken history: a gin riot in Seven Dials, 1735.

The Gin Craze was a period in the first half of the 18th century when the consumption of gin increased rapidly in Great Britain, especially in London. The heavy drinking culture of the time became a virtual epidemic of extreme drunkenness; this provoked moral outrage and a legislative backlash that some have compare to the modern drug wars… Although more recent parallels with minimum alcohol pricing spring to mind…

Cheap gin, first imported from the Netherlands in the 1690s, became an extremely popular drink in the early 18th century. Politicians and religious leaders began to argue that gin drinking encouraged laziness and criminal behaviour. In 1729 Parliament passed a Gin Act that increased the tax on the drink. This law was deeply unpopular with the working classes (or at least the drinking strata thereof), which resulted in mass agitation against the laws, widespread avoidance, attacks on the numerous informers out to make money by dobbing in unlicensed ginsellers, and to a number of riots in London. The government eventually gave in, reducing duties and penalties, claiming that moderate measures would be easier to enforce.

The British government tried a number of times to stop the flow of gin. The Gin Act 1736 taxed retail sales at a rate of 20 shillings a gallon on spirits and required licensees to take out a £50 annual licence to sell gin, a fee equivalent to about £7,000 today. The aim was to effectively prohibit the trade by making it economically unfeasible. Only two licences were ever taken out. The trade became illegal, consumption dipped but then continued to rise and the law was effectively repealed in 1743 following mass law-breaking and violence (particularly towards informers who were paid £5 to reveal the whereabouts of illegal gin shops). The illegally distilled gin which was produced following the 1736 Act was less reliable and more likely to result in poisoning.

By 1743, England was drinking 2.2 gallons (10 litres) of gin per person per year. As consumption levels increased, an organised campaign for more effective legislation began to emerge, led by the Bishop of Sodor and Man, Thomas Wilson, who, in 1736, had complained that gin produced a ‘drunken ungovernable set of people’. We we’ll drink to that…

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

The Gin Craze began to diminish after the Gin Act 1751. This Act lowered the annual licence fees, but encouraged ‘respectable’ gin selling by requiring licensees to trade from premises rented for at least £10 a year. Historians suggest that gin consumption was reduced not as a result of legislation but because of the rising cost of grain. Landowners could afford to abandon the production of gin, and this fact, coupled with population growth and a series of poor harvests, resulted in lower wages and increased food prices. The Gin Craze had mostly ended by 1757. The government tried to ensure this by temporarily banning the manufacture of spirits from domestic grain. There was a resurgence of gin consumption during the Victorian era, with numerous ‘Gin Palaces’ appearing.

The late 1730s saw a constant battle in the streets over gin, with the ‘mob’ targeting informers, fight off the constables, and, if possible, grab as much free booze as they could… In 1735, one small riot seems to have involved the simple storming of a gin shop…

“Tuesday, 8. At Seven Dials occurred a Riot at the closing of a Gin Shop owned by Captain Speke. When the Mob became outrageous in their attempts to force the stoutly defended Building, Justice of the Peace Mr Maitland read the Riot Act but the Mob refused to disperse peaceably as required, the Guard of the Tower was called to enforce the Peace with Ball, Butt and Bayonet, after which all was quiet. The Shop was wrecked by Intruders and all the Genever Spirits lost.”

The attack is also referred to in a bizarre satirical report, attributed to ‘Charles Cholmondeley-Fitzroy, Lord Foppingham’, which contains cryptical references and head-scratching complexities… (Note that ginsellers had invented the slot machine by 1735…)

“To : Mr Berry, Secretary, Society for Effectual Redress.

Sir,

In accordance with the customs of our esteemed Society, I have the honour to submit for your Observation the following Intelligence, being an Account of the recent Motions of those worthy Fellows of our Club, Messrs Church, Elmhill, ben Ezra, and the Rev Munro, somewhat aided by Myself. For all that no one Principal, in search of Redress, has enlisted our Aid, we nonetheless hold it True that some Deviltry is plainly afoot, and have taken up the Burden of combating these latest dark Manifestations of the Juniper Scourge.

The business in hand was first observed thanks to the vigilance of some of the Hon Members above, they having witnessed a Riot in the street, evidently occasioned by mass consumption of Gin. Notwithstanding the commonplace nature of this event, they (being Gentlemen of some penetration) decried some Singular factors in the business. For one, the mobile nature of this disturbance. The odd behaviour of some members of the mob; viz, that they rallied to the cry “get the monsters!”, even though none such were evident. More singular still, one of the rioters, a strumpet, was seen to dive into an alley, and entice therefrom a worthy footpad of the town; who had, but moments before been lurking about his improper trade, as befitted any trueborn English criminal. But one kiss of the Maenad’s gin-sodden lips had him dancing along with the rest. Much effort was expended by the crazed mob in the destruction of any glass, windows and mirrors alike becoming objects of their wrath. And yet, within a very short time, this revelry petered out, as though a summer storm had passed. Seeking for some intelligence as to the cause of this baseless riot, Jack Church was able to divine that, before reaching its apogee in the destruction of a glaziers shop, the disturbance had its origin by the gin shop of one Capt. Speke.

Of this remarkable emporium, I shall have more to impart in due course. Suffice to report, that, upon meeting at Kent’s, we formed the opinion that the business had been the work of no common distillate. The antiquary ben Ezra identified one kind at least of monstrous agent with an affinity for mirrors, the Geburith of ancient fable. Having been but lately pursued by just such a creature, I thought it sufficient reason to take such warnings with no small gravity. Thus encouraged we paid a visit to the glazier whose shop had suffered at the hands of the mob. From this worthy, one Sydenham, we obtained the information that the broken mirrors (fine quality Venice glasses, tho sadly but poor trumpery work for the settings) had been obtained as a job lot from a vessel in the Pool, one “Black Pig”. Bespeaking a few samples, we left.

Here I must add, the remarkable facts that the honest builder Jack Church had obtained in regard of the gin shop of Captain Speke. This novel innovation of trade has no entrance, doors, nor any visible shop-man. In their stead, one pays custom by introducing coin into a slot, whereupon gin issues forth from a spout below. The expense is of the common sort for such trade – perhaps one shilling for a pint bottle. Their trade was brisk. Church struck up an acquaintance with two Tipstaffs, there to serve a summons (Sir John, naturally, being vigilant against this new outrage). They had, he heard, been unable to serve it, their diligence baffled by the extraordinary nature of the place. None had been observed to enter or leave. Boldly, that night, Church effected an entry to the premises, in search of incriminating evidence. He reports that the place is so shuttered as to be wholly dark within. The gin is stacked up, crammed into every space. Once in, he was accosted by a crone, who in some fashion, overwhelmed his will, and forced him to consume the raw Geneva. Being of stout heart, he was able to recover his senses and escape; tho he has informed me, that the noxious liquor engendered fantastickal visions akin to waking nightmares. Some light was to be shed on this the next day. Having been at study, ben Ezra confirmed that, while mirrors were innocent, the Gin sampled from Captain Speke’s carried a taint, for those who could sense it. It reeked mightily of the Geburim.

It is at this juncture that I must acknowledge a great debt to Old blind Tom. Hearing of our difficulty, (we being somewhat at a stand) this gentleman examined the bottle and gin from Speke’s. Wise in the ways of these things, he imparted to us the name of both bottle manufactory, and of distiller. The Gin was made, it seemed, at Danvers distillery in Southwark. Naturally, we repaired to Danvers forthwith. Through the agency of Jeremiah Elmhill, we heard tell that a new process had of late been introduced, one that had allowed the manufacturer to make do with fewer workers. However that may be we soon determined that all the products of Danvers work had the taint of Geburim.

It was clearly to be seen that, once more, confidential nocturnal investigations would be needed. On this occasion, Church took ben Ezra as his guide to unravel any mysteries of antiquity. It was well that he did so. In the distillery hall, but one of the five vats was alight. This last was raised on a most unusual brickwork wall. To their eyes the resemblance of this to the brickwork of Capt Speke’s shop was unmistakeable. More than this; stamped into the bricks was some strange writing. Even our Mosaic Sage could not decipher these. Indeed, it was only after great effort that he found an answer, by consulting his coreligionst, one Mendoza the Apothecary. From this learned son of Abraham we heard that the inscription – cuneiform, a writing used perhaps before the Flood – was an incantation. The purpose of the sorcery, in design, was to make good gin. In execution, thanks to a mistake in the script, rather a different result was obtained. Few living men, of any creed, would have known how to make the writing. We hold that the brick makers may be but dupes or tools in the affair; they being the Tom Yardsman company. ’Twas in the exact placing of the bricks, said Mendoza, that the Art consisted. So it is that our efforts must now turn to how we can identify that person.

As I finish this summary, I have from my fellow members one further receipt of news, touching the investors in the Danvers company. One Downsman, whose son Cartmel so heroically and tragically met his end at the hands of a beast in the affair of the Guys, was an investor. You will, Sir, doubtless remark the coincidence that those plotters against the realm, also had at their command one of the Geburim.

Of our continued efforts to root out this, latest, mischief from the hands of Bottled Ruin, you may be assured.

I remain, with the highest deference and respect,
  Your Honour’s
   Most obedient
    And most obliged,
     Humble servant,
      Foppingham”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London radical history: Major Cartwright, long time reform agitator, dies, St Pancras, 1824

John Cartwright, the third son of William Cartwright and Anne Cartwright, was born on 28th September 1740, at Marnham, Nottingham. His brother, Edmund Cartwright, was the inventor of the steam loom. His father, was a large landowner.

After education in a private school in Newark and Huddersfield, Cartwright was commissioned in the navy in 1758. He served under Captain Richard Howe, he took part in the capture of Cherbourg in 1759. He also served under Sir Edward Hawke at the British victory at Quiberon Bay in the following year.

According to his biographer, Rory T. Cornish: “Cartwright rose rapidly in the service. In 1762 he served in the Bay of Biscay as a lieutenant in the Wasp, commanded the Spy (1763–6), and devised certain improvements in naval gun exercises, afterwards incorporated in William Falconer’s Marine Dictionary. Promoted first-lieutenant in May 1766, Cartwright was sent to the Newfoundland station to serve in the Guernsey, and in 1767 was appointed deputy commissary to the vice-admiralty court there.”

Cartwright became seriously ill and in 1770 he returned to England to convalesce. In the years before the outbreak of the American War of Independence Cartwright attempted to improve his poor education by reading a large number of books. He took a keen interest in politics and in 1774 Cartwright published American Independence: the Glory and Interest of Great Britain. Cartwright criticised British foreign policy and argued that the American people had the right to choose their own rulers and to tax themselves and advocated “a political union based upon a commonwealth of interest”. The pamphlet upset the authorities and brought an end to his naval career. Instead, he was appointed as a major in the Nottinghamshire militia, which led to his being called Major Cartwright for the rest of his life.

After leaving the navy Cartwright wrote and published Take Your Choice (1776). The book argued the case for parliamentary reform including: manhood suffrage, the secret ballot, annual elections and equal electoral districts. This was followed by The People’s Barrier Against Undue Influence and Corruption. It has been argued that this was: “The finest of his pre-French Revolution works, revolved around six points. Continuing to advocate universal manhood suffrage, Cartwright also supported annual parliamentary elections, equal electoral districts, a secret ballot, the abolition of property qualifications for parliamentary candidates, and (to lessen political bribery) the payment of members of parliament.”

Edward Thompson, the author of The Making of the English Working Class (1963): “Major Cartwright defined as early as this the main claims he never swerved. Incapable of compromise, eccentric and courageous, the Major pursued his single-minded course, issuing letters, appeals, and pamphlets, from his seat in Boston, Lincolnshire, surviving trials, tumults, dissension and repression.”

In April 1780 Cartwright helped establish the Society for Constitutional Information. Other members included John Horne Tooke, John Thelwall, Granville Sharp, Josiah Wedgwood, Joseph Gales and William Smith. It was an organisation of social reformers, many of whom were drawn from the rational dissenting community, dedicated to publishing political tracts aimed at educating fellow citizens on their lost ancient liberties. It promoted the work of Tom Paine and other campaigners for parliamentary reform. Most members of the society were also opposed to the slave trade. Later that year Cartwright failed in his attempt to be elected to the House of Commons for Nottinghamshire. He also cooperated with Charles Fox and the Westminster Committee that also favoured changes to the parliamentary system.

In 1780 John Cartwright married Anne Dashwood, the daughter of a Lincolnshire gentleman. According to Rory T. Cornish, it was a happy marriage. The couple had no children but in 1786 they adopted their niece Frances Cartwright (1780–1863), who later became his first biographer.

The Gordon Riots frightened the establishment and made it more difficult for reformers such as Cartwright. men of property and weakened even demands for moderate reform. Even when the Whigs came to power under the Marquis of Rockingham, in March 1782, parliament showed no real interest in parliamentary reform. Cartwright attacked the new administration with a new pamphlet, Give us our Rights (1782).

Cartwright, also gave his support to the campaign to abolish the slave trade.

Cartwright also joined the Society of Friends of the People. Leading members of the group included Charles Grey, Richard Sheridan, John Russell, George Tierney, Thomas Erskine and Samuel Whitbread. The main objective of the the society was to obtain “a more equal representation of the people in Parliament” and “to secure to the people a more frequent exercise of their right of electing their representatives”. Charles Fox was opposed to the formation of this group as he feared it would lead to a split in the Whig Party.

On 30th April 1792, Charles Grey introduced a petition in favour of constitutional reform. He argued that the reform of the parliamentary system would remove public complaints and “restore the tranquility of the nation”. He also stressed that the Society of Friends of the People would not become involved in any activities that would “promote public disturbances”. Although Charles Fox had refused to join the Friends of the People, in the debate that followed, he supported Grey’s proposals. When the vote was taken, Grey’s motion was defeated by 256 to 91 votes.

Some Whig MPs objected to Major Cartwright being a member of the Friends of the People. They particularly disapproved of a speech Cartwright made where he praised Tom Paine and his book Rights of Man. On 4th June, Lord John Russell and four other Whig MPs resigned from the group in protest against Cartwright’s continued membership.

Cartwright made contact with the London Corresponding Society in 1793. At the end of that year Thomas Muir and the supporters of parliamentary reform in Scotland began to organise a convention in Edinburgh. The Society sent two delegates Joseph Gerrald and Maurice Margarot, but the men and other leaders of the convention were arrested and tried for sedition. Several of the men, including Gerrald and Margarot, were sentenced to fourteen years transportation.

The reformers were determined not to be beaten and Thomas Hardy, John Horne Tooke and John Thelwall began to organise another convention. When the authorities heard what was happening, the three men were arrested and committed to the Tower of London and charged with high treason. The men’s trial began at the Old Bailey on 28th October, 1794. The prosecution, led by Lord Eldon, argued that the leaders of the London Corresponding Society were guilty of treason as they organised meetings where people were encouraged to disobey King and Parliament. However, the prosecution was unable to provide any evidence that Hardy and his co-defendants had attempted to do this and the jury returned a verdict of “Not Guilty”.

The government continued to persecute supporters of parliamentary reform. Habeas Corpus was suspended in 1794, enabling the government to detain prisoners without trial. The Seditious Meetings Act made the organisation of parliamentary reform gatherings extremely difficult. As a result of these meetings, the Society for Constitutional Information came to an end.

On 6th May 1793, Charles Grey once again introduced a parliamentary reform bill. Grey argued that one of the basic principles established by the Glorious Revolution of 1688 was the freedom of elections to the House of Commons. Grey added that “a man ought not to be governed by laws, in the framing of which he had not a voice, either in person or by his representative, and that he ought not to be made to pay any tax to which he should not have consented in the same way.” Grey also attacked William Pitt, the Prime Minister, for the way that he exploited the present system. Grey pointed out that Pitt had created 30 new peers who nominated or indirectly influenced the return of a total of 40 MPs.

Charles Fox and Richard Sheridan supported Grey in the debate that followed. Robert Jenkinson and Lord Mornington, spoke against. So also did William Pitt who argued that any reform at this time would give encouragement to the Radicals in Britain who were supporting the French Revolution. When the vote was taken, Grey’s proposals were defeated by 282 to 41. Members of the Friends of the People now realised they had no chance of persuading the House of Commons to accept parliamentary reform and the group disbanded.

In 1805 John Cartwright left his large estate in Lincolnshire and moved to London. Cartwright made friends with other leading radicals living in the city including Francis Burdett, William Cobbett and Francis Place. In 1812 Cartwright decided to form the first Hampden Club. He then toured the country encouraging other parliamentary reformers to follow his example. Cartwright main objective was to unite middle class moderates with radical members of the working class. This worried the authorities and this led to Cartwright’s arrest in Huddersfield in 1813.

Samuel Bamford formed a Hampton Club in Middleton and Joseph Healey did the same in Oldham. Later that year John Knight and Joseph Johnson started the Manchester Hampden Club. Other clubs supporting the ideas of Major John Cartwright were also formed in Rochdale, Ashton-under-lyne and Stockport. Meetings took place once a week and as well as having debates on various political issues, radical newspapers such as the Manchester ObserverCobbett’s Political Register, the Black Dwarf and Sherwin’s Political Register were read to the members.

Paul Foot, the author of The Vote: How it was Won and How it was Undermined (2005) has argued: “The Hampden Clubs, founded by Major John Cartwright, split between those who wanted votes for those with property at a rateable value of more than £300 – effectively excluding all but a tiny minority of wealthy people – and Major Cartwright, who consistently urged universal male suffrage by secret ballot and annual parliaments. Cartwright sought tirelessly to bring the warring factions together, but every dinner or meeting he arranged ended in interminable squabbles on the central issue of how much property should have before they should get the vote.”

In 1818 John Knight became co-ordinator of Lancashire’s Hampden Clubs and was afterwards known as the “Cartwright of the North”. It was Knight’s idea to ask Cartwright to speak at the St. Peter’s Fields meeting on 16th August, 1819. Cartwright, who was seventy-nine at the time, was unable to attend and missed the Peterloo Massacre. However, as a result of speaking at a parliamentary reform meeting in Birmingham, Cartwright was arrested, convicted and fined £100.

Cartwright spent the last few years of his life writing a 446 page book called The English Constitution. The book outlined his ideas on the English constitution. This included government by the people and legal equality. Cartwright argued that this could only be achieved by universal suffrage, the secret ballot and equal electoral districts.

Major John Cartwright died on 23rd September 1824.

Major Cartwright is commemorated in statue form.

This article was entirely looted from Spartacus.net

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another entertainment was advertised in 1733 by Pinchbeck and Fawkes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Today in London rebel history: Charles Moor hanged for breaking out of workhouse and robbing rich man’s house, 1707.

“Charles More , of St. Martins in the Fields , was Indicted for Feloniously Stealing Divers Books to a Considerable Value and a Silver Seal , the Goods of Sir John Buckworth Bart. on the 1st instant. The Prosecutor Depos’d that on Friday-night last his Study was shut up and Fastned, and at 6 a Clock the next morning the Window was found broken open and the Goods mention’d taken away. Others deposed that between 4 and 5 that morning, the Prisoner took Water at Mortlock for London; and was observ’d to have a Bundle with him; the Bookseller that bought the Books, Depos’d that he bought the Books of the Prisoner, and gave him 15 s. for them. The Prisoner giving no Account how he came by them, the Jury found him Guilty of Felony. But a Record being produc’d, which prov’d that the Prisoner had before receiv’d the Benefit of his Clergy, and having been an Old Offender, and broken Prison several times, he was denyed the benefit of the late Act of Parliament.”(Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 3 September, 1707)

In the eighteenth century, when you were up to be hanged, you were supposed to repent. Be penitent. Confess your sins and the depravity of your past life, feel the heavy hand of the Lord and your impending doom, and beg for forgiveness. Humble yourself. Oh and grass up your fellow crims.

Charles Moor just wouldn’t play the game.

“I Shall not here give the Reader so full an Account of this Man as I hereafter intend, when the other Malefactor, condemn’d with him, shall be out of my Hand. But so much I will now say for the present satisfaction of the Publick, That I found him all along to be a very harden’d Sinner. His Condemnation was for having broke out of Prison, wherein he was confin’d to Work for former Crimes, and for having now robb’d the House of Sir John Buckworth, Bart . all which he could not deny, but he would not discover his Accomplices, nor any thing that might tend to the clearing of his Consecience, and the satisfaction of honest Men. So obstinate he was, That when both my self and other Divines shew’d him the necestity of making a free Confession, he did more and more harden himself against all Admonitions that could be given him. True it is, that in general he acknowledg’d, that he had been a very ill Liver, having broken the Laws of Cod and Man, by doing that which he ought rot to have done, and omitting to do that which he should have done. Further, he came to acknowledge, that he had been guilty of Swearing, Drunkenness, Lewdness, and the Profanation of the Lord’s Day, That he had several times wrong’d his Neighbours, and had not thought to amend his Life by former Judgments upon him; and that if he had had Grace, he might have lived very well by his Callings, which were that of a Husbandman, and of a Sailor. He told me, that he had gone several Voyages, tho but Thirty four years of Age, and understood Sea-faring Business as well as most. He likewise told me, That if he had known when he was Tryed, that he should have dyed, he would have had one or two with him for Fancy, for then. he would have made some Discovery of Persons concern’d with him, but now he was resolv’d to make none.

Thus he express’d himself, and shew;d how little sensible he was of his approaching Death, seeming rather to be given to jesting, than to entertain those serious Thoughts, which were becoming a Man under his Circumstances. I would advise others by any means not to imitate him in this wicked and desperate Temper, which for ought we know, may now have ended in his Eternal Misery.”

“Charles Moor, condemn’d both for breaking out of the Work house where he was lately confin’d, when found guilty of Felony, and for committing a Robbery since that time, viz. the first instant, in the House of Sir John Buckworth, Bart . and taking thence several Books of great Value, and a Silver Seal. He confess’d he was guilty of this Fact, as he had been before of others of the like nature. But he would not discover the Persons that were concerned therein; saying, that he would bring no Man into trouble now; but that if he had known it should have gone so hard with him at his Tryal, perhaps he would have brought in one or two to suffer with him for Fancy-sake. These were his very Words. All that was offer’d to him, both by my self and others, prov’d of little use to the perswading him to disburthen his Sin loaded Conscience, by a free and ingenuous Confession, which he ought to make, and which could be of no prejudice to any, but of general use and service to the Publick, and possibly of particular benefit and advantage to those very Persons, whose Names and Facts he was so unwilling to make known. What I could get from him in this respect, was only this; That there were some Persons lie knew, but would not name, that had formed a Design to rob a certain House in the Country, at such and such a time, which he mention’d; telling me that it might be prevented, if I did signify the same to the Person whose House it was, But as he would by no means speak more openly to this matter, nor discover them, who were to commit that Robbery; so I perceiv’d, that he was not heartily dispos’d to serve honest Men, especially when I consider’d, not only the manner, but the time of his acquainting me with this wicked Design, which was but some few hours before it should have been executed, and the Place at a pretty distance from London; so that there was hardly time enough left for me to inform the Gentleman concern’d therein, that he might duly provide against it: Nevertheless it was taken care of; and such wicked Persons, whoever they are that contriv’d the Mischief, have found, and (by the Grace of God) will always find such their ill Attempts, fruitless and dangerous to themselves

When any one would speak to this Malefactor, Charles Moor, and represent to him the necessity of his making a full and free Confession, as well for the good of his Soul, as for the good of the World, he fell into a Passion, and would be for a while after muttering and maundering so, that no Body could guess what he said, or what he meant; but that he would have nothing offer’d to him that grated upon his deluded Fancy and vicious Inclination. However, I desisted not from my Endeavours of breaking him off from his Error and Obstinacy: But his Heart was so harden’d, and so season’d in Wickedness, that no good could be wrought upon him. He confess’d indeed, That he had been a great Sinner, That he might, if he would, have lived very well, by following the Sailor’s Profession, or the Business of a Gardiner (or Nursery-man) both which he understood, and had been long employ’d in, and particularly the former; he having gone several Voyages beyond the Seas, and been in some Actions, wherein he had receiv’d some Wounds. He said, that he was not above 34 years of Age; yet had seen and done many things. When I ask’d him how he came to steal Books, as he had done, both formerly and now; he said he never stole any but twice, and the first time was a great while ago, and a great way off; but he would not tell where or when. And as to those Books, for the stealing of which he stood under this Condemnation, he said it was not in his or his Companions mind to have taken them, if they could have presently lighted on something better: Neither did they design to rob Sir John’s House, but they mistook it; their Design being then upon another. But whose House that was, or who they were that assisted him, he would not declare. Both he and Elby, I verily believ’d, encourag’d one another in their wicked Obstinacy; which was such, as that I may say, I have hardly met with the like in almost seven years that I have been in this melancholy Office. God grant I may never see such harden’d Sinners again; and that Men, whose unhappiness it is to have been engag’d in Sin, may not in imitation of this poor miserable Wretch, cast themselves away.

When he was come to Tyburn (whither they carried him in a Cart, and where I attended him) I found him still obstinate, as before, in his absolute and peremptory Denial of making any Discovery; saying, What good would it do me to hang three or four Men, and ruine their Families as mine? Here I (as I had at other times) shew’d him, that by such a Discovery (which in Law could not affect or hurt any of his Companions) he would do a great deal of good, not only to others, but chiefly to his own Soul, which was now in great danger of being sentenc’d to Hell for this his unaccountable Obstinacy. But notwithstanding all this, he persisted to the last in his wilful and tenacious humour, and would not be by any means perswaded out of it; but express’d some vain hopes of his obtaining Mercy. Whereupon I openly declared to him (for the discharge of my Duty) in the presence of the Spectators there, That if he did not clear his Conscience by making such a Confession as I had often, and now again press’d him to make; i. e. To discover his wicked Accomplices, and all things of which he could usefully inform the World; I did verily believe his Soul should be eternally lost. And therefore earnestly pray’d him to take care of this, and consider it well, and make an open Declaration of what he knew in those Matters that had been discours’d of. But instead of giving me satisfaction herein, he fell upon reflecting on the Severity of his Sentence, tho he could not deny but that it was very just, and that he had deserved the Condemnation he was under. Which was so palpable and so evident a Truth, that he was forc’d to acknowledge it; saying, That he was sensible God (in his Justice) had appointed this Death for him, for his great Sins He declared, that he dy’d in Charity with all the World; and seem’d outwardly to join with me in Prayers and singing of Psalms; and thanked me for my Pains about him. After I had recommended him to the Direction of the Divine Spirit, and pray’d that God would be pleased to soften his hard Heart, I went from him, to whom some further time was allow’d for private Devotions. When he was ready to be turn’d off, he cry’d to God for Mercy, in these and the like Ejaculations. Lord have Mercy upon me! Lord Jesus receive my Soul! &c.

But how fruitless (alas!) are all such Prayers, which the meer Terrors of Death and Hell extort from such undone Wretches, is but too apparent. God grant, others may be wiser, and consider better (and in due time) their Latter End here, so as to make sure Provision for a happy Eternity hereafter.”
(Account of the Ordinary of Newgate Prison, 1707.)

A glass to you Charlie. Give ’em nothing. Fuck ’em all.

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

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Today in London penal history: escaped convicts fight constables, Saffron Hill, 1783.

For centuries, from the early 1600s to the 1860s, England transported hundreds of thousands of convicts, political prisoners as well as prisoners of war from Scotland and Ireland to its overseas colonies in the Americas, and later to Australia.

“Initially based on the royal prerogative of mercy, and later under English Law, transportation was an alternative sentence imposed for a felony; it was typically imposed for offences for which death was deemed too severe. By 1670, as new felonies were defined, the option of being sentenced to transportation was allowed. Forgery of a document, for example, was a capital crime until the 1820s, when the penalty was reduced to transportation.

Depending on the crime, the sentence was imposed for life or for a set period of years. If imposed for a period of years, the offender was permitted to return home after serving out his time, but had to make his own way back. Many offenders thus stayed in the colony as free persons, and might obtain employment as jailers or other servants of the penal colony.

Transportation became a business: merchants chose from among the prisoners on the basis of the demand for labour and their likely profits. They obtained a contract from the sheriffs, and after the voyage to the colonies they sold the convicts as indentured servants. The payment they received also covered the jail fees, the fees for granting the pardon, the clerk’s fees, and everything necessary to authorise the transportation.” (Wikipedia)

These arrangements for transportation continued into the 18th century.

In the 17th and 18th centuries criminal justice was severe: a large, and increasing, number of offences were punishable by execution, (usually by hanging) – many were minor crimes. As there were limited choices of sentencing available to judges for convicted criminals in England, conviction for relatively minor thefts, for example, could end in the gallows. Reaction against this led not only to juries acquitting clearly guilty crims, or deliberately undervaluing stolen goods to reduce the sentence – but also to many offenders being pardoned, as it was considered unreasonable to execute them. All these were clearly unacceptable options and undermined the strict rule of the law.

Transportation allowed an alternative punishment, (although legally it was considered a condition of a pardon, rather than a sentence in itself – thus being presented as an act of the King’s mercy). Convicts who represented a menace to the community were excluded from it, and this in itself was thought to help discourage crime for fear of being transported.

In the eighteenth century, transportation became one of the major dynamics of London life, a chasm that awaited the poor, as much as the gallows, a threat held over the lower orders. The huge distance to the penal colonies often meant convicts would never see home and loved ones again… Even if their sentence was not for life, returning home at your own expense was impossible for most. Many died en route to the colonies, or were worked to death or worn out when they arrived.

Transportation did not go uncontested, however. Opportunities for escape began in the London prisons, where convicts were often held pending transfer to a transport ship; and even once on the ship, sentenced convicts could spend months or even years locked on a prison hulk in the Thames waiting for a transport ship (of which there were relatively few). As inmates on the hulks were forced to do hard labour (often on the docks) and live in cramped, disease/pest infested and damp, sinking tubs, and faced the prospect of a long voyage during which many died, incentives to leg it were high.

At any point in this often protracted process, the chance might arrive to make a solo or collective break for it. Not to mention the chances to leg it en route (few but not unknown), or once you arrived in the penal colonies – although the likelihood of staying free and even getting back to Britain was slim (it was not, however, unheard of).

By the early 1780s, with the option of penal transportation to the Americas severely restricted by the US war of independence, and transportation to Australia still in the planning stage, London’s prisons were overflowing, and the floating prison hulks crowded to the point of explosion.

In 1783 a number of convicts escaped from a transport ship off the coast of Rye, on the Sussex/Kent border.

“A set of villains to the number of 49, rose upon the crew of the Swift transport, whom they confined, and took the two long boats to get on shore; 47 went in the boats, and two in the confusion were drowned. Before they quitted the ship, they behaved with the utmost violence to those who would not join in their plan; and not only robbed the captain and crew, but their fellow convicts, from whom they took all their little money. The captain and crew are since released, and it was thought proper to make for Portsmouth and wait for orders, as the captain did not know how to act…” (Gentleman’s Magazine, September 1783).

Several of the escapees fled to London, and took refuge in the Saffron Hill rookery.

“Three of the constables belonging to the office in Bow Street having been sent in search of the transports who lately escaped on the coast of Sussex, to a house in Onslow Street, Saffron Hill, where five of them were assembled, a terrible engagement took place. Two of the villains ran up stairs, an escaped at a back window. The three that were left armed themselves, one with a poker, another with a clasp-knife, and the word was with one voice, ‘Cut away, we shall be hanged if taken, and we will die on the spot rather than submit.” On which, a bloody contest commenced. One of the constables had the fore-part of his head laid open, and received three deep wounds from the right eye down to the cheek; another of the constables received a terrible wound a little above the temple from a large poker, after which he closed with the villain, and got him down; the third constable had better success with the villain he encountered, for, by striking him on the right hand with his cutlass, he dropped his weapon, and then they all said they would submit.”

The next day, the captured escapees were questioned:

“The above prisoners, named Middleton, Godby and Bird, were examined before William Blackborrow, Esq. when Lee and Townsend, servants to Mr Akerman, deposed that they, with many other prisoners, were on the 14th of last month taken from Newgate and put on board of a vessel, in order for transportation to America. Being asked by the magistrate, by what means they had procured their liberty, they acknowledged that they had run the ship aground, having confined the captain and the crew, and got on shore in two longboats; that no cruelty was exercised, not any property stolen, except that some of the convicts obliged part of the sailors to change cloaths with them; that they concealed themselves in hedges and ditches till night, and then too different routs; that they (the prisoners), and a few others, collected half a crown among themselves, which they gave to a countryman, for conducting them to Rye, whence they walked to London, where they had arrived but a very short time when they were apprehended and committed to Newgate.”

Saffron Hill was an ideal place for the escapees to head for. The rookery, derived from the medieval Liberty here, had a well-established reputation for thievery and prostitution, but also for its well-developed tradition of self-defence against incursions from the law, and its intricate escape routes, built into the houses and garrets, designed to allow fugitives to get away if pursued.

The Saffron Hill area was ideally situated for illegal activity and refuge, sited as it was in an administrative borderland, where responsibility for policing was split between the authority of Middlesex, the City and the parishes of Clerkenwell, St Andrew Holborn, St Sepulchre’s and the Liberty of Saffron Hill. The few constables and watchmen in service generally limited their patrols to their own patches. The authorities only rarely went into the rookeries; and if they intended to arrest, then only in large numbers. So there usually was plenty of forewarning; sometimes hundreds of the slumdwellers came on to the street to confront a police invasion. Such criminal legends as Jack Sheppard, Jonathan Wild and Dick Turpin were all at times residents of Saffron Hill. As early as 1598 (when the northern end was known as Gold Lane) Saffron Hill was described as “sometime a filthy passage into the fields, now both sides built with small tenements.” (John Stow). Much of Dickens’s Oliver Twist is set here – this is the neighbourhood of Fagin and Bill Sykes.

Being so autonomous from regular police presence meant that the rookery thieving community evolved a sophisticated environment to protect their trade. Much of the following evidence was only revealed through demolition during the slum clearances to make way for the new railway and road through Clerkenwell; “Against the incursions of the law…there were remarkable defences. Over the years the whole mass of yards and tenements had become threaded by an elaborate complex of runways, traps and bolt-holes. In places cellar had been connected with cellar so that a fugitive could pass under a series of houses and emerge in another part of the rookery. In others, long-established escape routes ran up from the maze of inner courts and over the huddled roofs: high on a wall was a double row of iron spikes, ‘one row to hold by, and another for the feet to rest on,’ connecting the windows of adjacent buildings. … To chase a wanted man through the escape ways could be really dangerous, even for a party of armed police. According to a senior police officer… a pursuer would find himself ‘creeping on his hands and knees through a hole two feet square entirely in the power of dangerous characters’ who might be waiting on the other side: while at one point a ‘large cesspool, covered in such a way that a stranger would likely step into it’ was ready to swallow him up.”

The river Fleet, by this era an open drain, was also utilised; flowing through the middle of the rookery (and being a rough boundary between the Clerkenwell proper and Saffron Hill sections), “though its dark and rapid stream was concealed by the houses on each side, its current swept away at once into the Thames whatever was thrown into it. In the Thieves’ house were dark closets, trap-doors, sliding panels and other means of escape.” In the area’s most notorious low lodging house, the Red Lion Inn in West St, “were two trap-doors in the floor, one for the concealment of property, the other to provide means of escape to those who were hard run; a wooden door was cleverly let into the floor, of which, to all appearance, it formed part; through this, the thief, who was in danger of being captured, escaped; as immediately beneath was a cellar, about three feet square; from this there was an outlet to the Fleet Ditch, a plank was thrown across this, and the thief was soon in Black Boy Alley – out of reach of his pursuers.” Famous fugitives such as Jack Sheppard and Jerry Abershaw were hidden here.

In the same house, there were other means of escape (the stairs apparently resembling those in an M. C. Escher print!); “The staircase was very peculiar, scarcely to be described; for though the pursuer and pursued might only be a few feet distant, the one would escape to the roof of the house, while the other would be descending steps, and, in a moment or two, would find himself in the room he had first left by another door. This was managed by a pivoted panel being turned between the two.” (The Rookeries of London, Thomas Beames, 1852.)

On September 19th, 29 of the Swift were condemned to death for the mutiny/mass escape. Transcripts of the trials can be found here (scroll down). Three days later some were executed, and others ‘pardoned’, ie sentenced to transportation:

“Monday 22. At half after eight o’clock the following malafactors were carried from Newgate in two carts to Tyburn, where they were executed, for being the ringleaders in running the Swift transport on shore… viz Charles Thomas, William Matthews, Thomas Millington, David Hart, Abraham Hyam, and Christopher Trusty; the last three were Jews, who were attended by a priest of their own religion. These audacious villains being executed by way of example, the others (eighteen in number) were ordered to be transported for life, one only excepted, nam’d Murphy, whose term was only seven years.” (Gentleman’s Magazine, September 1873).

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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 penal history: Gordon Rioters burn down the Kings Bench Prison, 1780.

“The Kings Bench Prison burnt, with the houses adjoining, after being previously evacuated by the prisoners, who were allowed to remove their effects..”
(A plain … narrative of the late riots in … London, Thomas Holcroft)

“I asked him what could induce him to do all this? He said the cause. I said, do you mean a religious cause? He said no; for he was of no religion. He said, there should not be a prison standing on the morrow in London.”  Report of the words of Thomas Haycock, a tavern-waiter in St James, 1780.

The Gordon Riots of June 1780 began initially as a rabid protestant demonstration against the prospect of catholics being given a few civil rights. Although rioting at first targeted catholics, within hours this overflowed into a general insurrection of London’s poor against parliament, the rich, the prisons, and all authority. Six days and nights of disorder paralysed the city, driving the wealthy into flight, while their houses were looted. Crowds roamed the city; rather than one ‘mob’, there were many, some expressing bigotry and racism in their targets, others pure class hatred. Judges, ministers, MPs, Lords were made examples of, but also catholic chapels, irish and Italian communities… A rowdy potlach of festival and uprising, pogrom and party… Which fascinates and repels, as it did at the time.

Among the most positive aspects of the Riots was the wholesale sacking of pretty much every prison in London, Westminster and Southwark. Prisons were hated like almost no other institution by the London poor and labouring classes, who recognised what prison was – the big stick and holding cell, designed to keep them in fear, discipline them, direct them towards death or transportation…

Among the Southwark prisons attacked and trashed by the crowd during the first week of June was the Kings Bench,

Dates back to the early 14th century, this prison was originally intended to hold prisoners facing trials in the King’s Bench Court.  At first sited on the east side of todays Borough High Street, overcrowding and maltreatment led to a new prison being built in the 1750s, on the edge of St George’s Fields (on the west side of Borough High Street).

By this time the vast majority of its inmates were incarcerated for debt. In England during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, 10,000 people were imprisoned for debt each year. A creditor could have someone who owed them money jailed, and an inmate was typically required to repay the creditor in-full before being released. People often languished for years in a debtors prison – since they had to pay for the costs of their ‘stay’ first, then the debt second, they might never be released… Debtors prisons were feared and hated by many Londoners, and not only the very poor…

The new Kings Bench prison consisted of 224 rooms with eight large state-rooms and a chapel. Since prisoners who were solvent could pay a sum of money to the keeper, in exchange being allowed their liberty anywhere within the area the prison “rules” operated (even to take up a separate residence), the Kings Bench included amenities for the enjoyment of the better off.  Those with less money were able to purchase a “day pass”.  In 1776 one Mr Smith observed that “Many prisoners … occupy rooms, keep shops, enjoy places of profit, or live on the rent of their rooms a life of idleness, and being indulged with the use of a key go out where they please, and thereby convert a prison into an alms-house for their support.” A coffee-house, two pubs, shops selling meat and vegetables formed part of the grounds. 120 gallons of gin and eight butts of beer were said to be drunk in the Kings Bench per week.

For inmates with money, it was “the most desirable place of incarceration for debtors in England.”  But only a third of prisoners lived “in the rules”, the remaining two thirds lived within the prison walls.  By the early nineteenth century, the keeper received £3590 per year:  £872 from the sale of beer and £2,823 from income derived from “the rules”.

The old Kings Bench had been attacked & burned by the revolting peasants in 1381 & during Jack Cade’s rebellion in 1450. In 1649, after a bill for the relief of prisoners committed for debt (an important demand of Levellers & other reformers of the time) was rumoured to have been defeated, a number of prisoners rioted & tried to break out. And only a few years before the Gordon Riots, radical darling John Wilkes had been held here after ‘libelling’ the king; his supporters attacked and set fire to the new Kings Bench in an attempt to rescue him. Daily riots took place around the jail for weeks till he was released; most seriously, the ‘massacre of St Georges Fields’ saw soldiers fire on pro-Wilkes rioters in May 176, killing several.

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On 7 June 1780, at the height of the Gordon Riots, the Kings Bench was stormed and burned out by a huge crowd. It seems they announced their intentions in advance; as with several of the attacks on prisons in this week, this was partly to give warning to allow inmates time to ready themselves and any possessions to escape once the attack started.

“It is impossible to give any adequate description of the events of Wednesday. Notice was sent round to the public prisons of the Kings Bench, Fleet, &c. by the mob, at what time they would come and burn them down… As soon as the day was drawing towards a close, one of the most dreadful spectacles this country ever beheld was exhibited. Let those, who were not spectators of it, judge what the inhabitants felt when they beheld at the same instant the flames ascending and rolling in clouds from the Kings Bench and Fleet Prisons…”

The attack became as much a rollicking, desperate, defiant party:

“5 persons smoking and drinking on top of the prison, while the lower part was alight, perforce jumped for their lives; they were all received on blankets held out by people below. The furniture of the prison offices was burnt before the doors.”

Southwark’s other penal institutions also fell to the mob that week: “Borough Clink was burnt to the ground and never rebuilt; the Southwark New Prison was emptied of prisoners, the Marshalsea attacked but saved by the military, the roundhouses in Borough High Street and Kent Street pulled down and fired. And on the last night of the riots, 8-9 June, it was said that twenty spunging houses, private prisons for debtors, were destroyed in Southwark.”

Thousands of prisoners legged it as the London prison system fell before the anger of those who mostly felt the touch of its withered hand… Though large numbers would be retaken over the following months; many easy to capture because they stayed in London, unwilling or unable to flee further.

In the days following the riots, recaptured prisoners and rioters were held in sheds in the Kings Bench grounds. All the London gaols still standing were filled, rammed with arrested rioters and recaptured escapees. All were heavily guarded by soldiers, as were the sheriffs’ offices in the City and those police offices that had escaped destruction.

The Kings Bench was swiftly rebuilt, and remained open for another 90 years, closing in 1869 when the imprisonment of debtors was mostly ended.

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

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