Today in London penal history, 1800: protest in Coldbath Fields prison.

“As he went through Coldbath Fields he saw
A solitary cell.
And the Devil was pleased, for it gave him a hint
For improving his prisons in Hell.

He saw a turnkey tie a thief’s hand
With a cordial try and jerk.
Nimbly, quoth he, a man’s fingers move

When his heart is in his work.
He saw the same turnkey unfettering a man
With little expedition.
And he chuckled to think of his dear slave trade

And the long debates and delays that were made.
Concerning its abolition.”
(From The Devils Walk, Coleridge and Southey.)

Coldbath Fields Prison, also known as Clerkenwell Gaol, was built in 1794 and closed in 1877, and stood at the junction of Farringdon Road and Rosebery Avenue, in Clerkenwell, on the site of what is now Mount Pleasant Post office.

Originally intended to be a new Bridewell, to hold vagrants and put them to work, this was a Middlesex House of Correction, (though the City of London did put up some cash so that it could also make use of the prison); run by local magistrates and where mostly petty offenders served short sentences. Until 1850, the prison housed men, women and children; thereafter it was restricted to adult male offenders over the age of 17. By the 1850s it held 1450 inmates; Mayhew, visiting around that time, noted that half the inmates were there for non-payment of petty fines. Despite being designed by prison reformer John Howard, and intended to be more humanitarian prison than its predecessors it became notorious for its ‘Silent System’ regime, which banned all communication by word, gesture or sign. Any resistance to these rules was punished with the wearing of leg-irons, bread and water diets, solitary confinement and floggings. But the inmates resisted nonetheless; “A prison semaphore of winks, hand signs and tapping through the pipes emerged, its secret alphabet becoming one of the cultural inheritances of the London underworld.” The prison administration “resigned themselves to policing a silence that actually hummed with a secret language.”

Work was considered entirely as punishment, with no educational or useful effects, and for this purpose the treadmill was provided; prisoners marched aimlessly round the six huge treadmills in silence, 15 minutes on and 15 minutes off. “The treadmill was a huge revolving cylinder with steps on it like the slats of a paddle wheel. Prisoners mounted the steps of the wheel, making it turn with their feet while gripping a bar to keep themselves upright. While some wheels were geared to grind corn or raise water, most, including the one at Coldbath Fields did nothing more than ‘grind the air’.

Initially, there were severe miscalculations as to how far a con could trudge in a day; only after mass ill health was the distance reduced to a tenth of the original 12000 feet a day. Prisoners in Coldbath were prone to disease – it is thought the proximity to the foul Fleet sewer may have helped the Prison to have an abnormally high death rate… The gaol became known as the ‘English Bastille’, later the ‘Steel’.

Eighteenth and nineteenth century prison reformers combined genuine ‘reform’ with new forms of social control, including the rule of silence, separation of inmates, ‘improving’ work, increased religious observance and a growing professionalism for the prison workforce. The old prisons like the Fleet and Newgate had been too uncontrollable, and were clearly shown to be mere holding cells, with no attempt at moral improvement or rehabilitation… new prisons like Coldbath had a moral mission, to turn the dissolute and rebellious poor into individuals conditioned to capital’s aims… And to prevent bribery, fraternisation and corruption that had led to escapes, and an easy life for some…

Bentham’s panopticon may never have been built, but the penitentiaries of the 19th century aimed at total control total surveillance and moral bludgeoning.

Inevitably, though, resistance bloomed even in the new bastilles… Partly this was due to an influx of politicsed and rebellious inmates.

In August 1798, eleven mutineers from the great 1797 naval mutinies that had paralysed the Royal navy (and terrified the government for a while), including the rebel captain of the Sandwich, escaped from Coldbath Fields.

In 1798 16 men from the London Corresponding Society (LCS), including former military officer Colonel Edward Marcus Despard, were imprisoned in Coldbath Fields on charges of treason. They had been arrested for plotting to incite popular uprisings in Ireland and England in preparation for a French invasion. The harsh treatment meted out to the prisoners while awaiting trial attracted radical MP Francis Burdett’s support, and he demanded a House of Commons inquiry into their case. Burdett’s exposure of conditions there, became a cause celebre.

Many radicals were detained under repressive laws designed to keep down rising radical ideas at home, and sympathy to the French Revolution during the War… LCS leader Thomas Evans was held for nearly 3 years; another detainee was Colonel Despard, later hanged in 1803 for plotting a nationwide radical uprising. The LCS prisoners mounted a steady attack on the regime of solitary. An article in the society’s magazine described the regime as ‘an ingenious mode of intellectual torture.’ It asserted that ‘remorse is to the intellect what the rack is to the body.

“Burdett’s visits to the prison became highly publicized… He uncovered a litany of abuses and brought them to public notice through a speech in the House of Commons, subsequently printed as a pamphlet titled An Impartial Statement of the Inhuman Cruelties Discovered! in the Coldbath Fields Prison.12 Although the motivation for the pamphlet was the alleged ill treatment of the state prisoners, none of the cases it exposed appeared more shocking than the plight of Mary Rich, a fourteen-year-old girl held in the prison for a month after accusing a lawyer of attempted rape. A grim feature of the late eighteenth-century legal system made provision for witnesses in trials to be held in custody, while those actually being prosecuted could remain free until trial if they had sufficient wealth to provide for it. Mary’s appearance in court a month after being committed to the prison caused a sensation: deathly pale and drawn, her emaciated frame appeared crippled from starvation. Despite being seated in a chair, she was ‘scarcely able to hold herself upright’.13 When questioned on her condition, she feebly advised the jury that she had been fed only bread and water for the month and had been left with only scanty bed coverings. Her sickly frame was exposed to a frigid cell without glazed windows or a fireplace. Further, the pamphlet relayed her claim in court that, despite being exceedingly ill for more than four days, she had been denied access to a doctor.

The Impartial Statement catalogued further abuses: prisoners being beaten by turnkeys; some prisoners being chained in irons for several months at a time without provocation; others confined to shattering spells of solitary confinement for only minor infractions; prisoners being fleeced of money for the most basic of necessities; and still others, along with Mary, starved ‘to the point of death’. With Burdett’s intervention, the plight of Colonel Despard also gained significant public attention. Along with Burdett, Despard’s West Indian-born wife, Catherine, commenced a campaign to elicit public sympathy, complaining to the Home Secretary, the Duke of Portland, that Despard had been treated ‘more like a common vagabond than a gentleman or State Prisoner’. One letter, read in the House of Commons and reported in the daily press, complained that he had been imprisoned ‘without either fire or candle, chair, table, knife, fork, a glazed window or even a book to read’. Despard was eventually moved to a room with a fire, though not before, Catherine claimed, ‘his feet were ulcerated by frost’. Burdett’s report on the prison conditions was presented to the House of Commons for recommendation, but failed by an overwhelming majority.

Nevertheless, Burdett’s and Catherine’s crusades against the prison quickly found a receptive public audience. Although the British populace had long been accustomed to allegations of abuse in old prisons such as Newgate, Coldbath Fields was one of the first prisons to arise in the outer London landscape as a testament to the aspirations of John Howard and other late eighteenth-century prison reformers. Here was a prison intended to embody Howard’s humanitarian convictions of protecting prisoners, not only from the squalor, disease and misery of old prisons such as Newgate, but also from the whims of governors and turnkeys and the ruthless prison economy. Instead, Burdett had exposed a site of neglect, barbarity and corruption.” (Christina Parolin)

In 1799, a Board of Visitors reported, having visited the prison, “the prisoners without fire, without candles, denied every kind of society, exposed to the cold and the rain, allowed to breathe the air out of their cells only for an hour, denied every comfort, every innocent amusement, excluded from all intercourse each other…”

In the following year, 1800, there were two rebellions inside the prison, in June and August, which were quelled by the Clerkenwell Volunteers (like most of the Volunteer Companies set up to defeat revolution in France and potential revolution at home). In the August mutiny, on the 14th, prisoners shouted “Murder” and that they were being starved. A crowd were said to have gathered outside in support of the rebels inside the prison (though we’re still looking for confirmation of this) – suggesting a planned revolt by radicals with outside connections…

The revolt, and the agitational effort of both Burdett and Catherine Despard in particular, did have an effect on the prison regime vis a vis political inmates.

“When Burdett took up the case of Despard—one of the first political prisoners to be housed in Coldbath Fields—he found that the former military officer was confined in one of the prison’s smallest cells, measuring a mere 7 ft (2 m) square, which, being set below ground level, flooded during rain. The window of the cell was unglazed so that he was obliged, during the rigours of a hard winter, to jump from his table to his bed, and from his bed to the ground, in order to produce such an increased circulation of his blood as should diffuse warmth through his half-frozen veins.

Despard’s wife, Catherine, reported that despite the desperate physical drill, his legs bore ulcers from the extreme cold of his cell. Combined with his ‘felon’s diet’ of bread and water, Coldbath Fields prison, she feared, had almost achieved prematurely what the hangman would later accomplish on the gallows.

Catherine’s unyielding pursuit of the government to intervene in Despard’s plight saw some eventual improvements in the conditions in which he was incarcerated. Despard’s allies were to be found across the political spectrum. Though Horatio Nelson attended his trial as a character witness, it did little to change the outcome of the final verdict. The intervention of John Reeves, former leader of a loyalist network centred on the Crown and Anchor tavern, and now a conservative magistrate, saw Despard’s prison conditions somewhat alleviated. Following Reeves’ intervention, Despard was moved to an upstairs room in the prison with a fire, was allowed books and papers, and Catherine was permitted to visit him in his cell. When Burdett presented Despard’s case to the House of Commons, the Attorney-General, John Scott, admitted that Despard had been moved to a better room because of his rank, along with other state prisoners from the LCS. Scott regretted the indulgence after it was reported that the men had made the room into a ‘Debating Society of the worst possible species’.68 He also maintained that Catherine was allowed to visit her husband and, with a thinly veiled threat, remarked that in ‘speaking of wives’, it was ‘no small degree of indulgence that the Government had not imprisoned some of them also’.

The relocation of Despard and the other LCS men to another area of the prison takes on greater significance when considering the spatial context of Coldbath Fields. Where Newgate’s architectural plans clearly allowed accommodation for state prisoners as a distinct category of prisoner, no such provision was made in the architectural design of Coldbath Fields. The absence of such specific accommodation could have prompted the Middlesex magistrates’ desperate defence in 1798 that the ‘prison was not fitly calculated to receive’ state prisoners. It is possible that in classifying state prisoners as ‘misdemeanours’, both the architects and the authorities no longer considered that such separate allocation of accommodation was necessary.

For radical prisoners, however, the repercussions were critical. As was the case with radical prisoners in Newgate throughout the period 1790–1820, separation from the remaining prison population was a crucial means of resisting the criminal identity inscribed by the prison space. Yet despite the omission of a dedicated ‘state side’ in the plans of Coldbath Fields, the historical record suggests that radical prisoners of the nineteenth century owed a great debt to the exertions of Catherine Despard; most reported being confined in larger, more comfortable cells and with access to their own yard.” (Parolin)

Future generations of radicals were locked up in Coldbath Fields: veteran of the LCS and 1798-1800 inmate Thomas Evans was again detained here with his son, Samuel Bamford and other reformers in the social and political crisis of the late 1810s (the Evans were interned under the Suspension Act); as were some of the lesser accused in the Cato Street Conspiracy in 1820.

Carlile shopmen and other activists in the unstamped newspaper war were also jailed here; as were Chartists, during the movement’s most insurrectionary period, in 1839-40, some for “printing and publishing seditious or blasphemous libel, or for uttering seditious words, or for attending any seditious meetings, or for conspiring to cause such meetings to be held, or for any offence of a political nature”.

Later Chartists held here included Ernest Jones, an important late leader of the movement (and later a proto-socialist), arrested in the turbulent summer of 1848, as some Chartists plotted an insurrection, after the presenting of the petition in April had ended in anti-climax…

The prison closed in 1877. The site was transferred to the Post Office in 1889 and its buildings were gradually replaced. The last sections were demolished in 1929 for an extension of the Letter Office.

Much of this post has been nicked from the really excellent Radical Spaces: Venues of Popular Politics in London 1790 – C. 1845, by Christina Parolin.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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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 radical history: Wat Tyler killed as the Peasants’ Revolt begins to unravel, 1381.

The 1381 Peasants Revolt remains one of the most cataclysmic and inspiring events in British history. While in the immediate it was defeated, it sounded a death knell to a feudal system already rotten and decaying, and hastened social change in England, as well as inspiring 6 centuries of agitators, activists, rebels, socialists, anarchists, liberals communists, democrats and many more. Much of it can be read to support a number of conflicting political ideologies, and often is.

At its heart the Revolt pushed to the fore a character of who it can fairly be said that probably no other person has such historical significance while so little actually known or proven fact can be definitely stated about him. School and motorways can be named after him, but his name may not even have been his real name. Wat Tyler remains an enigma, a fascinating glimpse of a personality, thrust to the head of a fierce rebellion, articulating demands so radical they get you spied on by Special Branch even today, then cut down by royal servants and slaughtered.

The basic facts behind the Peasants’ Revolt are well known. An English government (dominated by an aristocratic and clerical coterie around king Edward III and his grand-son Richard II), tries to levy three poll taxes to raise more money to fight their pointless dynastic and genocidal hundred years war in France. Those living on the south coast notice that all this cash doesn’t seem to contribute anything towards coastal defence as French raiders regularly swan up and take revenge on the nearest English without much response from the rich or their lackeys. A large section of the English rural population in the south of England, already decimated by the Black Death 30 years before, and enraged by subsequent attempts to keep wages and social mobility down by law and force, reacts to the blatant attempt to get the poor to pay more of their meagre resources to fund the rich’s adventures in blood, by rising up, refusing to pay and killing or deriving out the tax collectors. Huge armies of angry peasants march on London, having first raided the homes of the rich and the local monasteries to destroy the manor rolls that record their ‘feudal obligations’ (the unpaid work they had to do for their landlords) and the levels of rent and tax they were liable for. A general agreement is reached that feudalism itself has to go. A stroppy London populace also rebels, opens the gates to the rebels, and a number of the upper class directors of Late 14th Century England PLC are seized and put to death; some racist twats also attack foreign workers in London, because there’s always a fucking Brexiter in the mix. In terror for their lives, the king and his remaining advisers meet the rebels at Mile End and lyingly promise to grant all the demands of the rebels, signing charters to this effect, but have as much intent to keep their word as, say, councillors and big building contractors have of honouring promises to the residents of council tower blocks. Shortly after many of the rebels then leave happily for home, the core leadership of the revolt met the king again, and Wat Tyler pushes for even more concessions, going beyond even the massive aim of abolishing feudalism and proposes to abolish all classes and religious hierarchy apart from the king himself. He’s stabbed, butchered and the young king cleverly persuades the rebels to not react by killing him and his gang. Because of the holy fucking reverence people held the king in the peasants don’t kill him out of hand, which they will regret, because immediately he can Richard II orders them rounded up; hundreds, perhaps 3000, are executed or killed out of hand, and the king goes back on everything that was sworn, telling the poor to get back to the land and work because that’s where they will be forever, in their place. Sadly for him he doesn’t live long enough to see that the revolt does in fact herald huge change because the ruling class realise you can’t keep stuffing shit in people’s mouths because they will spit it in your face. So the Revolt does bring about something of the aims of the mass of its participants; we’re still waiting and fighting for the classless society bit, Wat, but this time we really will not exclude the monarchy from the chop.

So who was Wat Tyler?

As Paul Foot said about him, “Wat Tyler, about whom, to his enormous credit, we know absolutely nothing. We don’t know what he looked like, we don’t know what he did for a living, we don’t know anything about him save that he led the biggest rising of ordinary people in Britain before Oliver Cromwell.”

Guesses and assertions on scanty evidence have abounded through the centuries… As Tyler seemed around forty when he was killed, he was likely born about 1340. One document suggested that as a young man he lived in Colchester. It has been suggested that during this time he became a follower of radical priest John Ball. He may have fought in the Hundred Years War and worked for Richard Lyons, one of the sergeant-at-arms of Edward III. By the 1370s Tyler was living in Maidstone, Kent.

Tyler is sometimes conflated with one John Tyler, an actual tiler working in Dartford, Kent, whose action was one of the sparks for the uprising there. Poll tax collectors were ordered to drum up as much cash as possible, including by checking the age of young girls, as they were exempt from paying the tax –  by measuring pubic hair. The opportunity for sexual assaults by these nasty and unscrupulous men being obvious. A little like UKIP’s failed general election to enforce checks on muslim girls returning from abroad for Female Genital Mutilation, only this policy actually happened. Happily John Legge, who drew up this policy, would by be killed in London by rebels a few days later. Maybe Farage and Nuttall should be drawing up wills.

John Tiler’s house was visited by assessors, who

‘had gone to the house of one John Tyler and commanded of his wife the payment of the poll tax on behalf of herself, her husband and her daughter. She refused to pay for her daughter, as not being of age, and the collector thereupon seized the daughter, declaring he would discover if this were true.’

‘Neighbours came running in, and John Tyler, being at work in the same town tiling of an house when he heard thereof, caught his lathing staff in his hand and ran reeking home, where, reasoning with the collector, who made him so bold, the collector answered with stout words and strake at the tiler. Whereupon the tiler, avoiding the blow, smote the collector with the lathing staff that the brains flew out of his head, wherethrough great noise arose in the streets and the poor people, being glad, everyone prepared to support the said John Tyler.’

This account is sometimes repeated but attributing the killing of the collector’s death to WAT Tyler. It seems though that this story may date only from John Stowe’s account in the 17th century. At least one chronicle written a few years after 1381 (John Trevisa’s World History, c. 1390) ‘refers to John Tiler, leader of the peasants’. So perhaps it was the same man… perhaps two people of similar names shoved together by history. It’s unlikely we will ever be certain. The mystic cockney communist William Blake was inspired by the story to illustrate it in an engraving (see the picture above this post), in 18th century dress!

Wat Tyler was elected leader of the Kentish peasant army in Maidstone, as John Ball was freed from prison by armed rebels. Ball, an unfrocked radical priest, had been imprisoned for preaching subversion, and immediately joined the revolt’s leadership. As Charles Poulsen, the author of The English Rebels (1984) has pointed out, it was important for the peasants to be led by a religious figure: “For some twenty years he had wandered the country as a kind of Christian agitator, denouncing the rich and their exploitation of the poor, calling for social justice and freeman and a society based on fraternity and the equality of all people.” John Ball was needed as their leader because as a priest, he had access to the word of God. “John Ball quickly assumed his place as the theoretician of the rising and its spiritual father. Whatever the masses thought of the temporal Church, they all considered themselves to be good Catholics.”

Whether or not he had personally bashed out the brains of a poll tax collector, Tyler was either well known and respected, or very quickly recognised as being intelligent and organised, since within days of a huge army of peasant rebels gathering in Kent he had been elected leader of the Kentish contingent: some 70,000 strong by contemporary accounts. Soon he was heading the march on London.

“His ability as leader, organiser and spokesman is clearly revealed throughout the revolt, while his standing among the rebel commons was proved by the immediate acceptance of his captaincy, not only in Kent and Essex, but in Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, and even farther afield; while the strength and vigour of his personality impressed itself even on the unwilling recorders of his work.” (Reg Groves) Charles Oman, the author of The Great Revolt of 1381 (1906) claims that the main reason that Wat Tyler became the leader of the revolt was because he was a man with military experience and knew how to establish authority over a mob. However, a mob is often capable of establishing authority over itself. Tyler is recognised by even the ardent anti-peasant chroniclers as being cunning and able to make practical tactical and strategic decisions which people carried out because they made sense.

It had also been speculated that Tyler was a member of a pre-revolt underground network, sometimes called the ‘Great Society’; linked individuals and groups who shared a radical and subversive vision of a world without the hierarchies, class divisions and poverty medieval peasants endured. John Ball had been preaching a form of classless communism for several years; he was hardly unique in dreaming of a better world. Such networks are known to have existed around this time among heretical religious sects; it is hardly impossible that political groups also operated clandestinely (in fact heretical sects may well have influenced Ball and other social radicals, as millenarian theological ideas often described the coming rule of Jesus on earth in terms of a classless paradise with no suffering, poverty, work…)

We don’t know, though we can suspect, and if we have spent time in radical groups plotting social change ourselves we like to believe… Paul Foot clearly liked to think of the rebels being led by a group very like his own Socialist Workers Party: “Through Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, even Lincolnshire, there were peasants meeting together in the villages. Representatives had been previously appointed and marked down. We know that because when John Ball was released from prison in Maidstone he wrote and sent a series of letters. Only two or three have come down to us, but the letters are direct, like Party circulars mobilising the membership. They are to Jack So-and-so, get out there and get the people out. You there, John this or Wat that, go for this particular landlord, or for that particular set of manorial rolls.”

Ball for certain, and, as far as we know, Tyler were not among the Kentish rebels who had sailed across the Thames on June 2nd and held a 2-day conference with Essex rebels at which the plans to march on London had to have been drawn up (though it is possible Tyler was there). A collective leadership did arise, either from people with a rebellious past, or maybe just people with a quick mind. Despite Paul Foot’s back-projection of a form of democratic centralism at work in the woods and fields, it is more likely that there were underground networks, but that they were autonomous, making links, yes, but organising themselves without orders from some committee. Authority was granted to individuals to command the large armies that converged on London in June 1381, but the unknown number of years of grassroots agitation, discussion of ideas, preaching, maybe swearing oaths, can only really have been done voluntarily and in secret, which means either a cell structure, or self-directed local groups. It is also possible that all this was done within a few weeks, not years, because spontaneous self-organisation is possible; more likely the immediate upsurge was based on some period of subversive rumblings.

Tyler is reported to have articulated the peasants’ view that they were acting lawfully and were not out to completely expropriate the wealthy. He is said to have told a crowd: “Remember, we come not as thieves and robbers. We come seeking social justice.” Many of the rebels obeyed a strict moral code, self-imposed as far we can tell, not to steal the wealth of the rich and the church, though much was destroyed deliberately. Some who broke this code were put to death.

Henry Knighton records: “The rebels returned to the New Temple which belonged to the prior of Clerkenwell… and tore up with their axes all the church books, charters and records discovered in the chests and burnt them… One of the criminals chose a fine piece of silver and hid it in his lap; when his fellows saw him carrying it, they threw him, together with his prize, into the fire, saying they were lovers of truth and justice, not robbers and thieves.” In their own terms this reflects a belief that their actions were justified, and they could show the moral rightness of their cause by not breaking god’s commandment not to steal; though it is worth commenting that as with all uprisings and riots there will be different crowds with different agendas, and events can reflect many diverse motivations which appear part of the same movement, while having contradictions and internal conflicts.

Wat Tyler himself illustrates this, since while the majority of the rebels seem to have desired merely an end to the poll tax, or the end of feudal duties, or other definite ends, he is quoted as demanding a more fundamental program.

The Mile End meeting between king Richard and the rebel leaders, where the king ‘gave in’ and signed their charters, took place on June 14th. Large numbers of rebels then began to march home, thinking that was it. The following day, a second meeting between the king & the peasant rebels took place, at Smithfield, the great open space north of the City of London, famed for animal slaughter and the ritual execution of dissidents. The remaining rebels may not have trusted the king, and called him to come and give further assurances. At this meeting, Wat Tyler argued for equality for all under the king, the church’s wealth to be distributed among the poor, an end to men being outlawed:

“Then the King caused a proclamation to be made that all the commons of the country who were still in London should come to Smithfield, to meet him there; and so they did.

And when the King and his train had arrived there they turned into the Eastern meadow in front of St. Bartholomew’s, which is a house of canons: and the commons arrayed themselves on the west side in great battles. At this moment the Mayor of London, William Walworth, came up, and the King bade him go to the commons, and make their chieftain come to him. And when he was summoned by the Mayor, by the name of Wat Tighler of Maidstone, he came to the King with great confidence, mounted on a little horse, that the commons might see him. And he dismounted, holding in his hand a dagger which he had taken from another man, and when he had dismounted he half bent his knee, and then took the King by the hand, and shook his arm forcibly and roughly, saying to him, “Brother, be of good comfort and joyful, for you shall have, in the fortnight that is to come, praise from the commons even more than you have yet had, and we shall be good companions.” And the King said to Walter, “Why will you not go back to your own country?” But the other answered, with a great oath, that neither he nor his fellows would depart until they had got their charter such as they wished to have it, and had certain points rehearsed and added to their charter which they wished to demand. And he said in a threatening fashion that the lords of the realm would rue it bitterly if these points were not settled to their pleasure. Then the King asked him what were the points which he wished to have revised, and he should have them freely, without contradiction, written out and sealed. Thereupon the said Walter rehearsed the points which were to be demanded; and he asked that there should be no law within the realm save the law of Winchester, and that from henceforth there should be no outlawry in any process of law, and that no lord should have lordship save civilly, and that there should be equality among all people save only the King, and that the goods of Holy Church should not remain in the hands of the religious, nor of parsons and vicars, and other churchmen; but that clergy already in possession should have a sufficient sustenance from the endowments, and the rest of the goods should be divided among the people of the parish. And he demanded that there should be only one bishop in England and only one prelate, and all the lands and tenements now held by them should be confiscated, and divided among the commons, only reserving for them a reasonable sustenance. And he demanded that there should be no more villeins in England, and no serfdom or villeinage, but that all men should be free and of one condition. To this the King gave an easy answer, and said that he should have all that he could fairly grant, reserving only for himself the regality of his crown. And then he bade him go back to his home, without making further delay.”

As the king dithered, clearly reluctant to agree this even if he meant to renege later, there was a scuffle & Tyler was stabbed by the Lord Mayor, William Walworth.

“During all this time that the King was speaking, no lord or counsellor dared or wished to give answer to the commons in any place save the King himself. Presently Wat Tighler, in the presence of the King, sent for a flagon of water to rinse his mouth, because of the great heat that he was in, and when it was brought he rinsed his mouth in a very rude and disgusting fashion before the King’s face. And then he made them bring him a jug of beer, and drank a great draught, and then, in the presence of the King, climbed on his horse again. At this time a certain valet from Kent, who was among the King’s retinue, asked that the said Walter, the chief of the commons, might be pointed out to him. And when he saw him, he said aloud that he knew him for the greatest thief and robber in all Kent…. And for these words Watt tried to strike him with his dagger, and would have slain him in the King’s presence; but because he strove so to do, the Mayor of London, William Walworth, reasoned with the said Watt for his violent behaviour and despite, done in the King’s presence, and arrested him. And because he arrested him, he said Watt stabbed the Mayor with his dagger in the stomach in great wrath. But, as it pleased God, the Mayor was wearing armour and took no harm, but like a hardy and vigorous man drew his cutlass, and struck back at the said Watt, and gave him a deep cut on the neck, and then a great cut on the head. And during this scuffle one of the King’s household drew his sword, and ran Watt two or three times through the body, mortally wounding him.”

To prevent the rebels massacring them for the murder of Tyler, the king promised them all their demands if they would go home…Tyler meanwhile, carried wounded to Bart’s Hospital, was seized by Walworth & beheaded in Smithfield.

“[The king] spurred his horse, crying to the commons to avenge him, and the horse carried him some four score paces, and then he fell to the ground half dead. And when the commons saw him fall, and knew not how for certain it was, they began to bend their bows and to shoot, wherefore the King himself spurred his horse, and rode out to them, commanding them that they should all come to him to Clerkenwell Fields.

Meanwhile the Mayor of London rode as hastily as he could back to the City, and commanded those who were in charge of the twenty four wards to make proclamation round their wards, that every man should arm himself as quickly as he could, and come to the King in St. John’s Fields, where were the commons, to aid the King, for he was in great trouble and necessity…. And presently the aldermen came to him in a body, bringing with them their wardens, and the wards arrayed in bands, a fine company of well-armed folks in great strength. And they enveloped the commons like sheep within a pen, and after that the Mayor had set the wardens of the city on their way to the King, he returned with a company of lances to Smithfield, to make an end of the captain of the commons. And when he came to Smithfield he found not there the said captain Watt Tighler, at which he marvelled much, and asked what was become of the traitor. And it was told him that he had been carried by some of the commons to the hospital for poor folks by St. Bartholomew’s, and was put to bed in the chamber of the master of the hospital. And the Mayor went thither and found him, and had him carried out to the middle of Smithfield, in presence of his fellows, and there beheaded. And thus ended his wretched life. But the Mayor had his head set on a pole and borne before him to the King, who still abode in the Fields. And when the King saw the head he had it brought near him to abash the commons, and thanked the Mayor greatly for what he had done. And when the commons saw that their chieftain, Watt Tyler, was dead in such a manner, they fell to the ground there among the wheat, like beaten men, imploring the King for mercy for their misdeeds. And the King benevolently granted them mercy, and most of them took to flight. But the King ordained two knights to conduct the rest of them, namely the Kentishmen, through London, and over London Bridge, without doing them harm, so that each of them could go to his own home.”

So king Richard II led many of the remaining peasants, to nearby Clerkenwell Fields, where they were then surrounded by royal troops. After days of disorder and rebels imposing their will on the authorities, the government now had the upper hand, and hundreds of executions followed…

“Afterwards the King sent out his messengers into divers parts, to capture the malefactors and put them to death. And many were taken and hanged at London, and they set up many gallows around the City of London, and in other cities and boroughs of the south country. At last, as it pleased God, the King seeing that too many of his liege subjects would be undone, and too much blood split, took pity in his heart, and granted them all pardon, on condition that they should never rise again, under pain of losing life or members, and that each of them should get his charter of pardon, and pay the King as fee for his seal twenty shillings, to make him rich. And so finished this wicked war.”

The promises to the rebels were now so exposed as so many empty words, and a vicious repression was launched against the scum who had dared to question their place and even worse dared to act upon it and deprived a few rich plutocrats of their heads.

“Every home in London was visited by the forces of the king and asked to swear an oath of allegiance on pain of death. John Ball was half-hanged, disembowelled while still alive, hanged again and drawn at St Albans. John Rawe, Jack Straw, John Sherwin of Sussex, William Grindcobbe in St Albans, all of them were executed in one way or another after varying forms of resistance in different towns.

William Grindcobbe from St Albans was arrested, imprisoned, and told that he would be killed unless he went back and told the insurgents to lay down their arms. He agreed to go back, and spoke to some 100-150 armed men at St Albans. He told them on no account to lay down their arms, to continue the struggle – and he was taken from behind while he was speaking and executed. Such was the spirit of the Peasants’ Revolt.” (Paul Foot)

So the sun set on both the largest mass movement for social change that England witnessed in the middle ages, and the lives of the radicals who briefly challenged the whole idea of order and hierarchy. Tyler remains a mysterious figure, like a bright light shining in a dense fog. John Ball too, a comet of brilliant love and rage which can be hidden by death – but you know it’s coming round again. Because he expresses eternal ideas, the kernel of which we struggle with today: why should any live off the labour of others? Why should anyone be in power over us? Why can’t we work together for the good of all and not for profit and self-enrichment? How can we ourselves change this situation?

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Sorry to nick this next bit so directly from Paul Foot, with all our reservations about him he had a proper way with words; at the end of a talk about Tyler, Ball and the Revolt, he links it so well to the future that we will give the last words to him (ok, in reality the hard work was done by William Morris). Yes we know Foot was in the fucking SWP and we don’t support them at all. William Morris’s Dream of John Ball is well worth a read though.

“In 1881, one hundred years ago, inspired by the celebrations of the 500th anniversary of the Peasants’ Revolt, William Morris, a great socialist writer, grappled with this same idea. We do have something in common with what John Ball and Wat Tyler were doing in 1381. How could William Morris, with his enormous writing powers, try to bridge the gap for the socialists of his time? He did it in a really very brilliant piece of writing. It took him a long time to do it, and didn’t in fact appear until 1885.

He imagined himself or somebody like himself, a socialist in 1881, being plunged back into the villages of Kent in 1381, beating off the barons and the nobles. He describes John Ball coming to a village – probably the best description there is, better than the chronicles themselves because William Morris really went into it and found out about it.

At the end of the piece, which is called The Dream of John Ball, this man, who has all this experience of 500 years after 1381, has a long discussion with John Ball about what will happen. John Ball says, in effect, that he knows the revolt is going to fail, but asks what is going to happen after that? When, he asks, is his dream of all people living in common and sharing everything and there not being any vassals or lords going to come about?

Morris replies sadly that it won’t come for 500 years at least.

Not surprisingly, John Ball gets a bit depressed about that. He reminds his guest that he is marching to certain defeat and execution, and asks: For what? Is it worth it?

Here is the reply:

‘John Ball, be of good cheer, for once more thou knowest as I know that the fellowship of man shall endure, however many tribulations it may have to wear through. It may well be that this bright day of summer, which is now dawning upon us, is no image of the beginning of the day that shall be – but rather shall that day dawn be cold and grey and surly, and yet, by its light shall men see things as they verily are, and, no longer enchanted by the gleam of the moon and the glamour of the dream-tide, by such grey light shall wise men and valiant souls see the remedy and deal with it, a real thing that may be touched and handled and no glory of the heavens to be worshipped from afar off.

‘And what shall it be, as I told thee before, save that men shall be determined to be free, yea free as thou wouldst have them, when thine hope rises the highest and thou arte thinking, not of the king’s uncles and poll-grote bailiffs and the villeinage of Essex, but of the end of it all, when men shall have the fruits of the earth and the fruits of the earth and the fruits of their toil thereon without money and without price. That time shall come, John Ball, when that dream of thine shall this one day be, shall be a thing that man shall talk of soberly, and as a thing soon to come about as even with thee they talk of the villeins becoming tenants paying their lord quit-rent.

‘Therefore hast thou done well to hope it, and thy name shall abide by thy hope in those days to come, and thou shalt not be forgotten.’

It’s coming sometime. Get out there and sharpen the scythes, companeros/as…

Some excerpts were nicked from This Bright Day of Summer, by Paul Foot

Read William Morris’s A Dream of John Ball

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

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Today in London legal history: a jury finds the killing of a copper to be ‘Justifiable Homicide’, 1833.

On the repression of a radical rally, the killing of a policeman, and the inquest verdict… with a digression to take in recently exposed former spycop Andy Coles. Oh yes, there’s a link. 

In May 1833, the National Union of the Working Classes called a mass open air meeting, to be held on Monday 13th May to take place on Coldbath Fields, now the site of Mount Pleasant sorting office, at the junction of Rosebery Avenue and Farringdon Road. The meeting would end in a police attack on the crowd, the stabbing of a policeman, and a controversial inquest verdict…

When the Metropolitan Police were first formed, and first took to the streets in 1829, they were widely reviled. It was a time of rising working class protest and organisation. For 60 years movements had been building for reform of the class-biased political system years, and were reaching a peak; both middle class and working class organisations were pressing for reform. However, for decades a strand of radical and insurgent thinking had run through working class politics – a large minority of activists not only felt they had the right to political representation, but that the working class would not achieve it through peaceful lobbying or petitioning. Violent repression of rallies like Peterloo in 1819; government crackdowns and laws to band protest, radical papers and speeches; a network of police spies and agent provocateur/saboteurs burrowing into reforming groups to destroy and divide them…

Many thought opposition such as this could only be overcome by an armed seizure of power. A much wider group of radicals thought armed self-defence against attacks by the militia or constables was justified.

Regularly targeted by the authorities, radical activists were from the start suspicious the ‘New Police’ would be another weapon used against them. And were to be proved right.

But even beyond radical movements, the majority of working class people in many of the rapidly growing cities, especially London, saw the police as a threat; knowing, that the police were being set up to control them in the defence of property, and hating them for it. From the start the Constabulary’s were abused and attacked in the street, labelled with such fun nicknames as ‘Raw Lobsters’, ‘Blue Devils’ and ‘Peel’s Bloody Gang’. Early officers were physically assaulted, others impaled, blinded, and on one occasion one was held down while a vehicle was driven over him.

While the Police had a wider brief to get the teeming industrialised masses under control, radicals and political reformers WERE specifically on their radar. And in particular, the insurgent wing, and its potential to attract support from the very poor, and the shifting hydra that was labeled the ‘London Mob’.

In 1833 the National Union of the Working Classes (NUWC) was close to the top of the New Police’s list of concerns. The NUWC had arisen as an alliance of groups of London trade unionists, many of whom were also sympathetic to the ideas of the co-operator Robert Owen. However they largely rejected Owen’s belief that political reform was irrelevant, that the working class should organise only on the economic level. The NUWC instead maintained that political action was vital, that universal male suffrage, winning the vote for working men, would in the end bring about economic equality. They saw class relations as fundamental to society, and that in order to win their rights workers had to get together and do things for themselves: some in the NUWC said the workers should organise themselves separately, in their own movements and unions. In London their support was mainly among artisans, who had formed the backbone of the capital’s reforming and radical movements, with a strong tradition of self-education, self-employment, apprenticeship and independence.

Membership of the National Union of the Working Classes totalled about 3,000 in London, they were divided into local ‘classes’ of 80 to 130 people, mostly in then solidly working class areas like Lambeth, Bethnal Green, Hammersmith and Islington. But their influence was greater than membership numbers suggest: especially through papers like the Poor Man’s Guardian, which were read widely among artisans and the emerging working class. In government and official circles, fear of the power and influence of the NUWC was, however, probably wildly out of proportion to its real power.

The NUWC in many ways was a sort of proto-Chartism, though strong in London, where Chartism’s greatest strengths were in the new industrial cities of the north and midlands.

From 1831 to 1833, weekly NUWC meetings and debates were held at the Rotunda; on and off; during this time there was an intense agitation nationally for reform, and many of these were heated discussions, as the Union was from the start to its end divided. There were arguments over definitions of class, over strategy and tactics, over the uses of violence, over whether to ally with the (then stronger) middle class political reform movement, or the more progressive wing of the Whig party.

Especially after the 1832 Reform Act gave voting rights to middle class men, but not the working class, some elements of the Union came to the conclusion that the lower classes would have to rebel to obtain their ‘rights’. There was a strong sense that the middle class reformers had used the threat of working class uprising as a stick to force the aristocracy to share power with them, then shafted their proletarian allies. NUWC stalwart William Benbow made a speech celebrating the great reform riot in Bristol in 1831, but was opposed by other members of the NUWC Committee… Some NUWC members made plans to arm themselves in self-defence against police attacks on rallies, which jacked up the government and bourgeoisie’s fear of the Union. By 1833, the moderates were beginning to desert the NUWC and the more radical elements came to the fore, launching a plan to launch a Convention of the People (a scary notion for the upper classes, coming straight from the most radical phase of the French Revolution).

By May 1833 there had been three years of intense campaigning, riots, the Reform Bill, with the sense of betrayal of working people that it brought; there had been abortive plots to gather and launch armed revolt. The splits over the use of force and what kind of society was envisaged had weakened the NUWC; many of the ‘moderates’ had left. But the remaining elements of the organisation were determined to keep up the pressure… Some were arming, and drilling in preparation for an uprising.

A NUWC rally was announced for May 13th on Coldbath Fields in Clerkenwell, and was seen by some as a first step towards a revolutionary seizure of power. Resolutions for the rally included proposals for seizing the bank of England and the Tower of London… This was naïve; but the overconfidence on the radical side was mirrored by a fear in government circles. There was a determination to put down the radicals. The upcoming rally on Coldbath Fields was seen as a ripe chance, and the police were prepared to smash the rally by force. The meeting was banned, which led many not already distancing themselves from the NUWC to withdraw.

However on the day itself, several thousand still attended the demo. While the NUWC committee sat in the Union Tavern [still a pub today on King’s Cross Road], people began assembling outside in Coldbath fields, including a body from the NUWC with a banner reading ‘Death or Liberty’. Meanwhile large numbers of police were assembling in Grays Inn Road from where they were deployed in stableyards around Coldbath Fields. At around 3pm the committee left the tavern to address the assembly, by now between one and two thousand strong. The chairman had barely started speaking when the cry of ‘Police’ went up from the crowd. The police, between 1700 and 3000 in number, had formed up across Calthorpe Street before advancing on the meeting, while others came up another side street. In the words of the Gentleman’s Magazine the police having ‘completely surrounded the actors and spectators of the scene…commenced a general and indiscriminate attack on the populace inflicting broken heads alike on those who stood and parleyed and those who endeavoured to retreat’. New Bell’s Weekly Messenger also writes of the police attacking those assembled: ‘The Police came on and used their staves pretty freely…many heads were broken.’

During the assault three policeman were stabbed; PC Culley ‘ran about thirty yards and upon reaching the Calthorpe Arms [still a pub today on Gray’s Inn Rd] he seized the barmaid by the wrist and exclaimed “Oh, I am very ill”’. These were his dying words. One man, George Fursey, was sent for trial on the charge of murdering PC Culley and wounding PC Brooks. The jury returned a verdict of not guilty.

There then followed a local inquest on the death of PC Culley; it was convened in an upstairs room of the same Calthorpe Arms, close to the site of the demonstration. The inquest jury of seventeen men consisted largely of bakers from the Grays Inn neighbourhood. Summing up, the coroner called upon the jury to return a verdict of wilful murder. The jury retired and after half an hour sent a message to the coroner saying that sixteen of them were agreed on a verdict condemnatory of the police. The coroner protested and urged them to reconsider. A short while later their final verdict was delivered:

‘We find a verdict of justifiable homicide on these grounds; that no riot act was read, nor any proclamation advising the people to disperse, that the Government did not take the proper precautions to prevent the meeting from assembling; and we moreover express our anxious hope that the Government will in future take better precautions to prevent the recurrence of such disgraceful transactions in the metropolis.’

Reading between the lines, it appears that the jury’s view was that the demonstrators were deliberately penned in and ambushed by the police.

Again the coroner protested, locking them in the juryroom to try to change their minds, but the jury remained firm and insisted on their verdict; he could dismiss them and appoint another jury but their verdict would stand. They said that they were neither in favour of the meeting nor against the police, just the way the police behaved. As the foreman put it: ‘Mr Coroner we are firmly of the opinion that if they had acted with moderation the deceased would not have been stabbed.’

Local people evidently thought no expense should be spared in celebrating this popular victory; “When the inquest ended small impromptu torchlit processions carried the jurors to their respective homes. The Milton Street Committee arranged a free trip up the Thames to Twickenham for them. In July it was a free trip to the London Bridge Theatre to see A Rowland for Oliver. Each member of the jury was presented with a pewter medallion which bore the inscription ‘In honour of men who nobly withstood the dictation of a coroner; and by the judicious, independent and conscientious discharge of their duty promoted a continued reliance upon the laws under the protection of a British jury’. Funds were raised for a memorial. On the first anniversary of the verdict a procession took place from the Calthorpe Arms to St Katherine’s Dock. It was led by a specially commissioned banner, the funds for which had been raised by a Mr Ritchie, the landlord of the Marquess of Wellesley in Cromer Street, Grays Inn Lane. After reaching St Katherine’s Dock the procession boarded the Royal Sovereign for a return trip to Rochester, complete with free food and drink. A pewter cup was presented to the foreman of the jury with the inscription ‘…as a perpetual memorial of their glorious verdict of justifiable homicide on the body of Robert Culley, a policeman, who was slain while brutally attacking the people when peacefully assembled in Calthorpe Street on 13th May 1833’.”

Despite the wave of support for the jurors, the attack spelled the end for the NUWC, which began to fall apart. However, its influence helped give birth to Chartism. Both the London Working Man’s Association and the London Democratic Association emerged from same groups, neighbourhoods and individuals in London as the Union, and they were crucial in kickstarting Chartism in the late 1830s. But the NUWC’s inherent divisions over class, whether workers could co-operate with the middle class, over the use of persuasion and campaigning, or force, over the ultimate aim (just equality? or power for the workers as a class?), were inherited by the larger later movement, and continued to divide Chartism throughout its existence… And are indeed questions alive and kicking in our own movements and struggles today…

Postscript 1: Both the the Union Tavern, where the NUWC Committee met, and the Calthorpe Arms, where the inquest was held, are not only still a pub today, but has had more recent radical associations. London Class War used to meet in the Union Tavern in the 1990s, and a number of anarchist and anti-capitalist events and actions were planned upstairs at the Calthorpe in the 2000s, in the same room the jury held out in.

Postscript 2: (Bear with me. It makes sense in the end )

The government of the day, and the police acting to destroy the NUWC rally, had been greatly aided by the spies they sent in to infiltrate, report on and if possible disrupt the movement, and other radical groupings. This was a huge industry, even then, though many were informers, not specifically policemen. In our own time, we are still facing the issue of police penetration of community and activist groups, political movements and campaigns for justice and accountability (most notably for people killed by racists, and in police custody). However, long years of investigations by activists have uncovered the highly trained undercover police officers who have spied on us, lived with us for several years, and in many cases preyed on activists sexually, some fathering children. Police units like the Special Demonstration Squad, the National Public Order Intelligence Unit have spent billions gathering info on activists, attempting to provoke actions that can then lead to arrests, and encouraging abuse of women and miscarriages of justice. Now they are spending millions more obstructing any substantial process in the Undercover Policing Inquiry set up after public outrage became too angry to ignore.

But if they won’t tell activists who spied on us and release our Special Branch files to us, we will continue to uncover the undercovers ourselves. And here is where another strange echo of the early 1830s crops up. Just four days ago another ex-spycops was exposed – Andy Coles, once known as Andy Davey, when he infiltrated the animal rights movement in the 1990s. A man known to this writer.

Coles sexually exploited at least one woman, then aged 19, leading to a relationship; though he also launched unwanted advances on others. But since vanishing from South London animal rights circles in 1994, he had risen, oh he’s risen. He has become a Conservative councillor in Peterborough. A school governor. An expert on child protection and best of all, Deputy Police & Crime Commissioner for Cambridgeshire. Well the last until today, when he was forced to resign after the outrage at his grooming of a teenager into a sexual relationship forced him out. ‘Jessica’, the woman he abused, is now to sue the Metropolitan Police for colluding in her being groomed.

However, bizarrely, Coles fancies himself as a writer. He pens meaningful political poetry – of a quality that only be described as ‘McGonagallite‘. And he did have plans to write a novel, provisionally titled However Roguish a Man, though this may have been shelved. The subject: undercover policing as used against the radicals of early 1830s London! Strange that this should surface on this anniversary of the practical commonsense of a London jury recognising police provocation for what it was, eh, Mr Coles?

The plot summary is masterful, and so apt, drawn from Andy’s own exciting past:

“The working title for my novel about political unrest and policing in the era of the Reform Act 1832, when revolution was on the air and the great stink of London was just discovering the necessary inconvenience of being policed by an organised group of “Raw Lobsters”.

Beginning in the 1820’s, rural poverty was driving agricultural labourers to violence, burning hayricks and threatening the landowners and farmers who were turning to the new threshing machines instead of manual labour. Captain Swing letters abound and the wealthy are in fear of their lives.

At the same time a coal meter in Yarmouth finds his income is halved and the job he bought for 70 guineas no longer provides the annual income he needs to keep his wife and children. Looking for a new start he travels to London and is recruited into the Metropolitan Police.

The government needs to know what is going on in the new poor areas of London. Is riot and insurrection coming to the shores of Great Britain from the stews of Paris? Will the new King be deposed through bloody revolt? Fearful for the monarchy and the rule of the privileged classes in power, reform of the political system is contemplated by radicals and reformers, but bitterly resisted by traditionalists and those in rotten boroughs who will lose their seats in Parliament.

The Home Secretary demands that the New Police provide information on the new political unions that are springing up, and the Commissioners, Rowan and Mayne, depute divisional Superintendents to send men to the meetings to find out what is going on.

This is the story of one of these officers who penetrated a radical organisation, and what happened to him as a result.”

Whether Andy Coles has managed to work on what promises to be a fine historical epic recently, we aren’t sure – however, with the storm breaking about him, one post gone, and others surely soon to follow, he may get more free time to work on it. Since we are also very interested in the subject of police infiltration of radical movements, both down to our personal experience, and our studies of history, we await the appearance of However Roguish a Man. With baited breath.

PPS: Later the same evening I published this, Andy Coles took his writing blog down. Possibly misinterpreting our literary criticism. Mysteriously, the Peterborough Writers Circle, where Andy claimed to have first read his fine poem Aleppo, has also had its blog taken down simultaneously! Wasn’t a one-man band was it?

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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: a prisoner uses quick wits to escape, 1732.

“One Brown, a Prisoner, returning from Hick’s Hall to Bridewel, passing thro’ Clerkenwell Church Yard, desir’d his Keeper to let him speak with the Sexton, who was then making a deep Grave. He consenting, Brown took his Opportunity, threw the Keeper into it, and then made his Escape.” (Gentleman’s Magazine, Friday 21 April 1732.)

Nuff said? A brief news item, and we will never know what happened next. No more is said about it in the magazine. What was his ‘crime’? Was he recaptured? Did the screw who lost him get into official trouble for his ‘grave mistake’ (groan).

Legging it from Clerkenwell Churchyard, Brown could have easily slipped into the sprawling rookeries and slums that lined the nearby river Fleet, where shelter for a fugitive from the law was second nature, whole systems of pulleys and planks were set up within buildings to enable crims being pursued by constables to escape, and where whole communities would gather to frustrate the law in solidarity. If he was wearing irons of any kind a friendly soul could be found to cut them off for him…

There exists a relatively contemporary image of a grave being dug in Clerkenwell Church yard, above.

The venues of law, judgement and control mentioned are more tangible.

Brown was very likely being returned from a court appearance to prison. ‘Hicks Hall’ was The Middlesex County court and house of correction, built in 1614, on what is now St John Street in Clerkenwell. It was known as Hicks Hall, after Sir Baptist Hickes, a Middlesex JP who mostly financed the building. Previous to this the neighbouring authorities in the City of London criticised Middlesex JPs for their disorganisation and lack of a local base to try and hold criminals, which was allowing troublemakers, beggars, the poor etc to commit all sorts of wrongdoing in the City but escape into Middlesex with impunity. Previously the Middlesex Sessions had been held in the Old Castle Tavern, also on St John Street. There was local opposition to the building of Hicks Hall: Gracie Watson, an apothecary’s wife, was hauled into court for “giving reviling speeches against Sir Baptist Hicks touching the building of the Sessions House”.

The Bridewell, where Brown was incarcerated and was being returned, was originally a palace, built in 1515 for Henry VIII, stretching all the way from the Thames to Fleet Street. A big sprawling complex, which gradually came to house ambassadors, and visiting monarchs… But it rapidly fell out of favour as a palace, and in the mid-sixteenth century was converted for the relief of the poor. Huge numbers of poor people were arriving in the city, driven from the countryside by growing enclosure and poverty, and the collapse of the traditional welfare system (through the monasteries and abbeys) as religious reform combined with opportunist land-grabbing altered rural life for ever. The initial joint charitable project of the City and the king, the Bridewell soon, however, became mixed with coercion – the homeless poor, the idle, the ‘workshy’ and alleged drunkards were forced into the institution: “And unto this shall be brought the sturdy and idle: and likewise such prisoners as are quite at the sessions, that they may be set to labour. And for that number will be great the place where they shall be exercised must also be great.”

The way the poor were treated in the Bridewell set a pattern for future workhouse policy, and on a wider scale, for the modern welfare state, at least in its coercive face. Bridewell inmates were forced to spin, sew mailbags, clean the sewers in gangs, tread the wheel; even those who had lost a limb were set to on an ingenious hand and foot mill. Prostitutes and vagrants were whipped on arrival, and any acts of disobedience were punished by flogging. Bridewell became a popular place for locking up rebellious or just idle apprentices.

But it was not seen as a prison by the authorities, until much later, although ‘charitable’ inmates were joined by religious dissidents, Spanish Armada captives, and later local petty criminals. There was some dispute as to the legality of locking up those whose only crime was to be homeless and poor, but nothing came of it. Floggings in fact became novelty viewing: idle sadistic better off voyeurs would visit to get off on the punishment of others – a viewing gallery was built to house them.
The ‘president’ of the Bridewell in the early 17th century was Sir Thomas Middleton. He had the power to halt floggings by knocking on the table; the prisoners’ cry for mercy of ‘Knock, Sir Thomas, Knock’ was taken up by people who used to follow him and hassle him in the street, shouting the words after him…

In the 1610s a wave of prison riots occurred in London. They may have arisen less from a deterioration of conditions, than to the coming together of heretics and thieves, or political and common prisoners, creating new collectives of resistance. Martin Markall, the beadle of the Bridewell, stressed the association of landed offenders, such as Irish rebels, Gypsies, and Roberdsmen (marauding vagrants), with those of the sea, mariners and pirates. English, Latin, and Dutch were the languages of communication in prison. The prison, like the ship and the factory, organised large numbers of people for the purposes of exploitation, but it simultaneously was unable to prevent the prisoners thus massed together from organising against it.

In 1653 the Bridewell became a prison for petty offenders and ‘disorderly women’, particularly prostitutes. Short sentences were the norm here, but floggings were common, including public floggings twice a week; ducking stools and stocks also graced the place. Noted inmates included the Fifth Monarchist prophetess Anna Trapnel in 1654. Later the Bridewell pioneered the introduction of minor workhouse reforms, such as schooling for apprentices and children, introducing a doctor, providing free bedding (1788) and abolishing flogging for women (1791). It was closed down in 1855, and knocked down in 1863.

Although Bridewell was for a long time not called a prison, it formed part of a chain of penal institutions that loomed over the lower Fleet valley for centuries, with the Bridewell, the Fleet Prison, and Coldbath Fields on the river’s banks, and Ludgate, Newgate, the Clerkenwell Bridewell and Clerkenwell House of Detention within a few minutes’ walk.

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

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Today in London’s theatrical history: Actors nicked in Clerkenwell, & jailed, 1649.

It is mentioned in Whitelocke’s Memorials, that on the 20th of December, 1649, some stage players were seized by troopers at the Red Bull Theatre, in Sekforde Street or Woodbridge Street (then Red Bull Yard), Clerkenwell; their clothes were taken away, and themselves carried off to prison. The elevated and prestigious role the theatre had attained in the days of the monarchs Elizabeth and James had altered greatly with the increasing power of the puritans, and the devastating civil war.

There were several orders issued by Parliament, and late under the Commonwealth, during and after the Civil War, closing down theatres and banning most plays for encouraging immorality and frivolity. To a certain extent, as with bans on other aspects of popular culture in the era, there was a limit to the success of these orders, although it was easier to close down a theatre, a fixed visible building, than to, say, prevent private citizens celebrating xmas. AS the piece below suggests, there may have been a sympathy of the acting profession generally with the royalist side in the civil war, although how much this may have been created or inflated by hatred and resentment of the puritan view of their way of life is open to question. Maybe it was more of a cultural leaning generally; although it is worth remembering how much actors and theatres often depended on royal or aristocratic patronage for funding.

Regular complaints against the hardships on actors and the professions who depended on the theatre for a living, and petitions for relief of the anti-theatrical ordinances, op up through the 1640s, including this one.

The following, from Davies’ “Miscellanies,” is a striking picture of the condition of actors at this time, interestingly coloured by a strongly pro-royalist bias:

“When the civil wars shut the doors of the theatres, many of the comedians, who had youth, spirit, and vigour of body, took up arms in defence of their royal master. When they could no longer serve him by the profession of acting, they boldly vindicated his cause on the field. Those who were too far advanced in age to give martial proofs of their loyalty, were reduced to the alternative of starving, or engaging in some employment to support their wants. During the first years of the unnatural contest between King and Parliament, the players were not unwelcome guests to those towns and cities which espoused the royal cause; but in London, where bigotry and opposition to the King were triumphant, they experienced nothing but persecution. A few of the nobility, indeed, who loved the amusements of the stage, encouraged the players to act in their houses privately; but the watchful eyes of furious zealots prevented all public exhibitions, except, as the author of Historia Histrionica asserts, now and then such as were given with great caution and privacy. Some time before the beheading of the unhappy Charles, a company of comedians was formed out of the wreck of several, who played at the Cockpit three or four times; but while they were acting Fletcher’s Bloody Brother, the soldiers rushing in, put an end to the play, and carried the actors to Hatton House, at that time a sort of prison for royal delinquents; where they were confined two or three days, and, after being stripped of their stage apparel, were discharged. Much about this time, Lowin kept the Three Pigeons at Brentford, where he was attended by Joseph Taylor. Here they lingered out an uncomfortable existence, with scarce any other means of support than those which they obtained from the friends of royalty, and the old lovers of the drama who now and then paid them a visit and left them marks of their bounty. Upon these occasions Lowin and Taylor gave their visitors a taste of their quality. The first roused up the spirit and humor of Falstaff. Again the fat old rogue swore that he knew the Prince and Poins as well as he that made them. Hamlet, too, raised the visionary terrors of the ghost, and filled his select auditors with terror and amazement. To entertain their guests we must suppose they assumed various personages, and alternately excited merriment and grief. How often were those honest fellows surprised into a belief of the good news that the King and Parliament had come to treaty, that peace would be restored, and the King return to his capital in triumph. How would their countenances then be lighted up with joy, the glass cheerfully circulate, and the meeting be dismissed with: ‘The King shall have his own again.’

Their honest friend and associate, Goff, the actor of women’s parts at Blackfriars and the Globe, was the usual jackall to summon the scattered comedians together, that they might exhibit at Holland House, or some nobleman’s seat, within a few miles of the capital.”

But not even “the saints” were immaculate; one Robert Cox found means to bribe the officers appointed to look after such affairs, and gave short interludes and “drolls” at the Red Bull to crowded houses, under the guise of rope-dancing entertainment. It was vile buffoonery, and could scarcely be dignified by the title of dramatic performance, and was therefore more likely to be tolerated by their saintships than the noble productions of Shakespeare and Beaumont; and therein they are closely followed by the Mawworms of the present day, who grin at the dreary and doubtful jokes of a circus clown, and gaze approvingly at the lightly-skirted young ladies with one toe on the bare-backed steed and the other in a horizontal line, but would consider it sinful to listen to the noble with of Touchstone, and highly indelicate to look upon Rosalind in her forester’s dress. With a company consisting only of himself, a man, and a boy, Robert Cox contrived, in spite of ordinances, to travel all over the country, to perform at the Universities–which, for want of better things, eagerly welcomed his–and to make a large fortune by his mummeries.

But even the partisans of the Commonwealth were beginning to grow a little weary of the Cimmerian gloom and intellectual paralysis in which they lived, and having obtained the countenance of Whitelocke, Sir John Maynard, and other persons of distinction, Davenant, in 1656, opened a sort of theater at Rutland House, Charterhouse Yard, where he began with the representation of what he called an opera (“The Siege of Rhodes”). This was followed by other works of a similar kind. In 1658 he went a step farther, and opened the Cockpit with a performance he described as “The Cruelty of the Spaniards in Peru, expressed by instrumental and vocal music, and by the art of perspective in scenes, at the Cockpit in Drury Lane, at three in the afternoon.” We see he carefully avoided the word “play,” that red rag of bull-headed fanaticism. It is said that Cromwell’s hatred of the Spaniards, who in this piece were held up to execration, had much to do with my Lord Protector giving his consent.”

Ironically, before the Civil War, the Red Bull Theatre, where the actors were arrested, had had a bit of a reputation for satirical theatre against the king. In 1638 the Theatre had got into trouble for putting on a play satirising William Abell, one of the most powerful monopolist merchants of the City. “The most unhappy, hated object of three kingdoms”, Abell was also instrumental in attacks on opponents to king Charles I’s policies in the City. Of course popular opposition to the king and the pre-civil war elite is not incompatible with opposition to the puritan ascendancy; you could be against both politically, and satire generally tends to take on the authorities whoever they are.

The Red Bull was also famous for its stroppy and disruptive audiences, and for several incidents – in 1610, 1622 and 1638 – when there were riotous occurrences either in or around and associated with the theatre.

Now, theatre audiences between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries were notoriously rowdy, disrespectful and easily provoked; not only eating, shouting, arguing, with each other during the performance, but also interrupting the actors, heckling, picking pockets…

There is disagreement among historians about how much also theatre audiences were prone to erupt into rioting, or riots were prone to start in or outside theatres. But there were enough incidents between the 1590s and the 1610s for the association to be commonplace – the perception of the London authorities was that playhouses were hotbeds of possible sedition and trouble. Add to that a widespread (though not universal) puritan perception of plays as encouraging immorality and of theatres as facilitating it… Interestingly, the perception of theatre audiences as troublesome may have extended to the playwrights and theatre management; Eric Dunnum reads much of the presentation of the idea of drama within early modern London theatre as an attempt to discourage action of any kind from the audience. The authorities blamed the theatres for encouraging riots, and threatened to close the playhouses down – in response, Dunnum suggests, early modern playwrights sought to ‘construct’ a non-reactive audience, who would not act in any way in response to drama.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the other were these words:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The summer’s evening resort

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

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

The Fields had a long history.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Work Is the Ruin of the Drinking Classes

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

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

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

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

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

Today in London’s industrial history: machine loom weavers fight handloom weavers, Clerkenwell, 1767.

As we have related a number of times on this blog already (here, and here), the silkweavers of Spitalfields and Bethnal Green fought a long battle against mechanisation, to preserve their wage levels and standard of living.

Like the Luddites, their campaign was volatile and violent, and was viciously repressed by the authorities. But their struggles were more complex and contradictory, in that sometimes they were battling their employers and sometimes co-operating with them; to some extent they won more concessions than their northern counterparts, holding off mechanisation for a century, and maintaining some control over their wages and conditions, at least for a while.

The 1760s saw the silkweavers’ struggles gradually rise to fever pitch. And while earlier battles had been fought between masters and journeymen, or sometimes between masters and journeymen united against cheap fabric imports that threatened to undercut the industry as a whole, sometimes the growth of mechanised techniques in silkweaving brought the machine loom workers into conflict with the older, handloom weavers, who partly blamed the latter for wage cuts and layoffs.

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

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

Tensions would only rise however, between insurgent groups of ‘cutters’ – angry weavers bent on sabotaging looms of masters denying them the wage and work they expected – and those weavers, whether working by hand or machine loom, who worked beneath the agreed wage level. In 1768-9 these disputes would lead to stepped up violence, pitched battles, murder, executions, and the occupation of the area by the army.

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

Today in London’s rebel history: ruckus at a Clerkenwell school ends in arrests, 1969.

On September 26th 1969 a mini-riot broke out among pupils at Philip Magnus School, Clerkenwell, after they had got into conversation with some young rebels who were leafleting outside.

One of those arrested relates the events…

“An hour or so after St.Paul’s we went off to a secondary modern school in Clerkenwell, near Kings Cross, where an anarchist friend of ours was a pupil. During the previous school year, after a molotov had burnt a hole in the door of the Head’s study, the head decided to ban boots in the school, an attack on the skinheads in the school, who were in the majority. They responded: boot prints appeared around the school, on the floors and walls and ceilings, drawings of boots were chalked up on blackboards, and finally the Head was presented in assembly with a gigantic papier mache boot. The Head felt compelled to unban the boots. So we longhairs arrive at this skinhead school, shortly after the eviction of ‘hippies’ from Endell St. squat, where the London Street Commune had gone after the eviction of 144 Piccadilly. We stay outside the school, because our friend hadn’t turned up and because a lot of the school seemed to be hanging around outside in a small square just outside the gates. We start the play but amidst cries of “Go back to Endell St!.” and stone throwing from some of the kids, we end it quickly as some of the skinheads start lifting a great big paving stone (we find out later that the Endell St. ‘hippies’ had appeared earlier that day at Clerkenwell Magistrates Court, just around the corner). We hand out leaflets, start talking to the boys about conditions in the school and what we think the education system’s all about. They all want an end to physical punishment, which wasn’t to be abolished in this country until the late 80s (not that humiliating kids in other ways isn’t equally miserable). No one wants school uniforms, but many want a smoking room and everyone wants “proper biology lessons”, which at that time were pitiful (probably they still are, but in a different modern way).

A tall spindly man appears, tells the boys to get out of the square and starts pushing them around. I say, “They’re allowed to be here. Who are you to tell them what to do? They can decide for themselves what to do.” The man, who turns out to be the Head, ignores us and strides angrily away back through the school gates to cries of “Bastard…cunt!”. The boys are more sympathetic towards us. “Let’s burn down the school!”, a couple of them say. Being a bit of Lefty still, I said, “What’s the point? – they’ll only send you to another.” “Shall we occupy the school?” one of them asks. “Yeah – if you want – we’ll help, but it’s up to you” was the gist of our different replies. Then the cops arrive. “Back into school!” the Sergeant orders. I say loudly, “They’re allowed out in lunchbreak. Why should they get back inside?”, (not the kind of mouthy role I’d play nowadays probably, but…)”Because I say so”. “Do you make the laws?”, “No, I interpret them”, “Maybe you bend them a little to suit your own ideas” – I was talking loudly – as much to him as to the boys of the school, performing the rabble rouser a bit.. After resuming ordering the boys about, he hurries after me when I’m a bit away from the others and says softly, “Look here, young Barabas, if ever I see you again I’ll pull off your beard and cut off your hair, you fucking long-haired wierdo.” I reply in a loud theatrical voice so others can hear – “What? Did you call me a fucking long-haired wierdo?”. “Are you calling me names? Are you calling me names?”, says the sergeant, putting on a better show of outrage, and promptly nicks me.

The cops meanwhile threaten everyone with being nicked for obstruction – both us “guerrillas”(it sounds better than ‘street theatre actors’) and the schoolkids, so everyone moves off from the square to a small park up the hill, and start sitting around in groups discussing schools, the cops and so on. A cop comes into the park and, pointing to one of us – Michael, says to the mainly skinhead schoolkids, “Do you want to grow up to be like them – filthy, long-haired, unemployed…? Silence. Michael asks them, “Well, would you prefer to be like him or like me?” “LIKE YOU!” they all shout back, and the cop (us politicos called them ‘pigs’ at the time) storms off.

Eventually all of us get nicked and one of us gets beaten up a bit by the cops. The cops who arrest the last two of us get thumped on the back by some of the skinhead kids. The kids swear and hiss and boo at the cops, some of them fling themselves at the gates round the back of the police station, trying to break them down. Solidarity, unity in anger – one of the best things in the world. Later on, the Evening News came out with the headline “Boys Incited To Burn Down School!”, whilst the Evening Standard said we’d offered the boys drugs and that a hundred schoolboys had chased two hippies and shouted and jeered at them. When the papers appeared, some of the boys were so pissed off they tore them up outside the school. Meantime, we were packed off to Ashford Remand Centre, even though our parents had turned up in court to put up surety for the bail which most of us had been granted (the only one of us that wasn’t was a couple of years older than us, the only one of us who was from a working class background – he went to Brixton for a week before bail was granted). There we were made to have a public cough ‘n’ drop medical inspection and a semi-public bath and then we had to wear prison clothes: my trousers were far too big – I had to permanently hold them to stop them falling down, and my shoes were far too small, cramping my toes. It was only 24 hours, but when it’s your first time in prison and you’ve got no idea how long you’ll be there, and you’ve never known anyone who’s been inside, it was a little worrying, though it was the boredom I remember most, because we were kept isolated for most of the time. I was so naïve, I remember being really outraged at the fact that teenagers were kept in prison without bail for 6 months or more before trial, at which they were often let off.

The leaflet we’d handed out in the four days of our guerrilla theatre actions advertised a meeting at my house on the afternoon we’d got nicked: 12 kids turned up, we didn’t, but the cops did, staying in a van outside, whilst one stood outside the front garden. For several months afterwards, my phone was tapped. The trial was almost 3 months later, and took 3 days. Like the whole of that summer, I suppose it was a kind of revelation for naïve little me. I hadn’t expected such a degree of lying on the part of the cops and hypocrisy on the part of the magistrate, though since then it’s something I take for granted. For instance, so that the Headmaster wouldn’t have to appear as a witness, and to give greater authority to the police, a Chief Superintendant claimed to have been there, and described everything that had happened to the Headmaster, though elaborating with a few extra lies. We were so taken aback by his convincing performance, and perhaps also stressed by the whole trial, that we began to question our own memories – had he been there and we hadn’t noticed? Was it not the Head who’d first remonstrated with us? The whole trial was awash with lies, of course, but the strange thing were the words they put into our mouths, words that had nothing to do with the way any of us would speak – e.g. the Sergeant said I’d shouted from the police car, “Go, lads, and burn down your school – we shall support you”. “Go lads” – like I was some public school prefect.”

Taken from a personal account of activities in this period, including the rebirth of squatting, the London Street Commune, and a series of interventions at schools, which can be found here

There’s a fun text there of an article from the Kilburn Times, relating the trial that ensued from the events detailed above… somewhat differently to the account given here…

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

Today in London’s rebel history: Jack Sheppard breaks out from Clerkenwell New Prison, 1724.

In his day he became the most famous name in England, and he remained a folk-hero to the poor for over a century after his death. Jack Sheppard was the prison escaper supreme of eighteenth century England.

Just last week I saw Otherstory’s very fine puppetshow ‘Escape Was One’s Mind’, which told Jack’s story in brilliant and stark theatre (See here to catch an upcoming show).

Born in Spitalfields in 1702, Jack’s father died during his childhood, and his mother’s poverty led to Jack being placed in the Bishopsgate workhouse. Beginning a carpenter’s apprenticeship, he picked up some locksmithing skills, which would stand him in good stead in later years

Maybe a childhood in the workhouse left him with a strong aversion to the bonded labour and confining straits of apprentice life, Jack deserted his master, and joining the swelling ranks of the ‘idle apprentices’ (a group that invoked fear and suspicion in the 18th century), he took to a life of robbery.

Not an especially successful robber, he was imprisoned five times – luckily he turned out to be a breakout artist par excellence, – and escaped prison four times.

These technically brilliant and daring escapades, as well as his taunting attitude to authority, secured his lasting fame among the working class.

The London trades were undergoing a series of transformations as a result of new technologies and the expanding economy. New machinery was deskilling some, factory methods of organisation were making the protective practices of the Craft guilds obsolete and these were changing the relationship between apprentices and their masters. Depending on their trade and circumstances some masters began to fulfil one or more roles simultaneously – they might be working craftsmen, workshop overseers, shopkeepers, or wholesale suppliers. Equally they might be expanding into factory ownership or begin farming out piecework to home workers – or they could be in the process of declining into deskilled casual labour. So the artisan class was fragmenting and reforming in both upwardly and downwardly mobile directions. Crime was as legitimate a way as any to survive

After deserting his apprenticeship Jack took with enthusiasm to a life of robbery; he was imprisoned five times and escaped four. It was these technically brilliant and daring escapades, as well as his taunting attitude to authority that secured his long reputation among the working class.

The London trades were undergoing a series of transformations as a result of new technologies and the expanding economy. New machinery was deskilling some, factory methods of organisation were making the protective practices of the Craft guilds obsolete and these were changing the relationship between apprentices and their masters. Depending on their trade and circumstances some masters began to fulfil one or more roles simultaneously – they might be working craftsmen, workshop overseers, shopkeepers, or wholesale suppliers. Equally they might be expanding into factory ownership or begin farming out piecework to home workers – or they could be in the process of declining into deskilled casual labour. So the artisan class was fragmenting and reforming in both upwardly and downwardly mobile directions. Crime was as legitimate a way as any to survive.

After deserting his apprenticeship Jack took with enthusiasm to a life of robbery; he was imprisoned five times and escaped four. It was these technically brilliant and daring escapades, as well as his taunting attitude to authority that secured his long reputation among the working class.

In the spring of 1723 he aided the escape of his girlfriend Edgeworth Bess from St Giles’s Roundhouse. In April 1724 he ended up there himself; betrayed by his brother Tom (who was hoping to bargain his own release from a burglary charge) and his friend James Sykes, he was lured into a trap and delivered to a Justice Parry. It took him less than three hours to escape. “He was confined in the top floor. He cut through the ceiling, untiled the roof, and with the aid of a sheet and blanket lowered himself into the churchyard, climbed a wall, and joined a gathering throng which had been attracted to the scene by the falling roof tiles.

From then until the end of November the saga of his escapes grew, astounding ever-increasing numbers of people for their daring and dexterity. Arrested again for pickpocketing a gentleman’s watch, Jack was now taken to Clerkenwell’s New Prison. As his common law wife, Edgworth Bess was allowed to join him from her confinement in the Roundhouse. They were locked in the most secure area, ‘Newgate Ward’, and Jack was weighed down with 28lb of shackles and chains. He soon set to work sawing through these and then through an iron bar. Boring through a nine-inch-thick oak bar, then fastening sheets, gowns and petticoats together, they descended 25ft to ground level; only to find they had landed themselves in the neighbouring prison of Clerkenwell Bridewell! Undaunted, driving his gimblets and piercers into the 22ft wall, Jack and Bess used them as steps and hand-holds and made their way over the wall to freedom in the early morning of Whit Monday, May 25th, 1724.

While Sheppard’s later “escape from the condemned hold of Newgate made ‘a far greater Noise in the World’, the London gaolkeepers regarded the New Prison escape as the most ‘miraculous’ ever performed in England, so they preserved the broken chains and bars ‘”to Testifie, and Preserve the memory of this extraordinary Event and Villian.”

Jack spent the next three months of freedom engaging in highway robbery and burglary. He was recaptured after he robbed his old master, Mr Kneebone. Kneebone contacted Jonathan Wild, ‘the thief-taker General’. Wild was both a trainer of thieves and a deliverer of them to the courts, a fence of stolen goods and returner of them to rightful owners; “a complex and parasitic system” that “had in these years become a system of municipal policing.” (Peter Linebaugh) Sheppard always refused to compromise himself by having any dealings with Wild, either for fencing goods or in attempt to gain more lenient sentences in court. Wild pressured Edgeworth Bess to reveal Jack’s hideaway, and, after an exchange of pistol fire, he was captured and taken to Newgate prison. In August he was tried and sentenced to hang.

On the day his death-warrant arrived he implemented his escape plan; dislodging a spike, he inserted himself into a small hole he had worked in a wall and with the help of visitors was pulled through to freedom. He walked through the City to Spitalfields where he spent the night with Edgworth Bess. Sheppard’s latest escape threw the shopkeepers of Drury Lane and the Strand into a panic; Jack took up robbing again, this time from a watchmaker’s shop in Fleet St. But he and his accomplice were recognised so they left London for Finchley Common. They were pursued and soon apprehended – Jack was taken to Newgate once again.

By this time Sheppard was a celebrity and folk hero of the labouring classes; visited by the famous and interviewed by journalists and ballad makers. He offered some lucid comments; when urged by a prison official to concentrate on preparing himself for the afterlife rather than attempting to escape, he emphasised his preference for the tangible, saying ‘One file’s worth all the Bibles in the world.’ He also condemned the corruption and hypocrisy of the criminal justice system.

As his trial approached Jack implemented his escape plan on the 14th October. This amazing flight from Newgate was to make him an enduring legend amongst the working class for over a century afterwards. Freeing himself from his shackles he then worked his way up the chimney, through several locked rooms and eventually on to the roof and over the wall to freedom.

On 29th October Sheppard robbed a pawnshop for some spending money and began a triumphant tour, a defiant spree through his old haunts and hunting grounds. He hired a coach and, with some female companions, toured his own native Spitalfields – he also drove through the arch of Newgate! Defiantly parading himself around the ale-houses and gin-shops, he was recaptured after fifteen days of glorious liberty.

Jack Sheppard was hanged on 16th November 1724 at Tyburn; a cheering crowd, said to number 200,000, lined the route to salute him, to see him try and escape (tools were seized from him at the last minute), and to rescue his body from the clutches of the surgeons who received the bodies of the hanged for dissection.

But the story doesn’t end there… The tale of Jack was retold, re-written, spread throughout the world… In the 1840s plays based on his life were still regularly being performed for working class audiences, and his name was better known amongst many of the poor than that of Queen Victoria.

John Gay seized upon the story, and reshaped it as the ‘Beggars Opera’, in which the figure of Mr Peachum is Jonathan Wilde merged with the corrupt PM Robert Walpole… This stark comparison between the acquisitiveness of the rich and the crime of the poor, was reworked by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill 200 years later as the Threepenny Opera

Jack is almost an archetype, a popular creation, an ideal born out of an 18th century oppositional culture. Out of the class divide, between small number of the very rich, getting richer, and an increasing number of poor and labouring classes, crammed in London, trying to survive by hook or by crook… More and more people were crowding into the city, as enclosure forced people off the land, or coming from desperate poverty in Ireland Scotland or the north, in search of work or a foothold. In the early 18th century, the blatant corruption of the oligarchy in particular enraged people of all classes below them, and the breakdown of traditional relations, the seesawing economy, bred rebelliousness and riotous anger. The mob (more accurately, any one of a number of overlapping ‘mobs’) were easily roused to riot over almost everything. Demagogues, Jacobites, high churchmen, bigots and xenophobes, all sought mob support for their causes; and a very real opposition to the establishment, especially hatred of Walpole, led to numerous outbreaks.

But this was very much a pre-industrial rebelliousness, a turbulent, unruly proletarian street culture, not yet disciplined by the industrial revolution, with the work ethic not yet fully beaten into people and internalised by the likes of the Methodists (and London always had a stubborn lumpen ethos, never totally brought into Methodist respectability even in radical politics, unlike the northern towns where chartism etc flourished).

In parallel though, there was no real sense of a party or movement, no collective organization on a political level. (There were lots of trade combinations, by workers, though illegal and harshly punished). The Government shut down all criticism and opposition, even satire… imprisoning people for seditious libel for questioning or even mocking the political establishment.

So Jack’s rebellion is very individual, never crystalising into anything more collective; and is very much of its time, when the romantic rebel, the daring and stylish criminal could easily become a celebrity hero, like the highwaymen robbing with panache and dying with a flourish.
Although Jack’s story survived into victorian times, it’s likely he would never have become a celebrity in the same way a hundred years later, in an age where temperance and self-improvement had more sway.

But did the pose of romantic hero affect him after he became famous for his first escapes? Did the adoration of the crowd, the prison visits by the rich and leading journalists, painters etc and so on, swell his head? On the other hand, he is presented as being principled and clear-headed – disdainfully rejecting of religion, his refusal to deal with the repulsive gangmaster/fence/grass Wild… he also seems to know that in the end he is doomed, failing to leave London when he had the chance, in fact, doing the opposite, returning to his haunts, driving in a carriage through the outer gate of Newgate… in defiance, almost fatalistic bravado… But where would he have gone anyway? His only support networks being in London’s slums and taverns; he was as good as dead without them anyway.

His escapes from Newgate in particular made him an idol, because this prison was the most potent centre of repression, punishment and death, feared and hated by the lower orders like none other. Only Tyburn, the nagging tree itself, rivaled Newgate as a symbol of the class nature of punishment, law and the whole weight of hierarchical society. (It would be interesting to know which had more sarcastic nicknames among London’s lower classes – slang terms for being hung, and for Newgate itself, were almost numberless). Jack’s two breakouts from Newgate made the authorities look stupid, undermined the fear and terror, which enraged and scared the establishment that relied in the fear that the prison imposed – but delighted the classes subject to the gaol’s hospitality… Was his name shouted, did his ghost walk, as 56 years later, the London crowd burned Newgate to the ground in the Gordon Riots and freed hundreds of its inmates?

Jack Sheppard fascinated Londoners at the time, and since, partly because his story brings together so many crucial elements: he personifies the moral panic of the idle apprentice, the upper class terror of the lower orders, the sheer class hatred of the poor for the rich – and the vicious merry-go-round of crime and punishment, of law made and administered by the propertied, in their interests, against those with nothing.

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

Past Tense have also produced a poster commemorating Jack Sheppard to coincide with Otherstory’s puppetshow, it is available from our publications page.