Today in London financial history, 1613: North London’s New River opens – the earliest PFI?

Water, Moral Economy and the New River

North London’s New River was built between 1609 and 1613, in an attempt to alleviate, but also to cash in on, the shortage of water in the City of London.

Looking backwards, the development of piped water supplies, to replace wells and medieval conduits seems to us like an incontrovertibly progressive move. But not everyone was in favour at the time, especially those whose livelihoods were affected…

The digging of the New River subverted existing ‘moral economies’, which operated around water, its availability, and how it was delivered to where it was needed; undermining existing assumptions about the distribution of this vital resource, expectations shared by people from differing classes of society, with forms of exchange based on hard cash only. The New River’s creation was integral to the rise of capitalism, as it was then beginning to replace older forms of class relations – in fact how the river was financed was influential in that process.

But just as capitalism always finds ways to exploit natural resources, opening up markets and avenues for profit where none had previously existed, so the New River itself, and the shareholders’ dividends, were subverted, by locals who lived along its banks. Despite the New River Company’s determination to maintain control over its product – water – the new waterway was ‘unlawfully’ used during its whole existence, for the washing of clothes and bodies, for pleasure and as the centre of a disorderly social life.

…Nor any drop to drink…?

Water has always been a precious commodity, in London as everywhere else. For centuries, until the late Middle Ages, London had relied on supplies from the river Thames, smaller rivers like the Fleet or Walbrook, or from springs (of which a number could be found near to the City), or wells sunk into nearby areas of loam.

From the thirteenth century, as London began to grow rapidly in size and importance, these supplies became insufficient to support the increasing population and industry. Both the Thames and its main tributaries, especially the Fleet, running just to the west of the City wall, became also more and more polluted, since they served as both water supply AND drainage solution all in one. At any given point in the rivers, one lot of folk would be drawing water to drink, wash, clean, cook, while another would be emptying faces and urine, household waste, dead animal parts, blood, washing their clothes and themselves; there was also the dumping of refuse from ships in the Thames, run-off from the gutters in the streets… For centuries London authorities attempted (with varying success) to impose an effective control of this process, legislating as to what could be dumped, where, who was responsible for building toilets, regulating fines for littering the streets, polluting the streams, etc. In the fourteenth century the king, via the City officials, had issued a proclamation banning anyone from chucking rubbish, muck or human/animal waste into the Thames, the Fleet, and other City streams: “without throwing anything into the Thames for the saving of the body of the river . . . and also for avoiding the filthiness that is increasing in the water and upon the Banks of the Thames, to the great abomination and damage of the people.”

That so many orders were issued and fines imposed suggests they were often flouted; it’s also true that people had little alternative but to discharge waste into the rivers. There was no separate sewage system – until the mid-19th century.

The Walbrook, a small river which ran through the centre of the City, was the object of repeated clean-up campaigns and laws against dumping. These regulations though were often contradictory. By the early fourteenth century, individual toilets were built all along its banks, the stream acting as a sewer. Around 1345, those people caught with such facilities were forced to remove them. But by 1374, the authorities recognised people’s right to install privies over the Walbrook – only they were forced to pay for the right to do so, and later, as long as they dumped no other refuse into it. Eventually, however, all latrines over the stream were again abolished.

The Walbrook gradually disappeared under London as it grew and grew: by the seventeenth century, the Walbrook was completely hidden underground.

The official solution was to cart all such pollutants out of the city (and dump it elsewhere?!) or to places where it would be put in “dung boats”. Rakers (medieval bin-men) and gong-fermers (who cleaned cess-pools and gutters) bore the brunt of this enriching work.

On top of this, for the Thames, and the Fleet in its lower reaches, those drawing water had to be careful to take it at the right time in the ebb and flow of the tide; otherwise water used for cooking, ale-making etc could be too salty. One medieval complainant recorded that “the tide from the sea prevailed to such a degree that the water of the Thames was salt; so much so that many folks complained of the ale tasting like salt.”

Although the freedom of water had its place in moral ideology, (see below), there were always entrepreneurs ready to try it on for a quick buck. In 1343, residents living along the streets leading to the Thames tried to close the streets and extract a toll from everyone going to the river for water.

As a result of these issues, the Great Conduit was built (construction began in the mid-13th century). Pipes connected the spring at Tybourne with the Great Conduit House in Cheapside, from which the water flowed through pipes for a distance of a mile or more. At the terminus, the water was stored in a larger cistern equipped with cocks or taps for dispensing the water.

Later several other conduit systems were built, all fed by a natural spring, which supplied a cistern or tank, from which pipes were gradually dispersed the water to another conduit in the city.

Free as Conduit Water

These water conduits, so important to daily life before piped water, had become practically and symbolically central to the areas in which they were situated. They were places people had to go to, especially the poor, who could obtain no private water supply. They became centres of gossip, rumour, meeting points, where collective feeling and strength could become action and protest and riot could arise. A neighbourhood’s common interest was expressed here – collective sanctions against local ‘offenders’, petty crims and moral transgressors were often enacted around the conduit. The importance of water made the conduits representative of the moral economy of a neighbourhood. On top of this, water itself was subject to moral community constraints – it was seen as something that should be freely available: “free as conduit water” was a popular expression. Like bread, it was viewed as an essential; collective opposition to its commercial exploitation was common, and from this came regular direct action to maintain everyone’s recognised right to access to it.

They were also resorts of the young (especially young apprentices) and of women, as carrying water was seen their work. Apprentices resented being forced to carry water; but apprentice culture also built initiation rituals and bonding, mythology around the conduit. Women also clearly found conduits to be places to meet each other, discuss and maybe find common cause; Mark Jenner suggests this represented an alternative power centre maybe in some way, though counter to that, you’d have thought any piped water supply in their home would probably have made their work easier – if only in terms of less carrying to and fro. It has been claimed, though, that the increase in piped water supplies changed the nature of women’s work… piped water led to higher expectations of domestic cleanliness, which would have had a knock on effect on women’s domestic work. (A thorny question, to be sure; one contemporary feminist critic – this writer’s other half – ridicules the idea that lugging water from a tap in the street, no matter how many other women you might meet there, is in any way empowering. However… what makes actual work lighter can change the socialising rituals associated with traditional ways of doing that work… Obvious improvements can sometimes lead to, for instance, an isolation emerging from having a washing machine in your home, where the communal laundry might have meant meeting others, getting to know people, discussing, looking out for each other, and so on…)

The conduits became places with their own ritual – their inspection by city officials became heavily ritualised and potent. Punishments for various crimes were also often carried out near to conduits, and they were used as landmarks for giving directions, orienting you in the City.

Cockney ****in’ Tankards

Water was provided to individual households by water-carriers, sometimes known as “cobs,” which were paid to deliver water from the river or from conduits to customers. Some hawked water through the streets, in a large tankard on their shoulders; others would lug two 3-gallon wooden tubs hung from a yoke over their shoulders. The London tankard bearers or water carriers were an organised force, a fraternity who had their own guildhall in the 1490s, though they had to sell it in 1560 when the fraternity split between freemen and non-freemen. The ‘cobs’ campaigned actively around access to water and their right to carry it… sometimes using violence to maintain their rights, as they saw them, but rooting this firmly in an accepted moral framework.

Around 1600, a water bearers’ petition to Parliament reckoned the number of them and their dependents at 4000.

The petition called the authorities’ attention to some of the failings of the conduit system:

“. . . most of the water is taken, and kept from the said conduits in London by many private branches and cockes, and laid into private dwellings, being suffered also to runne at waste, to the general grievance of citizens, and all others repairing to the same…”

The water bearers complained of a number of specific cases of illicit connection to the conduits, which not only made the supply scarce but also deprived the cobs of part of their traditional livelihood. Apparently water scarcity at the conduits was leading to disputes between the carriers, jostling to fill their tankards before others in the queue:

“At the conduit striving for their turn_              
The quarrel it grows great_        
That up in arms they are at last_              
And one another beat.”

Where There’s a Quill…

The wealthy could obviously get around the hassle of collecting water from conduits (apart from the fact that they’d send their servants!). By the sixteenth Century those who could afford it usually paid water bearers to collect it for them – those who didn’t have their own wells could often pay to have a private pipe or ‘quill’ branched off the supplies to the City conduits. These big users would however often be targeted at times of water shortage, accused of hogging the flow of water or wasting it on frivolous pastimes… Private quills could be cut off by City officials, due to moral pressure exerted by the lower orders.

Beyond the class distinctions that caused obvious resentment, commercial and industrial users of water were also accused of misuse, or overuse, of the precious liquid… After much dispute, the City authorities decided to enforce peace at the taps, by appointing keepers of the conduits, whose main duty was to guard against water being hogged by commercial interests. In the early fourteenth century, an order was issued making brewers, cooks, and fishmongers pay for the water they used, at the discretion of the keeper of the conduit. (This presumably was a classic recipe for bribery, but there you go).

If the rich could, largely (though not always) legally, obtain an authorised quill, having running water piped direct to your home was so desirable that Londoners illegally tapped the conduits. In 1478, a man was brought before city officials and charged with having diverting water from a conduit where it passed his house into his private well. He was found guilty, and the nature of his punishment reflects the moral constraints on water use, which were expressed partly in the legal code, as well as informally. The culprit was “placed on horseback, with a vessel shaped like a conduit on his head. At each of the city’s conduits he was required to proclaim his crime while water from the vessel dripped over his face.”

…There’s A Riot

In 1547, during a time of water supply problems, two girdlers were imprisoned for gathering a crowd at the Cheapside Standard and issuing seditious words on the subject of water and how it was distributed. In 1561, an alleged plot by young men and water bearers to start a water riot, aimed at the destruction of the private quill of Lord Paget, which was popularly believed to have caused the Fleet Street conduit, to which it was connected, to dry up. The riot was prevented by local aldermen (the City of London councillors).

Gradually the moral economy around water distribution was eclipsed by new waterworks. The way these works were dreamt up and financed reflected the growth of capitalism and industrial development in sixteenth century England; technical innovation driven by increased need, population and industrial growth, combined with private finance and investment, in a manner relatively new to London.

As London’s size and population expanded, the city authorities grew more and more worried about how to balance the demand for water with its supply. But even more than today, the expense of beginning on large public works projects was huge, and they were reluctant to commit to such cost and effort. However, they were more amenable to allowing private individuals who were interested in making a profit to take the risk. “Capitalism had arrived in the water supply business.”

In 1574, Dutch hydraulics engineer Peter Morice was granted a lease of the northernmost arch of London Bridge, where he placed a water-wheel, designed to raise water, which was then pumped uphill to nearby parts of the City. The city’s water carriers complained about the scheme, which obviously affected their trade. The wheels also faced early design problems, but gradually became more effective, and Morice was granted a lease on two further arches. Water was lifted to the conduit house in Leadenhall Street, by 1582, then Old Fish Street, and other areas of the city. The wheels could turn both ways (to work with the ebb or flow of the tide), and supplied up to 52 pumps, forcing anything up to 132,120 gallons an hour to a height of 120 feet. Later a competitor called Bevis Bulmer set up a pump engine at ‘Bygot House” (roughly where the Millennium Bridge is now).

An artists impression of one of the water wheels that operated under the arches of London Bridge

Even these hugely innovative (and very profitable) developments were increasingly inadequate for London’s demand for water, however. Hence the New River.

Cash Flow

The New River was built by Hugh Myddleton & Partners, begun in 1609, and finished in 1613. It brought water from springs at Amwell and Chadwell in Hertfordshire, to reception ponds in Islington, from where it was piped into the City. The Company had difficulty in getting investors to support them; many thought it a bad risk financially. Various landowners along the route of the River also opposed the river being cut through their property. This opposition actually stalled the progress of the river for two years between 1610 and 1612.

King James I at New River Head – coming to check on his investments…

However, after an approach from Myddleton, king James I bought a half-share in the Company (and any prospective profits), which influenced other potential investors, cowed any prospective complainants (after all, who wanted to take on the king?). James also leaned on Londoners, backing up the New River Company’s slightly heavy-handed approach to increasing income: “attempts were made to put pressure on the citizenry to take New River water; and a letter was sent to the city asking the corporation to use its authority to require compulsory purchase of the new water supply”!) Even then, it took twenty years for the number of Londoners connected rose high enough to make a profit for the Company.

By 1638 the New River was supplying 10 per cent of water to houses in the City of London’s jurisdiction. Customers paid a yearly rent for access to water, £1 a year in 1629. This was, however, beyond the means of many even middle-income households.

But by the end of the 17th Century many people were purchasing water from new capitalist water companies… this had arisen during the century as demand increased. Hugh Myddleton’s Company rose to become an important economic force in London. In 1695, the three companies with largest capital were the East India Company (the world’s first multi-national), the Bank of England, and the New River Company. The New River Company existed as a private utility until 1904, when the whole of London’s water supply passed to the Metropolitan Water Board. But the Company continues to exist as a property company, managing its considerable land holdings.

“poor men and women that used to get their Bread”

These innovations didn’t go down well with water bearers. The Mayor and the Lord Chancellor had assured them they would still have plenty of work, but in 1592 they were said to be ‘unruly’, protesting their poverty and lack of work. In 1621 the Water bearers complained again to City officials, this time about the New River, after there was a shortage of water at the City conduits.

On Midsummer Day 1654, water bearers of the ward of St Leonard Eastcheap conducted a mock funeral to mourn the absence of water at the conduits.

They were still agitating in 1682: a petition was sent to aldermen about neglect of the conduits. In the same year “poor men and women that used to get their Bread” as water carriers were described as destitute. Clearly they were losing the battle: piped supplies were taking over and the conduits were being run down. A financially stretched City had totally privatised water supplies and resources for five miles around London. In 1693 the City leased ponds and springs at Hampstead, Hornsey and St Pancras to a consortium. The following year ponds in Dalston, Marylebone and Paddington were leased.

In 1698 tankard bearers of St Giles Cripplegate petitioned the water should be restored to the Conduits. But the conduits were on their way out. In 1730 many were demolished as a nuisance and obstruction, probably to allow building and expansion of the highways, but perhaps also to prevent undesirables gathering there (see below).

Many people, however, even some of those who could afford to buy from the New River Company, refused to do so; the old conduit system and paying water bearers to carry water had been strongly linked to charity and vertical social bonds of cohesion. Many bearers were ex-servants, charity cases, the disabled, the very poor; water carrying was in some ways a ‘make work’ scheme, a complex mix of charity and moral obligation. The idea of a water conduit was even used as a symbol for charity in literature. Taking New River water meant severing these bonds, and even many middle class householders were reluctant to do this; not just because of the unruly water bearers, but because they genuinely felt it was breaking with a tradition worth maintaining. In the early years, under pressure from this morality, Myddleton’s Company had to set up standpipes in the street for water bearers to use.

But for many people, in the City and surrounding areas, piped supplies were still totally out of the question due to poverty. The moral economy of the water supply survived into the 1820s; sympathy to water carriers and preference for carried water as against piped supply was grounded in notions of a communality, in which the conduits had become symbolic social symbols.

As the tankard bearers died out, the rituals of conduit culture were taken over by other groups – the spaces they had occupied were colonised by other collectives. For example, by the 18th Century, the Conduit of upper Cheapside had become the haunt of chimney sweeps. This was partly because it was a good place to tout for business, but also a symbolic reversal. The sweeps had overturned the milkmaids old rituals for Mayday and taken them over in an ironic reversal of cleanliness, ruralness and purity associated with milkmaids to ‘filthy urban waste’; placing themselves next to the ‘cleansing waters’ may have been a similar ironic move.

‘Very little prejudicial to navigation”

The New River also managed to alienate the users of another water course – the nearby River Lea. By 1619, the year of the Company’s incorporation, the number of tenants had increased to over 1,000 and the water provided by the springs was insufficient. It was decided to tap the Lea by diverting part of its water into the New River. A dam was built for the purpose in the Lea. But the Lea was an important waterway for trade goods to reach to London, and from the Thames inland to Essex, Hertfordshire and even further. The river bargemen were understandably upset, and they had a long history of fighting for their rights, often violently. Claiming the dam was an obstruction, but also that the Lea’s water-level had dropped as a result, making navigating it harder, they protested by removing these dams; they were however quickly rebuilt. This dispute though rumbled on for decades; around 1667 another dam between Hertford and Ware erected to divert water into the New River was sabotaged by bargemen. In 1670 the king appointed a committee (which included architect and city planner Christopher Wren) to look into the matter and make a final ruling. This proved a knotty problem, as the Lea barge trade kept food and beer prices in London low by bringing corn and malt in from surrounding counties (and had in fact braved the recent 1665 plague to keep the ailing citizens fed); bit the New River’s water supply was also now indispensable.

In the end, perhaps unsurprisingly, this committee came down firmly on the fence, on the one hand claiming their investigations had ascertained that “the pipes drain off from the navigable river (Lea) about one part of thirty parts, which seems to us very little prejudicial to navigation and which could not abate the river half an inch”, but also recommending that two jetties (instead of a dam) be built to divert water, and the Company’s pipes be reduced in size. But this pleased neither side. It may have been that the bargemen were also backed by the powerful London brewers, who relied on their cheap malt supplies, and probably had grudges against the New River Company over the amount they were charged for their water… (This dispute was actually still being debated sixty years later).

In fact, the Committee identified the culprits for the problems of navigating the Lea as being local millers who had deepened their cuts to take more water out of the Lea than they needed, and would charge to let some of this water back into the river when there were complaints about the level.

“Every stream had its mills, most commonly for grinding corn but also for fulling cloth, or in more highly industrialised areas than the Lee for tilt-hammers and for operating the bellows of blast furnaces. A artificial cut was made from the river to bring the water to a water-wheel, and in an effort to ensure an adequate supply of water at all times, the mill owner usually built a weir across the river to hold back the water and form what amounted to an artificial reservoir.

The centre of the weir was made of planks held in place by beams, which could in theory be removed when a boat needed to pass, in practice the miller was reluctant to remove the barrier and so lose his precious water, especially in times of drought. Rather than planks, some weirs had a single pair of swinging gates or one vertical one; they were known as staunches or flash-locks.

Weirs obviously constituted a barrier to free navigation but they could also confer benefits. In its natural state a river passes through alternate shallow rapids and deep quiet pools in high summer these shallows provide insufficient water to float a barge. It is just at these places that mills were usually built because they gave the sharp fall necessary for the working of the wheels. The mill weir which held back the water and forced it into the leat leading to the wheel also deepened the water upstream for some distance which was helpful to navigation. When a barge approached from below, if the miller felt so inclined he could open the weir and let a rush of water through sufficient to float the boat over the shallows. This was termed a “shoot” or “flash” for which the watermen paid the miller a fee.

It is not surprising that a continuous war was fought between the fishery owners and millers, and the watermen who required an unimpeded passage.” (The Navigation of the River Lee, (1190 – 1790), J.G.L.Burnby and M.Parker, Edmonton Hundred Historical Society Occasional Paper New Series No. 36, which recounts several centuries of disputes around navigation and other water uses in the Lea, including much trouble with the New River Company.)

Snow Justice

Of course, looking backwards, piped water supplies were a step forward in terms of public health. But until the nineteenth century, most of London’s working classes and poor were never able to afford a piped connection, and many continued to use conduits out of necessity. In the days before a proper sewerage system this could lay people open to all sorts of water-born diseases, as John Snow found, when he identified the Broad Street conduit, polluted by a local cesspit, to be the origin of a cholera outbreak in 1854 (as well as his comparative study, the year after, of cholera instances in London areas which took some of their water supply from the Thames, and those that moved away from this, which was in many ways more influential in the long term). This discovery not only helped develop understanding of cholera as a disease spread by contaminated water, not miasmas or bad air, but was also pioneering in how statistics and mapping were used to nail down the outbreak’s centre, and was massively influential in the growth of public health and the birth of the science of epidemiology.

Ironically medical journal The Lancet was a major force in doctors’ reaction against these discoveries, initially ridiculing Snow’s findings. Founding editor Thomas Wakley, in many ways a progressive and pioneering doctor (as well as being a radical MP and a supporter of Chartism) thought Snow was obstructing his attempts to clean up foul-smelling industries and improve London’s health. Wakley shared the general belief in miasmas as the cause of cholera and other diseases, and he denounced Snow and questioned his findings as non-scientific. In time Snow was vindicated. The Lancet in fact published such nonsense in its attempt to undermine Snow, and such a curt and ungenerous obituary when he died, prematurely, in 1858, that it had to belatedly apologise.
Very belatedly.
In April 2013 in fact!

Something In the Water

Piped water supplies may have gradually become more acceptable socially, but age-old fears about the vulnerability of settlements and their water supplies persisted. Poisoning the wells was a charge levelled successively at Jews, nobles, foreigners of all descriptions in times of crisis, especially in the late Middle Ages, times of upheaval, social change, war… Piped water supplies in some ways concentrated this fear on new areas of threat. The New River’s importance in London’s growth and daily existence focussed some of this sense of vulnerability.

Possible threats to the water supply led to rumour, paranoia, and often official panic. Rumours spread that Catholic agitators (the major bogeymen of English society for a couple of centuries) had secretly turned off the stopcocks on the New River, just before the 1666 Great Fire. This was only one of the many allegations about the starting and spreading of the Fire: both Catholics and Dutch protestant immigrants were variously blamed, and victimised, at the time, and to this day the Monument to the Fire still displays the sign blaming it all on the papists. And during the (in origin anti-catholic, though subsequently generally anti-establishment) Gordon Riots in 1780, the military was ordered to protect the New River and London Bridge waterworks after rumours that those damn papists were at it again and planned to sabotage the supply. Troops were stationed at New River Head, at Highbury Frame (the embankment built in Highbury to carry the River across a dip in the land: roughly it ran in an arc from the junction of Somerfield Road and Queens Drive, to the junction of Riversdale Road and Wyatt Road, and was know locally as the ‘Boarded River’), and Bush Hill Frame (in Enfield, where the River crosses Salmon Brook).

But alternatively, there was a contemporary claim that Gordon rioters, not catholics, tried to cut off water supplies from the New River: “… in the midst of horror and confusion, there was an attempt to prevent the extinction of the flames by cutting off the water of the New River…”
(Lord Loughborough’s Charge to the Grand Jury in trials of Gordon Rioters, 10th July 1780, Session House, St Margaret’s Hill.)

According to a report in the Mechanics’ Magazine and Journal of Science, Arts, and Manufactures, Volume 55, 1851, “a panic has sometimes been occasioned by a report that the New River was poisoned, as it happened during the excitement occasioned by Lord George Gordon’s riots; all the water was then for a short time red; this, on examination, was found to have arisen from a quantity of refuse madder, thrown in from a dye-house.”

In 1803, at a time of great fear of French invasion and/or radical revolution/uprising, “persons employed to supply the Metropolis with water… are mostly Irish and… have been heard to declare that in the case of invasion or insurrection they should… assist the enemies of this country by preventing the supply of water in cases of fire.”

[This kind of paranoia didn’t die out in the 19th Century: in the 1960s, sections of the media, especially in the US, became obsessed by the idea that subversives, terrorists or radical hippies could paralyse society by dumping loads of LSD in reservoirs, and that plans had even been made to do so… For some of the story behind this, it’s worth checking out this article.]

Cuttinge the bankes

Once established, the new River gradually became a part of the culture of the areas it passed through, in many ways, not all of them legit. The River’s wooden pipes fanned out from New River Head, across the fields and into the City and its outlying suburbs. For some distance the pipes ran on the surface, sometimes overhead. Tapping both these pipes, or digging channels from the River itself, to underhandedly supply your gaff with water for free was common. Similarly, at a time when most houses, especially those of the lower classes, had no water supply of their own, washing both yourself and your clothes in the River was an obvious solution – it was right there, after all, open to be used. The old moral economy, of water as a free right that belonged to all, revived, and people took free advantage.

“(There are) many abuses and misdemeanors daylie committed and onn in and upon said river (“New River”), by lewde and ill-disposed people, in cuttinge the bankes and letting out the said water, to the inconvenience and prejudice of tennantes, casting in dogges and filth, and lettinge in sewers and other fowle and unclean water, to the annoyance of the said water; breakeinge and carreinge away the bridges, vaultes and rayles standinge in upon the river, taking and carryinge water out of the said river in lickquer cartes, tubbs or barrells, and stealing branches and cockes from the pipes, together with many such abuses and annoyances . . “.

It’s uncertain from the above complaint how much of this was people lifting water for their own use, and how much was vandalism, or using the New River as they had the old London rivers – partly as supply and partly as a sewer.

“Persons Trespassing By Bathing”

But another area of conflict between the River’s owners and its immediate neighbours in pre-suburban North London was its popularity for free and disreputable pleasure-time. Swimming in the River was popular, and associated with not only rowdy picnics but a spot of al fresco sex as well.

A watch-house on the New River, built to house the New River Company’s private security guards hired to deter skinny-dippers… Still standing today.

Already a year after its opening, the New River Company had to pay two labourers to keep swimmers – and dogs! – out during the Whitsun holidays. In 1728, the schoolmaster at Enfield, Mr Davies, was warned to stop his Boarding School pupils from bathing in the River, being warned that “Sundry persons have been lately committed to the New Prison for the same.” By 1770, despite the many notice boards “affixed to posts on different parts of the River about Islington… to prevent persons trespassing by Bathing, or otherwise…”, unofficial use of the river had grown to such proportions that the following proclamation was issued: “Whereas a great Number of idle and disorderly persons have assembled together in the Fields between Islington and Newington and parts adjacent and have by bathing and washing themselves in the New River broke down the banks and done other damages to the said river and have also in a most atrocious and indecent and illegal Manner committed many other offences highly injurious to the property of the Company and to the Public in General. This is therefore to give Notice that the said Company are determined to prosecute with the utmost Severity of the Law, all such persons who for the future shall be found so offending.”

A 40-shilling reward was offered for reporting of those caught and charged, and occasional bathers were nicked, but it doesn’t seem to have put a stop to the skinny-dipping, as eleven years later an advert was inserted three times on the front of the Daily Advertiser, offering rewards for dobbing in offenders, and the fee had risen to £2. The Company claimed that bathers were destroying the banks, widening the river to a dirty lake in parts, and disturbing the riverbed, polluting the water.

Bathing was common not only in the River itself but in the reservoirs and ponds it fed. In 1783, householders near Battle Bridge (modern Kings Cross), whose houses were fed by the West Pond at New River Head, above Amwell Street, complained that their water was running “thick and unclean” which they blamed on the large numbers using the Pond as an open air bath. In response the Company Board ordered a brick wall built around the pond. On the section of the River behind the Angel, between Colebrooke Row and Duncan Terrace, the respectable folk living by its banks threatened to sue the Company if the didn’t do something about “a set of Worthless Rascals who are always, especially on Sunday, Washing their nasty rotten Hides in the New River Water near the City Road… a great abominable shame for a rich Company to suffer such indecency.”

“Behaviour Subversive to Public Decency”

The final insult seems to have been the flaunting of nakedness, especially in open view of nice middle class homes. In 1809, John Tyre of Islington was had up at the Middlesex Sessions at Hicks Hall (the old County Court in St John Street, Clerkenwell, itself located close to New River Head); after having gone bathing in the New River, he had allegedly gone for a run, naked, across Highbury Fields, in front of the ultra-posh houses in Highbury Place. He was found guilty of Behaviour Subversive to Public Decency – and sentenced to two months in Newgate Prison.

Such stiff sentences did little to curb the enthusiasm for bathing in the river, though, as in 1830 a report claimed that 800-1000 people were using the river to bathe or swim in every summer. Long term, the only way to reduce the endemic bathing problem was for the Company to supply water free to new public Baths, and to imprison the water in pipes and re-route it underground in places. The River was also fenced in severely in some places. Illegal angling was also a problem: the fishing rights for the whole length of the River were retained by the Company, who granted permits to landowners and the local worthies; however poaching of fish by undesirables was widespread.

This article is greatly indebted to From Conduit Community to Commercial Network: Water In London, by Mark Jenner, in Londonopolis: Essays in the Cultural and Social History of Early Modern London.

 

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LETS DIG UP THE NEW RIVER

Since the nineteenth century, large sections of the New River have gradually been re-routed underground, covered over by the growth of suburban streets. Much of its length is still open, and can be walked… Much more flows through pipes, or even runs above ground but is fenced off. The author of this pamphlet lives on one such stretch, where the River runs beneath a green pathway down the middle of the wide street. In my neighbourhood, the river dives and resurfaces, flitting between a secret conduit and a landscaped narrow green promenade.

Capitalism, a powerful engine driving England’s developing industrial society, played a big part in the development of the New River. Without a doubt the risks taken by capitalists objectively allowed some of London’s most important and useful features to be built. Others were built despite capital and property interests, pushed through by enlightened or foresighted local authorities, or philanthropists and private charitable institutions. Undeniable social progress, over the last few centuries, came about for a myriad web of reasons, including the drive for profit, genuine ideologies of humanitarianism and compassion, or of political conviction of the rights of working people, or a fear of the potential of the poor rising in revolt.

But capital’s needs, the drive for profit, can only produce social progress as long as it’s profitable, as long as it coincides with hard cash… It’s also easy to see how we have benefitted from some developments, long term; but for the people who lived through the actual ‘progressing’ sometimes it made their lives rapidly worse – witness the water bearers in the New River story, but on a wider scale, the industrial Revolution in England was instrumental in the destruction of myriad ways of life, forced people into factories, or workhouses, drove down life expectancy for decades, and robbed working people of security and all the fruits of their labour bar a pittance. Progress in Britain also came at the expense of mass slavery for Africans, pillage and plunder of resources all over the world, the near-destruction of whole races and species of animals. We have to go beyond ‘progress’ based on wealth and profits, to a world where all of us have free access to resources, more than just to survive, but to flourish and prosper. All of life ‘free as conduit water.”

At past tense we have long floated and battled the rapids, as part of currents that saw the possibility of a post-capitalist existence… We have long fought the forces that push all of us towards dealing only with each other through money, competition, getting ahead, the forces that rob us of our time and pay us a grudging fraction of what we earn for them… Against that we build human relations, the needs of people, our creativity, the potential we have to live totally differently to the daily grind.

But a change in society to us doesn’t just mean a bland change in economic relations; we also dream of altering the physical space around us – for use, yes, but also for beauty. The places we live, the space we inhabit, the environments around us where we work and play, are there to transform. We love to walk the banks of the canal from Limehouse to Brentford, the banks of the smaller streams that feed the Thames, the Thames banks themselves. For decades we’ve watched these banks transformed, to some extent opened for all to wander, but lined also with the increasing developments designed overwhelmingly for the rich. We walk the Thames now, yes, from Deptford to London Bridge, but at the sufferance and under the eye of the yuppie towers and ever-multiplying high-rise penthouse playgrounds. It seems a city increasingly beyond our control, rented to us part-time at extortionate rates – because they need us to run the place, make it work; but more and more they see us like the rats that carried the plague.

All this we want to change – all of existence should be free, creative, shared and open to all… Not hipster bars by trendy New Riversides, fake edge for rich kids playing at living in Hackney (until they can turn it into another reprint of whatever suburb they crawled out of)… but a freely running stream for freely dancing folk.

It’s not just landscaped paths we want… wildness is being bred out of the city, green spaces being built on unless they’re protected, or fought for… But the half-wildernesses and empty spaces, demolished buildings left to tumble, the Bricklayers Arms or Beckton after they were knocked down, and before the new estates, were claimed by people and opened up as unofficial playgrounds… In some ways this made for wilder and more fun spaces. The banks of South London’s Wandle, for instance, were more fun to wander when the path was half-wild, half overgrown factories falling down, part-reclaimed by weeds, parts where you had to scramble and trespass. The ordered council walks are probably better for baby-buggies though, and open space is a playground for dodgier elements too, who have to co-exist with kids… So it’s a toss-up, always, a negotiation about who gets to use space, who it’s for… It’s hard to consensus use of space.

We would like to see the New River open throughout its length, not only dug up, but navigable. We desire to drift by dinghy or home made raft, from Wood Green to Angel, stop off and picnic drink by its banks, run naked through Highbury like John Tyre, go skinny-dipping where the River crosses Salmon Brook.

Obviously for this to happen would means the re-instating of the River at points where roads now run… In some places where gardens or allotments grow… Some people living and working, growing there might object. Perhaps the New New River we foresee would only some about in a radically different North London, where roads and cars would be less important, in a social system where work could be transformed too, where time wasn’t driving us always to some other place for the purposes of earning enough to get by… Some of us have wandered almost every mile of the rivers of London, those on the surface and those stretches lost or buried. For some reason waters and waterways call to us, pull us along their ever-onward meandering. Maybe its cause we’re two-thirds water ourselves; though ways that are lost always have a special urge for some humans. For years a vision of a new London, teeming with canals and opened up lost rivers, new waterways and other paths, has haunted us. Snatches of the New River have been part of the inspiration for this – the stretch from St Paul’s Road to Canonbury Road, or … You can walk there, and think: London should be filled with paths like this, in every area there should be hidden paths and secret ways, dark water and willows barely weeping, kids fishing for the one fat carp that has ate the rest. They are in some ways an answer and a rebuttal of the ever-growing M25-ising of the city, as interesting and alternative space is ironed out, everything that is not for profit is slowly dried out and drained of its moisture. We have fought that process for years, a war that continues. Currently we’re losing.

Beyond that, we have stood on Holborn Viaduct and day-dreamt a Fleet river estuary re-flooded, with boats wandering up as far as the Apple Tree pub, to share a pint with some Mount Pleasant postal-workers. Or going further – the streets of the City flooded for ever, with the banks and transnational corporations long fled, new canals linking their abandoned sky-scrapers, squatted and turned into vertical playgrounds for kids (whole floors hollowed out for adventure slides and zip-wires), allotments on the 33rd floor of the Gherkin, open to the wind and weather. All of London one vast waterway, not even as stinking as Venice in the Summer (OK, so we’ll have some gong-ferming to do). The new waterways in fact could be the arteries and veins of new social networks.

But if this vision seems a long way off, remember the thousands who always reclaimed the New River in defiance of the Company. Who says we can’t dig up the hidden stretches ourselves, even if no great social change seems like it’s round the corner? Gates are there to be opened and fences climbed…

 

 

All this week in London consumer history, 1800: Bread rioters force the City’s Corn Exchange to close

In 1799, 1800 and 1801 widespread rioting broke out throughout England. Most of these were food riots, provoked by scarcity and soaring prices during Napoleon’s continental blockade of Britain. The cost of a loaf of bread was at an all time high of 1 shilling 9 d. High grain prices meant hikes in the cost of bread – and many of the poor and labouring classes lived off a diet in which bread played a major part. Bread price rises were always likely to cause riots – and prices did depend on the quality of harvest. A bad harvest harbinged social disorder.

Britain had been at war with Revolutionary France since 1793. In order to keep the army and navy fed, much of the wheat that was produced was bought by the government. In addition the war led to difficulties importing grain into Britain, (due to blockades and disrupted harvests on the continent) which also raised the price.

A series of poor harvests in the mid 1790’s and severe weather also devastating affect; much of this was caused by unpredictable weather. Crops were either left rotting in the fields by freezing wet Winters, or scorched by unbearably hot summers.

Enclosure also had a huge impact: for many who in the past might have had some measure of self-sufficiency, owning a couple of animals they could graze on common land, for instance – these options had been restricted as access to common land had been drastically cut back in the mid-late 18th century. Many of the rural or semi-rural poor now bought much more of their food.

Bread had increasingly become the major part of the diet of the majority of British population, especially among the poor and working classes.

And the price of food was crucial in people’s daily life: anywhere between 40 and 80 percent of income was spent on bread.

Beyond this – high grain prices led to a negative impact on the economy generally. As spending on bread came first, expenditure on most other products rose and fell depending on what spare cash people had after feeding themselves. High grain prices, high bread prices, led to drastic reductions in consumer spending in other areas, which had a knock on effect on the wider economy.

So in the late 1790s-early 1800s, there was a general economic crisis. Gold was scarce—so scarce, from the normal price of £3 17s. 6d. per oz., it had risen to £4 5s., “at which price it was a temptation, almost overpowering, to melt guineas”. The cost of living increased: food was scarce and expensive ”and, as very few people starve in silence, riots were the natural consequence.”

Control over bread prices was in fact a regular fact of life. The weight of a penny loaf had also been set to reflect the local cost of wheat (this was a concession to popular feeling after a previous wave of food riots in 1757).

More widely, the ‘Bread Assize’ was supposed to regulate the cost of a loaf of bread in different areas, to prevent the cost soaring too high for the poor to afford. The Assize was administered locally, as prices and wages varied across the country; particular attention was always paid to London, not only as the largest market for bread, but because of the greater potential for disorder in the capital if bread became scarce or unaffordable. The Assize was very much about preventing social unrest. But administering it was complex, especially as it regulated only the price of bread, not grain. Any suggestion of assizing flour prices as well came to nothing. In effect, authorities subsidised bakers to keep bread prices low; but the system was criticised for being confusing and arbitrary, and for encouraging profiteering and hoarding by grain merchants, millers and bakers. Nationally, government policy was generally to allow market forces to regulate the markets, and by 1800, the Assize system was being abandoned in many areas, including London, though other local authorities continued to attempt to keep bread prices down for several decades into the 19th century.

The government attempted to address the problems caused by grain dealers allegedly profiting from high grain prices – mainly they were pushed into action by popular clamour. Laws were passed or existing rules revived, against “Forestalling and Regrating”, (ie, buying up and hoarding produce in order to sell it later when prices were higher), granting subsidies to merchants who imported oats and rye, and also allowing beer to be made from sugar to free up grain for bread making.

Legal action was in fact taken against those accused of profiteering:

“This day one Mr. Rusby was tried, in the Court of King’s Bench, on an indictment against him, as an eminent corn-factor, for having purchased, by sample, on the 8th of November last, in the Corn Market, Mark Lane, ninety quarters of oats at 41s. per quarter, and sold thirty of them again in the same market, on the same day, at 44s. The most material testimony on the part of the Crown was given by Thomas Smith, a partner of the defendant’s. After the evidence had been gone through, Lord Kenyon made an address to the jury, who, almost instantly, found the defendant guilty. Lord Kenyon— ‘You have conferred, by your verdict, almost the greatest benefit on your country that was ever conferred by any jury.’ Another indictment against the defendant, for engrossing, stands over.
“Several other indictments for the same alleged crimes were tried during this year, which we fear tended to aggravate the evils of scarcity they were meant to obviate, and no doubt
contributed to excite popular tumults, by rendering a very useful body of men odious in the eyes of the mob.”
(Annual Register, July 4, 1800)

However, calls for the government to set grain prices, or to allow local authorities to set them in the interests of peace, were resisted. The government of the era was overseeing the rapid replacement of any vestiges of paternalism in the interests of social cohesion, in favour of a strict laissez faire approach to prices and wages. The Duke of Portland, Home Secretary at the time, over-ruled local authorities who were willing to settle prices locally to appease anger.

Crowds sometimes took the punishment of forestallers into their own hands. (A case at Bishop’s Clyst, Devon, August, 1800 is featured in ‘Hints to Forestallers, or A Sure Way to Reduce the Price of Grain!’ an illustration by Isaac Cruikshank).

Crowd action to enforce what they saw as ‘fair’ prices for bread and other food stuffs reflected what EP Thompson identified as a ‘moral economy’ – the idea that a consensus existed on the cost of staple foodstuffs, broadly encompassing different social classes, on the basis that the essentials of life should be available and affordable. Moral economy was often enforced unofficially by collective action – eg crowds taking over markets or shops, and making the merchants reduce prices to a level felt to be reasonable. Prior to the industrial revolution, Thompson identifies the moral economy with a widespread system of social paternalism, which meant that authorities sometimes colluded with or turned a blind eye to such collective action, or even enforced price levels themselves, in the interests of keeping social peace. The rise of laissez faire capitalism in the last decades of the 18th century reflected a determination in parts of the ruling elites to do away with paternalism, and to allow the power of ‘market forces’ to determine prices and wages, in the interests, of course, of the wealthy. But the memory of the attacks on the wealthy in the Gordon Riots of 1780, and the fear of something like the French Revolution happening in Britain, can also be seen in the strong line increasingly taken with crowds in the 1790s.

In August and September several riots protesting the scarcity of corn, and the high price of provisions, took place in Birmingham, Oxford, Nottingham, Coventry, Norwich, Stamford, Portsmouth, Sheffield, Worcester, and a number of other areas. The form these generally took was that markets were invaded, and a crowd would force the farmers and merchants to sell their provisions at a low price, or at least one considered fair.

There were the usual suggestions of some mysterious organisation being behind the riots. Several riots and consumer’s “strikes” were advertised in advance by handbills, on a scale which argues organisation by committees with access to the printing-press. Radicals had been circulating inflammatory handbills calling for demonstrations; the City was awash with revolutionary graffiti.

In September 1800, the riots spread to several parts of London. 2000 demonstrators forced the closure of the Corn Exchange for 6 days, and targetted corn dealers seen as responsible for high corn prices.

For six days there were tumults, starting at the Corn Exchange, in Mark Lane, (off modern Fenchurch Street) but spreading to other areas.

Overnight on 13th-14th September, two large written placards were pasted on the Monument, the text of which read:

“Bread will be sixpence the Quartern if the People will
assemble at the Corn Market on Monday.
Fellow Countrymen,
How long will ye quietly and cowardly suffer yourselves to
be imposed upon, and half starved by a set of mercenary slaves and Government hirelings? Can you still suffer them to proceed in their extensive monopolies, while your children are
crying for bread?
No! let them exist not a day longer. We are
the sovereignty; rise then from your lethargy.
Be at the Corn
Market on Monday.”

Small printed handbills with similar messages were distributed around poor neighbourhoods, “and the chance of a cheap loaf, or the love of mischief,” led to a two thousand-strong crowd gathering in Mark Lane the next morning. They began by hissing the grain dealers and corn-factors going into the market, but this progressed to jostling the dealers and pelting them with mud. For some reason Quakers came in for particularly rough treatment. They also began breaking the Exchange windows. The Lord Mayor of London went to Mark Lane about 11 a.m., to plead with the crowd that their actions would make no difference to bread prices; however, they only hissed and yelled at him, “Cheap bread! Birmingham and Nottingham for ever! Three loaves for eighteen pence,” the Mayor ordered the Riot Act to be read, and the constables charged the mob, who dispersed. [The reference to Birmingham and Nottingham was a reminder of the bread riots that had recently taken place there.]

Mark Lane Corn Exchange, the main grain market in London for 240 years

The Lord Mayor returned to the Mansion House. But as soon as he had gone, the riots began again and the Mayor had to return.

When the evening fell, the riots broke out again in force. A mob assembled, which routed the constables, and broke the windows of several bakers’ shops. When they gathered procured a
quantity of wood the civic authorities intervened to prevent them starting a fire (always feared in the City). The Lord Mayor enlisted a number of companies of the Volunteers, the militia set up among the middle classes to resist an anticipated French invasion (though they mainly saw action repressing meetings of radicals and reformers) – in this case from the Tower Ward and East India House Volunteers. They were joined by part of the London Militia.

These troops blocked both ends of Mark Lane, at Fenchurch Street, and Billiter Lane, and then charged the crowd and dispersed it – some down Lombard Street, some down Fish Street Hill, and over London Bridge, into the Borough. Then peace was once more restored, and the volunteers went unto their own homes.

That was not the end of the trouble that night – the crowd that had been pushed into the borough took the chance to visit the house of Mr. Rusby (6, Temple Place, Blackfriars Road)
described above as being prosecuted for ‘forestalling and regrating’. They raided his house and ransacked it, though he had escaped by the back way into a neighbour’s house. The crowd dispersed before a party of mounted troops and Militia arrived.

On the next day the riotous population were “in a ferment, but were kept in check by the militia and volunteers.”

Whether through fear of the rioters or not, the price of wheat did fall on Monday 15th, by ten and fifteen shillings a quarter. London’s Court of Aldermen issued a statement claiming that if the mob hadn’t rioted, it would have fallen still lower, as merchants were afraid to bring their corn to market (the old line that ‘market forces will sort it all out…):

“Combe, Mayor.
“A Court of Lord Mayor and Aldermen held at the Guildhall
of the City of London, on Tuesday, the 16th of September, 1800.
“Resolved unanimously—That it is the opinion of this Court,
from the best information it has been able to procure, that, had
not the access to the Corn Market been, yesterday, impeded,
and the transactions therein interrupted, a fall in the price of
Wheat and Flour, much more considerable than that which
actually took place, would have ensued; aid this Court is
further of opinion, that no means can so effectually lead to
reduce the present excessive prices of the principal articles of
food, as the holding out full security and indemnification to
such lawful Dealers as shall bring their Corn or other
commodities to market. And this Court does therefore express
a determination to suppress, at once, and by force, if it shall
unhappily be necessary, every attempt to impede, by acts of
violence, the regular business of the markets of the Metropolis.”

A butcher was tried and convicted at the Clerkenwell Sessions, on September 16th, for “forestalling the market of Smithfield on the 6th of March last, by purchasing of Mr.
Eldsworth, a salesman, two cows and an ox, on their way to the market.” His brother was also convicted.

Rioting resumed around the Mark Lane Corn Market, however, on both the 15th and 16th, in response to which, the Lord Mayor issued another Proclamation;
“Combe, Mayor.
“Mansion House, Sept. 17, 1800.
“Whereas the peace of this City has been, within these few
days, very much disturbed by numerous and tumultuous
assemblies of riotous and disorderly people, the magistrates,
determined to preserve the King’s peace, and the persons and
property of their fellow-citizens, by every means which the
law has intrusted to their hands, particularly request the
peaceable and well-disposed inhabitants of this City, upon the
appearance of the military, to keep themselves away from the
windows; to keep all the individuals of their families, and
servants, within doors; and, where such opportunities can be
taken, to remain in the back rooms of their houses.

“By order of his Lordship.
“W. J. Newman, Clerk.”

Angry crowds were by now targeting not only markets and known merchants, but also houses where they suspected food was being hoarded. As usual at such times, rumour and Chinese whispers abounded.

On the morning of the 18th of September, crowds gathered in Chiswell Street, opposite the house of a Mr. Jones, whose windows they had demolished the previous night, and proceeded to attack a house opposite, at the corner of Grub Street. This was the house of a Mr. Pizey, a
shoemaker, a friend of the said Jones, on whose behalf Pizey was storing some barrels of salt pork. Rumours had spread that this was being hoarded for profiteering purposes, and “the mob began to mutter that “it would be a d-d good thing to throw some stuff in and blow up the place.”
Pizey sent messengers to the Mansion House, and the Worship Street office, and a force of constables was sent to Chiswell Street. The crowds dispersed.

On the 18th of September King George III issued a proclamation “strictly commanding and requiring all the Lieutenants of our Counties, and all our Justices of the Peace, Sheriff, and
Under-Sheriffs, and all civil officers whatsoever, that they do take the most effectual means for suppressing all riots and tumults, and to that end do effectually put in execution an Act of Parliament made in the first year of the reign of our late royal ancestor, of glorious memory, King George the First, entitled ‘An Act for preventing tumults and riotous
assemblies, and for the more speedy and effectual punishing the rioters”” [Meaning the 1715 Riot Act, which allowed soldiers to be ordered to shoot down crowds if they did not disperse when ordered to do so by a magistrate.]

That night, however, rioting began again. Ignoring the threat of the Rot Act, crowds gathered in Bishopsgate Street, then marched up Sun Street, through Finsbury Square, where they scattered a force of constables sent to halt them, and continuing down Barbican into Smithfield, Saffron Hill, Holborn, and Snow Hill.  At Snow Hill they broke two cheesemongers’ windows; they then swept through Fleet Market, breaking and tossing about everything moveable, and smashed the windows of another cheesemonger. From Fleet Street they turned up Ludgate Hill, smashing all the lamps on the way, and marched back into the City via Cheapside (where they apparently targeted the Mansion House, the Lord Mayor’s official residence), Newgate Street, St. Martin’s-le-Grand, and Barbican to Old Street. Here they dispersed for the night. “From Ludgate Hill to Barbican, only one lamp was left burning, and of that the glass was broken.”
Soldiers apparently marched in the mob’s wake all night trying to catch up with them but never managed to quite make it…

It’s worth mentioning that towns close to the city were also affected. On the 18th, apparently, an ‘Incitement to riot’ occurred in Kingston-Upon-Thames: Radicals allegedly distributed cards calling for cheap bread in Kingston pubs.

Riots continued on the night of the 19th of September; though not on the same scale as the previous days.

The 20th saw the final day of the tumults, this time centred in Westminster rather than the City. A crowd met in Clare Market, off the Strand, and marched for a while, but after some skirmishes with ‘the St. Clement Danes Association’ (another volunteer militia?), they dispersed at the approach of the Horse Guards. Another group met in Monmouth Street, St. Giles’s, but the Westminster Volunteers, and cavalry, dispersed them. Shops closed very early. This seems to have been the end of these food riots in central areas of London.

The 20th also saw a Food Riot in Woolwich Kent, to the southeast of London.

It is worth noting that the price of a quartern loaf was lowered under the London Bread Assize in the week following the riots.

Riots continued outside the capital. In some places the riots were put down by force, in others the price of bread was lowered. What was worrying to the authorities, however, was that the crowd in many areas was no longer divided between “Jacobin” and “Church and King” factions  – radicals and supporters of the status quo – who had been notable opposed to each other a few years earlier:

“What scarred the Gentlemen the most was to see the Union of parties their being no 
painites nor no such song as God save the King to be heard.”

Politics aside, hunger had the potential to unite the lower orders – always terrifying to those in power.

The dying down on the riots in September was not quite the end of crowds gathering in London on the issue in 1800.

In November handbills were circulated calling upon “Tradesmen, Artizans, Journeymen, Labourers, &c., to meet on Kennington Common” on Sunday, the 9th of November, with an aim to  “petition His Majesty on a redress of grievances.”

This meeting was prevented by a show of military strength. The Privy Council, sent orders to police offices and the different volunteer corps, to hold themselves in readiness in case of
emergency, and the Bow Street patrol were sent, early in the morning, to take up a position at the Horns Tavern, Kennington, to wait until the mob began to assemble. Small crowds attempted to gather, but were continually chased away by the Bow Street patrol, aided by the Surrey Yeomanry, the Southwark Volunteers, and the whole police force from seven offices, together with the river police.

The scarcity of corn still continued down to the end of the year. It had been a bad harvest generally throughout the Continent, and little imported corn arrived in England.

Government attempts to mitigate the shortages continued, though they were all a bit farcical: a proclamation on December 3rd exhorted all persons who had the means of procuring other food than corn, to use the strictest economy in the use of every kind of grain, abstaining from pastry, reducing the consumption of bread in their respective families at least one-third, and upon no account to allow it “to exceed one quartern loaf for each person in each week;” and also all persons keeping horses, especially those for pleasure, to restrict their consumption of grain, as far as circumstances would admit.

The government also introduced the ‘Making of Bread, etc. Act 1800, also known as the Brown Bread Act or the Poison Act, to prohibit making bread with any other kind of flour than wholemeal flour. Although aimed at increasing the amount of flour that could be made from a given weight of grain, this Act was very unpopular. It was claimed by many at the time that the coarser wholemeal mixtures of flour often made people ill; many said to be pretty nasty. Mixed bread was likely to be subject to adulteration than white bread – to increase profits, millers were known to dilute flour with all sorts of other substances including alum and chalk.

The Brown Bread Act immediately result in more trouble – at Horsham in Sussex, “a number of women… proceeded to Gosden windmill, where, abusing the miller for having served them with brown flour, they seized on the cloth with which he was then dressing meal according to the directions of the Bread Act, and cut it into a thousand pieces; threatening at the same time to serve all similar utensils he might in future attempt to use in the same manner. The Amazonian leader of this petticoated cavalcade afterwards regaled her associates with a guinea’s worth of liquor at the Crab Tree public-house.”

With such resistance, the Act was repealed less than two months after its passing.

It’s easy to see that the pre-incarnations of Iain Duncan Smith and Hancock were at work, too, as another measure adopted at this time was the so-called Stale Bread Act, a government instruction to bakers not to sell bread until at least 24 hours after baking, as staler bread fills you more, so people would eat less. (This was amended to 48 hours in London for a while). It was impossible to enforce although the Government tried very hard to impose it. There were fines for bakers who broke the law and rewards for members of the community who snitched on them. This was accompanied by a suggestion to promote other foods such as vegetables and herring… The Act also quickly led to complaints and the Act lasted for only one year.  The decades that followed saw people driven into more desperation as food shortages and unemployment caused dreadful suffering amongst the poor of Britain.

(Interestingly, a century later in WW1, very similar issues of lack of supply due to war, high bread prices, and mass discontent – which had led to food riots then too – caused the government to repeat the Stale bread Act, in the Bread Order of 1917.

Bread prices continued to be a focus of debate and anger. Napoleon’s continental blockade increased the difficulty of importing grain. Britain’s increasing industrialisation also had a corresponding effect on demand, as well as accelerating the decrease in subsistence.

This would be aggravated from 1815 by the passing of the Corn Laws, tariffs and  trade restrictions on imported grain, designed to keep grain prices high to favour domestic producers (in effect the large landowning interests who dominated Parliament). The Corn Laws blocked the import of cheap grain, initially by simply forbidding importation below a set price, and later by imposing steep import duties, making it too expensive to import grain from abroad, even when food supplies were short. The Corn Laws, too, provoked rioting from enraged plebs

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A couple of books worth reading:

The Dawn of the XIXth Century in England: A Social Sketch of the Times
By John Ashton.

Also Bread and the British Economy, 1770–1870
By Christian Petersen, Andrew Jenkins

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today in drinking history: beer price rise causes tumults in Westminster, 1761.

Eighteenth century Londoners, especially the ‘poorer sort’, had, like many communities before and since, a keen eye for when they were being ripped off, especially for basic commodities.

A certain ‘moral economy’ existed, including a collective view of how much people should expect to pay for basic foodstuffs, and a preparedness to intervene in the marketplace and forcibly readjust prices if they rose too high beyond what was considered affordable and acceptable. Bread was the main staple fought over: at times of high wheat prices and (since bread was the main diet of the poor) widespread hunger, bakers and millers would be the target of rioters, often accused along with farmers and landowners of hoarding grain to jack up prices. Bread riots could involve the whole community, though, they were often led by women. In previous centuries, it was common for rioters to seize stocks of bread and force bakers to sell it at a price they thought fair, or a long-established price; this was the strongest example of the so-called ‘moral economy’ (discussed by EP Thompson and other radical historians) a set of economic and social practices based in a popular view of how certain basic needs ought to be fairly and cheaply available.

The idea of a moral economy was one that crossed class boundaries, a reflection of the paternalist society, where all knew their place, but all classes had responsibilities and there were certain given rights to survival.

Alcohol, too, of course, is a staple part of the diet… and was considered even more so in the 1700s. Although the oft-repeated legend that ‘people in the past drank beer because water supplies were all polluted’ is not completely true, ale, and later beer, was drunk on a daily basis in great quantities. Partly because it was thought to be healthier, more nutritious than water, and people may have felt that brewing processes made it safer; also because it was generally used to lubricate and compensate for the hours of hard, low-paid work many folk did. Many workers in numerous trades were partly paid in ale or beer; this went hand in hand with the traditional use of pubs and taverns as places were people went to look for work (many trades had pubs they used as meeting points), and got paid each day, week or less often… Pubs, alehouses, inns were the one of the main centres of social life. And people like to get pissed.

The price of beer was therefore a crucial daily issue; almost as fiercely watched as the price of bread. With wages generally low in most trades, and rising only slowly if at all, small price rises could make all the difference. In the 1730s, the Walpole government had attempted to slap heavy restrictions on the sale of gin (even more than beer, the tipple of the poorest at the time), partly to restrict its turbulent social effects by pricing it out of many people’s reach. The London poor and many of the slightly better off, had reacted with fury, rioting, attacking informers who were grassing up ginsellers, and determinedly parrying harder on illicit spirits. Beer may have been favourably compared to gin in the contemporary mind (see Hogarth’s Gin Lane/Beer Street prints), but it was even more vital to many more daily existences.

In 1761, some London publicans tried to raise the price; happening all at once, this was clearly a pre-planned cartel trying to spring it on the drinking classes all at once:

“The price of beer was raised to 3d ½ per quart, by many publicans, at the instigation, it is said, of their brewers, on account of the new duty upon malt; but they soon sold it at the old rate of 3d. as they found their houses deserted by their customers. And soon after many of them, at a meeting held by them, came to a resolution to let it remain there. Some tumults were occasioned thereby, in many parts of the town, where labouring and poor people chiefly live, and great discontent and murmuring everywhere. Several of the Westminster publicans were on this occasion carried before a magistrate, and fined 5 shillings each, it being contrary to an act passed in the reign of king William III, which fixes beer at 3d. per quart. The publick alledge that though malt and hops were, about four years ago, at double the price they are now, the brewers, without advancing their price, made great fortunes, and that the additional duty of 3 shillings per barrel, reduces their profits but one thirteenth part of the whole, that is to say, where a brewer heretofore cleared 1300 pounds, h may now, notwithstanding this new tax, clear 1200 pounds, and so in proportion for other sums.” (The Annual Register, June 24th 1761)

The fact that the government in the time of William III had taken the step of limiting the price of beer illustrates how seriously they took this matter; afraid to provoke a very large constituency into uproar? State regulation in 1761 was clearly irritating to the producers, the publicans, who obviously felt the profits to be reaped were being unfairly held down, had a grouse against the brewers, who had them over a barrel, as it were. At this time, the brewing industry was being revolutionised, especially in London; the development of porter earlier in the century, aged in the brewery rather than sent to the pub to age, had tilted the power in brewing towards large breweries, and the great brewing firms had already started to rise, gathering a larger and larger share of the market. It’s possible the pub price rise was a desperate attempt by publicans to garner a bit more as breweries took a bigger slice; alternatively, maybe it was a ploy by the breweries, leaning on pubs to impose a profit-raising measure…

It’s not clear of what nature, and how widespread, the ‘tumults’ mentioned were, but London crowds had a long habit of gathering quickly and acting collectively and decisively on immediate economic issues. So was it local riots, fights in individual pubs? The price rise may have been speculative, let’s try it out and see if we can get away with it – and the lesson was quickly learned, as the price reverted quickly to its prior level.

Attempts to raise prices continued, some of them industry-based, some government revenue-raising measures. But attempts to suddenly raise prices would continue to cause resistance and aggro, for a century and a half (as we have previously related…)

Could do with a few tumults today… every time the price of beer goes up…

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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: Old Price Riots begin, 1809.

As we commented in a previous post London’s eighteenth/early nineteenth century theatre audiences were often rowdy, unruly, fond of breaking down the supposed line of separation between performer and spectator. They often disrupted plays or actors they took a dislike to, organised themselves to resist attempts to control them and impose order and quiet, and violently objected to any rise in ticket prices…

The most famous struggle that erupted from this disorderly audience was the Old price Riots, which began on 18 September 1809. Over sixty-seven nights of protest at Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, often collectively referred to as the OP war, crowds protested against a rise in seat prices, a reduction of the size of the gallery (all working class people could afford), and the increase in the size of private boxes taken by the rich.

The audience divided themselves into the supporters of the cheaper ‘old price’ tickets, the ‘OPs’, and those who supported the management, the NPs.

As the name ‘Old Price’ suggests, the riots were sparked by the dissatisfaction of London’s theatregoers with the new price of admission to the theatre. As had been the case throughout the eighteenth century, these theatregoers believed in the common ownership of theatre prices, and were prepared to act to defend low prices as a matter of principle. “Theatre protest was intertwined with long eighteenth-century multi-class metropolitan political expression and theatre-going in this period was not the passive, solemn experience we take for granted today. In these lively, volatile metropolitan spaces the justification for and exclusiveness of new theatre pricing regimes, the resentment of theatre monopolies, and the suspicion of impositions along class lines had been issues before”… in the 1763 Half-Price Riots at Drury Lane and Covent Garden, the 1755 Drury Lane riots against Garrick’s Chinese Festival… 1743, 1750, 1770, and 1776 saw comparable, violent protests at Drury Lane…

Theatre in the 18th century played an entirely different social role than it does today – open to all classes, it addressed them and catered for them… The theatre was hugely popular in late Georgian Britain: every fair-sized town had a theatre; schools, the armed services, different trades, aristocrats and gentry all had their own amateur groups. There was no assumption that visiting the theatre was, or should be, an elite activity. The opposite view, in fact, prevailed – there was a conscious and widespread feeling that it was and should be open to all, and almost that it was a service, that should be open to everyone, rather than being a money-making concern.

The auditorium of a Georgian theatre was encircled with tiers of enclosed seats known as boxes, with a gallery above. The gallery was the cheapest; the first row of the boxes the most expensive. The floor of the theatre was furnished with simple benches and called the pit. The best view of the stage was from here, and it was only later that theatre managers realised that they could put the most expensive seats there and call them the stalls.

Theatre programmes often started at about 6.30pm and could go on until after midnight. The main play was preceded by songs, dances and perhaps a tightrope walker or juggling act, with a shorter play (usually a comedy) at the end. The scenery was spectacular, particularly for pantomimes, and often painted from eye-witness drawings. Tickets were half price if you came at the interval.

In London there were two Theatres Royal: Covent Garden and Drury Lane (the ‘major’ theatres). They were the only two royal patent theatres sanctioned to stage five-act spoken word drama within Westminster, even though, in reality, the Lord Chamberlain’s jurisdiction extended to the whole of London and its environs. In the 1790s Drury Lane was completely rebuilt and Covent Garden renovated. Both were enlarged to seat approximately 3,000 people.

In December 1808 Covent Garden burned down, with a loss of thirty lives, the destruction of Handel’s organ and much scenery and costumes. Forced to fund an entirely new theatre, the management solicited donations from the rich – including £10,000 from the Duke of Northumberland – and borrowed extensively. More space was devoted to boxes for richer patrons, the most expensive private boxes being luxurious with curtains. They hired the top soprano, Angelica Catalani, at an enormous fee to attract wealthier patrons. Prices in the gallery remained the same, but had a restricted view.

While Covent Garden was being built, the other major theatre, Drury Lane, also burnt down (in March 1809). Covent Garden was now the only theatre permitted to perform plays.

A crowd of thousands was waiting to get in to the theatre when it opened on 18 September 1809. Perhaps only a quarter managed to do so. But many were there not to spectate – they had grievances, and were determined to air them. These included “the removal of the cheapest section of the house, the one shilling gallery, to a ‘pigeon hole’ on high; the expansion of private boxes and the enclosure from prying eyes of areas only affordable to the elite; and the cessation of sales of half-price tickets after the third act, a custom that had hitherto opened up the theatre to a multitude – if not the very poorest – of Londoners and made the space egalitarian in its usage.” Added to this, rumours of financial mismanagement and embezzlement, anger that increased prices seemed to be paying for expensive foreign actors as lead players…

When the theatre’s actor-manager/owner John Kemble, appeared on stage, he was received with applause, but when he began to speak he was drowned out by roars, hisses and hoots whistles, shouts, calls, songs, and stamps which continued right through Macbeth.

Magistrates were called from Bow Street magistrates’ office to read the Riot Act, which would have allowed them to force the crowd to leave. The crowd did not disperse promptly, only a few were removed, and, as they had begun, the audience closed their performance with stirring renditions of ‘God Save the King’ and ‘Rule, Britannia!’ But a debate began as to whether a paying audience could legally be ordered to disperse.

After the disruption of the opening night, Bow Street officers patrolled the corridors of Covent Garden Theatre (this lasted into the new year). Invited in by the Theatre’s doorman, James Brandon, they were tasked with keeping order and removing anyone disrupting the plays.

But the disturbances continued. The OPs arrived with ‘musical’ instruments – frying pans, tongs and a dustman’s bell, and performed the ‘OP dance’, a kind of wild welly dance, on the benches, accompanied by shouts of ‘OP!’ Horns and bells were sounded.

Kemble closed the theatre for six days to allow a neutral committee to decide on the prices. But they supported the new prices, so when the theatre re-opened the OPs returned with banners, placards, songs and chants. Running races along the benches and mock fights were started, and the ‘OP rattle’, (satirically inspired by the rattle watchmen carried) used to drown the actors out.

Policing became a crucial issue. Many OPs were arrested, night after night, and prosecuted privately by the theatre staff… There was a close relationship between the theatres and the Bow Street magistracy. Bow Street had become central to the state’s maintenance of public order and morality, in an era when the French revolution had sown a fear of radicals and of the disorderly working classes had among the British establishment.

Heavy policing and repression of rights became, if anything, more of a central issue as the weeks of Old Price protest went on. By October, the Ops were rioting “not because of an increase in admission price by itself but rather because of a perceived affront to their freedoms and associated customary rights as ‘Free-Born Englishmen.’”

For their part, the authorities began to see the OP riots as more even of a threat than the Gordon riots (according to Attorney General Vicary Gibbs, who intervened to support the Theatre’ position, denounce the OPs as rioters and label the dispute ‘the greatest riots that had every disgraced the Metropolis.)

By early October 1809, anyone found in possession of or using horns or bells within the theatre to be arrested; as was anyone distributing handbills among the audience, and soon, outside the theatre,

OPs repeatedly changed tactics so as to avoid arrest, and, in response, officers amended their grounds for arrest. Arrests in the pit, the corridors, the gallery, the one-shilling gallery, and the private boxes of Covent Garden Theatre continued unabated. As the protest moved into November 1809, men and women were brought before the Bow Street magistrates charged with having caused or incited disturbance, riot, and tumult for singing ‘God Save the King,’ using rattles, blowing whistles, gesturing, walking about, sneezing loudly, and wearing the words ‘O.P’ or ‘N.P.B’ (No Private Boxes) in their hats.

When arrested, men and women were brought to Bow Street, and there the magistrates expressed themselves by demanding bail. Bail ranged from £100 to £500, plus sureties.

With this kind of noise going on throughout the performance, Kemble employed boxers to throw people out. This back-fired however: when the doorkeeper, Brandon, detained a well-known radical barrister, Henry Clifford, he was found guilty of false arrest. This gave the advantage to the OPs, and although Kemble had originally vowed not to give in, by 14 December 1809 he had met Clifford for dinner and agreed peace terms. The following night Kemble apologised for raising the prices, and for employing the boxers. Charges against the rioters were dropped. The OPs had won.

It would be too simplistic to frame the Old Price Riots in terms of class struggle. More accurately “a multi-class rejection of perceived elite chicanery was a crucial feature of the OP war.”

Just as those from every class attended the theatre, so OPs were drawn from all classes. Apprentices, clerks, both skilled and unskilled workers, business and professional men and even an earl’s daughter were among those arrested throughout the two and a half months of riots.’

However the theatre’s location was perhaps crucial. Many of the OPs lived near to the theatre, in Westminster, an area then known for its radical ethos, fond of electing radical MPs and constantly teeming with riotous mobs and home to pubs full of debating reformers…

A common idea of what kind of space the theatre was, and for who, lay at the heart of the riots. “Private boxes, for example, were novel, constructed zones of ambiguity whose mechanics – private, hidden, aloof, seemingly beyond reproach – upset values the OPs saw as central to London theatregoing, to see and to be seen in a public theatre, open exchange, and the equality of all under the law.”

In some ways this aspect reflected the conservative and reactionary aspects of the Old Price campaign. While there was an egalitarian spirit, it was also balanced by a dose of moral judgmentalism – private boxes were opposed as being set up to encourage infidelity. The OP campaign also brought up bilious gouts of anti-semitism and xenophobia – ‘foreign’ talent hired to adorn the Theatre, and the hiring of some jewish boxers to act as bouncers, were seized on and turned into additional outrages to be protested. So in some ways the OPs wanted to be seen, and can be viewed, as patriotic defenders of the status quo – “a multi-class public suspicious of novelty”.

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

Today in London’s radical history: Moral economy rioters storm wagon, Leadenhall Street, 1772.

For many centuries, until the 1800s, in times of high food prices and thus widespread hunger, popular discontent could often erupt into direct action, usually manifesting as a price setting riot: seizing food and selling it at a lower price than what it was currently selling for, a price seen as fair or affordable.

Food riots could involve the whole community, though they were often led by women. This was the strongest example of what some historians call the ‘moral economy’ – a set of economic and social practices based in a popular view of how certain basic needs ought to be fairly and cheaply available, and a preparedness to impose those values on merchants, farmers, millers… By force if necessary. Bakers and millers would be the target of rioters, often accused along with farmers and landowners of hoarding grain to jack up prices; but other foodstuffs could also be the focus of disturbance.

The idea of a moral economy was one that crossed class boundaries, a reflection of the paternalist society, where all knew their place, but all classes had responsibilities and there were certain given rights to survival. This kind of moral economy was bound up with pre-capitalist society – to some extent superseded by the growth of capitalism, of social relations based solely on profit and wage labour…

The early 1770s were a time of food scarcity and poor harvests – across the country many of the poorer folk were going hungry.

According to the Annual Register, 1772, on 6th April that year, “a wagon coming to Leadenhall-market, from Hertfordshire, loaden with beef, pork, &c. was seized by the populace, and the meat sold for three-pence per pound.”

There was a second seizure of a wagon, “loaded with several packs of veal, containing five carcasses each, which was coming from Sudbury in Suffolk” bound for Leadenhall Market, on April 10th, though it isn’t clear where it was stopped. Again the meat was sold off at a price “the populace” though fair (in this case “2d. per pound under the market price”)…

The Register records that food rioting had also occurred the week before in Colchester: “Friday last, the poorer people, driven to the greatest necessity, assembled in a body at Colchester, and seized some carcass-carriages, a wagon of meat, and the like quantity of barley meal, on their way through that town for London. The meat they sold for three-pence halfpenny a pound, the wheat at 4s. a bushel, and the barley meal, greatly under the market price, and then gave the money arising from the sale to the persons who had care of the wagons…”

Calves bound for London were also stopped in Colchester that week, and on the 12th, “a mob assembled in Chelmsford, armed with bludgeons, and next day went in a body to visit mills in that neighbourhood, from whence they took great quantities of wheat, and wheat-flour. At Witham and Sudbury…. They stopt the cars laden with meat for the London markets…”

While I haven’t found a record of any punishment of London food rioters at this time, the Suffolk disturbances (where “the whole country seem in motion’) certainly put the wind up the authorities: a posse of mainly farmers and their servants, led by gentlemen, gathered, and arrested at least 16 rioters.

On the 22nd, the Lord Mayor of London was “roughly used by the populace, for not lowering the price of bread. The front glass of his coach was broken, and it was with difficulty that his person of his lordship was preserved from violence.”

On April 27th, the journeymen tailors petitioned the magistrates “praying an augmentation of their wages, on account of the dearness of provisions… which… [was] granted…” While the court hearing applauded the tailors for “seeking redress in a legal manner, without having recourse to violent methods”, this is somewhat naïve – the threat of the previous fortnight’s uproar certainly contributed to the winning of the extra wages. Not resorting to violence still carries the unspoken threat of potential violence. Especially when others are rioting…

The authorities both prepared to repress such riots, and made provision to secure more food: on the 7th April, “Mr Sheriff Bull, accompanied only by the city remembrance, went to the House of Commons, and presented a petition from the City of London, for opening the ports for the importation of corn, on account of the high cost of provisions.”

Large quantities of mackerel and herring were also ordered to be obtained for the poor of the City.

Parliament also brought in laws to punish those who profited from hoarding food-stuffs so as to profit when prices were high… However food riots continued across England into 1773.

Worth a read on moral economy:
EP. Thompson, The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century (Past & Present No. 50 (Feb., 1971), pp. 76-136) It’s online here

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

 

Today in London’s radical past: A bread riot in Deptford, 1867.

You can’t live by bread alone… but we can have more than the crumbs from their tables…

In January 1867, at a time of high unemployment, with people going hungry, some folk in Deptford, in south-east London, revived the old tactic of the bread riot.

On the 23rd, parish officers from St Paul’s parish had been distributing bread to the needy, and a large number of people were clustered around their depot at Mary Ann’s buildings… When the bread ran out, and the announcement was made that there would be no more that day, the crowd got angry, and marched down Deptford High Street. They looted one baker’s shop of all its loaves; a second baker gave away everything in fear of his windows getting smashed. A third bakery was attacked near Deptford Broadway.

Police Commissioner Richard Mayne sent detachments of ‘A’ Reserve – mounted police – with one Chief Superintendent Walker in charge, who cleared the street, but the next day, crowds gathered again, and the bakers closed up shop.

This time the butchers were also attacked, one of whom saved himself by waving a cleaver at the crowd. Another was pushed aside by one ringleader who proclaimed to the assembled crowd, ‘There you are; walk in and help yourself.’ The crowd duly did so without the police interfering. A tobacconist was then burgled…

The crowds then marched off to the Greenwich Union Workhouse, to petition the Poor Law Guardians meeting taking place there. Police maintained a strong presence in the streets that evening, and the day after that, the crowds were not much in evidence. However five tons of bread were given away free that day, so ends achieved, you might say…

The bread riot has a long history. At times of high wheat prices and (since bread was the main diet of the poor) widespread hunger, bakers and millers would be the target of rioters, often accused along with farmers and landowners of hoarding grain to jack up prices. Bread riots could involve the whole community, though, they were often led by women. In previous centuries, it was common for rioters to seize stocks of bread and force bakers to sell it at a price they thought fair, or a long-established price; this was the strongest example of the so-called ‘moral economy’ (discussed by EP Thompson and other radical historians) a set of economic and social practices based in a popular view of how certain basic needs ought to be fairly and cheaply available.

The idea of a moral economy was one that crossed class boundaries, a reflection of the paternalist society, where all knew their place, but all classes had responsibilities and there were certain given rights to survival. Although the kind of moral economy that selling bread at a price considered fair, was bound up with pre-capitalist society – which were being superseded by the growth of capitalism, of social relations based solely on profit and wage labour, clearly as late as the 1860s, hungry people considered that such a staple should be freely available, and were prepared to enforce that if charity wasn’t gong to meet their needs. In Deptford, they didn’t bother with negotiating a fair price – they just took what they could…

Once the disturbances calmed down, local businesspeople and magistrates were quick to vindicate local people. ‘The hardworking individual classes took no part in this disgraceful movement’, and J. J. Barker of the Council made it clear that non-locals caused all the trouble (those pesky outside agitators again!).
A convenient whitewash would thus save High Street business. That notwithstanding, sentences for those caught were harsh and clearly motivated by personal animosity towards ‘bolshie’ indentured apprentice boys. On 25 March the magistrate Mr Traill handed down a sentence of three weeks on ‘bread and water’ to fifteen-year-old William Yarnell, an apprentice of a Mr Russell of New Cross who had accused him of being ‘obstreperous’ and being ‘a perfect terror’. The actual offence was the careless leaving open of a door!

Worth a read: Jess Steele, Turning the Tide: A history of Everyday Deptford.

E.P. Thompson , The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century (Past & Present No. 50 (Feb., 1971), pp. 76-136). It’s online at: http://libcom.org/history/moral-economy-english-crowd-eighteenth-century-epthompson

In a strange echo of these events, between 2002 and 2004, an empty bakery in Deptford High Street was squatted and used as a social centre, named, with terrible humour, Use Your Loaf. Among many other social, political events and more, it was at Use Your Loaf that the South London Radical History Group, a project closely tied to us here at past tense, began its life in 2003:

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online:
http://alphabetthreat.co.uk/pasttense/calendar.html