Today in London military history, 1890: mutiny in the Grenadier Guards (and a strike of Metropolitan Police)

The First Regiment of Foot Guards, (later known as the Grenadier Guards) was founded in 1656. In July 1890, the Second Battalion of the Guards ‘refused duty’ at Wellington Barracks in London – refusing to attend parade.

The protest originated in the determination of their new commander, Colonel Makgill-Crichton Maitland, to ‘bring the outfit to the peak of military excellence’, despite his apparent inexperience at ‘commanding men’. In early July 1890, he ordered the battalion to move from Wellington Barracks to Pirbright to demonstrate training drill to militia and volunteers, Due to lack of communication, some or the soldiers didn’t find out about the proposed move until shortly before the move, when they came off guard duty or returned from weekend leave.

This seems to have compounded an atmosphere of already existing resentment, as Maitland was said to have been ordering excessive drills and parades in full kit: “it has been ascertained that for some time past, indeed ever since Colonel Maitland was appointed the the command of the battalion, the men had been complaining of the excessive drills. The Guards’ irritation reached a climax on Sunday night, when an order was issued that a kit inspection in heavy marching order was to take place next morning”.

Angry with Maitland’s apparent contempt for them, many of the battalion failed to appear when the bugle sounded ‘fall in’ at 8.30 am on the Monday morning.

“The men determined to bring their grievances before the military authorities by not turning out on parade, and when the bugle sounded only a handful of men responded to the call Colonel Maitland, the commandant, finding that the men remained in their quarters, proceeded to their rooms, and, it is alleged, was ‘disrespectfully received’ “.

Other officers talked the dissenters into turning out, though many were said to be improperly dressed, “some in full marching order, and others m tunics and fatigue dress. Colonel Maitland addressed the men, and asked them what their grievance was, and each company appointed a delegate to explain that they complained that the regiment had that day had double guard duty, namely, at St. James’s Palace and at the levee, and that a number of the men had only just come off guard.

They also thought that it was hard to do all these duties and then parade to assist in the drill of volunteer officers. The fact of a heavy marching order full kit drill coming upon all this hard duty, when the men considered it excessive, was the cause of their refusing to answer the parade call.”

That they appeared at all may well have saved them from a charge of mutiny. But they were confined to barracks, and the Yorkshire Regiment was sent to London to relieve them.

“On Tuesday Colonel Smith consulted with the Duke of Cambridge and Lord Wolseley, who examined the battalion’s order books to see what duty had been done, and in the afternoon the order confining them to the barracks was rescinded. Colonel Smith, who was himself formerly a colonel in the Grenadiers, addressed the men of the discontented battalion, telling them that they were released from confinement in barracks, and that another regiment (the Yorkshire) had been ordered from the provinces to assist them in the hard work of guard mounting and other duties. He particularly pointed out that the regiment was coming, not for the purpose of putting down any contemplated disturbance, but simply to assist the men of the household brigade in their many duties.”

The Yorkshire regiment started from Portsmouth at 9 o clock in the evening, reaching the Wellington Barracks early on Wednesday morning. They have since shared the duties with the Grenadiers who appear satisfied now that their grievance has been ventilated, and tranquillity is ‘now entirely restored.”

There was an element of discontent about the process of the Guards’ replacement however:

“There was some confusion at Portsmouth, owing to the hurried departure of the troops. The Yorkshire Regiment were ordered to leave by the War Office, but the General commanding at Portsmouth ordered the Enniskillen Fusiliers to start for London, as the Yorkshire Regiment was away at musketry practice. The Enniskillen Fusiliers were actually in the tram, when a telegram countermanding their departure came from London. The Enniskillen returned to their quarters, and two hours later the Yorkshire Regiment started for London. The above is the official account of the substitution of the Yorkshires for the Enniskillens, but it is rumoured that when the latter were waiting in the train they sang “God Save Ireland ” and cheered the Grenadiers, and that the general in command at Portsmouth immediately sent them back to the barracks.”

“The authorities were naturally very reticent about the matter… At first the rumours were discredited, and Mr L Stanhope, in the House of Commons, denied that there had been any insubordination among the guardsmen. He, however, had been misinformed, and the public soon learnt that a very serious breach of discipline had occurred in the Second battalion of the Grenadier Guards.”

A Court of Inquiry was held, from July 9th to July 15th. As a result, six long-serving privates were ordered to be court-martialled. At the court-martial on July 26th, the six were sentenced to two years in military prison, to be then dismissed from the army with ‘ignominy’.

“26th July: On Monday, the Second Battalion of the Grenadier Guards was paraded at Wellington Barracks before proceeding on foreign service to Bermuda, where they have been ordered as a punishment for their recent insubordination, the Commander-in-Chief addressing the men in forcible language, in regard to the disgrace which had fallen on the regiment. Colonel Maitland, the former commanding officer of the Battalion, will, said Mr. Stanhope in the House of Commons, be placed on half-pay ; while the Adjutant, who has resigned, will be replaced by another officer. After the ceremony of inspection was over, the very heavy sentences passed on the men of longest service in each company, who, since the instigators of the virtual mutiny cannot be traced, were assumed to be the ringleaders, were read out. Four were sentenced to two years’ imprisonment with hard labour, one of these to be, in addition, dismissed with ignominy, and a fifth to eighteen months’ hard labour. The sentence on the sixth was reserved, but it is understood that he will also receive eighteen months’ hard labour.”

A petition signed by 50,000 Londoners, however, ensured only one was actually dismissed, the rest returning to the battalion after only four months imprisonment.

The rest of the regiment were sent away abroad, to Bermuda, considered a severe punishment (they were initially ordered to be stationed there for two years, but in fact returned to London a year later). Colonel Maitland, however, was replaced, and shortly after retired from the army (though it sounds in fact more like he was pushed).

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There was speculation at the time that the spirit of trade unionism abroad in London had influenced the rebellious episode in the Guards. The previous years had seen the upsurge of workers fighting to improve pay and working conditions, sparked by the East End matchwomen’s strike in 1888 and followed by the 1889 Dockers strike, which inspired a wave of disputes around London.

Interestingly, on the same day as the Guards mutiny, there was a sharp and brief strike among the Metropolitan Police, beginning in London’s Bow Street, which sparked rioting in the West End for two nights. Its unclear whether there was any co-ordination between the discontented among police and soldiers (though both were inspired by specific grievances, it isn’t impossible) – though the Life Guards were brought in to subdue the rioters seeking to take advantage of the police strike.

On the 12th July 1890, the Illustrated London News carried the following report on the police strike:-

“A portion of the Metropolitan Police, demanding increased rates of pay and pension, has of late been giving some trouble to the authorities in command, not only by improper meetings for the purposes of agitation and denunciation, which cannot be tolerated in a force under a kind of military discipline, but also by scandalous acts of insubordination and refusal to obey the orders for their daily service.

This misconduct was carried so far by some of the constables of the E Division, whose headquarters are at Bow-street Police-Office, as to threaten a strike on Monday evening, July 7, which they expected would become general all over London.

Much alarm was felt among the shopkeepers and other inhabitants of the West Central district, lest the streets should be left unprotected that night.

RESOLUTE ACTION

But the resolute action of the new Chief Commissioner of Police, Colonel Sir Edward Bradford, and of the Chief Constable, Colonel Mansell, supported by the fidelity of the Superintendents, Inspectors, and Sergeants, with the prompt dismissal of thirty-nine young constables, earlier in-the day, for acts of wilful disobedience on Saturday night, had a salutary effect.

A DISGRACEFUL SCENE

What took place, however, in Bow-street, between nine o’clock and midnight, was sufficiently disgraceful to all concerned in the agitation, being a scene of outrageous riot, probably got up by gangs of common London roughs, but encouraged by the attitude of the dismissed constables and of those pretending to sympathise with them.

The street was repeatedly cleared by parties of mounted police, under the orders of the Chief Constable, but the mob again reassembled; mud, cabbage-stumps, and other dirty missiles were flung at Superintendent Fisher and the police on duty; and some windows of different shops and houses were broken.

THE LIFE GUARDS JOIN IN

It happened, fortunately, that the Prince of Wales, going to the Royal Opera at Covent Garden, had been provided with an escort of thirty or forty troopers of the 2nd Life Guards, under command of Lieutenant-Colonel Lord Dundonald.

A message asking the aid of their presence was at once complied with, and the appearance of those splendid cavalry soldiers, quietly riding up and down, put an end to the disturbance within less than half an hour.

INSUBORDINATE CONSTABLES

In the meantime, within the precincts of the police-office, the Superintendent and Inspectors had some difficulty in getting the insubordinate constables, though in a decided minority, to parade for the regular night duty; but they prevailed so far as to defeat the attempted “strike,” and the patrol service was not interrupted in any part of London.

Much damage was done by the rioters to the plate-glass windows of several large establishments in Bow-street, and a baker’s shop was all but wrecked.

In the police-court, next day, two or three men were fined, and one constable sentenced to fourteen days’ imprisonment, for acts of violence on this occasion.”

On the 13th July 1890, Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper published a long and breathtaking article that treated the readers to what seems like a minute by minute account of the week’s events an unrest:-

THE POLICE REVOLT – SERIOUS RIOTING

“A remarkable scene occurred on Saturday night at Bow-street police station. It would seem that when the 10 o’clock men were paraded for duty, the order.”Right turn” was given, preliminary to the men marching out of the station, but not a single man obeyed the order; in fact they absolutely refused to go on duty.

The inspector in charge was at once spoken to by the officer, and he interrogated the men as to the breach of discipline, and was informed that the men’s refusal to go on duty was in consequence of one of the delegates being summarily removed to an outside station, and that they acted thus to expose their disapproval of what they characterised as one of their number being “marked.”

The inspector-in-charge parleyed with the men, and after some delay eventually succeeded in persuading the men to resume duty, and he promised in the meantime to do all that he could for them by means of pen and paper.

The men thereupon left the station and took up their duties as usual.

THE CHIEF COMMISSIONER

The Chief commissioner was immediately apprised of the affair, and he at once called a number of officers together and held a long consultation.

The situation in the yard when the men first refused to move, an officer who was present states, was to him apparently incomprehensible at this time, and he proceeded to interview the men individually and inquire what was the matter.

The windows of the section house overlooking the quadrangle are stated to have had their proportion of inmates who had assembled to witness the scene, which, although spontaneous in appearance, had undoubtedly been pre-arranged.

The men at the windows are said to have broken the stillness with cheers for the undaunted determination of their comrades on the parade ground, and one man on parade, said to have been a reserve man, acknowledged this encouragement by shouting “Three cheers for 134, that’s what the matter.” This remark led to an outburst of enthusiasm amongst those men who thronged the windows of the library, single men’s quarters, and other rooms overlooking the quadrangle.

Nearly fifty men were on Sunday suspended.

That evening constables were called in from three outlying divisions to make up the night contingent at Bow-street.

The Assistant Commissioner of Police, Mr. Howard, and other officers were present, it being feared that some disturbance would occur. There was much animation in the neighbourhood, as constables in plain clothes assembled and hooted those who had been brought from the suburbs, but beyond this there was not much disorder.

RIOTING IN BOW STREET

The threatened strike of the Metropolitan police on Monday did not take place; but on Monday night Bow-street was the scene of tumult, and it was found necessary to summon a detachment of the Life Guards to clear the street and prevent violence.

In the morning Sir E. Bradford [The Metropolitan Police Commissioner] had about 40 constables who were guilty of insubordination on the previous night brought before him, and they were summarily dismissed.

When the men assembled at the police-station for night duty, a few who were insubordinate were suspended, but the bulk of them went on duty, and, with drafts from other divisions, all the streets were furnished with the usual patrols.

The police at all the other police divisions went on duty, and in most cases without demur.

A STRANGE SIGHT FOR LONDONERS

Seldom have Londoners seen so strange a sight as that presented in Bow-street on Monday night.

Early in the evening a number of suspended and dismissed constables assembled in the thoroughfare, together with friends and sympathisers, and effectually blocked the traffic.

Nearly 5,000 persons were assembled.

THE LIFE GUARDS

The shouting, groaning, and hooting were so appalling that the authorities sent for the assistance of the military, and about half-past 10, two troops of the 2nd Life Guards appeared on the scene.

They kept a constant patrol with the mounted police.

PROJECTILES THROWN

Just before the arrival of the 2nd Life Guards a small bag of flour was thrown from a balcony at the inspector of the mounted police, whom it whitened from head to foot.

A little later a pitcher of water was tossed from the upper windows of Bow-street police station itself and fell over the mounted men.

Still later at intervals three large pieces of crockery were thrown out into the street by the men of the E division, who, it was stated, were confined to quarters until the mob could be dispersed.

A big flower-pot was also thrown from an upper window or the roof of an adjoining building near the corner of Long-acre.

Fortunately no one was injured by these projectiles.

The constables in plain clothes mingled among the mob, and though taking little part in the rushes that were made, yet at the same time they joined in the shouting and cheering.

A number of bottles were also thrown at the men on duty, and at least in one case this was not done by any so-called “civilian.”

CHEERS AND GROANS

Ultimately, when the Life Guards rode up they were saluted with cheers and groans.

“Don’t help the blacklegs,”  “Stick to your comrades, the people,” and similar cries were uttered.

At first the troopers rode slowly up and down, riding from Long-acre down Bow-street as far as Russell-street, when they made right-about-turn.

THE MOUNTED POLICE GO IN

On their appearance the mounted police made more determined efforts to break up the crowds, which, despite the drenching rain, maintained their ground, yelling, cheering, groaning; and, led by their inspectors, the men rode upon the pavement, cuffing and striking at the mob, many of whom resisted desperately.

The horses’ reins were frequently seized, and the animals thrust back, whilst others in the crowd struck with sticks at them.

In one or more instances knives were seen to glisten, and attempts were made to cut the reins.

Gradually, however, the mass of the people were forced out of Bow-street towards the Strand and Long-acre.

ROUGHS CLUNG ON

The troopers, about 11pm, acted more energetically, and, massing together, they moved up and down Bow-street, clearing everybody off the roadway.

Numbers of roughs, however, still clung to the pavement, and these the mounted police quickly endeavoured to disperse.

The crowd was thinner, but the people only appeared to become more violent.

THE MOUNTED POLICE BLOCKED

Numbers of cabs and carriages, which were passing to and from the theatres, were used by the mob in making temporary stands, for the vehicles were turned about, and the charges of the mounted policemen were blocked.

It was noticed that the constables kept closely together, and in the few instances when three or four became separated from their comrades they got severely handled.

Handfuls of mud, pieces of wood, baskets. and bottles were again hurled at the constables.

About 11.20pm, the mob began tearing down the iron gratings from off Messrs. Merryweather and Co.’s windows, and these they threw into the roadway at the mounted men.

The mob broke the plate-glass in several windows and also tore down wooden shutters and hoarding to get missiles to use against the police.

B DIVISION TAKE UP THEIR BEATS

Step by step, however, they were driven back, and the men of the B division, who could be induced to go on duty, moved out to take up their beats in parties of 10 and 20.

PEOPLE KNOCKED DOWN

In one of the many charges, just at the entrance to the police-court, a number of people were knocked down, and two men were seriously injured by the horses treading on them.

During a rush at the corner of the theatre another man was knocked down and hurt by the constables.

Three persons were so seriously injured by the mounted men that they had to be taken in cabs to Charing-cross; hospital, where their wounds were dressed.

At midnight there was still a number of rough characters hanging about, yelling and throwing missiles.

MORE LIFE GUARDS BROUGHT IN

As a measure of precaution, further drafts of Life Guards were brought from Knightsbridge.

They arrived on the scene about 12.10am.

A public-house in the vicinity, which was closed early in the evening owing to the excitement, was partially wrecked by the mob.

Despite the steady rain, the crowd continued at 12.30am to be of comparatively large proportions, and the hooting and shouting were maintained with almost unabated vigour.

NO EXAGGERATION

It has been said that the accounts of Monday’s scenes are exaggerated, but those people so confident in their denial of anything unusual would have thought differently had they seen the mounted police charge; had they been witnesses of the military charge, which scattered the sightseers like hail; the cavalry dashing not alone along Bow-street, but clean over the pavements-and straight through the narrow tunnel that guards the opera house.

These good people, many miles away from the disaffected highway, will not recognise what it means to be “scattered like hail.”

A COUNTESS DOWAGER ATTACKED

During the disturbance near Covent Garden theatre on Monday night, the brougham of Countess Dowager Shrewsbury was stopped by a crowd of roughs, who pulled open the doors, threatened the coachman, and cried “Drag her out; get the diamonds.”

Fortunately, Lady Shrewsbury was taking home from the opera to his hotel Mr. Webb, of New York, who struck back energetically the assailants on both sides, throwing down three of them in succession almost under the horses’ feet.

In the scuffle, before the police could come up, one door of the brougham was wrenched from its hinges, but was pushed into the carriage by a policeman, and the coachman, whipping up his horses, made his way safely from the crowd.

OTHER VEHICLES ATTACKED

A similar attack, though less formidable, was made upon the carriage of Lady Hothfield on Tuesday night.

Several vehicles on their way to the opera were stopped for a time.

One, containing Mrs. Field, of New York, was surrounded by a crowd of women, who threatened and brandished sticks at the occupants.

Another occupied by Mr. Claud Have was also surrounded, but the driver put his spirited horses to a gallop and, knocking down several of the crowd, got through.

TUESDAY’S TUMULT

From an early hour on Tuesday morning, until a late hour at night, Bow-street was the scene of great disorder.

This was owing, however, to the action of men entirely outside the force, many of them pronounced rowdies, who looked  upon the whole business as a gigantic joke.

Several of these were during the afternoon arrested and kept in safe custody for the rest of the night.

POLICEMEN INVOLVED

Although there was this element in the crowd, the disaffected police were still strongly represented, and it was clear that, despite the failure to bring off a general strike on Monday night, as had been arranged, the men who had been made the victims of the movement were inclined to keep up the struggle.

This was made manifest at the meetings held by them and their supporters who are still employed in the force, at one and four o’clock on Tuesday afternoon, at a public-house in Long-acre.

At the first meeting it was resolved that the dismissed men (about 40) bad been unjustly treated in being singled out from the 94 men who had refused to go on duty.

The resolution also called upon every member of the Metropolitan Police force to sign a petition praying for the reinstatement of their late comrades.

OTHER DIVISIONS SUSPENDED

It was reported that the E division was not the only one that had been subjected to severe measures, members of the Y and other divisions having been suspended for refusing to go on duty.

This question was discussed at greater length at the meeting at four o’clock, but the meeting broke up without any decision being arrived at.

In the course of the debate, one speaker created some amusement by stating “that with all due respect to the mob he thought that on Monday night they had done them (the police) more harm than good.”

A MAN ARRESTED

At four o’clock some half-dozen men of the reserve arrested in Bow-street a man employed in Covent-garden market whose friends declared that he had done nothing to provoke a breach of the peace.

There was immediately a great rush in the direction of the prisoner, and the mob, who pressed the police very hard, so that they could neither move one way or the other, began to yell and groan, shouting at the same time, “Let him go! Let him alone!”

The police, however, stuck to their man, and tried to push their way towards the police-station.

At last the police, finding they were making no headway, drew their truncheons.

The constables appeared determined to clear the way to the station, and the crowd gave in.

A LULL UNTIL SIX

There was a lull until nearly six o’clock, and, in the meantime, a visit was paid to the station by Colonel Monsell.

Various batches of constables left the station for duty between four and six o’clock, passing through a gang of hooting people.

At six o’clock three plain-clothes constables, who had come from outer divisional stations, arrested a young fellow outside the Globe hotel.

As they were bringing their prisoner to the station they were followed by a howling mob, and one of the constables, when he left the station again, was followed by a crowd.

THE POLICE ATTACKED

Nothing daunted, the constable and two other plain-clothes men walked down the street and turned a corner leading into Covent-garden.

“Let’s get them into the market!” shouted the mob.

The constables turned to bay, and a mêlée ensued.

The policemen, who were kicked and struck whenever the opportunity offered, fought desperately.

At this juncture a number of men in uniform appeared on the scene, and three prisoners were dragged to the station, the police having their staves drawn ready for use in case of any further interference.

DOUBLE THE MONDAY NIGHT MOB

As night drew on, the attendance of persons, orderly and disorderly, vastly increased, until it was quite double that which assembled outside the station on Monday night.

But if they anticipated any such serious scenes as those which took place on that occasion they were disappointed.

The people were allowed to circulate pretty freely up to nine o’clock, but at that time it was evident that the police meant absolutely to clear Bow-street.

Accordingly with advances by the men on foot in line, and charges by the mounted officers, the throng was gradually driven into the three outlets which converge at the base of Bow-street.

A REMARKABLE SPECTACLE

At this Stage of the proceedings Wellington-street presented a remarkable spectacle.

The roadways and footpaths were simply blocked with people, and how the mounted police forced a path through them is a matter for wonder.

But crowds are very elastic, and a man on prancing horse, careering along a footpath, generally manages to find a way for himself and his animal.

This summary method of dispersal was taken tolerably well by the crowd; though every charge the  police made was resented by hoots, groans, and hisses; and in some cases by attempts to pull the officers off their horses.

No real resistance, however, was attempted.

If it had been, seeing the vast preponderance of the people in the streets over the policemen, the consequences would have been very serious.

A MARCH ON BOW STREET

There was, indeed, one organised attempt to break through the police line.

After the first dispersal, the crowd, having been driven down Wellington-street nearly to the Strand by the mounted men, re-formed in procession, and marched up towards Bow-street in fours, cheering as they went and being loudly cheered in return by their fellows on the footways.

But their front was not strong enough, and being met by a strong double line of police, after a short and desperate struggle they were turned off in the direction of Covent-garden, and Bow-street was saved from the incursion.

There was no attempt on the part of the police to use their truncheons, but they certainly assisted the progress of the obstructionists in a somewhat violent manner by pushing them along in the way they did not want to go.

CABS AND CARRIAGES ATTACKED

About this time – that is, from half-past eight to nine – a good many cabs and carriages were coming down Bow-street from the opera, and they were rather roughly handled.

One four-wheeled cab was turned over, and the doors of a number of carriages were opened.

A curious fact was that in the midst of the crowd, a costermonger with a barrow of strawberries was placidly pursuing his business, and doing a good trade, until he, too, came under the notice of the police, and was moved on.

It should be noted that the coachmen in charge of the carriages behaved with considerable self-possession and restraint, except in one instance, when the driver of a carriage, the door of which had been forced open, whipped at the people surrounding him, and nearly got himself dragged off his box.

A mounted officer, whilst sitting quietly on his horse and facing the crowd, was struck full in the face by a bottle. The wounded policeman was taken into Bow-street, and the doctor reports that he must be invalided for sometime to come.

THE SITUATION IMPROVED

At 10 o’clock the situation became materially improved.

Bow-street was absolutely clear, and while traffic from the north end was allowed to pass through into Russell-street, nothing was permitted to go through the police lines at the south end. Russell-street, as far as Drury-lane, was practically clear, and the only thoroughfares left open were Wellington-street and the west end of Russell-street as far as Covent-garden.

WINDOW BREAKING AND STAMPEDES

Here window breaking was the fashionable amusement, varied with occasional and apparently inexplicable stampedes.

People coming out of the theatres were scattered in all directions.

Under the portico of the Lyceum there was a disturbance which prevented carriages driving up.

The police, evidently entirely new to the district, sauntered about in couples, afraid to or not caring to interfere too much.

Things quieted of their own accord.

The people – both rough and orderly – wended their way home and, by midnight, tolerable quietness reigned.

WEDNESDAY’S SCENES

On Wednesday night, for several hours, Bow-street was the scene of considerable disturbance, owing to the action of the crowd of onlookers.

The crowd, composed chiefly of the “young-rough” element, however, generally contented itself with perambulating the neighbourhood of Bow-street, Drury-lane, and Catherine-street, where the people were kept moving by the efforts of strong detachments of police.

Some 250 men of the P, B, L, M, and K divisions were held in reserve at the Bow-street station, but their services, like those of a squadron of mounted police kept in the station yard, were happily not called into requisition, although there were frequent scuffles and outbursts of hooting.

By half-past eleven o’clock Bow-street was quite clear.

THE PRINCE OF WALES INTERCEDED

No intimation had been received by the authorities with respect to the status of the men and the reception of their petition, but a rumour was circulated (says the Daily News) to the effect that the Prince of Wales, who was an interested spectator of the scene in Bow-street on Monday and Tuesday night, had interceded with the Home Office in the interests of the men.”

Despite the British Government’s insisting that it would not be held hostage by the police demands, within a few weeks of the unrest Parliament passed the Police Pensions Bill, which ushered in a full pension scheme for all police officers. Conditions would remain a bone of contention however, which would lead 28 years later to the much larger national police strikes of 1918-19, at a time of much greater danger for the UK ruling classes…

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An entry in the
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Today in London radical history, 1649: executed mutineer Robert Lockyer’s funeral becomes a Leveller demonstation

“I am ready and willing to dye for my Country and liberty and I blesse God I am not afraid to look death in the face in this particular cause God hath called me to.” (Robert Lockyer, 1649)

Robert Lockyer (also spelt Lockier) was born in London in about 1626. He received adult baptism in 1642, when he was 16, together with his mother, Mary, into a sect of the particular Baptists in Bishopsgate, then a suburb on London’s northeastern edge. This seems to have been where Robert grew up and had several relatives – it would also be the scene of the mutiny that would result in his execution.

Although this area had some ‘fair houses for merchant and artificers’, it had experienced a rapid building boom in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and along with Spitalfields and Shoreditch the Bishopsgate area had long also been associated with migrants, often denied entry to live or work in London, with various forms of criminal subcultures, and those looking to evade control or close scrutiny by the City authorities… Since 1500 the area’s population had increased, and refugees from the increasing enclosure of common lands, dislocation in the countryside, and the desperate seeking work, had swelled the streets around Bishopsgate. It’s unclear what Lockyer’s background was, whether his family had been resident for generations, or were relatively newly arrived… but the mix of classes, wealth and poverty side by side, the inevitable mix of ideas and resentments that arise in such ‘barrios’ may be relevant to his story.

His background in, or choice to enter, a separatist sect, the particular Baptists, is typical of many of the radicals of the English Civil War. The religious ferment, the spreading of ideas, creeds, the multiplying of branches of the protestant faith and offshoots from it, forms a vital backdrop to the English Revolution. It wasn’t just that freedom to worship as they chose, in small and self-directed congregations, without interference from the Anglican Church authorities with their secular backing from the king, was a huge demand that bubbled up for decades before the 1640s. Many of the sects were also developing radical critiques, both is purely religious terms, and when applied to the social order around them. This was harshly repressed for a century after the Reformation, but with the struggle between parliament and king out in the open, would erupt in a multi-shock volcano of ideas, proposals, and programs, and manifest in word, print and action. They saw themselves as the Saints, God’s own, though their views often diverged at to what God approved of and what kind of world He would want them to build, and as to what role the Saints themselves had in doing God’s will on Earth…

The Baptists in particular produced many political radicals in the English civil war period, as they had in the 16th century, when, known as ‘anabaptists, usually by their enemies, many had held extreme political views, and been involved in insurrections, revolutionary plotting and spreading of subversive social theories. But while the general suspicion of the Anglican church and state authorities, was that Baptists were basically dangerous extremists likely to do a ‘John of Leyden’ and introduce communism and bloodshed against the wealthy at the drop of a hat, many baptists were in reality quiet-living and law-abiding, so long as they could worship as they chose.

The range of ideas among the puritan and other sects was wide – many who sought independence from the established church for their own sect deplored tolerance for others (and catholics could basically whistle), but also feared and denounced the social rebelliousness that seemed to follow religious questioning. Many on the parliamentary side in the war were happy to enlist religious radicals to fight the king’s army, but had little intention of allowing this to imply the radicals had any right to either determine their own congregational path, or worse, start offering opinions on how wider society might be reshaped to the benefit of a wider swathe… A clarion call for freedom of conscience as a battle standard was a dangerous strategy, and it was to backfire on the cautious reformers and even many of the more devout leaders, as they saw subversive ideas spreading among the lower orders…

On the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642, Robert Lockyer joined the Parliamentary Army (Roundheads) and served as a private trooper. It is telling that he joined the regiment commanded by Colonel Edward Whalley, having first served in Oliver Cromwell’s ‘Ironsides’: this regiment was filled with hardcore puritans and sectaries, who saw the struggle against the king as doing God’s work, but also debated and discussed among themselves, around campfires and on the march, the kind of society the Godly should help create. And by the mid-1640s they were coming to radical conclusions. Richard Baxter, a leading puritan preacher and theologian, chaplain to Whalley’s regiment in 1645-46, observed this, to his horror: “Many honest men of weak judgments and little acquaintance with such matters… [were]… seduced into a disputing vein… sometimes for state democracy, sometimes for church democracy.” Baxter would spent much time denouncing this kind of uppityness among the common sort, who ought to listen to the learned and stop thinking they had the right to question or offer up opinions of their own.

Some regiments in the victorious New Model Army elected Agitators or agents, who, in alliance with the London Levellers, drew up the Agreement of the People, a program for a widening of the electorate and some measure of social justice. Its four main proposals were to dissolve the current Parliament (suspected of lukewarm sentiment for change and many of whose members had been intriguing with the defeated king Charles to work against the power of the army), radically redraw constituencies to better represent the country, more regular elections, freedom of religious conscience, and equality for all before the law. (To this was added, in later editions, the vote to be extended to all adult male householders, and the exclusion of catholics from freedom of conscience. There are limits, after all.)

It’s not known when Robert Lockyer became a Leveller sympathiser, or whether he was heavily involved in the New Model Army agitators campaign for democracy of 1647, though it is assumed he was involved, as Whalley’s regiment was at the heart of this ferment. It was later said of Lockyer, after his death, that he had supported the Leveller Agreement of the People, and had been present at the abortive mutiny at Ware in November 1647, which had broken out as the more radical elements in the army began to realise that the leadership were outmanoeuvring them and had no plans to implement anything like as ground-breaking a program as the Agreement. The mutiny had followed on from two weeks of argument among the army leadership and agitators at the Putney Debates. Here the Army leadership made it very clear that they very opposed the idea that more people should be allowed to vote in elections and that the Levellers posed a serious threat to the upper classes. As Oliver Cromwell said: “What is the purport of the levelling principle but to make the tenant as liberal a fortune as the landlord. I was by birth a gentleman. You must cut these people in pieces or they will cut you in pieces.”

Lockyer’s regiment was in fact stationed at Hampton Court, (guarding the imprisoned king, though Charles escaped on the 11th November), which was near enough for Lockyer to have ridden to Ware, (though he would have been AWOL at best, risking serious punishment if caught, up to the death sentence for desertion), if he was involved in the plans for a mutiny to impose the Agreement; but this may also be backward-myth making. We will never know. In any case the mutiny was quashed, as the majority of the troops present were persuaded to remain loyal to the Army Grandees, and Leveller/Agitator leaders Thomas Rainborough and John Lilburne realised that active support for a democratic army coup was weaker than they had thought. If Lockyer was present, it was not be the last mutiny he saw.

The Army leadership, represented most vocally by Oliver Cromwell, had ensured that the possibility of the army taking up arms against parliament on the basis of the Agreement could not happen, and in fact a Second Civil War followed as royalists rebelled in Kent and elsewhere. The threat in fact drove Grandees and radicals into temporary alliance against resurgent royalism and its sympathisers in a Parliament determined to put the army back in its place. But the rapprochement lasted only as long as the Second Civil War and the resulting purge of Parliament. When the king and his supporters were again beaten, Leveller demands for some quid pro quo for falling in behind Cromwell and co during this crisis, and rapidly led to the arrest of leading Leveller spokesmen.

This took place in early 1649. But the Grandees continued to pursue radicals in the army who attempted to push for the ideals set out in the Agreement of the People. In March 1649 eight soldiers from various regiments were court-martialled for petitioning the army’s nominal top brass General Fairfax to restore the more electoral structure the army agitators had briefly achieved two years before. The humiliating punishment five of them received – being paraded held up on a wooden pole, their swords broken, and then cashiered – made it clear that protest for democracy – in the army, or society in general – were not to be tolerated.

This formed the immediate background to the confrontation that cost Robert Lockyer his life. Future attempts by grassroots soldiers at independent action, on any issue, would be squashed.

A few weeks later, Captain Savage’s troop of Whalley’s Regiment, then quartered in the City of London, was ordered to quit these quarters and join the regimental rendezvous at Mile End, in preparation to march into Essex. On hearing this, 30 troopers seized the troop’s colours from the Four Swans Inn at Bishopsgate Street where it was stashed, and carried it to the nearby Bull Inn, a noted haunt of radicals at that time. Captain Savage demanded they bring out the colour, mount their horses and proceed to Mile End but they refused, fighting off his subsequent attempt to wrestle the flag off them. Lockyer told Savage that they were ‘not his colour carriers’ and that they had all fought under it, and for all that it symbolised (which could be interpreted in a number of ways, given the widespread debate about what the civil war had been for and how what many soldiers had felt were its aims had been closed down). Lockyer’s companions echoed his words, shouting ‘All, all!’

That a stance by just 30 men worried the army hierarchy can be seen in the quick reaction of Colonel Whalley and Generals Cromwell and Fairfax both hurried to the Bull. Whalley, arriving first with other regimental officers, and a large force of loyal troopers, negotiated with the 30 men. The ‘mutineers’ complained that they had not been paid enough to pay for the quarters they had been occupying in the city. This was a major grouse among civilians who housed soldiers in their homes – whether voluntarily, or in many cases, by force. The army was notoriously slow to cough up pay to its troops, sometimes arrears would run to months or even years, and the cost and inconvenience of quartering soldiers was a severe economic burden for householders. Seeing themselves as they did, as a kind of citizen army, the armed wing of righteous public opinion, some of the democratically-minded among the army were angry that they often could not pay their way, and this issue was a huge one at this time (not to mention the expenses mounted troopers like Lockyer’s company had for themselves – ie gear, horses, which often came to half their daily pay by themselves) . However, there is little doubt that both the 30 men and their superiors both saw this as the tip of a large iceberg, with all the repressed demands of the agitators and levellers looming threateningly below the surface. It was not what Lockyer and his comrades DID that required rapidly putting to an end – it was the potential for an insurrection that could spread to the city, and the wider army.

Although Whalley offered a sum of money to pay these arrears for quartering, the troopers pushed for stronger guarantees that he would offer, and Whalley lost patience, ordering Lockyer to mount, and when he refused, arresting him and fifteen of the other men. A crowd of civilians sympathetic to Lockyer and the rebels had gathered, but were scattered by men who obeyed Whalley’s order to disperse them. At this point Fairfax and Cromwell turned up, and ordered all fifteen to be taken to Whitehall to be court-martialled.

At the court-martial, one man was acquitted, three left to the discretion of the Colonel, five sentenced to ‘ride the wooden horse’ (the same punishment the five soldiers in March had suffered) – and six, including Lockyer, condemned to death. The six petitioned General Fairfax for mercy, promising to be obedient in future, and he pardoned five, but upheld the sentence on Lockyer. This was, Fairfax said, because at the court martial he had attempted to defend himself using the argument that their was no legal justification for the imposition of martial law (in reality, military control of the state) that the army grandees were operating under, in a time of peace – a clear challenge not just to daily gripes about pay but about policy and about whose interests the army were now representing. This defence enraged the court, and his death sentence was upheld not just to punish him, but to give an example to the alliance of army radicals and civilian activists that the Grandees feared was still active and brewing. A group of women supporters of the Levellers who had been visiting Parliament to petition for the release of the civilian Leveller leaders (ignoring the advice of MPs and Grandees to go home and mind their wifely duties and not meddle with the affairs of men!) had gathered outside the court-martial at Whitehall; they greeted the soldiers as they came out of the court, saying that there would be more such men as the accused in other places soon, and that Lockyer was a godly man and a Saint, who the authorities were going to murder.

The brief mutiny had aroused support among the discontented in London, and the possibility of a mutiny becoming an uprising had to be cut off. Whether Lockyer was in fact the ringleader of the protest or not, he was picked out to be a dreadful example for any potential rebels.

On April 27th, Robert Lockyer was marched to St Paul’s Churchyard by soldiers of Colonel Hewson’s regiment, to be shot. Speaking before execution, Lockyer is said to have announced

“I am ready and willin to dye for my Country and liberty and I blesse God I am not afraid to look death in the face in this particular cause God hath called me to.”

He added that he was happy to die if his fellows could be spared, but was troubled that he had been condemned for something so small as a dispute over pay, after fighting for seven years ‘for the liberties of the nation’. Refusing a blindfold, he spoke directly to the soldiers assigned to shoot him, “fellow-soldiers… brought here by your officers to murder me.. I did not think you had such heathenish and barbarous principles in you as to obey your officers in [this]” Major Carter, commanding the firing squad, being visibly shaken by this, Colonel Okey, who had been on the bench at Lockyer’s court-martial, angrily accused him of attempting to incite the firing squad to mutiny, and seizing his coat belt and jacket, distributed them to the firing squad, who then announced themselves ready to obey their orders. The sentence was carried out.

Lockyer’s funeral, two days later on Sunday 29th April, took the form of a political demonstration, a reminder of the strength of the Leveller organisation in London. Lockyer’s coffin was carried in silent procession from Smithfield in the afternoon, slowly through the heart of the City, and then back to Moorfields for the internment in the New Churchyard (underneath modern Liverpool Street Station – recently excavations here for the Crossrail train line has disturbed the bones buried here, presumably including Lockyer, and his fellow civil war radical, John Lilburne). The coffin bore blood-stained rosemary and a naked sword (a threat aimed at the Grandees of the potential for armed rebellion?)

Led by six trumpeters, about 4000 people reportedly accompanied the corpse. Many wore ribbons – black for mourning and sea-green to show their allegiance to the Levellers whose colour this was. A company of women brought up the rear, testimony to the active female involvement in the Leveller movement. If the reports can be believed there were more mourners for Trooper Lockyer than there had been for the martyred Colonel Thomas Rainborough the previous autumn, or king Charles a few months before. As the Leveller newspaper, The Moderate said, a remarkable tribute to a person of ‘no higher quality that a private trooper’ (quality meaning ‘class position’ here).

But while Lockyer’s funeral procession showed the strength of the support for the Levellers and sympathy with army radicals, Lockyer’s execution in fact showed that the Grandees were firmly in control of most of the army, enough at least to put down discontent and isolate troublemakers. Radicals in Whalley’s regiment were scared into submission, many signing a declaration of loyalty in May, and they did not join the subsequent army mutiny at Burford at the end of May, whose (again rapid) defeat marked in reality the end of any threat of an concerted army rebellion in favour of democratic ideals or Leveller principles. Three soldiers were shot 24 hours after the Burford mutiny, after another drumhead court-martial.

Written protest from Leveller spokesmen John Lilburne and Richard Overton, and a petition from Leveller women activists, at Lockyer’s execution fell on deaf ears – the Grandees were secure in the saddle, and knew it. They no longer needed the support of the radicals against the king or the moderate parliamentarians, and knew they could cow much opposition by executions, and ignore objections that martial law was no longer legal. They had also perceptively realised that their preparation to use terror and force was not matched by a similar determination on the radical side – as Colonel Hewson observed: “we can hang twenty before they will hang one.”

As with the other ‘radical’ army mutinies of the late 1640s, the way that Lockyer and many of his fellow soldiers saw themselves – as representing both the righteous of the nation, but also doing God’s work – gave them the justification for asserting their voice against their commanders; many of their commanders shared their background among the Saints, and so they also felt that this argument would be understood, at least. But diverging views as to what the interests of the nation and God’s work consisted of had been opening up since the beginning of the civil war – based on class interests, as much as interpretations of scripture. The actions of Cromwell, in particular, enraged the godly radicals, as they had seen him as one of them, a betrayer of the ‘good old cause’: but his class background meant his practical cleaving to the defence of the ‘men of property’ was always likely.

In the end, the program of the New Model Army agitators and the Levellers was forward thinking, and garnered wide support, but at a time of weariness of war, divisions and violence, not enough backing to push through into actual social change. The army mutinies all failed because, whatever widespread sympathy radical views inspired, only a minority were prepared to defy orders, whether for immediate grievances, or for larger social aims. Many of the reforms that the Levellers fought for, and Robert Lockyer and his comrades argued over in the army in the later 1640s, were later won, and are now widely help up as our democratic rights. Whether Lockyers of today would accept that, or push forward for more radical interpretations, for a wider redistribution of the wealth, power and responsibility in society… we can only speculate.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London judicial history, 1864: five mutineers from the ship Flowery Land publicly hanged, outside Newgate Prison.

On this date in 1864, four Philippines Spaniards and a Greek Ottoman who once numbered among the crew of the Flowery Land hanged together in London as mutineers and murderers.

“The July preceding, that 400-ton merchant barque had set sail from London to Singapore with a cargo of wine. Outfitted for economy,* her crew numbered only 19 souls.**

This floating hamlet manifested in motley miniature Britain’s sun-never-sets empire. Its chief was a Scotsman with the solid name of John Smith; also on board as a passenger was a 20th man, Smith’s brother George.

The skipper’s seconds were two more British mates, names of Carswell (or Karswell) and Taffer (Taffir, Taffar).

Aboard the Flowery Land — aptly named for this metaphor — the Brits had mastery of a mixed-blood crew from many quarters of the globe. It is apparent from the testimony recorded at the Old Bailey that the men had no one lingua franca among them, but got by as can with ad hoc translation and the pidgin cant of the sea. Spanish was frequently heard among the crew: no surprise considering its composition. (The captain was also described as a capable Spanish speaker.)

The accounts identifying the Flowery Land‘s human cargo give perplexing and partial selections, with varying reports of nationalities. The flexible spelling accorded to proper names of the day, a multitude of aliases, and the infelicity most of these men had with English surely contributes to the confusion. But after the captain, the captain’s brother, and the two mates, the ship’s complement appears to have consisted of the following:

  • Six Spanish/Filipino sailors from Manila: John Leone or Lyons, Francisco Blanco, Mauricio Duranno, Basilio de Los Santos, Marcelino Santa Lacroix, and Miguel Lopez aka Joseph Chancis
  • A Levantine Turkish subject of Greek ancestry, Marcus Vartos (called “Watter” in the Old Bailey records)
  • George Carlos, a Greek from Greece
  • Two Spaniards, Jose Williams and Frank Paul or Powell
  • Michael Andersen, a Norwegian
  • Frank Candereau, a Frenchman
  • Frank Early, a 17-year-old English cabin boy
  • A Malay steward, a Chinese cook, and a Chinese lamp-trimmer boy, sometimes described together as “three Chinamen”

According to the evidence, much of it given via translators, during the dark hours before dawn on September 10, several of the Manila crew members surprised first mate Carswell while he was walking a routine nightwatch, beat him wickedly, and pitched him into the sea. The disturbance roused the captain and as he emerged he too was beaten and stabbed to death, as was his brother the passenger.

Having disposed of both the ranking mariners, the mutineers approached Taffer with a classic offer one can’t refuse: as the last capable navigator aboard, he would guide the ship to the Rio de la Plata.

After a three-week journey that was surely very frightening for Taffer, they reached the mouth of that river dividing Argentina from Uruguay and there scuttled the Flowery Land and put ashore in skiffs. Or at least, most of them did so. Ordered off the boat, the Malay steward refused until the Manila conspirators pelted him with champagne bottles from the ship’s store of cargo, finally driving him into the waves where he drowned; John Lyons remarked on some private grievance that must have been shared by his fellows. The Chinese cook and boy apparently suffered a like fate, being left to go down with the sinking ship … or at least that is what the survivors later deposed wish to have understood. Two little boats made landfall from the ill-starred hulk and each boat’s party reports not having the Chinese aboard or seeing what became of them. There is racism, sure — Taffer doesn’t even know the cook’s name — but it seems bizarre and sinister that two people among they this tiny group of seaborne intimates die completely offstage and the rest barely even think to wonder about them. (“I then missed the cook and the lamp-trimmer,” Taffer deposed pre-trial. “Lyons said they had gone down in the ship.” (Glasgow Herald, Jan. 15, 1864)) Be that as it may, the fate of these unfortunates was very far down the list of injuries done by the mutineers to the British Empire and nobody appears to have been inclined to inquire too closely.

So we take them for dead. Strangely, having slain six people, the mutineers did not make Taffer the seventh — a clemency that Taffer did not anticipate, and with which he would soon punish them. Once the remaining crew had made landfall, Taffer well understood how his dangerous position stood in this party and contrived to escape it at the first opportunity.

Once away, he made for Montevideo and presented himself and his shocking story to British authorities. His 13 former mates, many of whom were pretending to have escaped the wreck of an American guano freighter with an eye to hitching on with some other crew and vanishing into the circuits of imperial trade, were soon recognised or rounded up. By December, all 14 survivors were en route to England.

The inexact process of dividing mutineer from bystander had already begun by now, closely tracking racial proximity. The two British subjects, Taffer and Early, shipped home not as pirates but as witnesses, as did the Norwegian and the Frenchmen. The other ten returned in manacles.

Upon inquiry back in London, it was decided that the two Spaniards (the two from Spain, not Manila) could not be shown to have joined or supported the mutiny, only to have gone along with it when it was a fait accompli. They were set at their liberty.

The remaining eight men — the six from Manila plus the Greek from Turkey and the Greek from Greece — faced trial. All but John Carlos were convicted and condemned to death; Carlos, acquitted of the murder of Captain Smith, was vengefully re-indicted that same day for property destruction committed by scuttling the Flowery Land, and caught a 10-year sentence for that.

The why of the mutiny is frustratingly — or conveniently — elided in the testimony that crew members gave the court, and we are perhaps meant to understand broadly, as does this author, that “such a ‘dago’ crew” is ever prone to becoming “saucy” and imperiling all order.

As we query beyond a colonial power’s heart of darkness we quickly enter territory that the original documents did not bother to chart. With any mutiny one’s mind flies to that ancient maritime grievance, “bad usage”. The record gives us only guarded indications, but it touches on poor rations and brutal corporal punishments, albeit isolated ones† (e.g., Michael Andersen: “I have seen the captain strike some of the crew … he struck Watter with his flat hand at the side of the head — I did not see that more than once.”)

Those prosecuted, strangers in a foreign land, do not appear to have made any declaration explaining their own conduct even after sentence was secured though the London Times (Feb. 23, 1864) said that they had communicated to their gaolers that they had been driven to desperation by a mean water ration in the tropical swelter. One British newsman reporting the hanging also marked the omission in a voice that, however tinged with racial condescension, empathises surprisingly with the hanged:

“Nothing can extenuate the ferocity of the group of murders they committed, for the lowest savage is bound to observe the instincts of humanity. But God judges provocations, and weighs the frenzy of ignorant men, goaded to crime, in a finer balance than any earthly one. He knows what secrets are gone down with the Flowery Land, and the dead bodies of her captain and mate; knows whether these five men — now also dead — were treated as it is the custom to treat such poor sweepings of maritime places. The evidence hinted strongly at something of the kind — foul water to drink, and little of it under the tropics, insufficient food, and anger and blows; because, having shipped his crew from Babel, the captain and officers could not understand them or be understood … with decent management this kind of tragedy is next to impossible. Had the crowd at the execution been of the same color and vocation as themselves, sympathy would not have been wanting. It would have been believed — justly or not — from the experience of a hundred miserable voyages, that, knowing no Spanish, their officers had made kicks and cuffs interpret for them, as is the case in many a vessel. If it was so in theirs, how could they explain it? Our language, our courts, our long delays between crime and its penalty, were to them all one mystery. They are of a race that prefers to die and be done with it, rather than to fret and fuss too much against the will of Fate; and though we believe that none of the five were guiltless, we have an uncomfortable suspicion that, had they been English, some different facts would have been brought out at the trial … let us not be suspected of pitying a dusky murderer while we have no compassion for his victims of our own color if we demand that the moral of this offensive sight should be drawn in Manillese as well as English — that captains should learn to treat their lascar like a human being, if they would not have his thick Oriental blood boil into the fury of the brute which they have helped to make him.”

The prospect of favoring the London mob with a the group hanging of seven “dusky murderers” — a quantity not seen at Newgate or anywhere else in England in decades — excited quite a lot of fretful commentary both moral and logistical. In the event, Basilio de Los Santos and Marcelino Santa Lacroix both received royal mercy on the strength of a petition, supported by the Spanish consulate and by some of the jurors, claiming diminished responsibility for the maritime coup.

That still left five to swing, which promised a remarkable novelty. There had been hangings of six, seven, and even eight on single occasions at Newgate in the 1800s up until the 1820s. The last such event was a septuple hanging on July 22, 1829. But by the 1840s and 1850s hangings had become solo affairs almost all the time; as of 1864, Londoners had not set eyes on a double execution — to say nothing of larger crops — in full 12 years.

Liberal-minded British elites and especially Fleet Street gasbags were already at this point in high dudgeon at the uncouth behavior of the rabble that flocked to public hangings. They approached this spectacle, whose victims had been hissed by the throngs who hemmed the Old Bailey when they arrived for their trial, pre-outraged, as it were — certain that their countrymen and (what is worse) women would soon set a-gnash all the teeth of the right-thinking.

Under the pious headline “Morality, as taught by Professor Calcraft” — that is, the notorious public executioner — the Newcastle Daily Journal of February 17, 1864 wrote (prior to the reduction of two of the seven sentences):

Next Monday morning, at eight o’clock, the gentle successor of Mr. John Ketch, “assisted” by some twenty thousand blood-thirsty ruffians of every grade and station, — ruffians with “handles to their names” from Belgravia, and ruffians with a score of aliases rom the Seven Dials, — will have the gratification of butchering seven of his immortal fellow-creatures, in the name of Justice and with the sanction of the Gospel — as represented by the Rev. John Davis, Ordinary of Newgate. What a thrill of delight will run through his veins as he draws the bolt and offers up this seven-fold sacrifice! How intensely pleasing must be the effect produced upon the spectators by the sight of seven dying men writhing in the agonies of the last struggle at the self-same moment! And what a grand sensation picture will the whole affair form for the pen of Monsieur Assolant, or any other French critic on English manners who may chance to be present!

[W]e are compelled to inquire whether something cannot be done to put a stop to those public exhibitions, so brutal in themselves, and so demoralising in their results, of which we are on Monday next to have so terrible a specimen. Public opinion may, for many years to come, sanction the punishment of death, but it cannot much longer permit the most awful of all spectacles to be made a show for the gratification of the vilest of either sex.

Only those whose misfortune it is to have been compelled to attend public executions, can form any conception of their unspeakable horrors, or of the injurious influence they exercise upon the mob who witness them. Let our readers thank God that it has never been their awful duty to … stand upon the scaffold whilst one of God’s creatures, made in His own image, is thrust into Eternity amid shrieks and blasphemies so appalling that the infernal world itselff could scarcely equal them. And let them on no account imagine that this is an over-drawn picture. It was such a spectacle as this that a few heart-sickened men were compelled to witness, less than twelve months since, in this very town of Newcastle, as they gathered round George Vass in his cell and on the scaffold; and those who heard the yells of positive exultation, the screams of delight with which the victim of the law was hailed on that occasion when he appeared before the herd of brutes assembled to see him die, and who afterwards heard the conversation which filled every tavern in the neighbourhood, must have had all preconceived notions with respect to the beneficial influence of capital punishments upon the public forevver dispelled … it is only gross ignorance or hardened sin that can venture to maintain that a public execution is other than a public lesson in blasphemy, murder, and infidelity.

Certainly execution day turned out the city in quantity. Following the funereal procession from within prison walls, the Times of London (Feb. 23, 1864) heard “the shouts and cries and uproar of the mob” as “a loud indistinct noise like the roar of the angry sea.” This sea swelled 20,000 strong or 25 or 30, and adjacent apartments with suitable sightlines reportedly renting for 75 guineas. As he zoomed upon the end of his life in the insane eye of such a spectacle, one of the mutineers, Duranno, swooned in vertigo and sagged against the already-attached noose until warders could retrieve a stool to prop him up while his fellows were marched out in turn.

Was it wise, just, and conducive to moral hygiene to expose such scenes to the general public? Even if the tide was turning against that classic tableau, and would before the 1860s were out be resolved to the permanent detriment of public executions, many still rose to defend their propriety. The exceptional character of the Flowery Land case made it a sure candidate for the respective partisans in that argument who wished — to appropriate a latter-day shibboleth — to control narrative. Each found on the Newgate gallows what they wished and expected to see; indeed, found with suspect familiarity.

The Feb. 23 Daily Telegraph, which supplies us the humane remarks on treating lascars like human beings extensively excerpted above, was full aghast.

The five pirates have died that horrible death by which it is still believed evil natures are terrified from crime, and society edified as to the sacredness of human life. We wish that we could think so in view of that surging, blasphemous, excited crowd that treated the occasion as a drama of the liveliest sensational kind — with nothing to pay for a place — and homicide, not fictitious, but natural and authentic, perpetrated before their eyes. In grimy, haggard thousands, the thieves and prostitutes of London and the suburbs gathered about the foot of the big gallows, jamming and crushing each other for a share of the spectacle. … The accounts of the demeanor of the crowd answer the question, whether it is good to gather for such a sight the scum and dregs of a vast city. Coarse, heartless, bestial, and brutalised by the official manslaughter which they had witnessed, the drabs and pickpockets made a “finish” of it in the public-houses, canvassing the skill of Jack Ketch and the “gameness” of each of his swarthy patients. The hideous roar that went up at the various stages of the sight was not the expression of gratified justice: it was the howl of the circus at the smell of blood — the grunt of what is hog-like in our nature at suffering we do not share. … Let us dismiss this devilish carousal of agony on one side, and eager excitement on the other, with its accompaniment of brutality and disorder ten times aggravated, and ask whether such a sight was wisely furnished, since we cannot call in question its justice, so long as blood is purged with blood and a Mosaic law governs a Christian nation?

Whew!

The Times for its part had no use for the fainting-couch routine, insisting that reverent “deep silence” had reigned among the rude multitude once the moment of execution arrived, broken only as “the gibbet creaked audibly.” Opposite the detailed report of its delegate to Newgate, it presented a pseudonymous letter quite at odds with the Telegraph:

Sir, — I am not ashamed to avow that I went this morning to the hanging of the five pirates at the Old Bailey, and I am concerned to state my impressions at this public spectacle, because they were so utterly different from all which I have heard or read, or which it is the current fashion or folly to express at such exhibitions.

It was to me the most solemn sight I ever witnessed — an instance of the punishment which awaits a bloody crime, where mercy is not prostituted or justice defrauded by the mitigation, without reason, of a salutary doom.

As I watched from a commanding position an enormous crowd of spectators, which I should not hesitate to compute at as many as 20,000 or 25,000, chiefly men, and surveyed the sea of faces at the fatal instant when the drop fell and their expression was generalized by a sudden and common emotion, I should say that the pervading feeling was a cordial acceptance of the act then transacted before them, and a complete recognition that it was just and inevitable.

I am convinced that there were few present who could have escaped this emotion and conviction, from the sudden silence and entranced interest of this multitude of men; and if there had been previously some levity on the part of the lowest who had waited for this catastrophe, I am satisfied that at the last moment the better nature of all responded in concert to the terrible appeal, and that the sum total was a public good.

This is so different from the effect which others ascribe to such scenes that I ask to state my own conviction, and to subscribe myself

Yours faithfully,

VIGIL

Neither the dignified decorum nor the raucous carousing of the crowd under the Newgate gallows prevented the infamous crime from doing a sharp trade in the mass entertainment ventures of the day, from disposable true-crime pulp to Allsop’s Waxwork Exhibition. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a boy still shy of his fifth birthday at the moment the traps opened, surely absorbed some of this cultural ejecta in his growing-up years; he eventually dramatized “The True Story of the Tragedy of Flowery Land” in a short story.

notes:

* Since barques could be handled by a small crew, they had carved out a large slice of the world’s shipping lanes in the Golden Age of Sail… right before steam power showed up and relegated them to the sideline.

** Compare to the likes of the HMS Bounty, with a complement of 46 — requiring a numerically wider network of plotters. This vulnerability a minimalistic crew had to a mere handful of malcontents appears again a decade later with the mutiny of the Lennie (crew: 16).

† One possible way to interpret the evidence is that the first mate Carswell was the brutal overseer. In a deposition that Taffer only passingly alludes to during his Old Bailey testimony, he described how Carswell thrashed John Carlos, citing sickness, refused to take his turn at the watch, and even lashed Carlos to the mast. The captain arrived a few minutes later and had Carlos untied and sent back to berth, with medicine. The mate is also the man to whom Taffer attributes some “corrective” beatings with ropes.

One can at a stretch imagine what occurred on September 10 as an attempt “only” to murder Carswell, perhaps then to attribute his absence come morning to some mysterious nighttime accident overboard — but that the personal settling of scores mushroomed into a full-blown mutiny when the captain presented himself and the logic of the situation required his destruction, too. Taffer said that the mutineers had to confer among themselves where to make him steer the ship they had taken possession of, perhaps corroborating a more improvised series of events. This, however, is an entirely speculative reading; there is plenty of other evidence to suggest intentional coordination.”

Nicked from the excellent Executed Today blog

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This account, while thoughtful, does not really approach several questions we would ask – how much routine racism and imperial race hierarchies, and the mundanity of violence meted out at sea by ship’s captains, determined both the brutal lives and then the horrific public deaths of the condemned mutineers, and how much the perpetuation of these racist myths by the press and the commentariat of the day helped create and maintain the ‘mob hysteria’ against them. Elitist sneering at rowdy plebeian chauvinism while merrily expressing the same basic ideas through both high moral language and overt support for the rope, the gunboat and genocide – almost universal then, and not exactly extinct now. And the identification of working class people with an empire that was not ‘theirs’ and was run for others benefit… still a hanging issue in these Brexity times…

The role of public hangings is discussed, but the complex attitudes of the lower orders to them, sometimes supportive of, sometimes hostile to, the hanged, and sometimes resisting themselves or encouraging resistance, is a much more nuanced history, and exhibits an often contradictory but in many cases evolved moral code. The ‘mob’ were not one mob, but many and overlapping, and racism and hostility to ‘furriners’ who resisted empire could exist side by side with support for the executed.

It’s worth noting that the debate about public hangings and their impact was well under way and execution would be moved ‘indoors’ and out of sight in 1868.

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An entry in the
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All this week in suppressed military history: soldiers strike, demonstrate and riot, demanding faster demobilisation, 1919

When World War 1 came to an end, in November 1918, there were millions of men in uniform across Europe. After the initial nationalist fervour and pro-war enthusiasm that had seen mass enlistment in the first year or two, the war fever had largely abated. Mass slaughter, the stalemate of trench warfare, the horrors of soldiers’ experience – trauma, disease, cold, horrific wounds, as well as vicious military discipline, punishment of those who refused orders, were unable to fight any more… Many of those on the many fronts across the continent had been conscripted.

After over 17 million deaths and even more wounded, all most of those in the respective armies wanted to do was go home. Long years of war had left widespread cynicism and disillusion with the war aims, with the high command, with pro-war propaganda…

Out of this war-weariness, and inspired by the Russian Revolution of 1917, (itself a product of army mutinies and revolts from a population enraged by the privation and poverty the war had aggravated), French and British army mutinies had erupted in 1917-18. Revolts, mutinies and uprisings among her allies left Germany mostly fighting alone by the beginning of November, and German mutinies had played a major part in Germany’s decision to open talks about ending the war with the allies…

But celebrations of peace were somewhat premature. Several western governments, notably Britain, France and the US, were determined not to end the fighting, but to carry on the war – against their former ally, Russia.

After the October Revolution had overthrown the liberal government there, the new Bolshevik government had fulfilled one of the main aims of the revolution – to pull Russia out of the war.

This in itself enraged France and Britain, as it left Germany free to move large forces to the western front. But the overthrow of tsarism and then the bourgeois Kerensky government, and the beginnings of social revolution across Russia, also terrified governments worldwide. And the leading allied nations were among the most worried. What if workers across Britain took Russia as an example? There had already been a huge upsurge in workplace organising, strikes, and social struggles as the war progressed… The British and French establishments were determined not only that radicals inspired by the Soviet upsurge be repressed, but to organise military intervention in Russia, to support the anti-revolutionary forces already fighting a civil war there, and if possible help them restore a more acceptable regime and crush working class power.

By this time of course, in Russia itself, the processes were already at work that would hamstring working class control and produce a Bolshevik dictatorship which would largely destroy any real communist potential within 3 years… However, it was all one to the western powers.

Plans to mobilise some of the millions conveniently still under orders and turn them against Russia were already underway long before the Armistice between Germany and the Allied powers was signed on 11 November.

An agreement had been drawn up in December 1917 between France, Italy and Britain to act against the Bolshevik regime, subsidise its opponents, and prepare ‘as quietly as possible’ for war on them.

Between February and November, British troops had already been sent to invade parts of Russia. Clauses within the peace agreement itself make it clear that troops were to be moved across Europe to the east, and ensured that free access to the Baltic and Black Sea for French and British navies would ease plans to invade Russian territory.

And immediately after the ‘peace’, plans were stepped up, along with a concerted propaganda campaign against ‘bolshevism’ in the press, designed to whip up support for military intervention.

But the plans involved reckoning on thousands of soldiers as pawns, and that British workers would have no view or no say in the matter. This was to be a serious miscalculation.

In the early months of 1919, there were still over a million British soldiers still in uniform, some in France but many more in army camps in this country. Many were expecting immediate demobilisation now the war was over; this expectation turned to frustration and then to eruptions of protest. Attempts to delay demobilisation in order to facilitate intervention in Russia were certainly going on, but bureaucratic delays and simple problems of scale were also for sure causing backlogs and a slow process of sending soldier home. But in January 1919, a number of mutinies, protests and demonstrations in army camps in southern England and around London, demanding immediate demobilisation, broke out, causing serious alarm in government circles; especially as industrial unrest was increasing. Mutinies, links between discontent in the armed forces and on the home front had led to the Russian Revolution and to revolutionary uprisings still then raging in Germany, Hungary and elsewhere…

Preventing millions of enlisted and conscripted soldiers from returning to civilian life when the war was over was bound to spark resentment – the only question was how this would be expressed, as grumbling, or active protest.

The answer soon came, appearing first of all in army camps in Folkestone and Dover, on the south coast of England.

“On the morning of Friday, 3 January 1919, notices were posted that 1000 men were to parade for embarkation at 8.15 a.m. and another 1000 were to parade for embarkation at 8.25 a.m. The men wrote across them: ‘No men to parade’. Word was passed along from rest camp to rest camp that men in one, nearly 3000 of them, had held a meeting and had decided not to march down to the boat, but to visit the mayor of Folkestone. Shortly after 9 a.m. a large body of men from No. 1 Rest Camp marched in orderly fashion to No. 3 Rest Camp at the other end of the town. There the column was heavily reinforced, and all marched down the Sandgate Road to the Town Hall. On the way they shouted in chorus: ‘Are we going to France?’ and answered with a louder ‘No!’ Then: ‘Are we going home?’ – and in response a resounding “Yes!’ Over 10,000 men assembled at the Town Hall. Several climbed on to its portico and delivered speeches: their complaints that many applications for demobilisation, in order to return to waiting jobs, were being ignored, were greeted with cheers. The mayor told the men that if they went back to camp they would hear good news: a remark answered by the singing of ‘Tell Me the Old, Old Story’! During the demonstration at the Town Hall the soldiers saw an officer taking photographs from the window. They entered the building and demanded an interview with him. He turned out to be an Australian taking the pictures as a souvenir, and offered the film to the soldiers – which they accepted. Finally, the town commandant, Lieutenant-Colonel H.E.J. Mill, promised the men that if ‘any complaints would be listened to’: and they then returned to their camps in a long procession, preceded by a big drum. At the camps they were told (1) that the pivotal and slip men who had work to go to could, if they wished be demobilised at once, from Folkestone; (2) that those who had any complaints could have seven days’ leave in order to pursue their case; and (3) that those who wished to return to France could do so. ‘They seemed reassured,’ reported the Times Correspondent, who underlined that there had been ‘no rowdyism’. He said that later a number of the men did return to France: however, the Daily News correspondent wrote that the morning mail boat to France had sailed without any troops.

On Saturday morning, 4 January, there was a new demonstration. Despite the assurances given the previous day, ‘a certain number’ had been ordered to France that morning. They refused, and a large number marched to the harbor to station pickets there, while other pickets were posted at the station, meeting the trains with men returning from leave: all joined the strike. Only officers and overseas troops embarked on the boats for Boulogne, which left ‘practically empty’. According to the Morning Post correspondent, an armed guard had been mounted at the harbour,

‘whereupon a representative of the soldiers threatened that, if it remained, they would procure their arms from their quarters at the rest camp and forcibly remove the guard. The latter was consequently withdrawn, and the malcontents placed pickets at the approaches to the harbour to prevent British soldiers from entering. Dominion soldiers were allowed to go.’

Probably about the same incident, a Herald investigator several days later said that the guard consisted of Fusiliers with fixed bayonets and ball cartridges. When the pickets approached, one rifle went up: ‘the foremost picket seized it, and forthwith the rest of the picket fell back’. Everywhere the feeling was the same, he said: ‘The war is over, we won’t fight in Russia, we mean to go home’.

The same reporter stated that the soldiers also tore down a large label, ‘For Officers Only’, above the door of a comfortable waiting room. The Times report went on to say that several thousand men, including the new arrivals carrying their kits and rifles, marched to the Town Hall, where they were once again addressed by their spokesmen. It was announced that a ‘Soldiers Union’ had been formed, and that it had elected a committee of nine to confer with the authorities in the Town Hall. There would be, immediately afterwards, a meeting with the general and town hall commandant at No. 3 Rest Camp. The whole mass of about 10,000 men marched there to await the report of the conference, which lasted into the afternoon. Finally, the delegation announced to the soldiers that the pledges made the previous day had been renewed. Late that evening, in fact, special staff from the Ministry of Labour arrived, and went to each rest camp to complete the necessary formalities.

One more the correspondent remarked that there had been ‘no rowdiness’, and that the townspeople spoke ‘in the highest possible terms’ of the soldiers’ behaviour. Thereafter everything proceeded as had been agreed.

It is not without interest that, as it turned out, one of the nine delegates was a solicitor in civil life, and another a magistrate. The composition of the delegation was: one sergeant of the Army Service Corps (chairman), a corporal of the Royal Engineers, a gunner of the Royal garrison Artillery, and the rest privates, several of whom were trade unionists.

After this unprecedented action at Folkestone, another took place at Dover on Saturday 4 January. About 2000 men took part, holding a meeting near the Harbour Station, at which a deputation was elected to see the military and civil authorities. The Daily Chronicle report gave further details:

‘A number of men had reached the Admiralty Pier , where transports were waiting for them, when suddenly there was a movement back, and men began to leave the pier. They streamed off along the railway, in spite of official protests, and on their way to the town met a train loaded with returning troops bound for the pier. The soldiers called on the newcomers to join them, and the carriages were soon emptied. Continuing their march, and all in full field kit and carrying their rifles, the troops mustered at Creswell, and from the railway bridge some of their number addressed the others on demobilisation grievances. They decided to send a deputation to the military and civil authorities, and the men then fell in and marched to the Town Hall, which was reached just before 10 o’ clock… The troops represented scores of different units, and a number of Canadian and Australian men.’

At the Town Hall, they formed up on either side of the road and in the side streets. The mayor admitted them into the Town Hall, and the overflow into the adjoining Connaught Hall. While waiting for a reply from the military authorities, the men sang popular songs, and the arranged for their free admission to the cinema. In the afternoon, at the Town Hall, they received promises that grievances would be ‘looked into’, and returned to their rest camps. A War Office statement printed by the Times said that the soldiers’ representatives were seen first by General Dallas, GOC Canterbury, and then by General Woolcombe, head of the Eastern Command. He had returned from leave when hearing of the ‘trouble’, and from Folkestone had telephoned he Home Army Command at the War Office for instructions. A report in the Times next day stated that ‘all cases had been enquired into’, and that soldiers were being allowed freely to telegraph their employers: if the latter replied favourably, the men could go home to start work at once.

Later on Friday, 3 January, the London evening papers had printed brief accounts of what was happening at Folkestone: which of course had become known at Dover. But almost immediately, in the words of the Evening News the following Monday, ‘the censorship came into action, with the result that all authentic news was stopped’ (though the Star, on Saturday, 4 January defied the ban). There can be no doubt about the military authorities’ reaction. The London letter in the Plymouth Western Morning News on 6 January, referred to ‘someone’s desire to conceal the truth: an attempt had been made on Friday and Saturday to hide the trouble at Folkestone… despite the efforts of the War Office to conceal it, nearly 10,000 men took extreme action’. The Birmingham Gazette on 8 January confirmed that ‘when the Folkestone trouble first arose, the War Office invoked what is left of the censorship system to keep the whole matter out of the newspapers.’ And on the same day The Ties, evidently more directly accessible to War Office pressure than the provincial press, revealed another aspect of the events by now occurring in many places when it stated in its leading article:

We are asked to publish, but have no intention of publishing, a great many letters on the subject of demobilisation which show the deplorable lack of responsibility on the part of the writers… fanning an agitation which is already mischievous and may become dangerous… These demonstrations by soldiers have gone far enough.

But The Times was too late. The demonstrations had certainly spread far beyond Folkestone, thanks to the reports in Friday’s evening papers: The Times itself had to report, on Tuesday 7 January, that the Folkestone and Dover demonstrations had been ‘followed by similar protests in other parts of the country’, and there might be more that day.

At other camps in Kent the demonstrations had already begun. At Shortlands, near Bromley, where there was a depot of 1500 men of the Army Service Corps, a committee of twenty-eight had been formed at breakfast on 6 January, including five NCOs [non-Commissioned Officers – officers who had risen through the ranks from private. Ed] and three cadets. Their chairman was a private from Canada, who had been at the front, and been transferred to the ASC. They marched in column to Bromley, where they held a meeting in the Central Hall. The chairman stated their main grievances: delay in demobilisation, and being held in the army to do civilian work. During the meeting a message arrived at the camp, saying that there would be no more drafts overseas, those men already out on a convoy would be sent back to the depot, and demobilization would start on Wednesday, 8 January. On their return, the commanding officer asked for names of the ‘ringleaders’, but this was refused, and next morning he had a two-hour meeting with the committee. Apart from the promises already made, he agreed to send to the War Office a ‘points system’ of priorities for demobilisation which the committee had drawn up. This provided: married men with work to go, and those running a one-man business – 1 point; years of service to be additionally credited a follows: 1914 4 points, 1915 3 points, 1916 2 points, 1917 1 point; men over military age, 1 additional point; those transferred from the infantry, 1 additional point. It appointed a sub-committee of five to visit other ASC Depots in the London area… On 8 January the committee issued a statement that all the other ASC depots had approved the scheme, but with 2 points instead of 1 for men with one-man businesses. Two days later demobilisation began.

At Maidstone on 7 January, a demonstration of several hundred soldiers of the Queens, 3rd Gloucestershire and 3rd Wiltshire Regiments, marched down the High Street at 10 a.m., and held a meeting explaining their grievances. Thence they marched to the Town Hall, where the mayor received a deputation from them and promised to forward their representations to the proper quarters. The demonstration had been preceded by interviews with their officers, at which the soldiers had demanded an end to unnecessary guard duties, drill and fatigues. During the afternoon demonstrations it became known that these demands had been conceded. The demonstrations had been renewed by 600-700 men of all three regiments.

At Biggin Hill, Westerham, on 7 January, some 700 men working on aeroplanes and wireless instruments refused to go on parade, and took possession of the camp. All its sections were placed under guard except for the officers’ quarters. They got ready twenty-eight motor wagons for a journey to Whitehall. They were persuaded not to see the plan through by the ‘tactful speech’ of their former colonel, who addressed them in a large hangar. The next day (8 January) he promised his help if they put their grievances in writing. This they did, complaining of: (1) insufficient food, badly cooked; (2) indescribable sanitary conditions, with eight washbasins for 700 men; (3) exploitation by officers, who required the men to do private jobs for them; and (4) delays in demobilisation. The ex-colonel offered to accompany a deputation to the War Office if required. On 9 January officials from the War Office visited the camp, and made immediate improvements in the sanitary and working conditions. On 10 January all except thirty-four men were sent home on ten days’ leave. Meanwhile, on 8 January, a number of RAF lorry drivers had refused to convey the 200 civilians working on the aerodrome from their homes in South-East London several miles away; this had been done previously by civilian drivers, and the RAF men demanded pay for this work at civilian rates. They resumed work on 11 January, after an investigation had been promised.

At Richborough ‘there was a demonstration by troops’ on 8 January’; but beyond this bare mention in Lloyd George’s own paper, nothing so far had been found.

As the London newspapers were already reporting the early strikes at Folkestone and Dover, unsurprisingly, the movement soon spread to the capital and its environs:

“At Osterley Park – a big manor house in its own grounds, west of London – at least 3000 men of the Army Service Corps were stationed. Most of them had served in France, and had been wounded, in the infantry; later they had been drafted into the ASC, and nearly all were ex-drivers of London buses, many with long trade union experience. They had recently laid their grievances about demobilisation before their commanding officer, but had had no definite reply. Accordingly, on Monday, 6 January, the soldiers broke camp, and about 150 took out three lorries and drove to Whitehall, intending to call on Lloyd George. They told reporters that more would have come with them, but officers had removed parts of the mechanism of other lorries. From Downing Street, where they were joined by man of other regiments, they went to the Demobilisation Department at Richmond Terrace, where a deputation of six was received by a staff officer of the Quarter-master-General’s department. He informed them that from Wednesday 8 January, 200 a day would be demobilised, adding that their complaints could not be investigated unless they returned to camp. This they did, followed by several staff officers and Ministry of Labour officials in a car. In the afternoon a second deputation of two privates came to Whitehall from a meeting of both ASC and other units. The War Office later issued a statement to the meeting saying that a beginning had already been made with dispersals for the Army Ordinance Corps, the Army Service Corps, the Army pay Corps and other military organisations. Meanwhile, at the afternoon parade in Osterley, a staff major had also told the soldiers that the Army Council, in session on Saturday 4 January, had decided to put the Army Service Corps on the same footing as other units, and that none of them would be sent on draft overseas.

The special significance of the latter assurance is underlined by a statement in the evening Pall Mall Gazette, on the day of the demonstration, that ‘the excitement among the Army Service Corps at Osterley and elsewhere is attributed in many quarters to oft-repeated rumours that plans are being prepared for the sending of a force to Russia’. In spite of assurances received on this score, all training ceased on 7 January, and 100 men were told they were being demobilised immediately. The demonstration of the others proceeded the following day.

At Grove Park (southeast of London), about 250 Army Service Corps drivers broke camp on 6 January and marched to the barracks half a mile away, asking to see the commanding officer. A sergeant-major who tried to stop them at the gates was knocked over in a scuffle, and the men entered. There they were ‘met in a conciliatory spirit’ by a senior officer, who, standing on a box, expressed sympathy with their grievances, and said everything in the officers’ power was being don to secure their release. A spokesman of the men said that many of them had had letters from their employers offering them re-employment, but nothing had been done, and they were being kept in the army doing no useful work. At the commanding officer’s request, they paraded again after dinner and filled in ‘Form Z16’ (for demobilisation). Fifty men who had been ordered to go to Slough, three hours journey by lorry to scrub huts, refused, saying it was unreasonable to expect men to stand closely packed in lorries for such a period.

At Uxbridge (North-West London), on Monday 6 January, 400 men from the Armament School (used as a demolition centre) broke camp at midday and marched along the High Street singing ‘Britons Never Shall be Slaves’ and ‘Tell Me the Old, Old Story’. At the market place they held a meeting, where they were addressed by the commandant, and then marched back. One of them told a reporter that, apart from the slowness of the demobilisation, ‘the food had been rotten since the Armistice, 1 loaf between 8 men, 5 days a week sausage.’ That morning the men had upset the tables, and gone out. On their return they formed a Messing Committee composed of 4 or 5 privates, 1 sergeant and 1 officer. Not satisfied, on Tuesday 7 January, they set up a Grievance Committee in each squad, composed of officers as well as men, to bring forward their complaints to the commandant. They also sent a deputation by lorry to the War Office.

From Kempton Park (southwest of London), on Tuesday 7 January, shortly before 3 p.m., thirteen large army lorries drove to the War Office in London, with forty to fifty soldiers in each lorry. General Burns had visited the depot that morning, but had not been able to give them any satisfaction. All were in high spirits, ‘determined to get what they called their rights. On the lorries they had chalked ‘No red tape’, ‘We want fair play’, ‘We’re fed up’, ‘No more sausage and rabbits’, ‘Kempton is on strike’. Held up at the Horse Guards (the War Office), they elected a deputation of eleven, which went into he War Office ‘amid ringing cheers’. The result of the interview was not published, but it could not have differed from what was secured elsewhere.

At Fairlop naval aerodrome (near Ilford, east of London), orders were posted on the morning of 7 January that eighty men were to proceed to other camps. All 400 men paraded and asked for a conference with the commanding officer, Colonel Ward: the transport men meanwhile got out their lorries to go to Whitehall, should the interview prove unsatisfactory. The colonel, however, came to a mass meeting held in a hangar, and agreed that every man with papers showing he had employment to go to, or who came from a one-man business, should have a day’s leave immediately, to get the papers endorsed, and could then go home pending demobilisation.

At the White City (well within the boundaries of West London itself), about 100 Army Ordnance Corps men on 7 January refused to leave barracks for the 1.30 p.m. parade, and sent a deputation to one of the officers demanding (1) speedier demobilisation, (2) shorter working hours, (3) no church parades on Sunday, and (4) weekend passes when not on duty. They asked for a definite answer within a week, and meanwhile resumed duty.

In the Upper Norwood Camp (in South-East London), there was a distribution centre for men discharged after lengthy illness. ‘After many previous discussions among themselves’, they sent a deputation on Sunday, 5 January, to interview the commandant. Then, on 6 January, they discussed with him complaints raised by the men, chiefly, that, even after twenty-eight days in hospital, they were being discharged.

But the most impressive demonstration of all in the London region, was that at Park Royal (in North-West London) on 7 January, where there were 4000 men of the Army Service Corps. That day a committee elected by the soldiers submitted to their commanding officer the following demands: (1) speedier demobilisation; (2) reveille to be sounded at 6.30 in the morning, not 5.30; (3) work to finish at 4.30 in the afternoon, not 5.30; (4) no men over forty-one to be sent overseas; (5) all training to stop; (6) a large reduction of guard and picket duty; (7) no compulsory church parade; (8) no drafts for Russia; (9) a committee of one NCO and two privates to control messing arrangements for each company; (10) a written guarantee of no victimisation. Most of these demands were agreed to.

However, at 1 p.m. on 8 January a big deputation arrived at Whitehall to present heir demands themselves. This had been agreed to by the committee: they left volunteers behind to look after the 300 horse at the depot. Their intention was to see the Prime Minister.

At Paddington, and again at the Horse Guards parade ground, they were met by General Fielding, commanding the London district, who tried to stop them, even threatening to use the police against them. Fielding promised them that demobilisation would take place ‘as soon as possible’: but as regards the assurance which they wanted that ‘they would not be sent to Russia’, he could give them none. This failed to satisfy them; they defied him, and marched in a body to Downing Street. Apparently the general told them ‘they were soldiers, and would have to obey orders’.

Finally Sir William Robertson, former Chief of the Imperial General Staff, came out to speak to them and hear their demands. He agreed that the commanding officer of the Home Forces should receive a deputation of one corporal, one lance-corporal and one private for half an hour. The deputation returned with a group of officers, who announced that the outcome of the talk was satisfactory, and Sir William Robertson had promised to send a general to Park Royal to investigate their complaints. While all this was going on, crowds of the general public were watching the proceedings and encouraging the men. One of the offices invited the men to go back to camp. But they insisted that first of all they must hear a report from the deputation itself. Two or three of its members spoke. They confirmed that the same percentage of men at Park Royal would be demobilised as elsewhere: no one who had been overseas or was over forty-one would be sent on draft – ‘including to Russia’, added the Daily Telegraph reporter – and those already notified for draft were to be sent on Christmas leave, if they had not been already.

On their return, the men held a meeting in the canteen and expressed their satisfaction at the settlement.

Among the demonstrators at the War Office on 6 January were 259 soldiers due to return from leave to Salonika. They were nearly all time-expired men who had served in Greece (some for as long as three years) and before that in India. They were addressed by the Assistant Secretary for Demobilisation, General de Saumarez, who told them that those with demobilisation papers already prepared would be discharged immediately, and the remainder could go to the reserve battalions at home. If they could get their employers to send them the necessary form requesting their discharge, they too would be demobilised at once. Next morning, Thursday 9 January, after assembling at the War Office again, they were marched to Chelsea Barracks, and there either demobilised or sent on fourteen days leave for the purposes indicated.”

The events continued to spread around the country and among British soldiers stationed in abroad, including those already embarked for intervention in Russia. We don’t have space to detail all of it here, but there were protests, strikes and subsequent negotiations – at Lewes, Shoreham, Smithwick;

at Aldershot, Winchester, East Liss, Beaulieu Camp near Lymington, on the Isle of Wight… Bristol, Falmouth, on Salisbury Plain, Newport and Swansea… Felixstowe, Bedford, Kettering, Harlaxton in Lincolnshire; at Leeds, Manchester, Blackpool; in Scotland – at Edinburgh, Stirling, Leith, Rosyth and Cromarty…

In Southampton, in ‘mid-January… the docks were in the hands of mutinous soldiers and 20,000 men were refusing to obey orders… deserted troop ships picketed by soldiers’. Lord Trenchard, sent to sort the situation out, was shouted down and hustled when he went to speak to 5000 men in the customs sheds. He ordered 250 soldiers from the nearby Portsmouth garrison marched to the sheds and load their rifles, he forced the men’s surrender, and used water hoses to drench and subdue 100 others… More than some of the other protest, the Southampton situation scared the government, who saw it as an embryonic soviet, and repressed any mention of it in official papers or memoirs for decades.

The spirit of rebellion spread, if much more uncertainly, to the navy: at Milford Haven, where there was a ‘mutiny not accompanied by violence, on board a patrol ship, the HMS Kilbride: the men refused to carry out their duties on the pay they were receiving (in contrast to the way the army dealt with the protests, 7 sailors were court-martialled for this, 1 being sentenced to 2 years hard labour, 3 to 1 year and 3 to 90 days detention);
at Devonport, where the lower ranks elected a committee to air their demands;
at Liverpool…

The protests, rebellions and mutinies were not limited to Britain – because the majority of British soldiers were still posted overseas. British soldiers in France erupted in much the same way as the British-based squaddies had done. There was unrest and some rioting, across many detachments. The climax was an outright mutiny at Calais, on 27 January. After a private was arrested for making a seditious speech, railwaymen and Army Ordnance Corps men went on strike; although the private was quickly released, this sparked a strike among 5000 soldiers, who demanded immediate return to England, with leave to seek employment. The soldiers’ mutiny was heavily repressed with armed force, and the ‘ringleaders’ received long sentences at court-martial; the Army Ordnance Corps protest lasted longer, and won some concessions. But discontent went on, and there was some fighting after one of the most vocal was nicked.

Read a first-hand account of the Calais Mutiny

There were also similar rebellions at Le Havre, Etaples (scene a year and a half before of a serious wartime mutiny), Boulogne, and Dunkirk.

… and among troops already involved in the British-allied plan to intervene militarily in Archangelsk, in northern Russia to support ‘white’ (anti-Soviet) forces. British, French, American and Polish forces were under British command here, but socialist propaganda and discontent were rife, and news of the demob protests reached these troops via socialist papers. Troops in Archangelsk refused orders to advance, mass meetings were held, and committees elected, and the commanders of the invasion force reported back to London that they were not confident of the men’s reliability. Some ‘ringleaders’ had to be arrested… But a serious blow was dealt to the allied attempt to smash the Russian Revolution by force.

The soldiers’ strikes not only forced the government to speed up demobilisation and lightened wartime conditions for those awaiting release.

It also did make the government think twice about conscripting soldiers into an intervention force for sending to Russia. Clearly squaddies were not necessarily going to be happy to be pawns this time. Public opinion in Britain was already heavily against intervention in Russia… But the widespread and almost immediate concessions to the protests show the scale of the terror that the British government was barely managing to conceal – that the increasing industrial unrest, social weariness with war privations and dissent among the forces would link up, as they had in Russia… The idea of a British Revolution may seem ridiculous now, but it seemed a genuine possibility in 1919… If you lose control of the armed forces (not forgetting that the police also went on strike I 1918 and 1919…)

The soldiers strikes of January certainly scotched the idea that a mass military force could be sent to help smash the Russian Revolution. It wasn’t the end of the British government’s plans to support the ‘white’ armies fighting against the Bolsheviks: attempts to send arms and other aid to the white Russian forces continued for over a year and a half, but were eventually in practical terms scuppered by the organised action of workers on the docks.

In fact though the fear of the British authorities that the soldiers’ strikes could develop into revolution was very likely overstated. Overwhelmingly the demonstrations, even when they became more confrontational, was for immediate demands, and largely subsided when they were granted. As a leading historian of WW1 mutinies and dissent concludes:

“most of these affairs focussed on the men’s demand for immediate demobilisation. With few exceptions, notably the confrontations at Folkestone, Dover and Whitehall, the demobilisation mutinies were dealt with by local and regional Commands. Their cumulative effect was serious because it caused the Government to accelerate demobilisation. But even the most optimistic socialists never felt it was a prelude to revolution. For example, the British Socialist Party newspaper, The Call, on 16 January 1919, commented: ‘The soldiers’ strike has arisen primarily out of disgust with which the intelligent fighting man regards the attempt to deal with him on the question of demobilisation as with an unreasoning machine and that it is not the outcome of considered revolutionary opinions, it would be foolish to dispute.’ 

Though the Communist historian Andrew Rothstein has tried to politically inflate these events into a tribute to the Russian Revolution, where a mutinous flag was flaunted it was the Cross of St. George or the Union Jack, rather than a rebellious red banner. Furthermore, few politically significant links were sustained between the mutineers and their turbulent industrial counterparts.” (Julian Putkowski, A2 and the Reds In Khaki)

Interestingly, though, the text from which this quote was taken details the extent of British secret state spying on soldiers’ and ex-servicemens’ organisations that sprang up in 1919, most notably the Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Union, which does seem to have been associated with the Folkestone mutiny, and was itself connected to the left through its links with the newspaper, the Daily Herald. It is really worth a read: A2 and the Reds In Khaki

We took the accounts above from Andrew Rothstein’s book, ‘The Soldiers Strikes of 1919’.

We also hope to type up the full accounts of all the January 1919 protests soon…

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London radical history: a mutiny halts royal army’s move against Kentish rebels, 1450.

England, 1450. A hundred years of war against France was grinding to a halt through lack of funds and a succession of defeats at the hands of the French. Parliament refused to raise any more money for a government it distrusted. The cloth trade from City of London guilds was prevented from exporting to Flanders for fear of the French ships invading. The loss of trade and tax revenues crippled chances of recovery. (Any resemblance to possible Brexit scenarios is purely coincidental.)

Throughout 1450-1, a number of revolts broke out, mostly in the south of England, against king Henry VI’s regime. Henry being a somewhat daft religious twat with a tendency to go mad, his government was generally run by a clique of aristos, often bossed by whoever could get the favour of his French wife, Margaret of Anjou, who made up for her husband’s bewildered wandering through life by being ruthless and single-mindedly dynastic. But the ruling class elite was split by vicious rivalries and enmities, and Richard Duke of York, the king’s cousin and effective heir to the throne, was often popularly held up as an honest geezer who would sort out problems in the kingdom and give the French a good hiding if only he was in charge. Trouble was the queen and her mates thought he was on the make, and distrusted him, and he was elbowed out of the centres of power. (For more, read your Shakespeare).

But Richard of York had a lot of support, especially among the lower orders. The most significant revolt in 1450, Jack Cade’s Kentish rebellion, combined a demand that York be included in the government, with a number of other economic complaints. As with many medieval revolts, the removal of ‘the king’s evil counsellors’ was a central plank: as in 1381, the naivety of many of the lower orders enshrined in a belief that the king was good, ordained by God, but the nobles, churchmen and advisors surrounding him were corrupt and were robbing the poor, mismanaging affairs, and ballsing up the ever-popular war effort.

Kent (as usual in the middle ages) was a particular centre of unrest – not only were they plagued by French raiders, but in 1450 the county sherriff was notoriously crooked. Private armies loyal to aristocrats were roaming the country doing as they liked. Huge parts of the county were also being fenced off for private hunting grounds for the king and his mates…

To some extent Cade’s rebellion was a sort of prelude to the Wars of the Roses; the rebels’ support for the Duke of York mishmashed in with anger about austerity and a patriotic fury…

In June 1450 the commons of Kent gathered on Calehill Heath, north of Ashford, and hailed Jack Cade as their leader. 1000s marched on Canterbury, and then on London. They camped on Blackheath, echoing the much larger Peasants Revolt nearly 70 years earlier, but initially withdrew south into the Wealden Forest as a royal army approached.

Jack Cade and his army retreated into the impenetrable forests of the Weald, and possibly unwisely, the Royal army followed, only to be lured into an ambush, on June 11th, and beaten by the rebels in a minor skirmish; the royal army commanders and a few of their soldiers were killed. Cade marched his forces back to to his camp at Blackheath.

This defeat was initially most significant because it prompted mutiny in the royal army. A number of the soldiers apparently voiced approval of Jack Cade’s demands, and a rowdy meeting demanded the heads of Lord Say, the former Treasurer, Lord Dudley, and other royal commanders. Lord Say, was well known and extremely unpopular in Kent, as was his son-in-law, William Crowmer, the Under-sheriff of the county. The mutinous soldiers then marched back to London, and began rioting and looting when they got there. The mutiny scuppered the attempt to repress the revolt and in effect opened the way for Cade’s rebels to march on the city…

In July Cade’s men entered Southwark looting houses and burning, and the rebels spent several days in the City, managing to capture Lord Say and William Crowmer and beheading them, but eventually pissing off the initially sympathetic Londoners by their random violence. The revolt fizzled out after a fierce battle on London Bridge, and a general pardon was issued, cleverly including most but not Jack Cade, who in the end was caught and killed.

It’s unclear whether the royal army mutineers suffered any comeback for refusing to fight against the rebels.

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2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in military history: conscripts in Savoy barracks bound for service in East India Company, riot; all shot dead. 1763.

As covered in an earlier post, part of the old Savoy Palace building was converted around 1679 into a barracks, which included a military prison, which particularly held any army deserters due to be shot in Hyde Park. Later the prison also seems to have been used to house civilian convicts.

Another group seemingly confined here, though as to how regularly is unclear, were ‘recruits’ destined to be shipped to India or other parts of the ‘far east’ to serve in the military forces commanded by the East India Company.

The East India Company formed in the late 16th century, receiving its Royal Charter in 1600. Its original aim was to expand trade in India and in other Asian countries. It was to grow into one of the most powerful transnational businesses ever created, and backed by the British state, to become a major agent of imperial conquest and domination, with its owned private armed forces. “the company rose to account for half of the world’s trade, particularly in basic commodities including cotton, silk, indigo dye, salt, saltpetre, tea and opium.”

Wealthy merchants and aristocrats owned the Company’s shares; the vast profits to be made in commodities the Company handled ensured shares traded at premium prices. The EIC made huge wealth for its shareholders, but also contributed to Britain’s massive enrichment in the 18th and 19th centuries, at the expense of local, regional and transnational economies in the East, which were often shattered, destabilised or re-oriented (arf) in the Company’s interest. This is not even to mention the famines, wars of conquest, the torture and expropriation carried out by the Company and its agents (check the looted contents of a museum or aristocratic mansion near you), and, yes, genocide…

At a similar time other European East India Companies were forming, notably the Dutch and French versions, which became competitors, and later struggles over trade routes and contracts became outright wars.

“During its first century of operation the focus of the Company was trade, not the building of an empire in India. Company interests turned from trade to territory during the 18th century as the Mughal Empire declined in power and the East India Company struggled with its French counterpart, the French East India Company (Compagnie française des Indes orientales) during the Carnatic Wars of the 1740s and 1750s. The Battle of Plassey and Battle of Buxar, which saw the British, led by Robert Clive, defeat the Indian powers, left the company in control of Bengal and a major military and political power in India. In the following decades it gradually increased the extent of the territories under its control, ruling either directly or indirectly via local puppet rulers under the threat of force by its Presidency armies, much of which were composed of native Indian sepoys.”

Although the Company could later often rely on the military support of the British army and navy to back up its trading/military interests, the early days of the wars in India against the French of the 1740s-60s required the Company bolster up its own forces, from a slightly shambolic guard force to a proper army, which was to become the strongest military force in the subcontinent.

The company eventually came to rule large areas of India with its own private armies, exercising military power and assuming administrative functions. Company rule in India effectively began in 1757 and lasted until 1858 when, following the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the Government of India Act 1858 led to the British Crown assuming direct control of India in the form of the new British Raj.

In its first century and half, the Company used a few hundred soldiers as guards, but after 1750, (when it had 3000 regular troops), its military power rocketed. 13 years later it controlled 26,000 soldiers; by 1778, this had risen to 67,000. “The military arm of the East India Company quickly developed to become a private corporate armed force, and was used as an instrument of geo-political power and expansion, rather than its original purpose as a guard force, and became the most powerful military force in the Indian sub-continent.”

Most of its troops were local Indian recruits; however men were also hired in Britain. Some of these may, as was widespread practice at the time, have been ‘volunteered’ rather than enlisting of their own accord.

A problem for the Company was the entrenched opposition to them recruiting in Britain, first and foremost by the British armed forced themselves. (as is suggested in the last line of the brief Annual Register entry).  “The Company’s efforts had long been hampered by Parliamentary feeling against standing armies – indeed an act of 1781 limited the number of recruits who could be held in England awaiting embarkation to 2000 in time of war and 1000 in peace time.” British recruits were also, as late as the 1760s, legislated to make sure they must be Protestants, who could also be part of a general attempt to spread god’s own religion among johnny foreigner, meaning not papistry. But the quality of recruits was often criticised by the Company’s officers on the ground as being poor, though whether this was regarding their health, morals or ability, isn’t clear…

Professional and national forces generally resent ‘amateurs’, private security set-ups, even today (until they have to retire, then they all get lucrative jobs with them).

Another reason for army sabotage of Company recruiting may have been that opportunities for advancement were easier in the Company’s service than with the Redcoats… “The army took responsibility for many civil and social activities in the country, particularly in the vicinity of the cantonments. These responsibilities were undertaken by Warrant Officers generally acting through Sergeants of differing titles. These were positions of significant importance and standing and the chance to attain them was one of the attractions of joining the Company’s army rather than the King’s/Queen’s army. Many NCOs were able to take on other work and attract an extra income. By doing so, they could frequently buy themselves out of their units, could earn more money and qualify for a pension much sooner.”

Whether pressganged, genuinely voluntary, or regretting it, many must have decided early on that service in the EIC’s army wasn’t for them… The brief account that follows suggests less than complete consent:

“Some recruits, confined in the Savoy for the East India Service, rose upon the centinels, wrested their arms from them, and made themselves masters of the keys; but the guards in the barracks being alarmed, another fray ensued, in which three of the recruits were shot dead, some others mortally wounded, and one of the soldiers had his hand so shattered that it had to be cut off. The propriety and justice of confining men in this manner for any service, except his majesty’s, has been matter of much dispute, however favoured by the coroner’s inquest upon this melancholy occasion.” (Annual Register, 1763).

On the face of it, it sounds like the ‘recruits’ were locked up. Not volunteers, then. Press-ganged? Regretting signing up?

The Company was a major player in the colonisation of the world in British interest, and a forerunner and inspiration for the transnationals of today (check out a historian’s comparison with G4S and the scumbag security corporations of today…)

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An entry in the
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Today in London radical history: recruits & convicts mutiny, Savoy Gaol, 1776.

“About eleven o’clock while the piquet-guard was off duty, a terrible mutiny happened among the transports and recruits confined in the Savoy Gaol…”

The Savoy Palace was built in the thirteenth century for Edmund Earl of Lancaster, on land between the Strand and the river Thames (close to the modern Savoy Hotel). Successive Earls and Dukes of Lancaster spent lavishly to make the Palace one of the most opulent in the country. Its occupation by John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and then hated head of the government, led to its being attacked by rioters in 1377 and destroyed in 1381 in the Peasant’s Revolt.

After this the palace lay derelict or hardly used until around 1505 when, as one of his last public benefactions, Henry VII set in motion the building of a hospital dedicated to St John the Baptist. Though heavily restored, much of this building remained until 1864 when a fire destroyed virtually everything except the walls. Much of the palace area gradually became a slum, a warren of garrets and crowded courts and alleys, crammed with the poor, lawless and rebellious.

Part of the old Savoy Palace building was converted around 1679 into a barracks, which included a military prison, which particularly held any army deserters due to be shot in Hyde Park. Later the prison also seems to have been used to house civilian convicts.

Unsurprisingly the Savoy Prison became a site of fierce resistance, especially for doomed deserters who had nothing to lose by trying to escape. But the barracks itself also saw trouble. In 1759 a riot of recruits had to be quelled by troops. In 1761 over 200 prisoners here mutinied and a considerable battle developed. The Universal Register noted that ‘An unconcerned spectator looking down from the roof was unfortunately taken for one of the rioters, shot and killed on the spot.’ 

On 27th February 1776 military prisoners joined up with convicts who had been sentenced to transportation to the penal colonies, and were awaiting transfer to prison ships; together at least 40 mutinied, rioted, and made a desperate escape attempt.

“About eleven o’clock while the piquet-guard was off duty, a terrible mutiny happened among the transports and recruits confined in the Savoy Gaol, when near forty found means to escape, by breaking through a back window near the water-side, and getting over the wall, the tide being down, to the craft on the river. A soldier was now ordered to bid them stop, and on their refusal, to fire. The orders were obeyed, and on his killing the last of them, the rest were secured.” (Annual Register, 1776.)

In the same year as this failed breakout, the army barracks seems to have burned down., but the military prison remained. In1798 military prisoners rebelled & rioted for several days.

The site of the prison and palace was cleared from 1816 to 20 to make the approach to Waterloo Bridge.

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

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Today in publishing history: Radical Journo William Cobbett tried for objecting to flogging in militia, 1810

In 1809 a contingent of the militia in Ely, Cambridgeshire, mutinied, refusing to obey orders – either because they had not been paid ‘marching guineas’ or because some of their pay had been stopped to pay for their knapsacks. These militia were volunteers, part of an ‘amateur army’ raised to fight the long war against Revolutionary and Napoleonic France.

It was a short and very small mutiny; hardly a threat to the war effort. The reaction was severe however. The Ely militia was surrounded by a squadron of cavalry from the German Legion, a summary court martial was held, and five alleged ringleaders were sentenced to be flogged – five hundred lashes each. This sentence was later reduced.

Flogging was regarded by the army (and the navy) as the only means of maintaining discipline in the ranks. It was a vicious and often fatal process, sometimes carried out with a cat-o-nine-tails, a knotted rope, which would rip the back (or other parts) of the whipped man open repeatedly. The army was far from made up of professional soldiers – large sections of the armed forces had been forcibly recruited, or at best joined up as the only way to get a meal. Offences that could get you flogged were numerous.

Journalist William Cobbett, among the most prominent radials of his day, protested against the sentence, in the pages of his widely read journal, the Political Register, sarcastically addressing the Foreign Secretary, Castlereagh, the architect of the military policy of the time:

“well done Lord Castlereagh! This is just what it was thought your plan would produce… Five hundred lashes each! Aye that is right! Flog them; flog them; flog them! They deserve it and a great deal more. They deserve a flogging at every meal time. “Lash them daily, lash them duly.”…
I do not know what sort of a place ELY is; but I should like to know how the inhabitants looked one another in the face, while this scene was exhibiting in their town…
This will, one would hope, teach the loyal a little caution in speaking of the means, which Napoleon employs (or rather which they say he employs) in order to get together and discipline his conscripts. There is scarcely any one of these persons, who has not, at various times, cited the hand-cuffings, and other means of force as a proof, a complete proof, that the people of France hate Napoleon and his government, assist with reluctance in his wars, and would fain see another revolution… I hope that the loyal will, hereafter, be more cautious in drawing such conclusions, now that they see, that our ‘gallant defenders’ not only require physical restraint, but even a little blood drawing from their backs, and that, too, with the aid and assistance of German troops.”

It was hardly masterful rhetoric, but it got him prosecuted for sedition. Apparently it was the last two paragraphs – about the residents of Ely, and sarkily comparing the British army policy with its enemy – that were the offending passages. The Attorney General, Sir Vicary Gibbs (they really don’t name ‘em like they used to!) filed a charge of sedition against Cobbett. The case came to trial in June 1810.

Attorney General Gibbs listed the parties injured by Cobbett’s libel – the German Legion, he had held up to contempt; by upbraiding the inhabitants of Ely for not revisiting the flogging, he was ‘fomenting disorder’; he was inciting soldiers to resist military discipline, and was mocking patriotism by poking fun at those loyal to the government. Taken together, Cobbett’s article was designed to promote a subversion of society…

On June 15th, Cobbett, his printer, Hansard, and publishers Budd and Bagshaw (held legally in those times to be jointly responsible in libel or sedition cases), were found guilty of seditious libel, after Cobbett had attempted to defend himself and made a bollocks of it (the other 3 pleaded guilty). His defence was contradictory, confused and in parts self-incriminatory.

Two week later, Cobbett was sentenced to two years in Newgate Prison (his co-accused received sentences of two or three months; it was Cobbett the government rally wanted out of the way).

Cobbett was a contradictory character, maybe best described as a Tory Radical. An ex-soldier himself, he had begun his Political Register as a supporter of the government and of the war effort, but had gradually reversed his position, and had become a bitter opponent of the war and the government that was staking everything on it. His politics were a mix of reaction and progress – much of the impulse for his hatred of the government was the rapid changes that were overturning longheld certainties in English society. The early years of the 19th century saw white-hot social and economic transformation: the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, enclosure and agricultural reform were altering the rural life which Cobbett idealised.

Cobbett had become the most widely read radical journalist of his day, but he was not brave, and tried to make a deal with the government, secretly promising to give up publishing and retire to his farm if he could be spare prison… It didn’t work, and he was sent to Newgate. But this was a relatively easy punishment, as he was able to continue publishing, and was visited regularly by friends and allies. If you had money, you could live relatively well in Newgate by regular payments to he turnkeys – Cobbett however, did get into heavy debt as he struggled to keep his farm, keep publishing, pay off his trial debts. Nevertheless, his imprisonment turned him into a national figure, a hero to radicals and reformers.

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

Today in London’s military history: radical Mutiny in Whalley’s regiment, Bishopsgate, 1649

The class tensions thrown up on the Parliamentarian side during the English Civil War came to a head in 1649. The political and religious radicalism that had bubbled up had become a threat to the leaders of the puritan revolution. As ever, the radical bourgeoisie had aroused the aspirations of the lower orders to persuade them to fight for them, but wanted to cut short the relationship when they had achieved their limited ends (it’s not you its me – we just don’t want the same thing any more). Cromwell and the army ‘grandees’ (senior officers) had made alliances with the Levellers, the army agitators, needing their support first against king Charles I and then against the moderate Parliamentarians. But they were determined to keep a lid on the demands from below for a wider voting franchise, and an increased share in both the products of their labour and of control over their own destinies… Many were also sick of the fighting, and opposed the intention of Cromwell and Army leaders to ship more regiments to Ireland to defeat rebellion against English rule there.

The Army leaders began to impose measures to hamstring the radicals.
In February they banned petitions to Parliament by soldiers. In March 1649, John Lilburne and other Leveller leaders were arrested and held in the Tower of London. Also in March eight Leveller troopers went to the Commander-in-Chief of the New Model Army, Lord Thomas Fairfax, and demand the restoration of the right to petition. Five of them were cashiered out of the army.

In opposing the invasion, the mutinous soldiers reclaimed the constitutional liberties outlined in the Leveller engagements at New Market, Triploe Heath, and the 1647 Putney Debates. Although a good number of mutineers vowed that they would fight if given their arrears, many others sided with a comrade who asked, “Will you go on still to kill, slay and murder men, to make them (the grandees) as absolute lords and masters over Ireland as you have made them over England?” Another author, a soldier who had joined the Levellers, foresaw the same carnage and concluded, “We have waded too far in that crimson stream already of innocent, Christian blood.” The invasion of Ireland would proceed, but not before the government made violently clear that the days of army democracy were over.

In April 1649, lots were drawn to select regiments for service in Ireland. The soldiers were told that they would not be compelled to go, but any who chose to remain in England would be dismissed from the Army. Three hundred infantrymen of Colonel Hewson’s regiment threw down their weapons and declared that they would not go to Ireland unless the Leveller demands were granted. They were promptly cashiered without arrears of pay. Discontent at their treatment spread rapidly through the Army.

On 24 April 1649, around 30 troopers under Captain John Savage, in Colonel Whalley’s regiment, refused orders to leave the City of London for a rendezvous at Mile End Green. They felt this order was in order to remove them from Leveller agitation in central London; their anger reached fever pitch. Whalley’s regiment were known for their independent character and often took up their grievances with parliament; Whalley was no Leveller, but he fully supported his men. (Whalley would become one of the ‘regicides’who signed the death warrant of Charles I).

The mutineers seized the regimental colours, took over the Bull Inn at Bishopsgate, then on the City of London’s northern edge, and refused to obey their officers’ orders, including those of Colonel Whalley himself. It was not until Fairfax and Cromwell arrived on the scene the following day that they finally backed down. Fifteen soldiers were arrested and court-martialled, of whom five were to be cashiered after riding the wooden horse. This was a common military punishment, basically a straight, narrow, horizontal pole, twelve feet long, sometimes with a sharpened upper edge to intensify the cruelty. The soldier was set astride this board, with his hands tied behind his back. Often a heavy weight was tied to each foot, as was jocularly said, “to stop his horse from throwing him.” There are reports of punishments lasting three days.

Six soldiers were sentenced to death. In a gesture of reconciliation, Cromwell pleaded for mercy and all were pardoned except for Robert Lockier (or Lockyer), a former Agitator within the regiment, who was believed to be the ringleader of the mutiny.

Lockyer had joined the New Model Army in 1642 and served with Edward Whalley’s regiment. As such it is very likely that he served at some very important battles such as Edgehill,  Gainsborough, Marston Moor and Naseby; and helped to capture both Bristol and Banbury. He was known as one of the Agitators, the radicals elements who had made alliances with the Levellers, and fought for the English Revolution to bring real social change to the lower orders.

Lockier was executed by firing squad in front of St Paul’s Cathedral on 27 April 1649. Like the funeral of Colonel Rainsborough the previous year, Lockier’s funeral occasioned a massive Leveller-led demonstration in London, with thousands of mourners wearing ribbons of sea-green — the Levellers’ colours — and bunches of rosemary for remembrance in their hats. This was the largest political demonstration of the civil war years.

Another mutiny followed almost immediately at Burford, also quickly put down with force and executions. The months of April and May 1649 marked the climax of radical influence, but also the beginning of the decline of real possibility, the end of the prospect of the english revolution being pushed further.

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

Today in London’s radical history: army mutinies in London, 1660.

A mutiny among army units stationed in London began on February 1st 1660, at St James’s, who refused to leave London until their arrears of pay were settled.

As Samuel Pepys reported: “James the porter, a soldier, to my Lord’s lodgings… told me how they were drawn into the field to-day, and that they were ordered to march away to-morrow to make room for General Monk; but they did shut their Colonel Fitch, and the rest of the officers out of the field, and swore they would not go without their money, and if they would not give it them, they would go where they might have it, and that was the City. So the Colonel went to the Parliament, and commanded what money could be got, to be got against to-morrow for them, and all the rest of the soldiers in town, who in all places made a mutiny this day, and do agree together.”

On February 2nd, further mutinies broke out among soldiers stationed at Somerset House and Salisbury Court. Pepys again:
“Drank at Harper’s with Doling, and so to my office, where I found all the officers of the regiments in town, waiting to receive money that their soldiers might go out of town, and what was in the Exchequer they had… we went homewards, but over against Somerset House, hearing the noise of guns, we landed and found the Strand full of soldiers… Doling and I went up stairs to a window, and looked out and see the foot face the horse and beat them back, and stood bawling and calling in the street for a free Parliament and money. By and by a drum was heard to beat a march coming towards them, and they got all ready again and faced them, and they proved to be of the same mind with them; and so they made a great deal of joy to see one another…
James the soldier came, who told us how they had been all day and night upon their guard at St. James’s, and that through the whole town they did resolve to stand to what they had began, and that to-morrow he did believe they would go into the City, and be received there.”

Parliament ordered the payment of one month’s arrears, after which the soldiers obeyed orders and left London.

However two ringleaders of the mutiny among the troops in London in early February were hanged at Charing Cross on the 18th on that month; seven others were flogged.