This week in UK history, 1981: uprisings and riots all over the country

“Britain is a paradoxically closed yet ‘open’ society ruled over by a patrician but condescendingly populist elite possessing the most remarkable cunning and duplicity well versed in a token recuperation of everything from below that raises its head in protest… Yet over the last decade the UK has lived through profound social turmoil. Mingled with the seemingly never ending hopelessness of drugs, drugs, drugs, drink, drink, drink, the place is alive with an unfocussed rebellion…

There is a path that leads out of this wasteland and during the summer of 1981 the unemployed started to travel its length unaided. The totality of desperation and misery produced its opposite – The nights were young and though the pubs had called time the firewater was freely circulating. In the space of 10 days in early July 1981. England was transformed. It will never be the same again. Every major city and town was rocked with youth riots. Bored youngsters ranging from 8 to 80 excitedly got ready for an evenings burnin’ and lootin’. Even Army recruits on leave joined in. If the grandkid did the hell raising, grandma helped out with the free shopping. In Manchester an 8 year old was arrested for setting fire to a bike shop and in Bristol a paraplegic pensioner was wheeled obligingly into a supermarket so he could get in on the lootin’ too.”
(Like a Summer With a Thousand Julys, BM Blob, 1982)

Rioting swept many parts of Britain’s cities in the summer of 1981. Tension across many communities built to a climactic series of eruptions in the first week of July.

Policing, especially violent paramilitary policing of inner city communities, and most particularly racist policing used against black and Asian young people, was the immediate spark in most places. But behind this, poverty, desperation and alienation were widespread across the UK, and in many cities work was becoming increasingly scarce as manufacturing industries declined and thousands ended up on the dole. Young working class people could see little was on offer but being skint and treated like shit, and for many smashing things up was the only solution.

If rage at police harassment, boredom and alienation at a society that seemed to offer young people nothing, and skintness and hostility to authority generally were common elements, local conditions produced different results on the ground.

Below is a chronological record of some major incidents, marches, confrontations, demonstrations, disturbances and gatherings that made the headlines in the seven months from March 1981. It is far from comprehensive and nay contributions to update it, suggestions for longer accounts to link to etc would be welcome…

Bristol Riot 1980

However, many would point out that the April 1980 Bristol Riots in St Pauls and Southmead could be seen as the opening skirmish, an initial battle over the same issues and flashpoints, if a year earlier.

We’ve linked to longer posts or articles on some of the events where we can…

The New Cross Fire and the Black community response to it are crucial to the context to much of the 1981 insurgency.
On Sunday 18th January 1981, 13 black youths, all between the ages of 15 and 20 years old, were killed in a fire at a birthday party during a birthday party for Yvonne Ruddock (aged 16) and Angela Jackson (aged 18), at 439 New Cross Road, in the heart of the South London neighbourhood of New Cross. The police initially concluded that the fire was caused by a firebomb, and many believed that it was a racist attack – not unreasonably, as racial attacks and racist fire-bombings had been endemic against black and asian communities throughout the previous decade. Family members and the local black community felt the attack was ignored and belittled – there was little serious press coverage or official sympathy. And police quickly then discounted the racist attack theory and treated survivors and witnesses with suspicion. Anger grew in the area and among black people wider afield, and an action committee formed to co-ordinate a response. The result was the Black People’s Day of Action…

Monday, 2 March
London
Between 3,000 and 6,000 people, most of them black, took part in the Black People’s Day of Action, a demonstration organised by the New Cross Massacre Action Committee to protest against the police handling of the Deptford fire investigation. The demo saw some sporadic agro, but the self-confidence, anger and unity of the Day of Action were a watershed moment for British black communities; subsequent police attacks would be stoutly resisted…

While police and scared commentators were keen to label the events of 1981 as all about race, this was not the case in every riot and in many of the uprisings, whites fought alongside Blacks and Asians in many cases. But racial violence towards black and Asian people, from police and from racists (organised and unorganised) was one of the major triggers.

Racist attacks were endemic across the country in early 1981: Malcom Chambers was killed in Swindon in April during an ‘anti-black riot’; Satnam Singh Gill was murdered by skinheads in Coventry. In the same month a Sikh temple was petrol bombed and the Indian and Commonwealth Club was hit by an arson attack. In June Fenton Ogbogbo was killed by racists in South London.

Kicking off the 1981 events was a major riot in Brixton, South London, where the area was repeatedly invaded by an army of police to ‘crack down on streetcrime’ (code for harass, arrest and beat up black youth). The Met’s ‘Operation Swamp ’81’ backfired spectacularly on them, however…

10-13 April
Brixton, South London

On Friday night (10 April), police were attacked by 40-50 youths. During the next three days, violence flared, rioters set fire to 26 buildings, one fire engine, and 19 cars, between 145 and 165 police were injured, there were nearly 200 arrests and there was a total of 226 casualties. Petrol bombs were thrown at police and estimates of damage vary from £2 million to £10 million. By Monday evening some violence continued but no further arrests were reported.

Read firsthand accounts of the April Brixton riot

Easter weekend, 17-20 April: The ‘Seaside rampages”
The Daily Telegraph reported mods, skinheads, punks and rockers ‘on the rampage’ at numerous seaside resorts. the bank holiday riot-beanos were already a bit of a ritual annual fixture to some extent, but it added to the sense of youth uprising, even if some accounts reckon skins, some of the nazi persuasion, were involved in some of the easter shindigs. However, many outside observers couldn’t tell a nazi skin from any other variety of skin, and at the time there was a considerable blurring of such boundaries.

Southend
A large number of skinheads gathered for the weekend, shop windows were smashed and 170 people arrested. Apparently there were ‘reports of British Movement and November 9th Society (neo-Nazi) involvement’.

Margate
Thirty-nine arrests. One policeman and one skinhead injured.

Hastings
Twenty people arrested after clashes between rival gangs.

Brighton
All police leave cancelled as 1,000 mods arrived. Ninety-two arrests over the weekend.

Great Yarmouth
Forty arrests.

Scarborough
Seventy-eight arrests

Fairground riots
Around the same time trouble broke out at several London fairs, mainly involving black youth.

Finsbury Park
A reported 500 black teenagers attacked shops and fought police outside a fairground after it closed early. Eight police and twenty civilians were injured, 40 people were arrested and £1,000 worth of electrical goods were looted from a shop owned by the Asian vice-chairman of Haringey Community Relations Council.

Ealing Common
Three hundred black youths smashed shop windows and damaged police vehicles.

Wanstead Flats
‘Dozens’ of youths ‘went on a rampage’.

Saturday, 23 May

Coventry
Violence broke out during a march by 8,000 Asians protesting against the number of racist attacks in the city. The marchers were heckled by about 200 skinheads shouting Fascist slogans, marchers later fought with 1,500 police patrolling the march. Paving stones and banner poles were used as weapons. Over 70 people were arrested. One policeman was stabbed.
Some images of the Coventry demo 

Late May

Enfield, North London
A white man was killed by a mob of skinheads.

Brixton
Late May: A confrontation between police and youth nearly erupted again but police withdrew in the face of a gathering crowd.

Monday, 1 June

Thornton Heath, South London
Local black youth attacked the Wilton Arms pub in Thornton Heath, looking for National Front supporters after a spate of racist attacks. Later, a white youth was stabbed and killed in the street outside.
More on the Wilton Arms incident and racism/anti-racism in Thornton Heath

On the same night eight police were injured in a clash with black youths at a shopping centre in Lewisham, Southeast London.

Tuesday, 2 June

London
More trouble at Lewisham. Police who arrested a girl at the shopping centre were attacked by black youths. Ten people were arrested. Later 100 youths gathered outside the police station shouting abuse. The incidents were described as ‘a near riot’ {Observer 7/6/81).

Saturday, 20 June

London

Various papers reported 400 to 1,000 black youths ‘rampaging’ at a fairground on Peckham Rye Common in South London. Thirty shop windows were smashed in nearby Rye Lane, and merchandise stolen. Twenty-eight people were arrested.

Friday, 3 July

Southall, West London
On 3 July, Southall erupted when a group of racist skinheads were bussed into the area (with a predominantly Asian and Black population) for a concert by the band Oi at the Hamborough Tavern: the skins marched through the High Street smashing windows and racially harassing people as they went. Asian youths, organised by west London’s Asian Youth Movement, laid siege to the pub. The police intervened, and there were over a hundred casualties, sixty-one of them policemen.
In the rioting that broke out petrol bombs were thrown and the Hamborough Tavern, venue for the concert, was burnt down.
An account of the 3 July Southall Riot

Liverpool
At about the same time as the Southall disturbance was occurring, police in Liverpool 8 (aka Toxteth) chased and arrested a black motorcyclist. He fell off and they caught him, but he was then rescued by a crowd of about forty black youths. Bricks were thrown, and a two-hour battle with police developed.

Police with riot shields face a group of youths during riot in Liverpool 8

Saturday, 4 July
Liverpool
Late Saturday night violence broke out again in Liverpool 8. police were lured to Upper Parliament Street by an anonymous report of a stolen car, then attacked. A crowd of nearly two hundred youths, both black and white, some in balaclava helmets, built barricades, threw petrol bombs and used vehicles as battering rams to break the police lines. A school and several shops were burnt down and other shops were looted.

Sunday, 5 July
Liverpool
The night of the worst violence in Liverpool. On the Sunday the rioting went out of control with the police calling in reinforcements from all over the North West to make up a force of 800, but they were still overwhelmed by a crowd of black and white youths. In the meantime the local community poured out to loot everything they could. They were pushing shopping trolleys and prams and filling them up as they went. They drove vans into the area like a regular shopping trip, picking up refrigerators, electrical goods, carpets, the lot. CS gas was used to disperse rioters in the early hours of Monday morning.

An account of the riots and the background to the eruption in Liverpool

And another

Monday, 6 July

Liverpool

Some violence continued in Toxteth but of a lesser intensity than the previous two nights. Newspaper reports and photographs show both white and black youths involved in the rioting, and the majority of looters appeared to be white people of all ages. Over the entire weekend a total of 255 police were injured. Seventy people appeared in court on Monday and 77 on Tuesday. Most of them were white and some were as young as thirteen.

London
200 youths ‘ran wild’ in Wood Green, North London. Those involved were reported to be mainly Black and Greek Cypriot. This outbreak was widely regarded as a ‘copycat’ riot.

Tuesday, 7 July

Cop chases skinhead down West Green Road during Wood Green riot

Wood Green, North London
Between 400 and 500 youths attacked police and looted shops in Wood Green.
The Times reported that in Wood Green ‘the trouble began when a group of between 300 and 400 black youths began to gather near Turnpike Lane Underground station and marched along the High Road… The Special Patrol Group was called in. Police carrying riot shields attempted to drive the youths from the High Road. They had started fires in waste bins, and police cars were stoned…. In one men’s outfitters, a gang of black youths even took time to strip every window model of their trousers. Mr Mel Cooper, the owner commented: “They looted thousands of pounds worth of stuff, most of it trousers and shirts”‘ (Times, 8 July 1981).

The incident was reported on the 10 o’clock news and the crowd soon increased to 500. 35 shops in Wood Green High Road were looted or had their windows broken. Reports in the press and by various individuals claim that 26 policemen were injured and 50 civilians arrested.

Trouble in Moss Side

Manchester
Rioting broke out in Moss Side, Manchester. James Anderton, the chief constable, was generally considered a rightwing ultra-christian reactionary; after an attempt to ignore the riots as if they would go away, his solution was to send fifty-four vans speeding through the area on the third night of rioting, with their back doors hanging open and filled with snatch squads in crash helmets who leapt out to crack heads and drag their targets away. ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger – oi, oi, oi’, the cops shouted as they went, beating their truncheons on the side of the vans. In spite of the new tactic, the disturbances took until the Saturday to quell. The violence spread round Greater Manchester during that time, leading to a final tally of 475 arrests, of whom the majority were white.
A blog on the 1981 Manchester riots

Wednesday, 8 July

Wood Green
Youths gathering on Wood Green High Road in north London the morning after the riot there, loudly played back tape recordings of news reports just to goad the police. Chris, a 17-year-old Greek Cypriot said “I hope this gets us in the papers. I hope this counts as a big riot like Liverpool.”

Manchester and Salford

One thousand youths stormed Moss Side police station, police and ambulancemen were injured, petrol bombs thrown, vehicles overturned and shops looted. There were other outbreaks of violence throughout the area and three policemen were injured.

Thursday, 9 July

London
Crowds were on the streets in various parts of London with sporadic clashes with police:
On the sixth consecutive night of widespread civil disorder there were disturbances in Woolwich, Tooting, Fulham and Dalston.

Woolwich, Southeast London
‘London police quickly quelled what threatened to be a riot early yesterday evening in Woolwich, south-east London. About 200 black and Asian youths ran through the town centre smashing 15 shop windows and overturning two cars. There was some looting. The youths were outnumbered by police who quickly dispersed them. 27 arrests were made…’ (The Times).
The Woolwich events seem to have been provoked by rumours of a racist skinhead invasion to attend a gig at the Tramshed (a similar occurrence had led to the riots in Southall in the previous week). According to the Deptford and Peckham Mercury (16 July 1981), people initially gathered on the streets to defend local venues thought vulnerable to racist attack – groups were reported at local Sikh temples in Calderwood Street and Masons Hill (where an Anti Nazi League meting was taking place), a mosque in Thomas Street, and the Simba project (an African-Caribbean community group). An (untrue) rumour that the skinheads were arriving on the Woolwich ferry prompted hundreds of mainly young people to run down Powis Street, and it was here that shop windows were broken and cars overturned, with a tobacconist shop being looted.
A briefing from the F4 division of the Home Office (responsible for links with security services, Special Branch etc) gives more details: ‘At 7:24 pm 100 black youths and 50 white youths were reported at Woolwich, but there was no trouble… at 8.42 pm disturbances broke out at Woolwich, with youths throwing stones and overturning vehicles. Serials had previously been deployed to the Woolwich area for the Anti-Nazi League meeting and these, supplemented by the Special Patrol Group and Urgent Response Units deployed from Operations Room, moved into the area to prevent trouble…’
It’s worth noting that Nazi attacks were a very real daily threat in Woolwich. The fascist British Movement had been very active in the area in the run-up to these events, carrying out racist attacks, including a horrific incident the previous year led by notorious British Movement skin führer Nicci Crane. (Later in 1981 Crane was jailed for four years for his part in an ambush on black youths at Woolwich Arsenal station).

Lewisham, SE London
In Lewisham, eight youths were arrested after clashes in which goods were looted from Chiesman’s department store. About 100 black youths in Deptford threw bottles at a police car.
The trouble in Lewisham seems to have been fairly sporadic, prompting some self-congratulation from the police in the South London Press: ‘Lewisham has escaped almost trouble free from a week of rioting in Britain’s inner cities thanks to sensitive policing and public co-operation, a police chief said yesterday. Apart from a window being smashed at Chiesman’s in Lewisham High-St, and a minor stone throwing incident in Sydenham on Saturday where three people were arrested, there have been no repeats of the mass looting and rioting which has hit many areas.
However, there was controversy in the area when police warned that a planned New Cross Massacre Action Committee fundraiser couldn’t go ahead for licensing reasons at the Evelyn 190 Centre in Evelyn Street, Deptford (‘Clash over fire victims’ disco’, Mercury, 16 July 1981).

Dalston/Stoke Newington, North/East London
3 days of trouble began in these neighbouring areas of Hackney. Twenty youths were arrested in Stoke Newington after bricks and bottles were thrown at the police… Several hundred youths were moved on by police from Dalston, east London. The youths, black and white in about equal numbers, gathered in Kingsland High Street and Dalston Lane. Several hundred police patrolled the streets. (The Times, 10 July 1981)
A longer account of these three days of rioting in Stokey and Dalston

Fulham, West London
Street fighting broke out last night in Fulham with minor clashes between police and youths. Seven youths were arrested, six black and one white’ (The Times)

Moss Side

Manchester
More violence reported in Moss Side.

Friday, 10 July

London

Brixton once again became the centre of attention – several hours of fighting with police erupted after the arrest of a local black DJ. Cars were set alight and shops looted. Four police and four civilians were injured, and 90 people were arrested.
A longer report on this Brixton riot

Several other areas of London also went off on the Friday night:
Southall
There were outbreaks of ‘hooliganism’ (as described by the police). Reports claimed 1,500 Asian youths threw bricks and looted shops. Southall blazed again with burning cars, while black and Asian youths stoned the fire engines trying to reach the fires.

Battersea, South London
A block of flats was set on fire and a fire station was attacked by a crowd of youths. 17 arrests were made in Queenstown Road and Falcon Road area.

Dalston
70 youths threw firebombs at police. Three policemen injured.

Stoke Newington
500 people threw stones at the police station. Firebombs were thrown and 29 people were arrested.

Hounslow, West London
11 skinheads were arrested after a group began stoning cars.

Peckham
A 15 year old youth was arrested in Rye Lane, Peckham, for allegedly throwing a petrol bomb at police (South London Press, 14 July 1981).

Balham, South London
Around 35 shops along the High Road were damaged in a wave of violence which started shortly after midnight when some 200 youths roamed the streets. ‘Worst hit was the Argos Discount Store where hundreds of pounds worth of goods were stolen’ (South London Press, 14 July 1981).

There were also smaller disturbances on Friday night in Clapham (cars overturned), Streatham (sporadic looting), Penge (petrol bombs), Camberwell (two cars were overturned in Daneville Road) and Slough.

Outside London

Trouble was reported on the 10th in a number of cities including Preston, Hull, Wolverhampton, Liverpool, and Reading.

Birmingham
In the Handsworth district of Birmingham, 400 ‘black and white youth, mostly Asian’ stormed the police station, threw bricks at police, driving them out of the area, and then turned on the local fire station and a British Legion club. There were 329 arrests.

Not sure what day, but ‘at the end of riot week’ possibly Friday, in Walthamstow (NE London) ‘a riot of Asian youth’ broke out, after the funeral of Mrs Doreen Khan and her 3 children. 100 youths were involved in fighting with police.
The Khans died as a result of a petrol bomb attack on their home on 2nd July, during a wave of racist incidents in the area. Her husband was badly burned. The police, adding insult to injury, detained for questioning friends and relatives of the victims, repeatedly grilling them hoping to shift the blame for the tragedies on to them.

In Hull on Friday night a battle between skins and bikers turned into a united 150 strong battle against the police.
Hull reflected some of the contradictions during the riots between collective social rebellion and aggro:
“Hull epitomizing some of the worst aspects of skin activity. In addition to wrecking the city centre rival gangs of skins, punks etc set upon each other. Symbols of wealth like the Leeds Building Society plus a number of large stores, including Binns, were trashed. But excepting anti police verbals (one guy was jailed for shouting “kill the pigs”) class-consciousness generally rose no higher than the Humber riverbed.

Shouting football slogans some rioters nutted ordinary people standing in bus queues. One youth threw a concrete block through a bus window while passengers were still inside.

This chaotic response not surprisingly created amongst some Hull transport workers a passing sympathy for the police. The local TGWU official with the backing of the rank and file made preparations in concert with the police and the transport management to close down the Ferensway bus station at the centre of the riots. The Hull Daily Mail rubbed its hands in glee as workers, management and police clasped hands throughout this mid summer week of countryside proletarian insurgency.

Over the past ten years the Hull working class have exhibited a notable radicality, even as recently as the Winter of Discontent, which makes this understandable reaction doubly sad. They are not by nature hostile to class violence and sabotage. For instance during the 1972 dock strike in the UK some Hull dockers cut ships, moored at the disputed container wharves up river, adrift. But they didn’t then go on to root out innocent crewmembers to give them a thrashing as local skins might have done if their performance throughout riot week is anything to go by.”
(Like a Summer With 1000 Julys)

In Nottingham rioting developed on the Friday, in response to a huge build up of police presence…

Saturday and Sunday, 11-12 July

Leicester

In Leicester, police from four counties had assembled close to the Highfields area during the Saturday that evening to try to prevent trouble, but ‘300 to 500 people in their early twenties, West Indian and white mixed, with a few Asians, kept them out of the area using petrol bombs and burning barricades’; the fighting continued for two more evenings, with ‘people in the flats joining the rioting, leaving their doors open so that people could escape from the police’.  Six police were injured and there were 30 arrests.
“Armed with bricks and stones, they confronted lines of police in riot gear who stood between them and their objective – Charles Street police station… Reinforcements were quickly brought in from Lincolnshire, Staffordshire and some 230 officers from the Metropolitan Police. A wooden telegraph pole was ripped from the ground and used as a battering ram against the police. Cars were set on fire or overturned and nearby shops were trashed. Stores in St Peter’s Shopping Centre were smashed and looted and there was a failed attempt to set the post office in St Stephen’s Road ablaze. At the same time as the Highfields riot erupted, the violence continued in the city centre, as mobs of skinheads went on the rampage in Gallowtree Gate, smashing shop windows and stealing anything they could lay their hands on.” (Leicester Mercury)
A short report here

The Bradford 12

Bradford
On 11 July 1981, the “Bradford 12” — a group of Asian youths, members of the United Black Youth League — were arrested for manufacturing petrol bombs, to protect their community from a rumoured fascist attack. (At the subsequent trial, they were acquitted by a jury, on the grounds of self-defence)

Huddersfield

One hundred black and white youths broke shop windows.

London

Battersea
‘A gang of youths attacked four policeman on Sunday afternoon [12 July], striking them to the tarmac floor of the roller skating rink in Battersea Park. Two PCs – Robert Smith and Brian Tullock – were rushed to hospital with serious head wounds. PC Smith needed 13 stitches. “It all started when we answered a call saying a car had been overturned in the park, said Det. Con. Larry Lawrence, “Four of us were in plain clothes but as soon as we identified ourselves we were attacked by about 20 youths carrying hockey sticks and wooden staves. The blows rained down on PC Smith and PC Tullock was given a severe kicking”. Mr Lawrence said a crowd of 200 stood watching. “The only human touch there was a girl who took off her cardigan and wrapped it around PC Smith’s head as he lay bleeding”. A crowd of youths carrying hockey sticks and wooden staves ran through the park during the early evening damaging two cars and throwing petrol bombs at the police’.

‘Later in the evening three policeman were injured in Francis Chichester Way when 35 youths hurled missiles and fire bombs at police lines.’ (South London Press, 14 July 1981).

Leeds
In Chapeltown ‘the police weren’t strong enough to cope’ after ‘all types of youth, black and white’, responded to racist attacks and a police raid on a black club by ‘stoning, throwing petrol bombs, burning cars, setting fire to police vans’.

Bolton
‘300-400 Asians and anti-racists hijacked a milk float and attacked police with bricks, bottles, stones, driving the police 200 yards back … The police got a hammering …’

Luton
Black and white youth began by attacking racists, and then moved on to attack the police and the Tory Party HQ, throwing stones and petrol bombs, breaking windows and looting shops; there were 102 arrests.

Nottingham
Rioting continued from Friday: on the Saturday night racists from outside the town had attacked blacks under the cover of the riots; the fighting began as a confrontation with the police using stones and petrol bombs, with shop windows only being broken ‘accidentally’ – but looting developed later. The rioters were ‘always of mixed races, ages, employed and unemployed’.
Nottingham Police Inspector Colin Sheppard was moved in awe to say…“There was no end to the imagination of the mob used to vent their feelings on the police.” (The Daily Telegraph July 14th 1981) adding, they were “Nottingham’s blackest ever days.”

Derby
Police forced mainly white youths running amuck in the smart city centre into the ghettoised Normanton Road and Peartree area. This tactic came unstuck because a battle ensued involving white, black and Asian youth who more or less fought the police together. A police traffic office was set on fire.
‘At some point during the riots in Derby a group of Asians were seen carrying a large cross through the streets. The cross was later recovered but Our Saviour had been nicked. But this was no Islamic anti-image jag, more probably it was a protest against a band of young Catholics who marched with all the sensitivity of an elephant through Derby’s semi ghettoised district singing “We Shall Overcome.” ‘ (Like a Summer With 1000 Julys)

Trouble was also reported over the weekend in Southampton, Halifax, Blackburn, Preston, Birkenhead, Ellesemere Port, Chester, Stoke Shrewsbury, Wolverhampton, High Wycombe, Newcastle, Knaresborough, Sheffield, Stockport, Nottingham, Maidstone, Aldershot and Portsmouth.

A total of 1,000 people were arrested over the Saturday and Sunday.

Monday, 13 July

Rioting hit Leicester for the third successive night. There were also reports of disturbances in Huddersfield, Derby and Nottingham.

Tuesday, 14 July

All parts of the country were ‘relatively quiet’ for the first time in eleven days.

Wednesday, 15 July

Brixton
An early morning police raid on several Railton Road properties was followed that evening by renewed violence. Three hundred black youths confronted 800 police, eight cars were set on fire and nine police were injured.
This raid caused some bickering even in Parliament – MPs and even some government ministers thought the cops had been unwise to batter their way into the various homes raided, given the atmosphere, and that the raids may even have been unlawful.

At some point in the ten days of rioting in early July,  apart from the events mentioned above, there was also trouble in Romford and Upton Park (East London), Sutton (south of London), Stockwell in South London, Shepherds Bush, Acton, & Chiswick (all in West London), Golders Green (North London).
Hammersmith (W London) saw some somewhat anti-social, unfocussed agro:
“During riot week, some black youths in Hammersmith post office menaced a long queue of black and white unemployed people waiting to cash their giro’s by shoving everyone aside to be served first. Edgy mounted police had been stationed outside the post office in case of trouble and these young blacks, outta their skulls with hope, were looking for any occasion to provoke a riot. But in their understandable eagerness they were well out of line and this silly action only served to put everyone against them in the airless and crammed post office. Even so, the cops were scared of dealing with them.” (Like a Summer With 1000 Julys)

Sunday, 26 July

Liverpool
Seventy black and white youths threw bricks and petrol bombs at police in Toxteth.

Tuesday, 28 July

Liverpool
In the heaviest night of rioting in Toxteth since the first outbreak four weeks earlier, 22-year-old David Moore died after being hit by a police vehicle being used to disperse the crowd. Thirty-four police were injured. There were 22 arrests.
Two police officers were charged with the manslaughter of David Moore but cleared in April 1982.

Saturday, 15 August

Liverpool
A protest march took place demanding the removal of Kenneth Oxford as Chief Constable of Merseyside. Two thousand people took part in the march, watched over by 3,000 police. There was some trouble… Fifteen police were injured, two of them receiving stab wounds, but no arrests were made.

Sheffield
A crowd of 500 youths, most of them black, fought with police at a shopping centre. Three police were injured and seventeen people were arrested.

Bank Holiday weekend, 30-31 August

Brighton
There was a serious outbreak of violence and disorder when 300 mods stoned police and passing cars and threw petrol bombs. Nine youths were arrested. On Monday night police had to separate rival gangs of mods, skinheads and punks.

London

The two days of the annual Notting Hill Carnival passed almost entirely without incident despite earlier predictions of violence and sabotage, and the usual suggestions that it should be called off (forty year later this is still an annual chorus). The only trouble occurred late on Monday night as the carnival was finishing (since the seminal 1976 Carnival Riot, trouble at the end between revellers and police had been pretty normal). Some youths threw bottles at police but were quickly dispersed. Three people suffered stab wounds and four police were injured. Altogether there were 40 arrests during Carnival.

State responses to the riots

The police were undoubtedly, in some areas, nearly overwhelmed by the riotous upsurge; particularly in Liverpool, Manchester and parts of London.

Well over 2,500 people had been arrested for involvement in the riots by the end of ‘Riot Week’. An already overcrowded prison population, and an ongoing work to rule dispute by prison screws meant, however, that there was little room in the jails (there were abortive proposals that they be accommodated in overflow army camps). Some were however jailed on short sentences with little or no defence. There were a number of longer sentences – a number of people were given between 5 and 8 years, mostly for criminal damage or molotov cocktail related actions… Local defence campaigns were set up in some places (eg in Brixton) to support the arrested and imprisoned.

Legislative and strategic ideas for dealing with the riots and threatened future riots abounded. Proposals to revive the defunct Riot Act to allow anyone found present at the scene of a riot to be jailed automatically without a jury trial, however, fell foul of objections by judges (more jealous of their prerogatives than sympathetic to insurrection, possibly…?) Panicked proposals to arm the police routinely also came to nothing in the short term.

In the longer term, however, the riots played a part in influencing shift changes in the legislative armoury the justice system had to use against collective violent challenge. The Tory government already had a strong ‘law ‘n’ order rhetoric, and along with the ’78-79 Winter of Discontent, the experience of the 81 riots became central to Conservative myths of the ‘enemies within’ (trade unionists, strikers and riotous urban youth, later to be joined by lesbians, gays and loony lefties) which demanded increasing development of repressive institutions of the state.

Toxteth, 6th July

Alterations to police powers came over the next few years aimed at updating legislation to deal with public disorder. 1981, and the miner’s strike 1984-85 – in particular the Battle of Orgreave in June 1984 – were very much the driving force behind this. The mass disorder during the riots and the miners’ strike led to the government concluding that new public order arrangements needed to be made. Specialist uniforms, helmets and riot shields, as well as other equipment, were made available to the police and significant training was developed to help officers control public order situations (eg the Association of Chief Police Officers Public Order Manual). This new style of paramilitary policing rapidly became the norm, and this modernised style of policing needed a new legal structure to support it. The SPG was upgraded, rebranded as the Territorial Support Group.

New policing bills reinforced this. Some concessions were made to move deckchairs around – eg the hated ‘SUS’ law was quickly repealed, and the 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) brought in new codes of behaviour and a new Police Complaints Authority. But behind the window dressing repressive legislation was also being brought in. PACE also re-introduced beefed up Stop and Search powers which allowed police more discretion and clauses which specifically enabled greater control over ‘public order’ situations – from riots, to demonstrations and picket lines. PACE also brought in powers to cover police actions such as tactics which had been used in ’81 but with doubtful legal basis – eg more powers to raid and search ‘suspects’ homes.

The Public Order Act 1986 replaced reliance on various relevant common law offences, and on the Public Order Act 1936, and brought in new offences which could be levelled at people taking part in not just riots, but demonstrators, pickets, anyone involved in any crowd activity…
More on the 1986 Public Order Act in this ‘Short History of Public Order Acts’.

In parallel to beefing up repressive weaponry, the government was urgently investigating why this was all happening, On a pragmatic level – they knew fundamentally that people don’t riot in their tens of thousands without reasons, and someone had to be seen to be at least looking like they were doing something more than nicking people.

The government commissioned the Scarman report two days after the April Brixton Riots (ironically, he finished his report on Brixton right in the middle of the July riot week!) Scarman’s terms of reference for the enquiry were “to inquire urgently into the serious disorder in Brixton on 10–12 April 1981 and to report, with the power to make recommendations”. Scarman basically concluded that ethnic communities in UK inner cities felt they had little stake in UK society, and that their relationship with institutions, especially the cops, had broken down, and that changes had to be made to integrate disaffected ethnic minorities, and stop being so obvious about targetting young black people. Fundamentally, though, Scarman cleared the police of having sparked riots by their tactics.

When it came to addressing decline and social collapse in some areas, the government was tempted to abandon some cities, more or less. Government documents released at the end of 2011 (under the ‘30 year rule’) revealed that some of Thatcher’s advisers considered government social and economic intervention in Liverpool “to be a ‘doomed mission.'” Government ministers also opposed “‘massive injection of additional public spending’ to stabilise the inner cities” and claiming that it would be “‘pumping water uphill.'” Instead, they urged a policy that “‘managed decline'” in Liverpool.

Many residents of many areas of UK cities might be forgiven for thinking managed decline has been pretty much continuous since the 80s…

A plethora of urban programmes, public private partnerships and regeneration projects were, however, launched in the years after ’81. However, many were aimed at dragooning young unemployed people into crap training schemes or lowpaid jobs; mickey mouse projects like the Youth Training Scheme (YTS) and similar schemes were brought in for school leavers. Most of these schemes enabled employers to exploit school leavers for cheap labour without much in the way of real training or education. YTS later provoked its own day of youth rebellion in 1985.

Some theoretical responses to the 81 riots

A few interesting perspectives on the ’81 events: causes, implications, fallout, the social and economic context…

Like a Summer with a Thousand Julys
The ‘Post-Situationist’ (?) Wise brothers epic take on the riots, the background, British society, race, police, capitalism… A glorious full on charge of a read. Well worth a look.

The Impossible Class
An anarchist take from 1981, which positions the riots as the response of an increasingly autonomous new class that was developing in UK inner cities.
(See also Past Tense’s more recent comments on this text: Impossible Classlessness)

You Can’t Fool the Youth
Black Marxist writer and historian Paul Gilroy’s Autumn 1981 analysis of the uprisings.

From Resistance to Rebellion
A Sivanandan
Putting the riots into the context of the Black struggles of the previous decades

The Summer of 1981: a post-riot analysis
Chris Harman
Socialist Workers Party bigwig Harman puts the riots in historical context, spending quite a bit of time attacking autonomous organising by black activists, but some interesting bits despite this…

You’re Miles Better Off Here – the Wood Green Riot

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Thanks to the Radical History of Hackney, transpontine, Revolt Against Plenty and others who we looted some of the above info from.
Some bits also came from an old Commission for Racial Equality timeline of the riots

Today in London rebellious history, 1381: Barnet folk are still staunch in the Peasants Revolt

The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 played out on a ‘national level’ – that is, huge armies gathered, marched on the capital, and caused a brief crisis and threat to the power of the feudal system and the aristocracy, monarchy and church establishment, who benefitted from the feudal labour of serfs all over the land.

But the revolt also found local focus all across the south-east of England. The grievances that led to the revolt were not uniform; many and varied oppressions sparked anger and rebellion, and outbreaks of trouble generally saw particular hated lords targeted. Some bands of rebels erupted at the poll tax collectors trying to extort cash from them; some sorted out some local grievances before marching on London; many never marched to London at all but busied themselves with the local powers-that-be.

Major targets of local action were the manor rolls and the court rolls – basically, the records of the feudal services local villeins and serfs ‘owed’ to their lord, and the records of disputes, refusals, fines and arguments over the extraction of these obligations. Long before 1381, these unpaid duties towards your feudal superior caused constant friction; the labour shortages resulting from the Black Death of 1348-9 gave the serfs a greater power to negotiate, despite royal action against their freedom to leave home to look for better situations.

When the 1381 rebellion broke out, many manor houses were attacked, and the manor rolls seized and burned, both as a symbolic gesture and a practical attempt to erase the record of what the lord could demand of his tenants.

One local example: the men of Chipping Barnet played a rowdy role in the area of Middlesex around St Albans and Barnet; this is captured by the horrified St Albans chronicler.

The Abbey of St Albans was the most powerful landowner in the area; successive abbots’ attempts to maintain the rolls and demand the full duties ‘owed to them’ had increasingly got the Abbey’s tenants’ backs up. The revolt provided inspiration and opportunity to even up the scores…

According to his account, on entering London on 13 June, the Kent and Essex rebels sent a message to St Albans via men from Barnet, and the next day Barnet men were again prominent in the St Albans contingent which headed to the capital and returned with the message that ‘there would no longer be serfs but lords’.

The Gatehouse at St Albans Abbey – stormed by the 1381 rebels

During the following week the rebels attacked the symbols of the abbot’s lordship, broke into his prison, woods and warrens, and burnt the hated court rolls. They also engaged in what sounds like some provocative and near-blasphemous agitprop, staging a mock mass, but placing torn-up documents instead of communion bread on the tongues of the (un?)faithful.

The rebels forced the abbot to issue charters for each village; not only in St Albans itself, but also areas further afield where the Abbey’s writ ran. ‘The people of Barnet came with bows and arrows, two-edged axes, small axes, swords and cudgels and obtained a similar charter of liberties as those of the people of St Albans, including free hunting rights, fishing rights, and rights of erecting hand mills’ (milling was the lord’s monopoly).

After this they demanded’ a certain book made from the court rolls’ so they could burn it because it contained evidence that’ almost all the houses of Barnet were held by the rolls’. The abbot prevaricated’, promising it within three weeks, and thus saved the book for posterity.

The revolt was over in London by 15 June, but total suppression further afield took longer.

On 28 June royal commissioners arrived in St Albans, but there was still some resistance: ‘300 bowmen from the surrounding villages, especially from Barnet and Berkhamsted’ gathered in arms to continue to assert their demands.

On 15 July king Richard II arrived in St Albans and annulled all the abbot’s enforced concessions, and on 20 July received oaths of fealty from all the inhabitants of Hertfordshire.

The defeat of the Revolt was far from the end of resistance to the power of the Abbey locally. The abbot’s tenants had concentrated on specific grievances, but since these were suppressed, not addressed, tensions soon began to rebuild. Illegal land transfers continued, and in 1417 there was another violent revolt; royal justices eventually had to be sent to intervene, because ‘the bondmen and tenants in bondage of the abbot of St Albans at Chipping Barnet have leagued together to refuse their due customs and services’.

Many of those involved in 1381 were not peasants at all, but men of substantial property. The Barnet rebels in 1417 included twelve freemen, among them a citizen of London. During the 15th century, serfdom and the associated services and indignities – which had provoked the fierce struggle between abbot and tenants at Barnet – was gradually phased out.

Today in London’s radical history, 1848: Armed Chartists arrested as they prepare for revolution

Traditional histories of the Chartist movement mostly end with the mass meeting and demonstration on April 10th 1848, when the third great Chartist petition was to be delivered to Parliament. The vast majority of historical accounts agree that the movement declined from this point, and rate it no further, except on some cases to mention, almost as an aside, the arrest of small groups of Chartist in London three months later for plotting to achieve their ends by violent insurrection.

But as David Goodway remarked in his study of London Chartism: “If, after the reverses of the Kennington Common rally and the off-hand rejection of the third great petition by the House of Commons, Chartism stood defeated in the summer of 1848, then the Chartists were yet to find out about it.” Revolutions were sweeping Europe, and many Chartists felt it would take little for radical change to also be achieved in Britain too.

Agitation and campaigning for political reform continued throughout the country, and in London itself, May and June 1848 saw several large demonstrations and a couple of attempts to organise another monster rally or march along the lines of April 10th. Many of the demonstrations were dispersed or prevented by force or banned.

Behind the scenes, some Chartists, frustrated by the repeated failure of peaceful and legal campaigning and petitioning, began planning to bring about the movement’s objectives by more direct means. Arrests of leading Chartists all over the country and of Irish radicals and nationalists with whom much of the Chartist movement was in sympathy and close contact, added an extra spur – the feeling was that not only would asking politely not win working men the vote, but many would be jailed for campaigning.

The atmosphere was electric, and the inspiration of the wave of revolutions and uprisings surging through Europe helped create a buzz of anticipation, ad a sense that maybe change could be won if people would fight for it. At a meeting of Chartist delegates from Lancashire and Yorkshire, held on 28 May, resolutions were passed in favour of forming a National Guard, a term with strong overtones of the French Revolution. Chartists began drilling in military formation in Bradford, Leeds and several other towns in Yorkshire. Chartists in Manchester and Oldham also paraded with weapons. Mass meetings were held all over the country and ‘strong expressions’ were used – which got a number of speakers arrested.

Shortly after a somewhat disappointing turnout for a national demonstration on June 4th, groups of Chartist began meeting clandestinely in the capital to plan an uprising.

Chartism as a movement had always been caught in a tension between its ‘moral force’ and ‘physical force’ camps – those who insisted on sticking to legal, peaceful methods of winning their aims, and those who believed the ruling elites would never grant them more than contempt if they went cap in hand, and that working class political representation could only be achieved by an armed revolution.

Sentiment within Chartism as a broad movement tended to see-saw between these poles, (a bit like the eternal struggle we see between left and right within the Labour Party…!). However, the physical force wing of Chartism was always a minority in the movement – though what size minority varied. In the lifetime of the movement, insurrectionary feeling ebbed and flowed. Another problem was that some Chartist leaders were quite prepared to bluster and sound all physical-force, but in practice were not ready to ever act or support action that backed up their words.

Chartism was part of an almost continuous thread of 60 years of campaigning for political reform – but the movements, organisations and political culture that reached a peak in Chartism drew on several traditions, one of which was a strong Jacobin insurrectionary impulse. Attempts to organise uprisings had capped several of the reform movements in the past half-century, most notably ending with the ‘Despard’ conspiracy of 1802 and the ‘Cato Street Conspiracy’ in 1820.

There had been a period before when concerted efforts to launch Chartist uprisings had been planned – in the winter of 1839 to 1840, which saw one actual revolt, in Newport, South Wales, and a number of botched plots, mainly in Yorkshire, which got no further than the planning stage. Some discussions were also had in London in 1840 and there were some arrests; but there is little evidence that much was even planned there. Much like the attempt to impose acceptance of the Charter by general strike in 1839, support had just not been there for a Chartist Revolution.

1848 would prove no different. Like most of the radical plots for insurrection since the 1790s, from Despard through Pentrich to Cato Street, the 1848 blueprints for revolution were known to the authorities from the start. Spies reporting to the home Office were deeply embedded in the Chartist movement and exposed the plot step by step as it was drawn up.

George Davis, a member of the Wat Tyler Brigade of Greenwich Chartists, attended meetings throughout the summer as a delegate, and Thomas Riordain Reading, the Northern Star‘s London Irish correspondent also reported to the Home office.

On 12 June 1848, Peter M’Douall (or McDouall), who had been a delegate at the first Chartist convention and had fled abroad with a price on his head after the general strike of 1842, chaired at a meeting in the Albion beershop on the Bethnal Green Road. Plans for an insurrection set in motion. A Secret Committee was set up, consisting of four appointed delegates (Henshaw, for East London; Pitt, for West London; Honeybold, North London; and Percy, South London), plus three from Chartist executive, two confederates (Irishmen) and two trade unionists, to decide time of uprising. The spies George Davis and Thomas Reading reported this meeting to the police.

In his report to the police, George Davis claimed that the committee used a map of London to draw up a series of possible plans of attack. In one scenario, barricades would have been constructed on the Strand, Ludgate Hill, Cheapside and other City streets from Clerkenwell to the Barbican and Hatton Garden Theatres and other buildings were to be set on fire, and pawnbrokers’ and gunsmiths’ shops raided to obtain arms. In South London, the police station at Kent Road was to be attacked.

Initially, it seems arrangements were being made for an uprising on the weekend of 16-18 June 1848. However, just two days after the meeting in Bethnal Green, on 14 June, the Chartist Executive ordered the disbanding of the Secret Committee. The executive had been well aware of the plans for insurrection, but had either realised or suspected there were police spies in the midst of the conspiracy. Peter McDouall himself named Mander, May and Plume as possible suspects (interestingly, their involvement in the plot seems to end from this point). McDouall himself was arrested in July.

The initial phase of the conspiracy then appears to have folded until early July. However, an uprising in Ireland was reported to be imminent, and habeas corpus there was suspended. Meanwhile, the police began arresting Chartist leaders in London. In early July, meetings of the would-be insurrectionaries resumed.

Plans made by the conspirators included rescuing arrested Chartist leaders (including Ernest Jones) from police custody as they were being moved from Newgate to Coldbath Fields Prison. This second conspiracy was probably unknown to the Chartist Executive – however, George Davis, and Thomas Powell (alias Johnson) of Cripplegate, were both keeping the authorities fully informed.

Between 20 July and 16 August, the conspirators held 16 meetings in one form or another, mainly in coffee houses (though occasionally in pubs).

Dates and locations of the delegate meetings of the 1848 conspiracies, with those in attendance as known (taken from London Chartism 1838-48, by David Goodway)
Tuesday 6 June. Windsor Castle, Holborn
H Mander May (?), Plume (?).
Monday afternoon, 12 June. Albion, Bethnal Green Road.
25 present. M’Douall (chair), Henshaw, Honeybold, Percy, Pitt, George Davis.
Tuesday 13 June. Windsor Castle, Holborn
James Bassett (chair), Henshaw, Honeybold, William Lacey, Percy, Pitt, George Shell, George Davis.
Wednesday morning, 14 June. Literary Institute, John Street
14 present. M’Douall (chair), James Bassett (vice-chair), Child, William Lacey, George Bridge Mullins, Pitt, George Shell, George Davis.
Wednesday evening, 14 June. Lord Denman, Great Suffolk Street, Blackfriars Road
8 present. James Blight, George Davis.
Monday 10 July. George, Old Bailey.
13 or 20 present. Brewster, Lacey, Mullins, Payne, John Rose, Smith, George Davis.
Thursday 13 July. Lord Denman, Great Suffolk Street.
Brewerton, Morgan.
Thursday 20 July. Black Jack, Portsmouth Street, Lincoln’s Inn Fields.
14 present. William Allnutt, Bassett, Battice, Brewster, William Dowling, Mullins, Payne, John Rose, Davis, Thomas Powell (alias Johnson) (1st time).
Sunday morning, 23 July. Denny’s Coffee House, Great St Andrew’s Street, Seven Dials
10 present. Allnutt, Brewster, Dowling, Gurney, Mullins, Payne, Pedley, Rose, Smith, Stephens (?), Thompson, Davis, Powell.
Sunday evening, 23 July. Cartwright’s Coffee House, Redcross Street, Cripplegate
Brewster, Mullins, Payne, Rose, Powell.
Wednesday 26 July. Hopkinson’s Coffee House, Saffron Hill
18 present. Allnutt, Brewster, Dowling, Ferdinando, Flanagan, Mullins, Payne, Pedley, Rose, Smith, Stephens (?), Thompson, Davis, Powell.
Friday 28 July. Hopkinson’s Coffee House, Saffron Hill.
14 present. Brewster, Fay, Ferdinando, Flanagan, Hopkinson, Horn, Mullins, Page, Payne, Powell.
Sunday afternoon 30 July. Cartwright’s Coffee House, Redcross Street
28 present. Bassett, Brewster, Donovan, Dowling, Fay, Ferdinando, Hayman, Kirby, Lindsay, Mullins, Nash, Nowlan, Payne, Rose, Stephenson (or Stevenson), Davis, Powell.
Tuesday 1 August, Dispatch Coffee House, Bride Lane, Fleet Street.
34 or 29 present. Allnutt, Bezer, Brewster, Collins, Donovan, Dowling, Fay, Ferdinando, Fuzzen, Hayman, Lynch, Mullins, Payne, Raymond, Rose, Thompson, Warry, Davis, Powell
Friday 4 August. Cartwright’s Coffee House, Redcross Street
32 present. Bassett, Bligh, Brewster, Cuffay, Donovan, Dowling, Gurney, Lynch, Mullins, Payne, Rose, Thompson, Davis, Powell.
Sunday morning 6 August. Denny’s Coffee House, Great St Andrew’s Street
Brewster, Fay (?), Lynch (?), Mullins, Payne, Rose, Thompson, Davis.
Sunday afternoon 6 August. Dispatch Coffee House, Bride Lane
24 to 30 present. Allnutt, Bligh, Brewster, Cuffay, Fay, the two brothers Granshaw, Hammond (= Hayman?), Mullins, Page, Payne, Rose, Warry, Davis, Powell.
Monday 7 August. Denny’s Coffee House, Great St Andrew’s Street
About 30 present. Allnutt, Bassett, Brewster, Cuffay, Donovan, Dowling, Fay, Lynch, Mullins, Payne, Ritchie, Rose, Thompson, Warry, Davis, Powell.
Wednesday 9 August. Lord Denman, Great Suffolk Street, Blackfriars Road
28 present. Allnutt, Bassett, Bligh, Brewster, Cuffay, Donovan, Dowling, Fay, Flanagan, Fuzzen, the two Granshaws, Gurney, Horn, Lynch, Mullins, Nash, Payne, Pedley, Ritchie, Rose, Davis, Powell.
Friday 11 August. Perry’s Coffee House, Church Street, Shoreditch
Cancelled
Sunday morning 13 August. Hopkinson’s Coffee House, Saffron Hill
Allnutt, Bligh, Brewster, Fuzzen, Mullins, Payne, Ritchie, Salmon, Davis.
Sunday afternoon 13 August. Breedon’s Beershop, Shouldham Street, Crawford Street, Marylebone
26 or 30 present. Bligh, Cuffay, the two Granshaws, Hayman, Mullins, Nash, Payne, Ritchie, Warry, Davis.
Monday 14 August. Orange Tree, Orange Street, Red Lion Square
25 or 30 present. Allnutt, Bligh, Brewster, Cruikshank, Cuffay, Fay, Fleming, Ford, the two Granshaws, Gurney, Hayman, Mullins, Nash, Payne, Pearce, Ritchie, Scurrey (or Scurry), Simmonds, Warry, Davis, Powell.
Tuesday 15 August. Lord Denman, Great Suffolk Street.
30 or 40 present. Allnutt, Brewster, Cruikshank, Cuffay, Donaldson, Dowling, Fay, Ferdinando, Fleming, the two Granshaws, Gurney, Lacey, Mullins, Page, Payne, Pedley, Ritchie, Simmonds, Davis, Powell.

The plotters were well aware that surveillance by the authorities was likely, and were suspicious and fearful of being followed, and of infiltration. At one point around early August, two of the group, Mullins and Rose, were accused of being spies, which led to some resignations from the Committee. However, the real spies continued to be deeply embedded in their plans. Powell (aka Johnson) was said by some of the defendants to have accused some of the plotters of being all talk, and to have also hired some men to make bullets and gunpowder in readiness. As with previous insurrectionary plans, provocation by spies cannot be ruled out.

The Committee made contact with physical force Chartists in Manchester, Liverpool, Leicester, Nottingham, Birmingham and possibly Bradford. Finally it was agreed that the rising would take place on Wednesday 16 August. The local Chartist branches were to meet at 8pm and to be ready to go into action at 9.20pm.

Thomas Powell, who spied on the Committee using the name Johnson, later gave evidence at the trial of William Dowling. His account is a fascinating insight into the discussion, though, as with all evidence offered by such infiltrators, may not be entirely accurate about individuals’s roles in the plan:

“Early in the present year I became a member of the Chartist Association. I believe it was between April and May; after 10th April—I continued to attend the meetings of the Association from time to time down to June, July, and Aug. last—I have always understood there are district associations of the Chartists—I was a member of the Cripplegate locality—there was a council of management consisting of five persons—it was appointed after I joined them—it consisted of Mr. Battice, Mr. Fowler, Mr. Carter, Mr. Owen Jones, and myself—I entered by the name of Johnson, and was known in the Chartist Association by that name—the council had. the general superintendence of the business of the Association—they usually net in the front long-room up stairs, at Cartwright’s Coffee-house, in Red Cross-street—about 20th July a committee was formed to meet at the Black Jack public-house, in Portugal-street, Lincoln’s-inn-fields—it was called the. Secret Committee—I was elected by the Council as a delegate—I attended a meeting of that committee on Thursday, 20th July, at the Black Jack—there were about fourteen persons present at that meeting—I have notes which I made, not the same day, but the next—the notes were made by myself—referring to them)—Mr. Payne, Mr. Brewster, Mr. Rose, Mr. Mullins, Mr. Bowling, a delegate from Greenwich, myself, Mr. Battice, and another Confederate delegate, a Mr. Allnutt, of another locality, and two strangers, whose names I do not remember—each of those fourteen attended, like myself, as delegates from different districts—Mr. Dowling attended as one of the Irish Confederates; I was informed so that evening—there was also another person, a stranger, who represented himself as a delegate from the Confederates—I have no note of the transactions of that meeting, but I can remember them—verbal reports were given in of the state of feeling of the members of their respective localities with regard to the physical force movement, and each delegate returned the number of men he could depend on, and were willing to fight—a committee was appointed for the purpose of drawing up five plans of action—Payne, Brewster, Rose, Mullins, and the prisoner Dowling were appointed on that committee—the meeting commenced at nine o’clock, or a little alter, and lasted till about ten minutes after twelve—Battice was present the whole time—he had been requested by the Council to accompany me to witness the proceedings—we were to meet again at Dennis’s Coffee-house, Great St. Andrew-street, Seven Dials, on the next Sunday morning, 23rd—when I went to the Black Jack, on the Thursday, I was asked to produce my credentials, and I produced a paper which I had procured from a Mr. Bezer on my way to the meeting—Battice was with me at the time received it, and Bezer said in his presence they were going to get up a bloody revolution-—on Sunday morning, 23rd, at ten o’clock, I attendee at Dennis’s Coffee-house’—I found the prisoner and Rose, Mullins, Brewster and Payne accompanied me—we were together about an hour before any one else joined us—during that hour Mullins laid a pocket-book on the table with a map of London unfolded, and the whole of the persons present had papers in their hands—there was also a pen-and-ink sketch of various pars of London, belonging to Mullins, and a portion of it marked Seven Dials—I did not see either of the other four plans—the prisoner told Mullins that he thought it was difficult for him (Dowling) to undertake the management of the Seven Dials—in the course of the evening Payne, who occupied the chairs said, “Gentlemen, our object is to destroy the power of the Queen, and if possible, to establish a republic,” and there was a general acquiescence; in that—I do not remember the words they used—there was some conversation about vitriol, and assassinating the police—I can’t exactly remember the purport of it—Rose said, “We must first assassinate the police, burn down the station-houses, and build barricades”—that appeared to be generally receive:—at the end of the hour Allnutt, a member from Greenwich, and another Confederate leader, came: there were ten persons present—I do not know anything of this paper (looking at a plan)—I can almost swear this paper (marked A) is the one I saw in Mullins’s possession—I saw him put it into his pocket-book, and put the pocket-book into his pocket—I never saw anything of these others (looking at others), but 1 believe I my safely swear to this, I was so impressed with the first sketch of it—the; is no particular mark on it, but I will explain how I am so positive of it—I had a view of it, and I observed this drawing and also these pencil-marks for barricades—there was some conversation by Brewster about the barricades being half-way down some street in Oxford-street, leading to some square—after the others came in, Mullins said he was sorry they had not quite matured the plans for their inspection—Payne left about half-past eleven, and the meeting soon after adjourned, and it was arranged they should meet at Cartwright’s on the same evening—we met there—Payne, Mullins, Brewster, and Rose, were there—Dowling was not—they went into a back room- I did not accompany them—I next met the same parties on Wednesday, 26th July, at Hopkinson’s Coffee-house, Saffron-hill—that had been arrange: on the Sunday morning—there were eighteen present, Dowling, Rose, Mullins, myself, a delegate from Greenwich, Brewster, Ferdinando (this was his first appearance), a delegate from the Green Gate, Hackney-road whose name I do not know, Flanagan, Allnutt, and others—I sometimes made my notes when I got home the same night, and sometimes the next day—as regards this particular meeting, I must have made the note soon after I got home at night, or early in the morning—a return was given of the number of new delegates—there was nothing at all in writing, it was all done as matter of confidence one with the other—reports were given of the feelings of the members of each locality, and the number of men they could depend—on as fighting men—there was a motion made respecting an advertisement to be put in the Northern Star, calling on every Chartist and Confederate locality to send two delegates to meet on the following Tuesday, at the Dispatch coffee house, Bride-lane, Fleet-street—that was adopted—there was nothing further of any consequence transacted that evening—they adjourned to the same place on the Friday, the 28th—there were fourteen persons-present then—there were two new delegates—there were reports made of the feeling of their localities, and the number of fighting men—each new delegate made a similar report with respect to his own locality—a resolution was passed that the sum of 10s. should be sent by the delegates of each locality, for the purpose of carrying out the object of the committee—we adjourned, to meet at Cartwright’s on the 30th—I attended there—there were twenty-eight persons present—they were Payne, Dowling, Brewster, Rose, Mullins, Bassett (his first appearance) Stevenson, a new delegate, myself, Ferdinando, Fay, and others—there was a return made from the new delegates of the feeling of the members of their localities, and also the number of fighting men that they could depend on—I believe that afternoon there was a resignation of the committee that met at the Black Jack, on account of the charges brought against Rose and Mullins, as being spies—a new committee, called the Ulterior Committee, was then appointed, composed of Payne, Rose, Mullins, Bassett, and the prisoner—that was the same Rose as it had been suggested was a spy—there was a talk about his election—the person who charged him as being a spy was not left out (I judged it was Brewster)—he was elected, after discussion and an explanation—it was not stated what the Ulterior Committee were to take into their consideration—it was generally understood what they were appointed for—a resolution was passed that the delegates should meet, if necessary, at Cartwright’s, on the following Monday evening—there was no meeting that evening—the next meeting was on Tuesday, 1st Aug.—that was the meeting which I alluded to, that was to take place at the Dispatch coffee-house, Bride-lane—there were thirty-four persons present, all delegates, or representing themselves as such, Payne, Rose,. Mullins, Brewster, Dowling, Bezer, myself, Fay, Thompson, Donovan, Lynch, Fuzzon, Warry, Allnutt, Ferdinando, Raymond, and others—a report was given in by the new delegates the same as before—(there had tan a resolution passed at Cartwright’s, on July 30th, that four more should be added to the Ulterior Committee, to make it nine)—I do not think I saw this paper there—I might have done so—Bezer gave in his return of fighting men as fifty—he came from our district, Cartwright’s—I cannot say what number the others returned—it was taken down either in pencil or ink—the Irish Felon Society was held in our locality, and the Star Society—there was also a club called the Davis’ Club, the Emmett Brigade, and the Tom Paine’s locality, and various others—there were delegates from each of those localities at the meetings I have mentioned—there was a jealousy that there were not enough Irish on the Ulterior Committee, and four more were added—they were Thompson, Lynch, Fay, and Donovan—there was a discussion on the propriety of sending a person to some part of Limerick or Cork, to ascertain how they were getting on—I do not know who proposed it it was not adopted—the reason stated was because it was not likely they could get any true intelligence of the state of the country—a proposition was made by the prisoner that there should be a demonstration on Sunday, 6th Aug., at two o’clock, of Chartists and Confederates, on Primrose-hill, to ascertain the strength and numbers of the people—it was lost by a majority of five—a resolution was carried to the effect that every delegate should return to his locality, and ascertain how the members were for regularity of preparation, and ready to be called out at an hour’s notice—I do not know that that was a substitute for the Primrose-hill meeting—it was after that had been disposed of—a resolution was passed that they should meet at Cartwright’s on Friday, Aug. 4th, at eight o’clock—Mullins stated he had seen Mr. Kydd that day, 1st Aug., and that Mr. Kydd had said, if the people came out for physical force, he would not be backward in heading them; but that he, Kydd, had entered on the executive as a moral-force man, and had taken the office only on that ground—that was what Mullins remarked on Kydd’s statement to him—that was received with a degree of belief—Kycid was one of the executive of the council of the Chartists, of the convention that sat in John-street—I know out Cripplcgate-street district was in communication with the executive in John-street—we next met at Cartwright’s on Friday evening, 4th Aug—there were thirty-two present—Mr. Payne was in the chair—Rose, Brewster, Gurney, (his first appearance,) Mullins, Bassett, (his second appearance’ Cuffey, Donovan, Lynch, Dowling, myself, Thompson, and others—the committee had met previously at three, before the whole body—the prisoner was present in the evening, but I will not say he was present at the committee—the committee sat half an hour or an hour, before the rest of the body joined them, and there was a discussion about what scarfs were to be worn as a sign of officership—a red scarf was mentioned; and it was determined that they should have red scarfs—I was present, and Brewster also a report was given in that evening by the new delegates of the number of men, the same as before—I should tell you that the committee who were sitting, Payne, Rose, Brewster, Mullins, and Bassett, had some conversation about a circular that Mr. Kydd had received, stating that they were desirous of knowing how far the committee of delegates then sitting in London were disposed to send a delegate to Manchester—it was decided to do so—Mr. Lacey’s name was mentioned, and Bassett was deputed to want upon him, and Rose gave Bassett money that Lacey might go on the following morning (Saturday)—a resolution was passed that evening, to the effect that the delegates should submit to the determination of the ulterior committee, whatever it was—the thirty-two were then present—a resolution was passed that the delegates should call on the members in their localities to meet at half-past two on the following Sunday, the 6th, at their localities, and to prevent if possible the members attending the meeting on Kennington’ common; to wait there till their delegates returned from Kennington-common—there was a meeting advertised to take place at Kennington-common that day, called by Mr. Dwaine—to the best of my belief it was to be at three o’clock—each delegate, in his particular district, was to have his members—their place of meeting, to keep them from going, till the delegates retuned from the Dispatch Coffee-house—it being an unlawful meeting, many of the members would be brought in contact with the police, and they were desirous I of preventing it—there was a resolution passed that we should meet on the following Sunday at the Dispatch Coffee-house—there was also another resolution passed for every delegate to select four men, to appoint then as telegraphs on the Sunday, and to station them from Fleet-street to Kennington-common—the delegates were to be at the Dispatch Coffee-house, and thus communicate with the persons at Kennington-common—I attended the meeting on the Sunday—there were from twenty-five to thirty persons present—I do not recollect that the prisoner was present—the arrangement was carried out of having men placed between the Despatch Coffee-house and the Common—I was appointed as one of the lookers-on, to see that!” the telegraphs should be stationed—a resolution was passed that they should meet at Dennis’s Coffee-house on the Monday evening—I attended it-there were about thirty present—it began at eight—the prisoner was there—Ritchie and Cuffey, and the whole nine of the ulterior committee were there and others, amounting to thirty—that night the ulterior committee resigned—on account of the reports in the papers of the arrest of Smith O’Brien in Ireland, and Mullins explained that he had no confidence in the others who were selected on the committee, that he had not seen their plans—he alluded to the four new Irishmen that had been added—one or two of the other made the same statement—there—was a fresh election—Messrs. Rose, Mullins, Brewster, Payne, and Bassett were elected, and were called the ulterior committee—a resolution was passed that there should be a president, and that the one who had the lowest post on the committee was to retire when the president came in—this was a visionary president—he was not named—there was some remark made by persons present that he was somebody and nobody—he was somebody to be talked about, and nothing more—a resolution was then passed that the sum of three-farthings should be levied on every member of every locality for the purpose of paying this president, to supply him with a salary—no time was specified for the payment—every delegate was to make the statement to the members in his locality—a letter was read by Mr. Payne, which I can only explain in this way, as he read it, that trade, was very good, and we should soon have a good order—he stated that the letter came from Mr. Lacey, who had been sent to Manchester—there was some degree of satisfaction expressed by many of the delegates present—they were glad to hear Lacey was going on well—a resolution was passed that they should meet on Wednesday, Aug. 9th, at the Lord Denman beer-shop, in Suffolk-street, Blackfriar’s-road—Messrs. Payne, Brewster, Rose, Mullins, Dowling, myself, Gurrney, Donovan, Bassett, and others, twenty-eight in all, were present—reports were given in by the new delegates of the feeling of their localities, and the number of fighting men, and the state of preparation they were in—I do not think anything was said about ball-cartridges, or anything of that sort; merely about preparation—Payne was in the chair, but Mullins acted as chief speaker—he was vice-chairman, and sat at the other end of the table—he called on all the delegates to declare their allegiance and determination to abide by the decision of the committee for the good of the people—they did not swear, but some declared solemnly, and some said they were determined to risk their lives, and abide by the deci-sion of the committee—Payne read another letter from Lacey, stating that all was going on well, that he was still at Manchester or some other part of the country, and there was a question asked how long he was to continue there, and Payne said he was to remain there as long as necessary—a resolution was passed that they should meet at Perry’s coffee-house, Church-street, Bethnal-green, or Shoreditch, on the following Friday, 11th, at eight o’clock—I went, but found no meeting—I was informed that the police had been to Rose’s house, and had seized his papers, and that all was up—I then went home—I heard on the following Sunday that there was to be a meeting on the following Monday night, 14th, at the Orange Tree beer-shop, Orange-street, Red Lion-square—I attended it, and I was asked why I was not at the other two meetings that bad taken place since Wednesday—I found, I should say, twenty-five there—I have not got their names, but I think I can tell them—there was Cuffey, Brewster, Payne, Mullins, Gurney, Fay, Ritchie, Scurry, myself and others—Dowling was not there, at least I did not see him there—Gurney asked me how it was I did not go to the meeting at Perry’s coffee house—I said I did go, and there was none held—he said there was, and then he told me where it was held—Payne was in the chair at the Orange Tree, but Mullins was the spokesman, and he was chief spokesman on all occasions—he called on us to give a return of the number of ball-cartridges that each delegate and his members had prepared—each delegate gave in his return of half-cartridges that he had prepared, and also what the members of his particular district had prepared—I did not take any note of the number—I think it was somewhere about 500 or 600—there was a return given in of the number of fighting men—Mullins stated that there were nearly 5000 fighting men of the Chartists alone—a return was also given in from the Confederates—I can not remember the number of them for a certainty, but I think it was something bordering upon the same number—it was a considerable number—he said the time was near at hand—he said, “Gentlemen, the next business is that I want every delegate to select four or six men, or more, as many as the can select iron; his locality”—there was a question asked what they were for- I do not know by whom—Cuffy answered, “To fire houses, railway premises trains, or anything”—I did not put anything down at the meeting—I was obliged to be cautious not to put any thing down—Mullins looked up at the gas which goes along the ceiling, and said “If I look up at the gas, you will at know what I mean”—I was asked how many men I thought I could select and I said two, and the other delegates right round gave in a return also—it was said they were to be men who could be depended on, who would do any-thing and everything—in the course of the evening there was a proposition made and carried, to send a deputation of two persons to have an interview with some of the North-Western Railway engineers, and ascertain what then feelings were, and whether they were willing to come over and assist the Chartists—Ritchie and Scurry were proposed and unanimously carried the purpose—I was not aware till that evening that there had been a conference between the engineers and the company—it was mentioned then because it was requested to know what they were going for—1s. 6d. was voted to defray their expenses for refreshment—they left forthwith on lie: mission—they were not present when the other resolutions were passed-! did not see any more of them that evening—there was a resolution passed that we should meet at half-past seven at the Lord Denman on the following Tuesday evening—I went—Payne, Brewster, Mullins, Cuffey, Dowling, Allnutt, Fey Gurney, Lacey, Ritchie, Ferdinando, and others, in all about forty, were there-Lacey was there when I got there—he entered into conversation with several of us, and told us that the men of Birmingham and Manchester, and I think he said Liverpool, but am not certain, were up and were doing, or would be doing that night, and he had been watched all day by the police, and as he was coming out of his street-door, a boy came up and told him that he was watched by the police—I had never seen Lacey before, I had only heard of him—he said he had been to Birmingham and Manchester, and other places, but I do not re-member for a certainty what those places were, and he had also been watched for two hours, and he gave the police the double, and had reached the place safety—about three quarters of an hour after that, there was a distributed colours by Brewster—they were twisted plaited ribbons, and were gives a the delegates so that they might be recognised as the leaders of the people—Brewster stated so—they were to be put on the left arm—they were three colours, red, white, and some other—I received one—Mullins was present as their distribution, and after that some of the committee came in—they were not-all present, at least I did not see them, but one or two of them spoke, are told Lacey they had better retire and consult—the room up-stairs was ✗ pied by a sing-song, and we had the lower room—Lacey said, “If yes will wait a while I will go and see at a neighbour’s coffee-house, whether we cannot have a room”—he went out, returned, and said “All right, or some such word-, and the committee went out with him—I did not go—they were gone about three quarters of an hour, or it might have been an hour—the delegates remained till they returned—they went away, to consult to gather-when they retired, Cuffey said, “Now, Mr. Chairman, you has better give the; instructions as quick as possible”—Mullins was acting-as chairman—Laccy went with them when they went out—I did not see him return with them, and was surprised at it—Cuffey was secretary; I was informed he was chosen secretary by the committee—Mullins said, “Gentle-men, as you are aware, the committee have retired, and come to certain resolutions and decisions; they have directed me to give you the following instructions; and as our friend, Mr. Lacey, has informed us that the men of Birmingham and Manchester are up, and will be doing to-night, and we have no reason to doubt the correctness of his statement, therefore, gentlemen, to-morrow night you must come out to fight and strike the blow; and it is necessary, gentlemen, that you should speak out honestly and boldly, for there must be no flinching in the matter”—Cuffey stood by the fireplace, and said, “You had better put it round, Mr. Chairman, to every one present; let them answer, ‘Yes’ or ‘No'”—Mullins on that appealed to a delegate sitting by me, and said, “Will you come out to fight?”—he said, “Yes”—he said to me,” Will you?” and I said, “Yes”—then he said, “Will you?” addressing each in turn, one by one, round the room, till he came to Mr. Ferdenando, who made a bit of a speech, and explained his reasons that he could not conscientiously say “Yes” to coming out—he objected, he was not agreeable; in fact, he said, “No”—he gave his reason, and then said, “No,” and sat down—there was one more of the same opinion—I do not know his name—he was companion delegate, I understood, to Allnutt, who sat by his side—with the exception of those two, the answer from the rest was, “Yes”—after that Mullins said, “Gentlemen, you must understand we shall take up four positions: Clerkenwell-green will be taken by Mr. Brewster; the Tower Hamlets will be taken by Mr. Payne;” and the Seven Dials, and the Broadway, Westminster, were the other two positions—Basset and Mullins were to take those two—I do not know which was to take each—Mullins said, after giving the instructions in that manner, “Gentlemen,” every delegate must assemble the members of his locality, for them to communicate to their locality at eight o’clock precisely”—it was to be the next night—there was a question asked by a delegate, I do not know who, how they were to get there with their pikes and poles?—Mullins said, “I can only say they must get them there the best way they can,” (some of the poles were ten feet long), “and at twenty minutes past nine, to a second, every delegate must be with his men at their respective positions”—the delegates were to come armed—Mullins proposed, and it was carried unanimously, that Ritchie was to superintend and direct those men that were to be selected for the purpose of firing houses, railway premises, trains, or anything—Ritchie undertook it—the Orange Tree was to be the place of meeting—a question was asked, how Ritchie was to know these men, and some person said, “I propose the password to be, ‘Frost and Mitchell'”—Allnutt proposed the word “Justice”—it was put, and carried unanimously; so that when these men entered the room Ritchie might ask them, “What do you want? who do you want?” and they would make reply, “Justice;” and then he would know them—Mullins said to Payne, “Just take a list of the number of men;” and he put them down; but he made a mistake, and there was some little confusion with the delegates—he went round the room again, and the number was reckoned forty-six—he applied to the person who sat next to me first, and then to me, and I said, “Two,” but I could only depend on one—he went round to every delegate, and in that way forty-six was made up—Gurney was there at the time, and when—I said I could select two, he said, “Oh, nonsense, you can select more than that, half a dozen, I know” I Was rather put out at his taking on himself to judge upon it; in fact, there Was but one man that I could depend on for the purpose—Gurney was one of the wardens before I was elected on the council—each warden has 100 men under him, according to the rules of the Society—after the number of men was taken, the last words Mullins uttered were, “May the bitterest curse of God hang on the soul of that man that shall betray any one of us”—it was such a colour as this (produced) that was to be tied round the arm—nothing more took place that I remember—I came away—the prisoner was there that night, and sat nearly opposite me—I attended a meeting on the following day, 15th—it had been arranged on the Tuesday evening at the Lord Denman, that our locality, the Finsbury, City, and Clerkenwell localities, were to meet Brewster at twelve o’clock, at the Crispin, in Milton-street, Cripplegate, to receive the delegates from each locality—I went, but did not arrive till a quarter to one—I found Brewster, Gill, Gurney, and I believe Fay, and others, eight or nine altogether—I have not made a note—Brewster said it was his intention to attack the Artillery-ground, and, if possible, to take it, and he should have to fight b——y hard, and that we should know by four o’clock in the afternoon whether the Government had received any intimation of what was going on—there was another person with him at the time; in fact, it was the man who told me at Perry’s coffee-shop that there was no meeting there, and that it was all up with Rose—Brewster pointed to this person, and said, “Wait on me at Clerkenwell-green when you are all there”—Brewster said, “Don’t be afraid because you do not see the signals for a little while; you might not see the signals for half an hour, but wait a bit”—it had been arranged at the Orange Tree that there were to be bonfires—the men who were selected, were spoken to on that same evening, for I spoke to my men—Brewster also said, “Ritchie swears, so help his God, he will shoot the first person dead that flinches from his duty.”

Groups were assigned gathering places for the start of the action. Charles Baldwinson, a tailor, of Webber-street, Blackfriars, was told to lead his Chartist branch to the Broadway, Westminster, and was told other groups would be mustering at Clerkenwell-green, in the East End, and at Seven Dials. Other evidence at the later trials suggests that groups were also to gather at “the Peacock, Westminster-road; another, at the Crispin, in Milton-street, Cripplegate; another, at Breadon’s beer-shop, Shouldham-street; and the fourth, I think, at the Buck’s Head, somewhere about Bethnal-green-road, or Hackney-road”. According to testimony given by the police spy George Davis: “plans… [were] produced…. to erect barricades from Clerkenwell down to Seven Dials, and from Seven Dials down Drury-lane to St. Mary’s Church, in the Strand, by Somerset-house, and right along the Strand to Temple-bar; that would form a good barricade, and from Temple-bar down Fleet-street, and by the water-side, and they were to make sure of Chaplin and Home’s premises… they were to make a circle round from Holborn till they got to St. Martin’s-le-Grand, and down there till they got to Clerkenwell-green and Aldersgate-street, and they were to take possession of St. Paul’s Church.”

Davis also testified as to expected numbers: “Mullins remarked that it was not those they depended on; they did not depend on the organised Chartists, but they reckoned there were about 30000 thieves and vagabonds about London who would co-operate with and assist them.” Though this last may have been embroidery by Davis to increase the frisson of respectable fear…

Groups of Chartists in other towns and cities had certainly been sounded out, and some were seemingly ready to join in with the proposed uprising. In Ashton, Lancashire, a clash took place between Chartists and police on August 14th, which led to some arrests: whether this was linked to the plans in London is unknown.

Powell asserts that conspirators reckoned on 5000 supporters in London being ready to take part in revolt. What stage plans for a rising on 16th August had really reached, and what kind of numbers would have joined in, is unclear. In any case, the authorities were completely forewarned, and moved pro-actively to round up the groups readying themselves for revolution.

At 6pm on the night of 16 August, 11 men were arrested at the Orange Tree public house Orange Street, off Red Lion Square in Holborn. Later, at 9pm, 13 more were held at the Angel in Southwark, and within 20 minutes more a large crowd that had  gathered at Seven Dials, Covent Garden, were dispersed. Arrests continued for several days across London, and some caches of stashed weapons were discovered and seized.

Orange Street, off Red Lion Square, location of the Orange Tree pub.


“ARREST OF ARMED CHARTISTS IN LONDON

On Wednesday night a scene of the utmost confusion took place in Webber Street , Blackfriars which, for two or three hours, created considerable sensation in the neighbourhood.

It appears that, from private information received by the Government, about half-past nine, Superintendent Rutt, with nearly 300 men, marched to the Angel Tavern in Webber Street kept by Mr Smith. Mr Rutt, with a pair of loaded pistols and a cutlass at his side, entered the house, accompanied by a strong body of constables, and, at the same time, upwards of a hundred officers were drawn up in front of the premises under arms. The moment the police entered the tap-room or parlour, a general movement took place on the part of the persons assembled there, and Mr Rutt cried out, “If any man offers the least resistance I will run him through,” at the same time showing his drawn cutlass. This had the desired effect, and little or no resistance was attempted. The police then in a body seized fourteen men who were in the room, and conveyed them, under a strong guard, to Tower Street , where, upon being searched, pistils loaded to the muzzle, pikes, three-corner daggers, spearheads and swords were found upon their persons, and others were found secreted under the seats on which they had been sitting. Some of them wore iron breast-plates, and others had gun-powder, shot and tow balls. Under one man no less than 75 rounds of ball cartridge were discovered. The prisoners having been duly charged, their names and addresses were taken, and scarcely a man was brought forward who was not well known to the police as being a prominent Chartist. The whole of the prisoners were locked up at Tower Street under a strong escort of police. Soon after, Superintendent Rutt and Inspector Russell, from private information which they received, proceeded to Blue Anchor-yard, York Street , Westminster , where, it was stated, a gant of armed Chartists were waiting to march out and join the other portions in the event of a procession being formed. On entering the house of a well known leader, the man and a large pike were found.

Upon the police proceeding to the house of Samual Morgan, one of the men taken in the Angel Tavern, the police found the leg of a chair loaded with lead, and a number of nails driven in at the extremity. It was about the length of a policeman’s truncheon, and so heavily laden that a blow on the head with it must have caused instantaneous death. Swords and weapons of various kinds have been found at then residences of the other prisoners.

The whole of the military quartered at Buckingham palace, the Tower, Mint, Bank of England and the various barracks were under arms.

From what has already transpired, it is supposed that the Chartist and Confederate clubs intended to march out well armed, as they did some weeks back, and attack such buildings as may be pointed out to them.

Shortly after the capture was made in Webber Street , a meeting was attempted to be held at the South London Chartist Hall, in the same street, when one of the leaders rushed into the building, and advised them, for God’s sake, to disperse as their lives were in danger. In an instance a general rush took place for the street, and one man, in leaping from a side window, severely injured himself, and, it is rumoured, broke one of his legs.

In consequence of information received at the Home-office that a Chartist demonstration on a large scale was intended to be held at a house in Moor Street, Seven Dials, orders were issued to the superintendents of the various divisions of police at the wet end of the metropolis, to muster all their men and keep them in reserve till further orders. At four o’clock in the afternoon, a strong body of police, under the direction of Superintendents Pearce and Grimwood, went to the Orange Tree public-house in Orange Street , and having satisfied themselves that a number of armed Chartists were in the house, proceeded with several constables into the place, and arrested about eighteen men, armed with pistols, pikes, and blunderbusses. The landlord was also arrested, and several cabs having been procured, the whole of the prisoners were handcuffed and conveyed to the police station in Bow Street . The public house in question is now closed. About eleven o’clock an alarm was given that upwards of 500 Irish Confederates armed with pikes were about marching from Moor Street to meet the Confederates in Webber Street, and in consequence of the alarm manifested by the inhabitants, the whole of the C division, fully armed, under the orders of Superintendent Beresford, proceeded to the spot, and found that a number of Irish had assembled at a public house in the street under the pretence of having a raffle, in order to raise funds to defend the Confederate leaders on their forthcoming trial. This, however, turned out a mere subterfuge, for one the house being entered, the whole of the persons assembled there were found with arms in their hands. A violent resistance was offered on the part of the Confederates; but on the police drawing their cutlasses, they speedily threw down their arms and ran out of the house. Four fellows who were more violent than the rest were taken into custody. Quiet was not restored to the neighbourhood till a late hour.”
(The Scotsman, 19 August)

Thomas Barrett’s later testimony in court gives some sense of the atmosphere in the run up the 16th August:
BARRETT: “I am a shoemaker, of 17, Charles-street, Lisson-grove. On Whit-Sunday I became a member of the Emmett Brigade, which held its meetings at Morgan’s beer-shop, in Praed-street,. and one branch in Shouldham-street, kept by Broaden—I know a man named Mullins—I have heard him address meetings of Chartists and Confederates, at Breaden’s, on several Sundays, and on Sunday, 13th Aug. I heard him say it was necessary for each man to prepare himself for the crests that was coming, and it was necessary for each man to make a small sacrifice to aid the Committee of Progress in their undertakings, and they would judge by the exertions they made whether they were prepared or not—at a meeting there on Tuesday, 15th Aug., between thirty and forty Chartists and Confederates were present—at one time there were forty—it was staled that they were waiting for delegates from the Committee of Progress—on Wednesday, 16th Aug., about eight o’clock, I went to the Chartist meeting-house in Praed-street—about twenty of the Emmet Brigade were assembled—it was said that they were waiting for orders; they did not say for what, but it was generally understood for an outbreak—I went from thence to Breaden’s, I got there about half-past eight or a quarters to nine, and found thirty or forty persons of the same class—Mullins came in and a man named Smith clapped him on the shoulder, and said, “My boy, I was afraid you were taken”—he said, “No, they only take me with my life’—he retired, and a man named Cruickshank came in and placed a musket on the table—I had seen him there once or twice before—I do not know what branch he was a member of—there were two pistols, and several pikes and pike—heads, in the room—I heard the question put whether they were prepared, and whether they had got their toothpicks, which was the name they gave them—Mullins and others retired into another room—when they came back I was sitting in the angle of the room, and saw Mullins look into the room, and withdraw out of my sight—Smith said to me, but I cannot swear whether it was in Mullins’ presence, that they were to be in readiness to meet their leader at Crown-street Soho-square, and the Seven Dials, at ten o’clock—the leader’s name was not mentioned—a cab, which I was informed—had brought Mullins, drove up to the door, and he went away in it—I believe there was a question asked how they were to take their arms—the answers in the best way they could—I went to Crown-street, Soho, walked down to the bottom, and recognised about thirty persons whom I had seen in the room.

Cross-examined. Q. “What is Mullins? A. I believe he is a surgess—he seems to be a man of education—I think he said crisis, and not cress—was, not in communication with the police when I heard Mullins speak—I am a moral-force Chartist—I think it is not physical means that will carry out moral force.”

Searches of the homes of some Chartists produced evidence of plans and numbers expected to ‘turn out’: Constable Joseph Thompson testified that “On 11th Aug. I searched Rose’s premises—he was with us, and showed us the place—I found this plan, marked “A;” this map of the City-road, “B;” a map or sketch of Seven Dials, “C;” blank forms for plans to be filled up; one of Seven Dials; and the other, beaded “Clerkenwell;” three recipes for gun-cotton, and these two lists of numbers—I found this cipher…”

William Chubb gave evidence: “I believe this (No. 11) to be the prisoner’s writing—(This being read, contained various marks and figures, with names and words attached to them, among which were “Pikes,” “Rifles,” “Killed,” “Shot,” “Barricades,” “Victory,” “O’Brien,” “Doheny,” “Tipperary.” “Poison,” “Fire,” “English,” &c. The papers found at Rose’s being read, contained a variety of names contracted, with numbers placed against them, signifying the various localities, their number, and names of the leaders, among which were the following: “Wall. 80; Bass, and Nas.—Lamb, lo 150 Ped.—Ber. 50; Dean. 250; Cuff. Thom.—Star. 50; Pear.-War—Irish, 50; Ritch.—St. Gils. 100;—Carts. 50; Fel. 100; Mitch 30; W. Ty. 20;—Fuzz. Fa., &c.””

A search of 2, Cross Court, off Russell Court, Drury Lane, the home of Joseph Ritchie, turned up “a hundred and seventeen ball cartridges, four bullet-moulds, four bullets, three constable balls, one powder-horn three-parts full of powder, a three half-pint bottle three-parts full of gunpowder, a bayonet, a ladle for melting lead, a piece of lead, several percussion caps, some shot, a quantity of tow, and the tricoloured band”.

Other Chartist meeting places were also raided. According to police inspector John Haynes, “On Wednesday, 16th Aug., between nine and ten o’clock, I went to the Charter coffee-house, kept by Lacey, in Strutton-ground, Westminster—I went over the house, and into the club-room, with Lacey—the Wallace brigade branch of the National Chartist Association met there—I found a list of members, the treasurer’s-books, the Victim Fund-book, and a contribution-book—I found Thomas Jones in a room down-stairs—he was searched in my presence, and two old pistols were found in his pockets, a bayonet in his breast, a one-pound canister of gunpowder in his hat, and a box of gunpowder in his pocket (produced)—here are some ball-cartridges for pistols, and another box of ball-cartridges.”

The most prominent Chartist arrested in this frenetic week was William Cuffay, a Black tailor, the son of Caribbean slaves. Cuffay had been delegated by the London Chartists to represent them at the Chartist Convention, and he had been one of the most noted speakers at the April 10th rally on Kennington Common. A fierce critic of the empty bluster of Chartists leaders like Feargus O’Connor, Cuffay would have seemed not generally in favour of taking such steps as small groups plotting insurrection; he was usually pointedly in favour of ensuring that any actions taken by Chartist bodies were properly representative of wider opinion.

David Goodway notes that Cuffay, while commonly held responsible for the rising, had in fact only become secretary of the “ulterior committee” of organisers three days before the rising: others have speculated that Cuffay was in fact acting (whether for the Executive or on his own) as a brake on an uprising launching at this time. This is speculation, however. Police testified that when arrested Cuffay was in possession of a pistol and a pike-shaft.

The most consistent actors in the planning of the London insurrection seem to have been Payne, John Rose, Brewster, James Bassett, and most of all the 22-year-old surgeon’s apprentice George Bridge Mullins.

William Lacey, Thomas Fay, William Cuffay, William Dowling, and later George Bridge Mullins were found guilty in September 1848 of treason, and sentenced to be transported to Australia for life. Joseph Ritchie pleaded guilty and was also sentence to be transported for life.

Fifteen others who pleaded guilty to lesser charges of ‘unlawfully conspiring to excite insurrection and riot, and to obstruct by force the execution of the laws and preservation of the public peace, and to procure arms and ammunition for that purpose’ were imprisoned for two years. At least twelve others pleaded not guilty, but were in the end bound over ‘on their own recognisance’ for two years.

We will return to the trials of the Chartist insurrectionaries in a later post…

Many more Chartist leaders and spokesmen were arrested in the wake of the failed revolt, and a number were jailed for sedition based on speeches made before the events of August. Despite all the drilling, arming and speechifying, no general uprising manifested; the agitation died down slowly. Hundreds of activists were now in prison or awaiting trial; supporting the prisoners became vital. But Chartist leaders also fell into fighting amongst themselves and denouncing each other, either for failing to act on their words, or for falling into the trap of violent action and language. Genuine political divisions were also opening up which would soon splinter the movement again. Chartism would decline over the decade five years into smaller and smaller groups.

Was there ever a realistic chance of revolution in 1848? In hindsight, there just does not seem to have been the mass support or the will to really bring a successful insurrection about. The penetration of the movement by spies to its deepest levels might be identified as the reason for its failure – however, in reality, revolutions are not generally brought about by small groups of conspirators, or not on their own. An organic movement grown powerful enough to overthrow a deeply established class system can not be jemmied into existence by a tiny minority, but takes years to grow; to evolve an alternative culture. Chartism at its best was moving towards that. To some extent the insurrectionary impulse was the result of frustration with the failure of mass agitation to move things forward (a pattern seen in the 1802 and 1820 attempts at revolt too); understandable, given the poverty of most working people’s lives and the repression visited on the legal campaigning.

But other factors were at play. Part of the reason why revolutions across Europe were (at least temporarily) successful in overthrowing monarchies and establishing more representative regimes is that those regimes were rigidly adhering to despotic forms of government and class structure – substantial sections of the middle classes and some manufacturing interests supported revolution because they were excluded from power. In Britain, the 1832 reform act and other social and economic changes had strengthened the power base of the state by broadly bringing the middle class on board. The British establishment’s ability to adapt and evolve in the face of demands for change remained the most powerful card in its hand.

1848 may not have been a Revolutionary Moment Missed – it did mark in practice an end to the insurrectionary tradition in British radical politics. Chartism’s legacy, however, was much more nuanced and pervasive; the alternative culture it had inherited and strengthened would go on to influence future generations of radicals for decades.

 

 

Today in drunken London history, 1736: a rumoured Uprising against the Gin Act

In 1736, the Gin Act, introduced heavy excise duties on gin production, and licensing to restrict its distribution, to try to reduce the English love of getting hammered on ‘Madam Geneva’). These measures aroused popular rage, and led to riots, widespread illegal gin-selling and scares of an uprising…

A spike in gin drinking had become the moral panic of its day. Economic protectionism was a major factor in beginning the Gin Craze; as the price of food dropped and income grew, consumers increasingly had the opportunity to spend their meagre excess funds on liquor.

Much of the gin on sale, though, was not as fragrant as your modern Spiced Pink Rhubarb number… This was often raw stuff, barely twice distilled, sometimes flavoured with turpentine and other industrial solvents if juniper was out of your price range. As parliament had abolished restrictions on distilling the stuff in the late 17th century, there followed a mass proliferation of small-scale distillers, knocking up bathtub gin by dubious methods and selling it at a knockdown price. An explosion of production and an explosion of consumption – soon all sorts of spirits were for sale on every corner. Pissed Londoners abounded.

By 1721, the Middlesex magistrates were already decrying gin as “the principal cause of all the vice & debauchery committed among the inferior sort of people”.

As consumption levels increased, an organised campaign for a crackdown on gin drinking began to emerge, usually envisioned as being effected by more restrictive legislation. The calls for new laws were led by the Bishop of Sodor and Man, Thomas Wilson who, in 1736, complained that gin produced a “drunken ungovernable set of people”. He was to be proved correct…

Prominent anti-gin campaigners from the 1730s to the 1750s included the writer and magistrate Henry Fielding (whose 1751 ‘Enquiry into the Late Increase in Robbers’ blamed gin consumption for both increased crime and increased ill health among children), Daniel Defoe (who had originally campaigned for the liberalisation of distilling, but later complained that drunken mothers were threatening to produce a ‘fine spindle-shanked generation’ of children), and – briefly – artist William Hogarth. Hogarth’s engraving Gin Lane is a well known image of the gin craze, and is often paired with “Beer Street”, creating a contrast between the miserable lives of gin drinkers and the healthy and enjoyable lives of beer drinkers.

Pressure from prominent magistrates in Westminster and Middlesex, and well-connected moral reform organisation the Society for the Reformation of manners had whipped up a campaign of outrage at the drunkenness of the poor, blaming much of the ills of London life on the availability of cheap gin. Their thesis went that poor Londoners were poor and many degenerate or desperate, and drinking gin was to blame. Clearly this is ass-backwards, as even commentators of the time pointed out – poor folk drank gin to blot out the desperate misery and poverty of the daily lives. Puritans generally get cause and effect all wonky, however; and when they managed to persuade Prime Minister Robert Walpole that higher duties on grain used for gin distilling and licences to sell spirits would bring in lots of lovely readies for the government coffers (much of it meant to slosh the king’s way), the way was paved for the Gin Act. It was passed in April 1736, and stipulated a twenty-shilling duty on gin sold in small quantities, a retain licence of £50 (quite a sum at the time), and a £10 fine for anyone selling gin ‘about the streets, highways or fields… on stalls, or ins any shed…’ Sellers who defaulted on the fine could be summarily sent down for two months hard labour.

However, cheap gin had become so much a part of London life that people were simply not prepared to pay more for it or do without it. A rising climate of anger against the Act saw tensions rise across the capital, already troubled with xenophobic anti-Irish rioting and shadowy Jacobite plots. Londoners were boosted by the knowledge that they had already seen off one of Walpole’s schemes to raise cash (the Excise Bill debacle in 1733)…

Anti-prohibition ballads were hawked through the streets. Seditious plays and articles mocked the government’s attack on ‘Madame Geneva’ and satirically compared the plans to heavily tax the cheap pleasures of the poor with the luxurious vice of the upper classes.

And rumours of an impending revolt spread, a rebellion, to be fuelled by gin, and launched on September  29th, Michaelmas Day, the day the Act was to come into force. Letters seized by Excise officers and constables showed that someone had circulated notes to a number of gin sellers and publicans, alerting them to the plans for an uprising and exhorting them to give away gin to the crowds to steel them for the fight. The codeword for the uprising to kick off was to be ‘Sir Robert and Sir Joseph” (namechecking PM Walpole and Joseph Jekyll, the Master of the Rolls, the leading advocate for the Act)… The letters hinted at support in the army for a revolt, and called on

“The dealers in distill’d liquors to keep open shop on Tuesday next, being the eve of the day on which the act is to take place and give gratis what quantities of Gin, or other liquors, shall be call’d for by the populace… then christen the streets with the remainder, & conclude with bonfires… All retailers whose circumstances will not permit them to contribute to the festival shall have quantities of liquor sent before the time… Invite as many neighbours as you can conveniently, & be under no apprehension of the Riot Act, but whenever you hear the words Sir Robert and Sir Joseph joyne in the huzza.”

The suggestions of a revolt, with the implication of possible jacobite influence, and possible disaffection among the troops, terrified the government. Rumours had been spreading for weeks that arms had been landed from abroad on various beaches for distribution among the poor.

The army was called into the capital to be ready for any trouble; a double guard was mounted at Kensington palace, the guards at St James, Horseguards and Whitehall reinforced, and 300 lifeguards and grenadiers were paraded through Covent Garden, to overawe the crowds… Other detachments were stationed in Hyde Park and the Westminster suburbs, and at the Master of the Rolls house in Chancery Lane. The prime minster and other notables had left London a few days earlier, just in case…

However, in the event, the plot came to nothing. There was no uprising. Whether it had been a piece of satirical propaganda, or wishful thinking of behalf of the jacobite underground, no mobs took to the streets to drown the government in gin. There was some rowdiness: “When Discontents express’d the bitterness in their Hearts by committing Violences, the Horse and Foot-Guards and Train’d Bands were order’d to be properly station’d to repel the Populace where it might gather. Some Shots were necessitated to be fired when, after the reading of the Riot Act, those inflamed by the Spirit of Madame Genever, failed to lawfully disperse while seeking to petition his Majesty at St James’ Palace at Midnight. Disturbances occurr’d through the night, in divers Locations, with some of damaging of Property and House breaking, but the Mob dispersed at the merest Hint of Authority and few firm Encounters are reported, though many spent an unquiet Night in pursuit.”

Quite a number did take to the street to carry on drinking, and some arrests were made in the subsequent days, mainly for selling gin. On 1st October a group were apparently nicked for conducting a mock funeral and wake for ‘Madame Geneva’ in Swallow Street, a notorious Soho rookery off Piccadilly. A procession gin distillers also marched to the Excise office. [Possibly shown in the illustration at the beginning of this post…] Apart from this, the only other protest seems to have involved ‘punch’ sellers draping their shops and painting their punchbowls in black. A paper reported that ‘Mother Gin’ had “died very quietly”.

This was, however, a somewhat premature obituary. There may have bene no gin-soaked revolt in September 1736 (though you could make a case that it was delayed 43 years and manifested itself in the Gordon Riots of 1780).  But the struggle against the Gin Act in fact intensified. Over the next year and a half, London saw a spate of attacks on the magistrates enforcing the rules against gin-selling, and violent mobbings and lynchings of informers, a number of whom tried to make some cash grassing up unlicensed distillers… Several informers were killed, rioters grabbed during protests acquitted, and constable put to flight when they tried to arrest ginsellers.

Illegal gin production rocketed, and exciting new ways of distributing the product clandestinely were developed… including the possible invention of the slot machine:

“The Mob being very noisy and clamourous for want of their beloved Liquor, which few or none at last dared to sell, it soon occurred to me to venture upon that Trade. I bought the Act, and read it over several times, and found no Authority by it to break open Doors, and that the Informer must know the Name of the Person who rented the House it was sold in. To evade this, I go an Acquaintance to take a Hosue in Blue Anchor Alley, in St Luke’s Parish, who privately convey’d his bargain to me” I then got it well secured… and purchased in Moorfields the Sign of a Cat, and had it nailed to a Street Window; I then caused a Leaden pipe, the small End out about an Inch, to be placed under the Paw of the Cat; the End that was within had a funnel in it.
When my House was ready for Business… I got a Person to inform a few of the mob, that Gin would be sold by the Cat at my Window next day, provided they put the Money in its Mouth, from whence there was a Hole that conveyed it to me… I heard the chink of Money, and a comfortable Voice say, “Puss, give me two Pennyworth of Gin.” I instantly put my Mouth to the tube, and bid them receive it from the Pipe under the paw, and the measured and poured it into the Funnel, from when they soon received it. Before Night I took six Shillings, the next Day above Thirty shillings, and afterwards three or four Pound a Day…”
(The Life and Uncommon Adventures of Captain Dudley Bradstreet, 1755)

Amidst the riots and murders, what did for the 1736 Gin Act in the end was evasion – the Act was simply widely ignored, and the law could not enforce it as effectively as it could be dodged.

A series of acts of parliament followed the 1736 and law, which variously introduced higher duties on distillers, brought in licences to try to prevent small-scale sellers dealing in cheap drams, or altered these laws (sometimes liberalising and sometimes jacking up the repressive measures – depending on the government of the day’s need for cash, as the licences and duties on grain for distilling brought in tidy sums…) Hardline campaigners for repression on moral grounds sometimes had the upper hand; at others the more pragmatic reformers prevailed.

In the end it was rising grain prices and falling wages that restricted gin’s appeal, and mass consumption began to decline in the 1750s… though it would make comeback in the 19th century with the rise of the Gin Palace, sparking a whole new moral panic.

No-one has yet blamed all our modern troubles on the new 21st century hipster Gin Craze… but there’s still time…

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2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London rebel history: Nicholas Jakes leads protest in London, 1450.

King Henry VI, nominally ruler of England between 1422 and 1461. was throughout his whole reign successively a child, then pious, frail and mentally unstable; he was never in charge of the government for very long before he fell ill. He fell under the influence of a succession of powerful aristocrats; some his own close relatives; while some were fairly pragmatic, others were rapacious power-brokers out for what they could grab into their own hands, both in terms of power and wealth.

In 1449 the King was almost bankrupted. The War in 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. The humiliation and retreat from France threatened to end the Lancastrian monarchy, running a deficit of £320,000 pa.

In the late 1440s, the power behind the throne was William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk and his willing lieutenants the Bishops of Salisbury and Chichester. Suffolk however became wildly unpopular – widely blamed for a series of military disasters in the long war against France; to the point where he was accused of being a traitor and plotting to support a French invasion of England.

He was generally believed to have embarked on large scale corruption, embezzling vast sums of money which should have been spent on the war effort, and of allowing his personal retainers in East Anglia to run riot.

Suffolk was also accused of using his lieutenants in Kent and Sussex to evict tenants unlawfully from their land. His arbitrary conduct was enforced by Stephen Slegge, Sheriff of Kent 1348-9.

A combination of populist discontent at the disastrous turn the French war was taking, and the collapse of the economy, sparked widespread unrest, and in early 1450 this became violent.

On 9 Jan 1450 a furious mob of unpaid soldiers attacked Adam Moleyns, Bishop of Chichester, a partisan of Suffolk who had been accused of embezzlement, and murdered him.

Days later, Suffolk was impeached by Parliament, accused of trying to surrender Wallingford Castle to the French.

But this didn’t put a stop to protest. Around 29th January Westminster yeoman Nicholas Jakes led a protest in London against the government; thought there are no records of what the demonstrators said or demanded, whatever it was spelt death for Jakes: “…on the last day of Janeuer in the same year was oon Nicholas Jakes, a servaunt late of Bassingbourne, Squyer, drawen through London to Tibourne and there hanged, beheaded and quartered for treason of language…”

In the same week, Thomas Cheyne, a labourer from Newington, Southwark, led an uprising of people from Kent between Sandwich and Dover who had a list of men they wanted beheaded that included Bishop of Salisbury William Ayscough, Duke William of Suffolk, James Fiennes the Lord Saye, and Lord Dudley the abbot of Gloucester. They appointed other captains (who adopted nicknames like ‘Robin Hood’ and ‘king of the fairies’ to conceal their identities); two hundred people marched on January 26, but thousands were said to have joined as they marched to Canterbury where an anti-clerical group attacked St. Radegund’s abbey hospice. However Cheyne was captured in Canterbury on January 31.

A week later on February 6th, Cheyne, who had called himself Bluebeard, was taken outside Canterbury to Westminster, where he was tried with plotting the murder of the king’ leading counsellors, and faced the same fate as Jakes. His head was stuck on a spike on London Bridge.

It’s not known whether these attempted revolts were co-ordinated.

This disorder scared the government immensely. In February 1450, proclamations were issued in London, Kent, Surrey and Sussex, banning all persons except lords, knights and eminent esquires from wearing arms or carrying weapons of any kind. Around the same time, the civil powers in Maidstone, Canterbury and Oxford, among other towns, were thanked by the King Henry’s Privy Council for sending in reports regarding gatherings of people ‘under untrue faines and pretense colours of intending to the common weal of the land’… The relevant authorities were ordered to break up any such rebellious gatherings.

But the ominous sense of impending rebellion hung about. In March, the King was finally forced to banish the Duke of Suffolk from the realm effective from 1 May, as rioting broke out against Suffolk’s rule. In April, the Sheriffs of London and Middlesex issued a proclamation denouncing the dissemination of false and seditious rumours, bills and libels, many of which had been fixed to the doors of churches and other buildings in the capital.

The duke fled to Eastthorp, his manor in Suffolk, but was chased there by the angry Londoners. As he was trying to get to the continent, the duke was spotted and men of Nicholas of the Tower boarded his vessel in the Channel and beheaded him on board. The body washed up on Dover beach.

However, all these events were to some extent just precursors to the more large-scale and dangerous Jack Cade’s revolt that took place in Kent in the summer of 1450.

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

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

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

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

So who was Wat Tyler?

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

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

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

John Tiler’s house was visited by assessors, who

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is the reply:

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

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

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

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

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

Read William Morris’s A Dream of John Ball

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

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Today in London 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 London rebel history: William FitzOsbert, or Longbeard, executed,1196, after popular disturbances.

‘Around this time I noticed that there was bad feeling and conflict in the city of London between the rich and the poor’. (Ralph Diceto)

‘And in the same yere an heretyke called with the longe berd was drawen and hanged for heresye and cursed doctrine that he had taught.’  Chronicle of London, 1196

‘He (King Richard) used England as a bank on which to draw and overdraw in order to finance his ambitious exploits abroad.’ A. L. Poole in the Oxford History of England

In the early 1190s, taxation was provoking serious tensions between the rich and poor people of the city of London. King Richard I, bafflingly nicknamed the Lionheart (read either ‘pschopathic warmonger’ or ‘little bloke who wants to kick off in the playground but gets battered’) by centuries of groveling muppets, urgently ‘needed’ vast wodges of cash to fund his pointless dynastic wars to defend the parts of his lands he really cared about, in France, and his inept attempts to go down in history as a valiant defender of the holy faith by re-conquering a few slivers of territory in Palestine. Being the king, he felt it was his right to extort this from the population of England (though he only every spent two very brief periods in England in his whole life, amounting in total to less than six months.) In the process he would nearly bankrupt the country, increase poverty and desperation, and spark dissent among even his own family.

This would also contribute to a little-known incident in London history, a brief flash of anger and rebellion, the true significance of which is shrouded and will likely never be known: the ‘revolt’ of William Longbeard.

The late 1180s and early 1190s saw a succession of taxes imposed to fund the crusades, wars, and later the ransom for king Richard when he lion-heartedly managed to get himself kidnapped by a rival prince. London, being the largest and most important city, had to bear the largest share, including for the massive ransom demanded when the king was captured on his way home. A levy for the aid of Jerusalem, known as the ‘Saladin Tithe’, in 1188, a tax to contribute to the king’s ransom in 1193, and another tax in 1194, were all on top of the regular sums extracted from the city of London, such as the farm, which was paid once a year. The crown’s exceptional demands on the city brought taxation to the forefront of the civic political agenda.

Like most taxes, in theory the better-off pay more, as in the same percentage of earnings of property means more if you earn or possess more. As usual, however, the rich and powerful of London tried, (and often succeeded) in passing on the main burden of the taxes onto the ‘poorer sort’, commonly evading or getting out of their duty to pay. How things have changed eh? You wouldn’t see the authorities allowing that sort of behaviour these days.

The poor of London in the 1190s complained that they were far more heavily taxed than the rich.

In 1196 a brief and abortive rebellion sparked in London against the heavy taxes, led by one William Fitz Osbert, nick-named Longbeard, because, he and his kinsmen had ‘adhered to this ancient English fashion of being bearded as a testimony of their hatred against their Norman masters’. (Matthew Paris). Apparently long beards then were viewed as symbols of pilgrims, and of learning, but also had the implication of ‘resistance to authority’… The hippies would like that (though as to hipsters…? Hmmm) His striking beard which ‘made him more conspicuous in meetings and assemblies’.

It is thought William was a Londoner, the son of ‘Osbert the Clerk’. The family wasn’t rich but was certainly well-to-do, thus William had been able to study law at university, supported partly by his brother Richard. Later he went on crusade to the Holy Land, returning about 1192-3, when he became involved in the internal civic politics of London. He was said to have been endowed with ‘a sharp mind’, was ‘moderately educated but unusually eloquent’.

The chronicler Gervase of Canterbury, who was one of FitzOsbert’s most hostile critics, adds that ‘he was most eloquent’. Even allowing for the chroniclers’ exaggeration of FitzOsbert’s charisma, which was intended to explain why he secured a following among the masses, it seems clear that he must have been an articulate and sophisticated man, with a forceful personality.

At this time the collection of taxes and levies was ‘left to Londoners themselves’. The aldermen of each city ward met at the ‘wardmoot’, an institution that went back to Anglo-Saxon times. Consent needed to be obtained and then each citizen was meant to contribute according to his wealth, although normally wealthier citizens were expected to pay at a higher rate than poorer people. If anyone possessed a ‘stone house’ they were deemed to be wealthy and ‘singled out and required to contribute at a higher rate’.

This Anglo-Saxon custom was being increasingly bypassed and ignored by the wealthier citizens of London, many of whom were the French-speaking descendants of the Norman conquerors; the poor being mostly the English.

“Great and frequent were the talliages imposed upon the City of London, for Richard’s ransom: and the burthen, according to the popular opinion, was increased, by the inequality of its apportionment or repartition. London at this period, contained two distinct orders of citizens: the Aldermen, the “Majores” or “Nobiles”, as they are termed in the ancient Year Books of the City, the Patricians or higher order, constituting (as they asserted) the municipal Communia, and constantly exercising the powers of government. To these, were opposed the lower order, who — perhaps being subdivided amongst themselves into two tribes of plebeians — maintained that they were the true Communia, to which, as of right, the municipal authority ought to belong. And in these conflicting ranks, an historical theorist may suppose that he discovers the vestiges of the remote period, when London was inhabited by distinct races or nations, each dwelling in their own peculiar town — the Ealdormannabyrigy still known as the Aldermanbury — inhabited by the nobles or conquering caste: whilst the rest of the city was peopled by the tributary or subject community. All contemporary chroniclers tell the same story: there was massive discontent because the wealthy and powerful were trying to avoid their share of the levy being raised to pay the king’s ransom. (Sir Francis Palgrave)

By 1194 King Richard’s ransom had been collected from the citizens of London and from the rest of the country, and early that year Richard returned to England for a brief visit. At this time, William Fitz Osbert, who might have known the king, them being together on crusade, denounced his own brother, Richard Fitz Osbert, and two other rich Londoners to the king. He claimed they were not only avoiding paying their fair share of the taxes that were still being raising for Richard’s campaign plans in France, but that they had traitorous discussions against the king as well.

“A document preserved in the rolls of the curia regis confirms that in a November session of the court in the sixth year of the reign of Richard I (1194), Richard FitzOsbert, Robert Brand, and Jordan Tanner were accused by William FitzOsbert of having held a meeting in Richard FitzOsbert’s stone house at which treasonous statements were made. Richard was accused of resenting the obligation to pay royal taxes. Jordan Tanner was held to have expressed a desire that the king never return home, and Robert Brand was charged with declaring that London would never have any other king except the mayor.”

The thrust of the accusation may have been family jealousy or an attempt to win favour with the king; in any case the accusation ended in either no action being taken against the three, or it being dismissed. Hostile chroniclers took it as evidence that FitzOsbert was really motivated by a desire to acquire his brother’s possessions or personal animosity.

However, it marks the beginning of FitzOsbert’s rise to prominence as a critic of the rich as tax avoiders and, briefly, a popular agitator.

From personal accusations against people he knew, FitzOsbert moved onto a more general campaign of disruption and propaganda. He is reported by the chroniclers who tell the story as alleging that ‘on the occasion of every royal edict the rich spared their own fortunes and because of their power placed the whole weight on the poor and defrauded the royal treasury of a large sum’.

All the chroniclers suggest that FitzOsbert was organising a popular movement, under his leadership. There is no record of FitzOsbert ever serving in any recognized or elected post, as a sheriff or alderman: he seems to have gained influence without holding office. Prominent and established Londoners dominated the ranks of the mayors, sheriffs and aldermen. Aldermen at this time probably inherited or bought their position, without being directly elected; it is possible that Fitz Osbert achieved prominence by speaking out at the wardmoots or the folkmoot, effectively public meetings usually used for agreeing and ratifying local decisions.

The Folkmoots, assemblies of male citizens held at St Pauls, and wardmoots, local meetings in each ward, served as venues of London community self-government, on the level of local decision-making, but could also inevitably be opportunities for popular discontent and agitation, especially in times of particular grievance or pressure.

A charismatic speaker, such as William FitzOsbert is said to have been, might well become popular by being a loud voice of dissent and criticism at such meetings. According to Newburgh, Fitz Osbert disrupted public meetings, and Diceto, the dean of St Paul’s, suggests that he “bound the people to himself with oaths and that his rhetoric was responsible for a riot in St Paul’s.” (Note that the folkmoot was held next to St Pauls, so perhaps a riot that began at a folkmoot?)

Disrupting official meetings, and binding the citizens with oaths, represented a threat to the established political order. FitzOsbert was also prepared to appeal to the king, according to Newburgh FitzOsbert ‘deemed it necessary to go overseas to complain to the prince that he suffered the enmity… of the powerful’. Again, the budding popular leader may have been trading on personal contact with the king developed in the crusades, and made a point of public support of the king while challenging the immediate authorities in he city. Howden asserts that FitzOsbert ‘obtained [the king’s] peace for himself and the people’. If so, it was a temporary peace…

Although, the chroniclers use a variety of terms to describe FitzOsbert’s supporters, including paupers, plebs, and cives Lundoniarum, this may not mean all of FitzOsbert’s support came from the very poor. At a time when the idea of the poor having a voice in the city’s politics, or wider political decision-making, was not considered at all, or would have been seen by the elite to be a joke, an impossibility, or represented a threat of chaos and disorder, this emphasis may be deliberately aimed discrediting the movement. FitzOsbert’s supporters could in fact have included many people from the ‘middling sort’ and had wealth worth taxing – certainly people who had something to lose to the extra tax regimes, not people who had nothing. Proof is impossible to come by on this, though when Hubert Walter, archbishop of Canterbury and Justiciar of England, was drawn into the troubles, and pressurised London’s citizens to hand over FitzOsbert, he ordered the arrest of London merchants visiting fairs in the surrounding counties. It’s not clear whether the merchant classes were known as supporters of Fitz Osbert, or merely being used as hostages.

In antagonising Hubert Walter, responsible in the king’s absence for keeping order in the realm, Fitz Osbert over-reached himself. Walter ‘convoked the common people, spoke to them squarely . . . and admonished them to give hostages for being loyal to the king’… but FitzOsbert, ‘supported by the crowd proceeded with a show of pomp and organized public meetings on his own authority’.

Hubert Walter saw the threat of disorder would be reduced by removing the figure at the movement’s head, and used both persuasion and threat to try to convince Londoners, including ordering the arrest of any Londoners caught outside the city (‘at Stamford Fair [March 31] some merchants… were arrested’.) But by April 1196, Walter resorted to force, after his men sent to bring FitzOsbert to trial were intimidated by the latter’s supporters. Walter sent armed men, supported by ‘noble citizens’, to arrest FitzOsbert; the latter and some of his followers fought them off, by all accounts, FitzOsbert personally killed one of the officers.

Realisation might have set in then that the forces arrayed against him might outweigh the 1000s he was supposed to by then command, or at least influence. FitzOsbert and a few supporters legged it to St Mary le Bow church, and took sanctuary refuge in the church tower, relying on the inviolability of sanctuary. But Hubert Walter decided to violate the sanctity of the church (very controversial at the time) and the steeple was burned to force FitzOsbert out, while more soldiers were sent into the city to overawe the common people.

FitzOsbert surrendered when the church was ‘besieged with fire and smoke’. Once captured, William FitzOsbert was taken to the Tower, tried, and then on April 6th, 1196, brought to Smithfield for execution, dragged “through the centre of the city to the elms, his flesh was demolished and spread all over the pavement and, fettered with a chain, he was hanged that same day on the elms with his associates and died”. This was unusual for the time, as “the public execution of a prominent public figure was clearly not part of the normal political process.”

His execution, and the occupation of the city by archbishop Walter’s soldiers, squashed the immediate threat of class disorder in London, though it did also, for a while, turn FitzOsbert into a martyr.

“Gervase of Canterbury relates that ‘a sudden rumour spread through the city that William was a new martyr and shone through miracles’. People started seeking out his place of execution. Newburgh notes that the gibbet was stolen and ‘the earth underneath, as if it were consecrated by the blood of the hanged man… was scraped away by the fools in small bits until a considerable ditch was formed’.

Even in death FitzOsbert was a threat to order, and Newburgh remarks that the ‘multitude continually kept watch’ at the execution site ‘and this very vain error became so strong that it could have misled even the wise’. The intensity of the spiritual focus on him after death does suggest the strength and depth of his support within the population at large, and could have sparked further imitation of his methods – or so the authorities though. Again, they resorted to violence. Gervase of Canterbury records that ‘an ambush was laid and those who came at night-time to pray were whipped’.” (John McEwan)

The budding cult of William Longbeard was suppressed.

It remains unclear, and is unlikely to ever be clarified, at this distance of time, how much William Longbeard FitzOsbert was the head of a genuine popular movement, how large the discontent spread, and how much of a threat to the London authorities it was. It seems to have dissipated quickly under the repression led by Walter and the London notables. And how much was Longbeard seeking to exploit anger for his own ends – power in the city? Impossible to tell.

Its clear that the events caused no immediate change in the power structures in London; “the civic leadership was disconnected from the population”, and it remained so afterwards. But the incident shows that popular pressure could have an impact, and that there the civic authorities could not necessarily expect unquestioning deference, and that there was a preparedness, at least from some elements in the lower and middling strata, to protest the unequal financial economic burden of taxation.

“The chroniclers maintain that the lower orders were willing to express their opinions, and indeed that they believed that their interests should play an important role in determining the policy of the community. The chroniclers also make clear that there were recognised mechanisms whereby public opinion could be made manifest. Public meetings provided a vehicle for the expression of sentiments of dissatisfaction, and indeed it was possible for a man such as William FitzOsbert, who was not in the first rank of London merchants, to acquire influence by articulating the critical opinions of an angry section of the population. Furthermore, even though poor and middling men did not serve as mayors or sheriffs, their opinions ultimately mattered in civic politics, because they were not easily coerced. When a restive section of the population opposed their methods of organising taxation, the authorities could not implement a policy.” (John McEwan)

William Longbeard’s posthumous reputation in written sources was initially dim, as the main chroniclers of London at this time generally took pains to portray him in negative terms, while acknowledging the anger the unequal burden of tax had aroused. But this was to change in the years following the events. To some extent the memory of Longbeard chimed with the tales of outlaws like Robin Hood: the good rebel, supporter and friend of the good absent king, who is being betrayed by evil counselors or rapacious sheriffs, who are oppressing the loyal people.

Less than a century after his savage death, in the hands of Matthew Paris, FitzOsbert was transformed from a villain into a hero. “Paris presents a stridently sympathetic portrait of FitzOsbert, describing him as the leader of a movement which resisted the unreasonable impositions made upon the poor by the mayor and aldermen. He calls the attack on St. Mary le Bow church a ‘sacrilege’ … Paris’s account, in addition to providing a perspective which contrasts with those of the earlier chroniclers, provides evidence that FitzOsbert lived on in the popular imagination. In part, this was because of the dramatic nature of his death, but it was also because taxation and conflict between the rich and the underprivileged continued to be relevant issues that excited passions and sparked debate.”

Alot of this was nicked John McEwan, William FitzOsbert and the Crisis of 1196 in London

https://journals.lib.unb.ca/index.php/flor/article/viewFile/14454/15526

 

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

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Today in London’s theatrical history: Paul Robeson stars as black revolutionary Toussaint Louverture in CLR James play, 1936

“I was tired of hearing that the West Indians were oppressed, that we were black and miserable, that we had been brought from Africa, and that we were living there and that we were being exploited.” (CLR James)

“James’s treatment of ‘the most glorious victory of the oppressed over their oppressors in world history’ will remain an inspiration, because of its universal theme, for the foreseeable future.” (Christian Hogsbjerg)

In 1791, inspired both by the ideals of the French Revolution and the horrors and toil of their existence, slaves on the Caribbean island of San Domingo rose in revolt. For twelve years they fought off the white French masters, and armies from France, Spain and Britain, ultimately founding the independent black republic of Haiti. A number of outstanding military leaders masterminded the war for Haiti’s freedom: most famously, Toussaint L’ouverture, who emerged from the struggle as its most clear thinker and general, though he was betrayed into the hands of the French before the final victory and died in a French prison.

Hollywood, the socialist Paul Foot once noted, ‘made a film about Spartacus, the leader of the Roman slave revolt, because Spartacus was beaten. Toussaint L’Ouverture was victorious, so they haven’t made a film about him’. His being black may have something to do with it…

There may be no Hollywood blockbuster (I’m guessing it’d end up with Matt Damon in blackface anyway), but there is a French TV movie

And there was once a ground-breaking play…

In 1934 the fantastic Trinidadian Marxist polymath CLR James, then living in London, finished writing his play Toussaint L’Ouverture: The Story of the Only Successful Slave Revolt in History. The playscript was long presumed lost, (although James did revise the text in the 1960s), until the rediscovery of a draft copy in 2005. James was to go on to write the classic account of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins, published in 1938.

Born in Trinidad in 1901, Cyril Lionel Robert James was to become a marxist activist and theorist, leading pan-Africanist, cricket commentator, and cultural thistorian. He had arrived in England in 1932, and became engaged not only in literary challenges to racism, in revolutionary politics and the African and West Indian independence movements, in resistance to fascism… James’s play about a revolutionary leader defeating brutal oppressors was both a historical drama and a response to the news of the day.

Toussaint Louverture was staged on March 15th and 16th 1936 at London’s Westminster Theatre; another black communist, the incredible Paul Robeson, starring in the title role, one of the world’s most famous actors and singers– making it an event of international interest. The League of Coloured Peoples (discussed on this blog the other day), of which James was an active member, helped sponsor the performance. This was the first time black professional actors had starred on the British stage in a play written by a black playwright, and interestingly despite his long acting career and lifelong anti-racist stance, was to be the only time Robeson starred in a play by a writer of African descent. Just the idea of a meeting of the work these two giants of the twentieth century is enough to send shivers down the spine…

James wrote the play in 1934, but it remained unproduced until 1936, when the script came into the hands of Robeson, who had been looking for a chance to portray the Haitian leader on stage. Back in 1926, Robeson had told an interviewer that he dreamed “of a great play about Haiti, a play about Negroes, written by a Negro, and acted by Negroes . . . of a moving drama that will have none of the themes that offer targets for race supremacy advocates.” In 1935 Robeson had even discussed the idea of a film about the Haitian revolt with the great Soviet film director Sergei Eisenstein, who had become fascinated with the Haitian story. Sadly this film never happened (is there an alternative universe where Eisenstein filmed Robeson in James’s play! – imagine…)

For an interesting and detailed description of the plot, themes and staging of he play, it’s worth reading Christian Hogsbjerg’s introduction to his published edition of Toussaint Louverture.

“The cast assembled around Robeson was remarkable, featuring as it did other black professional actors from throughout the African diaspora, including Robert Adams, who played Dessalines. Adams, born in British Guiana, had, like James, been a distinguished schoolteacher who produced and acted in amateur productions before coming to Britain. He had worked with Paul Robeson in Sanders of the River and Midshipman Easy, and in 1935 he made his London stage debut in Stevedore. Also recruited from Stevedore was the Nigerian Orlando Martins, who played the role of Boukman. Black amateur actors—including other veterans of Stevedore, such as John Ahuma, Rufus E. Fennell, and Charles Johnson—were included, while the remaining cast was recruited through the Stage Society itself, many of whom were experienced professional actors or rising stars such as Harry Andrews.

The play was staged at the 730- seat Westminster Theatre, on the fringes of London’s West End in Palace Street. The owner of the Westminster Theatre during this period was A. B. Horne, and it was managed by Anmer Hall. Michael Sidnell notes that Hall learnt that “Sunday performances were a way of getting a hearing for new or neglected plays without going to great expense.” With its quite liberal management, it is not surprising that the Westminster Theatre was a home for the radical Group Theatre, and James’s Toussaint Louverture had followed a series of plays by “the Auden Group,” most notably Auden and Isherwood’s The Dog beneath the Skin. The famous theatre critic Herbert Farjeon noted at the end of the 1930s that “the Westminster Theatre has probably housed during the present decade a higher percentage of interesting plays than any other theatre north of the Thames.” In 1955, the Westminster Theatre produced an all- African play, Freedom, which toured Europe and was filmed in Nigeria in 1956 with a cast of thousands.

Those wishing to see the performance had to pay at least one guinea, the basic annual membership subscription to the Stage Society. As well as the Sunday evening performance on 15 March, there was a matinee the next day, and for this final performance James himself was called upon to step in for Rufus E. Fennell, the actor playing the “small part” of Macoya. “I was in it by accident. . . . I wanted to sit in the back and watch the play . . . not to be mixed up in it. But I dressed myself up and played it.” Overall, though the production went well, James would always remember it was Paul Robeson who stole the show.” As James, interviewed in November 1983, recalled, “The moment he came onto the stage, the whole damn thing changed. It’s not a question of acting . . . the physique and the voice, the spirit behind him—you could see it when he was on stage.”

Reviews were said to be mixed (twould be interesting to know on what grounds – the explicit radical, anti-racist, and anti-imperial message may have coloured the artistic opinions of white reviewers), but by all accounts Robeson’s performance was typically outstanding. The first performance received an ovation. Broadway made noises of interest, and a couple of critics suggested the play would adapt well to screen, though in the end neither a Broadway run or a film materialised.

James was, according to Christian Høgsbjerg, (who discovered the manuscript in the papers of the former trotskyist Jock Haston, a sometime comrade of James in 2005), “acutely conscious of the need to challenge the mythological British nationalist narrative of abolition, one that glorified the role played by British parliamentarians such as Wilberforce. Indeed, in the original version of the playscript C.L.R. James mentioned Wilberforce himself in passing, but then later in a handwritten revision… decided to remove the explicit mention of the abolitionist Tory MP… to help bring home the essential truth about abolition — that it was the enslaved who abolished slavery themselves — to a British audience who would almost certainly be hearing such a truth for the first time.”

The play mingled elements of classic theatre (eg the use of the rebellious slave army as a kind of chorus, in the ancient Greek tradition) – though radically subverted “the final scene of revolutionary history sees what James would in 1963 describe as “the entry of the chorus, of the ex- slaves themselves, as the arbiters of their own fate,” making for an ending to a drama that no Greek tragedian or even someone with the far- reaching imagination of Shakespeare could have envisaged” – with modern alternative theatrical ideas and ideals. The mix of music dance and drama evokes the latest methods in European theatre, like the work of Brecht, while also deliberately echoing African culture.

James portrayal of Toussaint is of a tragic hero, as a revolutionary leader who ends his days in prison, having failed in the end to follow through the struggle to complete independence for Haiti (a task his lieutenants were left to finish), and paid the price for it. Having not begun the slave revolt, but emerged from it and been shaped by it, he became its outstanding strategist and thinker, but didn’t have enough faith in the black rebels’ ability to make their own future. Believing they should make a semi-colonial peace with revolutionary France, in the end he contrasted this with too much faith in the European enlightenment, and was betrayed, captured and imprisoned by the French republic. James was again bringing past, present and theory together in his raw discussion of the ideas of revolutionary leadership, charismatic thinkers and hero-figures, and the ability of the oppressed to shape their own destiny: vital questions then, as in the 1790s, as now…

The story of Haiti’s successful slave revolt is inspiring at any time, but in the 1930s, with almost all of Africa still under the colonial control of white European powers, putting on the play in the heart of what was then the most powerful empire of all was a bold move. The context of the times is crucial – fascism, based securely in the idea of racial hierarchies and white superiority, was rising; Italy had Just invaded Ethiopia (James was also a founder of the International African Friends of Abyssinia, as Ethiopia was then called, and the parallels of Haiti with Ethiopian resistance to Italian invasion were obvious and stark); but also political opposition and revolt against the colonial powers across Africa was beginning to coalesce. This could not ever be seen only as a play about incidents from the past; it was also a clarion call for massive social change from below for in the present and the future. It’s worth noting that the audience very likely included a range of vital figures in the future development of black self-determination across three (if not more) continents, with Pan-African figures as George Padmore, Jomo Kenyatta, and Eric Williams being part of James’ immediate circle.

As Christian Hogsbjerg points out, the staging of the play also illustrates “the radical counterculture that has always existed in the “dark heart” of the British Empire”, and forms a brief bright illustration of the black radical traditions, leftwing ferment and literary bohemianism which all met and flowered so productively in both James and Robeson. James’ background in the Caribbean added a specific motivation for telling Toussaint’s story (which he had been researching for several years, spurred on by inadequate and racist accounts of Haiti and dismissals of black people as inferior to whites). If the project was “fundamentally inspired by James earlier environment, the colonial Caribbean society in which he was born and grew to intellectual maturity,” (Hogsbjerg) it also reflected how James had evolved politically since he left the West Indies – moving from “a continuing identification with imperial Britain” to a Pan-Africanist viewpoint and then on to Marxism.

But Christian Hogsbjerg also discusses how the staging of the play itself, not just the subject matter, formed both a break and a link with theatre traditions. A link to black West Indian theatre: “Although James’s play has been celebrated as a pioneering production in the history of black British theatre, and an important moment in the history of African and Caribbean theatre, Toussaint Louverture also stands as an outstanding contribution to what the late Trinidadian dramatist and scholar Errol Hill once described as “the revolutionary tradition in black drama,” a “tradition of writing and producing plays that deal directly with black liberation.” This revolutionary tradition dates at least as far back as the Haitian Revolution itself, for after Toussaint seized the power to rule as black Consul in Saint- Domingue, James noted in The Black Jacobins that “the theatres began to play again, and some of the Negro players showed a remarkable talent.”

But also a defiant two fingers to the racially dubious portrayals of black people on the British stage – of ‘nigger minstrels’, or credulous childlike figures needing a white authority figure.

Interestingly, nearly 30 years later, James also adapted his account of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins, into a play:

“James felt the victory of many national liberation movements internationally in the postwar world meant that, as he later recalled, “the idea I was expressing should be differently expressed . . . writing about the struggle for independence in 1956 or 1960 was very different from what it was in 1936.” As James told Reinhard Sander, “After twenty- five years the colonial revolution had made great strides so about that time I began to rewrite it [the play] in view of the new historical happenings.” The play version of The Black Jacobins was first performed at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria in 1967, directed by Lyndersay amid the tumult of civil war to an enthusiastic reception. It has since been staged numerous times, and this later script has necessarily formed the basis of scholarly discussion of “James’s play.” The later play essentially followed the same chronological structure as Toussaint Louverture. There is the same humour, the lively music, drumming ebbing and flowing into the action, and there are still moments of rare dramatic power. Yet by the 1960s James had experienced for himself, in Trinidad with Eric Williams and in Ghana with Kwame Nkrumah, both the excitement and the disappointment generated by movements for colonial liberation in the Caribbean and in Africa. If Toussaint Louverture was about the vindication of national liberation struggles written in the age of colonialism, in The Black Jacobins James and Lyndersay explored what lessons the Haitian Revolution might hold for national liberation struggles in the age of decolonisation.”

Christian Hobsbjerg’s book, which includes the full script of the play, the programme, photographs, and reviews from the 1936 production, a contextual introduction and editorial notes on the play, and selected essays and letters by James and others, is published by Duke University Press. Tis a bit expensive however… 

Have a look at Hogsbjerg’s blog

And you can watch an abridged performance of the play put on by Bowdoin College (Maine, USA) students in November 2014.

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

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Today in London’s radical history: Bethnal Green Chartists in court, for assembling, illegally, armed, 1840.

In 1839-40, the Chartist movement reached its first great peak of strength. Building on decades of agitation for constitutional and political reform, emerging from the ruins of earlier political groupings, but adding in the massive experience of the struggle against the stamp tax on the cheap press, the beginnings of large-scale trade unionism, and the birth of the co-operative movement, Chartism was bringing together millions of working class people to demand a voice in the decision making processes – the vote. Monster rallies took place of thousands, mass agitation was drawing in recruit and spreading ideas in the cities and countryside, a huge petitioning effort was underway to show Parliament the strength of the feeling across the country. To many the pressure for change seemed unstoppable.

But in the wake of the rejection of the first Chartist petition by Parliament in July 1839, the outright refusal of the ruling elites to consider further reform, pressure began to build within Chartism for achieving results by other means. Chartism had inherited from earlier reform movements an inherent division, between those who thought campaigning and mass demonstrations, petitions and ‘moral pressure’ from below could bring change – and others who felt their rulers based their control of society of force, and would not give up even a share of it without being forced themselves. The latter, a substantial minority, were strengthened by the refusal of the state to compromise with polite Chartist petitioning, and also by the rhetoric of Chartist leaders who talked a good fight when they really were not prepared to rise in arms…

After the petition was rejected, plans were set in motion for a Sacred Month, the ‘Grand National Holiday’ of William Benbow revived – a General Strike, in effect. Although agreed and even launched, many Chartist leaders were scared by the implications of leading such a movement, and back-pedalled. The strike fizzled out. In the wake of this the ‘physical force’ Chartists began working in earnest to plan for uprisings to overthrow the government that held them down, going beyond demanding a the vote to conceiving of a working class that could take power itself, in its own interests, dispossessing the classes that lived on their backs. This manifested in the Newport Rising of November 1839, when South Wales Chartists launched a revolt, intended to be part of a wider revolutionary attempt. The revolt was put down and its leaders tried for treason.

But even as the trial of John Frost and the other Newport leaders ended with sentences of death and transportation, in early January 1840, plans for uprising were still being hatched in the north of England. Revolts were planned in Sheffield, Dewsbury and Bradford, but were either foiled by the authorities (often with the help of spies) or failed to gather the support needed. And there were spirits abroad in London, too, willing to arm with the aim of overthrowing the hated government:

“In the metropolis, too, the work of disaffection was apparent. Repeated meetings took place, and schemes of the very worst character were devised; and, on Tuesday the 13th of January, the government received private information that an insurrection was to break out on that night or on the following morning, and that the firing of London in various parts was to be the signal for a general rising throughout the country. Orders were in consequence instantly transmitted to the Horse Guards, for the preparation of a sufficient force to repel any treasonable attack which might be made; and here, as well as at all the barracks in the vicinity of the metropolis, and at the Tower, the whole of the men were put under arms. The metropolitan police-force and the city constables received orders to be ready for immediate action, and the London Fire-engine Establishment — a body of most enterprising and active officers — formed into a fire-police, was placed in readiness to employ their exertions to assist the municipal authorities to suppress the supposed intended conflagration.

            The alarm, which was necessarily spread through the metropolis in consequence of these warlike preparations, however, turned out to be without cause; for although on that night a very large meeting of Chartists took place at the Hall of Trades, in Abbey-street, Bethnal-green, there was no attempt at violence. The conduct of the speakers at this assemblage, indeed, sufficiently showed the extremes to which they desired their followers to go; and a subsequent meeting on the following Thursday proved that they were not quite so harmless as their apologists would have had it supposed. At this convention, held, as it was announced, for the purpose of discussing the existing state of the working-classes throughout the country, upwards of seven hundred persons attended, the majority of whom seemed to be individuals of low rank. At nine o’clock the committee came upon the platform, when Mr. Neesom was called to the chair. After the chairman had detailed the objects for which the meeting had been called, Mr. Spurr, who had on a former occasion taken an active part in the discussions, rose to propose the first resolution. After a few preliminary observations, he contended that the only way to preserve the peace was to be prepared to wage war; and in support of such an assertion he thought it would be well deserving the attention of the meeting to bear in mind the words of a celebrated person, “to put their trust in God, and keep their powder dry,” which was received with loud cheering. On silence being restored, the speaker was about to proceed, but a body of police appearing at the door with drawn sabres, caused the greatest possible confusion. The chairman entreated the meeting not to be disturbed, as it was held on constitutional principles, but in order not to give their enemies an opportunity of succeeding, he hoped there would be no breach of the peace committed. The police then, having blocked up every avenue leading to the room, prevented all present from retiring, and proceeded to search their persons. Daggers, knives, sabres, pistols primed and loaded, and other weapons of an offensive character, were taken from many of them, while upon the floor were discovered others of a like description, evidently thrown away by their owners in order to enable them to escape detection. Twenty-one of the persons who were taken into custody on this occasion unarmed, were detained in the Trades Hall, and eleven others, upon whom pistols and daggers had been found, were removed to safe custody, in order to await their examination before the magistrates. Upon subsequent inquiries taking place, several of them were discharged, while, however, others, with new prisoners subsequently secured and identified as parties to the meeting, were tried and convicted at the Old Bailey Sessions, and sentenced to various terms of imprisonment.” (The Newgate Calendar).

Chartists would of course continue to agitate, strike and plot revolution for several more years… But if 1848 has often been seen as the highpoint, the moment when radical change could have come, it is possible that in 1839-40 the moment was in reality even closer. Sadly, general strikes, insurrections, plots for uprisings, armed meetings, failed to achieve a working class seizure of power 176 years ago…

But hey, there’s still time…

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