Today in radical history, 1549: several days of resistance to enclosure begin in Ruislip

1549 saw rioting, sabotage and protest against the increasing pace of enclosure of common land across England by landowners, culminating in Kett’s Rebellion in Norfolk.

In April, this movement spread to Ruislip, then in the county of Middlesex.

At Ruislip, in April, one Thomas Strete had made himself unpopular, soon after he came into possession of the lease of former priory lands, by enclosing several pastures. According to the depositions, approximately 16-18 acres of ‘Wyndmyllfelde’ and ‘Churchefelde’ had been sown with oats, beans and tares.

This had taken place in March 1549. The ‘honest & substunciall inhabitantes’ of Ruislip petitioned Strete a number of times, asking him to allow the fields to be used according to custom. Strete replied ‘that if they coulde not lyve with oute their Comen there then they might avoide the towne & dwell ells where so they sholde not lyve upon that that he payed his rent for’.

From 14-23 April, the tenants of Ruislip asserted the common rights they had in the enclosed lands, based on custom and tradition. A group of more than sixteen people assembled to pull down the new hedge enclosing ‘Wyndmyllfelde’ on Palm Sunday (14 April).

John Parker, the labourer who opened the gate, was as a result badly assaulted by one of Strete’s servants, so that ‘he was not able to earn his lyving a good space after’. On the following Tuesday (16 April), Parker was beaten up again, so that the same servant ‘tooke suche acorage in mysusing his force upon suche pore wretches that he made his bost openly in the Churcheyarde there before a grete parte of the parishe … that if he had meft with any of the Churles or knaves of the said parish of Ruyslipe he wolde have served them lykewise’.

Fuelled by these assaults and by the goading by Thomas Strete’s servants, the situation escalated on Good Friday (April 19th), when a crowd returned to destroy the gate to this field, and remove its lock and chain.

When John Ferne, a labourer, complained to John Wheler ‘that his cowe lacked meate & his stover was spent’, the two men resolved to put their kine to pasture in ‘Wyndmyllfelde’ the following day, and, on 20 April, thirteen of the tenants took their cattle to the field. [‘Stover’ refers generally to winter fodder for cattle.] Ferne alleged that the field was now common land.

When Strete’s servants’ attempts to impound the tenants’ cattle, the crowd fought them off (actions similar to those which occurred elsewhere during the 1549 revolts, notably at Landbeach, Cambridgeshire).

After a short period of quiet over Easter Saturday and Sunday, the rioters again gathered on 22 April (Easter Monday), taking a great iron hammer to the locked gate. Protesters repeated this ‘whole ritual’ on two other ‘closes’, at ‘Churchefelde’ and ‘Cogmores’ the same day.

This action was again based on collective community assumptions and agreements on land use. Since ‘Churchefelde’ had been parcel of Wyndmyllfelde ‘tyme oute of mynde of than’, it was held that it should also have lain fallow in 1549, and not been elcnsoed and sown with crops. The defendants claimed that it was customary for certain fields to lie fallow every year, in accordance with the season of tillage adopted there (Wyndmyllfelde, Churchefelde and Cogmores should have lain fallow from Michaelmas 1548 until Michaelmas 1549). During fallow years, the tenants of the manor, the freeholders and copyholders of the parish and all other inhabitants in the parish who dwelt in any freehold or copyhold held of the manor had the right to pasture their livestock in the fallow fields by means of their tenancies. This ‘prescripsion usage & custome’ had been lawfully found before the escheator of the Shire of Middlesex and set down in writing by ‘a certen order’ taken before the king’s commissioners, allegedly in John Smith’s possession in 1549. Strete denied that an order had been made and, even if it had, he and his lessees would not have been ‘therby bounden’. The defendants refer to ‘the comen ffilde at Ryseslyp’ called Wyndmyllfelde’, whilst Strete alleged that Wyndmyllfelde formed part of the demesne lands.

Although one of Strete’s servants was allegedly assaulted at Wyndmyllfelde on 23 April, the protests were largely peaceful, and the tenants were careful to ensure that their action remained within circumscribed bounds. Rather than descending on the pasture in a disorderly crowd, they took turns to lead their cattle into ‘Wyndmyllfelde’ in an orderly fashion. According to reports, they showed a strange reverence for Strete’s corn, keeping their cattle to the unsown part of the ground, to avoid reprisals.

However, Strete alleged that the inhabitants’ cattle had destroyed the corn (elsewhere, anti-enclosure rioters had not been so careful: Sir Thomas Wroth’s grass was deliberate trampled during disorders at Enfield the same year).

Ironically, Strete’s livestock appear to have caused as much damage to the crop as the tenants’ cattle. Several of his hogs, sheep, mares, colts and horses had been seen in the corn at various thues. James Osmond saw Strete’s shepherd drive 300 sheep out of the corn and into the fold ‘at folding tyme’; according to William Gayler, the inhabitants had opened the foldcourse. The protestors are also accused of having shorn the sheep for their wool, perhaps as a symbol of Strete’s covetousness and commodity. Similar grievances arose from large-scale sheep-farming in Norfolk.

The protest had a strong sense of morality and justice about it, which may have been linked to church teachings – much of the action, and the exchange of news behind it, centred on the parish church – the focal point of the community during Easter. For example, John Parker opened the gate to Wyndmyllfelde on his way home from church on Palm Sunday; John Feme and John Wheler resolved to act on their way home from church on Good Friday; and William Gayler (Strete’s servant) delivered his threatening proclamation in the churchyard, so that it reached a wide audience.

John Parker thought nothing of opening the gate to ‘Wyndmyllfelde’ because it barred a common way through the fields which ‘oughte to be open to all the Kinges liege people’; the same gate was destroyed a second time after Strete had it locked up. Similarly, only three of the five great arable fields belonging to the manor of Ruislip (‘Wyndmyllfelde’ and the two fields known as Cogmores) were targeted in April 1549, on the grounds that Strete had wrongfully enclosed these fields and kept them in severalty in a year when they should have lain fallow, as common. Poverty and desperation gave further weight to the protestors’ cause and provided the main justification for direct action. The protestors lamented in exaggerated rhetoric that, having just come through ‘suche an harde wynter’, their ‘stover was spent and wasted’, and they had no pasture in which to put so much as a cow each in order to sustain their families. It was this sheer desperation which drove the protestors to resist Strete’s servants in ‘Wyndmyllfelde’ on 20 April. Fearing that Strete’s men had come to impound their cattle, and that the cattle would be starved to death (as Strete had threatened), the protestors withstood them ‘forasmuche as they thoughte themselves undone’ if their cattle were destroyed. As a lessee, Strete may have been targeted due to a tenuous commitment to the local community, which allowed him to put speculative interest and private profit ahead of the communal good. Strete is certainly portrayed as the villain of the piece. He was insensitive to the inhabitants’ plight… he encapsulates the spiritual and material means by which ‘the rich intended the destruction of ‘the poor commons’ in 1549. In enclosing and sowing part of ‘Wyndmyllfelde’ in March 1549, ‘for his owne onely lucre & proffit’, Strete intended both the ‘breaking & intempcion’ of its customary usage and the ‘undoing’ of the poor inhabitants of the manor, who were excluded from the field where they had formerly had common. This direct challenge to manorial custom, held ‘tyme oute of mynde of man’, threatened to erode the very foundations upon which this local community had been constructed. Furthermore, the defendants skilfully employed the rhetoric of depopulation to show that Strete’s behaviour endangered the community in a far more literal sense, causing the poor inhabitants of the parish to fear that they would be forced ‘to forsake their lyvinges & dwellinges’.

Ruislip had a radical tradition, dating back at least to 1381, when rebelling peasants attacked a local manor houses to destroy hated records of the feudal dues owed to the landowners.

And disorder carried on here, though not always with an economic grievance. In 1576, a group of artisans, “with unknown malefactors to the number of 100, assembled themselves unlawfully and played a certain unlawful game, called football, by reason of which unlawful; game there arose amongst them great affrays.”

But trouble over enclosures was to be a sore point here for centuries. In May 1834, nine trustees of the Ruislip ‘poors field’, 60 acres of pasture set aside for poor cottagers under the Ruislip enclosure award in 1804, were prevented from enforcing the strict regulation of the common pasture ‘in consequence of a riotous assemblage of persons’… Almost all those subsequently convicted at the Uxbridge Petty Sessions were Ruislip inhabitants and several had legal rights to the field.

 

Sources: ‘Commotion Time: The English Risings of 1549’, Amanda Claire Jones.

Paul Carter: ‘Enclosure Resistance in Middlesex 1656 – 1889: A Study of Common Right Assertion’ (PHD thesis)

 

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Today in London’s riotous history, 1668: ‘Bawdy House Rioters’ attack brothels across the City

The Bawdy House Riots of 1668 saw crowds attack & pull down brothels, outwardly in a moral crusade; though of course moral causes were a good excuse for a bit of burning & looting. However the mob was also said to have been infected with Leveller ideas, & there was talk of “tearing down the Great Bawdy House at Westminster” (meaning Parliament).

In reality, as with many outbreaks of London rioting, from the Peasants Revolt to 2011, the Bawdy House Riots may have been the product of a mingling of many motives, carried out by several overlapping crowds, and subsequently had contradictory or disputed meanings applied to them by commentators anxious to impose their own fears and obsessions… A tendency repeated by numerous historians, still debating the causes and meaning of the riots 350 years later…

On 23 March 1668 a crowd of London apprentices, servants, and artisans, dressed in green aprons, attacked brothels (‘bawdy houses’) in Poplar—kicking off a bout of rioting that over five days would spread from the east end of the City to the west-end brothels.  On the second day, the crowd, now numbering as many as 40,000 people, organised itself into regiments, with their own captains, and proceeded to besiege brothels in East Smithfield, Moorfields, and Shoreditch.  King Charles II instructed the Lord Mayor and Lieutenants of the city to suppress the riot, which resulted in the arrest of a number of participants.  But the crowd responded to the arrests on the third and fourth day by besieging the prisons and releasing their comrades.  On the final day, the attacks continued in Holborn before they were finally suppressed.  Among the rallying cries of the mob were “down with the Red Coats!”  “Reformation and Reducement!”  “We have been servants, but we will be masters now!”  They threatened both “that if the king did not give them liberty of conscience, that May-day must be a bloody day” and that “ere long they would come and pull White-hall down”.

Fears that the attacks on brothels had been a cover for a more revolutionary agenda were exacerbated by satirical pamphlets which appeared in the aftermath of the riots, that compared the events to the popular 1647 uprising led by Thomaso Aniello in Naples; many of the publications dwelt upon the popular perception of the growing connection between bawdy houses and the licentious court of Charles II.  In The Poor-Whores Petition. To the Most Splendid, Illustrious, Serene and Eminent Lady of Pleasure, the Countess of Castlemayne (25 March 1668), Charles II’s powerful mistress is addressed by common whores.  The famous bawds Damarose Page and Madam Creswell petition the grand whore for protection and in The Gracious Answer of the Most Illustrious Lady of Pleasure (24 April 1668), “Castlemaine” promises redress for the “barbarity of those Rude Apprentices, and the cruel Sufferings that the Sisterhood was exposed unto.”

15 of the suspected ringleaders of the uprising were arrested, and charged with high treason: four were subsequently convicted, and then horrifically punished – castrated, drawn and quartered—a punishment usually reserved for traitors and rebels.

Samuel Pepys mentions the rumours that the rioters had men among them who had fought in the civil war, and that some of them talked of attacking the royal palace, ‘the great bawdy house at Whitehall’:

“The Duke of York and all with him this morning were full of the talk of the ‘prentices, who are not yet [put] down, though the guards and militia of the town have been in armes all this night, and the night before; and the ‘prentices have made fools of them, sometimes by running from them and flinging stones at them. Some blood hath been spilt, but a great many houses pulled down; and, among others, the Duke of York was mighty merry at that of Damaris Page’s, the great bawd of the seamen; and the Duke of York complained merrily that he hath lost two tenants, by their houses being pulled down, who paid him for their wine licenses 15l. a year. But here it was said how these idle fellows have had the confidence to say that they did ill in contenting themselves in pulling down the little bawdyhouses, and did not go and pull down the great bawdy-house at White Hall. And some of them have the last night had a word among them, and it was “Reformation and Reducement.” This do make the courtiers ill at ease to see this spirit among people, though they think this matter will not come to much: but it speaks people’s minds; and then they do say that there are men of understanding among them, that have been of Cromwell’s army: but how true that is, I know not.”

As often occurred in London riots in the medieval and early modern centuries, London’s prisons were also attacked, including the Clerkenwell House of Detention…

The implications of the riots were very serious for the authorities – they revived the fears of civil war, a very recent trauma, the spectacle of the levellers, ranters and all the other sects and movements, that had challenged the status quo in the 1640s and ‘50s. The disturbances seemed a revival of overt challenge to the social hierarchy, recalling very directly the myriad ways in which the civil war had opened up questioning of society… When one group of rioters in 1668 broke open Finsbury Jail, in order to rescue some of their fellow rioters who had already been arrested for their involvement in the disturbances, they told the jailer: ‘We have been servants, but we will be masters now’ – a remark which had frightening levelling implications for the authorities.

Commentators of the time, and historians, since, have put forward a number of explanations for the events of 1668… as the product of the apprentices longstanding tradition of “carnivalesque insurrection” and “folkloric unrest”… as a more specific response to Charles II’s reassertion of the Act of Uniformity (restricting the rights of non-conformist churches) in the weeks leading up to the riots, arguing that the apprentices’ politicised resurrection of brothel bashing was aimed against religious policy… as reflecting the apprentices’ longstanding tendency to “define themselves in antagonism against demonised women”.

“For humble tradesmen and apprentices to rise up and instruct the king which laws he should or should not be enforcing, to the point of trying to enforce certain laws (those against brothels) themselves, was indeed a usurpation of the regal authority; the act, by its very nature, places the common man on a level with the king (even if only temporarily), and in this respect was political levelling. If the reading of the riots as an anti-court protest is correct, then the crowd was trying to hold the royal court accountable to the law, and the belief that the law applied to all, regardless of social status (even the king), was a fundamental Leveller principle. The idea embodied in the riots that ordinary people could exercise the power of the sword, use force themselves to impose justice or even to resist duly constituted authority, was indeed political levelling and a Levelling principle. As George Hickes put it in a sermon of 1682, in the context of challenging what he took to be the Whig belief that power lay radically in the people (another Leveller notion): ‘What a great sin it is for the subjects of any government upon any pretence whatsoever, to take up Arms without Authority from the lawfull Sovereign, be it in riots, tumults, or rebellions, or any other illegal meeting howsoever called; for God hath committed the power of the Sword to the lawfull Sovereign onely.’ “

However, while on the one hand the riots contained a powerful echo of the radical ends of the English Revolution, they also reflected both long held prejudices and newer concerns about sexuality and commerce…

The Bawdyhouse rioters possessed republican sympathies – yes, but as in the Civil War years, these were also often deeply Puritan views as well. This expressed itself not only in rebellion against a monarchy that had replaced the ‘Godly’ commonwealth, but also in moral revulsion against the ‘immoral’ persons within the society around them.

“In the 1660s the prostitute very quickly became not only a synecdoche for but the privileged emblem of a new economic and aesthetic order of things.  That a pervasive popular animosity towards both whores and the theatre coincides exactly with the rising celebrity of the actress among London elites, I want to suggest, reflects deep worries about the sexual and labouring identity not only of women, but also of young men from across the spectrum of low-status artisanal occupations… Just as privileged mercantilist and aristocratic sectors of the London population were coming to openly embrace the commercialism that both the theatre and the prostitute had historically embodied, the explicit nature of commercial articulations in the opening decades of the Restoration, by exposing the alienated and objectified condition of laborers more generally, sparked violent protest against this ascendant aesthetic and sexual economy.” (Katherine Romack, Striking the posture of a whore: The bawdy-house riots and anti-theatrical prejudice)

As Romack relates, the Restoration of the 1660s saw not just a concerted effort to re-establish the authority of the king and aristocracy over society (deeply weakened by more than 20 years of rebellion and war), but also to “divide the free-men of the city from their apprentice servants” (weakening one of the bonds that had helped to build the parliamentary coalition against king Charles I).At the same time, apprenticeship as an institution was being rapidly undermined by economic changes within and outside the London guild system. This not only made apprentices’ position within the world of work more precarious (compared to what had been a hard but reasonably stable relationship for centuries) – it also began to dissolve the power of the apprentices collectively, to weaken their power to gather, act as a crowd, affect political and social struggles.

For up to 200 years apprentices had been a central, if not dominant, feature of urban disturbances (often erupting around feast days, and sometimes highly ritualised). Since the late 16th century, many had also been influenced by puritan religious ideas.  By the mid-1660’s, apprentices were also beginning to feel that their futures in their trades were not as stable as previous generations could have expected; apprenticeship was becoming detached from a declining guild system, and established privileges and guarantees were being eroded. Apprenticeship was becoming more and more like servitude on starvation wages. Demarcation between the working poor and apprentices were blurring.

This may have been a factor that drove apprentices to riot both against what seemed like new immorality as well as aiming barbs at authority in general…

To some extent the Bawdy House Rioters were lumped together and described as ‘apprentices’, when many were not; the tendency to label them as apprentices has been seen as part of “a strategy through which the aspiring merchant class shed its republican tendencies”, and made common cause with the restored monarchy.

Katherine Romack sees the antagonism of the Bawdyhouse rioters toward “the mercenary sexual performances of London prostitutes and the growing tension between this class of adolescent males and the theatre” as “the product of a failure of traditional patriarchal ideologies of gender to keep pace with the radical acceleration of wage labour.  We can, from this perspective, read the riots as a failed expression of class-consciousness.  The “craft” of the common whore (her impersonations, imposture, and class transvestitism) elicited a hostile response from the rioters because she presented a challenge to traditional ideologies of youthful masculinity.  The sexually objectified female performer exposed, in short, the young men’s own subjection to the marketplace.  The most violent assault on the theatres and the brothels in this period came, most naturally, from those who intuited their own prostituted condition.” (Romack)

She suggests that as early as 1660, the apprentices were already beginning to understand that the old certainties of apprentice life and the expectation of job security were dissolving, or as he puts it, “patrimonial narratives that had traditionally ensured their subordination” were outdated, that “the prostitution endemic to commerce had pervaded all levels of culture from workshop to court”.

“Exacerbated by the ongoing deterioration of the guild system, the apprentices’ hostility towards prostitutes resulted from the failure of those fictions of servitude that had once rendered palatable their status sexually, in the patriarchal family unit, and on-stage. The violence of the authorities’ response to the apprentice riots of ’68, suggests that they had more to fear from the apprentices than a little festive brothel bashing, for it was precisely the disastrous effects of reification against which these youthful subordinate subjects rebelled.  Their cries of “we have been servants but we will be masters now!” as they ravaged the brothels in ’68 mark not only an implicit realisation but also a desperate denial of their own prostituted condition.  Tragically, however, the rioters fell victim to a fatal misrecognition: they became so caught up in the visual emblems of commodity fetishism (in its objects and proxies—in whores) that they lashed out at women, who were themselves equally subject to the workings of the market.  The young men failed, in short, to understand that commodity fetishism neither inheres in, nor originates from, its objects. Conflating the object of desire with its cause is also, ironically, the pornographic attitude to sexuality.”

According to this reading of the Riots, the apprentices’ hostility toward prostitutes did not arise primarily from a moral objection to sex, but from “a collective response against their increasing alienation and disenfranchisement”… Only rather than substantially attacking any of the economic class that was benefitting from the turbulent changes, much of the disorder was concentrated on targeting women on the margins. Puritan morality successfully diverting confused social anger and economic insecurity into collective male violence.

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Today in London riotous history, 1617: apprentices celebrate Shrove Tuesday holiday

“On … Shrove Tuesday, the ‘prentices, or rather the unruly people of the suburbs, played their parts in divers places, as Finsbury Fields, about Wapping, by St Catherine’s, and in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, …  in pulling down of houses, and beating of guards that were set to keep rule…” (John Chamberlain)

The London apprentices for centuries had a reputation for their rowdiness, and willingness to cause trouble; for centuries they were famed for getting involved in political upheavals, of all dimensions. Their economic position sparked many grievances; their youth led to much boisterousness. They were also jealous of their traditions; and because their working lives were notoriously long and hard, they celebrated the public holidays drunkenly, loudly, and often riotously.

Apprentices occupied a strange position in medieval/early modern life: badly paid and badly treated, but for some there was the potential that they could rise to become masters. An apprenticeship to a guild member also meant the promise of job security, a limited welfare system within the guild, which out them above many with no trade or guild protection. Apprentices’ collective recognition of their ambiguous common position, and their youth, led to them gathering and sometimes together collectively. Up to a point they were allowed specific days off work, often feast days; their bonds of hard labour briefly loosened. This generally led to drinking, boisterousness and fighting. Nothing like today then.

Apprentices could rally collectively to radical causes that pushed at the restrictions of the tight social and economic structures which bound them to the will of those above them. But in many ways they also to some extent played the roles of both licensed rebels and community police, attacking both unpopular authority as well as unpopular scapegoats within communities/outsiders – foreigners, people working outside guild structures, prostitutes and other non-conforming women… a paradoxical crowd, contradictory and sometimes unpredictable.

Shrove Tuesday, the day in February or March immediately preceding Ash Wednesday (the first day of Lent), is a longstanding holiday, celebrated with carnival or Mardi Gras, a day of “fat eating” or “gorging” before the fasting period of Lent.

In England, Shrove Tuesday became a ritual apprentice holiday, and in the seventeenth century became a day noted for them to riot – often against very specific targets.

Before 1598 there are few records of any disturbances arising out of the Shrove Tuesday games (though riots at other feast days had been known, eg on ‘Evil Mayday’, 1517). In Tudor times riots and rebellions were more likely to erupt in the summer months. However, Lord mayors did often issue warnings to ‘prentices’ to stay indoors, and sometimes doubled the watch to patrol in case of trouble.

Playing football had become a tradition on Shrove Tuesday – a game that caused a headache for the authorities for centuries (which led to its repeated banning). By 1598 the ball games had started to develop into something wider and more socially threatening. There were, Hutton records, riots on 24 out of the 29 Shrove Tuesdays in the early Stuart period (1600s). The riots took place mainly it seems in the ‘northern suburbs’ of London – Shoreditch, Moorfields, Bishopsgate and Finsbury – but also increasingly to outlying areas in Middlesex and Westminster. The disturbances involved mostly apprentices, but also sometimes craftsmen and artisans.

Waterman and poet John Taylor described ‘ragged regiments’ – “youth armed with cudgels, stones, hammers, rules, trowels, and handsaws’ who ‘put playhouses to the sack, and bawdy-houses to the spoil” – they smashed glass, ripped off tiles, chimneys and shredded feather beds.” Often they were opposed by aged constables who were vastly outnumbered.

As ever the riots were not random but aimed at particular targets, in particular brothels and playhouses. Hutton records that between 1612-14 on Shrove Tuesday a Shoreditch brothel was attacked each year until it shut.

1617 saw a particularly violent Shrove Tuesday apprentice gathering. A new Drury Lane playhouse was destroyed and prisoners freed from Finsbury prison by the rioters. Several houses in Wapping were destroyed:

“On … Shrove Tuesday, the ‘prentices, or rather the unruly people of the suburbs, played their parts in divers places, as Finsbury Fields, about Wapping, by St Catherine’s, and in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, …  in pulling down of houses, and beating of guards that were set to keep rule, specially at a new playhouse, some time a cockpit, in Drury Lane, where the queen’s players used to play.  Though the fellows defended themselves as well as they could, and slew three of them with shot, and hurt divers, yet they entered the house and defaced it, cutting the players’ apparel into pieces, and all their furniture, and burnt their playbooks, and did what other mischief they could…  There be divers of them taken since and clapped up, and I make no question but we shall see some of them hanged next week, as it is more than time they were”. (a letter written by John Chamberlain to Sir Dudley Carleton)

Ronald Hutton noted that the targets ‘fitted into a much older tradition of cleansing a community before Lent’. In other words the Shrove Tuesday crowd, in rioting, was seeking to destroy what it saw as the less moral parts of the early 17th century economy. As such, while some rioters and especially ringleaders were fined or jailed, attacks on ‘immoral’ targets could be tacitly supported or at least tolerated by the respectable, and even by some in authority – usually only up to a point, though. To some extent historians see this kind of rioting is as a form of moral ‘community policing’, along the lines of skimmingtons and rituals of humiliation aimed at outsiders, or people who transgressed sexual mores or broke the bounds of accepted social roles or behaviour… Festive riots could veer between attacks on social hierarchies and viciously repressive outbursts against foreigners and the marginalised. Sometimes both would be combined.

Why brothels and playhouses? Prostitutes were an obvious target for respectable disapproval: women acting outside the traditional family, selling sex to survive, were both seen as subversive of social mores, though also barely tolerated as a ‘necessary evil’. Apprentices with little ready money also resented women who might say no unless they had the cash; and there was always an element of men collectively putting women in their place, knowing that their betters would largely turn a blind eye. (Despite the profits that many of the well-to-do could earn by renting out houses they owned as brothels, in certain areas, eg Bankside… this included the church in former times, and in the seventeenth century remained a money-spinner for some on the make. Men of course.)

Playhouses were also hugely disapproved of by those in power and the rising protestant attack on popular culture took a dim view of theatres and those who worked in them, which would persist for centuries. (One accusation levelled at theatres was that it encouraged the riotousness of apprentices…) The apprentices’ assaults on them may have even more orchestrated by the respectable than against the bawdy-houses. Portrayals of apprentices in plays of the times is sometimes unfavourable as a result of this dynamic! However, apprentices’ other targets led audiences and some writers to express a grudging sympathy for them.

As Katherine Romack notes, theatres and brothels were associated in puritan minds:

“Theatre and prostitution had always been closely aligned in the early modern imagination:  each offered pleasurable performative simulation—eroticized illusion—for cash.  Like a brothel, Stephen Gosson observed in 1579, the Renaissance theatre arranged “comforts of melody, to tickle the ear; costly apparel, to flatter the sight; effeminate gesture, to ravish the sense; and wanton speech, to whet desire to inordinate lust” (qtd. in Lenz, 833).  In the theatre, “Ungodly people…assemble themselves […] to make their matches for all their lewd and ungodly practices,” or as John Stow, in his Survey of London (1598), had it: “Good citizen’s Children under Age, [are] inveigled and allured to privy and unmeet contracts” (qtd. in Lenz, 836; 833).

The Puritan antitheatricalists had—for all of their tendencies toward exaggeration and bombastic moralism—offered a highly prescient observation about the rise of reified culture when they insisted on the indistinguishable nature of the theatre and the brothel.  For each of these institutions vividly exposed the workings of the sexual and laboring marketplace.  Both theatre and prostitution in the early modern period, as Joseph Lenz remarks, “emblematize[d] all too vividly, the worldliness of trade, the mercenary nature of all commerce” (842-843).  David Hawkes has shown that the Puritan’s hostility to idols was, at least in part, a deeply ethical response to the rampant objectification that accompanied swiftly escalating commercialism…” (Striking the Posture of a Whore: The Bawdy House Riots and Anti-theatrical Prejudice, Katherine Romack, 2009)

The tradition of festive day rioting died out only slowly, and the mass playing of football on Shrove Tuesday continued on in some areas as a distant echo of earlier times… Often leading to rioting, up to the 19th century

Apprentice crowds were to play a huge part in the street fighting, rioting and political jostling of the English Civil war years, again taking part in events that reflected both radical ferment and support for traditional festivities (the latter taking some of them into the camp of the royalist sympathisers…)

But the end of civil war didn’t mean an end to apprentice riots or attacks on brothels. As we shall see on March 23rd

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Shrove Tuesday was the English equivalent of the continental Carnival; the Shrove Tuesday riots were a reflection of a centuries-long culture of festivity and debauchery that also often slipped in to riot and rebellion.

Carnival was the most important annual medieval festival, especially in Southern Europe, though it was long celebrated in Northern Europe as well.

The Carnival season began in late December or early January, building to a peak of formal events in February. Carnival featured feasting, drinking, dancing, street theatre, and was immediately followed by Lent: forty days of fasting and austerity, imposed according to Christian tradition and enforced by the Church. It was a clear influence and was in turn influenced by the Cokaygne myths of a land of permanent feasting and role reversal (though Cokaygne was also associated with St John’s Eve.)

Carnival was a mix of formal events, plays, processions, pageants, and informal behaviour. The formal events took place mostly in the last week, concentrated in the main squares or central areas of cities and towns, and more organised, usually by specific clubs, fraternities or craft guilds. These events most often included a procession with floats, people in fantastic costumes, singing; a play or theatrical performance; and some kind of competition: races, tournaments, jousts, or football (especially in England).

The informal behaviour that characterised the Carnival season, but built to a pitch in the closing week, saw heavy drinking, massive over-eating (especially of meat – latin carne, meat, probably giving its name to the whole festival – though also of pancakes, waffles, and much more), singing and dancing in the streets, the making of music, and the wearing of elaborate costumes and/or masks. Satire was common – in both formal and informal song and play; costume-wearing could also often involve dressing up as respectable figures – popes, cardinals, doctors, monks, lawyers, merchants – and then taking the piss out of them by over-acting the part.

But carne also means sex, and sex was everywhere in the Carnival, both in innuendo (for example many songs associated with this season were highly suggestive), in the theatrical and ritual games, and in reality – as with most parties, people were having it away all over. Carnival season was second only to early Summer as the peak time for getting knocked up, recent studies of Medieval birth patterns have concluded.

According to Peter Burke: “Carnival may be seen as a huge play in which the main streets and squares became stages, the city became a theatre without walls… there was no sharp distinction between actors and spectators…”

On top of the over-eating, a culture of mockery and mock ritual grew up around Carnival: often poking fun at the Church. Mock saints’ sermons, animals prepared for food portrayed as saints being martyred; there were also satirical rules enforcing carnival excess and decadence.

Carnival brotherhoods and organisations grew up, again taking the mick out of the real pillars of Middle Ages society. Powerful trade guilds were caricatured in societies of fools, incarnations of carnival gluttony, like the one in Holland led by a ‘crazy knight called Ghybbe’ (or Gib), armed with meat skewers, in pot and pan armour, riding donkeys backwards.

Some of those reported may have been slightly mythological, even allegorical, like the wonderful Dutch ‘Aernout brothers’, a fraternity of drifters and spongers, who had rules for scrounging and hymns of praise for kitchens and those who worked there. Some definitely were, like the French ‘grande confrerie des souls s’ouvrier’, the ‘great company of those fed up with working’, who appeared in a ‘lying tale’ of about 1540, in which they inhabit a castle of creamy Milanese cheese speckled with tiny diamonds,

battlements and windows of fresh butter, melted cheese and sugar. In the castle, taking a seat at the dining table, all portions would be the right size; pieces of meat would spring into the mouth, ready to eat birds and beasts grew in the orchards.

Lent is a lean time, involving fasting and hardship, but the excess cheer, sex and carousing of Carnival was not only opposed to Lent, but to “the everyday” the rest of the year, normal life, the usual order of society.

Partly, this explosive release of pent-up pressures was designed to allow that order to function without social tensions breaking out and tearing it apart. In Carnival, “the ruler of Culture was suspended; the exemplars to follow were the wild man, the fool…” But Carnival was not really total liberation – it was policed, controlled, in some places the festival had a specific police force, to keep things just on right side of dissolving.

Carnival and other holidays were first of all an end in themselves, a “time of ecstasy and liberation”, where the three themes of food, sex and violence merged together. But the over-eating, the pleasures of the flesh, and of a bit of rowdiness, insult and vandalism, often sublimated into ritual, banter, skimmingtons or charivari, mock battles or the violence of the English shrove Tuesday football match, also served a vital social function.

That the release that festivals allowed was at least partly a conscious creation is shown by debates over another similar Medieval feast day. The Feast of Fools was a religious affair, quite specific to monastic communities, in which the subdeacons and others in minor orders in certain churches took control of the ceremonies for a day, while the usual authorities were relegated to a subordinate position. Usually held either on Innocents Day (28th December), or on the eve of the Feast of the Circumcision (January 1st – in itself a significant detail, since the New Year has always been a time when the idea of making a change or a new start is powerful). [note: In England, the boy bishop was elected on December 6, the feast of Saint Nicholas, the patron of children. Interestingly the Feast of Fools occurred at one traditional New year, (the one we also use now), but another medieval New Year was often begun at March 25th – not a week from another ‘Fools Day’, April 1st. Turning life on its head socially seems to have been associated on one way and another the turning over of years or seasons…]

At evensong, when the verse from the Magnificat was sung – He hath put down the mighty – the choir and the minor orders would take the bit between their teeth. The verse, always a slogan of revolt, was repeated over and over again. A King of Fools, Lord of Misrule or Boy Bishop, (or King of the Bean, an Abbot of Unreason in Scotland, Abbe de la Malgouverne in France) was elected, to preside over the festivities. Grotesque parodies of Mass were celebrated: an ass would be led into the church with a rider facing its tail; braying took the place of the responses at the most solemn parts; censing was parodied with black puddings: the clergy turned their robes inside out, swapped garments with women or adopted animal disguises; gambling took place on the Altar; licence and uproar would spread beyond the church throughout the town or city.

“Priests and clerks may be seen wearing masks and monstrous visages at the hours of office. They dance in the choir, dressed as women, pandars or minstrels. They sing wanton songs. They eat black puddings at the horn of the altar while the celebrant is saying mass. They play at dice there. They cense with stinking smoke from the soles of old shoes. They run and leap through the church without shame. Finally they drive about the town and its theatres in shabby traps and carts; and rouse the laughter of their fellows and the bystanders in infamous performances, with indecent gestures and verses scurrilous and unchaste.” (Letter from the Theological Faculty of the University of Paris)

The Feast of Fools was prohibited by the Council of Basel in 1431, though it survived due to its popularity. In England it was abolished by Henry VIII, revived under Mary and then abolished again by Elizabeth. It survived longest in Germany as the Gregoriusfest.

“The ruling idea of the feast is the inversion of status, and the performance, invariably burlesque, by the inferior clergy of functions properly belonging to their betters…. Now I would point out that this inversion of status so characteristic of the Feast of Fools is equally characteristic of folk festivals. What is Dr. Frazer’s mock king but one of the meanest of the people chosen out to represent the real king as the priest victim of a divine sacrifice, and surrounded, for the period of the feast, in a naive attempt to outwit heaven, with all the paraphernalia of kingship?” (EK Chambers)

In the later Middle Ages, brotherhoods or guilds of fools grew up to organise the topsy-turvy festivities. (Which recalls the pisstaking Carnival guilds – maybe the same ‘fools’ were involved in both?)

On the one hand, these festivals are widely seen by historians today as a safety valve that allowed anger and rebellious feelings, bound to arise in a static, confined, hierarchical society with wide class divisions, to be diverted into ‘harmless fun’, as well as a “demonstration of the intolerable chaos caused by unrestrained guzzling and gourmandising”, so as to show how the status quo should be maintained: how hierarchy and order were right and necessary.

This licence to misbehave, a time of permitted freedom outside normal bounds of morality and order, was represented particularly by the anonymity of wearing masks and costumes; allowed people to disguise their identity, and thus get away with acting as they normally wouldn’t. This worked on a personal level, as well as for social criticism and protest. This could take the form of social comment against civil or church authorities, but also of repressive action or humiliation against the ‘immoral’ or ‘abnormal’ behaviour of neighbours (for example of women behaving ‘unnaturally’ – bossing around or beating men, being married to the ‘wrong’ people, speaking up for themselves etc – or of other individuals breaking social norms), or insults/attacks against personal enemies. Festive Misrule also easily slipped into scapegoating, of outsiders like Jews, foreigners, Gypsies; mass slaughter of animals was also ritualised or made part of the ‘festivities’.

These elements of Carnival and other festivals are seen by historians as necessary to defuse the knife-edge tensions that bubbled under the rest of the year. More than this, it is suggested that a temporary inversion of roles is a reminder or, even strengthens, everyday hierarchies that life must go back to, when Carnival has been tried and put to death. “The lifting of the normal taboos and restraints obviously serves to emphasise them.” (Max Gluckman)

Both the licence and the bread and circus distraction acted as communal solidarity, reinforcing vertical ties between classes and could be used against outsiders/non-conformists.

But while these festivals served to support the existing hierarchies and codes of behaviour, it is also true that authorities tried for centuries, long without great success, to suppress or tone down these proceedings. The main objections of the reformers were firstly that popular festis were unchristian, that they had pagan overtones; second that they unleashed unacceptable licence, encouraging mass misbehaviour, drunkenness, sex, gluttony, dancing, but also violence and cruelty; third, that it teemed with songs, plays and street performances that glorified rebels, thieves, and other lowlife – not just undermining the proper order of society. One edict in particular claimed that they were ‘rather the unlawful superstition of gentilite [paganism] than the pure and sincere religion of Christe’

Commentators also got worked up about festivals using up resources in days that should have lasted them months.

However the main reason licenced, ritualised freedom was seen as dangerous, and needed tighter control or abolition, was because it could easily slip into real thing. It was a fine line, allowing so much violence sex and disorder could come back to bite the authorities in the ass. Symbolic violence could easily become real violence, not only on a personal level, like settling scores (Carnival all over Europe was a time of increase for murders, fights, violent crime), but also, more worryingly for the upper classes, for collective violence, both social and repressive: riot, rebellion, but also pogrom, animal slaughter, attacks on foreigners.

Riot and rebellion was constantly breaking out from festivals, especially carnival. In Basel in 1376, a Shrove Tuesday riot became known as “evil Carnival”; in 1513, a peasants revolt broke out from the Bern Carnival; during London’s Evil Mayday of 1517, apprentices led a pogrom against foreigners; the Dijon Carnival of 1630 erupted into a riot, led by wine-growers; the Great Catalan revolt against Spanish rule (1640-59) started on Corpus Christi 1640; a mass riot in Madrid broke out on Palm Sunday 1766.

These are just a few examples: for instance virtually every May Day in the build-up to and during the English Civil War saw upheavals, demonstrations and riots.

Beyond the actual threat that crowds gathered for partying represented, the forms of traditional ritual which expressed licensed protest were routinely adapted for real attempts to change things. People saw things through eyes conditioned by experience, and adopted what they knew to express what they wanted or desired… Carnival and the other festivals of reversal meant different things to different people, depending on their background; they could be channelled to express desires, resentments, interests, outlooks. Their meanings also changed as society evolved.

Since its beginnings (as we discussed earlier) Christianity had produced critiques of gluttony and over consumption. But from the sixteenth century on, in a process of reform, repression and social control, Carnival and many other festivals around Europe were gradually abolished, as part of the general disciplining of the lower orders into more productive and less festive and rebellious forms of behaviour, which took place from the 16th to the 19th centuries.

The English Shrove Tuesday, never an official church holiday, was gradually reduced in status, its holiday functions relegated to after hours and the liberties allowed the apprentices restricted. The riotousness of Shrove Tuesdays of the early-mid seventeenth century London was not fully revived after the disruption of the Civil War or the Restoration, though unruly apprentices continued to be involved in riots and protests.

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2015 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online

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Today in London riotous history, 1886: unemployed riot in the West End

On Monday, February 8, (sometimes called Black Monday), the West End was briefly swept by a riot, which began in Trafalgar Square, after two rival public rallies had been held there. The Fair Trade League (a kind of Tory working class front group) had announced they were going to hold a public meeting – in response H.F. Hyndman’s Marxist-jingoist Social Democratic Federation also decided to hold a counter-demo. This was at a time of high unemployment and great hardship among London’s working class – the two organisations had very different solutions to the plight of the thousands on the dole… The Fair Trade League was calling for protectionist measures to ‘protect British jobs’. The SDF argued for the “Right to Work” and making demands for the establishment of state-directed co-operative colonies on under-utilised lands.

Although the Metropolitan Police vaguely recognised that there might be fighting between some of the rowdier elements of both rallies, there was a complacent attitude from the authorities, who allowed both to go ahead without significant police presence.  There had been little serious public order problems in London since the Hyde Park Reform Riots in 1866-7. So both meetings were given permission to meet in different parts of the square; with arrangements for a small force of constables to police the square, (though a reserve of 563 more cops were standing by). District Superintendent Robert Walker, 74 years old, was in charge, though he may have been somewhat past it – he went in plain clothes to observe the meetings, lost touch with his men and wandered into the crowd, where he had his pockets picked.

The SDF managed to take over the Free Traders platform, where were some fiery speeches from SDF leaders, which led to some fighting in the Square.

One of the SDF leaders, John Burns, allegedly waving a red flag, gave a rousing speech, and was said by a few witnesses which included a phrase that later got him charged for incitement: “Unless we get bread, they must get lead.” Many others, however, later gave evidence that they had never heard this phrase used.

John While, a reporter to the Times newspaper, gave an account of the SSF leaders’s speeches in the Square at their later trial for incitement. His evidence was challenged t the trial, and may have been, er, a load of bollocks… According to While, John Burns spoke first (in a “stentorian voice… which could be heard distinctly at a great distance”): “He declared that he and his friends of the ‘Revolutionary Social Democratic League’ were not there to oppose the agitation of the unemployed, but they were there to prevent people being made the tools of the paid agitators who were working in the interests of the Fair Trade League. He went on to denounce the House of Commons as composed of capitalists who had fattened upon the labour of the working men, and in this category he included landlords, railway directors and employers, who, he said, were no more likely to legislate in the interests of the working men than were the wolves to labour for the lambs. To hang these, he said, would be to waste good rope, and as no good to the people was to be expected from these ‘representatives,’ there must be revolution to alter the present state of things. The people who were out of work did not want relief but justice. From whom should they get justice?—from such as the Duke of Westminster and his class, or the capitalists in the House of Commons and their classes? No relief or justice would come from them. The unemployed too, the working men, had now the vote conferred upon them. What for? To turn one party out and put the other in? Were they going to be content with that, while their wives and children wanted food? When the people in France demanded food the rich laughed at those they called ‘the men in blouses,’ but the heads of those who laughed soon decorated the lamp-posts. Here the leaders of the Revolutionary Democratic League wanted to settle affairs peaceably if they could, but if not they would not shrink from revolution.” The crowd had increased amazingly by this time; I should think there were 1,500 people there—a very large part of the crowd were of the orderly working class who were certainly men out of work, but the large part were very violent in their expressions—the rougher part cheered and applauded the speeches—Burns asked those who were out of work to hold up their hands, and nearly all the hands were held up—then the speaker took up another strain, dwelling on their right to work and their right to live, and warning them not to give ear to the Fair Traders who were having a meeting for heir own purposes; that was the three o’clock meeting—Mr. Champion spoke next—the defendants were in the hearing of each other when they spoke. (Reads.) Mr. Champion “declared that the Government which had now come into power were able in 24 hours, when they thought they personally needed protection from Dynamitards, to carry a measure. Now was needed a measure to protect lives more valuable and of more importance than any of the governing classes, lives which had to be dragged out in miserable homes, and it behoved this Government to set on foot at once remedial measures for the existing state of things. The speaker demanded the provision of work and the enactment of laws limiting labour to eight hours a day, and insisting upon the erection of better homes for the labouring classes at a rent within the means of workers. He also called upon the crowd not to be made the tools of the flair Trade Leaguers, who wished the people to pay more for their food and necessaries of life, in rich men’s interests, and then proceeded to say that if the demands of the workers were not granted the people must be contented to go back to their starvation and to bear quietly in the future, or else they must bring home in a practical way responsibility to those who had made it impossible for something to be done.” Mr. Williams next addressed the meeting. “He now said he was not contented to clamour any more for work, and advised his hearers as men in want of work to regard the position from his point of view. He quoted words from Shelley, ‘We are many, they are few.’ The many were workers in want, the few were owners of wealth. The few were organised, while the many were not organised, and if the many organised and banded themselves together, the wealth of the country would change hands. The people should not care for Liberal or Tory, but should seek to benefit their own class. They must put the fear of man in the hearts of the rich and so obtain what they wanted.” Mr. Hyndman next spoke. “He said the people out of work were asked to be moderate, but how could they be moderate when they were out of work and starving? If the thousands there had he courage of a few they would very soon alter the existing system of things. But what happened? They went away from meetings like that and forgot all about what they had heard. He and his friends would lead if they would follow, and even 500 determined men out of the thousands present could very soon make a change. It depended upon them whether they would drive the middle classes to bay, and if they did they would soon win.” Mr. Burns then spoke again, “he observed that the next time they met it would be to go and sack the bakers’ shops in the west of London. They had better die fighting than die starving, and he again asked how many would join the leaders of the Socialists, a question in reply to which many hands were held up. The men over there, Mr. Burns added, referring to the speakers at the rival meetings, were paid agitators, who were living on the poverty of the working classes. Those whom he was addressing he said pledged themselves to revolutionary doctrines, which elicited cries of ‘No, no.’ He concluded by asking the question, ‘When we give the word for a rising will you join us?’ to which a large number of the audience replied that they would, and almost as large a number declared they would not.” Besides these speeches other speeches were made—Mr. Burns was constantly, waving the red flag—I heard something said which I did not take down; I heard Mr. Burns make one observation which struck me very much, and that was, “We must have bread or they must have lead”—the speaking at that part of the square went on, I think, till about ten minutes past three, as far as my memory will serve; it might have been a little later—at that time I turned my attention to the other meeting—I did not see the end of the meeting at which the defendants were present; the speaking had finished where they were and the people went away, and I went to the Fair Trade meeting at the Nelson Column.”

By this time “the meeting was getting of a changeful character, and the crowd had very much increased—where I was standing the crushing was not felt—the crushing was on the outskirts of the crowd, 50 or 100 feet from me—there was a roar of voices in the distance, but they did not interrupt my hearing—there was considerable noise and crushing in the square—when there was a noise the speaker turned round and stopped and then went on again… when I left Trafalgar Square I left a very large crowd there—the rough element came on the scene then—there was a very large number of real unemployed people there; people of fustian and with stains of labour upon them—the roughs kept very much together, and so did the working class…”

In the event, there was little fighting between the two demonstrations. Instead, large crowds, made up possibly of a mix of the two, ended up rushing through parts of the West End, looting shops, attacking symbols of class power like the posh clubs of St James, and generally ran amok.

A massive crowd (estimated around 10,000) set off to march towards Hyde Park, planning to hold another meeting. The crowd was later described as being a mix of artisans and working men, with what was described as ‘roughs’ and ‘loafers’. Garbled reports misled the police to believe there was trouble brewing in The Mall instead of Pall Mall, and they panicked the royal family were to be targeted, and reinforcements were sent to protect Marlborough House and Buckingham Palace. Only half a mile away a mob rushed unhindered along Pall Mall and St James’s, smashing the local club windows along the way, provoked when toffs leaning out of the windows shouted abuse & threw stuff out of the windows at the crowd.

Hooted by Tories at the Carlton Club, the marchers jeered in return. In St James St metal bars and loose paving stones were employed to smash Club windows. The ultra-Tory Carlton Club windows got put in, as another red flag was supposedly waved on its steps…

Another ‘fiery speech’ speech was delivered opposite the Reform Club, and “three cheers were given for the Social Revolution.” Some posh carriages were also stopped, and stones thrown at the occupants. In Piccadilly people started looting shops, some nicking posh clothes then taking them off to nearby Green Park and Hyde Park to try them on.

When the SDF leaders and entourage arrived at Hyde Park they gave another round of speeches, from the steps of the statue of Achilles, after which groups of rioters marched off back East, some via North Audley Street and Oxford Street, breaking windows and looting as they went. “the crowd moved towards Stanhope Gate… through Dean Street into South Audley Street; a lot of windows were broken in both those streets – Minton’s china shop windows were smashed and the goods thrown about…shop fronts were smashed in and a lot of things stolen—I saw a lot of bread and some rabbits, and all sorts of things; I did not notice any jewellery—I went with the crowd across Grosvenor Square into North Audley Street, and saw shops smashed in, and then into Oxford Street, where there were some constables, I do not know how many, but the crowd dispersed…”

Though the SDF had used fiery invective from the platform, there was little real link between their ideas and the rioters more immediate class resentment and willingness to get stuck in, hassle the poshos, and maybe grab a bit of loot into the bargain.

During much of the riot, the SDF leaders in fact tried to persuade the crowd to stop most of what they were doing. They protected a number of MPs and other upper class men who blundeed into the demo and were roughed up or robbed, and blamed anyone breaking windows for bringing the demo into disrepute… This abject behaviour did however get four of the SDF bigwigs acquitted at their subsequent trial

In addition, they, like the authorities, were slightly afraid of what they had partly unleashed:

“The steps taken by the authorities are an eloquent testimony to the alarm created by the riots in the minds of the middle and upper classes. But they had by no means a monopoly of alarm at the moment.   The leaders of the Social Democratic Federation were genuinely afraid of the Frankenstein that had been raised. It was no part of their plan that rioting should take place.”

The rioting in the West End of London, 8 February 1886: Looting shops in Piccadilly, London; from The Graphic, 13 February 1886

At Hyde Park Burns had told the crowd that they intended to submit the resolutions of the meeting to the Government, and asked them if they would be satisfied with that – getting cries of “No!”, “Oxford-street!” and “Shoot the aristocracy!” in response.

But, almost contradictarily, the SDF also clearly let the idea that they had ‘unleashed’ the crowd go to their heads a bit, imagining that this heralded the opening salvo of a popular uprising…

The riot did put the wind up the authorities and many of the upper classes. Although the disturbances lasted only a few hours, and did not herald anything like popular insurrection, or even mass support for the SDF’s socialist program, it did reveal a widespread class hatred and anger that many of the well-to-do were just not aware of.

The following day there was panic in London, as rumours spread that a crowd of unemployed rioters were on their way to Elephant and Castle and Borough smashing shops on their way. Shops were boarded up and extra police sent down the Old Kent Road. A telegram was sent to The Times from the Old Kent Road: “Fearful state all round here in south London. 30,000 men at Spa Road moving to Trafalgar Square. Roughs in thousands trooping to the west. Send special messenger to the Home Office to have police in fullest force with fullest military force to save London”.

There was no 30,000 strong mob. There was a crowd gathered in Deptford Broadway – but no riot. In fact in Deptford the rumours were of a crowd heading towards them from the Elephant and Castle!

The more concrete results of the riot were in fact threefold: a plethora charity schemes for the unemployed (including some work for your dole building programs), a determination among some worthy middle class folk to study and understand poverty as a motivator for violent events, so as to head it off in the future, and last, increased repression of socialist meetings and groups. The next few years saw a concerted police attempt to batter socialist meetings off the streets, peaking with Bloody Sunday in November 1887.

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

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Today in London radical history, 1830: rioters attack New Police and demand political reform

In the early 1830s, there was growing pressure for parliamentary reform. A rough alliance of middle class and working class co-operated in pressing for a wider franchise, more representative constituencies, and other measures, to limit the power of the aristocracy… For a couple of years polite political reform, riotous workers and radical demagoguery all seemed to be part and parcel; of course in the end the 1832 Reform Act would later give the vote to the middle classes, who promptly ditched their plebeian allies with a fond fuck you all… Still it was a time pregnant with possibilities.

Starting on 5 November 1830, the middle classes began to petition parliament for reform.

A few days later, armed crowds met at the Rotunda, the pre-eminent radical political meeting place of the era, waving radical newspapers and attempted to march to Parliament.

Home Secretary Robert Peel, mastermind behind the creation of the New Police, had obviously got some ears to the ground, probably spies among the radicals, as he had warned in Parliament earlier that day that the king’s plans to take tea with the Lord Mayor of London might be best postponed due to the agitated state of the London crowds:

“The letter which had appeared in all the newspapers of the day, addressed to the Lord Mayor, was authentic, and the signature to that letter was his. That letter conveyed the deliberate opinion of his Majesty’s confidential servants, that they had felt it to be their duty to advise his Majesty to postpone the visit which their Majesties intended to pay to the City of London on Tuesday next. The opinion was founded on the firm belief entertained by his Majesty’s Government, that a collision of a very serious nature might take place in the attempt to maintain the public peace… information had been received of an intention on the part of evil-disposed persons to make that festival a scene of tumult, and probably of bloodshed… if their Majesties were to visit the city of London, a tumult and riot would ensue, involving consequences of a most deplorable character, and perhaps leading to bloodshed… I learnt that it was also the intention, of a few abandoned and desperate characters, to promote disorder and tumult… who, though few, were still sufficient in number to create very general and extensive alarm.”

The lord mayor of London handwritten to the Prime Minster, the Duke of Wellington, to alert him to a threat to particularly target him, hated reactionary that he was, the arch-champion of the most reactionary tories of the time, dead set against any political reforms or concessions to change of any kind. The class conscious workers’ movement especially considered him one of their main enemies.

Peel continued: “In the course of Saturday, the Lord Mayor elect of London, the chief magistrate of the metropolis for the ensuing year, felt it to be his duty to make to the Duke of Wellington a communication, which I will now proceed to read to the House: My Lord Duke,— a set of desperate and abandoned characters, who are anxious to avail themselves of any circumstance to create tumult and confusion. While all of any respectability in the City are vying with each other to testify their loyalty an the occasion, from what I learn it is the intention of some of the desperate characters above alluded to, to lake the opportunity of making an attack on your Grace’s person— [Very loud cheering, mingled with considerable laughter, from the Opposition benches]. “Good God! A sarcastic cheer!” continued Sir R. Peel; “and made, too, in the House of Commons, on hearing that the Lord Mayor of London has communicated to the Duke of Wellington that he had reason to believe that an attack would be made on his Grace’s life as he accompanied his Majesty to the civic festival!… Is that a salutary state of things, in which it is announced that a Minister of the King cannot go to meet his Sovereign at Guildhall without being exposed, I do not say to the usual symptoms of popular obloquy, but to the risk of an attack upon his person? But this is not all. Intimations reached my office that an attack was to be made upon his Grace’s house in the course of the night, when the police were at a distance, under the pretence of calling for lights to illuminate. I say, that any such attack must be accompanied by riot; and that the attempt to suppress such riot by force, when the streets are filled with women and children, must be accompanied by consequences which all of us would lament… I am now sorry to be obliged to inform the House, that in the course of Saturday and Sunday last, the most industrious attempts were made in various quarters to inflame the public mind against the new police. Thousands of printed hand-bills were circulated, some of which I will read to the House, for the purpose of shewing the means employed to inflame the people against that portion of the civil force which is intrusted with the preservation of the public tranquillity. These are not written papers, drawn up by illiterate persons, and casually dropped in the streets, but printed hand-bills, not ill-adapted for the mischievous purposes which they are intended to answer. One of them is in these terms:— To arms, to arms!—Liberty or Death! London meets on Tuesday next, an opportunity not to be lost for revenging the wrongs we have suffered so long; come ARMED, be firm, and victory must be ours!!! “AN ENGLISHMAN Another of them is couched in the following terms:— Liberty or Death! Englishmen! Britons!! and honest men!!! The time has at length arrived—all London meets on Tuesday — come armed. We assure you from ocular demonstration, that 6,000 cutlasses have been removed from the Tower, for the immediate use of Peel’s Bloody Gang—remember the cursed Speech from the Throne!!—These damned Police are now to be armed. Englishmen, will you put up with this.” ‘

A few days before, on November 2nd, a mob had gathered to attack the police, still wet behind the ears and very unwelcome to the mass of working class people in London… 66 arrests had been made after clashes between the ‘raw lobsters’ and the London mobility…

On November 8th, the trouble Peel had gotten wind of broke out, as crowds attempted to disrupt the lord Mayor’s Parade and march on Parliament:

“On Monday night (8 Nov 1830) a meeting was held at the Rotunda in Blackfriars road… an individual exposed a tricoloured flag, with “Reform” painted upon it, and a cry of “Now for the West End” was instantly raised. This seemed to serve as a signal, as one and all sallied forth in a body. They then proceeded over the bridge in numbers amounting to about 1,500 shouting, “Reform” – “Down with the police” – “No Peel” – “No Wellington.” They were joined by women of the town, vociferous in declamations against the police.”

The Rotunda was the pre-eminent political meeting place of the London working class radicals; where Richard Carlile lectured and denounced religion, where the National Union of the Working Classes gathered.
Note the flying of the French tricolour, the emblem of the first French Revolution, then still used by English radicals who took part of their inspiration from the events of 1789 in France. It was only really superseded as the main workers flag by the red flag in the later 19th century.

“The mob proceeded into Downing-street, where they formed in a line…  A strong body of the new police arrived from Scotland Yard to prevent them going to the House of Commons. A general fight ensued, in which the new police were assisted by several respectable looking men. The mob, upon seeing reinforcement, took to flight.

Before noon organised bands of pickpockets were prowling about. About two o’clock in the afternoon a sham fight was attempted to be got up in Fleet Street, and crowds collected. About five o’clock the first indication of a mob was observed round the house of lords. Members got into their carriages without molestation, but were assailed by shouts…

The refuse of the mob, proceeded in a body, vociferating “No Peel – down with the raw lobsters!” At Charing Cross, the whole of them yelled, shouting and breaking windows. They were dashing over heaps of rubbish and deep holes caused by the pulling down of several houses, when a strong body of police rushed upon them and dealt out unmerciful blows with staves on heads and arms.

In the evening another mob made their way to Apsley House, the residence of the Duke of Wellington, hallooing, in their progress thither, disapprobation towards the noble duke and the police. They were met by a strong force of the police, who succeeded in ultimately dispersing them. During the conflict many received serious injuries.

At half-past twelve o’clock, a party were in the act of breaking up [a paling], for purpose of arming themselves, when a body of police made a rush forward and laid unmercifully on the rioters, making many prisoners…”

William Knight, one of those arrested, was found to be carrying a will bequeathing his body, in the event of his death, to the barricades in the cause of Liberty! The Duke Of Wellington considered the battle for the future of society as one of “The Establishment Vs The Rotunda.”

The following day, November 9th, weavers & labourers gathered in huge crowds inside Temple Bar, on the Strand. Despite the cancellation of the King’s attendance at the Lord Mayor’s banquet (Guildhall), the bargain which Peel had struck with the Whigs to ease the passage of the Police Bill through Parliament was bearing unwelcome fruit. By excluding the City of London from the Metropolitan Police area, the Act had provided a sanctuary into which the Police could not penetrate in order to prevent the formation of hostile crowds, or assess the size of a mob. On this occasion the people armed themselves with wood and stones from the Public Record Office in Chancery Lane, then in course of construction. Rowan’s police were further down the Strand, near Charing Cross. He formed his men into a column and, as the mob advanced down the street, he gave the order to move forward. The rioters were quickly dispersed and fled to the security of the City boundaries. None were seriously hurt and Rowan had demonstrated that police, in solid formation, were more than a match for a much larger undisciplined mob. 

On the 10th, the military besieged the Rotunda at ten o’clock at night trying to provoke another fight; they ordered Carlile to open the doors, but he refused, so they eventually buggered off.

A week after this triumph the Government fell and the Whigs assumed office. Armed crowds marched to the Rotunda, waving radical papers. 

Today and tomorrow, in London’s festive history, 1682: Bonfire Night rioters big up the Duke of Monmouth

The late 1670s and early 1680s saw a constitutional crisis in England and Scotland, as a growing group of nobles, with some popular support, attempted to prevent a Catholic heir to the throne from succeeding as king, and resorted to plots, conspiracies and open rebellion when parliamentary methods failed.

The English Civil War had left resentment among some of the population about the monarchy and the penalties which had been imposed on the supporters of the Commonwealth. Fears of a potential Catholic monarch persisted, intensified by the failure of Charles II and his wife to produce any children. This was spiced not only with growing resentment of Charles’ methods of governing and the growing centralised power of the monarchy, but also the widespread survival of veterans of the English Revolution – old Cromwell supporters, civil war soldiers, remnants of the Leveller and Fifth monarchist movements, non-conformists in religion whose freedom to worship had been established in the war then severely curtailed under the restoration… For instance you have figures like Colonel Henry Danvers, a fifth monarchist and republican, who plotted with Clement Ireton and other republican groups around 1665, planning to kill the king, seize the Tower, said to have been plotting establish a republic and redistribute property. (Although this last may have been black propaganda against them?) Danvers had been captured April 1665, but rescued by a mob!

A turbulent mix, with lots of anti-popish populism and suspicion thrown in. Ploys abounded.

A defrocked Anglican clergyman, Titus Oates, exposed a supposed “Popish Plot” to kill Charles and to put the Duke of York on the throne – largely a combination of conspiracy theory and witch-hunt. The Earl of Shaftesbury, a former government minister and a leading opponent of Catholicism, attempted to have James excluded from the line of succession. Some members of Parliament proposed that the crown go to Charles’s illegitimate son, James Scott, who became the Duke of Monmouth. In 1679, with the Exclusion Bill – which would exclude the King’s brother and heir presumptive, James, Duke of York, from the line of succession – in danger of being passed, Charles II dissolved Parliament. Two further Parliaments were elected in 1680 and 1681, but were dissolved for the same reason. The Exclusion Crisis contributed to the development of the English two-party system: the Whigs were those who supported the Bill, while the Tories were those who opposed it. Ultimately, the succession was not altered, but James was convinced to withdraw from all policy-making bodies and to accept a lesser role in his brother’s government. Monmouth was a protestant, popular, although something of a chancer…

During 1682 tensions were rising across the country, as the king got older and the prospect of his brother succeeding inspired plots, attempted mini-coups… Monmouth was persuaded by the protestant conspirator Lord Shaftesbury to progress through several counties in triumphant and semi-rebellious processions, in 1680s thorugh the southwest of England , and in September 1682 in Cheshire and Merseyside… The rapturous receptions there indicated some of the feeling of dissatisfaction, projected onto a royal playboy, who was flattered into slowly believing he could be a rival for the throne.

Whether or not Monmouth was himself conspiring at this point to seize the throne, he was certainly the figurehead for many who did want to see the Duke of York excluded and even Charles deposed… His popularity when he travelled the country seemed an opportunity, to many notables opposed to any hint of Catholicism, but also to the ‘arbitrary’ royal power and increasingly modern centralised state, that often trespassed on the interests of wealthy aristos and merchants (similar to the questions and conflicts that had led to the Civil war). It would certainly later persuade Monmouth himself that he had a chance of seizing the throne from his uncle.

On Bonfire Night, November 5th, for 80 years a bonanza fest for anti-catholic hysteria, London saw its usual rowdy scenes, with multiple bonfires, drinking, burning of effigies… This year, however, the festivities were jacked up a notch, and the usual good humoured banter seemed to have a subversive edge: about 10 o’clock, 500-600 people marched through the city shouting ‘A Monmouth! No York!’ They then proceeded to try to burn the Mitre Tavern on Poultry, smashed the windows of prominent ‘Tories’ (high church, seen as neo-catholics), and attempted a few lynchings… The rioting continued into the next night. Arrests followed – and 13 men were condemned to death.

Early in 1683, “Six apprentices of the City were found guilty  of a riot committed on the 6th of Nov. last, for which  they were fined twenty marks, and sentenced to stand on  the pillory, which was accordingly performed, two in  Cheapside, one in Cornhill, the others in various parts of  the City, but instead of having any abuse offered them,—  which is usual in such cases— not a pin*s head was  flung at them, instead they had money, oranges, etc thrown to them during their stay before the pillory.”  For the authorities did not venture to place them in the pillory — and ** a bottle of wine was brought to the two in Cheapside to drink the Duke of Monmouth and Lord Shaftesbury’s health.”

Clearly the rioters had a great deal of popular support… What isn’t totally clear is the basis of the rioters’ anger, though it appears from to have been more of the usual Bonfire night anti-catholicism, rather than necessarily radical sentiment… But the two were often mingled together at this time, the idea that Catholicism meant tyranny and protestantism liberty, at its most simplest, but also with more complex religious and political ideologies underlying.

Monmouth gathered support from the remnants of the republican and fifth monarchist undergrounds, who had plotted and schemed against the restored monarchy from 1660s on, though largely futilely and increasingly penetrated by govt spies, and manipulated by political opportunists, leading ‘Whigs’ and anti-catholic nutters… Stalwart civil war era republicans, ex-Cromwellite soldiers, even former levelers and fifth monarchists who had ended up opposing Cromwell, all dipped into the plotting and would up snared in conspiracies like the Rye House Plot, and supporting Monmouth’s 1685 rebellion against James when he became king. To some extent the November 1682 riots were a prelude or an episode in this long murky resistance.

The Rye House Plot was a shadowy London conspiracy which, early in 1683, [Whigs] may well have discussed  murdering the King as he returned to London from the Newmarket races. What the Rye House Plotters actually planned and wanted are much debated.  Some believe Monmouth and other prominent Whigs led by Shaftesbury to be planning the murder or abduction of the king.  on June 12th 1683 Josiah Keeling, a minor Whig figure in the City, made a deposition before Secretary Jenkins saying that a few weeks prior he had been engaged in a conspiracy with old Cromwell supporter Richard Rumbold and others to assassinate the King on his return from Newmarket.

Whether this was true or not, the Tories seized on the admission: many Whigs were forced out of the country, among the Duke of Monmouth (although he tried to convert to Catholicism and grassed up a few of the plotters first, showing his unwavering commitment to the cause).

When Monmouth ‘invaded’ England in 1685, following Charles II’s death and James’ succeeding to the throne, he won most support among the West Country poor, including impoverished and discontented, but notably, among them, a number of former levellers or those who looked back to the Commonwealth and the civil war political ferment for inspiration. People who turned out to cheer Monmouths as he marched through Devon and Somerset openly wore green ribbons – the emblem of the Levellers. Around the campfires of the rebel ‘army’ who rallied to his cause, political discussions were said to have taken place about the kind of kingdom the rebels thought they were fighting for, which directly echoed the highly politicised soldiery of the New Model Army, the Putney Debates, the Agreement of the People… Whether Monmouth himself would have approved or any successful Monmouth regime would have even tolerated such assertions (a dubious question at best), elements of his support were again stating the old Leveller principle that the common people of the nation have a right to a say in the direction of the country, the law – all social strata are concerned in how society is run. The revolutionary potential of this idea had terrified the restored Stuart regime throughout king Charles’s life (most of all when working people rose up, as in the Bawdy House riots or the 1675 silkweavers’ riots in London); its re-appearance in Monmouth’s army have led some to call the rebellion the last Leveller uprising.

However, the radicals’ and non-conformists’ desperate hope that this royal bastard would bring about the triumph of the ‘Good Old Cause’ was not only over-optimistic, but misplaced. There were not enough of them, and large numbers of potential rebels in other areas did not come out in support; possibly very sensibly guessing that it wouldn’t end well. The rebellion was heavily defeated, 100s of rebels killed in the battle of Sedgemoor, and many more brutally executed in the reprisals thereafter; and when king James was ousted 3 years later and replaced with William III, it was by the conservative elements opposed to arbitrary royal power in their own interests. The powerful who masterminded the Glorious Revolution, created a political settlement based on a constitutional agreement, yes, but based on top-down hierarchy, not a radical conception of the nation that would allow all social classes a voice in power.

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2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London riotous history, 1795: king George III attacked by angry crowds.

As related in our previous post, the reforming London Corresponding Society (LCS) held a rally in Copenhagen Fields, Islington, on October 26, 1795, called to protest against the widespread hunger and poverty in the country, and demand that the king and government implement a program of political reform to bring in universal male suffrage and end the expensive and disastrous war with revolutionary France.

With the LCS at the peak of their influence, the speakers threw out hints that the mob should surround Westminster three days later, when the king would go to open the houses of parliament… This climate of rebellion and anger led to a riot and an attack on the king.

An angry crowd to march to Whitehall on the 29th October, determined to confront the king.

King George was traveling to open Parliament, but his coach was surrounded by the angry crowds demanding change. There was a crush around the coach, and as it travelled between St James Palace and Carlton House, there was a sudden rush, and the coach was separated from its guards by demonstrators. Constables tried to secure the gates of Horseguards, but the crowd poured in and over-ran them from different entrances, following after the coach.

As the coach drew into Great George Street, the thick glass of the coach window was suddenly punctured – by a stone? A bullet? A marble?  – which, was never established. It created a smooth round hole in the window; most onlookers thought it had come from an upstairs window in neighbouring Margaret Street, and that it had been fired from a gun. This despite the fact that no one present even pretended to have heard a shot. The coach was finally hauled into the entrance to the House of Lords.

While the government and its favoured newspapers asserted this was an attempt to assassinate the king with some form of airgun, radical commentators dismissed this as yet another ploy to discredit the movement for political reform and opposition to the war against France. No-one had been arrested at the scene (given the sheer size of the hostile crowd, the guards thought it would backfire), and nothing was found when the house in Margaret Street was searched.

However, if the coach trip TO Parliament had been worrying, the return journey was to be worse. Leaving the House of Lords at 3pm, as signal guns sounded out, the king was confused by the ‘silent indifference’ of the massed crowd. Soon, however, the indifference was replaced by a hooting crowd, and a gang of about 30 men moved rapidly toward the coach, groaning and shouting, and gurning at the king. The Life Guards struggled to hold them off.

Then, again, the coach came under bombardment – a volley of stones smashed into the woodwork as it drew level with Spring Gardens Terrace, splintering part of the frame. The crowd gathered more missiles and pelted the coach, the constables and guards; king George waved his arms at the soldiers to keep the mob away. Just in time the guards ushered the coach into the gates of St James’s Palace, as a large stone shattered a coach window and the king’s face was showered with splinters. As he walked to the palace door, a crowd surrounded the coach and all but demolished it.

With the king safe, a group of constables ran out to try to arrest some of the assailants. They grabbed George Gregory and Edward Collins, but witnesses later testified that these men had not throne the last big rock, as accused, but that this had been lobbed by another man who had strolled off. Kyd Wake was grabbed by Carlton Gardens, and John Dinham was arrested showing people shards of glass from the broken windows. Robert Bryant, a shoemaker, was also picked up nearby at the Rose Inn.

However, the king’s nightmare journeys were not yet over for the day. He was determined to join his family a Buckingham Palace, and set out again by a back door, in a smaller coach, with just two footmen. The Guards had accidentally been sent back to their barracks. Very soon after he left, a crowd spotted him and surrounded the king again, hooting and booing, and showering the new coach with stones; then, 16 men halted the coach and pulled its wheels off, shouting ‘Bread! Bread! Peace, Peace!’ One man grabbed the door handle. This group was only scared off by a civil servant who pushed his way through with a pistol to keep them back, while someone else ran of to get the guards, who finally turned up to escort him to Buck House.

This was not an end to the riots. The following day, as the royal family went to Covent Garden to the theatre, a huge crowd gathered again, estimated at 10,000 people, surrounding the theatre, though they were prevented from entering by 200 cavalry, 100 foot guards and 500 constables. Despite keeping people well away from the king’s coach, there was more stone throwing. Several people were nicked for hissing the king, and a number were lifted in the days following for uttering ‘treasonable expressions’. There was some uproar even in the theatre, although it had been carefully packed with loyalists.

The prisoners arrested on the 29th were questioned by the bow Street magistrates over the next two days, with the aim of building a case for a charge of high treason. Kyd Wake maintained he had merely hissed at the king, to show his ‘dissatisfaction with the war’. No-one could say he had thrown anything. John Dinham, a baker, and Robert Bryant were charged with making a riot and throwing stones at the empty coach. George Gregory denied everything and was discharged. The rest were refused bail. Collins was eventually charged with high treason for throwing a stone, but the case was dropped in the following year. However, Kyd Wake was tried and convicted and sentenced to five years hard labour in February 1796.

John Ridley, a London Corresponding Society member, was thought to have been the man who grabbed hold of the coach handle during the final attack on the 29th. The moderate reformer, tailor Francis Place, said he had recognised Ridley but that he had grabbed the handle to steady himself after being pushed in the crowd… Not very convincing, (but then Place was a slippery character, later to spend many years informing to the government on radicals). Another LCS member also claimed to have been the man who grabbed the handle. [Ridley was later to take part in some of the Old Price Riots against theatre price rises in 1809.]

The government and its supporters aimed much of their fury at the LCS. It was a’ mischievous club, where treason is hatched and thoughts of royal massacre rendered familiar’, according to the St James’s Chronicle. The riots and attacks on the king brought to mind only too strongly the last six years of revolution in France, which had seen the royal family and aristocracy largely execute or imprisoned. That movement too had begun with the crowd taking control of the streets, and the government were determined to nip any similar process in the bud. The LCS and the movement for political reform was not that strong or numerous, but it had tapped into the widespread frustration with war, rising food prices and hardship; its influence was not anything like as insidious as the authorities made out – and they really should have known, since the whole organisation was heavily penetrated by informers paid by the government and magistrates, who reported back on meetings and speeches from its many London branches. However, the king and his ministers were determined to prevent their influence from growing. So while they did in fact begin to investigate and ameliorate the conditions of hunger and hardship in the country, they also got underway with repressive measures. Two Acts of Parliament were quickly drawn up and passed to silence the radicals; the moderate ‘Foxite’ Whig opposition’s criticism of the war against France was also muted.

The broader based movement for political reform that had been building was split by the riots and attacks on the king. LCS leaders chose to distance themselves from the assaults, not that this prevented the law from censoring their publications and restricting their meetings.

The scared authorities banned meetings of more than 50 people, & strengthened the powers of magistrates to repress radicals publications, arrest individuals and hold them regardless of the courts. Despite widespread protest around the country these measures would lead to the decline of the democratic movement. Many potential supporters were put off joining. Also at this time, divisions developed in the LCS over the question of religion, with a growing trend of deism influenced by Paine’s Age of Reason. An attempt to publish a magazine in 1796 failed, increasing the Society’s debts. Disillusion was also setting in with revolutionary France, as it became clear that with the fall of the Jacobins in 1794, the most corrupt sections of the bourgeoisie had taken power.

Thomas Evans, (later a founder of the Spencean Philanthropists), became secretary of the LCS in 1796: more radical than many of the members…Scared by the navy mutinies at the Nore & Spithead, the authorities attempted to prove the LCS had been involved, without turning up much evidence. John Bone, an LCS member, was busted with copies of a ‘seditious’ handbill distributed to soldiers at Maidstone. As a result July 31st 1797 the platform was nicked at an LCS public meeting by Middlesex magistrates. On its last legs, as members dropped off, the whole committee was nicked at an April 19th 1798 meeting, and the Society was banned, along with other radical groups. This was the effective end of the Society: their dreams of a representative parliament, elected MPs truly representing all the people of the nation, would have to wait… But many of their former members would carry their ideas into the new century, and new radical movements…

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Attacks on royalty continue. Funnily enough the above is a rare example of a collective attack on a British monarch, (King Charles I’s instant weight loss program from 1649 counts, maybe?) though individuals have had a number of (more or less serious) attempts at offing or doing injury to various crowned heads. I think queen victoria holds the record for attempted assassinations entered into; though George III also had some close shaves with lone angry constituents as well as this October 1795 royal audience in the Westminster streets. Our favourite two are probably James Hadfield trying to rewrite the kings script in the theatre a few years later, and Edward Oxford’s having a pop at Victoria in 1840. The latter because one of our happiest moments at past tense was Oxford’s great-grand neice coming across our 2015 Lindon Rebel History Calendar which contained an entry celebrating him, and she gleefully informed us how proud the whole family are still of him. And why not!?

Another great collective shindig that still warms the cockles: rioting students accidentally bump into Prince Charles & Camilla in Regent Street in November 2010 and try to engage him in a serious discussion on public transport, ie how he’ll get to the palace if his limo gets turned over. Sadly it remains a theoretical discussion, bar the odd bounce on the bonnet. We know riotous attacks on royal parasites are no substitute for collective community class struggle yada yada. Still, every now & again having a go at a privileged poodle is better than a poke in the eye with s sharp stick.

Till the next time…

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Appendix: Gillray’s engraving of the attack on the king’s coach (at the head of this post)

“At a glance, Gillray’s cartoon appears to side with the government’s version of events. But look again. In the bottom right, the figure of Britannia has been trampled under the horses’ hooves. This is a hit and run, and at the reins of the carriage is none other than William Pitt who drives his administration on blindly and ruthlessly, insensible to the irreparable damage he is inflicting. The nation is the casualty here, not the royal passenger. The government, not the protesters, are the real hooligans.” (David Francis Taylor)

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Today in London riotous history: police attack anti-poll tax demo, Brixton Prison, 1990

Saturday 20 October 1990 saw the second national UK demonstration against the hated poll tax, which ended in a police riot outside Brixton Prison.

“Well in March of 1990
We had some fun, all do agree;
The West End burned and the cops did flee,
As we paid them back their poll tax.
6 months later they had a rematch.
I don’t have to tell you, we didn’t win that.”
(Paddy Goes on the Demo, Dr Feelshite – sung to the tune of Paddy Works on the Railway)

In 1989 (Scotland) and 1990 (England & Wales,) the Conservative Government introduced a new tax to replace local rates as a way of funding local councils. The Tories called it the Community Charge. Everyone else called it the Poll Tax, after the famous levy that triggered the 1381 Peasants Revolt. The poll tax was radically different from the rates in that it was a flat rate, so everyone in a Borough would pay the same regardless of how rich they were or how much their property was worth, rather than paying more if they owned more. Obviously this re-drew the burden of paying for the Council – reducing costs for the wealthy and much of the middle class, and increasing the cost for the working class and

Thatcher and co thought they would get away with this after a decade in which they’d largely mashed up organised working class opposition – steelworkers, miners, printers, etc had been defeated and trade unions cowed. The tories thought they were on a roll, and that the Poll Tax would not only make them more and more friends among the middle class and consolidate the wealth of their traditional supporters, but also stick the knife into the Labour Councils they hated so much, forcing them to slash services or impose crippling poll tax… The government clearly felt they would push the tax through whatever the opposition…

However, they had miscalculated somewhat.

Huge campaigns sprang up against registering to pay, filling in forms, giving the local council any info etc., and then against payment. Thousands of local anti-poll tax groups or unions were set up. Opposition ranged from marches, occupations, defending people’s homes against bailiffs, blockading and occupying council chambers, bailiffs offices, to riots and clogging up the courts with legal challenges, spurious and otherwise. Hundreds of people were jailed for refusing or not being able to pay, and for taking part in protests against the Tax.

However, there were divisions in the campaign; fundamental differences over strategy and ways of organising. Broadly speaking
• Labour activist campaigners thought you could fight through the Council and the TUC,
• the Socialist Workers Party was for stopping the Poll tax through workplace resistance (ie by council workers, organised in then public service workers union NALGO, which became part of today’s Unison) organisation, and that community or street anti-poll tax groups were pointless;
• the slightly more working class oriented Militant Tendency {now the Socialist Party} was for building community groups but under their direct control and run top down by their activists;
• the anarchists and other non-aligned types weren’t against trying to get NALGO members to strike against implementing the Tax (although sceptical of the likelihood of NALGO taking a strong position – from experience!), but felt the best strategy was self-organised local groups run from the bottom by the local people themselves.

As it happened the SWP flitted in and out of the anti-poll tax movement with all the attention span of a slightly dizzy gnat, depending on what other exciting things were going on (“Non-registration is a damp squib, comrades, the Dockers Strike is the Big issue Now.”) Militant and the anarchists fought constantly as the Milis tried to impose as much control over the campaign as they could.

The fighting between police and protestors at local anti-poll tax demonstrations around the UK, and the huge Trafalgar Square March 31st Poll Tax Riot had increased tensions within the anti-poll tax movement – mostly hostility between Militant cadre and independent activists and groups, especially after Militant bigwigs threatened to grass up Trafalgar Square rioters, on top of the manipulations, threats and lies they were using to try and control the resistance… But the battering the cops had taken at Trafalgar Square led to a massive repression, 100s of arrests, raids on activists’ houses (which added 70 odd more defendants to the original 381 nicked on the 31st itself, this blogespondent being just one of them); and a determination by police to get one back on us…

The cops had lost it in a big way on March 31st, and tactically fucked up, allowing rioting to spread through the West End, instead of containing us in one area, which had transformed the protest against the Poll Tax to a short lovely insurrection against the consumer culture of central London. (The Strangeways Prison revolt next day and the other jail rebellions/protests that followed were like icing on the cake).

But the cops have long memories, and hate to be beaten. And the Government was willing to back them to the hilt in taking back the initiative. They must have seen potential in the divisions between the Militant-sponsored Anti-Poll Tax Federation and the anti-poll tax groups these trot hacks couldn’t control. Militant apparatchiks had condemned both local and Trafalgar Square rioting, and (whatever they afterwards claimed) did threaten to grass up those who had taken part in fighting with the police (in Bristol and Nottingham Militant members DID rat out rioters.) The next big anti-poll tax demo was to be October 20th: group of anti-poll tax campaigners had marched all the way from Scotland in time to arrive for that date; the London Anti-Poll tax Federation organised a demo to greet them. The route was set to be from Kennington Park (where the March 31st had begun, and a symbolic gathering point for protest for over 150 years) to Brockwell Park in Brixton, to be followed with a march to Brixton Prison, in support of several prisoners from Trafalgar Square who were locked up there. The Militant-dominated All Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation had refused to organise the main march, so the equally Militant-run London Federation of anti-poll tax groups had taken it on; the Trafalgar Square Defendants Campaign, around which many dissident elements had grouped, had planned the prison demo, which the London Federation leadership had initially refused to support but had reluctantly backed after parts of their own affiliated membership protested. The Police bigwigs must have seen an opportunity to get their own back (and maybe drive a further wedge into the movement?)

I’ve mix-maxed a few accounts into a roughly coherent chronology here, some of it is from my own recollections and others lifted from a couple of other accounts. Apologies if it reads a bit disjointed.

October 20th: A feeder march of 2,000 organised by the Trafalgar Square Defendants Campaign (TSDC) picketed Horseferry Road Magistrates Court at 9.30 that morning. This court had heard many of the cases of those arrested on March 31. Magistrates there were jailing as many people as they could but publicity and pickets of the court had caused them to be more restrained. The TSDC organised and stewarded the march themselves. It met up with the main London Federation march at Kennington Park. The main march had people from all over England, it was a beautiful day and the occasion was lively with a few bands, kids, dogs, Class War and the usual lefty paper sellers. Unfortunately the route was mostly down quiet roads so it wasn’t very visible but residents waved, shouted slogans and hung out banners. The march reached Brockwell Park without incident, this of course did not interest the media who were looking only for trouble. A large rally in the park heard speakers from the Scottish walkers, a Trafalgar Square defendant and Tony Benn.

At 3.30 in the afternoon, following the Brockwell Park rally,  a TSDC demo of over 3,000 people marched to Brixton Prison where four Trafalgar Square prisoners were being held. As before it was well organised and stewarded by the TSDC.

“The police had earmarked the people participating in the prison picket as the trouble-makers. Whereas they had lightly policed the rest of the day, the march to Brixton was saturated with police officers – 3,000 of them (almost more police than demonstrators). To put this in context: on March 31st when 200,000 people took to the streets, there were only 2,000 police.

The route was lined by three layers of police on either side. The songs of the demonstrators were optimistic and upbeat, but there was a strong air of anticipation. There were rumours flying around that the police wanted a rematch for March 31st. The police officer responsible for overseeing the march (Deputy Assistant Commissioner Metcalfe) had told the march organisers the night before the demonstration that he too had heard ‘rumblings’ to this effect.” (Danny Burns)

“After the initial march to Brockwell Park, people’s spirits started to rise, and the atmosphere walking to Brixton Prison became more intense, and seemed to have more purpose. Everyone was shouting Anti Poll Tax chants and the cops were telling people to shut up. As we approached the jail the march came to a halt’ and a few of us sat down in the road.” ( a report from a Sussex Poll Tax Resister)

The march arrived at the prison only to find that the police wanted to hem everyone in behind crowd barriers. As the march stopped on Brixton Hill the crowd became very compacted behind the barriers. TSDC organisers asked the police to allow the march round the back of the prison, the officer in charge of the police seemed to make sure he was not around at this point. The police were asked to move the barriers further up the road so the crowd could move up and ease congestion, this was also refused. The police took the megaphone from the TSDC organisers who were very visible in their bright pink bibs. They did not, as they claim, give out megaphones – this is yet another POLICE LIE.

“I was sat up on one of the pillars in the fence round the little park between Elm Park & Endymion Roads. Having been nicked at Trafalgar Square and several other times recently I fancied staying out of it (Bottler! I hear you shout!). All the marchers were funnelled into this tiny space and you could see the filth tooling up and licking their lips. “Aye aye,” I thought, ” here we go again.” It felt a lot like the moment just before it kicked off in Whitehall on March 31st – but this time there a lot less of us and A LOT more cops. Shit loads of ’em everywhere.” ( T.Barker)

“As early as 4.10 p.m. one of the legal liaison volunteers heard PC MS112 shouting (so that the demonstrators could hear): “I’d like to start kicking some people’s heads in now.” Not only were the demonstrators hemmed in, but the march stewards were prevented from crossing police lines. This made communication extremely difficult, especially as the van with the demonstration PA and megaphones hadn’t been allowed by the police to join the march. As the march reached the prison it was still in good spirits, the chants were about the Poll Tax and not the police. The march stopped on the opposite side of the road to the prison and gradually the police built up the numbers of their cordons on each side of the picket. Police Support Units (riot formations) were also deployed in an open show of strength.” (D. Burns)

“After a while we moved further up Brixton Hill where we could see a large crowd of people trying to get nearer the prison. There were hundreds of police stopping anyone getting to near. We could see everyone pushing between a wall of police. We tried to get on a wall to see if we could see the prison but the police started shoving everyone off. We could see loads of cop vans parked up the side street and as things started heating up in the centre of the crowd we could see them getting helmets and riot shields ready. Then a large group of them started to run towards us but stopped and turned back as if making a practice run.” (Sussex)

“At 4.40, for no apparent reason the police officers cordoned off Elm Park, splitting a number of demonstrators away from the main march. This was carried out just twenty minutes after the head of the march reached the prison, a clear indication that the police had decided to disperse the picket despite the fact that there was no public order problem. Two minutes later, the police attacked the crowd.” (Burns):

“The PSUs deployed in front of the churchyard push forward into the crowd, attacking demonstrators with violent and indiscriminate use of baton. There is much shouting and confusion, and a total of four cans are thrown at the surging pace. After 20-30 seconds, the police resume their positions in front of the churchyard and the crowd becomes calm again.” (Preliminary report on the policing of the Anti-Poll Tax Demonstration of October 20th, Trafalgar Square Defendants’ Campaign.)

The angry and frustrated crowd threw one or two beer cans but the police needed no excuse to charge into the crowd. Those who didn’t move fast enough were truncheoned and arrested. A young mother asked a police woman to take her children over the crowd barrier to safety, the caring cop refused.

“At 4.46, the police cleared the forecourt of the George IV pub not allowing people to finish their drinks. The police were then seen to pick up the glasses and smash them on the floor. One was overheard saying ‘This is it!’ At about the same time I was passing through a line of police and heard a similar statement: “just wait until it gets dark, then the real fun will start.”

By 4.50, the police in Endymion Rd. had been seen putting on their riot gear. At 4.55, a police officer was heard to say ‘Clear area – shield officers will be deployed’. A group of TSDC stewards intervened in an attempt to block any attack, but a few minutes later 50 police officers charged into the crowd. (Burns)

“I saw Dave Morris, one of the main organisers of the demonstration, who I knew from TSDC, go down, truncheoned over the head, from behind. He had been arguing with some top cop minutes or even seconds before. Some beercans went over onto cops’ heads and WHAM, they waded in.” (T. Barker)

“Looking into the main crowd of people across from the prison, things looked to be getting hectic and a lot of people began to run down Brixton Hill away from an obvious police attack. Seeing the crowd splitting up we ran towards the main bulk of the demo. After that I became separated from the people I was with, and made my way back to the corner of the side street. to be greeted by masses of riot police charging down the side street. There was nowhere to get away and me and many others were shoved by cops with riot shields, other people were getting a lot rougher treatment.

I managed to get past the police and go to the parked vans where I met the people I was with earlier. This is when I found out one of us had been nicked and dragged into a van by four police. We tried to talk to the person and offer some money for them to get home, but the cops wouldn’t have it surprise, surprise. One of them told us which station they were being taken to.

After that, alot of the vans drove off.

There were still people hanging about but had nowhere else to go, the main bulk had been forced down Brixton Hill.” (Sussex)

“The old bill pushed everyone down the hill from Elm Park. I got pulled off the fence (haha) by a rather agitated riot cop, and legged it with the rest. I could sense we weren’t gonna win this one.” (T Barker)

“The crowd was pushed down Brixton Hill and scores of riot police, who had been waiting down side streets preparing to take revenge for March 31 came out and further charged the crowd.

For the next half an hour police in riot formations charged the crowd forcing it down Brixton Hill. In the side streets many demonstrators (including myself) were caught between lines of riot police. We were ordered one way, and then ordered back as we reached the next line of police. Gradually, the crowd was forced down towards the tube station at the bottom of the hill. Hundreds of people were milling around watching what was happening.” (Burns)

Individuals trying to leave the crowd and avoid trouble were pushed back in. The crowd was driven back into Brixton to the dismay of those trying to do a peaceful day’s shopping. People legging it with peelers on their heels tried to get into pubs only to find the doors barred against them.

“We walked down to Electric Avenue. The market stalls were still lying around. People dragged them into the middle of the road, throwing cardboard boxes and other rubbish on top. Then they were lit, more were dragged up, a burning barricade began to be formed. Then the riot police again. It was unclear where to go. The police were too close for us to run. They charged. I grabbed Susan and threw her up against the wall, covering our heads with my arm. The riot police ran past us, truncheoning down anyone in their path.” (Burns).

Buses were stopped, the tube station was closed, so those wishing to leave were unable to. Groups were pushed into the market, the High Road and Coldharbour Lane. Market skips and a police motorbike were set on fire. People were pushed down to Camberwell and up towards Oval, many brutal arrests were made (135 in all, 120 charged, 27 of them with Violent Disorder, Section 2 of the Public Order Act – max sentence 5 years), demonstrators continued to fight back against the police till about 7 p.m.

“Many of those nicked were lined up in Jebb Avenue, the entrance to the Prison. Defendants I worked with later told me they were made to sit with their legs outstretched, while cops walked along, stepping on their legs and taunting them… It was clear the filth had been more than a little riled at taking such a heavy beating at Trafalgar Square and saw this very much as a rematch on their terms. I did find it noticeable that the police attack, while it did get resisted by those on the demo, did not spread to a social rebellion, attracting local youth and troublemakers, as much as earlier riots or even the other local anti-poll tax riots in Brixton that March. The cops won this one, decisively.

The only bright spot was the quality work done by the Trafalgar Square Defendants Campaign. Set up in the wake of March 31st to support all accused, both practically and politically, the TSDC had been the organisers of the Brixton Prison demo. As a defendant from Trafalgar Square involved in TSDC, I was involved I and saw at first hand the planning that was done in advance to prepare for a likely police attack, which didn’t stave it off but ensured that legal monitoring of cop activity, arrests and violence was carried out. 20,000 bust cards had been given out on the demo, video crews recorded police actions, 60 legal volunteers on the day took notes and got the names of arrestees and witnesses; plus office backup, meant that legal help and solicitors were arranged for as many of those nicked in Brixton as we could; friends and comrades rang in to report nickings and keep us posted about those released, and who was being remanded to prison. Visitors went to all police stations were those nicked were being held, welcoming people out when they were released. Many of us stayed up all that night, and all the next day, taking phone calls, arranging legal help, working out the train of events, making a list of who defendants were, what they were charged with, etc. Which meant by the next day we were in touch with nearly all those nicked and gave them support through court cases, prison etc. 60 defendants came to a meeting later in the week; the collation of witness statements

helped some defendants get off heavy charges, as well as being able to hold a press conference refuting the police official propaganda as to the chain of events.” (T.Barker)

Solicitors were provided for all those arrested and witness statements made. A picket was held at Southwark police station to support those arrested.

Within twelve hours the campaign had a complete record of what had happened throughout the day. When they organised a press conference the next day:

“The press thought that we would be a rabble, but they were stunned, they were surprised that we had the numbers of policemen who had said certain things; we had a complete chronology of events; and we were able to prove conclusively that the police had pre-planned attack.” (Dave Morris).

On Monday pickets were held at courts and courts for those still held in custody.

“It’s fair to say in retrospect that while the cops had, in meetings with the London Fed/TSDC beforehand, assured the demo organisers they wanted a peaceful day, they had block-booked Horseferry Road courts for Monday, cancelled all leave, heavily over-policed the march and allowed cops their heads in beating the shit out of us. They wanted to re-assert control after losing it 6 months before. To some extent we walked into a trap with our eyes open. While we none of us trusted the police, at least legal back-up was in place to aid as many arrestees as possible.” (T. Barker)

Several people did go to prison for long terms for the events of October 20th – due to confusion in the past tense archives I can’t list them here, but will add that if I locate it later.

One footnote for young folk – the march took place on the same day as that year’s London Anarchist Bookfair (which had been organised and booked long before the demo was announced), which then was held in Conway Hall. A good chunk of the UK anarchist scene was heavily involved in the anti-poll tax movement and most were on the Brixton demo. Hundreds of others went to the Bookfair instead. News of the riot/police attack was actually brought to the Bookfair by one enterprising anarcho, already facing charges from March 31st, who thought it better to disappear after the crowd was pushed to Brixton tube station, and who legged it by bike to Conway Hall and announced the news from the stage, no-one there having yet heard the word. This is before mobile phones became de rigeur for anyone other than yuppies – when news travelled at the speed of a second hand racing bike through London traffic (about 30 minutes from Brixton Hill to Red Lion Square).

There’s more on the TSDC at the end of our post on the March 31st 1990 riot

There’s some news coverage of the day here:

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An entry in the
2015 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online

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Today in London religious history, 1742: Methodist John Wesley stoned by unbelievers, Whitechapel.

John Wesley, founder of the Methodist branch of the Christian mystery, was a great one for preaching to large crowds in the open air. Throughout much of the 18th century, Wesley could be found bothering people with his brand of religion, in fields, squares, commons… whether people wanted to be bothered or not.

Many of the crowds that gathered when he preached didn’t come to listen or be converted. Many came to mock, catcall, and take the piss. And often they went further…

On September 12th 1742, Wesley’s attempt to preach in Great Gardens, an open space between Whitechapel and nearby Coverlet Fields, ended with him being stoned by non-believers:

“Many of the beasts of the people laboured much to disturb those who were of a better mind. They endeavoured to drive in a herd of cows among them: but the brutes were wiser than their masters.” Not totally disheartened by the failure of their unpredictable and obviously unmotivated cattle, the demonstrators rely on a more manageable weapon, the traditional stone: “One . . . struck me just between the eyes: but I felt no pain at all; and when I had wiped away the blood, went on testifying with a loud voice that God hath given to them that believe “not the spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind”  {Wesley, Journal. Ill, 45).

Wesley had been attacked already that year: in January he had been pelted with stones while preaching in his Long Lane chapel. In St Ives in 1743, Wesley was beaten up by a crowd; there were riots at Falmouth and Wednesbury against him.

Some of these events were were just plain old dislike of godbotherers telling people how to live and get saved. However, some of the violence targeted at Wesley and other Methodists was somewhat more complex…

inspired by more orthodox Anglican clergy, trying to cut out the competition. Wesley and his fellow Methodists were seen as dangerous, possibly Catholic in sympathy, and suspicious. The Anglican establishment and elements of the existing social hierarchy that backed Anglicanism as a vital part of the status quo, combined to prevent Wesley from preaching, and encouraging violence against him. In some cases people were paid, or even forced, by their employers to join crowds attacking Wesley and other Methodists. Magistrates sometimes declined to prosecute rioters who attacked Wesley and his congregations, which of course gave a green light to further attacks…

The Whitechapel mini-riot against Wesley seems to have been pure joyous spite against holy rollers, however… Nothing wrong with that. An old East End tradition, that the Skeleton Army would later revive a century and a half later.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London industrial history, 1769: The Bold Defiance attack looms of silkweavers working below the agreed rate, Spitalfields.

Pretty much everyone has heard of the Luddites, although many people still have a misconception about the reasons why they destroyed machinery. The weavers of Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, Lancashire and Leicestershire smashed machine looms not because they were blindly opposed to progress, or afraid of new technology, but because the introduction of machinery was undermining the livelihoods of themselves and their communities. They viewed new technology through the eyes of artisans accustomed to a certain amount of autonomy: from being well-paid workers working mainly under their own terms, often in their own homes, they were being reduced to poverty, and clearly saw that mechanisation was transforming them into wage slaves, increasingly forced into factories. Their challenge to new technology was based on both desperation and self-interest: machine-weaving was benefitting the masters and increasing their profits, at the workers’ expense, but machines could be used to improve the lives of those who created the wealth, if their use was controlled by the workers themselves.

It’s all about who’s making the decisions, and in whose interests… A question of control, how new technological developments change our work, strengthening us or those who live off our labour; a question that remains alive and crucial today.

Less well known than the Luddites, though, another group of workers also fought the imposing of machinery and the factory system against their interests – the silk weavers of Spitalfields, in London’s East End. Four decades before the Luddite uprisings, the silkweavers’ long battle against mechanisation came to a head in violent struggles. Like the Luddites, their campaign was volatile and violent, and  was viciously repressed by the authorities. But their struggles were more complex and contradictory, in that sometimes they were battling their employers and sometimes co-operating with them; to some extent they won more concessions than their northern counterparts, holding off mechanisation for a century, and maintaining some control over their wages and conditions, at least for a while.

Spitalfields is one of the oldest inhabited parts of London’s East End, and one of the earliest to be built up as the fringes of the City of London spread outward. Described as City’s “first industrial suburb”, from the Middle Ages, Spitalfields, (together with neighbouring areas Bishopsgate and Shoreditch), was well known for industry, which was able to establish here outside the overcrowded City; but also for poverty, disorder and crime. Outside the City walls, outside the jurisdiction of City authorities, the poor, criminals, and outcast and rebellious clustered here.

From medieval times the area’s major employer has been the clothing trade; but breweries have also been major employers since 17th century, and later residents formed a pool of cheap labour for the industries of the City and East End: especially in the docks, clothing, building, and furniture trades. Small workshops came to dominate employment here.

The relationship between the affluent City of London and the often poverty and misery-stricken residents over its eastern border in Spitalfields has dominated the area’s history. More than half the poor in Spitalfields worked for masters who resided in the City in 1816; today the local clothing trade depends on orders from West End fashion shops… The same old social and economic relations continue…

For similar reasons as those that led to the growth of industry and slums here, the area has always been home to large communities of migrants. Many foreigners in the middle ages could not legally live or work inside City walls (due to restrictions enforced by the authorities or the guilds), leading many to settle outside the City’s jurisdiction. Successive waves of migrants have made their homes here, and dominated the life of the area: usually, though not always, the poorest incomers, sometimes competing for the jobs of the native population, at other times deliberately hired to control wages in existing trades… Huguenot silkweavers, the Irish who were set to work undercutting them, Jewish refugees from late nineteenth-century pogroms in east Europe, and the Bengalis who have settled in the area since the 1950s…

For centuries Silk Weaving was the dominant industry in Spitalfields and neighbouring areas like Bishopsgate, Whitechapel and Bethnal Green, spreading as far as Mile End to the east, and around parts of Clerkenwell further west.

Silkweavers were incorporated as a London City Company in 1629. But many foreigners or weavers from northern England or other areas were not allowed to join the Company, and had problems working or selling their work as they weren’t members…

Silk production demanded much preparation before actual weaving began: throwing, where silk that has been reeled into skeins, is cleaned, twisted and wound onto bobbins, employed thousands in London already by the 1660s, though later throwing was dispersed to other towns.

In the early years weaving in Spitalfields was a cottage industry, with many independent workers labouring at home. This quickly developed into a situation with a smaller number of masters, who employed journeymen and a legally recognised number of apprentices to do the work. Numbers of workers, and training, in the Weavers Company were regulated by law and in the Company courts; later wages came to be a matter of dispute and the courts had to deal with this too.

Masters often sub-contracted out work to homeworkers, so that by the end of the 18th Century, many silkweavers were employed in their own homes, using patterns and silk provided by masters, and paid weekly. Later still there developed middlemen or factors, who bought woven silks at lowest prices and sold them to wholesale dealers. This led to lower wages for the weavers themselves.

A twentieth century account described the organisation of weaving in the area, based on reports from the previous century:

“The manufacturer procures his thrown ‘organzine’ and ‘tram’ either from the throwster or from the silk importers, and selects the silk necessary to execute any particular order. The weaver goes to the house or shop of his employer and receives a sufficient quantity of the material, which he takes home to his own dwelling and weaves at his own looms or sometimes at looms supplied by the manufacturer, being paid at a certain rate per ell. In a report to the Poor Law Commissioners in 1837 Dr. Kay thus describes the methods of work of a weaver and his family:-

A weaver has generally two looms, one for his wife and another for himself, and as his family increases the children are set to work at six or seven years of age to quill silk; at nine or ten years to pick silk; and at the age of twelve or thirteen (according to the size of the child) he is put to the loom to weave. A child very soon learns to weave a plain silk fabric, so as to become a proficient in that branch; a weaver has thus not unfrequently four looms on which members of his own family are employed…”

“The houses occupied by the weavers are constructed for the special convenience of their trade, having in the upper stories wide, lattice-like windows which run across almost the whole frontage of the house. These ‘lights’ are absolutely necessary in order to throw a strong light on every part of the looms, which are usually placed directly under them. Many of the roofs present a strange appearance, having ingenious bird-traps of various kinds and large birdcages, the weavers having long been famed for their skill in snaring song-birds. They used largely to supply the home market with linnets, goldfinches, chaffinches, greenfinches, and other song birds which they caught by trained ‘call-birds’ and other devices in the fields of north and east London.”

The wide high windows that shed enough light for their work can still be seen everywhere on older buildings around Spitalfields.

Although skilled, and often reasonably well-paid, the weavers could be periodically reduced to poverty; partly this was caused by depressions in cloth trade (one of the earliest recorded being that of 1620-40). “On the occurrence of a commercial crisis the loss of work occurs first among the least skilful operatives, who are discharged from work.” This, and other issues, could lead to outbreaks of rebelliousness: sometimes aimed at their bosses and betters, and sometimes at migrant workers seen as lowering wages or taking work away from ‘natives’.

For two hundred years, through the 17th and 18th centuries, the Silk Weavers of the East End conducted a long-running battle with their employers over wage levels, working conditions and increasing mechanisation in the industry. One early method of struggle was the ‘right of search’: a power won over centuries by journeymen weavers, and eventually backed by law, to search out and in some cases destroy weaving work done by ‘outsiders’, usually those working below the agreed wage rates, or by weavers who hadn’t gone through proper apprenticeships, by foreigners etc. Silkweavers used it, however, at several points from 1616 to 1675, to block the introduction of the engine loom with its multiple shuttles.

The journeymen weavers also had a history of support for radical groups, from the Leveller democrats of the English Civil War. through the 1760s populist demagogue John Wilkes, to the ‘physical force’ wing of the Chartist movement of the 1830s. This support arose partly from obvious causes – the weavers’ precarious position and sometimes uneven employment were always likely to draw a sizable number towards radical politics. But radical activists, like leveller leader John Lilburne, also camapaigned and agitated on behelf of the silkweavers, and populists like Wilkes easily tapped into their grievances… Their fierce collectivity in their own interests extended, for some, to a wider class consciousness; but also made them vulnerable to exploitation by manipulation by bosses and demagogues.

Through the later 17th to the late 18th century, the silkweavers regularly combined to fight for better conditions, often attacking masters employing machine looms, which they saw as leading to reduction of wages and dilution of their skills. At other times, the journeymen and masters united tactically to press for parliament to pass protectionist laws that kept prices for their finished goods high…

But by the 1760s tensions between masters and workers had grown to eruption point. Dissatisfaction over pay among journeymen silkweavers was increasing; and 7,072 looms were out of employment, with a slump in the trade partly caused by smuggling (carried on to a greater extent than ever). In 1762, the journeymen wrote a Book of Prices, in which they recorded the piecework rates they were prepared to work for (an increase on current rates in most cases). They had the Book printed up and delivered to the masters – who rejected it. Increasingly masters were turning to machine looms, and hiring the untrained, sometimes women and children, to operate them, in order to bypass the journeyman and traditional apprentices and their complex structure of pay and conditions.

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

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

In 1763 thousands of weavers took part in wage riots & machine smashings, armed with cutlasses and disguised, destroying looms: “in riotous manner [they] broke open the house of one of their masters, destroyed his looms, and cut a great quantity of silk to pieces, after which they placed his effigy in a cart, with a halter about his neck, an executioner on one side, and a coffin on the other; and after drawing it through the streets they hanged it on a gibbet, then burnt it to ashes and afterwards dispersed.” [From the “Gentleman’s Magazine”, November 1763]

The military occupied parts of Spitalfields in response.

Riots and demonstrations continued in 1764-5… As a result of these riots, an Act was passed in 1765 declaring it to be felony and punishable with death to break into any house or shop with intent maliciously to damage or destroy any silk goods in the process of manufacture: this was to be used with devastating effect four years later.

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

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

The events of 1762-7 were, however, merely a curtain raiser, for the cataclysmic struggles of 1768-69. The ‘Cutters’ Riots’ saw a prolonged struggle, with bitter violence, rioting, intimidation of workers and threatening letters to employers, and hundreds of raids on factories and small workshops. Strikers in other trades joined in the mayhem: 1768. Crowds of weavers also forcibly set their own prices in the food markets, in defiance of high prices. It would end in shootouts in a pub, and executions.

In the Summer of 1769, some of the masters attempted to force a cut in rates of pay. In response, some journeymen banded together to organise resistance, forming secret clubs, including one allegedly called the Bold Defiance, (or Conquering and Bold Defiance, or the Defiance Sloop). This group met at the Dolphin Tavern in Cock Lane, (modern Boundary Street, in Bethnal Green).  The Bold Defiance started raising a fighting fund, as part of which they attempted to levy a tax on anyone who owned or worked a loom. Their methods of fund-raising bordered, shall we say, on extortion, expressed in the delivery to silk weaving masters of Captain Swing-style notes: “Mr Hill, you are desired to send the full donation of all your looms to the Dolphin in Cock Lane. This from the conquering and bold Defiance to be levied four shillings per loom.”

One major silk boss threatened by the cutters was Lewis Chauvet, whose factory stood in Crispin Street, Spitalfields. A leading manufacturer of silk handkerchiefs, who had already been involved in bitter battles against striking weavers in Dublin, Chauvet banned his workers from joining the weavers’ clubs or paying any levies, and organised a private guard on his looms. As a result, the cutters gathered in large numbers and tried to force Chauvet’s workers to pay up. Fights broke out and many people on both sides were badly hurt. Then, on the night of Thursday 17th August, the cutters assembled in gangs and went to the homes of Chauvet’s workers, cutting the silk out of more than fifty looms. Four nights later, on Monday 21st, they gathered in even greater numbers and cut the silk out of more than a hundred looms. Throughout the night the streets of Spitalfields resounded to the noise of pistols being fired in the air.

Chauvet’s response to this episode was to advertise a reward of £500 for information leading to the arrest of those responsible. But for several weeks the people of Spitalfields remained silent, either for fear of the cutters, or because they did not wish to give evidence that might send a man to the gallows.

But on the 26th September, a minor master weaver, Thomas Poor, and his wife Mary, swore in front of a magistrate that their seven looms had been slashed by a group of cutters led by John Doyle and John Valline. However, before giving evidence they had inquire with Chauvet about receiving the reward – and Doyle had already been arrested, so they may have been prompted to name them… Certainly Doyle and Valline later protested their innocence.

On 30 September 1769, after a tip off from a master weaver who had had the squeeze put on him, magistrates, Bow St Runners and troops raided the Bold Defiance’ HQ at the Dolphin Tavern, finding the cutters assembled in an upstairs room, armed, and “receiving the contributions of terrified manufacturers.” A firefight started between the weavers and the soldiers and runners, which left two weavers (including a bystander) and a soldier dead; but the cutters escaped through the windows and over rooves. Four weavers who were drinking in the pub downstairs, and one found in bed upstairs were arrested, and held for a few weeks; though no-one was brought to court over the deaths.

But Valline and Doyle were convicted of the attack on the Poor’s looms and sentenced to death under the 1765 Act, despite very dubious identification evidence. They were hanged on the 6th December 1769, at corner of Bethnal Green Road and Cambridge Heath Road opposite the Salmon and Ball pub. Though Tyburn was the usual place of execution, the major silk manufacturers pressured the authorities to have them ‘scragged’ locally, to put the fear of god on the rebellious weavers. An organised attempt to free them was planned, and the men building the gallows were attacked with stones:

“There was an inconceivable number of people assembled, and many bricks, tiles, stones &c thrown while the gallows was fixing, and a great apprehension of a general tumult, notwithstanding the persuasion and endeavours of several gentlemen to appease the same. The unhappy sufferers were therefore obliged to be turned off before the usual time allowed on such occasions, which was about 11 o’clock; when, after hanging about fifty minutes they were cut down and delivered to their friends.”

Doyle and Valline were offed, proclaiming themselves not guilty of the silk cutting. After their execution the crowd tore down the gallows, rebuilt them in front of Chauvet’s factory/house here in Crispin Street, and 5,000 people gathered to smash the windows and burn his furniture.

Two weeks later on December 20th, more cutters were executed: William Eastman, William Horsford (or Horsfield) and John Carmichael. Horsfield had also been implicated by the Poors; Daniel Clarke, another silk pattern drawer and small employer, was paid by Chauvet to give evidence against Eastman, who he claimed had cut silk on Clarke’s looms. Clarke had previously tried to undercut agreed wage rates, and had it seems testified before against insurgent weavers, in his native Dublin. Clarke had originally told friends that he couldn’t identify the men who’d cut his silk, but after contact with Chauvet miraculously his memory changed. It’s possible Eastman was a cutters’ leader Chauvet wanted out of the way; Clarke also named one Philip Gosset, locally suggested to be the chairman of one of the cutters’ committees (Gosset, however, was never caught). Contradictory evidence, protests, a weavers’ march on Parliament to ask for pardon, all fell on deaf ears: the authorities were determined to make examples of the accused. This time, though, afraid of the local reaction after the riots that followed the deaths of Doyle and Valline, they were executed at Tyburn.

Although the repression quietened things down for a year or so, these hangings still had a twist to come. On 16th April 1771, the informer, Daniel Clarke was spotted walking through Spitalfields streets, and chased by a crowd of mainly women and boys, including the widow of William Horsford. He was finally caught, and dunked in the Hare Street Pond, a flooded gravel pit in Bethnal Green; the crowd stoned and abused him, and after they let him out of the pond he collapsed and died.

In Spitalfields this was widely seen as community justice – but the official ‘justices’ had to squash another open challenge to law and order. Two more weavers, Henry Stroud – William Eastman’s brother in law –  and Robert Campbell were hanged on July 8th for Clarke’s ‘murder’; once again, local punishment was deemed necessary to overawe the uppity weavers, and they were stretched in Hare Street. Horsford’s widow, Anstis, was also charged with murder, but wasn’t executed (possibly she was acquitted, I’ve had trouble following the case reports!). Witnesses had to be bribed to testify, and were attacked; Justice Wilmot, who arrested the two men, only just escaped the justice of an angry crowd, and a hundred soldiers had to be posted to ensure the hanging took place.

Although prices were fixed between masters and workers, nothing obliged the masters to keep to them. In 1773, further discontent broke out. Handbills circulated, addressed to weavers, coalheavers, porters and carmen (cartdrivers), to ‘Rise’ and petition the king. Silkweavers met at Moorfields on April 26th, incited by another handbill that read “Suffer yourselves no longer to be persecuted by a set of miscreants, whose way to Riches and power lays through your Families and by every attempt to starve and Enslave you…” Magistrates however met with them, and persuaded them to disperse, promising them a lasting deal.

This materialised in the form of the Spitalfields Acts. The first Act, in 1773, laid down that wages for journeymen weavers were to be set, and maintained, at a reasonable level by the local Magistrates, (in Middlesex) or the Lord Mayor or Aldermen (in the City). Employers who broke the agreed rate would be fined £50; journeymen who demanded more would also be punished, and silk weavers were prohibited from having more than two apprentices at one time. The Acts were renewed for 50 years, and ensured that some weavers, at least, had some security if income and protection for unscrupulous employers… The Acts’ abolition in the 1820s was a cause celebre for the laissez-faire capitalists of the days – and helped to drive silkweavers into catastrophic poverty and decimate the trade locally.

This post is a shortened version of ‘Bold  Defiance’, published as a pamphlet by past tense in 2012 and available from our website

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An entry in the
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