Today in London’s radical history, 1549: An Enclosure Riot at Enfield

As previously recounted, residents of Enfield had a long tradition of defending common fields against enclosure by landowners, their agents or developers on the make… resistance to enclosure on Enfield Chase occurred and re-occurred for several hundred years.

During what some have called the ‘commotion time’ in the summer of 1549, when anger at enclosure and the increasing despoiling of and denial of access to the commons led to rioting and armed revolt from the southwest to Norfolk, Enfield was not spared from trouble. Being close to London, the beady eyes of agricultural improvers and land-grabbers was often cast on the large open spaces of Enfield Chase and its environs, and the general climate of rage sweeping the country against the greedy spread here.

On 13 July 1549, more than twenty armed men rioted in Enfield, destroying the fences, ditches and grass of lands belonging to Sir Thomas Wroth. These inhabitants of Enfield threw down hedges and filled in ditches surrounding a twelve acre piece of land called the ‘Rabbettes mores’ and a seven acre pasture known as ‘welgate lease’, leaving the lands ‘to lye open as a waste & comen grounde’.

This matter was considered serious enough to warrant the attention of the Privy Council (already up to their ears in aggro, what with Kett’s Rebellion against enclosures in Norfolk, and everything else that was kicking off) in late August 1549, and for four of the ringleaders of the Enfield riot were committed to prison. An entry in the Acts of the Privy Council for 27 August reveals that the Council heard a complaint of riot made by Sir Thomas Wroth against the Enfield tenants, and it upheld that an earlier decree made by Sir William Paget (Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, 1547-52) ordering the four ringleaders to be imprisoned and six lesser rioters to be bound over to keep the peace. Two of the 1549 rioters’ are named: Edward Boynyerde and Robert Whyte.

It seems that this direct action was a last resort on the part of the participants, after an initial legal settlement of the dispute around the enclosure, apparently favourable to them, had failed to work or had been broken.

Robert Wood, gentleman, and other tenants of Durants manor, Enfield, had lodged a complaint against Sir Thomas Wroth in the Court of the Duchy of Lancaster in autumn 1547, concerning a long-standing controversy over rights of common pasture on certain of the manor’s lands. On 6 May 1546, the manor court had agreed that Wroth could enclose the twenty-four acres of the demesne of Durants manor between ‘horshowe garden’ and ‘welgate lease’, on the north side of his house, but was ordered to leave to the tenants, on the south side, a right of way and a pasture called ‘welgate lease’. He was further permitted to enclose two crofts called ‘hoggescroftes’, three crofts called ‘Rabbettes mores’ and a field called ‘Crouchefelde’. In return for their surrender of common right on these enclosed lands, Wroth was ordered to pay 6d. per acre to the inhabitants of the town. Additionally, he was to allow them to enjoy common with all beasts on other lands he owned, where they had traditionally done so. The Enfield tenants took the agreement to the Duchy of Lancaster to be ratified (in order to force Sir Thomas Wroth to accept it as legally binding), since the manorial court proceedings were ‘bare matters in wrytting and not of Recorde’. In this way they hoped possibly to ensure that Wroth neither carried out further enclosures nor denied them their due payment, according to the settlement.

This was an apparently generous settlement for the residents – yet it was the hedges around ‘welgate lease’ and ‘Rabbettes mores’ that were cast down during the July 1549 riot. Had the 1547 settlement broken down? Did Wroth renege on the agreement in some way?

Enfield boasted a strong tradition of resistance to enclosure stretching back to 1475, much of which was associated with the enclosing activity of the powerful Wroth family, whose connection with Durants Manor dated back to at least 1401. Successive Wroth men occupied the positions of power in the parish of Enfield – they were MPs and JPs for generations, and dominated politics and social and economic life locally from the 15th to the 17th century. They also played varied parts in London and national politics: in fact the 1540s-1550s represented the height of their power: Sir Thomas Wroth himself being a friend of king Edward VI, a gentleman of his Bedchamber, and a member of his Council.

Anger at enclosures in Durants manor fills local accounts through the sixteenth century in particular. Politician and ‘ardent Protestant’, John Wroth of Durants had been accused in 1514 of enclosing forty acres and barring cattle from his fields in open seasons; in 1589, Sir Robert Wroth (son of the villain of 1549) was reported to have been ‘the greatest encloser of common fields in the parish’.

The July 1549 ‘riot’ may indicate an interesting connection with the anti-enclosure riots at nearby Northaw (just the other side of the Hertfordshire-Middlesex border) and Cheshunt in Hertfordshire the previous year, and with the 1549 commotions at Tyttenhanger. Many of the Northaw rioters were identified as coming from Enfield. Several families, including the Cordells, Wilsons, Smiths, Forsters and Woodhams, feature amongst rioters active both at Northaw in 1544 and 1548 as well as at Enfield in 1549.

The open common in the south of the parish of Northaw formed part of Enfield Chase, a large expanse of land stretching across the Middlesex border, whilst the parish of Ridge, where disorder broke out at Tyttenhanger in 1549, lay on the border between the counties of Hertfordshire Middlesex. The warren belonging to the manor of Tyttenhanger adjoined Enfield’s ‘Crouchfield’ to the west.

Earlier anti-enclosure protests around nearby Northaw in May 1548 may well have encouraged anti-enclosure action at nearby Enfield, and that both episodes formed part of a wider protest aimed at redefining local communities through common rights. In 1548-9, as at other times of widespread rural revolt, news of resistance and collective action in one area rapidly spread to neighbouring parishes, often through these kind of family and community connections; since local grievances were often similar in nature across many communities, hearing about actions elsewhere could easily help fire up people to get active on their own issues. Large-scale times of crisis from the Peasants Revolt to the Swing Riots spread like wildfire in this way…

Enfield commoners attached a huge importance to their common rights, both in their own parish and in neighbouring ones where they held some rights of pasture, etc. In 1548-9, they were involved in fighting for their common rights in Northaw Common, to retain their rights in Saysmarsh, Edmonton, and other areas of Enfield Chase.

‘Intercommoning’ – neighbouring communities or parishes both sharing right to pasture animals on the same common lands – undoubtedly also helped forge strong links between communities such as Northaw, Cheshunt, North Mimms and Enfield, which contributed to what has been described as ‘cultural communal defensiveness’ – the willingness of locals to go to the aid of other communities facing enclosure and restrictions on common rights. At other times, intercommoning could often lead to disputes between residents of different manors. For instance, in May 1548, some Northaw tenants were trying to exclude ‘strangers’ from their common – this seems to have included some Enfield residents. Disputes like this could rumble on for years, resulting in court cases, petitions and sometimes confiscation of cattle… in 1572 a petition suggests agro had revived: “there ys a place callyd the acre bredthe in whiche place by the auncyent custom the tenantes of Enfield dyd putte their hogges eveiy yere in fawnyng tyme by reason of whiche place beinge a comon we had intreest of comon within Northall or Chesthonte wood so that yf the hogges or cattail of eny tenante of Enfleld had strayed into any of those woodes or commons they had them agayne quyetly.”

Enfield tenants were said to have had ‘so large a skope of common’ within Northaw and Cheshunt woods’; after the enclosure of Acre Breadth any of their cattle which happened to stray into these woods or commons were ‘imedyatly impownded, harryed vexed and grevowsly hurte’.

The widespread nature of protest against enclosures in this area of North Middlesex and neighbouring parts of Hertfordshire over the ‘commotion time’ led the government to suspect not only co-ordinated protest but a shared leadership – the secret hand of an organisation or leadership – maybe the old ‘outside agitator’ again. One figure they saw as being a possible part of this was one ‘Captain Red Cap’. In an entry dated 20 April 1550, the Acts of the Privy Council recorded that “Captaine Redde Cappe, one of the rebelles of the last yere, having been in prison at Westminster, was nowe sell at libertie, and of late had been in sundrie places of Middlesex wheare the commons had feasted him.” Interestingly, while ‘Captain Red Cap’ is obviously a pseudonym, he isn’t named under a real name – did the authorities not find out his identity? Not consider it important? In any case, he might not simply have been let go – it appears that someone or a group of rebels may have sprung him from prison, to the irritation of the Privy Council.

It’s unknown what role Captain Red Cap played role in the Middlesex ‘rebellion’ of 1549, though he was clearly popular with the local commons, who feasting him at various places in Middlesex. Perhaps he had acted as a ‘charismatic leader’? Also significantly, the authorities seem not to have re-arrested him later, unless records are lost…

Possibly the authorities considered him either no longer a threat, or were even themselves sympathetic to anti-enclosure agitators – not unusual at the time (bearing in mind the Lord Protector in 1549 – effective ruler of England – the Duke of Somerset, was himself thought to be sympathetic to anti-enclosure rebels: his slowness to put down the 1549 revolts in fact caused the Privy Council to depose and imprison him late in that year)

However, the government had, only a few months before Redcap’s release, had the leaders of the East Anglian and South-Western anti-enclosure rebellions executed, and disorder was in fact still continuing in Kent. It’s worth noting that there was personal interest in the events at Enfield from the Privy Council, as the powerful Sir William Paget, member of the Council, and  Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, was also Master Forester of Enfield Chase in 1549.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bristol Riot 1980

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10-13 April
Brixton, South London

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

Read firsthand accounts of the April Brixton riot

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

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

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

Hastings
Twenty people arrested after clashes between rival gangs.

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

Great Yarmouth
Forty arrests.

Scarborough
Seventy-eight arrests

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 23 May

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

Late May

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

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

Monday, 1 June

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

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

Tuesday, 2 June

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

Saturday, 20 June

London

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

Friday, 3 July

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

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

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

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

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

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

And another

Monday, 6 July

Liverpool

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

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

Tuesday, 7 July

Cop chases skinhead down West Green Road during Wood Green riot

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

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

Trouble in Moss Side

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

Wednesday, 8 July

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

Manchester and Salford

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

Thursday, 9 July

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

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

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

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

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

Moss Side

Manchester
More violence reported in Moss Side.

Friday, 10 July

London

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outside London

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday and Sunday, 11-12 July

Leicester

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

The Bradford 12

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

Huddersfield

One hundred black and white youths broke shop windows.

London

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 13 July

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

Tuesday, 14 July

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

Wednesday, 15 July

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

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

Sunday, 26 July

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

Tuesday, 28 July

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

Saturday, 15 August

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

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

Bank Holiday weekend, 30-31 August

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

London

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

State responses to the riots

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

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

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

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

Toxteth, 6th July

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some theoretical responses to the 81 riots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

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

Three days of rioting kick off in Dalston and Stoke Newington, 1981

“Blood! Blood! Spilled by police tactics. They batter them, batter them in a tha head.”

Rioting swept many parts if Britain’s cities in the summer of 1981. If the first Brixton riots in April kicked it off, tension across many communities built to a climactic series of eruptions in the first week of July.

3 July saw aggro in Southall as skinheads arriving for a gig provoked angry resistance and fighting in Liverpool between police and young black folk. Over the following days uprisings broke out all over the country: in Liverpool, Manchester, again in Brixton, Bristol, Southampton, Leicester, Luton, Nottingham, Derby, Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Bradford, Halifax, Leeds, Huddersfield, Blackburn, Bolton, Preston and Teesside, and across London from Acton to Walthamstow, from Haringey to Clapham… The whole country seemed on fire.

In Hackney, East London, trouble had been building for weeks: some of it turned against the police, some of it aimed at shops, and some turned (sometimes anti-socially) on anyone…

Police vs Black people in Hackney pre-1981

“The community hated us and we hated them…” (Hackney police officer)

In the early 1980s local policing in the Hackney area was violent and racist, almost in outright war against local black community. Complaints or racist attacks taken to the police received indifference, contempt and abuse. As in other inner city areas, SUS was used to harass black people and falsely accuse them of crimes.

Police had been accused of targeting black people locally for several years.
Just a few examples: In May 1971, Aseta Simms died in Stoke Newington Police Station in suspicious circumstances
In December 1978, Black teenager Michael Ferreira was stabbed during a fight with white teenagers in Stoke Newington. His friends took him to the nearby police station, where the cops seemed more interested in questioning them than assisting Michael, who died of his wounds before reaching hospital.

This incident led to the setting up of Hackney Black People’s Defence Organisation.

On 24th April 1979 Hackney resident Blair Peach was killed by police, hit over the head during a protest against the National Front in Southall. Peach was killed by an officer from the notorious Special Patrol Group. The SPG’s lockers were searched as part of the investigation into the death, uncovering non-police issue truncheons, knives, two crowbars, a whip, a 3ft wooden stave and a lead-weighted leather cosh. One officer was found in possession of a collection of Nazi regalia. The failure of the police to properly investigate the murder of Blair Peach – and their general harassment of youth, led Hackney Teachers’ Association to adopt a policy of non-cooperation with the police.

November 1979: A conference of anti-racist groups in Hackney called for the repeal of the “sus” laws that allow police to stop and search anyone they are suspicious of. In 1977 60% of “sus” arrests in Hackney were of black people – who made up 11% of the borough.

February 1980: Five units of the Special Patrol Group began to operate in Hackney with no consultation. When the Leader of the Council criticised the police for this, Commander Mitchell responded by saying “I don’t feel obliged to tell anyone about my policing activities”.

1981

Events in the weeks leading up to what later became called ‘Riot Week’ (3-15 July 1981) indicated a ratchetting up of tension towards what seemed inevitable eruption.

On 20 April, towards the end of a bank-holiday fair at Finsbury Park, hundreds of youths went on the rampage with sticks and bars, smashing up stalls and mugging people.

On the night of Tuesday, 5 May, about a hundred youths, most of whom had just come out of Cubie’s, an Afro-Caribbean disco off Dalston Lane, gathered round while some of them ripped out a jeweller’s window and stole jewellery worth £500. The retreating crowd threw bottles at the police.

In the early hours of Wednesday, 24 June, gangs of youths roaming the streets, again after chucking-out time at Cubie’s, smashed the windows of a travel agency and a fish-and-chip shop, grabbed the till of Kentucky Fried Chicken on Kingsland Road, and mugged three pedestrians.

London Transport bus crews, fearful of trouble, had been refusing to pick up passengers from Cubie’s for some months, thus leaving large gangs of black youths to walk home, along streets lined with shops, in a mood of anger and frustration.

As rioting spread elsewhere, on Wednesday, 8 July, two officers on patrol in Stoke Newington were attacked with stones, and towards midnight four police cars were damaged by missiles. The next evening, (July 9th) police were out in force, on foot, around Dalston, skirmishing with a couple of hundred youths on the move. Five shop windows were smashed and one policeman injured by missiles.

Police presence in the area was increased dramatically throughout the week.

On 10 July, fighting increased:

“The clashes in Dalston and Stoke Newington between police and local people on the weekend of 10-12 July were the culmination of several days of tension, caused mainly by police tactics.

Local traders had been told repeatedly to board up shops because the police were expecting trouble, and this created an unreal siege-like atmosphere in both Kingsland and Stoke Newington High Streets. There were also a number of raids on Johnson’s, a West Indian cafe in Sandringham Road, which was to become the focus for the worst disturbances.” (Hackney Peoples Press)

The junction of Sandringham Road and Kingsland High Street became a focus; unsurprisingly. Sandringham Road led down into what was then the heart of the most populous Afro-Caribbean area in Hackney. It was sometimes called Dalston’s ‘frontline’.

Johnsons Cafe, early 1980s

At the top of the road, the Argos showroom windows gleamed with consumer   products. On the right, Johnson’s cafe, a haunt favoured by black youth. Police targetted Johnson’s constantly, accusing young people gathering there of being involved in crime; there were frequent drug busts and raids in pursuit of ‘dips’ (pickpockets), accused of gathering there after escaping from their favourite hunting-ground, nearby Ridley Road Market.

Days of fighting elsewhere had ben splashed across the news… The mood of insurrection was emerging from the constant tension.
The trouble on 10th July began around 5 p.m. when a group of youths robbed a jewellers’ shop in Kingsland High Street.

“Trouble became inevitable when the police tried to prevent people going down Sandringham Road, to gather outside Johnson’s…”
The police closed down Johnson’s cafe and moved on groups that formed outside: a few bricks and bottles were thrown. Then larger groups of youth began to congregate.

“At around 7.30 p.m. two fire-bombs were thrown: one at the Argos showrooms, followed by looting; and one at a policeman in Arcola Street, site of the main social-security office in Stoke Newington. The police charged down Sandringham Road, but were pushed back by the youths for a distance of about 40 metres before making a successful counter-charge. Just before midnight bricks were thrown at the police stationed at the mouth of Sandringham Road, from the barrier railings outside the Rio cinema, opposite. Under attack, exhausted from working days of fourteen and sixteen hours around London’s riot areas, some officers lost their cool. A unit of helmeted police charged across the road, truncheons drawn, and used them to `disperse’ the crowd at the railings. One girl suffered a head wound and was rushed to hospital.”

Hackney copper, snapped shortly before whacking a Hackney People’s Press reporter

There were at least two baton charges by police to clear Sandringham Road. Police lashed out wildly with truncheons – many people were injured, including a Hackney People’s Press reporter, who was standing in the doorway of the Rio Cinema. He was taken to the Hackney Hospital, and had three stitches in a scalp wound.

“There was an atmosphere of Sweeney and Starsky and Hutch. It was just after the stoning incident, and police Rovers, Escorts and blue-and-white vans packed with men were using Kingsland Road as a race-track, hooters wailing and lights flashing, in pursuit of the suspected assailants. For the meanwhile, the protection of property took a back seat, and I watched for half an hour as menswear shop, Mr H, was looted down to the last button and buckle. The window smashed a few seconds after I had walked past it: there was no one in sight but a young black boy of about thirteen, looking a picture of innocence. A few minutes later five or ten youths, black and white, began to arrive, clambering over the railings from the road, then leaning against them and looking around themselves with great caution before acting. One boy set the example, snatching a white sweatshirt and stuffing it down the front of his jacket. The others helped themselves, each one walking away in a relaxed manner calculated to allay suspicion. Mr H’s alarm was ringing noisily: but so were many others. After a lull more wardrobe hunters arrived, and some of the first wave returned for second helpings. The first time they’d snatched anything that came to hand. This time they were more discriminating, checking sizes and colours and discarding unsuitable ones.
Three whites in their late twenties stood opposite, smiling benevolently and shouting ‘Police’, with the accent on the first syllable, whenever men in blue came near. A skinhead in a long Edwardian jacket, attracted by the Victoria Wine off-licence next door to Mr H, wrapped a brick in a paper bag and hurled it at the window with all his might. It bounced off. A boy slipped on the glass outside Mr H, and cut himself badly, and the others gathered round to help. The looting proceeded, while at the back, thieves were smashing their way through security bars and looting the racks inside. Some of the earliest looters had the opportunity to saunter by five or six times, while the skinhead persisted in his increasingly desperate attempts to smash the off-licence window, the only effect being to leave a dusting of brick powder on the glass.
At about 1 a.m. a big black bearded youth in a long leather raincoat took out a pair of model legs from the window and threw them into the middle of the road. Police vehicles had passed the scene at least forty or fifty times, but this act finally attracted their attention. A van screeched to a halt, a dozen officers leapt out, and one of them stayed behind to stand guard over what, by now, was a totally empty window.”

Compared to the riot the same day in Brixton, and the week’s events in Liverpool 8 and Moss Side, the events in Hackney were said to be relatively minor, In all forty premises were damaged that night and sixty arrests were made. The score of injuries was even: twenty-three police, twenty-three members of the public.”

The Hackney People’s Press reporter injured by police truncheons described the scene in Hackney Hospital:

“The casualty ward of the hospital was like a battle-field. A number of people were being treated for head wounds. I spoke to two 16-year old white youths who had been attacked. One of them had been truncheoned and kicked while outside the Rio, at the same time as me. Another had been attacked with a group of friends while on his way home to Stoke Newington. With his head bleeding from a wound, he and his friends walked all the way from Sandringham Road to Hackney Hospital. While at the hospital I saw uniformed and plain-clothes police writing down the names and addresses of people being treated. They were being helped to do this by at least one member of the administrative staff.”

Just up the road in Stoke Newington, the same night saw repeated use of violent police tactics to clear the streets of people, mostly against bystanders and spectators. Transit vans full of police were driven very fast down narrow roads and up onto pavements.

“Coachloads of police would suddenly rush out of their buses and chase off local people, lashing out wildly with their truncheons. HPP knows of a number of people who were attacked and arrested on that evening.” (Hackney People’s Press)

The following day, Saturday, 11 July, “far worse was expected. Shoppers stayed away from the High Street and the Wimpy Bar owner complained of his worst Saturday for business in twenty years. But the shopkeepers had their minds preoccupied in other ways. From Dalston Junction to Stamford Hill, they were measuring and sawing, drilling and screwing, fitting and hammering. According to means, great panels of corrugated iron, wood, plywood, chipboard, hardboard and cardboard were being battened up by those who did not already have armour-plated glass, grilles and shutters. Builders’ merchants were running out of supplies, security firms doing more business than they could cope with, employees and friends and relatives were dragooned into a frenetic race against time to put up their protective walls before the expected confrontation of the late afternoon and evening.”

But less trouble than expected in fact panned out…  There were further disturbances during the afternoon, particularly in the Sandringham Road area. Police moved in a pincer movement to try and clear the streets – this just led to the fighting spreading into gardens (St. Mark’s Rise residents reported groups of police chasing youths through their gardens through the afternoon).

At some point, Johnson’s cafe in Sandringham Road had its window smashed in – seemingly by the cops.

“All the glass wall and glass door at the front of the shop was kicked in, kicked in by the police – bash! and smash!”  “Police came into the cafe using truncheons, slashing them in… a them head…”

Journalist Paul Harrison described the atmosphere on the Saturday:

“Up at the end of Sandringham Road, the atmosphere was High Noon. The police were scattered, in twos and threes, all down the High Street. About fifty black youths, with the merest scattering of whites, were sitting along the railings and on the wooden fence of the petrol station and crowding outside Johnson’s cafe. I talked to many of them and the grievances bubbled out, against unemployment, racialism, but above all against the police.

A pretty girl of seventeen, with four grade ones in the Certificate of Secondary Education, out of work for ten months, said:

‘I go down the temp agency every morning. There’s only been two jobs going there all week. Since Thatcher’s come in, everything’s just fallen. She needs a knife through her heart.’

Her nineteen-year-old friend continues:

‘I got three O-levels and that’s done me no good at all. A lot of my friends are having babies. If you haven’t got a job, you might as well have a baby.’

Vengeance for colonialism and slavery, rebellion against discrimination, redress for police abuses, all mingled together as a group of boys pitched in. They were angry, agitated.

‘You can’t win,’ said a tall youth worker:

‘If a black person drive a nice car, the police say, where you get the money to drive that? You wear a gold chain, they say, where you thief that? We like to gather in a little place and have a drink and music, so what the police do? They like to close it down, so we all on the street instead. And what happen when they get hold of you? They fling you in the van, they say, come on you bunnies [short for ‘jungle bunnies’]. They play find the black man’s balls. They treat us like animals, man, they treat their dogs better than they treat us. They kick the shit out of us and put us inside to rot. They think they are OK in their uniforms. But if that one there was to walk over here naked now, we’d kick the hell out of him. Somebody said, black people will never know themselves till their back is against the wall, well, now our backs is against the wall. I’m gonna sit right here, and I ain’t gonna move.’

A boy of eighteen in a flat corduroy cap said:

‘I was driving down from Tottenham to Hackney once, I got stopped seven times on the way. Four years ago, they came to my house searching for stolen goods and asked me to provide a receipt for everything in my house. We’ve been humiliated. It’s time we show them that we want to be left alone.’

‘We’re fighting for our forefathers,’ said the seventeen-year-old secretary:

 ‘We’ve been watching Roots [the film series on American slavery]. They used us here for twenty years, now they got no use for us, they want us out.’

An eighteen-year-old boy in a green, red and black tea-cosy hat went on:

‘The police can call you a fucking cunt, but if you say one word at them they’ll take you down. They don’t even like you to smile at them. You try to fight them at court: you can’t fight them, because black man don’t have no rights at all in this country.’

There was a lot of military talk, for this was not seen as a challenge to law, but a matter of group honour: the police, as a clan, had humiliated young blacks, as a clan, and clan revenge had to be exacted.

‘Since they got these riot shields,’ said a boy of twenty, ‘they think they’re it. We can’t stand for that. Tonight we have to kill one of them, and now there’s a crowd of us, we’re gonna do it. If they bring in the army we’ll bring in more reinforcements and kill them.’

One boy in sunglasses, sixteen at the oldest, launched into a lecture on guerrilla tactics:

‘If you come one night and they make you run, then the next night you bring enough stones, bottles and bombs that they can’t make you run: you don’t run, they run.’

He smirks, as if he has just stormed their lines single-handed:

‘But look at everyone here. They’re all empty-handed. Last night they were wasting their petrol-bombs, throwing them on the street. It’s no use throwing one without a specific target. Look at that police bus: one bomb at the front, one at the back, and that would be thirty-two or sixty-four police less. You got to have organisation, like they got.’ “

 At 6 p.m. the police decided to clear the streets, moving on the group gathered at the petrol-station fence, pushing them down Sandringham Road. At the same time another cordon of police began to walk up Sandringham Road from the other end. An escape route was deliberately left open — the alley of Birkbeck Road — and the cordons let through most of those who wanted to get by.

But many of the youths believed the police had trapped them in a pincer with the intention of beating them up. Several of them started to break down the wall next to Johnson’s café to use the bricks. As one young boy explained:

‘When they come smashing you over the head with a baton one night, the next time you know you’ve got to get something to defend yourself with.’

… The police closed in to forestall the brick-throwers, there were scuffles, one policeman was injured, and five arrests were made.”

The expected explosion did not occur…How come a “full-blooded riot” didn’t really get going In Hackney, as deprived and angry as Brixton?
Partly Hackney had no single centre like Brixton, and its heart, Railton Road, The numbers required to start a large-scale disturbance never came together.
Also, the police had learned tactics, from the experience of Brixton to learn from, “they did not offer a static, concentrated defensive line that was a sitting target for missiles. And they split up the opposition into smaller groups and kept them moving down separate side roads, preventing any larger crowds from forming.”

The main motivation of rioters was, quite simply and straightforwardly, hatred of the police among the young and the desire to hit back at them for humiliations received. A spot of looting never does any harm either…

By the Sunday, the situation was a lot calmer, but there was still a massive police presence on the streets. Coachloads of cops were permanently parked in Sandringham Road, and Transit vans, with iron grids over the windscreen to prevent them being smashed, lined up outside Stoke Newington police station.

The organisers of two local festivals held that weekend at London Fields and Stoke Newington Common, were asked by the police to cancel their festivities. Both of these refused to call the events off –  there was no trouble at all.

Over 100 people were arrested over the few days of fighting: magistrates sent a fair few to prison. The Hackney Legal Defence Committee (HDLC) was set up to assist those arrested.

After ‘81

Anger at collective reaction against racism and police violence didn’t dissipate after July 1981 – it was in fact to peak in the area two years later.

In December 1981 Hackney Police arrested and assaulted a black mother and two daughters — the Knight family. This was one of many such incidents in Hackney. Others include the wrongful arrest and assault on the White family who got over £50,000 compensation and the wrongful arrest of Newton Rose for murder.

By 1982 there was demand for an enquiry into policing locally, coming from the community.

Colin Roach family campaign demo, 1983

In January 1983, Colin Roach, a local black 15 year old, died from gunshot wounds in the foyer of Stoke Newington Police Station. Police said he shot himself, but there were highly dubious circumstances, and signs of a police cover-up. Colin’s family was treated very badly. The death, and the way the Roach family were dealt with, provoked a huge local upsurge of anger; mass pickets of the Police Station ended with arrests and a mini-riot. Numerous protests and community organising followed; the mass response to this death sparked collective activity that lasted several years.

Eventually an inquest verdict of suicide was brought in on Colin, but it was critical of the police response. Many community organisations ended up in effect refusing to co-operate with the cops at all. A campaign to defund the police was initially backed by Hackney Council (though it was eventually ruled illegal).

Police brutality continued into the mid-80s, with the vicious beating of Trevor Monerville, the death of Tunay Hassan in custody in Dalston Police Station, and other cases. The community campaigns that formed from these cases eventually came together with the founding of Hackney Community Defence Campaign (HCDA).

HCDA stepped up the pressure on the police locally, setting up a database of violent, racist and corrupt police and those involved in harassment and deaths etc, following up cases, going to court, running campaigns, uncovering police corruption and drug-dealing. Eventually they forced the transfer of eight officers, another committed suicide, others jailed for nicking money from victims and dealing…

In return they experienced harassment, were followed by unmarked cars, received threats… Special Branch’s Special Demonstration Squad sent undercover police to infiltrate the Campaign at the Colin Roach Centre. Mind you, this was in keeping with police traditions – SDS officers had also previously spied on a number of local groups and campaigns, including Schoolkids Against the Nazis.

Sandringham Road E8 1983

Some amateur and unique footage of black youths hanging out on “The Frontline”.

Part one includes some police-community relations including an arrest at 6:40 and a cop getting lumped at 7:05 – after which his helmet is used as football.

Part two is a bit more relaxed and includes a visit at 5:58 from reggae royalty Dennis Brown (of “Money In My Pocket” fame).

More context about the policing and community of Sandringham Road available in Hackney Community Defence Association’s “Fighting The Lawmen”.

There’s an audio guide to Sandringham Road as part of A Hackney Autobiography.
https://www.ahackneyautobiography.org.uk/trails/food-and-frontline/9

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

Mush of the above was shamelessly lifted from the Radical History of Hackney, many thanks to them, go check their excellent blog.

Impossible Classlessness?

Some responses to, and problems we have with, The Impossible Class.

‘The Impossible Class ‘was published by some anarchists in 1981 as an analysis and thereoretical response to the urban riots if 1981, notably Brixton. I’d suggest reading that before reading this text…

This reply was largely written in 2013, left in a drawer then updated slightly in 2021. (Yes, 40 years is a long time to wait to write a reply)… this is a first draft, so any comments, snorts of derision are of course welcome.

When I first read ‘The Impossible Class’ many years back, I had some gripes with its analyses of the causes of the riots of ’81 in Brixton (and elsewhere), and their implications for us living under modern capitalism. Re-reading it thirty-odd years later (and having lived in Brixton, and been involved in its underground life and rebellious politics, for most of the intervening period), I have more reservations; but further to that, social change, economic upheavals, and the movements of classes in inner-city London, have called into question some of the writers’ conclusions (as I’m sure they themselves would not have found totally unexpected..). However, there are some interesting ideas here too. For anyone interested in Brixton, its contested past, its strange current existence, and where it might evolve, this text is worth examining – of course there are wider implications too.

Much of ‘The Impossible Class’ is rooted in the anarchist theory of the era… an ideology I also found my home in, for a while, and which (for me) still provides some useful elements to an ongoing struggle to understand the world around us, and change it; though I have come to question many ‘anarchist’ orthodoxies. Below, I have briefly set out some of the points that came up for me when reading the Impossible Class. It is worth saying, I am not being critical for the sake of it, or to belittle the ideas or vision of those who wrote it; in many ways I would have put forward similar analyses in my past. We all share a vision of another way of life entirely to the gradgrind of modern wage labour… Changes in class relations just didn’t work out the way the writers thought they might. It’s too easy to dismiss observations and social predictions after the fact; that’s not what we want to do here, because what is most interesting is how they thought class relations and antagonisms might develop, and the factors that influenced how it has – so far – turned out differently to that vision. As well as what we can do about it. But also – the battle is still undecided, as it were. Discussion, debate, working ideas and social relations out in practice are still all vital.  I am not especially theoretically coherent or rigid, so forgive me if what follows seems obvious or confused.

The writers projected their conclusions about life in Brixton out onto the world, and with the exception of particular areas with strong similarities to Brixton, like say St Pauls, in Bristol, or parts of Hackney, (just as examples), this projection didn’t always click. I have lived all my adult life in London, and while you can read about places, visit them, talk to those that live there, my response is very much conditioned by that… Wildly varying conditions exist, even in the UK, so some of what I say won’t apply, or even have any meaning, elsewhere. Hopefully though what follows is useful. Naturally any responses, critiques, loud laughter and argument are always welcome.

My first feeling about the Impossible Class text is that it romanticises, or at least waxes optimistic, about the ‘black’ or underground economy, suggesting that many, if not most working class people were consciously rejecting the mainstream economy, choosing to survive through a mix of signing on the dole, and cash-in-hand/dealing/self-organised underground projects, etc. More than this, it suggests that the police attacks on Brixton were partly motivated by a desire from the powers-that-be to crush this embryonic challenge to the orthodox structures of wage labour (and in particular, that part them that manifested openly in the street, posing a direct challenge to the forces of law ‘n’ order).

As with much of ‘The Impossible Class’, there is an element of truth to this. In Brixton, many local kids deliberately rejected a system they saw as rejecting them/attacking them… For young west indian men, the Rastafarian ideology/theology gave this a shape; they were the oppressed, living in Babylon, which had transported them from their home, Africa, (all true), to which they would one day return. An interesting additional feed-in to the UK rasta consciousness could also be the widespread idea that many of the first generation of west Indian migrants to move here shared, that they would work here for a while then return to the Caribbean. Though this didn’t work out for many, most ended up bringing families here, making a more permanent home; maybe, though, it coloured many people’s view that oppression here was temporary, that they could physically escape it, either actually, or spiritually, or in the vision of a return to Africa.  Otherwise, for young whites and blacks, its also true that pretty much the entire wider drop-out culture of the 70s/80s was subsidised by the dole! Which was great – it gave us space to do stuff we wanted to do. Part-time, cash in hand or casual jobs were mingled with giro cheques, shoplifting, often squatting, signing on in more than name, covering for mates when they went on holiday or were working etc.; mixed in later on with finding loopholes and ways of exploiting training schemes, pseudo-self-employment, for our own benefit, or with alternating claiming with temporary and more official jobs as things got harder on the dole. All useful pieces of the jigsaw of survival.

But the writers were to a great extent theorising from above, really, despite their anarchist credentials… Most people involved in the underground economy were doing it from practical need, not thinking clearly that they were rejecting the whole of society etc… When economic times changed they were mainly reabsorbed into work culture, or found themselves in ‘proper’ jobs. Tis true that some of us – anarchos, musos, artists, dealers, etc – did stay on the dole deliberately, or ideologically; benefits plus work on side – gives you space for activism, creating etc… plus why not get dole and wages, if you can. ‘Twas easy then.   1980s anarchist ideology often identified methods of survival (especially if they were illegal, or unlawful) as methods of struggle, or even as weapons for the destruction of capital – eg shoplifting, looting, squatting, skipping food, etc. All good stuff, I did it all, to survive, and would again if need be. All gave people a measure of autonomy in their own lives, and helped people get by. But often it was not really as much in rejection of society, as just what was needed to break even, or get a bit more than a pittance.

The authors of The Impossible Class rightly identify that whole subcultures had grown up which thrived at the fringe of the GDP-economy. Now the modern state of any colour hates that kind of unregulated, untaxed, unofficial economic goings-on – when practiced by the working class, of course; contrariwise, for the neo-liberal wing of capital a certain kind of cowboy entrepreneurism is pedestalised when carried out by business/corporations. So as much of that fringe economy has since been reined in as possible – a complete revolution in forms and structures of work, technological change, especially computerisation, regulation, bureaucratic rationalisation, and more, have made working on the side while signing on much more difficult, although large loopholes will always remain (Witness the pathetic attempt a few years back to demonise paying builders etc cash in hand). But also survival on the dole long term, which used to be a matter of turning up once a fortnight, is now a full time job in itself.  Autonomy, and counter-cultural forms, are not the same as a conscious revolutionary opposition to capital. Unless you buy the idea that there can be an Unconscious revolutionary opposition (which is debatable). Squatting, for instance, gave people cheap places to live in times of housing crisis; if for a substantial minority it was a conscious political rebellion against property, against housing as a commodity, against the landlords who profit from it, or the social landlords (so-called) and policy theorists who sought to control working people through cheap and accessible council housing… (This last point – that social housing has always been partly intended to keep us from rebelling – doesn’t mean we wouldn’t mind the relatively easy access to it available in the 1960s! As a minimum step back from the market-driven housing chaos we now face.) But for many more, squatting gave people space to create alternatives, either personal ones or collective ones. Some of these were intended to form part of a diverse radical challenge to the existing order. Many were taking advantage of the possibilities but had no intention of challenging this society – many were able to further their own careers and niches within class society through those alternative nooks and crannies, rising to form new strata and levels of (often creative) entrepreneurship, and even managerial or bureaucratic power, or positions of parasitical ‘consultant’ status. Many more made lot of money ripping others off using squats, squat-raves, dealing or whatever, (with some dosing out threats and violence against anyone who mildly dissented along the way). That’s not to diss people who don’t share the anarchist ideal of ‘smashing the state’, but to question and qualify the idea that the twilight economy was IN ITSELF revolutionary. Many people in the squatting/DIY/drop-out/anarchist/hippy left scene did fetishise not buying ‘sweatshop goods’, making your own, self-publishing, adding these up to rejecting ‘capitalism’, we’re not breadheads maan… etc… many also rapidly compromised those principles and ended up in the orthodox market. Others of course did stick by them, but its questionable how much they built an ‘oppositional community’… A fair few of them spent far too much time sneering at the ‘normal working class people’ for being ‘slaves’ (ie going to work), or making distinctions between each other’s brands of drop-outery as not being radical enough. Little enough of this scene had any class-consciousness, as to impossible-class-consciousness, it’s hard to say.

Partly in reaction to the frustrations of this scene, probably the most dominant strand of UK anarchist ideas of the 1980s and into the 1990s evolved; based on the idea, broadly speaking, that the working class, or at least the section of the working class, typically depicted as living in inner-cities, on council estates, was in the process of rejecting capitalist forms and exchanges, and was up for it and ripe for an uprising… Class War, and many local anarchist papers and groups, operated, or at least talked, as if this uprising was imminent. Outbreaks like Brixton, Broadwater Farm, the miners strike, Wapping, and then the anti-poll tax movement seemed to us to support these views. Immersed in this movement it was easy to miss the fact that these outbreaks were more exceptions than tips of the iceberg. Although the ’80s were a decade of constant overt class antagonism, we lost most of those battles (the poll tax being an exception, and qualified now by the gradual ratcheting up of council taxes) and ended the era  with a fragmented sense of class opposition, traditional notions of class even being questioned.  Ironically the vast majority of the ‘class struggle anarchists’ adopting this view didn’t originate in this social ‘strata’, (of course some did), although they may have wanted to, or come from areas like Brixton. Whether or not this invalidated their ideas, or their ‘right’ to be involved in that politics, could be debated… Class identity, and class composition, are much more fluid than ’80s anarchists at the time would have liked to admit; Class War’s attempt, for instance to build around the idea of class pride, class identity, was stoutly ignoring the rapid changes in class composition taking place in that time. Ironically this divergence was eventually to partly lead to the disintegration of CW as a group in 1997-8 (though a small minority continued to operate under the name); the majority of its members by this point had both acquired more permananent jobs, usually in skilled sector/local authorities, mortgages, and had come to question some of the CW’s core ideology. [The wildly varying wanderings of some of the ex-Class War crew could not be told here, though some interesting speculations could be made from the current organisational incarnations of the former factions/leading individuals – from attempting to raise the dead a third time as farce as the Class War Party, standing in elections and waving arms about like the last 35 years never happened; or as Plan C, falling headlong into academic autonomism and from thence for many to the dead end of acid Corbynism and the Labour party… Not to mention those who now teach t’ai chi to cabinet ministers or have large property portfolios… But that’s another article. Coming, maybe, soon…]

A real challenge to the whole capitalist caboodle has to involve more than both dropping out of the economy, or a narrow definition of who the ‘real working class’ is.  Some of the response to UK 2011 riots shows that divisions have increased, between people with little to lose, or for who all out combat against the police and destruction of property is a valid tactic, and many who might otherwise believe in a broadly more egalitarian society. Now this was true in 1981 too, though perhaps a larger proportion of people felt rioting to be justified then than now. It’s fair enough to argue with the idea that riots in the past were community uprisings while today’s rioters are just hooligan elements – which tendency includes some former rioters of the ’80s themselves (see the report on the 2006 Brixton riot commemoration), and bizarrely some old anarchist comrades.

But we should also be looking to the differences between then and now, the changes that really have taken place, and where that leaves the possibilities for us. This is a wider discussion than just about rioting.   These days we are thinking less about expanding an underground economy as part of a radical challenge to orthodox economic relations, as we are desperately fighting to preserve such ‘social-democratic’ protections as we have left, on working conditions, the welfare state, etc, in the face of a new onslaught on them by a re-energised neo-liberal elite.

It’s all very well idealising it, but the black economy is also very dodgy.  As the writers themselves admit “…aspects of that mass illegality are no less exploitative than that of the capitalist economy as a whole…” The most destructive and exploitative aspects of this economy were the ones that have survived and thrived, growing into hugely profitable gangster alt-capitalism on the one hand and territorial civil war against each other on the other. Happily for the state this has taken the most root in the communities that it saw as offering the most potential threat in terms of collective resistance to police control and work discipline: crime, gang warfare and penal response are a much more comfortable outcome for them, shite as it pans out for people on the ground.

On the other hand The Impossible Class failed to take into account how the culture they talk about suited disenfranchised youth, in an economy that had passed them by, but as the economy was radically restructured, and at the same time the ‘frontline’ shrank, horizons for ducking and diving shortened, and people also grew up, had kids, greater and different needs and so on arose. The most successful response to the ’81 riots was from the state, who managed to force much of the ‘impossibles’ back into its clutches; but age, maturing, raising families and so on would likely have done much of that job in time for many anyway. It’s not just about giving in to the spectacle etc (though I have anarchist friends who still despise me for getting a proper job. Hey ho) Lack of rights, working with no long term security etc is ok, when you’re single and fancy free, but crap when you have a bit more to lose –  you crave holiday pay… Having worked on the side while signing on, claimed multiple benefits dubiously, worked on the buildings under various forms of self-employment, through agencies, dodging tax when I could, but being now on the cards, to be honest each suited me at the time. When I was younger, I wanted to avoid work as much as possible, but when I needed cash I’d find a way to steal/work delete as you wish… Now I have a young child, in a proper family situation… All the benefits and flexibility modern capitalism can give an (allegedly) skilled worker come in handy. Obviously I am also lucky I’m white, not a recent migrant, that I decided to learn a trade, and was reasonably competent/able to stick at it. But the fight now is on more basic levels.

I would also question the implication that all rioters were immersed in the black economy… (though the writers may not have meant that). That it’s contradicted by reality is suggested by their own text, eg the report from the Wood Green riot (“We’ve all got jobs… We want a riot!”). But historically it is also true that from the respectable left, (often echoing the authorities), there’s always the chorus that rioters are lumpens, rowdies, not proper workers. Where analysis has been carried out, from Chartist riots, to the anti-poll tax shindig in Trafalgar Square 1990, this is not born out by evidence: as many artisans, workers in respectable trades, etc, are reported in Chartist arrest lists and so on. NB: Also see reports from the local Trades Councils in the General Strike, which saw fighting between police and strikers/supporters every day, all over the country… The union line was almost invariably that any trouble was started by non-unionists or the unemployed – but it’s just not born out by arrests or by grassroots accounts.) ‘Hardworking workers’ are just as alienated and likely to crack and kick things over; because work itself is often shit and mind-numbing, abasing ourselves to someone with unreasonable power over us day after day.

When ‘The impossible Class’ was published, the changes in capitalist economy that we are even now suffering were then well underway – broadly labelled Thatcherism in this country (though some of those changes began in the early 1970s), also widely lumped together as neo-liberalism; developments in financial markets, globalisation and internal expansion in service industries and so on. Of course it’s daft to expect the authors of one text to nostradamically prognosticate how the system would regenerate itself. To them and many other left commentators, it seemed clear that the crisis of the late 70s and early 80s, and the decline in the industrial economies of the developed west would continue, and sharpen, shit would get worse, breakdown, and that space was opening up for this kind of diffuse challenge to the established order. Which would have left room for dual power, counter-structures or working class power. For an interesting take on how people thought it might happen, from the 1980s, it’s worth reading The Free, an excellent fictional account of a revolution in Ireland, written by a well-known Brixton anarchist, in which squatting, co-ops, industrial decline lead to a mass rebellion through dual power, creating a libertarian classless society… (though possible difficulties with rightwing and leftwing authoritarian groups are pretty much brushed over). Many anarchos (and not just in Britain – friends in Germany, Holland too that I know of also) did think that things were developing that way around ’81 .

It didn’t happen.
But it may happen still (now we’re in another phase of crisis, belt-tightening and embryonic resistance); though does a wider section of population think that way any more, as they did in that era? Or even think in those terms. Many of us who grew up in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s learned from a widespread belief in some sort of socialism, some sort of more egalitarian collectivism, or the idea that such things were possible, if much of the examples were either outdated, or based on rosy glows of soviet or Cuban models, or on municipal Labourism & trade union bureaucracies. It’s worth debating whether this gave us much of the impetus for long-term involvement in activist scenes, movements and campaigns. How much does the radically different experience of young people now, (who to a much greater extent didn’t grow up with that diffuse belief in ‘a better world’) influence the chances of resistance to capital’s current attacks on us, or of a powerful movement for an alternative way to live? Maybe Occupy etc are the kids of our generation, to some extent… Some people think that the relative collapse of the left, trade union influence and membership, the lack of the false alternative of Soviet ‘communism’, clears the way for the real movements to arise. Others bemoan the destruction of the old-style labour movement and would rebuild it as it was, whether or not the model fits now. It’s also true that a wider, general feeling of rebelliousness, rejecting orthodoxies and hierarchies, of youth kicking up the dust, avoiding work, etc, has for many years seemed like a distant dream; this gave many of us a positive experience in the 70s and 80s (earlier and later for others maybe); today I talk to 22 year-olds and you think, you have a mortgage, you should be out taking DRUGS, for fuck’s sake! Maybe this is now beginning to change, under the combined influence of the 2008 crash, Covid-19 and whatever fallout Brexit might have on the British economy.

OK, you can’t impose one generation’s outlook on another, and while me and my mates were dossing, squatting and getting off our heads (as well as rioting and ‘organising’), probably the majority of people my age were ‘knuckling down to hard work’. It’s just the minority seemed bigger and more based in every town, you know?  In the light of that, maybe the most positive aspect of involvement in Brixton riots etc was the empowerment that those participants underwent – the changes in their own consciousness, their feelings of collectivity etc – rather than any mass effect on future ‘oppositional communities’… In the long run it’s always difficult to know what lasting effect you have when you take part in any kind of rebellion, activism, etc – I’m no hippy, but sometimes the only changes you can be sure of are the ones that you and the people around you undergo, that you can see and feel. What inspiration or effects on social policy, policing, ‘the coming revolution’ your activities have is often either questionable, reversible by those in authority, double-edged in its real implications. Brixton ’81 seems clearer than most events as a positive inspiring outpouring of righteous anger, it’s true.  However, this kind of head-scratching is as much also a product of my advancing age, thinking too much, seeing the shades of grey in events, rather than as black and white as I did when I was 19. It’s possible that people should pay no attention to these dusty ramblings. There’s a strong argument that you SHOULD be like that when you’re young, fuck listening to the people who tell you its difficult and there’s a point on both sides, or it’s all negative, nothing works, “we tried it and look what happened…” the empowerment of taking part in riots, not compromising, all-out radical projects, etc, is a positive thing – often it’s the long term boredom of work and orthodox career path, or even of long-term political activism, that fucks the hope out of people.

In terms of policing, in the long term the police have not exactly taken the route to that predicted in ‘The Impossible Class’. Although paramilitary policing did dominate the 1980s, in the last twenty years, a more graduate culture has been built, with a bent to strategic thinking, technology, and a powerful interest in public relations, co-opting minorities and spreading tentacles into ‘communities’. The Met has in fact, in direct contradiction to the writers’ predictions, made a real effort to present itself as opening up to be more representative, more accountable; and, especially after the murder of Stephen Lawrence and the MacPherson Inquiry, have admitted that they are saturated with racism but are dealing with the problem, huge changes have taken place etc… PR is a major part of 21st century policing, and the Met has become very adept. The kind of tactics that the Special Patrol Group favoured, including mass invasions and occupations of a whole area, have more been replaced by cleverer targetting, with more subtle accompanying propaganda. Its true that whole areas are not identified with dissent, crime, ‘criminal minorities’, or not as blanketedly as Brixton used to be, at least in London; so targetting is necessary, but there’s also some smarter minds treading carefully.
But the cosmetics, and sleight of hand, isn’t the whole story. There genuinely are factions in the police, and to some extent a battle has taken place within the Met, especially in London, and particularly in Brixton, liberal experimenting has become de rigeur for the force.  It’s interesting to read in the ‘Impossible Class’ the tale of David Webb, liberal cop turned would be Liberal politician – prefiguring the career of Brixton favourite, veteran PC of 1981, later Commander in Lambeth, Brian Paddick, who followed a similar trajectory 25 odd years later… Though in much changed times for the Met, his battles with a hierarchy that both promoted him and undermined him reflect the old liberal vs authoritarian debate in the police…  It’s not always easy to tell which is which – PR or genuine liberalism. When Lambeth’s top cop virtually tows the line that the 81 riot was a necessary community uprising, (see report of the 2006 ‘commemoration 25 years on’, later on), is it good PR or a deeper change? It’s funny how policing seemed to parallel the political changes – Paddick and Macpherson and all fitted perfectly with Blairite New labour era-spin, and concerned classless vague-centre-leftism. Now aggressive upper class war is back on the agenda, changes in policing may be starting to reflect this, if the reaction to the Sarah Everard vigil in London and the Bristol anti-policing bill demos is anything to go by.

‘Cause liberal gloss or not, the true nature of policing hasn’t changed. For many young black people, the idea that the police have substantially changed since 1981 is a joke. 30 years after April 81, police stop and search of young people on spurious grounds is still endemic, and ratcheting up tensions.  Police shootings… killing people on demos… the list goes on A crucial sentence in the 1981 text is “everyone is potentially guilty” in Brixton – this turned out to be just not true. Or at least, the council and the police were more adept at splitting rioters, squatters, etc from more respectable, especially white respectable residents, and more adept even than that in ‘Secondary Control’ – defusing further rebellion with money, schemes and jobs for the right people; as the text does point out. The Economist’s analysis and projected solution to the riots, and the inner city crisis it suggested they represented, is interesting, because to some extent it very accurately forecast developments: aspects of it were adopted, in Brixton, and elsewhere, in the 80s and 90s. It’s interesting for those of us who from 1993 noted what happened to the money that flooded into Brixton in the 1990s as part of Brixton Challenge (for example) on the grounds that it was designed as ‘secondary control’, in part at least, to read that, as we suspected, it wasn’t unconsciously divisive, or altruistic, but had a theoretical basis from (at least one faction) of our rulers: to divide, to keep us down, to keep us from rebelling.  But long before Brixton Challenge, the Urban programme, other inner-city aid schemes, were finely tuned to achieve this (Black radical magazine Race Today criticised what they called the ‘black bourgeoisie’ in Brixton, the buying off of ambitious activists and ‘leaders’ by integrating them into the local state or ‘voluntary’ sectors. This needs a wide discussion though, as there’s a real debate to be had about the value that state funding, rented premises, paid workers were gave to many projects, community groups, women’s, black, gay organisations, (just as a few examples). It wasn’t just black community leaders they needed to buy off, to some extent it was an underground culture that needed co-opting, wooing, integrating, in order to both defuse and contain rebellious possibilities, and also to create more avenues for profit and exploitation (how much money is there in hip hop, graffiti and their spin-offs these days? In ’81 they were almost entirely outside of mainstream capitalism).

Another important change ‘The Impossible Class’ did not reflect is the massive restructuring of work. “Only a small, declining section of the working class has been able to sustain its job security and living standards (and even those workers only through increased overtime), while the rest get relegated to menial, insecure and part-time jobs. The restructuring in industry is fast removing the material basis for an identity in paid work, especially the link between effort and reward – reward both in terms of job enjoyment and wages. Unlike the 1930s, not only are few unemployed people willing to blame themselves, but their passive exclusion from wage-labour is gradually turning into an active rejection of such work, or at least of officially paid work.”  Well yes, the restructuring of work that had already begun did result in some of these effects – and a half. The problem is their projection of a growing mass resistance to work itself as a result of this… 30 years later the precarious nature of everyone’s work, compared to say the 60s or 70s, is the defining feature of many of our lives. In a wider sense much of what defined ‘work’, say in the 1960s, has been almost turned on its head, or turned inside out. Traditionally middle class careers have been relatively ‘proletarianised’; job security has become a sick joke for millions; industries where unionisation was almost compulsory, in some cases where workers (at least through union structures) had sizable power over their conditions of labour have been decimated, and “savage management practices” have become almost universal. (To name but a few of the changes)

Agency, contract, ‘gig’ economy workers now make up a massive proportion of the workforce, making the line in The Impossible Class about reversing “the bourgeois relation of future/present by replacing deferred gratification (of National Insurance or pension payments) with immediate gratification in wages” a dark irony – many now exist on instant ‘gratification’ only, being unable to access the benefits of being on the cards. The gratification of being a paycheck from destitution.
And in a savage reversal of the lionisation of the cash in hand or black economy in the Impossible Class, million now subsist on terribly paid part time work on precarious or no contracts, only surviving by receiving state top-ups of ‘in-work’ benefits to scrape by.

Other sectors of the workforce bought wholesale into right to buy and mortgaging themselves to the hilt, encouraged by the state one the one hand as social housing was dismantled on the other. The profits now tied up in mortgages and private sector renting would make reversing this trend so catastrophic for UK capitalism that only a full-scale and sustained uprising would be powerful enough to rebuild cheap and universal social housing in the face of it… And people are hostages to fortune, too scared or tired to ‘rebel against work’.

But resistance to work, as a conscious political decision, has all but vanished in the UK. If only… People’s identification with their work, the sense that it is part of who they are fundamentally may have declined, cynicism and disaffection with the daily grind is rife… (But that was there before!) People have to diversify more and more, acquiring wide-ranging skills to enable them to balance on the edge of the precipice, one re-organisation or takeover away from redundancy, disaster… New migrant workforces, new rightwing grassroots anti-immigrant campaigns, have given the recent financial crisis a dark and (to those who lived through the 70s) familiar edge. That in many places (at least in London) what little remains of council housing is fast becoming a ghetto for migrants is another factor in this mix.

Structural changes in capitalism have gone hand in hand, with both gentrification and the reduction of social hsouing in inner city areas like Brixton, and a ruthless imposition of dole schemes that have militarized signing on, forced the unwaged into crap jobs or educational nowhere schemes. In the end the idea that a massive oppositional community based on conscious avoidance of the mainstream economy just didn’t pan out, though millions flitted between the dole, occasional work, some acquiring enough skills to gain a foothold, but footholds on a shaly slipface.  There is of course an underground parallel world of dealing, cash in hand work… but our desires aside, it’s not resistance to wage labour – though we can take some small satisfaction in the flexibility it can allow, when we have better things to do, and the small joy of paying no tax at all when we can get away with it.  On top of this, first the lack of work in the ’80s led some people into education as the only choice, then the boom times in the economy, and the injections of cash into education (especially under New Labour) did expand opportunity and possibility for many working class people. Trouble now is, that the current crisis has re-ordered the needs and priorities of global capital – hence we now have a surplus of graduates all learned up with nowhere to go. Much of the recent restlessness and increased political activism among graduates, actually an increasing phenomenon, allegedly a factor in such diverse events as the Arab Spring, Occupy and UKuncut and the ‘pay your tax’ campaigns, and most recently unrest in Brazil and Turkey… Although some of this has probably been over-emphasised.

Lots more could be written about the vast inflation of the sectors that administrate education, benefits, IT and consultancies etc – a huge subject that we can’t really cover here…

No go areas, dual power, spaces where community power might edge out the state and begin to run an area themselves, were discussed in the Impossible Class, as a realistic possibility. “Peaceful co-existence is impossible because one side or the other must win”. – well yes, the state can’t abandon an area and say openly it ain’t gonna police it. But the main reason why Brixton’s old frontline is now transformed into a largely peaceful, squat-free, nicey middle class street, somewhat empty of people (by 1981, or even 1991, standards), is that the state didn’t stop pushing – on many fronts – and we, to be frank, didn’t push hard enough back. Whether or not the majority of rioters, rebel youth, squatters etc consciously saw themselves as creating a new class, a new culture – which is debateable – its certain that such a project (or even just as contested space between state and urban disaffected) could survive only by keeping expanding , both in physical space (beyond the limited streets around Railton Road), and in social and economic terms, by the breaking down of boundaries, prejudices, class differences, more radical experimenting in communal living, shared survival techniques, racial and gender politics, and so on… A minority may have envisioned this and wanted/attempted to carry it out, but across the board it didn’t happen, or only for a fraction of time. But the mainstream of capitalist existence did keep expanding; in fact it continued to permeate the alternative ways of life and reign them in, bringing all sorts of cultural, political ideals back to the commodity economy. The middle class background of many of the 70s idealists who created many of these alternative lifestyles, the networks and social links they had, had a powerful influence here too; but this can be over-emphasised. In fact, whether for middle class activists, outside agitators, or leaders thrown up by the community, the gravitational pull of co-operation with state forces, in their myriad and sometimes disguised forms, proves very strong. When the movement for autonomy and insurgency falls back, fails to keep expanding and exceeding its own ambition, the ideas, interests, influence of this level of leadership and spokespeople enters into the vacuum.

You can’t create socialism in one country, the left used to repeat when the Soviet Union’s ultimate failure to give birth to communism was discussed. True. Nor in one London postcode neither. Brixton, Notting Hill, Stoke Newington, Peckham, St Pauls, parts of Nottingham or Manchester, many more, may have seemed to some at one time like they were embryos of a new society, but around them new social relations were in fact being created – from above, against us, by a clearer thinking, class-conscious cadre who knew how to transform the world in their interest, and take millions of working class people with them. The consequences of which we are still dealing with.

“Perhaps the impossible class can’t be found – until the next uprising.” To some extent, this is the most interesting point in the whole text – that such a class grouping might not be permanent, or always identical, a shifting  community, flowing, mixing, evolving… and disappearing and re-appearing according to people’s needs. Needs being operative – the 81 riot came out of people’s immediate need – to fuck the police off and make them wary about tactics like Swamp ’81. The process of coming together may, yes, have created – temporarily – such an oppositional community, though it fell back into its constituent parts as the immediate uprising faltered.

It faltered because the only possibility for an uprising to survive is to push outward; but this could only have happened if there was (a) real potential for corresponding upheaval in other areas, and (b) a transformation of the social relations between people to go beyond fighting unity against the police.

There wasn’t (in April 81, though to some extent there may have been in July), a general spread of rebellion; and people may well just not have known how – or wanted – to take things forward. Uprisings are hard to sustain, but especially when they are taking place in relative isolation. The most glaring sentences in “We Want to Riot Not to Work’ are those reflecting how people immersed in the riot ventured out into the wider area and were shocked to find things hadn’t changed out there.

Brilliant as the riot may have been to those taking part, and as inspiration to many in other areas, and as effective it may have (debatably) been in reining in the cops in some, the jump from one upsurge to a more generalised social revolution, or even an attempt at one, needs a wholly different set of economic factors, relationships… This kind of ‘revolutionary upsurge’ may never happen in the way that anarchists, communists etc have traditionally pictured it – in the old nineteenth/twentieth century ‘first lets seize the telephone exchange’ pattern.

But to return to the idea of a disappearing and re-appearing class, which only exists, or at least only shows its existence, in moments of crisis for ‘capital’ and rebellion or rejection of the normal bounds for us, from below. To go beyond this impossible class only coming together in riots, we have to go beyond riots. To some extent, without being defeatist, the only ‘communism’, or liberated society, however you want to think of it, we may see, could be the moments, days, we grab and hold, snatching in defiance of the daily desperation. As much as we long for it, a Paris Commune or 1917-style mass uprising that actually ushers in a lovely new age for humanity is probably a long way off; if it ever comes about. Stretching things a bit, rather than there being an impossible class, could it be more like we sometimes create an impossible classlessness, an existence that can’t exist under the current conditions, yet it sometimes DOES spring to life when we make it. For a short while we break from relations defined by work, alienation, etc, to be able to connect with each other on a truly human level. Then we are forced by circ-yuk-stances back into the ‘reality’ and normality.

Just a theory…? but I have experienced it, in riots, dancing, sex, working with others on co-operative projects for ourselves, brill games played with kids and adults, most especially when I should have been working but threw it over for a bit.

I haven’t had time yet to think much about the issues raised in ‘The Impossible Class’ about street space as a battleground and issue, or long-term effects on social policy. Also I would be interesting to relate all of the above to the potential for collapse of a modern economy – see Argentina, for example, or to Occupy, etc. We’d be interested know what you think.

Omasius Gorgut

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

past tense’s series of articles on Brixton; before, during and after the riots of 1981.

Part 1: Changing, Always Changing: Brixton’s Early Days
2: In the Shadow of the SPG: Racism, Policing and Resistance in 1970s Brixton
3: The Brixton Black Women’s Group
4: Brixton’s first Squatters 1969
5: Squatting in Brixton: The Brixton Plan and the 1970s
6. Squatted streets in Brixton: Villa Road
7: Squatting in Brixton: The South London Gay Centre
8: We Want to Riot, Not to Work: The April 1981 Uprising
9: After the April Uprising: From Offence to Defence to
10: More Brixton Riots, July 1981
11: You Can’t Fool the Youths: Paul Gilroy’s on the causes of the ’81 riots
12: The Impossible Class: An anarchist analysis of the causes of the riots
13: Impossible Classlessness: A response to ‘The Impossible Class’
14: Frontline: Evictions and resistance in Brixton, 1982
15: Squatting in Brixton: the eviction of Effra Parade
16: Brixton Through a Riot Shield: the 1985 Brixton Riot
17: Local Poll tax rioting in Brixton, March 1990
18: The October 1990 Poll Tax ‘riot’ outside Brixton Prison
19: The 121 Centre: A squatted centre 1973-1999
20: This is the Real Brixton Challenge: Brixton 1980s-present
21: Reclaim the Streets: Brixton Street Party 1998
22: A Nazi Nail Bomb in Brixton, 1999
23: Brixton police still killing people: The death of Ricky Bishop
24: Brixton, Riots, Memory and Distance 2006/2021
25: Gentrification in Brixton 2015

 

The April 1981 Brixton Riot (2): The Aftermath, and Defence Campaigns

After years of street crimes and brutality, and despite the infiltration from outside of thousands of paid provocateurs. the Brixton police have finally been taught a short, sharp lesson by the local community. It has been a constant source of amazement to observers just how long the local population have allowed these professional scare-mongers to roam the streets unchecked, harassing and heating up the youth and terrorising the residents.

Over the last three years, there has been a marked increase in the street crime and violence carried out by these so-called ‘protectors’. The local population has stood by helplessly while their children been snatched off the streets by these over by racist and sexist gangs of thugs – kidnapped under the sinister ‘sus’ law which they operate.

At least one recognised public execution * has already been carried out by these murderous thugs’ paramilitary wing, the Special Patrol Group, whilst dozens of unsolved murders, which have happened behind the closed doors of police stations and prisons, are readily attributable to these state-styled stormtroopers and their cronies.

Relative calm returned to the streets on Sunday only after they adopted their by now unfamiliar ploy of following an afternoon of unbridled mayhem with a swift withdrawal at twilight. (Lewisham residents are all too aware of this tactic). But the remarks of one of the thugs ‘guarding’  Stockwell station sums up the measure of their defeat; in a dejected tone he muttered to his mates. ‘The whole world will be laughing at us..’ But he was wrong. The world is not amused at having these gangs of thugs strutting around its street under the guise of law ‘n’order. The world will want to know:

¥ WHO ARE THE SINISTER BRAINS BEHIND THE BRIXTON RIOTS WHO PLANNED AND EXECUTED MASSIVE ACTION AGAINST THE COMMUNITY?

But above all, the question remains:

¥ JUST HOW ARE WE PREPARED TO PUT UP WITH THESE ARROGANT, MARAUDING THUGS WHO ANSWER TO NO-ONE BUT THEMSELVES??”

FROM THE FRONTLINE BRIXTON BULLETIN Monday 13 April 1981

…………………………………………………………………………………

In the immediate aftermath of the April 11th 1981 Brixton Uprising, while the media teemed with racist nonsense, and Lord Scarman was hired by the government to launch an Inquiry into the events, the most pressing question in the area was supporting the 285 people arrested on the day (though a fair number were nicked and released without charge, mainly as there was no cell space to hold them all. More people were arrested later: between April and July there were some 70 raids on local homes). Interestingly, given the police and press hoohaa about the riot being planned and carried out by outsiders coming into the area, 90% of the arrested proved to be from Brixton; 65 % were Black. Other bare statistics: 50% were under 25. In the end some 18 % were jailed for ‘offences’ arising from the uprising, 17% acquitted.

The Brixton Defence Campaign was formed to organise a political defence of the arrested. It was formed mainly by the Brixton Black Women’s Group (BBWG) and Black People Against State Harassment (BASH). BASH had been launched in 1978, partly as a result of the repeated Special Patrol group invasions of Brixton (see In the Shadow of the SPG).

In its own press statement, the Brixton Defence Campaign stated that it formed to ‘co-ordinate the defence of those arrested during the Brixton Uprising and to support those who continue to be victimised’. The campaign group worked alongside the Brixton Legal Defence Group.

 “The fact that we initiated the Brixton Defence Campaign, took on alot of the leadership, and, as a group, put in most of the work, shows how strong politically Black women had become and how much support there was in the community for the group. Many of the ‘committees’ set up by the brothers in the aftermath of the uprisings had failed. In some cases, the first meetings had ended in chaos. There were all kinds of conflicting interests… We recognised that the police would step up their operations. We also knew that we had to work quickly to counteract the media’s coverage of ‘Black Mobs on the Rampage’ and ‘Black Masses Rioting’, so that people could understand what had really happened.

Anyway, after the failure of the initial public meetings, the women’s group came together to discuss the brief of the campaign. The first meeting was held at the Black Women’s Centre, and after that it became the base of the campaign. We acted very quickly, using the skills we had to start distributing leaflets, organising more public meetings and producing a regular bulletin. We had two objectives really. The first was the practical matter of getting competent legal representation for the hundreds of people who’d been arrested. And the other was to publicise the police tactics which had led to the uprisings and to alert the community to particular incidents of brutality. We did this by holding street meetings on Railton Road, bringing the issues to the attention of the people. And we co-ordinated with other campaigns and defence committees in other parts of the country so that we could monitor the police operations in our communities outside London.” (from The Heart of the Race, Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie and Suzanne Scafe)

The Defence Campaign held regular meetings, help the arrested collected evidence for their defence, contacted lawyers, helped defendants and witnesses get connected, collected images to help people.

Viewing Lord Scarman’s inquiry into the cause of the April Riot as a whitewash, aimed at legitimising characterisations of the riots as ‘blameless forces of law and order [battling] mainly black criminals’, the Brixton Defence Campaign called for a boycott of the proceedings. Their position was that any support for or even taking part in the inquiry would alienate the ‘sections of the community we are interested in mobilising’, and thus it ‘must be totally discredited’.

“The Brixton Defence Campaign says Boycott the Scarman Inquiry

The Brixton Defence Campaign calls for a total boycott of the state’s inquiry into the Brixton Uprising of 10-13 April 1981 set up under the chairmanship of Lord Scarman with terms of reference: To inquire urgently into the serious disorders in Brixton on 10-12 April and to report, with the power to make recommendations.
There is no escaping the fact that the Scarman Inquiry, but particularly Phase 1, very seriously prejudices the legal position and therefore endangers the liberty of all defendants yet to be tried.
Lord Scarman has seen fit to divide his inquiry into two phases: Phase I – Examining the ‘immediate causes’ of what happened in Brixton on 10-12 April 1981; Phase II – Assessing the ‘underlying reasons, looking specially at the problems of policing multi-racial areas’.
Why do we say that Phase I is but a deadly weapon aimed at our hearts?
First: Because Lord Scarman himself had positively to agree, that Phase I will ‘prejudice the rights of fair trial to those who have yet to come before the courts’. His promise to take evidence in such a way that individuals will not be named or identified cannot be carried out.
Second: What, it must be asked, are these ‘immediate causes’ into which Scarman is going to investigate so urgently in Phase I. It was the MP for Norwood (John Fraser) who said, quite correctly, that the immediate causes of what happened in Brixton are well understood’.
Third: Instead of looking at the real ‘immediate cause of the Brixton Uprising, Scarman will be seeking to give subtle legitimacy to the totally racist views so dramatically put by Margaret Thatcher – that the Brixton Uprising was simply a confrontation between, on the one hand, fundamentally blameless forces of law and order, and, on the other, mainly black criminals!
The Brixton Defence Campaign is satisfied that Lord Scarman is disposed to be used by the state to provide it with a basis for re-writing the Riot Act and to provide justification for dramatically increasing repressiveness in policing methods which are already massively racist, lawless and brutal as well as substantially uncontrolled. In the past five years there have been repeated requests to the Home Secretary for a public inquiry into police brutality and malpractice. To none of these calls was there a positive response by the state.
There are no benefits to the black community to be derived from Phase II of Lord Scarman’s inquiry. First, it is not aware that Lord Scarman has any expertise in the field of social policy and is not satisfied that even were he to have both the necessary expertise and sympathy that these would be sufficient given the other factors which apply. Second, there are no good reasons to hold that ignorance on the part of the state is a major cause/force determining the present direction of its policies in the field of housing, employment, education, etc. Third, the Campaign is satisfied particularly that where the black communities’ grievances over the racist, brutal, lawless and uncontrolled policing methods used against them are concerned the state has no basis for even claiming to be ignorant. A mountain of evidence has been ‘submitted and ignored.”

The Campaign wrote to organisations and individuals intending to provide evidence to Scarman’s inquiry, warning them against doing so and criticising them for betraying the community. However, some notable Brixton activists, and many community organisations, did co-operate with the enquiry.

There were proposals for an inquiry that could take a more alternative approach.
A joint statement from local organisations – the Brixton Neighbourhood Community Organisation, the Melting Pot Foundation, and Brixton Domino Working Men’s Social Club – claimed that an alternative inquiry that included ‘one or more… Privy Councillors from the Black Commonwealth’ would have ‘allayed the scepticism of many members of the Black Community’.

There was also the fear that anything said in evidence given to Scarman’s inquiry might help incriminate defendants when it came to court cases.

“On the fifteenth day of the Inquiry hearings, 3 July, the Brixton Legal Defence Group notified the Inquiry that application was being made to the High Court for an order to prohibit Lord Scarman from hearing any further evidence or submissions in public or from making public any findings in relation to Phase 1 until the various criminal proceedings pending against the applicants arising from the disorders had been tried. Application was also made to prohibit the Home Secretary from making public any findings in relation to Phase 1 pending conclusion of the criminal
proceedings. On 10 July Mr Justice Webster dismissed the application saying that ‘it has not been established either that the continuance of the Inquiry in public or that the publication of the report which follows is in either case an act calculated to obstruct or interfere with the due course of justice’.”

However, the Brixton Defence Campaign was not without its own contradictions, as the following article recounts (This was published in ‘We Want to Riot, Not to Work’, by a group of Brixton anarchists, 1982)

FROM OFFENCE TO DEFENCE TO….?

Where?

Recognising the centrality of black resistance to racism in the uprisings, we describe how such resistance became a larger entry point for our own refusal of mere survival as waged or unwaged workers, as women, etc. Although we have experienced exploitation, harassment and coercion in somewhat different ways than black and Asian people, we came to fight the same battles in the streets against the same enemy – the police. At the same time, we are all too aware that tensions between blacks and whites, men and women, persist after the uprisings.

This section approaches the problem in view of the aftermath of the uprisings. Although a riot can’t continue indefinitely without a general revolutionary upheaval, it can nevertheless contribute to bringing about such a situation. However, so far we have seen our riots followed mostly by repression, isolation and division among those who, for a while, joined together as an insurgent community. How do we get beyond this dead-end cycle?

Just after the July 81 riots, for example, the crowd in a Wolverhampton courtroom almost succeeded in freeing their mates from the dock. However, during the winter, hundreds of people faced prison sentences in the same kind of isolation which prevailed beforehand. Capitalism will continue to defeat us if rebellion remains confined to the warmest months, to special anniversaries or to counter-attacks against only the most blatant police provocations – ultimately leaving the initiative with the state.

With these problems in mind, the article looks at the inability of the Brixton defence groups to sustain the ‘creative moments’ of the revolts, instead expressing a disorganisation and powerlessness which limited the July uprising as much as did the advance in police tactics then. The article makes tentative suggestions for possible new organisational forms for defending the targets of state repression and for generalising the rebellion of the oppositional community. Whenever we do reach a point of confrontation leading to the next uprising, the groundwork could already be laid for taking it beyond defence of ghetto territory, towards transforming the whole of daily life, destroying the rule of capital and the state.

Looking back, it is now apparent that what was absent from last year’s struggles was the development of organisational forms which fully corresponded with the new practices made explicit at the height of the fighting. Certainly there were organizations – the defence committees – but subsequent events have revealed that none of these encouraged the development of the new relations already created. Of course they solidly did the work of obtaining speedy legal assistance for those arrested, issuing information and acting as rallying points, etc. However, by and large they applied stale orthodox models of resistance to the fresh tasks confronting metropolitan proletarians when such models had, to a certain extent, become already superseded by the very events upon which the organisations based themselves.

For what had started out in April as an attack on racist policing developed into an attack on policing as such, on commodity exchange as such and, by implication, on the whole process of production and consumption in capitalist society. Also, the mode of the attack was itself a living critique of the usual mediations by which political parties and trade unions contain and regulate class struggle. Further, it enabled us to break through the usual roles and half-rotted ideologies and, for a brief but ecstatic moment, to transform social relations. Such transformations which remain at the heart of the communist project and which, within the limits of time and space of Brixton, that weekend, became a form of mass practice needed a broad-based and flexible form of organisation in which to bloom. (For example, in times of social upheaval this form has very often been that of general assemblies or councils, soviets. But the organisational forms which arose in Brixton did so on the basis of only partial critiques, only limited visions, seeking to defend those arrested without having to delegitimise the state which was criminalising them in the first place.

Undoubtedly the defence committees’ criticisms of the racist state were expressed more forcefully than previously, but this was largely a difference of degree and did not mark a qualitative shift in oppositional critique or practice. (For example, they might have identified the ways in which the uprising went beyond an attack on racist policing methods, so as to incorporate the knowledge gained into their defence strategies.) Their limitations suggest that, of all the proletarian layers which participated in the fighting, none had a thoroughgoing awareness of the significant changes which had taken place in the composition of the proletarian groupings themselves. So when those of us who took to the streets concretised the latent and embryonic aspects of ourselves shaped by this recomposition of social relations, we were unable to grasp and develop that process collectively. Overtaken by the enormity and rapidity of events, we nevertheless were inspired by the forces unleashed to create practices of struggle in which we found ourselves confronting the now-realised aspects of ourselves. Yet, as in a dream, we did not fully recognise ourselves. Therefore, we fell back upon analyses and their corresponding forms of organization which our very own actions had rendered obsolete. This is understandable insofar as consciousness often lags behind events, especially events of such qualitative rupture.

But what were these ‘new aspects’? In short, the practical unity of black and white proletarians forged in action against both the state and the reign of commodities. There were no cries of ‘black and white unite and fight’ as we were too busy doing exactly that to bother with such sloganising. Moreover, we were not just ‘fighting the state’ but were transforming social relations, making real the communistic project by realising the communistic potential of ourselves, albeit briefly. At that point in the process, the struggle went beyond a physical confrontation with racist policing by (mainly) black youth, even if that had been the detonator and main component of the struggle. However, that step beyond was not reflected in the committees which reproduced fragmented and partial analyses. The temporarily visible, concrete relations receded from consciousness, back into invisibility. After one step forward on the streets, two steps backwards were taken in the committee rooms.

‘The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. And just when they seem engaged in revolutionising themselves and things. in creating something which has never yet existed, precisely in such periods of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow from them names, battle cries and costumes in order to present the new scene of world history in this time-honoured disguise and this borrowed language.’ -Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852).

it was at the point when the decisive actions on the streets had broken down many (though not all) of the ideological barriers that keep black and white proletarians in close but different orbits that the whole spectrum of political activists stepped in with their ‘traditional’ analyses. In the heat, speed and confusion of the moment, the regressive aspects of their intervention went un-noticed and prevailed by default.

The first ‘spirit’ that was ‘conjured up’ was the division on colour lines. The quickly-formed Brixton Defence Campaign (BDC) was open only to blacks. While that restriction could be seen as an attempt to curtail the influence of the (predominantly white) party-builders and to exclude possible police agents, its immediate social effect was to divide the streetfighters. Furthermore, the BDC itself immediately divided on class lines between the street youth and the older professionals & politicians on the platform. These differences resulted in one faction of the ‘leadership’ cancelling the public rally called for the following weekend – fearing, no doubt, to lose control of the situation to the streetfighters eagerly anticipating the rally. Falling on an Easter weekend, the rally would have ensured broader participation by local people and also supporters from elsewhere, thereby providing an opportunity to extend the struggle and overcome Brixton’s isolation. As it happened, that weekend – just a few days after the uprising – passed in silence. (The BDC opened itself up to white participants shortly afterwards, but only temporarily.)

These initial divisions by colour and geography from within the proletariat had a ‘domino effect’ as they strengthened – not weakened – the left groups, who now had a fragmented and confused mass to pick over and recruit. Soon there were no less than five defence group s/committees: The BDC included most black people. The Brixton Legal Defence Committee (BLDC), although formed essentially to cover court cases, reflected the involvement of leftist professionals/politicians, mainly Labourites. The Labour Committee for the Defence of Brixton came from the Militant Tendency of the Labour Party. South London Workers Against Racism (SOLWAR) was the local branch of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) in another form. Lastly, People Against Police Occupation (PAPO), by far the smallest group, consisted of socialist-feminists, radical gays and libertarians.

The BDC saw the uprising only as a black issue. While it is clearly undeniable that it was police racism which sparked the uprising, and that this was but one more example of the manifold attacks made on black people – economic, legal, social, physical, etc. – it should also be clear that the surge of (mainly black) proletarian anger in response went far beyond the initial objective of attacking racist police. The BDC’s attempt to contain the struggle within a solely ‘black people vs. the racist state’ framework turned out to complement the state’s own strategy of delegitimising any protest outside the scope of a narrowly defined ‘racial discrimination’. It is precisely within such terms that the state, especially its would-be reformers, have attempted to contain the struggle.

Another problem with the BDC’s approach was that it did not take account of differences within ‘the’ black community. As soon as the BDC was formed, the class differences surfaced and persisted as the campaign developed. An explicit proletarian standpoint from the start (which would have included the vast majority of black people anyway) could have avoided the confusion surrounding such issues as the collaboration with Lord Scarman by certain petty-bourgeois black groups and the collaboration with the police by such ‘community leaders’ as Courtnay Laws and Ivan Madray. Also, in order to advance the struggle on the ground, perhaps more faith could have been put in mobilising black proletarians in Brixton than in lobbying Caribbean diplomats.

Of course the BDC, as the biggest of the defence groups, helped the most defendants, and its limitations in no way detract from that achievement. Also, these criticisms should not been seen as a criticism of black autonomy. The ‘multi-racial’ developments of the uprising did not challenge the basis of black autonomy; on the contrary, they reaffirmed the need for autonomous organising by everyone. However, we need to re-think the ambiguity between autonomy and separatism, so that autonomous organisation strengthens everyone’s autonomy from the state rather than facilitating the state’s containment strategies. Perhaps future developments will bring some practical clarification to this delicate area.

What of the other defence groups?

The Brixton Legal Defence Committee made interventions only on the legal level. The most notable was the attempt to halt the Scarman Inquiry on the grounds that the proceedings endangered defendants in certain court cases. As there was no chance that the legal establishment would stop Scarman from performing his liberal exhibitionism, the Committee’s attempt failed.

The Militant Tendency, wearing the ‘costume’ of the Labour Committee for the Defence of Brixton. used the ‘borrowed language’ familiar to most of us by now. According to them, the uprising was due to the policies of Thatcherism and ‘uncontrolled’ policing; therefore, more public expenditure on social welfare programmes, the disbandment of the Special Patrol Group (SPG) and police ‘accountability’ would somehow keep the lid on. This committee, too, assisted defendants financially. Also, it was the only committee willing to sink ideological differences by offering at least some assistance to the arrested anarchist Patrizia Giambi – so far the sole explicitly ‘political’ case to result in conviction from the uprising.

SOLWAR applied to the situation a class analysis containing a critique of racism (both in the state and in the labour movement). They called for resistance to the Police raids which happened after the fighting, with the resistance to be carried out by ‘militia’ similar to their anti-fascist squads in Fast London, but that proposal was not implemented. SOLWAR also helped defendants financially and – with the slogan ‘Police in the Dock’ – assisted some black families to prosecute police for assault.

Like the proposal to resist police raids, this was another attempt to take the struggle onto the offensive against the police.

PAPO was the most ad hoc of all the groups, as it existed only for as long as did the heavy police presence. It consisted mainly of friends and acquaintances who were excluded from the BDC and averse to the party-based defence groups. They sought to represent no one but themselves and felt no pressure to ‘represent’ anyone else, being a small group. Like SOLWAR, they too sought to direct the struggle against the police but, being so small, could do little more than organise a picket of the police station which succeeded in drawing 150 people.

Even this brief look at the approaches of the defence committees & groups gives us a glimpse of the potential which a general assembly could have had, especially one which recognised the historically new aspects of the uprising. But what we had instead was a proliferation of groups which precluded open political debate about the nature of the uprising and the formation of a collective ‘ strategy. These divisions reflected not only the divergences on the local political scene but also an (unconscious) acceptance of the state’s divide-and-rule tactics.

In the uprising the state’s tactics were made explicit in the ravings of Commissioner McNee (and in July in those of Kenneth Oxford and James Anderton), who attributed the uprising to ‘black hooligans’ (common criminals) and to ‘white anarchist agitators’ (political criminals). That political line was followed through into the courtroom and can be seen in the more or less straightforward criminalisation of black youth and the more overtly political criminalisation of, for example, the anarchists Patrizia Giambi in Brixton and Simon Los in Nottingham (For the charge of ‘threatening behaviour’, Patricia Giambi was sent to prison for a month and almost deported. In her appeal against the court’s recommendation for deportation, it became even more obvious that the police wanted to see her deported because she was an anarchist, whose deportation would provide prima facie ‘evidence’ for their conspiracy theory of the riots. In Nottingham, Simon Los was sent to prison for 3 years for ‘inciting to riot’, i.e. putting anarchist leaflets into people’s mailboxes.) Of course, the state is trying to have it both ways with the Bradford 12 conspiracy charges *, which themselves reflect the state’s growing fear of organised black proletarians.

The most negative effects of the insurgents’ fragmentation were the competition between defence groups and the attempts by some of them to appropriate the struggle as their own. An example: When the Scarman Inquiry opened at Lambeth Town Hall, the BDC called for a picket. This call was supported by all the other defence groups. However, SOLWAR brought along their own banner and, when asked by BDC stewards to take it down, refused. This refusal was heavily criticised by the other pickets and was seen as RCP vanguardism. But it can be seen another way as the BDC attempting to limit the struggle and subordinate other initiatives, such confusion was due to the lack of prior debate. The lack of open political debate meant that, whatever differences in political approach did exist (and such differences are always bound to exist), they got expressed in terms of crude competition. Thus it appeared that such competitive divisions were consciously desired, or at least self-perpetuating, rather than resulting from everyone’s earlier failure to come together for mutual clarification and collective decision-making. In effect, then, the BDC, which was seen as the ‘authoritative’ defence group, became the superior arbiter and sole source of legitimacy for initiatives. (Hence the absence of the BDC as the BDC from the PAPO picket of the police station.)

A second example: It became impossible to discern the pattern of, much less to resist collectively, the police raids which continued for months after April, largely because there was no common reference point for information about them. The information which was gathered was not made freely available. During the raids in June, people seemed gripped by a sense of powerlessness which in turn heightened the feeling of fragmentation and isolation. So, when there was street fighting again in July, it was not simply the fact of the police being better armed (than in April) which enabled them to clear the streets so easily. The events in July were an example of one way in which the proliferation of defence groups had compounded the decline of the April solidarity.

It is worth dwelling further on the differences between the July fighting and that in April. The main difference was that in April the police were taken by surprise. That gave streetfighters the time and space in which to gather for large-scale confrontations, which became the material basis for the unity. By contrast, in July there were uprisings taking place throughout the country but the police everywhere were better prepared – with riot helmets, short & light shields for extra mobility, the possible backing of water cannon and CS gas (used in Liverpool) and the political instruction to ‘go on the offensive’. In Brixton their chief tactic was mobile squads racing around attacking any semblance of group formations. That tactic kept those of us on the street running around in circles and prevented any large-scale gathering. Hit-and-run tactics were the only feasible form of resistance. (As used in St. Paul’s and Toxteth in early 1982.) There was little scope for united collective action like that of April. And now that police riot squads have been formed in all the large Metropolitan Police divisions with the back-up of gas and water cannon, the tactics of ‘isolate and disperse’ will again undoubtedly be the order of the day should there be any more streetfighting. Should this prove to be the case and should they succeed, then it may be even more difficult to recover the ground lost since April.

But, to return to the proliferation of defence groups – how did this come about?

Of all the social changes of the 1970s, one of the most significant was the growth of black people as an organised force. Black groups organised themselves around opposing the many attacks from the state and racist groups. A combination of the two – the Nationality Bill and the New Cross Massacre – meant that, at the time that the police implemented their ‘Operation Swamp ’81’, black people were on a combative footing and in no mood to tolerate yet more provocations. But this process goes back to the period immediately after World War 2  and is connected with other relevant historical developments.

The changing needs for new types of labour power by post-war capital gave rise to two trends. Black people were invited over here as a source of cheap unorganised labour at a time of a shortage. Also, with the decline of traditional industries (coal, steel, ship-building and so on) and the growth of service and light industries, women – another source of cheap, unorganised labour – became a larger part of the labour force and structurally more integrated into it. (For a concise account of this, see lrene Bruegel, ‘Women as a Reserve Army of Labour’, in Feminist Review no.3.    Also, A. Sivanandan, ‘From Resistance to Rebellion’, in Race and Class, Autumn/Winter 1981 and his ‘Race, Class and the State: The Black Experience in Britain’, Race and Class pamphlet no. 1. See also the series in Race Today by Darcus Howe, ‘Bobby to Babylon’.)

Both groups also received a large impetus from the liberation movements of the late 1960s – the Black Power Movement and the Women’s Liberation Movement.

Linked with appositional developments of the late 1960s was the growth of a whole range of revolutionary groupings, from Trotskyists through to anarchists. Also, since the mid-1970s there has been a growing reserve army of young people, black and white, excluded from the labour process. Unlike the reserve army of the 1930s, however, there is a tendency to turn its exclusion into a rejection of normal ‘success’ models. Many of these people feel themselves to have little stake in reforming capitalism and have proven themselves willing to defend physically any encroachment upon their ‘non-work oriented’ subcultures.

All this reflects changes in the composition and self-perception of the working class. Such changes are inevitable given that classes are not fixed groups but social processes. For example, the large expansion of office jobs has ‘bourgeoisified’ traditionally working class people and has ‘proletarianised’ traditionally middle class people. The expansion of higher education has given some of the working class a passport into the middle class. Black people (especially first-generation immigrants) have been doing menial jobs while a certain portion of the white working class becomes upwardly mobile. The welfare state – designed to individualise class conflict and isolate people – has been nevertheless used by refusers of wage-labour to gain time and space in which to move outside the wage-slave cycle and develop their opposition through new practices. And so on.

What all the above-mentioned groups have in common is that they organise and express themselves outside of the usual channels of political parties and trade unions (even if the organised left tends to channel people back in again). To a greater or lesser extent they are all marginalised politically, socially or economically – and, in the case of most women and blacks, in all three spheres. This is due mainly to objective conditions, some of which – for example, the structured individualisation of officially ‘unemployed’ people – were challenged by last year’s uprisings.

But the forces at work are not only objective. In such a world, people who are antagonistic to the norms are only too pleased to find like-minded people. Such groups become the reference points for identity, safety and support. Gradually, people come to accept their marginalisation, and this ‘self-ghettoisation’ cuts off people from other oppositional groups, and not merely on ‘Ideological’ grounds. That is, there is a certain degree of (unconscious) complicity with the tactics of divide-and-rule. Friction occurs among groups as each either explicitly or implicitly claims to hold the key to real social transformation, to be the subject of history. (Isolation and vanguardism are often mutually inclusive.)

So, despite changes in social relations that had taken place in the streetfighting, when the task of organising presented itself there was an in-built tendency for people to revert ‘automatically’ to the roles they knew best, thus reproducing the old divisions. However,

‘Since the Leninist model assumes a vanguard expressing the total class interest, it bears no relation to the reality we have been describing, where no one section of the class can express the experience and interest and pursue the struggle for any other section. The formal organisational expression of a general class strategy does not yet anywhere exist.’ (Selma James, ‘Sex, Race and Class’, Falling Wall Press/Race Today, 1975.)

Since those words were written almost a decade ago, this problem has become even more pressing. Yet one major attempt elsewhere at its resolution – the ‘Beyond the Fragments’ conferences – is doomed to failure. ‘Beyond the Fragments’ failed not just because it attempted to create unity only on an ideological level, but also because it sought to ‘breathe life into some Frankenstein monster constructed of the decaying remains of the political movements of the last two decades’. (Beyond the Fragments Or Beyond the Left, in Authority, 1980)

That is, it failed to recognise what is new in the general proletarian refusals of this society and especially the role of the left in domesticating such refusals. What is needed most is an attempt at unity on a practical and continuous basis, a basis which recognises the new and breaks through old ideological barriers. (Last year’s uprisings could well provide the beginnings of such a basis.)

But these are not the sole reasons for the proliferation of defence groups and partial analyses. The spontaneous nature and the scope of the actions took most people by surprise. Before events and their potential could be fully grasped, the moment had passed, the state had regained control of the streets, and the resulting ‘vacuum’ favoured the people with worked-out analyses and organisational models – almost any analyses and models. As the focal point of the struggle shifted from the streets to the committee rooms, it became blurred and less intense through that process. And here is a perennial problem of periods of social rupture – the division between ‘fighters’ and ‘organisers’- which can be seen as the ‘division of revolutionary labour’. We must constantly identify and challenge such division. However, it is not enough to challenge it formally, because it persists by default, from our failure to articulate the historically new needs expressed in insurrectionary practice yet still lacking the new language required to counterpose those needs to the old ‘socialist’ models.

For all those reasons, the earlier suggestion of ‘general assemblies’ is not without problems. The main difficulties to be surmounted would be: the different histories of the various members, the different levels of commitment, the different goals desired, the fear and mistrust among member groups, and now the more dispersed ‘guerilla’ tactics required to counter a better-equipped police force. Yet we need to tackle these problems – now if we are to cease reaffirming our ‘marginalised’ misery and instead advance ourselves as a class, to advance from defence yet again to offence.

– M. Brique, March I982

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

Also published in We Want to Riot, Not to Work

THE CASE OF PATRICIA GIAMBI

To be deported for possession of anarchist literature

(text of leaflet circulated September 1981)

We want to bring to your attention the case of Patricia Giambi, which arises out of the events which took place in Brixton on April 1lth. Her story began, like many others, on Saturday April 1lth, when she was caught up in a police charge near her Brixton home and charged with having an offensive weapon and of using threatening behaviour and words. Here again her situation was similar to hundreds of others, police accusations resting on contradictory elements of identification in what was a crowd situation in a narrow unlit street.

It did not take police long to single her out for special treatment, however, when they discovered that she was living in the same house as someone on whom they had a political file and who was also arrested that evening. From that moment on, there has been a deliberate and unconcealed attempt to single out these two women and frame them in the role of outside agitators in an event which has been widely recognised as a popular uprising against survival conditions and police provocation. The role attributed to Patricia, prompted by her Italian nationality, is that of the imperative ‘foreign link’ – an Italian one to boot – where police, through the organs of the daily press, have made repeated references and innuendos to the Red Brigades, international terror links and so on.

As an EEC citizen, she left her local government post for a year, using her full rights of mobility as laid down in the Treaty of Rome, to find employment here and to study the English language. Language difficulties and ever-increasing unemployment made it difficult for her to find work, but she was eventually engaged as a cleaner in a local hospital, where she worked six mornings a week. She has also gained an intermediate English certificate at Westminster College, which she has attended since January.

Over the past few months, since her arrest in April, she has appeared in court on numerous occasions and while on bail was granted her passport to go to Italy to visit her sick father. She returned early in September to face trial and now finds herself serving a sentence of 28 days in Holloway Prison and on completion faces deportation. This is as a result of being found guilty of threatening behaviour under Section 5 of the Public Order Act.

Upon conviction police presented the magistrate with an album of enlarged colour prints of the study of the flat where Patricia was living. The photos had been taken during a raid following her arrest and showed bookshelves containing, among others, books dealing with anarchist theory and history which are freely available in libraries and bookshops. These, plus a photograph of a poster in the same room with the slogan (in Italian) Bread, love and struggle, were taken as being conclusive evidence that she was a national security risk, so justifying the deportation order. Patricia made no attempt to conceal her interest in anarchism which, as far as she knew, was not illegal in this country.

When the deportation order was contested by her barrister, lan McDonald, police overtly reinterpreted EEC law by saying that she was not a bona fide worker (an expression which does not appear in the act) or student, and therefore could benefit from no rights. She has been working for over four months and studying at Westminster College in the evenings. She was also at one time part of a libertarian book collective and worked voluntarily one afternoon per week. This was distorted by police and presented as further evidence as to why she should be deported.

She is appealing against her sentence and in the meantime we feel her case should be brought to the widest public attention, as it sets an ominous precedent.

-Friends of Patricia Giambi

September 1981

Postscript to the leaflet (1982):

After she went back into prison upon being sentenced on September 17, Friends of Patricia Giambi distributed the above leaflet (among others) to organise a support campaign for her appeal against the Magistrate Court’s recommendation, that the Home Office deport her. Finally on October 15 she won her appeal at the Inner London Crown Court. Thus her case did not go to the next step, where the Home Office would have decided to accept the Magistrate Court’s original recommendation that she be deported.

Despite that victory, we should not forget the precedents set by this case for criminalisation of revolutionaries, in particular: 1) Of all the EEC nationals who were arrested on similar charges in the Brixton uprisings, Patricia Giambi was the only one who received a recommendation for deportation in addition to a prison sentence. Obviously, then, that overtly political treatment was due not to the criminal charge as such but to her choice of housemate. It’s not what you’ve done but who you are, how you live. 2) The courts’ refusal to grant bail meant that there was little point in pursuing an appeal against the prison sentence, as Patricia completed the 28 days before the date of her appeal anyway. The prosecution arguments against bail were that she might abscond and that ‘there is evidence to show she is an anarchist’. 3) Even though she completed the 28 days before her appeal date, she wasn’t permitted to leave the prison until she won the appeal – apparently on grounds that she might evade an eventual deportation order. Since it is common practice for the British state to imprison potential deportees only after they have received a deportation order, the judicial system was treating Patricia as if the Home Office had already decided to deport her – indeed, almost as if her appeal could not succeed. Thus her additional imprisonment served in effect to confirm the police theory that she was a politically dangerous person.

4) When the magistrate at the appeal hearing incredulously challenged the respondant’ (the prosecution) to prove their suggestion that Patricia was part of a dangerous anarchist conspiracy, the police declined to make their accusation any more specific but instead went as far as to argue that she should be deported as an ‘undesirable’ because of her association with other people who are themselves ‘undesirable’. (Unfortunately for the police, most of her London friends hold British citizenship and so cannot themselves be deported.)

Although the courts ultimately did not accept the wilder police innuendo about Patricia having organised the riots, this was partly because of the support which had to counter not only the police but also the mass media, (See for example the Daily Mail 17 October 1981, in which a journalist enthusiastically promotes the police arguments – quoted in full – as to why she should have been deported.) Furthermore, the police succeeded in setting the terms of reference: on the key issues of bail and deportation, they forced the defence case to refute grave criminal accusations (e.g. organising riots), yet without the police having to mount a normal prosecution case on such charges. So the entire affair, especially Patricia’s imprisonment while awaiting the appeal hearing, served to lend credence to the conspiracy theory of the uprising, even in the absence of any concrete evidence. Instead the police pressed forward their case entirely on the basis of Patricia’s life, particularly her ‘associations’. Perhaps the British police are following the lead of developments in Italy, where the state (especially the Italian Communist Party) is putting away thousands of revolutionaries into prison on charges of ‘subversive association’ – for which they can be kept imprisoned for up to 12 years without trial. Upon a later visit back to Britland she got a xmas tree of alarms at Customs courtesy of Special Branch and stooges.


@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

past tense’s series of articles on
Brixton; before, during and after the riots of 1981:

Part 1: Changing, Always Changing: Brixton’s Early Days
2: In the Shadow of the SPG: Racism, Policing and Resistance in 1970s Brixton
3: The Brixton Black Women’s Group
4: Brixton’s first Squatters 1969
5: Squatting in Brixton: The Brixton Plan and the 1970s
6. Squatted streets in Brixton: Villa Road
7: Squatting in Brixton: The South London Gay Centre
8: We Want to Riot, Not to Work: The April 1981 Uprising
9: After the April Uprising: From Offence to Defence to
10: More Brixton Riots, July 1981
11: You Can’t Fool the Youths: Paul Gilroy’s on the causes of the ’81 riots
12: The Impossible Class: An anarchist analysis of the causes of the riots
13: Impossible Classlessness: A response to ‘The Impossible Class’
14: Frontline: Evictions and resistance in Brixton, 1982
15: Squatting in Brixton: the eviction of Effra Parade
16: Brixton Through a Riot Shield: the 1985 Brixton Riot
17: Local Poll tax rioting in Brixton, March 1990
18: The October 1990 Poll Tax ‘riot’ outside Brixton Prison
19: The 121 Centre: A squatted centre 1973-1999
20: This is the Real Brixton Challenge: Brixton 1980s-present
21: Reclaim the Streets: Brixton Street Party 1998
22: A Nazi Nail Bomb in Brixton, 1999
23: Brixton police still killing people: The death of Ricky Bishop
24: Brixton, Riots, Memory and Distance 2006/2021
25: Gentrification in Brixton 2015

 

 

Today in London riotous history, 1878: crowd tear down enclosure fences, Eelbrook Common, Fulham

Eelbrook (variously also spelt as Hillebrook, Hellbrook, etc) Common in Fulham was open marshy land for centuries, Fulham people grazed animals there. The Common had seen the usual disputes over use associated with common land: in 1615 there were strictures issued against people grazing animals here outside of the permitted times of year. Attempts to ‘improve’ the Common had usually failed; in 1656, Parliamentary General Edmund Harvey, having bought the manor when the Bishops were driven out during the Commonwealth, made an ‘abortive attempt’ to enclose it (agreeing to pay 50 shillings a year for it), which collapsed when he was jailed after the restoration of the monarchy. Some slices were sold off and enclosed in the 18th century: John Powell bought a chunk for £100 in 1773.

By the 19th century it had been reduced to 13 acres, and was a playground for poor kids by day and said to be a haunt for prostitutes and their clients by night. Respectable folk allegedly kept away.

In 1878 the Lords of the manor, the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, planned to enclose it. Already that year a section on the north side Common had been detached by the Metropolitan Railway Company, for the laying of a new line; so folk were angry.

At a meeting of the Fulham District Board of Works, one Dr. Pickersgill proposed a notion calling upon the Vestry surveyor to pull down the fence; but after a long debate the matter was adjourned to the next meeting of the Board on the 20th March.

As it turned out, in the meantime, local inhabitants took the matter into their own hands…

A public held meeting at nearby Beaufort House (presided over by, amongst others, Lord Ranelagh, Lieutenant-General MacMurdo and the Liberal-Radical politician Sir Charles Dilke) got rowdy and a section of the crowd, including women and children, marched to the Common and burned the fences: This committee had been content to pass a motion against the recent enclosure, asserting that there was ‘was ample evidence that it had been used as common land for centuries’. “‘ However many of the inhabitants were unwilling to leave the matter at passing resolutions.

On leaving the meeting ‘a large number of parishioners’ made their way to the common where they broke down the fence, which ran for some 1,200 feet.

‘When the meeting broke up, almost everybody seemed to be going the same way. One or two cries of “Down with the fence” were raised, but there was no response, yet it seemed strange that so many should be going in the direction of Eel Brook Common… Suddenly there was a sharp crack, which announced the work of demolition had begun. Then there was a responsive cheer, and a rush forward.

Men, Women and children were engaged in the work of breaking down the fences and piling the wood up into large bonfires. Soon half a dozen fires were blazing and drawing comments from the crowd. ‘Some told how for years they had daily walked along the footpath, [on the common] others speculated with quiet satisfaction on the cost of the fence, variously estimated at from £50 to £100’. The police on arriving tried to capture one of the demonstrators but stepped back when it appeared the crowd “were prepared to riot”.

After the destruction of the fences, the alleged leaders were feted by the crowd, under the eyes of the police. A contemporary newspaper account in the English Labourer’s Chronicle of March 23rd, 1878 reported:

” A gentlemanly dressed young man took round his hat for beer money for the active destroyers of the fence, even asking the policemen themselves for a contribution.”

The Commissioners gave up on their plan to enclose the Common. Which remains open space today, free for all to access.

The action at Eel Brook Common has to be seen in the context: the 1860s and 1870s saw a series of protests and riots against enclosures of open space across the London area, including at Epping Forest, Peckham Rye, Wandsworth Common, Plumstead Common, Wanstead Flats, Chiselhurst Common… Most of these would end in victorious preservation of rights of access to the space in question.

Eel Brook Common was for a number of years a popular socialist speaking spot: for example, the Hammersmith branch of the Socialist League held open-air public meetings here in the 1880s. In September 1917, an anti-war meeting was held here; Tom Cox (later a local councillor) urged the opening of peace negotiations with Germany; he was shouted down by a hostile crowd.

Sources: The Times, 15th March 1878.

English Labourer’s Chronicle, March 23rd, 1878

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

Not every battle against enclosure was won – far from it. The victorious struggle over Eelbrook Common was echoed a few years later, when disputes arose over buildings on Town Meadows, Fulham, between the river and modern Town Mead Road. Also known as Fulham Marsh, Fulham Meadows, the 77 acres of land here, lying between from the Creek and Broomhouse Dock was traditionally lammas land. Locals had grazing rights for livestock starting every year on Lammas Day (Aug 1st) for 6 months.

In 1888, some meadows fronting Carnwath Road were enclosed by residents to be sold off for building. Other local residents protested they had grazing rights and broke down the fences. Fulham Vestry investigated the issue, confirmed the lammas rights had existed since 1448 at least, and asked the London County Council to sponsor a bill to either convert the meadows into an open space or buy land elsewhere for one. This fell through, however. The issue grew fractious and divided the area; a Fulham Vestry Reform Association arose, for whom the common land issue was one of a number of beefs with the Vestry, along with other issues like the (presumably corrupt) system of issuing works contracts, and local charities… Eventually this group stood for election and merged with others into local Progressives on the Metropolitan Borough Council).

In December 1890, the Chair of Fulham Vestry’s Lammas Rights Committee went to the Town Meadows, accompanied by several workmen, cops and horses. They entered the enclosures and grazed a horse on all the disputed land – staking a claim over the lammas rights. The Vestry was then sued by one owner for criminal damage to fences. This claim ended up in the High Court, and on 22 Feb 1893, the Court ruled for the owner; Fulham folk lost their common rights. The land was built over.

Today in London’s policing history, 1798: the Wapping Coal Riot

On 2nd July 1798, officers of the West India Merchants and Planters Marine Police Institute, the UK’s earliest organised police force proper, launched their first patrols of the crowded waters of the River Thames, based at a HQ at Wapping New Stairs.

The new force was at first privately funded, and had been launched by Patrick Colquhoun, a Scottish businessman and statistician. Colquhoun had made his name and money in the lucrative commercial trade in Virginia, and later made more cash trading linen. When the American Revolution broke out, Colquhoun took the side of the British government against the rebellious colonists, and helped fund a Glasgow regiment to contribute to the war effort.

The British defeat saw him relocate back his energies to Britain. Colquhoun was interested in statistics, and collected economic data, which he used to lobby the government on behalf of the employers in various industries, particularly cotton and muslin (his background in textile dealing had made him a lot of contacts). He wrote numerous pamphlets and treatises promoting legal reform and changes in business practice – usually in the interests of powerful employers. Colquhoun was increasingly in political and government circles, and he aspired to a government position. In the late 1780s he was appointed a Magistrate in the East End.

The London docks were then the East End’s major industry; vast amounts of cargo were unloaded here, from all over the world. This was how the capital was supplied with food, cloth, sugar, raw materials… anything to supply what had become the most powerful and richest city in the world.

But there was a major problem for the dock owners and traders whose goods travelled through them – theft. Merchants were losing an estimated £500,000 worth (million in our money) in stolen cargo annually from the Pool of London on the River Thames. Many ships were unloaded on open docks or on the open river, accessible to looting; however, organised or individual theft by dockers, sailors and other workers was responsible for large amounts of disappeared cargo. There were any number of ways of making items vanish for resale on the many East End markets. The authorities had relatively little manpower to exert any force to prevent or detect theft or track missing goods down.

In 1797 Colquhoun, John Harriot, an Essex Justice of the Peace and master mariner, and utilitarian philosopher of repression Jeremy Bentham collaborated on a plan to remedy the losses to thieves. Harriot and Bentham drew up a proposal for a new police force on the docks, and Colquhoun went to work to lobby the West India Planters Committees and the West India Merchants to fund the new organisation, and applied to the government for permission to operate. The merchants stumped up £4,200 (about £543,000 in today’s moolah), and the state agreed to a one-year trial of the embryonic force. On 2 July 1798, the Thames River Police began operating with Colquhoun as Superintending Magistrate and Harriot the Resident Magistrate.

The very idea of a police was considered an affront by many in England; English folk of various classes held it outraged ‘the liberties they held dear’. Some in positions of power and wealth also thought the idea of a government-controlled police force ( as it existed in France) would be an expensive burden on the public purse. Colquhoun cleverly re-framed the political debate on policing, drawing on his economic statistics to try to demonstrate show that a police dedicated to crime prevention was not only “perfectly congenial to the principle of the British constitution” but also had potential to be cost effective.

The new force began with about 50 men, whose job was to police more than 30,000 workers in the river trades. Of these workers Colquhoun claimed a third were known criminals and “on the game”.

Whether these figures were reliable, the new river police inevitably received a hostile reception from the riverfront workers. For many of the workers on the docks, lighters and ships, and in the warehouses, a little bit of lightfingeredness supplemented what was usually low and irregular pay. Most of these jobs were casual, badly paid, seasonal; survival for these men and their families was generally a matter of daily worry. Meanwhile huge profits were being made on the tobacco, food, sugar, coal and myriads of other imports. The merchants at the top lived in luxury the dockworkers could only imagine. The temptation to help yourself to some of the profits passing through your hands had grown by tradition and struggle into a perk of the job. A lot of cracking down on ‘theft’ took the form of changing (or enforcing tighter interpretations of) perks and traditional right to take offcuts, spilled goods etc, which workers had established over decades of struggle and negotiation. Workers fighting to extend those perks ,and bosses pushing to restrict the, was part of a constant war between workers and employers; the creation of the river police could only be seen as an attack on a part of the workers’ income. And the London dockworkers were often prepared to fight to protect their interests.

The embryonic Thames River Police was organised very differently from what we might think of as a modern police force. The men who made up the river police were described as watermen, surveyors and lumpers – dockworkers enlisted to also police the job. There were only a very few constables in the force (five initially) – they were mostly employed patrolling the dockside. The rationale behind employing workers to police their workmates was that a considerable amount of crime, committed by those people employed in unloading vessels arriving in the Port of London, could be prevented if you could guarantee the honesty and integrity of those men employed in ‘lumping’ cargoes off the ships. ‘Lumpers’ employed in unloading vessels under the protection of the Marine Police Office were those with a reputation for honesty – and they were paid above the usual rate. These men were seen to be as much a part of the Marine Police Office as, say the watermen, surveyors or even the magistrates themselves. A clever process of internalising policing into the mentalities of workers, setting some workers to spy on others.

The River Police was aimed not only control of the mass and endemic nicking of goods arriving at the docks, but also breaking any form of organisation by the workers. It was paid for by the bosses, and expected to serve their interest, and workers getting together was on its radar as part of the ‘crime’ it had to keep an eye on. Colquhoun was a magistrate, and the East End magistrates had powers over labour and wages; they set wage levels, and even had a hand in organising the trade itself, for instance organising coalheaving gangs. Rival views as to how this was to be interpreted had played a crucial and divisive part in the 1768 ‘river strike’– a cataclysmic strike for higher wages that had ended up in pitched battles, murder and hangings… Alderman William Beckford, an East End magistrate, had backed gangs of scabs collected to fight strikers and smash the strike; Beckford was also a major importer of goods through the docks. The same men were employers, law enforcers and politicians, and use these connections to their own profit, and to attack working people on a multitude of levels – as well as being slave traders and plantation owners in the West Indies. Beckford, for instance, was known as the ‘king of Jamaica’ for the size of his plantations, and was determined to protect the profits from his goods from the Caribbean that came through the docks.

Like Beckford, Colquhoun was deeply involved in both the East End dock trades and the Atlantic triangular trade. Historian Peter Linebaugh identifies Colquhoun as a crucial product of, and contributor to, the economic and social power networks that drove the Atlantic trades.

“He was a planner of the trans-Atlantic cotton economy compiling stats of the workers, wages, factories, and imports in order to assist the prime minister and cabinet of England maximise profits from the cycle of capital in England, India, America, Ireland, Africa. That work was interrupted by the revolutions in France and Haiti. In the 1790s he criminalised custom. He led the hanging of those committing money crimes. He led the apprehension of those in textile labour who re-cycled waste products to their own use. He organised political surveillance by spies and snitches of those opposing slavery. In addition to his Virginia cotton interests he owned shares in Jamaican sugar plantations.” There was a direct link in terms of goods arriving from Caribbean and the interests of planters, shippers, etc, in seeing maximum of profits from them and less ‘attrition’ by working people. The West India merchants and planters were major contributors to the funds raised to pay for the new police.

Transport of coal was at the heart of the docks, and theft of coal a crucial battleground. Houses, industry, offices – coal was vital for heating and came into the docks on a colossal scale. Possibly more than any other commodity, coal was ripped off by the dockworkers, often on an individual scale. Coalheaving was dirty, hard and backbreaking work, paid badly. As the 1768 strike had shown, the coalheavers were often the most volatile group of workers, with a potential for collective action and violence.

Coal was also to cause an early battle between the dockworkers and the new River Police. Harriott and Colquhoun were both determined to stop the ‘coal markets’, selling of nicked coal from the docks, which were openly held in the streets of Wapping.

On the evening of 16th October 1798, three men stood trial at the Thames Magistrates Court, which was attached to the Marine Police Office. They were two coal heavers and one watchman’s boy, all accused of theft of coal (in fact of having coal in their possession and giving no reasonable explanation as to why), and were all convicted and each fined forty shillings. As they left the building, some friends arrived at the court and paid the fines. Upon leaving, one of the three, Charles Eyers, was met by his brother, James, who said “Damn your long eyes, have you paid the money?” Charles said “Yes, I have.” James then took his brother by the collar, dragged him toward the door and said “Come along and we shall have the money back or else we shall have the house down!”

Constable Richard Perry later testified: “I opened the door to let Charles Eyers out, when there was a voice cried, you b-y long thief have you paid the money? I saw there was a riot going to be, and I shoved the door of the office to immediately: then there was another voice said, here goes for the forty; with that the fan-light of the door was instantly knocked all over me, I suppose with a stick, they could not have reached it without; I went into the Magistrate’s room, and immediately the next light was beat, shutters and all, into the office, by large stones, I suppose twenty pounds weight, such stones as the streets were paved with; they then proceeded to the next light, that was beat in also with great stones.

– Q. Was the street quiet at this time?
– A. No, there was crying and shouting, and a great noise, and saying they would have the b-y Police-office down; they then proceeded to the third window, and beat that in also, and a large stone came in, which took me over the shoulder, and passed Mr. Colquhoun, the Magistrate.”

Within a very short period of time a hostile crowd – some reports reckoned it at around 2000 men – had gathered outside the police office and stones and rocks were being directed against the windows. There was talk of burning down the police office, with the police inside.

The action that was to follow was to leave two men dead and another wounded.

The police inside the office secured the building. When a large stone smashed through a window, officer Perry took a pistol and fired a shot into the crowd, that shot killed a rioter (who was never identified at the trial). The crowd seemed to quieten and withdraw slightly. Perry asked the magistrates to leave the building where he obviously felt at great risk. Having gone into the street, Colquhoun read the Riot Act to the crowd, ordering them to disperse. They did not.

Gabriel Franks, a master lumper employed by the Marine Police Office (later described as ‘not a sworn constable but occasionally assisting in the Office’) was apparently drinking in the nearby Rose and Crown pub. Hearing the commotion, he made his way to the police office with two other men named Peacock and Webb, and asked to be admitted, but was told that nobody was being allowed in or out of the building. Franks returned to the main street, possibly to observe the disturbance and gather information and evidence. He told Peacock to keep tabs on one particularly active rioter, whilst he himself went off, telling peacock he would try and secure a cutlass for their protection. However, someone obviously recognised Franks as a Police Office agent, as according to Peacock, about a minute after Franks walked off, a shot rang out from the direction of the Dung Wharf, and Franks cried out that he had been shot. The shooting from inside the Police Office that killed the rioter and the shot that killed Franks apparently happened in quick succession.

Franks did not die immediately. He lived on for several days, drifting in and out of consciousness. During this time Franks was questioned about the shooting, but had no idea as to who had fired the shot. The actual identity of the person who pulled the trigger and fired the fatal shot was never discovered; however, the motive would clearly seem to be hatred of the Marine Police, Franks being known as someone associated with the police office.  He might have been deliberately singled out as he walked towards the Dung Wharf, or, he may simply have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Could it have been friendly fire – ie was he killed by a shot from inside the Police Office? Witness Elizabeth Forester later tried to persuade the court that both Franks and the unnamed rioter had been killed by the one shot fired from the police office, but her evidence was discredited by the court. However, there doesn’t seem to have been any other evidence of rioters carrying or using firearms.

Failing to identify anyone who might have really shot Franks, the authorities plumped for a blatant frame-up on the loosest of justifications. James Eyers, whose behaviour at the court was the initial spark that kicked off the riot, was eventually arrested and charged with the murder of Gabriel Franks.

No one produced any evidence to suggest that Eyers had actually fired the fatal shot, or even seriously tried to suggest he had anything to do with the shooting. The prosecution’s case was that his actions in starting the riot, therefore he was responsible for Franks’ death, under the law of ‘common purpose’ (today this might come under the ‘Joint Enterprise’ concept). This was conveniently also useful in removing an obvious opponent of the Marine Police and setting a grim example to the coalheavers that resistance to policing would reap the harshest of rewards. Eyers greatest crime, the judge freely admitted, was that he had called for the Police Office to be torn down, “in breach of the peace, and in open violation of the laws of the land, in the pursuit of a very wicked purpose, namely, the demolition of the house in which the Magistrates administered the justice of the country, and the destruction of the Magistrates themselves…”

Eyers was convicted of murder on the 9th January 1799, and sentenced the following Monday morning to be hanged.

Despite – or because of – the riot and resulting deaths, the success of the police force in reducing theft on the docks was enough to guarantee the Marine Police’s future. After its first year, Colquhoun reported that the force had “established their worth by saving £122,000 worth of cargo and by the rescuing of several lives”.

The government passed the Marine Police Bill on 28 July 1800, transforming it from a private to public police agency – making official the police as a centralised, armed, and uniformed cadre of the state. Colquhoun later published a book on the experiment, The Commerce and Policing of the River Thames. It found receptive audiences far outside London, and inspired similar forces in places in other countries, notably, New York City, Dublin, and Sydney.

Historians of policing credit Colquhoun’s innovation as a critical development towards the creation Robert Peel’s “new” police three decades later. Along with the Bow Street Runners, the Marine Police Force was eventually absorbed by the Metropolitan Police in the 19th century. Colquhoun’s utilitarian approach to the problem – using a cost-benefit argument to obtain support from businesses standing to benefit – allowed him to achieve what previous magistrates had failed – for instance the Bow Street detectives. Unlike the stipendiary system at Bow Street, the river police were full-time, salaried officers prohibited from taking private fees.

The Marine Police Force continues to operate at the same Wapping High Street address. In 1839 it merged with the Metropolitan Police Force to become Thames Division; and is now the Marine Support Unit of the Metropolitan Police Service.

 

This week in London radical history, 1831: riots break out as House of Lords reject the Reform Bill

The long campaign for reform of the British political system went through many phases, especially in the 19th century. Between 1830 and 1832 a powerful agitation for political change revived, following a decade in which post-Peterloo repression and a measure of economic stability had left pressure on this front relatively quiet. This period marks an almost unique phase in the evolution of the franchise, as the middle and working classes formed a brief alliance, a broadly shared goal – parliamentary representation for unrepresented towns.

During the 1820s, after the Napoleonic Wars, an upsurge of reform movements had been frustrated by government repression, leading to outbreaks of mass violence such as the Spa Fields Riot, attempts at insurrection like the Pentrich Uprising, vicious official responses like the Peterloo Massacre, and clandestine plots such as the Cato Street Conspiracy. Following these turbulent years, many radical energies instead went into the free thought ideas of Richard Carlile, into Owenite socialism and co-operation, into the ‘war of the unstamped press’. After 1830, though, campaigns for political reform grew up again, to become more powerful than even previous waves of battles for reform.

Many reform associations and political unions were launched, often by veterans of the 1816-20 reform wave. Many who had been seen as ultra-radicals then had become solidly liberal and respectable, seeking moderate reform and representation for newly-confident manufacturing towns, as well as free trade. In Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, for example, Whig-liberal merchants and manufacturers (predominantly from Dissenting religious backgrounds) had become increasingly wealthy and influential economically, because of massive growth in industries like textiles; they posed a more serious challenge to the power of the Tory-Anglican local elites, in a way that they had been unable to do in the 1790s or 1810s.

The early 1830s saw three main phases of agitation:
– the initial formation of political unions across the country, to support the introduction of Earl Grey’s first reform bill in March 1831;
– a wave of meetings, petitions and riots following the House of Lords’ rejection of the bill on 8 October 1831,
– finally, the tumultuous passage of Lord John Russell’s reform bill from March to the ‘days of May’ in 1832.

By 1830 two major constitutional changes affecting the franchise had already been made by the Tories: the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts, which had prevented members of non-conformist protestant churches from voting or holding office, and the passing of Catholic Emancipation, removing bars on Catholic participation in public life. Both these pieces of legislation were put through parliament by the Duke of Wellington’s Tory government with the assistance of Robert Peel, his leader in the House of Commons.

But after being re-elected prime minister in 1830, the Duke of Wellington made a speech early in November pledging not only not to introduce any measure for parliamentary reform but also to oppose any reform proposals. This enraged reformers:

“The Duke of Wellington made a speech in the Lords, and declared against Reform. I hear he was hissed, and hurt by a stone. I heard this evening that a very unpleasant feeling was rising among the working classes, and that the shopkeepers in the Metropolis were so much alarmed that they talked of arming themselves.” John Cab Hobhouse (diary entry, 4th November, 1830)

London saw an upsurge in pro-reform demonstrations, which erupted into rioting.

Wellington was forced to resign shortly after. Earl Grey formed a Whig ministry which pledged to introducing a Reform Bill and he asked Lord John Russell to prepare the legislation. On 1 March 1830 the Bill was presented to the House of Commons, passing its second reading by only one vote at the end of the month. The government was then defeated on an amendment to the Bill and Grey resigned. This led to more rioting. The ensuing general election was fought solely on the question of reform and saw the return of the Whigs with a massive majority. Grey took this to be a mandate for continuing with the reform proposals.

Since the first Bill had not passed through all the required stages of debate and vote, committee and discussion by the time the parliamentary session had ended in the summer of 1831, Russell had to introduce a new Bill in the new session. On 22nd September 1831, the House of Commons passed the Reform Bill.

However it was defeated by forty-one votes in the House of Lords on 8 October 1831. The House of Lords was dominated by the Tories, led by the Wellington; the Lords deliberately rejected the Bill because the legislation included curtailing the power that the Lords previously had exercised over the election of MPs.

The defeat of the Bill was greeted with dismay across the country: “On the morning of the 8 Oct. 1831 I was compelled to go down to Gravesend by the Steamer and thence to Chatham. Before I started I obtained in the City a copy of the Sun Newspaper published at half past 6 o clock, fringed with black, and announcing the loss of the peoples bill in the house of Lords by the frightful majority of 41. Never shall I forget the excitement which prevailed in the breast of every one at hearing the news. The morning papers were not out, the boat was crowded and the passengers were conversing in groups on the deck on rumours which had reached their ears. I was the only person on board who possessed anything like an authentic account, and, when the paper with a black border was seen in my hand, the passengers rushed towards me, I was instantly mounted on a chair and compelled to read the debate through from beginning to end. The excitement, the disapprobation, and approbation of the several speakers were as energetic as they could have been had they been the actual spectators of the scene which the report described…” (Mr Powell)

According to the Westminster radical tailor, moderate activist (and Home office informant) Francis Place, it spurred an immediate agitation in the capital:
“Meetings were held on the Saturday (October 8th) in many of the Metropolitan Parishes and many more were called for the Monday. The Parish of Mary-le-bone had taken the lead respecting parliamentary interference for the regulation of vestries, and had succeeded in inducing a considerable number of parishes to appoint deputies to confer together in their mutual interests, the persons who in that parish had assembled frequently appointed a committee to watch over their interests and this committee now considered themselves a political committee in respect to the reform bill. They assembled and being joined by a considerable number of the inhabitants they issued the following notice.

The Lords have rejected the bill. England expects every man will do his duty.

The parishioners of Mary-le-Bone will assemble at the Horse Bazaar at twelve o’clock on Monday next, to address the King, support his ministers and consult on the present state of affairs. Pursuant to a resolution passed at two preparatory meetings, the inhabitants are desired to devote Monday next solemnly to these objects, to suspend all business and shut up their shops.”

This call out became a huge demonstration on Monday 10th October, demanding reform, which marched in procession from Whitehall to Hyde Park:

“Long before the time appointed the capacious square of the Horse Bazaar was not only filled but an immense number of persons—said to amount to 30,000 could not gain admittance. A call became general to adjourn to Hyde Park and it was announced that Mr Hume who had agreed to take the chair would meet them there. An orderly procession of the people immediately took place and an immense number, estimated at 50,000 congregated in the open space north of the Serpentine River. They had come nearly a mile to this spot and had waited some time when two gentlemen on horseback rode among them and told them that Mr Hume thought the meeting would be illegal if held out of the Parish and as Mr Maberly had granted the use of a piece of ground in Regents Park they requested the meeting would assemble there as speedily as possible. ‘If any thing,’ observes the Chronicle (very justly)

could have cooled the ardour of the people, who however proved themselves as ardent as patriotic, it was this demand upon their patience after waiting above an hour at the Bazaar, and dragging through the Park for an hour more; but nothing daunted they proceeded in good humour, to the Regents Park and arrived there between one and two o’clock. Several waggons were placed at the lower part of the grounds and the assembled multitude which before the chair was taken must have amounted to 80,000 persons formed themselves on the rising ground into a sort of semi-circle and the wind being in their faces, the majority could hear the proceedings.

Mr Hume took the Chair..

Large Placards were exhibited, one was ‘Englishmen – Remember it was the Bishops—and the Bishops only whose votes decided the fate of the Reform Bill’

The other was—

‘England expects that every man will do His Duty’

Mr Hume—said it was no ordinary occasion which had called them together, and in the great and important measures they were about to discuss, every man from the King to the Peasant had a deep interest. He knew they would act peacably and orderly, and would not despair, as long as they had a Patriot King, a liberal ministry, and a majority in favour of the measure. They would tell the petty pitiful majority of the house of Lords that they had rights as Englishmen as sacred as their own and that an oligarchy which had usurped their rights should be compelled to relinquish their tyrannical power which they had so long exercised against the people. He respected the words of Lord Grey that he would stand by the people and the King so long as the King gave him his confidence, said he reposed confidence in his sincerity, and though ministers had not been so active in promoting the bill as they ought to have been, he hoped they would profit by experience and not coquet with the Tories, since it was vain to expect the tories could be induced to approve of measures favourable to the people. He said there must be either reform or revolution (immense cheering and cries of we will have it). It was because in case of a revolution the working and useful classes would be the greatest sufferers that he wished to effect a reform by constitutional means and hoped to avoid such a revolution as the Duke of Wellington wished should take place. He knew the people would not be drawn in to commit acts of violence (no—no) they would protect the property of the country (we will).”

Among those who had organised the procession were the leaders of the National Union of the Working Classes, the London-based radical organisation. 

Place estimated that around 70,000 people attended, many wearing the white scarves emblematic of manhood suffrage. Although these were impressive numbers, they compared poorly with larger a demonstration in the following days at Birmingham, drawn too from a smaller population.

The procession of October 1831 was mainly composed (it seems) of ‘shopkeepers and superior artisans’, and remained peaceful.

However, rioting broke out in London later in the week:

“It was in allusion to the rejection of the Reform Bill in the month of October 1831 by the House of Lords, that the popular feeling was most strongly exhibited. Many of the newspapers, which announced the result of the division in the House of Lords, were put into mourning, and a feeling of the deepest and most melancholy foreboding soon spread itself throughout the country. The fate of the Reform Bill became speedily known, and on the Monday following (10th) marks of unequivocal sorrow and disgust exhibited themselves. In the metropolis circulars were distributed in every parish, calling meetings; all business appeared suspended; and the shops in all directions were either partially or totally closed. Mourning flags were exhibited from the houses, accompanied by placards, in which the bishops, who had formed a considerable portion of the majority against the bill, presented a source of prolific censure. In King-street, Seven-dials, the effigy of the Duke of Wellington was burned; and, in Tottenham-court-road, a placard was exhibited at a shop, announcing that arms might be had, to be paid for by instalments. On the part of the government, every precaution was taken for the preservation of the public peace. Troops were marched into London, and stationed so as to be ready to be called into immediate activity in case of necessity; ball-cartridges were distributed, and everything was done which prudence could suggest for the maintenance of order. Numerous meetings were held in the course of the week, at which the most enthusiastic determination was exhibited; and every means was adopted by the people to throw disgrace and discredit upon those by whom their wishes had been opposed. The Duke of Wellington, and other noble peers who had distinguished themselves by their opposition to the bill, were roughly greeted, and were pelted on their way to the House of Lords. The Duke of Cumberland was also nearly receiving much ill-usage from a mob assembled in the Park.

On Wednesday (the 12th of October), the king held a levee at St. James’s Palace, at which an immense number of addresses was presented. The trades’ unions assembled in vast mobs in the neighbourhood of the palace, accompanied by their flags and other insignia, and some violence was done by the mob. The residence of the Marquis of Bristol, in St. James’s-square, was made the object of an attack by them. Many of the windows were dashed in, and a considerable quantity of valuable effects destroyed; but fortunately there were many well-disposed persons in the vicinity, by whom the police were assisted, and the rioters dispersed. The mob, however, had been no sooner driven from here, than they proceeded at once to the residence of the Duke of Wellington, Apsley House, Piccadilly. This was, in turn, made the object of an assault even more severe and determined than that of the Marquis of Bristol. At about half-past two o’clock in the day, several parties were seen to approach the residence of his grace, and the foremost of the gang threw a few stones at the windows, and sent forth the most horrible yells. Some of the servants belonging to the establishment came forward and presented pistols at the mob assembled; but this only served to increase their anger. A volley of stones was instantly hurled at their supposed assailants; and a cry being raised of “They are going to fire on us — now let us go to work,” an instant attack was commenced on the mansion. Stones flew in showers on the house, and not a dozen panes of glass were left undemolished, while many valuable pictures inside were utterly ruined, and the furniture was destroyed. The police at first were in small numbers upon the spot, but a reinforcement having arrived from the Vigo-street Station-house, a vigorous attack on the mob was commenced. The employment of their staves, and the determination which was exhibited by the constables, served, in a very material degree, to drive away the assembled crowd; and, of those who were taken into custody, all were of the lowest class — showing that their object was rather mischief or depredation, than the assertion of a principle, or the maintenance of a right. At about seven o’clock in the evening, a new attempt to get up a riot was made by a mob of two or three hundred persons, who were met on their way through Piccadilly towards St. James’s Palace; but a speedy stop was put to their proceedings by the police, who had assembled in large bodies to repel any such new effort as might be made.”

However, the trouble in London was piecemeal at best compared with the response to the defeat of the Reform Bill in other parts of the country. Serious rioting took place in Bristol, Nottingham and Derby.

Rioting took place in Bristol after the arrival of anti-reform judge Charles Wetherell in the city for the annual assizes on 29 October. Wetherell’s carriage was attacked and civic and military authorities lost control of the situation. There followed two days of rioting and looting in which much of the city centre was burned and prisoners freed from the jails. The riots were brought to an end on 31 October by which time £300,000 of damage had been caused and up to 250 casualties incurred.  A dozen people were killed and hundreds wounded or arrested. The Bristol riot was probably the most violent and widespread outbreak of working class violence in 19th century British history…

Rioting also broke out in Nottingham on 9 October upon learning of the defeat of the bill. This was initially directed solely against the private houses of known opponents of reform. On 10 October a public meeting turned to violence, the attendees marched on Colwick Hall, home of John Musters, which was damaged. The next day the mob burned Nottingham Castle, home of anti-reform peer Henry Pelham-Clinton, 4th Duke of Newcastle, who was away at parliament. Lowe’s Silk Mill in Beeston was burnt on 11 October, the same day the riots ceased. The Duke was able to gather yeomanry and his own tenants to successfully defend his residence at Clumber Park.

There were other violent incidents: the Manchester Chronicle noted that since the Manchester meeting, ‘symptoms of disorder and tumult have been manifested each evening in the vicinity of New Cross, by the assemblage of numerous bodies of men’. On the Friday evening a crowd ‘demolished the windows of the residence of Hugh Hornby Birley Esq, Mosley Street’ and the cavalry were called to suppress the riot. Birley, had been hated seen his involvement in the repression at Peterloo 12 years before.

There was also agro in Carlisle, Leicester, Yeovil, Sherborne, Exeter, Bath and Worcester.

After this truculent response to the defeat of the Bill, Earl Grey was reluctant to provoke more division by ask parliament to discuss the issue of reform yet again; but Thomas Attwood and other leaders of the Political Unions organised a huge campaign to demand the passing of the legislation. Grey tried to defuse the situation by agreeing to the introduction of a third Reform Bill.
This third Bill again passed the Commons, and proceeded to the Lords on 26 March 1832. The Lords threatened to reject it again, so Grey resigned on 9th May 1832. Wellington attempted to form a ministry but was could not gain the support of leading tory MPs, including Robert Peel. King William IV sent again for Grey, who agreed to resume office but only on the condition that the king would create enough new Peers in the House of Lords to guarantee the passage of the Bill.

Whilst the politicians argued and bargained, there was further rioting. The Duke of Wellington eventually recognised the necessity of the Bill passing, and ordered the Tory Lords either to vote for the Bill or to absent themselves from the session when the vote was taken. Over two hundred Tory Lords didn’t turn up for the vote and the Bill passed through the House of Lords on 7 June 1832.

Although the legislation is often referred to as the “Great Reform Act” its terms – although far reaching at the time – were really quite moderate, and did not satisfy the huge demand for change that had been building for decades. A. L. Morton, the author of A People’s History of England (1938) argued that the most import change was that it placed “political power in the hands of the industrial capitalists and their middle class followers.” Voting in the urban boroughs was restricted to men who occupied homes with an annual value of £10; there were also property qualifications for people living in rural areas. After the  Act, still only one in seven adult males had the vote. It added some 217,000 to an electorate of 435,000 in England and Wales – an increase of about 50%. But 650,000 electors in a population of 14 million were a small minority. Nor were the constituencies of equal size – another crucial demand for many reformers. Whereas 35 constituencies had less than 300 electors, Liverpool had a constituency of over 11,000.

It has been suggested subsequently that Britain was close to revolution during the reform crises of the early 1830s, both in the autumn of 1831 and in the ‘days of May’ of 1832. Could a British revolution anticipated the revolutions of 1848 and the Paris Commune?

Contemporary commentators thought the country was on the tipping point. Edward Littleton, then a Whig MP, commented in his diary that the country was “in a state little short of insurrection”,while the Anglican clergyman Sydney Smith later described a “hand-shaking, bowel-disturbing passion of fear”.(which should really be the bottom line for how the ruling classes should always be reacting to working class collective action…) Fears among the wealthy that a general uprising was imminent, triggered a rush of gold withdrawals from the Bank of England in May 1832.

This fear was apparently shared by the Queen, whose “fixed impression, is that an English revolution is rapidly approaching, and that her own fate is to be that of Marie Antoinette” Sadly not. Some historians agree: E. P. Thompson wrote that “in the autumn of 1831 and in the ‘Days of May’ Britain was within an ace of revolution” and Eric Hobsbawm felt that “This period is probably the only one in modern history … where something not unlike a revolutionary situation might have developed.”

The more radical elements in the country had denounced the limited range of the Reform Bill from the beginning, and until

the winter of 1831-2, some had refused to engage in agitation around the Bill; lecturers in Carlile’s Rotunda labelled the Bill a ‘trap’ designed to split and betray the radical movement. The Poor Man’s Guardian ridiculed the whole Bill. But as the diehard reactionary establishment resisted any reform, it pushed the country to the threshold of mass upheaval, and the radicals became drawn in. The Poor Man’s Guardian adjusted its tactics and published a special supplement featuring extracts from Colonel Macerone’s Defensive Instructions for the People (a manual for street-fighting). By early 1832, National Union of the Working Classes ultra-radicals like William Benbow and Julian Hibbert were preparing for an armed struggle.

The Midlands and the north were in ferment: “Walk into any lane or public-house, where a number of operatives are congregated together,” wrote John Doherty “and listen for ten minutes to the conversation . . . In at least seven out of every ten cases, the subjects of debate will be found to bear upon the appalling question of whether it would be more advantageous to attack the lives or the property of the rich…”

In May 1832, during the ‘eleven days of England’s apprehension and turmoil’ which preceded the final passage, of the Bill through the Lords in May, Francis Place held his breath, anticipating uprising if the Bill did not pass and Wellington returned to power. On the evening of the day when it passed, he returned home and noted:

“We were within a moment of general rebellion, and had it been possible for the Duke of Wellington to have formed an administration the Thing and the people would have been at issue… There would have been ‘Barricadoes of the principal towns – stopping circulation of paper money’; if a revolution had commenced, it ‘would have been the act of the whole people to a greater extent than any which had ever before been accomplished”.

That none of the crisis points of the Reform Bill saga did lead to revolution, or even to any sustained revolt or uprising, probably boiled down at least in part to the unwillingness of a majority of reformist leaders to push that far. A large part of the Radical tradition (of which William Cobbett was the leading spokesman) was deeply constitutional, committed to peaceable methods of achieving change. The organised radicals prepared to use more direct tactics were in a minority. Whether or not riots could have been extended into insurrections if a more vocal leadership had been out there, in the various parts of the country, is unclear. Beyond a handful of cities the willingness of local populations to take to the streets was also limited. 

The spectrum within the reform movement, ranging from Parliamentary Whigs through middle class radicals to the NUWC, could bring temporary unity in demonstrations but little agreement as to methods and even ultimate aims. But leaders like Thomas Attwood wielded immense influence, and the middle-class Radicals cleverly assembled a program of reforms that offered a compromise which strengthened both the State and property-rights.

Influential radicals like Francis Place were as much concerned to prevent the NUWC and ‘extremists’ from gaining more traction and followers as they were to see the Bill pass. Place spent much effort undermining the NUWC and bolstering the National Political Union, by as underhand methods as he could get away with (including informing to the Home Office on radicals he considered ‘dangerous). How much did some of the moderate leaders exploit the threat of uprising and working class violence to get what they wanted, never intending to support anything wider?

But the adaptability of the British establishment was also a factor. The ability to cut the sails and compromise just enough to split the reform movement, to absorb and buy off the middle classes while giving nothing to the masses, marked the UK’s elite out of from the more rigid continental regimes. The ruling class bent so as not to break. Even the ultra-reactionary Wellington could see by May 1832 that some reform was inevitable.

The Reform Act left the many working class activists who had been arguing, agitating and rioting for change hugely disappointed. Unsurprisingly, many of the middle classes who had benefitted from the Act did not continue to campaign for an extension to the franchise. The growing working class political movements – radicals, Owenites, co-operators, trade unionists – reacted by beginning to rebuild their own movements for political reform, which was to give birth to Chartism.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

A couple of books worth reading:

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today in London riotous history, 1821: the funeral of Richard Honey and George Francis

Continuing the story of the two men shot dead during rioting at the funeral of king George IV’s estranged wife Caroline of Brunswick in August 1821; the men’s funeral took place on 26 August and like Caroline’s became a public demonstration that ended in disorder.

here’s a contemporary account:

“PUBLIC FUNERAL OF HONEY AND FRANCIS. A number of Mechanics &c. having met at a public house, and resolved to attend in procession the funeral of the two unfortunate men who had been slaughtered by the Lise Guards; with this view they prevailed on the friends of the deceased to let the funeral be a public one, at Hammersmith church; a measure strongly reprobated by the well-disposed part of the community ; but which the original projectors would not relinquish. as anOU The following statement of the proceedings of the day is from a most respectable source: August the 26th, being the day upon which it was announced that the public funeral of these two unfortunate men was to take place, at the expense of the mechanics of London, an extraordinary interest was excited, not merely among the members of that numerous body, but in a very considerable proportion of the public of this metropolis. Upon the inexpediency and impropriety of the measure itself (which seems to have been resolved upon and effected by a committee of the bricklayers, and carpenters and joiners-of which two trades the deceased themselves were members,) we have already expressed a decided opinion. We condemned it as one which, under existing circumstances, was calculated rather to renew that animosity and irritation which on a recent which this day presented.

We should premise, that Mr. Sheriff Waithman – apprehending the possibility that the public peace might be endangered by the carrying in procession through the principal streets, and along the road to Hammersmith, the bodies of those who fell the unfortunate victims of the needless employment of the military power on the 14th – on Saturday addressed the following letter to several of the newspapers, with a view to dissuade the committee from the public execution of their designs:

Sir,-Seeing a paragraph that has appeared in some of the papers, that a procession is intended to proceed to morrow from Smithfield, to accompany the funeral of the two unfortunate men who were shot on the 14th inst. near Cumberland-gate, as I have assisted the relatives of one of those individuals in the investigating the circumstances which led to his death, I feel called upon to say, through the medium of your paper, that I highly deprecate such a proceeding, and particularly as the matter is now under judicial inquiry; and earnestly’ hope that the public will refrain from attending the proposed meeting. “ I am, Sir, your obedient servant, “ Bridge – street , Aug . 25 . ROBERT WAITHMAN.”

Finding, however, that the individuals in question were bent upon effecting their original intentions, the worthy Sheriff accompanied the procession in person. To his exertions and assiduous attention is mainly to be attributed the general good order in which the proceedings of the morning were conducted. It is very remarkable that it was not till four o’clock in the afternoon of Saturday that the Lord Mayor received the usual notification from Lord Bathurst, desiring him to take the proper measures for keeping the peace of the city during the next day. The Sheriffs of the county received no such intimation whatever; but the moment that the High Sheriff (Mr. Waithman) was satisfied that the procession would take place, he adopted the most prompt and vigorous measures to preserve the public peace. He wrote to Mr. Burchell, the Under Sheriff, desiring him to order out a sufficient posse of constables for the county, and sent a similar letter to the Secondary, with a like request for city constables. [ We subjoin a copy of the letter to , and answer from , these gentlemen . ]:

“ GENTLEMEN – A placard having appeared , inviting an assemblage of the people to – morrow in Smithfield , at twelve o ‘ clock , to pass up Holborn to Hammersmith , I wish you to have the officers and constables in readiness to prevent any breach of the peace . I do not wish to have them appear amongst the people , but to have them in readiness to act , in case there should be a necessity for their so doing.” “Sir, We have, agreeably to your directions, summoned the constables and officers to be in Charter-house-square to-morrow morning, at eleven o’clock precisely, ready to receive your further instructions. “ We are, Sir, your obedient humble Servants, ‘ “ Henchman and BURCHELL, “ Sheriffs’ officers, Red Lion-square, Aug. 25. “ To Mr. Sheriff Waithman, &c.”

Mr. Waithman met the chief officers of the peace, and gave similar directions for the attendance of constables; and having no apprehension of any tumults, save near the barracks, posted the larger proportion of the men in that vicinity, and, previously to the passing of the procession, he repeatedly rode in among the people, entreating them to abstain from hissing or using any other expressions of anger towards the soldiers. The general rendezvous was appointed for twelve o’clock in Smithfield; and long before that hour multitudes had congregated there.

A few minutes before twelve, some men on foot with mourning hatbands came down Long-lane; and shortly after them, Dr. Watson, of Spa-fields notoriety, attended by six or seven of his friends, entered the market-place by another avenue. Infinite confusion and uncertainty prevailed among the crowd, as to the direction which the first part of the intended procession was to take or had taken, when Dr. Watson addressed the spectators, for the purpose of dispelling their doubts. Having mounted upon the top of a post, he informed his fellow-countrymen, “that it would be useless for them to wait there any longer, as the procession was not to proceed from thence, but from Kingsgate-street, Holborn, in the neighbourhood of which the body of Francis lay.”

This information proved to be correct; but that some feud had sprung up, or that some misunderstanding existed between the Doctor and the managing committee, was evidenced by the appearance of several members of the latter, preserve the strictest order. At about half-past one the first part of the procession, consisting of the hearse and four, which contained the coffin of Francis, followed by four mourning coaches and pairs, and preceded by a man bearing a plateau of feathers, began to move from the neighbourhood of Red-Lion-square. As it advanced up Holborn, at a slow and solemn pace, it was met by one or two friendly societies, and by a band of music, which accompanied it all the way to Hammersmith, playing the Dead March in Saul, the 95th, the 100th, and other Psalms. The feeling which was apparent in the demeanour of the mourners, relatives and friends of the deceased—the undisturbed order and quietness with which they proceeded, and the general sympathy of the beholders, formed an interesting scene. From every street and avenue, at the windows of every house, in the carriage-road, on the pathway, crowds were collected, and a sense of decorum appeared to pervade the whole of them.

The procession having at length reached Oxford-street, was joined (nearly at that part where it is intersected by the Regent’s Circus and the other new streets) by the hearse which carried the body of Honey, and which had been waiting between Soho-square and Dake-street. This hearse was preceded by feathers, and followed by four mourning coaches, precisely in the same way as the other was, and we observed the High Sheriff and his Deputy a little in advance. The scene was striking, and neither the incredible numbers of the spectators, nor the long continued succession of vehicles of every description with which the streets were thronged, detracted from its general effect, which was mournful and extraordinary. When the procession had arrived near the end of Stratford-place, that effect was much heightened from the advantageous view which this position afforded. Two gorgeous banners, which were borne by the ‘Provident Brothers,’ and another society, offered a singular spectacle, in the contrast of their purple and yellow silks, decked in gold and silver embroidery, with long weepers of black crape, that were attached to them.

The multitude that was now assembled defied all calculation; yet the procession met with no obstruction in its course. It between that and Park-lane; and it was curious to observe from some point where these streets intersected one another, five or six dense columns of people, hastening down at once through as many streets, in order to arrive at Piccadilly in as little time as possible. Other individuals were not so fortunate; for, seeing the great concourse of equestrians, and vehicles of every imaginable variety, that almost choked up Park-lane, they ran to Cumberland-gate, in the expectation of getting through the Park. The gate, however, proved to be impracticable ; it was locked, and a chain was drawn across it. We did not see a single soldier near the place. In our way through Park-lane, we were struck with the utter solitude of the Park. We had almost said that not an individual was to be seen in it; but certain it is, that the Sunday promenaders, with whom it is usually so replete, were yesterday replaced by a small straggling party of the police horse patrol, who were riding up and down in undisputed possession. Stanhope-gate was not merely blocked up, but the iron gate was covered by a complete fencing of deal planks.

Before the procession reached to Hyde-park corner, every eminence between that and Knightsbridge barracks was thronged with spectators. Doorways, windows, and the tops of houses, for nearly the whole line, were crowded to excess. The footways on both sides of the road presented a dense mass of persons, as closely thronged together as it was possible for a moving mass to be. But the crowd was not confined to the footways alone : the carriage-road was so far encroached upon by pedestrians, that, at a first appearance, one would have thought it possible the funeral could pass through. As the procession advanced, however, way was made, and it came through, though in a much more compact body than it presented in any street from its first setting out.

Before it reached Knightsbridge barracks, every house and place, which commanded a view of that situation, was occupied. Indeed, so great was the anxiety for places from which to view the procession in that quarter, that as high as five shillings were offered for a single window- at another it was rumoured that the gates would be allowed to remain open, as they are on ordinary occasions. We were, however, very glad to find on our arrival that neither of those rumours had any foundation. For a considerable time before the arrival of the procession at the barracks, the gates were closely shut, and not a soldier was to be seen, except here and there a few who looked through the closed windows of the upper apartments. When the body of the procession was seen advancing towards Knightsbridge, some of the persons who had taken their stand in front of the barracks began to hiss and call out, “Butchers. This intemperate expression was no sooner enunciated than it was loudly condemned by the majority of the bystanders.

Mr. Sheriff Waithman was on horseback in the neighbourhood of the barracks, and exerted himself very earnestly to suppress every attempt which could lead to a breach of the peace. He was assisted in his laudable endeavours by a gentleman who acted as his Under Sheriff, and by a few other gentlemen on horseback, whose names we could not collect. Wherever the Sheriff went, he was loudly cheered by the people, who on every occasion paid the utmost attention to his orders not to disturb the peace. The first outcries against the Guards were very speedily put down. In a short time, however, they were renewed by a few individuals who had come on before the procession, but who had not been present at the previous expression of disapprobation by their predecessors. This intemperate conduct, we were happy to observe, was received with loud cries of Order, order,’ and was immediately put down. The persons who had the conducting of the procession appeared to us to be strenuously opposed to every act on the part of the surrounding thousands which could at all tend to disturb the public tranquillity.

We should here observe, that as soon as the first expression of disapprobation on the part of the people was evinced towards the Guards, they (the Guards) removed back from the windows through which they were seen. The greater part of them did not again make their W be properly denominated the funeral, approached close to the barracks, the utmost silence was observed; the greater part of the persons who walked arm in arm in front were uncovered, as were the majority of the by-standers. The scene at this instant was certainly very striking. Viewed from the tops of the houses in front of the barracks, the road, as far as the eye could reach on either side, was thronged as closely as it was possible for it to be by human beings congregated together. The hearses and mourning coaches had receded a little from the spot on which we stood, the parts above the wheels alone were visible, and they appeared as if floating in the midst of the thousands by which they were surrounded. From the spot of which we now speak, we do not think that the number of persons within view at both sides could have been less than from 70,000 to 80,000, though the exact numbers cannot of course be ascertained.

From Knightsbridge, the procession moved on in the same order, till it reached Kensington. Here there was a halt for some moments, in consequence of the difficulty of passing through the immense multitudes which had there assembled. Not an eminence from which a view could be commanded was left unoccupied. Here also the utmost good order prevailed among the crowds who formed, as well as among those who witnessed, the procession. It was every where received in a solemn and becoming manner. It then moved on from Kensington to Hammersmith. The houses along the road were all, as elsewhere, lined with spectators, who exhibited, if not a strong, at least a decent sympathy with the melancholy pageant which was passing before them. In many places the hedges were also filled with groups of observers.

About four o’clock the procession arrived at Hammersmith. The bell of the church began to toll as soon as it entered into the town, and did not cease till both the coffins were placed within its walls. The body of Francis was the first which reached the churchyard; and as soon as it arrived there, preparations were made for taking it out of the hearse. The persons who had taken part in the procession advanced first, England. It was carried by a person in deep mourning, and was followed by the supporters of the coffin, who were eight in number. A rich pall – and here again the difference between the funerals of these two poor mechanics, and that of the late Consort of the most potent monarch, George IV, presented itself to the mind – was thrown over the coffin, and thrown over it with a decency and solemnity which formed a striking contrast to the scene which was exhibited a short time before at Harwich.

Such of the mourners as were of the family of the deceased came next, and appeared to excite a strong interest amongst the crowds who were assembled in the church-yard. As soon as they had effected their entrance, which they did by the south gate, that gate was closed, to prevent a fresh influx of strangers upon those who were already assembled there, and who filled every inch of vacant ground that was to be found within the yard, to say nothing of the walls and trees which surround it. The clergyman, as is usual, met the corpse at the church gate, and read over it the solemn commencement of our burial service, – I am the resurrection and the life, ‘&c. &c. At that moment, as if by general consent, every head was uncovered, and not a sound was to be heard among the immense multitudes thus collected, except that of the trumpets accompanying the procession, which played a funeral psalm. The whole scene was impressive. It would be almost impossible to collect the same persons again together, and to influence them with a similar feeling with that which at that moment actuated them.

The coffin and its bearers proceeded at a slow pace through the midst of them, calling forth their remarks at every step. At last it reached the church porch, into which it was pre ceded by the two banners. As soon as the body of Francis had been placed on the rude kind of scaffold which was prepared in the interior of the church for its reception, orders were sent to admit into the church-yard the body of Honey, which for a few moments had been waiting at the entrance of it. It was ushered into the church with the same order and decency, and received by the people in the church-yard ‘with the same feeling, as had been evinced by them in the case of Francis. It was found, however, impossible to close the gates, which had been opened to admit this part of the procession. The wand-bearers endeavoured, but and on looking down into the chancel, we found it to be quite filled with the mourners who belonged to the family of these two unfortunate victims of military execution. The men who held the two banners which we have before noticed, placed themselves in the pew of her late Majesty, which, as well as the pulpit, was covered with black cloth, in consequence of her decease. The banners themselves, covered as they were with crapé, added to the picturesque appearance of the place, and increased the general melancholy which had been inspired by the sight of the escutcheons, between which they were ranged—those mournful memorials of departed royalty.

On the clergyman’s proceeding to read the impressive litany for the dead, enjoined by the Church of England, a vast, majority of the congregation drew forth their prayer-books, and followed him through it, thus giving another proof, if indeed any were wanted, that the lower orders of the people of England are not the immoral, irreligious, and infidel crew, which some of the unfeeling Pharisees of the age wish to represent them. After the funeral psalms, and that sublime and affecting chapter taken out of the first epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians, had been read, the two coffins were carried to the grave. We do not know, sand shall not pretend to conjecture, what feelings influenced the people to such conduct; but were surprised at observing the eagerness displayed by numbers, both of men and women, to touch the coffins of the deceased as they were conveyed from the church to their last home. If they had believed in the efficacy of religious relics, and had conceived the coffin to contain the bodies of some of the earliest martyrs, they could not have touched them with stronger feelings of regard and veneration. The banners accompanied them to the grave, and on earth being committed to earth, ashes to ashes, and dust to dust,’ were lowered over them in the most impressive and CAS affecting silence.

On the conclusion of the funeral service, the different friends of the deceased retired to the mourning coaches which were waiting for them, attended by the warmest sympathies of all present. It ought not, however, to be overlooked, that the deep grief of the children of the either with the place, or the ceremony which they had just witnessed. With this exception in the conduct of a few, and but a few individuals, every thing which passed in the church-yard was highly creditable to their moral and religious feelings, notwithstanding the efforts which some individuals made, but in vain, to create a disturbance among the populace during the time that the funeral was in the church.

As soon as the motion of the mourning coaches made it known to the multitudes who were collected in the streets of Hammersmith, that the funeral was over, they began to turn their steps towards the metropolis. It was evident from their orderly conduct on the road to Hammersmith, that unless some irritation was given to them by the appearance of the Life Guards at Knightsbridge barracks, nothing would occur tó disturb the general peace and tranquillity which had prevailed on their whole line of march during the day. Mr. Sheriff Waithman, who, as our readers will have seen, had been most actively and successfully employed during the whole advance of the procession in using his influence to soothe the irritated feelings of the people, posted himself, and such of the posse comitatus as he had thought proper to call out, opposite to the barracks, in order that he might, if possible, prevail upon them to dispense with those expressions of indignation against the Life Guards, which the people thought, justly or unjustly, that the conduct of that corps on a recent occasion had richly merited.

About six o’clock a numerous group of soldiers planted themselves in a most conspicuous position before, the front gates of their barrack, and appeared by their behaviour to be challenging the attention of the passengers to their bold and undaunted demeanour. Mr. Sheriff Waithman, observing the manner in which they had ranged themselves on the footpath, along which a great part of the crowd were certain to walk in their return from Hammersmith, rode up to them, and requested them to withdraw from the conspicuous position in which they had placed themselves. The soldiers replied that they had a right to stand in the position which they then occupied, and declared their resolution of not moving from it. Mr. Sheriff Waithman then said to them, that he did not mean to insist, as he was justified in doing, upon their complying with his desire to remove from the footpath; that his sole anxiety was to preserve the public peace; and to effect that it been complied with in the first instance, would have indisputably prevented all the commotion which afterwards ensued, the soldiers persisted in retaining their station. The worthy Sheriff then asked them to give him the name of their commanding officer, that he might communicate with him upon the subject. To that proposition the soldiers, at whose head was either a corporal or a serjeant, gave a most unqualified refusal. Mr. Waithman made, however, another attempt to effect his object. He sent two or three of his officers into the barracks to find out the gentleman in command of the regiment, and ordered them to deliver his respectful compliments to him, and to state how expedient it would be to withdraw the military from the view of the populace. If the report of the officers is to be believed, the answer which they got from the officer to whom they delivered the Sheriff’s message was, “Tell Mr. Waithman, your Sheriff, he may go and be damned; my men shall stay where they are; I will not consent to have them made prisoners of.’ The import of this answer got’ spread among the people, and did not tend to a spirit of conciliation between them and the soldiers.

Different groups kept arriving from Hammersmith with feelings strongly excited by the melancholy fate of Francis and Honey. The news of this answer was not calculated to repress that natural irritation under which they laboured. The worthy Sheriff saw this; and in consequence went up to the gate of the barracks, and said to the men, “As your commanding officer will not give you the orders which appear to me to be necessary to preserve the public peace, I, as Sheriff of the county, to whom the King’s peace in that county is intrusted, take upon myself to act as your commanding officer, and order you to retire this moment within the barracks. If not, I shall look upon you as responsible for all the fatal consequences which may ensue from your obstinacy and perverseness. This was said in the presence of several individuals, both civil and military. The soldiers murmured, but at last reluctantly, and after considerable delay, withdrew within the gates. The people immediately gave Alderman Waithman three cheers. Shortly after this point had been soldiers, who had collected themselves in the windows of their respective apartments, laughed at them, in many cases most loudly, and, in several, shook their fists at the parties surrounding them. The populace retorted the insult by calling them. Piccadilly butchers, cowardly cut-throats, &c., and no longer confined themselves to hissing and hooting. Mr. Sheriff Waithman, whilst this scene was transacting, was riding up and down with his Under Sheriff, endeavouring to mollify the anger of the people. By threatening the more violent spirits that he would order his officers to seize them in case he saw them insult the soldiery, and by using milder arguments to the more peaceably inclined, he succeeded to a certain degree in accomplishing his object. The seeds of disturbance had, however, been sown among the people, and though his presence prevented them from striking deep root, they sprung up with greater vigour as soon as he retired.

Stones at last began to be thrown by both parties, and so simultaneously, that it would be difficult to decide which were the aggressors. In less than two or three minutes after the commencement of this distant warfare, several of the soldiers climbed over the wall into the street, and made an attack on the people, who, as we were informed by a respectable witness, though we certainly did not see the fact ourselves, were maltreating a drunken Life Guardsman, who was staggering through the streets to his quarters. A general engagement ensued between this man’s comrades (some of whom were armed with bludgeons, but none at this time with swords) and the multitude. The success was various; but during the barracks perceived that their friends were defeated, and immediately issued forth armed, some with swords, and others with carbines, to assist them.

It was at that exact moment that we ourselves became eye-witnesses of the scene, and we conceived, and are still inclined to conceive, that it was at this moment that the affray really commenced. It was a frightful spectacle. Soldiers, some dressed, some in their undress, were seen bursting out of the gates of their barracks, clambering over its walls, and rushing, with drawn swords and infuriated looks, into the midst of the unarmed multitude. Others were throwing stones and brickbats into the street from their private rooms, in much greater quantities than were thrown from the street. We saw several people around us struck by them. Some of the people now began to fly from the unequal contest which they were waging, but others stood up to the Guards, in spite of their superiority of offensive weapons, with the most undaunted fortitude.

Blood was flowing on both sides pretty freely, when Mr. Sheriff Waithman, in whose absence this tumult had occurred, rode up to the scene of action, and in the very throng of the contention. He endeavoured to part the combatants, who were then fighting at that end of the barracks which is nearest to Hyde-park. Not succeeding immediately in his efforts, he turned back his horse, and was riding on the foot-path towards the front gate of the barracks, out of which the men armed and unarmed kept continually issuing. As he was going along, he found another party scuffling with the military. He immediately ordered them to desist, and contrived to separate the corporal or sergeant, with whom he had been before conversing at the gate, and who, from the conversation which he had held with him, must have known him as the Sheriff-a point that is material to keep in mind_from the conflict in which he was engaging. The worthy Sheriff immediately desired him to return to his quarters and to induce his companions to return; the answer which the man made him was to slip aside and knock down an individual who was standing near him. Still the Sheriff attempted to persuade him to retire, and whilst he was doing so, a young officer, in plain clothes, came up, and, if we saw rightly, attempted to shoulder the Sheriff off the foot-path. The seeing this outrage, and immediately seized the Sheriff’s horse by the bridle, saying to him, “Damn you, I’ll soon show you the way off the foot-path. Mr. Waithman, around whom there were no more than five or six of his officers, all of whom were struck and wounded by the military, seeing himself thus assaulted, hit the individual thus wilfully impeding him in the discharge of his ministerial duties, a heavy blow on the top of the cap with a riding stick which he had in his hand. The blow stunned the man, but others of his comrades forced the Sheriff and his horse into the middle of the street.

Immediately afterwards every person who witnessed the transaction, either from the streets or the neighbouring houses, must have expected to have seen Mr. Waithman murdered. Two or three ruffians–for they deserve not the name of soldiers—ran at him with their pointed swords; his officers turned them aside; another was seen at the same moment, after having first deliberately taken a cartridge out of his pouch, and primed and loaded his carbine, to place it against his shoulder, and to take deliberate aim at the worthy Alderman. Whilst the carbine was in that situation, a Sheriff’s officer of the name of Levi, ran up, and knocked the ruffian down. The struggle continued a few minutes afterwards, and then suddenly closed, the men retiring, as we understood, by the command of their officers to the barracks.

The Sheriff was then fully occupied in calming the spirits of the enraged multitude, many of whom, even while the struggle was at the hottest, applied to him to know whether they had a right to repel the brutal force which was brought against them, adding, that, if they had, and he would lead them on, they were ready to die by his side. Of course, the Sheriff’s answer to these applications, was an injunction to those who made them to keep themselves quiet, and disperse. That, however, was advice not always very palatable ; for the irritation which these events had excited in the minds of the people was not likely to cease immediately. They stayed, therefore, for a considerable time before the barracks, hooting the military, and loading them with every term of vituperation that the English language could afford them. The women who were in the streets, and who had used towards them. This circumstance rendered it necessary for the Sheriff to remain riding up and down the road till nearly eight o’clock, to prevent the accumulation of crowds before the barracks. This he was at last enabled to accomplish, partly by threats, and partly by the influence which his conduct in the affray with the Life Guards had given him with the multitude. By eight o’clock the streets about Knightsbridge were comparatively cleared, and it did not appear that any interruption of the public tranquillity occurred, save that which has been just recorded. : Fortunately, there was not any person mortally wounded in this affray; though several of the people received heavy contusions, and some severe cuts. Several of the Guards were bleeding copiously from the nose and mouth, when they were called into their quarters.”

(from A Correct, Full, and Impartial Report, of the Trial of Her Majesty, Caroline, Queen Consort of Great Britain, Before the House of Peers, On the Bill of Pains and Penalties – Queen Caroline (consort of George IV, King of Great Britain), John Adolphus

A memorial stone was built to Richard Honey and George Francis in St Paul’s Churchyard, Hammersmith, after collections taken in pubs all over London.

The memorial reads:
Here lie interred the mortal remains of

Richard Honey, Carpenter,

aged 36 years, and of

George Francis, Bricklayer, aged 43 years,

who were slain on the 14th August, 1821, while attending the

funeral of Caroline, of Brunswick,

Queen of England

The details of that melancholy event

Belong to the history of the country

In which they will be recorded

Together with the public opinion

Decidedly expressed relative to the

Disgraceful transactions

Of that disastrous day

Deeply impressed with their fate

Unmerited and unavenged

Their respective trades interred them

At their general expence [sic]

On the 24th of the same month

to their memory.

Richard Honey left one female orphan.

George Francis left a widow and three young children.

Victims like these have fallen in every age

Stretch of pow’r or party’s cruel rage

Until even handed justice comes at last

To amend the future and avenge the past

Their friends and fellow-men lament their doom

Protect their orphans, and erect their tomb.

 

This stone is still visible in the Churchyard…