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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Till the next time…

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

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

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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

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

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

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

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

However, they had miscalculated somewhat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After that, alot of the vans drove off.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s some news coverage of the day here:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The military occupied parts of Spitalfields in response.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Today in London’s religious history, 1553: a riot at St Paul’s

The religious divisions of mid-16th century England may not have given birth to outright civil war, as happened in France, though there were a number of abortive rebellions pertly stimulated by religious aims. London was a centre of religious debate and dissent – always a hotchpotch and melting pot of religious ideas, simply because of its size and the different communities attracted here, and the opportunity to meet people, discuss ideas, evolve new theologies…

The rapid turnover of regimes and official religions under the Tudors – from Catholic orthodoxy, through the dissolution of the monasteries and mild reform, radical Protestantism, catholicism, to a milder Anglicanism – saw dissenters of various stripes burnt, imprisoned, or driven into exile.

Mid-16th century London had evolved many dissenting protestant congregations, nominally part off the one established church, which were variously tolerated, persecuted, encouraged, then repressed again… While many people held strong beliefs one way or the other, most were very likely content to adhere to whatever wouldn’t get them into trouble with the authorities. Though the bewildering theological roller-coaster caught out many who just couldn’t keep up with what was orthodoxy and what was heresy this month…

Opposing views sometimes led to violent clashes.

On August 13th 1553, a riot broke out outside St Pauls Cathedral, at ‘Pauls Cross,’ when worshippers objected to a preacher praying for the souls of the departed and defended the widely hated Bishop Bonner.

Catholic Queen Mary had recently succeeded to the throne and was in the first stages of rolling back the strict protestant regime of her predecessor Edward VI. The reformers who had dominated Edward’s reign were in a desperate rearguard action against reversal of their changes.

This incident is noticed in the public chronicles. Gilbert Bourne, the preacher, Queen Mary’s chaplain, offended the audience by speaking vehemently in the defence of Edmund Bonner, Bishop of London, who was already known as a prosecutor of protestants and other ‘heretics’ and would garner an odious reputation over the next five years for burning numerous dissenters under Queen Mary’s catholic regime. Bourne also spoke out against against the protestant reformer bishop Ridley. A great crowd booed and abused Bourne, with cries of “Papist, Papist! Tear him down!” One of the crowd threw a dagger at Bourne, which struck one of the sideposts of the pulpit. “Maister Bradford, the celebrated Reformer, came forward to persuade the people to quietness, and by the help of that worthy man and of maister Rogers, (both of whom were afterwards sacrificed in cold blood by their religious adversaries,) Bourne was conveyed safely away into Paul’s School. Grafton’s Abridgement, 1566, and Stowe’s Summarie of the same date.”

The privy council, which was sitting at the Tower of London, took immediate alarm at this disturbance. On the 16th of August, Homfrey Palden was “committed to the counter for seditious wordes uttered by him againste the preacher Mr. Burne for his sermon at Paule’s crosse on Sunday last;” and the same day the celebrated Bradford and Veron, “two seditious preachers,” were committed to the Tower, as was “Theodore Basill, alias Thomas Beacon, another seditious preacher.”

Subsequent sermons in the following weeks saw preachers thought to be speaking on matters that would inflame their hearers protected by up to 200 armed guards. The next sermon was specifically on the subject of loyalty to the monarch’s religious decrees and to ‘the old faith’.

What is not clear is the composition of the crowd that kicked off against Bourne’s sermon. Were they radical protestants? Regular churchgoers to whom Bonner’s name in particular meant fear and loathing? John Rogers, and John Bradford, both leading radical protestants, had been a notable presence in the crowd – in fact he had intervened to try to calm the congregation down, enabling Bourne to escape unharmed. But the Queen and church conservatives interpreted this as them having a great deal of influence with the riotous crowd, whether or not they had stirred them up or not. Both were to be imprisoned and executed for heresy in 1555.

It’s not clear if the St Paul’s riot is the same incident described in a letter from the ambassador of the Holy Roman Emperor from August 1553, where he mentions that

“great scandal occurred, and outrages against religion were committed lately on the person of a priest who dared to say mass in a chapel here m London; some took the chalice, others the vestments; the ornaments on the altar were broken in pieces, and two or three hundred people assembled and made such riot that the mayor had been obliged to go in person to quell the tumult. He succeeded, and saved the person of the priest by taking him into custody. “

It is possible that the St Paul’s uproar was part of a series of disturbances…

Paul’s Cross, outside St Paul’s, was used for the dissemination of ideas by preachers backed by the authorities from the fourteenth century; but the spot was also known as a kind of speakers corner through medieval and early modern times. This had evolved partly from the ‘folkmoots’ – assemblies of citizens that had at one time represented a form of community self-government, but also had a history of use for agitation and articulating anger or discontent. Crowds were not only used to hearing ideas – religious, political, social – set out by speakers here, but also to reacting to them and taking part in the proceedings.

The uproar against Bourne was only part of series of sermons at Paul’s Cross, showing it was a venue for a debate in the to and fro of theology. (Some of which can be read here)

While repression of Protestantism was well underway, resistance continued, if clandestine… a dead cat which had been made to look like a priest saying mass was found on a cross in Cheapside, and at a sermon in April 1554, Bonner’s chaplain gave a sermon displaying the cat and ordering the culprit to come forward. In June, when the chaplain spoke again, he was shot at and a search was made of every house in the precinct of St Paul’s to find the culprit, but to no avail.

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Today in London legal history, 1780: Charles Kent, Laetitia Holland and John Gray tried for the burning and looting of Lord Chief Justice Mansfield’s House.

In second half of the eighteenth century, nos 28-29 Bloomsbury Square was the residence of Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench: William Murray, Lord Mansfield. Mansfield was widely feared & hated at the time (the spikes on Kings Bench Prison walls were known as Lord Mansfield’s teeth); he was an innovative lawyer who helped to adapt English law to the needs of a growing commercial empire, in alliance with powerful men of business. In return he grew very rich. “He invented legal fictions that enabled English courts to have jurisdiction in places where English law had not yet been introduced…he took the usages of commerce…and …made them into law…The attack on his house was …an attack upon the leading exponent of British imperialism.” (Peter Linebaugh).

More immediately, as Linebaugh points out, Mansfield had served at the Old Bailey for 11 years, being known for his severe judgments, sending 102 people to the gallows, 448 to be transported and 29 to be branded. He was known by the poor as one of their greatest enemies.

On the night of 6 -7th June 1780 his house was attacked & burnt out by the Gordon Rioters. The riots started out on June 2nd as a protest against a proposed Parliamentary Bill to give more freedom to Catholics, but rapidly outgrew their sectarian origins to become a general insurrection of the poor against the rich and powerful.

The Judge had already been beaten up outside Parliament on June 2nd, and because of his reputation, the rioters were widely threatening to attack his house. On June 6th a magistrate and a detachment of guards came to protect him. Mansfield suggested they hid out of sight so as not to wind up the rioters. Soon after a crowd several hundred strong marched here from Holborn, carrying torches and combustible materials. They battered in his door, and he legged it out the back with his wife. The crowd tore down the railings surrounding the building, threw down all his furniture, curtains, hangings, pictures, books, papers and chucked them all on a huge bonfire. They then burned his house.

His whole library including many legal papers was destroyed. Interestingly, just as at the burning of the Duke of Lancaster’s Palace in the 1381 Peasants Revolt, the crowd declared nothing was to be stolen, they were not thieves… A survival of a strand of rebellious moral highmindedness, although unsurprisingly, while silver and gold plate was certainly burned, several of the poor folk present were later found guilty of helping themselves to some of the Judge’s possessions. And why not.

The troops arrived (a bit late!), the Riot Act was read, and as the crowd refused to disperse, they shot and killed at least seven people and wounded many more. When the soldiers had gone, some of the rioters returned, picked up the bodies, and marched off, carrying the corpses in a bizarre procession, allegedly fixing weapons in the hands of the dead, with a man at the front tolling Lord’s Mansfield’s stolen dinner bell in a death march rhythm!

Gordon Rioters also marched to Hampstead to burn Mansfield’s other house, Ken Wood House on Hampstead Heath. They were allegedly delayed by the landlord of the Spaniards Inn, (on Spaniards Road), who plied them with free beer to give the militia time to arrive and save the house.

Three rioters, Laetitia Holland, John Gray and Charles Kent, were tried on June 28th for involvement in the attack on Mansfield’s house. Gray, a 32 year old woolcomber, who walked with a crutch, was seen demolishing a wall in the house with an iron bar, and later making off with a bottle of Mansfield’s booze. One-legged Kent was also seen by a witness  “bringing out some bottles, whether empty or full I do not know.” Laetitia Holland was sentenced to death for being found in possession of two of lady Mansfield’s petticoats:

“June 28th, Old Bailey: CHARLES KENT and LETITIA HOLLAND were indicted for that they together with an hundred other persons and more, did, unlawfully, riotously, and tumultuously assemble, on the 6th of June , to the disturbance of the publick peace, and did begin to demolish and pull down the dwelling-house of the Right Honourable William Earl of Mansfield , against the form of the statute, &c.

– GREENLY sworn.

I am a baker, in Tottenham-court-road.

Are you a housekeeper there? – I am.

Do you remember being present on Tuesday night when Lord Mansfield’s house was destroyed? – I believe it was half after twelve on Wednesday morning before I went there. Some of the mob were then in the one-pair-of-stairs rooms, pulling down the wainscoting and throwing the goods out at the window. I observed Letitia Holland there throwing part of a desk and some small trunks and other goods out at the one-pair-of-stairs window.

Did she say any thing at the time she threw them out? – I did not hear her say any thing. I saw her remove from the one-pair-of-stairs floor to the two-pair-of-stairs floor, and throw out some more goods.

Did you hear her make use of any expressions? – I did not hear her speak at all. I saw Kent at the same time bringing out some bottles, whether empty or full I do not know.

How long was it afterwards before they went away? – In less than half an hour. Upon their going away I walked close behind them up Russel-street, through Tottenham-court-road. I heard her declare to Kent, who was with her, that she had loaded herself well. Kent has a wooden leg.

Was the man who carried out the bottles the man with the wooden leg? – Yes; he was with her.

Did you afterwards do any thing to either of them? – Yes, I watched them to the end of Bambridge-street, turning out of Russel-street. I went down the left-hand side; the prisoners were on the right-hand; they seemed rather to suspect me; they both turned round and set their backs to the house, and faced me. I went across the street and seised the woman by both her hands, and I took her to the watch-house. She asked what I wanted with her? I said, you know you have destroyed a great deal of Lord Mansfield’s property, and have some about you. She answered, She would give me the property if I would let her go. I said no, she should go to the watch-house. She said what she had got was given her in the house, and she had not taken it. Before I took her to the

watch-house she threw a small picture behind her, which I believe was the property of Lord Mansfield; this is it (producing a small oval picture). When I took her to the watch-house, the watch-house-keeper would not take charge of her. She had a great deal of bundling round her. I wanted her to be searched; the watchman said he would not run the risque of losing his life for me. She delivered this book in the watch-house (producing it). I left her there in care of the watch-house-keeper.

What became of the man? – The man went off directly as I seized her.

Are you positive that the prisoners are the persons you saw at Lord Mansfield’s house doing what you have described? – They are. I called upon Mr. Platt, Lord Mansfield’s clerk, the next day, to inform him that these things were in the watch-house. The watch-house-keeper said he knew her very well, and where she lived.

JAMES HYDE sworn.

I am house-keeper at the Rotation-office, in Litchfield-street. I was employed all night at the office. I did not go away from the office, till about three o’clock or a little before, on the Wednesday morning. I went with Mr. Parker, who is a magistrate, and a party of soldiers to Lord Mansfield’s, just before three o’clock. A little before four o’clock I was sent for an engine. When I got half way down Dyot-street I saw the prisoners, they crossed into another street; I crossed after them, and went to them; I perceived the woman had something under her arm, which caused me to follow her; it turned out to be this petticoat (producing it) it was wrapped up in a napkin. I asked her whose that was; she said she got it from Lord Mansfield’s, but it was given her by the mob. She had this apron on (producing it). I did not say any thing to her about that till I got her into the round-house, then I searched her, and took from her this petticoat (producing it) she had it under her black one.

ELISABETH KENDALL sworn.

I live at Lord Mansfield’s.

Look at these petticoats and aprons? – They came out of Lord Mansfield house; they were in the two-pair-of-stairs floor at the time the house was broke open. They are the property of Miss Mary Murray , Lord Mansfield’s niece.

HOLLAND’s DEFENCE.

I was at the fire but I was never near the house. I do not know of which side the house the door is. I picked these things up, except the green petticoat which the mob gave me. I thought I might as well take it as let the flames consume it. Coming away I met this young man; he was not near the house, nor was I; I was not near the fire myself; I was by the Duke of Bedford’s wall.

KENT’s DEFENCE.

I never was near the house; I stood at a distance off, with other people looking at the fire; there were several other people there whom I knew myself; and one or two, I knew myself in the house. I have but one leg, and so he took notice of me.

Court to Greenly. Did you see him bring the bottles out or throw them out? – I saw him do nothing else but bring out the bottles.

At that time were the mob destroying any part of the house? – Yes; they were then in the lower rooms of the house destroying every thing.

BOTH GUILTY ( Death .)

Tried by the Second Middlesex Jury before Mr. Justice ASHHURST.”

… JOHN GRAY was indicted for that he together with five hundred other persons and more, did unlawfully, riotously, and tumultuously assemble, on the 7th of June , to the disturbance of the publick peace, and did begin to demolish and pull down the dwelling-house of the Right Honourable William Earl of Mansfield .

2d Count. For beginning to pull down a certain out-house belonging to the dwelling-house of William Earl of Mansfield.

THOMAS LEARING sworn.

I am a constable of the parish of St. Giles’s I keep a shoe-warehouse in Holbourn.

Was you in Bloomsbury-square on Wednesday morning, the 7th of June? – Yes. The high constable and I had been all night at the Rotation-office, to defend it. We were in Bloomsbury-square about eight o’clock, I saw the prisoner at Lord Mansfield’s; I knew his person well before; he had a large bar of iron, and was sitting upon the cell of the window, and breaking down a wall of a building which was separate from Lord Mansfield’s house; there was a vast concourse of people there. I suppose near two thousand; I durst not apprehend the prisoner on account of the concourse of people. I saw him three days after at the Rotation-office, on another charge.

HENRY RICHARDS sworn.

I am under-cook to Lord Mansfield.

Do you remember, in the morning after Lord Mansfield’s house was destroyed, seeing any thing of the prisoner? – Yes, I saw him about five o’clock in the morning with an iron bar on his shoulder; I did not see him break any thing belonging to my lord. I know him particularly by his crutch. I saw him at five, and again at eight o’clock.

Is the building the last witness describes detached from the house? – Yes, it is the room where I lay, it is over the kitchen and under the laundry.

You are sure the prisoner is the person? – Yes.

Was that building, the kitchen, and the rest destroyed in the course of the morning? – They were totally down, I believe by ten o’clock.

WILLIAM POOLE sworn.

I saw the building destroyed.

WILLIAM DAWKINS sworn.

I am under-butler to Lord Mansfield. I was at my lord’s house on the 6th of June, when the mob first came. I saw the prisoner about four in the morning. I passed him several times in the house with my Lord’s liquor in his hand coming out of the house; I saw him in the street afterwards near the place that was pulled down; but I did not observe him doing any thing. He had nothing in his hand but his crutch then. I saw him carrying out the bottles before.

PRISONER’s DEFENCE.

I got up about a quarter before four o’clock, I was dry; the people said there was a shocking murder done in Bloomsbury-square. I went there and saw a soldier wallowing in his blood. On the 11th of June I was taken up by a constable on suspicion of picking a gentleman’s pocket. After I was fully committed, the constable came and said as I was committed he would charge me with pulling down my Lord Mansfield’s house.

GUILTY ( Death .)

Tried by the Second Middlesex Jury before Mr. RECORDER.” (Old Bailey Records)

Others charged after the attack included Sarah Collogan, who got a year after being found wearing a gown previously owned by the judge’s neice; Elizabeth Timmings, tried for possessing five china dishes from his lordship’s tableware, and Elizabeth Grant, found in possession of a copper pot and plate-warmer (these two were acquitted).

Kent, and Gray were hanged in Bloomsbury Square, on July 22nd in sight of the ruins of the house. Holland was ‘respited’ on 21st July, and her sentence was reduced to two years imprisonment in 1781.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London rebellious history, 1855: Rioting in Hyde Park, against the ‘Sunday Trading Bill’,

Hyde Park became royal property when king Henry VIII confiscated it from the Church in the 1530s. It has remained royal property ever since (bar a short period in the English Revolution when it was sold off). The park was opened to the public in the 17th century, and became a favourite playground of the rich, who liked to parade there in their coaches.

But although the park was a place of leisure for the powerful, the poor were largely excluded (except when people snuck in to rob the rich on occasions)… As central London was built up, open space gradually vanished.

By the 1850s, Hyde Park and Trafalgar Square were the only two major open spaces in central London, and both were the scenes of conflict as the state tried to stop people meeting in them. A serious of confrontations in the Square culminated in Bloody Sunday 1887, when several people were killed by police during a mass illegal demonstration. In Hyde Park, the key battles took place in the 1850s and 1860s.

1855, round one: 
In June 1855, Hyde Park was the scene of mass defiance of the authorities. The spark was Lord Grosvenor’s Sunday Trading Bill, which sought to stop shopping and other activities on the Sabbath, and would have mainly affected the poor. There was also resentment at the Crimean war and at the hypocrisy of the aristocracy who wanted to parade up and down Hyde Park on Sundays while stopping others from enjoying themselves. It was not surprising therefore that the Park became the centre of opposition to the Bill. The first protest took place on Sunday June 25th, and among those present was Karl Marx, then in London, who wrote a report of the events for the German newspaper Neue Oder Zeitung:

“There has been a rapid succession of measures of religious coercion. The first measure was the Beer Bill, which shut down all places of public entertainment on Sundays, except between 6 and 10 pm. Then came the Sunday Trading Bill. In both cases there is a conspiracy of the Church with monopoly capital, but in both cases these are religious penal laws against the lower classes to set the consciences of the privileged classes at rest. The Beer Bill was as far from hitting the aristocratic clubs as the Sunday Trading Bill is from hitting the Sunday occupations of genteel society. The workers get their wages late on Saturday; they are the only ones for whom shops open on Sundays. They are the only ones compelled to make their purchases, small as they are, on Sundays. The new bill is therefore directed against them alone.

This was the occasion yesterday of a mass demonstration in Hyde Park. We were spectators from beginning to end and do not think we are exaggerating in saying that the English Revolution began Yesterday in Hyde Park (sorry Karl, we’re still trying!).

Lord Robert Grosvenor, who fathered the Sunday Trading Bill, when reproached on the score of this measure being directed solely against the poor and not against the rich classes, retorted that “the aristocracy was largely refraining from employing its servants and horses on Sundays.” The last few days of past week the following poster, put out by the Chartists and affixed to all the walls of London, announced in huge letters:

“New Sunday Bill prohibiting newspapers, shaving, smoking, eating and drinking and all kinds of recreation and nourishment, both corporal and spiritual, which the poor people still enjoy at the present time. An open-air meeting of artisans, workers and `the lower orders’ generally of the capital will take place in Hyde Park on Sunday afternoon to see how religiously the aristocracy is observing the Sabbath and how anxious it is not to employ its servants and horses on that day, as Lord Robert Grosvenor said in his speech. The meeting is called for three o’clock on the right bank of the Serpentine, on the side towards Kensington Gardens.”

It should be borne in mind, of course that what Longchamps means to the Parisians, the road along the Serpentine in Hyde Park means to English high society – the place where of an afternoon, particularly on Sunday, they parade their magnificent horses and carriages with all their trappings, followed by swarms of lackeys. It will be realised from the above placard that the struggle against clericalism assumes the same character in England as every other serious struggle there- the character of a class struggle waged by the poor against the rich, the people against the aristocracy, the “lower orders” against their “betters”.

“we are treated like slaves”

At 3 o’clock approximately 50,000 people had gathered at the spot announced on the right bank of the Serpentine in Hyde Park’s immense meadows. Gradually the assembled multitude swelled to a total of at least 200,000 due to additions from the other bank. Milling groups of people could be seen shoved about from place to place. The police, who were present in force, were obviously endeavouring to deprive the organisers of the meeting a place to stand upon. Finally a rather large crowd made a firm stand and Bligh the Chartist constituted himself chairman on a small eminence in the midst of the throng. No sooner had he begun his harangue than Police inspector Banks at the head of forty truncheon swinging constables explained to him that the Park was the private property of the Crown and that no meeting might be held in it… meanwhile Finlen, a member of the Chartist executive, rushed to a tree some distance away followed by a crowd who in a twinkle formed so close and compact a circle around him that the police abandoned their attempt to get at him. “Six days a week,” he said, “we are treated like slaves and now Parliament wants to rob us of the bit of freedom we still have on the seventh”.

Suddenly shouts could be heard on all sides: “Let’s go to the road, to the carriages!” The heaping of insults upon horse riders and occupants of carriages had meanwhile already begun. The constables, who constantly received reinforcements from the city, drove the promenading pedestrians off the carriage road. They thus helped to bring it about that either side of it was lined deep with people.

“A music that could drive one mad”

The spectators consisted of about two-thirds workers and one-third members of the middle class, all with women and children. The procession of elegant ladies and gentlemen in their high coaches-and-four with liveried lackeys in front and behind, did not this time pass by in review- but played the role of involuntary actors who were made to run the gauntlet. A Babel of jeering, taunting, discordant ejaculations, in which no language is as rich as English, soon bore down upon them from both sides. As it was an improvised concert, instruments were lacking. The chorus therefore had only its own organs at its disposal and was compelled to confine itself to vocal music. And what a devils’ concert it was: a cacophony of grunting, hissing, whistling, squeaking, snarling, growling, croaking, shrieking, groaning, rattling, howling, gnashing sounds! A music that could drive one mad and move a stone.

Meanwhile the metropolitan electric telegraph had informed all police stations that a riot was about to break out in Hyde Park and the police were ordered to the theatre of military operations. Soon one detachment of them after another marched at short intervals through the double file of people, each received with the popular ditty: “Where are the geese? Ask the police!”. This was a hint at a notorious theft of geese recently committed by a constable in Clerkenwell.

The spectacle lasted three hours. Only English lungs could perform such a feat. During the performance opinions such as “this is only the beginning!” “That is the first step!” “We hate them!” and the like were voiced by the various groups. Shortly before the end the demonstration increased in violence. Canes were raised in menace at the carriages and through the welter of discordant noises could be heard the cry of “you rascals!”.

Most of the London papers carry today only a brief account of the events in Hyde Park. No leading articles as yet, except in Lord Palmerston’s Morning Post- it claims that “a spectacle, both disgraceful and dangerous in the extreme has taken place in Hyde Park, an open violation of law and decency- an illegal interference by physical force in the free action of the legislature.” It urges that “this scene must not be allowed to-be repeated the following Sunday, as was threatened.””

1855: round two
: A week later another protest took place in the Park, in defiance of a ban on meetings there. Faced with such protests, Lord Grosvenor eventually withdrew his proposals. Marx describes what happened on July 1st:

“Even according to the account given in the police bulletin at half past two already 150,000 people of every age and social estate surged up and down the park and gradually the throng swelled to such dimensions as were gigantic and enormous even for London… once again the crowd lined both sides of the drive along the Serpentine, only this time the lines were denser and deeper than the previous Sunday. However, high society did not put in an appearance. High society had given wide berth to the place of combat and by its absence had acknowledged vox populi to be sovereign.

It got to be four o’clock and it looked as if the demonstration for lack of nutrition was going to simmer down to harmless Sunday amusements, but the police reckoned differently. Were they going to withdraw amidst general laughter, casting melancholy farewell glances at their own big-lettered placards – posted up on the portals of the park? Eight-hundred constables had been strategically distributed. Big squads were stationed in neighbouring localities to serve as reinforcements. In brief, the police had drawn up a plan of campaign which was “of a far more vigorous description,” according to the Times “than any of which we have yet had notice in the Crimea.” The police were in need of bloody heads and arrests in order not to fall from the sublime to the ridiculous without some intermediate link.

[Orders were issued] allegedly for the protection of passing carriages and riders. But as both carriages and riders stayed away and there was therefore nothing to protect, they began to single some individuals out of the crowd and have them arrested on false pretences, on the pretext that they were pickpockets. When this experiment was repeated more and more often and the pretext no longer sounded plausible, the crowd raised one big cry. At once the constabulary rushed from ambush, whipped their truncheons out of their pockets, began to beat up people’s heads until the blood ran profusely, yanked individuals here and there out of the vast multitude (a total of 104 were thus arrested) and dragged them to the improvised blockhouses.

Only a small strip of land separates the left side of the drive from the Serpentine. Here an officer of the police and his detail manoeuvred the spectators to the very brink of the lake, threatening to give them a cold water bath. To escape the clubbing one of the crowd swam across the Serpentine to the opposite shore, but a policeman followed him in a boat, caught him in a boat and brought him back triumphantly.

During the demonstration several attempts were made again to hold separate meetings in various places. At one of them an anonymous speaker harangued his audience about as follows: “Men of Old England! Awake! Rise from your slumbers, or be forever fallen! Oppose it every succeeding Sunday, as you have done today… Don’t fear to demand your rights and privileges, but throw off the shackles of oligarchical oppression and misrule. His lordship wants to drive us to church and make us religious by act of Parliament; but it won’t do. Who are we and who are they? Look at the present war; is it not carried on at the expense and the sacrifice of blood of the producing classes? And what do the non-producing classes do? they bungle it”. The speaker as well as the meeting were stopped, of course by the police.”

The following extracts are from the report of the parliamentary enquiry “into the alleged disturbance of the public peace in Hyde Park on Sunday, July 1st, 1855; and the conduct of the Metropolitan Police in connexion with the same”:

“It was observed that many of the most disorderly characters were collected in front of the rails on the south side of the Drive near the Receiving House… to clear the crowd back to some distance from the railings [orders were given] to the police to clear the road and the rails, and to use their staves… the police advanced with their truncheons drawn along the carriage road of the Drive, clearing it of people. Some of whom, not readily yielding or quitting the road, were pushed, struck, and roughly handled. The policemen also passed along the Drive, striking on the rails, and brandishing their staves over the heads of the crowd there, and in some instances striking at them, in order to compel them to . These proceedings produced or increased irritation and ill feeling on the part of the people assembled; offensive expressions were used to annoy the police, some stones were thrown at them, and frequent collisions took place.

About six o’clock in the evening a large mass of people set out from Hyde Park towards Grosvenor Gate and Pink Street, with cries of “Now to Lord Robert Grosvenor’s.” Soon afterwards a crowd was collected before Lord Robert Grosvenor’s house in Park Street. No actual violence, beyond throwing a stone at Lord Robert Grosvenor’s messenger, was committed by them; but their number and clamour were alarming. The crowd yelled and groaned, calling “Chuck him out,” and using other expressions of hostility to Lord Robert Grosvenor, and their aspect and proceedings were sufficiently menacing to excite the fears of the inmates of the house, though some of the cries were of a jocular character.

The police rushed forward with their staves drawn. Though there was no serious resistance, some of them, whilst dispersing and pursuing the crowd, used their staves, and otherwise acted with violence, inflicting severe injuries on several persons who were not shown to have been guilty of any violence, but who refused to move off when requested so to do, or who, being inoffensively there, ran or stood still when the police came up the street.”

Hyde Park remained an arena of (often violent) mass demonstrations and struggle. In 1862, there was fighting between radical sympathisers of Italian nationalist Garibaldi and  mostly Irish catholics who saw Garibaldi as having attacked the Pope… 1866/7 saw riots there during the Reform agitation… There were mass suffragette demos before World War 1, unemployed riots (1932), anti-fascist rallies in the 1930s, hippie gatherings for the legalisation of cannabis (1967), and the 1994 anti-Criminal Justice Bill demo and rave which became a massive riot…

Much more on Hyde Park can be read in The Battle for Hyde Park: Ruffians Radicals and Ravers, 1855-1994 (from which this is an excerpt). Available to buy from here

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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This month in London riotous history: weeks of unrest over food prices, 1595

In June 1595, 1,000s of apprentices took part in a series of riots on Tower Hill in London, culminating in an abortive plan for insurrection. The rioters were mostly very poor, protesting about the appalling social conditions of 1590s London. Their grievances included the scarcity and rising cost of food, the greed of the mayor and of other wealthy citizens. But as the month went on, the repression of the protests and mistreatment of participants became a grievance that escalated the movement…

The 1590s were a decade of social and political crisis. Food prices rocketed, partly due to scarcity; four successive harvests failed between 1594 and 1597. Inflation led to high prices; wages fell up to 22 percent from the previous decade, and real wages are thought to have been at their lowest for centuries before or after.

Taxes were heavy, and many of the poor struggled to pay them (in 1593, people were said be ‘selling their pots and pans to pay tax’) there was constant threat of invasion from Spain and war in Ireland… Acute hunger in the countryside led large numbers of rural dwellers to flock into London in the hope of finding work or at least relief; but employment in the capital plummeted. The economy was stagnating.

In London, the pressure of food shortages and high prices for staple foodstuffs led to discontent, and to protests. Flour prices in the capital increased by 190 percent between 1593 and 1597, other food underwent similar increases.

In June 1595, the crisis provoked food riots in the City of London, the first since the 1520s. There were 12 riots or large scale crowd protests between 6th and 29th June, in London and Southwark. Seditious libels were circulated attacking the authority of the Lord mayor, Sir John Spencer, know as ‘Rich’ Spencer, for his great wealth.

In the first riot of June 6, apprentices numbering two to three hundred rescued a silkweaver who had been committed to Bedlam after protesting outside the Lord Mayor’s house.

On 12th June, there was a riot over the price of fish: This appears to have been sparked when apprentices sent to buy fish at Billingsgate market found all the fish had been bought up already by ‘fishwives’ (market stall holders in effect). The apprentices seized the fish and sold it at the rate already agreed by the mayor. (The implication being the fishwives were preparing to sell the fish at a dearer price).

On 13 June, a riot over price of butter took place in Southwark, the part of the City south of the river Thames, and known for lawlessness and rebellion. 300 apprentices assembled in Southwark, took over the market and enforced the sale of butter at 3d. per pound where the sellers had been charging 5d. They also issued a proclamation that butter be bought and sold openly in the markets not old to private houses or inns.

In both these cases it is stressed in contemporary accounts the discipline of the crowds concerned, and that their actions were agreed to or at least accepted by magistrates. The riots have been suggested as examples of the ‘moral economy’ described by some historians, identifying a common vision of accepted prices, practices and relationships, which to some extent united some people from all classes in the pre-capitalist era. Inflating prices was viewed as immoral, breaking agreed levels of subsistence, especially on food staples, and collective action, even if it broke the law, was widely condoned, even among some in authority. A part of this was the aim of maintaining social peace, but there was also an element of upper class paternalism, an ideal of vertical social relations, but characterised by the responsibility of those in power to treat the lower orders benevolently to some extent. This was increasingly being threatened by evolving interests out to increase profits.

On 15th June, crowds attempted to rescue jailed comrades: “At this day certain prentices being committed to the Counter [the city Prison] by the constable for some misdemeanours, divers other prentices congregated themselves and came to the Counter and said they would have them forth again, using very hard speeches against the Lord Mayor; but the gates being shut against them and they not prevailing, they tarried not long but departed away.

The same day, not long after the said assembly of prentices at the Counter, a serving man that had a prentice to his brother dwelling in Cheapside, which prentice had complained of his master’s hard usage towards him to his said brother, the serving man hereupon coming to the master and quarrelling with him about the misuse of his brother, in multiplying of words the serving man brake the master’s head; and by this brawl the people gathering together and much hurley burley following, Sir Richard Martin hearing thereof came forth into the street, apprehended the serving man, and by the constable sent him to the Counter. As he was in carrying thither the prentices that formerly had resorted to the Counter and would have taken thence the prentices as aforesaid, did meet with this serving man, rescued him from the constable, and brought him back to Cheapside. Whereupon Sir Richard Martin, hearing of this disorder, came forth suddenly with such company as he had of his own servants and presently apprehended the serving man again, reprehended the prentices for their so great disorder, took six of the principal offenders, and so by the constable sent the serving man and the six prentices to the Counter, and caused irons to be laid upon them all. About an hour after when all things were quiet, saving only some dregs of people remaining in the streets gazing and expecting for novelties, as in such matters always it happeneth, the Lord Mayor, hearing of the broil and business which Sir Richard Martin had appeased and not knowing thereof, comes into Cheapside, accompanied with Sir John Hart, where finding all things in quiet, Sir John Hart, accompanied with Sir Richard Martin, went again to the Counter, charging the keeper thereof to look well to his prisoners and to see irons laid upon them all and to be safely kept, and so they returned to their houses.

The Lord Mayor likewise, after he had sent Sir Richard Martin and Sir John Hart to take order for the safe keeping of the prentices in the Counter, also presently returned towards his house, and about London Wall a prentice meeting him would not put off his cap unto him, whereupon the Lord Mayor sent him also by his officers to the Counter, which was done quietly and without opposition of any.”

Clearly, the troubles were beginning to move beyond moral economy and into dangerous subversion. And the spirit of unrest was being spread to the army – always a dodgy moment for the powers that be:

About the 16 or 17 of June, “certain prentices and certain soldiers or masterless men met together in “Powles”, [St Pauls] and there had conference, wherein the soldiers said to the prentices, “You know not your own strength”; and then the prentices asked the soldiers if they would assist them, and the soldiers answered that they would within an hour after be ready to aid them and be their leaders, and that they would play an Irish trick with the Lord Mayor, who should not have his head upon his shoulders within one hour after. At which time they spake of farther meeting together.”

The tensions did not die down yet.

On the 27 of June, “certaine young men apprentices and other, were punished by whipping, setting on the Pillory, &c. for taking 500 pounds of butter from the market women in Southwarke after the rate of 3 pence the pound, whereas the sellers price was 5. pence the pound. [the shepherds] caught the bakers up and took from them about four or five dozen cakes, for which they paid them the usual price, however, giving them a hundred walnuts and three baskets of grapes.”

The public whipping and pillorying of some of these rioters instigated a further riot that day – the pillories were torn down, and a gallows was erected in front of the house of the Lord mayor.

On the evening of 29 June, a crowd of at least 1000 apprentices marched on Tower Hill. According to reports they planned to ransack gunmakers shops and then rob the rich and take over the City: ‘to robbe, steale, pill and spoil the welthy and well disposed inhabitaunts of the saide cytye, and to take the sworde of aucthorytye from the magistrats and governours lawfully authorised’.

The crowd was said to have included shoemakers, girdlers, silk-weavers, husbandmen, apprentices, discharged soldiers and vagrants; they carried “halberds, bills, goones, daggs, manie pikes, pollaxes, swords, daggers, staves and such lyke.”

When City officers, the Watch from Tower Street ward, arrived to try to pacify or disperse them, the crowd stoned them, displaying a banner, “hartened unto by the sounding of a Trumpet… the Trumpeter having been a souldier.” Others tore down the pillories in Cheapside, the City’s main drag,

Even more seriously for the City authorities, it seems that the rioters won some support from the Lieutenant of the Tower, Sir Michael Blount and his garrison. When the Mayor arrived with sheriffs to make arrests and read a proclamation ordering the rioters to disperse, Blount objected to the carrying of the Mayor’s sword of justice before him, and about 10 of his garrison not only refused to help repress the crowd, but weighed in against the sheriffs, and “assaulted an beat the sword-bearer and the mayor’s servants.”

The riot on Tower Hill was the largest uprising in the City of London in nearly 80 years, and was unusual in its direct criticism of the elite.

The Lord mayor of London was so worried about the protests and especially the plot of 29th June, that he appealed to queen Elizabeth. In response she issued a royal proclamation “for apprehending such vagrants and rioters. In which her majesty signified her will to have a provost-marshal with sufficient authority to apprehend all such as should not be readily reformed and corrected by the ordinary officers of justice, and them without delay to execute them upon the gallows by order of martial law. And accordingly Sir Thomas Wilford was appointed provost-marshal, who patrolled the city with a numerous attendance on horseback, armed with pistols, apprehended many of the rioters, carried them before the justices appointed for their examination, and after condemnation, executed five of them on Tower-hill.”

Five apprentices appear to have been hanged on Tower Hill on July 24th.

In his order of execution, the Mayor directed each inhabitant of the ward “that they keepe within their houses all their men servants and apprentices to morrow from three of the clock in the morning untill eight at night, and the same householders be . . . all that time ready at their door . . . with a weapon in their hande.”

The mayor also requested that the Privy Council suppress stage plays, which they claimed had incited “the late stirr & mutinous attempt of the fiew apprentices and other servants… the casue of the increase of crime within the City.”

Some of the price-enforcing apprentices, though initially punished for the misdemeanors of riot and sedition, were retroactively charged in 1597 with treason, following the reasoning that the popular attempt to regulate prices constituted an attempt to alter the laws of the realm by force.

The hunger thousands were experiencing didn’t end in 1595, and nor did attempts to remedy the situation by force. In 1596, there was an abortive attempt to launch an uprising in Oxfordshire at Enslow Hill, which seems to have arisen from anger at enclosures locally, but inspired by the food riots in London and elsewhere. The plotters had aimed to link up with the London apprentices, who were clearly seen as up for continuing the fight. However, the plotters, who had allegedly intended to murder local enclosing landowners, attracted too little support, dispersed when it was obvious there were not enough of them, and were easily rounded up when one of them stupidly confessed to his employer.

The council from its treatment of the rebels considered the Enslow rebellion threatening although in reality it never got started. Five ringleaders were taken to London, interrogated, imprisoned for six months, tortured and then sentenced to death for making war against the Queen. In June 1596 two were hanged, drawn and quartered the fate of the rest is unknown.

The rioting of the 1590s did die down, possibly in the face of the threat of massive repression. But although the bad harvests, the constant war and heavy taxation had produced a time of crisis, as England entered the 17th century, increasing enclosures and dislocation were to continue to pile pressure on the poor, and economic and social transformation would produce uprising and resistance on a scale that would dwarf the events of 1595…

Sources: (A New and Accurate History and Survey of London, Westminster, Southwark, and Places Adjacent… Edward and Charles Dilly 1766)

The Pursuit of Stability: Social Relations in Elizabethan London, Ian W. Archer

The London Apprentice Riots of the 1590s and the Fiction of Thomas Deloney, Mihoko Suzuki

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Today in London’s indebted history: Amazons of Southwark Mint repulse the bailiffs

From around the mid 1670s until the mid 1720s, there were certain areas in London whose inhabitants claimed certain rights and liberties, most notably to be free from being arrested for debt.

Imprisonment for debt was a constant threat for nearly everyone in eighteenth century London. Due to the scarcity of coin, many transactions had to be done on credit, making everyone a debtor of sorts, even if they were owed more than owing. And because this was a civil process, not a criminal one, everyone was at the mercy of their creditors, who had a powerful legal arsenal at their disposal. Debtors could be confined before any hearing. Release could only be obtained through settling the debt, even though imprisonment precluded earning the money necessary to do so. No determinate sentence was set, and time in jail did not work off any of the sum owed. Consequently, debtors could find themselves locked up for very long periods for trifling sums.

Many creditors resorted to the law, and many people suffered for it. The available figures suggest there were thousands of debtors incarcerated at any one time. Before the American revolution ended transportation, the vast majority of the prison population were debtors. The prison reformer John Howard found 2437 so incarcerated in 1776; a pamphlet of 1781 listing all the debtors released by the Gordon Rioters from London’s prisons alone gave a similar number; government enquiries revealed 9030 locked up in 1817. To hold all these people there was a vast national network of gaols: nearly 200 across England and Wales in the eighteenth century, with 10 in London and Middlesex and 5 more in Southwark

One way of avoiding prison was by taking refuge in the sanctuaries. There were eleven of these active in London and surrounds in the 1670s: on the north bank of the Thames in Farringdon Ward Without were Whitefriars, Ram Alley, Mitre Court, and Salisbury Court; on the north side of Fleet Street Fullers Rents; the Savoy off the Strand, the Minories by the Tower, Baldwin’s Gardens in Middlesex, and in Southwark Montague Close, The Clink and The Mint.

Each of these places claimed some sort of independent jurisdiction. In some case, such as Whitefriars, Montague Close and the Minories, there was a memory of religious sanctuary, notwithstanding the abolition of that right under James I. In others, there were charters allowing a level of autonomous governance, as with Whitefriars again, and the Clink. The Savoy was owned by the Duchy of Lancaster. And with the Mint in Southwark, there seemed to be both an administrative vacuum, and the ambiguity of being within the ‘Rules’ of the King’s Bench, an area outside that prison but where inmates were allowed to live.

What all these refuges had in common was a population of debtors prepared to physically defend these claims and take on the bailiffs that would arrest them.

Poor Robin’s Intelligence was a two page broadsheet, written by the hack journalist Henry Care, published through 1676 and 1677, and sold by “the General Assembly of Hawkers” on the streets of London. Care coined the term ‘Alsatia’ for the area around Whitefriars, after the territory nominally part of France but with many independent cities.

Although not a resident of any of the sanctuaries, Care was clearly well informed of the goings-on in them, and regularly reported, in a fantastically florid and mock-heroic style – but always sympathetically – the frequent battles with the bailiffs.

An early account of such a fight described the ‘Amazons’ of The Mint in Southwark, one of the longest lasting sanctuaries, surviving until 1723. On its dissolution, nearly 6,000 Minters applied for relief and exemption from prison, giving an indication of the size of that shelter. Of these, some 7.5% were women. Although, under the iniquitous doctrine of ‘Feme Covert’, married women and their property were subsumed to their husbands and so not considered capable of having debts in their own name, single and widowed women were at risk of imprisonment as much as men. And judging by Care’s account, they were fearsome opponents of the duns:

“From the Mint in Southwark, May 17” [1676]
“A party of Counterians [bailiffs] strongly ammunition’d with Parchment and green Wax [Warrants of arrest], lately made an entrenchment upon the prerogative of this place, hoping to bring us in subjection to those Laws from which by custom we are exempted; but the White and Blew Regiments of our Amazonian guards resisted them with such an invincible courage, that the assailants were forced to a very base and dishonourable submission, prostrating themselves in the very Highway, and begging Quarter; their chief Commander we took prisoner, who freely offer’d all his wealth for his ransome; so that being solemnly sworn upon a Brick bat, never again to make the like presumptuous attempt, and humbly acknowledging himself to be the son of a Woman by birth, and a Rogue by practice, with the blessing of a good woman, which she gave him cross the pace with a Broom-staff, he was by consent dismiss’d.”

Most of the sanctuaries were dissolved by statute in 1697; the Mint persisted until abolished by legislation in 1723. Refugees from there set up in Wapping for a short period, until suppressed by the army. Civil imprisonment for debt was ostensibly abolished in 1869, but in reality was made ‘contempt of court’, a criminal offence. Coupled with the increasing financial demands of the state upon the population by way of taxes, imprisonment for debt continued unabated.

For moer on the debtors’ sanctuaries, see Alsatia.org.uk

Today in London radical history: the 1981 Brixton Uprising

“Between 6.10pm on Friday, 10th April, 1981, and 11.34pm, on Monday April 13th April 1981, during a very warm early spring interlude, serious disorder occurred in the immediate area of Brixton, SW9, within the greater London Borough of Lambeth, when large numbers of persons, predominantly black youths, attacked police, police vehicles (many of which were totally destroyed), attacked the Fire Brigade and damaged appliances, damaged private premises and vehicles, destroyed private premises and vehicles by fire, looted, ransacked and damaged shops…” (Metropolitan Police Report on April 1981 Brixton Riot)

“All you fucking cunts, it’ll be your turn next, the whites will turn on you, come on you cunt, take a swing at me man to man.” (White policeman to black passers-by, Villa Road, Brixton, 11th April 1981.)

After more than a decade of repeated attacks, arrests, harassment, and racist provocations by the local police and the paramilitary riot squad, the Special Patrol Group, in April 1981, Brixton erupted in a massive uprising.

The riot – followed by more in July, part of a nationwide wave of disorder – shocked the British state. Though labelled ‘race riots’ by the press, in fact blacks and whites fought side by side, in the first anti-police riots for more than a century. The riot was a prelude to widespread uprisings in communities across Britain that took place in July.

The following is mostly taken (with some additions) from the pamphlet ‘We Want to Riot, Not To Work’, originally published in April 1982, by the Riot Not to Work Collective, a group of anarchists who lived in Brixton and took part in the April ’81 riot. As the original publishers wrote: “Generalisations about events are hardly useful unless they reflect the experience of those involved in them. The contributors to the first section express their thoughts, feelings and aspirations during the course of the April uprising. The first account also gives some background information about Brixton and the events which led up to the uprising. All these accounts were originally written just afterwards.”

Something of the background to the riot in terms of policing and black resistance to it can be read here

We have left the accounts in the present tense, to preserve the immediacy of the writing. Obviously social relations in Brixton have changed massively in the 37 years since 1981, as the initial description of the ‘Frontline’ most clearly indicates – though some burning issues remain.

THE FIRE THIS TIME

By now the social and economic background to the Brixton riots will be familiar to most people. A housing waiting list, in the borough in which Brixton is situated, of 18,000; a third of the housing stock sub-standard; high unemployment with about 2 out of 3 of the unemployed being black; a high robbery rate (in fact the highest in London, it being twice the nearest figure); next to no social amenities.

This is all very true. The area around the Railton Road (Frontline/Mayall Road triangle) is inhabited by mainly black council tenants and mainly white squatters (leftists/anarchists/marginals). Empty houses are also used by local blacks as drinking and gambling clubs, dope centres and venues for all-night ‘Blues’ (parties with sound systems pumping out non-stop reggae). Down the Frontline a black crafts centre has recently started in one empty building and further down a former black bookshop is now a squatted anarchist bookshop. People down here tend to live on the left-overs of capitalist society. For years, the Triangle has been on the drawing board for demolition but only in the last two has any attempt been made to carry this out. But the council keeps running out of money so it has been coming down piecemeal, making a rough area look even rougher. However, the maze of streets west of the Front-line look brighter as they have increasingly come under the occupation of white, liberal professionals and self-made respectable blacks.

Down the Frontline there are two distinct cultures – the black and the white – and it is the black culture which predominates and on the fringes of which the young whites participate. Dope and Reggae. The blacks have their own language – Patois – and this gives them an independent cultural identity that is not easily co-opted or diluted . Perhaps the most relevant aspect of this culture (in terms of the riots) is that it is very much a street culture (despite British weather). Winter or summer there are always crowds of blacks out on the Frontline rapping, smoking, laughing, visibly occupying their social space.

But it is the cops who claim they control the streets of London. Certainly in the two years I’ve lived on the Frontline I’ve noticed that the cops have always tried to intimidate the Frontline community with constant vehicle and foot patrols and less frequently, horse patrols. (The most bizarre policing incident I’ve ever seen happened a few months ago when a cop on horseback chased someone down Mayall Road).

Actually, the cops know they cannot fully control the Frontline. Despite their claims and their patrols the police policy on the Frontline has been one of containment – periodical raids to remind locals who is boss and to warn them not to get out of hand. Operations such as the one in 1978, when the SPG scaled off the Frontline and searched anybody and everybody, have caused outrage. Blacks, especially the second generation, are, on the whole, defiant. A month or so ago a black motorist tore up the ticket a cop had just given him and threw it back in his face, to cheers from the assembled crowd.

The cops constantly use the SUS laws to stop and search young blacks. And they do this with vengeance. Another events on the Frontline will illustrate this. Two vehicles collided and the cops on the scene immediately searched both vehicles and their drivers and passengers. The accident was secondary. With such everyday deprivation and such mindless state bullying, for being deprived, the one thing which united the disparate elements of the Frontline community is a burning hatred for the cops. What most surprised local people when the Bristol riots happened last year was that they hadn’t happened here first. Another surprise was that the anarchist graffiti which went up after [the 1980 riot in] Bristol – Bristol yesterday, Brixton today – took a year to be made real.

The establishment knew this too. Only a few months ago Lambeth Council published a report criticising the cops and predicting trouble.

THE WEEK BEFORE THE RIOTS

The constant intense policing of Brixton and of the Frontline in particular was heightened in the week leading up to the riots. At 11pm on Friday April 3rd, the Frontline area around Dexter and Leeson Roads was sealed off by cops with no-one being allowed in or out for over an hour. Over 20 arrests were made. Then, in the following week, Operation Swamp 81 saw over 1,000 people (mainly young blacks) stopped and searched. This was all adding to the increasing frustration of local people. At about 2.30am on Friday 10th I was stopped and threatened by 3 young blacks with bottles. This confused and angered me (it was the first time I’d ever been hassled on the Frontline) and it was only later that I realised that they had been victims of Swamp 81, perhaps only minutes before meeting me.

On Friday 10th at about 5pm a young black with a knife wound was stopped on the Frontline by cops. What followed is the source of many different stories. (The Notorious DC Duncan was in charge, a man with a very bad rep locally. Onlookers claimed the cops knelt on the bloke and kept him there bleeding for 20 minutes. Obviously the old bill claimed they’d been helping the lad.)

Whatever happened (and it isn’t necessary to seek justification for what followed anyway) the cops were attacked by a gang of locals, the young bloke freed and taken to hospital. A brief battle with cop re-inforcements occurred. The cops took this as a challenge and so the following day, Saturday 11th, the Frontline was under police occupation. “Brixton was thoroughly over-policed. There were officers at every street corner, transits parked all over the place… it feels, once again, like the police have taken your town over… A local shopkeeper, not known for his radical views, was to be heard proclaiming that he wouldn’t be surprised if the youths started fighting again. And he wouldn’t blame them either.” (The Leveller)

On the Saturday morning the rumour went round, that the stabbing victim, Michael Bailey, had died due to police delays…

Usually the cops patrol the Frontline. But on that Saturday they parked up and down the Frontline every 50 yards, just sitting in their vans waiting for something to happen. It was a warm day so the Frontline was full of people standing around doing the usual things and, this time, eyeing the occupation force with hatred. All afternoon most people expected trouble of some sort. At about 5pm in the afternoon a plain-clothes cop received the free gift of a brick on the head for wanting to search a black guy’s car. Up in Atlantic Road an arrest was attempted and this further angered an already angry crowd. Most of this crowd was gathered in the space at the apex itself and is at the beginning of Atlantic Road, The odd brick began to fly at the cops isolated in the crowd. A window was smashed. Tension rose. Electric. Then plain-clothes cops appeared from the crowd and joined the uniformed lot. Battle fines were now clearly drawn and the first barrage of bricks flew in the direction of the cops. They threw a few back and charged. At first we retreated a little but, realising we were many, they were few, we stopped. Then, spontaneously, the whole afternoon’s tension being released like a spring, we charged them.

(What follows may seem confused and incoherent. But this is how I experienced the rioting. I report on only what I saw and heard. Certain incidents are omitted for obvious reasons).

A massive surge of adrenalin. War whoops. Class war whoops. ‘Whoops! Class War!’ A scramble for bricks. ‘I must have a brick. Where are the bricks?’ A hail of bricks. The cops are confused as they realise they are no longer in control. Puppets without a role. They look at us, at one another and around themselves. Then. Run. Away. Down Mayall Road, leaving their vehicles in our hands. in the twinkling of a rioting eye the vehicles are smashed up and turned over. A light is instantly provided and poof! Up goes a cop’s van. Wild cheers. Laughter, dances of joy. I see a comrade and we beam solidarity at one another.

Our savage celebrations are interrupted by a charge of cops. (They had regrouped with re-inforcements). The crowd splits. The cops are mad. Truncheons thrashing. I run to safety up a side street and meet another comrade. As we point with child-like glee at the rising pall of smoke; a white guy is bricked, inexplicably. He is immediately defended by black youths and all eyes look around for the idiot thrower. A nearby friend has transport and as I got to seek its availability a black guy bearing an old grudge grabs me, revenge in his eyes. Before he can find an excuse to brick me (was the brick which hit the other guy meant for me?) I make it plain that assistance is needed. Van not available. Questions from friends. Tune in to police radio. They are out of their heads. Sounds of windows going in on Coldharbour Lane. Back onto the streets.

In Coldharbour Lane an SPG van is on its side like some stranded whale. A boutique has its windows smashed and twisted dummies litter the pavement. Crowds of onlookers. Glass smashes in Electric Avenue. A jewellers is looted. Another further up. Black and white youths kick their way through the roller shutters. I watch out for cops on Brixton Road, Announce to the passing shoppers, who are all eyes, that free jewellery is available should they want it. Am ignored. Notice that the jewellers is, perfectly, next door to a consumer advice centre. Necklaces, bracelets, rings and watches are thrown into the pavement. Jewellery in the gutter. Great! I have a game of football with some bracelets, a game I can’t lose. There are some squabbles over loot. Depressing.

Move out onto Brixton Road. Burton’s tailors is done in and a dummy set ablaze. Magical sight. Cops arrive. Pull dummy onto pavement. The tube station is closed but Brixton Road is still open to traffic. The motorists and bus passengers look in confusion as looting spreads to both sides of the road. A black youth kicks in plate glass windows as if he is swatting flies. More cops. Burglar alarms scream out to deaf ears. More and more cops. Running battles. More looting. Then I notice there’s no more traffic. The cops have sealed the main road off from the cop shop to the Town Hall.

Looting and smashing now all along Brixton Road area, the market area and up Acre Lane. My name is called out. Another comrade. We shake hands muttering ‘Great! Great!’ I give him a garbled resume. Bulk of crowd now around Brixton Oval. Woolworths smashed and looted. Television sets, stereo, carted off. Some smashed. Occasional cop van races through and is smashed. Many in the crowd realise cops have to pass us to get into the battle area so crowds line up on either side of Brixton Road with bottles and bricks. ‘Here’s another’ Smash. ‘And another.’ Smash. A proletarian fairground. ‘And the next one please!’ Smash. Everyone a winner. Cops wise up and a convoy arrives, stops and a horde of meanies piles out, truncheons thrashing. Crowd splits up but sniping still possible. A charge and we escape up a side street. All casual, like, we call into a pub for a drink. A rumour goes round that a cop has been kidnapped. My comrade and I smirk into our glasses.

We decide to go to the Frontline. It is now dark and we worm our way through back streets, avoiding cop cordons. We approach the top of the Frontline along Kellett Road and are met with an unbelievable sight. Three rows of cops stretch across the Frontline, facing into it. A non-stop hail of bricks batters their shields. Then suddenly a molotov (the first I’ve ever seen) comes up and over and smash! whoof! lands on some shields, which are hurriedly dropped. Look down Mayall Road and see the Windsor Castle (pub) ablaze. The Frontline is barricaded with burning vehicles. I’m elated and pissed off. Elated that the Frontline is a no-go area and pissed off that I’m now cut off from defending it. I look around. Exhausted and injured cops sitting on the ground smoking fags. The fires, the cops, the atmosphere. Class war. ‘Will they bring the army in?’ Belfast.

“Councillor John Boyle, in Railton Road, used his loudhailer to try to calm the situation: there was an attempt at negotiation. Previously, some of the youths had offered to stop throwing bottles and bricks in return for a release of all prisoners. Senior officers said, ‘no way’ “ (The Leveller)

We detour to the south end of the Frontline, which is also sealed off. Watch a shop blaze. The sub-post office has disappeared. Back to the Town Hall area. Cops now holding strategic positions – the big junction at the Town Hall, the cops station, etc. Still looting. More friends arrive. Talk. Back to the Frontline. All fires out by now. It’s getting on for midnight. Things much quieter. Cops slowly regaining control. Up to cop shop. Barricaded with cop vans. Under siege. Cops attack us and force people down back alley. Beatings. Arrests. We are split up. I wander back along Brixton Road surveying damage. Only a few civilians are about now. Cops are in control. Get off the streets. Talk to friends for hours and then back to Frontline for celebratory drink. One last look at the blitzed Frontline in the dawn light and then sleep. I dream of cops, cops and more cops.

Sunday 12th. Tired, hung-over. Rage at the newspapers. Commissioner McNee and others have the gall to blame ‘outside agitators’. (The cops were the outside agitators.) Frontline is crowded with people debating. Lots of cops patrolling warily. Firemen inspect damage. Discuss events with friends. News of arrests. Early evening. More trouble, but more easily contained, as over 1000 more cops are in the area. Brixton is sealed off, up as far as Kennington Oval. Fascist attack in Villa Road [famous squatted street: NF members attacked squatters here on Sunday night]. Cop station again heavily protected. Cops use ‘Nightsun’ helicopter for the first time. (Can light up an area the size of a football pitch and is fitted with infra-red cameras.) More cops. They’re gaining the upper hand.

A Long Week

Since the weekend there has been confusion and paranoia. The gutter press stress not only ‘outside agitators’ but also ‘white anarchists conspiracy’. Comrades are raided. (Who’s next?) Where are they held? Which court will they appear in? First fines are heavy~£200. Hassles about getting bail. Newspapers print photographs showing faces. (Who’s next?) Frontline now quieter than usual. Massive police presence but this isn’t immediately visible. Coaches in side streets, up to 2 miles away. Reports filter back about treatment of those arrested. Heavy. Can’t sleep. (How can the people of Northern Ireland have survived 10 years of this without cracking up?) The black community is divided. The rally for Easter Sunday is called off. Recriminations. The Brixton Defence Committee and Lambeth Law Centre are organising counter-information and compiling a list of cases against the police. It’s still early days yet.

Easter Weekend. Frontline much quieter than usual. Brixton still occupied. All varieties of political groupings trying to colonise the local initiative. (The worst I saw was Militant, with the headline ‘Brixton – Blame the Tories’.) Difficult to judge the atmosphere. People having to re-think, trying to get these extraordinary events in perspective. It is now a higher level of confrontation. All the shops in the market and main road areas are boarded up. For how long? There is talk of more ‘aid’ for the community. Sticking plaster for leprosy. Class society is rotten through and through. Where will the next eruption take place? The struggle here is far from over.

For people who live outside Brixton who wish to express solidarity – you have police on your streets.

THE DAY THE IMAGE CRACKED / THE HONEYMOON ENDED/ THE GAME WAS UP/DIXON OF DOCK GREEN SNUFFED IT etc…

My strongest memory of the Brixton riot (two weeks past at time of writing) was the Saturday afternoon that I returned from shopping at the market and found myself increasingly anxious at the large police presence. This pressure made swallowing food or drink difficult and I was unable to concentrate on anything but the source of my cancerous fretting. The arrogant pigs were every where on my route home and the air seemed thick with humid heat and pressure, like before a storm. I put my weekend shopping in my home and when I came outside I heard an explosion and I either laughed or cried and ran along the street . I saw many faces and it was like a dance without a stage /music / popstars or songs; energy began to flow through my arms and legs, I felt like jumping up and down so I did and all around me perhaps 500 people were whooping and yelling hurrah and leaping about. Police were on the run, running away down Leeson Road and a car was being put over to be used as a barricade… once it was on its side, someone lit some screwed up paper and threw it on the leaking petrol, all stepped back and a small flame suddenly grew into a burst of fire and black smoke clouded up. Down along Railton road I could see some more cars being turned over and I rushed down to help.

From the demolition sites of what was once lived in homes lots of us brought out bricks to break up so that smaller pieces could be used to throw and planks of wood to toss on the burnin’ cars.

Time was at a standstill…. so many bricks did I break up with an iron fence railing that my hands blistered…. a large sheet of corrugated iron was piled up with debris and dragged up to a big crowd and was quickly emptied at coppers behind long shields. Through the smoke I could see a photographer among the police lines with a telescopic lens trying to focus on the group I was in, so we all threw whatever we could find at him but he was just out of reach and our missiles fell short. Some friends arrived and I wore a scarf to cover my face from the cameras and to keep out the smoke; from then on others too began covering their faces. A bus was liberated and the driver quickly pissed off. Following some arguments it was driven down the road at the police lines and it simply went to one side just beyond the burning cars as no-one stayed inside to steer it. But the short journey was a laugh. (Although according to the police petrol bombs were thrown from the bus as it careered down the road?)

“At the corner of Coldharbour Lane and Brixton Road we ran across a group of police officers; we followed. About 20 ran down the road. One, sobbing, when asked whether there was a senior officer present, cried, “senior officers, mate, I haven’t seen a fucking sergeant all night.” They seemed to be the local police, running scared. Further up the road, some policemen had armed themselves with pick-axe handles and were laying out anyone in sight.” (The Leveller)

So much seems out of time context, my mind jumps forward and back: I can recall observing the police maneuvres in Mayall Rd. In Particular a group of plainclothes detectives /vigilantes / police in uniform but without their hats, coats and ties, with their sleeves rolled up. Uniformed (and looking very young) formations were lining up nearby with shields. Then I noticed the long sticks (the ‘pick axe handles’ rarely mentioned in the media) which these plainclothes lot were handing to each other. One bloody faced and overweight pig, who I recognised from an SPG (State Paid Gangster) raid the week before, was letting off a tirade to those who would listen about ‘fucking niggers’. The sight of these goons cursing and tooling up for further aggro made me at once very sick (and I mean really churning inside – have a piss or shit now – and dry throat gagging) and shakingly angry with incredibly strong desire to be a sniper and blow the thugs away with a rifle or some explosive. Together with some other observers we yelled out “FUCK OFF” and they started to look at all the windows on the side of the street facing them across the derelict site . We were masked and I am sure they did not know what we were capable of, so they closed up closer together and then two with shields moved up to pry sheets of corrugated iron apart to get in across the vacant block at us. Suspecting we might become the victims of a snatch squad we checked out the place for escape and where it was likely the pigs would enter. Somewhere in the street a voice called up and asked us if we were thirsty and we came downstairs and onto the street for some quenching beers – the Managers of the George [a local pub notorious for racism, which had barred black people and gays] had pissed off leaving us a lot to drink heh, heh, heh we were all grinning. It was exhilarating; adrenalin and booze went straight to my head, from the street it looked like several cars were on fire in surrounding streets too and I felt like I was really living. Someone actually said “This is history and we’re here, YAHOO!” and I felt amazing, no drug can compare to that exuberant rush/high fun feeling. I warned those nearby to look out for possible snatch squads and went up to see the George, Windsor Castle, Post Office, Plumbers and Dr. Khan (I once was refused to be seen by the good Doctor’s Secretary and the ‘menstrual pain’ turned out to be appendicitis) getting looted and burned. All the bad memories attached to places came back and I thought Brixton is going to explode now that we have a chance to get even. I think the Pakistani newsagents in Effra Parade getting burnt out was a mistake as the woman and two kids only just got out in time and the amount of cash or goods was fuck all. What was a target and what was not (the Tory Club and the local Police Doctor were left alone!) Well it was only the mercenary jerks who were indiscriminate and if the cops had kept out of it for a few days, I think the shithead element would have gotten some aggro back. A woman who was being hassled by some big guys was suddenly surrounded and the men made to leave her alone; likewise some black racists who were picking on a young white were told to fuck off by a quickly gathering group of black, Asian and white, young and old, male and female gay and straight people. The story in the Sun about the rape of a woman which occurred on Saturday night was chosen to divide and frighten people (Black rapists attack white woman headlined!). If the cops had not kept everyone on the run then this and other incidents which the media did not publicise but I know of ( a lone individual who gave shelter to some fugitives from a police raid, then had to put up with 3 hours of machismo display and knife threats for example) would have been dealt with.

Unable to pass through the police cordon at the base of Railton & Mayall road triangle we walked through the back streets which seemed barely changed compared to the picturesque ruins of Railton Road. A stroll past the police meant no harassment because they were desperate to keep up some face it seemed; only those running were stopped. We joined in the window smashing and looting in Electric Avenue and managed to get some booty back through the police cordons by surrounding the person holding the box of goodies and then walking briskly on as if we meant business and did not want to waste time, just get off the street and safely behind doors Once deposited we went out to see the pitched battle between the rigid lines of police and the dancing rebels. We got in a few bricks, bottles and even saw the shit bags get run off the street by one firebomb armed group who then got stuck in with iron bars on fallen cops. On television was the Space Shuttle but it seemed so ridiculous that I could not watch and went back to the street where real decisions were being made then and there. Fires were up and down the street and on the FM band of the radio the Old Bill seemed to be panicking in the Frontline. But Lima Delta Control urged them on as they had orders from ZULU (Whitelaw or MeNee’s sick joke?) If only we had been able to break out of Railton Road as a large group and actually attacked the police station and freed the prisoners… But it was surrounded and the tourist element or passive spectator/innocent bystander types had come as more cops secured the streets. The skirmishes that flared later in the night were hit and run battles, after some soup and sugary tea I collapsed asleep.

SUNDAY – white ribbons with tourists hanging on staring at the burnt out places like zoo exhibits or a fun fair; the idiot priests and social workers who were allowed behind our lines yesterday to get the ultimatum POLICE WITHDRAW and FREE THE PRISONERS, for an arrogant Police Chief and media to coldly deny, had today returned with camera and note taking sociologists, TV, radio and paper journalists (I even met one from Brazil TV),self-appointed Community Leaders and the Left who had come to organise us into their dead Parties, slimey fronts and so on to add insult to our police-inflicted injuries. Rumours of fascist vengeance and off-duty police and Army paramilitary attacks were rife. Politicians who never said a thing about South London let alone Brixton were suddenly falling over themselves to talk about unemployment, the race issue (sic) housing, criminals and or ‘political extremists’ whom the Tory hacks saw as the brains behind the riot. By late afternoon people were brawling with cops again and some looting broke out again. I saw this group of kids grabbing Easter eggs and shouting “It’s Easter early. HA!HA!HA!” which lifted me right out of the depression I was beginning to slide into. Dogs were being used to keep people on the move, especially away from Brixton Police Station with its ridiculous Crime Prevention Exhibition tent outside. I heard lots of youth decide that there were too many coppers and instead to go up Stockwell/Clapham/Herne Hill/Streatham and then it hit me: What has happened in those areas, why haven’t people risen up there? I met people from Balham who had heard nothing but sketchy /flimsy reports and some others from North London who said that nothing was different up there. This was jarring, we had been so well Contained, Isolated, Dispersed that it was all over bar the odd brawl which the bastards would surround and smash much more efficiently second time around One group of people we ran into were not even prepared to stand and fight, we just ran for several blocks. Surprise was gone and I began to worry about those arrested and the slow painful readjustment to routine and survival – paying up and working again- began to take its toll. Most changed their appearance except those who cannot go back to the old slow death and lie low waiting to get back to the ‘no-go’ exhilaration: the chameleons and the bitter will go much, much further next time be it next April, or before?

ALL IN A DAY’S WORK

About 4.30 on the Saturday, I went out to buy some tobacco and saw a crowd gathered outside the Car Hire in Railton Road. There’d been cops up and down our street all day and rumours of police activity over the previous week. Something was going on, so I hung around to see what. People were milling about, some shouting and arguing with the cops, half a dozen or so, who were standing about doing nothing. People continued to gather on their way home from shopping, and more policemen arrived. I couldn’t understand it at all, what everybody was waiting for . The police arrived, gathered in a group at the tip of the triangle, couple of dozen of them, discussing among themselves and from the back of the crowd were thrown a few bottles and insults. As soon as they turned around the throwing stopped, but pretty soon more cops arrived. One van was parked in the middle of the street, and suddenly half a dozen blacks ran out and started rocking it, trying to turn it over. The back doors flew open and out leapt 3 or 4 cops with shields and truncheons, and the blacks disappeared into the crowd. Odd bricks and bottles were being thrown whenever the police turned their backs. They were presenting themselves as a target. There wasn’t any violence until there were 20 or so cops on the scene. I got the impression that if the original cops had kept their cool and just stood around swapping verbals with the crowd, they’d have got bored and gone home, and no riot, but as it was everybody resented more and more cops arriving. What were they there for if not to threaten? So the missiles got more frequent, the thud of a brick against a van or car is a very distinct sound, gets the adrenalin going The police decided to do something and formed a line across the street, which was immediately bombarded.

They started to charge, and everybody ran, so they stopped and the crowd regathered. This happened a couple more times, and then someone tipped over and set on fire a police van at the tip of the triangle, behind the police. This was the first fire of the day. Once again the crowd formed, a bit further away this time, and again the police charged, this time chasing the crowd right down Railton Road. After that it seemed to quiet down a bit. In fact the scene shifted the other way down Mayall Road and Railton Road.

Later in the evening, about 7.30pm, I went out again, walking down Rattray Road. At the Railton Road end of every street leading off Rattray Road, a vehicle was burning. I could see a lot of smoke from Railton Road so I walked on down to the top of Effra Parade where a dozen or so cops were standing about, dishevelled, smoking. I’d never seen a cop roll a fag before. I walked past them and down to Chaucer Road, and down there. People had been looting the plumbers there, had got the safe out of the Post Office and were trying to open it while others were wandering about with bottles of booze, and others were setting fires. The road was littered with bottles, bricks, sticks and riot shields. A Fire Engine was slewed across the road, apparently abandoned There were no uniforms to be seen anywhere. Railton Road was swathed in smoke, so I crossed over and went up Mayall Road, where all seemed oddly quiet, after the destruction going on in the next street. The Windsor Castle pub was smashed up, people scrounging round inside. The little shops opposite Leeson Road were open and doing a fine trade in iced drinks. Thinking it was all over I went home, ignorant of the battles still going on and the looting that had taken place in the market area. There were cops at the scene of the beginning of the riot and at the junction with Coldharbour Lane, but none at all down Mayall Road, Railton Road or the back streets immediately off it. The police had obviously abandoned all hope of controlling the rioters, and I figured they’d withdraw, and let them wear themselves out burning and looting, which is what happened. There wouldn’t have been any riot if the police hadn’t tried to prevent it..

About ten o’ clock I went out again. This time there were thousands of cops everywhere, the whole of Railton Road seemed to be on fire, cars still smoking in the street, the fire engines had got in and were hosing down the buildings, illuminated by searchlights, people wandered up and down, still locals, outsiders wouldn’t come gasping until the next day, if they could get through the blockade . It was like a scene from the Blitz and my initial exhilaration at the people fighting back, turned to depression, that the result should be the destruction of their own neighbourhood and not that of Sloane Square, say. This time I walked around the market area, every other window seemed to be smashed, several shops on fire, including Woolworths, which produced a loud bang just as I walked past, the only incident, apart from the police charges, that frightened me all evening.

People kept ringing up to see if we were all right, apparently not realising how specific the fighting was, under the impression it was a race riot, which it wasn’t. It was a reaction against the police attempt to regulate if not repress local West Indian culture, which taking place as it does on the street, offends the eyes of Authority. People sitting indoors smoking are not a threat, people doing it in the street are, they get to know one another and form a community, rather than being atomised, and rendered impotent. Without that street culture the blacks wouldn’t have been victimised by the police, and without that culture they couldn’t have fought back so successfully.

a young fellah getting busted by a gang of coppers, dragged into a van and bashed so loud you could hear the blows against the walls of van outside in the street. Much adrenalin/fight or flight flows in these circumstances… It is like drinking way too much coffee, you run around get winded, go for it again, always being startled, noises seem harsher as your brain tells your body DANGER. Finally you crash out from exhaustion after talking your friends, family, fellow inmates ears off for hours as you come down from the roller coaster of traumas. Stepping in blood on the streets – whose, when, why questions questions flood into ya mind – oops no time for that, sounds of cop car swerving on the streets, cops bash their – then long – shields with batons to psyche crowds out, while local pensioners fill up bottles with petrol from heaters for the youths to use to defend the area from invading cops…meanwhile a paper seller from a Trot group stands there, ignored, as shop windows are smashed in and loot quickly removed …yikes the memory hole sucks ya in alright – old codger scratches grey beard well young fellah in my day we gave the old bill a right fright that’s forsure … drones on and on and on about the battles of the class war, got this scar in the attack on the cop shop itself blah blah.

WARNING: THE LAUGHTER IS EXPLOSIVE!

SATURDAY 9pm

Sitting in a flat in Streatham – pleasantly pissed after a picnic on the Common . nice weather. cup of coffee. – anyone mind if I put the radio on?        no.

–the London suburb of Brixton is in a State of siege tonight after a night of rioting. Shops have been burned and looted and forty seven police have been injured

-bloody hell –

-let’s go –

confusion, indecision, fear, hope.

wait for the bus . ten minutes. black teenager says – no buses to Brixton – we walk. quickly.

Brixton Hill – we see smoke over towards the market. thousands of Police. they’re scared. very scared. cross Acre Lane to go down the high street. they stop us. “CAN’T go down there”. up Acre Lane. line of cops with riot shields across Delmere Close. We try the pavement anyway. – “oi YOU, you can’t go down there.” “well which way can I get home then?” (try them out a bit) They’re angry and frightened. “DON’T ARGUE, just move”. they start getting edgy – riot ‘ shields twitch visibly and some move to wards us. “I’m not arguing – I’m asking.- “MOVE” one of them repeats “don’t argue”. – they get closer. we back off quietly up the Hill.

Skirt around Brixton. Back home at Kennington for a coffee and a change of clothes into something inconspicuous and empty all our pockets. We talk about what to do. We want to see Brixton, but we’re also feeling a bit adventurous.

– every copper in South London will be in Brixton now. How about a bit of looting in Camberwell or Kennington? spread the area of revolt – let’s see Brixton first – ok – we take rucksacks anyway, move in cautiously down Coldharbour Lane, corner of Atlantic Road – under the bridge – we stop and gape in wonder. Coldharbour Lane seems to be on fire . Railton Road can’t be seen for smoke fire engines, police cordons, SPG vans, police seem to be calmer here, taking control, not many of them. a familiar face.

“been here long?” “ten minutes. “same.” “seen much?” “I heard a rumour that the old Bill killed someone “Shit!” but then I realise it’s too quiet for that . He pisses off. Old lrish guy starts talking about rebellion. We realise he could go on for hours so we move on – sightseeing. We try to get down towards Railton Road. “You can’t go down there!” we move off politely, more sightseeing – looted shops, broken glass everywhere . Up and down the High Street. big gaps in memory

Brixton Oval – big group of old friends. Fifteen of us suddenly together. “I been here since it started” a friend says grinning from ear to ear. A few stories . Wander down the High street. Wall to wall cops. We scare them a bit . They’ve been trying to stop groups gathering. Fifteen of us amble casually down the street . It looks like something starting. They move us on when we stop, keep us in pairs or threes when we move . Everywhere is smashed. It’s beautiful.

walk up and down sightseeing. gaps in the memory

A guy is pulling a lighter out of a broken jeweller’s window through the grille. I stand between him and the nearest police fifty yards away. He walks off with it casually.

Hanging around near the Lambeth Town Hall. Suddenly blue lights flashing. Blue, blue, flashing lights lights lights lights dozens of them, vans cars, bells, sirens, screaming down the Hill – its on – summat’s up – start walking down the hill – casual like.

Someone yells “the young black coloured kids are here. the coloured kids have arrived.”

No time for questions – walking quickly – black teenagers on the other side of the road start running down the hill – they’re not scared at all – some in the road – some on the pavement.

Some of us start running – big group of black women in front of us – more people in front of them. and blue lights – those blue lights.

Two or three vans stop – they pile out – riot shields. “BACK! BACK!” –they stop us and force us back up the hill – maybe thirty of them. Fifty of us. Pushing and shoving. I stay near the front. Pushing – they get us to the top. Guy next to me says we could turn, take them on, push them back, fight them back. I treat it with the contempt it deserves. Keep moving.

They give one black guy a hard time, he pushes back at the corner, they grab him, women grab him back screaming – a voice shouts Charge! let ’em have it! – they run.

Screams, running boots. I’m well in front so I hang about a second. People run down a dark alley. The cops are running still.

I can see truncheons flying I just fly out up the street no time for bravery.

Suddenly in a strange housing estate, a group of a dozen cops, some in shirt sleeves jog in step like army double time through a courtyard .

Bottom of the hill. fuck where is everyone? must find them.

no sign of anything happening here. cop station quiet . it was probably all a false alarm. I look around – lost. a big cheer. I look up the Hill and a Police Landrover is limping down slowly the back left tyre flapping uselessly about. laughter all round.

Back up to the estate. meet two friends again. the cops are looking for someone in the estate. this is low profile time. let’s re-group, find the others – who got done?

Eventually we gather together a few more. Sightseeing. people going home, cops arriving by the busload. when we leave at midnight the ratio is about one to one and they’re still arriving. everyone goes home.

Back at the flats . two people busted – they ran down the alley – there had been cops at the bottom!! sod’s law – the two who got busted were the one’s with the worst records .

Home to bed. I close my eyes and there are blue flashing lights everywhere.

Next day I expect the afternoon to be quiet so I go out, arrive back in Brixton at six – reach Saint John’s Crescent – they’re stopping people – residents only allowed in. the road block was at Camberwell New Road. I don’t even try to get through . up Saint John’s Crescent down the back streets – literally thousands of cops in buses behind the station. Lots of horses. I walk through them all unhindered and come out about fifty yards past where they had stopped people .

Walk up and down sightseeing – no-one I know is about. look at a few burnt out buildings. Railton Road carpeted with bricks and glass. burnt out cars everywhere. It’s beautiful.

Top of the Hill by the Town Hall. the road’s blocked so everyone hangs about in the middle of the road watching. we get too many for their liking so they charge up the Hill, clear us out of the church yard. a woman had some bricks that she’s throwing on the ground trying to break them . I show her how to break them cleanly in half against the corner of the kerbstone. fighting in Coldharbour Lane – they charge again and clear us off Effra Road. not enough of us.

Black teenage gang. one says ” ok who’s, for the burning and the looting and the pilfering in Streatham? “

Great!

They set off – maybe a dozen. I wait ten minutes, watching the to-ing and fro-ing on the Hill then I follow.

I get to Streatham. nothing. dead. I sit in a doorway and wait half an hour.

Nothing doing. I wander back. get back to the end of Brixton Hill by the road block – another group heading South, maybe twenty this time, black and white, mainly early teens. I tag along.

Three or four police vans pass us and stop a hundred yards ahead. we stop and cross the road. they turn and come back, piling out. we piss off into a housing estate. I find I’m quite good at hurdling fences. wait on the grass in the shadows. More running. three or four of us start going over the chain link fence into the school – about 8 feet high . someone says wait and see if they come around. we drop down and wait. they come around the back. we run. I yell “they’re coming round the back”. everyone gets out into the street. down by the lights outside the pub. people disperse. one guy gets arrested as a few more vans arrive and about a dozen go screaming off towards Streatham. well that’s the end of that idea.

Sit down by the road block. I watch the cops and consider the possibility of a brick through the window of the car in front of me. too many cops. nice idea though. sit for half an hour then back to Brixton. quiet. very quiet. it’s all over.

Walking back down the Hill two black teenagers behind me. one says to his friend “I bet there’s all these coloured Ladies really glad they brought up their kids proper and then a copper knocks on their door and says ‘excuse me have you got a son called Kevin?’ and she says ‘yes’ ‘well he’s in Brixton nick’ “ Laughter. we’re criminals in a way our parents don’t understand. back home.

think about it. “next time- ‘ “next time” “if only…” but whatever else, next time I won’t be so scared.

As well as the usual “wasn’t it great” tales though, it should never be forgotten that some rapists preyed on local women, stand-over merchants armed with knives and machetes robbed & bashed other looters, one nasty gangster after failing to find a safe in the local newsagent in Effra Parade set it on fire and yelled “fuckin’ Pakis”… squatters across the road got inside and helped the family escape with their kids and not much else. As ID was a little easier then some of the more active locals departed to the Continent others who did not alas got busted eg Patrizia Giambi whom the media pilloried as crazed Italian red Brigade organiser manipulating “the Blacks” and she was detained awaiting trial and deportation.

A RIOT A DAY KEEPS THE COPPER AWAY

I hadn’t heard about what happened on Friday night (10.4.81), so when I got down to Railton Road Saturday lunch time, I wondered why there were so many police hanging around. The police later said that they had done a low-key operation that morning, but that was obviously rubbish. There were groups of police every fifty yards and others in cars and vans, so they were out in force and prepared for some kind of action. I was told about the events of Friday night and most people I spoke to felt very nervous about the numbers of police hanging around like gangsters.

When we heard the sirens coming from the bottom of the triangle (the

junction of Mayall Rd and Railton Rd) we walked down to see what would happen. A lot of people were doing the same, mostly out of curiosity. The police later said that the riot was planned because a lot of people were hanging around the area on street corners etc., but that just shows their ignorance. In Brixton there are always people hanging around the streets, especially when it’s sunny, simply because there’s nowhere else to go.

When I got to the bottom of Railton Road I saw a police van and a car with a crowd around, blacks and white. I had no idea what was going on but people were arguing with the police who were quite aggressive. One of the ‘higher officers’ was really nasty; he had taken his ID numbers off his shoulders, and the crowd were pissed off about that. People with cameras were taking photos and police later claimed claimed these ‘white photographers’ were in leading or organising positions but again it’s rubbish. After Friday night people knew something might happen and a number of local people wanted to take photos if anything happened. No one was in a leading position. Finally one copper pushed a black kid hard and that was it. People just threw everything!

That was the spark and for the next six or seven hours we were involved in one of the ‘worst breakdowns of law and order’.

Nothing I can write can describe the exhilaration I felt when that first police van went up in flames. From that spark it spread up and down Brixton. For so long the police had an arrogant air of invincibility, as if they could do anything they liked and get away with it. But that burning police van and retreating cops did more to boost our confidence than anything else.

Most people grouped around the middle of Railton Rd. The police had moved up to Mayall Rd up as far as Leeson Rd and many of us were stoning them to get them to retreat, but they made a wall of riot shields. It was totally spontaneous., no one told us to attack here or there, we saw for ourselves and if we felt the need to fight here and there we did so. The crowd kept a constant barrage of bricks and bottles but the police wouldn’t move. People called for petrol bombs but none had been prepared. Police talk about bomb-factories is the result of their own inability to understand how a riot works, they cannot understand how a non-hierarchical system works.

It didn’t take long for the petrol bombs to appear… all it takes is some petrol a bottle and a bit of paper or rag, it doesn’t need any experience or brains.

It’s just another sample of the racism of the state to say that black people need white experts to make petrol bombs. We were using any bottles we could find (black polythene rubbish bags were ripped open to get bottles); there were enough cars around to siphon off all the petrol. The first bombs were used at Leeson Rd and the crowd cheered their appearance. I never knew how easy it was to turn over cars, they go over so easy; the symbols of consumerism only need a couple of people to go over and they burn so well! It was like being high, we felt so powerful for the first time ever.

The police retreated to cheers and a rain of missiles. People started smashing the windows of the pub and others went in and began breaking everything, pulling out drinks for all of us! I’ve lived in Brixton most of my life and I never saw anything like it before. Blacks and whites, rastas and punks, men and women, young and old, gays and hets. Unity just isn’t a strong enough word as we shared drinks and cigarettes, everyone patting each other on the back smiling. It was like a street party, with no tension between us at all. Words just can’t express that feeling, and in the distance the lines of police watched.

At about this time the looting started, the police just fell back and no one was really trying to move forward. There was a lull in the fighting, and behind our barricades was a free area, no leaders and no authority. The second pub was smashed up and burned, and then the plumbers (who really disliked the people in the area) and soon every shop was open target. For the first time ever people took what they wanted without having to work like slaves to get the cash or beg from the state. When the sweetshop was gotten into, those who got inside were throwing things to those on the outside! A lot of the negative things happened at about this time, but that was because we had ceased to be on the offensive and people had started to get drunk. Also it was a good chance for people to get what they wanted for themselves and forget about the rest. Most of these anti-social acts were on the periphery; next time we should be ready to deal with these sorts of acts as a collective mass as we did with the fighting. On the whole people acted together; before any buildings went up in flames, some of the crowd made sure that no one was inside. If you believe the media the rioters didn’t care. Someone suggested putting a brick through the anarchist bookshop window; the rest of the crowd said no (and not just the anarchists either).

Gradually the police began moving forward again and we fought hard but a lot of us were getting really tired. It was dark and people were drifting away, buildings collapsing around us. Its how I’d always imagined the blitz. The police were moving closer yards at a time, they were armed with pick axe handles and base ball bats, they kept banging their sticks on the floor to raise the tension, they had their war cries and chants prepared (all the best psychological warfare techniques learned at school).When they charged they were like animals grabbing hold of anyone and beating shit out of them. The police violence was more vicious and painful than any of ours.

On escaping from the immediate area I was surprised to see how far it had spread. The people in the main riot had very little idea of what was happening outside their immediate area; lack of communication is one fault we mustn’t make again. The people I spoke to wanted to join in but were cut off from the Railton Riot, but everyone was glad the police had received a beating even if only temporarily. Brixton was practically under siege, police were everywhere and sporadic fighting was taking place – The police station was ringed and they obviously felt vulnerable because they knew it would be our next target. The police couldn’t let it go because it served as their communications centre and because it’s their symbol of power over us.

The area had been cut off, trains and buses stopped so that reinforcements for us couldn’t get there. Fires had been started and some of the main department stores looted! The police tactic of isolating the riot only in the Frontline had failed partially at least.

COPS, DAMN COPS, AND STATISTICS

7.472 police officers were used to police the area, some on more than one occasion.

285 arrests

415 police officers and 172 members of the public injured

118 police vehicles damaged

4 police vehicles destroyed

61 private vehicles damaged

30 private vehicles destroyed

158 premises damaged

28 premises seriously damaged by fire

– Met Report on the Riot

The first state/media reaction-to say the riot was a race riot-failed miserably. It was so obvious that the riot was anti-police and anti-authoritarian; when a priest asked for our demands the crowd asked that the police fuck off and all prisoners released. But even these were not true demands because a demand requires some level of negotiation which none of the rioters were willing to engage in.

From the very beginning the police had said that the riot was pre-planned but their theory is easily demolished. Firstly they say there were a lot of people on the streets but what do you expect on a sunny Saturday. Secondly they say white photographers were in leading positions but those white photographers were mostly residents and in no way leaders or organisers. Thirdly the police say petrol bombs had been prepared but you need no skill to make them and it doesn’t take long either. And lastly they say ‘white anarchists’ were in the crowd, but those white anarchists are part of the community, we all live and some of us work in the area. I’ve lived in Brixton most of my life.

When the race riot tactic failed the police fell onto the theory of white anarchists organising the riot. The state cannot admit that people are sick and tired of the system and that they are capable of rising spontaneously and successfully attacking the state and its representatives. The main lesson of Brixton is that it can happen anywhere without the need of leaders or organisers. Therefore the state must find scapegoats and invent leaders where none exist. Anarchists are that scapegoat and the police decided we are all terrorists and plotters. The reasons we are chosen must he because we made no secret of our wish for another Bristol and we are known to be active in the community and easily identified as well as the only politicos active in the riots.

The state media brought on ‘international terrorists’ as stage props in a well-orchestrated bid to use us to explain away the hatred people feel for the system. For a start this is inherently racist, the refusal to accept that black people can act without white leaders. Secondly it gives the state special branch a chance to get back at troublesome anarchists.

When the raid on the flat in Coldharbour Lane happened it had the effect of frightening us, as far as we knew it could be the start of an anti-anarchist pogrom. Thought of Persons Unknown* etc. ran through my mind and it made us all a lot more tense (which may be the whole point anyway). It’s certainly not over yet; the press has caught on to the name ‘anarchist’ with parasitical glee and are harping on about international links (making us out to be in touch with the spirit of Ulrike Meinhof practically).

After the riots, community leaders descended on Brixton like flies (the press haven’t attacked them as outside agitators, because they serve the very useful task of pacifying us). These self-appointed leaders have been loudly apologising for the riot blaming bad housing and unemployment, asking for more cash etc. But there can be no apologies for the riot, none. Unemployment and bad housing are contributory factors but discontent goes much deeper than that. The riot can only be interpreted as the free expression of anger and disgust at the whole farce. During the riot there were no demands for jobs, we wanted everything then and there. It was a rejection of the system of which bad housing and unemployment are parts.

The left have been attempting to colonise Brixton for a long time; practically every Left group is active in the area in some way or another. Their calls for revolution and action have been shown to be nothing but hot air. During the riot the Leftists were nowhere to be seen; they had disappeared as soon as the action began. They returned only when the police had cleared the streets. Now every sect is claiming the riot as a victory but still making the usual pathetic apologies. They too blame unemployment, bad housing and racism. But if racism is to blame why did the rioters attack pubs etc? Racism is a factor but not the whole story. The left are no no doubt electing themselves onto committees and looking for recruits, but I wonder how effective they will be. The people in the area generally treat them with the contempt they deserve.

As anarchists we must learn from the riots and be prepared for the next, also we must not apologise for the riots. This is probably the first riot of its kind in this country where a large number of anarchists were involved. It’s a danger and a mistake to claim the riots as anarchist, in the same way the leftists claim it for themselves. Nevertheless the riot was anti-authoritarian in character and spontaneous; those of us involved felt the thrill of liberation even if only for a few hours and we also saw that the state is not invulnerable.

The struggle was limited in that we stayed in one area (the main riot in Railton Road); this was due to a reluctance to give up territory already won, though there was much talk of attacking the police station. If we had had more reinforcements it might have been possible. The police did their best to hem us in and to a certain extent their presence succeeded in discouraging any more advance. The next time we should make concerted attempts to a advance; the only way to do this is by our own example. I’m sure that if we had managed to get into other areas people would have joined us.

Better communication would also be a step forward; those of us in Railton Road had very little idea of what was happening in the rest of Brixton and vice versa. A press black-out would also be a possibility next time so a feasible communication system as in Europe is a must if such riots are to spread. The majority of police in London were probably in Brixton on Saturday night, so actions in other parts of the city would have been appropriate.

Even during the riot some priests and social workers made attempts to mediate but we did not want any negotiations. as soon as negotiation begin the battle is lost. All attempts at negotiation should be resisted vigorously. If we want prisoners released we shouldn’t beg for them but either get them ourselves (anti-snatch squads?) or capture prisoners ourselves if possible.

As anarchists we do not need to beg the state for crumbs but take what is rightfully ours. The policy of direct action was put into practice on Saturday 11th April, and it was a celebration of our power over our own lives. Next time we should use the experience of Brixton ’81 in an attempt to further the struggle, to spread the action to new areas, to adapt new tactics and still keep our aims in mind.

All this was written as a purely personal response to the Brixton Riots, events which have not yet finished and will no doubt be talked about for a long time. This article only represents the beginning, we are all still learning from the experience.

1.The attitude of the left press has shown only a slight difference to that of the state press. They have gone overboard in apologising and excusing our actions whilst presenting a package deal of community leaders with answers to the ‘problems’ in the way of begging the government for money. They have gone ahead and printed photographs of rioters engaged in action which the police can use for identification and victimisation (it is said police are using these photos as evidence already). Yet there are no such photos of police attacking us.

2.The police were obviously ready for something on Saturday; their numbers suggest this, some had taken off their I.D. numbers in readiness. But they were not prepared for the militancy and size of our attack. Rumours about the army were going round on Saturday night, but we can be certain that the army were made ready and trucks were seen in Kennington ready to reach Brixton. It is also said that the SAS were prepared to move into the area at the first sign of guns from the rioters. We also know that a navy liaison officer was called into Brixton police station with a quantity of CS gas. Rumours among the police were that two of their number had been burnt to death, this was guaranteed to cause greater tension on their side.

  1. What is surprising is that in the circumstances no one spoke about Belfast, and only Bristol was mentioned. The riots are presented as purely due to local conditions and circumstances but it is truer to say that the same conditions exist in other places, all over Britain and beyond. The hatred most people feel exists from Belfast to Berlin, anywhere where authority shows itself. It is very important that we stress this fact and the belief in our power as individuals to confront the system is applicable everywhere. People are saying ‘where next’, anarchists should be saying and hoping ‘here next’.

4.Unity and co-operation were unspoken principles; everyone helped build barricades, no one was ordered to help. No one was pressured into fighting or looting. Middle-aged white women celebrated beside teenage rastas and white punks (this is a feature which was reported in other riots but which I never quite accepted until I saw it for myself). Whenever people felt that more ammunition was needed, groups of people would collect bottled or crates full of bricks for everyone to use.

  1. The reformist Left have always stated that rebellion cannot happen, that people do not need to resort to violence. The fallacy of that argument is obvious to most people. On the other hand the argument of the so-called ‘revolutionary’ left that action is not possible unless led by the vanguard party is not so easy to discredit. But the events of Brixton as well as Bristol and across Europe “prove that” the only successful riots are not led and that leftists and their vanguard parties play no part at all. No doubt while we fought in Railton Road, the left were selling their papers or attending meeting meetings or conferences.

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Other accounts of the 1981 riots are available… Undoubtedly the above is coloured by the anarchist ideas of those who contributed –

The original edition of ‘We Want to Riot Not to Work’ contained much more on the post-riot aftermath, arrests, the campaign to defend those nicked, and the reaction of the left… As well as much class analysis of the wider context. We haven’t room to print it all here.

Past Tense republished much of this in a pamphlet reprint of ‘We Want to Riot Not to Work’, in 2013, which is itself now out of print again, though we are working on reprinting this.

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Past Tense has written quite a bit about Brixton (and reprinted/posted stuff written by friends and other earlier residents), relating to policing, riots, black radical politics, racism, squatting, gentrification, and much more… Because most of us lived there, through events, took part in struggles and daily life there, and think about it all. More to come – there’s lots to say – though it’s only part of what we are interested in, its an area that has helped shape us and still makes us think.

It isn’t to claim uniqueness for the area (though that is true!) – whatever ends you’re from, the tale needs telling.

Published in pamphlet form so far:

• In the Shadow of the SPG: Racist policing, Resistance, and Black Power in 1970s Brixton

• Black Women Organising: The Brixton Black women’s Group & the Organisation for Women of African and Asian Descent

We Want To Riot, Not to Work: The1981 Brixton Riots.
(Reprint of 1982 classic our mates put out: Currently out of print again, but plans are afoot…)

Through A Riot Shield: The 1985 Brixton Riot
(More incendiary stuff reprinted from Crowbar…)

Trouble Down South:
Some thoughts on gentrification in Brixton.

Most of the above can be bought online here

and several good radical bookshops in London.

In preparation:

It is our intention eventually to publish history and thoughts on: Brixton’s early history, the growth of working class and migrant communities, the birth of council housing and squatting, Brixton women’s scenes and gay scenes, music and streetlife, further riots, race relations, the council and the left, the poll tax, and more on social change, development and gentrification. Because we are self-funded, have families and need to survive in the morass of wage labour, and also because we have a million projects on the go, we have no idea when any of this will appear. Lots of it is also talked about elsewhere… other people are writing about it and posting up pictures etc.