Today in London riotous history, 1768: the ‘Massacre of St George’s Fields’

The turbulent career of John Wilkes, demagogue, rakish hellraiser, sometime reformer (and eventual pillar of the establishment), through the 1760s and 1770s, seems to connect the eras of eighteenth century political libertarianism and opportunistic opposition to government corruption with the more collective movement for political reform.

Wilkes served as a figurehead for a collection of varied and almost contradictory political and social urges – the national pressure for reform of the electoral franchise, the struggle for ‘liberty’ of the subject, the teeming resentments of the artisans and apprentices against their ‘betters’… His skill in enlisting disparate elements in his personal cause was matched only by his own seeming lack of principles, and his unwillingness to push forward to the full social conclusions of his rhetoric…

Wilkes had many allies in the City of London, among powerful merchants who combined genuine opposition to the corrupt political establishment with an eye for their own advancement. He tapped into widespread desires across the country for electoral reform, among a middle class frustrated by their exclusion from political representation.

But he could also excite a rowdy mob… Several times in the years from 1763 to 1772 his supporters thronged the city of London and terrified the ruling elite.

After Wilkes, writing in The North Briton magazine (issue number 45), in 1763, criticised a speech by King George III praising the Treaty of Paris (ending the Seven Years’ War)  he was charged with libel, in effect, accusing the King of lying. This got him locked up in the Tower of London for a while. However, Wilkes challenged the warrant for his arrest and the seizure of the paper, and won the case. His courtroom speeches kick-started the cry of “Wilkes and Liberty!”, which became a popular slogan for freedom of speech and resistance to the establishment. Later in 1763, Wilkes reprinted the issue, which was again seized by the government.

The ensuing uproar caused Wilkes to be flee across the English Channel to France; he was tried and found guilty in absentia of obscene libel and seditious libel, and was declared an outlaw on 19 January 1764.

Wilkes returned from exile in February 1768, a move which was to spark a huge agitation across the capital. Wilkes petitioned for a royal pardon, an appeal that went unanswered, but he was left free by the authorities. Despite still technically being an outlaw, he attempted without success to win election to the House of Commons in Westminster; when that failed, he stood for election in Middlesex in late March. Accompanied by a great crowd from London, Wilkes attended the hustings in Brentford, and was duly elected as MP for Middlesex. This result, a slap in the face for the government, caused outbreaks of wild celebrating among elements of the ‘London Mobility’, who rejoiced in the streets, harassing householders (especially the well-to-do) into lighting up their houses ‘for Wilkes and Liberty’ (smashing windows of those who refused). Despite Wilkes appealing for calm, demonstrations and riots followed for nearly two months.

The government were split as to how to deal with the situation, though ‘indignant that a criminal should I open daylight thrust himself upon the country as a candidate, his crime unexpurgated’. Wilkes then announced he would surrender himself as an outlaw to the Court of the King’s Bench, which he did on 20th April. He was initially released on bail, then committed a week later to imprisonment at the Kings Bench Prison, on the edge of St George’s Fields in Southwark, which sparked a renewal of the rioting. The Prison was surrounded daily by crowds, crying ‘Wilkes and Liberty’, ‘assembling riotously, ‘breaking, spoiling, demolishing, burning and destroying sundry wooden posts’ belonging to the prison gates and fence. On May 8th, “a numerous Mob assembled about the Kings Bench Prison exclaiming against he confinement of Mr. Wilkes, and threatened to unroof the Marshal’s house”. Wilkes made a speech from a window and persuaded the crowd to disperse, though they gathered again on the following day, demolishing the prison lobby. The 9th May also saw several riots and protests by striking workers.

May 10th however was to bring fiercer disturbances still. Being the day Parliament was due to open, the government feared that the crowds would get out of hand again, and ordered a troop of Horse and 100 Foot Guards to the Prison. Having received information that “great numbers of young persons, who appear to be apprentices and journeymen, have assembled themselves together in large bodies in different parts of this City… for several evenings last past”, the Mayor of London ordered master tradesmen to keep their journeymen and apprentices off the streets. However, from 10 in the morning, crowds gathered in St George’s Fields from all over London, estimated around 15-20,000 people were present. Various rumours were doing the rounds – that Wilkes would be released to take his seat in Parliament, that he would be removed for trial; that an attempt would be made to break into the Kings Bench and set him and the other prisoners free…

St George’s Fields in he 18th century

Sometime around 11 o’clock, the Southwark magistrates, sitting in their Rotation office in St Margaret’s Hill, received word from the Prison Marshal that the crowds were getting unruly. Magistrate Samuel Gillam and three other justices arrived at the Fields to find that demonstrators had broken through the ranks of the soldiers, who were lined up by the railings surround the prison. Someone had pasted up a poster bearing a poem:

“Venal judges and Ministers combine,
Wilkes and English Liberty to confine
Yet in true English hearts secure their fame is
Nor are such crowded levies in St James
While thus in prison Envy dooms their stay
Here’ o grateful Britons, your daily homage pay

Philo Libertalis no. 45.”

 Justice Gillam ordered the paper torn down, which stirred the crowd up; there were reportedly shouts of ‘Give us the paper!” and ‘Wilkes and Liberty for ever!’, ‘Damn the king, damn the Government, damn the Justices!’, ‘This is the most glorious opportunity for a Revolution that ever offered!’ (which will never catch on as a demo chant). Someone even, allegedly and perceptively, shouted ‘No Wilkes, No King!’

Justice Gillam read the Riot Act, which ordered crowds to disperse or force could legitimately be used against them… in response Gillam was jeered and pelted with a volley of stones, one of which, supposedly thrown by ‘a man in red’, injured him in the face. He ordered the soldiers to pursue his assailant; Captain Murray and three grenadiers chased the man, lost him, and then shot dead William Allen, the son of a publican, in nearby Blackman Street, taking him for the men they were chasing.

The death of William Allen

Meanwhile the Riot Act was read a second time, and the foot soldiers and Horse guards were ordered to fire into the crowd, which they did, killing at least five or six people and injuring 15 more. Some of these were aid to be bystanders or passers by.

A list was later drawn up, listing eleven people killed or wounded-

William Allen (as mentioned above)
William Redburn, weaver, shot through the thigh, died in the London hospital;
William Bridgeman, shot through the breast as he was fitting a haycart… died instantly;
Mary Jeffs, who was selling oranges, died instantly;
Mr Boddington, baker of Coventry, shot through the thighbone, died in St Thomas’s hospital;
Mr Lawley, a farrier, shot in the groin, died on the 12th May;
Margaret Walters, of the Mint, pregnant, died on the 12th May;
Mary Green, shot through the right-arm bone;
Mr Nichols, shot through the flesh of his breast;
Mrs Egremont, shot through her garment under her arm…

Two men were also stabbed with bayonets.

One of the constables guarding the prison was disgusted with the soldiers, who has said had aggravated the situation by their presence, then “fired a random. A great number of them loaded three times, and seemed to enjoy their fire; I thought it a great cruelty.”

The Justices spent all day trying to get the crowds dispersed from St George’s Fields, but in the evening, “some hundreds of disorderly persons detached themselves from the Mob in the Fields” and marched to attack the houses of two of the Southwark magistrates, Edward Russell and Richard Capel, in revenge for the shootings. At Russell’s house, at the foot of London Bridge, saw the crowd break in and smash windows, stove in the front door, and steal a large twenty-gallon cask of spirits, which they drank. Russell home arrived to read the Riot Act; meanwhile Capel drove rioters off from his home in Bermondsey Street, before marching off with soldiers to join Russell and arrest some of the crowd.

There had been trouble in other parts of the capital… A crowd gathering in Palace Yard had rioted outside the House of Lords, shouting for Wilkes and that they were hungry and ‘it was as well to be hanged as starved!’ Another mob had attacked the Mansion House (the home and seat of power of the Lord Mayor)…

The day also saw demonstrations, sabotage and rioting by some of the numerous groups of workers attempting to win wage rises or protect/improve their working conditions  – an explosion of workplace struggle was taking place at this time, overlapping with, sometimes feeding into or taking inspiration from, the Wilkesite movement (though sometimes rejecting it)… eg on the 10th sailors took part in a mass demo at Parliament demanding a wage rise, while in the East End, Dingley’s mechanical saw mill was torn down by sawyers whose livelihood it threatened

The events of the 10th quickly became a cause celebre, nicknamed the ‘Massacre of St George’s Fields’, and William Allen’s death especially was widely condemned. A hastily conducted inquest concluded the two soldiers who had shot him were guilty of ‘wilful murder’, and their commander, Alexander Murray, of aiding and abetting murder. Warrants for their arrest were issued, and one for Justice Gillam soon followed, for ordering the shooting. In the end all four were acquitted, however.

Thirty four people were arrested in connection with the events of the 10th, on charges of riotous assembly, unlawful assembly invading the Justices’ houses, obstructing the Justices, and similar offences, but the government may have decided in the circumstances to tread lightly, as most were discharged without trial, and only three fined or jailed (compare this to some of the much heavier sentences for silkweavers and coalheavers arising from their strikes)… The shootings reflected badly on them, particularly as Wilkes was a few weeks later able to publish a letter from Lord Weymouth to magistrates ordering them to make more use of troops in putting down riots, enabling him to present the firing on the crowd at St George’s Fields as part of a concerted plan by a brutal and tyrannical government to repress the ‘rights of true Englishmen’.

William Allen’s death in particular aroused sympathy and outrage among Wilkes’ supporters and in the population more generally.

Distressed at the loss of his son, William’s father began a private prosecution of the three soldiers accused of his death. At this time, the majority of prosecutions were initiated and paid for by the victim and could be costly. Donald Macleane, the man who fired the musket, was tried for wilful murder at Guildford Assizes in August 1768. He was acquitted and his accomplices, Maclauray and Murray, were discharged. This only fuelled the suspicions of Wilkes’ supporters of the authorities and the government.

William Allen the elder then decided to petition the House of Commons. On the 25 April 1771 John Glynn MP, a friend and supporter of Wilkes, begged leave to bring up the petition. While the petition was the appeal of a grieving father, a greater concern was the threat of what appeared to be an increasingly oppressive government led by the king’s ministers. They had supported Macleane’s defence and through ‘oppressive and collusive acts’ had ‘entirely defeated [Mr Allen] in his pursuit of justice’. The Secretary at War, Viscount Barrington, had also commended the soldiers and rewarded Macleane. Mr Allen hoped that by petitioning parliament ‘his great and unspeakable loss should be confined to himself, and not be made a precedent, for bringing destruction and slavery upon his fellow subjects.’

The petition prompted a debate on the floor of the House of Commons. The prime minister, Lord North, opposed it being brought up, while Edmund Burke, a critic of North’s ministry, suggested the setting up of a parliamentary inquiry to look into the matter. Sir George Savile MP also spoke in favour of the petition ‘with great energy’ as it ‘came with greater propriety from a father, as he complained of the loss of a son, for which loss he was prevented by power from paying his last duty.’ A division was called by the Speaker and members voted on whether or not to accept the petition. It was decided by 158 votes to 33 that the petition should not be brought up.

The text of the petition was published shortly after being put to Parliament in the Annual Register, a publication edited by one of its supporters. It was accompanied by a letter from Mr Allen, which expressed his disappointment while thanking the MPs who supported his cause.

The death of William Allen played into the hands of critics of the King and his ministers at a time of crisis and boosted popular support for John Wilkes. He was buried in Newington Churchyard, Southwark and a large monument was erected in memory of ‘An Englishman of unspotted life and amiable disposition […] murdered […] on the pretence of supporting the Civil Power, which he never insulted, but had through life obeyed and respected.’

Wilkes himself shortly had his outlawry reversed, but was almost immediately jailed for 22 months for the various earlier charges that had got him outlawed. There followed a bewildering series of successive elections for Middlesex, as he was disqualified, re-elected, declared ineligible, a supporter elected instead… all accompanied by rioting and fights between his supporters and heavies hired by pro-government candidates.

On his release Wilkes was elected an alderman of the City of London, and gradually built up his support there, eventually convincing Parliament to allow him to take his seat as an MP. He did speak in favour of political reform and an extension of the franchise, even to ‘The meanest mechanic, the poorest peasant and day labourer’. His attempts to encourage legislation along reformist lines was however, defeated by the power of the political class allied against him.

Historians have questioned the extent to which Wilkes was ever truly committed to the programme he laid out in his March address. Some have concluded that his speeches amounted to little more than grandstanding…

Eventually he would rise to command soldiers repressing the 1780 Gordon Rioters, shooting down those who would have been his ardent supporters ten years before, and become Lord Mayor of London.

But the forces who backed him would remain in play, and as he faded into comfortable accommodation with the status quo that once excluded him, new social movements would arise to assert the demands Wilkes and his supporters had articulated, and take them even further…


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

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Today in London’s unruly history: mock executions of hate figures in effigy, Tower Hill, 1771.

Effigy burning – although best known now for Guy Fawkes night, twas once one of the most prevalent political symbolic acts. Still gets used now and again too, and not just at the kind of ritualised and acceptable fun-poking/social comment at events like the Lewes bonfire…

Burning or otherwise ‘executing’ a fullsize (or larger) mock up of a real person is obviously extremely effective. When it’s a well-known figure, political, religious, or otherwise, it becomes satire of the highest order: mocking the solemn state rituals of public execution, and turning it round on the powerful. If only in fun and threat…

The eighteenth century was one of the high points of effigy burning in England. Political protest in the form of organised or semi-organised crowd violence was endemic throughout the century; effigies formed part of the vocabulary of many of these events.

One such took place on April 5th, 1771:

“About noon, two carts preceded by a hearse were drawn through the City to Tower-Hill, In the first cart sat a man representing an executioner, having the care of three figures painted on paste-board, near as large as life, hanging on a wooden frame in form of a gallows, which reached quite across the cart. In the front the figures were painted with nightcaps on, and handkerchiefs over their eyes; on their backs were written, in large characters, the names of to persons of rank, and an alderman: in the second cart were four figures painted, and hanging in the same manner, with names also on their backs. When the carts, &c arrived at Tower-hill, the gallows was fixed up, and in a short time after the figures and gallows were set on fire and consumed.

A man in the crowd being observed taking down the names, written on the back of the figures, was seized as a spy, and ducked in the Tower-ditch, till he was almost dead, though he assured the mob he copied them only to satisfy his own curiosity.

An hour after the above transaction, the dying speeches of some supposed malefactors were cried about the streets.” (Annual Register)

This had followed a previous incident days earlier on April 1st, (a more usual date for such foolery) “Two carts filled with persons intended to represent some imaginary criminals of rank, which were followed by a hearse, went through the city to Tower-hill. In the first cart was a chimney-sweeper, who acted the part of a clergyman. When they arrived, the person in the first cart, was pretendedly beheaded, then put into the hearse and carried off. In the second cart were some stuffed figures, which, after having the heads chopped off, were burnt, amidst the huzzas of the mob.”

The writer coyly avoiding naming the ‘personalities’ being thus burned in effigy…

In fact, on April 1st they were the Marquis of Bute, former PM and royal favourite, and the Princess Dowager (mother of king George III), burned because they were held to be staunch opponents of the political reform movement, headed by populist demagogue and darling of the London mob John Wilkes, at that time again at odds with the establishment. Bute’s likeness had been burned a number of times throughout England in the previous few years, “in some counties, they dressed up a figure in Scotch plaid, with a blue ribbon, to represent the favourite, and this figure seemed to lead by the nose an ass royally crowned.” The perceived influence of Bute and the princess over royal policy had been translated by ‘the mob’s Hiero-glyphics’ into the visually recognisable symbols of the Jack Boot (for Bute) and the Petticoat (the king’s ma). Bute’s influence was popularly held to extend to being the princess’s lover; but Bute was also unpopular after concluding a treaty ending the Seven Years War, in which he gave up land in Canada to France and Spain. He also imposed a tax on cider, which understandably faced fierce opposition in the West Country. The Bath Chronicle reported the following on April 14th 1763:

“Last week a great Number of true Lovers of Cyder and Perry assembled in Hereford, and having prepared an Effigy of a certain Great Man, finely plaided, first exposed it in the Pillory, then exalted it on a Gibbet, and lastly threw it into a large Bonfire, where it was consumed to Ashes, amidst a general Huzza.”

The campaign against Bute was fuelled also by his being Scottish, so along with a slightly dubious suggestion of misogyny in the ‘Petticoats’ bit, there was also a blatant anglo-patriotic element to the effigies here. The idea that the politicians are selling out the national interest embodied by an angry crowd has a long ring to it…

Even after his resignation as PM Bute was hounded, mobbed, his windows broken, and was still receiving anonymous threatening letters 20 years later.

The immediate context of these protests in April 1771 was the Lord Mayor of London, Brass Crosby’s showdown with the crown and Parliament, which had led to him being imprisoned in the Tower of London. Crosby had intervened in support of the publishers Miller, Thompson and Wheble, who had printed accounts of debates in Parliament without a licence – something Parliament generally repressed. After warrants were issued to summons the men, but they refused to appear and were being blatantly supported not only by Wilkes (a City of London Alderman) but by the Lord mayor. When Crosby discharged Miller after his arrest by parliamentary agents (who he had assaulted), the Lord mayor himself was summonsed to Parliament (followed by a huge mob) and sent to the Tower.

The pro-Wilkes elements in the London mob feted Crosby as he went off to his cell on March 27th; the effigy burnings were a direct response to what they saw as an attack on the independence of the City of London and the broadly pro-reform party (Wilkes, Crosby and the printers being generally lumped together, though it was more complex than that), by a corrupt and venal court and Parliament. Riotous crowds threatened the minsters of the crown…
Crosby was eventually freed when Parliament was adjourned a month later, and the events led to the relaxing of the rules against unlicensed reporting of debates.

That a chimney sweep was acting as the executioner is interesting. If in romantic back-projection from Charles Kingsley’s scribbles usually seen as pathetic waifs doomed and wan, and by some used as a metaphor to represent submerged or latent Desire: there was a darker more realistic side to the child sweep. They were also often collectively unruly, and individually were known for turning to crime when their work was slack or they grew too big to scramble up chimneys… Sweeps were popular symbols of subversion during the Wilkes agitations of the 1760s and early 70s… Symbolism gathers around them, which they willingly exploited in a bid to beg money; they had evolved a traditional role as guardians of the City’s water conduits, a potent symbol of survival and the intricate moral economy of the urban jungle; and they also became a leading ‘trade’ in parades for the Mayday holidays… In these 1771 charivaris, the sweep combines the spirit of disorder, the sweeps’ link to the holiday of April 1st, and a suggestion of their being in some way a moral guardian, albeit fighting for an unruly collective morality, in defence and defiance…

A final note on effigies: the Marquis of Bute was one of the figures most burned in effigy during the eighteenth century; interestingly, possibly only surpassed by radical writer Thomas Paine, author of the Declaration of the Rights of Man. In response to the ‘threat’ of revolutionary France and reformist/radical ideas at home, loyalist associations of conservative citizens sponsored by the government and local magistrates took to burning Tom Paine. Everywhere. Every week for a few years, in massive shows of force, intimidation and reactionary community solidarity to warn off anyone thinking of putting on a revolution; or even discussing reform.


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

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Today in London’s radical history: crowd prevent the burning of the North Briton, 1763

“Well! but we have had a prodigious riot: are not you impatient to know the particulars? It was so prodigious a tumult, that I verily thought half the administration would have run away to Harrowgate.
The North Briton was ordered to be burned by the hangman at Cheapside, on Saturday last.”

The North Briton was a radical newspaper published in 18th century London. It was written anonymously (as were many other similar earlier newspapers which opposed, questioned or satirised the government – largely because the authorities would prosecute writers, printers and editors for sedition on a regular basis); but The North Briton is closely associated with John Wilkes, demagogue, rakish hellraiser, sometime reformer (and eventual pillar of the establishment). The Briton became most famous and infamous for issue number 45, which sparked prosecution, seizure, arrest and exile for Wilkes, and forty or so court cases.

“45” became a popular slogan of liberty in the latter part of the 18th century, chalked as graffiti everywhere.

The North Briton was begun as a counter-blast to The Briton, a pro-government paper started by Tobias Smollett. Only eight days after that newspaper began publication, the first issue of The North Briton came out. It then came out weekly until the resignation of the Bute government.

Issue number 45 (23 April 1763) criticised a royal speech in which King George III praised the Treaty of Paris ending the Seven Years’ War. As a result Wilkes was charged with libel, in effect, accusing the King of lying, which got him locked up in the Tower of London for a while. However, Wilkes challenged the warrant for his arrest and the seizure of the paper, and won the case. His courtroom speeches kick-started the cry of “Wilkes and Liberty!”, which became a popular slogan for freedom of speech and resistance to the establishment. It merged with a powerful and growing movement working for political reform, but it was an uneasy alliance, temporarily thrusting middle class and aristocratic reformers and opportunists, elements of the powerful and volatile London mob, together. At its head Wilkes always had his own advancement and reputation as his primary focus…

Later in 1763, Wilkes reprinted the issue, which was again seized by the government. They ordered that copies should be burned publicly in Cheapside, the City of London’s main drag, by the official hangman. Given that the City was a stronghold of the reform movement, its politicians often Wiles’ allies, this was a provocation to Wilkes supporters. However, before the papers could be burned, the assembled crowd rescued the text, assaulting the hangman.

“The mob rose; the greatest mob, says Mr Sheriff Blunt, that he has known in forty years. They were armed with that most bloody instrument, the mud out of the kennels: they hissed in the most murderous manner; broke Mr Sheriff Harley’s coach glass in the most frangent manner; scratched his forehead, so that he is forced to wear a little patch in the most becoming manner; and obliged the hangman to burn the paper with a link, though faggots were prepared to execute it in a more solemn manner. Numbers of gentlemen, from windows and balconies, encouraged the mob, who, in about an hour and half, were so undutiful to the ministry, as to retire without doing any mischief…”

The ensuing uproar caused Wilkes to be flee across the English Channel to France; he was tried and found guilty in absentia of obscene libel and seditious libel, and was declared an outlaw on 19 January 1764.

He would return to England, be imprisoned again, stand for election as an MP for Middlesex, several times, and be barred, repeatedly, while mobs fought for him and the government fought to keep him – and them – out… Throughout his career he also had powerful allies among the rich merchant classes and City politicians, and eventually he would rise to command soldiers repressing the 1780 Gordon Rioters, and become Lord Mayor of London.

Nonetheless, by the time Wilkes was released from prison in 1770, “45” was still a popular icon not only of Wilkes, but of freedom of speech in general.

You can read the North Briton no 45 here.


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

Today in London radical history: John Horne Tooke gets a year in prison for supporting American Revolution, 1777.

In 1777 John Horne Tooke was sentenced to seven months’ imprisonment for raising a fund to support the American rebels.

John Horne (later Horne Tooke), originally a clergyman, resigned from his clerical position in 1773 and began the study of the law and philology. He had become a pro-reform activist of sorts; having been associated with reforming demagogue John Wilkes, who had already been jailed for libeling king George III, exiled, elected MP and refused entry to parliament, and had various mobs riot in his support and more. Wilkes and Horne had, though, become somewhat estranged. Wilkes’ vague anti-establishment credentials and repeated expulsions from the House of Commons despite being re-elected several times, had made him a hero to both the political reformers and sections of the London artisan classes and the mob… But Horne Tooke grew disillusioned with Wilkes’ character. His attempts to broaden the political aims of the Wilkite  Society for supporting the Bill of Rights led to a split in its ranks: Horne Tooke and a minority left to form the Constitutional Society in 1771. (As a result Horne was for a while very unpopular with the unruly London crowds, and was burnt in effigy…)

The Wilkes agitation, which had convulsed London with riots, demonstrations and contested elections, was dying out, but the Constitutional Society soon found itself embroiled in a new cause. The growing tension between the American colonies and the British government was gearing up towards rebellion and war. Before the war of independence began, support for the colonists’ demands for autonomy and representation and opposition to punitive taxes was fairly widespread among British political reformers, and Horne Tooke joined his voice to this… however, following the outbreak of hostilities in 1775 and the Declaration of Independence in 1776, support in Britain for the American colonies rapidly fell off.

Horne Tooke however remained one of the few vocal supporters of the cause. The Constitutional Society started a fundraising drive to raise money to help residents of Boston affected economically by British policies implemented after the Boston Tea Party. After the Battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775, the Society had another whipround to aid the widows and orphans of those killed by British troops at the two engagements. On 7 June 1775 some of the members passed a resolution which was published in the newspapers. It directed that a subscription should be raised on behalf of ‘our beloved American fellow subjects’ who had ‘preferred death to slavery,’ and ‘were for that reason only inhumanly murdered by the king’s troops.

This obviously enraged the patriotic sentiment aroused in Britain over the war. Horne Tooke’s articles, published in British newspapers, supporting this subscription, were viewed by prosecutors as ‘criminal libel’, since the colonies were in armed rebellion.

In 1776 some of the printers of the newspapers who published the appeal or articles in favour of it were fined, and in the next year Horne was himself tried before Chief Justice Lord Mansfield, on 4 July 1777. Horne Tooke and his supporters contested that the Americans had not been declared “rebels” at the time of the first subscription in 1775; Horne defended himself, disputing points of law, but the court found him guilty, and sentenced him to be fined £200 and to do12 months in prison. Horne Tooke was the only political reformer jailed for support of the Americans during the Revolutionary War. In 1778 he brought a writ of error in parliament, but the judgment was finally affirmed. Many thought Mansfield was taking revenge on him for a 1771 case Horne Tooke had won in the court of common pleas, or for Horne’s blatant escape from prosecution for the pro-Wilkes 1765 publication of “The Petition of an Englishman.”

Horne was imprisoned in the King’s Bench Prison. He was allowed to occupy a house ‘within the rules,’ meaning he was allowed a fair amount of liberty and privilege rather than being locked in a cell. Imprisonment was very different then if you were well off or connected. He was visited by his political friends, and had a weekly dinner with them at the Dog and Duck.

Tooke attributed the gout, from which he suffered ever afterwards, to the claret which he drank in the prison; it on the other hand, cured him of the ‘jail-distemper.’

He would go on to take a part in the reform agitation in the 1790s, be arrested – and cleared – of treason, and briefly serve as an MP… He was however a half-hearted radical at best: “His politics were those of the old-fashioned city patriots, who disliked the whig aristocracy, but would have been the first to shrink from a violent revolution. Major Cartwright quoted at the trial Horne’s familiar remark that he might accompany Thomas Paine and his followers for part of their journey. They might go on to Windsor, but he would get out at Hounslow. He always disliked Paine and ridiculed his theories. He enjoyed taking the chair at the Crown and Anchor and elsewhere to denounce the aristocracy and approve vigorous manifestoes, but he was always cautious and struck out dangerous phrases.”

Read A PDF report of the 1777 trial by Horne Tooke

and a short bio of him


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

Today in London’s industrial history: Dingleys mechanical sawmill trashed by unemployed sawyers, Limehouse, 1768.

“The reason given for this outrage… is that it deprived many persons in that branch from being employed.”

In Limehouse, on May 10th 1768: Charles Dingley’s wind-powered Sawmill was burnt down by 500 sawyers who claimed it was putting them out of work.

This was clearly a highly organized act; possibly decided on at some kind of mass meeting. When the sawyers marched on the Mill, Christopher Robertson, Dingley’s clerk, confronted the crowd and asked them what they wanted. “They told me the saw-mill was at work when thousands of them were starving for want of bread. I then represented to them that the mill had done no kind of work that had injured them, or prevented them receiving any benefit. I desired to know which was their principal man to whom I might speak. I had some conversation with him and represented to him that it had not injured the sawyers. He said it partly might be so, but it hereafter would if it had not; and they came with a resolution to pull it down, and down it should come.”

The mill, the first mechanically-powered sawmill to open in London, had been operating since early 1767, but the installation of new machinery there during a slack period in the trade when large numbers of sawyers were out of work pushed them into action. On May 6th, the sawyers had informed Dingley they intended to stop the mill working, presumably he ignored the threat.

Traditionally, sawyers had many privileges, perks of the job, notably the right to take and use offcut wood (especially in shipbuilding). This perk tended to be exploited, er, somewhat liberally – management accused the sawyers of often abusing the custom, and making off with huge lengths of wood. Hence sawyers’ houses could often be better built than they financially could afford. However, sawyers’ wages were also generally considered relatively high.

The mill was clearly intended to gradually impose a more disciplined industrial process and do away with the perks and customary rights. While owner Charles Dingley received comensation from the government, and completed the rebuilding of the mill, it didn’t seem to re-open: in 1795 it was described as having been standing empty for many years. A generation passed before another such attempt to replace the sawyers’ labour was made in London.

Like the contemporary Spitalfields silk-weavers, and the Luddites after them, the London sawyers were able to clearly see how new technology was being used against them, and made rational decisions to defend existing wages, conditions and customs with a bit of sabotage. Collective bargaining by riot and vandalism. Nuff said. The destruction of the mill took place in a year when industrial unrest was widespread in London; inspired by the violent struggle of the coalheavers for better pay (the ‘river strike’), hundreds of trades were in dispute. The reform agitation in support of ‘radical’ demagogue John Wilkes’ attempt to get elected to Parliament as MP for Middlesex, and the determination of the pro-court establishment to keep him out, was also raging – the infamous massacre of St George’s Fields, when the militia opened fire on a pro-Wilkes crowd, took place on the same day as the Limehouse attack.

Interestingly, the mill’s owner, Charles Dingley, had just recently been John Wilkes unpopular opponent in the Middlesex elections: he couldn’t even get near the hustings some days, being kept out and abused by Wilkes-supporting crowds, and was beaten up by Wilkes’ lawyer. He is said to have died of shame at being so vilified.


On 6th July 1768, Edward Castle was tried at the old Bailey for Breaking the Peace and riot during the attack on Dingley’s mill:

  1. (M.) Edward Castle was indicted for that he, together with divers others to the number of one hundred or more, their names unknown, on the 10th of May unlawfully, tumultuously, and riotously assembled to the disturbance of the public peace, did demolish or pull down, or begin to pull down a certain out-house called a saw-mill, the property of Charles Dingley , Esq ; against the peace of our Lord the King, his crown and dignity . ||

Christopher Richardson . I am principal clerk or superintendant of this work, that is Mr. Dingley’s saw-mill, it is at Limehouse , almost in the center of his timber-yard; it had been erected about 14 months; there is a brick counting-house joins to it where the books are kept relating to the mill; there is a room under the mill for the two watchmen to sleep in by turns; there is a fire-place in each, and under it is a chest in which was a place to lay the arms; it is all one building, they opened one into the other; the mill was to saw large pieces of timber, oak, deal, or wainscot, it could saw larger quantities of timber than could be done any other way; the mill was built of wood, the counting-house of brick. We had information on the Friday before Tuesday the 10th of May last, it was in writing sent to Mr. Dingley, to inform him a number of people were assembled together with intent to pull down this saw-mill; I immediately went down to Limehouse and got assistance; I had not been gone above half an hour before one of our servants came and told me they had entered the yard; I met the mob of sawyers and other people pretty near the mill; I asked their demands, what they came there for; they told me the saw-mill was at work when thousands of them were starving for want of bread; I then represented to them that the mill had done no kind of work that had injured them, or prevented their receiving any benefit; I desired to know which was their principal man to whom I might speak; I was shewed one; I had some conversation with him, and represented to him that it had not injured the sawyers; he said it possibly might be so, but it would hereafter if it had not, and they came with a resolution to pull it down, and it should come down.

  1. Should you know that man again?

Richardson. I should if I could see him again, but I have not seen him since.

  1. What time of the day was this?

Richardson. This was about eleven o’clock in the morning after they had entered the yard, when they were got pretty near the mill.

  1. What might the number of the people be?

Richardson. As near as I can guess there might be about 500 come into the yard; immediately they went to work and broke into the mill; they did not pull it down, but destroyed the inside; one man had a long adze, another a hatchet; I did not see a saw; one of our men says he saw a saw; I saw them at work demolishing the mill, they cut the shafts of the sail, and several other things; they destroyed all the saws and frames, and pretty near demolished the brick building, that is the counting-house; I cannot speak to the prisoner; they surrounded me immediately.

Benjamin King . To the best of my knowledge I saw the prisoner among the men that were destroying the mill; I think it was he that I saw with his head out at the place where the shaft came out at, with a cross cut saw in his hand, waving it about after the shaft came down; there were a great number of people about at the time, the greatest number were in the field or yard pulling at the sail; I saw the counting-house demolished.

  1. Did you ever see the prisoner before?

King. No, I never did.

  1. How far was you from him when you say you think you saw him?

King. Upwards of sixty yards.

Richard Johnson . I was at the mill at the time they were destroying it; I will not be sure of knowing the prisoner; I saw a man at the top of the window of the sails with a saw in his hand, some part of his body out of the mill; he pulled off his hat and waved it, it was like the prisoner, but I did not chuse to go very near the mob, because I am pretty well known among people.

James Brown . After the shaft was down I saw the prisoner with his head out at the window with one leg out and the other in, with a saw in his hand waving it about over the mill.

  1. How near was you to him at the time?

Brown. I might be about thirty yards from him.

  1. Did you know him before?

Brown. No, I did not; I never was in the yard before in my life.

Alexander Forbes . I was there at that time; I saw the prisoner, I am sure the prisoner is the person I saw out at the shaft window with a saw in his hand, waving it backwards and forwards, I was about thirty yards distance.

Verdict: Acquitted .

(from the Ordinary’s Accounts, the Proceedings of the Old Bailey).

However, one John Smith was convicted and sentenced to seven years imprisonment for the riot.


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

Today in London’s radical history: Rioting outside Parliament in support of Mayor of London, 1771.

In March 1771, Lord Mayor of London, Brass Crosby, was jailed in the Tower of London, after sanctioning the arrest of an agent of the Speaker of the House of Commons. The context was a struggle superficially about Parliament attempting to stop the printing of reports of Commons debates; at a deeper level, this was an episode in a battle between a government desperate to preserve the political status quo, and a growing movement for reform.

Over the previous few years London had been shaken by the riotous movement in support of John Wilkes, demagogue, agitator for reform, opportunist. Wilkes had many allies in the City of London, among them powerful merchants who combined genuine opposition to the corrupt political establishment with an eye for their own advancement and enrichment.

The printing of parliamentary debates in the newspapers had long been forbidden – repeated statues had renewed this. Parliament was dead set on that the only reports that the public should have of events there were to be released by Parliament itself or its own officers. Partly this was a concern with its own privilege; but in one debate on the subject, the Speaker of the Commons asserted that: “Modest timid members would never give us their sentiments if they were liable to be misrepresented and made the subject of ridicule and contempt thereby…” Or to have anyone actually know what they were doing and saying and hold them up to scrutiny ?

Occasional breaches of the regulation against parliamentary reporting had happened now and again in the eighteenth century. But since 1768, editors of the newspapers had begun to report debates and detailed accounts of parliamentary practice. This had been initiated by John Almon of the London Evening Post, but by 1771, over a dozen papers and journals were involved.

That this was connected to the growing movement for parliamentary reform was undeniable. As was the determination of pro-government MPs that a stop should by put to it. In those times printers of journals, books or pamphlets were liable to prosecution for the contents, and were usually the point at which pressure was applied by the authorities to repress radical or seditious ideas – ie anything challenging the status quo.

By a vote in the House of Commons in early February 1771 two of the most offending printers (John Wheble of the Middlesex Journal, and R. Thompson of the Gazetteer) were ordered to attend the House to be told off; after they defied the order, their arrest was ordered and they went into hiding. The plan to defy the Commons seems to have been encouraged or even proposed by John Wilkes and the circle of reformers connected to him, linked to the ‘city patriots’.

On 12th March, it was (after a long divisive debate in the Commons) ordered that 6 more of the printers be ordered to attend the House – four came, two didn’t show up. An order to arrest one – John Miller of the London Evening Post – was issued. When William Whittam, a Commons messenger, tried to nick Miller at his house, a City of London constable arrested Whittam, on the orders, or at least backed by, the Lord Mayor of London for 1771, Brass Crosby, who refused to release Whittam on the grounds that he had no jurisdiction to arrest Miller in the City. Crosby was himself summoned to the Commons, eventually appearing on March 25th (sent off with acclaim as a ‘friend of the people’ and defender of liberty, and accompanied by large crowds) He defended his action, “in protecting the liberty of the subject.”

When Crosby was ordered to the Commons again in the 27th, vast crowds (reputedly 50,000 people, “most of whom appeared to be respectable tradesmen”) surrounded his carriage, and blocked the roads to Parliament. They harassed government supporters; “Lord North’s Chariot glasses were broken to pieces… by which he received a wound, and was exceddingly terrified. The populace also took off his hat and cut it into pieces, and he narrowly escaped with his life.” Other pro-government MPs were pelted with mud and insulted. Mobs ran riot in Westminster for five hours.

The king was also insulted the next day as his state coach passed down Parliament Street… there was chaos as MPs abused each other, and Westminster magistrates tried to re-impose the rule of law.

Crosby was found guilty of ‘a breach of privilege’ and ordered to be held in the Tower (joining Alderman Richard Oliver, a supporter of Wilkes, accused of being part of the plot to detain Whittam).

Both Crosby and Oliver were held for several weeks, supported by mass demonstrations and speeches organized by allies in the City… But the printers went unpunished, the newspapers went on printing parliamentary debates, and the authority of the Parliament was seriously undermined.

When he was brought to trial several judges refused to hear the case and Crosby was released. No further attempts had ever been made to prevent the publication of Parliamentary debates, facilitating the emergence of Hansard.

In July 1771, the newly constructed obelisk at St George’s Circus in Southwark was given an additional inscription. Below the text: ERECTED IN/ XIth Year/ OF THE REIGN/ OF KING GEORGE THE THIRD/ MDCCLXXI was added THE RIGHT HONOURABLE/BRASS CROSBY ESQUIRE/ LORD MAYOR.


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