Saturday, 10 September 2011

Call That Rioting? An 18th Century Lesson in Chaos

It seemed like society was collapsing last month. When trouble started in London, then spread to other cities and seeped into smaller towns, it felt like an advancing infection of insanity. It appeared that the centres of unrest might become ever more parochial until gangs would be roaming every street, taking anything they wanted. What if it had simply never ended?

Thankfully, after a few days it passed and we breathed a collective sigh of relief. But looking to the past we see the truth of the matter - it has never ended. The gaps between moments of violent unrest from the populous may shrink or grow depending on the political and economic climate, but our leaders should never be shocked at bouts of frustrated destruction.

Spare a thought for the average citizens of Britain in the latter half of the 18th century. Starting with pockets of trouble from the restless poor, protests became intermingled with political agendas until they built into periods which made August 2011 seem relatively safe.

Scattered incidents had occurred starting in 1757 when William Pitt's attempt to strengthen our army prompted a public outcry and rioting. A year later in 1758, the enclosure movement was resulting in poor peasants being denied access to public wasteland and riots broke out in rural areas.

January 1766 saw widespread disorder in London after the government attempted to impose a Stamp Act to raise taxes in the American colonies. Just five months later, as food prices soared, the south saw huge numbers of the poor gathered to wreak havoc and protest in the hope that farmers would lower their prices.

On the 10th May 1768 an MP called John Wilkes who was hugely popular with the public fell foul of the government and King. He had won four elections but was expelled from parliament and after being found guilty of libel, his supporters caused chaos. Troops had to be used to quell disturbances in Southark as mobs roamed the streets with weapons. Road travel was not safe as people were attacked in their vehicles and the windows of houses were smashed. Police were assaulted trying to arrest people and troops fired shots into the crowd, killing six rioters and wounding 15.

At the same time in the north, resentment had built to dangerous levels following the introduction of new machinery in the textiles industry which threatened the jobs of weavers. Fearing for their livelihoods, men started grouping together and mounting large scale assaults on property and equipment. James Hargreaves, inventor of the Spinning Jenny, had rioters break into his home and smash all his machines.

Some peace was restored to the nation, but there was always an undercurrent of unease, and much anger was directed towards the King and Parliament. On 13th Febuary 1772 for example, rioting marred the funeral of the King's mother as her funeral procession was mobbed. Just a year later in Cornwall, local tin-miners were being affected by high grain prices and their frustration at their low income turned into violence. The tinners went on the rampage and seized stocks of grain. Troops had to be sent in once again to deal with it.

At this point in history, anarchy was erupting across the Atlantic too as attacks spread in the American colonies. Demonstrations and confrontations were commonplace but by 1774 this was rapidly descending towards war, and the first shots rang out at Lexington in 1775.

All was not well in Britain either in the years that followed. Exploiting the conflict with the colonies, France chose this time to declare war. In the hope of recruiting more men from all faiths into the army, parliament pushed through legislation called the Catholic Relief Act. This addressed a lot of inequality for Catholics, especially in terms of land-ownership, but the move was so unpopular in Scotland that mobs took to the street in January 1779 and an orgy of destruction followed.

Other domestic problems were still rife as new technology was still seen as a threat to employment. Framework Knitters in the Nottingham area had tried and failed to use political means to address their grievances, but their campaign for better wages was defeated in parliament and the desperate people turned to rioting. Then, on 9th October, a mob smashed Richard Arkwright's revolutionary water-powered spinning factory which had come to be a hated symbol of bad working conditions.

Tensions simmered up and down the country over a number of contentious social changes, until disturbance erupted once again on 2nd June 1780. This time it was over proposed extensions to the aforementioned Catholic Relief Act which prompted outrage across England. When Lord George Gordon travelled to the House of Commons to attempt to get the controversial legislation repealed, he was accompanied by a force of some 60,000 ill-tempered supporters. The atmosphere in the densely-packed crowd was tense and when Gordon berated his own massed followers, the mood turned ugly and the destruction began on an epic scale.

The following day the rioting continued with no sign of abating. There was a third day, then a fourth and a fifth of unrivalled chaos, but worse was to come.

On 6th June Newgate prison was stormed by the mob and all the inmates were released. The level of violence was unparalleled as the liberated criminals joined the carnage. Houses were burnt down and attacked, chapels were indiscriminately sacked, and the distilleries at Holborn were blown up. But city authorities still resisted the use of the military to quell the situation.

The next day the madness continued, and then the day after that. The capital was in turmoil and the destruction was extensive. Finally troops were called in, with large parts of London having been reduced to rubble. Initially 235 people were reported killed with 173 wounded. Only 139 arrests were made, including Lord George Gordon, the man originally responsible for the disorder. 25 men were accused of being ring-leaders in the trouble and all were found guilty and sentenced to be hanged.

When the dust had settled, fatalities were numbered at 500, and over a hundred buildings had been destroyed. The situation was thankfully never to be repeated on such a scale, but it was no small wonder that when the French revolution took hold of Paris in 1789, the British government felt there was a very real possibility that the hunger for change could cross the channel.

Revolutionary groups sprang up around Britain, spurred on by the events in France and, two years later on 15th July 1791, rioting erupted again, this time in Birmingham. When a banquet was held to celebrate the French Revolution, it was stormed by a thirty-strong "church and king" mob who then went on the rampage in Britain's largest industrial centre. Drunken looters roamed the streets, burning buildings and even sacking the home of well-known scientist and political dissenter Joseph Priestly. His library and laboratory were destroyed and in a move reminiscent of the Bastille storming, they opened the town prison, leading to more criminals on the streets.

The following year saw mob riots in Glasgow and Edinburgh as discontent grew with the political system. Dundee saw some of the worst of it, with two whole weeks of sustained destruction, culminating in troops being brought in. Outbreaks of trouble were never far away in England as the unruly public suffered poor harvests and then war with France. In October 1795 King George III's coach was fired at as he rode to the state opening of parliament and an angry crowd later hurled missiles. Even Downing Street came under attack and the windows of the Prime Minister's house was smashed.

The Militia Act which had been introduced to bolster the army remained extremely unpopular and as the war effort continued, riots erupted in Scotland. Incidents worsened until in August 1797 cavalry charged a group of protesters leaving 11 dead, including two local boys.

That same year, the Manchester food riots saw hundreds of people looting. The ring-leader Hannah Smith was given the death sentence - considered at the time an unexpectedly harsh punishment for theft of food, but in the wider context of inciting large-scale disturbance it was deemed right. These were the last major troubles of the 18th century but the following decades weren't without their own share of incidents, most notably of which were the food riots caused by the struggling economy.

The repeated social uprising of the latter half of the 18th century is shocking because it is so obviously the same society we live in today. We might want to believe that rampaging London mobs belong in medieval times but the stories above feature streets, jails and a political system that we would all recognise - and these tales are far more harrowing than what we lived through last month.

We now live in a country with six times more people than there were in 1800, and yet we are more civil, living in less fear and with far greater luxury than ever before. So, despite what we might be lead to believe about our society being broken and filled with barbaric and disrespectful people, it is perhaps comforting to reflect on the fact there has never been a Britain which is more restrained and more peaceful than the one we live in today.

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