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London as Crowd

An etching by James Gillray, which caricatures Sheridan as Punch blowing theatrical bubbles above the heads of a cheering crowd. London has always been a theatrical city and its mobs were once part of its dramatis personae.



In a city of rumour and of fluctuating fortune, of excess in every form, the London crowd has over the generations acquired an interesting pathology. The crowd is not a single entity, manifesting itself on particular occasions, but the actual condition of London itself. The city is one vast throng of people. “On looking into the street,” one seventeenth-century observer recalled, “we saw a surging mass of people moving in search of some resting place which a fresh mass of sightseers grouped higgledy piggledy rendered impossible. It was a fine medley: there were old men in their dotage, insolent youths and boys … painted wenches and women of the lower classes carrying their children.” A “medley” suggests a show or spectacle, and in the mid-seventeenth century painters began subtly to examine the London crowd. It was no longer an indistinct mass, seen from a safe distance, but a general group of people whose particular features were differentiated.

There was always the noise, as well as the spectacle. “It was very dark, but we could perceive the street to fill, and the hum of the crowd grew louder and louder … about eight at night we heard a din from below, which came up the street continually increasing till we could perceive a motion.” The loud indistinct hum, rising to a roar and accompanied by strange general motion, is the true sound of London. “Behind this wave there was a vacancy, but it filled apace, till another like wave came up; and so four or five of these waves passed one after another … and throats were opened with hoarse and tremendous noise.” There is something crude, and alarming, about this sound; it is as if the voice of the city were primeval, unearthly. The occasion described here, in Burke’s The Streets of London Through the Centuries, was a late seventeenth-century anti-Catholic procession down Fleet Street, and its air of menace is enlarged by the reference to how “one with a stenterophonic tube sounded ‘Abhorrers! Abhorrers!’ most infernally.” The sound of London can be harsh and discordant. Yet sometimes its collective breath is charged with misery. On the day of the execution of Charles I, 30 January 1649, a great throng was assembled in Whitehall; at the instant of the blow which removed the king’s head, “there was such a Grone by the Thousands then present, as I never heard before & desire may never hear again.”

Yet, for the royalists of the seventeenth century, the throng of London were “the scum of all the profanest rout, the vilest of all men, the outcast of the people … mechanic citizens, and apprentices.” The crowd, in other words, became a tangible threat; it was turning into a mob (the word was coined in the seventeenth century) which might become King Mob.

The salient fact was that London had grown immeasurably larger in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and so obviously the size of its crowds was enlarged. In an atmosphere of religious and political controversy, too, there was no model of civic polity to restrain them. Pepys records a crowd “bawling and calling in the street for a free Parliament and money” and, in the summer of 1667, “it is said that they did in open streets yesterday, at Westminster, cry ‘A Parliament! a Parliament!,’ and do believe it will cost blood.” In the following year there were riots in Poplar and in Moorfields, and the new prison at Clerkenwell was broken open by the people to rescue those who had been imprisoned for the old London custom of pulling down brothels. “But here it was said how these idle fellows have had the confidence to say that they did ill in contenting themselves in pulling down the little bawdy-houses and did not go and pull down the great bawdy house at Whitehall.” This is the authentic radical and levelling voice of the Londoner, newly become a crowd or throng or mob, in the heart of the city. “And some of them last night had a word among them, and it was ‘Reformations and Reducement.’ This doth make the courtiers ill at ease to see this spirit among the people.”

So London had become dangerous. “When a mob of chairmen or servants, or a gang of thieves or sharpers, are almost too big for the civil authority,” wrote Henry Fielding, “what must be the case in a seditious tumult or general riot?” The history of the eighteenth-century crowd displays a gradual change of temper which was disturbing to magistrates such as Fielding. The scorn and insults were no longer primarily levelled at strangers or outsiders but, rather, at those of wealth or authority. “A man in court dress cannot walk the streets of London without being pelted with mud by the mob,” Casanova wrote in 1746, “… the Londoners hoot the king and the royal family when they appear in public.” In this “chaos,” as Casanova described it, “the flower of the nobility mingling in confusion with the vilest populace,” the “common people affect to show their independence … the most wretched Porter will dispute the wall with a Lord.” It was similarly reported by Pierre Jean Grosley that “In England no rank or dignity is secure from the insults” and that “no nation is more satirical or quicker at repartee, especially the common people.” A Frenchman made the acute point that “This insolence is considered by many only as the humour and pleasantry of porters and Watermen; but this humour and pleasantry was, in the hands of the long parliament, one of their chief weapons against Charles the First.” “Repartee” and insult can, in other words, have political consequences. In that context it is perhaps worth noting that the street urchins used the statue of Queen Anne, outside St. Paul’s Cathedral, as the target for their practice of throwing stones.

One of the characteristics of the London mob was its irritability and sudden changes of mood, so that when a spark was struck in its depths it flared up very quickly. When an offender did not arrive at a pillory in Seven Dials, as expected, the crowd erupted in a fury which principally fell upon passing hackney coaches; they were pelted with filth and ordure while the coachmen were forced to cry out “Huzza!” as they went along. At one controversial election meeting in Westminster “in a very few minutes the whole scaffolding, benches and chairs and everything else were completely destroyed.” The rage of the crowd was random and sporadic, fierce and exhilarating in equal measure. One German visitor, after a visit to Ludgate Hill, noted: “Now I know what an English mob is.” He was driving in a coach, at a time of general rejoicing at the release from prison in 1770 of the great London politician, Wilkes, and recalled “half-naked men and women, children, chimney sweeps, tinkers, Moors and men of letters, fish-wives and elegant ladies, each creature intoxicated by his own whims and wild with joy, shouting and laughing.”

It is as if the very restriction of the city encouraged the sudden appetite for wildness and licence; the restraints imposed by a mercantile culture, ruinous in its effects upon many who comprised the crowd, encouraged rapid volatility of rage and exhilaration. There were also too many people forced into too small a space, and this massive overcrowding in narrow streets engendered strange fevers and excitements. That is why the instinctive fear of the mob, or crowd, had as much to do with its propensity for disease as its prevalence towards violence. It was the fear of touch, of the unhealthy warmth of London as transmitted by its citizens, which went back to the times of fever and of epidemic plague when, in the words of Defoe, “their hands would infect the things they touched, especially if they were warm and sweaty, and they were generally apt to sweat too.”

The mob can also turn upon itself, or upon one of its number. The cry of “a Pick Pocket!” in Moll Flanders set the crowd alight when “all the loose part of the Crowd ran that way, and the poor Boy was deliver’d up to the Rage of the street, which is a Cruelty I need not describe.” There is an element of sudden horror here, as if a whirlpool of rage manifested itself without warning. A record of the last days of a reputed astrologer and magician, John Lambe, in the middle of June 1628, is printed in “The Life and Death of John Lambe,” by Leva Goldstein in Guildhall Studies in London History. Lambe was recognised by some boys in the Fortune Theatre who waited outside “and followed him when he left.” More people joined them, and Lambe hired some passing sailors to form a protective bodyguard; he walked down Red Cross Street, turned left into Fore Street and then left again to the Horseshoe Tavern in Moor Lane, the crowd growing larger and louder all the time. He dined in the inn, while the sailors “kept the crowd at bay” but, when he left and entered the city by Moorgate, the mob once more pursued him with cries of “Witch” and “Devil.” The situation was now very serious. He walked quickly down Coleman Street, into Lothbury, where he took refuge in an upstairs room of the Windmill Tavern on the corner of Old Jewry. His bodyguards were assaulted, and both entrances to the tavern watched by the eager citizens. He attempted to leave in disguise but was again marked down; he took refuge in a nearby house, belonging to a lawyer who called out four constables of the ward to guard him. “But the rage of the people so much increased … that in the midst of these auxiliaries they struck him down to the ground” and beat him with stones and clubs; he never spoke again, and was carried to the Poultry Compter where he died of his injuries on the following day. This is an accurate report on the actions of a characteristic London crowd.

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If you had any hope of finding “a community life” in London, “all foreigners” agree that it is as if you searched “for flowers in a vale of sand.” There was no community in London in the eighteenth century, and no sense of communal life, only a number of distinctive and distinguishable crowds. There were crowds of women attacking bawdy houses or dishonest shops, crowds of citizens alerted by a “hue and cry,” crowds of parishioners attacking a local compter, crowds watching a fire, crowds of beggars, and, most ominously, crowds of distressed or unemployed workers. One eminent London historian, Stephen Inwood, has in fact remarked in his A History of London that rioters “could be a form of ‘collective bargaining’ between labourers and masters.” In 1710 there was violent rioting by framework-knitters, which presaged decades of unrest and disorder in the poor urban districts such as Whitechapel and Shoreditch.

There were riots by silk-weavers and coal-heavers, hat-makers and glass-grinders, and a host of assorted tradesmen whom creeping industrialisation and increased food prices had rendered ever more desperate. Indian calico was a threat to the weavers of Spitalfields, for example, and one woman was attacked by a crowd who “tore, cut, pulled off her gown and petticoat by violence, threatened her with vile language, and left her naked in the fields.” London channelled the energies of its citizens in the crooked shape of its lanes and thoroughfares, rendering them ever more fierce and desperate.

That is why the process of city life itself was seen as a movement within a crowd. Sometimes it is indifferent and banal, an aspect of “the great metropolis” where exists “the vast unhurried audience that will still gather and stare at any new thing.” Yet on occasions its speed and confusion were decisive, as in Gray’s poem where on the streets of the city the crowd “Tumultuous, bears my Partner from my side.” This is a defining image, well expressed in Moll Flanders: “I took my leave of her in the very Crowd and said to her, as if in hast, dear Lady Betty take care of your little Sister, and so the Crowd did, as it were Thrust me away from her.” The impersonal crowd parts friend from friend, and separates loved one from loved one; those dearest to us are no longer near, borne away by the surging tide in unknown directions. Yet for some there is comfort to be found in this anonymity. “I shall therefore retire to the Town,” wrote Addison in the Spectator of July 1711, “… and get into the Crowd again as fast as I can, in order to be alone.” The crowd encourages solitude, therefore, as well as secrecy and anxiety.

The nineteenth century inherited all these propensities but, in the enormous Oven or Wen, the crowd became increasingly impersonalised. Engels, the great observer of imperial London, remarked that “the brutal indifference, the unfeeling isolation of each … is nowhere so shamelessly barefaced … as just here in the crowding of the great city.” By which he meant not only the crowding in the thoroughfares, as the indifferent mass of people moved in preordained directions, but the general overpopulation within the capital; it had become dense to blackness with the number of human lives within it. Engels recorded again that “The very turmoil of the streets has something repulsive, something against which human nature rebels. The hundreds and thousands of all classes and ranks crowding past each other …” He noticed, too, how “each keeps to his own side of the pavement, so as not to delay the opposing streams of the crowd, while it occurs to no man to honour another with so much as a glance.” The nineteenth-century London crowd was a new phenomenon in human history, which is why so many social and political reformers chose to observe it. In Engels’s account, for example, it became a mechanism imitating the financial and industrial processes of the city, representing an almost inhuman force. Lenin rode on the top of an omnibus the better to observe the movement and nature of this strange creature; he reported upon “groups of bloated and bedraggled lumpen proletarians, in whose midst might be observed some drunken woman with a black eye and a torn and trailing velvet dress of the same colour … The pavements were thronged with crowds of working men and women, who were noisily purchasing all kinds of things and assuaging their hunger on the spot.” In his account the London crowd became the fierce embodiment of energy and appetite, with the forces of its dark life intimated by the black eye and black dress of the drunken woman.

When Dostoevsky lost his way, among the crowds, “what I had seen tormented me for three days afterwards … those millions of people, abandoned and driven away from the feast of humanity, push and crush each other in the underground darkness … The mob has not enough room on the pavements and swamps the whole street … A drunken tramp shuffling along in this terrible crowd is jostled by the rich and titled. You hear curses, quarrels, solicitations.” He sensed all the chaos of collective experience, in a city which was itself a curse, a quarrel and a solicitation. The whole mass of nameless and un-differentiated citizens, this vast concourse of unknown souls, was a token both of the city’s energy and of its meaninglessness. It was also an emblem of the endless forgetfulness involved in urban living. “The children of the poor, while still very young, often go out into the streets, merge with the crowd and in the end fail to return to their parents.” They achieved, in other words, the final destiny of city dwellers—to become part of the crowd.

There is a short story by Edgar Allan Poe, set in London in the 1840s, entitled “The Man of the Crowd.” The narrator is to be found in a coffee house beside one of the principal thoroughfares, studying the nature and composition of the “two dense and continuous populations” passing the door. Many had “a satisfied business-like demeanour … their brows were knit and their eyes rolled quickly; when pushed against by fellow-wayfarers they evinced no impatience.” But there also emerged a “numerous class” who “were restless in their movements, had flushed faces, and talked and gesticulated to themselves … if jostled, they bowed profusely to the jostlers, and appeared overwhelmed with confusion.” Here then are two types of the London crowd. There are the satisfied travellers in the stream of life and time, and the awkward or confused who cannot join its steady progress. They apologise for their confusion, but only by talking to themselves can they manage any communication.

The narrator notices junior clerks, wearing the fashions of last year, and upper clerks or “steady old fellows”; he looks upon pickpockets, dandies, pedlars, gamblers, “feeble and ghastly invalids upon whom death had placed a sure hand,” modest young girls, ragged artisans, exhausted labourers, piemen, porters, sweeps, “drunkards innumerable and indescribable—some in shreds and patches, reeling, inarticulate.” The London crowd of the midnineteenth century is revealed here, “all full of noisy and inordinate vivacity which jarred discordantly upon the ear and gave an aching sensation to the eye.”

Then the narrator is arrested by one countenance, that of an old man, which displays caution and malice, triumph and avarice, merriment and “extreme despair.” He resolves to learn more about him and, through the night, he follows him. In streets filled with people the old man’s pace is quick and restless but in deserted thoroughfares he shows signs of “uneasiness and vacillation.” He runs down abandoned streets until he finds a crowd leaving the theatre—here, moving among them, “the intense agony of his countenance abated.” He joins a party of gin-drinkers jostling outside the entrance to a public house and “with a half shriek of joy … stalked backward and forward, without apparent object, among the throng.” In the small hours of the night he walks to an area of poverty and crime, where “the abandoned of London” are “reeling to and fro”; then, at daybreak, he returns “with a mad energy” to a principal thoroughfare where “he walked to and fro, and during the day did not pass from out the turmoil of the street.”

Finally the narrator understands who, or what, he has been following. It is the embodiment of the crowd, the no-thing which feeds off the turbulent life of the streets. The old man, with a face expressive “of vast mental power … of coolness, of malice,” is the spirit of London.

Others came to the city precisely to experience this new and strange life of the crowd. “Whenever I want to get an idea for painting or writing I always throw myself among the thickest crowds such as Earl’s Court or Shepherd’s Bush,” one nineteenth-century Japanese artist wrote. “Let the crowds push me to and fro—I call it a human bath.” And Mendelssohn could not disguise his delight at being plunged “in a vortex” where among the endless stream of people he could view “shops with signs as huge as a man and stage coaches piled up with people and a row of vehicles left behind by pedestrians … Look at that horse rearing in front of a house where his rider has acquaintances and those men used for carrying advertisements … look at the negroes and those stout John Bulls with their slender, beautiful daughters hanging on their arms.” A description of Londoners, in 1837, quoted in London Bodies, may also be apposite. “The appearance of the people in the streets of London,” John Hogg wrote, “is one of the first things that attracts the notice of strangers. The native inhabitants … are somewhat under middle size, but their limbs and features are generally well formed. They are of spare habit, but rather muscular; they are characterised by firmness of carriage, and an erect, independent air; they move with a measured step, and generally at a very brisk pace. The features are generally very strongly marked, and pointed; the eye in particular presents an openness and fullness that is remarkable. The tout-ensemble of the countenance bears an air of keenness, animation and intelligence, that distinguish the Londoner from his country neighbour.”

The crowd of the nineteenth century was also aware of itself as a new form of human congregation. That great representative of Victorian feeling, W.P. Frith, endlessly depicted crowds in paintings which themselves attracted endless crowds. The London theatres were filled with melodramas in which the transient crowd was the characteristic setting for individual stories of pathos and violence. There is an account by George Gissing of the continuous movement “of millions” on Jubilee Day (1887). “Along the main thoroughfares of mid London where traffic was now suspended; between the houses moved a double current of humanity … a thud of footfalls numberless and the low unvarying sound that suggested some huge beast purring to itself in stupid contentment.” So the crowd becomes a beast, contented and obedient, wandering through the city which has created it. But then its movements may become suddenly alarming. “These big crossings are like whirlpools; you might go round and round, and never get anywhere.” It is easy to see “how perilous such a crowd might be.”

The crowd, aware of its identity, sends signals to itself. During a bad reverse for British troops during the Crimean War, “we all stood about the streets—regardless of all appearances, reading the telegrams (in the newspaper) with breathless anxiety … There was a perfect sea of newspapers and curious faces behind, intense gravity prevailed … People walked along speaking in whispers and muttering.” The citizens of London then become one body with a corporate feeling of dismay; the crowd is alive and alert, responding in unison. The cry of “Mafeking is relieved,” on 17 May 1900 at nine thirty in the evening, had an equally instantaneous effect upon this corporate body. “Instantly the cry was taken up on the omnibuses and the people came clambering down in hot haste to hear the news repeated over and over again … Others rushed off into the byways, carrying the tidings further and further away, and all the time the streets became thicker with people cheering, shouting and singing.” This mass excitement is almost as disturbing as the “intense gravity” of the crowd recorded four months earlier; both show symptoms of that excess and over-reaction, close to hysteria, by which city life is characterised.

There is something childish about the mob in action, as if it had been bru-talised, or infantilised, by the condition of living in the city. In the fourteenth century the London mob greeted one supposed enemy with a “savage yell,” and five centuries later at a Chartist meeting in Coldbath Fields “a most fearful shout burst from the lips of the crowd.” It is the same terrifying and implacable voice. In 1810 the crowds during the Burdett riots “stopped all vehicles and compelled the occupants to signify their adherence to the cause.” In the same period a mob around a pillory “resembled beasts dipped in a stagnant pool.” The “vast and tumultuous crowds” which gathered to watch the battle of Sidney Street in 1911 provoked similar reactions, when a reporter for the News Chronicle noted that “the voices of these many thousands came up to me in great murderous gusts, like the roar of wild beasts in a jungle.”

Yet the city itself is curiously unmoved by its crowds. One of the reasons for civic peace in London, as opposed to other capitals, lies directly in its size. Its very scale determines its quietness. It is at once too large and too complex to react to any local outbreaks of passionate feeling, and in the twentieth century the most marked characteristic of riots and demonstrations was their failure to make any real impression upon the stony-hearted and unyielding city. The disappointment of the Chartist uprising in 1848, preceded by a large meeting on Kennington Common, anticipated the inability in 1936 of Oswald Mosley to proceed down Cable Street with thousands of fascist sympathisers. It was as if the city itself rebuked them and held them back. The poll tax riots of the late 1980s, around Whitehall and Trafalgar Square, were another instance of a violent local disturbance which did not affect the relative composure of the rest of the city. No movement could sweep through the entire capital, and no mob could ever control it. The city is so large, too, that it renders the average citizen powerless in its presence. In the early decades of the twentieth century there was something curiously compliant and complacent, not to say conservative, about the Cockneys; unlike the Parisians they did not want to fight the conditions of the city and were happy to live with them unchanged. That happy equilibrium could not last.

One unwelcome novelty of the latter half of the twentieth century, for example, was the race riot, among the most notable being those of Notting Hill in 1958 and of Brixton in 1981. The Notting Hill riots began with individual harassment of black men by gangs of white youths, but an incident on 23 August provoked a full-scale riot. Tom Vague, in the aptly named London Psychogeography, describes “a crowd of a thousand white men and some women … tooled up with razors, knives, bricks and bottles.” In the following week a large mob proceeded down Notting Dale and beat up any West Indian they could find, but the worst rioting took place on Monday 1 September, in the central area of Notting Hill Gate. Mobs congregated in Colville Road, Powis Square and Portobello Road before going on a “smashing rampage, chanting ‘Kill the niggers!’ … women hang out of windows shouting, ‘Go on boys, get yourselves some blacks.’” One observer noted that “Notting Hill had become a looking-glass world, for all the most mundane objects which everyone takes for granted had suddenly assumed the most profound importance. Milk bottles were turned into missiles, dustbin lids into primitive shields.” So an area of London becomes profoundly charged with the emotions of its inhabitants; everything is irradiated and transformed by their hatred. The accoutrements of a civilised city had suddenly been transformed into primitive weapons.

A youth leader remarked that “Those sort of boys take up any activity to break the boredom,” and in the twentieth century boredom had to be considered a component of any crowd behaviour. The sheer daily tedium of living in impoverished and unprepossessing surroundings is enough to break the spirit of many Londoners, who feel themselves trapped in the midst of the city without redress or relief. It creates not apathy but active tedium. Thus the violence starts.

On that Monday evening the West Indians collected together in Blenheim Crescent with “an armoury of weapons including milk bottles, petrol and sand for Molotov cocktails.” The white mob entered the area, with shouts of “Let’s burn the niggers out!,” and were greeted by home-made bombs. The police arrived in force, just before things could develop into out-and-out race war; some rioters were arrested, the others dispersed. Then by curious chance the great heat of these August days was swept away by a thunderstorm, the rain falling among the debris of broken bottles and wooden clubs. At their trial in September certain white rioters were told: “By your conduct you have put the clock back 300 years.” But this would only take them back to 1658; they had in fact behaved like their medieval predecessors who “swarmed” upon supposed enemies or aliens with often fatal results.

In the spring of 1981 the young black Londoners of Brixton, enraged by the perceived prejudice and oppression of the local police, erupted in streetrioting. For the first time petrol bombs were used in attacks upon the police, together with the conventional deployment of bottles and bricks, while a general wave of burning and looting left twenty-eight buildings damaged or destroyed. The depth and diversity of the disturbances suggest that they had a cause more fundamental than those of police oppression, however, and we may find it in the propensity among certain Londoners for riot and disorder. It then becomes a way of fighting structural oppression, whereby the very texture and appearance of the streets are oppressive and oppressing.

Poverty and unemployment have also been cited as the causes of sporadic violence, like that in Brixton; certainly they confirm the character of the city as a prison, confining or trapping all those who live within it. What more inevitable consequence, therefore, than rage against its conditions and its custodians? There have been other race riots; there have been riots against the police; there have been riots against the financial institutions in the City of London. Reports produced after the event characteristically refer to “the collapse of law and order” as well as the “fragile basis” of civic peace. But in fact the curious and persistent feature of London life is that “law and order” have never collapsed and that civic peace has been maintained even in the face of grave disorder. It is often wondered how, in its diversity and bewildering complexity, the city manages to function as a single and stable organism. In a similar fashion the fabric of the city, despite a variety of assaults, has always been preserved. Its mobs have never yet dominated it.

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