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Violent London

An anonymous engraving of the Gordon Riots in London in 1780; here the mob attacks and fires Newgate Prison, one of the most hated symbols of the city’s oppressive authority.

CHAPTER 52

A Ring! A Ring!

London has always possessed a reputation for violence; it stretches back as far as the written records. In a signal instance of city savagery the coronation of Richard I in 1189, for example, was marked by the wholesale murder of the Jews in London; men, women and children were burned and cut to pieces in one of the first but not the last pogroms against resident foreigners. Under cover of the general savagery of the Peasants Revolt, which was also a London revolt, apprentices and others fell upon the Flemings and butchered many hundreds while “the cries of the slayers and slain went on long after sunset, making night hideous.”

But the violence was not directed at aliens alone. The record of bloody attacks upon tax-raisers like William de Aldgate (stabbed to death) and John Fuatara (finger bitten off by a woman) emphasises what one historian, G.A. Williams in Medieval London, has called the Londoner’s reputation for “reckless violence.” In the Latin records of London’s courts in the early thirteenth century, that violence is vividly depicted. “Roger struck Maud, Gilbert’s wife, with a hammer between the shoulders, and Moses struck her in the face with the hilt of his sword, breaking many of her teeth. She lingered until Wednesday before the feast of St. Mary Magdalen and then died … while he was conducting him to the sheriffs the thief killed him … They dragged him by the feet on to the stairs of the solar, beating him severely about the body and under the feet, and wounding him in the head.”

Violence was everywhere—“endemic” is the word used by one scholar. Robberies, assaults and manslaughters are recorded with predictable frequency; quarrels degenerated quickly into fatal affrays, while street fights often turned into mass riots. Random brutality was common, and at times of political crisis the crowd to the well-known cry of “Kill, kill!” would set upon perceived enemies with unmatched ferocity. Many of the trades—notoriously those of saddler, goldsmith and fishmonger—were prone to “periodical gusts of homicidal rage,” while the guilds fought one another in the most pugnacious way. The religious orders were not immune from violence. The prioress of Clerkenwell took barley from disputed land belonging to the prior of St. Bartholomew’s “with force and arms to wit with swords, bows and arrows.” The memoirs of every century are filled with blood lust.

There was also violence against animals. When a horse being baited by dogs seemed likely to be spared, a seventeenth-century London crowd “cryed out it was a cheat, and thereupon began to untyle the house, and threatened to pull it quite down, if the Horse were not brought again and baited to death. Whereupon the Horse was again brought to the place, and the dogs once more set upon him; but they not being able to overcome him he was run through with a sword and dyed.” Cock-fighting was the Shrove Tuesday sport of schoolboys, so that the young Londoner could acquire an early taste for blood and death. Bears and bulls were often baited together, and “at such times you can see the breed and mettle of the dogs, for although they receive serious injuries from the bears, are caught by the horns of the bull, and tossed into the air so frequently to fall down again upon the horns … one is obliged to pull them back by the tails and force open their jaws.” Evelyn, a more fastidious citizen than most, complained about the “barbarous cruelties” as well as the “rude and dirty” pastimes of the people. He remarked, on visiting the famous bear garden by the Bankside, that “One of the bulls tossed a dog full into a lady’s lap, as she sate in one of the boxes at a considerable height from the arena. Two poor dogs were killed: and so all ended with an ape on horseback.” It might be remarked that blood sports are common to every culture and to every city; nevertheless this form of London violence is described as something intrinsic and particular. As Dryden put it in the seventeenth century:

Bold Britons, at a brave Bear-garden fray,

Are rouz’d: and, chatt’ring Sticks, cry Play, Play, Play.

Mean time, your filthy Foreigner will stare, And utter to himself, Ha! gens barbare!

This was indeed how Europeans considered Londoners—as barbarous people—although, as Dryden’s couplets intimate, that ferocity was perhaps a matter of civic pride. “If two little boys quarrel in the street,” one seventeenth-century French traveller observed, “the passengers stop, make a ring round them in a moment, and set them against one another, that they may come to fisticuffs … During the fight the ring of bystanders encourages the combatants with great delight of heart … The fathers and mothers of the boys let them fight on as well as the rest.”

“A ring! A ring!” was one of the perennial cries of the London street. “The lower populace is of a brutal and insolent nature,” another traveller remarked, “and is very quarrelsome. Should two men of this class have a disagreement which they cannot end up amicably, they retire into some quiet place and strip from their waists upwards. Everyone who sees them preparing for a fight surrounds them, not in order to separate them, but on the contrary to enjoy the fight, for it is a great sport to the lookers-on … the spectators sometimes get so interested that they lay bets on the combatants and form a big circle around them.” This is “congenital to the character” of Londoners, according to yet another foreign reporter, which suggests how unfamiliar and alarming these street fights in fact were to non-Londoners.

Combats between men and women were also frequent—“I saw in Holbourn a woman engaged with a man … having struck her with the utmost force, he retreated back … the woman seized these intervals to fall upon his face and eyes with her hands … The Police take no cognizance of these combats of individuals.” By “the Police” is meant the watch in each ward, which took no notice of these fights because they were common and familiar. Yet it did not end there. “If a coachman has a dispute about his fare with a gentleman that has hired him, and the gentleman offers to fight him to decide the quarrel, the coachman consents with all his heart.” This pugnacity could, and often did, have fatal consequences. Two brothers fought, and one killed the other outside the Three Tuns Tavern—“His brother intending, it seems, to kill the coachman, who did not please him, this fellow stepped in and took away his sword, who thereupon took out his knife … and with that stabbed him.”

A “diversion” of the English, according to many reports, was female combat in places of resort and amusement such as Hockley-in-the-Hole. It was recorded that the “women fought almost naked with two handled swords which, at the points, were sharp as razors.” Both combatants were frequently cut with these weapons, and retired briefly to have their wounds “sown up” without the benefit of any anaesthetic other than their own animosity. The fight continued until one of the participants swooned, or was so badly wounded that she could fight no more. On one occasion, one combatant was twenty-one and the other sixty. It became a highly ritualised, if bloody, affair. The two female warriors would bow to the spectators and salute each other. One was decked in blue ribbons, the other in red; each carried a sword, about three and a half feet in length with a blade approximately three inches wide. With these fierce weapons, and only a wicker shield for defence, they attacked each other. In one fight a swordswoman “received a long and deep wound all across her neck and throat”; some coins were thrown to her from the crowd, but “she was too badly hurt to fight any more.”

The introductory “chaff” between the two women (one declaring, for instance, that she beat her husband every morning to keep her hand in) was also echoed in the advertisements or “notices” which preceded each fight. “I Elizabeth Wilson, of Clerkenwell, having had some words with Hannah Highfeld and requiring satisfaction, do invite her to meet me on the stage and box with me for three guineas, each woman holding half a crown in each hand, and the first woman that drops her money to lose the battle.” The coin was held to prevent the participants scratching each other. To which a reply was printed: “I Hannah Hyfeld, of Newgate Market, hearing of the resolution of Elizabeth, will not fail to give her more blows than words, desiring home blows and from her no favour.” The London Journal reported in June 1722 that “They maintained the battle with great valour for a long time, to the no small satisfaction of the spectators.”

Men also fought one another with swords, each with a “second” bearing a large wooden club to ensure fair play, and again the struggle ended only when the participants’ wounds were too disabling for them to continue. On many occasions the audiences joined in the battle. “But Lord!” Pepys wrote, “to see in a minute the whole stage was full of watermen to revenge the foul play, and the butchers to defend their fellow, though most blamed him; and there they all fell to it, to knocking down and cutting many on each side. It was pleasant to see, but that I stood in the pit, and feared that in the tumult I might get some hurt.” This account emphasises the almost tribal loyalties engaged in civic violence, the effect of which could be witnessed in even the most “polite” circles. When the speculator Barebone engaged some workmen to build upon Red Lion Fields, the lawyers of the adjacent Gray’s Inn “took notice of it, and thinking it an injury upon them, went with a considerable body of one hundred persons; upon which the workmen assaulted the gentlemen, and flung bricks at them, and the gentlemen at them again; so a sharp engagement ensued.”

The tribalism of the city was manifested, in a no less unhappy way, with the exploits of a group of young people known as the Mohocks, named after “a sort of cannibals in India,” according to the Spectator, “who subsist by plundering and devouring all the nations about them.” These young Londoners would rush down the streets with linked arms for the pleasure “of fighting and sometimes maiming harmless foot passengers and even defenceless women.” Street-brawling has an ancient history within the city, and similar gangs of youths were known in previous generations as Muns and Tityre-Tus, then Hectors and Scourers, and then Nickers and Hawkubites. The Mohocks themselves began the evening by drinking too much, before tumbling on to the streets with their swords ready. The consequences are revealed in Walford’s Old and New London. As “soon as the savage pack had run down their victim, they surrounded him, and formed a circle with the points of their swords. One gave him a puncture in the rear, which very naturally made him wheel about; then came a prick from another; and so they kept him spinning like a top.” That is why they became known as Sweaters, and also as Slashers since in more ferocious mood they took pleasure “in tattooing, or slashing people’s faces with, as Gay wrote, ‘new invented wounds.’” Another poet of London has memorialised their exploits in more expressive verse:

And in luxurious cities, where the noise

Of riot ascends above their loftiest towers,

And injury and outrage, and when night

Darkens the streets, then wander forth the sons

Of Belial, flown with insolence and wine.

So did John Milton place the violence of London within the context of myth and eternity.

Within the context of the streets, the Mohocks were not alone in their depredations. In the 1750s William Shenstone wrote that “London is really dangerous at this time; the pickpockets, formerly content with mere filching, make no scruple to knock people down with bludgeons in Fleet Street and the Strand, and that at no later hour than eight o’clock at night; but in the Piazzas, Covent Garden, they come in large bodies, armed with couteaus, and attack whole parties.” Here is a graphic illustration of how at night the city, without an adequate police force, could become terrifying. Sir John Coventry had his nose slit by a street gang. A courtesan named Sally Salisbury, displeased by an admirer’s speeches, “seized a knife and plunged it into his body”; she was conveyed to Newgate, surrounded by plaudits. “Now it is the general complaint of the taverns, the coffee-houses, the shop-keepers and others,” wrote the City Marshal in 1718, “that their customers are afraid when it is dark to come to their houses and shops for fear that their hats and wigs should be snitched from their heads or their swords taken from their sides, or that they may be blinded, knocked down, or stabbed; nay, the coaches cannot secure them, but they are likewise cut and robbed in the public streets etc. By which means the traffic of the City is much interrupted.”

“Traffic” is as much in goods as in vehicles, and this is one of the indications that the prosperity of the city was being threatened by the violent propensities of some of its citizens. In this period, too, the apprentices would “go to Temple Bar in the evening, set up a shouting and clear the pavement between that and Fleet Market of all the persons there. The boys all knew boxing, and if anyone resisted one or two would fall upon him and thrash him on the spot, nobody interfered.”

James Boswell was very observant of the streets in the decade after Fielding’s death (1754). “The rudeness of the English vulgar is terrible,” he confided to his diary in December 1762. “This indeed is the liberty which they have: the liberty of bullying and being abusive with their blackguard tongues.” On many occasions he would have heard the familiar shouts of “Marry, come up!” and “Damn your eyes!” A month later he was reporting that “I was really uneasy going home. Robberies in the street are now very frequent” and then, in the summer of 1763, he recorded that “There was a quarrell between a gentleman and a waiter. A great crowd gathered round, and roared out ‘A ring—a ring.’” It may also be that in that cry there is a folk memory of the chant “A ring-a ring of roses” which commemorated the period of the Plague when scarlet tokens upon the flesh were harbingers of death. In the streets of London, fear and violence are fatally mingled.

In the eighteenth century there are accounts of mobs with lighted torches and sticks or clubs; their leaders would read out the names of people, or of specific streets, in order to direct the violence against local targets. Houses and factories and mills could be literally pulled down; looms were cut apart. Sometimes we can hear them shouting—“Green you bugger, why don’t you fire? We will have your heart and liver!” There is also a remarkable collection of threatening letters, which testifies to the spirited and violent language of Londoners when addressing one another, “Sir, Damn Your Blood if You do not Ryes Your Works Too 2 pence a Pair moor We Well Blow your Braines out For We will Bllow your Brans out if You Doo not Do itt You slim Dog We shall sett You Houes on fier … if you do not Lay the Money at the place that we shall mention we will set your House and all that belongs to you on fire for it is in my power for to do it … Mr. Obey, we gave you now an Egg Shell of Honey, but if you refuse to comply with the demands of yesterday, we’ll give you a Gallon of Thorns to your final Life’s End.”

It is perhaps significant, in the context of the violent language of London, that much Cockney dialect springs immediately from pugilism: “breadbasket” for stomach, “kisser” for mouth, “conk” for nose, “pins” for legs and “knock-aht” for a sensation. Many of the words for beating, such as “hammer,” “lick,” “paste,” “whack” and “scrap,” also derive from the ring, suggesting that the vernacular of confrontation and pugnacity remains very much to the taste of the Londoner.

Fights took place off the streets as often as upon them, and the printed records testify to the fact that the “lower” drinking clubs and alehouses were characterised by violence as well as liquor. William Hickey reported upon his visit to a den called Wetherby’s in Little Russell Street off Drury Lane where “the whole room was in an uproar, men and women promiscuously mounted upon chairs, tables, and benches, in order to see a sort of general conflict carrying on upon the floor. Two she-devils, for they scarce had a human appearance, were engaged in a scratching and boxing match, their faces entirely covered with blood, bosoms bare, and the clothes nearly torn from their bodies. For several minutes not a creature interfered between them, or seemed to care a straw what mischief they might do each other, and the contest went on with unabated fury.” Here it is the indifference and callousness of the crowd that are most evident, an indifference which, it can be presumed, was carried over into their general demeanour at work or upon the streets. The phrase “Never mind it” was a frequent one. Another phrase in Hickey’s account, “promiscuously mounted,” also, if no doubt inadvertently, introduces the element of sexual excitement and sexual congress into this account of bloody combat; sex and violence are, in the city, indissolubly connected.

Hickey watched another beating in a corner of Wetherby’s where “an uncommonly athletic young man of about twenty five seemed to be the object of universal attack.” Hickey then experienced, naturally enough, “an eager wish to get away” but was stopped at the door. “No, no, youngster,” he was told, “no tricks upon travellers. No exit here until you have passed muster, my chick”; not until he had paid his “reckoning,” in other words, or had his purse stolen. He was then called a “sucker,” a word which lingered for more than two hundred years. Hickey was literally imprisoned within “this absolute hell upon earth” which then itself became a very emblem of the city as a prison.

no biography of London would be complete without reference to the most violent and widespread riot of its last thousand years. It started as a demonstration against legislation in favour of Roman Catholics, but quickly turned into a general assault upon the institutions of the state and the city.

On 2 June 1780, Lord George Gordon assembled four columns of his supporters in St. George’s Fields, in Lambeth, and led them to Parliament Square in order to protest against the Catholic Relief Act; Gordon himself was a quixotic figure of strange and marginal beliefs, but one who managed to inspire the vengeful imagination of the city for five days. He always protested, in later confinement, that he had never meant to uncork the fury of the mob, but he never properly understood the moods and sudden fevers of the city. His supporters were described as “the better sort of tradesmen,” and Gordon himself had declared that for the march against Parliament they should be decent and “dressed in their sabbath days cloaths.” But no crowd in London remains unmixed for long; soon more violent anti-papist elements, such as the weavers of Spitalfields bred from Huguenot stock, merged with the general crowd.

Charles Dickens, in Barnaby Rudge, has given an account of the riots; the novel is fired by his interest in violence and by his fascination with crowds but it is also conceived after much reading and research. From the Annual Register of 1781, for example, he could have learned that the day was “intensely hot, and the sun striking down his fiercest rays upon the field those who carried heavy banners began to grow faint and weary.” Yet they marched in the heat three abreast, the main column some four miles in length, and when they converged outside Westminster they raised a great yell. The heat now inflamed them, as they invaded the lobbies and passages of Parliament. So great was the crowd that “a boy who had by some means got among the concourse, and was in imminent danger of suffocation, climbed to the shoulders of a man beside him and walked upon the people’s hats and heads into the open street.” Now this great multitude threatened the government itself; their petition was carried into the chamber of the House of Commons while, outside, the crowd screamed and yelled in triumph. They even threatened to invade the chamber but, even as they threw themselves against the doors, a rumour spread that armed soldiers were advancing in readiness to confront them. “Fearful of sustaining a charge in the narrow passages in which they were so closely wedged together, the throng poured out as impetuously as they had flocked in.” In the ensuing flight a body of Horse Guards surrounded some of the rioters and escorted them as prisoners to Newgate; this removal was, as events demonstrated, an unfortunate one.

The mob dispersed, among a hundred rumours which resounded through the city, only to gather itself again as evening approached. Doors and windows were barred as the nervous citizenry prepared itself for further violence. The crowd had diverted its energies from Westminster to Lincoln’s Inn Fields where a notorious “mass house” was situated; it was in fact the private chapel of the Sardinian ambassador, but no diplomatic nicety could assuage the temper of the mob which burned it down and demolished its interior. According to a contemporary report “the Sardinian Ambassador offered five hundred guineas to the rabble to save the painting of our Saviour from the flames, and 1,000 guineas not to destroy an exceeding fine organ. The gentry told him they would burn him if they could get at him, and destroyed the picture and organ directly.” So opened a path of destruction which would burn its way across London.

The next day, Saturday, was relatively quiet. On the following morning, however, a mob met in the fields near Welbeck Street and descended upon the Catholic families of Moorfields. There they burned out houses and looted a local Catholic chapel. On Monday the violence and looting continued, but now it was also directed against the magistrates involved in confining some of the anti-Catholic rioters to Newgate as well as against the politicians who had inaugurated the pro-Catholic legislation. Wapping and Spitalfields were in flames. It was not a “No Popery” protest now but a concerted assault upon the established authorities.

Yet in promoting disorder they had themselves fallen out of all order or preconcerted arrangement. When “they divided into parties and ran to different quarters of the town, it was on the spontaneous suggestion of the moment. Each party swelled as it went along, like rivers as they roll towards the sea … each tumult took shape and form from the circumstances of the moment.” Workmen, putting down their tools, apprentices, rising from their benches, boys running errands, all joined different bands of rioters. They believed that, because they were so many, they could not be caught. Many of the participants were in turn motivated “by poverty, by ignorance, by the love of mischief, and the hope of plunder.” This is again according to Dickens, but he was one who knew the temper and atmosphere of London. He understood that, once one breach had been made in the security and safety of the city, others would follow. The city enjoyed a very fragile equilibrium, and could be rendered unsteady in a moment. “The contagion spread like a dread fever: an infectious madness, as yet not near its height, seized on new victims every hour, and society began to tremble at their ravings.” The image of distemper runs through London’s history; when it is combined with the imagery of the theatre, where each incendiary incident becomes a “scene,” we are able to glimpse the complicated life of the city.

On Tuesday, the day of Parliament’s reassembly, the crowds once more gathered at Westminster. It is recorded in “Lord George Gordon’s Narrative” that when the members of the Commons were informed that “people from Wapping were just then arriving with large beams in their hands and seemed determined to make an attack upon the soldiers” it was decided that the session should be adjourned. There were now mobs all over the city; most citizens wore a blue cockade to signal their allegiance to the rioters, and houses displayed a blue flag with the legend “No Popery” inscribed upon their doors and walls. Most of the shops were closed, and throughout London there was fear of violence “the like of which had never been beheld, even in its ancient and rebellious times.” Troops had been stationed at all the major vantage points, but they also seemed to be sympathetic to the cries and demands of the mob. The Lord Mayor felt unable, or was unwilling, to issue direct orders to arrest or shoot the rioters. So fires and destruction started up in various areas.

A contemporary account, in a letter by Ignatius Sancho written from Charles Street dated this Tuesday, 6 June and reprinted in Xavier Baron’s exhaustive London 1066–1914, complains that “in the midst of the most cruel and ridiculous confusion, I am now set down to give you a very imperfect sketch of the maddest people that the maddest times were ever plagued with … There is at this present moment at least a hundred thousand poor, miserable, ragged rabble, from twelve to sixty years of age, with blue cockades in their hats, besides half as many women and children, all parading the streets, the Bridge, the Park, ready for any and every mischief. Gracious God, what’s the matter now? I was obliged to leave off, the shouts of the mob, the horrid clashing of swords, and the clutter of a multitude in swiftest motion drew me to the door where every one in the street was employed in shutting up shop. It is now just five o’clock, the ballad mongers are exhausting their musical talents with the downfall of Popery, Sandwich and North … This instant about two thousand liberty boys are swearing and swaggering by with large sticks, thus armed in hopes of meeting with the Irish chairmen and labourers. All the Guards are out and all the horse, the poor fellows are just worn out for want of rest, having been on duty ever since Friday. Thank heavens, it rains.”

The letter is interesting because of its rush and immediacy, and it is worth noting, for example, that the correspondent writes of the demonstrators being “poor, miserable, ragged”; in more scathing terms Dickens describes them as “the Scum and refuse” of the city. So here we have a vast army of the disadvantaged and the dispossessed turning upon the city with fire and vengeance. If ever London came close to a general conflagration, this was the occasion. It was the most significant rebellion of the poor in its entire history.

A postscript to the letter from Charles Street has equally interesting news. “There is about a thousand mad men armed with clubs, bludgeons and crows, just now set off for Newgate, to liberate, they say, their honest comrades.” The firing of Newgate, and the release of its prisoners, remains the single most astonishing and significant act of violence in the history of London. The houses of certain judges and law-makers had already been burned down, but as the various columns of rioters descended upon the prison to the cry of “Now Newgate!,” something more fundamental was taking place. One of these leading the riot described it as “the Cause”; on being asked what this cause was, he replied: “There should not be a prison standing on the morrow in London.” Clearly this was not simply an attempt to release the “No Popery” rioters incarcerated a few days before. This was a blow against the oppressive penal institutions of the city, and those who watched the spectacle of the fire received the impression that “not only the whole metropolis was burning, but all nations yielding to the final consummation of all things.”

The columns marched on the prison from all directions, from Clerken-well and Long Acre, from Snow Hill and Holborn, and they assembled in front of its walls at a little before eight o’clock that Tuesday evening. They surrounded the house of the Keeper, Richard Akerman, which fronted the street beside the prison. A man appeared on the rooftop, asking what it was that they wanted. “You have got some friends of ours in your custody, master.” “I have a good many people in my custody.” One of the mob leaders, a black servant called John Glover, was heard to cry out: “Damn you, Open the Gate or we will Burn you down and have Everybody out.” No satisfactory answer was given, and so the mob fell upon Akerman’s house. “What contributed more than any thing to the spread of the flames,” one eyewitness, Thomas Holcroft, reported, “was the great quantity of household furniture, which they threw out of the windows, piled up against the doors, and set fire to; the force of which presently communicated to the house, from the house to the Chapel and from thence, by the assistance of the mob, all through the prison.” It seems to have been the actual sight of the prison, with its great walls and barred windows, which roused the mob to fury and instilled in them a determination as fiery as the brands which they flung against the gate.

That great door was the focus of their early efforts; all the furniture of the Keeper’s house was piled against it and, smeared with pitch and tar, was soon ablaze. The prison door became a sheet of flame, burning so brightly that the clock of the church of the Holy Sepulchre could clearly be seen. Some scaled the walls and threw down blazing torches upon the roof. Holcroft went on to report that “A party of constables, to the amount of a hundred, came to the assistance of the keeper; these the mob made a lane for, and suffered to pass until they were entirely encircled, when they attacked them with great fury, broke their staffs and converted them into brands, which they hurled wherever the fire, which was spreading very fast, had not caught.”

The poet George Crabbe watched the violence and recalled that “They broke the roof, tore away the rafters, and having got ladders they descended. Not Orpheus himself had more courage or better luck; flames all around them, and a body of soldiers expected, they defied and laughed at all opposition.” Crabbe was one of four poets who observed these events, Johnson, Cowper and Blake comprising the others. It has been suggested that all the defiance and laughter of the incendiary mob are represented in one of Blake’s drawings of this year, Albion Rose, which shows a young man stretching out his arms in glorious liberation. Yet the association is unlikely; the horror and pathos of the night’s events instilled terror, not exultation, in all those who observed them.

When the fire had taken hold of the prison, for example, the prisoners themselves were in peril of being burned alive. Another witness, Frederick Reynolds, recalled that “The wild gestures of the mob without and the shrieks of the prisoners within, expecting instantaneous death from the flames, the thundering descent of huge pieces of building, the deafening clangour of red-hot iron bars striking in terrible concussion on the pavement below, and the loud, triumphant yells and shouts of the demoniac assailants on each new success, formed an awful and terrific scene.” Eventually the gate, charred and still in flames, began to give way; the crowd forced a path through the burning timbers and entered the gaol itself.

Holcroft noted that “The activity of the mob was amazing. They dragged out the prisoners by the hair of the head, by arms or legs, or whatever part they could lay hold of. They broke the doors of the different entrances as easily as if they had all their lives been acquainted with the intricacies of the place, to let the confined escape.” They ran down the stone passages, screaming exultantly, their cries mixing with the yells of the inmates seeking release and relief from the burning fragments of wood and the encroaching fire. Bolts and locks and bars were wrenched apart as if the strength of the mob had some unearthly vigour.

Some were carried out exhausted and bleeding; some came out shuffling in chains and were immediately taken in triumph to a local blacksmith to the shrieks of “A clear way! A clear way!” from the multitude who surrounded with joy those who had been released. More than three hundred prisoners were liberated. Some had escaped from imminent execution, and were like men resurrected; others were hurried away by friends; others, habituated to the prison, wandered in astonishment and bewilderment through the wreckage of Newgate. Other prisons were fired and opened that night, and it was— for that night, at least—as if the whole world of law and punishment had been utterly demolished. In subsequent years the Londoners of the area recalled the unearthly light which seemed to shine from the very stones and streets of the city. The city was momentarily transformed.

It was appropriate, therefore, that the crowd should then make its way from the burning ruins of the prison to the home of the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Mansfield, in Bloomsbury Square. It is one of the aspects of eighteenth-century London that the house of every notable or notorious citizen was well known. The serried spearpoint railings were torn down and hurled within; the windows were broken; the mob entered the house, went through all of its rooms, broke or set fire to its furniture. Mansfield’s paintings and manuscripts were consigned to the fire, together with the contents of his law library; this, in vivid form, was the burning of the Law. A curious episode might be mentioned here, as all the power and oppression of the city are despatched to the flames. From the window of the burning house one demonstrator exhibited to the roaring mob “a child’s doll—a poor toy … as the image of some unholy saint.” On reading this account Dickens immediately assumed that it was a token of that which the late occupants had worshipped but in fact this strangely anonymous, almost barbaric, object can be seen as the deity of the crowd.

On the following morning Samuel Johnson toured the scene of that night’s riots. “On Wednesday I walked with Dr. Scot to look at Newgate, and found it in ruins with the fire yet glowing. As I went by the Protestants were plundering the Sessions-house at the Old Bailey. There were not, I believe, a hundred; but they did their work at leisure, in full security, without sentinels, without trepidation, as men lawfully employed, in full day.” He added a curious statement: “Such is the cowardice of a commercial place.” By this he meant, no doubt, that there was no communal spirit or civic pride abroad to avert or prohibit these outrages; London, as a commercial city, had no defences except those of fear and oppression. When those twin guarantors of security were lifted, then theft and violence naturally and inevitably emerged in their stead. A “commercial place” is an arena of rapine and anxiety under another name. Samuel Johnson, who understood the pleasures and virtues of the city, also understood its debilitating faults better than any of his contemporaries.

But that day witnessed more than the smoking ruins of the Law. Horace Walpole termed it, in a phrase that was not then a cliché, “Black Wednesday.” It might almost have been termed Red Wednesday. That morning the “cowardice” of London was manifest in the closed shops and shuttered windows. Many of the citizens were so dismayed and astounded by the destruction of Newgate, and the complete failure of the city authorities to punish or apprehend those who were responsible, that it seemed to them that the whole fabric of reality was being torn apart before their eyes. And “round the smoking ruins people stood apart from one another and in silence, not venturing to condemn the rioters, or to be supposed to do so, even in whispers.” There was another curious aspect of this lawlessness. Some prisoners lately released sought out their gaolers, “preferring imprisonment and punishment to the horrors of such another night as the last,” while others actually returned to Newgate in order to wander among the smoking ruins of their erstwhile place of confinement. They were brought there by some “indescribable attraction,” according to Dickens, and they were found talking, eating and even sleeping in the places where their cells had once stood. It is a curious story but somehow all of a piece with the greater story of London, where many will dwell upon the same stones for the whole of their lives.

Troops had been stationed throughout the city, but the energy and purpose of the rioters were not significantly diminished; in fact the burning of the night before seemed only to have increased their rage and resentment. Threatening letters were posted up outside those prisons which had remained secure, including the Fleet and the King’s Bench, assuring their keepers and gaolers that they would be fired that night; the houses of prominent legislators were similarly picked out. The leaders of the riot declared that they would take and fire the Bank, the Mint and the Royal Arsenal—and that they would occupy the royal palaces. A rumour spread that the demonstrators would also throw open the gates of Bedlam, thus contributing a curious terror to the general fear of the citizens. Truly then the city would become a hell with the desperate, the doomed and the distracted wandering its streets against buildings collapsing and houses on fire.

That night it seemed that the fire of 1666 had come again. The rioters emerged upon the streets “like a great sea,” and it seemed their purpose “to wrap the city in a circle of flame.” Thirty-six major fires were started—the prisons of the Fleet, the King’s Bench and the Clink were all alight—while the soldiers fired upon the crowds with sometimes fatal effect. Some of the greatest conflagrations were in the vicinity of Newgate itself, beside Holborn Bridge and Holborn Hill, as if the destruction of the previous night had somehow magnetised the area so that it drew more vengeance upon itself. The image of the blank-faced doll, as some anonymous and infernal deity of the riotous city, seems appropriate.

Samuel Johnson wrote to Mrs. Thrale that “one might see the glare of conflagration fill the sky from many parts. The sight was dreadful.” And, from Horace Walpole: “I never till last night saw London and Southwark in flames.” This spectacle of the burning city, again according to Johnson, created a “universal panick.” There were sporadic riots on the next day, Thursday, but the incandescent scenes of the day before seem to have exhausted that lust for violence which had so suddenly visited the streets of London. The military had been posted at all the appropriate sites, while bands of soldiers were actively seeking out and arresting rioters, so that by Friday the city was quiet. Many of those who had left London in fear of their lives still remained apart, and the majority of shops were closed, but the insurrection had passed as quickly and as generally as it had gathered just a week before. Two hundred were dead, more lying badly and often fatally injured, while no one was able to compute the numbers of those who had burned to death in cellars or hiding-places. Lord George Gordon was arrested and taken to the Tower of London, and hundreds of rioters were confined in the prisons that had not already been destroyed by fire. Twenty-five were hanged on the spots where their crimes had been committed; two or three boys were suspended before Lord Mansfield’s house in Bloomsbury Square.

So ended the most violent internecine episode in the city’s history. Like all London violence it burned brightly but quickly, the stability and reality of the city being distorted by the heat of its flames before once more settling down.

The violence upon the Broadwater Farm Estate, in north London, in 1985, suggests a prevalent instinct towards riot which has never been suppressed. It is necessary only to look into the inner courtyards of a council-house estate, with graffiti on every wall, the windows covered with metal grilles and the doors padlocked, to understand that state of siege in which part of London still lives. The anxiety is still palpable in certain districts, and along certain roads, where the forces of repressed anger and fear are overwhelmingly present. An additional and unpredictable element in the general level of city violence is added in those parts of London that are infected with drug gangs.

The Broadwater Farm disruption began in the autumn of 1985, upon a predominantly black council estate, where for several months there had been “rumours of riots.” A series of separate incidents in the early autumn had exacerbated already emerging tensions. But the death of Mrs. Cynthia Jarrett on the night of 5 October, allegedly while the police were searching her flat, precipitated the disturbances upon the estate. The official report, Broadwater Farm Enquiry (1986), includes the statements of witnesses as well as descriptive analysis of the violence itself. “So I thought: ‘Oh my God they down there and those children are there.’” The actions of the police were reported in similar fashion. “There was cries of ‘wait until we get in there and get you … get back in there, you bastards, get back in there’ … The only people who may not have been pushed back were a few of the older ones … A lot of people said ‘No. Don’t go back. Why should we go back?’ … It was a general state of confusion. There were young girls there with young children and then a lot of screaming, a lot of shouting.” These could be the voices of any angry crowd, scattered across London over the past centuries, but it is incarnated here within a group of black youths confronted by lines of police in riot gear attempting to force them back upon the council estate as if they were prisoners being driven back into their cells.

“Some of the youths then began to turn over cars, and missiles were thrown at a line of police. Two cars were turned over and burned close to the junction. They attempted to turn over another car but were stopped … Soon after a wall at the corner of Willan Road and The Avenue was knocked down and dismantled for ammunition to throw at the police line. The fighting had started.” It spread rapidly, in characteristic fashion, and from the estate came “constant volleys of dangerous missiles. Slabs of pavement were broken up and thrown. When the available slabs from nearby were used up, young people were seen rushing through the estate carrying missiles in various containers. A shopping trolley, a milk crate and a large communal rubbish bin were all mentioned to us as being used. At a later stage, tins stolen from the supermarket became a common form of ammunition.” Once more the common “reality” of the city was being disrupted and changed. Crude and often ineffective petrol bombs were hurled at the encroaching police. “Two people, both black, started shouting orders at the others: ‘we need more ammunition.’ Immediately five or six responded by running round the houses gathering up empty milk bottles, while four others turned over a car for petrol. In less than five minutes I counted more than 50 petrol bombs completed.” Curiously and perhaps significantly this testimony came from “Michael Keith, a research assistant at St. Katherine’s College, Oxford” who “had been preparing a history of rioting.” So the historical dimension or historical resonance is confirmed by one who, witnessing the events of 1985, had other riots in his head. Perhaps the Gordon Riots provided an echo or parallel.

Many of the demonstrators wore masks or scarves in order to conceal their identity, but, as in previous incidents over the centuries, some emerged who took command of the riots. “It was like when you look at ants,” one witness on Broadwater Farm explained, “you see how ants move and you identify which ones are the workers. Because you see them from high. Now what I saw, was three or four people moving and giving signs to each other with their hands … and they were moving like a group. You could see they were white by the hands.” One of the characteristics of accounts of the Gordon Riots was the allegation that secret managers exploited the violence and mayhem for their own ends. On Broadwater Farm the same phenomenon emerged. “They were outsiders doing it to our Estate,” a witness explained, suggesting in turn that there are some people who relish urban conflagration for its own sake or as a means of affecting the entire social and political system. The fact that these strange organisers were apparently white, as witnessed by others, may suggest that sixth columnists wanted to inflame hatred against the black Londoners who lived upon the estate.

Yet the general movement of the crowd was as ever one of controlled confusion. The historian of rioting noted that “Most of the people were united by a sense of anger which regularly escalated to fury. In this situation a dramatic cast, representative of any cross-section of society, was clearly evident.” Here his understanding of the patterns of riot comes into play, with his reference to “a dramatic cast” as if it were part of London’s theatre. He mentioned those, too, who attempted to compete in their bravery and aggression against the ranks of the police. “Many more spent most of their time giving moral support, joking with each other, but no less committed in occasional forays.” He noticed some who tried to establish a plan of concerted action and impose order upon incipient chaos. But they were not wholly successful. “In this sense,” he concluded, “organisation was extemporised.” These are precisely the sentiments expressed by those who watched the unfolding of the Gordon Riots, and they suggest a great truth about violence in the city.

Another witness observed that “When people thought that their lines were a bit thin, then they went to reinforce the lines running from one point to another. There were no generals.” This suggests another aspect of London riots; they are rarely orchestrated but patterns emerge from within the crowd itself. It might also be construed as part of that egalitarian spirit of the city that there can be no “generals” or leaders. One observer on the Broadwater Farm, speaking of the rioters, was “struck by how young they were. She saw ‘kids of 12 and 13.’” It may be recalled here that children were hanged in the aftermath of the Gordon Riots.

After the first confrontation there was no sustained attack but intermittent forays. Cars were overturned and shops looted. “I discovered he was an Irish boy and he said that it’s the first time he has had so much food in six months because he’s unemployed.” Yet the most violent incident took place in the Tangmere precinct of the estate. One of the policemen despatched to guard the fire-fighters putting out a blaze in a newsagent’s shop, PC Keith Blakelock, slipped and fell in the face of a pursuing mob. D. Rose, in A Climate of Fear, takes up the narrative. “The rioters came at Blakelock from all sides … he was kicked on the ground and stabbed again and again.” Here we have an example of the sudden viciousness of a London mob. “In the words of PC Richard Coombes, the mob were like vultures, pecking at his body as his arms rose and fell to death with their blows.” Another observer described them as “a pack of dogs,” inadvertently using a simile which has become customary in dealing with the threatening crowd. Older than Shakespeare’s line in Coriolanus, “What would you have, you curs?,” it suggests the wildness and the untamed savagery latent within the civic order. “The instruments were going up and down being flayed at him. The last I saw of PC Blakelock was he had his hand up to protect himself … Blakelock’s hands and arms were cut to ribbons … His head seems to have turned to one side, exposing his neck. There he took a savage cut from a machete.” And there he died.

It was another terrible episode in the history of London violence, where all the rituals of blood and vengeance have their place. The Tangmere precinct itself “is a big, squat building, shaped in conscious imitation of a Babylonian ziggurat.” Babylon is ever associated with paganism and savagery.

There were gunshots, and sporadic fires started upon the estate, but by midnight the rioters had begun to disperse. It started to rain. The violence ended as quickly and as suddenly as it had begun except, that is, for examples of brutality among the police towards various unnamed and still unknown suspects. That same pattern of vengeance was no doubt also part of the aftermath of the Gordon Riots.

It would be absurd to declare that these two events, separated by two hundred years, are identical in character and in motive. The fact that one was on a general and the other on a local scale, for example, is a comment on London’s huge expansion over that period. One travelled along the streets, and the other was confined to the precincts of a council estate; this also testifies to changes within the society of London. Yet both sets of riots were against the power of the law, symbolised by the walls of Newgate Prison in the one case and by the ranks of police officers in riot gear in the other. It might be said that both therefore reflect a deep unease about the nature and presence of authority. The Gordon rioters were generally poor, part of the forgotten citizenry of London, and the inhabitants of the Broadwater Farm Estate were, according to Stephen Inwood, predominantly “homeless, unemployed or desperate.” There may, again, be a connection. In both cases, however, the riots burned themselves out fierily and quickly. They had no real leaders. They had no real purpose except that of destruction. Such is the sudden fury of London.

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