I love the sound of breaking glass: the London crowd, 1760-2010

Issue: 130

Keith Flett

On the BBC’s Weekly Politics programme on 9 December 2010 the historian David Starkey commented on the tuition fees protests in London that day that the capital had seen nothing like it since the Chartist period of the 1840s. Starkey is a historian of the 16th not the 19th century so he is hardly best placed to make an informed comment. However, the broader point was well made.

According to some media coverage—for example the London Evening Standard—the student protests of late 2010 constituted mob violence and on occasion riot. While the fevered imagination of right wing journalists seeking easy headlines may not be the best historical benchmark, for much of the time since the mid-18th century—when the London “mob” makes its first real historical appearance—it has been a factor in shaping what took place.

The definition of what consitutes a riot and rioters according to the law has changed over time. The reading of the Riot Act was clear enough and has modern day parallels, when police warn crowds, albeit with much less legal backing. But the state’s definition of what was or was not a riot and who were or were not rioters was quite clear. John Stevenson, in a useful survey of the historical incidence of riot in the UK and secondary literature about it, notes that historically speaking the definition of a riot was that three or more people gathered together and, crucially, had a mutual intent in doing so.1 In other words the law argued that it was not just the act of riot that was the issue but whether there was a planned intent behind it or not.

A further criterion was whether what took place was sufficient to concern someone of robust physical condition. It may be argued that the London mob goes much further back than the 1750s. What, for example, about Wat Tyler and the Peasants’ Revolt? What of London during the 1640s and 1650s? The London Apprentices’ riot of this period was certainly very much an urban proto working class affair. The point here is that the crowds involved were mostly pre-proletarian but in the earlier cases pre-plebeian as well and that may have given them a rather different character from the gatherings considered here.

Eric Hobsbawm’s Primitive Rebels looks at some historical examples. He refers, for example, to the Palermo riot of 1773 and the Bolognese riots of 1790 but his emphasis is more on the mob as a reactionary pre-capitalist formation rather than a progressive element.2

Whether the events in central London on 9 December 2010 really constituted a riot by either protesters or police is arguable, but there were certainly scenes reminiscent of the poll tax demonstration at the end of March 1990. That protest helped to spark a wider movement that saw the poll tax axed and is thought to have contributed to Margaret Thatcher’s departure from office.

Trying to understand these events is a problem for right wing media commentators who believe that the era of street protest is long gone. Grasping what happens when ordinary people decide to protest has been an issue for as long as the inequalities and divisions of market capitalist society have sparked the protests themselves. This is really, at least in part, where the term “the mob” comes from. It is used to describe a group of protesters where those in authority have little idea about who, if anyone, might be leading them, and what they plan to do.

This disturbs those in authority but it is a function of large cities like London. It is possible in crowded urban areas for people to get up to all kinds of things without it being officially noticed. Well-off Victorians had a fear of the working class living in areas adjacent to them. They worried that the inhabitants might attack them or their property and then disappear back into the mysterious neighbourhoods from whence they came. So, for example, in 1848 the cry of “The Chartists are coming” was sometimes heard in well-off London neighbourhoods, heralding an imminent invasion of protesters supposedly intent on creating havoc. In the main, Chartist demonstrations were orderly affairs. But there were occasions, for example in early 1848, when Chartist influence was less, where less predictable protests took place.

Much the same fear underwrites current talk of “the mob”. It is not an anonymous group in reality. It is a mixture of the more and less committed, of all kinds of ideas and strategies and on occasion none. That is, as we show below, why the left has sometimes preferred not to use the term “mob” and has tended to refer to “the crowd”.

The pioneering work is “The London ‘Mob’ of the Eighteenth Century” by the late Marxist historian George Rudé who also wrote the classic text The Crowd in History. Rudé has referred to the sense of the “crowd”, “rather than a stratum of society or hired strong arm gang”.3

It could be said that the difference between “the mob” and “the crowd” is that the former has sometimes been reactionary while the latter is generally progressive. Not all London riots have been of the left and some attacked left wing causes, for example during the period of the French Revolution in the 1790s. But there is a tradition of left wing crowds, from those who stood up for “Wilkes and Liberty” in the 1760s, to the unemployed who marched and rioted in London in the 1880s and who formed an audience for the Marxist Social Democratic Federation, right up to the modern day with the poll tax.

It could be said that the street protests and their often chaotic nature represent an absence of the orderly traditions of the labour movement. Or we might argue that they are a force that can be organised to achieve real change, a great start pointing to better things.

In the last significant review of the historical literature on riots published in a 1978 issue of Social History, RJ Holton identifies four strands of thinking on the left about the nature of riots.4 For Richard Cobb, who wrote about the French Revolution, the focus is on popular mentalities. For Eric Hobsbawm, who worked on pre-industrial societies, there was a framework of banditry and primitive rebels, which he continues occasionally to revisit. Charles Tilly looked at collective violence while for George Rudé the emphasis was on the crowd and the social process that led people to protest rather than on concepts of the mob or the masses.5

Holton makes several critical points that still hold true: firstly that the “treatment of the patriotic and jingo crowds is…incomplete”; secondly he draws attention to the potential difference between the pre-industrial and the industrial crowd.

The London riot—some historical examples

Here we look at a number of historical examples of London riots: the Wilkes and Liberty riots of the 1760s, the Chartist riots in the 1840s, the riots on the Irish question in 1887 that led to Bloody Sunday, and, a century on, the poll tax riot of March 1990.

A narrative of the events themselves is not provided in detail—these can easily be established elsewhere. Charles Dickens’s novel Barnaby Rudge, about the Gordon Riots of 1780, is possibly the first fictional account of them. But these days, prudent allowance for errors (deliberate or otherwise) and lack of rigour being made, Wikipedia entries provide reasonable ways in for those who wish to know more about a particular episode.

Rather our interest in these four well known periods of London rioting is their characteristics. Rudé sees the historical treatment of “the mob” as falling under three headings: first, as an “omnibus term for the lower orders”, second, as a “hired gang acting in the interests of a particular political group”, and third, what interests him, as a crowd engaged “in riots, strikes or political demonstrations”.6 In the last case, the rioters would tend to be mostly in employment, as opposed to unemployed, and often skilled tradespeople. It should also be the case that there were some underlying economic factors that motivated the need to protest beyond the ostensible reason for doing so.

The focus here is very specifically on the urban, indeed on the crowd or mob that from time to time appeared in central London, the location of the central apparatus of the British state, the symbolic centre of power.

Looking at historical episodes of riot from the 1760s to the 1990s, similarities are striking. Riots invariably and always involve the smashing of a large number of windows, with subsequent glaziers’ bills. The authorities inevitably condemn the action and state their intention to track down and bring to justice those responsible. Later, where the results are clear in official papers, they frequently admit that the attempt to do so was not particularly successful.

The London mob was certainly in existence by the end of the first quarter of the 18th century. In fact Rudé suggests that “popular rioting” was “endemic” throughout the period.7 He notes, for example, that in 1733 a riot took place as a crowd besieged Parliament with a cry of “No slavery, no excise, no wooden shoes”. The impact was dramatic as the prime minister Robert Walpole withdrew his Excise Bill.

However, the London mob really enters the stage of history as a regular fixture from the 1760s, and it is this point that is captured in Rudé’s book, Wilkes and Liberty. John Wilkes was a radical bourgeois politician—he referred to his supporters as “the inferior sort of people”, was an early example arguably of the gentleman leader and was an MP and mayor of London in the final decades of the 18th century. He had battles with the establishment and spent time in jail for seditious libel, but he was also a successful political figure, perhaps one of the first of the modern era.

For example, Wilkes published a paper, the North Briton, for which he was prosecuted. Parliament met to consider the nature of the paper and ordered it to be burnt by the common hangman at Cornhill in the City of London. Unfortunately for the authorities a mob of 500 people gathered and the burning could not go ahead. In March 1768 Wilkes stood as an MP for Brentford in West London. Under the pre-1832 and pre-1867 unreformed parliament there was no secret ballot and polling went on for several days. Wilkes and his supporters ran an energetic and high profile campaign and easily won the seat ten miles west of central London.

Many of those responsible for trying to keep order in the capital, decades before the first regular police force appeared, decamped to Brentford to keep an eye on Wilkes and his campaign. Unfortunately for them this left rather few forces in central London, where on 29 and 30 March 1768 the election of Wilkes was greeted with a two-day celebratory riot aimed at those in authority who had been trying to persecute him.

Rudé reports: “A mob of 100 men and boys setting out from Charing Cross about 9pm in the evening…smashing windows in Leicester Fields, Covent Garden, Russell Street, the Strand, Long Acre, Oxford Street and Piccadilly…drank two gallons of beer to Wilkes and Liberty in the Six Cans Tavern Turnstile Holborn”.8

What followed set a pattern for riots to come. Rudé indicates that the Guildhall advertised in the press—the official London Gazette—”to prosecute with utmost rigour such persons who have been active in the said riots” on 30 March, the day after the riot. It appears that the success rate in apprehending and bringing rioters to court was rather poor as it was agreed that “the results proved decidedly meagre”.9

Who were those who participated in and organised the London riots of the 18th century? Historical research on who organised the processions in support of Wilkes is slim, but someone was responsible, as the authorities understood. Those who suggest that events happen spontaneously are really just saying that they don’t know who organised them. It may well be that the same elements of the radical bourgeoisie that supported Wilkes’s election in Brentford were responsible, but again detail is mostly lacking.

But it is known who the rioters were, in so far as they were arrested. The striking thing here is that while distinction is frequently made between the pre-industrial and industrial London crowd—for example by David Goodway in his excellent work on London Chartism in the 1840s, which is considered below—the composition of the rioters in the period Goodway covers appears similar to that of the crowd that supported Wilkes.10

The latter were invariably not what might be termed the “lumpenproletariat”, casual labourers or, mostly, the unemployed. In fact skilled workers predominated. Commenting on the Wilkesite crowd Sir John Fielding refers to “the infinite number of chairmen, porters, labourers and drunken mechanics”.11 Rudé himself notes that those involved were “wage earners…rarely criminals”.12 Finally, the reasons for arrest follow a well-worn pattern and usually focus on being involved with a mob or leading it, breaking windows or rioting.

As we’ve seen in 18th century London the forces of “order” that the state could mobilise to control and prevent riot were relatively limited. In that sense a riot was relatively easy to organise and an effective method of political protest. The organised labour movement and political parties as membership organisations did not exist in a significant way.

Chartist riots

As industrial capitalism developed and London became the centre of the world’s first capitalist power, so the forces of order developed. Indeed Goodway has described the London of the 1840s as a “fully policed” city and certainly the only one that was. The decade of the 1840s—which saw peak Chartist activity in the metropolis—saw the first significant riots in London since the Gordon Riots.

The protests around the 1832 Reform Act had certainly been robust but no riots took place. Similarly the events of 1839, for example the attempt at a rising in Newport, took place some distance from London.Indeed when the riot returned to London it had a focus on events that were happening elsewhere.

August 1842 saw the “plug plot”, a general strike in northern mill towns, and troops were despatched by train from Euston station to keep order. The departure of the troops was the occasion for what Goodway suggests was a “week and a half of daily meetings, processions and fighting with the police”.13

From 13 to 15 August crowds gathered near Euston station and in Regent Street. The crowd groaned and hissed at the troops and by 15 August the Chartist paper the Northern Star reported that troops were compelled to charge the people at the point of the bayonet before they could gain entry to the railway station. After the first few days Chartist meetings and gatherings were called to consider the general strike in the north and the role of the army.

The first meeting was at Stepney Green on 16 August 1842, followed by a gathering at Islington Green two days later. It was this event that provided probably the first recorded instance of a familiar occasion to modern day protesters in London: questions were asked about what the police had been doing as the mob traversed central London unimpeded.

The meeting on Islington Green dissolved peacefully and the police, assuming that this was it for the evening, stood down. In reality the Chartists re-grouped and marched to Clerkenwell Green—around 15 minutes away. Meanwhile another group of Chartists appeared at Lincoln’s Inn.

The police, however, had been expressly instructed to stop the Chartists from gathering in central London and the police commissioner Sir Richard Mayne was required to account for events to the prime minister Sir Robert Peel and his home secretary Sir James Graham. Graham had been forced to interrupt his dinner and go to the Home Office to take charge of matters. Mayne’s excuse was that for much of the time the Chartists had not been in the Metropolitan Police area but that of the City of London Police, and so this was nothing to do with him.

On 19 August 1842 the temperature in London reached 92oF and further Chartist gatherings and encounters with the police took place at Clerkenwell and Lincoln’s Inn, despite the fact that on that very morning the government and Lord Mayor of London had banned all meetings. The authorities were simply ignored.

After these tumultuous few days a further characteristic of such occasions may be noted. For several days absolutely nothing at all happened. Then on Monday 22 August events reasserted themselves in a slightly different register.

In Victorian London the tradition of the working week running from Tuesday until late Saturday, with Sunday as a day off and “Saint Monday” as an unofficial holiday, remained strong. So a large day time demonstration on an August Monday—Bank Holidays were not introduced until 1871—was not in itself a surprise. By the afternoon of 22 August Goodway estimates 40,000 Chartists were gathered on Kennington Common. It was a day of cultural activities—a phrenologist lectured, games of cricket were played—until at 6.30pm the meeting started.

The police were determined to prevent the assembly and, as a cry from the crowd of “The peelers, the peelers” went up, police on horseback rode into the crowd. It has become a familiar tactic in the 170 years since. The press reaction likewise set a tone that was to continue. The Times praised the police for a “masterly style” and avoidance of “unnecessary violence”. The Chartist Northern Star by contrast noted that 300 to 400 people had been injured.

Finally, as in more recent times, the police tactic did not work effectively. The crowd were driven into surrounding streets where they were able to re-gather and spend the evening throwing missiles at the police. Similar scenes took place with a crowd of 10,000 at Paddington station, where a fight with the police lasted for three hours starting at 6.30pm, before the area round the station was cleared.

Who took part in these August 1842 protests in central London that led to confrontation with the police and the army and some episodes of rioting? Goodway estimates that at least 80 people, “and probably considerably more” were arrested but details are available for only 22.14 However, they echo precisely Rudé’s earlier point about who the rioters were. Goodway’s account indicates that there were three shoemakers, three carpenters, two tailors, a surgical instrument maker, several people employed in the building trades, a printer and a paper-stainer. In short, from this sample most were skilled craftsmen. Official records indicate that three people arrested were drunk and three were known to be Chartists. Finally, not all were young by any means. A shoemaker was 40, a tailor 32, a plasterer 39, and a carpenter was described as a “very respectable looking elderly man”.

The next period of significant riot in London was in 1848, the year of revolutions. The obvious influences here—and ones that were to feature again in episodes of riot, were revolutionary events abroad, initially in France, and economic depression at home over the winter of 1847.

On 6 March Charles Cochrane called a rally in Trafalgar Square against income tax. The square was not yet completed but Cochrane’s call elicited the first ever police ban of a demonstration at the venue. The first ever traditional response followed on as Cochrane withdrew but maverick Chartist, journalist and best selling novelist GWM Reynolds stepped in to chair it.

A sketch from 6 March shows the square packed with protesters and in the foreground police officers grappling with them. A Chartist rally of around 10,000 was about to dissolve peacefully when, the Northern Star reported, some provocative remarks by an anti-Chartist bystander caused a scuffle.

Matters would probably have gone no further than that were it not for the fact that the police made an ill timed intervention into what was after all a banned protest. By 6pm police reinforcements had gained control of the square and withdrew. At that point the crowd that had been dispersed into surrounding streets returned. Again, in what was probably a first, the crowd took down wooden hoardings from around Nelson’s Column and proceeded to use them to defend themselves.

During the evening of 6 March a group broke away from the crowd at the square and, raising the cry “To the palace”, headed towards Buckingham Palace, smashing windows and gas lamps as they went.

There was a second day of rioting on 7 March from as early as 9am, and disturbances in the Trafalgar Square area and the West End of London continued for a week. Goodway reports that by 8 March well over 2,000 police officers were deployed to contain the rioters. That day there were further marches and window smashing in central London including plate glass windows in Swan and Edgar’s shop in Regent Street and other establishments.

After this the disturbances melted away as suddenly as they had arisen. They were clearly partly politically influenced by Chartist and other radical demands, but the fact that on occasion bakers were forced to hand out bread suggests other more immediately material demands were also at work. Goodway’s summary of the 127 arrested during the week of riots shows that 61 were less than 20 years old.

Events then moved after a lull of a week to Camberwell, south of the Thames, on 13 March. This time GWM Reynolds was joined by other Chartist leaders in organising a meeting. There were 3,881 police on duty and a crowd of protesters numbering 500 maximum. However, it did no good. The crowd was local and, departing at noon, took back-ways where the police could not follow. Window smashing and some minor looting took place.

The whole thing took an hour and later arrests saw 18 men sentenced to seven to 14 years’ transportation. In other words, the state was now determined to crack down hard on rioters. Many were young but again Goodway’s research notes that most had trades including baker, shoemaker, ropemaker, printer and glass-blower.

The events of 13 March and the reaction to them set the tone for the massive government presence on the Chartist demonstration of 10 April. In fact, although the protest for the Charter and the vote at Kennington Common on Monday 10 April was one of the world’s first mass demonstrations, it did have an element of riot to it that has remained largely unresearched by historians.

Frustrated that, having gathered at a location south of the Thames, the bridges allowing a march back to parliament were then blocked by police and troops, a significant number of Chartists marched to the south side of Blackfriars Bridge once the Kennington rally had finished on the Monday afternoon. Here took place a serious confrontation and significant fighting that was only dispersed because it started to rain heavily.

There were outbreaks of riot associated with London Chartism in late May and June 1848 and these followed the pattern we have outlined above in the main. However, elements of the focus of the London crowd since the 1840s also made an appearance. For example, on 29 May 1848 a crowd of 3,000 to 4,000 heard Chartist speakers and marched down Fleet Street, halting to hoot and groan at the offices of the Weekly Dispatch. Cries were also heard to march to the offices of the Times.

Goodway identifies the final London riot associated with Chartism in the London of the 1840s as taking place at Bethnal Green on 4 June 1848.

As David Starkey was aware commenting on the recent student protests, the Chartist riots provide the historical template for such events in London, which is why they are considered in some detail here.

Before looking at two more recent examples of London riots, Bloody Sunday and its aftermath in 1887 and the poll tax protest a century later in 1990, it is worth reviewing some of the issues that can be drawn out from the Chartist period that have a wider application to the London mob.

The issue of the weather remains an interesting one. It may be argued that the very hot weather in August 1842 facilitated crowd activity and riot, as much as the rain prevented a more serious outbreak of rioting on 10 April 1848. Certainly the day of the London poll tax riot, 31 March 1990, was itself a very warm and sunny day for late spring in the capital. It would be wrong to argue that the weather is a key factor in such matters but it may from time to time be a contributory matter.

The other point raised by the events on the afternoon of Monday 10 April 1848 is why the day is characterised historically as a mass demonstration rather than a riot. Here it may be argued—and the historical criteria have remained implicit rather than explicit—that the intent was an organised demonstration. The riot was a subsidiary affair, and also in practice less significant than the demonstration. The same point might well apply to the anti-Suez protests in central London in 1956 and the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations at Grosvenor Square in 1968. Both contained elements of riot, as considered here. What they all lacked was the sense of a crowd or a mob in procession through the streets and damage to property, in particular, the smashing of windows.

The other side of the equation is how the state, primarily the police, handled the Chartist riots. Goodway argues that “one of the most striking aspects of the next two or three decades was the virtual elimination of riot”.15 That may be a historically accurate statement but the policing tactics of the 1840s are unlikely to have been the decisive factor. The reality that the Chartist challenge to the state was ultimately defeated was probably the key issue. However, the tactics of the police in the “Chartist decade” are strikingly similar to those used since.

The range available has not changed much even if some of the technology has. In 1842 the police occupied some meeting places such as Clerkenwell Green to prevent crowds doing so, though this clearly depended on the weight of numbers on either side. On occasion speakers were arrested or their identity noted by officers for arrest after the event. Goodway notes that on the whole the “mistake” of not allowing “adequate exits for dispersal” which invariably led to riots, then and now, was not made. The method of dispersing a crowd has also stood the test of time. A favourite method was for a line of police to advance and push the crowd away from its location using force such as the truncheon where needed. If fighting ensued, as Goodway again notes, bystanders caught up in the melee were as likely to get injured as rioters.

The result of all this was that even as early as the 1840s the policeman “had displaced all other objects as the symbol of oppression…and the Londoner’s hatred of him helps to explain the single-minded concentration on battling with the force that typified the Chartist riot”, and, it might be added, on numbers of other occasions since too.16

The difference between the riot of the pre-industrial era of the 1700s and the industrial one of the 1800s is a fine one but an important one. In the former period the riot was the main form of political expression. In the latter it was not. It was a by-product of attempts to hold meetings, address crowds or march that were in various degrees frustrated by authority—usually the police. Yet the actual form of a riot once it started was very similar, if not identical, in both periods.

Bloody Sunday

While Goodway argues that London was quiet in the decades after the 1840s, it is always possible to find examples of demonstrations that had elements of riot about them. For example the protest on 6 May 1867, led by the Reform League campaigning for manhood suffrage, which defied a government ban on demonstrations in Hyde Park, tore down the railings and held a rally anyway, certainly had elements of a riot about it. The result was the resignation of the home secretary and the passage of the Second Reform Act, a salutary historical note to those who argue that robust protests never achieve anything.

However, it was in the 1880s, with the beginnings of the modern general trade unions and the birth of Britain’s first Marxist grouping, the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), that regular protests returned to the streets of central London. The most well known—well covered by socialist historian John Charlton—is termed “Bloody Sunday”, and took place on Sunday 13 November 1887 in Trafalgar Square.17

The preceding years had seen a series of large demonstrations in central London, sometimes over the impact of slumps in the economy, sometimes over overtly political issues such as government coercion in Ireland and on occasion a mixture of both. The SDF had played a role but window smashing had also been a feature.

The demonstration on the November Sunday had been banned by the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Charles Warren. The police, armed with cutlasses and guns, were very heavy handed indeed with protesters. The radical MP for Lanark, Cunningham Grahame, was brutally arrested and injuries were numerous.

The movement gained momentum and a further protest was held the following Sunday, 20 November 1887, when a young clerk Alfred Linnell was killed by police action. This led to further protests and a mass political funeral for the unfortunate man.

Events such as Bloody Sunday remain contentious even though they took place well over a century ago. The Metropolitan Police website is still today keen to cover up and spin the violent role that the police played in these events, despite the fact that any officer serving at the time is long dead.

Charlton argues, following Frederick Engels, that the events of Bloody Sunday taught a new generation of protesters a good deal about the brutality of the state when push came to shove. That is clearly right and is an issue in all the episodes we look at here. An aim of the police is invariably to use tactics that remind people that there are penalties for daring to protest. The impact of this is much harder to judge. Some no doubt are dissuaded. Others may draw political lessons and become more determined.

The century between Bloody Sunday and the poll tax riot of 1990 did not, of course, see London protest and riot free. We mention anti-Suez and anti-Vietnam War confrontations above. The Great Unrest of 1911 and the General Strike of 1926 certainly saw tumultuous events in London, as elsewhere, but these were centrally related to industrial disputes that provided the broader political framework.

The great poll tax riot

The poll tax riot of Saturday 31 March 1990 certainly, however, takes its place in history as a key moment of rebellion in the capital’s history. The poll tax, which replaced the old household rating system as a way of funding local council services, had been introduced a year earlier in Scotland and was due to be implemented in England on 1 April 1990.

A mass campaign of opposition to it had grown up, organised by a range of left wing and community based groups. The Trade Union Congress had stayed clear of the campaign and did not back the 31 March demonstration, while Labour local authorities implemented the charge and prosecuted non-payers.

There was real anger about the poll tax. First, it was a new tax and often a quite substantial cost for people who had not previously had to pay it—it applied to everyone. Secondly, it was a regressive tax since everyone in the same area was charged the same, however rich or poor they were. Finally, the poll tax was a product of the hated Thatcher Tory government and had been designed in such a way that Tory councils such as Westminster had to charge very little.

The 100,000-strong protest gathered at Kennington Common, the scene of some of the most robust Chartist protests, and marched to Trafalgar Square for a rally. It was here that a riot broke out and it contained all the classic elements described above. Over-zealous and thuggish policing provoked sections of the crowd into retaliation. Temporary portakabins being used for building work around Trafalgar Square were set alight and as the evening wore on groups of protesters made their way round parts of central London, and windows were smashed.

In the following days there was a media furore—the riot was every bit as embarrassing to the authorities in modern terms as the central London riots in March 1768 by supporters of Wilkes—and just as that time demands were made for those involved to be brought to justice.

Rough music to revolution

The focus here has been on a slice of the London crowd and the riots that have sometimes led on from its activities in the last 250 years or so. The aim has been to try and understand some of the core elements of the crowd and some well known riots in London history to see how they have related to the political agenda of the left.

Certainly in the industrial era from the 1820s on it would be reasonable to argue that the left has not sought out riots as a deliberate strategy but has understood that tensions and crisis in society and the actions of the authorities around that can sometimes spark riots.

The work of Charles Tilly has attempted to provide some kind of historical/sociological indices of riots and assess their numbers and types.18 But what differentiates the riot from the political demonstration or simply the crowd that may gather in central London on significant political occasions?

The most prominent elements that identify a riot as distinct from any other form of political gathering are the announced procession of a mob through some of the wealthier parts of the West End, the frightening of well to do people, and the breaking of glass.

This suggests that once formed, or often more accurately provoked, the London crowd feels antagonism towards the rich and the symbols of the rich, but this does not mean it is likely to be acting on a revolutionary programme. It is a sign of wider discontent to be harnessed or suppressed.

Some perspectives are also needed. Taking the broad sweep of several London centuries, perhaps the interesting thing is how relatively peaceful and riot free the capital has been for much of the time, not how often riots have taken place. This does not suggest that Londoners are on the whole a placid lot but rather, as David Goodway has argued, with the capital being the first fully policed metropolis in the world, when a riot does occur in London it is a sign of very serious political issues indeed.

We must also recognise that not all the crowds that have gathered in London have been politically progressive although that has been what we have considered here. The Church and King riots of the 1780s were certainly not in themselves in any way “on the left”. However, curiously, it may well be that by demonstrating about often quite reactionary demands the crowd gained a sense of its own power and could become a threat to the establishment.

As the crowd, or probably more accurately the mob, that gathered to embarrass transgressors against social mores in pre-industrial and early industrial Britain in EP Thompson’s “Rough Magic” suggests, very often the demands were reactionary.19 There was nothing automatically progressive or left wing about a crowd. But the possibility that it could come from the left was not denied. The Rough Music gathering, so called because of the cacophony it made outside the house of the apparently guilty party late at night, was as likely to be condemning a wife beater as it was a gay man, but both were possibilities.

The point here is that it is important to understand the politics and the possibilities of the crowd and its behaviour and not to lump all instances of disorder and discontent in the same framework.

A recent book by Clive Bloom, Violent London, is guilty of just this trend.20 Even if we accept that London is a particularly violent capital, which is historically doubtful, the fact that fascists and other reactionaries sometimes cause disturbances in it does not tell us anything much at all about the nature of the London crowd or mob.21

The one thing we can say about London mobs and London riots is that they have defied over several centuries all attempts by the authorities to make their reappearance impossible and every effort by academics to argue that they are definitively a thing of the past. That seems set to continue to be the case.


1: Stevenson, 1992, introduction.

2: Hobsbawm, 1959.

3: Rudé, 1959, pp1-2.

4: Holton, 1978.

5: Tilly. 1995.

6: Rudé, 1959, pp1-2.

7: Rudé, 1962, p13.

8: Rudé, 1962, p43.

9: Rudé,1962, p45.

10: Goodway, 1982.

11: Rudé, 1962, p6.

12: Rudé,1962, p15.

13: Goodway, 1982, p106.

14: Goodway, 1982, p111.

15: Goodway, 1982, p123.

16: Goodway, 1982, p125.

17: Charlton, 1998.

18: Tilly, 1995.

19: Thompson, 1991.

20: Clive Bloom, 2010.

21: Guardian, 18 November 2010.

h2. References

Bloom, Clive, 2010, Violent London (Palgrave Macmillan).

Charlton, John, 1998, “London, 13 November 1887”, Socialist Review 224 (November), http://pubs.socialistreviewindex.org.uk/sr224/charlton.htm

Goodway, David, 1982, London Chartism (Cambridge University Press).

Hobsbawm, EJ, 1959, Primitive Rebels (Manchester University Press).

Holton, RJ, 1978, “The Crowd in History: Some Problems of Theory and Method”, Social History, 3:2.

Rudé, George, 1959, “The London ‘Mob’ of the Eighteenth Century”, Historical Journal, 2:1.

Rudé, George, 1962, Wilkes and Liberty, A Social Study of 17631774 (Oxford University Press).

Rudé, George, 1964, The Crowd in History: A Study of Popular Disturbances in France and England 17301848 (John Wiley & Sons).

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