An ill-conceived attempt to impose unwanted laws leads to rioting in London

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In June 1855 a bill was introduced to Parliament to close down shops and to suspend public transport  on Sundays, to better enforce the observation of the Sabbath. The bill was presented by Lord Robert Grosvenor and it sparked a series of demonstrations by working-class Londoners attacking the bill and the hypocrisy of the aristocratic class that sought to impose it. As the history Gerry White has described the ‘mob’:

‘assembled along the carriage drives between the Serpentine and Kensington Gardens crowds assembled to hoot and hiss the phaetons of the rich and their Sabbath-breaking servants. There were cries of ‘Go to Church!’ and horses were made to shy and bolt.’

The disorder spread and on Sunday 1st July around 150,000 people turned out to protest and Lord Grosvenor’s house was attacked and his windows smashed. The police eventually restored some order after a baton charge but almost 50 constables were injured. It was an example of the periodic outbreaks of rioting that London has seen down the centuries, the most recent of which being those that started in Tottenham in 2011. Perceived injustice, legitimate concerns ignored, overly officious policing, and extended periods of hot weather can combine to tip communities over the edge and inspire hot heads to take to the streets.

After the August 2011 riots hundreds of people found themselves before the capital’s magistrate courts, mostly of charges of looting. The punishments handed down to some (like Nicolas Robinson, jailed for 6 months for stealing a bottle of water) also demonstrate a historical continuity; in times of ‘moral panic’ or when authority is so obviously challenged the courts tend to overreact. At the end of the Gordon Riots (1780) dozens were publicly hanged  in mass executions as a show of determination by the state to those that had caused such chaos in the metropolis for a week in June.

In the aftermath of the riots against Lord Grosvenor’s Sunday Trading Bill there were dozens of prosecutions before the London Police magistrates. On Sunday 15 July Reynold’s Newspaper reported several examples including that of Charles Whitehouse, a lad of 14, who was present in the crowd gathered outside the peer’s London home in Park Street.

The case (that of smashing windows and so causing criminal damage) was presented by Inspector Webb of the Metropolitan Police. Webb described how he had seen the boy throw a stone towards his lordship’s window and had moved into the crowd to arrest him. Several of those assembled complained, saying that he had done nothing, but the inspector ignored them and tried to extract him and take him back to the station house.

As the inspector and a group of constables led Charles away there was a cry of ‘rescue’ and the crowd turned their fury on the police, pelting them with stones and anything else they could find. The attack was so violent that the police were forced to take refuge in the Mount Street workhouse. Two of his officers had been so badly hurt they still hadn’t been able to return to their duties.

He continued to explain how, while they sheltered in the workhouse, ‘the mob became so furious, calling for the release of the boy, otherwise they would pull down the building, that it was thought advisable, to prevent more serious consequences, for the constables to sally out with their prisoners, and literally fight their way through the mob to the lock-up house’.

In his defence Charles said that he had been forced to throw a stone by others in the crowd. His cap had been swept from his head by a man behind him who urged him to join in with the collective rage against the Grosvenor property. He was warned that failure to do so would mean he never saw his cap again.

Whether this was a weak excuse or the truth is impossible to say, but it made no impression on the Marlborough Street magistrate, Mr Hardwick. Addressing the boy he declared:

‘You must have been very imperfectly educated to have done an act of malice to a person to whom you are a stranger and who never did you the last harm’.

His next words were aimed at any of those present in court that might have been involved and, via the newspaper, the wider reading public. The boy’s actions were serious he said, and as for the context – the widespread rioting – that, if proven, could result in a  sentence of transportation to Australia. If anyone came before him charged with inciting or organising the rioting and stone throwing he would commit them for trial as he was ‘determined that both property and the public peace shall be protected’.

The boy’s father appeared in court and was there to hear his son be fined the relatively huge sum of 40s (over £100) for throwing one stone. He was mortified he said, and had tried to prevent all three of his children from getting mixed up in the trouble. On the day he had taken two of his boys on a long walk as far away from the crowds as he could but had never thought that Charles was likely to get mixed up in it.

Boys will be boys of course, and whatever his motivations I’m sure Charles was simply excited that something was happening and his curiosity got the better of him. Like Nicolas Robinson he ended up doing something he would probably never have done if it hadn’t been for the circumstances, and both young men paid the price for it as the authorities hit out at those they could catch in the wake of both incidents of rioting.

Lord Grosvenor quickly dropped his unpopular Sunday Trading bill and peace returned to the capital’s streets. Riots are often symptoms of underlying tensions based on perceptions of (or actual) inequality, the lack of a voice, impotence and frustration; it only takes a small spark (like the killing of Mark Duggan by the police, or the death of Cynthia Jarrett) to ignite the flames.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, July 15, 1855]

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