View Full Version : The History of Rioting in Britain

C. Flower
11-08-2011, 12:33 PM
How a peaceful mass demonstration against the Poll Tax turned into a battle -

There is a tradition of rioting in Britain going back hundreds of years.

(Belfast, late 19th century)


Riot in London - YouTube

A riot is a protest, an expression of frustration, but a mass riot also an expression of potential power.

Riots, so far as I can see, on their own have never achieved any lasting social change. But in history, they have often been the precursors to much more organised political resistance and mobilisation.

This thread is to look at the history of rioting in Britain. I'll be adding to it over the next few days and invite other members to contribute to it.

( history of world riots - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_riots )

11-08-2011, 02:23 PM
The problem is that 'riots' are always presented through upper-crust eyes. If we take the 'bread riots', for instance, E.P. Thompson shows how they were standard reactions to over-pricing: Someone went round with a loaf on a pitchfork as a signal, the crowds gathered in the markets, confiscated the bread, sold it at the customary ('fair') price and gave the money to the sellers. Similarly, the Rebecca 'riots' were carefully organised to prevent the toll roads making life impossible for farmers by charging for the transport of lime, and always done with a great deal of horse-play (the men wore women's clothes, 'Rebecca' pretended to be blind and discovered the gate blocking her way with amazement. 'My daughters - there is a great gate across my road!' 'Never fear, Mother, we shall open the way' - then they'd hack the thing apart with axes, remove the toll-keeper's furniture and burn the toll-house.

My favourite 'riot' happened in Merthyr after the Reform Bill. Crawshay, the Radical ironmaster, was trailing in the poll, and he called out his men to put the frighteners on the opposition - at a time when there was heavy unemployment and distraint for debt. Realising their strength and their numbers, the crowd dipped their white radical banners in a sheep's blood, turning them into the first red flags seen in Britain. The usual pathetic orator was making the usual pathetic speech about 'All we ask is bread', but the crowd shouted 'Caws gyda fara!' (Cheese with the bread!), the first sign of the move towards Lenin's 'We don't want a share of the cake - we want the bakery!' The Riot Act was read, and the soldiers opened fire - at which, incredibly in Victorian Britain, the crowd fired back and the soldiers bolted. The distrained property was returned, and soldiers marching in from Brecon were disarmed at Cefn-Coed-y-Cymmer, as were those coming from Swansea/Abertawe. Only the failure of the miners from Gwent to break though to join the Rising saved the authorities, who were scared rigid. Only one man, Dic Penderyn, was hanged. There are a lot more where that came from: the powers-that-be have a man with a rubber always at work, but the marks still show.

C. Flower
11-08-2011, 02:37 PM
The problem is that 'riots' are always presented through upper-crust eyes.

Indeed. The "riot" I showed was not imo a riot, but a "political demonstration that ended in confrontation" - if a large number of police running for dear life can be described that way.

But I would like to include any event described in histories as a riot here, for discussion purposes.

Justin Casey
12-08-2011, 07:48 PM
Entertaining piece by George Ciccariello-Maher on Counterpunch:

When economic violence reaches a certain point, social counter-violence soon follows, and yet it is rarely the bankers or the politicians, the purveyors of global austerity measures, who bear the brunt. It begins with name-calling, and no name has more political and historical resonance than “the mob,” the most traditional of slurs. From Philadelphia to London, we are told, the specter of the mob looms, and to the image of the “baying mob,” that keystone of journalistic integrity The Sun has also added the image of the “trouble-making rabble.”

Irrational, uncontrollable, impermeable to logic and unpredictable in its movements, these undesirables have once again ruined the party for everyone, as they have done from Paris 1789 to Caracas 1989. In Fanon’s inimitable words: “the masses, without waiting for the chairs to be placed around the negotiating table, take matters into their own hands and start burning…”

To use the word “mob” is a fundamentally political gesture. It is an effort by governing elites and conservative forces to delegitimize and denigrate popular resistance, to empty it of all political content by drawing a line of rationality in the sand. To make demands is reasonable, but since “the mob” is the embodiment of unreason, it cannot possibly make demands. Never mind the very clearly political motivations that sparked the rebellions around London, as well as the growing and equally political concerns about economic inequality and racist policing: these have been well documented, no matter how little many Britons want to hear it.

But I want to address directly the idea that the riots are fundamentally irrational, as the smear of “the mob” would symbolically insist. Let’s listen closely, let’s block out the torrent of media denunciation and hear what the rebels are saying themselves:

Planet of Slums, Age of Riots (http://counterpunch.org/maher08122011.html)

Jolly Red Giant
12-08-2011, 07:59 PM
You don't have to go as far as England to look at rioting. Riots were widespread throughout Ireland in the late eighteenth and right through the nineteenth century - and not forgetting the Belfast Outdoor Relief Strike in 1932.

Justin Casey
13-08-2011, 05:33 PM
Last Monday forenoon, at 12 o'clock, pursuant to appointment, Messrs. Millingfield and Marsden, the two Churchwardens of St. Mathew, Bethnal-green, and Mr. Brutton, the Vestry Clerk, waited upon the Secretary of State at the Home-office, where they were met by Mr. Osborne and Mr. Twyford, the magistrates of Worship-street Police-office. The object of the meeting was to devise some measures to suppress the dreadful riots and outrages that take place every night in the parish, by a lawless gang of thieves, consisting of 500 or 600, whose exploits have caused such alarming sensations in the minds of the inhabitants, that they have actually found it necessary to shut up their shops at an early hour, to protect their property from the ruffians.

In order to give some idea of the outrages that have been, and are hourly committed, we merely give the following instances, and the disciplined manner in which the ruffians go to work:-

The gang rendezvous in a brick-field at the top of Spicer-street, Spitalfields, and out-posts are stationed to give an alarm should any of the civil power approach, and their cry is "Warhawk," as a signal for retreat. On the brick-kilns in this field they cook whatever meat and potatoes they plunder from the various shops in the neighbourhood, in the open day, and in the face of the shopkeeper.

On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, being market days, (Monday and Friday at Smithfield, and Wednesday at Barnet,) they sally out into the suburbs, and wait in ambush till a drove of beasts passes; they then attack the drovers, and take a beast from the drove, and convey it into the marshes till night; when they hunt it through the metropolis, and whilst the passengers and inhabitants are in the utmost state of alarm, they plunder, and in many instances nearly murder, every person that they meet; there are now no less than five individuals lying in the London infirmary, without hopes of recovery, that have fallen into the hands of the gang. Within the last fortnight, upwards of 50 persons have been robbed, and cruelly beaten, and one of the gang was seen one day last week to produce, amongst some of his associates, nearly half a hat-full of watches.

In consequence of these dreadful outrages, the Right Hon. Secretary gave orders that a reinforcement of 40 men, most of them mounted, should be stationed in different parts of the parish, and that they should be relieved every three hours, and with instructions to patrol the disturbed parts day and night, which is now the case. In addition to these measures, a magistrate was in attendance on Sunday at the Police-office, in order to hear cases against any of the marauders, should they be brought before him, and the Hon. Secretary has further ordered, that for the future the magistrates shall sit every morning at 10 instead of 11 o'clock.

On Wednesday se'nnight the gang attacked a lady and gentleman that were in a chaise in the Bethnal-green-road, and after robbing and beating them most inhumanly, they cut the reins and traces to prevent a pursuit.

The Secretary of State on Saturday had an interview with the magistrates of the district, respecting the state of that part of the metropolis, and anxiously inquired if the robbers were distressed weavers? We understand that an answer was given in the negative; but that they were a set of idle and disorderly fellows that have been long known to the police as reputed thieves.

The deputation remained with Mr. Peel till one o'clock, and explained to him the necessity of a strong body of men (in addition to those already stationed there) being sent into the neighbourhood, as they felt confident that the robbers, who were well armed, would boldly attack (as they have done before) the civil power.

The Right Hon. Secretary assured the deputation, that immediate means should be adopted to rid the parish of the intruders.

September 24, 1826

Riots and outrages in Bethnal Green (http://www.mernick.org.uk/thhol/riots.html)

Justin Casey
16-08-2011, 07:18 PM
Another piece on Counterpunch, this time by Alexander Cockburn:

What’s a riot without looting? We want it, they’ve got it! You’d think from the press that looting was alien to British tradition, imported by immigrants more recent than the Normans. Not so. Gavin Mortimer, author of The Blitz, had an amusing piece in the First Post about the conduct of Britons at the time of their Finest Hour:

“It didn't take long for a hardcore of opportunists to realise there were rich pickings available in the immediate aftermath of a raid – and the looting wasn't limited to civilians.

“In October 1940 Winston Churchill ordered the arrest and conviction of six London firemen caught looting from a burned-out shop to be hushed up by Herbert Morrison, his Home Secretary. The Prime Minister feared that if the story was made public it would further dishearten Londoners struggling to cope with the daily bombardments…

“The looting was often carried out by gangs of children organized by a Fagin figure; he would send them into bombed-out houses the morning after a raid with orders to target coins from gas meters and display cases containing First World War medals. In April 1941 Lambeth juvenile court dealt with 42 children in one day, from teenage girls caught stripping clothes from dead bodies to a seven-year-old boy who had stolen five shillings from the gas meter of a damaged house. In total, juvenile crime accounted for 48 per cent of all arrests in the nine months between September 1940 and May 1941 and there were 4,584 cases of looting.

“Joan Veazey, whose husband was a vicar in Kennington, south London, wrote in her diary after one raid in 1940: "The most sickening thing was to see people like vultures, picking up things and taking them away. I didn't like to feel that English people would do this, but they did."

“Perhaps the most shameful episode of the whole Blitz occurred on the evening of March 8 1941 when the Cafe de Paris in Piccadilly was hit by a German bomb. The cafe was one of the most glamorous night spots in London, the venue for off-duty officers to bring their wives and girlfriends, and within minutes of its destruction the looters moved in.

"Some of the looters in the Cafe de Paris cut off the people's fingers to get the rings," recalled Ballard Berkeley, a policeman during the Blitz who later found fame as the 'Major' in Fawlty Towers. Even the wounded in the Cafe de Paris were robbed of their jewellery amid the confusion and carnage.”

A revolution is not a tea party, sniffed Lenin, but he should have added that it often starts off with a big party. Perhaps he was acknowledging that when he said a revolution was “a festival of the oppressed.” After the storming of the Winter Palace in October 1917 everyone was drunk for three days, conduct of which the prissy Vladimir Illich no doubt heartily disapproved.

He goes on to discuss the Brixton and Toxteth riots which he covered at the time.

Riots and the Underclass (http://counterpunch.org/cockburn08122011.html)

Captain Con O'Sullivan
17-08-2011, 01:48 PM
There's certainly a long tradition of rioting in London going back at least four centuries. Apprentices used to regularly riot in the 17th century and Samuel Pepsy's diary contains a description of riots.

C. Flower
17-08-2011, 02:22 PM

The Hyde Park riots for universal male suffrage in 1855 - 200,000 people broke down the park railings and poured in past less than 2,000 police. The army was called but faced by the numbers, stood and watched the police being stoned.

Voting rights were extended in 1857, although not to all adult men.