Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Street mobs in England 1791 -1812

2010s and the 1930s

The similarities between the situation that is currently developing in Europe and that of Europe in 1930s have rightly been pointed out.

We started with a long painful recession, we've been dragged through a so called "recovery" which has been achieved through an extreme form of neo-liberalism known as 'austerity', we've seen the surge of the authoritarian far right across the continent, a scapegoated religious-ethnic group and the polarisation of social and political attitudes as the left desperately seek to counter a slide towards fascism. This paragraph could pretty much have been written about either time period.

Anti-fascist action
The stakes seem to be getting higher and higher, the relative political peace time we have experienced in Western Europe since the end of the cold war (if there was ever such a thing as a 'political peace time') is drawing to a close. Holding tight to any firmly held ideological beliefs now means picking a side in an escalating conflict. I can't help but feel that we probably ain't seen nothing yet.

Rewinding further

History is much more vast a library than the story of our standard 'go-to' periods (as important as they are). There is so much to learn. There is another story set in another socio-historical period we will find interesting and surprisingly relevant for our present situation. Particularly so for those who are now feeling that they have no choice to take to the streets to counter the new fascist threat. This is the story of the Jacobins and the Church and King mobs, the reformers and the conservative establishment, 1791 -1812.

Some of the smaller details are fascinating. It's proven too difficult to resist mentioning James Jackson leading a crowd through London in 1780 waving a black and red flag during the ostensibly anti-papist 'Gordon Riots' (which were actually more likely to have been driven by anti-war and pro-parliamentary reform motives). To have been present on the front lines of this huge uprising might have made some of us feel right at home!

The Gordon riots 1780 - black and red flag not pictured
Round 1 - A shit start

We start off our story proper with some rather naive middle class reformers getting their asses kicked by a Church and King mob (proto-fascists).

It all starts innocently enough with a dinner party in Birmingham in the summer of 1791 thrown by these supporters of the French revolution to celebrate the fall of the Bastille in Paris.

In those days the British elite hadn't fully made their minds up about what was going on across the channel. It was still held by many that it was good for France comparing the events with England's 'Glorious Revolution' of 1688. The middle class certainly felt this way, with great passion.
The Priestly riots 1791

For one reason or another the local elite in Birmingham didn't share their enthusiasm. Neither did the mob that they wound up and paid off. The dinner party was attacked. The mob then went on a 3 day rampage through the city burning homes, dissenting chapels and businesses. Anything associated with the political reformists.

[Round 1 to the reactionaries].

Round 2 - New Radicalism

The next year things began to take a different turn. February saw the publication of the second part to 'The Rights of Man' by Thomas Paine. This was hugely popular and relatively easy to read and understand. The fiery passion contained within appealed to literate workers as well as the middle class. Later that year saw the founding of the famous London Corresponding society with it's 'members unlimited' which spent most of the rest of the decade demanding universal suffrage, battling corruption, fighting exploitative taxation and bitterly opposing war with France. Adding to the heat; the revolution in France was growing more radical by the month, completely alienating the upper classes in England but definitely getting the attention of the newly forming working class.
London Corresponding Society

For all their drunken foolishness, bigotry and hatred and their liability to be easily manipulated by one faction of the establishment against another the Church and King mobs until this year were assumed by many to represent the definitive and authentic anger of the lower classes. But this was no longer possible to say without qualification.

A new political conciousness was germinating amongst the poor that was not directed from above. It was feared from above. These people came to be known as the Jacobins. As their numbers and influence grew they found themselves confronted in the streets by angry mobs of their own people. Mobs of people who were either too stupid to see that they had no common interest with the King or the upper ranks of the church or simply enjoyed being used by them. An observer at the time described one of their ridiculous 'actions':

Siding with the elite continues to make them feel better
"Parties were collected in different public houses and from thence paraded the streets with a fiddler before them carrying a board on which was painted 'CHURCH AND KING' "

They burnt effigies of Tom Paine, they formed vigilante groups for the purpose of bringing Jacobins caught with seditious material to "justice" (banned books and pamphlets usually advocating nothing more than representative democracy). This mentality has survived. Fascist type reactionaries opposed a working class fighting for it's own rights and organisation from the very beginning and always still do.

We don't have blog posts and videos describing their clashes but a shrewd observer described one fight as "less blind prejudice, more a skirmish in a political civil war".

In 1797 a Church and King mob surrounded the house of Thomas Hardy a shoemaker and a founding member of the London Corresponding Society (LCS). Their intent was to wreck the place, perhaps to burn it down with Hardy and his family inside. 100 members of the LCS came out and met them in the street determined to defend it. They won, after a long fight through the night. It was regarded as an historic victory, described by one of the defenders: "I never was in so long-continued and well conducted a fight as was that night made by those who defended Hardy's house".

[Round 2 to the Jacobins]

Round 3 - The Clampdown

In 1798 Jacobins were winning in the streets. In one town a sign had been erected by some dick reading:

"All vagrants will be apprehended and punished as the law directs" 
The word vagrants had been crossed out and replaced with 'Tyrants' and no one had dared to take it down. 

But the good times weren't to last.

By 1799 the London Corresponding society was outlawed as war with France got serious. The Jacobins were severely repressed. Trade Unionism was outlawed, habeas corpus was suspended and a vast amount more literature was banned. There was nothing left that could have been vaguely described as the authentic anger of the lower classes in the Church and King crowd. The establishment began to do much of it's dirty work directly but where Church and King mobs still came out they were known as nothing but class traitors, paid off and directed by increasingly authoritarian conservative authorities. Then, as now even under such a tyrannical regime the proto-fascists managed to convince themselves that they were defending some kind of liberty:

"Patriotism, nationalism, even bigotry and repression were all clothed in the rhetoric of liberty" - E.P Thompson.

[Round 3 to the reactionaries, with lots of help from the rich]

Round 4 - The knock-out

And the bad times didn't last forever either. By 1812 the war with France had gone on too long. It was getting harder and harder for the rich to bring a mob out onto the streets to intimidate working class organisers.

A Church and King group seriously misjudged public feeling in Manchester by choosing to throw a party to celebrate what was actually a very unpopular reshuffle of the government of the time (unpopular amongst the people). At the last minute they realised how stupid they had been, amidst growing public anger they tried to cancel it but the workers were already on the streets. The location where the party was to be held was occupied, it was broken into and trashed and the workers marched held their own open air meeting instead.

Working class radicals in 1812 holding their own outdoor meeting after ensuring the reactionaries were sent home... or is it?
One old reformer recalled "But we had no Church and King Mobs after that!"

Popular opinion had turned, even though the institutions of power were still there the streets belonged to the people. This set the scene for insurrectionary Luddism, The Pentrich Rising and the Cato Street Conspiracy amongst other events of the years to come,

[Jacobins win by KO]


  • Lots of the information for this post comes from E.P Thompson's 'The Making of the English Working Class' and from Wikipedia. 
  • All pictures are stolen.