Panic on the streets of London


Sirens wail as police vans scream down Green Lanes and the sky hums with the throb of helicopters. As darkness falls over the city, the people wait to see what the fourth consecutive night of rioting will bring. The flames of fear have been fanned by a media frenzy, politicians desperate to be seen getting a grip and rumours that spread almost instantly through workplaces and crowds. Looted shops lie from Enfield in the north to Croydon in the south whilst shattered glass and burnt buildings reach west to Ealing and east to Canning Town. 
Is civil disorder on this scale unprecedented? And does history tell us anything about how the police and politicians should respond to the rioters? One thing is clear – London has a long and turbulent history of riots and civil disorder and this year’s disturbances are far from unprecedented. 
An early echo of inequality breeding unrest is found in the riots that follow William Fitz Osbert’s incendiary sermons against the rich in 1196. William of Newburgh wrote in the ‘Historia rerum anglicarum’ that Fitz Osbert (also known as William the Long Beard) led a powerful conspiracy, inspired by the zeal of the poor against the insolence of the rich. Fitz Osbert’s punishment was distinctly more savage than anything that will be meted out in 2011. He was convicted and drawn asunder by horses before being somewhat superfluously hanged on a gibbet.
Commentators have suggested that this year’s riots are nothing more than mercenary and opportunistic looting. But turning over a branch of JD Sports for a pair of trainers or the Carphone Warehouse for the latest mobile fits neatly into a long line of economically induced disorder. In 1809, over two months of rioting were sparked by rising ticket prices at the Covent Garden theatre. Whilst it might be hard to imagine a hike in West End prices causing violent protest today, the Old Prices riots of 1809 led to 64 days of bawdy unrest. As the Covent Garden theatre was one of the only sites of public entertainment, the demonstrations can be compared to complaints following a sharp rise in the TV license. 
And it doesn’t take much to trigger a riot in London. Popular unrest has broken out over a loaf of bread (1391), against brothels (the Bawdy House riots of 1668), between goldsmiths and tailors (1268), against foreigners (the Evil May Day of 1517) and over an anti-vivisection statue (in the gloriously named Brown Down Riots of 1907). 
At the time of writing there was one confirmed death resulting directly from this year’s London riots. Whilst hundreds have been admitted to hospital and millions of pounds of property damage has been caused, the loss of life if mercifully low. This is partially due to restrained policing, which has so far resisted using baton charges and eschews the water cannons and routine armament of other police forces. Resisting calls to bring in the army have also ensured lower casualties. 
Neither was the case during the most brutal period of London riots, concentrated on the 1700s and featuring the infamous London Mob. London at this time was a concentrated and politically combustible mass. The English Civil War had caused deep ruptures in society, which had only partially healed through the Restoration. The citizens of London remained deeply suspicious of Roman Catholics and foreigners, which made them ill-disposed to rulers with distinctly Catholic leanings (Charles II and James II) and those transplanted from abroad (William III, George I, II and, to a lesser extent, III).
The main features of the London Mob of the 18th century would be recognisible to anyone reading today’s newspapers. It was led by the youth of the city, with apprentice boys at its excitable and volatile core. It was stirred up by rumours of brutality or tyranny from the authorities, and it targeted symbols of power such as the courts, jails and Bank of England. It was at its most terrifying and audacious during periods of economic uncertainty and decline, when the poorest in society faced losing even their breadline existence. 
But the response of the authorities was distinctly more hardline than anything seen in the past century. The Massacre of St. George’s Fields (otherwise known as the Wilkite Riots of 1768), the Sacheverell riots (1710) and the Spitalfields weavers’ riots (in 1719 and 1769) all featured loss of life when put down by the army. But these handfuls killed would pale compared with nearly 300 deaths resulting from the Gordon Riots (1780).
On 2nd June 1780, Lord George Gordon led a huge crowd of between 40 – 60,000 to deliver a petition to Parliament protesting against the Papists Act 1778. Anti-Catholic zeal was already at fever pitch following France and Spain’s entry into the American War of Independence against Britain. Agitation by the Protestant Association was stoked by different nationalistic, economic and political complaints. 
The result was a baying mob descending on Whitehall, festooned with the blue cockade symbol of the movement and with banners declaring No Popery. The authorities were unprepared, and lulled into a false sense of security when the crowd dispersed after the petition  was successfully delivered. Sporadic violence followed that evening, but the real riot began the next night. On 3rd June the mob went wild in an orgy of xenophobic and anti-Catholic violence that focused on the poor Irish community in Moorfields.
In the subsequent hours and days the City was looted, and extensive damage was done to churches, houses, Newgate and the Clink prisons. Charles Dickens wrote a vivid description in Barnaby Rudge, noting how the streets were brightly lit by flames from burning houses, how blazing alcohol streamed down the gutters and looters thronged the lanes.
Boris Johnson has been criticised for only ordering a crackdown on the fourth day of rioting. In 1780 it took five days before the army was called out. On 7 June the army was brought on to the streets and given orders to fire upon groups of four or more who refused to disperse. Approximately 285 people were shot dead and another 200 were wounded. Some 450 rioters were arrested, and about twenty or thirty were later tried and executed. 
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