By Stephen Basdeo
Unless you have been living under a rock, you will have noticed that across the English Channel in France, quite a few people are very, very annoyed with the current administration. The people of France, having had a major revolution between 1789 and 1799, and large-scale rebellions in 1830, 1832, 1848, 1871, and 1968, have something of a reputation for rioting.
Yet there was a time that the English were known as the rebellious people of Europe. During the 1700s, riots frequently broke out in the capital; it was an era in which, according to Pat Rogers, ‘King Mob might resume his reign after the briefest interregnum’. One of the worst of these riots was the Gordon Riots in June 1780 when, for just over a week, London was under mob rule. The diaries of a young conveyancer, named Joseph Ritson (1752–1803), who had recently moved to London offer an interesting eye-witness account of those weeks.
Ritson had been a legal apprentice in his home town of Stockton but was encouraged to move to London by his employer, Mr Robinson, because he felt that the young Joseph’s talents and ambition would be put to better use in the capital than they ever could be in a provincial northern town. So, at the age of 23 this young lad, from a poor family of yeoman farmers in Stockton, set off to London on foot with nothing but a knapsack containing two shirts.
He found lodgings at Grays Inn and, almost immediately as he arrived in 1776, found employment as a clerk in the firm of Masterman and Lloyd on a salary of £150 per year—he was hardly poor on this salary, but he was not exactly rich either. While he no doubt applied himself diligently in the service of his employers, his real passion lay in researching ancient books and manuscripts and writing history books.
There is little political comment in Ritson’s letters until the period of the French Revolution, other than a few snipes at both the Whigs and the Tories. Although he had his own faith, furthermore, he appears to have regarded it as a private matter and rarely passed comment on religious subjects. He was unusual, however; Britain had been a Protestant nation since the sixteenth century and Catholics were forbidden from holding public office, attending universities, or even serving in the army. The establishment was paranoid that any adherent of the Catholic religion might get close to power—Britain had after all gotten rid of its pro-Catholic monarch in 1688 and replaced him with a Protestant King and Queen, while Catholics had largely supported the Jacobite rebels in 1715 and 1745. A large part of Britain’s emerging national identity was founded upon loyalty to the Protestant Monarchy; to be a Catholic in eighteenth-century England must have felt similar to what it was like being a communist in McCarthy-Era USA.
But in 1778, Britain was fighting a war against its Americans colonies who wanted independence, and France who decided to support the Americans. Britain needed soldiers, and so the government—supported by Parliament—thought that it might be expedient to lift the ban on Catholics serving in the army as well as granting them some civil liberties, all contained in the Papists’ Act.
While Ritson paid no heed to what was going on in Parliament, a young Scottish nobleman named Lord George Gordon got angry. He signed up to the Protestant Association—a kind of early modern extra-parliamentary pressure group—and became its president in 1779. He petitioned King George III on numerous occasions to repeal the Papists Act, but the king just humoured him. Annoyed with the rejection of his numerous appeals, on 29 May 1780, Gordon rallied the members of his Protestant Association and marched on the House of Commons to deliver a final petition.
The anti-Catholic crowd grew in size and eventually numbered 60,000 people. When parliamentarians refused to debate the public’s petition, the crowd got angry and began attacking some members of the House of Lords.
Things spiralled out of control quickly.
Naturally, the young Ritson, who was very close to his mother back in Stockton—who at this point was gravely ill—sought to reassure her that he had come to no harm. After all, news still travelled fast in the Georgian era:
Grays Inn, 7th June, 1780
I am very well and am much grieved to find that you should continue otherwise, but hope to God you will soon get better of your complaint … the confusion which reigns here would have prevented me from writing sooner. A general spirit of discontent has long been increasing among the people: it has at last broken out among the lower class in London.[i]
It will be noticed that Ritson here foregrounds the ‘spirit of discontent’ among the poorer classes of people. Yes, he acknowledges later in his letter that he personally saw many ‘Down with the Papists’ and ‘No Popery’ slogans being chanted by the people, and that some very rich Catholics had their homes burnt down, but he registers their primary concerns as being a general disillusionment with the establishment more generally.
In fact, Ritson only makes a passing comment on the anti-Catholic nature of the riots but instead singles out a few other events which, to him at least, were more representative of the nature of the riots: they were an attack on symbols of state power. For example, Ritson told his mother that,
Five of the mob having been committed to Newgate, and the keeper refusing to set them free, their comrades yesternight, burnt it to the ground, and set not only their own people, but all of the debtors and felons at liberty, three or four of whom were to be executed within these few days … Sir John Fielding’s house was also plundered of everything, and the furniture,, &c. burnt in the street … Lord Mansfield’s house, in Bloomsbury Square, was burnt this morning … Lord Mansfield’s country seat, about four miles from town, is said to be now in flames … destruction has been vowed against the houses and persons of several noblemen, bishops, and gentry.[ii]
In a letter written the following week, again to his mother, Ritson told her that
The same evening on which I wrote my letter to you, but after I had finished and sealed my letter, the mob burnt the Fleet and King’s Bench prisons, and set all the debtors at liberty, and likewise the toll gates on Black-friars bridge, and the greatest part of Holborn was in flames.[iii]
How might the young Joseph Ritson—a lawyer and in some ways a representative of the legal establishment—have avoided getting his house trashed or being assaulted? We do not know exactly, but as riots were common in eighteenth-century London, he might have placed a candle in the window of his rooms. During the frequent riots of the eighteenth century, doing this signalled that you supported the rioters in whatever cause they were rioting over and you could therefore be sure that your person and your property would be safe.
But were the people whom Ritson observed all just Protestant religious bigots? No they were not, and Ritson was right to focus on the protests against symbols of power, and he stated in another place that,
No person any way innocent either has or (except by consequence) will suffer, and most of those whom they single out as examples of their vengeance, have long and deservedly been objects of public detestation, such as Lord Mansfield, Lord North, Lord Sandwich, Lord George Germaine, and others of the present scoundrel ministry.[iv]
(And neither should we be surprised at Ritson’s attitude—he was a self-professed radical and later enthusiastically supported the French Revolution).
Edward P. Thompson in The Making of the English Working Class (1963), having conducted research into the events of June 1780, as well as other riots in the period, refrained from calling the Gordon Rioters a ‘mob’ but opted instead for the term ‘revolutionary crowd’.
Such revolutionary crowds passed through three stages: the first was an orderly march to parliament to deliver their petition; the second was a demonstration against parliamentarians in the immediate aftermath of the petition’s rejection. Governments do not concern themselves too much with phases one and two, other than keeping an eye on the crowd. Most mobs usually end their activities at the second phase and often the movement fades as people go home and realise that they will get no satisfaction from the government today.
The final—and most dangerous phase—of any riotous crowd is when ‘licensed spontaneity’ occurs: people unrelated to the original cause join the mob and at this point, within the crowd, anything goes as far as settling concerns with the rich. During the Gordon Riots too, there was also a significant amount of drunkenness and looting, but this did not turn the population too much against the rioters; in societies where a large part of the population are or feel that they are excluded from political discussion, any actions that the rioters take are generally approved of or at the very least not condemned by the people-at-large. This is what is happening in Ritson’s account. The eccentric bookworm has not participated in the riots himself but he understands that the mob are settling a score with the rich and he feels that they are justified in doing so.
Eventually the army was called in because at this point in time, Britain had no professional police force but relied on a corrupt system of thief takers and bailiffs to uphold law and order. There were some constables charged with keeping the peace, known as Bow Street Runners, who worked out of John Fielding’s Bow Street Magistrates Office, although the punishment meted out to Fielding’s house gives us an indication of what the crowd thought of these guys. The army quelled the rioters: the total costs of the damages inflicted by the mob in just one week totalled £200,000. A total of 32 private homes were destroyed as well as numerous businesses. Ritson’s account offers us an interesting eye-witness perspective on the most notorious riots in London history—an event which has become central to the study of plebeian resistance to the establishment.
[i] Joseph Ritson, ‘Letter VI’, in The Letters of Joseph Ritson, ed. by Harris Nicholas, 2 vols (London: William Pickering, 1833), I, pp. 14–15.
[ii] Ibid., p. 16.
[iii] Ritson, ‘Letter VII’, I, p. 18.
[iv] Ritson, ‘Letter VI’, I, p. 16.
Hitchcock, Tim and Robert Shoemaker, London Lives: Poverty, Crime, and the Making of a Modern City, 1690-1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015)
Rogers, Pat, Hacks and Dunces: Pope, Swift and Grub Street (London: Methuen, 1980)
Thompson, E. P., The Making of the English Working Class (London, 1963)