Robin Hood the Angry Letter Writer

By Stephen Basdeo

Many people have adopted the name of Robin Hood over the years. The most obvious ones which spring to mind are the men who appear in medieval court records, being criminals who adopted the alias. The press today even applies the name to criminals who are perceived to be ‘good’ criminals. It was not only criminals who either assumed the name or had it applied to them: Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators, who attempted to assassinate the protestant king, Charles I, were called Robin Hood’s Men. In the eighteenth century, we find the name of Robin Hood applied to the first Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole (1676–1745) in satirical ballads such as Robin Hood and the Duke of Lancaster and Little John’s Answer to Robin Hood and the Duke of Lancaster (1727).[1]

We saw in another post how even poor little orphan lads assumed the name of Robin Hood.

This is just a small example of how the legendary figure of Robin Hood is truly “all things to all men”.

So now we turn to the years 1819–20, a turbulent period in English history. Soldiers returned home at the end of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793–1815), many of them returned to high unemployment. Where labour in vital industries had been scarce during the wars, now the labour market was glutted with plenty of people needing a job. Yet there were not many jobs available: tradesmen had done well out of the war, having been contracted to provide war materiel, there was now a trade depression. The war had created an artificial demand for goods.

To make matters worse, since 1815, the hated Corn Laws were in effect. These laws were tariffs on imports of grain and other foodstuffs. During the war, Britain had imported vast amounts of food to feed its soldiers. Yet after the war, landowners, many of whom were part of the political class, decided that it was high time to protect their own businesses from imports of cheap food: the result was that the price of food was kept artificially high in order to protect the landowners’ inefficient businesses.

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National Anti-Corn Law League Membership Card

Nowadays, if a government treated its citizens that badly, it would soon be voted out. This was not the case in 1819: by and large, neither the working classes nor the middle classes could vote. The franchise was restricted to men who owned freehold property worth 40 shillings. Very few people, even the quite wealthy upper middle classes, owned property in this era. And many of the wealthy industrialists lived in new towns such as Manchester and Leeds—commercial and industrial meccas which drove British economic growth. Yet the large northern cities had no representation in parliament, while fields such as Old Sarum in Wiltshire containing one cottage returned 2 MPs to the Commons.

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Engraving of Reform ‘celebrity’, Mr Henry Hunt

It was an unjust system.

Yet there was a glimmer of hope.

Reformers, some who quite famous like Henry Hunt, were organising, marching, and most importantly: they were printing. Their cause was political reform through the extension of the franchise and a repeal of the Corn Laws. A number of penny periodicals were printed which contained opinion pieces on current affairs rather than reporting actual news (otherwise they would be subject to the paying of stamp duty, “the tax on knowledge”).

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The Medusa; or Penny Politician, No. 1

It is in the print culture of the early nineteenth century, then, that we find a man who named Robin Hood who wrote to The Medusa; or, The Penny Politician on three occasions in the years 1819–20.

The Medusa, named after the famous Greek mythical figure, was a satirical magazine which, through its humour excoriated the ruling class:

What! Will you not believe the Prime Minister, the Privy Council, the Bishops, the Judge, the Counsellors, the Lawyers, the Borough-mongers, the Placemen, and all the Pensioners? The Dukes, the Earls, the Marquisses, the Barons, the Knights, &c. &c.? Deluded multitude! Here is a collection of the happiest creatures in the world, united together to persuade you that you are extremely happy, and yet you give no credit to what they may either say or swear! O Shocking stupidity![2]

This was complete and utter sarcasm, a sly dig at the idea, propagated at the time by those in power, that Britain boasted of the most glorious constitution in the world—that Britons were “free” and “happy”! Lest anyone doubt the paper’s radical credentials, however, if the sardonic tone did not immediately hit home then the engraving of Henry Hunt, given away free with the paper’s first number, would have left readers in no doubt.

It was not unusual for people to assume pseudonyms in this era. It was an era in which, according to Robert Reid, England’s system of government, with its system of spies and informants, resembled more the Third Reich than an emergent democracy. People wanted to protect their names in public—after all, the campaign for reform was supported by both the working class and respectable tradesmen. Pseudonyms based upon medieval resistors of tyranny were especially popular. Some wrote letters under the name of Wat Tyler, some under Jack Cade, a Thomas Paine here and there, and, of course, Robin Hood.

When Robin Hood, when he wrote his letters, was angry about many things (if Twitter was around in 1819, his account would probably look a little like mine!)

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Britons Strike Home!!! Engraving of the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester, 1819

One of the measures which this radical Robin Hood proposed was the formation of a fund to aid the legal defence of men accused of sedition, an accusation applied to many a radical publisher who was hauled through the courts on trumped-up charges:

The present system of persecution adopted by our tyrants to stifle the public voice, should be met by a correspondent determination on the part of the friends of freedom to oppose their diabolical measures: a “Stock Purse” should be raised and maintained to counteract their evil purposes, the funds of which should be appropriated to defray the legal &c. expenses of the deserving public characters, whom our tyrants think to bear down by accumulated indictments.[3]

Robin Hood speaks of politicians as being tyrants quite frequently. And in 1819, an event which no doubt confirmed him in his beliefs came to pass: the Peterloo Massacre on 16 August in Manchester. Nearly 60,000 peaceful pro-democracy demonstrators came to hear the famous Henry Hunt speak in support of the cause of political reform; the magistrates got scared, however, and called out the local yeomanry on the crowd, resulting in the deaths of at least 15 people and injuring over 500, many of whom later died from their wounds.

Robin Hood was furious at

The late most atrocious outrages committed at Manchester, by order of a base Magistracy on a lawful multitude constitutionally assembled, by a banditti of FEROCIOUS MONSTERS, habited in the GARB of soldiers … Gracious God! Will Britons suffer themselves to be BUTCHERED by a banditti of lawless ruffians? Forbid it heaven! If the laws are perverted and an aggrieved people cannot obtain redress, they will be bound in justice to redress their own wrongs; they are called upon by the innocent blood of their murdered relatives, to AVENGE the deaths of numerous and unoffending individuals.[4]

The emphasis in the passage above was part of the original letter. Capitals were used back then in writing in the same way that we use them today: to show anger. The real law-breakers at Peters Fields in Manchester on 16 August were not the demonstrators but the magistrates.

Unfortunately, The Medusa did not last long; its last number was printed in January 1820, which was not unusual for some of these early publications. Yet while this would be worthy of nothing more than an interesting anecdote in a monograph, it does illustrate a wider point that the name of Robin Hood was being used at this point, as it had been before, as a symbol of resistance.

Of course, at the end of 1819, in the year that our pseudonymous Robin Hood was writing, radical readers would soon see their favourite historical outlaw appropriated by the Tory, Sir Walter Scott, in his novel Ivanhoe (1819), in which Robin Hood sides wholly with the monarchical establishment.


[1] Stephen Basdeo, ‘A Critical Edition of Little John’s Answer to Robin Hood and the Duke of Lancaster’, Bulletin of the International Association for Robin Hood Studies, 1: 1 (2017), 15–31.

[2] ‘To the Public’, The Medusa; or, Penny Politician, 20 February 1819, 2.

[3] Robin Hood, ‘To the Editor of the Medusa’, The Medusa; or Penny Politician, 1: 27 (1819), 216.

[4] Robin Hood, ‘Manchester Solomons’, The Medusa; or Penny Politician, 1: 32 (1819), 252.

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Robin Hood, a Foundling

By Stephen Basdeo

As one of England’s most famous historical figures, the name of Robin Hood appears in countless records. The first record we have of a man named Robin Hood is in the York Assize Records for the years 1225–26. This man is listed as a ‘fugitive’ and it is him whom scholars such as J. C. Holt argue was the ‘real’ Robin Hood. The fictional outlaw who appeared in countless poems, songs, ballads, and novels also inspired other people to take his name. Thus we have Robin Hoods who appear in medieval court records during the 1300s and the 1400s.

On a recent work-related trip to London, I got chance to pop into the Foundling Hospital where, to my surprise, I found another person—a young boy—also named Robin Hood, although he did not live in the medieval period but actually lived in the Georgian era.

How on earth did a lad called Robin Hood appear in the records of an eighteenth-century institution?

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To begin with, let us briefly consider the context:

A ‘foundling’ is an archaic term for our modern word ‘orphan’, although a foundling usually would have had no knowledge of whom his parents were, whereas orphans might well do, and foundlings were usually from poorer families.

Foundling (noun): an infant that has been abandoned by its parents and is discovered and cared for by others.

If you were poor in eighteenth-century London—if you had found yourself out of work, or if you were a woman and your husband had died leaving you penniless—you weren’t totally friendless. Since the passage of the Elizabethan Poor Law in 1601, the government deemed that parishes should assist those who had fallen on hard times by giving them ‘outdoor relief’. Paupers could apply to the local parish and they would be assisted with money, food, clothing, or goods to get by until their situations improved. This was often much preferable to having them enter one of the parish almshouses or workhouses.

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A 19th-century painting entitled The Pinch of Poverty, highlighting the hardships which many women faced if they had been abandoned by or lost their partners.

If you were a woman on your own in London with a child or several children to support, you might leave your child in the care of the Foundling Hospital. This was often done in order for a woman to get back on her feet while she worked and earned money, with the intention of collecting her child later once she was earning a bit more. The child may also have been born out of wedlock, which would have made it difficult to for her to secure work if she had a child, owing to the prejudices of the time.

At other times, condemned criminals might, in their last hours, implore the governors of the hospital to take care of their children after death. Giuseppe Ricciardelli, an Italian immigrant sentenced to death in 1752, wrote to a friend and asked him whether he might do him one last favour after he had gone:

…and particularly beseeching you, if possible, to get the Child to be admitted into the Foundling Hospital and educated in the Protestant Religion.[i]

The Foundling Hospital was set up in Bloomsbury by Thomas Coram in 1739; the first children admitted were sent to live with nurses before a purpose-built facility was opened in 1745, the remains of which can be visited today at Coram’s Fields, London.

Coram was a naval captain but on his retirement, but the reason why he set up the hospital was because, having returned to London, he was dismayed at what he saw: orphans living on the street left to fend for themselves. While he and his wife did not have children of their own, they resolved set themselves a mission to save the children.

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Henry Nelson O’Neil, A Mother Depositing Her Child at the Foundling Hospital, 1855 © The Foundling Museum, London

To raise money, the Corams enlisted the help of the great and the good and got them to donate money. Georg Handel lent his assistance and even conducted a special performance of his celebrated oratorio Messiah for a charity concert—the concert was fully booked and tickets for the event ask ladies not to wear their hoops and gentleman to attend without their swords. The Corams made the plight of pauper children fashionable.

So how did a child end up in the Foundling Hospital?

A mother would deposit her child with the receiving officer. The mothers would leave some kind of token with the hospital so that they would know their child if they returned to collect them at any point. These tokens could be all sorts of items: the exhibits in the Foundling Hospital show that mothers left rings, coins, buttons, badges, pieces of string and even nuts. The fact the hospital still has many of these tokens is a sad testament to the fact that many mothers and their children were never reunited.

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Tokens of unclaimed children (c) Foundling Hospital, London

Once the child had been admitted, they were given a new name which was entered in the register. There is a wonderful assortment of names to be found in the records of the Foundling Hospital, which were often taken from famous historical figures. It was hoped that a new name might enable the child to have a completely new start and that their lives might be free from prejudice, particularly necessary if their mother was a ‘fallen’ woman.

As one might expect, quite a few were named after their ‘adopted’ father, Thomas Coram; there are a few Walter Raleighs and Francis Drakes, named after the illustrious Elizabethan seafarers; and it is in these records that we find our little Robin Hood, a name given him by a Mr Edwards who worked at the Foundling Hospital.[ii]

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Robin Hood’s name can be seen on the right-hand side, second entry down.

Robin’s parents’ names are not recorded, and we do not know his date of birth, but we know that he was baptised on 25 May 1746. He would have been less than a year old when admitted and, just like the children admitted to the hospital in the earliest days, would have been sent to live in a foster home until the age of 5. He would then have been readmitted to the hospital to receive a rudimentary education, until having been apprenticed to a trade or forced to enlist in the military at age 15.

Further archival work will be required to ascertain what happened next to our eighteenth-century Robin Hood. Luckily, there are no records of anyone bearing his name hanged in the Old Bailey Record (which are all now online, free to search and view) — maybe he went on to prosper in a trade? Maybe, and hopefully, he may finally have been reunited with his mother who left him at the hospital in the hope of a better life?

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The Foundling Restored to its Mother (c) The Foundling Hospital, London

References

[i] The Ordinary of Newgate’s Account, 23 March 1752, cited in Tim Hitchcock and Robert Shoemaker, London Lives: Poverty, Crime and the Making of a Modern City (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), p. 259.

[ii] The National Archives of the UK; Kew, Surrey, England; General Register Office: Registers of Births, Marriages and Deaths surrendered to the Non-parochial Registers Commissions of 1837 and 1857; Class Number: RG 4; Piece Number: 4396

Further Reading

Berry, Helen, Orphans of Empire: The Fate of London’s Foundlings (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019)

Holt, J. C., Robin Hood, 2nd Edn (London: Thames and Hudson, 1989)

 

The Female Vagrant

By Stephen Basdeo

English authorities always seems to have had a harsh attitude towards its destitute and homeless people, or vagrants. At the height of the Black Death in medieval England, when labour was becoming scarce and many people, understandably, were falling ill, the Ordinance of Labourers made ‘idleness’ a criminal offence. The penalty for being as an idle vagrant was whipping or branding.

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20th-Century Illustration

During the reign of Henry VIII, vagabonds were again targeted by lawmakers. The Vagabonds Act (1530) decreed that

“Beggars who are old and incapable of working receive a beggar’s licence. On the other hand, [there should be] whipping and imprisonment for sturdy vagabonds. They are to be tied to the cart-tail and whipped until the blood streams from their bodies, then they are to swear on oath to go back to their birthplace or to serve where they have lived the last three years and to ‘put themselves to labour’. For the second arrest for vagabondage the whipping is to be repeated and half the ear sliced off; but for the third relapse the offender is to be executed as a hardened criminal and enemy of the common weal.”

More laws against vagabonds were passed in 1547, 1572, and 1597. The harsh laws against vagabondage occurred at an interesting time in English history: it was a period when feudalism—through which serfs worked for and owed loyalty to the lords in return for protection—was breaking down and capitalism was emerging. The old social structures, with kings, lords, barons, and knights, still remained, of course. Yet whereas at the height of the middle ages the upper classes felt some kind of social responsibility to those beneath them, in the new capitalist, individualist world, the elites no longer felt obligated to care for society’s poorest.

And of course, there was no attempt to address the causes of vagrancy. The authorities merely saw it as a problem which had to be dealt with through harsh measures such as branding. The Henrician and Elizabethan laws against vagrancy had a minor update during Queen Anne’s reign, but the punishments remained largely the same.

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By the time that the industrial revolution began in the mid-eighteenth century, the power and social pre-eminence of the nobility had been displaced by the rising bourgeoisie. Where the lords in a feudal world might have felt some kind of obligation to the poor and needy, by the Georgian period, contract had replaced custom and, in the words of Karl Marx in The Communist Manifesto (1848),

The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.

There had indeed always been poor people, but poverty had a new sting in its tail: people were now poor in a capitalist world in which, as Marx rightly observed, the paternalist bonds between the classes existed no more. Poets in the late eighteenth century were observed the poverty around. William Wordsworth was one such poet who was moved to write a heart-rending ‘biographical’ poem of the plight of a homeless woman living in the late eighteenth century (the poem does not refer to any particular historical figure but was from Wordsworth’s imagination—vagrancy was not an uncommon experience for many at the time).

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Later Victorian image of a homeless woman, c. 1890.

The poem was published in Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads (1798). The volume was envisaged as an experiment—it marked a shift away from the pompous ‘Augustan’ poetry of the eighteenth century, which dealt with great men and big events, to a poetry which could be intelligible to common people. Most of the poems in the collection deal not with great men but with commoners as the subject. Even the use of the word ‘ballad’ in the title evokes the popular poetry of the plebeian classes.

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William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

The poem is meant to evoke feelings of tenderness and kindness to those less fortunate, and in this, at least, Wordsworth succeeded. In the words of Joseph Devey, writing in A Comparative View of Modern English Poets (1873):

It would appear that Wordsworth designed, by the instrumentality of the lowest ranks of society, to erect a poetic temple, at the shrine of which the most selfish hearts should be humanized, and a feeling of love kept alive, reciprocating and reciprocated, between the rich and the poor, the politically great and the socially defenceless, for ever. ‘Life is the vital energy of love;’ and as long as the two extremes of society stood looking at each other with feelings of repulsion, the end of existence could not be realised. His verse was to become the medium of identifying the loftiest purposes of his art with the purest aims of Christianity.

Yet things took a while to get better: the Speemhamland System of dole relief and wage subsidies did attempt to deal some of the causes of homelessness, but another vagrancy act was passed in 1824 which made it an offence to beg for money or to sleep rough.

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The Vagrancy Act (1824)

And the Act remains in force to this day in England (though thankfully whipping is no longer part of the punishment, merely a fine):

In 2016, the Vagrancy Act (1824) was used nearly 3,000 times to punish poor rough sleepers.


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The Female Vagrant as it appeared in the first edition of Lyrical Ballads (1798)

William Wordsworth, The Female Vagrant (1798)

1 By Derwent’s side my Father’s cottage stood,

(The Woman thus her artless story told)

One field, a flock, and what the neighbouring flood

Supplied, to him were more than mines of gold.

Light was my sleep; my days in transport roll’d:

With thoughtless joy I stretch’d along the shore

My father’s nets, or watched, when from the fold

High o’er the cliffs I led my fleecy store,

A dizzy depth below! his boat and twinkling oar.

 

2 My father was a good and pious man,

An honest man by honest parents bred,

And I believe that, soon as I began

To lisp, he made me kneel beside my bed,

And in his hearing there my prayers I said:

And afterwards, by my good father taught,

I read, and loved the books in which I read;

For books in every neighbouring house I sought,

And nothing to my mind a sweeter pleasure brought.

 

3 Can I forget what charms did once adorn

My garden, stored with pease, and mint, and thyme,

And rose and lilly for the sabbath morn?

The sabbath bells, and their delightful chime;

The gambols and wild freaks at shearing time;

My hen’s rich nest through long grass scarce espied;

The cowslip-gathering at May’s dewy prime;

The swans, that, when I sought the water-side,

From far to meet me came, spreading their snowy pride.

 

4 The staff I yet remember which upbore

The bending body of my active sire;

His seat beneath the honeyed sycamore

When the bees hummed, and chair by winter fire;

When market-morning came, the neat attire

With which, though bent on haste, myself I deck’d;

My watchful dog, whose starts of furious ire,

When stranger passed, so often I have check’d;

The red-breast known for years, which at my casement peck’d.

 

5 The suns of twenty summers danced along,—

Ah! little marked, how fast they rolled away:

Then rose a mansion proud our woods among,

And cottage after cottage owned its sway,

No joy to see a neighbouring house, or stray

Through pastures not his own, the master took;

My Father dared his greedy wish gainsay;

He loved his old hereditary nook,

And ill could I the thought of such sad parting brook.

 

6 But, when he had refused the proffered gold,

To cruel injuries he became a prey,

Sore traversed in whate’er he bought and sold:

His troubles grew upon him day by day,

Till all his substance fell into decay.

His little range of water was denied;

All but the bed where his old body lay,

All, all was seized, and weeping, side by side,

We sought a home where we uninjured might abide.

 

7 Can I forget that miserable hour,

When from the last hill-top, my sire surveyed,

Peering above the trees, the steeple tower,

That on his marriage-day sweet music made?

Till then he hoped his bones might there be laid,

Close by my mother in their native bowers:

Bidding me trust in God, he stood and prayed,—

I could not pray: — through tears that fell in showers,

Glimmer’d our dear-loved home, alas! no longer ours!

 

8 There was a youth whom I had loved so long,

That when I loved him not I cannot say.

‘Mid the green mountains many and many a song

We two had sung, like little birds in May.

When we began to tire of childish play

We seemed still more and more to prize each other:

We talked of marriage and our marriage day;

And I in truth did love him like a brother,

For never could I hope to meet with such another.

 

9 His father said, that to a distant town

He must repair, to ply the artist’s trade.

What tears of bitter grief till then unknown!

What tender vows our last sad kiss delayed!

To him we turned: — we had no other aid.

Like one revived, upon his neck I wept,

And her whom he had loved in joy, he said

He well could love in grief: his faith he kept;

And in a quiet home once more my father slept.

 

10 Four years each day with daily bread was blest,

By constant toil and constant prayer supplied.

Three lovely infants lay upon my breast;

And often, viewing their sweet smiles, I sighed,

And knew not why. My happy father died

When sad distress reduced the children’s meal:

Thrice happy! that from him the grave did hide

The empty loom, cold hearth, and silent wheel,

And tears that flowed for ills which patience could not heal.

 

11 ‘Twas a hard change, an evil time was come;

We had no hope, and no relief could gain.

But soon, with proud parade, the noisy drum

Beat round, to sweep the streets of want and pain.

My husband’s arms now only served to strain

Me and his children hungering in his view:

In such dismay my prayers and tears were vain:

To join those miserable men he flew;

And now to the sea-coast, with numbers more, we drew.

 

12 There foul neglect for months and months we bore,

Nor yet the crowded fleet its anchor stirred.

Green fields before us and our native shore,

By fever, from polluted air incurred,

Ravage was made, for which no knell was heard.

Fondly we wished, and wished away, nor knew,

‘Mid that long sickness, and those hopes deferr’d,

That happier days we never more must view:

The parting signal streamed, at last the land withdrew,

 

13 But from delay the summer calms were past.

On as we drove, the equinoctial deep

Ran mountains-high before the howling blast.

We gazed with terror on the gloomy sleep

Of them that perished in the whirlwind’s sweep,

Untaught that soon such anguish must ensue,

Our hopes such harvest of affliction reap,

That we the mercy of the waves should rue.

We reached the western world, a poor, devoted crew.

 

14 Oh! dreadful price of being to resign

All that is dear in being! better far

In Want’s most lonely cave till death to pine,

Unseen, unheard, unwatched by any star;

Or in the streets and walks where proud men are,

Better our dying bodies to obtrude,

Than dog-like, wading at the heels of war,

Protract a curst existence, with the brood

That lap (their very nourishment!) their brother’s blood.

 

15 The pains and plagues that on our heads came down,

Disease and famine, agony and fear,

In wood or wilderness, in camp or town,

It would thy brain unsettle even to hear.

All perished — all, in one remorseless year,

Husband and children! one by one, by sword

And ravenous plague, all perished: every tear

Dried up, despairing, desolate, on board

A British ship I waked, as from a trance restored.

 

16 Peaceful as some immeasurable plain

By the first beams of dawning light impress’d,

In the calm sunshine slept the glittering main.

The very ocean has its hour of rest,

That comes not to the human mourner’s breast.

Remote from man, and storms of mortal care,

A heavenly silence did the waves invest;

I looked and looked along the silent air,

Until it seemed to bring a joy to my despair.

 

17 Ah! how unlike those late terrific sleeps!

And groans, that rage of racking famine spoke,

Where looks inhuman dwelt on festering heaps!

The breathing pestilence that rose like smoke!

The shriek that from the distant battle broke!

The mine’s dire earthquake, and the pallid host

Driven by the bomb’s incessant thunder-stroke

To loathsome vaults, where heart-sick anguish toss’d,

Hope died, and fear itself in agony was lost!

 

18 Yet does that burst of woe congeal my frame,

When the dark streets appeared to heave and gape,

While like a sea the storming army came,

And Fire from Hell reared his gigantic shape,

And Murder, by the ghastly gleam, and Rape

Seized their joint prey, the mother and the child!

But from these crazing thoughts my brain, escape!

—For weeks the balmy air breathed soft and mild,

And on the gliding vessel Heaven and Ocean smiled.

 

19 Some mighty gulph of separation past,

I seemed transported to another world:—

A thought resigned with pain, when from the mast

The impatient mariner the sail unfurl’d,

And whistling, called the wind that hardly curled

The silent sea. From the sweet thoughts of home,

And from all hope I was forever hurled.

For me — farthest from earthly port to roam

Was best, could I but shun the spot where man might come.

 

20 And oft, robb’d of my perfect mind, I thought

At last my feet a resting-place had found:

Here will I weep in peace, (so fancy wrought,)

Roaming the illimitable waters round;

Here watch, of every human friend disowned,

All day, my ready tomb the ocean-flood—

To break my dream the vessel reached its bound:

And homeless near a thousand homes I stood,

And near a thousand tables pined, and wanted food.

 

21 By grief enfeebled was I turned adrift,

Helpless as sailor cast on desart rock;

Nor morsel to my mouth that day did lift,

Nor dared my hand at any door to knock.

I lay, where with his drowsy mates, the cock

From the cross timber of an out-house hung;

How dismal tolled, that night, the city clock!

At morn my sick heart hunger scarcely stung,

Nor to the beggar’s language could I frame my tongue.

 

22 So passed another day, and so the third:

Then did I try, in vain, the crowd’s resort,

In deep despair by frightful wishes stirr’d,

Near the sea-side I reached a ruined fort:

There, pains which nature could no more support,

With blindness linked, did on my vitals fall;

Dizzy my brain, with interruption short

Of hideous sense; I sunk, nor step could crawl,

And thence was borne away to neighbouring hospital.

 

23 Recovery came with food: but still, my brain

Was weak, nor of the past had memory.

I heard my neighbours, in their beds, complain

Of many things which never troubled me;

Of feet still bustling round with busy glee,

Of looks where common kindness had no part,

Of service done with careless cruelty,

Fretting the fever round the languid heart,

And groans, which, as they said, would make a dead man start.

 

24 These things just served to stir the torpid sense,

Nor pain nor pity in my bosom raised.

Memory, though slow, returned with strength; and thence

Dismissed, again on open day I gazed,

At houses, men, and common light, amazed.

The lanes I sought, and as the sun retired,

Came, where beneath the trees a faggot blazed;

The wild brood saw me weep, my fate enquired,

And gave me food, and rest, more welcome, more desired.

 

25 My heart is touched to think that men like these,

The rude earth’s tenants, were my first relief:

How kindly did they paint their vagrant ease!

And their long holiday that feared not grief,

For all belonged to all, and each was chief.

No plough their sinews strained; on grating road

No wain they drove, and yet, the yellow sheaf

In every vale for their delight was stowed:

For them, in nature’s meads, the milky udder flowed.

 

26 Semblance, with straw and panniered ass, they made

Of potters wandering on from door to door:

But life of happier sort to me pourtrayed,

And other joys my fancy to allure;

The bag-pipe dinning on the midnight moor

In barn uplighted, and companions boon

Well met from far with revelry secure,

In depth of forest glade, when jocund June

Rolled fast along the sky his warm and genial moon.

 

27 But ill it suited me, in journey dark

O’er moor and mountain, midnight theft to hatch;

To charm the surly house-dog’s faithful bark,

Or hang on tiptoe at the lifted latch;

The gloomy lantern, and the dim blue match,

The black disguise, the warning whistle shrill,

And ear still busy on its nightly watch,

Were not for me, brought up in nothing ill;

Besides, on griefs so fresh my thoughts were brooding still.

 

28 What could I do, unaided and unblest?

Poor Father! gone was every friend of thine:

And kindred of dead husband are at best

Small help, and, after marriage such as mine,

With little kindness would to me incline.

Ill was I then for toil or service fit:

With tears whose course no effort could confine,

By high-way side forgetful would I sit

Whole hours, my idle arms in moping sorrow knit.

 

29 I lived upon the mercy of the fields,

And oft of cruelty the sky accused;

On hazard, or what general bounty yields,

Now coldly given, now utterly refused.

The fields I for my bed have often used:

But, what afflicts my peace with keenest ruth

Is, that I have my inner self abused,

Foregone the home delight of constant truth,

And clear and open soul, so prized in fearless youth.

 

30 Three years a wanderer, often have I view’d,

In tears, the sun towards that country tend

Where my poor heart lost all its fortitude:

And now across this moor my steps I bend—

Oh! tell me whither — for no earthly friend

Have I. — She ceased, and weeping turned away,

As if because her tale was at an end

She wept; — because she had no more to say

Of that perpetual weight which on her spirit lay.

 

 

The Crime of Sati

By Stephen Basdeo

In the first Robin Hood novel, Robert Southey’s ‘Harold; or, The Castle of Morford’ (1791), we are told of a Norwegian woman’s travels through the Orient; entranced with the ways of the East, she marries an Indian man. Yet the romance does not last long; her lover dies and according to the custom amongst the gentoos, she must undergo sati, or suttee:

It is a custom among the Gentoos for a widow to burn herself upon the funeral pile of her husband. Yarian, a beautiful female with whom we were acquainted, was in this predicament. At this period a caravan happened to be setting forwards for China and Sir Guelphinor and myself resolved to go with it and then travel through the wide regions of Siberia. It was a long and dangerous route, but the only possible means of returning to our native countries. The Norwegian had before the death of her husband, sincerely though secretly loved Yarina. He had by this time acquired some knowledge of the language and resolved to attempt persuading Yarina to accompany us in disguise. The love of life joined to the affection she entertained for Guelphinor prevailed over the desire of glory. She disguised herself in a suit of her deceased husband and accompanied us. The Norwegian was happy and I partook of his happiness. The dangers we had participated in had been the means of establishing a firm friendship between us and I longed for the time when I should see him and Yarina settled safely in Europe.

Robert Southey, ‘Harold; or, The Castle of Morford’. Bodleian MS Eng. Misc. e. 21 (Summary Catalogue 71777), ff.119v-120r.

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Robert Southey’s Harold; or, The Castle of Morford (Bodleian Library)

Dr Truesdale and I are currently editing Southey’s manuscript for publication, and this post delves into the changing attitudes towards this custom of sati, whereby a widow is burned alive along with the dead of body of her husband.

Britain and India have a long and interconnected history. Queen Elizabeth I was by no means an imperialist monarch, but her one major contribution to the rise of the British Empire was the granting of a Royal Charter to the Governor and Company of Merchants of London trading with the East Indies (hereafter named the East India Company), which gave this corporation a monopoly over trade with countries in the East.

Gradually, the power and influence of this trading corporation grew, both in England and India.

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During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the British East India Company established a number of fortified trading settlements—“factories”—in various parts of the Indian subcontinent. The trading company boasted its own army and as it sought to increase its influence over Indian rulers and secure ever more favourable trading terms, it regularly got involved in territorial disputes between local Indian princely states, as well as against the French East India Company. When the first “World War” broke out in 1756—the Seven Year’s War, between the Kingdom of France and Great Britain and their respective allies—the British East India Company found itself fighting against the French Company and the Nawab of Bengal’s army.

Had the French and the Nawab of Bengal succeeding in expelling the British company from the subcontinent forever, then the history of Britain in India might be consigned to a mere footnote in history. But the British won: as a result of its victory against the Nawab of Bengal and French East India Company at the Battle of Plassey in 1757, the British East India Company annexed the region of Bengal. A vast part of the subcontinent was now under the control of a trading company, and Company rule was confirmed when the Treaty of Allahabad was signed in 1765, when the Mughal Emperor granted the British company the diwani of Bengal—the power to levy taxes on the inhabitants. From this point onwards, the Company expanded and consolidated its power not only over the territories it annexed, but also over the numerous princely states. By the nineteenth century it was clear that the British were there to stay. The Company, which had originally started out as a trading endeavour, had become a political power.

1200px-Warren_Hastings_by_Tilly_Kettle
Warren Hastings, Head of the Supreme Council of India and Governor of the Presidency of Fort St William. He is said to have loved India “a little more than his own country”.

In the early days of the Company Raj, British administrators still knew that they were there to make money. They wanted to interfere as little as possible with Indians’ existing laws and customs; in short, Indian culture should be respected. And many British administrators very much admired Indian culture. The Governor of the Presidency of Fort St William and Head of the Supreme Council of Bengal, Warren Hastings, once declared

“I love India a little more than my own country.”

Hastings sponsored the first English translation of the Baghavad Gita, the Hindu holy book, and founded the Asiatick Society in 1784. Other men such as James Achilles Kirkpatrick (1764–1805) “went native” by converting to Islam, learning Urdu, and even married Khair-un-Nissa, the daughter of a local Indian ruler. At this time, in high culture, we find that there was briefly a fusion of Indian and British styles of painting, practiced by Indian artists, known as ‘Company Style’, blending the European picturesque with simpler Indian watercolours.

In popular literature, novelists such as Phebe Gibbs in Hartly House, Calcutta (1789) were wholly admiring of the Indian way of life. Which brings us to one particular Indian custom which Gibbs drew attention to in her novel: the practice of sati, or suttee.

Sati
An Indian woman being led towards her husband’s funeral pyre to be burned alive (1811). London, Wellcome Collection.

Sati was practiced in wealthier, usually aristocratic, Indian families when the head of the household passed away. Gibbs’s protagonist, Sophia Goldborne, is a committed and enthusiastic orientalist and describes the practice in the following manner:

There are other casts or classes, as you may have read in the European newspapers, that burn the bodies of their departed friends and relatives, and preserve their ashes with great piety. And of this number are those wives, who, with a degree of heroism, that, if properly directed, would do honour to the female world, make an affectionate voluntary sacrifice of themselves upon the funeral pile of their late departed husbands:—it is true that there have been instances of their shewing reluctance—but those instances seldom occur.[i]

According to Sophia Goldborne, a widow who underwent this process could give no further sign of her devotion to her husband than ‘sanctifying’ herself on the husband’s funeral pyre.

Hastings and Gibbs were of the ‘old guard’ mindset: they were entranced by India, this ancient civilization with whom they found themselves in contact (Gibbs’s novel was based on letters from her brother who served in the Company army). Yet waiting in the wings back in England was a new breed of civil servant: fervently Christian, and confident in their belief that England represented civilization and Indians were ‘backward’, they wanted to Christianize and Anglicize India, and remould the subcontinent in England’s image.

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Lord William Bentinck, appointed as Governor-General of India in 1828. An ideologue who wanted to Anglicize India.

Their attitude is best summed up in comments made by Thomas Babington Macauley (1800–59):

“We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.”

The age of the ‘do-gooders’ had arrived: evangelical reformers, although ignoring social problems, poverty, and calls for political reform at home in Britain, seized on the practice of sati as the target of one of their many empire-wide moral crusades. One man of this mould, William Bentinck, was appointed as the Governor General of India in 1828 and he was determined to stamp it out:

To consent to the consignment, year after year, of hundreds of innocent victims to a cruel and untimely end, when the power exists of preventing it, is a predicament which no conscience can contemplate without horror … Every day’s delay adds a victim to the dreadful list, which might perhaps have been prevented by a more early submission of the present question.

(William Bentinck, Minute on Sati, November 1829)

That was certainly a dramatic way of seeing the problem. The truth is that sati was not widespread by the time Bentinck was appointed, but his campaign against it was part of the grander ‘civilizing mission’.

It is amazing how quickly Bentinck’s Christian propagandists swung into action behind this cause and voiced their concerns in popular literature. Where Phebe Gibbs admired the custom in the late eighteenth century, in the early Victorian period, Agnes Strickland left her readers under no illusions—the practice was barbarous and so, by extension, was the Hindu religion and the Indians themselves.

Strickland’s short story, titled Candava; or, the Last Suttee, was serialised in the Home Circle in 1849. Her protagonist, Ellen Mortlake, is a fervent Christian who has gone out to India and intends to set up a Sunday School (for the benefit of the natives, obviously, to bring them to Christ). She and her brother, who is an officer in the Company army, are one day walking in the countryside and they see a sati procession. Ellen is horrified:

Pale and sick with horror, Ellen clung to her brother’s arm for support, as she gasped out, “Is there no means of preventing his frightful tragedy?”

“It can be prevented, and it shall be,” he replied, “Lord William Bentinck has abolished Suttee. Ellen, dare you remain with the bearers while I hasten to the British headquarters to obtain assistance?”

“Go—go my brother,” she replied, “I have no other fears than that you may be too late.”[ii]

The widow is taken to the pyre, kicking and screaming; her limbs are soon bound and the ‘evil Brahmins’ pay no attention to her cries for mercy. Just as they are about to light the fire, a detachment of East India Cavalrymen, led by Ellen’s brother, ride in to save the day.

“Hold,” he exclaimed with equal courage and temper … “The British Government has at length abolished suttee forever, and it will be at the peril of life and property if that abomination is ever again attempted in British India.”[iii]

The widow is rescued, ever grateful to the East India Company for saving her life.

Home Circle
The moral crusade against sati was waged, not only at the level of high politics, but also in popular literature. Stories such as this one which appeared in the Home Circle drew attention to the barbarous practice.

Paradoxically, although the practice was practiced by very few people in India, as the moral crusade against sati got ever more courage in both the Indian and British press, there was a brief resurgence of it in Bengal. It was almost as though, resenting the ever-increasing interference of British legislators into their lives, Indian people were pushing back against it.

In all of the furore around sati, however, the views of Indian women themselves were never asked for. The question of sati and its wider significance for Anglo-Indian relations was discussed at length by Gayatri Spivak in an article entitled ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ That the Indians were a conquered and oppressed people under British rule is beyond doubt, but when it came to sati, Indian women faced two forms of oppression: they could not commit sati without facing sanctions from the British authorities, yet if they decided against going through with it, the woman would be ostracised from her family and local community. At every step of the way during the whole moral crusade against it, it was men who knew best.

While the two examples cited here were fictional works, they are illustrative of wider, changing British attitudes towards sati and Indian culture at large. During the eighteenth century, the British were guests in India, which is why they were respectful of Indian culture; the British nation was a new nation, compared to India, which was thousands of years old. By the mid-Victorian period, the British were in charge; they did not need to ‘respect’ Indian culture as much anymore and where they previously wanted to just make money, now they had acquired a civilizing mission and this required outlawing Indian practices which did not fit with their worldview.

Even though India received its independence from Britain in the 1940s, the Indian Government passed another Act of Parliament in 1988 which confirmed the ban on sati. This decision stemmed in part from a recent case which occurred in 1987 in Rajasthan when an 18-year-old girl mounted her husband’s funeral pyre, much to the condemnation of the international community. The Commission of Sati Prevention Act deemed that

‘if any person commits sati, whoever abets the commission of such sati, either directly or indirectly, shall be punishable with death or imprisonment for life and shall also be liable to fine’.

In spite of this, there has been a case as recently as 2006, when 40 year old Janakrani, burnt to death on the funeral pyre of her husband Prem Narayan in Sagar.[iv] Evidently the practice persists in some of the more rural parts of India.


[i] Phebe Gibbs, Hartly House, Calcutta, ed. by Michael Franklin (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2019), pp. 102–3.

[ii] Agnes Strickland, ‘Candava; or, The Last Suttee’, Home Circle, 14 July 1849, 17–18.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Anon., ‘India wife dies on husband’s pyre’, BBC News, 22 August 2006, online edn < http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/south_asia/5273336.stm> [Accessed 17 April 2019].

Further Reading

Ola Abdalkafor, Gayatri Spivak: Deconstruction and the Ethics of Postcolonial Literary Interpretation (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2015)

Bandits and Robbers of India

By Stephen Basdeo

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the British East India Company established a number of fortified trading settlements—“factories”—in various parts of the Indian subcontinent. The trading company boasted its own army and as it sought to increase its influence over Indian rulers and secure ever more favourable trading terms, it regularly got involved in territorial disputes between local Indian princely states, as well as against the French East India Company. When the first “World War” broke out in 1756—the Seven Year’s War, between the Kingdom of France and Great Britain and their respective allies—the British East India Company found itself fighting against the French Company and the Nawab of Bengal’s army.

Clive1
Robert Clive and the British East India Company are victorious at the Battle of Plassey in 1757 (c) Wikimedia Commons

Had the French and the Nawab of Bengal succeeding in expelling the British company from the subcontinent forever, then the history of Britain in India might be consigned to a mere footnote in history. But the British won: as a result of its victory against the Nawab of Bengal and French East India Company at the Battle of Plassey in 1757, the British East India Company annexed the region of Bengal. A vast part of the subcontinent was now under the control of a trading company, and Company rule was confirmed when the Treaty of Allahabad was signed in 1765, when the Mughal Emperor granted the British company the diwani of Bengal—the power to levy taxes on the inhabitants. From this point onwards, the Company expanded and consolidated its power not only over the territories it annexed, but also over the numerous princely states. By the nineteenth century it was clear that the British were there to stay.

Shah_'Alam_conveying_the_grant_of_the_Diwani_to_Lord_Clive
The signing of the Treaty of Allahabad, granting the diwai of Bengal to the British East India Company (c) Wikimedia Commons

Eric Hobsbawm in Bandits (1969) tells us that, in times of political crisis, banditry usually flourishes. This is especially the case in regions of the world which are less urbanised or industrialised, and where the reach of “the long arm of the law” extends only as far as where there is a policeman or some other form of law enforcement to actually enforce the law. Hobsbawm chooses to focus principally upon Southern Italy, Central, and South America; it should come as no surprise to us, however, that in India during the early nineteenth century, banditry likewise flourished during this period which witnessed a number of rapid political changes, during the decline of an old empire and the rise of a new one.

Back in Britain, crime literature was as popular as ever: two lawyers named Andrew Knapp and William Baldwin published a new edition of The Newgate Calendar in four volumes in 1824, with an extended edition comprising five volumes a year later—such was its commercial success. Walter Scott published Rob Roy (1818) which thoroughly romanticised the image of the highland outlaw and freedom fighter. Pierce Egan the Elder (1772–1849) would be making money covering sensational trials alongside his sports journalism. Penny bloods such as those written by G. W. M. Reynolds “exposed” the hidden criminal underworld of the nineteenth-century industrial city.[i] And Charles Macfarlane, in emulation of earlier eighteenth-century criminal biographies, published The Lives and Exploits of the Most Celebrated Robbers and Banditti of All Nations (1833).

Just like it says on the tin, Macfarlane—a travel writer—wanted to shine a light on the lives and careers of highwaymen from Europe and also in England’s newly-acquired dominions in the subcontinent. So alongside tales of Italian bandits we also meet robbers from as far afield as Afghanistan and India.

There is some racialism in Macfarlane’s description of robbers from the Far East. Of “oriental” highwaymen, Macfarlane tells us that

Compared indeed with the hordes—the hosts—the almost nations of marauders in the East, our most numerous troops of [European] banditti sink into the insignificance of mere gangs. Their crimes, too, are tame and colourless contrasted with the full fire of Oriental atrocity.[ii]

This immediately marks out Indian bandits as a lesser and more savage ‘race’ than their European counterparts. In Europe, it was a—ultimately false—but widely held belief that highwaymen would simply rob you but rarely resort to violence. Macfarlane’s words on Indians, however, recycle orientalist stereotypes about the ‘savagery’ and ‘primitiveness’ of people in the East. Of course, when one actually reads Macfarlane’s book, the crimes committed by Indian bandits are no better or worse than those committed by the Italian robbers of whom he was so fond.

Rohilla
A Rohilla kidnapping a child–illustration from the America edition of Macfarlane’s book

One of the most notorious gangs of bandits in India were the Rohilla, who ‘infested’ the region of Rohilkhand, Uttar Pradesh, in the northern part of India. One of their primary grievances was the fact that, unsurprisingly, they did not like being ruled by the British. On this matter, Macfarlane quoted Bishop Herber who told him that:

The conquest of Rohilcund by the English and the death of its chief in battle, its subsequent cession to the Nawab of Oudh … form one of the worst chapters of English history in India … by all I could learn, the people appear by no means to have forgotten or forgiven their first injuries.[iii]

According to Macfarlane—and we must bear in mind that crime writers in this period were prone to completely inventing the odd fact or five—the Rohilla band were primarily former soldiers who had fought against the British. Feeling angry that the British had taken control of their region, they took to the forests around the foothills of the Himalayas and began to prey upon unsuspecting travellers. In view of the fact that their problems were mainly with the British occupiers, one might have assumed that they would only have targeted British travellers. Yet Macfarlane records that they robbed people of all ethnicities; British travellers, in fact, usually travelled in well-armed convoys, so it was not always wise for them to attack lest they bring the full force of the Company Raj upon them. So we might make a further assumption here that it was Indians themselves who bore the brunt of their depredations. They were most famous, as well, for creeping into villages late at night and stealing horses—an offence of similar magnitude to that of car stealing today.

Charles_D'Oyly00
Calcutta in 1848 (c) Wikimedia Commons

We must, furthermore, view their political grievances with a pinch of salt: there is evidence that groups like the Rohilla had flourished even under the Mughal Empire. For this reason, B. Cohen describes them more as outlaws-cum-mercenaries, willing to hire out their arms to the highest bidder whatever their grievances might be.[iv]

The English tried all manner of things to catch the ring leaders of this notorious band, including offering a reward of up to 10,000 rupees to anyone who might betray their location. But the local population kept their mouths shut. This shows that the Rohillas were a very successful organised crime group—or a very brutal one. All gangs of bandits usually pay off the local inhabitants to keep them quiet, as Macfarlane told readers in his preface:

Before the reader proceeds further I will warn him that he will not find my robbers such romantic, generous characters as those who occasionally figure in the fields of fiction. He will meet with men strangers to that virtue of robbing the rich to give to the poor. They give to the poor indeed, but it is as spies and instruments of their own crimes, or at least in order to avoid detection.[v]

These men were hardly the Robin Hoods of their day. They were brutal, cared not who they robbed. They were not even overtly political, thus they cannot be placed into Hobsbawm’s paradigm of the bandit as a proto-revolutionary type of figure. They really were just thugs. Of course, while we describe these men with terms such as “bandit” or “outlaw”, we have to ask ourselves whether, in an era of colonialism when the men were living under the rule of a British trading company—a company described as “the original corporate raiders” by some—who the real outlaws and bandits of the period truly were.


In-Text References

[i] Stephen Basdeo, ‘”That’s Business”: Organised Crime in G. W. M. Reynolds’s The Mysteries of London (1844-48)’, Law, Crime and History, 8: 1 (2018), 54–75.

[ii] Charles Macfarlane, The Lives and Exploits of the Most Celebrated Robbers and Banditti of All Countries (Philadelphia: G. Evans [n. d.]), p. 258.

[iii] Macfarlane, p. 280.

[iv] B. B. Cohen, Kingship and Colonialism in India’s Deccan 1850–1948 (New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007), p. 16.

[v] Macfarlane, p. 2.

Further Reading:

Basdeo, Stephen, The Lives and Exploits of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Rogues, and Murderers (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2018)

Hobsbawm, Eric, Bandits, 2nd edn (London: Pelican, 1972)

Howe, Stephen, Empire: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002)

Knapp, Andrew and William Baldwin, eds. The New Newgate Calendar, 4 vols (London: J. Robins, 1824)

Scott, Walter, Rob Roy, 3 vols (Edinburgh: Ballantyne, 1818)

“Confusion, horror, and bloodshed”: Joseph Ritson’s Eye-Witness Account of the Gordon Riots in 1780

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.

Ritson 1
Joseph Ritson (1752-1803)

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.

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18th-century Stockton

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.

lord-george-gordon_1691956a
Lord George Gordon

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

Dear Mother,

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.

gordon_riots

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).

the_gordon_riots_by_john_seymour_lucas
The Gordon Riots – By John Seymour Lucas

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.

Notes:

[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.

Further Reading:

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)