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A Brief History of the Mob

A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE MOB

LONDON might be witnessing its worst nights of rioting in living memory but mob unrest is not without precedent in the capital.

Prior to the well documented  20th C riots, such as the Poll Tax and Broadwater Farm riots, the capital has seen large scale violence on the streets on at least 20 occasions throughout history.

Ever since medieval times, London has had a ‘mob’.

Rioting broke out in London among goldsmiths and tailors in 1268, and again in 1391 over a dispute about a baker’s loaf.

Margaret of Anjou was not admitted past the city gates with a conquering Lancastrian army behind her,  and during the period, London apprentices  - drawn from all the ancient guilds and crafts - were often ready for a riot seemingly just for the sake of it.

During the ‘Evil May Day’ riots in 1517, more than five thousand troops were dispersed in London to quell a violent uprising against foreigners.

During the reign of King Henry VIII, Londoners resented the especially wealthy foreign merchants and bankers of Lombard Street.

According to the chronicler Edward Hall, a fortnight before the riot an inflammatory xenophobic speech was made on Easter Tuesday by a Dr. Bell at St. Paul's Cross at the instigation of John Lincoln, a broker.

Bell called on all "Englishmen to cherish and defend themselves, and to hurt and grieve aliens for the common weal".

Over the following two weeks there were sporadic attacks on foreigners and rumours abounded that "on May Day next the city would rebel and slay all aliens".

When May Day came, within a few hours approximately a thousand young male apprentices had congregated in Cheapside.

The mob freed several prisoners who were locked up for attacking foreigners and proceeded to St Martin le Grand, a privileged liberty north of St Paul's Cathedral where numerous foreigners lived.

Here they were met by the under-sheriff of London, Thomas More, who attempted in vain to persuade them to return to their homes. As soon as More had calmed them, however, the inhabitants of St Martins started to throw stones, bricks, bats and boiling water from their windows  while the Lieutenant of the Tower of London fire cannon shots from the Tower of London to try to restore order.

This sparked panic in the mob and they looted foreigners' houses there and elsewhere in the city. Three hundred people arrested were pardoned. However thirteen of the rioters were convicted of treason and executed on 4 May.

Bawdy House Riots took place in 1688 after a series of attacks against brothels, but one of the largest London riots was witnessed in Samuel Pepys’ lifetime.

In his famous diary, he states: “When he was a schoolboy, in July 1647, a mob from the City kicked in the doors of the House of Commons, terrorised the MP's, held the speaker prisoner and forced a vote inviting the king to London.

 "Another fracas occurred in the City in the spring, when royalists made bonfires in the streets to celebrate the anniversary of the king's accession on 31st March, and forced passers-by to stop and drink his health.  

“This was followed by an incident in which puritan intolerance provoked a full-scale riot........on a fine April morning a group of small boys were playing tip-cat, on the open fields at Moorfields. 

‘Because it was on a Sunday the Lord Mayor sent a detachment from the trained bands to stop the sport.   A crowd of apprentices decided to defend the children's freedom to play games.  Soon the apprentices were stoning the soldiers and went on to disarm them.  By then a crowd several thousand strong had gathered and marched along Fleet Street and the Strand shouting "Now for King Charles." Cromwell was in London and he ordered out the cavalry to charge the crowd, killing two and injuring many more....Some of the rioters were killed and those suspected of being ringleaders were taken to prison, everyone else dispersed.’

Riots also occurred in 1765, 67, 68 and 69 is Spitalfields when weavers clashed in the city over the price of their silks and calicos, especially when French Huguenot weavers settled in the capital forcing the prices down.

But perhaps the most remarkable London riots occurred in 1809 when the Old Price Riots erupted over the price of theatre tickets.

Rioting lasted for three months at Covent Garden Theatre when management raised its prices to compensate for construction of the new theatre.

The riots were to last another 64 days. The rioters even had a name for themselves: the OPs.

In an attempt to quell the rioters, the theatre hired the boxer Daniel Mendoza and his associates to contain them. But the tactic spectacularly misfired and only resulted in increased violence.

ENDS

  • The name for government formed via a mob rule is an ‘ochlocracy’
  • The term appears to have been coined by Polybius. He uses it to name the 'pathological' version of popular rule in opposition to the good version, which he refers to as democracy.
  • Riots in the old days were often about the presence of new minority groups: Flemish Weavers, Jews, Huguenots, Dutch etc but these soon integrated and were generally represented in the next bout of rioting.
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