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King Mob by Christopher Hibbert: "The most savage riots in English history"

I've been working on Dickens's Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of '80 for about three years now. It is not what we call good. But lately and with the advent of the new year, I've been making a push to finish it, and upon doing so, I realized that Dickens paints a very particular picture of these riots, and I wanted to know more about what actually happened. Fortunately, historian Christopher Hibbert provided an account in his 1958 book King Mob: The Story of Lord George Gordon and the London Riots of 1780.




Lord George Gordon was an eccentric man from an eccentric Scottish family. His mother, as a child in Edinburgh was "on occasion to be seen with her sister galloping madly down High Street on the back of a capering pig." He spent some time in the Navy, but didn't advance because he was a big weirdo and they said no thanks to that, so then he decided to try for Parliament, and got elected to the House of Commons. 

This is him, standing on some symbolism

In some ways, he was a stand up guy. He went to the West Indies and was horrified by slavery; he wanted members of Parliament to genuinely represent their constituents; he thought the gap between the rich and the poor should be lessened. But he'd also give long, incoherent speeches to the House and was overall just regarded as an eccentric (although later in life, one of his 'eccentricities' was saying that the crime of theft shouldn't be accorded the death penalty, so...hm).


Lord George believed passionately in the rights of the people, not as a politician should do, but as a humanitarian is obliged to do. He had all the humanitarian's emotional weakness, all the Romantic's enthusiasm, without the politician's hardheaded sense. His actions, contradictory as they sometimes seemed, and foolhardy as they often were, were the result of this unreasoning, overwhelming pity for the poor and the oppressed which forced him into positions and attitudes that were as ridiculous as they were useless. 

Ever since "Bloody Mary" had burned Protestants in Smithfield in the 1550s, England had been a bit 'hm maybe not' about Catholicism. Laws were put in place that basically made it impossible to live as a Catholic there, but by the 1770s, they were rarely enforced. In 1778, England's army was stretched thin between threats at home and the war in America, but Catholics were hesitant to sign up as soldiers because they had to take a Protestant oath. Parliament decided to do away with that and a few other restrictions (they were suddenly able to purchase and inherit land, and their bishops, priests and schoolmasters could no longer be imprisoned for life — lucky them).


Catholics' reaction to the still extremely limiting bill

Lord Gordon was outraged at this because he thought Catholicism was really dangerous and decided to organize a protest. After gathering thousands of signatures, he asked that fellow members of his Protestant Association gather in St George's Fields on June 2nd and walk with him to Parliament to show how many Englishmen opposed the encouragement of "popery."

The way Hibbert basically shows this as having gone down is maybe 50,000 people were there, which is a ridiculous number in the first place, but they seemed to be pretty ok, tradesmen sorts of people. As they marched to Parliament, some not-there-for-anti-popery people mixed in with them, because who doesn't love giant crowds, right? So you had this mix of genuine protesters, and probably drunk-already hangers-on. Lord Gordon delivered his petition, Parliament basically said "Nope," and the crowd was not happy. 

Yes, like that.

Horace Walpole said:
 "So blind was [Lord Gordon's] zeal, and so ill tutored his outlaws, that though the petition was addressed and carried to the House of Commons, the chief fury fell on the Peers" (Walpole, June 4, 1780)

Members of the House of Lords were pulled out of their carriages, beaten — one was hit across the face with a whip — and in some cases narrowly escaped worse harm. 

One of my favorite stories from this is when a certain peer was delivering a speech (which they were really, really into doing in the 18th century), but he was interrupted by another member running into the room and saying that Lord Boston's life was in danger. The peer who was speaking didn't quite hear him and said it was "very extraordinary that the noble Lord should interrupt him." Then a debate ensued as to whether the bill being protested by the mob was a good one, when "it was brought to [their] notice that Lord Boston was still in the hands of the mob beneath the Committee Room windows."

They then argued about how to rescue him until he finally just showed up after having escaped on his own. #parliament

But the abuse of MPs was only the beginning of the Gordon Riots. Everything seemed relatively quiet when evening came on, but after midnight, a group of people was seen marching with spades, pickaxes, blacksmiths' hammers, staves, and crowbars. That night began a series of five nights that were a truly terrifying time in London's history. At the end of them, one journalist wrote that "London offered on every side the picture of a city sacked and abandoned to a ferocious enemy." 

Imagine going out on the street and seeing this

Essentially, bands of mostly drunken people started roaming London, at first only attacking houses of people who had opposed the Protestant Association's petition, but soon it became just a funneling of rage against "oppression, riches, and dishonest power." Some of which was unfortunately directed at the Irish, who were a large part of the Other in 18th century English society, mostly because they were working for lower wages than Englishmen and perceivedly taking work from them.

Houses were looted, stripped of their furniture, remaining goods and floorboards, and burned. Numerous prisons were stormed, including Newgate, and thousands of their prisoners released into the city. Businesses belonging to Catholics were looted and then burned, resulting in hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of loss to the owners. The Bank was attacked, as well as the Prime Minister's home.

Where was the army? Where was the police force? Well, there wasn't really a police force, and the problem with the army was that it was not allowed to use force on citizens unless authorized by a magistrate AFTER the Riot Act was read (did you know that was a real thing? reading the Riot Act? and that it basically said 'if you don't leave after we read this, we can shoot you'?). And no magistrates were willing to step up and do this. So soldiers would march into an area that was being looted, stand there, and then just march away again. The rioters just laughed and threw things at them.


Basically.

It sounds incredible now, but the lawmakers were EXTREMELY worried about the army having too much power over citizens. They wanted civil authority to be the highest, and even during the riots, when their own houses were incredibly threatened, they did not want to authorize the army to shoot based on its own judgement.

But they finally did. Because prisons were being pulled down and burned and distilleries were being blown up and the unrefined alcohol from them was being slurped up by people in the streets who then died from it. Large numbers of people were fleeing the capital. Shit was bananas.

An estimated 850 people died as a result of the Gordon Riots. They were ultimately seen as possibly siphoning off a lot of the unrest from the populace, and preventing something like the French Revolution, which occurred only nine years later. I'm rather confused as to why we NEVER hear about them now, because London really seemed like hell on earth during those five days, and who doesn't enjoy those stories. 

Everyone. Everyone enjoys those stories.

Lord George Gordon went on trial, but was found not guilty of high treason, because he really did seem like just a weirdo who didn't understand what he was unleashing. He was later found guilty of libel against Marie Antoinette and fled to Amsterdam, where they said "Nope" and sent him back to England, where he hid out in Birmingham and converted to Judaism for the rest of his life. He was eventually caught and sent to prison, where he ended up dying of typhoid at age 41.

The Gordon Riots of 1780. If you're going to read a book about them, read Christopher Hibbert's and not Charles Dickens's. This one's way better.

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