Opinion Articles

Fire and fear: rioting in Georgian London and contemporary Britain

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'The most common image of the riots, both in witness statements and in pictures of the events, was of fire. London was burning. People could see the fires from far away and this spread fear. The whole of London was scared'. This was how I described the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots of 1780, on 'Voices from the Old Bailey,' the BBC Radio 4 programme broadcast a fortnight before social unrest erupted in parts of London. Then and now, fire and fear dominated the media, and shaped public perceptions of events. Prints of the Gordon Riots show smoke and flames billowing from Newgate prison and mobs looting the houses of rich Catholics. The front pages of this week's newspapers have unexpectedly transformed a carpet store in Tottenham into a blazing landmark representing the chaos and destruction.

Named after Lord George Gordon who campaigned against the Catholic Relief Act, the riots of 1780 exploded when a petition was presented to the House of Commons calling for the Act's repeal. In the aftermath, a proclamation by King George III, offering £500 rewards for information leading to convictions, described how the protestors came to the Houses of Parliament 'where they continued in a Riotous and Tumultous Manner, committing great Outrages and Violence against several of Our Subjects and feloniously taking Money from them...'

There are other apparent parallels between June 1780 and August 2011 that involve issues of public policy and society. First, government and penal reformers were in the process of rethinking policing and punishment when unrest began. Second, the riots shook public confidence in the ability of government to control the massive increase in population and immigration in London. Finally, debates about the causes and spread of the riots revolved around whether they were organised by criminal gangs, political subversives, or by the genuine alienation of the young and unemployed. The media have also drawn parallels between the 'London Riots' of August 2011 with the more immediate past, especially the Brixton riots of 1981. With unemployment rapidly rising and a Conservative-led government enforcing severe public spending cuts, the analogies are easy to make.

The parallels stop there, however. 'Riot' has specific meanings and took different forms in history. In common law, a riot was defined as three or more people breaching the public peace. The Riot Act of 1714 made riot into a felony if twelve or more people had refused to disperse an hour after a magistrate had read a proclamation. The Gordon Riots got out of control because the magistrates were uncertain about how they could put down disorder without reading the Riot Act. The only way of suppressing major disorder was to call in the military. Rioters got shot. There was no national police force before 1839. A state-controlled police was regarded as destructive of the civil liberties of freeborn Englishmen. The government was already thinking about policing London in response to Gordon Riots. Moves to establish a metropolitan force in 1794 eventually bore fruit in 1829 with Robert Peel's bobbies. Yet local communities resisted the imposition of police, especially after the 1839 Rural Constabulary Act. The military were still required to put down riots, though public outrage was roused by their use against legitimate political gatherings, notably the 'Peterloo massacre' of 1819 and Chartist disturbances of the 1840s. The Riot Act had fallen into disuse by the late nineteenth century and was repealed in 1973. The Public Order Act of 1986, in response to the miners' strike, abolished the common law offence of riot. Governments have since been reluctant using more forceful means of putting down protest; water cannon have only been used in Northern Ireland.

We must also remember that riot is not a homogeneous category. Historians are often drawn to the political rather than the criminal disorder. Even the Gordon rioters of June 1780 claimed some element of political agenda in and amongst their looting and arson. The prisoners who died at the gallows declared that they died for their Protestant cause. By contrast, the only protests this week that have expressed political views have been the peaceful meetings and vigils about the death of Mark Duggan, the apparent initial spark to the unrest. The arson, looting and social disorder that followed have expressed no political programme and offer no coherent platform. Rioters have attacked local shops rather than political landmarks. This was unlike the Gordon riots where groups set fire to prominent symbols of the state, such as Newgate prison, and tried but failed to break into the Bank of England. In contrast, the 'London riots' of August 2011 expressed no political point other than mindless disaffection and must therefore be classed as criminal violence rather than legitimate protest.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


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