The London Mob Still Rules



One of my favourite books on London is ‘The London Mob’ by Robert Shoemaker. It chronicles violence and disorder in 18th century England.

Londoners frequently came to blows over personal disputes in a society where men and women were quick to defend their honour. Slanging matches easily turned to fisticuffs and slights on honour were avenged in duels. In this world, where the detection and prosecution of crime was the part of the business of the citizen, punishment, whether by the pillory, whipping at a cart’s tail or hanging at Tyburn, was public and endorsed by crowds. The Mob draws a fascinating portrait of the public life then, and it doesn’t take much to realise that this city is still ready to riot either for serious political reasons or just for fun whenever occasion demands.
Beyond that there remains a kind of organised chaos to the place. Dostoyevsky, on visiting London in 1863, said ‘The population was so vast, so vivid that you almost felt things which up until then you had only imagined. In London you no longer see the people. Instead you see a loss of sensibility, systematic, resigned and encouraged….the streets can hardly accomodate the dense, seething crowd. The mob has not enough room on the pavements and swamps the whole street. All this mass of humanity craves for booty and hurls itself at the first corner with shameless cynicism. Glistening expensive clothes and semi-rags and sharp differences in age – they are all there.’
There’s a general history of popular leisure places falling into disrepute in London – the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens became the haunt of whores and thieves, just as Highbury Barn, the strange Leviathon of North London that once stood just up from the Arsenal, slipped from being a festive barn holding 3,000 diners and half a million lights (and home to ‘La Varsovana’, a dance halfway between a waltz and a polka) to a place of drunken riots. The Highbury Tavern is on a corner of the original site.
From the Thatcher years on, the right to protest or just get generally shit-faced has been eroded by police surveillance and practices like ‘kettling’, which proved disastrous, a balance seems to have been struck once more between natural boisterousness/organised protest and breaking the law, so that on most weekends there is a march or gathering of some kind taking place somewhere in the centre of the capital.
It was inevitable, then, that London would fall for the Hindu Holi celebrations, only to conduct them at a non-religious time that suits itself. Holi events take place each March within Hindu communities around the world, but the idea of throwing paint powder around has moved away from a religious context and into the mainstream. Saturday saw around 15,000 people flock to Battersea Power Station for the Holi One festival, followed by another event at the same venue next weekend. Of course, it’s now a commercial event; with an all-day pass including five bags of paint powder costing £38, it comes with booze and DJs. So watch out if you’re in town at the end of a summer Saturday – there may well be drunks armed with left over bags!

6 comments on “The London Mob Still Rules”

  1. Henry Ricardo says:

    This is not the London I saw last week, but I believe this picture of subdural chaos–just as Bryant and May have taught me about London’s underground rivers.

  2. Janet Wilson says:

    Tacitus prefigures the history of London. A.D. 60- the mother of all riots, Londinium burns, those who cannot, or will not leave, perish. ‘Deep with the first dead lies London’s daughter’ (Dylan Thomas). ‘Loci dulcedo’- what can have been so sweet, so attractive, about the ten year old group of huts by the river? Londinium/London is apart, it is loved, it is burned.

  3. snowy says:

    Even into the 19C riots still continued. The infamous ‘Captain Swing’ caused much consternation in the leafier parts of the land, at the end 200+ were sentenced to hang, many more suffered transportation to Australia [Insert your own cheap gag here, I’m staying out of it].

    [There was no organised police force, that would only begin 9 years later, and would not cover the entire country until 1856.]

    So if faced with a ‘riotous assembly of 12 or more persons’, the ‘Riot Act’ would be read out. And with that legal nicety satisfied, the local gentry/landowners were free to use whatever means came to hand to suppress it.

    Packs of hounds and bayonet wielding troops were common, but there was the chance of sabre charges by cavalry and in one case [if I remember correctly] artillery was summoned.

  4. Helen Martin says:

    EJ Horsman wrote a book “Captain Swing” in 1969 which includes tables of “Incidents by County” and a letter which I quote: Sir, This is to acquaint you that if your thrashing Machines are not destroyed by you directly we shall commence our labours. signed on behalf of the whole. Swing
    There were quite a few Machines broken.
    Welcome, Janet Wilson. A learned person like yourself is an asset to this discussion.

  5. Helen Martin says:

    Rats! couldn’t correct E.J. Hobsbawm in above. It’s what happens when you have the wrong glasses on.

  6. Janet Wilson says:

    Ha ha- curse predictive text- was just about to look up E. Horsman! Thanks Helen Martin- dunno bout learned, but seems to me age old battle being played out online- women perceived as opinionated get the scold’s bridle and the ducking stool. So this seems a safe space, away from the bear pit of ‘twat her’. Wonder how many men under female pseudonyms out there? All this is just to provoke comment and point out that the global village is as risky as 18thc. London! Anyone for Rachel riots?

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