The London Mob
Patrick Dillon delves into a new account of street life in 18th-century London.
The London Mob: Violence and Disorder in Eighteenth Century England
Hambledon and London 288 pp £19.95 ISBN I 85285 373 5
Why do we love the eighteenth-century mob? Perhaps because, foul-mouthed, violent and emotional, we increasingly resemble it. Perhaps because political tales of aristocrats in wigs left out too much. There had to be another eighteenth-century story, and the journeymen, tarts, pickpockets and drunks who rampage through Hogarth’s prints provided it.
And so the past twenty years has seen a deluge of books about crime, punishment, riot, gin and prostitution. Along the way, the crudities of pioneering Marxist studies have given way to more complex points of view. The mobile vulgus was not a single animal; it was disparate and socially mixed. Different crowds on different occasions espoused different causes. But some of the flavour of those early studies has often lingered on in a tendency to romanticize drunken plebeians, highlight class struggle, and generalize from lives in stress. That Robert Shoemaker has avoided these pitfalls is partly because his book isn’t really about the London Mob at all (a title which hardly stretches to ‘elite’ duelling, a topic he includes), nor yet about his subtitle, Violence and Disorder (although there is plenty of both in the book, and very entertaining it is too).
Shoemaker’s angle of approach is rather different. This is a book about conflict, and conflict is analysed here in all its eighteenth-century forms: rows between fishwives and duels between aristocrats, neighbour disputes and thief chases, street brawls and boxing matches, insults delivered by mouth, fist, rapier, writ or ballad, by men, women, guttersnipes and earls, by plaintiffs in the law courts and Gordon rioters in a burning city. Through conflict, in all its variety, he traces the shifting attitudes of the century.
This century in which conflict was never in short supply. Perhaps the most alien aspect of eighteenth- century life is its lack of privacy. Londoners lived, made their reputations, emoted, quarrelled and (occasionally) died in the public realm. Their business was everyone’s business. Londoners listened to arguments and took sides. They careered after pickpockets (unless they were pickpockets themselves, in which case they were as likely to trip up the pursuer), they joined political mobs, pulled down the houses of below-rate labourers, slashed the calico skirts which depressed the silk trade. Litigious Londoners ensnared each other in the legal system. A few took to mindless violence; the rest noisily panicked.
Shoemaker, whose work on the Old Bailey Proceedings Online has armed him with enough tales of conflict to fill several books, generally allows his case studies to speak for themselves, introducing us to Frances Brockett and Jane Seyrie quarrelling about asparagus, to John Stubbs outing a gay enemy. He is sensibly cautious in drawing wide conclusions from a mass of disparate material. That there was a shift in public behaviour through the century is clear. Pinning down its date, its nature and causes is much harder.
Several familiar over-simplifications are firmly set aside: that the shift was caused simply by commercialization, by religious enthusiasm, by the emergence of the middle class, the trickle-down of elite politeness or the Bow Street Runners. Shoemaker prefers to characterise the change more generally, as a process of physical and moral internalization. Londoners moved indoors. They moved from street to house, from fear of shame in the eyes of society to private guilt. Increasingly, arguments took place inside houses, not in the open street. Increasingly, murder became a family affair rather than a matter of honour, and murderers met their end not in the public theatre of Tyburn but at the prison gates. ‘What happened on the streets had lost its significance,’ Shoemaker concludes. ‘Shame works differently in the modern city.’
So does violence, which became seen as dangerous in itself, rather than merely dangerous in the wrong hands. Street brawlers were discouraged rather than egged on. By the end of the century, the deadly sword fight between drunken aristocrats had been replaced by the ritualised pistol duel from which protaganists were likely to escape with bodies as well as reputations intact. The Gordon Riots of 1780 sobered rioters and city authorities alike. Across the whole field of conflict, London became a more orderly, a more anonymous place.
Or so, at least, it saw itself. ‘Violence and disorder’ are themselves, of course, immeasurable. Contemporary commentators thought their streets riddled with vice. But the tendency of neighbourhoods to rise up in indignation against transgressors suggests rather a prudish town. Or perhaps a town in the grip of a more general conflict between traditional moral aspirations and the chaotic novelties which were transforming it.
Patrick Dillon is the author of The Much-Lamented Death of Madam Geneva: The Eighteenth Century Gin Craze (Review, 2002).
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