Before the Bobbies: The Caroline Riots of 1821

Stanley H. Palmer describes how, in an era before “the Peelers,” the army and a radical mob clashed in the streets of London on the occasion of Queen Caroline’s funeral.

Crowds were a social institution in Hanoverian London. Before assembled multitudes royalty proceeded to and from the openings and closings of Parliament. Tens, even hundreds of thousands of persons gaped at public hangings at Tyburn until 1783, and later outside Newgate Prison. Indeed, every day the streets of the metropolis were thronged with people of all classes and conditions.

Before the advent of a modern police force in 1829, the crowds on a number of occasions became uncontrollable. In the 1730s mobs stormed through the streets protesting against the Gin Act. In the 1760s, the era of John Wilkes, the London mob demonstrated so wildly for ‘Wilkes and Liberty’ that a magistrate had to order British soldiers to fire, killing six persons.

For almost a week in June 1780, the crowds were in complete control, as buildings were looted and burned; and 850 lives were lost before order was restored. The Corn Riots of 1795 and 1801, the Burdett Riots of 1810, and disorders during the Regency (1811-20) further demonstrated the lack of civil power in times of emergency.

This inadequacy was the result of the stunted development of police in England. Memories of Cromwell’s military police in the 1650s and fears for the contemporary French model of police led eighteenth-century Englishmen to value their locally controlled system of constables and watchmen. As in the rest of England, the policing of London was extremely decentralised. The 152 parishes in the metropolis had their own constables and night watch, and in a single parish there were often further micro-cosmic units.

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