London Burning

A London Summer evening. The city ablaze. Looting. Small groups of people turning out furniture onto the streets and lighting bonfires. Groups disperse, only to re-appear later as if working their way through a list. Spectators milling about. The authorities seemingly powerless to act.

Croydon, London. August 2011. Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

I’m not the first to blog about the Gordon Riots this year. All but forgotten for over two centuries, the Riots have reappeared in cyberspace as commentators seek precedents for the street violence in England’s cities in August this year. Comparisons have been drawn between the imagery of the two events, and the scale of the violence. The Gordon Riots are a little known episode in London’s history, generally relegated to the status of ‘passing reference’ in history texts. But perhaps we need to delve deeper to see whether the Gordon Riots really do illuminate the events of August.

The Gordon Riots began on 2 June 1780 after Lord George Gordon led some 60,000 Protestant Association members to Parliament, determined to lay an anti-Catholic petition before the House of Commons. Parliament had passed the Catholic Relief Act in 1778, allowing Catholics to worship freely and to educate their children in Catholic schools, but most importantly, to enlist in the British Army. Remember that Britain was engaged in war in America, and was facing down France which had recently allied with the revolutionaries. The Protestant Association saw Catholics as subversive and treacherous.

The Commons refused to consider the petition and the crowd erupted, commencing an almost-uninterrupted week-long spree of violence and property damage. The chapel of a foreign embassy was first, followed by Catholic homes, chapels and businesses across London, as well as the homes of judges, parliamentarians and clergy seen as sympathetic to the Catholic cause.

Francis Wheatley, 'The Riot in Broad Street'

Towards the end of the week, the crowds turned their attention to other – non-Catholic – targets, including Newgate Prison, toll-houses on bridges, crimping houses holding press-ganged sailors, and debtors’ prisons. By the time the crowds converged on the Woolwich Arsenal and the Bank of England, the King had stepped in and ordered the military to fire. Hundreds of rioters died in the streets, their bodies thrown into the Thames.

As the violence escalated in London earlier this year, photographs and tweets were beamed around the world instantaneously:  In contrast, our understanding of the Gordon Riots comes largely from literary sources – most fluently in the works of celebrated writers including Edmund Burke, Fanny Burney, Samuel Johnson, Ignatius Sancho and Horace Walpole. As eyewitnesses they recorded what was going on outside their front doors. They conveyed a palpable sense of fear – of the rioters, of a return to religious warfare, of martial law in England. As Ian Haywood put it, the Riots marked the “spectre of popular insurrection which haunted bourgeois culture well into the nineteenth century”: Bloody Romanticism: Spectacular Violence and the Politics of Representation, 1776-1832 (2006).  When the Riots were brutally suppressed at the hand of the King – had England avoided its own revolution? Many who witnessed the events thought so.

The outcome of the Gordon Riots was what we would today call a crackdown – on intellectual activity and perceived threats to the Crown. Little was committed to writing about the Riots after the event – did life simply return to normal, or did people leave their true thoughts unsaid?

Do the Gordon Riots really have anything in common with August 2011?  In terms of imagery – yes. The photos of 2011 echo the artwork of 1780: There are parallels too in the issues England’s policy-makers were addressing when the tumults broke out this year and in June 1780. As Katrina Navickas has pointed out, policing and punishment were on the agenda, as were population growth and immigration:

Historians have tried to pinpoint the cause of the Gordon Riots – on first inspection they were simply an anti-Catholic event, lead by an ultra-Protestant. But Lord Gordon faded into the background during the course of the week and the Riots assumed a distinctly anti-authoritarian character. Perhaps there was no single cause. The Riots certainly cannot be dismissed as “wanton acts of criminality” as Tim Stanley did in his August blog:  Granted, the works of the great writers who saw the Riots were heavy with metaphors of crime and insanity, but with the benefit of hindsight we can see that the Riots were far more complex than that. A modern-day dismissal of August’s tumults as simply wanton acts of criminality would overlook the deeper issues no doubt at play.

The Gordon Riots strongly influenced the way many in England reacted to the French Revolution – England had escaped the spectre of revolution. Will August 2011 also be seen as a lucky escape, or does it portend worse to come?


5 comments on “London Burning

  1. amandalee3 says:

    Your blog about the Gordon Riots is really interesting. Just wondering if you were trying to actually link it concretely to the Riots in August? I don’t know very much about this subject, but it seems like a bit of a stretch to say that the cause and intents behind the Gordon Riots simmered for over 200 years and erupted again. In your actual major project were you trying to link the two riots together or comparing the general causes of riots and how/if they’ve changed?

  2. Jennifer McLaren says:

    Thanks for your feedback Amanda. No, there’s no suggestion on my part, or by other commentators, that August’s unrest was anti-Catholic in nature or was a continuation of the 1780 Riots. My research project was on the Gordon Riots and the impact they had. I’ve been interested in the fact that when I started my research, the Gordon Riots appeared mostly only in academic work, but after August, newspaper journalists and bloggers started to mention them. I am aiming in my blog to contribute to that discussion, and to provide more background on the Gordon Riots. I’ll update my blog to make this a bit clearer.

  3. Ron Chambers 40849783 says:

    Hi Jennifer,

    I enjoyed reading your blog – you really managed to bring old and new history into to focus in an accessible way. One of my historic heroes – Edmund Burke – was a good friend of Lord George Gordon but Burke came to bitterly oppose Gordon’s extremism and the riots. The London riots in 2011 and the contemporary civil disobedience movements is a topic I hope to pursue and your blog has given me plenty to think about.


    Ron Chambers

    • Jennifer McLaren says:

      Thanks Ron. Yes, given what happened in 1780 and Burke’s thinly veiled references to Gordon in his Reflections on the French Revolution, I was amazed to learn that Burke had been a mentor of sorts to Gordon early in Gordon’s parliamentary career. I spent a lot of time reading Burke during my research and could have written a thesis just on his work during the Riots!
      I also wonder whether in the future any ‘dots will be joined’ between what happened in August and the Occupy movements – they are so different but at their heart they seem to share the same anger against greed.

  4. Kate says:

    Fabulous blog, Jennifer! This is great public history. Kate

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