Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 9 No. 1


The London Mob

Robert Shoemaker
The London Mob
Hambledon, London 2004, pp. 393, £19.99

THIS book is a history of popular violence in eighteenth-century London. It uses court records to show how attitudes towards violence have changed. Some of this ground has been covered by other writers. E.P. Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class began with the late eighteenth-century records of informers and state spies. Peter Linebaugh’s more recent book The London Hanged studied the victims of hangings at Tyburn. Shoemaker even uses the very same Hogarth print that constituted Linebaugh’s frontispiece for the back cover of his book.

Shoemaker follows the relationship between people and justice. He shows that violence tended to decline through the eighteenth century. There were fewer slanders and insults, fewer drunken fights. Justice, which had been a popular duty, was privatised. Companies of detectives were established. The victims of crime became less confident in raising popular crowds against their assailants. The forms of justice were transformed, from the stocks, the gallows, the duel with pistols and the hue and cry, in the direction of the police, the lawyers and the courts. The nature of radical politics also changed. In the early years of the eighteenth century, protest took the form of demonstrations, with flags, ribbons, bonfires, and the burning of despised symbols, such as the homes of despised politicians. By the end of the century, radicals were to be found more often in rooms discussing political ideas. The number of political riots dropped sharply from the 1740s onwards.

The London Mob ends with an account of one moral panic from the 1780s, a man called ‘the Monster’ assaulted more than 50 London women, cutting them with knives or spikes. The press reported every outrage, and at the end of it Renwick Williams was arrested. Williams’ conviction may have been a miscarriage of justice. His witnesses were stopped from addressing the court. The attacks continued. Why was the press so fascinated by the trial? The failure of the crowd to protect the Monster’s victims may have made individuals feel more vulnerable. As violence became less common, so any instances of it seemed more terrible.

In the first decades of merchant capitalism, we might conclude, the seeds of the present system were there. Crime was already an individual rather than a collective problem. The solution was to be found with the courts, which few people trusted. The only way even to approach them was by paying for the help of a privatised police force. This elegant book draws attention to a number of areas, and encourages us to think carefully about the past. Shoemaker’s image of an increasingly peaceful eighteenth century is a challenge to those socialist historians who have seen crime as taking on greater political significance in the absence of popular revolts. Yet the period of The London Mob is rather narrower in some places than its author admits. The book starts really after the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688–89, and ends just before the Jacobin uprisings of the 1790s. It is, in other words, a long quiet between two storms. The riots of the eighteenth century, and most famously the Gordon Riots of 1780, were the product of transition. No longer did the old slogans of the 1640s have the same appeal. In a new society of commerce and trade, the ideology of previous revolts seemed nostalgic. But neither had the slogans of the French revolution emerged, nor were sufficient numbers of people employed in factories to organise around the demands of labour. Not surprisingly, then, the riots of 1780 were an odd mixture of the backward looking and the forward: religious attacks on Catholics combined with a class movement against the rich.

Shoemaker shows how the London ‘mob’ took its name. In 1700, the word signified the whole ‘mobile’ population of London walking the city streets. By 1800, ‘the mob’ meant the poor. But ‘the mob’ was always a word used from outside. Like Burke’s sneering ‘swinish multitude’, this is not how the poor saw themselves. At a moment when it is fashionable to describe the oppressed as ‘the new poors’ or the ‘new multitude’, it is worth remembering just how hard nineteenth-century workers had to fight for words of their own, against labels given by the rich, and for a language that resonated with dignity. Their struggle was also for a different style of politics that revolved around labour, and for movements that went further than those (such as the Gordon Riots) of their own recent past. Maybe that is the real lesson of Shoemaker’s book, the mundane character of history in the decades just before the industrial working class was born.

David Renton

Updated by ETOL: 30.10.2011