“How did the American Revolution affect Britain?” an American reader asked me a good long time ago. I didn’t have a clue, so I plugged some version of the question into Google and Lord G.’s answer seemed to imply that no one in Britain much noticed it. Or, since that’s just the slightest exaggeration, that life went on pretty much as it had before.
But getting a decent answer is all about knowing what to ask, so let’s talk about the Gordon Riots of 1780.
What was happening around that time? Britain was losing the war in its thirteen colonies. Gentlemen wore wigs when they dressed formally and powdered their hair when they were being informal. Was there a connection? Don’t jump to conclusions. George Washington may not have worn a wig (the Smithsonian magazine says he didn’t), but he powdered his hair and floofed it out on the sides so it looked wiglike. It was time consuming, but for formal battles it was important to get the look right.
I mention the wigs as a reminder that the upper classes had both time and money that they could afford to piss out the window. London was a city of what Professor Jerry White calls “almost unimaginable inequality. And inequality was underpinned by a deeply-loathed system of ‘justice’, its key component the London prison system”–which among other things imprisoned people for debt. (That link will, if life and the internet are kind, lead you to a pdf of an article on the riots. It’s five pages long and it’s good, but you’ll have to download it.)
The cost of living had gone up and (you’ve heard this about other time periods, right?) wages hadn’t. Funny how that works.
You can think of inequality and a war that was going badly (there’s the American Revolution again) as your standard-issue liquid fuel. The match that ignited it was an act allowing Catholics to join the army and buy land if they took an oath of allegiance. It didn’t go as far as giving them freedom of religion, but this was pretty radical stuff for its time and place.
The act had come into force in England and Ireland in 1778 without setting off any sparks, but when it was introduced in Scotland in 1779 it was met with anti-Catholic rioting that was so serious that Catholics themselves asked the government to withdraw the bill, which it did.
Then London’s Protestants looked at their cold fireplace and thought that setting fire to the chimney might just be a good idea. Because there’s nothing like a bit of religious, ethnic, or national intolerance to take your mind off your problems.
Enter Lord George Gordon. He was twenty-nine, an MP, the third son of a duke, and generally considered a religious nut. “His speeches were wild and unbalanced,” according to Prof. White. His hair was also wild and unbalanced. Or, as White has it, long and lank. Either way, he managed to look like one of the Puritans from a century before his time.
The Catholic Relief Act, Gordon said in an audience with George III, was “for the diabolical purpose of arming the Papists against the Protestant colonies in America.”
If you strip away the insults and the ranting, that wasn’t an entirely unbalanced belief. The war needed soldiers, and Catholics looked as good in a bright red coat as well as anyone else did.
A quick interruption while I talk about sources. The George Gordon quote comes from a book, The English Rebel: One Thousand Years of Trouble-making from the Normans to the Nineties, by David Horspool. It’s informative and well written and everyone should rush out and buy six copies or go to the library and borrow one. Among other things, it’s left me thinking about how we define rebellion. And a mob. It’s a rich source of blog fodder. But it’s not online, so no link.
And now back to our regularly scheduled programming. If you’d stop interrupting, we could get to the point faster.
In a well-organized campaign, the Protestant Association had been handing Parliament petitions against the Catholic Relief Act ever since it passed, and in 1780 some 50,000 to 60,000 people gathered to hand in a petition with 44,000 signatures. They marched from St. George’s Fields into London, flying flags and singing hymns. Outside Parliament, in the usual spirit of hymn-singing, they attacked members of the House of Lords, who were just rolling up in their carriages.
The Commons were already in session and the mob (the word didn’t carry the same overtones it does today; it meant an excitable crowd–and this one does sound like it was excitable) swirled into the lobby, where Gordon excited them a bit more, reminding them that the Scots hadn’t made progress against the act until they “pulled down the mass-houses.”
MPs expected the mob to break into the Commons chamber at any moment and White says several were ready to draw their swords and one (who happened to be Gordon’s uncle) announced that he’d put his sword through Gordon if anyone broke through the door.
I know. Most of us have at least one relative we feel that way about.
What were the MPs doing with swords when a statute from 1313 bans anyone coming armed (or in armor) to Parliament? No idea. Sorry. I’d love to know.
As it turned out, no one broke in and no one ran Gordon through, although it wasn’t for lack of wanting to, I’m sure. But oddly enough, no one stepped in to stop Gordon running out to make sure the mob maintained its level of excitement.
Parliament voted not to receive the petition, with only nine members wanting to accept it.
In the middle of this mayhem, the Duke of Richmond introduced a motion to extend the vote to all men. It was the height of lousy timing. What, give the vote to “the people” when “the people” were just outside, punching lords as they arrived in their carriages?
The secretary of state argued against universal male suffrage on the grounds that the British constitution was “the wisest that had ever been created.” And no one could prove it wasn’t, since it’s (oh, so wisely) never been written down. It would be like arguing that the Invisible Man wasn’t devastatingly handsome.
The motion lost.
That evening, the mob attacked several Catholic chapels, including private ones belonging to Catholic ambassadors. Then things settled down for a while. And then they unsettled. Catholic churches, schools, and homes were attacked. Soldiers were called out but didn’t have clear orders about what to do. Politicians who took unpopular positions had already been attacked, so no one wanted to give the order to shoot.
The rioting continued. The poet George Crabbe (no, I never heard of him either, but the opera Peter Grimes is based on his work, so somebody has) wrote, “I met a resolute band of vile-looking fellows, ragged, dirty, and insolent, armed with clubs, going to join their companions. I since learned that there were eight or ten of these bodies in different parts of the City.”
By now, the nature of the mob had changed–it was poorer and more desperate–and so had its targets. They were attacking the justice system, burning criminal records, freeing prisoners, and destroying prisons.
Again, George Crabbe, talking to a tavern waiter: “I asked him what could induce him to do all this? He said the cause. I said, do you mean a religious cause? He said no; for he was of no religion. He said, there should not be a prison standing on the morrow in London.”
White describes the next couple of nights as civil war.
When the soldiers finally received orders to shoot, the first ones who did were commanded by Gordon’s brother-in-law.
We can, I think, reasonably assume that the family’s Christmas dinners were strained.
The next day, gangs started knocking on doors, demanding money for “the true religion.” Buildings that had already been attacked were systematically looted. The Bank of England and toll houses on Blackfriars Bridge were attacked. A distillery owned by a Catholic was set alight and either the vats of alcohol caught fire or gin was pumped on the fire accidentally, instead of water. The second version sounds unlikely but I prefer it.
It took two days, 210 shot dead, 75 wounded (and, according to one source, later dying in the hospital), and an uncounted number dying or recovering at home before the riots were over. Soldiers, magistrates, and peace officers made their way through poor neighborhoods, arresting people, including criminals, wage earners (journeymen, apprentices, domestic and public house servants) street sellers, assorted other men working marginal jobs, and a few women whose jobs weren’t recorded, although it was recorded that one of them was black.
Ten times more property had been destroyed than was destroyed in Paris during the French Revolution, and far more prisoners were freed than were freed from the Bastille (1,500 compared to 7). But in the end the French had a revolution and Britain had riots.
Horspool points out that the attacks focused on prosperous Catholic institutions, which he takes to mean that it was “the success of the hated group as opposed to their existence that was resented.” He also points out that Catholics had less to fear from the rioters than MPs did, although I doubt they’d have agreed with him.
And Lord Gordon?
He was indicted for treason but acquitted on the grounds that he hadn’t intended any treason. It helped that he hadn’t taken any direct part in the riots. According to the Jewish Magazine, which is more sympathetic to Gordon than either Horspool or White, he came out of the trial a more religious man. He was drawn to the Quakers for their pacifism and work to help the poor and to the Jewish community (only recently returned to England after some 400 years of exile) for their efforts to care for the poor. The story is that he was walking through a Jewish neighborhood in Ipswich and saw a sign saying, “All who are hungry enter and eat.” He went in and struck up a lifelong friendship with the householder, Isaac Titterman.
In 1787, Gordon was jailed for libeling Marie Antoinette, the French ambassador, and the English justice system.
Then, in case you think anything’s simple, this most Protestant of anti-Catholic Protestants converted to Judaism–according to one source when he was in prison and according to another, more detailed one, before. Having converted, he became strictly observant, to the point of refusing to talk with Jewish men who shaved their beards. In court, he refused to remove his kippa. Since the court saw it as a hat, making it a sign of disrespect rather than a religious observance to keep it on, it was pulled off his head and he tied a nightcap on his head with a handkerchief.
What he was doing with a nightcap in court is beyond me. I’ve never heard that there’s anything in the many, many (many, many, many) Jewish laws and traditions that involves nightcaps and court appearances. But then, I’m no expert. Never mind. He covered his head. Both sides, presumably, were unhappy with the outcome, although maybe not equally unhappy.
He served out his sentence but couldn’t be freed unless two people guaranteed (apparently with money) his good behavior. But the people who appeared for him were Polish Jews, who the court refused to recognize. Whether that was because they were Jewish or Polish is anyone’s guess, but my money’s on Jewish. His brothers and sister offered to cover his bail but he turned down their offer.
He was returned to prison and died of prison fever–typhoid–at forty-two.
Horspool mentions speculation that his conversion came out of a belief that if the Jews returned to Israel it would bring the second coming of Christ, but his letters from this period, along with his willingness to have religious alterations made to a body part that men are generally pretty sensitive about, make his conversion sound less complicated and more genuine than that.
Oh: The British lost the war.