July Meeting 2017

London – A City in Turmoil

Nick Dobson

President, David Richardson, introduced guest speaker, Nick Dobson, who began by reminding members  of some of the recurring outbreaks of disorder and riot which  have shaken London over the past 1000 years.

He thought that in the main racial or economic issues have been the prime causes although some others include riots between opposing merchant guilds, religious groups, rival sets of football supporters or on specific local social issues.

He mentioned the Jewish communities which have frequently been the target of violence.       In particular one of London’s earliest recorded riots was the Massacre of the Jews at the coronation of King Richard 1 who was crowned in Westminster Abbey on 3rd September 1189.      All Jews and women were barred from the investiture but some Jewish leaders arrived to present gifts.      According to chronicler Ralph of Diceto the Jews were stripped and flogged and then flung out of court.      When the word spread the people of London, many of whom were heavily in debt to the Jewish moneylenders, attacked the Jewish population burning down many homes, seizing their bonds back  and even forcibly baptising several Jews.      Some managed to escape the terror and some of the perpetrators were punished.       Richard ordered the execution of those responsible for the most outrageous murders and distributed a royal writ demanding that the Jews be left unmolested, although this was only loosely enforced.

‘Evil May Day’ was a more general rising against foreigners living in London which took place early in the reign of Henry VIII.        This was mainly due to economic resentment towards foreigners especially the powerful and wealthy merchants in the Guilds and the Italian  bankers of Lombard Street.   

  It was influenced  by an inflammatory xenophobic speech made on Easter Tuesday in 1517 by a Dr Bell at St Paul’s Cross.       This was followed by sporadic attacks on foreigners and,  fearful of wider trouble the authorities,  announced a curfew from 9pm on 30th April.       However, a local alderman traveling through Cheapside on his way home saw a group of apprentices gathering.       Stopping to make an arrest he was caught up in an argument with one of them and within a short space of time about 1000 young men had congregated.     They freed several prisoners who had been locked up for attacking foreigners and proceeded to St Martin Le Grand, north of St Paul’s Cathedral,  where numerous foreigners lived where they were met by Thomas More, the Under-Sheriff of London.        Despite his attempts,  anger among the two factions ran high and in the ensuing confrontation  over three hundred people were arrested.       Most were pardoned but thirteen of the rioters were convicted of treason and executed.         

During the riot Sir Thomas Cholmeley, the Lieutenant of the Tower of London ordered the firing of some of the Tower’s artillery and by the 5th May there were over five thousand troops in London.        All ended well when the prisoners had an audience with King Henry in Westminster Hall and the nobles, as well as his wife Catherine of Aragon,  appealed to him to spare the lives of the rebels.

Racial riots over the last 60 years are also documented as with the Brixton Rising in 1981.  This was a confrontation between the Metropolitan Police and protesters in Lambeth between 10th and 12th April.      The main confrontation dubbed “Bloody Saturday” on the 11th resulted in almost 280 injuries to police and 45 injuries to members of the public.        Over a hundred vehicles were burned and almost 150 buildings were damaged.       Reports suggest that up to 5,000 people were involved and there were 82 arrests.    

General factors affecting this riot were the country wide financial recession combined with  the concerns af the local Afro-Caribbean community which was suffering high unemployment, poor housing and a high crime rate.    The trigger appears to have been a fire during a house party in which a number of black youths died which at the time was suspected as being a racially motivated arson but which was subsequently shown to have been caused accidentally and centred around an armchair inside the house.    

 Co-incidentally the police, in response to Brixton’s high crime figures, began Operation Swamp in which 943 people were stopped and searched when it was believed they were acting suspiciously.       Tensions came to a head when a stabbed black youth Michael Bailey was transferred to a police car to speed his way to hospital.       This was thought to be an arrest and full scale rioting ensued  with over 2000 police being sent to Railton Road.     

200 years earlier scenes of street anarchy on a much greater scale took place during the anti–Catholic Gordon Riots of 1780.      The Papists Act of 1778 aimed to eliminate some of the penalties and disabilities placed on Roman Catholics by the Property Acts of 1698.          An initial peaceful protest led to highly destructive widespread rioting and looting and in 1780 a huge crowd estimated at 40,000 to 60,000 strong assembled and marched to the Houses of Parliament.       Many carried flags and banners proclaiming “No Popery”.       The leader, Lord George Gordon, entered the Commons and presented the petition.        The Commons were unprepared and eventually a detachment of soldiers were summoned to disperse the crowd.     

 The petition was overwhelmingly dismissed by a vote of 192 to 6.     However, that same night a crowd attacked the Sardinian Embassy Chapel in Lincoln’s Inn Fields and the chapel of the Bavarian Embassy in Warwick Street, Soho, was destroyed further random violence was caused by crowds in streets known to house rich Catholics.         Rioting occurred in the area of Moorfields,   Newgate Prison was largely destroyed and Catholic churches and homes and chapels on the grounds of several embassies as well as the bank of England, Fleet Prison and the house of the Lord Chief Justice were attacked.     The army was called and 285 people were shot dead and about 450 rioters were arrested.       Sixty years later Charles Dickens dramatized the story of the Gordon Riots in his historical novel Barnaby Rudge.  

Clashes between opposing sets of footballers were so frequent in the 1970’s that this type of unrest was dubbed the “English Disease”.       Even so football hooliganism can be traced back to the 14th Century.        In 1314 Edward II banned football, which at that time involved rival villages kicking a pig’s bladder across the local heath, because he believed it might lead to social unrest or even treason.       In more recent times football authorities and teams have worked hard to eliminate the hooligan element but incidents still occur for example at Millwall F.C. and in and around West Ham United’s ground in Upton Park.

Sports inspired riots in London date back to the early 13th century.      There was the 1221 riot over a wrestling match between the citizens of London and those of Westminster which resulted in several serious injuries the ring leaders being either hanged or mutilated as a punishment.       There was also the very carefully planned and premeditated riot of 1268 between the Company of Goldsmiths and the Merchant Taylors in which 500 armed men joined combat many of whom were injured and several killed.      Again the ringleaders were found guilty, condemned and killed.

Socio–economic factors were also responsible for the Peasants’ Revolt, also known as Wat Tyler’s Rebellion, which broke out in the summer and autumn of 1381.       This was a popular uprising by the rural poor and peasants of Kent and Essex against their current status in feudal England.      The immediate cause was the imposition of yet another Poll Tax by the Crown following a short and unpopular war against the French.       The rural economy had been devastated by the Black Death and rebels, led by Wat Tyler, marched to London to protest.       On their way both the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was also Chancellor, and the Treasurer of England were murdered.     Following an intervention by the young King Richard II the ‘rebellion’ collapsed.     How much support the Peasant’s Revolt received from the people of London  is questionable and Wat Tyler is reported as having been killed ‘by the sword of the Lord Mayor’.

Finally Nick came up to date by describing the “England Riots” which despite the many background factors, including high unemployment,  the growing gang culture and criminal opportunism, were triggered by racial tensions and particularly the death of Mark Duggan who was shot dead by police in Tottenham, London on 4th August 2011.         Rioting quickly spread to other parts of London and to other towns and cities across the land.



Nick, when summarizing the causes of such deep unrest,  expressed the view that  riots were rarely forms of mindless violence but that they were expressions of genuine grievance held by people whose previous attempts to be heard had fallen on deaf ears.       He thought the public displays of dissatisfaction were not driven by disaffected angry rabble rousers but that the large majority of those involved came from all sections of the population including highly skilled workers and even some professionals.       The causes of their unrest were in many cases imposed on them by politicians or by management.      The current ease of communication and the use of social media make the organisation of such protests much easier and more immediate.

When thanking the speaker John Turner congratulated Nick on having given a first class delivery based on many facts and which had been well received.


Back to home