A Brief History Of London In Riots

By Danielle Thom Last edited 31 months ago
A Brief History Of London In Riots

Compared to Paris or, say, Moscow, London hasn't seen much in the way of violent revolution. But the city has had its fair share of riots, rebellions and raucous protest. These are just some of the big uprisings that changed the landscape of the city…

The Peasants' Revolt

The Peasants' Revolt of 1381 was a reaction to wage suppression and high taxes. Under the leadership of Wat Tyler, thousands of Kent peasants marched on London, reaching Blackheath on the 12 June. They crossed London Bridge, destroyed Clerkenwell priory and captured the Tower of London. Finally confronting King Richard II at Mile End, the rebels negotiated an end to serfdom, but overplayed their hand. Meeting the king and his bodyguard again at Smithfield the following day, Tyler pushed for more concessions and in the scuffle that broke out, was killed; his head cut off and stuck on a pole to teach the peasants their place.

Now almost forgotten, the Bawdy House Riots (1668) were instigated by London's Protestant Dissenters. Angry that King Charles II was cracking down on prayer meetings while doing nothing about the capital's prostitutes, thousands of young Dissenter apprentices took matters into their own hands and ransacked the brothels in Moorfields, Wapping and Poplar. One wealthy brothel madam, Damaris Page, published an open letter to the king's mistress, Lady Castlemaine; sarcastically asking her to intercede on the prostitutes' behalf.

The Gordon Riots, by John Seymour Lucas

Dissenters were the victims, rather than the instigators, of the Sacheverell Riots in 1710. Londoners were fired up by the sermons of Henry Sacheverell, an Anglican cleric who preached at St Paul's Cathedral against unorthodox religious practices. When Parliament attempted to silence Sacheverell, crowds attacked and demolished Dissenter meeting houses in Lincoln's Inn Fields, Blackfriars and Clerkenwell. Compared to the Gordon Riots, though, this was a picnic. In June 1780, unrest was stirred up by the Protestant Association, an organisation led by Lord George Gordon to oppose civil rights for Catholics. Full-blown rioting broke out after a crowd of 50,000 supporters marched on Westminster to deliver a petition, which lasted for four days. The embassies of Catholic countries were burned down, as was Newgate prison, and the Bank of England was attacked. Irish Catholic immigrants were assaulted; and the Army was called in to restore order, shooting almost 500 people.

By the 19th century, Londoners had clearly had enough of religious rioting, and decided to revolt over the price of theatre tickets instead; which sounds like something that would happen at the Old Vic in 2017. The Old Price Riots of 1809 were a series of disturbances in Covent Garden Theatre, every night for two months, until ticket prices were reduced. The 19th century was, on the whole, much less violent, and most protests in London were peaceful. One of the largest was the Great Chartist Meeting which took place on Kennington Common in 1848. An estimated 150,000 people gathered to demand universal suffrage and fair voting practices. The Reform League Protest, in 1866, was a rowdier gathering with the same motivations. Soldiers were called in to prevent people from breaking into Hyde Park, but the only serious casualty was the park's iron railings.

By the 20th century, the face of London was changing. Just as the riots of the 18th century had been caused by suspicion of religious minorities, modern disturbances were the result of prejudice against racial minorities as the city diversified through migration. The Battle of Cable Street, in 1936, originated as a counter-demonstration against the anti-Semitic British Union of Fascists, led by Oswald Mosley. The anti-fascist crowd, 20,000 strong, was made up of Socialists, Irish migrants, and young Jewish people from the Cable Street area. The demonstration was in part responsible for stemming the popularity of fascism in 1930s Britain.

Throughout the century, London's black community suffered from discrimination, poor housing and high unemployment. The Notting Hill race riots (1958) were the first serious disturbances, sparked by an assault on a white woman who had married a Jamaican man; later, the Brixton Riots (1981) and the Broadwater Farm Riots (1985) were sparked by tensions with local police. Efforts to establish trust through 'community policing' were the result, but it's a conversation that carries on to this day — the 2011 riots were sparked by a police shooting in Tottenham.

One of the last big disturbances in the city before 2011 was the 1990 Poll Tax Riot. Responding to the introduction of a tax which disproportionately affected poorer people, 200,000 people gathered on Kennington Common (again) and marched to Trafalgar Square to protest. The march grew violent as it reached the square, and the crowd was charged on by mounted police. The reaction against the tax helped to oust Margaret Thatcher from power, and it was scrapped in favour of council tax.

London's riots and protests have been the result of the very worst and the very best that this city has to offer: on the one hand, racism, religious intolerance and violence; on the other, political reform and concern for civil rights. The next protest is probably not far off — let's hope it's for the right reasons.

Last Updated 07 June 2017