Hello, friends. I’ve been thinking about England, recently, and specifically about the riots in London and Manchester – cities where I’ve lived and where I have family and friends. Today I want briefly to mention an angle that hasn’t been explored much in the media, and which always struck me when I lived in English cities: the constant shadow of violence that exists in parts of each city.
When I lived in the UK, I was sometimes acutely aware that a fight could break out at any moment. Not everywhere and always, of course, but at certain times of day, in particular parts of the city, in the leadup to or aftermath of some events. At first, I wondered if I was paranoid, or merely a timid Canadian who was reading too much into a situation. But my British spouse confirmed my misgivings. He has a vivid childhood memory of sitting on a train while football hooligans paraded up and down the carriages, chanting and shouting and drinking. He and his family felt tense and helpless, just waiting for something to kick off. It didn’t – that day. But he’s never forgotten that journey.
Then I read Peter Ackroyd’s London: The Biography, which asserts that “London has always possessed a reputation for violence; it stretches back as far as the written records.” Ackroyd mentions attacks on foreigners, assaults on tax-collectors, “endemic” violence amongst the populace, casual scraps between children in the street (egged on by parents), professional female sword combat, and eighteenth-century mobs bent on destruction. And he concludes with a description of the Gordon Riots, a political demonstration that swelled into a weeks-long rampage:
Workmen, putting down their tools, apprentices, rising from their benches, boys running errands, all joined different bands of rioters. They believed that, because they were so many, they could not be caught. Many of the participants were in turn motivated “by poverty, by ignorance, by the love of mischief, and the hope of plunder”… once one breach had been made in the secruity and safety of the city, others would follow. The city enjoyed a very fragile equilibrium, and could be rendered unsteady in a moment.
The story ends with a mob of “at least a hundred thousand poor, miserable, ragged rabble, from twelve to sixty years of age… besides half as many women and children” looting and setting thirty-six major fires that killed hundreds. It took the military to restore order. The year? 1780.
The Mob destroying & Setting Fire to the Kings Bench Prison & House of Correction in St Georges Fields, © The British Library
I don’t have a tidy conclusion or enriching lesson to draw from all this. Like nearly everyone, I find it thoroughly disheartening. But at the same time, the riots seen in historical context become much less startling overall, don’t you think?