Violence of Mobs

It is virtually impossible to research 18th or 19th century English history without getting drawn into the topic of ‘the mob’, usually presented as a shapeless, faceless underclass running riot, but they were quite different. They specifically targeted the objects of their outrage, and went to great lengths to prevent harm to human life. Where they attacked property they tended to empty the building and burn the contents in the open to prevent adjoining buildings being damaged. This is from George Rude’s book, The Crowd in History:

“Destruction of property … is a constant feature of the pre-industrial crowd; but not the destruction of human lives, which is more properly associated with the Jacqueries, slave revolts, peasant rebellions, and millenarial outbursts of the past, as it is with the race riots and communal disturbances of more recent times. …the famous “blood-lust” of he crowd is a legend, based on a few carefully selected incidents. … In the great English riots of the 1730s to 1840s, whether urban or rural, there were remarkably few fatal casualties among the rioters’ victims. There were none at all in the Wilkite, Birmingham, Bristol, anti-Irish, “No Popery”, and “Swing” and other rural disturbances; and not even in the armed rising at Newport [Wales] in 1839. Food riots were singularly free from injury to life or limp: no farmer, miller, magistrate, or forestaller appears to have been fatally injured in the riots of 1766. On the other hand, the Porteous riots in Edinburgh (1736), the Luddite riots, and the Rebecca riots each claimed one fatal victim. Murder may have been more frequent in industrial disputes: a sailor was killed by coal heavers at Shadwell in 1768 and a soldier by Spitalfields weavers in 1769. This record contrasts sharply with the toll of life exacted among the rioters by the military and the law courts. 25 Gordon rioters were hanged in 1780, a dozen or more food rioters in 1768, 8 London coal heavers and 2 (or maybe 3) weavers in 1769, 30 or more Luddites in 1812-13, and 9 “Swing” rioters in 1830. the military took a far heavier toll: 5 rioters were shot at Norwich in 1740; 10 were killed and 24 wounded in the West Riding turnpike riots of 1753; over 100 colliers were killed or wounded at Hexham in 1761; 8 rioters were shot dead at Kidderminster, 8 at Warwick, 2 at Frome, and 1 at Stroud in the food riots of 1766; 11 demonstrators (they were hardly rioters) were shot dead at St George’s Field in London in 1768; 285 were killed outright or died of wounds in the Gordon Riots; 110 were killed or wounded at the Bristol [Bridge] riots of 1793; 24 died at Newport in 1839; and 20 years earlier, the Lancashire yeomanry killed 11 and wounded 420 or more in the massacre at “Peterloo”.


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