Reading the Riot Act 2: Luddites and Micks

Last year, I wrote a post about the protest-related origins of the phrase ‘reading the riot act,’ amongst others, and since then I have been on the lookout for other phrases which also have their origins in periods of strife. What I’ve found are two terms to describe people. If you have ever called someone, or been called by someone, a ‘Luddite’ or a ‘Mick’ (to describe an Irish person, not someone who’s name is Michael), then you have been referring to Britain’s long history of dissent.

An engraving of Luddites destroying a weaving machine (Source: Wikipedia).

An engraving of Luddites destroying a weaving machine (Source: Wikipedia).

A Luddite is a term frequently used to refer to someone who disapproves of new technologies. For most people, it is an insult, but others embrace the name with pride. If the origins of the term were more widely known, perhaps more people would be proud of the name. The Luddites was the collective name given to English textile workers who protested against the mechanization of their trade between 1811 and 1816. The new technologies of the Industrial Revolution meant that textiles could be mass-produced by unskilled, low-wage workers, forcing skilled artisans out of work.

The (probably) fictional leader of this movement was called General, or King, Ludd, and reportedly lived in Sherwood Forest, the home of another mythical champion of the people, Robin Hood. The name may come from Ned Ludd, who allegedly smashed two stocking frames in 1779.  The Luddite protests began in Nottinghamshire and quickly spread through the midlands and North of England. The demonstrators sent threatening letters to employers and broke into factories to destroy new machines. In 1812, machine breaking became punishable by death, and 17 men were executed the following year. Obviously the Luddites were unsuccessful at halting the march of the Industrial Revolution, but they made such an impression that their name is still used, 200 years later.

A comic mocking modern-day Luddites (Source: htmlgiant).

A comic mocking modern-day Luddites (Source: htmlgiant).

‘Mick’ is a derogatory word to describe an Irish person. There are several explanations for the origin of the term, but my favourite comes from London’s contentious past. Michael Barrett has the dubious honour of being the last person to be publicly hanged in England. In May 1868 he was executed for his role in the Clerkenwell Outrage on the 13th of December 1867. 12 people were killed in a bombing outside the Middlesex House of Detention in Clerkenwell, shocking Londoners and turning them against the cause of Irish nationalism. Michael Barrett’s name became synonymous with all Irish people.

The bomb was a failed jailbreak that went disastrously wrong. Prominent Fenians Richard O’Sullivan Burke and Joseph Casey were being held in the Clerkenwell prison. A barrel of gunpowder was placed against the wall of the prison’s exercise yard and set off with a firework, with the aim of blowing a hole in the wall so Burke and Casey could escape. Far too much gunpowder was used and the blast damaged a row of tenement houses on the other side of the road. 12 people were killed and up to 120 were injured. The prison authorities knew something was being planned, so the prisoners were locked in their cells instead of exercising at the time of the bombing, and Burke and Casey failed to escape. Although Michael Barrett was charged along with several others, he was the only one who was actually convicted of the bombing.

Engravings of the Clerkenwell bombing from the 'Illustrated Police News'.

Engravings of the Clerkenwell bombing from the ‘Illustrated Police News’.

The English language has many phrases which, when you actually stop to think about them, appear to be absolute nonsense. But when you start to trace it back, you often find a great story that explains it, and offers a tiny window onto Britain’s chequered past.

Sources and Further Reading

Anon. “Luddite.” Wikipedia. Last modified 7th June 2015, accessed 12th June 2015.

Anon. “Michael Barrett (Fenian).” Wikipedia. Last modified 17th December 2014, accessed 23rd June 2015.

Anon. “Mick.” No date, accessed 12th June 2015.

Webb, Simon. Dynamite, Treason and Plot: Terrorism in Victorian and Edwardian London. Stroud: The History Press, 2012.

Reading the Riot Act: Protest in Everyday Language

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A Riot Act tea towel (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

How often were you ‘read the riot act’ as a child? When I started researching historical protest in London two years ago, I learnt the origins of this phrase. The Riot Act was passed in 1714, and gave local authorities the power to declare a gathering of twelve or more people illegal, which meant the group would either have to disperse or face arrest. The Act was read to the offending group, after which they had one hour to disperse peacefully. Although the act was often interpreted incorrectly and, as a result, complicated the  policing of public order rather than simplifying it, it was only repealed relatively recently, in 1967. So that is why you are ‘read the riot act’ when you are causing trouble, it basically means stop or face the consequences.

I recently discovered that the Riot Act is not the only element of the history of protest that has made it into everyday language. When recently reading a book about the numerous revolts and revolutions in Europe during the tumultuous year of 1848 (Rapport, 2008), I learnt that the Italians have a phrase which basically means ‘a right royal mess’: ‘un vero quarantotto’, or, in English, ‘a real 48.’ The events of that year stuck in the minds of Italians to the extent that it became synonymous with any situation where chaos reigned.

These two examples demonstrate just how important protest is to society and culture. Protests and contentious politics can be huge events, standing out in the collective memory as a time of dramatic upheaval, great achievements, or perhaps abject fear for the future. It shouldn’t really be surprising that they can work their way into everyday language in this manner.

Delighted with my discovery of ‘a real 48’, I have been racking my brains for any similar phrases in everyday language that come from a protest of contentious politics. I have yet to think of any, but perhaps the collective wisdom of my readership could help me out? Please comment on this post if you know any, in English or otherwise!


Rapport, Mike. 1848: Year of Revolution. London: Abacus, 2008.