On This Day: The Old Price Riots, 18th September 1809

In my On This Day posts, I have covered protests about a wide range of issues, from the right to vote, through police brutality, to anti-fascism. I have never written a post about a riot over the cost of theatre tickets…until now. On the surface, the Old Price Riots might be the most superficial protest in London’s history. However, when you dig a little deeper, it becomes clear that the rioters were defending a lot more than a cheap night out.

In late Georgian Britain, theatre was incredibly popular. It appealed to people across the class spectrum; from the very richest to the very poorest, everyone went to the theatre. In London, there were only two theatres licensed by central government to perform spoken drama; Covent Garden and Drury Lane (otherwise known as the major theatres). Other theatres (known as minor theatres) were licensed locally and relied on singing, mime, and visual spectacle to attract audiences. Within the space of a few months in 1808, both Covent Garden and Drury Lane theatres burnt down. When the new Covent Garden Theatre opened a year later, it was perceived as pandering to elites and not protecting the accessibility of British theatre in the way that the major theatres should. The result was three months of protest that ended in almost total victory for the rioters.

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The new Covent Garden Theatre in 1810 (Source: Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Charles Pugin, New Covent Garden Theatre (1810), Plate 100 of Rudolph Ackermann, The Microcosm of London; or, London in Miniature (1808-10, courtesy of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, U of Toronto), 1: 262-63).

In the early hours of the morning on 20th September 1808, the Covent Garden Theatre caught fire. The flames were fierce, and in just 3 hours the entire theatre, as well as valuable costumes, sets, scripts, and sheet music, was destroyed. The cost of the rebuild was huge, despite donations from wealthy supporters, and when the new theatre opened on 18th September 1809, several changes had been made to try and attract a more wealthy audience and recoup the cost of reconstruction. Prices were raised, a public gallery was converted into private (very expensive) boxes, and the top gallery (where the very poorest theatre-goers sat) had been converted into ‘pigeon holes’, from which only the legs of the performers could be seen. In addition, the celebrated soprano singer Angelica Catalani had been hired at great expense. To theatre-goers, these changes were seen as undermining the accessibility of British theatre, pandering to elites, and disenfranchising the middle and working classes.

On opening night at the new theatre, the performance was supposed to be MacBeth, with Shakespeare’s tragic hero played by John Philip Kemble, who was also the manager and part-owner of the theatre. However, the performance was drowned out by the audience who shouted, cheered, sang, and generally made a nuisance of themselves throughout. Kemble called the local magistrates to try and disperse the crowd, but it was not successful. The magistrates did not intervene again; there was debate over whether or not it was legal to kick out theatre-goers who had paid for their ticket.

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A cartoon by George and Isaac Cruikshank showing the first night of the riots. The magistrates are on stage appealing for calm, and Kemble stands behind them (Source: The British Museum).

The riots continued for the next 67 nights. The protesters, who quickly began to call themselves OPs (Old Pricers) embraced theatricality by adopting tactics such as banners and placards, singing, dancing, racing, mock fights (all of which went on during the performances), and the production of fake money and OP medals. As riots go, they were quite civil; violence and property damage was minimal. They were very effective, however, in disrupting the normal running of the theatre and demonstrating just how important audiences were for the success of British theatre. Kemble and the other owners simply could not defeat them; every tactic they tried (such as hiring boxers to throw rioters out of the theatre) resulted in failure and humiliation. Eventually, they backed down, returning the prices to pre-fire levels, reducing the number of boxes and firing Catalani. On the night of 15th December Kemble publicly apologised to the theatre audience; a placard was unveiled in the pits that read “we are satisfied”.

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A cartoop by Isaac Cruikshank depicting ‘The OP dance’. The rioters’ tactics were theatrical and non-violent (Source: Isaac Cruikshank, The OP Dance. Plate 5. Well-heeled Ops. Frontispiece, The O.P. Songster for 1810 (© The British Library Board, 11798.a.23.[7.])

The riots were not completely positive, however. There were strong elements of xenophobia and nativism. The rioters used anti-Semitic rhetoric, and made much of Kemble’s Catholicism in their criticism of him. There was also a sense that British theatre was inherently superior to foreign theatre, which tied into the criticisms of Catalani, who was Italian. The OPs believed it was the responsibility of Covent Garden, as a major theatre, to protect traditional British drama from the ‘foreign’ types of drama that were proving so popular in the minor theatres, such as opera, melodrama and pantomime. As such, the OP riots helped to reinforce dichotomies such as high/low art, spoken word/spectacular drama, and native/foreign drama.

At first, the Old Price Riots can look like Londoners being cheapskates. However, when looked at more closely, they highlight issues of class and xenophobia in a period when the city was changing dramatically. That being said, I dread to think what the OPs would make of the price of a West End theatre ticket today!

Sources and Further Reading

Mulhallen, Jacqueline. “The Old Price Riots of 1809: Theatre, Class, and Popular Protest.” Counterfire. Last modified 12th November 2012, accessed 3rd September 2019. Available at https://www.counterfire.org/history/16136-the-old-price-riots-of-1809-theatre-class-and-popular-protest

Robinson, Terry F. “National Theatre in Transition: The London Patent Theatre Fires of 1808-1809 and the Old Price Riots.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. No date, accessed 3rd September 2019. Available at http://www.branchcollective.org/?ps_articles=terry-f-robinson-national-theatre-in-transition-the-london-patent-theatre-fires-of-1808-1809-and-the-old-price-riots

Wikipedia. “Old Price Riots.” Last modified 12th July 2019, accessed 3rd September 2019. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Price_Riots

On This Day: The Clerkenwell Outrage, 13th December, 1867

Clerkenwell has been the focus of a large amount of turbulence over its history, even for an area of London. During the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381 the priory of St. John was burnt down because of its wealth and connections with Sir Robert Hales, a hated tax collector. Lenin moved into 37a Clerkenwell Green in 1902, and published 16 issues of Iskra, a pre-Bolskevik newspaper from there. The house is now the Marx Memorial Library. The area has also harboured religious nonconformists, such as the Lollards and early Methodists. Clerkenwell Green, historically an open, grassy area, has played host to many political meetings and demonstrations, some more peaceful than others. But on the 13th December 1867, Clerkenwell was rocked by an explosion that shocked even this contentious neighbourhood.

victorian Clerkenwell

A map of Victorian Clerkenwell, drawn by Adam Dant for Spitalfields Life.

The story begins in America in 1858. A group of Irish expatriates founded a secret society called the Irish Republican Brotherhood, known to most as the Fenians. Their aim was to free Ireland from British rule by any means necessary, including attacks on the British establishment in Ireland, other colonies, and even the mainland itself. By the middle of the 1860s, there were Fenian groups in Soho and Finsbury. By 1867, they were proving quite troublesome to the authorities. After a failed attempt to steal over 10,000 rifles from Chester Castle in February to arm an Irish uprising and the breakout of two prominent Fenians from a prison van in Manchester that resulted in the death of a Police Sergeant in September, tensions were running high.

Manchester prison van breakout 1867

An image showing two Fenian leaders being broken out of a prison transport van in 1867 in Manchester (Source: Getty Images).

Richard O’Sullivan-Burke was largely thought to be the man who led the Manchester prison van breakout. He was arrested in London in November along with another man called Joseph Casey. To avoid a repeat of Manchester the men were quickly transferred to the Clerkenwell House of Detention, just to the North of Clerkenwell Road. The prison was formidable, surrounded by a wall 25ft high and over 2ft thick. The men obviously had friends in London—every day cooked food was brought to them by a woman named Anne Justice, and rumours of an escape attempt soon reached the authorities.

Extra guards and uniformed police were posted in and around the prison in response to the warning. Despite this, an attempt was made to break out O’Sullivan-Burke and Casey on the 12th of December. A man wheeled a large barrel up the prison wall by the exercise yard, and attempted to light a fuse on the barrel twice before he gave up, and wheeled the barrow off. A policeman watched the entire thing, but did not think it suspicious. The next day, another, similar attempt was made. This time, a firework was used as a fuse, and it turned out to be much more reliable. The resulting explosion was heard all over London. It levelled 60ft of the prison wall, and the front of a row of houses across the street in Corporation Row. 12 people were killed, and 120 others were injured.

Clerkenwell bombing

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

“Britain’s first terrorist bombing” (Webb, 2012; p53) was an unmitigated disaster. Because of the failed attempt the day before the prisoners were not even in the exercise yard at the time of the explosion. Which was lucky in a way, as the Fenians had used far too much gunpowder (548lbs of it to be exact), and the explosion would have killed anyone in the yard. It sparked hysteria across the capital; it was said that twenty babies were killed in the womb by the blast, and that the explosion was a signal to begin a whole wave of terrorist attacks across the city. There were calls for new laws and emergency powers which would not be unfamiliar to us today. Any sympathy that there had been for the Irish cause amongst Londoners evaporated, and the government set up the first Secret Service Department, with the goal of gathering intelligence and anticipating future Fenian attacks. It was the forerunner of today’s Special branch and MI5. 5 people were charged with murder, including Anne Justice, but a man named Michael Barrett was the only one convicted. He has the dubious distinction of being the last person to ever be publicly executed in Britain.

Sadly, London is no stranger to terrorism. The Clerkenwell Outrage may have been Britain’s first terrorist bombing, but it was not the first terrorist plot, with conspiracies going back as far as the 1605 Gunpowder Plot and beyond.  In light of everything that has been going on recently, it can be helpful to remember that this is not the first time London has faced vague and shadowy threats; the city has always continued to survive and thrive.

Sources and Further Reading

German, Lindsey and John Rees. A People’s History of London. London: Verso (2012).

Hunt, Nick. “History and Politics.” Plunging into History. No date, accessed 21st November 2015. Available at http://www.plungingintohistory.com/ir-area-historyandpolitics

Merat, Aaron. “Clerkenwell’s Hidden Communist History.” Islington Now. Last modified 11th March 2010, accessed 21st November 2015. Available at   http://islingtonnow.co.uk/2010/03/11/clerkenwells-hidden-communist-history/

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

White, Jerry. London in the 19th Century: A Human Awful Wonder of God. London: Vintage (2007).