On This Day: The Massacre of St. George’s Fields, 10th May 1768

John Wilkes

John Wilkes was a vocal critic of George III and enjoyed significant popular support (Source: National Picture Gallery)

Most people have probably never heard of John Wilkes, but in the eighteenth century he was one of London’s most popular radicals. On the 10th May 1768, soldiers opened fire on some of his supporters outside the King’s Bench Prison in Southwark where Wilkes was being held. 6 or 7 people were killed, including bystanders, in an event that would become known as the Massacre of St. George’s Fields.

John Wilkes was a radical MP, and in June 1762 he started a newspaper, The North Briton, which was very critical of both the government and the monarchy. He was protected by parliamentary privilege, which means that MPs have legal immunity for things they do or say in the course of their duties. This only protected Wilkes up to a point, however, and he eventually went too far, publishing a poem that the House of Lords deemed to be obscene and blasphemous. They started the process of expelling Wilkes from the House of Commons, which would have removed his parliamentary privilege and left him open to prosecution. Wilkes fled to Paris before this could happen. In his absence he was found guilty of obscene and seditious libel and declared an outlaw on the 19th of January 1764.

Wilkes hoped that a change of government would lead to the charges against him being dropped. He ran out of money before that happened, however, and had to return to England. He wasn’t immediately arrested, as the government feared it would only increase his support base. Wilkes was elected as MP for Middlesex, but in April decided to waive his parliamentary privilege and hand himself over to the court of the King’s Bench. He was sentenced to 10 months in prison and given a £500 fine.

St George's Fields cropped

A map of St. George’s Fields in the late eighteenth century. The King’s Bench Prison is on the right hand side, near the junction of New Road and Blackman Street (Source: Mapco).

Wilkes was taken to the King’s Bench Prison in Southwark, on the edge of a large open space called St. George’s Field (an area stretching from Waterloo Station to Borough High Street today). As news of Wilkes’ imprisonment spread, his supporters began to gather on St. George’s Fields. The numbers increased daily, and by the 10th of May there were around 15,000 people there. Fearful of the large crowd, four Justices of the Peace requested military support, and a detachment of Horse Grenadier Guards were sent. This only increased tensions, however, as the crowd taunted the soldiers.

A group of soldiers chased one man who was being particularly offensive into a nearby barn. They opened fire, killing William Allen, an innocent bystander. As news of Allen’s death spread, the situation on St. George’s Fields only got worse. The Riot Act was read and more soldiers were called for, amongst fears that the crowd would attempt to break Wilkes out of prison. The crowd began to throw stones at the soldiers, who opened fire. In total, 6 or 7 people were killed, including another innocent bystander, and about 15 people were injured. Admittedly this isn’t a large number of casualties, but at the time it was quite significant. Understandably afraid for their lives, the crowd on St. George’s Field broke up, but as news of what had happened spread through London, sporadic rioting broke out across the city.

Death of William Allen.jpg

William Allen, who had nothing to do with the protest, was shot and killed by soldiers (Source: UNIVERSAL HISTORY ARCHIVE/UIG VIA GETTY IMAGES).

Two soldiers were charged with the murder of William Allen, but they were not convicted. Allen’s father presented a petition to parliament asking for justice for his son, which led to a debate about whether the government, who had supported the soldiers, was too oppressive. Nothing came of it though. In a letter to some of his supporters in America, Wilkes suggested that the massacre may have been pre-planned by the government, although there is no evidence of this. Wlkes was released from prison in March 1770. He was re-elected as an MP several times, and each time Parliament expelled him. Instead, he was appointed a Sheriff of London, becoming Lord Mayor in 1774. During the 1780 Gordon Riots, Wilkes fought against the rioters, which significantly damaging his reputation with the people and other radicals.

John Wilkes was a champion of anti-government feeling and the right to free speech. His popularity with the people of London terrified the authorities, which may explain why the situation on St. George’s Fields escalated so quickly. Or, it could just be an example of poor policing exacerbating a crowd, which has happened on many other occasions. Either way, it was a dramatic and deadly episode in the constant struggle between the authorities and the people for London’s streets.

Sources and Further Reading

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

Harris, Sean. “The Massacre of St. George’s Fields and the Petition of William Allen.” UK Parliament. Last modified 31 October 2016, accessed 23rd April 2019. Available at https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/petitions-committee/petition-of-the-month/the-massacre-of-st-georges-fields-and-the-petition-of-william-allen-the-elder/

Simkin, John. “St. George’s Fields Riot.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified August 2014, accessed 23rd April 2019. Available at https://spartacus-educational.com/LONstgeorge.htm

TeachingHistory.org. “Boston’s Bloody Affray.” No date, accessed 7th May 2019. Available at https://teachinghistory.org/history-content/ask-a-historian/23472

White, Jerry. London in the Eighteenth Century: A Great and Monstrous Thing. London: The Bodley Head, 2012.

Wikipedia. “Massacre of St George’s Fields.” Last modified 15th March 2019, accessed 23rd April 2019. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Massacre_of_St_George%27s_Fields

Book Review: The Headscarf Revolutionaries-Lillian Bilocca and the Hull Triple-Trawler Disaster

The Headscarf Revolutionaries Front Cover

The Headscarf Revolutionaries by Brian W. Lavery

Brian W. Lavery. The Headscarf Revolutionaries: Lillian Bilocca and the Hull Triple-Trawler Disaster. London: Barbican Press, 2015.

Whenever I move to a new place, I like to find out about its history, particularly its radical history. I recently moved to Hull in east Yorkshire, and one of the most famous episodes of protest in the city’s history took place in 1968. In early 1968, three trawler ships from Hull were lost in the Artic ocean in the space of just a few weeks. All three crews were lost, apart from one sole survivor. For some women in Hull, this was a tragedy that could have been avoided with better equipment and more stringent safety checks on the trawler ships, and better training for inexperienced crew members. The women started a campaign which captured national attention, won concessions from the ship owners, and changed government policy. They were largely pushing against an open door, but they did face hostility and criticism, including from some trawlermen who didn’t like women interfering in their working lives. The women became known as the Headscarf Revolutionaries because of their distinctive headwear. In The Headscarf Revolutionaries: Lillian Bilocca and the Hull Triple-Trawler Disaster, Brian W. Lavery tells the story of the campaign, the women involved, and the men who lost their lives on the St. Romanus, the Kingston Peridot, and the Ross Cleveland.

Lily’s Headscarf Revolution may have been a naïve one. But it was a powerful action from the heart that caught the imagination of the world and shamed an industry and a Government into action. Hands that rocked the cradle shook the world and changed it for the better.

Lavery, 2015; p.190

I was not surprised to find out the Brian Lavery has training in both journalism and creative writing. The Headscarf Revolutionaries is incredibly well-researched; it seems like Lavery interviewed almost everyone who is still alive and had any involvement in the campaign. Virginia Bilocca-McKenzie, is the daughter of Lillian Bilocca’s, who kickstarted and was one of the key leaders of the movement. Virginia obviously had significant input into the book; multiple conversations between her and her mother are included. Many sections of the book feel more like fiction than non-fiction; it is much more descriptive that many of the other history books I read. It is an effective approach, particularly the section near the beginning in which some of the men on the crews of the doomed ships say goodbye to their families and head out to sea for what the reader knows is the final time.

There are some elements of Lavery’s writing style that I am not so keen on, however. He has an odd way of using commas that I found irritating. It’s not necessarily wrong, but there are lots of commas in places where I wouldn’t put them, which I found distracting.  Also, some details are repeated in a way that felt unnecessary. These are minor issues in what is otherwise an excellent book, and I guess it isn’t Lavery’s fault that I am quite pedantic when it comes to grammar and style; I blame it on all the undergraduate marking I do.

The Headscarf Revolutionaries is about a local tragedy which sparked a campaign which had national implications. It shines a light on both labour and gender relations amongst Britain’s working classes in the mid-twentieth century, and as such has a much broader appeal than those who are just interested in local history.

 

The Historical Geographies of Protest Reading List

As part of my thesis revisions, I had to read as much academic research on the historical geographies of protest as I could get my hands on. To keep track of it all, I made a database using Zotero, an open-source referencing programme. For those of you who aren’t familiar, Zotero is a wonderful free-to-use (unlike EndNote or RefWorks) referencing software that I have used to keep track of all my academic reading since I started my PhD. It occured to me that I might not be the only person that would find this list useful, so I have made it publicly accessible. You can view the database here. Each book or journal article is tagged with key information such as the time period and location of case studies, as well as key themes, ideas, theories, and thinkers addressed.

Zotero screen grab

A screen shot of the Historical Geographies of Protest reading list.

I will keep adding to the list as I find more. I am sure that I have missed things out too, so please do let me know and I will add them in. For example, the list is quite Anglo-centric so far, it would be great if we could get some more references about non-English speaking places. Or even some literature that is not written in English! I would really like this to be a resource that lots of people both contribute to and benefit from, so please do get in touch if you have something to add.