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.

14New_Covent_Garden_Theatre

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.

22Cruikshank_Acting_Magistrates

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”.

25CruikshankOPDance

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 Coldbath Fields Riot, 13th May 1833

In a previous On This Day post, I wrote about the death of PC Keith Blakelock in the Broadwater Farm Riots in 1985. He was only the second police officer to be killed in a British riot since 1833. In June 1919, Station-Sargeant Green died of injuries received during a riot of Canadian soldiers in Epsom. The officer killed in 1833 was PC Robert Culley, who was stabbed in the chest during the Coldbath Field Riot over 150 years before. The response of the public to the two deaths in 1985 and 1833 was vastly different, demonstrating just how much the Metropolitan Police’s reputation with Londoners has improved since its foundation in 1829.

Coldbath Fields Meeting Poster

A poster advertising the protest that would become the Coldbath Fields Riots.

The Coldbath Fields Riot on the 13th of May 1833 was the first major clash between radicals and the young Metropolitan Police. The National Union of the Working Classes (NUWC) organised a demonstration in Coldbath Fields in Islington against the 1832 Reform Act. The Reform Act increased the number of men allowed to vote, but only by a small amount, and it didn’t go far enough for the NUWC. The Home Secretary, Lord Melbourne, declared the meeting illegal, but it went ahead anyway. On the afternoon of the 13th of May a large crowd had gathered, listening to speeches given from the back of open wagons.

After a while, a large detachment of police arrived and began to clear the crowd. The high number of police officers raised tensions, leading to shouted insults. The police trapped some of the protesters in nearby Calthorpe Street, who then attempted to fight their way out. In the ensuing chaos, three police officers were stabbed; Sergeant John Brooks, PC Henry Redwood and PC Robert Culley. Brooks and Redwood both survived, but Culley only made it to the nearby Calthorpe Arms before he died.

Coldbath Fields Riot

An engraving of the Coldbath Field Riots by J. Prater (Sources: Mary Evans Picture Library).

Robert Culley was one of the first men to join the Metropolitan Police, aged 23, when it was founded. Although the murderer wasn’t caught, the inquest into Culley’s death began two days later, in an upstairs room of the same pub where he died. The 17 men of the jury returned a verdict of Justifiable Homicide, arguing that the police had provoked the crowd with their violent approach to policing the protest. The men of the jury were local shopkeepers and householders, not radicals, and their verdict reflected the extensive mistrust and disregard that most Londoners felt for the Metropolitan Police at the time. Many resented the state intervention that the new force represented, and the jury became local heroes. The following month, a riverboat trip was arranged for them and their families to Twickenham, and crowds lined the river to cheer them on, despite heavy rain. In a similar way, George Fursey, the man who stabbed the other two police officers, was acquitted in his trial at the Old Bailey in July.

The public outcry and widespread condemnation after the death of PC Blakelock during the Broadwater Farm Riots could hardly seem more different to the reaction to the death of PC Culley 150 years before. The Metropolitan Police is not universally liked today, but it is hard to imagine the death of an officer during a protest receiving such a callous response. For better or worse, the police force has become part of the fabric of modern London in a way that might surprise an onlooker from the early nineteenth-century.

Sources and Further Reading

Moult, Tom. “The Metropolitan Police in Nineteenth-Century London: A Brief Introduction.” New Histories 3, no. 5 (2012). Available at  http://newhistories.group.shef.ac.uk/wordpress/wordpress/the-metropolitan-police-in-nineteenth-century-london-a-brief-introduction/

Rowland, David. “The Murder of Police Constable Robert Culley.” Old Police Cells Museum. Last modified 18th October 2015, accessed 28 April 2017. Available at  http://www.oldpolicecellsmuseum.org.uk/page/the_murder_of_police_constable_robert_culley

Webb, Simon. Bombers, Rioters and Police Killers: Violent Crime and Disorder in Victorian Britain. Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2015. 

On This Day: The Broadwater Farm Riots, 6th October 1985

The recent Black Lives Matter campaign could give the impression that institutional racism is a distinctly American problem. Britain has had to deal with its own fair share of problems in this regard however, and like in Ferguson and other American cities, tension between the police and ethnic minorities has occasionally flared into violence. The Broadwater Farm Riots, on the 6th of October 1985, were one such occasion.

broadwater-farm-aftermath

Police officers inspect the damage the day after the 1985 Broadwater Farm Riots in north London (Photo: Daily Mail).

At the beginning of October 1985, tensions between police and the black community in Tottenham, north London, were running high. Longstanding grievances were exacerbated by riots in Brixton the previous week, following the shooting of a black woman, Dorothy Groce, during a police search. At lunchtime on the 5th of October Floyd Jarrett, a young black man who lived about a mile away from the Broadwater Farm estate, was arrested and charged with theft and assault- he was later acquitted of both charges. Later that day, however, the police decided to search the house of Floyd’s mother, Cynthia. During the search, 49-year-old Cynthia Jarrett collapsed and died of a heart attack. Her daughter claimed that Cynthia had been pushed by an officer called DC Randle, and the resulting fall could have contributed to her death. Randle denied it, and no police officer was charged or disciplined for what happened.

The black community in London already believed that the Metropolitan Police was institutionally racist (they were probably right!), and the treatment of Cynthia Jarrett sparked outrage. Bernie Grant, local council leader at the time, condemned the search of Cynthia’s house and called for local police chiefs to resign. A demonstration gathered outside Tottenham police station in the early hours of the next morning, the 6th of October. Violence between police and some members of the local community escalated throughout the day; centring on the Broadwater Farm estate. The rioters built barricades, set fire to cars, and threw bricks, molotov cocktails and other projectiles at police, making effective use of the raised walkways on the estate.

broadwater-raised-walkway

A man walks through debris from the riots on one of the raised walkways that caused so much difficulty for the police (Photo: BBC News).

At about 9:30 p.m., the police and fire brigade were called to a fire on the upper level of Tangmere House, a block of flats and shops on the estate. Whilst attending the fire, the officers were attacked by rioters and forced to retreat rapidly. A police officer, Constable Keith Blakelock, tripped and fell in the confusion. He was immediately surrounded by rioters, who beat and repeatedly stabbed him in a vicious attack. PC Blakelock became the first police officer to be killed in a riot in Britain since 1919.

pc-blakelock

PC Keith Blakelock was killed by rioters. Three men were convicted of his murder, but the convictions were overturned on appeal (Photo: Mirror).

The riot tailed off during the night as it started to rain and news of Blakelock’s death spread. The impacts of the riots, however, would last a lot longer than 24 hours. Determined to find Blakelock’s killers, the Metropolitan Police maintained a heavy presence on the Broadwater estate for several months, arresting and questioning over 300 people, many of whom were denied access to a lawyer. The riots led to changes in the police’s tactics and equipment for dealing with riots, and efforts to reengage with the local community.

Six people were eventually charged with the murder of Keith Blakelock; although the investigation and ensuing court cases were severely hampered by officers who were willing to cut corners and ignore the law. Three children had their cases dismissed after a judge ruled that they had been held and questioned inappropriately. Three adults, Winston Silcott, and Engin Raghip and Mark Braithwaite, were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment despite there being no witnesses and no forensic evidence. All three were cleared by the Court of Appeals in November 1991. In July 2013, a man named Nicholas Jacobs was charged with Blakelock’s murder, but was cleared at trial.

Neither Cynthia Jarrett nor Keith Blakelock have received justice for what happened to them. Although from different ‘sides’ of the conflict, both were victims of  an institutionally racist society that was creating tension between those in authority and communities in London and across Britain. We are kidding ourselves if we think these tensions no longer exist, and the Broadwater Farm Riots are a stark reminder of the danger of overlooking such problems.

Don’t forget to check out the location of the Broadwater Farm Riots on the Turbulent London Map!

Sources and Further Reading

BBC News, “What Caused the 1985 Tottenham Broadwater Farm Riot?” Last modified 3rd March 2014, accessed 5th October 2016. Available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-26362633

Bloom, Clive. Violent London: 2000 Years of Riots, Rebels and Revolts. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010 [2003].

Wikipedia, “Broadwater Farm Riot.” Last modified 26th September 2016, accessed 5th October 2016. Available at  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Broadwater_Farm_riot

Wikipedia, “Death of Keith Blakelock.” Last modified 4th October 2016, accessed 5th October 2016. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_of_Keith_Blakelock

Turbulent Chicago: Representations of Protest at the Chicago History Museum

A selfie with an Illinois suffragette in the Facing Freedom exhibition at the Chicago History Museum.

A selfie with an Illinois suffragette in the Facing Freedom exhibition at the Chicago History Museum (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

A few weeks ago I went to the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers in Chicago. Amongst all the geography-ing I had some time to look around the city, and I spent a really enjoyable morning in the Chicago History Museum. Like any other city, Chicago has a history of riots and protest, and some of this history is represented in the museum. There are two main areas in which protest is represented in the museum’s permanent exhibits. The first is Facing Freedom, which explores the concept of freedom and how it has been negotiated, fought for and denied in America’s recent history. The second is Chicago: Crossroads of America, which narrates the city’s history through a series of themed galleries.

The Facing Freedom exhibition has an interactive element where visitors can become part of the exhibit.

The Facing Freedom exhibition has an interactive element where visitors can become part of the exhibit (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

A hot worn by Illinois suffragists at a national march in Washington DC in 1913 in the Facing Freedom Exhibition.

A hat worn by Illinois suffragists at a national march in Washington DC in 1913 in the Facing Freedom Exhibition (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The Facing Freedom exhibition examines the relationship between the United States of America and freedom, which has been patchy to say the least. Slavery, Japanese internment camps during WW2 and the treatment of Native Americans are all covered, but of course what interests me most are the protests and social movements.  The exhibition features the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porter’s in the 1920s-30s, the United Farm Workers in the 1960s, the Chicago school boycott in 1963, and the Illinois suffragists movement in the early 1900s. All of these movements and groups were successful to a greater or lesser extent; nothing was featured that didn’t achieve at least some of their goals. In this way these social movements, people who fought and won for freedom, are counter posed with those who had their freedom taken from them, the Japanese-Americans, slaves and Native Americans. The general message of the gallery is that freedom must be fought for and protected, and protest is positioned as a necessary part of that process.

The riots during the 1968 Democratic National convention are portrayed as a negative event, the divisive legacies of which can still be found in Chicago today.

The riots during the 1968 Democratic National convention are portrayed as a negative event, the divisive legacies of which can still be found in Chicago today (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Artifacts displayed in the Chicago and Crisis gallery from the Haymarket Affair. 4 anarchists were hanged and another 4 hanged based on very little evidence after a bomb went off at a protest. (Source; Chicago History Museum).

Artefacts displayed in the Chicago and Crisis gallery from the Haymarket Affair. 4 anarchists were hanged and another 4 imprisoned based on very little evidence after a bomb went off at a protest. (Source: Chicago History Museum).

In contrast, protest is represented in a more negative light in the Chicago: Crossroads of America exhibition. 3 protests are depicted in the Chicago in Crisis gallery: the Haymarket Affair, the 1919 Race Riots, and the Democratic National Convention riots in 1968. Along with the 1871 Great Fire that destroyed huge swathes of the city, the Gangland Era, and the sinking of the passenger ship the SS Eastland in which 844 people died, these protests are represented as turning points in the history of Chicago; negative experiences which the city dealt with with varying degrees of success. In this gallery, protest is not viewed as a positive, or even a necessary evil. The understanding of protest represented here is fundamentally at odds with that of the Facing Freedom exhibition.

In Chicago’s complex urban environment, powerful economic, social and political forces converge and collide, creating tensions that periodically explode into crisis. Chicago’s greatest crises include the Great Fire of 1871, the Haymarket Affair, the 1919 Race Riot, the Gangland Era, and the West Side and Democratic National Convention riots in 1968.

Chicago’s response to each crisis shaped its identity. A triumphant recovery from fire earned Chicago the “I Will” motto, but its failure to heal racial divisions following the 1919 and 1968 riots fostered segregation that plagued the city. Likewise, Chicago’s reputation for gangland violence continues, despite the bootlegger’s demise.

Text from the Chicago in Crisis gallery, Chicago History Museum

These 2 exhibitions demonstrate how protests can be interpreted in different ways. In this age of mass media and instant news, the way that a protest is viewed by people removed from the event itself is crucial. The presence of positive and negative representations of protest within the same museum illustrate the richness involved in thinking about how protests are perceived, and hints at the complexity of museum geographies. Next time you see a protest represented in a museum, trying thinking about some of these issues. And if you’ve ever in Chicago, the Chicago History Museum is well worth a visit (it is also close to Lincoln Park Zoo, one of the oldest zoo’s in America, and free to get in, although a little dreary on a cold April day!)

Turbulent Londoners: Lord George Gordon, 1751-1793

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s radical and contentious past. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. First up is Lord George Gordon, a charismatic individual who played a big role in the Gordon Riots. 


Lord George Gordon had a severe, puritanical apprearance (Source: Wikipedia, n.d.).

Lord George Gordon had a severe, puritanical apprearance (Source: Wikipedia, n.d.).

Lord George Gordon was an eccentric, irresponsible, but charismatic aristocrat who probably would have faded into obscurity if it wasn’t for the Gordon Riots, to which he gave his name. The Riots, which took place in June 1870, were a week-long series of anti-Catholic disturbances which have been called “the most serious disturbances ever seen in London.” (German and Rees, 2012; 87). Sparked by Parliament’s refusal to consider a petition to repeal the 1778 Catholic Relief Act, the riots took on a distinct anti-establishment flavour in their later days, which terrified those in authority.

Although charged with high treason after the riots, it seems that George Gordon did not intend to spark such dramatic events, which involved the largest number of people killed or executed in an episode of civil disorder either before or since (Archer, 2000). Becoming an MP with a reputation for rambling, boring speeches in 1774, Gordon was elected president of the London Protestant Association in November 1779. The Association was an organisation with the goal of repealing the Catholic Relief Act, which had relaxed some of the restrictions on Catholics in Britain.

Gordon and the Protestant Association organised a petition containing up to 100,000 signatures demanding the act be repealed. Against the advice of the rest of the Association’s leadership, Gordon called for a rally on the 2nd of June, followed by a march to Parliament where he would present the petition. An estimated 60,000 people attended, an unprecedented amount for a political meeting at this time (Bloom, 2010). The same evening that the petition was presented, two Catholic chapels were burnt down by an anti-Catholic ‘mob’. Over the following nights, the houses of many wealthy Catholics were destroyed, as well as the Langdale distillery and most of the capital’s prisons, including the infamous Newgate. Calm was not restored until the 10th of June, a week later.

A contemporary image of the destruction of Newgate, published in 1781 (Source: Guildhall Library, 941 JAC, The Gordon Riots- A Collection of Contemporary Documents Compiled by Judith Kazantis; Photo: author’s own).

A contemporary image of the destruction of Newgate, published in 1781 (Source: Guildhall Library, 941 JAC, The Gordon Riots- A Collection of Contemporary Documents Compiled by Judith Kazantis; Photo: author’s own).

At first suspected of deliberately engineering the riots, Gordon’s failed attempts to calm the situation proved he had no control over the rioters. He was acquitted of high treason, but continued to loudly voice his controversial and provocative opinions. He converted to Judaism in 1787, and was eventually imprisoned for libel following publications criticising transportation to Botany Bay as a method of punishment, and insulting Marie Antoinette, the Queen of France. He died of gaol fever in Newgate on the 1st of November 1793.

Lord George Gordon was admired by some, and considered insane by others. Whilst he was progressive in some of his views, for example his strong opposition to the death penalty, his hatred of Catholics complicates an interpretation of him as a radical reformer. However he is viewed, Gordon was a fascinating individual, who contributed to the history of disturbance in the capital, making London that bit more turbulent.

Sources

Archer J (2000) Social Unrest and Popular Protest in England 1780-1840, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bloom C (2010) Violent London- 2000 Years of Riots, Rebels and Revolts, Basingstoke: Palgrave.

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

Haydon C (2004) ‘Gordon, Lord George (1751-1793)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, http://www.oxfordddnb.com/view/article/11040 (Accessed on 15.04.13).

Haywood I and Seed J (ed.) (2012) The Gordon Riots- Politics, Culture and Insurrection in Late-Eighteenth Century Britain, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.