The Return Of King Mob

What follows is a post which originally appeared here in April 2020. I am re-posting because it feels appropriate for the surplus of history we are currently living through. The past is never far away; we are lumbered with it the whole time, even the bits we’ve forgotten or would prefer to forget.

‘Phiz’ (Hablot Knight Browne) depicts the Gordon Riots.


Lord George Martini’
Ingredients:
One gin distillery.
Equipment:
One anti-Catholic mob.
Method:
Set fire to distillery; drink contents until building explodes.

The opening of chapter 52 of Charles Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge (1841):

A mob is usually a creature of very mysterious existence, particularly in a large city. Where it comes from or whither it goes, few men can tell. 

If you are looking for some lockdown reading with contemporary overtones, Barnaby Rudge might fit the bill. The climax of Dickens’s early historical novel features one of his most vivid set pieces, as London is put to flame by a monstrous assembly. Dickens was recreating the incendiary climax of The Gordon Riots of June 1780. This orgiastic week of violence, fuelled by anti-Catholic paranoia, which threatened to overwhelm the army and unseat the government, came to be named after their unwitting instigator, the deluded Lord George Gordon, an MP and demagogue who was seeking to overturn a law aimed at relaxing restrictions on Catholics. (This was at a time when England was at war with America and there was widespread fear that older enemies such as France and Spain were poised to invade.)

Newgate feels the heat: the night of 6 June 1780 as reported in a contemporary pamphlet.

The riots were the most destructive in London’s history, as the ‘No Popery!’ agitators joined common purpose with London’s slum-dwelling poor, who emerged from the city’s favelas with curiosity and absolutely nothing to lose. On the night of Tuesday 6th June, they torched that symbol of state oppression, Newgate Gaol. A note written on the smouldering walls of Newgate stated that the inmates had been released on the orders of ‘King Mob’. Embittered convicts swelled the crowd as they sacked and burned swathes of Covent Garden and Bloomsbury (although, in the aftermath of the fire, there were also reports of bewildered lifers wandering amidst the ruins of Newgate, waiting for someone to take charge of them).

The next night, another hot one, the mob set fire to Fleet Jail, King’s Bench Prison, the Borough Clink, and several other clinks, freeing about 1600 prisoners, and then marched on Langdale’s gin distillery. Thomas Langdale was a Catholic who had a chapel on the premises of his distillery at the corner of Holborn Hill and Fetter Lane, along with 120,000 gallons of gin. Troops guarding Langdale’s had been called away to shore up defences at the Bank of England and on Blackfriars Bridge, leaving the distillery an open goal for the rioters. Langdale attempted to buy the mob off, but they weren’t buying and the building was soon alight. At the same time, a gentle wind began to blow, fanning the flames until all Holborn resembled ‘a volcano’.

And this is where British character asserts itself and revolution turns into an opportunity for a party. As the distillery went up, rioters brought raw gin and casks of rum out of the cellars by whatever method available – a pig trough was put to this purpose. Rather unfortunately, a fire engine briefly employed to douse the flames pumped gin instead of water, fuelling the fire even further. Another fire pump was captured by an old cobbler who used it to draw buckets of gin from Langdale’s cellars, selling it on to spectators at a penny a mug.

‘Phiz’ illustrates the Langdale episode for Dickens in ‘Barnaby Rudge’.

As the stills inside exploded, rivulets of raw gin poured into the streets. This 20th century description is too good not to quote:

By nine the buildings were enveloped in smoke and flame, while there flowed down the kennel of the street torrents of unrectified and flaming spirit gushing from casks drawn in endless succession from the vaults. … Ardent spirits, now running to pools and wholly unfit for human consumption, were swallowed by insasiate fiends who, with shrieking gibes and curses, reeled and perished in the flames, whilst others, alight from head to foot, were dragged from burning cellars. On a sudden, in an atmosphere hot to suffocation, flames leapt upwards from Langdale’s other houses on Holborn Hill. The vats had ignited, and columns of fire became visible for thirty miles around London. (John Paul DeCastro, The Gordon Riots, 1926.)

Gillray’ contemporary comment, dated 9th June.

The riots petered out shortly after that, and order was restored amidst an epic collective hangover. ‘King Mob’ came very close to overwhelming the army and it’s interesting to consider what might have happened if so many rioters hadn’t got smashed at Langdale’s. For all the ambition of political agitators (‘populists’, as we’d say now) who were exploiting latent xenophobia borne out of misery and deprivation, the broader mob had no clearly defined aims. As far as ‘King Mob’ was concerned, it was just a chance for a piss-up, with a bit of recreational arson thrown in. A very British coup.

Further reading: King Mob: The London Riots Of 1780 by Christopher Hibbert.

Getting Home

Illustrated London News Christmas edition, 1843.

Drinking up time in December. The pub lights are all on and the music is off, bar staff are shouting and it is clearly time for you to go home. You are suddenly aware that it is late, possibly even very late, and you have to negotiate Londonʼs transport system in the cold, drunk, dark.

My own homebound treks have fused in my memory and details are hard to untangle at this distance, but one episode will stand in for many others. It was the Friday before Christmas, it was midnight and I was walking down St. Martinʼs Lane with my friend and colleague John (NB: not real name). We were aiming for Charing Cross station but we were distracted by the sight of The Salisbury, that ʻgleaming temple of convivialityʼ, festively lit up and still open for business. ʻHow about a brandy?ʼ I said. John is a very elegant man and the Salisburyʼs sumptuous interior was an ideal setting for his forcefully- expressed views on favourite topics, i.e., the decline of contemporary fiction, the appeal of Suffolk churches, and the guitarists of the Rolling Stones. (John feels that the bandʼs loss of Mick Taylor was a blow from which the Stones never recovered.) Then we left the pub and John fell over. But John fell over as only a man of letters can: thoughtfully, trenchantly, intellectually. (I should mention that we had spent the earlier part of the evening in a wine bar beneath the Shaftesbury Theatre, wherein we consumed four bottles of Muscadet and some pretzels.) I helped him up and we lurched to Charing Cross, whereupon he ducked into a Highgate-bound tube and I fell upon the last main line train for New Cross.

Mind how you go John … The tube circa 1900.

Three stops later I emerged into an icy wasteland, the Amersham Arms already shuttered and silent, and embarked on an arctic slog towards my house a mile distant. As sleet began to drive against my face, my trudge took on the quality of Scottʼs last journey. I was about 400 yards away from home when I had to resist a powerful urge to lie down in the frozen front garden of a block of flats; fortunately, raw self-preservation kicked in and I managed to keep going. I canʼt remember walking in my front door; I donʼt think this was the time I was propositioned near my house by a woman who said ʻIʼve got no food and no heating, do you do business?ʼ, that must have been another time. The next thing I recall is waking up in my bed, sunshine streaming through the windows, baby sleep switching to hangover, the usual morning-after anxieties kicking in. Did I still have my wallet? Watch? Phone? I could only see one of my shoes in the bedroom, the other one eventually turned up in the shower. Going downstairs, I discovered I had used my Viyella shirt to clean up the admixture of Muscadet and brandy I had deposited on the kitchen floor. Several pints of water and a party pack of paracetamol later, I emailed John to ask if he got home safely. At five oʼclock that afternoon I received a reply. It read: ʻWell, I fell over again at Archway but was helped up by a Good Samaritan who said: ʻJust go steadyʼ. I then walked up the hill to my house and when I got inside I sat in my office chair for about three hours, totally unable to take off my overcoat. I was then sick into a box of papers I was supposed to send to my accountant. Those brandies were, on balance, a mistake.ʼ

Londonʼs railway stations have frequently witnessed significant events in my personal life. There was a date that began in that wine bar next to Southwark Cathedral and moved ineluctably, via assorted wines and liquors, to platform 6, London Bridge, and consummation in Brockley. Or that encounter that started in the membersʼ bar of the Festival Hall: all very grown up to begin with, before happy hour took over and things got joyously out of hand. Even Stratford station looked beautiful that night. Charing Cross has seen more than its fair share of saturnine drama, with undying love loudly proclaimed to some appalled girl or other, alternating with botched passes, recriminations, shouting matches – usually involving the same girl and usually after several bottles of catering Chardonnay – and pages from Time Out used as a sick bag (I find the online edition less useful in this respect). As for Waterloo, an unexpected moment of tenderness on the concourse will haunt me forever, a reminder of an opportunity irretrievably lost, a vision of a bright future utterly beyond reach. But, inevitably, death, distance and estrangement have taken their toll; thereʼs an ever-shrinking pool of drinking talent. And, at the end of this awful year, with Londonʼs bars beyond reach, the city itself is missing in action. For me, London is my friends, it doesnʼt really exist without them; all thatʼs left is a forlorn and empty film set.

But, on this hypothetical December night, letʼs say you went to a pub, got drunk, and struggled home. You made it back without losing anything, except a measure of dignity and a few million brain cells. So what awaits you? If youʼre lucky, thereʼs an indulgent companion lying warm in your bed; if youʼre less lucky, youʼll have to make do with the couch. Maybe youʼll be able to make amends in the morning, you should be OK if you donʼt do this sort of thing too often. Hopefully there will be someone there for you, even if it is just (just!) a good friend who will check that youʼre all right. Who can ask for a better friend than that? But if you find yourself alone then youʼll have to rely on your memories to keep you company: all those flickering remembrances of friends who meant so much to you, of times when you felt so alive, times when you were happy.

William Orpen: Study for ‘The Cafe Royal’, 1911.