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.

A Quick Valediction

You don’t need me to tell you that there is a surfeit of news about. Your correspondent is eating tinned soup whilst ‘doomscrolling’ an assortment of feeds covering a smorgasbord of disasters: the terrorist attack in Vienna, Covid restrictions and government by headless chicken at Westminster, and – of course – the presidential election in the USA. Furthermore, domestic refurbishment has left my kitchen in pieces with no end in sight. If I seem a bit distracted today I think I may be cut some slack.

However, in a bid to offer some elegiac light relief, the clip above features the late Sean Connery as James Bond in Goldfinger, Guy Hamilton’s 1964 adaptation of Ian Fleming’s novel. This particular scene offers Bond the chance to offer some random insights into the mysteries of the distilling process, and acts as a knowing send-up of the 007 project as a whole. I offer this to mark the passing of Sir Sean and the passing of an era. I have been working on a dissection of Fleming and the Bond phenomenon but I will leave that for another time; to be honest, I’m finding it hard to concentrate at all, and I’ve just discovered that my boiler has packed up. And the latest news is that John Sessions has died of a heart attack … I will conclude this short and sad entry with this clip featuring the man in his element, telling a quick and dirty joke. RIP.

Dirk and Dennis at The Salisbury

Dirk Bogarde (as ‘Melville Farr’) in St. Martin’s Court, outside The Salisbury, in ‘Victim’.

Halfway up St. Martin’s Lane is The Salisbury: a crystal and mahogany Victorian confection, a gleaming temple to the conviviality of drinking. The Salisbury was one of Ian Nairn’s favourite pubs and gets lovingly referenced in Nairn’s London: ‘as much sparkle as a brandy and soda’. (Sadly, one imagines that The Salisbury might have glimpsed the great architectural critic’s alcoholic decline, a process managed with a sea of pub Guinness.) It was once a well-known gay pub, extensively referenced as such in the 1961 Dirk Bogarde film Victim – a dated but enjoyable thriller wherein Dirk, coiffed and clenched in Savile Row threads, tackles insolent, Vespa-riding, leather-clad blackmailer Derren Nesbitt. (Whatever happened to him? Did his fleshy lips wither and go out of fashion?)

Victim is a landmark in British cinema, as it was the first film to tackle male homosexuality in a sympathetic manner in a contemporary setting. Attitudes were changing: the previous year, saw the release of not one but two British films about the fall of Oscar Wilde (one starred Robert Morley, but Peter Finch’s Oscar is the clear winner). In Victim, Bogarde’s smooth, successful but uptight barrister stumbles across an extortion racket targeting gay men; in the process he has to face awkward truths about his own closeted sexuality, and the tragic consequences of his rejection of romantic rough trade Peter McEnery. On its own terms it remains very entertaining and was seen as highly daring at a time when homosexual acts between males was against the law, a law that wasn’t repealed until 1967. Bogarde took a big risk with his matinee idol image to make this film. A gay man adored by straight women, Victim suggested that he would be prepared to come out when the time was right; but for some reason he never did.

Dirk assisting some implausibly sympathetic policemen.

Some moments in the film retain real power, especially an excellent scene when Bogarde admits the truth about himself to his wife; but it betrays its age at the end, when it’s clear that Dirk and the lovely Sylvia Sims are going to stick it out together. By this point, Dirk has succeeded in exposing the blackmail ring, which operated out of a bookshop in nearby Cecil Court. (Incidentally, a Cecil Court bookshop is also used for furtive purposes in The Human Factor, wherein a spy uses a book-based system to communicate with his Soviet handler.) It’s hugely enjoyable on many levels: as social history, for its London locations, and – for this viewer – those moments where the film-makers’ good intentions collide with bathetic camp: I particularly like the bluff, burly detective who seems to want to ask Dirk out on a date. But it is sobering to reflect that it was protesting against the same law that sent Oscar Wilde to prison.

Not Oscar Wilde … Dennis Nilsen has his day in court.

The Salisbury also features in a dark episode in the life of gay London: as a cruising spot for the serial killer Dennis Nilsen. An authentic urban bogeyman, Nilsen’s grim story is well know and has been much picked over by writers (notably Brian Masters in Killing for Company) seeking to examine the nature of evil and the way London, like any big city, swallows the vulnerable. The police hadn’t been looking for a serial killer until Dennis’s neighbours in Muswell Hill called in Dyno-Rod to investigate a blocked drain – and found human remains. He’d been killing pick-ups in his attic flat but had had trouble getting rid of the bodies; so he tried boiling body parts on his stove and flushing the residue down the toilet. The official body count was twelve, all men, mostly runaways and vagrants that he encountered in the West End, four of whom remain unidentified. Nielsen is currency in a good many bar-room stories. Nilsen’s work colleagues at the job centre in Denmark Street – he was popular – mention helping him move house between Cricklewood and Muswell Hill (‘What have you got in here, Dennis? Bodies!’ ‘Yeah’). A man living adjacent to Nilsen’s Cricklewood house who was plagued by ghoulish treasure hunters. The woman who went to look at an ‘amazingly cheap’ flat in Muswell Hill and was about to make an offer when a work colleague asked if it was a top floor flat in Cranley Gardens? The flat finally sold to a foreign couple who moved out when they discovered its history … I have met people who have given me these accounts – although they didn’t actually happen to them, but someone they knew. Nilsen has become as much a part of London folklore as Sweeney Todd – except that we know that the latter never existed as anything other than a Penny Dreadful ballad. Nilsen was the real thing: Death as a friendly chap propping the bar, buying a stranger a drink and offering him a bed for the night.

Postscript: I feel obliged to note here that in 1963 a woman who worked in an antique shop at 23 Cecil Court was stabbed in a botched robbery. Her killer was caught after his Identikit profile was circulated, the first time the technique is credited with catching a criminal of any kind.

a further postscript: the estimable Miles Richardson has pointed out (see his comment below) that the pub was a favourite with Sir John Gielgud, who might well have availed himself of all its facilities. (In Victim one of the blackmailed is a noted theatrical star, played by Dennis Price.) Here is a nice photo, taken by the great portrait photographer Arnold Newman, of Gielgud in the Salisbury; he is talking, I think, to Kenneth Tynan. Also in the comments, Dale Rapley’s poignant anecdote about working with Dirk Bogarde in the twilight of Dirk’s career is worth a moment of anyone’s time.