Tragedy as ‘Wilkes & Liberty’ results in the death of the innocent

Today is the 250th anniversary of an event well known to historians of eighteenth-century politics, but not, I suspect, to the wider public. Mostly it is recounted as part of the mercurial career of the radical populist John Wilkes, who bestrode the world of politics in the late 1760s and early 70s. The event was a riot, in St. George’s Fields, south London, which took place on the 10 May 1768, in a period of considerable unrest in the Georgian capital. Roque_1746_London_d3

The riot and its aftermath were manipulated by Wilkes and his supporters in their long running battle with the government of the day, who they saw as corrupt and unconstitutional. In among this however, there were a number of tragic deaths, and it is these I’d like to concentrate on in this post, because, like Alfred Linnnel in 1887, Ian Tomlinson in 2009, and Richard Mannington Bowes, Haroon Jahan, Shahzad Ali, and Abdul Musavir in 2011, they were entirely innocent bystanders.

I am not going to revisit the complex life history of John Wilkes, there is plenty of reading material out there if you want to know more about this fascinating if divisive figure. It is suffice to say that in April 1768 Wilkes was sent to the King’s Bench prison by St. George’s Fields, Lambeth on account of having been found guilty (in absentia – he’d fled to the continent in 1764) of libel and seditious libel. Wilkes was also in debt and simply couldn’t afford to remain in France any longer for fear his creditors would catch up with him. Simply put, he had to face the music in England where he hoped if he was elected to parliament he could somehow reverse the penalties levied against him.

London in 1768 was in turmoil. Huge numbers of workers were facing hardship and industrial action was breaking out all over the capital. In 1768 there were strikes by coal-heavers, Thames watermen, sailors, and, most famously, the Spitalfields weavers. Wilkes and his supporters rode the wave of discontent and thousands turned out to back ‘Wilkes and Liberty’, seeing the radicals’ cause as somehow aligned to their own.

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The whole came to a boil on the 19 May 1768. Wilkes was imprisoned in the King’s Bench and hundreds of his supporters were camped outside. All was fairly peaceful by mid-morning when several Surrey magistrates turned up. They had come to make sure no one broke the peace and brought a party of constables with them.

What happened next is subject to some confusion and there are mixed accounts but, this is my best guess, from reading a variety of reports.

The justices noticed that the walls of the prison had been festooned with posters in support of the radical politician. They sent the constables to take down the offending papers, which upset the hitherto peaceful crowd. Abuse was leveled at the constables and magistrates (never the most popular figures in eighteenth-century society) and the crowd demanded the posters were handed over. ‘Give us the papers!’ they shouted.

When this was ignored they started throwing things: mud, stones, fruit, whatever they could lay their hands on. The situation was deteriorating fast and the justices sent messages to bring in a company of foot guards that had been stationed nearby, for just this eventuality. ‘Presently’ as one paper reported ‘a company of foot guards advanced towards the prison, and planted themselves with their backs to it, and faced the populace’. [1]

The stage was now set and the tragedy duly unfolded.

One of the magistrates, Mr Gillam, decided that the stone throwing had become too much and authority had to be asserted. He tried to tell the crowd (always a ‘mob’ in eighteenth-century newspaper reports) to disperse. When they returned his demands with more abuse and missiles he tried to read the Riot Act. This meant he actually read out the words of the proclamation, from which we get the phrase ‘reading the riot act’.

It did no good, and several more stones flew in his direction as he tried to make himself heard. One hit him on the arm, another struck his fellow justice Mr Ponton, before ‘a third hit one of the sergeants upon the lip, and cut it through’. One of the guards officers asked if his men should fire on the crowd but Ponton was reluctant because of the chance of injuring bystanders. But an hour and a quarter later the situation was no better and so Gilliam read the act again and warned the crowd that if any more stones were thrown the military would act.

This time the soldiers did fire. Standing in ranks at least two deep they fired a volley, quite possibly over the heads of the protestors since none of those directly involved in the riot that day were killed. But must have been chaos as bystanders tried to get out of the way, and amongst the newspaper coverage, is a story of a woman who was only saved from death by the quick actions of a stranger who pulled her out of the way of a passing gun shot.

She was lucky, but others weren’t. There were over a dozen injuries, some very serious and I can identify six people who died; each of them innocent of any direct involvement in rioting.

The most prominent (in terms of the press reaction at least) was William Allen, the son of a Southwark innkeeper, who was seemingly targeted by the soldiers by mistake. Allen was described as one of the ringleaders by one correspondent, whose report lacked both detail and accuracy. Allen who ‘was said to be one of the most forward in attacking the Military, was fired upon and shot, on which the populace thought proper to disperse’.[2]

The ‘populace’ might well have decided to run away at that point but Allen wasn’t shot in St. George’s Fields. He had joined a group of others who ran for their lives with some of troops in hot pursuit. Allen tried to hide in a ‘cow-house’ but he was found and shot dead where he stood. The inquest held into his killing was the only one to bring in a verdict of ‘willful murder’ and concluded that William Allen, a youth of just 17, was merely a ‘spectator’ and that one of the soldiers, Donald Maclane, was responsible for his death. One paper claimed that as many as 50,000 people attended William’s funeral a week later and his father’s agony was compounded by the death of his wife, who was injured in the stampede caused by the troops’ firing on the crowd.

Mary Jeffs was also killed that day. She and her daughter had gone to St. George’s Fields to sell oranges to the people gathered there. When the rumour spread that the guards were going to fire on the people Mary started to move away but she was too slow, burdened as she was by the basket of fruit. When the volley rang out she fell to the ground and several people rushed to help her.

At first she said she was ‘only frightened, not hurt’ but then she fell silent and collapsed again. When she was examined at the nearby St Thomas’ hospital ‘a large gunshot wound was discovered a little below her navel’, and she soon died. Margaret Waters was knocked down by the panicked crowd and trampled underfoot. The drayman wife, who was seen months pregnant, died of her injuries five days later.

A farrier, who was amongst the extended crowd of people close to St George’s Fields, but not part of the ‘mob’ was also hit by a stray musket ball. His name was Lawley and he expired late on Monday night. So too did a weaver named Redmond who may have been one of Wilkes’ supporters. He received a musket ball in the thigh and ‘died in great agony, leaving a wife and ten children unprovided for’.[3]

The Public Advertiser had little sympathy with those, like James Boddington (a Coventry trader who was in London on business) or William Bridgeman, who was watching events from his hay cart. Both men died after being hit by stray shots fired not at them, but indiscriminately nevertheless. Eighteenth-century muskets were notoriously inaccurate, so you were as likely to be hit by a stray as by a ball that was aimed at you. The Advertiser thought it unfortunate that people had been killed or wounded but they could have avoided it ‘by staying at home, and minding their business!’[4]

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The St George’s Fields massacre (as it was dubbed by the radical press) had claimed six innocent lives (seven if we add Mrs Waters’ unborn child). Wilkes and the radicals used the incident as another means to hammer home the injustice of a government that was only able to rule by force, and even made a spurious attempt to prosecute one of the magistrates for murder. Wilkes published letters which suggested the events of that day had been orchestrated by the government and this all helped him be reelected as the MP for Middlesex (even if the government refused to recognize his victory).

As I noted, much has been written about ‘Wilkes and Liberty’ and about the wider struggle for the rights of the press, the franchise, ministerial corruption, and the links between the radicals at home and in America. What often gets missed however, is the story of the ‘ordinary people’, six of whom tragically lost their lives when the authorities decided to use force to deal with a situation that was very far from being out of control.

Drew Gray

[1] Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, 17 May, 1768

[2] St James’ Chronicle, 11 May, 1768

[3] Gazetteer and New daily Advertiser, 13 May 1768

[4] Public Advertiser, 12 may 1768