On a Friday in June, a large protest in London with a peaceful carnivalesque atmosphere turned into a riot. The City was attacked and property destroyed as the dispossessed took their revenge on the hub of global finance contained in the square mile around the Bank of England. The politicians and the media blamed 'mindless drunkenness' and called the rioters 'animals' and 'savages'. This happened in 1780.
The Daily Telegraph of 19th June 1999 reported that on June 18th, "the City was confronted with the worst trouble in the Square Mile since the Gordon Riots of 1780." That summer, a mob of several thousand, led by African-Americans, broke open the prisons of London, attacked the Bank of England and threatened the House of Commons. Buckingham Palace, the police station at Bow Street and the Arsenal at Woolwich were all attacked. The just-completed Newgate prison, the country's principal jail, was stormed and burned (see picture). There were 300 prisoners inside, some awaiting execution. The prisoners were all taken to neighbourhood blacksmiths to have their chains struck off. Triumphant rebels danced and postured, defying the flames - they raided the Keeper's wine cellars and passed around the drink from hand to hand.
In a week of rioting and looting, the rebels systematically destroyed all the prisons in London, one by one. The Old Bailey was in ruins, all the records having been burned and London was lit up at night with the glow from burning prisons and bonfires in the streets. Many of the casualties suffered by the rioters were due to a raid on a huge gin distillery in Holborn at which many rebels literally drank themselves to death [sounds familiar!]. In total over 2000 prisoners were freed, the vast majority of them debtors, condemned to be chained up in a pestilential hole until they could pay off their debt. After the prisons, the rioters' next target was the Bank of England. The assault on the Bank was led by a man on a cart horse brandishing the broken chains and fetters of the liberated from Newgate - even the horse was decorated with chains from Newgate.
The Gordon Riots struck a blow for freedom around the world. In 1780 the British state was involved in fighting a desperate war against the revolutionary American colonists. The riots were an extremely effective act of practical solidarity with the rebels. The following Autumn the last British army surrendered to the Americans. The rioters really did hold the balance of history in their hands.
The poet William Blake, aged 23, was in "the front rank" of the crowd that destroyed Newgate on June 6th 1780. "In America Blake describes the spirit of rebellion as crossing the Atlantic to Great Britain and inspiring, particularly in London and Bristol, open demonstrations against the war, which temporarily deranged the guardians of the status quo and hastened the coming of peace. Amid 'fires of hell' and 'burning winds driven by flames' of revolution,
'The millions sent up a howl of anguish and threw off their hammer'd mail,
And cast their swords & spears to earth, & stood a naked multitude.'"
Long live King Mob!