Culture Magazine

London Riots: a Long History

By Carolineld
It's impossible to be anything other than miserable about the current London riots. Whatever the causes and context might be, the worst results are being felt by local people themselves. However, there may be a sort of comfort in remembering that London has a long history of surviving riots: here are a few now largely forgotten.
It was apparently a tradition for London's apprentices to attack bawdy houses on Shrove Tuesday. (A reminder that tradition is not always a good thing.) In 1668, these attacks erupted into five days of unrest. Up to 40,000 rioters were involved and the disturbances stretched from Poplar to the West End. Fifteen of those involved in the Bawdy House Riots were convicted on charges of high treason, perhaps inspired by the increasingly political slogans of the rioters; four of them were hung, drawn and quartered.
Deptford saw violent unrest about dockyard chips in 1786 - these were offcuts of wood the dockyard workers were allowed to take home. It proved to be a rather expensive perk, since 'chips' could be up to six feet long. When the dockyard bosses tried to end the perk, workers were so angry that first one party of soldiers, then a second, and finally 'all the troops from the Savoy that could be spared' were needed to restore peace.
In 1809, the Old Price Riots lasted for several months - triggered by a rise in the price of theatre tickets. On the first night, calling in soldiers and police only inflamed the situation; protests then continued nightly but were apparently largely good-natured with little damage to property. (The frugal rioters took to arriving at the theatre only for the second half of the performance, when prices were reduced.) The protests only ended when theatre manager John Kemble reduced ticket prices to their old levels and apologised.
The March 1919 Battle of Bow Street saw large numbers of American, Canadian and Australian servicemen fighting the police following an attempted arrest over a game of dice. Canadian soldiers, unhappy at not having returned home many months after the First World War had ended, would riot again at Epsom on 17 June, killing a police officer.
Perhaps this long and varied history (there's a fuller list here, many much better-known) will also remind us that the causes of and solutions to riots can be too complex for instant answers. For the moment, let's just hope that London soon becomes calm and safe again.

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