The story begins with violence: in the summer of 1780 London was the scene of the worst riots the city had ever experienced, and which were to prove the “largest, deadliest and most protracted urban riots in British history”. The death toll was probably about 1,000 people altogether (in proportion to the population of the capital, this remains the highest percentage of deaths in a riot yet known).
The physical damage to the structure of the city would not be surpassed until the Blitz in the Second World War. Known to history as the Gordon Riots – famously commemorated by Dickens in Barnaby Rudge, when he wrote of “a moral plague” running through the city – they were initiated by the militantly anti-Catholic son of a Scottish duke, who was a Member of the British Parliament.
Riots were certainly not unknown in 18th-century London: there had been the so-called Wilkes Riots in the 1760s and the Keppel Riots after that; but in degree of violence, the Gordon Riots excelled them. Symbols of the state were attacked; 10 Downing Street, already the official residence of the prime minister, Lord North, was assaulted at two o’clock in the morning by protesters bearing lighted flambeaux and faggots: they had to be driven off by 20 dragoons on horseback. Meanwhile the prime minister’s dinner guests climbed onto the roof in order to see the fires burning as far as the horizon.
If prime ministers were obvious targets for attack, private individuals were not safe either. Lady Anne Erskine was a Scottish lady living quietly in a house attached to Spa Fields Chapel in Clerkenwell. She wrote: “Such a scene my eyes never beheld, and I pray God I never may again. The situation of the place which is high and very open gave us an awful prospect of it. We were surrounded by flames.
Six different fires – with that of Newgate towering to the clouds … with every hour we were in expectation of this house and chapel making the seventh. The sky was like blood with the reflection of the fires.” Ten years later, the literary Ladies of Llangollen, gazing at a fierce crimson sunset, were still irresistibly reminded of the Gordon Riots.
Susanna, sister of another literary lady, Fanny Burney, was living just off Leicester Fields (the modern Leicester Square); the house had formerly belonged to Sir Isaac Newton and still had his old observatory attached. From here the 25-year-old Susanna heard the violent shouts and huzzas as all the furniture of their neighbour was piled up in the square, and his servant forced to bring a candle to light the bonfire: “My knees went knicky knocky,” she confessed. The next night was worse. She watched another house in her own street totally emptied and set alight. The rioters, covered in smoke and dust, looked like “so many Infernals” in the firelight.
Suddenly the little group in the window, consisting of Susanna, her sister Esther and brother-in-law, caught the attention of the crowd below: “They are all three Papists!” was the cry. It was a dangerous acclamation. “Call out No Popery or anything,” said Esther urgently to her husband. (They were not in fact Catholics.)
In a similar fashion, the Jews in Houndsditch would inscribe “This house is a true Protestant” on their dwellings to preserve themselves. One foreigner simply wrote “No Religion” outside his own house, although he also more explicitly draped himself in the blue ribbons of the rioters in the cause of self-preservation.
The mere word “Popery” was inflammatory in its own style. Many of the ignorant crowd, when not seriously bent on plunder as such crowds tend to be, were aware of “Popery” as an evil which needed to be restrained without seeking any further information. There were 10,000 stout fellows, as Daniel Defoe had written earlier in the century in The Behaviour of Servants, who would spend their last drop of blood against Popery but “do not know whether it be a man or a horse”.
An illustration of this was the bewilderment of a certain group at the time of the actual Riots when called to attack a house “as there were Catholics there”. They replied: “What are Catholics to us? We are against Popery.” Maria Edgeworth, in her novel featuring these events, Harrington, picked on another area of ignorance.
A certain woman observer was amazed at the assault on a particular carriage, and the breaking of the windows of a house; for surely these were not “Romans”. When assured they were: “How is that, when they’re not Irish? For I’ll swear to they’re not being Irish …” This particular mob responded with lethal simplicity: “We require the Papists to be given up for your lives,” and then added for good measure: “No Jews! No wooden shoes!”
This was the kind of mindless cruelty which was responsible for the deliberate incineration of the canaries belonging to a rich silk merchant named Malo, on the grounds that they were “Popish birds”.
Extracted from The King and the Catholics: The Fight for Rights 1829 by Antonia Fraser (Weidenfeld and Nicolson)