Violent London: 2000 Years of Riots, Rebels and Revolts

January 6, 2011

The displays of the heads and body parts of the executed, which adorned bridges and city gates, offered a grim welcome to travellers as they approached medieval or early modern London. They can be seen as symbolic of the city's violent history related by Clive Bloom.

This lively account of the protests, riots, demonstrations, rebellions, assassinations and bombings that are part of London's history begins with the destruction of Londinium and the massacre of its population by Boudicca. Bloom depicts the British queen, who, "with her waist-length red hair...appeared a 'giantess' to the Roman opponents - a banshee from Hell, leading screaming warriors" and leaving devastation in her wake. After this, even the Peasants' Revolt and the Gordon Riots seem only modestly violent episodes, and the Chartist demonstrations positively orderly.

Bloom's story is told with brio, but he tends to elide London's and England's histories. So many major events took place in the centre of government that sometimes this history reads like a rather bloody version of a national history, which would inevitably include much of the same material.

Like all capital cities, London was a stage for the theatre of monarchy and government but also for the alternative theatre of protest and rebellion; the seizure of London could lead to control of England, while a demonstration in Norwich was unlikely to receive the same attention as one in London. Inevitably, many of the participants in the great demonstrations of London's history came, then as now, from elsewhere.

How violent has London been over the centuries? Cities with their shifting populations and the anonymity they provide have always had a reputation as dangerous places, dangerous to the unwary individual because of thieves and footpads and to their governors because of the way rumours spread, hatreds fester and angry crowds gather. London was no different, but if we compare its history with those of other great capital cities, it could well be argued that London has been relatively peaceful.

It must yield to Paris when it comes to revolutionary violence, and certainly none of its riots over race or religion can compare with the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre of 1572. In that year of revolutions, 1848, the great Chartist demonstration on Kennington Common fizzled out when the police forbade it to cross the river. Socialist demonstrations and Mosleyite marches and even the "Battle" of Cable Street seem small beer in comparison to events on the streets of Berlin.

Despite continual tension between the radical City and Whitehall and Westminster, London seems, on the whole, to have muddled through without too much civil strife, while care taken to protect food supplies meant that bread riots were infrequent.

His expertise on political protest sees Bloom get into his stride with more recent events. He discusses demonstrations, riots, the behaviour of crowds, and the problems of policing them. Contemporary disorders can be viewed in the context of the themes he has traced through the city's past - demands for political reform, attempts at rebellion, plots and assassinations, and mobs inflamed with mindless fury, although these themes are a heterogeneous assortment and jostle uneasily under the heading of violence as do some of the disorders he examines: Countryside Alliance marches, the stunts of Fathers 4 Justice, squalid encampments in Parliament Square, and the scuffles and window-breaking that accompanied the G20 meeting.

The book was published just before the recent demonstrations against the rise in tuition fees, which resulted in riots in central London and illustrate vividly Bloom's analysis of the growth and tactics of the modern anarchist movement, but, if it was unable to include these events, they add to its pertinence. Even these riots, how-ever, pale in their degree of violence in comparison with the reactions in Athens, Paris and Rome to cuts in governments' expenditure.

As Bloom recognises, however, violence has reached a new level with the bombings of 7 July and the continuing threat from Islamic terrorism, a terrorism that had no precedent in the capital's past (which has included massive and violent riots, plots to blow up important buildings, attacks on royal carriages, and the murder by bombers of soldiers and civilians), for not even Guy Fawkes, the wildest anarchist or the most dedicated Fenian wished to blow himself up as part of his vocation.

No previous terrorist organisation had potential access to weapons and chemicals that could lead to a Boudiccan amount of destruction, nor possessed the combination of an international network and internal supporters on the scale of Islamist jihadists.

As Bloom argues, if Islamic terrorism is the main threat to contemporary London, it is not the only one; breakaway IRA units remain a danger, while the murder of Alexander Litvinenko suggests that Russian agents move in London's shadows. "Dirty, muddled and old London" (and perhaps, as Wole Soyinka has suggested, too tolerant London) may face a future more violent than the past this book describes so vividly.

Violent London: 2000 Years of Riots, Rebels and Revolts

By Clive Bloom. Palgrave Macmillan, 616pp, £16.99. ISBN 97802305591. Published 8 September 2010

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