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The Mob is A Movement: In the final extract from A People's History of London, Lindsey German and John Rees conclude their explanation of the roots of rebellion and protest in the nature of London as a city

Lindsey German and John Rees, A People's History of London (Verso 2012), 310pp.

London’s mob, a term for the mass crowd which assembles in London over a wide variety of issues, was capable of laying siege to Parliament, demonstrating, rioting and attacking the rich. The mob was also a means of communication where news and information seem to spread like wildfire. The term ‘mob’ comes from the Latin term mobile vulgus, coined in the eighteenth century to describe the labouring poor. Peter Linebaugh has suggested that it could be translated as ‘movement’, which has less pejorative overtones and places it in the context of protest.[9] The campaign in the mid eighteenth century in support of John Wilkes and his attempts to be re-elected as an MP, while king and Parliament did their best to stop him, saw repeated mobilization of the mob, their cry being ‘Wilkes and Liberty’. There was a complex relationship between the mob and sections of the upper and middle classes, some of whom at least partly licenced and tolerated it for their own political ends: ‘the Londoners who mobbed the carriages and broke the windows of the Great knew . . . that they were acting under licence.’[10]

Most famous of the actions of the eighteenth-century ‘mob’ were the Gordon riots of 1780, shortly before the impact of the French Revolution on London helped to change the nature of protest. The threat to privilege and property that erupted across the channel in 1789 shook the British ruling class, and over the next four years events frightened them even further as the French monarchy and aristocracy were overthrown and executed. ‘Church and King’ mobs were licenced by magistrates and clergy to attack supporters of the revolution, although in London they never took off. Repressive laws were aimed at crushing dissent. The French wars and this period of repression of politics marked a watershed. Never again did the city’s political elite unleash the mob to behave in this way. By the early nineteenth century the city’s aldermen and politicians could not risk the assault on property and the rule of law that the mob threatened, hence the establishment of a London police force. But the mob did not entirely disappear, resurfacing with the demonstrations in 1886 and 1887, when window smashing in Pall Mall frightened the extremely wealthy ruling class with the threat of a rising by the poor. The mob took to the streets in the mass strikes of 1888 and 1889, and in the great unrest of 1910–14. This time however it was channelled into a growing and militant labour movement. It surfaced again in the 1930s with the great demonstrations of the jobless, many of which turned into riots when attacked by the police.

In 1981 young black Londoners (along with their counterparts elsewhere in the country) rose up against racism and oppression, rioting in Brixton and being joined by white youth in these most working class of areas. In 1990 the mass demonstration against the Poll Tax turned into a riot across central London, which, along with general non-payment of the tax, succeeded in getting rid of Margaret Thatcher as well as the tax itself. The student demonstrations at the end of 2010 showed many of the characteristics of the traditional mob. Large numbers of young and relatively poor people gathered quickly, since the use of new media allowed them to communicate from the furthest suburbs to central London, thus breaking down some of the logistical difficulties presented by the geographical spread of London; they expressed an unrelenting opposition to the government and elite, and targeted hated buildings (Tory HQ and the Treasury).

In the summer of 2011, the riots which erupted across London were denounced by politicians and media as the actions of a criminal mob, or ‘feral youth’ as they were described. Criminality could not explain many of the actions, however: they started with the death of a young black man shot by the police in Tottenham, spreading to Hackney where police harassment was a major issue. The shops which were targeted were mostly chain stores, much of the looting was one-off opportunism, symbols of expensive consumerism such as a Notting Hill restaurant were attacked, and those who responded to questions about their motives repeatedly expressed anger about lack of a future, unemployment, inequality, racism and police harassment.

Rich and Poor

London’s mixture of extreme poverty and exploitation, the expansion of working-class districts especially in the East End, the radicalism of the intellectuals who tended to congregate there and who developed alternative ways of thinking, like the women who pioneered the figure of the ‘New Woman’, all combined to create a sympathetic atmosphere for socialist and radical ideas. London also became a seedbed for municipal socialism, with the settlements, housing schemes, education pioneers and health radicals all creating an infrastructure upon which Londoners still rely today.

London’s radicalism has not traditionally been based, as in other British cities such as Manchester or Glasgow, on strong industrial organization with large concentrations of workers. It has rather relied on its sheer size and on its capacity to centralize dissent by virtue of its targets. The fact most frequently commented on by visitors to London since its earliest days is the immensity of the place. The Roman city was the largest in the country. After it was rebuilt in the early Middle Ages it became, again, the largest urban area in Britain. Soon it would become the largest city in Europe. Until the 1950s it was one of the three largest cities in the world, alongside New York and Tokyo. Its population grew from half a million in 1750 to a million by the dawn of the nineteenth century. A hundred years later, it stood at 6 million, the hub of an empire on which ‘the sun never set’. Numbers peaked in 1939 at nearly 9 million, and, despite quite dramatic falls in the second half of the twentieth century, the population of London is now almost 8 million again.[11] The geographical mass of Greater London (the term was recognized long before it became an official government entity in the 1960s) spreads out across the entire map of south-eastern England.

London’s size alone suggests an impersonality and lack of community which would seem to work against radicalism. So too would its pace of life: the speed with which people move around, the hurrying crowds, the callousness often noted at the centre of the city, all give it an air of unfriendliness, even cruelty, remarked on especially by outsiders.

It is also a city of phenomenal wealth. The scale of the wealth today, as of the poverty which is its opposite, is greater than at any time since the eighteenth century when plantation owners flaunted the riches created out of chattel slavery. It is impossible to ignore this wealth throughout central London and in its richer inner residential areas. There are many other parts of London where it is impossible to believe that such riches exist. The poverty in the eastern half of inner London boroughs is on a par with anywhere else in Britain, and many inhabitants rarely leave their local areas.

Yet London is almost unique in the proximity with which rich and poor live together.

It is hard to fi nd social statistics as extreme and environments as different but so close together as are found within the hearts of London and New York. The intertwining of rich and poor neighbourhoods is far greater in the centres of these two cities than anywhere else in the rich world.[12]

All of the elements which contribute to the alienation of so many from London are also the source of much of its radicalism. London’s size in relation to the rest of Britain gives its working class and poor a clout which, when they care to use it, has a major political impact. The impersonality of the city forces its inhabitants to come together in all sorts of different ways to try developing community, organization and civil society so as to alleviate some of the worst features of city life. And the wealth of the London rich is a source of daily resentment for the vast majority of those inhabitants who help to produce that wealth. It is they who ensure that a city of this size continues to function, but who are rewarded by levels of inequality which are all the more staggering since they are in such contrast to the riches on display.

There may be as many discontinuities as continuities between the Roman city and today’s metropolis. Indeed, as we shall see, there is not even a physical continuity of the same inhabited area which lasts over that span of time. But there are nevertheless some long periods where similar patterns of development are identifi able, long-term causes which explain the shape of the city and the nature of its radicalism.

The London of the twenty-first century is reproducing the conditions that gave rise to radical and socialist ideas in the past. Glittering skyscrapers are transforming the London horizon more quickly than ever before. The city is moving east again, creating a huge pool of poverty bordered by wealth in the City, Canary Wharf and the new Olympic development in Stratford. But this is only the most visible form of the inequality that is growing across the metropolis.

Going by most measures, indeed, London has more than its fair share of disadvantage compared with the rest of Britain. In 2011 over one million Londoners lived in low-income families where at least one adult is working. That figure has increased by 60 per cent over the last decade. Housing costs are a critical factor in explaining why London has the highest poverty rates of all England’s regions. Taking housing into account, the poverty rate in London is 28 per cent, compared to 22 per cent in the rest of England. Again, the gap has grown in the last decade. Nearly 50 per cent of young adults are paid less than the London Living Wage. The unemployment rate among young people is at its highest level for nearly twenty years (23 per cent) and rising. Despite, on average, being better qualified than young people in the rest of England, young Londoners are more likely to be unemployed.

Inequality in London is staggering. The poorest 50 per cent have less than 5 per cent of financial or property wealth. The richest 10 per cent have 40 per cent of income wealth, 45 per cent of property wealth and 65 per cent of financial wealth. Babies born in Southwark, Croydon, Haringey and Harrow are twice as likely to die before their fi rst birthday as those born in Bromley, Kingston and Richmond. Adults in Hackney are twice as likely to die before the age of sixty-fi ve as those in Kensington & Chelsea.[13] ‘As a rule of thumb, life expectancy falls by one year for each stop that is travelled east from Westminster on the Jubilee line.’[14]

As the 2012 Olympics open, motorcades of dignitaries, politicians, company CEOs and celebrities will sweep through East London on the specially cleared executive super-highway to Stratford that is only open to them. A few yards away, in damp and overcrowded blocks of flats, Black, white, and Asian workers will be preparing to go to work, if they are lucky, in jobs that pay a pittance. Perhaps they will be serving coffee to, or clearing up after, those very same people. For centuries in London such contrasting conditions have produced riots and radicalism, strikes and socialism. That history is unlikely to be over.


[9] Linebaugh, The London Hanged, p. 38.

[10] Thompson, Making of the English Working Class, p. 78.

[11] Available online at demographia.com

[12] D. Dorling,Injustice: Why Social Inequality Persists (Bristol, 2011), p. 288.

[13] T. MacInnes, A. Parekh, P. Kenway, London’s Poverty Profi le 2011 (New Policy Institute, 2011), p. 7.

[14] Greater London Authority Information (London, 2008), available online at london.gov, p. 77.

Tagged under: History