Today marks the 250th anniversary of the government shooting dead rioters in Southwark.
What is known as the Massacre of St George’s Fields took place on 10th May 1768 when protestors massed in St George’s Fields, Southwark, and when they refused to leave, troops opened fire.
Six or seven people were killed.
If that doesn’t sound like a massacre by the modern standards, remember that London’s population was far smaller then — it’s the equivalent of around 70 people being shot by the government today.
Truly a massacre, and it all started with a newspaper and a politician.
A few years earlier, in 1762, the liberal minded MP, John Wilkes, who agitated for electoral reform started up his own newspaper, the North Briton, and the following year wrote an article that severely criticized the King, George III.
The newspaper article has become notorious for a number of reasons. Firstly, it criticized the King, which was no small matter in those days, but also because it attacked a speech that commended the popular peace treaty that ended the Seven Years War.
Significantly, it was the 45th issue of the newspaper that Wilkes chose for the attack, which was seen as a reference to the Jacobite Rising of 1745, commonly known as “The ’45”, so a further attack on the right of the King the rule.
This was sedition, but as an MP, he was protected from prosecution, so the Crown was forced to leave him alone. Emboldened, he carried on, but he later published a poem that was considered to be obscene and blasphemous, and facing expulsion from the Commons, he fled to Paris, and was found guilty in his absence.
Forced back to London in 1768 by poverty, after a false start, he managed to get re-elected as an MP for Middlesex, but surrendered his parliamentary immunity and was arrested.
This outraged the public, and crowds began assembling in Southwark, not far from the Kings Bench where he was being held in prison.
It’s thought that around 15,000 people had gathered by the 10th May 1768, and the army was called for to protect the prison where Wilkes was serving his sentence.
It seems that one man in a bright red coat goaded the troops, who chased him into a barn… and shot the wrong man.
The crowds were growing increasingly restless, and more troops were called for, and the Justices of the Peace read out the Riot Act, ordering the crowd to disperse. At the time, reading the riot act, which is today a common phrase for being in trouble, was an actual legal instrument that forbade the gathering of more than 12 people in any one place.
Back to the crowd, which was getting more riotous, with stones now being thrown at the soldiers, who eventually opened fire. The details vary, from six to eleven people were killed, although the lower figure is now the generally accepted range.
The crowd fled, but that simply dispersed them into pockets of agitated men across the city, and looting was widespread for the rest of the day.
A few months later, two of the soldiers were brought to trial, but one was acquitted and the other escaped.
Wilkes himself was released from prison in March 1770, going on to become Lord Mayor of London in 1774, and a few years later turned against the people, using force to put down the anti-papist Gordon Riots. Which was quite a turn up for the formerly radical MP.
Today though, the Massacre of St George’s Fields is a moderately little known incident in the history of Britain, although it’s precedents concerning the application of the Riot Act are well known in legal circles.
Yet, it almost became far better known — for it’s claimed that seeing London being rioted, the King even considered abdication. Had that happened, the Massacre of St George’s Fields would probably be one of the defining moments in UK history.
The day the people brought down a King.