Here is the presentation paper I gave at the Institute for Advanced Studies, University of Bristol, ‘Rethinking History from Below: Origins, Trajectories, Prospects’, held on 16 June, 2017.

I want you to imagine a riot. I want you to place yourself in the midst of that riot, dead center. What do you see? What’s going down?

Now let me show you one in which there was a sale. The year:1766. The town: Cirencester in Gloucestershire. A crowd numbering about a thousand descended upon the town. They came from surrounding villages – Minchinhampton to the west, Lechlade to the southeast. Weavers, mostly. They were upset. Food prices had skyrocketed. The market square filled with them carrying cudgels and grudges about low wages, engrossers, forestallers, and regraters. Both men and women, children too, a huge throng seized all the corn, flour, cheese, and bacon. After absconding with an immense amount of food, the so-called mob then reopened the market and commenced to selling what they had seized: the wheat at ‘five shillings a bushel’, cheese at two-pence per pound new, two pence and a half penny aged – prices from the previous year.[1] Of the produce that did not sell, it was returned to the original peddlers, the money collected turned over to the local sheriff.[2]

If this genre of rioting was not what you were expecting, then perhaps it is time to rethink the history of those from below. What I just portrayed was a food crisis, one that struck the Midlands in the middle of the eighteenth century. For historians, a good crisis provides an excellent opportunity. A crisis generates all sorts of commentary: from local magistrates to parliamentary officials, from newspapers accounts to clerical sermons, the words that get written and recorded reveal to us the just-beneath-the-surface of what life was truly like back in the days.

So, imagine two concurrent crises. What a depth of primary materials that must have generated, a veritable goldmine of commentaries. Now imagine three crises all coexisting at the same time and in the same space. If only there were such time – a historian’s mecca.

I’m here to tell you that such a space/time continuum did exist, and the documents that were generated then do reveal a tremendous amount about what life was like in the middle of the eighteenth century. By focusing upon the years 1755 through 1757 we historians can witness three concurrent major crises that of food, gangs, and war. Brevity of minutes forces me to get right to it.

rethinking history from belowIn January of 1755, the Admiralty Office issued orders to raise 30,000 men to man and ready 95 ships for an expected war with France (in fact, this expectation blossomed into the Seven Years’ War).[3] The chosen method of raising men was through impressment. But for many, being pressed into service meant a loss of liberty. Many, however, were not complicit and chose to resist impressments. Resistance was both spontaneous and planned. Key word there: planned. One example comes to us through admiralty papers held at the National Maritime Museum’s Caird Library. In the Kent County coastal town of Deal, rioters disguised themselves and at various rendezvous and checkpoints simultaneously attacked Lieutenant Cunningham and his gang. Several of the Lieutenant’s men were wounded and assistance from nearby soldiers was necessary to end the ambush.[4]

There are literally hundreds of such actions recorded throughout the eighteenth century where subjects of the British crown, those from below, practiced violence against navy press gangs. Nicholas Rogers who authored The Press Gang: Impressment and its Opponents in Georgian Britain continues to uncover these incidents and so I will not dwell upon them here other than to state that one can infer from such violence that liberty had something to with it. We can infer then that British liberties meant something to those from below and was not just a purview belonging to the merchant or political class.

By October of 1756, much of Britain succumbed to the largest and most intense food riots heretofore then seen, perhaps Britain’s first nationwide food crisis.[5] And like our opening scene where weavers seized food to set the prices back a year so that those from below could afford to eat, the same had occurred in 1756 some ten years prior. Price setting, the seizing of food and reselling it at a lower price, in the eyes of the lower ranks was not theft. In fact, it was the moral thing to do and was known to ‘set in motion political processes that often led to food relief…’.[6] E. P. Thompson pointed out in his famed essay ‘the Moral Economy of the English Crowd’, that those from below held a great ‘reverence’ for laws which reinforced reciprocity within England’s great eighteenth-century wealth gaps.[7] Workers throughout Britain demanded from authorities their ‘constitutional’ protections, to rebalance an economy gone wrong, and to support them against perceived monopolistic trade practices.[8] Andrew Charlesworth indicates that during a dearth crisis many organized bands of colliers, weavers, tinners, what have you, worked hard to ‘retain the goodwill and sympathy’ of their betters.[9] This can be readily viewed in the pages of the press where this moral approach to price-setting was often posted. The Glasgow Journal advertised that ‘the poor suffer’ at the hands of forestallers and regrators. Local magistrates then created a separate market for the poor only, to open every ‘lawful’ possible day during the shortage.[10] The Reading Mercury printed that ‘To take away the Life of the Poor, who break the Laws for Want of Bread, and to suffer great Traitors to … plunder the Publick of Millions with Impunity, is a great and manifest Injustice…’.[11] The Monitor, a newspaper set up by one of London’s wealthiest men, William Beckford, used biblical verses to morally lambast the government reminding the ministry that ‘All great and wise kingdoms and states have in their sumptuary laws’ eminent means of ‘assisting’ those less fortunate in times of shortages; for a cure, the state should bestow rewards ‘upon the head of him that selleth Corn without grinding the face of the poor’.[12]

This doesn’t mean that those from below would not resort to violence. When rioters felt threatened, crossed, cheated, or somehow deceived, mob violence turned toward destruction of property.[13] At Walsall, north of Birmingham, some 500 men tore down a boulting mill when price negotiations for flour broke down.[14] When several mills were attacked east of Exeter, Sir George Yonge rushed to the market place at Ottery St. Mary to prevent further property damage. There, he negotiated prices for wheat between himself, the mob, the mayor and several farmers. A deal was struck ‘Everything was quiet immediately’ once the farmers cut the price.[15]

It should be made clear at this point that most countryside rioters were not agricultural labourers. Rather, these roving mobs usually consisted of wage earners: men, women, and families that possessed little, if any, ties to the local gentry.[16] They were colliers, weavers, or paid piece-men of the cottage industries that had begun to develop in the rural enclaves of England in the early decades of the eighteenth century. Such workers were wholly reliant upon a market system that brought them sustenance. When markets faltered, as they did 1756 and 1757, these non-agricultural labourers nonetheless attempted to rely upon ‘emergency measures’ developed in medieval days where local magistrates set prices and assured access to foodstuffs for the poor.[17]

These unwritten moral codes need to be underscored, for the reciprocity they bore at times of dearth were also banked upon in the runup to the Seven Years’ War, but in the other direction. In 1756, the riots against Admiral John Byng, who the ministry and court accused of losing the Island of Minorca in the Mediterranean to France, appear instructive rather than cathartic. If the attacks against press gangs were based upon defending liberties, and if food riots were based upon preserving and promoting economic morality, what was the impetus to riot against an active wartime admiral? The non-violent nature of these protests gives us the answer: the riots against the admiral were not riots at all, rather street theatre run by betters to teach the lower ranks how best to respond to Minorca’s loss.[18]

Take, for example a Byng protest held at a racecourse in Worcester. Here, on the Severn River, a reenactment of the Battle of Minorca was to take place. However, ‘one of the Proxy admiral’s refus’d to engage’. The local press indicated that at the ‘End of one of the Booths on the Course’ there hung an effigy of ‘an Uncertain Sea Officer…’. This booth resided next to the river where the reenactment was to take place. When no mock battle occurred, good fortune reigned and good instructions followed whereby a ‘vast Number of People, with Sticks, Stones, &c’ to pay their ‘due Respects’ to Byng’s effigy.[19] In London, an effigy of:

a certain famous Admiral was, after having been privately shewn to many Ladies and Gentlemen, brought in an open Sedan, guarded by a Number of young Gentlemen under Arms, with Drums beating, Colours flying, to Tower-Hill, where a Gallows was erected for him at Six the same Morning. He was carried round the Hill for the Pleasure of the Merchants Families, and the Gentlemen of the Navy Office, &c. the Populace loudly huzzaing, and the Gentry joining in the Acclamations. He was richly dress’d in a Blue and Gold Coat, Buff Waistcoat, trimmed, &c. in full Uniform. When brought under the Gallows… his Clergyman (a Chimney Sweeper) had given him some Admonitions; when done, he was drawn, by Pullies, up to the Top of it, which was twenty Foot high; every Person expressing as much Satisfaction as if it had been the real Person…[20]

This is not a ‘from below’ riot. There can be no doubt that a tremendous amount of forethought and money went into this particular production of street theatre.

drunken relief

A scene from the print “A Court Conversation,” depicting ample alcohol given to a crowd burning an effigy of Admiral Byng.

Even in colonial Boston, accounts of an anti-Byng protest carried a certain ‘from below’ tinge. Yet, upon closer examination, the hands of elites were everywhere. First, the said protest occurred on Pope’s Day, 5 November 1756. Second, Pope’s Day in Boston was traditionally an anti-Catholic celebration uniquely ritualized to that city. Boston’s streets became theatre as money and organizational support fell to the lower ranks to perform. Two gangs, one from Boston’s north end and the other from the south, built platforms, decorated effigies, and produced other ephemera in a day-long competition. Mobile stages carried by the gangs positioned a pope’s effigy sitting in a chair. Standing behind the pope, an effigy of the devil.

But in 1756, two other effigies appeared: Admiral Byng hanging from a gallows, and Nancy Dawson, a famous London actress known for dancing the ‘Sailor’s Hornpipe’ in between acts of the Beggar’s Opera.[21] Perhaps her effigy represented all that was good and virtuous in a sailor’s life whereas Byng was purported to be her opposite – important in a port city such as Boston. Nonetheless, each gang wheeled their platforms through certain checkpoints. On occasion, these processions passed one another and gave a great show of theatrical civility. At night, however (and perhaps to the amusement of Boston’s betters), these gangs met at designated checkpoints and ‘battle ensued with fists, sticks, and stones’[22] until one gang was able to steal away the other gang’s pope. The addition of Byng and Dawson to this theatre of the streets was no doubt great amusement to all, but likely a whim dreamed up Boston authorities wishing to score political points back in 1756 London.

The morality of the food riots played into this. Just as there was a certain sense of moral indignation in food markets, moralizing attacks against Byng similarly existed. In fact, some of the same professional moralists and enthusiasts, otherwise known as religious clerics, that spoke to the wickedness of the market system also proselytized against Byng. London-based Congregationalist minister Thomas Gibbons, for example, fanned the flame against the admiral to his lay folk at Haberdasher Hall. Gibbons also published and distributed sermons that were overtly anti-Byng.[23] The connection between food and Byng ran on anti-luxury sentiments. For decades clerics had ranted against luxury as an evil that afflicted the nation. Byng’s arrest and awaited trial provided ample fodder to bear proof to such an assertion.[24] Admiral John Byng, thus, personified the ill effects of the luxury debate.[25]

According to the Edinburgh Evening Courant, the stupefied nature of the country was caused entirely by ‘Luxury and Indolence,’ which kept ‘the Great’ unable ‘to exert themselves to the utmost’,[26] the very argument upon which Byng’s execution went forward. That Byng was the son of a peer, a member of Parliament, and somewhat wealthy allowed plebeian imaginations to associate luxury (and other associated vices) upon the admiral with apparent ease. The moral indignation wasn’t any matter that appeared ancient or old, but rather more fixated upon religious-based nationalisms and xenophobic ends.[27]

Paternal relations, rather than political obligations, may have dictated Byng protests outside of London.[28] The rural gentry, to promote stability, may have donated funds for the dressing of effigies, or even participated in the Byng protests out of self-interest, to keep the peace. Which is why in Dudley – a mere seven miles from Walsall, the site where a boulting mill was torn down by 500 men – an anti-Byng burning took place some two and a half weeks later.[29]

As I am swiftly running out of time let me conclude by stating that these three concurrent crises: food, gangs, and war; tell us something about those from below, about how they defined liberty, morality, and their relationships between rich, poor, and middling folks.


[1] Outhwaite argues mobs resold seized foodstuffs at the previous year’s prices. See, R. B. Outhwaite, Dearth, Public Policy and Social Disturbance in England, 1550-1800, (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 48.

[2] Charlesworth, ‘Morals, Markets and the English Crowd in 1766’, Past & Present, n. 114 (February 1987), 208-210.

[3] Stephen Gradish, The Manning of the British Navy during the Seven Years War (London: Royal Historical Society, 1980), 32. At the end of 1754, the navy payroll showed 10,000. See, ADD MS 32857, ff. 8-34.

[4] NMM, ADM/B/150, Stephens to the Navy Board, 23 March 1755.

[5] An Atlas of Rural Protest in Britain, 1548-1900, edited by Andrew Charlesworth (Beckenham, UK: Croom Helm, 1993), 86.

[6] John Bohstedt, “Food Riots and the Politics of Provisions in World History,” Institute of Development Studies (May 2014), 3.

[7] E. P. Thompson, ‘The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century’, Past & Present , no. 50 (February 1971), 96.

[8] Charlesworth, ‘Morals’, 208.

[9] Charlesworth, ‘Morals’, 204.

[10] Glasgow Journal, 6 Sep 1756. On Scotland’s experience and response to the dearth of 1756-7, see: Christopher A. Whatley, ‘Custom, Commerce, and Lord Meadowbak: the Management of the Meal Market in Urban Scotland, c. 1740 – c. 1820’, Journal of Scottish Historical Studies, vol. 32, no. 1 (May 2012), 1-27.

[11] Quote attributed to Nicholas Rogers, Crowds, Culture, and Politics in Georgian Britain (Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1998), 63-4.

[12] Monitor or British Freeholder, 6 Aug 1757.

[13] Charlesworth, ‘Morals’, 207.

[14] Douglas Hay, ‘Patronage, Paternalism, and Welfare: Master, Workers, and Magistrates in Eighteenth Century England,’ International Labor and Working Class History, no. 53 (Spring 1998), 33. See also, Jeremy N. Caple, ‘North Midlands: August and September 1756,’ in An Atlas of Rural Protest in Britain, 1548-1900, edited by Andrew Charlesworth (Beckenham, UK: Croom Helm, 1983), 111-3; Worcester Journal, 29 July 1756.

[15] Thompson, ‘The Moral Economy’, 122-3.

[16] Robert W. Malcolmson, ‘Workers’ Combinations in Eighteenth-Century England,’ in The Origins of Anglo-American Radicalism, (London: Humanities Press, 1984), 170.

[17] Thompson, ‘The Moral Economy’, 108.

[18] King argues Thompson’s plebian/patrician model as too simplistic. Peter King, ‘Edward Thompson’s Contribution to Eighteenth-Century Studies. The Patrician: Plebian Model Re-Examined’, Social History, vol. 21, no. 2 (May 1996), 223.

[19] Italics not mine. Berrow’s Worcester Journal, 5 August 1756.

[20] Berrow’s Worcester Journal, 2 September 1756.

[21] Dawson was the stage name for Ann Newton. See, K. D. Reynolds, ‘Nancy Dawson,’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004).

[22] H. Niles, Principles and Acts of the Revolution in America: or, an Attempt to Collect and Preserve some of the Speeches, Orations, and Proceedings, with Sketches and Remarks on Men and Things, and Other Fugitive or Neglected Pieces Belonging to the Revolutionary Period in the United States, which, Happily, Terminated in the Establishment of Their Liberties: with a View to Represent the Feeling that Prevailed in ‘The Times That Tried Men’s Souls,’ to Excite a Love of Freedom, and Lead the People to Vigilance, as the Condition on which it is Granted, (Baltimore, 1822), 499.

[23] Gibbons wrote the introduction to The Crisis, a sermon produced by Samuel Davies from colonial Virginia. Gibbons ensured the sermon achieved coverage by having it published at three London print houses. Gibbons preached Ezekiel 9:4 before his flock, a biblical passage that encouraged protests. Samuel Davies, The Crisis: or, The uncertain Doom of Kingdoms at particular Times, considered With Reference to Great-Britain and her Colonies in their present Circumstances, (London: 1757). See also, Dr. Williams’ Library of Dissenting Religion, Thomas Gibbons, diary entry, 14 July 1756.

[24] James Raven, ‘Defending Conduct and Property: The London press and the luxury debate,’ in Early Modern Conceptions of Property, eds., John Brewer and Susan Staves (London: Routledge, 1995), 301.

[25] By mid-century, the British periodical press provided ample verification of a culture steeped in anti-luxury rhetoric woven amidst patriotic appeals. See, John Sekora, Luxury: The Concept in Western Thought, Eden to Smollett, (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1977), 155.

[26] Edinburgh Evening Courant, 11 September 1756.

[27] For a sense of England’s religious nationalism see Leah Greenfeld’s chapter ‘God’s First Born: England,’ in Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992).

[28] Thompson reported strong eighteenth-century reciprocity embedded within paternalistic efforts to maintain social order: not only present but necessary. Edward P. Thompson, Customs in Common: Studies in Traditional Popular Culture (New York: The New Press, 1993), 79, and 269.

[29] Worcester Journal, 29 July 1756.