The mob at its worst
Eighteenth century anger against immigrants.
By Ruth Herman
The Panshanger collection in Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies is a treasure trove of letters illustrating moments in history which are remarkable in the way they resonate with our own time. One of these gems is a letter written to Lord Cowper, the Lord Chancellor of England. It describes riots taking place in Spitalfields, London, in 1709. The angry mob are furious at new-fangled machines introduced in the silk manufacturing process. It is not clear exactly who these enterprising weavers were but at the same time as these riots there were several things which had incensed the incumbent cloth workers. The first was Queen Anne’s excessive period of mourning for her beloved Prince George of Denmark, which stopped people buying ribbons and thereby reducing the silk craftsmen’s income. In addition to this in May 1709 there was a steady stream of Protestant Germans from the Rhenish Palatinate fleeing persecution. This soon became a deluge consisting of 14,000 foreigners encouraged by the General Naturalization Act of 1709. The early eighteenth century version of a refugee camp, tents and all, was set up on Blackheath to the south of London. In Germany spinning machines using treadles had been introduced and it was possible these had been brought over and were cheapening the silk manufacturing process.
The London working classes were not too pleased and they were ‘very loud on all occasions to rail at their coming over, at their being employed and of their taking the bread out of the mouths of the poor … they raised slanders upon the poor peoples behaviour – in order … to straighten the hands of those that are inclined to relieve them’.
Whatever sparked off this particular ‘tumult’ it seems to have been part of a general disquiet. The following, although not reported (as far as I can tell) in contemporary newspapers, shows the ugly side of an angry mob.
HALS refs: D/EP 54, 42 and 43
July 2nd 1709
Saturday past 8 a clock at night
Hearing the Secretary of State are gone to Windsor I thought it my duty to acquaint you Lordship how the matter stands in Spittle Fields. The enclosed has the particulars from the Lieutenancy of the Hamletts. I hope those 4 companies will be sufficient if not I shall order more help from ours of London which I would avoid unless there be an absolute necessity – I shall be diligent to take all possible care to keep the public peace and am
With all only imaginable
Your Lordship’s most faithful humble servant
Char: Duncombe Mayor
July 2nd 1709
10 at night
My Lord [Cowper]
The best account I can yet have is from those that came down this morning to Whitehall which was [Col Le Shuse ?] and a constable whose name I do not know, but they say it was an engine that some weavers had made that would wind silk at a very cheap rate, so that many that’s used to be employed had no work and that occasioned this disorder just now. I have asked that the mob have taken several of those engines and burnt them in Swanfields. The Sheriiff with the militia having made proclamations for preserving the peace many of them was dispersed so that I hope we shall put an end to this matter, if anything extraordinary should happen tomorrow I shall send your Lordship word to Windsor.
Be pleased on Monday to let me have the letter of the lieutenant I am
Your most obedient humble servant
 Daniel Defoe Review of the State of the British Nation (London) August 6, 1709; Issue 54.