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January 17, 2006

Violence in London: The London Mob: Violence and Disorder in Eighteenth-Century England - Robert Shoemaker

Posted by Jeremy Black

The London Mob: Violence and Disorder in Eighteenth-Century England
by Robert Shoemaker
Pp. xv+393. London: Hambledon, 2004
Hardback, 19.99

Lawlessness has a long history and it is valuable to focus on its relationship with social pressures and trends. Ably grounded in a mastery of the relevant articles, and supported by numerous illustrations, Shoemaker's study treats the full range of violence and disorder, and uses this in order to offer a searching discussion of social and cultural trends.

For example, a thoughtful chapter on public insults closes by arguing that ways in which reputations were attacked and defended changed during the course of the Eighteenth-century. To the extent that reputation was still determined externally, as opposed to the increasing role accorded to conscience, the opinions that shaped it were less often those of neighbours and more likely, instead, those of narrower reference groups, such as voluntary associations, religious congregations, or work-place and business contacts. In this context, Shoemaker argues, attacking the reputations of others came to be a more private affair. He also sees a social dimension, with public insult increasingly associated with "lower-class" Londoners.

This is linked to a transformation of the public space (p. 110):

By the end of the century, London's streets, their functions now dominated by traffic and architectural display, had become inappropriate places to establish and destroy reputations. Shame works differently in the modern city.
Indeed, according to Shoemaker, by the end of the Eighteenth-century, the age of the mob was over. He argues that crowds were less likely to form spontaneously, and, instead, that protests were planned in advance and participants were recruited with printed handbills and posters.

Violence also became less common on the streets. Shoemaker suggests that this was not a product of better policing, but rather of the extent to which definitions of individual honour came to be less dependent on publicly-established reputations.

Furthermore, cut off from the day-to-day practices of publicly resolving disputes, the popularity of boxing and duelling declined. The courts, however, did not become more popular as a way to conduct disputes, possibly, Shoemaker, suggests, because of the cost of going to law and the increasing publicity accorded to legal proceedings. Furthermore, the frequency of malicious prosecutions undermined respect for the law. Indeed, Shoemaker argues, although plaintiffs knew the law as an effective tool for harassment (p. 224):

they must have had little confidence that they would obtain justice.
By the end of the Eighteenth-century, however, the realm of print was regarded as too public to allow discussions of personal needs and individual reputations to be effective, unless those involved were public figures.

Shoemaker concludes that, while the streets were better policed, and elite and middle-class behaviour was increasingly governed by polite ideals, the transformation of public life caused by the changing relationship between the individual and the community was key to the decline of the mob.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. Amongst much else, he is the author of The European Question and the National Interest (Social Affairs Unit, forthcoming).

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