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The Crowd in History: A Study of Popular Disturbances in France and England, 1730-1848

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Faces in the Crowd

We have seen something in earlier chapters of the changing composition of what I have called the pre-industrial crowd. We noted, for example, the role played by peasants and rural craftsmen in French country riots and industrial workers in the English; the particular disposition of weavers and miners to break machinery in English industrial disputes; the youth of some rioters and not of others; the part played by women in certain of the great journées of the French Revolution; and the respective role of farmers and farm laborers in the English rural riots of the 1830's and 40's and that of the workers from the railway repair shops in Paris in June 1848. All these examples suggest that the nature of disturbances and of the crowd's activities are intimately connected with the composition (social, occupational, and other) of those taking part in them. Yet this is an aspect of the question that has been almost entirely neglected by historians and sociologists alike. Historians have, as we saw, been inclined to take refuge behind such omnibus and prejudicial or “value-oriented” labels as “mob” or “the people”; and, adopting as their models Clarendon's “dirty people without name,” Taine's la canaille, or Michelet's le peuple, they have appeared to assume that, whether the crowd's activities were praiseworthy or reprehensible, the crowd must remain an abstract phenomenon without face or identity. And social scientists, for all their serious concern with the crowd's behavior and its underlying motives, have in this respect not done much better.

As we noted in an introductory chapter, the problem is a difficult one to tackle. Not only does the historian have to rely for his answers on “dead” parchment, but the records most often lack both adequacy and precision. If we are concerned with social as well as occupational distinctions, how do we tell whether a “carpenter,” for instance, is a master or a journeyman? As Professor Soboul reminds us, Maurice Duplay, at whose house Robespierre lodged in the Rue St. Honoré in Paris, is simply described as a menuisier (cabinet maker); yet he employed thirty workpeople, had an annual income of 10-12,000 livres, and (so his own daughter tells us) would never dream of allowing any of his journeymen or garçons to sit down to eat at his table. The point is not, of course, that the compilers of contemporary records were just careless in such matters, but that our present “language of class” (to use Professor Briggs's term) has evolved only slowly and that observers of the social scene in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, even those as methodical and diligent as the Parisian commissaires de police and their scribes, thought in terms of different social categories from those in common use today. As long as society was still hierarchical and “aristocratic” and mobility between classes was comparatively unusual – or, if not unusual, officially frowned on – it was normal to think of society in terms of differing “orders,” “ranks,” “degrees,” or “stations” rather than of differing “classes”; and this continued to be the case, due to differing historical circumstances, longer in France than in England.

In France it was generally assumed before the Revolution that the significant divisions were those separating privilégiés (nobles and higher clergy) from roturiers (commoners), the latter being lumped together for official purposes, whether they were peasants, bankers, masters, or journeymen, under the common label of Third Estate. Unofficially, it is true, distinctions were in fact already being made between proprietors or honnêtes gens (whether noble or other) and manual producers, and peasants were generally seen as belonging to a category of their own; but the term ouvrier continued to be applied as readily to masters as to their workpeople, and it was not until the present century that an ouvrier became by definition one who not only worked with his hands but worked for wages for an employer. In England, where industrial society emerged earlier and developed more rapidly, the transition to the modern “language of class” was less prolonged, but it went through similar stages of evolution. In the 1820's and 1830's, a “manufacturer” could as well be a wage earner as an employer; the word “class” was not used as a term of purely social distinction until 1805; and even when terms like “working class” and “middle class” came into use after 1812, they continued to be obscured by such terms as “industrious classes” (note the French equivalent of classes laborieuses) until the middle of the century; and it was another thirty years before old phrases like “orders,” “ranks,” and “degrees” were finally abandoned.

Such considerations are a reminder that even where the documents are reasonably adequate in recording names, identifying faces, and distinguishing between one type of rioter or striker and another, we still have to make the effort to interpret them correctly. On the one hand, we must avoid the temptation to read the past too closely in terms of the present and to apply to the pre-industrial crowd labels only appropriate to later times: it was precisely for this reason that a French writer, Daniel Guérin, was taken to task by his critics when he presented the Parisian sans-culottes of 1793-5 as though they were a modern industrial proletariat in embryo. But, equally, we have to avoid falling into the opposite error, which is to be bound too closely and literally by the social labels used by contemporary writers and observers. The fact that a memorialist or police agent of 1789 may, in using such terms as ouvriers or “industrious classes,” make no distinction between employers and wage earners, does not oblige us to do the same. Whatever contemporaries may have thought about it, society is continuously evolving and developing and there is bound to be a time lag separating the emergence of new social forms and forces and their recognition in the “language of class” used by dictionaries and encyclopedias. To take an obvious example: the appearance of new classes of factory workers and manufacturing entrepreneurs in England, the product of her industrial revolution, was a social reality long before contemporary opinion was fully aware of what was taking place. Here, of course, the historian, though so often at a disadvantage, has the advantage of being able to look back at the whole course of development, and can thus gauge more precisely the exact point of transition and devise social labels appropriate to the occasion. Even so, the pitfalls are many and he must tread warily; and any conclusions that we draw from the documents on the composition of the pre-industrial crowd must be tentative and lay no claim to finality.

First, let us attempt to dispose of a common fallacy. The typical riotous or revolutionary crowd, writers like Taine and Gustave Le Bon have suggested, is composed of criminal elements, riffraff, vagrants (the French gens sans aveu), or social misfits. Le Bon even wants to have it both ways: on the one hand, he argues that the crowd reduces its sane and rational elements to a common level of animality; on the other, that it tends to attract criminal types, degenerates, and persons with destructive instincts. Social historians of the eighteenth century in England have tended to adopt this view: though avoiding the more prejudicial of these labels, they have been inclined to see the urban “mob” in terms of the “slum population” of large cities or the poorest of the poor. Dr. Dorothy George, for example, ascribes a major part in the Gordon Riots of 1780 to “the inhabitants of the dangerous districts in London who were always ready for pillage.” More recently, Dorothy Marshall has made the bolder claim that the “mob” was in large measure composed of social dregs, pimps, prostitutes, thieves, and receivers. And there is certainly ample evidence to suggest that this was the prevailing view of contemporary observers, whether of the aristocracy or of the middle class.

But, backed as it is by such a solid body of opinion, is the view for all that valid? Do the common run of rioters, strikers, and insurgents of these times tend, in fact, to be drawn from social riffraff, from Dr. George's “dangerous districts,” or what Louis Chevalier has termed “les classes dangereuses”? In the present state of our knowledge, it would be ludicrous to claim to give any final answer to this question: neither the nature of the documents available nor the extent of the inquiries made so far would warrant it. Yet there are solid reasons for arguing that the traditional view is on the whole a false one. At first sight, no doubt, there is a great deal to recommend it. It can hardly be denied that the conditions of social commotion under which riots occurred at this time, as at any other time, provided admirable opportunities for petty thieves and looters to join in the fray and, under cover of riot or revolution, reap a golden harvest. We have already quoted numerous cases in our earlier chapters to illustrate this point. In the Gordon Riots, for example, the jails were broken into by the “No Popery” demonstrators and several hundred prisoners – including 134 from Newgate and 119 from the Clerkenwell Bridewell – were let loose on the streets of London; and Horace Walpole may not have exaggerated when he wrote at the height of the disturbances that “as yet there are more persons killed by drinking than by ball or bayonet.” Again, one of the most spectacular of the incidents of the Paris revolution of July 1789 was the methodical looting by local poor and unemployed of the St. Lazare monastery on the northern outskirts of the city; and in the long history of revolutions this was certainly no exception. Yet such incidents, although providing useful illustrative material for those sharing Taine's and Le Bon's views on the nature of the “mob,” are quite insufficient to prove their point. In fact, the evidence of the police and judicial records – admittedly inadequate, but more reliable than the casual and often prejudiced accounts of chance observers – tends to refute it.

Here are a few examples. Of the 160 persons brought to trial after the Gordon Riots, only a handful were found to have had previous convictions; and it is remarkable how many of these prisoners received testimonials of good character from their neighbors or employers, a fact all the more striking as it contrasts sharply with the bad records of many of those who informed against them. These prisoners, besides, were almost without exception men and young lads of settled abode and occupation; only fifteen of them were specifically charged with theft, and in eight of these cases the charge remained unproven. The records relating to the French grain riots of 1775, which we described at length in an earlier chapter, are far more detailed and allow us to arrive at more confident conclusions. Several hundreds of persons were, as we have seen, arrested at the end of this affair and were thoroughly searched and cross examined by the police, who had therefore ample opportunities to discover how many of their prisoners had been bribed or had been branded or imprisoned for previous felonies or misdemeanors. From these investigations it appeared that nearly all were local people; few were vagrants, though many (particularly those arrested in Paris) lived in lodgings; and only a handful had served previous prison sentences – and only in one instance for an offense that could be as anything but trivial.

Similar facts emerge, though the evidence is not always so complete, from the official records relating to those arrested, killed, or wounded – or even just participating – in the various journées of the French Revolution of 1789-95. In the early months of 1789, Paris was flooded with unemployed country workers and urban poor, a fact that caused both the old and the new city authorities considerable concern. Yet, apart from the incident at the St. Lazare monastery that we have noted, vagrants, gens sans aveu, and criminal elements played only a minor, marginal role in the disturbances of that year. Among 68 persons arrested, wounded, and killed in the Réveillon riots in the Faubourg St. Antoine at the end of April, only three were without fixed abode and only three had served previous terms of imprisonment; and of these only one was found to be branded with the “V” of the convicted voleur or thief. No arrests were made after the fall of the Bastille (the sure sign of a successful operation), but we know the names of each one of the 662 so-called vainqueurs de la Bastille, and of these all were of fixed abode and settled occupation, the great majority of them being drawn from the Faubourg St. Antoine and adjoining districts. In later upheavals the pattern remained much the same. The next great popular demonstration was that of July 17, 1791, when thousands gathered in the Champ de Mars, at the invitation of the Cordeliers Club, to sign a petition calling for the abdication of Louis XVI. In the course of the whole agitation surrounding this affair, some 250 persons were arrested by the police and National Guard on a multiplicity of charges: of these, two were beggars, three others were found to be without settled occupation (sans état), four had had previous convictions (all of a trivial nature); and, once more, the overwhelming majority were men and women of fixed abodes and settled jobs. The same was undoubtedly true of the armed citizens who reduced the Tuileries and overthrew the monarchy in August 1792: quite apart from what the records tell us about their past history and occupations, it could not have been otherwise, as all but householders were excluded from the military units that carried through the operation. The evidence is less conclusive in the case of the disturbances of 1793-5; but, such as it is, it tends to confirm the impression that the crowd in the French Revolution – and not only that engaged in the great political journées – was largely composed of sober householders and citizens, admittedly of humble station and often temporarily unemployed, but among whom vagrants, thieves, prostitutes, and social riffraff played an altogether insignificant part.

In the case of English country riots, particularly those of the eighteenth century, the evidence is far less detailed and impressive: we generally have to depend on the piecemeal and casual observations of eyewitnesses, magistrates, or newspaper correspondents. Yet, here again, we have the impression that riot and crime, though occasionally brought together, were casual rather than close companions. After the riots that swept through the southern, southeastern and western counties in 1766 the Gentleman's Magazine reported from Berkshire:

William Simpson and John Skelton, two criminals convicted at the Assizes, held by special commission at Reading, for robbery on the highway, were executed there. They were not among the number of rioters.

Admittedly, this tells us nothing of the police records of those taking part in the disturbances, though it is perhaps significant that the correspondent should so deliberately underline the distinction between the one type of popular activity and the other. Again, we have seen that the Rebecca riots in West Wales and the Luddite disturbances in the north of England were, at a certain stage, attended by outbreaks of gangsterism, robbery, and un-discriminating attacks on persons and properties; but these appear to have lain on the fringe rather than at the center of the movements and to have been the work of persons taking advantage of the unsettled conditions that the riots had brought about.

However, the evidence relating to some of these later disturbances is more complete, for in the Australian convict records of the 1830's and 1840's we rediscover the precision of the French police reports of half a century before. So we find that among the thirty potters, miners, and others transported to Tasmania for wrecking houses and property in the pottery towns of Staffordshire in 1842, eight had had previous convictions: some for assault, others for breaking fences or vagrancy or leaving their employer's service, and two for the more serious offenses of rape and embezzlement. Again, among the far higher number (464 in all) transported to the Australian colonies for taking part in the “Swing” riots of 1830, 94 of 325 sent to Tasmania and 11 of 139 sent to New South Wales had been previously arrested or convicted: among the former group, by far the most common offense was poaching (in 32 of the 94 cases), and only 8-10 had served sentences of six months or more, mainly for assault or larceny. Thus roughly one in four of the convicted rioters of 1842 and two in nine of those of 1830 had been arrested before or had served earlier prison sentences. While this is a considerably higher proportion than among those arrested in the grain riots of 1775 or in the riots of the French Revolution in Paris, we can in this case get a more balanced picture by comparing the criminal records of these men with those of the general run of male convicts sent to the two Australian colonies for a wide variety of offenses during the whole period, of transportation: in their case the “former-offense” rate has been calculated by Dr. Lloyd Robson as amounting to some 61 percent of all those transported. Moreover, in the case of the rioters sent to Tasmania, we can go even further by comparing the number of misdemeanors they subsequently committed in the colony with those committed by convicts as a whole. The results show that the rioters of 1842 incurred reprimands or penalties for a total of 91 offenses, or an average of about 3 offenses per man; and the “Swing” rioters of 1830 for a combined average of 1.7 per man; whereas Dr. Robson's overall estimate for male convicts of all types transported to Tasmania between 1803 and 1852 is as high as 6 offenses per head up to 1840 and 4 thereafter. Of course, in both of these groups of transported rioters there was a minority that committed far more than their share of misdemeanors in the colony, rising in some cases to twelve or fifteen per man and involving serious cases of rape, assault, and robbery; but the general reputation of the men of 1830, in particular, was extremely high among those in authority, and Governor Arthur on more than one occasion singled them out for special praise as men of exemplary character and as convicts of “the better sort.” By and large, then, we may conclude with a fair degree of certainty that in this case, too, crime and riot, far from being inseparable companions, were only occasional and somewhat uneasy bedfellows.

Copyright © George Rudé, 2007

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