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A History of the Four Georges and of William IV, V

The peculiar lawlessness of the hour


{122}

style="text-align: justify;">It was well open to the Government to urge, and to urge with truth, the peculiar lawlessness of the hour. It is an effective example of the ineffectiveness of a mere policy of coercion that, at a time when the penal laws of Great Britain were ferocious to a degree that would have disgraced Dahomey, the laws were so frequently defied, and defied with impunity. The laws might be merciless, even murderous, but the Executive had not always the power to compel respect or to enforce obedience. Among the lower classes in the great city, and not merely that portion of the lower classes who are qualified by the appellation of the dangerous classes, but in strata where at least a moderate degree of civilization might be hoped for, an amount of savagery, of lawlessness, and of cruelty prevailed that would have not ill become the pirates of the Spanish Seas or the most brutal of Calabrian brigands. The hideous institution of the pillory stimulated and fostered all the worst instincts of a mob to whose better instincts no decent system of education sought to appeal. Ignorance, and poverty, and dirt brooded over the bulk of the poorer population, to breed their inevitable consequences. Murder was alarmingly common. Riots that almost reached the proportions of petty civil wars were liable to arise at any moment between one section of the poorer citizens and another. The horrors of the Brownrigg case show to what extent lust of cruelty could go. The large
disbandments that are the inevitable consequence of peace after a long war had thrown out of employment, and thrown upon the country, no small number of needy, unscrupulous, and desperate men, only too ready to lend a hand to any disturbance that might afford a chance of food and drink and plunder.

[Sidenote: 1752--Mob violence in London]

Mob law ruled in London to an extraordinary degree during the whole of the eighteenth century. It reached a high pitch, but not its highest pitch, at the time when the watchword was Wilkes and Liberty. London was to witness bitterer work, bloodier work than anything which followed upon the Middlesex election and the imprisonment of the popular hero. But for the time the audacity of the mob seemed to have gone its farthest. The temper of the {123} mob was insolent, its insolence was brutal. It hated all foreigners--and among foreigners it now included Scotchmen--and it manifested its hatred in vituperation, and when it dared in violence. A white man would hardly be in more danger in a mid-African village than a foreigner was in the streets of London. There is a contemporary account written by a French gentleman who travelled in England, and who published his observations on what he saw in England, which gives a piteous account of the barbarous incivility to which he, his friends, and his servants were exposed when they walked abroad. The mob that jeered and insulted the master very nearly killed the servant for the single offence of being a Frenchman. But the brutalities of the mob were not limited to strangers. The citizens of London fared almost as badly if not quite as badly as any Frenchman could do. Fielding gives a picture in one of his essays of the lawless arrogance which was characteristic of the rabble. He gave to the mob the title of the Fourth Estate in an article in the _Covent Garden Journal_ for June 13, 1752, and in another article a week later he painted an ironical picture of the brutal manners and overbearing demeanor of the mob. "A gentleman," he wrote, "may go a voyage at sea with little more hazard than he can travel ten miles from the metropolis." On the river, on the streets, on the highways, according to Fielding, mob manners prevailed, and brutal language might at any moment be followed by brutal actions. When the largest allowance is made for the exaggeration of the satirist, enough remains to show that the condition of London in the second half of the eighteenth century was disorderly in the extreme. People who ventured on the Thames were liable to the foulest insults, and even to be run down by those who were pleased to regard the stream as their appanage, and who resented the appearance on it of any who seemed better dressed than themselves. Women of fashion were liable to be hustled, mobbed, insulted if they ventured in St. James's Park on a Sunday evening. No one could walk the streets by day without the probability of being annoyed, or by night without the risk of {124} being knocked down. After painting his grim picture in the Hogarth manner, Fielding concluded grimly that he must observe "that there are two sorts of persons of whom this fourth estate do yet stand in some awe, and whom, consequently, they have in great abhorrence: these are a justice of the peace and a soldier. To these two it is entirely owing that they have not long since rooted all the other orders out of the commonwealth."


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