Friday 10 February 2012

A Disobedient City

Last semester, the New History Lab played host to John Butler, the frontman of the Leicester-based band Diesel Park West. Whilst discussing the Leicester music scene of his youth, he described his hometown as ‘an obedient city’ – a phrase that caught the attention of more than one member of the audience. Drawing upon my own (albeit more limited) experience as someone born in Leicester and raised nearby, I would be inclined to agree with him. Although the past year saw rioters take to the streets of Leicester and the ‘Occupy Leicester’ camp, both of these events lacked originality and scale. However, my recent reading has led me to believe that Leicester, and indeed Leicestershire, has not always been as submissive as John suggested. In keeping with the Lab’s theme of ‘Crime and Punishment’ for this term, I thought I would share some stories of Leicester’s more rebellious past.

I picked up James Thompson’s History of Leicester in the Eighteenth Century (published in 1871) out of pure curiosity, fully expecting it to be a eulogistic description of Leicester’s civic progress to please the considerable number of eminent citizens listed as patrons in its first pages (ranging from the Duke of Rutland to plain old Mr. H. Wale of Belvoir Street). On the contrary, a brief glance over the contents suggests that both the city and the county were a hotbed of crime and disaffection during the 1700s. Chapter III, for example, describes the predominant Jacobite feeling in the city upon the accession of the Hanoverian King George I, the insolvency of the Mayor, a number of murders, a bout of ‘extensive hosiery robberies’, the subsequent discovery and execution of the thieves, a petition by the city Corporation against the Government’s South Sea Company Scheme, and the arrival of a cavalry regiment to ensure public order was maintained. All these events took place over a 13 year period and can be considered a fair illustration of the whole century, at least according to Thompson. We should allow for a certain degree of selective reporting and perhaps exaggeration on the author’s part, but it nevertheless raises the question of why Thompson chose to focus on these less than respectable episodes in Leicester’s history.

With regards to the continuing debate over the extent of popular sympathy towards the exiled Stuart monarchs during this period, I found the assertion of Leicester’s Jacobite sympathies particularly fascinating. Even the slightest hint of suspicion would have marked Leicester as a dangerous city in the eyes of the Whig government; a fear that is reflected in their decision to station dragoons here. I was equally surprised and interested to read about the provocatively named ‘Revolution Club’. Founded in 1782, and meeting fortnightly in the Lion and Lamb Inn, the 240 members dedicated themselves to promoting Parliamentary reform and preserving the ‘rights of man’. Coincidentally, a club called ‘Revolution’ still exists in Leicester and can be found on New Walk, though the only revolutionary spirit to be found there comes in bottles.

While the radicals of the Revolution Club wined and dined to affect political change, their less prosperous neighbours took to the streets to protest against the price of food, leading to incidents such as the intriguingly and aptly named ‘Cheese Riots’ of 1766. Beginning in Shilton and Hinkley, the violence soon spread to the city itself. A large group of people set upon a group of wagons loaded with cheese, which they took and distributed amongst themselves. In Leicester, a group of women stopped and ransacked a cart in Humberstone Gate before proceeding to a nearby warehouse and breaking down its doors. Troops were called in the escort the cheese on its way to market, and after attempts by the crowd to free prisoners from the local gaol, they were eventually dispersed. Meanwhile, at Cavendish Bridge on the border between Leicestershire and Derbyshire, shots were exchanged between those guarding a warehouse and the besieging protestors, leading to a pitched battle in which mounted farmers routed the cheese-hungry mob. A similar incident would occur in 1795 when cavalrymen charged with protecting a wagon loaded with corn opened fire on their assailants near Barrow-on-Soar.  Three were killed and eight injured in what became known as the infamous ‘Barrow Butchery’.

In addition to these popular protests, Leicester also saw a fair number of bizarre and often brutal crimes. By far my favourite story is of a ‘Resurrection Man’, or body snatcher, named Condit. After successfully scaring off the accomplice who had helped him to exhume a corpse, Condit then hid the body under his mattress. When his wife complained of a lump in the bed, he told her that it was a stolen sack of potatoes, ‘with which explanation she was perfectly satisfied’. Upon delivering the body to a surgeon, it was found to be unfit for the purpose of dissection, leaving Condit with the problem of disposing the body.  He solved this by cutting open a pack of wool awaiting transport to Yorkshire, placing the corpse inside, and sewing the pack up again. The package was forwarded to its destination and the discovery of the body is unfortunately not recorded.

These few examples are only a sample of the more memorable incidents described in Thompson’s book, but I hope they have demonstrated that Leicester was anything but law-abiding or subservient, at least during the eighteenth century. This is not to suggest that Leicester and Leicestershire were more rebellious or crime-ridden than any other city or county at this time, as the social and political issues that drove people to form radical clubs and steal cheese affected the entire country. Nevertheless, Thompson’s account of Leicester offers an interesting juxtaposition to the characterisation of Leicester as an ‘obedient’ city.