By Mike Pentelow
The recent rioting and looting in the area are the latest examples in a history going back nearly 250 years.
In 1763 riots were prompted by the jailing for seditious libel of people’s champion John Wilkes (1727-1797), who was later MP for Middlesex (covering Fitzrovia). Wilkes had criticised the peace terms with France in issue number 45 of the journal North Briton, which was seen as critical of the king and government. When parliament ordered all copies of the article be burned by the public hangman, the crowds prevented him and pelted him with rubbish, shouting “Wilkes, Liberty and Number 45.” After a few days’ rioting Wilkes was released from the Tower.
He was popular for being among the first MPs to call for votes for all male adults. In order to get elected however he had to canvas the support of the few with the property qualifications that entitled them to vote. The Green Man tavern (called the Farthing Pie House in those days) opposite what is now Great Portland Street station was where he frequently electioneered (washing down mutton pies with claret).
In June 1780 the anti-Catholic Gordon Rioters mustered in Tottenham Court Road and rampaged the surrounding area. The riots were directed by Lord George Gordon (1751-1793) from nearby Welbeck Street and his home at 64 Wigmore Street. He mobilised 60,000 to protest against the Catholic Relief Act. They attacked Catholic chapels, shops and taverns over five days, and when they targeted the Bank of England 10,000 troops were brought in, killing 200 rioters, and arresting 450, of whom 25 were hanged.
One of those sentenced to death was a public hangman! Edward Dennis was however granted a pardon “in order that he may hang his brother rioters.”
The introduction of the Corn Laws in 1815 pushed up the price of basic food to benefit large agricultural landowners. This provoked serious rioting by the poor, who mobbed the home of one member of the landed gentry, Sir Joseph Banks at 32 Soho Square.
A banker was the next target in 1824 – Henry Fauntleroy, owner of the Berners Street Bank, at 6 Berners Street, who lived with his mother, Elizabeth, at number 7. When a large building speculator went bust owing the bank £60,000 Fauntleroy resorted to fraud to prevent the bank collapsing. He forged customers’ signatures to sell their stocks and shares. When dividends became due to customers or they wished to sell them, he fraudulently sold more to pay for them. His embezzlement was finally revealed when a customer who owned £40,000 worth of shares died without warning, so Fauntleroy did not have time to replace them before the executors of the will discovered the shortfall.
He was arrested and the bank’s transactions were immediately suspended, ruining many local traders who had invested their life savings in the bank. As they massed around the bank, vainly demanding their money, the police were brought in to disperse the developing riot.
In those days they executed bankers who ripped off the public, and Fauntleroy was hanged before a crowd of 100,000 on November 30, 1824. The crowds took off their hats, not out of respect, but so those behind could get a better view.
In 1833 another riot developed when police broke up a demonstration by the National Union of Working Classes, which was demanding votes for all. The police attack was resisted and in the armed battle that followed a police constable was fatally stabbed. One of those arrested was a carpenter called James Hutchinson, who lived at 1 Tudor Place (an alley that existed off Tottenham Court Road between numbers 19 and 20). Because anti-police feeling was so high all charges were dropped against Hutchinson, those accused of the stabbing were acquitted, and the inquest returned a verdict of justifiable homicide.
When the Chartists’ call for universal suffrage was ruthlessly repressed by the government, riots spread in the north. Troops, despatched with bayonets to crush them, were marching up Tottenham Court Road to Euston station on August 13, 1842 when they were surrounded by taunting crowds, jeering and shouting: “Remember you are brothers.” When they reached Euston Square the order was given to fix bayonets, and they needed the assistance of the police to stop the crowd ripping up the railway line.
More riots in Tottenham Court Road followed on July 27, 1848, protesting against the suspension of Habeas Corpus in Ireland to allow detention without trial. Large detachments of police armed with cutlasses were needed to break them up.
Several jewellers’ shops were looted in Oxford Street on February 8, 1886 following a meeting of the unemployed in Trafalgar Square. It was called by the Fair Trade League, campaigning for import tariffs to alleviate unemployment by creating jobs at home. It was addressed by leaders of the revolutionary Social Democratic Federation, including H M Hyndman and John Burns. Burns, had warned that west end bakers would be looted to feed the hungry jobless. When members of gentlemen’s clubs threw boots and polish brushes at them, they returned fire with stones and lumps of metal before going on the rampage. It was not until they reached Oxford Street that they were confronted by a small number of police. Shopkeepers closed their premises to prevent further damage. In November of the same year, as the unemployed camped in nearby parks, more bloody riots erupted in Oxford Street.
Margaret Thatcher’s unpopular Poll Tax (or Community Charge as it was officially called) led to more riots, coming to a head on March 31, 1990, with Oxford Street again suffering from looting and cars being overturned. They also spread up Tottenham Court Road and into Goodge Street where shops were damaged. The offending tax was rapidly dropped by the government.