Saturday 25 September 2021

'Gushes and eddies of wind took the flames this way and that...'

 This was a happy find – a classic 1950s public information bookmark warning of the dangers of fire – and it could hardly have been in a more appropriate book: Christopher Hibbert's King Mob: The Story of Lord George Gordon and the Riots of 1780 (published 1958). This is a book full of colourful descriptions of raging infernos, created by the anti-Catholic (and anti-pretty much everything else) rioters as they rampaged across London, burning great swathes of the city, freeing prisoners from the gaols, and wreaking wholesale destruction. The Gordon Riots are something I knew very little about, beyond some vague memories gleaned from trying to read Barnaby Rudge. They certainly put our contemporary notions of civil disorder in perspective: we are lucky to live in a very peaceable age, and the only taste of seriously destructive rioting we've had in recent times was the August 2011 outbreak, largely the result of police inaction. Here is Hibbert's description of an incident in the 1780 riots, the firing of Langdale's distillery – 
'As the buildings leapt with a roar into flame, a gentle wind came up ... gushes and eddies of wind took the flames this way and that, wrapping the streets in fire and setting alight houses further down Holborn towards Fleet Market, until the whole district looked, as Wraxall* said, "like a volcano".
  The fire was given an added and ferocious life by a fire engine pumping through its hose not water but gin from the stills in Langdale's cellar. Another engine, capture from its operatives by an enterprising old cobbler, was pumping up gin into buckets, while the cobbler did a good trade selling it to the spectators of the havoc at a penny a mug.
  Others, unwilling to pay for what they could get for nothing, ran into the raging building and down the stone steps into the cellar and came up choking, with blackened faces and bloodshot eyes, carrying untapped casks of gin, or pails and jugs, bowls and even pig-troughs overflowing with this most valued anodyne. Soon, even this effort was unnecessary, for as the heat below ground became intense the stills burst and overflowed and the gin came gushing up into the streets and ran in warm streams in the gutter and between the cobbles, joining a flow of rum pouring out of an enormous pile of staved-in rum casks. Delirious with excitement, the people knelt down and dipped their faces in the river of fiery spirits and gulped as much of it down as they could before it made them choke and burned their throats like acid. For the gin was in its raw state, unrectified. Wraxall saw men and women lying down prostrate in the streets incapably drunk; some of the women had babies in their arms or struggling near their insensible bodies, screaming in terror or in pain. Several staring, wide-eyed figures lay on their backs in grotesque postures, their faces blue, their swollen tongues will wet with poisonous liquid. 
  Below them in the cellars, trapped now by the fire, were the scorched bodies of men and women overcome by the fumes and the smoke, burning to death. And in the warehouse, too drunk to get out when the flames leapt in, other men and women could be heard screaming and shouting and giggling, scarcely aware of what was happening to them or too drunk to care.'
[* Nathaniel Wraxall, an eye-witness.]

Henry Thrale's brewery and distillery could easily have suffered the same fate but for the 'astonishing presence of mind' of the manager Mr Perkins 'in amusing the mob with meat and drink and huzzas'. Mrs Thrale told her friend Dr Johnson that 'our brewhouse would have blazed in ten minutes when a property of £150,000 would have been utterly lost'. This huge sum – the equivalent of about £13 million today – was in fact an underestimate: when the brewery was sold after Henry Thrale's death in 1781 it fetched £185,000. 


  1. Every time I see "BLM" signs posted ostentatiously in the windows of my affluent, largely white neighbors' homes, I always think cynically of the London burghers scrawling "No Popery" on their doors during the Gordon riots, in hopes of appeasing the mob and avoiding property damage. Allegedly some wag chalked "No Religion" on his house. I wonder what today's equivalent would be? "No Political Viewpoint"?

  2. Quite so, Foose – self-interested virtue signalling, what's not to like? I suspect 'No Political Viewpoint' might be asking for trouble in these polarised, preachy times. Maybe bamboozle them with something they wouldn't understand? 'Epoche' would lend a bit of tone...