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The Plague of the Blue Locusts

Police Reform and Popular Resistance in Northern England, 1840–57

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 December 2008

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The implantation of a modern police in the industrial districts of Northern England resulted from a new consensus among the propertied classes that it was necessary to create a professional, bureaucratically organized lever of urban discipline and permanently introduce it into the heart of working-class communities. The coming of the new police represented a significant extension into hitherto geographically peripheral areas of both the moral and political authority of the state. This was to be accomplished by the creation of a powerful and quite modern device – a bureaucracy of official morality. By 1840 it came to be “an axiom in police that you guard St. James by watching St. Giles”. This was a novel attitude. Eighteenth-century governments and the upper classes in general were surely apprehensive of the movements of the lower orders, but did not consider it either useful or necessary to watch St Giles all the time. One could learn what one needed to know about what was on the collective mind of St Giles when it rioted; one might even use or manipulate its riots in useful ways as the reform movement of 1830–32 did with great success. Previous to the nineteenth century urban disorder was not necessarily perceived as subversive of the social order. “Provided that the ruler did his duty, the populace was prepared to defend him with enthusiasm. But if he did not, it rioted until he did. This mechanism was perfectly understood by both sides, and caused no political problems beyond a little occasional destruction of property […]. Since the riots were not directed against the social system, public order could remain surprisingly lax by modern standards.”

Research Article
Copyright © Internationaal Instituut voor Sociale Geschiedenis 1975


page 61 note 1 The Condition of the Working Class in England, in Marx And Engels On Britain (Moscow, 1962), p. 263.Google Scholar

page 61 note 2 “The Police System Of London”, in: Edinburgh Review, 07 1852, p. 5.Google Scholar

page 61 note 3 Hobsbawm, E. J., Primitive Rebels (New York, 1965), p. 116.Google Scholar

page 62 note 1 Antrobus, E. A., London. Its Danger And Its Safety (London, 1848), p. 22.Google Scholar

page 62 note 2 Ibid., p. 21.

page 63 note 1 Livesey's Moral Reformer, January 6, 1838.

page 63 note 2 “A Man Of Business” [William Rathbone], Social Duties Considered With Reference To The Organisation Of Effort In Works Of Benevolence And Public Utility (London, 1867), pp. 214.Google Scholar Cf. Foster, J., Class Struggle And The Industrial Revolution (London, 1974), pp. 2226.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

page 63 note 3 Wade, J., History Of The Middle And Working Classes, third ed. (London, 1835), p. 582.Google Scholar

page 64 note 1 “A Man Of Business”, op. cit. For other nostalgic glances back in a similar vein see Scatcherd, N., The History Of Morley (Leeds, 1830), p. 180;Google Scholar“Past And Present Times At Gildersome”, in: Leeds Times, 02 4, 1843.Google Scholar

page 64 note 2 See Radzinowicz, L., History Of The English Criminal Law (London, 1968), IV, pp. 215221;Google ScholarParris, H., “The Home Office And The Provincial Police”, in: Public Law, Autumn 1961, pp. 230255;Google ScholarHart, J., “The County And Borough Police Act, 1856”, in: Public Administration, XXXIV (1956), pp. 405417.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

page 64 note 3 Mather, F. C., Public Order In The Age Of The Chartists (Manchester, 1959), pp. 153181;Google ScholarDarvall, F., Popular Disturbance And Public Order In Regency England (Oxford, 1969), pp. 80, 262, 267;Google ScholarFirst Report Royal Commission On Constabulary Force [Parliamentary Papers, 1839, XIX], p. 83;Google Scholar Foster, op. cit., pp. 66–67. Supt Martin, who led the London police in the 1837 Poor Law riot at Huddersfield, the 1838 Poor Law riot at Dewsbury and the Birmingham Bull Ring Riots of 1839, pointed out that police can act individually in a crowd. Troops have both hands full and cannot leave their ranks without orders. Moreover they must either charge or fire and indiscriminately kill: Second Report House Of Commons Select Committee On Police [PP, 18521853, XXXVI], p. 92.Google Scholar The Colne anti-police riots discussed below perfectly illustrated the inadequacies of the military.

page 65 note 1 First Report Royal Commission On Constabulary Force, op. cit., p. 82. The Manchester police were careful to draw the force from outside the community. See remarks of Capt. Willis in Second Report House Of Commons Select Committee On Police, op. cit., p. 23.

page 65 note 2 First Report Commission On Constabulary Force, pp. 75–76; cf. Foster, op. cit., pp. 56–61.

page 65 note 3 First Report Royal Commission On Constabaulary Force, pp. 104–105.

page 65 note 4 See the remark of Thompson, E. P., ‘“Rough Music’: Le Charivari Anglais”, in: Annales, XXVIf (1972), p. 310:Google Scholar “Une des formes les plus extrèmes d'aliena-tion qu'on puisse trouver dans les sociétés capitalistes et bureacirc;ucratiques est l'aliénation de la Loi. Le fonctionnement de la Loi cesse d'être assumé par ceux qui diligent des communautés; elle est déleguée, monopolisée, et utilisée par d'autres […] contre eux, à tel point qu'il ne reste plus dans la communauté que la convention ou la peur d'tre remarqué.” Cf. for generalized working-class mistrust of all agencies of authority Pelling, H., Popular Politics And Society In Late Victorian Britain (London, 1968), pp. 16, 1618, 6271.Google Scholar

page 66 note 1 Radzinowicz, op. cit., p. 229; First Report Royal Commission On Constabulary Force, pp. 12–13.

page 66 note 2 Destructive And Poor Man's Conservative, November 2, 1833.

page 66 note 3 Thompson, E. P., The Making Of The English Working Class (London, 1963), p. 82.Google Scholar

page 66 note 4 Poor Man's Guardian, April 7, 1832.

page 67 note 1 Ibid., November 5, 1831.

page 67 note 2 Redford, A., History Of Local Government In Manchester (London, 19391940), I, opposite p. 16.Google Scholar

page 67 note 3 SirNapier, W. (ed.), The Life And Opinions Of General Sir Charles Napier (London, 1857), II, p. 146.Google Scholar

page 68 note 1 An exception of course was Francis Place. See Reith, C., British Police And The Democratic Ideal (London, 1943), pp. 7273;Google Scholar Radzinowicz, op. cit., p. 179; Finer, S. E., The Life And Times Of Sir Edwin Chadwick (London, 1952), p. 30.Google Scholar Place was enthusiastic about Chadwick's seminal essay “Preventive Police” (1829). He was a friend of Supt Thomas of the London police and advised him on methods of crowd control in the 1830s. For resistance to the London police in the early 1830s see Radzinowicz, op. cit., pp. 167–189; Lee, W. A., A History Of Police In England (London, 1905), pp. 245261;Google ScholarThurston, G., The Clerkenwell Riot: The Killing Of Constable Culley (London, 1967),Google Scholar passim; Critchley, T. A., A History Of Police In England And Wales 1900–1966 (London, 1967), pp. 5455;Google ScholarVizetelly, H., Glances Back Through Seventy Years (London, 1893), pp. 5865;Google Scholar Reith, op. cit., pp. 54–77, 90–98.

page 68 note 2 Quoted in Reith, op. cit., pp. 51–52, 68. The fear of the cost of the new police sometimes tended to draw working-class and lower middle-class elements together in opposition, cf. the situation in Lancaster, below pp. 78–79.

page 68 note 3 Northern Star, March 9, 1839.

page 68 note 4 Ibid. It should be noted that behind at least some of the rhetoric about the threat to the good old constitution lay a solid tactical consideration: parish constables were much easier to live with, and if need be to intimidate.

page 68 note 5 Northern Star, August 3, 1839.

page 69 note 1 Northern Star, March 2, 1839. Thomas Ashton of Hyde had indeed appeared before the County Constabulary Force Commissioners to plead for a new police. It was not for the reason Oastler cited, but to break the power of trade unionism.

page 69 note 2 Report From His Majesty's Commissioners For Inquiring Into The Poor Laws. [PP, 1834, XXVIII], Appendix A, pp. 197, 579.Google Scholar

page 69 note 3 For these episodes as seen by the London police see Second Report From House Of Commons Select Committee On Police, pp. 61–92.

page 69 note 4 First Report Royal Commission On Constabulary Force, p. 70.

page 69 note 5 Ibid., p. 82.

page 70 note 1 Ibid., p. 85.

page 70 note 2 Ibid., p. 84.

page 70 note 3 Chadwick, E., “On The Consolidation Of The Police Force And The Prevention Of Crime”, in: Fraser's Magazine, 01 1868, pp. 1112, 18.Google Scholar

page 70 note 4 Foster, op. cit., pp. 56–51.

page 70 note 5 Northern Star, May 2, 1840.

page 70 note 6 Northern Star, June 6, 1840. Cf. Cobb, R., The Police And The People (Oxford, 1970), passim;Google ScholarMayhew, Henry, London Labour And The London Poor (London, 1851), I, p. 16:Google Scholar “To serve out a policeman is the bravest act by which a coster-monger can distinguish himself. Some […] have been imprisoned upwards of a dozen times for this offense […]. When they leave prison […] a subscription is often got up for their benefit.”

page 71 note 1 Northern Star, June 6, 1840.

page 71 note 2 Northern Star, March 27, 1841.

page 71 note 3 Northern Star, February 20, 1841.

page 71 note 4 Devyr, Thomas A., The Odd Book Of The Nineteenth Century (Greenpoint, New York, 1882), pp. 199200;Google Scholar cf. Leader, R. E., Reminiscences Of Sheffield (Sheffield, 1876), p. 273.Google Scholar

page 72 note 1 The present writer is currently preparing a paper dealing with the role of the policeman as “domestic missionary”, with the question of daily relations on street level between the police and working-class communities up to 1900, and with the problem of the impact of the police on popular leisure patterns.

page 73 note 1 Police intervention at the pub often ended all rows, but sometimes in ways not pleasant for the police. For a random example see Leeds Times, December 19, 1835: Constable Pullan came to the White Horse to quell a row between a group of woolcombers and sailors. When he entered, the combers and sailors closed ranks and thrashed him.

page 73 note 2 Napier, op. cit., p. 56; Hull Advertiser, July 26, 1839.

page 74 note 1 Manchester Guardian, May 24, 1843. Engels saw this incident as more than of passing interest, The Condition of the Working Class in England, loc. cit., p. 263.

page 74 note 2 Belt buckles were the favorite weapons of off-duty English soldiers and were noted to have been liberally employed in the Manchester riots a year earlier.

page 75 note 1 Leeds Mercury, June 15, 1844.

page 75 note 2 Mayhall, J., The Annals And History Of Leeds (Leeds, 1860), pp. 505506; Leeds Mercury, 06 15, 1844.Google Scholar

page 76 note 1 Northern Star, May 16, 1840. This detachment of rural police had arrived at their posts only two weeks earlier; none were “connected” with the town.

page 77 note 1 This account is based on reports in Leeds Times, May 18, 1839, and Northern Star, May 18, 1839, drawn from Times of London. If the chief objective of the rioters was to drive off the new police, they were nearly successful, at least in the short run. One local magistrate, pleading with the government to permanently station troops in the district, wrote that police morale had been so shaken by the riots that mass resignations from the force were expected. Copeland (?) to Russell, May 27, 1839, Public Record Office, HO 40.48.

page 77 note 2 Memorial of the Clergy, Chief Constables, Churchwardens, and Individuals of the Staffordshire Potteries, HO 41.15. On the continued inability of the police to cope with popular disturbances in this district see Radzinowicz, op. cit., pp. 265, 278–279.

page 77 note 3 Some writers have correctly noted the intimate connection between popular protest and popular fetes. See Davis, N. Z., “The Reasons Of Misrule. Youth Groups And Charivaris In Sixteenth Century France”, in: Past & Present, No 50 (1971);CrossRefGoogle Scholar N. Z. Davis, “Religious Riot In Sixteenth Century France”, ibid., No 59 (1973); E. P. Thompson, “Rough Music: Le Charivari Anglais”, loc. cit. In some English towns Guy Fawkes celebrations were often strongly tinged with overtones of popular protest. Guy Fawkes could be both a ritualized day of licence as well as an annual opportunity to have a “legitimate” go at the police. See Leeds Times, November 11, 1848 and November 8, 1851 for Huddersfield; York Herald, 11 7, 1863 and 11 15, 1873Google Scholar for Richmond and Malton; Green, J. K., Fireworks, Bonfires, Illuminations And The Guy Riots (Guildford, 1952).Google Scholar For a similar day of licence at Leicester see Kelly, W., Notices Of Leicester Relative To The Drama (London, 1885), p. 177,Google Scholar and Leicester Journal, February 19, 1847.

page 78 note 1 Even some of the magistrates were personally holding back payment, Lancaster Gazette, July 25, 1840. Cf. proceedings of a ratepayers' meeting at Clayton in the West Riding to petition against the introduction of county police in Northern Star, September 12, 1840.

page 78 note 2 Lancaster Gazette, July 25, 1840.

page 78 note 3 Lancaster Gazette, August 1, 1840.

page 78 note 4 From the names of the police mentioned later at the trials it appears the force had a healthy complement of Scots and Welsh. One of the usual sources of mistrust of the police was their lack of connection with the local populace.

page 78 note 5 Lancaster Gazette, August 1, 1840; Preston Chronicle, August 15, 1840. Other familiar epithets used were “rural rascals”, “Blue bottles”, “soldiers in disguise”.

page 79 note 1 Lancaster Gazette, August 1, 1840.

page 79 note 2 Ibid.; Preston Chronicle, August 15, 1840.

page 80 note 1 Constance to Napier, April 28, 1840, HO 40.58.

page 80 note 2 Leeds Times, May 2, 1840; Napier to Home Office, August 15, 1840, HO 40.58. The “move-on syste” was so uniformly employed and constituted such a nuisance to the policed that it was duly noted in the broadside literature. See “Manchester's An Altered Town” (probably Preston-printed in the early 1840s), in: Curiosities Of Street Literature (London, 1871).Google Scholar See account of a near riot in Leeds occasioned by the overzealous use of this device. The entire Marsh Lane district turned out at 1.00 a.m. to defend a group of men who had been chased away from a pub entrance by the police. A serious riot was only averted by the intervention of a middle-class witness who happened to be an overseer of the poor. Leeds Times, September 9, 1843.

page 80 note 3 Based on accounts in Preston Chronicle, May 2, 1840, Blackburn Standard, April 29, 1840, and Leeds Times, May 2, 1840.

page 81 note 1 Leeds Times, May 2, 1840.

page 81 note 2 The attitudes of the military officers were remarkably humane and perceptive. They had a certain sympathy for the miserable condition of the inhabitants of Colne and were quick to grasp that the behavior of the police was brutal and insensitive. Napier wrote to the Home Office: “I am quite certain that great forbearance on the part of the police is necessary not only at Colne but every-where” (August 15, 1840, HO 40. 58). On the relations between urban rioters and the army later on, see Marx's article on the London Sunday Trading Riots, Marx And Engels On Britain, op. cit., p. 445. Here too the crowds shouted “Long live the army* Down With The Police*” The army preserved a popular – and not completely unjustified – reputation for behaving with some rectitude in civil disturbances.

page 81 note 3 Blackburn Standard, August 12, 1840.

page 81 note 4 Bolton, Halstead and other figures in the Colne riots are treated fictionally in Robert Neill, Song of Sunrise (London, 1958); published as The Mills of Colne (New York, 1958) in the USA.Google Scholar

page 82 note 1 The army deliberately never sought confrontation with civilians at Colne. They refused to remain on the pretext that there were no barracks to accommodate them.

page 82 note 2 The grammar school was of course a middle-class institution and almost certainly not the usual meeting place of local Chartists. There is little doubt that in August – whatever the situation in April – the local Chartist infrastructure played a considerable role.

page 83 note 1 My account of the August riots based on reports in Leeds Times, August 15, 1840, Blackburn Standard, August 12, 1840, Preston Chronicle, August 15, 1840, and on the following despatches: Bolton to Home Office, August 7, 1840, HO 40.45; Wemyss to Home Office, August 11, 1840, HO 40.58; Napier to Home Office, August 15, 1840, HO 40.58.

page 83 note 2 Boothman's family left a body of correspondence (Boothman Correspondence, Lancashire Record Office, DDX 537) preserved at Preston. His letters trace out the remainder of his life from his trial and sentence, to his transfer to the hulks to his death in the colonies. Boothman, though he maintained he had nothing to do with the mob, was no friend of the police. In a letter to his father from Lancaster Castle December 31, 1840, he wrote: “I find the conduct of the Colne police to be most ridiculous and brutal but it is nothing more or less than what we all know to be the case not only with you but in all places where they have got appointments.” Boothman Correspondence, DDX 537/7.

page 83 note 3 He left a rather respectable estate of £559 4/10d at his death. Boothman Estate, Last Will and Testament, ibid., DDX 537/16.

page 85 note 1 Leeds Times, December 27, 1856.

page 85 note 2 Leeds Mercury, January 20, 1857.

page 85 note 3 Leeds Mercury, February 10, 1857.

page 85 note 4 Leeds Mercury, March 10, 1857. It is interesting to note that often fines for assaults on the police were paid by collections taken among friends and neighbors – an indicator of the strength of feeling against the police. Publicans and beerhouse keepers were no doubt prominent contributors to these subscriptions.

page 85 note 5 Leeds Mercury, January 24, 1857.

page 86 note 1 Leeds Mercury, June 9, 1857.

page 86 note 2 Leeds Times, June 6, 1857.

page 86 note 3 Ibid. Cf. the account of a riot against police interference at Hunslet Feast in Leeds Times, August 19, 1843. It was noted that “great animosity appears to exist against the police at Hunslet”.

page 87 note 1 Leeds Mercury, July 2, 1857.

page 87 note 2 A representative incident from the Barnsley district: At 1.30 a.m. Constable Cherry and Sgt Hey were on duty at Skelmanthorpe when suddenly a large crowd materialized and pelted them with stones. Leeds Mercury, June 13, 1857. It may be that the provocation was given some time before, in which case this incident may have been in the nature of “squaring accounts”.

page 87 note 3 Leeds Mercury, June 18, 1857.

page 87 note 4 Lancaster Gazette, August 1, 1840.

page 88 note 1 Oldham Standard, January 30, 1864. Like most policemen in Lancashire, Dermody was a stranger to the district with no local ties. Even worse he was an Irishman, a fact much emphasized by the crowd.

page 88 note 2 Ibid.

page 88 note 3 Leeds Times. October 14, 1848.

page 89 note 1 Lancaster Gazette, August 1, 1840.

page 89 note 2 A typical example: The severe beating of a policeman was reported near Barnsley in December 1859. His current duty was acting as escort to scabs at the struck Wharncliffe Silkstone Colliery. Those arrested for the assault were fined a total of £20, which was immediately paid by the usual subscription. Leeds Mercury, December 20, 1859. For the continuing police role in strikebreaking see Roberts, R., The Classic Slum. Salford Life In The First Quarter Of The Century (Manchester, 1971), p. 71.Google Scholar

page 89 note 3 Occurrence Book, Beeston Police Station (Leeds), entry 05 20, 1872.Google Scholar My emphasis.

page 89 note 4 Reynolds, S. and B. & T. Woolley, Seems So (London, 1911), p. 91.Google Scholar

page 90 note 1 Thompson, F., Lark Rise To Candleford (Oxford, 1954), p. 553.Google Scholar

page 90 note 2 Reynolds and Woolley, op. cit., pp. 86–87.

page 90 note 3 Roberts, op. cit., pp. 76–77. The incident atLees illustrates one of Roberts's points. There were two schools of thought regarding PC Dermody. To a large degree class determined one's opinion of his actions.