Mayhem: Post-War Crime and Violence in Britain, 1748-53 [NOOK Book]


After the end of the War of Austrian Succession in 1748, thousands of unemployed and sometimes unemployable soldiers and seamen found themselves on the streets of London ready to roister the town and steal when necessary. In this fascinating book Nicholas Rogers explores the moral panic associated with this rapid demobilization.

Through interlocking stories of duels, highway robberies, smuggling, riots, binge drinking, and even two earthquakes, Rogers captures the anxieties...

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Mayhem: Post-War Crime and Violence in Britain, 1748-53

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After the end of the War of Austrian Succession in 1748, thousands of unemployed and sometimes unemployable soldiers and seamen found themselves on the streets of London ready to roister the town and steal when necessary. In this fascinating book Nicholas Rogers explores the moral panic associated with this rapid demobilization.

Through interlocking stories of duels, highway robberies, smuggling, riots, binge drinking, and even two earthquakes, Rogers captures the anxieties of a half-decade and assesses the social reforms contemporaries framed and imagined to deal with the crisis. He argues that in addressing these events, contemporaries not only endorsed the traditional sanction of public executions, but wrestled with the problem of expanding the parameters of government to include practices and institutions we now regard as commonplace: censuses, the regularization of marriage through uniform methods of registration, penitentiaries and police forces.

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Editorial Reviews

“[A] lively, compelling work.”—Choice
American Historical Review
"Nicholas Rogers is a deft scholar who marshals an impressive variety of sources in this book. . . . He offers a fresh take on the intersection of a variety of social and political issues at a key point in the eighteenth century.”—American Historical Review
Donna T. Andrew
"I know of no book that examines such a broad swath of topics and employs such a variety of sources. . . . It is seldom that an academic book, researched by a first-rate scholar, is so readable and entertaining."—Donna T. Andrew, University of Guelph
Deborah Valenze
"From the streets, turnpikes, and taverns to the courts, pulpits, and Parliament, Mayhem reminds us that the fractious polity of mid-century Britain took its cues from a great many players. Rogers is required reading for anyone seeking to understand the eighteenth century."—Deborah Valenze, author of The Social Life of Money in the English Past
Joanna Innes
 "Nick Rogers’ expert knowledge of electoral politics, crowd behavior and the lives of seafarers are all put to good use in this Hogarthian account of life in the British metropolis and empire in the mid eighteenth century."—Joanna Innes, Somerville College, Oxford
Margaret R. Hunt
“Far from being an age of patrician calm, mid-eighteenth-century Britain was riven with conflict. Rogers’s compelling new book examines the often violent dislocations that attended the end of the War of Austrian Succession and shows some of the surprisingly modern governmental experiments they inspired.”—Margaret R. Hunt, Amherst College
“[A] lively, compelling work.”—Choice
Times Literary Supplement - Stephen Brumwell
“Rogers’s fascinating examination of the gin craze is one of several interlocking case studies that together offer a vivid picture of a Hanoverian state facing myriad challenges to authority . . . Mayhem is acutely observed and richly detailed: it provides a convincing snapshot of a society reeling under a crime wave, and desperate enough to consider any means of curbing it.”Stephen Brumwell, Times Literary Supplement
North American Conference on British Studies - John Ben Snow
Winner of the 2013 John Ben Snow Prize sponsored by the North American Conference on British Studies.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300189063
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 1/8/2013
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • File size: 5 MB

Meet the Author

Nicholas Rogers is distinguished research professor of history at York University, Toronto. He is the author or co-author of several books, including, most recently, Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night and The Press Gang: Naval Impressment and Its Opponents in Georgian Britain.

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Read an Excerpt




Copyright © 2012 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-16962-1

Chapter One

The Trials of Admiral Knowles

As he drove to Deptford in December 1749, Admiral Charles Knowles must have wondered how he came to be in such a pickle. He had been charged by four of his subaltern officers of botching a battle off Havana some fourteen months earlier. In their estimation, Knowles had made an "un-officer-like Attack" on the Spanish squadron of Admiral Don Andres Reggio, allowing four ships to begin hostilities while others straggled behind. He had also not switched flagships when his own, the Canterbury, was severely disabled, which meant that he had virtually abdicated his command in the heat of the battle. Whether through "cowardice, negligence or disaffection," his subaltern officers claimed, and they left it very much to the court-martial to decide which, Knowles had failed to engage the enemy in a manner befitting his rank and responsibilities.

These charges were humiliating to a man like Knowles, an ambitious seaman with more than a chip on his shoulder by virtue of his illegitimate, yet genteel origins (figure 2). The son of Charles Knollys, the titular fourth earl of Banbury by a relatively obscure actress, he was, like his father, anxious to make his mark. Whereas his father spent much of his life petitioning for an official recognition of his noble status, Charles Knowles strove to cut a figure in the navy and to reap the harvests of war. Like so many of his contemporaries, Knowles had entered the navy as a teenager, initially as a captain's servant. As part of the crew of the Lyme frigate under Lord Vere Beauclerk, then based in the Mediterranean, he had picked up a working knowledge of French and a sound grounding in mathematics and mechanics. These skills were put to advantage in the wars of the 1740s, when Britain's raid-and-destroy missions on Spanish ports and privateering centers required the rapid demolition of military fortifications. After Admiral Edward Vernon's famed descent on Portobelo in November 1739, a victory which transfixed a war-hungry public at home, Knowles was sent in to destroy the fort and spike the guns. In Vernon's second successful venture, the attack upon Fort Chagre, Knowles was given command of the bomb ketches and fireships. On the surrender of this privateering station, he was temporarily made governor of the castle until its defenses were destroyed.

These tasks he accomplished efficiently, and his esteem in the eyes of his imposing admiral grew. At the fateful expedition to Cartagena in March 1741, Knowles was the principal surveyor and engineer of the fleet. It was he who reconnoitered the approaches to the inner harbor and cut the boom across the Boca Chica. He also played a critical role in the reduction of Fort St. Joseph at the entrance to the harbor, and then of the Castillo Grande, before the town of Cartagena, which he reputedly accomplished with a "cool and determined valour." There he cut a passage past scuttled ships and began bombarding the town, notwithstanding the heavy fire of the enemy and the damage to his mainmast.

As part of the advance naval party before Cartagena, Knowles was in a position to view the army's fateful assault on Fort St. Lazar and to judge who was responsible for the eventual failure to raise the siege of Cartagena. Indeed, he was an important intermediary between the two commanders in their discussions of how the assault should take place and how much cover the navy might provide General Thomas Wentworth's troops. As a protégé of Edward Vernon, Knowles predictably took the admiral's side in the subsequent debate over Cartagena, especially on the question of whether the army or the navy was primarily responsible for the failure of the expedition. Knowles did not leak information to the press in the manner of a partisan officer; when he returned to Britain with the prisoners and the sick on the Weymouth he penned his own account of the expedition. In this pamphlet, published anonymously, Knowles castigated the army for its indecision and incompetence. He accused General Wentworth, its commander in chief, of landing his troops in dense, vulnerable clusters, "so closely crouded," Knowles wrote, that "scarcely one Man could have used his Arms" against enemy sharpshooters. He also blamed the general for unnecessarily exposing his troops to the inclement climate from the moment they landed, sowing the seeds of destruction that followed. And he lambasted army officers for their tardiness in erecting a battery at Boca Chica, leaving the navy to bear the brunt of Spanish resistance at the narrow passage to the lagoon. In Knowles's opinion the army was feckless and undisciplined, full of raw recruits, and captained by rakes and salon officers who knew nothing of tropical warfare. "Working," he sneered, "was no Part of their Trade." Because many of the troops were unseasoned for the tropics, the indecision of the army officers and the slow advance to Cartagena was aggravated by malaria and yellow fever. At a critical moment in the campaign, the troops flubbed the landing at the Isla de Gracias in the inner lagoon before Cartagena and botched the approach to St. Lazar, from where they might have been able to bombard the town effectively. The British troops were brave enough in Knowles's estimation; they were simply "raw" and "undisciplined." The same could not be said for the American auxiliaries who also participated in the disastrous assault on the fort and fled before scaling ladders could be placed on the walls. He thought even less of them than the ragamuffins brought from England. In his eyes they were a bunch of rum-swigging adventurers, led by amateur officers composed of "Blacksmiths, Taylors, Shoemakers, and all the Banditti that [the] Country affords."

Intemperate language aside, Knowles's pamphlet struck a chord with a public starved of news about the catastrophe of Cartagena and fed on conflicting rumors of victories and disasters. As a writer in Old England remarked, "Tho' the Author of this Performance has not thought fit to put his Name to it, yet the facts contain'd in it are so new and so perspicuously stated, that it well deserves the publick Attention." His shilling pamphlet ran through three editions in two months and was given a good airing in the Gentleman's Magazine as well as in some provincial papers. It certainly bolstered the case of Vernon in his continuing recriminations against Wentworth and against the ministry, for Knowles's comments about the raw character of the troops fed suspicions that the Walpole administration had held back its crack troops for the continental campaigns in which George II had a very personal interest. Certainly the ministry did little to ensure that the troops sent to reinforce Vernon's squadron were free of the dysentery and typhus, which was ravaging the southern ports of embarkation. They started out with compromised immune systems, and the heat, humidity, and rum of the Caribbean destroyed many of them. Seventy-four percent of the British-based troops on the Cartagena expedition died, and even among the American rangers, who were likely more accustomed to the heat and humidity, the death toll reach 65 percent.

Knowles himself did not personally witness the ongoing debate over Cartagena that filled the British press in the spring and early summer of 1743. He was back in the Caribbean, working under Vernon's staunch friend and ally Sir Challoner Ogle, who assigned him new duties as a squadron commander. In February 1743 Knowles planned a raid upon two Spanish privateering stations, La Guira and Porto Cabello, on what is now the Venezuelan coast southeast of the Dutch islands of Aruba and Curacao. These ports had been targeted earlier in the war, albeit ineffectually, and this time Knowles was resolved to succeed. With a squadron of five ships of the line and some smaller craft that housed 2,300 seamen and marines and 400 regular troops, he probably dreamed of emulating Vernon's early exploits. This was not to be. The main objective was Porto Cabello, but Knowles had issued orders to the captains to take whatever prizes they found in La Guira road, with the result that the squadron deviated from its main task and tried to take La Guira by surprise. Unfortunately, in their enthusiasm the ships fired their broadsides too early and erratically amid the swell of the road and had to face the guns of a surprisingly well-fortified port. The squadron consequently suffered high casualties. Knowles's flagship, the Suffolk, sustained ninety-seven shots to its hull that left thirty men dead and eighty wounded, approximately 25 percent of her working crew. The Burford and Eltham suffered similarly, and although the squadron did manage to force a landing when the bomb ketches played on the west part of the town, the third lieutenant of the raiding party was too preoccupied with plundering to accomplish much. The result was that the descent on La Guira was thwarted, and so, confronted with the death of one of his captains and considerable confusion among his squadron, Knowles repaired to Curacao to refit and regroup.

At Curaçao, a Dutch port that was an entrepot for slaves and did business with almost everyone in Atlantic waters, Knowles had to haggle for extra men. He hoped to recruit about 250 volunteers, but the governor allowed him to depart with only a hundred, mainly blacks and mulattoes. Meanwhile the governor was conspiring with Knowles's adversaries, supplying the Spanish at Porto Cabello with extra gunpowder. These deals left the governor of Carracas time to send 4,000 Amerindians, mulattoes, and blacks to reinforce the fort. Knowles's negotiations for additional men lost him the element of surprise, and a strong lee current to Porto Cabello only added to his woes. Eventually he resorted to a beach landing at nighttime in an attempt to create a second front of attack. Unfortunately his advance troops came across a Spanish patrol and in attempting to restrain it, alerted the enemy with gunfire. The troops in the rear of Knowles's column thought the van had engaged the enemy; they panicked and opened fire, sometimes on their own men. Chaos broke out. Knowles reported that "no-one knew at what they fired, some cryed out they were all cut off, and the most fearful frightened the rest till at length they all betook themselves to Fly as fast as they could." He attempted to draw off the fire of the fascine the next day, but after several attempts to bombard Porto Cabello, he retired with a squadron "so shattered in their masts and rigging as scarce ... able to sett a Sail to run off."

The expedition to the Venezuelan ports proved a dismal and, in human terms, costly venture. Twenty percent of Knowles's squadron were either killed or wounded in these ventures, twice as many as at Trafalgar and without a figment of glory. In a broader context the expedition demonstrated that although prizes were a tonic to recruitment in the Caribbean, they could be a disincentive to military discipline. It also illustrated why timing and favorable weather conditions were essential prerequisites to successful raids on reasonably fortified harbors. At a personal level, the episode revealed Knowles to be something of a martinet. Just before sailing Knowles had one Irish seaman hanged at the yardarm for desertion, essentially pour encourager les autres. During the expedition itself he cashiered one officer for not obeying orders and moving closer to attack the fascine battery. "I cannot help observing to their lordships that during this behaviour, both officers and men were crying out shame," he wrote to the Admiralty. With respect to this officer's conduct and that of another who had backed off in the battle, Knowles felt himself "cruelly used"; "a negligent performance of duty may bring on as ill Consequences as immediate breach of orders."

Knowles's frustrations with his officers and men were intensified by the drain of his manpower. When his squadron arrived in Antigua in 1743 he was about a hundred men short of his complement and particularly concerned that homeward-bound merchant ships were luring men to desert with offers of rum and high wages. On his return from the La Guira expedition, he was piqued to learn that the merchants of the island were employing a privateer to prevent the Spanish from raiding the local plantations of slaves. Aware that privateers were often at the vanguard of popular opposition to impressment, he thought their visibility around the island would encourage more resistance to navy recruitment. So he proposed to teach the Antiguan privateers a lesson. When the privateer returned to the St. John's road in June 1743, Knowles had Captain Gage of the Lively send a lieutenant and his party to impress the boat's crew. The plan badly backfired. The privateering crew took the lieutenant and one of his men hostage. Knowles responded by arresting one of the ringleaders in hopes of detering others from resisting impressment, but the merchant-owners of the privateering vessel protested to the governor that this was illegal as "there was no law for Pressing." This was not technically true, although the previous legislation concerning colonial pressing was controversial and its legality much disputed. In the face of pressure from the owners, Governor Matthews caved in, released the privateering leader, and allowed Knowles and his captain to be arrested and committed to gaol for false imprisonment. Knowles was able to get out of gaol on a bail of £12,000, an enormous sum even when converted into pounds sterling (£6,000). He then discovered that the owners had procured a habeas corpus for the release of some other privateers who had been taken aboard the Suffolk and the Lively. Knowles urged the governor to intervene, reminding him that the opposition to impressment had already had a reverberatory effect in St. Kitts, where privateers had forced Captain Abel Smith of the Pembroke Prize to release men who had been impressed. Knowles failed to sway the governor; in fact, he was eventually sued for £4,000 for impeding the flow of commerce through his intemperate actions. As he ruefully reflected, naval officers sometimes had to "suffer in their private fortunes" to pursue the king's business.

Knowles was the sort of man who bristled at this kind of legal offensive, believing that the king's business should override the vested interests of merchants and planters. But in the Caribbean there was little he could do. A 1744 statute made it very difficult for naval commanders to impress ashore without the consent of governors and assembly unless they could show there was a dire emergency, and the threat of a £50 fine for every illegal impressment deterred them from testing the act too vigorously. In that year Knowles resorted to impressing at sea, finding seaman on Antigua difficult to catch.

Knowles knew, however, that North American merchants had failed to have the 1744 act extended to their coast, and when he sailed south from Louisbourg for his third turn of duty in the Caribbean in 1747, he was determined to test the waters. In Boston he advertised for a privateer crew, and when men congregated at the keys to enlist in the venture, he swept them up, claiming that he was looking for the thirty-odd seamen who had deserted his squadron while it was anchored for repairs at Nantasket island. The Bostonians were outraged by this sharp practice. It fueled their sense of British injustice over impressment, which in their eyes was illegal under an earlier statute, 6 Anne, even though British legal opinion determined that that particular act had expired. Three hundred privateers and Guineamen mobilized with arms, took several of Knowles's officers hostage, and threatened to burn one of the open boats of the squadron. When Thomas Hutchinson, speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, managed to free one of the hostages, a mob complained to Governor William Shirley about the illegality of the press and threatened to storm the council chamber if their complaints did not receive a sympathetic ear. Governor Shirley found the mob so intimidating that he retired to the castle, but Knowles took his own hostages and threatened to bombard the town if his men were not returned. This hot-headed reprisal fortunately came to naught. An unfavorable wind prevented Knowles from getting close to the town, although the fact that his opponents had manned the batteries probably made him think twice about this reckless course of action. Eventually the militia and the House of Representatives managed to defuse the situation, and the hostages on each side were returned. Even so, Knowles emerged from the crisis with a reputation for intemperate arrogance. The Boston Evening Post catalogued his mishaps and failures, including the Antiguan affair. At Louisbourg, the paper asserted, where Knowles had briefly been governor, his energies had been dissipated on trivial matters. He had wasted his time policing the fort and arresting tipplers rather than attempting to thwart the French presence in Acadia and the St. Lawrence. At La Guira and Porto Cavallos his courage was thought to be cosmetic; his seemingly intrepid behavior, it was speculated, flowed from a medical malady that sometimes seized his bowels and fevered his brain. Compared to Sir Peter Warren, a humane "Gentlemen of paternal Estate" who was sympathetic to trade, Knowles was a reckless hothead of distinctly illiberal tendencies. His actions in Boston illustrated this very clearly.

The Boston Evening Post painted a damning picture of Knowles's leadership. It completely overlooked his contribution to refortifying Louisbourg and his ability to whip a motley crew of drunks into shape. When Knowles first assumed his responsibilities at the Cape Breton post, he reported that as many as a thousand servicemen were drinking prodigious amounts of rum to protect themselves against the cold, so threadbare were their uniforms amid subzero temperatures. It took some resolution to rectify this state of affairs and bring order to the garrison. Even so, Knowles's career in Atlantic waters was looking decidedly checkered. His early successes at Portobelo, Fort Chagre, and Cartagena had been followed by failure and controversy. True, he had been promoted from captain to commodore to rear admiral of the blue by 1747, and there was no doubting his willingness to serve in the Caribbean, something that other flag officers avoided. Yet there were nagging doubts about his judgment and impetuosity. As the commander of the Jamaica station, he would find himself tested.


Excerpted from Mayhem by NICHOLAS ROGERS Copyright © 2012 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1

1 The Trials of Admiral Knowles 13

2 The Sailors' Return 35

3 The Sailors' Revenge 64

4 Fire from Heaven: The London Earthquakes of 1750 89

5 Riots, Revels, and Reprisals 108

6 Tackling the Gin Craze 131

7 Henry Fielding and Social Reform 158

8 From Havana to Halifax 188

Conclusion 209

Notes 219

Index 255

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