A brief historical perspective on social unrest

It is tempting, or perhaps self-flattering, to believe that we are the first generation to stumble towards a ‘new normal’. In looking forwards to the future we often miss the lessons of history. For example, most people will have heard of the ‘Great fire of London’ 1666 which followed the plague outbreak of 1665, (amazingly there were no casualties in the fire). Fewer readers might recall the following dates; AD 60 Londinium was burned to the ground by Boudicca, AD 122 the Hadrianic Fire of Londinium where only the Roman fort at Cripplegate remained intact. To save the readers some time there were major fires in London in 675, 798, 982, 989,1087, 1133, 1212, 1633, 1666, 1794, 1861 and arguably 1940-41.

The point is that many generations have had to deal with their ‘new normal’. However, unless we have some regard to the past, we are likely to make the same mistakes. It is now being widely predicted that in the new normal, ‘social unrest’ will be a consequence of Covid-19. But just as fires are nothing new, nor is social unrest in the UK; the questions is how and what we can learn from the past events

The list of ‘traditional’ British social unrest and rioting is long and, perhaps surprisingly, in some cases it is curiously dignified. Wikipedia, (the last resort of a researcher), lists over 100 episodes of social unrest or riots ranging from the 1896 Newlyn Riots, (concerning morality of the landing of fish on Sunday) and the 1809 Old Price Riots, concerning increased theatre tickets costs but, it omits the regicide of Charles I, the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 (the ‘peaceful’ overthrow of James II) and the Suffragettes’ more militant actions. Nevertheless, the merit of their list is that on closer analysis it perfectly illustrates the causes of riots and perhaps the flash points. Now, whilst the superficial causes might appear trivial in some cases, they are usually linked to larger serious issues and the exact trigger is merely a touch paper or a symptom of the underlying dissatisfaction.

Once again, a table will have to substitute for detailed analysis. I have taken four riots from the Middle Ages and Victorian times and contrasted them with more recent events. Only the last episode is referenced, simply because it sounds wholly implausible. The reader may care to imagine what might have occurred if the earlier events had been fuelled by social media.

Table showing various times of social unrest in UK

³Interestingly when the locals at Bamber Bridge were asked by a US officer to introduce a colour bar/racial segregation at the pubs, all three village pubs erected signs with ‘Black troops only’.

These episodes are not a representative sample from which generalisations can be made. Nevertheless, one can infer some themes. In some cases the specific triggers of social unrest are unremarkable in themselves; the arrest of a black serviceman for being in the wrong uniform at Bamber Bridge, the arrest of a Eliza Stafford in Leeds for ‘stealing dripping’ and the questionable quality of wine in an Oxford tavern. But in terms of underlying causes, it is depressingly familiar that racial, class and social tension, economic turbulence, basic injustice, rumour and ‘fake news’, and wealth disparity are all too apparent in the examples offered.

Sadly, social unrest seems to be inevitable, the spark is almost impossible to predict yet the xenophobic foundations of social unrest seem to be embedded in our psyche. Recently, many universities in respect of Covid 19, have reported varying degrees of discrimination against Asian students, even in the 1666 Great Fire of London the diarist Pepys noted that in a crisis it is always easy to find an external national scapegoat, but that is another story….

And I lay down and slept a good night about midnight, though when I rose I heard that there had been a great alarme of French and Dutch being risen, which proved, nothing.4

¹Miller, Donald L. (2007). Masters of the Air: America’s Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster. pp. 227–229. ISBN 9780743235457.
²Werrell, Ken (1978). Ramsey, Winston G. (ed.). “The Mutiny at Bamber Bridge”. After the Battle. No. 22. pp. 1–11.
³Pollins, Harold. “WW2 People’s War – The Battle of Bamber Bridge”. BBC. Retrieved 4 April 2017.
4https://www.pepysdiary.com/diary/1666/09/