Hooligan: A History of Respectable Fears 
by Geoffrey Pearson.
Macmillan, 243 pp., £15, July 1983, 0 333 23399 9
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In the present embattled climate, with Thatcherite artillery trained on the crumbling ramparts of higher education, academics need to keep their powder dry and prepare for a prolonged siege. Although monetarist economists and cost accountants may feel reasonably safe, Norman Tebbit has recorded his dim view of effete scholars who study tribal customs on the Upper Volta, while Sir Keith Joseph’s hostility towards the social sciences has involved the once-mighty Social Science Research Council in acronymic self-torture. If the present Government’s narrow range of useful and acceptable disciplines means that anthropology and sociology seem destined for slow strangulation, then history, according to current rumours, is to be given a frontal lobotomy. Our present political masters apparently resent the work of professional historians in undermining the Anglocentric tradition on which British self-confidence was bashed for centuries. Basking in the afterglow of a landslide victory and fully aware of the potency of the Falklands factor, Tory politicians like Lord Hugh Thomas, the distinguished historian of Spain and Cuba, see the task of historians as the creation of a usable past which will confirm the version of history peddled in the popular press, furnish yet another justification of their claim to authority and boost the sagging morale of an embittered populace. We therefore face attempts by the New Right to revive the old patriotic Imperialist tradition, with students and school-children subjected to appropriately uplifting selections from British history, perhaps including our boys shinning up the Heights of Abraham, marching boldly from Kabul to Kandahar and yomping across Goose Green. Efforts will no doubt be made to convince bored and alienated youth that Mrs Thatcher’s Cabinet stands in direct line from liberty-loving Saxon monarchs, bold Elizabethan privateers, sober Puritan possessive individualists, earnest penny-pinching Victorian shopkeepers and those resolute chaps who, ignoring the fainthearts, went with the flag to Pretoria and defeated the General Strike.

Those who deplore such vulgar ambitions and who value the critical scepticism of academic history will welcome Geoffrey Pearson’s Hooligan. Himself one of Rhodes Boyson’s despised breed of ‘mindles’s sociologists’, Pearson probes to the heart of the historical mythology beloved of the tabloids, the Tory New Right and over-mighty chief constables. It is widely believed that the traditionally peaceful and orderly British way of life, founded on an unquestioning respect for law and an abhorrence of violence, has recently been eroded by the permissive revolution, by a fatal loosening of authority and discipline in both families and schools, by interfering namby-pamby do-gooders and by too many black immigrants. The Brixton and Toxteth riots of the summer of 1981 are held to justify the prominence of the law-and-order issue in Mrs Thatcher’s victorious election campaign two years earlier. As the Daily Express (6 July 1981) declared: ‘People are bound to ask what is happening to our country ... Having been one of the most law-abiding countries in the world – a byword for stability, order and decency – are we changing into something else?’ No less a personage than the Duke of Edinburgh has referred to ‘an avalanche of lawlessness threatening to engulf our civilisation’.

Mr Pearson will have none of this. In Hooligan he draws upon a wide range of historical evidence and recent research in order to expose nostalgic regret for a past golden age of tolerance and stability as nothing more than a comforting myth based on ignorance and prejudice. He demonstrates what academic social historians have realised for some time: that violence on the streets has characterised all periods of British history, from the unruly apprentices of pre-industrial Merrie England to the ‘muggers’ of our contemporary inner cities. Nor is there anything new in the fears of the ‘respectable’ (i.e. propertied) classes concerning rapid moral decline, given that successive generations have expressed virtually identical anxieties about moral degeneration and social breakdown.

Those who hark back to a golden age are invariably vague about chronology. Mr Pearson writes history backwards to demonstrate that eras of tranquillity immediately recede into a more distant past upon close examination. He reminds us how, during the never-had-it-so-good 1950s, there was considerable concern about permissiveness, hooliganism and Teddy Boys. At the Conservative Party Conference of 1958 the ‘soft’ R.A. Butler was assailed by the ‘hang ’em flog ’em’ lobby in much the same way as was William Whitelaw twenty years afterwards. In the Fifties there were many who joined Tory outriders like the British Medical Association in complaining about lack of parental control, the leniency of the law and an over-abundance of sex and violence. Teenagers were allegedly encouraged by affluence and Americanised ‘admass’ culture to reject traditional authority. Considerable hysteria was provoked by the ‘Teds’, who emerged from the distinctly non-affluent districts of working-class London. Few were willing to concede that Teddy Boys were direct descendants of the cosh boys and Blitzkids of the Forties, and that their territorial rivalries were a continuation, not only of earlier forms of gang ritual in urban working-class neighbourhoods, but also of the violent territorial conflicts of pre-industrial village society. Pearson also challenges the belief that the two world wars created stability and cohesion on the home front. The Great War was accompanied by a sharp rise in juvenile crime and a consequent upsurge in birching. The Second World War involved a further increase in street crime, and epidemics of looting after airraids. During 1941 over four thousand looting cases came before the London courts, involving children and youths and a remarkable number of people in positions of public trust: ARP wardens, rescue workers, auxiliary firemen, reserve policemen, bomb-disposal units and mortuary attendants.

Nor were the inter-war years untroubled and relatively law-abiding. There were complaints about escalating crime and violence, as well as much hostility to working-class culture and amusements – voiced, for example, by George Orwell, T.S. Eliot and the Scrutiny group gathered round F.R. Leavis. Alarm concerning the pernicious influence of Hollywood on working-class youth was matched by fear of football rowdyism both on and off the pitch. In 1936 the Football Association issued a stern memorandum on rough play and ‘the cold-blooded and intentional foul’. The fact that rival North London supporters of Spurs and Arsenal wielded knives and iron bars in the Twenties helps to put ‘traditional British sportsmanship’ into perspective. There was much serious crime in the Thirties, involving razor gangs, racecourse thugs, bag-snatchers, vice-racketeers and bloody feuds between armed gangsters, as well as the more mundane street-gambling, drunkenness, obscene language, vandalism and youth-club riots. The scale of political confrontation in this period is well-known: major clashes between police and hunger marchers and between fascists and anti-fascists, baton charges against the unemployed in over thirty towns in 1931, a year which saw the most disorderly election of the 20th century. However, despite the perennial alarmists, there was between the wars a remarkable tolerance of crime, if not of rebellion. The law was rarely imposed with full rigour at a time when the burgling of shops and kiosks was seen as relatively trivial and when bashing a policeman’s head against a brick wall could invoke a mere ten-shilling fine. Public hysteria about law and order was held in check, permitting the more enlightened reformist policies which culminated in the 1933 Children and Young Persons Act. As Pearson points out, the proportion of young offenders receiving custodial sentences is much higher in the Eighties than it was in the Thirties. Indeed, the whole system of criminal justice is now more rigorous. Hence the view of the inter-war decades as a period of firm punishment and relatively little crime cannot be sustained.

After the Great War, the Late Victorian years were depicted, as they sometimes still are, as a time of unrivalled tranquillity. It is true that crime levels were relatively low and public order more stable, despite considerable labour unrest, than in earlier or later times. Nevertheless, the respectable middle-class Right was once again vocal in its condemnation of youthful indiscipline and unemployed ‘loafers’, as well as expressing hostility towards music halls, professional football, ‘penny dreadful’ comics, rowdy working-class Bank Holiday excursions and even the cycling which made the lower orders more threateningly ubiquitous. Football rowdyism, involving attacks on referees and punch-ups between rival fans, was already making the headlines. In 1888 a newspaper reported that in a recent game ‘a continuous hail of empty bottles’ showered the pitch. Middle-class respectable fears were directed at working-class amusements when it was felt that the working classes were beginning to encroach upon hitherto reserved areas of middle-class dominance.

Pearson takes the title for his book from the ‘hooligan’ scare of the 1890s, when the press drummed up alarmist fears of the gangs of youths in London and other cities who smashed up pubs and ice-cream or coffee stalls, and who dressed in distinctive mufflers, irontipped boots and flared trousers with thick-studded belts. Hysterical newspaper editorials, invariably advocating floggings, highlighted the spitting, swearing, vandalism, physical assaults on passers-by and the general hostility of the denizens of the slums towards the police, 25 per cent of whom were assaulted in London in the 1890s. ‘Respectable fear’ led to movements to take boys from the undisciplined slums into the fresh air and knock them into shape by PT, drill and the necessity of playing the game.

In the earlier Victorian decades, too, there were panics about working-class crime and rowdyism, a consequence of a ‘new’ disrespect for traditional authority. The garotting scares of the 1850s and 1860s led to much press and right-wing hostility towards reform of the criminal justice system at a time when reliance on hanging, whipping and transportation was being replaced by emphasis on reformation of the criminal through the discipline of the penitentiary and the introduction of the ticket-of-leave parole system. Pearson points out that, contrary to myth, the reintroduction of flogging for garotters did not quell offences of robbery with violence: the crime wave came after the initial panic.

During the 1840s, concern about crime, disorder and a burgeoning industrial working class who seemed beyond the traditional institutions of social control, created deep social fear in a country which was then largely unpoliced. The Chartist challenge to the political system led to frequent pontificating about the breakdown of traditional discipline and family life which almost exactly mirrors that of 20th-century alarmists and which prompted a large-scale philanthropic movement for ‘moral reform’, designed to wean the working classes from drink, fornication and political rebellion and set them on the road to mental and moral improvement. In fact, complaints about increased crime and disorder and the breakdown of customary discipline go back through the 18th and 17th centuries and beyond, involving concern about unruly apprentices, gangs of upper-class thugs like the Mohacks, food-rioters, arsonists, rick-burners, poachers, smugglers, wreckers and machine-breakers. Pearson draws on the research of social historians of Early Modern Europe which shows that the feasts, wakes, revels, carnivals, church-ales and the like led to semi-licensed role-reversal and ritualised social protest, as in the ‘lords of misrule’, which could all too easily spill over into general mayhem, including gang rape and loss of life.

Mr Pearson writes pungently, if infelicitously, using ‘moderacy’ when he means ‘moderation’. He also makes some errors. The Bristol riots of 1831 led to 12 deaths, not 500, and the dragoons were carefully restrained by their commander: they did not indulge in ‘savage reprisals’. It is not true that the London police were armed for the first time in 1883: both they and most provincial forces were supplied with arms, if only temporarily, at the time of the Fenian outrages in the 1860s. Nor was the 1840s a decade of ‘unparalleled disorder’: that was the 1830s, when there existed a genuine possibility of popular armed revolution. Chartists can only be seen as religious men with considerable qualification, while Pearson errs in claiming that there was no youthful hooligan element in the 1842 general strike. Too little is said in Hooligan about the evolution of policing and the concept of social control in the maintenance of law and order. Mr Pearson could have pointed to many more examples of 19th-century disorder than those he provides, including election riots, industrial conflicts, anti-vaccination demonstrations and religious riots. The 1868 anti-Catholic riot in Ashton resulted in an Irishman killed and two chapels, one hall, one school and 110 houses in ‘Little Ireland’ destroyed, which makes Brixton and Toxteth seem small beer. Pearson argues that the law has never had the respect and consent of the poorest and most dispossessed classes, but David Philips, in his study of crime in the Black Country, asserts not only that there was surprisingly little violence and disorder, but that the vast majority of the population accepted the legitimacy of the criminal law and was relatively peaceful, orderly and law-abiding, in spite of widespread dislike of the police. In his anxiety to emphasise that street violence and disorder have, like the poor, always been with us, Pearson presents rather too static a picture and takes insufficient account of significant changes during the second half of the 19th century. David Jones has charted the taming of the notorious ‘Chinatown’ district of Merthyr and claims that criminal behaviour declined in Late Victorian London, just as Manchester was less brutal and more civilised in 1900 than fifty years earlier. This is reinforced by Gatrell’s argument that the coercive state was effective in bridling the law-breakers of Victorian England, in that trials for all indictable offences declined by as much as a third between the late 1850s and 1914. Again, shifts in penal policy during the 1860s had more complex origins than the relatively small-scale garotting panics on which Pearson focuses.

Nevertheless, Pearson is right to conclude from his selective historical survey that the remarkably consistent ‘respectable fears’ of the last two hundred years concerning crime and disorder, often attributed to unwelcome foreign and alien influences, bore little relationship to the actual facts of criminality. Such fears owed more to the universal human characteristic of nostalgia, to class and generational conflict, and to inability to cope with social change and with the increasing and ‘excessive’ liberty of the common people. Street crime and hooliganism are largely the province of young unmarried men, and Pearson approaches a sociobiological determinist position when he stresses the inherent aggressiveness of young males throughout history. He recognises that study of crime and disorder in the past, and of responses to it, runs the danger of lapsing into impotent fatalism and into a belief in something akin to ineradicable original sin. Yet he persuasively argues that it is a valuable and salutary lesson to realise that there are no quick and easy solutions, on ‘short sharp shock’ lines, to the problem. Street crime and hooliganism are not a recent product of liberal educational philosophies, television violence or soft pornography. The most one can expect is modification rather than elimination. Here the social-work approach which Pearson advocates seems likely to pay better dividends than the reactionary nostrums of the Tory Right. Certainly there are many who will endorse the argument that to rid street crime and hooliganism of the misleading myths by which they have been so long surrounded will enable us to attempt to deal with them in the future more calmly and sensibly.

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Vol. 5 No. 22 · 1 December 1983

SIR: Given the mutual suspicion which has so often characterised the relations between historians and sociologists, D.G. Wright’s review of my book Hooligan: A History of Respectable Fears (LRB, 20 October) is unusually generous. Even so, he marks me down because I make ‘some errors’. What are these errors?

First, there is the question of the Bristol riots of 1831. Wright says that 12 people were killed; I had quoted a figure of 500. Also, he says that the troops did not engage in ‘savage reprisals’ (my phrase) but were ‘carefully restrained by their commander’. The differences between us seem quite large, then, although they amount to something much more interesting than an ‘error’. The figure of 12 that is often quoted refers to the number who were taken to hospital (and two of these, on one account, died from excessive drinking after rioters had plundered a wine vault). But this does not even begin to touch the scale of the disorder. Different accounts describe how bodies were dumped in the River Avon, how unknown numbers died when buildings which had been set on fire collapsed on them, and – most important given Wright’s belief in the military’s restraint – how in the final charges many rioters were driven from the streets into burning buildings from which they never returned. Charles Kingsley, as an eye-witness, described for us the aftermath: ‘a ghastly row, not of corpses, but of corpse fragments’ from the fires. Robert Southey reckoned the number who died to be ‘not short of 500’. Major Mackworth, who led the final charges, later described how, in one charge, ‘riding at the miserable mob in all directions’, ‘about 120 or 130’ and in another ‘at least 250’ were killed or wounded on the final day alone. Lant Carpenter, a Unitarian minister and father of the philanthropist Mary Carpenter, ‘saw a man’s head sliced clean from his shoulders, and was horrified to recognise the victim as a Unitarian merchant from Frenchay, who had come into the city that morning on lawful business’ (this last quotation comes from from Jo Manton’s biography of 1976, Mary Carpenter and the Children of the Streets). We will never know the exact death-toll, but to keep quoting the figure of 12 is to repeat the mistaken efforts of various 19th-century apologists who tried to play down the events, assuring their readers that the dragoons only used the flat sides of their swords.

Which brings us to the question of ‘restraint’. A more useful description might be incompetence, spiced with the characteristic early 19th-century muddle between the powers and responsibilities of the civil and military authorities in suppressing public disorders. I assume that Wright is referring to the actions of Colonel Brereton who commanded the Third Dragoon Guards, whose one decisive act in this affair was to order the 14th Light Dragoons – notorious already in the West Country as the ‘Bloody Blues’ for their record in putting riots down – out of town after they had shot a rioter. (But they were re-admitted on the following day for the clear-up operation.) As for the unfortunate Colonel Brereton, his dithering was rewarded with a court-martial, whereupon he committed suicide. So that it would seem at least decent to allow that the ratified death-toll should be raised from 12 to 13.

And what other ‘errors’ do I commit? I am accused of wrongly describing the 1840s as a decade of ‘unparalleled disorder’. In fact, what I wrote (page 183) was that the ‘1840s were experienced as a time of quite unparalleled disorder’, which is quite a different thing. In fact, as Wright acknowledges, my whole book is devoted to the lack of connection between the actualities as opposed to the experiences of crime and disorder. I am also taken to task on the religious convictions of the Chartists in this era. But this is not a question of ‘error’, more one of balance, where my explicit aim was to redress the wholly unbalanced perceptions of Early Victorians who viewed Chartism as both ‘heathen’ and ‘hooligan’ (a word not to be coined for fifty years).

Then there is the question of whether crime did (or did not) decline in the course of the late 19th century. I, too, have the greatest respect for Vic Gatrell’s pioneering researches into the interpretation of criminal statistics in this period – which would appear to show a real decline in crime – but I am sure that he would be the first to agree that the criminal statistics cannot provide some unfettered empirical truth. And even if it were true, to quote Wright, ‘that criminal behaviour declined in Late Victorian London, just as Manchester was less brutal and more civilised in 1900 than fifty years earlier,’ then what must we make of the scandalised response to the supposedly unprecedented ‘Hooligan’ outrages of the late 1890s? Except to say that, once more, it is an indication of the frail connection between the actualities of crime and the alarm about ‘crime waves’.

Finally, we come to when the London Police were first armed with revolvers – a lively topical issue, following the sad experience of Stephen Waldorf. I say that it was in 1883 – by which reckoning Mr Waldorf’s case is a centenary event – amidst alarm in both the press and the senior ranks of the Metropolitan Police. Wright says, correctly if off the point, that the Police had been issued with arms during the Fenian outrages of the 1860s. But never before in ‘normal’ circumstances: in this case, to meet the challenge of an entirely phoney crime wave of armed burglars in the late 1870s when Punch jokingly re-named fashionable Belgravia as ‘Burglaria’. And if Mr Wright doubts me, either on the novel use of revolvers by the London Police in 1883 or the fictitious nature of the burglary scare, then perhaps he would care to consult the relevant Public Record Office papers held at Kew.

Geoffrey Pearson
University of Bradford

Vol. 5 No. 24 · 22 December 1983

SIR: The only significant point at issue between Mr Pearson (Letters, 1 December) and myself concerns his description in Hooligan of the Bristol riots: ‘when, after savage reprisals by the dragoons, 500 people were left dead during three days rioting in which prisoners were broken out from the lock-ups, buildings were burned, ransacked and looted and the Mansion House invaded’. While being well aware of the scale of the riots since the publication of Joseph Hamburger’s James Mill and the Art of Revolution (1963), I maintain that the evidence does not support a figure of 500 dead, nor the description of the action of the dragoons as ‘savage reprisals’. Twelve dead is admittedly the official figure and doubtless errs on the low side; I agree that it is impossible to arrive at a precise final death count, although the four men executed out of the 31 sentenced to death ought perhaps to be taken into consideration. It is, however, difficult to demonstrate that more than a few deaths during the riots were a direct result of action by the military. Colonel Brereton was both incompetent and restrained.

The intensity of the riots and the extent of damage to property were a consequence of the failure of the authorities, both military and civil, to act sufficiently speedily or decisively. Most of the rioting and many of the deaths and injuries could have been avoided had not the city been left open to the rioters on the evening of Saturday 29 September and the following Sunday morning. Brereton’s misguided withdrawal of his forces was partly motivated by his desire to exercise restraint: for example, when he ordered the troops ‘to use the flat of the swords as much as possible, and not to proceed to extremities till absolutely necessary’. Such restraint stemmed from humane instincts and a reluctance to shed the blood of the inhabitants of an area where, unusually, he had lived for at least three years. It also stemmed from a mistaken belief in the efficacy of bargaining with the mob, as well as from confusion over military regulations and uncertain relations with a vacillating magistracy. When the dragoons were finally ordered to clear the streets, they were able to do so relatively quickly and easily and, by the standards of the day, not especially savagely. Carpenter, a well-known opponent of the corporation and therefore hardly an impartial witness, admitted that the order for the troops to charge on the morning of the 31 September was ‘in the circumstances right for the commanding officer to take’ even if it led to innocent bystanders being wounded. Major Mackworth’s evidence is of limited value, given his failure to distinguish between killed and wounded and his later admission that he relied largely on guesswork. Charles Kingsley, a boy of 12 at the time, did indeed see the corpses of drunken rioters who, lapping spirits from the gutters, were engulfed in blazing brandy. None of these witnesses furnishes firm evidence of anywhere near 500 deaths, while Kingsley was certainly no critic of the military, informing a Bristol lecture audience in 1858 that what he had seen in 1831 ‘made me for years the veriest aristocrat, full of hatred and contempt for those dangerous classes, whose existence I had for the first time discovered’. It is instructive, when considering savagery and restraint in Bristol in 1831, to bear in mind that the final cavalry charge comprised a mere twenty-five or so dragoons, armed only with sabres, compared with the thousands of troops, 1729 artillery rounds and 269,000 musket shots employed to crush the rioting silk-weavers in Lyons in April 1834, with enormous casualties on both sides. Copious evidence exists, not least in the correspondence of military commanders, that when faced with rioters the British Army during this period acted with far more restraint than its counterparts elsewhere and never set out to blow rioters to smithereens with cannon. If Mr Pearson merely wishes to claim that many more than 12 rioters were killed, indirectly or otherwise, by their drunken fellows, then he may do so plausibly.

I do not accept that ‘the 1840s were experienced as a time of unparalleled disorder,’ since I know of no evidence to support the ‘unparalleled’, given the disorders of the 1830s and the genuine possibility of armed revolution in 1839. On the slippery topic of Chartism and Christianity, I willingly concede that it is largely a matter of balance and interpretation, although it is difficult to make much of a sentence like ‘Victorian England was also somewhat askew in its condemnation of the heathen inspirations of Chartism’ (page 126) without precise and less rigidly personified examples of that condemnation, preferably by denomination. The ubiquity of the ‘More Pigs, Fewer Parsons’ Chartist banner was not calculated to reassure the Established Church, to say the least. As I suggested in my review, considerable qualification is necessary here, since not all Victorian observers saw Chartists as heathen, while the radical and populist Christianity of many Chartists, with its admixture of crude folk beliefs, may be seen as heterodox if not heathen.

Otherwise, Mr Pearson and I are in agreement, for I take his point about police revolvers, even though he writes (page 124), ‘it was also in 1883, amidst considerable alarm about the increasing use of firearms by burglars, that the London police were armed for the first time in their history,’ which is, as he concedes, not strictly true. I must, however, abjectly confess to an error of my own in my review of Hooligan, where I describe the 1831 election as disorderly. I was confusing the demonstrations of the unemployed in that year with the election itself, which was in fact a relatively quiet one.

D.G. Wright

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