Vol. 5 No. 24 · 22 December 1983

Search by issue:

Criminal Statistics

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

Browning Versions

SIR: Ian Jack says I am a ‘nuisance’ (Letters, 1 December), but fails to reply to this: Oxford University Press have printed an edition of Browning’s Pauline and Paracelsus that is not edited to the standards of modern literary scholarship. Its major faults are: 1. the volume claims to give ‘full details’ (p. ix) of revisions but omits so many of Browning’s changes in important minutiae that not one of Jack’s textual notes, for any verse, can be trusted as full; 2. Jack is careless in bibliographical references; 3. his naive notion of ‘accidentals’ takes no account of the poet’s attitude to revisions; and 4. the editorial statements are misleading on Sordello’s modern reception, the poet’s borrowings, the poet’s reception of Kean, and similar matters.

Since Fault No 1 is the most grave, I discussed it in my review in Browning Society Notes and twice in your correspondence columns. Ian Jack is not helpless; he is a professor at Cambridge; but instead of telling us why he fails to give ‘full details of revisions’, he twice blames me for reviewing or criticising him. Most of his evasions are comic. He now sends a reply to BSN to imply that he is a Childe Roland and that I live in ‘Honanland’, presumably because he thinks he has cited Maynard often enough in his editorial notes to suit anyone.

Park Honan
University of Birmingham

Professor Jack is welcome to reply: after his letter, should he write one, this correspondence will close.

Editor, ‘London Review’

Shaw Letters

SIR: I am currently compiling – for the Bodley Head – a book of letters to Bernard Shaw from members of the general public. A wide variety of letters will be included: requests for money, sexual advice, literary help, a job, accommodation, autographs, interviews, a wife; requests for help with getting a pension, a typewriter, a publisher, a role in one of Shaw’s plays, for help with a walking-stick exhibition, with introducing the Russian frost-resistant potato into England; advice on how to become an actor, on what to eat, or call the new baby – or new pig – or do about child slavery in China; advice on how to succeed, get a play produced, write fiction, on where to sell a Caruso caricature, or whether to commit suicide. Fan letters; letters giving Shaw advice; letters of attack; invitations to tea, to speak. A number of Shaw replies will also be included. I would be most grateful if any of your readers could let me know if they have (or know of) any apt letters to Shaw or Shaw replies.

Vivian Elliot
40 John Trundle Court, The Barbican, London EC2

Land and Literature

SIR: In Vol. 5, No 21, you mention Robert M. Adams in your ‘Contributors’ section as the author of The Land and Literature of England, ‘published by Norton in America’. I think your readers would be interested to know that W.W. Norton and Company will publish this in the UK in March 1984, at £21.

Julia Wellard
London WC1

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences