Tory and Whig
What one reads in court or vestry minutes was no doubt only the bare bones of what had been discussed by the worthies of parish or livery company, who would hardly have come together so many times a year for such dry business alone. One subject which would almost certainly have been aired was politics, for this was an intensely political age and nowhere more so than in what had once been described as 'the proud, unthankful, schismatical, rebellious, bloody City of London'.
Political activity took many forms, but the one most likely to
pay dividends was lobbying. The practice of addressing grievances in person or in writing to parliament, the privy council or the City government was an ancient one but it reached new levels of intensity in our period, especially from the 1690s onwards. Annual sessions of parliament, and sessions long enough to ensure that bills had a fair chance of being enacted, meant that much more legislation relating to economic affairs could now get into the statute book. The process of initiating and supporting such legislation, or of opposing it, was one that might engage any Londoner, rich or poor, at some time in his life. This might involve nothing more than waiting, cap in hand, on one of the members of parliament for the City or it might involve a fully orchestrated campaign with signatures collected for petitions, a printed statement of grievances and perhaps a well-organized procession of petitioners. Such campaigns were normally conducted in a polite enough way, with emphasis on the respectability and good standing of the petitioners. Sometimes, they were far from polite, frustration leading to violence, as in the weavers' riots of 1675 or the calico riots of 1719–21 in which women wearing cotton had the clothes ripped off their backs by embittered silk-weavers.
The weavers of Spitalfields and the East End had a notorious reputation for crowd violence and they were to make a threatening appearance on a number of occasions in our period, either in pursuit of an industrial grievance or as a force manipulated by politicians for their own ends, such as the crowd of weavers with whom the Whigs flooded Guildhall during the General Election of 1710, who 'caused much fighting and quarrelling in the street'. However, weavers had no monopoly of political or industrial violence and the threat of the crowd was a major factor in London political life.
No one could forget the pressure that had been imposed by a well-articulated London crowd on the eve of the Civil War, pressure which took the form of 'monster' petitions or the physical presence of hundreds or thousands shouting slogans or waiting menacingly outside parliament to ensure that the members voted correctly. The London crowd was never again to play quite such an important political role but the fear that it might was always a factor in the political calculus, as the respectable were to be reminded on several other occasions
during the Civil War and its aftermath—in the Exclusion Crisis of 1678–81, during the Revolution of 1688, in the Sacheverell riots of 1710 and again in the anti-Hanoverian riots of 1715 and 1716. Historians love riots and the social make-up of those arrested or indicted on these occasions has been carefully analysed. In nearly all cases, one finds that the crowd was not composed of the totally dispossessed, but was drawn mainly from artisans and from the lowest section of the middle station, who used these occasions not as an opportunity for looting and mayhem but as a means of demonstrating on some specific political or religious issue. Sometimes the crowd would generate its own leaders, but often it was orchestrated by people of higher status, most obviously in the Exclusion Crisis and in the Sacheverell riots of 1710.
Political activity by large numbers did not necessarily involve riot. London had a long tradition of pageantry and processions, a form of street theatre which might be used for patriotic purposes or to reinforce the social hierarchy but which was often used as political propaganda, in much the same way as the marching days of modern Ulster. Processions were meticulously organized and could be stirring spectacles, but they were often full of menace and none more so than the savage popeburning processions of 1673–80. Normally held on Guy Fawkes night and on the anniversary of the accession of Queen Elizabeth on 17 November, these processions became more and more elaborate and often involved several hundreds of people, a host of whistlers, bellmen and torch-bearers escorting their fellows dressed as Catholic priests, Jesuits, cardinals and, of course, 'a most costly Pope, carried by four persons in divers habits, and the effigies of two devils whispering in his ears, his belly filled full of live cats who squawled most hideously as soon as they felt the fire'. The size and importance of such processions ebbed and flowed with the intensity of political activity, but they were to reach a new crescendo in the last years of the reign of Queen Anne and the period of the Hanoverian succession, when popeburnings, fireworks, ox-roastings and free beer laid on by the Whigs were matched by the rival displays of the Tory Jacobites, who celebrated such occasions as the anniversary of the martyrdom of Charles I or the Pretender's birthday with equal panache.
Riots and processions were the noisy and sometimes exciting manifestations of street politics but, for most people most of the time, politics was a quieter business, an intermittent process of complaining about this and that, and particularly about the government. Seditious words spoken by drunks in taverns form a recurring theme in the revelations of the numerous spies employed by the secretaries of state, but the democracy and sobriety of the coffee-house was often seen as a greater danger. 'These sober clubs produce nothing but scandalous and censorious discourses and at these nobody is spared,' wrote the City Chamberlain, Sir Thomas Player.
The grumbling of political discussion reached its peak, then as now, at the times of elections, democratic processes which involved virtually all the middle station and a surprising number of lesser people in this period over a hundred years before the first Reform Act. Democracy at the local level varied from parish to parish, depending on such matters as whether the vestry was open or closed, but in many parts of London all rate-paying householders had the right to vote in local government elections. Most of these were not very exciting or well attended, but a particularly fraught political situation could induce a strongly contested election for such offices as common councilman, while for many people a local election was a matter of bread and butter on whose result depended local power, office and its perquisites and lucrative contracts which could be distributed to the friends of the elected man.
Local elections happened every year, but most middling people were also able to vote from time to time in parliamentary by-elections and in general elections, the latter occurring on an unprecedented number of occasions during the middle years of our period. There were three general elections during the exciting years of the Exclusion Crisis and then a lull during the period of absolutist backlash, which was ended by the Revolution of 1688. Then came a period of electoral excitement such as the English public had never experienced before, the Triennial Act of 1694 being followed by ten general elections in twenty years, a record never since beaten. Not only were there more elections, but more seats were contested during this period than at any other time before the nineteenth century, and each
contest was magnified and made more exciting by the increasingly partisan coverage provided by the newspapers. If many people had been able to ignore politics in the past, few were able to forget that they lived in an intensely partisan and divided city by the end of the reign of Queen Anne, when the two general elections of 1710 and 1713 produced the highest polls of the period, some 92 per cent of the liverymen of London voting in the 1713 election.
Londoners voted for only ten members of parliament, four for the City and two each for Westminster, Southwark and the county of Middlesex. This was a minute proportion of the House of Commons relative to the population of the metropolis but the London members, especially those for the City, played a much more important role than is suggested by their numbers, for example, as key committee members on legislation relating to economic affairs. The results of London elections were eagerly awaited because the electorate was large enough to reflect public opinion rather than just the largesse handed out by the candidates. Londoners were notorious for their independence and the large floating vote reflected and indeed led the national trend in all but one of the seven general elections between 1701 and 1715. 'The countrys always take the rule from hence', observed Lord Halifax of London in 1705, 'and the true pulse of a nation is always felt at the heart.'
What sort of politics was this heart interested in? This is not the place to attempt to write a political history of London, but it is possible to observe a continuity in the political structure of the metropolis which reflected the social structure and survived right through from the hectic days of the early 1640s to the comparatively quiet years of 'stability' at the end of our period and indeed much later in the eighteenth century. In this scheme, one can identify five levels of political activity. The first, and usually the most active, comprised the gentry and aristocracy, who played out on a London stage the struggles of national politics, a continuing and often intense political debate which took place in their West End houses, in taverns, coffee-houses and clubs, in the street and in the theatre and, of course, in the forum of parliament itself. The nature of this debate naturally varied with time, but it was usually as much about
jobs and power as about ideology, and it often reflected longstanding divisions between the great families of the counties far more than any metropolitan or even national political issues.
The fact that the seat of government and parliament was in the metropolis meant that such people, the real political nation, were always aware that what they said or did was observed and discussed, welcomed or execrated by their neighbours, the citizens and people of London. This audience at the doors of Westminster and the West End necessarily had its effect on national politics as politicians of all hues courted the electorate and placated or enflamed the London crowd, while governments kept close contacts with their natural allies in the City élite. It was the latter, the very rich, who formed the second stratum in metropolitan politics. This élite, which came to be known as the monied interest, was made up of wealthy merchants, directors of the trading companies, bankers and other financiers. Such people were usually able to control the Court of Aldermen, the effective rulers of the City, and they benefited handsomely from their close links with successive governments. These provided them with potentially lucrative positions as customs farmers or in the revenue service, with beneficial access to the subscription lists for public loans and with commercial contracts which, especially in wartime, could quickly enhance a man's fortune as supplier of victuals, naval stores or clothing or as the organizer of remittances for the support of troops abroad. Such men were natural supporters of any government in power, mainly for practical reasons, and were often quick to trim their ideology to suit the times.
Below this élite came the majority of the people considered in this book, the wealthy and fairly wealthy traders, shopkeepers and manufacturers. Such people were usually conservative supporters of the status quo, active to lobby government but not normally hostile to government, whom they expected to protect them and forward their interests. However, they were not blind supporters of the establishment and it was the antagonism of this group which ensured that London would be a parliamentary city in the Civil War, though it was also the same people who as the 'Presbyterians' eventually ensured that the revolution of the 1640s would not go too far, closing ranks
to resist the radicals and welcoming the return of monarchical government in 1660.
These radicals, the 'Independents' of the 1640s, were drawn from the largest stratum of the London political world, small shopkeepers, petty industrialists, artisans and journeymen, who form a continuum in the political life of the metropolis. We are told that the 'agitation of small London master craftsmen against their growing subjection to capitalist middlemen is one of the most prominent themes of London history under the early Stuarts', but this theme is a continuous one which runs right through our period and beyond. Hostile to or critical of the wealthy and almost always against the government, members of this section of the population crop up time after time under various names in the political history of London. Whenever there is a riot, one can be sure that it will be people from this group who will be prominent. However, their activities went beyond mere rioting and their politics ranged from the radical and populist to the frankly revolutionary and republican.
They were the Independents and Levellers who tried to convert an argument between gentlemen into a truly radical revolution in the 1640s and 1650s. They were the populist Whigs of the 1670s and 1680s who revelled in the great popeburning processions. By the reign of Queen Anne, after a remarkable political sea-change, they have turned into populist and radical Tories but they are still the same people, still hostile to the rich, still against the government. They are still there in the 1720s and 1730s, still mouthing the same levelling and radical maxims which they had first learned in the 1640s, and they are still there in the 1760s and the 1790s. They never enjoyed power except for a few years in the middle of the seventeenth century, but their numbers were sufficient in the outer wards of the City to ensure that the Court of Common Council, the lower house of the City government, was normally opposed politically to the Court of Aldermen and that the history of City politics would be an intermittent battle between those wanting to enlarge the populist element in local government and those who wanted to restrain it, the latter group normally but not always winning the day.
There was finally a much larger group of the dispossessed—
women, children, servants and the poor—who were considered beneath political consideration even by the Levellers. If one wanted to insult one's opponents, one described them as members of this despised breed, as the Whig newspapers did in 1715 when they depicted the Tory rioters as 'Black Guard Boys, Clean Your Shoes Your Honour, Parish Boys, Wheelbarrowmen, Butchers, Porters, Basket-women, Ballad singers, Bawds, Whores and Thieves'. But, as has been said, most rioters were not in fact drawn from such lowly people but from the next group up in London's political hierarchy, the 'petty tradesmen and craftsmen of the industrial suburbs'.
London's politics can thus be depicted as class politics, with rich, middling and comparatively poor people distinguished from each other and each striving to protect or promote their interests. Needless to say, politics has never really been as simple as that; nor was it in our period, when political opportunism, ideology and particularly religion combined to confuse the politics of wealth and so create the 'fractured society' which has been analysed in a recent book. In particular, a man who was a dissenter or was sympathetic to dissenters would nearly always be a Whig, the party which favoured toleration and which after the Toleration Act of 1689 was normally prepared to defend it, while a man who was an ardent Anglican would nearly always be a Tory. Dissenters could be found in all levels of London society, from very rich Presbyterian aldermen to poor Baptist craftsmen, and so religious lines cut right across the politics of wealth and status.
How much politics actually affected the lives of middling people is difficult to say. They certainly voted Whig or Tory, depending on their wealth, their religion or their inclination, and it seems certain that political debate and the reading of the mass of ephemeral political literature must have absorbed quite a lot of their time. Indeed, according to Defoe, all this politics could have serious effects on the efficient running of a business. 'Never was the gazette so full of the advertisements of commissions of bankruptcy as since our shop-keepers are so much engaged in parties, form'd into clubs to hear news and read journals and politicks.' However, one does not necessarily have to believe Defoe. There is no doubt that the men, and indeed
the women, of the middle station thought that politics was interesting and important and that it could sometimes be profitable, but it seems unlikely that even the excitement of the 1710 general election would have so turned their heads that they forgot that 'the main affair of life' was getting money.
It can be seen that an active civic life was open to and indeed to a certain extent mandatory for the middle station. They needed to be good neighbours, both for friendship and for the sake of business, reputation and the safety of their property. They had an important role to play in local government and might be expected to play some part in the running of their livery company. They were likely to be involved in a considerable amount of political activity and discussion in their lives and, if they lived through hectic periods such as the 1640s, the late 1670s or the first half of the 1710s, they might find that the contemporary obsession with politics threatened to interfere with business. There were also many other civic or corporate activities in which they might get involved, such as active membership of a society for the reformation of manners, the management of a charity school or a directorship of a trading company. All this required time and attention, but it was unlikely to have played such a regular part in their lives as the subject of the next chapter, the spending of their money.