E G Wakefield’s 1831 pamphlet householders in danger from the populace is interesting for a number of reasons, not least because of the unalloyed class hatred it gives fine example of, its useful discussions of the classes, and its resonance with our present. It was written in the context of a nervous ruling class following the Bristol riots of the same year. It had kicked off in Bristol because tea aficionado, lesser known for his soujourn as prime minister, Earl Grey had attempted to pass a reform bill that would get rid of the rotten boroughs and give expanding industrial towns like Leeds, Manchester and Birmingham representation in the house of commons. Sadly, the Tories liked democracy back then about as much as they do now due to the fact that – in theory at least – if implemented it would make it difficult for a small nest of chinless Etonite cunts to govern the populace. The rotten boroughs were areas that had been vacated for whatever reasons meaning that votes from those areas could be purchased instead. The Tories were eventually able to fend off the bill in the house of lords where they were dominant.
Bristol had had representation in the commons since 1825 but of a population of 104,000 only 6000 could vote. A staunch advocate against the bill turned up in Bristol to open the Assize court – a travelling court that dealt with some civil but mostly criminal charges. On seeing a mob that had gathered in anger at the anti-reformers victory, the judge Sir Charles Wehterell told them he was going to imprison them all. This went quite badly for him, as group of 500 to 600 people kicked off massively chasing him in to mansion house. He only just managed to escape before they burnt that down, along with the Bishop’s house, before they set about disassembling the goal and let their mates out.
A troop of the 3rd Dragoon Guard and a squadron of the light dragoons were sent in. Despite killing and injuring hundreds of the protesters the general was still tried for leniency. A further 100 of the protestors were tried with four of them hung against the wishes of 10,000 or so people who signed a petition in their defence.
The occasion of Wakefield’s pamphlet is the fear that if this Gallic cock were to crow in London, as Bristol suggested it might, resulting surely in revolution. It is against this eventuality that wakefield pours his immense class scorn finally suggesting quite extreme and distinctly american sounding measures.
Roughly, Wakefield’s aim is to persuade a ‘a class amongst the working class to join the middle class’ in fending of the threat of a unified working class. This ‘object’ he picks up from Sir Francis Burdett who had tried to make the argument by claiming there was no such things as class – only Englishmen. Wakefield is scathing in his refusal of this point:
A metaphorical constituent of Sir Francis Burdett, at a late meeting of Westminster electors, by by of illustrating the doctrine of his representative, said, “Look at the fishes in the sea: some are large, some small; some swim near the surface, others at the bottom of the water; but are they not all fishes?” He forgot to add that the several classes of fishes subsist by devouring each other.
despite the ‘fallacy or sophism’ of the argument, Wakefield agrees it had a noble aim, so attempts to likewise persuade the upper working-class to ally with the middle class without pretending class is erased by the nation. He does this using his own somewhat idiosyncratic class (re)classification: the householders vs the populace. Regarding the former Wakefield states ‘I address myself to those who keep houses, not those who own mansions’ because those who have mansions are rich enough to easily relocate from London for a year or so if the anarchy threatened by the populace eventuated. Instead, Wakefield seeks to build an alliance between the lower middle and upper working class families that own their own homes. These groups have the most to lose, Wakefield argues, from revolution in the capital. That great cross class clarion call: ‘what will it do to the house prices?’
The populace, who are in direct antagonism with the householders, are given a more finely grained categorisation. Generally they are:
a numerous body who, though subdivided into classes, have, or suppose themselves to have, an interest opposite to that of the community at large, and who may be described as the enemies of the protective laws by which society is upheld […] bent on producing a state of anarchy, with a view to plunder and the destruction of the rights of property.
Wakefield makes a a further 3 distinctions within the populace:
1) Common Thieves
2) the Rabble
“Persons whose extreme poverty, frequent unsatisfied hunger, and brutalizing pursuits, render them as dishonest as thieves ; many of whom are, indeed, occasional thieves ; most of whom constantly associate with thieves; and of whom not one would neglect an opportunity to enjoy other men’s goods by force.”
“A body, principally work-people, though of the working-class they form but a very small proportion, —disciples of Owen and followers of Hunt, who meet and proclaim themselves at the Rotunda, in Blackfriars’ Road.”
Wakefield laments the lack of information about the populace, citing the fact that they share a class position and hence class interest so that:
“as the class of persons in question are deeply interested in concealing the maturity of their designs, and as such designs may be entertained or even pursued without any tangible conspiracy, the most diligent government could not easily have obtained accurate information on the subject”.
How then has Wakefield come upon his information about this class? Credit where it is due he has at least conducted some ethnography, even if it wasn’t all voluntary. Wakefield had to spend a spell in Newgate Gaol for kidnapping an un underage girl and attempting to force a marriage with her so as to inherit her father’s fortune. A little outre even by todays standards, but there you go. Anyway it is in Newgate that he claims to have conducted the majority of his research regarding the filthy populace and their designs against the sanctity of property. It is worth noting however that pretty much everything Wakefield ever wrote took the form of imagined conversations with others in which his arguments are always, not surprisingly, victorious. Kind of like the Plato of political economy, if Plato had been a delusional sociopathic narcissist.
Wakefield’s sneering sociology of the populace begins by giving an reasonably interesting account of Common Thieves. He points out that within a few miles of St Paul’s there are no less than 8 criminal prisons (Totbill-fields, Clerkenwell, Giltspur-street Compter, Horse-monger-lane Jail, Newgate, Cold-bath-fields House of Correction, Brixton Penitentiary, and the great Millbank Penitentiary) for the most part over-crowded with London thieves. All of these prisons remain over-crowded despite incompetent police and the fact they regularly send their inhabitants to the hulks for transportation to the colonies. Because of this, Wakefield reasons, the full population of thieves in London must be immense. Indeed when the King had been supposed pass through London, accompanied by the only person in the history of the world worse than Tony Blair, Sir Robert Peel, Wakefield claims to have seen a roaming band of 7000 thieves. Unbelievable.
Characteristic of Wakefield’s highly speculative sociology, he gives the final estimate as follows:
Further, when confined in Newgate myself, and when my attention was particularly directed to the subject, I formed a calculation of the number of thieves always at large in London, estimating it at 30,000. Though I have mislaid the particulars of that estimate, I remember that it was founded on facts carefully verified; and my opinion of its accuracy has been confirmed by subsequent observation of the class of people to which it related.
Anyway, Wakefield’s fear is that the Common Thieves will use a public occasion like the King’s birthday to: take the streets; call the Rabble to assist them; deploy the then novel french technique of barricades; attack the prisons to release even more assistance; kill Sir Robert Peel because FUCKING EVERYONE hates Sir Robert Peel. Why? because he invented the police, which is why they are called ‘bobbies’ here and ‘peelers’ in Ireland; bring about a total anarchy with all of the above so that they could rape and pillage unmolested; finish it all off by burning London to the ground to hide their crimes. Not a bad plan, I think we can all agree. Strange they told the whole thing to Wakefield, given that nonces are usually not allowed to entry into thieves confidence in prison, but there you have it.
Wakefield then moves on to a reasonable saucy description of the Rabble, worth quoting at length:
Specimens of this class of citizens may always be seen, and in perfection, on Sunday morning, in such lanes and alleys as branch off from both sides of Orchard-Street Westminster, or of Whitechapel; costermongers, drovers, slaughterers of cattle, knackers, dealers in dead bodies and dogs’ meat, cads, brickmakers, chimney – sweepers, nightmen, scavengers, &c. &c. The misery, the barbarous ignorance, the last degradation of these poor people, and their constant intercourse with thieves, render them enemies of all law and order. They are the helots of society, and may be reckoned, Within five miles of St. Paul’s, at 50,000, on a very moderate computation. To these, as likely to prove a more effective force on the side of confusion and rapine than the same number of men, must be added 10,000 of the lowest class of prostitutes.
The rabble have had, and still have, but confused notions of the object and means of a rebellion. Their extreme ignorance and rudeness disqualify them from thinking on any subject; and such ideas as they form, it is very difficult to extract from them. What I know of them is, that they have a vague expectation of some great change which is to banish misery from the land; that, as far as their dull faculties permit, they share most of the ordinary sentiments of thieves towards the happy classes, and wish for a turn of affairs that should give power to their friends, the thieves. And I believe of them, founding my belief on a knowledge of their wretchedness and deep debasement, that, if their wish should be accomplished, they would repeat on a proportionably larger scale, and, if more time were given, with added atrocities, the scenes of rapine, burning, and self-destruction in the frenzy of drunkenness, lately exhibited at Bristol. In particular, I have lately observed that their conversation teems with expressions sounding of destruction. It W’ould be difficult to repeat the words without exciting a misplaced smile, when the object is to make a correct and grave impression; but I may add, that on the Wednesday succeeding the rejection of the Reform-Bill by the House of Lords, a friend of mine, once a working-man himself, but now an enlightened distinguished friend of the poor, who, like me, had been walking amidst the rabble, agreed with me in opinion that, on that day the organ of destructiveness had been largely developed.
It is of course annoying here that Wakefield has chosen not to include any of the choice phrases he heard regarding destruction. I lack the historical training to work out what they might have been. The curious quip that follows about developing organs of destruction suggests, I can only hope, that they wished to fuck the ruling elite into the sodden earth. Of the 10,000 lowest type of prostitute included in the Rabble – think Wayne Rooney rather than Tiger Woods – Wakefield gives a brief analysis of a key problem they pose. One of the foremost causes of this class of prostitutes is… soldiers. The problem here is that if the prostitutes join the rabble they could act as a human shield. The soldiers wont want to shoot them because apparently in Wakefield’s time soldiers weren’t as fond of killing prostitutes as they are these days. Or something like this…
Finally Wakefield gives his analysis of the Desperados, ‘frequenters of the Rotunda’. Wakefield seems most at pains to convince his readers that there are hardly any of them and that they are nothing like the good honest householder upper working class. The latter being those who is is trying to convince to throw their lot in with the middle classes to defend private property. After all, he argues, “though their property in chattels be small, [they] own wives and children as precious as those of the richest lords.” I needn’t remind you that Wakefield is keenly aware of the value of the children of the richest lords because he tried to steal one and got banged up because of it.
The Desperados are divided into the Huntites and the Owenites whom he doesn’t think number above a thousand but have clearly caused him a fair bit of consternation. Again, his descriptions are worth quoting at length.
“The Huntites, though more numerous than the Owenites, are a set of poor creatures, about whom, certainly, it would not be worth while to write a pamphlet, if they had not been mixed up with the others. But few of them are regular workmen : they work oil” and on in a slovenly way : as workmen they are careless and inert: they are addicted to gossip and dram-sipping, and are therefore miserably poor. Most of them with whom I have conversed are persons of a naturally weak intellect; having deficient foreheads and a sinister expression ; being noisy, egotistical, boastful; yet given to lamentation, and afraid of their own shadows. They are addle-headed […] They wish, indeed, for a state of thing^s which would give importance to noisy tongues in empty heads, and they urge others to rebel; but if a rebellion should take place, they would keep clear of it; abusing those who had begun it if it failed ; and, if it were successful, claiming; the honour of the day. As for the means, scope, and ends of a revolution, either patriotic or despotic, these they are incapable of comprehending. Ignorant, common-place, wrong-headed, fretful, vain, mean, malignant, and cowardly, they follow a fit leader, and would be merely despicable, if accident had not connected them with men of quite another stamp.
Hard not to be reminded here of the SWP, I suppose. In any case they are only worth mentioning for Wakefield, given their lacklustre phrenological type, because they are connected to the less numerous Owenites. It is the Owenites that really seem to have put the shits up Wakefield, more so than the band of 7000 thieves he saw. Wakefields spleen against them makes them sound rather tasty in the end and no doubt helped drum up a few recruits:
[The Owenites are] are bent on the overthrow of all existing laws, with a view to the formation of a “new state of society,” in which there should subsist either a perfect equality of property, or rather no property at all, as we use the word, but a community of goods. What they want in numbers, they make up by furious zeal and undoubted boldness. In conjunction with the Huntites they support more than one weekly journal, in which the debates of the Rotunda are systematically reported. Spread all over the town, they are, most of them, sober men, who maintain themselves by industry; and they are, I believe, honest in their private dealings, as well as worthy of respect on public grounds, in so far as the end they have in view is the happiness of all, and as they conscientiously suppose the means which they contemplate using to be justified by the greatness of their object. Truly they are fanatics,— in a religion, of which the essence is the salvation of mankind in this world.
“ Admit that the law of primogeniture is unfair, that settlements of property on the unborn injure society, and that real estates ought to be subject to simple contract debts;— make these concessions to an Owenite of the Rotunda, and ho will accuse you of wishing to uphold an abominable system by affecting to improve it. All reform of Parliament short of universal suffrage, whereby he imagines that the now state of society might be brought about, he calls a cheat. This, it will be observed, is the main point of agreement between the Huntites and Owenites of the Rotunda. With the latter, education is a teaching of errors, books are Avorse than useless, and knowledge is ignorance. Whatever has existed, or does exist, is bad; and nothing good can be, till society shall Jiave been first dissolved, and then reconstructed on the cooperative principle. As they are uncharitable to those who dissent from them, so they would bear pain for conscience sake without a murmur. Nay, many of them, I feel assured, would be proud to suffer death for their opinions; but then, for the sake of those cherished opinions, they would profusely shod the blood of others. In a word, they are fanatics, wanting persecution only to be made powerful; and were they powerful, like most persecuted enthusiasts who have attained power they would become remorseless tyrants.
Such men are not to be despised. When the opportunity for action shall come, they will not be found deficient in courage. Many of them are provided with arms;* and they will use their arms, when they think the occasion fit, without hesitation. Let me not be understood to accuse them of thirsting for blood. They will not kill for killing sake. They have a grand olyect in view, even though it be impracticable, and they are men of undaunted mind; that is all. If an insurrection of the London populace should take place, they will be found at the most dangerous posts, leading the thieves and rabble, pointing out the most effectual measures, and dying, if the lot fall on them, with cries of defiance. In this respect they greatly differ from the thieves and Huntites, who, if the latter appear at all, will sneak behind the barricades, and pick off the soldiers from a distance. The fanatical Owenites, on the contrary, long to come to close quarters with the “man butchers,” as they call the troops”.
Not bad at all. Wakefield’s pronounced fear is that the Owenites will give a plan and some cohesion to the other larger factions of the populace. Their plan? as wakefield describes it they will: destroy the post office, breaking the middle class communications network; destroy the banks and the dividend books; destroy the Doctors’ Commons, deeds in banking houses and lawyers offices, making it impossible to prove any title to property thus returning everything to the commons; kidnap the children (again wakefield?!?!) of the middle classes by way of leverage. If even a couple of these measures were successful in London alone, Wakefield speculates, total anarchy would reign.
Against this terrifying spectre of the dissolution of private property by the populace Wakefield has a suggestion. Every householder needs to buy a gun. After all ‘guns are respectable things and impart respectability to those that possess them.’ He even suggests that even fake guns would suffice as long as the populace thought they were real, suggesting a kind of collective marketing campaign to convince people of this fact. He is likewise at pains to convince the middle class that guns are not scary things that go off on their own accord and that the populace would never try to steal them. Despite the shaky alliance Wakefield is proposing between the home owning working class and the middle class, armed with fake guns or real ones they a terrified of or that might indeed by repurposed by the populace, he can only see one possible objection to his plan. The householders might turn their arms against the government. This however is a false problem because a a government of an armed people could never do anything to make this happen as it would necessarily be a government for the people. Scare the rich into attacking the poor on road to the democracy of respectable guns.
It is interesting that it it is only here that Wakefield uses the term ‘the people’ as against householders or their semantically closer mortal enemies ‘the populace’. The people and the househoulders are of course the same set – property owners – although this would also now include the ‘mansion owners’ Wakefield is not addressing in the pamphlet. The populace on the other hand is merely a population requiring only to be disciplined.
Not surprisingly, given the purchase fear-mongering still retains, the pamphlet was incredibly popular and caused quite a stir in the press. Not everyone was fooled however. It received a scorching critical appraisal in the pages of Jeremy Bentham’s Westminster Review from the radical publisher and utilitarian Effingham Wilson. Wilson’s first name came from the fact that his family had worked for the abolutely awesomely titled Earl of Effingham. Anyway, Wilson sees it as precisely for what it is: a fabrication from the mind of Wakefield in the service of class war against the working class. Whilst he agrees there is an immanent threat posed to society, rather than buying guns in advance of class war, he suggests instead that the state must popularised, ‘the policy of elevating the superior members of the working class to some portion of political authority’.Wilson sees that the fear largely arises in the minds of the rich because, as they have been stealing from the poor they expect that the poor will in turn want to steal off them. The poor however are far more effectively subdued however by a the fact that their lot in class society has been made to appear to them as certainly as the mechanics of a watch, and that they understand neither watch mechanics or those of society. Finally, Wilson points to a large third group, one that is certainly still with us today, who are the main audience for Wakefield’s concoction. Those who:
read the Morning Herald, and are very much afraid of mad dogs in summer, cut-throats or Burkites in winter, and deleterous food all year round. Panic is the constant disposition of these folks. They are ready to believe in any horror or in any danger. Tell them a comet is going to run down the globe, or that the sun is falling away in decline, and they will torment themselves for a season with the terror. One alarm only gives way to a another in their minds as phantoms succeed in a magic lantern, and the magnitude is the rule of reception; that is, the greater the bug-a-boo, the more ready they are to entertain it, as if on Byron’s principle of faith that ‘the worst is ever nearer the truth.’
Their damning judgement of wakefield’s manipulation of the perennially panic stricken comes in the form of a quote from Barrow who is clearly someone with no small amount of skill when it comes to the bludgeoning appraisal.
those informing sycophants, those internuncios of pestilent tales and incendiary discord, that (from bad nature or base design), by the still breath of clandestine whispers, or by the more violent blasts of impudent calumnies, kindle the flames of dissension, or foment them among others.
Despite being an informing sycophant and an a-grade internuncio of pestilent tales, Wakefield would in the end win the philosophic radicals, including Bentham, over to his side at least regarding his theory of systematic colonisation as a remedy for the glut of labour that threatened class society. The pretence of political enfranchisement would of course play its part as well.
Postscript on the Present
We have undoubtedly inherited the measures of govermentality that emerged in response to an overpopulation of labour that was both excluded and required in their exclusion by capital. Fearmongering, globalisation for capital and damage control for everything else, the patronising illusion of democracy and working class failure to understand our power as a threat to our exploiters remain a constant.
It is little wonder, given that Wakefield is the absentee founding father, that New Zealand has turned out to be such a bland, right-wing shithole with inequality as the preeminent good in society. Some Common Thieves, a Rabble, and some Desperados wouldn’t go a miss both there and in the UK.