POWER, POLITICS AND PUBLIC HOUSES

Andy Hughes M.A. (2017) 

As the eighteenth century drew to a close, London was a melting pot of radical debate, brought alive first in the coffee shops, and later the ale-houses, of a bustling mid-century metropolis. Men of all classes ate,drank and debated together whilst publicly calling for change.

Rowdy, boisterous and determined calls for democratic change permeated the streets of London, emanating from places like the Crown and Anchor tavern. Taking the nomenclature and emblem of the title it posed a subtle but serious threat. The anchor was a symbol of hope but placed in the context of rebels, the inherant aristocratic deference became questionable, as perhaps, did the crown itself, and all it stood for. Until the building burnt down in 1857, the Crown and Anchor was heavily associated with those campaigning for political reform. It became a hot-bed of radicalism and a prominent and integral part of national calls for democracy, enfranchisement and even revolution. This tavern was not simply part of the political alandscape, it was a legitimate opposition to the superiority of the ruling classes, positioned right under the noses of Westminster’s finest, opposing an aristocratic vice-like grip on  government power. It became the unofficial headquarters of the campaign to demand parliamentary and democratic reform. Many were driven by the immoral behaviour and actions of an homogenous group ready to be labelled a 'spent force.' Most were poorly behaved, immorally bankrupt and yet 'still' running the country. No wonder places like the Crown and Anchor were so full that they were spilling out into the street.

Samuel de Wilde’s famous 1809 sketch The Reformers’ Dinner: The grand Reform Dinner at the Crown and Anchor [2] portrays a night of fervent calls for democracy turning into one of partying, drunkenness and uproar, with the upturning furniture and breaking of dinner plates. One man can be seen attacking the Crown and Anchor sign with a sword, a clear attack on the king and hereditary rule. Burdett is centre stage, raising a glass to the political excitement and sentiment of the party. This image displays the popularity of reform though it does not portray radical men in a resplendent way.  De Wilde was, however, famous for drawing theatrical scenes, and one has to question how far how he may have dramatised events at the tavern.

 The 1819 satirical sketch Friends of Reform shows eight men around a table at the Crown and Anchor. On the table is a large 'Petition of the unrepresented' which is being signed by Major Cartwright. Burdett sits in back view, with the Black Dwarf (radical newspaper) on his knee. Henry Hunt can be seen on the left with his hand dipping into a box labelled 'Penny Subscription'. The other four men in attendance are thought to be Carlile, Thistlewood, Watson, and Preston. Over the door is a crown and anchor image and on the wall is a print, 'Axe to root', an axe against a gashed tree-trunk, suggesting that a democratic Britain needs,  literally, to get to the root of the problem. Two tattered banners lean against the wall; one, inscribed 'Liberty or Death', apparently represents the extremes these men will go to, while the other states  that ‘A mistaken old MAJOR sits hatching Sedition, Yet dreams all the while of a lawful Petition; . . .These are all ragged RADICALS, tatter'd and torn…[3]. The inherent metaphors are clear.

Elsewhere in London, radical gatherings at The Rotunda reflected the uneasy political climate of the day. Former preacher Robert Taylor and his radical friend Robert Carlile delivered speeches and performances that attacked the established politico-religious systems of the day. Satire, slapstick and academia offered the potential for a unique mix of propaganda. Taylor’s 1831 poem Swing! Or who are the incendiaries, expressed clear anti-aristocratic beliefs. 'Our proud and haughty lords that make the laws to serve themselves...and would if they could make air and water theirs, and suffer us to breathe or drink of the stream, but by their allowance.' [4] 

The power of The Rotunda was enhanced by its shape and design which enabled open-air meetings to take place. Radicals used the portico during the agitation of November 1830, and at the height of the Reform Crisis in October 1831 it was used to communicate with thousands of people rallying outside whilst Taylor, Carlile and Henry Hunt addressed the two thousand strong crowd within The Rotunda. At the same time, William Carpenter, John Cleave and John Hunter relayed the message to  a further audience of up to three thousand. In 1830, southern England had been rocked by the Swing riots. The government’s fear was clear, as it blamed the riots on the influence of the Rotunda. At the end of the year armed crowds had met at The Rotunda, attempting to march to Parliament, chanting and waving radical publications.    

The Reform Club was subsequently  founded in 1836 in Pall Mall. The founders commissioned a leading architect of the day, Charles Barry, to build an imposing and palatial clubhouse. It is as splendid today as when it opened in 1841. Membership was restricted to those who pledged support for the Great Reform Act of 1832, and the many MPs and Whig peers among the early members developed the Club as the political headquarters of the Liberal Party.[5]

History will remember these three meeting places as hotbeds of radical fervour, crucial to the developing climate of political change. Powerful men attended and desperate people listened. Thus, by the turn of the century, the Crown and Anchor required a ref-fit to double its size to accommodate more visitors. The Rotunda was at this point hosting crowds of thousands and The Reform Club was to carry the baton of political change into the second half of the nineteenth century.

http://press-files.anu.edu.au/downloads/press/p17011/html/ch04.xhtml?page=8

http://epress.anu.edu.au/radical_spaces_citation.html Seen in National Library of Australia Cataloguing-in-Publication entry Author: Parolin, Christina. Title: Radical spaces: venues of popular politics in London, 1790 -1845 / Christina Parolin.


[1] Radicalism and reform at the ‘Gate of Pandemonium’: the Crown and Anchor tavern in visual culture, 1790–1820, p.105-106, in http://press-files.anu.edu.au/downloads which cites various contributors to James Vernon (ed.), Re-Reading the Constitution: New narratives in the political history of England’s long nineteenth century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996); E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (London: Penguin, 1968), pp. 84–110; James Epstein, Radical Expression: Political language, ritual and symbol in England, 1790–1850 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), pp. 3–28.

[2]https://www.magnoliabox.com/products/the-reformers-dinner-1645902

[3] https://britishmuseum.org/research/collection.These are the radicals - friends of reform,; satirical print; print; pamphlet; James Asperne (Published); William Flint (Printed); John Johnston (Published); 1819; London.