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The Uses of Facts: G. Kitson Clark: Extract

In this extract Kitson Clark considers the extent of politically-motivated violence in Victorian Britain (he follows Victorian practice in using ‘England’ to mean the whole of the United Kingdom) and the failure of the authorities’ attempts to control it.

By 1850 the forces of order were able, when concentrated, to deal with ease, and so with humanity, with any major disorder, as the history of Chartism demonstrates. But at least in the ‘forties they could not as yet maintain secure control of the whole country for the whole time. For instance, in 1843 the Government seems to have found it very difficult to put down the spirited guerrilla campaign which the farmers in South and Central Wales fought against the turnpike companies, in which armed bands dressed as women broke down the gates and drove off the gatekeepers.1 The Home Office papers for the same years suggest that rural incendiarism in England was peculiarly persistent and difficult to prevent or punish; while to judge by reports in the newspapers and elsewhere there was still a great deal of habitual violence on the open roads, in the wilder streets of the towns, particularly of the ports, in markets and on fair-grounds and anywhere where people might assemble who were the worse for strong drink. No statistical calculation of the incidence of all this has I believe been made, probably no satisfactory calculation would be possible. But the cumulative effect of the evidence is great. It is of course possible to give examples. They can be found for instance in the memoirs of ‘Lord’ George Sanger, the circus proprietor, who as a showman was on the roads, first with his father and then on his own account, for a great deal of the century. He has not a few stories of the violence which he witnessed. The last one as it happens actually took place in 1850, when he saw the keeper of a gingerbread stall kicked to death by miners wearing steel-tipped clogs at Stalybridge Wakes. He says that two policemen did in fact come up to investigate the matter, but it was his impression that they were not much surprised at what had happened nor perhaps likely to do very much about it.

G. Kitson Clark The Making of Victorian England (London: Methuen, 1965; originally published 1961) pp.61-2

1On this see D. Williams The Rebecca Riots (Cardiff 1955), on the effectiveness of the police at the time of the Chartist troubles see F.C. Mather Public Order in the Age of the Chartists (Manchester 1959), and on the history of the police see JM Hart The British Police (London 1951) Chapter II, and Charles Reith, A New Study of Police History (London 1956)

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