ABSTRACT

In what sense did Victorian society feel threatened by 'outcast London'? According to Dr Stedman Jones, public concern about poverty and the London poor re-emerged in the 1880s out of fear of the 'dangerous classes' and of the disaffection of the adjacent social stratum, the 'respectable working class'. Middle-class London feared, in particular, an insurrectionary alliance between the casual 'residuum' and the 'true working classes'. The real depth of these fears, we are told, was revealed by the disturbances of 1886 and 1887 when, for a brief but significant moment, the urban poor represented a social menace to propertied Londoners. 1

The present essay submits a reassessment of the threat of revolution in the 1880s by examining, in the main, the response of the Home Office and the Metropolitan police force to the unemployed disturbances. This reconstruction of the viewpoint of Metropolitan authority draws extensively upon departmental papers hitherto unavailable under the Official Secrets Act. The essay argues, first, that the fears aroused by the Trafalgar Square riot of 8 February 1886, related to the casual residuum, not to an alliance of the 'outcast' and 'respectable' poor. Contemporaries spoke of a spontaneous outburst of the East End barbarians, not a movement which included bona fide unemployed and 'decent' workmen. The social distinction which had been forged in the mid-Victorian years

between the 'dangerous' and the 'respectable' classes was not thawed by the economic and social crisis of the 1880s. It is further submitted that the level and durability of middle-class alarm about the casual residuum has been exaggerated. The practical initiatives of the propertied and of authority, in the sequel to the riot, do not reflect an abiding fear of social insurrection. It was quickly recognised that the outbreak and continuance of the riot owed considerably more to the inflexibility of existing police organisation, than to any premeditated iconoclasm on the part of the 'mob'.