Gordon Riots - Newgate Prison

In 1841, aged just 29, Dickens was on a roll with four novels to his name. Each one had been published to ever-greater critical and popular acclaim: Pickwick, Oliver Twist, and Nicholas Nickelby had been topped with the triumphant success of The Old Curiosity Shop.  This fabulous run came to an abrupt end with Barnaby Rudge. Not that the novel was a complete flop: it was still selling 30,000 copies at the end.  But each issue of The Old Curiosity Shop had sold more than 100, 000 copies.

Barnaby Rudge has been damned as ‘the least loved and the least read’ of Dickens’ novels.  Certainly, I hadn’t read it before I reached it in my Dickens project – reading Peter Ackroyd’s biography and breaking off to read each successive novel.  Reviews at the time of publication ranged from the negative to the severe (one renaming it Barnaby Rubbish – which is much too harsh) and the critical disfavour still largely persists.  For myself, although it is a strange work and flawed in some respects, I found Rudge to be an enjoyable read, with the scenes in the second half set amongst the Gordon Riots being especially gripping. There are also some classic Dickensian characters to savour.

Dickens’ fifth novel could have been his first: he had signed a contract in 1836 to write the book (then titled Gabriel Varden-The Locksmith of London) for Richard Bentley’s Miscellany, where Oliver Twist was published. But he had still not begun to write by 1838 when Nickelby was under way.  He made a start in January 1839, but soon broke off, and it was not until January 1841 that he returned to the novel – now entitled Barnaby Rudge – and was soon working at it ‘morning, noon and night’.  He clearly enjoyed the work, writing to John Forster on 11 September 1841, ‘I have just burnt into Newgate, and am going in the next number to tear the prisoners out by the hair of their heads’ and one week later, ‘I have let all the prisoners out of Newgate, burnt down Lord Mansfield’s, and played the very devil. Another number will finish the fires, and help us on towards the end. I feel quite smoky when I am at work. I want elbow-room terribly.’

The novel was serialized through 1841 in weekly parts in Master Humphrey’s Clock, the same magazine in which The Old Curiosity Shop had appeared.  It is the first of Dickens’ two historical novels (A Tale of Two Cities is the other) and was written in conscious emulation of Sir Walter Scott’s historical romances, which Dickens greatly admired.  Dickens follows Scott in mixing styles, genres and plots, and combining realism with the conventions of melodrama and romance.

The novel deals with the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots of 1780, now long forgotten but in Dickens’ day fresh in the public mind (reflected in the book’s subtitle, A Tale of the Riots of ‘Eighty).  Certainly I knew very little about the riots, other than their name.  But you learn a lot from Dickens’ novel, which was based on his own extensive reading of the written records of the events of 1780 – the Annual Register, Holcroft’s Narrative of the Late Riots (1780) and Watson’s Life of Lord George Gordon (1795) were all in his library.  Dickens’ choice of the Gordon riots as a backdrop to the novel was not as eccentric as it might seem:  not only were the riots, in historian Linda Colley’s words,’the largest, deadliest and most protracted urban riots in British history’, they would also have been fresh in the mind of his reader, having occurred only two generations before.

Moreover, recent events gave the book an urgent topicality (indeed, Dickens’ vivid account of the riots has a very contemporary feel when read in 2013, eighteen months after similarly destructive riots in London).  Fresh in Dickens’ mind would have  been the riots and disturbances that followed the introduction of the Poor Law Amendment Act in 1834, and the Chartist riots of 1839, when the jail in Newport was stormed in an attempt to free Chartist prisoners.

The Gordon riots arose as a  consequence of Lord George Gordon’s call for the repeal of the Catholic Relief Act of 1778 and a return to the repression of Catholics. The 1778 Act had repealed harsh anti-Catholic legislation from the 17th century and excused Roman Catholics from swearing the oath of allegiance (with its implicit recognition of the Church of England) on joining the army.  On 2 June Gordon led a crowd of 60,000 to the House of Commons to present a petition stating that the legislation encouraged ‘popery’ and was a threat to the Church of England.  Anti-Catholic riots ensued in London, lasting for many days. Protests were violent and aimed at Catholic targets, such as homes and chapels, and a distillery owned by a Catholic in High Holborn. They also seem to have expressed a more general frustration: prisons and the Bank of England were attacked (all riots, whatever their origin, seem to follow this course, as we know from our own time).

Dickens’ sympathies may have been with the working class poor, but he had an inveterate horror of political violence.  He clearly had no sympathy with the Protestant anti-Catholic rioters of 1780, portrayed as a mindless mob swept along by opportunist leaders from the upper class in a movement that was part attempted coup d’etat, part popular uprising, which became a religious pogrom. His visceral riot scenes reflect his great fear of the ‘mob’, a fear he shared in common with his readers.

As in Walter Scott’s historical fictions, Dickens has his own created characters rub shoulders with real historical personalities – most notably Lord Gordon himself, along with his secretary, the public hangman, Dennis, who joined the rioters (though Dickens’ characterization is, apparently, quite different to the real man), and the bumbling, ineffectual Lord Mayor.

Gordon Riots Newgate Prison
Gordon Riots: rioters set fire to Newgate Prison (more detail: British Museum)

Barnaby Rudge has a strange structure, with a sharp break in the narrative that occurs when the story moves abruptly forward five years in chapter 34 and the lives of characters begin to intertwine with the events of the Gordon riots. The tale had begun, as many Dickens tales did, as old cronies sit around the fireside in the Maypole Inn in Chigwell recounting to a stranger the story of an unsolved double murder committed several years previously at The Warren, the local mansion belonging to the Catholic Haredale family.  ‘Mystery, monstrous and ridiculous events and characters, prodigies, secret powers and things veiled in mystery’ drive forward the plot and the action according to John Bowen in the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition.

Another unusual, perhaps risky feature of the book is Dickens’ decision to make Barnaby Rudge his central character.  Rudge is a young man who has been mentally handicapped since birth, portrayed as something of a caricatured fool and idiot who wanders around with his pet raven, Grip. One of the story’s mysteries concerns Barnaby’s father: his mother, widow of one of the men  murdered at the Warren, begins to receive visits from a shadowy, ghostly man which cause her to take fright and flee from London taking Barnaby with her.  In the first part of the novel, Barnaby represents a character outside the bounds of social convention, limited and language and understanding, but an imaginative free spirit, walking and dancing merrily where he will through the countryside. But, returning to London, he joins in the riots for the thrill of wearing the rebels’ colours in his cap, the privilege of carrying a flag, and drawn by the lure of acquiring gold.  In this respect, Rudge may stand for Dickens’ view of the rioters, led on by unscrupulous bigots by little more than the lure of excitement, easy gains, and communal identification.  Sound familiar?

The novel has Gothic and melodramatic elements, but it also has plenty of typical Dickensian comic interludes.  Some of the funniest scenes are centred on Miggs, the maid in the household of Gabriel Varden, the honest locksmith to whom Simon Tappertit, a leading agitator in the riots, is apprenticed. These scenes invariably involve Miggs in comical alliance with Martha Varden against her husband, for both servant and wife are ardent supporters of the Protestant cause.

Miggs is an example of how Dickens’ most memorable characters define themselves through their speech and a distinctive private language. Apart from being highly entertaining, this method serves as an effective way for Dickens to distinguish one person from another in panoramic novels crowded with characters.  In his first novel, Pickwick Papers, the vivid characterization of Sam Weller and Jingles is achieved through these means, Weller having a mastery of the short, pithy comparison (‘Dumb as a drum with a hole in it, sir’, he says when Pickwick asks him to be quiet at the magistrates court) and Jingles being defined by his jerky, staccato speech that is a forerunner of 21st century tweets.  One of Dickens’ favourite devices is the speech tag, a particular exclamation, word or expression uttered by a particular character.  The hangman Dennis’s chilling desire to ‘work people off’ is an example here, along with Wemmick’s ‘portable property’ and Joe Gargery’s ‘Which I meantersay, Pip, old chap’ in Great Expectations.  Miggs, with her ‘Ally Looyer!’, personal rendition of certain words, and unique grammar is a harbinger of Mrs Gamp who would appear in his next novel – probably the most individual and most praised example of the technique.

John Forster, in his Life of Dickens, described Miggs as a ‘vicious and slippery, acid, amatory, and … uncomfortable figure, sower of family discontents and discords, who swears all the while she wouldn’t make or meddle with ’em “not for a annual gold mine and found in tea and sugar”‘.  Here’s an example of how Miggs is almost completely characterized through her speech.  During the riots she is seized by rioters and locked up in a remote house, along with Dolly Varden, the lovely and coquettish daughter of the locksmith, and Emma Haredale, daughter of the owner of The Warren.  All the women can hear are groans from the next room, perhaps emanating from someone wonded or tortured by the rioters.  (These scenes, involving the incarceration of three defenceless virgins by rough and fully armed men worse the wear for drink, have an erotic frisson that I feel sure must have been intentional on Dickens’ part.)

At first, Miss Miggs wondered greatly in her own mind who this sick person might be … she opined … that it must be some misguided Papist who had been wounded: and this happy supposition encouraged her to say, under her breath, ‘Ally Looyer!’ several times.

‘Is it possible,’ said Emma, with some indignation, ‘that you who have seen these men committing the outrages you have told us of, and who have fallen into their hands, like us, can exult in their cruelties!’

‘Personal considerations, miss,’ rejoined Miggs, ‘sinks into nothing, afore a noble cause. Ally Looyer! Ally Looyer! Ally Looyer, good gentlemen!’

It seemed from the shrill pertinacity with which Miss Miggs repeated this form of acclamation, that she was calling the same through the keyhole of the door; but in the profound darkness she could not be seen.

‘If the time has come—Heaven knows it may come at any moment—when they are bent on prosecuting the designs, whatever they may be, with which they have brought us here, can you still encourage, and take part with them?’ demanded Emma.

‘I thank my goodness-gracious-blessed-stars I can, miss,’ returned Miggs, with increased energy.—’Ally Looyer, good gentlemen!’

Even Dolly, cast down and disappointed as she was, revived at this, and bade Miggs hold her tongue directly.

‘WHICH, was you pleased to observe, Miss Varden?’ said Miggs, with a strong emphasis on the irrelative pronoun.

Dolly repeated her request.

‘Ho, gracious me!’ cried Miggs, with hysterical derision. ‘Ho, gracious me! Yes, to be sure I will. Ho yes! I am a abject slave, and a toiling, moiling, constant-working, always-being-found-fault-with, never-giving-satisfactions, nor-having-no-time-to-clean-oneself, potter’s wessel—an’t I, miss! Ho yes! My situations is lowly, and my capacities is limited, and my duties is to humble myself afore the base degenerating daughters of their blessed mothers as is—fit to keep companies with holy saints but is born to persecutions from wicked relations—and to demean myself before them as is no better than Infidels—an’t it, miss! Ho yes! My only becoming occupations is to help young flaunting pagins to brush and comb and titiwate theirselves into whitening and suppulchres, and leave the young men to think that there an’t a bit of padding in it nor no pinching ins nor fillings out nor pomatums nor deceits nor earthly wanities—an’t it, miss! Yes, to be sure it is—ho yes!’

Having delivered these ironical passages with a most wonderful volubility, and with a shrillness perfectly deafening (especially when she jerked out the interjections), Miss Miggs, from mere habit, and not because weeping was at all appropriate to the occasion, which was one of triumph, concluded by bursting into a flood of tears, and calling in an impassioned manner on the name of Simmuns.

In a final comic thrust, after the riots Dickens has Miggs appointed as a jailor in a woman’s prison.

Gordon riots Destruction of Kings Bench Prison
The destruction of the Kings Bench Prison in Southwark

Although Dickens does not sympathise with the cause of the rioters, his is a sympathetic portrayal of the way in which poor and frustrated, ill-educated or illiterate individuals are drawn into participating in the disturbances.  The novel is also marked by several passages highly critical of the English ruling class.  One that I enjoyed tremendously occurs as Barnaby and his mother are making their way back to London, on foot and penniless, earning a few coppers by having Grip, the talking raven, perform.  In one village they encounter an English country gentlemen. Barnaby’s mother tells him, with tears in her eyes, that her son is ‘of weak mind’:

‘An idiot, eh?’ said the gentleman, looking at Barnaby as he spoke. ‘And how long hast thou been an idiot?’

‘She knows,’ was Barnaby’s timid answer, pointing to his mother—’I—always, I believe.’

‘From his birth,’ said the widow.

‘I don’t believe it,’ cried the gentleman, ‘not a bit of it. It’s an excuse not to work. There’s nothing like flogging to cure that disorder. I’d make a difference in him in ten minutes, I’ll be bound.’

‘Heaven has made none in more than twice ten years, sir,’ said the widow mildly.

‘Then why don’t you shut him up? we pay enough for county institutions, damn ’em. But thou’d rather drag him about to excite charity—of course. Ay, I know thee.’

Now, this gentleman had various endearing appellations among his intimate friends. By some he was called ‘a country gentleman of the true school,’ by some ‘a fine old country gentleman,’ by some ‘a sporting gentleman,’ by some ‘a thorough-bred Englishman,’ by some ‘a genuine John Bull;’ but they all agreed in one respect, and that was, that it was a pity there were not more like him, and that because there were not, the country was going to rack and ruin every day. He was in the commission of the peace, and could write his name almost legibly; but his greatest qualifications were, that he was more severe with poachers, was a better shot, a harder rider, had better horses, kept better dogs, could eat more solid food, drink more strong wine, go to bed every night more drunk and get up every morning more sober, than any man in the county. In knowledge of horseflesh he was almost equal to a farrier, in stable learning he surpassed his own head groom, and in gluttony not a pig on his estate was a match for him. He had no seat in Parliament himself, but he was extremely patriotic, and usually drove his voters up to the poll with his own hands. He was warmly attached to church and state, and never appointed to the living in his gift any but a three-bottle man and a first-rate fox-hunter. He mistrusted the honesty of all poor people who could read and write, and had a secret jealousy of his own wife (a young lady whom he had married for what his friends called ‘the good old English reason,’ that her father’s property adjoined his own) for possessing those accomplishments in a greater degree than himself. In short, Barnaby being an idiot, and Grip a creature of mere brute instinct, it would be very hard to say what this gentleman was.

I happened to read this passage on the same day that I read that this year’s initiation ceremony of Oxford University’s notorious Bullingdon Club (whose past members include David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson) involved burning a £50 note in front of a beggar.  Nothing changes – or, perhaps more accurately, we are steadily reverting to the inequalities and injustices of the past.

One of the things I love most in Dickens are his descriptive passages, usually painting a vivid portrait of London. Here’s one such from Barnaby Rudge, in which Dickens evokes nightfall in 18th century London:

A series of pictures representing the streets of London in the night, even at the comparatively recent date of this tale, would present to the eye something so very different in character from the reality which is witnessed in these times, that it would be difficult for the beholder to recognise his most familiar walks in the altered aspect of little more than half a century ago.

They were, one and all, from the broadest and best to the narrowest and least frequented, very dark. The oil and cotton lamps, though regularly trimmed twice or thrice in the long winter nights, burnt feebly at the best; and at a late hour, when they were unassisted by the lamps and candles in the shops, cast but a narrow track of doubtful light upon the footway, leaving the projecting doors and house-fronts in the deepest gloom. Many of the courts and lanes were left in total darkness; those of the meaner sort, where one glimmering light twinkled for a score of houses, being favoured in no slight degree. Even in these places, the inhabitants had often good reason for extinguishing their lamp as soon as it was lighted; and the watch being utterly inefficient and powerless to prevent them, they did so at their pleasure. Thus, in the lightest thoroughfares, there was at every turn some obscure and dangerous spot whither a thief might fly or shelter, and few would care to follow; and the city being belted round by fields, green lanes, waste grounds, and lonely roads, dividing it at that time from the suburbs that have joined it since, escape, even where the pursuit was hot, was rendered easy.

It is no wonder that with these favouring circumstances in full and constant operation, street robberies, often accompanied by cruel wounds, and not unfrequently by loss of life, should have been of nightly occurrence in the very heart of London, or that quiet folks should have had great dread of traversing its streets after the shops were closed. It was not unusual for those who wended home alone at midnight, to keep the middle of the road, the better to guard against surprise from lurking footpads; few would venture to repair at a late hour to Kentish Town or Hampstead, or even to Kensington or Chelsea, unarmed and unattended; while he who had been loudest and most valiant at the supper-table or the tavern, and had but a mile or so to go, was glad to fee a link-boy to escort him home.

There were many other characteristics—not quite so disagreeable—about the thoroughfares of London then, with which they had been long familiar. Some of the shops, especially those to the eastward of Temple Bar, still adhered to the old practice of hanging out a sign; and the creaking and swinging of these boards in their iron frames on windy nights, formed a strange and mournful concert for the ears of those who lay awake in bed or hurried through the streets. Long stands of hackney-chairs and groups of chairmen, compared with whom the coachmen of our day are gentle and polite, obstructed the way and filled the air with clamour; night-cellars, indicated by a little stream of light crossing the pavement, and stretching out half-way into the road, and by the stifled roar of voices from below, yawned for the reception and entertainment of the most abandoned of both sexes; under every shed and bulk small groups of link-boys gamed away the earnings of the day; or one more weary than the rest, gave way to sleep, and let the fragment of his torch fall hissing on the puddled ground.

Then there was the watch with staff and lantern crying the hour, and the kind of weather; and those who woke up at his voice and turned them round in bed, were glad to hear it rained, or snowed, or blew, or froze, for very comfort’s sake. The solitary passenger was startled by the chairmen’s cry of ‘By your leave there!’ as two came trotting past him with their empty vehicle—carried backwards to show its being disengaged—and hurried to the nearest stand. Many a private chair, too, inclosing some fine lady, monstrously hooped and furbelowed, and preceded by running-footmen bearing flambeaux—for which extinguishers are yet suspended before the doors of a few houses of the better sort—made the way gay and light as it danced along, and darker and more dismal when it had passed. It was not unusual for these running gentry, who carried it with a very high hand, to quarrel in the servants’ hall while waiting for their masters and mistresses; and, falling to blows either there or in the street without, to strew the place of skirmish with hair-powder, fragments of bag-wigs, and scattered nosegays. Gaming, the vice which ran so high among all classes (the fashion being of course set by the upper), was generally the cause of these disputes; for cards and dice were as openly used, and worked as much mischief, and yielded as much excitement below stairs, as above. While incidents like these, arising out of drums and masquerades and parties at quadrille, were passing at the west end of the town, heavy stagecoaches and scarce heavier waggons were lumbering slowly towards the city, the coachmen, guard, and passengers, armed to the teeth, and the coach—a day or so perhaps behind its time, but that was nothing—despoiled by highwaymen; who made no scruple to attack, alone and single-handed, a whole caravan of goods and men, and sometimes shot a passenger or two, and were sometimes shot themselves, as the case might be. On the morrow, rumours of this new act of daring on the road yielded matter for a few hours’ conversation through the town, and a Public Progress of some fine gentleman (half-drunk) to Tyburn, dressed in the newest fashion, and damning the ordinary with unspeakable gallantry and grace, furnished to the populace, at once a pleasant excitement and a wholesome and profound example.

Barnaby in jail with Grip
Barnaby in Newgate Prison with Grip

There’s no doubt, though, that the most powerful scenes are those depicting the riots.  In one, Dickens describes the rioters attacking and burning to the ground Lord Mansfield’s house in fashionable Bloomsbury Square.  Mansfield was probably a target for the rioters, not just for his elite standing, but also for his progressive views and legal judgements.  Mansfield is best known for his judgement in the Somersett Case, where he held that slavery was unlawful in England.  James Somersett was an American slave, purchased by Charles Stewart, an English customs officer employed in the British Crown colony of Massachusetts.Stewart brought Somersett with him when he returned to England in 1769, but in 1771 Somersett escaped, only to be recaptured.  The case concerned an application for habeas corpus on Somersett’s behalf.  Mansfield concluded that:

The state of slavery is of such a nature, that it is incapable of now being introduced by Courts of Justice upon mere reasoning or inferences from any principles, natural or political; it must take its rise from positive law; the origin of it can in no country or age be traced back to any other source: immemorial usage preserves the memory of positive law long after all traces of the occasion; reason, authority, and time of its introduction are lost; and in a case so odious as the condition of slaves must be taken strictly, the power claimed by this return was never in use here; no master ever was allowed here to take a slave by force to be sold abroad because he had deserted from his service, or for any other reason whatever; we cannot say the cause set forth by this return is allowed or approved of by the laws of this kingdom, therefore the man must be discharged.

Dickens’ description of the attack on Mansfield’s mansion is vivid, and symbolic in the narrative: after order had been re-established by the authorities, hundreds were arrested and 21 rioters were hanged.  Barnaby is one of these arrested and sentenced to hang – not with others at Newgate Prison, but on a scaffold erected in Bloomsbury Square.  He is reprieved at the last minute after Gabriel Varden, the locksmith, helps clear Barnaby’s name.

The mob gathering round Lord Mansfield’s house, had called on those within to open the door, and receiving no reply (for Lord and Lady Mansfield were at that moment escaping by the backway), forced an entrance according to their usual custom. That they then began to demolish the house with great fury, and setting fire to it in several parts, involved in a common ruin the whole of the costly furniture, the plate and jewels, a beautiful gallery of pictures, the rarest collection of manuscripts ever possessed by any one private person in the world, and worse than all, because nothing could replace this loss, the great Law Library, on almost every page of which were notes in the Judge’s own hand, of inestimable value,—being the results of the study and experience of his whole life. That while they were howling and exulting round the fire, a troop of soldiers, with a magistrate among them, came up, and being too late (for the mischief was by that time done), began to disperse the crowd. That the Riot Act being read, and the crowd still resisting, the soldiers received orders to fire, and levelling their muskets shot dead at the first discharge six men and a woman, and wounded many persons; and loading again directly, fired another volley, but over the people’s heads it was supposed, as none were seen to fall. That thereupon, and daunted by the shrieks and tumult, the crowd began to disperse, and the soldiers went away, leaving the killed and wounded on the ground: which they had no sooner done than the rioters came back again, and taking up the dead bodies, and the wounded people, formed into a rude procession, having the bodies in the front. That in this order they paraded off with a horrible merriment; fixing weapons in the dead men’s hands to make them look as if alive; and preceded by a fellow ringing Lord Mansfield’s dinner-bell with all his might.

Perhaps the most powerful scene describes the rioters’ attack on and burning of Newgate Prison.  The prison was meant to be escape proof, and the door impregnable. In the story, Dickens has the locksmith Gabriel Varden seized by the rioters and hauled to the door whose lock he devised.  He refuses to pick the lock, and so the rioters attempt to break the door down with sledgehammers and crowbars:

And now the strokes began to fall like hail upon the gate, and on the strong building; for those who could not reach the door, spent their fierce rage on anything—even on the great blocks of stone, which shivered their weapons into fragments, and made their hands and arms to tingle as if the walls were active in their stout resistance, and dealt them back their blows. The clash of iron ringing upon iron, mingled with the deafening tumult and sounded high above it, as the great sledge-hammers rattled on the nailed and plated door: the sparks flew off in showers; men worked in gangs, and at short intervals relieved each other, that all their strength might be devoted to the work; but there stood the portal still, as grim and dark and strong as ever, and, saving for the dints upon its battered surface, quite unchanged.

While some brought all their energies to bear upon this toilsome task; and some, rearing ladders against the prison, tried to clamber to the summit of the walls they were too short to scale; and some again engaged a body of police a hundred strong, and beat them back and trod them under foot by force of numbers; others besieged the house on which the jailer had appeared, and driving in the door, brought out his furniture, and piled it up against the prison-gate, to make a bonfire which should burn it down. As soon as this device was understood, all those who had laboured hitherto, cast down their tools and helped to swell the heap; which reached half-way across the street, and was so high, that those who threw more fuel on the top, got up by ladders. When all the keeper’s goods were flung upon this costly pile, to the last fragment, they smeared it with the pitch, and tar, and rosin they had brought, and sprinkled it with turpentine. To all the woodwork round the prison-doors they did the like, leaving not a joist or beam untouched. This infernal christening performed, they fired the pile with lighted matches and with blazing tow, and then stood by, awaiting the result. […]

Newgate prison door
Newgate prison door: now displayed in the Museum of London

Great pieces of blazing wood were passed, besides, above the people’s heads to such as stood about the ladders, and some of these, climbing up to the topmost stave, and holding on with one hand by the prison wall, exerted all their skill and force to cast these fire-brands on the roof, or down into the yards within. In many instances their efforts were successful; which occasioned a new and appalling addition to the horrors of the scene: for the prisoners within, seeing from between their bars that the fire caught in many places and thrived fiercely, and being all locked up in strong cells for the night, began to know that they were in danger of being burnt alive. This terrible fear, spreading from cell to cell and from yard to yard, vented itself in such dismal cries and wailings, and in such dreadful shrieks for help, that the whole jail resounded with the noise; which was loudly heard even above the shouting of the mob and roaring of the flames, and was so full of agony and despair, that it made the boldest tremble. […]

Not one living creature in the throng was for an instant still. The whole great mass were mad.  A shout! Another! Another yet, though few knew why, or what it meant. But those around the gate had seen it slowly yield, and drop from its topmost hinge. It hung on that side by but one, but it was upright still, because of the bar, and its having sunk, of its own weight, into the heap of ashes at its foot. There was now a gap at the top of the doorway, through which could be descried a gloomy passage, cavernous and dark. Pile up the fire!

It burnt fiercely. The door was red-hot, and the gap wider. They vainly tried to shield their faces with their hands, and standing as if in readiness for a spring, watched the place. Dark figures, some crawling on their hands and knees, some carried in the arms of others, were seen to pass along the roof. It was plain the jail could hold out no longer. The keeper, and his officers, and their wives and children, were escaping. Pile up the fire!

The door sank down again: it settled deeper in the cinders—tottered—yielded—was down!

Gordon Riots by Charles Green
The Gordon Riots by Charles Green

Amongst those in the crowd that stormed Newgate was the future poet and artist William Blake. Blake’s first biographer Alexander Gilchrist records that on 3 June 1780, Blake was walking towards Basire’s shop in Great Queen Street when he was swept up by a rampaging mob that stormed Newgate Prison in London. They attacked the prison gates with shovels and pickaxes, set the building ablaze, and released the prisoners inside. He reports that Blake was in the front rank of the mob during this attack.  Interestingly, among several prisons which were attacked and had prisoners freed was the Clink, a notorious prison in Southwark.

Gordon riots 19th century painting
Troops restore order during the Gordon riots: a 19th century painting

For six days London was ungovernable. Eventually the army was brought in to restore order. Around 700 rioters were killed, and 21 were publicly hanged.  It had been a period, in Dickens’ words, when

the worst passions of the worst men were thus working in the dark, and the mantle of religion, assumed to cover the ugliest deformities, threatened to become the shroud of all that was good and peaceful in society.

Barnaby Rudge is an imperfect novel; as John Forster put it in his biography of Dickens:

As the story went on …what had been accomplished in its predecessor could hardly be attained here, in singleness of purpose, unity of idea, or harmony of treatment; and other defects supervened in the management of the plot. The interest with which the tale begins, has ceased to be its interest before the close; and what has chiefly taken the reader’s fancy at the outset, almost wholly disappears in the power and passion with which, in the later chapters, the great riots are described. So admirable is this description, however, that it would be hard to have to surrender it even for a more perfect structure of fable.

It is, indeed, those chapters in which Dickens vividly describes the events of the five days of the Gordon riots that make Barnaby Rudge a gripping read.

See also

6 thoughts on “Re-reading Dickens: Barnaby Rudge

  1. Do we think Miggs might be a forerunner of the formidable Mrs Miggins, who runs the pie shop in Blackadder?

  2. I recently happened to pick up a worn, discarded copy of BR, which intrigued me most because, though an English Lit major (years ago) and Dickens fan, I had never heard of it. Whatever its faults, I found it engrossing and am very glad to have read your review.

  3. It’s hard to really dislike ANYTHING Dickens wrote, but I have found this one to be one of the harder ones to finish. The first half establishes a lot of character conflict that ends in the two male “protagonists” leaving town and then being almost completely gone for the remainder. So much of what is set up is lost, and characters that seemed like background characters instead take the main stage in the second half (Hugh and Tappertit) accompanied with newly introduced characters (Dennis and Gashford). It’s a jarring change of tone and direction, though I agree the various scenes describing burning of the Warren and Newgate are some of Dickens’ best. Overall, a semi-frustrating novel that could have used some more revision.

  4. Just finished it and there is no specific reference to the death of Barnaby’s father. Surely such an important character would have had a few sentences devoted to his end? He is last mentioned in the company of Hugh, Dennis, and Barnaby when Dennis fingers them all. Rudge is not mentioned at the end of Chapter 77 when Dickens lists all those who were executed. An otherwise fascinating novel but this seems a glaring omission.

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