Worse Than the Red Wedding: 12 Real British Massacres that Make Game of Thrones Look Like Child's Play
Worse Than the Red Wedding: 12 Real British Massacres that Make Game of Thrones Look Like Child’s Play

Worse Than the Red Wedding: 12 Real British Massacres that Make Game of Thrones Look Like Child’s Play

Mike Wood - December 8, 2017

Worse Than the Red Wedding: 12 Real British Massacres that Make Game of Thrones Look Like Child’s Play
John Wilkes. Wikipedia.

8 – St George’s Fields, 1768

From the Civil War onwards, there was a growing force in British politics: the working classes. Previously, decisions had been made by kings and latterly by the wealthy men of Parliament, but there was a growing trend towards industrialisation and with industrialisation came an increasingly powerful, centralised and influential urban poor that had to be satisfied as well. Furthermore, the principles of Protestantism that had been espoused by the Puritans and the dissident Protestants – free thought, criticism, self-reliance – had lead to more and more people learning how to read, which in turn lead to a plethora of other radical ideas taking hold in the cities.

Among the key demands of those living in the cities, particularly in London, was freedom of assembly and freedom of speech. The conditions that produced the American Revolution and the French Revolution were present in Britain, too, and the skepticism towards inherited rule and monarchy that would characterise those two uprisings was also there. One such firebrand was John Wilkes, a radical journalist and politician who first came to prominence in 1762 as the editor of a newspaper, The North Briton. His paper was regularly critical of the King, George III – for which he was arrested and charged with libel.

Wilkes’ popularity soared after his arrest, with public opinion holding that he had been right to challenge the King and he was soon released when a judge decided that his comments were made using parliamentary privilege – Wilkes was a Member of Parliament – and therefore could not be considered libellous. He was released and sued the men who arrested him. The success embolden Wilkes, who continued to skirt legality with his publications, eventually being forced to flee to France in 1764 to avoid an obscenity charge.

While in exile, Wilkes ran up huge debts and did little to endear himself to people there or back home. When he eventually was forced to return to England, the authorities wanted to arrest him, but instead dithered due to his large public support. He was elected back to Parliament on an anti-government platform and handed himself in, as an MP, to fight the obscenity charge from four years previously. On hearing that he had been arrested again, a crowd began to form on St George’s Fields in south London to call for his release. After two weeks, they numbered 15,000 and were chanting slogans like “No Liberty, No King” and “Damn the King! Damn the Government! Damn the Justices!” outside the gates of the prison. The army were called in and the Riot Act was read – the government’s official signal that a crowd was to disperse. They did not, and began throwing rocks at the soldiers. The soldiers returned fire and soon afterwards, up to 11 people lay dead.

All London erupted into riots against the King and the government, a scene described by Benjamin Franklin, who was present, as “sawyers destroying saw-mills; sailors unrigging all the outward bound ships…Watermen destroying private boats and threatening bridges.” Franklin later saw the riots as a precursor to the Boston Massacre of 1770, which would become a major trigger in the American Revolution.

John Wilkes was eventually released and, six years later, was elected Lord Mayor of London. The rising of the industrial working class against the government in defence of their inalienable rights would become a theme of British city life, and the heavy-handed manner in which it was often suppressed would accompany it every step of the way.

Worse Than the Red Wedding: 12 Real British Massacres that Make Game of Thrones Look Like Child’s Play
The Peterloo Massacre. Manchester Evening News.

9 – The Peterloo Massacre, 1819

The massacre at St George’s Fields showed the power of the poor of London to cause disruption, but they were far from the only group in England that were capable of rising against the authorities. The north of England was a hotbed of political radicalism and Manchester in particular was the centre of a movement that would have a monumental effect on British society. Manchester in 1819 was well on the way to becoming the first city of industry, the home to the lucrative cotton trade and one of the richest places on earth. The political representation of the city, however, was well out of date and the whole population, which numbered close to a million, was represented by just two Members of Parliament. The economic situation was not much better: the Napoleonic Wars had created a huge demand for textiles with which to make uniforms and created an boom in the Manchester cotton industry, but once the wars ended, the bubble burst and thousands were thrown out of work. The Corn Laws, which regulated the price of grain, kept the cost of food above what most could afford. Thus, the conditions were ripe for protest. The Manchester magistrates warned of “deep distress of the manufacturing classes” and predicted that a revolt was night.

In the years leading up to Peterloo, as it would come to be known, the radical politicians of the north had been doing a roaring trade. They met for weekly meetings throughout the city and were drawing crowds in the thousands. Henry Hunt was the undoubted star of the show, railing against the corrupt Corn Laws and the politicians who upheld them. When he called a “great assembly” on St Peter’s Fields in the centre of Manchester for August 16th, 1819, thousands converged from all over Lancashire to hear him speak. The authorities reacted in kind, with over a thousands soldiers sent to police the event.

Samuel Bamford, who was there, described the scene as thus:

“Mr Hunt, stepping towards the front of the stage, took off his white hat, and addressed the people.

We had got to nearly the outside of the crowd, when a noise and strange murmur arose towards the church. Some persons said it was the Blackburn people coming, and I stood on tiptoe and looked in the direction whence the noise proceeded, and saw a party of cavalry in blue and white uniform come trotting, sword in hand, round the corner of a garden wall, and to the front of a row of new houses, where they reined up in a line.

“The soldiers are here,” I said; “we must go back and see what this means.” “Oh,” someone made reply, “they are only come to be ready if there should be any disturbance in the meeting.” “Well, let us go back,” I said, and we forced our way towards the colours.

On the cavalry drawing up they were received with a shout of goodwill, as I understood it. They shouted again, waving their sabres over their heads; and then, slackening rein, and striking spur into their steeds, they dashed forward and began cutting the people…”

“Stand fast,” I said, “they are riding upon us; stand fast”.

The cavalry were in confusion: they evidently could not, with all the weight of man and horse, penetrate that compact mass of human beings and their sabres were plied to hew a way through naked held-up hands and defenceless heads; and then chopped limbs and wound-gaping skulls were seen; and groans and cries were mingled with the din of that horrid confusion.”

15 people lay dead and hundreds were injured. One of the dead, John Lees, who had travelled in from the nearby cotton town of Oldham and had previously fought at the Battle of Waterloo, remarked: “At Waterloo there was man to man but there it was downright murder.” The name Peterloo was immediately given to the massacre at St Peter’s Fields. Peterloo has gone down in history as one of the worst excesses of the British state against its own people, and the formation of the organised British working class movement. The poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, was moved to pen his famous lines by the carnage of Peterloo:

“Rise like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number
Shake your chains to earth like dew
We are many, they are few”

Worse Than the Red Wedding: 12 Real British Massacres that Make Game of Thrones Look Like Child’s Play
The red flag raised above Merthyr. BBC.

10 – Merthyr Rising, 1831

Once the idea of revolution is out in the open, it is a notoriously difficult one to control. Certainly, one of the least successful ways of controlling revolution is to smash it head on, as that tends to turn the people among whom the idea is fermenting against the government even more. Britain, perhaps more than any country, as averted and avoid revolutions over the centuries through a combination of coercion and co-option: the English Revolution, a revolution against the King’s right to absolute rule, was eventually defeated and replaced by more absolute rule, before the idea of constitutional monarchy was adopted anyway, while the various uprisings against the Corn Laws, the unrepresentative nature of Parliament and the centralisation of power were all crushed, only for large swaths of their demands to be taken into the mainstream. Thus, England has maintained the idea of not having a revolution while actually having several.

That isn’t to say that the tactics for dealing with dissent have become much more subtle over time. The tendency of the British state to pile into its own people has always been there, and few times was it so starkly displayed as in the Welsh town of Merthyr Tydfil in 1831.

Merthyr, like much of South Wales, made its money from coal mining. The market for coal was always there – people always needed to keep warm and factories always needed fuel – but the work was simple and casualisation of labour was always a problem. Unemployment – or at least, underemployment – was common and many families suffered with usury, buying food on credit when times were hard in the hope that they could pay their debts when work was available. In 1831, the owner of the local ironworks, William Crawshay, presided over workers who were increasingly angered by a lack of work and commensurate falling wages – the logic of supply and demand dictating that, when men were unemployed, those with jobs could be paid less in the knowledge that they had nowhere else to sell their labour.

This hardly endeared Crawshay to the local population on in May, 1831, the workers began to revolt. They demonstrated for reform in the streets, roping in other colleagues from nearby towns and villages to join their protests. By the end of the month, the whole area was in revolt against the government and the factory bosses. The mob invaded the debtor’s court and destroyed all the records of usury, freeing themselves from what they owed. They shouted slogans against the King and raised the red flag over Merthyr – reportedly the first time that that symbol had ever been used.

At the start of June they moved to bring other workers out on strike and into revolt, while the government in London decided to call in the army to restore order. The soldiers, faced with over seven thousand workers, fired and killed more than 20 protesters. Still, however, they were forced back. The workers took control of the town, formed paramilitary defence units and commandeered arms from the Highland Regiment that had been sent to pacify the town. Eventually, after over a week of mob rule, 450 soldiers managed to retake Merthyr. The retribution was swift: rioters were imprisoned, others were sentenced to be sent to Australia and two were hanged.

Worse Than the Red Wedding: 12 Real British Massacres that Make Game of Thrones Look Like Child’s Play
The Preston Strike Riot. Spartacus Educational.

11 – Preston Strike, 1842

The great cleft in British society was now clear to see. As the industrial advances in the cities drew in migrants from the countryside and created a huge, concentrated underclass, the rich grew richer on the profits. A society that had been largely rural – estimates are that 80% of the population lived off the land before Industrial Revolution – had become the first in history to be made up of predominantly city-dwellers. This caused huge, unheard of problems that the ruling classes struggle to deal with. How could they organise food and sanitation for such a concentration of people? How did they maintain order when faced with numbers like they had never seen before?

In the North, the conditions were particularly harsh and particularly stark. The city of Manchester had doubled every ten years for five decades running and the most of those newcomers had been rural, illiterate and unskilled. The damp climate that had made the city so perfect for cotton weaving – Manchester was (and is) so rainy that cotton never dried out and therefore was less of a fire risk – was also perfect for spreading diseases, which caused periodic epidemics among the population. Yet, despite the hardships of the city, the merchants and mill owners made untold riches from the profits of the labour. The French writer Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of Manchester in 1835:

“From this foul drain the greatest stream of human industry flows out to fertilize the whole world. From this filthy sewer pure gold flows. Here humanity attains its most complete development and its most brutish, here civilization works its miracles and civilized man is turned almost into a savage.”

Understandably, the workers were not too keen on their hard work fattening the already rich, while they remained in poverty. The average working class person had no vote, little economic or social mobility and a short life expectancy. They organised the so-called “People’s Charter”, a list of demands handed to the government, in 1838, asking for universal suffrage and political reform. It was rejected out of hand. The workers regrouped and created a second charter in 1842, this one signed by three million people, which was again rejected by Parliament. The Northern Star, a radical newspaper, published this withering commentary on Parliament’s decision:

“Three and half millions have quietly, orderly, soberly, peaceably but firmly asked of their rulers to do justice; and their rulers have turned a deaf ear to that protest. Three and a half millions of people have asked permission to detail their wrongs, and enforce their claims for RIGHT, and the ‘House’ has resolved they should not be heard! Three and a half millions of the slave-class have holden out the olive branch of peace to the enfranchised and privileged classes and sought for a firm and compact union, on the principle of EQUALITY BEFORE THE LAW; and the enfranchised and privileged have refused to enter into a treaty! The same class is to be a slave class still. The mark and brand of inferiority is not to be removed. The assumption of inferiority is still to be maintained. The people are not to be free.”

Many had tired of asking nicely. A huge wave of strikes broke out all over industrial areas, combining the goals of the Chartists with economic demands such as wage rises, a ten hour working day and lower rents. On Friday, August 12, 1842, three thousand people met in the northern city of Preston and began to go from factory to factory, pulling the workers out to join their protest. By Saturday, almost the whole town had ground to a halt and the major mill owner – who was also the town mayor – Samuel Horrocks called in the 72nd Highlanders, an army regiment stationed in the town.

Horrocks addressed the crowd and read the Riot Act, proclaiming the demonstration illegal. When the crowd did not disperse, the soldiers opened fire and shot 8 protestors. The mayor was thought to have given the order to fire, with the Northern Star writing:

“People could scarcely believe their senses. Riots had happened before in Preston but never before had the military been ordered to fire. Another attachment of the 7th Rifle Brigade, about 150 in number were marched into town, and the 72nd were marched out, no doubt to stem popular fury, it being the almost unanimous opinion that the Mayor ought to be tried for wilful murder.”

Of course, nobody was ever found guilty of the shootings and, indeed, many demonstrators found themselves imprisoned for their actions.

Worse Than the Red Wedding: 12 Real British Massacres that Make Game of Thrones Look Like Child’s Play
The march that turned into Bloody Sunday. BBC.

12 – Bloody Sunday, 1972

The most recent massacre on our list takes us back over the Irish Sea. The general attitude of the British state towards the Irish people might have changed since the Siege of Drogheda, but extreme brutality has rarely been far away. In the Troubles, the civil war that engulfed the North of Ireland for the latter third of the 20th Century, there was one incident that stands out among all others as the worst excess of the British Army against people who were – theoretically at least – British citizens.

The people of the City of Derry were no strangers to protest: they had successfully ejected the British Army from several areas of the city in 1968. The principle concern of the Catholic majority of the city was the continued domination of the Unionist, Protestant minority over vital issues like housing and infrastructure. Elections in the Northern Irish statelet were gerrymandered so that Protestant votes always carried the day and, inspired by the civil rights struggles in the United States, the people organised their own campaigns for equal voting rights and better housing provisions. It is worth mentioning that, when these campaigns started in 1968, there was little tinge of Irish nationalism or republicanism about the protests: the people of Derry wanted to be treated like everyone else in Britain first and foremost, before any discussion on Irish nationalist politics.

When the civil rights movement had been repelled violently by the police, a military struggle began that escalated and escalated to the point at which the British Army was called into the streets. The Catholic civilians actually welcomed the soldiers, as they were seen as neutral and fair, compared to the Protestant-dominated Police. That did not last. In 1971, internment was introduced for anyone suspected of being a member of a paramilitary organisation, which in practice saw hundreds of Catholic men imprisoned without trial. This swelled the ranks of the paramilitaries further, as well as sparking social struggles such as demonstrations and strikes. It was on one of these protests that our final massacre would occur.
On January 30, 1972, a protest against internment set off from the Creggan, a Catholic district of Derry. It was over ten thousand strong and headed for the city centre, but was stopped by Army barricades. The march redirected towards the Bogside, another Catholic area, but a group peeled off and began pelting the soldiers with stones. The Parachute Regiment, the soldiers in question, responded with tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets. This was a relatively normal scene in protests in Ireland. What was to follow was not normal.

A group of soldiers in a nearby building opened fire on unarmed civilians, hitting two. The Paras then attempt to arrest several protesters by forcing their way into the Bogside, knocking several over with their armoured cars and assaulting anyone they caught. They later shot and killed people near a barricade that had been erected, including shooting people in the back who were fleeing from the scene. Within ten minutes, 26 people had been shot and 13 lay dead. Most were teenagers.

Don Mullan, who was a young boy at the time, remembered:

“The riot that ensued by Bogside standards, particularly when you compare it to the Battle of the Bogside in 1969, was quite minor. One feels if it had been allowed to peter out as the evening came on then the atrocity that followed would never have been…I reached the barricade and I remember one paratrooper, probably only about 20 or 30 yards away from me standing in the middle of Rossville Street. He had a rubber bullet gun and he fired that towards barricade. And then I remember another paratrooper diagonally across the road from me, in a kneeling position, his rifle aimed.

“At that stage I had a sense this was more than a snatch squad. And then the unmistakable crack of high velocity SLR rifles began to pierce the air. Literally two and a half feet from me I heard one young man cry out and he was Michael Kelly and he fell to the ground. At that point things become quite confused in my mind. There was a lot of panic and a lot of fear. I can recall a bullet hitting the wall above my head, quite high above my head. At that stage I came to my senses and began to run.”

The events of Bloody Sunday were initially covered up by the British state, with all present telling an inquiry that those that they shot were armed. It took until 2010 for the United Kingdom government to apologise for the massacre and to accept that their soldiers had been in the wrong.