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Occasional posts on subjects including field recording, London history and literature, other websites worth looking at, articles in the press, and news of sound-related events.

23 February 2011

Mug-house riots and a short history of hissing

LAST YEAR I had to do jury service at Southwark Crown Court for cases involving an incompetent pickpocket (adjourned for background reports), an alleged paedophile (not guilty), and a fraudster (guilty, nine months and recommended for deportation).

If you get called up for jury service, then look forward to long periods of waiting around and a few jolts of genuine high drama. But until then, real people from London’s past can stand trial in your own little courtroom of the imagination thanks to The Proceedings of the Old Bailey. It’s one of the best online history resources around.

One case from 1716 is full of fascinating detail about the sounds of political violence in London. Pro-Hanoverian Whig factions had established drinking dens called mug-houses from which they fought fist and boot with Jacobite mobs in the early 18th century. These clashes became known as the Mug-house Riots. Walter Thornbury’s 1878 book Old and New London has an engraving of one such battle:

A mug-house riot


An attack in 1716 on the Roebuck mug-house at Cheapside led to the trial of Robert Read, accused of killing one Daniel Vaughan with a blunderbuss. Instances of slogan-shouting and other sounds of conflict feature prominently in the accounts of the witnesses.

Alcohol and public disorder are inseparable twins in English culture. As the shopkeeper Katherine Bennet testified:

[She] heard a great Noise in it the Monday Night before, insomuch that she sate up all Night; and she heard some of the Gentlemen there say, Come, let’s go to the Swan; which they did, and she heard them beat against the Windows; and when they returned, she heard a Voice say, Come Gentlemen of the Roe-buck, let us drink the King’s Health. That about 1 a-Clock they went to the Swan again, and as they went she heard them say, Down with the Butchers, Down with the Barbers (whose Door was beat open) Down with the Pawnbrokers; and that they beat against her Door, but could not break it open.

Richard Newell had been sent on an errand that day, but was drawn out of curiosity to watch the turmoil instead:

[. . .] he had heard of a great Disturbance there the Night before, and was willing therefore to see what would be the Consequence. Whilst he was observing things, he saw a great Mob come up the Court, and a Constable come out of the Mug-house and read a Proclamation; and then the Gentlemen huzza’d for King George, and he made a Huzza himself; and the Mob huzza’d, after which they advanc’d to the House, and the Prisoner and some Gentlemen came out and sought the Mob, but were beat at last and forc’d to return; and then the Mob cried out, High Church and Ormond, No King George, No Hannoverians, Down with the Mug-house, louder than ever, with Sticks in their Hands.

The proclamation was likely a reading of the Riot Act, passed by Parliament in 1714. One curious sound-feature is mentioned in the statement of John Boyles:

That he was at the Mug-house the Night before, between 6 and 7 a Clock; and about 9 a Constable and several Watchmen drew up in a Rank against the Door, which occasioned a great Mob; and as Gentlemen came to the Mug-house, they hiss’d them; upon which he went to the Door to know why they hiss’d, but they threw Stones at him, and at the Windows, which had been broke once before to the Value of 7 s. 6 d.

Hissing as a way of expressing hostility now only survives in a humorous form among pantomime audiences. Its long association with the theatre goes back to at least the 17th century, and probably has its origins in the story of Satan taking a snake’s form in the Garden of Eden.

The French playwright Jean Racine wrote bitchily in his epigram The Origin of Hissing that the practice began when Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle’s play Aspar flopped on stage in 1680. “I should know, I was in it,” Racine claimed. However, Samuel Pepys noted an incident of audience hissing at a theatre in July 1661:

To-day was acted the second part of “The Siege of Rhodes.” [. . .] The King being come, the scene opened; which indeed is very fine and magnificent, and well acted, all but the Eunuch, who was so much out that he was hissed off the stage.

Hissing became such a well-established habit that the right of audiences to hiss entered English common law in the case of Clifford vs Brandon in 1810. Justice Mansfield ruled:

The audience have certainly a right to express by applause or hisses the sensations which naturally present themselves at the moment; and nobody has ever hindered or would ever question the exercise of that right. But if any body of men were to go to the theatre with the settled intention of hissing an actor, or even of damning a piece, there can be no doubt that such a deliberate and pre-concerted scheme . . . might be brought to punishment.

The USA had to wait nearly 100 years until a Boston magistrate set a similar precedent in 1903. But that didn’t help New Yorker Paul Kulikoff in 1917, who hissed a Russian war film at the Strand Theatre. A probation officer told the court that Kulikoff’s lodgings in East Twelfth Street were ‘barren of everything but a mass of literature on anarchism’, and he was sentenced to six months in the workhouse for disorderly conduct.

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