White man’s dreaming

The London Hanged, Peter Linebaugh

This wonderful book gives us a strong sense of the untold aspect of the white man’s dreaming: it tells the story of the Georgian underclass who found themselves facing transportation to Botany Bay for their crimes. The London Hanged by Peter Linebaugh recovers the history of those condemned to be hung at Tyburn during the 18th century, most of whom transgressed against the property rights of the upper classes. One of the perquisites of office for the Newgate Prison Chaplain, the Ordinary of Newgate, was to act as a confessor to the men and women sentenced to death during their final weeks. The chaplain was then able to publish their stories and final statements and sell these to the large and enthusiastic crowds turning up to see the public hangings at Tyburn.  Linebaugh has examined these testaments to give us an insight into the lives of the London working class in the Georgian era, and the ways in which the economic, legislative and social changes of the era impacted on them.

The story starts with the Restoration, or perhaps earlier with Cromwell’s turn against the levellers, diggers and other democrats of the English Revolution, and with his violent assault on the Irish. It continues with an examination of the work of Milton (Paradise Lost) and Bunyan (Pilgrim’s Progress) as records of the hopes and failures of the Commonwealth. Linebaugh then looks at the work of the intellectual proselytisers of the Glorious Revolution: William Petty the founder of measurement in economics and rapacious Irish land expropriator, John Locke the theoretician of law and government and apologist for enforced child labour in workhouses, and Isaac Newton in his role as a diligent protector of the currency against clippers and coiners. 

The Revolution of 1688 led to a more highly organised, less personalised state with a greater reliance on a more recognisably modern form of cabinet government with a Prime Minister reporting to Parliament. This process of state development accelerated under the part time German speaking king George I of Hanover when Robert Walpole came to be recognised as the ‘first’ Prime Minister of the newly United Kingdom.


 Over the course of the 18th century the number of capital offenses increased from 50 to over 200 as the state sought to enforce the property rights of the upper and middle classes against a workforce which was being progressively schooled in modern capitalist work practices, most particularly the payment of a money wage as the sole basis of remuneration. In earlier times the money wage was only one part of the remuneration for work performed. Workers were often entitled to take such things as offcuts, surplus produce or waste material as part of their remuneration in addition to their wage. Work discipline and employment practices became more recognisably modern through the 18th century as workers increasingly came to be employed at employer controlled workplaces, for regular hours, for a regular wage payment.  

The Bloody Code first criminalised counterfeiting and coining as Isaac Newton set about creating a solidly based currency which could form a basis for the expanding mercantile economy, national debt and stock exchange and other novel financial practices of the era. Laws were also passed against public assembly and nascent unionism, exemplified by the Riot Act of 1715. The Waltham Black Act sought to protect royal ‘public land’ from ‘poachers’ who responded to Enclosures of their traditional land by hunting game animals in Black face.

Later capital crimes focussed on specific forms of property protection in trades such as silk weaving, jewellery and watchmaking, tobacco importing and others, in each of which traditional ‘perquisites’ were criminalised. In many cases before the courts the major job of the jury became the assigning of a value to the items ‘stolen’ so as to determine the level of punishment when the gradations of punishment from branding and imprisonment to transportation and hanging were determined by a fixed monetary value. Juries often downgraded the value of goods to less than 5 shillings to avoid a prison sentence or to less than 2 pounds to avoid the death sentence.

The London Hanged provides great detail about the life of the underclass in Georgian England and how they lived and worked in an era which gave no recognition to the rights of the worker. The early forms of worker organisation in the silk producing areas, on the wharves and in the navy are also highlighted, as is the riotous destruction of Newgate in 1780 and the subsequent ending of the system of public hanging as a display of the power of the state to enforce property rights.

By the end of the 18th century work was often centralised, “St. Monday” was in retreat, worker combinations remained illegal and the workplace discipline was often enforced by the workers themselves, and the money wage was increasingly the standard form of payment.

There are many strands to the book including the rise of parliamentary government and the law, highwaymen and turnpike road privatisations, technological change and the division of labour, the impact of Methodism, Irish emigration, the arrival of black people in England and the ending of slavery, the nature of women’s work, as well as the relations between men and women and the coming of modern health initiatives such as maternity hospices.

Linebaugh discusses the development of a range of industries and trades such as silk weaving, jewellery, tailoring and other luxury goods, food provisioning in London, and the loading and unloading of merchant ships. This book provides a wonderfully detailed back story of the riff raff proletarians expelled to the furthest corner of the earth in order to rid Georgian England of its surplus population – our Australian ancestors.


About Greg

Middle aged male, resident at the finest of all latitudes, 37. Reputedly an indoor cricketer.
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3 Responses to White man’s dreaming

  1. Pingback: Eighteenth century lunacy | Greg Tangey

  2. Pingback: Isaac Newton and the Counterfeiter | Greg Tangey

  3. Pingback: Murder, bloody murder! | Greg Tangey

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