“Like wild fire to burn the world down”: Mary Roberts and Charlotte Gardiner

Introducing our very first post, written by our own co-organiser, Dr. Ruth Scobie

Mary Roberts had hated her old neighbour John Lebarty since he had got her thrown out of her lodgings on St Catherine’s Lane for “audacious” behaviour. The anti-Catholic Gordon Riots which swept through London in the summer of 1780 provided her with a chance for revenge, since Lebarty was an Italian. She harassed and threatened him, he told the court in a statement which can now be read at the Old Bailey Online.

“After the mob had pulled down the ambassador’s house, she came by my house, and said, You outlandish bouger, I will have your house down; you outlandish Papist, I will have your house down. She said so on Monday and Tuesday. On the Wednesday evening she went by my house with another woman. She terrified me.

Mention the expressions she used on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, about pulling your house down? – In the evening she and another woman came by and called me an outlandish bouger, and said my house must come down, that it was a Papist’s house. And used other language of that sort. She was like wild fire to burn the world down.”

Lebarty and his family fled, stashing some of their belongings with friends. On Wednesday night Roberts arrived at St Catherine’s Lane with a mob. They invaded his house and wrecked it, smashing the windows, pulling down the wainscots and even brickwork, slashing the beds and throwing the feathers around. Lebarty’s possessions were hurled out of the windows, piled into a bonfire, and burnt. Lebarty came to see the damage at three in the morning and found her inside.“She had taken possession of the house” he said,  “she was leaning out at the window; she had the command of the house.” Multiple witnesses saw her:

“Thomas Morris (neighbour) Did you see Roberts there? – Not till about three in the morning. I absconded from the house, and did not return till day-light; when the gentlemen of the association came. I saw this woman, Roberts, in the bed-chamber. I spoke to one of the young gentlemen of the association, to present his piece at her, in order to intimidate her; he did; she was leaning out of the window, and seemed very much in liquor. She said he might fire and be buggered.”

Also present, with less obvious motives, was a black woman, Charlotte Gardiner, who was tried with Roberts. She was said to be “very busy amongst the mob” and heard to shout out “huzza, my boys, well done, down down, with it!” Gardiner’s race was mentioned by more than one witness as something which made her easy to identify in the crowd. It may have been a factor in the decision to single her out for prosecution from among the than the many other rioters who went unpunished.

Gardiner and Roberts were, and are, difficult women. They were, you imagine, difficult neighbours. They were difficult for the authorities, who could finally only suppress their defiance – their violence, their drunkenness, their audacious insistence on taking possession of houses which were not their own – by hanging them both as an example to others. They are also, though, difficult for scholars today. Historians in the past have seen them as the puppets or parasites of the great men who controlled politics and deliberately or inadvertently set off the riots, but these were certainly women with minds of their own, if not with consciously political motives. For readers today, they speak at once too freely and not at all, their every surviving statement filtered through the testimony of often hostile witnesses. The record kept by the state and by the press tells us the minute details of their crime, but almost nothing about the rest of their lives. Roberts, we learn, was a widow and a working mother; even less is known of Gardiner, who did not call any character witnesses at their joint trial.

If women’s – or indeed black – history is taken to be a project of salvaging role models or ancestors, what place is there for Roberts and Gardiner: xenophobic, vengeful, and joyfully, destructively plastered? If it’s about reconstructing forgotten and unrecorded lives, how much can we learn from this one spectacular moment of madness? Obnoxious and oppressed, minor bystanders and active participants in historical change, difficult women like Roberts and Gardiner invite us to question our histories of eighteenth-century London, but also what history does and what it’s for.

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Photograph of riots in Croydon (2011).

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