THERE is an old myth that four pubs in Camden – the Edinboro, Dublin, Windsor and Pembroke – were created to prevent their patrons from fighting over alcohol.
Scottish, Irish, English and Welsh drinkers could drink in their respective castles while avoiding the possibility, resulting from an accidental nudge or beer spill, of all-out war, or at least that is what we tell.
Like many brilliant stories, this one isn’t strictly true.
But like all great myths, there is something quite true in it – it fits with our sense of history, and for good reason.
According to historian AN Wilson, one summer day in 1846, a large group of Irish laborers building what is today known as the Camden Roundhouse at Chalk Farm, north London, faced a group of English masons working nearby.
In the street skirmishes that followed, hundreds of men attacked each other with punches, shovels and pickaxes for over an hour.
Wilson writes in London: a brief history who shouts “Kill the Protestant!” “And” Murder! Were heard by passers-by who witnessed the carnage.
Such were the strength, endurance and enthusiasm of these men that the Metropolitan Police, an organization still in its infancy at the time, was “put off” and unable to contain the violence, Wilson writes.
It was the first major test of the Met’s ability to control major cases of public disorder since its inception by Sir Robert Peel in 1829, and they have failed miserably.
The mid-19th century saw the newly formed working class – a byproduct of industrialization and the rapid growth of those who live and work in cities – engage in mass political mobilization, which does not was not possible before.
Across Europe, an emboldened proletariat was actively campaigning for workers’ rights, as well as for new and more radical political doctrines, such as socialism and anarchism.
Thus, the impotence of the Met that day at Chalk Farm, barely two years before a wave of revolutions swept across the European continent during the so-called “People’s Spring” of 1848, would have been an event that food for thought for the British establishment.
Wilson writes that he “has demonstrated [to the authorities] that, if necessary, a discontented proletariat could rise up and that there would be few police forces that could against them.
While the reason for the initial attack remains a mystery, Wilson writes of the Irish: “Presumably these men, whose parents at home were starving, believed the British had stolen their work days?
Irish immigrants had, by definition, escaped the bleakest conditions imaginable – a famine that claimed the lives of over a million people.
Escaping the Third Horseman of the Apocalypse ravaging their homeland, and the steel scythe of death slaughtering so many of their countrymen, meant that the Irish were willing to endure a lot and work for very little.
Naturally, driving down the price of labor did not win them over to their English counterparts, who were unwilling to fight for tuppence like the Irish, who in turn undermined them.
It is therefore not surprising that “more than half of the sailors who built the railroads were Irish,” Wilson said, which meant that many English people found themselves out of work.
Then there is the thorny subject of religious belief.
In his thesis on the period, John Lynch writes: “Irish immigration was the most important factor in the growth of the Catholic Church in the second half of the 19e century in Britain.
It is ironic that Irish settlers brought a revival of Catholicism to England, overturning the abolition of the Catholic religion and church started by King Henry VIII – the man responsible for the conquest of Ireland – 300 years earlier.
Nevertheless, the new religious iconography, linked to the continental papacy so despised by the English, ruffled the spiritual feathers of the Anglican flock – until then quite homogeneous.
It could have been anything in this salad of tensions that sparked the conflict between the workers that day.
Once the conflict began to “die out” Wilson writes that “twenty Irish have been arrested and taken to Albany station”.
They “fought so hard it took seven officers to contain a single man,” Wilson said.
One of the reasons why it remains “impossible” to know what caused the incident, Wilson writes, is the fact that “when the soldiers were brought before the magistrate of Marylebone, they were not allowed to present evidence or attenuating means in their defense ”.