In the historical non-fiction book Mayhem: Post-War Crime and Violence in Britain 1748-53
(2013), Canadian author and historian Nicholas Rogers chronicles the intense social turmoil in Great Britain following the end of the War of Austrian Succession. In a review at H-Net: Humanities and Social Sciences Online
, Dana Rabin writes, "Well written and engaging, the book brings together well-known scholarship on the history of crime and on the public sphere with the literature on Britain's imperial expansion."
In October 1748, Great Britain signs the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, ending the War of Austrian Succession with France and other European powers. This leads to the immediate demobilization of 80,000 British soldiers who make up around four percent of the current population of Great Britain. Contrary to many British histories of the era, Rogers writes, the country's ruling Whig Party is deeply unstable and struggles mightily to maintain order as these military veterans reenter British society. Within months, rising unemployment and class tensions manifest in a visible crime wave, causing widespread fear among economic elites. Meanwhile, Great Britain has precious few resources to fight this crime wave and enforce the law. Having prided itself on preserving the civil liberties laid down in the Magna Carta, Great Britain has no organized police force. Rather, laws are enforced in individual communities by town officials like constables who hire night watchmen.
Meanwhile, many of the veterans are maimed, disabled, or suffer from what is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder, making it even more difficult to find legitimate work as far as such work is even available. Though some receive small war pensions, most are owed back pay from their time in the military which they stand no chance of collecting. Facing this dismal economic outlook, young men turn to rioting, burglary, and smuggling. The unrest also takes on a political aspect, as many of the veterans join in supporting the Jacobite cause, a movement that seeks to remove King George II from the throne and replace him with a member of the House of Stuart, which ruled during much of the previous century.
Although this post-war demobilization is smaller than ones experienced by Great Britain in the past, Rogers suggests that the class unrest that comes from it was exacerbated by the expansion of newspapers. Increased media coverage of crimes committed by impoverished veterans causes elites to enter a state of extreme anxiety over the potential loss of their property or their lives. The unrest is intensified by the fact that in 1750 alone, Great Britain experiences seven earthquakes, two of them with an epicenter in London. While the damage from these earthquakes is manageable and the loss of life far from devastating, clerics and other well-to-do believers consider the tremors to be divine punishment by God for the state of moral decay caused by the demobilized soldiers. In a famous sermon, the Methodist religious leader Charles Wesley states that the "moral cause" of all earthquakes is sin.
Meanwhile, Great Britain finds itself in the grips of what is referred to as "The Gin Craze." Prior to the 18th century, most of the alcohol consumed in Great Britain was French brandy, which is imported and therefore too expensive for the underclass to drink very much of it. However, due to a series of military and economic conflicts with France, Great Britain begins to promote the consumption of gin as a form of economic protectionism. By the 1740s, residents of England drink 2.2 gallons of gin per person per year. Rogers argues that the eventual creation of a nationwide census came about, in part, as a way for anti-alcohol advocates to accurately document the devastating effects of gin on British life expectancies.
Rogers goes on to discuss various social reform proposals. In 1751, the English novelist Henry Fielding publishes a bestselling pamphlet, An Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase in Robbers
. In a reflection of the British elite's attitude toward poverty, the pamphlet proposes strict restrictions on social mobility and wages that Fielding believes will remind the poor of their rightful place in the social order. Fielding also identifies gin as among the chief causes behind the increase in crime, although he does not mention the post-war demobilization that Rogers identifies as a driving force.
In the final chapter, Rogers discusses one of the few potentially fruitful initiatives undertaken by Parliament to address the demobilization crisis and the resulting social unrest. To protect the contested Canadian colony of Nova Scotia from the encroaching French, Great Britain offers land there to former soldiers. Rogers argues that the initiative is also an attempt to increase the colony's white population to offset the indigenous peoples living there. Although the land grants hold promise for former soldiers, many of them abandon their homesteads for Boston and other port cities to escape disease, hostile indigenous peoples, and the authoritarian rule of Nova Scotia's British governor Edward Cornwallis.Mayhem
is a fascinating examination of one of the most turbulent eras ever experienced in peacetime Great Britain.