Early Acid Throwing in the British Isles: The Insolence of Weavers

By Cassie Watson; posted 27 June 2021.

Although acid throwing in the past was largely associated with motives of jealousy and revenge, it also played a historically significant role as a feature of nineteenth-century industrial protest. While this was not particularly widespread or frequent,[1] press reports show that workmen used vitriol — strong sulphuric acid — to destroy property such as fabrics and looms; and to punish individuals believed to be undermining employment rights, especially strike-breakers and mill owners who installed power machinery. The viciousness of such attacks, particularly in 1820s Glasgow, led to the introduction of a series of increasingly stringent laws against the use of vitriol as a form of interpersonal violence, culminating in its total criminalisation by the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act.[2] But acid throwing by disgruntled workmen has a much longer history: eighteenth-century weavers periodically destroyed imported fabrics (often while they were being worn) with acid — typically nitric acid, known as aqua fortis. However, unlike their later counterparts these perpetrators were rarely identified.

The “insolence of weavers”

It should come as no surprise that eighteenth-century acid throwing was treated as a crime against property, and so a law that had the capacity to punish it severely had long existed. In 1785, following what appears to have been a spate of incidents that caused linen drapers to form a prosecution association,[3] and what was probably the first such trial held at the Old Bailey,[4] a report published in The Newcastle Courant reminded readers of the relevant statute:  

“The practice of spoiling women’s gowns in the public streets, by sprinkling aqua-fortis and other destructive compositions upon them, having lately prevailed very much, the following extract from an Act of the 6th of Geo. I, c. 23, sect. 11, will, it is hoped, be deemed a useful caution to the perpetrators of this kind of mischievous wantoness: From and after the 24th day of June, 1720, all persons who shall wilfully and maliciously assault any person or persons in the public streets, or highways, by tearing, spoiling, cutting, burning, or any way defacing the garments or cloaths of such person or persons, and be convicted thereof, shall be treated as felons, and the court shall have power to transport him or them for seven years.”[5]

The origin of this law was explained in another newspaper report some 14 years later: “This act was occasioned by the insolence of weavers and others, who upon the introduction of some India fashions, prejudicial to their own manufactures, made it a practice to deface them, either by open outrage or by privately cutting or casting aqua fortis in the streets upon them.”[6]

The earliest report of the specific use of acid for this purpose dates from the 1750s, when “riotous and wicked people” in Dublin and Cork assaulted “the Weavers and Wearers of stamped Linnens and Cottons, and with Knives and Aqua Fortis cut and destroy them.”[7] The trend had spread to London a decade later, and by the late 1760s when the Spitalfield riots occurred, it appeared “to have become a practice, by a number of malignant people, to spoil the cloaths of well-dressed persons, by throwing aqua fortis, &c. on them, or by cutting them with a sharp knife.”[8] This means of protest had by then been adopted by members of other trades, as for example in 1766 when a perpetrator, believed to be a corn exporter, exclaimed: “By G—d we will be revenged some Way or other on the cruel Rogues who are starving us, and the whole Nation, by sending away the Corn to feed our Enemies.”[9]

An example of a brocaded silk sack-back gown, c.1753.

An example of a brocaded silk sack-back gown, c.1753.

This man probably got the idea of throwing acid from the actions of weavers and other clothworkers suffering depressed rates of pay. Earlier in 1766 an offender who threw acid on a woman’s dress in London’s Strand, was allowed to depart the scene “without molestation” when he explained that he was a journeyman weaver whose wife and four children were “almost starving to death, for want of employment, and that the Lady’s gown on which he had thrown the aqua fortis was French wrought silk, the wearing of which was contrary to law.”[10] 

The evolving characteristics of acid throwing

The extent to which the statute was actually used to punish acid throwing in the eighteenth century is unknown, but, if the records of the Old Bailey and national newspaper reports can be taken as representative, trials do not seem to have been numerous, despite a rising incidence from the 1780s onward. However, the cases reported and prosecuted between the 1780s and 1820s show that industrial protest remained a motive, but vitriol began to replace nitric acid.

A handful of reports from quarter sessions courts in the first decade of the nineteenth century suggest that some incidents may have been related to personal rather than professional reasons,[11] but without information about the men’s trade it is impossible to say for certain what their motive was. The case of Elizabeth Wrack, tried at the Old Bailey in 1805 for assaulting two prostitutes by throwing vitriol on their dresses, indicates that personal disputes were indeed becoming a more common motive for acid throwing: “We all three lived in one house together; they said to me, they owed a young woman a spite, and they gave me the twopence to fetch the vitriol; and that is how I came by the vitriol; in fact we all three owed the girl a spite…”[12]

Although one or two individuals suffered acid attacks of the type that became sadly typical of the nineteenth century, including the husband of an angry wife at Halifax in 1766,[13] the crime continued to be associated with sporadic outbreaks by “refractory weavers,”[14] and other working men, in response to economic hardship. The outrages that occurred in Glasgow during the 1820s, when at least one victim lost an ear and an eye and a number of victims were severely assaulted, made it clear that an important change had occurred: acid was seen as a weapon to be used against people, not just property, and victims’ heads and faces, rather than their clothes, became targets for vitriol.

The worst was yet to come: later labour disputes led to even more deliberately savage attempts to blind, most notoriously at Cork in 1842 when a group of sawyers attacked the proprietor of a new steam-run mill.[15] By then, vitriol had become a recognised form of interpersonal violence, employed deliberately by offenders who sought to cause a particular type of physical and emotional damage. Its use in labour disputes continued sporadically until at least 1938;[16] but after the 1820s most offenders had more personal motives, leading at times to a surprising degree of jury sympathy and judicial leniency.


Images

Main image: “Power loom weaving,” Edward Baines, jun., History of the Cotton Manufacture in Great Britain: With a Notice of its Early History in the East, and in all the Quarters of the Globe (London: H. Fisher, R. Fisher, and P. Jackson, 1835). Wellcome Collection. Public Domain. 

William Hogarth, Industry and Idleness, Plate 1: The Fellow ‘Prentices at their Looms, 1747. Thomas Idle is on the left, Francis Goodchild on the right, the master weaver stands in the doorway. Wellcome Collection. Public  Domain.  

Henry Pickering, Eleanor Frances Dixie (c. 1753). The sitter is wearing a bergère hat and a brocaded silk sack-back gown. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.


References

[1] Matt Hopkins, Lucy Neville and Teela Sanders, Acid Crime: Context, Motivation and Prevention (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021), 7.

[2] Katherine D. Watson, “Is a burn a wound? Vitriol-throwing in medico-legal context, 1800-1900,” in Lawyers’ Medicine: The Legislature, the Courts and Medical Practice, 1760–2000, ed. I. Goold and C. Kelly (Oxford: Hart Publishing, 2009), 71-78.

[3] Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, 7 July 1785, 3; Stamford Mercury, 8 July 1785, 2; Kentish Gazette, 8 July 1785, 3

[4] Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 8.0, March 2018), October 1785, trial of Charlotte Springmore and Mary Harrison (t17851019-57). They were sentenced to seven years’ transportation and arrived in Australia on the First Fleet in January 1788, aboard Lady Penrhyn.

[5] The Newcastle Courant, 29 October 1785, 4. The full title of the statute was An Act for the further preventing Robbery, Burglary, and other Felonies, and for the more effectual Transportation of Felons.

[6] The Ipswich Journal, 5 October 1799, 2.

[7] The Derby Mercury, 11 October 1754, 3.

[8] Kentish Gazette, 2 August 1769, 3.

[9] The Derby Mercury, 10 October 1766, 2.

[10] Leeds Intelligencer, 21 January 1766, 3.

[11] Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, 14 October 1802, 3; Chester Courant, 23 July 1805, 3; Hampshire Chronicle, 16 January 1809, 4.

[12] OBP, July 1805, trial of Elizabeth Wrack (t18050710-59). She was acquitted.

[13] Leeds Intelligencer, 5 August 1766, 3. The date is no coincidence: she probably got the idea from the instances committed by weavers.

[14] The Morning Post, 25 June 1808, 4.

[15] A reward of £650 was offered, one of the perpetrators informed on the others, and four men were transported for life.

[16] Belfast News-Letter, 16 March 1939, 10, reporting the trial of Joseph Stevenson who was acquitted at the Down assizes in Northern Ireland.

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