Rioting and time: Collective violence in Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow, 1800-1939

  • Matteo Tiratelli

Student thesis: Phd


The 19th century is seen by many as a crucial turning point in the history of protest in Britain and across the global north. In Charles Tilly’s famous history of the period, the first few decades of the 19th century mark the transition from the violent, direct action of the premodern era to our modern, respectable, social movements (Tilly 1995, 2004). A study of rioting in Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow from 1800 to 1939, therefore, allows for a unique window onto that momentous period of upheaval. But it also has a sociological aim. The last decade has seen a resurgence of rioting in Europe and the USA, prompting many to suggest that riots will be the dominant mode of protest in the coming years (e.g. Badiou 2012, Mayer et al 2016, Clover 2016). But, as I will show, our existing sociological theories of riots tend to be overly narrow, to focus exclusively on one or two master variables without paying due attention to the variety of forms and behaviours that make up rioting. These are the two challenges I take up in this thesis. My main empirical contribution is a catalogue of four hundred riots across the three cities. This was produced by searching through national and local newspaper archives, Home Office documents, local police reports and secondary literature. The catalogue is presented in the Appendix. Using the rich, narrative accounts provided by these sources, I try to analyse the riots on their own terms, as a set of interactions and behaviours, as well as to embed them in the local history of each city. This reveals that riots are not the chaotic, unpredictable moments of madness that we so often think of them as. Riots are rather patterned by people’s everyday use of time and space – they expand to fill the growing urban landscape of each city and their timing follows gradual changes to the working week. Riots are also embedded in culture and society more broadly. In fact, as those roots in local society were eroded in the last few decades of the 19th century, this led to a decline in the number of riots in Manchester, Liverpool and most of the rest of the country. Meanwhile, the actual way in which people riot also evolves over time. Riots changed from an autonomous form of protest, to one that was subordinated to the strike and the demonstration. Rioters also move away from targeting specific (often powerful) individuals to targeting people because of their identity as, for example, scabs, Irish Catholics or fascists. This history undermines the orthodox account of protest presented by Charles Tilly. Violent direct action continued to be a key part of urban life until far later than his account suggests. And those later riots are not accidental hangovers from a previous era, but in fact adapted to changing conditions. My catalogue also suggests that existing theories of riots can be synthesised and broadened by concentrating on the way that individual riots unfold over hours, weeks or months, on what I think of as their career through time. This sets up a flexible framework for analysing riots which I hope can be applied to other riots around the world. Finally, and more abstractly, this study suggests that riots have a particular relationship with time, that they are of the present but face the past, drawing on its traditions as well as their own history. This has implications for our vision of history itself, suggesting that time is not punctuated by spontaneous, era-defining events, but rather evolves gradually over the longue duree.
Date of Award31 Dec 2018
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorNick Crossley (Supervisor) & Gemma Edwards (Supervisor)


  • social history
  • Charles Tilly
  • protest
  • riots
  • repertoires

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