Just Because it is Old, Doesn't Mean it is Correct

The following scholarly exploration is provided by Gregory Starace, who portrays a Private in the Coldstream Guards of our re-created 4th Company. He is an active duty military officer who has B.A. in History, M.S. in Strategic Intelligence, and M.A. in National Security Affairs. He has over 30 years of re-enacting experience across a number of periods, participated in the filming of major and not-so-major movies and documentaries, and was an active participant in several experimental archaeology events.

Being re-enactors and amateur historians means we spend large portions of our free time researching the history of the people and time period we represent. We do this so that we can continually develop our particular portrayals and enhance the educational vignettes we deliver to our audiences. And when the time period you focus on is almost 250 years old - both before film and widespread literacy - and when our country was just emerging from the Petri dish of colonialism, extant material examples and primary sources (e.g., official records, memoirs, newsprints, sketches, and paintings) related to your specific unit are often be counted without taking a pause and catching one's breath. Any 'new' find often produces a rush of excitement as it can confirm, deny, or expand the view of the historical puzzle we are trying to solve.

In this case, a unit member found a piece of artwork titled, "The Gordon Riots 1780", painted by English artist John Seymour Lucas in 1879  and we immediately began to salivate that we found a beautifully detailed depiction of the First Guards' grenadier companies in action suppressing rioters at the mansion of Lord and Lady Mansfield in Bloomsbury Square, London during the middle of the American Revolution. We can see yards of worsted wool lace, buff leather accoutrements, and officers going through a firing sequence - this was amazing! But wait, just because it is old, doesn't mean it is correct...

"The Gordon Riots 1780" by John Seymour Lucas. Painted 1879. Courtesy of Art Gallery NSW.

At first glance, the painting confirmed everything we thought of our brothers' appearances who remained back home in garrison while the Brigade of Guards went to war in the colonies. One can see detailed bastion loop laces, buff leather carriages and straps, breeches and gaiters, and madder read coats not cut short. But with some greater scrutiny, one can observe things we know are wrong. I have, to date, counted three physical uniform representations that are most assuredly anachronistic, and two additional larger themes expressed in the painting that might be best surmised as poetic license. We will reveal the larger themes in this article, but we will leave it to the readers to find the three uniform errors. And, who knows, maybe we missed some, so analyze away!

So why would this 140 year old painting be wrong? It was 110 years closer to the event. Surely, these coats didn't disintegrate by then, and Lucas likely interviewed veterans and eyewitnesses, right? In fact, Lucas was renown in his time as a historical and portrait painter who had a keen eye for historical details. Interestingly, he was also an accomplished theatrical costume designer. Perhaps he had a bug for material culture, too. So how could he have gotten this event wrong?

Well, he got it wrong for probably the same reasons we often do - he was fighting against the tyranny of time that, if left unchecked, can erase virtually everything mankind will ever produce. See, Lucas likely had no contact with eyewitnesses and probably would have been challenged to meet even a witness to an eyewitness. Being born in 1849, and let's for argument's sake say he was at least 15 years old before he began to seriously explore historical art, he would not have begun to consider learning about the Gordon Riots until 1864. Even assuming this to be case - and in reality, he didn't paint the painting until 1879 at age 30 - this would have been 84 years after the event. Estimating conservatively that most of the participants in the riots were in their 20s, and if credible observers were at least 10 years of age, the vast majority would have been 94 to 110 years of age when Lucas was only 15. When he painted the work, direct participants and observers were 109 to 125 years old! Not only were they dead, but with England in the 18th and 19th centuries having a life expectancy at birth of about 40 years, so were the preponderance of two generations after them. In other words, short of a miracle, Lucas didn't interview participants or direct observers, and with increasing rarity, probably didn't even interview anyone who had direct access to those original participants and observers.

So while Lucas could have combed, by hand, through the archives in England, he certainly didn't have personal access to the vast majority of the world's knowledge like we do today. High resolution photos of museum holdings, digitized copies of primary sources, online archives, machine translation, and inter-library loans of academic research just weren't a thing in 1879. In fact, I'd argue that we today have greater access to known sources and research than anyone who has come before us. Breathtaking, isn't it?!

So we get it. Lucas was in no appreciably better position than us, and possibly a worse one, to do his research. But he did a pretty good job as it was. What was his inspiration? That I can only guess. But I suspect The Origin and History of the First or Grenadier Guards, Vol. II by Frederick William Hamilton, published in 1874. Contained within is a story that a detachment of First Guards arrived at Bloomsbury Square to disperse the crowd ransacking the Mansfield mansion, fired on that crowd, and caused a "few rioters" to fall. (Hamilton, pp. 258-261)

Let's first consider whether Lucas' most likely source - written over one hundred years after the event in question - was itself correct. Were the First Guards the one who fired the shots? Or were they even there that evening at Bloomsbury Square? No less than 20 regiments, regular and militia, were called in to support the Crown and suppress the riots. An analysis of a period map displaying the military response to the event shows that the Foot Guards were not the closest unit to the Square. It is difficult to read, but it appears that the closest unit was the Northampton Militia, which we know to have been present and involved in quelling the riots. The Foot Guards, on the other hand, were officially stationed along the Thames River by the Houses of Parliament (First Guards) and at St. James's Palace (Third Guards), as well as a bit farther west at St. George's Field (First Guards).

"Disposition of the Troops and General View of the Patroles in and about London on account of the Riots in 1780". Courtesy of The British Library.

As we search for indications that a detachment of the Guards WAS present at Bloomsbury Square then, we must apply the principle that places more faith in sources written at the time of the event. And unfortunately, I (as well as other amateur researchers in the 4th Company) were not able to find a single account written in 1780 or immediately afterward that narrates the full event as described in Hamilton's 1874 history. Instead, we are presented with pieces of information that we must attempt to put together without succumbing to confirmation bias.

One key eyewitness account of the event, for example, provides no details for the regiment of foot soldiers involved, beyond indicating that they were initially ineffective and that mob was only ultimately dispersed by the arrival of Horse Guards. According to Sir. N. W. Wraxall:
A file of foot-soldiers arriving, drew up near the blazing pile, but without either attempting to quench the fire or to impede the mob, who were, indeed, far too numerous to admit of their being dispersed, or even intimidated, by a small detachment of infantry...They experienced no kind of opposition during a considerable time that we remained at this place; but a party of the Horse Guards arriving, the terrified crowd instantly began to disperse...(Wraxall, p. 197)
It is only through the trial of one of the looters of Mansfield's mansion that we learn that these indecisive foot soldiers were "the guards". According to the testimony of Richard Ingram, a neighbor nearby:
The guards came up; they came as from Russell-street way. I did not see the guards till they were very close upon me...the ranks closed...the mob pressed the guards; the officer of the guards pulled off his hat and told them that he would not hurt a hair of their heads, but desired them to disperse...then the guards wheeled to the right...(Howell, p. 653)
 The subsequent testimony of Thomas Mills confirms the Guards' inaction:
I instantly returned, knowing there was a detachment of the guards in the square in order to make them act and save the house. I found the officer at the head of his detachment in the square at his lordship's house. I applied to him to enter the house with his men; he told me that the justices of the peace had all run away, and that he would not and could not act without the civil magistrate. I had some warm words for him, pretty high, but he insisted upon not acting without the civil magistrate. The mob heard me talking in this manner, they seized me and dragged me toward the fire...(Howell, p. 664)
The biography of Lord Mansfield, written 17 years after the trial, confirms that it was the Lord Chief Justice himself who elected to have a small detachment of "the guards" deployed nearby rather than in front of his home, which likely contributed to allowing the rioters to quickly gain the upper hand:
The magistrates having made a humble tender of their assistance and advice...took a fair occasion to recommend the admission of a detachment of the guards into the house; but whether the noble owner thought their admission might make the enraged mob more desperate, or that it would be more efficient to keep the guards at small distance, in the vestry-room of Bloomsbury church, until they were really wanted, is not in the power of the author to determine...(Holliday, p. 410)
William Murray, First Earl of Mansfield and Lord Chief Justice. Painted in 1783 by John Singleton Copley. 

So, given these three accounts and working under the assumption that Britons at the time would have used the term "the guards" to refer to the Foot Guards (absent of course the acknowledged possibility they may have confusedly applied the term to the Horse Guards), it's probably safe to say with some confidence that the Foot Guards as we know them were at Bloomsbury Square the night in question.

But did they fire into the crowd? Again, it is the Horse Guards (Hamilton specifies the Life Guards in his 1874 history) who apparently ultimately dispersed the crowd. And barring secondary sources that credit the Foot Guards, be it Hamilton or even the earliest account we could find published in Lord Mahon's History of England published in 1854, the only eyewitness account we could find which attributes a volley to the foot soldiers at the scene comes from Sir Samuel Romilly. His letters to Reverend John Roget in the days immediately following the riots state:
The soldiers, after having for a long time endured the insults of the populace, were at last obliged to fire. Eight or nine persons were killed, and several wounded. (Romilly, p. 124)
Again, it's interesting that Romilly made no specific mention of the Guards. And while perhaps he could not make the distinction among foot soldiers at the scene, it is worth noting that elsewhere in his memoir he makes mention of "guards, both foot and horse", "light horsemen", and "militia", so it seems he had a sharp enough eye to discern differences of troop type.

Certainly the challenges of synthesizing multiple account of the time demonstrates the very shaky ground that much of history is based (or written) on. The more interesting task, for us at least, has always been though to consider how history in this case was visually portrayed by Lucas. So let's, for the sake of argument, assume that Hamilton's 1874 narrative of the First Guards' presence and volleys in Bloomsbury Square WAS correct. How wide of a gulf is there between his depiction of rank upon rank of Guards grenadiers (as the focus of the painting, mind you) firing into the mob versus the likely reality of a small detachment of Guards hesitant to engage the crowd (and ultimately unsuccessful in dispersing them)? Pretty big, actually.

But why? Well, let's take Lucas' decision to place the grenadiers in his artistic vision. The First Guards, at the time, had 28 companies, of which four were grenadier companies. The Third Guards (who were also deployed to quell the riots) had 18 companies, of which two were grenadiers. This is not to say that they were all present in London at the time, as we know that significant numbers were serving in the colonies. But still, only 1/9th of the Guards were actually bearskin-wearing grenadiers. So based on statistics alone, there is a significant chance that it wasn't the Guards' grenadiers who responded to Lord and Lady Mansfield's call.

By placing them in his painting, I argue that Lucas is exercising his own poetic license. The artist, as it turns out, produced a number of major pieces for both public buildings and royal clients. During his time in late Victorian England, Lucas was renowned for "his painting style and themes [that] resonated with the core themes of Imperial Great Britain: the uniqueness of the British historical experience and the nation's seemingly inexorable rise to global prominence." In an era of Pax Britannica, who better to present the Crown's power to crush dissenters and rabble-rousers, both abroad and domestically, than the Grenadier Guards? Though, we know that in 1780 the First Guards' identification as Grenadier Guards would have been anachronistic - the unit title and associated honor for all First Guards to wear the bearskin cap would eventually come into being after the Battle of Waterloo. Yet, Lucas either failed to recognize the sequencing of that distinction, simply made an error, or purposely portrayed the First Guards as grenadiers. Perhaps he didn't care. Or perhaps he wanted to portray the might of the British Empire in its most iconic form. And since we are at it, let's add some smoke and fire into the mix to ensure the message is carried to the observer without ambiguity. Also notice that while the British Officer in the center foreground is wounded, he is not dead, like a couple of protestors nearby - he is very much still an active participant displaying fortitude and commitment to the cause despite his wounds. I suspect some detailed analysis of the composition of the artwork might uncover other messages endorsing the British Empire and its ability quell disorder and chaos.

So what we are left with is that Lucas, in spite of his historical credibility, might have taken poetic license to convey some themes of his day which, quite possibly, would have resonated clearly and were likely well-received by his royal or public clients. It gets us close to the story, but one that is slanted for purpose and possibly somewhat disingenuous to actual events. IT does not mean the work is any less impressive, but it has to be taken with the same credibility as art produced by Emmanuel Luetze or Don Troiani (though one might argue that Troiani has better access today to primary sources than 19th century artists did). It is mesmerizing to look at, and stokes our historical imagination. But it is not a good source of evidence. Just because it is old, doesn't mean it is correct.


Hamilton, Lieut.-Gen. Sir F. W. (1874), Origin and History of the First or Grenadier Guards, Vol. II (London: John Murray)

Holliday, John (1797), The Life of William Late Earl of Mansfield (London: P. Elmsly, D. Bremner, T. Cadell, Junior, W. Davies)

Howell, T. B. (1814), A Complete Collection of State Trials and Proceedings for High Treason and Other Crimes and Misdemeanors from the Earliest Period to the Present Time, Vol. XXI (London: T. C. Hansard)

"John Seymour Lucas", Revolvy, available at: https://www.revolvy.com/page/John-Seymour-Lucas

Romilly, Sir Samuel (1840), Memoirs of the Life of Sir Samuel Romilly, Vol. I (London: John Murray)

Wraxall, Sir Nathaniel William (1904), Historical Memoirs of My Own Time (London: Kegan, Paul, Trench, Trubner)