Hang ’em high

This is something I've been wondering about for ages. In The Impact of Air Power on the British People and their Government, Alfred Gollin notes, but does not explain, a recurring theme: the idea that after a damaging air raid, angry mobs would string up government ministers (or other servants of the public) from lamp-posts for failing to protect them. And I mean literally string them up. It's not something I've come across much in my own sources, but it does seem that Gollin was onto something. Clearly it fits into the idea that bombing would cause civilians to panic, but the lamp-post references seem oddly specific. Presumably there was some inspiration for all this talk.

The first is from Flight, 1 February 1913 (link; the emphasis in each case is mine):

And if war should come suddenly, we most certainly shall not have command of the air -- but the lamp-posts of Whitehall may have unfamiliar ornaments. And well it might be under the circumstances.

The second is Alfred Stead in Review of Reviews, also published in February 1913 (very knock-out blow, I must say):

In the past the mistakes of Ministers have been retrieved and this country has muddled through; but with regard to a possible attack from the air there will be no possibility of muddling through, and the disorganised and panic-stricken survivors of the population of London will have the sole, although sorry, satisfaction, before passing under German domination, of hanging the guilty Ministers.

The next one refers to 1917, but was published in 1929. It's Major-General E. B. Ashmore's reflection (or lack thereof) upon learning that he was to take charge of the London Air Defence Area:

The fact that I was exchanging the comparative safety of the Front for the probability of being hanged in the streets of London did not worry me.

Finally, jumping forward a bit, these remarks were made by Lord Beaverbrook in 1964. He was talking about 1940, when he became Minister of Aircraft Production:

I was TERRIFIED. If I failed I knew it meant a lamp-post for me. I took a sleeping-draught every night.

What I can't understand is where this idea that Londoners were prone to summarily executing ministers came from. I can't claim an encyclopedic knowledge of British history, but I don't think there was any precedent for that: it just wasn't done. Maybe the idea was a foreign import? After all, the Parisian mob was the trendsetter for riotous urban behaviour after 1789 -- but they went after the nobility, not so much the politicians, didn't they? Anyway, the guillotine was the symbol of Jacobin terror, not the lamp-post. Perhaps American lynchings were the inspiration? That might fit the mode of execution better, but not the subject, unless I'm missing the extrajudicial dismissal (with extreme prejudice) of a few cabinet secretaries.

So what's going on here?

Source: Alfred Gollin, The Impact of Air Power on the British People and their Government, 1909-14 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1989), 227-9, 242-3.

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10 thoughts on “Hang ’em high

  1. Erik Lund

    It was a telegraph meme!

    Only slightly more seriously, I'm seeing a link to lynching. I know we tend to see lynching through the lens of race terrorism (on account of that being what it was), but at the time it had its defenders. It is a key plot point in the famous "first" (James Fenimore Cooper, call your agent!) Western novel, _The Virginian_ (1911), that lynching is a necessary element of libertarian justice. A healthy society strings up its own criminals instead of waiting for the government to do it for them.

  2. Chris Williams

    The Times, Tuesday, Jul 26, 1887; pg. 3; Issue 32134; col E
    The Navy. P. H. COLOMB.;

    'Boards of Admiralty . . . . have to make all sorts of unbusinesslike compromises for fear that they should be caught in office by a sudden war with a totally inadequate navy, and hanged forthwith, as they certainly would be, by the mob on the lamp-post in front of Whitehall.'

    Dangerous game, national defence.

  3. Zebee

    I believe that at the beginning of the French Revolution, before the directorate got organised, that mobs hanged aristocrats from lamp posts. Or possibly one, the wikipedia entry for "a la lanterne" (the supposed cry raised before a lynching) says it's about one particular lamp post, with the source a 1907 encyclopedia.

    A search for "a la lanterne" gets http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=FB081EFA3C5E1A738DDDA00994DA405B8884F0D3 from 1888. There might be earlier, it's not in Tale of Two Cities by any chance?


  4. Post author

    Thanks for the suggestions -- though it seems like the answer might be "all of the above"!

    I did search in The Times but didn't didn't find the article Chris found. I think that would be the obvious way to track this backwards -- if there was a tradition of navalists talking about hanging Sea Lords from lamp-posts for failing the country, that could easily transfer over to the air force.

  5. JDK

    I'm failing to see what's wrong with the idea. I mean, on a purely Darwinian basis, the slower dumber ones would be culled for the good of humanity.

    It would add a certain frisson for seeking these posts that's unfortunately lacking in the recruitment process.

    Of course Churchill would've been topped about five times before W.W.II, so perhaps we might lose some arguably useful officials en-route.

    Something about encouraging the others?

    More seriously, at least one W.W.II leader came to his justified end strung up by the heels.

  6. Chris Williams

    Interestingly, that Times article wasn't castigating the admirals for getting Der Tag wrong, but their civilian paymasters for skimping on the kit. So perhaps Ashmore was getting in a bit of a tizz: it would have been Weir swinging, not him.

    I tried 'lynch' and 'naval' but there are too many politicians called Lynch for that to work. It was 'admiral' and 'lamp post' wot won it. That was the earliest one that I could find. Can you get to the Nineteenth Century British Newspapers online from the antipodes?

    I wonder if this kind of speculation took off after (a) Bloody Sunday, (b) the Crimea or (c) Lord Roberts' National Service League?

  7. Post author

    Can you get to the Nineteenth Century British Newspapers online from the antipodes?

    No, but then what relevance has 19th century British history for Australia?

  8. Chris Williams

    I'm getting a lot of 'hanged AND lamp-post' results from reports of the New York draft riots of 1863. It happened to the unfortunate Col O'Brien, late a resident of SHeffield, and a veteran of Garibaldi's campaigns and the Crimea, allegedly. During the Birmingham riots of1839, the phrase 'hanged to the nearest lamp-post' was used, but in what appears to have been a rhetorical sense. That seems to be the earliest reference I can find.

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