Animal & car 'maiming' as a protest tactic

This is a post about historical parallels in methods of protest. Recently, the Conservative parliamentary candidate for Bristol North West, Charlotte Leslie, had her and her family's cars attacked by anonymous 'vandals'. Their cars had:
  • the tyres let down
  • the paintwork scratched 
  • graffiti 'Tory scum' spraypainted across Leslie's car.

'maimed' car, Bristol Post
Objectively, a historian would ask was this a form of political protest or just crime? The last tactic suggests some political motive, especially in the context of the immediate run up to the general election - so language and context matters - and the line between protest and crime is blurred.

What came to my mind immediately on seeing this story are the classic studies of rural protest in England, notably John E Archer's By a Flash and a Scare: Arson, Animal Maiming and Poaching in East Anglia, 1815-1870 (recently republished by Breviary Stuff), and Timothy Shakesheff's Rural Conflict, Crime, and Protest: Herefordshire, 1800 to 1860, and also Carl Griffin's extensive work on animal and tree/plant maiming, summarised and referenced in his most recent book, Protest, Politics and Work in Rural England, 1700-1850 (Palgrave Macmillan). The tactic was also particularly common in Ireland in this period, associated with Whiteboys and then Ribbonmen. These studies show how protest in rural society included these tactics:
  • houghing or hamstringing of cattle and horses so they became lame (and thus unsaleable)
  • cutting the 'paps' of udders of cattle (thus damaged and unable to produce milk or breed)
  • 'barking' or cutting the bark off trees in timber plantations

The Standard, 6 June 1833

Could we say that cars have some of the same role and status as horses in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries?

The animal, particularly a horse, was a significant form of property. It was both essential in economic production, but also as a status symbol.

Attacking that property, especially anonymously, expressed a grievance against its owner. As Carl Griffin has argued, damaging - but not killing - an animal or tree had two functions:

1. rendering it economically unproductive
2. visually and physically substituting the animal/tree as a proxy for the owner, thereby causing fear and 'disembodied pain' as the owner is warned that they might be next as a target.

The modern tactic of letting the tyres down on a car makes it economically unproductive. Scratching its bodywork has something of the same intent and expression of bodily anger and intent as houghing a horse or cutting the bark off a tree. Done anonymously (often at night), the action of maiming is an intensely personal and even cathartic experience for the attacker, an expression of anger through 'disembodied violence' on the owner's property. Then, in the morning, it becomes a public show of grievance as people in the community see the property damaged or defaced, both as a statement of intent against the owner, and a warning as to what might happen next. The animal/car cannot move as its means of mobility are damaged, and its value drops; the car is not written off by a deep scratch or graffiti, but will require economic investment to repair.

Arson, Animal Maiming, and Poaching in East Anglia 1815-1870 - See more at:
Arson, Animal Maiming, and Poaching in East Anglia 1815-1870 - See more at:
Arson, Animal Maiming, and Poaching in East Anglia 1815-1870 - See more at:


Popular posts from this blog

Spatial theory, cultural geography, and the 'spatial turn'

Effigies in protest