As journalists and academics, politicians and other commentators struggled to make sense of the social unrest across England, they reached for theoretical understandings of the crowd that have long since been discredited. The powerful imagery of the madding crowd has always been a popular trope with journalists, but what concerned us was the way in which even sociological commentators echoed such ideas. This paper, therefore, draws on our past research, informal interviews with senior police officers and media accounts to offer an analysis of the riots, how they were policed, and contemporary understandings of crowd behaviour. In so doing we question whether current understandings of collective behaviour, deriving from socio-political expressions of anger or protest, are equipped to make sense of the English riots. Similarly, we ask whether police public order tactics need to change. We conclude that the residual attachment to myths of the madding crowd continues to hamper the search for flexible, graded and legitimate means of managing social unrest.