Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Category: magistracy (page 1 of 3)

Acting a part: the actress whose death led to a court case

In 1894, a cab driver named Harry Norton, living on Old North Street, Red Lion Square, in Holborn, was summonsed at the Clerkenwell court. A complaint had been made against him by the Holborn Board of Guardians, who believed that he had obtained parish relief by making a false statement about his circumstances.

Harry had obtained an order to remove a woman, who he claimed to be his wife, to the infirmary, stating that she was in the final stages of consumption (tuberculosis). The woman had certainly been dying – she was admitted to the hospital on 4 November, and died there three days later – but was she really his wife?

She had been admitted to the hospital under the name of Clarice Norton, and her death certificate (which listed bronchitis rather than tuberculosis as the cause of death) was duly made out in this name, too. However, what should have been a straightforward – if sad – case became more complicated when a Mr Lomax suddenly turned up at the hospital claiming that he, not Harry Norton, was the dead woman’s husband.

The Illustrated London News included details of the will of JC Lomax’s father – he left an estate worth nearly £200,000 (8 June 1889)

John Charles ‘JC’ Lomax stated that his wife had left him and their marriage some time previously, and had gone to live with Harry Norton. Unlike the cabbie, Mr Lomax was a ‘man of considerable means’, and had had a fortune of £40,000 when he married (over £2 million today), largely thanks to his wealthy father, who had died in April 1889, less than a year before his son married.

His wife had been an actress and dancer, but had a taste for extravagance. She also may have obfuscated her origins; on the 1891 census, she claimed to have been born in San Francisco, and on her marriage certificate that her father was, like her husband’s late father, a gentleman; but The Straw Plaiters website believes she may have been born in London as the more prosaically named Clara, the daughter of a printer, who had been living in a multi-occupancy house in Bloomsbury at the time of her marriage.

JC had given her half his money, together with another £4,000 in pin money (over £200,000 in today’s money), but she proceeded to ‘squander’ this, and the rest of his fortune. Once the cash was gone, she left her husband, and went to live with a man who had never had a fortune to lose. Meanwhile, JC became bankrupt on September 1893, his wealth having disappeared within three years of marrying.

Mrs Lomax got her comeuppance when she became ill. Harry Norton had no money for a doctor or hospital care, and so had to approach his parish for help – pretending that he was her husband, not just her lover. Mrs Lomax, meanwhile, apparently begged Harry not to tell her husband that she was sick. However, after she had died, Harry seems to have had an attack of guilt, and went to the Guardians to tell them the truth about his relationship. They promptly went to the magistrates.

In court, the judge told Harry it was a serious offence to lie in order to get medical help from the parish, but the circumstances had to be taken into consideration. He fined Harry two shillings and costs, and sent him on his way. Clarice’s living for the moment had resulted in one husband ending up a bankrupt – and a second ‘husband’ fined by a court. She herself ended up dead in a workhouse infirmary at the tender age of 24.

NOTE: In light of JC Lomax’s statement, Clarice Norton’s death certificate was amended to Clarice Lomax – but her husband never seems to have got back to anything like his former status, dying in 1933 after a number of years living off a small pension and with few possessions.

 

Many thanks are due to The Straw Plaiters: Luton Town Football Club in the Victorian Era website, which has a great account of JC Lomax’s life (and a photo of the man himself). The story of Harry Norton’s court case was found in the Sheffield Evening Telegraph, 28 Nov 1894 and The Times, 29 Nov 1894. Other sources are the 1891 census for 5 Cambridge Park Gardens, Richmond Road, Twickenham, on Ancestry; the marriage of John Charles Lomax and Clarice Tuson, Mar 1890, St Giles (vol 1b page 645); and the death of Clarice Lomax, Dec 1894, Islington (vol 1b page 129).

Unfit for Judges: a Victorian tale

Another early C19th magistrate - Bedfordshire's Samuel Whitbread (Wellcome Library, London. Used under Creative Commons licence).

Another early C19th magistrate – Bedfordshire’s Samuel Whitbread
(Wellcome Library, London. Used under Creative Commons licence).

In 1847, each day’s sitting of the Gloucester Assizes had to start later than normal, at 9.30am at the earliest. This was despite there being lots of business that the magistrates were keen to get done as quickly as possible. What was the reason for the late start?

Justice Maule, one of the said magistrates, had simply decided that he had to commute from Cheltenham each morning, unlike others who lodged locally in Gloucester.

He had chosen to lodge at a nice, comfortable Cheltenham inn rather than face the judges’ lodgings, which he described as:

“the unventilated, undrained, fetid dog-hole”

He argued that people of “robust health” might be able to stay in such places without risking their lives, but he was not prepared to do so.

In all fairness to the justice of the peace, the judges’ lodgings in Gloucester were somewhat infamous, and the magistrates had been complaining about their state for several years. However, as the local press acerbically noted, their complaints did not mean they were prepared to do anything about the lodgings themselves; they were happy to voice their dislike, but not to make “any exertion to remove or abate the nuisance”.

It was easier, it seems, to simply stay elsewhere, and make everyone turn up to the Assizes later in the day.

 

Sticking it to the sheep

Waifish_boyWe still refer today, in our industrial present, to goading people – metaphorically prodding them just to annoy them, or to make them do something. Yet the phrase ‘to goad’ comes from a far more rural implement – the goad, a stick that was either shaped to form a point at one end, or fitted with a sharp spike to its top.

The goad was used for driving cattle – usually oxen during ploughing, but also for other animals being driven to market. In 1816, Sir Walter Scott noted that countrymen were ‘armed with scythes…hay-forks…goads’ and it was clearly still a fundamental part of the rural worker’s armoury in the first half of the 19th century.

This might seem to be a world away from early Victorian London – the sprawling urban metropolis described by the likes of Charles Dickens; a world of inequality, of paupers starving in workhouses living only streets away from businessmen and industrialists, making their money and creating a recognisably modern city.

Yet some rural traditions continued to impinge on the urban modernity. In the 1840s, there were around 4000 butchers within London, and Smithfield Market was the main place where animals were sold. Farmers sent their cattle into London to be sold on; it was noted that ‘the principal supply of live cattle for the consumption of the metropolis is from the northern counties.’

There was clearly scope for mistreatment of these animals, being brought into the city to be sold on, killed, and used for feeding the residents of the metropolis. But it was not always those responsible for the cattle who were guilty of neglecting or abusing their animals. For example, in 1841, a young boy, described as a ‘ragged-looking little urchin’, by the name of Franklin, was charged by the Animals’ Friend Society – a society established by Lewis Gompertz in 1832 – with having wilfully ill-used a sheep.

He appeared in the Marlborough Street Police Court in London, where a local constable gave evidence, stating that he had watched the boy as he followed a flock of sheep, giving himself amusement by hitting the animals over their heads with a thick stick, and occasionally poking a goad into their ribs.

Franklin was not employed to help drive the sheep; in fact, the drover kept trying to get him to go away. But Franklin simply laughed at the drover, and continued to hit the sheep until the constable grabbed him and brought him to Marlborough Street.

In court, the offending stick was produced, and it had obviously seen a considerable amount of wear. Franklin seems to have made it himself, making a hole at one end to insert a goad that would wound the sheep only to a certain depth of skin and tissue.

Before the magistrate, George Long, who was shortly to transfer to the Marylebone Police Court, Franklin insisted that he had been asked to help drive the flock by a butcher – despite the drover’s claims otherwise. Mr Long asked whether he used the goad to injure the sheep – “Oh no, I never sticks the poor sheep with the goad”, answered the boy.

A surprised Mr Long responded, “What do you have it for?” to which an unperturbed Franklin answered, “Only to stick into the bullocks.”

Franklin, the bored child who probably enjoyed answering the magistrate back as much as he enjoyed goading animals, was promptly fined five shillings “for his barbarity”.

 

Sources: The Morning Post, 16 March 1841, Diana Donald, ‘Picturing Animals in Britain, 1750-1850’ (Yale University Press, 2007), p.354, OED, Oxford Dictionary of National BiographyVictorian London,

 

 

Who was Robert the Devil?

A scene from Meyerbeer's Robert the Devil, by Degas

A scene from Meyerbeer’s Robert the Devil, by Degas

In 1886, a man appeared before the magistrates of the Marlborough Street Police Court in London, charged with drunk and disorderly behaviour.

The man had been on Oxford Street shortly after midnight the previous night, and his behaviour had gathered such a crowd around him that a policeman walking down the street had gone over to see what was going on. The man was using ‘filthy language’, was obviously very drunk, and refused to leave the area when the policeman requested him to. He was therefore charged with the above mentioned offence.

He was a black man, according to the newspapers, who refused to give his real name to the magistrate, instead stating that he was called ‘Robert the Devil’.

The magistrate asked what he had to say, and Robert answered, “Oh! Nothing at all, Boss.”

The local gaoler, Sergeant Vine, told the court that Robert was a frequent offender, and had appeared in the police court several previous occasions. Robert was told he would have to pay a 10 shilling fine or go to prison for seven days. Robert’s response was to say,

“That will be all right, Boss; the Prince of Wales will pay that for me.”

Robert evidently had long term alcohol abuse or mental health issues. His naming of himself as ‘Robert the Devil’ may not have had racial allusions, though, despite the devil’s likeness being a black goat in some 19th century literature, and there being increasingly negative depictions of black men and women in England during the latter half of the 19th century.

Robert_the_Devil_(horse)

Robert the Devil: a horse, not a man

Robert the Devil was a medieval legend; later, in 1831, Giacomo Meyerbeer created a romantic opera of the same name that saw great success in London in the 1830s and 1840s, and a resurgence in popularity in the 1890s. The name referred to Robert, Duke of Normandy, who was the father of William the Conqueror – but also, in some stories, said to be the son of the devil.

Did the defendant see himself as a devil, a character incapable of redemption? Or was he a romantic hero? The truth is probably somewhat more mundane. In the 1880s, there was a racehorse named Robert the Devil, whose career was eagerly followed in the English press. This drunken man may simply have adopted the horse’s name to avoid giving his own. The racehorse died at Bernham Paddocks ‘somewhat suddenly’, in 1889, aged 12; but what happened to his namesake is not known.

(Sources: Dundee Evening Telegraph, 13 September 1886; Dublin Daily Express, 28 October 1880; South Wales Echo, 2 May 1889; Saunders’s News-letter, 8 June 1832; The Graphic, 4 December 1886)

Was indecent exposure the way to resolve a work dispute?

A Victorian cabman - from the Illustrated Police News, 3 January 1880

A Victorian cabman – from the Illustrated Police News, 3 January 1880

In May 1864, Mrs Ruth Vincent was shocked – shocked enough to go to the police and tell them how shocked she was.

The wife of a wheel chair-man, William Vincent, she was a 29-year-old mother of three, living a quiet life in Clifton, Bristol. William was originally a mariner, a seaman, a common occupation amongst those in Clifton, close to the Avon and not too far from the Bristol Channel. He had only changed career within the previous three years, and now plied his trade in the nearby city of Bath.

Unfortunately, though, he had fallen out with another local chair man – 28-year-old John Ponting, another man who had changed career, this time from being a stonemason. Perhaps the two men had disagreed over taking each other’s custom, or competing with each other in the same area. But there was, apparently, ‘a great deal of ill-feeling’ between them.

This was despite their apparent similarities – both of the same age, both married with young children, living in the same area, and both married within a year of each other. In 1861, the Pontings had been living in Clifton’s Avon Crescent, with the Vincents at Caroline Place. By 1864, the Vincents had moved to 2 Wellington Place.

Luttrell_of_Arran_(1873)_(14579918530)The wheel chair men were seen as a bickering sort, anyway; it was believed that cabmen tended to work well together, supporting their colleagues rather than falling out with them. Indeed, this discrepancy in how the two similar occupations worked was highlighted in the court case that eventually occurred.

Ruth Vincent brought the case against James Ponting, accusing him of indecent conduct after exposing himself to her. She was described in the Bristol Police Court as ‘respectable-looking’; John Ponting’s lawyer said his master was present and would give Ponting a good character – but added that the ‘police also knew him very well’, which could be read in two ways.

The details of the charge were deemed too sordid in nature to repeat in the newspapers, but Ponting’s defence appeared to be that it had been dark at the time, and that he had not exposed himself ‘with the slightest intention of insult’! Surprisingly, perhaps, the magistrates discharged him, believing that any act he had engaged in had been a result of the animosity he had towards Ruth’s husband. This was, apparently, a valid defence, despite the fact that Ruth had not done anything towards the Pontings.

Instead, the magistrates called William Vincent and John Ponting to them, and cautioned them both to behave better in future. (Western Daily Press, 11 May 1864) Ponting appears to have managed this only by moving away from Clifton and back to his native Wiltshire.

 

The misfortunes of a Victorian actress

punch2Laura Bentley was in dire straits. A 41-year-old Londoner, she supported her bedridden mother, who she lived with in lodgings in Delancey Street, St Pancras. In fact, their lodgings were nothing more than a single furnished room on the top floor of number 82.

Her wages were not enough to keep the pair afloat, and she had got into financial difficulties. This was mortifying to her; her father had been a gentleman with an income of £500 a year.

Laura had been ‘educated and brought up as a lady’ – but her father had absconded. He then died, and her mother had remarried, this time to a drunkard who spent all the late Mr Bentley’s money. He then seems to have left, leaving Laura and her mother in poverty.

Laura described herself as being of an ‘excitable’ personality; so excitable that at one point, she had to be taken into the insane ward of the Islington workhouse for three days. She was again admitted to the workhouse, and then to the insane or lunatic ward – the Hagar Ward – of the workhouse in 1897. Then living in Camden Town, she was admitted by her uncle, Frederick Roberts.

 

Laura Bentley's discharge to the Islington workhouse infirmary, 1897, via Ancestry

Laura Bentley’s discharge to the Islington workhouse infirmary, 1897, via Ancestry

She had originally wanted to be an actress, and had worked as such for some time, before an attack of laryngitis left her voice permanently affected. She had therefore found herself ‘disqualified’ from her profession, and so had to take on a job as a machinist. Initially she worked at Peter Robinson’s factory, and then at the Swan and Edgar premises.

But then she lost her job, due to ‘alterations made by these firms’, she said, but also, perhaps, because her health was poor. She had started drinking, and mixing with ‘women of loose character’.  She owed five weeks’ rent, and  the landlady had talked of evicting her due to her staying out all night drinking.

Her mother, who was unable to move her limbs due to chronic rheumatism, had formerly had to be helped by the charity of some local women, and the parish. Now, though, she was entirely reliant on Laura, and both women were on the verge of starving. It was also said that Laura had no friends left to call on for help.

Laura spent her days ‘tramping’ around the city trying to find work, to no avail. The combination of failure in her chosen profession, failure also in her second job as a machinist, and failure to adequately support her mother, may have led her to the drinking (although the mixing with loose women may simply have been out of loneliness and a desire for company).

It also, eventually, led to Laura becoming so ‘weary and distressed’ that she attempted to commit suicide by jumping off the York and Albany Bridge into the Regent’s Canal.

Laura's admission to the lunatic ward of the Islington workhouse, 1897

Laura’s admission to the lunatic ward of the Islington workhouse, 1897

Yet she also failed at doing this.

As she was desperately trying to clamber over the bridge in the dark – it was one o’clock in the morning – hindered by her long skirts, a local police constable spotted her. He ran up to her and grabbed her skirts, pulling her back.

“I beg you to let me do it!” she cried, “I am in fearful trouble! About 4l will save me from suicide, but if you will not let me do it, I will do it another day.”

Instead, she was arrested, and brought to Marylebone Police Court, charged with attempting suicide. She was remanded on bail, with the judge, Curtis Bennett, saying that ‘probably something would be done for her.’

What that would be, he failed to say, beyond suggesting that a gaol doctor should examine her, and that the parish overseers should be notified that her mother might need looking after.

But the records show that machinist Laura Bentley was again admitted to the workhouse – this time St Pancras – in 1903. It was stated at this point that she had ‘no home’. In 1906, again homeless, she was returned to the St Pancras workhouse. Her ‘nearest known relative or friend’ was the same uncle who had had her admitted to the lunatic ward in 1897.

It is clear that Laura’s cry for help – her attempted suicide – did not result in a happy ending. Brought before the magistrates, the only options open to her were prison or workhouse. It seems that the rest of her life was spent yo-yoing between workhouse and lodgings of some sort, between pauper wards and lunatic wards.

It was not the kind of life that an aspiring actress would have envisaged in her youth, but it showed the lack of options, open to many women in Victorian England when they fell on hard times.

Sources: Daily News, 11 July 1898; Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 17 July 1898; workhouse admission and discharge records on Ancestry.

How Judge Maule was sent to Coventry for saying it stank

Coventry: smelly?

Coventry: smelly?

In 1845, Judge Maule was sent to Coventry – twice.

Sir William Henry Maule (1788-1858) was a Cambridge-educated lawyer from Middlesex, who was known for his ‘fine judicial sense of humour‘. However, his sense of humour appears to have failed him when he was told to go to Coventry to preside over the Assizes.

He and his fellow learned gentlemen were provided with lodgings in the town, where they would stay for the duration of the Assizes, but Maule was not impressed.

On entering the house, he was ‘struck with the intolerable stench which met him’.  The whole house smelled bad, he said; both upstairs and downstairs were so smelly that it was ‘impossible to remain’.

Someone, possibly the landlord or lady, tried to explain the smell by saying it could be a mouldy carpet; but Maule was not having it. He removed himself to the more pleasant environs of Warwick, where he promptly complained to anyone who would listen that it was both inconvenient and expensive to hold an Assize at Coventry, and that it was therefore pointless to do so.

Having been sent to Coventry once, he was now sent again – by the townspeople. Offended by his attitude, they regarded him as having insulted both them and their home.

They held protests, slandering the judge by making their opinions on his own personal character known; and then gathered together some statistics relating to local mortality, publicising them to show that ‘Coventry is in fact a delightfully salubrious region’.

In an era where cholera regularly struck urban communities, and was believed to be the result of miasma, or ‘bad air’, Maule’s comments about the ‘stench’ of Coventry had an extra significance. The protesting inhabitants argued that

“Judge Maule’s airs were not attributable to the air of Coventry, but to some other cause”

In addition, they argued that Assizes had been held at Coventry for at least 500 years; but the press noted that it was likely, due to Maule’s complaints, that ‘it is not unlikely the result will be to remove altogether the Assizes to Warwick.’

Source: Berrow’s Worcester Journal, 10 April 1845

 

Edwin Tyson, the vindictive vicar who got up the noses of the Grand Jury

Milburn, a village formerly in Westmorland, now in Cumbria

Milburn, a village formerly in Westmorland, now in Cumbria

In 1861, Mr Thomas Cox found himself without a job. He had been, until recently, the village schoolmaster in Milburn, and hoped – needed – to get another position as soon as possible. Yet, for unknown reasons, he was unable to find either references or a job, so he decided on a rather rash course of action.

He applied for a job, but instead of enclosing the details of contacts with his application, who could be approached for references, wrote glowing testimonials of his personal and professional qualities himself, signed by individuals who certainly existed, but who had no idea that their names were being used in this context.

Unfortunately for Cox, he had, it seems, lost his previous job after engaging in a spat with a local clergyman, Edwin Tyson, who was a 65-year-old Yorkshireman described in the 1861 Westmorland census as a ‘clergyman without cure of souls’. This meant that he did not have a parish of his own to take care of.

Cox had been employed at the local national school – which, of course, would have close links with the Church of England, and therefore with the local parish church. Reverend Tyson had strong views about how the school should be run, but Cox had disagreed with him. They had quarrelled over the school’s management, and Tyson held a grudge.

Thomas Cox's entry in the 1861 Milburn census

Thomas Cox’s entry in the 1861 Milburn census

He suspected Cox of taking unethical steps to procure another job – for Tyson would have refused to have provided a reference. In addition, Milburn was a small place, and gossip may have reached his ears about Cox’s intentions. So the vicar started criminal proceedings against the schoolmaster.

However, when the case came before the Grand Jury at the Westmorland Summer Assizes, the clergyman was seen in rather an unholy light. His actions were seen as vindictive, and the prosecution brought out of malice.

The jury also heard that the men whose names had been used as referees had given depositions, where at least ‘some’ of them stated that they would have been ‘perfectly willing to give him that character’ that he had written for himself.

In addition, there was doubt as to whether he had deliberately written the references without their consent; some said that they had authorised him to write them on their behalf – presumably, they did not have the time or inclination to think up a paragraph themselves.

If Cox HAD written these references with a deliberate intent to mislead, this would, the judge made clear, be an offence at common law – the offence of forgery. Yet it seems that the jury had taken against the vicar and his desire to punish Cox for disagreeing with him over the school’s management. After retiring for 45 minutes to discuss the case, the jury ‘ignored the bill’ and the case was dropped.

Source: The Lancaster Gazette, 10 August 1861

Still Reading The Riot Act

Continuing my weekend of marking the 300th anniversary of the Riot Act, here are my final five events and facts linked to this piece of legislation.

6. Rioting at the Races

Henri_Julien_Dumont_-_At_the_racesA horse race in County Down resulted in the Riot Act being read in 1813. A group of around 12 local men had gathered at the Downpatrick Racecourse on 22 July with the aim of “annoying the soldiers” – members of the East Middlesex Militia had been drafted in to control the rather exuberant crowds, members of which were said to be “not quite sober”. Unluckily for the mob, a local magistrate, William Montgomery, had been attending the races, and saw a “rush” of men start rioting. The anti-English sentiment towards them was clear, with the rioters referring to the “English buggers”. Montgomery shouted, “Fire, soldiers, or we shall all be killed!” The soldiers duly started firing shots, the magistate read the Riot Act out, and the mob was “intimidated” and dispersed.

7. Freemen’s perks

Bundesarchiv_Bild_135-S-16-19-12,_Tibetexpedition,_SchafIn Worcester, freemen of the city were allowed to let their cattle graze on a piece of ground in the city’s centre. ‘Certain encroachments’ had been made on the ground by others in August 1817 – apparently the illegal construction of buildings and fences – of and at a special committee meeting of the freemen, it was decided to serve notices on some of the ‘encroachers’, but only the ones whose constructions ‘appeared the most obnoxious’. This led to rioting and the destruction not only of some of the encroachments but also of inhabited houses. Magistrates ran to the scene and read the Riot Act, but when the crowd refused to move on, the decision was made to bring in the Worcestershire Yeomanry Cavalry. Their mere presence was enough to make the crowd disperse, but it was noted that the place attacked now presented “a singular scene of devastation”. 12 people were committed to the city’s gaol for rioting or abetting the rioters.

8. Peterloo and Press Bias

Peterloo, by Richard Carlile, from Manchester Library

Peterloo, by Richard Carlile, from Manchester Library

The Riot Act was used, notoriously, in the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 – it was read prior to the massacre, when cavalry charged the crowd that had gathered in Manchester’s St Peter’s Field for a meeting where parliamentary reforms would be demanded. Shortly after the meeting had started, local magistrates had called on its speaker, radical Henry Hunt, to be arrested and for the crowd to be dispersed under the Riot Act, which was duly read out at 1.30pm on 16 August. The Morning Post, reflecting the view of the establishment, described the radicals as “menacing”. The paper believed that the Riot Act resulted in a “masterly” result for the authorities, with the key radicals being taken into custody. In reality, 11 people were killed during the event, after militia, on horseback, charged into the protesters. [The Morning Post, 19 August 1819]
9. Escaping the Mob

1880s depiction of the Queen Square riots

1880s depiction of the Queen Square riots

In 1831, the Riot Act was read at the Queen Square Riots in Bristol. A mob had gathered to protest at the rejection of the second Reform Bill by the House of Lords. The bill had sought to give Bristol and some other cities greater representation in the Commons. The riot started at the new Bristol Assize Courts which were being opened by a local magistrate who was anti-reform, Sir Charles Wetherell. He threatened to imprison protesters, and they chased him to the Mansion House on Queen Square, where he escaped in disguise. Troops were called in during the subsequent three day riot, and four men were eventually hanged.
10. Death to Rioters

1919 copy of the Riot Act (original held in the West Midlands Police Museum)

1919 copy of the Riot Act (original held in the West Midlands Police Museum)

The Riot Act included clauses relating to crowds damaging property, such as churches, houses, barns and stables. Anyone who caused such damage could, under the Act’s provisions, be sentenced to death without benefit of clergy. Individuals could be sentenced to death under the Riot Act’s provisions until 1837, when the Punishment of Offences Act reduced the penalty to transportation for life.

 

 

For the first part of my Riot Act weekend, see here.

Reading The Riot Act

300 years ago today, on 1 August 1715, the Riot Act came into force. Introduced as a response to a series of civil disturbances that had taken place across England over the previous five years, it was intended to introduce a quicker way of punishing rioters.

Over the next two days, I’ll look at the Act’s history and how different groups of people – from theatre audiences and racegoers to dockers and stocking weavers – came under its remit.
1. A Baker’s Dozen?

riotact1The act (1 Geo I, s.2) made it illegal for 12 or more people to “unlawfully assemble and disturb the public peace”. They now had to disperse within an hour of being read a specified portion of the act, or be considered guilty of felony. In some cases, there was doubt as to how many individuals had assembled, and it seems that numbers may have been rounded up or estimated on occasion, to get to the necessary dozen. Several press reports about riots that had resulted in the Riot Act being read referred to “between ten and 12” rioters being involved, or “around 12”.
2. Riot Act Confusion

The Gordon Riots

The Gordon Riots

There could be confusion over whether the Riot Act had been properly read or not during an assembly. In the aftermath of the 1768 St George’s Fields Massacre, for example, there was doubt over whether it had actually been read. During the 1780 Gordon Riots, there was additional confusion, with the authorities being unsure whether they could stop the rioters without reading the Riot Act. Afterwards, Lord Mansfield explicitly stated that authorities could still use force to stop violence during a riot – the Riot Act simply created a further offence of failing to disperse after it had been read.
3. The Dung Wharf Riot

The Thames Marine Police headquarters in Wapping (own photo, taken in the Thames Police Museum)

The Thames Marine Police headquarters in Wapping (own photo, taken in the Thames Police Museum)

In 1798, the wonderfully named Dung Wharf Riot in Wapping took place. It was a response to the formation of a new, privately funded police force that aimed to stop the problem of thefts from ships, dockyards and storage yards on the Thames. The Thames Marine Police were resented by many local workers, for whom the thefts represented a valuable supplementary income. During the subsequent riot, the famous magistrate Patrick Colquhoun – one of the Marine Police’s founders – came out of his office to read the Riot Act. However, although the rioters briefly dispersed, they then gathered again and a local off-duty officer was killed. One of the rioters was hanged, but the Marine Police continued. [I wrote about this riot for Who Do You Think You Are? magazine; their podcast, featuring me talking about Dung Wharf, can be found here.]

4. A Theatrical Riot

new theatreThe opening of the New Theatre in Covent Garden on 18 September 1809 nearly led to the Riot Act being called. Shakespearean actor John Philip Kemble started to read an address to the audience, but couldn’t make himself heard over the over-excitement of the theatre goers. When he gave up and walked off stage, the audience started shouting – there was a “clamour and jarring of discordant vociferation, some calling, off! Off! And others, go on! Go on!”. A local magistrate, Justice Read, and his colleagues from the Bow Street police office turned up, but on seeing him produce a paper – widely believed to be a copy of the Riot Act – the audience hissed him until he gave up. After singing God Save The King very loudly, several times, the audience eventually gave up, but not until “a very late hour”. The night was the first in what became the  Old Price Riots – three months of discord that originated with rising ticket prices.
5. A Funereal Reading of the Riot Act

760px-Lee's_knitting_frameProblems in the Nottingham hosiery industry led to many stocking-weavers there being laid off. Reduced to a state of near starvation and reliance on parish relief as a result of economic pressures, the men were then driven to despair when many employers introduced the new wide stocking frames, which needed less manual labour. The weavers started to break into manufacturers’ premises to destroy these frames – in one day, they destroyed 53 frames in Sutton, Notts, alone. One man was shot and several more injured. When the funeral of the shot man took place, the High Sheriff, Under Sheriff and six magistrates turned up, acompanied by a group of constables and 30 mounted dragoons. The Riot Act was read, and as the coffin was being lowered into the grave, the High Sheriff announced that an hour had elapsed since the Act had been read, and that mourners would be arrested if they did not immediately disperse. The funeral ended rather quickly as a result.
Numbers 6 to 10 in my list of cases where the Riot Act was read will be published tomorrow.

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