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?
The 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
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
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
The 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
Problems 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.