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
A 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
In 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
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
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
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.Tweet