J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, June 03, 2019

When Wartime Riots Paralyzed London

On 2 June 1780, as I described yesterday, a crowd of over 50,000 people surrounded Parliament while Lord George Gordon presented a petition demanding a return to strictures on Catholics.

The House of Commons dismissed that petition, and the crowd dispersed from that part of London. But that evening people attacked the embassy of Sardinia. They destroyed a chapel connected to the embassy of Bavaria. They attacked neighborhoods of prominent Catholics. Sir John Fielding’s Bow Street Runners and other authorities arrested some rioters and locked them in Newgate Prison.

The next day, 3 June, larger crowds rampaged through Moorfields, a neighborhood where a lot of Irish workers had settled. A mob attacked Newgate Prison, freed fellow rioters and other prisoners, and then basically destroyed the complex. Then people attacked other prisons, and other embassies. They attacked the home of Lord Mansfield, the Chief Justice, who had supported the more liberal law about Catholics.

Violence continued for days, spilling well beyond the original grievances. On 7 June, there was a concerted assault on the Bank of England, stopped only by an upper-class militia unit and regular troops. All in all, the property damage cost up to £180,000, which many historians say was far more than the city of Paris suffered during the whole French Revolution. (I’d like to see the comparable figures, but that’s what they say.)

On that 7 June, the British government clamped down on the rioters with force. It brought in regular troops, including the Horse Guards and Foot Guards, as well as militias from nearby counties—12,000 armed men in all. Soldiers killed nearly 300 people and arrested 450, pacifying the city after a week of chaos. The government put scores of men on trial and sentenced dozens to death for acts of violence and theft, though not all those sentences were carried out.

London’s upper and middle classes, scared by the violence, supported such harsh measures. The Crown fined the Lord Mayor for not reading the Riot Act to the crowds earlier. A former Lord Mayor, John Wilkes, led troops against the rioters, ruining his reputation as a champion of the people and thus his political career. Another radical Whig, the Earl of Shelburne, responded to the uprising by proposing a national police force, but nothing came of that.

As for Lord George Gordon, he was locked up in the Tower and tried for treason, but acquitted. Nevertheless, the disturbances were named after him: the Gordon Riots. He continued to get in trouble with the authorities, eventually locked up again for insulting Marie Antoinette of France and the British legal system. By then he had converted to Judaism—beard, circumcision, and all—and he became quite a curiosity while locked up in the rebuilt Newgate Prison.

The unrest had at least one effect on the American Revolution. Early in 1780 Spain and Britain had started secret negotiations which could have led to Spain pulling its support for the new U.S. of A. The riots convinced Spanish diplomats that Lord North’s government might soon fall, so they ended the talks.

The B.B.C. radio program In Our Time recently hosted a discussion about the Gordon Riots, available as a podcast. The London Historians offers an introduction to the unrest by Prof. Jerry White in P.D.F. form. The episode was also fodder for nineteenth-century British novelists: Maria Edgeworth with Harrington and Charles Dickens with Barnaby Rudge. But of course, unlike the Stamp Act riots in North America and the storming of the Bastille in Paris, the Gordon Riots didn’t lead to revolution.


Victor said...

Thank you for a wonderful piece on the then London riots

Don Carleton said...

Lord Gordon must have been REALLY committed to his religious conversion to undergo an adult circumcision with 18th-century nonanesthesia, OUCH!