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The Gordon Riots

Posted in Historical articles, History, London, Revolution on Tuesday, 28 June 2011

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This edited article about the Gordon Riots originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 979 published on 13 December 1980.

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The Gordon Riots, by C L Doughty

The six days and nights of lawlessness that terrified Londoners even more than the Plague and the Great Fire took place 200 years ago in June, 1780, and were incited by a nobleman, Lord George Gordon. He was the youngest son of the Duke of Gordon, and sat in the House of Commons, and from his seat there he campaigned violently against the Catholic Relief Act that had recently been passed to lift some of the age-long penalties against Roman Catholics.

It granted the mild reforms of giving Catholics the right to own and inherit land, and slightly more freedom to worship in their own way. But to Protestant extremists like Gordon, it was an open invitation to another Armada, and the methods of the Spanish Inquisition.

It was more than a hundred years since James II had been ousted by the Protestant William of Orange, but still the cry of “No Popery” could inflame the mob, and political agitators were busy spreading the rumour that the Pope was sending a foreign army to take over the state.

It was untrue, but when Gordon organized a mass meeting of the Protestant associations, calling for a repeal of the Catholic Relief Act, 60,000 people turned up at St George’s Fields, Southwark, to sign a petition. Their banners blazoned with anti-Catholic slogans, and blue ribbons in their hats, they poured across the Thames and swarmed around the House of Commons. They tried to break into the chamber itself, where Gordon managed to present the petition.

A regiment of dragoons was called in to clear the Parliamentary building. Raging and defiant, the unruly crowd stormed off and vented its rage on the houses and chapels of ambassadors from Catholic countries. Sacred vestments were torn to shreds, altar plate was stolen, and the chairs and pulpits thrown into the streets and burned.

All this had taken place on a Friday, and on Saturday the authorities congratulated themselves that the disturbance was over; but they had badly misjudged the situation, and on Sunday the mob was out again in force. By now any semblance of control by the political agitators had been lost, and every scoundrel and criminal in the city was out in the streets spoiling for a fight.

More chapels were burned and then the houses of prominent citizens were attacked and looted, including those of the most hated Bow Street magistrate and of Lord Chief Justice Mansfield. It was said afterwards that the judge had been more distressed by the loss of the text of one of his speeches, than of all his treasures.

After two days of this unchecked pillage, the mob started looking for fresh prey and the cry went up, “To Newgate, to Newgate!” And they created terror that dwarfed any that had engulfed London before.

The governor of Newgate Prison bravely faced the mob and refused to open the gates. But it did not take 10,000 violent men long to break down the iron-bound doors, and surge in to release the prisoners. Many of these men had been arrested during the previous couple of days, but others lay weighed down with chains awaiting execution.

Once all the cells were emptied, burning torches were flung into them and soon the whole building was ablaze. Delirious, the mob surged off to fire the other London prisons, the Fleet, the King’s Bench, Bridewell and the Clink. They then attacked the Bank of England, and several other important public buildings.

Watching the destruction was Lord George Gordon, who sat in his coach outside Newgate and bowed his head graciously whenever someone in the crowd yelled his name. But even when he tried to call a halt after about four days, it was as hopeless as trying to stop a flood, as the few soldiers who attempted it soon discovered.

Worse even than the destruction of the jails followed when the crowd broke into a distillery, and, after bursting open the casks, allowed the liquor to flow out into the streets. Men, women and children lay in the gutters lapping up the fiery spirit, and when a drunken rioter threw a torch into the gutted building, the flow became one of liquid fire and dozens were badly burnt.

Only after the riots had lasted a week did King George III order the army to intervene, and hundreds were shot down before calm was restored. Then came retribution as 135 ringleaders were arrested. Of these, 21 were hanged at Tyburn, and many others transported to Australia. Lord Gordon was tried for treason and “maliciously waging war against His Majesty”, but his defending counsel secured his acquittal. Instead of receiving the death penalty, Gordon went free.

Later he went completely insane, and was committed to the rebuilt Newgate for libel and sedition. In prison he became a convert to Judaism and spent his time writing religious pamphlets and learning music; he was especially interested in the bagpipes. He died “of a delirious fever” on 1st November, 1783, still a prisoner.

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