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Gordon Riots

English riots of 1780

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Gordon Riots. —This agitation, so called from the head and spirit of the movement, Lord George Gordon, convulsed the metropolis of England from June 2 till June 9, 1780. The first English Catholic Relief Act of 1778 (18 George III, c. 60) was not due to any strong feeling in favor of Catholics. Of those mainly responsible for the measure, some were ashamed of the brutal intolerance of former days, some feared that the declaration of American independence might result in an Irish rebellion. The majority had been slow to act, and there was also a noisy minority, which filled the House with protest, while the bill was being debated, and, when it had become law, strove earnestly to prevent a like measure from being brought forward in the legislation for Scotland. To effect this a “Protestant Association” was formed which organized demonstrations of the mob against the Catholics at Perth and Edinburgh, where on February 2, 1779, the chapel-houses in Chalmer’s Close, near Leith Wynd, and in Blackfriars Wynd were burned. Nor was peace restored until the Lord Provost weakly promised that no Catholic relief bill for Scotland should be introduced. Though some compensation for the damage done was afterwards ordered by the Government, the Association had gained such a victory that it was encouraged to found branches in England, in order to work for the repeal of the Relief Bill already passed there, as also for the repeal of the Canada or Quebec bill, which granted freedom to Canadian Catholics.

The president of both Scottish and English Associations was Lord George Gordon, third son of the third Duke of Gordon, the first Protestant head of the house. Lord George was eccentric, and unrestrained both in his fanaticism and in his passions; so much so that the mot, originally formed for Sir Fleetwood Shepherd, was adapted to him by Wilkes, “Nulla displicuit meretrix praeter Babylonicam” (R. Bisset, “George III”, III, 167). This hero of the Protestant Association resolved on a great demonstration. He procured a petition for the repeal of the Relief Bill, signed by 30,000 to 40,000 names, carried it to the House of Commons, June 2, 1780, in a huge procession, said in the excitement of the time to have numbered 20,000 or even 40,000 men, all wearing blue cockades, and carrying blue flags with the legend: No POPERY. In the House Lord George demanded an immediate vote, while his followers were pressing into the lobbies and maltreating all members whom they regarded as hostile to the repeal. The motion was postponed, however, and when evening fell attacks were made on the best known embassy chapels, the Sardinian chapel, near Lincoln’s Inn Fields, and the Bavarian chapel in Warwick Street. The method of attack was more or less the same on all occasions. First the windows were broken, then the doors forced, the house sacked and the furniture thrown out and burned in the street, thereby setting fire to the whole building. Warwick Street chapel was eventually saved by soldiers, who also arrested some bystanders. Two or three of these upon examination “appeared to be Catholics, but of excellent characters”, against whom “as no material circumstances appeared, it was thought they would get off” (“Public Advertiser”. June 6, 1780). The prisoners, presumably mere spectators, were remanded for trial to Newgate, whence they “got off” on the following Tuesday without any further investigations. Some disingenuous Protestants, however, have pretended that the burning of the chapels was really due to Catholics (cf. “Barnaby Rudge”, lxxvii, end).

By Saturday morning there was a lull. On Sunday afternoon, however, there was a recrudescence of violence, the temporary repairs at the embassy chapels were torn down and burned, Moorfields chapel house was sacked, and several neighboring houses gutted, and their furniture burned. Worse would have followed but for the timely arrival of the soldiers. Next day, Monday, the Privy Council met at St. James’s; but so little was the Government moved by the many misfortunes of the Catholics, so little did it foresee the future, that no adequate measures were adopted to suppress disorder, though in the city the blue cockades were asserting their power with ever growing boldness. On Tuesday, June 6, Parliament again met; and again the mob pressed in, preventing the progress of business, and handling roughly all who displeased them. Lord North himself, the prime minister, only escaped that evening by putting his coach-horses to the gallop, having lost his hat in the fray, which was thereupon torn up, and the pieces distributed as trophies among the crowd. The mob was henceforth undisputed master of the situation. All shops were closed, money was exacted from passers by, and every one put on the blue cockade, and chalked No POPERY on his door. The Catholics suffered much, but unpopular Protestants suffered no less. The house of Lord Chief Justice Mansfield was sacked and burned, so were those of the justices, and even of the witnesses who had given evidence against the rioters. The prisons of Newgate and Clerkenwell were fired, and all the prisoners released. Next day the same fate befell the prisons of the King’s Bench, the Fleet, and the Marshalsea. In other prisons, as the Poultry, all prisoners were discharged to prevent further disturbance. The large distillery in Holborn of Mr. Langdale, a Catholic, was burned, and all the stores of spirits wasted or drunk. The bridges across the Thames were seized; the Bank of England was twice attacked, and only saved by soldiers. On Wednesday night thirty-six different conflagrations might be counted from London Bridge. Fortunately the air was still, and the flames did not spread, or the consequences would have been terrible, for the mob had injured the fire-pumps and thrown the hoses into the burning buildings.

The delay in dealing with the mob violence was due to many causes. There had never been a tumult of this nature before, and there was no special force to cope with it. The police of the city in those days consisted but of a few dozen watchmen and constables. Of the magistrates some were infatuated for the Protestant Association, some were cowards, nearly all were of opinion that the Riot Act must be read an hour before the military could be called upon to interfere. At last King George himself (it had been thought prudent for him to retire from the royal apartments to more protected buildings in the rear of St. James’s) summoned a council on Wednesday evening and active measures were ordered, and carried out that very night. Infantry and cavalry attacked the crowd wherever it made head, firing into their ranks, and charging them with sword and bayonet. Though the darkness and intricacies of the streets enabled the rioters to maintain themselves for a while, no serious resistance was, or could be, offered. By Thursday evening all organized disturbance was over, but 210 had been killed in the streets, 75 died in hospital, and 173 were severely wounded. Of the prisoners taken, 52 were convicted, and of these between 20 and 30 executed. Lord George’s trial, fortunately for him, had to be adjourned for some months. By then men’s minds were cooler; he was admirably defended by the great advocate Thomas, afterwards Lord, Erskine, and acquitted. There was, no doubt, a miscarriage of justice here, but the formal indictment of “levying war on the king”, could not be substantiated. Indeed it is certain that he did not at all foresee the results of his actions, and that he exerted himself, when it was too late, to stem the torrent of mischief which he had let loose. John Wesley is sometimes said to have assisted in arousing the religious fanaticism of the associates; but this is neither true nor possible, for he was at the time, and had been for months before, engaged in a missionary circuit through the Northern counties. In the previous January, however, he had written a “Defense” of the “Appeal” issued by the Association, and obstinately maintained his narrow views in the “Freeman’s Journal”, though they were answered by Father Arthur O’Leary. The losses of the Catholics were grave, and cannot be precisely scheduled. Claim for compensation was afterwards made for 57 houses destroyed (three of these chapels or mass-houses), besides two embassy chapels. Numbers, moreover, were constrained to fly in confusion and by night, with their wives and children and little store of valuables. Their Protestant friends too often not daring to give them shelter, they fell in many instances into extreme distress. Others were shot by the soldiers in trying to escape from the mob; four are reported to have died from fear; Mr. Dillon of Moorfields, an old man, who had previously endured prosecution for his priesthood, was wantonly thrown out of his sick-bed and died six weeks later. The sum eventually paid to the Catholics is said to have been £28,219 from the city, and £5200 from the Government. Mr. Langdale put his losses at £100,000, but refused compensation, receiving instead leave to distill spirits for a year free of impost, and thereby (so runs the story) made up handsomely the damage he had suffered.


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