October 1831 saw a blaze of anger and thirst for change in the city
Banner illustration: Luke Carter
Over three days in October 1831, Bristol saw arguably the most important riot in British history. It was certainly the most significant in terms of intensity, the number of casualties, and the eventual outcome.
Britain was a divided country at this time, and in Bristol this division was evident, and contentious. The ruling classes had been scared witless by the French Revolution and the spectre of the guillotine. Closer to home, there had already been food riots during the famines in the first decades of the 19th century; the organised machine breaking in 1814; and the Swing Riots in 1831 in the South, as industrialisation changed rural society.
Many people felt that reform of the electoral franchise would ease the situation, because so far only about 10% of the male population had the vote, and the rest felt powerless to effect any progressive change. In Bristol, this amounted to about 6,000 male voters, out of a population of 104,000 men. Furthermore, the Bristol Corporation was acting as the local authority and controlled the city. This was an oligarchy of men who bathed in opulence and civic grandeur, while not achieving a great deal – they were loathed.
Local magistrate Sir Charles Wetherall had stood up in Parliament and stated that Bristol did not want reform. This was a bare-faced lie, and as he came to open the court of Assizes on Saturday 29 October, Bristolians lined the roads to let their feelings be known. Wetherall was chased to the Council House, and then to the Mansion House in Queen Square. He was hoping to enjoy a slap-up meal, but instead had to escape over the rooftops. A large crowd attacked the Mansion House and the special constables that had been employed to protect it. Some people were arrested, which added to the crowd’s displeasure.
The next day, the crowd started to congregate at around 6am, and continued to attack the Mansion House and its neighbouring property. Those who wanted political reform from the middle classes shrunk into the background, as property, including the Customs House, was torched. Other rioters made for the Bridewell Prison, where they forced entry; and freed the prisoners that had been taken the night before, along with their fellow incarcerates.
The crowd then tossed a coin, and some went to set fire to the Bishop’s Palace (The Bishop of Bristol had been vociferous in his opposition to electoral reform), while others went to the New Gaol. The gaol was easily broken open, destroyed, and the prisoners released. The doors were beaten in by people brandishing sledgehammers, especially sourced for this job. The treadmill was flung into the river before cheering crowds. Some made their way to another prison in Lawfords Gate, which was similarly treated. The crowd carefully picked its targets; even the houses adjacent to Mansion House were owned by members of the Corporation, and therefore fair game.
Meanwhile, a party ensued in Queen Square as wine and spirits were looted, and scenes of debauchery ensued. Miscreants were seen running off with beds, tables, silver plate, and anything that could be sold or used. There were stories of people falling into the fires, that were by now more of a great inferno, even melting the lead on the roofs.
The Dragoons [mounted cavalry] did not move, even though the Riot Act had been read. They found it difficult to find anyone in authority to give any concrete orders to utilise violence. It seems the officers of the Corporation had either legged it, or were just not sure what to do next. It was not until Monday 31 October that the Dragoons cleared the smouldering square, after the mayor, Charles Pinney, gave the order. By then, many were too drunk to move, or care. Some, who could move, were chased through the city and out to the environs. The Bristol Political Union, which had been pushing for Parliamentary reform, distanced themselves from the disturbances, and many later signed up as special constables.
Bristol Infirmary recorded that 12 were killed by the Dragoons, and 86 wounded. This number is likely to be very short of the mark, as many perished in the fires, while others crawled home to die of their wounds. The Bristol coroner’s records for the incident are missing. The authorities eventually re-emerged, and whole areas of Bristol were searched for stolen goods.
A Special Commission was set up, and set for January 1832. It tried the rioters; but also Mayor Pinney, for negligence. He was acquitted, but the Dragoons’ commander Colonel Brereton, who was facing a court martial for failing to keep the rioters down, committed suicide. Many of the rioters tried had alibis which were ignored; while others had garrets full of plunder, and were caught red-handed. In the end 114 were indicted, and 31 received the ultimate sentence of death. Petitions were raised which gained 100,000 signatures seeking mercy, and eventually only four were hung. They were dispatched within the ruins of the New Gaol, while the rest joined those that were transported, 34 in all.
Interestingly, in 1832 the first Reform Act was passed through Parliament, although the vote was still restricted to the upper middle classes. In 1835 the Municipal Corporations Act was also passed. This legislation did away with the rotten boroughs (areas with a tiny electorate, so small that voters were susceptible to control in a variety of ways), which had been detested by the reformers. But it also restricted the power of the Corporations, including Bristol’s, much to the joy of many Bristolians. Who says a good riot does not get the goods?
Steve is a member of the Bristol Radical History Group