Random Readings from 2020: no.2 The Gordon Riots

Western book stack

Before this riotous year, I was unaware of the Gordon Riots of London:

By the late spring of 1780 the reform movement was already disintegrating. The final discouragement came with the terrible Gordon Riots of June 1780. Sir George Savile and the Rockingham whigs had carried in 1778 a Roman Catholic Relief Act. Religious intolerance was easily whipped up by agitators in the eighteenth century, and in 1779 a Protestant Association was formed with the half-witted Lord George Gordon as President. On June 2nd, 1780, a huge crowd of 60,000 people gathered in St George’s Fiends, Southwark, to present a monster petition against the Catholic Relief Act. The petition was presented to Parliament, and some of the crowd went off to burn Roman Catholic chapels. During the next few days there was more violence, the prisons were attacked and the prisoners freed. The house of the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Mansfield, was destroyed, together with his precious library. Next day, “Black Wednesday” saw the climax of the violence and destruction. An attack on the Bank of England was repulsed with heavy casualties. By the 9th the military were in full control. Four hundred and fifty people were arrested and twenty-five people were hanged. Gordon was tried for high treason, but acquitted after a brilliant defence by his counsel, Thomas Erskine.

What did it all mean? There is no evidence that it was planned by the Protestant Association, or the Opposition, or indeed by anyone. Religious feeling against Roman Catholics was strong; there was much social unrest in London, and there was an obvious absence of any adequate police force. There was widespread disillusionment at the war failures, heavy taxation and trade recession. All these factors seem sufficient to explain the Gordon Riots.

The results were far-reaching. The riots went far to destroy the reform movement. The rift between the whigs and the radicals widened. The governing classes became deeply suspicious of popular movements. Professor Butterfield comments:

The memory of these days had a great part in that fear of popular demonstrations which seized upon both the ministry and the governing classes of England at the time of the French Revolution.

(R. W. Harris, A Short History of 18th Century England: 1689–1793, (New York: Mentor Books, 1963) pp. 200-01.)

Currently Reading: October 2020

London - Georgian Apartments

What I’m currently reading for October 2020:

  • Sophocles, Oedipus Rex, Oedipus Colonus, Antigone
  • Suzanne Butler, Vale of Tyranny (1954)
  • R. W. Harris, A Short History of 18th Century England: 1689-1793 (1963)
  • Michael Erard, Babel No More (2012)