Andrew Roberts in his biography of George III, (The Last King of America) which I’ll get to in a subsequent post, describes the Gordon Riots of 1780 as the worst catastrophe to befall London during the interval between the Great Fire in 1666 and the Blitz which began in 1940. Those who saw the disorder of January 6th, 2021 as a catastrophe of epic dimensions would do well to study the Gordon Riots to see what a real breakdown of civic order looks like.
Some background is needed to understand why the riots broke out. Britain was in the 6th year of a contentious war with its rebellious North American colonies; it was expensive and unpopular in many parts of society. Britain’s economy was poor; the loss of trade during the war had led to falling wages, rising prices, and periodic unemployment. No other country supported the effort to defeat the American rebels. The countries supporting the American revolution, France and Spain, were Catholic. Catholics had their rights suppressed by the Popery Act of 1698. This legislation was a reaction to the Catholicism of the last Stuart king and the pretenders who followed him. James II had been overthrown by the Revolution of 1688 mainly because of his adherence to the Church of Rome – an unacceptable belief from a sovereign of a predominantly Protestant country. Catholics thereafter were effectively excluded from public life.
The Papist Act of 1778, though it did not grant Catholics freedom of worship, allowed Catholics to join the army and purchase land if they took an oath of allegiance. The section (of the 1698 Act) allowing the taking and prosecuting priests was repealed, as well as the penalty of perpetual imprisonment for keeping a school. Roman Catholics were now enabled to inherit and purchase land; an heir who conformed to the Established Church was no longer empowered to enter and enjoy the estate of his “papist” kinsman. Though the Act had widespread support among the upper class, anti-Catholic feeling remained strong among the masses.
Lord George Gordon (1751-93) was President of the Protestant Society. He argued that the new law would enable Catholics to join the Army and plot treason. On Friday (June 2, 1780) he and about 60,000 protestors arrived at Parliament bearing a petition against the Act. The protest remained peaceful for only a short time. Then the mob attacked the carriages of the members arriving at parliament. They forced members to wear blue cockades and made some swear to repeal the Act. They unsuccessfully tried to force their way into the chamber. A number of high ranking persons were abused including the Lord High Justice, Lord Mansfield.
Gordon entered the House of Commons and presented the petition which had 120,000 signatures. He demanded that the petition be considered immediately. The request was denied and the crowd dispersed following the arrival of troops. But the respite was temporary. That night the mob reassembled and went on rampage. They destroyed several Catholic chapels. A few were arrested and three were locked up in Newgate Prison. But the destruction continued. Homes and shops were destroyed – most notably those of Sir George Savile (the proponent of the Catholic relief act) and Lord Mansfield.
The rioting continued for several days. The homes and chapels of prominent Catholics were vandalized. Newgate Prison was attacked, the prisoners released and the jail then destroyed. Painted on the wall of Newgate prison was the proclamation that the inmates had been freed by the authority of “His Majesty, King Mob”. The term “King Mob” afterwards denoted an unruly and fearsome proletariat. The eponymous Clink Prison and Fleet Prison were also torn down. Unsuccessful attacks were made on Prime Minister Lord North’s house on Downing Street and the Bank of England.
The rioting continued because the magistrates under whose jurisdiction the attacks took place did not invoke the Riot Act that was designed just for a major upheaval as happened in June of 1780. Alcohol fueled much of the mayhem. Finally, King George took it upon himself to call up the Army with instructions to fire upon those who did not peacefully disperse, which they did. The exact number of deaths associated with the riots is not certain; it may have been around 800.
About 400 rioters were arrested, but only a few were brought to trial. Gordon was taken to the Tower, it was the only place untouched by the uprising. He was tried for treason and acquitted. He was later imprisoned for libel at the rebuilt Newgate Prison where he died. Brackley Kennett, the Lord Mayor, was convicted of criminal negligence for not reading out the Riot Act and was given a £1,000 fine.
Gordon whose anti-Catholic rhetoric had incited the riots, though he never argued for violence, converted to Judaism in 1787. He took the name of Yisrael bar Avraham Gordon, underwent ritual circumcision, and strictly observed the dietary laws of his adopted religion. In prison he continued to observe all the dictates of his religion. The prison authorities cooperated with his religious requirements allowing him sacramental wine, a mezuzah, and even permitted him to convert his room into a synagogue to observe the sabbath.
Roberts thinks that had the King not acted when he did, though his action was extra-constitutional, that the monarchy might have fallen and that events of the French revolution could have been anticipated in London. What did the government do after the riot had been quelled? Nothing. The legislature and the monarchy acted the same as they had prior to the “insurrection” – though that noun was never applied to the riots. There was no wall or fence around parliament nor did the troops remain in London after the disturbance was ended. The monarchy and constitutional government in the UK survives to this day.
“The events at the Bank of England started a tradition where a detachment of soldiers, usually from the Brigade of Guards, would march to the bank to perform security duties. Until 1963 the duty was performed by the Guards in Home Service Dress with bearskin, though tennis shoes were worn inside the bank. From that date until 31 March 1973 the detachment became more functional than ceremonial, doing their duties in service dress with automatic weapons.”
Charles Dickens’ 1841 novel Barnaby Rudge depicts the Gordon Riots and features Lord George in a prominent role.