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  • William Tyler

Rioting Bristolians

In 1794, after a serious riot in Bristol the previous year, a commentator observed that Bristolians were said to be 'apt to collect in mobs on the slightest occasions; but have seldom been so spirited as in the late transactions [riots] on Bristol-Bridge'.


Bristol wasn't alone, of course, in the late 18th century/early 19th as a place of riot. There were few ways ordinary people could express an opinion, with a very elite electorate voting for both local and national politicians. In fact in Bristol The Corporation was a self perpetuating oligarchy of a few rich and powerful families. The middle classes did have the outlet of local newspapers, and Bristol had a large number of these, but the working class had riot as pretty well their only recourse when issues arose affecting them. The fear of the Authorities in Bristol and elsewhere was that the working classes could be manipulated by middle class revolutionaries (they were obsessed by events across The Channel in France where Revolution had broken out in 1789).


The Authorities were ill equipped to deal with disturbance and when they did arise, as there was no Police Force in a modern sense (Bristol acquired its first professional Force in 1835) they were reliant on Parish constables and in times of trouble volunteers. A highly unsatisfactory situation which nine times out of ten failed, leading to the last resort of bringing troops in (think the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester in 1819).


Often the actions of troops, especially county Yeomanry brought in from rural areas to cities, as happened in Manchester on Peterloo Fields, almost inevitably led to escalation of the problem. This particular point that in confronting violence with violence leads to more trouble has continued into the present day when Police Forces rather than soldiers are accused of over reacting. This has occurred this year in Bristol when the Police sought to deal with the 'Kill the Bill' protestors. The Bill being the current Police and Crime Bill going through Parliament, which many see as restricting the right to peaceful protest. The problem is almost always complicated because the core of protestors, happy to make their point peacefully, often attract all sorts of others with quite different agendas. From the standpoint of the Police they are condemned if they do and condemned if they don't. Chief Superintendent Claire Armes said in connection with the Bristol 'Kill the Bill' riots, 'We will always attract opposing and differing views in these situations'. And, Bristol provides an excellent example of this dilemma. The Police were criticised for failing to take action during the 'Black Lives Matter' protest which tore down the statue of Edward Colston, slaver and philanthropist, and hurled it into Bristol Harbour. The opposite claim was made over the 'Kill the Bill' marchers where the Police were accused of being too glad handed.


In the period I highlighted at the start of this piece we can identify two events that had a bearing on rioters and Authorities alike. The first is The French Revolution and the second is the beginning of The Industrial Revolution, roughly the period 1789 to 1835. The latter date being the implementation of the reforming Municipal Corporations Act, and co-incidentally the founding of the Bristol Police Force.


During this period Bristol witnessed the two worst riots in its long history, namely

The Bristol Bridge Riots of 1793 and The Bristol Riots of 1831. Both taking place before reform of the local Corporation and the introduction of a 'modern' professional Police Force. On both occasions troops were called into the City.


The Riot of 1793 was caused by the continuation of bridge tolls beyond the date they were expected to end. The reason given being that the Bridge Commissioners had got their sums wrong, and there was a deficit rather than the profit they had earlier declared. Worse was that no proper accounts were made public and thus a stench of corruption lingered over the Commissioners, many of whom also sat on the Corporation. The rioting spread over three days until troops finally brought it to an end.


The Mayor and Corporation felt they were facing the beginning of revolution, French style. Local Bristol historian Michael Manson writes, '....up at the Council House, one can guess these events were being interpreted ......[as meaning] agent provocateurs were stirring the people up; Bristol's own sans culottes were being mobilised........even [they thought] revolution was in the air'. Nothing could have been further from the truth for the mob sung the National Anthem and pledged their support to the King.


The Bristol Riots of 1831 took place in the October and were part of a nation wide campaign to ensure that Parliament passed The [Great] Reform Bill. In Bristol trouble started when the Recorder, Charles Wetherell, a well known opponent of reform, arrived in the city to preside over The Assizes. Assizes were deeply unpopular in The West because of the memory of Judge Jefferies and The Bloody Assizes after The Monmouth Rebellion. In my own youth in Bristol people still talked of Bloody Jefferies and his Assizes. Ironically the Mayor at the time, Charles Pinney was a Whig and a supporter of reform. He probably owed his position to Tory Councillors who thought he would stave off any trouble. In fact the people were angry that he had done nothing during his term of office to further reform, despite the overriding support for reform across the city.


The riot, as in1793, stretched over three days, during which The Mansion House and The Bishop's Palace were ransacked, the Docks, the Customs House, and the Excise House were attacked, along with countless commercial and domestic buildings. It has been estimated that £300k worth of damage was caused, along with up to 250 people injured. Both the Mayor and the Colonel in charge of the troops were brought to court for their failures. The Mayor, hardly surprisingly, was acquitted, whereas The Colonel tried before a Court Martial took his own life before judgment could be served.



What can one learn from these two sad episodes in Bristol's history?

  1. Corruption in local government (nothing either new or old in this - think Liverpool in 2021. This was initially dealt with by the 1835 legislation, Municipal Corporations Act.

  2. Use of force is always a very serious step to take, and even today, as stated above, is not easy to get right. The Police in Britain police with public consent. Once that consent weakens then trouble lies ahead, today as much as in the 18th century.

  3. Both cases show up that failing to deal with legitimate grievances can lead to an escalation of trouble with wider issues being muddied into the original objectives.

All societies have witnessed riots and there is no reason to believe they will ever end. The classification of riots can be expressed thus;-

  1. Food Riots (the last in England is probably 1766, over the price of corn/bread)

  2. Political ( an ever present ex Parliamentary expression of political disagreement with the Establishment)

  3. Sport Associated in Britain with rival football fans

  4. Religion Sadly not ended in the Britain of the 21st century

  5. Race A major cause of riots in Britain from the late 20th century onwards

  6. Social Ranging from issues like poor housing, poor schooling, poor wages, poor healthcare, high unemployment etc.. In brief Poverty.

Rioting, as said above has been and will always be with us. Bristol is no exception and rioting didn't magically disappear after 1831, as very recent events have clearly shown. Yet there is one very strange riot that occurred in the middle of the city in July 1944. On this occasion it didn't involve volatile Bristolians but Americans; to be precise white GIs versus Black GIs. The American Army was then, unlike the British, a segregated Army. This did not mean there was no 'colour prejudice' in Britain but it wasn't part and parcel of our 'official' society. There had been mounting trouble between the two groups of GIs which boiled over in Park Street where Black GIs were taking their white Bristol girlfriends out for drinks. The American military police arrived, white, and one MP was stabbed and his black assailant shot dead. Fortunately for Bristol the mutiny, as it was described by The American Military Authorities, was brought to a swift close.



Final Thought: Unlike France, Germany, and virtually any other European country you care to name, plus The United States, riot in Britain has never in modern times led to revolution ................................YET!

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