Sunday, November 14, 2010

Bristol Riots of 1831

On November 14, 1831, Sir Walter Scott is traveling to historic sites, and hoping to improve his health.  As recorded in his journal, the party on board hears disturbing news on happenings back home...

'...We stood into the Bay of Gibraltar and approached the harbour firing a gun and hoisting a signal for a boat: one accordingly came off—a man-of-war's boat—but refused to have any communication with us on account of the quarantine, so we can send no letters ashore, and after some pourparlers, Mr. L——, instead of joining his regiment, must remain on board. We learned an unpleasant piece of news. There has been a tumult at Bristol and some rioters shot, it is said fifty or sixty. I would flatter myself that this is rather good news, since it seems to be no part of a formed insurrection, but an accidental scuffle in which the mob have had the worst, and which, like Tranent, Manchester, and Bonnymoor, have always had the effect of quieting the people and alarming men of property.  The Whigs will find it impossible to permit men to be plundered by a few blackguards called by them the people, and education and property probably will recover an ascendency which they have only lost by faintheartedness.'

The spark for the Bristol Riots was rejection by the House of Lords of a reform bill, which would have provided Bristol and other cities with greater representation in the House of Commons.  In "History of the Peace...", Harriet Martineau and Charles Knight depict a situation that was exploited by nefarious intrests based in London.  'London rogues could have had no such power as in this case if the political and moral state of Bristol had not been bad. Its political state was disgraceful. The venality of its elections was notorious. It had a close corporation, between whom and the citizens there was no community of feeling on municipal subjects. The lower parts of the city were the harbourage of probably a worse seaport populace than any other place in England, while the police was ineffective and demoralised. There was no city in which a greater amount of savagery lay beneath a society proud, exclusive, and mutually repellent, rather than enlightened and accustomed to social co-operatiou. These are circumstances which go far to account for the Bristol riots being so fearfully bad as they were. Of this city, Sir Charles Wctherell— then at the height of his unpopularity as a vigorous opponent of the Reform Bill—was recorder; and there he had to go, in the last days of October, in his judicial capacity. Strenuous efforts had been made to exhibit before the eyes of the Bristol people the difference between the political and judicial functions of their recorder, and to shew them that to receive the judge with respect was not to countenance his political course; yet the symptoms of discontent were such as to induce the mayor, Mr l'inney, to apply to the home-office for military aid. Lord Melbourne sent down some troops of horse, which were quartered within reach, in the neighbourhood of the city. It was an unfortunate circumstance that, owing to the want of a common interest between the citizens and the corporation, scarcely any gentlemen offered their services as special constables but such as were accustomed to consider the lower classes with contempt as a troublesome rabble, and rather relished an occasion for defying and humbling them. Such was the preparation made in the face of the fact that Sir Charles Wetherell could not be induced to relinquish his public entry, though warned of danger by the magistrates themselves; and of the other important fact that the London rogues, driven from the metropolis by the new police, were known to be infesting every place where there was hope of confusion and spoil...'

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