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  • Writer's pictureBruce Boyce

"No Popery"

"You may like to know one is alive, dear Sir, after a massacre, and the conflagration of a capital. I was in it, both on the Friday and on the Black Wednesday; the most horrible sight I ever beheld, and which, for six hours together, I expected to end in half the town being reduced to ashes. I can give you little account of the original of this shocking affair; negligence was certainly its nurse, and religion only its god mother."

Horace Walpole, letter to the Earl of Strafford, 1780

Mobs were a significant political force in the 18th century, particularly during social and economic upheaval, playing a crucial role in colonial opposition to the Stamp Act and frequent food riots in Europe. (Read my previous blog on the bread riots leading to the French Revolution: The Price of Bread.) The mob was a normal, spontaneous gathering of people to protest perceived injustices and demand change, acting as a safety valve for the lower classes who were excluded from formal political processes. In the mid-17th century, "mob" originated from the Latin expression mobile vulgus, “fickle or movable common people.” Mob is a slang shortening of mobile or mobility in reference to the lawless, lowest elements of society. (Mobility used in this sense was perhaps a play on the word nobility.) Historian George Rude viewed the 18th-century mob as a dynamic and complex social force that expressed popular discontent and had the potential for social and political change. However, politicians and influential figures could manipulate the mob for their agendas, as seen in the Gordon Riots of 1780, where Lord George Gordon and the Protestant Association mobilized the mob against the Catholic Relief Act, resulting in one of the most violent uprisings in British history.

During the 1770s, England saw its living cost rise while wages stagnated. There were attempts to impose a series of new taxes and duties. Employers brought in Irish Catholic immigrants at low wages. By 1778, the war with the American colonies was marked by a series of defeats, and the mood in England soured on Prime Minister Lord North’s government. Many Englishman sympathized with the American cause. As the war expanded to include France and Spain as American allies, Britain felt the pressure of resources, especially manpower.

A long history of conflict between Protestants and Catholics fueled religious tensions in 18th-century England. Still, Parliament in the 1770s sought to improve the legal status of Catholics living under British rule. The Quebec Act of 1774 confirmed the establishment of Catholicism in Canada, which had once been under Catholic French control. And seeing the Scottish Highlands as a rich source of recruitment for the war in North America and a possible continental conflict, Parliament passed the Catholic Relief Act of 1778. Among the clauses, the Relief Act lifted penalties on priests who conducted Mass, restrictions on landownership by Catholics, and removed the requirement to swear allegiance to the crown and not the pope. This last one was important as it opened military service to Catholics. The act, though, was only valid in England. It was suggested that a similar bill be passed for Scotland during the next session.

This suggestion did not sit well with the staunchly Protestant communities of North Britain. Protests occurred in nearly every parish in Scotland. There was a fear that the Catholic Relief Act would give Catholics greater power and influence in society, potentially at the expense of Protestants. This led some Protestants to fear that Catholics would be given an unfair advantage over them, particularly in areas such as education and employment. Lord George Gordon took up the leadership of the Protestant opposition. Gordon was born in London in 1751, the third son of the Duke of Gordon, a prominent Scottish nobleman. Despite being born into wealth and privilege, Gordon was known for his eccentric behavior and outspoken views on politics and religion. Gordon became involved in politics at an early age, and in 1774 he was elected to the House of Commons as a Member of Parliament for the borough of Ludgershall. He was known for his support of radical causes, such as the rights of American colonists, and his opposition to the government of Lord North. Gordon was also a prominent supporter of the Protestant Association, an organization formed in 1778 in response to the Relief Act.

At the end of 1779, Parliament began receiving petitions from all over England requesting repealing the Catholic Relief Act. The Protestant Association spearheaded much of this agitation and garnered the support of Protestants from a cross-section of society. The lower classes may have been influenced by the rhetoric of Gordon, who argued that the act would betray the Protestant faith and undermine the established order of society. This message resonated with many members of the lower classes who felt disenfranchised and marginalized. At the end of May 1780, Gordon announced that he was ready to present a petition signed by some 44,000 individuals to Parliament. Friday, June 2, was the date to submit the petition to the House of Commons.

Lord George Gordon led a crowd of over 50,000 people, many of whom were from the lower classes, to present the petition to Parliament. The crowd, though, was already in an angry mood. They harassed members of the House of Lords as they entered Westminister. The House of Commons was already assembled, but a noisy crowd had gathered in the lobby. Here, Gordon addressed them with updates about the debate regarding the petition. He urged those assembled that there would be “no redress until they pulled down the mass-houses.” Members of Parliament, armed with swords, warned that they would readily defend themselves if the mob entered the chamber. The evening was a scene of confusion, and parliamentary order was hard to maintain. The Lords slipped away early in the evening, but the House of Commons remained to vote nearly unanimously against Lord Gordon’s petition. They then also left the chambers for the night.

When Parliament refused to hear the petition, the crowd became violent and began attacking Catholic properties around Parliament, including the Sardinian Embassy. They looted the Roman Catholic chapel and made a bonfire of what had been removed. The riots quickly spread to other parts of the city, with large crowds attacking Catholic homes, businesses, and churches. In some areas, the rioters were met with armed resistance, and arrests were made throughout the evening.

The local authorities were initially slow to respond to the riots. The Lord Mayor of London was reluctant to call up extra guards and resisted any suggestion of reading the Riot Act. (The Riot Acts of 1714 and 1715 allowed local authorities to declare crowds of over twelve people as unlawful and warn the groups they must disperse or face punitive actions.) The area of Moorfields in the east section of the city contained a large population of Irish immigrant workers. The Protestant Association was particularly hostile to the Irish Catholic community, and Gordon had used anti-Irish and anti-Catholic rhetoric to mobilize public opposition to the Catholic Relief Act. The Irish living in Moorfields asked for additional protection but were denied. On June 3, a large mob had gathered at Moorfields. The rioters, who saw the Irish as being in league with the Catholics and threatening their economic and social status, attacked many Catholic churches, homes, and businesses.

Over the next few days, the crowds grew more violent, with many rioters armed with clubs, knives, and guns. Wearing blue cockades and shouting “No Popery,” the mobs targeted more than just Catholic institutions. The mob attacked the home of the chief justice of England, who had been active in making arrests. Newgate Prison and other prisons became targets. At first, it was to free prisoners, but soon it became an effort to destroy the prisons. Foreshadowing the Bastille, the crowd stormed the newly constructed Newgate Prison armed with sledgehammers, pickaxes, crowbars, and other tools. They broke into the keeper’s house and set it afire. The blaze quickly swept through the rest of the prison as prisoners were led away. The fire spread to neighboring buildings. The rioters also set fire to other establishments throughout the city, including private homes and Catholic churches. There were reports that some rioters had broken into a distillery near Holborn and began drinking the alcohol inside. It is said that some of the rioters accidentally knocked over a candle, which ignited the alcohol and caused a massive explosion that destroyed the distillery. However, there are differing accounts of the incident, and some historians argue that the rioters intentionally caused the explosion as an act of sabotage. Regardless, the explosion further escalated the violence and chaos of the riots, leading to even more destruction and loss of life. Contemporaries compared the scene to the Great Fire of London in 1688.

The riots reached their peak on June 7. Whig politician Horace Walpole called it “Black Wednesday.” Armed gangs roamed the streets of London. They knocked on doors seeking signs of Catholic supporters or demanding money “for the true religion” or the “poor mob.” Destroyed or damaged buildings were looted, and soon random houses were plundered. Meanwhile, British troops were beginning to come in from the countryside. At the urging of King George III, the Privy Council announced that the military had orders to kill rioters without the need to read the Riot Act.

Many rioters were shot as troops spread through the city to reestablish order. Musket volleys and bayonets cleared out crowds from burning buildings. At 11 PM, there was a concerted effort by a mob to seize the Bank of England. This was repulsed by London militia and British regular troops resulting in heavy casualties among the rioters. Chaos and confusion continued throughout the night into the early morning of June 8. In the end, over two hundred rioters were dead. It would be a few more days before order was restored. Several hundred people were arrested, but only a handful were executed for their participation in the rioting.

The Gordon Riots were characterized by violence and disorder, with mobs engaging in vandalism, destruction, and lawlessness. The riots were also driven by frustration and anger at the existing social and economic order, which many of the rioters perceived as unjust and oppressive. The mob was able to suspend standard rules of governance by creating a climate of fear and intimidation and by exerting pressure on the authorities through violence. The riots led to the breakdown of social order in parts of London and the violation of individual rights and freedoms. The rioters targeted Catholic homes, businesses, and institutions, and many people were injured or killed during the violence. They would foreshadow the activities of the sans-culottes of Paris during the initial years of the French Revolution. The military eventually quelled the riots, but they left a lasting legacy and were seen as a warning of the dangers of mob rule and political extremism.


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Further Reading:

King Mob: Christopher Hibbert

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