Gordon Riots 1780
The Gordon Riots occurred in June 1780, beginning as an anti-Catholic demonstration and ending in mob violence that terrorized London for ten days. The proximate excuse was the first Catholic Relief Act of June 1778, a moderate measure that freed priests from the threat of imprisonment and enabled Catholics to take an oath of loyalty to the Crown. Catholics were apprehensive of the effect of the Act on extreme Protestants, but at first all seemed to pass quietly. When it was proposed in the following year to apply the Act to Scotland, these fears were justified. The rioting that broke out in Edinburgh and Glasgow was suppressed with difficulty and caused the Scottish Act to be withdrawn. Opposition to the English Act was stimulated by this Scottish success. A Protestant association was formed in London in February 1779 led by Lord George Gordon, 27-year-old Member of Parliament, whose eccentric behavior often amused his fellow members and indicated a mental unbalance verging on derangement. The association was supported by many middle-class nonconformists who had no thoughts of violence, including John Wesley, who wrote a pamphlet in its support.
It was decided to draw up a petition and present it to Parliament in the most public manner. Supporters gathered in St. George's Fields, Southwark (where the Catholic cathedral now stands) on Friday, June 2, 1780. The petition, said to contain 120,000 signatures, was taken in procession to Westminster. The participants in the march, variously estimated from 20,000 to 50,000, were at first orderly, but by the time they reached the Palace yard they had been joined by riffraff who turned the march into a mob, assaulting Peers and Commoners as they entered the Houses of Parliament. Gordon presented the petition in the Commons, but his hysterical rushing back and forth to report to the mob incited it to violence and alienated his more respectable supporters who returned to their homes. While a troop of guards cleared the approaches of the besieged Parliament, detachments of the mob looted and burned the Catholic chapels in Golden Square, Lincoln's Inn Fields, and Moorfields. The Lord Mayor, the Council of the City of London, and the magistrates took no serious steps to quell the rioting. Many refused to act, as they sympathized with the "No-popery" cry. Some of the mob sought out 89-year-old Bp. Richard challoner, Vicar Apostolic, but he was taken to a friend's house in Finchley.
The rioting, which was less violent on Saturday and Sunday, increased during the next two days, making it clear that by now anti-Catholic feeling was being replaced by mob hooliganism. Newgate prison as well as the houses of magistrates and of unpopular public figures were burned. Even Lambeth Palace was threatened. Lord Stormont, the Secretary of State, had urged from the beginning that the Lord Mayor and the military authorities take firm action, but his repeated appeals resulted in the ineffective use of inadequate forces. The military believed they could act only at the request of a magistrate.
At a privy council on Wednesday, June 7, this idea was corrected and King George III gave orders that the utmost vigor be used to restore peace. Troops were at once moved to London, and that night they drove off an attack on the Bank of England, but not before the three prisons—the King's Bench, the Clink, and the Fleet—had been set in flames. A distillery in Holborn was also set on fire, resulting in an orgy of drunkenness. Meanwhile, now that private property was endangered, the citizens organized patrols for their own protection. On Thursday the troops took effective control and the worst was over. The official number of those killed or dead of injuries was 285, certainly an underestimate. Fifty-nine prisoners were sentenced to death, of whom 21 were hanged.
Lord George Gordon was sent to the Tower on June 9, brought to trial on Feb. 5, 1781, and acquitted of the charge of treason, a verdict endorsed by modern legal opinion. He was later converted to Judaism and died in the rebuilt Newgate in 1793 during imprisonment for libel. Though the riots were confined generally to London, there were minor outbreaks in Hull and Bath, where Catholic chapels were burned. The Common Council of the City of London petitioned Parliament without success to repeal the Relief Act. The riots made Catholics more circumspect than ever in the exercise of their religion, and a decade was to pass before another modest installment of relief from penal legislation was granted.
Bibliography: t. holcroft, A Plain and Succinct Narrative of the Late Riots (2d ed. London 1780). w. mawhood, The Mawhood Diary (London 1956). t. r. howell, ed., A Complete Collection of State Trials and Proceedings for High Treason and Other Misdemeanours 22 (London 1814) 485–652. j. p. de castro, The Gordon Riots (London 1926). The Dictionary of National Biography From the Earliest Times to 1900, 63 v. (London 1885–1900; repr. with corrections, 21 v., 1908–09, 1921–22, 1938) 8:197. c. hibbert, King Mob (London 1958). r. watson, The Life Of Lord George Gordon (London 1795). p. colson, The Strange History of Lord George Gordon (London 1937).
[e. e. reynolds]
GORDON RIOTS. 2-9 June 1780. The Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1778 in Britain removed restrictions on Catholics. In violent objection to this act, the eccentric Lord George Gordon (1751–1793) headed a Protestant Association in the presentation of a petition to Parliament on 2 June calling for its repeal. That night the mob took control of London, attacking Catholic churches and the houses of well-known Catholics. It took more than twelve thousand British troops ten days to restore order in the bloodiest riots in British history. Similar riots had already occurred in Glasgow and Edinburgh, but the London riots claimed between seven hundred and a thousand lives. Whereas twenty-one leaders of the crowd were executed and the Lord Mayor of London fined £1,000 for negligence, Gordon was acquitted of treason on the grounds of insanity.
Once generally seen as a curious footnote to the period, the Gordon Riots are now regarded by most historians as extremely important. They put an end to the emerging reform movement in Britain that had been born in response to the failures of the government's policies toward America. The British elite consolidated their support behind the crown, and the general public appears to have rallied to George III at a time when he had broached the idea of abdication with Lord North. As a consequence, the potential impact of the American Revolution was greatly lessened by this renewed support for the king and his government.
SEE ALSO North, Sir Frederick.
revised by Michael Bellesiles
J. A. Cannon