Tuesday 5 August 2008

Friday 1st August - The Gordon Riots

Thankfully the rain held off for our walk today, only sending raindrops as we came to the end of the walk.

Today's walk was all about the Gordon Riots, the most violent civil uprising in the history of London. After meeting up outside Holborn Tube Station, Aly led us down to our first stop in Sardinia Street, having paused at Twyford Place for a brief summary of today's subject. The Gordon Riots actually took place in 1780 but it was events two years earlier in 1778 that actually set things in motion. Sir George Savile has successfully introduced a Catholic Relief Act which was part of a Whig tradition of religious tolerance. The Act absolved Roman Catholics from taking the religious oath on joining the army (to help boost the size of the British Army at a time when we were involved in wars against America, France and Spain) and was passed by Lord North's government.

Burning of Newgate Prison

Two years later in 1780 Lord George Gordon, an extreme protestant set up the Protestant Association demanding the repeal of the 1778 Act. He made a speech which spread fear of 'popery' - that there was a conspiracy involving 20,000 Jesuits hiding in tunnels under the River Thames waiting for an order from Rome to rise up and attack London. He also suggested that the Roman Catholics in the army could join forces with the Irish, French and Spanish to attack England. He saw the Act as a threat to Anglicanism and as being a Roman Catholic was tantamount to being a traitor (because they could not be loyal to the monarch and to the pope at the same time) much anti catholic feeling was whipped up.

Lord George Gordon
(courtesy Trustees of the British Museum)

So at our first stop in Sardinia Street we look at was is now the new London School of Economics building but where on this site stood the Sardinian Embassy. At that time Italy was a series of individual states, hence Sardinia having it's own embassy and the name of the street!

Following Gordon's speech, mobs took to the streets, and their first target was the Sardinian Embassy, because there was also a Catholic Chapel situated here where Catholics could come to take part in mass although mass was still semi-illeagal at that time. Because it was a well known chapel however, it was always going to be a target. The building was attacked and destroyed. The Church of St. Anselm and St. Caecilia was later built on the site, but then moved further up Kingsway to it's current location near Africa House.

The Bavarian Chapel in Soho and Newgate Prison were also attacked. The latter in an effort to free prisoners and to increase the size of the mob. People became anxious for their own safety and began to write on the doors of their homes "No Popery" to prove they were not catholics.

The mob attack Newgate Prison
(courtesy City of London)

Plan of Watchman's Posts in Charing Cross during the riots
(courtesy City of London)

We now walked back up Kingsway and across into Southampton Row and then turned left and walked into Bloomsbury Square and stopped outside what was once No. 29. It was here that Lord Chief Justice Mansfield lived. On Tuesday 6th June 1780 his home was attacked by a mob and raised to the ground. He managed to escape through the back of the house on to what is now Southampton Row. The mob burned his precious Law Library. Whether coincidence or by design, Lord Mansfield presided over Lord George Gordon's trial.

A House in Bloomsbury Square
Lord Justice Mansfield

Three of the mob who attached the house, John Gray, Charles Kent and Letitia Holland, were hung in Bloomsbury Square as it was believed at that time that criminals were hung as close to the scene of their crime as was possible.

We now walked back to Southampton Row, headed north and then turned right through Cosmo Place into Queen Square, turning right again into Old Gloucester Street

Cosmo Place

At No. 44 we find a plaque which notes that Bishop Richard Challoner lived and died here. He was a prominent catholic who produced a revised edition of the Bible and a catholic prayer book. At the time of the riots he was nearly 90 years old. He managed to escape from his home before the mob arrived taking refuge in Finchley, north London, although at that time a rural area. When the riots died down he returned home but he never really recovered from the shock of having to escape and he died shortly thereafter.

Bishop Richard Challoner
(courtesy Bishop Challoners School)

44 Old Gloucester Street

The Plaque on No. 44

We now continued down to Theobalds Road, crossing over to Drake Street, then along the edge of Red Lion Square and into Proctor Street, before crossing High Holborn to stand outside the Chancery Court Hotel.

There was a climate of very severe punishment at the time and an example of this is shown by the following case.

George Bourton was a drunken cobbler. He was walking down High Holborn when he decided to try his hand at begging. Richard Stone was walking past him when Bourton held out his hand and said "Pray remember the Protestant religion" as a begging device. Stone offered him tuppence but Bourton being greedy demanded six pence. Stone reluctantly gave him the money but reported him - Bournton was arrested and hung.

On Wednesday 7th June 1780 the mob pillaged and set fire to the Black Swan Distillery on the site of Barnards Inn in Holborn. The drunken mob attacked the distillery because it's owner Mr. Langdale was known to be a catholic. The rioters poured alcohol on the flames which of course exacerbated the strength of the fire and in fact caused a number of deaths.

The novel 'Barnaby Rudge' by Charles Dickens is set during the riots. Lord George Gordon together with his secretary Gashford and a servant John Grueby stop for the night in the village of Chigwell before leaving for London and inciting anti-catholic sentiment along the way and recruiting volunteers for his cause. Dickens describes them as "sprinkled doubtless here and there with honest zealots, but composed for the most part of the very scum and refuse of London, whose growth was fostered by bad criminal laws, bad prison regulations and the worst conceivable police."

A scene from Barnaby Rudge

By the 8th June 1780 troops had been called in and the authorities gained the upper hand. King George III ordered his officers to exert "their utmost force" to repress the rebellion.

George III's Proclamation
(courtesy City of London)

As a result of the riots Lord George Gordon was charged with treason and was sent to the Tower of London. He spent 8 months in prison but was later cleared of blame. He later abandoned his Christian faith and became Jewish, changing his name to Abraham George Gordon. He died in Newgate Prison aged 42 having been incarcerated for libelling Marie Antoinette.

As a result of the riots:

285 people died
200 were wounded
450 people were arrested
25 people were hung
£200,000 worth of damage
£70,000 compensation paid to individuals
100 Roman Catholic buildings (including churches, presbyteries and private homes) were looted and/or burned.

I really enjoyed this walk, as it was about a period I knew very little about. The next walk is a longer evening walk on The Bloomsbury Group.


Desperate and Searching said...

I have just stumbled across your blog and have found it absolutely fascinating. Please, Sir, can we have some more?

Artech said...

great Idea for a walk, will do this on my next trip to the Capital

The London Spy said...

Letitia Holland actually had her sentence commuted to imprisonment in Clerkenwell Bridewell and was present during a break out. As a consequence of trying to warn the gaolers, she was raped by the inmates.