The Gordon Riots

The Gordon Riots of 1780.

On the 6th June 1780, Lord George Gordon, a Whig Member of Parliament and strongly pro – American and head of the Protestant Association, presented a petition to Parliament demanding the repeal of the Catholic Relief Act of 1778, supported by a large crowd, estimated to be between 40,000 – 60,000 strong who, by Gordon’s orders, were dressed in their Sabbath best, the result was an invasion of the Palace of Westminster. The invasion was cheered on by the Whigs and a shocked Parliament found itself subject to a physical attack during which ministers, judges and Bishops lost their wigs and their composure and there ensued five days of anarchic behaviour in the capital city of London that nearly brought the nation to another civil war. The Catholic Relief Act was intended to reduce discrimination against Catholics in Britain but Protestants were worried about a return of a Catholic majority and wanted to send a very clear message to both Government and monarch that this would never be accepted.

Gordon’s petition was defeated 192 votes to 6.

The protest evolved into riots and widespread looting. Local magistrates were afraid of reprisals and did not issue the riot act. There was no repression until the Army finally moved in and started shooting. The main violence lasted from 2 June to 9 June, 1780.

The Gordon Riots John Seymour Lucas

The background to the Gordon Riots.

The Gordon Riots were the result of many things happening in both British politics and the British economy. Decades of political change brought about by the new King George III who, when he ascended the throne in 1760 sought to sweep away the controlling Whigs. His aim was to put he an end to partisan politics. He sought to replace party politics with ‘good men’ who would serve the country well. Old ‘Tories’ were once again welcomed back into the parliamentary fold having spent many decades elbowed to the margins by the Whigs. The were not the old Tory party that had long disappeared but they were certainly not Whigs. This of course led to a split, those who favoured King George and those who stood against him. The ousted Whigs were appalled by the King’s desire to return to a monarchy that would use it’s prerogative and set up a new powerful court around the monarch. There were many critics but perhaps the most significant was John Wilkes, the genius political imp, whose mischief making squeezed the King into a very tight corner.

The lead up to the riots.

The European wars of the early to mid C18th were both costly and time consuming to the nations involved and became more entangled as time went on. A whole flotilla of mistrust and complicated political power games were being enacted on many European stages. One of the main problems between Britain and France was their overseas colonial struggle for control of North America and India. The Treaty of Paris in 1763 allowed King George and his Parliament to have significant control to do what they wanted regarding America and that was to stabilize and strengthen the country, to allow for expansion of the colonies and most importantly, to strengthen it against the next very probable French attack. To do this they were intent on increasing taxes in America to help reduce the postwar debt in Britain. They wanted to bring America closer to Britain. What played out we know is very far from what was envisaged and the result was a more powerful group of American citizens who wanted some measure of independence from Britain.

Certainly there was an increasing divide in the country between the ‘partisans’, dissenters and those pro an independent America and Protestant. Many of them intellects such as Joseph Priestly and Thomas Paine and those that supported the King and Parliament in wanting to keep America close, this included many high level Catholics.

John Wilkes attacked the King’s acceptance of the Treaty of Paris 1763, which he and his followers claimed the King had given away to the French. Those who were for the Treaty saw it as a winning situation for the British, leaving them dominant in North America and East India and this was vital if Britain was going to continue its expansion of power and trade in the world.

The Gordon Riots Charles Green

John Wilkes, a thorn in the side of British Government.

John Wilkes was a thorn in the side of the new politicians and the King. His complicated and charismatic character drew people to him. Despite being in exile and prison he was a character that would not go away and when he eventually returned and was elected Lord Mayor of London, he had the populist vote behind him. The merchants, the bankers, the craftsmen of London loved him and why? Because John Wilkes spoke with patriotic fervour and this pleased those who had made money from the wars Britain had been involved with and didn’t want a peace treaty with France, it was not good for business. Why is this important to the Gordon Riots? Because Wilkes supported the idea of American colonial rights.

And thus it was that in the 1770’s Britain found itself struggling to find a solution to reconciling it’s desire to form a greater colonial power base, something neither the French nor the Spanish wanted us to have. America was split, Britain divided and France and Spain keen to make much out of the debacle. So began the American War of Independence with France meanwhile stirring things up in India. King George increased the size of the Navy and the Army. Taxes rose and Britain was burdened by the costs of such an effort. The men filling these places came from all over but a large contingent came from Ireland which gave Dublin leverage over London. Catholics were willing to serve the King and the King responded with an Irish Relief Act in 1778 and a British Catholic Relief Act in the same year.

The backlash from pro American and anti – popery supporters came swiftly with Lord George Gordon leading the way.

The Gordon Riots unfold.

Gordon’s petition was defeated 192 votes to 6. Despite the size of the mob, constables in the area had not been called out and when they did eventually arrive, only a small number of arrests were made and the crowd moved onto to other areas of the city and they camped themselves on Moorfield. Attacks were carried out on property and churches belonging to Catholics. The rioting continued over several days, Newgate and the ‘Clink’ prison were broken open and many prisoners escaped. No one read the Riot Act, quite why not is uncertain and without the Riot Act being read the troops could not act. However on the 7th June, after an attempt to break into the Bank of England, the King himself called out the troops to finally deal with the rioters and were given orders to fire upon groups of four or more who refused to disperse. This was an alarming step for both Parliament and people. About 285 people were shot dead, with another 200 wounded. Around 160 of the rioters were put on trial and of those, about twenty or thirty were later tried and executed. Gordon was arrested and charged with high treason but was found not guilty. 

Repercussions of the Gordon Riots.

The Gordon Riots were an incredibly important full stop in British history. It brought an end to the belief in Europe and the rest of the world that the rule of the British Parliament was absolute and in control. It caused political and economic damage. Whigs denounced the King for his action.

It damaged the reputation of many leaders including John Wilkes who led the troops against the rioters, many saw this as a betrayal on his part.

It highlighted the need for a standing police force in London to control events before the troops were called.

And it showed the genuinely borne grievances of British people fed up with high taxation and war and with the prospect of a return to Catholicism and that, the dissenters would never allow.

Charles Dickens wrote his novel ‘Barnaby Rudge’ and set it in this period.

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