| Conditions in cities in Britain
in the second half of the 18th century were unsanitary and overcrowded.
High taxes, unjust and repressive laws, government profiteering
and impressment into the army and navy were among the issues
that inflamed the working classes and bred discontent. Civil
disorder bubbled just under the surface of British society,
waiting for a reason to explode.
The fuse was lit in 1780, when Lord George Gordon called
for the repeal of the Catholic Relief Act of 1778 and a return
to the repression of Catholics. The 1778 Act had repealed
harsh anti-Catholic legislation from the 17th century and
excused Roman Catholics from swearing the oath of allegiance
(with its implicit recognition of the Church of England) on
joining the army.
The 'burning, plundering and destruction'
of Newgate Prison
|This idea of tolerating
Catholics was deeply resented in Protestant England, however,
and on 2 June Gordon led a crowd of 60,000 to the House of Commons
to present a petition stating that the legislation encouraged
'popery' and was a threat to the Church of England. Anti-Catholic
riots ensued in London, lasting for many days, as the masses
vented their anger. Protests were violent and aimed at Catholic
targets, such as homes and chapels, and a distillery owned by
a Catholic in High Holborn. They also seem to have expressed
a more general frustration: prisons and the Bank of England
With no regular police force, the army was called in to restore
order and King George III issued a proclamation to suppress
rebellion in the kingdom.
Black Rioters and Observers
Among the mob were two men, John Glover and Benjamin Bowsey,
described in newspaper records as 'Black' or 'Mulatto'.
Both were free men. John Glover was indicted with several
others and charged with 'riotous and tumultuous assembly;
assaulting Newgate and setting loose the prisoners and setting
fire to and destroying the prison'.
These events were confirmed by the Black writer Ignatius
who witnessed the uprising. He described how 'about a thousand
mad men, armed with clubs, bludgeons, and crows, just now
set off for Newgate, to liberate, they say, their honest
Similarly charged as a 'disorderly person' was Benjamin Bowsey,
a footman to General Honeywood. The General described his
servant as 'a very honest and very foolish fellow...that
got into idle company' while working in the kitchen of the
St Alban's Tavern.
The register shows that Bowsey and Glover, prisoners at the
gaol in Newgate (now the Old Bailey) were sentenced to death.
On 19 July 1780, from the Court of St James's, Judge Hillsborough
announced a stay of execution for both men. Then on 26 July,
Bowsey (who had only been reprieved until 27 July) received
a further reprieve.
A Stay of Execution
for the Rioters
A more humane attitude was emerging in the judicial process
in the late 18th century, as the philosophy of the Enlightenment
encouraged moves towards a less violent society. Because of
this, many prisoners of the time had their sentences commuted
from death to transportation. On 30 April 1781, Judge Hillsborough
informed the group of rioters, including Bowsey and Glover,
that they were to be pardoned on condition that they entered
and continued to serve as soldiers in the Corps of Footmen
on the coast of Africa.
As for Lord George Gordon, the leader and instigator of the
riots, he was subsequently tried before the Court of King's
Bench, found not guilty of treason, and acquitted.
References and Further Reading
Costello, R., Black Liverpool, Liverpool, 2001
Edwards, P., and Dabydeen, D., Black Writers in Britain
1760-1890, Edinburgh, 1991
Knapp, A., and Baldwin, W., Newgate Calendar, vol.
IV, pp.253-72, London, 1826
Sherwood, M., 'Blacks in the Gordon Riots', in History
Today vol. 47 (12), December 1997
For more information on Lord George Gordon and the Gordon
Riots, see: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/citizenship/rise_parliament/religious.htm