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Extracts from The Bristol Gazette on a riot in Bristol, 3 November 1831
(Catalogue ref: HO 40/28)

Source 3a


Awful and Calamitous Riots.


For several weeks there had been a feeling very general amongst many classes in this city – and a feeling shared equally by some of the most respectable individuals in the town – that the continued and perverse opposition of Sir Charles Wetherell to the Reform Bill, and the very gross and intemperate language in which he suffered himself to indulge, designating even the very highest official characters in the country as a set of “blundering, ignorant, unprincipled, and factious demagogues,” would lead to a very strong manifestation of feeling towards him on his entry as Recorder into this city. Nothing like violence was, however, we are quite sure, ever contemplated – and nothing like violence, we are equally sure, was evinced throughout the whole of the late deplorable scenes; – by any person who cares a straw about political principles. The injury that has been done, and the ruin that is now written in burning characters on one of the fairest portions of our city, were caused by the lowest creatures, who finding that the course of events indulged them in undisturbed control, gave loose to their passions; and becoming stimulated by plunder, maddened by liquor and rendered secure by non-interposition, resembled rather demons than human beings. …

Source 3b

It was also deemed advisable to enrol in a number of special constables for the occasion, some of whom were gentlemen from the different wards, who volunteered their services, and others were individuals hired for the day. – On Saturday morning early this force was accordingly assembled in the area of the Exchange, and each having been provided with a short staff, proceeded to meet Sir Charles at Totterdown, and escort him into the city. It was generally understood at the same time that a body of the military was stationed in the new Cattle Market, near Hills-bridge, and another at the Gaol, ready to act if occasion required. Notwithstanding the change of the usual hour, the streets were crowded with people, thronging towards the Bath-road. At this time it was evident that among the crowd there were many persons ripe for mischief. Of this number, hardly a single individual wore the appearance of a mechanic; they wholly consisted of boys and striplings, persons evidently without stated employment, which the densely populated purlieus of wretchedness and vice in St. Philip’s and in the neighbourhood of Lawford’s Gate had sent forth on the occasion. Not a few among them were women of abandoned character, and these, by their violent language, seemed well fitted to urge them on to desperation.

At about half-past ten, Sir Charles was perceived to approach, at a rapid rate, in a chariot drawn by four greys, and on stopping at Totterdown for the purpose of being handed into the Sheriff’s carriage, he was instantly assailed by the most deafening yells, groans, and hisses. …

Source 3c

We firmly believe, from our own observation and from the concurrent testimony of numerous persons of all political principles present, that if it had not been for the very indiscreet zeal of some of the volunteer constables, no further disturbance would have taken place. True it is that some stones – we are sure they did not exceed half-a-dozen – had been thrown, and some very trifling injury had taken place. The constables, however, aided by some very young gentlemen, who loudly made a boast of their principles, charged into the crowd, and made themselves particularly busy in apprehending various individuals, whom they dragged into the Mansion-House, using their staves without mercy. The mob, who at this time were quite unarmed, raised a cry of “To the Back,” where piles of faggots for firewood are usually kept, and in a short time about fifty, principally boys, returned with sticks. A kind of rescue was attempted, which ended in the rout of the mob, and the constables proceeded back in triumph. …

The mob became more daring; sticks and stones were discharged in quick succession at the windows of the Mansion-House, and no resistance being offered they proceeded to extremities. The Mayor came forward, and called upon the multitude to desist, and return to their respective dwellings. …

His Worship, we regret to state, during his address, was assaulted with stones, and a very large one very narrowly missed striking him on the head. The riot-act was then read, but without producing the least good effect upon the mob, who, perceiving the weakness of the force opposed to them, rushed upon the constables, disarmed them, and beat them severely. …

Source 3d

A simultaneous attack was made from several quarters on the Mansion-House. The iron-railings in front were torn up like magic, and with these formidable weapons, acting as crow-bars, and with long poles, all the lower windows, the shutters, frames, front and side doors, were beaten in. Where the special constables were at this moment does not appear; certain it is they offered no resistance. A free entrance being gained, the mob proceeded up stairs, and every article of furniture – tables, chairs, glasses, earthen-ware, and the splendid chandeliers – were almost immediately demolished, and the fragments thrown into the street. The beds were thrown out of the windows and taken down and flung into the Float. A portmanteau, containing, we believe, Sir Charles’s wearing-apparel, was ransacked of papers and clothes, and then hung up on a lamp-post. The Recorder himself made his escape over the roofs of the houses, succeeded in getting away unnoticed, and left the city for London in the course of the night. …

They had gone so far as to procure straw and other combustibles with the intention of setting the Mansion-House on fire, when the military arrived from Clifton at a sharp trot, and immediately cleared the front and sides of the Mansion-House, which was thus saved from immediate destruction. …

During the sacking of the Mansion-House, the wine cellars were forced, and it is supposed that at least one third of a stock of three hundred dozen of choice wines was carried off and wasted and drank by the mob. It is needless to say that the result was fraught with the worst possible effects: …

At this time the following large bills were posted up in the Square: –

“Council House, Oct. 30th, 1831.”
“Sir Charles Wetherell left Bristol at 12 o’clock last night.”
“The Riot Act has been read three times. All Persons found tumultuously Assembling are guilty of Capital Felony.
“Sunday, October 30th, 1831.” “By Order of the Mayor.”

– These were, however, soon torn down, and the unfortunate bill-sticker knocked about; his kettle was taken from him, the paste thrown out, and the kettle forced upon his head, amidst the laughter of the mob. …

Source 3e

The mob had, in the course of the morning, obtained possession of a quantity of iron-railings, &c. and early in the afternoon a party proceeded, armed with these implements, pickaxes, hatchets, &c. to Bridewell, with the avowed intention of liberating the prisoners that had been committed the preceding day. – …

After liberating the prisoners, they systematically proceeded to set one wing on fire, and the building was soon in a bright glow. About the same time a much larger party proceeded to the New Gaol, a very strong stone building, erected only a few years ago, at a very great expense. …

The rioters, we have heard, procured hammers from the adjoining ship-yard, and with them the massive locks on the iron doors of the different wings were smashed to atoms. The prisoners were now released, and the scenes which followed were beyond description. Many of them, both male and female, stripped off their prison clothes, and proceeded on their way almost in a state of nudity. As they passed along, the mob cheered them and followed after them with exultations. …

The sight in town at this moment was indeed appalling. – In one direction were the vivid flames of the New Gaol and the Toll Houses; in another the conflagration of Bridewell, the other wing of which was now in a blaze; and in the third the reflection of the flames from the County Prison, which threw as strong a light on Bristol Bridge and the river underneath, as if they had been only a few yards distant. …

Why these soldiers did not act we cannot tell. If they had no orders, the most serious investigation must take place. It was impossible to behold the cool and deliberate manner in which the sacking was going on, and the open, barefaced manner in which the work of incendiarism was promoted, whilst at the same time not above a handful of rioters were visible, without feeling convinced that the City was abandoned to its fate, and that there existed no tenure for private property or even life, but the mere will of some few score excited and infuriated villains. …

Not a fire engine was present, nor do we hear that any made the attempt. …

Source 3f

On Monday morning it was evident that all time for further dallying or temporizing was past – the troops that had left the city were recalled, and others were momentarily expected. All the shops were shut, and a noticed issued from the Magistrates [f]or every one to keep within doors, at the risk of being exposed to the most imminent peril. The town presented the appearance of a besieged city. The military cleared the streets, and those who did not instantly disperse were immediately cut at, several being seriously injured, and we believe some killed. …

Towards the evening, the flames which had been smouldering all day, broke out afresh, and Prince’s-street again presented a frightful spectacle, though trifling as compared with that of the night before. In King-street, the pavement was forced up by the heat arising from some brandy burning in the vaults below, and the walls of some warehouses fell down with a most tremendous crash into the street, reaching as far as the Library, and completely blocking up the thoroughfare. – The engines were, however, now in readiness, and prevented the flames from spreading. – …

Yesterday (Tuesday) the same precautions were kept up; and the day was principally devoted to the searching after property plundered during the night of the Fire, and which was carried off at the time with impunity. The Exchange was appointed as a common receptacle, and the mass of furniture of every description – beds, wearing apparel, tables, linen, glass, plate, knives and forks, &c. &c. collected there during the day is truly astonishing. …

The total damage is estimated by various individuals to amount from 4 to £800,000. …

Eight inquests on bodies of persons who lost their lives during the riots have been held by Mr. Langley; of which two died by excessive drinking, four were burnt in the Square, and two were shot. A very great number must have lost their lives, of which we can obtain no account.

Glossary  Transcript

Source 3a
calamitous disastrous
perverse stubborn
gross and intemperate language offensive and excessive (over the top) language
factious given to or promoting internal disagreements
demagogues leaders who get power by appealing to people’s emotions and prejudices
manifestation a public display of group feelings
Recorder the job Sir Charles Wetherell had come to do
evinced demonstrated
rendered secure by non-interposition made safe because no one tried to intervene

Source 3b
staff long stick, e.g. walking stick, flag pole
mechanic skilled worker, e.g. someone skilled in using tools to work with wood, metal, etc
striplings adolescent youths
purlieus neighbourhoods
assailed attacked; assaulted

Source 3c
concurrent agreeing
staves long sticks
faggots bundles of twigs or sticks
rout of the mob defeat; disorderly retreat after defeat
extremities extreme actions
called upon the multitude to desist, and return to their respective dwellings asked the crowd to stop and return to their homes

Source 3d
portmanteau large bag
to procure straw and other combustibles to get straw and other items that would burn
sacking looting or robbing of a captured place
Riot Act There was a law that a crowd of 12 or more people disturbing the public peace must all leave and scatter when told to (when the Riot Act was read to them by authorities).
All Persons found tumultuously Assembling are guilty of Capital Felony. All people found in a disorderly gathering are guilty of a crime that could get the death penalty.

Source 3e
procured got
exultations rejoicing; enjoying a triumph
conflagration large destructive fire
incendiarism the act of maliciously setting fires; arson
there existed no tenure for private property or even life, but the mere will of some few score excited and infuriated villains the holding on to private property or even life was decided by a small number of excited and angry villains (i.e. everyone was at the mercy of the mob)

Source 3f
temporizing adelaying; acting slowly to gain time
impunity freedom from harm or punishment
receptacle container; place used for receiving or containing something
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