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The Gordon Riots

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 The 1778 Act had repealed harsh anti-Catholic legislation from the 17th century and excused Roman Catholics from swearing the oath of allegiance (with its implicit recognition of the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.

Engraving of Gordon Rioters 1781 - opens new window
The 'burning, plundering and destruction'
of Newgate Prison
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Proclamation by King George III given at the Court of St James's on 7 June 1780  - opens new window
Disorderly Assembly
in London

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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 were attacked.

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.

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Black Rioters and Observers

Among the mob were two men, John Glover and Benjamin Bowsey, described in newspaper records as 'Black' or Glossary - opens new window'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 Sancho, 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 comrades'.

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.


Bowsey and Glover, stay of execution, 19 July 1780  - opens new window
A Stay of Execution
for the Rioters
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A more humane attitude was emerging in the judicial process in the late 18th century, as the philosophy of the Glossary - opens new windowEnlightenment 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.


Pardoned - opens new window
Death Sentences
in Disguise
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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

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