Sunday, 19 April 2015

19th April 1815: Meeting of the unemployed in Nottingham turns into a riot

By Wednesday 19th April 1815, discontent was stirring in Nottingham, but unlike Luddism, it was far from covert and seemed to be percolating more generally among the unemployed.

A number of Constables were later to depose what they observed taking place that day in the town.

At noon, John Rainbow had spotted the following handbill or notice posted on the wall of the Leather Bottle Inn, in an area facing the Meadow Platts:
That is particularly requested that all persons out of Employment will meet on a vacant piece of Ground called Burton Lease in order that it may be ascertained what numbers are out of employ and to consult on the best means to relieve their distresses to meet this Evening Wednesday at six oClock

April 19th 1815       God save the People
Rainbow also deposed that he had seen a similar notice posted at the west end of Narrow Marsh at 1.00 p.m.

Estimates varied amongst the constables as to how many attended the meeting that evening. Rainbow merely stated that 'a great number of people' were assembled. Another Constable, Benjamin Hall, estimated '200 or 300', whilst another, Benjamin Barnes saw the number swell from 100 to an eventual 1000. All agreed the crowd was being addressed by a speaker, although Barnes stated that the mass present were gathered in a circular fashion around 6 central characters, who were conversing with each other.

Barnes' highly detailed account of the meeting continued with the meeting breaking up when a crowd of men and boys appeared at the top of nearby Charlotte Street and gave out a shout. Most of those present then left to join them, making off in the direction of St Mary's workhouse, before 3 more shouts were given, and most of the crowd made for the marketplace. He went on to say that some of the crowd lingered at Burton Leys, formed a circle and quickly agreed to meet the following Monday 'upon the forest'.

By this time, most of the crowd had ventured up Pelham Street. The crowd then set about breaking the windows of numerous bakers around the town, and that two boys were taken into custody following this.

It is interesting to contrast the accounts in the depositions with how the events were reported in the press on the following Friday.

The Nottingham Review of 21st April 1815 gave a highly partial account of a meeting and the riot that followed in Nottingham on Wednesday 19th April 1815:
On Wednesday morning, it was discovered that several written papers had been stuck on the walls, in the most populous parts of this town, which called upon all persons out of employment to meet on a plot of waste ground, called Burton Leys, near Milton-street, at six o'clock that evening, for the pretended purpose of consulting on the best means to be adopted for the obtainment of relief under their disagreeable circumstances. It was clear to the more reflecting part of the inhabitants, that the writer of these papers is either a blockhead, or one of those designing knaves who wish to make use of the indiscretion of the thoughtless to furnish a pretence for letting loose military vengeance upon the inhabitants at large, because the greater part of them steadily and peacefully pursue a course of opposition to those measures of state policy, which they think inimical to the general interests of the country. Whatever might be the motive of the writer (and it could not be a good one) it was evident that that principle of curiosity, which is so natural to man, would draw a considerable number of persons together, notwithstanding efforts had been made by several discrete persons, in the course of the day, to prevent such a measure from taking place; the Magistrates had therefore directed the Constables to be on duty, and the soldiers were also ordered to be in readiness, if their aid should unhappily be wanted. We attended in the course of the evening to see what was going forward, and, was glad to find, with the exception of spectators like ourselves, that the company consisted chiefly of boys, and a few men half-intoxicated; and, when night set in, there was good reason to hope, that it would be passed without trouble or commotion; because the good sense of several workmen was exercised with apparent effect to prevail on the group thus assembled to disperse. The hopes, however, of the peaceful, were in some degree, disappointed, and those of the foolish, or malignant contrivers of the meeting, partly gratified: for, during the course of the evening, parties of mischievous boys got together, and broke the windows of several bakers and floursellers in various parts of the town. The civil and military power was called into action, and the public peace was shortly restored. What infatuation could induce even these thoughtless boys to break the baker’s windows, we are at a loss to guess, except that when once assembled they could not disperse without doing mischief of some kind; for most assuredly it is not to that class of tradesmen that the country owes her misfortunes. Before closing this article we will most sincerely express our hopes, that the good sense of the people will not suffer themselves to be led astray by anyone, either blockhead or knave again, to disturb the public peace. Two boys were taken up during the confusion, and are now in custody.
Even less partial was the Tory Nottingham Gazette of the same date:

This town appears doomed to be a scene of disgraceful outrage of every description. On Wednesday placards were posted in two or three different parts of the town, inviting all persons who were out of employment to meet that evening at six o'clock, at a piece of open ground, called Burton Leys, at the top of Boot Lane, in order to ascertain their numbers, and devise means for the alleviation of their distresses. The Address ended with the words "GOD SAVE THE PEOPLE!!!" A considerable assemblage of course took place, at first chiefly of young lads and women, who, instead of discussing the subject of their meeting, indulged for two or three hours in tumultuous amusements, till, their number having increased, and favoured by the darkness, they proceeded in a riotous manner through the streets, breaking the windows of several bakers, and demanding bread. The tradesmen who complied with this requisition, by giving up a loaf or two to the mob, had their windows spared; and the bread thus obtained was kicked and knocked about the streets, till it was generally rendered unfit for human consumption. By the timely exertions of the magistrates, who deemed it prudent to call out the military, the infatuated populace were dispersed without any serious mischief having occurred, and we trust a repetition of this disgraceful scene will not be attempted. To say nothing of the impossibility that any good consequence can arise from such proceedings, we conjure these deluded people to reflect on the danger to which they wantonly and uselessly expose themselves. The law is now established, by the trials which ensued on the late riots in London, that every individual is justifiable in firing upon a mob, not only if they attack the property of himself, but if they are found attacking that of others; and it is therefore impossible to foresee the mischief that may in an instant arise from these unlawful practices.

We have a sensible letter from a Correspondent, on the subject, which, however, we beg leave to decline inserting, as we think some of his censures, if not undeserved, least premature. He estimates the number of rioters at two thousand; and supposing that to be double their number, he very judiciously observes, that it is clear an immense majority could not be in want of employment, and that they were too probably called together for other puposes, and acted with other views than those of obtaining work. Certainly an attack on the property of an industrious class of men, the bakers, who cannot be blamed for the scarcity of work, or the dearness of bread, was by no means likely to procure employment any where but in the house of correction. Several of the rioters, we understand, are in custody. Should it be found that they had employment, we hope that aggravation of their offence probably not be forgotten in inflicting on them a due degree of punishment. Those who have been betrayed into excesses by personal privations or difficulties, are entitled to pity for their misfortunes, while they are punished, as punished they must be, for their misconduct. Those who have had no motive but that of wanton wickedness and contempt of the laws deserve neither lenity nor compassion. Another meeting was agreed to be held, but we trust it will be abandoned. For obvious reasons, we consider it prudent to state neither the time nor the place of assembly.

The Constables depositions can be read at HO 42/144.

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