Early on Monday 20th May 1816, serious rioting broke out in Downham Market, lasting all of the day. Norfolk. Peacock (1965, pp.87-92) gave a good account of the insurrection using various sources:
On Monday, 20th May ... really serious rioting broke out in Downham Market and the day ended with that town in a state of chaos. It was general throughout the whole area for magistrates and overseers to hold weekly meetings, usually on a Monday, and on that day the representatives of the Hundred and Half of Clacklose were meeting in Downham. The labourers set out to confront them.
At some time between seven and eight o’clock, a crowd of about sixty began to gather in the little village of Southery, a few miles from Feltwell. Among them, some who “displayed some military knowledge” began to press the fainter hearts in the village into joining them. James Galley, a labourer, was spokesman and he led them to Robert Martin's farm, where labourers were forced to unyoke their horses and join the crowd. A little later they called at the unpopular John Benton's farm and compelled another three men to leave their work. John Stern, a labourer, threatened to break open the barn, but Benton was armed, and the crowd went off towards Downham Market, led by John Bowers blowing a horn. They arrived at Denver at about ten o'clock and pressed more men into their ranks. Stern threatened they would hang anyone who persisted in refusing to join them, and the crowd was in an ugly mood. Sarah More, a labouring woman from Hilgay, was heard to say they wanted "Bread or Blood". Robert Martin, the Southerey farmer, had ridden ahead of the crowd and called on Mr. Dering, a local magistrate, warning him that several hundreds of angry labourers were approaching Downham Market. Dering first of all asked what their demands were, then, sent to Captain Lee, who was about nine miles, away, asking him to assemble the Upwell Yeomanry Cavalry. He then went into town, and tried to enrol the populace as special constables, but "To his great disappointment he found his neighbours little disposed to exert themselves at that period"." John Balding, an overseer of the poor, went out to meet the crowd.
Balding met the crowd on the outskirts of the town and asked them what they were about. He was told that they intended to see the magistrates and heard some complaints from certain labourers that they were being forced to demonstrate against their will. When the labourers began breaking into Simpson's bread shop and distributing the loaves, he went back to report to the magistrates meeting at The Crown Inn. He stayed there until the crowd assembled outside, in the market place, at twelve o'clock. En route they had broken, into a shop belonging to John Parkinson, whose wife had locked the place and fled in panic. Scores of labourers from Downham had joined them and one report put their numbers as high as 1,500. Women were prominent amongst them, Frances Porter in particular. They broke down Parkinson's door and stole and distributed loaves of bread and 140 lbs. of flour. They also practically denuded the shop of sheeting, shoes, hats, umbrellas and so on. Only 6s. in cash was taken, but the whole of the loot was valued at over 8. Much of it was taken back later in the day, although some of it was sold. Another crowd, led by William Bell, Charles Nelson, Spencer Rayner and Hannah Jarvis, robbed George Thomas of four to five gallons of beer. As yet, however, things had not got completely out of hand and a courageous drover named Richard Gamble forced his way into Thomas's house, locked the cellar doors and turned the mob away.
A constable on duty outside The Crown took a message to the magistrates and overseers saying that the Southerey people wanted to talk to them. By this time the magistrates had determined to make some concessions and a deputation of eight labourers was invited in. They stated terms exactly like those agreed to at Brandon and Bury and said they wanted work and 2s. a day. They were then asked to go into another room while their demands were considered. When they returned, they were told that "the circumstances of produce being so much lowered in value the Farmers and others could not afford to grant what they wished", but that they agreed to allow 2s. a day and to supply flour at 2s. 6d. per stone "for those that had large families". This led to a tremendous argument, during which the magistrates and overseers displayed considerable courage, refusing to move from their original offer to make their concessions applicable to everyone, as at Brandon. John Bowers, the labourer, was particularly violent towards Robert Scale, an overseer, who told him, "You seem to be very forward with that large stick in your hand, but I am not to be intimidated by that". Bowers replied, "Yes, here's my stick, it never did anybody any harm yet—whatever it might do".
The magistrates followed the deputation outside into the square and addressed the crowd, asking them to go away. They were in no mood to disperse when they heard of the magistrates' stand, however, and began demanding the release of a gang of poachers who had recently been imprisoned in the town. Stones were thrown and the J.P.s were forced back into The Crown, followed by the crowd. Hare and Pratt escaped, but Dering was chased and eventually found refuge by hiding in the garden of Mr. Wales, the apothecary—whose house (according to one report) was broken up by labourers who were seeking the unfortunate magistrate. Another part of the crowd stayed inside The Crown, which they tore apart. They took flour and other eatables and made Samuel Johnson, the publican, supply them with fifteen gallons, of beer, all of which they consumed during the afternoon. Among those active here was Sindall, the rioter eventually shot at Littleport, and the only person known to have been involved at more than one place in the May riots.
The afternoon of Monday, 20th May, was given over to plunder and rioting in Downham—albeit here, as elsewhere, little violence was done to individuals (although Dering would have been in trouble had he been found). By this time Daniel Harwood, thirty-two, a native of Gooderstone, who was self-employed doing contract work with his waggon and team for farmers "as is the custom in that part of the country where he resided, near Downham", and Thomas Thody, twenty-two, born, at St. Neots, a married man with two children and then living at Nacton, had become prominent as leaders of the crowd. Thody was one of those who had imbibed at the landlord's expense at The Crown.
One of the first objects of attack during the afternoon was William Baldwin's flour mill. Thody and Harwood led a crowd to the mill where they relieved William Spinks, a millhand, of the key. Charles Nelson opened the door and the crowd rushed in and helped themselves, distributing, according to Baldwin, flour and seventy bushels of meal to the value of £35 10s. 0d. Elizabeth King and Nelson then robbed Mary Wyer of twenty loaves of bread and John Stern procured 12 lbs. of cheese which he took to The Crown and distributed among his friends. Hannah Jarvis led an attack on Stimson's shop where she cut up some loin of beef and distributed it amongst the rioters. From there she and Amelia Lightharness took a crowd to the shop of Francis Wiseman, a pork butcher. Amelia was heard to say "Here my boys, this is the place for good pork" and the crowd denuded the place, taking 250 lbs. of meat, valued at £9. Zachariah Stebbing, a gardener, said that he noticed William Bell, the yeoman, particularly active. "I noticed Bell," he said, "and thought that a man like him who kept a team of horses of his own should rob his neighbour." From Wiseman's, the crowd went to Samuel Bolton's shop. Bolton had already been forced earlier to give up all his cooked meats and was surprised when the mob called on him again late in the afternoon. He slammed the door and ran to get his guns, but William Fendyke, Harwood and Thody smashed the door in and the crowd helped themselves. Bolton said that Lightharness, Lucy Rumbelow and Anne Fuller were very prominent. Another section of the crowd went off to try to liberate the poachers.
At about five o'clock Captain Lee arrived with some men of the Clacklose Yeomanry Cavalry. Dering, still hiding in the chemist's garden, heard the troops and climbed over a wall to join, them. He led them on horseback to the market place and there read the Riot Act. As he finished, the part of the crowd which had tried to release the poachers returned and the market place was once again turned into a battleground. Stones, were thrown at the hated yeomanry, who retaliated by hitting out with the flats of their swords. Eventually the crowd dispersed although, according to John Lister, one of the cavalrymen, there were still troubles as late as seven o'clock. The troops and the special constables (seventy had enrolled after the cavalry arrived!) searched the public houses and imprisoned six or seven labourers. Lord Suffield told Sidmouth that, but for the arrival of Captain Lee, Dering's house would have been in flames.