Friday 24th May 1816 was the final day of the labourer's uprising in Littleport & Ely, in Cambridgeshire. Once again, Peacock (1965, pp.pagenos) gave a good description of events using various sources:
Friday, 24th May was the most eventful day in the story of the East Anglian riots. The Ely magistrates had sent for troops to Bury, and had deputised Law "to convey the intelligence" of what had been going on to the Home Secretary. He left for London shortly after the attack on Cooper's house. En route he called on the Royston Yeomanry Cavalry and a detachment of these was sent to Ely. Later, he went to see Lord Sidmouth and asked for regular troops to be sent to the troubled city.
Sidmouth did not seem to think that troops were needed but sent to ask an associate of his, Sir Henry Bate Dudley, to go back with Law and take charge of operations to pacify the troubled districts.' Dudley agreed and met Law the following day. They set out for Ely early on Friday morning.
Bate Dudley and Law arrived in Ely at 2.30 p.m., with another forty-two of the Royston Volunteer Cavalry under Captain Wortham, to find the place in an uproar. (Vachell and Peploe Ward had written to Sidmouth, asking for no less than "two full troops of Horse and a piece or two of artillery" to add to the Royston Yeomanry and a seventeen-strong detachment of the 1st Regiment of the Royal Dragoons who were there under the command of Captain Methuen.) Methuen was at first held in check by the frightened magistrates in the same way that Lieutenant Goodenough had been at Brandon. The Dragoons paraded the streets but at about eleven o'clock an incident developed when John Hassett dashed from a crowd of twenty or more hostile labourers and assaulted Joseph Heamers, one of the soldiers. Grabbing the man's sword, Hassett was alleged to have said, "Damn your Eyes I have got your sword and will fight any of you you Bugger". Following this, fighting took place and Methuen's men arrested some labourers, including Wilson. Wyebrow and some of his friends from Downham, but they somehow contrived to escape. This was the first stirring against the crowd for which Daubeny and Seymour, two J.P.s, were responsible. Bate Dudley, however, told Sidmouth that the mob had destroyed "dwellings, stacks and granaries" and blamed "My Brother Magistrates who had entered into an indiscreet amnesty with the Principal Insurgents". His written accounts of the troubles were highly coloured and penned, of course, to glorify his own part.
Nevertheless he did act with promptitude and considerable bravery although he had the troops to back him up that the unfortunate Ward and Metcalfe earlier had not.
Ely was brought quickly under control by the new arrivals and Bate Dudley was told of the troubles elsewhere. "The continuing outrages at Littleport are so alarming," he wrote to Sidmouth almost immediately after he arrived in Ely, "that I am determined to dash at the insurgents without delay." About ten more people were recruited from the populace and then Dudley and Law, at the head of "20 of the Royston Yeomanry, the Detachment of the 1st Royal Dragoons and some inhabitants of Ely, and part of the staff of the Cambridge Militia", went "full charge" to Littleport.
A number of colourful stories gathered around the story of the attack on Littleport, none of which can be substantiated, but most of which are worth repeating. The Rev. E. Coneybeare, for instance, said that the rioters were hunted by a Hanoverian Regiment who combed the district "with true German thoroughness", whereas in fact these troops had left the country long before May.
"Local tradition still hands down the tale of the poor thatcher," he recorded, "who was engaged on the roof of the great tithe barn at Ely (the largest in the kingdom) at the moment when a detachment of these foreigners was marching past. The usual thatcher's cry to his assistant, 'Bunch! bunch!' was interpreted by the German officer in command as an insult to his troops. On the instant he halted them beside the barn, and gave the order to fire. Pierced by a dozen musket balls, the unhappy thatcher rolled from the roof, his body falling upon the great folding door of the barn, which happened to be half open. There it hung, dripping with blood for over three days, the officer swearing that anyone who dared to remove it should share the same fate, as an example to all to behave with due respect to their oppressors."
Another writer painted a fanciful yet dramatic picture of the events of Friday and a clash with Methuen's troops. The armed waggon certainly had not been taken to Ely again.
Next morning a report was circulated that the horse soldiers were coming. The waggon that was brought by the rioters on the previous day was placed at The Lamb corner, and upon it were placed heavy wash guns, charged heavily with slugs, and manned by pot valiant fenmen trained to command the road. Others with forks, cleavers, knives, and bludgeons had assembled, swearing they would cut down every soldier as he came up. About noon a cry was raised, "They are coming", and a troop of Dragoons from Bury came up the Gallery at a sharp trot, their carbines at hip, swords gleamingin the sunlight. The bright helmets, with the rattle and clank of horses' feet and military trappings were too awful for the warlike fenmen and their supporters; they bolted in wild confusion in all directions, some making off for Littleport, others creeping out of Ely the best way they could. Sir Bates [sic] Dudley was sent down also by Government to check further violence. Some of the princi¬pal rioters were soon overhauled, hoisted in a waggon, and thrashed through the streets. Dudley's ride, as it was called, spread terror throughout the fens, and a wholesale dread of incurring the wrath of Sir Dudley.
While preparations for an attack on Littleport were being made, the labourers there were celebrating in the usual manner. Most of their time was spent in drinking with what money was left over from Thursday, and there were only a very few half-hearted incidents like those of Thursday. South went back to Josiah Dewey's and threatened him with a gun saying, "blast you, I have a good mind to shoot you in your House", and Cammell and Rutter led a crowd to the house of James Horsley, a thatcher, and demanded £5. Much of the spirit the labourers showed the previous day seemed to have gone, and they went away after Horsley had promised them that he would go along to Dennis's public house, a promise which he did not keep. James Luddington, a J.P., also argued with a crowd led by Joseph Irons, who went away from him empty-handed but threatening to return with "the foreman" (Dennis). William Walker was also threatened and told by Robert Langford that the mob was reassembling and that, unless he handed over money and gin, his house would be burnt down. It was generally believed that a plan was afoot to fire Littleport and Ely later during the day. Bate Dudley certainly thought so, and William Crow was reported to have heard James Lee say that "If the overseers of the parish will not come forward this day (Friday) and pay all us [sic] two, shillings per day for yesterday and today then woe be to Littleport tonight". Asked if he meant fire, he replied, "Yes", and told Crow to spread the news around. Long after the riots were over, reports appeared in the East Anglian newspapers saying an attempt to start something had actually been made in Ely.
"The design of the Littleport rioters to destroy the town of Ely by fire," it was reported, "has been manifested by a discovery, made within these few days, of a quantity of combustible materials, which were found in the warehouse of a Mr. Garratt, a respectable grocer of that place, secretly laid immediately under the floor where he kept his casks of gunpowder: amongst these combustibles was a piece of charcoal, the fire of which appeared to have been providentially extinguished from the want of air."
When Bate Dudley and Law arrived at Littleport at about six o'clock in the evening, most of the labourers were in The George. Robert Stevens, a local surgeon, said that the Fighting Parson dismounted and commanded them to give themselves up. Cammell became abusive and Bate Dudley tried to grab him, but broke off the encounter when either Rutter or Daniel. Wilson, the blacksmith, hit him over the head with an iron bar. The prosecution brief of "The King versus Daniel Wilson" in the Cambridgeshire Record Office describes this undignified treatment of the victor of so, many duels thus:
N.B. The truth is that Sir H. B. Dudley attended by the Military went to the door of The George public house and commanded the Rioters to surrender upon which Cammell came out and stood in the Door way and said come on you Piccadilly Butchers (alluding probably to the military) upon which Sir Henry collared him and it was during the struggle between Sir H. B. Dudley & Cammell that this assault took place.
Shortly after the assault on Bate Dudley, shooting began. It is not clear who fired the first shots, but the labourers, were no match for the military. John Simmons, one of the Dragoons, was knocked off his horse and a sergeant's knee was injured when he, too, was unhorsed. Thomas South seriously injured a soldier named Wallance, a Waterloo veteran, who eventually had an arm amputated and became a pensioner on the Littleport poor rates. These were all the injuries among Bate Dudley's party, but among the labourers casualties were greater. Thomas Sindall was captured and then shot through the head by William Porter while trying to escape, and a colleague had part of his jaw taken away by a sabre cut. Isaac Harley was badly shot but lived to regret that "having three waistcoats on, prevented his death that day".
Most reports of the incidents at Littleport said that two labourers were killed during the fighting, but Sindall was undoubtedly the only fatality. Bate Dudley told Sidmouth there were two and every journal and newspaper wrote in the same way, The Morning Post, for instance, saying so in the very issue that reported the Coroner's inquest on Sindall. W. H. Barrett says that, according to tradition, two soldiers were also killed and not found until their bodies were dug up during excavations forty years later. It is inconceivable that their disappearance would have escaped comment at the time, however.
The labourers scattered after the affray outside The George, chased by the soldiers. Fifty-six were taken into custody that evening and a further forty-two were brought in on the Saturday. The chase was not without its drama and the Dragoons compared favourably with those at Norwich.
"We understand that after the firing ceased at Littleport," noted the Norwich Mercury, "two privates of the First Royal Dragoons, being in close pursuit of two daring offenders on one of the banks of the River Ouse, and the latter having taken to a boat and crossed the river, immediately gave their horses to, a bystander and elevating their pistols with their left hands above the water, swam across the river with their right arms, to the opposite bank, and secured the two men, the river is of a great width."
All over the weekend labourers were taken in and examined by the magistrates. The two Harleys and John Dennis, for instance, who had £25 in notes with him, were caught on the 25th at West Dereham. Many were sheltered by other labourers, one of whom was eventually fully committed to the Special Assizes for doing so. This was David Stimson who was visited by James Smith of Eriswell, Suffolk, constable,
who on his oath saith that on Saturday Evening the twenty-fifth day of May instant he went to the house of the Prisoner David Stimson who, resides in Burnt Fen in the Parish of Mildenhall in the County of Suffolk for the purpose of searching the said house after some Rioters who were suspected to be concealed there that the said David Stimson told him this informant that he had, had half a Dozen secreted there the night before and that he would secrete them.
Some of the locals were zealous in their attempt to bring the labourers to book. One of the bills paid by the magistrates of Ely was for £1 3s. 5d. "Expenses for the apprehension and keeping in custody Thomas Tippell alias Gibbons on suspicion of being Jefferson a Littleport Rioter who was absconded".
Some of the labourers who ran from Ely, Downham and Littleport got well away, and Bow Street officers were employed to apprehend them. Aaron Layton was one who was caught in London. William Gotobed also got to the capital, but was never caught. He eventually returned to Littleport several years later after his wife and family had become chargeable to the parish and the locals had petitioned on his behalf. His brother, Thomas, had also not been, caught by the time of the trial and Stephen Saunderson was, another who went to London, got clean away and was never brought to book.
About eighty prisoners were eventually caught, sent before Bate Dudley and the other magistrates and fully committed for trial. It was decided to try them at Special Assizes, which, it was hoped, would attract great attention and serve as a warning to rioters in other parts of the country. According to Sidmouth it was successful in doing this.
The Home Secretary also changed his mind about the need for sending more troops to the troubled areas. He had stopped the disembodying of the West Norfolk Militia on the 18th May and promised to send troops to Brandon the following day. Hearing that Ely Cathedral was in danger and that "reports from neighbouring villages" confirmed there was "a riotous disposition" prevailing, he despatched three troops of cavalry (100 men), two six pounders and three companies of the 69th Regiment there under the command of Major General Byng. He also ordered the Lords Lieutenants to go to their respective counties, expressed grave dissatisfaction at the behaviour of the magistrates, and ordered the following proclamation to be displayed prominently in all the trouble spots.
Sidmouth's decision, to send troops to East Anglia and the magistrates' firmness—although belated—almost certainly prevented the riots spreading further. On the very day that the shooting took place in Littleport, there had been troubles elsewhere. There had been every indication that the affair there was but the beginning of a really widespread rebellion.