Saturday, 21 May 2016

21st May 1816: Labourers from Southery march to Downham Market to demand, and obtain, the release of prisoners

On Tuesday 21st May 1816, and a a day after prisoners were taken during the riots at Downham Market, their comrades set out from Southery again to obtain their release. Peacock (1965, pp.91-92) gave a good description of the events:
The following day a crowd in Southerey, led by Stern, John Neal and Hardy, waited upon Robert Martin. They told the farmer that they wanted the release of their colleagues who had been arrested the day before, and sent him off to confer with the magistrates in Downham Market, while they set out to do the journey on foot. More labourers joined them at Hilgay and on this occasion they were a much more orderly and formidable force than before. William Hardy seems to have been in charge and he had drilled them in how to meet a cavalry charge.'' Added to the pitchforks and fork irons were now thirty to forty guns, some of which had been stolen. James Goat and John Bell for instance took powder and shot from Isaac Ashley and Robert Bond, shopkeepers at Hilgay, during a break there. Bell told Ashley that what they took would be paid for—"after they had met the soldiers".  
In Downham Market, Martin saw Dering and Pratt, the magistrates, and told them what demands had been made. They arranged for the Southerey labourers to be released and then went out to meet the crowd. En route from Southerey, the mob grew to about 500 in number, some of whom were pressed into joining. (Joseph Gallaway, for instance, who had been working at Modney Bridge was forced by Gamaliel Porter to march at the point of a gun.)  
Martin and Dering told the crowd that the Southerey labourers had been released and the Southerey men seemed satisfied. "The Hilgay men however forced them forward and said they should not return unless their men were liberated also." Dering and Pratt conferred and agreed to release all the prisoners (it is not clear whether this included the poachers). 
They told this to the crowd, who expressed their satisfaction and dispersed to their villages. The Star expressed a general opinion of the magistrates' behaviour in a report on the 25th May.
The inhabitants were armed under the directions of the Magistrates;—[and] marched out, with the cavalry, to meet the rioters, who were also armed;—and then ensued, what?—an agreement, that the latter should have an advance of wages, and that the persons already taken should be allowed to return to their homes!—We hope there is an error in the statement; but, as something of that sort has occurred elsewhere, we cannot let the report of such a compromise pass, without saying, that this mode of suppressing tumults is that, which of all others is sure to multiply them.... Any concession, if it be but the gift of a turnip, made to a body of men unlawfully in arms, is a matter of danger to society, and it is not unreasonable to impute this outrage against Downham to the success of a similar one at Brandon." 

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