Tigers of the Fens: The Littleport and Ely Rioters
Who were the Ely and Littleport Rioters?
Ely and Littleport are two towns in part of modern Cambridgeshire known as 'The Fens'. In 1816, the Fens were still stretches of flat marsh or, instead, marshland that had been pumped dry of water by engineers. The majority of fen people were poor, although great landowners and some local farmers had grown rich from the crops grown on the drained farmland. The Ely and Littleport Rioters were mostly poor labourers who were hired to work on the farms at times of the year such as harvest. However, there were other types of men among the rioters such as a potter, a tailor, a blacksmith and a pub landlord. One of the leaders of the Rioters in Ely was Aaron Layton, a 24 year old master bricklayer. Layton was described later as "20 years of age, 5ft 7in high, dark hair, hazel eyes, much freckled and pockpetten (pock-marked), remarkably wide mouth, wears a fustian jacket and breeches, blue stocks and high-low shoes".
Why did the Ely and Littleport men riot?
The labourers were poor men with many grievances:
- The high price of bread
- Low wages
- The Speenhamland system
- Resentment of the rich
- Lack of work
Britain was at war with France between 1793 and 1815. Food prices were high during the war. The corn laws were introduced in 1815 to put a high tax on grain coming into the country from abroad. This meant that British farmers could keep charging ordinary British people high prices for bread, because foreigners couldn't afford to compete. Bread was the basic diet of the poor. Poor people grew poorer as the price of bread rose.
Farmers and landowners were the main employers in the Fens. Farmers paid their workers low wages, even though they got high prices for their crops. Labourers' wages did not keep up with the price of bread.
The end of the war with France in 1815 brought about a slump in Britain. Unemployment grew worse throughout the country and this affected the Fens. Fen people wanted to work but could not find enough of it.
By 1816, many parts of England used the 'Speenhamland system' to help the poor. Since 1601, local parishes had raised taxes from rich people to support the poor of their area, such as widows, orphans and those who could get no work. By 1816, the Fen parishes had adopted the new 'Speenhamland system'. The amount of money given to poor people from the taxes of the rich was linked to the price of bread. If he was out of work, a man would get an allowance of money for himself and his family. When the price of bread rose so did his allowance. When the price of bread fell, so did his allowance. The trouble was that in Ely and Littleport, local people felt that the allowances were not keeping up with the price of bread. As unemployment was high, many Fen families relied on their allowance to live. But the labourers now felt they could no longer live on what they were given.
The price of bread was high and wages and allowances were low. In the meantime Fenland people saw the rich living very well. Four groups of people were especially hated.
- Great landowners:
The greatest landowners, like the Duke of Bedford, rarely came to see the lands they owned in the fens. Local people disliked a distant landlord who took away all the profit from the land out of the area.
- Rich farmers:
Some farmers had grown rich and built new farmhouses for themselves with grand furniture and possessions. Local people disliked the farmers because, in some cases, they had once been ordinary Fen people like themselves.
Millers were particularly disliked. They bought the farmer's grain and converted it into flour. Local people blamed greedy millers for the high price of flour and bread.
As in other parts of Britain, local gentlemen helped to keep law and order by serving as magistrates in the local courts. Some were well-liked and treated their workers well. In the Fens, there were few gentlemen landowners who actually lived in the area. Instead, the priests of the Church of England held a lot of influence and often stood in as magistrates. These churchmen usually came from outside the area and the Fen people hated them. Ordinary people also had to pay a tax (tithes) to the local church, even if they never went there.
It is quite easy to explain why local labourers took part in the Ely and Littleport Riots. It was the labourers who complained that they could not live on the allowances when they were out of work. It is harder to tell why a bricklayer like Aaron Layton joined in the Riots. Like the potter, the tailor and the blacksmith who joined the rioters, Layton earned his own living. As a skilled man with a trade, he would have earned more than a labourer. It maybe that men like Layton were caught up in the general resentment towards the rich or suspicion of outsiders. It maybe that they were asked to take a lead because they were better educated (Layton could read and write). Perhaps word spread to the Fens quickly of all the unrest going on in other parts of the country. In the Fens, tradition was very important. People remembered the stories of the 'Fen Tigers'. They were fierce independent hunters, who earned their living alone shooting ducks and other birds in the marshlands most of the year; men who ignored the law when they came into towns to drink and fight. Perhaps the rioters could not resist thinking of themselves as 'Fen Tigers.' What did the Ely and Littleport Rioters do?
On the Wednesday evening of May 22nd, labourers from Littleport met at the 'Globe', a pub in the town. They waited around for a group of men from nearby Denver and Southery who had taken part in earlier riots.
As the Denver and Southery men failed to turn up, the men of Littleport decided to take action themselves. They marched to the house of the local vicar, Reverend Vachell (who was also the local magistrate). The men demanded work and bread. Vachell agreed to negotiate with other employers and one of these employers agreed to increase wages and sell the rioters flour at a cheaper price. But the Fenmen wanted more and began drinking too much. They got out of control and ransacked some local homes. By eleven o'clock that evening, they had marched back to the Reverend Vachell's house. He read out a copy of the Riot Act which he kept in his hat but he failed to get the crowd to disperse. The Norfolk Chronicle of 11th June 1816 takes up the story.
"A desperate body of armed fen men had attacked the house of Rev. Mr Vachell, a magistrate resident at Littleport, who for some time stood at his door armed with a pistol threatened to shoot anyone who should attempt to enter, when three men rushed upon him and disarmed him. He immediately ran upstairs to his wife and two daughters, who with very slight covering made their escape with him, running nearly all the way toward Ely" The rioters ransacked his house, causing considerable damage.
The men of Littleport organised an attack on Ely. They chose John Dennis as their leader and stole a farm wagon to transport them. Some rode in the wagon itself which had a gun mounted on it, normally used in punts for shooting ducks. The rest of the men marched by the side of the wagon. Some were armed with pitchforks.
The procession set out for Ely and arrived at the town boundary early in the morning of May 23rd. There they were met by a local magistrate, Mr Metcalfe who tried to stop them going any further. However, the men ignored him and marched to the White Hart Inn in Ely market place. Metcalfe was joined by two other magistrates, Ward and Law. After long talks, the magistrates agreed to the demands of the rioters including a statement that pardoned everyone who had taken part in the riots.
Some of the Littleport men now returned back to their home town. The remaining rioters in Ely (thinking they could still do as they liked), went around threatening rich people until they gave them money. It seems that Aaron Layton, the bricklayer was a leader among the Ely men. With the Littleport leader, John Dennis, Layton and the other rioters threatened the homes of two of Ely's millers, George Stevens and William Cooper.How did the government react to the Ely and Littleport Riots?
Even while the rioters were still attacking the houses of the rich in Ely, the magistrates quietly took action. They sent a request to Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk for a troop of soldiers and appealed to the Home Secretary, Lord Sidmouth for help. The Government was anxious to put a stop to any unrest anywhere in the country. There were fears that radicals might be at work stirring up trouble among the labourers and the government felt it had to act quickly to snuff out any potential revolution. Lord Sidmouth sent the Reverend Sir Henry Bate Dudley to sort out the trouble.
Dudley was the kind of man Fen people hated, a rich churchman from outside the Fens, who despite this was a Canon (a Cathedral priest) at Ely. Dudley hurried up from London, calling at Royston on the way for soldiers to be sent up after him. Finding that Ely was quiet and that the rioters had returned to their homes, Dudley and the soldiers rode over to Littleport on the Friday morning of May 24th. One of the Ely magistrates, Law explained what happened.
Shortly afterwards, Major General Sir John Byng arrived with more soldiers to arrest any rioters who had escaped. Aaron Layton was among those who escaped. However, Layton wrote home to his wife, telling her where he was staying in London. The letter was intercepted at Ely and Layton was arrested to stand trial for his part in the riots as were many others.What happened to the Ely and Littleport Rioters?
The government was determined to hold a local trial where at least some of the rioters would be severely punished as an example to the rest. This was bound to include the death penalty for a few. The trials opened in Ely before three judges, three lawyers represented the prosecution and three lawyers represented the prisoners. Witnesses appeared in court to be examined and cross examined. The prisoners themselves were not allowed to be questioned in court because juries were supposed to make their minds up on the evidence of witnesses who saw what happened. However prisoners were allowed to make personal statements and ask questions of witnesses if they wanted to. Few did so.
There were many charges against the prisoners. The main charges that carried the death penalty were: burglary, direct robbery from a person and also stealing. Here are some of the accusations:
- 12 rioters broke into Rebecca Waddelow's shop, stole £5, some of the stock in the shop, together with five shirts and a hat belonging to Henry Martin, her grandson.
Verdict not guilty because the charge had not been worded properly.
- John Dennis and four other Littleport men attacked the home of an Ely miller and demanded £50 from his wife. The miller's wife had gone with the rioters to Mr Edwards, a banker of Ely. One of the rioters hit Edwards who handed over the money.
Verdict: Dennis and two others found guilty; four found not guilty.
In the summing up, one of the judges, Mr Justice Abbott, pointed out that about three hundred people had been involved in the riots. Of these 300, about 80 were put on trial. Of these 80, 24 were found guilty of offences that carried the death penalty. In the end, 19 of the 24 were reprieved and either sent to prison or transported to Australia as punishment.
The five who were sentenced to death were William Beamiss, George Crow, John Dennis (the leader of the Littleport rioters), Isaac Harley and Thomas South.
The prisoners were asked to sign a document confessing their guilt and acknowledging how just their sentences were. The execution took place on Friday 28th June. The authorities had trouble finding a cart to carry the men to the gallows locally because suppliers were scared of the anger of the Fen men. One had to be brought from Cambridge instead.
After the execution, the bodies were placed in coffins and taken to a cottage in Gaol Street in Ely, where many people came to view them. On Saturday 29th June, the men were buried in the churchyard of St Mary's. This inscription was written on a stone slab inserted into the church tower.
"Here lye Interred in one grave The bodies of WILLIAM BEAMISS . GEORGE CROW . JOHN DENNISS . ISSAC HARLEYAND . THOMAS SOUTH Who were all executed at Ely on the 28th Day of June 1816, having been convicted At the Special Assize
s holden there, of Divers Robberies during the Riots of Ely & Littleport in the Month of May in that Year. May their awful Fate Be a warning to others".
Some rioters were transported to Australia and eventually made new lives for themselves there. Others were put in Ely gaol for a few days and, although they were supposed to serve out their first twelve months imprisonment, they were then moved to other gaols. There were local protests against this but it is uncertain whether all the prisoners were returned to the Fens or not. Aaron Layton was among those imprisoned in a floating prison called a hulk in the Thames, probably with transportation to Australia in mind. Instead he was released in 1817 and survived to the age of 69, building up a respectable living for himself as a bricklayer and marrying twice.
Back to Aaron Layton - The Ely Rioter homepage