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Riots and Disorder

Riots and Disorder

Chartist Movement
Chartist Movement

The early and mid 19th century was a time of great social unrest. There were several movements for change that led to civil distubance, covering many areas of the county. This led to a real fear, amongst those in power, of the possibility of revolution. Chartist Movement

Supporters of this movement wanted the adoption of a 'People's Charter'. Many working people were upset when the 1832 Reform Act did not give them the vote. This turned to anger when the new poor law was passed in 1843. In June 1836, William Lovett, Henry Hetherington, John Cleave and James Watson formed the London Working Men's Association (LWMA). It became a very influential organisation and at one meeting, in 1838, the People's Charter was set down.

The charter wanted to see reforms that would provide more equality and give the ordinary man a say in the way the country was run. There were six main requirements:

  • Equal Electorial Districts
  • Abolition of the property qualifications for M.P.s (allowing working class men as well as the rich to stand for parliament)
  • Universal Manhood Suffrage (votes for all men over 21)
  • Annual Parliaments
  • Vote by Ballot (a secret vote would stop bribed buying votes)
  • The payment of M.P.s (making it easier for working class men as well as the rich to stand for parliament)
The Charter gained much support. The four main leaders strongly opposed the use of violence. However, in November 1836, Feargus O'Connor joined the London Working Mens' Association. He was highly critical of the strategies of the 'moral' leaders and spoke of his willingness "to die for the cause" and to "lead people to death or glory".

In a speech in Manchester, he said that if parliament had not granted the charter by the 29th September, there should be violent action. Lovett and Hetherington were outraged by O'Connor's speeches and he was excluded from the platform of a mass meeting being organised by the London Working Men's Association.

O'Connor then formed his own Chartist organisation, the East London Democratic Association. O'Connor's speeches and newspaper articles became more threatening and he took part in an unsuccessful uprising in Newport on 4th November 1839.

There were others, including James Rayner Stephens and George Julian Harney, who also supported the use of physical force and were imprisoned during 1839. Feargus O'Connor was also arrested in March 1840 for publishing seditious libels in his paper, the Northern Star. He was found guilty and sentenced to eighteen months imprisonment.

There were further riots in 1842 and on 10th April 1848, O'Connor presented a petition to the House of Commons. Many of the signatures were clear forgeries. The 'moral' Chartists accused O'Connor of destroying the credibility of the Chartist movement.

The failure of the April 10th demonstration severely damaged the Chartist movement. In some areas Physical Force Chartism still remained strong. However, economic improvments reduced the amount of dissatisfaction with the parliamentary system. And the movement came to an end.

The Swing Riots

High taxes and low wages, saw great dissatisfaction amongst farm laborers. Many of these labourers had suffered unemployment after the introduction of the threshing machine and the policy of enclosing fields. The changes meant that only a few men were needed to carry out work that, previously, had required many. With fewer jobs, near starvation and little hope for the future, the men took out their frustration on the farm machinery that had taken their jobs.

During the late 1820's and 1830's, the Swing Rioters smashed the threshing machines and threatened farmers who had them. The rioters were dealt with very harshly. Nine were hung and 450 were transported to Australia. In 1830, the riots hit Bedfordshire after some men, driven by sheer want, wounded a game keeper and were hung.

The Spa Fields Riots

The high cost of the war with France, which ended in 1815, left low wages, high taxes and rising food costs. Radicals lobbied the government for reform. Those in power refused to make any changes and, in December 1816, a group of protesters organised a meeting in Spa Fields, near London. Protestors broke into a gunsmith's shop and marched on London. 300 rioters were arrested by the army.

The Derbyshire Rising

Low wages and the inability of poor peole to buy bread or get work, saw protesters in Derbyshire arm themselves with guns and pikes. They marched on Nottingham believing that there would be a lot of support locally: however, the army appeared and they fled. The leaders were caught and 3 were hanged and 30 more transported.

The Peterloo Massacre

After listening to a speech by Henry Hunt about changes the government should make, around 60,000 people met on August 16th 1819, at a large rally in central Manchester. Most of them were unemployed or very poor. The crowd were peaceful and defenseless but the army had been ordered to arrest Hunt and, in doing so, killed 11 people and badly hurt 400 others. Many people were shocked at this. However the goverment took no action, saying the soldiers had been following orders.

The Cato Street Conspiracy

In 1820, a group of radicals led by Arthur Thistlewood plotted to blow up the leading ministers of the government. Extreme hunger and poverty had become too much for them to see and they believed the only way was to remove those in power. They were betrayed and captured by government agents. After being hung, Thistlewood became the last man to be beheaded in England.

The Reform Riots

In 1830, a general election saw the Whig party gain power with Lord Grey as the new prime minister. In 1831 a new law was passed in the House of Commons reforming the voting system. The new law gave the vote to more middle class men (although not working class men). It was very popular. However, the House of Lords refused to pass the new law. There were riots all over the country. In Bristol a mob set fire to the bishop's palace and in Nottingham a mob attacked the castle, home of the Duke of Newcastle. The harvest was poor that autumn and many people were hungry again. In December 1831, the Whig government once more passed the reform law in the House of Commons. Once again, the Tory lords stopped it. Lord Grey asked King William lV. to make 50 extra Whig Lords. With these extra lords he knew the new law would pass. The King refused. Many people were furious.

Thomas Attwood a middle class banker suggested everybody stopped paying taxes in protest. Attwood began to organise a march of 200,000 in London. The march was supported by people from the middle class and the working class together. There were rumours soldiers might join the protest. The King and the Tory Lords lost heart and passed the law. The new law became the Reform Act in May 1832.

Unlike previous protests, the reform riots united people from the middle glasses and the working class countrywide. Attwood's protests seemed to threaten the King and the Tory Lords with revolution unless they backed down. The Whig government sympathised with Attwood. They were unsure of the loyalty of the army if a big meeting got out of hand? William IV nervous that a revolution could result decided it was better to back down than lose everything.

Many working class radicals were left very disappointed with the Reform Act. It gave no votes to working men and it seemed to the radicals that middle class people had merely used working class people's support to obtain more power.

Another local disturbance was the 'Ely and Littleport Riots' in Cambridgeshire. You can find out what happened to those involved in the case study about Aaron Layton.