After three days of rioting, Queen Square in the centre of Bristol lay in ruins. Properties on two sides of it were completely wiped out and the Mansion House – the home of the city’s Lord Mayor – the Excise Office and Custom House were all badly damaged. Hundreds of people died or were injured.
While the flames from central Bristol on fire could apparently be seen from as far afield as Newport in South Wales and troops were deployed to bring the situation under control, for some rioters it was one big party. They raided the cellars of the elite and drunk their wine. And loot which had been seized by the cart load appeared in locations across the city – and further afield – for some time to come.
The Bristol Riots, which started on October 29th 1831, are regarded as one of the most serious outbreaks of civil disobedience in English history and involved – by some estimates – between 5,000 and 10,000 people. For most, the trigger for the mass disturbance was the failure of the Lords to approve the Reform Act which would have widened the voting franchise (only 6,000 property owners could vote, out of an adult population of 104,000)
Others have suggested that the rioting was a reaction to the corrupt City Corporation, run by a secretive body of elite, wealthy men that enjoyed the fine things in life while many ordinary people lived in squalid conditions, trying to meet ends meet.
Indeed, a Royal Commission on Municipal Corporations investigated the Bristol Corporation in 1833 and reported that: “The ruling principle of the Corporation appears to have been, at all times, the desire of power, the watchful jealousy that nothing should be undertaken within the limits of the city over which they cannot, at pleasure, exercise their control.”
The Bristol Riots were centred on Queen’s Square, but the impact stretched right across the city. Angry crowds had first gathered in Totterdown, then just a small, rural hamlet set alongside the main road between Bath to Bristol. Rioters assembled close to where the Thunderbolt pub is today and awaited the arrival of anti-reformist Sir Charles Wetherell, the Recorder of Bristol who had commented in the House of Commons that “citizens of the city were indifferent to reform” and had made 180 interventions and speeches against the Bill. He was on his way to open the October Court of Assizes in the city.
I joined a guided walk led by Ben Mackay, a retired primary school head teacher and history enthusiast, as part of Bristol Walk Fest tracing some of the key locations of the Bristol Riots. We started in Totterdown because this was where rioters had been told Sir Charles would change horses for his coach and he arrived to find a crowd of some 2,000, many of whom hissed at him.
There is a wonderful painted mural on the side of the busy Bath Road, not far from the Thunderbolt pub where we set off on our expedition, which this fascinating period off history to life. After victory at the battle of Waterloo ordinary working people had hoped their living conditions would improve, yet for many things didn’t.
The Peterloo massacre which took place in Manchester in 1819, where the military fired on protesters calling for change, is depicted in the mural. But the Bristol Riots of 1831, which led to four times more deaths than the earlier protest, is quite rightly at the centre piece of this colourful work of art.
From the Bath Road, Ben led us on a quiet path running alongside the river as we weaved our way into the city centre. He encouraged us to imagine the crowds that would have gathered on the busy road nestled behind trees, jeering at Sir Charles as his coach made its way into Bristol.
We passed Temple Meads, Castle Park and Bristol Bridge – the site of serious riots in 1793 over the continued charging of tolls and in 1831 the crowd, now throwing stones instead of mud, had grown larger – before making our way into the old city, just as the 19th century protesters did. Rioters caused considerable damage at the Council House and the Guildhall. Although both the buildings we see today were built after the riots, it’s still possible to imagine the streets being filled with a growing and angry mob.
We then headed over College Green and to the Cathedral, next to which in 1831 was the Bishop’s Palace (Bishop Gray was anti-reform and, as a member of the House of Lords, had consistently voted against the Reform Bill). Again, rioters broke in and caused considerable damage, including throwing books and rare documents into a bonfire in the Norman Chapter House. M Shed, Bristol’s excellent museum, displays a bar, possibly from a fence railing, which was seized from a rioter who had come to burn the building down. And it’s said that the Bishop’s wine was sold at a penny a bottle on College Green.
In Queen Square, we followed the route of the riot. The artist WJ Muller captured the burning of Mansion House in a striking watercolour, one of a series on the Bristol Riots. It was here that the angry mob had chased Sir Charles and he was forced to escape from the building by disguising himself as a worker, while rioters tore up railings and paving stones.
They stormed Mansion House, quickly destroying furniture, chandeliers and ornaments. In the kitchens, they found a civic banquet was being prepared and so they started consuming the food. But despite the violence, the local military commander, Lt Col Brereton, refused to fire on the crowd (one man was shot dead on October 29th as the square was cleared).
The mob returned the next day, but the soldiers could do little without orders to fire on the crowd. By the end of the day the Mansion House, Excise Office, Custom House and the houses on two sides of the square were looted and on fire. It was a chaotic scene, with some rioters plundering the buildings while others were setting them on fire. There are reports of people being trapped and, with melting lead running down the gutters, some were consequently burnt alive (M Shed even has an upper arm bone from an unidentified man who died at the Custom House). For others it was one big party, as Latimer reported:
“Several hundred bottles of port, sherry and Madeira were forthwith stolen and carried into the square, where an astonishing orgie was soon in full swing. A crowd of men, women, and boys were to be seen staggering about, madly intoxicated, yelling, swearing, singing, and vociferating threats against the recorder; whilst scores, too drunk to stand, were rolling on the ground, where those not already insensible from their excesses were re-echoing the maledictions and menaces of their companions. Intelligence of the debauch spread with remarkable quickness into all low-class quarters of the city, and the concourse in the square was rapidly reinforced by those eager to share in the saturnalia.”
Today, Queen’s Square is a pleasant area of greenery dissected by tidy gravel paths and surrounded on all four sides by the offices of solicitors and other professions. At its heart there’s a statute of William III on horseback – which in 1831 a rioter climbed and symbolically attached a tricolour “Cap of Liberty” – and trees shake in the wind. Blue plaques reveal it was here that the first American embassy was found and earlier structures here would have been lived in by those associated with the shameful transatlantic slave trade.
But in 1831 this now peaceful spot that is popular with officer workers enjoying post work picnics on warm summer evenings was a genuine place of terror. After showing initial reluctance, on October 31st the Mayor, Charles Pinney, finally gave Brereton the order to “take the most vigorous, effective and decisive measures to quell the riot” and soldiers swept into Queen’s Square with force. “Some hundreds were killed or severely wounded by the sabre,” wrote Charles Greville, clerk of the Privy Council, in his journal. “One body of dragoons pursued a rabble of colliers into the country, and covered the fields and roads with the bodies of wounded wretches, making a severe example of them.”
We finished the walk, two and a half hours from when we began in Totterdown, near M Shed. In the car park out the back I went to have a look at the remains of Bristol New Gaol, which was badly damaged (as was Bridewell) in the riots. Rioters set to fire to the prison and some 170 prisoners were set free. They ripped off their prison clothes and ran naked through the streets, joining the mob.
But it was also at New Gaol – today only a section of wall survives on the fringes of modern housing development – that four people believed to be ring leaders in the riots were hanged from the institution’s gate. Not even a petition with 10,000 signatories presented to the king could save them. In reality these individuals were probably just plucked out at random and were just as culpable as any other of the rioters. Another 77 were found guilty and were sentenced to life imprisonment or were transported to Australia.
Brereton faced a court martial, charged with being too cautious during the early stages of the rioting. But on the fourth day of the hearing he blew his brains out. The Mayor, Charles Pinney, who had refused to give orders to fire at the crowd until the third day was acquitted at his trial for neglect of duty.
Did the riots achieve anything?
I believe they did. Given the number of dead and significant damage to property, the riots shocked the political classes, with Greville making comparisons at the time to a much more famous episode in revolutionary history: “For brutal ferocity and wanton, unprovoked violence [it] may vie with some of the worst scenes of the French revolution.”
The following year the Great Reform Act was passed which widened the number of people that could vote and some believe the Bristol experience of 1831 significantly helped. Although working classes were still excluded from voting, it abolished the worst rotten boroughs and was an important step in a much longer struggle to make Britain a more democratic place. And in 1835 the Municipal Corporation Act changed the constitution of city councils, so they were no longer the “clubs” they once were.