Riots during the hardship

PUBLISHED: 13:53 16 March 2006 | UPDATED: 13:20 04 May 2010

Elizabeth Fry

Elizabeth Fry

A rather spurious historical link to Ely is the prison reformer Elizabeth Fry, who as I previously recorded, spent a cold winter s night at The Lamb Hotel, and the political reformer William Cobbett. The period of the Napoleonic wars spelt severe hards

A rather spurious historical link to Ely is the prison reformer Elizabeth Fry, who as I previously recorded, spent a cold winter's night at The Lamb Hotel, and the political reformer William Cobbett.

The period of the Napoleonic wars spelt severe hardship to the vast majority of the population in the early 19th century; their financial burdens were compounded by the introduction of labour saving machines in both field and factory and enclosure of the land. There are records of localised rioting across the country and the Government, fearful of what had happened in France during her Revolution only a few decades before, were particularly vigilant and brutal to the leaders of these insurrections.

The Government was keen to encourage towns and cities to raise their own local militias. The City of Ely, for its part, certainly did conform to these expectations and organised a local militia. However, who was to pay for their uniforms, equipment and time, was an ill-defined question.

Presumably fed up with this seeming lack of forthcoming funds and wages, the Ely militia rioted. In what Cobbett described as a heavy-handed approach, the Ely rioters were flogged in the Market Square by a detachment of the German Legion, stationed at Bury St Edmunds. It was not uncommon during this period for the Government to employ foreign mercenaries. A paper report states that the militia men were 'tried by a court martial, and sentenced to receive five hundred lashes each...' Outraged at this, William Cobbett wrote a public attack on these floggings and the nature in which the punishments were handed out. It came in the year when George the III was celebrating his Golden Jubilee.

Cobbett pointed out that during this time the national debt had increased from £90 million to £700 million and the number of paupers from 200,000 to 1,200,000! In response to his pains to support the poor, Cobbett was hauled up in front of the Court of King's Bench and imprisoned in Newgate Prison for two years. He was also given a £1,000 fine and bound over to keep the peace for seven years after his release.

His sentence started on June 15, 1810, and he was released in 1812, the year that Elizabeth Fry made her first visit to the women's section of Newgate Prison. Interestingly, Cobbett came to Ely in 1830 where he stayed at The Lamb Hotel, and 'preached' a political speech from a window of the White Hart on the Market Place. Hopefully you can now see the spurious connections!

Records show that Ely was, like the rest of the country, suffering from the results of the depression caused by the Napoleonic Wars. The number of boys being educated at The King's School Ely hit record lows during the period. Traditionally the majority of fee-paying pupils came from farming families across East Anglia; many could not afford the fees due to the falling price of corn. The innkeepers of Ely petitioned parliament, complaining that their businesses were suffering because the duties on wine, liquors, ale and beer had been doubled. Whilst this petition was being drawn together the unrest among agricultural workers came to a head with the Ely and Littleport riots.

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