The Reverend read the mob the Riot Act

PUBLISHED: 12:43 06 April 2006 | UPDATED: 11:39 04 May 2010

Lynne Turner continues the story of the Littleport Riots. THE Revd Vachell arrived in Ely at midnight on May 22, 1816 to warn the inhabitants of the approaching mob. He woke up two other magistrates, the Revd William Metcalfe and Revd Sir Henry Bate Dudle

Lynne Turner continues the story of the Littleport Riots.

THE Revd Vachell arrived in Ely at midnight on May 22, 1816 to warn the inhabitants of the approaching mob. He woke up two other magistrates, the Revd William Metcalfe and Revd Sir Henry Bate Dudley and the three decided to send a message to Bury St Edmunds, to ask for reinforcements from the First Royal Dragoon Guards stationed there. Leading tradesmen of Ely were quickly sworn in as special constables and the magistrates went to meet the rioters before they reached Ely.

The Littleport rioters and the Ely magistrates met at approximately 6am on the Thursday morning. Revd Metcalfe read the Riot Act and asked the mob what their demands were? They called for "a living wage" namely that they were paid wages that would buy a "stone of flour per day". Metcalfe agreed to this and asked them all to return to Littleport. This they refused to do wanting to enter Ely, so were urged by the good minister to assemble in the Market Place. Being totally outnumbered, he had little choice.

Speaking from the upper window of the White Hart Inn (just off the Market Place) the magistrates agreed to the rioters demands. The overseers would pay each family two shillings per person per weekend each and every labourer was to be paid two shillings a day by "the farmer who hires him". Cheers went up and the majority of the crowd returned home. Unfortunately the rather foolish magistrates, so pleased with the result, gave out free ale to those still milling around in the city, which led to further outbreaks of drunken behaviour - however no CCTV cameras around to catch the miscreants!

After this further looting, the Littleport mob began to return home, probably shattered from more than 24 hours of rioting. The inhabitants of Ely soon dispersed when 16 Dragoon Guards arrived to join with local men, showing their presence by trotting up Back Hill along The Gallery to The Lamb Hotel.

On May 24, the Dragoons numbers were swelled by The Royston Troop of Volunteer Calvary and Militia Staff from Ely, together they rode to Littleport. Some went across country to enter the town from the east and the rioters were found barricaded into the George and Dragon. The Revd Henry Bate Dudley called for the men to give themselves up. Shots were fired from the upstairs windows of the pub and rioters with iron bars tried to prevent the soldiers from entering. Thomas South shot a Dragoon, William Wallace, in the arm, disabling him for life.

By that afternoon many of rioters were under arrest, some, however, were hiding out in the Fens, to be arrested later, or in some cases not at all. Eighty people were marched off to Ely. One man, William Porter, tried to escape on the way and was shot and killed.

The trial began on June 17, and lasted for six days. The three presiding magistrates passed the death sentence on 24 rioters. The public outcry on hearing this was so great that the judges, worried about their own safety, decided to reconsider the verdicts. Five men were to be executed, nine transported to Australia, and the rest to be imprisoned in Ely gaol.

At 10am on June 28, 1816 the five condemned men, William Beamis (elder), 42, George Crow, 23, John Dennis, 32, Isaac Harley, 23, and Thomas South, 22, were taken by cart to an area of ground between Witchford Road and St John's Road on the edge of the city. John Dennis addressed the crowd appealing to them not to break the laws of the country and to avoid the sins of "drunkenness, Sabbath-breaking, whoremongery, and bad company." He told them that the law of the land would always be too powerful and that: "We stand here as a melancholy example of the power and justice of the law".

The five men were hanged and their bodies placed in coffins and given to their relatives. The following day the five men were buried in a single grave in St Mary's churchyard, Ely. A stone plaque on the side of the church tower, a memorial to that turbulent period in local history, ends with the words 'may their awful fate be a warning to others'.

The nine men sentenced to transportation were sent to Newgate Prison on July 1 and soon shipped out to Botany Bay. Those expecting a year in Ely Gaol quickly followed them to Australia. The authorities had decided to change their sentences to transportation. Within a few days they were taken from Ely and despite public pressure and petitions, the pleas were ignored, and they too were transported.

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