Why the poor were one revolting mob

PUBLISHED: 10:53 23 March 2006 | UPDATED: 13:20 04 May 2010

FROM a historical perspective, the reasons for popular unrest are complex and incorporate both long and short-term causes. This theory can be applied to Littleport when, in May 1816, serious rioting broke out leading to numerous arrests, hangings and tra

FROM a historical perspective, the reasons for popular unrest are complex and incorporate both long and short-term causes.

This theory can be applied to Littleport when, in May 1816, serious rioting broke out leading to numerous arrests, hangings and transportation.

In Paul Muskett's book Riotous Assemblies, the author states that "low living standards and a constant sense of insecurity were the common lot of agricultural workers in the southern and eastern counties for much of the Nineteenth Century".

In the early years of this period, the pressure of war against France, the use of new farming methods, and the Game Laws all served to produce social tensions.

Sheer poverty and desperation meant that many felt that they had no option other than to break the law and crime levels were rising fast.

Poaching and sheep stealing appeared to be rife and there was a general break-down between the powers that be - employers, magistrates and others in places of authority - and those at the margins of society.

Rioting was commonplace in both the second half of the 18th Century and early part of the 19th. Grievances ranged from machine breaking, to politically motivated protests, from religious unrest to anger at the introduction of turnpikes.

Most were localised, sporadic and short-lived. The majority posed little threat to social stability and were viewed as an annoying, but unavoidable, sign of the times.

By far the most serious and wide-reaching popular protests were food riots and East Anglia, over this period, was probably the worst affected area in the country for these violent outbreaks.

The economics of supply and demand meant that food prices fluctuated from year to year depending on the harvest. A number of bad harvests in a short space of time led to food shortages, commonly followed by food riots in the worst affected areas.

Furthermore, the practice of land enclosure, led to a fall in agricultural wages, further adding to the problems of those dependent on the land.

From as early as 1814 the demobilisation of troops from the Napoleonic War aggravated the problems locally.

Higher taxes to pay for the war led to tax commissioners being threatened in St Ives and Downham Market and, in 1815, labourers riots broke out across Suffolk where newly introduced threshing machines were smashed.

There was also rioting in Bury St Edmunds and Norwich in early

May 1816.

The most threatening, however, were the food riots that started in Brandon on Saturday, May 18, 1816, when approximately 1,500 people attacked houses "of those persons who were obnoxious to them". Nine men and women were arrested and sent for trial - they were admonished and sent on their way.

On Monday, May 20, 60 people met at Southery and made their way via Denver to Downham Market. They demanded from the magistrates and overseers, who were holding their monthly meeting at The Crown, that wages should be set at 2s a day and flour was to be sold at 2s and 6d. a stone.

Their demands were refused - and the justices appealing to the crowd to return home peacefully were stoned! Local shops were plundered and the stolen food distributed among the mob.

The crowd dispersed that evening with a few arrests made. The following day some of the men returned with pitchforks and armed with guns to persuade the local justices to release the prisoners.

By this point, the authorities were extremely worried mob rule was getting out of hand and the reading of the Riot Act ignored.

Law-breakers were taken to Wisbech Gaol, but the magistrates were so frightened that a mob would gather in a rescue attempt, they "enrolled between 200 and 300 special constables" to prevent further disturbances.

The last and most serious riot was at Littleport when trouble flared up on Wednesday, May 15.

For details of this you will have to wait until next week.

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