Speaker: Steve Poole (University of the West of England, Bristol)

Despite the unprecedented scale of destruction – particularly at Derby, Nottingham and Bristol - the riots that followed the Lords’ rejection of the Reform Bill in October 1831 have attracted relatively little academic interest. Historians have tended to read them as the last hurrah of the irrational mob; incongruously out of step with the organised mass platform politics of Peterloo and Chartism, and ignorant of the politics behind a Bill that offered them no material advantage. Nevertheless, the Reform riots provided a stern test for Peel’s 1827 public order reforms, raising legal issues not only of retribution but of victim compensation and felonious intent. They raised fresh questions too about the effectiveness of military intervention and the handling of punishment in the courts. The insistence of the Attorney general that ‘some examples should be made’, left 259 rioters for prosecution across the country from Derby to Dorset, seven to be hanged and 43 transported. However wholesale the disregard of later historians, most of the accused were local men with regular employment and ‘good characters’. This paper seeks to lift the lid on them, discusses their motivation and examines the range of courts before which they were brought to trial. Outcomes were locally variable. While prisoners at Nottingham and Bristol were tried and convicted with rigour by Special Commission, eleven men arrested at Derby took their trials at the regular assize three months later, and were all acquitted. The authorities at Loughborough, Mansfield and Worcester meanwhile, were disposed to send all their cases to trial by magistrates at quarter sessions, forsaking the judicial terror meted out at Nottingham and Bristol in an attempt to heal social division in their respective communities.

IHR Seminar SeriesBritish History in the Long 18th Century

"Some examples should be made”: Prosecuting Reform Bill Rioters in 1831