Gordon Riots Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Gordon Riots, which were caused by anti-Catholicism and resentment over the state of the British economy, were inadvertently instigated by Lord George Gordon and illustrated the depths of resentment felt by disenfranchised Londoners toward the wealthy. They also demonstrated the need for better means of controlling mobs.

Summary of Event

At the time of the Gordon Riots, England was enmeshed in the American Revolutionary War, and Lord North’s government was in a precarious position. Since France and Spain, Catholic countries, had sided with the American colonists, England was virtually isolated. The Gordon Riots, moreover, were not without precedent. There had been other riots, albeit on a much smaller scale, not only in England but also in France. There was also a great deal of anti-Catholic prejudice, stemming from past conflicts between Protestants and Catholics relating to the throne. The Irish who had emigrated to London to find work and had subsequently taken low-paying jobs from the English lower class, were specifically targets of anti-Catholic feeling. Given these conditions, the time was ripe for an individual to spearhead a Protestant movement against the Catholics. [kw]Gordon Riots (June 2-10, 1780) [kw]Riots, Gordon (June 2-10, 1780) Gordon Riots (1780) Catholic-Protestant conflicts[Catholic Protestant conflicts] Protestant-Catholic conflicts[Protestant Catholic conflicts] [g]England;June 2-10, 1780: Gordon Riots[2410] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;June 2-10, 1780: Gordon Riots[2410] [c]Government and politics;June 2-10, 1780: Gordon Riots[2410] Gordon, Lord George Bull, Frederick Amherst, Lord North, Lord Erskine, first Baron George III Kennett, Brackley

Lord George Gordon, who had left the British navy after a less than distinguished short career, led the Protestant revolt against the Catholics. At the age of twenty-two, he took a seat in Parliament and became a follower of Edmund Burke, Burke, Edmund whose democratic principles brought him in conflict with North’s government, which was as unpopular as the dull and stubborn King George III. Gordon was upset by Parliament’s passage of the Catholic Relief Bill (June 3, 1778), Catholic Relief Bill (1778) Catholic rights which effectively repealed King William III’s act requiring army enlistees to take an oath swearing that they were Protestants. Since the war in America was not going well, the British governement thought that repeal of the anti-Catholic act might bring them more soldiers, but Gordon believed that the repeal was designed to trick Catholics into participating in the war against the American colonists, whose cause he supported.

Gordon was not alone in his opposition to the repeal. Many Methodist Methodist Church and Dissenting ministers, Dissenters (Protestants) including John Wesley, Wesley, John as well as Protestant associations, adept at keeping antipapal feelings alive, voiced their displeasure with the Catholic Relief Bill. When he became president of the London Protestant Association, Gordon took on the leadership role, and, despite Lord North’s attempts to dissuade him, called a meeting of dissidents for 10:00 a.m., June 2, at St. George’s Fields.

When the march to the House of Commons began, the crowd—many of them wearing blue cockades, which became a symbol for the protesters—was peaceful. The composition of the marchers was altered, however, by the unwelcome addition of toughs, pickpockets, street urchins, and prostitutes. By the time the crowd reached the House of Commons, some of the original marchers had dropped out, and the mood became violent. The crowd accosted members of the Commons and Lords and attempted to break into the House of Commons. Gordon, inside and presenting a petition to the Commons, which was seconded by Alderman Frederick Bull, to repeal the Catholic Relief Bill, kept in touch with the rioters outside, informing them of their friends and enemies. Elated by his sudden acquisition of power, akin to a kind of megalomania, Gordon at first did not realize that he was not in control of what he had started. The Foot and Horse Guards were summoned, but they were ineffective, since they did not have the support of the civil authorities. Although the violence abated, just before midnight the mob attacked the chapel of the Sardinian ambassador. It then proceeded to ransack other Catholic chapels.

By Saturday noon, the hostilities seemed to be over, but they resumed at 9:00 p.m., when the mob attacked the Irish workers at Moorfields. In the course of the next two nights, the mob burned every Catholic chapel to the ground, and unless people wore blue cockades, they were in danger. Houses were spared if they had antipapal signs on their doors, and prominent businessmen, like Bull, attempted to save their warehouses. In response to the violence, the House of Commons passed resolutions encouraging the identification and prosecution of those responsible for the burning of houses and chapels.

A portrait of rebel leader Lord George Gordon. The scroll to his left reads, “Protestants Petition against Popery,” referring to the Gordon Riots.

(Library of Congress)

Gordon voted for all the resolutions and did attempt unsuccessfully to quell the violence, which no longer seemed to be related to Catholicism, but rather was directed against all persons in authority. The mob also turned its attention to the prisons, starting with the hated Newgate Prison but also encompassing Fleet, Bridewell, and New Prison. They destroyed what they could and freed a total of sixteen hundred convicts, some of them hardened criminals and some debtors. It was estimated that the accumulated debt of the escaped prisoners was £700,000. There were also three unsuccessful attacks on the Bank of England. In addition to the destruction, there was a great deal of looting, especially of liquor, and many of the rioters were drunk.

The government responded by enforcing the Riot Act, Riot Act (1780) which gave soldiers the right to fire on unruly mobs, and some rioters were killed when it was first used, but there arose disagreement about whether or not the assent of a civil authority was necessary to authorize gunfire. The Attorney General ruled that the approval of civil authorities was not necessary. Despite the objections of opposition leaders Burke and Charles James Fox, Fox, Charles James martial law was enacted in London. In addition, seven thousand soldiers from the Home Counties arrived in London, and others were on their way.

Lord Amherst assumed control and sent men to the London and Blackfriars Bridges to protect them, and civilian volunteer bands and the London Military Association helped reestablish order. By June 10, the government had regained control and many of the escaped prisoners were recaptured. During the riots, about sixty Catholic houses were destroyed, and more than two hundred people were killed by the military. Almost one hundred others died in the hospitals, and almost two hundred were treated for wounds. These numbers can be documented, but other people doubtless died and were unceremonially dumped in the Thames.

Lord George Gordon was arrested and sent to the Tower, and Brackley Kennett and James Fisher were brought in for questioning but soon released. Gordon’s trial was twice postponed, and by the time it was held feelings had cooled enough that he was able to elicit sympathy from some members of the establishment. Defended in court by Thomas Erskine (later first baron) and Lloyd Kenyon, Kenyon, Lloyd Gordon was acquitted. While the instigator of the riots was freed, however, the lower-class rioters were not as fortunate. At the Old Bailey and Southwark Sessions, sixty-two rioters were sentenced to death, and twenty-five were eventually hanged. Twelve others received lighter sentences.

Significance

Because the rioters’ actions were directed not against the poor Catholics, but against Catholics of substance, it seems clear that the riots reflected not only dislike of Catholics, but also of the wealthy, providing an outlet for the smoldering anger of the lower classes. The riots also made it apparent that the civil authorities were unwilling or unable to control mobs. As a result, there was increased pressure for a professional police force. The riots also brought attention to conflicts between the national government and the City of London, which had impeded, rather than helped, efforts to control the riots. Finally, by successfully controlling the mob, which represented a threat to law and order, the conservative administration of Lord North was able to retain control of the government for another two years.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">DeCastro, John Paul. The Gordon Riots. London: Oxford University Press, 1926. Early account of the riots, with a discussion of their implications.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dickens, Charles. Barnaby Rudge and the Riots of ’Eighty. London: Oxford University Press, 1841. Novel focusing on the riots.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hibbert, Christopher. King Mob and the Story of Lord George Gordon and the Riots of 1780. London: Longmans, Green, 1959. Account of the riots with biographical details about Lord George Gordon and transcripts from his trial.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rudé, George F. E. Paris and London in the Eighteenth Century: Studies in Popular Protest. New York: Viking, 1971. Focuses on the victims of the riots, correcting popular accounts about the extent of the anti-Catholic victimization.

Camisard Risings in the Cévennes

Defeat of the “Old Pretender”

Jacobite Rising in Scotland

Jacobite Rebellion

Pugachev’s Revolt

Fall of the Bastille

Irish Rebellion

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Eighteenth Century</i>

Lord Amherst; Edmund Burke; First Baron Erskine; George III; Lord North; John Wesley. Gordon Riots (1780) Catholic-Protestant conflicts[Catholic Protestant conflicts] Protestant-Catholic conflicts[Protestant Catholic conflicts]

Categories: History Content