From Dreadnought Books

The riots of 1831 gripped the city of Bristol for three days at the end of October.  Most general histories of the city include some reference to this infamous event. ‘This lively row gave Bristol the biggest advertisement in its history’ (Columbus p. 16, 1893), yet it has rarely received more considerable attention. There appear to be only four book-length histories: ‘A Citizen’ (John Eagles) produced his assessment in the following year, The Bristol Riots, Their Causes, Progress and Consequences (1832); Geoffrey Amey’s City Under Fire (1979); Jeremy N. Caple’s The Bristol Riots of 1831 and Social Reform in Britain (1990); and Peter MacDonald’s Hotheads and Heroes: Bristol Riots of 1831 (1996). I am currently attempting to collate source materials relating to the riots and would be interested to hear from any readers who know of anything I might have overlooked.

The discrepancy between its historical prominence and the amount of scholarly attention it has received stands in stark contrast to other events of a similar era and ilk such as Tolpuddle (1832-37) or the Swing Riots (1830). As such, despite frequently handling books on Bristol and its history, it was not until recently that I first came into possession of a copy of Amey’s 1979 work City under Fire, thus allowing me to acquaint myself with a substantial account of the events.

Whilst providing a readable enough account, Amey regurgitates a standard narrative extracted from court records and a handful of primary sources. There is little in the way of context or critical analysis. Consequentially the work fails to engage with much of the historical and theoretical content necessary to comprehend, and not simply retell a narrative of, the riots.

A consideration of Amey’s background goes some way toward explaining this. There appears to be minimal information about him online, and the brief paragraph giving details about the author is similarly slight. It does however make clear that Amey’s background is as ‘a professional journalist … fascinated by some of the lesser-known incidents in the history of nineteenth-century England’ (Amey, 1979). His media background is evident from his narrative style; favouring literary flourishes and a fixation on the sensational over serious critical engagement with the period and his sources.

This is most painfully clear when considering how the rioters are portrayed. Here Amey reiterates an orthodox interpretation common to most accounts. The Bristol rioters have in turn been portrayed as: ‘dregs of the populace’ and ‘devilish revels’ (Taylor, p. 26, 1877), ‘the rough and uncivilised’ (Harvey, p. 86, 1906), ‘robbers and ruffians’ (Salmon, p. 43, 1922), ‘a crowd of disaffected and undisciplined people … among them were all the desperate riffraff of a great city’ (Methley, p. 15-6, 1930), and ‘crazy labourers’ (Jones, p. 164, 1946).

Whilst Amey’s language is perhaps less provocative, he appears equally uninterested in grappling with the social conditions conducive toward the breakdown in order which engulfed the city for three days at the end of October 1831. In his concluding remarks he does pose the question ‘did not under-privileged sections of the community seize the opportunity to demonstrate also against an unpopular corporation?’ (Amey, p. 177, 1979). Sadly in the preceding 176 pages little effort is put into addressing it.

There is little in the way of historical context, so statements such as, ‘Certainly there had been growing opposition and agitation for years calling for major reforms in the local administration’ leave the reader aghast as to why this ‘growing opposition’ was not discussed previously (Amey, p. 178, 1979). Instead of these critical historical factors is a fixation upon the ‘rampage of wrecking and intimidation’ or ‘the holocaust of Queen Square’ (Amey, p. 85-6, 1979). Provocative, but ultimately hollow.

Arguably this stems from a common conception with regard to riots and rioters, or “the mob” as they are usually branded, that is still held today. In the wake of the 2011 riots David Cameron was quick to label it “criminality, pure and simple”. Such an assessment is questionable to some even at the time, but when applied to historical instances of rioting appears even more tenuous. It evades the qualitative and not merely quantitative difference between “mere criminality” and mass, targeted acts of law-breaking; whatever the context, the latter have clear political and social implications indicating a widespread breakdown in popular consent to commonly recognised authority. It is the factors allowing for this breakdown that offer insight into the particulars of a given incident. To dismiss the motivation as mere opportunism does nothing but allow the authorities full scope to retaliate.

Dragoons cut down rioters

In the context of Bristol 1831 there were clear political provocations. The deeply unpopular city Recorder Charles Wetherall (1770-1846) was a prominent opponent of reform and it was commonly anticipated that his entrance into the city on the 29thOctober would provoke considerable hostility. Though to attribute the riots simply to the House of Lords’ rejection of the Reform Bill is inadequate; popular grievance with authority was widespread and by no means restricted to demands for formal political reform.

From the partial picture of “the mob” we can ascertain few it appears would have benefited from the enlarged franchise offered by the Reform Bill, being predominantly property-less, young, working-class and male. Speculations as to the role of miners from Kingswood are inconclusive and assertion of their participation seems in large part to derive from their violent reputation (Harvey, p. 86). Yet they certainly had considerable reason to be aggrieved. In reference to this period Donald Jones states:

With no political rights and little means of exerting any political pressure, and a governing elite that treated the populace with utter contempt, the only way for the propertyless majority to address any grievance was to resort to the power of the crowd. For the urban labourers and the miners of Kingswood, the horrendous working conditions in the deeper mines, the longer hours in industrial workplaces, meant that life was lived at the margins. Protests were usually against change for the worse. (Jones, p. 79, 2000)

It is with this in mind that the events of 29th-31st October, 1831 must be understood. Not to attempt to locate a single unifying cause, but to recognise a profundity of socio-economic factors inculcating hostility among large swathes of the population toward the Corporation.

Whilst for the most part Amey appears at pains to shift the focus away from such contextual factors and toward the sensationalist events, his account loses coherence as a consequence. He asserts that ‘Rioters sat in a circle in the prison-yard brazenly discussing potential targets. Proposals included the Bishop’s Palace, banks, shipping, the Mansion House, the Council House and, on a more personal level, the home of anti-reformer Thomas Daniel’ (Amey, p. 61, Nicholls & Taylor, pt. 2). Whilst an evaluation of the buildings burnt suggests a calculated attack on symbols of authority and capital in keeping with the above, there seems to be little but the prejudice of Amey to lead him, just a matter of pages later, to claim that, ‘Every public building became a potential target (perhaps on no more than a drunken whim)’ (Amey, p. 67). Even the events of Sunday night (‘the holocaust of Queen Square’), when public residences were also looted and burnt, was not a descent into random violence. It remained confined to one of the wealthiest residential districts, and whilst evidently chaotic, it seems that the rioters (unlike the authorities) largely refrained from personal physical violence. A petition to the King on behalf of Bristolians with nearly 11,000 signatories appealing for clemency with regard to the sentencing of accused rioters claimed that, ‘they restrained themselves from outrages affecting personal safety’.

Amey’s account is further undermined by his inability to comprehend the popular consent given to the rioters by the Bristolian population: ‘most spectators did nothing to hinder and even stepped back politely to make room for departing rioters loaded down with loot’ (Amey, p. 69). Whilst calls by the Magistracy for a volunteer force to quell the disturbances were met with a pitiful response until reinforcements had strengthened the military in the city and it had become evident authority would be re-established. The numbers are telling; whilst a mere 200 or so answered the Corporation’s initial call for volunteer special constables (Amey, p. 62-3), estimates were of up to 20,000 ‘revels’ thronging Queen Square on the Sunday night (Amey, p. 91). A figure which dwarfs even the 5,000 estimated volunteer special constables the Corporation was able to rouse on the Monday (Amey, p. 99). These figures must of course be taken as approximations, even so it appears that a far bigger proportion of the population were either indifferent to, or actively participating in, the events.

The historical memory of the riots has however been commandeered by an elite keen to obscure the power of unified, mass, collective force that can undermine the monopoly on legitimate violence usually maintained by the ruling class through its instruments of repression (police, military, etc.). Often in conjunction with this is an implicit acknowledgement that property rights hold precedence over human life. John Taylor offers a typically Victorian example:

the brutal passions of the mob are unhappily stronger than their patriotic feelings, and when these passions, wildly broken loose, were suffered to act uncurbed by the power of external authority, the cry of “reform” was speedily changed to the howl of “Havoc,” and the dogs of war were instantly slipped against the rights of property (Taylor, p. 26)

The necessary but absent ‘curbing’ is, in the final analysis, ‘the cutting down [of] all who resisted’ (Hutton, p. 190, 1915).

It is in his vitriolic appeals for more expedient action by way of the Corporation and its forces that reveals where Amey’s sympathies lie (Amey, p. 51). He shares the concerns of the city elite, and is noticeably less perturbed by two hours of cavalry charges that took place with ‘great vigour and little mercy’ and led to considerable loss of life on the Monday morning, than the events preceding it (Amey, p. 97 & 99). Acts of physical violence enacted by a recognised authority are accepted as necessary whilst popular anger against symbols of authority are considered a most heinous transgression. Similarly little grief is expressed for those rioters who lost their lives in the flames that engulfed parts of the city, whilst lament is saved for those respectable citizens who lost homes and property. This is not to suggest that they did not experience suffering, but simply to elucidate this peculiar bourgeois moralism; at turns harsh and then sympathetic, contingent on the class sympathies of the historian.

Great Numbers Killed & Wounded

City Under Fire is a readable book, and worth reading for anyone wanting to acquaint themselves with the chronology of the events of October 29th-31st1831 and some of its leading characters. However it does a great disservice to the popular history of the city, doing more to reinforce common myths than to engage critically with them. Above all else, the absence of substantial context leaves Amey’s standard narrative account insufficient. After all the riots were a considerable event in a period which no less eminent an historian as E. P. Thompson can claim, ‘England was without any doubt passing through a crisis in these twelve months in which revolution was possible’ (Thompson, p. 889, 1968). Any authoritative account of the riots must at least acknowledge this broader situation.

Perhaps the most valuable asset of Amey’s work to the historian is the appendix, which details, from the Archives Office of Tasmania, the fates of those rioters sentenced to transportation. Similarly the “principal sources of information” provide a decent starting point for anyone wishing to make a reappraisal of the dominant narrative surrounding the October 1831 events. For those wishing to do so attention to the following theoretical framework may pay dividends:

Instead of seeing a riot as [some] sociologists do, namely as any collective act of violence which seeks to directly communicate its message without respect to legal norms, we can see them as they appear to us: as developing forms of struggle adequate to the conditions of exploitation at their particular time. Riots usually start with some grievance, sometimes with a demand in sight. A riot can also start with no demand, but end with one. Other times, riots begin with a particular demand, but end without any care whatsoever for its accomplishment. Sometimes demands are forced onto a collectivity of rioters by a self-appointed “representative” and other times demands are decided on by the collectivity themselves. Every aforementioned case has occurred … and it is the task of the insurrectionary scientist to uncover any possible logics to the historical development of such relations in the dialectic between demand and destruction. As the conditions of exploitation develop, so do the struggles against them, and with this the meaning of the struggles themselves change, expressed not by demands but by the content of the activity itself. (Kaspar, p. 6-7, 2010)

Some of the books referenced in the above are available at Dreadnought Books:

Lesser Columbus: Greater Bristol

Pelham, London, 1893. Later Edition. Binding: Hardcover. Book Condition: Fair Condition. Dust Jacket Condition: No Dust Jacket. Size: 4to – over 9.75 – 12″ tall. xx + 300pp. Text body is free from previous owner annotation, underlining and highlighting. Hinges cracked. Covers and spine beginning to come away from main text block which is split in places, but remains intact. Pages browned. Edges browned. Covers marked and worn. Illustrated.  Shipped Weight: Under 1 kilogram. Category: Genealogy & Local History; England; Inventory No: 11926. PRICE:  SOLD OUT

Alfred Harvey: Bristol. A Historical and Topographical Account of the City

Methuen, London, 1906. First Edition. Binding: Hardcover. Illustrator: E. H. New. Book Condition: Good Condition. Dust Jacket Condition: No Dust Jacket. Size: 12mo – over 6.75 – 7.75″ tall. xvi + 301pp. Text contains marks and notes scattered throughout, in pencil. Binding firm, but spine is faded. Scattered foxing, but text mostly clean. Previous owner’s signature in ink. Edges browned. A couple of pages from the ‘Selection of Messrs. Methuen’s Publications’, separately paginated at rear, have been cut out. Marked covers in protective plastic cover. From the Ancient Cities series. Contains frontispiece and illustrations. Illustrator: E. H. New. Quantity Available: 1. Shipped Weight: Under 1 kilogram. Category: Genealogy & Local History; England; Inventory No: 11757. PRICE: £ 8

Stanley Hutton: Bath & Bristol

A & C. Black, London, 1915. First Edition. Binding: Hardcover. Illustrator: Laura A. Happerfield. Book Condition: Good Condition. Dust Jacket Condition: No Dust Jacket. Size: 8vo – over 7.75 – 9.75″ tall. viii + 199pp. Occasional pencil markings. Binding firm, but spine is slightly cocked. Endpapers browned, text block clean. Previous owner’s signature in ink. Edges browned. Contains frontispiece and illustrations. Illustrator: Laura A. Happerfield. Shipped Weight: Under 1 kilogram. Category: Genealogy & Local History; England; Inventory No: 11846. PRICE: £ 8

Frederick C. Jones: “The Glory that was Bristol”

St. Stephen’s, Bristol, 1946. First Edition. Binding: Softcover. Book Condition: Good Condition. Size: 8vo – over 7.75 – 9.75″ tall. 215 pp. Text body is free from previous owner annotation, underlining and highlighting. Binding firm. Covers marked. Contains frontispiece and illustrations. Shipped Weight: Under 500 grams. Category: Genealogy & Local History; England; Inventory No: 11902. PRICE: £ 8

Donald Jones: Bristol Past

Phillimore, Chichester, 2000. First Edition. Binding: Hardcover. Book Condition: Fine Condition. Dust Jacket Condition: Fine. Size: 4to – over 9.75 – 12″ tall. xiv + 122pp. Text body is free from previous owner annotation, underlining and highlighting. Binding firm. Dust Jacket is in as new condition, apart from normal shop shelf wear – contains no tears or chips or other damage. Illustrated.  Shipped Weight: Under 1 kilogram. Category: Genealogy & Local History; England; ISBN: 1860771386. ISBN/EAN: 9781860771385. Inventory No: 11889. PRICE: £ 4

Easy Guide to BristolA. A. Methley: An Easy Guide to Bristol (Ancient and Modern)

St. Stephen’s, Bristol, 1930. First Edition. Binding: Hardcover. Book Condition: Good Condition. Dust Jacket Condition: No Dust Jacket. Size: 12mo – over 6.75 – 7.75″ tall. x + 118pp. Text body is free from previous owner annotation, underlining and highlighting. Binding firm, but spine is faded. Endpapers browned, text block clean. Edges browned. The publication date given above is an estimate only, there being no date given in the book. Scarce. Comes with an associated newspaper snippet. Contains frontispiece and 18 illustrations. Shipped Weight: Under 500 grams. Category: Genealogy & Local History; England; Inventory No: 11760. PRICE: £ 25

Arthur L. Salmon: Bristol: City, Suburbs & Countryside

Bristol Times and Mirror, 1922. First Edition. Binding: Hardcover. Illustrator: F. G. Lewin. Book Condition: Good Condition (ex-library). Dust Jacket Condition: No Dust Jacket. Size: 12mo – over 6.75 – 7.75″ tall. xvi + 237pp. Text body is free from previous owner annotation, underlining and highlighting. Binding firm, with minor wear to spine. Slight foxing to front/rear pages, but body of book mostly clean and unfoxed. Edges greyed with dust marks. Ex-library copy, with usual stamps and markings. Covers marked and worn. Illustrated. Illustrator: F. G. Lewin. Shipped Weight: Under 500 grams. Category: Genealogy & Local History; England; Inventory No: 11872. PRICE: SOLD OUT

Bristol Clifton Old NewJohn Taylor: Bristol and Clifton. Old and New

Houlston & Sons, London, 1877. First Thus. Binding: Softcover. Book Condition: Fair Condition. Size: 12mo – over 6.75 – 7.75″ tall. xii + 123pp. Text body is free from previous owner annotation, underlining and highlighting. Amateur rebind, with original cover, but new spine and back cover, held together with tape. Binding split in several places. Scattered foxing, but text mostly clean. Previous owner’s address in ink. Covers marked and worn. The publication date given above is an estimate only, there being no date given in the book. Contents are in part a condensation of ‘A Book about Bristol’, and of the writer’s contributions to ‘Bristol and its Environs’. Contains frontispiece and illustrations.  Quantity Available: 1. Shipped Weight: Under 250 grams. Category: Genealogy & Local History; England; Inventory No: 11764. PRICE: £ 16

E. P. Thompson: The Making of the English Working Class

Penguin, Middlesex, 1970. Reprint. Binding: Softcover. Book Condition: Good Condition. Size: 12mo – over 6¾ – 7¾” tall. 958 pp. Text body is clean, and free from previous owner annotation, underlining and highlighting. Binding firm, spine creased. Edges browned. Classic account of artisan and working-class society in its formative years between 1780 and 1832.  Shipped Weight: Under 1 kilogram. Category: History; Britain/UK; ISBN: 0140210008. ISBN/EAN: 9780140210002. Inventory No: 9446. PRICE: SOLD OUT

Articles referenced above that are available online:

F. Nicholls & John Taylor: ‘The 1831 Uprising’ in Bristol Past & Present (1882), http://www.brh.org.uk/site/articles/bristol-past-and-present/the-1831-uprising-part1/

Kaspar, Jonathan: ‘For Nothing Against Everything’ in Fire to the Prisons (2010), http://www.zinelibrary.info/files/wedamandnothing-print.pdf

City Under Fire Cover

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