Arrowsmith and the ‘Bristol Revolution’ of 1831

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I was fortunate enough to acquire, among a collection of books, both the 1884 and the considerably expanded 1906 edition of Arrowsmith’s Dictionary of Bristol, edited by Henry J. Spear and J. W. Arrowsmith. Concurrent with other research I have been conducting into the Bristol riots of 1831 I perused the entry in each edition and was struck by the volume of revisions. It should initially be noted that the account given in the 1906 edition is substantially longer. As such it is perhaps the detail that has been omitted from the later edition that holds greatest intrigue.

The 1884 edition commences with reference to the ‘Bristol Revolution as it has been magniloquently termed’. This is interesting in and of itself in its suggestion that what is now universally considered a riot may have been conceived as something worthy of an altogether grander title by a significant enough proportion of Bristolians for it to be referred to as such in a prominent local history reference work. The only other source I have located that refers to the riots in this fashion is John Taylor’s 1877 work Bristol and Clifton: Old and New. A thorough examination of Nineteenth Century sources is necessary before any definitive conclusions can be drawn as to the prevalence of the terminology ‘Revolution’ with regard to 1831.

Its inclusion by authors who otherwise appear to have little interest in stressing the popular character of the riots does suggest some acknowledgement of what appears was a somewhat prevalent perspective of the riots as progressive insurrection. The ‘magniloquent’ proviso immediately brings into question the validity of such an assessment, and throughout the piece the riots are characterised as a ‘tumultuous gathering of the dregs of the people’, in keeping with the predominant perspective found in secondary sources.

This is equally true of the 1906 edition but it should be noted that this later edition was revised and enlarged by John Latimer; a name familiar to local history enthusiasts for his gargantuan three volume work: Annals of Bristol. It is not clear from the 1906 edition whether the revisions were entirely his own or done in consultation with the authors of the first edition. However the account given in the 1906 edition is befitting of Latimer’s style. Absent are some of the more excessive literary flourishes: ‘Revolution’ is replaced with ‘riot’; the ‘licentious rabble’ is reduced to a simple ‘rabble’; ‘outrages’ alone are considered sufficient without the inclusion of ‘violences [sic] and outrages’; and ‘leaving the town and lives and property of the inhabitants at the mercy of a mass of infuriated ruffians’, following Colonel Brereton’s ordering of the 14th Light Dragoons out of the city is dispensed with altogether.

Additionally, the later edition clarifies some historical points that the former either excluded or assessed in a manner out of keeping with a closer examination of the sources. For example, when speaking of a citizen killed by a dragoon on the evening of Saturday 29th, the 1884 edition claims that ‘a dragoon shot a man (who had wounded him) dead’, whereas the 1906 edition clarifies that the executed man was in fact ‘a peaceful ostler’. An assertion that the mob attacked the military in Queen Square made in the 1884 edition is replaced with the claim that the Mansion House was the target for the rioter’s anger. The omission of ‘violences’ may also be taken in a similar vein. There is little record of physical violence enacted by the rioters. Their targets were material symbols of authority, and casualties were largely a by-product of such. The 1906 edition also offers a considerably expanded account of the attack on Bridewell Prison and the Bishop’s Palace.

Nevertheless, the 1906 edition is still very much in keeping with the orthodox, top-down account of the riots. Absent entirely from the 1884 edition, Major Digby Mackworth has been elevated to heroic restorer of the peace by 1906, and Colonel Brereton’s place as scapegoat is similarly affirmed.

What neither account offers is anything much in the way of context in which to situate and assess the actions of the rioters. Instead disparaging remarks are about as close to an understanding of the makeup and motivations of the ‘mob’ as either account gives, whether as ‘licentious rabble’ or ‘infuriated ruffians’ (1884), or as “entirely low Irish” as a Newspaper quote given in the 1906 edition assessed those who laid siege to the Mansion House on Sunday 30th. In fact, despite the more sober tone generally adopted in the 1906 edition, perhaps the most striking omission beside that previous alluded to is the absence of a quote attributed to a rioter during the disturbances:

I’m curs’d if this bean’t very funny. Charley [Wetherall] com’d down here to try the prisoners; but Charley funk’d, and so he cut and run’d away. Well, we turn’d judges, and so we found all the pris’ners not guilty; and I’m d—-d if we aren’t made a reg’lar gaol deliv’ry! [sic]

The source is not given any further provenance but the author’s justify its inclusion ‘as an example of coarse humour’. It is certainly conceivable that its omission from the 1906 edition was simply due to Latimer’s inability to verify the source, coupled with his seeming preference for formality. Regardless it is an interesting testimony; so few are the voices of the rioters, swamped in accounts from the city and military elite, that any snippet of perspective from the other side of the barricades is invaluable. Further it contains an allusion to popular sovereignty attainable through an assertion of collective force, albeit in a haphazard fashion. As such it speaks to the historical actuality of the events in a manner beyond the reach of the moralising elitist accounts unable to conceive the rioters as anything other than a disorganised, drunken and impetuous rabble.

Whilst Arrowsmith’s Dictionary of Bristol in either of its incarnations is far from a definitive account of the 1831 riots, it offers insight into the emerging dominant narrative of the events and how this developed over time. It is important not to read too much into this. It is quite conceivable that the differences are primarily attributable to the role and perspective of John Latimer. I hope shortly to read his account of the riots in the Annals of Bristol in the Nineteenth Century and doing so should provide an interesting cross-reference to the revisions made in the 1906 edition of the Dictionary. Nevertheless it is hoped that the above assessment may offer some interest to students of the 1831 riots in Bristol.

Originally published on Dreadnought Books


  1. I am a direct ancestor of Col Brereton and have written a book about his ancestry, his life and loves, and military career.The book ends with a detailed assessment of the Bristol riots and his part in it. It amounts to some 200,000 pages and includes many previously unknown facts. I am now looking for a publisher.

    • John,
      My name is Steve Spear and I am a member of the volunteer historic walks team at the M Shed museum in Bristol. My speciality is the 1831 riots and especially the personalities of the participants. I am fascinated by your ancestor’ s background to the extent of looking in depth into his military career and how his life in the Caribbean could have influenced his relationship with the sugar merchants in Bristol. You have carried out some great research so I would be honoured to be able to learn more about Lt Col. Thomas Brereton.

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