The Bristol Bridge Riot

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Taken from Bristol Past and Present by J. F. Nicholls and John Taylor, published in 1882

The Bristol bridge riots of 1793 form another blot on the escutcheon of the city. Some persons in authority appear to have blundered in their calculations, and sought to stretch an Act of Parliament so as to make it cover the error, and then, with a wrong-headedness which it is lamentable to contemplate, resorted to force in order to accomplish their end. The Act authorised the Bridge commissioners to collect a surplus sum of 32,000 for preserving the bridge in repair. The commissioners, it appears, as the conclusion of their term drew near, thought this sum insufficient, and, without seeking further powers, determined, on the expiration of the lease, in September, 1793, to re-let the tolls for another year. Aware of this determination, a respectable body of individuals representing the people purchased by subscription of the lessee of the bridge, Mr. Hiscox, the last nine days of the current lease, and at once threw the bridge open. The public, we conceive, had an undoubted right to be satisfied by the commissioners that their conduct was legal, and, in order to test its illegality, to refuse payment of the toll. They had been informed, when the tolls were last let, that the bridge debt would be discharged in September, 1793, and that the letting of 1792 was the last occasion upon which the’ said tolls would be offered.

In 1792, Mr. Seyer, the broker, declared, “This will be the only opportunity any person would have of bidding for them, as no tolls would be collected after the 29th September, 1793.” Mr. W. Harris and Mr. Symons “both declared to me that I certainly should be the last person that would collect the tolls;” they also produced the bridge account, on which I observed “you will have nearly £3,000 in hand.” Mr. Harris replied, “We shall have enough to defray every expense of keeping the bridge in repair.” *

*From a handbill issued by Abraham Hiscox.

Hiscox was the bridge hirer and collector until after the commissioners had advertised the tolls to be let for another year, from September 29th, 1793, when he was bitterly abused by the public, and got no remedy from the magistrates. Nine days before the expiration of his term, on being applied to by a respectable body of citizens to relinquish his right of collecting toll on receiving an adequate consideration, he at once consented. This was done under the impression that if the toll were uncollected for nine days the bridge would become legally free. On September 19th, amidst joyous shoutings, the people thronged over without paying. The gates were the property of the lessor of the tolls, and some foolish fellows cut them down and burned them; they then proceeded to an act of greater madness by pulling down and burning the table of tolls which was at that time a capital offence. The trustees offered on the next day a reward of fifty guineas for the discovery of the offenders; they also stated that there were liabilities of £2,500 still against the bridge, whilst the other side asserted that the corporation had sufficient funds to cover all liabilities if the same were properly applied. No steps were taken to reconcile these differing statements, no offer of submitting the trustees’ accounts for scrutiny; but relying on the strong hand, whilst the rentor’s term was as yet unexpired, they, on Saturday, September 28th, set up other gates. Mischief was brewing, it was Saturday night; many men were the worse for beer, others were soon made so; the faggots on the Welsh back lay handy, the sleepy “charlies” looked complacently on as a mob gathered, and from the wood- stacks carried and piled combustibles against the new gates, which were soon burned. Hundreds of curious passengers became on-lookers at the bonfire ; they were increased into a multitude, when the magistrates, attended by a party of the Herefordshire militia, marched up to take possession of the expiring embers. These innocent arrivals were gathered round the authorities to learn what new steps would be taken, when from outside the circle came volleys of stones aimed at the military and the civic authorities. The Riot Act was read, but was unheard in the melee; the military fired over the people’s heads, and the assemblage then dispersed. The next day, being Sunday, the tolls were again attempted to be taken, and continual strife arose as each vehicle drew up to the toll-houses, the mob ordering the driver not to pay, whilst the newly-appointed collectors demanded the toll, and to the best of their means refused a passage to defaulters. The aid of the constables not being sufficient the magistrates sent for the military, overawed by the presence of whom the populace ceased their contention for a while; as night fell the carriages were allowed to pass toll free, and again the mob dispersed and the soldiers went to their billets. Sunday evening at nine o’clock,” says one narrator, “a pistol was fired on the eastern footpath while the guard was taking possession of it, without any apparent effect, but a journeyman tiler and plasterer named John Abbott, on reaching his home in Temple Street, discovered that he had been wounded. He died on the Sunday following.” Two thousand hand—bills were then issued by the civic authorities warning the people not to appear in the streets as the military had orders to fire in case of any tumult. On Monday morning, September 30th, the strife was recommenced as the vehicles entered the city. Finally at eleven o‚clock, the Riot Act was three times read, the people were ordered to disperse within one hour, with intimations of a fatal result if more than twelve persons should appear together in a group. But inasmuch as the speakers, in the opinion of the populace, were the law breakers by insisting on the unjust payment of a toll, but little heed was paid to their threats. Early in the afternoon the returned to the collectors and the work went on amidst a great deal of chaff and banter; then the military were again sent for, and from three to six the toll was collected literally at the point of the sword. Soon after this the magistrates, and soldiers retired for the night, as was supposed, upon which some mischievous boys fetched faggots from the Welsh back and made a bonfire at the bridge end; finding no interference from the peace officers they burst the toll-house doors, brought out the furniture and all that was inflammable and threw it upon the fire (the tollhouses were of stone). Then an officer with eight men marched up and the fire was put out, but being assailed with missiles, and having no orders to fire, he and his men had to retreat precipitately. Then the drums beat to arms and the people followed the sound, many of them keeping, as they thought, at a safe distance from the scene of conflict. Some of these were females, a few with babes in their arms, whilst fathers actually hoisted their children on their shoulders to see the sight. At a quarter past eight there marched down High street a large party of soldiers with some magistrates who endeavoured to clear the bridge. Oyster shells and other missiles being thrown at them from the Welsh back and Baldwin street, some of the military were struck down; enraged, they faced about, and the front rank fired up High street, the mob instantly fell back and jammed up every street; the angry soldiers, it is said, left their ranks in order to single out individuals, whilst others of them kept a desultory fire up every street that radiated from the bridge. This fusillade was utterly unexpected, nine hours had elapsed since the Riot Act had been read, the on-lookers supposed that at least there would be sufficient notice to allow of retreat. Nor were those safe who had kept at a distance, one shot entered the house at the corner of Wine street and passed through the headboard of the bedstead. Eleven persons – whose names are here given — were killed and about Eifty wounded.

John Abbott, James Howell, James Bennet,
William Morgan, William Powell, Isaac Davis,
Humphrey Lewis, John Jones, Elizabeth Eegan.
William Aldridge, Anthony Gill,

From advertisements in the papers we find that it was John Thomas, William Elton, Matthew Wright, and John Bally who took an assignment of Mr. Wintour Harris’ lease of the tolls from the 1st of October.

The following is the justification of the corporation and Bridge commissioners, taken from a broadsheet issued October lst, 1793, by order of the mayor and aldermen, signed Worrall, town clerk.

Yesterday, at 9 a.m., the toll-gatherers attended to receive the toll for the Bridge commissioners, Mr. Harris, the lessee, having given up the lease for one year which he had taken. They met with interruption, many persons forcing their way and refusing to pay. The constables were sent to aid, and one of the magistrates attended at 10.30. Some of those who attempted to force their way were taken into custody and committed to the Bridewell. On their way thither attempts at rescue were made by a mob. This caused the magistrates to read the Riot Act three times, the last reading being as the clock struck eleven. Mr. Symons, the clerk to the magistrates, addressed the multitude, and promised that the Bridge accounts should be immediately printed and dispersed through the city, and that the toll should cease as soon as the sum authorised by the Act should have been realised.

The people were then given one hour in which to disperse, being that at twelve o’clock the civil power would enforce the law.

At the appointed time the magistrates returned and found the mob largely increased and determined to free the bridge. A detachment of military was then ordered down; they were drawn up in two lines on the bridge, where they remained until 6.30.

Several magistrates attended, relieving each other at intervals, to assist the toll collectors until the above-named hour, at which time, being apprehensive of violence, they prevailed on the Bridge commissioners to shut up the toll-houses. The military were then withdrawn, the posts and chains were removed, and the magistrates returned in the rear of the soldiers to the Council-house. Within half an hour they learned that the mob was burning the toll- houses. The military were again sent for; meanwhile an officer, who with a few soldiers had remained in the guard-house, proceeded to the bridge and attempted to disperse the mob, but the party was obliged to return, the officer having been wounded by missiles in two places. Soon after the military arrived, when the mayor, five aldermen, one of the sheriffs, and the peace officers, preceded them to the bridge and commanded the mob to disperse. They were pelted with stones, oyster shells, &C., when the magistrates ordered the military to do their duty; when the front rank fired they were assailed by a shower of stones, &C., from a larger mob that had closed in upon their rear, upon which the soldiers faced about and fired up High street, killing some and wounding others – some of whom were doubtless innocent of evil, but very indiscreet, inasmuch as due warning had been given by printed handbills that the Riot Act had been read, and that the military would be directed to fire if the mob did not disperse.

On the 3rd October another handbill was issued, signed Worrall, town clerk, in which the magistrates call upon fathers not to let their children be loitering in the streets, masters to command their servants, tradesmen and manufacturers to exhort their labourers to pass quietly and not to join the rioters and disorderly in abusing, throwing dirt, or otherwise insulting the military, who have only done their duty. They call on all good citizens to assist the peace officers in apprehending any disturbers of the public peace, who will be dealt by with the utmost severity of the law. Dr. Long Fox, an eminent physician, endeavoured to obtain a meeting for enquiry into all the circumstances, and so to bring the matter before parliament, but, owing to the opposition of the parties in power, he could not obtain the use of any large room in the city.

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