Bristol Riots

In November, 1830, Earl Grey, a Whig, became Prime Minister. Grey explained to William IV that he intended to introduce proposals that would get rid of some of the rotten boroughs. Grey also planned to give Britain's fast growing industrial towns such as Manchester, Birmingham, Bradford and Leeds, representation in the House of Commons.

In April 1831 Grey asked William IV to dissolve Parliament so that the Whigs could secure a larger majority in the House of Commons. Grey explained this would help his government to carry their proposals for parliamentary reform. William agreed to Grey's request and after making his speech in the House of Lords, decided to walk back through cheering crowds to Buckingham Palace.

After Lord Grey's election victory, he tried again to introduce parliamentary reform. On 22nd September 1831, the House of Commons passed the Reform Bill. However, the Tories still dominated the House of Lords, and after a long debate the bill was defeated. When people heard the news, riots took place in several British towns.

One of the most serious disturbances took place in Bristol. Although the city had been represented in the House of Commons since 1295, by 1830 just over 6,000 of the 104,000 population had the vote. On 31st October 1831, a large crowd protested against the decision of the House of Lords to defeat the Reform Act by burning down 100 houses, including the Bishop's Palace, the Custom House and the Mansion House. The mob looted and burnt unpopular citizens' houses and released prisoners from the gaols. The Dragoons attacked the crowd and hundreds were killed and severely wounded.

The Dragoons attacking the crowd at Bristol on 31st October, 1831.
The Dragoons attacking the crowd at Bristol on 31st October, 1831.

Primary Sources

(1) Journal of Charles Greville, Clerk of the Privy Council.

11th November, 1832: The country was beginning to slumber after the fatigues of Reform, when it was rattled up by the business of Bristol, which for brutal ferocity and wanton, unprovoked violence may vie with some of the worst scenes of the French Revolution, and may act to damper to our national pride. The spirit of which produced these atrocities was generated by Reform, but no pretext was afforded for their actual commission; it was a premature outbreaking of the thirst for plunder, and longing after havoc and destruction, which is the essence of Reform in the mind of the mob. The details are ample, and to be met with everywhere; nothing could exceed the ferocity of the populance, the imbecility of the magistracy, or the good conduct of the troops. More punishment was inflicted by them than has been generally known, and some hundreds were killed or severely wounded by the sabre. One body of dragoons pursued a rabble of colliers into the country, and covered the fields and roads with the bodies of wounded wretches, making a severe example of them. In London there would probably have been a great uproar and riot, but fortunately Melbourne, who was frightened to death at the Bristol affair, gave Lord Hill and Fitzroy Somerset carte blanche, and they made such a provision of military force in addition to the civil power that the malcontents were paralysed.

(2) Lord Ellenborough, diary, (31st October, 1831)

In the course of the day I heard that the mob had fired from the windows on the occasion of Sir C. wetherall's entrance into Bristol and killed seven of the 14th Dragoons. The subsequent account was that 65 houses were burnt, and the firing was going on when the coach came away. This is the most serious event which has occurred. I fear there are very few troops at Bristol.

At20 minutes after 10 I received a note from Mr. Edwards who is in Cheltenham, in reply to my enquiry respecting the latest news from Bristol. The worst seems to be past. The citizens are forming themselves into a guard to protect property - but 100 houses have been burnt, amongst these the Bishop's Place, the Customs House, the Mansion House and the three prisons. The reports from Bath are not favourable. An inn there has been nearly demolished. The crisis is arrived.

(3) Reverand J. L. Jackson, letter to C. B. Wollaston (31st October, 1831)

During the whole of Saturday Bristol was in a state of considerable ferment from the arrival of Sir. C. Wetherall, the Recorder. In the evening the multitude assembled before the Mansion House in Queen Square, and smashed the windows by a volley of stones in the front of the building. Yesterday morning when I was going to Bristol to serve the church of a friend, I learnt that the populace had actually broken into the Mansion House, and forced the cellars and were destroying and gutting the house. Three individuals were killed by the soldiers and more wounded. In the afternoon we heard the multitude was assembled in much greater masses, and about four o'clock we saw the new City and County Gaol in flames; afterwards the Bridewell and prison in the Gloucester Road, about a mile from Bristol. In the course of the evening Queen's Square was fired and the Bishop's palace. Of Queen's Square two whole sides have been burnt down, including the Mansion House. Other property to an immense amount is also destroyed. This morning an actual slaughter has taken place; it is supposed, though of course nothing precise can be known at present, that about seventy persons have been killed, besides a large who have been wounded. The military charged through some of the principal streets, cutting right and left.

(4) Reverend J. L. Jackson, letter to C. B. Wollaston (Ist November, 1831)

The magistrates, police, and constables were wholly inefficient. It is a fact that the Bishop's palace was plundered and fired by not more than ten men and a rabble of mere boys. Just as I am closing my letter I hear that two more fires occurred last night, and that they would certainly have been multiplied but for the presence of the military. Of course reports will be exaggerated, but may God preserve us. Our wretched Ministers have raised a storm which, I fear, it will not be in their power to direct or control.