The Gordon Riots: Religion, Poverty, and No Revolution

“How did the American Revolution affect Britain?” an American reader asked me a good long time ago. I didn’t have a clue, so I plugged some version of the question into Google and Lord G.’s answer seemed to imply that no one in Britain much noticed it. Or, since that’s just the slightest exaggeration, that life went on pretty much as it had before.

But getting a decent answer is all about knowing what to ask, so let’s talk about the Gordon Riots of 1780.

What was happening around that time? Britain was losing the war in its thirteen colonies. Gentlemen wore wigs when they dressed formally and powdered their hair when they were being informal. Was there a connection? Don’t jump to conclusions. George Washington may not have worn a wig (the Smithsonian magazine says he didn’t), but he powdered his hair and floofed it out on the sides so it looked wiglike. It was time consuming, but for formal battles it was important to get the look right. 

Absolutely relevant photo, because what’s a riot without a flower or six?

I mention the wigs as a reminder that the upper classes had both time and money that they could afford to piss out the window. London was a city of what Professor Jerry White calls “almost unimaginable inequality. And inequality was underpinned by a deeply-loathed system of ‘justice’, its key component the London prison system”–which among other things imprisoned people for debt. (That link will, if life and the internet are kind, lead you to a pdf of an article on the riots. It’s five pages long and it’s good, but you’ll have to download it.)

The cost of living had gone up and (you’ve heard this about other time periods, right?) wages hadn’t. Funny how that works.

You can think of inequality and a war that was going badly (there’s the American Revolution again) as your standard-issue liquid fuel. The match that ignited it was an act allowing Catholics to join the army and buy land if they took an oath of allegiance. It didn’t go as far as giving them freedom of religion, but this was pretty radical stuff for its time and place. 

The act had come into force in England and Ireland in 1778 without setting off any sparks, but when it was introduced in Scotland in 1779 it was met with anti-Catholic rioting that was so serious that Catholics themselves asked the government to withdraw the bill, which it did. 

Then London’s Protestants looked at their cold fireplace and thought that setting fire to the chimney might just be a good idea. Because there’s nothing like a bit of religious, ethnic, or national intolerance to take your mind off your problems. 

Enter Lord George Gordon. He was twenty-nine, an MP, the third son of a duke, and generally considered a religious nut. “His speeches were wild and unbalanced,” according to Prof. White. His hair was also wild and unbalanced. Or, as White has it, long and lank. Either way, he managed to look like one of the Puritans from a century before his time. 

The Catholic Relief Act, Gordon said in an audience with George III, was “for the diabolical purpose of arming the Papists against the Protestant colonies in America.”

If you strip away the insults and the ranting, that wasn’t an entirely unbalanced belief. The war needed soldiers, and Catholics looked as good in a bright red coat as well as anyone else did.

A quick interruption while I talk about sources. The George Gordon quote comes from a book, The English Rebel: One Thousand Years of Trouble-making from the Normans to the Nineties, by David Horspool. It’s informative and well written and everyone should rush out and buy six copies or go to the library and borrow one. Among other things, it’s left me thinking about how we define rebellion. And a mob. It’s a rich source of blog fodder. But it’s not online, so no link.

And now back to our regularly scheduled programming. If you’d stop interrupting, we could get to the point faster.

In a well-organized campaign, the Protestant Association had been handing Parliament petitions against the Catholic Relief Act ever since it passed, and in 1780 some 50,000 to 60,000 people gathered to hand in a petition with 44,000 signatures. They marched from St. George’s Fields into London, flying flags and singing hymns. Outside Parliament, in the usual spirit of hymn-singing, they attacked members of the House of Lords, who were just rolling up in their carriages. 

The Commons were already in session and the mob (the word didn’t carry the same overtones it does today; it meant an excitable crowd–and this one does sound like it was excitable) swirled into the lobby, where Gordon excited them a bit more, reminding them that the Scots hadn’t made progress against the act until they “pulled down the mass-houses.” 

MPs expected the mob to break into the Commons chamber at any moment and White says several were ready to draw their swords and one (who happened to be Gordon’s uncle) announced that he’d put his sword through Gordon if anyone broke through the door. 

I know. Most of us have at least one relative we feel that way about.

What were the MPs doing with swords when a statute from 1313 bans anyone coming armed (or in armor) to Parliament? No idea. Sorry. I’d love to know.

As it turned out, no one broke in and no one ran Gordon through, although it wasn’t for lack of wanting to, I’m sure. But oddly enough, no one stepped in to stop Gordon running out to make sure the mob maintained its level of excitement.

Parliament voted not to receive the petition, with only nine members wanting to accept it.

In the middle of this mayhem, the Duke of Richmond introduced a motion to extend the vote to all men. It was the height of lousy timing. What, give the vote to “the people” when “the people” were just outside, punching lords as they arrived in their carriages? 

The secretary of state argued against universal male suffrage on the grounds that the British constitution was “the wisest that had ever been created.” And no one could prove it wasn’t, since it’s (oh, so wisely) never been written down. It would be like arguing that the Invisible Man wasn’t devastatingly handsome. 

The motion lost.  

That evening, the mob attacked several Catholic chapels, including private ones belonging to Catholic ambassadors. Then things settled down for a while. And then they unsettled. Catholic churches, schools, and homes were attacked. Soldiers were called out but didn’t have clear orders about what to do. Politicians who took unpopular positions had already been attacked, so no one wanted to give the order to shoot. 

The rioting continued. The poet George Crabbe  (no, I never heard of him either, but the opera Peter Grimes is based on his work, so somebody has) wrote, “I met a resolute band of vile-looking fellows, ragged, dirty, and insolent, armed with clubs, going to join their companions. I since learned that there were eight or ten of these bodies in different parts of the City.” 

By now, the nature of the mob had changed–it was poorer and more desperate–and so had its targets. They were attacking the justice system, burning criminal records, freeing prisoners, and destroying prisons. 

Again, George Crabbe, talking to a tavern waiter: “I asked him what could induce him to do all this? He said the cause. I said, do you mean a religious cause? He said no; for he was of no religion. He said, there should not be a prison standing on the morrow in London.”

White describes the next couple of nights as civil war. 

When the soldiers finally received orders to shoot, the first ones who did were commanded by Gordon’s brother-in-law.

We can, I think, reasonably assume that the family’s Christmas dinners were strained.

The next day, gangs started knocking on doors, demanding money for “the true religion.” Buildings that had already been attacked were systematically looted. The Bank of England and toll houses on Blackfriars Bridge were attacked. A distillery owned by a Catholic was set alight and either the vats of alcohol caught fire or gin was pumped on the fire accidentally, instead of water. The second version sounds unlikely but I prefer it.

It took two days, 210 shot dead, 75 wounded (and, according to one source, later dying in the hospital), and an uncounted number dying or recovering at home before the riots were over. Soldiers, magistrates, and peace officers made their way through poor neighborhoods, arresting people, including criminals, wage earners (journeymen, apprentices, domestic and public house servants) street sellers, assorted other men working marginal jobs, and a few women whose jobs weren’t recorded, although it was recorded that one of them was black.

Ten times more property had been destroyed than was destroyed in Paris during the French Revolution, and far more prisoners were freed than were freed from the Bastille (1,500 compared to 7). But in the end the French had a revolution and Britain had riots.

Horspool points out that the attacks focused on prosperous Catholic institutions, which he takes to mean that it was “the success of the hated group as opposed to their existence that was resented.” He also points out that Catholics had less to fear from the rioters than MPs did, although I doubt they’d have agreed with him. 

And Lord Gordon?

He was indicted for treason but acquitted on the grounds that he hadn’t intended any treason. It helped that he hadn’t taken any direct part in the riots.  According to the Jewish Magazine, which is more sympathetic to Gordon than either Horspool or White, he came out of the trial a more religious man. He was drawn to the Quakers for their pacifism and work to help the poor and to the Jewish community (only recently returned to England after some 400 years of exile) for their efforts to care for the poor. The story is that he was walking through a Jewish neighborhood in Ipswich and saw a sign saying, “All who are hungry enter and eat.” He went in and struck up a lifelong friendship with the householder, Isaac Titterman.

In 1787, Gordon was jailed for libeling Marie Antoinette, the French ambassador, and the English justice system. 

Then, in case you think anything’s simple, this most Protestant of anti-Catholic Protestants converted to Judaism–according to one source when he was in prison and according to another, more detailed one, before. Having converted, he became strictly observant, to the point of refusing to talk with Jewish men who shaved their beards. In court, he refused to remove his kippa. Since the court saw it as a hat, making it a sign of disrespect rather than a religious observance to keep it on, it was pulled off his head and he tied a nightcap on his head with a handkerchief. 

What he was doing with a nightcap in  court is beyond me. I’ve never heard that there’s anything in the many, many (many, many, many) Jewish laws and traditions that involves nightcaps and court appearances. But then, I’m no expert. Never mind. He covered his head. Both sides, presumably, were unhappy with the outcome, although maybe not equally unhappy.

He served out his sentence but couldn’t be freed unless two people guaranteed (apparently with money) his good behavior. But the people who appeared for him were Polish Jews, who the court refused to recognize. Whether that was because they were Jewish or Polish is anyone’s guess, but my money’s on Jewish. His brothers and sister offered to cover his bail but he turned down their offer.

He was returned to prison and died of prison fever–typhoid–at forty-two.

Horspool mentions speculation that his conversion came out of a belief that if the Jews returned to Israel it would bring the second coming of Christ, but his letters from this period, along with his willingness to have religious alterations made to a body part that men are generally pretty sensitive about, make his conversion sound less complicated and more genuine than that.

Oh: The British lost the war.

65 thoughts on “The Gordon Riots: Religion, Poverty, and No Revolution

  1. Britain is still quietly an anti-catholic country…I think the king/queen/heir to the throne is still banned from marrying a Catholic. Meghan had to convert to Church of England before she married Harry. I think that he’s far enough away from the throne that her Catholicism wasn’t a big deal. She gets plenty of (unwarranted) criticism from tabloid newspapers like the Daily Mail, but I am not sure if that’s because of her Africa-American heritage, or because she’s American, or just to make sales.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Or quite possibly all three. Why be offensive on just one count when you can have them all?

      As far as I know, the Act of Settlement is still in operation. I seem to remember some talk about repealing it, but we’ve been too busy with Bexit.

      I didn’t know either that she was Catholic or that she converted.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Yes, indeed. Divorced too, time was that would have been a big deal. I guess that’s only if you are unreliable an nazi-sympathizing member of the royal family. Now I think about it, that may well describe more than one of them!! Harry was caught at a fancy dress party in a Nazi uniform. That was in his wild days!

        Liked by 2 people

      • I don’t know your views or beliefs but I think it should be taught worldwide as soon as children are able to comprehend. Of course, there are generations of adults that also don’t have a clue. Have you read any Hitchens?

        Liked by 1 person

        • I haven’t. I have read about him, which I admit is a different thing altogether. But with that said, I heard of him first as a campaigner against religion. I confess, I sort of shrugged and thought, that’s nice, but not really something I feel a need to read. I have mixed feelings about anti-religious campaigning. I don’t have a religious impulse anywhere in me, and I certainly wouldn’t take discussing religion off the table, but just as I have no patience for religious proselytizing–well, should I not feel the same way about non-religious proselytizing?

          In fairness, I don’t know that he does that. Maybe he just argues rigorously. It’s a thin line.

          I’ve also read that he ended up supporting the invasion of Iraq, at which point (or maybe before) we part political company.

          What are you drawn to in his writing?

          Liked by 2 people

          • I don’t feel that he is proselytizing. If I did, he would have lost me. I may not agree with every word, but I cannot argue with almost every page I’ve read to date. Actually, much of what he has to say, I had come to the same conclusions long ago and before I heard of him. He is controversial to say the least and when attacked for his beliefs, he offers the facts but does not try to sway others.
            At a very early age, I could not accept either religion I was born into and the more I studied of them and others, not to mention psychology, philosopjy, anthropology and all my readings support my beliefs. Like Mr. Hitchens, I have no interest in changing the minds of others. We must each find our own path. However, we must examine the facts and I’ve always found it necessary, for me, to look at the claims of each side. I had watched one of his YouTube videos and ordered one of his books…

            Liked by 1 person

  2. Had never heard of Gordon, the riots or this bit of history. Thanks for adding it. Lots of anti-Catholic feelings all around still. We don’t seem to be making much progress on settling religious differences.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’d never heard of these riots or their consequences or this particular Gordon. I know about Chinese Gordon, but he was later. This is fascinating and it is interesting to know that things didn’t tick along as normal while the Revolution was being fought.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Another great post. I never heard of these riots or this rebellion, but it was interesting to see the tried and true method of: “talking to a tavern waiter” being put to good use and mentioned in a historic context.

    “Ten times more property had been destroyed than was destroyed in Paris during the French Revolution, and far more prisoners were freed than were freed from the Bastille (1,500 compared to 7). But in the end the French had a revolution and Britain had riots.” Then again, we had a Revolutionary War you guys basically ignore it. I have a friend in Ipswich, yikes something in common with Gordon, who sent us a copy of “A Few Bloody Noses” which suggests that folks on neither side of the ocean really understand that war – or maybe it was a riot. Who knows?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Fascinating history lesson Ellen! It seems we humans haven’t evolved much over the past several hundred (or thousand!) years. Mob mentality is still alive and well, especially when religious views are questioned.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Or when people we decide aren’t like us are involved. I grew up in an era when we were taught that things not only were getting better but that, by implication, that was the natural direction of travel. I kind of miss that belief, however misguided it was.


  6. Very enjoyable and enlightening read, Ellen :-) I’m reminded of Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge which is about the Gordon Riots – written maybe 60 years later? (I should check out the dates but…) And I’d never heard of them until reading that. You’ve added plenty more to my hitherto scanty knowledge. (As well as adding a few chortles to this very damp morning.) I’m currently reading Martin Chuzzlewit – written in the aftermath of Dickens’ visit to America. It must have done no end of good in the anglo-american relationship department at that time 🙈😣

    Liked by 1 person

    • The British-American relationship has always had its, um, oddities and difficult moments, I think. And it’s getting odder and more difficult all the time. I don’t remember Barnaby Rudge. It may be one of the ones I haven’t read and should.

      Liked by 1 person

      • One of the lesser known ttiles. I can’t recommend it, not because it’s not worth reading but because he wrote so many better ones. As for that difficult/special relationship … plenty of rhetoric among the politicians but when it comes to the actual people, I think it’s pretty solid :-)

        Liked by 1 person

        • On point two I agree completely. And on point one, actually. I’ve read a few Dickens novels that just didn’t grab hold of me the way his best ones do. Thanks for the non-recommendation. I’ve learned to approach him with a bit of caution. Or, better yet, guidance. At his best he’s brilliant. At his not-best, he’s not.

          Liked by 1 person

  7. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
    No, of course I don’t speak French, but Google does. And at least the French had the sense to chop off the heads of their more obnoxious “leaders”. We could use a guillotine here, I think.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I remember when I was first reading about assorted revolutions and non-revolutionary overthrows thinking that, however unappealing it was, there was a good argument to be made in favor of killing the former leaders. Otherwise you end up with a focus for opposition and it you’re not lucky a lot more bloodshed. Mercifully, I’m not in a position to have to decide on that.


  8. A fascinating fill in for me as I only knew about the Gordon riots from Dickens ‘Barnaby Rudge ‘ and he used what he needed to make the novel ; the scale of the carnage is shocking.
    As for Judaism I’m sure it appealed more to many Christians , being Old Testament based , than the revolutionary new testament.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Interesting thought, that Judaism would have appealed to many Christians. I’m not so sure. For one thing, antisemitism ran so deep in the culture that I’m not sure many Christians could have approached it without a shudder. And the reality of the Jewish community, and of Jewish theology, would have been (as I understand it–I’m not religious, so I can’t claim any deep knowledge) very different than a simple reading of the Hebrew Bible might have led them to expect.


        • In theory, they love them, but in reality I’m skeptical. My personal experience of evangelicals (which is limited but nonetheless real) is that they’re just dying to convert me, which isn’t what I’d call love. Their embrace of Israel isn’t out of any love of–or more to the point, respect for–Jews but because it fits with their beliefs about the second coming.

          Liked by 1 person

  9. Well we are all in the game of conversion except it is generally to convince others we are right. Love is a tough thing to explain but generally speaking it extends firstly to our family then friends and maybe that nebulous thing called our nation. To ‘ love your enemy ‘ would be lunacy the Jews stick with ‘ an eye for an eye ‘ as do most of our laws.
    The second coming is a human yearning for a better world but most of us cling to what we have .

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’d agree that the instinct to convince others (and ourselves) that we’re right may be close to universal (I’ll leave room for the hope that some wise and serene people may be out there somewhere), but I don’t think we’re all in the game of conversion. Certainly not all religions are, and I don’t think all individuals are either. As for love, or even discussion, I’m leery of discussing whole categories of humanity as if they were one. Not all Jews believe in–or read–the bible. The Jewish religion has many strands, all disagreeing with each other on key points. I think (and again, I’m no religious scholar, so I can’t offer any kind of certainty) you’ll find that an eye for an eye isn’t a driving belief in any of them, but you’ll need someone with more expertise than I can offer before you take that as fact. Read the Hebrew bible and you’ve barely touched the surface of the religion.

      But to come back to love, when anyone claims to love an entire group of people, it sets alarm bells ringing in my head. I advise backing slowly out of the room, watching them out of the corner of your eye.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Don’t worry about not being a scholar I have no higher education , besides scholars often can’t see the wood for the trees. I think the natural justice of ‘ an eye for an eye ‘ appeals to most of us where as ‘ turn the other cheek ‘ is seen as madness. The Jews have the twelve tribes and it fits with our evolutionary tribal nature which is ever present in us. You are right to point out our individuality yet in some ways we are amazingly similar. Labels are dangerous things after all who are the Americans or the Indians ? but they all bear the stamp of humanity. I expect you find great solace in replicating nature on the canvas ; you are indeed fortunate for most of us have to be content with just looking.

        Liked by 1 person

          • A wishul thinking kind. The only way we can bring these carvivores down is in the streets (unfortunately for everyone but them, the time is not ripe yet). They have absolute majority in the parliament and the elections.
            As sb noticed, there’s no absolute majority in democracy, only in totalitarian countries. In democratic societies, elections are lost when the economy stagnates. In authoritarian ones, elections are won with promises.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Interesting observation, that last one. I’m looking for counter-examples–the statement just seems too absolute. I bounced it off my partner, who was a historian (among other things). Her take on it is that all elections are won with promises. Everybody promises. And in authoritarian countries, elections are won with lies. And stolen.

              Of course, as US history demonstrates, elections are stolen in democracies as well. And won with lies.

              God, I’m getting depressed. Aren’t I fun to talk to?

              Liked by 1 person

  10. I don’t understand debtors’ prison. Did they have to stay until they could pay the debt (which makes no sense since they couldn’t work while they were in prison) or was it a set period of time? Did they still owe the debt when they were released? It makes it sound like being poor was a crime.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Pingback: Who policed England before it had police?  | Notes from the U.K.

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