The Gordon Riots of 1780 were among the most destructive instances of mob insurrection in London’s history. Motivated by anti-Catholic sentiment, the riots were preceded by an orderly protest against the Papists Act of 1778, which was intended to reduce official discrimination against British Catholics. Lord George Gordon, head of the Protestant Association, argued that the law would enable Catholics to join the British Army and plot treason. Gordon’s words fanned the flames and led to widespread rioting and looting, including attacks on Newgate Prison and the Bank of England. The following account is from Walter Thornbury’s The River Thames (London 1878). Many of the antics described here are eerily reminiscent of the delusional vandalism we recently witnessed on Capitol Hill, whipped up by Donald Trump.
The mob came pouring down Holborn, between six and seven o’clock, on the evening of the 6th of June. There were three flags carried by the ringleaders—the first of green silk, with a Protestant motto; the second, dirty blue, with a red cross; the third, a flag of the Protestant Union. A sailor named Jackson had hoisted the second flag in Palace Yard, when Justice Hyde had launched a party of horse upon the people; and when the rabble had sacked the justice’s house in St. Martin’s Street, Jackson shouted, “Newgate, a-hoy!” and led the people on to the Old Bailey. Mr. Akerman, a friend of Boswell, and one of the keepers of Newgate, had had intimation of the danger two hours before, when a friend of one of the prisoners called upon him just as he was packing up his plate for removal, told him “he should be the one hung presently,” and cursed him. Exactly at seven, one of the rioters knocked at Mr. Akerman’s door, which had been already barred, bolted, and chained. A maid-servant had just put up the shutters, when the glass over the hall-door was dashed into her face. The ringleader who knocked was better dressed than the rest, and wore a dark brown coat and round hat. The man knocked three times, and rang three times; then, finding no one came, ran down the steps, “made his obeisance to the mob,” pointed to the door, then retired. The mob was perfectly organised, and led by about thirty men walking three abreast. Thirty men carried iron crowbars, mattocks, and chisels, and after them followed “an innumerable company,” armed with bludgeons and the spokes of cart-wheels. The band instantly divided into three parts—one set went to work at Mr. Akerman’s door with the mattocks, a second went to the debtors’ door, and a third to the felons’. A shower of bludgeons instantly demolished the windows of the keeper’s house; and while these sticks were still falling in showers, two men, one of them a mad Quaker, the son of a rich corn-factor, who wore a mariner’s jacket, came forward with a scaffold-pole, and drove it like a battering-ram against the parlour shutters. A lad in a sailor’s jacket then got on a man’s shoulders, and rammed in the half-broken shutters with furious blows of his bullet-head. A chimney-sweeper’s boy then scrambled in, cheered by the mob, and after him the mad Quaker. A moment more, and the Quaker appeared at the first-floor window, flinging out pictures into the street. Presently, the second parlour window gave way, the house-door was forced, and the furniture and broken chattels in the street were set in a blaze. All this time a circle of men, better dressed than the rest, stood in the Old Bailey, exciting and encouraging the rioters. The leader of these sympathisers was a negro servant, named Benjamin Bowsey, afterwards hung for his share in the riot. One of the leaders in this attack was a mad waiter from the St. Alban’s Tavern, named Thomas Haycock. He was very prominent, and he swore that there should not be a prison standing in London on the morrow, and that the Bishop of London’s house and the Duke of Norfolk’s should come down that night. “They were well supported, he shouted to the mob,” for there were six or seven noblemen and members of Parliament on their side. This man helped to break up a bureau, and collected sticks to burn down the doors of Akerman’s house. While Akerman’s house was still burning, the servants escaping over the roofs, and Akerman’s neighbours were down among the mob, entreating them to spare the houses of innocent persons, a waiter, named Francis Mockford, who wore a hat with a blue cockade in it, went up to the prison-gate and held up the main key, and shouted to the turnkeys, “D—you, here is the key of Newgate; open the door!” Mockford, who was eventually sentenced to death for this riot, afterwards took the prison keys, and flung them over Westminster Bridge. George Sims, a tripeman in St. James’s Market, always forward in street quarrels, then went up to the great gate in the Old Bailey with some others, and swore desperately that “he would have the gates down—curse him, he would have the gates down!” Then the storm broke; the mob rushed on the gate with the sledge-hammers and pickaxes they had stolen from coachmakers, blacksmiths, and braziers in Drury Lane and Long Acre, and plied them with untiring fury. The tripeman, who carried a bludgeon, urged them on; and the servant of Akerman, having known the man for several years, called to him through the hatch, “Very well, George the tripeman; I shall mark you in particular!” Then John Glover, a black, a servant of a Mr. Phillips, a barrister in Lincoln’s Inn, who was standing on the steps leading to the felons’ gate (the main gate), dressed in a rough short jacket, and a round hat trimmed with dirty silver lace, thumped at the door with a gun-barrel, which he afterwards tried to thrust through the grating into the faces of the turnkeys, while another split the door with a hatchet. The mob, finding they could not force the stones out round the hatch, then piled Akerman’s shattered furniture, and placing it against the gates set the heap on fire.
Several times the gate caught fire, and as often the turnkeys inside pushed down the burning furniture with broomsticks, which they pushed through the hatch, and kept swilling the gates with water, in order to cool them, and to keep the lead that soldered the hinges from melting and giving way. But all their efforts were in vain; for the flames, now spreading fast from Akerman’s house, gradually burnt in to the fore-lodge and chapel, and set the different wards one after the other on fire. Crabbe the poet, who was there as a spectator, describes seeing the prisoners come up out of the dark cells with their heavy irons, and looking pale and scared. Some of them were carried off on horseback, their irons still on, in triumph by the mob, who then went and burnt down the Fleet. At the trial of Richard Hyde, the poor mad Quaker, who had been one of the first to scramble through Mr. Akerman’s windows, the most conclusive proofs were brought forward of the prisoner’s insanity. A grocer in Bishopsgate Street, with whom he had lodged, deposed to his burning a Bible, and to his thrashing him. One day at the “Doctor Butler’s Head,” in Coleman Street, the crazed fellow had come in, and pretended to cast the nativities of persons drinking there. He also prophesied how long each of them would live. On hearing this evidence, the prisoner broke out: “Well, and they might live three hundred years, if they knew how to live; but they gorge themselves like aldermen. Callipash and callipee kills half the people.” It was also shown that, the night after the burning of Newgate, the prisoner came to a poor woman’s house in Bedford Court, Covent Garden, and he then wore an old grey great-coat and a flapped hat, painted blue. As the paint was wet, the woman asked him to let her dry it. He replied, “No, you are a fool; my hat is blue” (the Protestant colour); “it is the colour of the heavens. I would not have it dried for the world.” When the woman brought him a pint of beer, he drank once, and then pushed it angrily on one side. He then said, “I have tasted it once, I must taste it three times; it is against the heavens to drink only once out of a pot.” Doctor Munro, the physician who attended George III. in his madness, deposed to the insanity both of the prisoner’s father and the prisoner. He was sent to a mad-house.
Crabbe, who, having failed as a surgeon and apothecary down at Aldborough, his native place, had just come up to London to earn his bread as a poet, and being on the brink of starvation, was about to apply to Burke for patronage and bread. Rambling in a purposeless way about London to while away the miserable time, the young poet happened to reach the Old Bailey just as the ragged rioters set it on fire to warm their Protestantism. Suddenly, at a turning out of Ludgate Hill, on his way back to his lodgings at a hairdresser’s shop near the Exchange, a scene of terror and horror broke red upon the view of the mild young Suffolk apothecary. The new prison, Crabbe says, in his “Journal” kept for the perusal of his Myra (June 8th), was a very large, strong, and beautiful building, having two wings besides Mr. Akerman’s house, and strong intermediate works and other adjuncts. Akerman had four rioters in custody, and these rascals the mob demanded. He begged he might send to the sheriff, but this was not permitted. “How he escaped, or where he is gone, I know not; but just at the time I speak of, they set fire to his house, broke in, and threw every piece of furniture they could find into the street, firing them also in an instant. The engines came” (they were mere squirts in those days), “but were only suffered to preserve the private houses near the prison.” This was about half-past seven. “As I was standing near the spot, there approached another body of men—I suppose five hundred— and Lord George Gordon in a coach drawn by the mob, towards Alderman Bull’s, bowing as he passed along. He is a lively-looking young man in appearance, and nothing more, though just now the reigning hero. By eight o’clock Akerman’s house was in flames. I went close to it, and never saw anything so dreadful. The prison was, as I said, a remarkably strong building; but, determined to force it, they broke the gates with crows and other instruments, and climbed up the outside of the cell part, which joins the two great wings of the building, where the felons were confined; and I stood where I plainly saw their operations. They broke the roof, tore away the rafters, and having got ladders they descended. Not Orpheus himself had more courage or better luck. Flames all around them, and a body of soldiers expected, they defied and laughed at all opposition. The prisoners escaped. I stood and saw about twelve women and eight men ascend from their confinement to the open air, and they were conducted through the street in their chains. Three of these were to be hanged on Friday” (Newgate was burnt on the Tuesday). “You have no conception of the frenzy of the multitude. This being done, and Akerman’s house now a mere shell of brickwork, they kept a store of flame there for other purposes. It became red-hot, and the doors and windows appeared like the entrance to so many volcanoes. With some difficulty they then fired the debtors’ prison, broke the doors, and they, too, all made their escape. Tired of the scene, I went home, and returned again at eleven o’clock at night. I met large bodies of horse and foot soldiers, coming to guard the Bank, and some houses of Roman Catholics near it. Newgate was at this time open to all; any one might get in, and, what was never the case before, any one might get out. I did both, for the people were now chiefly lookers-on. The mischief was done, and the doers of it gone to another part of the town” (to Bloomsbury Square, to burn Lord Mansfield’s house). “But I must not omit what struck me most: about ten or twelve of the mob getting to the top of the debtors’ prison, whilst it was burning, to halloo, they appeared rolled in black smoke mixed with sudden bursts of fire—like Milton’s infernals, who were as familiar with flame as with each other.”
On the Wednesday, the day after the fire, a big carelessly-dressed man worked his way to the ruins from Bolt Court, Fleet Street. The burly man’s name was Doctor Samuel Johnson, and he wrote to Mrs. Thrale and her husband a brief account of what had happened since the Friday before. On that day Lord George Gordon and the mob went to Westminster, and that night the rioters burnt the Catholic chapel in Duke Street, Lincoln’s Inn Fields. On Monday they gutted Sir George Saville’s house in Leicester Square; on Tuesday pulled down the house of Sir John Fielding, the blind magistrate and the novelist’s half-brother, in Bow Street; and the same night burnt Newgate, Lord Mansfield’s house in Bloomsbury, and a Catholic chapel in Moorfields. On Wednesday they burnt the Fleet and the King’s Bench, and attacked the Bank of England, but were driven off by a party of constables headed by John Wilkes.
“On Wednesday,” says the doctor, to come to what he actually saw himself, “I walked with Doctor Scott, to look at Newgate, and found it in ruins, with the fire yet glowing. As I went by, the Protestants were plundering the Sessions House at the Old Bailey. There were not, I believe, a hundred; but they did their work at leisure, in full security, without sentinels, without trepidation, as men lawfully employed in full day. Such is the cowardice of a commercial place. On Wednesday they broke open the Fleet, and the King’s Bench, and the Marshalsea, and Wood Street Compter, and Clerkenwell Bridewell, and released all the prisoners. At night they set fire to the Fleet, and to the King’s Bench, and I don’t know how many other places; and one might see the glare of conflagration fill the sky from many parts. The sight was dreadful. Some people were threatened. Mr. Strahan advised me to take care of myself. . . . . . Several chapels have been destroyed, and several inoffensive Papists have been plundered; but the high sport was to burn the gaols. This was a good rabble trick. The debtors and the criminals were all set at liberty; but of the criminals, as has always happened, many are already re-taken, and two pirates have surrendered themselves, and it is expected that they will be pardoned.” Then follows a fine touch of irony: “Jack” (Wilkes), “who was always zealous for order and decency, declares that if he be trusted with power, he will not leave a rioter alive. There is, however, now no longer any need of heroism or bloodshed; no blue ribbon” (the badge of the rioters) “is any longer worn.” As for Thrale, his brewery escaped pretty well. The men gave away a cask or two of beer to the mob, and when the rioters came on a second and more importunate visit, the soldiers received them.