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The Bristol Reform Act Riots: 29 - 31 October 1831

Taken from Alexander Charles Ewald, The and Times of William Ewart Gladstone. 5 vols. William Mackenzie, London.

A serious riot which happened in Bristol more than justified a proclamation that was issued by the Government, denouncing the political unions which had been got up in Manchester, Birmingham, and other large towns as illegal and unconstitutional. Sir Charles Wetherell, the conspicuous opponent of reform, was recorder of Bristol, which on the 29th of October he entered with a display of pomp befitting a judge of assize, and was received by the populace with yells, hootings, and throwing of stones. Having opened the commission of peace in the Guildhall, he threatened to commit to prison any person who could be pointed out to him as contributing to the disturbance that was going on outside. This added fuel to the flame of popular fury, and by the time he reached the Mansion-house the mob had routed the police and were attacking that building.

The impetuous baronet escaped in disguise, clambering over the roofs of neighbouring tenements; but the mayor, a reformer, and his fellow officials were besieged in the Mansion-house. To force their way into it the rioters tore up the iron palisades, and converted them into weapons of destruction. Walls were thrown down to furnish bricks, which were hurled through the upper windows, and straw and other combustibles were placed in the dining-room for the purpose of burning the building. In a few moments more it would probably have been in flames, but at this critical juncture the military appeared, and succeeded in driving off the mob.

On Sunday another attack was made on the Mansion house. During the night it had been barricaded as well as circumstances would admit, but the crowd soon forced their way in. The only persons in it were the mayor, Major Mackworth, the undersheriff, and seven constables, all without fire-arms or other means of defence. Finding it necessary to provide for their own safety, the little party made their way out upon the top of the house, through one of the front windows, and hiding themselves from the view of the mob behind the parapets. of the buildings, they crawled along till they reached the custom-house, into which they got admission by a window, then quietly descended into a back street, and made their way without the Guildhall. The mob were now in possession of the Mansion-house. Some destroyed the furniture, and threw it out of the windows; others descended into the cellars, and drank and wasted the wine. The troops were now brought back; but the rioters, flushed with victory, maddened with drink, and exasperated by the death of a man who had been shot by a sentinel the night before, received them with a shower of stones, bottles, and bricks. Meanwhile a detachment of the mob had attacked the bridewell, beaten in the doors, liberated the prisoners, and set the governor's house on fire. The city gaol shared the same fate, as did also the Mansion-house, which was attacked once more. The bishop's palace was next reduced to ashes, two sides of Queen Square were burnt down, and an attempt to set on fire the cathedral was only defeated by the efforts of some of the more respectable citizens. Reinforcements of troops at length arrived, who, charging the rioters and cutting down all who resisted, at length restored tranquillity.

This Bristol mob consisted of not more than 500 or 600 men, mostly young; and they committed all the dreadful havoc which has been described in the face of the municipal authorities and of some 20,000 of the orderly inhabitants, who were attending to their usual and peaceful Sunday duties. Much blame was attributed to the mayor and aldermen, as well as to Colonel Brereton, for their want of decision and co-operation. They were all brought to trial about a year later. The civil officers were acquitted; but the unfortunate colonel, before his trial was concluded, got distracted with the conflict of his feelings, and shot himself through the heart. About the same time that this terrible destruction of life and property took place at Bristol there were riots at Bath, Worcester, Coventry, Warwick, and other towns, with results more or less serious.

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