It was the morning of June 7th, 1780. In parts of London the embers were still smouldering from a night of feral tumult. Lord George Gordon was en-route to St James Palace hoping to seek an audience with the King. Tradition permitted that as the son of a duke it was his divine right to be allowed this request. But the doorkeepers refused him admittance and this unheralded regal rebuff hit home hard. How did it come to this?
In this blog we’ll relive the crazy nights of the 1780 Gordon Riots and the subsequent downfall of its notorious agitator.
This blog was written by Richard Ward, Assistant Archives Officer.
Reader Warning: This blog contains sectarian language that some readers may find offensive.
From the Speaker’s Chair to Whitehall
Lord George Gordon’s political journey was the dictionary definition of privilege. When he expressed an interest in politics family connections found him a comfortable seat in Ludgershall. Entering the Commons in 1774 at the age of twenty-two he immediately stood out as an independent thinker. But his forthright individualism wasn’t popular with fellow members who took pleasure in mocking his somewhat monotone oratory.
Since the reformation Catholic discrimination was prevalent across the kingdom. The 1778 Catholic Relief Act sought to remedy this but was met with dissension by a powerful anti-papist lobby who were against the tenets of equality that the new law proposed. Gordon allied himself with this movement by becoming chairman of the London Protestant Association. A petition to repeal the controversial statute mushroomed and a date was fixed to present it to Parliament. The defiant Lord boasted that it would run from ‘the speaker’s chair to Whitehall’.
Hair Powder Bill
It was a Friday sitting of Parliament and the order paper consisted of debates on the Hair Powder Bill, Starch Duties and a special motion tabled by Lord George Gordon. His Protestant Association arranged for a protest march to coincide with the petition presentation. They were confident of a respectable show of strength but the crowd of fifty thousand who assembled was way beyond expectation.
Anticipating that some of the throng may get overexuberant after lubricating in nearby taverns Gordon called for ‘legal and peaceful deportment of His Majesty’s Protestant subjects’. Blue cockades were prominent with the obligatory ‘No Pope’ stitched on for a few extra pence. The march began at St George’s Field approaching Westminster just as Parliamentarians arrived for business raising the demonstrator’s ire.
This siege mentality invigorated their leader who said in the chamber, ‘Popery is in its nature intolerant, seditious and is disaffected to the reigning family’. Gordon’s impetuousness wasn’t favourable to those present including Prime Minister, Lord North with only six voting with him in an overwhelming defeat. But as dusk fell a hostile mood descended as men wielding pickaxes prowled Lincoln Inn’s before attacking a chapel. A dark shadow was emerging from the streets.
The Weekend Starts Here
The weekend of the 3rd- 4th June saw an escalation of violence in pockets of the city. An organised mob had formed, and they diverted operations to East London’s Moorfield district. It was here that an Irish labouring community had settled who the locals identified as the enemy due to their Catholicism and willingness to work for reduced wages.
Public houses joined places of worship as fodder for mindless vandalism. Then attention turned to the gilded properties of establishment figures such as George Saville MP who’d publicly condemned those who opposed Catholic relief policies. While certain areas became no-go zones the Mayor of London, Alderman Kennett retained a ‘laissez-faire’ attitude refusing to call-up extra guards for action. He resisted suggestions that the Riot Act should come into play. A misguided belief pervaded that by Monday the fire within the masses would be mostly extinguished. The worst was yet to come.
Where’s the Dignity
King George III celebrated his forty-second birthday with the capital on a combustible brink. A new Parliamentary week witnessed another exhibition of belligerence from Lord George Gordon. His peers expected an outpouring of repentance for the disorder he’d helped ignite but predictably none was forthcoming. The exasperated Speaker, Sir Fletcher Norton lamented the ‘loss of dignity’ as the House adjourned for a fortnight praying that the building would still be intact when they returned.
Common sense prevailed as the Riot Act was finally unleashed but this coercive strategy seemed to embolden the protestors to enact even more extreme levels of wanton disobedience. Reaching its zenith when they swarmed on Newgate Prison with a manic zeal that allowed three hundred convicts to escape.
By day six of the hostilities martial law was declared by Royal Proclamation as the cavalry arrived to reimpose a sense of order. Still the madness continued unabated as the ‘Roman’ owned Langdale Distillery went up in flames and false rumours circulated of Buckingham Palace being ablaze. Eventually the pendulum swung in favour of the military with hundreds of arrests made. Amongst whom was Gordon who was taken to the Tower and named as the ‘chief state prisoner’.
Men in Black
Many attendees at the initial gatherings wouldn’t be considered sons of anarchy. These were mainly tradesmen or shop owners who would define themselves by a Protestant work ethic rather than any libertarian tendencies. But as trouble intensified and casualty numbers increased, they retreated from the scene. Into the slipstream came ghettoised apprentice boys and debased career-criminals who got their kicks from basic thuggery not reforming society.
Before the authorities caught up with Lord George Gordon, he’d been cocooned in a secret location. Left to ruminate over the repercussions and retribution that would inevitably fall on his head. Gordon’s attempt to reconcile with the King had failed at the onset and he awaited his fate. While the riot without a cause degenerated with no clear leadership.
This chasm allowed nefarious characters to come out of the woodwork to orchestrate further destruction. The homes of luminaries like Lord Justice Hyde and the Archbishop of York were targeted. Diarists depicted well-attired men clad in black leading rioters into battle at Blackfriars. Supposedly these were infiltrators of French extraction who sympathised with American revolutionaries. Well-known radical Lord Effingham was incorrectly unmasked as one of the agent-provocateurs. An episode of notoriety that he embraced whole-heartedly.
The Old Bailey sentencing sessions lasted for over three weeks with sixty-eight defendants sentenced to death. Nearly a thousand people had been killed in the disturbances a quarter of those being on Gordon’s side. His trial was billed as the main event and a judicial delay brought anticipation to near fever pitch. Thus, Westminster Hall was packed to the rafters when proceedings began in February 1781.
Lord George Gordon’s cause-celebre had grown exponentially while incarcerated receiving letters of support from John Wesley & Benjamin Franklin. Defended by his cousin, the maverick lawyer, Thomas Erskine he was surprisingly found not guilty. Following the verdict Presbyterian churches staged thanksgiving services for their fallen idol.
In his final years Gordon was very much a forgotten man. Seeking personal fulfilment, he converted to Judaism changing his name to Yisrael bar Avraham. Unexpectedly he did return to the limelight one last time, as a libel case regarding an article he’d written on Marie Antoinette and others led to him absconding before being sentenced to five years at Newgate. It was there he died in 1793 after being afflicted by typhoid. He’d be forever associated with seven days of mayhem that shook London to its core.
HL/PO/JO/10/7/616A: Royal Proclamation for the Suppression of the Gordon Riots
HL/PO/PU/1/1714/1G1s2n7: An Act for preventing Tumults and Riotous Assemblies, and for the more speedy and effectual punishing the Rioters. [The Riot Act]
HC/CL/JO/2/48, Printed Journals of the House of Commons, 26 Nov 1778 - 24 Aug 1780
Parliamentary History of England, Vol 21, 1780-1781.
King Mob: The Story of Lord George Gordon and the riots of 1780 by Christopher Hibbert
Riots, risings and revolution: governance and violence in eighteenth century England by Ian Gilmour