This is an insider’s view of days of mob violence in late Georgian London. Laetitia Hawkins was more or less in the middle of things and her father, Sir John, was a local magistrate and thus responsible for trying to restore order.
The riots were caused when Lord George Gordon, a man of violent and unstable temperament, stirred up the mob to demand the repeal of the Catholic Relief Act of 1778 and a return to the repression of Catholics. However, they seem to have tapped into a more general vein of frustration and anger amongst the lower classes. Trouble began when, on 2 June, 1780, Gordon headed a march by 60,000 to the House of Commons to present a petition against the act. Things slipped out of control and violent riots ensued in London, lasting for several days. Despite the cries of ‘No Popery!’, destruction went well beyond Catholic targets. Anyone thought to be antagonistic to the crowd’s demands was seen as fair game.
Here’s how Laetitia Hawkins describes the start of the rioting:
My recollection[s] of the ‘No Popery’ riots of June 1780 is particularly vivid. While returning with my mother from a morning call in South London, our carriage passed a large assembly gathered round the Obelisk in St. Georges Fields, which we took for a beanfeast. We reached our house without molestation, and had dressed for a dinner at Mr. Langton’s, when my brother Henry came in, hot from Westminster, with very exciting news. The Hall had been invaded by an immense mob, while others blocked every approach to the House of Lords. The law courts at once rose, and on his way home Henry met a procession of rioters marching up Whitehall, and driving back every nobleman’s carriage which was on its way to Parliament. Some peers who were supposed to be friendly to the popular side received gentle treatment; Henry saw Lord Fortescue taken out of his carriage and kissed by a number of old women in the procession, but others were roughly handled. We still had no idea of personal danger, and were preparing to enter our carriage when the coachman came in to tell us that a lady who lived in our neighbourhood had been stopped by a mob near Charing Cross and compelled to huzza for Lord George Gordon and no Popery …
The family stayed at home, but were anxious for news of Sir John, who had been called by Lord Mansfield to help defend his house from the mob. The Guards were summoned, but Lord Mansfield insisted they should be drawn up well out of sight of his house! As a result, the mob’s attack was almost unopposed. Here’s what happened next:
… his house was sacked and destroyed in an incredibly short space of time. One of the young ladies of his family stayed there until she saw her grand pianoforte thrown on a bonfire made of the books and furniture, together with a large silver tankard containing guineas!
Next Sir John was called to the Duke of Northumberland’s house in Charing Cross. There he had better luck and less interference. Again some Guards arrived. This time they were placed where Sir John wanted them: in the courtyard, facing the way the mob would have to come. As a result, the rioters were driven back and the house saved. Next morning, Sir John went back home, only to find his own home under threat!
… the parish curate came in to tell us that our house was doomed, and sure enough its street door was marked with the figure 8, which portended destruction. We, therefore, set to work removing our furniture, clothes, books and pictures to a neighbour’s house, kindly placed at our disposal, and left our own stripped of every-thing but bedsteads and fixtures. We then drove to Clapton, where some friends had offered an asylum, passing en route the Hampshire Militia which was marching along the New Road with a train of artillery. That night I counted seven conflagrations lighting up the sky of London; it was an appalling sight!
Eventually the riots were brought under control. However, it appears this series of events frightened the ruling elite enough to ensure that, when the French Revolution broke out nine years later, those in power in Britain were prepared to resort to Draconian—and sometimes illegal—methods to clamp down on any threat of mob violence spreading across the Channel. Whether that was ever a real possibility is far from clear, but the experience of the Gordon Riots seems to have been enough to cause the government to take no chances.
- The notion of tolerating Catholics was still a divisive one in Protestant England. By the 1778 act, some of the harsh anti-Catholic laws from the 17th century were repealed. Roman Catholics were also made exempt from swearing the oath of allegiance—with its recognition of the king as head of the church in England—on joining the army. It’s interesting that the idea of opposing greater tolerance of Roman Catholicism was so strong that the rent-a-mob stirred up in Birmingham in 1791 to attack the homes of prominent Dissenters—especially Unitarians like Dr. Priestley—still shouted ‘No Popery!’ as they were burning the buildings down. ↩
- At that time, parliament still met in Westminster Hall. ↩