A Personal View of the Gordon Riots

Laetitia Hawkins (1760–1835) was the daughter of a wealthy London lawyer and magistrate. She never married, living with her bachelor brother in Twickenham after both her parents had died. Some while ago, I discovered a book, published in 1926, which contains edited extracts from a three-volume work she wrote and published between 1822 and 1824, entitled ”Anecdotes”. Her father was a long-time friend of some of the leading figures of the mid-18th century, including Dr Johnson, David Garrick and the composer Handel. As a result, she knew most of them as a child and, in her old age, collected both her own reminiscences of meetings with them and those of her father .

She was also in London to witness, first-hand, some of the events of the infamous anti-Popery “Gordon Riots” of 1780. The rioting arose following an Act of 1778, which removed some of the restrictions hitherto placed on Roman Catholics in public and private life. Angry Protestants, led by Lord George Gordon, formed a Protestant Association, hoping to overturn this law. When they failed to obtain their objective by legitimate means, the leaders stirred up rioting in London to force the government’s hand. Their action seems to have taken the authorities completely by surprise, as Laetitia Hawkins’s recollections show. For several days, the mobs roamed around central London, looting and burning at will and causing something like panic amongst its wealthier inhabitants. Not until the King, on his own initiative, called in the army was order restored. Gordon was tried and convicted for his part in events. He died in Newgate Prison in the 1793.

Since Laetitia Hawkins’s father was a leading magistrate and resident in Westminster, he was quickly involved in trying to defend certain VIPs and their houses from the violence of the mob. What follows gives a series of “snapshots” of the rioting in Laetitia’s own words.

The Rioting Starts

“My recollection 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. George’s 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. […] We still had no idea of personal danger, and we 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!’ We therefore remained at home…”

The ‘Hall’ mentioned was Westminster Hall, where the Parliament sat before the present Houses of Parliament was built.

A Night of Destruction

It seems that Sir John Hawkins, Laetitia’s father, had been at the Guildhall in connection with his duties as a magistrate when the rioting broke out. He was at once called by the Earl of Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice, to go to his house in Bloomsbury Square, where the mob was preparing to make an attack. Since Sir John knew that the constables he had with him were insufficient to hold off the mob, he persuaded Lord Mansfield to call for a detachment of the Guards. However, Mansfield insisted that they should be kept out of sight of his house. They were therefore too far away to prevent the mob ransacking and burning his home.

“In vain did the Commanding Officer protest against so absurd a disposition. Lord Mansfield proved obdurate, with the result that 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 onto a bonfire made of the books and furniture, together with a large silver tankard containing guineas!”

After that, Laetitia’s father received a request to go to Charing Cross to Northumberland House, meeting along the way a large group of rioters, who had just destroyed Newgate Prison and were ringing the stolen prison bell in triumph. This time, the owner, the Duke of Northumberland, followed Sir John’s advice. A hastily summoned detachment of soldiers were drawn up in the courtyard, facing the Strand, and the gates to the house thrown the open so that they could be seen by the rioters. That house was saved.

Personal Danger

When Sir John finally returned to his home the next morning, he was told by the parish curate that his own house was now doomed. Its street door had been marked with the figure 8, which was supposed to portend its 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 everything 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 site! On the morrow, we learnt that vigorous measures had been taken to restore order with the aid of military force. Thus were the rioters brought under control …”

It seems that Laetitia Hawkins’s house was not in fact destroyed. However the family soon left it to move elsewhere within Westminster, before finally returning to their roots in Twickenham.

About William Savage

Independent researcher and author of mystery stories set in Georgian Norfolk.
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3 Responses to A Personal View of the Gordon Riots

  1. noelleg44 says:

    How serendipitous that you found this book – a wonderful addition to your library and a real window on to the riots. Scary times indeed.

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  2. Another fabulous post. I seldom see the Gordon riots mentioned in the historical novels I read, but there’s so much good material there. Gordon himself was a fascinating (if likely insane) personage and I’m not likely to read Dickens’ novel about the riots, so thank you for this snippet.

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