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The Bristol Riots 1831

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March 2020

The Bristol Riots 1831

On the evening of March 10 last the residents around St Mary’s Hall in Thornbury may have been bolting their doors and barring their windows, and Thornbury town councillors quaking in their beds (those that were not complicit) as a series of raucous boos and resounding cheers went up from the hall. Was it the beginning of revolution in this hotbed of political agitation? No, it was just Garry Atterton working his audience at the March gathering of Thornbury History and Archaeology Society. But 190 years ago Thornbury residents may have looked with trepidation towards the night sky over Bristol, glowing red from a conflagration as the city suffered 2 days and nights of rioting.

In 1831 the country was mired in social problems. There had been famines and epidemics of Typhoid and Cholera. But the biggest social issues were rapid industrialization and the lack of political power of the masses. Bristol had a large population of poorly paid workers in dangerous and unhealthy jobs, living in squalid, crowded tenements. The mortality rate was exceeded only by Liverpool and Manchester. These people had no representation in parliament as only 5% of men had the vote. The merchants of Bristol, however, were extremely wealthy, and the wealthiest were in the powerful and corrupt Bristol Corporation, which had the M.P. in its pocket.

Many people in Bristol could see that reform was necessary if revolution was to be avoided. The city was generally pro-reform, but the rich were often anti-reform and one of the most ‘anti’ was Sir Charles Wetherell, a particularly outspoken politician and judge. He had lied to parliament saying that Bristol was against reform so he was not at all popular here. Wetherell was due to open Bristol Assizes, and the Corporation were afraid his arrival would spark protests so they asked the home secretary to station a militia force in the city and hired some ‘special constables’. The stage was set.

On the morning of Saturday, October 29, Wetherell arrived at Totterdown to be escorted into the city by the mayor Sir Charles Pinney. A large crowd had gathered to accompany him with a chorus of boos and hisses. Arriving in the city he was bombarded with mud thrown by ‘women of abandoned character’ who egged on the men to do likewise. The party arrived in Queen’s Square to attend a banquet at the Mansion House. Some stones were thrown narrowly missing Pinney’s head and the ‘special constables’ piled in to apprehend the culprits. Up went a cry of ‘To the Backs!’ (the riverside) where supplies of wood for arms could be found. The situation escalated and the constables were overpowered. Pinney and Wetherell retreated into the Mansion House. The Riot Act was read 3 times, with little effect. The Mansion House was stormed, Wetherell escaped in disguise (perhaps as a washerwoman?), and the wine cellars were plundered with predictable results.

On Saturday night the militia were called in to restore order (some things never change). However, their captain Colonel Brereton was known to the crowd as a pro-reformer, and he was welcomed with cheers and hurrahs. He tried to reason with the crowd but the unrest continued. Late on Saturday one of his troops, struck by a stone, shot a man dead. Some of the crowds dispersed into side streets to raid liquor stores and plot revenge. The rioting continued through the night and the Mansion House went up in flames.

By Sunday morning many properties around Queen’s Square were in ruins or in flames. Some people had been attracted into the city by the unrest, such as miners from the Bristol coalfields, and the focus of the riots broadened. The New Gaol (at the back of M Shed) was attacked, the prisoners released and the building torched. The same happened to the Gloucestershire County Gaol at Lawford’s Gate. Rioting, burning and plundering continued throughout the whole of Sunday and during the night huge crowds gathered in Clifton and other vantage points around the city to watch the conflagration.

On Monday morning people woke up to see a city in ruins, as well as bloody mayhem. The Corporation had had enough. Pinney ordered Brereton to clear the remnant of rioters from Queen’s Square. The militia went about its bloody business. Several people were killed and many more were injured, but the unrest subsided, the rabble went home, and artists came into the ruined city to paint pictures of the devastation. In the aftermath, 4 of the ring-leaders were hung from the blackened gate of the New Gaol, and others were transported. Colonel Brereton was court-martialled for his failure to keep order. He shot himself during the trial. In 1832 parliament passed the Reform Act, giving the vote to more men but by no means to everyone. It was the beginning of a long struggle for votes for all.

Many thanks to Garry for firing us up into a state of rabid animation. It doesn’t happen often.


The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society always welcomes new and occasional members. Details of our programme can be found on this website, the library or the Town Hall. Our meetings are on the second Tuesday of the month, held at St Mary's Church Hall beginning at 7.30pm. Visitors are always welcome at the society for the small charge of £2.50.

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