The Bristol Riots of 1831 were in direct response to the government ignoring the demands of the lower classes.
In 1831 Britain was still reeling from the effects of the French Revolution (1789-1799). No-one had expected the events in France; a complete upheaval of the consistent feudal system of government that had been in place for thousands of years, harking back to the time of their ancestors. In Britain, those in the upper echelons felt their mortality for perhaps the first time. Their wealth, influence, even the favour of God could not protect them from the anger of the poor. No-one was safe, no-one untouchable, even the King, believed to be appointed by the grace of God.
Britain’s response had been divided, split between those in favour of reform and those who believed the best way to avoid a revolution was to take a hard stance against the middle and lower classes, demonstrating that the Government and upper classes were secure and unmoving. However, from both the masses and select members of the upper classes the cry for reform was ever-present and growing in anger and desperation: the people had seen change happen and what they might accomplish when organised.
Reformists in the aristocracy were split between those who genuinely cared and believed in the plight of the poor, and those who simply feared losing their own heads. Despite having no desire to overthrow their rulers and only seeking to amend the current system, these Reformists were labelled as extremists and revolutionaries. This same fear-mongering tactic has been used throughout history to paint groups seeking change as terrorist organisations that threaten the very foundation of society: for example, Black Lives Matter and Antifa have been demonised by some, but are only asking for similar levels of change as the Chartists and reformists of the 1830s.
In 1831 only around 5% of the population were eligible to vote – all wealthy landowners. The reformists sought to extend this vote to a larger proportion of the population – although still excluding the poor and all women – as well as re-distributing MPs so that the new and larger industrial towns and cities such as Manchester and Birmingham were properly represented in parliament, rather than MPs representing ‘dead’ boroughs with low populations as was the current system.
The demands of the Reformists were delivered to the ‘Recorder of Bristol’, a judicial officer by the name of Sir Charles Wetherell, who was expected to present them to Parliament. Instead, Wetherell chose to withhold information about the demands that he had received, going so far as to insist that Bristol didn’t want reform and ignoring the 17,000 signatures from reformers that screamed otherwise.
After his betrayal of the Bristol constituents, Wetherell was set to preside over Bristol’s Assize Courts, arriving in town on October 29th 1831 alongside a guard of Special Constables, one of which was said to be Isambard Kingdom Brunel. A jeering and hissing crowd greeted his arrival, some beginning to throw mud and rocks at Wetherell and his entourage. The Special Constables responded to the crowd with violence, only angering the already righteous crowd further. There were cries from among the crowd to get makeshift weapons and they began to fight back. The natural response of the Special Constables was to request military backup to squash the protestors, but this did nothing to quell the riots which instead escalated to a point that Wetherell had to escape from the building that he had been staying in and out of Bristol itself.
The riots continued for three days. Looters broke into the mansion that Wetherell was supposed to be staying in and passed out wine from the great cellars – and emboldened and drunk the rioters fought against increasing levels of military involvement, even after the military killed two men, burning down various buildings including the mansion and breaking into Bridewell and various gaols and releasing prisoners. The final and bloody conclusion of the riots saw five men set to be hanged publicly – a warning against resistance – and at least 42 dead.
The aftermath of these riots, however, was that the rioting Bristolians had made their opinions on reform crystal-clear. Wetherell’s insistence that they didn’t want reform was revealed as a lie and Bristol demonstrated that it was prepared to get violent to defend its voice. Shortly after the riots, the 1832 reform act was passed, increasing the number of men eligible to vote in a small yet significant way and making representation in parliament fairer.
The involvement of Brunel as a Special Constable also had consequences for the Clifton Suspension Bridge which saw investors dropping out of the project to build an ambitious new bridge across the Avon Gorge, possibly due to fear of being associated with anti-reformers now that reform was clearly the way to avoid a situation such as that of France only some 50 years previously, and possibly in part due to a lack of confidence in the commercial possibilities for Bristol.
The Bristol riots of 1831 are proof that widespread direct action can bring about results, even when lead by those with the least power in society. In the last year, Bristol has seen the Black Lives Matter protests which resulted in the tearing down of the Colston statue leading to important discussions around reform and the re-naming – or promise of re-naming – several streets and buildings that honoured slavers.
Researched and written by Kitty Dennis, UWE English Literature placement