Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Exeter Bread Riots 1854

by Jenna Dawlish

In 2011 there was rioting in London. It was a year before the Olympics was due to be held and the world watched as people from all classes rioted and looted. There was much discussion as to why it happened (the shooting dead of a young man by the police was the principle initiating reason).

However, it soon became clear that there was an underlying reason for the rioting, and that there were other soci-economic reasons. Young people were fed up of lack of prospects and money and this spilled onto streets.

Rewind about 150 years previously, to a small Devon town called Exeter. It's 1854 and the lower classes - known as the "underclass" are tired and fed up of the price of food going higher and higher. They end up rioting in much the same way as the Londoners.

I have transcribed the following from the newspaper the Exeter Flying Post. It describes the riots and the authorities' reaction to it. There was much discussion in 2011 about whether or not to bring the army onto the streets to deal with the riots. In 1854 they didn't hesitate!

The journalistic writing is very different to now - they give a full description that would be unheard of today, but it gives us a great insight into what happened. I hope you find it interesting.

Jan 12th 1854 Exeter Flying Post
Riot at Exeter

A serious disturbance took place in this city on Monday. At about three o'clock in the afternoon a number of persons, consisting principally of women and children, but also comprising a great many men of that degraded class who have the credit, perhaps deservedly, or always being “up for a breach of the peace” when occasion serves, assembled in the West Quarter. They proceeded to the Lower Market, and from thence up <something> street and across South Street to the Cathedral Yard, the number increasing as they passed. There they commenced the work of destruction, the shop of Mr Barrett, baker, the windows of which were smashed, forming the first object of their attack.

Proceeding across the yard they passed up Catherine street, but here they did no damage. The shopkeepers, hearing of the disturbance which had commenced, put up their shutters. The police were also promptly on the spot and from fear of the civil force, whose efforts to keep the peace were most indefatigable, or some other cause, the mob saw fit to change their course, and direct their attention to other parts of the city. They accordingly passed back into South street, and soon after their appearance the shops were closed from end to end. At Mr Norton's the confectioner, a considerable quantity of glass was broken. The shutters had been put up with the expectation of those on the door, the glass in which was completely smashed. Several panes were also broken at Mrs Reed's.

Passing a long the Friars, and by Colleton Crescent they broke a window in Mr J C Sercombe's residence, form whence they went to the Quay, where the windows of Mr Sercombe's stores also suffered. The mob next passed on towards Holloway street. In Melbourne street a hucksters shop was plundered of its bacon , and permitted a freer access of light by the breaking of its windows. The shopkeeper, who is a cripple, could do nothing to prevent the depredation, and his wife, however much help meet, could not afford help enough for so extraordinary an emergency. The shop of Mr Bodley, baker at the bottom of Holloway street was completely devastated. The shutters were pulled down,and this having been accomplished, the mob commences throwing stones, and did not cease till the window had been altogether destroyed. A looking-glass and a watch were also broken by the stones, but nothing, we believe was taken. Passing up Holloway street the mob returned to the West Quarter, where the shop of Mr Barrett, was treated with similar severity. There were then between 200 and 300 persons assembled. The shutters here were also pulled down and broken, and the windows demolished, 41 panes of glass being destroyed. The shop of Mr Clapp, the the West Quarter, also received a visit ad 67 panes of glass were knocked to pieces.

The crowd thence passed on to the Bridge, and bent their fury on the shop of Mr Dann, the baker, of Bridge Street. Here the demolition was complete. The shutters, as in other instances, had been put up as a means of greater security; but they formed but a little obstacle. They were soon removed, the glass destroyed, and the sash broken in. A quantity of bread was also stolen, a great proportion of of the remainder thrown down and trodden on. Happily, Mr Dann's so had the presence of mind to carry off the money drawer, containing upwards of £40, which would no doubt have been rifled had it been left in the shop. While, however, he was doing this, he was exposed to a great danger, for large stones were constantly being thrown at him. The windows of the upstair rooms also sustained great damage. One or two looking glasses were broken, and a considerable quantity of furniture was much injured. 

The parties then proceeded into St Thomas.

There would no doubt have been a much greater destruction of property in the city, had it not been that the Mayor, with the most commendable promptitude, requested the service of the military, in consequence of which a detachment of the Third Light Dragoons was despatched at once from the Barracks to the scene of the disturbance. Unfortunately there was not at the moment a county a magistrate at hand, and they were therefore unable to pass the city bounds and quell the rioters there. A messenger was despatched for Mr Commissioner Bere who hastened to the spot; but in the mean time a great deal of damage was done. Mr Bickford, baker, has 30 panes of glass destroyed, and there were also a few things taken, but not of value; but the scene of the greatest destruction was the shop of Mr Dimond, baker, of Cowick street, which was attacked, by the mob with the greatest possible furor and amidst mingled shouting and yelling. The rioters were here engaged nearly half an hour. The shop door was shattered, and the window shutters having been pulled down, every pane of glass was smashed. A clock was broken, and also a large and expensive mirror. The stones passed through a window between the shop and an inner room; the sash of which was completely destroyed. The bread was also stolen; two or three boys got inside and threw it out to those who were in the street; a quantity of butter was taken, and those who felt so disposed helped themselves to preserves. Within, Mr Dimonds, and his family having been taking tea, the tea things were on the table; a woman came in, took took them up and threw them on the ground, breaking them to atoms. A looking glass was also taken from the mantle piece and dashed to pieces, Large stones were thrown through the windows of the upstairs rooms, and the furniture was greatly damaged. At the house of Mr Kay, in the same street, there was some damage done, and at Mr Norris's there were 42 panes of glass broken and the articles in the shop which were but little, the parties being poor, were taken. At Mr Will's the door having been opened, several of the party entered, and carried off bread; but not content with this, they hurled stones at the windows of the upstairs rooms on coming out.

On the arrival of Mr Bere, the Military having been requested to pass into St Thomas's the greater part of the crowd soon dispersed and dividing into various sections passed on by different roads.

The great went to Ide and Alphington, and thence to Mr Trood's. At Ide they did some mischief. At Alphington, which they reached about six o'clock, they attacked the shop of Mrs Tripe, baker. Notice having been received of their approach, the money and bread had been removed but the glass was demolished, and everything they could get was taken. They then went to Mr Wright's where the shutters were broken open and a quantity of bread was stolen. Some proposed to pass onto Mr Jones's huckster's-shop but others cried “no” and the counsels of the latter prevailing Mr Jones was permitted to keep his own in peace. A number of the most boisterous cried out “Let's go to old Troods; he shall suffer tonight,” and accordingly in that direction the party moved. On the way a few passed inside the gate of Mr Pitt, farmer of Matford; but the premises of Mr Trood appeared to possess a greater attraction for the mob; and at the suggestion of the one or two of the party Mr Pitt was left alone. Others appeared disposed to pay a passing call on Mrs Mallett, miller of Matford; but the idea of Mr Trood's premsises in the distance also served as a safeguard to Mrs Mallett. One or two called “on to Trood's” and the premises of the worthy miller were forsaken. Arrived at Exminster, the fury of the party knew no bounds. The gates of the yard were shut, but they burst them open and at once commenced their old work of glass smashing. They then effected an entrance into the house and ransacked all of the downstairs rooms. In the kitchen they broke the clock and demolished the earthenware. They also stole some silver spoons and seized on what meat they could lay hold of. Some proceeded to the cider cellar, where they partook to their hearts content, and let off a quantity – we heard two pipes – besides. Meantime Mr Bere, having having passed on with the soldiery to Alphington , ascertained the damage that had been there some and that the party had gone to Mr Troods. He accordingly passed on in an haste accompanied by the soldiery. The house was at once surrounded, but nevertheless some effected their escape, passing under the bellies of the horses and the soldiers had to use the flat end of their sword to prevent. Sixteen were taken to Exeter by soldiers and a search having been made after their departure nine more were found secreted and also taken to the county gaol. We regret to state that Mr Trood was to some extent injured but it is hoped that he will be sufficiently well to give evidence this (Wednesday) morning at the castle.

In the city the most active look out was kept by the police in various parts.; and by the end of a detachment of the military force who were headed by the Mayor, the lower part of the city was cleared. The soldiers were then drawn up in form of the Guildhall, and at about seven o'clock, perfect tranquillity having been restored, a portion of them were dismissed to the barracks. A picket only was kept, under the command of two non-commissioned officers; and they were relieved from time to time till morning when it was thought that their services were no longer necessary.

The energetic conduct of the authorities of the city and especially of the Mayor is deserving of all praise. There can be no doubt that it has saved the city form great destruction of property and perhaps from much injury to persons. The prompt exertions of Mr Bere are equally commendable; and the citizens are also deeply indebted to the excellent Superintendent of Police (Mr Steel) for his judicious arrangement of the force, and to the members of that body for their ready and untiring exertions for the restoration of peace.

About 9 o'clock on Monday night, an order was received by Mr Wolland, at the steam saw and turning mills, for 300 staves for the use of the special constables, and these were supplied before daylight the next morning.

The following notices from the Mayor were circulated through the city early on Tuesday morning -
“Exeter – The Mayor requests respectable Inhabitants forthwith to attend at the Guildhall, to assist in preserving the peace of the City. John Daw, Mayor

Exeter Jan 9th 1854
Bread Riots – Some Riots having already taken place in this City in consequence of the high price of Bread, the Mayor and Magistrates of Exeter give notice, that they shall use the most vigorous measures to preserve the public peace, and to punish all who shall commit any breach of the same;and they call upon all the Inhabitants of Exeter and the neighbourhood, and particularly on all Masters and Heads of families, to afford their active and best assistance in maintaining in the public tranquillity and putting down all tendency to riot and disorder.

Guildhall, Exeter Jan 9th 1854. JOHN DAW, Mayor.”


Jenna Dawlish is the author of two Victorian novels partly based in Devon.


  1. It is interesting when you realise that social issues run in cycles.....unemployment, food shortages, immigration........I suppose a good politicians learns from history when making decisions. A bit like life really when you find yourself faced with similar challenges. Newspaper reports of the past were so much more detailed in those days too.Interesting read.

  2. You typed all of that by hand? Goodness, that was a lot of work but I really enjoyed reading it. Why a mirror should be dashed to pieces and a tea set to atoms, I don't know but the writer certainly had some skillz

  3. Hi Heidi, yes I did type it by hand, that was before I had Dragon dictate!! It did take a while to do, but I enjoyed it. I do have some more transcription of some of the accused in court - I may post it next month.....


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