Saturday, March 19, 2016

"A Metropolis in Flames" - The Gordon Riots of 1780

By Mark Patton

For more than two centuries after Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church in 1533, the conflict between the Catholic and Protestant faiths dominated the social and political life of the British Isles. "Popish plots," both real and imagined, struck fear into the heart of the nation, although many more lives (by no means all of them Catholic) were lost in the backlash against these plots than as a result of any real Catholic insurgency. The profession of the Catholic faith became a treasonable act, in and of itself.

By 1780, however, a generation on from the crushing of the Jacobite rebellion, the most deadly enemies of the nation were no longer Catholics, either at home or abroad, but the overwhelmingly Protestant colonists on the eastern seaboard of North America. France remained an implacable foe, but Louis XVI made few pretences of fighting in the name of religion. The British government found itself in need of Catholic finances, and of Catholic (mainly Irish and Scottish) recruits for its army and navy. The Prime Minister, Lord North drew up proposals for a Catholic Relief Act, removing the more onerous legal restrictions on Roman Catholics within Britain.

Two hundred years of hatred had rendered the very words "Papist" and "Popish" toxic within the English lexicon. Anti-Catholic songs and poems soon began to circulate again in the drinking houses of London:

"A certain knight brimful of hope,
Knight of the Shire also,
To gain the Papists pleased the Pope,
And humbly kissed his toe.
'Pob!' cried his colleague in a bother,
'The toe's but a simple farce!'
And that he might outdo his brother,
He's gone to kiss his #~@<!"

The demagogue who came forward to whip up and direct these anti-Catholic and anti-Government sentiments was the eccentric figure of Lord George Gordon, the MP for a "pocket borough" (a post he owed to bribery), and a man known for his political inconsistencies. On 2nd June, 1780, Gordon lead some forty to sixty thousand men in a march on Parliament, wearing blue cockades, and carrying "No Popery" banners.

Lord George Gordon (image is in the Public Domain).

When the government refused to reinstate the anti-Catholic legislation, the assembly became riotous. The Catholic chapels of the Sardinian and Bavarian Embassies were ransacked, as were the slums of Moorfield, occupied largely by Catholic immigrants from Ireland. There was even an unsuccessful attempt to break into the Bank of England. For almost a week, fires raged, buildings collapsed and London was, in effect, ungovernable.

The Gordon Riots, by Charles Green (image is in the Public Domain).

Having destroyed all the Catholic interests they could find, the rioters turned their attentions to London's prisons, setting both Newgate Jail and The Clink on fire, and releasing several hundred prisoners. The rioters at this stage, who included the young William Blake, may have been motivated as much by hatred of the "Bloody Code" (under which people were hanged for even minor offences against property) as by anti-Catholic sentiments.

The Burning of Newgate Jail (image is in the Public Domain).

Order was eventually restored by the army, but not before 285 people were killed, 200 wounded, and 450 arrested. The cost of righting the damage is estimated at £180,000 (around £230 million in today's terms). Lord George Gordon was put on trial for high treason, but acquitted: he went abroad, but was later found to be living in Birmingham, having converted to Judaism. Ironically, he ended his days in the rebuilt Newgate Jail, having been imprisoned for defamation of the French Queen, Marie-Antoinette.

The Gordon Riots, by John Seymour Lucas (image is in the Public Domain).

My recently published short story, "White Wings," is about the shipwreck of the East Indiaman, Grosvenor, off the South African coast in 1782. Although, ostensibly, there is no connection between this event and the Gordon Riots, by placing them in the back-story of my one of my protagonists, I was able to explain the surprising decision that he makes in the aftermath of the shipwreck.

Mark Patton blogs regularly on aspects of history and historical fiction at His short story, "White Wings," was long-listed for the 2015 Aestas Prize, and is published in the Aestas Anthology, which can be purchased from Amazon UK or Amazon USA.


  1. A fascinating account, Mark. The cost of the damage, especially for the time, was mind-boggling. And the loss of life.

  2. Excellent - and, for me, very useful.

  3. For those who believe the apocalypse is at hand, just study history to see we live in relatively peaceful times.
    Mark, I look forward to reading your acclaimed short story, White Wings, and have ordered the anthology.

  4. Extremely interesting, and thanks for sharing it, Mark. Not that long ago and I had no knowledge of this.

  5. Thanks! In London we did live through something not dissimilar in 2011 - I remember standing at the window of my garrett (third floor, and thus out of range of anything throwable), and watching fires starting up here, there, and everywhere. Thankfully there was no loss of life in London (I'm really glad that our police aren't routinely armed) and the damage, though considerable, was not on the same scale.


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