ABSTRACT

Riot and disorder form part of the stock image of the eighteenth century, an age which succeeding generations were often to characterise as peculiarly brutal and violent, part and parcel of the orgiastic drunkenness of Gin Lane and the mass public executions at Tyburn Fair’. For more than a generation historians have gone a considerable way towards qualifying this image, not by claiming that riots and disturbances did not occur but by a much more systematic and sympathetic exploration of the circumstances which occasioned them and the character they took. The pioneer historians of the ‘crowd’ in eighteenth and early nineteenth century England saw popular disturbances as a revealing ‘window’ into the lives and minds of otherwise inarticulate sections of the population. As one of the avenues of approach to a ‘broader’ history, they sought to make intelligible the ‘rising of the people’ by examining the targets they attacked, the forms of popular action, the composition of crowds, and the ideas which motivated them. These are insights which those following have refined and developed, bringing riot and disorder into a much more fruitful historical perspective. In a purely chronological sense too, the eighteenth century ‘mob’ has been put into perspective by early modern historians who, working to a similar agenda, have been able to locate it in a continuum of popular disturbances stretching back into the seventeenth century and beyond. 1 The intention in this chapter is to look primarily at those disturbances in the country at large associated with politics and religion, two of the most fertile and, in the context of the eighteenth century, most frequent sources of disorder.