Sunday, August 7, 2022

ARP252 Gordon Riots

This week we return to England to go over some important events of 1780.  The American Revolution was beginning its sixth year, and had only become more of a mess with the entry of France and Spain into the war.

Gordon Riots
As with any war, the costs of fighting this one caused pain and sacrifice among the people. Taxes were up to pay for a large army and navy.  Trade was risky due to privateers and enemy naval vessels. After years of pain and sacrifice for the war effort, people begin asking each other, what are we really fighting for, and is it worth it?

More and more criticism circled around King George III.  It was literally treason to criticize the king directly.  For decades, there had been an understanding that the king would remain aloof from politics and that criticism for bad policy would be directed at his ministers only.  But George was much more involved in policy than his predecessors, and saw maintaining control of his North American colonies as something he had to advocate.  As the war’s popularity fell, the king’s reputation sank along with it.

In Episode 237, I discussed some of the demonstrations in Ireland in late 1779 that were an expression of unrest caused by the economic impact of the war.  Workers in England also seemed to be increasingly upset by their situation, and were looking for changes in policy that would make things better.

Yorkshire Association

In December of 1779 a group of freeholders in Yorkshire formed the Yorkshire Association.  The Association sought to petition Parliament for “Economical Reform”.  Specifically, they wanted to do something about high taxes and wasteful positions within the government.  

The Reverend Christopher Wyvill was a large landowner in the Yorkshire area.  He became the driving force behind the new movement.  He hoped to organize not only his area but surrounding counties.  The plan was to coordinate a series of petitions to Parliament to give them more emphasis by them all arriving at once, and to spark reform by responsive politicians in the months leading up to the 1780 parliamentary elections.

Christopher Wyvill
Wyvill began a media campaign, getting area newspapers to print articles about the extravagant spending by the government, the loss of trade, and the general decline in the standard of living for the landed gentry.  He encouraged anonymous letters to newspapers to encourage more people to support his petitions, including a suggestion that the government may revamp its land-tax assessments, to the great disadvantage of the region.

One key line in the petition said “Whence the Crown has acquired a great and unconstitutional influence, which if not checked, may soon prove fatal to the Liberties of this Country.” Many Whigs had been arguing that the king should have nothing more than a ceremonial role in government, much like George I and George II had.  George III’s active involvement in recommending policy to his ministers was seen as an overstep.  The fact that the king’s recommended policies resulted in disaster for Britain was evidence of why kings should not behave this way. The Yorkshire Association, which met in late December 1779 with over 600 landowners present, approved this petition to Parliament. 

The movement spread to surrounding counties and the petitions to Parliament grew.  By early 1780, Parliament had received 40 such petitions signed by thousands of voters.  Considering that only a little over 200,000 people had the right to vote in Britain at this time, members of Parliament took these numbers seriously.

Discussion began of organizing these protest groups into a “National Assembly” or “Anti-Parliament” to return political power to the people, by which they meant the full 3% of the population who owned land, and the right to vote - not just a few hundred aristocrats, who really controlled all power at this time.  The freeholders wanted their own influence on government to be greater.  They were not looking to  give political power to the other 97% of British subjects who could not vote.


Even this limited assertion of power by the landed class was unprecedented.  The movement drew great controversy for involving small landowners in public policy, something that should be left to their betters.  Stirring up the voters was bad enough.  But criticizing the king’s role in government was arguably criminal sedition.    

While controversial, these ideas were not new. Radical Whigs had discussed the idea of a new national body before, and also had traditionally supported that the king be limited to a ceremonial role only.  Many earlier pamphlets had also suggested creating a new political organization. But this had only been talk until this time.  The current political climate seemed to be giving these ideas a chance of actual enactment.

Opponents derisively referred to the new protest organizations as a “Congress” making reference to the treasonous Continental Congress in America that also challenged government authority.  The House of Commons was supposed to represent the common people, again, by which I mean the 3% of voters who owned land but who did not have aristocratic titles.  Having another political body organized by these same people to counter the House of Commons seemed absurd, unless the criminal motive of overthrowing the government was the real motive.  The House of Commons was really controlled by a small elite group through some very creative districting and other practices that really kept the Commons under the effective control of aristocratic families.

Other proposals suggested greatly expanding the House of Commons to allow in new blood that would help enact these popular reforms.  Again, opponents saw this as dangerous interference in the fundamental structure of the government, by people who could not possibly understand the ramifications of their suggested changes.

Members of parliament especially saw this as a direct attack on their authority.  Although these were just petitions, talk at the political meetings already predicted that Parliament would reject them and that they would have to take more extreme measures to reassert political power.  Calls to take “the Irish receipt” meant to emulate Ireland, which was on the verge of revolution itself, to take extra legal actions to force the change.  One option discussed was a tax boycott, everyone simply refusing to pay their taxes.  Such action might not only cause the war effort to fail, it might lead to another civil war within Britain.

Dunning Motion

There were radical Whigs in Parliament, particularly the Rockinghamites who tried to use this movement to their advantage.  Another prominent Whig, John Wilkes, also got involved.  Wyvill and the Yorkshireists, were reluctant to join with current career politicians, believing they would simply co-opt the movement and real reforms would not happen.

John Dunning
Even so, many members of Parliament who were up for reelection in these areas wanted to show they were on the side of the radicals and could be instruments of change.  On April 6 John Dunning called for a vote on two questions.  Dunning was a member of the radical Whig establishment.  He had been solicitor general of England and Wales, and had been a member of Parliament for more than a decade.  At the same time, he aligned himself with the radicals.  Dunning had served as one of the attorneys who defended John Wilkes many years earlier when the crown was trying to destroy Wilkes.  Dunning had a reputation as a liberal reformer and someone who fought against costly pensions and sinecures for well-connected elites, although he was not above taking them himself..  

Dunning’s motions called on Parliament to vote on a resolution that said "the influence of the crown has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished."  The second motion said that "it is competent to this house to examine into and correct abuses in the expenditure of the civil list revenues, as well as in every other branch of the public revenue, whenever it shall appear expedient to the wisdom of the house so to do".  In other words, Parliament should address the concerns of the petitioners.

The Prime Minister, Lord North, strongly opposed these motions as a direct attack on the King.  The first motion could have been treated as sedition.  It was not, in part because the ministry knew the position was a politically popular one.  Whigs especially, and the government more generally wanted the king to remain aloof from policy and to leave that to his ministers.  That was what the Yorkshire petitions were demanding.  Despite the Prime Minister’s opposition, Dunning's motion passed by a vote of 233-215.  The vote was a warning to both the ministry and to George III himself.  A king who involved himself in public policy that became unpopular, could result in the king himself becoming unpopular with his subjects.

Dunning’s other motion was a little less controversial.  Of course Parliament had the authority to review expenditures which Parliament had to pay for, and it passed by acclamation, with no real opposition.  Looking into waste fraud, and abuse at a time when voters are unhappy with expenses is a time-honored practice for politicians of any age.

Whig Principles

Dunning’s motion looked as though it might cause serious problems for government policy.  But another event quickly overtook Parliament’s vote to recommend that the king stay out of politics.  

Gordon leads Anti-Catholic Rally
Whig ideology held as its core principles not only the role of Parliament over the King in running the government, but also the supremacy of Protestantism and suppressing Catholicism.  To the modern listeners the anti-Catholic sentiment might seem strange.  For those in the Church of England, the fight with Catholics was not over obscure doctrine like whether transubstantiation was real, or if confession should be a sacrament.  Rather, it was much more political.  Protestants viewed Catholic loyalty to the Pope as a risk to all liberties.  Protestants often derisively referred to Catholics as “papists” for their slavish obedience to the Pope.

Papal authority was seen as absolute and would not safeguard traditional rights of Englishmen.  English Protestants looked at the rights in Catholic countries like France or Spain as proof of this point.  Allowing Catholics to have a place in British society put fundamental liberties at risk.  

A good modern comparison might be the way some modern conservative Christians in the west view Islam.  Whatever the disagreements over religious doctrine, the driving antipathy has more to do with the way Christians view the governments and lack of freedom in self-proclaimed Islamic countries, and they don’t want that to be imported. 

That is what Protestants thought of Catholicism in the 18th century.  The English Civil War, only a century earlier, had been fought primarily because Parliament wanted to prevent King James II from allowing more Catholics to have a place in British society, and also to ensure the primacy of Parliament over the king in setting policy.

George Gordon

Another radical Whig member of Parliament was George Gordon.  As the third son of a Duke, Gordon was not in line to inherit a title, but did come from a wealthy and influential family.  At the age of seven, his family purchased an army ensign’s commission for him.  When he was eleven, however, he decided to join the navy instead.  Several years before he resigned his naval commission at the ripe old age of twenty-five, Gordon got elected to parliament.  Another member of parliament essentially bought him a seat so that Gordon would not run against him for a different seat.

George Gordon
Gordon was an outspoken opponent of the war in America and even spoke in favor of American independence.  A regular critic of the North Ministry, Gordon was also a pretty disagreeable guy who would also attack other radical Whigs. He regularly attacked the Whig leader James Fox.

As the Yorkshire movement was gaining steam in late 1779 and early 1780, Gordon had another issue that he was used to stir up the public.  In 1778, Parliament had passed the Papists Act, which was actually a reform to an earlier 1698 law.  Now before you get too excited that I’m going to do a deep dive into the legislative history of this matter, I’ll warn you that I need to keep it short.

The 1698 Popery Act was passed by Parliament a few years after the Glorious Revolution that threw out James II and brought in William and Mary because James was seen as too friendly to Catholics. The Popery Act, along with laws passed around this time, barred Catholics from purchasing or inheriting land, which also meant that they could not vote.  It also prevented Catholics from serving in the British Army and called for life imprisonment for any priest saying mass or educating students in Britain. 

The 1778 Papists Act was a liberal reform of some of these earlier measures.  It was sponsored by John Dunning, the same radical Whig, who I just mentioned earlier had sponsored the motion to tell the King to stay out of  politics.  Dunning’s 1778 bill said that if a Catholic subject took an oath they could have certain rights restored.  

The oath rejected the authority of Catholic claimants to the British throne.  It rejected the Pope’s legal authority over British subjects.  It also swore that the oath taker would not follow any Catholic edicts to kill the Protestant King of Britain.  If a Catholic subject took this oath, the 1778 act permitted him to purchase or inherit land, and also to join the army.  The act also removed the penalty of lifetime imprisonment for a priest saying mass within Britain.

The 1778 Act was an important wartime measure.  It would help with enlistments by allowing Catholics to enlist in the army.  It was also seen as a way of preventing a rebellion by Catholics, particularly in Ireland, if the government grew too weak as a result of the war.

Gordon Riots

Some radical Whigs, like Gordon, were horrified when these reforms passed.  The following year, Gordon formed the Protestant Association, devoted to repealing these reforms.  Gordon successfully prevented the Scottish Parliament from passing a reform bill similar to the Papists Act passed by Parliament.  With that success, he attempted to get the British Parliament to repeal the bill.

Gordon Riots
On May 29, 1780, Gordon called for a march on Parliament, to take place on June 2.  The purpose of the march was to deliver a petition to repeal the Papists act of 1778 and to make sure Catholics had no place in Britain. Gordon gave numerous speeches about the dangers of letting Catholics into the army, that these reforms would allow Catholics to restore an absolute monarchy and that, despite any oaths, they would work with Catholics on the continent to overthrow the Protestant government in Britain.

Historians who looked into the matter argue that the protesters who marched on June 2 were not just motivated by anti-Catholic views.  They represented a much larger anti-government sentiment, motivated by a stagnating economy, inflation, and unemployment.  There was also a large contingent of anti-war protesters - although many were probably against the war primarily because of its impact on the economy.

With the mob outside of Parliament, Gordon entered the House of Commons to deliver the petition.  As the protesters waited outside, some of them began attacking the carriages of members who were just arriving at Parliament.  House members scrambled to summon a detachment of regulars to disperse the mob.  They then overwhelmingly voted down the petition by a vote of 192-6.

Rioters at Newgate Prison
Although the crowd left Parliament, angry protesters continued to march through the streets of London. That night, they attacked several foreign embassies which were known to have Catholic chapels in them.   They also destroyed the homes of several wealthy Catholics who lived in London.  Officials called out the constables who arrested a number of rioters, but the mayor did not read the Riot Act, which would have permitted authorities to force the rioters to return home or face violent consequences.

The following night, June 3, the rioters invaded the neighborhood of Moorefields where many poor Irish Catholic immigrants worked. The rioters burned homes and beat up suspected Catholics.  The rioters also attacked Newgate Prison, freeing rioters being held there from the prior night.  Someone scrawled on the wall that the prisoners were freed by  “His majesty, King Mob”

Regulars suppress riots
Over the next three nights, mobs rampaged through London, wreaking havoc and destroying property.  One June 7 the protesters burned the home of the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Mansfield.  They also attacked the Bank of England, and were only thwarted by the arrival of several companies of regulars who defended the bank.  Similarly soldiers had to block a mob trying to assault the prime minister’s home at 10 Downing Street.

Even after five days of open and uncontrolled rioting, the Lord Mayor still refused to read the Riot Act.  He was a radical Whig himself and did not want to be seen as crushing his own political supporters.  By the night of June 7th, however, military officials had had enough.  They issued orders to regulars to go out into the streets and fire on any groups of four or more people who refused orders to disperse.

The regulars ended up shooting and killing 285 protesters and wounding an estimated 200 more.  I suspect that number is low because many wounded people probably returned home and did not seek medical care since it might result in their arrest.  Authorities did end up arresting about 450 protesters.


The Gordon Riots, as they came to be known, were probably the worst London had ever seen.  I think only the Great Fire of London before the Riots, and the Battle of Britain much later during WWII were the only events that did more damage to the city.

Between twenty and thirty leaders were tried and executed.  Lord Gordon was charged with high treason for his role, but was acquitted.  His lawyers argued successfully that Gordon had only intended to create political pressure for his petition, which was designed to protect Britain and the King from outside threats.  Because he did not intend for the riots to destroy Britain, he could not be found guilty of treason.

The riots also damaged the political career of John Wilkes, who led a militia against the rioters in an attempt to restore order. The rioters were just the sort of people who usually supported Wilkes, so his attempts to subdue them cost him politically.  Lord Mayor Brackley Kennett, who had refused to read the riot act against the protesters, was later convicted of criminal negligence and fined.

The riot also damaged Britain’s reputation abroad. The ministry had been attempting to draw Catholic Austria into an alliance against Spain and France.  These anti-Catholic riots in London resulted in an end to those talks. Britain had also opened secret negotiations with Spain to get it to end its war with Britain.  After hearing of the riots, Spain also ended negotiations, not necessarily because of the anti-Catholic sentiment of the riots, but because the Spanish believed the British government was close to collapse.

The Gordon Riots remained a deep scar on London and would be remembered for generations.

Next time, we return to New Jersey, where British forces from New York destroy the town of Connecticut Farms.

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Next Episode 253 Connecticut Farms 

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Further Reading


Black, Eugene Charlton. “The Tumultuous Petitioners: The Protestant Association in Scotland, 1778-1780.” The Review of Politics, vol. 25, no. 2, 1963, pp. 183–211. JSTOR, 

Butterfield, H. “The Yorkshire Association and the Crisis of 1779-80.” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, vol. 29, 1947, pp. 69–91. JSTOR,

Christie, Ian R. “The Yorkshire Association, 1780-4: A Study in Political Organization.” The Historical Journal, vol. 3, no. 2, 1960, pp. 144–61. JSTOR, 

Christie, Ian R. “Economical Reform and ‘The Influence of the Crown’, 1780.” Cambridge Historical Journal, vol. 12, no. 2, 1956, pp. 144–54. JSTOR,

Kilburn, Matthew Association Movement

The Papist Act of 1778 (full text):

The Popery Act of 1698 (full text):

Donovan, Robert Kent. “The Military Origins of the Roman Catholic Relief Programme of 1778.” The Historical Journal, vol. 28, no. 1, 1985, pp. 79–102. JSTOR,

Rudé, George F. E. “The Gordon Riots: A Study of the Rioters and Their Victims: The Alexander Prize Essay.” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, vol. 6, 1956, pp. 93–114. JSTOR,

Jones, Brad A. “‘In Favour of Popery’: Patriotism, Protestantism, and the Gordon Riots in the Revolutionary British Atlantic.” Journal of British Studies, vol. 52, no. 1, 2013, pp. 79–102. JSTOR,

The Gordon Riots:

The Gordon Riots Mapped:

Gordon Riots of 1780:

Gordon Riots:

White, Jerry "The Gordon Riots, 1780" London Historians

VIDEO Gordon Riots, Prof. Ian Haywood:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

“Protestant gentleman” A Dispassionate Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Riots in London: in which the arcana of popery are candidly disclosed, London: Printed for J. Almon and J. Debrett, 1781. 

Butterfield, Herbert George III, Lord North, and the People, New York: Russell & Russell, 1949 (borrow only).

Burke, Edmund Some Thoughts on the Approaching Executions (from The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke - Google books).

Dickens, Charles Barnaby Rudge: a tale of the riots of 'eighty, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1874. 

Holcroft, Thomas A plain and Succinct Narrative of the Gordon Riots of 1780, Emery Univ. 1944 (from Hathitrust).

O'Beirne, Thomas Lewis Considerations on the late disturbances, London: Printed for J. Almon, 1780. 

Smelt, Leonard, An Account of some Particulars relating  to the Meeting held at York, London: T. Becket, 1780 (Qspace). 

Smelt, Leonard, The Yorkshire question, or petition, or address: (being a short and fair state of the case, upon the principles, the views, the means, and the objects of both parties as confessed by themselves) : most earnestly and seriously addressed to the consideration of the people of England assembled in their several county, city, and other meetings, London: J. Almon, 1780.  

Watson, Robert The Life of Lord George Gordon: with a philosophical view of his political conduct, London, Printed for H. D. Symonds, 1795. 

Williams, David A plan of association on constitutional principles, for the parishes, tithings, hundreds, and counties of Great Britain, by which the outrages of mobs, and the necessity of a military government will be prevented, and the English constitution in a great measure restored, in 3 letters to a Member of Parliament, London: Printed by G. Kearsly, 1780. 

Wyvill, Christopher A state of the representation of the people of England, on the principles of Mr. Pitt in 1785; with an annexed state of additional propositions, by the Rev. Christopher Wyvill, W. Blanchard, 1793.

Wyvill, Christopher Political papers, chiefly respecting the attempt of the county of York, and other considerable districts, commenced in 1799 ... to effect a reformation of the parliament of Great-Britain, Vol 1, York: W. Blanchard, 1794 (Google Books). 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Bindman, Yirmeyahu Lord George Gordon, Cis Pub, 1991. 

Christie, Ian R. Myth and Reality in Late-Eighteenth-Century British Politics, and Other Papers, Univ. of California Press, 1970.

Christie, Ian R. Wilkes, Wyvill and reform; the Parliamentary reform movement in British politics, 1760-1785, London: Macmillan; New York, St. Martin's Press, 1963 (borrow on

Frasier, Antonia The King and the Catholics: England, Ireland, and the Fight for Religious Freedom, 1780-1829, Doubleday, 2018.  

Haywood, Ian (ed) & John Seed (ed) The Gordon Riots: Politics, Culture and Insurrection in Late Eighteenth-Century Britain, Cambridge Univ. Press, 2012. 

Hibbert, Christopher King Mob: The Story of Lord George Gordon and the Riots of 1780, Hippocrene Books, 1989.

Nicholson, John The Great Liberty Riot of 1780, BM Bozo,1985

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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