The Worst of Times—The Bristol Riots

Unrest in the streets, peaceful demonstrations for change overshadowed by rioting and violence, demands increase in law and order—Baton Rouge? Ferguson? No, Bristol 1831 at the height of the Reform Crisis.

Longing for democratic reform is as ancient as Pericles and as recent as our own times. Class differences, social-economic inequality surge to the surface when fueled by poverty, lack of opportunity, and social exclusion. Doing research for my most recent book, I discovered that England in the 1830s had its own unique issues.

Artist : Russell Drysdale (Australia, b.1912, d.1981) Title : Date : circa 1956 Medium Description: black conté, watercolour, white highlights on green paper Dimensions : Credit Line : Purchased 1956 Image Credit Line : Accession Number : 920

The Gordon Riots 1780 by Russell Drysdale

After millennia of European power being concentrated in the hands of hereditary aristocracy, the desire for equality had surged to the surface during the Enlightenment. The most notable examples were the American Revolution with its successes and the French Revolution with its terrors. With every upheaval, those with a vested interest in the status quo push back. England was no exception. The two major revolutions at the end of the 18th century caused a backlash in England. Any effort toward reform was quickly suppressed, a conservative attitude fueled in part by fear of the excesses of the French reign of terror. Riots and disturbances were quickly put down.

The result was that, while there were periodic outcries, there was no systematic reform movement in Britain between 1760 and 1830, and government remained entirely in the hands of the aristocratic elite who controlled not only the House of Lords, but also who could stand for Commons to a extent that is unthinkable today.

In 1828-29 two measures were passed that eased religious restrictions. The Sacrament Act of 1828 removed the requirement that anyone in public office must be in communion with the Church of England; The Catholic Relief Act of 1829 removed the last of the anti-Catholic penal laws, but no comprehensive parliamentary reform occurred.

By 1830 pressure for added reform had become more vocal, in part because of the growing wealth of the middle class. Some conservatives supported limited reform but the Tory government led by the Duke of Wellington, which had reluctantly supported Catholic Relief, adamantly opposed it. When the Tories were ousted, the Whigs proposed two reform bills one after the other. The House of Lords, still led by Wellington, opposed them and both failed.

The Riot in Queens Square, Bristol 1831

The Bristol Riots of 1831, unknown artist

After the second bill failed in early October 1831, unrest broke out into violence in Derby, Nottingham, and London. There were also reports of riots in Bath, Worcester, Coventry, and Warwick. The worst of the rioting, however occurred in Bristol, a prosperous commercial port city that had experienced a doubling of its population and enormous expansion in its wealth in the previous thirty years. Bristol had had a representative in Parliament since 1295, but in 1830 fewer than 6% of its rapidly expanding population could vote.

When a local magistrate, Sir Charles Wetherell, an outspoken opponent of reform, opened assize court on October 29 he threatened to imprison any participant in disturbances. By the time he reached Mansion House, the seat of the mayor, a mob had routed the police and set fire to the building. The mob burned over 100 buildings eventually, including the houses of unpopular citizens, the Bishop’s Palace, and the Customs House. They released prisoners from jail and looted extensively. There were 5-600 rioters who raged for over three days.

The mayor called on the army for assistance and two troops of dragoons were sent into Bristol. Initially, Colonel Brereton, the commander, ordered the dragoons to hold their fire. When the crowd dispersed, he ordered troops out of the city to avoid inflaming the populace. The rioters, however, were emboldened by that, and ultimately Brereton ordered a charge with swords drawn in Queen’s Square in which several rioters were killed and scores wounded, effectively ending the crisis.

The law-and-order backlash, as exemplified by Wetherell, was swift. Four participants in the riots were hung. The officers of the dragoons were charged with negligence and brought to trial. Brereton shot himself before the trial concluded. As is often the case, the violence had political repercussions. The disturbances were used as an excuse to oppose labor unions, and positions on reform hardened on both sides.

by Unknown artist 1832

by unknown artist 1832

The government introduced a new reform act early in 1832. This time it passed. Lord Grey, leader of the Whigs pressured William IV to create enough Whig peers to ensure passage in the House of Lords. Faced with that threat, and fearful of additional violence, Wellington and the Tories softened their opposition. Ordered to vote for the act or absent themselves, over 200 members of Lords simply stayed away and the measure passed.

The Reform Act of 1832 reapportioned representation to Parliament in ways fairer to the growing industrial cities. This primary feature of the law calls to mind the redistricting that happens in the United States every ten years. The American system is far from perfect and often subject to political wrangling, but it is far better than the situation that in 1830 when districts had remained the same for decades regardless of population. The Act dropped 56 boroughs, reduced the number of MPs in others, and created 67 new constituencies.

The Act also did away with districts, generally called “pocket” or “rotten” boroughs, voting districts with a handful of voters controlled by a local squire or lord who could dictate candidates for the House of Commons, viewed by some in the upper classes as ancient privileges they did not wish to lose.

Ultimately, it broadened the number those enfranchised to vote to include men with property greater than £10, giving the vote to small landowners, tenant farmers and shopkeepers. It added approximately 217,000 new voters to the rolls, but still fell well short of universal suffrage for men. Votes for women, of course, were not even under discussion.

While it benefited the burgeoning middle class, the Act did nothing for the poor, for women, or for oppressed groups. Demands for reform raged for the next two decades. During the 1830s alone:

  • The Factory Act of 1833 prohibited the employment of children less than nine and reducing the hours of women and older children.
  • The New Poor Law of 1835 passed.
  • The Custody of Infants Act of 1839 gave non-adulterous mothers some rights over their children. Previously they had none.

oliver-twist-coverIt was the era of Dickens and Oliver Twist, as passionate a plea for reform as any parliamentary speech. Reading about the era, I was moved to remember another Dickens novel, the brilliant opening lines to A Tale of Two Cities:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, …in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose



Caroline Warfield lives in the urban wilds of Easter Pennsylvania where she spends time with her own hero and their grandson, enjoys the history all around her, and writes historical romance. The heroes and heroines of Caroline’s Dangerous Series overcame challenges even after their happy ending. Their children seek their own happiness in distant lands in Children of Empire. The first of the new series, The Renegade Wife, set in Upper Canada in 1832, comes out in October. Its sequel, The Reluctant Wife, set in India in 1835, will follow in April, 2017.

For more information see:

Bloy, Marjie, “The Reform Act Crisis,” The Victorian Web, (Accessed October 12, 2016)

“The Bristol Reform Act Riots: 29 – 31 October 1831,” (Taken from Alexander Charles Ewald, The and Times of William Ewart Gladstone. 5 vols. William Mackenzie, London) viewed on A Web of English History: Peel Web, (Accessed October 12, 2016)

“The Reform Act of 1832,” Living Heritage, UK Parliament, (Accessed October 12, 2016)

“Revolting riots in Queen Square,” BBC: Made in Bristol, Apr. 27, 2004, (Accessed October 12, 2016)