When writing, one is told to draw on one’s own experiences. I was considering this advice (while trying to come up with a reason our dear couple might be confined together as virtual strangers) and was reminded of a first date I once had. The year was 1992. We had gone out to dinner. As we left the restaurant, I heard the sounds of a crowd a few blocks away. I thought it might be a festival or parade and wanted to check it out, but my date wanted to avoid the traffic. He brought us back to campus where we both lived in the dorms. As we drove through the security gate, the guard said something ominous about the college being in lockdown and advised us to get indoors right away. Sure enough, the place was pretty deserted without the usual students mulling around or cars driving by. We parked closer to his dorm so we went into that building first. There, we were promptly greeted by his RA who had one of the thickest Southern accents I’ve ever heard. He said, “A big riot is infecting the campus, you should stay here tonight.” Now, the word “riot” sounded an awful lot like the word “rat” when that RA said it, so I am starting to question who my date had to pay off to feed me such a ridiculous story.
“Yeah right, I’ll sleep in your room to avoid the scary rat.”
Anyway, I wasn’t going to let one rodent keep me prisoner, so I insisted on returning to my room. I did keep a careful watch on the ground for any rabid creatures on my way back — there were none. When I encountered my roommate, she clarified things. The Rodney King riots had started nearby. And that was how I found myself researching riots during the Georgian period.
One I thought was interesting— mostly because of the background—took place in 1780 and was known as the Gordon Riots. Like most riots, this one started as a peaceful protest before the mayhem and looting began. In the end, it lasted a week and proved to be the most destructive rioting London has ever experienced.
Before I tell you more, it is important to remember the events of the day.
England was at war with the American colonies, as well as France and Spain who were helping those unruly rebels. With their resources spread thin, England secretly entered into peace negotiations with Spain and approached Austria for help in dealing with the French. Spain and Austria were predominantly Catholic at the time. Although they were largely ignored, England had some pretty anti-Catholic laws on the books dating back to 1698. To help with their foreign negotiations, the government repealed some of the restrictions on Catholics by passing the Papist Act of 1778. Those in charge couldn’t announce why they are repealing these laws without revealing their war strategy, so they explain that they want to allow Catholic men to be allowed to join the military to help with the fighting. Since Catholics had been enlisting prior to 1778, this reasoning was suspect by many.
Surprisingly, Catholics who had been mostly ignored weren’t very happy about receiving a handful of new freedoms. They worried change would bring with it unwanted attention, and they were right. The Protestant Association of London (presided over by George Gordon) argued that allowing Catholics into the military was dangerous. The crown would be arming a bunch of Catholics, then sending them over to France and Spain where they would join their fellow Catholics and lead an attack on England. The next thing you know, a Catholic king would be installed, parliament would be dissolved, and the country would be controlled by the Pope. Conveniently, he ignored the fact that Catholics were already in the military yet none of his predictions had come to pass.
The war had hurt England’s trading. The economy was suffering, wages were dropping, prices were rising, and unemployment was high. It was like a powder keg was sitting there, and Gordon added fear to the pile. That extra element caused the explosion known as the Gordon Riots. Things got worse because of the city’s response. Britain didn’t have a professional police force, viewing such a thing as too French and giving the government too much power. Eventually, the government decided to use militiamen who were ordered to shoot men gathered in groups of four or larger. As you can imagine, this led to significant casualties.
While I applaud the British government for repealing overtly anti-Catholic laws, I never would have imagined that such an action would have that amount of backlash. Clearly, those in charge didn’t expect it either. Not only did the riot result in severe property damage and the loss of hundreds of lives, but it also damaged England’s reputation. Other countries viewed the British government as unstable, which ended their negotiations with Spain and Austria. Though things in this situation couldn’t have gone much worse for poor King George, there is a personal silver lining. For me, it was a win-win. My Catholic ancestors living in England were given a few more rights, and the colonists won the war—allowing me to now live in a country I quite like.