Posts Tagged ‘rockland’

Downham Market Food Riot

Saturday, February 20th, 2016

The Downham case was the most serious of all the local disturbances at this time.

A wave of discontent swept through England in 1816. Following the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, France’s European neighbours considered the country a liability and signed into the Treaty of Paris the need for an occupational force. The British component of this coalition military – 150,000 strong in total and called by some the Army of Occupation – was led by the Duke of Wellington. Thirty thousand men were sent from the British Army alongside an equal number from Austria, Prussia, and Russia as well as smaller numbers from five other European states.

The financial cost of this occupying force was propped up by France so that, in theory, the countries of the Army of Occupation would not lose out on having to undertake this task. By 1816, though, Britain’s financial situation met dire straights and reverberated throughout society and became what is proverbially known as the “food riots”. Three key factors came together to create this perfect storm: the war irreparably changed the international commercial market; taxation was increased to refill the country’s coffers emptied during the conflict; and freak climactic conditions caused much of the year’s harvest to fail. Back then, as it is today, those most affected by a failing economy were the poor and working classes.

Weighted beneath the pressure of high prices and falling living conditions, people across the country took to the streets in 1816 as an expression of their rage. Norfolk was no exception.

It was on the 16th May in this year that an alarming riot occurred in Norwich. Late in the evening a large number of the unemployed assembled in the Market Place and created a disturbance by throwing fire-balls. They next smashed the windows at the Guildhall and proceeded to the New Mills, breaking all the street lamps and the windows of several houses on their way thither. On arriving at the mills, the ringleaders broke into the stores and removed a large quantity of flour, some of which was thrown into the river and some carried away. Returning by way of St Andrew’s Bank Street, and Tombland, in each of which localities the mob committed great depredations, they marched to Magdalen Street, and made a hostile demonstration in front of the residence of Dr. Alderson. Upon the doctor coming out to remonstrate with them, the ruffians knocked him down and subjected him to brutal ill-treatment.

Because the cream of the British Army crop were stationed in France, it fell to the “B Team” troops to fight the rioting people. The Yeomanry Cavalry, volunteer horse-mounted units used primarily for domestic situations, were tasked in many counties to undertake defence of the State and calm the dissent through force. These forces were first created in the 1790s following fears of an invasion of Britain by Napoleon and drawn from small-time farmers, with officers drawn from the gentry as was commonplace throughout the military at the time. So what we find in the 1816 riots once again are the working classes pitted against the working classes at the behest of the upper classes and the State.

Though riots raged in Norwich, it was not the only place in Norfolk that saw uprising and insurrection. Violence broke out in Rockland, and Wisbech was occupied by 120 cavalry due to the threat of unrest, but it was Downham were the most spectacular actions occured.

Just days after the events in Norwich, three Downham district magistrates – John Thurlow Dering, Mr. Hare, and Mr. Pratt – met at The Crown pub to discuss concerns and demands put forward by many in the local population. Their solution to the crisis of the moment, which led to families unable to feed themselves due to low wages and high prices, was to offer a slightly increased wage and slightly lower price on flour when bought by families of four or more individuals. This was not early good enough. Crowds from Downham and other nearby villages had gathered for the decision and, after hearing the bullshit solution, reacted with outrage. From their announcement in the market place, the magistrates were chased by stick and bludgeon-wielding rioters all the way back to The Crown, where the crowd apparently threatened to defenestrate the trio.

Thus pursued, the magistrates attempted an escape by a back way, but were followed and pelted with stones and dirt. Mr. Pratt and Mr. Dering received several violent blows, and with difficulty obtained refuge in different houses — Mr. Dering at Mr. Wales’, Mr. Hare at Mr. Lemmon’s, and Mr. Pratt at Col. Say’s. Mr. Dering was the principal object of the mob’s vengeance, and was so hunted that he had to be concealed in a garden for two hours, the excited people declaring they would murder him if they could find him. He and Mr. Hare afterwards escaped to Mr. Safiery’s. Shops were meanwhile plundered of their goods, and publicans were compelled to make gratuitous distribution of beer.

Yeomanry Cavalry from Upwell were sent to combat the looters and rioters in Downham and in the ensuing crackdown wherein many of those participating in the riots were arrested, word came to the small parish of Southery that two men from the village had been taken in. On the morning of 20th May a meeting was held by the parishioners during which it was decided that they would march to Downham in order to demand the release of their fellow villagers. Picking up others en route, a crowd of between 700 and 800 arrived in Downham armed with sticks, scythes, pitchforks, and even shotguns to join the unrest. The total crowd now numbered around 1500 and comprised both men and women.

Magistrate Dering, stricken with terror at the sight of this approaching mob, acquiesced immediately to their demands and released both Southery men. It seems the crowd took this small victory as fuel for the possibilities of their communal power and, rather than dispersing in satisfaction, began demanding that the doors of Downham prison be thrown open and all inmates released. Dering, afraid, agreed once more and the prison was emptied, and the inmates disappeared into the mass so that they would not be recaptured.

Unfortunately not everybody got away. The Upwell Yeomanry, with the help of special constables (volunteer police types), were able to seize 19 of the rioters following a reading of the Riot Act by John Dering at 5pm in the market square. This caused the mob to peter out and disperse, leaving Downham quiet once again. It is said some of the rioters went onto the Cambridgeshire town of Littleport and continued their attack on the injustices of the State when riots broke out there on 22nd May but only one man by the name of Thomas Sindall appears to be confirmed at both outbreaks.

Of the 19 that were arrested in Downham, nine men and six women were sentenced to death following a brief trial in August 1816. Thirteen of these sentences were commuted but two still hung at Norwich Castle: Daniel Harwood, 22, who was taken from a pregnant wife; and Thomas Thody, 25, who was taken from a wife and two children. There is no word of what happened to their families.

The food riots of 1816 continued to rage throughout the rest of the country but the Downham incident appears to have been the final mass disturbance relating to the post-Napoleonic fallout in Norfolk.