At this time of year, our streets become full of pixy merriment, especially after dark. However we are fortunate that we do not hear of the riotous behaviour or its causes, that was experienced in days of yore. This article is not about November 5th, fireworks or bonfires, although some towns in England have been known to have riots on this date, resulting from the religious changes after King Henry VIII and possible changes if the Gunpowder Plot had not been discovered.
During the Civil War between Parliament and King Charles I, many farmers and landowners were annoyed by the actions of the troops on both sides, as they invaded their property and took chickens and animals without payment. The Protestants also brought their horses into churches. As a result, an organisation called Clubmen evolved, a strong neutralist movement of yeomen and tradesmen. Cecil N Cullingford in A History of Dorset wrote that some of their banners were inscribed with “If you offer to plunder, or take our cattle, Rest assured we will give you battle”. They wore white cockades and held mass meetings on several hillforts like Eggardon, and Badbury Rings. At Badbury a lawyer read out proposals in the presence of “near 4,000 armed with clubs, swords, Bills, Pitchforks and other weapons”. At Sturminster Newton they drew up petitions to both King and Parliament. The King’s reply was favourable, but Fairfax for Parliament only offered good discipline for his troops. Cromwell encountered nearly 2,000 Clubmen on Hambledon Hill, “one of the old Camps”, and when they refused to surrender he sent in his troops and “killed not twelve of them, but cut very many and put them to flight”. Cromwell reported that many of them were “poor silly creatures” who promised to behave themselves in future saying they would “be hanged before they come out again”. Apparently, Cromwell locked up his prisoners for the night in Shroton church, screened them next day and released all except a few ringleaders including Thomas Bravell, rector of Compton Abbas “who had told them they must stand to it now rather than lose their arms, and that he would pistol them that gave back”. The Clubmen movement was dissolved and this revolt was ended.
After our victory over Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815 people thought that peace would bring prosperity, but cheap corn came in from the Continent and many of our farmers became bankrupt according to Cecil N Cullingford. Parliament passed the 1815 Corn Law prohibiting imports of foreign wheat unless the price of homegrown corn reached 80 shillings per quarter. Unfortunately, the resulting high cost increased the price of bread which hit everyone, especially poor people. In the meantime, all parish priests could do was to lead parishioners with the prayer “Give us this day our daily bread”. As a consequence, the Riot Act was read in Bridport on 29th April 1816 to a group described as “several hundred persons” by the national newspaper The Times and after a trial of ringleaders was held at Dorchester Assizes on Saturday 3rd August 1816. This report is taken from the research of our friend and now Joint Chair of Bridport History Society, Celia Martin.
Wages were particularly low in Dorset and many men returning from the Napoleonic Wars were unemployed. Memories of the French Revolution were still in the minds of many people who were concerned that something similar could happen here. There were eight arrests made of those considered to be the ringleaders of the Bridport Bread Riot, of whom three were women. As women, they were usually those who bought bread and could tell if they were being overcharged or if the loaf was underweight.
The youngest arrested was William Fry aged 16. He was charged with stealing an 18-gallon cask of beer from the cellars of Gundry & Co. of Bothenhampton which was taken up to the town on a dray with several other casks, aided by a band of others. Fry was not found guilty of rioting. But the beer may well have assisted in inflaming the crowds into action over three or four hours. They were reported as marching up South Street and into West Street attacking the windows of bakers shops and houses, the leaders carrying sticks and staves impaled with loaves of bread.
At the trial, John Toleman aged 21, was fined one shilling and sentenced to imprisonment for 9 months. He had been one of the leaders carrying a loaf of bread on a stave and encouraging people to riot. Elizabeth Phillips was accused of using threatening language to baker William Diment, who was called as a witness at the trial. It was reported in evidence that the dialogue between them ended with Elizabeth Phillips shouting “we’ll have your liver and lights before tonight”. She was found guilty “of unlawfully and riotously assembling together with a great number of other evil-disposed persons” and fined one shilling and sent to prison for three months.
All the accused, apart from William Fry, were found guilty of rioting. The punishment tended to be harder on men than on women. James Stodgell aged 21, who had been found responsible for breaking the windows belonging to baker John Thomas of East Street, was fined one shilling and sentenced to hard labour for 12 months. Jacob Powell aged 31, was also fined one shilling and sentenced to imprisonment for 12 months. Samuel Follett aged 19, was also fined one shilling and sentenced to imprisonment for six months. Mr Justice Park considered Follett’s behaviour was worse than the others as he had thrown large stones at the shop and dwelling house of John Fowler, a baker, breaking the shutters and demolishing the windows.
Hannah Powell aged 21, was fined one shilling and sentenced to imprisonment for six months. She had attempted to rescue one of the ringleaders of the mob who had been taken into custody by Jessee Cornick. Susan Saunders, aged 22 was fined one shilling and sentenced to prison for six months. She had taken part in the riot and attempted to assault Robert Turner who was acting as a special constable.
It is interesting to note how many of the prisoners were fined one shilling but with differing prison sentences.
Recently one of Bridport History Society members, Carlos Guarita, told us about a photograph he had discovered of factory girls standing in front of the gates of Gundry’s factory in West Street, Bridport, near the present Costa Coffee and Timsons shops. The title said they were striking workers. Carlos investigated further and found a reference in the Bridport News of February 1912 to a group of women “standing shoulder to shoulder”. It appears that new machines had been introduced to the factory and those working on them could earn more money than those using the old machines. Arbitration was at first suggested but was not immediately taken up until a meeting in the Hope and Anchor public house on February 1912 with Miss Ada Newton from the Federation of Women Workers. Miss Newton met Mr MacDonald of Messrs. Gundry and the strike was settled. A sum of £9 13s. was collected for the girls.
Ada Newton came down again for a social meeting at St Mary’s School Fete, when the women paraded through the town. So these demonstrations ended peacefully. Other photographs from just before the war showed a group of men in South Street near the present Malabar shop and also another with a group of men outside the gates of the Gundry works.
You will notice that these three stories become progressively less violent as the years progress. Let us hope that this is a sign of advancement and not just a fluke of my selection.
Carlos also discussed the photographers themselves as some of the photos bore the name Clarence Austen. On investigation, it appeared that he was working for W Shepard who had a shop at 45 East Street. Shepard died later in 1912 and Austen set up in his own shop, possibly where the Market House now stands. Carlos is himself a photographer and has produced a book linking the photographers and the “striking women”, Clarence Austen, the Photographer and the Wild Cat Women.
My thanks to William Holden, History Society Editor for his transcription of Carlos’ talk.
Bridport History Society meets again on Tuesday, November 13th in the United Church Main Hall, East Street, Bridport for a Members “Show and Tell “and member Geoff Pulman will introduce songs from the period such as Oh what a lovely war, etc. All welcome, visitors entrance £3.
Cecil Amor, Hon President Bridport History Society.