This article first appeared in the May 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine
In the early months of 1816, eastern England seethed with discontent. The war against Napoleon was over, but the cost of victory had fallen hard on the common people. For the men returning, proud and weary, from Wellington’s victories on the continent, there was little comfort at home. Taxes were high and prices prohibitive: in just 12 months, the price of wheat effectively doubled. And with the economy in the doldrums, jobs were in short supply. “The state of the labouring poor,” admitted one response to a circular from the Board of Agriculture, “is very deplorable, and arises entirely from the want of employment, which they are willing to seek, but the farmer cannot afford to furnish.”
At the beginning of May, disturbances broke out across East Anglia. On the 20th, local magistrates meeting at the Crown in Downham Market were temporarily besieged by protesters demanding decent wages. And on the 22nd, frustration turned into open violence. That evening several dozen villagers met at the Globe Inn, just 10 miles away in the village of Littleport. And as one drink followed another, tempers flared.
As one villager blew a horn, calling others to join the throng, his comrades rampaged through the village streets, throwing stones and smashing shop windows. They broke into houses and threw the residents out; they stole property and hurled furniture into the street.
Littleport’s vicar, the Reverend John Vachell, tried to get them to disperse by reading the Riot Act. But since Vachell was also a local magistrate, much hated for his severe sentences, his moral authority was non-existent. Heckled by the mob, he took refuge inside the vicarage, waving a gun and threatening to fire on anyone who approached – hardly, it has to be said, a very Christian way of carrying on. Shortly before midnight, however, three men broke into the house and managed to disarm him. And while the rioters were rifling through their possessions, Vachell, his wife and his daughters scrambled out of the house and fled south, towards the sleepy cathedral city of Ely.
By dawn the following morning, the Littleport rioters had moved on to Ely too. The city was braced for trouble, since Vachell had already warned his fellow magistrates, and the crowd was greeted by the Reverend William Metcalfe, who read them the Riot Act and urged them to go home. But they were having none of it. “Our children are starving!” they shouted, demanding “the price of a stone of flour per day”. In the end, the local magistrates gave in, promising them two shillings each a week in poor relief and a minimum wage of two shillings a day – a pledge they were never likely to keep. The crowd seemed appeased, though – especially when the Ely magistrates offered them free beer if they went home.
On the face of it, the rioters had got what they wanted. But the authorities had no intention of letting open rebellion go unpunished. Two days after the disturbances had begun, a detachment of Royal Dragoons rode into Littleport, accompanied by a troop of volunteer yeomanry and a small militia made up of Ely’s rich and respectable. When they rounded up the protesters in the street outside the George and Dragon, one man, Thomas Sindall, tried to resist and was promptly shot in the head. The others – 82 of them, in total – were taken to Ely gaol to wait for their trial.
To Lord Liverpool’s Tory government, the Littleport and Ely riots were a frightening warning of the revolutionary anarchy beneath the surface of British life. Memories of the French Revolution were still raw; for the well-to-do, it was essential to be tough. So instead of leaving the trial to the local authorities, the home secretary appointed a special commission, whose chairman promised to teach “an awful lesson… that whatever wild or chimerical notions may prevail of the power of an armed multitude, the law is too strong for its assailants”. He was as good as his word. No fewer than 24 men were condemned to death, although 19 of them had their sentences commuted to penal transportation or imprisonment.
For the remaining five men, however, justice was savage. On Friday 28 June, after praying with the watching crowds, they were hanged in Ely. The next day they were buried in St Mary’s Church, where the vicar installed a stone plaque in their memory. “May their awful fate”, read its final line, “be a warning to others.”
Dominic Sandbrook is a presenter and historian