On 2 June 1780, a crowd of between 40,000 to 60,000 people gathered outside the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, having marched from St George’s Fields, to present a petition. Though soldiers managed to disperse the masses and arrest some of their number, this was just the beginning.


Over the next five days, this protest escalated into the most destructive riots in London’s history. Protestors attacked buildings, including Newgate Prison and the Bank of England, and many lives were lost. But what drove these people to such violent action?

What caused the Gordon Riots?

Burning of Newgate Prison in London.
The burning of Newgate Prison. (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)

The Gordon Riots were fuelled by Protestant opposition to the Catholic Relief Act of 1778. This legislation lifted many restrictions on the civil rights of Catholics that had been imposed by the Popery Act of 1698. With reduced legislative discrimination, Catholics were able to join the army and buy or sell land if they took an oath of allegiance.

Lord George Gordon, a British politician and Protestant, vehemently opposed this, and his opposition was shared by many other Protestants. They feared that these newfound freedoms would enable Catholics to commit treasonous acts and jeopardise British security.

To counter this, Lord Gordon initiated a petition to repeal the Catholic Relief Act, which he claimed to have 120,000 signatures. On 2 June, he led a group of between 40,000 and 60,000 to Parliament, then under the administration of prime minister Lord North, to present it.

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Lord Gordon entered the Houses of Parliament and presented the petition himself. He and the protestors demanded immediate consideration of their request; this was denied by parliament, but a discussion was scheduled for the following Tuesday.

However, this didn’t placate the crowds, and what began as a civil petition soon descended into violent riots.

Why were they called the Gordon Riots?

The Gordon Riots were named after Lord George Gordon, who organised the petition against the Catholic Relief Act.

The son of the 3rd Duke of Gordon, he was a politician who sat in the House of Commons from 1774 to 1780.

A year before the Gordon Riots, in 1779, he became the first president of the Protestant Association, which was formed as an immediate response to the Act. It had the support of notable religious figures, including Rowland Hill and John Rippon.

How violent were the Gordon Riots?

Rioters accosting Lord William Mansfield.
Rioters accosting Lord William Mansfield. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

The Gordon Riots were among the most destructive in English history. The violence began on 2 June, when the crowd attacked the carriages of Members of Parliament as they arrived at Westminster, holding them personally responsible for the Catholic Relief Act.

Lord Chief Justice Mansfield’s carriage was damaged and the glass shattered, while the Duke of Northumberland had his watch stolen.

Many MPs also had their homes ransacked. Lord Mansfield’s residence was attacked and his extensive library burned, resulting in significant financial loss. Rioters also targeted his country estate, Kenwood House on Hampstead Heath, but were diverted by a guard who bribed them with free ale at a nearby inn.

Over the following days, rioters also targeted government buildings, including Newgate Prison, where some members of the original crowd outside parliament were being held. Dr Madeleine Pelling has written on the role that graffiti played in the riots, and how some in the crowd painted a battle cry across the prison’s crumbling walls: “His Majesty King Mob.” The rioters freed 300 prisoners – many of whom would never be recaptured.

The Spaniard's Inn, Hampstead.
The Spaniard's Inn, Hampstead. (Photo by Bridgeman via Getty Images)

On 7 June, known as ‘Black Wednesday’, the riot peaked with an attempt to destroy the Bank of England. One journal, the Annual Register, called it “one of the most dreadful spectacles this country ever beheld,” adding that “every thing served to impress the mind with ideas of universal anarchy and approaching desolation (sic).”

In response, martial law was enacted, allowing thousands of troops to shoot rioters on site.

By this point, Lord George Gordon tried to calm and disperse the rioters, but his efforts were in vain. He declared his wish to “join the forces of law and order”, turning against the crowd.

Groups like this would have been read the Riot Act, which was passed in 1714 in response to the increasing number of mobs in Britain. When crowds gathered, Jonny Wilkes explains, “a public official would have to stand before them – either a brave or foolhardy thing to do”. They read the following proclamation of the Riot Act:

“Our sovereign Lord the King chargeth and commandeth all persons, being assembled, immediately to disperse themselves, and peaceably to depart to their habitations, or to their lawful business, upon the pains contained in the act made in the first year of King George, for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies. God save the King.”

Those who didn’t disperse after this proclamation were dealt harsh penalties. During that night and the following day, 285 people were shot dead by the militia, another 200 wounded, and around 450 arrested. Notably, none of those arrested had signed the petition, suggesting that this riot had grown far beyond the original protest outside the Houses of Parliament.

By Thursday evening, 8 June, following the arrests and deaths of many, the rioting had subsided.

What happened to those who took part in the riots?

Lord George Gordon during his imprisonment the Tower of London
Lord George Gordon during his imprisonment the Tower of London, 1780, convicted of high treason for his role in instigating The Gordon Riots. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Out of the 450 arrested for their part in the Gordon Riots, 160 were tried at either the King’s Bench court in Southwark, or the Old Bailey. Of these, 26 were hanged for their involvement in the riots.

Lord George Gordon was imprisoned for eight months and tried for high treason in 1781. His cousin, a lawyer named Thomas Erskine, successfully argued for his acquittal, citing his lack of treasonous intent.

Although Gordon had led the protestors originally to the Houses of Parliament, Erskine argued, he did not explicitly order the riots.

However, Gordon’s legal troubles continued. In 1787, he published a paper criticising the severity of criminal law in England, also making derogatory comments about queen consort of France Marie Antoinette and Jean-Balthazar d’Adhémar, the French ambassador to Great Britain.

For this crime, he was given a five-year jail sentence at Newgate on 28 January 1788, where he died in 1793 from typhoid.

Did anything change as a result of the Gordon Riots?

The Gordon Riots made other European countries question the stability of the British government, which was significant as Britain sought to solidify European alliances. In fact, the Spanish government, upon learning of the riots, retreated from its peace negotiations with Britain.

This event also underscored the power of popular dissent, which was eventually restrained with the 1795 Grenville and Pitt Bills, otherwise known as the ‘Gagging Acts’, to prevent mass meetings and petitions.


These measures reflected a cautious approach to public gatherings, a legacy that continues to influence the use of protest and petitions today.


Lauren GoodDigital Content Producer, HistoryExtra

Lauren Good is the digital content producer at HistoryExtra. She joined the team in 2022 after completing an MA in Creative Writing, and she holds a first-class degree in English and Classical Studies.