An important part of the research into the lesser known reform related riots and disturbances of October-November 1831 involves engaging with local historians, family historians, museum curators and archivists in the areas where the incidents occurred. Local historical knowledge of people, places, events and even artefacts in the period of study is of great value in locating sources, triangulating detailed studies of collective violence and providing useful contextual information.
For the last few months we have been concentrating our case study research on a wave of riots that occurred in Dorset and south Somerset ostensibly as a result of the Dorset by-election of September/October 1831. This contest, between the anti-reforming Tory candidate Lord Ashley and the pro-reform Whig William Ponsonby, captured national attention as it represented a microcosm of the wider struggle for reform. The public voting took place over an 18 day period in Dorchester in early October with the defeat of the Second Reform Bill in the House of Lords occurring right in the middle of the contest. After a divisive campaign, rife with claims of corruption, on 17 October Ashley won the seat by 36 votes out of the 3,658 cast for the county.
Riots and disturbances began almost immediately, first in Dorchester at the polling ground then spreading through Dorset to Blandford, Wareham, Poole, Sherborne and Stour Povost. Further disturbances then broke out in Yeovil and Crewkerne in south Somerset. The events in Blandford, Sherborne and Yeovil were particularly serious with the intervention of Yeomanry cavalry and regular military units. The timings and proximity of these incidents suggested that they were linked and should be investigated as a group.
We chose the latter three events as case studies for detailed research and through our project collaborators at Shirehall Historic Courthouse Museum in Dorchester and Somerset Heritage Centre in Taunton set up two research workshops in October and November 2021 respectively.
The first workshop in Dorchester attracted 16 people and concentrated on the riots in Dorset. Prof. Steve Poole gave an engaging description of his research into the Blandford riot demonstrating the selective targetting of anti-reformers by the rioting crowd. An interesting discussion ensued which not only answered some research questions but provided a number of avenues of further investigation.
In a follow up online research workshop held in November, Dr Roger Ball presented his ongoing research into the Sherborne riot. This included studying the transcript of a fascinating letter written by Reverend John Parsons a local magistrate who attempted to halt the actions of a crowd in attacking anti-reformers by reading the Riot Act. The letter from Parsons addressed to the Home Secretary Lord Melbourne described the situation in Sherborne during the riot:
The state of this town is most deplorable, and humanly speaking defenceless; but for the help of the 36 or 38 soldiers [of the] 3rd Dragoon Guards, we are without means….The Yeomanry were dreadfully beaten & such is the strong feeling against them that we have advised their withdrawing for the present…
The interest and enthusiasm shown by the participants in Dorset in learning about and researching the reform riots has encouraged us to organise more follow-up workshop events.
Unfortunately, the take-up for our workshop studying the Yeovil riot at the Somerset Heritage Centre in Taunton was a lot lower, probably because of the distance between the two locations. Consequently we decided to move the meeting to Yeovil. Our main contact in the city is local historian Bob Osborn who kindly met us for a detailed discussion on the content of the riot and then took us on a tour of the meeting points and targets of the rioters. Many of these buildings still remain including the base of operations of the magistrates the Mermaid Inn (today the Mermaid Hotel), Old Sarum House (Prezzo restaurant) and Swallowcliffe House (now renamed First Court).
Bob Osborn researches and runs an excellent website: Yeovil’s Virtual Museum, the A-to-Z of Yeovil’s History which is brimming with detailed information on people, places and events in Yeovil’s history. Since our meeting last month Bob has been beavering away researching and updating his pages on the Yeovil reform riot of 1831. There are now detailed sections including a timeline, interactive map and details of the arrestees, which are definitely worth taking a look at. Bob is currently researching the pro-reform Yeovil Political Union which was formed in the aftermath of the riot.
The 1831 riot team would like to thank Anne Brown at Shirehall Historic Courthouse Museum (Dorchester) and Esther Hoyle at Somerset Archives and Local Studies (Taunton) for facilitating these events. We would also like to say thanks to Bob Osborn for taking us around Yeovil and for all the other attendees of the workshops. We look forward to working with you all.