In early October 1831, the defeat of the Second Reform Bill in the House of Lords led to a wave of pro-reform public protests and disturbances across Britain and Ireland. Meanwhile in Dorset, a microcosm of the national struggle over electoral reform was being fought out in a county by-election which posed Lord Ashley – an anti-reformer – against the pro-reform candidate William Ponsonby. After a closely-fought race, marked by widespread claims of corruption, Ashley was victorious. Immediately after the result was announced, disturbances broke out in a number of Dorset towns, and at Blandford trouble continued over four days between 15 and 18 October. These riots were serious events with significant damage to property and were put down only after the intervention of Yeomanry and regular Cavalry units.
This talk considered the four days of rioting in Blandford in detail with particular emphasis on the targets of the rioters, their interaction with the authorities and what the events can tell us about the maintenance of order in early nineteenth century England. Why did local magistrates find it so difficult to recruit constables to control and disperse the crowd? Why was there so much confusion over the extent of the Corporation’s jurisdiction when they tried to summon military assistance? Why were magistrates so divided over the use of the military, and why were Blandford rioters treated with such exceptional severity by the courts in the aftermath? And why, in any case, were labouring class men and women rioting in support of a Reform Bill that was never likely to enfranchise them?
If you want to listen to the talk, then the audio and presentation is here:
The evening was rounded off by a message from Australians Ria and Bill Bleathman, read out by local historian Barry Barnet. The Bleathmans (brother and sister) are relatives of Richard Bleathman, a butcher, one of two Blandford residents that were given capital sentances as a result of the riots. Although Bleathman and his associate George Long a shoemaker were convicted of riot and imprisoned for 12 and 18 months hard labour, they were pulled out of Dorchester jail months later and retried at the assizes for ‘pulling a house down’, a capital offence. As explained in the talk, this was probably to allow those whose houses had suffered significant damage to claim the full compensation, which they could if a capital conviction was obtained. Effectively, two men had to die to allow the anti-reform election agents, magistrates and others to get literal pay-back.
As Ria and Bill Bleathman pointed out in their letter, without hundreds of people from Blandford signing a petition asking for clemancy in 1831, they would not exist today, as Richard Bleathman would have been hanged along with his associate George Long. Bleathman and Long were reprieved and survived transportation to prison farms in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). As they stated, far from being a ‘stain’ on their family history, Richard Bleathman should be considered as ‘convict royalty’, one of many who fought for democratic rights and suffered the consequences of a draconian system.
Barry noted that although Richard Bleathman eventually achieved his freedom, George Long was killed in an accident whilst loading a ship in Melbourne. This interesting and emotional link between the people of two continents was reflected in the audience waving to their new-found ‘relations’ in Australia, a moving moment in the history of Blandford.
The following day Prof. Poole led a guided walk around Blandford visiting sites of importance in the riots. Of particular interest were Anchor Yard (off Salisbury Street) where behind a barricade the rioters took on elements of the 3rd Regiment of Dragoon Guards, election agent Septimus Smith’s house (currently the Royal British Legion Club) which they were able to gain access to and Greyhound House (an inn in the 1830s) the base of operations (and unrest) for the magistrates and bailiff.
This lecture (and subsequent walk) was organised by Blandford Town Museum as part of their 2022 ‘Friday talks’ programme and given by Prof. Steve Poole (UWE) and Dr Roger Ball (UWE) on 28th October 2022 in the Parish Centre, Blandford Forum. Our thanks go to the Blandford Museum volunteers for facilitating the event, Barry Barnet for his help with the research and Ria and Bill Bleathman for their address to the meeting.
This public lecture is part of a the ESRC funded project Intergroup Dynamics within the 1831 reform riots led by the University of West of England. Please take part in our public survey What do you know about crowds and riots?