Public Talk: The Burning of Bristol’s New Gaol in 1831

This talk was delivered online in collaboration with Bristol Museums, M Shed and the Regional History Centre, UWE on Thursday 17th November 2022 by Steve Poole.

Steve looks at the storming, burning and liberation of Bristol’s supposedly ‘impregnable’ New Gaol during the reform riots of 1831.

The attack on Bristol Gaol, it will be argued, marked a turning point in the uprising. It reveals a strategic shift in crowd objectives from protest against Sir Charles Wetherell’s outspoken opposition to parliamentary reform, to a broader confrontation with new systems of criminal incarceration.

What did the arbitrary freeing of nearly 200 felons and debtors have to do with debates over political reform? What did the New Gaol mean to ordinary Bristolians who passed it on their way to and from work? Who was serving time inside it when the crowd broke in, and what became of them when they unexpectedly found themselves at liberty?

The ‘Bristol Riots’ are often represented as a single act of tumultuous, irrational and destructive mayhem. This talk argues, however, that studying the rationale for a single event in isolation can sometimes tell us rather more about what was going on.

Steve Poole is Professor of History and Heritage at UWE, Bristol and Co-director of the University’s Regional History Centre. He has published widely on social movements, political protest and criminality in England circa 1715-1832 and has a particular interest in histories of South West England ‘from below’. His most recent book, co-written with Nick Rogers, is Bad Blood in Georgian Bristol: The Murder of Sir John Dineley.

This public lecture is also part of 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?

Images of the Gaol and Bridewell reproduced by kind permission, ©Bristol Museums, Galleries and Archives