I love the sound of breaking glass: stone-throwing, riot and compensation in early nineteenth century England

Vintage engraving of the West End Riots in London which followed a counter-demonstration by the Social Democratic Federation against a meeting of the Fair Trade League. 1886. Here they come ! Mob of rioters in St James’s Street. Photo Credit: iStock.com/Artist’s duncan 1890

Why did window-breaking play such a prominent part in nineteenth century urban disturbances? In all of the reform riots discussed in this Intergroup Dynamics project, broken windows are a regular feature. After collectively ‘processing’ and/or shouting, hissing and groaning at premises associated with their opponents, crowds frequently turned to window-breaking as an opening act of riot. Often, it was carried out in a systematic manner, the apparent objective being to smash each and every pane of glass in every window, a process that might take some time. The action might then escalate to the seizure of property inside the building, either with a view to publicly exposing and destroying it, or (less frequently) to carrying it off as loot. More often than not however, physical damage went no further than the shattering of glass, usually by stone-throwing, making it, in Isobel Armstrong’s phrase, ‘an end in itself’. Window-breaking, she says, was an action that ‘defined the mob’, becoming in effect, ‘one of the most powerful forms of urban violence in the century’[1]

Unsurprisingly in practice, the wealthier the occupants, the more expensive the glass tended to be, both to install, and replace if broken. The early nineteenth century witnessed a rapid expansion in extravagant glazing, both in public buildings such as new railway stations, Town Halls, clubs and restaurants, and in the private town houses of the professional middle class. From one perspective, plate glass was a luxury item, manufactured through the exploited labour of artisans whose own draughty houses were rather less extravagantly glazed. Breaking plate glass windows collectively and by night, announced the crowd’s arrival with cacophonous noise, maximising the sense of bacchanalian disturbance while making identification and apprehension extremely difficult in the dark. Armstrong is even more emphatic: ‘The visceral pleasure of breaking a window and its energising arousal, understood as ritual and symbol, is a form of aesthetic experience’[2]

Window breaking was certainly a central feature in most of the reform riots that took place in the autumn of 1831. The most serious outbreaks at Derby, Nottingham and Bristol went a great deal further, but at Blandford (15 Oct), Sherborne (19 Oct), Yeovil (21 Oct), Bath (30 Oct) and Worcester (5 Nov), crowds initially restricted themselves to shattering window panes and breaking the frames and fittings. Only rarely did they seek to gain access to the buildings they targeted, and where they did it tended to be on a second visit, and with the intention of destroying property. These were not acquisitive actions; nor, on the whole, were they marked by interpersonal violence except in cases where crowds were physically opposed by constables, soldiers or magistrates.

Sherborne Castle damaged during the 1831 reform riots (c. 2008)

At Sherborne Castle, for instance, the sumptuous residence of the town’s principal Tory landowner, Lord Digby, crowd action was restricted to smashing his glass, although, given claims in the press that all 365 of the Castle’s windows were destroyed, ‘restricted’ is perhaps not quite the right word. Digby was at home, entertaining a party of guests, but did little to oppose them. As Mary Frampton recorded in her diary:

they were playing at some round [card] game, when a yell was heard, and a volley of stones shivered the glass about the room, and put them to flight.[3]

Apparent restraint should not be confused here with either deference or half-heartedness. In the Sherborne Mercury’s view in fact, after marching for a mile to the Castle, the crowd had become:

‘more infuriated, dashing the windows in all directions, and throwing the stones with such force as to break a large glass in the drawing-room’.

Witnesses were agreed; it was a ‘most furious attack’, lasting some 90 minutes, in which the crowd ‘broke every pane of glass which they could get at.[4]

But let’s consider the issue of riot compensation more deeply. Isobel Armstrong acknowledges the difficulties faced by victims of window breaking when seeking compensation for their loss but stops short of asking an important related question: How widely understood were these difficulties to the stone-throwers themselves? How aware were they that by confining their actions to window breaking, they were causing maximum economic damage whilst at the same time, paradoxically, protecting themselves from prosecution for capital felony? Because, effectively, that is how it worked.

The question had surely been hanging in the air since the Spring. In April 1831, when Grey’s First Reform Bill was sabotaged with wrecking amendments by a stubborn Tory opposition, the ministry’s only recourse was to dissolve parliament and so force a general election they knew they would win with a thumping majority. Dissolution left Reformers cock a hoop. In London, a general pro-reform illumination was declared in anticipation of the looming Tory defeat. It was enthusiastically taken up, but in mobilising large pro-reform crowds on the city’s streets, the illumination also resulted in a great deal of window-breaking against opponents of the Bill. Large numbers of suspected stone throwers were taken up by the police and prosecuted but the issue for many property owners was not so much securing the punishment of offenders, as getting the damage paid for.

Compensation and the Riot Act

During the eighteenth century, this had been fairly straightforward, at least in theory. Under clause VI of the 1715 Riot Act, anyone whose property was damaged by crowd action during a civil disturbance could appeal to the courts for recompense in a private civil action. Effectively, the 1715 Act enshrined in law a customary principle; that the prevention of riotous disorder was the responsibility of every ratepayer resident in the Hundred. Just as they were expected physically to assist the civil power in putting riots down, so too were they required to pay the costs of those they failed to protect.[5]Civil actions to claim compensation after a riot would normally be taken to an assize hearing, and usually after any criminal prosecutions for disorder, looting or destroying buildings had been settled. Estimates for damages due would be proffered by the plaintiff, assessed and sometimes contested by counsel acting for the Hundred, scrutinized, awarded or rejected by the jury and confirmed by the judge. Where damage was widespread and compensation claims correspondingly high, Hundreds were often unsurprisingly anxious to question, minimise and undervalue them, leaving riot victims to complain of injustice, and both plaintiff and defendant saddled with punitive legal costs. This, indeed, is what happened in the aftermath of the Priestley church and King riots at Birmingham in 1791. Here a separate Act of Parliament had to be obtained to raise the necessary finance for payment because the damage to property was too great for the Hundred to manage unaided. There were seven claims presented at the Warwick assizes, each detailing extensive damage and amounting in total to payments of £23,615. The proportion of this sum represented by the legal expenses of the plaintiffs is not recorded but some £6,000 of it can be accounted for from lawyers’ fees incurred by the Hundred in defending the claims.[6]

While one intention of the Riot Act had certainly been to make it easier for damage victims to claim compensation, it was not, of course, its main purpose. More critically, the Act upgraded a crowd’s refusal to disperse within an hour of its being read, from a misdemeanour to a capital felony, and indemnified the military from any injuries caused should their intervention be required. These measures, it was hoped, would be sufficient deterrent to effect dispersal without the need to bring capital prosecutions, and consequently these remained a rarity. However, if there were no capital convictions, clause VI of the Act could not be invoked. Consequently, most rioters who found themselves hauled before a court were charged with a misdemeanour under common law, and with additional felonies for breaking and entering, looting or destroying property only where applicable. Only four London riots, from across the entire eighteenth century, produced convictions for capital felony at the Old Bailey under the Riot Act.[7]

The problem lay in language. Where it could be established that rioters had attempted to ‘with force demolish or pull down, or begin to demolish or pull down’ a church, chapel, barn, outbuilding or dwelling house’, the Hundred was unequivocally liable for the damage.[8]

But relatively minor damage, in which the crowd’s intention was net necessarily quite so clear was less easy to accommodate. In February 1797, for example, a general illumination was declared to celebrate Admiral John Jervis’s victory over the Spanish fleet at Cape St Vincent. For more than a century it had been common practice in British towns to demonstrate popular support for a political cause, a royal occasion, or a patriotic event like this one, by lighting the streets at night: a public Illumination. Some featured colourful and elaborately designed transparencies; more often householders simply expressed support by placing lighted candles in their windows. But an illumination inevitably brought large crowds onto the streets and householders who failed or refused to light up could expect to be identified as enemies to the cause. Their windows were unlikely to last the night.[9]

And while active window breakers were more often than not young men from labouring class backgrounds, the tacit approval of their social superiors might lend riot a degree of legitimacy. During an unofficial illumination called to celebrate the acquittal of Admiral Keppel after his court martial in 1779 for instance, or so it was said, a crowd of lower class window breakers were met in the street by a gang of young Lords including the Duke of Ancaster, Charles James Fox and Lord Derby.

Finding the mob before Palliser’s house, some of the young Lords said, ‘Why don’t you break Lord George Germain’s windows?’ The populace had been so little tutored that they asked who he was, and being encouraged, broke his windows. The mischief pleasing the juvenile leaders, they marched to the Admiralty, forced the gates and demolished Palliser’s and Lord Lisburne’s windows.[10]

When loyalist crowds smashed unlit windows after Jervis’s victory in 1797, one victim brought a case for compensation under the Riot Act but was rebuffed in King’s Bench by Lord Kenyon. If windows had been broken feloniously, he ruled, then the perpetrators must indeed be guilty of a capital offence. But such an outcome would be shocking. ‘He was no friend to mobs. He wished this mob had been punished for it in moderation; but God forbid that they should be found guilty of a capital offence’.[11] Kenyon’s refusal to convict effectively ruled out compensation from the public purse under the Riot Act alone.

Plaintiffs enjoyed better fortune when seeking damages after protests against the Corn Bill in 1815. Sustained attacks on the London houses of the Bill’s supporters had done a great deal of damage and, crucially, not only to windows and their fittings. Houses of Tory members had been forcibly entered, internal doors and walls damaged and furniture pulled out into the street to be broken up. The military were sent to defend some houses; shots were fired and there had been fatalities which left four soldiers on trial for murder. John Robinson, MP, reported the damage to his own house in Burlington Street:

All the windows almost in every floor were broken to pieces; it was manifest to me at last, that great violence had been used against the windows and the doors of the dining-room, and the wall in front of the house was also down; in the hall and in the passage near the foot of the stairs, there were marks of stones, brick bats, or things of that kind, having been struck with violence against the walls; on one door, which is a very old one, one which communicates between the dining-room and a room backwards, there were similar marks of violence, and on the panel of that door, there was the mark of some sharp instrument having been forced through it; a window also on the stair case about half way up was also broken backwards, and a figure which had stood in that window had disappeared, and some pieces of furniture which were in the hall, chairs, tables, and a lamp that hung there also disappeared, and I saw some fragments of broken chairs.

The soldiers sent to defend the house, now finding themselves on trial for their lives for the murder of civilians, were understandably anxious to enlarge on Robinson’s assessment. ‘Felony upon felony had already been committed’, testified one of them:

for I believe my Lord will tell you, that every tumultuous breaking of any part of the house is a beginning to demolish, and a felony within the law; and the next thing to be expected was the entire destruction of the house, and the murder of those who defended it.[12]

The soldiers were acquitted. But the lengths resorted to here to prove felonious intent served a double purpose; it made the perpetrators eligible for capital conviction and it enabled victims of window breaking to claim full compensation for their loss. Indeed, we might put it more forcefully; in order to ensure proper compensation, it was incumbent upon those whose houses had been attacked to push for the capital conviction of those responsible.

The right to claim compensation for losses sustained during a riot not proved felonious was actually re-established temporarily in 1817 by a clause in the Seditious Meetings Act, and the vagaries of the law always allowed juries to behave unpredictably. At Hertfordshire assizes in March 1827 for example, a compensation case was brought following an election riot during which a public house had all of its windows broken. Counsel for the Hundred of Hertford countered the innkeeper’s compensation claim by arguing that window breaking did not constitute an attempt to destroy the building, but on this occasion the judge overruled him, leaving the jury to find in the plaintiff’s favour, and an award of £70 was accordingly made.[13] However, in parliament, Robert Peel was already proposing a raft of consolidatory policing and public order laws, including one to deal with property damage during riots and another to clarify the responsibility of the Hundred.

Peel’s consolidating Acts

The Malicious Injuries to Property Act (7 & 8 Geo IV c.30) was passed later in 1827 with the aim of consolidating 48 former statutes into a single piece of legislation. Individual Acts identifying a range of criminal activities targeting property, from setting fire to a coal mine, wrecking a ship, or breaking a turnpike gate, to maiming livestock and damaging plants were for the first time brought together as offences against property, some capital, others punishable by transportation or prison. Under the Act’s terms, the capital felony to ‘unlawfully and with force demolish, pull down or destroy, or begin to demolish, pull down or destroy’ either public or private buildings was accordingly reframed without reference to the Riot Act. However, juries were as reluctant as they had always been to capitally convict where the full intention to demolish remained uncertain. An assize jury trying two men for attacking the houses of anti-reformers at Blandford Forum in October 1831 for example, clearly struggled over their verdict. They first found the accused guilty as charged of damaging the buildings ‘but not of demolishing’. Justice Park presiding refused to accept the verdict for the defendants must either be found guilty as charged or acquitted altogether. Before sending the jury back out to reconsider, he offered some advice. They should not concern themselves with damage done to property inside the house but to the structural integrity of the building only. Somewhat out of their depth, the jury now changed their verdict to guilty, by which both defendants were capitally convicted and transported for life.[14]

Alongside the Malicious Injuries Act, Peel produced a new Act for Consolidating and Amending the Laws Relative to Remedies Against the Hundred. Once again, the intention was to create a single piece of legislation out of many, this time confirming and clarifying the liability of the Hundred to pay ‘full compensation’, provided a building could be proven ‘feloniously demolished, pulled down or destroyed, wholly or in part, by any persons riotously and tumultuously assembled’. Such cases would usually be brought before judge and jury in nisi prius at the county assize where they could be determined independently of any criminal cases brought against suspected perpetrators. In these civil cases for compensation then, the defendants were not rioters but the ratepayers of the Hundred, although of course, a simultaneous conviction of rioters in the Crown Court for a felony under the Malicious Injuries Act would inevitably ease the claim. As we will see, some of the compensation cases brought before the Dorset assize in March 1832 resulted in substantial sums being awarded to riot victims despite the acquittal of suspected perpetrators on the capital charge.

Plaintiffs anxious to avoid the expense of laying a compensation claim before the assize now had the option of taking it instead to a petty or quarter sessional hearing before magistrates, providing they were also able to name and prosecute a suspected perpetrator. If a defendant was accordingly convicted of an intention to demolish, magistrates were empowered to determine the sum payable by the defendant. Given the lowly economic status of most defendants however, riot victims were unlikely to recover any substantial sums by such a route. In cases where culpability could be established but not an intention to demolish, magistrates could still order the defendant to pay compensation, but for £5.00 or less. Defendants who failed (or were unable) to pay either larger or these smaller sums could be committed to two, four or six months imprisonment with hard labour, but such an outcome afforded no direct benefit to the plaintiff.

Unsurprisingly, in any cases where a property was substantially damaged, plaintiffs were more likely to receive full compensation by suing the Hundred but would have to bear the expense of hiring lawyers to establish felonious intent. The Hundred, after all, was sure to defend the action with a competent legal team. Under the terms of the Consolidating Act, plaintiffs would have to make an initial application before a magistrate within a week of the riot and agree to be bound over to prosecute any known suspects at the coming assize. To quicken relatively minor claims of £30 or under, and to reduce costs, the Act did provide for judgements to be made summarily by two JPs sitting in specially convened petty sessions, provided a series of measures were also undertaken within strict time limits. Notice of an impending claim had to be served on the High Constable of the Hundred within seven days; he in turn was to notify two acting magistrates for the Division withing the next seven days, the claim itself had to be heard within the next thirty, and advertised by the plaintiff on a notice fixed to the door of the parish church.[15]

Compensation claims and the 1831 illumination

Problems with the 1827 Acts became very apparent as aggrieved householders stepped up one after the other to claim compensation for damages sustained during the 1831 illumination. As we have seen, failure to illuminate was very likely to be read as active opposition, and darkened houses were always liable to have their windows broken by crowds out celebrating in the streets. Targeting during an illumination was more broad-based, in that the merely negligent or ignorant were as likely to become its victims as the openly hostile. It did not rest on a crowd’s prior knowledge of their victim’s political opinions in the way that the attacks on supporters of the Corn Bill had done in 1815. Something of this can be felt in the predicament of the artist Benjamin Robert Haydon, who found himself caught up in an illumination for Queen Caroline at Edinburgh in 1820, a cause about which he was quite indifferent.

I had gone to bed very fatigued and had fallen sound asleep when I was awakened by Mrs Farquharson screaming and thumping at my door “to light up”. She had a candle in her hand; I got up scarce awake when bump came a stone against my bedroom window and tinkle went the falling glass. The shout of the crowd was savage. They were coming out of the wynds of the old town with a hollow drum, just the mob in the Heart of Midlothian… bang came another shower from the roaring mob so that I shut up the shutters and they battered till there was not a pane left.[16]

Unsurprisingly, by the 1830s, respectable public opinion was beginning to turn its back on the rowdy unpredictability of illuminations, however well intentioned. The pro-reform journalist Alexander Somerville colourfully summed up public scepticism in the same city after experiencing the illumination called in support of Grey’s dissolution of parliament in the Spring of 1831. Rather than risk ‘the threatening aspect of the street mobs’, Edinburgh’s Tory corporation reluctantly countenanced an illumination but many householders knew nothing of it until it was too late to light up and suffered the same fate as those ‘deep in political grief at hearing of the majority of one against rotten boroughs (who) resolved to keep their houses in gloom and to sit within and mourn’.

The sound of crashing glass and the facility of getting missiles to throw whetted the appetite of the ten thousand-headed mob – a little taste of window breaking to it being not unlike a little taste of worrying to the wild beast – and so to the work of destruction the mob rolled like a sea and roared like storms meeting upon rocks and seas. It proclaimed itself the enemy of anti-reformers and of glass… As dash went the stones, smash fell the glass and crash went to window frames – dash, smash, crash from nine o clock to near midnight, reflection arose and asked seriously and severely what this meant. Was it reform? Was it popular liberty?[17]

Even when relatively uncontroversial, illuminations challenged the ability of early nineteenth century corporations to maintain peace and civic decorum. At Bristol, magistrates were accustomed to issue handbills welcoming patriotic illuminations after military victories, for example, while reminding revellers ‘not to fire guns or pistols, or set off fireworks’ and to refrain from ‘committing any outrage on well-disposed peaceable persons who rejoice equally with their neighbours but who, from religious principles, may not be disposed to testify their joy by illuminations’. The greatest sufferers were the Quakers, some of the most prosperous and respectable of the city’s residents and certainly not unpatriotic. By May 1832, when the Reform Act finally passed into law, and memories of the October riots still fresh in their minds, even pro-reformers were ready to advise against an illumination at Bristol, and there was not one held.[18]

While we may agree that window breaking during illuminations was subject to a broader process of selection than window breaking during a reform riot, the 1831 illumination certainly provided some much discussed tests for Peel’s Acts of 1827. Here, even where convictions were secured, many wealthy anti-reformers – the MP Sir Robert Wilson, Lord Francis Leveson Gower, Earl Verulam and the Marquises of Hertford and Londonderry among them – were unable to claim adequate compensation because although they lost a great many windows to stone throwers, a felonious intent to destroy their houses could not be established. Londonderry claimed he had lost between £700 and £1,000 worth of glass, but to no avail. Wilson’s case, rather more modest in scale, was heard first by magistrates; 87 panes at a cost of £50, and since a youth named Francis Cavalho was to be charged with the offence, Wilson attended court in person. Felonious intent, he told the court, was implicit, for the mob had ‘scaled his railing and attempted to break his shutters’ as well as his windows, but the magistrate disagreed and fined Cavalho just £5.00, the maximum penalty under the Act where no felony could be proven.[19]

As magistrates patiently explained, while the offence remained a misdemeanour rather than a felony, full compensation would not be forthcoming. Wilson was unimpressed. Conjuring the spirit of the Riot Act, he ‘thought it ought to be known that in these cases, the persons upon whose dwellings the damage was inflicted, would not eventually sustain any pecuniary loss’. Magistrates were not unsympathetic, but unless it could be established that Cavalho had a clear intention to destroy Wilson’s house, they were unable to escalate the charge to felonious intent. And even if he overcame that obstacle, Wilson was reminded by The News, there was no guarantee that pay-outs of public money would be sanctioned for replacement with expensive plate. He may have to make do with common glass.[20] The Examiner was more explicit. ‘Sir Robert Peel had cut him off, and the goodly band in the same plight with him, from all indemnification from the hundred’.[21] As Jonathan Atherton has argued, comparing the fate of compensation claims half a century earlier in the Gordon and the Priestley riots, juries were as likely to be influenced by political prejudice as pecuniary self-interest when scrutinising damages, and perhaps very little had changed. Wealthy opponents of the Reform Bill were not necessarily to be rewarded with outpourings of public sympathy.[22] In fact, some pro-reform newspapers took the view that many opponents of the Bill allowed their windows to be broken as a deliberate strategy of defiance, rather than spend a shilling or two on candles. Full compensation, after all, could afterwards be claimed from the Hundred. As the Examiner put it,

If the mob could be led to break the unilluminated windows, the anti-reformers could then have the merit of displaying their firmness at the expense of the Hundred. The addition to the rates occasioned by the heavy demands on this score would incense (other) householders against the government.[23]

Claiming compensation from public funds was, in any case, complicated if magistrates chose to make it so. To begin with, the plaintiff had to get the preliminaries right. Under the 1827 Act it will be remembered, claimants were required to post their intention on the door of their parish church at least two Sundays prior to the opening of the Quarter Sessions. When the first London illumination test cases were brought before magistrates for Holborn at a petty sessional hearing in St Giles’ Vestry, every one of them fell, either because no notice had been posted or because a notice had been posted but without specifying felonious intent. A quaker named Corbyn was one of the first to have a case dismissed:

Mr Corbyn said that it was impossible for him to say what were the intentions of the mob. He knew that they were riotous and tumultuous, but it was impossible for him to say that the mob had a felonious intent. Indeed he believed they had not. The magistrates said that the felonious intent was the only thing that gave them any jurisdiction and that was not in any manner proved.[24]

Compensation claims and the October riots of 1831

How can a discussion of this kind about the legal status of compensation claims enhance our understanding of reform riots in the autumn of 1831? The riot at Bath on 30 October was one event that became closely bound up with damages legislation. Here, the main focus of crowd activity was a large and reputable coaching inn, the White Hart, which came under attack when the captain of the North Somerset Yeomanry, under orders to muster his men and march to Bristol, took refuge there from a hostile crowd. Its windows were shattered, doors, frames and shutters extensively damaged and numerous items of furniture and fixtures broken when crowds forced their way into some of the downstairs rooms.

The White Hart Inn in Bath

The owners of the White Hart, William Bishop and Thomas Cooper, claimed a lengthy list of serious damages to the building and, naturally, looked to the Hundred for compensation, but their case was contested by the city Corporation under the terms of the 1827 Act. The list, valued by Bishop and Cooper at £200, was certainly extensive: Structural damage was sustained to five roofs, five walls, five doors, five partitions, five ceilings, five floors, 50 windows, frames, sashes, sills and shutters, 20 locks, 20 bolts, 20 bars, 20 staples, and 20 hinges. Then there were the fixtures, fittings, furniture and other items of Inn property: 50 chairs, 10 clocks, 50 tables, 20 candlesticks, 50 goblets, 20 forks, 50 spoons, 20 carafes, 20 decanters, 100 glasses, five sideboards, 10 jugs, 10 basins, 10 trays, and 10 lamps, for which Bishop and Cooper demanded a further £200. Clearly, given such high sums, the case was too great to heard summarily by magistrates and it would have to be judged at the assize.  In any case, Bath Corporation disputed liability on the grounds that the city parishes constituted an ancient borough distinct from the Hundred of Bath Forum, and so the responsibility was not theirs but the county of Somerset’s. Bishop and Cooper accordingly took the Corporation to court in a private action, and the case was fixed to be heard at the Spring 1832 assizes alongside the criminal charges against the men accused of attempting to pull the building down.[25]

Assuming perhaps that the Corporation’s first line of defence (that the city and the Hundred were separate entities) was unlikely to be accepted, the Town Clerk, Philip George, sought legal advice in January 1832. As expected, his solicitors dismissed the ‘separate entities’ argument, but were more hopeful of disproving felonious intent. George received the usual advice, that:

to render the Hundred liable for damages occasioned by a mob beginning to pull down a house etc., the riot must be of such a kind as to amount to a felony


It follows therefore that if the prisoners who are charged with the offence on which the right of action is founded shall be acquitted upon the merits of the case; the plaintiffs must fail in their action.

The central question would be this: Was the destruction of the Inn, or the ejection from it of the Captain of yeomanry, the crowd’s primary objective? If the latter proved the case, damage to the inn might be presented as collateral and without felonious intention. Precedents were dusted off and cited by the Corporation’s solicitors, chiefly this time from a compensation claim arising from the London Spa Fields rising of December 1816.[26]

In that case, gunsmiths’ shops in Skinner Street had been severely damaged, along with their stock, when a crowd broke into them in search of arms and in order to rescue the Spencean leader, ‘young Watson’ from arrest. The liability of the Hundred was contestable, it had been argued by defending counsel, because although a felony had been committed by breaking and entering and by theft of arms, it was not brought under the terms of the Riot Act. It was ‘a felony of quite a different kind’, for the crowd’s ‘purpose was not to demolish the house but to obtain arms and liberate their leader’. They had, in other words, no grievance against either the shop or its owner and so the offence had more to do with burglary than Riot. In that case, members of the crowd might be convicted of felony and hanged for it, but there would be no compensation under the Riot Act for the gunshop owners. However, this objection had been overturned by Lord Ellenborough. ‘The question’, he said, ‘was whether their purpose was not to pull down and demolish the house had they not been pacified by learning that Young Watson had made his escape’. Ellenborough ruled that in all likelihood they would have done so and compensation was accordingly granted against the Hundred. The unfortunate implication, from Town Clerk Philip George’s perspective, was that if the crowd attacking the White Hart at Bath had not also been ‘pacified’ by Wilkins leaving the building, their felonious intention to pull it down might be admitted as evidence.[27]

Unsurprisingly, as George knew only too well, Bishop and Cooper had already determined to prosecute one rioter, William Richards, and possibly a further two, James Smith and Jacob Milsom, on charges of capital felony at the Spring assize, and the outcome of those trials would surely determine the course of the damages claim to follow. Their counsel pressed George to drop the Corporation’s objection if felonious convictions should indeed be obtained. George replied that he was ‘inclined to acquiesce’, although the Corporation’s solicitors advised against signalling capitulation in advance. As they reminded him, it remained far from certain that the defendants would be convicted on the capital charge, and if it could not be proven, Bishop and Cooper’s case for compensation would surely fail regardless of the boundaries of the Hundred.[28]

At the assize in April, Smith and Richards were put before Justices Park and Gazelee, charged with beginning to demolish the White Hart. Together with a third defendant, Jacob Milsom, charged with destroying a gas pipe, these were the only prisoners to stand trial on capital charges, the remaining eight arraigned for assault or window breaking and other minor acts of property damage. Gazelee made sure Smith, Richards and Milsom understood exactly what to expect from the charges against them:

The Act declared that if any persons should riotously assemble together to the disturbance of the public peace, and unlawfully demolish, or begin to demolish, any house etc., then those persons should be guilty of felony. Now, the beginning to demolish was open to various constructions. If boys going about the streets calling for an illumination, throw stones at a window, that would not be beginning to demolish.

The jury, explained Gazelee, would therefore have to decide ‘what the intention was’.[29] Witnesses were produced to show that both men had been active in attacking the inn but little evidence offered of any intention to destroy it completely. Voices had apparently been heard shouting ‘we will have the office down and the house too’, but these phrases were not ascribed directly to the prisoners in the dock.[30]Nevertheless, convictions on the capital charge were secured, albeit entered as ‘death recorded’ and reduced to transportation to Van Diemen’s Land.[31]These verdicts were sufficient to guarantee Bishop and Cooper their full costs of £233 5s 5d, and in August that sum was paid to them at the expense of the Hundred.[32]

Similar issues were debated by the courts in Derby when an opponent of reform whose marketplace shop had been attacked and substantially damaged no fewer than four times during the riots on 8 October, sued the Hundred for recompense. This time the city contested the claim on grounds that the crowd had come and gone four times, unopposed and of their own volition and could have pulled the house down completely at any time had that been their intention. Since they had not done so, no felonious intent could be proven, however great the actual damage. This argument cut no ice with the jury however and, as at Bath, the plaintiff was awarded his full claim at the expense of the Hundred.[33]

The Vicarage – Rev. John Parson’s residence in Sherborne

Things were not quite so straightforward for the clerical magistrate, John Parsons whose vicarage was wrecked during rioting at Sherborne in Dorset. Three young men were prosecuted at the assize, but for breaking, entering and theft rather than attempting to demolish, a charge successfully rebutted by defence lawyers. Parsons, who had assessed his loss at over £100 in the immediate aftermath of the riot, had to put his case for recovery before a jury by writ of enquiry at Dorchester two months later. Here, he was awarded compensation in ‘the full amount’ at £66 11s. The same assize heard a similar claim for £183 worth of damages by a Parkstone innkeeper, John Hore, whose house had also been attacked and damaged by reform rioters on 17 October. Charles Lonnen, the only defendant arraigned on the criminal charge of attempting to demolish had already been acquitted in the Crown Court, but Hore was still able to win compensation in a private suit against the Hundred by convincing the jury in nisi prius that the scale of the injury done to his property left it in a perilous condition. He was awarded £95 by Mr Justice Park.[34]

By far the greatest challenge to Peel’s Acts in 1831 came with the compensation claims that followed the riots at Bristol. No fewer than 121 actions for damages were started and initial estimates of costs ran just a little short of £150,000. Peel’s Acts were never framed with sums like this in mind and it was necessary to pass a Bristol Damages Compensation Act in the summer of 1832 to deal with both the expense and the workload. This Act created twelve commissioners for the city, one for each ward, whose job it became to negotiate the value of claims with plaintiffs and agree them without requiring claimants to go to the assize with all the additional associated expense. As such, it worked well for the city, total damages, inclusive of expenses, being negotiated down to just over £68,000, and only two cases left for adjudication at the assizes. The commissioners were satisfied at least that by settling nearly all the Bristol claims before the assizes, a great deal of money had been saved in expenses. The seven cases brought before the Warwick assize in 1792 after the Priestley Riots in Birmingham had cost the Hundred £870 in defence of each action whereas the cost of defending Bristol’s 121 claims had cost no more than £53 5s 10d per case. In a pamphlet reflecting on this experiment a year later, the Bristol commissioners were openly critical of the chicanery of the 1827 Acts, lamenting in particular the tortuous, expensive and time-consuming multiple pleading plaintiffs felt obliged to make in asserting the crowd’s destructive intentions:

The pleaders who framed the declarations appear unnecessarily to have enlarged them by averring therein every branch of mischief contemplated by the statute, such as the whole demolition – the partial demolition – the pulling down wholly, and the pulling down in part – the entire destruction and the destruction in part of the same subject of damage, and all this by the introduction of separate and distinct parts for each…[35]


Given the strong possibility that rioting crowds understood it was a capital offence to attempt the destruction of a building, it seems reasonable to suggest that they also had some idea about boundaries. Crowds in 1831 showed themselves to be highly committed breakers of windows and external fittings, but incursions inside targeted properties were relatively rare. With some notable exceptions, buildings were not set on fire and structural walls were not demolished. If crowds knew that limiting their actions in this way would probably protect them from the gallows if they were unlucky enough to be caught and prosecuted, it is at least possible that they knew something of the law surrounding compensation payments. As we have seen, the disappointments of wealthy claimants trying to recoup the loss of their windows during riots were well enough publicised in the press to have drawn a measure of popular commentary. If so, these two factors combined would seem to make window breaking on a large scale a perfectly logical strategy for crowds to pursue if they were to maximise their economic impact while remaining misdemeanants rather than felons.

The Duke of Wellington was, perhaps, on the right track when, during a parliamentary debate on proposed amendments to the Remedies Act in 1832, he ‘observed that this demolishing of windows was a case in which the middle classes were particularly concerned. As for himself and some others, if their windows were demolished, they could afford to pay for replacing them’. Certainly in provincial towns it was often the houses and businesses of the professional middle classes that suffered the most from the attentions of reform crowds. Indeed, Wellington continued, ‘No persons were more liable to have their windows broken by mobs than shopkeepers in the country’.[36]Of course, we have no clear evidence that reformers understood the political economy of window-breaking in these terms. Stone-throwers put before the bar and prosecuted for riotous behaviour have not done historians the favour of declaring their strategic intentions, although their rhetoric did sometimes suggest a recognition, at least, that stone throwing lay at one end of an escalating scale.

As one informer to the Home Office put it, after witnessing a radical meeting in preparation for a demonstration at White Conduit Fields in London in November 1831:

They say they are starving alive, and they may as well be killed at once as starved, they would be no paltry window breakers, but head breakers.[37]

Author: Professor Steve Poole, University of the West of England


Our thanks to Jo Innes, Mark Philp, and Nick Rogers for their very helpful and constructive comments on an earlier version of this paper.


1 Isobel Armstrong, Victorian Glassworlds: Glass, Culture and the Imagination (OUP, 2008), 57.
2 Armstrong, ibid., 69.
3 Frampton, The Journal of Mary Frampton, 381.
4 Sherborne Journal 27 October 1831; DHC Easter Quarter Sessions 1832 notes D-FFO 25/23; Frampton, The Journal of Mary Frampton, 381; Guardian 29 October 1831; Morning Post 22 October 1831; TNA HO 52/12, D. Penny to Sir Francis Freeling, 20 October 1831,ff.18-20.
5 Some wealthier riot victims may have had insurance policies to fall back upon. At least one victim the Gordon Riots in London in 1780 managed to claim from the Hundred and then from an insurance company as well, much to the disapproval of Lord Mansfield when the insurers appealed against the injustice of it. See Michael Lobban, The Common Law and English Jurisprudence, 1760-1850 (Oxford: OUP, 1991), 102-3.
6 Jonathan Atherton, ‘Obstinate juries, impudent barristers and scandalous verdicts? Compensating the victims of the Gordon Riots of 1780 and the Priestley Riots of 1791’, Historical Research, 88, 242 (2018), 650-73. The Priestley Riots were the first to inspire specialist local legislation to raise the money to pay riot compensation, a point noted by the Commissioners set up by the Bristol Damages Compensation Act after the reform riots in that city. Bristol’s case was the first since the Priestley Riots to spark local legislation. Report of the Commissioners Appointed Under the Bristol Damages Compensation Act and Statement of Actions for Damages… (Bristol, 1835), 14.
7 Robert Shoemaker, The London Mob: Violence and Disorder in Eighteenth Century England (London: Hambledon, 2004), 137.
8 Riot Act (George II 1. Stat. 2. C. 5; 1715) quoted in Statutes at Large, cap V, volume XIII, 142-146.
9 On illuminations generally, see Alice Barnaby, ‘Light touches: Cultural Practices of Illumination: London 1780-1840’ (unpub. PhD, University of Exeter, 2009).
10 Lord John Russell (ed.), Memorials and Correspondence of Charles James Fox, Vol 1 (Philadelphia, 1853), 186-7. Palliser was Keppel’s subordinate officer, with whom he had fallen out; Germain was Secretary of the American department in Lord North’s administration when the British lost the American colonies. Lilburne was a Lord of the Admiralty.
11 Ipswich Journal 10 February 1798.
12 Old Bailey Proceedings Online, James Ripley, Robert Herbert, Richard Burton & Richard Matthews for murder, 5 April 1815, t18150405-13.
13 Englishman 11 March 1827.
14 Sherborne Mercury 19 March, 1832; Salisbury Journal 19 March 1832.
15  A Compendious Abstract of the Public General Acts of the United Kingdom, From the Law Journal Volume V, Cap XXXI, An Act for Amending and Consolidating the Laws in England Relative to Remedies Against the Hundred (21 June 1827), 45-47.
16 Tom Taylor (ed.), Life of Benjamin Robert Haydon, Historical Painter, from his Autobiography and Journals Vol 1 (New York, 1853), 364-5.
17 Alexander Somerville, The Autobiography of a Working Man by ‘One who has Whistled at the Plough’ (London, 1848), 156-7. See also Annual Register (1831), 60-62 for a full report of illumination rioting in both Edinburgh and Dundee in 1831.
18 Mark Harrison, Crowds and History: Mass Phenomena in English Towns, 1790-1835 (Cambridge, CUP, 1988), 83-4, 125; Madge Dresser, ‘Protestants, Catholics and Jews: Religious Difference and Political Status in Bristol, 1750-1850’ in M. Dresser and P. Ollerenshaw (eds.), The Making of Modern Bristol (Bristol: Redcliffe Press, 1996), 105.
19 Morning Post 29 August 1831; Norfolk Chronicle 7 May 1831; Examiner 8 May 1831.
20 Bell’s Life of London 1 May 1831; The News 1 May 1831.
21 Examiner 8 May 1831.
22 Atherton, ‘Obstinate juries’
23 Examiner 8 May 1831.
24 London Courier 28 May 1831
25 Bath Record Office, Philip George Papers, Bundle 205 (damages), Brief for Bishop and Cooper
26 This was a much discussed case. See Joseph Dowling, Riots in London. The Cast of Beckwith vs Wood an Another… when the Plaintiff Recovered a sum of £1281 13s 10d, Being the Amount of Damages he Sustained During the Riots of 2 December 1816 (London, 1818)
27 Bundle 205, Richard Blick to Philip George, 13 January 1832; Law Chronicle 22 January 1818
28 Bath Record Office, Bundle 205, Brief for Plaintiffs, William Bishop and Thomas Cooper (White Hart); Indictment vs Richards, Durnell and Smith; R. Batchelor to Philip George, 11 February 1832; Philip George to Batchelor, 18 February 1832; Richard Blick to Philip George, 26 January, 20 February, 10 March 1832. Durnell was not eventually prosecuted for the capital offence, the evidence appearing too thin against him to sustain the charge.
29 Bath Chronicle 5 April 1832
30 Sherborne Mercury 9 April 1832.
31 Bath Chronicle 12 April 1832. Initial reports named all three of these capitally convicted prisoners as sentenced to transportation, but Smith and Milsom actually served 18 month sentences. Richards was transported for life: Bath Chronicle 30 August 1835; TNA HO 8 Quarterly returns of prisoners, March 1832.
32 Bath Chronicle 23 August 1832
33 English Chronicle 20 March 1832.
34 Sherborne Mercury 19 March, 14 May 1832: Salisbury Journal 19 March 1832.
35 Report of the Commissioners Appointed Under the Bristol Damages Compensation Act and Statement of Actions for Damages… (Bristol, 1835), 14.
36 Bell’s New Weekly Messenger 18 March 1832 and Evening Mail 19 March 1832. Amendments had been proposed in the wake of the Swing riots in 1830, when it was established that no remedies could be levied on the Hundred for damage done to threshing machines.
37 TNA HO 52/14 f.512, report of radical meeting in the Pitt’s Head, Pott Street, Bethnal Green, 3 November 1831.
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