In October 1831 a wave of disturbances swept across England after the rejection of the Second Reform Bill in the House of Lords. These ‘reform riots’ began with serious disorder in the East Midlands (Derby, Nottingham) followed by unrest in towns in the West and Southwest. The wave culminated in Bristol with the most serious riot in nineteenth century Britain. Lasting three days, crowds destroyed several major institutions by fire and released prisoners from four jails. The riot was violently suppressed by military units with hundreds of people killed and wounded.
Historical analysis of the Bristol riot has led to two principal narratives; the first characterises the event as the criminal actions of a mindless, irrational, drunken ‘mob’, and the second as a reform protest. However, neither of these accounts satisfactorily explains how the protest developed into collective violence on such a scale nor how the agenda of the rioters, reflected in their choice of targets, changed over three days. Equally, the spread of the ‘reform riots’ across the country remains largely unexplained. What were the relationships between these events and Bristol?
The proposed research breaks new ground for historians in that it will be carried out using concepts and principles from social psychology, where social identity researchers have had success in explaining the limits of behaviour in rioting crowds; the role of authorities in the dynamics of such riots; and the process through which rioting spreads across different geographical locations. Sharing social identity allows a crowd to act as one and also specifies what counts as appropriate behaviour, through the notion of a group norm. Since social identities are based on relationships with other groups, when these relationships change so do social identities – including group norms and ability to take collective action. This social identity approach can therefore help explain the escalation of crowd events into conflict and the spread of disorder; why some groups join in with a wave of rioting but others do not.
The social identity approach has not, hitherto, been applied to disturbances in the late-modern period (1750-1900), which is one aim of the present project. In addition, we will critically evaluate our research and analysis in order to create a user-friendly procedure for historians and others applying social identity concepts to analyse similar late-modern disturbances.
The research involves collecting evidence about all of the reform related disturbances in October 1831 in order to produce triangulated accounts of each event. Of particular interest would be the actions of the crowds and the authorities. For example, how participants gained information about previous disturbances in the wave of unrest, why, how and where the crowd assembled, how leadership emerged and what targets were selected for action. Similarly, we are interested in how the authorities behaved, whether they were aware in advance of the event, how they reacted before and during the disturbance and what kind of coercion (if any) was used to deal with the disorder. The research will then focus on the mentalities and feelings of the participants. Of particular import will be sources of evidence that explicate the motivations of crowd members; how they reacted to information about reform protests; their perceptions of legitimacy; and how they understood themselves and their ‘opposition’ as social groups. The kinds of evidence required range from eye-witness accounts of what crowds were discussing, chanting or heckling, to memoirs, and visual and material sources such as hand-bills, posters and banners.
Combining these two kinds of accounts and using social identity concepts analytically will help us understand how protests developed into collective violence and how they spread across cities, regions and the country, in a new framework that can be applied in the future to other waves of disturbances.