Planned Impact

Public understanding and discourse

A recent study of perceptions of the urban disturbances in England in August 2011 has demonstrated that discredited theories of crowd behaviour retain considerable traction amongst the general public. Concepts such as deindividuation, ‘mob mentality’ and irrational, epidemic-like ‘contagion’ were found to be common in the public understanding of ‘riots’ (Goodman, Price and Venables, 2014). Outmoded views of contemporary collective protest and violence also dictate how members of the public understand disturbances and their spread in an historic context. This project will challenge these commonly-held assumptions by explicating the processes by which protest events in October 1831 developed into collective violence, understanding the meaning of crowd behaviour through examining targeting and self-imposed limits to actions, and by understanding the spread of disturbances through the use of social identity models. In so doing we will provide a space for less pathologizing, alternative discourses concerning historical incidents of ‘riot’ to emerge and develop in the public domain. Our work will therefore contribute towards a more informed public discussion of the roots and patterns of collective disorder in October 1831, in the late-modern period as a whole, and in general.

Institutions and groups

The project partner Bristol City Council manages one of the most popular institutions in the city, the social history museum M Shed, with over 500,000 visits per year. M Shed will benefit directly as the project will deliver a major part of the funding for significantly expanding and enhancing their current exhibition covering the 1831 reform riot. The new exhibition will be based on the project outputs and will thus provide a significant legacy for the research in the public domain. M Shed will also be the venue for a public conference and other engagement events. Other collaborators with the project in the West and Southwest include local history groups, museums, heritage centres and archives. A series of five ‘county-hub’ locations have been designated which will act as focal points for research into the reform disturbances in that particular county. The following institutions have formally agreed to participate in the project: Shire Hall Historic Courthouse Museum (Dorchester, Dorset), Somerset Heritage Centre (Taunton), Newport Museum and Art Gallery (Gwent), Bath Record Office (North Somerset) and the Worcestershire Archive (Worcester). These institutions will host research workshops to which local historians and history groups will be invited to disseminate their local knowledge of archival sources, urban geography and family history during the research phase. The county-hubs will also provide venues for a travelling display and history talks and walks. The various exhibitions and public events will be complemented by four located audio mobile phone applications, aimed at explicating disturbances in locations not otherwise served by public events or exhibitions, or in which disturbances have previously received little public attention: Blandford and Sherborne (Dorset), Yeovil (Somerset) and Worcester. Along with the web-based resources, they will allow the wider public to engage with the findings of the project, extending its impact long after its formal closure.

The public engagement events, travelling display and phone apps will provide incentives for local residents, school age students and tourists to visit the county-hub institutions and the four disturbance locations. The heritage industry in these institutions and locales will benefit from greater footfall and the local communities from secondary economic effects as a result of these interventions. Public engagement through these means will aid in the propagation of new understandings of how waves of protest escalate and spread whilst locating them within the historical context of the widening of the democratic franchise.