The Gordon Riots in London – anti-Catholic violence and public safety in 1780

In June 1780, London was shaken by anti-Catholic violence which came to be known as the ‚Gordon Riots’. These riots expressed popular disaffection and fear in regard to the Catholic Relief Act passed by King and Parliament. Elizabeth Stuart Wortley, who published letters by her ancestors from the late 18th century, commented in 1925:

It was sufficient to raise the cry of ‘No Popery’ to suggest to an inflamed popular imagination that plots were hatching by which life and property were in danger, and the whole town was in an uproar. Lord George Gordon placed himself at the head of the anti-Popery faction, and his fanaticism was made use of by those who sought the subversion of the existing order of things.”

Only a year earlier, similar uprisings had caused much damage and political friction in Edinburgh and Glasgow. In the course of the events of 1779, observers had especially criticized the seditious press reports and the lack of police protection, but the riots of 1780 uncovered similar foot-dragging and discord among leading politicians.

Colonel Charles Stuart, son of former British Prime Minister John Stuart, was stationed in London and gave eye-witness accounts of the riotous proceedings in several letters to his father:

June 3, 1780

My dear father,
the King’s Bench and Fleet Prisons were burnt to the ground last night. A Regiment was ordered to march from Lambeth to the first place, but by mistake they received a counter order by which means the Troops did not arrive in time enough to protect it; the Military were also too late to save the Fleet; they, however, fired upon the Mob and killed two men. (…) You will think it strange that Lord Amherst, out of near 12,000 men, should have only 300 men in the City, besides those stationed at and not to leave the Tower, but such was the case, and so alarming did it appear to me that I could not help proposing a Plan to my Uncle for the Defence of this side of the River, and he insisted on my stating it to Lord Hillsborough. (…) I went to the Bank in the evening and dined with the Officers, and was surprised to hear that the Lord Mayor and Aldermen had come to the resolution to petition Parliament to repeal the Act in question, and that the Mayor had published a handbill declaring that he would release all the Prisoners taken in the several Riots, which timid act he performed immediately. From what I could learn many of the Common Council and Aldermen do not disapprove of the state of affairs; indeed, were one to judge by the conversation of the well-dressed people of the City (abstracting what is said through fear), they construe this attempt to produce order as a mode of dragooning them into tyrannical measures. (…) Parliament has adjourned to Monday sennight. I shall remain in London to wait your orders; indeed, at all events, the times are so interesting that it is necessary for one of us to be at the fountain head of evil. Regiments are marching in from every quarter, and I have taken care that your house is well protected by the military.”

Historic Counties of England and Wales WIKIPEDIA PUBLIC DOMAIN

Wikipedia Public Domain

Source: John Stuart, Earl of Bute, 1713-1792. A prime minister and his son. From the correspondence of the 3rd Earl of Bute and of Lt.-General the Hon. Sir Charles Stuart, K.B., edited by the Hon. Mrs. E. Stuart Wortley, with an introduction by the Rt. Hon. Sir Rennell Rodd, New York (Dutton) 1925.


Monika Barget

Since September 2013, I have been a member of the international research group "Revolts as Communicative Events" based at the University of Konstanz, Germany. My research interests include early modern constitutional history and political iconography.

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