In Our Time: The Gordon Riots Back

As an American, I was unfamiliar with the BBC Radio 4 programme “In Our Time.”  I was, however, intimately familiar with similar history programmes produced in the United States–mostly podcasts, like “Backstory” and “Ben Franklin’s World”–indeed, they were a very helpful supplement in my studies for my comprehensive exams. Though previous Criticks reviewers have noted that the “In Our Time” format can be off-putting, approaching it after listening to such podcasts I found it to be highly typical of a public-facing history programme. Melvyn Bragg acts as a moderator and task-master to a panel of experts to discuss the June 1780 London riots, known in history as the Gordon Riots. Over the course of a week (2-8 June), following a petition to repeal the 1778 Catholic Relief Act, London experienced nightly “tumults” as rioters attacked foreign embassy chapels, politicians’ homes and prisons, and attempted to attack the Bank of England. The riots were finally quashed when King George III sent in 10,000 troops and empowered them to fire on the crowds, killing outright between 300 and 700 people. Our experts, Mark Knights (Professor of History at the University of Warwick), Catriona Kennedy (Senior Lecturer of Modern History at the University of York), and Ian Haywood (Professor of English at the University of Roehampton), help to paint a largely comprehensive picture of the Gordon Riots: what precipitated them, their totality, and their lingering impact. Included on the website is a fairly extensive reading list, as well as a collection of links to lectures and primary sources available online.

Bragg keeps the pace rather brisk, confining the narrative to a tight 42 minutes (an additional 8 minutes of bonus material is available on the podcast version of the episode, and is very much worth the download). In doing so, he ensures that general audiences get a survey of a complex, multifaceted event. For academics, his leading questions and interruptions upend the common conversational discourse we are used to in panel discussions. Panel members are individually asked questions, though it is unclear if this is due to a particular expertise or because they are next in line, so to speak. While on occasion this stifles the discussion (panelists do an admirable job of jumping in to add onto what the other is saying), it also keeps the narrative from being lost and ensures fairly equal speaking time amongst the panelists. Bragg’s engagement can come off as heavy-handed. But as this programme is intended for a general audience, this involvement makes sense. As such, I can see a programme like this being very useful for introducing the topic of the Gordon Riots to undergraduate students. It gives a basic timeline and framework, introduces key themes and debates among historians, and leaves room for further discussion of topics alluded to or neglected in the discussion.

The panelists do a remarkable job exploring various elements to the riots: the larger, imperial happenings that set the stage for the riots; the tradition of petitions and the relationship between elected officials and the public; Catholic rights; a brief biography of Lord George Gordon, the charismatic leader of the Protestant Association that launched the petition; the logic behind amassing a large protest to deliver the petition; the riots’ stages; the attacks on symbols of law and the state; the inaction of the City and the controversial actions of the Government to quash the riots; the massive loss of life at the hands of British troops, civilian militias, and the state through public executions; the press coverage of the riots and the spread of the news to other parts of the country; and the riots’ legacy and how they were remembered by the general public and by authors such as Charles Dickens. In the podcast’s bonus material, additional topics covered include the concurrent political reform movements that overlapped and contrasted with the Protestant Association’s efforts, as well as connections between the Gordon Riots and the French Revolution. It’s regrettable that the bonus material was not included in the original broadcast, as it adds another level of depth and complexity to the 1780s political culture in which the Gordon Riots arose.

Considering the breadth of topics covered in such a short time, I have only minor quibbles. The aim of the petition is rather oblique–in fact, Kennedy makes it sound at one point as if it was to stop the enactment of the 1778 Catholic Relief Act, when in fact it was to demand the repeal of the act. At another point in the programme, when discussing the inaction of the City to suppress the rioters, no mention was made that many City officials had signed the petition and were initially sympathetic to the cause of the Protestant Association. Furthermore, the decision to send in the troops is portrayed as though George III gave the blessing to his government to intervene, when, according to Christopher Hibbert, George III was actually quite insistent to his Privy Council on a new interpretation of the Riot Act to provide him justification for bypassing local magistrate approval to fire on the crowd.[1] Similarly, in the bonus content, the attack on Sir George Savile is mentioned in the context of his leadership in the Parliamentary reform movement, yet neglected is the fact that Savile sponsored the Catholic Relief Act of 1778, earning the ire of the petitioners.

My last criticism relates to my own research on the spread of information on the riots and the riots’ broader impact beyond Great Britain—and as such I cannot blame the panelists for being unfamiliar. While the panelists situate the riots within the British Empire, their focus remains primarily on domestic origins and consequences. Yet I have found scores of reports about the riots in American newspapers and in letters between American politicians and diplomats. These sources indicate how the news of the riots was shaped into a narrative paralleling the conflict at the heart of the American Revolution: issues of governmental representation and responsiveness to constituents and the use and abuse of power. While the panelists rightly note the chronologically far-reaching impact the riots had in terms of political reform and Catholic toleration, there is still more to be uncovered about the geographic far-reaching impact of the riots.

The episode is a fine introduction to the Gordon Riots, an event that is more influential than has been acknowledged and that seems to be popping up in current British political commentary on Twitter and in blog posts. The knowledgeable panelists provide nuanced insights into a complex event, ushered along by a strong host who prevents discussion from delving too far into the trees and obscuring the forest. A general audience will gain a great deal of knowledge and understanding of this event and the political culture of the late-18th century.  An academic audience will pick up a few things as well, and perhaps be inspired to dig deeper into the unasked questions provoked by the discussion.

[1] Christopher Hibbert, King Mob: The Story of Lord George Gordon and the Riots of 1780, (Longmans, Green & Co., 1958; new edition: Sutton Publishing, 2004), 102-103.

In Our Time: The Gordon Riots was first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 2 May 2019, and is currently available on the In Our Time website.