On June 2, 1780, a crowd of 40,000 to 50,000 people associated with the Protestant Association gathered in St. George’s Fields, London, with their leader, Lord George Gordon, to march to Parliament with a petition to repeal The Catholic Relief Act. Passed in 1778, the bill lifted restrictions on the civil rights of Roman Catholics, with primary reasoning to expedite the recruitment of Catholics into the military, so that the British army had more personnel to suppress the American Colonies. This reasoning, however, was dismissed by the majority of the British populace. Common thought throughout Britain at this time was that Catholicism was a “slumbering threat” and that “to tolerate popery, is to encourage what by Toleration itself we mean to destroy, a spirit of persecution and bigotry of the most notorious kind.”
Lord George Gordon’s presentation of the petition with its 44,000 signatures was followed by six hours of debate that ultimately led to adjournment with no clear decision in sight – the matter would be revisited the following Tuesday. Upon hearing this, the marchers’ frustration and tension reached a boiling point and chaos ensued. Over the next week, havoc was wreaked upon the city of London and its inhabitants. Churches and government buildings destroyed, prisons burned to the ground and their inmates released, homes torn down with their belonging set ablaze, and hundreds of lives were lost. The rioters’ actions became known as the Gordon Riots (although Lord George Gordon remained firm in his disassociation with the destruction), and they mark the most destructive urban outbreak in British history.
The Gordon riots reached their climax on “Black Wednesday,” June 7, 1780 with the attempted destruction of the Bank. The king in Council proclaimed martial law, and the thousands of troops that were brought into London over the past week were now permitted to shoot rioters. At this point, Lord George Gordon, after his attempts to disperse the rioters proved futile, he himself turned on the mob and proclaimed that he wished to “join the forces of law and order.” Over the course of Wednesday night and Thursday, hundreds of rioters throughout the city were killed and wounded by the British military. As Thursday evening drew to a close, the rioting had finally subsided. Londoners looked upon the city and saw bodies throughout the streets and destroyed homes and establishments.
The following months were filled with convictions and executions of those who took part in the rioting. The complexity of the rioting made the process of convictions both confusing and strenuous. Lord George Gordon was imprisoned for eight months until his trial, where he was ultimately acquitted for having any direct ordering of the riots. Although the riots only lasted for one week, the implications of it lasted far longer. Tensions between Catholics and Protestants did not yield, nor were the rioters successful in repealing the Catholic Relief Act. The process of rebuilding London was a constant reminder of the chaos, as well as the swift way in which the British military had acted upon British civilians. One could argue, therefore, that the riots only increased fear of popery, and aroused a fear of the British state itself. Both of these fears would play a major role in the formation of the British state throughout the late 18th century and early 19th century.
There was no, and still is no clear understanding of why or how the rioters’ actions devolved into mayhem after a few short days. Past studies and summaries of the events that took place in London during June 1780 have stated this devolvement and described it through a chronological essay form. While this is beneficial to one’s understanding of the unravelling events, it does not visually depict the intricacies of the riots. Being able to see where the riots took place and where troops were stationed throughout London provides researchers with a greater understanding of the riots’ magnitude and impact on the city.
"An Appeal from the Protestant Association to the People of Great Britain" (London: J.W. Pasham, 1779), pp. 45-46, 56
Ian Haywood and John Seed, The Gordon Riots, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012, 7.
See Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation 1701-1837 for details on the role fear played in British nation building.