This date in 1780 saw three men and two women hanged at various spots around London for the previous month’s Gordon Riots. They were the first five souls among 19 who would suffer the last extremity of the law for that disturbance.
The eponymous Protestant Lord George Gordon, had inflamed a mob against the 1778 Papists Act, which disencumbered British Catholics of some of their legal disabilities. (In part to pad out the redcoat ranks as the army found itself stretched thin by the American Revolution.)
The Gordon Riots started from Lord Gordon’s march on Parliament to serve it an anti-Catholic petition, and turned into five days of anti-Catholic mayhem before the troops were finally called out to quell it. (The want of a standing professional police force was among the deficiencies London encountered.)
This did not help Britain’s diplomatic overtures towards Habsburg Austria.
But the matter metastasized well beyond a merely sectarian event: a mass rally originating in the working-class Moorfields took an unmistakable class dynamic — assailing Newgate Prison and The Clink, liberating convicts in the process. The latter dungeon would never resume operations. “Crimping houses” for impressed sailors and “sponging houses” imprisoning debtors were also liberated.
Alongside white sailors and day laborers, London’s emerging black population would feature prominently in this affair. A “copper coloured person,” a former slave named John Glover, was observed at the front rank of those torching Newgate. Peter Linebaugh attributes to Glover the incendiary (and, as it turned out, credible) threat, “Damn you, Open the Gate or we will Burn you down and have Everybody out.” (Glover was condemned to death, but reprieved for likely-fatal servitude on the African coast.)
Three of the five executed in London on this date were hanged at Tower Hill, including both women, Mary Roberts and Charlotte Gardiner. Gardiner, like Glover, was an African; she and Roberts had helped sack the house of an Italian Catholic innkeeper.
Although nineteen folks put to death within a month and a half hardly constitutes giving the rioters a pass, it’s somewhat striking in view of the unabashedly anti-authority conflagration in hemp-happy 18th-century England that the death toll wasn’t greater. And it could have been: in a treatment in the December 1997 History Today, Marika Sherwood reports that fully 326 people were tried for some role in the Gordon Riots. But elites’ sense of the situation may well be captured by Edmund Burke’s remark,
If I understand the temper of the publick at this moment a very great part of the lower, and some of the middling people of this city, are in a very critical disposition, and such as ought to be managed with firmness and delicacy.
Less than two score were actually condemned to death for all this mess, and barely half of them were actually executed.
The 19th century writer Charles Dickens set his very first historical novel,* Barnaby Rudge, during the riots, and has his fictitious lead characters among the crops doomed to the scaffold.
Barnaby would have mounted the steps at the same time — indeed he would have gone before them, but in both attempts he was restrained, as he was to undergo the sentence elsewhere. In a few minutes the sheriffs reappeared, the same procession was again formed, and they passed through various rooms and passages to another door — that at which the cart was waiting. He held down his head to avoid seeing what he knew his eyes must otherwise encounter, and took his seat sorrowfully, — and yet with something of a childish pride and pleasure, — in the vehicle. The officers fell into their places at the sides, in front and in the rear; the sheriffs’ carriages rolled on; a guard of soldiers surrounded the whole; and they moved slowly forward through the throng and pressure toward Lord Mansfield‘s** ruined house.
It was a sad sight — all the show, and strength, and glitter, assembled round one helpless creature — and sadder yet to note, as he rode along, how his wandering thoughts found strange encouragement in the crowded windows and the concourse in the streets; and how, even then, he felt the influence of the bright sky, and looked up, smiling, into its deep unfathomable blue. But there had been many such sights since the riots were over — some so moving in their nature, and so repulsive too, that they were far more calculated to awaken pity for the sufferers, than respect for that law whose strong arm seemed in more than one case to be as wantonly stretched forth now that all was safe, as it had been basely paralysed in time of danger.
Two cripples — both mere boys — one with a leg of wood, one who dragged his twisted limbs along by the help of a crutch, were hanged in this same Bloomsbury Square. As the cart was about to glide from under them, it was observed that they stood with their faces from, not to, the house they had assisted to despoil; and their misery was protracted that this omission might be remedied. Another boy was hanged in Bow Street; other young lads in various quarters of the town. Four wretched women,† too, were put to death. In a word, those who suffered as rioters were, for the most part, the weakest, meanest, and most miserable among them. It was a most exquisite satire upon the false religious cry which had led to so much misery, that some of these people owned themselves to be Catholics, and begged to be attended by their own priests.
One young man was hanged in Bishopsgate Street, whose aged grey-headed father waited for him at the gallows, kissed him at its foot when he arrived, and sat there, on the ground, till they took him down. They would have given him the body of his child; but he had no hearse, no coffin, nothing to remove it in, being too poor — and walked meekly away beside the cart that took it back to prison, trying, as he went, to touch its lifeless hand.
Gordon himself, an odd duck, had better resources than these poor saps, and repelled a treason prosecution.
However, fate still ordained him a death in Newgate Prison — by illness many years later, after being convicted of defaming Marie Antoinette. By that time, the former Anglican rabble-rouser had converted to Orthodox Judaism, circumcision and all.
* The first of just two historical novels for Dickens; the second, of course, was A Tale of Two Cities.
** We’ve met Lord Mansfield before, articulating the jurisprudence of a slave society. His home was also targeted by Moorsfield rioters.
† Dickens is wrong about “four wretched women” being hanged: Gardiner and Roberts, our day’s pair, were the only two. Evidently, though, these two were arresting enough in the public conscience to forge “memories” of entire cartloads of ladies gone to Tyburn. (n.b.: none of the Gordon Rioters were hanged at Tyburn, either.)