Notts Rebels: 1831 Reform Bill Riots

Wednesday 03 June 2020
reading time: min, words

In celebration of the Nottingham Castle Trust’s #VoicesofToday campaign, our Notts Rebels series continues with a look at the 1831 Reform Bill Riots, which shook Nottingham 189 years ago...


By October 1831, Nottingham already had a bit of a reputation. Since the 1760s there had been a riot in the town every other year, sparked by almost anything: markets flooded with cheap imported fabrics? Riot! The king’s birthday? Riot! The price of cheese too high? Riot!

These riots were obviously not without cause and, to quote the great William Cobbett (a mainstay of my A-level History syllabus), “I defy you to agitate any fellow with a full stomach” - many of Nottingham’s disturbances were due to high food prices, poverty wages and destitution. However, the town’s radicalism was also enflamed by another source: politics.

Nottingham had an election riot back in 1754, burnt effigies in the Old Market Square denouncing the French Revolution in the 1790s, an anti-Tory riot in 1802 (could another of those be coming?) and, in 1812, brawls in the streets between royalists and republicans over whether you should stand up for the National Anthem. 

1831 was different still.

On Sunday 9 October, hundreds of people assembled beside the White Lion public house (which was on the corner of Clumber Street and most recently filled with slot machines), awaiting the arrival of the mail coach. The news they eagerly sought was whether the reform bill had passed in the House of Lords, which would have extended the vote to most men with a small holding of property (sorry, women and the working class) and ending some corrupt voting practices. Leading the opposition to these reforms was Henry Pelham Clinton, the fourth Duke of Newcastle and owner of Nottingham Castle.


It is at this point that the famous yell goes up – a cry of “to the Castle”

When the mail coach arrived and the news read out, Nottingham first heard that the reform bill had been defeated. To subvert Sam Cooke, a change ain’t gonna come. An eyewitness at the White Lion, a Mrs Gilbert, described the mood as “ripe for every form of mischief”. From this point until the Tuesday, two days later, the streets of Nottingham became the scene of fierce clashes between special constables, soldiers and paramilitary yeomanry against “the mob”.

Windows were smashed along the rows of shops near the Old Market Square and the Mayor of Nottingham is struck by a stone thrown by the crowd. Placards read “Down with the boroughmongers, down with the Duke” and “The King, liberty, and reform”. At dusk on Sunday, the Riot Act was read to little heed. As the military begin to disperse the crowds, the rioters moved their focus and targeted other places: Bradshaw’s wharf on Leenside, food is taken from Sharpe’s millers on Mansfield Road, Cooke’s grocers on Chapel Bar and, fittingly after the 1766 cheese riot, North's cheesemongers. Overnight too the office of the Nottingham Journal is attacked.

By Monday morning, the crowds had returned with 15,000 peacefully filling the Old Market Square to listen to pro-reform orators. The Town Clerk, perhaps overenthusiastically, stands the troops down. As the meeting breaks up, the crowd heads toward Sneinton and windows are again smashed – grocers, bakers, town officials. Over on the Forest, the mills are attacked – the flour stolen, and the sailcloth slashed. At this point, about 3pm, the Mayor calls for the military again. The mob in Sneinton is aware of the news and they arm themselves – pulling up railings on Notintone Street to create rudimentary pikes. Their fury settles on John Musters, a strict Nottingham magistrate who owns Colwick Hall. The mob marches to Colwick and sacks the property, including drinking Magistrate Musters’ sizeable wine cellar! It is at this point that the famous yell goes up – a cry of “to the Castle”. If you could ransack the house of a local lawmaker, why not the house of a duke!

During this attack at Colwick, the mob from the Forest had armed and attacked the House of Correction on St John’s Street (which would now be next to PRZYM). The troops and constables, dealing with this attack, were unaware of the group now marching along the river toward Castle Rock. At around 7:30pm, they have reached Wheeler Gate and are smashing up houses before they reach and then storm the Castle, guarded by a solitary gatekeeper. The rioters ransack the building, which had been unoccupied for several years and build a giant bonfire in the basement which rips through the house. By 9pm, the fire could be seen for miles and, as described by John Hicklin in his history of Nottingham Castle written only 5 years later, “thousands thronged the Castle-yard, to gaze upon the dreadfully novel spectacle … a tremendous sacrifice to the demon of anarchy and crime”

Yeomanry began forcibly dispersing the crowds in the Old Market Square. On Bridlesmith Gate two men are shot by the troops during repeated skirmishes

By Tuesday morning Nottingham Castle had become nothing more than a charred hulk. Sadly, the bodies of two children, had probably died exploring the smouldering ruins, were also found. During the night the main body of rioters had headed down Derby Road clashing with police. An attack on Wollaton Hall was only stopped by a full cavalry charge. Overnight too the Nottinghamshire Yeomanry had been called up to deal with the rioters, giving the law some needed reinforcements.

The main troublemakers of the crowd continued down Derby Road making it as far as Lowe’s mill in Beeston, which was also torched, while the Yeomanry began forcibly dispersing the crowds in the Old Market Square. On Bridlesmith Gate two men are shot by the troops during repeated skirmishes. It is at this point that the famous yell goes up – a cry of “to the Castle”. At 5pm, the Mayor proclaims a curfew and by 7pm the streets of Nottingham are clear of people, while the Duke’s mansion smoulders atop the hill.

As the embers cooled, the justice system began its work. Framework knitter John Armstrong from Pleasley (26), bobbin and carriage maker George Hearson (22) and boatman George Beck from Wollaton (20), who had also been the tap boy at the Eclipse pub on Chapel Bar, were hanged for their part in the riots – not specifically for the torching of the Castle but for Colwick Hall and for the mill in Beeston. Six more are transported to Australia.

In August 1832, a special court, awarded the Duke of Newcastle a sum of £21,000 as compensation for the destruction of the Castle. As a silent rebuke to the town, the Duke left the ruined shell of the building un-repaired for this rest of his life and it would remain a blackened ruin for the next 45 years.

Voices of Today’ is aimed at inspiring Nottingham residents to get creative and represent their experiences or perspectives on activism, protest and rebellion in a number of ways, including poetry, drawing, singing, acting, dance, creating a protest banner or something different altogether.

You can join the online protest movement, supporting the Rebellion gallery at Nottingham Castle, by creating your own protest placard here.

You can also submit your artistic take on Nottingham's history of activism, protest and rebellion at @nottmcastle using the hashtag #VoicesofToday           

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