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Sunday, January 11, 2009

BATTLE OF BRISTOL

I can’t imagine anyone was surprised that Sir Charles Wetherell eventually started a riot. Sir Charles (above) was “…half mad, eccentric, ingenious…a coarse, vulgar mind, delighting in ribaldry and abuse …” He was also rich and a bigot. He was fired from his cabinet post in the Duke of Wellington’s government because he made a vicious anti-Catholic speech when the government was trying to de-criminalization Catholicism. And when the government moved to reform the stifling limitations on suffrage in Britain, Sir Charles opposed that, too. A colleague noted, “…no one spoke more than Sir Charles Wetherell; often to no good purpose.” Sir Robert Peel watched his performance in the House of Commons and was not impressed. “This Wetherell unbuttoned his braces (suspenders) when he began to speak, and put his hands into the waistband of his breeches…Horace Twiss said he was very mad, and had but one brief lucid interval, which was between his breeches and his waistcoat.” Sir Charles represented the tiny market town of Boroughbridge, 13 miles northwest of York. It was the very epitome of “a rotten borough”. The election districts of Parliament had not been redrawn in two hundred years, and fishing villages that had been washed out to sea, and hamlets long abandoned still had sent representatives to London. Meanwhile, newly industrialized population centers were underrepresented, like Bristol, where only 6,000 out of the 104,000 citizens could vote in 1831.
Typical of the problem, there were only 947 people in Boroughbridge and only 65 of the 154 households were recognized as “entitlements”, meaning ownership or occupancy brought with it the right to vote. Yet this village with just 65 legal voters still qualified for two representatives in Parliament, Sir Matthias Attwood, and Sir Charles Wetherell (far left on the tetter-totter above). The public was desperate for reform, and despite (or because) of Sir Charles’ opposition the Reform Bill carried the House of Commons by 345 to 239 votes. But Sir Charles was also a member of the cloustered red robed House of Lords, and was able to vote against the bill twice. He helped to kill it in “the Lords” by 41 votes and became the public face of the opposition to reform.There were riots that fall in Manchester and Birmingham, and a half dozen other towns. But things came to head on Friday, October 29th 1831, when the Courts were set to open in the west coast port city of Bristol. The Official Recorder for those courts came parading into town in a carriage pulled by four magnificent matching grey horses. He was none other than Sir Charles Wetherell, and it is hard to see how he could have chosen a worse time for a display of ostentation and pomp. Shops and markets had closed so no one would be dissuaded from joining the crowds gathering to “welcome” Sir Charles.Expecting trouble three troops of Dragoons were stationed on the outskirts of Bristol. Sir Charles’ carriage was met by 300 “marshals”, especially hired for the occasion. A crowd estimated at 2,000 people packed the route, hissing and booing as Sir Charles passed. And when the carriage crossed the bridge over the River Bath, stones were thrown.The procession reached the Guildhall at noon. There the town clerk, Mr. Ludlow, tried to make a speech praising the reform movement. But the crowded courtroom would not be placated, and the hissing drove poor Mr. Ludlow into retreat. From atop the bench Sir Charles imperiously threatened to arrest anyone interfering with the court, and the catcalling became even louder. Eventually Sir Charles had to withdraw. Once he was gone, the crowd gave three cheers for the King.A carriage took Sir Charles through the thick crowds to the Mansion-house on Queen Square, where he was to spend the night. But once he was safely inside several of the “Marshals”, so called “Bludgeon Men”, sallied into the crowd to arrest individuals they deemed troublemakers. This increased the anger of the crowd, who attacked the house and drove the mayor and the town council up the staircase to the second floor. This attack was stopped by the timely arrival of Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Brereton, with a single troop of dragoons. Despite Sir Charles’ demand that the troops open fire on the crowd, Brereton spoke to them instead and they dispersed willingly. At about three o’clock Col. Brereton returned with his troopers to their barracks. He might have been more cautious had he known that while transporting their prisoners to jail, the Bludgeon Men were waylaid and the “troublemakers” were freed.The Mayor and council spent the night boarding up the broken windows and doors, but all their work was for naught. Saturday afternoon some six hundred angry men and women smashed through the front door while Sir Charles escaped out the roof, jumping into a neighboring house. He was then spirited out of town dressed as a groom. But his work in Bristol was done.
The Mansion-house was trashed and burned, and its wine cellar looted. Several other buildings surrounding Queen Square were ransacked as well. Then the New jail was attacked, followed by the Gloucester Prison. The gates were rushed, the jailers beaten, and some 200 prisoners released.
The Custom’s House, the Excise Office, and some fifty private houses and warehouses were looted and burned. But it was a very selective riot. All the lost property belonged to those who had opposed the reform bill. And no one was killed or even seriously injured by the rioters.
The city was finally 'brought under control' when reinforcements arrived Monday afternoon and the dragoons were turned loose on the crowd. Several hundred were now killed. Total damages were estimated at between four and eight hundred thousand pounds sterling.Sir Charles (above) was at first confused by what had happened. The night of his escape he confessed to an inn keeper, “I am not aware that I ever injured any individual in the city.” But by the time Parliament convened in December he was sure again.
He denounced the London press for laying for the blame for the riot on him. He also demanded that he be allowed to sit as judge of the rioters. That request was denied. However a statue of Sir Charles was erected in Queen Square, to remind the citizens who had won the battle for Bristol.In January of 1832 eighty-two people went on trial for crimes committed during the riot. Despite a petition for clemency signed by 10,000 citizens of Bristol, four men were hung over the gates of the new jail. The punishment drove the hangman to sob uncontrollably so that he almost fell off the scaffold. But the four were hung, nevertheless. A fifth man, James Ives, was judged insane and his death sentence was commuted to transportation to Australia for life. Seventy-four others were also exiled to Australia, while forty-three were sentenced to hard labor in England. Of those forty-three, one old woman, convicted of receiving silver plate looted from the Mansion-house, hung herself in prison. Col Brereton was court-martialed for refusing to fire on the crowds, and after a week of testimony at his court-martial, he shot him self in the heart. He left behind two small motherless children. His second in command was allowed to resign and sell his commission. Meanwhile, seven of those sentenced to transportation to Australia died of cholera before their ship even set sail. Another, Matthew Warry, jumped ship. While swimming to shore he was shot and killed by a sentry, as was James Ives, the man judged too insane to hang for his crimes against property. And that was the fate of the victims of Sir Charles Wetherell’s “…coarse and vulgar mind…”, all save one.No one tried to defend any of these victims. Instead the champions of reform concentrated their efforts on passing the Reform bill in 1832. One of the last to speak against the bill, again, was Sir Charles, who knew he had done much to ensure the elimination of his “rotten borough.” He concluded his remarks by saying, “This is the last dying speech and confession of the member for Boroughbridge.” And it was. When Sir Charles stood for election that fall for one of the “new” seats from Oxford University he received so few votes he withdrew his name as a candidate after the first day. He died of a “concussion of the brain” caused by a carriage accident, on Monday, August 17, 1846. He left behind no heirs. And in 1983 his statue was removed from Queens Square in Bristol, because, in the words of the City Council Engineer, “We are redesigning the garden for the 17th century period and Sir Charles will not blend in”.I would have thought the old fool matched the seventeenth century a lot better than he did his own nineteenth.
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