Wednesday 22nd August 2012

The Riot Act

Our latest publication, a reconstruction of a Riot Act broadside, such as might have been held up to the crowd at Peterloo. 100 copies printed for us by Typoretum of Coggeshall, Essex, hand-set in wooden type on antique paper - so as near to the genuine article as you are likely to find.

Here's a short history of the Act, beginning with the text itself ...

Our Sovereign Lord the King chargeth and commandeth all persons, being assembled, immediately to disperse themselves, and peaceably to depart to their habitations, or to their lawful business, upon the pains contained in the Act made in the first year of King George the First, for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies.


The Riot Act was enacted by Parliament in 1715 to discourage persons deemed ‘unlawfully, riotously and tumultuously assembled’. The act provided that if 12 or more people gathered unlawfully or for purposes of disturbing the peace, the Act would be read to them, and if the assembled did not disperse by one hour after this reading, they would be guilty of felony, punishable by death.

In a town or city it could be read by the mayor, bailiff or 'other head officer', or a justice of the peace. Elsewhere, it could be made by a justice of the peace or the sheriff or under-sheriff.

However, it met with only limited success in controlling a series of disturbances that punctuated eighteenth century England, including the 1743 Gin Riots, the St George’s Massacre, 1768 and the Gordon Riots in 1780. One problem was making it heard in the midst of a serious disturbance. After the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester in 1819, most of the demonstrators who were convicted claimed that they had not heard the Riot Act being read. Broadsides like this might therefore have been displayed, but would only be understood by the literate among the mob:

'Please, yr Honour, I can't read neither!'

The Riot Act drifted into disuse; ironically, the last time it was read in this country was on 3 August 1919 in Birkenhead – to a crowd of recalcitrant, striking policemen! It was finally repealed in July 1973. Meanwhile it had entered the English language and was, and still is, reached for and uttered when occasion arises.

Every home should have one, so get 'em while you can!

Unframed copies: £25.00

Framed: from £85.00

(smashed glass on demand)

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