The "A Walk In History" site is a website in which the author undertakes historical tours of London and then writes about them.

This tour of the great city is all about the Gordon Riots of 1780.

The Gordon Riots refers to a number of events in a predominantly Protestant religious uprising in London in 1780, aimed against the Papists Act 1778, "relieving his Majesty's subjects, of the Catholic Religion, from certain penalties and disabilities imposed upon them during the reign of William III."

But the uprising then became just an excuse for widespread rioting and looting by others.

Lord George Gordon set up a Protestant Association in 1780 to force the repeal of this legislation.

On 29 May 1780 Gordon called a meeting of the Protestant Association, and his followers subsequently marched on the House of Commons (each with a blue cocade in his hat) to deliver a petition demanding the repeal of the Roman Catholic Relief Act the following week.

On 2 June 1780 a huge crowd, many carrying flags and banners proclaiming "No Popery", and estimated to be between 40,000 to 60,000 strong, assembled and marched on the Houses of Parliament. As they marched, their numbers gathered and swelled.

Thus the devastating Gordon Riots, the likes of which have not been seen since, started. The rioters attacked 100 Cathlic churches, and Newgate Gaol and The Clink (a prison in Southwark) were attacked and looed. Newgate was burned and looted (whilst renovation on it was taking place) and the rioters even released some of the prisoners. The Clink was completely destroyed and never rebuilt (nowadays, the word "Clink" is used as a slang term for "prison"). 285 people were killed in the riots.

Anyway, let the guided tour begin.....

The Gordon Riots

Thankfully the rain held off for our walk today, only sending raindrops as we came to the end of the walk.

Today's walk was all about the Gordon Riots, the most violent civil uprising in the history of London. After meeting up outside Holborn Tube Station, Aly led us down to our first stop in Sardinia Street, having paused at Twyford Place for a brief summary of today's subject. The Gordon Riots actually took place in 1780 but it was events two years earlier in 1778 that actually set things in motion. Sir George Savile has successfully introduced a Catholic Relief Act which was part of a Whig tradition of religious tolerance. The Act absolved Roman Catholics from taking the religious oath on joining the army (to help boost the size of the British Army at a time when we were involved in wars against America, France and Spain) and was passed by Lord North's government.

Burning of Newgate Prison during the Gordon Riots, 1780

Two years later in 1780 Lord George Gordon, an extreme protestant set up the Protestant Association demanding the repeal of the 1778 Act. He made a speech which spread fear of 'popery' - that there was a conspiracy involving 20,000 Jesuits hiding in tunnels under the River Thames waiting for an order from Rome to rise up and attack London. He also suggested that the Roman Catholics in the army could join forces with the Irish, French and Spanish to attack England. He saw the Act as a threat to Anglicanism and as being a Roman Catholic was tantamount to being a traitor (because they could not be loyal to the monarch and to the pope at the same time) much anti catholic feeling was whipped up.

Lord George Gordon
(courtesy Trustees of the British Museum)

So at our first stop in Sardinia Street we look at was is now the new London School of Economics building but where on this site stood the Sardinian Embassy. At that time Italy was a series of individual states, hence Sardinia having it's own embassy and the name of the street!

Following Gordon's speech, mobs took to the streets, and their first target was the Sardinian Embassy, because there was also a Catholic Chapel situated here where Catholics could come to take part in mass although mass was still semi-illeagal at that time. Because it was a well known chapel however, it was always going to be a target. The building was attacked and destroyed. The Church of St. Anselm and St. Caecilia was later built on the site, but then moved further up Kingsway to it's current location near Africa House.

The Bavarian Chapel in Soho and Newgate Prison were also attacked. The latter in an effort to free prisoners and to increase the size of the mob. People became anxious for their own safety and began to write on the doors of their homes "No Popery" to prove they were not Catholics.

The mob attack Newgate Prison
(courtesy City of London)

Plan of Watchman's Posts in Charing Cross during the riots
(courtesy City of London)

We now walked back up Kingsway and across into Southampton Row and then turned left and walked into Bloomsbury Square and stopped outside what was once No. 29. It was here that Lord Chief Justice Mansfield lived. On Tuesday 6th June 1780 his home was attacked by a mob and raised to the ground. He managed to escape through the back of the house on to what is now Southampton Row. The mob burned his precious Law Library. Whether coincidence or by design, Lord Mansfield presided over Lord George Gordon's trial.

A House in Bloomsbury Square

Lord Justice Mansfield

Three of the mob who attached the house, John Gray, Charles Kent and Letitia Holland, were hung in Bloomsbury Square as it was believed at that time that criminals were hung as close to the scene of their crime as was possible.

We now walked back to Southampton Row, headed north and then turned right through Cosmo Place into Queen Square, turning right again into Old Gloucester Street

Cosmo Place

At No. 44 we find a plaque which notes that Bishop Richard Challoner lived and died here. He was a prominent catholic who produced a revised edition of the Bible and a catholic prayer book. At the time of the riots he was nearly 90 years old. He managed to escape from his home before the mob arrived taking refuge in Finchley, north London, although at that time a rural area. When the riots died down he returned home but he never really recovered from the shock of having to escape and he died shortly thereafter.

Bishop Richard Challoner
(courtesy Bishop Challoners School)

44 Old Gloucester Street

The Plaque on No. 44

We now continued down to Theobalds Road, crossing over to Drake Street, then along the edge of Red Lion Square and into Proctor Street, before crossing High Holborn to stand outside the Chancery Court Hotel.

There was a climate of very severe punishment at the time and an example of this is shown by the following case.

George Bourton was a drunken cobbler. He was walking down High Holborn when he decided to try his hand at begging. Richard Stone was walking past him when Bourton held out his hand and said "Pray remember the Protestant religion" as a begging device. Stone offered him tuppence but Bourton being greedy demanded six pence. Stone reluctantly gave him the money but reported him - Bournton was arrested and hung.

On Wednesday 7th June 1780 the mob pillaged and set fire to the Black Swan Distillery on the site of Barnards Inn in Holborn. The drunken mob attacked the distillery because it's owner Mr. Langdale was known to be a catholic. The rioters poured alcohol on the flames which of course exacerbated the strength of the fire and in fact caused a number of deaths.

The novel 'Barnaby Rudge' by Charles Dickens is set during the riots. Lord George Gordon together with his secretary Gashford and a servant John Grueby stop for the night in the village of Chigwell before leaving for London and inciting anti-catholic sentiment along the way and recruiting volunteers for his cause. Dickens describes them as "sprinkled doubtless here and there with honest zealots, but composed for the most part of the very scum and refuse of London, whose growth was fostered by bad criminal laws, bad prison regulations and the worst conceivable police."

A scene from Barnaby Rudge

By the 8th June 1780 troops had been called in and the authorities gained the upper hand. King George III ordered his officers to exert "their utmost force" to repress the rebellion.

George III's Proclamation
(courtesy City of London)

As a result of the riots Lord George Gordon was charged with treason and was sent to the Tower of London. He spent 8 months in prison but was later cleared of blame. He later abandoned his Christian faith and became Jewish, changing his name to Abraham George Gordon. He died in Newgate Prison aged 42 having been incarcerated for libelling Marie Antoinette.

As a result of the riots:

285 people died

200 were wounded

450 people were arrested

25 people were hung

200,000 worth of damage

70,000 compensation paid to individuals

100 Roman Catholic buildings (including churches, presbyteries and private homes) were looted and/or burned.

Sancho Describes the Gordon Riots

Ignatius Sancho's shop was just a few hundred yards from the Houses of Parliament and he had a ring-side view of the Gordon Riots of June 1780. The riots began with Lord George Gordon's protest against an act for a small measure of toleration for Catholics, an act deeply resented by many in Protestant England.
Soon, however, the protest got out of control as 'the mob' - the ordinary working people - vented their anger at the hardships of their lives. Political protest turned into anarchy as groups of Londoners broke windows, burned down the homes and chapels of Catholics, and finally set free the inmates of Newgate, London's main prison. Along the way over a thousand people died. Hundreds were burned to death in an inferno after a distillery on High Holborn was set on fire. Fire-fighters mistakenly pumped raw alcohol onto the flames, thinking it was water. After more than a week the army finally brought the disturbances to an end.

Sancho wrote several eye-witness accounts of the riots in letters to John Spink.

This letter is the longest and the most immediate, clearly written while the disturbances were taking place. Sancho ironically comments on the 'worse than Negro barbarity of the populace' while staying true to his ideals by declaring that 'I am for universal toleration'.

Charles Street, June 6, 1780.


In the midst of the most cruel and ridiculous confusion, I am now set down to give you a very imperfect sketch of the maddest people that the maddest times were ever plagued with. - The public prints have informed you (without doubt) of last Friday's transactions; - the insanity of L[or]d G[eorge] G[ordon] and the worse than Negro barbarity of the populace; - the burnings and devastations of each night you will also see in the prints: - This day, by consent, was set apart for the farther consideration of the wished - for repeal; - the people (who had their proper cue from his lordship) assembled by ten o'clock in the morning. - Lord N[orth], who had been up in council at home till four in the morning, got to the house before eleven, just a quarter of an hour before the associators reached Palace-yard: - but, I should tell you, in council there was a deputation from all parties; - the S[helburne] party were for prosecuting L[or]d G[eorge], and leaving him at large; - the At[torne]y G[enera]l laughed at the idea, and declared it was doing just nothing; - the M[inistr]y were for his expulsion, and so dropping him gently into insignificancy; - that was thought wrong, as he would still be industrious in mischief; - the R[ockingha]m party, I should suppose, you will think counselled best, which is, this day to expel him the house - commit him to the Tower - and then prosecute him at leisure - by which means he will lose the opportunity of getting a seat in the next parliament - and have decent leisure to repent him of the heavy evils he has occasioned. - There is at this present moment at least a hundred thousand poor, miserable, ragged rabble, from twelve to sixty years of age, with blue cockades in their hats - besides half as many women and children - all parading the streets - the bridge - the park - ready for any and every mischief.

- Gracious God! what's the matter now? I was obliged to leave off - the shouts of the mob - the horrid clashing of swords - and the clutter of a multitude in swiftest motion - drew me to the door - when every one in the street was employed in shutting up shop. - It is now just five o'clock - the ballad - singers are exhausting their musical talents - with the downfall of Popery, S[andwic]h, and N[ort]h. - Lord S[andwic]h narrowly escaped with life about an hour since; - the mob seized his chariot going to the house, broke his glasses, and, in struggling to get his lordship out, they somehow have cut his face; - the guards flew to his assistance - the light-horse scowered the road, got his chariot, escorted him from the coffee-house, where he had fled for protection, to his carriage, and guarded him bleeding very fast home. This - this - is liberty! genuine British liberty! - This instant about two thousand liberty boys are swearing and swaggering by with large sticks - thus armed in hopes of meeting with the Irish chairmen and labourers - all the guards are out - and all the horse; - the poor fellows are just worn out for want of rest - having been on duty ever since Friday. - Thank heaven, it rains; may it increase, so as to send these deluded wretches safe to their homes, their families, and wives! About two this afternoon, a large party took it into their heads to visit the King and Queen, and entered the Park for that purpose - but found the guard too numerous to be forced, and after some useless attempts gave it up. - It is reported, the house will either be prorogued, or parliament dissolved, this evening - as it is in vain to think of attending any business while this anarchy lasts.

I cannot but felicitate you, my good friend, upon the happy distance you are placed from our scene of confusion. - May foul Discord and her cursed train never nearer approach your blessed abode! Tell Mrs. S[pink], her good heart would ach, did she see the anxiety, the woe, in the faces of mothers, wives, and sweethearts, each equally anxious for the object of their wishes, the beloved of their hearts. Mrs. Sancho and self both cordially join in love and gratitude, and every good wish - crowned with the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, &c.

I am, dear Sir,
Yours ever by inclination,

The Sardinian ambassador offered 500 guineas to the rabble, to save a painting of our Saviour from the flames, and 1000 guineas not to destroy an exceeding fine organ: the gentry told him, they would burn him if they could get at him, and destroyed the picture and organ directly. - I am not sorry I was born in Afric. - I shall tire you, I fear - and, if I cannot get a frank, make you pay dear for bad news. - There is about a thousand mad men, armed with clubs, bludgeons, and crows, just now set off for Newgate, to liberate, they say, their honest comrades.

- I wish they do not some of them lose their lives of liberty before morning. It is thought by many who discern deeply, that there is more at the bottom of this business than merely the repeal of an act - which has as yet produced no bad consequences, and perhaps never might. - I am forced to own, that I am for universal toleration. Let us convert by our example, and conquer by our meekness and brotherly love!

Eight o'clock. Lord G[eorge] G[ordon] has this moment announced to my Lords the mob - that the act shall be repealed this evening: - upon this, they gave a hundred cheers - took the horses from his hackney - coach - and rolled him full jollily away: - they are huzzaing now ready to crack their throats

I am forced to conclude for want of room-the remainder in our next.

Sancho Describes the Gordon Riots