Bristol 1827.png
Bristol 1827.png


For three days at the end of October 1831, the city of Bristol witnessed a series of extensive  riots - as significant as the Gordon riots in 1780  or the Church and King Riots in Birmingham in 1791.  The Bristol riots were closely connected to the tense atmosphere associated with the attempt by the Whigs to introduce a measure of Parliamentary reform. The political atmosphere in Britain was increasingly tense as the topic of reform divided the population and the political elite.  Under the established franchise only 5% of people in England and Wales were able to vote as eligibility depended on the wealth of an individual (owning land worth 40-shillings or more), although in a very few areas (such as Westminster) it was more widely distributed, and in others (such as the ‘rotten boroughs’) more severely curtailed.

In Bristol, out of a population of 104,000 men, only 6,000 could vote, rendering the remaining citizens powerless. Moreover, Bristol was controlled by the City Corporation which consisted of a handful of wealthy men who accomplished little, save for the protection of their entrenched interests. With the proposal of The Great Reform Act in 1830, the lower and middle classes began to call for greater political rights creating an increasingly contentious political climate. Thus, when the Recorder of Bristol Sir Charles Wetherell stood up in parliament and declared that the people of Bristol did not desire any parliamentary reform, Bristolians were furious.

When Wetherell arrived at Bristol on the 29th of October 1831, they let their feelings be known by chasing Wetherell into the Mansion House followed by the outbreak of a full-scale riot. Wetherell had to escape across the rooftops but the crowd was further angered when the constables arrested some rioters. The confrontation continued for three days as Mansion House and the Bishop’s Palace were attacked, prisoners from Bridewell Gaols were released, and several more locations around the city were set alight. The rioting turned to parties at Queen’s Square where the mob proceeded to get drunk and loot local properties. Despite the Riot Act having been read, the constables, guards and dragoons failed to act due to the lack of definitive orders.

On the 31st of October, the Dragoons finally cleared the square after instructions from the mayor. A Special Commission was set for January 1832 which tried many rioters and Mayor Pinney for his negligence (although he was eventually acquitted). Following a petition (receiving 100,000 signatures) seeking mercy for the 31 rioters sentenced to death, only four were hung. The Great Reform Act was finally passed in 1832 followed by the Municipal Corporations Act eliminating rotten boroughs (boroughs with a small electorate making them susceptible to control by a patron giving said patron unrepresentative influence in the House of Commons). Many historians place the Bristol Riots of 1831 as a pivotal event in success of parliamentary reform the following year.