6 July 2014

Reflections on the Gordon Riots

The Gordon Riots by John Seymour Lucas
The Gordon Riots of 1780 were an anti-Catholic protest fuelled by the Papists Act of 1778. Lord George Gordon, the President of The Protestant Association, gathered a mob following, and spread fears of Catholicism. The British were in the midst of the American War of Independence, and the riots came at a time when Britain was gripped by fears of a French invasion, as well as troubles with the Spanish and Dutch. In a climate of fear, religious bigotry quickly spread and incited violence. Many London residents, including Catherine Stapleton (a close friend to William Pitt's mother, the Dowager Countess of Chatham), and William Pitt (then a barrister at Lincolns Inn), responded to the crisis.

On June 21, 1780, Catherine Stapleton wrote to her dear friend Hester, the Dowager Countess of Chatham, confessing her anxieties as a result of the recent riots:

“What a Situation has London been in, & how narrowly have we all escaped immediate Ruin, during the Time of great Terror, & anxiety. I had great satisfaction from not being able to discover that there was any Circumstance, particularly to increase your Ladyships uneasiness, for my own part my property engross’d my Attention a good deal, knowing in the height of it all the things I have to remove from Town more Loading from different parts of the Town, & an Attack upon them would have very Seriously interrupted all my Schemes which I bless god, daily improve upon me. Indeed the World smiles against so much upon me that I much wish all those I love as happy as myself.” [1]

A year later, Mrs. Frances ('Fanny') Boscawen also wrote to the Dowager Countess of Chatham, reflecting on the position William Pitt assumed in defence of the Inns of Court during the riots:

“…To day I had a Lawyer of Lincolns Inn din’d with me; we were speaking of the Riots last Year & he told me that when they form’d themselves into Companies for the defence of the Inns of Court they agreed that the tallest Man should be the Captain, thus Mr. Pitt commanded their Company & in speaking of Him I cou’d have lik’d Dear Madam to have convey’d to Your Ear all that was said. I ask’d my Guest whether he had seen Mr. Pitt lately, he answer’d “Yesterday at Serle’s Coffee House where He & other Gentleman of Lincolns Inn are in the custom of drinking their Coffee, or tea, for an Hour in the Afternoon.” & thus perhaps I send yr Ladyp the latest certificate of Your Son’s good Health, whom God long preserve, & You to see Him an Honour & a Blessing to his Country. It appears to Me that the Admirers of Mr. Fox betray some Jealousy & Envy of Mr. Pitt, from whence I infer that possessing the great Talents & Parts which he has. He possesses also the Virtue & Principles which he [Fox] has not, & these will give Him the Trust & Confidence of his Countrymen at large, while the Other can only have the Admiration of a Party.” [2]

In the end, the rioters were put down, and hundreds of arrests were made. Pitt did not have to take up his musket after all. Nevertheless, the aftermath of the riots, and the effect it had on the public imagination, lasted for many years to come.


1. Catherine Stapleton to Hester, the Dowager Countess of Chatham, June 21, 1780. The National Archives, PRO 30/8/58, Part 3, f. 296.

2. Mrs. Boscawen to Hester, the Dowager Countess of Chatham (undated, but 1781). The National Archives, PRO 30/8/21, Part 2, f. 158.

Image Credits:

'The Gordon Riots' by John Seymour Lucas. The source of the image can be found here.

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