The Gordon Riots were a series of anti-Catholic protests which took place in London between 2 and 9 June, 1780. The protests began peacefully but descended into chaos. Crowds paralysed the city with an unparalleled level of violence, with rioters attacking and setting fire to official buildings and people’s homes. The riots are considered by some historians as being the closest Britain has ever come to a full-scale revolution, and shocked fellow European powers.
In 1778, Lord North’s government passed the Papists Act, designed to relax anti-Catholic legislation. Existing legislation had excluded Roman Catholics from many areas of society such as serving in public office and in the army (although in practice many of the laws had lapsed). Some of the most important Catholics in England urged the government not to proceed with the Act, fearing a violent reaction. They were proved right.
The Protestant Association, led by Lord George Gordon, argued that allowing Catholics into the army would pose a serious security threat and drew up a huge petition against the act. Gordon had already prevented the Papists Act from being taken into Scottish law and thought he could do the same in England. A crowd, as many as 60,000 strong, marched to the House of Commons, many of them wearing the Association’s blue cockade and carrying ‘No Popery’ banners. As often the case with mob behaviour, some protesters were motivated by other grievances which ranged from poor wages, unemployment, lack of voting rights, concern about foreign workers, and the decline of trade – many of these made worse by the ongoing American War of Independence.
When they arrived at the House of Commons, only Gordon was admitted. As a result, some members of the crowd resorted to assaulting members of the Lords and Commons. They then moved onto the streets and the mayhem began. Catholic properties and the houses of the wealthy were attacked by the mob, including the home of the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Mansfield. They emptied and set fire to Newgate and other prisons, and incited the prisoners to join in the violence.
By the 7th June, and without an effective police force, London was in a state of panic as the mob roamed at will. When the mob made the Bank of England their target the military finally intervened, with equal violence. Official figures put the death rate at nearly 300, with a further 200 wounded, but these figures are considered seriously conservative. Of the 400 people taken prisoner, 30 were later hanged. Lord George Gordon was tried for treason but, thanks to a strong legal representation by his cousin, was acquitted on the grounds that his intentions had not been treasonous.
This image represents the attack on the embassies of Sardinia and Bavaria, both of which were Catholic states, on the night of 7th June.
Did you know..?
Charles Dickens used the Gordon Riots as the setting for one of his earlier novels, Barnaby Rudge. He gave Lord George Gordon a leading role.
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This object description and its related educational resources were researched and written by our team of historians and education specialists. For further information see the item’s home museum, gallery or archive, listed above.