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24 September 2014

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You are in: Bristol > History > Local history > Revolting riots in Queen Square

Aerial view of Queen Square in Bristol

Revolting riots in Queen Square

The site of some of the bloodiest rioting England has ever seen and enough civil unrest to put the government in fear of revolution, took place in Bristol in 1831.

The riot was the culmination of a long struggle for democratic rights - only 6,000 people in Bristol had the vote out of a population of 104,000.

At the time some towns in the country, known as rotten boroughs, had Parliamentary representation even though the town no longer existed (due to things like migration or coastal erosion) and candidates could buy their votes.

The Reform Bill, which set out to improve the democracy of the country, was overturned by the Lords and particularly denounced by magistrate Sir Charles Wetherall.

It was his visit to open Bristol's Assize Courts that sparked the civil unrest and he was chased by angry mobs to the Mansion House in Queen Square.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel

'Bludgeon Men' made forays into the crowd, dragging people back into the Mansion House to be beaten up. Enraged, the protestors went to The Back to pick up 'faggots' (large sticks) to aid their attack on the Mansion House.

The mob then attacked the house, discovering large quantities of alcohol - which helped fuel the riot! The building was then set on fire and destroyed.

After burning most of the Corporation's buildings, the crowd burned ordinary citizens' property. Rioters become trapped in burning buildings under fallen walls, with the molten lead of melted roofs literally 'raining' down.

Work on the Clifton Suspension Bridge was halted and Isambard Kingdom Brunel himself was sworn in as a special constable to keep the peace during the Bristol riots of 1831.

Colonel Brereton, who commanded the Dragoons, refused to open fire into the crowd. A year later he was brought to court for negligence but shot himself through the heart before his trial was concluded. Brunel gave evidence at the court martial.

Eventually, Brereton led the Dragoons into Queen Square and commanded them to draw their swords on the crowd. It's thought hundreds were killed or severely wounded.

Statue of William III in Queen Square

Riots also took place in Bath, Worcester, Coventry and Warwick at this time but nothing on the scale of destruction and casualties in Bristol.

The government was concerned the riots might be the start of an uprising when scenes in Bristol were described by some as resembling those seen during the French Revolution.

This was exacerbated by protestors placing ladders against the statue of William III in the Square and covering it in the French Tricolour flag.

The riots went on for three days but only resulted in a collection of show-trials and floggings. It was thought the government was wary of inciting the public into more unrest.

Four men were hanged despite a petition of 10,000 Bristolian signatures which was given to King William IV. The crowd and many of the special constables reportedly wept for the condemned men.

last updated: 03/04/2008 at 08:52
created: 11/03/2008

You are in: Bristol > History > Local history > Revolting riots in Queen Square

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