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.
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.
statue of William III towered over the rioters in Queen
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.
Riots also took place in Bath, Worcester, Coventry and Warwick
at this time but nothing on the scale of destruction and casualties
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.
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