It is 100 years since the Riot Act 1714 was read for the last time in England and 200 years since it was read before the Peterloo Massacre in 1819. It was never a popular act. A magistrate or other official could order a crowd of 12 or more to disperse; if they did not do so within an hour then force could be used to scatter them.
Any demonstrator injured had no right to compensation. Participation after the act had been read was a felony carrying the death penalty. At Peterloo, when crowds demonstrated calling for parliamentary reform, the 15th Hussars charged. Up to 18 people (including a two-year-old boy) were killed and over 400 injured.
The act was read again at Telford two years later after the ‘Cinderloo Uprising’ in a strike over reduced pay. Two miners were killed when the Shropshire Yeomanry advanced on the crowd. A third, Thomas Palin, who went to a doctor for treatment for a bullet wound, was subsequently arrested and hanged.
The act had to be read in full, in particular the ‘God Save the King’ at the end. On one occasion the paper was snatched from the official’s hand to cut it short. Part of the act’s problem was that neither the police nor the crowd knew when it had been read, as when in 1833 PC Robert Culley was killed at Coldbath Fields near Gray’s Inn. A meeting had been called by the National Union of the Working Classes. Leaflets calling for the abolition of the House of Lords and the monarchy were handed out. Police marched down Calthorpe Street and fighting broke out. Culley was stabbed and died in the Calthorpe Arms.
The jurors returned a verdict of justifiable homicide, partly on the grounds that the Riot Act had not been read. Medals were struck commemorating their decision and they were treated to a riverboat cruise.
The measure gradually fell into disuse. The last time the Riot Act was officially read in England was in 1919 in Liverpool during the second police strike, but there are suggestions it was read in Airdrie as late as 1971, two years before repeal.
James Morton is a writer and former criminal defence solicitor