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The Bristol Riot of October 1831: was E.P. Thompson wrong?

In Uncategorized on March 23, 2017 by kmflett

I’m off to Bristol for a couple of days, because even trade union officers are allowed to try and take a brief break from the dull compulsion of economic reality from time to time.

While there, staying on Welsh Back, I’ll be having another look at Queen Square which was the scene of the Bristol riot of October 1831. The riot went on for several days, caused significant damage to the property of the wealthy and caused troops to be mobilised. It was a key precursor to the passage of the 1832 Reform Act.

In the Making of the English Working Class, E.P Thompson takes a rather dim view of it. He sees the crowd as mainly reactionary in its intent, seeking to burn books and so on. He goes on to compare it unfavourably with Peterloo 12 years earlier, which he sees as a point on the development of the modern left.

Yet there is an issue here. The key speaker at Peterloo was Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt who was jailed for his speech in Manchester on that August day in 1819. Ten years before however Hunt had been based on Bristol (trying to run an ultimately unsuccessful brewery) and active in radical democratic politics in the city.

So in 1831 was it really a backward ‘mob’ that were behind the Bristol riot or was it a crowd inspired in part by the democratic ideas of Henry Hunt?

Keith Flett is the Editor of a History of Riots (CSP 2015)

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