Ward's Book of Days.

Pages of interesting anniversaries.

What happened on this day in history.


On this day in history in 1714, the Riot Act was passed by Parliament.

The Riot Act was a measure intended to stop social disruption and, at the same time, to protect demonstrators from over zealous assault. It remained on the Statute Book until 1973.

In 1714, the Whig government was becoming increasingly unpopular. In England, they increased the malt tax, a duty on beer and whiskey, and then imposed the tax in Scotland, bringing in excise men to enforce its collection. Naturally, riots broke out in consequence. The government brought in a law, hoping to put down dissent, ‘An act for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies, and for the more speedy and effectual punishing the rioters’, briefly known as The Riot Act.

The Act empowered local officials to read out a proclamation to any assembly, calling for them to disperse, and after waiting for an hour, could assume that those still remaining were guilty of felony, punishable by death, and could be shot. The words of the proclamation were ‘Our Sovereign Lord the King [or Queen] chargeth and commandeth all persons, being assembled, immediately to disperse themselves, and peaceably to depart to their habitations, or to their lawful business, upon the pains contained in the act made in the first year of King George, for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies. God Save the King [or Queen]’.

The Act worked very well. Riots were put down, rioters shot and those who survived were hanged or transported to Australia. Unfortunately, the Riot Act was sometimes used to put down peaceful demonstrations. A notorious example of this was the Peterloo Massacre of 1819.  Occasionally, courts would rule that officials had fired improperly at the crowds, when the proclamation had not been read, or the precise wording had not been used. Even the omission of the words ‘God save the king’ made the reading invalid. In 1736, the Captain of the Guard of Edinburgh, John Porteous, was sentenced to death for firing on a crowd without reading the proclamation. Porteus was later pardoned but was lynched by an angry mob in the Grassmarket, Edinburgh.

Because the authorities were obliged to read the proclamation, the idiom ‘to read the Riot Act’ entered into popular usage as an expression of severe reproof.

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