East Midlands Food

East Midlands Food

Riot and tumult…

Bell Inn, Nottingham

The Bell Inn on Angel Row in Nottingham was originally the refectory of a Carmelite monastery and became an alehouse after this and other small monasteries were dissolved in 1536 by order of Henry VIII. What has that to do with riot and tumult? Well, rioting over shortages of food and the increased prices that usually resulted were very common in the past, particularly in the case of grain, flour and the bread that was such a large part of working class diets; and you would have had a ‘grandstand’ view from the Bell Inn of one such riot on 12 May 1792. This was provoked by the high price of butchers’ meat, when:

‘a number of people ‘assembled in a riotous manner in the Market-place… After a stout endeavour to regain possession of their property, when further resistance might have proved dangerous, the butchers retreated from the Shambles, and left the mob in undisturbed possession. It being Saturday, the stock of meat was large, and in a few moments the whole of it disappeared. The magistrates at once called out the military, and by the expostulations of the Mayor, and the firing of the soldiers in the air, the mob dispersed, and the military returned to their quarters.

‘Very unexpectedly, in the course of the evening, the depredators reassembled, and bearing down upon the Shambles with renewed force, destroyed and conveyed away every door, shutter, implement, and book they could find in the shops, and made a great bonfire of them in the Market-place, yelling and shouting round it like savages. The fire was burning from eleven at night till one in the morning when the military succeeded in extinguishing it, and tranquility was restored. For several days after, symptoms of a recurrence of the disorder were apparent, but the vigilance of the authorities at length finally suppressed them’ (Henry Field, The Date Book of Nottingham, 1884).

A few years later, on 1 September 1800, the Records of the Borough of Nottingham* tell us that there were more ‘riotous proceedings’ occasioned by the high price of provisions; and ‘as far as lies in their powers’, local magistrates declared that they ‘will be glad to concur in any Steps that may be thought eligible to lower the price of Bread, but all measures for that purpose will be vain so long as Rioting and Tumult prevail’. The ‘mob’ first ‘did some mischief at several Bakers’ Houses’ until they were dispersed by a party of the Blues’ (Royal Horse Guards), but next morning ‘seemed Disposed to plunder the Warehouses and some Boats laden with corn’. Mills at Basford, Lenton, Radford and Wollaton were also attacked and damaged.

The rioting was provoked by shortages of flour and ‘the price at which the small Quantity that could be procured was obtained’. Late rain had delayed the harvest and the price of corn had risen from £4 a quarter to £7 – 10. As a consequence, the magistrates noted, the poor of the town had:

‘struggled with dreadful Hardships from the high Price of Provisions with unexampled Patience up to the period of the Harvest from the hope of the produce of it alleviating their miseries… [Flour was obtainable] with extreme Difficulty… at any price. This appears to have Driven them to absolute Despair and nothing can exceed the violence of their behaviour… [We are] apprehensive that nothing short of some general Regulations by legislative authority will be commensurate to the Magnitude of the Evil’.  

In the absence of any help from central government, and being ‘anxious for the suppression of the riots… without the effusion of blood’, the magistrates themselves purchased flour and ‘sold it out to the Poor under the management of several Gentlemen in the Town who very handsomely came forward to assist them’. The losses made on the flour were covered by public subscription and the ‘Corporation purse’, and by 16 September there seemed ‘no occasion to fear any further Tumult’.

Nottingham was by no means alone in experiencing this kind of disturbance – in 1766 there was a major riot in Leicester over the price of cheese, of which more some other time – but this was very typical of food riots in the 18th century and beyond. Although there is no specific mention of them here, women were often prominent in food riots, having the ultimate responsibility for feeding the family and making ends meet ; but the mob’ was not nearly as undisciplined as the term suggests. On the contrary, its attacks were focused on the houses, warehouses, mills and other property of the bakers and suppliers of flour, who were seen as the culprits in terms of the high prices.  

Local magistrates traditionally had a role in controlling prices and ensuring supplies of essential provisions to maintain public order, and their response and that of other ‘gentlemen’ of the town when the military failed to quell the rioting was also fairly typical – though this sort of intervention became less common in the earlier 19th century when newer theories of political economy came to condemn it as undesirable ‘interference’ in the free market economy. 

However, historians have argued that the actions of the so-called ‘mobs’ were based on a strong sense of a ‘moral economy’: of traditional rights and customs that they were defending when they resorted to rioting and took direct action against what they saw as the cause of their problems. If you’d like to explore this interpretation at more length, see E.P. Thompson, ‘The moral economy of the English crowd in the 18th century’ in Past & Present, 50 (1971), 76-136; or George Rude, The Crowd in History: popular disturbances in France & England 1730 – 1848 (Serif, 2005 edn.). 

* Vol. VII, 1760 – 1800 (Corporation of Nottingham, 1947)



    Phil Perry December 19th, 2012 at 1:34 am

    Interesting article, I had not known about the provenance of the Bell Inn.
    The rioting that occurred in Nottingham during the C18th and C19th was often linked, as you say, to food shortages although some may disagree with the statement that female involvement was due to their being the ones responsible for buying food and feeding their families. (Google Women in Protest 1800-1850).
    Likewise the diminuation in local retail price regulation may not have been wholly influenced by a change of attitude to free market economy as by the change of emphasis in the rioting from protest against food prices to protest against low wages.
    As to the 1766 Cheese riot, Leicester was but one place affected in the East Midlands. Of equal significance were the Great Cheese Riot in Nottingham (when the mayor was attacked with cheese) and the Battle of (Castle) Donnington that took place a few days later.
    (A fictional e-novel set around the East Midlands Cheese Riots of 1766 has recently been published on Amazon – Google Damned Charity)


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A research project that looked at various aspects of food in the East Midlands, linking them with museum displays and objects in the region, and making the results available to as many people as possible in different formats.