On this day in 1715 The Riot Act, or to give it its full and more entertaining title, “An Act for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies, and for the more speedy and effectual punishing the rioters", came into force.
The Act was introduced during a time of civil disturbance in Great Britain, such as the Sacheverell riots of 1710, the Coronation riots of 1714 and the 1715 riots in England. The preamble makes reference to "many rebellious riots and tumults [that] have been [taking place of late] in diverse parts of this kingdom", adding that those involved "presum[e] so to do, for that the punishments provided by the laws now in being are not adequate to such heinous offences".
The act created a mechanism for certain local officials to make a proclamation ordering the dispersal of any group of more than twelve people who were "unlawfully, riotously, and tumultuously assembled together".
If the group failed to disperse within one hour, then anyone remaining gathered was guilty of a felony without benefit of clergy, punishable by death.
The proclamation could be made in an incorporated town or city by the mayor, bailiff or "other head officer", or a justice of the peace. Elsewhere it could be made by a justice of the peace or the sheriff, undersheriff or parish constable. It had to be read out to the gathering concerned, and had to follow precise wording detailed in the act; several convictions were overturned because parts of the proclamation had been omitted, in particular "God save the King".
The wording that had to be read out to the assembled gathering was as follows:
“Our sovereign lord the King 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.”
If a group of people failed to disperse within one hour of the proclamation, the act provided that the authorities could use force to disperse them. Anyone assisting with the dispersal was specifically indemnified against any legal consequences in the event of any of the crowd being injured or killed.
Because of the broad authority that the act granted, it was used both for the maintenance of civil order and for political means.
At times, it was unclear to both rioters and authorities as to whether the reading of the Riot Act had occurred. One example of this is evident in the St. George's Fields Massacre of 1768. At the trials following the incident, there was confusion among witnesses as to when the Riot Act had actually been read. The Riot Act also caused confusion during the Gordon Riots of 1780, when the authorities felt uncertain of their power to take action to stop the riots without a reading of the Riot Act. After the riots, Lord Mansfield observed that the Riot Act did not take away the pre-existing power of the authorities to use force to stop a violent riot; it only created the additional offense of failing to disperse after a reading of the Riot Act.
The Riot Act was read prior to the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, Cinderloo Uprising of 1821, as well as before the Bristol Riots at Queen's Square in 1831 and twice during the Merthyr Rising of the same year.
The Riot Act eventually drifted into disuse. The last time it was definitely read in England was in Birkenhead, Cheshire, on August 3rd 1919, during the second police strike, when large numbers of police officers from Birkenhead, Liverpool and Bootle joined the strike. Troops were called in to deal with the rioting and looting that had begun, and a magistrate read out the Riot Act.
The Act was repealed in England in Wales by the Criminal Law Act 1967. However, it would continue to be law in Scotland until July 18th 1973 when the Statute Law (Repeals) Act 1973 came into force. The last known use of the Act in Scotland was in 1971 when it was read by the deputy town clerk James Gildea in Airdrie.
As a consequence of the Act, the expression "to read the Riot Act" has entered into common language as a phrase meaning "to reprimand severely", with the added sense of a stern warning. The phrase remains in common use in the English language.
These scenes were built by Dan Harris as part of a series of models on people and protest. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to see them first.
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