During the early decades of the last century there was social and political unrest across Europe. In his book From Portreeve to Mayor – The growth of Yeovil the late L.C. Hayward BA., B.Sc., FCA., wrote – ‘Fears of popular agitation following the revolutions in Europe in 1830 and the radical movement in England showed itself in the swearing in of 250 Yeovilians as special constables in December and the forming of the Mudford troop of Yeomanry for the protection of property…… Their services were needed during the October riot in Yeovil in 1831.’
The cause of the October riot arose from the defeat of William Ponsonby, the Whig Reform candidate, by Lord Ashley in a Dorset Parliamentary election at Blandford. There were allegations that Lord Ashley’s agents had behaved corruptly in the election, and the protests led to rioting in Blandford and Sherborne.
Early in the evening of Friday 21 October, some youths and boys assembled in the Borough in Yeovil, shouting ‘Ponsonby and Reform for ever!’ and by nine o’clock, the crowd had increased until several hundred men, women and youths, many liberally refreshed with cider and beer, were milling about. Suddenly they moved off and for a moment it was thought that the demonstration was over. However this was wishful thinking because during the rest of the night and into the early morning a mob rampaged up and down Princes Street, Kingston and Hendford attacking, and in two cases looting, houses of Lord Ashley’s supporters.
The initial assault on solicitor, Mr. Edwin Newman’s, house (now the offices of solicitors Clarke, Willmott and Clarke) smashed all his window panes and then the mob broke through the front door. Despite Mr. Newman threatening the invaders with a loaded pistol, they rampaged through the house smashing furniture, stealing valuables and ransacking all the rooms. The solicitor’s wife was pregnant with their third child but with her two other children she was saved from injury by the prompt action of friends who also managed to save many valuable papers from Mr. Newman’s office.
All the front windows of Mr. Mayo’s Old Sarum House in Princes Street , were smashed and a few minutes later the mob stormed Mr. Francis Robins’ house in Ram Park (now Park Road). After smashing his windows the mob broke into the house and began to destroy furniture, book cases, ornaments and everything they could lay their hands on, including the servants’ clothes. Articles of furniture and clothing were piled on the lawn and a bonfire lit.
Other houses attacked were those of Mr. White, Rev. James Hooper’s Hendford Manor, Mr. John Greenham’s Hendford House (now the Manor Hotel), Mr. Edwin Tomkins, Mr. Penny and Mr. Slade, but in these cases the damage was confined to broken windows.
The fury and size of the mob were too much for the town’s inadequate forces of law and order, who could only stand by and watch the tide of destruction which swept up and down Princes Street and Hendford until four o’clock in the morning.
At about a quarter past eleven, local magistrate, John Goodford, whose son, returning from dining at Montacute House had witnessed the tumult, bravely rode alone into Yeovil and the riot. During that fearful night, John Goodford rode about the town, accompanied in due course by several local businessmen, and his calls for the mob to go home were partly successful, but whether this was due to Mr Goodford’s exhortations or fatigue, we shall never know.
During Saturday there was a feeling of general unrest in the town and the Western Flying Post reported that – ‘A meeting of inhabitants was held at the Mermaid Inn, when it was resolved that all legal means should be used to prevent a repetition of such disgraceful outrages.’ Several magistrates, including Mr. John Goodford, were also present at the meeting in the Mermaid. By late afternoon the crowds were once again assembling in the Borough and the fear of further rioting was heightened by reports that people were coming in from the surrounding villages. The magistrates therefore send word summoning the Mudford Troop of Yeomanry cavalry to re-enforce the special constables and public officers who had proved incapable of protecting property during Friday’s riot. At about a quarter to seven, news came to the Mermaid that plans were being made to attack Mr Hooper’s property in Hendford and Mr. Thomas Hoskins, one of the magistrates, read the Riot Act requiring the crowd to disperse within one hour, failing which action would be taken against them. Although this had the effect of quietening the mob they refused to disperse.
The Mudford Troop of Yeomanry, commanded by Captain George Harbin, trotted into town and formed up outside the Mermaid but the presence of the part time cavalrymen did little to intimidate the mob. Only a few days before the Troop had been mustered – ‘ for exercise in a field on Camel Hill, where they went through their evolutions with admirable precision’ – and afterwards the Troop enjoyed a ‘sumptuous dinner’ at the Sparkford Inn. Faced with an angry mob of several hundred, the Troop realised that ‘their evolutions’ would be of little use in the narrow High Street, and retired. It was reported by the Western Flying Post that the Mudford Troop – ‘left the town under the idea that their presence might be the means of bringing together a crowd.’
During the commotion which followed the departure of the Yeomanry, several of the mob were arrested for throwing stones at the Mermaid and taken inside the Inn. Determined efforts to release them were resisted despite the mob trying to break through the doors and pelting the front of the Inn with missiles.
The Mudford Troop had remained just outside the town, where they were re-enforced by the Martock Troop which had also been called out, commanded by Captain Tatchell. Both Troops now entered the town and began to ride up and down the streets which only increased the fury of the mob. The Yeomanry came under a hail of stones and assorted missiles and one of the troopers was knocked from his horse. The position was becoming critical when at least six shots were fired, four over the heads of the crowd and two into them. One of the Yeomanry, a Mr. Cottle accidentally shot himself in the thigh and one of the mob was heard to cryout in pain. There were claims that Captain Tatchell had given the order to fire but this was subsequently denied and stated that the shots had been fired without authority.
The presence of the Yeomanry probably prevented more destruction and damage to property but the crowds continued to pose a threat and it was not until a troop of regular cavalry from the 3rd Dragoon Guards trotted into Yeovil on the Sunday morning that the mob finally dispersed.
The 3rd Dragoon Guards remained in town for a fortnight and special constables patrolled the streets from six to twelve o’clock every night for several months.
Grateful townspeople presented each member of the Yeomanry with an ornate jug in recognition of ‘their manly and forbearing character.’ Three of the Riot jugs are in the possession of South Somerset Cultural and Heritage Access Centre – they were presented to James Masters, G. Edwards and R. Raymond.
Twenty local men and women appeared at the Somerset Spring Assizes in Taunton in April 1832, charged with riotous assembly , and received sentences from 6 days to 18 months – several were acquitted.
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