Shrewsbury, like many other Midlands towns, was the scene of severe rioting in the earlier part of the eighteenth century. Although the motivation of the rioters may have been partly economic, their slogans and impact were political and religious. This is the story of the 1715 Shrewsbury riot.
The German prince, George, Elector of Hanover, was proclaimed King of England immediately following the death of Queen Anne in August 1714. His succession to the throne had been guaranteed by the Act of Settlement, passed in 1701. Many, however, did not accept this, believing that the true king should be the exiled James Stuart (known to his opponents as “the Pretender”), whose father, King James II, had been driven from the throne in the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688. The situation was complicated by international politics: George was a good Protestant and had been Britain’s ally against France in the War of the Spanish Succession (1702-13), whereas James was a Catholic and backed by France. James’s supporters were known as Jacobites; from the French “Jacques”, Latin “Jacobus”.
Politics at the time was dominated by two parties, the Whigs and the Tories. The Whigs were entirely Hanoverian, but some Tories were Jacobites. A Tory government had brought the war to an end in 1713, but had then disintegrated and collapsed, just days before the death of Queen Anne, largely because of the Jacobite split, and the Whigs had returned to power and summoned George to England. He was crowned in October; Tories and Jacobites being too disorganised and demoralised to take any action. The Whigs cemented their position by winning a large majority in the election held in 1715; remaining Tories were purged from the administration and several of the party leaders were arrested or fled abroad.
The other great division between the parties was on the issue of religion. The Whigs favoured religious toleration, but the Tories were strongly identified with the Church of England. Until 1689 non-Anglicans were excluded from public life and occasionally persecuted. In 1689 an Act of Toleration allowed freedom of worship to Protestant non-Anglicans (known as dissenters or non-conformists), though they were still officially excluded from public life. In fact this exclusion was often ignored, and to many Anglicans things had gone too far, and they demanded a proper clampdown. Following the Toleration Act, Shrewsbury dissenters purchased land in what is now the High Street and opened a meeting-house there in 1691, with John Bryan as Minister.
In the West Midlands and the west country the coronation of George I brought widespread disturbances. Meeting-houses were attacked by mobs in several towns, and in Bristol a Quaker was killed when he tried to prevent this. Trouble in Shrewsbury was limited to demonstrators shouting “High Church and Sacheverell for ever!” a reference to an extreme Tory clergyman. Those involved were mostly craftsmen and shopkeepers of the town, including a draper, a butcher, a baker, two tailors and five cordwainers: only one was described as a “labourer”, and another was a Justice of the Peace! No farmworkers from the countryside were involved. The Whig press blamed local landowners and Anglican clergy for stirring up trouble.
Things turned much more serious in July 1715. Meeting-houses were attacked by mobs in towns all over the west midlands, leading to about 500 people being arrested for rioting in Staffordshire, Shropshire and Worcestershire, including several landowning gentry. In Shropshire, there were disturbances and attacks on Dissenting chapels in Whitchurch, Wem and Cleobury Mortimer. In Shrewsbury on the night of July 6th 1715 a mob swept down the street to attack the meeting-house, crying, “The Church for ever!”, and, for the Dissenters, “Down with them! Down with them!” The building was almost completely demolished. The Mayor and the town magistrates were unable, or unwilling, to intervene to stop the carnage. The mob was said to have been headed by one “Captain Ragg”; otherwise Harry Webb, a skinner. As before, no country people were involved. A paper was posted around Shrewsbury, carrying these words:-
“We gentlemen of the Loyal Mob of Shrewsbury do issue this Proclamation to all Dissenters from the Church of England, of what kind or denomination soever, whether Independents, Baptists or Quakers: if you, or any of you, do suffer any of that damnable faction called Presbyterians to assemble themselves amongst you, in any of your conventicles, at the time of Divine Worship, you may expect to meet with the same that they have been treated with. Given under our hands and seals the 11th day of July 1715. God save the King”.
The fact that the King was not named indicates that it was the so-called “James III” who was meant, known to Hanoverians as “the Pretender”.
Soon after this, as the meeting-house in Whitchurch was being rebuilt, a local carpenter named Samuel Ratcliffe, who had participated in its demolition, was heard to damn all Presbyterians and to vow that “all the Dissenters in a little time will be flying for their lives”. However, after this the Shropshire towns were generally quiet; in contrast with the situation in Staffordshire, where endemic disturbances and riots continued in many towns.
The government responded to these events by passing the Riot Act, which brought in the death penalty for rioters who refused to disperse when ordered to by a magistrate. Magistrates could also authorise troops to open fire on rioters. This Act has never been repealed.
Neither of the two great Jacobite revolts of 1715 and 1745 got anywhere near Shrewsbury, though some of the Jacobite leaders did plan to advance into north Wales, where the great landowner and M.P. Sir Watkin Williams Wynn was believed to be a staunch supporter. All the Shrewsbury Jacobites contributed was a tradition of holding celebrations to drink James’s health on his birthday: June 10th. In 1750 this led to clashes with the authorities, and the posting of a notice by Jacobite sympathisers the next day:-
“Honest lads of Shrewsbury, do not be frightened at the insult you received last night it was base and cruel it was contrary to the Laws of God and Nature therefore stand on your own defence you have as great a right to wear a broadsword as any man whatever wear your swords and use them as men as Englishmen as men of courage ….”
Despite this grammatically erratic proclamation, nothing much followed, and after this things fizzled out.
Why did all this trouble occur? It was probably in part economic in origin. Riots were very common in the 18th century, usually linked with a sudden rise in food prices, caused by shortages. British rioters seldom killed anyone, though they did enormous damage to property. The end of the War of the Spanish Succession caused widespread unemployment, as munitions works closed and thousands of soldiers were demobilised; but understanding of economic forces was in its infancy, there was as yet no concept of social class, and the very word “unemployment” had yet to be invented. All the demonstrators had to shout were political and religious slogans. Most of Shropshire had been strongly Royalist in the Civil War, and was thereafter Tory. The most likely explanation of the riots is that discontented men of the West Midlands towns were supplied with slogans by the local landowning elites, angry at the Tory eviction from political power. But, as was shown in the two Jacobite revolts, these elites had no intention of risking their lives and property by outright rebellion. As Prince Charles Edward Stuart, the romantic leader of the 1745 revolt, said of the English Jacobites who had completely failed to rise in his support, “I will do for them what they did for me: I will drink their health”.
As for the Shrewsbury meeting-house; a later minister wrote, “By the care and contribution of the government, the chapel was soon rebuilt and our liberties confirmed and fixed on a solid foundation”. The new building is still there in the High Street, and is now the Unitarian meeting-house; its loyalty to the Hanoverian regime still proclaimed by the painting of the royal coat of arms of King George I on the wall.
(Note: Much of the information here is taken from “Jacobitism and the English People”, by Paul Monod)