The Bristol riots of 1831

In October 1831, major riots broke out in Bristol after the House of Lords rejected a Reform Bill which was intended to extend voting rights to more men in England and Wales. At the time, only wealthy landowners were entitled to vote, and the rapidly growing industrial cities were particularly underrepresented in Parliament. Bristol had a population of 100,000 but just two MPs.

Incensed at local magistrate Sir Charles Wetherall’s claim that Bristol was against reform (in fact 17,000 Bristolians had signed a petition in support of the Bill), hundreds of people took to the streets on 29 October. They chased Wetherall to Mansion House in Queen Square (he eventually escaped the building by adopting a disguise) and proceeded to attack the building along with other properties across the city. Some people targeted the Bishop’s Palace, while others went to the three local jails – Bridewell, New Gaol and Lawford’s Gate – releasing prisoners and setting the buildings alight. In Queen Square, the crowds looted shops and helped themselves to wine and spirits. They were eventually violently dispersed on Monday 31 October by the cavalry.

Several people were killed in the riots and dozens more were wounded, but the exact numbers have never been clear. In the aftermath, four men were executed, seven transported to Australia, and 43 imprisoned for their part in the unrest. Bristol’s mayor, Charles Pinney, was tried for negligence but exonerated, while Lieutenant-Colonel Brereton who led the dragoons was court martialled for leniency and committed suicide before his trial concluded.

The Bristol riots were some of the largest and most significant in British history, but they were not unique. Bath, Worcester, Coventry and Warwick all saw civil unrest at around the same time as communities grappled with the social and political shifts that accompanied industrialisation. The first Reform Act made it through Parliament in 1832, and a Municipal Corporations Act curtailing corporate power followed three years later.

The artists James Baker Pyne and William James Muller were both in Bristol at the time; they recorded the riots and their aftermath in watercolour and, later, oils. We’ve gathered a few of their works together here along with other representations from the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery.