reform riot of 1831

reform riot of 1831

Yeovil erupts as hundreds take to the streets


Background to the Riot

During the late 1820s there was ever-increasing discontent among the working-class population across the county. This was chiefly due to the electoral system which was corrupt and unrepresentative. At this time Members of Parliament were from Britain's richest families and represented towns and boroughs where they had major control. In 1830 most of the British population was still excluded from voting, so they had no influence over the law-making process that affected their lives and consequently the poor had to endure low pay combined with harsh working conditions. Voting took place publicly so coercion became rife and, of course, the working-class people often worked for and/or lived in property owned by their MP.

In 1825 William Huskisson, President of the Board of Trade, removed all restrictions on imported gloves and exposed Yeovil glove manufacturers to unlimited competition from France. Since glove making employed a huge proportion of Yeovilians, a widespread depression hit the town. To quote Hayward "The distress was real enough: outdoor relief (i.e. benefit without entering the workhouse) in the parish rose to over £600 in 1825-6 and to £1,000 in 1831-2; the Mendicity Society reported in 1832 that 1,027 persons applied for relief, of whom 927 were helped (there were 149 imposters and two were prosecuted!): Outdoor relief was given to 170 persons, mainly glove workers, in 1833. The depression underlies the political unrest shown in the 1831 riots and the activity of the radical Political Union in the town."

On 1 March 1830 the Reform Bill was presented to the House of Commons although this bill was denied and four MPs resigned as a consequence. Shortly after the Reform Bill was put forward, Lord Ashley was voted into power at Blandford and he refused to let the bill take place.

In 1831 there were riots in England when Parliament decided against reform to give Britain's industrial cities and towns better representation. In Bristol protestors threw stones at the Mansion House, broke in and destroyed it, and three protestors were killed by police. The Bristol gaol and Bishop's Palace were also set on fire. In total an estimated 70 people died in the violence.


Events in Yeovil

The demand for Parliamentary reform found strong support for the Radical cause in Yeovil and the radical Political Union was quite active in the town. Following the rejection of a second Reform Bill by the House of Lords and after riots at Blandford, where Lord Ashley, an anti-reformer had defeated the Whig reform candidate William Ponsonby, trouble brewed in Yeovil. Lord Ashley's agents were accused of corruption and trickery in the contest and most of the solicitors in Yeovil were active anti-Reformers and had been professional election agents of Lord Ashley. Consequently they were the first to be singled out by an angry mob on the night of Friday, 21 October 1831 who attacked the homes of Edwin Newman, William Lambert White, Francis Theophilus Robins, Edwin Tomkins, William Tomkins and John Slade.

The mob then proceeded to attack Old Sarum House, the home of wealthy glove manufacturer John Ryall Mayo, and then Glenthorne House opposite, the home of Henry Marsh Watts. Both buildings had many windows broken. The mob then moved along Hendford where they attacked Hendford House (today's Manor Hotel) the home of glove manufacturer John Greenham, before moving on to attack Hendford Manor, at this time the home of Jonathan Hooper, nephew of the  Rev James Hooper for whom it had been built.

Following the attacks on these private residences, the Riot Act was read by Justice of the Peace John Goodford, supported by ironmonger and Town Commissioner Josiah Hannam, building contractor Charles Vining, baker Mr Stainer and the local constables. The mob, however, would not disperse and rampaged through Hendford and Kingston until four o'clock in the morning and consequently John Goodford decided to call out the Mudford and Martock Troops of Yeomanry.

The Mudford Troop of Yeomanry, under the command of Captain George Harbin of Newton Surmaville, assembled the following morning. The rioters were threatening to sack the town and pelted the Yeomanry with stones and other missiles. However the Yeomanry arrested two of the mob and took them to the Mermaid Inn where the magistrates were assembled. The Mermaid Inn was attacked, windows broken, and the rioters attempted to rescue those that had been arrested. Consequently the Yeomanry were instructed to fire "four in the air, and two at the rioters". One of the rioters was wounded and the crowd dispersed although the Yeomanry had to provide constant patrols to keep the streets clear and maintain order.

The 3rd Dragoon Guards arrived from Taunton on the Sunday morning and order was finally restored. Other than the man who had been shot by the Yeomanry, the only other casualties were George Soper who was cut with a sabre and a man named Parkhouse "who was out, drunk, and was ridden over". One of the Yeomanry, a Trooper named Charles Cattle, accidentally shot himself in the leg.

Following the riot a number of special constables were engaged and made daily patrols of the streets for some sixteen weeks.

To show their appreciation of the good conduct of the troops, the townspeople of Yeovil subscribed £225 (roughly £18,000 at today's value) and presented every member of both the Mudford Troop of Yeomanry and the Martock Troop of Yeomanry with an inscribed cup, while ornate "Riot Jugs" were presented to the officers (see photograph and description below).

The damage caused by the rioters was considerable, with Edwin Newman's and Francis Robins' homes receiving the greatest amount of damage with doors and windows smashed, furniture destroyed and much liquor drunk. Newman's final estimate of the damage to his property was £250 (about £20,000 at today's value) while the damage done to Robins' home amounted to more than £300 (about £24,000 at today's value).


The Court Hearings

Twenty people were charged with riotous assembly at Taunton Assizes in April 1832. Thirteen were found guilty and received sentences ranging from the death sentence to six days imprisonment, while the other seven were acquitted.

The following is an extract from the 5 April 1832 edition of the London newspaper, True Sun, reporting on the trial of the rioters at the Taunton Assizes of 3 April 1832

"James Martin, aged 15, Thomas Dommet Symes, 25, J Gill, 27, and Henry Erl, 36, were indicted for having riotously assembled on the 21st of October last, at Yeovil, and beginning to destroy and demolish the dwelling house of Edwin Newman. Mr Ball appeared for Gill. Mr Moody conducted the prosecution, and called the following witnesses:- 

Edwin Newman, an Attorney at Yeovil - "On Friday, the 21st of October, at eight o'clock in the evening, there was an assemblage of about fifty people opposite my house. They threw stones at the house, but the trees in front protected it. They stayed for ten minutes to a quarter of an hour. About half-past eleven, a violent mob, consisting of several hundreds, came to my house. They attacked the front gate, shouting and making a noise. After much labour and pains, they got through into the yard. They then violently attacked the windows and doors with stones and sticks. They broke down the office window; they got in, whereupon I moved from the front door where I had required them to desist, and told them I have a loaded pistol and would fire on them. I went to the inner door of the office, and stood there. I said, "You have broken my windows, be satisfied and be off." and assured them if they made their appearance I would draw the trigger of my pistol which I held in my hand. During that time another party were endeavouring to break in my front door. Hearing the screams of my wife, who was upstairs with her two infant children, she being at that time in a very delicate situation, I left the office door and went to her. I then heard them break in the front door. Mr Tomkins came in, and entreated my wife to leave the house. She refused, unless I would join her: at last I accompanied her and the children. They were breaking the furniture all over the house. In going out I passed the front door; it was completely broken. There were several hundreds collected. I went back to my house between four and five the next morning. I then found the doors, shutters and windows battered completely to pieces. There was only one pane left in front. The framework was entirely demolished. I was obliged to have a new office door. At the back of the house, the dining room windows and frames were entirely broken and destroyed. The furniture was injured to a considerable amount. I have recovered a verdict against the hundred for £250 (about £20,000 at today's value). I was engaged by Lord Ashley at the Dorset election."

Cross-examined by Mr Bell - "I was a very active agent for Lord Ashley. Persons who were innocently looking on, might have been pressed into the court." Other witnesses were called, who corroborated Mr Newman's testimony, and recognised the prisoners as having been actively engaged in the outrages detailed. No evidence was called for the prisoners, against all of whom a verdict of Guilty was returned. No sentence was passed.

Edward Dodge, Edward Miller, John Curwood, Richard Marks and John Baker, were indicted for having riotously assembled and begun to demolish the house of Francis Theophilus Robins.

Mr FT Robins, an Attorney of Yeovil, stated - "On Friday, the 21st of October, soon after ten o'clock in the evening, I saw a mob, consisting of several hundreds, coming down a field in which my house stands. A brick wall, five feet high, divides my garden from that field. They pushed down the wall. Mrs Robins was so alarmed that she insisted on going to a cottage near. I heard the destruction of the windows and doors of my house, apparently accomplished with stones, sticks and bricks. The mob continued there two hours. The windows and shutters were completely demolished. Every window in the house was destroyed. The damage done amounted to more than £300 (about £24,000 at today's value)."

Corroborative testimony was called as in the last case but the prisoners were all acquitted."


The Sentences

Although recorded in more than one book about Yeovil that the heaviest sentence handed down to the rioters was 18 months, this is in fact untrue as shown below. Only eight of the rioters were recorded in the Somerset Criminal Register - seven were found guilty and initially sentenced to death while the eighth was found not guilty. All the death sentences were commuted, but at least two of the rioters were transported for life.

Henry Earle and William Richards, clearly ringleaders, were accused of 'Riot, and fel(on)y beginning to demolish a House' and both were initially sentenced to death, although both had their sentences commuted to 'Transportation for Life'.

Thomas Dommett Symes, John Gill, James Smith and Jacob Milsom were all accused of "Riot, and fel(on)y beginning to demolish a House" and all were initially sentenced to death although this was commuted to  'Imprisonment for 2 Years' for Gill, 'Imprisonment for 18 Months' for Symes and 'Imprisonment for 12 months' for Smith and Milsom.

James Martin and John Baker were both accused of 'Fel(on)y beginning to demolish a House'. Martin was sentenced to death but his sentence was commuted to 12 months imprisonment whereas Baker was found 'Not Guilty'.

In the Gallery below are the relevant entries from the Somerset Criminal Register.


The Aftermath

One aspect of the riot, usually overlooked, is the cost to the tax payers of Yeovil. The Vestry minutes covering parish expenditure for the year March 1832 to March 1833 noted "A difference in the amount of County Stock of this year over the last year of £407 - was occasioned by the late Riots." The cost to Yeovilians amounted to over £600,000 at today's value. 

By 1832 people from the middle and working classes had started to form political groups in most of the major industrial areas and MPs became scared that a revolution might occur in Britain and that the working class would execute the nobility as it had in France. Giving people the vote was seen as a way to prevent revolution and so, partly in response to the riots, Parliament passed the 1832 Reform Act.

The act stated that:

  • Those who owned property and earned more than £10 per year got the vote. This was equal to about one in five men.

  • Seats must be created for MPs in new industrial towns such as Birmingham.

  • Seats for MPs from rotten boroughs had to be removed.

There was a mixed reaction to the new political changes. The middle class was happy about the changes, but the working class still could not vote. Elections remained corrupt and the country was still run by the rich.




Although this isn't very clear (and I've condensed the width by omitting some blank columns) this is the entry recorded in the Somerset Criminal Register concerning Henry Earle who was accused of 'Riot, and beginning to demolish a House' and initially sentenced to death, although this was commuted to 'Transportation for Life'.


Again condensed, these are the entries for William Richards and James Smith who were accused of 'Riot, and fel(on)y beginning to demolish a House'. Both were initially sentenced to death but Richards' sentence was commuted to 'Transportation for Life' and Smith's commuted to 'Imprisonment for 12 months'.


Again condensed, these are the sentences handed down to Thomas Dommett Symes and John Gill. Both were accused of 'Riot, and fel(on)y beginning to demolish a House' and both were initially sentenced to death although this was commuted to 'Imprisonment for 18 Months' for Symes and 'Imprisonment for 2 Years' for Gill.


Again condensed, Jacob Milsom was accused of 'fel(on)y beginning to demolish a House'. Initially sentenced to death, his sentence was commuted to 'Imprisonment for 12 moths'.


Again condensed, James Martin and John Baker were both accused of 'fel(on)y beginning to demolish a House'. Martin was sentenced to death but his sentence was commuted to 12 months imprisonment but Baker was found 'Not Guilty'.


This photograph features in my book 'Secret Yeovil'.

This is a salt glaze stoneware Yeovil Riot Jug, 9¾" (247mm) high and decorated in relief with a sheaf of corn, farming implements, vine tree and grape decoration and with silver presentation plaque inscribed "Presented by the Inhabitants of Yeovil and its vicinity in testimony of their approval of the conduct of the Mudford Troop of Yeomanry Cavalry during the riots in that town in 1831. To Mr J A S Sealy". The jug was put up for auction in April 2011 but was unsold.


This photograph features in my book 'Secret Yeovil'.

A Yeomanry Cavalry helmet of steel and brass construction with a black plume and a Royal Coat of Arms on a sunburst plate. Worn by the Mudford Independent Yeomanry Cavalry. This was auctioned in 2007.


A Sergeant's tunic of the Mudford Yeomanry Cavalry, complete with brass epaulettes and gloves of c1830. The troop was raised by Capt. Harbin of Newton Surmaville. This tunic was auctioned in 2007.


An officer's waistcoat of the Mudford Yeomanry Cavalry, complete with brass buttons. This waistcoat was auctioned in 2007.


The Riot Tour Pamphlet, 2016


Commencing at Bruton on 23 April 2016 artist Jimmy Caulty's ADP Riot Tour travelled to over forty historic civil unrest sites across the country. Housed in a 40ft shipping container, The Aftermath Dislocation Principle (ADP) is a monumental post-riot landscape in miniature.

The first riot featured in the tour is, of course, Yeovil's Reform Riot of 1831 (although why it visited Bruton rather than Yeovil is something of a mystery). At each stage of the tour, through the tradition of pamphleteering, Caulty issued ADP propaganda alongside more level-headed leaflets that discuss each location’s ‘riot’. The Yeovil pamphlet, reproduced below, is an abridged version of this web page.