The riots of the last few nights have been frightening enough, but fortunately they have, so far, been nothing like the worst ever to have disfigured London. It came in June 1780 as people got angry over a very minor dilution of the laws discriminating against Roman Catholics.
The ringleader was a young MP on the make, named Lord George Gordon, and what became known as the Gordon riots began with an invasion of Parliament, then soon developed into an attack on anyone or anything connected with Catholicism, like the Bavarian and Sardinian embassies, priests’ houses, homes owned by Catholics, a chapel.
Then the target list broadened to take in the homes of magistrates who had imprisoned rioters, and French Protestant refugees. Well, they were foreign weren’t they? How was a fellow supposed to tell the difference between a Protestant Frenchman and a Catholic? The rioters destroyed four prisons, and released the inmates, plus a distillery where they released the gin.
The authorities faced heavy criticism over what was seen as their initial rather relaxed attitude to the disorder, and after five days the army was turned out, while even the great radical, John Wilkes, took up arms against the mob. By the time order was restored, nearly 300 had been killed. For the full story, see London’s Disasters; from Boudicca to the Banking Crisis.