Littleport Riots!

Between the 22nd and the 24th of May 1816 Littleport rioted against the injustice of so many of its people starving!
There had been a very hard winter and spring hadn’t alleviated the spiralling costs of staple foods. There was little work to be found in and around the farms in the area. Therefore the fact that it is on record that average wages were about 8 to 9 shillings (£31 – £35) a week meant little to those without a wage of any size.
In 1815 a pound of bread was quoted at over 4 shillings (£15) and predicted to rise to over 5 shillings (£19) and in early 1816, 28 pounds of wheat cost 52 shillings (today’s money, £200) rising through 76 shillings (£293) in May to 103 shillings (£397) in December.
On the 22nd of May,1816, a group of 56 residents met at The Globe Inn on Main Street in Littleport, now the Co-op, to look at the situation caused by the lack of work and rising grain costs. They had always maintained a pot contributed to by everyone who could put something in for redistribution to those most in need. At this dreadful time there was no money to give.
Their anger proved too much to contain and they decided to walk around the village to the houses of those well to do and first stop was to the house of farmer Henry Martin. He had been made ‘overseer of the poor’ in 1814 and was not well liked by the parishioners. One man went to get a horn from Burgess, the lighterman, and started blowing it outside The Globe Inn, gathering hundreds of villagers to join the first group, and so the riot commenced!
It is recorded that the protestors, now called rioters, threw stones through Mingey’s shop windows, and then they invaded Mr Clarke’s property and threw his belongings into the street. Next, at Josiah Dewey’s place, the Reverend John Vachell and his wife arrived to try to calm the rioters. Vachell had been vicar of St George’s since 1795 and was also a magistrate; he was an unpopular man, as he dealt harshly with even minor offences. He read, or tried to read, the Riot Act, without effect, as the crowd told him “to go home.”
It was also reported that the rioters next visited the premises of disabled 90-year-old Mr Sindall, throwing his furniture into the street and his housekeeper, Mrs Hutt, was intimidated by a rioter wielding a butcher’s cleaver. After stopping at the place of Mr Little, who gave the angry crowd £2 (£154) they continued to Robert Speechly’s and demolished his furniture. Next they broke into the house of Rebecca Waddelow looking for Harry Martin, her grandson. He had seen them coming and escaped out the back. Rebecca Cutlack was visiting at the time, and they robbed her and removed property worth between £100 and £200 (£7,711 and £15,422)
At about 11 pm, the rioters arrived at the house of the Reverend John Vachell, who, after threatening to shoot anyone who entered his house, was disarmed when three men rushed him. He fled on foot with his wife and two daughters towards Ely. After Vachell had left, the rioters destroyed his goods and chattels according to his report and stole some of his silverware. Vachell was later to sue the ‘Hundred of Ely’ for the damages under the Riot Act. He received over £708 which is about £54,594 in today’s money, an award which was challenged in the press, as many people complained about the size of the resulting district levies used to pay for it. The rioters then stopped a post-chaise returning with Hugh Robert Evans senior and Henry Martin from a turnpike trust meeting in Downham. They robbed Evans of 14 shillings (£54) before allowing them both to proceed. On reaching Ely, Evans alerted the magistrates who sent a carriage for Reverend Vachell, which collected him and his family walking towards Ely.
The protestors aka rioters marched to Ely where magistrates attempted to calm the protests by ordering poor relief and fixing a minimum wage. (See printed bill) The following day, May 24th, encouraged by Lord Liverpool’s government, a militia of the citizens of Ely, led by Sir Henry Bate Dudley and backed by the 1st Royal Dragoons, pursued the rioters.
The Littleport protestors made a stand in the George and Dragon on Station Road, now a private dwelling but a plaque is on the wall, and when they refused to come out the militia was used. Assembled outside, Thomas Sindall, who had been involved in other protests in other villages, attempted to take a musket from Trooper William Porter, but was not successful. Sindall tried to run away and when he did not stop when ordered, he was shot through the head. That marked the end of the resistance and they were taken to Ely.
Edward Christian, brother of Fletcher Christian of Mutiny on the Bounty fame, had been appointed Chief Justice of the Isle of Ely in 1800 by the Bishop of Ely. As the Chief Justice, Christian was entitled to try the rioters alone. The government, in this case via the Home Secretary, Lord Sidmouth, nevertheless appointed a Special Commission, consisting of Justice Abbott and Justice Burrough. The rioters were tried in the assizes at Ely during the week commencing 17th of June 1816. 23 men and one woman were condemned, of which five were subsequently hanged.
Their names are:
William Beamiss, George Crow, John Dennis, Isaac Harley and Thomas South.
The execution took place on Friday 28th June at Parnell or Mill Pits. which was in St. John’s Road, Ely. The authorities had to go to Cambridge for a cart to carry the men to the gallows, because local suppliers refused. The bodies were placed in coffins and taken to a cottage in Gaol Street, Ely, where many people came to view them. The men were then buried in the churchyard of St. Mary’s. The stone slab placed on the church tower is a grim reminder of the injustice of the time.

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