Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Tales of War and Conflict - Clifton Town, opera by John Humphreys (Part IV of IV)

Want to catch up on the story?
Click on Part I, Part II and Part III

Part IV
October 1831

It seemed as though the whole of Bristol was on fire, with thousands of rioters and looters roaming the streets.  The contemporary painter William James Muller illustrated these dramatic events with a rich and powerful use of colour -

The burning of the Custom House

The burning of the Mansion House, Queens Square

The troops marching up Corn Street

The burning of the 'new gaol' with St Pauls church opposite

The rioting in Queens Square

Back, then, to our story: 

Little Acorn, otherwise Billy, Sarah’s son who was so excited by the soldiers and was determined to be one when he grew up, was never destined to further his ambition.  Lost in the melée, unable to hear his mother’s cries as she hunted for him, the boy was suddenly spotted by the Trooper framed in a window with flames behind him.  He started forward to try to save him, but was stopped by his commanding officer who had a job for him to do, and the child suddenly disappeared from view.  The Peeler later found him and sadly brought his little body back to Sarah, who was distraught with grief.


Closed be thine eyes, never more to be peeping;
Closed be this hand on a kiss to be keeping
Safe, till my heart ceases wearily beating;
Return it to me at our next merry meeting…
Sleep, little Acorn, sleep little Acorn mine and angels guard thy rest!

The haughty Bishop of Bristol appeared, seeing at a glance what was happening and could think of nothing better to say than -

“Repent and be comforted, for it is written ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay’ saith the Lord.”

Sarah cried – “In the name of Pity, how can you preach of Sin and Vengeance?”

The Bishop sneered – “This child, conceived in Sin and living in wickedness, this creature of curruption has paid!”

Sarah whispered, almost to herself -
Oh God who created me, sent me in my grieving
This sweet memento, conceived in love and tenderness;

Her voice started to gain strength -
Whispers, retrieving the solace that He sent me,
Words of compassion, gently reminding me:
Suffer the children to come unto me. 

She rounded on the Bishop with all the contempt she could muster -
Lordly Divine, prophet of vengeance,
Rejoice then, to see this God of mine forsaking His gentleness,
Taking an Acorn, breaking the heart,
The lonely heart of an oak tree…”
... then she broke down and wept.

Over the following three days central Bristol was beset by riots.  At first some 600 people roamed the streets but it grew to several thousand, its numbers swelled by prisoners who were sprung from gaol by the rioters.  Famous buildings and private homes were set on fire and destroyed, even by children, and looting was unrestrained. 

Thomas Leeson Rowbotham:  Bristol seen from Pyle Hill, 30/10/1831
(I have also seen this painting attributed to W J Muller)
The flames were visible for many miles around, and it has been documented that the glow of the fires could be seen from across the Bristol Channel, in Wales.  Many were  killed, some because their comrades were setting fire to buildings they were looting and the melting lead was flowing down the guttering and burning the people to death underneath, or because they jumped off the burning buildings and got impaled on the iron railings below.  Eventually the roofing of the buildings collapsed, killing still more.

W J Muller:  The Burning of the Bishop's Palace

One looter by the name of John Ives stole a priceless silver plate from the Mansion House.  It was from the civic collection and dated from 1595.  He later cut it up and offered 169 pieces of it to a local silversmith, who informed the authorities and Ives was caught and transported to Australia for 14 years.  The silversmith restored the basin to almost its former glory and the two missing pieces were remade and a plate made of silver fixed to the back to hold it together.  (See below)

Work on the Clifton Suspension Bridge had to be halted, and its designer Isambard, Kingdom Brunel was sworn in as a special constable.  It was to be five years before work was resumed on the famous bridge.

The riots were eventually quelled by the sheer numbers of armed reinforcements summoned from Keynsham and Gloucester.  It is thought that between five and ten thousand  people were involved, and some 500 killed.


The Aftermath – January 1832

Rolinda Sharples:  The Trial of Col Thomas Brereton, 1832. (Double click to enlarge)
There is no list of the people represented in this picture, but I believe
(but I'm by no means sure) that Col Brereton is the second to last person on the right
of those wearing a red uniform.  I also think the person seated to the left of the table
with the turban could be the famous Rajah Rammohun Roy (1772-1833),
Indian religious, social and educational reformer sometimes known as the
"Father of Modern India", who was visiting Bristol at the time,
and who in fact died here of meningitis.

Rajah Rammohun Roy, who was living in Bristol at the time of the riots.

At the court martial of Colonel Brereton, officials giving evidence were falling over themselves to claim they had nothing to do with the riots.


You can’t blame me, you can’t blame me!
I’m no rioter, no-one could be quieter…
With quiet tact I faced the crowd, the Riot Act I read out loud,
And then stayed at home drinking cups of tea
So it’s perfectly plain that you can’t blame me!

Town Clerk:

You can’t blame me, you can’t blame me!
I find rioting terribly disquieting…
I’m just a Town clerk, good as gold;
I’m only paid to do as I’m told;
And nobody told me a thing, you see
So how could anyone now blame me?


I am the Mayor, still hale and hearty;
I belong to the ruling party;
Give them a few more months, you’ll see:
They’ll soon find out that they can’t blame me!


I quite agree, you can’t blame me!
No fear of the government making a fuss.
They won’t blame you and they can’t blame us!

There must be someone we can blame;
(Hist’ry needs a name)
For the loss of property, life and limb,
Must blame someone; let’s all blame HIM

and so Colonel Brereton took the blame for everything, although his sin was, in fact, to have done nothing.  He was sickened by the evidence he had heard of viciousness, death and violence, and on the fourth day he made the offer to plead guilty to bring the proceedings to a halt.  When the court adjourned for the day, a very distressed Brereton returned to his lodgings in Redland and his two young daughters.  A letter was delivered to him later.  He read parts out loud...


"Colonel Brereton:  The Court has considered your offer to plead guilty... no more witnesses...our bounden duty...justice to be served... your plea must be rejected... trial to proceed several days...further evidence."
O memory!  Do you then deceive me?  Are my senses failing?  Were they not my friends?  And justice?  "Justice to be served"... and does Justice never serve Humanity?

He finally realised that those he had once called his friends were now all against him. Feeling that he had nowhere else to turn, he shot himself.


Thus we find ourselves back at the beginning of this tale, in gaol with Bert, (Bess’s husband, Sarah’s father), as Isambard Kingdom Brunel listened to his story and noted it down.  It was now dawn and the gaoler rattled his keys as he came to fetch Bert.  He was one of the rioters who had been sentenced to death by hanging.

Brunel promised to stay with him till the end, as Bert quipped bravely “Just as well, I’d say, Sir.  That scaffold don’t look any too safe to me!” 

As he was being blindfolded before a silent crowd, he said his last words -


By and by, this daft ol’ rope untie and take me down.
And let my body lie somewhere, down there, in Clifton Town!
The trapdoor fell away, and as Bert's inert body swung from the noose, the Peeler had the last word ...
Peeler:  (Partly to the crowd beside the gaol, partly to the audience)

Move along!  Move along!



Charles Pinney, mayor of Bristol, was acquitted at his trial for neglect of duty.  Of the five rioters sentenced to be hanged, one was reprieved on the grounds that he was mentally deficient.  Some ninety others were imprisoned or transported.

Many history papers have been written since speculating on whether the riots had some shadowy figure in the background whipping up the masses for their own ends, but no evidence has to date been found.  There were thousands of rioters, but for the most part they were illiterate and would have been in fear of hanging or transportation.  It is unlikely that they would have left any sort of proof or memoir.  

As far as the immediate impact of the riot was concerned, there is significant evidence that the violent unrest around the country and particularly in Bristol had a major effect upon the eventual success of the Reform Bill.  It became law that same year of 1832 and the rotten boroughs were abolished, with new towns being properly represented in Parliament.  From 1835 onwards the Municipal Corporation Act changed the constitution of the City Councils and they ceased to be the unofficial gentleman’s clubs that they once had been.


1988 Copyright John Humphreys.
Copying any part of John Humphreys' work is
expressly forbidden by copyright laws.

Maestro John Humphreys!



John Humphreys’ notes taken from John Latimer’s Annals of Bristol in the Nineteenth Century
Images of paintings are from the internet - if further acknowledgments are required, please let me know and I will gladly mention them.


Photo Finish -
from Lonicera's non-digital archives

A few more pictures of Bristol Temple Meads Railway Station
on a quiet Sunday afternoon

Royal Mail loading our post...

Someone's in-tray waiting for Monday... 

The exit/entrance to the station

There are fewer passenger trains on Sundays
due to maintenance work carried out on the lines...

Detail of a supporting column 



Joyful said...

The paintings are all fabulous!

Lonicera said...

I enjoyed looking for pictures because I knew there would be quite a lot to choose from. Muller was a brilliant artist, wasn't he? So glad you liked them.

Nick Xylas said...

A key to the painting of the Brereton trial appears in the book "Hotheads and Heroes", about the 1831 Bristol riots, but you'll need a magnifying glass to examine it properly, unless you have eyes like a hawk.

Lonicera said...

Nick - thanks so much for your comment. I'll look out for that book. Since I wrote these series of posts my partner John Humphreys (the composer of the opera) passed away this year, and I'd so love to stage the opera. It's a good story and interesting history, I think.
Thanks again.

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