EESE 6/2003


'The people that the maddest times were ever plagued with': English Justice and Fair Trials after the Gordon Riots (1780)?

Uwe Böker (Dresden)


The Gordon Riots of June 1780 - named after the Scottish peer Lord John Gordon, leader of the Protestant Association, a mass organisation that demanded the repeal of the Relief of Roman Catholics Act of 1778 - had, because of its violence and destructiveness - a deep impact on the contemporaries. According to Charles Dickens's Barnaby Rudge (1841), the riots were the outcome of the 'insane' impulses in the yet undomesticated British social body. According to a contemporary historian, however, they have to be considered a 'revolution manquée - the nearest thing to the French Revolution in English history' (McLynn 1989). Scholarship has to this day almost exclusively focused on the religious, social and political background of the events, whereas the trials themselves have never been thoroughly investigated and assessed in respect to their documentary value.

The trial accounts include two sets of documents: a) the trials of the 'mob' (The Proceedings on the King's Special Commission of Oyer and Terminer for the County Surry, held at St. Margaret's Hill, On Monday the 14th of July, 1780... ) and b) the trial for high treason of Lord Gordon himself (The Trial of George Gordon [...] Taken in Short-Hand by Joseph Gurney, 1781; as well as The Trial of Lord George Gordon [...] Published under the Inspection of his Lordship's Friends. Edinburgh [1781]). Focus will be on the first group of texts.

The trial reports will be analysed a) in respect to the various contemporary legal dogmas and procedures (exemplary punishment, factual/circumstantial/character evidence; the role of judges and jurymen in 'mass trials'; the defense counsel) that had in the end a decisive influence on the outcome of the whole series of trials; and b) as texts for serial publication, organised in a specific way for the literary market; the linguistic and ideological shaping of these reports (their 'constructedness') casts, however, doubts on their reliability as documentary evidence.

The treason trial of Lord Gordon himself will be analysed only shortly in respect to John Barrell's findings about the treason trials of 1794. Thomas Erskine, Lord Gordon's counsel for the defence, in 1781 accused the the government of the "attempt, without evidence, to infect your [the jurors'] imaginations". In view of the nineties' discussion of the (goverment's) 'bad' vs. the (Romantics') 'good imagination' as analysed by Barrell in his book Imagining the King's Death: Figurative Treason, Fantasies of Regicide, 1793-96 (2000), Erskine's arguments seem to anticipate problems of evidence that became fully evident only during the times political turmoil ten years later.