If you heard about bread riots in the 18th century your mind might go to France, where the peasants waged war against the upper classes in order to simply be able to afford food. However, these images may be closer to home than you might think.
On Sunday 28th September 1766, the Fine City of Norwich seemed, perhaps, not-so-fine for the baker Richard Lubbock. While Mr Lubbock was (thankfully) away from his home, his house was ransacked by a mob of angry men. ‘Armed with clubs[,] stakes and other weapons’ (NRO, NCR 6h/2/8/3), the mob broke into the house and quickly set to work destroying it. Many of Lubbock’s belongings were taken away and furniture was thrown out of windows, plummeting to the ground below, only to be destroyed further by those who remained outside. ‘God damn my soul,’ one of the rioters dramatically called out, ‘if I don’t pull up all the stones in the street and drink blood!’ Richard Stirman, apprentice to Richard Lubbock, reports with dismay how he returned to find five of his shirts and three pairs of stockings ‘feloniously’ stolen! (NRO, NCR 6h/2/7/2)
Luckily for the baker, the sheriff came to his rescue with a large posse (an official word for a group of people summoned by a sheriff to suppress conflict – not quite like the image from a Wild West film). The sheriff and his posse managed to disperse the group and arrest some of the ringleaders, who were sent to Norwich Castle to await trial. One of the group, Edward Potter, managed to flee the scene and was chased through the streets of Norwich by one of the sheriff’s posse, only to be eventually pinned to the ground and arrested. In reality, Potter only made it a few houses down the street before being ‘knocked down’, but I like to imagine the early modern equivalent of a car chase!
And so went the riot at Richard Lubbock’s house in September 1766. I happened to come across witness statements relating to this riot one day in the Norfolk Record Office (NRO, NCR 6h 2/7/1-7). I wondered what Lubbock had done to deserve such treatment – perhaps he was a criminal himself, or had done something to personally anger one of the rioters. Yet, as I discovered, this attack was in no way an isolated incident. Instead, it was part of an entire weekend of systematic attacks on the bakery business throughout Norwich. The people were angered by the high prices of grain, possibly simply caused by a poor harvest, and believed the bakers of the city to be profiting at the expense of the poor.
The day before the attack on Richard Lubbock’s house, a man named Robert Lighting was seen entering Norwich market from Weaver’s Lane between 11am and 12pm. This may seem an innocuous occurrence, but Lighting was ‘blowing a horn and was followed by a great number of persons’ (NRO, NCR 6h 2/8/4), as though as a call to arms. Shortly after this event, chaos descended on the market. Rioters ran through the stalls, stealing the market’s ‘provisions’ and throwing them around. Presumably, screams and shouts pierced the air on what would otherwise have been a calm day.
On 27th September, the mill at New Mills Yard was also demolished, as well as a malthouse and granary in Carrow. The malthouse was set ablaze, the wooden structure crackling and crumbling to the earth. The building disintegrated, along with the barley and malt which was stored within. (Burning the malthouse, in all honesty, probably wasn’t the best idea to prevent a rise in grain prices…) The violence continued yet further, seemingly insatiable. Later that evening, ‘more than 20 riotous persons armed with clubs, stakes and other weapons came to his master’s [Edward Budge’s] house in a tumultuous manner’ (NRO, NCR 6h/2/8/2). They broke the windows and shutters on Budge’s house and shop in Mancroft. Amusingly, Budge successfully deterred the mob from further damaging his house by ‘prevail[ing] upon them to go to the white horse alehouse’ across the road, telling them to have whatever they wanted ‘which he promised to pay for’. Therefore, in true Norwich fashion, the rioters headed off to the alehouse for the evening, along with Budge’s servant. So, was there a happy ending, with the rioters and the rioted laughing together over a pint? Not for long! Having arrived in the alehouse, the rioters seemed to be unable to get rid of their violent tendencies and, after a short while, began to pull down the alehouse itself!
On Sunday 28th September, the rioters seem to have once again awoken with the same riotous intentions and so the attack on the house of Richard Lubbock began. It was not only Richard Lubbock’s house which was attacked on this day, though but also those of two other bakers, William Money and Robert Elwin. By this point, some of the rioters were beginning to lose steam and ‘seemed disposed to go away.’ (NRO, NCR 6h/2/7/5) A man named William Young loudly blew a horn, reinvigorating the riotous spirit into them so they could finish the job they set out to do.
And so, the bread riots of Norwich in September 1766 eventually ended. Perhaps the rioters ran out of bakeries and mills to demolish, or perhaps they realised that destroying bakeries and the means of producing bread was not actually the best way to lower bread prices… We do know, however, that several arrests were made as a result of the riots. Those who were arrested were charged with various crimes, including breaking and entering, ‘feloniously[,] wilfully and maliciously’ destroying property and theft and were held in prison as punishment (NRO, NCR 6h/1/7). For the rest, I suppose, after an exciting weekend of plundering and pillaging they went to work on Monday as though nothing had ever happened….
Researched and compiled by Catrina Kemp, NRO Research Blogger.