Wednesday, September 17, 2014

1880 General Election Riot

On the eve of voting in the Scottish Independence Referendum, the United Kingdom holds a collective breath. This is possibly the most emotive if not the most important political event to take place during my lifetime. With more than 81% of the population in England, Northern Ireland and Wales hoping for a 'no' vote, all we can do is sit back and wait.

The past two weeks has been a period of intense campaigning by those representing both sides of the argument with old fashioned tub thumping accompanied by extensive media coverage.

Press coverage more than 130 years ago also had a major influence on public opinion, resulting in a landslide Liberal victory in the 1880 General Election. But even William Morris, founder of the Advertiser, could hardly have anticipated it would lead to a riot in Swindon.

Polling day dawned dull and dismal but nothing could dampen the enthusiasm of the people. This had been a long anticipated election and the popularity of the Liberal Party had seldom been greater.

The GWR Works had closed for the day, increasing the number of people on the streets and as yellow and blue supporters jostled at the polling stations the excitement reached an alarming point, according to Morris.

"At New Swindon Mr Maskelyne's [Liberal candidate] reception was unprecedented in the history of all our local demonstrations," he reported.

Supporters of Mr Maskelyne made a dash for his carriage and having unfastened the horses, "drew him in triumph through the streets of the town accompanied by some thousands of spectators cheering and shouting vociferously."

However at the closing of the poll the mood on the streets changed sharply as crowds gathered in Bridge Street. The road from the Volunteer Inn to the opposite side of  the Golden Lion Bridge was virtually impassable for several hours.

Local pubs and landlords, especially those who had declared their political allegiance, were targeted by the mob and an attempt was made to throw two publicans in the canal.

Pub windows were smashed on a route through the town centre to the railway village where the Cricketers' Arms and Thomas' in the Market Place were broken. The crowd then stormed up Prospect Hill where private houses also came under attack.

It was after 9 pm before a police presence arrived on the scene, a matter much criticised in the aftermath of the riot. Forming a cordon four deep, the officers swept through the town and eventually managed to clear the streets.

On Saturday morning stunned Swindonians returned to the town centre to view the damage.

"Every right thinking person must sincerely regret and denounce the window breaking which disgraced the election proceedings of last week," Morris reported in Monday's edition of the paper.

Highlighting inflammatory pre election campaign tactics fostered in two New Swindon coffee palaces, Morris urged that criticism should not be too severe "on the action of a thoughtless mob, provoked and irritated by the action of those who ought to have known better."

It remains to be seen how the Scottish people will react when the result of the Independence Referendum becomes known.

Sir Daniel Gooch

Mervyn Herbert Story Maskelyne 

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