Apprentice riots at Ouseburn lime kilns

Event date(s)

15 February 1633

Description/importance

On Shrove Tuesday 1633, ‘an armed and unruly multitude of young men’, numbering ‘forty at the least’, assembled at Ballast Hills in Ouseburn. A man called Christopher Reasley had thrown up a lime kiln on the hill and the protesters came to pull it down. On the face of it, they opposed the way that Reasley had ‘enclosed’ an area of communal land for his private use – this was a frequent reason to riot in the seventeenth century. ‘The pretence of this insolence’, noted a government minister, ‘was that this limekiln had been erected in prejudice of the dryeing of their clothes & their walks after services’.

The riot quickly escalated. Reasley went straight to the mayor, Lionell Maddisonne, who returned to the site with a number of magistrates. They arrested five men who hadn’t fled the scene, all of them ‘apprentices to … free burgesses of this towne’; in other words, the prisoners were apprenticed to Newcastle’s master craftsmen and merchants. Returning with his prisoners, the mayor found that the Sandgate (the south-eastern gate of the town walls, near the quayside) had been shut and bolted by the rioters, who went on to ‘rescue’ the prisoners by force before they reached the gaol. More rioters were arrested that evening and on Wednesday, but by Thursday their numbers had swelled to three or four hundred, armed with ‘pikes, halberts, swords and staves’. They marched through the marketplace near St Nicholas’ church ‘in battle array … to the great affrighting of the people’ and demanded that their gaoled compatriots be released. After a few more arrests, the conflict died back down, and both sides came to an uneasy but enduring truce.

The fact that so many rioters were apprentices is revealing. The mayor believed that the riot was either ‘incouraged or connived at by [the apprentices’] maisters’, because when he ‘severall times required the assistance of the burgesses’ they refused to offer any help. In fact, the mayor and senior town officials were in political conflict with the burgesses over who controlled important civic offices and who was given lucrative contracts by the town government. And so the controversial permission for Christopher Reasley to erect his lime kiln on the Ballast Hills was seen by the burgesses as unacceptable patronage delivered to one of the mayor’s friends. By sending apprentices in their place, perhaps the burgesses wanted to orchestrate political action against the town government without getting their own hands too dirty.

So, did the burgesses turn a blind eye as their apprentices expressed outrage that they could no longer dry their clothes and walk on the Ballast Hills? Or were the apprentices actively incited by their masters, who disapproved of the mayor’s closed government and saw Reasley as one of his henchmen? We can’t be entirely sure, but the likely answer is ‘a bit of both’.

Location/map point

Address

Ballast Hills Burial Ground

Directions

Roger Howell, Jr., Newcastle upon Tyne and the Puritan Revolution: A study of the Civil War in North England (Oxford, 1967), pp. 53-60.

Two reports of the incident are filed in ‘State Papers’ at the National Archives. These are available online to anyone with a subscription to ‘State Papers Online’ – ask your library:

Mayor of Newcastle upon Tyne to the Council of State, 11 March 1633.TNA SP 16/233 ff.99-103

Vice President and Council at York to Thomas Viscount Wentworth, 13 March 1633. TNA SP 16/233 f.124

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