Food protesters wreck Newcastle’s Guild Hall

Event date(s)

26 June 1740

Description/importance

On 26 June 1740, a crowd of 3,000 angry townspeople, keelmen, iron workers and miners from the nearby collieries attacked and wrecked the Guild Hall in Newcastle. This disturbance had been the result of protests that had already started in the days before: on 19 June, miners from the Heaton Colliery had gone on strike to protest against the rising prices of basic food items such as grain and bread that were caused by a bad harvest in 1739. Yet, the situation was additionally aggravated by the inactivity of the local authorities in Newcastle who refused to address the grievances properly. The hunger ordinary workers in Newcastle had to endure during the winter of 1739-40 had been the worst in living memory. Despite the severity of the crisis the city cooperation refused to intervene and compel the local grain merchants to sell their stocks to the local population at set price. In June 1740, the situation in Newcastle had reached a breaking point.

On 19 June, almost 1,000 miners and their families staged a mostly peaceful protest in Heaton demanding higher wages and better supply with food. On the following day, the crowd present at the protest meeting grew significantly when keelmen and iron workers from North and South Shields joined the miners. This caused alarm amongst the local authorities who summoned the town guard (a private force paid by the city's merchants and colliery owners) and the sheriff publically read the Riot Act. The reading of the Riot Act allowed the authorities to use lethal violence against the protesters and indemnified all those involved in the dispersal of the crowd. On the 21st, an armed force of 60 horsemen and 300 men on foot, armed with clubs, sabres and muskets, seized the town gates and the city wall to ensure that the protesters would not be able to enter the city. This had an immediate intimidating effect on the miners who dispersed and went back to their houses in Heaton and Jesmond.

However, this did not prevent further protests. On 26 June a crowd of 60-100 miners assembled again at 6am, yet they decided that it was too early for a forceful demonstration and went home again. When they returned around 10am, a crowd of 3,000 miners, iron workers and keelmen had gathered on the Quayside and marched along the River Tyne towards the city. They were stopped by a group of freemen armed with muskets who fired a volley into the crowd killing at least one protester. After this incident, the assembled crowd attacked the militia with stones and sticks and eventually disarmed them. They then moved on to storm the Guild Hall and destroyed its delicate woodworks, paintings and court records. This was a highly symbolic act of collective violence since the Guild Hall was the epitome of bourgeois civic pride and the meeting place of the local elites. The disturbances were effectively suppressed on the evening of the 26th after regular troops arrived from Morpeth and Berwick. The authorities reacted very quickly and arrested 213 protesters who were charged with riot, assault or felony. However, in an attempt not to stir the explosive mood further only five of the alleged ringleaders were eventually sentenced to seven years of transportation.

Location/map point

Address

The Guild Hall
Quayside
Newcastle upon Tyne
NE1 3AF

Further reading

Joyce Ellis, 'Urban Conflict and Popular Violence: The Guildhall Riots of 1740 in Newcastle upon Tyne', International Review of Social History, vol. 25, No. 3 (1980), pp. 332-349; E. P. Thompson, 'The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century', Past and Present, vol. 50, no. 1 (1971), pp. 76-136.

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