WITH what we can safely assume was a mixture of grim determination and a steely resolve to discharge his public duty, Superintendent George North entered the Town Hall on the evening of Friday, April 2, 1880 and did something no other person in Swindon has done before or since… he read The Riot Act.

Created 165 years earlier the mechanism was introduced to speedily, efficiently and forcefully dispel “tumults and riotous assemblies” as a reaction to violent public disturbances that had occurred throughout the realm during the early 18th Century.

On that night 134 years ago Swindon was in uproar. Fearful shopkeepers were barricading their premises. Countless windows had been shattered. Establishments were looted. And some people were in serious danger of being dunked in the canal.

But what caused such anger. Why were “gangs of ruffians” roaming the streets of New Swindon, at the bottom of the hill, and Old Swindon, at the top of it, creating fear, havoc, damage and forcing the authorities to take such drastic, unprecedented action?

No, not a football match. Their wrath had been incurred during the build-up of a local election that exploded with unexpected vehemence when the poll closed.

On the eve of this month’s elections it is interesting to compare the hot-headed bordering-on-anarchic passions displayed by some Victorian voters with the more placid, hopefully less frenzied behaviour that will be exhibited at next Thursday’s vote.

With something of an understatement, the Advertiser reported “a most disgraceful row” in the streets of Swindon that was to be “deplored.”

The election saw a pair of Tories and a Liberal contest two seats to represent Cricklade – which then included Swindon – at Parliament.

On the day before the election, members of the Eleventh Wiltshire Volunteer Band, draped in the blue favours of the Conservatives, were seen to “perambulate the streets” in such a provocative manner, it was deemed, that breach of peace was almost unavoidable.

Meanwhile, “a poor donkey” which had been painted yellow and bore the message “Vote for Maskelyne” – the Liberal candidate – was led around town by braying Conservative supporters as a Hooray Henryesque stunt.

According to the Advertiser, the unfortunate creature, was “brutally tortured through the streets of Old and New Swindon by several persons wearing blue colours.”

At 5.30pm the donkey was led to the front of the Great Western Railway works by “blue supporters” who, said the newspaper, “evidently expected to be complimented on their ingenuity.”

In this, however, they were almost fatally mistaken. The report says: “No sooner was the part they were playing realised by the men as they poured out from the tunnel than they were set upon and driven to seek shelter for their lives.

“Their clothes were torn from them, they were kicked and knocked about in every direction and for sometime their lives were in danger.”

The scene, therefore, was set for a somewhat feisty election day… although it is unlikely that anyone could have predicted just how feisty.

Friction filled the air as colours were flown, bills were displayed, a band boomed and slogans were bawled. The closing of the polls seemed to spark a mob into venting their anger against certain publicans who had “made themselves unusually active throughout the election” apparently supporting the Conservatives instead of the Liberals.

An “immense crowd” gathered in Bridge Street and then went on the rampage, their declared intention at first being to “duck in the canal two New Swindon publicans” who had posted Tory bills.

According to the Adver, they smashed the windows of The Rifleman’s Arms, The Great Western Hotel, The Artillery Arms, The Golden Lion, The Volunteer, The Union Railway Tavern, The Cricketer’s Arms and Thomas’s in the Market Place, before marching up Victoria Hill to shatter windows at The King’s Arms, The Goddard Arms, The Mason’s Arms and other properties.

In his 1932 book A Swindon Retrospective 1855-1930 Frederick Large, 28 at the time, graphically recalled the events. As he remembered, it was the landlord of The Artillery Arms in Regent Street who especially provoked the mob’s ire.

Large does not mention his name but according to the Advertiser he was one Thomas Latter.

As Liberal supporters became increasingly agitated Tory man Latter is said to have loudly expressed the hope that “the first radical who drank a glass of beer in his house would be choked.”

Large wrote: “As soon as this became known some of his political opponents made arrangements to have revenge.”

A rough band “headed by leaders carrying a loaf of bread and a herring at the end of long poles” made for the Artillery Arms “beating drums and every kind of utensil from which they could get a noise.”

From an upstairs window Latter is understood to have pointed a gun at the rabble whose retort was to hurl “such volleys of stones that in a few minutes every pane of glass at the back and front of the house was smashed.”

They then “marched through the streets to Old Swindon breaking windows wholesale en route, and giving particular attention to licensed houses and private residences of well-known Conservatives.

“Returning to New Swindon the mob carried on their destruction at many houses, particularly inns, these having been committee rooms for the Conservative party.”

Large noted that the small contingent of local police were powerless to check the rioters. However, around 9pm-ish the Riot Act was read from the classically-styled Old Town Hall that later became The Locarno.

Several people were injured during the Election Day, 1880, but nothing worse than a few bandaged heads.

The following day 100 police, truncheons poised, were in Swindon keen to respond to any repeat of Friday’s shenanigans. The pubs were ordered to close at 7pm representing “an appearance never seen in Swindon on a Saturday night,” remarked the Adver.

Shopkeepers and publicans kept their premises boarded up for as long as three weeks afterwards, according to Large.

William Morris, this newspaper’s founder and editor wrote that: “Every right-thinking person must sincerely denounce and regret the window breaking which disgraced the election proceedings.”

An avid Liberal, however, he couldn’t resist a poke at the Tories, stating that the mob of mostly young men and lads had been “provoked and irritated” by those who “ought to have known better.”

The election? Oh yes, the Liberal’s Nevil Story-Maskelyne polled more votes than the two Tories put together. Former loco works boss Sir Daniel Gooch, however, grabbed the second seat for the Conservatives.

  • IN A scenario not dissimilar to the UK riots of 2011 magistrates were swamped with miscreants over the weeks following the riot.

They were charged with offences ranging from abetting, counselling and procuring diverse persons to damage and spoil property to riotously and tumultuously assembling.

One of the first dealt with was fish salesman William Attwell, 17, of Falcon Terrace, New Swindon, sentenced to 14 days hard labour for pilfering a bottle of brandy through the broken window of The Golden Lion.

Labourer James Iles, 32, of Fleet Street was jailed for five weeks after kicking in the smoking room window at The Artillery Arms.

The court was told there appeared to be someone in the crowd issuing orders which the rioters seemed to be obeying.