The Origins of the Riots in Littleport and Ely in May 1816 and the Reaction of the Establishment to the Disturbances

Flatman, Christopher John (2020). The Origins of the Riots in Littleport and Ely in May 1816 and the Reaction of the Establishment to the Disturbances. Student dissertation for The Open University module A826 MA History part 2.

This dissertation was produced by a student studying the Open University postgraduate module A826 MA History part 2. The research showcased here achieved a distinction.
Please note that this student dissertation is made available in the format that it was submitted for examination, thus the author has not been able to correct errors and/or departures from academic standards in areas such as referencing.
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In May 1816 labourers in Littleport and Ely in Cambridgeshire rioted, demanding higher wages and a reduction in the price of flour. This study asks why the labourers rioted and why the local and national authorities reacted in the manner that they did to the disturbances. It examines the details of the riots and their suppression in their historical context before proceeding to consider the ensuing trials and punishments. Finally, the study explores local and national reactions in the aftermath of the events and considers their legacies.

Following a review of evidence from contemporary accounts, trial papers, correspondence and newspaper coverage, the study concludes that the rioters were motivated in part by a reaction to genuine economic hardship and a desire to negotiate a fair rate of pay and food prices according to traditional social conventions. There were, however, also elements of opportunism as the perpetrators sought to settle personal grudges against specific individuals. Local magistrates, having little option, initially responded with conciliation, but once military assistance arrived the central authorities were quick to restore order in a brutal manner designed to deter any further potential rioters. The rapidly convened Special Assizes and the public executions which followed were specifically intended as a visible expression of the power of the Crown in order to re-impose order and control, both locally and nationally. Countrywide reactions were overwhelmingly supportive of the authorities and are indicative of a national fear of faceless agitators and potential rebellion. Local opinion, however, certainly once the immediate danger had passed, was more sympathetic to the plight of the labourers and suggests a desire to rebuild a peaceful community.

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