Riots and Disturbances

PEACEFUL Mansfield has been the scene of a few riots in the course of its history. One or two have already been mentioned. The most memorable, however, took place in 1800. The summer of this year, like its predecessor, was marked by a continuance of very bad weather, and the markets for grain continued to rise throughout the harvest months. On Sunday, August 31st, the people assembled in great numbers in the streets, and commenced breaking some of the bakers' shop windows. A detachment of the Oxford Blues was sent to Mansfield, and they, with the assistance of several of the local magistracy, eventually succeeded in dispersing the mob. The destitute poor were provided with soup, which proved to many a very seasonable form of relief. Owing to the scarcity of flour in the following month, it was with difficulty that a loaf could be procured, and a person must have had great influence to procure even a small quantity of flour. In addition to this, the bread that was to be obtained was unwholesome. The distress was very great, but the benevolence of the moneyed people was equal to the emergency, and eventually the difficulty was tided over.

Mansfield witnessed a little of the Luddite Riots; but it was only little. The only conviction for an offence committed in this neighbourhood that I have come across was one tried at the Midsummer Assizes at Nottingham, in 1812, for breaking frames at Sutton-in-Ashfield. The prisoner was sentenced to fourteen years' transportation. Speaking of this disturbance, the Nottingham Review for November, 1811, says: "On Wednesday evening (9th) the rioters, to the number of one thousand, from the neighbouring villages, assembled at the seventh milestone on the Mansfield Road—about three hundred of whom were armed with muskets and pistols, and the others with weapons of other kinds — and proceeded to Sutton-in-Ashfield, where they broke about 54 frames. Some accounts state the number as high as 70. What few of the Mansfield Troop of Volunteers remain attached to that corps were called out; and, being joined by seven dismounted dragoons who happened to be at the latter place escorting two French prisoners, they proceeded to Sutton, and secured from eight to twelve of the rioters, who were examined by the magistrates at Mansfield on Thursday, four of whom (three being from Arnold and one from Hucknall Torkard) were brought in a postchaise to our county gaol in the evening, escorted by the Holme Troop of Volunteer Cavalry."

In 1834, another serious riot occurred in Mansfield, that being on the occasion of the Reform Bill being thrown out. The Yeomanry were called out, and were stoned by the populace; while several gentlemen nearly fell victims to the fury of the mob because they sided with the Government. Unfortunately, no record has been kept of the disturbance; and the gentleman from whom I have derived no small amount of my information, while a proverbial oldest inhabitant, cannot remember many incidents of the riot.

One evening during the riots in Mansfield, the leaders, followed by the crowd, visited the house of the Rev. W. Cursham, Woodhouse Road, where a Mr. Reynolds Frost then resided, and, before they left, broke every sheet of glass in the windows. It appears there was a feeling against him because he sided with the Government. On another occasion, when the mob were assembling in great force, and had assumed a threatening attitude, a picket, consisting of six Hussars, rode into the town to arrange for billets; and, having been informed of the state of affairs, they rode to the crowd, who, with a cry of "The soldiers are coming!" bolted in every direction.

In Nottingham, I find, the riots were very serious. The Castle—grand old pile—was fired by some miscreants.

Mansfield, Sutton-in-Ashfield, and other neighbouring places were much disturbed during the month of August, 1839, by large assemblages of the politico-social party designated Chartists. The 12th, 13th, and 14th of the month had been appointed by a so-called "National Convention" for the observance of a total cessation of labour throughout the length and breadth of the land. At Mansfield, the town was in possession of the mob for some time. The Yeomanry were ordered out, but, having no officers to direct them, they were quickly stoned out of the Market Place. The Colonel was at Newstead, not anticipating any trouble at Mansfield. Fortunately, however, a troop of Cavalry, en route, came into the town at the time the mob were at their worst. They were quickly marched into line in the Market Place; and, as the mob refused to disperse, the orders "draw swords" and "charge" were given. Such a scurrying away as followed had never before been witnessed in the town. With the flat of the sword many a blow was given, and the flying Chartists were followed by the soldiery. A number of the rioters, with a view of escaping into Leeming Street, ran up the passage in Church Street, between the shops of Mr. Andrews and Mr. Wyld, not for one moment dreaming a mounted soldier could follow. But here they were mistaken; for one of them, who had been struck with some missile, singled out his man, set his steed to the steps, mounted them, and caught his man before he reached Leeming Street. Extraordinary as the feat was, it was really accomplished; and there are those still living who saw it done or heard of it immediately it had occurred.

One other riot of a serious character has there been in the town of Mansfield; and that was in consequence of the action, more than half-a-century ago (in 1832), of the officials of the parish church, who were desirous of making a footway through the churchyard. This proved most objectionable to the parishioners, who thought the graves of their ancestors would be desecrated ; and, as a matter of fact, many bones, &c. were exposed in the operation. The officials were respectfully asked to desist, but refused; and one day, while the men were away, a mob took possession of the place, broke the wheelbarrows, and filled in the earth that had been dug out. After this display of feeling, no further attempt was made to continue work. A local poet thus made the event immortal:—

"An ancient day so great and good,
(I mean the day of Holy Rood,)
Sebastian's (Sebastian Sale) bell was heard to sound
With ring-a-ding, a great long round.
The people to their windows flew,
And at the doors were not a few.
Soon as the knight had rung his bell,
The following dreadful sentence fell
From Basty's lips, in hurried tone:—
'Behold,' quoth he, 'I here make known
To people all who still regard
Their buried friends in the churchyard;
For bodies they are taking out,
And skulls are tumbling all about.
Therefore, I pray you, thither run,
And stop these fellows in their fun.'

"Now, sure, if Mansfield had been told
The French were coming (as of old),
They could not have been more inclin'd
To leave the town and all behind,
And run to Shirebrook's sly retreat,
And risking what they'd got to eat,
Than were they when they this had heard
Of body-snatchers in the churchyard.

"Fancy painted up the scene— Bad as it was—worse than it'd been.

Where'er you looked, where'er you stood,
The people pour'd forth like a flood;
From east and west, from north and south,
Both old and young were coming out.
And when they to the churchyard came,
From every lip, 'For shame, for shame!' Heart-rending sentence flew.
When in their sight stood forth in view
A dreadful ditch full three yards deep—
Skulls, bones, and soil thrown in a heap;
And if you cast your eyes between
The sides, the bones were plainly seen
Of arms, and legs, and thighs of some
Whose friends that hour had thither come.

One wretch was left who'd been employ'd
To dig this pit so deep and wide.
Quoth he, 'I pray, what's here to do?
This spade would cut my sire in two!'
This rais'd the ire of all around,
And him they pelted from the ground.
The wall he scal'd, a dirty knave,
And glad that way his bones to save.

'Fill up the grip!' aloud they cry.
The young, the old, found full employ;
And women, too, they plied the spade
As well as any hearty blade.

'Where are the implements employ'd
To make this ditch ?' a wag out cry'd.
They with the barrows quick were cast '
Neath loads of soil to hold them fast,
Till barrows, rails, and tiles were gone,
And ditch was filled up anon.

"When darkness came, an urchin crew
Around the church their crackers threw.
Some thought for sure this was a blind
To leave a greater fire behind;
While wags, on mischief still intent,
Pelted with clods where'er you went;
And groups of people all around
Were thronging to the churchyard ground.
Some said, ' I hope they will be quiet,'
While others cried, 'There'll be a riot'
But nothing more there did transpire
Of windows broke or church on fire.

"I therefore now lay down my pen;
But sure shall take it up again
The dogs to flog, if e'er they dare
Again to touch a dead man's hair."

Happily there has been no occasion for the poet to again dip his pen into ink for the purpose of flogging the dogs. The dead have been allowed to lie in peace, and the churchyard remains as it was when the crowd left it after burying the disinterred bones, together with the picks, spades, and barrows.