Unrest in The Georgian Countryside - East Riding Stately Homes Under Attack
For one week in September 1757 the landed families of the East Riding lived in fear of their lives and property, when their homes were subjected to attacks by large mobs of men, women and children. Amongst the houses visited by rioters were Winestead Hall, Sledmere House, Hotham Hall, Howsham Hall, Buckton Hall, Thorpe Hall (Rudston), Scampston Hall, Kilnwick Percy Hall, Hunmanby Hall and Birdsall House. The last was then the home of Henry Willoughby, who that year was the High Sheriff of Yorkshire, and was a prime target of the rioters. Willoughby reported that 3,000 turned up at Birdsall, ‘substantial farmers as well as others, coming in a very tumultuous manner thither, armed with guns, swords, clubs, and scythes’. He later commented: ‘When the whole populace rise in arms against the magistrates where is then the authority of civil power’.
The rioters wanted to put a stop to the implementation of the Militia Act, passed in June 1757. The regular British army was overstretched fighting the French in various parts of the world, and there was need for a militia to keep peace at home and to defend the country against invasion. Under the new act the militia was to be chosen by ballot from all men aged between 18 and 50 years, except, amongst others, peers, clergy, dissenting officers, and peace and parish officers. Lists were drawn up of all eligible men in each parish, and it was as the lists were about to be handed to the authorities that the unrest occurred. The rioters objected to the fact that the method of obtaining men now lay on all adult males, not just the propertied classes, and there was a fear that the militia would be sent abroad.
The fullest account of one of the visits from the ‘mob’ comes in a letter, now in Lincolnshire Archives Office, written by Sir Edmund Anderson, baronet, of Kilnwick Percy on 29 March 1758, recounting events of the previous September:
A day was appointed, I believe, all over England for the Chief Constables [of each wapentake/division] to carry in Lists of the names of those fit to bear arms in the Militia. I was at Hotham [Hall] on the Sunday night before, taking leave of my son and daughter Burton and when we came from Church, their Constable asked whether they should carry them [the lists of men] to Beverley or no, on the morrow; I said Yes, by all means, for tho I was not at Beverley when the warrants were given out or signed any; I knew it was right they should be carried in. He said the people were averse to it (and I knew they had been so long). However in the morning, when I came down to breakfast they asked me if I had not been frightened by the Mob who came into their yard [at Hotham] about 2 o’clock in the morning, and wanted their servants to go along with them, but they talked to em out of the window excused themselves saying they were going with their master and mistress over the Humber to pay a visit to my son Will at Lea [near Gainsborough]. I made light of it and thought that as there were many Roman Catholics about their neighbourhood it might happen that they might have instilled such principles into em. But in short it was universal. I avoided going through some Towns [villages] least I should meet them and I called upon an acquaintance at Market Weighton and enquired how it was among them: all was then quiet, but that they said their Wapentake [Holme Beacon] was to be up tomorrow, to take away the lists from the Chief Constables. But they told me that a mob was come to Pocklington on the Sunday night and were assembling from adjacent Towns [villages] in short my whole Wapentake [Wilton Beacon] in general were got together with their several constables at their heads to take away the lists from the Chief Constable, and the Chief Constable came up to Kilwick to know what he must do: - Lady Anderson advised him to give up the lists, if that would pacifye them; but that would not do, they would come up to Kilwick and would not take them but from mine or Lady Andersons hands; and so kept all night up drinking at Pocklington [At that date there were 30 alehouses in Pocklington, population c. 900, - one inn for 30 people!] and in the morning they forced the whole town of Pocklington (Parsons, Attorneys and all our friends) to go up to Kilwick, and to Kilwick they went, about 9 o’clock. Our servants, seeing them coming began to shut the windows and doors but Lady Anderson made them all be set open; and went into the Court yard to meet these rude guests, and she asked them what they came for there; they replied to have their list back, she said she had desired the Chief Constable to give ‘em last night to them, they said they would have ‘em only from me and fancied I was at home, she told them I was not at home, they said as I was a Justice [JP], why was I not at home? She asked them why they should come to Kilwick, as I was no wise concerned in making the Bill nor was my hand at any warrant, as I was not at the meeting at Beverley so could not be culpable in their way of thinking.
Thus she held ‘em at bay till 12 or 1 o’clock then they would drink and my Lady Anderson proffered to surrender herself prisoner to ‘em, and go with ‘em to Pocklington where she would give ‘em a Hogshead of ale [51 ale gallons or 235.7 litres] and if that would not do 5 guineas more to drink and would stay till I came home to fetch her away; in the interim she had sent 3 or 4 messengers to Hotham for me, which I missed by coming a private way to avoid the mob. So this proposal of surrendering herself prisoner was agreed to, but their was no horse, but an old cast grey hunter of my sons, that he could not keep so gave it me to go before the oxen. So he was saddled. Madam mounted and a slow procession was begun towards Pocklington but she looked back and saw there was not above 300 followed her which she knew to be her friend. The main mob got into the House, which was brimful of men, women and children, and they broke into the larger, filled the kitchen, took roast beef, spit and all and fell a fighting, took the calves head and a great family pudden and burnt their fingers with taking it out of the Pott and in short all greased their own and other peoples cloathes. And as the way to the cellar goes out of the kitchen and happened to be locked, they were for breaking open the door. Lady Anderson was sitting with my sister Croft in the little parlour to rest herself after standing in the court[yard] all the morning, hearing them thumping at the door went into the kitchen and found two fellows breaking open the door. She took one of them by the shoulder and gave him a kick and told him he had no business there and the same by the other and told ‘em that as long as she was alive, they should none of them come there and clapt her back against the door, for says she if you do these outrages to Sir Edmund who never wronged you, when you are sober, what will you do when you are drunk – This astonished ‘em when they saw how intrepid and courageous she was and how strong and thus she stood sometimes bantering and sometimes threatening till I got home, so the siege of the Cellar door was raised and they left her and got about me – I asked them what they wanted and they said they would have the Militia Bill not pass into a Law – I told them it was already pass’d they said they would stand up for their liberty’s and propertys to the last drop of their blood. I says I hoped they would keep to the same resolution in case the French came, yes they said they would and fight for King George: I said if they would be quiet and disperse and go home, as I had not been concerned in this affair, so I would not till Parliament met and made some alteration and so desiring the Chief Constable to persuade ‘em to separate and give each Constable something to drink and get me off as cheap as he could I should repay him, so they at last dispersed and we counted 1500.
The anti-militia riots did occur in other parts of England but were probably most widespread in the East Riding. At the York Assizes in March 1758 some 80 men from the East Riding were tried for their part in the anti-militia riots, some 20 were charged with high treason, four were found guilty and ordered to be hung, drawn and quartered. Of the four only Robert Cole of Bridlington was hanged.
[The formidable Lady Anderson, only aged 28 at the time of the attack on Kilnwick Percy Hall, died at York in 1801. On her death it was reported that ‘Few characters have been so generally admired and esteemed as hers was. Her conduct at Kilnwick was very excellent. When she first married, she found the estate, the house and the general state of Sir Edmund’s concerns in a most unfavourable situation; she employed the influence she had with him, in restoring everything to order, comfort and prosperity… He committed the management of all his affairs to her. She first had the house put into complete repair, and furnished with everything necessary … the estate was properly improved, the tenants required to cultivate the land as it ought to be done, and that part kept for home use, put in a high state of management; plantations were made, hedges and fences etc. attended to, and the ground stocked with cattle and sheep…’ E. Gray, Papers and Diaries of a York Family (1927). 97-98]
David Neave May 2020