Museum talk looks back at 1816 Ely and Littleport riots

True's Yard Museum
True's Yard Museum
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The Littleport and Ely Riots of 1816 was the subject of a True’s Yard Talk by Jeff Hoyle at the Lynn museum.

In his review of the talk, Gareth Calway writes: Regency England is a proverb for graceful buildings and refined civilisation but Jane Austen’s description of ‘a mob of three thousand men assembling in St George’s Fields; the Bank attacked, the Tower threatened, the streets of London flowing with blood’ is more accurate.

The ‘Iron Duke’ of Wellington was named not for his mettle at Waterloo but for the iron shutters erected on his windows against the threat of mob attacks on his house.

So dire were economic conditions after the Napoleonic Wars that even East Anglia’s normally docile agricultural labourers rose in revolt.

The Littleport and Ely Riots of 1816 – demanding cheap bread and a ‘living wage’ to buy it, and reminsicent of the ‘let them eat cake’ revolutionary crowd in France – terrified the authorities so much that local justices (who granted these demands) were not trusted to oversee the trials and impose the viciously disproportionate sentences.

Five Littleport men were hanged – and six others transported for up to 14 years – for aggravated burglary.

Jeff Hoyle’s penetrating and skilfully illustrated talk to a packed room raised disturbing questions: did the right side win the Napoleonic Wars? (England’s common people could have used some liberty, equality and fraternity) why did the rioters attack and rob innocents as well as ‘legitimate’ targets like the singularly unchristian magistrate Parson Vatchel?

And why does too much of this story – with the poor paying the price of ‘austerity’ – feel so familiar today?