“The women, as usual, were the, beginners of the disturbance”
Article by: Dave Parks
First Published: 06/05/16
In January 1854 a crowd of around 300-400 people, mostly women and children, went on a riotous rampage through Exeter fuelled by hunger and class anger.
The New Year saw a week of severe weather which led to many agricultural labourers being unable to work and going without wages. This compounded grain shortages which had led to exceptionally high prices for bread. The working class in the district were going hungry and they were angry.
The Bread Riots started in the nearby town of Crediton on Friday 6th January. Troops were mobilised to suppress two days of rioting. Bread prices rose in Exeter on Monday and trouble was inevitable.
The Flying Post also described the crowd as “consisting principally of women and children, but also a great many men of that degraded class”.2 They proceeded to the Cathedral Yard and from there they started the process of systematically destroying the windows of all the bakers’ shops in their path. Shutters were forcibly removed from windows which were then pelted with rocks and bread looted.
The riot moved on to the Quay and then back to the West Quarter and across the River Exe to St Thomas. The rioters were pursued in St Thomas by the Third Light Dragoons.
The Western Times was struck by: … the ferocity of some of the women – who, with infants in their arms, gave utterance to the most revengeful feelings against the “rich” – one of them screaming that they “were starving, and what were they to do? If they begged they would be sent to goal”.
The crowd split up with the greater part going on through Alphington. According to the Flying Post there was debate amongst the rioters as to where to go next. Some were suggesting a nearby huckster’s shop:
But others cried “no” … A number of the most boisterous cried out “Let’s go to old Troods; he shall suffer tonight”
A History of Unrest and Agitation
These were not the first Bread Riots in the Westcountry.
In May 1846, there was a serious bread riot at Exeter, followed by others at Exmouth, Dawlish, Okehampton, Cullompton, Crediton and Tiverton. By May 17th, the unrest had spread to Torquay.3
This was a period of great political agitation amongst the working class. The Chartists were very active with huge meetings around the Westcountry. Julian Harney, one of the leading “physical force” Chartists stood for Parliament in Tiverton in 1847 against Lord Palmerson. Harney had published the first English translation of the Communist Manifesto.
However, our story perhaps has a greater resonance with Bread Riots over 50 years earlier in 1795.4 At Ilsington near Bovey Tracey the target of the furious mob was a wealthy farmer accused of profiteering from the situation, a certain Mr Trood. One of the rioters was interrupted whilst attempting to hang him. Trood survived but Mr Campion was hung in 1795 for his attempted murder.
Mr Trood: Infamy, infamy – they have all got it in for me!
In 1854 one of the wealthiest landlords in the Exeter area was Trood’s son. A week before the riot this Trood had got some notoriety when one of his labourers was jailed for stealing from him. Even the local Magistrates took pity on this labourer giving him a 6 week sentence in contrast to another labourer who got 3 months jail for similar offences.
The prisoner, a decent looking labourer, pleaded guilty, but addressed the Court in extenuation, declaring that he had been driven to the commission of the crime for which he was now disgraced, by the miserable wages which he received from his employer, the wages being lower than those of almost every employer in the parish.5
After the riots Trood used the pages of the Flying Post to accuse the Western Times of lying about his wage rate. He claimed he paid his labourers nine shillings a week like most other employers. The Western Times was incensed at this “slander” – since as they pointed out it had been eight shillings a week. It was only raised after the court case and the subsequent riots.
This row continued in the Exeter press throughout January 1854. We will leave the last word with the Western Times:
A correspondent gives us the following particulars of the case:- “The man (Matthew Mann) now in gaol, has a family of two children (boys), both are crippled; the eldest, about 14, was thrown from a horse about two years since, and received injury across the loins and will be crippled for life. The other, about 12, caught his hands in the chains while at plough, and had his fingers dragged off about 12 months since. Both were injured while in Mr. Trood’s employ. “The wife, incapable of doing anything to profit, being in a rapid decline.” The man’s wages when in Mr. T’s employ was 8s per week, and be had to pay 1s 6d per week for rent, but he was not living in Mr. Trood’s house.”6
The Bread Riot in Exeter ended having surrounded Trood’s farm and having wrecked much of the building and injuring Trood. It was broken up by the military and 25 people were arrested and put on trial for riot.
1 Western Times (14/1/1854)
2 Exeter Flying Post (12/1/1854)
3 The other Torquay – riots and railways
4 THE ILSINGTON BREAD RIOTS OF 1795 by John Dyer
5 Western Times (14/1/1854)
6 Western Times (28/1/1854)
PS. This article was originally published in 2016 as a flyer as part of the The Aftermath Dislocation Principle art project which involved a 1:87 scale dystopian cityscape in a container. It depicted a city in riot as it toured the country a local flyer would be handed about about a local riot. I was asked to provide the text for the Exeter visit. Below is a scan of the inside of the Exeter flyer.