The Bristol riotsNarrow escape of the ExhibitionA brave black servantArrival at Blackheath.
THE Bristol riots in the autumn of 1831 again brought the Exhibition into serious jeopardy. Madame Tussaud had just arrived in the city of the West Country, when the Recorder, Sir Charles Wetherell, came to open a Special Commission for the trial of certain political offenders associated with the agitation for reform. Judge Wetherell was heartily disliked by West-country folk, and there was strong opposition to this Special Commission being held. Public resentment developed into a riot, which the military was sent to subdue.
Madame tells the story herself of the sufferings she endured during the days of wanton destruction and loss of life, as the rabble resorted to killing and pillage. Judge Wetherell was obliged to escape from the city, disguising himself, as it was then stated, with some taunt at his personal habits, “through the medium of a wash and the donning of a clean shirt and collar.”
The three days’ terror can scarcely be considered the result of a genuine revolutionary movement. True, certain ringleaders of the rabble seem to have imagined in some vague way that they were hastening the day of “liberty”; but the rioters only destroyed for sheer destruction’s sake. What they sought to promote they neither knew nor cared. For the most part the mob was utterly contemptible, and but for the extraordinary apathy of the authorities the riot might have been easily quelled.
It was on the morning of Saturday, the 29th of October, that the Recorder came to the city, and, a disturbance being feared, a number of special constables were sworn in. These officials, mostly young men, did more harm than good, for they irritated the people by overmuch zeal, and led to blows being exchanged, which fomented the trouble. This was followed by an attack on the Mansion House, where Sir Charles was banqueting with the Corporation.
The civic party was hunted out, and made its escape over the housetops. Suddenly the cry was raised, “To the back !” and the mob surged round to the offices behind the Mansion House, where faggots and firewood were stored. For the present the rioters refrained from firing the building, and contented themselves with looting the premises. The cellars proved particularly attractive to the unruly crowd, which was shortly in possession of a hundred dozen of wine, and the day closed amid general drunkenness and disorder.
On Sunday morning the mob reassembled in Queen Square. The authorities had plucked up sufficient courage to publish a proclamation warning all rioters to return to their homes; but these gentlemen were not disposed to take the admonition seriously. The unlucky bill-sticker who posted the proclamation was badly mauled.
One individual mounted King William’s statue in the Square and waved a tricoloured cap on a pole, shouting to his comrades to behold the cap of Liberty. Possibly this aroused in the minds of the befuddled rioters some recollection of the French Revolution, for a move was made towards the gaol, which was speedily in their power. A vigorous employment of sledge-hammers soon broke in the prison doors, and the prisoners, some of them almost nude, at once joined the mob.
The Governor’s house was sacked and fired; his books were pitched into the New River, and the prison van met with a similar fate. Then the Gloucester County Gaol, the lock-up house at Lawford’s Gate, and the Bishop’s Palace were all fired. Between seven and eight o’clock the rioters revisited the cellars of the Mansion House and began rolling out barrels of beer and wine. Intoxicated persons could be seen moving about the kitchen and the banqueting-room with lighted candles, and in less than two hours the building was gutted.
Dwellings in Queen Square were sacked and fired, until the whole mass was wrapped in flames. Such was the remarkable lethargy of the householders that a few mischievous boys made a house-to-house visitation, gave the inmates half an hour’s notice to quit, and at the expiration of that time coolly set fire to the houses without molestation. The booty the rioters seized was trifling. On the corpse of one boy, who was sabred by a soldier, was found a curious collection of spoil–a lady’s glove, some children’s books, and the Custom House keys.
One curious incident happened when the contents of fifty puncheons of rum gushed out of a bonded warehouse and ran flowing down the street, setting fire to a house at the other end.
The riots were quelled by the military on the Monday, after many thousands of pounds’ worth of property had been destroyed; and one of the results was that four persons were hanged.
By what might almost be described as a stroke of good fortuneinasmuch as it perpetuated the name of Tussaudthere was in Bristol at that time a lad of nineteen years, named William Muller, whose genius as a painter gives Bristol just cause for pride today. This gifted youth produced a series of wonderful sketches of the “Bristol Revolution,” as it was then called, in which he portrays the weird and striking scenes of incendiarism in the city streets.
One of these sketches is now in our possession. It shows Madame Tussaud’s Exhibition premises standing out full and clear in the fiery glare, while the figures and other articles are being hurriedly removed and piled up in the roadway before the jeering mob. The figures and decorations are easily recognised in the picture, and many of them are still included in the Exhibition.
For no imaginable reason the premises occupied by Madame Tussaud’s collection had been marked to be burnt. A chalk sign was scrawled upon the door, and the adjoining buildings, besmeared with petroleum, had been already set on fire. In Madame’s employment was a stalwart and loyal negro. This black servant took up his position at the entrance to the Exhibition, and threatened to kill with a blunderbuss the first man who dared approach to harm the place.
The negro kept the mob at bay long enough, it would seem, to save the building, for at eight o’clock Madame’s anxiety was relieved when she heard, above the wild yelling of the infuriated people, the distant sounds of the drums and fifes of the 11th Infantry Regiment, just then reaching the outskirts of the city. The music that cheered her scared the plundering rabble and stayed their depredations.
Madame Taussaud came through all this in her seventieth year, with twenty years of activity still before her; and, after a long tour through provincial towns, she took her Exhibition to Blackheath, on the southeastern side of London, attracted, no doubt, by the fact that that place had become a fashionable re-sort owing to the residence there, some years previously, of Queen Caroline, the estranged wife of George IV.