preventing tumults

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England has a long history of rioting. In 1714 an act of parliament was introduced to try and deal with this national passtime – “the act for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies” with the more snappy popular title of  “the riot act” .  The riot act let local authorities declare to a group of twelve or more people that they were unlawfully assembled and ask them to disperse within the hour or be punished. The riot act would be read to the assembled people:

Our Sovereign Lord the King chargeth and commandeth all persons, being assembled, immediately to disperse themselves, and peaceably to depart to their habitations, or to their lawful business, upon the pains contained in the act made in the first year of King George, for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies. God Save the King!

It had to be read precisely. It was a hanging offense to not disperse within the hour. Some prosecutions were overturned in court because the proclamator forgot to read “God save the King!”  The act included the death penalty, later transportation and was last used in 1919 on the Wirral. The act ceased to be law in 1975

The phrase ‘read the riot act’ is still used colloquially as a warning to cease serious misbehaviour…

BoudiccaI gave up trying to compile a decent list of riots in mainland England because it was getting way too long

This left me wondering how to distinguish revolution, rebellion and riot…


preventing tumults
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4 bits of lovely banter on “preventing tumults”

  1. James Sutherland writes:

    There are some other interesting legal technicalities – once the violence was officially a ‘riot’, paying out for damage caused became the police’s problem rather than insurance companies, under the Riot Damage Act of 1886. I read somewhere that in the early stages of the violence, they were trying to avoid classifying this as a “riot” for exactly that reason, using charges like “violent affray” instead. That ship has well and truly sailed by now of course!

    It is a terrible mess, and disturbing to see how quickly law and order can break down in a society we would normally like to think of as far removed from that. I suspect a firmer police response at the outset would have prevented a lot of this, but the warning signs were there well in advance: apparently, street crime had more than doubled in the original flashpoint in the last year, suggesting the police had already either given up or lost control even before the first brick was hurled.

    The economic damage alone is terrible, and ultimately every penny of that will have to be diverted away from something else it would have been spent on: the government will have to cut or borrow more, business will have to cut costs and no doubt lay off some staff – it’s hard to understand how anyone could do this to their own home towns!



    wendy writes

    Evidently the more recent Public order act (1986) still involves the police being responsible for payouts to people that lost their property through a riot. The BBC provided advice on insurance.

    Claimants (including insurance companies seeking reimbursement) have to ‘prove’ there is a riot and the criteria appear similar to the riot act:
    – 12 or more people gathered
    – 12 or more people all behaave violently
    – 12 or more people have a common purpose

    Difficulties in defining whether a riot occerred under the public order act still exist and the establishment is invested in saying that a riot didnt happen because they pay-out if it did. Difficulties in establishing whether this was a riot –
    – How ‘close’ do the 12 people have to be to be ‘gathered’?
    – Is trying on trainers and walking out of a store violent behaviour?
    – What was their common purpose?

    The Telegraph has a short article on riot payouts.

    The BBC article notes that the Prime Minister hasn’t called the disorders ‘riots’ yet, which gives courts the ability to deny claims under this act. Over the last couple of days it sounded like the Governments verbal storyline on police handling has shifted from criticism from inaction, to praise for appropriate action, this could be motivated by a desire to head-off pay-outs under the riot damages act



  2. nick writes:

    If the police had read the Riot Act to the weekend’s rioters (assuming the Act was still in force), the result would have been hilariously unsuccessful. The rioters would have laughed like drains and continued breaking into Foot Locker.



    wendy writes

    I wonder if sending in a crack team of comedians would have caused so much laughter that they’d have been distracted from looting because there was better quality entertainment…



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