The Calton Riots of 1816
1816 was a year of massive distress for workers of all kinds. The standard response of the rich to economic hardship was first to make sure that it was not the result of moral failings of those involved, and then to organize a public subscription if that was found not to be the case. Many of the public subscriptions were made with great fuss in the newspapers. The Prince Regent had it reported in the press in 1816 that he was buying more silk in response to the distress of the Spitalfields weavers. Just like today, many of the elite believed that more consumption by themselves was a favour to the poor, allowing them to eat.
In the cases of Calton, a well established weaving community outside Glasgow, the local rich were outraged when the opening of a subscription food bank led to riots, not humble thanks. The military were “obliged” to come out and suppress the protests of the weavers just as they had done in 1787, when six people were killed. On this occasion two people were seriously injured.
The Oxford Chronicle reported that on the first day of the riot, August the 2nd, the mob began “in the usual way of throwing stones at the soup kitchen, breaking the windows”. The tone had a world-weariness about it, as it seemed to have been a popular method of protest for the poor in 1816. They were not match for the dragoons who had put down the riot by the end of the day, seriously injuring two and dragging the “ringleaders” to jail. The Oxford Mail somewhat sarcastically speculated that it was the quality of the broth that was the root cause, but then settled on the belief that it was a handful of mischievous people exploiting the economic distress for their own political ends. The diarist Thomas Lucas of Stirling received this report from his son on August 5th
“Walter, Arrived on a visit of eight days from Glasgow, reports that trade is very dull there, and that there was a very serious mob there on account of the distribution of some broth, in which the military aid was used whereby several people were dangerously wounded, the riot continued several days..
A truer cause of the anger can probably be seen in the fact that the rioters tried to burn down a factory that manufactured the type of power looms that was creating unemployment and depressing wages in the industry. The most serious wound was a young boy who, while jumping through the window of a factory, had a shard of class penetrate his eye and go into his brain. Dr Lucas commented that “the Riots in Glasgow terminated without any person being Killed but severall have been wounded one of whom is since dead”.
The local Justices of the Peace announced at the end of the disturbances that they would still be providing relief for the poor weavers of Carlton, despite their goodwill being mightily tested.