In 1815 the soldiers and sailors won the war against Napoleon but the government handed the victory to the landlords. They had profited from the high price of grain during the war blockade, and so the government passed the Corn Law to forbid the import of Wheat until it reached 80 shilling a bushel. This was a de facto ban; it meant that the aristocrats could continue to benefit from high prices and the high rents that they supported. It was passed by the Commons and Lords with the building surrounded by bayonets. The poor of London rioted because they knew that, having had 20 years of high food prices and poverty, the end of the war was not going to make their life easier.
The rioters were politically literate and aimed for the houses of those MPs who had actively supported the Corn Law. None of them died but their property was severely damaged. Two innocent bystanders did outside the house of Frederick John Robinson MP in Old Burlington Street. From earlier evening on a Tuesday his house was surrounded by a mob of about 60 throwing .Robinson was paying the price of introducing the Corn Bill to Parliament. However, his price was less than that of nineteen year old midshipman Edward Vyse, who was walking past the house and was hit with a shot from the pistol that was designed to scare the mob of boys outside. He died immediately at the scene.
Although this was a partisan class based piece of legislation, the rule of law meant that there would be an inquest, and an attempt to find the killer. One witness at the inquest was an Edward Howe, a messenger at the Board of Trade who asked one of the mob if he feared the soldiers shooting at them-“No, they dare not fire ball” he replied. It is clear that the rioters did not think they were living in a despotic state where the military fired at civilians. Perhaps he also though that the firing of lethal shot was not part of the traditional choreography of the urban riot.
On the second day of the inquest a Corporal Richard Burton gave evidence about the action of the six soldiers stationed there. The officer himself stressed that he was taking the advice of the constable, the civil power, and they both agreed to fire powder only. At eight thirty, when most of the Right Honourable member’s windows had been broken and his shutters were under attack, the soldiers opened fire, bit the balls of their cartridges so they were only producing smoke, and the young “rioters” cheered.
In this case, the cheerful rioters were wrong. About 10pm Edward Vyse, aged about 18, a navy midshipman, was shot in the head by persons unknown who were defending the Robinson house. Edward had been walking past the house, not towards it, in full uniform; there was no rioting or disturbances at that time-lots of witnessed attested to this. He had been killed instantly by a single cartridge ball from a pistol. A witness saw a soldier in the parlour wearing a foraging cap, who seemed to be responsible for the death. There were two other shots.
Corporal Burton admitted that there was at least one soldier with a foraging cap in the parlour at the time of Vyse’s death. There seemed to have been a real contradiction in evidence here; a soldier had fired under duress from the mobs attack at 8.30- but Edward Vyse had been killed at ten while he was merely passing the house, not trying to enter it. He father, a respectable artisan printer appeared as a sorrowful witness, backing up this narrative of events. The jury, clearly knowledgeable about these inquests, asked the coroner to keep the soldiers separate from Burton until the inquest continued. The Coroner regretted that he had no such power to do so.
Evidence from the Butler, James Ripley, suggested it seems that the fatal shot had not come from a military weapon but from rifles belonging to the household that had been loaded with the day before. Around 9pm an unidentified soldier had borrowed the rifle from Ripley and it was this that had been discharged into the street at about 10pm at Edward Vyse.
Corporal Burton could not offer any information about which of the six privates had fired the shot, so they we questioned individually. The witness George Ulph, private in the third regiment of Guards, was issued with 21 rounds of ball which he returned the next morning. He had not even fired shot. William Graves had returned all but one of his cartridges; he still had the balls he had bitten off in his pocket at home.
With four soldiers left, the coroner separated those who had been nearest to the shooting from those who had been further way, and those further away were interrogated. These two could account for their ammunition, had never seen the man in the foraging cap, and were dismissed. Mathews and Herbert were clearly in the frame.
It proved impossible to prove who did the shooting. The Jury’s verdict was that Vyse was unlawfully murdered by persons unknown, and that the actions of the military were unconstitutional, as they had permission neither to enter the house nor fire on the civilians outside.
James Ripley, the butler who provided pistols, Mathews and Herbert who were nearest the parlour and Richard Burton the corporal in charge must have breathed a sigh of guilty relief.
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