Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Bloody Monday - an undistinguished vengeance

Family tree research can often lead you to discover localised historical events that for some reason have remained little-known.
When I stumbled across the story of "Bloody Monday" that took place in Hexham, Northumberland, on 9th March, 1761, I was astonished to note that quite a number of familiar surnames, villages and hamlets were listed in connection with it and it is highly possible some distant ancestor of mine was involved.
Unlike the more famous Peterloo Massacre or Gordon Riots, the "Hexham Riot" or "Hexham Massacre" has not received much attention in the history books.
The Militia Acts were brought in during England's Seven Years War and included a system of ballots forcing men to serve in the militia. As only the poorest men such as coal miners or agricultural labourers would be called up while richer ones could opt out by paying for a substitute *, there was a natural groundswell of ill feeling against the ballots among the inhabitants because wives and families could often be left destitute after male breadwinners were taken away. Several thousand people filled the Hexham market place in protest.

Hexham Market Place c. early 19th Century
 The authorities had forewarning of the gathering and sent the North Yorkshire Militia to keep the peace, but despite the formal reading of the Riot Act the protestors tried to gain access to the country lieutenants in the Moot Hall, an ensign was fatally injured, and all hell broke loose.
Several summaries of the Hexham Riot can be found and read online, most derived from antiquarian publications available via the Internet Archive such as the Historical Register of Remarkable Events by John Sykes and The Annual Register of 1761.
Also, John Crawford Hodgson's North Country Diaries covers the episode in some detail and lists the names of many of the dead and wounded who included pregnant women and young children.
Some of the newspapers of the day gave cursory coverage of the event and reported that no more than 18 or 19 people lost their lives, while Hodgson's original diary has notations in the margins that friends of his believed that the death toll was actually around 200.
On the other hand, this article by D W Smith of The Northumberland & Durham Family History Society lists about 50 deaths, and there is no way of knowing how many of the wounded escaped only to die later hiding out in fields, cellars and in barns.
On the day following the massacre it was apparently quiet, it rained heavily and "washed away all the remaining evidence of what had transpired".
The brutal aftermath was inevitable as prosecutors chased up the ringleaders. E. Mackenzie in his Historical, Topographical Descriptive View of Northumberland states, "... many women and children suffered in the undistinguished vengeance of the day" and "The country was placed under military law, and dragoons galloped in every direction carrying terror wherever they appeared."
Ultimately 16 men were charged and 10 discharged. Two men, Peter Patterson and William Alder, were charged with high treason but the only one to be executed was Patterson who is said to have behaved "with a becoming decency" but whose suffering was increased by a botched first attempt and his last words were said to have been: "Innocent blood is hard to spill". According to some reports, he wasn't even in Hexham on that awful "Bloody Monday".

In 2004, a reenactment in Hexham of the Riot was organised and reports and photographs of the event can be found here.

Tom Corfe also wrote a book about the episode entitled Riot.

* An unsavoury practice that became notorious a century later in the American Civil War

Hexham Abbey & Moot Hall