Press release: University of Exeter Press, 5 November 2018
Bonfire Night provided another excuse for a riot in city ruled by “the tyranny of a mob”
Exeter may now have a genteel image – but centuries ago the city was known for its disorderly and violent mobs who would cause havoc on occasions such as Bonfire Night, according to new research.
Exonians had a reputation as ruffians who would impose their own brand of rough justice in public, records show.
The anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot was used in Exeter to burn effigies of Guy Fawkes and the pope as well as residents who had committed transgressions. Even at other times of the year “Skimmington Rides” designed to humiliate those who had been immoral or criminal were common.
One Exeter newspaper proudly proclaimed in 1847 that no other British city celebrated the 5th of November with as much enthusiasm as Exeter. A generation later Beatrix Potter wrote ‘the rabble are notorious’.
One observer said in 1843 “the people of Exeter were the veriest ruffians upon earth – even the Eskimos and the Hottentots, and all other nondescript people under the sun, were held up to greater admiration than the people of Exeter”.
In 1853 the vicar of St Sidwell claimed, from his pulpit, that ‘Exeter is given over to the tyranny of a mob’.
Exeter’s violent past has been uncovered by University of Exeter historian Dr Todd Gray, and is described in his new book which tells the story of 146 individuals who were singled out in Exeter for being different – heretics, traitors, murderers, sportsmen, arsonists, witches, deviants, heroes, adulterers, prostitutes, celebrities, spies, grave robbers, cannibals, insane, fifth columnists and slanderers.
Dr Gray said: “The evidence suggests Exonians were more likely to join in mobs than residents of other towns and cities, and occasions such as Guy Fawkes Night provided the perfect excuse. The mobs seem to have been there for entertainment and a crude attempt at moral judgement.”
The raucous Guy Fawkes Night celebrations were organised during Victorian times by ‘Young Exeter’, a group of working class young men under the leadership of the eccentric John Eyre Kingdon, and a successor organisation the Young Guys. The men, who donned a uniform of white jackets and trousers, south-wester hats and high boots or fancy dress, regarded the celebrations as ‘the festival of their boyhoods’ and Exeter became resigned to being taken over by rowdy boys, youths and men. During the elaborate processions, fireworks, rolling tar barrels and a giant bonfire near Exeter Cathedral there were often many injuries and some deaths.
The burning of effigies of well-known but unpopular residents – including Exeter Bishop Phillpotts – was designed to humiliate them. The effigies were first hung on mock gallows. In 1849 a Reverend Charles Rookes, a rector, and his former servant Mary Maria Brookes whom he had seduced, were unlucky enough to be represented, Charles as a rook. Other victims included Harry Hooper, ‘the hard-mouthed beak [magistrate]’.
The authorities had tried to stop these bonfires from 1810 onwards, but the bonfire only moved from near to Exeter Cathedral in the mid-1890s. A compromise was reached in 1854 with Young Exeter, who agreed there were to be no effigies burnt except those of Guy Fawkes and the pope.
Skimmington Rides, loud processions with people banging pans and kettles, were common around the country for hundreds of years but seem to have been especially popular in Exeter, and continued in the city until as late as 1879. On this last occasion large numbers of Exonians congregated in Exwick where a procession was headed by men with flaming torches followed by a donkey on which rode a woman’s effigy. A sweeping brush (held aloft) followed her and further behind was another donkey with a male effigy. Both effigies, representing a couple accused of immoral behaviour, were cast into a bonfire. The real fate of the couple is unknown.
During another Skimmington Ride crowds followed a Victorian woman suspected of infanticide. She was hissed at in High Street as was an Edwardian suspected of child neglect.
Other mobs started because of disappointment. In 1872 crowds began throwing stones and bricks, and mobbed engineers after a promised spectacular explosion of the Newtown brick-kiln proved to be loud but ineffectual. When the stacks remained disappointed people forced their way to the brickfield, and someone fired a gun, perhaps as a warning. Violence continued at the brickfield until the stack was finally felled more than a week later.
In the second part of the nineteenth century mobs gathered during attempts to tighten alcohol licensing laws. The bishop was targeted in 1872 and members of the Salvation Army were repeatedly brutalised nine years later. In 1882 the bishop wasn’t protected from the attacks of ‘roughs, young men and boys’. People gave out leaflets which incited violence and at a public meeting some forty chairs were destroyed, red pepper was sprinkled and ‘stink pots’ were made from asafoetida, the pungent Asian herb. The protests continued, with violence against temperance recorded in 1894.
Dr Gray said: “Perhaps the last Exeter mob of any size formed in 1907 in support of a man who came home early to discover his wife was in the midst of eloping, possibly to Canada, with a young male lodger. Apparently the story spread like wildfire, and it didn’t take long for a mob to gather nearby who were sympathetic to the husband. Eventually the lodger was evicted and he was followed by more than a thousand women and some men through the streets. The lodger fled and found his paramour but their subsequent history has not been found.”
Not One of Us: Individuals set apart by choice, circumstances, crowds or the mob in Exeter, 1451–1952
Published by Exeter Local History Society and The Mint Press