Tag Archives: UK history

field of poppies

Riot Act?

What is the riot act? Did your mother ever say, “If you come home past curfew, your father is going to read you the riot act!”? Or a friend said, “Remember that time we sneaked a goat into the teachers lounge? The principal sure read us the riot act.”?

Now it usually is used to mean a harsh scolding that enumerates all your current misdeeds. If you also get a list of everything you’ve done wrong in forever, that means you’ve married a wife with an excellent memory.

Where did this come from? Well, in 1714 the British Parliament passed a law that would allow the local constabulary to disperse a crowd of 12 or more people in order to prevent “tumults and riotous assemblies”. First they would be read a proclamation that they must break up the group, within an hour, on pain of death.

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!

The riots were serious business. It was a clash of politics and religion – the Whigs vs. the Tories. At that time, the Whigs were Scottish Presbyterians and the Tories were Irish Catholics. The Whigs were wanted primacy of Parliament over the King and the Tories said, “That will only happen on opposite day, and that’s not today!” (That quotation of the Tories may not be exactly, completely, historically accurate. Feel free to disregard that and just assume they said something boring about wanting the King to be over Parliament.)

Have you noticed that the difference between Riot Act and Patriot Act is just one little “pat”? Probably the one they give you going through airport security.

If you want to read the text of the Riot Act, you may do so on Project Gutenberg. If that’s too tl;dr for you, you can listen to it on LibriVox.

You can find a lot more about Whigs and Tories on this George Mason University page, Historical Outline of Restoration and 18th Century British Literature.

Instead of posting a picture of a riot, I posted a field of flowers. You’re welcome.


Gin Plague?

Genever (Jenever) had been brought back to Great Britain by soldiers who had fought with the Dutch in the 80 Years’ War/Dutch War for Independence. It wasn’t quite the same as gin, but would lead to the creation of gin.

When William of Orange (who was originally Dutch) became king of England in 1689, he made it illegal to import French brandy. He did this because he was Protestant and the French king was Catholic and that seemed like enough of a reason at the time. At first people were encouraged to make and drink gin. It was like they were thumbing their noses at France – who needs your brandy anyway?! But people began to like it. Not just like it, but like-like it.

The government began thinking that people were having too much fun with gin so they passed a law that put a tax of 5 shillings a gallon on gin. This didn’t do enough to stop people from drinking, and in typical government thinking, if something’s not working, let’s do more of it! So they passed the Gin Tax Act of 1736. It put a 20 shillings (£1) a gallon tax on liquors and required sellers to pay for an annual license that cost £50.

Side note – Then, as it is today, a government requiring a business to have a license is less about regulating it or keeping the public safe and is mostly about reducing the number of that type of business. Often it ends up being protectionism for the businesses of that kind that already exist. Look at how taxi companies are using government to fight competition from off Uber, Lyft, and SideCar.

The result of that was that reputable gin shops closed and a black market production of it grew, and it grew bigger than the legal gin market had been before Many of the producers and sellers of it were more on the sketchy side and the gin could have been adulterated with something that could make the drinkers ill or even kill them.

After some riots and a few years of continued drunkenness on cheap hooch, the law was repealed. In 1751 a new one was enacted that lowered the fees for big producers and raised them for the sellers. Distillers could not sell gin at retail and it put a minimum volume limit on the stills. Retailers could only get a license if they were in space that rented for at least £10 a year.

Another side note – This is business/government cronyism at its finest. Finest for the big businesses and politicians, that is, not so much for the small shop owner.

The cost of food was going up so there wasn’t as much money left for gin, which was becoming more expensive too. During this time, the importation of tea had been increasing so it was in place to become the new popular drink.