Charlotte Gardiner and Mary Roberts 
The Gordon Rioters.

 

In June 1780 London experienced five days of very serious rioting which, it is estimated, led to some 285 people being killed, 173 wounded and 139 arrested.  Most of the casualties were amongst the rioters after the army was called in to quell them on Wednesday the 7th of June.  The riot started after Lord George Gordon, a retired navy lieutenant, and president of the Protestant Association, led a crowd variously estimated at between 20,000 and 40,000 people to the House of Commons to present a petition for the repeal of the 1778 Roman Catholic Relief Act on Friday the 2nd of June.  The purpose of this Act was to repeal the severely anti-Catholic laws passed in the late 1600s. All those who went to Parliament in procession with Gordon wore blue cockades and carried blue flags with the legend “no popery”. The protest quickly got out of hand and in the evening the mob began attacking prominent Catholic churches.  Early victims were the Sardinian chapel, near Lincoln's Inn Fields and the Bavarian chapel in Warwick Street.  The windows were broken and the doors forced and then once inside the rioters wrecked the interior and set fire to the furniture, resulting in the complete destruction of some buildings.  Only the efforts of soldiers and bystanders managed to save the Bavarian chapel from total devastation.

Later the rioters turned their attention to the homes and business premises of Catholics and also attacked some major public buildings such as the Bank of England, the King's Bench Prison, Newgate, Fleet and Marshalsea prisons.  On the Wednesday night it was reported that standing on London Bridge, no less than thirty-six different buildings could be seen on fire. Fortunately it was a still summer’s evening and the fires did not spread too much.  It was not until a week later, on Friday the 9th of July that the rioting was finally put down. 

In due course those arrested came to trial and ultimately seventeen men and two women were to be hanged.  Lord George Gordon was tried for High treason but his defence by renowned advocate Thomas Erskine led to an acquittal and he carried on his duties as an MP.  He was later imprisoned for libelling Marie Antoinette and died in Newgate prison in 1793.

Two of the prisoners who had been arrested were Mary Roberts and Charlotte Gardiner who were subsequently charged with riot and pulling down the house of a Mr. John Lebarty on the 8th of June. Mr. Lebarty was an Italian gentleman who kept a public house and shop in St. Catherine's Lane. 
Mary Roberts had been a former neighbour of Mr. Lebarty and he had had her removed from her lodgings by the parish constables for her anti-social behaviour.  Mary still lived quite close by in an adjoining street and clearly had reason to hold a grudge against Mr. Lebarty. When she turned up outside his house on the Monday evening she abused him and promised to destroy his property as she said it was a Papist house.  She repeated these threats on the Tuesday and then on the Wednesday put them into practice with the help of others.  The threats were also heard by Mr. Lebarty’s neighbours.  By the early hours of Thursday Mary and her co-defendant, Charlotte had taken over the remains of the property and was seen throwing things out of the house.

The two women were tried together on the 28th of June 1780 before Lord Chief Baron Skynner.  Mr. Lebarty, his maid, fifteen year old Elisabeth Frazer and several of his neighbours appeared for the prosecution.  They gave the court clear evidence of identification for Mary and recounted the events of the Wednesday night and Thursday morning.  Charlotte was probably quite unusual at the time in that she was a black girl. Witnesses testified to her very active role in the destruction and how she rallied the other rioters to help in it.  Elisabeth Frazer gave the court a detailed account of Mary’s activities and how she had helped pull the pub bar down and tossed Mr. Lebarty’s goods out into the street.  Letitia Harris, who lived opposite Mr. Lebarty told the court that she had seen Charlotte in Mr. Lebarty’s house and saw her carry a bed out on her shoulders from it.  Mrs. Harris testified that Charlotte had been encouraging the others to burn down the house and that she had worked, as she put it, “like a horse” in the process, even taking off her shoes and stockings.  Another neighbour, Elisabeth Jolliffe, was also able to testify against Charlotte.  She told the court that she had seen Charlotte with two men who broke into the house and who were shouting “down with Popery, down with Popery”.  Mrs. Jolliffe confirmed to the court that she had seen Charlotte going in and out of the house several times and that she was swearing and cursing and calling for more wood for the fire.

Mary Roberts questioned some of the witnesses and offered the court a defence.  She said that she came home around eleven o'clock to see the mob breaking down Mr. Lebarty's door.  When they saw her they asked her if she was a Catholic to which she said no.  She alleged that she was threatened with being smothered if she did not help them loot the house.  It wasn’t until the next morning that she heard about the fire and how it had destroyed the building.  She also called a Mr. Thomas Buddin who testified that he had spoken to her that night and asked her why she was apparently helping the mob.  He claimed that she told him that she was trying to rescue some of Mr. Lebarty's property and was going to return it to him in the morning.  To this end, he told the court, she had informed the parish bellman that she had some of the items for Mr. Lebarty to collect.  Mary’s sister in law, also Mary, gave her a character reference.
Charlotte did not enter any defence.  After a short deliberation the Second Middlesex Jury brought them both in guilty, as was the expression. 
The June Sessions of the Old Bailey were extremely busy as a result of the Gordon Riots.  In all thirty five men and three women were sentenced to death, including Mary and Charlotte.  Of these, only three men were condemned for offences other than riot and all three were hanged.  Of the rioters, fifteen men were reprieved, including Edward Dennis, London’s hangman.  Dennis claimed that he had been recognised my the mob in Holborn and had been threatened with death if he did not help them pull down the house of a Mr. Edmund Boggis. 
At this time judges could order that a person be executed at a suitable place near to where the crime was committed.  This was done in the cases of all the rioters and none were hanged at Tyburn, which was still the usual place of execution in London.

Mary and Charlotte were taken to Tothill Fields Prison to await their fate.  They hanged together with one man, William McDonald, on Tuesday the 11th of July 1780, on a specially constructed gallows erected on Tower Hill, this being the nearest convenient place that was close to St. Catherine's Lane.  Edward Dennis’ assistant William Brunskill is believed to have officiated at all these executions.  It was very unusual for hangings to take place here, most executions on Tower Hill were by beheading.

 

The nineteen who were executed are as follows :

Date

Name

Place of execution

 

 

Tuesday 11th July

William Brown

Bishopsgate Street

William Pateman

Coleman Street

William McDonald with

Mary and Charlotte

Tower Hill

 

Wednesday 12th July

James Henry

Holborn Hill

Richard Roberts

Bow Street

Thomas Taplin

Bow Street

Thursday 13th July

Enoch Fleming

Oxford Road

Thursday 20th July

James Jackson

Old Bailey

John Gamble

Bethnal Green

Samuel Solomons

Whitechapel

 

 

Friday 21st July

George Staples

Coleman Street

Jonathan Stacey

White’s Alley Moorfields

Benjamin Waters

Old Street, opposite Golden Lane

Thomas Price

Old Street, opposite Golden Lane

James Burns

Old Street, opposite Golden Lane

Saturday 22nd July

John Gray

Bloomsbury Square

Charles Kent

Bloomsbury Square

 

Initially the government had been slow to react to the rioting. The first meeting to discuss it did not take place until the Monday, three days after it had started and even then there was a very half hearted response.  Parliament sat on Tuesday the 6th of June and was disrupted by the mob’s protests.  Some of the magistrates sided with the Protestant Association, some were simply not brave enough to read the Riot Act, which was a prerequisite to ordering soldiers and constables to disperse the mob.
It wasn’t until Wednesday that King George intervened and ordered the army to intervene and start shooting rioters and arresting them.  The casualties were severe as stated earlier.  By Thursday evening the Gordon Riots were all but over leaving a huge trail of damage and destruction to repair.

 

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