Saffron Walden and Long Melford: Reading the Riot Act

Where do common phrases and terms in the English language come from?  I asked myself this question recently whilst I’ve been researching my two new books Sudbury, Lavenham, and Long Melford Through Time and Saffron Walden and Around Through Time (both books due out from Amberley Publishing in the next few months).

During the writing of my books, I have been avidly scouring newspaper archives for reports and articles about all the towns I am researching.  I came across the newspaper report below of a riot in Saffron Walden.

Reading of the Riot Act in Saffron Walden 1740

5 July 1740 – Ipswich Journal,
© Copyright the British Library Board

The “Proclamation being read” and “timely Notice” are both referring to the fact that the Riot Act had to be read out to the crowds in Walden. This was a 1714 Act of Parliament which stopped a group of 12 or more people from being assembled. When the Riot Act was (literally) read out (normally by a local big-wig from the town), the crowd HAD to disperse otherwise face being forcibly dispersed and/or arrested. If the crowd didn’t disperse within an hour of the Act being read, then the authorities could take further action such as calling for troops and militia to be sent in. From the newspaper account, it would appear that Walden’s crowd dispersed once the Act was read to them (but still managed to carry away a trophy!).

Later on in history, the reading of the Riot Act caused the infamous Peterloo Massacre (Manchester) of 1819. One of the last times the act was used in East Anglia was in 1885 when it was read in the village of Long Melford. In this case, the reading of the Riot Act did not work and the people of Long Melford and nearby Glemsford continued to riot throughout the village of Long Melford. So the troops from nearby Bury St Edmunds came into Long Melford via the train and dispersed the rioters using brute force with fixed bayonets.  (My new book Sudbury, Lavenham and Long Melford Through Time looks at Long Melford’s riot of 1885 in more detail.)

As the Act was only repealed in 1967, the term is still used today. It is where we get the phrase “I will read you the riot act” – still used today by many to control unruly children!



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My local history book on the historic East Hertfordshire town of Bishop’s Stortford is still available.  Please do click on the image below to buy my book.Bishop's Stortford Through Time by Kate Cole

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You may also be interested in
– Bishop’s Stortford Through Time
– Saffron Walden and Around Through Time
– Sudbury, Lavenham, Long Melford Through Time

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