Angry mob demands Freedom From Information Act while driving resident dissenters out of town – to America. Cambridge 1792.

Browsing through Henry Gunning’s reminisces of life in Cambridge in the late 18th / early 19th Centuries, I found an interesting piece where he provides an account of some religious riots in town. Which must have been terrifying for the victims. Inevitably religion was an issue – in part due to the news from France. There was something more shocking about this episode though. The continued harassment of those dissenting from the Church of England reached such an intensity that some of them left Cambridge permanently, emigrating to the newly-independent United States of America.

Etching of Henry Gunning via the Internet Archive here.

What follows is from Mr Gunning’s book on his reminisces of Cambridge, digitised by the Internet Archive, from which I’ve transcribed this excerpt from p251 of the book.

“Almost every evening during the latter part of this winter, there were riotous assemblages, and the
windows of many of the Dissenters were broken. A very numerous mob collected one evening, who, after
breaking several windows, did great injury to the Meeting-house.

Above – the Friends Meeting House as it would have looked in the late 1700s, from the Cambridgeshire Collection’s Newspaper Archive. It was rebuilt by the Victorians, and again in the 20th Century.

“They were headed by two chimney- sweepers, under whose directions they proceeded to the Market-place and attacked several houses, endeavouring to burst open the doors : this was prevented by the interference of some Masters of Arts, (amongst the most active of whom were several Fellows of St. John’s,) who came to assist the magistrates of the town.

“By their united exertions the rioters were dispersed, but not until after the Riot Act had been
read. Mr. Salmon, a Fellow of St. John’s, exerted himself with great effect, frequently exposing himself
to considerable personal risk. The Rev. George Whitmore, Tutor of the above College, thought more
favourably of the conduct of the mob. Addressing his pupils next morning on the subject of the riot, he
expressed a hope, that none of them had joined in the disturbance, which he was pleased to designate “A LAUDABLE EBULLITION OF JUSTIFIABLE zeal!!” Two men were afterwards convicted at
the Town Sessions for a riot, and attacking the Meeting-house, and were sentenced to fourteen days’

“An attempt was made in the University and town to represent those who differed from Mr. Pitt as enemies to the constitution. Associations were formed against Republicans and Levellers, the resolutions against them were expressed in very offensive language, and all those who declined signing them were stigmatized as enemies to their King. The Dissenters (as a body) were included in that number, and I remember Sir Busick Harwood (who had until within a very short period of that time professed himself a
Whig,) made the following remark :

“In general, every man ought to be considered honest until he has proved himself a rogue ; but with Dissenters, the maxim should be reversed, and every Dissenter should be considered a rogue, until he had proved himself to be an honest man.”

A grocer named Gazam was reported to have uttered seditious expressions. The mob constructed a figure to represent him ; a halter was put about his neck, and was affixed to a gallows; this was carried to the door of all good subjects, and those who did not subscribe were considered deficient in loyalty. I happened to be standing with some of the Fellows of Emmanuel at their college gate when the effigy was exhibited. We were joined by the Master, who laughed heartily : he gave the men who carried it five shillings, and desired them to shake it well, ” opposite Master Gazam’s house.”

“In the subsequent winter the proceedings of these mobs, (whose watchword was “Church and King!”)
were so outrageous, that several Dissenters, of whom Gazam was one, consulted their own safety by leaving Cambridge for America.

On the 20th of December, the publicans of the town, at a meeting held in consequence of a summons from the magistrates, agreed to the following declaration : —

We, whose names are undersigned, being publicans residing in this town, do promise and declare, that if, with our knowledge, any person or persons, either by public conversation, or by public reading, or circulation of any books, pamphlets, or papers of a treasonable or seditious tendency, do endeavour to inflame or unsettle the minds of his Majesty’s subjects, thereby promoting and encouraging riots and tumults, we will immediately give notice thereof to the magistrates, and do our utmost to bring to justice all those, who by the above, or any other means, may endeavour to disturb the public peace.”

Declaration of Cambridge publicans, 20th of December 1792, quoted by Henry Gunning.

This declaration was signed by one hundred and twelve publicans.”


Re the line “…unsettle the minds of his Majesty’s subjects…” This reminds me of this spoof article by The Onion that I first read at university at the turn of the Millennium. A Freedom From Information Act.

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