‘The Food Riots of 1801 and the execution of Tout and Wescott

The June Meeting of the Friends.

steve poole
Speaker: Steve Poole, Professor at the University of the West of England, Bristol.

It was the details behind the events leading up to the food riots of 1801, as a result of which Tout and Wescott were executed, that made this talk so fascinating; in particular the law as it existed in the days before the police force came into being when the role of the local magistrate was of vital importance. A man of ‘good standing’ within the local community he was appointed by the Lord Lieutenant of the county, to administer the law in his area.

By concentrating of a single local incident Steve was able to bring history to life in a very amusing and informative way. We saw the magistrate in all his glory administering justice. He was the lynch pin of the community; he had the power to punish the dissolute. He was the official that the poor had the right to approach when they felt their long established rights were being eroded. He aimed to sort petty differences in order to prevent trouble and compromise was usually considered to be the best way. It was, of course, also the easiest way out for the magistrate. We also saw the magistrate in cartoons of the period as a figure of fun and mockery.

The Riot Act was particularly interesting. In the event of a disturbance the magistrate could read the Riot Act to the rioters. He would then wait for one hour. If there were still more than eleven men protesting after the hour then he could call in the militia – a body of reluctant conscripts – to be avoided if possible!

The Food Riot of 1801 started with a search to find a magistrate to pass judgement on the price of bread. This – unbelievable in today’s terms – involved a walk to North Petherton only to find he had gone to Halswell … then to Taunton … then to Bridgwater, and finally to Otterhampton, by which time the protesters were a thousand strong. The invasion of a baker’s shop whose owner refused to lower the price of bread resulted in a quick referral to the Assizes where the judge found two of the rioters guilty of aggravated theft. Within days poor Tout and Westcott were executed at Stonegallows, near Taunton.

This was an outstanding talk given by one who loves his subject and is very able to infect others with his enthusiasm. The programme secretary is to be congratulated.

Report by Ann Pugh