The Tewkesbury Bread Riot of 1795
This article first appeared in THS Bulletin 22 (2013). It was shortlisted for the county Jerrard Award.
"Who forgets the frost of ninety-five?"
Then was all dismal, scarce, and dear,
And no poor man could thrive." 
The winter of 1794-95 was severe throughout the land; the rivers Severn and Thames froze over and a temperature of minus 21oc. was recorded in London. In Tewkesbury, the freeze began on 20 December 1794 and continued until 7 February 1795. The subsequent thaw caused major flooding of the rivers Severn and Avon, inundating the town and the surrounding farmlands. According to the Geast chronicler, to relieve distress, the poor were supported during this time by public subscription, enabling bread and coals to be sold cheaply and, in some cases, to be provided free. Nevertheless, the 233 burials in Tewkesbury during 1794 and 1795 exceeded most other two-year periods (usually under 100 per year). This is apart from the likes of 1779 and 1784 when the laconic phrase “Small Pox very prevalent” appears in the parish register. In 1794 itself, the disease accounted for 45 of the 132 burials recorded. The weather and hunger could well have contributed to the virulence of the smallpox virus. Bad weather even continued into the spring and summer of 1795. It was reported that, in the district of Wincanton in Somerset, thousands of newly shorn sheep left out in the fields died of the extreme cold caused by frosts on the nights of 21 and 22 June. The wheat harvest of 1794 had been very poor due to a hot, dry summer. Then, the extreme cold and floods of the following winter affected crop production and prevented farmers from undertaking field work. The bad weather during the spring of 1795 was also detrimental to agricultural production. A sack of flour costing £2.4s. [£2.20] in 1794 cost £4.3s. [£4.15] in 1795. Great Britain had been at war with Revolutionary France since 1793 and much of the wheat that was produced was bought by the government to supply the army and navy. In addition the war impeded the importation of grain into Britain. This situation brought the country to the brink of famine. The plight of the poor was exacerbated by the enclosures that removed the means of some self-sufficiency that they had previously enjoyed. By the summer of 1795 the price of bread had practically doubled at around 1s. [5p] for a 4lb loaf. At this time the average weekly wage of artisans was around 10s. [50p] a week when in work, although many labourers were paid as little as 5s. Furthermore, some corn factors and millers took to hoarding grain in anticipation of rising prices and, instead of selling to locals, exporting it to regions where higher prices could be obtained.
[Cartoon – William Pitt (The British butcher, supplying John Bull with a substitute for bread) James Gilray, 1795 © National Portrait Gallery.]
During 1795 and 1796, the shortages, high prices and profiteering practices led to many food related disturbances throughout the country; they very often involved women. Tewkesbury’s ‘bread riot’ occurred on Tuesday 24 June 1795. Flour was waiting at Tewkesbury Quay to be transported by water to Birmingham where no doubt a greater profit could be made than in Tewkesbury. On the following day, Henry Fowke, the Town Clerk of Tewkesbury, wrote to the Home Secretary, Lord Portland, reporting the event. This letter was one of scores that Portland received that year from all parts of the country reporting disturbances, asking for flour supplies or anticipating the need for military support.
I do myself the Honour of addressing Your Grace on the subject of extreme Rioting at this place yesterday. Several Quantities of Wheaten Flour were forcibly taken out of the Barges at the Quay & carried off by divers Persons, chiefly Females – The civil force was convened with all possible Dispatch, & after much difficulty & confusion, the Riot was suppressed, & the ringleaders committed to the county rather than the Borough Goal, as more secure – The appearance of the Town this morning, I have the pleasure to say, is pacific. I have thought it my Duty to acquaint Government, through Your Grace, of this transaction. With the greatest respect, I am My Lord, Your Grace’s most obedient servant
Town Clerk of the Borough of Tewkesbury
Tewkesbury 25th June 1795 
Clearly the Tewkesbury authorities thought it possible that attempts might be made to free those arrested from the town gaol, so they were sent to Gloucester. Those detained were all women and the city’s gaol register records the details of the charges and names four of the prisoners.
Hester Macmaster aged 21, Mary Aldridge aged 16, Sarah Kinson aged 16, Ann Mayall aged 22. Committed the 24th of June 1795, by J. Wall, Esq; charged on the oaths of Henry Welling, William Moore, Charles Moore, and John Mew, of the borough of Tewkesbury, housekeepers, with having riotously and tumultuously assembled, with divers other persons, on the 24th of June instant, within the parish of Tewkesbury aforesaid, to the terror of his Majesty’s subjects, and in breach of the peace – Committed for want of sureties for their personal appearance at the next General Gaol Delivery, to answer the said charge.
A fifth woman accused was Happy Fielder; she was not committed until shortly before the trial in late July. It is possible that she may have managed to have had bail raised for her, or perhaps the degree of her role in the riot came to light later, or maybe she had evaded arrest.
[Illustration: Tewkesbury - The View from the Quay in 1804 from The Book of Tewkesbury, Kathleen Ross 1986]
In September, the judge involved in the case, Sir Alexander Thomson (who was said to be 'amiable, sociable and jocular') was asked by the Home Secretary for a report of the case. Thomson described the disturbance as involving 200 people and the carrying away of flour, the property of James Lamb (who was presumably the buyer in Birmingham as he does not appear to be a Tewkesbury man). Thomson went on to summarise the evidence – mainly him paraphrasing the testimonies of witnesses.
Cornfactor and witness, Richard Jenkins, stated that at about twelve o’clock a crowd “assembled in a tumultuous manner” and that Hester Macmaster was amongst them. They wanted to know of him, “what was doing with that flour which was in the barge”. He had ordered the barge to be placed in the middle of the river out of reach. “The cry of the mob was to prevent the flour going to Upton.” Jenkins told the people to disperse and spoke directly to Macmaster, who was “aiding and abetting the others”, telling her to go home – he did not recollect her answer! She was “in the number of the active – she was hollering”. Soon after, the Riot Act  was read.
Witness, Henry Welling confirmed Jenkins’s evidence. He stated that at around four o’clock he saw people taking flour from the sacks; they included Macmaster and Mayall, both “dammed him, and said he as great a rogue as the next”.
Another witness, Charles Moore, gave evidence that Sarah Kinson was “among the crowd and active” and that he saw all of the prisoners there; “they were not mere spectators, but taking an active part in the disturbance”. He spoke to Happy Fielder who said “she wished she could leap over the bridge into the barge and she would throw the flour into the water”.
Witness William Moore identified Macmaster, Kinson and Aldridge as being there. He saw Macmaster at around four or five o’clock with flour in her apron. He told her to desist and asked her if she knew the consequences. She allegedly answered with “never mind that, will you give me a dobbin?” He told her he would give her anything if she would go home and then gave her 1½d., she said “she would have her bit of flour” but he saw no more of her. He saw Kinson with flour, and Aldridge “active” in the crowd.
Rev. W. Smith spoke for the prisoners, saying that “he knew a little of Macmaster” and that he knew her parents well, and that they were respectable people. He also said that he had never heard anything bad of any of the prisoners. On 26 July, the five women were found guilty and sentenced to six months imprisonment.
[Portrait of Sir Alexander Thomson (c1744-1817) the judge who tried the five Tewkesbury women. It is said that table gratifications contributed to his demise ©National Portrait Gallery, London]
[Sir George Onesiphorus Paul (1746-1820) Prison Reformer, Baronet and High Sheriff of Gloucester. Bust in Gloucester Cathedral - author 2011]
The first four women had originally arrived at Gloucester Gaol on the night of the 24 June and were examined the next day in the ‘Lazaretto’ (quarantine) cells by the visiting surgeon, Thomas Parker, who pronounced them free from disease. They were washed, dressed in prison-garb and placed in the Bridewell Division of the prison, “as I [the governor] did not think it safe to put them with the other female fines”. (A ‘fine’ was a person imprisoned for not paying a fine, or being unable to raise bail, or being guilty of a misdemeanour. ‘Bridewell’ usually meant a place of detention for minor offences.) Happy Fielder was committed on 20 July, going through the same routine.
On her first day in gaol, and on several other occasions, Esther Macmaster avoided attending prison chapel. Her usual excuse was illness: the governor, Thomas Cunningham, noted in his journal “Mcmaster absent from chapel, she says she is unwell and at the same time refuses any assistance”. She also seems to have been used as a nurse on occasion, attending sick inmates, which excused her from chapel attendance.
In his reports, the surgeon records that during September, October and November, Happy Fielder suffered “hysterical fits”. Noting such an incidence on Sunday 18 October, he goes on to praise the dinner there that day, “The penitentiary dinner as usual very good boiled beef and potatoes”. (He often mentions the food in his reports – perhaps a perk of his visits!) Prisoners had meat on Thursdays and Sundays along with a quart of broth. The rest of the time they each received the ‘county allowance’ of 1½ lb of bread a day plus 1d. to purchase cheese, butter, potatoes, peas or turnips.
On 30 September, Sarah Kinson was placed in solitary confinement for talking to a male prisoner, Edward Clark (aged fifteen – also given solitary) “contrary to repeated orders”. The next day she complained of being very ill. The surgeon attended but “I do not find she has any complaint, therefore think it right she remain in solitude”. They were confined for three days. She must have then fallen out with a fellow rioter, as Sarah was back in solitary on 1 December (this time in darkness too) for striking and cutting Ann Mayall. She was released from solitude two days later on the orders of visiting magistrates and, along with Mary Aldridge, she was put back on the county allowance (presumably both had been on bread and water).
The five women served their sentences almost to the day; they were discharged on 22 January 1796. The day before, the chaplain, Rev. Edward Jones, Canon of Gloucester Cathedral, visited and gave them books. Although various records indicate that the women could not write, they may have been taught to read. The chaplain did not encourage prisoners to learn to write as it was unnecessary for their reformation, but prisoners were often taught to read.
[Illustration: County Goal, Gloucester, 1790s © Glos. Archives]
Sentences of six months that the women received were actually very mild in the context of other trials of bread rioters both locally and nationally during 1795. Being female did not provide leniency: Margaret Boulker was hanged at Warwick for her participation in an attack on James Pickford’s steam flour mill at Birmingham in June. Two men were also shot dead by troops during this disorder.
In Sussex (witnessed by Jane Austen’s brother, Henry) two soldiers of the Oxfordshire Militia, Edward Cooke and Samuel Parrish, were executed by firing squad for mutiny, in that they were deemed to have led hungry soldiers that took and sold bread, flour and other provisions to the people at reduced prices after looting a mill, shops and inns and commandeering a flour-laden vessel. The men stated that they had seized the food because it was being hoarded or going abroad when they and their families were starving. This defence made little impact on the members of the court-martial that included the inauspiciously named Lieut-Cols., D’eath and Bastard. Four were sentenced to 500 lashes each, one to 1,000 and another to 1,500. Three were pardoned on the day of punishment and the other three only received part of their punishment, 150 to 300 lashes each (the surgeon on duty having intervened). The firing squad was made up of members of the militia who had participated in the ‘mutiny’ but had been pardoned. The men were shot while kneeling on their coffins, having first witnessed the floggings; their deaths were assured by a musket shot to an ear of each man. The coffins were said to be of such poor quality that at their burial, their blood oozed through and ran down the backs of their comrades carrying them to their graves. The chaplain in attendance, Rev. John Dring, was so anguished by the executions that he became ill and died a few days later. Two others, (civilians) who were involved in the events, William Sampson and James Sykes were hanged after a civil trial. Two months after the executions another soldier, William Midwinter, was hanged, another was transported for ten years.
Following the seizure of tons of grain and flour from a barge at Hamstalls, near Awre in the Forest of Dean, bound for Bristol in November 1795, Thomas Yemm and Thomas Rosser were hanged at Gloucester. Prior to, and after this, there were other disturbances in the Forest, notably at Micheldean; also mills were attacked at Longhope and Lydbrook. These events in the Forest of Dean no doubt prompted the Mayor of Gloucester to write the following.
"I have great reason to be apprehensive of a visit from the Colliers in the Forest of Dean, who have for some days been going round to the Townes in their Neighbourhood, & selling the Flour, Wheat, & Bread belonging to the Millers & Bakers, at a reduced price."
Despite receiving comparatively mild sentences, following the conviction and imprisonment of the five Tewkesbury women, a petition was presented to the Home Secretary by Philip Francis in early September on their behalf asking for clemency. (Later that month Francis formally declared his intention of standing for election as an MP for Tewkesbury in the next General Election.) It was claimed that three-quarters of the town, including the prosecutor, supported the appeal. The grounds for leniency pleaded were: their gender and youth; the distress and misery brought on their parents; Ann Mayall being married to a member of the armed forces (Ashley Mayall) and having a young child liable to perish without her; the youngest woman (Sarah Kinson) “only thirteen years old, and being little better than an idiot”; it being the first offence of all the women and that they had already suffered enough. This petition no doubt triggered the request for the report from the judge that has been described earlier in this article. In light of the mildness of the original sentences, all things considered, it is not very surprising that the appeal was marked ‘unfavourable’.
The witnesses against the women were powerful men in Tewkesbury, not mere ‘housekeepers’ as described in the gaol register. They included Henry Welling, a barge-master and ‘freeman’ who enjoyed a lucrative trade on the Severn and later managed the Turner & Morris Bank in Gloucester. In 1800 he was a director of the poor in Tewkesbury, governing the workhouse. Ironically, he died in Cheltenham Workhouse in 1839 after falling on hard times. At the expense of old associates, his body was returned to Tewkesbury to be buried with his first wife.
The witness who spoke in support of the women was the Rev. William Smith, rector of Birtsmorton and curate of Ashchurch, a supporter of Philip Francis when he stood for election in Tewkesbury. Smith died soon after in November 1796 and is also buried in the Abbey churchyard. His monument asserts that “Society lost a most useful Member”.
Key witness Richard Jenkins was a maltster; in 1793 he rebuilt the Abbey Mills. Jenkins was a freeman, bailiff, churchwarden and juror of Tewkesbury and later a director of the poor; he died in 1812.
Jenkins had purchased the mills from John Wall Esq. (who had delivered the women for trial). Wall lived at the Lodge on the Tewkesbury Park estate that his wife had inherited via her Popham family connections. John Wall was also Lieutenant-colonel of the South Gloucester Militia and JP for Gloucester and Worcester; he died in 1808.
Witness John Mew, a freeman, owned the Star Inn and brewhouse on the Quay (in the area where, Healings Mill now stands) a warehouse, two adjoining houses and four houses in the High Street, as well as being a barge-master; he died in 1802.
It is difficult to identify with certainty the two Moore witnesses. Charles and William Moore may have been the 'house and malthouse occupiers' mentioned in an 1808 Militia Account Assessment and are also perhaps the same men recorded as directors of the poor. If so, this Charles Moore died in 1810 and William probably in 1824.
Lord Portland’s correspondent, the town clerk Henry Fowke, was born in Barbados. He was an attorney and freeman and, at various times, deputy recorder of the town, a bailiff, coroner and director of the poor. He died in 1818 and is commemorated in the abbey; his monument asserts “his integrity, his benevolence, and his liberal spirit”.
The year 1795 continued to be ‘tumultuous’: the Geast chronicler recorded that “an earthquake very sensibly felt at Tewkesbury and places adjacent Nov 18th 1795 a little after eleven of the clock at night”.
[Portrait of Sir Philip Francis GCB (1740-1818) after James Lonsdale ©Trustees of the British Museum]
Food shortages also continued throughout 1795: the Geast chronicler noted that in August corn was “both scarce and dear” and that it sold at “heretofore unheard of prises [sic] … wheat from 15s. to 24s. a bushel and beanes [sic] from 7s. to 7s.8d. a bushel”. It was also recorded that the price of bread for the poor was subsidised for about two months, a 1s. loaf sold for 8d. and a 6d. loaf for 4d.
Nationally, the food crisis provoked a ‘sticks and carrots’ response from the government. Distilling was banned to save grain. Imports of wheat were encouraged and exports banned. Wearers of hair-powder were taxed at a guinea [£1.05] a year as the powders were made from starch – the Royal Family and their servants were exempted! Efforts were also made to prosecute illegal profiteering practices (the city of Gloucester seems to have been quite active in enforcing such measures). Importantly the ‘Speenhamland’ system was introduced in a number of areas of the country. Families of low-paid workers were paid extra to top up wages to a set level according to a table. This level varied according to the number of children and the price of bread. For example, if bread was 1s.2d. a loaf, the wages of a family with two children were topped up to 8s.6d. If bread rose to 1s.8d. the wages were topped up to 11s. The ‘sticks’ (along with the savage punishments described earlier) came in the form of repressive legislation. The Suspension of Habeas Corpus Act 1794 allowed the arrest and imprisonment of persons ‘on suspicion’ without requiring charges or a trial. The Treasonable Practices Act 1795 extended the definition of ‘treason’ to include speaking and writing, even if no action followed – and it became treasonable to bring the king or his government into contempt. The Seditious Meetings Act 1795 said that any public meeting of more than fifty persons had to be authorised by a magistrate.
As for the background and fates of the five convicted women, it is difficult to trace all of them with total certainty in Tewkesbury parish registers and census returns. Nevertheless, using their ages and other details given in the gaol papers and the clemency petition, the following looks to be a reasonable set of deductions.
Ann King had married the soldier or sailor Ashley Mayall on 22 March 1791 in Tewkesbury Abbey. It is likely that she was baptised at the nearby village of Bushley on 1 September 1771. Her child, previously mentioned as being in danger of dying while the mother was imprisoned, was their son Thomas, baptised 23 June 1794. Happily, he does not seem to have perished as his burial is not recorded in Tewkesbury burial registers. However, his sister Sarah, baptised in August 1791 had died in 1793. The couple had at least one other child, baptised as James in 1797. However, it is apparent that Ashley Mayall soon died (perhaps in action?) as Ann Mayall (widow) married Charles Wilks in Tewkesbury Abbey on Boxing Day 1804. This second marriage bore at least two children. Ann appears to be still living in Tewkesbury at the time of the 1841 census – in Thomas Alley, Barton Road. She is probably the Ann Wilks whose death was registered at Tewkesbury in 1858. Direct descendants of Ann still live in Gloucestershire.
Sarah Kinson’s surname is variously recorded as Kingtson, Thenson and Thinson. However, if she was born in Tewkesbury, she would be the daughter of Francis and Jane Kinson/Kingston, baptised 29 May 1780. As she appears to be the youngest of the five imprisoned, she would therefore be the one described as mentally impaired. The baptism indicates that her age was fifteen or sixteen when the riot occurred – as recorded in the gaol register, rather than the thirteen claimed in the clemency petition.
It is likely that Mary Aldridge was baptised at Tewkesbury 10 October 1777, the daughter of Thomas and Ann Aldridge. She married Joseph Leech at Tewkesbury 23 April 1797 and they had a son in 1801, baptised with the name Joseph, but he died in the same year.
Esther Macmaster was the daughter of Daniel or Donald Macmaster (both names are used in records that appear to relate to the same family) and his wife Esther. Their daughter Esther was baptised at Tewkesbury Abbey 29 March 1772 as was her sister Mary in 1769. However, four younger children appear to have to have been baptised at the Presbyterian Chapel in Barton Street (recently the Jehovah’s Witness Chapel and previously the Congregational Chapel). If Esther was from a religious nonconformist family, that would explain her reluctance to attend chapel when in prison. Esther Macmaster looks to have married Thomas Bullock at Tewkesbury 2 October 1796 but they do not seem to have had children there.
Happy Fielder was baptised as 'Haptia' in Tewkesbury Abbey on 18 February 1776, the daughter of Joseph and Sarah Fielder. Her first marriage was to Benjamin Beale in the Abbey on 27 September 1796 and subsequently they had a daughter Sarah. Following Benjamin’s death in 1798, his widow married Samuel Simons on 24 December 1805. Samuel and Happy had an infant son Jonathan buried in 1808. A son, William, was born in around 1812 and another son, Joseph, was baptised at Tewkesbury in 1816. In 1822, Edmund Attwood aged 17, served 21 days for assaulting 'Happy Symonds'. The Simons family are recorded on the 1841 census in Charlewood Alley (a passageway linking Barton Street to East Street) Tewkesbury, Samuel then a stockinger. Happy died in 1845, her name is recorded in the death register as 'Appolonia Simons'.
Very ordinary lives, apart from that day in June 1795. I do not wish to gloss over the fact that they were involved in a riot and that flour was stolen. However, these people lived in a world of extreme hardship, illiteracy, demoralisation and disease, in a society that did not provide them with any political or civil rights and gave them no means of legal redress. Mary Aldridge, Happy Fielder, Sarah Kinson, Esther MacMaster and Ann Mayall are unlikely to have been conscious of any political purpose in their deeds. Nevertheless, they were hungry enough to risk imprisonment (or worse) in taking the only action they could and thus played a part in the wider struggle of ordinary people to obtain some rights – as many ‘bread-rioters’ said, 'better to hang than to starve'.
"Many plans are laid, and schemes proposed to keep our poor from perishing for want of bread; but alas! ... I doubt whether it be any charity, except to ourselves - to prevent their rising and knocking us on the head." Extract from a letter dated 29 Sep 1795 published in the Gentleman's Magazine, vol. 65, Part 2, p.824 (1795).
1 Lines from The Honest Miller of Gloucestershire, Hannah Moore (1745-1833).
2 Geast Charity Book, Gloucestershire Archives, D2688 (contains numerous memoranda concerning local events).
3 Tewkesbury Parish Register (vicar’s summary), Gloucestershire Archives, P329/1.
4 Gloucester Journal, 29 Jun 1795.
5 The Enclosure Acts were a series of laws which enclosed open fields and common land. They removed previously existing rights of local people to cultivate the land, graze animals and gather fuel. About 21% of land in England was acquired in this way, mainly by already major landowners. (Tewkesbury itself was not enclosed until 1808-1811.)
6 Home Office: Domestic Correspondence, George III (Letters & Papers), National Archives HO 42/35 (online).
7 1795 Trinity Assizes, Gloucestershire Archives, Q/SG2.
8 Home Office: Judges’ Reports on Criminals, National Archives HO 47/18/38 (thanks to Tony Reilly for taking a copy of this document for me).
9 Riot Act 1714 enabled local authorities to declare any group of twelve or more people to be unlawfully assembled.
10 A ‘dobbin’ was a 18th century drinking vessel, so she was probably asking for ‘a drink’ ie: money.
11 Gloucester Gaol Surgeon’s Reports, Gloucestershire Archives, Q/GC/32/1.
12 Gloucester Gaol Governor’s Journal, Gloucestershire Archives, Q/GC/3/1.
13-14 J.R.S. Whiting, Prison Reform in Gloucestershire 1776-1820 (Phillimore, 1975).
15 Harriet B. Applewhite & Darline G. Levy, Women and Politics in the Age of the Democratic Revolution; Gloucester Journal, 29 Jun 1795.
16 John M. Davenport, Oxfordshire Militia, 1869; John A. Erredge, History of Brighthelmston, 1862; Peter Longstaff-Tyrrell, The Seaford Mutiny of 1795, 3rd edn. (Sussex: GoteHouse Publishing, 2010).
17 Christine Martyn, ‘The Bread Riots of 1795’, The New Regard, 15 (2000).
18 Edward P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, 2nd edn. (Penguin, 1968), p.70.
19 Home Office: Judges’ Reports on Criminals, National Archives HO 47/18/38 (again, thanks to Tony Reilly for taking a copy of this document for me – the actual list of names on the petition appears to have been lost in 1795!).
20-21 James Bennett, Tewkesbury Yearly Register & Magazine.
22-23 Anthea Jones, ‘Tewkesbury’s Flour Mills’, Tewkesbury Historical Society [THS] Bulletin 13, (2004).
24-25 THS Woodard Database.
26 Thompson, p.73.
27 Named after Speen, Berkshire, where magistrates devised the system to help alleviate distress caused by high prices.