200-year-old letter shines light on military troubles in Norwich

Norwich market place circa 1800

Norwich market place circa 1800 - Credit: Archant

“This City,” said the writer, “has been for some time the scene of incessant tumult and affray between the military and towns-people.”

There was no name on this article which appeared in a national newspaper called The Sun on Tuesday, January 21, 1800. Not the one we have today.

The author added: “As our provincial papers have given hasty and contradictory accounts of the transactions which have taken place, I send you a correct account of the whole business, on which you may rely.”

The Sun was an evening newspaper published between 1792 and 1876. It was launched by William Pitt the Younger and backed, on the quiet, by members of the Conservative Party.

The article said:  “There had appeared for some time among those who are called the Democratic Party of this town, a marked antipathy to the 9th Regiment of Foot, originating, it is supposed, from their having been concerned with the Inneskillens in the tumult which took place when Thelwall’s Lecture room was pulled down.

“I need not remind you that this Regiment was engaged in the later Expedition in Holland, because its services were particularly distinguished – it lost in killed and wounded above 400 men and nine officers.

“The remainder of the Regiment being again unfortunately quartered at Norwich on their return, the old spirit of animosity appears to have revived with the towns-people,” said the letter.

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It goes on to say how trouble kicked off again but this time Colonel Montgomery stepped in to try and stop the riots and promote reconciliation.

“Last week however, as the Colonel and his party of officers who had been dining together, were returning to the barracks, they were insulted near the Market Place and, from abusive words, blows ensued.”

A fight broke out and the officers, six or seven of them, seized the bludgeons from the rioters, said to number between 30 or 40.

“In this affray, Mr John Harper, hosier of this city, received a blow on his head and a mortification is said to have unexpectedly ensued,” it was written.

It then turns out that Colonel Montgomery must have been facing a charge because he turned up at court to answer his bail and, “to the astonishment of the whole town” was committed to the city gaol, accompanied by Lord Bayning and other friends.

What would the military men think of that? They were outraged.

Two days later more than 600 of them from the barracks in St George’s assembled outside the gaol. They wanted to free their colonel.

The letter writer goes on: “These men appear to have acted with discretion equal to their zeal – they left their arms with their comrades; they offered no insult to any person on their way to the gaol

“The door being opened to one of them who requested to speak to the Colonel, a considerable number rushed in, and all defence nor opposition became useless,” said the writer.

You can imagine the scene outside with all the soldiers and locals milling around when the Colonel appeared at a window telling his men to go home and that he was sure he would be liberated in a legal way.

And when the Colonel spoke, his men did as they were told…preventing what could have been a riot.

“The soldiers giving three hearty cheers, quietly returned to their barracks,” it was written.

The next day the surgeons who attended Mr Harper testified his condition was improving and Colonel Montgomery was granted bail.

Before long he appeared at the Quarter Sessions where the grand jury heard all about the problems and disputes in Norwich between the people and the military.

Apologies were made in open court and the Colonel left…a free man.

The letter to the Sun went on: “Before Colonel Montgomery withdrew from the court, he was addressed by Mr Steward Harvey, in the name of the justices who were assembled, to express their sense of the firmness and propriety of his conduct, in repressing the tumult of the soldiers who had attempted his rescue from confinement.

“Especially as it had been effected by reminding them that he was amenable to the laws of his country, in whose justice he had perfect confidence.

“He concluded by observing, that he was authorised by the Magistrates of the city (and he was confident that he expressed the general feeling of the town, in conveying their sentiments), to return their thanks to Colonel Montgomery for the whole of his conduct while with his regiment in this city.”

And so ended the unsigned letter. It was written in Norwich on January 18, 1800 and published three days later.

With thanks to Tony Stimpson who discovered the newspaper while searching through family papers.