Angry mobs, riots and danger - Norwich life during the Napoleonic War

Norwich in Napoleonic times

A crowded scene in the market square in Norwich. Two men cut up the carcass of a bull at center, while men fight over the fragments. At right, women fill pitchers from a cask. A bonfire burns in the background at right. A crowd in the background at left lifts an effigy of Napoleon on a pole, with flags that read, "Downfall of the Tyrant." Picture: The MET - Credit: The MET

She was the voice of local history and a woman who devoted much of her life to talking to people of all ages and walks of life about Norfolk and Norwich in days gone by.

And when Rachel spoke, we listened.

It was a privilege to have known Rachel who died aged 99 in January 2014. She reached out to people of all ages and walks of life and inspired them to take an interest in our history.

Born and brought up in Sheffield, she taught in Nottingham, before serving with the Land Army in the Second World War.

Rachel came to Norfolk in 1945 and never left. Working as a tutor for the Workers Education Association across the county before becoming keeper of social history for Norwich Museums.

In the 1960s she became the city’s first museums education officer and classrooms were set up in the Castle, Bridewell and Strangers’ Hall for schoolchildren.

Before the arrival of Victoria Station – Ranelagh (Victoria) Gardens was major attraction just outsi

Before the arrival of Victoria Station – Ranelagh (Victoria) Gardens was major attraction just outside the city walls and a playground for thousands of people. - Credit: Archant

And so much more…Rachel was the first museums education officer in Norwich and later a lecturer at Keswick Training College and was later awarded an honorary Master of Arts degree by the University of East Anglia.

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She wrote books and articles for our papers and other organisations and this is one about life in lawless Norwich of 1815 following the English victory at Waterloo and the final defeat of Napoleon.

A warts and all look at life more than a couple of hundred years ago.

“The war with France had been going on, with two short pauses, for 22 years: children had grown up knowing nothing else but war and the threat of war.

“The recruiting sergeant beating his drum at the street corner, the press gang raiding the courts and yards: volunteers drilling in St Andrew’s Hall, cannon mounted on the Castle Hill, ready for the expected invasion, the Gurneys at Earlham, with five coaches ready and packed to flee to the Fens if Napoleon had landed.

“No wonder Norwich went mad at the news of a lasting peace,” wrote Rachel.

Rachel Young

Teacher and former museum keeper Rachel Young. - Credit: Archant Library

“The London coach, hung with flags and wreaths, clattered into Norwich with horn blowing, passengers cheering madly from the roof, and the coachman shouting to the crowd the news of the victory.

“The crowd took the horses from the coach and dragged it triumphantly through the streets.

“During the war the gates had been removed and the city had outgrown its walls. New houses and cobbled streets had been built.

“But the appearance of prosperity was deceptive.  Norwich worsted cloth woven by hand could no longer compete in the home market. The city was full of unemployed weavers.”

The victory was a good excuse to celebrate with balloon rides in Ranelagh Gardens. Bull baiting at Carrow, cockfights at the White Swan, prize fights on Mousehold. “Sports were brutal and the brutality was encouraged by people of education, who should have known better.

“Norwich was a dangerous and rowdy city. There were no police. The council employed a few old men as night watchman who tottered around at night, calling the hours and ran away from trouble as fast as their aged legs would carry them,

“Pickpockets and footpads haunted the unlit alleys; no sensible person went out alone, unarmed. Lawbreakers were savagely punished, boys of ten were hanged for stealing but very few criminals were ever caught.”

Rachel writes about riots when Coke of Norfolk, who was in favour of the Corn Laws resulting in more expensive food, was forced to seek refuge in the Angel when the people came after him. German soldiers stationed in the city were called on to disperse the mob.

“The Norwich magistrates disliked asking the military for help, and therefore often turned a blind eye to minor disturbances.

“Angry women broke bakers’ windows, weavers pillaged carriers’ carts, the theatre was a bear garden. Methodist preachers were attacked by mobs armed with bones, cows’ horns and butchers’ cleavers’

“During elections, voters, and even candidates, were kidnapped, and every polling day ended in a free fight but often the magistrates simply shrugged their shoulders and took no action.

“All the peaceful citizens could do was close there shutters, bar their doors…and stay inside until the trouble was over. Starving and desperate, living in shocking conditions in appalling slums, the angry Norwich poor were described as a menace and a challenge to respectable citizens.

But times were slowly changing and Norwich has a long history of looking after its people.

In 1815 the Guardians spent £20,000, an enormous sum on Poor Relief and many thousands of pounds were distributed in charity.

“Norwich was particularly rich in benevolent institutions. It had three hospitals (the Norfolk and Norwich, the Bethel and the Hospital for the Blind) – the only three in Norfolk unless you count the Military Hospital at Great Yarmouth.

“There were innumerable charities to provide coal, bread, blankets, cash and sermons for the deserving poor. There were schools for poor children, apprenticeship schemes; there were soup kitchens and relief work. There was the Sick Poor Society, funded in this very year, and Friendly Societies and Medical Clubs, some of which were subsidised by the wealthy.”

And Rachel ends her look at life in 1815 by saying: “All this alleviated but could not prevent the misery brought upon the city by the collapse of its staple industry, in the days when there was no compulsory insurance and no effective means of maintaining law and order.”

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