Sunday 10 October marks 190 years since Nottingham Castle was set alight during violent protests in the streets of the city.

Since the 1760s, there’d been rioting in Nottingham every other year, caused by a variety of things: cheap imported fabrics, the monarch’s birthday, the price of food. Such angry disturbances were not without reason. William Cobbett, a journalist and MP, noted “I defy you to agitate any fellow with a full stomach” – and this was the problem, so many people in Nottingham were struggling with high food prices and very low wages[1]

Read on to find out more about what happened in 1831…

What sparked the riots in Nottingham in 1831?

Until the 1830s, elections in Britain were not balanced or representative. In a few areas, all men could vote, but in the vast majority of places it was dependent on whether someone was a property owner, or paid certain taxes. Cities like Nottingham, were rapidly growing, but had no representation in parliament. At the same time, there were ‘rotten’ boroughs, like Old Sarum in Salisbury, which had two MPs but only seven voters!

So, the people of Nottingham hoped that the Reform Bill of 1831 would increase the number of people eligible to vote. On Sunday 9 October, a large crowd gathered to await news of the result of the vote in the House of Lords. Hopes were high that more men would be given the vote, but not women or the working class, and corrupt voting practices would cease.

A leading opponent was the fourth Duke of Newcastle, Henry Pelham Clinton, who owned Nottingham Castle. When the decision was read out, the city’s streets were filled with angry clashes. The Riot Act (yes, it was a real document!) was read, but the rioters moved into other areas of the city, smashing windows and looting before arming themselves with pikes made from iron railings.

A group marched toward Castle Rock, smashing windows, before storming the Castle. The rioters went wild and set a fire, which spread through the building and could be seen for miles.

Further clashes occurred, then, with the remains of the castle still smouldering, arrests were made.

So, who were the key players in the riots?

George ‘Curly’ Hearson, a twenty one year old bobbin and carriage-maker, was convicted after evidence was provided by Henry Dodsley, who in turn, was offered immunity. Another ‘witness’, sixteen year old Charles Slater, placed Hearson at Lowe’s Mill – both witnesses claimed Hearson had boasted about his involvement in the destruction. In turn, Hearson provided saying he was collecting rubble at the ruins of the Castle when the mill was set alight.

Twenty year old George Beck was a boatman from Wollaton. He was accused of ‘carrying a stick with some ribbons, and called upon [the mob] to “halt, front, fall round, and do your duty.” Beck was always considered to have had an excellent character.

John Armstrong, slightly older at twenty six years, was accused of inciting the mob to go into Lowe’s Mill and ‘fling out the silk and soap, for it was a shame they should be burnt.’ He was also accused of battering the mill gate with a palisade – a long, sharp stake. Armstrong was also supposedly seen leaving the mill wearing a velveteen jacket with soap in the pocket. Witnesses described seeing him at all three sites of chaos: Colwick Hall, Lowe’s Mill and Nottingham Castle. Armstrong was engaged and generally described as having a character ‘stood fair for civility, sobriety and honesty through life.’

Valentine Marshall’s name, carved into the wall of the men’s exercise yard (National Justice Museum)

Valentine Marshall was just seventeen years old when he was arrested for his apparent role in the Reform Bill riots. Valentine, a farm labourer, was the son of a framework knitter and lived with his parents on Coalpit Lane. During his incarceration at the Gaol in Nottingham, he carved his name in the wall of the exercise yard – interestingly, it was bold yet mis-spelled.

What happened to these men?

Despite a petition sent to the King, signed by 25 000 people, George Hearson, George Beck and John Armstrong were hanged on the steps of the County Gaol on February 1 1832, for their part in setting Lowe’s Mill alight. Generally, executions took place on Mansfield Road, but the authorities couldn’t risk the men’s supporters attempting a rescue. Ten days earlier, Hearson and Beck had failed to break out of gaol by using 27 yards of slit blankets as a rope to descend the cliff on Narrow Marsh. The day before the executions were scheduled, the men’s families were permitted to say goodbye – it’s heart-breaking to realise that this farewell happened with a large iron gate between the prisoners and their visitors, meaning they were not allowed to even shake hands with their parents.

A broadsheet with an illustration of three men being hanged. There is a lot of text surrounding the image.
The Nottingham Tragedy!!!, 1st February 1832 (Located in the Rebellion Gallery)

A large crowd gathered, and the mood was extremely sombre, which was unusual for executions where onlookers were often rather raucous. Hearson, however, jumped on the scaffolding, calling to his friends in the crowd. He also did a little dance and twirled his hat around. ‘Curly’ Hearson had been a well known bare knuckle fighter in the city and perhaps his performance on the scaffold came out of his experience entertaining a sporting crowd?

But what became of the young Valentine Marshall? Although he was sentenced to death, Marshall’s sentence was commuted to transportation for life. At this time, long prison sentences were not used, instead prisoners were sent to the penal colonies. In March 1832, Armstrong, and 200 other prisoners, set sail on the convict transport the ‘England.’

After a journey of 105 days, Marshall arrived in Hobart, Tasmania, where he began work as a messenger at the Hobart Gaol. Marshall married Letitia Riley and the couple had seven children; he’d received a free pardon in 1842 and could have returned to Nottingham, instead, he remained in Tasmania, working as a gardener and seedsman until his death from bronchitis and paralysis, aged 73.

Would you have agreed with the verdict and executions? To learn more about Nottingham’s rebellious past, visit the Castle’s Rebellion Galley, read Dr Richard Gaunt’s blog about his experience of curating the exhibition or visit our friends at the National Justice Museum, which is housed in the former County Gaol.

A model showing the damage to the Ducal Palace after it was set alight (Located in the Rebellion Gallery)


 [1]Left Lion Notts Rebels: 1831 Reform Bill Riots by Gareth Morgan

Source material: “Nottingham’s convict connection to Hobart“; National Justice Museum; The Great Cheese Riot of 1766 & The 1831 Reform Riots; Nottinghamshire History; ; Some Particulars of the Life, Trial, Behaviour and Execution of George Beck, George Hearson and John Armstrong’: 1 February 1832.