Rioting Redcoats in Liverpool


Good day again: Sergeant Mendick of the Yard back with another story of life in the police. This day I am writing about Liverpool, that most maritime of British cities, where pimps and prostitutes walked the streets alongside policemen, packet rats and perpetrators of a whole pickle of pernicious crimes.  Sometimes however, the police had to compete with people every bit as well trained and numerous as themselves.

Before uniformed police became the norm in the streets of British cities, the army was often called upon when there was riot or other civil unrest. Most cities had some sort of military presence, although soldiers were often lodged with the general public in inns and other establishments rather than in barracks. Liverpool was no different in this respect.

In the early decades of the nineteenth century there was great discontent in many parts of the country and even fear of civil war and uprising because of unemployment, and general distress. There was also agitation about electoral reform that peaked in the 1830s with talk of discontented men making pikes and planning bloody revolution. The government was in fear and quite capable of using force to repress any show of political dissent. Perhaps that was why there was some consternation in Liverpool in November 1831 when the garrison of redcoats were drawn up near the Exchange and live cartridges issued to each man.  The people of the town must have wondered if the army was to be turned loose on them. In the event nothing happened, but the fear was genuine.

‘Down with the blues’

Sometimes it was the army themselves who caused the trouble. On Tuesday 1 July 1851 the 91st Regiment, the Argyllshire Regiment, were on duty in Liverpool but that night a number of them rioted and caused all sorts of trouble in the town.

The outbreak started in the Dale Street and North Street area, when a party of about fifteen to  twenty of the 91st slipped off their belts, grabbed sticks and shouted ‘down with the blues’ [the police]. A soldier’s belt was a formidable weapon of thick leather with a heavy brass buckle. When swung through the air to gather speed, it could be nearly lethal. Using belts for fighting was common in the century. As Kipling put it:

‘For it was: – ‘Belts, belts, belts, an’ that’s one for you!’

In this case there were also civilians handing out weapons, short, heavy sticks with knobs at the end, to the disaffected men.

The men continued to Fontenoy Street, shouting the odds at the police and obviously spoiling for a fight. Walking three abreast, they swaggered up Dale Street and saw a lone policeman, Constable John Duggan, outside the Earl Grey pub.

‘Here’s one of the buggers,’ one soldier, Private McGill said, ‘let’s kill him.’

The soldiers made a rush at Duggan, swinging their weapons. McGill had a short cane and struck the first blow, but others followed, with Privates John Wraith and Thomas Powers prominent. Duggan had no chance to defend himself against so many; the buckle of a belt staggered him and he went down in a flurry of blows. McGill promptly jumped on top of his prone body. Duggan rose and ran into a clothes shop where he sheltered until somebody cried out:


That was a warning that the army had sent out a patrol to quell the trouble and the redcoats immediately ran up Shaw’s Brow, shouting ‘down with the blues.’  As soon as they had gone, people moved to help the injured policeman. Powers met Constable Nelson Lees in Richmond Row and at once reached for his bayonet but Lees was quicker and struck his arm so he pushed the weapon back into its scabbard.  Lees took the bayonet away and arrested Powers.

‘We have it in for you’

As the redcoats roared along Shaw’s Brow there was more trouble.  According to the police version of events, Private Robert McFendries was first to see another lone policeman, Constable William Desseau and immediately started a barrage of insults:

‘You bloody blue-coated bastard; you damn thief, we have it in for you.’

If Desseau’s words are to be believed, he turned around and asked, very mildly: ‘what do you mean, my man?’

‘I was in the picket last night,’ McFendries obligingly explained, ‘and there was a row between us and your men and we are determined to have revenge.’ Immediately he said that, McFendries punched the officer in the face, but Desseau was not intimidated; he thumped McFendries with his official staff and tried to arrest him. Naturally McFendries fought back. A draper named Samuel Lloyd ran to fetch Constable Nelson Lees and the two policemen arrested the soldier. They laid McFendries on his back, but he continued to fight, yelling and kicking at them with his boots. However they got him under control and escorted him, still struggling, to the Bridewell, but had not got past Fontenoy Street when McFendries started again, sliding to the ground and kicking at them.

Different point of view

There was another version of the events concerning McFendries. An upholsterer named Robert Weston said that McFendries had been walking quietly when a policeman had grabbed him by the collar and shook him roughly. McFendries had asked to be released so he could return to barracks, but the policeman had held on. When McFendries tried to escape, the policeman had thumped him on the head and shoulders with his stick. McFendries had retaliated and knocked off the officer’s hat, after which another policeman arrived and joined in.   It was then that a picket of six soldiers under Sergeant Weber appeared.

Weber’s picket

The picket was not pleased to see one of their comrades under arrest. The police later claimed that Weber drew his bayonet even although one of the privates advised him to return it to the scabbard. Weber grabbed hold of Constable Lees’ shoulder: ‘clear out of this,’ he ordered, and held the bayonet to the policeman’s throat. Another version of the story had one of the privates draw a bayonet and Weber ordering ‘I will have none of your drawn bayonets,’ which seems more possible, given the rank and responsibilities of a sergeant. Either way, the picket released McFendries, who immediately began kicking and punching Lees as the sergeant watched but did nothing.  The picket took the prisoner him back to the barracks, with the police joining them in vocal protest.

Even when they reached the safety of the barracks, the police had not given up. They informed the commanding officer of the 91st why they had arrested McFendries, who was handed back to their custody the next day.

More trouble

As the police argued with Sergeant Weber, there was more trouble in Scotland Road and Hunter Street when a number of soldiers met the police head on. The soldiers prepared for combat with belts and boots but the police kept their batons under control, lifted their hands in the air to prove their peaceful intentions and bravely walked into the mass of trained and truculent redcoats. With a minimum of fuss and no violence, the police divided the soldiers into two groups and ordered them back to their barracks. That particular incident ended peacefully, but there were other groups of redcoats and discontent seethed beneath the surface.

There was further trouble in Byrom Street and Richmond Row. At about nine in the evening a handful of the 91st were in Byrom Street when they saw half a dozen police walking purposefully toward them. ‘Here they are,’ an unidentified soldier shouted, ‘go at them.’ The skirmish was not major, but there was worse elsewhere.

In Richmond Street there was much more serious trouble as police and soldiers met in a confused scramash that spread across the width of the street. Constable Rimmer was trying to arrest one unidentified soldier when Private McAddin swung his belt and cracked Rimmer on the back of the head.  As Rimmer turned to defend himself with his staff, Private Higgens hit him with a stone wrapped in a handkerchief, a simple but effective weapon at close quarters.  Constable Owen Fagan grappled with McAddin and arrested him, while Private Goodwin thumped Police Sergeant Halliday with his belt. Lunging in to help, Constable Samuel Lowe tried to reach Goodwin but the press of bodies was too tight and he could not grab his collar. However he did manage to arrest Private McHugh, who was also actively kicking and punching at any policeman in his reach. Private Campbell also had a go at Halliday, kicking out with his heavy boots as Private Benson unfastened his belt, doubled it and flailed it around his head before aiming it at Constable Crane. The two grappled and Crane came out on top, throwing Benson to the ground and fastening handcuffs around his wrists.

As civilians either watched or scattered from the riot on Richmond Street, there were a number of minor and not so minor scuffles elsewhere in central Liverpool as the police sought to arrest the soldiers and the soldiers actively looked for policemen to beat up.

And more

Sergeant McDonald of Rosehill Police Station led a section of five men toward Richmond Street to help control the situation and at the corner of Fox Street met eight soldiers. Rather than go on the offensive, McDonald acted calmly and simply requested that the soldiers return to barracks. Although that approach worked with most, one unhappy man, Private Connelly, tried to attack McDonald with a rock. He was quickly arrested.

In Richmond Row, six prowling privates attacked two police officers in a sudden frenzy of boots and belts. Private Donald McDonald swung his belt at Constable John Williams, while Private Joseph Dale struck him a number of times with his cane, and then kicked him viciously with his heavy army boots. Others had a go at Constable Probas, while further up the same street, soldiers felled Constable Laycock. Sergeant McDonald’s six men arrived to help, and Constable Swarbrick subdued Donald McDonald. He was taking him into custody when another bunch of soldiers swarmed out of a public house and attacked him.  The struggle in Richmond Row continued; the blue of the police outnumbered by the red of the army as blows and abuse were freely exchanged.

Constable Reed was off-duty and in his house when he heard what he called the ‘row in Shaw’s Brow’, grabbed his hat and staff and rushed out to help his colleagues. He hurried toward the noise, still fastening the buttons of his uniform as he walked.   It was not long before he saw the police and soldiers engaged in a furious struggle and identified Private Andrews, who was threatening Constable John Thompson with a heavy stick. Thompson had other things on his mind as he tried to arrest Private Burns.

‘Let him go,’ Andrews roared, ‘or I will knock your brains out.’

Reed dived in, snatched the stick from Andrews and arrested him. All around him, the fighting continued as the guardians of the country battled with the forces of law and order.

‘The soldiers are licking the police’

Naturally the public were interested in the spectacle of the two bodies of uniformed men, both intended to keep the country secure and orderly, engaged in a furious fight. Crowds gathered to watch the fun and a cry of: ‘The soldiers are licking the police’ ran around. Some of the civilians were caught up in the general excitement and joined in, generally on the side of the army. One man named Barnes was encouraging the soldiers to attack the police. ‘Use your bayonets’ he yelled, ‘stick them!’ Thankfully the soldiers ignored his shouts; more inclined to fight than murder. Another civilian named Goodison attacked Constable Richard Rauthorne, and tried to stop him arresting a redcoat, while youths threw stones at every policeman they saw.

According to the police, Private McGill, fresh from his escapades with Duggan, now used a life-preserver, a short, heavy and often lead-weighted club, as he thumped Constable Moore on the wrist to try and make him drop his staff.  Not only private soldiers were involved; a Sergeant named Keely also joined in the general attack on the police. According to later police evidence, he had tried to rescue one of his privates in Richmond Row and threatened one of the constables that he would ‘put six inches of steel into your guts.’

A confused court   

The riot was so confused and involved so many bodies of soldiers spread over so many different streets that when the perpetrators eventually came to court, the judge and jury, to say nothing about the police, had had a difficult time deciding exactly which soldier had been responsible for which particular outrage. The police believed that the soldiers who had been involved in the original trouble in Dale Street had not continued their escapades elsewhere; while sundry other parties of redcoats had been involved in a series of scuffles throughout the town. The court asked Major Gordon of the 91st to give evidence, but he refused, saying only that the police had meted out ‘brutal treatment’ to his men. Gordon also added that the soldiers involved in the riots had disgraced the regiment and the army and should hang their heads in shame.

As the members of the court nodded agreement, Gordon told them that the police were in the habit of treating the men badly, and several civilians had come to his quarters to inform him of the savage way the police treated soldiers, some of whom were not in the same regiment and had not been involved in the trouble.

The trial was delayed and put off a number of times because the evidence gathered by the police was scattered and contradictory. The accused soldiers were returned to Major Gordon’s command until the police could sort out their charges. Gordon said his men would be ‘closely confined to barracks’ and added that: ‘some of them are blackguards but when put on their honour they would not forfeit their bail. Coming from these horrid cells without being cleaned might operate against them but if liberated on bail they would appear clean and orderly as becoming Queen’s soldiers.’

Eventually the case was heard in the Crown Court. The first men to be tried were Privates Trussler and Carey for assaulting a civilian named William Yates and attacking Constable Dodd. Mr Snowball, in defence, said that Yates was drunk and had struck the first blow, while the crowd had provoked the soldiers by jeering ‘red coats’ at them. He added that the police were prone to be aggressive toward private soldiers. The prosecution denied this of course but Ensign Sweeney of the 91st gave evidence that the crowd had been shouting ‘bloody red ruffians.’ At one time the mob had Trussler and Carey backed against the wall and surrounded them with threats of extreme violence. The two soldiers had only defended themselves, Ensign Sweeney claimed.

Although the court would be reluctant to believe the word of an ordinary redcoat, a ‘Tommy’, they could not disbelieve an officer and a gentleman, however junior.  Although Sweeney suggested that the police had beaten up Carey after he had been taken to the station, and Surgeon Richard Peel of the 91st was ready to give proof, the magistrates did not want to hear anything against the police. They seem to have already decided that the army were to blame for any trouble. They fined Trussler sixty shillings, with an alternative of six weeks in jail, and Carey forty shillings or four weeks in jail. As a soldier’s pay, after stoppages, was around two shillings a week, these were huge fines.

McFendries was next and Snowball claimed that he was arrested merely because he had insulted the police ‘we all know that police officers are dignified persons and cannot submit to observations being made against them.’ Snowball claimed that the arrest was illegal, but it was the evidence that the magistrates were more concerned with. They heard a number of wildly differing accounts and decided they could not find out the truth so discharged McFendries.

Snowball tried to cast doubt as to the identity of several of the soldiers who were in custody, pointing out that Power had been on guard duty until ten to nine and claiming he had been quietly walking along Richmond Row minding his own business when the police pounced on him. Snowball, who seemed to have been a very able defence solicitor, also produced three steady sergeants of different regiments who claimed they had seen McGill being attacked by the police and not the other way round.

The magistrates listened but did not always believe. They discharged Power for lack of evidence but McGill and two others, Wraith and Cronin, were fined £5 each with the option of two months in jail. Other soldiers were discharged through lack of hard evidence after the testimony of the Rev J. R. Connor, chaplain to the 91st, that the police were ‘running about in all directions, breaking the soldiers’ heads wherever they could find them.’

With officers and the chaplain fighting hard to defend the honour of their men, the magistrates decided that sufficient of the soldiers had been prosecuted to ‘satisfy the ends of justice. Mr Dowling, who had been prosecuting, said he ‘trusted that neither the soldiers nor the police would thereafter manifest any spirit of revenge or ill-feeling.’ As the motto of the 91st was Ne Obliviscaris– do not forget – that may have been a forlorn hope.

However, Colonel Campbell, the commander in chief of the 91st, said he had always ‘cautioned his men against getting into quarrels’ and ‘he had so much confidence in his men that he had no fear of a repetition taking place.’ Perhaps fortunately, the loyal colonel’s faith was not put to the test as the 91st left Liverpool very shortly afterwards. The Police would have sighed with great relief.

Read more of my adventures in Darkest Walk or A Burden Shared.



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