St Albans history: Five days of tumult and riot
Dr John Morewood, president of St Albans and Hertfordshire Architectural and Archaeological Society
- Credit: St Albans Museum Services.
In May 1810, during the Napoleonic Wars, an event occurred which led to St Albans appearing in newspapers all over England as well as in parts of Scotland.
It was reported that, during their annual meeting for training, soldiers from the local regiment of volunteers, had mutinied in St Albans.
Accounts differed as to the severity. Like today it depended on which newspaper you read. Government controlled newspapers played down the mutiny. They claimed only 40 men were involved, the townsfolk were at fault for giving the soldiers alcohol, and that order had been speedily restored. Independent newspapers told a different story.
They claimed the mutiny had been provoked by the actions of the commanding officer, the mutineers numbered 200/300, nearly one third of the total regiment.
They stated the officers had lost control and had been forced to summon help to suppress the mutiny. Soldiers had been arrested, six flogged and the ‘tumult’ had lasted five days.
Mutiny, failing to obey orders, during wartime was treated very seriously. It was believed it would impede the war effort and guilty parties were liable to be sentenced to death, or certainly flogged. Processes were in place to deal with discontent before such a situation arose, and occasions were rare.
So, what went wrong in St Albans? Unpublished letters from the Dowager Countess Spenser, living at Holywell House on Holywell Hill in St Albans at the time, tell us what happened.
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The commander of the 1,000 strong regiment in St Albans was Sir John Sebright Baronet, of Beechwood near Markyate. He was described as an impetuous individual who listened to no opinions but his own. He had no practical military experience as his military service had been limited to serving as a general’s assistant in peacetime. He was not the ideal person to handle sensitively a difficult situation.
Confusing communications from army headquarters on how much the troops would be paid had led to troops mutinying at Ely in 1809 and at Bath in 1810, but the Bath incident had been skilfully dealt with by the commanding officer. Not so with Sir John in St Albans.
Countess Spenser tells us that the local militia chose a sergeant to raise their pay concerns with Sebright. Sebright objected and, contrary to army regulations, had the sergeant imprisoned in ‘The Black Hole’, a dungeon below the floor in the Great Gatehouse of St Albans Abbey which served as the local gaol.
On Sunday 27 May 1810 many of the soldiers ignored their officers’ instructions to remain in the area in which they were training now known as The Camp. After parade and armed with clubs, picks, and axes, but no guns, they marched on St Albans.
They broke into the gaol, smashed through the floor, liberated the sergeant, and carried him around the town in triumph. Sebright then arrived with cavalry who succeeded in arresting 19 of the ringleaders and placed them in the other gaol in the town, now WH Smiths, the gaol in the Abbey gateway being now unusable.
To prevent the prisoners being liberated, an armed guard of 60 men protected the gaol and additional troops patrolled the streets of St Albans during the night seizing rioters. The next day retribution began. Sebright and his officers sentenced five men to a flogging of 100 lashes and one to 150. The punishment was carried out straight away. The rest of the men were reprimanded and marched out of St Albans to dissuade them from returning, although disturbances continued.
Some civilians were injured and certainly the Dowager Countess was so worried she decided not to stay in St Albans in 1811 when the Local Militia returned. But this was not the only impact. The affair reached Parliament. Opposition MPs used the accounts of the floggings at St Albans to attack flogging as an appropriate means of military punishment.
Although there was a limit to the number of lashes that could be given in the Royal Navy, this did not apply in the army where 450 lashes were sometimes awarded. Attempts were made to persuade Parliament to end all flogging and, when that was unsuccessful, to make the Local Militia exempt. That also failed but as so often happens, behind the scenes action was taken.
The army Commander-in-Chief, the Duke of York for the first time imposed a limit on the number of lashes that could be awarded in the British army (300!). The Duke of Wellington later reduced this to 50.
And Sir John Sebright? Well, no action was taken and the whole affair was hushed up. A grateful Sir John sent presents of game to his loyal officers. But, once again, we can see events in St Albans impacting on national issues.
Places connected with the 1810 mutiny:
Beechwood Park School, Markyate - home of Sir John Sebright
Belmont Hill, St Albans. Follows the boundary of the gardens of Holywell House the Dowager Countess Spenser’s residence, demolished in the 19th century
Gaddesden Place, Hemel Hempstead – home of Joseph Halsey one of Sebright’s officers
St Albans’ Abbey Gateway- Broken into by the mutineers
WH Smith’s Market Place St Albans. Where the captured mutineers were held
The Camp area, St Albans- the likely site of the training area for the Local Militia