The Honiton riot of 1857
- Credit: Honiton Museum
In September 1857, a newspaper appeal went out for men to work on the Honiton Tunnel on the Yeovil to Exeter Railway. 800 navigators, 50 masons and 30 bricklayers were needed.
At about nine o’clock on a Saturday night (the payday for the navvies) a disturbance took place at the Three Tuns Inn. P.C. Lammacraft, went there to stop it. The lights were extinguished, and the police officer was ill-treated. Another fracas occurred at the higher end of the town, which was quelled by the police.
At eleven o'clock, another fight broke out at the White Lion Inn between two more navvies. The proprietor succeeded in getting the men out, but a pane of glass had been broken, and although the fight was over, he called for the police. On their arrival, they found a drunk and violent man named Bartlett on the pavement with a black eye and blood flowing from his nose. By this time, a huge crowd had collected. Bartlett refused to go home until he had got his jacket from the pub. The police attempted to take him into custody and the mob attempted to rescue him. Staves were drawn by the police, and the navvy was very severely beaten by Police Sergeant Budden.
Unrest continued through Sunday into Monday. Businesses closed and by mid-day, hundreds of people had assembled outside the lock-up in Dowell Street. The most disruptive were arrested and locked up too. There was difficulty in finding a judge to adjudicate on the charge against Bartlett, but eventually, William Porter, one of the county justices agreed.
The hearing was due to start at three o’clock and the prisoners had to be escorted from the lockup to the justice room. As soon as the police stepped into the street the crowd pelted the police with stones. Some of them were hit, and Inspector Timewell and P.C. Hookway had their heads cut open. Before the prisoners arrived at the justice rooms some of the mob had torn down the doors in the marketplace and broken off the legs of the market stall trestles to use as weapons. An appeal was sent to Exeter for police reinforcements to come and help restore order to the town.
The chaotic and noisy court hearing took all afternoon. While the cases were being heard, the lock-up door had been forced open and three prisoners were liberated. Bartlett was fined five shillings and all the other prisoners pleaded guilty, so they were fined smaller sums. After the hearings had been concluded everyone went off to the pub.
One month later it was reported at the Devon Sessions that Honiton police now kept the peace in the town by ignoring the navvies who had drunken disagreements and left them to fight it out on payday.