The 1843 Riot

The 1843 Riot in Perth
The last time Perth High Constables performed ‘policing’ duties

In 1843, while the Army was fighting in India and South Africa, the depot of the 68th Foot was ensconced in Perth Barracks. They had arrived the previous winter, so by summer they knew the town well. On the evening of Wednesday 24th May, Perth celebrated the King’s birthday in the traditional raucous manner. It had long been accepted that the birthday of any monarch was an excuse for mischief and drunkenness, particularly among the youth of the town, and Perth was no exception. On this occasion, the lads and young apprentices gathered in the town centre around the Cross, St Johns Street, Skinnergate and George Street. They formed a disorderly mob and entertained themselves by knocking off the hats of anyone who passed and throwing fireworks, jeering at those they deemed worthy of abuse and generally acting as idle groups of teenagers have acted since time immemorial.

When a pair of soldiers happened to pass by this cheerful mob, they were treated no differently than anyone else. One of the soldiers was in civilian clothes and the other in undress uniform; both were greeted with insults and not always friendly banter. The men escaped to a High Street public house and remained there as the youths scoffed at them for running. The soldier in civilian clothing refused to re-emerge without the protection of a military picket, so his companion slid out the back door of the pub and ran to the barracks to call for help.

The 68th were not wont to leave any of their own in danger and a corporal led four men in a rescue mission down the hostile territory of darkest Perth. They wore side arms bayonets and in their scarlet uniforms were conspicuous targets for the mob. As the picket and the rescued man made their slow passage down the High Street, a large body of young boys gathered behind them, hissing, booing and throwing a choice selection of dead cats, vegetables and battered household utensils.

Not surprisingly, the soldiers were irritated and fought back. They reached the Old Ship Close, they turned around, drew their bayonets, stood against the wall and challenged the boys to do their worst. It was one thing to chase a moving target but quite another to run against the drawn bayonets of seven determined men; the mob pulled back, formed a semicircle around the men and wondered what to do next. It was a stand-off between the youngsters and the redcoats.

By this time the police were aware of what was happening and Superintendent Boyle led four constables to relieve the beleaguered picket. The united strength of police and army forced through the mob towards the barracks. Another party of five soldiers joined them, and then a small group of police. The combined force managed to get the redcoats home safely, while also arresting eight of the mob.

Up to that point, there was nothing extraordinary. There had been a minor disturbance, which the police had controlled. However, the 68th Foot did not agree. They growled at what they perceived as an insult to the Regiment and they planned revenge. There were murmers and whispers which reached Superintendent Boyle’s ears and he sent word to Major Hoey, the senior officer of the garrison. No doubt the major did his best but angry British soldiers have their own methods of circumventing authority. Soldiers slipped out of barracks in ones and twos and threes. They walked awkwardly, with one arm straight down

The 1843 Riot in Perth
The last time Perth High Constables performed ‘policing’ duties

at their side, and when they reached the High Street, they pulled short stout sticks from their hiding places up their sleeves. The men had been busy; their weapons were not simple lengths of wood but had been hollowed at the business wood and weighted with lead, making them formidable weapons which could injure, maim or even kill.

By seven in the evening of Thursday 25th May 1843, there was a large number of these stick- wielding soldiers gathered at the head of the High Street, as the nervous citizens gave them a wide berth and hurried home from their work. At some signal, the soldiers spread out across North Methven Street and moved slowly towards the barracks, shouting challenges, insulting civilians and pushing men and women out of the way. More soldiers slipped out of barracks to join them until there were about 65 men gathered. They ignored the pleas of the locals to return to where they belonged and then suddenly charged, lashing out with their sticks.

Civilians scattered as the men of the 68th swarmed along North Methven Street and down to the High Street Port, knocking people down, hacking with their iron soled boots, crashing their cudgels on the heads and shoulders of men, women and even children. They halted for a second to reorganise then advanced in a body down High Street. Some were drunk, others were plain angry and all were intent on causing as much mayhem as possible in Perth. They marched in formation, swinging their clubs, yelling, shouting and intimidating the populace.

The civilians could do little but hide. Shop owners put up shutters and hoped the solid wood would be protection enough; some men gathered their families and withdrew from the mob while others ran to the meagre police force for help. At length the soldiers reached the foot of the High Street, and then things got worse. The soldiers began to use their weapons in earnest. First, they attacked the young men of the town, the group that had caused the trouble the previous evening, and then they widened the scope of their operations to include anybody and everybody. By that time, most of the people of Perth had withdrawn indoors, but some brave men stood up to the soldiers, disarming a few and punching others to the ground.

At half past eight, Major Hoey sent a picket to control the riot, but rather than control the rioters, many of the men of the picket supported their colleagues. In the meantime, the town authorities had not been idle. They gathered together all the police in the burgh, recruited a large number of special constables (Not Special Constables, but The Society of High Constables of the City of Perth) and marched to the High Street to try to contain the trouble. For a few moments, the two sides eyed each other. The people of Perth were determined to reclaim their streets but the 68th would never back down. Then they met in a headlong charge; Donnybrook had come to Scotland. It was a full-scale battle in central Perth as the specials with their long staffs waded into the drunken 68th Foot. As the forces of law arrived, more civilian men left their houses to aid their friends.

The conflict was vicious, but ultimately the civilians won the day. Those of the rioters still on their feet were arrested, or fled back to the sanctuary of the barracks, while Major Hoey sent out two strong pickets armed with musket and bayonet, which arrived too late to stop the trouble. The police had to hold back a suddenly brave mob that wanted to tear the

The 1843 Riot in Perth
The last time Perth High Constables performed ‘policing’ duties

soldiers limb from limb. Instead, the police escorted the soldiers back to barracks for everybody’s safety. Perth counted the cost. Sixteen citizens were known to have been injured and thirteen soldiers were under arrest.

After the Lord Provost complained to Sir Neil Douglas, Commander of the Army in Scotland, the 68th were moved to Stirling and the 88th Foot, the Connaught Rangers, took over the barracks. The 88th were also known as the Devil’s Own and had a ferocious reputation in battle, but when they left Stirling, the people said they had not caused any trouble. The people of Stirling gave no heed to the previous misbehaviour of the 68th and put the blame on the people of Perth.

When the case came to the High Court in July, five Privates of the 68th were tried. Four were still in their teens and the fifth in his early twenties. All had been in the Army for less than a year. The judge sentenced them to eighteen months with hard labour, but added that in Perth Prison they would be taught to write, and on their release, they would return to their Regiment.

An extract from ‘Bloody Scotland: Crime in 19th Century Scotland’: Malcolm Archibald 2014 Black & White Publishing

The local newspaper in Perth is the Perthshire Advertiser. They had a different emphasis in their edition dated 1st June 1843. Under the heading, “The Perth High Constables on Active Duty”, they wrote,

“The usual peacefulness of our City was exchanged on the evening of Thursday last for a scene of disorder and frightful violence, such as was never before witnessed in Perth, and which is happily rare in this country. On that night a party of the 68th Regiment, who came to occupy our Barracks in the beginning of last winter, may be literally said to have held possession of several of the principal streets for nearly two hours, armed with sticks and bludgeons, assailing all who came in their way, or were unable to get beyond their reach, to the serious and nigh fatal injury of a considerable number of young and old, who were knocked down and cruelly beaten by this band of lawless and infuriated soldiery. About eight o’clock that evening the rioters, to the number of 60 or 70 at least, filled the streets from pavement to pavement, flourishing sticks many of the sticks being scooped in the head and filled with lead. Some of them were obviously inflamed with drink, and all were maddened with rage and fury. The citizens were naturally seized with consternation. Shutters were put on, and shops rapidly shut. Up to this time the soldiers encountered little opposition. A small picket came down from the Barracks about half pas eight o’clock, but they utterly failed to stop or restrain the rioters. It was near nine o’clock before a sufficient force of police and High Constables could be got collected, so as to give a reasonable chance of beating them off and clearing the streets. The tables, however, were turned in excellent style. At ten minutes to nine o’clock, the Provost and Magistrates, who had hurriedly assembled in the Town Hall, came forth, along with a body of Police Constables and High Constables, armed by their authority with batons, and having reached the end of Watergate and George Street, Provost Sidey read the Riot Act. The moment the Provost finished reading the Riot Act and shouted ‘Charge’, the Constables and others, who were armed as

The 1843 Riot in Perth
The last time Perth High Constables performed ‘policing’ duties

described, sprang forward with an ardour that speedily infused a panic among the rioters. Betwixt the Cross and top of High Street a great number of soldiers were severely punished. Ever and anon a ‘Red Coat’ disappeared among the feet of the pursuers. Thirteen of the rioters were altogether secured and conveyed to the Police Office, most of them bleeding, bruised, and more or less hurt. One was so much hurt that he had to be conveyed to the Infirmary. The courage and promptitude shown by the High Constables, Police, and others on that night, deserve praise and acknowledgement. Prominent among the High Constables on that occasion were the late Mr Bell, Cabinetmaker; John Storer, Merchant; and Cairnie, Bellhanger.

On 28th July 1843, in the high Court of Justiciary, before Lords Moncrieffe and Medwyn and the Lord Justice Clerk, a sentence of 18 months’ imprisonment was passed upon five of the prisoners.


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