19th Century Lyme Regis, Part II –  The 1864 Riot

The Town Mill in Lyme Regis circa 1890

WHILE sprats were at times cheap and plentiful there was a source of free food for the poor. Edible mollusca, such as winkles and limpets could be gathered from the sea ledges.

That they were part of the poor’s diet is evident from the large number of shells found in the gardens and under the floor boards during renovations in the old part of the town.

Limpets have been described as ‘tough and indigestible’. Small ones could be eaten after boiling, larger ones had to be boiled, shelled and then fried. It was also possible to make limpet soup.

The fact that the poor resorted to such forms of subsistence is further evidence of hardship.

Shrimping had provided a further source of free food until the rock pools accessible from the shore were destroyed.

Roberts’ diary (1840-55) states that ‘the poor are no longer able to take shrimps in the same abundance due to quarrying of the sea ledges’.

Important for working-class families was the twice weekly market days when they could purchase general groceries at competitive prices, evidently there was a lower price for townsfolk.

However, it was not until after the 1914-18 World War that nutritional research revealed the importance of a balance diet in counteracting disease and malnutrition.

Poverty and hunger were a breeding ground for social unrest, this was certainly the case in November 1864.

The price of bread was once again the catalyst, public anger led to what the newspapers reported as ‘Food Riots at Lyme Regis’. The protest involved some 500 persons (a fifth of the population); they were demanding that the price of bread be reduced.

“The ill-tempered mob consisting of large numbers of men, women and children marched to the town mill and bombarded it with missiles smashing most of the windows.”

An appeal by the mayor to disperse was rejected as was the reading of the Riot Act. It took the intervention of the coastguard and special constables to restore some semblance of law and order.

However, it was not until the early hours of the morning that the streets were cleared of protesters.

So serious was the situation that the next day the magistrates increased the number of Special Constables and stationed the Coastguard in the Assembly Rooms.

A large contingent from the Dorset Constabulary arrived later that day and took control of the town.

The price of wheat dictated the cost of bread; at the time of the riot it was in the region of two shillings per pound weight. After 1869 wheat could be imported free of duty and by 1894 wheat prices were some 70 per cent lower.

The riot encapsulated the growing strength of the working-classes, the majority being disenfranchised.

It was not until the Reform Act of 1884 that all male householders were eligible to vote. Previously only men who occupied property with an annual value of £10 were allowed to vote.

The Election Register of 1859 listed 198 men, only seven were from the poor part of the town, the number included just one fisherman and only 10 mariners.

Lyme has moved on since the 1900s, but poverty and hunger has still to be eliminated.

Peter Lacey
Local author and historian

Woodmead Halls

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