‘Read them the Riot Act!’

Another set of phrases from the 18th Century for you to enjoy. Firstly, reading someone the riot act.

Whilst today this is simply a phrase, used to warn people to try and stop them misbehaving, in 1715 the Riot Act was law and would be read out before being enforced.

With King George I taking the throne and the fear of a Jacobite Uprising looming the ‘Riot Act’ was passed in 1714 and came into force in 1715.  Designed to prevent groups gathering and forming into a mob the Riot Act was more formally called ‘An act for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies, and for the more speedy and effectual punishing the rioters‘ and contained this warning:

“Our sovereign Lord the King chargeth and commandeth all persons, being assembled, immediately to disperse themselves, and peaceably to depart to their habitations, or to their lawful business, upon the pains contained in the act made in the first year of King George, for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies. God save the King.”

Example of the Riot Act

Any group of twelve or more people, that the authorities didn’t like the look of, could be arrested if they didn’t disperse within an hour of the Riot Act being read to them by a magistrate. And, if they didn’t obey, the punishments were severe. Either penal servitude for at least three years, or imprisonment with hard labour for up to two years.

After the Hanoverians were established in power the Riot Act began to fade into disuse. It was read to a group of demonstrating mill workers at Manchester Town Hall in 1842, but was used with decreasing frequency and had become a rarity by the 20th century. Surprisingly, the Act remained on the UK statute books into modern times and wasn’t formally repealed until 1973. It was eventually superseded by the 1986 Public Order Act but the phrase still remains today.

Another Jacobite born phrase is ‘going off half cocked’. This one stems from the flintlock musket as did ‘flash in the pan’. Flintlocks have a striking mechanism called a ‘cock’ which is held in a raised position ready to fall and make a spark used to fire the gun. This mechanism can be set at half cock, when the gun was in a safe state, or at full cock, when the gun was ready to fire. A gun would only go off at half cock by mistake.

Close up of a flintlock firing mechanism

Today we use the phrase ‘go off at half-cock’ or ‘go off half-cocked’ to mean doing something or saying something impulsively rather than thinking it through, but interestingly in the 18th Century it was used to mean tipsy or a little bit drunk. At this time there were many ‘half’ phrases to imply someone was on their way to drunkenness including ‘half-seas-over’ and ‘half-and-half’. It wasn’t until about 1880 that the modern meaning became the norm for the phrase.

That’s all for this week. Hopefully you discovered something new and as always please like, share, follow, tweet and try to keep the rioting to a minimum.

All the best. K & D.