Thursday, 13 December 2007

Reading the riot act

We now use this casually to mean uttering a warning to desist or face unpleasant consequences but it had a very precise legal significance until it came off the UK statute books in 1973.

The act created a mechanism for certain local officials to make a proclamation ordering the dispersal of any group of more than twelve people who were "unlawfully, riotously, and tumultuously assembled together". If the group failed to disperse within twenty minutes, then anyone remaining gathered was guilty of a felony without benefit of clergy, punishable by death.

The proclamation could be made in an incorporated town or city by the Mayor, Bailiffs or "other head officer", or a Justice of the Peace. Elsewhere it could be made by a Justice of the Peace or the Sheriff or Under-Sheriff. It had to be read out to the gathering concerned, and had to follow precise wording:

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.

has all this information and much more but, oddly, the link it gives to the full Act takes you to it via a website created by a bunch of fundamentalist nuts; if you want to study the Act’s 2,400 words it is better to get it from Project Gutenberg EBook. Its preamble is:
WHEREAS of late many rebellious riots and tumults have been in divers parts of this kingdom, to the disturbance of the publick peace, and the endangering of his Majesty's person and government, and the same are yet continued and fomented by persons disaffected to his Majesty, presuming so to do, for that the punishments provided by the laws now in being are not adequate to such heinous offences; and by such rioters his Majesty and his administration have been most maliciously and falsely traduced, with an intent to raise divisions, and to alienate the affections of the people from his Majesty therefore for the preventing and suppressing of such riots and tumults, and for the more speedy and effectual punishing the offenders therein; BE IT ENACTED…
and so on, and on.

[In the United States the principle was incorporated into the first Militia Act of 1792. The act's title was "An act to provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the laws of the Union, suppress insurrections and repel invasions"; Section 3 gave power to the President to issue a proclamation to "command the insurgents to disperse, and retire peaceably to their respective abodes, within a limited time", and authorized him to use the militia if they failed to do so. Something similar is presently codified in Chapter 15 of title 10, United States Code.]


eric said...

I vaguely recall, when I was a student in London in the mid-80s and a participant in numerous rallies and marches (Support the Miners; No Cruise Missiles; Divest Now; Maggie Out; etc.), that the police would recite a formulaic order to disperse before starting to round people up and cart them off to the nick. I always assumed that was the Riot Act, but it was probably something less grand.

Tony said...

Gosh, you really were politically conscious; I suppose most students were in those days. I was a student in London in the 1950s: we had scarves, and yells, and rags but were naive and uncaring about world affairs. I don't think it would have occurred to us to march or demonstrate about anything.

Sophie Germain said...

Good post. So good that I nicked some of it for my own blog. When factchecking though I found that it was actually a group of twelve or more, not a group of more than twelve. According to the Cambridge encyclopedia, anyway.

Tony said...

Why go to an encyclopedia, Sophie, when I gave a link to the original text? Anyway you are right, and the "twelve or more" (which I copied from Wikipedia) is a careless error.
You are welcome to nick anything from OMF, as it consists mostly of cribs, quotes and plagiarisms.

Tony said...

P.S. Sophie: You must surely be the only blogger who has a crater on Venus named after her.

eric said...

So, why is it 12 anyway? I presume for the same reason there are 12 members of a jury, 12 inches in a foot, 12 items in a dozen, etc. But why did 12 get to be a magic number in English measurement? Someone once told me it was because the Danes counted in 12s, which seems plausible enough, but why did they? The same person told me it was because people have 10 fingers and two feet. That just seems absurd. I'm hoping Tony (or one of his readers) has some insight into this burning question.

Tony said...

No, we and many others used twelves in weights, measures, and currency, because we inherited them from the Romans (for whom uncia, the etymological source for ‘inch’ and ‘ounce’, came to mean a twelfth).
Before that twelves were a constituent of the composite Babylonian numerals.
They are much more useful than tens because the number can be divided by 2,3,4 and 6.
Clearly, if you believe in Intelligent Design (and what fathead does not?), you must accept that God is no mathematician. If he had been, he would have given us twelve instead of ten digits and then we would have developed a duodecimal system of numbers which would have been so much better than our decimal system.

eric said...

That makes much more sense! Thanks.