Wigan Election Riots of 1831


A detailed look at the reasons for the election riots in Wigan in May 1831, the backgrounds of the characters involved and the consequences for the perpetrators of the ensuing violence.

Political Situation

In the early 19th century most of the British population was still excluded from voting, they had no influence over members of Parliament making the laws that affected their lives. A survey conducted in 1780 revealed that the electorate in England and Wales consisted of just 214,000 people - less than 3% of the total population of approximately 8 million.

By 1831 there had been talk of political reform for many decades and working-class people were unhappy and resentful because of their working conditions and low wages. So, in a great clamour for political change, more representation, and reforms to the corrupt political system they started to form political groups in most of the major industrial areas.

Large industrial cities like Birmingham, Manchester, and Leeds did not have a single MP between them, whereas 'rotten or pocket boroughs' such as Dunwich in Suffolk (which had a population of 32 in 1831) were still sending two MP's to Westminster. The British electoral system was unrepresentative and outdated

Wealth and social standing were the criteria for holding office and Members of Parliament were generally the landed gentry from Britain's richest families and wealthy businessmen who had major control of the towns they represented. Corruption was widespread, voting took place publicly so even those with the vote could be bribed or intimidated into voting in a certain way. It was to be another forty years before the ‘Secret Ballot Act’ was passed.

The ruling classes became fearful of a revolution occurring in Britain, as it had in France the previous July, when King Charles X was deposed and was forced to abdicate to Great Britain. Giving people the vote was seen as a way to appease the masses and prevent revolt.

In March 1831 the Whig government under Earl Grey proposed a Reform Bill that would create a uniform franchise in the boroughs, giving the vote to all householders who paid a yearly rent of £10 or more, such as small landowners, tenant farmers, and shopkeepers. Although a step in the right direction it still fell short of the ‘Radicals’ aims as it would still exclude six adult males out of seven from the voting process.

The House of Commons passed the Bill, but the House of Lords, dominated by Tories, defeated it (the party only became known as the Conservatives in 1846). As a consequence there then followed demonstrations and serious riots in many British towns and cities.

Rt. Hon Earl GreyOn 22 April 1831, at the request of Prime Minister Earl Grey, Parliament was dissolved by King William IV. An election was then called at short notice, with polling to take place between 28 April and 1 June.

Wigan General Election 4 May 1831

Wigan was known to be a stronghold of the Tories, Wigan Corporation being a self-electing body dominated by a handful of influential interrelated families. The town’s parliamentary electorate was extremely restricted, consisting of just 98 eligible voters, these were the freemen and burgesses, composed largely of gentlemen, professionals and well-to-do merchants and manufacturers

Popular support for the reform bill was so strong in Wigan that the general election was characterised by intimidation and violence to the anti-reform candidates and their supporters. The town had been in a disturbed state for a week, and 800 special constables were sworn in to deal with the expected disorder.

On Wednesday, 4 May 1831 crowds gathered early in Market Place and the surrounding streets in readiness for the days political events. 

Wigan - Market Place

The numbers were boosted by agitators from outside the district, said to be from Bolton, Bury, Manchester, and other surrounding towns chanting ‘the whole bill and nothing but the bill’. They displayed flags with various devices and motto's, such as “Freedom or Death”. One woman carried a loaf on a pole, with the words, ‘A large loaf for threepence. The crowd was estimated to be 10,000 strong, They were evidently well organised and headed by a man who called himself Colonel of King William’s National Guard. 

In the late morning, John Lord the Mayor of Wigan, along with his bailiffs and officials made their way with difficulty through the throng to the town hall in Market Place to oversee the election voting process. 

Town Hall - Built 1720, Demolished 1882

At the time Wigan returned two Members of Parliament to Westminster, (it was to be another 54 years before Wigan's parliamentary representation was reduced from two seats to one by the Redistribution of Seats Act 1885). The members from the previous government who were running for re-election were first of all Ralph Thicknesse of the Whig Party, co-founder of the Wigan Bank, who lived at Beech Hill Hall to the north of the town. As a reformer his was the popular vote.

The other candidate was John Hodson Kearsley of the Tory Party. Kearsley was a late runner in the contest and had nominated himself. He was very unpopular with the lower classes for voting against the second reading of the ‘Reform Bill’ and also the ‘Cotton Mills Act’, whose aim was to improve conditions and reduce the hours that children worked in cotton mills. He was advised to stay away from the election for his own personal safety after receiving threats that he would be torn from limb to limb.

As it was a public vote all the freemen and burgesses were questioned by the protestors as they entered the Town Hall as to whom they intended to vote for. Their strategy was to prevent any of Kearsley’s supporters entry to the hall and intimidate any who might propose him or vote for him. Several burgesses who having intended to vote for Kearsley or Wilbraham were compelled to promise to vote for the pro-reformer candidate Ralph Thicknesse before they were allowed to enter the hall.

Although not a supporter of Kearsley Sir Robert Holt-Leigh took it upon himself to propose him as a candidate. Henry Gaskell, a Tory supporter, and friend of Kearsley seconded the proposal. With their plan thwarted the enraged mob marked Sir Robert and Mr. Gaskell out for special treatment. 

The Mayor then declared the following five gentlemen as candidates, John Hodson Kearsley Esq, Hon. Richard Bootle-Wilbraham, Ralph Thicknesse Esq, Richard Potter Esq, and James Hardcastle Esq.                       

After the Mayor had conducted the preliminaries the candidates debated and made speeches to the electorate. James Hardcastle withdrew from the contest, asking his supporters to vote for his fellow Whig colleague Ralph Thicknesse.

When the voting started, people dropped notes from the balcony to the waiting mob below indicating which way each burgess had voted.

At four thirty in the afternoon the poll was adjourned for the day, Kearsley being in the lead, with Thicknesse second. On making their way out of the hall and into Market Place the Mayor, John Lord and all the persons who had voted for the Tory anti-reform candidates Kearsley and Wilbraham had their coats marked with chalk, literally singling them out as marked men. They then suffered premeditated and violent attacks.

The mobs then went on the rampage through the town centre, after wrecking the Moot Hall they moved to Mr. Kearsley’s house in Standishgate, smashed its windows and broke the frames with ripped up paving stones. They then moved on to the property, also in Standishgate, of Luke Smalley, a burgess who was anti-reform and had voted for Mr. Wilbraham. His property was gutted, and its contents taken out and burnt in the street.

Moot HallIn the evening two cavalry troops of the 10th Hussars and two companies of infantry from the 43rd Regiment of Foot, headed by Magistrate Henry Bullock, arrived from Newton Le Willows to quell the disturbances.

The following morning Wilbraham wrote to the Mayor, to say that in order to prevent the peace of the town being again endangered, he did not mean to tender any more votes, or to appear at the hustings, reserving to himself the right to withdraw from the election.

With the army in town to ensure security the election continued. The withdrawal of Wilbraham and Hardcastle made the result a foregone conclusion and the Mayor declared the official result of the 1831 Election.

Ralph Thicknesse of the Whig Party with 41 votes and John Hodson Kearsley of the Tory Party with 24 votes were elected as M.P.’s for Wigan. Richard Wilbraham (Tory) and Richard Potter (Radicals) polled 15 and six votes respectively. Due to the disruption caused by the riots only 55 of the 98 eligible constituents cast their vote.

The Tories put much of the blame for the riots on the radical orator Henry Hunt, who had been arrested at the Peterloo Massacre and was now M.P. for Preston, for making speeches in Manchester encouraging people to commit violence against the burgesses who would not vote in a certain manner.

Further Riots in Wigan

On 23 May an unnamed man was arrested for having stolen property in his possession belonging to Messrs Rice & Smalley.  A week later, on the 30th, a crowd stormed the jail and released him, hoisted him on their shoulders and paraded him through the streets up to Scholes where many more joined them.

The mob then made its way via Wallgate to Standishgate where the newly repaired windows at Luke Smalley’s property were smashed again. They then moved onto the nearby home of John Hodson Kearsley, the door was forced, all the fixtures and fittings were ripped out and beds, chairs, tables, drawers, and bookcases were thrown onto the street. Their contents including money, valuables and silver plate were strewn along the road. In the coming weeks several persons were prosecuted for being in possession  of property belonging to Kearsley.

As Commander of the local Lancashire Yeomanry Cavalry, Kearsley had certain military items and paraphernalia belonging to the unit stored at his property, these were either vandalised or stolen.

All the time there had been no intervention from the police and the rioters became so confident that a group of them set a table in the cellar and got drunk on the choice wines and spirits. The house was completely gutted, partly demolished and unroofed, then set on fire.

Around 9pm the army arrived from Newton Le Willows, dispersed the rioters, and stood guard whilst the fire brigade extinguished the blaze. By 11pm law and order had been restored and the town was quiet again.

After an overview of the riots we can now look at a more detailed account of the victims of the violence, along with biographical information.                                            

John Hodson Kearsley

During the election of 4th May, Kearsley didn’t suffer any physical assaults as he had very wisely stayed away from the actual voting.  However, his brothers, James and Edward were recognised, they were roughly handled, knocked to the ground, and prevented from entering the town hall.

After the riots Kearsley was forced to live permanently at Higher Hall, his country residence at West Leigh, four miles to the south of Wigan. 

Higher Hall - Demolished - Located on the Bickershaw Open Cast site.

The following year he claimed £4,000 for damage to his goods and property but the judge deemed this figure excessive and awarded him £2,500 in compensation. 

John Hodson Kearsley was born at Hindley Hall in Aspull in 1785. His father Edward, who originated from Bolton Le Moors, went into partnership with his two brothers in law, John Hodson of Ellerbeck, long standing MP for Wigan between 1802-20 and Richard Cardwell who owned a textile company that manufactured fustian (thick-hard wearing twilled cloth).

On the death of his father in 1816 Kearsley went into partnership with Hodson and Cardwell but this was dissolved in 1821. He then became a partner in the Henry Robinson Brewing Company, based in King St, Wigan. 

He was already a wealthy man when he married heiress Mary Ann Bevan at St. Thomas’s church in Liverpool in 1811. Like most gentry and businessmen of the time Kearsley entered into local politics, first becoming a Tory councillor, then eventually a Borough Alderman in 1824 sitting on all the council committees. He was elected Mayor of Wigan three times, in 1813, 1819 and 1825.                                             

In October 1819, in response to the Peterloo Massacre a committee of Wigan factory owners and local gentry proposed to raise a troop of volunteer horsemen to safeguard the interests of the town. The new unit was called the Wigan Light Horse Cavalry and Kearsley, who was serving as Mayor for the second time was chosen to become Captain in command. He held the position for 23 years up until his death in 1842.

In the 1830 General Election, triggered by the death of King George IV, Kearsley ran for Wigan but was defeated into third place by his cousin and second in command of the Wigan cavalry troop, James Alexander Hodson. In second place was James Lindsey of Haigh Hall, 24th Earl of Crawford and 7th Earl of Balcarres.

The following year the ailing James Hodson vacated his seat as MP for Wigan. He nominated his cousin John Hodson Kearsley as his successor, and on Ist March 1831 Kearsley duly won the by-election 48 votes to four in front of a large hostile crowd. However his views on opposing the Great Reform Bill were well known, and on leaving the hustings he was attacked and hit in the face with a stone thrown by a woman protestor.

Kearsley was also unpopular with his fellow M.P.s, one describing him as that ‘vulgar little brewer and an immoderate fool’No paintings are readily available of him but biographic detail from the ‘The History of Parliament’ describes him thus:                              

‘He had such a comfortable notion of his own senatorial qualifications, and this notion was so vividly imprinted on his little round pug-looking face, that it was impossible to look on him and not be pleased ... Never was man on better terms with himself ... A most expressive look of self-complacency always irradiated his globular-formed, country-complexioned countenance, while his small bright eyes were ever peering triumphantly over his little cocked-up nose. Then there was his ample harvest of black, bushy hair, with a pair of excellent whiskers to match, not forgetting his well-developed cheeks. He is a little thick-set man, with an inclination to corpulency ...’

Kearsley stood for Wigan at the general election of 1832, the first after the Great Reform Act, but finished bottom of the poll behind three Liberals. He regained the seat in 1835 but lost it in 1837. He was defeated by two votes in a poll of 520 at a by-election in March 1839, and unsuccessfully petitioned. He decided against standing again in 1841.

Kearsley, who was widowed in 1837, died childless at Higher Hall on 2 October 1842. He was buried in the family vault at St. Mary’s CE church in Deane, near Bolton.

Hon. Richard-Bootle Wilbraham

On the day of the election Wilbraham and his supporters had made their way from his headquarters in the Buck i’th Vine public house in Clayton Street, Wallgate. On the way to the Town Hall for the vote they were subject to much intimidation and verbal abuse.

On their way out of the hall after the vote Wilbraham was pointed out to the crowd, who was followed and struck over the head with a cudgel. His younger brother Edward who was a Captain in the Brigade of Guards apprehended the culprit but the mob attacked them both, knocked them down to the ground and proceeded to kick then mercilessly in the legs and thighs, shouting ‘Kill them, kill them’.

Hon. Richard-Bootle Wilbraham

With their coats ripped off their backs they managed to flee up an alley where a woman took them in her home and hid them for an hour. They then managed to escape the marauding crowds by exchanging clothes with two men and being escorted by others who had come to their assistancemade their way to the  Rectory in Frog Lane where they spent the night.

The following morning Wilbraham wrote to the Mayor, to say that in order to prevent the peace of the town being again endangered, he did not mean to tender any more votes, or to appear at the hustings, reserving to himself the right to withdraw from the election.

Richard Bootle-Wilbraham was born in 1801, the eldest child of Lord Skelmersdale. He was educated at Eton and at Christ Church, Oxford and lived with his wife and four children at Blythe Hall in Lathom, near Skelmersdale.

Blythe HallHe was made a Deputy Lieutenant of Lancashire in 1826 and was elected at the 1835 General Election as Member of Parliament for South Lancashire. He was re-elected in 1837 and returned without a contest in 1841. He died from influenza in 1844 in the prestigious Portland Place in Marylebone, London, aged 42.

Sir Robert Holt Leigh

On 3 May 1831 Roger Holt Leigh travelled from his home in Woodhouses, Leeds to exercise his right as a freeman of the borough to vote in the Wigan elections. Overnight he stayed at Hindley Hall, the residence of his brother Sir Robert Holt Leigh.

Hindley Hall

The next day they found the main entrance to Hindley Hall blockaded by protestors so the pair had to travel a circuitous route through the property of the Earl of Balcarres at Haigh to reach the town centre. Here they assembled with friends at the Eagle and Child pub in Standishgate prior to the election. Eventually, with great difficulty they managed to reach the town hall through the thousands of people in Market Place.

When word was passed down to the crowd that Sir Robert had proposed Kearsley in the contest they reacted furiously and tried to storm the building. The attack on him began in the town hall, his shoes were trodden off and he was thrown down the flight of stairs to the pavement. He was assaulted three more times, before eventually reaching safety back at the Buck i‘th Vine.

A surgeon was called to attend to his injuries which included a broken rib, nine wounds to his head and severe lacerations to his shins, a result of being kicked by clogs.

Roger was separated from his brother Robert in the confusion and on leaving the hall he was knocked down and violently beaten. On gaining his legs he managed to flee through the church yard chased by the mob, he entered a pub owned by his brother but the landlord refused to shelter him. He then made his way into the Bears Paw public house opposite the hall, almost naked. Here the landlord hid him in an attic until it was safe to return to the Buck I’th Vine.

The brothers, along with a surgeon were then put in a carriage and seen off to Hindley Hall by the cavalry. Soon after the soldiers left them the carriage received a volley of stones thrown by protestors, and it is reported that two shots were fired.

Roger Holt Leigh’s condition worsened and he died of inflammation of the lungs at Hindley Hall twelve days after the election. His family and friends blamed his death on the beating he had received at the election.

Sir Robert Holt Leigh was born on 25 December 1762 the first son of Holt and Mary Leigh, nee Owen. He was educated at Manchester Grammar School and Christ Church, Oxford and is described by the National Archives as a classical scholar, widely travelled and a cultivated man, well versed in Greek literature. After leaving University he trained as a barrister.

In a career similar to Hodson Kearsley he was appointed Captain-Commandant of the Wigan Rifle Volunteers on 17 May 1798, before making the move into politics. He was returned unopposed to Parliament for the Borough of Wigan on 8 July 1802, a seat he kept for 18 years until retiring in 1820.

Sir Robert lived at Whitley Hall in Wigan Lane until 1811, he then moved to Hindley Hall after rebuilding it. During the rebuilding process he sought advice from his sister but famously neglected to plan for staircases in the three storied building. As well as the estates at Whitley and Hindley he owned land in Blackrod, Orrell, and Upholland.

Leigh was a supporter of senior Tory politician George Canning and as a reward was created Baron Leigh of Whitley on 27 December 1814. In the 1830’s his business interests included being one of the initial proprietors of the Wigan Branch Railway and of being a governor of the Manchester Free School. In his later years he had a notorious affair with Sarah Yates, the wife of one of his tenant farmers.

He died unmarried on 21 Jan 1843 leaving a life interest in his estates to Thomas Pemberton (son of his cousin Margaret Leigh), who assumed the additional surname of Leigh and who was subsequently raised to the peerage in his own right as Baron Kingsdown.

The reversion of his estates, after Baron Kingsdown died, together with the interest on £20,000 was left to Sarah Yates' son, Roger Leigh who Sir Robert adopted, as long as he remained a member of the Church of England.

John Lord

As a prominent Tory supporting anti-reform candidates John Lord was singled out for attack during the riots. Despite his position as town mayor he was beaten before being rescued by bailiffs.

Lord was born in King St, Wigan on 2 January 1796, son of a Sheriffs Officer. He trained as an attorney, and in 1828 had offices in the Legs of Man Yard in Wigan. Ten years later he was living at Ince Hall, his business address being in King Street. He was Chief Magistrate of Wigan no less than seven times.

Lord was a leading member of the local Tory Party, he was in his first term as Mayor of Wigan at the time of the 1831 riots and was to hold the office of Mayor another six times in the years 1834, 1840,1841, 1843, 1845 and 1847. By 1848 he was living at Standish Hall.

After retiring from public life he gave up his residence at Standish Hall and went to live at Elmley Park, Pershore, in Worcestershire. The 1861 census describes him as a landed proprietor of coal mines.

John Lord died of a heart attack at Elmley Park on 15 November 1863 aged 67. His body was brought back to Wigan to be buried in All Saints Parish church yard.

Luke Smalley

Burgess Luke Smalley was recognised on the way to the town hall on the morning of 4 May, although he was prepared to give one of his votes to Thicknesse he was known to be a supporter of Kearsley. He was surrounded by a mob of protestors and beaten.

He managed to flee into the Black Horse pub in Market Place and hid underneath the dresses of some females who happened to be at the bar. He then lay low in the cellar for nine hours until it was safe to emerge.

Smalley, in partnership with George Rice Jnr. ran a grocers, tea dealers and tallow chandlers business in Standishgate. He also ran a counting house and was an agent for Imperial Life Assurance Company of London.

He eventually returned to his dwelling in Standishgate to find that it had been ransacked, the contents thrown into the street and set on fire. Attempts were made to burn the property and his warehouse house down but his servants extinguished the blaze.

In 1839 the business was put into liquidation and George Rice and Luke Smalley were declared bankrupt. Smalley went into business again and by 1843 was living in Hallgate in a dwelling house with shop attached, owned by the Wigan Brewing Company.

He died in 1845 in Hallgate aged 73 years and was buried in All Saints parish church yard.

Henry Robinson

Henry Robinson was singled out for assault on 4 May because of his strong links to John Hodson Kearsley who he was in partnership with in the Wigan Brewing Company.

Robinson was born in Ormskirk in 1769, he married Ellen Harrison on 12 January 1791 at Ormskirk Parish church. They had two children, Ann, and George. After Henry’s only son George was tragically drowned in the Leeds and Liverpool Canal near his home at Lathom Ann became heiress on her father’s death.

Henry went into the brewery trade and in 1814, having previously been at the adjacent Brewers Arms took control of the brewery in partnership with the Bevan family. The partnership with the Bevan family was dissolved and Henry became the sole owner.

He died of a stroke in Wallgate aged 63 and was buried in All Saints parish church yard on 8 August 1833.

Henry Gaskell

Alderman Henry Gaskell was another of the burgesses to be assaulted after the first days voting.

He received information that his home, Southworth House, on Wigan Lane, was next to be set ablaze, he boarded his property up and employed men to guard it and keep a look out for the mob.

Location of Southworth House, WiganGaskell was one of the most prominent attorneys at law in town with offices in King Street and had been Mayor of Wigan in 1821. He acted as solicitor for John Hodson Kearsley and Henry Robinson, partners in the Wigan Brewing Company, and also for Luke Smalley of the firm Rice and Smalley.

Henry was born in the village of Halsall, between Skelmersdale and Southport in 1778. He married Jane Lomax on 1 June 1807 at Wigan parish church, they had six known children, four girls and two boys. He died 9 June 1849 aged 70 and was buried at St. Aidan's CE church at Billinge.

Lancaster Assizes Trials

By 18 June 1831 twenty nine people were held in Lancaster Castle awaiting trial on various charges of attempted murder, assault, riotous assembly, criminal damage, and larceny.Lancaster Castle c1830Over the next few months more people were arrested and charged. Trials were held and the accused dealt with accordingly.

James Thompson 16, Richard Meadows 17, Robert Corless 36 were transported to the colonies for life.

Three men by the names of Brennan, Bourne, and Carven were transported for 15 years for maiming a Constable who tried to arrest them

William Hunt 20, James McGarry 24, John McEwan 54, and Barnabas Meadows 20 were transported for seven years.

Nineteen other persons were sentenced to hard labour in prison.

James Conway, Henry Duffy, Peter Hoosey 21, James Bentley 45, John Parkinson 29 were sentenced to two years.

James Wilding 20, James Molyneux 20, James Huyton 19, Wharton Fouldes 21,

James Fairclough 45, Peter Finnick (alias Peter Mitchinson) 27, John Wareing 22,

George McCann 22, and James Fairhurst 35 were given 18 months.  

William Cooper 14, and Thomas Fairhurst were sentenced to 12 months prison.

Three women, Ellen Hunt, Margaret Catterall 19, and Elizabeth Prescott were sentenced to six months.

John Jenkins and Richard Pilkington, both 13 were released because of their youth.

John Hilton (alias John Ince), John Chaddick, Richard Pilkington, John Jenkins and James Friar and P. Lancaster were acquitted through lack of evidence.

Charles Lee, accused of releasing a prisoner from custody in Wigan on 23 May 1831 died before his trial.

Graham Taylor May 2022  


A contemporary account of the General Election, (following the death of King George IV), held in Wigan in July 1830 was printed by J. Hilton of Market Place. It gives a fascinating insight into the election process and of the candidates, most of whom contested the election ten months later during the 1831 election riots. 

A pdf copy is available to view by following the link below:



British Newspaper Archives,

History of Parliament, 

Parliament Online, 

The National Archives, 

Wigan & Leigh Archives, 

Wigan World, 


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