The Nottingham Cheese Riot of 1766

Nov 6, 2020 0 comments

1766 was a bad year for farmers. Crops failed all across Europe, and prices of wheat, flour, corn and other foodstuffs shot up as a consequence. English producers and dealers were tempted to ship much of their supplies to profitable foreign markets, and there were loud cries of protests everywhere. Dozens of food riots broke out across England where goods were seized by force.

food riot

A satirical cartoon depicting a fat 'forestaller' being dragged along by a rope round his neck by a chain of countrymen, to the cheers of a crowd. On of them shouts: “How much now you rogue in grain?” Illustration by Isaac Cruikshank

Against this backdrop of unrest, the annual Nottingham Goose Fair began on Old Market Square on October 2, 1766. This centuries-old livestock and trade event attracted thousands of traders, merchants as well as peasants from all around the country. Notable among these were the geese farmers, who drove up to twenty thousand geese from Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk to be sold in Nottingham to provide for the traditional Michaelmas dish of roast goose. Also famous were its excellent cheese.

That year, a larger than usual quantity of cheese was brought to the market for sale, but these were offered at very high prices—nearly twice the usual amount. The locals became angry at the excessive price because it put the cheese beyond their reach. The day progressed without disturbance, but in the evening events apparently became tense when ‘some rude lads’ intercepted several Lincolnshire traders who had purchased several hundred pounds of cheese. The lads threatened the traders that they could not take the cheese away until the town was served first. An altercation followed. Eventually violence broke out, and the mob started looting hundreds of wheels of cheese and rolled them away.

A farmer shows a goose to a potential buyer at the Nottingham Goose Fair

A farmer shows a goose to a potential buyer at the Nottingham Goose Fair.

According to The Date Book of Remarkable and Memorable Events Connected with Nottingham and Its Neighbourhood:

The people were so exasperated that their violence broke loose like a torrent; cheeses were rolled down Wheeler-gate and Peck-lane in abundance, many others were carried away, and the Mayor, in endeavouring to restore peace, was knocked down with one in the open fair.

Some people armed themselves and set up roadblocks on the city streets to prevent merchants from carrying away cheeses. A boat near Trent Bridge was seized and its cargo of cheese looted, despite its owner offering to pay the crowd or to sell his wares at a low cost. One warehouse was attacked and, though its defenders eventually drove the crowd off with firearms, some of the cheese was taken. The warehouse owner organized a mounted posse to track down the cheese, which had been taken to Castle Donington. The local magistrate refused to sign search warrants for houses in the village so the posse instead detained several citizens on suspicion of rioting.

The arrest further angered the people and “they broke the windows belonging to the house, tore the pavement and threatened destruction to all who opposed them.” Only after the detained lads were released that the crowd retreated.

The next morning, Nottingham authorities brought in cavalry and infantry units to help restore peace. A serious clash between the military and the rioters ensued and the soldiers fired repeatedly into the crowd, leading to the death of one man.

The crowd eventually dispersed, but the riots became infectious and spread to neighbouring towns. Near Derby some rioters gathered to destroy a warehouse but was prevented. Near Trent, another group of people tried to burn a windmill down. There were serious outbreaks in Devon, Cornwall, Gloucester, Bristol, Derby, Birmingham, and Norwich.

It’s not known exactly how the unrest came to an end, but apparently it took a few days to pacify the rioters.

The Nottingham cheese riot remains as a bizarre footnote in the complicated history of this remarkable island. The Nottingham Goose Fair itself continues to be held, although its no longer a livestock market but a showmen’s fair with fairground rides and attractions. The venue was also shifted from the Old Market Square in the city centre to the Forest Recreation Ground.

# Wikipedia
# Valentine Yarnspinner, Damn his Charity, we’ll have the Cheese for nought!, People's Histreh
# “Arator”: On the Price of Corn, and Management of the Poor, The London Chronicle


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