The Riot Act 1715

There is another possibility that might account for the origin of the story of the founding of the Society, though in this case the number of men is 12 and not 30.  There is a phenomenon with stories that are handed down, as with “chinese whispers” where, with time the original events are forgotten and similar events that made a great impact on the public mind, at the time, are substituted.


n.b A story handed down in the author’s family, relates that his grandmother, at around the time of WWI, emigrated to Montreal and later returned to England on the Lusitania. When Passenger Lists were checked, it was found to be another ship entirely. Over time the name of that ship had been forgotten, and it was the fate of the Lusitania, which caused its name to be widely remembered, that was substituted. (ADC)  


It is possible, in this case, that the Riot Act of 1715, which would have been widely known about at the time, as distinct from the Newcastle Propositions  which were not, became confused with the tribulations for Lynn in the Cromwellian era. From this the story of the Society’s origins could have arisen. However, since we do not have factual evidence for why and when, they first started meeting at Reffley Spring, then there are two possibilities. In the first, meetings at the spring evolved from possible Royalist ongoing intrigue  there in the 1640’s-50’s, and in the other, perhaps some altercation which involved the reading of the Riot Act might have been transposed to the earlier Cromwellian period as the story of the origins of the Society was handed down the generations. In this case, the use of Reffley Spring by the ‘Subscribers’ would fit in with the general development and popularity of springs in the country. The Riot Act 1715, would have been a Law that everyone who lived at that time, would have known about, as it was locally publicised, unlike the Newcastle Propositions, some 65 years earlier.


According to David Rowland:


The Riot Act of 1714 was an Act of Parliament of Great Britain that authorised local authorities to declare any group of 12 persons or more to be unlawfully gathered, and thus have to disperse or face punitive action. The Act whose title was long and read as such: “An Act for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies, and for the more speedy and effectual punishing of the rioters.”  The Act came into force on the 1st August 1715 and was repealed in 1967.


The riot Act of 1714 was introduced during a time of civil disturbance in Great Britain, such as the Sacheverell Riots of 1710, the Coronation Riots of 1714 and the 1715 riots in England.  The preamble makes reference to ‘many rebellious riots and tumults (that) have been (taking place of late) in some parts of this kingdom,’ adding that those involved presume  so to do, for that punishments provided by the laws now in being are not adequate to such heinous offences.


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


It had to be read out to the gathering concerned , and had to follow precise wording  detailed in the act: several convictions were overturned because parts of the proclamation had been omitted, in particular “God Save the King”.




If any persons to the number of 12 or more unlawfully, riotously, and tumultuously assemble together to the disturbance of the public peace and being required by any Justice by proclamation in the king’s name in the exact form of the Riot Act, I George I, Sess, 2 c.5s 2, to disperse themselves and peaceably depart, shall to the number of 12 or more unlawfully, riotously and tumultuously remain or continue together for an hour after such proclamation shall be guilty of a felony.

The Form Of Proclamation is as follows:-

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




The Act worked very well. Riots were put down, rioters shot and those who survived were hanged or transported to Australia.

Because the authorities were obliged to read the proclamation, the idiom “to read the Riot Act” entered into popular usage as an expression of severe reproof.


The origin of the Reffley Society, in the public record, has traditionally been based on Mr Middleton’s undated letter, assumed to be from the 1930’s or 40’s (a copy of which is held in the Kings Lynn Library Reffley file.)  and reports in the Press during that period, refer to the same information.

However, some 40 years earlier, in 1906 a press report states that the society was about 200 years old (Nottingham Evening Post (and other midlands papers), Friday 17th August 1906.) which, if correct, would place its founding round about the time of the  Restoration (1688), and the Riot Act (1715).