In 1806, an Act of Parliament was passed which facilitated the building of a new Westgate Bridge at Gloucester, to replace the medieval crossing over the River Severn. The old bridge, which had been in use for centuries, had five arches through which vessels had to negotiate, and was becoming increasingly costly to repair. The new bridge was designed by Robert Smirke, who was also the architect of Gloucester’s Shire Hall. Smirke’s design was for a simple, single-span arch. After several years of building work, during which travellers leaving or entering the city from the west had to use a temporary structure over the river, the new Westgate Bridge opened in 1816.
One of the clauses of the 1806 Act of Parliament stipulated that tolls could be raised from anyone crossing the Severn on the west side of Gloucester, including foot passengers, to recoup the cost of the bridge’s construction. A toll-house was built on the temporary bridge and advertisements appeared in the local press for prospective toll-collectors, who would bid at auction for the privilege of collecting money from those crossing the river, paying an annual rent of about £2,000 a year. When the new bridge opened in 1816, the collection of money from travellers continued. It was intended that the raising of tolls would stop once the new bridge had been paid for, but by 1827, people were still paying to cross in and out of the city. This was because the Gloucester Corporation had decided to build another new bridge at Over, this time to a design by Thomas Telford, and the tolls raised from Westgate Bridge were used to pay for that.
Resentment had been growing over the years among the inhabitants of Gloucester, who were tired of having to pay to get in and out of the west side of the city, over ten years after construction of the bridge had been completed. The men who were working on the construction of the new bridge at Over were particularly disgruntled, because they had to pay twice every day, to get between their homes in the city and their workplace.
On the evening of Thursday, 20 September 1827, a gang of men from Over refused to pay to cross over Westgate Bridge to get back into the city. The toll-keeper’s wife was on duty that evening, and she was determined not to let the men pass without paying. They threatened to tear down the barrier, demolish the toll-house and to hang the woman up on the ruins, but she refused to be intimidated. Eventually, the men forced their way past her and over the bridge.
The next day, the same confrontation took place, and this time the workmen broke part of the barrier and cleared a footway across the bridge. Over the weekend, this path was left open, so for the first time people were able to walk across the bridge without paying. On Monday, the employer of the men working at Over had a meeting with the Trustees of the Westgate Bridge, and a compromise was made by which the workers would no longer have to pay to cross on foot. After this, the barrier once again was repaired.
It was expected that there would be no more trouble from the Over workers, as they would no longer have to pay the toll, but some of them were not satisfied and soon after five o’clock, a group of them arrived at the toll-gate, where gradually they were joined by their workmates, bargemen, and many other inhabitants of Gloucester, until there was a crowd of over a thousand people. An attack on the toll-gate began, with the barrier being torn from its hinges and thrown into the river, followed by every piece of gating and fencing. A number of police constables and specials had attended the scene in order to try to stop the proceedings, but they were overwhelmed and took shelter in the toll-house, along with the toll-keeper and his family. The mob then started to throw large stones at the house, breaking the shutters on the windows. The occupants made their escape through a back window. The demolition of the house then began and all of the toll-keeper’s furniture and belongings were thrown into the river. After the house and gate had been destroyed, some of the crowd went into the city, where they paraded around the streets, until about ten o’clock, when all became quiet.
On Tuesday afternoon (25 September), two troops of the 4th Dragoon Guards, one from Dursley and the other from Wotton-under-Edge, arrived in the city. Under their protection, a new toll-gate was erected and a guard house was built nearby, with a military patrol stationed there. There was no further trouble at the bridge.
In the meantime, a reward had been offered for the apprehension of the ring-leaders of the riot. Four men, named Joseph Dangerfield, Richard Bird, Henry Lane and Benjamin Bennett, were arrested on 26 September and taken to Gloucester’s city gaol, to await trial at the next Assizes. The men were charged with ‘having with a multitude of other Persons wilfully and unlawfully destroyed the Toll House and Toll Gates at the Westgate Bridge in this City’. On 5 October, two more men were arrested. A stone-mason named James Nelson was walking past the Tolsey at the Cross when he was recognised by a police officer as being one of the rioters. He was taken into the Tolsey for questioning. Some of his companions gathered at the Cross and there was talk of getting Nelson out. Another man in the crowd, James McKenzie, was recognised as a rioter and he too was taken into the Tolsey. It was decided that the pair should be held with the others in Gloucester city gaol, but the police were concerned that they would be attacked as they escorted the men down Southgate Street, so they asked for a military escort. At the gaol, Nelson and McKenzie were charged with ‘feloniously destroying the woodwork connected with the Westgate Bridge in this City’.
After being charged, the men accused of rioting offered to pay bail for their appearance at the next Assizes, which would take place the following April, but they were refused. The city authorities had decided that the atmosphere was so volatile that they would require an order from the Court of King’s Bench before agreeing to release the men. A hearing took place in November 1827 in London. Mr John Phillpotts, for the men, asked for a writ of habeas corpus to be issued to the Sheriff of Gloucester, to bring up the bodies of the men in question. He stated that they had been held in gaol for seven weeks, despite offering to pay for bail. Mr Campbell, on behalf of the Gloucester magistrates, opposed the men’s release, and described the events which had taken place in September, stating, perhaps with some exaggeration, that a mob of over 2,000 people had gathered and after destroying the toll-house and gate, they had paraded the streets of the city waving flags. The men alluded to had been arrested by the magistrates who, in consequence of the disturbed state of the city, were afraid to admit them to bail without the sanction of the Court of King’s Bench.
Mr Philpotts said the men had sworn their innocence. They had offered to pay good bail but the magistrates were determined to keep them in custody until the next Assizes. The men had behaved so well in prison that the Trustees of the bridge and toll-gate had requested the magistrates to admit them to bail. The court decided to recommend that the men be allowed bail, as this would be less expensive than granting habeas corpus. All the men were bailed out on 16 November.
In April 1828, the Assizes began in Gloucester. When it came to the case of the Westgate Bridge riot, Mr Phillpotts addressed the judge, informing him that in the previous October, the Bridge’s Trustees, from the information they had received, believed it was their duty to prosecute the men accused. They had since learnt that these men were not the ring-leaders at all. After being confined in gaol for seven weeks, the men had been allowed to find bail, and, ‘from that hour, the most perfect harmony and good will had subsisted between all parties. The men’s conduct had been unexceptionable’. He was instructed to apply to his Lordship to permit recognizances to be discharged without presenting a bill to the Grand Jury. The judge, Mr Baron Vaughan, agreed to this ‘judicious course’. The men were released shortly afterwards.
So, in the end, nobody was tried and punished for taking part in the Westgate Bridge riot. No doubt the authorities believed that as peace had descended on Gloucester, there was no point in risking stirring things up again. The Gloucester Journal, in its report on the case, had insinuated that the workers were not really to blame anyway, as there were ‘higher powers’ behind the riot. It was suggested that ‘some individuals’ had plied the workers with alcohol and encouraged them to attack the toll-gate. Although the newspaper did not name a particular person, they appeared to be putting the blame firmly on John Phillpotts, the barrister who had defended the men. Phillpotts had aspirations to be an MP for the city, and as he had been a member of the Corporation, it was presumed that he knew the state of the finances concerning the Westgate Bridge. He was said to have told the people over and over again that the bridge had already been paid for.
In the aftermath of this incident, described in the Cheltenham Chronicle as ‘one of the most disgraceful scenes we ever remember to have occurred in this part of the country’, the toll on foot passengers crossing the Westgate Bridge was brought to an end in January 1828. By the end of that year, all tolls on the bridge were abolished.
© Jill Evans 2018
Gloucester Journal, 29 Sept and 6 Oct 1827
Morning Post, 28 Sept 1827; Cheltenham Chronicle, 27 Sept 1827; Cheltenham Journal, 19 Nov 1827, 14 Apr 1828 (all viewed on British Newspaper Archive)
Gloucester City Gaol Registers, 1816-35 (viewed on Ancestry; originals at Gloucestershire Archives, under Gloucester Borough Records)
A History of the County of Gloucester, Volume IV: The City of Gloucester, ed. N.M.Herbert, (Victoria County History, 1988)