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The Gordon Riots

In 1778 the Catholic Relief Act was enacted to help ease restrictions on Britain's Catholics. The Protestant Association, led by Lord George Gordon, opposed this act and demanded its repeal. On June 2, 1780 the Protestant Association marched to the House of Commons and were joined by a riotous mob of 50,000 Dickens described as "sprinkled doubtless here and there with honest zealots, but composed for the most part of the very scum and refuse of London."

For the next few days the mob terrorized London, burning Catholic churches, and the businesses and homes of Catholic families. They also burned Newgate, Fleet, and King's Bench prisons, releasing prisoners. Finally King George III ordered troops called out to quell the riots.

Nearly 300 rioters were killed, 450 taken prisoner of which 25 were hanged. Lord George Gordon, held in the Tower of London, was tried and found not guilty of treason.

Public Executions

The execution of criminals in England was carried out publicly at Tyburn from the 12th century. The first permanent gallows at Tyburn appeared in 1571. From 1783 most public executions were performed at Newgate prison.

Public execution was meant to be a deterrent to crime, they too often, however, took on a circus atmosphere. Dickens attended an execution at the Horsemonger Lane Gaol in 1849 and reported his reaction in a letter to The Times. The last public execution took place at Newgate on May 26, 1868.

Bloody Mary

The daughter of Henry VIII and the Catholic Catherine of Aragon ascended to the throne as Mary I (1553-1558). Mary tried to re-establish the religion of her mother and atrocities committed against Protestants during her reign became a rallying cry of the Protestant mob during the Gordon Riots.

Historical (Hysterical) Novels

Dickens tried his hand at two historical novels, Barnaby Rudge, in 1841, and A Tale of Two Cities 18 years later. Unlike the humorless A Tale of Two Cities, Barnaby Rudge contains much of Dickens classic wit. The scenes where Gabriel Varden's fanatical wife allies with her maid, Miggs, against the exasperated locksmith are some of the funniest in Dickens.

Grip the Raven
In the preface to Barnaby Rudge Dickens states that he based Barnaby's pet raven, Grip, on two pet ravens that Dickens had owned, both deceased. It is said that Edgar Allan Poe got the idea for his poem The Raven from Grip in Barnaby Rudge.

Dickens and Poe in Philadelphia

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Dolly Varden

Victorian readers were quite taken by the spoiled, coquettish daughter of the honest locksmith, Gabriel Varden. According to Vanda Foster and Richard Dunn in the Dickensian, Dolly inspired songs, dances, paintings, 'the Dolly Varden look' in ladies' fashion in the 1870's, and lending her name to a hat style, a spotted calico material, a species of trout, a variety of horse and the buffer on a railway tender.

William P. Frith's famous painting of Dolly Varden, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, was taken from the description given in chapter 19 of Barnaby Rudge:

"As to Dolly, there she was again, the very pink and pattern of good looks, in a smart little cherry-coloured mantle, with a hood of the same drawn over her head, and upon the top of that hood, a little straw hat trimmed with cherry-coloured ribbons, and worn the merest trifle on one side-just enough in short to make it the wickedest and most provoking head-dress that ever malicious milliner devised."

Dickens' life during the serialization of Barnaby Rudge
Feb 1841 - Nov 1841

Dickens' age: 29

February 1841

Son Walter Savage Landor Dickens born

Spends a week in Brighton with Catherine

March 1841

The family's pet raven Grip, on whom Barnaby's pet raven in the novel was based, dies.

June 1841

Begins a month-long visit to Scotland with Catherine

August 1841

Entire family goes to Broadstairs for a two-month visit. Dickens makes frequent visits to London.

The Pic-Nic Papers, a collection of poems, short stories, and sketches, edited by Dickens is published. Proceeds go the the widow and children of John Macrone, publisher of Dickens' Sketches by Boz.

September 1841

Making plans to visit America with Catherine early in 1842

October 1841

Undergoes painful surgery for a fistula, convalescing for a month.

November 1841

Buy Dickens at Huckleberry and Hodge

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Barnaby Rudge

Barnaby Rudge - Published in weekly installments Feb 1841 - Nov 1841
Read it online | Shop for the Book | Illustrations | Locations

Barnaby Rudge

Dickens fifth novel was his first historical novel, his second and last being A Tale of Two Cities. Dickens was inspired by the historical novels popularized by Sir Walter Scott (The Waverley Novels, Ivanhoe) and Barnaby Rudge was to be his first serious work of literature.

Dickens signed a contract in 1836 to write the book, then titled Gabriel Varden-The Locksmith of London, for Richard Bentley of Bentley's Miscellany, where Oliver Twist was published, in the three-volume style popularized by Scott, for 200 pounds. With his fame skyrocketing after Pickwick, Oliver Twist and Nickleby, Dickens renegotiated the contract with Bentley and later bought out the contract and the novel was published weekly
in Master Humphrey's Clock by Chapman and Hall. The novel concentrates on the Gordon (anti-Catholic) Riots in London in 1780. The novel was illustrated by Phiz and George Cattermole.

Plot (contains spoilers)

Gathered round the fire at the Maypole Inn, in the village of Chigwell, on a foul weather evening in the year 1775 were John Willet, proprietor of the Maypole, and his three cronies. One of the three, Soloman Daisy, tells a stranger at the inn a well-known local tale of the murder of Reuben Haredale which had occurred 22 years ago that very day. Reuben had been owner of the Warren, an estate in the area, now the residence of the deceased Reuben's brother, Geoffrey, and his niece, Reuben's daughter Emma Haredale.

The Maypole After the murder Reuben's gardener and steward were missing and suspect in the crime. The body of the steward was later found, identified only by clothes and jewelry. The gardener was never found and was assumed to be the murderer.

Joe Willet, son of the Maypole proprietor, quarrels with his father because John treats the twenty year old Joe as a child. Finally having had enough of this ill treatment, Joe leaves the Maypole and goes for a soldier, stopping to say goodbye to the woman he loves, Dolly Varden, daughter of locksmith Gabriel Varden.

Meanwhile, Edward Chester is in love with Emma Haredale. Both Edward's father, John Chester, and Emma's uncle, the catholic Geoffrey Haredale, sworn enemies, oppose the union. Edward quarrels with his father and leaves home for the West Indies.

John Willet in the Maypole Barnaby Rudge, a local idiot, wanders in and out of the story with his pet raven, Grip. Barnaby's mother, widow of the murdered steward at the Warren, begins to receive visits from a shadowy highwayman whom she feels compelled to protect. She later gives up the annuity she had been receiving from Geoffrey Haredale and, without explanation, takes Barnaby and leaves the City hoping to escape the unwanted visitor.

The story advances five years to a wintry evening early in the year 1780. On the 27th anniversary of the murder of Reuben Haredale, Soloman Daisy, winding the bell tower clock, sees a ghost in the churchyard. He reports this hair-raising event to his friends at the Maypole and John Willet decides that Geoffrey Haredale should hear the story. He departs amidst a winter storm taking Hugh, hostler of the Maypole, to guide him.

Barnaby and Mary Rudge On the way back to the Maypole, John and Hugh are met by three men seeking the way to London and, finding it thirteen miles off, seek refuge for the night, and beds are prepared for them at the Maypole.

These visitors prove to be Lord George Gordon, his secretary, Gashford, and a servant, John Grueby. Next day the three depart for London, inciting anti-Catholic sentiment along the way and recruiting protestant volunteers from which Ned Dennis, hangman of Tyburn, and Simon Tappertit, former apprentice to Gabriel Varden, are chosen as leaders. Hugh, finding a handbill left at the Maypole, joins the protestant throng Dickens describes as "sprinkled doubtless here and there with honest zealots, but composed for the most part of the very scum and refuse of London, whose growth was fostered by bad criminal laws, bad prison regulations, and the worst conceivable police."

Barnaby and his mother have been living quietly in a country village, their whereabouts unknown despite Geoffrey Haredale's attempts to find them. The mysterious stranger finds them and sends Stagg, the blind man, to attempt to get money from them. Barnaby and his mother then flee to London hoping to again lose their pursuer.

Barnaby meets Lord Gordon When Barnaby and his mother arrive at Westminster Bridge they see a crowd of rioters heading for a meeting on the Surrey side of the river. Barnaby is duped by the rioters into joining them, despite his mother's pleas. The rioters then march on Parliament, burn several Catholic churches and the homes of Catholic families.

A detachment lead by Hugh and Dennis head for Chigwell, leaving Barnaby to guard The Boot, the tavern they use as their headquarters, intent on exacting revenge on Geoffrey Haredale. The mob loots the Maypole on their way to the Warren, Haredale's home, which they burn to the ground. Emma Haredale and Dolly Varden are taken captive by the rioters. Barnaby is taken prisoner by soldiers and held in Newgate, which the mob plans to burn.

The mysterious stranger haunting Mrs Rudge is captured by Haredale at the smoldering ruins of the Warren where he had gone to join the mob. He turns out to be Barnaby Rudge Sr, husband of Mrs Rudge, Barnaby's father and murderer of Reuben Haredale and his gardener. He was the steward of Reuben Haredale, assumed murdered by the gardener with whom he had switched clothes.

The Riot The rioters capture Gabriel Varden, with the help of his wife's maid Miggs, and attempt to have the locksmith help them break into Newgate to release prisoners. He refuses and is rescued by two men, one of them has only one arm. The rioters then burn Newgate where Barnaby and his father are being held. All of the prisoners escape but Barnaby, his father, and Hugh are captured by soldiers assisted by Dennis, the hangman, who has turned to the other side seeing a bounty of clients now needing his special talents. With the military patrolling the streets the rioters soon scatter, many are killed.

Emma and Dolly are restored Joe Willet has returned from fighting in the American Revolution and has lost an arm. Joe, along with Edward Chester, turn out to be the rescuers of Gabriel Varden. The pair then rescue Dolly and Emma.

Dennis is arrested and sentenced to die with Hugh and Barnaby. Hugh and Dennis are hanged, Barnaby, through the efforts of Gabriel Varden, is pardoned.

Joe and Dolly are married and become proprietors of the rebuilt Maypole. Edward Chester and Emma are married and go to the West Indies. Miggs tries to get her position back at the Varden household, is rejected, and becomes a jailer at a women's prison. Simon Tappertit, his legs crushed in the riots, becomes a shoe-black. Gashford later commits suicide. Lord George Gordon is held in the Tower and is later judged innocent of inciting the riots. Sir John Chester, now a Member of Parliament, turns out to be the father of Hugh and is killed in a duel by Geoffrey Haredale. Haredale escapes to the continent. Barnaby and his mother live out their years tending a farm at the Maypole Inn.

Principal Characters:
Character descriptions contain spoilers
Barnaby Rudge
Mary Rudge
Barnaby Rudge Sr
Gabriel Varden
Dolly Varden
Martha Varden
Geoffrey Haredale
Emma Haredale
Reuben Haredale
John Chester
Edward Chester
John Willet
Joe Willet
Tom Cobb
Phil Parkes
Soloman Daisy
Ned Dennis
Lord George Gordon
John Grueby
Simon Tappertit
Sir John Fielding
Barnaby Rudge Links:
The Dickens Page
The Victorian Web

"Read the Riot Act"
Many of us were "read the Riot Act" by our mothers when we were kids. It was actually an Act of Parliament in Great Britain, enacted in 1714, that forced riotous crowds to disperse within one hour after the Act was read, or risk being shot. During the Gordon Riots, in Barnaby Rudge, the mob is read the Riot Act.

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Sketches by Boz | Pickwick | Oliver Twist | Nickleby | Old Curiosity Shop | Barnaby Rudge
Chuzzlewit | Christmas Carol | Christmas Books | Dombey and Son | Copperfield | Bleak House
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