What is the origin of the phrase ‘reading the riot act’?
Just about everyone in the English-speaking world has either said or used this phrase. But where did it come from? For example, someone might say ‘her behaviour is terrible – I need to read her the riot act’.
The phrase has its origins in 1714 in England.
Those were turbulent times in the British Isles. There were riots and revolts for several reasons. You know what the English are like with the history of their monarch – when George I ascended to the throne this is just one matter that caused rioting. So the government of the day developed the Riot Act. This act was in force until it was repealed as late as 1967.
The act proclaimed that if a group of more than twelve people convened for the purpose of (or even the suspicion of) creating mayhem or unruly behaviour, the Riot Act could be read. This is the proclamation that, by law, had to be read aloud to the assembled group.
Once the Riot Act had been read, the group had one hour to return to their homes or otherwise disperse.
Having been given what was considered to be a fair warning,it was deemed that should the assembled crowd not disperse after one hour, then they could be legally arrested or forced to leave.
After that hour had passed, the forces of the law were basically allowed to use whatever force necessary to make sure that the crowd offered no danger. They were indemnified even if they killed rioters when dispersing the crowd, as you can see below:
Essentially, this meant that the law-keepers were perfectly within their rights to open fire on any rebellious crowd who had been given their one hour warning by the reading of the Riot Act. And this did happen. There were fatalities.
The reading of the Riot Act was a feared occurrence and in later years was used only in extreme circumstances but nevertheless gave the police immense powers.
Think of this next time you use the phrase!
January 12, 2015
Whilst we don’t have the Riot Act anymore, and it has largely been replaced by “kettling” protesters into confined areas, we English do have a fine tradition of rioting to make a point, and generally the authorities see it as, if not a right of the populace, certainly something that has to be listened to.
Even back in 1714 the rulers of the British realised that a one hour warning was the minimum acceptable time to ask people to calm down and go home before resorting to force. It’ll be good when other countries catch up!
January 11, 2015
I love to learn histories like this. We have so many saying that pop out of our mouths without a thought to what it means or where it came from. Now we know, at least for this one! Thanks–very entertaining!