Today in London radical history: recruits & convicts mutiny, Savoy Gaol, 1776.

“About eleven o’clock while the piquet-guard was off duty, a terrible mutiny happened among the transports and recruits confined in the Savoy Gaol…”

The Savoy Palace was built in the thirteenth century for Edmund Earl of Lancaster, on land between the Strand and the river Thames (close to the modern Savoy Hotel). Successive Earls and Dukes of Lancaster spent lavishly to make the Palace one of the most opulent in the country. Its occupation by John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and then hated head of the government, led to its being attacked by rioters in 1377 and destroyed in 1381 in the Peasant’s Revolt.

After this the palace lay derelict or hardly used until around 1505 when, as one of his last public benefactions, Henry VII set in motion the building of a hospital dedicated to St John the Baptist. Though heavily restored, much of this building remained until 1864 when a fire destroyed virtually everything except the walls. Much of the palace area gradually became a slum, a warren of garrets and crowded courts and alleys, crammed with the poor, lawless and rebellious.

Part of the old Savoy Palace building was converted around 1679 into a barracks, which included a military prison, which particularly held any army deserters due to be shot in Hyde Park. Later the prison also seems to have been used to house civilian convicts.

Unsurprisingly the Savoy Prison became a site of fierce resistance, especially for doomed deserters who had nothing to lose by trying to escape. But the barracks itself also saw trouble. In 1759 a riot of recruits had to be quelled by troops. In 1761 over 200 prisoners here mutinied and a considerable battle developed. The Universal Register noted that ‘An unconcerned spectator looking down from the roof was unfortunately taken for one of the rioters, shot and killed on the spot.’ 

On 27th February 1776 military prisoners joined up with convicts who had been sentenced to transportation to the penal colonies, and were awaiting transfer to prison ships; together at least 40 mutinied, rioted, and made a desperate escape attempt.

“About eleven o’clock while the piquet-guard was off duty, a terrible mutiny happened among the transports and recruits confined in the Savoy Gaol, when near forty found means to escape, by breaking through a back window near the water-side, and getting over the wall, the tide being down, to the craft on the river. A soldier was now ordered to bid them stop, and on their refusal, to fire. The orders were obeyed, and on his killing the last of them, the rest were secured.” (Annual Register, 1776.)

In the same year as this failed breakout, the army barracks seems to have burned down., but the military prison remained. In1798 military prisoners rebelled & rioted for several days.

The site of the prison and palace was cleared from 1816 to 20 to make the approach to Waterloo Bridge.

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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