1886; Guy Fawkes night on Portland leads to riots!

The forbidding Verne citadel stands atop of Portland, built originally as part of Lord Palmerston’s coastal defences. Nowadays it hold prisoners serving their sentence for crimes to the community, but in the Victorian era it contained the might  of the military.


The soldier’s billeted within those strong walls came and went, some companies had better reputations than others, some were downright lethal!

In November of 1886, the 1st Dorset were based in the fort. Normally not a problem, but their ranks had recently been greatly swelled by means of a recruiting drive, attracting men who wanted to take the Kings(or rather Queens) shilling. Now the army in those days was renown for not always attracting the best of characters, many of the men who joined, joined for all the wrong reasons, getting away from family, capture by police, or as a means of escaping poverty and a life of crime from slum areas. Such was the case with a group of men that had recently joined the Dorset’s, they were charmingly referred to as ‘London roughs.’

One Monday night in November, as was usual the Portland folk held their annual Guy Fawkes carnival. A light hearted event, enjoyed by young and old alike, a chance for a some gentle fun and much needed relief from every day worries, perhaps a tad of mischief thrown in the mix by  youngsters.Image

This year was to be very different!

Events took a sinister turn…

A number of the soldiers from the Verne had turned up to watch the procession wind its way up through the streets, but some of them had more than a bit of mischief in mind. They loosened their stiff belts and started whipping the folks walking in the parade.

The Portlanders let this go…but resentment was simmering on the island.

A couple of nights later a group of soldiers entered a pub on the island where they came across some of the local lads who were still smarting from the disrespect their island folk had been shown at the parade. Inevitably a fight broke out between the two groups. This animosity spilled over between locals and soldiers over the next couple of days, scuffles would break out when ever the two fractions met in the street.

That was, until one fateful evening later that week.

A mob of about 200 of the unruly soldiers made their way to the Heights, and from here they took possession of the road. Pelting any  locals who dared to pass by with stones and rocks.

Word was sent to the Verne of the marauding soldiers escapades, and a piquet was gathered to deal with the serious situation. Only problem was, it made matters worse!

As the column of men came down the incline, marched at the double,  many of the younger ones broke rank, and charged down the hill brandishing their bayonets at anyone who happened to be passing by. The out of control mob then went on the rampage, breaking doors and windows as they went.

Next night life on the island was no better, the rioting began yet again. This time the wayward soldiers turned their attention to the local blacksmith’s shop, smashing his premises to smithereens. The womenfolk feared for their very safety. By now many of the enraged Portland men had gathered to put a stop to the out of control soldiers, incensed that ordinary folk, their friends and family,  were too scared to venture forth.

As the renegade soldiers realised that the hardy Portland men were on the prowl, out for their blood, they  tried to sneak round the back of Easton square, but not without leaving their trail of destruction and hurt behind as they retreated towards the safety of their barracks. Any lone males they encountered they attacked…careful not to engage any groups. That was, until they neared the Verne itself, here they found themselves confronted by a group of ‘lusty young Portlanders’ waiting for them.

Revenge was so sweet!

As the soldiers received their just deserts at the hands of the islanders, their howls of pain rent the air, bringing  from the Fort a rescue party, with a view to reining the brawling men in. Blocking the road, barring the Portlanders route to the retreating soldiers, the islanders were incensed…they hadn’t extracted their revenge yet. Trying to push their way through the solid line of men straddling the road, they were to face the wrath of the military, many ending up with bayonet wounds for their troubles.

Fearing further troubles on the island between the two fractious groups, the men were confined inside  the barracks.

it was decided that removal of the Dorset’s altogether was the only safe option, and the only way that life could return to normal on the island.


http://www.isleofportlandpictures.org.uk/Verne/ (pictures of the Verne as a fort)


Writing a book, blog, short stories or your own family history, then why not make them jump off the page, bring them to life with historical graphics.
I have a huge collection that cover illustrations from numerous Victorian articles about travel, prisons, children’s homes, poverty, philanthropy…
Check out my Etsy site for Victorian illustrations, many more, including local ones being added all the time from my own personal collection.


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3 Comments Add yours

  1. I love reading stuff about soldiers getting up to no good back in the old times. Military punishments were pretty rough (at least in the US). I wonder if their superiors gave them hell.


  2. cannasue says:

    I had never realised before just how hard a life was for men (and their womenfolk) in the army. Conditions were terrible! Needless to say it didn,t always attract the best type of person! Their masters expected the men to be celibate, obedient, and all for a pittance. No wonder it often went wrong…but it makes for fascinating research.


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