Robbins: Being read the riot act |

Robbins: Being read the riot act

Ever read someone the riot act?

Or at least you thought you did?

What I’ll bet you didn’t know — or maybe never stopped to think about — is that it is (or at least was) an actual act. Well, I’ll be!

Colloquially, reading one the riot act has come to mean issuing another a stern reprimand or warning of consequences such as, “When I was double charged my electric bill, I called them up and read them the riot act!”

What is less known, though, is the act itself.

Passed in 1714, the Riot Act was an act of the British Parliament that authorized local authorities to declare any group of 12 or more people to be unlawfully assembled and to disperse or face punitive action. In a very British way, the act’s longer, formal title was An Act for Preventing Tumults and Riotous Assemblies, and for the More Speedy and Effectual Punishing the Rioters. Hear, hear!

It came into force on Aug. 1, 1715. It was repealed in England and Wales only in 1967 by the Criminal Law Act of that year. Acts similar to the Riot Act passed into the laws of British colonies in Australia, Canada, and America (which was not yet the good ‘ol U.S. of A.). Some remain today.

The act was introduced during a time of civil disturbance in Great Britain, such as the Sacheverell riots of 1710 and the Coronation riots of 1714. The preamble to the act makes reference to “many rebellious riots and tumults [that] have been [taking place of late] in diverse parts of this kingdom”, adding that those involved “presum[e] so to do, for that the punishments provided by the laws now in being are not adequate to such heinous offences.”

In order to be effective, that act had to be read out loud; thus, the phrase “reading the Riot Act” was hatched.

If a group of a dozen or more gathered publicly and showed an inkling of becoming unruly, the Riot Act enabled an officer of the law to approach the crowd and instruct them to disperse. To do so, the officer had to literally “read the Riot Act” in a practice and manner resonant of our own reading one his or her Miranda rights before an interrogation may take place.

Ideally, in a booming and authoritative tone, one would read:

“Our Sovereign Lord the King chargeth and commandeth all persons being assembled, immediately to disperse themselves, and peaceably to depart to their habitations, or to their lawful business, upon the pains contained in the act made in the first year of King George, for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies. God Save the King!”

In simple language, “Scram!” or perhaps, in modern New Jerseyese, “Get outta here!”

The office reading the Riot Act could be a mayor, bailiff, sheriff, or justice of the peace. The assembled crowd would be given a grace period of an hour. After 60 minutes, if the masses had not dispersed, those who remained were considered to have committed a felony. In a bit of the punishment not really fitting the crime, the punishment was death. So, maybe best to skedaddle home!

The hope, of course, was instead of public hangings, the rabble would silently or grumblingly comply. In practice, though, the crowds often had less peaceable intentions. If thing became too heated, the officer was under no obligation to abide by the 60 minutes to expire and, instead, could recruit an able-bodied posse of citizens to assist in rounding up the scofflaws. To that end, during a Special Commission for the trial of rioters who were rounded up in London’s massive anti-Catholic Gordon Riots of 1780, the post-reading procedures of the Act were bloviating clarified:

“If the mob, collectively, or a part of it, or any individual, within or before the expiration of that hour, attempts or begins to perpetrate an outrage amounting to felony, to pull down houses [one wonders how easily houses were pulled down!], or any other act to violate the law, it is the duty of all present, of whatever description they may be, to endeavor to stop the mischief, and to apprehend the offender.”


Ours are not the only turbulent times. Throughout the tempestuous years of the 18th and 19th centuries, riots and the act were a near constant. In London in particular, nearly every public occasion was accompanied by the looting, vandalizing poor. Often, though, reading the Riot Act was the fuse set to a powder keg and, instead of calming things down, instead ignited them.

Though stiff upper-lipped British officers are no longer required to stand among an unruly mob and read the act, the legacy and concept of reading one the Riot Act survives. To be read the riot act means to be cuttingly admonished. “Cut it out or there will be hell to pay!” Presumably, however, the heads that will roll are modernly metaphorical instead of literal.

Still …

To be read the riot act is to be advised to tuck one’s tail firmly and contritely between one’s legs and straighten up.

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