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Reign of George II page 7

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He must have rued the word ere it was well out of his mouth. The dissenters were now aware that they had been systematically hoaxed. They retired in disgust, and gave their indignant interest to the opposition. To recover himself a little, Walpole supported a bill for giving the quakers relief in the recovery of tithes. As they could not conscientiously pay them, they were harassed by serious law processes, and the object was to enable the recovery of them by a simple distraint, without power of imprisoning the defaulters. But it was soon declared by the church and tory parties that this was a direct attack upon the privileges of the church. Petitions were poured in from all sides, setting forth that" such a law would be extremely prejudicial to the clergy, and place the established church on a worse footing than any other portion of his majesty's subject. It would have been difficult to prove how exempting the bodies of defaulters, and taking their goods by a very simple, prompt, and effectual means, was injurious to the church, except it regarded vengeance as one of its privileges. It would, in truth, have been almost as much a relief to the clergy as to the quakers. The house of commons saw this, and passed the bill, but the attack was renewed in the peers. The lawyers were set upon it, and lords Talbot and Hardwicke, the lord chancellor and lord chief justice, criticised its wording, and opposed it with all their power. Gibson, bishop of London, exerted himself conspicuously to engage the rest of the bench against the bill, and it was thrown out. Walpole was greatly irritated by this defeat. He was under heavy obligations to the quakers, who in Norfolk had always zealously supported him, and that in many a fierce contest. He therefore sent for Gibson, and rated him soundly for his conduct. Nor did he satisfy himself with words. He had always consulted Gibson on ecclesiastical affairs, and he was considered so secure of the primacy on the death of archbishop Wake, that Whiston used to call him heir-apparent to the see of Canterbury; but from this moment his chance was lost. The archbishop died the next year, and Walpole, passing over the meddling Gibson, conferred the primacy on bishop Potter.

The session of parliament closing on the 26th of May, George took his annual trip to Hanover, leaving, as usual, the queen to act as regent. Much as George liked to visit his native country and relatives, he seems never to have had an idea that his wife might like it too. His father duly took his mistress with him on these favourite journies, but George was quite satisfied to enjoy himself, and leave the queen to the cares of government. She found these this year by no means light. Great numbers of Irish had flocked over, not only to assist in the harvest, but to settle down in Spitalfields as weavers. They could afford to work at two-thirds the wages of English weavers; and these being, consequently, thrown out of work, made a great clamour, and raised riots,

attacking at night the public-houses to which the Irish resorted. These were scarcely suppressed, when the Gin Act came into operation on Michaelmas Day. Some of the Jacobites thought it a favourable opportunity to excite the populace against the government. They therefore contrived that for two evenings gin and other spirits should be supplied to the mob gratis, hoping, when intoxicated, to lead them into decided demonstrations against government. They sent circular letters to arouse the leaders, and the watchword was given – "Sir Robert and Sir Joseph" (Jekyll). Walpole, however, was prepared for them, and the attempt failed.

Very different, however, was the nature of the riots which about the same time broke out in Edinburgh. Every one is acquainted with these riots as they are described by the inimitable pen of Sir Walter Scott in "The Heart of Mid- Lothian." The simple historic facts are these: - Two noted smugglers from Fife, Wilson and Robertson, were condemned to death for a robbery, and were confined in the Tolbooth of Edinburgh, popularly styled the Heart of Mid- Lothian. They made a determined effort to effect their escape before the day of execution. Having procured a file, they freed themselves from their irons, and cut through one of the iron stanchions of their window. During the night they made their attempt to escape, but were prevented by the selfishness of Wilson, who would go first; and, being a man of a corpulent though very powerful build, he wedged himself fast in the gap, and could neither get out nor draw back again. He was found thus in the morning, and the two prisoners were again secured. The selfishness which had prompted Wilson to seek his own safety first now gave way to a more generous feeling. He lamented deeply by his own eagerness having prevented Robertson going first, who, from his slenderer person, could easily have escaped. Before execution it was the custom at that period in Scotland to conduct the prisoners about to suffer, under a strong guard, to church. This being done in the case of these two men, just as the service was concluded, Wilson suddenly laid hold of two of the four soldiers who guarded them, called out to Robertson to run for his life, and detained the third soldier by seizing him by the collar with his teeth. Robertson shook off the other soldier, and, leaping over the pew, darted from the church, unimpeded by the people. He escaped, and was never seen in Edinburgh again.

This daring scheme, so cleverly executed, raised the admiration of the bravery and magnanimity of Wilson to the highest pitch. At this day, so noble an action as that of Wilson on behalf of his comrade would have turned that enthusiasm to the man's advantage; he would undoubtedly have received a pardon, or a commutation of his punishment into something merely nominal. But, though the people of Edinburgh felt this, the government in London was very exasperated at so daring a defiance of authority. No reprieve came down, and the feelings of the people were such that an attempt at rescue was suspected. To prevent this, captain John Porteus was ordered to attend the execution, with a considerable body of the city guard. Porteus is described as a bold and active officer of police, but of a harsh and cruel temper, and therefore hated by the populace of Edinburgh, Supported by Porteus and his guard, the execution took place, and Wilson was about to be cut down, when the mob began to groan, and hiss, and throw stones. Such expressions of disgust are said not to have been uncommon on such occasions; but now the stones aimed at the hangman are supposed to have hit the guard and Porteus himself. Instead of quietly drawing off his soldiers, the smuggler being now hanged, Porteus, in a moment of fury, seized a musket, and fired at the mob. His example was immediately followed by his soldiers, and, on retiring to the guard-house, they discharged another volley. Meaning, however, to frighten rather than to kill, they elevated their muskets above the heads of the mob, and thus unintentionally killed and wounded several persons of a higher rank who were spectators of the scene from the upper windows.

The indignation at this rash and fatal act of Porteus was unbounded. He was thrown into prison, tried for his life before the high court of justiciary, and found guilty, though by only one more than half of the jury. Evidence was given on his trial, and even inserted in the verdict, that the mob had commenced the attack upon him and his guard, and that several of the soldiers had been bruised and wounded by the stones flung at them.

The queen, on being informed of the circumstances, sent down a respite for Porteus for six weeks, in order to allow time for full inquiry into all the particulars of the affair. The people of Edinburgh immediately concluded that the respite was but the prelude to a full pardon. Captain Bushell, who had fired on the people at Glasgow, instead of being hanged, had been promoted. Though time went od, and no such pardon was known to arrive, the populace became more and more excited, in the belief that such would ultimately prove the case. The 7th of September had come. The next day was the one which terminated the respite, and which was ordered for the execution of Porteus. Confident in the persuasion that it was meant to pardon him, he had that evening given an entertainment to his friends in the Tolbooth, and was exulting in a festal mood over the approaching hour of his delivery, when a drum was heard to beat, and a number of people began to appear from different quarters, and assemble before the Tolbooth. A little before ten o'clock the city seemed to be in a state of strange fermentation. The mob had swarmed out like bees from all streets and wynds, had secured the West Port, barred and barricaded it, and blocked up in like manner the ports of the Canongate and Netherbow. They then proceeded to the guard-house and disarmed the guard, who gave up their guns, halberts, and Lochaber axes without any resistance. Though they were some of those men who had fired on the people, the crowd showed no resentment against them; they were bent on higher game.

When all was ready, the cry was, "Porteus! Porteus I To the Tolbooth!" and the whole vast crowd rushed thither, demanding that the prisoner should be turned out to them. When no answer was received, they began battering the door with stones and sledge-hammers to break it in, but the door was immensely thick, and plated with iron, and resisted all their efforts. The alarm of these proceedings was carried to the magistrates, who were drinking at a tavern in the Parliament Close, though it was afterwards stated, as more becoming of their dignity, that they had assembled there to consult on the best mode of ending the riot. Mr. Lindsay, the member of Parliament for the city, was there with them, and he volunteered to carry a message to general Moyle, who was quartered with the troops in the suburbs. Lindsay, with much difficulty and danger, accomplished his mission, and requested Moyle to force the barricade at the Netherbow Port, and march upon the rioters. But Moyle refused to do this without a warrant from the magistrates, and Lindsay declared that if he were found carrying any such document, the mob would tear him limb from limb. Moyle, having the example of Porteus before his eyes, refused to move, and Lindsay continued in vain to urge him. Moyle, not prevailing with Lindsay, sent to Andrew Fletcher, lord justice clerk, whose house was about three miles off, for an order, but it was some time before the message could reach Fletcher, and procure the order, and it was one o'clock in the morning when the order was delivered, and then, by some strange mistake, not to the general, but to Lindsay. The governor of the castle was sent to, but, like Moyle, refused to act without an order from the magistrates. The magistrates, instead of seeing such an order sent to one or both of the commanders, sallied from their tavern, and attempted to descend the High Street towards the Tolbooth - perhaps a more convincing evidence than any other that they were, as reported, far from sober. They were instantly stopped and sent back by the mob. Moyle afterwards, when questioned as to the reason for not hastening to quell the riot, declared that Lindsay was drunk when he came to him, and Lindsay retorted on the general his shameful want of alacrity. Owing to all these circumstances no military arrived, and the mob had plenty of time to storm the Tolbooth. Finding all other means vain, there was at last a cry of "Try fire!" This was no sooner heard than adopted. Tar-barrels and other combustibles were collected and heaped upon the stubborn old door. It soon began to burn; presently there was a hole in the centre of it, and the gaoler, seeing all resistance over, flung the keys through to the besiegers. The mob rushed in almost before the fire could be moved, and, disregarding all other objects, made for the cell of the trembling Porteus. All the other prisoners were allowed to escape at will. The wretched Porteus, hearing the roar of the mob outside, and his name mingled with it, had comprehended the object of the attack, and had endeavoured to escape his horrible fate. He had climbed up into the chimney, but soon found himself stopped by a grate which was fixed across it, as is usual in prisons. The mob, on entering his room, gave a yell of disappointment at finding no one there. They searched every nook, and were not long in detecting and dragging him from his concealment. All entreaties for his life were disregarded, but they allowed him to consign his money and his papers to the care of a friend, a prisoner for debt, on behalf of his family. A man of a venerable aspect assumed the office of clergyman, and exhorted the dying man to prepare for his end. He was then conducted by the triumphant mob towards the Grass Market, the place where Wilson was hanged, the ordinary place of execution, and where Porteus having fired on the people, they determined that he should receive his punishment. Porteus refused to walk, but they mounted him on the hands of two of the rioters, forming what in Scotland is called "the king's chair." Not finding a regular gallows, they seized a dyer's pole, and made it serve their turn. For a rope they broke open a dealer's booth, and, taking a coil, left a guinea in payment. The death of Porteus was hard, but the mood of his captors was harder. They waited for his last struggle, and then those who had arms threw them away, and the crowd began to disperse quietly to their homes. When day dawned, there were only the scattered arms of the city guard and the gangling corpse of Porteus to evidence the awful work of the night.

The news on reaching London was received with astonishment. The daring of the deed was equalled by the orderly, systematic, and successful manner in which it had been conducted. It was clear that the whole was executed under the direction of men of superior rank and education. The care to injure no one but the victim, paying a guinea for the rope, and turning back ladies who were out in their sedans going to parties, but with all courtesy, and guarding them to their homes, all evinced this.

Sir Walter Scott mentions a female relative of his who was thus escorted, and received a bow on entering her house from a youth in the garb of a baker, as he handed her out, which, she said, was never learned beside the oven. When Porteus lost one of his slippers, the crowd stopped till it was recovered and put it on again. The little success which attended the endeavours to discover the ringleaders of this remarkable mob was further proof of the kind of leading which it had had. The queen exhibited great indignation at this systematic defiance of authority. She exclaimed to the duke of Argyll that, sooner than submit to such things, she would make Scotland a hunting-field; on which Argyll replied, with a profound bow and meaning look, "Then I will take leave of your majesty, and go down to my own country to get my hounds ready."

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