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This page is the repository for miscellaneous facts, tibits, and odds & sods. Nothing on this page will change your life, but you may come away thinking, "hmm -- I never knew that before." This page is populated when I find myself wondering about a topic. I go look it up, and put the answer here.

The Riot Act

What does it mean to "read someone the Riot Act."?

Like most phrases that find their way into popular usage, the people who use it today have no idea about the original purpose of the phrase. These days, it’s just a figurative expression meaning to give an individual or a group a severe scolding or caution, or to announce that some unruly behaviour must cease. But originally it was a deadly serious injunction to a rioting crowd to disperse.

The Riot Act was passed by the British government in 1715. This was the period of the Catholic Jacobite riots, when mobs opposed to the new Hanoverian king, George I, were attacking the meeting houses of dissenting groups. There was a very real threat of invasion by supporters of the deposed Stuart kings—as actually happened later that year and also in 1745. The government feared uprisings, and passed a draconian law making it a felony if a group of more than twelve persons refused to disperse more than an hour after magistrates had told them to do so. To invoke the law, the magistrates had to read the relevant section of the Act aloud to the mob, something that often required courage:

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 tumultuous and riotous assemblies. God save the King.

The pains or penalties were penal servitude for life or not less than three years, or imprisonment with or without hard labour for up to two years. The Act remained in force for a surprisingly long time, only finally being repealed in 1973, though it had been effectively defunct for decades.

Various problems involved in invoking this law were:
1) The magistrate had to actually approach the mob and read the Act -- putting himself in a vulnerable position.
2) Without a form of voice amplification, it was hard to hear the magistrate reading the Act -- frequently people prosecuted under the Act claimed that they had never heard the Act being read to them.

Since this was an act of British Parliment, it is grandfathered in as a law to all British colonies and former British colonies -- including the United States.

 
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