The Bellamarsh Riot
The Napoleonic Wars, which broke out in 1793, coincided with years of bad harvests in Britain. An increased demand from the military to feed the troops at such a time inevitably led to rocketing food prices and scarcity. The already miserable lot of the farm labourer became virtually unbearable, with famine a real threat. Wheat prices, in particular, soared and attention started to focus on millers who were suspected of hoarding stocks to keep prices high.
Dissatisfaction soon spread throughout Devonshire villages and was evidenced by violent demonstrations.
Rumours spread that John Ball, who ran Bellamarsh Mill and had stopped selling flour to the public, was stockpiling wheat. The rioters were unware that there was a good reason why Mr Ball had stopped selling his flour locally; he had a contract with the Admiralty to supply flour for the making of Hardtack biscuits for the navy and the Admiralty took all the flour he could produce.
A mob of enraged labourers started out from Chudleigh, gathering supporters as they went, and marched to Bellamarsh Mill. Once there they broke into the building, and despite the pleadings of the local vicar and Mr Ball, who was reported to have offered to sell them wheat at 3s per bushel below the market price, ransacked it and stole whatever grain they could find.
The blame for the riot fell on a young blacksmith named Thomas Campion who had been urged to join it by his fellow workmates. He became the scapegoat for the incident because of a particular action he committed. As he became caught up in the spirit of the affair he tied a red handkerchief to a pole, rendering himself conspicuous. This marked him as the ringleader and from this charge he was unable to clear himself.
The account of the riot publishe in the Chester Courant of 11th August 1795 mentions red and white flags and describes the white flag as avowing French principles whilst the red flag was an indication that they were prepared to spill blood in support of such principles.
At his trial in Exeter many accounts of his good character were offered by persons of respectability. The Court was told how he had been brought up "at Ilsington of poor but honest parents in the strictest rules of sobriety, honesty and industry. Before the lamentable affair he was approved by all who had any connection with him. He was by his peculiar industry the principal means of providing a comfortable subsistence for his aged parents who through infirmities were incapable of providing for themselves."*
As sentence was passed against Campion, he broke down. The distressing scene brought tears of pity from his sympathisers in the Court. Until then he had restrained himself throughout the proceedings despite the damning accusations levelled against him. The judge, acting on behalf of a government afraid of further public unrest, decided to make an example of him. He was sentenced to be hanged on Thursday, 6th August 1795, at the place where the riot occurred.
The Quarter Session records show that the hanging took place at Bovey Heath, not Bellamarsh and contemporary newspaper accounts state that to avoid any trouble from sympathisers he was escorted to the place of execution by soldiers of the 25th regiment of Light Dragoons and two troops of Devonshire Yeomanry, together with the Exeter, Honiton and Cullompton militia volunteers. On the scaffold he addressed the surrounding crowd telling them how he had been forced to leave his smithy to join the riot. He was the only rioter hanged in Devon during this period of unrest. Fellow rioters William Southard and William Northway, who were also sentenced to be hanged with Campion, were reprieved.
* From contemporary account see below.
A TRUE AND PARTICULAR ACCOUNT OF THE
Character & dying Behaviour of
Who was executed on Thursday August 6th 1795 for Rioting near Kingsteignton in the County of Devon
THOMAS CAMPION, aged 30, the unfortunate Victim of public justice for the above crime, was born at Ilsington, Near Bovey Tracey of poor but honest parents; his father is a blacksmith, and brought up his unfortunate son in the strictest rules of sobriety, honesty and industry, and till the above lamentable circumstances occurred, he was approved by all who had any connections with him. He was, by his peculiar industry, the principal means of providing a comfortable subsistence for his aged parents, who, through infirmities were incapable of providing for themselves, and now the fatal scene has happened, have no other hope but to see their beloved son hereafter in the mansions of bliss. What makes his premature death more lamentable is that it was proved that he was forced by a great number of the enraged mob, from his work, to co-operate with them in their hasty measures, otherwise he may have now lived and been a useful pattern to mankind. In the Court, during his trial, his behaviour was truly becoming a man in his unhappy situation, but as sentence was passing, his courage was unable to struggle with his feelings, and he fell into the greatest agonies possible. A scene more distressing never a Court of justice witnessed. A scene more awful imagination cannot describe. Such was the scene, that it drew tears of pity from all who had hearts susceptible of the last feelings of British Humanity! However, it availed nothing, the learned judge ordered him for execution on the Thursday following his trial at Belle-marsh Mills, the place where the riot was performed.
A day or two before his execution, he became perfectly resigned to his unhappy fate and expressed hopes of receiving mercy from a just GOD though it was in vain form him (after may solicitations in his favour by persons of respectability) to expect mercy on earth.
When at the place of execution, he prepared for the awful crisis, with as much fortitude as a man is capable, and, after addressing the surrounded spectators, he was launched (it is to be hoped) into a happy eternity.
He was escorted by the 25th regiment of Light Dragoons, and at the place of execution*, attended by the Exeter and other volunteers, in order to supress any appearance of disturbance in his favour by the inhabitants of the surrounding parishes.
Source :- extract from a contempoary handbill.