Remembering the 1910 Belmont workhouse porridge riot

Thurrock Gazette: Belmont Workhouse: "Sutton Local Studies & Archives Centre".  Reproduced by permission. Belmont Workhouse: "Sutton Local Studies & Archives Centre". Reproduced by permission.

Doing porridge is synonymous with imprisonment and the breakfast was one which actor Ronnie Barker’s character Fletcher regularly found revolting in the hit TV series of the same name.

But in 1910 inmates in Belmont Workhouse found eating watery oats so disgusting they staged a riot to take it off the menu.

On December 14 of that year wardens faced threats and disorder as 600 prisoners demanded bread, butter and tea for their first meal of the day.

Historian Roland Sparkes, who is originally from Belmont, said the disruption began when the inmates were in a dining hall in the early evening and refused to eat the food on the table.

Mr Sparkes said the men were told that their “grievances would be considered” by the committee the following week.

But unsatisfied the prisoners became “boisterous” in their demands and started “shouting and rattling cutlery on their plates”.

Mr Sparkes said: “At 8pm, the regulation for time for going to bed, the inmates remained seated and consistently refused to leave the dining hall.

“Three weeks previously visiting officials had been told by some inmates that there would be bloodshed by Christmas if they did not get what they wanted.

“The police were called and arrived to a scene of great disorder: men were found standing on benches, shouting and swearing.”

Mr Sparkes said the police were requested to arrest about a dozen of the ringleaders, but were met with a “shower of crockery” upon entering the hall.

He said: “Some of the inmates had knives and the mob’s attitude was very threatening.

“The thirty policemen drew their truncheons and a scuffle ensured, order was eventually restored. “ 86 inmates were arrested and appeared in court the next day.

Most were found guilty of refusing to comply with regulations and causing wilful damage; they received the maximum penalty of three months hard labour.

Two men were committed for trial for assaulting labour-masters.

Mr Sparkes, who has just published a book on the history of Belmont titled Belmont: A Century Ago, said the workhouse became Belmont Pshyciatric Hospital – now the site of the Belmont Heights housing estate.

He said the workhouse, which held more than 1,300 inmates, was run as an overflow workhouse for a number of London Poor Law unions and consequently received the worst types of men.

Belmont: A Century Ago, by Roland Sparkes, can bought online at www.belmonthistoy.org.uk Read more local heritage stories at suttonguardian.co.uk

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