Edinburgh’s Snowball Riot, Police Brutality and the Youth with Red Whiskers

On the morning of Monday 30th January 1860 what came to be described as a very serious snowball riot broke out between university students and police in Edinburgh.

It all began as students were arriving for morning classes and found firemen attempting to clear deep snow from the university quadrangle by hosing it down. One or two of the young students playfully sent a few snowballs in the direction of the firemen who in turn turned their hoses on the students and drenched them with water. Snow versus water fights ensued and with the arrival of more students the contest grew. The police were called and they turned up in force, both uniformed and plain-clothed, and soon they, too, were embroiled in battle. It was not yet 10 o’clock in the morning but as the hours went on so the battle turned into a veritable war which lasted until 4 o’clock in the afternoon during which time heads and windows were broken and shopkeepers shuttered up for fear of damage to their premises.

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Edinburgh firemen

 

The first arrest came at 1 o’clock when a student called Lewis was apprehended by the police and as he was being led away a great struggle ensued with Lewis’ fellow students attempting to free him. By this stage hundreds of students were pelting anyone and everyone with snowballs but mostly the police.

Ignoring the initial order to interfere as little as possible to prevent an outbreak of a conflict between town and gown policemen ran at students hitting out with their heavy wooden batons. The increasingly vicious spectacle attracted an enormous crowd so that most of the South Bridge and Nicolson Street became blocked with spectators.

It was later claimed in a 5-day trial held in the wake of the riot that many students had been repeatedly struck by police batons even when down on the ground. Recognising they were out-armed a call went up among the students present of “Sticks. Sticks” and several ran to a toy shop and a general dealer re-emerging with walking sticks which they flourished in the faces of the police.

When a policeman, Sergeant Auld, was attacked by a student apparently with a stick one of the students was identified as the assailant and surrounded by ten constables as around one hundred students yelled and hooted, “Down with the police” and attempted to rescue their companion but were fought back by baton-wielding constables who knocked many down to the ground and continued to strike them so that several youths had blood streaming from wounds. The noise was deafening with spectators joining in on both sides – “as if the whole street was fighting” said one eyewitness. Two or three students were badly injured and helped into a druggist shop to have wounds dressed and several police were sent home with injuries.

Police reinforcements arrived to contain or beat back the students but the young men’s anger and determination was unrelenting. Each arrest was met with cries of “To the rescue” and “Down with the police” as they pelted the police all the harder with snow.
With over 50 police constables and over 100 students as well as enormous numbers of bystanders from the town sometimes participating in the affray there were fears for public safety. Eventually the police succeeded in driving back the youths into the college grounds and off the street but there in the quadrangle the firemen’s unfinished work had left considerable accumulations of snow to provide further ammunition for their cause. Fresh snowballs were soon flying thick and fast with the police unable to stop them.
Magistrates and professors from the university who tried to restore order were ignored. Students were angry. They shouted “Away with the police” and “Retire” but the battle continued until around 4pm when eventually the police withdrew, to the nearby School of Arts and so ended the riot.

Students congregated in small knots in and around the college as the police left the scene to discuss the day’s events and the arrest of fourteen of their number charged with mobbing and rioting and assaulting police officers as well as a charge of snowballing.
After an initial appearance in the Sheriff Court on 4th February the case was deferred until the 10th.

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snob

In the days following the snowballing riot it emerged students involved in the episode wrote to the Lord Provost offering to pay for any damaged property while around Edinburgh opinion was divided over responsibility for the episode; a flurry of letters to local newspapers elicited views on both sides.

There was a references to “idle lads and boys” and police who were ignorant of their duty to move on trouble-makers more concerned were they in catching drunks and spying on publicans. It was clear this writer, who signed himself A. Citizen, had his own cause in mind and indeed he spelled out some of it in his letter in which he complained that the police didn’t pay attention when he reported a policeman to his superiors for failing in his duty and urged that the police be taken out of the hands of the Town Council.

Another correspondent who described himself as An Eyewitness condemned university professors who were sympathetic to the students and those condemning “blackguard policemen” for he had seen with his own eyes a lady with an infant in her arms hit by a mass of hardened slush. While he agreed participating in a fair ‘snowball bicker’ was a healthful pastime when it came to disturbing the peace and destroying private property not to mention endangering the lives and limbs of citizens it was a different matter and he made an offer to police constable number 61 to prosecute the individual who pelted him with ice.

Another wrote “Until the Bailies, or somebody, can succeed in passing a bill to alter young human nature, and to stop snow from falling, there will, whenever youths congregate and snow lies, be some innocent snowballing” and he went on to complain of the decision to send in the police and close the college gates so confining crowds into a small area with police marching up and down as though encouraging the students to react. He described how a student bystander was beaten by the police, knocked down and further struck about the head to his severe injury and claimed that this was not an isolated example of the brutality and ruffiansim of the police that day but he doubted any such claims would be allowed to be heard in court although “it cannot be a policeman’s duty to thump a person and break his head” he concluded.

A correspondent who identified himself as Medicus placed blame for the disturbance at the door of the police and magistrates on grounds it was the actions of the police entering the private college quadrangle that initiated trouble with their ostentatious parading and display of batons. It was this behaviour, he said, which produced a response from students; recognised by members of the public who shouted “Shame” at the police. Medicus wrote, “Men who have a right to be angry are generally those who are truly brave. The police on Monday had no cause to be angry, and hence acted like cowards. They were present, not to put down a riot, but to create one; and in this they succeeded most effectually…” and he complained of the press exaggerating the matter and siding with the police to place the entire blame on the students. The press, he noted, made out that snowballs were filled with stones but there were no stones in the quadrangle and the allegation was not true. Neither was it true that members of the public were targeted and he finished by further condemnation of the “obnoxious presence of police.”

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The fourteen students put on trial at Edinburgh police court on February 16th were: Didymus Clark, John Swanson, Arthur McShedden, John Hop, William Kennedy, Nicol Carter, John McLeod, John Dunn, Alfred Lewis, George Phipps, Henry Nicolson, Alex. Tod, Archibald Hamilton and Samuel Swabey.

A crowded courtroom heard how Mr McLellan, First-Lieutenant of Police, ordered a group of uniformed and plain-clothes men to attend the college on the morning of the 30th January. It emerged that McLellan had a rare talent for observation for he was able to confirm in court that all of those students who appeared there were guilty of violence and of repeatedly attacking the police while chanting “Rascals, Rascals” while not one policeman exceeded his duties.

The Sheriff shared McLellan’s view of the battle (which lasted ten times longer than Culloden) and made no secret of his belief in the students’ guilt and in his opinion the police were largely innocent from the outset. Sheriff Hallard’s role as a police magistrate presumably did not influence his views in any way.

Police witnesses appeared one after the other all with matching stories. The violence came from students and any actions on the part of the police was justified as self-defence. One policeman claimed from the witness box that he saw a particular student buy a walking stick which he then used to strike out at the police and when confronted with the information that this student always used a stick to help walk the police witness altered his story and accused the student of swearing at him.

Another police witness, constable 161, denied threatening a student who was writing down his police number by telling him, “We’ll teach you to take our numbers again.” When pressed about a student seized by the hair this officer claimed the student annoyed and interrupted him and other constables on the way to the station.

Police constable Kavanagh confirmed he was an Irishman and knew how to handle a shillelagh. He was accused of striking a good many people but he could not say how many or on which part of their bodies he had hit them. “I daresay you went straight to the poll,” it was put to him amidst laughter.

It emerged the most badly injured students had been repeatedly hit over the head by batons. It was said that Sergeant Auld had been struck with a stick or baton. Kavanagh was asked to look his baton and say whether marks on it had been there before the snowballing affray.

Kavanagh – “They were there when I got it I think.”
Police solicitor – “I knew an Irishman who put a nick on his pistol every time he shot a man with it” to laughter in court.
To more laughter it was said that police batons were said to “poke people about.”
Kavanagh denied the police had been given any orders over how to behave that morning at which point he was asked if it was his mother Mrs Malone who gave his instructions to which he plied, “No.”

And so the trial continued as a kind of farce. When pressed as to why the student Swabey was arrested and charged with the assault of Sergeant Auld it was said he was seen with a stick and had used very bad language towards the police. Asked what kind of bad language the police witness replied, “Bobbies,” to loud laughter. It was put that was a compliment, after Sir Robert Peel, to more laughter, but the witness complained “Sir, he called us a lot of b—-s, again to laughter. He then claimed Swabey attacked another policeman and when it was put to him the police gave out as much as they took the police witness denied it saying the police got the worst of it.

“How so?” he was asked.
Witness – “Because we were retreating at the same time. (Laughter)
Police defence – “Did you retreat and not strike back?”
Witness – “We did.”
Police defence – “Very patiently?”
Witness – “Yes.”
Police defence – “And you retreated, like “the King of France, with twenty thousand men marching up the hill, and then marching back again? (Laughter) Job himself, I should say, could not exceed your patience.”
Witness – “No, he could not.” (Laughter)

And so it went on. Of the injured and bleeding students no policeman was able to recognise who among their ranks beat them but every student who attacked a police constable was identified and all police action was justified as self-defence.
The police brought out a police surgeon said to have been passing the college and witnessed the disturbance who overheard the police asking people to move on with no aggression whatsoever. However, this evidence was challenged by the other side with witnesses for the students offering very different accounts – of “much excited” police chasing them, beating and dragging students away. It was reported that even bystanders with hands in their pockets were assaulted by police batons and constables highly excited and dancing about wielding their heavy truncheons. Evidence was given of a policeman hitting a little boy who got in his way and of a woman pushed in the ribs with a baton and knocked down.

Swabey, the student accused of hitting Sergeant Auld, had been hit so hard without provocation, it was said, the blow could be heard across the street. Witnesses spoke of Swabey falling down and being struck again and again on the head till unconscious with blood streaming from his wounds. Others told how a young student was pinned down by two policemen while another two continually struck him with batons.

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All of the students but one were found guilty of mobbing and rioting but not proven of assaulting the police. They were each fined £1 or 3 days in prison while Swabey, found guilty of assaulting Sergeant Auld, was fined £5 or 10 days imprisonment. The case against student Dunn had been dropped despite him squaring up to a policeman and the case against him technically proven according to the Sheriff who recommended the case against him be dropped.

Following the trial a meeting of the students condemned its conduct. They were astonished that anyone could read the evidence and come to the Sheriff’s conclusion of student guilt alone. Short of charging the Sheriff with dishonesty or incompetence it was stated he began the court case apparently convinced of the students’ guilt. And so it appears he did.

Over the question of the identification of Swabey as Auld’s attacker Sheriff Hallard was in no doubt. That five or six constables identified Swabey as Auld’s attacker encouraged the Sheriff to fine him more than the rest despite strong evidence that Swabey had been standing at the College gates while Sergeant Auld was assaulted in the doorway of a Mr Imrie’s shop – even evidence from Auld, himself, that he had been attacked by a man with red whiskers when Swabey had none made no difference to the judgement. There was a student there with red whiskers who was seen wielding a stick, a John Mackenzie , but he did not come forward and it was Swabey the police insisted was responsible.

At a meeting of students they spoke of pressing the Home Secretary to launch an investigation into the conduct of the police and arranged for a subscription be opened to pay the students’ fines, complaining £5 was far too large a fine even if Swabey had knocked down five policemen. They ended their meeting with three groans for Sheriff Hallard to cries of “No, No” and three enthusiastic cheers for Swabey.

Towards the end of the year what remained from the Snowball fine fund was given to Edinburgh Royal Infirmary.

Perhaps with the snowball riot in mind the snows that fell that winter were cleared by the town authorities when over 400,000 carloads of snow were driven away from the centre of Edinburgh

3 Comments to “Edinburgh’s Snowball Riot, Police Brutality and the Youth with Red Whiskers”

  1. Enjoyed this story. As someone with an interest in the history in Policing in Scotland and a recently retired police officer, the response to the situation seems incredibly out of proportion. However, even for Edinburgh, policing was relatively new in the 1860s and leadership and the quality of officers perhaps questionable. Snowballs are always a pain for the Police. The volume of calls goes through the roof when it snows as many members of the public forget that they were young once themselves!!! However I don’t think I ever heard of a virtual riot breaking out over snowballs although there were clearly other social factors at play.

    Another great story and I have posted a link to your blog on my business Facebook account @HeartofScotlandAncestry.

    • Enjoyed your comments Gary. It is a good story, one I stumbled upon when looking for something else.

      I did hesitate adding police brutality to the title but then decided it was justified, if only to pick up readers!

      I think police constables were chosen for their brawn and muckle height compared with the rest of the population – hence lots of country loons as we say here – but there was an instruction to ca’ canny with the situation and obviously blood rushed straight to the heads of the policemen and so they charged in.

      I’ve taught in schools where the management tried to stop snowballs in the playground but as someone back in 1860 said you’d have to change human nature to do that and whatever people think of Scottish winters snow is only ever a fairly fleeting phenomenon so little wonder the snowball keeps its appeal. L.

      • Thanks and agree the title of Police Brutality is entirely justified. I can be as much a critic of police as anyone especially when you see the approach in the USA where they have completely lost their communities and appear to act with impunity. Whilst policing in Scotland is far from perfect, and all officers are only human with all the foibles that entails I can honestly say we are in a better place especially around the use of firearms which perhaps reflects wider American society. In this instance the Police response was completely out of proportion to any threat and clearly other factors were at play.

        It could n’t happen today in Scotland – possibly because they would n’t have anyone to send to the call in the first place!!!!!

        Thanks again and enjoy reading your blog.

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