What Is the Riot Act? What Does It Mean to “Read the Riot Act” to Someone?

What Is the Riot Act? What Does It Mean to “Read the Riot Act” to Someone?

Has anyone ever threatened to “read the riot act” to you? If so, maybe you’ve wondered where this phrase comes from? After all, “riot act” seems to imply some kind of legal terminology.

Let’s all get on the same page first though. Being “read the riot act” basically means you’re being really rowdy in public and you need to cease. As of 1967, however, the phrase holds no actual legal power. Instead, the saying is often used more as an idiom today. When you “read the riot act” to someone, you’ve giving them a strong warning or just reprimanding them.

Of course, all this implies that being “read the riot act” did once have legal power. It’s true–there was once a time where you could be read the Riot Act, and you could be imprisoned, or worse. But we’ll get to all that.

1714 Riot Act of Great Britain

We should probably mention that many different countries, including the United States, have had Riot Acts (or some similar law). In this post, however, we’ll be looking at the Riot Act mainly in respect to Great Britain, since it’s the one most people tend to think of.

Enacted in the year 1715, the Riot Act was intended to stop rioters and keep the peace. If one failed to abide by the Riot Act, they could be imprisoned for 3 or more years, or 2 years with hard labor. We did mention things could get worse though, and that’s true. Should one violate the Riot Act, an officer would be absolved of any charges if they killed the individual in violation. This includes situations were lethal force was not necessary.

You might then wonder why the British would want to put such an aggressive policy in place? Perhaps they were afraid of something? Turns out, they were. During the time the Riot Act was passed, Jacobite mobs threatened the Crown. Basically, the Jacobites were a group who believed that the Catholic James VII of Scotland and his Stuart descendants should be restored to the throne. The King obviously didn’t want that, so he passed the Riot Act to prevent groups like the Jacobites from organizing in public.

Related post: British Line of Succession to the Throne

What Does It Mean to “Read the Riot Act” to Someone?

If we’re being perfectly honest here, the implementation of the Riot Act was almost comical. To invoke the Riot Act, any group of 12 or more would just have to be hanging around. If an officer didn’t like how they looked together (that’s literally all it took) they would pull out a manuscript and straight up read the Riot Act. If the crowd didn’t disperse within 1 hour, then penal code engaged and use of force was permitted to disperse the crowd. For those curious, the reading went a little like this;

“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 tumults and riotous assemblies. God save the King.”

Yes. This super long sentence would be read to any group of 12 a police officer didn’t like. Remember that officers using force on potential rioters were only absolved if they actually read the Riot Acts to the crowd. This was often unclear to both rioters and the police. Which is why we have instances like the Massacre of St. George’s Fields.

The Act Ends

It probably shouldn’t come as much of a surprise then that the Riot Act wasn’t very effective. Yelling at a bunch of people just hanging out is a really good way to annoy them. And yelling at a bunch of people who are already angry sounds like a good way to start a real riot. 

It’s said that the final reading of the Riot Act was during the Battle of George Square (Glasgow, Scotland) in 1919. Since part of the Riot Act required the officers to literally hold a manuscript, you can probably guess what happened. If you guessed “someone took the paper while the sheriff was reading it,” you’d be 100% correct. Let’s laugh about it together.

Think you could be a 1700s English Sheriff? Try your luck our here.