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Throughout history, there have been riots over many different things.
Sports teams winning, sports teams losing, high prices, war protests, and police brutality, have all been a cause of riots at some point.
However, in 1766, one town in England had perhaps one of the oddest riots of all time.
Learn more about the Great Nottingham Cheese Riot on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
The events of this episode took place in the year 1766 in the town of Nottingham in central England. If you are somewhat familiar with the geography of England, Nottinghamshire, the county of which Nottingham is the seat and it is located just south of Yorkshire and north of Leicestershire.
Every year in autumn in Nottingham, going back almost 1,000 years, the city has held its annual Goose Fair. The fair received an official royal charter in 1284 by King Edward the I, but it is believed that the fair was held well before that.
A royal charter simply meant that the fair was given priority over other fairs in the county and no one could run a competing fair during that time.
The name Goose Fair dates back to at least the 16th century. It comes from the fact that centuries ago, thousands of gees would be driven from neighboring counties to Nottingham for sale. The geese would be driven on foot from up to 50 miles away.
Over time, the name stuck, but the Goose Fair just sort of became a general county fair. The Goose Fair is still a thing and it draws over 400,000 visitors per year. It has been held every year except for times of pandemic or war.
The particular fair in question took place in 1766.
The summer of 1766 wasn’t a good one for agriculture in the British Isles.
Ireland had a famine that year, and food production in England was down dramatically. The food shortages naturally led to increases in food prices, which was the state of the economy when the Goose Fair began on October 2.
Normally a fair was a happy time when people could enjoy themselves, eat food, and engage in commerce. That year, however, tensions were high due to the food shortages and increase in food prices.
In particular, in the days before the start of the Goose Fair, the price of cheese basically doubled.
Documents from the period show that the new inflated price of a 51-kilogram or 112 pounds, wheel of cheese ranged from 28 to 36 shillings, which translates to roughly $200–255 modern US dollars.
Just so you got the picture in your head, these are very large wheels of cheese.
The high price of cheese meant that despite the food shortages, there was more cheese than usual for sale at the fair. Farmers and cheese producers were selling everything they could because it was a seller’s market.
As bad as the food shortages and high prices were, there were reports that merchants were coming up from Lincolnshire who was going to buy out the entire stock of cheese to take it back with them.
This really angered the locals who felt that the cheese, made in Nottinghamshire should stay in Nottinghamshire. They felt that it should either be sold only to local people or that they should at least have the first opportunity to buy it.
When the cheese merchants came into the town square and started buying up the cheese, they were accosted by a group that was described in the reporting of the event at the time as “rude lads”.
The lads surrounded the merchants and demanded that the cheese remain Nottinghamshire
There was shouting which lead to pushing which lead to all-out chaos.
Soon, people were grabbing the cheese wheels to liberate the Nottinghamshire cheese. They didn’t just grab it, but they rolled the large wheels of cheese down the street to get it out of the hands of the Lincolnshire merchants.
Then there was also your generic looting and destruction as well. Windows were broken and some cheese was just stolen.
According to The Date Book of Remarkable and Memorable Events Connected With Nottingham and Its Neighbourhood, and that is a great book to take to the beach on your next vacation. it recounted the riot by noting:
The people were so exasperated that their violence broke loose like a torrent; cheeses were rolled down Wheeler-gate and Peck-lane in abundance, many others were carried away, and the Mayor, in endeavoring to restore peace, was knocked down with one in the open fair.
So, as I said, those were big wheels of cheese. Enough to bowl over the mayor.
Eventually, people began setting up roadblocks to prevent the cheese from leaving Nottingham. A cargo boat on the river filled with cheese was looted, even though the owner of the cheese offered to sell it to the mob at a discounted price.
A warehouse filled with cheese was attacked and the defenders inside managed to keep the mob back by using firearms.
The town officials eventually tried to get control over the situation.
Some of the cheese owners created a posse to go and find the stolen cheese, however, the town magistrate refused to sign search warrants to look inside houses for cheese.
So they arrested several of the “rude lads” on rioting charges and put them in jail.
This of course just angered the cheese-fueled mob even more. They stormed the jail demanding the release of the dairy liberation prisoners, and they didn’t actually disperse until those in jail were let go.
The next day the army got involved to try and restore order. The 15th Dragoons were stationed nearby and they were brought in to quell the crowds.
They actually fired into the crowd killing one man, William Eggleston. He actually wasn’t even a rioter, but a farmer who was just trying to protect his cheese.
The unrest continued for several days. Eventually, wagonloads of cheese had to leave the city under armed escort, lest they be preyed upon by the cheese-hungry crowds.
The Nottingham Cheese Riot of 1766 isn’t one of the better-known episodes in English history. It really is just a footnote to a larger story of famines and crop failures that year, which in itself really isn’t that well known anymore.
Foot riots occurred that fall all over England including Devon, Cornwall, Gloucester, Bristol, Derby, Birmingham, and Norwich.
That year parliament eventually cut taxes on grain imports, banned grain exports, and even banned the use of grain for the production of alcohol, all to reduce food prices and help stave off famine.
However, the cheese riot does stand out in the history of dairy-related violence, surpassing the Butter Brawl of 1823, the Milk Mayhem of 1913, and the Great Ice Cream Kerfuffle of 1974.
In fact, as someone from the Great State of Wisconsin, America’s Dairyland, a cheese riot is what we call Wednesday.
In the town of Nottingham, they haven’t forgotten this part of their history. In 2016, they celebrated the 250th anniversary of the Great Cheese Riot.
As part of the celebrations, they actually recreated one of the most memorable moments of the riot.
The Lord Mayor of Nottingham went into the city square and had large wheels of cheese rolled at him.