Words: “She Read Me The Riot Act”


Origins of an “Ass-Chewing”

Nothing makes the sting go away quicker than sharing it with others.  The term often employed, as short hand for the experience is “being read the riot act.”  It roles off our tongues and fits the occasion perfectly.  But what does it really mean?

While  Riot Act

It turns out that for an awfully long time that one could literally be read the Act.  Roy Porter, writing in, London: A Social History, points out that Londoners were, “used to expressing there loyalties on the streets…to stifle street politics, the Riot Act was passed in 1715.”

While it has its origins in 18th-century England, a similar act was used in America, as well.  Police forces in both countries are 19th-century inventions.  Prior to that, public safety was often the responsibility of parish officials and night watchman who may have been good at giving warning but were totally unequipped to stop a single criminal, much less a mob.

In fact, in London, New York and other cities, mobs ruled.  They may have been lightly under the control of this or that faction, but once they grew to a large enough size, they took on a life of their own.  They pulled down houses, started fires and murdered innocent people.  The Gordon riots in London and the NYC 1863 Draft riots are examples and of course, revolutionary Boston was infamous for its “patriotic” mobs.

With no police force, officials often relied on an elected sheriff and a militia to enforce order.  The Act, passed by Parliament, was literally read to the crowd, demanding they disburse.  They had an hour to do so, lot’s of time to cause mayhem before breaking up.  As was the case with many 18th-century laws, the punishment for defying the order was death, though it was rarely applied.

The last known reading of the Riot Act in England was in the 1920’s.

It has since been repealed though it still has its purpose today.



  • Smitty says:

    A fun posting, Eric. I guess the good news is that, even if she is reading you the riot act, you won’t lose your head!

  • Joe says:

    Great tid bit of history Eric. As you well know, nautical history is replete with these sorts of expressions many of which are used by the men and women of the US Navy to this day. Though I suspect they like I, at least before I became a Chief, don’t know the history.

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