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News > Archive News > Reading the Riot Act | Rugby School’s ‘Great Rebellion’ in 1797

Reading the Riot Act | Rugby School’s ‘Great Rebellion’ in 1797

The Burial Mound with Moat
The Burial Mound with Moat

In the autumn of 1797, Rugby School found itself embroiled in a "Great Rebellion." 

Rugby had long been known for its strict discipline under headmaster Dr. Henry Ingles. But when a series of events sparked defiance among the students, chaos ensued. 

The origins of the rebellion traced back to a seemingly innocuous incident. On a crisp November day, Dr. Ingles was startled by the sound of pistol shots as he strolled through Rugby town. Investigating further, he discovered Astley, a student from Gascoigne’s boarding house, firing cork bullets at the study windows of Mr Gascoigne, an act that would set the stage for rebellion.  

After questioning, Astley revealed that he had sourced the gunpowder from a local shop. The shopkeeper denied the accusation, however Astley still faced punishment for his supposed lies, which stirred up discontent among his peers. 

Fuelled by a sense of injustice, the students took matters into their own hands, venting their frustration by vandalizing the shop. When Dr. Ingles demanded the culprits pay for damages, the students refused, banding together in protest. 

What followed was a tumultuous display of defiance. The boys made a home-made petard (a small bomb), which they used to blow the headmaster’s doors off its hinges. Windows shattered, furniture was destroyed, and books were taken into the Quod, where they lit a large bonfire. Dr. Ingles, barricaded in his quarters, called for reinforcements. 

In a bold move, local banker Mr. Butlin rallied a motley crew of horse dealers and soldiers, who descended upon the school grounds determined to calm the rebellion. Despite warnings, the students held their ground, seeking refuge on "the Island," a Bronze Age burial mound. At this time the mound was surrounded by a water moat up to 30 feet wide, and after crossing the bridge the boys drew up the wooden drawbridge.  

Mr Butlin marched up to the moat and read the Riot Act, a last resort to restore order. Meanwhile, the soldiers, by a clever piece of strategy, waded through the moat at the back of the Island and the mutineers surrendered.  

With the rebellion crushed, Dr. Ingles emerged from his study, and spent the rest of the day administering punishments and expulsions.  

The rebellion was not the first or last to occur in public schools, nor even at Rugby: the school was the location of further revolts by the boys in 1820 and 1822. Between 1797 and 1832 there were ten further rebellions in schools, four at Eton, three at Winchester and one each at Charterhouse, Harrow and Shrewsbury. 

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