To Read The Riot Act is an expression used when an individual or group of people are given a rollicking about their bad behaviour. The original Riot Act was passed by the British Government in 1715 as an attempt to increase the powers of the civil authorities when a town was threatened by riotous behaviour. The act made it a serious crime for groups of twelve or more people not to disperse within one hour of it being read out to the mob. The Act read:
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 tumultuous and riotous assemblies. God save the King.
Those failing to disperse risked penal servitude for not less than three years or imprisonment with hard labour for up to two years. Actually reading it out took extraordinary courage and often, during serious disturbances, many didn’t hear it anyway. After the Peterloo Massacre near Manchester in 1819 many of the convicted demonstrators claimed not to have heard the act being read and the same defence was put during trials for the 1743 Gin Riots, 1768 St George’s Massacre and the 1780 Gordon Riots. A rowdy bunch weren’t they?
The Act remained on the statute book until it was repealed in the 1970’s, but little use had been made of it for over a century by then, apart from when I come home late from the pub, singing too loudly.
Extract from Money for Old Rope Parts 1 & 2