The Attack of the ‘half-formed persons’: the 1811–2 Tron Riot in Edinburgh Revisited

William Walker Knox

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3 Citations (Scopus)


The existing historiography of crowds and mob behaviour tends to emphasise systemic conflict, or class struggle. As a result, historians have entrenched the ‘protesting crowd’ as the dominant image of past encounters between authority and people. However, what if the riot lay outside the existing nomenclature of social relations? What if, at least on the surface, there was no community to defend, no established grievance, and no negotiation with the authorities to resolve the grievances behind the protests? This article addresses these issues through a forensic examination of the seemingly anarchic Tron riot of 1811–12, using the precognitions of victims and perpetrators – a source untapped by previous historians. Far from being historically unintelligible, the author argues that the actions of the rioters when placed within the context of deteriorating class relations and increased tensions in Edinburgh society in the early nineteenth century are comprehensible. The Tron Riot marked a symbolic turning point in the traditional relationship between the mob and the authorities: negotiation became less dependent on the psychological balance of power but more on open displays of overwhelming coercive power.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)287-310
JournalScottish Historical Review
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2012


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