The Tron Riot of 1812

The New Year murder of an Edinburgh watchman, explains Andrew G. Ralston, was to affect both local security and attitudes to young offenders.

In the early nineteenth century, when Sir Walter Scott wrote that in Scotland

Each age has deemed the new-born year
The fittest time for festal cheer,

it was the custom of the inhabitants of Edinburgh to welcome in the New Year around the clock tower of the Tron Church that stands in High Street at the junction of the North and South Bridges. In this area on Hogmanay there was a good deal of celebration and frivolity in the streets, particularly amongst the young. Generally this amounted to no more than 'harmless but noisy mirth'. However, on the last day of December, 1811, gangs of young thieves, pickpockets and 'idle apprentice boys' used the festivities as an opportunity to surround and rob the more prosperous looking members of the crowd. As a preliminary, the watchmen on duty were driven from their positions, and one officer was murdered. Such outrages, declared the Town Council the next day, were 'hitherto unexampled' in Edinburgh. So, too, were the ways in which the authorities and inhabitants reacted to the riot. The ringleaders were punished with great severity and the alarm amongst the citizens can be judged from the flood of pamphlets that appeared in the wake of the riot. As a result, the police force was strengthened and its administration put on a new footing. Nevertheless it was not long after the Tron Riot that the idea of repressing and deterring juvenile offenders gave way to a new approach, based on reformation and prevention.

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