The Oakridge Riots of 1896
Taken from 'Oakridge A History' by Pat Carrick, Kay Rhodes and Juliet Shipman
Various versions of the story of the Oakridge Riots exist. Contemporary accounts depended on the perspective of the person supplying the details and later versions took on new angles in the retelling. In fact, the incident was fictionalised (although keeping quite faithful to the facts) in a novel, Saul Adam, written by John Poole, who lived in Far Oakridge.
What is clear is that there was an epidemic of smallpox in Gloucester at the time and the Joint Hospital Boards in Stroud decided, without any consultation locally, to prepare an isolation hospital for the district in a property known as the Pest House on the road between Waterlane and Oakridge. There were meetings of protest at fever patients being brought into the neighbourhood.
The Stroud News and Gloucester Advertiser on 31 January 1896 reported, 'unanimous opposition against the Stroud Joint Hospital Board's action' regarding the purchasing of the Pest House, Oakridge, as a smallpox hospital. There were 300 ratepayers present and they resolved to register their protest against the action of the Joint Hospital Board 'in a locality which makes it necessary to bring patients from Stroud and other places through the entire length of their parish'. Anger the ratepayers of Chalford were also to register disapproval of the siting of an isolation hospital in Oakridge on the grounds that many of the people of Oakridge came down to work in the mills in the valley and this was potentially very dangerous. In addition it was noted that children from Waterlane had to pass that place every day on their way to school.)
Matters came to a head on Wednesday the 29th January 1896 when the first patient from the Stroud district was transported to the hospital A crowd of local people forced the smallpox ambulance to turn back and return to Stroud. When further materials and supplies for the hospital were sent these were also turned back. However, it was the events of Thursday night: that became known as the riot.
The Citizen of 31 January 1896, headlined in the Stroud news section: 'The Oakridge Hospital. The building destroyed by fire. Several Arrests. Police reinforcements.' On Thursday night the paper reported that the building was surrounded all evening by a threatening crowd and several windows broken. Shortly before midnight large reinforcement of the crowd making it to 300, some of whom were intoxicated, and a deliberate attack was made upon the hospital'. Stones were thrown and 'yells made the night hideous'. The police were outnumbered, 'It was not long before the building was on fire at several points. Police could do nothing in the face of such a crowd and withdrew to, get help. The Fire Brigade was soon at the scene but could do little as the well ( which would in any case have been inadequate) had been deliberately filled.
By the time reinforcements arrived, the building was still burning, but most of the crowd had departed. When the number of police was increased, the newspaper article stated, 'steps were taken to arrest certain individuals alleged to have had a hand in the night's work, and at the same time same some warrants issued after the affair when the crowd on Wednesday night sent a smallpox patient back to Stroud were also executed. Seven of the wanted were found in their homes and removed into custody'. Men from Waterlane, Bournes Green, Tunley Bottom, Oakridge and France Lynch were detained.
Interestingly, an account by the Revd de Freville, writing in 1938, stated that the police found it rather dull guarding the property and drank to pass the time, whereas it is the 'rioters' who are accused of drinking in the press coverage.
At Stroud Police Court the next day applications for bail were rejected and the prisoners escorted to Gloucester gaol, 'Their progress through the streets from Gloucester railway station caused considerable interest' said the Citizen. There were three more arrests later and thirty police from Cheltenham were sent to Oakridge to ensure no further trouble. During Sunday crowds visited the site and the police were fully occupied keeping them off the property but there was no further disturbance.
The smallpox patient died the following Saturday. Sir John Dorington announced his willingness to buy the hospital site at the price paid for it by the Joint Hospital Board and let the hoard have one of two alternative sites on the Stroud side of Bisley. The Pest House never
At the County Assizes in Cheltenham in February 1896, Henry Gardiner, Charles Smart, Richard Deane and Frank Hill were found guilty of 'being together with other persons whose names are unknown, riotously and tumultuously assembled to the disturbance of the public peace, and feloniously and unlawfully did with force injure and damage a certain house belonging to Stroud Joint Hospital Board' on 30 January. They got a month each in Gloucester gaol.
His son recalls that William Allen was called to give evidence of the good character of the accused, who were not normally violent people. The school log book records that on 17 February 1896, 'The school left in Mrs Allen's charge as I accompanied the Acting Manager to Cheltenham to be present at the trial of those connected with the disturbance at the Pest House concerning the bringing there of a smallpox patient'.