Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Cheese-related violence reared its ugly head in 1760s England

The cows were none the wiser.
The cows were none the wiser.
Photo: Hulton Archive (Getty Images)
Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: Nottingham cheese riot

What it’s about: “Widespread looting of cheese,” is not a phrase we thought we’d hear outside of our spec script for a gritty Wallace And Gromit reboot, but gouda-related violence marred an annual outdoor market in Nottingham, England in 1766 in what became known as the Great Cheese Riot.

Advertisement

Biggest controversy: Then as now, people are not happy about price gouging. Winning the Seven Years’ War three years previous had come at a cost of alienating Great Britain from the other European powers, and inflaming tensions in its colonies in India and America. At home, England saw food shortages and rising prices, which came to a head in Nottingham’s annual Goose Fair (more on that later), when merchants from Lincolnshire bought wheels of cheese, intending to sell them in their own city well above their already inflated prices. Locals objected to large quantities of food leaving their hungry borough, and when a group of “rude lads” attacked the merchants, it threw a match on an already smoldering fondue pot of resentment, and a riot spread out across the city.

Strangest fact: The Goose Fair is a 1,000-year-old tradition that continues to this day. As with most 1,000-year-old things, no one knows precisely when it started, but it has origins in the Feast of Matthew the Apostle, celebrated by the early Saxons. King Henry II granted the Martinmas Fair a royal charter in 1164, forbidding any competitors to set up shop in the Nottingham area during the fair. The festival became a livestock trading event, and thousands of geese were herded to Nottingham, giving the fair its long-standing nickname. (Roast goose was the traditional Michaelmas feast.) By the 19th century, it became less of a market and more of a carnival, and it continues in that form to this day. In its long history, it has only been canceled four times—for several years during each World War, once in 1646 because of the bubonic plague, and in 2020 because of COVID-19.

Thing we were happiest to learn: The Great Cheese Riot may have had the most surreal imagery of any riot in history, as rioters looted a warehouse, shops, and a cargo ship in search of cheese “and hundreds of cheese wheels were rolled through the streets.” The mayor “attempted to restore order but was knocked over by a rolling cheese.”

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Basically everything else. As amusing a visual as the mayor being knocked over by a wheel of cheese is, it was still a violent uprising based on food shortages. A lot of anger was directed at local shops, which had been jacking up prices in response to the shortage, but even merchants who offered reasonable prices were targeted.

The army was called in (the 15th Dragoons were stationed in Nottingham), firing shots into a crowd. One man was killed, a farmer trying to protect his cheese who soldiers mistook for a looter. (Defund the dragoons!) It took several days for the military to restore order, and according to the Leicester And Nottingham Journal, the disorder only exacerbated the town’s food shortages. (Both food shortages and riots would continue across England throughout the year.)

Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: We actually have a Worst Link this week. For those interested in why cheese is manufactured in wheel form, or how, or where the practice originated, don’t look to truckle (which “cheese wheel” redirects to), which is a three-sentence stub article, which confers only three pieces of information: A truckle is another name for a wheel of cheese; the word comes from the Latin word for “wheel,” and truckles vary in size.

Advertisement

Further down the Wormhole: For reasons Wikipedia doesn’t explain, the South East of England was largely exempt from food shortage riots in 1766. The South East includes much of the area surrounding London (but not the city itself), and is one of England’s most prosperous regions (and likely was in the 1760s as well). Its largest cities include Brighton, Southampton, Oxford, and Maidstone. Maidstone was originally settled in or before the Stone Age, and is the birthplace of notables including 18th-century painter William Alexander, actor Mackenzie Crook, and YouTuber Chris Broad, who left Maidstone for Tōhoku and began the YouTube series Abroad In Japan. Since 2012, he’s provided an outsider’s perspective on everything from McDonalds’ Japan-only McChoco Potatoes; reactions to North Korea’s launch of a missile over Japan in 2017; and Tama, a cat who runs a train station. We’ll look at the country that built a technologically superior high-speed rail system and then put a cat in charge of it next week.

Host of the podcast Why Is This Not a Movie? His sixth book, The Planets Are Very, Very, Very Far Away is due in fall 2021. He tells people he lives in New York, but he really lives in New Jersey.