Lord George Gordon

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Gordon while head of the Protestant Association.

Lord George Gordon (26 December 1751 – 12 November 1793) was a British politician best known for lending his name to the Gordon Riots of 1780.

A colourful personality, he was born into the Scottish nobility and became a member of parliament for Ludgershall. His life ended after a number of controversies, notably one surrounding his conversion to Judaism for which he was ostracised. He died in Newgate prison.[1]

Early life[edit]

George Gordon was born in London, England, third and youngest son of Cosmo George Gordon, 3rd Duke of Gordon, and the brother of Alexander Gordon, 4th Duke of Gordon. After completing his education at Eton, he entered the Royal Navy in 1763 at the age of 12. He received promotion to the rank of Lieutenant, but his career stagnated and he received no further promotions. His behaviour in raising the poor living conditions of his sailors led to him being mistrusted by his fellow officers, although it contributed to his popularity amongst ordinary seamen.

Lord Sandwich, then at the head of the Admiralty, refused to promise him immediate command of a ship, and he resigned his commission in 1772, shortly before the beginning of the American War of Independence. In 1774 the pocket borough of Ludgershall was bought for him by General Fraser, whom he was opposing in Inverness-shire, in order to bribe him not to contest the county. He was considered flighty, and was not looked upon as being of any importance. From the moment he entered parliament he was a strong critic of the government's colonial policy in regard to America. He became a supporter of American independence and often spoke out in favour of the colonies.

His chances of building a political following in parliament were damaged by his inconsistency and his tendency to criticise all the major political factions. He was just as likely to attack the radical opposition spokesman Charles James Fox in a speech as he was to challenge Lord North, the Tory Prime Minister.

The Gordon Riots[edit]

In 1779 he organised, and made himself head of, the Protestant Association, formed to secure the repeal of the Catholic Relief Act of 1778.

On 2 June 1780 he headed a crowd of around 50,000 people that marched in procession from St George's Fields to the Houses of Parliament in order to present a huge petition against (partial) Catholic Emancipation. After the mob reached Westminster the "Gordon Riots" began. Initially, the mob dispersed after threatening to force their way into the House of Commons, but reassembled soon afterwards and, over several days, destroyed several Roman Catholic chapels, pillaged the private dwellings of Catholics, set fire to Newgate Prison, broke open all the other prisons, and attacked the Bank of England and several other public buildings. The army was finally brought in to quell the unrest and killed or wounded around 450 people before they finally restored order.

For his role in instigating the riots, Lord George was charged with high treason. He was comfortably imprisoned in the Tower of London and permitted to receive visitors, including the Methodist leader Rev. John Wesley on Tuesday 19 December 1780.[2]

Thanks to a strong defence by his cousin,[3] Thomas, Lord Erskine, he was acquitted on the grounds that he had no treasonable intent.

Imprisonment[edit]

In 1786 he was excommunicated by the archbishop of Canterbury for refusing to bear witness in an ecclesiastical suit; and in 1787 he was convicted of defaming Marie Antoinette, the French ambassador and the administration of justice in England. He was, however, permitted to withdraw from the court without bail, and made his escape to the Netherlands. On account of representations from the court of Versailles he was commanded to leave that country, and, returning to England, was apprehended, and in January 1788 was sentenced to five years' imprisonment in Newgate and some harsh additional conditions.[4]

Conversion to Judaism[edit]

Lord George Gordon after his conversion to Judaism.

In 1787, at the age of 36, Lord George Gordon converted to Judaism in Birmingham, and underwent brit milah (ritual circumcision) at the synagogue in Severn Street now next door to Singers Hill Synagogue, something rare in the England of his day. He took the name of Yisrael bar Avraham Gordon ("Israel son of Abraham" Gordon—since Judaism regards a convert as the spiritual "son" of the Biblical Abraham). Gordon thus became what Judaism regards as, and Jews call, a "Ger Tsedek"—a righteous convert.

Not much is known about his life as a Jew in Birmingham, but the Bristol Journal of 15 Dec. 1787 reported that Gordon had been living in Birmingham since August, 1786 (its incorrect perceptions and interpretations of Judaism notwithstanding):

He lived with a Jewish woman in the Froggery, a marshy area now under New Street Station. ...

While in prison, Gordon lived the life of an Orthodox Jew, and he adjusted his prison life to his circumstances. He put on his tzitzit and tefillin daily. He fasted when the halakha (Jewish law) prescribed it, and likewise celebrated the Jewish holidays. He was supplied kosher meat and wine, and Shabbat challos by prison authorities. The prison authorities permitted him to have a minyan on Shabbat and to affix a mezuza on the door of his cell. The Ten Commandments were also hung on his wall for Shabbat to transform the room into a synagogue.

Lord George Gordon associated only with pious Jews; in his passionate enthusiasm for his new faith, he refused to deal with any Jew who compromised the Torah's commandments. Although any non-Jew who desired to visit Gordon in prison (and there were many) was welcome, he requested that the prison guards admit Jews only if they had beards and wore head coverings.

He would often, in keeping with Jewish chesed (laws of mercy and charity), go into other parts of the prison to comfort prisoners by speaking with them and playing the violin. In keeping with tzedaka (charity) laws, he gave what little money he could to those in need.

Charles Dickens, in his novel Barnaby Rudge, which centres around the Gordon Riots, describes Gordon as a true Tzadik (pious man) among the prisoners:

On 28 January 1793, Lord George Gordon's sentence expired and he had to appear to give claim to his future good behaviour. When appearing in court he was ordered to remove his hat, which he was using as a kippah, he refused to do so. The hat was then taken from him by force, but he covered his head with a night cap and bound it with a handkerchief. He defended his behaviour by quoting the Hebrew Bible "in support of the propriety of the creature having his head covered in reverence to the Creator." Before the court, he read a written statement in which he claimed that "he had been imprisoned for five years among murderers, thieves, etc., and that all the consolation he had arose from his trust in God."

Since he had brought as guarantors two Jews, whom the court would not accept as witnesses, Gordon was again remanded to his prison cell. Although his brothers, the 4th Duke of Gordon and Lord William Gordon, and his sister, Lady Westmoreland, offered to cover his bail, Gordon refused their help, saying that to "sue for pardon was a confession of guilt."

Death[edit]

In October 1793, Gordon caught typhoid fever, which had been raging in Newgate prison throughout that year. Christopher Hibbert, another biographer, writes that scores of prisoners waited outside the door to his cell for news about his health; friends, regardless of the risk of infection, stood whispering in the room and praying for his recovery - but George Yisrael bar Avraham Gordon died on 1 November 1793, 26 Mar-Cheshvan 5554, at the age of 42.

Gordon's life story can be found in Lord George Gordon, by Yirmeyahu Bindman, 1992, ISBN 1-56062-056-0, LOC 90-86061, which has a 15 item bibliography and a brief glossary of Jewish religious terms used in the 203+ page book.

A serious defence is undertaken in The Life of Lord George Gordon, with a Philosophical Review of his Political Conduct, by Robert Watson, M.D. (London, 1795). The best accounts of Lord George Gordon are to be found in The Annual Registers from 1780 to the year of his death.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Gordon, Charles The Old Bailey and Newgate, ch.XVIII, pp.204-219, T. Fisher Unwin, London 1902
  2. ^ Percy Livingstone Parker, ed., The Journal of John Wesley Chicago USA, Moody Press, nd., p371
  3. ^ Yirmeyanu Bindman Lord George Gordon, 1991, Cis Communications, pp.96-97 ISBN 1-56062-056-0, LOC 90-86061: "chose... his own cousin Thomas Erskine, another Scottish nobleman, close to him in age and in many other respects, whose charm of manner and firm religious beliefs had already made a strong impression in the legal world and in society generally."
  4. ^ p.179, Lord George Gordon, by Y.Bindman, 1992, ISBN 1-56062-056-0, LOC 90-86061: "The judge had been well briefed on the circumstances of the case, and he was in no mood to be lenient. He ordered a total of five years in prison, with a fine of five hundred pounds and a pledge of ten thousand pounds as security for his good behavior for fourteen years, plus two more separate sureties of two thousand five hundred pounds each." (It was these additionals sums of money -- 15,000 pounds -- that would prove to be the basis of a life sentence.)
Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Peniston Lamb
Whitshed Keene
Member of Parliament for Ludgershall
2-seat constituency
(with Peniston Lamb)

17741780
Succeeded by
Peniston Lamb
George Augustus Selwyn