Myths and urban legends often evolve out of incidents rooted in factual events and none more so than those fuelled by irrational fears and misconceptions. Such is the case with the controversial changing of England’s calendar in 1752 which led to a myriad of bizarre assumptions and unfounded beliefs about how daily lives would be affected for millions of ordinary citizens. The historical event which brazenly challenged the notion of sovereignty even brought about alleged rumours of rioting and public insurrection by mobs throughout the streets of England.
In 1751 Britain and its overseas colonies including Wales adhered to the old Julian calendar system introduced by Julius Caesar in 46 BC, where the start of the New Year began on March 25th (Lady Day) and ended on the 31st December. This calendar was increasingly viewed by Parliament as being out of step with the continent’s Gregorian system, a new solar calendar used throughout Western Europe and introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582.
The main failing with the Julian calendar which was itself a reform of the old Roman calendar was that it had an inbuilt flaw of 1 day every 128 years due to an eleven-minute solar miscalculation. This astronomical error resulted in the traditional Easter date of March 21st moving further away each passing year from the spring equinox. The result of this continuous misalignment with the spring season meant that 1751 would be a short year consisting of only 282 days.
Plans to change England’s traditional calendar to that of parity with Europe’s became a contentious issue not just because of a perceived threat to English sovereignty but also due to accusations of embracing ‘Popery’ in a fiercely anti-Catholic country. However, the most controversial aspect of the change and one that stirred up fears amongst the ordinary working population was the arbitrary removal of 11 days from the year’s calendar, an act which was to also prove the greatest source of discontentment among the country’s main political parties in years to come.
Give Us Our Eleven Days Back!
Before the bill was passed a parliamentary fracas between the country’s rival opposition parties the Whigs and Tories initiated a frenzy of protest and counter-protest from either side during heated debates about the proposed calendar change. The Whigs, who as a political party supported constitutional monarchy and were more empathetic to calendar reform found themselves vehemently opposed by the centre-right Tories who backed a stronger monarchy and were opposed to the controversial changes.
The bill eventually passed through Parliament and implemented calendar reform on Sept 2nd, 1752, which was immediately followed by Thursday 14th - technically removing eleven days out of the month. Subsequently, New Year’s Day, previously beginning on March 25th would now fall on January 1st. The radical notion of calendar reform galvanised the Tories to continue to protest under the banner of ‘Give Us Our Eleven Days Back!’ - a rouble rousing slogan that would become the alleged clarion call of protesting mobs around the country.
‘The New Style The True Style’
Despite the British government promoting the changes with the catchy phrase ‘The New Style The True Style’ public discontentment was increasingly fuelled over concerns that the daily lives of ordinary citizens would be altered for the worse rather than for the better.
The changes affected festivals, Saints days and birthdays but more importantly for citizens interfered with the dates of wage payments, as well as altering administration contracts set up for trade and the delivery of goods around the country. A climate of anxiety and paranoia then nurtured a growing culture of myths and illogical beliefs amongst a largely illiterate population, such as the notion that the Gregorian calendar was literally stealing 11 days out of people’s lives and taking them to their graves sooner as opposed to later.
It was the nonsensical fallacy of ordinary working lives being physically shortened due to Parliament changing a once trusted and traditional calendar system that may have contributed to rumours of angry riots taking place on the streets of England. These alleged acts of violent insurrection have become associated with the Tories’ famous ‘Give Us Our Eleven Days ..’ protest slogan, which in itself was given future credence due to a satirical painting by Hogarth entitled ‘An Election Entertainment’.
Hogarth’s colourful scene of a bawdy tavern dinner presided over by Whigs, while irate Tory members are seen protesting outside, also depicts a banner bearing the same slogan. Hogarth’s masterpiece was painted three years after the new Bill implemented the Gregorian calendar changes and is seen as one of the main inspirations for reinforcing the riot rumours.
Whether or not working class citizens actually took to boisterous and angry skirmishes in Britain’s towns and cities incensed by the calendar changes, the alleged ‘Calendar Riots’ of 1752 are at a best an entertaining reminder that a culture of ‘fake news’ and misappropriated facts are not just confined to the 21st century with its reliance on digital technology and instant news reporting.