‘Give us our eleven days!’ The riots of 1752.
The eleven days referred to here are the ‘lost’ 11 days of September 1752, skipped when Britain and Ireland changed over from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar, synchronising us with the most of Europe.
The Gregorian calendar is today’s international calendar, named after Pope Gregory XIII in February 1582.
Before 1752, Britain, Ireland and her Empire (including the American colonies) followed the Julian calendar, first implemented by Julius Caesar in 46 BC. However, this calendar had an intrinsic error of 1 day every 128 years, due to a miscalculation of the solar year by 11 minutes. This affected the date of Easter, traditionally observed on 21 March, as it began to move further away from the spring equinox with each passing year.
To get over this problem, the Gregorian calendar was introduced. This is a solar calendar, based on a 365-day year divided into 12 months. Each month consists of either 30 or 31 days with one month, February, consisting of 28 days. A leap year every 4 years adds an extra day to February making it 29 days long.
First to adopt the new calendar in 1582 were France, Italy, Poland, Portugal and Spain. Turkey was the last country to officially switch to the new system on 1 January 1927.
The Calendar (New Style) Act 1750 introduced the Gregorian calendar to the British Empire, bringing Britain into line with most of Western Europe.
Its introduction was not straightforward. It meant that the year 1751 was a short year, lasting just 282 days from 25 March (New Year in the Julian calendar) to 31 December. The year 1752 then began on 1 January.
There remained the problem of aligning the calendar in use in England with that in use in Europe. It was necessary to correct it by 11 days: the ‘lost days’. It was decided that 2 September 1752 would be followed by 14 September 1752.
It is also true that when the British government decided to alter the calendar and skip these 11 days, many people mistakenly believed that their lives would be shortened by 11 days. People were also unhappy and suspicious at the moving of saint’s days and holy days, including the date of Easter. Many people also objected to the imposition of what they saw as a ‘popish’ calendar.
The changing of the calendar was indeed one of the issues debated in the election campaign of 1754 between the Whigs and the Tories.
Claims of civil unrest and rioters demanding “Give us our eleven days” may have arisen through a misinterpretation of a contemporary painting by William Hogarth. His 1755 painting entitled: “An Election Entertainment” refers to the elections of 1754 and depicts a tavern dinner organised by Whig candidates. However, most historians now believe that these protests never happened. You could say that the calendar rioters were the late Georgian equivalent of an urban myth.
Not everyone was unhappy about the new calendar. According to W.M. Jamieson in his book, ‘Murders Myths and Monuments of North Staffordshire’, there is a tale about one William Willett of Endon. Always keen on a joke, he apparently wagered that he could dance non-stop for 12 days and 12 nights. On the evening of 2 September 1752, he started to jig around the village and continued all through the night. The next morning, 14 September by the new calendar, he stopped dancing and claimed his bets!
Image | The William Hogarth painting Humours of an Election (c. 1755), which is the main source for “Give us our Eleven Days”.