The phrase to read the riot act, or Riot Act, means to strongly reprimand, especially with a view to putting a stop to unacceptable conduct.
The Riot Act was an Act of Parliament passed by the British government in 1714 (and not in 1715 as indicated in the Oxford English Dictionary – 3rd edition, 2010), designed to prevent civil disorder. The Act, which took effect on 1st August 1715, made it a felony for an assembly of more than twelve people to refuse to disperse within one hour of being ordered to do so and having been read a specified portion of the Act by lawful authority, and provided that after this hour the assembly could be dispersed by force. The Act thus begins:
(from The Statutes at Large – vol. 13, printed in 1764)
An act for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies, and for the more speedy and effectual punishing the rioters.
Whereas of late many rebellious riots and tumults have been in divers parts of this kingdom, to the disturbance of the publick peace, and the endangering of his Majesty’s person and government, and the same are yet continued and fomented by persons disaffected to his Majesty, presuming so to do, for that the punishments provided by the laws now in being are not adequate to such heinous offences; and by such rioters his Majesty and his administration have been most maliciously and falsly traduced, with an intent to raise divisions, and to alienate the affections of the people from his Majesty therefore for the preventing and suppressing of such riots and tumults, and for the more speedy and effectual punishing the offenders therein; be it enacted by the King’s most excellent majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the lords spiritual and temporal and of the commons, in this present parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same, That if any persons to the number of twelve or more, being unlawfully, riotously, and tumultuously assembled together, to the disturbance of the publick peace, at any time after the last day of July in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and fifteen, and being required or commanded by any one or more justice or justices of the peace, or by the sheriff of the county, or his under-sheriff, or by the mayor, bailiff or bailiffs, or other head-officer, or justice of the peace of any city or town corporate, where such assembly shall be, by proclamation to be made in the King’s name, in the form herein after directed, to disperse themselves, and peaceably to depart to their habitations, or to their lawful business, shall, to the number of twelve or more (notwithstanding such proclamation made) unlawfully, riotously, and tumultuously remain or continue together by the space of one hour after such command or request made by proclamation, that then such continuing together to the number of twelve or more, after such command or request made by proclamation, shall be adjudged felony without benefit of clergy, and the offenders therein shall be adjudged felons, and shall suffer death as in a case of felony without benefit of clergy.
And be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid, That the order and form of the proclamation that shall be made by the authority of this act, shall be as hereafter followeth (that is to say) the justice of the peace, or other person authorized by this act to make the said proclamation shall, among the said rioters, or as near to them as he can safely come, with a loud voice command, or cause to be commanded silence to be, while proclamation is making, and after that, shall openly and with loud voice make or cause to be made proclamation in these words, or like in effect:
Our sovereign Lord the King chargeth and commandeth all persons, being assembled, immediately to disperse themselves, and peaceably to depart to their habitations, or to their lawful business, upon the pains contained in the act made in the first year of King George, for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies. God save the King.
I have found an early mention of the Riot Act in The Caledonian Mercury (Edinburgh) of Monday 19th April 1725:
Edinburgh, April 19. Wednesday last one Alexander Doig, a Brewar’s Servant, stood on the Pillory with a Paper on his Breast, for raising a Mob and beating several young Men on Pretence they were Surgeons; and pretending to search for Surgeons Instruments, robbed one of them of his Money and Pocket Book. As a Detachment of the City Guard were carrying the Offender to the Pillory, they were attackt by a great Mob of Brewars and other Tradesmens Servants, with Clubs and Stones; several of the Guard were knockt down, and the Tumult continued for above an Hour, which obliged the Magistrates to read the Proclamation in the Riot Act, and to march with their white Rods with the City Guard. As they were carrying the Criminal back to Prison, above 20 of the Rioters were taken, but upon Examination by the Magistrates in the Afternoon, were all dismiss’d upon Bail, except four of the Ringleaders, who were committed to the City Goal. That same Night about 10 a-Clock, several Hundreds of the Rioters assembled in the Suburbs of the Town, armed with great Clubs, Rungs and Pitchforks; beat a Drum, and broke a great many Windows; upon Notice of which, the Magistrates, the Officers of the City Train’d Bands, the Constables, Deacons and Masters of Crafts, marched with a Party of the City Guard, apprehended and imprisoned 15 more of the Rioters about 12 a-clock that Night.
On Thursday the City was pretty quiet all Day. About three a-clock that Afternoon, the Magistrats [sic] sent a Proclamation thro’ the Town, commanding all the Inhabitants (in the King’s Name) to be in their Houses after eight a-clock that Night; Certifying such as should be found abroad upon the Streets after that Hour, that in case there happened any Tumult or Disturbance of the Peace within the City or Liberties thereof, the Magistrats would read the Proclamation in the Riot Act, and furthwith [sic] put the Law in Execution.
The main provisions of that Act were repealed by the Criminal Law Act of 1967, and the remainder by Statute Law Revision in 1973. The Public Order Act of 1986 now defines an offence of riot, punishable by up to ten years’ imprisonment, restricted to the use of violence or conduct amounting to threat.
The first known use of to read the riot act in its current sense, to give a severe warning or reprimand, is found in The Reparation, a Comedy (1784), by the English playwright Miles Peter Andrews (1742-1814):
– Captain Swagger: So as you have been so rude to the young lady, be civil to the gentleman, and give us satisfaction immediately. (advancing nearer)
– Sir Gregory Glovetop: I could not break through forms for the universe.—Single combat, to be sure, may be maintained, but always with proper decorum. You state your grievances—I reply—preliminaries are broken—and then war is declared in due course.
– Captain Swagger. Devil burn me, but we’ll do as the French do—declare war without saying a syllable of the matter. So come on, Sir Gregory—By St. Patrick, I’ll bother both sides of your ears with nothing but war! war! (bellowing).
Enter Colonel Quorum.
– Colonel Quorum: Peace, I say, or I’ll read the riot act.
The following is from The Monmouthshire Beacon (Gwent, Wales) of Friday 7th December 1956:
REBUKED BY WIFE, EMPLOYERS AND POLICE
A motorist who had been “relegated to the dog house” by his wife and had the riot act read to him by his employers for speeding in a van on the Monmouth-Raglan road had further cause to regret his lapse when he was fined £2 by Raglan Magistrates on Thursday last.
He was Lionel William Naylor (51), of Castle Hill, Maidenhead, who was said by P.C. Benstead to have travelled at 45/50 m.p.h. between Crofty-cloi and Skew Bridge on October 19th in spite of a 30 m.p.h. restriction on his vehicle. Naylor told the constable it would “give them a bit of a shock back at the office” as he was known as a steady driver.
In court he said he had recently come to this country from Canada and did not realise the seriousness of the commercial status of the van but he knew he had done wrong. He travelled all over the country demonstrating valuable equipment for inspecting jet planes. “It was a fine day, there was nothing in sight and it was a level road and I guess I was just enjoying a little Canadian driving where 50 m.p.h. is not much of a speed” he said.
“I know it was wrong and my employers have already read the riot act to me and my wife has expressed her disapproval in very definite terms,” continued Naylor. “I have been relegated to the dog house. Usually in Canada we get these summonses through the post and do not say anything to the wife but this time a policeman delivered it and she caught me red handed.”