Luddites, Peterloo, and Captain Swing
Posted on 14th October 2021
On 11 May 1812, the Prime Minister Spencer Perceval was assassinated. He had been walking through the House of Commons lobby on his way to a meeting when John Bellingham approached him, shouted something, then shot him once through the chest. Perceval died soon after.
The assassination stunned the nation, no British Prime Minister had ever been murdered before and the fear quickly spread that it was a prelude to revolution. As it transpired, Bellingham was no blood soaked radical but a disgruntled businessman who had been the subject of a false arrest and had since seen all his petitions for compensation rejected. Nevertheless, the event sent a shudder of fear running up the spine of the British Establishment.
In the wake of Spencer Perceval’s murder, the Prince Regent appointed the Tory Lord Liverpool, to form a Government. The Administration he formed was to become one of the most repressive in British history. Its creation of a spy network to root out radicalism and it’s even more controversial employment of agent provocateurs to create situations whereby the harshest punishment of the law could be brought to bear upon the miscreants saw it held in the greatest of opprobrium by the people. As also did its regular deployment of troops to crush any semblance of opposition. It took a hard-line on all dissent and made it quite clear from the outset that it would defend the interests of the merchants, the landed aristocracy, and the propertied classes without equivocation and would maintain the status-quo at all costs.
In the first decade of the nineteenth century Britain had been under serious threat of invasion from Napoleonic France. The surge of patriotism that this invoked and the abiding interest in the affairs of the British Army fighting overseas papered over the cracks at a time of growing social tension at home, but as French power began to wane and the Napoleonic War neared its end these social tensions once more came to the fore.
In 1812, unrest among the weavers of the East Midlands and the West Riding of Yorkshire led to a series of disorders and acts of machine breaking. Those responsible soon earned the name Luddites after the mythical King Ned Ludd in whose name they signed off their letters of intimidation.
Luddism which has since become a by-word for backward thinking and mindless destruction was in fact protests by a skilled workforce against depressed income, reduced circumstances and rising unemployment caused by the introduction of machine technology and was not the blind demonstration of ignorant people against progress that it has since often been portrayed. They were well-organised, formed what were at the time illegal trade unions and collected subscription fees. Indeed, many of the machine breaking bands were subsidised out of trade union funds.
Their attacks were carefully targeted, were only ever launched after warnings had been issued, and were carried out in secret. Their propensity for wearing women’s clothes during their raids has never been fully explained but it is fair to assume it was done for reasons of disguise, though they may also have seen it as an act of contempt towards those who were their targets.
Handloom weavers had prospered in the latter decades of the eighteenth century following technological innovations such as James Hargreaves Spinning Jenny of 1765 and Richard Arkwright’s Water frame three years later which had greatly increased the quantities of yarn produced. However, these advances in machine technology did not stop there.
In 1785, Edmund Cartwright invented a weaving machine operated by a steam engine that could produce four times the amount of woven fabric in a day than could a skilled handloom weaver. Moreover, it was so simple to use it could be operated by a child.
Cartwright’s new power loom was not an instant success, but as more and more were introduced over the next few years it became increasingly apparent that the handloom weaver’s days were numbered. As the larger cotton mills began using more and more of these power looms, the work available to the skilled handloom weaver diminished significantly and unemployment rose accordingly, and those who could still find work were earning wages little above subsistence level.
The handloom weavers began to fight back and in a three-week period during March 1811, more than 200 stocking frame machines were destroyed in Nottinghamshire alone and the unrest spiralled.
Over the next 12 months some 1,000 machines were destroyed with attacks becoming almost a nightly occurrence and by the following year the unrest had spread to Yorkshire and Lancashire and had taken on more sinister overtones with the advent of King Ludd and his secret army of armed Redeemers.
Warning letters were sent to mill owners stating that if they did not remove the machines from their factories then they should fear for their lives and those of their family. Mills were attacked in Stockport and Manchester which did not merely have their machinery wrecked but were burned to the ground, and the violence escalated as the same fate befell mill owner’s homes and attempts were made on their lives.
The reaction of the mill owners was not to seek compromise but to employ armed guards for their own and their property’s protection.
On 28 April 1812, the mill owner William Horsfall who had been overheard to say that he would “ride up his saddle in Luddite blood” was intercepted on Crosland Moor near Huddersfield and shot dead by a young weaver named George Mellor.
Under pressure from the mill owners many of whom sat in Parliament the Government decided to take a hard line. More than 12,000 troops were sent to the area, rewards were offered for the capture and arrest of the Luddite ringleaders, and legislation was passed in Parliament making machine wrecking a capital offence.
The attacks on the cotton mills continued however but now with the introduction of the troops they invariably ended in fatalities. In the summer of 1812, 8 men were sentenced to death at Lancashire Assizes and hanged, a little later a further 15 were executed in York and many others sentenced to transportation to Australia.
Such harsh and exemplary punishment eventually broke the back of the Luddites and though sporadic attacks continued by 1817 Luddite resistance had virtually ceased.
During that intervening five-year period the number of skilled artisan handloom weavers had been reduced from over 40,000 to less than 5,000. Those still working had also seen their wages more than halve from 21s a week to only 9s a week.
Though the Luddites never sought political revolution, it was a movement driven by the fear of unemployment and hunger what the eminent Marxist historian E.P Thompson in his seminal work The Making of the English Working Class referred to as - collective bargaining by riot - there were other forces at work. It was the first indication that a crisis point had been reached in the social and productive relationships of the country. It heralded a sustained period of social unrest unprecedented in British history that has since become known as the “Heroic Age of Popular Radicalism.”
The suppression of the Luddites wasn’t the last time that the impoverished weavers were to try to better their situation and have their case heard. Heeding the advice of radical speakers, they abandoned their campaign of violence and instead decided to travel to London and petition the Prince Regent directly. On 10 March 1817, 5,000 marchers gathered at St Peter’s Field in Manchester.
The Government had recently introduced legislation outlawing large assemblies and so the marchers had decided to walk to London in groups of ten with each man carrying a page of the petition with twenty names on. Each marcher also carried a blanket to sleep under at night giving the protest its name, the March of the Blanketeers.
The intended march did not start well when the money that had been donated to feed them on their journey was stolen. The Government also had no intention of permitting 5,000 men gathering support as they went to march on the capital. The march was harassed almost from the time it left Manchester by local Yeomanry and very few of the marchers ever got further than Stockport less than ten miles from their starting point.
Still the disturbances continued, in the early hours of 10 June some 300 men mostly unemployed stockingers and quarrymen met in the village of Pentrich in Derbyshire. They were armed with pikes, knives, clubs, and a few antique muskets. They had gathered to be led on a march to Nottingham by Jeremiah Brandreth, a man of violent temper who had murder on his mind. He believed that a few exemplary deaths would incite revolution in the area and with mass support he could lead his men on an attack upon London and bring down the Government.
It was a miserable night however, cold and pouring with rain and many of the isolated farmhouses they stopped at along the way for food and shelter bolted their doors to them - where was the support for their cause Brandreth had promised?
When a servant at a particular farmhouse refused to cooperate with the marchers Brandreth shot him dead. Appalled at the deed they had just witnessed and discouraged by the weather lack of enthusiasm many of the men now began to desert. Brandreth threatened to shoot anyone else who tried to leave but morale was by now so low that when they reached Nottingham and a small squad of Hussars appeared on the horizon the men simply threw down their weapons and fled.
Brandreth was arrested and along with two other men hanged for treason. It was alleged at the trial that the Government spy, Oliver, had really been behind the plan but this has never been proved.
In 1815 the harsh conditions in the countryside were made even worse following the eruption of Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies which sent volcanic ash high into the sky and across the globe blotting out the sun for months to come in what became known as the ‘Year without Summer.’ The weather cycle was thrown into disarray and as temperatures plummeted the land could not be tilled, and those crops already sown invariably failed.
In the meantime, the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 had already plunged Britain into a period of economic crisis. The subsequent drop in Government spending on war materiel depressed foreign markets and the return of thousands of demobilised troops and a series of failed harvests led to widespread unemployment. For example, in the Essex town of Halstead of the population was 3,279, some 2,012 were in receipt of poor relief.
The growing feeling of discontent was only exacerbated by the passage of the Corn Laws that same year.
The crisis in agriculture saw the landed interest in Parliament act to keep the price of wheat artificially high. The Corn Laws prohibited the importation of wheat until the price of British grain rose above £4 a quarter. This saw the price of bread, a staple diet, often set beyond the reach of the average worker. The unavailability of bread and other shortages saw disturbances not only in the countryside but food riots break out in many of the major cities.
Most of these riots were largely spontaneous outpourings of anger driven by increased hunger and starvation but the one that took place at Spa Fields, London, on 2 December 1816, was an entirely different matter.
The demonstration at Spa Fields had been organised by political radicals determined to incite a riot that would create the conditions whereby insurgents could seize the arms that were at the time stored in the Tower of London before marching on the Bank of England and other institutions and toppling the Government.
Many of the 20,000 demonstrators that had assembled broke away and began to march in the direction of the Tower and they were in an ugly mood - a suspected government spy had already been stabbed to death, and a gun shop looted.
The Authorities had been forewarned of the conspirators, intentions however and had deployed troops in the mob’s path. The atmosphere was tense, but a volley of gunfire was all that was required to disperse them.
The Government was aware that despite the apparent spontaneity of many of the disturbances it wasn’t always the case, that there was a radical underground active in the country, and the fear of a nationwide insurrection was a real one.
The 1790’s had seen the emergence of Corresponding Societies or groupings of mostly better-off, better educated working class artisans and tradesmen who largely supported the ideas of the French Revolution.
The Government which feared the importation of ideas that had not only seen the aristocracy lose their position of power but also their heads was quick to suppress the activities of the Corresponding Societies, but it was to prove far more difficult to eradicate the idea and the radical press continued to grow in support and influence.
William Cobbett, the son of a farmer, a prickly and difficult character who had previously served in the army and was conservative by nature, had turned to the cause of radical reform after witnessing first- hand the extreme poverty and starvation that bedevilled his beloved countryside. In January 1802, he published his Political Register which he used to criticise the Government of William Pitt the Younger and was later to cleverly circumvent the punitive Stamp Duty by publishing it as a weekly pamphlet at only two pennies a copy. His critics lampooned it as the Tu’penny Trash, but Cobbett embraced the name with glee, and it soon acquired a circulation of over 40,000 a week and was widely distributed. It was too become not only a mouth-piece for radical reform but the first working class opinion former.
In 1828 he supported the cause of Catholic Emancipation and in 1830 published his Rural Rides, a graphic description of the scenes of neglect, hunger, and poverty he witnessed as he travelled around rural England.
By 1832 he had turned his attentions to campaigning for the extension of the franchise to include the working class and an end to the corruption in electoral politics.
Cobbett is a difficult man to assess, his generosity of spirit towards the working man and the poor in general did not extend to the Jews for whom he had a deep personal loathing and he fell out with his friend William Wilberforce over his role in the abolition of the slave trade and his support for the “fat and lazy and laughing and singing negroes,” as he referred to them.
Unlike many of his radical colleagues William Cobbett was never a revolutionary. Indeed, the language of much of the radical press did not always reflect the attitudes of its readership or intended readership. For example, Thomas Wooler writing in Black Dwarf stressed the right of people to violently resist oppression, at all times and in all circumstances. While Richard Carlile in The Republican even suggested that regicide might be the answer. But most people it seemed just wanted security of labour and be able to put food on the table.
The radical press however, had bigger things in mind and it was in truth awash with references to rebellion and revolution.
In 1812, the Hampden Club was formed. It was made up of prominent Whig politicians and leading members of the more moderate wing of the Radical Movement and its stated aim regardless of the unrest in the countryside and the growing sense of discontent in the rapidly growing industrial towns was to alleviate the situation through parliamentary reform.
They did not seek social upheaval and revolution; indeed they shrank at the very thought of it.
This was never going to be enough for the people who were tired of asking their betters to do right by them. Even so, they thought they could foster working class support for their reformist agenda but when the radical Major John Cartwright went on a speaking tour of the Luddite areas, he was frequently heckled and effectively ostracised by those he believed he was speaking on behalf of. The Hampden Club, however, was a sign of things to come.
The violence of many of the disturbances, the utterances of some of the radical journals, and the slogans of some of the protesters such as “Bread or Blood” frightened many in the radical movement as much as it did the Government.
At a conference held in London in 1817 even people considered ultra-radicals such as Henry “Orator” Hunt and Samuel Bamford only went so far as to call for Manhood Suffrage and the Secret Ballot. William Cobbett did not even go this far and advocated a property franchise. He was later to distance himself from the Hampden Club feeling it was damaging his reputation with the poor.
Much of the Radical Movement was in truth inherently conservative and the tactics it adopted of petitioning the ruling Monarch, lobbying parliament and looking to newly enriched industrialists for moral and financial support emphasised this fact. It did not however bring an end to the violence.
On 16 August 1819, as many as 60,000 people massed in St Peters Field, Manchester to attend a meeting organised by the Patriotic Union to call for parliamentary reform.
The crowd eagerly anticipated the address of the meetings star turn, Henry “Orator” Hunt, so-called for his fiery rhetoric and ability to rouse a crowd. Prior to the meeting the Secretary of the Patriotic Union, Joseph Johnson, had written to Hunt: “Nothing but ruin and starvation stare one in the face, the state of this district is truly terrible, and I believe that nothing but the greatest exertion can prevent an insurrection. If only you in London were ready for it.”
Unknown to Johnson and Hunt this letter had been intercepted by Government spies and was interpreted as being an incitement to riot and expecting trouble they despatched the 15th Hussars to Manchester.
At 1 pm Henry Hunt arrived at St Peter’s Field in his trademark white top hat. It made him easily distinguishable, and the crowd erupted at the sight of him. Witnessing the reception afforded him the local Magistrates worried by the crowd’s response should he be permitted to speak issued a warrant for his arrest and sixty mounted troops of the Manchester Yeomanry were ordered to force a way through the crowd to deliver it and take him into custody.
It was a swelteringly hot day and tempers became quickly frayed as they pushed and barged, their way through the thronging crowd, riding rough-shod over people in their way. The people responded angrily, and the poorly trained Yeomanry came under a hail of bricks and bottles as attempts were made by some to unhorse them, and they began to panic as the crowd pressed in around them. Witnessing the scene from a house nearby the Chief Magistrate William Hutton ordered the 15th Hussars to assist the Yeomanry and try to restore order but the crowd was so tightly packed it was unable to disperse as ordered.
Arthur Thistlewood was an ex-army Officer who had imbibed revolutionary ideals whilst resident in America and France and was known to be an argumentative man of whom it was said enjoyed a fight verbal or otherwise.
He had been arrested but later released following the Spa Fields Riot but during his time in captivity three tickets for a journey to America valued at £180 had been taken from him. He wrote to the Home Secretary Lord Sidmouth demanding either their return or that suitable recompense be paid to him. When he received no reply, he challenged Lord Sidmouth to a duel.
For this breach of the peace, he was sentenced to a further 12 months but still he sent a stream of letters complaining of the harsh conditions he was being kept under.
This was the kind of man Thistlewood was - confrontational and determined to fight it out and he was considered too extreme for many of the leading radicals who had been steadily distancing themselves from him.
Thistlewood immediately laid a plan to attack Lord Harrowbys house the following night and murder all the Cabinet members present. So enthused were some of the group at the prospect of the attack that one of them, a butcher named James Ings, vowed to decapitate each and every one of them and exhibit their severed heads on Westminster Bridge.
Thistlewood now sent one of the conspirators, the Jamaican born William Davidson who had previously worked as a servant at Lord Harrowby’s to use his contacts there to garner further information. Davidson returned later that night and informed Thistlewood that as far as his contacts were aware Lord Harrowby was not even in London. Thistlewood concluded from this that Davidson had been deliberately misled - the attack would go ahead.
Unknown to Thistlewood, his co-conspirator and friend George Edwards was in fact a government spy and the notification in the Times was in fact a falsification that had been used to flush the conspirators out. Thistlewood had been hoodwinked.
The following day he and eight other men gathered in the hayloft of a stable in Cato Street to prepare for the attack. He had in fact recruited 27 men and he delayed for a time hoping the others would turn up, but they never materialised.
Across the road from them in the Horse and Groom Public House were the Magistrate Richard Birney and 12 Bow Street Runners. He was also waiting for a unit of Coldstream Guards under the command of Lieutenant Lord Frederick FitzClarence. When they too failed to turn up Birney, fearing he would lose his quarry, decided to go ahead and try to apprehend the conspirators without their assistance.
At around 7.30 in the evening the Bow Street Runners led by George Ruthven (Magistrate Birney had decided not to make the arrest himself and instead waited outside) burst into the stable quickly overcoming James Ings who had been left on guard. The other conspirators hearing the commotion desperately tried to arm their pistols but there was too little time so with swords drawn there was a short but fierce melee during which Thistlewood ran one Bow Street Runners through killing him.
Most of the conspirators, including Davidson, were taken at the scene but Thistlewood and a few others managed to escape. They were too well known to the Authorities to remain at liberty for long however and they were arrested soon after.
At their subsequent trial for high treason William Davidson was to be by far the most eloquent of the defendants. In one famous exchange with the presiding Judge, he doubted the likelihood of his getting a fair trial: “You may suppose that because I am a man of colour I am without understanding or feeling and would act the brute. I am not one of that sort and when not employed in my business, I have employed myself as a teacher of Sunday School.” The Judge replied: “You may rest perfectly assured that with respect to the colour of your countenance, no prejudice either has, or will exist in any part of this Court against you, a man of colour is entitled to British justice as much as the fairest British subject.”
Davidson may have received a fair trial, but he was convicted nonetheless and after he was sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered he made a final statement to the Court: “It is an ancient custom to resist tyranny . . . would you not rather govern a country of spirited men, than cowards? I can die but once in this world, and the only regret is, that I have a large family of small children, and when I think of that, it unmans me.”
Arthur Thistlewood had said little throughout his trial accepting his fate with his usual defiance. His last words on the scaffold were: “I shall soon know the grand secret.”
The realisation dawned on the Government and the landed oligarchy in whose interests it was mostly run that the people could not be kept down by coercion and force indefinitely, something had to be done. Likewise, the Radical Movement came to be aware that violence only begat violence and that it was the Government that had the soldiers, the guns, and the cannon.
Though the discontent remained, and the disturbances continued the period of violent radicalism decreased in the wake of the Peterloo Massacre and the fate of the Cato Street Conspirators. Most of the energy of the Radical Movement now went into the cause of electoral reform and the ending of “Old Corruption.”
But there was to be one more major eruption of widespread violence that served to emphasise the need for change.
In the summer of 1830, riots broke out in East Kent that was to take on a form that was reminiscent of the Luddism of 15 years before.
Developments in agricultural husbandry and the increased use of machine technology made farming less labour intensive and many poor labourers who had previously struggled to subsist on what was often only seasonal work now found they had no work at all and their situation was made only worse by the escalation in the rate of enclosures, or the privatisation of the common land that had been used for centuries by the poor to graze livestock or grow a little produce for themselves and their families. During the hard times it had often only been the use of the common land that had spared the labourers from the prospect of starvation.
The increased unemployment and consequent hunger were not sufficiently taken care of by the wholly inadequate system of poor relief which was paid for by the wealthier tax payers of any parish. They were reluctant to provide for those they considered to be the idle poor and who rendered no service for the money they received, and as the number of people unable to find gainful employment increased, so did the burden upon those who could.
The most obvious symbol of the agricultural workers impoverishment was the steam powered threshing machine and hundreds were smashed over the next few months as the protests spread across the south-east of England. Hayricks were burned as also were barns and like before, letters of intimidation were sent to employers this time signed in the name of the again mythical Captain Swing.
Parish priests were also the target of threats because of the Church tithe that entitled the Church of England to 10% of the parish harvest levied across all the agricultural workers in the parish regardless of their ability to pay.
This at one time could have been paid in kind through goods or labour but was now exclusively a cash levy.
Unlike the Luddites however the Captain Swing protesters did not disguise themselves but used to descend on wealthy farmers in their hundreds in broad daylight to negotiate settlements. Intimidated by the labourers most farmers agreed to their demands though many reneged on them later.
Once again, the Government’s response was swift and brutal, and more than 2,000 farm labourers were arrested and brought to trial, many were sentenced to transportation and terms of imprisonment whilst 19 were hanged.
It was obvious to most that such disturbances could not be allowed to continue, and some form of reform had to be contemplated but the Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington, disagreed believing the British system of Government to be the ideal and his refusal to move on the issue led to the windows of the Hero of Waterloo’s London home, Apsley House, being smashed. On 15 November 1830, Wellington’s Tory Administration fell, and he was forced to resign.
The new Whig Prime Minister Earl Grey, unlike his predecessor was quick to recognise that a people who had traditionally been governed by deference and consent could not be forced to comply at the point of a bayonet. He was no less a believer in the British system of Government than his predecessor had been but fearing for its future he wished to ensure its preservation even in a modified form if necessary. He determined upon a cause of reform.
The Reform Act he proposed had the support of the Radical Movement and his own Whig supporters in the House of Commons but was vehemently opposed by most Tories especially in the House of Lords.
Grey’s first attempt to pass the Reform Bill was defeated in the House of Commons and as a result he requested that the King dissolve Parliament so that he could take the issue to the country. In the ensuing election the Whigs were returned with an overwhelming majority and in September 1831, the Bill was once more put to a Commons vote where it was passed with a majority of more than 100 but there remained little prospect of it passing in the House of Lords which at the time had the same right to reject proposed legislation as the House of Commons.
The Bill as expected was easily defeated by 41 votes and the margin would have been even greater had some Tory Lords not abstained from the vote wanting to avoid controversy and potential trouble on their country estates if they were seen to oppose it. The Lords Spiritual, the Bishop’s representing the Church of England, had no such scruples and voted 22 to 1 against the Bill.
The night that the Reform Bill was rejected the people erupted in fury and scenes of violence were witnessed the length and breadth of the country. There were large scales riots in Nottingham and Derby, counties such as Dorset, Somerset, and Leicestershire became almost ungovernable, and in Bristol, jails were broken into, prisoners freed, shops looted, and the bishop’s residence destroyed. The country houses of some Lords were also attacked, and attempts made to set them alight.
The Radical Movement were also busy organising a campaign to withhold payment of tax and encouraging people to withdraw their savings from the Bank of England causing a run on the pound, and once more there was talk of not bothering with reform at all but of simply abolishing the aristocracy and the Monarchy altogether.
Considering the impossibility of any Reform Bill ever being passed in the House of Lords, Grey requested that King William IV create 100 new Whig peers to secure its passage. The King shrank from taking such drastic action to guarantee the coming into law legislation that he personally was opposed to. He refused to adopt such a measure and Earl Grey had little choice but to resign.
The King now turned to the one man he knew he could trust and who he knew would not compromise on the issue of reform, the Duke of Wellington; but with the country in uproar even he recognised the hopelessness of the situation and offered some mild reform, but it was too little too late. Amidst the pandemonium he was obliged to inform the King that there was nothing he could do and resigned once more. King William now had little choice but to re-appoint Earl Grey and yield to his demands.
Still reluctant to create any, let alone a hundred, new Whig peers, he first wrote to all the leading Tory Lords of his intentions. He did not want to lose the in-built pro-Monarchy Tory majority in the House of Lords, and neither did they. Once his intentions had been made clear they consented to the passage of the Bill which received royal assent on 7 June 1832.
The Great Reform Act of 1832 was first and foremost a recognition that things had to change but it was more radical in intent than it ever was in-deed. Rotten Boroughs, political placemen, and parliamentary sinecures were effectively abolished and the urban conurbations that were springing up as a result of the Industrial Revolution were to be represented in the House of Commons for the first time. The extension of the franchise was slight however increasing the number of eligible male voters from around 400,000 to 650,000 or 1 in 6 of the adult male population.
The franchise was to be extended again in 1867 to include most urban workers and by 1884 most agricultural labourers.
Women however were to be excluded from the franchise until the passage of the Representation of the Peoples Act 1918, 86 years after the initial Reform Act and not on the same terms with men until ten years later.
The widespread disturbances in the early decades of the nineteenth century and the radical politics they both engendered and reflected had made the country close to ungovernable. The fear that Britain would follow France on the road to revolution was a real one and the shadow of the guillotine terrified those in positions of power and who saw themselves as its most likely victim.
The 1832 Reform Act was the first recognition that Britain needed to be a country that was governed with the consent of its people as expressed through the ballot box and not just a fiefdom run in the interests of a propertied elite whose wishes were imposed at the point of a bayonet or at the end of a hangman’s noose.
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