In 1809 a contingent of the militia in Ely, Cambridgeshire, mutinied, refusing to obey orders – either because they had not been paid ‘marching guineas’ or because some of their pay had been stopped to pay for their knapsacks. These militia were volunteers, part of an ‘amateur army’ raised to fight the long war against Revolutionary and Napoleonic France.
It was a short and very small mutiny; hardly a threat to the war effort. The reaction was severe however. The Ely militia was surrounded by a squadron of cavalry from the German Legion, a summary court martial was held, and five alleged ringleaders were sentenced to be flogged – five hundred lashes each. This sentence was later reduced.
Flogging was regarded by the army (and the navy) as the only means of maintaining discipline in the ranks. It was a vicious and often fatal process, sometimes carried out with a cat-o-nine-tails, a knotted rope, which would rip the back (or other parts) of the whipped man open repeatedly. The army was far from made up of professional soldiers – large sections of the armed forces had been forcibly recruited, or at best joined up as the only way to get a meal. Offences that could get you flogged were numerous.
Journalist William Cobbett, among the most prominent radials of his day, protested against the sentence, in the pages of his widely read journal, the Political Register, sarcastically addressing the Foreign Secretary, Castlereagh, the architect of the military policy of the time:
“well done Lord Castlereagh! This is just what it was thought your plan would produce… Five hundred lashes each! Aye that is right! Flog them; flog them; flog them! They deserve it and a great deal more. They deserve a flogging at every meal time. “Lash them daily, lash them duly.”…
I do not know what sort of a place ELY is; but I should like to know how the inhabitants looked one another in the face, while this scene was exhibiting in their town…
This will, one would hope, teach the loyal a little caution in speaking of the means, which Napoleon employs (or rather which they say he employs) in order to get together and discipline his conscripts. There is scarcely any one of these persons, who has not, at various times, cited the hand-cuffings, and other means of force as a proof, a complete proof, that the people of France hate Napoleon and his government, assist with reluctance in his wars, and would fain see another revolution… I hope that the loyal will, hereafter, be more cautious in drawing such conclusions, now that they see, that our ‘gallant defenders’ not only require physical restraint, but even a little blood drawing from their backs, and that, too, with the aid and assistance of German troops.”
It was hardly masterful rhetoric, but it got him prosecuted for sedition. Apparently it was the last two paragraphs – about the residents of Ely, and sarkily comparing the British army policy with its enemy – that were the offending passages. The Attorney General, Sir Vicary Gibbs (they really don’t name ‘em like they used to!) filed a charge of sedition against Cobbett. The case came to trial in June 1810.
Attorney General Gibbs listed the parties injured by Cobbett’s libel – the German Legion, he had held up to contempt; by upbraiding the inhabitants of Ely for not revisiting the flogging, he was ‘fomenting disorder’; he was inciting soldiers to resist military discipline, and was mocking patriotism by poking fun at those loyal to the government. Taken together, Cobbett’s article was designed to promote a subversion of society…
On June 15th, Cobbett, his printer, Hansard, and publishers Budd and Bagshaw (held legally in those times to be jointly responsible in libel or sedition cases), were found guilty of seditious libel, after Cobbett had attempted to defend himself and made a bollocks of it (the other 3 pleaded guilty). His defence was contradictory, confused and in parts self-incriminatory.
Two week later, Cobbett was sentenced to two years in Newgate Prison (his co-accused received sentences of two or three months; it was Cobbett the government rally wanted out of the way).
Cobbett was a contradictory character, maybe best described as a Tory Radical. An ex-soldier himself, he had begun his Political Register as a supporter of the government and of the war effort, but had gradually reversed his position, and had become a bitter opponent of the war and the government that was staking everything on it. His politics were a mix of reaction and progress – much of the impulse for his hatred of the government was the rapid changes that were overturning longheld certainties in English society. The early years of the 19th century saw white-hot social and economic transformation: the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, enclosure and agricultural reform were altering the rural life which Cobbett idealised.
Cobbett had become the most widely read radical journalist of his day, but he was not brave, and tried to make a deal with the government, secretly promising to give up publishing and retire to his farm if he could be spare prison… It didn’t work, and he was sent to Newgate. But this was a relatively easy punishment, as he was able to continue publishing, and was visited regularly by friends and allies. If you had money, you could live relatively well in Newgate by regular payments to he turnkeys – Cobbett however, did get into heavy debt as he struggled to keep his farm, keep publishing, pay off his trial debts. Nevertheless, his imprisonment turned him into a national figure, a hero to radicals and reformers.
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online