Today in London’s radical history: radical prisoners hold party in Newgate prison, 1826

A tax was first imposed on British newspapers in 1712. The tax was gradually increased until in 1815 it had reached 4d. a copy. As few people could afford to pay 6d. or 7d. for a newspaper, the tax restricted the circulation of most of these journals to people with fairly high incomes.

Increasing the stamp was a deliberate tactic, aimed at restricting the amount and level of knowledge and ideas reaching the working classes.

However, since the stamp was payable on publications defining themselves as ‘newspapers’, so there were ways around it. In 1816 radical journalist  William Cobbett began publishing his weekly Political Register as a pamphlet. And for only 2d – it soon had a circulation of 40,000. John and Leigh Hunt, the publishers of the Examiner, paid the stamp duty but on the front page always called it the “tax on knowledge”.

Other radicals decided to ignore the law. Jonathan Wooler’s Black Dwarf was published unstamped and sold for 4d. Jonathan Wooler used the newspaper to support Major John Cartwright and his Hampden Club movement, campaigning for political reform. Wooler was soon in prison for seditious libel

After the Peterloo Massacre, Lord Castlereagh, the leader of the House of Commons, and Lord Sidmouth, the Home Secretary, introduced new laws in an effort to reduce the circulation of radical newspapers and pamphlets. They persuaded Parliament to pass the Six Acts, two of which were aimed at destroying the radical press. Under the provision of one of the Acts, all publishers were ordered to deposit a bond with the government as surety against future conviction of seditious or blasphemous libel. The bond was £300 if the publisher was based in London or £200 for those who published in the provinces.

Another of the Six Acts applied the 4d. stamp duty to all journals that sold for less than 6d. Since most working people took home less than 10 shillings a week in wages, this was intended to severely reduce the number of people who could afford to buy radical newspapers.

The stamp duty was also applied on journals that contained any “public news, intelligence or occurrences, or any remarks or observations thereon, or upon any matter in Church or State.” The government announced that it hoped that this stamp duty would stop the publication of newspapers and pamphlets that tended to “excite hatred and contempt of the Government and holy religion.” Good luck with that.

The tax was also applied to all journals that appeared more frequently than every twenty-six days. Radical weekly newspapers were rapidly converted to monthly journals. Examples of this strategy include United Trades’ Co-operative Journal and William Carpenter’s Monthly Political Magazine.

Other radicals such as Richard Carlile ignored the law and continued to publish his newspaper, the Republican, without paying stamp duty. Carlile was found guilty of blasphemy and seditious libel and sentenced to three years in Dorchester Gaol and fined £1,500. But Carlile was made of stern stuff. In prison he continued to write material for the Republican, now being published by his wife, Jane. The publicity created by Carlile’s trial increased circulation of the newspaper dramatically, to the point where it was now outselling pro-government newspapers such as The Times.

In 1821 Jane Carlile was sentenced to two years imprisonment for seditious libel. Jane was replaced by Richard Carlile’s sister, Mary, but within six months she was also in prison for the same offence. From his prison cell Richard Carlile called for financial support in his campaign to continue publishing the Republican. During the next few months over £500 a week was sent to Carlile’s shop in Fleet Street.

Carlile put out a public call for volunteers to sell the Republican. The Morning Chronicle thought that this was bound to fail as “we can hardly conceive that mere attachment to any set of principles without any hope of gain or advantage will induce men (in any number) to expose themselves to imprisonment for three years.” The Morning Chronicle was wrong: people came from all over the country to take on the responsibility, and over the next few couple of years over 150 men and women were sent to prison for selling the Republican. All told, these ‘shopmen’ served over 200 years of imprisonment in the battle for press freedom.

However, imprisonment in Newgate neither ended their struggles nor cut them of from the social movements on the outside. Since the 1790s at least, a “vibrant and eclectic radical milieu” that thrived in the prison. Radical and others prisoners often able to gather to smoke, drink, talk, and even produce publications…

Inspired by the French revolution and homegrown reformist political philosophies. Newgate became “a site of British-Jacobin civility… a salon of radical philosophies.” The more respectable end of radicalism at this time was very much centred on dining, dinner parties where ideas were discussed; as well as discussion clubs in taverns, pubs and coffee houses. Aspects of these scenes were continued and honed inside Newgate.

That this space for radicalism was able to develop was partly due to conditions in Newgate, effectively a state-franchised private prison, with any service and comfort available if you were able to bribe the warder and turnkeys. Many of 1790s radicals were men of independent means, which meant they were able to pay for better rooms, conditions allowances, like visits etc. They also had support from influential Whigs and reformers in Parliament and the City, which brought lenient treatment.

Most were imprisoned for publishing subversive literature, Paine’s works, pro-French addresses, philosophical texts on society and religion, attacks on government and Burke etc… In effect the prisoners formed a ‘prison publishing collective’, which managed to republish Paine, Rousseau, Helvetius and dozens more polemicals, satirical and philosophical works. This period created bonds and links that continued for decades among the former prisoners.

Also, these prisoners were able to receive regular flow of visitors, who not only carried out prison writings and publications, but brought in material from outside ones, helping to integrate the Newgate milieu into outside one. Familiar spaces from outside culture, eg tavern and coffee house, could be re-created inside.

Mind you let’s not forget – all of this operated for those with money or friends with money. Without it, the vast majority of prisoners did languish in crap conditions, crammed in cells, at risk of disease and eating bad food.

Later generations of radicals in 1810 were also to pay for their privilege, if they had the readies. However, by the time Carlile’s shop workers and the unstamped rebels were sent down, conditions had altered somewhat. Influenced by prison reformers John Howard and George Onesiphorus Paul, and the writings of Jeremy Bentham, prison reform had begun, attempting to tackle the notorious corruption, disease rife in jails, and their tendency to reinforce criminality and immorality.

Reformers like Howard, Bentham and Paul were focused on separation, segregation, silence, hard work, and surveillance, as a way to impose order and moral reform… New prisons were built in the 19th century on a different model, with smaller cells, with inmates increasingly isolated and under watch, unable to socialise, access drink and resist. This was seen not only as way of reducing prison’s influence as a university of crime and sink of depravity in itself, but healthier and more uplifting, less likely for disease to spread, allowing for more education and reflection…

This process had started to change conditions in Newgate, and when Carlile’s shopmen arrived, they found life much harder than their predecessors. This was also compounded by the more plebeian origins of many of the shopmen, compared to the 1790s vintage. So instead of getting their own cells and being able to move about freely, receive visitors, carry on with their radical activities, they found themselves mixed in with the general prison population, confined 10 to a cell, fed only “the new prison food allocation, described as the ‘the most wretched stuff’: ‘one pound of bread and one pint of gruel each day’ with six ounces of beef each alternate day. This, they claimed, was no better than ‘dog’s meat’.” They were denied visitors in their rooms, and all visitors were stripsearched.

Ironically, the increasing influence of prison reformers had something to do with this:  “Although reforms were designed to improve the conditions of the most disadvantaged of the prison population, they appear to have had an inverse effect on the treatment of state prisoners. At the heart of reform was an egalitarian approach, which, theoretically, treated all inmates without favour. Tighter controls on prison management now existed, with visiting prison committees and visiting magistrates overseeing the work of the Governor and attempting to stamp out the old prison economies and profit making from prisoners. While the system of classifying prisoners according to the nature of their crime still meant prisoners who were convicted of sedition, blasphemy or libel could be housed in the state side, separation from other classifications of prisoners within the state side was never assured as Newgate became at times breathlessly overcrowded. Furthermore, visiting rights were now regulated and restricted as reformers considered that personal reform and redemption could not be achieved if the prisoner continued to be surrounded by their unsavoury milieu.”

However, accounts of the relative freedom that earlier political prisoners had enjoyed had to some extent passed down as legend to this generation; they saw it as a right , or matter of respect, and they agitated vociferously. Their complaints forced change – prompting an investigation by the magistrates and officials who formed the City Gaol Committee. “Despite finding that the men’s allocated room was ‘not crowded to inconvenience’, the committee determined that the group of radical prisoners ‘should be allowed the use of another room’. The committee also addressed the men’s complaints regarding their lack of proper bedding, acknowledging that ‘horse bedsteads should be allowed to the complainants’ despite the committee’s concern that such a concession ‘might be regarded as a violation of the discipline’.” But the authorities were also worried that the radical ideas about religion and politics the shopmen expounded might spread to other, initially non-political inmates, a reflection of the similar concern about the effect movements for reform and critics of on the outside were having on the emerging working class. Segregating the politicals from the general prison population seemed pragmatic.

Ironically, the attitude of the radicals to the ‘ordinary criminals’ they were forced to bunk with chimed nicely with the authorities’ fear of their ideological contagion sweeping the gaols. The Carlile shopmen saw themselves as a cut above the crims, on another level morally, and bitterly disputed being dumped among them. This would actually change as contact with increased mingling of ‘state’ prisoners and the wider population…

One incident illustrates the continuing solidarity of the radical prisoners in the face of Newgate. On the afternoon of 29 January 1826, the four Carlile shopmen then banged up in Newgate, Thomas Ryley Perry, Richard Hassell, John Clarke and William Campion, all gathered in their ‘state-side’ gaol apartment to commemorate the birth of radical ideologue and icon Thomas Paine (it was also Perry’s birthday). Singing tunes with titles such as The Bravest of the Brave and Lovely Woman Governs All, the four men reported that “the gathering provided opportunity for much ‘hilarity’ and revelry. Assembling their own makeshift tavern, they sat down to an ‘excellent leg of mutton’ with all the ‘expected trimmings’, filled their tankards with wine at the end of each rendition and raised their cups in earnest to toast ‘the immortal memory of Thomas Paine’, ‘Richard Carlile’ and ‘The Female Republicans’. In defiance of their incarceration, they reserved a toast for their adversaries: ‘May our example teach the Government that Imprisonment for opinions is useless.’ In a rare public avowal of the much maligned prison authorities, the men acknowledged that the prison Governor had been kind enough in this instance ‘to allow us to remain together until eight o’clock, instead of being locked up as usual, at this season of the year, at five’. The anniversary of Paine’s birth had become an auspicious day for the radical community in Britain. As the four men celebrated in Newgate, 75 ‘respectable, well dressed’ radicals also met in honour of Paine’s birth at the City of London tavern, where a ‘half-a-guinea ticket’ provided dinner, dessert and wine. Mirroring events in Newgate prison that afternoon, the London tavern assembly raised their glasses to honour the four men—‘freedom of mind’s undaunted champions’. Clearly, the incarceration of Perry, Hassell, Clark and Campion was to prove no impediment to their own participation in this important radical community event. The men were as happy, they reported, as ‘our friends could possibly be at the London Tavern, or elsewhere’. The observance of ceremonies such as the birth of Thomas Paine in 1826 fostered radical camaraderie and a sense of fraternity within the prison, and a shared collective identity both with earlier generations of radical prisoners and with the radical community beyond the prison walls. Like the early generation of radical prisoners, they defied their containment within the prison space by recreating familiar radical spaces such as the tavern. Certainly, their festivities were more solitary affairs than previous radical gatherings in the prison; however, the ability of radicals to subvert the prison regime and routine and maintain contact across time and space with the wider radical community attests to the vitality and adaptability of the new generation of plebeian radicals.”

A great part of this post was extracted from Radical Spaces, Venues of popular politics in London, 1790–c. 1845, by Christina Parolin. Which is a crackin read.

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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