The Habeas Corpus Act passed by Parliament in 1679 guaranteed that a person detained by the authorities would have to be brought before a court of law so that the legality of the detention may be examined. In times of social unrest, Parliament had the power to suspend Habeas Corpus. William Pitt did this in May 1793 during the war with France, targetting pro-reform activists, publishers issuing radical texts, and others influenced by the French Revolution. Parliamentary reformers such as Thomas Hardy and John Thelwall were imprisoned as a result of this action.
Habeas Corpus was also suspended in January 1817, during the post-Napoleonic War economic and political crisis.
After the end of the Napoleonic Wars, there was an upsurge in demands for political reform and the extension of the vote. This was also fuelled by the collapse of the war economy into recession and mass unemployment; thousands of soldiers and sailors were being discharged with little prospect of work, too – a dynamic common to large-scale wars: compare the pressures for social change after World Wars 1 and 2 (many sailors and soldiers were also being demobbed unpaid – it was common for navy and army pay to be owed years in arrears then). On top of this a rampant succession of new laws, abolishing old protections for workers and the poor, in the interests of the factory owners, merchants and employers, was introducing unrestrained laissez-faire capitalism, with devastating consequences for the lower classes.
Mass radical agitation – for reform of the notoriously corrupt and elitist political system, but also for improvement in the lives of working people – revived not seen since the 1790s.
Mass rallies in the Autumn of 1816 culminated in the Spa Fields Riot in December, which left the government afraid of the possibilities of radials inspiring mass uprisings of the desperate poor… Sidmouth, the Home Secretary in Lord Liverpool’s government, had been receiving reports from his spies and informers that a revolution was in the making in the north of England.
After a missile (whether a bullet or a stone was never determined) shattered the glass window of the Prince Regent’s coach, as he was on his way to the opening of Parliament, the government accused supporters of parliamentary reform of fomenting political violence: Lord Liverpool’s government rushed laws through Parliament to clamp down on dissent.
On 4 March 1817, Habeas Corpus was suspended; the suspension was not lifted until January 1818. The Seditious Meetings Act was passed and continued in force until 24 July 1818: it was designed to ensure that all reforming ‘Societies and Clubs … should be utterly suppressed and prohibited as unlawful combinations and confederacies’. No meeting of more than fifty persons could be held without the prior consent of the magistrates.
At the same time, home Secretary Lord Sidmouth sent out a Home Office circular informing magistrates of their powers to arrest persons suspected of disseminating seditious libel. He ordered the Lords Lieutenant to apprehend all printers of seditious and blasphemous materials, all writers of the same, and demagogues. However, he failed with the attempt to prosecute the writers and printers because of Fox’s 1792 Libel Act; only one printer was convicted.
The political reformer and trade union activist (and informer!) Francis Place later estimated that between March 1817 and Autumn 1818, 96 people had been detained on charges of treason in England and 37 in Scotland (though Home Office papers show much lower figures). Most of these were later released without being tried.
The Gagging Acts severely hampered the campaign for parliamentary reform. However, as soon as Parliament decided to restore Habeas Corpus in March, 1818, there was an immediate revival in the demands for universal suffrage.
But if the government thought the Gagging Acts would mean the agitation and pressure for change would die down – they were sadly mistaken.
Even if the Acts did silence some vocal reformers others sprang up. Thus, as veteran radical journalist William Cobbett fled the country in March 1817, reckoning the Acts were aimed especially at himself, other newspapers emerged to take on the mantle of his influential Political Register, like the Black Dwarf and Sherwin’s Political Register.
And the repression wasn’t just answered in words… Hampden Clubs, radical debating societies and groups discussing and advocating reform had mushroomed across the country. Amongst those gathering to work for political reform, there were elements who believed only an uprising could deliver political change; to some extent the Gagging Acts strengthened their hand. Hundreds of thousands were facing intense poverty; thousands were incensed by the political repression; among them some were willing to join conspiracies aimed at revolution.
Even as the Acts were being debated in Parliament, the March of the Blanketeers began, in March 1817, a hunger march of its time, calling for government help for Lancashire workers in response to the economic distress and government repression. The marchers were violently dispersed and arrested.
This was swiftly followed by the arrest of alleged conspirators plotting insurrection in Ardwick Bridge in Manchester, and then in June, by the Pentrich Rising, an attempt to launch a revolutionary uprising in Derbyshire, by workers convinced by government spy that a network of similar risings was planned elsewhere. There is evidence that similar plans were afoot in a number of places, but linked only by informers, and the premature events in Derbyshire and some arrests elsewhere led only to disaster.
But plots continued, amidst a rising climate of demands for reform, which climaxed with the violent repression of the massacre of Peterloo in 1819 (where the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry cavalry, formed to combat any future attempts at insurrection after the Blanketeers march and Ardwick Bridge arrests savagely attacked a mass rally calling for political reform)
… and a final abortive wave of insurrectionary plans that ended with the Cato Street Conspiracy, and a botched Scottish attempt at revolution in 1820…
An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.