On January 10th, 1831, Richard Carlile was sentenced to 32 months imprisonment for sedition; specifically for advising agricultural labourers to continue their campaign of rioting, striking and destroying threshing machines.
Carlile was a leading radical and freethinker in the 1820s and ’30s: famous/infamous, depending largely on how religious or orthodox you were politically, as a publisher and printer. Repeatedly jailed for re-publishing banned political works like the works of Tom Paine, and anti-religious texts, in a time when blasphemy laws were used regularly to silence anyone questioning christianity.
Carlile had also been at the forefront of the ‘War of the Unstamped Press’, in response to crippling government taxes on newspapers, designed to repress a huge explosion of radical and cheap newspapers aimed at the growing working classes. A huge movement evolved to produce, sell, smuggle these papers, evading a massive official effort to close them, through the 1820s and 30s… Carlile, and hundreds of others, were jailed, often over and over again, during this struggle, which ended with a victory, of sorts, with the reduction of the stamp, thus opening the way for a cheap popular press. From which we still benefit today (??!!)
Through the late 1810s, and the 1820s, Carlile had operated from several shops in Fleet Street, becoming one of the main focus points for a freethinking, radical self-educated artisan culture very powerful in London at this time… A culture that fed into the turbulent and rebellious working class movements of the 1830s and ’40s.
In the late 1820s, Carlile had been eclipsed slightly as the most notorious rebel and blasphemer; he was bankrupt, his book sales were declining, and the radical movements that had erupted after the Napoleonic Wars were fizzling out. In 1830 however he took out a lease on the Rotunda, a huge venue on Blackfriars Road in Southwark, which was to become – briefly – the most important radical social centre of the time.
In 1830, southern England was rocked by the Swing riots: agricultural labourers smashed and burned threshing machines in a mass movement of riotous rebellion. Across much of the country, working people threatened by increasing mechanisation attacked and destroyed the machines representing the changes in rural work. From farm to farm, village to village, the trouble spread, by word of mouth, rumour and by crowds marching to inspire action in the neighbouring areas… Like wildfire ripping through a prairie… The world of the workers is Wild…
This was a hugely threatening movement for the ruling classes – despite the massive changes undergoing Britain as the Industrial Revolution transformed work, life, and social relations, the majority of wealth and power relied on a landowning aristocratic class exploiting a reliable rural workforce… Swing showed the potential for that to be undermined.
The reputation of the Rotunda can be seen in the fact that Government ministers of the time blamed the Swing Riots on the influence of the Rotunda: this was certainly untrue, in that the revolts were sparked by immediate grievances, and though some rioters may have picked up some radical ideas, it was not in itself inspired by any urban radicals. But the Rotunda was certainly feared by the powers that be.
The Swing Revolt certainly inspired Carlile and his circle. Carlile’s charismatic collaborator, the blasphemous ex-clergyman Robert Taylor, put on a play at the Rotunda enthusing about the riots: called ‘Swing, or Who are the Incendiaries?’. “Promoted by Carlile as a ‘politico-tragedy’, Swing! defended the agricultural labourers… Carlile’s paper the Prompter boasted to its readers of the literary and theatrical excellence of the tragedy, reporting that the ‘language is worthy of Otway, and the denouement of the plot beats that of any other popular tragedy’. The play, described as an ‘admirable tragedy’ in which the audience could ‘alternately cry and laugh’, was standing entertainment for two nights a week at the Rotunda and ran for several weeks.”
But in January the authorities got their own back, jailing Carlile for 30 months for defending the rioters in print.
Carlile had published advice to the insurgent labourers, in the third issue of his Prompter, dated 27 November 1830. In a letter addressed to the Insurgent Agricultural Labourers’ – a fairly minor article placed on an inside page – he extended a ‘feeling heart’ to the rural poor, “encouraging them to continue their strike and career or revolt. He told them that I was wrong to destroy wealth, but they had more just and moral cause for wasting property and burning farm produce than ever king or faction that ever made war had for making war. In war all destruction of property was counted lawful. Upon the ground of that, which was called a law of nations, Carlile told them theirs was a state of war, and their quarrel was the want of necessities of life in the midst of abundance. Further government severity of repression would warrant their resistance even to death… The issues Carlile impressed upon them in the following terms:-
‘You see hoards of food, and you are starving; you see a government rioting in every sort of luxury and wasteful expenditure, and you, ever ready to labour, cannot find one of the comforts of life. Neither your silence nor your patience has obtained for you the least respectful attention from that Government. The more tame you have grown, the more you have been oppressed and despised, the more you have been trampled on; and it is only now that you begin to display your physical as well as your moral strength that your cruel tyrants treat with you and offer you terms of pacification.’ “
Carlile’s advice to the labourers to ‘go on as you have done’ was interpreted by the authorities as a seditious call to arms. He later claimed that ‘neither in deed, nor in word, nor in idea, did I ever encourage, or wish to encourage…acts of arson or machine breaking’. In January 1831, however, Carlile was sentenced to two further years’ imprisonment, in Giltspur Street Compter.
The prosecution took Carlile and other radicals by surprise. Many of his past publications had been far more seditious and blasphemous than the Prompter letter. Indeed, Taylor’s performance of the Swing! tragedy contained far more seditious and provocative material than Carlile’s letter. Carlile had also previously regularly asserted his dislike of ‘mobs’ and ‘mob action’: he had written that a ‘few bullets’ should be distributed among the heads of rioters in Bristol, which ‘matched the most callous middle-class reactions.’ Carlile’s assertion that the prosecution was planned as a means to close the Rotunda was thus probably correct.
However, as his new prison address was relatively close to the Rotunda, Carlile was able to both continue to manage the venue, and publish his paper, the Prompter.
In the end, Carlile served about 8 months of this sentence, one of many he amassed during his life, mostly for publishing allegedly blasphemous and banned texts.
An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar
If you’d like to know about Richard Carlile and the Rotunda, past tense have a new pamphlet, ‘The Establishment versus the Rotunda’, available from our publications page