Today in London legal history, 1811: Leigh and John Hunt acquitted of seditious libel, after denouncing flogging in the army

Edward Leigh Hunt (1784-1859), was a romantic writer, editor, critic and comrade/contemporary of Byron, Shelley, and Keats, and an innovative poet. He is also remembered for being sentenced to prison for two years on charges of libel against the Prince Regent (later king George IV), being one of the most outspoken and effective journalists in the age of the French Revolution.

Leigh Hunt’s published his first book of poetry, Juvenilia in 1801, aged 17: it became a sensation and went to four editions in as many years.  Hunt later published over 50 volumes of prose, poetry, and drama, and a mass of influential reviews, articles, and essays.  He began writing theatrical reviews in The News (1805) and The Statesman (1806), two newspapers published by his brother John Hunt, before they together launched a widely-read weekly newspaper, The Examiner in 1808, clearly expressing his opinion on political subjects. This was to get him into trouble with the authorities, and the brothers were brought to trial several times. Acting in their own defence, they were repeatedly acquitted

Leigh took on the job of editor and leader-writer. The Examiner soon became popular. It was thoroughly independent, owing no allegiance to any political party, but it advocated liberal politics, with the aim of supporting the cause of reform in parliament, liberal opinion in general, as well as trying to enthuse its readers with modern literature. The Examiner’s literary side was central to launching the careers of the young romantic poets of Hunt’s circle.  He influenced and reviewed both John Keats and Percy Shelley, and was the first to publish Keats poetry. He became an intimate friend of both Percy and Mary Shelley, and staunchly defended the poet’s genius. Many of the romantic poets and writers, like Hunt, inclined to radical or pro-reform ideas, while their writing was also considered innovative and ground-breaking. Hunt was a crucial focal individual at the centre of the literary and publishing world during the Romantic and Victorian early 19th century

But it was its political writing led The Examiner to be looked upon with suspicion by those in power.

In September 1810, the Hunt brothers republished an article from a Stamford newspaper, entitled ‘One Thousand Lashes’, attacking the brutality of the army’s flogging of serving soldiers, written by John Scott. Scott and the two Hunts were charged with seditious libel: the government reasoning that suggesting, as the article had done, that soldiers in Napoleon’s army were more humanely treated than soldiers in British army, was calculated to undermine national security.

The offending article read:

‘One Thousand Lashes!!’
(from the Stamford News)

“The aggressors were not dealt with as Buonpoarte would have treated his refractory troops.” (the Attorney General)

“Corporal Curtis was sentenced to receive ONE THOUSAND LASHES, but after receiving two Hundred, was, on his own petition, permitted to volunteer into a regiment on foreign service.- William Clifford, a private in the 7th royal veteran battalion, was lately sentenced to receive ONE THOUSAND LASHES, for repeatedly striking and kicking his superior officer. He underwent part of his sentence by receiving seven hundred and fifty lashes, at Canterbury, in presence of the whole garrison. – A garrison court martial has been held on board the Metcalf transport, at Spithead, on some men of the 4th regiment of foot, for disrespectful behaviour to their officers. TWO THOUSAND SIX HUNDRED LASHES were to be inflicted among them. – Robert Chillman, a private in the Bearstead and Malling regiment of local militia, who was lately tried by a court martial for disobedience of orders, and mutinous and improper behaviour while the regiment was embodied, has been found guilty of all the charges, and sentenced to receive EIGHT HUNDRED LASHES, which are to be inflicted on him at Chatham, to which garrison he is to be marched for that purpose.” – London Newspapers.

The Attorney-general said what was very true; – these aggressors have certainly not been dealt with as Buonoparte would have treated his refractory troops; nor indeed as refractory troops would be treated in any civilised country whatever, save and except only this country. Here alone, in this land of liberty, in this age of refinement – by a people who, with their usual consistency, have been in the habit of reproaching their neighbours with the cruelty of their punishment – is still inflicted a species of torture, at least as exquisite as any that was ever devised by the infernal ingenuity of the Inquisition. No, as the attorney-general justly says, Buonoparte does not treat his refractory troops in this manner; there is not a man in his ranks whose back is seamed with the lacerating cat-o-nine-tails; his soldiers have never yet been brought up to view one of their comrades stripped naked, – his limbs tied with ropes to a triangular machine – his back torn to the bone by the merciless cutting whipcord, applied by persons who relieve each other at short intervals, that they bring the full unexhausted strength of a man to the work of scourging. Buonoparte’s soldiers have never yet with tingling ears listened to the piercing screams of a creature so tortured: they have never seen the blood oozing from his rent flesh; they have never beheld a surgeon, with dubious look, pressing the agonised victim’s pulse, and calmly calculating, to an odd blow, how far suffering may be extended, until in its extremity it encroach on life. In short, Buonoparte’s soldiers cannot form any notion of that most heart-rending of all exhibitions on this side of hell, – an English military flogging.

Let it not be supposed that we intend these remarks to excite a vague and indiscriminating sentiment against punishment by military law: – no, when it is considered that discipline forms the soul of an army, without which it would at once degenerate into a mob; – when the description of persons which compose the body of what is called an army, and the situations in which it is frequently placed, are also taken into account, it will, we are afraid, appear but too evident, that the military code must still be kep distinct from the civil, and distinguished by greater promptitude and severity. Buonoparte is no favourite of ours, God wot – but if we come to balance accounts with him on this particular head, let us see how matters will stand. He recruits by force – so do we. We flog those whom we have forced – he does not. It may be said he punishes them in some manner; that is very true. He imprisons his refractory troops – occasionally in chains – and in aggravated cases, he puts them to death. But any of these severities is preferable to tying a human creature up like a dog, and cutting his flesh to pieces with whipcord. Who would not go to prison for two years, or indeed almost any term, rather than bear the exquisite, the almost insupportable, torment occasioned by the infliction of seven hundred or a thousand lashes? Death is mercy compared with such sufferings. Besides, what is a man good for after he has had the cat-o-nine-tails across his back? Can he ever again hold up his head among his fellows? One of the poor wretches executed at Lincoln last Friday, is stated to have been severely punished in some regiment. The probability is, that to this odious, ignominious flogging, may be traced his sad end; and it cannot be doubted that he found the gallows less cruel than the halberts. Surely, then, the attorney-general ought no to stroke his chin with such complacency, when he refers to the manner in which Buonoparte treats his soldiers. We despise and detest those who will tell us that there is as much liberty now enjoyed in France as there is left in this country. We give all credit to the wishes of some of our great men; yet while any thing remains to us in the shape of free discussion, it is impossible that we should sink into the abject slavery in which the French people are plunged. But although we do not envy Buonoparte’s subjects, we really (and we speak the honest conviction of our heats) see nothing peculiarly pitiable in the lot of his soldiers when compared with that of our own. Were we called upon to make our election between the services, the whipcord would at once decide us. No advantage whatever can compensate for, or render tolerable to a mind but one degree removed from brutality, a liability to be lashed like a beast. It is idle to talk about rendering the situation of a British soldier pleasant to himself, or desirable, far less honourable, in the estimation of others, while the whip is held over his head – and over his head alone, for in no other country (with the exception, perhaps, of Russia, which is yet in a state of barbarity) is the military character so degraded. We once heard of an army of slaves, which had bravely withstood the swords of their masters, being defeated and dispersed by the bare shaking of the instrument of flagellation in their faces. This brought so forcibly to their minds their former state of servitude and disgrace, that every honourable impulse at once forsook their bosoms, and they betook themselves to flight and to howling. We entertain no anxiety about the character of our countrymen in Portugal, when we contemplate their meeting the bayonets of Massena’s troops, – but we must own that we should tremble for the result, were the French general to dispatch against them a few hundred drummers, each brandishing a cat-o’-nine-tails.”

From reading which, it can be seen that the article was hardly subversive; the writer exhibited the required patriotism and support for Britain’s war on France, but only questioned the morality wisdom of flogging men nearly to death and its effect on morale. But suggesting that men would prefer to serve in the French army than the British was way too much for the authorities in time of war, when maintaining military discipline and the covenant of the British nation with the army was crucial. There had been a history of dissent against the long war against revolutionary/Napoleonic France, from radicals inspired by the French Revolution, from crowds enraged at methods of forced recruitment, from a population war weary and hungry, and not least from the Irish and Scots, the Irish in particular feeling the British lash on them selves (not forgetting that huge swathes of the British army were recruited in Ireland and Scotland.) There had been mutinies in the navy in 1797; felt (with not so much justification in fact) to have been whipped up by radicals. Soldiers and sailors had been involved in the various abortive radical plots at revolution in 1798-1802… Encouraging dissent in the ranks could have been very dangerous for the stretched and nervous British imperial war effort.

The Hunts’ trial for seditious libel took place in the Court of the King’s Bench, on February 22, 1811, before Lord Ellenborough, Ellenborough, the president of the Court of the King’s Bench (and, ironically, a fan of Hunt’s teen poetry volume, Juvenilia). Prosecuting, the Attorney-General, Sir Vicary Gibbs, (whose remarks had sparked the original Stamford article) argued that the article constituted ‘inflammatory libel’, likely to encourage military disaffection. Prominent pro-reform journalist William Cobbett had been found guilty of treasonous libel in June 1810 after objecting in his Political Register to the flogging at Ely of local militiamen, and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment in Newgate Prison. The government was hoping for a similar result; Gibbs made reference to Cobbett’s case in his opening remarks, and drew direct parallels between the cases.

The Hunts were defended by a young Scottish lawyer, Henry Brougham, an opponent of slavery and Whig politician and advocate of political reform (later Lord High Chancellor and an architect of the 1832 Reform Act). In court Brougham argued that there was a right to free discussion on public matters such as this, and condemned the brutality of the military authorities in using flogging for control and discipline. The jury was sympathetic and despite a heavily biased and hostile summing up from judge Ellenborough, the Hunt brothers were quickly acquitted.
However, a corresponding trial of the publishers of the original paper in Stamford resulted in conviction, although Brougham argued similarly in that trial.

A few years later, another article in the Examiner would get the Hunts into even bigger trouble, and this time, they wouldn’t escape prison. After he wrote an article in the Examiner calling the Prince Regent ‘a corpulent man of fifty… a violator of his word, a libertine over head and ears in disgrace, a despiser of domestic ties the companion of gamblers and demireps, a man who has just closed half a century without one single claim on the gratitude of his country or the respect of posterity’, he and John Hunt were prosecuted again for seditious libel, and despite another robust defence from Brougham, were convicted. Lord Ellenborough again presided, and revelled in his revenge for their earlier escape, sending them to prison for two years.

Hunt continued to edit The Examiner from prison, and entertained some of the most famous literary figures of the time while inside, including Lord Byron and Maria Edgeworth.

Today in radical publishing history, 1817: first issue of the Black Dwarf newspaper

On 29th January 1817, the first issue of the radical Black Dwarf paper was published.

“Prospectus for the Black Dwarf

It may be required of us to declare whether the Black dwarf emanates from the celestial regions, or from the shades of evil – whether he be an European sage or an Indian savage – whether he is subject to the vicissitudes of mortality, or a phantom of the imagination – in what shape he appears, by what authority he presumes to write – what object he has in view, and whether his designs are wicked or charitable. In answer to all these probable topics of enquiry, our simple reply is, that we are not at liberty to unfold all the secrets of his prison house, to ears of flesh and blood. We have, besides, no wish to perplex the mind, or draw to largely upon the faith of the enquirer. Were we to state what he is, the infallibility of the pope, the miracles of Mahomet, and all the wonders that wanton fancy ever drew, would appear probable and consistent to the story we should unfold. But these disclosures we must reserve, until better times ensure the civil treatment of so singular a stranger.

In the interim, however, the Black Dwarf will not be idle. He intends to expose every species of vice and folly, with which this virtuous age, and enlightened metropolis abounds. To political delinquency he will give no quarter, even if royalty were to sanction it by private favors and reward it with public honors. He will shew no mercy to spiritual imposition, even though decorated with lawn. Neither the throne, nor the altar, will be sanctuary against his intrusion. Secure from his invisibility, and dangerous from his power of division, (for like the polypus, he can divide and redivide himself, and each division remain a perfect animal) he will be engaged at the same instant, in listening for evil at the portals of the temple, under the canopy of the throne, and in the gallery of the lower house; in weighing the patriotism of our patriots; in comparing the disinterested independence of our journalists; besides the stranger occupation of seeking for honesty in the mazes of the law, and humility on the bench of bishops.

The lighter and ore agreeable business of the Black Dwarf, will be a survey of the DRAMA, and the literary world in general; to foster genius, and chastise impudence; to encourage the modest, and prune the luxuriance of the redundant fancy; in short to exhibit, unbiassed by the spirit of any party, a correct reflection of merit in the mirror of impartial criticism.

To fools, and to men of sense, the Black Dwarf hopes to be equally agreeable; the former will imagine they understand him when they do not; and the latter will be able to comprehend him more than he means to utter. To the ministry and the opposition he may be equally serviceable, by teaching the latter to begin, where they leave off, and the former how dangerous it is to oppose the progress of a deluge. A well-wisher to all, but an uncourtly friend, the Black Dwarf will steadily hold up a glass, in which no honest man need be ashamed to look, and every fool and knave may readily trace his resemblance.

Dedication

TO THE PREINCE REGENT
HOPING that he will awake to full knowledge of Himself, his MINISTERS, and his People, before it be too late: –

TO THE MINISTRY,
TRUSTING that a grateful people may ultimately appreciate, and properly reward the merits of all who compose it: –

TO THE JUDGES,
AS a proof that even judges may be mistaken; –

TO THE ATTORNEY GENERAL,
AS a record of his benevolent intentions, and the advantage of his persecution: –

AND TO WILLIAM COBBETT, ESQ.
AS a warning against precipitate conduct, and rash prediction; and in evidence that the Liberty of the Press is not entirely destroyed in England: –

THESE PAPERS ARE DEDICATED,

BY T.J.WOOLER”

In January 1817, Thomas Jonathan Wooler, a journalist, established a new radical unstamped journal, the Black Dwarf. Wooler, from Yorkshire, was a printer, who had served his apprenticeship in Shoreditch and become politically active in the numerous political debating clubs (eg the Socratic Club, which met in the Mermaid Tavern, Hackney), and had been involved in helping to produce reformist publications in the years of the Napoleonic Wars. He worked for the radical journal The Reasoner, then became editor of The Statesman. Wooler’s interest in legal matters led him to write and publish the pamphlet An Appeal to the Citizens of London against the Packing of Special Juries in 1817.

Wooler had previously founded The Stage in 1815, a paper featuring a mix of heavy satire and libertarian rhetoric, which foreshadowed the Black Dwarf’s general approach to politics.

The Black Dwarf first appeared in January 1817 as an eight page newspaper; it later became a 32 page pamphlet costing 4d. At this time it was possible to make a living from being a radical publisher. “The means of production of the printed page were sufficiently cheap to mean that neither capital nor advertising revenue gave much advantage; while the successful Radicalism, for the first time, a profession which could maintain its own full-time agitators.” Radical journalists like William Cobbett, Wooler and Richard Carlile became beacons of the reform movement, hugely influential, but also exposing themselves to repression, censorship and arrest, in an era when the government tried every method of closing down dissenting voices.

Within a few months the Dwarf reached a circulation of 12,000 and received the backing of the reform movement’s senior politician, Major John Cartwright.

The newspaper gave its support politically to Cartwright’s network of Hampden Clubs. Cartwright’s main objective was to unite middle class moderates with radical members of the working class to build a movement that could successfully press for reform of the corrupt, class-based British political system. Through his links to Cartwright Wooler became for a while one of the main leaders of the movement for political reform in Britain.

Wooler composed regular letters from the character named the Black Dwarf to various fictional correspondents. The Dwarf’s content consisted of satire, parodies and humour, attacking the political establishment and promoting Reform and working class interests. The paper drew on the emerging and evolving popular working class culture of poetry, ballads and songs, and reported speeches and quotations, questions, answers and parodies. At the heart of its method was to undermine lower class deference to the political classes, to encourage plebeian literary sophistication.
Its satire and parody also reflected the – then shocking and cutting edge – radical form of pisstaking of religious liturgy. For instance, an 1817 biblical parody attacked the House of Lords: “The LORD giveth, and the LORDS taketh away. Blessed be the way of the Lords”.

When the radical William Hone was tried for publishing a parody of parts of the Book of Common Prayer and acquitted in January 1818, Wooler based his response on “This Is the House That Jack Built“:

“This is the verdict recorded and found,
By the Jury unbiass’d, unpack’d and unfrowned
That frighten’d the Judge so choleric and old,
Who swore “by the oath of his office” so bold, ‘
Twas an impious, blasphemous libel, and so,
The man should be ruined ex-oficio,
By the servant of servants who blustered so big,
With his ears in his hand and his wits in his wig;
To please the Ministers
Who hated the truth
That was told by the man
Who published the parodies.”

“Did the title refer to the European sage or the Indian savage? Wooler teased, “We are not at liberty to unfold all the secrets of his prison‑house.” Here was the motley in both its forms, rags and fooling. The black dwarf was a trickster against throne and altar, secure from his invisibility, and dangerous from his power of division”Wooler might be describing the hydra‑”for like the polypus, he can divide and redivide himself, and each division remains a perfect animal.” (Linnaeus had given the name Hydra to a genus of freshwater polyps in 1756).
The Black Dwarf was international and multiethnic, featuring reviews of Oroonoko, news of the wild abolitionist dances of Barbados, the latest on struggles in South America. The dwarf of the frontispiece had his right hand raised in a fist of victory, and his left firmly on his hip in a further gesture of determination. A barrel‑chested Pan clasped the dwarf’s arm in comradely alliance and pointed to the symbols of vanquished Powers‑a royal scepter, a stack of money…’ ” (Peter Linebaugh)

For a few years, Wooler and the Black Dwarf commanded the largest radical audience, (particularly after William Cobbett fled to the US, after the passage of the 1817 Coercion Act and fearing arrest for his arguably seditious writings). The ruling class, petrified that the reform movement would become powerful enough to overthrow their power, saw in the Dwarf and other radical papers the inspiration that might bring that terrible time about. In 1819 Viscount Castlereagh, England’s Foreign Secretary and perhaps the most hated member of the Government, complained in parliament that T. J. Wooler had become “the bugleman of the Radicals”, and that The Black Dwarf was circulating from radical Westminster to northern colliery districts, where it could be found “in the hatcrown of almost every pitman you meet.”

Wooler was a capable orator and writer; when putting together articles, he worked directly from thought to press, composing directly as he typeset, rather than writing a draft first. This was cutting edge stuff – the words flowing from his mind to the hot type to the press.

Politically Wooler backed constitutionalist radical organisation, through local clubs. And education classes of not more than 20, a weekly penny subscription, meeting to sell and discuss radical papers and pamphlets. He thought large meetings didn’t work well for discussion; he was against secret actions and proclaimed open organization would defeat the workings of government spies.
In many of the clubs that were beginning to spring up, men would meet to listen to someone read out news and views from the Black Dwarf, Cobbett’s Political Register, and other papers, and discuss what they heard.

Wooler argued in the first issue of the Dwarf that the real freedom of Englishmen lay in their power and their will to uphold their liberties, not through the Constitution which was simply the “recorded merits of our ancestors”, but by deeds. He warned “the higher orders think the best mode is to destroy the Constitution altogether and then their cause can run no further risk.”

Cartoon attacking the radicals demanding parliamentary reform. It shows Henry Orator Hunt in the centre, next to him is the Black Dwarf (Thomas Wooler) and a pig dressed as Napoleon (Thomas Spence)

Wooler compared working class political clubs to the work of the Quakers: “Those who condemn clubs either do not understand what they can accomplish, or they wish nothing to be done… Let us look at, and emulate the patient resolution of the Quakers. They have conquered without arms – without violence – without threats. They conquered by union.” He attacked the erstwhile hero of the radical press, Cobbett, who had denounced the clubs: in contrast, Wooler asserted that people needed to organise themselves, and that the clubs were thus a necessity: “good men should associate when the bad combine to injure them. Our enemies are clubbed in every direction around us. Do military clubs and naval clubs and clubs of boroughmongers do no good to the cause of corruption? Are not all associations clubs; and is it not quite evident that the associated powers of a number are more likely to produce an effect than the individual exertions of twice or three times the number?”

Like Robert Wedderburn, Wooler took a dim view of Robert Owen’s attempt to create a model community in New Lanark. In August 1817, Wooler wrote: “It is very amusing to hear Mr Owen talk of re-moralizing the poor. Does he not think that the rich are a little more in want of re-moralizing; and particularly that class of them that has contributed to demoralize the poor, if they are demoralized, by supporting measures which have made them poor, and which now continue them poor and wretched? Talk of the poor being demoralized! It is their would-be masters that create all the evils that afflict the poor, and all the depravity that pretended philanthropists pretend to regret.”

Wooler was critical of capitalism: “Let him abandon the labourer to his own protection; cease to oppress him, and the poor man would scorn to hold any fictitious dependence upon the rich. Give him a fair price for his labour, and do not take two-thirds of a depreciated remuneration back from him again in the shape of taxes. Lower the extravagance of the great. Tax those real luxuries, enormous fortunes obtained without merit. Reduce the herd of locusts that prey upon the honey of the hive, and think they do the bees a most essential service by robbing them. The working bee can always find a hive. Do not take from them what they can earn, to supply the wants of those who will earn nothing. Do this; and the poor will not want your splendid erections for the cultivation of misery and the subjugation of the mind.”

George Cruikshank, Funeral Pile, published in 1820. Thomas Jonathan Wooler is the one with the bellows.

The development and growth in circulation of the Black Dwarf reflected the turbulent times it operated in. the post-Napoleonic War economic slump and resulting upsurge in demands for political and social reform, provoked only refusal and repression from the political establishment, which in turn led to increased agitation. State violence, police infiltration, legislative crackdowns, arrests and prosecutions were all used to try to beat down the pressure for change. In turn this pushed a minority into plans for uprisings and plots for revolution, though these proved abortive. Wooler himself argued in favour of the more constitutional wing of the movement and against taking up arms.

Tumultous events abounded. In December 1816 the third mass reform rally in a few months in Clerkenwell’s Spa Fields ended in a riotous attempt at insurrection. A month later the Prince Regent’s coach was attacked as he rode to open Parliament. In response to the agitation, the government passed the repressive Six Acts, banned large meeting and suspended the law of Habeus Corpus. William Cobbett fled to America to escape arrest. Thomas Wooler was arrested in early May 1817 and faced two trials for seditious libel for two articles published in the third and tenth numbers of the Black Dwarf. He was tried at the London Guildhall before Justice Charles Abbott and two special juries on 5th June that year. Read his Trial statement
The attorney-general, Samuel Shepherd, led the prosecution; however, Wooler defended himself brilliantly, advised by Charles Pearson, a young City radical, and was eventually acquitted of the charges.

The government repression inspired rebellion in Derbyshire in 1817; and continued, to culminate in the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester in August 1819. At least 18 people were killed and about 500 were wounded during a meeting calling for parliamentary reform. This event in itself sparked rage and riotous rallies across the country, but abortive plots for revolution ended with failed uprisings in Scotland and Yorkshire and arrests in Cato Street in London. Spies had been at he heart of all the plans and ensured that they went ahead to gather in the radicals but had no chance of succeeding.

Wooler himself was arrested for taking part in the campaign to elect Sir Charles Wolseley to represent Birmingham in the House of Commons. As Birmingham had not been given permission to have an election, Wooler and his fellow campaigners were charged with “forming a seditious conspiracy to elect a representative to Parliament without lawful authority”. Wooler was found guilty and sentenced to eighteen months imprisonment.

On his release from prison Wooler modified the tone of the Black Dwarf in an effort to comply with the terms of the Six Acts. This lost him some support from other radicals, including Richard Carlile, the editor of The Republican, who refused to reduce his radicalism.

To survive, Wooler had to rely on financial help from Major John Cartwright. However, on Cartwright’s death on 23rd September 1824, he was forced to close the newspaper down. The movements had not subsided, but the ferment of a few years before had dwindled, and Wooler was despondent. “In ceasing his political labours, the Black Dwarf has to regret one mistake, and that a serious one. He commenced writing under the idea that there was a PUBLIC in Britain, and that public devotedly attached to the cause of parliamentary reform. This, it is but candid to admit, was an error… Whereas in the past they had demanded reform, now they only “clamoured for bread”.

For a while, Wooler edited the British Gazette, but, after the Reform Act 1832 was passed, he gave up politics to become a lawyer. Wooler went on to write books and pamphlets on the British legal system, including Every Man his Own Lawyer in 1845.

Read some articles from the Black Dwarf 

There’s a partial archive of Black Dwarf

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An entry in the 2020 London Rebel History Calendar – buy a paper copy here

Check out the 2020 London Rebel History Calendar online

 

 

Today in London religious history, 1819: Followers of millenarian prophetess Joanna Southcott ’cause a riot’ in Cannon Street

The Woman Clothed with the Sun

Joanna Southcott  (April 1750 – 27 December 1814), was a self-described religious prophetess. She was born in the hamlet of Taleford, baptised at Ottery St Mary, and raised in the village of Gittisham, all in Devon, England.

Originally in the Church of England, in about 1792 she joined the Methodist Church in Exeter, becoming persuaded that she possessed supernatural gifts, she wrote and dictated prophecies in rhyme, and then announced herself as the Woman of the Apocalypse spoken of in a prophetic passage of the Revelation (12:1–6). An apocalypse was coming, she announced, where the ‘satanic powers’ would be overthrown, and a messiah would return, to launch a Millennium of peace.

Moving to London, Southcott began selling paper “seals of the Lord” (at prices varying from twelve shillings to a guinea) – basically ‘Get Out of the Apocalypse Free’ Cards which supposedly ensured the holders’ places among the 144,000 people who would be elected to eternal life. She spent the 1790s recording a series of prophecies communicated to her, she maintained, by a ‘Spirit of Truth’; worldly events (war, famine, etc) signalling the impending end of days. The theology she developed set out a role for herself, partly identifying her with ‘The Woman Clothed with the Sun’ described in the Book of Revelation (which features in a famous engraving by William Blake); empowered with the redemptive power of God, who would tale part in a war on heaven; she also foretold that a ‘Shiloh’ or prophet would appear immediately before Jesus’ return (again derived from Biblical writings)

The World Turned Upside Down

Southcott’s prophecies began to gain her followers, as her writings became wider known across the country. By 1814 she had gathered at least 12,000 adherents, although the movement was estimated as influencing many more; accurate figures are hard to nail down. Many of her followers had previously cleaved to Methodism, like herself, to other fringe Christian churches and to prophets like her near-contemporary Richard Brothers, The millenarian ferment could take wildly divergent forms: on one hand millenarians could by politically quietist, avoiding action for reform or social change in the immediate because they viewed the Second Coming of Jesus as imminent and that would sweep worldly structures away, but just as easily, millenarianism could evolve into the urgent compulsion to bring the Second Coming about by collective action. As Southcott was beginning her career this dangerous dichotomy had already landed Richard Brothers in prison, Brothers having spooked the authorities after predicting the downfall of Parliament and king George III in apocalyptic language so violent that it came close to echoing the revolutionary agitation of France. As during the years of the English Revolution, religious fervour and dreams of the apocalypse and everyday social change went to some extent hand in hand. Millenarians hanging out in London taverns rubbed shoulders with very earthly radicals, with ideas mingling at the fringes, producing individuals like James Hadfield, who tried to shoot king George III in 1800, convinced it would help bring about the Millennium. Figures like William Blake, who mixed religious millenarianism with radical desires for social justice, are not unusual in this evolving, fertile brew of milieu.

Many of Southcott’s followers (in common with the adherents of other prophets, Methodists and other sects) were of plebeian origins; the dream of overturning society appealing most obviously to those whose lives were often bitterly hard, faced with oppression, poverty and arbitrary powers above them. The massive social upheaval of the Industrial Revolution, the dislocation caused by enclosure, the political cataclysm represented by the French Revolution, were all combining to give birth of a varied, shifting, many-faceted sense of a world changing being turned on its head. Southcott herself, however, specifically opposed radical politics and warned her readers against following the reform-minded and republican paths. ‘Rebellion is as iniquity and Idolatry’, she wrote, urging her followers to ‘not trouble themselves about politics or parties and have no connection with desperate Men… avoid contention or strife’. She wrote a book in reply and opposition to Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason, and declared her support for the English monarchy.
Nevertheless among her following were a number of former radicals of the 1790s; on the other hand, after her death, a portion of the Southcottian scene did take part on reformist or radical politics.

Her followers created a network of Southcottian chapels (taking advantage of new easings on the opening of dissenting meeting houses), to hear sermons and sing hymns on the subject of the Millennium.

At the age of 64 Southcott let it be known that she was pregnant and would give birth to the new Messiah, the Shiloh mentioned in the book of of Genesis (49:10). The date of 19 October 1814 was that fixed for the birth, but Shiloh failed to appear, and it was announced that Southcott was in a trance.

She died not long after. The official date of death was given as 27 December 1814, but it seems that she died the previous day, but her followers retained her body for a day or two, believing that she would soon be raised from the dead. They agreed to her burial only after the corpse began to decay.

Her death, without giving birth to the Messiah, didn’t completely disillusion her following, though the movement splintered into sects with diverging explanations for what had ‘happened’ at her death (had the Shiloh in fact been born but was taken up to God etc). The kind of rationalisation that generally takes place in cults when Millennial dates pass without visible sign of Apocalypse or Rapture… Elements of the Southcottian tradition continue to exit today, though much declined in number. Successor prophets including George Turner, John Wroe, and John ‘Zion’ Ward held sway in some parts of the Southcottian movement; other factions felt she could have no earthly successor.

‘A MOST lamentable instance of the effects of infatuation and religious enthusiasm’

Engaged with radicalism or not, the movement attracted both the distrust of the authorities and something of the more general contempt and mockery that dissenting religious sects aroused among a section of the populace. Southcottians became occasional targets for mobs and general abuse.
At least once this led to a mini-riot. In January 2019 a family of Southcottians were arrested in the City of London after triggering a barney in the street. An account of their trial exists in the Newgate Calendar:

“SAMUEL SIBLEY; MARIA CATHERINE SIBLEY; SAMUEL JONES; his son; THOMAS JONES; JOHN ANGEL; THOMAS SMITH; JAMES DODD and EDWARD SLATER

Deluded followers of Joanna Southcott, the sham prophetess, tried for rioting, 13th of January, 1819

   A MOST lamentable instance of the effects of infatuation and religious enthusiasm was exhibited before the sitting magistrate, at Guildhall, London, on the 13th of January, 1819, when Samuel Sibley, and Maria Catherine Sibley, his wife; Samuel Jones; his son, a boy of ten years’ old; Thomas Jones, John Angel, Thomas Smith, James Dodd, and Edward Slater, a boy of twelve years’ of age; were brought up from the Compter, by two officers of the Cordwainers’ Ward, who had with great difficulty, and at the hazard of their own lives, rescued the prisoners from the fury of an immense mob, in Budge-row, Cannon-street, about ten o’clock on the previous morning.

   These deluded people, it was ascertained, were disciples of the lately famous Joanna Southcott, of whom the public have heard so much, and conceived themselves directed by God to proclaim the Coming of Shiloh on Earth: for this purpose they assembled at the west end of the town, in order to enter the only gate of the great city (Temple-bar), through which they marched in procession about nine o’clock in the morning, They were each decorated with a white cockade, and wore a small star of yellow riband on the left breast; Sibley, who led the procession, bearing a brazen trumpet adorned with light blue ribands, and the boys carried each a small flag of blue silk.

   In this manner they had proceeded through Fleet-street, up Ludgate-hill, and along St Paul’s Church-yard, to Budge-row, a great crowd following them, increasing continually as they proceeded. Having arrived, as they supposed, in the middle of the great city, they halted, and began to perform their ceremonies. Sibley sounded the trumpet, and proclaimed the second coming of the Shiloh, the Prince of Peace, on earth; and his wife cried aloud, “Wo! wo! to the inhabitants of the earth, because of the coming of the Shiioh!” This cry was repeated several times, and joined in with a loud voice by the others of the company.

   The crowd was by this time immense, every avenue was stopped up, and the passage of carts and carriages rendered impossible. The mob began with laughing and shouting at these miserably deluded people, and at length proceeded to pelting them with mud and every sort of missile they could procure; they, on their part, being most of them stout young men, resisted; the fight became general and tremendous, the flags were torn down, and Sibley and his associates with great difficulty preserved, by the exertions of the officers, from falling victims to the infuriated rage of the mob, and conveyed to the Compter. Their appearance, when put to the bar, bespoke the danger they had gone through; the men had been all rolled in the mud, and Sibley bore evident marks of violence in his face. The tattered remnants of the paraphernalia used on this singular occasion were also produced, and excited in the minds of all present a mixed sensation of pity and disgust at the assumption of holy functions and heavenly agencies in which the deluded fanatics had so impiously indulged.

   On being called upon by the magistrate, Mr. Alderman Bridges, to give an account of their conduct, in thus disturbing the public peace, Sibley, with an air of authority, directed the others to be silent, and, addressing the alderman, said, he regretted there was no time for him to enter into the particulars of the mission of God to him. He had been commanded by a voice, through the boy Slater, to announce that the Prince of Peace was come upon earth. He was commanded to proclaim the Second Coming of Shiloh, in the same manner, and with the same authority as John the Baptist had proclaimed his first coming. This proclamation he was to make three times in the midst of the great city, by the sound of the trumpet. He and his companions were obeying the commands of God, and in so doing had conducted themselves peaceably, and interfered with no one, when they were attacked by the mob.

   He was proceeding to explain the nature of the visions with which the boy had been favoured, and his wife was raising her voice to bear testimony to the fact of the Shiloh being on earth, whom she said she had had in her arms four times, when the magistrate interrupted them, and observed, that it was evident, if they were not insane, that they were acting under a strong delusion, and pointed out to them how much better they would have been employed in pursuing their regular avocations, than in being the cause of public riot, and endangering their own persons; recommending them to desist from any repetitions of their gross absurdities and delusions.

   The men in reply said, it was right they should obey God; but they would do whatever the magistrate directed, and desist from any further proclamation, assuring him at the same time that nevertheless the Shiloh was come.

   The Alderman said he would not rely on their promise, and should detain them all in custody till they could procure him some better assurance than their own words for their peaceable demeanour in future. They were accordingly conveyed back to the Compter in two coaches to protect them from the mob: one of the men on stepping into the coach, unbuttoned his coat, displayed his yellow star, and placing his hand on it, proclaimed that it was God’s colour.

   On the following morning, the whole party of these self-created heralds of heavenly news were again brought up before the sitting magistrate, Alderman Christopher Smith.

   Sibley was again the spokesman, and, in reply to the magistrate, who inquired if he had ever been in Bedlam, said, the gentlemen might laugh, but he was not mad, but had investigated the business thoroughly before he was convinced. He believed the Bible from cover to cover, and could point out the prophecies which were now fulfilling. He then went into a long rhapsody of nonsense respecting the visions with which the boy had been favoured by God, and declared he had witnessed miracles performed by him. In the course of his long address, he quoted the Scriptures very fluently, and concluded by referring, in justification of his belief, to the passage in which it is said, “in the latter days your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men see visions.” Being asked what place of worship he attended, he replied, his church was his own house, No. 3, Gooch-yard, Upper Whitecross-street; there were about thirty of them who met there frequently, to read the Bible and receive commands of the Lord. He had now received command from God to desist from any further proclamation; and if the Prince Regent were to collect all the money in the world, and lay it at his feet, he dared not do it; the magistrate might therefore rely there would be no repetition of their previous conduct.

   In this declaration he was joined by his wife and the rest of his associates, who all declared aloud, that they dared not now proceed any further in this business. On this assurance on their parts, they were discharged with a suitable admonition from the worthy Alderman, and thus terminated this very singular mission.

   The leader of this redoubtable troop, Sibley, held the dignified station of watchman, in the neighbourhood of St. George’s Fields; and the rest of the maniac band was composed of journeymen mechanics and labourers, with their wives. The whole were grossly ignorant and stupid, but most inveterate1y conceited, and evidently acted under a full impression of the divine nature of the cause in which they were embarked.”

As noted above, the popular millenarian movement founded by Joanna Southcott enjoyed a complex relationship with political radicalism in early nineteenth-century Britain. Southcott opposed radicalism during her lifetime, encouraging her followers to await a messianic agent of the millennium. But within two decades of the prophet’s death, some surviving Southcottians became political radicals, most notably, John ‘Zion’ Ward (1781-1837) and James Elishama Smith (1801-57). Ward was a popular preacher during the agitations around the Reform Bill, speaking regularly at Carlile’s Rotunda; Smith was a utopian socialist lecturer, editor of Robert Owen’s journal Crisis, active in the co-operative movement’s attempt to create a ‘general trades union’ in 1833-34. The influence of Ward and Smith drew several hundred Southcottians into engagement with politics.

Historians have differed widely on the relationship of Southcottianism and religious millenarianism more widely to political radicalism. ‘Visionary Religion and Radicalism in Early Industrial England: From Southcott to Socialism’ by Philip Lockley (published 2013) look like an interesting recent discussion of this interaction.

What’s In the Box? What’s In the Baaax?

The most intriguing myth of the Southcottian tradition centres around ‘Joanna Southcott’s Box. On her death, she left a sealed wooden box of prophecies, with the instruction that it be opened only at a time of national crisis, and then only in the presence of all 24 bishops of the Church of England (who were to spend time beforehand studying Southcott’s prophecies). Attempts were made to persuade the episcopate to open it during the Crimean War and again during the First World War. In 1927, the psychic researcher Harry Price claimed that he had come into possession of the box and arranged to have it opened in the presence of the reluctant suffragan Bishop of Grantham, but this box was found to contain only a few oddments and unimportant papers, among them a lottery ticket and a horse-pistol. However, historians and followers of Southcott disputed Price’s claims to have had the true box; modern Southcottians the Panacea Society claim THEY have the real box, and ran an advertising campaign on billboards and in British newspapers in the 1960s and 1970s, to try to persuade the twenty-four bishops to have the box opened, on the grounds that “War, disease, crime and banditry, distress of nations and perplexity will increase until the Bishops open Joanna Southcott’s box.”

However, Southcott’s prophesy that the Day of Judgement would come in the year 2004 appears not to have come to pass, and her followers’ campaign for the contents of the box to be been studied beforehand (so that the world would have had to meet the Second Coming unprepared) fell on largely deaf ears…

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An entry in the 2020 London Rebel History Calendar – buy a paper copy here

Check out the 2020 London Rebel History Calendar online

 

 

Today in London radical history: Chartist socialist George Julian Harney born Deptford, 1817.

George Julian Harney was a central figure in London’s Chartist movement, as well as playing a significant part nationally, and became an early socialist.
The following text gives a brief account of his life, concentrating on his Chartist days.

Deptford’s Red Republican: George Julian Harney, 1817-1897
By Terry Liddle

As well as being dedicated to the memory of George Julian Harney, this text is also dedicated to the memory of Albert Standley, a pioneer of modern Republicanism.

In 1840, Harney stated: “Be ours the task to accomplish by one glorious effort the freedom of our country.” Let’s do it!

GEORGE JULIAN HARNEY was born in Deptford, then an important maritime centre, in February 17, 1817. As early as the end of the 18th century ship builders in the area had starled to organise trade unions and from the 1830s onward there would be an active Charlist movement. Harney’s father had served as an able seaman in the wars with France. Orphaned early in life. Harney’s education was rudimentary until at the age of 11 he entered the Boys School at Greenwich. Three Years later he went to sea as a cabin boy visiting Portugal and Brazil. Physically unsuited to the hard seafaring life, after six months at sea he returned to London, taking up various jobs ashore. At this time the agitation around the Reform Bill, with both the new industrial middle class and the more numerous working class struggling for the vote, was at its zenith and Harney soon became involved.

In 1832. he look a job as shop boy at the Poor Man’s Guardian. Published by Henry Hetherington, a Freethinker and Owenite Socialist, it had a circulation of 16,000. The Publications Act of 1819 had imposed on newspapers a stamp duty of sixpence which placed them beyond the pocket of working class readers. The Radicals of the day saw this as an unjust tax on knowledge and defiantly published unstamped papers. Hundreds of sellers of the unstamped press were imprisoned for the right to read and sell their own publications. Harney served his political apprenticeship in this struggle being imprisoned three times between the years 1831 and 1836.

HARNEY AND O’BRIEN

On release from Derby prison, Harney became friends with the Poor Man’s Guardian editor Bronterre O’Brien. O’Brien was a keen student of the French Revolution, translating Buonarroti’s history of Babeuf’s conspiracy and writing a biography of Robespierre. Harney followed his example. Of their friendship, O’Brien’s biographer, Alfred Plummer, wrote: “These two spirited young men, filled with revolutionary fervour, were united in conviction that given universal suffrage and the dispersal of mass ignorance… the march of regeneration would be swift and sure, all that was oppressive would be overthrown and triumphant justice would take the place of extirpated wrong.”

The London Mercury of March 12, 1837 noted the formation of the East London Democratic Association noting: “We admire the objects and principles of this new society and shall not fail to give it all the support and encouragement in our power.” Leading figures were Harney, Charles Neeson, a Painite tailor, and Allen Davenport, a shoemaker and follower of Thomas Spence. On June 11, 1837, the ELDA met to consider a motion put by Harney urging the formation of a Central National Association as the only rational means of not only obtaining universal sufflage but also the overthrow of the moneyed tyrants who grind the sons of labour into the dust.

The Central National Association was duly formed and met to consider a motion from Harney and O’Brien advocating physical force as the means to radical reform. However, the CNA was short lived, being wrecked by a dispute resulting from Harney’s attack on the conduct of the Irish MP Daniel O’Connell. Hamey and his followers formed the London Democratic Association. With a solid base among Spitalfields silkweavers and other London trades, its membership was 4,000. Its aims as stated by Harney included universal suffrage, abolition of newspaper taxes and the Poor Law, the 8 hour day and support for trade unions.

At Christmas 1838 Hamey visited Newcastle which had elected him a delegate to the forthcoming Chartist National Convention. Thousands turned out on Christmas day to listen to, and applaud, his call for physical force. Harney continued his speaking tour in Yorkshire and Lancashire, men armed with muskets and pikes attending mass torchlight meetings. Harney at the time was so poor he had to wait in a tailor’s shop while his one pair of trousers was being repaired. The mood was one of revolution, thousands coming to see the forthcoming Convention as the country’s real government.

A week before the Convention gathered in London, Harney addressed a mass meeting in Derby. He proclaimed: “We demand universal suffrage because it is our right and not only because it is our right but because we believe that it will bring freedom to our country and happiness to our homesteads, we believe it will give us bread and beef and beer.”

The convention met on February 4, 1839. An absent delegate was George Loveless who had been transported to Australia for his trade union activities in Tolpuddle. The Convention decided to seek the support of MPs for a petition with over a million signatures supporting the People’s Charter. For Harney this was an absurd waste of time. The LDA attempted to place before the Convention a motion stating that every act of oppression should be answered with immediate resistance. This was rejected. A mass meeting on March 11 addressed by Harney and O’Brien advised the Chartists to arm themselves. The Convention began to discuss the people’s right to arm. Harney again underlines his position in the pages of the London Democrat: “…there is but one means of obtaining the Charter and that is by insurrection.”

An alarmed government began mobilising the military and a new police, Armed gatherings were banned and magistrates given the power to prohibit meetings.

With things reaching crisis point, at Harney’s suggestion the Convention relocated to Birmingham on May 13. The police raided the LDA’s offices, but Harney escaped arrest having already left for Birmingham. A warrant for his arrest was sworn out on May 17. In Birmingham, serious rioting broke out when the police attacked a small meeting. It was only at the urging of Chartist leaders that the rioters dispersed. The authorities reacted by arresting Taylor and several other Chartist leaders. More riots broke out in Birmingham and elsewhere when parliament rejected the Charter on July 15. The Convention’s leaders, unable or unwilling to head a revolution, issued a call for a general strike only to reverse their decision when it became clear that it lacked support. Finally, at the urging of Harney and Taylor the Convention dissolved itself.

The authorities caught tip with Harney at Bedlington near Newcastle, their aim being to return him to Birmingham via Carlisle. In Carlisle he had to be smuggled out of the back door of an inn, an angry crowd demanding his release surrounding the front. When news of his arrest became known in Newcastle the town, was plastered with posters calling the people to action. Miners in the area struck and started marching on Newcastle. A ban on meetings was defied and rioting broke out. Once again it was the Chartist leaders who defused the situation,

By the Spring of 1840 over five hundred Chartists were in prison. Harney was held in Warwick Castle but later released. A rising in Wales had failed and its leaders had suffered transportation. Some died behind bars. In 1842 Harney spoke at the graveside of Sheffield Chartist Samuel Holberry who had died in prison aged twenty seven. “He is numbered with the patriots who have died martyrs for the cause of liberty…”, proclaimed Harney. Harney’s own trial collapsed when the Crown withdrew its case. Scotland was the only place where Chartist leaders were still at liberty and after his trial Hamey went there for a lecture tour which lasted a year. It was there that he met and married Mary Cameron, a weaver’s daughter, to whom he was greatly devoted. His activities in Scotland he reported himself in the pages of the Northern Star. Selling at fourpence halfpenny, it had a circulation of thirty thousand

A STRIKE DEFEATED

While his politics remained the same he was a Jacobin cast in the mould of Marat, the tone of his oratory altered considerably. He now stressed national organisation instead of immediate insurrection. There was now a line of caution and moderation in his speeches. During the Plug Plot Riots of 1842, when the Chartists again tried to win their demands by means of a general strike and troops fired on strikers in Blackburn, Halifax and Preston. Harney, feeling that the strike lacked real mass support, urged moderation much to the dismay of many of his supporters. Harney felt that the strike had been provoked by the manufacturers in a bid to secure repeal of the Corn Laws. Basing his analysis on the situation in Sheffield, where after a mass meeting had supported the strike, several trade union secretaries then opposed it, he wrote in the Northern Star of September 3, 1842: “I would have joined into it heart and soul but no sane man could come to any other conclusion than that the great mass of the people of Sheffield Trades were deadly hostile to any such scheme”. At a conference in Sheffield he pointed out that strikers had returned to work two days after being fired on by troops.

By the middle of August, 1842 the strike had been defeated. The government celebrated by arresting over one thousand five hundred Chartists. Of these, in excess of six hundred were put on trial, forty being transported. Peter M’Douall, a prominent strike leaders, fled to France. The strike, however, was instrumental in ending the Corn Laws, the Home Secretary in 1842, giving the strike as the reason for their abolition. Harney may well have been right.

Harney had settled in Sheffield in 1841 having been appointed full time Chartist organiser for the West Riding. The strength of Chartism in this part of Yorkshire can be judged from the facts that over fifteen thousand people turned out to celebrate the French Revolution of 1848 and that by the following year Chartists held nearly half the seats on Sheffield Town Council. He also became local correspondent for the Northem Star. His political ideas remained unchanged and his opposition to union between the middle class reformers of Joseph Sturge’s Complete Suffrage Union and the Chartists brought him into conflict with his old mentor O’Brien. Hamey, and the Northem Star with him, took the view that even if the Union’s reform proposals were adopted the working class would still be left prostrate before capitalists and speculators. The project fell apart when after a conference in 1842 adopted the Charter in name, an earlier conference having adopted its six points, Sturge withdrew. The whole sorry episode, however, had as its legacy further divisions within the Chartists ranks.

One charge thrown at the Chartists was that of infidelity. Hamey was himself an infidel. In Derby he aided the secularist booksellers Finlay and Robinson and when Holyoake was imprisoned for blasphemy Harney acted as agent for his Oracle of Reason. In a letter to Holyoake dated April 22, 1844, Harney made it plain that he was “war with all priesthoods and priestcrafts” along with republicanism and communism as part of Chartism’s future. However when the Reverend John Campbell again hurled the charge of infidelity Hamey replied: “There is nothing concerning infidelity in the Charter… The Charter promises to confer on all men… the rights of citizenship…”

In 1843 Hamey became sub editor of the Northem Star moving to Leeds where it was published. From then until 1850 the paper was under Harney’s effective control. he taking the editorial chair in 1845. During this period Harney often found himself out of step with much mainstream Chartist thinking. In particular he opposed the Land Plan a scheme whereby Chartists would buy land and settle it as smallholders. While the first estate named for Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor worked well for a while in the end the plan failed. As the historian of Chartism, Reg Groves put it: “… it was an attempt to circumvent historical development; to find a way to escape from industrial development, instead of seeking the way forward through the utilisation of the new production power”.

A striking feature of the Northern Star was Harney’s reports of international events. In this he drew on an international tradition that went back to the Civil War. Early in his political career, Harney had come into contact with Polish refugees from the failed uprising of 1831 and had later joined the Polish Democratic Association. In 1844 the Northem Star moved to London bringing Hamey into contact with the various groupings of political refugees. Within this milieu were French, Germans and Italians as well as Poles.

The Poles were organised in the Polish Democratic Association and Lud Polski. The French had been in contact with English Chartists since 1840. That year Karl Schapper, Heinrich Bauer and Joseph Moll had founded the German Workers Education Society. Schapper and Bauer were members of the League of the Just founded in Paris in 1836, members fighting in an abortive uprising In 1839. The Italians were mostly followers of Mazzini who aimed for a united Italian Republic. Together with some English Chartists they founded an International Peoples League in 1847.

0ut of this gathering of hardline republicans there arose, following a banquet in celebration of the French Revolution, the Fraternal Democrats. Its slogan “All Men are Brothers” was that of the League of the Just. The Fraternal Democrats can truly be said to be a forerunner of the First International of which Harney would become a member. Its statement of aims stated: “Convinced… that national prejudices have been, in all ages, taken advantage of by the people’s oppressors to set them tearing the throats of each other, when they could have been working together for their common good, this Society repudiates the term ‘foreigner’, no matter by, or to whom applied.” Hamey was a fervent member. appealing in the Northern Star “… to the oppressed of every land for the triumph of the common cause.” This did not stop Marx sending Hamey what he called “a mild attack on the peacefulness of the Fraternal Democrats.”

FRANCE AND IRELAND

It was at a banquet to celebrate the 1848 French Revolution that Harney and O’Brien were reconciled, O’Brien speaking in favour of a union of Chartists and Socialists. When the Fraternal Democrats met on Robespierre’s birthday, Harney was in the chair and according to the Democratic Review O’Brien’s vindication of the character of the victim of Thermidor was enthusiastically applauded. O’Brien proposed a toast to Harney and other toasts were to the memory of Robert Ernmett and the health of Smith O’Brien and other Irish patriots. Paine, Washington and Ernest Jones were also honoured. Soon afterwards O’Brien was the main speaker at a meeting held to protest the suppression of electoral reform in France. He bitterly attacked the money class in France who sought to keep the people poor by robbing them of the fruits of their labours.

O’Brien, also spoke at a meeting to protest the treatment of William Smith O’Brien, an Irish nationalist who had been transported on a flimsy charge of high treason. In 1838 over one hundred Chartists and workers organisations had signed an address to the Irish people which stated: “… seeing that the productive classes of the two islands have the same wants and the same enemies; why should they not look forward to the same remedy and make common cause against the same oppressor …” Harney was also a friend of Ireland, speaking from the Irish platform at the Kennington Common demonstration of 1848 and writing in the Red Republican: “It is high time the proletarians of Great Britain and Ireland came into possession of their rightful heritage…”

The Fraternal Democrats’ politics can be judged from a speech delivered by Harney in 1846 to the German Democratic Society for the Education of the Working Class. Said Harney: “The cause of the common people of all countries is the same the cause of labour… In each country the slavery of the many and the tyranny of the few are variously developed, but the principle in all is the same… Working men of all nations are not your grievances the same? Is not. then, your good cause one and the same also? We may differ as to the means … but the great end the veritable emancipation of the human race must be the aim and the end of all May the working classes of all nations combine in brotherhood for the triumph of their common cause.”

The Fraternal Democrats’ programme as outlined by Harney, declared: “We renounce, repudiate and condemn all hereditary inequalities and distinctions of caste. we declare that the present state of society which permits idlers and schemers to monopolise the fruits of the earth, and the productions of industry, and compels the working class to labour for inadequate rewards. and ever condemns them to social slavery, destitution and degradation is essentially unjust…”

MARX AND ENGELS

Harney and Engels first met in 1843, Harney wrote of their encounter: “…he came from Bradford to Leeds and inquired for me at the Northern Star office. A tall, handsome young man… whose English… was even then remarkable for its accuracy. He told me he was a constant reader of the Northern Star and took a keen interest in the Chartist movement. Thus began our friendship …” Engels started writing for the Northern Star in 1844. Despite Harney’s later split with Marx, his friendship with Engels endured. And fifty years later when Engels died Hamey contributed a moving obituary to the Newcastle Weekly Chronicle.

Marx’s youngest daughter Eleanor looked fondly upon the years of friendship between Harney and Engels. In 1887 she wrote in the Democratic Review: “…it has been my good fortune to know as a child George Julian Harney … only a few months ago 1 heard Harney and Engels talking of Chartist times.”

Harney first met Marx in 1845 during a short visit by the latter to England. The following year Marx and Engels were suggesting that Harney act as the link between the London Communists and their group in Brussels. Harney, who had joined the League of the Just in 1846, was closer to Marx’s critics who looked on the group in Belgium as “literary characters” guilty of “intellectual arrogance”. Marx and Engels toyed with the idea of ending relations with the London exiles and making a private deal with Harney but it was fruitless. Meanwhile the Northern Star reported greetings from the Belgium Communists to O’Connor who has stood as a Chartist in a by election.

In 1847 Harney stood for election in Tiverton where he opposed Lord Palmerston. ln his election address, Harney stated: “I would… oppose all wars and interventions except those which the voice of the people might pronounce absolutely indispensable for self defence, or the protection of the weak against the powerful. I would labour to put an end to the alliance of this country with despotic governments…” So worried was Palmerston by Harney’s attack that his reply filled five columns of The Times. On a show of hands Harney was overwhelmingly elected but declined to go to the poll in protest at an undemocratic franchise.

That year Marx returned to London to attend the second conference of the Communist League. While there he addressed a gathering of the Fraternal Democrats in celebration of the 1830 Polish Revolution. The Northern Star reported: “Dr. Marx… was greeted with every demonstration of welcome. The Democrats of Belgium felt that the Chartists of England were the real Democrats and that the moment they carried the six points of their Charter, the road to liberty would be opened to the whole world.” “Carry your object then”, said the speaker, “and you will be hailed as the saviours of the whole human race.”

In the course of his speech, Marx pointed out that the downfall of the established order is no loss for those having nothing to lose in the old society and this is the case in all countries for the great majority. They have, rather, everything to gain from the collapse of the old society which is the condition for the building of a new society no longer based on class oppression.

REVOLUTION!

Europe in 1848 was aflame with revolution. In France the monarchy of Louis Phillipe was overthrown and a republic proclaimed. The French Provisional Government invited Marx to France and even offered him money to start a newspaper. The Chartists welcomed the upheaval which saw the tricolour everywhere next to the red flag. The National Charter Association, the London Chartists and the Fraternal Democrats addressed the Parisian people in these words: “…you have exhibited a spectacle of unparalleled heroism, and thereby set an example to the enslaved nations of the earth … the fire that consumed the throne of the royal traitor and tyrant “I kindle the torch of liberty in every country of Europe.”

Harney, together with Emest Jones and Phillip McGraith, was sent to France to deliver this address to the Provincial Government. At the Hotel de Ville in Paris he assured France of the support of the British people, presenting Ledru Rollin with the original of the address adorned with the tricolour. This was hung over the presidential chair in the hall of audience. Hamey and Jones then went to meet with Marx.

When British intervention against France looked likely, the Fraternal Democrats issued a manifesto which stated: “Workingmen of Great Britain and Ireland, ask yourselves the question: why should you arm and fight for the preservation of institutions in the privileges of which you have no share … why should you arm and fight for the protection of property which you can only regard as the accumulated plunder of the fruits of your labour? Let the privileged and the property owners fight their own battles.” Jones assured the Fraternal Democrats that “the Book of Kings was fast closing in the Bible of Humanity.” The Northern Star editorialised: “…as France has secured her beloved Republic, so Ireland must have her parliament restored and England her idolised Charter.”

A banned meeting in Trafalgar Square proclaimed support for the Charter and the French Revolution. A riot ensued with lamps near Buckingham Palace being smashed to the alarm of Frau Guelph. Town after town held monster rallies under the tricolour hailing France and the Charter; a joint Irish and Chartist meeting in Edinburgh sung The Marseillaise. At Kennington Common twenty thousand gathered with the tricolour in the face of armed police.

In London a Chartist Convention assembled on April 4. Harney reported that his constituents had resolved that the forthcoming petition would be the last presented to the Commons as presently constituted. All delegates reported growing willingness to use physical force if the Charter was again rejected.

A march on parliament to present the petition was banned. Harney replied that the Chartists shouldn’t meet at all unless they were prepared to fight for the demonstration. Government buildings were barricaded, clerks armed and specials sworn in. The Empress decamped for the Isle of Wight. Troops were deployed and heavy guns brought up from Woolwich. As the Chartists prepared to demand their rights, the government, mindful of events in France, prepared for war!

On April 10, the Chartists assembled to hear O’Connor beg them to call things off claiming he would be shot. By 10am the Chartists with banners calling for “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” and “Ireland for the Irish” were on the march. In their midst was a carriage carrying the petition with over five million signatures. It was followed by another carriage with Hamey in the front seat. Eventually one hundred and fifty thousand gathered on Kennington Common. There O’Connor said he made a deal with the police they would allow the meeting if the march was called off. Various platforms were set up with Harney among the speakers. By 2pm the crowd was starting to disperse. Apart from a few scuffles there was no violence. Britain was not France!

The National Convention reconvened on May 1. Harney had been forbidden by O’Connor, his employer, to attend. The Convention became a short lived National Assembly. The National Charter Association was reorganised and links with the Irish Republicans (Ireland in the grip of the Great Hunger was ill prepared as Britain for revolution). There was talk of an uprising in the summer. In Bradford thousands marched with pikes. Northern Chartists resolved to form a National Guard and there were riots in Manchester. At London’s Bonner’s Fields, Jones assured his audience that the Chartist green flag would fly over Downing Street. This was not to be so.

The state struck first, the Irish heading the list. John Mitchell, editor of the United Irishman was transported being held en route in the Woolwich hulks. He was followed by Smith O’Brien whose rising in Tipperary failed. Next came the Chartists. London Chartists were found guilty of conspiring to levy was against Victoria. In Liverpool two were sentenced to death and five transported. Jones got two years.

Somehow, Harney remained at liberty. Amongst Chartists not behind bars the mood became one of despair and defeatism. Many now repudiated revolution and sought an alliance with middle class advocates of a limited extension of the franchise. Splits occurred and rival organisations were set up. Harney was on both the executive of the NCA and a provisional executive set up by London Chartists.

If some moved Right, Harney moved Left. As the Red Republican put it: “they have progressed from the idea of a simple political reform to the idea of Social Revolution.” For the Left, Chartism was now “… the cause of the producers, and the battle of this enslaved class is now the battle we fight, but it must be fought under the red flag… the task given to us at present is to rally our brother proletarians en masse around the flag, by means of a democratic and social propaganda, an agitation for the Charter and something more.”

Harney was now removed from the Northern Star by O’Connor who accused him of advocating murder, a charge repudiated by the NCA. Unity moves in the form of a National Charter and Social Reform Union was stillborn. The Chartist Convention of 1851 issued a statement emphasising that Chartism should be the protector of the oppressed and should recognise that a political change would be useless unless accompanied by a social change. The Red Republican appealed for reports from trade unions and co operative societies. By the end of the 1850s Chartism was a spent force.

Fired from the Northern Star, Harney started publication of the monthly Democratic Review. This carded articles from a wide range of Radicals including Engels. It also republished articles by Marx.

The Democratic Review was followed by the Red Republican which appeared on June 22, 1850. At its masthead was the bonnet rouge and the red flag. Articles advocated the expropriation of docks, canals and railways and even the abolition of money. In its pages was published the first English translation of the Communist Manifesto.

Faced with a booksellers’ boycott, the name was changed to the Friend of the People. It was published from 1850 to 1852 when it merged with the Northern Star, then the Vanguard, to become the Star of Freedom. Harney’s final publication was the Vanguard which ceased publication in 1853.

AN UNWELCOME VISITOR

In 1850 there came to Britain the Austrian general Haynau, notorious for his activities in Hungary and Italy including the flogging of women. On a visit to the Barclay brewery in Southwark, workers answered Harney’s call for protests by grabbing Haynau, cutting off his moustache and flogging him. Chased through the brewery, he hid in a dustbin until tile police rescued him. The rest of his visit was spent in bed recovering. The event was the subject of a popular song.

By this lime Harney and Jones had fallen out, hurling accusations of dictatorship. Determined to defeat Harney, Jones called a convention in Manchester. There he was triumphant but he was powerless to halt Chartism’s decline. Unity moves, opposed by Hamey, again failed. The last Chartist Convention met in 1858. It was the end.

Hamey had also fallen out with Marx who was now living in London. The cause of the breach was Harney’s willingness to open the pages of his publications to a wide range of exiles including those with whom Marx was engaged in fractional strife.

At a Fraternal Democrats event in 1848 Marx had met with the followers of the French revolutionary Blanqui. Out of this there was organised the Universal Society of Communist Revolutionaries. Among those signing its statutes were Marx, Engels and Harney.

Early in 1851 Harney spoke at a meeting to commemorate the Polish patriot Bem, organised by French followers of Blanqui and Louis Blanc. That year he managed to be at rival events celebrating the 1848 French Revolution. The first was organised by the European Central Democratic Committee organised by Mazzini and others. Its statements ‘were regular features in the Red Republican and the Friend of the People.

The other was presided over by Schapper, an opponent of Marx. During the course of the meeting, two of Marx’s followers, Schram and Pieper, were accused of being spies and roughed up. Despite Harney’s defence of Schram, in the Friend of the People of March 15, 1850, Marx, now broke off cordial relations with Harney attacking him as an “impresionable plebeian”. Some months later they met again at a tea party celebrating Robert Owen’s 80th birthday. They did not meet again for 25 years a chance encounter on Waterloo Station. Harney, however, continued to hold Marx in high esteem even offering to set up a fund to spread his ideas among British workers.

Increasingly politically isolated, Harney suffered a severe blow with the death of his wife in 1853. At the end of the year he moved to Newcastle where he tried to organise a Republican Brotherhood with Joseph Cowan. Two years later he moved to Jersey continuing to work as a journalist, resigning from his paper when it supported the Confederates in the American Civil War. In 1863 he emigrated to America.

There he worked as a clerk continuing to write articles for the Newcastle Weekly Chronicle, now his only contact with the political world. When Charles Bradlaugh visited America in 1873, Harney acted as his guide.

In 1881 Harney returned to England. Living in Richmond, despite worsening health he continued working as a Journalist. Unlike some veteran Chartists he did not join H.M. Hyndman’s Social Democratic Federation. He did, however, send greetings to the striking dockers in 1889 and was present at the May Day demonstration in 1890.

Shortly before his death Hamey was interviewed for the SDF’s Social Democrat by Edward Aveling. Aveling wrote: “I see in this old man a link between the years and the years. I know that long after the rest of us are forgotten the name George Julian Harney will be remembered with thankfulness and tears”. There can be no better epitaph!

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This text was originally published as a pamphlet by the Friends of George Julian Harney, in 1997, to commemorate the 100th annversary of Harney’s death. Republished in a slightly revised edition, 2002.

In memory of the author, Terry Liddle, libertarian socialist, freethinker, working class historian, and dedicated southeast Londoner, who died in 2012.

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2014 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online

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Today in London rebel history: riots erupt against the Corn Laws, 1815

The Corn Laws had their origin in the ‘total war’ waged between Britain (and numerous allies) and revolutionary/Napoleonic France between 1793 and 1815. Napoleon’s blockade of Britain after 1806 accelerated enclosure of common lands, as MPs voted in over 1900 enclosure acts to ensure enough grain could be produced to support Britain and her allies. (The legal machinery for enclosure was simplified in an attempt to speed up the process with the 1801 with the General Enclosure Act. This Act saw the peak of the Agricultural Revolution.)

As all trade with Europe was ended, British landowners ended the war with a virtual monopoly of domestic grain markets. The result of this artificial scarcity of foodstuffs, together with a series of bad harvests in Britain, was a rapid rise in prices accompanied by fluctuations in the trade cycle.

At the end of the French Wars, corn prices plummeted to nearly half their war level, causing panic among the farmers – many of whom were also voters. As a result the government of Lord Liverpool government introduced the Corn Laws in 1815, to ensure the high incomes of farmers and landowners. MPs argued that prices had fallen due to an influx of ‘foreign corn’ after the resumption of trade with Europe. Opponents argued that landowners should reduce rents to ease pressure on farmers – a parliament and government representing the landowners reacted as you might expect…

These laws were intended to stabilise wheat prices at 80/- per quarter. They laid down that no foreign grain could be imported until domestic grain reached that price. The laws protected the intensified agriculture and expanded grain farms that had emerged in the war, but predictably failed to solve the problem of high prices. Prices fluctuated at high levels, encouraging the hoarding of corn.

This was class legislation at its most blatant. It made sure aristocrats could continue to benefit from high prices and the high rents that they supported. The Houses of Commons and Lords passed the law with Parliament surrounded by soldiers, knowing well enough what the law meant for the poor.

In response the poor of London rioted – knowing that that, having faced 20 years of high food prices and poverty, the end of the war was not going to make their life easier. High food process were compounded by a trade recession and mass unemployment, as the war economy crashed and hundreds of thousands of soldiers and sailors were demobbed.

Rioting broke out in the area around Parliament as the Acts were being debated, and spread out around London and Westminster as the London houses of the MPs and lords held most responsible were targeted by crowds:

“About the usual hour of the Meeting of Parliament on Monday, there were assembled in different parts, from George-street, to Abingdon-street, various groupes of persons, not numerous at first, all declaring against the Corn Bill, and inveighing against such of the Members as had been most active in support of it. There had previously been a great number of persons in the lobby and avenues of the House, and a considerable quantity of constables have been posted in them, to prevent too great a pressure and disturbance.

The persons who were forced to quit the lobby and passages, took post on the outside of the house. In these groupes were several who were well acquainted with the persons of many leading Members of both Houses, and pointed them out as they came down to attend their duty.—”That is Lord Grenville—that Lord Stanhope—that the Chancellor of the Exchequer”—and hooting or applause followed as the Member passing was known to be friendly or unfriendly to the Corn Bill.—Meanwhile loud shouts of “No Corn Bill!” raised without the House, were distinctly heard within it. For some time the groupes confined themselves to these manifestations of pleasure or displeasure. At length many of the carriages of the Members were stopped, and the Members forced to walk through the crowd amidst hooting and hissing. The civil power now was found to be insufficient for the protection of the Members, and the Magistrates having applied to the Speaker, received an order to call in the military to act under the civil power. Several of the Members, however, had been very roughly handled. They were called upon by the populace to tell their names, and how they had voted or intended to vote. Mr. Fitzgerald, the Chancellor of the Irish Exchequer, was treated in this way. Mr. Croker’s life was more seriously endangered; his carriage was beset by a mob, who made the enquiries to which we have just alluded, he refused to answer them; on his arrival at the house, both doors of the carriages were forced open, and upon stepping out, he was seized by the collar, and received several blows; same question was repeated to him, and the mob said, he should never enter the House alive if he did not tell his name and his sentiments on the Corn Bill. He still refused, and probably would not have escaped without the most serious injury, if at all, if the mob in their violence and confusion, had not directed their rage against each other. Those who suggested one mode, were opposed by others, and enforcing their arguments by blows, Mr. Croker fortunately made his escape into the Coffee-house of the Lords, and from thence into the House of Commons.

The Attorney General, though assailed at first much in the same manner as Mr. Croker, escaped more easily. He gave the mob his name, and told them he should vote as his conscience would direct him.

The military however succeeded in suppressing the tumult near the House, and the immediate vicinity remained clear during the rest of the night. But the populace, driven from this scene, repaired to other parts of the town—”to Mr. Robinsons!” “To Lord Eldon’s!” “To Lord Darnley’s!” “To Lord Ellenborough’s!” was the cry, and groups report repaired forthwith to one or the other of the houses these Noblemen and Gentlemen.

Having supposed the Hon. Mr. Robinson’s residence to be in Charles’s-square, they went thither, and did not leave the street till they learned he had moved to Burlington-street. As soon as they had fixed upon his house, they broke the windows in every floor, demolished the parlour shutters, and split the doors into pieces. The iron rails before the house were torn up, and instantly carried off. Rushing into the house, they then cut to pieces many valuable pictures, destroying some of the larger pieces of furniture, and threw the rest into the street, to be trampled to pieces by their associates.” (Chester Chronicle).

Frederick John Robinson MP had introduced the Corn Bill to Parliament. From his half trashed gaff soldiers stationed to prevent further attacks shot two passers-by who had nothing to do with the violence. Nineteen year old midshipman Edward Vyse, who was walking past the house, was hit with a shot from the pistol that was designed to scare the mob of boys outside. He died immediately at the scene. Another person was also said to have been killed here.

“From Mr. Robinson’s they ran to the house of Lord Darnleys, Mr. Yorke’s, Lord Hardwicke’s, Mr. Meux’s, in Berkeley-square. They broke every window at each place, and demolished the doors, what were prevented from going within.

Another account says, that having mustered about the centre of the street, and not amounting at their arrival to more than fifty or sixty, one (we understand a person well dressed) was selected to ascertain the residence of Mr. Robinson. He knocked at the door, and being informed that Mr. Robinson was not at home, he continued for a short time in conversation with the servant who opened it, when, on a preconcerted signal being given, the others rushed in and proceeded to the work of devastation. The demolition of the furniture occupied little more than an hour.

At ten o’clock, a mob, amounting to about 300, not more, entered Bedford-square, from the corner next Oxford-street, and proceeded to the house of the Lord Chancellor…” (Chester Chronicle).

John Scott, Lord Eldon, Lord Chancellor, had been pursued from the house of Lords to his house. Ironically, Eldon seems himself have been opposed to the Corn Laws, but on balance, he was a bad bad bastard! Early on in his political rise, as Attorney General, Eldon brought in the Act suspending Habeus Corpus in 1794, allowing people to be imprisoned without trial, and acted as chief prosecutor in a treason trial against leading members of the radical reform organisation, the London Corresponding Society – though his case was so weak and his speechifying so hysterical, they were famously acquitted. Appointed Lord Chief Justice and later Lord Chancellor, he became a crucial wedge of the most repressive government in modern times, which repressed numerous working class movements, and quashed several revolts and conspiracies, including the Despard conspiracy, the Black Lamp, the Luddites, among the most famous. Eldon was a notorious advocate of hanging for the most petty offences, an ardent opponent of the abolition of slavery in the Colonies.

So the London Crowd hated his guts anyway, and may have felt they’d seize the chance to do for him in the general ruck. They broke all the windows ; broke into the house and smashed as much as they could, throwing Eldon’s papers into the street; only the arrival of a party of soldiers prevented them from their aim of hanging Eldon from a lamppost in Bedford Square, a noose having been prepared for the same…
Eldon and the soldiers grabbed two rioters and dragged them inside: Eldon told them: “If you don’t mind what you are about lads, you will all come to be hanged.” A rioter replied, “Perhaps so, old chap, but I think it looks now as if you would be hanged first.”
Sadly Eldon was to wear no hemp necklace.

The two arrested men were sent before a justice of peace, but the soldiers refused to be witnesses against them. A garrison of 50 soldiers was stationed outside Eldon’s house for 3 weeks, since “persons in the front of the house from time to time using menacing language and threats, whenever from the streets they saw any persons in the house.”

Other MPs residences received similar treatment:

“The house of Lord Ellenborough in St. James’s square, was also attacked, and considerably injured. Soon after they had commenced their assault upon the house, his Lordship, in the most intrepid manner, presented himself at the door, and inquired the cause of the outrages upon his dwelling? The reply was “No Corn Bill, No Corn Bill:” on which his Lordship addressed them in a few words, the purpose of which we have not heard, but the effect was that the mob instantly cheered the Noble Lord and departed. They next proceeded to assail some other houses in the same square, but a party of the Life Guards approached by this time in full gallop, and the square in a few minutes was completely cleared. This, we understand, was the case in every other part of the town where the assailants appeared, and by one o’clock they were no longer to be seen in bodies; straggling individuals only were observable, and the military continuing to patrole the streets and squares, no further attempt to disturb the public tranquillity was any where made.

THE RIOTS—were renewed on Tuesday night, and with fatal consequences. Every person going to the Houses of Parliament was examined by constables, and no tumult occurred till after the House of Commons adjourned. Afterwards, however, the mob assembled, and made two attacks on Lord Castlereagh’s house; they renewed their violence against the houses of Mr. Robinson, and Lord Darnley; their next objects with those of Mr. Yorke, Mr. Bathurst, Lord King, Lord Lascelles, Mr. Weston, Mr Wellesley Pole, Sir H. Parnell, Sir W. Rowe, &c. The windows of many private persons were demolished by mistake; but none were entered, owing to the activity of the soldiery. It appears that the mob had actually collected some bags of shavings, for the purpose of setting fire to Mr. Robinson’s house, at the moment the guards arrived, and several wheelbarrows full of stones, were emptied in the street, to facilitate the work of destruction!

In these movements, we lament to say, one man and one woman were killed, and three persons wounded. The man was shot through the head with slugs; he was dressed in uniform of a midshipman, and was immediately conveyed to a public house. He proved to be a son of Mr. Dodd, printseller, in Parliament-street, and had gone out shortly before, for the purpose of viewing the operations of the mob. The woman was a widow of a sailor, and had left her friends with a promise to return in half an hour.

A large train of artillery was brought on Friday from Woolwich. More troops have arrived or are on their road. Two fresh regiments of light dragoons are quartered at Kensington and Bow. Ten thousand horse and foot could be called out in an hour, if it were necessary.”

(Chester Chonicle, 17th March 1815).

The riots continued in various parts of the town during the 7th, 8th, and 9th of March. By this time, however, the houses of the Lord Chancellor, and of many other leading members of the Ministry and of the Legislature, were garrisoned with soldiers ; and, London being ultimately surrounded by troops on every hand, the disturbances ended.

Other disturbances around the country commenced with the introduction of the Corn Bill in 1815 and continued intermittently until the end of 1816. In London and Westminster riots ensued and were continued for several days; at Bridport there were riots on account of the high price of bread; at Bideford there were similar disturbances to prevent the export of grain; at Bury by the unemployed to destroy machinery; at Newcastle-on-Tyne by colliers and others; at Glasgow, where blood was shed, on account of soup kitchens; at Preston, by unemployed weavers; at Nottingham by Luddites who destroyed 30 frames; at Merthyr Tydvil, on a reduction of wages; at Birmingham by the unemployed; at Walsall by the distressed; and December 7th, 1816, at Dundee, where, owing to the high price of meal, upwards of 100 shops were plundered. Other riots and demonstrations with an avowedly political bent, like the 1816 Spa Fields Riot, and the 1819 Peterloo massacre, were strongly influenced by the mass poverty of the time, in which the high price of bread was a major factor.

Although rioting died down, over the next three decades, the Corn Laws remained a hot issue economically, with periodic agitations for their repeal, usually driven by a middle class movement based in the manufacturing strata, who saw the introduction of complete free trade as being ideologically and economically in their and the national economy’s best interests. This became focussed with the founding of the Anti-Corn Law League in 1838. The rising class of manufacturers and industrial workers (who were under-represented in Parliament, as compared to he old landowning aristos) wanted to maximise their profits from manufacture by reducing the wages they paid to their factory workers, but complained that the Con Laws kept the price of bread so high, they were unable to reduce wage levels to the pittance levels they desired—men could not work in the factories if a factory wage was not enough to feed them and their families. Lovely. Chartists and socialists accused the anti-Corn Law League of only being interested in reducing wages, but needing to enlist mass support from the working classes so as to put pressure on the Tory protectionists.

Eventually a combination of this long agitation for repeal, a succession poor harvests and the resulting hardship (starvation in Ireland), and the threat of reviving Chartist campaigning, led to the Corn Laws being repealed in 1846, amidst much political shenanigans, and against strong opposition from landowning interests.

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Today on repressive history: habeas corpus suspended in goverment crackdown on radicals, 1817.

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…

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Today in London’s legal history: William Hone acquitted for writing parodies of religious liturgies, 1817.

Journalist and writer William Hone briefly became a popular hero in December 1817, when he defended himself against government prosecution for blasphemy and sedition, specifically for parodying the forms of church liturgy to attack self-serving government corruption.

Brought up in a strictly religious family, Hone had come into contact with political radicals while working as a “factotum” and legal copyist in the early 1790s, and began to doubt the religious foundations of his upbringing. He became affiliated with a branch of the radical London Corresponding Society (LCS). After an attempt by his father to divert him from this scene (by sending him to work in Chatham for a couple of years), he tried his hand at the book publishing and selling trade.

Together with LCS activist John Bone, Hone set up a book and print shop (after the two had tried and failed to launch a a savings bank/annuity company). Although not a financial success, it did gain Hone a experience in antiquarian books and prints, which stood him in good stead for the future… through thee shop, he also met leading radicals Francis Place and Thomas Spence as well as other figures of literary and political London. However, in 1810, the project ended in the bankruptcy courts. After this Hone earned a living as an auctioneer of private libraries, and later as “Literary Editor” of the venerable Critical Review, a position he held for about 18 months. The status (and salary) afforded to Hone by this position enabled him to open a bookselling shop at 55 Fleet Street, where he moved with his family in December of 1814.

But Hone’s political activism, honed (sorry) in the 1790s, which had taken back seat to his need to earn a living, cropped up now and again: in the early 1810s he worked with James Bevans and Edward Wakefield to develop a new form of asylum for the humane treatment of the insane. The orject failed for lack of funds.

Hone then became involved with exposing the miscarriage of justice over the killing of Edward Vyse, who had been shot dead during the March 1815 street protests about the Corn Laws – shot from the windows of the home of the MP Frederick Robinson. A concerted effort was made in the subsequent trial to make sure no-one of ‘importance’ would be held responsible. Hone took it upon himself to publicise this miscarriage of justice.

He also wrote about the trial and execution of Elizabeth Fenning, a servant girl accused on scanty evidence of poisoning the family of her employer. Hone wrote a short narrative pamphlet about the case – La Pie Voleuse, or the Maid and the Magpie – which was very popular in itself and which inspired Hone to produce other pamphlets documenting the abuses of power within the legal and political systems.

In 1815 to 1817, Hone continued to write and publish journalistic exposes. For example, just days after the Spa Fields Riots of late 1816, Hone published his own account of the affair. His account included a broader social and economic analysis founded loosely on the principles of the radical Thomas Spence, whose followers had been prominent in the riots. But Hone also issued radical critiques of the government, developing a style rich in parody and satire.

At the beginning of 1817, political tensions and the threat of social unrest were running high. Post-Napoleonic War recession and unemployment, and the juggernaut of industrial development and the mechanisation of labour and growth of factories, had produced huge social anger and poverty, which had collided with renewed pressure for political reform. A scared government suspended habeas corpus and tried to jail leading reformers. Hone began publishing a radical weekly newspaper called the Reformists’ Register. The Register formed a part of a burgeoning radical press, an explosion of journals, pamphlets, newspapers recounted aloud by a huge and increasing public, sometimes read aloud by the literate to those who could not read… This popular press terrified the authorities, as the atmosphere was volatile and the appetite of millions for new ideas was a clear threat to the elites of the time.

Early in 1817 Hone wrote and published a series of pamphlets which parodied church liturgy, in which he savaged government corruption and political complacency.

The three pamphlets – Political Creed, Political Liturgy, and Catechism of a Ministerial Member – satirised government ministers as divine beings and MPs as “worshippers at the font of patronage”. The 5000 print run circulated throughout the country, in great demand, rapidly achieving cult status and sparking imitations and rip-offs. The enraged government and its toadies regarded Hone as the worst example of a free press who needed teaching a harsh lesson.

These pamphlets got Hone was arrested in May 1817, and charged with blasphemy and sedition, and briefly held in the King’s Bench prison. Although he managed to get himself released, the Reformist’s Register collapsed in the wake of this due to lack of funds and energy, as he prepared to face his trial.

During the process of selecting a jury, Hone was however able to expose the process by which judges and prosecution collaborated to select the jurors they wanted illegally, and to overturn this nobbling by legal action.

The case came to trial in December 1817, held in the Guildhall, which had a long history of state trials, including prosecutions of Leveller John Lilburne, treason trials of Lady Jane Grey and Thomas Cranmer… But it was also very much a public arena, a centre of political life in London, a forum for debate and pagreantry. The government wanted a show trial in front of the nation – Hone was “the fittest object for prosecution”, an example which would overawe other journalists and radicals – and the authorities believed a guilty verdict a foregone conclusion.

The Attorney General had singled out three of the offending parodies for separate trials, and these occurred on successive days, 18, 19, and 20 December. In each case, the Attorney General’s argued that using liturgical texts as the basis for comic parody was an act of blasphemy, publishing a libel “with intent to excite impiety and irreligion in the minds of his Majesty’s liege subjects”. The sacred quality of religious language was being degraded and mocked by being used for comic satire. In addition, the Book of Common Prayer, from which the church liturgy was filched, was published by authorisation of Act of Parliament, part of he official religion of the nation, and thus satirising it was a criminal and unpatriotic act.

In reply, Hone arrived at court with hundreds of books which contained similar satires on church litanies, written by all sorts of highly respected persons, among them Martin Luther, John Milton, protestant martyr Bishop Latimer, and most damningly George Canning), former Foreign Secretary, and at the time of the trial President of the Board of Control. Parody of religious texts was a recognised literary device, aimed at instruction and ages old. He had no interest in attacking religion, he said, he was a political satirist, and if they government had wanted to try him for that, they should have charge him with seditious libel.

Hone defended himself by reading these parodies in the courtroom. There were frequent eruptions of laughter from the packed galleries, and equally frequent but pompously ineffectual warnings from the presiding judge, Lord Chief Justice Ellenborough. After each day’s trial, the jury returned a verdict of “Not Guilty” which was met by enthusiastic cheers from the gallery.

Hone’s defence was based on common sense and the ridiculousness of the charge, and how he had been singled out by the government, rather than complex legal arguments, and showing that he had a highly skilled knowledge of literary tradition. Next to which the hysterical assertions of the prosecutors that to acquit him would be a victory for atheism, and that the satires were “so injurious… that any man, on the first reading, would start in horror…”, sounded weak and laughable. The judges tried to rule his defence inadmissible, but Hone showed they were wrong in law, and his exposing of the clear bias of the judge Ellenborough won the jury over.

The trials were widely publicised and as a result Hone became a popular hero—a kind of humble common man who had bravely stood up to the political authorities of the day. The forces of repression, as Hone put it later, had been “laughed out of court.”

Hone continued to publish satires and attacks on the government and establishment, often collaborating with the artist George Cruikshank. In early 1819, Hone and Cruikshank published a parodic Bank Note in response to an increase in executions for forgery. The Note received wide acclaim and may well be credited for accelerating a change in the nation’s fiscal policy. Later that year, in the wake of the Peterloo Massacre in August, Hone and Cruikshank published the famous Political House that Jack Built—a pamphlet that went through dozens of editions.

This highly influential pamphlet was followed with The Man in the Moon (early 1820) and a series of illustrated satirical pamphlets on the Queen Caroline affair. (See, for example, The Queen’s Matrimonial Ladder and Non Mi Ricordo!) Finally, Hone capped this phase of his career with two more political parodies: A Slap at Slop and the Bridge Street Gang, and The Political Show-man, At Home!  Each of these works was extremely popular; indeed, Hone and Cruikshank were among the best-selling writers in England during this tumultuous period.

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today in London’s radical history: Times compositors jailed for ‘conspiring’, 1810.

On December 11th 1810 nineteen journeymen compositors (typesetters) who worked on the Times newspaper were sentenced to imprisonment for conspiracy, in fact organizing themselves to stick together in their own interests – asking for a rise in wages. The 1799 and 1800 Combination Acts made all trade unions illegal, but in fact prosecution of workers for getting together to campaign for higher wages, better conditions was a long tradition, going back as far as the medieval guilds.

The prosecuting counsel said of the organisation involved:

“It was called a friendly society, but by means of some wicked men among them this society degenerated into a most abominable meeting for the purpose of a conspiracy; those of the trade who did not join their society were summoned, and even the apprentices, and were told, unless they conformed to the practices of these journeymen, when they came out of their times [finished their apprenticeships] they should not be employed.”

The judge who tried and sentenced some of them was the Common Sergeant of London, Sir John Sylvester, commonly known as ‘ Bloody Black Jack.’ … “No judge took more pains than did this judge on the unfortunate printers, to make it appear that their offence was one of great enormity, to beat down and alarm the really respectable men who had fallen into his clutches, and on whom he inflicted scandalously severe sentences.” 

Sentences for the men were heavy: Robert Howlett and John Gee were imprisoned in Newgate for two years (and fined one shilling), William Clifton, Stephen Beckett, George Westray were jailed for 18 months (also fined one shilling), Stephen Burley, Henry Byrne, Thomas Wooley jailed for a year; Roderic Paskin, Edward Kidd, William Williams, Corbet Latham, William Coy, James McCartney, John McIntosh, Nathaniel Collins, Malcolm Craig, John Chapman and John Simpson all got 9 months. Malcolm Craig died in prison.

The prosecution of the compositors impressed Francis Place with the necessity of an alteration in the laws on combination, which 15 years later, he was to manage to push through Parliament.

Combinations like the Times compositors’ friendly society were designed to maintain wages and conditions at a rate agreed by the workers; forced underground by acts of parliament, they resorted to persuasion of other workers and apprentices to stick by what was agreed and not work for less or under worse terms, which would undermine the general rate for all. Employers and the courts, parliament, press and church who supported them, all denounced attempts to make agreements among themselves as coercion, both of the bosses by the workers, and of some workers by others, portrayed as agitators. This depiction of how workers attempt to achieve and maintain reasonable conditions and prevent wage reductions is still very much alive in the 21st century, as anti-union laws continue to divide and obstruct us.

In reality there is nothing wrong at all with uniting to coerce the bosses – they coerce us every day into working for them, use force and threat of starvation against us when we object or try to better our lot. To a certain extent also a kind of coercion of opinion against fellow workers who scab, side with the boss against us, is understandable, especially when up against it. When the laws are against you anyway you need to think about how much of the law you obey.

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today in London radical history: Spa Fields reform demo erupts into uprising, 1817.

“In consequence of an advertisement which was placarded throughout the metropolis, stating that a meeting of manufacturers, artisans, etc., would be convened in these fields, to take into consideration the propriety of petitioning the prince regent upon the present distressed state of the country, an immense concourse of people was on Friday assembled.”

Two hundred years ago, Spa Fields, Clerkenwell, described then as “a wild uninclosed space”, was, for a while, a favourite gathering point for radical mass meetings; some of which became riotous demonstrations, and one of which, on December 2nd 1817, erupted into a riot, an abortive attempt at a revolutionary uprising.

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 political reform, but also for improvement in the lives of working people – revived for the first time since the heady days of the London Corresponding Society in the 1790s. Major movers in organising public meetings and mass rallies were the Society of Spencean Philanthropists, followers of agrarian communist Thomas Spence (died 1814), radicals and revolutionaries who were constantly agitating for an uprising of the poor against their masters. Co-operating with them was a more moderate wing pressing for peaceful change; this uneasy alliance had fallen in and out for many years, and would continue to tentatively co-operate for decades to come.

Although a small remnant of Spa Fields still exists, they were once much larger. Originally known as the Ducking-pond Fields, they later went by Clerkenwell Fields or Spa Fields, and later still acquired the nickname of the Pipe Fields, from the wooden pipes (hollowed-out elm-trees) which radiated from here, dispersing the water from the reservoirs at New River Head to various customers. The small remnant that exists by that name now is a pale survival of a much larger space that stretched across what is now Farringdon Road, and up the hill around what is now Amwell Street to the north.

On the 15th of November 1816, the famous moderate reformer Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt spoke to an enormous crowd of 20,000 demanding reform, from a window in the Merlin’s Cave Tavern, on the edge of Spa Fields (where Merlin Street now stands). The mass meeting was ‘adjourned’ for two weeks until 2 December 1816; on which occasion the third mass radical protest meeting of the year on the Fields ended in a riot.

“Hand-bills were afterwards diligently distributed, and a large concourse of people accordingly took place on the 2nd December, and is supposed to have consisted of at least 10,000 persons.”

The massive turnout on 15th November encouraged the committee organising December 2nd – possibly it led some of them to think the poverty and hardship the working classes were facing could be overturned in one fell swoop. A fair number of leaders and some of the crowd were prepared for a revolutionary uprising; not, fatally, the majority of them, however.

Rumours had spread that ‘something would happen’ at the rally; with some leaders talking of taking control of the Bank of England, the Tower of London and the prisons, police spies riddling the committees and planting weapons, and a genuine climate of rage and desperation, plots were clearly afoot.

“As a prelude to the scene that followed, a coal waggon, filled with persons of mean appearance, was stationed, shortly after 12 o’clock, at that part of the Spafields next the House of Correction. The waggon had two tri-coloured flags borne by its company: on one was inscribed, in large letters, the following inflammatory sentences:

‘The brave Soldiers are our Brothers, treat them kindly.’

On the other were these words:

‘Nature Feeds the Hungry,
   ‘Truth Protects the Oppressed,
   ‘Justice Punishes Crimes.’

Mr Hunt then came forward amid the most tumultuous applause, and addressing the crowd by the usual title of ‘Friends and fellow-countrymen,’ exhorted them in the usual joke to keep silence, by holding their tongues, and not by calling out silence. He then harangued them as before for a considerable time, and in the course of his speech read his correspondence with lord Sidmouth, on the subject of the late petition.”

James Watson, one of the Spencean leaders, addressed the crowd from the cart, then leapt off, and led a crowd to attack the Tower. “Those actually engaged in the excesses, about 200 in number, separated from it about or a little before the arrival of the orator, and proceeded in a tumultuous manner through the streets of the metropolis.” Other groups “surged off in different directions. Several gunsmiths’ shops were looted. Some of the rioters reached the Tower and a man… climbed on the wall and called on the troops to join the people. In the Minories there was rioting for several hours…” But the government was forewarned by spies, and constables were stationed at prisons and other targets. However the majority of the crowd remained at Spa Fields to listen to Hunt, then dispersed.

Many discharged sailors from the wars took part, in the trouble, including a large number of ‘blacks and mulattoes’ (who made up huge chunks of the navy). Black sailor Richard Simmons “harangued the crowd for half an hour”.

The following March, prisoners arrested after the riot were tried for treason, but it collapsed, after the activities of government spies in the crowd and infiltrating radical meetings and pro-reform groups were exposed. However Irish sailor William Cashman was hanged for taking part in the looting of a gun shop in Skinner Street, (on the edge of the Fields) during the riot.

Cashman had, according to his evidence, been discharged from the navy, virtually destitute, owed five years pay, which he had repeatedly tried to chisel out of various Admiralty departments, to no avail… As EP Thompson points out, this contrasts sharply with the huge sinecures and awards to naval bigwigs and army generals in the wake of the victory over Napoleon. When Cashman was hanged in March 1817, in Skinner Street, a huge popular demonstration gathered in support of him: : “the mob expressed the strongest feelings of indignation; groans and hisses burst from every quarter, and attempts were made to rush forward…   When the executioner advanced to put the rope round his neck, the tumult increased to an alarming degree…”

The scaffold had to be defended by barricades and “an immense force of constables”.

Mass meetings continued on Spa Fields in February and March 1818, but the riots triggered vindictive government repression; severe laws restricting the right to gather and suspending other rights were passed, and many leading radicals were interned. But several of the Spenceans and other agitators involved in the Spa Fields affray would go on to take part in future plots and plans for uprisings, culminating in the Cato Street Conspiracy of 1820.

The summer’s evening resort

The modern London Borough of Islington has now been built over now, and these days counts as part of the ‘inner city’; in fact it has the lowest ratio of open green space to built up areas of any London borough. At one time though Islington was well-known for open space, much of it famous for pleasurable gatherings and rowdy political meetings. The area between Clerkenwell and Angel, known as Islington Hill, once teemed with pleasure gardens, resorts and spas. Spa Fields was the most famous – and infamous.

200 years ago, apart from being briefly the epi-centre of a growing movement for political reform, Spa Fields was also notorious for its rowdy and immoral pleasures…

The Fields had a long history.

To Clerkenwell Fields, on 15th June 1381, king Richard II led many of the rebels who had flocked to London during the Peasants’ Revolt, after the murder of Wat Tyler at Smithfield – they were then surrounded by royal troops. After days of disorder, of rebels imposing their will on the authorities, the government now had the upper hand, and executions followed…

“In former times,” according to William Pinks, “the district around the chapel known as Spa Fields, or the Ducking-pond Fields, now intersected by streets of well-built houses, was the summer’s evening resort of the townspeople, who came hither to witness the rude sports that were in vogue a century ago, such as duck-hunting, prize-fighting, bull-baiting, and others of an equally demoralising character. We are informed by an old newspaper that in 1768 ‘Two women fought for a new shift, valued at half a-crown, in the Spaw Fields, near Islington. The battle was won by a woman called ‘Bruising Peg,’ who beat her antagonist in a terrible manner.’ In the summer of the same year ‘an extraordinary battle was fought in the Spa Fields by two women against two taylors, for a guinea a head, which was won by the ladies, who beat the taylors in a severe manner.’ On Saturday, the 28th August 1779, ‘a scene of fun and business intermixed took place in Spa Fields, to which no language can do justice. Bills had been stuck up and otherwise circulated, that an ox would be roasted whole, and beer given to the friends of their king and country, who were invited to enlist; that two gold-laced hats should be the reward of the two best cudgel-players; that a gown, a shift, and a pair of shoes and stockings should be run for by four old women; and that three pounds of tobacco, three bottles of gin, and a silver-laced hat, should be grinned for by three old men, the frightfullest grinner to be the winner.”

Spa Fields became notorious; for centuries it was thought dangerous to cross them “in the dusk of evening, robberies being frequent, and the persons filched were often grievously maltreated by the villains who waylaid them.” Especially in the mid-eighteenth century, footpads (an old name for muggers), knocked down pedestrians passing to and from London, and made off with their hats, wigs, silver buckles, and money. The well-to-do visiting the popular local theatre of Sadler’s Wells hired ‘link boys’ to light them home.

Spa Fields also hosted popular fairs, such as the Whitsuntide “Welsh Fair” or “Gooseberry Fair” (a field in old maps is marked as “the Welsh Field”); specialising in horse and donkey racing. This fair was later moved to Barnet, becoming the Barnet Fair (of cockney rhyming slang fame). This Fair was noted by the Middlesex County Justices (who met at Hicks Hall, in nearby St John Street) as one of a number of places, resorts and events that were guilty of encouraging disorder, in 1744.

Also in 1779, there appeared in the Clerkenwell Chronicle the following notice of sports which took place in Spa Fields: “On Friday, some bricklayers enclosed a piece of ground ten feet by six, for roasting the ox; and so substantial was the brickwork that several persons sat up all night to watch that it did not fall to pieces before the morning. An hour before sunrising the fire was lighted for roasting the ox, which was brought in a cart from St. James’s Market. At seven o’clock the ox was laid over the fire in remembrance of the cruelty of the Spaniards in their conquest of Mexico. By nine o’clock one of the legs was ready to drop off, but no satire on the American colonies was intended; for if it had fallen there were numbers ready to have swallowed it. At seven o’clock came a sergeant and a number of deputy Sons of the Sword. The sergeant made an elegant speech, at which every one gaped in astonishment, because no one could understand it. At half-past two the beef was taken up, slices cut up and thrown among the crowd, and many and many a one catched his hat full to fill his belly.

“Instead of four old women to run for the gown, &c., there were only three girls, and the race was won without running; for two of the adventurers gave out before half the contest was over, and even the winner was a loser, for she tore off the sleeve of her gown in attempting to get it on. Only one man grinned for the tobacco, gin, &c. But it was enough. Ugliness is no word to express the diabolicality of his phiz. If the king had ten such subjects he might fear they would grin for the crown. Addison tells us of a famous grinner who threw his face into the shape of the head of a base viol, of a hat, of the mouth of a coffee-pot, and the nozzle of a pair of bellows; but Addison’s grinner was nothing to the present, who must have been born grinning. His mother must have studied geometry, have longed for curves and angles, and stamped them all on the face of the boy. The mob was so immense that, though the tide was constantly ebbing and flowing, it was supposed the average number was 4,000 from nine in the morning till eight at night; and as this account is not exaggerated, 44,000 people must have been present. All the ale-houses for half a mile round were crowded, the windows were lined, and the tops and gutters of the houses filled. The place was at once a market and a fair; curds and whey were turned sour, ripe filberts were hardened, and extempore oysters baked in the sun. The bread intended for the loyal was thrown about the fields by the malcontents. The beer was drunk out of pots without measure and without number; but one man who could not get liquor swore he would eat if he could not drink His Majesty’s health; and observing an officer with a piece of beef on the point of his sword, he made prize of it, and ate it in the true cannibal taste.

“The feast, on the whole, was conducted with great regularity; for if one got meat another got bread only, and the whole was consumed; but to add to the farce a person threw a basket of onions among the bread-eaters. Some men were enlisted as soldiers, but more were impressed, for the bloodhounds were on the scent, and ran breast-high. If not spring-guns, it might fairly be said that mentraps had been fixed in the Spa Fields. The beef was good of its kind, but like the constitution of Old England, more than half spoiled by bad cooks.”

The number of spas and resorts that grew up on the Spa Fields area had, by the eighteenth century, multiplied and branched out into an astonishing number of taverns, tea houses and gardens, drinking establishments and places of entertainment.

Work Is the Ruin of the Drinking Classes

Open spaces remain areas of contestation. Spa Fields’ long reputation for unruliness has continued long after most of the open land that bore this name was built over. A tiny remnant of Spa Fields has survived the last two centuries of building; of the small area that remains, one half has been turned into a brilliant kids’ adventure playground. The other section is still a park, although extremely landscaped, and heavily controlled. The park is subject to an alcohol control order that allows police to stop you from drinking alcohol, on penalty of a £500 fine if you refuse. This method of dealing with ‘problem drinking’, and the rowdiness that can arise, has been in vogue for 15 years or so.

But the urge to gather, to hang out with your mates, get off your head, is older than all the control orders, temperance movements and moral panics. Open space, in the dark, far from bounced and CCTVed bars and high streets, out of sight of parents and uniforms, the hidden pleasures of the unlit; when so much space is subject to absolute control, restriction and hemming us in, monitoring our movements, tagging us and following our transactions, the struggle for uncontrolled space is a very human one. There’s no doubt booze and other substances have their risks, or that teen dodginess can become turned on other folk for fun or profit; but much of the control on youth, on open space, on our movements, is more about keeping people in line, treading the correct paths of work, obeying the status quo, not challenging the life we’re supposed to lead. Politicos of left and right have fought for centuries to reform our immoral urges; by force, through religion, through uplifting social activities… Still many of us stick two fingers up to all that. Have another drink.

Today, one small and brilliant remnant of Spa Fields history as a gathering point for pleasure continues to sparkle: the Clerkenwell Festival, held every August, a lovely little bash with lots of great live rockabilly and punk, great junk and secondhand clothes stalls, and lots of other fun stuff… Well worth a visit!

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An entry in the 2014 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

A short pamphlet we published and gave away at the Clerkenwell Festival 2016 is available from the past tense publications page

Today in London’s unruly history: a bursting brewery vat turns St Giles into a free festival, 1814.

The St Giles Rookery, was one of central London’s most notorious slums for centuries, a harbour for rebels & criminals: “ one dense mass of houses, through which curved narrow tortuous lanes, from which again diverged close courts”… Largely contained between Great Russell Street, Bloomsbury Street (then Charlotte St) Broad Street and St Giles High Street, a warren of cheap lodging houses, “set apart for the reception of idle persons and vagabonds.”, a haunt of coiners and thieves, costermongers (pedlars and street hawkers) , fish-women, newscriers, and corn-cutters. A major bugbear of authorities and moralising reformers, supplier of large numbers to the gallows at Tyburn and the convict transport ships… It teemed with the poorest, the most desperate.

On the edge of the Rookery’s most notorious streets, a large brewery, originally built by Blackburn & Bywell, though later known as Stevensons (and also possibly Manx & Co), used to occupy the land where the Dominion Theatre stands, between the end of Bainbridge Street and Great Russell Street, backing onto some of the ‘darkest spots’ of the old rookery.

“a great day for the Rookery”

On October 17th 1814, this was the scene of a disaster which is said to have turned into a free festival: “the great porter vat, which stood 22 feet high and contained 3555 barrels (or 135,000 imperial gallons)… the talk of the town when first erected… burst, flooding the Rookery.” Other vats burst as the debris collapsed, and several flimsy garret walls collapsed under the tremendous force of thousands of gallons of dark beer, killing several inhabitants [seven, possibly; it also damaged the Tavistock Arms pub]. But the rookery-dwellers weren’t likely to pass up such an opportunity, as described by local chroniclers Gordon and Deeson, (with typical loaded language: again, note the immediate likening of the residents to verminous animals): “Like rats out of their holes came the mob and lapped at the porter as it ran along the gutters, or cupped their hands and poured it down their throats…” The more enterprising grabbed whatever containers they could to collect the porter for later consumption, “even the children, in the scantiest of rags or more more frequently nothing at all, ran out to do their share with spoons… it was a great day for the Rookery.” In court it was held to be an Act of God!

Allegedly along with those crushed and drowned by the initial flood, a couple of St Giles folk drank themselves to death, bringing the official number of deaths to eight. While the images of a free piss up for the poor warm the heart, you have to wonder if this is all entirely true, especially as it bears an uncanny resemblance to the earlier story of the burning of Langdale’s Gin Distillery in Holborn in the Gordon Riots, not a mile east and just thirty-odd years before; you can’t help feeling maybe the incidents have been confused, and spiced with a dose of moral come-uppance by temperance-swilling historians.

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online