Today in London radical history, 1830: rioters attack New Police and demand political reform

In the early 1830s, there was growing pressure for parliamentary reform. A rough alliance of middle class and working class co-operated in pressing for a wider franchise, more representative constituencies, and other measures, to limit the power of the aristocracy… For a couple of years polite political reform, riotous workers and radical demagoguery all seemed to be part and parcel; of course in the end the 1832 Reform Act would later give the vote to the middle classes, who promptly ditched their plebeian allies with a fond fuck you all… Still it was a time pregnant with possibilities.

Starting on 5 November 1830, the middle classes began to petition parliament for reform.

A few days later, armed crowds met at the Rotunda, the pre-eminent radical political meeting place of the era, waving radical newspapers and attempted to march to Parliament.

Home Secretary Robert Peel, mastermind behind the creation of the New Police, had obviously got some ears to the ground, probably spies among the radicals, as he had warned in Parliament earlier that day that the king’s plans to take tea with the Lord Mayor of London might be best postponed due to the agitated state of the London crowds:

“The letter which had appeared in all the newspapers of the day, addressed to the Lord Mayor, was authentic, and the signature to that letter was his. That letter conveyed the deliberate opinion of his Majesty’s confidential servants, that they had felt it to be their duty to advise his Majesty to postpone the visit which their Majesties intended to pay to the City of London on Tuesday next. The opinion was founded on the firm belief entertained by his Majesty’s Government, that a collision of a very serious nature might take place in the attempt to maintain the public peace… information had been received of an intention on the part of evil-disposed persons to make that festival a scene of tumult, and probably of bloodshed… if their Majesties were to visit the city of London, a tumult and riot would ensue, involving consequences of a most deplorable character, and perhaps leading to bloodshed… I learnt that it was also the intention, of a few abandoned and desperate characters, to promote disorder and tumult… who, though few, were still sufficient in number to create very general and extensive alarm.”

The lord mayor of London handwritten to the Prime Minster, the Duke of Wellington, to alert him to a threat to particularly target him, hated reactionary that he was, the arch-champion of the most reactionary tories of the time, dead set against any political reforms or concessions to change of any kind. The class conscious workers’ movement especially considered him one of their main enemies.

Peel continued: “In the course of Saturday, the Lord Mayor elect of London, the chief magistrate of the metropolis for the ensuing year, felt it to be his duty to make to the Duke of Wellington a communication, which I will now proceed to read to the House: My Lord Duke,— a set of desperate and abandoned characters, who are anxious to avail themselves of any circumstance to create tumult and confusion. While all of any respectability in the City are vying with each other to testify their loyalty an the occasion, from what I learn it is the intention of some of the desperate characters above alluded to, to lake the opportunity of making an attack on your Grace’s person— [Very loud cheering, mingled with considerable laughter, from the Opposition benches]. “Good God! A sarcastic cheer!” continued Sir R. Peel; “and made, too, in the House of Commons, on hearing that the Lord Mayor of London has communicated to the Duke of Wellington that he had reason to believe that an attack would be made on his Grace’s life as he accompanied his Majesty to the civic festival!… Is that a salutary state of things, in which it is announced that a Minister of the King cannot go to meet his Sovereign at Guildhall without being exposed, I do not say to the usual symptoms of popular obloquy, but to the risk of an attack upon his person? But this is not all. Intimations reached my office that an attack was to be made upon his Grace’s house in the course of the night, when the police were at a distance, under the pretence of calling for lights to illuminate. I say, that any such attack must be accompanied by riot; and that the attempt to suppress such riot by force, when the streets are filled with women and children, must be accompanied by consequences which all of us would lament… I am now sorry to be obliged to inform the House, that in the course of Saturday and Sunday last, the most industrious attempts were made in various quarters to inflame the public mind against the new police. Thousands of printed hand-bills were circulated, some of which I will read to the House, for the purpose of shewing the means employed to inflame the people against that portion of the civil force which is intrusted with the preservation of the public tranquillity. These are not written papers, drawn up by illiterate persons, and casually dropped in the streets, but printed hand-bills, not ill-adapted for the mischievous purposes which they are intended to answer. One of them is in these terms:— To arms, to arms!—Liberty or Death! London meets on Tuesday next, an opportunity not to be lost for revenging the wrongs we have suffered so long; come ARMED, be firm, and victory must be ours!!! “AN ENGLISHMAN Another of them is couched in the following terms:— Liberty or Death! Englishmen! Britons!! and honest men!!! The time has at length arrived—all London meets on Tuesday — come armed. We assure you from ocular demonstration, that 6,000 cutlasses have been removed from the Tower, for the immediate use of Peel’s Bloody Gang—remember the cursed Speech from the Throne!!—These damned Police are now to be armed. Englishmen, will you put up with this.” ‘

A few days before, on November 2nd, a mob had gathered to attack the police, still wet behind the ears and very unwelcome to the mass of working class people in London… 66 arrests had been made after clashes between the ‘raw lobsters’ and the London mobility…

On November 8th, the trouble Peel had gotten wind of broke out, as crowds attempted to disrupt the lord Mayor’s Parade and march on Parliament:

“On Monday night (8 Nov 1830) a meeting was held at the Rotunda in Blackfriars road… an individual exposed a tricoloured flag, with “Reform” painted upon it, and a cry of “Now for the West End” was instantly raised. This seemed to serve as a signal, as one and all sallied forth in a body. They then proceeded over the bridge in numbers amounting to about 1,500 shouting, “Reform” – “Down with the police” – “No Peel” – “No Wellington.” They were joined by women of the town, vociferous in declamations against the police.”

The Rotunda was the pre-eminent political meeting place of the London working class radicals; where Richard Carlile lectured and denounced religion, where the National Union of the Working Classes gathered.
Note the flying of the French tricolour, the emblem of the first French Revolution, then still used by English radicals who took part of their inspiration from the events of 1789 in France. It was only really superseded as the main workers flag by the red flag in the later 19th century.

“The mob proceeded into Downing-street, where they formed in a line…  A strong body of the new police arrived from Scotland Yard to prevent them going to the House of Commons. A general fight ensued, in which the new police were assisted by several respectable looking men. The mob, upon seeing reinforcement, took to flight.

Before noon organised bands of pickpockets were prowling about. About two o’clock in the afternoon a sham fight was attempted to be got up in Fleet Street, and crowds collected. About five o’clock the first indication of a mob was observed round the house of lords. Members got into their carriages without molestation, but were assailed by shouts…

The refuse of the mob, proceeded in a body, vociferating “No Peel – down with the raw lobsters!” At Charing Cross, the whole of them yelled, shouting and breaking windows. They were dashing over heaps of rubbish and deep holes caused by the pulling down of several houses, when a strong body of police rushed upon them and dealt out unmerciful blows with staves on heads and arms.

In the evening another mob made their way to Apsley House, the residence of the Duke of Wellington, hallooing, in their progress thither, disapprobation towards the noble duke and the police. They were met by a strong force of the police, who succeeded in ultimately dispersing them. During the conflict many received serious injuries.

At half-past twelve o’clock, a party were in the act of breaking up [a paling], for purpose of arming themselves, when a body of police made a rush forward and laid unmercifully on the rioters, making many prisoners…”

William Knight, one of those arrested, was found to be carrying a will bequeathing his body, in the event of his death, to the barricades in the cause of Liberty! The Duke Of Wellington considered the battle for the future of society as one of “The Establishment Vs The Rotunda.”

The following day, November 9th, weavers & labourers gathered in huge crowds inside Temple Bar, on the Strand. Despite the cancellation of the King’s attendance at the Lord Mayor’s banquet (Guildhall), the bargain which Peel had struck with the Whigs to ease the passage of the Police Bill through Parliament was bearing unwelcome fruit. By excluding the City of London from the Metropolitan Police area, the Act had provided a sanctuary into which the Police could not penetrate in order to prevent the formation of hostile crowds, or assess the size of a mob. On this occasion the people armed themselves with wood and stones from the Public Record Office in Chancery Lane, then in course of construction. Rowan’s police were further down the Strand, near Charing Cross. He formed his men into a column and, as the mob advanced down the street, he gave the order to move forward. The rioters were quickly dispersed and fled to the security of the City boundaries. None were seriously hurt and Rowan had demonstrated that police, in solid formation, were more than a match for a much larger undisciplined mob. 

On the 10th, the military besieged the Rotunda at ten o’clock at night trying to provoke another fight; they ordered Carlile to open the doors, but he refused, so they eventually buggered off.

A week after this triumph the Government fell and the Whigs assumed office. Armed crowds marched to the Rotunda, waving radical papers. 

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Today in London’s festive history, 1832: National Union of the Working Classes mock government-sponsored day of fasting and prayer

Cholera first arrived in England at a time of significant political change that affected the way it was understood by various groups within Britain.  The poor, the ill-defined middle-classes (comprising diverse groups of people from small business owners and clerks to owners of large factories and many professionals like lawyers and doctors), and the traditional land-owning elite were all in the process of redefining their access to political power through the gradual extension of the right to vote.  The cholera epidemics, poorly understood by medical experts of the time, were understood by these groups in different ways as government and the medical profession experimented with responses.  Cholera provides a useful lens to see how an externally generated stressor like an epidemic intersects with other cultural and historical forces, giving insight not only into medical but also political and cultural history.

Between 1832 and 1866, four cholera epidemics struck Great Britain, as part of pandemic outbreaks that affected the entire globe. In 1817, before the first British epidemic, there had been a smaller epidemic that spread in Europe but did not cross the channel. The 1832 epidemic was the first one to enter Britain—and also spread to the Americas and Australia—and wreaked panic as well as high death rates where it struck.  The 1848 second epidemic was global and caused high death rates in Britain.  By the mid-1850s, Britain was more ready when cholera again entered the islands but still suffered considerable mortality.  The last and least, but still murderous, British epidemic was in 1866.  After that, in the 1870s and 90s, cholera did sweep across the European continent again but did not cross the channel in epidemic force.” (Pamela K. Gilbert, “On Cholera in Nineteenth-Century England”)

In the spring of 1832, London was experiencing a serious outbreak of cholera, the waterborne disease that at that time killed 1000s. The second great cholera pandemic of 1827-35 was raging across Europe.

“In the 1830s, the disease was still unfamiliar in most of the world beyond parts of the Indian subcontinent.  Terrified patients had never seen such symptoms before, and doctors were helpless to do anything but try remedies that they thought had worked for other diseases.  These remedies, from the relatively merciful giving of opiates to more aggressive approaches such as bleeding or burning the skin, were largely worthless, as were most theories of how the disease was transmitted (including, but not limited to, bad weather, foul smells, electro-magnetism and divine vengeance). We now believe cholera to be a waterborne disease caused by a comma-shaped bacillus called vibrio cholerae, which is transmitted between humans via the fecal-oral route. It usually enters the body through contaminated water or food and then multiplies in the intestines.  Although easily treatable today in developed areas with abundant clean water and medical care, cholera remains an important epidemic disease in parts of Africa, India, and Latin America and it has recently taken thousands of lives in Haiti. Untreated, it can kill within a few days through rapid dehydration, caused by copious, uncontrollable diarrhoea.  As the disease progressed, the diarrhoea becomes a clear, straw colored fluid, described in the period as resembling “rice water.”  It is hard to see and can quickly soak bedding and floor coverings.  As people in the 1830s did not understand what caused the disease nor, indeed, know about germs (which were not understood until much later in the late-nineteenth century), caregivers did not even know to wash their hands after tending the sick.  In an era without running water in most homes, and with many people living in small spaces, it was easy for contamination to spread.  And in industrial early nineteenth-century cities with rapidly growing populations and no sewer systems, most people disposed of their waste in cesspits or in the streets. From there, it eventually ended up in rivers that provided drinking water, spreading it far beyond its origin.  Because dehydration was so rapid, apparently healthy people became weak very quickly.  Their appearance was frightening: skin shrivelled, eye sockets collapsed, and complexion blue from oxygen deficiency.  Patients first screamed and thrashed as their muscles spasmed, then lay exhausted and unresponsive, and soon died—sometimes within the first 24 hours.  Mortality for cases who reached the stage of weakness and “collapse” was around fifty percent.” (Pamela K. Gilbert)
Scientific investigation into the causes of cholera was still in its infancy; it would be another 17 years before John Snow suggested that cholera had a microbial origin, and that drinking contaminated water caused the spread of the disease.

But in 1832, the church of England and the government had a solution. “Seeking to conciliate knaves and fanatics on the one hand as well as to feed the gullibility of the ignorant on the other”, they solemnly called for a mass fast, a day of refraining from eating, to show God (from whom all plagues come) that the population were worthy of being spared. They set 21st of March for the National day of prayer and fasting, as  “the disease … was proof of the judgement of God among us”.

The Fast was announced in Parliament after the Strangers’ Gallery had been cleared; a speech deplored the sins and state of the nation, the ‘houses of the nobles and gentry entered and robbed’.

“When cholera was first discussed by the British public, as it marched across the continent in 1831 and 32, Britons were already preoccupied with a big political topic: Parliamentary and voting Reform.  Reform had been a perennial focus over the last several years, but in the form that finally became law it had been hotly debated from June 1830, when dissolute King George IV died.  After long discussion, it was passed in Commons and then defeated in the House of Lords in 1831. Rioting ensued, and a revised Bill was brought forward subsequently that year.  Through the spring of 1832, the Lords dithered and the mood of the country grew increasingly tense.  When it finally passed, on 7 June 1832, it gave more representation to large cities that had gained population as a result of the Industrial Revolution and eliminated representation for areas where the population had diminished to the point that a Member of Parliament was often elected by only a handful of landowners.  Most importantly, although it didn’t increase the size of the electorate that much—it is estimated to have raised it from about 400,000 to 650,000, allowing one out of six adult males to vote—it began to redistribute some power from landowners to the mercantile and manufacturing class, as it allowed those who did not own, but merely rented valuable property (as was common in towns, for example), to vote.  The full title of the Reform Bill was An Act to amend the representation of the people in England and Wales. (Separate reform bills were passed in the same year for Scotland and Ireland).

As authorities argued over cholera’s causes, treatment, and prevention, various publics formed their own opinions of what was going on.  Middle-class and working people who hoped that Reform would bring them representation in Parliament suspected that the talk of cholera was being used to distract the populace from Reform in the interests of the elite retaining control of political power.  Many people were not sure the cholera was even real; perhaps it was a bugbear invented to let the powerful take control of the poor’s few belongings, or even their bodies. After all, scandal was rife about medical schools paying grave robbers for bodies to use for dissection.  In Scotland, William Burke and William Hare had been convicted in Edinburgh in 1829, not only of grave robbing to sell to anatomists, but of providing themselves with merchandise through several actual murders in 1827 and 1828.  Outrage against graverobbing spurred Parliament to deliberate on a “Dead Body Bill” or Anatomy Act, passed in 1832 (See Richardson).  The Act, which provided that bodies of paupers not claimed within 48 hours by family members able to pay for interment would be available for dissection, was designed to prevent grave robbing by providing a steady source of bodies, but it also had the effect of making the poor particularly vulnerable to the seizure of their bodies after death.  People diagnosed with cholera were often forcibly removed in the name of public safety to specially designated “cholera hospitals,” where, of course, many died, outraging the feelings of families and fueling suspicions that they were actually being killed. In response, many families hid their sick from inspectors or resisted their removal.  In the minutes of a meeting of the St. Olave’s District Board of Works, it is recorded that, “The bodies of those who have died have been removed as speedily as possible, but in the case of the young woman who died in Vine Street, about 200 and [sic] 300 persons collected to prevent the removal of the body.  It was, therefore, not persisted in” (“St. Olave’s District Board of Works” 4).  Although violence against doctors and government officials was not as prevalent as it was on the continent, there was still some rioting and vandalism of cholera hospitals.  Meanwhile, property owners compelled to spend money to clean up “nuisances” or merchants whose businesses were hurt by cholera panic were also suspicious of the motives of government.

So the first epidemic was immediately understood in a context of class struggle.  The clergy was the traditional source of local authority at times like these, but the Church of England was also under considerable stress from a religious reform movement, which had in the late 1820s sought to grant other Protestant denominations and even Catholics more political representation (historically, Catholics, for example, could not be Members of Parliament, whereas Bishops of the Church of England sat ex officio in the House of Lords). These religious disputes had a class component: although not always true, in general, Church of England members tended to be wealthier, upper class, and from Southern England, where power was historically seated.  Lower middle-class industrial and manufacturing districts to the North and West tended to include more dissenters, and Catholicism was associated with the Irish, both those in Ireland and the many poor Irish in England.  So, the same class hostility that was linked to political Reform was closely connected to religious conflict, and this undermined the authority of the established Church to speak for the larger community in this crisis.  When the Church of England, backed by Parliament, declared a day of fasting and prayer to ward off the cholera, which they attributed to divine punishment, labor organizations satirically declared a feast day for their readers, arguing that the poor had already fasted enough. Meanwhile, political Reformers observed, sometimes mockingly and sometimes in earnest, that if God was angry, it was probably because Reform was being stalled.  Radical press and labor organizations emphasized the absurdity of the solutions proposed by the upper classes for an audience in very different circumstances.  Henry Hetherington of The Poor Man’s Guardian—who himself died of cholera in 1849 (Durey 195)—ridiculed the notion of the general fast-day through several issues, beginning on 11 Feb. 1832: “a general fast is all very fair; for God knows that as yet the fasting has been partial enough . . . . if not merely fasting but if the most abject want be any propitiation for the evil, never would CHOLERA MORBUS have made its appearance among us!” (Hetherington 1).

Such gestures dramatised the opposing physical circumstances in which rich and poor lived.  Ballads that were printed on single sheets, and given away or sold for pennies on the street, promoted the views of Reformers: one example warns: “They tell such tales our hearts to fear/ Of Cholera raging here and there,/ But bread, pudding, and good cheer,/Will drive the Cholera Morbus . . . //But Reformers will not be deceived,/ For by them it is all agreed/ That one and all we shall be freed,/ In spite of the Cholera Morbus” (“A New Song”).  Meanwhile, by both the poor and merchants, the doctors and clergy might be seen as allies of the elite.  In one small town, for example, notices saying “No cholera at Ely/ The Parsons Liars/And Doctors Pickpockets” were pasted over cholera warning handbills distributed by the Board of Health (Holmes 32-33).  Thus, the middle-classes were often agnostic or actively skeptical on the issue of cholera’s threat and were inclined to be more concerned with gaining political representation and avoiding disruptions to trade.

Although most popular responses to the cholera were political and religious, public policy focused on two initial responses: quarantine to keep the cholera out of Britain and, subsequently, cleaning up “nuisances”: that is, things that were perceived as smelly and dirty.  Since disease was largely believed to be caused by atmospheric problems, and by bad smells, cleaning up open cesspits, garbage piles and so forth was thought to be a way to avoid the spread of disease.  This was viewed as more of an engineering problem (how do you get rid of this stuff?) and a legal problem (how do you make property owners clean up their property?) than a medical problem, per se.  After all, one didn’t need a trained professional to tell if something smelled bad.” (Pamela K. Gilbert)

The organised working class of London, many of who knew what it was like to refrain from eating (for economic reasons), felt that ‘causes that matured and extended the disease were greatly within the power of the government to remove’. The Poor Man’s Guardian replied ‘No, no; to tell the poor to fast would indeed be superfluous’, as they were lucky to eat meat once a week, let alone be able to forgo it’; they labelled the fast day a ‘farce’ day.

No sooner did the members of the National Union of the Working Classes (NUWC) “hear of this farce, than they were actively engaged in asertaining [sic] how they could best show their contempt for this knavery or hypocrisy. They first thought of a public meeting on the occasion, but after consulting several eminent lawyers on the subject, they found that no exhibition of numbers could so effectually evade the laws, as by their walking peacibly through the streets of this Metropolis. They therefore resolved that a procession of the union should be held on this occasion after which they should adjourn to their classes or places of meeting and that the most able to afford it should help their poorer bretheren [sic] to feast and not fast on that day.” (See P. M. Guardian March 24 1832.)

Over 100,000 people were said to have joined the NUWC procession, from Finsbury Square, up Fleet Street and Chancery Lane, (the police barred the way up the Strand), to Holborn and Tottenham Court Road, where according to William Lovett “the police, coming down Howland Street, threw themselves across our procession.”

In a sly act of political theatre, the NUWC organised a number of feasts across the city, and the demonstration broke into parties that determinedly ate drank and feasted, to express their contempt of the government’s attempt to “father their own iniquitous neglect upon the Almighty”.

The same day, a crowd reported to be about 500 threatened to demolish the Bethnal Green Workhouse, but desisted, although only 25 police were present.
Soon after the procession, NUWC leaders, William Benbow, William Lovett and James Watson were arrested as the leaders of the procession and being bailed out, their trial took place at the sessions house Clerkenwell Green on Wednesday the 16th of May 1832.

Read some interesting accounts of the 1832 cholera epidemic as it hit in East London

Yesterday in radical history: William Cobbett indicted for seditious libel, 1830, for supporting Swing Rioters

In 1830, the radical journalist William Cobbett was accused of inspiring and inciting the huge surge of rural rebellion, agitation and arson that was labelled together as the Swing Revolt, after the fictional Captain Swing in whose name anonymous threatening letters to employers were signed.

Cobbett would later be acquitted.

An account of the particular circumstances of the accusation against Cobbett follows. It is interesting in that it focusses on specific acts and individuals, among the hundreds hanged, transported and jailed for taking part in this mass movement. But also in that it calls examines the conclusion of the Swing movement’s celebrated historians, the marxists Eric Hobsbawm and George Rude, that it was a purely economic upsurge, formed in rural workers’ immediate grievances, and only weakly connected to the growing political reform movement or its agitators.

The account is most of an article written by Roger Wells:

Mr William Cobbett, Captain Swing, and King William IV

WILLIAM Cobbett’s trial, and triumphant acquittal, for seditious libel published in his widely circulated Political Register on 11 December 1830, just as the Swing rising was beginning to subside, is well-known. The charge accused Cobbett of inciting Swing crimes, including machine-breaking, and above all arson.

The motivation behind Cobbett’s prosecution by Grey’s government, despite its commitment to parliamentary reform, remains obscure. Cobbett’s claim that his indictment derived from a ministerial conspiracy against one of its arch-critics is usually written off as an exotic mixture of customary exaggeration, paranoia, and the rhetorical demands of a self-conducted legal defence in court, or a combination of all three. In the footnotes of Professor Dyke’s recent penetrating study of William Cobbett and Rural Popular Culture, he attributes reports from the Swing epicentre of Battle in Sussex to a ‘government informer’. This personage was not the implied run-of-the-mill Home Office correspondent, but George Maule, none other than the Treasury Solicitor. This ultimately poses the question of what this elevated state functionary was doing in Battle, which also happened to be the venue for one of Cobbett’s lectures, just under a month before Maule arrived in the town. Battle was also the home of the capitally convicted arsonist, Thomas Goodman, reprieved for confessing that he was motivated by hearing Cobbett’s lecture in the town on 16 October.

The political temperature across the rural south-east steadily rose from the spring of I829, when Kent farmers unprecedently mobilised to petition for the postponement of the hop tax, and further parliamentary petitioning for relief from agrarian distress recurred over a broader region in 1830. Hostilities spawned by the rejections of these petitions were reflected in the denunciations of the unreformed state by candidates and their agents in the general election of August 1830 after the death of George IV. The simultaneous impact of the continental revolutions was indeed profound. Sectors of the press hailed the ‘stupendous and glorious revolution’, in stark contrast to the ‘buffooneries of…corrupt electioneering’ in Britain, and successfully advocated celebratory meetings with collections for the fallen revolutionaries to extend to ‘remote country villages’. The ‘glorious actions’ of the French stimulated political thrusts by popular democrats elsewhere, including Battle where a vociferous artisan and labouring grouping also rallied behind the embattled ‘revolutionist’ editor of the Brighton Guardian, gave ‘public testimony to the freedom of the press’, and extolled the virtues of people like themselves, ‘spirits that dwell in humble tenements’. Moreover, these pro-French meetings endured, and Cobbett’s lecture tour opportunistically exploited them through his distributions of petitions to be signed in favour of parliamentary reform. A meeting at Maidstone which despatched cash and a euphoric address to Paris on 10 October was quickly followed by Cobbett on 14 October, and two days later he lectured at Battle. By this juncture Swing’s mobilisations in Kent, commencing with the expulsion of Irish harvesters in July and August, had extended to the destruction of threshing machines at the end of August and into September, before bursting into widespread incendiarism. In the October correspondence between Kent’s Lord Lieutenant Camden and Sir Robert Peel at the Home Office, arson constituted the primary concern. Incendiarism was significantly more intense than revealed by the copious logging in Hobsbawm’s and Rude’s tables, as exemplified by a Southfleet farmer’s diary note that ‘fires continue almost over the county’. Neither of the two specified that day figure in the tabulation.

Cobbett’s Battle speech was dramatically paraphrased by Earl Ashburnham – who lived locally and had had a public altercation some years previously with Cobbett – for Camden’s consumption:

there never was such rank treason utter’d in any country, or at any age…he reprobated the labouring class in Sussex for not shewing the example set them…in Kent, where their fellow sufferers were asserting their rights by destroying the property of those who tyrannised over them.

Camden dutifully relayed this missive to Peel; if Peel cursorily and darkly replied that he had ‘taken steps with regard to Cobbett and his Lectures’, Peel’s principal concern with incendiarism remained unshaken. No suspect had been arrested, though Peel had despatched London police officers to help local magistrates, but only in response to specific requests, together with limited army support. The Home Secretary was prepared to consider an unprecedented extension of government pardons and rewards to accomplices of arsonists who confessed, but feared that the result would be agent provocateurs whose contrivances would be exposed in court.

Moreover, Peel quite critically feared that ‘if’ he ‘originated interference with the ordinary exertions of the local magistrates’, he risked a debilitating political backlash. Conversely, Peel was convinced that the ‘severe example’ to be made from an incendiary’s conviction and execution would be crucial in its own right, and counter the ‘unparalleled Lenity’ of the light sentences passed by Sir Edward Knatchbull on the first batch of machine-breakers tried in October at the Kent Quarter Sessions. On 26 October, Camden was informed by an increasingly desperate Home Secretary, that he would ‘adopt any Measures – will incur any Expence… that can promote the suppression of the Outrages’. He proposed that

‘some-one well versed in Criminal Business & in the art of detecting crime, will [be] establish[ed]… in some central place – place at his disposal…a certain number of Police Officers, and place him in general Communication with the most active Magistrates’

in Kent. The sole proviso was categoric assurance that this initiative ‘will not give offence to the local magistracy and induce any relaxation of their activity’. On receipt of this assurance, Peel sought Cabinet approval, and despatched Maule to Maidstone where he arrived on 31 October.

Maule’s original mission to Kent was soon briefly extended to East Sussex, and he then had ultimate supervision over prosecutions at the Special Commissions which sat in judgment on Swing activists for Hampshire and other counties to the west. The suppression of Swing almost totally absorbed Maule’s department for the ensuing three months. ~ The Home Office itself was recurrently ‘besieged’ by communications over the risings. Once he succeeded Peel, Melbourne ‘sat up all the first night he was in office’ on 23 November, and subsequently rose daily at 6 am ‘to get through the business’. Although arson retained its paramountcy for Maule, other Swing crimes including machine-breaking, attacks on professional poor-law administrators and tithe audits, automatically concerned him. He investigated additional issues, among them clandestine riot incitement by farmers, their refusals to become special constables, and politically motivated activists with their suspected linkages with metropolitan radicals.

No fundamental policy change derived from Grey’s ministry’s replacement of Wellington’s, though the Whigs were much more determined on speedy repression. Maule’s existing brief was uncompromised, and indeed widened firstly by Melbourne’s 23 November proclamation offering huge rewards for those who both helped arrest certain categories of Swing offenders and gave evidence against them, and secondly by the decision to create Special Commissions. Maule’s tasks included the selection of cases to be financed by the Treasury, and those to be left to the normal county agencies. Government would prosecute only in felony cases where the evidence was strong.

By the time of Maule’s appearance in Maidstone, further attacks on threshing machines had occurred in Kent, together with mobilisations over wages, and levels of poor-relief, which were spreading into Sussex. The first rising in that county in fact occurred at Battle on 30 October, not the famous Brede incident of legend, and featured as such on Charlesworth’s maps. At Maidstone, Maule supervised prosecution processes, perused all available depositions, directed the deployment of plain-clothes policemen, in order ‘to give spirit and courage to the magistrates with… advice and by cordial co-operation’. On 1 November Maule attended a meeting of over seventy Kent magistrates, chaired by Camden, to debate Swing’s causes and course. It was widely believed that ‘over-taxation, want of work [and] insufficiency of wages’ underlay the risings. Knatchbull refused to say what considerations underlay his lenient sentencing, and the ultra-Tory Lord Winchelsea explained why he had given cash to a major Swing crowd he encountered days before. Maule’s proposed role was warmly endorsed, and Cobbett went unmentioned, despite the fact that while the magistracy convened, a popular meeting for parliamentary reform, orchestrated by the ‘pretty numerous’ radical and unionised paper-makers, went ahead on nearby Penenden Heath. Maule resisted suggestions that a magisterial posse should reconnoitre; instead two policemen were despatched, and if their arrival coincided with the audience’s dispersal, placards demanding ‘Reform in the Commons House of Park vote by ballot… or nothing’ and enjoining ‘respect the Soldiers…they are our friends’ remained in place. The magistracy departed once cavalry escorts were available).

After a brief sojourn in London, Maule returned to examine paperwork against Hollingboume protesters, and the radical Maidstone shoemaker Adams who had led two to three hundred rioting ‘agricultural labourers’ in the vicinity, demanding cash contributions from various targets, and making political speeches. Maule also received ‘disastrous intelligence’ of further fires in Kent, more in Sussex, including two at Battle, further details on which came from the local Clerk of the Peace who rushed across specifically to lobby Maule. The clerk insisted on the current escapist line, that incendiaries were ‘strangers’) Maule was ‘heretical on this point’, believing that locals were responsible on the grounds of ‘the number of these conflagrations and the intire absence of a trace in any one instance…If strangers do the act’, he reasoned, ‘some of those…on the spot conceal it’. No suspect had as yet been arrested for arson, and Maule immediately despatched policeman Clements to Battle. Arson also topped others’ agendas. One leader of at least three distinct Swing mobilisations, the former naval rating and radical, Richard Price, claimed that the ‘burnings were necessary to bring people’ – by which he meant establishment ‘gentlemen’ – ‘to their senses’. Customers ‘talking about the fires’ in the comfort of the Rose in Dover, included Thomas Johnson, whose ‘exulting…manner’ in his prediction ‘that there would be a great many more’ led to fighting. The police removed Johnson in handcuffs, but not before he ‘seized’ one protagonist ‘by his teeth in his private parts’.

Wellington’s notorious 2 November declaration, categorically ruling out parliamentary reform, shortly precipitated his government’s demise, and more immediately generated popular mobilisations in London. These culminated in the abortion of the king’s customary regal visit to the inaugural dinner of London’s new Lord Mayor on 9 November, as neither the monarch’s nor the duke’s safety could be guaranteed. The cancellation pre-empted one metropolitan policeman’s intention to ‘throw off his Coat’ and ‘join the Mob’; instead, this man, Charles Inskipp, who hailed from Battle, simply resigned, denying his inspector’s charge that he was motivated by ‘fear’, as ‘he wished to go into the Country’, which he did). The Weald was engulfed by Swing crowds when Inskipp arrived in Battle. On 8 November a Petty Sessions meeting had been targetted by a mass lobby drawn from several parishes, though the full-blown riot advocated by the future arsonist Thomas Goodman was forestalled by the cavalry’s arrival. News on 10 November, that serious disturbances had not occurred in London, alleviated local authorities’ fears that metropolitan violence would have ‘acted electrically’ to trigger politically motivated disorders in the town. Nevertheless, dozens of risings within a fifteen-mile radius, demanding wage and poor-relief increases, tithe and rent reductions, intermingled with attacks on professional social-security administrators and refusals to enrol as special constables, stimulated dark forebodings. The customarily cool and energetic justice Courthope, who chaired the Petty Sessions, had previously focused solely on incendiarism. Once Sussex followed ‘the example of Kent’ with mass mobilisations, the

‘whole fabric of society appears to be shaken’, not least owing to the general prevailing opinion that all governments must now submit to the will of the people & cannot resist redressing all real and imaginary grievances of the labouring population.’

Four days later on 11 November Courthope believed the magistracy was liable to collapse, and urgently supplicated the Home Office:

Let me again & again entreat… Peel not to leave us without some good adviser… the whole of the County may be hazarded by an indiscreet tho’ well intentioned act of one or two County Magistrates.

Maule arrived in Battle on 12 November, though he clearly saw this as a diversion. Although arson suspects had by now been arrested in Kent, the view ‘that the incendaries are imported from the Metropolis’ was so ‘prevalent’ in Kent, that Maule had asked for an enquiry by intelligence sources to reveal any links between radicals in country and capital. Among those whose letters he advised intercepted were Stephen Caute, the ‘spokesman of the Radical Club’ at Maidstone, and a principal speaker at the recent Penenden Heath meeting. While Maule sympathised with the multifaceted problems of Courthope’s Bench, notably the need for ‘some legal assistance’, Maule’s stay must be brief; if Peel thought otherwise, then he should send a London stipendiary magistrate to deputise. Cobbett did not figure in either Courthope’s perceptions or Maule’s calculations.

On 14 November Courthope was ‘so fatigued & harrassed that I can scarely put two connected sentences together’. The arrival of General Balbiac at Battle to direct military deployment on 15 November restored some confidence, though the cavalry were too stretched to intervene everywhere in the High Weald ‘infested with assemblies’. Many activists flourished handbills, ‘distributed with the activity of an election’, detailing the incomes of state sinecurists and senior ecclesiastics, appropriately entitled ‘Nice Pickings’. Justice Collingwood tried to neutralise their impact by ending one negotiation with protesters by orchestrating three cheers for the king and exacting promises not to read Cobbett. Battle remained in ferment. The postmaster remained deeply ‘impressed that the Peasants are instigated to pursue their present outrages by persons…anxious to overturn the government’, an assertion supported by information that ‘a person of notoriously revolutionary principles had ‘gone round to the neighbouring Village Beer Shops lecturing the Paupers after Cobbett’s fashion’. This proved to be none other than the recently-resigned London policeman, Charles Inskipp. He donned ‘a Cap decorated with tri-colored Ribbands’, which he stressed ‘were worn at the French Revolution…and if they were all of his Mind there would soon be a revolution here’. Inskipp claimed to ‘have left the new Police for the purpose of coming down to instruct the people’, arguing that

‘now’s the time to make…Government…comply and do away with the Tythe and Taxes and… said that he did not value his life a farthing and he would head them, and would instruct those unenlightened to fight for their rights.’

The issue of arrest warrants for Inskipp in late November coincided with another incendiary attack. By this juncture, Swing’s epicentres were moving swiftly westward, and stimulated renewed populist politicking in West Sussex. A ‘riotous and revolutionary spirit’ in the Horsham region focused on the town itself, and on 18 November a thousand protesters led by three members of the ‘Horsham Radical Party’ besieged local gentry, farmers, and a lay tithe proprietor in the church, during which alter rails were demolished for weapons. This meeting limited itself to wage increases and tithe reductions, but was followed by a purely political assembly at the town hall which attributed the disturbances to governmental ‘mismanagement’. Employers, whether farmers or master tradesmen, were too impoverished to afford improved wages, unless tithes, taxes and rents were reduced, together with the ‘total abolition of all sinecures, useless places and unmerited pensions’; parliamentary reform was indispensable. Only four of the sixty-three householders summoned to become special constables turned out, giving the local Bench – which included the present High Sheriff Thomas Sanctuary – no option but to lobby for military aid. Once troops arrived – by forced marches – warrants were issued against politically-motivated instigators of the first protest who had absconded, and the detective services of a London policeman secured to expose the perceived ‘conspiracy’ to effect ‘revolutionary objects, &: for the incitement of Riots at Horsham and the adjacent Parishes’. The latter initiative developed into a prolonged farce, played out against continual fears that the county jail in the town would be attacked, with the release of the Swing prisoners, whose numbers were swelling and included arsonists. The army guarded the town until mid-December when the prisoners were carted off to Lewes for the Assizes.

During this period in late November and early December in East Sussex, authority moved temperately gradually to restore order. As many farmers were ‘in the greatest poverty & their capital all gone’. Courthope refused to compel legally men to serve as special constables. He enrolled those who volunteered, ‘made them as friends instead of enemies’, and was thus ‘able to distinguish our friends from our foes’, prior to launching an offensive against the ‘perpetrators of these outrages’. County policy to organise parochial night patrols – ‘not a very agreeable office these Cold nights’ – was slowly implemented, with Battle among the first. Late on the night of 2 December the Battle patrol passed Thomas Goodman, but made no verbal contact with him; shortly afterwards it was called to a blaze at Henry Atherton’s barn, though little could be done to save it.

Subsequently, two patrol members insisted on reconnoitering the spot where Goodman had been seen, and his footprints were traced in one direction to the barn, and the other to his lodgings at Thomas Pankhurst’s. Both men were arrested, and Goodman speedily committed. Pankhurst was held some time and released only after agreeing to give evidence of his lodger’s movements. At Horsham jail Goodman joined three other alleged incendiaries. These were George Buckwell belatedly committed in mid-November for arson at Hartfield one month earlier, a retarded fourteen year-old for incendiarism at Bodiam, and Edward Bushby for firing farmer Olliver’s barn at East Preston on 28 November.

Simultaneously, Maule experienced mixed fortunes in orchestrating Swing’s repression in Kent. Three arson suspects from Northfleet were eventually released for lack of evidence, while Maule’s attempts to indict Wrotham farmers for inciting labourers to force tithe reductions foundered on the incumbent’s refusal to prosecute and thereby generate ‘an irreconcilable break between himself & parishioners’. Intelligence sources failed to establish links between radicals in Kent and London. On the other hand a batch of machine-breakers had been transported at the East Kent Sessions, and maximising press coverage was calculated to have reversed the effect of Knatchbull’s early leniency. Radical activists were under arrest. Maule aimed to prosecute them not for political but for typical Swing offences, including at least one for levying contributions, robbery in legal terms, and liable to capital punishment, Moreover, six suspected arsonists were in custody. If the evidence against two was merely circumstantial, one of the three youths accused of incendiarism at Blean had turned King’s Evidence. The case of the army deserter John Dyke who had been ‘wandering about the Country for some time’ raised strong hopes for a conviction at the Kent Assize scheduled for mid-December. Dyke and the two Blean youths were found guilty, and executed on Penenden Heath on Christmas Eve. Once the Kent Assize finished, Maule briefly returned to London, before proceeding to Lewes for the Sussex Assize commencing on 20 December. At this point Maule’s correspondence with the Home Office briefly lapsed, restarting with his arrival in Reading on 28 December to oversee prosecutions at the Special Commission for Berkshire.

Maule was in London on 17 December, the day after Arthur Trevor in the Commons advocated Cobbett’s prosecution by the government. Maule’s return from the Sussex Assize coincided with Trevor’s repeated demand on 23 December. The ministry decided to ‘fight…Trevor’s Motion’ by insisting that it infringed executive prerogative, an argument which suggested that government was not going to be bounced into prosecution and only implied that action would be considered.

Cobbett’s commentary, principally in print, exploited the Swing crisis throughout the autumn to maximise political capital. His imagery of a ‘rural war’ and concept of a ‘just war’ were dramatic, but hardly unsubstantiated by the facts, though his claim that he had ‘for many years past’ warned ‘the middle class, and particularly the farmers, against the…time when millions would take vengeance on the thousands’ was an exaggeration. Certainly, Swing legitimated reiteration of all dements of Cobbett’s central critique of the agricultural depression, underemployment, inadequate wages, parishwork, benefit-cutting professional overseers, and the game laws; its aggravation by taxes, tithes, national debt, sinecures and pensions facilitated advocacy of unity between farm labourers and their employers to demand parliamentary reform as the panacea for the redress of grievances, and the restoration of rural economic equilibrium. Cobbett emphasised elements of emergent inter-class solidarity, including refusals to serve as special constables, and extolled examples of Swing mobilisations being followed by parliamentary petitioning as at Horsham. He was however cautious, controlling his enthusiasm notably when attempts were made – again in the Battle district – to stop forcibly tax collections. He would not have been surprised that the Home Office closely monitored the pages of the Political Register, and annotations thereon reveal that Cobbett’s observations on incendiarism were carefully scrutinised. According to Cobbett, arson was principally resorted to where labourers were too weak to force redress through overt means. He insisted that incendiaries were not strangers, but locals, and that arson in contrast to riot, was ‘most easy to perpetrate, the least liable to detection’; ‘no power on earth’ could forcibly contain this brand of terrorism. Moreover, in the Register for 11 December, Cobbett attributed widespread reductions of tithes to ‘the terror of… the fires, and not to the bodily force’ represented by riotous mobilisations. That part of his article was heavily scored in the Home Office’s copy. Key components of his argument, notably the difficulty of detection, and that arsonists were locals, coincided with the Treasury Solicitor’s perception. Ironically, it was Cobbett’s populist political rival, Richard Carlile, who was to be convicted in 1831 for riot incitement, who asserted that Cobbett had ‘the power to rouse the country to resistance by one week’s Register. A serious word from him to the people would decide that point’.

Cobbett asserted that arson and fears of incendiarism produced tithe reductions, and constituted ‘unquestionable’ evidence that these ‘acts’ of ‘working people…produced good, and great good too’. These became the grounds for the charges of incitement to ‘violence and disorder and to the burning and destruction of Corn, Grain, Machines and other property’, which eventually appeared in the indictment. The decision to prosecute was taken in January 1831, but presenting it to the Old Bailey Grand Jury was delayed by the Attorney-General’s absence at the Special Commissions until 16 February. Then a True Bill was found, though the trial did not come on until July.

Events at the Sussex Assize between 20 and 23 December were nevertheless crucial. Here, Maule discussed legal details with prosecuting counsel Non-felony cases, including former policeman Inskipp for seditious speech at Battle, were left to customary county funding. So too was the charge against Goodman for arson at the same place, as in Maule’s estimation it ‘might possibly fail’. Maule left Lewes on 22 December, after Bushby’s conviction for arson, but in the middle of Goodman’s eight-hour trial. Unusually, Goodman’s conviction hinged on the footprint and supportive circumstantial evidence, and as the judge emphasised, did not include customary proof of animosity between arsonist and victim.

This lack of traditional motivation was critical. It negated a reprieve in response to an orthodox case for clemency based on the concurrence of the victim and good character references, hardly feasible in the fervid atmosphere. Clemency, however unlikely, demanded extraordinary grounds, which eventually derived from the three separate, but incremental allegations against Cobbett. The first, a single sentence version, was published in The Times on 24 December, the same day as the Thunderer reported the bulk of the Lewes trials, and was verified by the Revd Rush. Much has been made of Rush’s supposedly inexplicable presence at Lewes, not least by Cobbett himself, but Rush had given evidence against two men convicted of conspiring to force the tax collector at Crowhurst to return the cash to the payers. Cobbett accurately claimed that Swing prisoners in Hampshire and Wiltshire jails were ‘canvassed’ for links with himself, and if he made no mention of Sussex antecedents, it is not impossible that such occurred. If Goodman was approached after his conviction, and volunteered that his incendiarism was stimulated by Cobbett’s Battle speech, it was the only conceivable chance, however remote, to save Goodman’s life. Irrespective of Rush canvassing, verification of Goodman’s statement by a clergyman was logical. Cobbett immediately denounced Goodman’s allegations, including The Times’ embellishment that Goodman’s first target, a stack belonging to Charles Emery of the George in Battle on 3 November, which Goodman admitted after his conviction on another charge, was fired in retaliation for Emery’s refusal to accommodate Cobbett with a venue for his 16 October lecture at Battle.

William IV not only read the newspapers and worried over the impact of the ‘lower orders…of a licentious and unrestricted press’, but on occasion brought his ministers’ attention to possible seditious paragraphs. Among them was at least one issue of the Political Register. The king took a close interest in Swing, and was particularly relieved that the trials at Lewes ‘proceed[ed] without interruption’. Doubtless his personal proximity to Lewes underlay this relief, for William spent Christmas 1830 at Brighton Pavilion, where he ‘always’ kept ‘open house’, a ‘strange life’ for a monarch. On Christmas Day, as Bushby and Goodman were transferred back to Horsham for execution on New Year’s Day, the king’s private secretary informed the Duke of Wellington – who had relayed the latest information of Swing trials at the Hampshire Special Commission – that

‘Proceedings at Lewes have been of the same Character and one of the Incendiaries has confessed that he had been incited to the mischief by Cobbett’s Publications and Lectures:’

On 30 December Francis Burrell and two visiting magistrates at Horsham jail, activated they said by Cobbett’s denial, interviewed Goodman ‘without the slightest hope being held out to him of any remission of his Sentence’. They interrogated Goodman as to ‘whether he had any enmity against’ his arson victim, and were reassured that Goodman ‘bore no malice’. Then ‘without any dictation or suggestion’, Goodman penned a more substantial account of Cobbett’s lecturing, including advocacy of every man having a gun in ‘readdyness’ to follow the speaker into action when called upon. The High Sheriff of Sussex, Thomas Sanctuary, showed the second confession to the king at the Pavilion on New Year’s Eve, and was introduced by him to Home Secretary Melbourne ‘on the subject of Cobbett and the Swing Fires’. William was convinced that ‘Cobbett begins to be frightened’.

Melbourne performed a remarkable volte-face between 30 and 31 December. On 30 December he had specifically and personally rejected a petition presented by the Whig MP for Lewes, Thomas Kemp, for a respite for both Goodman and Bushby, to make time for representations for reprieves. On the following day Melbourne formally and hurriedly transmitted the king’s commands granting Goodman a fourteen day stay of execution; within days it was commuted to transportation for life. Ironically, William had also learned

‘that Goodman is not acquainted with Cobbett’s Person and… he may have mistaken a Disciple of C’s who lectured after he left Battle… Cobbett… is supposed to be very wary to have so committed’

himself to the language alleged by Goodman. Now the king asked Sanctuary to get ‘Corroboration’ of Goodman’s statement to the visiting magistrates. Bushby was hanged on I January as scheduled. Under-sheriff Medwin who presided, reported directly to the king, including the possibility that another party was also involved with Bushby at East Preston. William ‘desired’ Medwin to preserve the paper to which he committed Bushby’s few dying words. The king still hoped that ‘Cobbett may be laid hold of’ on 2 January, as Sanctuary launched a local investigation into Goodman’s character and sought further details of Cobbett’s lecture. This elicited a robust response from Sir Godfrey Webster, the somewhat idiosyncratic politician and local landowner, who sat on the Battle Bench, and who had played a determined role in countering Swing. Webster’s anger that Maule had refused to ‘take up’ and finance ‘the case of Inskipp for Sedition’ was turned to fury by ‘one… of the most destructive fires we have yet had’ at Battle which greeted the news of Goodman’s respite. Locally, Cobbett’s ‘admirers’ had increased, while the ‘licentious pasquinador’ was now ‘looked upon as a guardian angel’, an impossible scenario in which to gather incriminating evidence respecting Cobbett’s lecture. Moreover, the disparity between Goodman and Bushby’s fate induced the local magistracy to believe the latter’s execution constituted ‘Judicial Murder’, and the former’s reprieve ‘a great mistake’. Later that month, King William told the Duke of Wellington that

‘Ministers had carried too far their pardons to the rioters. He took great blame for himself for having been led to propose the pardoning of Goodman. Some Sussex gentlemen had got round him & there was a hope he would have given some evidence against Cobbett.’

Further irony derives from the fact that Goodman had witnessed one of Charles Inskipp’s beershop harangues. Inskipp’s arrest and prosecution itself owed much to very peculiar circumstances. The bar-room orator was denounced by one of the cavalrymen policing Battle. This character, William Moneypenny, was however no run-of-the mill squaddie, but the scion of an affluent Irish family, cut off from his inheritance for making an improvident marriage. Moneypenny’s motives can only be guessed. Significantly, none of the other soldiers who were billeted on the beershop gave evidence, and Moneypenny’s initiative may have constituted an attempt to rehabilitate himself. More sinister are the facts that as Inskipp was a Battle man, and about the same age as Goodman, the arsonist was unlikely not to know him. Moreover, the two were fellow prisoners while awaiting trial. In view of these details, Goodman deliberately juxtaposed Inskipp and Cobbett in a cynical attempt to incriminate the latter, encouraged by a number of Sussex magistrates who were probably initially not aware of Goodman’s apparent duplicity. This series of developments briefly led the king to believe that conclusive evidence against Cobbett was obtainable.

These led directly to Goodman’s pardon, but his testimony was useless against Cobbett, though the charge according to Cobbett’s solicitor would have been clinched by any proven incendiary’s claim that he had been motivated by Cobbett’s speeches or journalism. The commutation to transportation was hurriedly implemented presumably to get Goodman out of the way. Ministers were anxious to stop Tory attacks for not prosecuting Cobbett, and indicting him – and the much more vulnerable Richard Carlile – also had the virtue of holding notorious demagogues partially responsible for Swing. This ruse countered some pamphleteers’ claims that the rising was driven by revolutionary protesters in conscious imitation of the French. After the continental revolutions William IV was paranoid about sans-culottes. If he came to believe that Swing somehow represented an English form of similar portents, his support for Whig parliamentary reform may have evaporated. Cobbett publicly and grandiosely attributed his prosecution to a combination of Whig fears and malignancy, and a determination to silence his criticism of government early in 1831. However, this claim loses some of its credibility in the context of Cobbett’s solicitor lobbying the assistant secretary of state at the Home Office, who in response made it categorically clear that Cobbett’s current support of the first Reform Bill would not head off the prosecution; ministers would rather ‘add a million to the national debt’ than abandon the case. Cobbett’s acquittal, at the hands of a hung jury, principally derived from the weakness of the case that he had advocated arson, and Cobbett’s production of witnesses who had been in his Battle audience, backed by a petition from many others, denying that he had incited them. One signatory was Henry Alderton, Goodman’s victim. Cobbett’s prosecutors were unable to replace Goodman with any other witness from Battle, though Goodman’s inadmissable evidence against Cobbett was nevertheless confounded at the trial. Later, Cobbett dutifully and glowingly praised ‘the excellent people of Battle’ who had preserved him from the ‘conspiracy’ of 1830-1.

A number of conclusions may be drawn from events in Swing’s initial south-eastern theatre, Cobbett’s activities, Goodman’s revelations, and the Treasury Solicitor’s campaign. Interpretations of Swing as the inevitable violent response to the intolerable and seemingly chronic deprivation of farmworkers encapsulated by the customary perception of the ‘last labourers’ revolt’ requires significant qualification. Farmworkers were not only joined by considerable numbers of rural craftsmen, some of whom were clearly politically- aware populist democrats, but the revolt also embraced their counterparts in adjacent towns. There were too many conjunctions between village and urban protesters to warrant perceptions of an exclusively rural revolt, and too great a participation by non-farmworkers to accept notions of a labourers’ uprising. Farmers clearly played a covert role in stimulating labourers to mobilise principally against the clergy and tithe payments, though as Maule discovered at Wrotham prosecuting delinquent farmers was highly problematic. The injections of politics were critical, and Cobbett’s crusading on stage and in print was the very visible tip of an iceberg. Cobbett certainly contributed to publicising French events in the rural south-east, but others including the radical nucleus at Battle were already active in the same cause. Both clearly contributed to the atmosphere in which people at the bottom of the social hierarchy really did consider that mass mobilisations would remedy grievances, as reported by Justice Courthope among many others. Moreover, the popular democratic politics articulated by Swing activists convinced many previously sceptical electors, and a body of liberal Tories, that modest reform of the Commons was paramount. This was a major reason which eludes some historians, ‘why the clamour for constitutional reform… hitherto… contained within safe pockets spread so suddenly and extensively in… 1830’.

Maule’s orchestration of repression in Kent, especially criminal prosecutions, represented an unparalleled intervention by central government thereby seriously compromising customary local juridical autonomy. But, both in the south-east, and later in those counties for which the Special Commissions sat, Maule and his department, were responsible for ensuring that almost all Swing indictments pertained to acts of violence, as opposed to politically motivated sedition. Inskipp was an exception, but his prosecution derived from the unusually situated cavalryman, Moneypenny, and the trial was financed by county not Treasury funds. Cobbett’s indictment followed a unique series of events, namely Goodman’s desperate post conviction claims, and the capacity of Tory magistrates to exploit their proximity and access to the monarch to outmanoeuvre the government, which had recently fought Tory MPs’ demands for legal action against Cobbett. Ministers could hardly refuse to act against Cobbett after the publicity accorded to Goodman’s assertions, though ironically those assertions could never be transmuted into admissable evidence. Privately, one MP opined that ‘The Whigs were egged on by the taunts of Tories’ into Cobbett’s prosecution, and once it failed ‘laughed at the…defeat’. A warped version of William IV’s role in all this was eventually publicised by the Observer which claimed that Cobbett’s prosecution comprised the ‘fulfilment made by a very exalted personage to a few Sussex landowners’. Once acquitted, Cobbett cheekily challenged the government to prosecute the editor for implicating the king. The prosecution of both Cobbett and Carlile on political charges, namely incitement through seditious publications, subscribed to the convenient fiction, that the politics of Swing, along with some of the violence could be ascribed to the demagoguery of a pair of notorious radical publicists. Despite Maule’s role in orchestrating Swing’s repression, especially the legal counter-offensive, this barrister ‘of great ability‘ played no part in the decision to prosecute Cobbett.

Eventually Cobbett celebrated the Reform Act in another Swing epicentre, Barton Stacey in Hampshire, principally because this locality provided so many – including one of the capital – victims of the Special Commissions. Cobbett insisted that he ‘was an utter stranger to the neighbourhood’, one reason why the canvas of prisoners in Winchester jail for incriminating evidence failed. He claimed that the second Reform Bill’s passage ‘owe[d] more to the COUNTRY LABOURERS than to all of the rest of the nation put together’, because Swing triggered Wellington’s resignation and his replacement by Grey’s government committed to reform. If reality was more complex, especially the desertion of Wellington by ultra-Tories who were convinced that Swing demonstrated that some measure of reform was necessary to recreate confidence in the state, Cobbett was not wide of the mark. More critically, he also reiterated the incisive observation that while riots were relatively easily contained in rural regions, arsonists remained elusive, with incendiarism ‘the most easy’ mode of protest ‘to perpetrate, the least liable to detection’. Ironically, the Home Office agreed, stressing as early as January I831 that the numerous investigations by London police officers of ‘many fires’ across Swing’s territories, had been of ‘little use’ but of ‘great expense’ for central funds. In future, policemen would be made available only where local authorities met the full cost. This represented a reversal of policy initiated by Peel, maintained by Melbourne, and initially directed by Maule in the south-east. Cobbett’s further claims, that arson would intensify in the aftermath of Swing’s ostensible repression, and that the press was subjected to pressures against full reportage, also proved correct, though it was complicated by farmers trying to evade restrictions introduced by insurance companies. Swing did not invent incendiarism as a peculiarly rural form of protest, but that episode not only witnessed a massive recourse to arson, and perhaps more importantly elevated it to the most enduring mode of countryside protest prior to the Revolt of the Field in the 1870s.

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Today in London radical history: Richard Carlile jailed for supporting Swing rioters, 1831.

On January 10th, 1831, Richard Carlile was sentenced to 32 months imprisonment for sedition; specifically for advising agricultural labourers to continue their campaign of rioting, striking and destroying threshing machines.

Carlile was a leading radical and freethinker in the 1820s and ’30s: famous/infamous, depending largely on how religious or orthodox you were politically, as a publisher and printer. Repeatedly jailed for re-publishing banned political works like the works of Tom Paine, and anti-religious texts, in a time when blasphemy laws were used regularly to silence anyone questioning christianity.

Carlile had also been at the forefront of the ‘War of the Unstamped Press’, in response to crippling government taxes on newspapers, designed to repress a huge explosion of radical and cheap newspapers aimed at the growing working classes. A huge movement evolved to produce, sell, smuggle these papers, evading a massive official effort to close them, through the 1820s and 30s… Carlile, and hundreds of others, were jailed, often over and over again, during this struggle, which ended with a victory, of sorts, with the reduction of the stamp, thus opening the way for a cheap popular press. From which we still benefit today (??!!)

Through the late 1810s, and the 1820s, Carlile had operated from several shops in Fleet Street, becoming one of the main focus points for a freethinking, radical self-educated artisan culture very powerful in London at this time… A culture that fed into the turbulent and rebellious working class movements of the 1830s and ’40s.

In the late 1820s, Carlile had been eclipsed slightly as the most notorious rebel and blasphemer; he was bankrupt, his book sales were declining, and the radical movements that had erupted after the Napoleonic Wars were fizzling out. In 1830 however he took out a lease on the Rotunda, a huge venue on Blackfriars Road in Southwark, which was to become – briefly – the most important radical social centre of the time.

In 1830, southern England was rocked by the Swing riots: agricultural labourers smashed and burned threshing machines in a mass movement of riotous rebellion. Across much of the country, working people threatened by increasing mechanisation attacked and destroyed the machines representing the changes in rural work. From farm to farm, village to village, the trouble spread, by word of mouth, rumour and by crowds marching to inspire action in the neighbouring areas… Like wildfire ripping through a prairie… The world of the workers is Wild…

This was a hugely threatening movement for the ruling classes – despite the massive changes undergoing Britain as the Industrial Revolution transformed work, life, and social relations, the majority of wealth and power relied on a landowning aristocratic class exploiting a reliable rural workforce… Swing showed the potential for that to be undermined.

The reputation of the Rotunda can be seen in the fact that Government ministers of the time blamed the Swing Riots on the influence of the Rotunda: this was certainly untrue, in that the revolts were sparked by immediate grievances, and though some rioters may have picked up some radical ideas, it was not in itself inspired by any urban radicals. But the Rotunda was certainly feared by the powers that be.

The Swing Revolt certainly inspired Carlile and his circle. Carlile’s charismatic collaborator, the blasphemous ex-clergyman Robert Taylor, put on a play at the Rotunda enthusing about the riots: called ‘Swing, or Who are the Incendiaries?’. “Promoted by Carlile as a ‘politico-tragedy’, Swing! defended the agricultural labourers… Carlile’s paper the Prompter boasted to its readers of the literary and theatrical excellence of the tragedy, reporting that the ‘language is worthy of Otway, and the denouement of the plot beats that of any other popular tragedy’. The play, described as an ‘admirable tragedy’ in which the audience could ‘alternately cry and laugh’, was standing entertainment for two nights a week at the Rotunda and ran for several weeks.”

But in January the authorities got their own back, jailing Carlile for 30 months for defending the rioters in print.

Carlile had published advice to the insurgent labourers, in the third issue of his Prompter, dated 27 November 1830. In a letter addressed to the Insurgent Agricultural Labourers’ – a fairly minor article placed on an inside page – he extended a ‘feeling heart’ to the rural poor, “encouraging them to continue their strike and career or revolt. He told them that I was wrong to destroy wealth, but they had more just and moral cause for wasting property and burning farm produce than ever king or faction that ever made war had for making war. In war all destruction of property was counted lawful. Upon the ground of that, which was called a law of nations, Carlile told them theirs was a state of war, and their quarrel was the want of necessities of life in the midst of abundance. Further government severity of repression would warrant their resistance even to death… The issues Carlile impressed upon them in the following terms:-

‘You see hoards of food, and you are starving; you see a government rioting in every sort of luxury and wasteful expenditure, and you, ever ready to labour, cannot find one of the comforts of life. Neither your silence nor your patience has obtained for you the least respectful attention from that Government. The more tame you have grown, the more you have been oppressed and despised, the more you have been trampled on; and it is only now that you begin to display your physical as well as your moral strength that your cruel tyrants treat with you and offer you terms of pacification.’ “

Carlile’s advice to the labourers to ‘go on as you have done’ was interpreted by the authorities as a seditious call to arms. He later claimed that ‘neither in deed, nor in word, nor in idea, did I ever encourage, or wish to encourage…acts of arson or machine breaking’. In January 1831, however, Carlile was sentenced to two further years’ imprisonment, in Giltspur Street Compter.

The prosecution took Carlile and other radicals by surprise. Many of his past publications had been far more seditious and blasphemous than the Prompter letter. Indeed, Taylor’s performance of the Swing! tragedy contained far more seditious and provocative material than Carlile’s letter. Carlile had also previously regularly asserted his dislike of ‘mobs’ and ‘mob action’: he had written that a ‘few bullets’ should be distributed among the heads of rioters in Bristol, which ‘matched the most callous middle-class reactions.’ Carlile’s assertion that the prosecution was planned as a means to close the Rotunda was thus probably correct.

However, as his new prison address was relatively close to the Rotunda, Carlile was able to both continue to manage the venue, and publish his paper, the Prompter.

In the end, Carlile served about 8 months of this sentence, one of many he amassed during his life, mostly for publishing allegedly blasphemous and banned texts.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

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If you’d like to know about Richard Carlile and the Rotunda, past tense have a new pamphlet, ‘The Establishment versus the Rotunda’, available from our publications page

Today in London policing history: PC Aldridge dies, after beating by crowd, Deptford, 1839.

When the Metropolitan Police were introduced into the streets of London in 1829, they were wildly unpopular with much of the working class, who saw clearly that the ‘Raw Lobsters’, ‘Blue Devils’ and ‘Peel’s Bloody Gang’ were there to protect the property of the wealthy and maintain the class system.

Officers were physically assaulted, others impaled, blinded, and on one occasion held down while a vehicle was driven over them. Two bobbies killed while on duty in the 1830s had their deaths judged to be ‘Justifiable Homicide’ by London juries, including PC Culley, killed while kettling a radical meeting. Ten years after the “new Police” first cracked heads in the capital, their unpopularity had not died down in Deptford, South London…

30 September 1839: “There had been a lot of rowdy behaviour in the Navy Arms pub in Deptford, a district in south London, that evening and the landlady had asked the police to intervene. Two of those who had been swearing and making a nuisance of themselves were brothers William and John Pine. William was twenty and his brother twenty-one. These two young men began larking around in the street after leaving the pub and PC George Stevens told them to calm down or he would have to arrest them. One thing led to another and John Pine punched the officer, who responded by drawing his truncheon and rapping the drunk man over the head before arresting him. In no time at all, a crowd gathered which was determined to rescue Pine from the police. At this point, constable William Aldridge appeared on the scene to help take charge of John Pine. Over 200 people surrounded the two police officers with, more arriving every minute as word spread around the neighbourhood that a ‘rescue’ was in progress. It was an ugly situation, but the two men were determined not to let their prisoner walk free.

As the constables continued to drag John Pine off, the crowd pelted them with rocks and stones. By this time, it was estimated by both the polie and local witnesses who later spoke to newspaper reporters that between 500 and 600 people were attacking constables Aldridge and Stevens. Two more police officers arrived to help, but the four of them were for ed to flee from the mob. PC No 204 William Aldridge went down, struck on the head by a large rock and he died at 4.30 the following morning.

Three weeks later the Pine brothers, who were well known to the police, found themselves on trial at the Old Bailey for murder. In the dock with them were two other men who had take leading roles in the riot: William Calvert and John Burke. The evidence was clear enough and the men were fortunate not to hang for their actions. As it was, they were convicted of th lesser charge of manslaughter. John Pine was sentence to transportation for life to Australia, along with Calvert, who was transported for fifteen years. The other two men received two years imprisonment each.”

(from Bombers, Rioters and Police Killers: Violent Crime and Disorder in Victorian Britain, Simon Webb)

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

Follow past tense on twitter

Today in radical history: Chartist Grand National Holiday (General Strike) begins, 1839

August 12th 1839 was the date marked for the launch Chartist Grand National Holiday  – effectively a General Strike to overthrow the ruling classes. In reality it didn’t really get going… there’s always time though folks…

William Benbow was a shoemaker and radical pamphleteer, publisher, propagandist and bookseller, originally from Cheshire, who in the 1830s ran radical bookshops/meeting places in Tehoebalds Road, Leicester Square and Fleet Street, in London.An activist of the National Union of the Working Classes; he later became a leading physical force Chartist. Both the NUWC and the Chartist movement became quickly divided between those who thought protest, petition and mass pressure for political reform would gain working men the vote, and those who felt the rich and powerful would always defeat peaceful campaigning, and only ‘physical force’ – mass strike, uprising and revolt – could do the job.

I’m not sure if Benbow was the first to think up the idea of a general strike, but in his classic pamphlet of 1832, The Grand National Holiday of the Productive Classes, he proposed that the producers of the wealth, being exploited by an idle and rich minority, should cease to work en masse, for a month. This would be enough to kickstart the process of depriving the rich of the fruits of the labour of the working classes, who would elect a congress to begin the process of re-ordering society in their own interests. The way Benbow writes about the Holiday, as a sacred and glorious festival, designed to usher in happiness and prosperity for all, carries echoes of the biblical Jubilee, when work was banned, debts were abolished and prisoners freed… Benbow was also a non-conformist preacher, but the Jubilee had transcended religious imagery in the early nineteenth century, as ultra-radicals like Thomas Spence and Robert Wedderburn revived the idea as a vehicle of almost millenarian communist significance. But mass stoppages of work were also part of a long tradition in working class culture. Benbow’s genius was to invest the theory of the strike with a cataclysmic and transformative aura.

It was at the Rotunda, the leading radical centre of the day, in Blackfriars Road, Southwark, that Benbow first publicly advocated his theory of the Grand National Holiday. Benbow argued that a month long General Strike would lead to an armed uprising and a change in the political system to the gain of working people. Benbow used the term “holiday” (holy day) because it would be a period “most sacred, for it is to be consecrated to promote the happiness and liberty”. Benbow argued that during this one month holiday the working class would have the opportunity “to legislate for all mankind; the constitution drawn up… that would place every human being on the same footing. Equal rights, equal enjoyments, equal toil, equal respect, equal share of production.”

Not only was no work to be done, but workers should make all effort to cripple the state and the financial system. Supporters of the Sacred Month should withdraw any savings they had in banks or other institutions. They were also required to abstain from all taxable articles such as drink and tobacco. Benbow’s proposals included addressing practical problems of how the mass of striking workers were to support themselves; first of all living on their saving (admittedly meagre), but then taking over parish funds and extorting money and goods from the rich to survive. but that He also suggested local committees should be set up to administer food distribution and keep order: these local committees would be the basis of elections to a national Convention – a working class government in effect.

The Chartists took the idea of the ‘Grand National Holiday’, although some preferred to called it the ‘Sacred Month’. After the first flush of enthusiasm of mass meetings and petitioning had given way to disillusion as Parliament rejected the first Chartist petition in July 1839, rioting had occurred across various parts of the country in response to the Commons vote, and a number of Chartist leaders were arrested and jailed. Benbow had been spreading the idea of the Grand National holiday abroad again, and it had been widely discussed in Chartist circles around the country. Workers in Wales, the north of England and the midlands were especially agitated, and many were prepared to take extra-ordinary steps.

The idea was passed around that August 12th would be the date when the ‘Sacred Month’ would begin. The Chartist Convention of summer 1839 adopted it as policy. But there were divisions – Chartism was not a homogenous movement; although united around some demands, tactics and even ultimate ends were often hotly debated. If some were openly planning insurrection, stockpiling pikes, staves and other weaponry, many more moderate elements shied away from violence, wither because they felt it was wrong in itself, or because they believed it would draw state repression and end in mass arrest and jailings. In the event the repression came anyway.

To some extent the Sacred Month, did begin, in that workers in a number of areas stayed away from work. On 12th August 1839 in many, mainly northern areas, the pubs were shut. The weekly Chartist newspaper The Northern Star for the 17th and 24th August 1839 reported meetings across the north, often with very large turnouts comprising a majority of the working population of particular areas, which then proceeded to march to surrounding locations to pull others out in support of the Sacred Month – flying pickets, in fact, always a useful tactic in large-scale strikes.

Even in areas where the strike did not take hold there was at least symbolic support. For instance, in London on 12th August, Chartists held a mass meeting on Kennington Common.

The response to the strike call was in reality very patchy, though, and there is no clear picture of how many workers stayed away from work. In some areas the strike lasted several days, though not the whole month. Despite Benbow’s idea of revolutionary local councils organising the expropriation of the rich, this was difficult, with an organised police force , now up and running, soldiers deployed around the country, and a government in reality more prepared for violence than the workers were.

Few workers had any savings, and if some had small plots of land to feed themselves, many had nothing. Without a mass will to seize the wealth from the start, a simple economic stoppage was up against it from the start.

The government had already begun to crack down on Chartism before the Grand National Holiday could get going, arresting 100s of activists including leading speakers, agitators and lecturers, and charging them with sedition. Benbow himself was nicked on August 4th, and spent eight months in orison awaiting trial. These arrests not only weakened the strike by taking crucial figures out of the picture, but the trials and supporting prisoners became an alternative focus, and the Convention in fact voted to suspend the Sacred Month just before it was to begin and replace if with a three day General Strike starting on 12th August.

So in the end, the Grand National Holiday, the Sacred Month, fizzled out. Many of the Chartists still at large began instead to plan insurrections. Armed revolt did break out in Newport, South Wales, in November 1839, and plots were also barely forestalled by the authorities in Yorkshire.

Though the Grand National Holiday failed to overthrow british capitalism in its infancy, the idea remained strong among the international working class. The theory of the General strike, as a method of overthrowing class society and introducing a more just and egalitarian economic and social order, was revived, most powerfully by the French syndicalists in the late 19th century. Some socialist historians have asserted that French radical workers were introduced to the idea by English workmen during meetings of the First International in the 1860s. So perhaps old Chartists influenced by William Benbow, or recalling 1839, passed this idea of to a new generation who picked it up and ran with it…

The text of Benbow’s ‘Grand National Holiday,
and Congress of the Productive Classes’ can be found here:

And a account of some aspects of Benbow’s life here

Postscript:

It’s not our intention here to go into detailed theoretical proposals for how a possible future General Strike might pan out differently. But one classic communist text we have read we did find useful. Initially it was interesting to us when looking at the British General Strike of 1926, and relating the theory of a General Strike as a method of initiating revolution. But it also can be helpful when looking at 1839.

Rosa Luxemburg, in her book, The Mass Strike (1905), made some critiques of how anarchists, syndicalists, and trade unionists of her time all saw the General Strike. She suggested that the idea of the anarchists and syndicalists of a political general strike pre-arranged with a political aim to overthrow capitalism was unlikely to succeed, but posited instead (based on an analysis of the 1905 Russian Revolution) that a mass strike, evolving more organically out of people’s immediate economic struggles in daily life, meshing together, constituted a new phase in the class struggle, not an abstract and artificial moment plucked from the air, but a historical development, emerging from below, not being imposed or ordained by any higher authority, or even she suggests by an external political radical structure like a socialist party.

Part of Luxemburg’s intent in writing The Mass Strike, it is true, was to discredit the existing theories of the General Strike as put forward mainly by anarchists and syndicalists, trends of radical thinking that she and other marxists were struggling to liquidate from the working class movement, as they saw it. But she was also engaged in a parallel battle against those within the Marxist camp who were attempting to steer it towards a reformist position, away from the idea of a revolutionary transfromation of capitalism; as well as being critical of trade unionists mainly concerned with purely day to day economic gains at the expense of the bigger picture.

Theorists of the General Strike thus far had almost exclusively conceived of it as a road to revolution. Sixty years after the Chartist Grand National Holiday, the French syndicalists, organised in the CGT union confederation, developed theories in which the General Strike was central. They saw it as the supreme weapon for the workers to overthrow capitalism and take control of society in their own interests. One of the CGT’s founders and leading theorists, Fernand Pelloutier, wrote about the General Strike. Two examples showing how he and other revolutionary syndicalists saw this future strike:
“ … Every one of them (the strikers) will remain in their neighborhoods and will take possession, first, of the small workshops and the bakeries, then of the bigger workshops, and finally, but only after the victory, of the large industrial plants….”
“ … Because the general strike is a revolution which is everywhere and nowhere, because it takes possession of the instruments of production in each neighborhood, in each street, in each building, so to speak, there can be no establishment of an “Insurrectionary Government” or a “dictatorship of the proletariat”; no focal point of the whole uprising or a center of resistance; instead, the free association of each group of bakers, in each bakery, of each group of locksmiths, in each locksmith’s shop: in a word, free production….”

The syndicalist line on the General Strike was very much to the fore when The Mass Strike was written. It attempts to dismiss the prevailing ideas of the potential of such a struggle : “It is just as impossible to ‘propagate’ the mass strike as an abstract means of struggle as it is to propagate the ‘revolution.’ ‘Revolution’ like ‘mass strike’ signifies nothing but an external form of the class struggle, which can have sense and meaning only in connection with definite political situations.”
You can’t create either by going round calling for it, in other words; it will emerge as and when needed and according to the conditions of the moment. It is not ONE predictable fixed open and close struggle, but an inter-connected web of movements events, themselves caused by local or specific economic conditions, though led and expressed by people with a political idea of the movement, at least as Luxemburg saw it.
Another nice quote: “It flows now like a broad billow over the whole kingdom, and now divides into a gigantic network of narrow streams; now it bubbles forth from under the ground like a fresh spring and now is completely lost under the earth. Political and economic strikes, mass strikes and partial strikes, demonstrative strikes and fighting strikes, general strikes of individual branches of industry and general strikes in individual towns, peaceful wage struggles and street massacres, barricade fighting – all these run through one another, run side by side, cross one another, flow in and over one another – it is a ceaselessly moving, changing sea of phenomena.”
Rosa saw it as not a method but THE form itself of workers struggle… A rallying idea of a period of class war lasting years or decades… It cannot be called at will by any organization even The Party! She goes further and almost says that it cannot be directed from above or outside, though she does say elsewhere that the socialists have to provide political leadership.
She does contrast the mass fighting strikes with one off ‘demonstration’ strikes – what the TUC or Unison calls today ‘days of action’ in other words.
Related to this, she says the successful mass strike arising in the way described above would not/must not be limited to the organized workers: “If the mass strike, or rather, mass strikes, and the mass struggle are to be successful they must become a real people’s movement, that is, the widest sections of the proletariat must be drawn into the fight.” The union structures must recognise the common interest of unionised and non-unionised workers, in other words (to their surprise many strike committees learnt this lesson in practice in 1926, as unorganised workers flocked to the struggle in thousands).

She suggests minority movements are pipe dreams; “a strategy of class struggle … which is based upon the idea of the finely stage-managed march out of the small, well-trained part of the proletariat is foredoomed to be a miserable fiasco.” Even though the Socialists are the leadership of the working class, she suggests, they can’t force things through on their own… (past tense would question that the working class needs an external leadership, here we do differ from auntie Rosa).
Later on she talks about trade unions getting to the point where preservation of the organization, its structure etc, becomes end in itself, or at least more important than taking risks, entering into all out struggles, or even any at all! Also how daily struggles over small issues often lead people to lose sight of wider class antagonism or larger connections… Interestingly she points out that TU bureaucracies become obsessed with the positive, membership numbers etc, and limited to their own union’s gains, ignoring negative developments, hostile to critics who point out the limitations to their activities. And how the development of professional bureaucracies increase the chance of divorce of officials etc from daily struggles… Nothing sharp-eyed folk have not also pointed out over the last hundred years, but she was among the first to diagnose it. (She also says the same ossification processes are dangers the Revolutionary Party needs to beware of… showing foresights to the developments of the communist parties and other left splinters over the following decades).

Rosa Luxemburg’s ideas are interesting… Without going into it too deeply, her assertion that a successful general strike would have to arise organically, meshing together from below rather than being ‘called’ by any committee or confederation, looks more realistic… In the case of 1839, some Chartists were attempting to crowbar a General Strike into existence, in conditions that may have doomed it from the start according to Luxemburg’s perceptions. Interestingly, viewed through her prism, the plug strikes of 1842 in the north of England probably had more ‘revolutionary potential’, arising from the immediate need of the workers involved, as they did, rather than the somewhat forced Grand National Holiday. However, it is also interesting to compare Benbow’s idea of local committees of working class activists taking on ordering food distribution and keeping order, with both the councils of action in the 1926 General Strike (and similar structures thrown up elsewhere, like the 1956 workers councils in the Hungarian uprising against Soviet domination, or in the 1978-9 Winter of Discontent in Britain). Benbow was early to spot how such structures would be necessary in a time of ‘dual power’, where capitalist state still exists but workers are powerful enough to begin to supersede it.

Though Rosa Luxemburg disagreed with Fernand Pelloutier, her vision, like that of Benbow, also suggests a revolution that is ‘everywhere and nowhere’, part of a tangled period of change and dual power… a future that remains open and in our hands…

The text of the Mass Strike can be found online at: http://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1906/mass-strike/

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

Today in London herstory: Elizabeth Garrett Anderson born, pioneering woman doctor & suffragist, Whitechapel, 1836.

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the daughter of Newson Garrett (1812–1893) and Louise Dunnell (1813–1903), was born in Whitechapel, London on 9th June 1836.

Elizabeth’s father had originally ran a pawnbroker’s shop in London, but by the time she was born he owned a corn and coal warehouse in Aldeburgh, Suffolk. The business was a great success and by the 1850s Garrett could afford to send his children away to be educated.

After two years at a school in Blackheath, Elizabeth was expected to stay in the family home until she found a man to marry. However, Elizabeth was more interested in obtaining employment. While visiting a friend in London in 1854, Elizabeth met Emily Davies, a young women with strong opinions about women’s rights. Davies introduced Elizabeth to other young feminists living in London.

In 1859 Garrett met Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman in the United States to qualify as a doctor. Elizabeth decided she also wanted a career in medicine. Her parents were initially hostile to the idea but eventually her father, Newson Garrett, agreed to support her attempts to become Britain’s first woman doctor.

Garrett tried to study in several medical schools but they all refused to accept a woman student. Garrett therefore became a nurse at Middlesex Hospital and attended lectures that were provided for the male doctors. After complaints from male students Elizabeth was forbidden entry to the lecture hall.

Garrett discovered that the Society of Apothecaries did not specify that females were banned for taking their examinations. In 1865 Garrett sat and passed the Apothecaries examination. As soon as Garrett was granted the certificate that enabled her to become a doctor, the Society of Apothecaries changed their regulations to stop other women from entering the profession in this way. With the financial support of her father, Elizabeth Garrett was able to establish a medical practice in London.

Elizabeth Garrett was now a committed feminist and in 1865 she joined with her friends Emily Davies,Barbara Bodichon, Bessie Rayner Parkes, Dorothea Beale and Francis Mary Buss to form a woman’s discussion group called the Kensington Society. The following year the group organized a petition asking Parliament to grant women the vote.

Although Parliament rejected the petition, the women did receive support from Liberals such as John Stuart Mill and Henry Fawcett. Elizabeth became friendly with Fawcett, the blind MP for Brighton, but she rejected his marriage proposal, as she believed it would damage her career. Fawcett later married her younger sister Millicent Garrett.

In 1866 Garrett established a dispensary for women in London (later renamed the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital) and four years later was appointed a visiting physician to the East London Hospital. Elizabeth was determined to obtain a medical degree and after learning French, went to the University of Paris where she sat and passed the required examinations. However, the British Medical Register refused to recognise her MD degree.

During this period Garrett became involved in a dispute with Josephine Butler over the Contagious Diseases Acts. Josephine believed these acts discriminated against women and felt that all feminists should support their abolition. Garrett took the view that the measures provided the only means of protecting innocent women and children.

Although she was a supporter of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) she was not an active member during this period. According to her daughter, Louisa Garrett Anderson, she thought “it would be unwise to be identified with a second unpopular cause. Nevertheless she gave her whole-hearted adherence.”

The 1870 Education Act allowed women to vote and serve on School Boards. Garrett stood in London and won more votes than any other candidate. The following year she married James Skelton Anderson, a co-owner of the of the Orient Steamship Company, and the financial adviser to the East London Hospital.

Like other feminists at the time, Elizabeth Garrett retained her own surname. Although James Anderson supported Elizabeth’s desire to continue as a doctor the couple became involved in a dispute when he tried to insist that he should take control of her earnings.

Elizabeth had three children, Louisa Garrett Anderson, Margaret who died of meningitis, and Alan. This did not stop her continuing her medical career and in 1872 she opened the New Hospital for Women inLondon, a hospital that was staffed entirely by women. Elizabeth Blackwell, the woman who inspired her to become a doctor, was appointed professor of gynecology.

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson also joined with Sophia Jex-Blake to establish a London Medical School for Women. Jex-Blake expected to put in charge but Garrett believed that her temperament made her unsuitable for the task and arranged for Isabel Thorne to be appointed instead. In 1883 Garrett Anderson was elected Dean of the London School of Medicine. Sophia Jex-Blake was the only member of the council who voted against this decision.

After the death of Lydia Becker in 1890, Elizabeth’s sister, Millicent Garrett Fawcett was elected president of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. By this time Elizabeth was a member of the Central Committee of the NUWSS.

In 1902 Garrett Anderson retired to Aldeburgh. Garrett Anderson continued her interest in politics and in 1908 she was elected mayor of the town – the first woman mayor in England. When Garret Anderson was seventy-two, she became a member of the militant Women’s Social and Political Union. In 1908 was lucky not to be arrested after she joined with other members of the WSPU to storm the House of Commons. In October 1909 she went on a lecture tour with Annie Kenney.

However, Elizabeth left the WSPU’s in 1911 as she objected to their arson campaign. Her daughter Louisa Garrett Anderson remained in the WSPU and in 1912 was sent to prison for her militant activities. Millicent Garrett Fawcett was upset when she heard the news and wrote to her sister: “I am in hopes she will take her punishment wisely, that the enforced solitude will help her to see more in focus than she always does.” However, the authorities realised the dangers of her going on hunger strike and released her.

Evelyn Sharp spent time with Elizabeth and Louisa Garrett Anderson at their cottage in the Highlands: “Dr. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, who had a summer cottage in that beautiful part of the Highlands. I went there on both occasions with her daughter Dr. Louisa Garrett Anderson, and we had great times together climbing the easier mountains and revelling in wonderful effects of colour that I have seen nowhere else except possibly in parts of Ireland…. It was, however, so entertaining to meet both these famous public characters in the more intimate and human surroundings of a summer holiday that we did not grudge the time given to working up a suffrage meeting in the village instead of tramping about the hills. Old Mrs. Garrett Anderson-old only in years, for there was never a younger woman in heart and mind and outlook than she was when I knew her before the war was a fascinating combination of the autocrat and the gracious woman of the world.”

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson died on 17th December 1917.

(This post was stolen wholesale from Spartacus Educational… because they said what had to be said)

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

Today in London’s rebel past: Richard Carlile jailed for supporting Swing Rioters, 1831.

Richard  Carlile is jailed – again – for supporting and encouraging Swing Rioters, 10th January 1831.

Richard Carlile was a leading radical and freethinker in the 1820s and ’30s: famous/infamous, depending largely on how religious or orthodox you were politically, as a publisher and printer. Repeatedly jailed for re-publishing banned political works like the works of Tom Paine, and anti-religious texts, in a time when blasphemy laws were used regularly to silence anyone questioning christianity.

Carlile had also been at the forefront of the ‘War of the Unstamped Press’, in response to crippling government taxes on newspapers, designed to repress a huge explosion of radical and cheap newspapers aimed at the growing working classes. A huge movement evolved to produce, sell, smuggle these papers, evading a massive official effort to close them, through the 1820s and 30s… Carlile, and hundreds of others, were jailed, often over and over again, during this struggle, which ended with a victory, of sorts, with the reduction of the stamp, thus opening the way for a cheap popular press. From which we still benefit today (??!!)

Through the late 1810s, and the 1820s, Carlile had operated from several shops in Fleet Street, becoming one of the main focus points for a freethinking, radical self-educated artisan culture very powerful in London at this time… A culture that fed into the turbulent and rebellious working class movements of the 1830s and ’40s.

In the late 1820s, Carlile had been eclipsed slightly as the most notorious rebel and blasphemer; he was bankrupt, his book sales were declining, and the radical movements that had erupted after the Napoleonic Wars were fizzling out. In 1830 however he took out a lease on the Rotunda, a huge venue on Blackfriars Road in Southwark, which was to become – briefly – the most important radical social centre of the time.

In 1830, southern England was rocked by the Swing riots: agricultural labourers smashed and burned threshing machines in a mass movement of riotous rebellion. Across much of the country, working people threatened by increasing mechanisation attacked and destroyed the machines representing the changes in rural work. From farm to farm, village to village, the trouble spread, by word of mouth, rumour and by crowds marching to inspire action in the neighbouring areas… Like wildfire ripping through a prairie… The world of the workers is Wild…

This was a hugely threatening movement for the ruling classes – despite the massive changes undergoing Britain as the Industrial Revolution transformed work, life, and social relations, the majority of wealth and power relied on a landowning aristocratic class exploiting a reliable rural workforce… Swing showed the potential for that to be undermined.

The reputation of the Rotunda can be seen in the fact that Government ministers of the time blamed the Swing Riots on the influence of the Rotunda: this was certainly untrue, in that the revolts were sparked by immediate grievances, and though some rioters may have picked up some radical ideas, it was not in itself inspired by any urban radicals. But the Rotunda was certainly feared by the powers that be. Taylor put on a play enthusing about the riots: called ‘Swing, or Who are the Incendiaries?’; but a year later the authorities got their own back, jailing Carlile for 30 months for defending the rioters in print.

Carlile had published advice to the insurgent labourers, “encouraging them to continue their strike and career or revolt. He told them that I was wrong to destroy wealth, but they had more just and moral cause for wasting property and burning farm produce than ever king or faction that ever made war had for making war. In war all destruction of property was counted lawful. Upon the ground of that, which was called a law of nations, Carlile told them theirs was a state of war, and their quarrel was the want of necessities of life in the midst of abundance. Further government severity of repression would warrant their resistance even to death… The issues Carlile impressed upon them in the following terms:-

‘You see hoards of food, and you are starving; you see a government rioting in every sort of luxury and wasteful expenditure, and you, ever ready to labour, cannot find one of the comforts of life. Neither your silence nor your patience has obtained for you the least respectful attention from that Government. The more tame you have grown, the more you have been oppressed and despised, the more you have been trampled on; and it is only now that you begin to display your physical as well as your moral strength that your cruel tyrants treat with you and offer you terms of pacification.’ “

Words that it would be as well to heed, today, as much as 185 years ago…

A past tense text on Carlile’s Rotunda can be found at:
http://www.alphabetthreat.co.uk/pasttense/rotunda.html

From the London Rebel History Calendar: check it out –
http://www.alphabetthreat.co.uk/pasttense/calendar.html