Yesterday in publishing history: scandalous and seditious pamphlets banned, 1643.

“Oh printing! How has thou disturb’d the Peace of Mankind!”
(Andrew Marvell)

The spread of printing, the beginnings of regular challenge to the social, religious, political status quo, is intimately bound up with the early life of the pamphlet.

The printed pamphlet appears almost from the earliest beginnings of printing, though there were handwritten pamphlets before that (certainly there are reports of heretical tracts circulated among the Lollards in the late 14th and early 15th centuries, which must have been handwritten); it is with the spread of the printing press that the political pamphlet was really born.

The very form of the pamphlet – short, cheap, to the point – lent itself to spread of ideas among wider sections of society. Partly this arises from their practicality, convenience: a pamphlet can be easily concealed, stuffed in a pocket or passed secretly- useful if your ideas are illegal, suspect, samizdat. More than this, there’s always been an immediacy, accessibility, a sense of openness and egalitarianism about them… as well as disposability. You have to contrast printed pamphlets and broadsheets, mass produced, cheap, with the laboriously beautiful (mainly religious) works, hand copied by monks, seen by the few, all written in Latin or other rarefied languages… The pamphlet by definition, was like a shock to the system… Crucially early pamphlets were often 8 pages, printed on quarto size paper – meaning they were cheap, and could be printed, folded, cut and shifted quickly…

This egalitarian influence was reflected in the way pamphlets (and broadsheets, ballads etc) were sold: by balladsellers, hawkers, so called mercury women, selling them in the streets.

They were also passed around, hand to hand, one copy might be shared, or read aloud even by one literate person to others who couldn’t read (much the same as newspapers were later). This culture, in the street and pub, slum and garret, was the ever-widening venue for a growing democratisation of ideas: the street hawkers of broadsheets and pamphlets were generally politically radical, associated with popular groups like the Levellers…

Pamphlets were also clandestinely distributed in times of repression: they could be scattered about the streets and nailed to doors, thrown around in crowds… Edward Sexby’s Killing No Murder (1657), justifying the right to assassinate Oliver Cromwell, was distributed in this way; smuggled in from Holland, bundles passed out to sympathisers in the radical Baptist and fifth monarchist underground and disillusioned republicans, then scattered in the streets, at night, including at Charing Cross and other important public meeting points… (This aroused fierce repression, leading to Sexby’s arrest and death in prison).

Particular areas of cities, particular streets, were associated with printing, bookselling, publishing…. eg in the early modern City of London, St Paul’s Churchyard, Cripplegate Ward; parts of Seven Dials in Covent Garden… some of these were also well known for radical ideas, religious dissent, debates, the coffee house culture of discussion…. Publishing didn’t really get going as a capitalist industry till the 18th century: small publishers and booksellers, were the main producers for centuries. Non-conformists in religion and politics were always strongly represented in this culture. The radicals who wrote some of the classic pamphlets and books that defined the English Civil War, or marked the period of the French Revolution in England – Lilburne, Winstanley, Paine, Godwin, Priestley, Mary Wollstonecraft, among others – moved, met, discussed, in this environment, for example.

Pamphlets were by some, mainly among the learned, looked down on, sneered at, considered of little value. Thomas Bodley (founder of Oxford university’s famous Bodleian Library) was against preserving pamphlets in libraries: they were “not worth the custody in suche a librarie.” There was a kind of snobbery, an association of the form with déclassé ideas, disreputable subjects. But also because in early decades of printing, the size of a book signified prestige: pamphlets almost by definition came from those without money to print bigger works.

They were dismissed as poor quality, shabby, ephemeral, and associated with slander, scurrilous attacks, unrespectable and vulgar opinions; with unreliable, unruly or heretical and subversive overtones.

Just a couple of typical sneers at pamphlets, which also reflect the shock to the system that this kind of publishing represented; Samuel Daniel called them:

”These Pamphlets, Libels and Rhymes
These strange confused tumults of the minde…”

While Gabriel Harvey referred to “such luxurious, and rioutous Pamphlets… O straunge fancies, o monstrous newfanglednesse…” (1592).

The very words used for these publications had disreputable associations: at one point in the 16th century the word pamphelet also meant prostitute, suggesting these publications were kind of dirty, immoral, promiscuous, available to all, but for sale, to any bidder…

… and another word for a short stitched publication was libel, from French libelle, originally simply meaning ‘small book’, but its use as political and religious weapon in french wars of religion, often through satire, lead gradually to the modern meaning of libel as we use it: something slanderous, dangerous and possibly seditious.

But though pamphlets were deliberately labeled as unrespectable, a kind of sleazy cousin of the more upstanding book, their appeal rapidly became so broad that the authorities and respected authors stooped to use the form, (sometimes with the air of a banker forced to clean a toilet) From Henry VIII on, Tudor and Stuart administrations used pamphlets, backed by the state or often more at arms length, by proxy, through sympathisers, to mobilise public opinion in face of rival royal claimants, religious schisms, foreign invasion threats and catholic sedition… as well as reply to popular heretical tracts.

All forms of printing were subject to controls and censorship from the earliest. In 1559 queen Elizabeth instructed the Court of High Commission (the supreme church court) that part of their duties included the licensing and monitoring of pamphlets, plays and ballets, to make sure that “nothing therein should be either heretical, seditious or unseemly for Christian ears”. Every legally published title required prior approval, a licence to publish, from an appointed censor (generally an episcopalian cleric), who inevitably exercised an ‘uneven hand’, since that approval was withheld from texts challenging political or ecclesiastical authority.

Printers and booksellers were forced to submit to licensing and thus censorship by the crown, church authorities or the Stationers Company for a century and a half or more.

Illicit printers were often had up for their activities; in the 1640s printers could be tried in Parliament itself… Offending, heretical, subversive pamphlets were often ordered to be burned publicly, as sometimes were their authors…

But the rules were widely flouted (especially for heretical or politically subversive causes, but also in the production of dubious texts and images produced for profit) and underground presses proliferated, printing not only religious works outside accepted church teaching, but also early porn, dodgy poetry, sensationalist news and fantastic tales, news of monstrous births, outlaws, final speeches of the hanged, etc. Groups like the Levellers ran underground printing presses, which were often raided at the height of their struggle with Cromwell in the late 1640s, but as one was closed down, another would open up…

The 16th century wars of religion were instrumental in galvanizing the rise of the pamphlet. In France in the 1580s-1590s, real civil war between catholics and protestants was mirrored in a war of words; in England, similarly, pamphlets appeared replying, arguing to others – the orthodox protestant church was attacked not only by catholics backed from abroad, but by more radical puritans pushing for more extreme forms.

Which is why the term ‘pamphlet war’ appeared in the 1590s. As did the word ‘pamphleteer’, someone who made a living or was well known for writing pamphlets… From 1580s pamphlets began to replace the broadsheet ballad as the leading way of spreading news in print.

And as they became more popular and read more widely, innovators began to develop new forms and styles, and methods of production. Pamphleteers began to play with the look of pamphlets, experimenting with typography, adopting satirical pseudonyms and publication addresses, (taking the piss out of the strict rules of the licensing system, which required a publishers name and address) or deliberately plain language, as opposed to the complex wordiness used in orthodox theological debate. Some of these developments were partly by necessity of the form – eg you have to express yourself shortly and sharply if you have restricted space, heretical writers (under sentence of death if caught) have to disguise their name and address… But necessity was turned to sharp advantage. The form of the pamphlet resulted from AND influenced its content.

The rapid increase of pamphlets appearing in different languages across Europe, was also very important. Latin, language of the church and universities, used in most books (even by the reforming Humanists) excluded the unlearned (ie almost everyone). Publishing in English in England, for example, involved a real opening up of ideas, knowledge, opinion to whole new classes, and pamphleteering played a leading part in that process.

Pamphlets came into their own in 17th century, most particularly during the English Revolution. Through the early half of the 17th century, a previously relatively narrow social/economic order was threatened by a welling up of radical religious, political and social ideas.

Among those sections of society concerned to keep to, or return things to, the traditional path, to more closed forms of social relations, many (of those expressing these views in print) laid part of the blame for the breakdown of traditional mores on the pamphlet, and more specifically on the loosening of controls on printing, from the royal patronage of the early Tudors to a more commercial and ideological free for all. The tone was pretty much summed up as, look, you let the plebs write too much, read too much, express themselves, and look what happened – civil war etc. Within the parliamentary side itself, the moderates and those in power trod a double path of trying to loosen king Charles/episcopate control and censorship over their views, while trying to keep a lid on the more radical opinions bursting out among their own ‘supporters’/allies… so you get leading Puritan Minister Richard Baxter denouncing the explosion of cheap print, books, pamphlets: “Every ignorant, empty braine… hath the liberty of the Presse… whereby the number of bookes is grown so great that they begin with many to grow contemptible” (1648); he later (1653) he identified “the… Licentiousness of the Press of late… a design of the Enemy to bury and overwhelm… Judicious, Pious, Excellent Writings.”

Marvell also weighed in: “Oh printing! How has thou disturb’d the Peace of Mankind! That Lead, when moulded into bullets, is not so mortal as when founded into Letters.”

Both Milton and Marvell likened the output of the press to the dragon’s teeth sown by Cadmus in the Greek myth, that ‘sprang up armed men’. Words were dangerous seeds… that can bring forth subversive actions.

Repression and censorship and the struggle to find ways around it was actually a constant process through the years of the English civil war. In the years immediately before the war actually broke out, acute political and religious battles produced a ferment of ‘libelles’, which the government and church leaders viciously cracked down on. For printed matter, regulations originating in the sixteenth century required every prospective publication to be licensed by a censor and then recorded in the register in the Stationer’s Office. After 1637, the rules got tighter: printed materials had to include the name of the person who authorized the publication. The Star Chamber, a “royal prerogative court”, administered these rules – it could punish offenders with fines, imprisonment, or various kinds of corporal mutilation. In the seventeenth century the Star Chamber ordered ever more vicious punishments, climaxing in the mutilation of Puritans Henry Burton, John Bastwick and William Prynne in 1637 for publishing puritan rhetoric. Their merciless punishment scandalised many.

The challenge to the king, his circle and the high church establishment, which began in Scotland in 1637 and culminated in the outbreak of civil war, led to the crumbling of government enforcement of censorship in early 1641, as Parliament dissolved Charles I’s prerogative courts, including the Star Chamber, removing the mechanisms by which censorship and licensing laws had been enforced.

This unleashed a flood of publishing, an unrivalled broadening of written democracy, “the most effusive public participation in national politics to date. In the Freedom of the Press in England, 1476-1776, Frederick Siebert shares some helpful statistics on the quantity of printed output: “An analysis preserved in the Thomason collection in the British Museum shows that although only twenty-two pamphlets were published in 1640, more than 1,000 were issued in each of the succeeding four years. The record number of 1,966 appeared in 1642”

However, the vast majority of MPs, having whipped popular participation in the movement against the king, particularly using the press, once they gained control, decreed that the press must be controlled in the interests of the state and of religion. The Parliament which had challenged the king over its own authority and asserted the economic, political and social power of the rising classes it was coming to represent, was in no way prepared to see unfettered freedom of expression for the lower orders and every radical tom, puritan dick or freethinking harry. They could be enlisted to fight the king, but should not expect to determine their own destiny, or even to be able to express their own views in print.

“As it turned out, neither the Independents nor the Presbyterians, the Royalists nor the Roundheads, Parliament nor the Army, the Council of State nor Cromwell, had any real solution for the problem of printed news. Each cried out for a measure of freedom while rising to power; each sought to buttress acquired authority through some measure of control. To what extent and in what directions this control should be exercised was the immediate question presented to each.

When free speech was favourable to Parliament’s agenda to overthrow the Crown, the Roundheads encouraged it. When it threatened their own stability, they snuffed it out with oppressive censorship laws. Power had shifted away from the monarch but, according to the demands of print culture — linear, rational, hierarchical by the vary nature of the dominant medium — a tyrannical central government under the Parliamentary forces, and ultimately King Charles II remained inexorable.”

Censorship was in fact re-established by Parliament in 1643, after the fighting war had started against king Charles. Successive orders issued from Parliament to try and control printing and publishing; the one empowering the Committee for examinations to appoint people to search, seize and imprison those engaged in producing ‘Scandalous and lying’ pamphlets, on 9 March 1643, was merely one in a long series. The fact that they had to keep making such orders illustrates the truth: their censors were failing to keep a lid on the radical ferment bubbling up from below.

Tens of thousands of pamphlets, maybe as many as a hundred thousand different titles, were issued during the civil war/commonwealth period, reflecting both sides of the civil war, royalist and parliamentarian, but also the fracturing political positions on the parliamentarian side, and the radical religious and social views that flowered in the 1640s and 50s. There was an extraordinary increase in productivity in the 1640s: an annual output of 625 titles in 1639 jumped to 850 in 1640, to over 2000 in 1641 and over 3,666 in 1642. Some evidence of this bountiful crop is borne out by George Thomason’s collection of pamphlets gathered from 1640/1 to 1660: he recognised that the war of ideas being waged through pamphlets was of historical significance, amassing 20,000 different titles himself, (so actual production must have been huge… ).

It is, though, worth remembering, that literacy was still very narrow in modern terms… 30 percent of adult males in 1640s England were considered literate, this rose to 60% by the mid-18th century; though this is unreliable, as it may have only meant they could sign their names, not that they could necessarily read at all, let alone at length.

The groundbreaking political ideas thrown up in the civil war – Levellers, Diggers, Ranters, fifth monarchism, and all the varied dissenting religious views – found expression through pamphlets, tracts, circulated very widely, often finding echoes among large sections of the population; partly because of the upheaval caused by economic and social crises… Civil war pamphleteering also began to open up the voices of women, not for the first time, (there had already been a small but vital culture of women producing pamphlets in the 16th and 17th centuries), but on an unprecedented scale. Mass petitioning of Parliament through the early years of the civil war, organised by women, was an important development: the women’s petitions were printed up and circulated as pamphlets. Pamphlets as a form allowed women to express themselves in a public sphere in a way that they were otherwise denied, being excluded from universities, the church, the writing of books etc: it formed a vital part of part of an expansion of opportunities for women, of the laying of a direct claim to political expression, to the idea that they had an interest and a voice in the political sphere.

In many ways, some of these pamphlets were collective representations as well as individual works… Some of them had mass circulation, and were being used at the forefront of the exchange of ideas; as one way of developing social policy, though debate, counterblast, agitation…

The civil war years saw a constant battle between censor and subversive printer, with underground presses running the gauntlet of informers, puritan busybodies, to produce the radical ideas that emerged in the pamphlets now grouped under the banner of the Levellers, the Diggers, the Ranters…

Even as the struggle against the king passed into the hands of Cromwell and the puritan bourgeoisie, they were alternately allying with the radical elements, particularly in the army, when they needed their support, and suppressing their presses…

In September, 1649, Parliament under Cromwell reinstituted censorship laws with the Printing Act, thereby suffocating the free expression of the pamphleteers. The new act presented the most detailed list of regulations for the press of the entire seventeenth century: all printing was limited to London, all books and pamphlets had to be licensed( in other words, neutered), and all “scandalous” and “seditious” material was prohibited, and all printed material sent by carrier or post was scrutinised.

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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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2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London rebel history: John Rety, poet, anarchist, publisher, chessplayer, dies, 2010

On February 3rd 2010, anarchist, poet and publisher John Rety died, aged 79.

Born Reti Janos to a Jewish family in Budapest in 1930, his political views were shaped by his childhood experiences. His grandmother escaped a pogrom in Serbia by swimming across a river with her children strapped to her back, while following the outbreak of war, John’s family knew life as Jewish people was going to become extremely tough.

His father Istvan, a theatre director, was interned on an island in the Danube, which also held sporting events and John, aged 12, snuck onto the island on the pretext of watching a football match. Instead, he spoke to his father through camp fences, and persuaded him to escape. Istvan did get out: he and his wife Ilona spent the war in hiding. In the last years of the war as a young teenager John ran errands, taking packages around, later saying that he assumed it was for the anti-nazi resistance!

John’s grandmother had been looking after him during the war years, but she was later imprisoned. On the day the war ended, she approached a guard and said he could now put down his rifle and take off the fascist armband he was wearing. In response the guard murdered her.

Aged 16, John wrote a play about war and how adults had a lot to answer for – a theme John spoke about in the last year of his life, in a radio interview, saying: “War is devastating, first and foremost, for children. They do not understand why their parents have gone berserk.” 

The play was performed on the steps of the Budapest parliament – a dangerous thing to do. He fled Hungary, apparently just a step ahead of the authorities. He arrived in London in 1946 and got a job as an apprentice for a publishing house.

He published a novel aged 21, called Super Sozzled Nights, and hung out in Soho, then teeming with a bohemian culture that sparked many creative and radical projects.

It led him into the magazine trade, and he founded the Soho underground paper, Intimate Review, with contributions from young writers including Doris Lessing, Bill Hopkins, Laura del Rivo, Frank Norman, Alan Owen, Cressida Lindsay & Bernard Kops. Réty was the first to publish Colin Wilson. The Intimate Review largely circulated among the customers of the coffee houses that were appearing in Soho. It was a parish magazine, a gossip sheet for a bohemian, literary in-crowd that attracted contributions from many coming names. John would hawk copies on weekend evenings to cinema queues.

The former Guardian journalist Harold Jackson, co-editor of the Intimate Review, recalled Rety’s astounding ability to persuade eminent people to contribute to the magazine for free. “Our covers,” he said, “were regularly produced at very short notice and for no money by Feliks Topolski. Ralph Steadman’s work appeared from time to time.”

When Intimate Review was forced to fold due to a threatened libel action, Rety started other papers – including the Cheshire Cat and Fortnightly. Then, as Private Eye began to take over his readership, he took the editorial chair of the anarchist paper Freedom for a couple of years.

John met his partner Susan Johns in 1958. They moved into Robert Street, Regent’s Park and scraped a living by putting on a jazz night at a Soho basement bar, and then ran a second-hand furniture store in Camden High Street, Here, I think John met local squatters and got involved with supporting squatting around Camden and Chalk Farm. Resistance to the powerful property magnate Joe Levy in Camden Town ended in his own family’s eviction and loss of home and livelihood.

John was a member of the radical anti-nuclear group the Committee of 100, and his politics were anarchist – although he said it was his own form of anarchism, as he found tracts on anarchist theory so badly written he could not make head nor tail of what they were going on about. He had a low opinion of the anarchist classics “with the exception of Kropotkin, who could write, and Malatesta, who could argue…. Bakunin, I could never understand what he was going on about.”

In the Sixties, he took on the editorship of anarchist magazine Freedom. As a Freedom co-editor (1964-1969), John radically broadened the political and cultural reach of the paper.

Anarchist poet Jeff Cloves recalls one incident: “In the late ’60s, I chanced to hear the Duke Ellington Band play on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral (with singer Dakota Staton) as a tribute to Martin Luther King. I was delighted that Freedom published a piece I wrote about this free spontaneous event, and utterly dumbfounded when the next time I met John he launched a fierce attack on me for endorsing the ‘cult of personality’ [surrounding Martin Luther King Jr].” 

Fellow anarchist poet Dennis Gould remembers: “John’d be chatting away and then he’d confront you with a question, a challenge. Which I could never answer!” 

John was said to have been “one of the first to burst through the heavy police cordon surrounding Grosvenor Square at the anti-Vietnam War rally in front of the US Embassy in October 1968” and was among 13 protestors who soon after held a 13-day fast there… For may years he was a regular at Speakers Corner.

At the end of the 1970s, John worked for the Student Community Housing (SCH) as a roofer. This was cut short when he fell and fractured his arm. The accident prompted him to enrol in a City and Guilds art course.

Camden Council offered a semi-derelict building at 99 Torriano Avenue, Kentish Town, to the SCH; the keys were handed over to the place that so many people associate with John. It was in too poor a state of repair for the SCH to take on there was no gas or electricity, but John and Susan liked it and moved in. They founded the Torriano Meeting House, and began to put on events, notably poetry readings.

It is impossible to articulate the depth and range of events that have been held at the Meeting House, and the causes that have found a hospitable base there.

The readings were an astonishing success, drawing in poets and public from all over the country. Many paid tribute to him in a festschrift, Torriano Nights (2009). Stephen Spender & Adrian Mitchell were among the hundreds of poets who performed there.

The most important of these were the Sunday evening poetry readings which began with aspiring versifiers spouting their own work, often at considerable length. But Rety, who had a quick temper and a ready laugh, was a strict master of ceremonies.

When contributions from the floor were no good, he would shout out in his Mitteleuropean accent that the writers should read more good poetry if they wanted to avoid writing rubbish, and remind objectors that if Shakespeare walked in he would have to wait two hours for a hearing. After the interval an invited guest, who occasionally was Sir Stephen Spender, Dannie Abse or John Heath-Stubbs, would read and be heard with respect. The result, it was said, was an atmosphere resembling the start of an Aldermaston march and a tea party given by Brendan Behan’s mother.

John’s ability to charm support from unlikely sources never deserted him. Camden council contributed £10,000 a year to support the Torriano Meeting House. When, eventually, funding cuts forced them to withdraw the grant, the council offered Rety an Epic (Eminent Persons in Camden) award. Typically, he indignantly refused, regarding it as a bribe to stop him complaining about the loss of his grant.

In 1987, he founded the Hearing Eye Press, this time with financial assistance from the Arts Council of London. For the publication of his celebratory volume, In the Company of Poets: An Anthology Celebrating 21 Years of Poetry Readings at Torriano Meeting House (2003), he found support from the Arts Council of Great Britain. It is a collection starting with Dannie Abse and proceeding, via John Arden, through names including Oliver Bernard, John Heath-Stubbs and Dilys Wood. Rety’s own work was modestly absent from the book. Hearing Eye Press ultimately published over 150 books.

This did not exhaust his amazing energy or his proselytising zeal for poetry. He became poetry editor of the Morning Star and edited an anthology of the work appearing there, Well Versed, with a foreword by Tony Benn. This was popular enough to go into a second edition. It is frequently asserted that the Morning Star saw a rise in its readership due to the verse Rety published there.

An originator of the idea of poetry on the London tube – although he did not sit on the panel that eventually implemented it – he later extended that idea to the telephone with a Dial-a-Poem service with British Telecom. At 25p a minute, the line received 750 calls in its first week of operation in 1988, and seemed on the route to success until Rety fell out with BT, “as so many do”, he stated happily. He did not win his arguments over presentation, and a percentage for the poets, and the venture sputtered out.

When the land rights group The Land Is Ours occupied a derelict plot owned by Guinness in 1996, and turned it into an experiment in sustainable and cooperative living (calling it “Pure Genius”), John described the South London site as “anarchy in action”, saying that, as a participant, he had “now seen anarchy in practice and, so far, it works.” (Freedom, 18 May 1996)

Watch video of John talking about his early political influences

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AkcgwbzacIc&feature=related

This post was cobbled together from a variety of sources… We also remember John, mostly from meeting him wandering around the Anarchist Bookfair, ranting… carrying armfuls of poems and papers…

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in pamphleteering history: William Benbow’s Grand National Holiday and Congress of the Productive Classes published, 1832

William Benbow was a radical pamphleteer, publisher, propagandist and bookseller, who in the 1830s ran a radical bookshop at 205 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.

Benbow was probably not 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.

Below, we reprint the text of Benbow’s 1832 pamphlet:

GRAND NATIONAL HOLIDAY, AND CONGRESS OF THE PRODUCTIVE CLASSES.

“Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl…
Behold, the hire of the labourers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth; and the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth. Ye have condemned and killed the just; and they do not resist you.” JAMES,c.v.

BY WILLIAM BENBOW.
LONDON:

PRINTED AND PUBLISHED BY THE AUTHOR, 205, FLEET STREET. SOLD BY WATSON, 33, WINDMILL STREET, AND ALL BOOKSELLERS.

DEDICATION TO THE PRODUCTIVE CLASSES.

PLUNDERED FELLOW-SUFFERERS!

I lay before you a plan of freedom – adopt it, and you rid the world of inequality, misery, and crime. A martyr in your cause, I am become the prophet of your salvation.

A plan of happiness is pointed out and dedicated to you. With it I devote to you my life and body, my soul and blood.

WILLIAM BENBOW.

Commercial Coffee House, 205, Fleet-street.

INTRODUCTORY ADDRESS.

Her princes in the midst thereof are like wolves ravening the prey, to shed blood, and to destroy souls, to get dishonest gain.
The possessors of the land have used oppression, and exercised robbery and have vexed the poor and needy.
EZEKIEL.

LIFE, when good for any thing, consists of ease, gaiety, pleasure, and consequently of happiness. All men enjoy life but do not enjoy it equally. The enjoyment of some is so very limited, that it does not deserve the name of enjoyment; that of others is without bounds, for they have the means of procuring fully ease, gaiety, and pleasure. Thus happiness is circumscribed, and is becoming every day more and more so, that is, the numbers who are deprived of it are hourly increasing. Now, who are they who do enjoy; does their enjoyment proceed from their own merits; are they laborious,-do they work for the happiness they possess? We shall see. Let nothing but truth, glaring stark-naked truth, be stated.

The only class of persons in society, as it is now constituted, who enjoy any considerable portion of ease, pleasure, and happiness, are those who do the least towards producing any thing good or necessary for the community at large. They are few in number, a fraction, as it were, of society, and yet they have become possessed of a most monstrous power, namely, the power of turning to their own advantage all the good things of life, without creating themselves the smallest particle of any one of those good things. How, in the name of wonder, have they obtained this monstrous power! It must have been either by an involuntary and unnatural consent, or by what seems nearest to the truth by the most stupid ignorance on the part of the people. Of course this monstrous power held by the few is exercised with an iron hand, and necessarily begets indescribable wretchedness and misery among the great mass of society in every part of the kingdom. And this fraction of society, to which has been foolishly conceded, or which has impudently and unnaturally usurped, the preposterous right to exercise a monstrous power over almost every man, is as one to five hundred when compared to the people who produce all the good things seen in the world. Notwithstanding the one, the unit, the mere cypher, has all the wealth, all the power in the state, and consequently prescribes the way and details the manner, after which he pleases the 499 should live in the world. The 499 who create the state, who are its instruments upon all occasions, without whom it can not go on for a single second, who dig deep, rise early, and watch late, by whose sweat and toil the whole face of nature is beautified – rendered pleasant to the sight, and useful to existence; – the 499 who do all this are reduced to less than nothing in the estimation of the unit who does no one thing, unless consuming may be called doing something. The one – the unit or cypher – consumes, luxuriates, revels, wastes: in the winter fur and down warm him: in the summer he cools himself in the marble bath or in the shady bower: the seasons are his – their flowers, fruits, and living creatures are his – the 499 are his purveyors, they procure him every thing; and more to be pitied and worse treated than the jackal, they are not left even the offals. Not content with every thing – marrow and bone – if the bone be of any use: not content with their own peculiar titles, this consuming portion of society call themselves the people

They are the people of substance, the people of character, the people of condition the people of honor! so they say; but perhaps another definition of what they are would make them more easily recognised. They are the jugglers of society, the pick-pockets, the plunderers, the pitiless Burkers – in fine they are all Bishops! They exist on disease and blood: crime and infamy are the breath of their nostrils. The 499 bleed for them, die of disease for them; by hard and cruel treatment they are hurried into crime and infamy, if crime and infamy can justly be imputed to beings who make an occasional effort to obtain a portion of the heaps they produce.

The people are formed out of our proportion of 499: they are in number as 499 is to 1. By saying what the people do, we explain what they are. By saying what they can and ought to do, we explain what they can and ought to be.

For many years the people have done nothing for themselves. They have not even existed, for they have not enjoyed life. Their existence has been enjoyed by others; they have been, as far as regards themselves, non-entities. They have had neither ease, gaiety, nor pleasure; they have not lived ; for a state of continual toil, privation, and sickness can never be called life. What working man can say he lives? Unless he says he lives when he is pining away piecemeal producing with an empty stomach and weary limbs what goes to make others live. The existence of the working man is a negative. He is alive to production, misery, and slavery- dead to enjoyment and happiness. He produces and is miserable: others enjoy and are happy. The people then, since we call the mass the people, are the drudges of society ; they do every thing and enjoy nothing. The people are nothing for themselves, and everything for the few.

If they are the source of all wealth- that wealth is not for them: if they are all-powerful, their power is used for the benefit of others: – they protect and support those who grow fat on the sweat of their brow! They fight too yea, they fight – but for what? for religion, for honour, for the caprice of kings and ministers!

When they fight for themselves, then will they be a people, then will they live, then will they have ease, gaiety, pleasure and happiness; but never, until they do light for themselves! When the people fight their own battle – when they are active in resistance to the greater part of existing institutions – when they have a proper opinion of themselves; that is, when they are convinced of their own power and worth, they will then enjoy the advantages a people ought to enjoy. They will be every thing they were not before: they will be no longer abused, maltreated, and lessened in their own estimation. they will be no longer robbed of the fruits of their toil: no longer oppressed and goaded to despair, their lives will be no longer a burden too heavy to he borne. The few- the grasping, the blood-sucking few – will be no longer able to do all this. The few- the idle, dronish few – will be forced to work as well as others, and every man’s share of the good things of life will be in proportion to his production of them. When the people are resolved and prepared upon all points to fight their own battle, the rapacity of the landlord, the inhumanity of the king’s tax gatherer and of the bishop’s tithe proctor will disappear. And if there should happen to be any poor and infirm persons to be provided for, they will not be entrusted to hospital-governors and poor-house keepers, who live in splendour on the parish allowances or charitable donations made solely for the exclusive advantage the poor and infirm, who may justly be considered, and ought to be treated as the martyrs of labour.

How is it that the people have never existed- that is, have not enjoyed ease, gaiety, pleasure, or happiness? How is it that they have been the instruments of the few, procuring them a superabundance of ease, gaiety, pleasure, and happiness? How is it that they have always been the productive party, and never the consuming party? The lion makes the jackall hunt and provide for him, because the lion is stronger; but, in the case of the people, the position is reversed, for the weaker party have hitherto forced the stronger party to hunt and provide for them. How has this most monstrous state of things been established and kept up? Simply thus: by keeping the people in ignorance- by hoodwinking them with the bonds of superstition and prejudice.

Ignorance is the source of all the misery of the many. On account of their ignorance they have been oppressed,- plundered,- ground down to the earth, and degraded like beasts of burden. It is ignorance that makes us incessantly toil, not for ourselves, but for others: it is ignorance that makes us fight, and lavish our blood and lives to secure to the few the power of still keeping us their tools; it is ignorance that prevents us from knowing ourselves and without a clear knowledge of ourselves we must ever remain the tools of others- the slaves of the consuming party. In every age of the world the people, for want of knowledge of their own worth and power have been the unpaid, unrecompensed tools of kings, nobles, and priests. Yet at no time, in no country, among no people has there existed so much degradation, oppression, and misery, as exists at this moment in this wretched country. Ignorance has reduced England to distraction, and unfortunate Ireland to phrensied madness.

There is no greater folly than to expect that people will do that which they are ignorant of. To fulfil a duty or to obey a law, we must understand it. Our lawgivers have kept us in ignorance, for if we had knowledge we would not obey laws framed for our own destruction. Our lords and masters are doing every thing that our ignorance may continue, in order that they may continue, like the lawyers of old, “to load us with burdens too grievous to be borne, which they will not, touch with one of their fingers.” Since our lords and masters have very good reasons for keeping us in ignorance, we have still stronger ones for getting knowledge. By keeping us in ignorance they enjoy: by getting ourselves knowledge we shall enjoy, and cease to suffer. The knowledge we want is very easily acquired: it is not that taught in schools or books, or at least in very few books. The knowledge we want is a knowledge of ourselves: a  knowledge of our own power, of our immense might, and of the right we have to employ in action that immense power. We cannot have this knowledge without having an opposite kind of knowledge:- namely, the knowledge of the numerical and real weakness of our enemies, though they have been so long enabled to oppress us and drain us to the last drop of our heart’s blood. The people of Paris had this knowledge when they revolted against tyranny, and trampled it for a moment under their feet: the people of Paris will give a still stronger example of the sort of knowledge we want, when they declare that kingship and privilege are incompatible with popular liberty: in fine, when they shall strike for a republic- and this example way be expected shortly. The men of Grenoble the other day gave a proof of this knowledge when they refused to pay unjust taxes, burned the tax-gatherers’ houses and books, and forced the government to come to a compromise. In short, the knowledge we want is to be fully convinced of the weakness and villainy of our enemies, and to be resolved to use the means we have of destroying them.

The interest of the people has been the same in every age of the world; and yet, extraordinary as it may appear, they have never understood it. If the people had understood their true interests, could any power or accident reduce them to the state they are now in? What that state is we all, alas, know: it is, beyond all contradiction, a state of privation, bordering on starvation, – a state of misery and degradation. Inattention, and the most culpable and dishonourable indifference on their part, have produced their own ruin, and consequently that of the countries they inhabit. Look to the people of this kingdom – look to this country: are they far off from ruin? If you, O people, do not rouse yourselves, you will leave to posterity a nation of the most miserable slaves.

The remedy? the remedy? you all exclaim. You have it within your own reach; but since it seems you cannot see it, you shall have it named to you, and pointed out to you so palpably, that if you do not make use of it, the brand and curse of slavery will stick to you during your wretched lives, and your children and children’s children will curse you as traitors, who have sold yourselves, and them, whom you had no right to sell. Now the remedy that is to better your condition, and to snatch you from final and everlasting ruin, is placed within yourselves. It is simply – UNITY OF THOUGHT AND ACTION. – Think together, act together, and you will remove mountains- mountains of injustice, oppression, misery and want. How do you suppose you were brought to your present condition? By never thinking or acting- by being ignorant of yourselves. The bulls in the fable, whilst united, defied the strength of the lion; he sowed jealousy and disunion among them, and they became his prey. Our enemies, by their unity of thought and action- numerically and physically weak as they are- have succeeded in making us their prey. A small portion of mankind, by adopting plan and method, by putting their heads together, have been able to do as they pleased with the greater portion. The smaller portion, by their unanimity, have made the greater portion toil for them: by unity of thought and action, the smaller party have become lords and masters, the greater party slaves.

Lords and masters! They are united; and therefore they may be whatever else they please; they have become, by their unity, lords and masters; and they are, without impunity, the possessors of all power, pomp, greatness, wealth, vanity, lewdness, beastiality, cruelty:- they are a living catalogue of all the vices and crimes that human nature has been forced to be the source of. A want of unity of thought and action on our parts has been the cause of this unnatural state of things. Our indifference and disunion have enabled our horrid enemies to cover the earth with thousands of Sodoms and Gomorrahs.

Of all the follies human nature can be guilty of, there is no one greater than to expect that others will do for us what we ought to do for ourselves. If others do not feel as we do – if they have no cause to feel as we do – if they are not oppressed, robbed, plundered, degraded – how can they enter into our feelings who are so! To expect aid from Tories, Whigs, Liberals – to expect aid from the middling classes, or from any other class than those who suffer, (from the working classes), is sheer madness!

Are liberty and equal rights worth enjoying: are ease, gaiety, pleasure, and happiness worth possessing? Is the satisfaction of seeing ourselves on the same footing with all men – of beholding no longer such a distinction as that between peer and peasant – of no longer seeing ourselves trampled on by the horses and carriages of persons of a different order- of seeing every man either on horseback or on foot, – is such satisfaction worth nothing? What more glorious, more consolatory, more honourable to man than equality! Equality, O people and friends, is grand and beautiful: we may have it; but let us he united!

Virtue- where is it to be found? Among the people! Who have died- who have been martyrs for their principles- the people! Who have been hanged, who have suffered at the stake for their country, and for the good of humanity – the people! From Wat Tyler down to Emmet and Thistlewood, the martyrs of truth have always been found among the people. Their martyrdom would not have been in vain, had we supported them: they relied upon us- they gave us an example- they held forth a torch-light they sounded a tocsin- their heartstrings wrung it; but we, O shame, have been deaf to it! We have had hearts of steel- we have been worse than the deaf adder for we have heard the music of liberty, and have not listened to it!

It is almost superfluous to say, that the horrid and merciless tyrants, whom we have allowed to lord it over us, have no feeling in common with us. The whole study of their lives is to keep us in a state of ignorance, that we may not be sensible of our own degradation and of their weakness. To expect good at their hands, to hope that they will break one link of the chain with which they bind us, to dream that they will ever look with pity upon us, is the vainest of all dreams. But enough; they have fattened upon the sweat of our body; they are determined to continue to do so; it is our business to prevent it, to put a stop to it. We are the people, our business is with the people, and to transact it properly, we must take it into our own hands. The people are called upon to work for themselves! We lay down the plan of operation; we despair of all safety, we despair of liberty, we despair of equality, we despair of seeing ease, gaiety, pleasure, and happiness becoming the possessions of the people, unless they co-operate with us. We chalk down to them a plan; woe to them if they do not follow in its traces!

THE HOLIDAY.

A holiday signifies a holy day, and ours is to be of holy days the most holy. It is to be most holy, most sacred, for it is to be consecrated to promote- to create rather- the happiness and liberty of mankind. Our holy day is established to establish plenty, to abolish want, to render all men equal! In our holy day we shall legislate for all mankind; the constitution drawn up during our holiday, shall place every human being on the same footing. Equal rights, equal liberties, equal enjoyments, equal toil, equal respect, equal share of production: this is the object of our holy day – of our sacred day, – of our festival!

When a grand national holiday, festival, or feast is proposed, let none of our readers imagine that the proposal is new. It was an established custom among the Hebrews, the most ancient of people, to have holidays or festivals, not only religious feasts, but political ones. Their feasts were generally held to perpetuate the memory of God’s mighty works; to  allow the people frequent seasons for instruction in the laws,- to grant them time of rest, pleasure, and renovation of acquaintance with their brethren. The Sabbath was a weekly festival, not because they supposed that God reposed from his labour on that day, – but immemorial of their deliverance from Egypt;- out of the house of bondage, and of their feeding on manna in the wilderness. The true meaning of feeding on manna is, that the productions of the soil were equally divided among the people. They fed upon manna- that is they were fed in abundance. During the various festivals, no servile work was done, and servants and masters knew no distinction. Every seventh year, which was called the year of Release, a continued festival was held among the Hebrews. Mark, a holiday for a whole year! How happy a people must be, how rich in provisions, to be able to cease from manual labour, and to cultivate their minds during the space of a whole year! We English must be in a pretty state, if in the midst of civilisation and abundance, we cannot enjoy a month’s holiday, and cease from labour during the short space of four weeks! But to return, – the year of release was a continued- unceasing festival; it was a season of instruction; it was a relief to poor debtors. The land lay untilled; the spontaneous produce was the property of the poor, the fatherless, and the widow; every debt was forgiven, and every bond-servant dismissed free, if he pleased, loaded with a variety of presents from his master. There was another holiday or feast deserving of mention;- it was called the jubilee. No servile work was done on it: the land lay untilled what grew of itself belonged to the poor and needy; whatever debts the Hebrews owed to one another, were wholly remitted; hired, as well as bond servants, obtained their liberty; the holding of lands was changed, so that as the jubilee approached, the Hebrew lands bore the less price. By this means landed possession was not confined to particular families, and the sinful hastening to be rich was discouraged.

We have now shewn that the holding of festivals is consecrated by divine authority; it only remains for us to show the necessity that there is for the people of this country holding one; and then to proceed to its details and object.

The grounds and necessity of our having a month’s Holiday, arise from the circumstances in which we are placed. We are oppressed, in the fullest sense of the word; we have been deprived of every thing; we have no property, no wealth, and our labour is of no use to us, since what it produces goes into the hands of others. We have tried every thing but our own efforts; we have told our governors, over and over again, of our wants and misery; we thought them good and wise, and generous; we have for ages trusted to their promises, and we find ourselves, at this present day, after so many centuries of forbearance, instead of having our condition bettered, convinced that our total ruin is at hand. Our Lords and Masters have proposed no plan that we can adopt; they contradict themselves, even upon what they name the source of our misery. One says one thing, another says another thing. One scoundrel, one sacrilegious blasphemous scoundrel, says “that over-production is the cause of our wretchedness.” Over production, indeed! when we half-starving producers cannot, with all our toil, obtain any thing like a sufficiency of produce. It is the first time, that in any age or country, save our own, abundance was adduced as a cause of want. Good God! where is this abundance? Abundance of food! ask the labourer and mechanic where they find it. Their emaciated frame is the best answer. Abundance of clothing! the nakedness, the shivering, the asthmas, the colds, and rheumatisms of the people, are proofs of the abundance of clothing! Our Lords and Masters tell us, we produce too much; very well then, we shall cease from producing for one month, and thus put into practice the theory of our Lords and Masters.

Over-population, our Lords and Masters say, is another cause of our misery. They mean by this, that the resources of the country are inadequate to its population. We must prove the contrary, and during a holiday take a census of the people, and a measurement of the land, and see upon calculation, whether it be not an unequal distribution, and a bad management of the land, that make our Lords and Masters say, that there are too many of us. Here are two strong grounds for our Holiday; for a CONGRESS of the working classes.

The greatest Captain of the age has acknowledged, that there was partial distress; Londonderry has said, that ‘ignorant impatience’ was the cause of our misery; the sapient Robert Peel has asserted, that ‘our wants proceeded from our not knowing what we wanted.’ Very good during our festival, we shall endeavour to put an end to partial distress; to get rid of our ignorant impatience, and to learn what it is we do want. And these are three other motives for holding a Congress of the working classes.

When Governments disagree; when they have a national right or interest to settle; a boundary to establish; to put an end to a war, or to prevent it; or when they combine to enslave, in order to be able to plunder the whole world, they hold a Congress. They send their wise men, their cunning men, to discuss, plan, and concoct what they call a treaty, and so, at least for a time, settle their differences. In this mode of proceeding there is something that we must imitate. In our National Holiday, which is to be held during one calendar month, throughout the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, we must all unite in discovering the source of our misery, and the best way of destroying it. Afterwards we choose, appoint, and send to the place of Congress, a certain number of wise and cunning men, whom we shall have made fully acquainted with our circumstances; and they, before the Holiday be expired, shall discuss and concert a plan, whereby, if it is possible, the privation, wretchedness and slavery, of the great mass of us, may be diminished, if not completely annihilated.

We affirm that the state of society in this country is such, that as long as it continues, heart-rending inequality must continue, producing wretchedness, crime and slavery;- plunging not a few, but the immense majority of the people into those abject circumstances. Our respect and love towards the human race in general, and more especially towards the working classes to whom we belong body and soul, has induced us to reflect and consider, and thus to discover what we think will bring about the object we aim at; namely, the happiness of the many. Our lords and masters, by their unity of thought and action, by their consultations, deliberations, discussions, holidays, and congresses, have up to this time succeeded in bringing about the happiness of the few. Can this be denied? We shall then by our consultations, deliberation-, discussions, holiday and congress, endeavour to establish the happiness of the immense majority of the human race, of that far largest portion called the working classes. What the few have done for themselves cannot the many do for themselves? unquestionably. Behold, O people and fellow labourers the way!

Before a month’s holiday can take place, universal preparations must be made for it. lt should not take place neither in seed-time nor in harvest-time. Every man must prepare for it, and assist his neighbour in preparing for it. The preparations must begin long before the time which shall be hereafter appointed, in order that every one may be ready, and that the festival be not partial but universal.

Committees of management of the working classes must be forthwith formed in every city, town, village, and parish throughout the united kingdom. These committees must make themselves fully acquainted with the plan, and be determined to use the extremest activity and perseverance to put it into execution as speedily and effectually as possible. They must call frequent meetings, and shew the necessity and object of the holiday. They must use every effort to prevent intemperance of every sort and recommend the strictest sobriety and economy. The working classes cannot lay in provisions for a month; this is not wanted, but every man must do his best to be provided with food for the first week of the holiday. Provisions for the remaining three weeks can be easily procured. As for wearing apparel, since the holiday will take place in the summer, there can be no great difficulty in being provided with sufficient covering for one month. If the committees do their duty, and earnestly explain the nature and necessity of the holiday, they will induce all lovers of equal rights, to make every sacrifice of momentary inconvenience in order to obtain permanent convenience and comfort.

We suppose that the people are able to provide provisions and funds for one week; during this week they will be enabled to enquire into the funds of their respective cities, towns, villages and parishes, and to adopt means of having those funds, originally destined for their benefit, now applied to that purpose. The committee of management shall be required to direct the people in adopting the best measures that shall be deemed necessary. The people must be made aware of their own folly, in having allowed themselves to have been deceived by the Parish parsons, and Select Vestries, and they must cease permitting others to vote away their own money. The people, so soon as they shall see themselves in want of provisions or funds, must have immediate recourse to vestry meetings, which have power to grant, in despite of Overseers and Justices, such relief as may be wanted. There is nothing to prevent any six or ten persons from calling a vestry meeting as often as may be deemed requisite, and the registers, books, and other parish documents must be consulted, and will give sufficient evidence, that there is wherewithal to support the people during the holiday. Let it be constantly borne in mind, that the united voice of the people will be duly attended to, and that an equal division of funds and provisions will be allowed them by the parish authorities, when their object is known. The committee, which may also be looked upon as the commissary department, must likewise watch over the good order of its district, establish regularity, and punish all attempts at disorder. The people having a grand object in view, the slightest points in their character must be grand. About to renovate Europe, the people must appear renovated.

In the earlier periods of our history, monarchs, princes, and rulers of minor titles, had recourse to voluntary loans. At first the people raised these loans voluntarily, for they thought by so doing, they would enable their chiefs to protect them. It was soon seen, however, that the voluntary loans were converted to the sole advantage of the chiefs, and their more immediate partisans, consequently the people began to grow slack in contributing them. By means of the voluntary loans, the chiefs or governors became powerful enough to exact involuntary loans, and the method of raising them was taxation, and other sorts of exaction. Hence, though sovereignty was at first supported by voluntary loans, as soon as it was discovered to be a self-interested institution, it was obliged to levy involuntary loans, that is, taxes. Now there is a species of sovereignty- we mean the sovereignty of the people- that has not as yet been supported, and it is for its support that we claim at this moment, during the festival that is to establish it, voluntary loans. When we talk of establishing the sovereignty of the people, we talk of establishing the grandeur, the happiness and liberty of the people. Nothing can be more deserving of praise and support. We have hitherto contributed to the sovereignty of particular families, that is to their grandeur, happiness and liberty; and their liberty must be called uncontrolled licence- tyranny.

Now, since we have so long tried the sovereignty of particular families, let us try the sovereignty of the grand family- the human race. That species of sovereignty can never become tyranny. We call then upon every man to add his mite to this voluntary loan, and particularly the rich, who are always so generous in keeping up the splendour of ancient race. The antiquity of the human race they will not allow to be sullied by modern degradation. If they show pity and support towards the descendants of a Stuart, a Bourbon, or a Guelf, they will surely show more towards the descendants of Adam.

“The cattle upon a thousand hills are the Lord’s.” When the people’s voice, which Lord Brougham proclaims to be the voice of God, and surely we need no higher legal authority, calls for its own, demands the cattle of the thousand hills, who dares withhold the cattle of the thousand hills? During our holiday the people may have need of this cattle: let them order it to the slaughter-house, and their herdsmen and drovers will obey them. There may be some persons, who having been so long a time the keepers of the Lord’s cattle, will be inclined to keep it still longer. However, we are of opinion, that when solicited they will render “unto the Lord that which is the Lord’s.” But there are other keepers of the people’s cattle, whose unbounded liberality and strict probity are known to the whole world. These keepers may be classed under the denominations of Dukes, Marquesses, Earls, Lords, Barons, Baronets, Esquires, Justices, and Parsons, and they will all freely contribute to our glorious holiday. Some of them, according to the extent of the Lord’s flocks, will send us a hundred sheep, others twenty oxen; loads of corn, vegetables and fruit will be sent to each committee appointed by the Lord’s voice, which, when distributed among the people, will enable them during the CONGRESS to legislate at their case, without any fear of want tormenting any part of them.

Should there, however, be a few who may refuse to render up the Lord’s cattle, the number of the greatly generous will infinitly counter-balance them. To the NEWCASTLES, who think every thing their own, we will oppose the BURDETTS, who think all they possess, the Lord’s or people’s. What a faithful keeper of the Lord’s cattle we shall find in Sir FRANCIS! The relief we shall obtain from him when we wait upon him at Belper, Burton, and in Leicestershire, will be a proof of his generosity and probity. The following is the way Sir FRANCIS and all such honest keepers are to be waited on, and our wants and wishes made known to them. Although we name Sir FRANCIS, we do not give him any real preference over the Westminsters, the Russells, the Lansdowries, the Althorpes, &c. Let him, however, be supposed the keeper, that for form sake we are to wait upon. The Committee will depute 20 persons to wait upon Sir FRANCIS, and state to him respectfully, but energetically, their business. Suppose, but it is the most improbable of all suppositions, that Sir FRANCIS should not be inclined to pay full attention to the application. Then the Committee will send 100 persons, with the same request, urging it still more respectfully and energetically; and should there still be indifference on the part of Sir FRANCIS, the Committee shall send 1000 persons and so on, increasing in proportion, until the Lord’s cattle be forthcoming. The persons sent by the Committee, shall allow no one to disturb the peace of the people. Upon all visits from the committee, the person visited must be seen in person by the Committee: not being at home is no excuse. Sir FRANCIS may be at Belper, Burton, or in Leicestershire; the Committee of those districts will find him at one or either of them, and solicit ‘England’s glory’ for support, which be will freely grant, as he is very rich, and very willing to establish the sovereignty, happiness, and liberty of the people.

Here be it observed, that the above mode of proceeding is not limited to any part of the country, or to any one Sir FRANCIS. All the Sir FRANCISES, all the reformers are to be applied to, and the people will have no longer any reason to suspect reformers’ consistency. The reformers of the united kingdom will hold out an open hand to support us during our festival. O’Connell will abandon the collection made for him; indeed that collection is virtually destined for our Irish brethren during the holiday. Until they are tried no one can imagine the number of great men ready to promote equal rights, equal justice, and equal laws all throughout the kingdom.

When all the details of the above plan are put into execution, the committee of each parish and district, shall select its wise men to be sent to the NATIONAL CONGRESS. A parish or district having a population of 8,000, shall send two wise and cunning men to Congress, a population of 15,000 four, a population of 25,000 eight, and London fifty wise and cunning men. The advice of the different committees is to be taken as to the most convenient place for conference. It should be a central position, and the mansion of some great liberal lord, with its out houses and appurtenances. The only difficulty of choice will be to fix upon a central one, for they are all sufficiently vast to afford lodging to the members of the Congress, their lands will afford nourishment, and their parks a beautiful place for meeting.

It may be relied upon, that the possessor of the mansion honoured by the people’s choice, will make those splendid preparations for the representatives of the sovereignty of the people, that are usually made for the reception of a common sovereign.

The object of the Congress; that is what it will have to do. To reform society, for “from the crown of our head to the sole of our foot there is no soundness in us.” We must cut out the rottenness in order to become sound. Let us see what is rotten. Every man that does not work is rotten; he must be made work in order to cure his unsoundness. Not only is society rotten; but the land, property, and capital is rotting. There is not only something, but a great deal rotten in the state of England. Every thing, men, property, and money, must be put into a state of circulation. As the blood by stagnation putrifies, as it is impoverished by too much agitation, so society by too much idleness on the one hand, and too much toil on the other has become rotten. Every portion must be made work, and then the work will become so light, that it will not be considered work, but wholesome exercise. Can any thing be more humane than the main object of our glorious holiday, namely, to obtain for all at the least expense to all, the largest sum of happiness for all.

We think that the necessity of a GRAND NATIONAL HOLIDAY has been fully impressed upon the mind of every man who may have read us. We have etched out the plan; not detailed and matured it, for it will take a longer time and deeper reflection before we can pronounce our plan complete. We expect the assistance of others, and we invite them, without putting us to unnecessary expence, to communicate to us their hints. We have explained in a few words our object; it will be seen that never was there an object, an aim so sublime, so full of humanity. We will not revert, now that we are forced to a conclusion, to the necessity of a holiday, but we must repeat ourselves respecting the plan.

We are sure that there is no one who will not be ready to join heart and hand in our festival, provided he can be persuaded of the possibility of holding it. If we had not been convinced of the possibility of holding it, we should never have mentioned it. All we require is that our holiday folk should be prepared for one week; we engage ourselves to provide for all their wants during the last three weeks of the festival. We have shown in what way the people should have recourse to vestry meetings, and what power they had over all parish authorities. We have shown that the parish authorities are entirely dependent on the people, and that without the consent of the people they can raise no rate, nor dispose of any fund already accumulated. We have shewn that the people had a right to examine the parish accounts, and become cognisant of the funds held by the parish authorities, and that the people could dispose of those funds as they thought proper. If, then, there are funds in hand, the people will apply them to their own support during the holiday; if it should happen that there are not funds, the people must vote a supply, for the people must be convinced of one thing, namely, that it is they alone who have a right of levying parish contributions. Some few persons may not like the idea of having recourse to parish allowance for their support even during the short period of three weeks, but these over-delicate individuals must reflect that they are becoming a momentaryburden to their parish, in order to rid it of increasing  and everlasting burdens. We think we have said enough to prove, that by vestry meetings alone the people would be fully able to support themselves during the holiday. Let the people only reflect on the sums that the parish authorities have from time immemorial levied upon the people, without the concurrence of the people, and then they will have no longer any scruples, but will, if the occasion require it, have recourse to the same method for raising funds for the benefit of the many, that the few have always had for the benefit of the few. We are too honest, too conscientious, too delicate, consequently the few who are neither honest, conscientious nor delicate dupe us. We must avoid all squeamishness; we are not only working for ourselves but for the human race and its posterity. We beg of the people to throw off all false delicacy. They must boldly lay hands upon that which is their own.

We call our reader’s attention to what we have said about “the cattle upon the thousand hills.” They are the Lord’s, that is the people’s; and when the people want them, the guardians who have kept them so long, will deliver them unto the people. We repeat, and we do so expressly that the people may be the more convinced of what we assert, that Sir FRANCIS BURDETT, and all such liberal men, will come forward in shoals to support us. There is nothing enthusiastic or ideal in this assertion. Let us reflect upon it. MR. COKE, of Norfolk, is a very rich man, and a very liberal man. Now we ask, what does a liberal man amass wealth for, if not in order to be able to support liberal principles. MR. COKE’S heart will beat with joy when he finds such an occasion for his liberality, as we are going to give him. We see him already ringing for his check-book, and ordering droves of his oxen, and waggon-loads of his wheat to be sent to us holiday folks. We hear him I wearing at his servants, damning their laziness, when the demands of the people are to be satisfied. And in every county a COKE is to be found; in Middlesex you will find a BYNG, in Bedfordshire a WHITBREAD. It would be too long to mention names, but you have only to look over the list of the majority in the House of Commons on the Reform Bill, and the list of the minority in the House of Lords on the same Bill, and then you will see, at a glance, the number of liberal men who are keeping their riches for your advantage. Only think of the immense sums that these liberal men spend at elections, in order to legislate for you, and consequently do you good! Now can you be persuaded, that they will not liberally resist you when you are fighting your own battle. Be assured they will; not only will they send you funds and provisions, but you will find them simple volunteers in your ranks. HENRY BROUGHAM, Lord Chancellor, will, if you accept of him, volunteer his services as one of your Deputies to CONGRESS. These great men, O people, are waiting for you; as soon as they can rely upon you, you may rely upon them. All they want to declare themselves for you, is your support. Let them have it.

We intended to give a list of the principal subjects to be discussed and settled during our CONGRESS. The Public shall have this list in a Periodical, advertised on the last page.

FINIS.

Printed by W. Benbow, 205, Fleet Street.

THE TRIBUNE OF THE PEOPLE,
A MONTHLY PERIODICAL,

To be first Published on the 21st of January.

Price Two Pence.

This PERIODICAL will be purely Political; it will “speak daggers but use none.”- It will advise the separation of the people from the Aristocracy; each portion of society must shift for itself, until plain dealing is established. The Tribune of the people is the Advocate of the people. The people shall be no longer duped.

PUBLISHED BY BENBOW,
205, FLEET STREET.

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Postscript: The Grand National Holiday in action

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 – including Benbow. He had been spreading the idea of the Grand National holiday 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.

August 12th 1839 was agreed as the date when the ‘Sacred Month’ would begin. The Chartist Convention of summer 1839 adopted it as policy. But 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, whether 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.

The Chartist movement aroused great fear, among the middle classes, in particular, and some among the authorities… 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. William Benbow himself was nicked on August 4th, and spent eight months in prison 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

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, in which it gave accounts of 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, often a useful tactic in large-scale strikes. A number of factories were closed down.

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, however, in reality very patchy, and there is no clear picture of how many workers stayed away from work. Despite huge Chartist rallies, which seemed to reflect mass support for Chartism in some areas (eg Kersal Moor), in 1838, there is some uncertainty about Chartism’s real support. In some Lancashire towns with large working class populations, Chartist support seemed to be dropping off, not building. On 4th August in the run-up to the start of the Sacred Month, Chartists were called on to attend church en masse: but numbers who in fact turned up were disappointing (150 at Manchester, 1500 at Stockport, 2-3000 at Bolton and 4000 at Blackburn.) On the 12th, Chartists paraded through the main cotton-producing towns, but in some places work continued as normal – for instance in Oldham and Rochdale. In Oldham, a meeting of factory workers agreed that the National Holiday was unnecessary and the Charter could only be achieved by peaceful means.

In some areas the strike lasted several days, though not the whole month. In most places, within a week, the movement had collapsed.

In essence, “without working class unanimity it could have no hope of success.” (Donald Read)

It seems that in many areas there was a division between factory operatives and handloom weavers who worked out of their own homes. The latter formed a more solid support for Chartism, and its more radical elements; factory operatives were possibly more likely to back away from more extreme Chartist measures. This could have been influenced by the clear link between poverty and economic hardship and preparedness to support or initiate ‘physical force’ measures. In areas or trades his by depression and resulting lack of work, increased desperation led to wider willingness to enlist in revolts, plots and the ‘Holiday’; where trade was more prosperous or at least reviving, support for radical measures fell away. (So in Oldham, where, as mentioned above, support for the Sacred Month was scant, trade in the textile mills had recently picked up.) The handloom weavers, whose work was being replaced by factories, were being driven to the edge and were correspondingly more up for a sharper, deeper change…

But more fundamental problems of planning also undermined the attempt to put the Sacred Month into practice. Benbow’s suggestion, that revolutionary local councils should organise the expropriation of the rich to provide for people deprived of wages when they struck, proved difficult, with an organised police force, now properly up and running, soldiers deployed around the country, and a government in reality more prepared for violence than the workers were. Mass expropriation sounds attractive when you’re starving and angry, but logistically, it was quite a step to take. It was not to be attempted, which may well have doomed the Grand National Holiday from the start.

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 means of production from the start, a simple economic stoppage was up against it from the start.

By September, the Chartists were themselves discussing the strike’s failure, and some were admitting they had not been adequately prepared. According to Bury Chartist Dr Fletcher, “It must be admitted that they had been attempting something which they had not either the strength or the wisdom to enable them to effect.” Fletcher, for one, did not give up on the idea of force to achieve Chartist ends, though he felt that it could be more effectively achieved if control of any future ‘physical’ action lay with local groups, not with a National Convention which had proved itself wobbly in the face of the crucial moment. Fletcher also identified a factor other theorists of the General Strike would later re-iterate: “if the working classes would fight, they must begin themselves, and the convention must not be the father of the act, but the child of it.” A centrally declared national strike is much less likely to succeed than an organic movement built towards the centre from the grassroots (See the appendix below on Rosa Luxemburg and the Mass Strike.)

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, based locally. 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…

More on William Benbow’s life

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Appendix: Rosa Luxembourg and the Mass Strike

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 theories of a General Strike as a method of initiating possible social 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 Luxembourg’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 Marxism towards a reformist position, away from the idea of a revolutionary transformation 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 neighbourhoods 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 neighbourhood, 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 centre 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 organisation, 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 Luxembourg’s assertion that a successful general strike would have to arise organically, meshing together from below rather than being ‘called’ by any committee or confederation, is possibly a more realistic guess at how a successful strike movement might threaten to overthrow capitalist social relations than some other theories. 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. 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 embryonic form in some places 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
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London radical history: freethought pioneer James Watson dies, Norwood, 1874

James Watson (1799–1874) was an English radical publisher, activist and Chartist.

Born in Malton, North Yorkshire, on September 21, 1799, Watson’s father died when he was only a year old. His mother, a Sunday school teacher, taught him to read and write, but around 1811, she returned to domestic service in the household of a clergyman, who had paid for James’s schooling and tuitions for a brief period. Watson worked there as under-gardener, in the stables and as house-servant, and he read widely.

In 1818 Watson moved to Leeds where he found work as a warehouseman, and joined a group of men in Leeds who met weekly to read and discuss the writings of radicals such as Tom Paine, William Cobbett and Richard Carlile. The group made contact with Carlile and agreed to distribute his Republican newspaper in Leeds.

Watson was converted to freethought and radicalism through this group and what he read. He began to spread freethought literature and helped raise money for Carlile when he was sentenced in 1821 to three years’ imprisonment for blasphemy. Watson moved to London in September 1822 to serve as a volunteer assistant in Carlile’s Water Lane bookshop. As Carlile’s shop published and sold radical publications that challenged the Six Acts imposed by Lord Sidmouth in 1819, this was risky work, and many of those who worked there went to prison. James Watson also became involved with other publishers such as William Hone and Henry Hetherington in the struggle against the stamp duties on newspapers and pamphlets.

In January 1823 Carlile’s wife, having completed her own term of imprisonment, took a new shop at 201 Strand, and Watson moved there as a salesman. As their publications were unstamped on principle, government agents were constantly employed to seize papers and nick those distributing them. A game of cat and mouse between printers and informers/excisemen ensued, with regular smuggled shipments of radical papers being hunted and sometimes stopped. Salesman after salesman was arrested. In February 1823 Watson was charged with selling a copy of Elihu Palmer’s Principles of Nature to a police agent. He spoke in his own defence, but was convicted and sentenced to a year in Coldbath Fields Prison.

In prison he read David Hume, Edward Gibbon, and Johann Lorenz von Mosheim’s Ecclesiastical History, and developed his anti-Christian and republican opinions. As he said later, “endeavouring to make the best use of the opportunity for study and investigation.”

After leaving prison in April 1824 James Watson was employed again by Richard Carlile who taught him the skills of the compositor and printer. In 1825 he was employed in printing Carlile’s The Republican; he was also hired as a printer by the radical publisher, Julian Hibbert. Soon after this he went into business on his own.

He lived in extreme poverty at times, and in 1826 caught cholera, nearly dying. Recovering, he became an Owenite, and in 1828 he was storekeeper of the “First Co-operative Trading Association” in London, in Red Lion Square.

In 1831 Watson set up as a printer and publisher in Finsbury. Julian Hibbert, his former employer, died in January 1834 and left him a legacy, allowing Watson to enlarge his printing plant. He started by printing the life and works of Tom Paine, and these volumes were followed by Mirabaud’s System of Nature and Volney’s Ruins. Later he printed Lord Byron’s Cain and The Vision of Judgment, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Queen Mab and The Masque of Anarchy, and Clark on the Miracles of Christ.

Watson printed, corrected, folded, and sewed the books by himself, taking great care for the appearance of his books, which he sold at one shilling or less per volume (effectively losing money on many).

At this time Watson also became a leading light in the National Union of the Working Classes, a working class radical group, strong in London. The NUWC was an alliance of more moderate elements working for an extension of the franchise for working men, and some more direct action–oriented wing, who felt the working class needed to take power, and would only win it by force. Like many NUWC members and other radicals the 1832 Reform Act bitterly disappointed him, and he denounced it: “The whole thing is from beginning to end humbuggery of the worst description. One thing self-evident is that there is not the slightest pretense to make an attempt at relieving the suffering millions from any part of their burden.”

Watson was arrested in 1832 for organising a NUWC procession and a feast on the day the government had ordained a “general fast” on account of the cholera epidemic. The government had stated that the cholera epidemic was God’s punishment on society, and that everyone should fast for the day to placate the Lord. The NUWC, enraged, announced that the poor were always hungry, that they would not fast but would march in anger and then have a slap-up feed to stick two fingers up to the authorities. The organisers were nicked.

However, Watson escaped imprisonment for this episode.

In the same year, Watson began publishing an unstamped radical newspaper, the Working Man’s Friend. This got him imprisoned between February and July 1833. He also served a further period in prison (August 1834 to January 1835) for selling Henry Hetherington’s Poor Man’s Guardian, the leading radical unstamped paper of the day. This was his last imprisonment, though he continued to issue books banned by the government.

Watson’s shop was near Bunhill Fields; he then moved first to City Road, and in 1843 to 5 Paul’s Alley.

During his political life, he associated with many leading radical figures, including freethought and unstamped guru Henry Hetherington, Chartists Thomas Cooper and William Lovett, and the radical MPs Thomas Wakley, and Thomas Slingsby Duncombe.

Watson was active in the campaign in support of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the six Dorchester labourers transported to Australia for forming a union branch; he was one of he committee which organised the great April 1834 meeting in Islington demanding the six be pardoned and returned home.

In June 1837 Watson was also on the committee appointed to draw up the bills embodying the Chartist demands. He was on the moral force wing of the Chartist movement, and was opposed to the violence of some of the agitators; however he was also resolutely opposed to alliances with middle class whigs and anti-corn law agitators, whom he denounced. He was averse to “peddling away the people’s birthright for any mess of cornlaw pottage”.

Watson corresponded with Giuseppe Mazzini, and in 1847 joined his Peoples’ International League. In 1848 he was one of the conveners of the first public meeting to congratulate the French Revolution of 1848.

An untaxed and absolutely free press became his main object in later years. He died at Burns College, Hamilton Road, Lower Norwood, on 29 November 1874, and was buried in Norwood cemetery. A grey granite obelisk erected by friends commemorated his “brave efforts to secure the rights of free speech”. A photographic portrait was in the Memoir by William James Linton.

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As the printer, publisher and layout artist at past tense I feel an affinity with Watson, across the century and a half that separate us. Not just because like Watson I have spent several decades sweating and swearing over printing machines; also losing money because we try to produce our publications to be cheap and relatively accessible, while attempting to make them look interesting and presentable… Was his back knackered like mine, partly from hefting massive quires of paper from shelf to guillotine? Was his printshop pile with skyscraper piles of half printed tracts, through which you have to weave…? half-finished projects put on one side gathering dust, corners turning up from the cold? Dreading another rent rise, or the jamming screech of a snarlup in the press?

Watson came to printing and publishing through the unstamped and freethought movements; I came to it through the anti-poll tax agitation… Admittedly times have changed, and it takes more than publishing political tracts get yourself jailed. Part of the credit for this goes to Watson and many others like him who struggled against blasphemy laws and defied the government spies in the 1820s.

But Watson I also feel connected to because there’s a tangible link between us. In his old age, Watson was a formative influence on a young Ambrose Barker, who became a secularist, then a socialist in the London Emancipation League and the Socialist League, and would go on to write a biography of Henry Hetherington. Barker would live to a ripe old age, and himself in the 1930s would work politically with another young man, the anarchist Albert Meltzer. Who in his turn I later knew, and worked with briefly in the Anarchist Black Cross, before his death in 1996… Over 200 years of radical connections in four individuals. A small example of how ideas pass on through generations.

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

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Today in London’s pubishing history: Levellers take over the Moderate newspaper, 1648.

The groundbreaking political ideas thrown up in the english civil war – including the Levellers, Diggers, Ranters, fifth monarchism, and all the varied dissenting religious views – found expression most notably in print. Hundreds upon thousands of pamphlets were printed, tracts, often circulated very widely, and finding echoes among large sections of the population; partly because of the upheaval caused by economic and social crises…

In many ways, some of these pamphlets were collective representations as well as individual works… Some of them had mass circulation, and were being used at the forefront of the exchange of ideas; as one way of developing social policy, though debate, counterblast, agitation…

In the later years of the civil war, there was an explosion not only in pamphlet production, but also this kind of papers of ‘newsbooks’, of which large numbers appeared, some lasting one edition only, some being published for a few weeks or months, some for a year or more. Newsbooks had begun to appear from late 1641, as the county slipped into civil war, and the demand for regular news became important. In this period the state censorship partially lapsed, (as its powerful proponent, Archbishop Laud, fell from power) allowing an increase in free expression, though the war years would see several measures to tighten it again. Newsbooks were intimately bound up with the politics of the civil war and the political, religious and economic conflict that the wars were both born from and helped themselves to create and expand. Royalists, radicals, pro-and anti-parliamentary activists were involved in producing these newsbooks, some representing collective movements and voicing ideas being discussed by wide social movements; others the viewpoint of one, often eccentric writer.

While there was a powerful appetite in some quarters for the ideas expressed, there were also powerful forces mounted to repress this fermenting print culture. Censorship of radical social or religious opinions was exercised through licensing, controlled by the Stationers’ Office, and backed by Parliament. Royalist opinion also came to be banned and closed down as Parliament gradually emerged victorious from the civil wars. Underground presses operated in secret, moving to avoid detection, and being replaced when they were seized. Among the authorities and their supporters many were suggesting that access to print media should be severely restricted, to prevent the spread of dangerous ideas: ideas could only open up the potential for dangerous acts. Allowing ideas into print and allowing people to discuss them was in itself a threat to the established social order. This view had pre-dated the civil war – in fact the eruption of the war and the social movements that had come out of it was held as evidence that you couldn’t let just anyone think, speak, read or act – where would it end?

As well as being consummate pamphleteers, civil war radicals the Levellers also found voice, for a while, through the pages of their own newspaper, the Moderate, which appeared for a few months of 1648-49.

The Moderate launched in June 1648, with a format of twelve pages, much of it content being foreign news. After three issues, in July 1648, it shrank to eight pages, beginning a new series; in the sixth issue of which a regular feature was introduced, an editorial, which coincided with the paper’s becoming the mouthpiece of Leveller arguments, advocating a wider franchise and religious toleration. These arguments gained the Moderate widespread enmity; the Earl of Leicester asserted that the paper “endeavours to invite the people to overthrow all propriety, as the original cause of sin; and by that to destroy all government, magistracy, honesty, civility and humanity.” It consisted of a sheet of eight pages, small quarto size, the chief contents being the news of the day. It lasted for over a year, from July 1648 to the end of September 1649. No complete series of its numbers is extant; they are found, singly and scattered, among the collections of pamphlets of the so-called King’s or Thomason Library in the British Museum.

There is some uncertainty over who edited and wrote for the Moderate. Gilbert Mabbott, official licenser of the press from 1647 to 1649, was certainly associate with the paper’s creation. As licenser, Mabbot theoretically had the power to withhold a license to publish from any newsbooks he thought were subversive; however, he was progressively less successful. His name frequently appears on newsbooks of the period but was often used without his permission. He had attempted to suppress a newsbook called the Moderate Intelligencer in June 1648 after it expressed royalist views, and helped start the Moderate with a view to supplanting it. Mabbott was however, possibly an ally or sympathiser with the Levellers, and either gave over control of the paper of allowed the radicals a free hand in writing articles.

The Moderate was thought to have been edited later by Richard Overton, one of the most articulate theorists and pamphleteers of what was loosely identifiable as the Leveller party.

Despite widespread censorship of the press in 1648-9, including banning of Leveller publications and coinciding with the arrests of Leveller leaders and other radicals, the Moderate managed to keep is licence to publish. It remained openly critical of the government, arousing some ire in Parliament. In July 1649, Sir Henry Mildmay spoke up in the House of Commons, asking whether or not Gilbert Mabbott’s licence should be removed, specifically naming the Moderate as a dangerous publication. Although the Moderate continued to appear, the Council of State began drawing up further restrictions on licensing of publishers; meanwhile Mabbott himself resigned his position as licenser, seemingly because he was both narked at the notoriety he was attracting, as many publishers simply stamped his name in their issues without obtaining licences, but also in protest at the whole licensing system, which he denounced as a plot to enslave free people by keeping them in ignorance, as well as being a monopoly, and a measure which prevented expression by punishing licensees in advance, pre-emptively, rather than after something actionable was said.

German Marxist historian gives an account of the Moderate: “For a comparatively short time, viz., from the middle of the year 1648 to the autumn of the year 1649, information about the movement is forthcoming from a journal, which was described as the organ of the Levellers, and which within certain limits may be so regarded, as it reproduces most of the proclamations and pamphlets of the Levellers published during that time, and so far as it exhibits any tendency at all, represents that of the Levellers. Strange to say, this paper, though the organ of the most extreme political party of the period, bears the singular title of the Moderate. But this name was neither meant in an ironical sense nor was it chosen in a hypocritical spirit. It indicates the calm and impartial style in which the paper was written. Far from smacking of sans-culottism, as the elder Disraeli asserts in his Curiosities of Literature [9], we have nowhere met with a single phrase that could be remotely compared to the vulgar and obscene passages commonly found in the contemporary Royalist press, the Man in the MoonMercurius Elencticus, etc.

The Moderate was one of the first papers to publish explanatory leading articles, or at least the embryo of such. Several of its numbers open with disquisitions on political and even economical problems, and I venture to reproduce these articles so that the reader may judge whether we are justified in describing the Moderate as the pioneer of the Labour Press of our days. The issue of September 4 to 11, 1649 (No.61), commences as follows:

Wars are not only ever clothed with the most specious of all pretences, viz., Reformation of Religion, The Laws of the Land, Liberty of the Subject, etc., though the effects thereof have proved most destructive to them, and ruinous to every Nation; making the Sword (and not the people) the original of all Authorities, for many hundred years together; taking away each man’s Birth-right, and settling upon a few, a cursed propriety (the ground of all Civil Offences between party and party) and the greatest cause of most Sins against the Heavenly Deity. Thus Tyranny and Oppression running through the Veins of many of our Predecessors, and being too long maintained by the Sword, upon a Royal Foundation, at last became so customary, as to the vulgar it seemed so natural (the onely reason why the people at this time are so ignorant of their equal Birth-right, their onely Freedom). At last Divine Providence crowned the slavish people’s attempt with good success against this potent Enemy, which made them Free (as they fancied) from their former Oppressions, Burdens and Slaveries; and happy in what they could imagine, the greatest good, both for their Soul and Body. But Pride, Covetousness, and Self-Interest (taking the advantage of so unvaluable a benefit). And many being tempted to Swim in this Golden Ocean, the Burthens and Oppressions of the people, are thereby not onely continued, but increased, and no end thereof to be imagined. At this the people (who cannot now be deluded, will be eased, and not onely stiled, but really be the original of all Lawful Authority) begin to rage, and cry out for a lawful Representative, and such other wholesome Laws as will make them truly happy. These not granted, and some old Sparks being blown up with the Gales of new Dissentions, the fire breaks out, the wind rises, and if the fewel be dry and some speedy remedy be not taken for prevention, the damage thereby may be great to some, but the benefit conceived greater to all others.

This line of argument sounds very modern. The world moves but slowly, and it gives a feeling of humility to realize how old political wisdom is.

Mr. Isaac Disraeli is annoyed because the Moderate, in its issue of July 31st to August 7, 1649, when some robbers were executed for cattle-stealing, blames the institution of property for the death of these people, arguing that if no private property existed, there would have been no need for them to steal for their living. The article states: “We find some of these Fellons to be very civil men, and say, That if they could have had any reasonable subsistence by friends, or otherwise, they should never have taken such necessitous courses, for support of their Wives and Families. From whence many honest people do endevor to argue, that there is nothing but propriety that is the loss of all men’s lives in this condition, they being necessitated to offend the Law for a livelihood, and being; and not onely so, but they argue it with much confidence, that propriety is the original cause of any sin between party and party, as to civil transactions. And that since the Tyrant is taken off, and that Government altered in nomine, so ought it really to redound to the good of the people in specie; which though they cannot expect it in few yeers, by reason of the multiplicity of the Gentry in Authority, command, etc., who drive on all designes for support of the old Government, and consequently their own interest and the people’s slavery; yet they doubt not, but in time, the people will herein discern their own blindness, and folly.”

From the reports of the Moderate, as well as from other contemporary newspapers, it appears that the Leveller movement was not confined to London and its immediate neighbourhood and the Army, but also had followers in the country. Very interesting in this respect is a correspondence from Derby, in the issue for the last week of August 1649, particularly because we find mentioned in it a class of workers who are nowhere else mentioned in connection with this movement, viz., the miners, who had appealed to Parliament for redress in connection with a dispute with the Earl of Rutland, and the correspondence states that they were determined, if Parliament did not do them justice, to have recourse to “Natural Law”. Their number, including friends and sympathizers, was said to be twelve thousand, and they threatened, in default of a hearing, to form a resolute army. “The party of the Levellers in Town”, the article continues “promises them assistance in the prosecution of their just demands.” But a few days later, a letter from the “Freeholders and Mineowners, etc.”, of the Derbyshire mining district, published in a Cromwellian paper, states that the miners numbered at most four thousand, and that the Levellers did not have a dozen followers in Derby.

Moreover, the miners were accused of having repeatedly sided with the King, while the far more numerous freehold-farmers and mine-owners supported Parliament. This provoked a reply, in No.61 of the Moderate, which asserted that the above-mentioned letter was a fabrication of the Earl of Rutland and his agents; that the farmers and small owners had nothing to do with it. As to siding with the King, it had been stated in the original petition of the miners that the Earl of Rutland, then Mr. Manners, had repeatedly driven miners from their work, with the aid of Cavaliers, and when they complained, had sought to throw suspicion on them by false charges.

No.63 is the last issue of the Moderate. On September 20, 1649, Parliament enacted a press law, which re-established the system of licences, and prescribed severe penalties for the publication of abusive and libellous paragraphs. This undermined the position of the paper. On the other hand, negotiations had just been resumed between the Levellers and representatives of the Army and Parliament, with a view to reaching a compromise, so that it is by no means unlikely that the Moderate ceased to appear because the need for a special organ of the Levellers no longer existed. As a matter of fact, the Moderate reported on September 1st (and its report is confirmed by the Perfect Weekly Account, a paper which was more sympathetic with the Parliamentary party) that four representatives each, of Parliament, the Army, and “those called Levellers”, had held prearranged conferences in order to arrive at a mutual understanding, and if possible a settlement of all differences. “Time will soon show what will be the outcome of all this.” No compromise was effected, but it seems that, after Lilburne’s acquittal in October, a kind of truce followed, as during the subsequent years the Levellers adopted an expectant attitude.”

(Eduard Bernstein, Cromwell and Communism)

As Bernstein mentions, the Moderate and other publications were effectively closed down by parliamentary legislation in September 1649. There is no doubt that the regular publication of the Moderate, as with the flood of Leveller pamphlets over the previous 2-3 years, has been a powerful irritant to Parliament and the army leadership, linked as they had been to army agitation and mutiny, social movements and petitioning in London, as well as voicing protest over enclosures, religious intolerance, poverty, war privations, austerity, the continuing exclusion of the vast majority from political power… Through 1649, Leveller leaders had spent many months in prison, while mutinies against the army leadership, against being forced to continue fighting and being sent to continue the war/genocide then raging in Ireland, had shattered the on-off alliance that had sometimes operated between activists and agitators associated with the Levellers, and the emerging leadership of the New Model Army and its puritan allies in Parliament. The Moderate may have been allowed to continue while this shaky détente existed, but was eventually repressed when it became clear the interests of the ‘Grandees’ and the grassroots had diverged.

The passing of the parliamentary Act in September 1649 outlawed all newsbooks, binding over printers, booksellers, publishers and binders with large sureties to prevent them publishing such items. It also authorised the Stationers Company Master and Wardens to search shops for newsbooks as well as subversive pamphlets, giving them powers to break into premises, locks and chests, and search people. The Act was intended to last for two years. There’s little doubt that the two main targets were John Lilburne (and other Levellers), and the royalist press, which had been spreading virulent anti-government propaganda and wild rumours to inflame people against the new republican regime. The ideas was also to replace the bubbling undercurrents, irregular opinions and political ferment, with consistent propaganda to reconcile public opinion to the Commonwealth, and gradually exclude both radical ideas and pro-monarchist sentiment. After the newsbooks were repressed, two official organs appeared, covering news and parliamentary affairs, in an attempt to restrict the spread of wild rumour, but also with an aim of shaping public opinion in the direction the Commonwealth approved – towards a middle course, away from royalist revivals but also keeping a lid on agitations by the lower orders for wider freedoms and a greater say in public policy.

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

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Today in Publishing history: leftwing tabloid, News On Sunday, launched, 1987.

In the mid-1980s, sick of the right-wing bias of the press, a group of Uk leftwingers decided, instead of complaining about it, they would set up our own newspaper: “a radical, campaigning tabloid that would speak truth to power.”

Thus was the News On Sunday born. It lasted 6 weeks.

Below we reprint an account of the birth and death of News on Sunday, which we have unscrupulously nicked from the Big Flame history blog. Sorry, but theft comes natural. The account does emphasise former Big Flame members’ role in the paper, but others were involved…

“Possibly the most ambitious project to come out of Big Flame was News on Sunday. The aim was to set up a radical campaigning tabloid Sunday newspaper, to challenge the right-wing domination of the media. It was created, and launched on 26th April 1987. We raised £6.5 million. And lost it all in 6 weeks, though continued to publish for a further six months – funded by the TGWU in partnership with the eccentric millionaire Owen Oyston.

The idea came from Ben Lowe, and was first set out in the Big Flame discussion bulletin in 1978. His idea was to go beyond the ambitions of newspapers like Socialist Worker and the Morning Star and establish a paper that was a popular tabloid – selling in the newsagent alongside the mainstream press. His belief was that, if we could establish sales of 100,000, it could be commercially viable. He was to be joined by Alan Hayling (a long-time Big Flame member who had been a TV producer before going to work at Ford on the assembly line), who fronted the project, built alliances and co-ordinated the raising of the funding that made it possible.

By this time Big Flame had dissolved but this was certainly a project inspired by the ideas of BF. Many other projects inspired by left-wing groups did happen then, but News on Sunday was probably unique in the scale of its ambition, as shown by the £6.5 million needed to make it happen.

Alan and Ben brought together a range of people on the left, inspired by the idea of taking on the mainstream media rather than just complaining about it. All working for free, and with no promise of any reward, a rather good pilot edition was produced in the Autumn of 1985.

With persuasive market research – on the basis of the dummy edition – and a strong business plan, Alan persuaded Guinness Mahon (a City of London merchant bank) to take it to the city. But the mainstream City investors could not understand it. “Where do the founders make their money?” was a common question. I don’t think we ever consider making money out of it – not beyond a basic salary. That wasn’t our motivation, we wanted to change the world. To most city investors the lack of a financial incentive was just weird and they were out. (It was the equivalent of going on Dragons Den and asking for a large amount of money, but then saying they could have 100% of the shares.)

I was one of the group known as the Founders (though I stepped down when I was employed on the paper). Although the newspaper was owned by the shareholders, the Founders held a Golden share, designed to protect the values of the paper and prevent a takeover by the likes of Murdoch or Maxwell.

We also, over many months, set down the political charter on which the newspaper was to be based. This was intended as the guiding principles. The idea was that just as every journalist on the Mail knows, almost intuitively, the Mail angle on any story so would any journalist on News on Sunday know the angle to approach news from. In practice, though pinned up around the office, it was largely ignored and people went with their gut feeling – which was sometimes a radical and alternative interpretation and sometimes wasn’t.

The Independent had just succeeded in raising the investment it needed and it always struck me that there was a far less clear gap for that newspaper than for a radical Sunday tabloid. It seemed very unfair that the city had been prepared to back it simply because of the experience and the authority of the management team, but not to back our project. Sadly, they turned out to be right.

The money was raised from trade unions, from individuals and – the majority – from local authority pension funds. To my mind this was the Big Flame approach at its best – building bridges, working imaginatively and with great ambition. And there was no subterfuge. We laid out very clearly, in the Charter, what the paper was about. Core to our argument was that it could only succeed commercially if it was genuinely radical. I always described it as a left-wing version of the Mail on Sunday. I remember Ron Todd (General Secretary of the TGWU, who invested £550,000) questioning the position on Ireland, which called for British withdrawal. He was won round after Alan pointed out that this was exactly what a recent Daily Mirror editorial had called for.

I remember well the party on the night where the offer closed and we had succeeded, we had raised £6.5 million. So many on the left had told us it could not be done but we had worked with the system and raised the money. It was an incredible moment.

If that was the Big Flame approach at its best, we were about to see the approach at its worst. The revolutionary left, Big Flame included, was oppositional. It campaigned against things. We had no experience of organising anything except political struggles. I could check with ArchiveArchie but I doubt there was a single article in the Discussion Bulletin, over more than a decade, on how to manage an organisation.

Shortly after publication, as the crisis hit, a ‘company fireman’ called Roy Barber was called in to sort things out. I remember him being very puzzled. “I get called into companies in crisis and normally I find de-motivated people who are really not very good at their jobs. Here you have highly motivated and talented people – and yet you are heading for bankrupcy.”

Those involved will point to many explanations of what went wrong. Some say it was because John Pilger (involved during the dummy period) was pushed out, some that it was because of his behaviour. Some that we should have been based in London, not Manchester. Some blame Alan Hayling. Some blame Keith Sutton, the man we hired as editor (after he produced the strikers’ Wapping Post during the Times newspaper strike). Some blame the advertising agency with their inflamatory slogan “No tits but a lot of balls”.

I believe we created an environment in which it was impossible to succeed. It was full of endless meetings, back-biting, lack of clear responsibility and a sense of blame if you got things wrong. The debate over “No tits” became so heated that there were groups of people who wouldn’t talk to you if they suspected you of supporting it. You had to watch what you said and who you said it to. It was, with hindsight, what you would expect if you put a group of 80s lefties in charge of running an organisation. And I include myself in that.

When Vanessa Engle (who worked as an editorial assistant at News on Sunday) was producing the BBC2 programme on the newspaper, she asked when I knew it would fail – imagining I would say 26th April 1987, the Sunday of the first issue, when we realised how low the sales were. I replied that it was two months earlier. It was the end of a heated day of meetings when we had decided to pulp £85,000 of posters that were ruled unacceptable. I walked round the block and wept, for I knew then the newspaper could not succeed. It wasn’t even that I liked the posters. But I knew an organisation that was capable of agreeing to commission and spend this amount of money, and then – in its schizophrenic decision-making structure – decide to ditch it, could not succeed.

We, those who set up the newspaper, took over the management and hired a group of journalists. I often think it would have better to do the opposite, to hire a group of managers and take positions as journalists. Many of us knew how to write, as we showed in the dummy. And we knew very clearly the radical angle we wanted to put on the news. We had no idea how to manage.

The result is best expressed in the title of the book about News on Sunday, “Disaster” (by News on Sunday journalists Peter Chippendale and Chris Horrie). The advertising – the TV ads and posters – that survived the internal rows was feeble. An argument with retailers over the % of the cover price they received resulted in lack of enthusiasm on their part. And the paper itself, in my view, lacked the radical political bite that we had envisaged – and had succeeded in producing in the dummy.

The paper only rarely lived up to our hopes and was often hard to distinguish from competitors like the Mirror and the People. I remember one shameful cover story ‘exclusive’ proclaiming that a convicted rapist was to be freed because his victims had been found to be prostitutes. The article, from any radical perspective, should have been asking why that made any difference. It was published from this angle because we had got hold of the transcript, not yet made public, and so were first to reveal this information. (And, in fact, the transcript revealed that the judge still regarded him as guilty but he got off on a technicality.)

On Ireland I did manage to get a freelance journalist commissioned form the North, who could give the nationalist perspective and had great connections with the Republicans. Her first artic le, published in one of the pre-publication dummies, was hard hitting. But then I discovered it was, word for word, the same article as she had written for An Phoblacht, the Sinn Fein weekly newspaper. She couldn’t understand why that was a problem and wouldn’t agree to write different articles for us. It would have made News on Sunday an easy target for some.

After the SAS killed 8 IRA men in an ambush I did write an editorial asking whether eight more mourning families would make peace more likely. To my astonishment Keith Sutton published it. (I had joined the project partly because of my desire to be involved in journalism but this was the only thing I ever wrote for News on Sunday.) But after that the Ireland coverage reverted to the media norm of British troops versus the terrorists.

By the time of launch the costs had ballooned to the point where News on Sunday needed to sell 800,000 to break even. This was a long way from Ben’s original hope of 100,000 but, given the market research sales predictions of over 1 million, didn’t seem at the time to be a problem. It would be interesting to see what we would have created if all our plans had been based on a break even at – say 250,000. A tougher business person could have insisted on it.

In week 1 it sold barely half a million and we knew it would go down from there, as all new launches did. Owen Oyston, a Lancashire multi-millionaire who had made his money in estate agency, was already an investor and stepped in to try and rescue the paper.

The 1987 general election was imminent and it seemed for a time that if the newspaper, funded by Labour local authorities, went bankrupt in the middle of the campaign it would be a gift to the Tories – as a great example of “loonie lefties” in action. Oyston went to see Neil Kinnock, leader of the Labour Party. I don’t know what happened in the meeting but Oyston believed he was promised a knighthood if he could keep the paper going until after the election. With the TGWU he put in more money and the bankruptcy was delayed until the week after the election. The paper staggered on for four more months, owned and funded by Oyston and the TGWU.

I was by then Finance Manager and I remember bizarre trips to his mansion (where bison wandered the gardens) to have payments approved. Oyston was a strange character, for whom the newspaper – fresh off the press on a Saturday night – would be delivered by models from a local agency. He is better known now for the prison sentence he was to serve for rape.

I also came across a list of payments to local politicians, including £3,000 to somebody who is now a prominent North-West MP. It may have been perfectly legitimate but, when he discovered I had a copy, he went to great lengths to get it back. It was a sad end to have him in charge of our great idealistic project. I eventually left the newspaper, before it went bankrupt a second time, after refusing to sign the cheque to the model agency for ‘consultancy’. The head of the agency was later to go to jail with Oyston. It was a very seedy business.

The Golden share had proved to be no protection. Faced with the financial crisis and an ultimatum from Oyston (“give up the golden share or the paper closes”), the Founders had no alternative but to give in and hand over control.

After I left News on Sunday I set up a training business, now called Happy Ltd. When I am asked what motivated me to start Happy, I always refer back to News on Sunday. The greatest irony for me was that, for all our ideals, it was a far worse place to work than IBM – the great capitalist monolith where I worked in my year off. I left determined to find out how to create a company that was both principled and effective – and a great place to work in. I learnt most of what I know about how not to manage at News on Sunday.

We had great dreams. We would show it was possible to engage with the capitalist system and create an alternative within it. We succeeded in raising millions and, if we had succeeded, we could have set an example for others to follow. Instead we made it virtually impossible for a similar project to get funding again (though the actual amounts the pension funds lost was dwarfed by the losses caused by the crash of October 1987.)

And we didn’t even manage to create a publication that was especially radical or challenging. And, to me, that was down to our lack of ability in how to manage and organise to get the most from our people.

It could have been a truly great legacy of Big Flame. In fact those of us involved from BF did not play any separate role and certainly didn’t have a caucus of any type. We did have strong views on what should go in the Charter, meant to be the guiding document for the publication, but had no common view on the key question of how to build an organisation that could create a great paper – or the experience to make this happen.”

Henry Stewart, September 2010

Note on Big Flame

Big Flame were a Revolutionary Socialist Feminist organisation with a working class orientation in England. Founded in Liverpool in 1970, the group initially grew rapidly in the then prevailing climate on the left with branches appearing in a number of cities. One of the key sentences in the platform published in each issue of the newspaper was the statement that a revolutionary party was necessary but that “Big Flame is not that party, nor is it the embryo of that party”. This had the advantage of distinguishing them from some small groups who saw themselves as much more important than they were, but posed the problem of the ‘party’s’ real reason for existence.

They published a magazine, also entitled Big Flame, and a journal, Revolutionary Socialism. Members were active at the Ford plants at Halewood and Dagenham. They also devoted a great deal of time to self-analysis and considering their relationship with the larger Trotskyist groups. In time, they came to describe their politics as “libertarian Marxist“. In 1978 they joined the Socialist Unity electoral coalition, with the International Marxist Group.

In 1980, the anarchists of the Libertarian Communist Group joined Big Flame. The Revolutionary Marxist Current also joined at about this time.

However Big Flame was wound up in about 1984.

Much more on them here

For the fun of it: a TV ad for News On Sunday. Yes, it is bad.

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

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Today in London publishing history: Act passed punishing publishers of unstamped newspapers, 1743.

The tax on newspapers was first introduced in Britain in 1712; at the same time similar taxes on the price of paper, on adverts and on pamphlets and almanacs were brought in. Originally the statute regulating the tax, the Stamp Act, was trumpeted as being aimed at raising funds for the English state lottery, to monitor the circulation of newspapers and other periodicals, and to restrict publication of writing intended to stir up political opposition of any kind. But at heart it was designed to curb the production of newspapers, or make them unviably expensive to buy, especially for the plebs, who the authorities thought should definitely not be either aware of what was going on in the world, questioning the social order, or improving their mind – they should be reading the bible, and only the bible. Not getting ideas above their station. “All periodicals were already required by law to state the address and name of the owner, making taxation easily enforced on publishers, and allowing the government to see where legally printed publications were coming from.” Government-sponsored publications were exempted, and discretion was almost always used to allow pro-establishment papers to go unpunished if they did breach the rules, but to press hard against oppositional ones. “In order to exempt themselves from the tax, periodical authors pledged their patronage to members of Parliament, leading to publications rising and falling based on the party in power and a general distrust in periodicals of the time.”

The Act was not specifically aimed at raising revenue for the state; at least at first. But an initial stamp duty of a half old pence in 1712 rose, gradually increasing to 4 pence a century later. Adding such a cost to the publishers meant it was inevitably added to the price of the paper, and when wages were low, a price of a paper rising to 6 or 7 pence put it out of many working people’s reach.

As oppositional voices, movements for political reform and radical groupings emerged, expressing satires, critiques and outright rejection of the political system, personalities, and the establishment, government nervousness of the spread of ideas only increased. If in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the pamphlet conveyed the main bulk of radical and oppositional ideas, the birth of the daily newspaper in 1702 in London spawned a massive expansion. Over the next few decades political papers and journals became widely read; under the influence of the late 18th century pressure to reform the political system, and the French revolution, the number of radical newspapers proliferated exponentially.

This expansion, and the dangerous ideas it spread among the lower orders, was the main reason for the increase in the stamp tax. And the working class movement, in particular, that emerged as in the industrial revolution took hold, resented the stamp, as being aimed at keeping them down. As literacy increased, cultural expectations and aspirations evolved, the need for more educated clerking strata and so on developed, the Stamp continued to deny millions access to daily news. Of course, there were ways around it – not just the old practice of one literate person reading a paper to a less literate group, or people clubbing together to buy one… (In fact one of the factors that contributed to the development of radical clubs was the advantage of sharing the cost, through co-operative access, to papers and other reading materials…)

But also from the earliest times of the stamp on papers, there were attempts to dodge the stamp, putting out papers underground. This was not seen as in any way unethical – dodging the government’s Excise and Revenue officers was widely regarded in many levels of society as somewhere between a basic necessity and a national pastime. Smuggling of basic commodities was widespread; the 1730s also saw mass agitation against the introduction of the excise on Gin production, which involved demonstrations, the odd bomb, and several murders of informers grassing people up for selling the old mothers ruin… Some publishers were bound to attempt to avoid putting the tax on their papers, and many folk could be relied on to help them distribute them, if only to annoy the powers that be…

In response of course, the government, in April 1743, introduced an Act which laid down punishment for the publishers of unstamped newspapers (up to 3 months imprisonment in the Bridewell), offering rewards of 20 shillings per person jailed to informers who dobbed them in.) Of course there were always desperate lowlives available and happy to make a living collecting cash for snitching; but increasingly, especially in the early 19th century, there were a greater number willing to risk going to prison to write, print, sell and transport the unstamped papers. To many, the stamp on a newspaper was central to the ‘taxes on knowledge’, it was the ‘slave mark’, the sign of subservience to a government representing the upper class interests, hostile to change… Evading it was a badge of honour as much as anything. But even denouncing the stamp tax got you in trouble; Henry Hetherington, radical publisher of the Poor Mans Guardian, was jailed for calling the stamp duty ‘a tax on knowledge’ – his printing presses were ordered to be destroyed.

In the era of the French Revolutionary/Napeolonic War of 1792-1815, and in the period immediately following, the ‘war of the unstamped’ rose to fever pitch. Radical journalists who published papers, that refused to pay the stamp, the ‘shopmen’ and shop women who sold them, went to prison, in increasing numbers. As a post-war depression helped revive the long agitation for reform of parliament and more representation for the middle and working classes, and riot and insurrection grew, political repression from the state included a tightening on political newspapers. In particular the stamp was increased, under the draconian Six Acts, to include all publications which sold for less than six pence, contained an opinion about news, or which were published more frequently than every twenty-six days, and specifically banned papers “tending to excite hatred and contempt of the Government and Constitution of these realms… also vilifying our holy religion”; another of the Acts targetted publishers deemed guilty of “seditious or blasphemous libel”, ie questioning Church doctrine at all, or advocating political reforms.

Radical Richard Carlile was a central figure in ignoring the law, continuing to publish his newspaper, the Republican without paying stamp duty. Through the 1820s his shopworkers carried on when he was, as he often was, in prison… By the early 1830s, and into the 1840s, the struggle was led by men such as Henry Hetherington, James Watson, John Cleave, George Julian Harney and Bronterre O’Brien; many of whom ran radical bookshops, and were also active in the radical movements like the National Union of the Working Classes and later Chartism. Much of the huge agitation for reform and revolutionary undercurrents of these decades involved activists who had cut their teeth resisting the stamp. Tactics and methods of dodging the informers and government agents were legion: publishing your paper but calling it a pamphlet, smuggling copies around by numerous tricks (including inside a coffin at least once), printing on wood to avoid the paper excise…

At the beginning of 1836 the two leading unstamped radical newspapers, the Poor Man’s Guardian, and John Cleave’s Police Gazette, were selling more copies in a day than The Times sold all week. It was estimated at the time that the circulation of leading six unstamped newspapers had now reached 200,000.

In the House of Commons, John Roebuck led the campaign against taxes on newspapers. In 1836 the campaigners’ pressure became so overwhelming, they forced the government to reduce the 4d. tax on newspapers to 1d, a huge cut which allowed many radical and popular publications to reach wider audiences. The same year Parliament agreed to remove the tax on pamphlets. But the campaigned continued and in 1849 a group of publishers led by Henry Hetherington formed the Newspaper Stamp Abolition Committee. However, it was not until 1855 that the newspaper stamp duty was finally abolished.

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

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Today in London publishing history: Johann Most arrested for celebrating the assassination of the Tsar, 1881.

“CHARLES HAGAN (Police Inspector). On 30th March, at 4.45 p.m., I went to the house of Most in Titchfield Street—I saw him in the printing-office at the back of the yard—I asked him if he was Johann Most; he said “Yes”—I told him in English that I was an inspector of police, and had a warrant for his arrest…”

Something of the history of the nineteenth century German anarchist newspaper Freiheit has already been recounted in a previous post. We briefly mentioned editor Johann Most’s 1881 nicking, for writing an article celebrating the assassination of the tyrannical Russian Tsar Alexander II.

Today is the anniversary of the police raid on the Freiheit offices and Most’s arrest. Below we reprint the text of his jubilatory editorial…

“At last! “Seize on this one, seize on that one, “‘Some one, nevertheless, will reach thee.’—C. BEEK.

“Triumph! Triumph! the word of the poet has accomplished itself. One of the most abominable tyrants of Europe, to whom downfall has long since been sworn, and who therefore, in wild revenge breathings, caused innumerable heroes and heroines of the Russian people to be destroyed or imprisoned—the Emperor of Russia is no more. On Sunday last at noon, just as the monster was returning from one of those diversions which are wont to consist of eye-feastings on well-drilled herds of stupid blood-and-iron slaves, and which one calls military reviews, the executioner of the people, who long since pronounced his death sentence, overtook and with vigorous hand struck down the brute. He was once more on the point of drivelling about the ‘God’s finger,’ which had nearly saved his accursed life, when the fist of the people stopped his mouth for ever. One of those daring young men whom the social revolutionary movement of Russia brought forth, Risakoff—with reverence we pronounce his name—had thrown under the despot’s carriage a dynamite bomb, which effected a great devastation on the conveyance and the immediate neighbourhood, yet left the crowned murderer to pray uninjured. Michaelovitch, a princely general, and others at once fell upon the noble executor of the people’s will. The latter, however, with one hand brandishes a dagger against the autocrat’s face, and with the other hand guides the barrel of a revolver against the breast of the same. In an instant he is disarmed, and the belaced, betufted, and by corruption eaten through and through retinue of the Emperor breathe again on account of the supposed averted danger. There flies a new bomb neat this time. It falls down at the despot’s feet, shatters for him the legs, rips open for him the belly, and causes among the surrounding military and civil Cossacks numerous wounds and annihilations. The personages of the scene are as if paralysed, only the energetic bomb-thrower does not lose his presence of mind, and is able safely to fly. The Emperor, however, is dragged to his palace, where yet for an hour and a half he is able, amid horrible sufferings, to meditate on his life full of crimes. At last he died. This in reference to the simple state of facts. Instantly the telegraph wires played up to the remotest corners of the earth to make the occurrence known to the whole world. The effect of this publication was as various as it was drastic. Like a thunderclap it penetrated into princely palaces, where dwell those crime-beladen abortions of every profligacy who long since nave earned a similar fate a thousandfold. For three years past has many a shot whistled by the ears of these monsters without harming them. Always and always again could they indemnify themselves in princely fashion for the fright endured by executions and regulations of the masses of all kinds. Nay, just in the most recent period they whispered with gratification in each other’s ears that all danger was over, because the most energetic of all tyrant haters—the ‘Russian Nihilists ‘—had been successfully exterminated to the last member.

“Then comes such a hit! William, Prince of Prussia, the now Protestant Pope and soldier Emperor of Germany, got convulsions in due form from the excitement. Like things happened at other Courts. Howling and gnashing of teeth prevailed in every residence. But the other rabble, too, which in the other various countries pulls the wires of the Government mechanism of the ruling classes, experienced a powerful moral headache and melted in tears of condolence, whether it consisted merely of head lackeys on the steps of an Imperial throne or of Republican bandits of order of the first class. The whimpering was no less in France, Switzerland, and America than in Montenegro or Greece. A Gambetta carried through the adjournment of the Chambers, and thereby put an insult on France from which even Austria was saved by the then President of the Reichsrath. Public opinion is startled, and seeks in vain for the reasons of such a miserable attitude. One thinks of diplomatic motives and the like, but one misses the mark. Much, perhaps, may indeed have contributed here snd there which resembles mere political hypocrisy. In the main the grounds lie deeper. The supporters of the ruling classes see just in the destruction of an autocrat which has taken place more than the mere act of homicide itself. They are face to face with a successful attack upon authority as such. At the same time they all know that every success has wonderful power, not only of instilling respect, but also of inciting to imitation. From Constantinople to Washington they simply tremble for their long since forfeited heads. This fright is a high enjoyment for us; just as we have heard with the most joyful feelings of the heroic deed of those social revolutionaries of St. Petersburg who slaughtered the tyrant on Sunday last. In this time of the most general humility and woe, at a period when in many countries old women only and little children yet limp about the political stage with tears in their eyes, with the most loathsome fear in their bosoms of the castigating rod of the State night-watchman, now, when real heroes have become so scarce, such has the same effect on better natures as a refreshing storm. Let some say behind our backs we are carrying on a ‘game with Nihilists’; let others blame us as cynical or brutal; yet we know that in expressing our joy at the successful deed we were disclosing not only our own feelings, but were also giving utterance to what millions of men, down-trodden and tyrannised over, thought with us when they read of the execution of Alexander. To be sure it will happen once and again that here and there even Socialists start up who, without that any one asks them, assert that they for their part abominate regicide, because such an one after all does no good, and because they are combating not persons, but institutions. This sophistry is so gross that it may be confuted in a single sentence. It is clear—namely, even to a mere political tyro, that State and social institutions cannot be got rid of until one has overcome the persons who wish to maintain the same. With mere philosophy you cannot so much as drive a sparrow from a cherry-tree any more than bees are rid of their drones by simple humming. On the other hand, it is altogether false that the destruction of a Prince is entirely without value because a substitute appointed beforehand forthwith takes his place. What one might in any case complain of is only the rarity of so-called tyrannicide. If only a single crowned wretch were disposed of every month, in a short time it should afford no one gratification henceforward still to play the monarch. Moreover, it is certainly a satisfaction for every right-thinking man when such a capital criminal is done away with—i.e., is punished according to his evil deeds. It does not occur to the jurists of civil society to hang no murderer or to lock up no thief because it is proved that these punishments do not remove murder and theft (both institutions of this society) out of the world. When one has entirely to do with such a subject as Alexander Romanow was, then one must accept his destruction with double satisfaction. If one could believe newspaper writers, then one must, according to their chatter, take it that the exterminated Czar was a real pattern of benevolence. The facts prove that he belonged to the worst doers of abominations that have ever disgraced humanity. Some 100,000 men were banished to Siberia during his reign, dozens were hanged after they had suffered the cruellest tortures. All these victims the Russian Crown Moloch claimed only because those concerned were striving for the improvement of society, wishing for the general welfare, perhaps had only passed on a single forbidden book, or written one letter in which a censure on the Government was expressed. Out of the war abominations which this tyrant conjured up we take but one scene from the last Turkish war. Alexander was celebrating his name-day, and wished a warlike spectacle. He ordered a storming of Plevna. The generals ventured to call to mind that such an one would not only fail, but would cost an enormous number of men. In vain! The order stood good, and in order to witness the slaughter with more gratification the tyrant caused a special stand with a kind of Imperial box to be erected for himself, whence he might watch the storming without himself falling into danger. The result corresponded with the predictions of the generals. The storming was repulsed, and 8,000 dead and wounded covered the ground outside the walls of Plevna. But the ‘little father’, as the despot by preference caused himself to be called, had amused himself cannibalistically. All petitions, all wishes for the introduction of ever so slight reforms which were almost daily laid at his feet, he only answered by fresh meannesses of an Asiatic Government barbarism. Genuine dragonades followed every warning or threat, attempted but unsuccessful attacks on his person increased his baseness to the monstrous. Who is scoundrel enough really to bewail the death of such a beast? But it is said, ‘Will the successor of the smashed one do any better than he did? We know it not. But this we do know, that the same can hardly be permitted to reign long if he only steps in his father’s footsteps. Yes, we could actually wish that it should so happen, for we hate the hypocritical, mock-liberal monarchs no less than the despots sans phrase,’ because the former perhaps have still greater power of retarding the development of civilisation than the latter. In addition, the persistence of the new Czar in the old principle of government must forthwith double and treble its enemies, because in Russia there are a number of people of that sort which has believed in the Crown-Prince legend usual in all countries, and at all times, according to which the successor spoken of only awaits the moment when he may be able to pour over the people a whole horn of plenty, full of blessings. All these enthusiasts are forthwith converted when they see that the new ukases smell as much of Russian leather as the old. Meanwhile be this as it may, the throw was good, and we hope that it was not the last May the bold deed, which—we repeat it—has our full sympathy, inspire revolutionists far and wide with fresh courage. Let all think of Herwegh’s words—

” ‘And where tyrants still exist ” ‘Then let us boldly seize them, ” ‘We have loved long enough, ” ‘And we wish at last to hate.’ “

The Russian government applied pressure on the British authorities to arrest Most (the German government was already on their case about him and his propaganda) and Most was arrested and prosecuted. He was found guilty of incitement to murder heads of state and sentenced to eighteen months’ imprisonment.

In solidarity, a short-lived English-language anarchist paper also entitled Freiheit was published, reprinting an English translation of Most’s article, but avoided being enmeshed in the prosecution by presenting it as part of the speech of the prosecuting counsel at the trial ! Socialist Jack Williams stood on the steps of the Old Bailey during the trial and sold many copies of this edition. Protest meetings were held. The prosecution of Most was opposed publicly on the grounds of the right of asylum and the right of free speech (although the first issue of the Freiheit did reprint some approving remarks of Disraeli’s on tyrannicide ). Such an approach did find quite wide sympathy – the jury at Most’s trial recommended mercy to the Jury, “in consideration of this being the first paper of his which had such matter in it,” hilariously adding, “being a foreigner, and probably smarting under some wrong, real or imaginary.”

The German Freiheit continued under caretaker editors until they did it again, publishing an article applauding the assassination of Lord Frederick Cavendish by Fenians in Phoenix Park, Dublin, in May 1882. The office was again raided and its plant seized. Freiheit was forced to move, first to Switzerland and then to the United States, where it continued under Most’s editorship until a few years after his death in 1905.

Read an account of Most’s Old Bailey trial

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

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Today in London radical history: Leveller printer William Larner arrested & jailed, 1646.

As we have previously discussed, during the English Civil War, the Stationers’ Office, was responsible for censorship and licensing of publications, and spent a good deal of energy chasing down illegal printers issuing pamphlets and newspapers spreading all manner of radical political and religious ideas.

As part of the Stationer’s campaign to shut down these domestic extremists, William Larner was arrested on March 22nd, 1646, by agents of the Stationer, and charged with publishing unlicensed pamphlets.

Larner, from Gloucerstershire, was a bookseller and printer, a member of the Merchant Taylor’s Company, who had been associated with puritan and later Leveller activist John Lilburne since the early 1640s at least, having published a second edition of Lilburne’s A Christian Man’s Triall in December 1641.

He had apparently operated from a succession of bookshops: at the sign of the Golden Anchor, near Paul’s Chain, in 1641 (a street that ran south of St Paul’s Churchyard, now part of Queen Victoria Street); at ‘The Bible’ in East Cheap, 1642 before moving to the Blackmoor in Bishopsgate Street, in the northern suburbs of the City of London..

Larner later served in the parliamentarian army against the king, was invalided out, to resume his trade ‘at the sign of the Blackamoor’. As well as printing unlicensed pamphlets there, he was known to have co-operated with other future Leveller writers Richard Overton, and his brother Robert, and to have been involved with the underground presses producing proto-Leveller tracts at Goodmans Fields, on the so-called the Martin Mar Priest Press, 1645-46, and in the radical heartland of Coleman Street. In 1645, the puritan William Prynne, Lilburne’s former mentor turned bitter enemy, denounced Larner as one of the distributors of Lilburne’s pamphlets (in Larner’s case in Kent). Larner association with Lilburne, the Levellers and army Agitators was to continue until 1649 at least…

When Larner was arrested at his shop, the Stationers’ men found 14 copies of Last Warning to all the Inhabitants of London, a plea for religious toleration. The Stationer, Joseph Hunscott, had been somewhat gutted to see this undergound squib appear, since he had thought his men had put a stop to the succession of illegal ‘libels’ when they seized a clandestine press in Goodmans Fields a few days earlier.

Larner was dragged (with the aid of a constable) before the Lord Mayor of London at the Guildhall, where he was treated as John Lilburne had been before him. He replied, very much in the spirit of ‘Freeborn John’: “I desire the liberty of a Free-man of England not to answer to interrogatories.” He refused to pay the fee to the Stationers, and was jailed. On April 3rd, he was brought before the House of Lords and questioned, accused of being the author, printer and publisher of the Last Warning. A Mr Smith gave evidence that Larner had given him money to buy a printing press for this purpose. Larner didn’t deny this.

Larner’s brother and Jane Hale, both employed by Larner, were also hauled in front of the Lords bar, but they refused to be sworn in or to answer any questions, so they too were committed, to the Fleet Prison.

On April 20th, Hunscott and some of his men went to search Larner and his rooms in prison, finding the manuscript of a pamphlet, A True Relation of all the illegal Proceedings against William Larner; but despite seizing this it was published 12 days later. The rage of the Stationer and the Lords must have been compounded by the appearance the same day of another tract supporting Larner, clearly printed on the same press that had produced the Last Warning. The underground printers were running rings around the authorities, though over the following year repression and increasing division among independent religious congregations and the radical direction the proto-Levellers were moving in made unlicensed printing much more difficult.

Larner was eventually released in October 1646, though his brother and maid (presumably Jane Hale) were still inside three months later (as were other ‘Levellers’). His shop in Bishopsgate was still running in 1650; after which he moved to a bookshop near Fleet Bridge (where Holborn Viaduct now spans the Fleet valley), around 1652, which was still active in 1659. After which he vanishes from history…

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

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