10th April 1848: the Chartists vs the State

Expanding on our post from earlier today on the Kennington Common Chartist rally of 10th April 1848, it is worth looking in further detail at some of the forces of the state and its supporters arrayed against the Chartists and especially against the possibility of the rally sparking a working class uprising.

Socialist historian John Savile’s account of the government’s preparations for the day are instructive:

Chartism and the State in April 1848

J. Saville

The announcement that the third Chartist petition would be presented on Monday 10 April had been formally made in the Northern Star on 18 March; but it was the assembling of the Chartist Convention in London on Tuesday 4 April that enormously heightened public alarm. Everyone, whichever side they favoured, felt the levels of excitement rising throughout the country. The whole of society had been reading for weeks past about the clubs in Paris: their communistic statements, and their importance as the bases for the popular demonstrations that seemed to be taking place daily. The month of March in Britain had seen a series of minor riots and disturbances, and against the background of a Europe in turmoil the tide of fear was already seeping into the consciousness of the better-off classes throughout the kingdom. And now here was the Chartist Convention meeting publicly in the centre of the capital city, bringing together the local and national leaders of a great mass movement which had been stirring the country for the past decade, and which now seemed stronger than ever. The debates and deliberations of the Convention have been somewhat ignored by historians in the build-up to the Kennington Common demonstration, yet it was the daily reports, published in full in the London press and copied by the provincial papers, which steadily influenced, and hardened, public opinion against the general aims of the working-class movement; and which, above all, convinced the propertied classes that physical force was being planned.

The Convention opened on Tuesday 4 April at the Literary Institute, John Street, Fitzroy Square, and Philip McGrath was elected chairman, with Christopher Doyle as secretary. The number of delegates was limited to 49 `in order to escape the penalties of the Convention Act’. The first two days were spent mainly in listening to reports from the delegates of different towns. Ernest Jones representing Halifax, made a somewhat wild speech on the first day in which he said ‘that his constituents had urged upon him the desirability, if possible, of conducting the movement on moral force principles; but they warned him not to stoop to one act of unnecessary humility in urging their claims. To a man they were ready to fight (cheers). They were eager to rush down the hills of Yorkshire in aid of their brother patriots in London’; and the delegate from Barnsley reported that he had been instructed to say that ‘if the Government let the military loose upon Ireland, something else would be let loose here’. On the second day the most militant speeches were made by Cuffay and the Irish delegate from London, Charles McCarthy. Both favoured the establishment of rifle clubs. There were other speakers, however, on both these and later days, who specifically repudiated violence. A letter on behalf of the Metropolitan Committee from John Arnott had appeared in the London Times of 4 April dissenting from the violent language which Vernon had used about the forthcoming Kennington Common meeting; and the chairman of the Convention appealed for less rash talk at the beginning of the session on Thursday morning. It was, inevitably the violent language which impressed the outside world as well as the constant reiteration of the new unity between the Irish and the Chartists. On Wednesday 5 April the Convention issued a placard which was extensively posted throughout London and which made a special appeal to the Irish in the metropolis:

Irishmen resident in London, on the part of the democrats in England we extend to you the warm hand of fraternisation; your principles are ours, and our principles shall be yours. Remember the aphorisms, that union is strength, and division is weakness; centuries of bitter experience prove to you the truth of the latter, let us now cordially endeavour to test the virtue of the former. Look to your fatherland, the most degraded in the scale of nations. Behold it bleeding at every pore under the horrible lashings of class misrule! What an awful spectacle is Ireland, after forty-seven years of the vaunted Union! Her trade ruined, her agriculture paralysed, her people scattered over the four quarters of the globe, and her green fields in the twelve months just past made the dreary grave yards of 1,000,000 of famished human beings. Irishmen, if you love your country, if you detest these monstrous atrocities, unite in heart and soul with those who will struggle with you to exterminate the hell-engendered cause of your country’s degradation – beggary and slavery.

In its final paragraph the placard reminded the working people of London that `the eyes of EUROPE are fixed upon you’ and it concluded with a general exhortation that the great demonstration would strike a great `moral blow’ for the achievement of `liberty and happiness to every sect and class in the British Empire’. The discussion in the Convention during Thursday further revealed the differences of approach and opinion within the movement, and the Friday session was dominated by the decision of the metropolitan police to ban the meeting and the procession. There was again some very violent language from certain of the delegates, but the Convention agreed in the morning session to send a deputation to the Home Secretary to emphasise the peaceful nature of the demonstration on the coming Monday. Reynolds led a deputation of three and he reported back in the afternoon. Sir George Grey was not available and the deputation had been received by the Under- Secretary at the Home Office, Sir Denis Le Marchant, the Attorney-General and the chief magistrate from Bow Street. It was indicated that Sir Denis Le Marchant `exhibited great coldness’ and it was made clear that whatever the deputation said on behalf of the Convention there was no possibility of the government changing its mind. A letter was left for Sir George Grey which he read to the House of Commons that evening.

Some of the discussion on this day continued the previous days’ threats of physical force. Charles McCarthy `would not say what would be the fearful consequences if a blow were to be struck by the police force or the military. They were determined, in the name of liberty, if attacked, to resist the blow to the utmost’. Ernest Jones argued that the government did not seriously intend to stop the procession, and in a later intervention he moved a resolution to the effect that they should circulate all towns asking for simultaneous demonstrations on Monday `in order that in case the lamentable event of a collision with the troops should take place here, the myrmidons of the law would be kept in their respective districts’. And Harney, just before the Convention closed its session for the day, moved for a committee to select alternative delegates `so that in the event of the present Convention being mowed down in the streets of London or swept into Newgate, there would be others to take their place’.

Reports of this kind in the press were hardly calculated to allay fears, and middle-class hysteria continued to mount. The Saturday session of the Convention heard a long rambling speech from O’Connor and in the afternoon reports from some delegates who had been to see various members of Parliament. All these matters were reported in detail in the London press on Monday morning as was a public meeting in Victoria Park on Sunday, 9 April, at which Ernest Jones was the main speaker. Jones had been among the most violent speakers during the Convention and this speech, as reported in the Morning Chronicle on the day of the great demonstration, would have been confirmation again of the militant intentions of at least some of the Chartist leadership. After repeating his argument that he did not think the government were serious in their intention to suppress the procession, Jones continued:

‘If the Government touch one hair of the head of the delegates – if they place them under arrest, or attempt the least interference with their liberty – every town represented by the delegates, would be in arms in less than 24 hours [tremendous cheers]. If I were to be killed, or wounded, or arrested, the moment the intelligence arrived at Halifax the people would rise and disarm the troops – imprison the authorities – and 100,000 Yorkshiremen would march upon London [enthusiastic cheers]. So help me God I will march in the first rank tomorrow, and if they attempt any violence, they shall not be 24 hours longer in the House of Commons [cheers].
These words of Jones were echoed by the chairman of another Chartist meeting at Blackheath: `We are determined to conquer tomorrow; nothing shall put us down. We shall not be terrified by bullets or bayonets. They have no terrors for oppressed starving men.’

It is not by any means surprising, as the general level of apprehension rose, that precautions and countermeasures were put in hand. The Queen and her family left London for the Isle of Wight on the morning of 8 April. Waterloo station was cleared and several hundred special constables moved into place. The day before, Palmerston had written to Lord John Russell: `I conclude that you have made all the necessary arrangements for the security of the Queen at Osborne; but it is a rather unprotected situation, and the Solent Sea is not impassable.’ The Royal Family themselves were concerned at the public reaction to their departure from the city where so many were fearful of what was likely to happen in the coming days. Prince Albert instructed his equerry, Colonel C. B. Phipps, to report on the public sentiment in this matter, and in a letter dated 9 April Phipps noted that he had found no negative reaction in general, and that he ignored the tittle-tattle of `aristocratic Drawing Rooms’. The justification for the Queen’s departure was clearly that of a constitutional monarch accepting the advice of her prime minister. Phipps ended his letter with a statement of his impressions of the public temper:

There is every shade of opinion as to what will occur tomorrow. Some say that there will not be the slightest disturbance of the peace, others that there will be serious riots – and then again that there will be some partial disturbance, such as breaking windows – the latter is my opinion – I think that in the present excited state of the lowest classes, the day can hardly be expected to pass over without some disturbances but that they will be easily suppressed.

Colonel Phipps travelled from Windsor to London early on the morning of 10 April, and his report to Prince Albert, written at 5.30 p.m. the same afternoon, gives an interesting statement of what so many were thinking and discussing in the hours before the expected demonstration:

The morning, which was very beautiful, brought all kinds of sinister reports; even at Windsor before arriving at London by the train I was informed that immense bodies of people were collecting, and that all the bridges would be occupied by troops and Guns pointed, and that an immediate battle was expected. Coming from Paddington Station to Buckingham Palace the town certainly wore a most warlike appearance – all the Park Gates were closed and each guarded by a Picquet of the Foot Guards, with haversacks and Canteens upon their backs, prepared for actual service. At Buckingham Palace I heard that very large bodies had assembled at Kennington Common, and that numerous additions were marching towards the meeting in different directions.

The correspondence of leading politicians and the columns of newspapers all over the country were full of the expressions of anxieties and fears which had affected the whole country, and which without question had a very marked influence upon the Chartist leaders themselves. One piece of evidence of the latter is the well-known statement which Ernest Jones is reported to have made on the evening of 9 April concerning the willingness of some at least of the Chartist leaders to abandon the Kennington Common meeting. The most pervasive sentiment was undoubtedly that which equated the possible outcome of 10 April with what had occurred in France. It was revolutionary Paris, and the rapidity with which the revolution had spread, that was in most people’s perceptions of what might be the possible consequences of a large gathering in London of those hostile to the existing order. Every paper in the country, without exception, carried in each issue the news from France; and along with the rising phobias against the French and French ideas about work and property went the reports of the violent speeches in the Chartist Convention. As The Times wrote two days after the Kennington Common meeting, on 12 April,

It cannot be denied that the public mind, stunned and confounded by the events on the Continent, had become, as the ancients would have expressed it, meteoric, unsteady, open to strange impressions and diffident of its own most habitual beliefs.

It is necessary to distinguish the attitudes and responses of those concerned in the practical business of maintaining public order from the rest of the propertied classes, whatever the size of their property stake in the country. Government ministers in Whitehall were in no doubt about the gravity of the situation in early April. The revolution in France had shocked them with the rapidity of its escalation, and they were fully alert to the consequences of accidents such as the shootings in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Paris. Moreover they were equally aware of the possible repercussions in Europe of any demonstration of weakness on the part of the English government in dealing with unrest and disturbance. The reports that had appeared in the French and Irish papers of the quite minor rioting that had occurred in Britain during March had greatly exaggerated the scale of the incidents; and uncertainty and irresolution at this time would only encourage the Jacobin element in all the nations affected by revolutionary movements. British diplomacy in March had achieved its main objective: the neutralisation of France as an active military force in Europe. This, for the Whig ministry, was as important for western and central Europe as it was for Ireland.

There was, however, never any doubt among the leading political groups in England that the coercive forces at the disposal of the British government were wholly capable of dealing adequately and successfully with any confrontation that might occur, either on the mainland or in Ireland. The problem, and really the only problem, was that Britain was not Ireland. The Irish had always been treated as a colonial people, and a scale of deaths acceptable in Ireland could not possibly be admitted in England. A soil stained with English blood would bring forth martyrs. No minister at this time seems to have mentioned Peterloo in his correspondence or in speeches, but the need to avoid bloodshed and implicitly the political consequences of bloodshed were clearly understood and strongly emphasised on a number of occasions. At the same time the Whigs never allowed their liberal principles to obstruct the security requirements of the state. Their own position in society depended on the preservation of the existing order, and they were conscious of how far class hostility from the lower orders should be allowed to express itself given their own capacity for constraining its violent manifestations. Clarendon wrote to Sir George Grey on 7 April during the period of growing anxiety and concern prior to the Chartist meeting on the 10th:

There is so much loyal and good feeling in the Country, such mighty interests are at stake, the circumstances of Europe are so grave, the future is so menacing, that I feel sure you will not appeal in vain to the `Haves’ in England against the ‘Have nots’. But this is not the time for stickling about Constitutional forms or party consistency. If we lose Ireland, it will be as much owing to the want of an Arms Bill and to the imprudent policy of the Whigs two years ago as any thing else.

The impression accepted by many historians that the plan for the defence of London was largely the work of the Duke of Wellington is incorrect. The reputation that the Duke enjoyed in the country was an enormous asset to the government of 1848. Greville wrote on 13 July 1847: ‘the Duke of Wellington was if possible received with even more enthusiasm. It is incredible what popularity environs him in his latter days; he is followed like a show wherever he goes, and the feeling of the people for him seems to be the liveliest of all popular sentiments; yet he does nothing to excite, and hardly appears to notice it. He is in wonderful vigour of body, but strangely altered in mind, which is in a fitful uncertain state, and there is no knowing in what mood he may be found: everybody is afraid of him, nobody dares to say anything to him; he is sometimes very amiable and good-humoured, sometimes very irritable and morose.’

The much quoted comment of Chevalier Bunsen which suggested that Wellington was in command of the preparations for the Chartist demonstration was no doubt an accurate statement of what passed between them. Wellington was certainly brought into the discussions at a rather late date when the crucial choices had been made, and he was present on the day of the demonstration itself, but all the basic decisions had been taken by Sir George Grey and Lieutenant-General Lord Fitzroy Somerset, the Military Secretary. Wellington had contributed his own memorandum on 5 April which began very curiously:

Having seen in the newspapers statements that 200,000 Chartists are to be assembled in and around London on Monday next the 10th instant; and knowing that Her Majesty’s Servants have ordered the movement of certain troops upon the metropolis . . . I have not heard that the Government has adopted any measures to dissuade or to prevent these large bodies from assembling near the Metropolis. I do not know whence they will come, or what is their avowed or their real or their supposed object.

Wellington then proceeded to set out quite reasonable precautions which could be taken. He was especially concerned to place great emphasis upon the need to keep communications open: similar to his insistence on the matter for Dublin in his memorandum of 2 March which has been noted above. His main points, however, had already been well taken.

It was on 3 April that Sir George Grey issued a general circular to all the relevant authorities in the country recommending the swearing-in of special constables, although by this time many thousands had already been enrolled. The Home Office was in continuous correspondence with all parts of the United Kingdom, but until the Kennington Common meeting, except for Ireland, there was an inevitable concentration on the preparations within the London area. The tactics overall were simple and straight-forward. The decision of the metropolitan police commissioners to ban the procession on Monday was phrased as `assemblage or procession’ and this was generally taken to refer solely or mainly to the procession back from Kennington Common which would accompany the petition to the House of Commons. In a memorandum to the Lord Mayor of London dated 9 April Sir Denis Le Merchant set down the precautions which had been agreed and which were already for the most part in operation. Le Marchant wrote that the meeting on Kennington Common would be allowed provided that it remained peaceful, but no procession would be permitted under any circumstances. The main force of professional police would be on and around the bridges across the Thames, with a special concentration on Blackfriars Bridge. Cavalry and foot soldiers would be stationed out of sight at various strategic points and especially at the bridges. At Blackfriars, for example, four houses at the north end were taken over, with the consent of their owners, for a large party of infantry. Only in the event of the civil forces being unable to contain the demonstrators would the military intervene, and it was assumed by all who were involved in these decisions that military intervention would come only as a very last resort. There were 7,122 military including cavalry in London for the 10th; 1,231 enrolled pensioners; just over 4,000 police – metropolitan and city – and about 85,000 special constables. The disposition of troops was the responsibility of the London Military District subject to the agreement of the Home Office. The main problem was to find suitable accommodation for the military in order that they would be out of sight but within reach of central London. Several owners of large houses put their stabling at the disposal of the cavalry, and a director of the South West Railway arranged for 500 infantry and 100 cavalry to be accommodated at Nine Elms station on the Sunday and Monday. Many of the infantry were inside government offices and buildings.

Army morale had always been appreciated as a matter for close concern. This was the great objection to billeting. Palmerston’s experience at the War Office had taught him that the contact of ordinary soldiers with civilians could be a subversive matter. In Ireland, partly because of the potentially more explosive political situation and partly because of the very poor housing conditions in the country as a whole, there was no choice but to provide accommodation; and almost all the army was quartered in their own barracks. On the mainland, however, even by 1848 there was often not sufficient barrack buildings to house the troops as they were moved rapidly round the country where disaffection was threatened; and tented camps, as in Liverpool in the summer of 1848, often had to be accepted.

Every scrap of information about the political conversation of ordinary soldiers – nearly always supplied by the local police – was carefully scrutinised; but there was very little. In London a constable of the E Division reported a conversation with a sentry on duty at the west entrance of the British Museum in Great Russell Street in which the soldier was alleged to have said: `You’ll find that if we are called out we shall not do much, and he thought that plenty of his people had signed the Charter but did not say if he had signed it’; and in the week before 10 April there were reports of up to a dozen soldiers of the Scots Fusiliers, stationed at Charing Cross barracks, talking in public houses of the Kennington Common meeting: one of them further stated that he had an aged father and mother in the country, who were reduced in circumstances and who now received for their maintenance from the Parish only three shillings a week – and what use was three shillings a week to an old couple of their age – He, for one, knew others of the same mind, would never fight for any Government or any other system which would behave so to any poor people’.

On another occasion, again with no precise dating but in the week before 10 April, a report of four soldiers of the same regiment stated that a civilian addressing the soldiers said: `I hope my lads you will not interfere with us next Monday’ and one of the soldiers replied: `There is little fear of that, my boy. Do you do your Duty and we will do ours – And if we are called out and ordered to fire – we shall fire over your heads.’ In this episode one name was quoted with identification markings. The only other incident reported in this particular War Office file was a short report dated 5 April when a police constable noted that he saw three privates of the Grenadier Guards stop and sign the Chartist petition on Westminster Bridge.

These were trivial affairs and cannot have caused the military authorities any serious concern. It is worth remarking that there do not appear to be any reports in government papers of the slightest anxiety about the metropolitan police. It was, of course, the Roman Catholic part of the army which the authorities were worried about in 1848, but this was a new problem. In the years preceeding 1848 the Catholic hierarchy in England had always come out strongly against physical force politics, and the influence of O’Connell against the Chartist movement was powerful. In 1848 itself there are a number of reports in the Home Office papers where evidence was given of the steadying influence of the local Catholic priest, evincing disapproval of the link with militant Chartism. The new situation in 1848 was one in which Irish soldiers might come into contact with Irish Repealers united with English Chartists. As events turned out, there was nothing to worry about on the English mainland. Ireland was, as ever, likely to produce disturbance; and on the night before the Kennington Common meeting in London, when there was rising excitement in Dublin as everywhere else, fighting broke out in Dublin between the soldiers of two regiments over the Repeal question. Clarendon, in a letter dated 10 April, described the incident in a letter to Sir George Grey:

There was a disagreeable row here last night between the soldiers of two Regiments about Repeal and they fought in the street. They were soon brought back to Barracks . . . We have heard too that the Repeal soldiers will attempt to break out of their Barracks tonight – the whole spirit of the garrison (or the R.C. part of it) appears to have altered since the 57th came here. We have fortunately got rid of them now by sending them to the North but P[rince] George tells me he inspected the two foot companies before they marched yesterday, and that he never saw such a mutinous and sullen set of fellows – he expected they would knock him down.

In later letters of the next few days Clarendon reported that the military commanders had investigated the incident and were now less troubled. He especially emphasised that the account in the Nation was `entirely false’ and that only two regiments had been sent out of Dublin; and it was the 57th alone about which there were still doubts.

The protection of strategic buildings was an important part of the general security precautions. In the early weeks which followed the Paris revolution there had been a number of reports in The Times especially from various correspondents in the French capital, which provided much detail as to the logistics of revolution by the masses; and Normanby, in his despatches to the Foreign Office, was also full of information on these matters. It was plain that the occupation of important buildings in the centre of the city, thereby providing permanent bases, was a quite crucial factor in the escalation of the revolution, allowing the possibilities of constant demonstrations, invasion of the Assembly, and a continuous renewal of revolutionary spirit and morale. The matter was well understood in Britain beyond the small groups of ministers and their military advisers. There were constant demands from those in charge of buildings for additional troops and arms in the days leading up to the Kennington common demonstration, among them an interesting letter from the director of the British Museum, Sir Henry Ellis, who asked the Home Office for additional protection, on the grounds that it could now be expected that disturbances would be more serious than had previously been anticipated. He added:

Please to remember if it should by any accident happen that the Building of the Museum fall into the hands of disaffected persons it would prove to them a Fortress capable of holding Ten Thousand Men.

The date of the letter was 9 April. All the main buildings in Whitehall were heavily protected. At Somerset House a portcullis had been built; the roof of the Bank of England was parapeted with sandbags, and guns mounted through the apertures; all the prisons in the central London area were reinforced with additional arms and soldiers or pensioners. Other precautions included the earlier lighting of public lamps in the areas of London most likely to be affected; renewal of the instructions to gunsmiths to make their weapons unusable in the event of looting; and the compulsory taking over by the government of the national Electric Telegraph system for the whole week beginning Sunday 9 April. A month earlier the Home Office had asked for a special line to be constructed between the central office of the Electric Telegraph at Euston and the Home Office.

The distinguishing feature of the measures taken by the British government against its own radical movement, compared with the situation in Paris in the days before 22 February, was the overwhelming support given throughout the country by the middle strata of society. It could be taken for granted that the landed aristocracy and gentry would support the forces of order, but it was the middling groups – from the wealthy bourgeois at the top to those referred to in contemporary literature as the shopkeeping class – who rallied in large numbers and with great determination to oppose the radical disaffected. Already, in the aftermath of the Glasgow riots of 6 March, Archibald Alison, the high Tory deputy sheriff of the County of Lanark, had written to the Home Secretary commenting on the `most excellent’ disposition of the `whole middle classes’; and in London Rowan, the senior commissioner of the metropolitan police, was also taking it for granted that he would be able to rely upon a large inflow into the ranks of special constables. It had not always been so, which is why leading Whigs and Tories were now so ready to congratulate their middle-class allies. Corn Law repeal was, after all, still in everyone’s mind; and there had always been hesitation and uncertainty among some groups of the middle ranks of society in times of social crisis: in part ideological, but much more, it may be conjectured, because of doubts about the efficiency as well as the efficacy of government security measures. Even in 1848, when the Whig government acted throughout with competence and expedition, there was hesitation in the early days in some areas; but this was probably the fault of the local authorities rather than of central government. What can be said of this year is that the firm direction of affairs by the Home Office encouraged confidence that demonstrations of support by middle-class groups would be strongly reinforced by government action. Certainly by the middle of March the tide of opinion was running strongly in favour of the government; and in the weeks preceding the Kennington Common meeting an upsurge of confidence and support for the government of a quite extraordinary kind took place. Normanby had been constantly emphasising to Palmerston the failure of the July monarchy and of the Guizot government to maintain the confidence of its own supporters, and Normanby came back again and again to what he regarded as the crucial factor in the revolutionary process: the falling away of middle-class support for Louis-Philippe and all that he stood for. The urban middle classes in Britain were, of course, more numerous and more powerful economically than similar groups in France; but there was at the same time a widespread anti-aristocratic sentiment among many business circles and within middle-class nonconformist chapels. The threats from below to social stability and to the rights of property were, however, of such a kind that there was no doubt on which side the middle classes would stand; and the firm determination of the government overcame doubts and fears that the middle-class support of security measures – in their role as special constables – would receive the full backing of the coercive powers of the state. These considerations were especially important for the shopkeeping classes; and all over the country the middle classes offered their services in overwhelming numbers. Never before had there been such a mobilisation of all who for many different reasons were self-interested in the preservation of the existing structure of society. The mayors of all the large towns in the industrial North reported large numbers of special constables having been sworn in, and there were similar reports from less threatened areas. But it was London, inevitably, upon which national attention was focussed in the days before the Kennington Common meeting; and here the response was solid everywhere in the central parishes of the city and in some it was overwhelming. By 27 March Hackney had 200 special constables each with a staff and white arm-band. Limehouse divided their recruits into sections with different colours in their button-holes: the rank and file wore blue, sub-leaders red and the leader of five or more sections had blue and white. Towards the west of the town the upper classes took over. Marylebone had a printed notice calling for a meeting on the Saturday evening. The officers had already been elected, presumably more or less self-elected. Lieutenant-General Sir James Bathurst, a Peninsular veteran on the retired list but still Governor of Berwick for which he received £568 15 shillings and 10 pence per annum, was Superintendent-in-Chief; his deputy was Lieutenant-Colonel Sir J. J. Hamilton; and among the superintendants of the divisions into which the special constables were grouped were two rear admirals, one knight and one colonel. There was a good deal of self-help. Before the Kennington Common meeting – the exact date is not given – between thirty and forty tradesmen formed themselves into a company ready to be sworn in as special constables. They met at the Bell Inn, Kings Cross.

There were, inevitably, some rather unusual offers of help which the government felt it necessary either to do nothing about or to reject. On 7 April a gentleman farmer from Essex offered his services: `I am an experienced sportsman and a good steady shot’; the young gentlemen of Rugby school who were seventeen years or over offered to assist the authorities; and two days after the Kennington Common meeting the Keeper of the Queen’s prison in London wrote to Sir George Grey enclosing letters from various inmates serving time who were offering their services to help put down any disturbances: the Keeper adding that `I confidently believe I should have received the most loyal and efficient support from most of the Prisoners had there been any real occasion for their services’. Thomas Allsop, in a letter to Robert Owen, who was in Paris, summed up the prevailing mood in London: `Very great alarm prevails here, and very grave apprehensions are entertained for the peace of the country generally by grave and reflecting men. The worst feature is the antagonism of classes shown by the readiness of the middle classes to become special constables.’

Allsop’s letter was dated 8 April. Two days after the Chartist meeting The Times summarised the political lessons: `London will crush treason at once, and that all classes are at one in this respect. Such is the new strength we have gained by that noble day’s work, a strength we could not easily have gained in any other way’; and on the same day the Nonconformist, whose anti-aristocratic sentiments have already been quoted and whose political position was liberal-radical and certainly not Whig, insisted that while armed forces cannot kill `a living sentiment’, it nevertheless emphasised the importance of the `counter-demonstration on the part of the middle classes, not against the principles of the Charter, but against that recklessness of counsel which sought to realise them in social confusion and streams of blood. A physical-force revolution is thus, we hope, become an impossibility, never again to be attempted.’

The most controversial question concerning the special constables of 1848 is the extent to which working people themselves enrolled for 10 April. It was widely stated, and if not stated then assumed, by contemporaries of most political views outside the Chartist movement itself that at least many of the respectable artisans had volunteered in London and elsewhere in the country. What happened in the months which followed has hardly ever been discussed, and it is still a matter unresolved. We can list the working-class groups who wore armbands as special constables in London and other towns and about whom there is no argument. These were those employees who were either in a close master-servant relationship in which it would have been impossible to retain employment without being sworn in. Such were male domestic servants and the country employees of the landed classes. Many aristocratic families sent their women and children out of London and kept back their male servants as well as bringing up from their estates their gamekeepers, on the principle no doubt that good marksmen might be useful – as the Essex farmer noted above had assumed. There were a number of accounts in the contemporary London papers of titled persons enrolling as special constables along with their complete male establishments. Then there were the employees of railway companies and of public utilities such as gas companies. The railway companies ran their organisations for decades with a quasi-military discipline, and it was expected that their employees would volunteer. A letter of 5 April from the London and South Western Company to the Home Office reported that three to four hundred were already sworn in and that the number would increase to 800 on the day following: `of this number 40 or 50 are superior officers and clerks, upon whom I can thoroughly rely.’ Among the gas companies which provided lists of officers and workmen sworn in during the period preceding the Chartist demonstration were the Commercial Gas Company of Stepney; the Imperial Gas Works, Margaret Street, Shoreditch, and the Independent Gas Company, Haggerston. There was some opposition by workers to this voluntary conscription, but hard evidence is difficult to establish. The magistrates who received the oath also had problems, and there were several letters to the Home Office asking for guidance when large establishments tried to enrol their workers in the mass. The original circular from Grey of 3 April had referred to the enrolment of `respectable individuals’ but as 10 April approached the Home Office indicated its approval of these mass registrations. There was one particular group which received much publicity and which was certainly beyond the pale of working-class respectability. These were the Thames coal-whippers for whom Parliament had legislated in 1844; and their offer of service was widely used to indicate the extent to which the Chartist movement did not represent the whole of the working classes. It was also used, by Gladstone among others, as an example of the returns governments could expect from social reform measures. The coal-whippers were at the lower end of the labourers’ group, and although so much publicity was given to their commitment to public order, a report in the Weekly Dispatch suggested that many in fact had been more or less compulsorily enrolled by their labour superintendent. After the demonstration of the 10th was over, the coal-whippers demanded payment for their services since they had lost a day’s work, or in some cases, part of a day. Their request set up a mild flutter in Whitehall, but they had been so useful in the government’s propaganda that there was no question but to pay them. Richard Mayne, the metropolitan police Commissioner wrote to C. E. Trevelyan at the Treasury – whose economic heart must have been much displeased at the prospect of this frittering away of public funds: `it would be mischievous and impolitic to make them dissatisfied especially after the public notice taken of them’. There was careful calculation of the rates of pay deemed politic.

Many workingmen were either committed Chartists or like Mayhew’s costermongers, were for `us’ and against `them’, but there must have been quite large numbers who took no clear attitude or who followed their masters. Any quantitative analysis is obviously not possible, but there is an interesting phenomenon that has not been much commented on, and yet was to be found, in these early days in April at any rate, both in London and in the industrial North; and it may be significant as an indication of changing political attitudes. This was where working operatives refused to be sworn in as ordinary special constables but were prepared to act within their own works to protect their working premises from outside attack and, presumably, in Manchester, against visiting bands – pickets – who in the past had forced a turn-out. Magistrates who accepted workers on these terms were acting illegally in that the terms of a special constable’s appointment were such that while it was usual to employ them within their own neighbourhood they were obliged to serve anywhere in their own county; and according to a later ruling from the Home Office, even in another county as well. Service within their own working establishment was much more common than has so far been noted. There is, in the return of special constables made by the metropolitan police to the Home Office an interesting comment against Lambeth (St Mary’s parish): `Mr Maudsley, Engineer, has 1000 for his own premises most of whom are thus secured from taking the wrong side as they are on ill terms with the Police.’ There are also scattered pieces of evidence which show opposition to enrolment, one of the most important being a letter of 8 April sent to the Home Office by a London magistrate, a Mr P. Bingham who attended the Geological Museum to swear in the considerable number of workers employed in its building:

I am sorry to have to apprise that the feeling exhibited by them was anything but satisfactory. Some refused to be sworn, and those who consented, insisted on limiting their services to the inside of the Building. I willingly assented to this under the circumstances I have stated, considering they might otherwise be on Kennington Common.
I was then desired to attend at Lord Ellesmeres, where a very large body of workmen is employed. The Foreman informed me that the whole of them, with the exception of three, refused to be sworn, but that they had promised to defend the building in case of attack.
After this, I thought it better to abstain from going further.

Much was made by contemporaries of the business establishments who signed up all their workers and this support has been used by modern historians to buttress their own belief in working-class involvement in the maintenance of public order against the potential or threatened Chartist violence. One of the most striking examples of a large-scale opposition to service as special constables came from the industrial North during the second half of March. The story was told by Sir Thomas Arbuthnot commanding the northern military district who added to his report that he had made particular enquiries on the matters stated and found them to be `essentially correct’. What happened was that the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Company swore in 700 of their workmen as special constables. The day after, a mass meeting of the men was held to protest against their involvement `at a moment’s notice’ and the resolution given below was unanimously adopted:

Resolved, first: That we, the workmen of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Company, do disapprove of the abrupt manner in which we were called up to be sworn in as special constables by the authorities, and that we did fully expect to be treated as men capable of comprehending right from wrong – Secondly: That this meeting is of opinion that it is in the interest and duty of all classes to protect life and property, and that we, the workmen of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Company, do pledge ourselves to do so, as far as it in our power lies, providing the middle class do pledge themselves to protect our capital, namely, our labour – Thirdly: That it is the opinion of this meeting that the present distress of the working classes arises from class legislation, and that it is their unanimous opinion that no permanent good can be effected for the community at large, until the working classes are fully and fairly represented in the Commons house of parliament, and that intelligence and virtue are the proper qualifications of a representative. The workmen here present do pledge themselves to offer no resistance to any body of men who may struggle for such a representation.

The resolution just quoted was taken from a press cutting from the Manchester Examiner of 18 March which Arbuthnot enclosed in his report to the Home Office. His accompanying letter said that it appeared that a number of the railway workers were well-known Chartists and some were in well-paid positions; that at the meeting there were some good speakers and that cheers were given for the Charter. Without doubt the resolution had been drawn up by someone or group accustomed to political activity.

One example of a group of militant railway workers does not make a case for the total opposition of working people to middle-class appeals for the law and order approach of the Whig government; even when put alongside the evidence already quoted from London. It does, however, encourage scepticism and highlight the need for more serious research into working-class attitudes, both in the run-up to the London demonstration of 10 April, when the hysteria in the country at large was widespread and pervasive, and in the months which followed. Most of the discussion about working-class involvement as special constables has related to the April days, and little to the weeks which followed when in some parts of the country – in particular London and the industrial North – the combined Irish and Chartist movements were growing and violence was coming to be accepted. From the evidence which is available, it would seem that the gap in later months between social classes was widening. This was certainly true of the liberal grouping within the middle classes whose attitudes towards working-class radicals were appreciably hardening; and, as political bitterness developed, it is probable that working-class enrolment in the security forces, whatever its original size and social composition, was lessening or being completely eliminated.

On the morning of 10 April the National Convention met at 9 a.m. in its usual hall in John Street. G. W. M. Reynolds took the chair in the absence of Philip McGrath, and Doyle reported that he and McGrath had waited on the police commissioners on the previous day to inform them that the Convention, as an indication of their desire to lessen tension, had changed the route of the procession as originally planned, and now intended to keep it some distance from the Houses of Parliament. The police, on their side, had replied that there could be no change in the decision to ban the procession. The Convention then heard Feargus O’Connor at his most rambling and, after shorter speeches from the floor, the Convention concluded at 10 a.m., and the leading Chartists then entered the vans outside the hall. These wagons contained the petition and were drawn by horses supplied by the Land Company. This official group then drove slowly down Tottenham Court Road, through Holborn and Farringdon Street over Blackfriars Bridge, and arrived at Kennington Common about 11.30 a.m.

The police had set up a control centre in the Horns Tavern on the edge of Kennington Common early on the Monday morning. Richard Mayne, the junior of the two Police Commissioners, was responsible for its direction. Messages from all parts of London came to this control point where the Chartists were assembling and later marching; and these reports were then sent on to the Home Office. Some examples follow:
9.15 a.m.:
`Report from Clerkenwell Green that 3000 assembled.’ (The Globe reported in its second edition that on two poles carried by the demonstrators there was a cap of liberty, a tri-coloured flag and an American flag).
Police Station, Stepney, 9 a.m.:
`There are at present about 2000 persons assembled on Stepney Green, who are now being formed in procession five deep, with Music, Flags etc. All seems peaceable, and no appearance of their being armed’
E. Div. 9.50 a.m.:
`The procession is now moving from Russell Square about 10,000.’
11.15 a.m.:
`The procession is now filing onto the Common having arrived by the Walworth Road. There are numerous flags and banners but not the slightest appearance of arms or even bludgeons.’

Soon after O’Connor arrived at Kennington Common he was called for a discussion with the police who informed him that the meeting would be allowed but that the procession would not. Mayne reported the interview at length in a communication to Sir George Grey. O’Connor returned to the demonstration and addressed it from one of the vans, arguing that they had established the right of meeting and to avoid a physical confrontation with the authorities they should accept the presentation of the petition by a few people; and that the meeting should disperse. `He would again call on them for God’s sake not to injure their cause by intemperance or folly’, and he ended: `Let every man among you now take off his hat and bow to the Great God of Heaven – thank him for his goodness, and solemly promise not to break his law.’ Ernest Jones was the next speaker and, to quote the Morning Chronicle report:

said that he was a physical force Chartist, but in their present unprepared state he deprecated any attempt at collision with the authorities. He had recommended that the procession should not have been brought on this side of the water, and that the bridges should not have been placed between them and the House of Commons. He believed that if they had met on the other side of the water the police would never have attempted to stop the procession. But at present they had been completely caught in a trap. They would, however, meet on the other side of the water, if their petition were not granted, and carry their remonstrance to the foot of the throne. He entreated them to disperse peaceably on the present occasion, and they might depend upon it, if they followed his advice, they would be able to meet in larger numbers upon another occasion, joined by thousands of the middle classes.

There was opposition to the platform from militants such as Cuffay, and this was the beginning of an alternative leadership in London to the hitherto accepted personalities of Chartism. It is possible that Ernest Jones, despite the discredit which this day must have brought upon him in the minds of some Londoners at any rate, might have continued to move to the Left; but he was the first of the major figures of the movement to be arrested in early June, and was not therefore part of the illegal movement that began to grow during the summer months. In the rest of the country the failure of the Kennington Common meeting had remarkably little, if any, effect upon the morale of the Chartist movement; in the industrial North especially, it continued to increase its political activities until the mass arrests of the late summer.

For the government 10 April was of crucial importance. The Chartist demonstration was never intended to be a physical confrontation with the government; and when the Chartist leaders protested their peaceful intentions, they were not dissembling. The Whig government, however, did, not overreact, as has often been suggested. A demonstration of their coercive power over their own radicals, in the context of this period, was of central importance, both at home and abroad. As the Chartist Convention correctly noted, Europe was looking anxiously and carefully at what was happening in England; and it was not hysteria but calm resolve that moved the Whig ministers to their elaborate precautions in their own capital city. They had absorbed the lessons of Paris, and to have permitted a mass demonstration to accompany the petition to Westminster might have offered opportunities for disturbance or riot the consequences of which, in the tense atmosphere of these days, were certainly incalculable. Again there would have been no doubt about the outcome; but a bloodless victory – one indeed that could be laughed off, as this one was – offered confidence and relief not only inside Britain but in every European capital that was beleaguered. To contemporaries in 1848 the affair of Kennington Common was certainly not as trivial as it has mostly been portrayed in the history textbooks. It provided evidence, as noted already, of the wholehearted support of all the various groups within the middle strata. The House of Commons could have its fun at the expense of the fictitious names on the Chartist petition as well as at the grossly exaggerated claims of its total signatories, but the government was under no illusion that the radical movement had disappeared or was suffering any serious loss of morale. As Palmerston wrote to Clarendon on the day following the Kennington Common meeting: `Things passed off beautifully here yesterday, but the snake is scotched, not killed.’

Taken from J. Saville, 1848: The British State and the Chartist Movement (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), pp. 102-20.

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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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Today in anti-war history, 1917: spycops’ fit-up! Alice Wheeldon & her daughters go on trial for ‘plot to murder’ Prime Minister Lloyd George.

“Alice Wheeldon and her family were commie scum
Denounced World War 1, sheltered deserters on the run
Fitted up by MI5, died from the prison damp –
You won’t see Alice’s head on a stamp!”
(‘Spycop Song’, Dr Feelshite)

If you thought that revelations of the last few years about undercover police officers infiltrating campaigning and political groups, trade unions, families of people killed by racist and the police (just a few examples), and in some cases acting as agent provocateurs, had been going on for just 50 years, since the founding of the Special Demonstration Squad, and was some kind of aberration from our democratic traditions – think again. In one form or another, this practice has been an integral part of policing dissent and controlling or disrupting movements for social change – for hundreds of years. It is literally the norm, not a deviation.

101 years ago today, Derby socialists and war resisters Alice Wheeldon, her daughters Hettie, Winnie and Winnie’s husband, Alfred Mason, went on trial at the Old Bailey, all charged with conspiracy to murder the Liberal Prime Minister Lloyd George and Labour Party cabinet minister Arthur Henderson.

In fact the supposed ‘plot’ was a fit up, set up by a spy working for the intelligence unit of the Ministry of Munitions.

Alice Wheeldon lived in Derby, with her four children Nell, Winnie, Hettie and Will; the family were all active campaigners for many social issues of the time, notably women’s rights, pacifism and opposition to conscription. Alice and Hettie were activists for women’s suffrage, members of the Women’s Social & Political Union before World War 1, as well being involved in socialist propaganda. To make a living she sold second hand clothes in the market and later from a shop.

If enthusiastic support for the pointless carnage of the First World War was still by far the view of the majority of the population, opposition had grown over the previous two and a half years. The mass deaths, privations, hunger and hardships at home, forced conscription into the armed forces, as well as mass government repression, had sparked hatred and demoralisation, resentment, and resistance. Soldiers were passively and actively avoiding combat and would soon by mutinying; strikes were multiplying, organised by grassroots shop stewards movements, (as the trade union leaders mostly supported the ban on workplace struggles during wartime); food riots and rent strikes had broken out in 1915 and 1916. And refusal to be conscripted, resistance and draft-dodging, had given birth to underground networks of war resisters, mostly young men on the run from the authorities, often sheltered by sympathetic pacifists, socialists and anarchists. A plethora of organisations – the No Conscription Fellowship, the Socialist Labour Party, British Socialist Party, the Industrial Workers of the World, parts of the Union of Democratic Control, the North London Herald League, Sylvia Pankhurst’s Women’s Socialist Federation in East London; parts of the Independent Labour Party, the Women’s Freedom League, the shop stewards networks, anarchist groups and christian pacifists… and so many more…  

The government feared all these movements were linked, and to some extent there were rebel networks, with loose origins in the workers’ movements that had erupted before the war, the militant suffragettes who had rejected jingoism when war broke out, and the leftwing political groups who denounced the war on internationalist grounds. From the outside it could also appear that this opposition could link up to wider discontent among the ‘general population’, and that a serious rebellious threat could arise to the war effort and even to the state and the vast capitalist interests that had needed the war.

The government was determined to disrupt and discredit the growing opponents of the war, and pretty much allowed the secret state to operate freely, with carte blanche to use whatever methods seemed necessary. The press was already happy to trumpet that strikers, pacifists, etc were passively doing ‘the Kaiser’s work’, if not actually being paid by Germany; the more evidence could be drummed up that honest and peaceful opposition to the conflict was in fact a cover for more sinister, treasonous and violent intent, the more potential support for opposition they thought could be warded off.

The Ministry of Munitions Intelligence Unit, a branch of an organisation that was to partly evolve into MI5, faced with an immediate threat of being dismantled, conceived a strategy of discovering a treasonable plot in Derby, which with its munitions factories, was a heartland of Britain’s war effort. 

The Wheeldons were on the one hand a typical anti-war family with William Wheeldon and Alf Mason (Winnie’s husband) both facing conscription, (William was an anarchist ‘absolutist’ conscientious objector), and all of the family including Alice’s sons-in-law were heavily involved in both overt and underground resistance: in the above ground activities of the No Conscription Fellowship, but also in hiding men on the run, helping them escape the country in some cases. They sat also in the middle of the networks the authorities and military intelligence an Special Branch had in their sights: Arthur MacManus, (then ‘courting’ Alice’s daughter Hettie, and a friend of her son William), was heavily involved in the shop stewards meetings and planning class struggle in the factories, particularly in nearby Sheffield, the stronghold of the shop stewards committees since the pioneering Glasgow stewards had been largely broken up by arrest and repression in 1916. Their friends and comrades spread across the midlands and the north of England. 

An MI5 agent, using the name Alex Gordon, and posing as a conscientious objector on the run from the authorities. He had turned up in Sheffield, just as 10-12,000 skilled engineers and other workers came out on strike against the conscription of a fitter, Leonard Hargreaves, at Vickers plant there, in what appeared to be a case of the employers breaking agreements with the unions to not force certain grades into the army. the strike terrified the government, who backed down and released Hargreaves. (It’s worth noting that bitter divisions were opening up in the working class, as unions representing skilled workers were prepared to strike over such actions, but less skilled workers were often not supported.) ‘Gordon’ was not the only spy around – several other ministry of munitions agents were reporting on the strike, the socialists and other workers opposing the war in Sheffield and nearby towns. The reports of the spies tended to focus on prominent individuals like the Sheffield shop stewards activist and later communist theorist, J. T. Murphy, Arthur MacManus, and others, as being largely responsible for anti-war and workers agitation – missing the point that both movements were made up of grassroots networks based on daily grievances and built horizontally, not hierarchically. But the spies fed into their handlers view that taking out some of the prominent faces would crush the movements entirely. 

Alex Gordon was really Francis Vivian, who had been involved in the British Socialist Party before the war, so may have been known (if only by repute) to some of his targets, building trust. He moved across to Derby, in late 1916, supervised by another spy, known as Herbert Booth, who reported to Major Melville Lee at the Ministry of Munitions. Booth and Gordon seem to have played on the Wheeldon family’s angry desire to strike back at the warmongering government they hated, and a plot was hatched, according to the Wheeldons later, to poison dogs guarding prison camps where arrested ‘conchies’ and war resisters were being held, so they could be helped to escape. However, Gordon and Booth presented the poison, which was ordered, as evidence of a plot to poison the new Prime Minister, David Lloyd George. They reported a succession of conversations, a mix of invented and real talk, no doubt, of threats and plans to off the Prime Minister and his cabinet colleague, Labour’s Arthur Henderson, who was widely vilified by anti-war socialists; as well as unnamed others.

Alice Wheeldon, Hettie Wheeldon, her daughter Win Mason and Win’s husband Alf Mason were all arrested at the end of January 1917. William Wheeldon was picked up but managed to escape and disappeared. 

The four were tried at the Old Bailey with the Attorney General, the trial beginning on March 6th 1017; future Lord Chancellor, the rightwing politician F.E. Smith leading the prosecution. The legal profession was apparently leant on heavily not to defend them, and the lawyers who did were not very effective. The accused were brow-beaten and their case was not really presented; the dice were loaded against them. The government were determined to use them as a example. Whether or not the spies’ superiors believed the plot was real, or their political bosses really feared for their lives, the trial was a useful weapon to beat the anti-war movement with, at least to split moderate critics of the war from the more radical elements.

Gordon was not present to testify in the trial so the defence could not cross-examine him on his evidence.  The court proceedings show that the evidence was flimsy and that the intention of the prosecution was to publicly destroy the reputations of the accused and then to convict them on that basis.

Hettie Wheeldon was acquitted but the others were sentenced to varying prison terms and their application to appeal was refused. Alice received ten years imprisonment, Alf Mason seven years, Winnie five years. 

Alice went on hunger strikes in Aylesbury Prison, which severely affected her health. Conditions inside were harsh and she was over fifty. Given her failing health and officialdom’s fear that she might die in prison, which could rebound badly on them, she served less than one year of her 10-year sentence. Doubts had also started to arise about the trial and the authorities may have thought they would settle if she was quietly released. From Holloway Prison she was released on licence at the instigation of the Prime Minister – the same Prime Minister she was accused of conspiracy to murder. Her daughters Nellie and Hettie accompanied her back to Derby but her life was made impossibly hard. She was ostracised by many neighbours, and her clothes business was ruined. She and Hettie (who had lost her job as a teacher despite her acquittal) tried to grow and sell veg to survive. They tried to pick up their political activism, re-establishing links with some of the comrades. But both Hettie and Alice caught the flu in the terrible 1918-19 epidemic that struck at a weakened Europe after the war, and for Alice, worn out by prison, it was fatal. She died in February 1919. 

Win and Alf Mason were released unexpectedly at the end of the war, having also gone on hunger strike. After their release, in 1919, Winnie and Alf moved to London where they lived for a number of years with Winnie’s other siblings. Eventually they moved to Hampshire where Winnie was noted for raising awareness of the rise of Fascism. In 1949, shifted to Welwyn Garden City where Alf had built a modern house in the new town. Win was diagnosed with lung cancer and died there in 1953; Alf died in 1963.

Hettie married Arthur MacManus, in 1920 and they had a stillborn child, but she died from peritonitis following on from appendicitis the same year. Arthur became a leading member of the new Communist Party of Great Britain (Alice’s other daughter Nellie also became a CPGB activist). William Wheeldon’s story is perhaps the most poignant in the story of the anti-war movement, in Britain and internationally, and where it ended; he became a communist, moved to the Soviet Union and made there, believing in and working for the Soviet project for many years, Until Stalin had him arrested and shot in the purges in 1937, where he was forced to confess to being a longtime British spy.

A hundred years after the frame-up of Alice and her family, after the profit-ridden carcass-fest of World War I, there is a campaign growing to remember the Wheeldons and the Masons. Derby people and the family have long been convinced that the impact of these outrageous charges has reverberated down the generations. Now Deirdre and Chloë Mason, great grand-daughters of Alice Wheeldon and the grand-daughters of Alf and Win Mason, are seeking to clear their ancestors names so history will record that this was a miscarriage of justice… 

Check out the website of this campaign

A plaque was placed on Alice’s shop in Derby a couple of years ago to mark the plot.

Sheila Bowbotham’s excellent history/drama crossover, ‘Friends of Alice Wheeldon’ is a great book, and worth reading if you can get hold of it.

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The machinations of the secret state that backed the fit-up of the Wheeldon family is complex and we would like to write about it, especially given the relevance of spies infiltrating movements for social change to our own time. This will have to wait for another time; but sufficient to say, spies sponsored by both Special Branch and the Ministry of Munitions Intelligence Unit were both operating against socialists, strikers, anti-war activists. But they were also competing against each other for influence, and reported to rival power centres in government. The spies themselves were part fantasists, part telling their handler what they wanted to hear, and part freelance self-interested opportunists. Some of them experienced half-regret for their actions: ‘Alex Gordon aka Francis Vivian attempted in some bizarre way to re-ingratiate himself with socialists after the trial, part-justifying and part apologising for his part in it. This dynamic is familiar to those of us targetted by modern spycops, some of who have publicly blown the whistle on their former bosses, some of who have returned to friends and lovers after their deployment ended, torn between their ‘job’ and the attraction of the life of rebellion and love that our movements at their best are capable of… But many more hide behind the walls built by the police and secret state, fearing exposure, claiming they are afraid of our revenge, or more honestly, the embarrassment of people they now finding out the glorious war they fought against environmentalists and families of racist murder victims, while deceiving women into sex.

As a heavily restrictive Inquiry into Undercover Policing attempts to cover up most of the history of political spying of the last half century, under the guise of pretending to uncover it, some of those spied on are attempting to push for as much information on those who spied on us and those who controlled them as we can get. Results so far are not encouraging; most of the names revealed so far have been brought into the open by us.

For more information about current campaigning vs undercover policing, check out:

Campaign Opposing Police Surveillance

Undercover Research Group

Police Spies Out of Lives

The Network for Police Monitoring

http://spycops.info/

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The massive potential of the rising anti-war movement, the rebel networks of which Alice and all her family and friends were part of, was in the end broken, partly by the repression of the state, both open and secret, But also by the divisions of he movements themselves. The shop stewards movement launched strikes in 1917, but they were crippled by the splits between skilled and unskilled workers. The coagulating brilliant links that the conchies, suffragists, socialists and the class-conscious workers were forging did produce the Leeds Convention in June 1917, influenced and cheered by the Russian Revolution, attempting to unite trade unions and protest against the war. But it allowed itself to be dominated by the Labour Party and union leaders, who helped to derail its revolutionary potential. The powerful links developing through the war did continue to grow, and produced massive strikes in 1919, which in parallel with mutinies in the army could have led to a more fundamental social change – but was sold out by unions leaders, and hamstrung by people’s own doubts and lack of desire to push forward.

This post could have covered much more of this interesting period and the fascinating people and groups evolving at this time, and resisting the capitalist war machine with heroic but grounded love for each other, as well as clear-sighted hatred for the classes that profited from the slaughter.

Across the years we salute Alice, William and Hettie Wheeldon, Win and Alf Mason, their friends and comrades, and the movements they played a part in. If the world they hoped to build has not yet come about – tremble on your thrones, powers of the earth! Just you wait, you bankers!

 

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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This week in London secret history, 1977: Aubrey, Berry and Campbell arrested under Official Secrets Act, sparking ABC trial.

On 18th February, 1977: three men were arrested, John Nicholas Crispin Aubrey, John Ashley Berry and Duncan Campbell. Berry was charged with “communicating classified information to unauthorised persons” and Campbell and Aubrey with “unauthorised receipt of classified information” under the 1911 Official Secrets Act. (ABC trial)

The ABC Case of the 1977-78 drew national attention following the incumbent Labour government decision to employ the Official Secrets Act 1911 to intimidate the press from investigating the country’s signal intelligence operation.

The case emerged after Duncan Campbell and Time Out reporter Crispin Aubrey met with former Ministry of Defence employee, John Berry in Berry’s north London home. Seven years previous, Berry had worked for Signals Intelligence [SIGINT] in Cyprus. Berry claimed to have information exposing the inner working of the UK’s surveillance activities.

At the 18 Feb meeting, the two journalists discovered that Berry’s knowledge was largely out of date, rendering the encounter journalistically unproductive. Upon their exit from Berry’s home, however, all three were arrested by Special Branch and charged under the Official Secrets Act.

Police were alerted to the meeting since Campbell had been placed under surveillance by MI5 and Special Branch following revelations in a Time Out article, The Eavesdroppers, the previous year detailed secret government spying agency GCHQ.

Aubrey, Berry and Campbell appeared in court in what was known as the ABC trial (an acronym of their surnames). The ABC case attracted huge public interest as the government mounted a prosecution by turns farcical and ferocious. The case became notorious for a number of reasons, including jury vetting after the defence discovered that the jury foreman was a former SAS officer and that two other jurors had signed the official secrets act, as well as the prosecution of journalists under section 1 of the Official Secrets Act. The trial revealed much about government surveillance and also the lengths it would go to keep its activities secret. Following the trial, Crispin wrote the book Who’s Watching You: Britain’s Security Service and the Official Secrets Act (1981).

The arrests of the ABC group were related to the arrests of former CIA agent Philip Agee and journalist Mark Hosenball. They were brought into custody and were intended to be deported in connection with the American magazine Counterspy which had made disclosures about the CIA. The Home Office wanted to deport the pair because of what they cited as “…obtaining information which could be harmful to the security of the United Kingdom.” However, Agee said:

“I believe pressure has has been put on the United Kingdom from the highest level to order me out in an attempt to disrupt publication of my second book on CIA activities.”

The connection to the ABC group came from an article called “The Eavesdroppers,” that had appeared in Time Out magazine in May 1976 that Mark Hosenball had co-written with Duncan Campbell, before Hosenball joined the London Evening Standard in July 1976. Duncan Campbell also appeared before the Home Office advisory committee hearing representations from Agee and Hosenball and he said that he had written most of the article that had appeared in Time Out. The article had covered GCHQ in Cheltenham and Campbell stated “there were no official secrets in the article that were not already available to the public.”

During the time Hosenball and Agee were earmarked for deportation, Campbell and Aubrey became aware of John Berry, a former officer at GCHQ, who had written to the National Council for Civil Liberties, (which was under General Secretary Patricia Hewitt – future Secretary of State for Health – who also campaigned for Hosenball and Agee to get a fair trial) saying that he shared Hosenball and Agee’s doubts about the legitimacy of GCHQ activities and that it was a smokescreen for anti-democratic activities.

As a result of this Campbell and Aubrey decided to interview him for Time Out.

The three were arrested at John Berry’s flat on 18 February 1977 and were then held without bail for 7 days. Berry was accused of passing on information to Campbell and Aubrey who were then arrested for receiving “highly classified” information. On August 9th, Campbell was also charged with “…for a purpose prejudicial to the safety or interests of the state, collecting information concerning defence communications that might, directly or indirectly, be useful to an enemy.” The case was the adjourned until November 7th for the hearing to begin.

The first day of committal proceedings was at Tottenham Magistrates’ Court in London where a tape was played (the court was cleared the tape played in secret) in which the prosecution alleged that it was John Berry, former soldier, giving details of Britain’s monitoring telecommunications to Campbell and Aubrey. The recording lasted more than 3 hours after which police officers, who had been keeping watch, arrested the three men.

The defence for Berry, Mr. Michael Mansfield, said there was nothing in the tape which was detrimental to national security and that playing the tape in secret amounted to prejudging the case. Campbell’s defence, Mr. Geoffrey Robertson said that his client would say the prosecution had mistook investigative journalism for subversion and the other side of the coin should be heard. He also pointed out the inconsistency in the application of secrecy in that Berry needed written permission to visit any country in the Soviet bloc for just two years after his Army discharge yet he could never go to Time Out.

The trial at the Old Bailey began on 5th September 1978. Before the trial had opened, the prosecution had gone to considerable lengths to keep secret the identity of Colonel B. His actual name, Colonel HA Johnstone was published in The Leveller magazine. This prompted Samuel Silkin QC, the Attorney General, to apply for jail orders for the magazine’s publishers under the grounds of Contempt of Court. Colonel ‘B’ had already been named three times at a National Union of Journalists conference in April 1978 when Special Branch officers attempted to deliver contempt of court actions to the NUJ’s General Secretary, Kenneth Ashton.

The attempts to protect the identity of Colonel B (which Crispin Aubrey described as “…the security services tried to cloak their witnesses in anonymous letters and make the whole affair appear more sinister.”) began to degenerate further into farce when the Speaker of the House of Commons had to rule whether the Director of Public Prosecutions was in contempt of Parliament over a memorandum to newspapers to protect the identity of Colonel B.

At the heart of the case during the first trial was the accusation against Campbell that he had “tried to discover the layout and function of the United Kingdom’s defence communication system”; Mr. John Leonard QC for the Crown, argued that Campbell had used his skill to fit together pieces of a jigsaw to present a picture that might be valuable to a potential enemy.

At no time was Campbell accused of trespassing on Ministry of Defence property or of deliberate espionage. The Crown’s case rested on the fact that Campbell had been clever enough to put together a picture of a communication infrastructure based on public records, photographs of public structures (such as radar antennas) and even from entries in the public telephone directory.

The trial itself was dramatically halted on 22nd September when two new conditions came to light:

Solicitors advising Duncan Campbell had told him the prosecution would not be proceeding with its case, that he breached Section 1 of the Official Secrets Act, the most serious of the charges the ABC were to face.

Mr. Justice Willis ordered a new trial for the ABC defendants because of what he described as a “piece of gratuitous journalistic gossip” on the London Weekend Television programme “Saturday Night People”. In this programme it was revealed that the foreman of the jury in the ABC case was an ex-SAS soldier and the defence counsel had argued that as the SAS had close links to intelligence and counter-terrorist units he may not have had an open mind on the case.

On October 3rd 1978 the trial reopened at the Old Bailey and each juror now had to declare any involvement with the armed services within the last 15 years leading to one juror being asked to stand down.

On 24th October the first charge that Campbell was in breach of Section 1 of the Official Secrets Act 1911 that he “[was] collecting sketches, notes, documents and information about defence communications for a purpose prejudicial to the safety or interests of the state;” the judge formally entered a verdict of Not Guilty as Mr. John Leonard, QC for the Crown said no evidence would be offered on the charge.

Crucially the abandonment of the Section 1 charges came about as the Judge was unhappy about them being applied in this case as it specified: “a purpose prejudicial to the safety or interests of the state”.

The Judge found the Section 1 charges “oppressive” as the provisions of Section 1 had been reserved for spying and sabotage cases and the Crown had made clear there were no accusations of spying involved in the alleged offences against the ABC defendants. Without any evidence of spying taking place or an intention to spy or to assist a possible enemy, the Section 1 charges were wholly without substance.

Also, the Judge noted that in 1964 the House of Lords made an authoritative decision that Section 1 on the application of the charge to sabotage and that no one seemed to consider that Section 1 was appropriated to cover anything other than spying or sabotage.

On 1st November 1978, Duncan Campbell in his defence made the following statement in relation to receiving information and its context within the Official Secrets Act 1911:

“The second…is a common sense interpretation which you have to make, because if the Act was interpreted literally every newspaper published would be in contravention of it.”

Campbell went on to say that his Not Guilty plea rested on the statement of the then Home Secretary, Merlyn Rees who said in the Government’s view the mere receipt of information should no longer be an offence. Campbell also said that although he was charged with the receipt of information from Berry, he commented that it was “dross rather than gold” and that he gained a few minor details he could have picked up elsewhere. He said that he had actually gone to Berry as me may have been able to cast some light on the deportations of American journalists Philip Agee and Mark Hosenball but it sooner became clear Berry knew very little about them.

The receipt of information became central to the allegations against Campbell; on the 4th November Campbell said that the aerial photographs of army signals intelligence units had been obtained from a United States agency which sold satellite surveillance photographs which were available for $60. He had also gained details of the Signals Intelligence units (“SIGINT”) from a published volume known as the International Frequency List.

On Thursday, November 16th 1978 Duncan Campbell was found guilty at the Central Criminal Court of receiving information about British Signals Intelligence from a former soldier. On the previous Tuesday Crispin Aubrey had been found guilty of abetting Campbell and John Berry guilty of communicating information to Campbell. They were sentenced by Mr. Justice Mars-Jones as follows:

* Aubrey: Conditionally discharged for three years and ordered to pay £2,500 towards prosecution costs and a third of his own.

* Berry: Sentenced to six months imprisonment, suspended for two years and ordered to pay £250 defence costs.

* Campbell: Conditionally discharged for three years and ordered to pay £2,500 towards defence costs and £2,500 towards his own.

The ABC trial failed for several basic reasons:

The first was it demonstrated in court how oppressive and unenforceable official obsession with security had become, especially where the military was concerned. The Judge had described the Section 1 charges as “oppressive” and in the opinion of Campbell, “SIGINT [Signals Intelligence] is illegal. It is contrary to a number of international conventions and people doing SIGINT are left in no doubt about it they are engaged in illegal activity.”

The Law Society went on to say that the decision of Attorney General Samuel Silkin, QC, to continue to prosecute the two journalists even after the Section 1 charges had been dropped struck at “the very foundations of journalism” according to a leading article in the Law Society Gazette.

The critical part of the case splits in to two parts; first Campbell and Aubrey were prosecuted for the mere receipt of information which was all the prosecution had ever alleged and secondly as Campbell et al made clear at various points during the trial nearly all of it was public knowledge, including the information which would have made identifying Colonel ‘B’ easy. In the press conference after the trial Campbell reiterated the point that the state had cast an enormous net to “catch a tiny tiddler” and that none of the information they had received from Berry was a secret nor, in his opinion, was it damaging. The Crown had been forced to drop the Section 1 charges of Campbell collecting information which included such names as the Post Office towers in London and and Birmingham “and which could not be mentioned because it would be damaging to the interests of the State.” At this point the trial had started to become farcical.

The National Union of Journalists said “the verdict could only give heart to those who wished to create a more closed society in which journalists were unwilling or unable to expose improper activities by government…All journalists are now placed at risk whenever they interview unofficial sources about government activities.”

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London radical history: Richard & Mary Overton’s house raided, both taken to prison, 1646

“You are so busied with the great affaires of the kingdome (as you call it) that you can find no time these sixe years to proclaime liberty to the captive, freedome to the oppressed, to right the cause of the poore, to heare the cry of the fatherlesse and widdow…”
The humble appeal and petition of Mary Overton, p. 9

Mary and Richard Overton, civil rights activists, published dozens of tracts promoting popular sovereignty; religious tolerance even for Jews and Catholics; separation of church and state; public education; freedom of speech; the abolition of imprisonment for debt; the right of commoners to petition Parliament; and a constitutional bill of rights. As a result, they spent much of their married life in trouble with the law.

Mary, eldest child of John and Maria (née Harpam) Tickell, was christened 3 September 1615, in Withern, Lincolnshire. On 23 April 1635, in Withern, she married Richard Overton, also of Lincolnshire. [Born about 1614, Richard Overton matriculated as a sizar from Queens’ College, Cambridge, at Easter 1631; he may also be identified with the Richard Overton(s) named as executor to (brother) Henry Overton, stationer of London (18 November 1646); and another (uncle) Henry Overton of London (1 Jan. 1650/1). ] The couple settled in London, where they became involved with religious nonconformists and political free-thinkers. By 1640, the Overtons had begun operating an unlicensed printshop. Richard was at first the sole author on the Overton booklist, writing without attribution. In November 1640 the Overtons published Richard’s Vox borealis, or the Northern Discoverie, a satire on the First Bishops’ War: a dialogue between “Jamie” and “Willie” figures Charles I as a trucebreaker, the Anglican prelates as war-mongering scoundrels, and the English army as a troop of buffoons who were chased from Berwick by Scottish housewives. Soon after came Questions to be Disputed in Counsell of the Lords Spirituall, which again lampooned the Anglican bishops. Both tracts bore the imprint of “Margerie Mar-Prelate” (from her press in “Thwackcoat-lane, at the Signe of the Crab-tree Cudgell”); but they were in fact printed by Richard and Mary Overton at their secret press in Bell Alley, near Finsbury Field (an establishment referenced in modern scholarship, until recently, as the “Cloppenburg” press, a misnomer). [NB: Bell Alley may well have been the same Bell Alley off Coleman Street, an area that housed numerous radical and dissident elements]. Overton’s first signed pamphlets were his Articles of High Treason Exhibited Against Cheap-Side Crosse (January 1642/3) and New [i.e., revised] Lambeth Fayre (March 1642/3); after which, he and Mary were never free, for long, from government surveillance and persecution, first from the Royalists, then from Cromwell’s government.

In 1641, the Company of Stationers, under direction of the House of Lords, seized the Overtons’ printing press, moveable type, paper, and printed books. For the next two years, Richard Overton’s pamphlets – chiefly anti-Catholic and anti-Laudian satires – were printed by others. But by 1643 the Overtons were back in business with their own underground press, having now a broader, more secular and developing agenda. They formed a loose confederation with John and Elizabeth Lilburne, and William Walwyn; and with the booksellers, Peter Cole and William Larner. Their common agenda: oppose the tyrant, King Charles, and the doctrine of prerogative rule; promote parliamentary governance; and proclaim the “natural” rights of the individual.

From the work of these few visionaries grew the Levellers movement, a coalition of soldiers and civilians whose organised efforts during the Civil War arose from their passionate commitment to individual liberty; for whose cause Richard Overton was the principal theoretician. From 1644-1649 the Levellers inundated London with political tracts; and the House of Commons, with petitions. The House of Lords, offended by this activity, waged a relentless but futile campaign to find the authors and printers of Leveller literature, to incarcerate them, and to confiscate and burn their unlicensed books. The Levellers received scant support from the House of Commons, and endured much persecution from Cromwell, whom the Levellers came to perceive as a new tyrant to replace the old one. Undaunted by repression, Richard Overton wrote, “this persecuted means of unlicensed printing hath done more good to the people than all the bloody wars; the one tending to rid us quite of all slavery; but the other, only to rid us of one, and involves us into another.”

As surveillance and repression escalated, the independent book trade thrived as never before. During the English Civil War, hundreds of unlicensed publications appeared that were critical of church and state. More than one hundred of those titles were from the pen of Richard Overton; and those, chiefly, printed at the Overtons’ clandestine printshop.

In July 1646, Overton published An Alarum to the House of Lords. MPs in the House of Lords, taking note of that alarum, smelled the rat for whom they had been searching. Their investigation ended on August 11th, with a dawn raid on the home of Richard and Mary Overton. A detachment of musketeers stormed their Southwark home, pulled Richard from bed, ransacked the house, and took many personal belongings, including books and papers. Richard was hauled before the self-serving prerogative bar of the House of Lords. Refusing to answer questions before a tribunal that he considered wholly illegal, Overton was sent to Newgate prison, on a charge of contempt.

Richard did some of his best writing and thinking while in prison. Mary soldiered on at the printing press. Despite Richard’s confinement, the Overtons contrived to publish A Defiance against All Arbitrary Usurpations (a narrative of Richard’s arrest, printed in September); and An Arrow against All Tyrants and Tyranny, Shot from the Prison of Newgate into the Prerogative Bowels of the Arbitrary House of Lords (October).

On 5 January 1646/7, the House of Lords directed the Company of Stationers, by prerogative order, to search out all copies of a seditious pamphlet called Regall Tyrannie Discovered, a book “full of treason and scandall,” published anonymously. All copies were to be burned; the author and printer, to be identified and arrested. The next day, officers of the Stationers Company raided Mary Overton’s house. When the thugs broke down the door, they found Thomas “Johnson” (as he first called himself – actually, Thomas Overton, brother of Robert) stitching printed copies of Regall Tyrannie Discovered. Mary Overton was found to be in possession of these and many other offending tracts by the same anonymous author (her incarcerated husband).

Thomas Overton, and Mary (with her nursing infant), were taken to the new prison in Maiden Lane, where they remained until brought before the Lords’ prerogative bar. From the Journal of the House of Lords for 6 January 1646/7:
“Overton’s wife examined, about the pamphlet called Regal Tyranny: This day Mary Overton, the wife of Overton, was brought to the Bar; who being demanded by the Speaker, Who brought the scandalous pamphlet called Regall Tyranny Discovered, &c., to her shop, and of whom she had them? And she said, She would not answer to Interrogatories; and she would not tell him. … Ordered: That the said Mary Overton shall stand committed to the prison of Bridewell, for her contempt to this House; there to remain during the pleasure of this House.”

The Bridewell (once, a palace of Henry VIII, then a poorhouse) was by now become one of London’s most notorious prisons for female offenders. Mary refused to comply with the warrant commanding her transfer from Maiden Lane: Her husband writes: “Like a true-bred Englishwoman brought up at the feet of Gamaliel, she told the marshal that she would not obey it, neither would she stir after it so much as to set one leg before another, in attendance thereto.”

Mary’s refusal to be escorted on foot to the Bridewell was ill received. Richard Overton reports: “No sooner had this turkey-cock marshal heard of her uprightness to the Commons of England, but up he bristled his feathers, and looked as big and as bug as a Lord … out he belched his fury and told her that if she would not go, then she should be ‘carried in a porter’s basket, or else dragged at a cart’s arse.’”

The Marshall sent for two porters to transport Mary Overton. When they came and found no criminal but only a “poor, little, harmless, innocent woman,” with a “tender babe on her breast,” they refused to take her. A city cartman was summoned. He, too, on “hearing what this woman was, wisely refused to lay hands on her, and departed in peace.”

Taking the labor upon himself, the City Marshall “struts towards her like a crow in a gutter, and with his valiant looks (like a man of mettle) assails her and her babe, and by violence attempt[ed] to pluck her babe out of her arms; but she forcibly defended it and kept it in, despite of his manhood.” The marshal and his cohort then “laid violent hands upon her, and dragged her down the stairs, and in that infamous, barbarous manner drew her headlong upon the stones in all the dirt and mire of the streets.” Suspended under the arms by two cudgels, and clinging still to her crying infant, Mary Overton was dragged the three miles across London to the Bridewell, being reviled along the way with the epithets whore and strumpet.

(Overton warns his readers, “this is the honour that their lordships are pleased to confer on the free commoners’ wives who stand for their freedoms and liberties.”)

At Bridewell, the infant was taken from Mary and delivered to Richard’s impecunious sister and her husband; who stayed that night in Richard and Mary’s house, with the three children. In the morning, deputies from the House of Lords were sent to arrest the sister and brother-in-law. By a stroke of luck, and with the aid of neighbours, the in-laws and the children escaped; but the residence was shut up, leaving the parents in prison without income, and their children homeless.

In February Richard Overton and John Lilburne collaborated on The Out-Cryes of the Oppressed Commons, arguing that arbitrary government had dissolved the social contract; the people were therefore entitled to draft a new Constitution.

Richard’s brother, meanwhile, languished in the Maiden Lane jail; and Mary remained in the Bridewell, her three days for contempt stretching to three months.

Concerned for his family, Overton on the first of February addressed his Commoners Complaint to Henry Martin, MP in the House of Commons, without results. In March was drafted The Humble Appeale and Petition of Mary Overton, a collaborative effort. This was the first of two petitions directly begging Parliament either to charge Mary Overton with a crime and bring her to trial; or to release her from custody. The “Petition of Mary Overton” was smuggled out of prison; printed by one of the secret Leveller presses; and submitted to the House of Commons in March 1647 (The second, shorter, petition was handwritten by Mary, in April, after the death of her infant).

[Nicked From Women’s Works, vol. 4. Mary Overton’s texts follow on pp. 321-332] Wicked Good Gooks.]

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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 radical history: Wat Tyler killed as the Peasants’ Revolt begins to unravel, 1381.

The 1381 Peasants Revolt remains one of the most cataclysmic and inspiring events in British history. While in the immediate it was defeated, it sounded a death knell to a feudal system already rotten and decaying, and hastened social change in England, as well as inspiring 6 centuries of agitators, activists, rebels, socialists, anarchists, liberals communists, democrats and many more. Much of it can be read to support a number of conflicting political ideologies, and often is.

At its heart the Revolt pushed to the fore a character of who it can fairly be said that probably no other person has such historical significance while so little actually known or proven fact can be definitely stated about him. School and motorways can be named after him, but his name may not even have been his real name. Wat Tyler remains an enigma, a fascinating glimpse of a personality, thrust to the head of a fierce rebellion, articulating demands so radical they get you spied on by Special Branch even today, then cut down by royal servants and slaughtered.

The basic facts behind the Peasants’ Revolt are well known. An English government (dominated by an aristocratic and clerical coterie around king Edward III and his grand-son Richard II), tries to levy three poll taxes to raise more money to fight their pointless dynastic and genocidal hundred years war in France. Those living on the south coast notice that all this cash doesn’t seem to contribute anything towards coastal defence as French raiders regularly swan up and take revenge on the nearest English without much response from the rich or their lackeys. A large section of the English rural population in the south of England, already decimated by the Black Death 30 years before, and enraged by subsequent attempts to keep wages and social mobility down by law and force, reacts to the blatant attempt to get the poor to pay more of their meagre resources to fund the rich’s adventures in blood, by rising up, refusing to pay and killing or deriving out the tax collectors. Huge armies of angry peasants march on London, having first raided the homes of the rich and the local monasteries to destroy the manor rolls that record their ‘feudal obligations’ (the unpaid work they had to do for their landlords) and the levels of rent and tax they were liable for. A general agreement is reached that feudalism itself has to go. A stroppy London populace also rebels, opens the gates to the rebels, and a number of the upper class directors of Late 14th Century England PLC are seized and put to death; some racist twats also attack foreign workers in London, because there’s always a fucking Brexiter in the mix. In terror for their lives, the king and his remaining advisers meet the rebels at Mile End and lyingly promise to grant all the demands of the rebels, signing charters to this effect, but have as much intent to keep their word as, say, councillors and big building contractors have of honouring promises to the residents of council tower blocks. Shortly after many of the rebels then leave happily for home, the core leadership of the revolt met the king again, and Wat Tyler pushes for even more concessions, going beyond even the massive aim of abolishing feudalism and proposes to abolish all classes and religious hierarchy apart from the king himself. He’s stabbed, butchered and the young king cleverly persuades the rebels to not react by killing him and his gang. Because of the holy fucking reverence people held the king in the peasants don’t kill him out of hand, which they will regret, because immediately he can Richard II orders them rounded up; hundreds, perhaps 3000, are executed or killed out of hand, and the king goes back on everything that was sworn, telling the poor to get back to the land and work because that’s where they will be forever, in their place. Sadly for him he doesn’t live long enough to see that the revolt does in fact herald huge change because the ruling class realise you can’t keep stuffing shit in people’s mouths because they will spit it in your face. So the Revolt does bring about something of the aims of the mass of its participants; we’re still waiting and fighting for the classless society bit, Wat, but this time we really will not exclude the monarchy from the chop.

So who was Wat Tyler?

As Paul Foot said about him, “Wat Tyler, about whom, to his enormous credit, we know absolutely nothing. We don’t know what he looked like, we don’t know what he did for a living, we don’t know anything about him save that he led the biggest rising of ordinary people in Britain before Oliver Cromwell.”

Guesses and assertions on scanty evidence have abounded through the centuries… As Tyler seemed around forty when he was killed, he was likely born about 1340. One document suggested that as a young man he lived in Colchester. It has been suggested that during this time he became a follower of radical priest John Ball. He may have fought in the Hundred Years War and worked for Richard Lyons, one of the sergeant-at-arms of Edward III. By the 1370s Tyler was living in Maidstone, Kent.

Tyler is sometimes conflated with one John Tyler, an actual tiler working in Dartford, Kent, whose action was one of the sparks for the uprising there. Poll tax collectors were ordered to drum up as much cash as possible, including by checking the age of young girls, as they were exempt from paying the tax –  by measuring pubic hair. The opportunity for sexual assaults by these nasty and unscrupulous men being obvious. A little like UKIP’s failed general election to enforce checks on muslim girls returning from abroad for Female Genital Mutilation, only this policy actually happened. Happily John Legge, who drew up this policy, would by be killed in London by rebels a few days later. Maybe Farage and Nuttall should be drawing up wills.

John Tiler’s house was visited by assessors, who

‘had gone to the house of one John Tyler and commanded of his wife the payment of the poll tax on behalf of herself, her husband and her daughter. She refused to pay for her daughter, as not being of age, and the collector thereupon seized the daughter, declaring he would discover if this were true.’

‘Neighbours came running in, and John Tyler, being at work in the same town tiling of an house when he heard thereof, caught his lathing staff in his hand and ran reeking home, where, reasoning with the collector, who made him so bold, the collector answered with stout words and strake at the tiler. Whereupon the tiler, avoiding the blow, smote the collector with the lathing staff that the brains flew out of his head, wherethrough great noise arose in the streets and the poor people, being glad, everyone prepared to support the said John Tyler.’

This account is sometimes repeated but attributing the killing of the collector’s death to WAT Tyler. It seems though that this story may date only from John Stowe’s account in the 17th century. At least one chronicle written a few years after 1381 (John Trevisa’s World History, c. 1390) ‘refers to John Tiler, leader of the peasants’. So perhaps it was the same man… perhaps two people of similar names shoved together by history. It’s unlikely we will ever be certain. The mystic cockney communist William Blake was inspired by the story to illustrate it in an engraving (see the picture above this post), in 18th century dress!

Wat Tyler was elected leader of the Kentish peasant army in Maidstone, as John Ball was freed from prison by armed rebels. Ball, an unfrocked radical priest, had been imprisoned for preaching subversion, and immediately joined the revolt’s leadership. As Charles Poulsen, the author of The English Rebels (1984) has pointed out, it was important for the peasants to be led by a religious figure: “For some twenty years he had wandered the country as a kind of Christian agitator, denouncing the rich and their exploitation of the poor, calling for social justice and freeman and a society based on fraternity and the equality of all people.” John Ball was needed as their leader because as a priest, he had access to the word of God. “John Ball quickly assumed his place as the theoretician of the rising and its spiritual father. Whatever the masses thought of the temporal Church, they all considered themselves to be good Catholics.”

Whether or not he had personally bashed out the brains of a poll tax collector, Tyler was either well known and respected, or very quickly recognised as being intelligent and organised, since within days of a huge army of peasant rebels gathering in Kent he had been elected leader of the Kentish contingent: some 70,000 strong by contemporary accounts. Soon he was heading the march on London.

“His ability as leader, organiser and spokesman is clearly revealed throughout the revolt, while his standing among the rebel commons was proved by the immediate acceptance of his captaincy, not only in Kent and Essex, but in Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, and even farther afield; while the strength and vigour of his personality impressed itself even on the unwilling recorders of his work.” (Reg Groves) Charles Oman, the author of The Great Revolt of 1381 (1906) claims that the main reason that Wat Tyler became the leader of the revolt was because he was a man with military experience and knew how to establish authority over a mob. However, a mob is often capable of establishing authority over itself. Tyler is recognised by even the ardent anti-peasant chroniclers as being cunning and able to make practical tactical and strategic decisions which people carried out because they made sense.

It had also been speculated that Tyler was a member of a pre-revolt underground network, sometimes called the ‘Great Society’; linked individuals and groups who shared a radical and subversive vision of a world without the hierarchies, class divisions and poverty medieval peasants endured. John Ball had been preaching a form of classless communism for several years; he was hardly unique in dreaming of a better world. Such networks are known to have existed around this time among heretical religious sects; it is hardly impossible that political groups also operated clandestinely (in fact heretical sects may well have influenced Ball and other social radicals, as millenarian theological ideas often described the coming rule of Jesus on earth in terms of a classless paradise with no suffering, poverty, work…)

We don’t know, though we can suspect, and if we have spent time in radical groups plotting social change ourselves we like to believe… Paul Foot clearly liked to think of the rebels being led by a group very like his own Socialist Workers Party: “Through Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, even Lincolnshire, there were peasants meeting together in the villages. Representatives had been previously appointed and marked down. We know that because when John Ball was released from prison in Maidstone he wrote and sent a series of letters. Only two or three have come down to us, but the letters are direct, like Party circulars mobilising the membership. They are to Jack So-and-so, get out there and get the people out. You there, John this or Wat that, go for this particular landlord, or for that particular set of manorial rolls.”

Ball for certain, and, as far as we know, Tyler were not among the Kentish rebels who had sailed across the Thames on June 2nd and held a 2-day conference with Essex rebels at which the plans to march on London had to have been drawn up (though it is possible Tyler was there). A collective leadership did arise, either from people with a rebellious past, or maybe just people with a quick mind. Despite Paul Foot’s back-projection of a form of democratic centralism at work in the woods and fields, it is more likely that there were underground networks, but that they were autonomous, making links, yes, but organising themselves without orders from some committee. Authority was granted to individuals to command the large armies that converged on London in June 1381, but the unknown number of years of grassroots agitation, discussion of ideas, preaching, maybe swearing oaths, can only really have been done voluntarily and in secret, which means either a cell structure, or self-directed local groups. It is also possible that all this was done within a few weeks, not years, because spontaneous self-organisation is possible; more likely the immediate upsurge was based on some period of subversive rumblings.

Tyler is reported to have articulated the peasants’ view that they were acting lawfully and were not out to completely expropriate the wealthy. He is said to have told a crowd: “Remember, we come not as thieves and robbers. We come seeking social justice.” Many of the rebels obeyed a strict moral code, self-imposed as far we can tell, not to steal the wealth of the rich and the church, though much was destroyed deliberately. Some who broke this code were put to death.

Henry Knighton records: “The rebels returned to the New Temple which belonged to the prior of Clerkenwell… and tore up with their axes all the church books, charters and records discovered in the chests and burnt them… One of the criminals chose a fine piece of silver and hid it in his lap; when his fellows saw him carrying it, they threw him, together with his prize, into the fire, saying they were lovers of truth and justice, not robbers and thieves.” In their own terms this reflects a belief that their actions were justified, and they could show the moral rightness of their cause by not breaking god’s commandment not to steal; though it is worth commenting that as with all uprisings and riots there will be different crowds with different agendas, and events can reflect many diverse motivations which appear part of the same movement, while having contradictions and internal conflicts.

Wat Tyler himself illustrates this, since while the majority of the rebels seem to have desired merely an end to the poll tax, or the end of feudal duties, or other definite ends, he is quoted as demanding a more fundamental program.

The Mile End meeting between king Richard and the rebel leaders, where the king ‘gave in’ and signed their charters, took place on June 14th. Large numbers of rebels then began to march home, thinking that was it. The following day, a second meeting between the king & the peasant rebels took place, at Smithfield, the great open space north of the City of London, famed for animal slaughter and the ritual execution of dissidents. The remaining rebels may not have trusted the king, and called him to come and give further assurances. At this meeting, Wat Tyler argued for equality for all under the king, the church’s wealth to be distributed among the poor, an end to men being outlawed:

“Then the King caused a proclamation to be made that all the commons of the country who were still in London should come to Smithfield, to meet him there; and so they did.

And when the King and his train had arrived there they turned into the Eastern meadow in front of St. Bartholomew’s, which is a house of canons: and the commons arrayed themselves on the west side in great battles. At this moment the Mayor of London, William Walworth, came up, and the King bade him go to the commons, and make their chieftain come to him. And when he was summoned by the Mayor, by the name of Wat Tighler of Maidstone, he came to the King with great confidence, mounted on a little horse, that the commons might see him. And he dismounted, holding in his hand a dagger which he had taken from another man, and when he had dismounted he half bent his knee, and then took the King by the hand, and shook his arm forcibly and roughly, saying to him, “Brother, be of good comfort and joyful, for you shall have, in the fortnight that is to come, praise from the commons even more than you have yet had, and we shall be good companions.” And the King said to Walter, “Why will you not go back to your own country?” But the other answered, with a great oath, that neither he nor his fellows would depart until they had got their charter such as they wished to have it, and had certain points rehearsed and added to their charter which they wished to demand. And he said in a threatening fashion that the lords of the realm would rue it bitterly if these points were not settled to their pleasure. Then the King asked him what were the points which he wished to have revised, and he should have them freely, without contradiction, written out and sealed. Thereupon the said Walter rehearsed the points which were to be demanded; and he asked that there should be no law within the realm save the law of Winchester, and that from henceforth there should be no outlawry in any process of law, and that no lord should have lordship save civilly, and that there should be equality among all people save only the King, and that the goods of Holy Church should not remain in the hands of the religious, nor of parsons and vicars, and other churchmen; but that clergy already in possession should have a sufficient sustenance from the endowments, and the rest of the goods should be divided among the people of the parish. And he demanded that there should be only one bishop in England and only one prelate, and all the lands and tenements now held by them should be confiscated, and divided among the commons, only reserving for them a reasonable sustenance. And he demanded that there should be no more villeins in England, and no serfdom or villeinage, but that all men should be free and of one condition. To this the King gave an easy answer, and said that he should have all that he could fairly grant, reserving only for himself the regality of his crown. And then he bade him go back to his home, without making further delay.”

As the king dithered, clearly reluctant to agree this even if he meant to renege later, there was a scuffle & Tyler was stabbed by the Lord Mayor, William Walworth.

“During all this time that the King was speaking, no lord or counsellor dared or wished to give answer to the commons in any place save the King himself. Presently Wat Tighler, in the presence of the King, sent for a flagon of water to rinse his mouth, because of the great heat that he was in, and when it was brought he rinsed his mouth in a very rude and disgusting fashion before the King’s face. And then he made them bring him a jug of beer, and drank a great draught, and then, in the presence of the King, climbed on his horse again. At this time a certain valet from Kent, who was among the King’s retinue, asked that the said Walter, the chief of the commons, might be pointed out to him. And when he saw him, he said aloud that he knew him for the greatest thief and robber in all Kent…. And for these words Watt tried to strike him with his dagger, and would have slain him in the King’s presence; but because he strove so to do, the Mayor of London, William Walworth, reasoned with the said Watt for his violent behaviour and despite, done in the King’s presence, and arrested him. And because he arrested him, he said Watt stabbed the Mayor with his dagger in the stomach in great wrath. But, as it pleased God, the Mayor was wearing armour and took no harm, but like a hardy and vigorous man drew his cutlass, and struck back at the said Watt, and gave him a deep cut on the neck, and then a great cut on the head. And during this scuffle one of the King’s household drew his sword, and ran Watt two or three times through the body, mortally wounding him.”

To prevent the rebels massacring them for the murder of Tyler, the king promised them all their demands if they would go home…Tyler meanwhile, carried wounded to Bart’s Hospital, was seized by Walworth & beheaded in Smithfield.

“[The king] spurred his horse, crying to the commons to avenge him, and the horse carried him some four score paces, and then he fell to the ground half dead. And when the commons saw him fall, and knew not how for certain it was, they began to bend their bows and to shoot, wherefore the King himself spurred his horse, and rode out to them, commanding them that they should all come to him to Clerkenwell Fields.

Meanwhile the Mayor of London rode as hastily as he could back to the City, and commanded those who were in charge of the twenty four wards to make proclamation round their wards, that every man should arm himself as quickly as he could, and come to the King in St. John’s Fields, where were the commons, to aid the King, for he was in great trouble and necessity…. And presently the aldermen came to him in a body, bringing with them their wardens, and the wards arrayed in bands, a fine company of well-armed folks in great strength. And they enveloped the commons like sheep within a pen, and after that the Mayor had set the wardens of the city on their way to the King, he returned with a company of lances to Smithfield, to make an end of the captain of the commons. And when he came to Smithfield he found not there the said captain Watt Tighler, at which he marvelled much, and asked what was become of the traitor. And it was told him that he had been carried by some of the commons to the hospital for poor folks by St. Bartholomew’s, and was put to bed in the chamber of the master of the hospital. And the Mayor went thither and found him, and had him carried out to the middle of Smithfield, in presence of his fellows, and there beheaded. And thus ended his wretched life. But the Mayor had his head set on a pole and borne before him to the King, who still abode in the Fields. And when the King saw the head he had it brought near him to abash the commons, and thanked the Mayor greatly for what he had done. And when the commons saw that their chieftain, Watt Tyler, was dead in such a manner, they fell to the ground there among the wheat, like beaten men, imploring the King for mercy for their misdeeds. And the King benevolently granted them mercy, and most of them took to flight. But the King ordained two knights to conduct the rest of them, namely the Kentishmen, through London, and over London Bridge, without doing them harm, so that each of them could go to his own home.”

So king Richard II led many of the remaining peasants, to nearby Clerkenwell Fields, where they were then surrounded by royal troops. After days of disorder and rebels imposing their will on the authorities, the government now had the upper hand, and hundreds of executions followed…

“Afterwards the King sent out his messengers into divers parts, to capture the malefactors and put them to death. And many were taken and hanged at London, and they set up many gallows around the City of London, and in other cities and boroughs of the south country. At last, as it pleased God, the King seeing that too many of his liege subjects would be undone, and too much blood split, took pity in his heart, and granted them all pardon, on condition that they should never rise again, under pain of losing life or members, and that each of them should get his charter of pardon, and pay the King as fee for his seal twenty shillings, to make him rich. And so finished this wicked war.”

The promises to the rebels were now so exposed as so many empty words, and a vicious repression was launched against the scum who had dared to question their place and even worse dared to act upon it and deprived a few rich plutocrats of their heads.

“Every home in London was visited by the forces of the king and asked to swear an oath of allegiance on pain of death. John Ball was half-hanged, disembowelled while still alive, hanged again and drawn at St Albans. John Rawe, Jack Straw, John Sherwin of Sussex, William Grindcobbe in St Albans, all of them were executed in one way or another after varying forms of resistance in different towns.

William Grindcobbe from St Albans was arrested, imprisoned, and told that he would be killed unless he went back and told the insurgents to lay down their arms. He agreed to go back, and spoke to some 100-150 armed men at St Albans. He told them on no account to lay down their arms, to continue the struggle – and he was taken from behind while he was speaking and executed. Such was the spirit of the Peasants’ Revolt.” (Paul Foot)

So the sun set on both the largest mass movement for social change that England witnessed in the middle ages, and the lives of the radicals who briefly challenged the whole idea of order and hierarchy. Tyler remains a mysterious figure, like a bright light shining in a dense fog. John Ball too, a comet of brilliant love and rage which can be hidden by death – but you know it’s coming round again. Because he expresses eternal ideas, the kernel of which we struggle with today: why should any live off the labour of others? Why should anyone be in power over us? Why can’t we work together for the good of all and not for profit and self-enrichment? How can we ourselves change this situation?

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Sorry to nick this next bit so directly from Paul Foot, with all our reservations about him he had a proper way with words; at the end of a talk about Tyler, Ball and the Revolt, he links it so well to the future that we will give the last words to him (ok, in reality the hard work was done by William Morris). Yes we know Foot was in the fucking SWP and we don’t support them at all. William Morris’s Dream of John Ball is well worth a read though.

“In 1881, one hundred years ago, inspired by the celebrations of the 500th anniversary of the Peasants’ Revolt, William Morris, a great socialist writer, grappled with this same idea. We do have something in common with what John Ball and Wat Tyler were doing in 1381. How could William Morris, with his enormous writing powers, try to bridge the gap for the socialists of his time? He did it in a really very brilliant piece of writing. It took him a long time to do it, and didn’t in fact appear until 1885.

He imagined himself or somebody like himself, a socialist in 1881, being plunged back into the villages of Kent in 1381, beating off the barons and the nobles. He describes John Ball coming to a village – probably the best description there is, better than the chronicles themselves because William Morris really went into it and found out about it.

At the end of the piece, which is called The Dream of John Ball, this man, who has all this experience of 500 years after 1381, has a long discussion with John Ball about what will happen. John Ball says, in effect, that he knows the revolt is going to fail, but asks what is going to happen after that? When, he asks, is his dream of all people living in common and sharing everything and there not being any vassals or lords going to come about?

Morris replies sadly that it won’t come for 500 years at least.

Not surprisingly, John Ball gets a bit depressed about that. He reminds his guest that he is marching to certain defeat and execution, and asks: For what? Is it worth it?

Here is the reply:

‘John Ball, be of good cheer, for once more thou knowest as I know that the fellowship of man shall endure, however many tribulations it may have to wear through. It may well be that this bright day of summer, which is now dawning upon us, is no image of the beginning of the day that shall be – but rather shall that day dawn be cold and grey and surly, and yet, by its light shall men see things as they verily are, and, no longer enchanted by the gleam of the moon and the glamour of the dream-tide, by such grey light shall wise men and valiant souls see the remedy and deal with it, a real thing that may be touched and handled and no glory of the heavens to be worshipped from afar off.

‘And what shall it be, as I told thee before, save that men shall be determined to be free, yea free as thou wouldst have them, when thine hope rises the highest and thou arte thinking, not of the king’s uncles and poll-grote bailiffs and the villeinage of Essex, but of the end of it all, when men shall have the fruits of the earth and the fruits of the earth and the fruits of their toil thereon without money and without price. That time shall come, John Ball, when that dream of thine shall this one day be, shall be a thing that man shall talk of soberly, and as a thing soon to come about as even with thee they talk of the villeins becoming tenants paying their lord quit-rent.

‘Therefore hast thou done well to hope it, and thy name shall abide by thy hope in those days to come, and thou shalt not be forgotten.’

It’s coming sometime. Get out there and sharpen the scythes, companeros/as…

Some excerpts were nicked from This Bright Day of Summer, by Paul Foot

Read William Morris’s A Dream of John Ball

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

The Habeas Corpus Act passed by Parliament in 1679 guaranteed that a person detained by the authorities would have to be brought before a court of law so that the legality of the detention may be examined. In times of social unrest, Parliament had the power to suspend Habeas Corpus. William Pitt did this in May 1793 during the war with France, targetting pro-reform activists, publishers issuing radical texts, and others influenced by the French Revolution. Parliamentary reformers such as Thomas Hardy and John Thelwall were imprisoned as a result of this action.

Habeas Corpus was also suspended in January 1817, during the post-Napoleonic War economic and political crisis.

After the end of the Napoleonic Wars, there was an upsurge in demands for political reform and the extension of the vote. This was also fuelled by the collapse of the war economy into recession and mass unemployment; thousands of soldiers and sailors were being discharged with little prospect of work, too – a dynamic common to large-scale wars: compare the pressures for social change after World Wars 1 and 2 (many sailors and soldiers were also being demobbed unpaid – it was common for navy and army pay to be owed years in arrears then). On top of this a rampant succession of new laws, abolishing old protections for workers and the poor, in the interests of the factory owners, merchants and employers, was introducing unrestrained laissez-faire capitalism, with devastating consequences for the lower classes.

Mass radical agitation – for reform of the notoriously corrupt and elitist political system, but also for improvement in the lives of working people – revived not seen since the 1790s.

Mass rallies in the Autumn of 1816 culminated in the Spa Fields Riot in December, which left the government afraid of the possibilities of radials inspiring mass uprisings of the desperate poor… Sidmouth, the Home Secretary in Lord Liverpool’s government, had been receiving reports from his spies and informers that a revolution was in the making in the north of England.

After a missile (whether a bullet or a stone was never determined) shattered the glass window of the Prince Regent’s coach, as he was on his way to the opening of Parliament, the government accused supporters of parliamentary reform of fomenting political violence: Lord Liverpool’s government rushed laws through Parliament to clamp down on dissent.

On 4 March 1817, Habeas Corpus was suspended; the suspension was not lifted until January 1818. The Seditious Meetings Act was passed and continued in force until 24 July 1818: it was designed to ensure that all reforming ‘Societies and Clubs … should be utterly suppressed and prohibited as unlawful combinations and confederacies’. No meeting of more than fifty persons could be held without the prior consent of the magistrates.

At the same time, home Secretary Lord Sidmouth sent out a Home Office circular informing magistrates of their powers to arrest persons suspected of disseminating seditious libel. He ordered the Lords Lieutenant to apprehend all printers of seditious and blasphemous materials, all writers of the same, and demagogues. However, he failed with the attempt to prosecute the writers and printers because of Fox’s 1792 Libel Act; only one printer was convicted.

The political reformer and trade union activist (and informer!) Francis Place later estimated that between March 1817 and Autumn 1818, 96 people had been detained on charges of treason in England and 37 in Scotland (though Home Office papers show much lower figures). Most of these were later released without being tried.

The Gagging Acts severely hampered the campaign for parliamentary reform. However, as soon as Parliament decided to restore Habeas Corpus in March, 1818, there was an immediate revival in the demands for universal suffrage.

But if the government thought the Gagging Acts would mean the agitation and pressure for change would die down – they were sadly mistaken.

Even if the Acts did silence some vocal reformers others sprang up. Thus, as veteran radical journalist William Cobbett fled the country in March 1817, reckoning the Acts were aimed especially at himself, other newspapers emerged to take on the mantle of his influential Political Register, like the Black Dwarf and Sherwin’s Political Register.

And the repression wasn’t just answered in words… Hampden Clubs, radical debating societies and groups discussing and advocating reform had mushroomed across the country. Amongst those gathering to work for political reform, there were elements who believed only an uprising could deliver political change; to some extent the Gagging Acts strengthened their hand. Hundreds of thousands were facing intense poverty; thousands were incensed by the political repression; among them some were willing to join conspiracies aimed at revolution.

Even as the Acts were being debated in Parliament, the March of the Blanketeers began, in March 1817, a hunger march of its time, calling for government help for Lancashire workers in response to the economic distress and government repression. The marchers were violently dispersed and arrested.

This was swiftly followed by the arrest of alleged conspirators plotting insurrection in Ardwick Bridge in Manchester, and then in June, by the Pentrich Rising, an attempt to launch a revolutionary uprising in Derbyshire, by workers convinced by government spy that a network of similar risings was planned elsewhere. There is evidence that similar plans were afoot in a number of places, but linked only by informers, and the premature events in Derbyshire and some arrests elsewhere led only to disaster.

But plots continued, amidst a rising climate of demands for reform, which climaxed with the violent repression of the massacre of Peterloo in 1819 (where the  Manchester and Salford Yeomanry cavalry, formed to combat any future attempts at insurrection after the Blanketeers march and Ardwick Bridge arrests savagely attacked a mass rally calling for political reform)

… and a final abortive wave of insurrectionary plans that ended with the Cato Street Conspiracy, and a botched Scottish attempt at revolution in 1820…

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

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This week in radical history: British govt forced to resign over its attacks on refugees, 1858. Really.

The UK state unable to deport or imprison asylum seekers because of political pressure from all levels of society? A British government forced from office over the issue? Seems unlikely in 2017… But 159 years ago today the prime minster had just resigned after resistance to minor changes to conspiracy law made his position untenable.

As related in earlier posts (on Italian anarchist exiles, the Communist Club…) nineteenth century London was home to thousands of exiles, mainly from other European countries, and often forced to leave their home countries for their political activities or beliefs.

Bizarrely as it may seem in the current climate, political refugees flocked to Victorian Britain as it tolerated their presence, if often uneasily, and almost never deported them back where they had come from. This was pretty much unique at the time, (and wasn’t to last.)

Interestingly, this was not because there was a recognisable right in the law at the time to appeal for political asylum – in fact it was the absence of law that was significant. The government was unable to extradite political exiles, or imprison them for simply being here, because there was no law that allowed them to do so. At the time there was a consensus that ‘everything is lawful that the law does not prohibit’. Whereas in other nations it seemed to work the other way around – ‘nothing is lawful but what law permits.’ ‘Politicals’ were also generally seen as a different category from say murderers of other crims on the lam. On top of this, ironically, British xenophobia also worked backhandedly in the exiles’ favour: British courts were unwilling to even consider sending them to face what was seen as unfair and arbitrary ‘foreign’ justice. In reality, a weird contradictory mingling of liberal sentiment and suspicion of all foreign institutions at grassroots level in British society made it very difficult for the authorities to make large-scale change to this situation.

Other European countries observed this with disbelief. At first they responded to Britain’s failure to surrender refugees incredulously, concluding that it amounted to a refusal. Surely Britain was sheltering these rebels and radicals to allow them to plot against and undermine other countries, particularly her rivals. Gradually it dawned on them that Britain was in fact incapable of deporting or locking up these undesirables; this resulted in a rash of dire predictions that Britain would soon be destroyed because of this tolerance.

When a government did attempt to make some moves towards altering this legal loophole, they were often not put into practice. In 1848, the government passed an Alien Act, which allowed it to expel any (importantly, only newly arrived) ‘foreigners’, if they threatened the peace and tranquility of the realm. A short-lived panic about a wave of exiled Frenchmen arriving in London as a result of the 1848 French Revolution sparked this major legal change. However, it was never used, and it was not renewed in 1850.

Mainstream British society generally viewed many of the ‘foreigners’ taking shelter on their shores with contempt and disdain, avoiding them if at all possible, but did not call for them to be expelled. However this did not mean they were not under surveillance. In 1850 or thereabouts, Scotland Yard set up a small department to keep tabs on the international political networks holed up here. But the department’s main work seems to have been to re-assure the political establishment that the exiles posed no threat to the realm at all (in weird contrast to later secret police policy, eg Special Branch’s bold mission to inflate the threat posed by radicals and provoke them into arrestable offences, which has continued into our own time.

Later attempts to even tinker with the legal situation were to backfire on them. In 1858, the government attempted to prosecute in Simon Francois Bernard, a political refugee who had been implicated in the plot by Italian nationalist Orsini to assassinate French Emperor Napoleon III. Orsini planted a bomb which exploded under the emperor’s carriage. The attack killed eight people and a horse, the Emperor’s military escort taking the brunt. Estimates of the wounded ran to 150.

Orsini had spent periods in England, and had made numerous contacts with radicals and liberals. Orsini had been a known associate of Italian nationalist leader Mazzini (if latterly estranged); the plot was generally aimed at furthering the campaign for Italian unification – in the hope that the result would be a republican government in France which would help kick the Austrian Empire out of Italy (Ironically, in this the plot was partly successful, in some measure due to Orsini’s last testament, published after his death, which swayed many on France to support the ‘Risorgimento’, and strengthened Napoleon’s already broadly pro-Unification stance).

(Interestingly Orsini’s plot did involve English radicals. He learned about the chemistry of explosives from William Mattieu Williams, whom he met in 1857. More centrally involved were Thomas Allsop and veteran Owenite co-operator George Jacob Holyoake. J. D. P. Hodge, a disciple of Orsini to whom he entrusted the care of one of his children, was also involved, as was Simon François Bernard, an expatriate French surgeon and socialist.)

Allsop arranged for the manufacture of “Orsini bombs” with a firm in Birmingham, and others tested them out in the countryside. Furthermore Allsop provided Orsini with an old British passport under which to travel to France.)

The British government did feel the heat that arose after this failed ‘attentat’ – pressure from France to act against exiled anti-empire plotters became extreme, and British politicians looked for a way to do something without bringing in new laws. The Attorney General suggested extending the Treason law so it covered treason against foreign monarchs, but this was impractical. A new extradition treaty with France was also discussed but dropped, and a new Alien Act was even drafted, but the cabinet was reluctant to approve it, either because it would be very unpopular, or hard to implement, some even disagreeing out of principle.

The only concession to French diplomatic outrage Palmerston’s government felt able to introduce was the Conspiracy to Murder Bill, an alteration of existing criminal legislation, making conspiracy to commit murder abroad a felony, rather than a misdemeanor (which would increase the maximum sentence from two years to life imprisonment). It was clearly a fudge intended to appease continental pressure over exiles, while not pissing off liberal sentiment – who could object to harsher punishments for plots to kill someone, which didn’t even mention foreigners specifically. However, as often happens with attempts to please everyone while doing nothing, even this small gesture was wildly unpopular, both with Liberals and radicals throughout the country. Part of the problem was that the government had to pretend to foreign governments that the bill was a bigger deal than it was, but to domestic opinion that it was no real change. In practice the french were persuaded that it was a real action against ‘incendiaries’; but so were radicals and liberals in Britain, and they were incensed. There is also no doubt that an unhealthy dose of anti-french sentiment (always a card on the table on British politics) played a part too…

A mammoth demonstration was planned for 21st February 1858, to protest the planned bill as it was going through Parliament. and Liberal, and even some Conservative, MPs protested, and introduced wrecking amendments; the reaction left Palmerston’s government no option but to resign, on the 19th.

The incoming administration of Lord Derby did however continue the prosecutions Palmerston had set in motion. Allsop had escaped after the event to America, as Hodge did to Piedmont; Holyoake however escaped suspicion (though shamefully appears to have offered to grass up his mate Allsop for a government reward).

Simon Bernard was an expatriate French follower of Utopian socialist Charles Fourier. It was alleged against him that he had introduced two of the plotters, Pierri and de Rudio. He was arrested, on a charge of conspiracy; but with the change of government he was put on trial for involvement in one of the murders in Paris. Because the death had been abroad, a Special Commission was required. In addition, a publisher, Edward Truelove, and a bookseller, Stanislaus Tchorzewski, were prosecuted for producing and selling pamphlets advocating tyrannicide generally and justifying Orsini’s attack, respectively.

The state trials turned the Orsini affair into a cause célèbre supported by British radicals outside the courtroom. Radical physician John Epps stood bail for Bernard. Secularist leader Charles Bradlaugh started a fund for the defence of Truelove, and subscribers included Liberal heavyweights Harriet Martineau, John Stuart Mill, and Francis William Newman.

Bernard was prosecuted by Sir Fitzroy Kelly in a jury trial before Lord Campbell. Edwin James spoke in Bernard’s defence, emphasising the theme that the trial was a result of pressure from ‘foreign governments’. The jury acquitted Bernard, rejecting the tenor of the judge’s summing-up. The evidence was fairly strong that Bernard had played a part in preparing Orsini’s bomb, though he may not have known of the specific target; the acquittal was blatantly a political choice.

In the light of this reverse the government decided prosecuting Truelove and Tchorzewski would be unwise, and the cases were dropped.

The whole business was of mixed parentage, really, part Liberal-Radical defence of the liberty of the exiles, but part snook-cocking at the ‘frogs’ across the channel. It would be inaccurate to trumpet any kind of ‘British values’ as being at the heart of the affair. However, in the 1850s, there was a widespread suspicion of policing in general, and political repression, and a healthy disrespect for the law when it came to resisting both – whether on the streets in this country, or (for a fair proportion, if not the majority) by somewhat more forceful methods as regards other countries.

In these Brexity times, this seems long way off… The legal frameworks which did not exist in 1858 are many and complex now, and the social context very different. Movements of solidarity with political refugees exist, though, and active resistance to deportations, detention and oppression of asylum seekers are growing… Twould be fun if in a couple of years we could reverse things as far as to see Theresa may forced out after some gross xenophobic violation… Let’s get on it…

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

Today in London’s transport history: 100s of drivers in road haulage strike, 1947.

As previously noted in this blog, the (often trumpeted by the left) landslide Labour government of 1945-51 took power claiming ‘the principles of our policy are based on the brotherhood of man.’ In practice, while much of the post-war welfare state, eg the NHS, dates from this time, this government also had no issue using the state apparatus to clamp down on any group of workers seeking to improve their lot through striking. As the leadership of the trade unions were largely integrated into the state apparatus during WW2, many strikes in wartime and in the post-war period were unofficial, wildcat, organised from below.

Less than a week after taking power in 1945 the Labour government has sent troops in to break a London dock dispute. This dynamic was to continue throughout the life of the Labour administration.

For example:

On 6 January 1947, anger over the rejection, after nine months of talks, of a London lorry drivers’ claim for a 44-hour week led to an unofficial strike. In many respects, the dispute bore the hallmarks of the explosion in the docks 15 months earlier: the exasperation with the negotiating machinery and TGWU officialdom, the emergence of a central rank and file strike committee, the rapid spreading of the strike throughout the country, the bitter scenes between Deakin and the strikers, the accusations of trotskyist infiltration and, of course, the use of troops, in this case the Army, Royal Navy and RAF.

Public hostility fanned by the press – the strike threatened food supplies at a time of severe shortages and rationing – encouraged the government to take a hard line. On 11 January, The Times commented:

‘In spite of the fact that the Minister of Labour has intimated his intention to break the strike the men are dissatisfied that he has given no assurance to them that he will take steps to modify or in any way improve the negotiating machinery of the Central Wages Board, which the unions and the men agree is out of date and cumbersome.’

On January 13, the Labour Government sent troops into Smithfield Market, one of the main centres of workplace organising, in an attempt to break the strike.

This was hardly the fist time the army had been ordered into Smithfield – several times since 1945, various disputes there had been face with military interventions. Mostly, as with the numerous dock strikes dealt with in this way, this had intensified the disputes – from relatively small, local, wildcat actions, sending in the army had provoked massive strikes in reply. The January 1947 dispute was no different. Following the pattern of the previous year, all Smithfield meat and provision workers came out in sympathy with the hauliers, followed by sympathy walk-outs in other major London markets and by nearly 10,000 London dockers. By all accounts the uniformed blackleg labour made a right old mess of the market.

By 15 January, some 28,000 workers were out nationally and the possibility of a total stoppage throughout the country loomed.

The Labour Cabinet resolved in public to try to speed up industrial negotiating machinery; behind closed doors it was putting into action its plans for emergency organisation. Ministers, and senior civil servants, had been discussing the question of resuscitating the Supply and Transport Organisation’ (STO), a secret emergency network which had been set up during the mass strikes of 1919, been used as the basis for recruiting scabs in the 1926 General Strike, but was allowed to lapse in 1939. (Since the ideology of unity the war provided was a more powerful motivating force than simple force…)

The Industrial Emergencies Committee (IEC), formed during the autumn 1945 dock strike but never convened, had finally been activated on 15 January. After discussing the thorny question of recruiting volunteer labour, the committee sat again at 3pm the next day to consider a possible declaration of a State of Emergency: while it was in session, news arrived that the strike had been called off.

The dispute had been put before a Joint Industrial Council specially created for the purpose. This done, the strike was called off and most of its major demands were eventually conceded. The Times concluded:

‘If there is one thing which can be more damaging to the orderly conduct of industrial relations than an unofficial strike, it is a successful unofficial strike.’

Troops continued to be used against striking workers, throughout the Labour government’s life. Although a number of the Labour ministers had come up through the trade union movement, many from the left, they shared a vision of how ‘socialism’ would be introduced. Grassroots demands for a bigger share of the pie, from workers hard hit by war austerity and post-war hardship, were at a low level, but potentially could inspire other movements, which could threaten to derail the economic rebuilding the government was relying on.

Who knows what a possible future left Labour government, headed, by, say, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, would do, in a similar situation…?

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Some interesting articles on the 1945-51 labour government and use of troops, Emergency Powers, etc:

Labour and strike-breaking 1945–1951

The Labour Government vs the Docker

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