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

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

Cobbett would later be acquitted.

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

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

Mr William Cobbett, Captain Swing, and King William IV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

Follow past tense on twitter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

Follow past tense on twitter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A past tense text on Carlile’s Rotunda can be found here

From the London Rebel History Calendar: check it out online