Sunday, 20 September 2015

The problems of the peace: Britain in turmoil

Problems of the peace

The radical, Samuel Bamford (seen here in his respectable old age) wrote: 
While the laurels were yet cool on the brows of our victorious soldiers ... the elements of convulsion were at work among the masses of our labouring population.
The immediate post-war years, 1815-21, proved as difficult as any during wartime itself, as unemployment and high bread prices coincided with renewed political discontent.
  1. Adjustments had to be made in line with reduced demand for products associated with the war effort: provisions, timber, clothing, iron, leather, canvas, rope.
  2. During the wars the armed forces of Britain had been increased to 400,000 men (with as many again in the reserves) compared with about 60,000 in 1791. Rapid demobilisation put nearly a third of a million ex-servicemen on the already glutted labour market. This depressed wage levels, added to unemployment, increased the burden of local taxation and ensured that the discontented would be led by those with military experience.
  3. Added to this came the strains of technological redundancy. The number of shearing frames in Yorkshire had increased in the past decade from under a hundred to over 1,400 and in October 1817, 3,625 croppers petitioned Parliament for help. In Lancashire the number of handloom weavers continued to rise while their wages continued to fall.

The Corn Law

Even before Napoleon’s final defeat, the government of Lord Liverpool had bowed to massive agricultural pressure. In 1813 an abundant harvest sent prices tumbling. Peace in 1814 brought foreign grain imports with the promise of more to come. The government came under strong pressure from the landed interest , which argued that a Corn Law was justified in the interests of national security and domestic stability:
  1. Britain might once again need to maximise the domestic supply of foodstuffs to counteract the effects of blockade.
  2. Agriculture was the largest single employer of labour and was already subject to rural depopulation.
In February 1815 a parliament overwhelmingly dominated by the landed interest passed a law allowing the free importation of foreign corn only when the price of home-grown corn had reached the price of 80s.  a quarter. This decision -together with a run of bad harvests - helped ensure that the average price of corn was higher in the years 1810-19 than at any other time during the whole of the nineteenth century.

Opponents argued that the Corn Law was a piece of selfish class legislation.
  1. It caused unnecessary suffering for the already hard-pressed urban working classes by artificially raising the price of bread simply in order to maintain the artificially high profits of the landed interest, who comprised the country’s lawmakers.
  2. It damaged industry to the extent that it made the manufacturers’ wage bills unnecessarily high and hindered international trade.
  3. It taught gave the radicals a popular cause.
In March 1815 there were Corn Bill riots. London crowds both petitioned and demonstrated against the new law. Politicians’ windows were broken and  the Chancellor of the Exchequer, was burned in effigy. Special constables were enrolled, over a thousand infantry and cavalry were stationed in the capital, and the Life Guards charged the London crowd with drawn sabres.

Worse was to follow. In 1816 Britain faced the triple blows of a bad harvest, trade depression and a glutted labour market. As wheat prices rose to 100s a quarter at the end of a freak year throughout Europe many of Britain’s biggest iron works were at a standstill. Decline in demand for iron meant diminished demand for coal. Onto an unstable labour market was disgorged a demobilised army of c. 300,000 soldiers and sailors. Many failed to find civilian work. They returned to their home parishes to push poor rate expenditure to unprecedented levels. Those who found work forced down wages in a now sated labour market. The whole situation was tailor-made for a resurgence of radicalism.

The abolition of income tax

The proposal to renew income tax came before the Commons as part of the 1815 budget. It was rejected by a majority of 37. There was no doubt of the government’s need for money: army of occupation in France; allied subsidies; the defence needs of the 17 colonies acquired during the war: the unprecedented national debt; the need to pay war pensions. By 1815 income tax accounted for 20% of government revenue.

But the campaign against income tax, taken up enthusiastically by the newspapers, was directed not at its amount but at its ‘unEnglish’ inquisitorial character, justified only by the emergency of war. The decision to abolish income tax left a huge hole in the government finances and forced ministers into a ruinous policy of borrowing. It postponed the return to the gold standard (paper currency backed by bullion) and ultimately led to additional taxation on articles of general consumption. As with the Corn Laws, this bore down disproportionately on the poor.

The Ely riots, 1816

In 1816 economic distress was widespread - domestic weavers in Lancashire, iron workers in South Wales. At Birmingham nearly 20% of the population were receiving war relief. There was more machine breaking in Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire - though these disturbances finally died down in 1817 when 7 rioters were executed.

But the most severe riots were rural rather than industrial. April-
The magistrates attempted
to forestall the riot by
May 1816 there were food riots in the fenland towns of Ely and Littleport under the slogan ‘Bread or Blood’. Ricks were burned and threshing and other agricultural machinery was destroyed. One of the rioters was killed during the suppression of the disorders and 24 were sentenced to death. 19 of these were subsequently commuted for imprisonment and transportation, but five were executed. The prosecution had alleged a conspiracy but the keeper of the Bury St Edmunds Gaol where they were held believed that the causes lay in ‘the great dissatisfaction ... and the want of employ’. His analysis was supported by a report from the Board of Agriculture in 1816 which said 

‘The state of the labouring poor is very deplorable and rises entirely from want of employment, which they are willing to seek, but the farmer cannot furnish’. 
But the government’s response was to stiffen the game laws: the penalty for poaching was increased from one month’s hard labour to seven years’ transportation.

Fear of revolution

The Ely riots and the disorders that followed showed different degrees of illegality and violence. Some of the participants were amateur revolutionaries, but riot and disorder were also the traditional response to distress. It was not always easy for the authorities to make this distinction. To counter the perceived threat of revolution, the Home Office used informers and agents provocateurs, such as Oliver the Spy (aka William Oliver: W. J. Richards), who offered his services to the government in March 1817. In the absence of police forces it was perhaps inevitable that such people should have been used. But they presented partial and inaccurate accounts to government and may have acted as agents provocateurs.

Not all of the propertied classes shared the government’s view. As the notice to the Ely rioters showed, magistrates were often sympathetic to the people’s grievances and saw protestors as ‘deluded’ rather than wickedly conspiratorial.

The radicals

The ending of the war re-invigorated the demand for parliamentary refrom. The political radicals traced their intellectual descent from Thomas Paine and other 18th century writers. The war had been a difficult time for radicals because they were suspected of disloyalty. William Cobbett had been imprisoned for two years in 1809 for a seitious libel in his Political Register in which he had condemned the use of German mercenary troops to flog mutinous militiamen.

In 1812 at the age of 72 the veteran Major John Cartwright  embarked on the first of three tours of the Midlands and the North. His promptings led directly from 1816 towards the establishment of the Hampden Clubs. These provincial clubs were plebeian in composition and democratic in tendency, and were particularly numerous in the weaving villages of South Lancashire. By 1817 there were about 150 of these clubs in Lancashire alone. One, the Middleton club, is credited with directing the societies firmly towards manhood suffrage rather than the household or taxpayer franchises favoured by many middle-class reformers. The northern manufacturing districts were now setting the pace of reform.

Members of the Hampden clubs paid small subscriptions and took in radical periodicals like William Cobbett’s Political Register. The aim of the Register was for readers to understand
‘the true cause of their sufferings - misgovernment’.
In November 1816 Cobbett began publishing reprints of his articles in the form of twopenny pamphlets designed for a wider public, Twopenny Trash. Within a month he increased its sale from between 1,000-2,000 to 40,000-50,000. Samuel Bamford said that the Register was read on nearly every cottage hearth in the manufacturing districts. Cobbett can be seen as a ‘Tory radical’ - in many ways his views were highly traditional. He knew little of the industrial areas and his prescription for their problems - a return to an old-fashioned peasantry was reactionary. However he came round to the belief that Old Corruption (‘the Thing’) could only be halted if parliament was reformed and all men given the vote. It was he more than anyone else, who helped turn the thoughts of the discontented working classes to parliamentary reform.

The Spa Fields riot, 1816

Some radicals, such as the Spencean Philanthropists, can be seen as extremist, prepared to resort to violence or conspiracy. In November and December 1816 two meetings at Spa Fields in Islington were addressed by the radical orator Henry Hunt, a Wiltshire farmer. 

Henry Hunt
He appeared with the revolutionary insignia of a pike and a tricolour flag and addressed the meeting wearing the cap of liberty. The main purpose was to organise petitions to present to the Prince Regent Regent. But on the morning before the second meeting (2 December) a crowd of about 5,000 led by Arthur Thistlewood went off to plunder gunsmiths’ shops and attack the Tower.

On 28 January 1817, a projectile, supposedly a bullet, broke a window in the Regent’s coach on his way to open Parliament. On 8 February Thistlewood and his co-conspirators were arrested and committed to the Tower on the charge of high treason. They were acquitted, largely because of the discrediting of a spy’s evidence in court.


In response Habeas Corpus was suspended on 4 March. According to Samuel Bamford,
‘Personal liberty not being now secure from one hour to another, many of the leading reformers were induced to quit their homes, and seek concealment where they could obtain it.’
Cobbett fled to America, where he stayed until 1819, returning with the bones of Thomas Paine.

On 14 March the Seditious Meetings Act was revived. This provided for
  1. the compulsory licensing of rooms used for public meetings
  2. the prohibition of federations of societies of over 50 people
  3. the dissolution of the Spencean societies
  4. the suspension of habeas corpus for persons arrested on charges of treason
  5. the death penalty for inciting the armed forces to mutiny
The Whig opposition put up only a token protest. Parliament was genuinely alarmed. However the effects of the legislation were less draconian than might be imagined. Only forty-four people were arrested. One died in prison but the rest were eventually released. It could not compare to the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution.  However, it was a time of considerable stress and hardship for the radicals.

On 27 March, in reaction to publications like the Political Register and T. J. Wooler’s Black Dwarf, the Home Secretary, Lord Sidmouth, issued a round robin to the lords lieutenant of the counties, instructing them to inform the magistrates within their jurisdiction that they had the power and the duty to prevent the circulation of ‘blasphemous and seditious pamphlets and writings’.

The March of the Blanketeers

Manchester was the place where class antagonism was sharpest. In Birmingham small masters worked alongside skilled artisans, but in Manchester, workshops were large and impersonal. There were social barriers between cotton lords and workers, and the handloom weavers were being forced out of work.

On 10 March 1817 a planned mass procession of men carrying blankets to keep them warm on the journey, started out from St Peter’s Fields Manchester. The aim was to reach London to petition the Regent for parliamentary reform. Before they set out the Riot Act was read and two of the leaders were arrested at Stockport by the local yeomanry - only a small party got as far as Macclesfield. (The prisoners were judged harmless and released without trial.) The intentions of the marchers were peaceful, but they were also angry and powerless, and might have posed a serious threat if they had been allowed to march on London.

The Pentrich Rising

This was a genuine conspiracy, infiltrated by Oliver, involving ex-Luddites. On the night of 8 June 1817 about 400 stockingers, ironworkers and labourers from the Derbyshire villages of Pentrich, Ripley and Alfreton gathered for action under the belief that a general rising of working people was to take place the next day. Their ‘captain’ was Jeremiah Brandreth, a framework knitter. The plan was to attack the barracks at Nottingham seize the town before taking boats down the Trent to Newark with the eventual aim of reaching London where the forces promised by Oliver would overthrow the government. Eight miles short of Nottingham, most of the company fled at the sight of the cavalry and yeomanry. Over 80 arrests were made during the next few weeks. Thirty-five men were tried for high treason. Brandreth and two others were sentenced to death and another eleven men were transported for life. But not all the evidence was presented in court in order to protect Oliver. Nevertheless on the scaffold Brandreth blamed his death on Oliver and Sidmouth, a claim investigated by the Leeds Mercury.

The execution of Jeremiah Brandreth,
'the Nottingham captain'

Radical publications

Sidmouth’s circular, and a rather feeble propaganda campaign, did not stop the emergence of radical publications. In December 1817  William Hone was found not guilty of blasphemous libel by sympathetic London jurymen and released to the cheers of the crowd. His illustrated Political House that Jack Built, published in 1819 was to caricature the entire system. The government were unable to control a press which relentlessly propounded the message that the distress of the people was caused by corruption in high places.

This was the situation in 1819 when the nation was shaken by the Peterloo Massacre.