Was this the start of mass politics in Britain?
The document collection is designed to allow students and teachers to develop their own questions and lines of historical enquiry on Protest and Democracy from 1816 to 1818. Documents are titled and grouped together according to theme and therefore not displayed in strict chronological order. Some of the themes include:
- the causes of distress
- radical meetings
- Pentrich Rising
- Spa Fields meetings
- Hampden clubs
Students could work with several documents on a certain theme or linked theme. The records should offer them a chance to develop their powers of evaluation and analysis and support their course work. Alternatively, teachers may wish to use the collection to develop their own resources or encourage students to ‘curate’ their own ‘exhibition’ of the most significant sources on the topic. Another approach would be to see if students can use the documents to substantiate or dispute points made in this introduction to the collection. Finally, there is an opportunity to study other documentary sources within our themed collection on Georgian Britain to provide some social context to the period, also available on this website.
The final defeat of the Emperor Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, after 22 gruelling years of war, saw peace celebrations but no ‘peace dividend’ – at least for working people. Half a million soldiers and sailors were demobilised into an economy just as wartime industries were contracting. On top of this came deep trade slumps in the northern manufacturing districts in 1816-17 and 1819, and the terrible ‘lost summer’ of 1816 caused by the dust from a massive volcano in Indonesia. Social unrest was inevitable; radical reformers sought to harness this to build a mass movement for political change.
Radicals, like Joseph Mitchell of Liverpool in his ‘Address to the People’, argued that the true causes of distress were political. Wealthy landowners and financiers who had profited from the war continued to milk the public purse in peacetime, exacting high interest on loans to government and drawing huge unearned state salaries. While the propertied classes welcomed the end of the wartime income tax, the poor continued to pay taxes on essentials like soap, salt, malt and candles. The Corn Law of 1815 protected the incomes of farmers and landowners by keeping out foreign corn – but this raised the price of flour and bread for consumers: it was known as the ‘bread tax’. A radical reform of Parliament was needed to put power back in the hands of the people.
In the autumn of 1816, reform societies were founded in towns all over the country, but particularly in the industrial midlands and north. Open-air public meetings were held in Birmingham, Manchester and elsewhere to demand the right to vote, which (it was claimed) England’s ‘ancient constitution’ had once allowed to all male citizens.
At the second of two mass meetings in London’s Spa Fields, addressed by ‘Orator’ Henry Hunt, a small group of ultras led a section of the crowd off towards the Tower of London. It was a dramatic attempt to stage an English version of the storming of the Bastille, the event which had set off the French Revolution in 1789. The elite, London-based Hampden Club launched a national petitioning campaign for parliamentary reform: a printed petition form survives in The National Archives.
Hundreds of petitions, sent in from all over the country, were rejected by the House of Commons in early 1817. Radicals in Manchester responded by organised a march on London: several thousand men carrying blankets and knapsacks, the so-called ‘Blanketeers’. ‘I am a trew reformer,’ wrote young Jonathan Hulton to his parents from Ashbourne in Derbyshire, just before the last remaining marchers were turned back by troops. Further risings were again attempted in Manchester, Huddersfield, and in Pentrich in Staffordshire, aided and abetted by the government spy and agent provocateur ‘Oliver’, who left his own, self-serving account of the affair.
Dozens of reformers were imprisoned without trial. Some sent touching letters home, including the Lancashire radical Samuel Bamford who told his beloved Jemima that a reformer’s wife should be a heroine.
The attempted risings and rebellions of 1817 may appear futile from a present-day perspective, but this was a time when there was no democratic process to give hope of real change to working people. The mass petitioning campaign had nonetheless mobilised between half a million and a million people for reform – an effort not far short of the first petition for the People’s Charter, which mustered 1.2 million signatures from a larger population in 1839. Working people were rapidly learning about mass politics.
Dr Robert Poole
University of Central Lancashire [UCLAN], author of ‘Return to Peterloo’
Use this website for a map of the Blanketeers’ march and other material on 1817