Privilege – 3

In 1811 the first threatening letter signed by ‘General Ned Ludd’ was sent to employers in Nottingham. Wages had not only failed to rise in line with prices, they had been cut to ensure greater profits for the factory owners. Two hundred stocking frames were destroyed and the authorities responded by employing 400 special constables to protect property. The Prince Regent (in debt as always) offered £50 to encourage ‘giving information on any person or persons wickedly breaking the frames’. Luddism now spread throughout the country and the unrest led the government of Spencer Percival to declare machine-breaking a capital offence in February 1812. Some 12,000 troops were ordered to the areas where the Luddites were active. Ironically, the same year Napoleon invaded the northern wastes of Russia, the British Government invaded the North of England to suppress its own people. Fourteen people were hanged on one day in York alone.

The decade 1810-1820 was not only the coldest decade of the C19th, the continent was in the last throes of the so-called Little Ice Age which played havoc with normal weather systems. There were widespread crop failures and wheat prices soared. No father could stand by and watch his family starve, so in desperation they attacked the very machines that were putting them out of work.

In 1817 the Radicals John Johnson, John Bagguley and Samuel Drummond organised a march from Manchester to London to highlight the problems of unemployed spinners and weavers. They planned to present a petition to the Prince Regent – the triumph of hope over experience if ever there was one. To fend off the cold the participants were told to bring a blanket hence the march became ‘The Blanketeers March’. Spies working for the notorious Manchester Magistrates said that violence was planned on the journey south so great efforts were made to ban the procession. Nevertheless, some 10,000 people met at St. Peter’s Field in Manchester to see the demonstrators off and listen to speakers on March 10th 1817. The King’s Dragoon Guards were sent in to arrest the ring-leaders and twenty-nine men including Bagguley and Drummond were taken into custody. The march still went ahead followed by the menacing cavalry which eventually attacked those involved. At Stockport several people received sabre wounds and one man was shot dead. It was an eerie presentiment of what was to occur two years later. Furthermore, the event persuaded the Manchester Magistrates to form the soon-to-be infamous Manchester and Salford Yeomanry.The stage had been set for brutal and bloody repression on a massive scale.53

After Napoleon’s fall from power the European elites were quick to go back to the future. At the Congress of Vienna in 1814 they tried to regain all their former wealth and power : « The agreement reached at Vienna resulted in the reinforcement of hereditary rule and the suppression of liberal and nationalist sentiments in Europe. »54 The Corn Laws of 1815 benefitted rich farmers and landowners but meant huge rises in the price of bread for the masses. In Britain it was obvious that social reforms were necessary but when the economic recession of 1817 led to unrest the Government did the opposite and suspended Habeas Corpus after a missile had been thrown at the Prince of Wales’s coach when he was on his way to open a new session of Parliament. Now people could be held in jail indefinitely without trial. The incompetence and self-interest of British politicians infuriated the people.

The Government of Lord Liverpool seemed addicted to repression. The Gagging Acts soon followed. Meetings of fifty or more people were banned and magistrates were told to arrest anyone spreading seditious libel – basically any criticism of the King, the Church and the Government was outlawed. We should perhaps pause a little here to remind ourselves just how many times the elites of the time and many later British historians have drooled over our supposed ‘freedoms’ and how Britain was purportedly a beacon of liberty as opposed to the wicked tyranny of Napoleon.

To suppress free speech taxes were raised on newspapers. This had first occurred in 1712 and slowly risen over the subsequent years. By 1815 the duty was 4d a copy making a typical paper cost 6d or 7d. This was a lot of money at the time especially for the poor. John and Leigh Hunt who published the Examiner called it a tax on knowledge. Many radicals simply ignored the law. Jonathan Wooler published the Black Dwarf at 4d unstamped. Richard Carlile went to extraordinary lengths to publish the Republican. He was arrested, tried and found guilty of publishing blasphemy and seditious libel. He was given three years in jail and fined £1,500 – an incredibly severe punishment. Yet he went on writing material for the Republican whilst in jail. His wife was the new publisher. Jane Carlile was also jailed for two years so Mary Carlile, Richard’s sister took charge ! He had called for financial assistance from the public while incarcerated and over £500 a week was soon being sent to his shop in Fleet Street. The Republican far outsold The Times – the Government mouthpiece.55

Richard Carlile wrote in the Republican on October 4th 1820 : « Let us then endeavour to progress in, since knowledge is demonstrably proved to be power. It is the power knowledge that checks the crimes of cabinets and courts ; it is the power of knowledge that most put a stop to bloody wars ».56 In July 1831 The Poor Man’s Guardian stated that : « Defiance is our only remedy ; we cannot be a slave in all ; we submit to much – for it is impossible to be wholly consistent – but we will try the power of Right against Might ; we will begin by protesting and upholding this grand bulwark of all our liberties – the Freedom of the Press – the Press, too, of the ignorant and the Poor. We have taken upon ourselves its protection, and we will never abandon our post : we will die rather. »57

William Cobbett had continued to champion the downtrodden masses. In his Political Register in November 1816 he said : « You have been represented by the Times newspaper, by the Courier, by the Morning Post, by the Morning Herald, and others, as the scum of society. They say that you have no business at public meetings ; that you are a rabble, and that you pay no taxes. These insolent hirelings, who wallow in wealth, would not be able to put their abuse of you in print were it not for your labour. » And he added in his Thirteen Sermons in 1822 : « The man who can talk about the honour of his country, at a time when its millions are in a state little short of famine ; and when that is, too, apparently their permanent state, must be an oppressor in his heart; must be destitute of all feelings of shame and remorse; must be fashioned for a despot… »58

By 1819 things were bound to come to a head. Bad weather, bad pay, bad governance had all been added to the mix. Half-frozen and half-starved wraiths with no prospects, no votes and no future had simply had enough. To go against a government that had shown its mailed fist already time after time took a great deal of courage. Even so, the vast majority of people looked for change without violence. They wanted their voices to be heard, they wanted improvement not destruction. However, their ‘betters’ saw only ill will and potential rebels wherever they looked. Sir John Byng wrote to John Hobhouse in July 1818 about the Manchester Spinners’ strike : « The peaceable demeanour of so many thousand unemployed men is not natural ; their regular meeting and again dispersing shows a system of organization of their actions which has some appearance of previous tuition. »59 The view from the other side was aired forcefully in the radical newspaper The Black Dwarf on September 30th 1818 : « The master spinners are a class of men unlike all other master tradesmen in the kingdom. They are ignorant, proud and tyrannical… there is an abominable combination existing amongst the masters, first established at Stockport in 1802, and it has since become so general. As to embrace all the great masters for a circuit of many miles round Manchester. » In other words a cartel was in operation that was designed to keep the workers in their place. The Black Dwarf then goes on to describe the conditions for the workers : « The workmen in general are inoffensive, unassuming, set of well-informed men, though how they acquire their information is a mystery to me. They are docile and treatable, if not goaded too much ; but this is not to be wondered at, when we consider that they are trained to work from six years old, from five in a morning to eight and nine at night. » If work disputes were taken to the local magistrates they invariably sided with the employers. The paper concludes : « These evils to the men have arisen from the dreadful monopoly which exists in those districts where wealth and power are got into the hands of the few, who, in the pride of their hearts, think themselves the lords of the universe. »60

On August 16th 1819 tens of thousands of people gathered peacefully at St. Peter’s Field in Manchester to listen to speakers and demand the right to representation in Parliament and the vote. The sheer numbers terrified the magistrates who persuaded themselves that revolution was at hand. They had already gathered together four squadrons of cavalry of the 15th Hussars, numbering 600 in all ; hundreds of infantry ; 400 men of the Cheshire Yeomanry Cavalry ; 400 special constables ; a detachment of horse artillery with two cannons and 120 men of the newly created Manchester and Salford Yeomanry. Two of the well-known speakers were ‘Orator’ Hunt and that hero of free speech, Richard Carlile, and there were also several press representatives there. Barely had the first words been addressed to the meeting when at 1-30pm the magistrates decided to disperse the crowd. The special constables prepared the way for the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry who were intent on arresting Hunt. Chaos ensued when the cavalry used sabres on unarmed members of the public. Some 18 people were killed and around 500 were wounded, some 100 being women. One of the victims had fought at Waterloo.61 Events had proved that : « Liverpool’s government was now willing to use the same tactics against the British people that it had used against Napoleon and the French Army. »62

Despite a national outcry, the Government doubled-down and made excuses for the massacre. Lord Castlereagh said in the House of Commons on May 16th 1821 : « They were a great mass assembled for purposes of intimidation and in order to bring on a revolutionary movement ; and if the design had not been repressed at Manchester, it would have broken out into rebellion, and instead of the blood that had been shed there, torrents of blood would have burst forth… The magistrates had not employed a greater force than was necessary, and had not called assistance in until the danger to the yeomanry required it…The bloodshed was not occasioned by the magistrates, but by those who under the mask of reform, had no other object than rebellion. »63 This tissue of lies came to the attention of Shelley who was in Italy and he responded immediately with his famous poem The Mask of Anarchy :
« … I met Murder on the way –
He had a mask like Castlereagh –
Very smooth he looked, yet grim ;
Seven blood-hounds followed him…
Last came Anarchy ; he rode
On a white horse, splashed with blood ;
He was pale even to the lips,
Like Death in the Apocalypse
And he wore a kingly crown :
And in his grasp a sceptre shone ;
On his brow this mark I saw –

The British Government was prepared to sanction murder in its defence of aristocratic privilege.
Lord Liverpool himself had justified the attack in a letter to George Canning on September 23rd 1819 : « The accounts of the proceedings at Manchester will of course have reached you, and will probably have in some degree alarmed you. You will naturally ask whether the proceedings of the magistrates at Manchester on the 16th were really justifiable ? To this I answer, in the first instance, that all the papers on which they proceeded were laid before the Chancellor, and the Attorney and Solicitor-General, and that they were fully satisfied that the meeting was of a character and description, and assembled under such circumstances, as justified the magistrates in dispersing it by force… and I am sorry to say that, notwithstanding the support which they have received, there prevails such a panic throughout that part of the country that it is difficult to get either magistrates to act or witnesses to some forward to give evidence, and that many of the lower orders who were supposed loyal have joined the disaffected, partly from fear, and partly from a conviction that some great change was at hand. »65

The heavy handed tactics used by Liverpool’s Government were obviously backfiring and doing nothing to calm the situation. To make matters even worse the Government rushed through The Six Acts in November 1819. The Home Secretary Lord Sidmouth announced the details in the House of Commons. The Training Prevention Act prohibited military training and drilling on pain of seven years’ transportation to Australia ; the Seizure of Arms Act gave local magistrates the power to search all people and households for arms ; the Seditious Meetings Prevention Act banned meetings of more than fifty people without the consent of a magistrate ; The Misdemenanours Act was designed to speed up the administration of justice ; The Blasphemous And Seditious Libels Act increased the punishments for publishers of such literature to fourteen years’ transportation ; and the Newspapers And Stamp Duties Act increased taxes on publications not already covered by the law. Publishers had also to pay a large bond in advance. It was now very clear that the price of privilege was repression.66

Back in 1791 Thomas Paine had written in his Rights Of Man : « What is government more than the management of the affairs of a Nation ? It is not, and from its nature it cannot be, the property of any particular man or family, but of the whole community, at whose expense it is supported ; and though by force or contrivance it has been usurped into an inheritance, the usurpation cannot alter the right of things. » He added : « Sovereignty, as a matter of right, appertains to the Nation only… The Romantic and barbarous distinction of men into Kings and subjects, though it may suit the condition of courtiers, cannot that of citizens ; and is exploded by the principle upon which Governments are now founded. Every citizen is a member of this Sovereignty, and, as such, can acknowledge no personal subjection ; and his obedience can be only to the laws ».67

We have seen just how ‘free’ the common people were when ruled by a mad King and an angry aristocracy. Almost never in the field of human history have so many people been held back by the selfish interests of so few. Aristocratic privileges crushed the hopes and aspirations of millions of ordinary people and the high and mighty lauded over their victims with disinterest or contempt. The mythical and much vaunted ‘British freedoms’ vanish like a tenuous mist under the strong light of investigation. Men like Liverpool, Castlereagh and Sidmouth were a blight on the history of this nation. In every grubby nook and cranny inhabited by the benighted poor they saw the spark of revolution and the flame of revolt, when in actuality all they saw were the heated figments of their own imaginations. The truth is that it was they who were revolting, as rulers and as human beings. Long after the death of Napoleon things remained just the same in Britain. In 1842 in the Second National Petition put forward by the National Charter Association, this is what was said about our precious Parliament : « The House of Commons, which is said to be exclusively the peoples ! There are two hundred and five persons who are immediately or remotely related to the peers of the realm. That is contains 3 marquises, 9 earls, 23 viscounts, 27 lords, 32 right honourables, 63 honourables, 58 baronets, 10 knights, 2 admirals and 108 patrons of church livings. There are little more than 200 of the 658 members of your house who have not either titles, office, place, pension, or church patronage. »68


  1. Spartacus Educational: See pages on The Luddites; Industrial Unrest; The Blanketeers; Lord
    Castlereagh; Lord Sidmouth; Lord Liverpool
  2. Spartacus Educational: See pages on Lord Castlereagh
  3. Spartacus Educational: See pages on William Cobbett; Gagging Acts; Habeas Corpus; The Six
    Acts; and The 1815 Stamp Act
  4. Richard Carlile in the Republican October 4th 1820 See Spartacus Educational on Richard
  5. The Poor Man’s Guardian July 1831 See Spartacus Educational on The Poor Man’s Guardian
  6. William Cobbett: See Spartacus Educational
  7. Sir John Byng: Spartacus Educational: See pages on Industrial Unrest
  8. The Black Dwarf: Spartacus Educational: See pages on Industrial Unrest
  9. Spartacus Educational: See pages on Peterloo
  10. Spartacus Educational: See pages on Lord Castlereagh
  11. Spartacus Educational: See pages on Lord Castlereagh
  12. Spartacus Educational: See pages on Lord Castlereagh
  13. Spartacus Educational: See pages on Lord Liverpool
  14. Spartacus Educational: See pages on The Six Acts
  15. Spartacus Educational: See pages on Pocket Boroughs
  16. Spartacus Educational: See pages on Pocket Boroughs