Prelude to PEterloo – key events in 1817

1817 – PRELUDE TO PETERLOO-

Talk at Birmingham & Midland Institute 2nd June 2017

Friday 9th June 2017 sees the 200th anniversary of the Pentridge Uprising- This has attracted substantial interest with at least 4 events planned this spring and summer. Trevor James spoke on Pentridge (Thompson’s spelling, which will be used here)in this hall three months ago, the West Midlands Centre for Local History staged an event six weeks ago though Derbyshire is not in the West Midlands, there is a day conference on the Pentridge uprising on June 9th at Derby University, and the Thelwall conference on 23rd July sees Richard Gaunt talking on the theme Pentridge – a Nottingham affair?

However I have discovered only one talk about the March of the Blanketeers, which I personally gave in Salford on the 200th anniversary in March. The contrast points up vital issues in the treatment of working class history, notably the preference of historians to favour violent confrontation over peaceful campaigning. Even if the violence gets nowhere.

But this is not for today. Today I want today to do three things – (A) to rescue the March of the Blanketeers from its current obscurity and to contrast the Blanketeers March as a seminal event in contrast to the dramatic but sterile happening of the Pentridge Rising later in the year. Historians seem to regard the Rising as more important than the Blanketeers, but it was a dead end. Would be revolutionaries failed to provide an effective challenge to the government, unlike the Blanketeers who unsettled the status quo. It is the BLANKETEERS which are important.

(B) I will challenge the view that the Blanketeers and Pentrich plus other attempted uprisings (Ardwick, Folley Hall, Sheffield) in the troubled year of 1817 were serious insurrections which led to Peterloo and the 6 Acts of 1819. The record shows that the government did NOT face a serious revolutionary movement and revolution was not on the political agenda. I will be supporting the thesis advanced by Adam Zamoyski in PHANTOM REVOLUTION* – that there was no revolutionary threat in Europe after the defeat of Napoleon but the ruling classes were paranoid.

Pentridge was the only uprising in 1817 which showed a serious revolutionary intent, and paradoxically, showed the revolutionary threat was wholly exaggerated, and the part played by Oliver the spy was immediately controversial. While politicians could not be entirely sure they had tracked all the plotting, leading politicians could not find evidence that there was a serious revolutionary threat. By the end of 1817 they scaled down overt repression.

  1. I will contend that the Blanketeers unwittingly set the precedent for Peterloo. The Blanketeers led government politicians to realise that the workers in South Lancashire did not pose a revolutionary threat, as a conventional military response had stopped the march. The national government of Liverpool and Sidmouth while deeply reactionary, had an extensive network of spies which provided evidence of popular movements. The military under Major General Byng also looked back to the Blanketeers and concluded no exceptional threat was in prospect in 1819. Alas the local magistrates had concluded after the Blanketeers that they could not handle large scale protests without major disturbance, and set up the volunteer Manchester and Salford Yeomanry, which did most of the damage at Peterloo. The Blanketeers had frightened the magistrates in Manchester who consistently over reacted.

While Peterloo is traceable directly to the March of the Blanketeers, no similar lesson can be drawn from the events in the East Midlands. The rebels at Pentridge I will argue were not influential in what happened at Peterloo in any way.

I am not arguing there were no revolutionaries. There were certainly revolutionaries plotting in 1817 and links between Manchester and the insurrectionaries across the Midlands, and Samuel Bamford clearly knew who they were. But they remain obscure and Bamford** never revealed what he knew. The extensive network of spies did not discover major threats, and indeed it was the role of Oliver the Spy as an agent provocateur – allegedly creating the threat he reported on, which immediately became controversial – which had the most significant effect on public opinion.

A The Blanketeers

The first priority to understand what was happening to working class politics in 1817 is to bring the now largely invisible March of the Blanketeers into focus.

For this talk I will be indicating why the events of 1817 shaped the events of 1819, and taking issue with the classic account by E P Thompson in his MAKING OF THE ENGLISH WORKING CLASS***. Thompson brackets the the Pentridge Uprising with the Blanketeers and Peterloo, also the view of Robert Poole, the other major historian to have written recently about working class activity in the north in 1817. I have enormous respect for Thompson who taught me as an undergraduate and I agree the book is a classic. But he does not bring the events in the provinces into focus, notably with his obscure statement about the government’s attitude to working class activity in 1817 that

This co-incidence of persecution and confusion is the background to the tangled story of the March of the Blanketeers, the Ardwick conspiracy, and the Pentridge rising” (1)

The tangled story is not disentangled by Thompson partly because he links the three episodes together, but more because he views the rising as the crucial episode. As an orthodox marxist when he wrote the book, Thompson looked for revolutionary activity, over-emphasising what happened at Pentridge.

The key to the events which took place in the working class areas unsettled in 1817 is that popular politics was taking a different course from recent years. Workers realised the dominant strategy, Luddism, had failed in the face of state repression based on armed power. A constitutionalist road had been developed by the Hampden Clubs and the popular press, Cobbett and his collaborators, creating mass support for constitutional and legal agitation. The insurrectionary Pentridge rebels were clearly extra-constitutional and led nowhere, while the activities in St Peter’s field in 1817 and 1819 were legalistic and mobilised thousands. It was the Blanketeers’ rigorously constitutional approach which was to prove influential.

So what was THE MARCH OF THE BLANKETEERS?

The Blanketeers were a group of workers who planned to march peacefully to London with a petition on parliamentary reform and it is not a mere coincidence of geography that in BOTH 1817 and 1819 the focus of attention is St Peter’s Field and peaceful protest.

As we will see, the Pentridge rebels were dramatic and eye catching, but the Blanketeers, clearly constitutionalists, were the essential foundation for Peterloo. So lets try to bring the Marchers and the Rebels into focus to explain what they did, and compare the men who only carried blankets to the Pentridge rebels who were carrying weapons.

WHAT AND WHY THE BLANKETEERS?

The Blanketeers aimed to take a petition for parliamentary reform to the Prince Regent, the official head of government in the place of George III who had gone mad, by marching from Manchester to London, carrying blankets to sleep by the roadside if they could not find billets on the way. Their name was derived not from their occupations (though they may have made blankets), but the key fact was they were carrying blankets to sleep on while trekking to London. It is estimated 12,000 people mobilised to send the marchers off – some witnesses say double that number- some less – in St Peter’s Field in Manchester on March 10th 1817. This was to be the location of Peterloo 29 months later.

The Manchester demonstration happened against a background of political repression. Habeas Corpus had already been suspended and Liverpool’s government was reviving Pitt’s meaures of the 1790s. Under this pressure, the national reform leadership collapsed. Thompson rightly says that “It was the heroic age of popular radicalism, but, on the national scene, its leaders rarely looked heroic and sometimes looked ridiculous”. (2) William Cobbett, the leading reform journalist escaped to America and in Manchester William Benbow and other well known leaders went underground – and new leaders emerged. These were not known to Samuel Bamford and remain obscure to this day.

It is clear though that they were inexperienced, John Bagguley was said to be only 18, but they were resourceful and had the confidence of the local community, which turned out in numbers and supported a marching group of some hundreds of workers = though the precise number is not clear. These men were determined to exercise their legal right to take a petition to the Prince Regent, virtually the only avenue open to them as petitioning was guarunteed by the Bill of Rights. We do not know who invented the tactic of marching to London and very little about the new men as Drummond, John Bagguley and their colleagues emerged out of nowhere. They were innovative, thoughtful and without intending to do so invented the tactic used for now two centuries of the march to London, setting the scene for the Jarrow Marchers, the Aldermaston Marchers and the People’s March for Jobs among others.

It is easy to neglect the fact that the Manchester reformers simply would not be repressed, and their willingness to challenge the government, constitutionally, was of the greatest historical importance.

In a very brief summary of only 186 words, Thompson defines the marchers as an early pressure group, but concludes that the problem for reformers was only to bring pressure to bear, writing

How was the weight of feeling in the provinces to be brought to bear on the government itself? The March of the Blanketeers, (which, perhaps, in its early planning stages, Cartwright and Cobbett may have known about and encouraged) was an attempt to bring this pressure to bear. The Lancashire men were to march

peacefully with their petitions upon London, holding meetings and gathering support on the way. There was some expectation of support from other groups of marchers from Yorkshire and the Midlands, and one of the Manchester leaders is reported to have said, ‘If we could get you as far as Birmingham, the who wd (whole would TF) be done, for I have no doubt you will be 100,000 strong’. ‘. (3)

This sketch is accurate but hardly scratches the surface of what the initiative was about, and the footnote perhaps explains why Thompson and others have been dismissive of the blanketeers. Thompson rightly says

the ‘Blanketeers’ were in fact prevented from marching by the military, more than 200 were arrested and few got further than Leek”, (4)

The implication was that had they reached Birmingham sheer numbers would have forced the government to concede reform. But the march never reached a major city – they were actually heading for Nottingham when finally stopped in Ashbourne, Nottingham being the destination of the Pentridge marchers three months later. Failure to overcome the military was decisive and the historical consensus seeming to be that the Blanketeers can be ignored. But the Pentridge uprising also failed to overcome a military force, so this comment does no more than state an obvious fact – that the state had forces strong enough to repress reform activity – which is as true for Pentridge as the Blanketeers, though only the latter have faded from history. Drama is eye catching, so the Pentridge uprising has become for historians a story far better to tell – and indeed it is a story which is a vital part of the narrative of the Working Class Movement.

THE PENTRIDGE UPRISING.

The sparsely populated area of Derbyshire north west of Nottingham was an area dominated by cottage industries with some mostly water driven factories, consisting of small and tightly knit villages dominated by family connections. It had seen strong Luddite activity but along with other Luddite areas turned away from machine breaking after the state provided enough troops to stifle Luddite activity, Luddism being dead by late 1816. Unlike most ex Luddite areas, in the Spring of 1817 the workers turned to a conspiracy for revolution. The fact that the conspiracy moved out of the communities where activists were well known in order to link up with potential activity in other areas notably Manchester, enabled the government to inflitrate spies into previously impenetrable groups of plotters.

Thompson says the government identified four centres of revolutionary agitation – Nottingham, Derby and Leicestershire – Birmingham and District – Lancashire – and Yorkshire. and a movement of delegates and correspondence between them – despite the Act against corresponding societies (5). There is little doubt that this is correct, but these were small and badly organised plots and relied on enthusiastic volunteers with time on their hands – who often proved to be paid government informers reporting directly to the authorities.

Unlike the Luddites therefore spies had access to the inner circle of the plotters, and Thompson rightly comments that “Government knew before it took place every detail of the conspiracy which culminated in the Pentridge uprising” (6) along with local magistrates and officials. The key informer was the notorious William Oliver who was in direct contact with Lord Sidmouth, the Home Secretary, and Major General Byng, commander of the Northern Garrison of the British Army, based at Pontefract.

When this was revealed by the Leeds Mercury, before the trials, the obvious question for public opinion was why the uprising was not stopped in its tracks.

The bare bones of the uprising, as revealed in the trials of the rebels, are easily described. The leader, Jeremiah Brandreth, a Nottingham based rebel, went to Pentridge on June 5th to collect men who had volunteered for an armed insurrection. On 7th the Nottingham Town clerk, with the magistrates who oversaw law and order in the provinces, prepared for a rebellion they knew was under way, but did not try to prevent. On the evening of the 9th Brandreth collected two or three hundred men from villages at the foot of the Derby Peak – Pentridge, South Wingfield, Ripley – armed with guns, pikes, scythes and bludgeons, some – the Ludlams, Weightmans and Turners – being related, and set out to march to Nottingham fourteen miles away.

The marchers picked up recruits on the way but did not number more than 400 and at a farm where they demanded food and weapons Brandreth shot a man dead – the only violence of the night. Some of the recruits were reluctant and the plan which Brandreth outlined that “Nottingham would be given up before they got there…..they should proceed from Nottingham to London and wipe off the National Debt” – the Blanketeers also believed they could wipe off the National Debt according to Bamford – smacks of desperation. When promises did not encourage the rebels he vowed that “every man who refused should be shot”. (7) The rebels were not in fighting mood and when a force of Hussars approached them they ran away and were rounded up in the days that followed.

The same night a rebel group in Yorkshire from the Holmfirth Valley some hundreds strong marched on Huddersfield in what was called the “Folley Hall” rising, despite the fact that the Sheffield magistrates had arrested delegates at a place called Thornhill Lees near Dewsbury which was surrounded by troops. Soldiers arrested the rebel leaders, possibly because there were no spies informing on their activity whose identity needed to be protected, and six faced the capital charge of treason.

The Pentridge rebels were also charged with High Treason, convicted, and three of the leaders were executed, thirteen were transported. Brandreth could have been charged with Murder but the government wanted the charge of High Treason to stick, Pentridge was clearly a plot against the government and was Treason. But while the jury convicted, the public registered shock at the role of the spy Oliver, who was accused of being an agent provocateur.

The Trial confirmed that the government had full knowledge of the plot and thus that Oliver’s role in informing the government made the government an accessory to the Rising. They knew it was going to happen and neither they nor the local authorities intervened. This did not affect the government’s charge that the Rebellion was High Treason, but undermined their case that revolution was a serious threat.

The charge that Oliver was an agent provocateur has always been controversial and there is little doubt that the plot would have happened anyway. The legal position was that to stage an armed uprising was clearly treasonable. The rebels were intent on overthrowing the government, and their plans pre-existed Oliver, who may have urged them on but did not create the conspiracy. But even if Oliver was not an agent provocateur, the fact he informed against the plotters became the dominant fact of the trial. He himself was not allowed to testify as defence counsel would have exposed the Home Office as accessories, and the government had enough evidence to prove its case anyway. But while the prosecution was successful, the bigger issue was the failure to prove that there was a wider revolutionary threat.

(B) A shift in emphasis

The Political desire for punitive action was clear in letting the rebels set out on their doomed enterprise Sidmouth wanted to make the rebels a warning to others. But the revelations about Oliver’s role compromised Sidmouth’s policy. He never admitted Oliver did more than inform the government about the plot. But the fact Oliver was telling the government about the plan undermined the government’s case that the revolution was a serious threat. Historians have been trying to find a serious revolutionary plot ever since.

Public opinion reacted negatively to the allegations the government had used an agent provocateur. Home Office had expected support similar to that Pitt had had in the 1790s, but the Sheffield 6 arrested at the end of May were not put on trial and in July a number of reformers arrested in February were acquitted it became clear that juries were not likely to convict. Although in Derby, the jury decided that Brandreth led an armed and treasonable uprising, Sidmouth was forced to rethink the policies followed in the early part of 1817, though habeas corpus was again suspended later in the year. The problem government had to face was that they could NOT find enough plotters to justify what they were doing,

Liverpool’s government had assumed the revolution was imminent. It set up the secret Green Bag parliamentary committee and claimed to have found evidence that “A traitorous conspiracy has been formed in the metropolis for the purpose of overthrowing … the established government …and that such designs… extended widely in some of the more populous and manufacturing districts” (8)

These beliefs were sufficient to induce parliament to suspend habeas corpus on 4th March 1817 and revive the Pitt Acts of 1795 which are rightly regarded as overt state repression. The mass of loyalists in the country particularly the magistrates never lost the belief that there was a storm of revolution brewing. But as the summer of 1817 passed the Home Office could not ignore the fact that hordes of revolutionaries were failing to appear.

There is no doubt that revolutionaries existed and were plotting and that Bamford knew a good deal of what they were planning from his vantage point in Middleton. In Manchester following the Blanketeers, at the end of March the local magistrates claimed a plot to burn down the city, centred in the Ardwick district, was just nipped in the bud. This was more than loyalist paranoia. Bamford wrote that he was approached on March 11th – the day after the Blanketeers marched – by an activist who told him of a plot to “Turn Manchester into a Moscow”, and wanted his support (9) which he refused. The plan to burn Manchester down as Moscow had been burnt when the French occupied in 1812 was no more than rhetoric and the so-called ‘Ardwick plot’ was a non event. Though the rebellion had not happened Bamford and other reform leaders were arrested and taken to London where the leading ministers interrogated them. Very little evidence was found, most were released without charge including Bamford who wrote up his experiences with telling clarity, and this highlighted the lack of hard evidence of revolutionary activity.

The haul from suspending Habeas Corpus was meager. Francis Place calculated by the autumn 96 people were on treason charges in England, 37 in Scotland. Thompson calculates from Home Office documents only 43 in England (10). These were tiny numbers and although intelligence gathering was not infallible, it was clear that the revolution lacked personnel.

The search for revolutionaries was becoming ridiculous and faced defeat by jury if treason charges were lodged. Sherwin’s Political Register reported on 13th September 1817 that the authorities panicked at a rumour of an insurrection at Bartholemew Fair, four regiments of horse were called out and the Lord Mayor of London searched for weapons among the stalls. None were found (11). Liverpool’s government were forced to backtrack, though like Disraeli half a century later they operated the maxim ‘Never complain, never explain’, simply allowing the legislation to expire. Habeas Corpus returned in January 1818, and the Seditious Meetings Act expired on 24th July 1818. Magistrates could no longer ban meetings of more than 50 people.

Thus the immediate outcome of the Pentridge rising paradoxically undermined the government case for repression. However with three men executed and thirteen transported, the government had made clear who operated the levers of power and could afford to relax its hold somewhat.

The prevention of the Blanketeers march, the failure of rebellions and the successful outcome of the trials of the Pentridge leaders had the effect of easing the sense of crisis which existed among Loyalists at national level. Rebellion was clearly a minority activity, while the large scale mobilisation in support of the Blanketeers had been contained – thus Westminster politicians came to think that even large numbers of reformers demonstrating were a threat that could be handled. It was a belief that was to backfire disasterously in 1819 and the roots of the Peterloo tragedy lay in 1817. It is time to look at the lessons of the March of the Blanketeers.

C) The road to Peterloo

Government was relaxed about working class mobilisation, realising that the lesson of March 10th 1817 had been that the Blanketeers had got nowhere, literally or metaphorically. The government then took little interest in the Blanketeers or Manchester politics after the collapse of the alleged Ardwick conspiracy, leaving the local situation to work itself out. The Blanketeers had paradoxically convinced the local magistrates that they posed a revolutionary threat, though in reality they had failed and tensions in and around Manchester were rising.

Both reformers and Loyalists knew after the Blanketeers that reformers could mobilise many thousands of demonstrators. Beyond that the lessons of the events of March 10th were interpreted in contrary ways. The obvious lesson was that the Blanketeers had been stopped by a very efficient military operation, under the direct control of General Byng. The magistrates had read the Riot Act, cavalry had advanced on the platform and arrested the speakers, and then dispersed the large crowd without bloodshed. Nevertheless some hundreds of blanketeers had left and marched south out of Manchester while this happened. The troops followed and captured most of the marchers at Stockport, some 200 being arrested crossing the river and the petition was never delivered to the Prince Regent. Sidmouth and his government colleagues had no reason to think that there was any need for new measures, especially as the suspects arrested after the alleged Ardwick conspiracy had mostly been released for lack of any evidence for a prosecution.

However the preparations for the demonstration of August 19th 1819 and drilling in the weeks before the event, plus the size of the crowd and the history of previous reform and Luddite activities which had led to confrontation convinced the Loyalists who dominated the magistrates’ in Manchester and Salford that revolution was imminent and they needed to suppress working class activity. They had already organised with the government to police the event with troops, there being no police force save a few constables led by deputy constable Joseph Nadin, and prepared to act along the lines used for the Blanketeers. However they had concluded from the experience of the Blanketeers that they could not rely on the regular troops arriving in time if there was a rebellion and the magistrates had previously decided to set up a volunteer cavalry, the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry. This was the force which committed the most serious assaults at Peterloo.

Thinking among the local Loyalist magistracy in Manchester and Salford who controlled local government in the area simply could not accept that the failure of the March of the Blanketeers had demonstrated their success in controlling reform using Byng’s regular troops. Despite the failure to find evidence that the Blanketeers would be followed up by an insurrection in Manchester – the Ardwick plot – they remained convinced revolution was brewing. They approved of the Acts passed in 1817 particularly the ability to prevent meetings of more than 50 people, and were disconcerted and alarmed when the Acts was allowed to lapse, leaving the Reformers to plan for another big meeting. Loyalists in the provinces especially Manchester came to believe, that revolution was again on the horizon.

An exactly opposite set of reactions came to dominate attitudes among supporters of Reform. They understood the failure of the Blanketeers, which was reinforced by the failure of strikes in 1818 and the convictions which followed, Bagulley and others being imprisoned for supporting strikes. But while the Blanketeers had failed, they had demonstrated strength in numbers and had survived persecution. As the government moved away from over repression the movement revived. As the legal straitjacket was removed through 1818, the reformers regrouped and planned for future activities, the Manchester activists being encouraged by activities elsewhere notably Birmingham to revive constitutional agitation.

The formula which had underpinned the sending off of the March, a mass mobilistion, speakers on a platform in St Peter’s field, and journalistic coverage, was the formula used to be used for a mass demonstration on August 19th 1819, though it remains unclear what was to be achieved. There was this time no national petition. The assumption seems to have been that sheer numbers would force concessions.

The authorities had no intention of being forced by numbers into concessions. Faced with a large mobilisation, the Loyalist local politicians planned to use the formula they used of reading the Riot Act, sending troops to first arrest the leaders and then to disperse the crowd but with the object this time of intimidating the reformers and preventing a revolutionary upsurge. They communicated with the Home Office and gained some support from Whitehall where Sidmouth and his fellow politicians remained fearful of revolution. However the government’s legal officers, aware of the constitutional rights to petition and meet to consider petitioning, or as the Peterloo organisers put it, “to consider the best ways to effect parliamentary reform”, were not in a position to make a hard and fast ruling. The demonstration could certainly be banned – but only if there were clear signs of illegal behaviour, rioting or worse. If that happened, the magistrates could then use the formula which had worked with the Blanketeers. But if there was no evidence that the crowd had overstepped the mark, the demonstration could not be stopped. The government left the magistrates to judge when the mark had been overstepped.

The magistrates laid their plans for August 19th 1819. Up to the point where the magistrates ordered troops to intervene, the authorities were following exactly the procedure that had worked on March 10th 1817 against the Blanketeers. There is no doubt that the Blanketeers had been dispersed but this was a much larger crowd and the reformers did not expect cavalry to attack a defenceless crowd using specially sharpened sabres. The question that has to be asked is why the formula worked in 1817 – and went so disasterously wrong twenty nine months later.

While this question will come to the fore as the 200th anniversary of Peterloo comes into view, it is for debate why in 2017, the 200th anniversary of Pentridge has attracted serious attention, but not the Blanketeers. Their role in the history of the Reform movement and prefiguring Peterloo is clear. They are considerably more important than Pentridge, though the intervention of Oliver the Spy made that a major contibution to defining the limits of government power. But in terms of working class politics, it has no long term effect. This cannot be said of the Blanketeers. While they failed, ever afterward, radicals have organised marches from Provincial cities to London, mainly in the C20th. The Hunger Marchers, the Aldermaston Marches, the People’s March for Jobs and so on – all start with the blanketeers.

It remains very curious that they have become so very invisible.

Trevor Fisher 2nd June 2017

Select Bibliography

*Adam Zamoyski Phantom Terror Collins 2014

** Samuel Bamford Passages in the Life of a Radical, Frank Cass 1967

*** E P Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, Gollancz 1963 (1st Edition)

Notes

  1. E P T The making of the English Working Class, Penguin Modern Classics 2013, p702

  1. EPT op cit p 691

(3) EPT op cit p711-712

(4) EPT op cit p712

(5) EPT op cit p714

(6) EPT p538.\ This is in the section where Thompson comments on the effective spy network.

  1. EPT on Pentridge and Yorkshire, p724-6 Brandreth quotes p724.

(8) E P T p700

(9) Samuel Bamford, Passages in the Life of a Radical, (Autobiography Vol II), Frank Cass 1967 p37

(10) EPT p700 footnote 2

(11) EPT footnote p761 HO 40.7 and 8 for details.

(20) EPT op cit p161

(21) Op cit p658

(22) op cit p659

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