Remembering the Blanketeers Part 1 -1-
Who were the blanketeers, and why do they need to be recognised?
As delivered– Salford 15 3 17 – Working Class Movement Library
A very curious incident.
Two Hundred years last Friday – March 10th 1817 – saw the start of the March of the Blanketeers. A historical event which historians have neglected. The only reference I have come across is on the pocket Manchester website, and the interest taken by this library and others in the Manchester area. But this is a nationally important event.
We face the same problem as Sherlock Holmes did in investigating the disappearance of the Silver Blaze. You will recall that the detective asked Sherlock whether he should take notice of anything specific. And Sherlock replied you could note “The curious incident of the dog in the night”. The detective replied that the dog did nothing. “That”, said Sherlock, “was the curious incident”.
We have virtual silence on the march of the blanketeers. And this is a very curious incident.
I want to do two things – (A) to rescue the March of the Blanketeers from its current obscurity and (B) to throw some light on how historians make judgements. WHAT the March was is fairly well known but the fact it has been neglected is curious.
The background to the March is what I will mostly talk about today as it occurred at a tipping point in Regency history, but why it largely fails to register with historians is worth considering for the wider discussion. There is a long history of developments which historians have not understood, mainly because they did not fit a ‘heroic’ image of historical developments. I believe historians too often allow themselves to be influenced by drama rather than actual historical importance.
The wider question I want to pose is why this has happened.
In doing so I will be taking issue with the classic account by E P Thompson of these events in MAKING OF THE ENGLISH WORKING CLASS, which has major influence on recent historical views of the Blanketeers.
It is one of the ironies of what I am doing today that I personally owe an enormous amount to Edward Thompson, who was my special topic tutor as an undergraduate at Warwick University, and the Making is a classic which is the starting point for any serious discussion of radical politics in the Regency period, but I have to question his interpretation of the reform movement after Waterloo, notably Thompson’s obscure assessment in his discussion of post war repression that in 1817
“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)
But 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 a marxist at the time he wrote the book, Thompson expected revolution to develop, so explaining why it did not, through the activities of Oliver the Spy was his priority. Oliver is undeniably important, but the Pentridge rebellion was not the critical moment. The dramatic events at Pentridge have always been seen as significant, – 2-
with justification. The use of agents provocateur outraged liberals and produced a backlash in middle class opinion which was of great importance in discrediting government claims of being dealing with a serious threat of revolution. But though it is still conventional to link Pentridge with the Blanketeers, and to see the rising in Derbyshire as linked with Peterloo in 1819, this is going too far.
Thompson believes that the Pentridge Uprising was the foundation of Peterloo. He argues
“There is a sense in which Peterloo followed directly, and inevitably, upon Pentridge. It was the outcome of an extraordinarily powerful and determined ‘constitutionalist’ agitation, largely working class in character, within a potentially revolutionary context”. (2)
This is not the case. The origin of Peterloo is with the Blanketeers. The Blanketeers met in St Peter’s Field, and it is not a mere coincidence of geography that in both 1817 and 1819 the focus of attention is St Peter’s Field. However Thompson neglects the link. More recent historians have followed Thompson’s lead when discussing Peterloo, ie they ignore the Blanketeers. So lets try to bring them into focus to explain what they did and why it was more important than is now seen to be the case.
WHAT AND WHY THE BLANKETEERS?
The Blanketeers were a group of working class reformers who in March 1817 planned to take a petition for parliamentary reform to the Prince Regent, head of government in the place of George III due to the King’s madness. The plan was they would march from Manchester to London, carrying blankets to sleep by the roadside if they could not find billets on the way. That the movement for reform of parliament had revived following the end of the war with Napoleon was now clear, and at least 10,000 people mobilised to send the marchers off – some estimates say double that number. However the numbers of people in favour of reform, though probably a majority in the big industrial towns made no difference to the Westminster political class who benefited from small numbers of voters and an outdated, largely rural voting system.
Thompson rightly defines the marchers as an early pressure group, ie seeking to convince by weight of numbers where persuasion had failed, though persuasion remains important – and concludes- in a very brief summary of a mere 186 words – that the problem for reformers was
“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 whole wd be done, for I have no doubt you will be 100,000 strong’. As to what was intended in London, various rumours were afoot. The organisers declared that no more was intended than the presentation of their petitions to the Prince Regent. But a tumultuous welcome was expected from the London populace, and there may have been some expectation that the marchers could perform a similar role to that of the men of Marseilles in Paris in 1792′. (3)
This sketch hardly scratches the surface of what the intiative was about, and the footnote (4) 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”,
They failed, and Thompson seems to assume that they can be ignored. But the Pentridge uprising also failed, 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 it was for the Blanketeers, though only the Blanketeers have faded from history. The Pentridge Uprising, however, led to no important outcomes. The Blanketeers were seminal.
Let us look at the problem which Thompson is aware of but does not attend to, that reform commanded strong support in the provinces but this had had no effect on the government, which was strongly resistant to pressure.
The background to the march is the surge in support for parliamentary reform, which re-emerged at the end of the Wars against Napoleon. The First Reform movement in the 1790s during the revolutionary wars had been crushed by a combination of repressive government measures and Church and King mobs, which could mobilise large numbers of working class people to attack known reformers. By perhaps 1808 the strength of the loyalist groups in the industrial areas was weakening and Church and King mobs were attracting fewer supporters, given the gross injustice of how workers were treated in the new industrial areas. After the Luddite Movement (c1811-c1816) had been crushed, 12,000 troops being employed in the disturbed areas at its height, workers turned back to peaceful agitation, constitutional reform rising as the Luddite movement retreated, and for the government and many in authority in the provinces the Luddites had simply moved moved their activities without changing their views.
The shift was linked with the absolutely vital fact of Major Cartwright’s tours of the industrial areas in 1812, 1813 and 1815. Cartwright was a veteran of the eighteenth century reform programme, and saw the industrial unrest as fertile ground for recruits to the reform movement. His great importance was to offer a way out of the cul de sac of machine breaking violence which was too easy for the state to suppress.
As Adam Zamoyski has written,
“He set off on a tour of manufacturing towns,… setting up Hampden Clubs wherever he could, and there were soon flourishing branches… Their purpose was entirely constitutional, and their methods legal. That did not stop Cartwright being arrested” (5). This is true but Zamoyski misses the crucial point that Cartwright extricated himself and went on with his campaign. Unlike the 1790s, reformers were no longer prepared to be intimidated. But we then have to note, as Thompson rightly says “The incipient clubs which he left behind him had the greatest difficulty in maintaining themselves. It was not until 1816 that they struck root in the manufacturing districts” (6). Repression was unending, but massive discontent was giving the movement unstoppable impetus.
It has long been clear that 1816 was the crucial year, as Professor Davis concluded back in 1925, noting the growth of the reformist Union Clubs in that year, that “In the early months of 1816, when the depression was at its worst, …the Home Office was merely concerned with the possible effects of economic distress… After June the symptoms became more alarming (due to)…. the appearance … of Union clubs … avowing their intention to agitate for parliamentary reform” (7). The summer of 1816 is a tipping point, for reasons we do not really understand. It may be that this summer, the summer
without the Sun as the effects of the Tambora volcano were felt, that food prices and the environmental crisis was playing a role. But the undeniable fact is that workers now had a route to take which was constitutional, via the petitioning practices of the Hampden club in London, and they took that route in great numbers.
THE REFORM MOVEMENT IN THE WINTER OF 1816-17
By 1816 it was clear that, working class discontent was now self sustaining, with two wings, the constitutional wing using the debating society model of the Hampden clubs, and a shadowy insurrectionary movement. The Hampden club itself was not initially the vital element. It was an upper class debating society, which was only open to members with an annual income of £300 pa which excluded all but the very wealthy. But the model became immensely popular in the industrial areas after Cartwright’s visits and were wholly constitutional. Indeed, as Cartwright pointed out, meeting to organise petitions was a right granted by the Bill of Rights in 1689.
But insurrectionists remained influential, and an undercurrent of physical force ran through the debates of the Union clubs forming in late 1816, lasting till 1820 and the Cato conspiracy. But this aspect of the movement had hardly had any credibility by the start of 1817 after the tragicomic events surrounding the Spa Fields demonstrations, which were organised by a grouping holding to the teachings of Thomas Spence, who looked back to the Jacobins in France (8).
Their belief in violent insurgency was put to the test at the Spa Fields demonstrations in December 1816. Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt was the main speaker, but at the crucial second meeting on 2nd December he arrived late when a riot was already taking place.
Perhaps Hunt had warning of violence, for a rumour of insurrection had spread and was expected in Manchester to trigger a national uprising, but following what Thompson calls “rioting for several hours on a scale reminiscent of the Gordon Riots” , despite looting of gunshops, police guarding the prisons and troops outside the Tower of London held firm. A pathetic attempt at insubordination when an unknown man climbed a wall and exhorted them to join the people was easily resisted and the incipient revolution never happened. (9)
Spa Fields was the only time a possible insurrection could have sparked a major insurgency spreading to large cities across the UK, London possibly playing the same role that Paris had done in 1789, as only the capital had the strategic role that could lead the way in insurrectionism.
Following the failure at Spa Field, the torch passed to the constitutional wing and an initiative of the Hampden Club to petition parliament on January 22nd 1817. Their meeting, at the Crown and Anchor tavern in London, recorded by Samuel Bamford who was an eyewitness, being a delegate from his home town reform club at Middleton near Manchester (10), and witnessing some of the events which unwittingly ended the dominance of constitutional London based reformers. Under the guidance of Bamford’s great hero Major Cartwright the club had remained within the law by having an open meeting and was left alone because of its claim to represent “persons who may be deputed from petitioning cities, towns and other communities… (for) effecting constitutional reform” (11). Petitioning opened the door to approaching parliament, but it carried no guaruntee of success.
The only agreement, save adopting a commitment to universal male suffrage, was for Lord Cochrane to present the petition for reform to parliament. The petition tactic was legal and allowed meetings, but
depended on a deeply hostile parliament accepting it. It had little chance of success, and as the authorities considered how to ignore it a fortuitous a more than slightly suspicious restaging of an event from the 1790s – an attack on the Prince Regent’s coach – undermined the remote possibility that the petition would be accepted.
The window of the carriage was broken and though the prince was unharmed, with a suspicious sense of following a script, the government triggered the mechanisms of Repression which it had used in 1795. Tory politicians triggered legislation which prevented effective campaigning in the country. From late January 1817 Liverpool’s High Tory government was determined on repression on the model of Pitt the Younger’s successful onslaught in the 1790s.
The failure of the petition meant that both the revolutionary and the constitutional wings of the reform movement had failed as London based responses to the demand for reform, in the space of a little over two months.
The threat of repression which the leaders of the Reform Movement had expected for some time, now developed. William Cobbett, the leading radical journalist, had argued in his Political Register of December 14th 1816 about government ministers that “They sigh for a plot. … They are absolutely pining and dying for a plot!” (12) – ie an excuse to bring in repressive legislation, notably the suspension of Habeas Corpus. There would be plots in 1817, but it would be the events in London in the winter of 1816- 1817 which gave ministers the excuse they needed to adopt repressive measures. This is the essential context for the March of the Blanketeers.
E P T The making of the English Working Class, Penguin Modern Classics 2013, p702
E P T op cit p736- But note on the previous page “the longer term influence of the Oliver affair…. p735
(3) op cit p711-712
(4) op cit p712
(5) Adam Zamoyski Phantom Terror William Collins, 2014 p88
EPT op cit p668
(7) H W C Davis Lancashire Reformers 1816-17, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library Manchester, Vol 10, issue 1, p50,
EPT op cit p693-4
EPT op cit pp 681 and 695
(10) Samuel Bamford, Passages in the Life of a Radical, 1839-41, ED W H Chaloner, 1967, Vol II, pp15-20
(11) EPT op cit p678
(12) EPT op cit p697