Remembering the Blanketeers Pt 2.

Remembering the Blanketeers Pt 2 -6-

  • a problem and its attempted solution

A Tipping point

By the end of January 1817 the alleged assault on the carriage of the Prince Regent provided the excuse for government action. The events of November 1816 – January 1817 proved a tipping point where the government and the reformers were concerned. The stakes rose for both sides, with the reform agitation taking the place of Luddism as Public Enemy Number One for the government of Lord Liverpool which decided to confront reformers. A nationally run search for conspiracies formed the front line of the counter attack, co-ordinated by Sidmouth, the Home Secretary. Both locally and nationally, the claim that there was a reformist current distinct from the Jacobins was rejected by the authorities. All working class and reform activity was seen as revolutionary.

The government would be following the same script as Pitt the Younger had in the 1790s, suspending of Habeas Corpus and passing Acts of control and repression. The March of the Blanketeers was a response to what happened in the next six weeks. Developments at Westminster provided a challenge to which the national reform leaders failed to respond. The provincial groups were left to take what steps they could, with little overt co-ordination, and considerable legal dangers. The Seditious Societies Act of 1799 had suppressed the corresponding societies of the 1790s, and was still in force in 1817. The reformers were legally not allowed to write to each other.

However this law was not enforced, and Thompson notes Pitt’s laws against national organisation

were not repealed, so the right of local organisation “could only with difficulty be challenged at law” (1). But the law on corresponding was not needed for repression of reform activity. It was the rejection of the petition by parliament which proved decisive. The national leadership effectively collapsed even before the suspension of habeas corpus. The initiative now passed to the provinces.

Thompson rightly argued that “From 1815 until the Chartist years, the movement always appeared most vigorous… at the base, and especially in such provincial centres as Barnsley and Halifax, Loughborough and Rochdale. (2) This is a fair overall judgement, but Thompson ignores the fact that the most active provincial centres were Birmingham and Manchester, especially Manchester, and these became the centres where the government assault met an effective response, based on the established and unchallengable right to petition the government,

The loophole in the law which allowed petitioning was never repealed and indeed could not be repealed – the right to petition was a fundamental part of the Bill of Rights of 1689 and thus a linch pin of the Glorious Revolution which the High Tories held to be the core of their political philosophy. However the relative toleration had allowed the Hampden club to meet in January 1817 in the Crown & Anchor Tavern was withdrawn. The right to petition parliament or the king remained in being, although calling delegates to a meeting for the purpose though legal was increasingly dangerous with spies informing on activities at meetings with varying degrees of accuracy..

For the reformers after January 28th the coming of repressive legislation was imminent and they needed a method which would remain constitutional. The innovative response would be the MARCH OF THE BLANKEETERS. The details of how it was planned are obscure: the activists are largely with the exception of Samuel Bamford who wrote much later. The official records, in the reports of spies and

-7-

informers and newspaper reports give what evidence we have, with clear indications that a cautious dialogue happened despite the Seditious Meetings Act, across the boundaries of different industrial areas. National links were however almost impossible to sustain.

The reformers corresponded with each other, and had much to talk about in the winter of 1816-17. Thompson believes that “In the winter of 1816-17 the various clubs corresponded freely with each other within the county” ie the two counties of Leicesteshire and Lancashire. Thompson notes that Leicester sent a deputation to Manchester in early January. (3) Whatever the law said, the reformers were in touch with each other, and the spies informing on them left the government in no doubt that this was the case.

However given the legal situation, it is not suprising that there is relatively little evidence on what the reformers were discussing, but the outline is clear. The reformers could give up, as Cobbett did for a while, and the fact they did not do so is crucial and should not be taken for granted. There was no repeat of the collapse of the movement as had happened after the Pitt Acts two decades earlier, and this is a vital fact. But the only option was to petition the monarch, in this case the Prince Regent. How they were to do this was the problem, given that they were two hundred miles from London and there were no trains in existence at this time.

A legal loophole could only be exploited if there were a mechanism to use it, a problem which had to be solved given the pressures which government was now exerting. Sidmouth (Home Sec) introduced the Suspension of Habeas Corpus on Feb 24 1817 alleging “a traitorous conspiracy has been formed in the metropolis for the purpose… of effecting a general plunder and division of property, and that such designs… extended widely in some of the most populous and manufacturing districts”. (4) The problems posed by government repression did not disappear because the local leaderships had to deal with them. On the contrary, the leaders knew they were open to the attention of the magistrates, and had to find a way to deal with the risk of imprisonment.

The Blanketeers are planned

The solution was ingenious, the Blanket march having a well considered plan exploiting the law, by organising a petition which would be presented to the Prince Regent. To get the document to London, a march would be organised which would live off the land and carry blankets to sleep in the open on a journey of some two hundred miles. Each marcher would carry ten petitions. As it appears there was no organisation in London to meet the marchers, how they were to get the petition to the Prince when – and if – they arrived is not clear from the reports which all focus on mobilising a large number of marchers, though the actual logistics of marching across country were never made clear, particularly as the aim was to achieve a snowball effect, picking up support along the way. But the project was attractive and in theory feasible. It did not, however, command support from anything like all the reform leaders in South Lancashire however, and Samuel Bamford was among the leadership figures arguing against the march: though he had no alternative to marching – inaction would allow the government to win.

His objections were however cogent, and were spelt out to Benbow, who visited him on Saturday March 8th. Habeas Corpus had been suspended and Benbow was making himself scarce, but he had been an active supporter of the Blanketeers’ scheme and wanted Bamford to support the sending off of the marchers. Bamford refused. The following day Bamford told his neighbours, that the local authorities would not allow the marchers to leave town, that they could not survive the route march, the

-8-

workers being half starved, and they would not gain support on the road especially in the rotten boroughs they wished to abolish, and that they would be easily joined on the road by agents provocateur – perceptive as up till point that problem had not become widely known. Though these arguments seemed to have influenced his Middleton neighbours, the march survived objections and on March 10th a large number of working class people turned up on St Peter’s Field to send the marchers on their way.

The organisation was impressive and clearly alarmed the local magistrates, and though the numbers are guessimated for the marchers as being a few hundred, thousands turned up to send them off. Bamford, who was not present, estimates 4-5,000. Others in excess of 10,000, a few over 20,000. Robert Poole suggests 25,000 with ‘thousands who had prepared for the March on London’, though with no evidence and no indication of a how a ‘small force of dragoons’ could break up such a large group. (5) The hostile report in a local newspaper,Wheeler’s Chronicle, reported marchers took two routes out of the city, only meeting at Ardwick bridge on the south side, making calculations of numbers of marchers difficult though their estimate indicates hundreds not thousands. (6)

To achieve such numbers indicates the reform movement in Manchester had become formidable – but who where the organisers? Some of the names are familiar but the core triumvirate who organised the march – John Johnston, John Bagguley and Samuel Drummond according to most authorities, plus one Ogden according to Wheeler’s Chronicle – were unknown and are to this day largely unreported. Twenty Five others are named by the Chronicle all of them little known.

We do not really know who invented the scheme. Thompson thinks that Cobbett and Cartwright had something to do with the plan but he does not have a real grasp of grassroots activism. Archibald Prentice though not an eye witness, quotes John Edward Taylor, who was around at the time, as saying it was one Joseph Mitchell who devised the plan. This is plausible, as Mitchell had already gone to London in November 1816 and met cobbett and cartwright, becoming with William Benbow, William Cobbetts local agent. Mitchell was not a prominent supporter of the March, his insurrectionary inclinations becoming caught up in the machinations of Oliver the Spy later in the year (7)

Both Benbow and Mitchell are clearly important local local leaders. William Benbow would address large meetings of the Manchester reform movement, while Mitchell was in contact with Cartwright who advised on the petitioning tactic. More important he had published a document, an Address to the People in which he put forward a somewhat naïve belief in the power of petitioning, arguing somewhat curiously “You have nothing to do but apply …respectfully to the King, and if he should doze a little… you must take care not to forget him, when awake”. A month later Cobbett in his Address to the Journeymen and Labourers argued “any man can draw up a petition and any man can carry it up to London.. to be presented whenever the House shall meet”. (8) In the event, with parliament rejecting the Hampden club petition, it was the royal prerogative that came into focus, the petition to be carried to the Prince Regent. Whoever devised the plan, it was a constitutionally sound project while lacking credibility the nearer the march would get to London.

The events of March 10th and afterward.

However in the event the marchers did not manage to get anywhere near their objective. Bamford was right, the magistrates feared disorder and after reading the riot act ordered troops to capture the platform speakers, and 29 were arrested. When the march started on the 10th, and the troops were too

busy arresting Drummond, Baggulley and others, the marchers moved off down Piccadilly and were

-9-

well away by the time the troops had captured the platform orators. The bulk marched a considerable distance and were stopped by troops at Stockport. 200-300 were arrested in Stockport, amid confusion in which others escaped to reach Leek, Macclesfield and Ashbourne, perhaps only half a dozen according to Bamford, while one made it to London. The petition did not reach the Prince Regent.

It had failed, but its legacy was considerable particularly as launching reform as a mass movement in Manchester. It is this peaceful, constitutional mass movement which is crucial, not revolution, and this is the precedent for the meeting which became Peterloo. The events of March 10th set an order of events which would be profoundly influential in 1819. The mass mobilisation, the reading of the riot act – even if inaudible – the platform of speakers arrested by cavalry, the dispersal of the crowd without violence and the sensible handling of the demonstration were all successful in defeating the march. The officer commanding the Army in the North of England, General Byng, sent a letter congratulating the commander of the Kings Dragoon Guards in the Manchester barracks, Colonel Teesdale for this success, and the report in Wheeler’s Chronicle was in no doubt revolution had been averted. Why this sequence of events when substantially repeated on a larger scale 29 months later resulted in the disaster of Peterloo is not easily explained.

But there was a difference between the Blanketeers and Peterloo. The magistrates after the events they witnessed set up the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry, presumably because they feared an upsurge and the military not being able to intervene in time. The link with Peterloo is very obvious. It was the Yeomanry, irregular local middle class people on horseback, who carried out the worst atrocities at Peterloo. The local authorities had been amazed and alarmed by 12,000 people – estimates sometimes indicate a higher figure – coming out to support the blanketeers. We can play with the figures, I am not convinced thousands marched, as Poole appears to be. But thousands turning out to see them off is certainly plausible.

And the magistrates set up the Yeomanry, and their history – perhaps also generated by the events in Ardwick, which I do not have time to discuss here, but certainly generated by the blanketeers – links directly to Peterloo 29 months later which make the point very strongly that it is with the Blanketeers that the constitutional reform movement makes a leap in 1817, and not with the revolutionaries.

In conclusion, it is time to see the history of the Post War Reform movement in its true perspective, and make the Blanketeers the crucial episode. This was the view of the Manchester and Salford magistrates, who, having seen what happened, decided quite rightly that they had seen a shift in the techtonic plates. And if they were not to accept the case for reform, they had better provide themselves with armed force to ensure they could impose their priorities.

Peterloo starts with the Blanketeers. And while Peterloo is largely of interest to historians, the idea of marching to London to put pressure on the government has never gone away,

Trevor Fisher originally delivered 15th March 2017

(1) EPT op cit p739

(2) EPT op cit p691

(3) EPT p677

-10-

(4) EPT p700

  1. Robert Poole, French Revolution or Peasant’s Revolt, Labour History Review Vol 74 #1, April 2009, pp6-7

  1. Wheeler’s Chronicle, 15th March 1817, estimates 300 marchers arrested at Stockport, and “no accident happened to anyone”. IN fact a bystander was shot dead by a trooper. Police and a detachment of the Prince Regent’s yeomanry from Macclesfield were involved, and some 500 are said to have reached the latter town, some reaching Derby

(7) Thompson deals extensively with Mitchell’s troubled history, which gained him considerable suspicion, but Bamford in a chapter which never names him makes it clear that Mitchell was misguided but never a spy – Bamford (1851) Chap XII

(8) Poole op cit 2009. Both Quotes p12

Remembering the Blanketeers Pt 2 -6-

  • a problem and its attempted solution

A Tipping point

By the end of January 1817 the alleged assault on the carriage of the Prince Regent provided the excuse for government action. The events of November 1816 – January 1817 proved a tipping point where the government and the reformers were concerned. The stakes rose for both sides, with the reform agitation taking the place of Luddism as Public Enemy Number One for the government of Lord Liverpool which decided to confront reformers. A nationally run search for conspiracies formed the front line of the counter attack, co-ordinated by Sidmouth, the Home Secretary. Both locally and nationally, the claim that there was a reformist current distinct from the Jacobins was rejected by the authorities. All working class and reform activity was seen as revolutionary.

The government would be following the same script as Pitt the Younger had in the 1790s, suspending of Habeas Corpus and passing Acts of control and repression. The March of the Blanketeers was a response to what happened in the next six weeks. Developments at Westminster provided a challenge to which the national reform leaders failed to respond. The provincial groups were left to take what steps they could, with little overt co-ordination, and considerable legal dangers. The Seditious Societies Act of 1799 had suppressed the corresponding societies of the 1790s, and was still in force in 1817. The reformers were legally not allowed to write to each other.

However this law was not enforced, and Thompson notes Pitt’s laws against national organisation

were not repealed, so the right of local organisation “could only with difficulty be challenged at law” (1). But the law on corresponding was not needed for repression of reform activity. It was the rejection of the petition by parliament which proved decisive. The national leadership effectively collapsed even before the suspension of habeas corpus. The initiative now passed to the provinces.

Thompson rightly argued that “From 1815 until the Chartist years, the movement always appeared most vigorous… at the base, and especially in such provincial centres as Barnsley and Halifax, Loughborough and Rochdale. (2) This is a fair overall judgement, but Thompson ignores the fact that the most active provincial centres were Birmingham and Manchester, especially Manchester, and these became the centres where the government assault met an effective response, based on the established and unchallengable right to petition the government,

The loophole in the law which allowed petitioning was never repealed and indeed could not be repealed – the right to petition was a fundamental part of the Bill of Rights of 1689 and thus a linch pin of the Glorious Revolution which the High Tories held to be the core of their political philosophy. However the relative toleration had allowed the Hampden club to meet in January 1817 in the Crown & Anchor Tavern was withdrawn. The right to petition parliament or the king remained in being, although calling delegates to a meeting for the purpose though legal was increasingly dangerous with spies informing on activities at meetings with varying degrees of accuracy..

For the reformers after January 28th the coming of repressive legislation was imminent and they needed a method which would remain constitutional. The innovative response would be the MARCH OF THE BLANKEETERS. The details of how it was planned are obscure: the activists are largely with the exception of Samuel Bamford who wrote much later. The official records, in the reports of spies and

-7-

informers and newspaper reports give what evidence we have, with clear indications that a cautious dialogue happened despite the Seditious Meetings Act, across the boundaries of different industrial areas. National links were however almost impossible to sustain.

The reformers corresponded with each other, and had much to talk about in the winter of 1816-17. Thompson believes that “In the winter of 1816-17 the various clubs corresponded freely with each other within the county” ie the two counties of Leicesteshire and Lancashire. Thompson notes that Leicester sent a deputation to Manchester in early January. (3) Whatever the law said, the reformers were in touch with each other, and the spies informing on them left the government in no doubt that this was the case.

However given the legal situation, it is not suprising that there is relatively little evidence on what the reformers were discussing, but the outline is clear. The reformers could give up, as Cobbett did for a while, and the fact they did not do so is crucial and should not be taken for granted. There was no repeat of the collapse of the movement as had happened after the Pitt Acts two decades earlier, and this is a vital fact. But the only option was to petition the monarch, in this case the Prince Regent. How they were to do this was the problem, given that they were two hundred miles from London and there were no trains in existence at this time.

A legal loophole could only be exploited if there were a mechanism to use it, a problem which had to be solved given the pressures which government was now exerting. Sidmouth (Home Sec) introduced the Suspension of Habeas Corpus on Feb 24 1817 alleging “a traitorous conspiracy has been formed in the metropolis for the purpose… of effecting a general plunder and division of property, and that such designs… extended widely in some of the most populous and manufacturing districts”. (4) The problems posed by government repression did not disappear because the local leaderships had to deal with them. On the contrary, the leaders knew they were open to the attention of the magistrates, and had to find a way to deal with the risk of imprisonment.

The Blanketeers are planned

The solution was ingenious, the Blanket march having a well considered plan exploiting the law, by organising a petition which would be presented to the Prince Regent. To get the document to London, a march would be organised which would live off the land and carry blankets to sleep in the open on a journey of some two hundred miles. Each marcher would carry ten petitions. As it appears there was no organisation in London to meet the marchers, how they were to get the petition to the Prince when – and if – they arrived is not clear from the reports which all focus on mobilising a large number of marchers, though the actual logistics of marching across country were never made clear, particularly as the aim was to achieve a snowball effect, picking up support along the way. But the project was attractive and in theory feasible. It did not, however, command support from anything like all the reform leaders in South Lancashire however, and Samuel Bamford was among the leadership figures arguing against the march: though he had no alternative to marching – inaction would allow the government to win.

His objections were however cogent, and were spelt out to Benbow, who visited him on Saturday March 8th. Habeas Corpus had been suspended and Benbow was making himself scarce, but he had been an active supporter of the Blanketeers’ scheme and wanted Bamford to support the sending off of the marchers. Bamford refused. The following day Bamford told his neighbours, that the local authorities would not allow the marchers to leave town, that they could not survive the route march, the

-8-

workers being half starved, and they would not gain support on the road especially in the rotten boroughs they wished to abolish, and that they would be easily joined on the road by agents provocateur – perceptive as up till point that problem had not become widely known. Though these arguments seemed to have influenced his Middleton neighbours, the march survived objections and on March 10th a large number of working class people turned up on St Peter’s Field to send the marchers on their way.

The organisation was impressive and clearly alarmed the local magistrates, and though the numbers are guessimated for the marchers as being a few hundred, thousands turned up to send them off. Bamford, who was not present, estimates 4-5,000. Others in excess of 10,000, a few over 20,000. Robert Poole suggests 25,000 with ‘thousands who had prepared for the March on London’, though with no evidence and no indication of a how a ‘small force of dragoons’ could break up such a large group. (5) The hostile report in a local newspaper,Wheeler’s Chronicle, reported marchers took two routes out of the city, only meeting at Ardwick bridge on the south side, making calculations of numbers of marchers difficult though their estimate indicates hundreds not thousands. (6)

To achieve such numbers indicates the reform movement in Manchester had become formidable – but who where the organisers? Some of the names are familiar but the core triumvirate who organised the march – John Johnston, John Bagguley and Samuel Drummond according to most authorities, plus one Ogden according to Wheeler’s Chronicle – were unknown and are to this day largely unreported. Twenty Five others are named by the Chronicle all of them little known.

We do not really know who invented the scheme. Thompson thinks that Cobbett and Cartwright had something to do with the plan but he does not have a real grasp of grassroots activism. Archibald Prentice though not an eye witness, quotes John Edward Taylor, who was around at the time, as saying it was one Joseph Mitchell who devised the plan. This is plausible, as Mitchell had already gone to London in November 1816 and met cobbett and cartwright, becoming with William Benbow, William Cobbetts local agent. Mitchell was not a prominent supporter of the March, his insurrectionary inclinations becoming caught up in the machinations of Oliver the Spy later in the year (7)

Both Benbow and Mitchell are clearly important local local leaders. William Benbow would address large meetings of the Manchester reform movement, while Mitchell was in contact with Cartwright who advised on the petitioning tactic. More important he had published a document, an Address to the People in which he put forward a somewhat naïve belief in the power of petitioning, arguing somewhat curiously “You have nothing to do but apply …respectfully to the King, and if he should doze a little… you must take care not to forget him, when awake”. A month later Cobbett in his Address to the Journeymen and Labourers argued “any man can draw up a petition and any man can carry it up to London.. to be presented whenever the House shall meet”. (8) In the event, with parliament rejecting the Hampden club petition, it was the royal prerogative that came into focus, the petition to be carried to the Prince Regent. Whoever devised the plan, it was a constitutionally sound project while lacking credibility the nearer the march would get to London.

The events of March 10th and afterward.

However in the event the marchers did not manage to get anywhere near their objective. Bamford was right, the magistrates feared disorder and after reading the riot act ordered troops to capture the platform speakers, and 29 were arrested. When the march started on the 10th, and the troops were too

busy arresting Drummond, Baggulley and others, the marchers moved off down Piccadilly and were

-9-

well away by the time the troops had captured the platform orators. The bulk marched a considerable distance and were stopped by troops at Stockport. 200-300 were arrested in Stockport, amid confusion in which others escaped to reach Leek, Macclesfield and Ashbourne, perhaps only half a dozen according to Bamford, while one made it to London. The petition did not reach the Prince Regent.

It had failed, but its legacy was considerable particularly as launching reform as a mass movement in Manchester. It is this peaceful, constitutional mass movement which is crucial, not revolution, and this is the precedent for the meeting which became Peterloo. The events of March 10th set an order of events which would be profoundly influential in 1819. The mass mobilisation, the reading of the riot act – even if inaudible – the platform of speakers arrested by cavalry, the dispersal of the crowd without violence and the sensible handling of the demonstration were all successful in defeating the march. The officer commanding the Army in the North of England, General Byng, sent a letter congratulating the commander of the Kings Dragoon Guards in the Manchester barracks, Colonel Teesdale for this success, and the report in Wheeler’s Chronicle was in no doubt revolution had been averted. Why this sequence of events when substantially repeated on a larger scale 29 months later resulted in the disaster of Peterloo is not easily explained.

But there was a difference between the Blanketeers and Peterloo. The magistrates after the events they witnessed set up the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry, presumably because they feared an upsurge and the military not being able to intervene in time. The link with Peterloo is very obvious. It was the Yeomanry, irregular local middle class people on horseback, who carried out the worst atrocities at Peterloo. The local authorities had been amazed and alarmed by 12,000 people – estimates sometimes indicate a higher figure – coming out to support the blanketeers. We can play with the figures, I am not convinced thousands marched, as Poole appears to be. But thousands turning out to see them off is certainly plausible.

And the magistrates set up the Yeomanry, and their history – perhaps also generated by the events in Ardwick, which I do not have time to discuss here, but certainly generated by the blanketeers – links directly to Peterloo 29 months later which make the point very strongly that it is with the Blanketeers that the constitutional reform movement makes a leap in 1817, and not with the revolutionaries.

In conclusion, it is time to see the history of the Post War Reform movement in its true perspective, and make the Blanketeers the crucial episode. This was the view of the Manchester and Salford magistrates, who, having seen what happened, decided quite rightly that they had seen a shift in the techtonic plates. And if they were not to accept the case for reform, they had better provide themselves with armed force to ensure they could impose their priorities.

Peterloo starts with the Blanketeers. And while Peterloo is largely of interest to historians, the idea of marching to London to put pressure on the government has never gone away,

Trevor Fisher originally delivered 15th March 2017

(1) EPT op cit p739

(2) EPT op cit p691

(3) EPT p677

-10-

(4) EPT p700

  1. Robert Poole, French Revolution or Peasant’s Revolt, Labour History Review Vol 74 #1, April 2009, pp6-7

  1. Wheeler’s Chronicle, 15th March 1817, estimates 300 marchers arrested at Stockport, and “no accident happened to anyone”. IN fact a bystander was shot dead by a trooper. Police and a detachment of the Prince Regent’s yeomanry from Macclesfield were involved, and some 500 are said to have reached the latter town, some reaching Derby

(7) Thompson deals extensively with Mitchell’s troubled history, which gained him considerable suspicion, but Bamford in a chapter which never names him makes it clear that Mitchell was misguided but never a spy – Bamford (1851) Chap XII

(8) Poole op cit 2009. Both Quotes p12

Remembering the Blanketeers Pt 2 -6-

  • a problem and its attempted solution

A Tipping point

By the end of January 1817 the alleged assault on the carriage of the Prince Regent provided the excuse for government action. The events of November 1816 – January 1817 proved a tipping point where the government and the reformers were concerned. The stakes rose for both sides, with the reform agitation taking the place of Luddism as Public Enemy Number One for the government of Lord Liverpool which decided to confront reformers. A nationally run search for conspiracies formed the front line of the counter attack, co-ordinated by Sidmouth, the Home Secretary. Both locally and nationally, the claim that there was a reformist current distinct from the Jacobins was rejected by the authorities. All working class and reform activity was seen as revolutionary.

The government would be following the same script as Pitt the Younger had in the 1790s, suspending of Habeas Corpus and passing Acts of control and repression. The March of the Blanketeers was a response to what happened in the next six weeks. Developments at Westminster provided a challenge to which the national reform leaders failed to respond. The provincial groups were left to take what steps they could, with little overt co-ordination, and considerable legal dangers. The Seditious Societies Act of 1799 had suppressed the corresponding societies of the 1790s, and was still in force in 1817. The reformers were legally not allowed to write to each other.

However this law was not enforced, and Thompson notes Pitt’s laws against national organisation

were not repealed, so the right of local organisation “could only with difficulty be challenged at law” (1). But the law on corresponding was not needed for repression of reform activity. It was the rejection of the petition by parliament which proved decisive. The national leadership effectively collapsed even before the suspension of habeas corpus. The initiative now passed to the provinces.

Thompson rightly argued that “From 1815 until the Chartist years, the movement always appeared most vigorous… at the base, and especially in such provincial centres as Barnsley and Halifax, Loughborough and Rochdale. (2) This is a fair overall judgement, but Thompson ignores the fact that the most active provincial centres were Birmingham and Manchester, especially Manchester, and these became the centres where the government assault met an effective response, based on the established and unchallengable right to petition the government,

The loophole in the law which allowed petitioning was never repealed and indeed could not be repealed – the right to petition was a fundamental part of the Bill of Rights of 1689 and thus a linch pin of the Glorious Revolution which the High Tories held to be the core of their political philosophy. However the relative toleration had allowed the Hampden club to meet in January 1817 in the Crown & Anchor Tavern was withdrawn. The right to petition parliament or the king remained in being, although calling delegates to a meeting for the purpose though legal was increasingly dangerous with spies informing on activities at meetings with varying degrees of accuracy..

For the reformers after January 28th the coming of repressive legislation was imminent and they needed a method which would remain constitutional. The innovative response would be the MARCH OF THE BLANKEETERS. The details of how it was planned are obscure: the activists are largely with the exception of Samuel Bamford who wrote much later. The official records, in the reports of spies and

-7-

informers and newspaper reports give what evidence we have, with clear indications that a cautious dialogue happened despite the Seditious Meetings Act, across the boundaries of different industrial areas. National links were however almost impossible to sustain.

The reformers corresponded with each other, and had much to talk about in the winter of 1816-17. Thompson believes that “In the winter of 1816-17 the various clubs corresponded freely with each other within the county” ie the two counties of Leicesteshire and Lancashire. Thompson notes that Leicester sent a deputation to Manchester in early January. (3) Whatever the law said, the reformers were in touch with each other, and the spies informing on them left the government in no doubt that this was the case.

However given the legal situation, it is not suprising that there is relatively little evidence on what the reformers were discussing, but the outline is clear. The reformers could give up, as Cobbett did for a while, and the fact they did not do so is crucial and should not be taken for granted. There was no repeat of the collapse of the movement as had happened after the Pitt Acts two decades earlier, and this is a vital fact. But the only option was to petition the monarch, in this case the Prince Regent. How they were to do this was the problem, given that they were two hundred miles from London and there were no trains in existence at this time.

A legal loophole could only be exploited if there were a mechanism to use it, a problem which had to be solved given the pressures which government was now exerting. Sidmouth (Home Sec) introduced the Suspension of Habeas Corpus on Feb 24 1817 alleging “a traitorous conspiracy has been formed in the metropolis for the purpose… of effecting a general plunder and division of property, and that such designs… extended widely in some of the most populous and manufacturing districts”. (4) The problems posed by government repression did not disappear because the local leaderships had to deal with them. On the contrary, the leaders knew they were open to the attention of the magistrates, and had to find a way to deal with the risk of imprisonment.

The Blanketeers are planned

The solution was ingenious, the Blanket march having a well considered plan exploiting the law, by organising a petition which would be presented to the Prince Regent. To get the document to London, a march would be organised which would live off the land and carry blankets to sleep in the open on a journey of some two hundred miles. Each marcher would carry ten petitions. As it appears there was no organisation in London to meet the marchers, how they were to get the petition to the Prince when – and if – they arrived is not clear from the reports which all focus on mobilising a large number of marchers, though the actual logistics of marching across country were never made clear, particularly as the aim was to achieve a snowball effect, picking up support along the way. But the project was attractive and in theory feasible. It did not, however, command support from anything like all the reform leaders in South Lancashire however, and Samuel Bamford was among the leadership figures arguing against the march: though he had no alternative to marching – inaction would allow the government to win.

His objections were however cogent, and were spelt out to Benbow, who visited him on Saturday March 8th. Habeas Corpus had been suspended and Benbow was making himself scarce, but he had been an active supporter of the Blanketeers’ scheme and wanted Bamford to support the sending off of the marchers. Bamford refused. The following day Bamford told his neighbours, that the local authorities would not allow the marchers to leave town, that they could not survive the route march, the

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workers being half starved, and they would not gain support on the road especially in the rotten boroughs they wished to abolish, and that they would be easily joined on the road by agents provocateur – perceptive as up till point that problem had not become widely known. Though these arguments seemed to have influenced his Middleton neighbours, the march survived objections and on March 10th a large number of working class people turned up on St Peter’s Field to send the marchers on their way.

The organisation was impressive and clearly alarmed the local magistrates, and though the numbers are guessimated for the marchers as being a few hundred, thousands turned up to send them off. Bamford, who was not present, estimates 4-5,000. Others in excess of 10,000, a few over 20,000. Robert Poole suggests 25,000 with ‘thousands who had prepared for the March on London’, though with no evidence and no indication of a how a ‘small force of dragoons’ could break up such a large group. (5) The hostile report in a local newspaper,Wheeler’s Chronicle, reported marchers took two routes out of the city, only meeting at Ardwick bridge on the south side, making calculations of numbers of marchers difficult though their estimate indicates hundreds not thousands. (6)

To achieve such numbers indicates the reform movement in Manchester had become formidable – but who where the organisers? Some of the names are familiar but the core triumvirate who organised the march – John Johnston, John Bagguley and Samuel Drummond according to most authorities, plus one Ogden according to Wheeler’s Chronicle – were unknown and are to this day largely unreported. Twenty Five others are named by the Chronicle all of them little known.

We do not really know who invented the scheme. Thompson thinks that Cobbett and Cartwright had something to do with the plan but he does not have a real grasp of grassroots activism. Archibald Prentice though not an eye witness, quotes John Edward Taylor, who was around at the time, as saying it was one Joseph Mitchell who devised the plan. This is plausible, as Mitchell had already gone to London in November 1816 and met cobbett and cartwright, becoming with William Benbow, William Cobbetts local agent. Mitchell was not a prominent supporter of the March, his insurrectionary inclinations becoming caught up in the machinations of Oliver the Spy later in the year (7)

Both Benbow and Mitchell are clearly important local local leaders. William Benbow would address large meetings of the Manchester reform movement, while Mitchell was in contact with Cartwright who advised on the petitioning tactic. More important he had published a document, an Address to the People in which he put forward a somewhat naïve belief in the power of petitioning, arguing somewhat curiously “You have nothing to do but apply …respectfully to the King, and if he should doze a little… you must take care not to forget him, when awake”. A month later Cobbett in his Address to the Journeymen and Labourers argued “any man can draw up a petition and any man can carry it up to London.. to be presented whenever the House shall meet”. (8) In the event, with parliament rejecting the Hampden club petition, it was the royal prerogative that came into focus, the petition to be carried to the Prince Regent. Whoever devised the plan, it was a constitutionally sound project while lacking credibility the nearer the march would get to London.

The events of March 10th and afterward.

However in the event the marchers did not manage to get anywhere near their objective. Bamford was right, the magistrates feared disorder and after reading the riot act ordered troops to capture the platform speakers, and 29 were arrested. When the march started on the 10th, and the troops were too

busy arresting Drummond, Baggulley and others, the marchers moved off down Piccadilly and were

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well away by the time the troops had captured the platform orators. The bulk marched a considerable distance and were stopped by troops at Stockport. 200-300 were arrested in Stockport, amid confusion in which others escaped to reach Leek, Macclesfield and Ashbourne, perhaps only half a dozen according to Bamford, while one made it to London. The petition did not reach the Prince Regent.

It had failed, but its legacy was considerable particularly as launching reform as a mass movement in Manchester. It is this peaceful, constitutional mass movement which is crucial, not revolution, and this is the precedent for the meeting which became Peterloo. The events of March 10th set an order of events which would be profoundly influential in 1819. The mass mobilisation, the reading of the riot act – even if inaudible – the platform of speakers arrested by cavalry, the dispersal of the crowd without violence and the sensible handling of the demonstration were all successful in defeating the march. The officer commanding the Army in the North of England, General Byng, sent a letter congratulating the commander of the Kings Dragoon Guards in the Manchester barracks, Colonel Teesdale for this success, and the report in Wheeler’s Chronicle was in no doubt revolution had been averted. Why this sequence of events when substantially repeated on a larger scale 29 months later resulted in the disaster of Peterloo is not easily explained.

But there was a difference between the Blanketeers and Peterloo. The magistrates after the events they witnessed set up the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry, presumably because they feared an upsurge and the military not being able to intervene in time. The link with Peterloo is very obvious. It was the Yeomanry, irregular local middle class people on horseback, who carried out the worst atrocities at Peterloo. The local authorities had been amazed and alarmed by 12,000 people – estimates sometimes indicate a higher figure – coming out to support the blanketeers. We can play with the figures, I am not convinced thousands marched, as Poole appears to be. But thousands turning out to see them off is certainly plausible.

And the magistrates set up the Yeomanry, and their history – perhaps also generated by the events in Ardwick, which I do not have time to discuss here, but certainly generated by the blanketeers – links directly to Peterloo 29 months later which make the point very strongly that it is with the Blanketeers that the constitutional reform movement makes a leap in 1817, and not with the revolutionaries.

In conclusion, it is time to see the history of the Post War Reform movement in its true perspective, and make the Blanketeers the crucial episode. This was the view of the Manchester and Salford magistrates, who, having seen what happened, decided quite rightly that they had seen a shift in the techtonic plates. And if they were not to accept the case for reform, they had better provide themselves with armed force to ensure they could impose their priorities.

Peterloo starts with the Blanketeers. And while Peterloo is largely of interest to historians, the idea of marching to London to put pressure on the government has never gone away,

Trevor Fisher originally delivered 15th March 2017

(1) EPT op cit p739

(2) EPT op cit p691

(3) EPT p677

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(4) EPT p700

  1. Robert Poole, French Revolution or Peasant’s Revolt, Labour History Review Vol 74 #1, April 2009, pp6-7

  1. Wheeler’s Chronicle, 15th March 1817, estimates 300 marchers arrested at Stockport, and “no accident happened to anyone”. IN fact a bystander was shot dead by a trooper. Police and a detachment of the Prince Regent’s yeomanry from Macclesfield were involved, and some 500 are said to have reached the latter town, some reaching Derby

(7) Thompson deals extensively with Mitchell’s troubled history, which gained him considerable suspicion, but Bamford in a chapter which never names him makes it clear that Mitchell was misguided but never a spy – Bamford (1851) Chap XII

(8) Poole op cit 2009. Both Quotes p12

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