The following is taken from “Narrative of the condition of the manufacturing population,” by Alexander Richmond, 1824.
A temporary calm succeeded the ebullitions of 1817, occasioned partly by a hope, for some time indulged, that parliament would institute an inquiry into the obnoxious measures, and partly by an increased demand and very partial advance on the price of labour in some of the larger branches of our manufactures. This calm was, however, illusory and evanescent; coercion only produced a submission which, instead of subduing, infused a spirit of greater implacability, and the elements, that were raised to the surface by the tempest, became too buoyant and subtle to remain long in a state of inactivity. The more wise, temperate and prudent part of the advocates for parliamentary reform, afraid, on the one hand, that the people were disposed to drive things to extremities, and, on the other, accused by the supporters of the ministry as the abettors of revolution, considering the time unpropitious for pressing that question farther, progressively ceased to make any active exertion in the cause. This comprised the most respectable and influential class, so that the future attempts were chiefly confined to the labouring population, upon a principle which would virtually effect a revolution, not a reform of the present system of representation.
The persons who henceforth obtained an uncontrolled ascendancy not being the most enlightened, or capable of directing them to any useful or practicable result, gave full swing to their passions and enmity against the government, availing themselves of every method and opportunity of inflaming the people’s minds. After the expiration of the Suspension Bill in 1818, the ferment was renewed, and kept up by means of public meetings and inflammatory harangues, the example being set by the party in the metropolis, which soon became contagious, and again extended itself into all the manufacturing counties in both kingdoms. There was, however, no regular cohesion of the parts of this system, until towards the end of 1818, when union societies began to be formed in the respective towns, and secret communications were established by delegates, who practised the grossest deceptions upon each other, and propagated delusions respecting the amount of their number and the extent of their resources.
The plan proposed by the persons who now took the lead was, to work upon the minds of the people, and at the same time distract and divide the attention of government, by holding simultaneous meetings, in various parts of the country. Conjoined with which measure, they were to fabricate or purchase arms, to the extent of their means, and, as far as practicable, acquire a knowledge of their use, by secret nocturnal military trainings; trusting that the chapter of accidents would furnish a favourable opportunity for ulterior operations. – This sage scheme was successfully put in practice, as far as respected the public meetings; the military trainings were also partially carried on in some of the country districts, both anterior and posterior to the meeting at Manchester, on the 16th of August, 1819, which may be considered the next great epoch in this dangerous, absurd, impolitic, and tragical drama of fooleries.
Too few facts are yet known to decide, with certainty, as to who was the immediate cause of the catastrophe at Manchester; neither the coroner’s inquest nor Mr. Hunt’s trial throwing any light upon the secret springs which moved it. It is impossible, however, to command language sufficiently strong to convey an adequate idea of reprobation against the conduct of government for quashing all inquiry into that stain upon our national annals.
Whether it was in consequence of an order from a minister of state, or the act of a self willed local magistracy; whether it was an error in judgment, or the effect of design; whether it was caused by radicals, whigs, or ultra tories humanity, public justice and sound policy demanded, that the delinquents should not be screened; that a free and unshackled inquiry should take place, by a tribunal above the influence of local prejudice; an inquiry which could only have been made, with propriety by the great council of the nation and that it was not so made is little to the honour of the majority of that august assembly. A judge and jury afterwards decided, that the meeting had assembled for an illegal purpose, from which it was inferred, that the attack, made upon it by the military, was justifiable, although no overt illegal act had yet been committed. But, granting that assumption, it only proves that the meeting ought to have been prevented.
At the last the crime only existed in and was constituted by intention; and the shade of difference is very slight, where there is proof of an intention to meet for an illegal purpose, and where the parties have actually met, without having committed any overt act, and is equally liable to punishment. It was, therefore, the duty of the magistrates to prevent the assembly, by arresting the leaders and all who were instrumental in calling it. This they might easily have done, on some of the preceding days, and adopted measures of precaution for preventing disturbance. They were as fully aware of the real intention, prior to the meeting, as after it had taken place; the depositions then taken, being a mere flimsy pretext, and no justification for the manner in which the wanton, unnecessary and even unsoldierlike attack was made upon the infatuated multitude. Were it not for the utility arising from holding up such a scene to view as a beacon, to be avoided in future, every Briton, who has one spark of the amor patria, must feel anxious that it should be no longer held in remembrance, but blotted from the pages of our history. Had it been the cool and deliberate intention of the ministry to bring all the odium and unpopularity on their measures, which might have been divided by the errors of the opposing parties, they could not have done it more successfully.
By resisting all inquiry into this nefarious transaction, they gave something like a national, though meteoric, importance to a turbulent demagogue and pseudo politician who, from that time, affected to despise and look down upon the party as minions, to whom he was chiefly indebted for his previous notoriety. The high hand with which everything was thus carried, soon produced its corresponding fruits, by stimulating a set of reckless, desperate men to the last act of the tragedy; and it appears to have been the future policy of government, to allow them fully to commit themselves. The limits I have prescribed for myself not allowing me to go into any lengthened detail of what followed, I shall confine myself briefly to such circumstances as have not previously been laid before the public in any connected form.
It was in London, and under the very eye of government, that the delusion was kept up, which had the chief influence in misleading the population in the manufacturing districts; and, from its nature, bears the strongest evidence of want of vigilance, capability, or sincerity to put an end to it. Dr. Watson, Thistlewood, and a very few others, were the inventors and executors of the scheme, which was simply as follows: They met at a public house, and collected as many of the unemployed, idle, and dissolute of the working classes, from all quarters of London, as they were able to procure; the more indigent and illiterate the better. This assemblage, by way of eminence, was designated the Committee of Two Hundred, being self elected, self named, and having no other constituents than misery and distress; for it is a fact, worthy the most particular attention, that at no period, during the highest degree of ferment, were there any regularly organized associations in London. An attempt was made, early in 1819, to consolidate them into union societies, when some few oaths of secrecy were administered; but it proved completely abortive, even the nominal members never exceeding from three to four hundred, and it was almost immediately abandoned. The Committee of Two Hundred, constituted as above described, was, therefore, the real talisman; they being held up as the representatives of an immensely numerous and powerful body, that nowhere existed but in imagination, or perhaps in the reports of some of the government emissaries.
By their means were all the public meetings got up; and to no less dignified materials is Hunt indebted for all his metropolitan celebrity. When the feelings of all classes were wrought up to the highest pitch, by the transactions at Manchester, another reaction (caused by an excess of exportation during the preceding year) had involved the manufacturing districts in the greatest distress. Thousands were thrown out of employment, and the price of labour was, in many instances, reduced even below the point it had in 1816-17. At the same time, the ministerial papers, to palliate and justify the outrage at Manchester, daily, but most erroneously and falsely, asserted, that secret societies and revolutionary associations existed in London to a great and alarming extent. The labouring population, in the manufacturing districts, relying on the correctness of those representations, after ineffectually exhausting every local expedient to obtain relief, considered there was no alternative but to strike at the root of the evil, by following the example of their metropolitan brethren, who, they believed, had far outstripped them in the race of regeneration.
In Scotland, where parochial assessments do not exist to an extent to operate even as a palliative in such an emergency, the distress was greater than in any part of England; added to which, was the rooted hatred, against the government, produced by the belief, that the people had been entrapped into the conspiracy in 1816-17. The embryo of an association was formed in Glasgow, and a communication opened with London, by letter, which led to a regular correspondence; and, in two months, the organization was ramified by delegation, into the greater part of the manufacturing towns in the west of Scotland, and also into part of the counties of York and Lancaster. This connexion was formed with Thistlewood and his party; for, in consequence of the eclat with which Hunt was received, on his triumphant entry into London, after the affair at Manchester, considering he could then occupy higher ground, he broke with his former associates, and, as an apology for his defection, charged Thistlewood with being a spy of the government.
In the manufacturing districts the organization was formed strictly on the model of the Irish in 1798 (an outline of which I have given in page 77); the minor details were, indeed, chiefly concocted and carried into execution by emigrants, who had been engaged in that rebellion in Ireland. After the passing of the Six Acts, in November 1819, when they could no longer hold public meetings, the secret organization was extended with great rapidity in Scotland. Central or select committees, consisting of only three persons, had the control over a district of a certain extent, who received all communications; and, implicit confidence being placed in them, they could convey or withhold any information they thought proper. A constitutional reform, on the basis of universal suffrage and annual parliaments, was the ostensible pretence; but it was soon assumed and avowed, that it was only to be obtained by compulsion; and they made every preparation in their power to carry it into execution.
The precise time Thistlewood first meditated the blow he intended to strike, or by what, or by whom incited, must be, in some measure, left to conjecture; but much anxiety prevailed at the time, and it has created much speculation since, whether it was a mere insulated act of his own, or only part of a more extended plan of operations. On positive evidence an end can be put to all ambiguity on that point. The select committees had been some time generally apprised, that an important and decisive measure was contemplated by the committee in London; and, when he had taken his final resolution, he acquainted them, that ten days posterior, the news of a desperate stroke against their enemies would reach them. To summon all their host, have the people prepared to seize their lost rights, and be ready to follow up victory as they should be farther instructed. No particulars of the nature of the design were communicated; but, on receipt of the intelligence, the committees implicitly obeyed; delegates were dispatched in all directions, and all was whisper and conjecture.
The select committee at Glasgow sat for two days and nights, issuing orders and receiving information of the effect of these efforts; and, on the night of the 22d of February, 1820, the day previous to the arrests in Cato street, a general congress of delegates, from all the connexion in Scotland, was held a few miles from Paisley. There they invoked the spirit of Wallace, swore fidelity to each other, dispatched a delegate to the north of England, and returned to their homes, scarcely breathing with anxiety for the arrival of every successive post.
When the account of the fate of Thistlewood and his party at last reached them, they were staggered and confounded; some slight commotion followed around Glasgow, but as there was no simultaneous movement, as was expected, in the north of England, it soon subsided. It is not a little remarkable, that, although government distinctly knew (if their emissaries did not abet) all Thistlewood’s proceedings in London, that they had no accurate knowledge of the nature or extent of his connexion with the country. The local authorities were aware that, for some days, scouts were sent from the different towns, who manifested great anxiety, on the arrival of the mails, but they knew nothing more; and those who were leaders, up to that date, successfully eluded their vigilance, and escaped detection. The snare into which Thistlewood and his associates had fallen, and their pending fate, the particulars of which are already known, did not put an end to the infatuation In Scotland, when the leaders, shuddering on the brink of the precipice, from which they had so narrowly escaped, hesitated and stood aloof, new committees were chosen. Each successive change of leaders brought forward men of a lower grade, with less of intellect, but still more reckless than their predecessors. Only fearless desperation being now in requisition, all caution was laid aside, and emissaries, employed by the magistrates, found easy access amongst them. Some of those emissaries were found amongst their own party; by which means the outline of their future plans became perfectly known to government; but the policy adopted, was to allow them to proceed.
The month of March was spent in concocting a plan of insurrection with the northern counties of England, to operate as a diversion in favour of the metropolis; where, notwithstanding the exposure of the paucity of numbers and the insignificance of Thistlewood’s party, they foolishly imagined there were myriads ready to act with them. The first of April being fixed upon for carrying the design into execution, orders were issued, that all the people should then abstain from labour until they obtained a redress of grievances, and, by means of threats and intimidation, they forced the greater part of the labouring population to comply. On the morning of the above day, a printed proclamation, purporting to emanate from a provisional committee of government was posted on the walls in Glasgow and some of the adjacent towns and villages, pointing out the necessity for a change of measures, and calling the people to arms to revolutionize the government. The surrounding districts were thrown into great alarm, and by collecting crowds and circulating reports, in one place that the people were in arms in another they induced a few ignorant, foolish men (in reality the dupes of the others) to commit overt acts, by displaying banners, and in one or two instances, attempting to seize arms, which exposed them to a formal charge of treason and rebellion.
Not without the strongest suspicion of having been in the first instance led by an emissary of the magistrates, all the forces that could be assembled left Glasgow for the purpose of storming the Carron iron works, to get possession of some field pieces, but were met on the way by twelve dragoons, who, after exchanging a few shots, made them all prisoners. This by way of eminence was called the battle of Bonnymuir, which finally crushed the insurrection. Only a very slight commotion, in a few places in the north of England, accompanied this visionary attempt at national regeneration in Scotland; which, when too late, undeceived the deluded men, and at the same time gave the strongest evidence of the falsity and futility of the averments of the ministry, that the bulk of the labouring population were bent on revolution. No departure, however, took place from the former policy: a special commission was appointed, and after the conspiracy was completely broken up, true bills for high treason were found against near one hundred persons, in the counties of Lanark, Air, Renfrew and Stirling. Of these near thirty were convicted, and, to the disgrace of an age that boasts of its civilization, three of them were executed with all the disgusting formalities of barbarism, and the remainder transported.