fter the end of the French Wars, it became increasingly clear that England was suffering from great social, economic and political upheavals. These problems collectively became known as the 'Condition of England Question'. Many of these problems would have occurred eventually but had been speeded up by the effects of the French Wars on the country. Most of the major changes were the direct result of the French Wars. Others came from natural growth and change. The distress and discontent caused by these enormous changes were manifested in a series of events in the period 1811-19.
The Luddites (1811-16)
Luddites were men who took the name of a (perhaps) mythical individual, Ned Ludd who was reputed to live in Sherwood Forest. The Luddites were trying to save their livelihoods by smashing industrial machines developed for use in the textile industries of the West Riding of Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and Derbyshire. Some Luddites were active in Lancashire also. Throughout the period 1811-16 there was a series of incidents of machine-breaking, invariably followed by executions of the culprits. [additional material]
The Spa Fields RiotsThese took place on 2 December 1816. The radical meeting on 15 November had been reconvened and Arthur Thistlewood and the Watsons led a mob to Clerkenwell where they robbed a gunsmith's shop; they planned to seize the Tower of London and establish a Committee of Public Safety. The mob was dispersed and the leaders were imprisoned. Thistlewood was executed later. [additional material]
The attack on the Prince Regent's carriage (28 January 1817)
The Prince Regent's carriage was mobbed after the State opening of parliament; its windows were smashed either by stones or the pellet from an air-gun. Parliament believed that a revolution, organised by the numerous Hampden Clubs, was imminent: therefore the so-called "Gag Acts" were passed:
- Habeas Corpus was suspended on 3 March (until 1 July, initially)
- Seditious meetings were prohibited (Pitt's 1795 Act)
- On 27 March, Sidmouth ordered the Lords Lieutenant to apprehend all printers, writers and demagogues responsible for seditious and blasphemous material.
The government had little success with this latter because juries refused to risk the freedom of the press. Fox's 1792 Libel Act again came into its own and the government managed to have only one printer convicted. There is a clear parallel here to the 1794 Treason Trials.
March of the Blanketeers (March 1817)
This protest was partly against the government's measures and partly a demonstration and attempt to petition the Prince Regent to do something to relieve the economic depression. It was a peaceful march by hundreds of depressed Manchester cotton operatives, who carried blankets to sleep in - hence the name 'Blanketeers'. It rained violently on the day the march began; the leaders were arrested at Stockport and the protest had fizzled out by Macclesfield. However, the Manchester pattern of discontent in times of hardship created the greatest fears of revolution. [additional material]
The Derbyshire Insurrection (the Pentrich Rising: June 1817)
The Government was worried because there was so much discontent but thought it was caused by the 'poison' of the French Revolution. Consequently the ruling classes feared a revolution in England. Sidmouth, the Home Secretary, had to rely on spies and informers whom he sent out to tour Britain and investigate centres of discontent. Unfortunately, these spies were paid by results and so became agents provocateurs — they stirred up rebellions if they could not find them, so they would be paid.
'Oliver the Spy; went to Pentrich disguised as a depressed worker, found discontent and incited the villagers to rebellion. He made arrangements for an armed march to air their discontents, then informed the local militia of an 'armed rising'. Arrests were made of armed men a 'revolution in the making' had been discovered. Six men were hanged (including Jeremiah Brandreth) and Oliver went on to Leeds. Edward Baines proprietor of the Leeds Mercury followed the activities of Oliver, then exposed him. The government was embarrassed — and Oliver disappeared. The government's unwise use of spies and lack of adequate communications actually caused discontent, because spies stirred things up. [additional material]
The Peterloo Massacre (16 August 1819)
A meeting in Manchester was planned for 9 August to elect Henry Hunt as the working-man's popular representative for Lancashire; it had to be cancelled because it was declared to be an illegal gathering. The meeting was reorganised for 16 August and it was held on St Peter's Field, Manchester to demand parliamentary reform. The meeting was to be addressed by Hunt. The main aim was to demand the reform of parliament as a step towards socio-economic betterment: ordinary people wanted government by the people for the people. The organisers of the meeting were moderate men who wanted a peaceful event that would show that they were respectable working men, worthy of responsibility. The local magistrates brought in the Cheshire Yeomanry to control the crowd of between 50,000 and 60,000 people. The JPs decided to arrest Hunt: they also tried to disperse crowd, but did not read the Riot Act. As the Yeomanry moved on Hunt, people crowded on them. The Yeomanry drew their sabres and a troop of hussars, trying to rescue them, caused a panic. The result was eleven dead including two women, and about 400 wounded.
In December1819 the Government decided that a revolution was afoot and applied repressive policies without enquiring why conditions were as they were. They passed the Six Acts in 1819. [additional material]
The Cato Street Conspiracy, February 1820
This was the only clear-cut example in the post-war years of extreme, violent republicanism. Thistlewood - now out of gaol - and the Watsons thought up the scheme with the help of George Edwards, another of the Spenceans. They adopted a stable in Cato Street (off the Edgware Road) as their headquarters. An advertisement appeared, saying that the entire Cabinet was to attend a dinner held by the Lord President of the Council. The plan was to
- break into the house of Lord Harrowby in Grosvenor Square and murder the entire Cabinet
- kill the new king, George IV (George III died on 31 January 1820)
- seize the Tower of London, which was the great arsenal for the army
- seize the Bank of England and
- set up a Provisional Government
The idea was cleverly worked out even though it was quite mad. The only snag was that the whole event was set up by the government and Edwards, one of Lord Sidmouth's spies. Edwards helped to organise the plot and then informed the authorities about what was going on. Many of the conspirators were arrested; Thistlewood and four others were hanged; five more were transported. [additional material]
The Queen Caroline affair, 1820
George, Prince of Wales, married Princess Caroline of Brunswick in 1795. The couple was ill-matched and after consummating the marriage they lived separate lives. Caroline eventually went to Europe where she travelled widely, settling in Italy. When the Prince of Wales succeeded to the throne on 1820, Caroline returned to claim her rights as Queen Consort. George IV attempted to divorce her but failed. Radicals rallied to her cause as a means of attacking the government and king. It did not take long for Caroline to lose public support; she died shortly after her impolitic attempts to force an entrance to Westminster Abbey at the coronation of George IV.
Last modified 22 December 2004