In the 1790s, enthusiasm for radical reform reached a fever pitch. Although the British Government had previously encountered sporadic agitation for a reform of parliament, the French Revolution demonstrated the potential for localised political disaffection to coalesce into a nationwide conspiracy. The administration of William Pitt the Younger gravely feared that efforts to reform parliament were “nothing more than the preliminary to the overthrow of the whole system of our present government”. During a time in which the aristocracy of France were literally losing their heads, panic over the same happening in Britain lead Pitt to employ a severely repressive regime of curtailing radical thought and expression, known as “Pitt’s Reign of Terror”.
The danger was exacerbated by widespread hunger among the lower classes, which was caused by fluctuations in wage levels and sharp increases in the price of wheat. Since the vote was only allowed to a small number of wealthy landowners who looked after their own interests, a radical reform of parliament and extension of the franchise became increasingly regarded as the most effective way of improving conditions for working people.
Societies demanding parliamentary reform and an extension of the right to vote sprouted across the country. In Stockport, one of the first new societies to form was the Friends of Universal Peace and the Rights of Man, which was founded in August 1792 by John Andrew and Nathaniel Hibbert. The society’s founding declaration, “In the Cause of Liberty”, was printed as a broadside and reprinted in the Manchester Herald:
This broadside criticises the British Parliament for not adequately representing the British people and calls for “speedy and effectual Reform”. The resolutions laid out by the Friends also insist on the liberty of the press and freedom of religion, perhaps taking inspiration from the then recently ratified American Bill of Rights. The Friends appear to have taken inspiration from Thomas Paine who had recently released his book Rights of Man, written to defend the French revolutionaries against Edmund Burke’s attack in his Reflections on the Revolution in France.
As a hero of the American War of Independence and an advocate of the French Revolution, Paine terrified the British Government, who feared that fans of Paine may decide to start their own revolution in Britain.
The Friends also began to exchange letters with the London Corresponding Society, which was probably the most popular and influential radical society in the country. The LSC was especially feared by Pitt’s administration due to its members’ perceived sympathy with the French revolutionaries, as well as their engagement with reform societies across the country.
The Friends announced their formation in the General Evening Post on September 11th. This notice drew a stinging rebuke from Holland Watson, clerk to Stockport’s rector-magistrate. Watson mocked the Friends with his own notice in the London paper, the Evening Mail . Watson says that he investigated the friends and found “not a man of respectability among them”, calling Hibbert illiterate and Andrews a cotton spinner. He published the letter so that “the inhabitants of Stockport may no longer lie under the imputations of being disloyal and disaffected subjects”. Unfortunately for Watson, the printer included his request that his information not be published in the form of a letter and that his name not be included.
Watson’s letter to the Evening Mail was answered by the pamphlet A Rod For The Burkites (consisting of remonstrative answers to the objections and invective of the interested, bigoted and misguided inhabitants of Stockport, against the friends of universal peace and the rights of man. By one of the “Swinish Multitude”). The “Swinish Multitude” was a phrase used by conservative politician Edmund Burke in Reflections on the Revolution in France to suggest that it was futile to try to reduce inequality and educate the working class as the lower orders were incapable of improvement. The phrase was seized on by English radicals as a symbol of loyalist arrogance and used ironically in a great number of literary works and images.
The anonymous writer of Rod addresses the argument that advocating political reform would incite violence and anarchy, saying that his purpose is “not to blow up inflammation; but to cultivate information.” Of Watson, the Friend says “Tis plain he thinks the words Rich and Respectable are synonymous. But if he’ll be kind enough to step over to France for a few weeks; we have no doubt they will either effect a revolution in his understandings, or his language; or both.” Of loyalists in general, he calls them “hair brained bigots”, who “hector over those whose characters and abilities are incomparable superior to their own”.
The defence of Hibbert and Andrews in Rod was backed up by a local schoolmaster under the pen name ‘Tyrtaeus’. In letters published in the Manchester Herald, Tyrtaeus attacked Watson’s characterisations of the Friends, as well as accusing Watson of using similar repressive tactics against the Nonconformists. In December, Watson further escalated the war against local radicals by organising a meeting during which local loyalists resolved to support the constitution and reject the recent rise in radical ideas, resulting in the formation of the Stockport Reeves Association. Watson was hot on the heels of the first Reeve Association which had been set up in London on the 20th November by anti-Jacobin activist John Reeves. These loyalist clubs allowed Britons worried about the recent rise in radicalism to affirm their loyalty to Church and King.
The resolutions of the Stockport meeting were seconded by the Methodist Society:
The notice describes the resolutions formed by loyalists who: “perceiving, with the deepest concern, that attempts are made to circulate opinions contrary to the dearest interest of Britons, and subversive of those principles which have produced and preserved our most invaluable privileges, feel it as a duty we owe to our country, ourselves, and our posterity, to invite all our fellow-subjects to join with us in the expression of a sincere and firm attachment to the Constitution of this Kingdom.”
The notice was signed by 1070 people at the first meeting, rising to 4000 by the end of December. Indicating a significant loyalist presence in Stockport as well as suggesting the extent of the revolutionary threat posed by radicals in the area. With the support of the local residents dedicated to the defence of Church and King, the Magistrates’ repressive measures had the desired effect and in late December Watson wrote that “since the last proclamation (Stockport reformers) have changed their tune and have dwindled to nothing, and I fancy we shall hear no more of them”.
Later that month, the government issued the “Royal Proclamation Against Seditious Writings”, aimed at outlawing publications that advocated political reform, such as the phenomenally successful Rights of Man. In Stockport, a force of seventy special constables was sworn to put the ban into effect. An effigy of Paine was burned in Stockport marketplace immediately after the swearing in.
Nevertheless, there continued to be small outbreaks of reformist activity in Stockport. By 1794 the hand-loom weavers had suffered a drop in wages of 50-60% since 1792 and the continuing high price of wheat led to widespread starvation in the district. The indifference of the Government in response to this crisis caused the working-classes to increasingly believe that their conditions could only be improved by an increased representation in Parliament.
In 1794, Rights of Swine, An Address to the Poor was published. Written by “A Friend to the Poor”, the pamphlet addressed the poverty of the hand-loom weavers in Stockport:
Hearken, O ye Poor of the Land! While great men have an unbounded power to raise their rents and your provisions – and, at the same time, an uncontrolled power to make War, and consequently to dry up of diminish, the sources of your income, your subsistence will, at the best, be precarious and your very existence often miserable!Rights of Swine, p8. Stockport Heritage Library, S/H 11.
The author argues that the starvation and poverty endured by the working classes were not due to a lack of resources, but to an economic system designed to perpetuate the inequality between rich and poor. The “Friend to the Poor” anticipates in part the economic philosophy of Marx and Engels, who would come to the Manchester district in the 1840s. Rights of Swine ends with a stirring call to action directed specifically at the working class:
Awake! Arise! Arm yourselves – with Truth, Justice and Reason – lay siege to Corruption; and your unity and invincibility shall teach your Oppressors terrible things!Rights of Swine, p8. Stockport Heritage Library, S/H 11.
Similarly, The Communist Manifesto concludes with the following famous lines:
The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. WORKING MEN OF ALL COUNTRIES, UNITE.Engels, Friedrich and Marx, Karl. The Communist Manifesto.
Robert Glen points out that Rights of Swine was reprinted in 1835 and could therefore have been read by Marx and Engels while they were living in the Manchester district (Stopfordiana, 94-04).
By February 1794, Rights of Swine was being read aloud to the London Corresponding Society, continuing the links between the LSC Stockport radicals that had been established by the Friends in 1792. In May, the LSC discussed uniting these societies into a British Convention. Fearful of a mass meeting of possibly hostile radicals, the government suspended Habeas Corpus, allowing the government to detain a person without trial when it was determined that “a traitorous and detestable conspiracy has been formed for subverting the existing laws and constitution, and for introducing the system of anarchy and confusion which has so fatally prevailed in France”.
The Habeas Corpus Suspension act was immediately used to detain several leading reformers across the country, including several from Stockport. Three of the leaders of the LCS were charged with high treason: Thomas Hardy, John Thelwall and John Horne Tooke. In his indictment, the Attorney-General Sir John Scott said that they “did conspire, compass, imagine and intend to stir up move and excite insurrection rebellion and war against our said Lord the King within this kingdom of Great Britain”. The government failed to provide any evidence for its charges and all three defendants were acquitted.
Further repressive acts were passed in 1795; the “Treasonable and Seditious Practices Act”, which redefined treason as including criticism of the King or his Government; and the “Seditious Meetings Act”, which restricted public meetings to 50 persons. Known collectively as the “Gagging Acts”, these measures were regarded as a tyrannical abuse of governmental power by radicals who sent angry petitions were to the House of Lords.
The authorities were assisted in their enforcing of the crackdown on local radicals by the Stockport Loyal Volunteers. Ostensibly formed in 1794 to defend against a potential invasion during the French Revolutionary Wars, the Volunteers were routinely used to repress local radical activity, often resulting in violent clashes between the two. Holland Watson, the magistrate’s clerk who had been feuding with local radicals since 1792, was the first commandant.
Joining a Volunteer troop allowed ambitious middle classes to publically demonstrate their loyalty to the establishment and participate in parades and national celebrations. The Volunteers had an elaborate uniform, the rules and regulations stipulating “That the Uniform Coat shall be blue cloth, the cape, cuffs and facings of scarlet cloth edged with white, and to have wings and shoulder straps ornamented with gold lace and fringe…. The Waistcoat and Breeches to be white cassimere or cloth, the buttons to be gilt, and to have the letters S.V stamped on them.” The Volunteers were eulogised in a poem by Robert Farren Cheetham, a prodigious young poet from Stockport with a passion for the defence of Church and King. He described them as being “with patriot zeal inspired, A numerous band, that claim the meed of praise, Their souls with true heroic ardour fired, Their glorious deeds shall live, till time itself decays” (Cheetham, Poems, 1798).
In 1797, local radicals enjoyed a resurgence. The radical orator and writer John Thelwall visited Stockport and delivered a speech to four hundred people. Having been been tried for treason in 1794 along with other prominent members of the London Corresponding Society, Thelwall represented a high-profile radical scalp that the Stockport Loyal Volunteers were eager to claim. When Thelwall had finished his speech, a number of Volunteers cornered him and threatened to dunk him in the canal.
With his pistols at the ready, Thelwall “resolved to sell his life as dearly as he could”. He was rescued at the last minute by James Moorhouse, a tailor who had had been recently dismissed from the Volunteers for having radical sympathies. Having turned loyalist apostate, Moorhouse would continue his radical career, the height of which occurred in August 1819 when he led the Stockport contingent to a reform meeting at Manchester on St. Peter’s field.
For more information on early Stockport Radicalism please contact Stockport Heritage Library at: firstname.lastname@example.org.