Title: The Making of the English Working Class
Author: E. P. Thompson
Date: 1963

  Front Matter

    About the Author

    Publisher Details



    Preface to 1980 edition

  Part One


    Members Unlimited

    Christian and Apollyon

    ‘Satan’s Strongholds’

    The Free-born Englishman

    Planting the Liberty Tree

  Part Two



    The Field Labourers

    Artisans and Others

    The Weavers

    Standards and Experiences

      I. GOODS

      II. HOMES

      III. LIFE


    The Transforming Power of the Cross








  Part Three


    Radical Westminster

    An Army of Redressers







    Demagogues and Martyrs







    Class Consciousness






  Back Matter


    Bibliographical Note



Front Matter

About the Author

E. P. Thompson was born in 1924, and read history at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, graduating in 1946. His time there was interrupted by war service in Italy. From 1948 until 1965 he was extra-mural Lecturer at Leeds University in the West Riding and he was also Reader at the Centre for the Study of Social History at the University of Warwick. A freelance writer and admired historian, he was also a founder of END and a Vice-President of CND. E. P. Thompson was made a Fellow of the British Academy in 1992, and was a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. After his time at Warwick University, E. P. Thompson held no permanent academic posts, but was a visiting professor at several American universities. He died in 1993, survived by his wife and two sons.

Thompson’s first major work was his biography, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary, which first appeared in 1955 (revised edition, 1977). The Making of the English Working Class was instantly recognized as a classic on its publication in 1963 and secured his position as one of the leading social historians of his time. Other books include Whigs and Hunters and The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays. His last book, Customs in Common (1991), is a study of eighteenth-century popular beliefs and behaviour. An active campaigner on the left and a key figure in the ending of the Cold War, his writings on public issues include Writing by Candlelight, Beyond the Cold War, The Heavy Dancers and Double Exposure. In 1988 he published his first novel, a political allegory entitled The Sykaos Papers. Several of his books are published in Penguin.

In a tribute to Thompson in the Independent, E. J. Hobsbawm declared that he had ‘not just talent, brilliance, erudition and the gift of writing but the capacity to produce something qualitatively different from the rest of us, not to be measured on the same scale. Let us simply call it genius, in the traditional sense of the word.’

Publisher Details


Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

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Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England


First published by Victor Gollancz 1963

Published with revisions in Pelican Books 1968

Reprinted with new preface 1980

Reprinted in Penguin Books 1991


E. P. Thompson, 1963, 1968, 1980

ISBN: 978-0-14-193489-1





THIS book has a clumsy title, but it is one which meets its purpose. Making, because it is a study in an active process, which owes as much to agency as to conditioning. The working class did not rise like the sun at an appointed time. It was present at its own making.

Class, rather than classes, for reasons which it is one purpose of this book to examine. There is, of course, a difference. ‘Working classes’ is a descriptive term, which evades as much as it defines. It ties loosely together a bundle of discrete phenomena. There were tailors here and weavers there, and together they make up the working classes.

By class I understand a historical phenomenon, unifying a number of disparate and seemingly unconnected events, both in the raw material of experience and in consciousness. I emphasize that it is a historical phenomenon. I do not see class as a ‘structure’, nor even as a ‘category’, but as something which in fact happens (and can be shown to have happened) in human relationships.

More than this, the notion of class entails the notion of historical relationship. Like any other relationship, it is a fluency which evades analysis if we attempt to stop it dead at any given moment and anatomize its structure. The finest-meshed sociological net cannot give us a pure specimen of class, any more than it can give us one of deference or of love. The relationship must always be embodied in real people and in a real context. Moreover, we cannot have two distinct classes, each with an independent being, and then bring them into relationship with each other. We cannot have love without lovers, nor deference without squires and labourers. And class happens when some men, as a result of common experiences (inherited or shared), feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves, and as against other men whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs. The class experience is largely determined by the productive relations into which men are born – or enter involuntarily. Class-consciousness is the way in which these experiences are handled in cultural terms: embodied in traditions, value-systems, ideas, and institutional forms. If the experience appears as determined, class-consciousness does not. We can see a logic in the responses of similar occupational groups undergoing similar experiences, but we cannot predicate any law. Consciousness of class arises in the same way in different times and places, but never in just the same way.

There is today an ever-present temptation to suppose that class is a thing. This was not Marx’s meaning, in his own historical writing, yet the error vitiates much latter-day ‘Marxist’ writing. ‘It’, the working class, is assumed to have a real existence, which can be defined almost mathematically – so many men who stand in a certain relation to the means of production. Once this is assumed it becomes possible to deduce the class-consciousness which ‘it’ ought to have (but seldom does have) if ‘it’ was properly aware of its own position and real interests. There is a cultural superstructure, through which this recognition dawns in inefficient ways. These cultural ‘lags’ and distortions are a nuisance, so that it is easy to pass from this to some theory of substitution: the party, sect, or theorist, who disclose class-consciousness, not as it is, but as it ought to be.

But a similar error is committed daily on the other side of the ideological divide. In one form, this is a plain negative. Since the crude notion of class attributed to Marx can be faulted without difficulty, it is assumed that any notion of class is a pejorative theoretical construct, imposed upon the evidence. It is denied that class has happened at all. In another form, and by a curious inversion, it is possible to pass from a dynamic to a static view of class. ‘It’ – the working class – exists, and can be defined with some accuracy as a component of the social structure. Class-consciousness, however, is a bad thing, invented by displaced intenectuals, since everything which disturbs the harmonious coexistence of groups performing different ‘social rôles’ (and which thereby retards economic growth) is to be deplored as an ‘unjustified disturbance-symptom’. #1_815 [1] The problem is to determine how best ‘it’ can be conditioned to accept its social rôle, and how its grievances may best be ‘handled and channelled’.

If we remember that class is a relationship, and not a thing, we cannot think in this way. ‘It’ does not exist, either to have an ideal interest or consciousness, or to lie as a patient on the Adjustor’s table. Nor can we turn matters upon their heads, as has been done by one authority who (in a study of class obsessively concerned with methodology, to the exclusion of the examination of a single real class situation in a real historical context) has informed us:

Classes are based on the differences in legitimate power associated with certain positions, i.e. on the structure of social rôles with respect to their authority expectations…. An individual becomes a member of a class by playing a social rôle relevant from the point of view of authority…. He belongs to a class because he occupies a position in a social organization; i.e. class membership is derived from the incumbency of a social rôle. #2_480 [2]

The question, of course, is how the individual got to be in this ‘social rôle’, and how the particular social organization (with its property-rights and structure of authority) got to be there. And these are historical questions. If we stop history at a given point, then there are no classes but simply a multitude of individuals with a multitude of experiences. But if we watch these men over an adequate period of social change, we observe patterns in their relationships, their ideas, and their institutions. Class is defined by men as they live their own history, and, in the end, this is its only definition.

If I have shown insufficient understanding of the methodological preoccupations of certain sociologists, nevertheless I hope this book will be seen as a contribution to the understanding of class. For I am convinced that we cannot understand class unless we see it as a social and cultural formation, arising from processes which can only be studied as they work themselves out over a considerable historical period. In the years between 1780 and 1832 most English working people came to feel an identity of interests as between themselves, and as against their rulers and employers. This ruling class was itself much divided, and in fact only gained in cohesion over the same years because certain antagonisms were resolved (or faded into relative insignificance) in the face of an insurgent working class. Thus the working-class presence was, in 1832, the most significant factor in British political life.

The book is written in this way. In #Part_One_1][Part One I consider the continuing popular traditions in the eighteenth century which influenced the crucial Jacobin agitation of the 1790s. In #Part_Two_1][Part Two I move from subjective to objective influences – the experiences of groups of workers during the Industrial Revolution which seem to me to be of especial significance. I also attempt an estimate of the character of the new industrial work-discipline, and the bearing upon this of the Methodist Church. In #Part_Three_1][Part Three I pick up the story of plebeian Radicalism, and carry it through Luddism to the heroic age at the close of the Napoleonic Wars. Finally, I discuss some aspects of political theory and of the consciousness of class in the 1820s and 1830s.

This is a group of studies, on related themes, rather than a consecutive narrative. In selecting these themes I have been conscious, at times, of writing against the weight of prevailing orthodoxies. There is the Fabian orthodoxy, in which the great majority of working people are seen as passive victims of laissez faire, with the exception of a handful of far-sighted organizers (notably, Francis Place). There is the orthodoxy of the empirical economic historians, in which working people are seen as a labour force, as migrants, or as the data for statistical series. There is the ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ orthodoxy, in which the period is ransacked for forerunners-pioneers of the Welfare State, progenitors of a Socialist Commonwealth, or (more recently) early exemplars of rational industrial relations. Each of these orthodoxies has a certain validity. All have added to our knowledge. My quarrel with the first and second is that they tend to obscure the agency of working people, the degree to which they contributed by conscious efforts, to the making of history. My quarrel with the third is that it reads history in the light of subsequent preoccupations, and not as in fact it occurred. Only the successful (in the sense of those whose aspirations anticipated subsequent evolution) are remembered. The blind alleys, the lost causes, and the losers themselves are forgotten.

I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the ‘obsolete’ hand-loom weaver, the ‘utopian’ artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity. Their crafts and traditions may have been dying. Their hostility to the new industrialism may have been backward-looking. Their communitarian ideals may have been fantasies. Their insurectionary conspiracies may have been foolhardy. But they lived through these times of acute social disturbance, and we did not. Their aspirations were valid in terms of their own experience; and, if they were casualties of history, they remain, condemned in their own lives, as casualties.

Our only criterion of judgement should not be whether or not a man’s actions are justified in the light of subsequent evolution. After all, we are not at the end of social evolution ourselves. In some of the lost causes of the people of the Industrial Revolution we may discover insights into social evils which we have yet to cure. Moreover, the greater part of the world today is still undergoing problems of industrialization, and of the formation of democratic institutions, analogous in many ways to our own experience during the Industrial Revolution. Causes which were lost in England might, in Asia or Africa, yet be won.

Finally, a note of apology to Scottish and Welsh readers. I have neglected these histories, not out of chauvinism, but out of respect. It is because class is a cultural as much as an economic formation that I have been cautious as to generalizing beyond English experience. (I have considered the Irish, not in Ireland, but as immigrants to England.) The Scottish record, in particular, is quite as dramatic, and as tormented, as our own. The Scottish Jacobin agitation was more intense and more heroic. But the Scottish story is significantly different. Calvinism was not the same thing as Methodism, although it is difficult to say which, in the early nineteenth century, was worse. We had no peasantry in England comparable to the Highland migrants. And the popular culture was very different. It is possible, at least until the 1820s, to regard the English and Scottish experiences as distinct, since trade union and political links were impermanent and immature.

This book was written in Yorkshire, and is coloured at times by West Riding sources. My grateful acknowledgements are due to the University of Leeds and to Professor S. G. Raybould for enabling me, some years ago, to commence the research which led to this book; and to the Leverhulme Trustees for the award of a Research Fellowship, which has enabled me to complete the work. I have also learned a great deal from members of my tutorial classes, with whom I have discussed many of the themes treated here. Acknowledgements are due also to the authorities who have allowed me to quote from manuscript and copyright sources: particular acknowledgements will be found at the end of the first edition.

I have also to thank many others. Mr Christopher Hill, Professor Asa Briggs, and Mr John Saville criticized parts of the book in draft, although they are in no sense responsible for my judgements. Mr R. W. Harris showed great editorial patience, when the book burst the bounds of a series for which it was first commissioned. Mr Perry Anderson, Mr Denis Butt, Mr Richard Cobb, Mr Henry Collins, Mr Derrick Crossley, Mr Tim Enright, Dr E. P. Hennock, Mr Rex Russell, Dr John Rex, Dr E. Sigsworth, and Mr H. O. E. Swift, have helped me at different points. I have also to thank Mrs Dorothy Thompson, an historian to whom I am related by the accident of marriage. Each chapter has been discussed with her, and I have been well placed to borrow not only her ideas but material from her notebooks. Her collaboration is to be found, not in this or that particular, but in the way the whole problem is seen.

Halifax, August 1963

Preface to 1980 edition

When a contract was signed between myself and Victor Gollancz Ltd, in August 1959, it was for a book on ‘Working-Class Politics, 1790–1921’, to be ‘approximately 60,000 words in length’. This is, I suppose, the first chapter of such a book, and I am grateful to the publishers for the good-humoured and encouraging way in which they received my large and untidy manuscript. Looking back, I am puzzled to know when and how the book got itself written, since in 1959–62 I was also heavily engaged in the work of the first New Left, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and so on. The writing was only possible because some part of the research had already been laid down during the previous ten years in the course of my work as a tutor in extra-mural classes in the West Riding. Discussion in these classes, as well as practical political activity of several kinds, undoubtedly prompted me to see the problems of political consciousness and organization in certain ways.

Many readers have noted that the book is structured by a double-sided critique: on the one hand, of the positivist orthodoxies then dominant in the more conservative academic schools of economic history – orthodoxies more recently marketed under the name of ‘modernization theory’; on the other hand, of a certain ‘Marxist’ orthodoxy (then waning in influence in this country), which supposed that the working class was the more-or-less spontaneous generation of new productive forces and relations. Some critics of the first persuasion found the book to be a matter of scandal, and I replied to certain of their criticisms in a postscript to the Pelican edition of 1968 (reprinted here), not because I suppose that my work should be beyond criticism but because important matters of principle are involved. As regards critics of the second persuasion, I have been engaged in a running argument of a more theoretical kind for some years, culminating in The Poverty of Theory (Merlin Press, 1978).

I do not intend to write a further postscript, reviewing the new work of the past decade. This book has been generously received and has passed into historical discourse, and it would be self-important to try and adjudicate between other scholars in the light of my own findings. However, my own research was continuing while this book went through the press – as the galley-proofs testified – and in work on the crowd and customary consciousness in the eighteenth century I have myself extended and revised some of the material in the first four chapters. Meanwhile much new and important work has been published, and more lies in theses or is forthcoming. Work on the 1790s has been reopened, as can be seen from the bibliography to Professor Albert Goodwin’s weighty study, The Friends of Liberty (Hutchinson, 1979). The prophetic roles of Richard Brothers and Joanna Southcott have now been fully examined in J. F. C. Harrison, The Second Coming (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979). Most important revisions and additions to my account of London artisans, London radical politics, and the Queen Caroline affair, are made in Dr Iorwerth Prothero’s study of John Gast, Artisans and Politics in Early Nineteenth-Century London (Dawsons, 1979). I am happy to say that my note that the struggle of the unstamped press ‘has not yet found its historian’ has now been overtaken by two admirable studies: Patricia Hollis, The Pauper Press (Oxford University Press, 1970) and Joel H. Wiener, The War of the Unstamped (Cornell University Press, 1969).

Other areas remain more controversial. I should, perhaps, briefly indicate that I remain unrepentant as to my treatment of Methodism; that, despite criticisms, I maintain my view as to a small ‘underground’ Jacobin presence in the war years; that several works by Dr Malcolm Thomis on the Luddite movement have not led me to alter my own interpretation; and that Dr Duncan Bythell’s study of The Handloom Weavers (Cambridge University Press, 1969), some part of which is structured around a critique of my #Top_of_chapter009_html][Chapter 9, seems to me to be at fault in general arguments and in matters of detail. But to follow up any one of these questions would require close and prolonged attention to evidence.

The work of research and of critique will continue, and if I have passed by important work without mention, this is only for fear of being drawn into a bibliography. I wish only to indicate that, for its author, the major theses of this book still stand as hypotheses which, in their turn, must never be petrified into orthodoxies.

Worcester, October 1979

Part One


‘You are wrestling with the Enemies of the human Race, not for yourself merely, for you may not see the full Day of Liberty, but for the Child hanging at the Breast.’

Instructions of the London Corresponding Society to its travelling delegates, 1796

‘The Beast & the Whore rule without control.’



Members Unlimited

‘THAT the number of our Members be unlimited.’ This is the first of the ‘leading rules’ of the London Corresponding Society, as cited by its Secretary when he began to correspond with a similar society in Sheffield in March 1792. #1_816 [1] The first meeting of the London society had been held two months before in a tavern off the Strand (‘The Bell’ in Exeter Street) and nine ‘well-meaning, sober and industrious men’ were present. The founder and first Secretary, Thomas Hardy, later recalled this meeting:

After having had their bread and cheese and porter for supper, as usual, and their pipes afterwards, with some conversation on the hardness of the times and the dearness of all the necessaries of life… the business for which they had met was brought forward –Parliamentary Reform – an important subject to be deliberated upon and dealt with by such a class of men.

Eight of the nine present became founder-members that night (the ninth thought it over and joined the next week) and paid their first weekly subscription of one penny. Hardy (who was also Treasurer) went back to his home at No. 9 Piccadilly with the entire funds of the organization in his pocket: 8d. towards paper for the purpose of corresponding with like-minded groups in the country.

Within a fortnight twenty-five members were enrolled and the sum in the Treasurer’s hands was 4s. 1d. (Six months later more than 2,000 members were claimed.) Admission to membership was simple, the test being an affirmative reply to three questions, of which the most important was:

Are you thoroughly persuaded that the welfare of these kingdoms require that every adult person, in possession of his reason, and not incapacitated by crimes, should have a vote for a Member of Parliament?

In the first month of its existence the society debated for five nights in succession the question – ‘Have we, who are Tradesmen, Shopkeepers, and Mechanics, any right to obtain a Parliamentary Reform?’ – turning it over ‘in every point of view in which we were capable of presenting the subject to our minds’. They decided that they had.

Two years later, on 12 May 1794, the King’s Messenger, two Bow Street Runners, the private secretary to Home Secretary Dundas, and other dignitaries arrived at No. 9 Piccadilly to arrest Thomas Hardy, shoemaker, on a charge of high treason. The Hardys watched while the officers ransacked the room, broke open a bureau, rummaged among Mrs Hardy’s clothes (she was pregnant and remained in bed), filled four large silk handkerchiefs with letters and a corn-sack with pamphlets, books and manuscripts. On the same day a special message from the King was brought to the House of Commons, concerning the seditious practices of the Corresponding Societies; and two days later a Committee of Secrecy of the House was appointed to examine the shoemaker’s papers.

The shoemaker was examined several times by the Privy Council itself. Hardy left little record of these encounters; but one of his fellow prisoners entertained his readers with a dramatic reconstruction of his own interrogation by the highest council in the land. ‘I was called in,’ related John Thelwall, ‘and beheld the whole Dramatis Personae intrenched chin deep in Lectures and manuscripts… all scattered about in the utmost confusion.’ The Lord Chancellor, the Home Secretary, and the Prime Minister (Pitt) were all present:

ATTORNEY-GENERAL [piano] Mr Thelwall, what is your Christian name?

T. [somewhat sullenly] John.

ATT. GEN. [piano still]… With two l’s at the end or with one?

T. With two – but it does not signify. [Carelessly, but rather sullen, or so.] You need not give yourself any trouble. I do not intend to answer any questions.

PITT. What does he say? [Darting round, very fiercely, from the other side of the room, and seating himself by the side of the CHANCELLOR.]

LORD CHANCELLOR [with silver softness, almost melting to a whisper] He does not mean to answer any questions.

PITT. What is it? – What is it? – What? [fiercely]… #1_817 [1]

John Thelwall then turned his back on the august company and ‘began to contemplate a drawing in water-colours’. The Prime Minister dismissed him and summoned for interrogation a fourteen-year-old lad, Henry Eaton, who had been living with the Thelwalls. But the boy stood his ground and ‘entered into a political harangue, in which he used very harsh language against Mr Pitt; upbraiding him with having taxed the people to an enormous extent…’ #2_481 [2]

By the standards of the next 100 years the antagonists appear to be strangely amateurish and uncertain of their rôles, rehearsing in curiously personal encounters the massive impersonal encounters of the future. #3_194 [3] Civility and venom are mixed together; there is still room for acts of personal kindness alongside the malice of class hatred. Thelwall, Hardy, and ten other prisoners were committed to the Tower and later to Newgate. While there, Thelwall was for a time confined in the charnel-house; and Mrs Hardy died in childbirth as a result of shock sustained when her home was beseiged by a ‘Church and King’ mob. The Privy Council determined to press through with the charge of high treason: and the full penalty for a traitor was that he should be hanged by the neck, cut down while still alive, disembowelled (and his entrails burned before his face) and then beheaded and quartered. A Grand Jury of respectable citizens had no stomach for this. After a nine-day trial. Hardy was acquitted (on Guy Fawkes Day, 1794). The Foreman of the Jury fainted after delivering his ‘Not Guilty’, while the London crowd went wild with enthusiasm and dragged Hardy in triumph through the streets. Acquittals for Home Tooke and Thelwall (and the dismissal of the other cases) followed. But the celebrations of the crowd were premature. For in the next year the steady repression of reformers – or ‘Jacobins’ – was renewed. And by the end of the decade it seemed as if the entire agitation had been dispersed. The London Corresponding Society had been outlawed. Tom Paine’s Rights of Man was banned. Meetings were prohibited. Hardy was running a shoe-shop near Covent Garden, appealing to old reformers to patronize him in tribute to his past services. John Thelwall had retired to an isolated farm in South Wales. It seemed, after all, that ‘tradesmen, shopkeepers, and mechanics’ had no right to obtain a Parliamentary Reform.

The London Corresponding Society has often been claimed as the first definitely working-class political organization formed in Britain. Pedantry apart (the Sheffield, Derby and Manchester societies were formed before the Society in London) this judgement requires definition. On the one hand, debating societies in which working men took part existed sporadically in London from the time of the American War. On the other hand, it may be more accurate to think of the L.C.S. as a ‘popular Radical’ society than as ‘working-class’.

Hardy was certainly an artisan. Born in 1752, he had been apprenticed as a shoemaker in Stirlingshire: had seen something of the new industrialism as a bricklayer at the Carron Iron Works (he was nearly killed when the scaffolding collapsed when he was at work on ironmaster Roebuck’s house); and had come to London as a young man, shortly before the American War. Here he worked in one of those numerous trades where a journeyman looked forward to becoming independent, with luck to becoming a master himself – as Hardy eventually became. He married the daughter of a carpenter and builder. One of his colleagues, a Chairman of the L.C.S., was Francis Place, on his way to becoming a master-tailor. The line between the journeymen and the small masters was often crossed – the Journeymen Boot and Shoemakers struck against Hardy in his new rôle as a small employer in 1795, while Francis Place, before becoming a master-tailor, helped to organize a strike of Journeymen Breeches-makers in 1793. And the line between the artisan of independent status (whose workroom was also his ‘shop’) and the small shopkeeper or tradesmen was even fainter. From here it was another step to the world of self-employed engravers, like William Sharp and William Blake, of printers and apothecaries, teachers and journalists, surgeons and Dissenting clergy.

At one end, then, the London Corresponding Society reached out to the coffee-houses, taverns and dissenting churches off Piccadilly, Fleet Street and the Strand, where the self-educated journeyman might rub shoulders with the printer, the shopkeeper, the engraver or the young attorney. At the other end, to the east, and south of the river, it touched those older working-class communities – the waterside workers of Wapping, the silk-weavers of Spitalfields, the old dissenting stronghold of Southwark. For 200 years ‘Radical London’ has always been more heterogeneous and fluid in its social and occupational definition than the Midlands or Northern centres grouped around two or three staple industries. Popular movements in London have often lacked the coherence and stamina which results from the involvement of an entire community in common occupational and social tensions. On the other hand, they have generally been more subject to intellectual and ‘ideal’ motivations. A propaganda of ideas has had a larger audience than in the North. London Radicalism early acquired a greater sophistication from the need to knit diverse agitations into a common movement. New theories, new arguments, have generally first effected a junction with the popular movement in London, and travelled outwards from London to the provincial centres.

The L.C.S. was a junction-point of this sort. And we must remember that its first organizer lived in Piccadilly, not in Wapping or in Southwark. But there are features, in even the brief description of its first meetings, which indicate that a new kind of organization had come into being – features which help us to define (in the context of 1790–1850) the nature of a ‘working-class organization’. There is the working man as Secretary. There is the low weekly subscription. There is the intermingling of economic and political themes – ‘the hardness of the times’ and Parliamentary Reform. There is the function of the meeting, both as a social occasion and as a centre for political activity. There is the realistic attention to procedural formalities. Above all, there is the determination to propagate opinions and to organize the converted, embodied in the leading rule: ‘That the number of our Members be unlimited.’

Today we might pass over such a rule as a commonplace: and yet it is one of the hinges upon which history turns. It signified the end to any notion of exclusiveness, of politics as the preserve of any hereditary élite or property group. Assent to this rule meant that the L.C.S. was turning its back upon the century-old identification of political with property-rights – turning its back also upon the Radicalism of the days of ‘Wilkes and Liberty’, when ‘the Mob’ did not organize itself in pursuance of its own ends but was called into spasmodic action by a faction – even a Radical faction – to strengthen its hand and frighten the authorities. To throw open the doors to propaganda and agitation in this ‘unlimited’ way implied a new notion of democracy, which cast aside ancient inhibitions and trusted to self-activating and self-organizing processes among the common people. Such a revolutionary challenge was bound to lead on to the charge of high treason.

The challenge had, of course, been voiced before – by the seventeenth-century Levellers. And the matter had been argued out between Cromwell’s officers and the Army agitators in terms which look forward to the conflicts of the 1790s. In the crucial debate, at Putney, #1_818 [1] the representatives of the soldiers argued that since they had won the victory they should benefit by being admitted to a greatly extended popular franchise. The claim of the Leveller Colonel Rainborough is well known:

For really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly, sir, I think it’s clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government…. I should doubt whether he was an Englishman or no, that should doubt of these things.

The reply of Cromwell’s son-in-law, General Ireton – the spokesman of the ‘Grandees’ – was that ‘no person hath a right to an interest or share in the disposing of the affairs of the kingdom… that hath not a permanent fixed interest in this kingdom’. When Rainborough pressed him, Ireton grew warm in return:

All the main thing that I speak for, is because I would have an eye to property. I hope we do not come to contend for victory – but let every man consider with himself that he do not go that way to take away all property. For here is the case of the most fundamental part of the constitution of the kingdom, which if you take away, you take all by that.

‘If you admit any man that hath a breath and being,’ he continued, a majority of the Commons might be elected who had no ‘local and permanent interest’. ‘Why may not those men vote against all property?… Show me what you will stop at; wherein you will fence any man in a property by this rule.’

This unqualified identification of political and property rights brought angry expostulations. From Sexby –

There are many thousands of us soldiers that have ventured our lives; we have had little propriety in the kingdom as to our estates, yet we have had a birthright But it seems now, except a man hath a fixed estate in this kingdom, he hath no right… I wonder we were so much deceived.

And Rainborough broke in ironically:

Sir, I see that it is impossible to have liberty but all property must be taken away. If it be laid down for a rule… it must be so. But I would fain know what the soldier hath fought for all this while? He hath fought to enslave himself, to give power to men of riches, men of estates, to make him a perpetual slave.

To which Ireton and Cromwell replied with arguments which seem like prescient apologetics for the compromise of 1688. The common soldier had fought for three things: the limitation of the prerogative of the Crown to infringe his personal rights and liberty of conscience: the right to be governed by representatives, even though he had no part in choosing them: and the ‘freedom of trading to get money, to get estates by’ – and of entering upon political rights in this way. On such terms, ‘Liberty may be had and property not be destroyed.’

For 100 years after 1688 this compromise – the oligarchy of landed and commercial property – remained unchallenged, although with a thickening texture of corruption, purchase, and interest whose complexities have been lovingly chronicled by Sir Lewis Namier and his school. The Leveller challenge was altogether dispersed – although the spectre of a Leveller revival was often conjured up, as the Scylla to the Charybdis of Papists and Jacobites between which the good ship Constitution must steer her course. But until the last quarter of the eighteenth century the temperate republican and libertarian impulses of the ‘Eighteenth-Century Commonwealthsman’ seem to be transfixed within the limits of Ireton’s definition. #1_819 [1] To read the controversies between reformers and authority, and between different reforming groups, in the 1790s is to see the Putney Debates come to life once again. The ‘poorest he’ in England, the man with a ‘birthright’, becomes the Rights of Man: while the agitation of ‘unlimited’ members was seen by Burke as the threat of the ‘swinish multitude’. The great semi-official agency for the intimidation of reformers was called the Association for ‘Protecting Liberty and Property against Republicans and Levellers’. The moderate Yorkshire reformer, the Reverend Christopher Wyvill, as to whose devotion there can be no question, nevertheless believed that a reform on the principle of universal suffrage ‘could not be effected without a Civil War’:

In times of warm political debate, the Right of Suffrage communicated to an ignorant and ferocious Populace would lead to tumult and confusion…. After a series of Elections disgraced by the most shameful corruption, or disturbed by the most furious commotion, we expect that the turbulence or venality of the English Populace would at last disgust the Nation so greatly, that to get rid of the intolerable evils of a profligate Democracy, they would take refuge… under the protection of Despotic Power. #2_482 [2]

‘If Mr Paine should be able to rouze up the lower classes,’ he wrote in 1792, ‘their interference will probably be marked by wild work, and all we now possess, whether in private property or public liberty, will be at the mercy of a lawless and furious rabble.’ #1_820 [1]

It is the old debate continued. The same aspirations, fears, and tensions are there: but they arise in a new context, with new language and arguments, and a changed balance of forces. We have to try to understand both things – the continuing traditions and the context that has changed. Too often, since every account must start somewhere, we see only the things which are new. We start at 1789, and English Jacobinism appears as a byproduct of the French Revolution. Or we start in 1819 and with Peterloo, and English Radicalism appears to be a spontaneous generation of the Industrial Revolution. Certainly the French Revolution precipitated a new agitation, and certainly this agitation took root among working people, shaped by new experiences, in the growing manufacturing districts. But the question remains – what were the elements precipitated so swiftly by these events? And we find at once the long traditions of the urban artisans and tradesmen, so similar to the menu peuple whom George Rudé has shown to be the most volatile revolutionary element in the Parisian crowd. #2_483 [2] We may see something of the complexities of these continuing traditions if we isolate three problems: the tradition of Dissent, and its modification by the Methodist revival: the tradition made up of all those loose popular notions which combine in the idea of the Englishman’s ‘birthright’; and the ambiguous tradition of the eighteenth-century ‘mob’, of which Wyvill was afraid and which Hardy was trying to organize into committees, divisions, and responsible demonstrations.


Christian and Apollyon

DISSENT is a misleading term. It covers so many sects, so many conflicting intellectual and theological tendencies, finds so many different forms in differing social milieux. The old dissenting groups, Quakers, and Baptists – show certain similarities of development after the Glorious Revolution. As persecution gave way to greater toleration, the congregations became less zealous and more prosperous. Where the clothiers and farmers of the Spen Valley had met, in 1670, in secret and at night, in a farmhouse called ‘Ye Closes’ or ‘in the barn near Chapel Fold’, 100 years later we find a sturdy church with a prosperous deacon, Joseph Priestley, who confided in his devotional diary such entries as this:

The world smiles. I had some agreeable engagements by this post. What shall I render my Lord, was my language when I went to Leeds. I determined to give four or five loads of wheat to Christ’s poor. Had much reason to complain this day that I did not set God before me in all my thoughts. Find it difficult in the hurry of business…

And the next week:

This morning I… dined with a company of officers who all appeared to be ignorant of the way of salvation. I had some pleasure in reading 45th Isiah…. Ordered brother Obadiah to give a load of wheat among Christ’s poor. #1_821 [1]

This Priestley was still a Calvinist, albeit a somewhat guilt-stricken one. (No doubt ‘brother Obadiah’ was a Calvinist too.) But his younger cousin, also a Joseph Priestley, was at this time studying at the Daventry Academy, where he sadly disappointed his kinsmen and church by being touched by the spirit of the rational enlightenment, becoming a Unitarian, a scientist, and a political reformer. It was this Dr Priestley whose books and laboratory were destroyed by a ‘Church and King’ mob in Birmingham in 1791.

That is a thumb-nail sketch of one part of the Dissenting tradition. Their liberty of conscience tolerated, but still disabled in public life by the Test and Corporations Acts, the Dissenters continued throughout the century to work for civil and religious liberties. By the mid-century many of the younger educated ministers prided themselves on their broad-minded rational theology. The Calvinist self-righteousness of the persecuted sect was left behind, and they gravitated through Arian and Socinian ‘heresy’ towards Unitarianism. From Unitarianism it was only a further step to Deism, although few took this step until the 1790s; and even fewer in the second half of the eighteenth century wished or dared to make a public avowal of scepticism – in 1763 the seventy-year-old schoolmaster, Peter Annet, was imprisoned and stocked for translating Voltaire and for publishing ‘free-thinking’ tracts in popular form, while shortly afterwards the sceptical Robin Hood debating society was closed down. It was from Socinian or Unitarian positions that liberal principles were argued: the famous figures are Dr Price, whose Observations on Civil Liberty (1776) at the time of the American War achieved the remarkable sale of 60,000 within a few months, and who lived to enrage Burke by his sermon in welcome to the French Revolution; Dr Priestley himself; and a score of lesser figures, several of whom – Thomas Cooper of Bolton and William Frend of Cambridge – took an active part in the reform agitation of the 1790s. #1_822 [1]

So far the story seems clear. But this is deceptive. These liberal notions prevailed widely among dissenting clergy, teachers, and educated city communities. But many of the ministers had left their congregations behind. It was the Presbyterian Church, in which the impulse to Unitarianism was most strongly felt, which was declining in strength most markedly in relation to other dissenting groups. In the mid-eighteenth century the Presbyterians and the Independents (taken together) were strongest in the south-west (Devonshire, Dorset, Gloucestershire, Hampshire, Somerset, Wiltshire), in the industrial north (notably Lancashire, Northumberland and Yorkshire), in London, and in East Anglia (notably Essex and Suffolk). The Baptists contested some of these strongholds, and were also well-rooted in Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Kent, Leicestershire, and Northamptonshire. Thus the Presbyterians and Independents would appear to have been strongest in the commercial and wool manufacturing centres, while the Baptists held ground in areas where petty tradesmen, small farmers and rural labourers must have made up a part of their congregations. #1_823 [1] It was in the greatest of the older woollen centres, the West Country, that the broad-minded, ‘rational’ religion which tended towards the denial of Christ’s divinity and to Unitarianism both made its most rapid advances and lost it the allegiance of its congregations. In Devonshire, by the end of the eighteenth century, more than twenty Presbyterian meeting-houses had been closed, and the historians of Dissent, writing in 1809, declared:

Devonshire, the cradle of arianism, has been the grave of the arian dissenters; and there is not left in that populous county a twentieth part of the presbyterians who were to be found at the time of her birth. #2_484 [2]

But elsewhere the story was different. In matters of church organization the dissenting sects often carried the principles of self-government and of local autonomy to the borders of anarchy. Any centralized authority – even consultation and association between churches – was seen as ‘productive of the great anti-christian apostasy’,

An apostasy so fatal to the civil and religious liberties of mankind, and particularly to those of the brave old puritans and nonconformists, that the very words synod and session, council and canon, yet make both the ears of a sound Protestant Dissenter to tingle. #1_824 [1]

Where the Calvinist tradition was strong, as in parts of Lancashire and Yorkshire, the congregations fought back against the drift towards Unitarianism; and stubborn deacons, trustees and Obadiahs tormented the lives of their ministers, investigating their heresies, expelling them or breaking away to form more righteous sects. (Thomas Hardy gained some of his first experiences of organization in the factional struggles of the Presbyterian congregation in Crown Court, off Russell Street.) But what of ‘Christ’s poor’, to whom Dr Price offered enlightenment and Deacon Priestley loads of wheat? The Spen Valley lay at the centre of a thickly populated and expanding manufacturing district – here one might have expected the dissenting churches to have reaped at last the reward for their endurance in the years of persecution. And yet ‘Christ’s poor’ seemed little touched by either the Established Church or old Dissent. ‘A wilder people I never saw in England.’ John Wesley noted in his Journal, when he rode through near-by Huddersfield in 1757; ‘the men, women, and children filled the street as we rode along, and appeared just ready to devour us.’

The rational Christianity of the Unitarians, with its preference for ‘candour’ and its distrust of ‘enthusiasm’, appealed to some of the tradesmen and shopkeepers of London, and to similar groups in the large cities. But it seemed too cold, too distant, too polite, and too much associated with the comfortable values of a prospering class to appeal to the city or village poor. Its very language and tone served as a barrier: ‘No other preaching will do for Yorkshire,’ John Nelson told Wesley, ‘but the old sort that comes like a thunderclap upon the conscience. Fine preaching does more harm than good here.’ And yet old Calvinism had erected its own barriers which inhibited any evangelistic zeal. The persecuted sect only too easily made a virtue of its own exclusiveness, and this in turn reinforced the hardest tenets of Calvinist dogma. ‘Election,’ ran one article of the Savoy Confession (1658), ‘was not out of the corrupt lump or mass of mankind foreseen.’ ‘Christ’s poor’ and the ‘corrupt lump’ were of course the same people: from another aspect the ‘wildness’ of the poor was a sign that they lived outwith the bounds of grace. The Calvinist elect tended to narrow into a kinship group.

And there were other reasons for this process. Some go right back to the defeat of the Levellers in the Commonwealth. When the millennial hopes for a rule of the Saints were dashed to the ground, there followed a sharp dissociation between the temporal and spiritual aspirations of the poor man’s Puritanism. Already in 1654, before the Restoration, the General Association of the General Baptists issued a manifesto (aimed at the Fifth Monarchy men in their midst) declaring that they did not ‘know any ground for the saints, as such, to expect that the Rule and Government of the World should be put into their hands’ until the Last Judgement. Until such time it was their portion ‘patiently to suffer from the world… than anywhere to attain the Rule of Government thereof’. #1_825 [1] At the end of the Commonwealth, the rebellious tradition of Antinomianism ‘curved back from all its claims’. Where the ardent sectaries had been zealous – indeed, ruthless – social gardeners, they were now content to say: ‘let the tares (if tares) alone with the wheat…’ #2_485 [2] Gerrard Winstanley, the Digger, helps us to understand the movement of feeling, turning away from the ‘kingdom without’ to the ‘kingdom within’:

The living soul and the creating spirit are not one, but divided, the one looking after a kingdom without him, the other drawing him to look and wait for a kingdom within him, which moth and rust doth not corrupt and thieves cannot break through and steal. This is a kingdom that will abide, the outward kingdom must be taken from you. #3_195 [3]

An understanding of this withdrawal – and of what was preserved despite the withdrawal – is crucial to an understanding of the eighteenth century and of a continuing element in later working-class politics. In one sense, the change can be seen in the different associations called up by two words: the positive energy of Puritanism, the self-preserving retreat of Dissent. But we must also see the way in which the resolution of the sects to ‘patiently suffer from the world’ while abstaining from the hope of attaining to its ‘Rule and Government’ enabled them to combine political quietism with a kind of slumbering Radicalism – preserved in the imagery of sermons and tracts and in democratic form of organization – which might, in any more hopeful context, break into fire once more. We might expect to find this most marked among the Quakers and the Baptists. By the 1790s, however, the Quakers – who numbered fewer than 20,000 in the United Kingdom – seem little like a sect which once contained such men as Lilbourne, Fox and Penn. They had prospered too much: had lost some of their most energetic spirits in successive emigrations to America: their hostility to State, and authority had diminished to formal symbols – the refusal to swear oath or to bare the head: the continuing tradition, at its best, gave more to the social conscience of the middle class than to the popular movement. In the mid-century there were still humble congregations like that which met in the meeting-house in Cage Lane, Thetford – adjoining the gaol, with its pillory and stocks – where young Tom Paine received (by his own avowal) ‘an exceeding good moral education’. But few Quakers seem to have come forward when Paine, in 1791, combined some of their own notions of service to humanity with the intransigent tone of Rights of Man. In 1792 the Yorkshire Quarterly Meeting of Friends urged on its members ‘true quietude of mind’ in the ‘state of unsettlement which at present exists in our nation’. They should not unite in political associations, nor should they promote ‘a spirit of disaffection to the King and to the Government under which we live and enjoy many privileges and favours which merit our grateful subjection thereto’. #1_826 [1]

Their forebears had not accepted subjection, nor would they have admitted the word grateful. The tension between the kingdoms ‘without’ and ‘within’ implied a rejection of the ruling powers except at points where coexistence was inevitable: and much nice argument had once turned on what was ‘lawful’ to the conscience and what was not. The Baptists, perhaps, showed the greatest consistency: and they remained most Calvinist in their theology and most plebeian in their following. And it is above all in Bunyan that we find the slumbering Radicalism which was preserved through the eighteenth century and which breaks out again and again in the nineteenth. Pilgrim’s Progress is, with Rights of Man, one of the two foundation texts of the English working-class movement: Bunyan and Paine, with Cobbett and Owen, contributed most to the stock of ideas and attitudes which make up the raw material of the movement from 1790–1850. Many thousands of youths found in Pilgrim’s Progress their first adventure story, and would have agreed with Thomas Cooper, the Chartist, that it was their ‘book of books’. #1_827 [1]

‘I seek an inheritance incorruptible, undefiled, and that fadeth not away… laid up in heaven, and safe there… to be bestowed, at the time appointed, on them that diligently seek it. Read it so, if you will, in my book.’ Here is Winstanley’s kingdom which ‘moth and rust doth not corrupt’, here is the other-worldly millennium of the Saints, who must ‘patiently suffer from’ this world. Here is the ‘lamentable cry’ – ‘What shall I do?’ – of those who lost at Putney, and who had no share in the settlement of 1688. Here is Old Man P O P E, whom Christian feels that his forebears have tamed, and who has now ‘grown so crazy and stiff in his joints’, that he can do little but sit in his cave’s mouth, saying to the pilgrims – ‘You will never mend till more of you be burned’ – ‘grinning… as they go by, and biting his nails because he cannot come at them.’ Here is the inner spiritual landscape of the poor man’s Dissent – of the ‘tailors, leather-sellers, soap-boilers, brewers, weavers and tinkers’ who were among Baptist preachers #2_486 [2] – a landscape seeming all the more lurid, suffused with passionate energy and conflict, from the frustration of these passions in the outer world: Beelzebub’s Castle, the giants Bloody-man, Maul, and Slay-good, the Hill Difficulty, Doubting Castle, Vanity Fair, the Enchanted Ground; a way ‘full of snares, pits, traps, and gins’. Here are Christian’s aristocratic enemies – ‘the Lord Carnal Delight, the Lord Luxurious, the Lord Desire of Vain Glory, my old Lord Lechery, Sir Having Greedy, with all the rest of our nobility’. And here is the Valley of Humiliation in which Bunyan’s readers were to be found: ‘a Valley that nobody walks in, but those that love a pilgrim’s life’. It is MERCY who says:

I love to be in such places where there is no rattling with coaches, nor rumbling with wheels; methinks, here one may, without much molestation, be thinking what he is, whence he came, what he has done… here one may think, and break at heart, and melt in one’s spirit, until one’s eyes become like ‘the fishpools of Heshbon’.

And it is GREAT-HEART who replies, with the spiritual pride of the persecuted and unsuccessful: ‘It is true… I have gone through this Valley many a time, and never was better than when here.’

But the world of the spirit – of righteousness and spiritual liberty – is constantly under threat from the other world. First, it is threatened by the powers of the State: when we encounter APOLLYON we seem to be in a world of fantasy:

He was clothed with scales, like a fish (and they are his pride), he had wings like a dragon, feet like a bear, and out of his belly came fire and smoke…

But when this monster turns upon CHRISTIAN (‘with a disdainful countenance’) he turns out to be very like the perplexed country magistrates who tried, with alternating arguments and threats, to make Bunyan promise to desist from field-preaching. APOLLYON, opens his mouth – which was ‘as the mouth of a lion’ – for a very muted roar: ‘I am willing to pass by all, if now thou wilt yet turn again and go back.’ Only when persuasion has failed does he straddle ‘over the whole breadth of the way’ and declare: ‘I swear by my infernal den, that thou shalt go no further.’ And it is APOLLYON’S subtlety which enables him to find allies among CHRISTIAN’S own company and fellow pilgrims. These – and they are by far the most numerous and deceptive – are the second source of threat to CHRISTIAN’S incorruptible inheritance; one by one, Bunyan brings forward all the slippery arguments of comfort and compromise preparing the way for an accommodation between APOLLYON and Dissent. There is Mr By-ends of Fair-Speech: and Mr Hold-the-world, Mr Money-love, and Mr Save-all, all pupils of ‘a schoolmaster in Love-gain, which is a market town in the county of Coveting, in the north’. It is Mr By-ends who condemns those ‘that are righteous overmuch’:

BY-ENDS: Why, they… rush on their journey all weathers; and I am for waiting for wind and tide. They are for hazarding all for God at a clap; and I am for taking all advantages to secure my life and estate. They are for holding their notions, though all other men are against them; but I am for religion in what, and so far as the times, and my safety will bear it. They are for religion when in rags and contempt; but I am for him when he walks in his golden slippers, in the sunshine, with applause.

MR HOLD-THE-WORLD: Aye, and hold you there still, good Mr By-Ends…. Let us be wise as serpents; it is best to make hay when the sun shines…

MR SAVE-ALL: I think that we are all agreed in this matter, and therefore there needs no more words about it

MR MONEY-LOVE: No, there needs no more words about this matter, indeed; for he that believes neither Scripture nor reason (and you see we have both on our side), neither knows his own liberty, nor seeks his own safety.

It is a splendid passage, foreshadowing so much in the development of eighteenth-century Dissent. Bunyan knew that in a sense Mr By-end’s friends did have both Scripture and reason on their side: he worked into his apologia the arguments of security, comfort, enlightenment and liberty. What they have lost is their moral integrity and their compassion; the incorruptible inheritance of the spirit, it seems, could not be preserved if the inheritance of struggle was forgotten.

This is not all that Pilgrim’s Progress is about. As Weber noted, the ‘basic atmosphere’ of the book is one in which ‘the after-life was not only more important, but in many ways also more certain, than all the interests of life in this world’. #1_828 [1] And this reminds us that faith in a life to come served not only as a consolation to the poor but also as some emotional compensation for present sufferings and grievances: it was possible not only to imagine the ‘reward’ of the humble but also to enjoy some revenge upon their oppressors, by imagining their torments to come. Moreover, in stressing the positives in Bunyan’s imagery we have said little of the obvious negatives – the unction, the temporal submissiveness, the egocentric pursuit of personal salvation – with which they are inseparably intermingled; and this ambivalence continues in the language of humble Nonconformity far into the eighteenth century. The story seemed to Bamford to be ‘mournfully soothing, like that of a light coming from an eclipsed sun’. When the context is hopeful and mass agitations arise, the active energies of the tradition are most apparent: Christian does battle with Apollyon in the real world. In times of defeat and mass apathy, quietism is in the ascendant, reinforcing the fatalism of the poor: Christian suffers in the Valley of Humiliation, far from the rattling of coaches, turning his back on the City of Destruction and seeking the way to a spiritual City of Zion.

Moreover, Bunyan, in his fear of the erosion of the inheritance by compromise, added to the forbidding Puritan joylessness his own figurative portrayal of the ‘straight and narrow’ path, which emphasized the jealous sectarianism of the Calvinist elect. By 1750 those very sects which had sought to be most loyal to ‘Christ’s poor’ were least welcoming to new converts, least evangelistic in temper. Dissent was caught in the tension between opposing tendencies, both of which led away from any popular appeal: on the other hand, the tendency towards rational humanitarianism and fine preaching – too intellectual and genteel for the poor; on the other hand, the rigid Elect, who might not marry outside the church, who expelled all back-sliders and heretics, and who stood apart from the ‘corrupt mass’ predestined to be damned. ‘The Calvinism of the former,’ Halévy noted, ‘was undergoing decomposition, the Calvinism of the latter petrification.’ #1_829 [1]

Even Bunyan’s Baptists were deeply divided in this way, the ‘Arminian’ General Baptists losing ground to the zealously Calvinist Particular Baptists (with their strongholds in Northamptonshire, Bedfordshire, Lincolnshire) whose very Calvinism, however, prevented the progagation of the sect. #2_487 [2] It was not until 1770 that the Particular Baptists began to break out of the trap of their own dogma, issuing a circular letter (from Northamptonshire) which offered a formula by which evangelism and the notion of election might be reconciled: ‘Every soul that comes to Christ to be saved… is to be encouraged… The coming soul need not fear that he is not elected, for none but such would be willing to come.’ But the revival was slow; and it was competition with the Methodists, rather than an inner dynamic, which drove the Baptists back to the poor. When, in the 1760s, Dan Taylor, a Yorkshire collier who had worked in the pit from the age of five and who had been converted by the Methodists, looked around for a Baptist sect with an evangelistic temper, he could find nothing that suited. He built his own meeting-house, digging the stone out of the moors above Hebden Bridge and carrying it on his own back; #3_196 [3] then he walked down from the weaving township of Heptonstall (a Puritan stronghold during the Civil War) to Lincolnshire and Northamptonshire, making contact with restive Baptist groups, and finally forming (in 1770) the Baptist New Connexion. Travelling in the next years 25,000 miles and preaching 20,000 sermons he is a man to be remembered by the side of Wesley and Whitefield; but he came from neither the Particular nor the General Baptist societies: spiritually, perhaps, he came from Bunyan’s inheritance, but literally he just came out of the ground.

We should remember both Dr Price and Dan Taylor; and we should recall that they did enjoy liberty of conscience, they were not threatened by the Inquisition or the dungeon of the ‘Scarlet Whore of Babylon’. #1_830 [1] The very anarchy of Old Dissent, with its self-governing churches and its schisms, meant that the most unexpected and unorthodox ideas might suddenly appear – in a Lincolnshire village, a Midlands market-town, a Yorkshire pit. In the Somerset woollen town of Frome (Wesley noted in his Journal in 1768) there was ‘a mixture of men of all opinions, Anabaptists, Quakers, Presbyterians, Arians, Antinomians, Moravians and what not’. Scottish tradesmen and artisans brought other sects into England; in the last decades of the eighteenth century the Glasites or Sandemanians made a little headway with their zealous church discipline, their belief that the ‘distinctions of civil life [were] annihilated in the church’ and that membership implied some community of goods, and – in the view of critics – their inordinate spiritual pride and ‘neglect of the poor, ignorant, perishing multitude’. #2_488 [2] By the end of the century, there were Sandemanian societies in London, Nottingham, Liverpool, Whitehaven and Newcastle.

The intellectual history of Dissent is made up of collisions, schisms, mutations; and one feels often that the dormant seeds of political Radicalism lie within it, ready to germinate whenever planted in a beneficent and hopeful social context Thomas Spence, who was brought up in a Sandemanian family, delivered a lecture to the Newcastle Philosophical Society in 1775 which contained in outline his whole doctrine of agrarian Socialism; and yet it was not until the 1790s that he commenced his serious public propaganda. Tom Paine, with his Quaker background, had shown little sign of his outrageously heterodox political views during his humdrum life as an exciseman at Lewes; the context was hopeless, politics seemed a mere species of ‘jockeyship’. Within one year of his arrival in America (November 1774) he had published Common Sense and the Crisis articles which contain all the assumptions of Rights of Man. ‘I have an aversion to monarchy, as being too debasing to the dignity of man,’ he wrote. ‘But I never troubled others with my notions till very lately, nor ever published a syllable in England in my life.’ What had changed was not Paine, but the context in which he wrote. The seed of Rights of Man was English: but only the hope brought by the American and French Revolutions enabled it to strike.

If some sect of Old Dissent had set the pace of the evangelical revival – instead of John Wesley – then nineteenth-century Nonconformity might have assumed a more intellectual and democratic form. But it was Wesley – High Tory in politics, sacerdotal in his approach to organization – who first reached ‘Christ’s poor’, breaking the Calvinist taboo with the simple message: ‘You have nothing to do but save souls.’

Outcasts of men, to you I call,

Harlots, and publicans, and thieves!

He spreads his arms to embrace you all;

Sinners alone His grace receives:

No need for him the righteous have;

He came the lost to seek and save.

Come, O my guilty brethren, come,

Groaning beneath your load of sin!

His bleeding heart shall make you room,

His open side shall take you in;

He calls you now, invites you home:

Come, O my guilty brethren, come.

There is, of course, a certain logic in the fact that the evangelical revival should have come from within the Established Church. The Puritan emphasis upon a ‘calling’ was, as Weber and Tawney have shown, particularly well adapted to the experience of prospering and industrious middle class or petty bourgeois groups. The more Lutheran traditions of Anglican Protestantism were less adapted to exclusive doctrines of ‘election’; while as the established Church it had a peculiar charge over the souls of the poor – indeed, the duty to inculcate in them the virtues of obedience and industry. The lethargy and materialism of the eighteenth-century Church were such that, in the end and against Wesley’s wishes, the evangelical revival resulted in the distinct Methodist Church. And yet Methodism was profoundly marked by its origin; the poor man’s Dissent of Bunyan, of Dan Taylor, and – later – of the Primitive Methodists was a religion of the poor; orthodox Wesleyanism remained as it had commenced, a religion for the poor.

As preachers and evangelists, Whitefield and other early field-preachers were more impressive than Wesley. But it was Wesley who was the superlatively energetic and skilful organizer, administrator, and law-giver. He succeeded in combining in exactly the right proportions democracy and discipline, doctrine and emotionalism; his achievement lay not so much in the hysterical revivalist meetings (which were not uncommon in the century of Tyburn) but in the organization of self-sustaining Methodist societies in trading and market centres, and in mining, weaving, and labouring communities, the democratic participation of whose members in the life of the Church was both enlisted and strictly superintended and disciplined. He facilitated entry to these societies by sweeping away all barriers of sectarian doctrines. In order to gain admission, he wrote, Methodists

do not impose… any opinions whatever. Let them hold particular or general redemption, absolute or conditional decrees; let them be Churchmen or Dissenters, Presbyterians or Independents, it is no obstacle…. The Independent or Anabaptist [may] use his own mode of worship; so may the Quaker, and none will contend with him about it…. One condition, and one only, is required, – a real desire to save their souls. #1_831 [1]

But once within the Methodist societies, the converted were subjected to a discipline which challenges comparison with the more zealous Calvinist sects. Wesley wished the Methodists to be a ‘peculiar people’; to abstain from marriage outside the societies; to be distinguished by their dress and by the gravity of their speech and manners; to avoid the company even of relatives who were still in ‘Satan’s kingdom’. Members were expelled for levity, for profanity and swearing, for lax attendance at class meetings. The societies, with their confessional band-meetings, classes, watch-nights and visiting, made up a lay order within which, as Southey noted, there was a ‘spiritual police’ constantly alert for any sign of relapse. #1_832 [1] The ‘grass roots’ democracy, by which the societies were officered by tradesmen and working people, extended not at all to matters of doctrine or Church government. In nothing did Wesley break more sharply with the traditions of Dissent than in his opposition to local autonomy, and in the authoritarian rule of himself and of his nominated ministers.

And yet it was often in areas with a long Dissenting tradition – Bristol, the West Riding, Manchester, Newcastle – that Methodism made most rapid headway among the poor. In the 1760s, two miles from Heckmondwike, where Deacon Priestley and Obadiah were still supporting a church of Calvinist Independents, John Nelson, a Birstall stone-mason, was already drawing great congregations of clothing workers and miners to hear the new message of personal salvation. On his way to work at the quarry Nelson would pass the old Dissenting minister’s house, exchange texts, and argue the doctrines of sin, redemption by grace and predestination. (Such disputations became more rare in later years as orthodox Methodist theology became more opportunist, anti-intellectual, and otiose.) Nelson had been converted while in London, when hearing John Wesley preach in Moorfields. His Journal is very different from that of Deacon Priestley:

One night… I dreamed that I was in Yorkshire, in my working clothes going home; and as I went by Paul Champion’s, I heard a mighty cry, as of a multitude of people in distress…. All on a sudden they began to scream and tumble over one another; I asked, what was the matter; and they told me, Satan was let loose among them…. Then I thought I saw him in the shape of a red bull, running through the people, as a beast runs through the standing corn, yet did not offer to gore any of them, but made directly at me, as if he would run his horns into my heart. Then I cried out, ‘Lord, help me!’ and immediately caught him by the horns, and twisted him on his back, setting my right foot on his neck, in the presence of a thousand people…

From this dream he awoke perspiring and exhausted. On another night ‘my soul was filled with such a sense of God’s love, as made me weep before him’:

I dreamed I was in Yorkshire, going from Gomersal-Hill-Top to Cleckheaton; and about the middle of the lane, I thought I saw Satan coming to meet me in the shape of a tall, black man, and the hair of his head like snakes;… But I went on, ript open my clothes, and shewed him my naked breast, saying, ‘See, here is the blood of Christ.’ Then I thought he fled from me as fast as a hare could run.

John Nelson was very much in earnest. He was pressed into the Army, refused to serve, he and his wife were mobbed and stoned in their work. But it occurs to one, nevertheless, that Nelson’s Satan belongs more to a world of fantasy than Bunyan’s Apollyon, for all the latter’s fire and scales. And the fantasy has undertones of hysteria and of impaired or frustrated sexuality which – along with the paroxysms which often accompanied conversion #1_833 [1] – are among the hallmarks of the Methodist revival. Where Bunyan disclosed the challenge of Apollyon in a world of magistrates, backsliders and worldly excuses for compromise, this Methodist Satan is a disembodied force located somewhere in the psyche, discovered through introspection or springing forward as a phallic image opposed to the feminine imagery of Christ’s love in the gusts of mass hysteria which climaxed revivalist campaigns.

From one aspect this Satan may be seen as an emanation of the misery and despair of the eighteenth-century poor; from another we may see the energies thwarted of effective outlet in social life and constricted by the life-denying tenets of Puritanism taking a monstrous revenge on the human spirit. We can see Methodism as a mutation of that tradition which reaches back to the seventeenth-century ‘Ranters’, whose cousins the Moravians so deeply influenced Wesley. But the cult of ‘Love’ was brought to a point of poise between the affirmations of ‘social religion’ and the pathological aberrations of frustrated social and sexual impulses. On the one hand, genuine compassion for ‘harlots, and publicans, and thieves’: on the other hand, morbid preoccupation with sin and with the sinner’s confessional. On one hand, real remorse for real wrong-doing: on the other, luxuriating refinements of introspective guilt. On one hand, the genuine fellowship of some early Methodist societies: on the other, social energies denied outlet in public life which were released in sanctified emotional onanism. On one hand, a religion which found a place for humble men, as local preachers and class leaders, which taught them to read and gave them self-respect and experience in speaking and in organization: on the other hand, a religion hostile to intellectual enquiry and to artistic values, which sadly abused their intellectual trust. Here was a cult of ‘Love’ which feared love’s effective expression, either as sexual love or in any social form which might irritate relations with Authority. Its authentic language of devotion was that of sexual sublimation streaked through with masochism: the ‘bleeding love’, the wounded side, the blood of the Lamb:

Teach me from every pleasing snare

To keep the issues of my heart.

Be Thou my Love, my Joy, my Fear!

Thou my Eternal Portion art.

Be Thou my never-failing Friend,

And love, O love me to the end.

In London a Jacobin engraver went to the ‘Garden of Love’ and found ‘a Chapel… built in the midst,/Where I used to play on the green’:

And the gates of this Chapel were shut,

And ‘Thou shalt not’ writ over the door…

In the Garden were ‘tomb-stones where flowers should be’:

And Priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,

And binding with briars my joys & desires.

So much has been said, in recent years, of Methodism’s positive contribution to the working-class movement that it is necessary to remind ourselves that Blake and Cobbett, Leigh Hunt and Hazlitt, saw the matter differently. We might suppose, from some popular accounts, that Methodism was no more than a nursing-ground for Radical and trade union organizers, all formed in the image of the Tolpuddle martyr, George Loveless, with his ‘small theological library’ and his forthright independence. The matter is a great deal more complex. At one level the reactionary – indeed, odiously subservient – character of official Wesleyanism can be established without the least difficulty. Wesley’s few active interventions into politics included pamphleteering against Dr Price and the American colonists. He rarely let pass any opportunity to impress upon his followers the doctrines of submission, expressed less at the level of ideas than of superstition. #1_834 [1] His death (1791) coincided with the early enthusiasm for the French Revolution; but successive Methodist Conferences continued the tradition of their founder, reaffirming their ‘unfeigned loyalty to the King and sincere attachment to the Constitution’ (Leeds Conference, 1793). The statutes drawn up in the year after Wesley’s death were explicit: ‘None of us shall either in writing or in conversation speak lightly or irreverently of the Government.’ #2_489 [2]

Thus, at this level Methodism appears as a politically regressive, or ‘stabilizing’, influence, and we find some confirmation of Halévy’s famous thesis that Methodism prevented revolution in England in the 1790s. But, at another level, we are familiar with the argument that Methodism was indirectly responsible for a growth in the self-confidence and capacity for organization of working people. This argument was stated, as early as 1820, by Southey:

Perhaps the manner in which Methodism has familiarized the lower classes to the work of combining in associations, making rules for their own governance, raising funds, and communicating from one part of the kingdom to another, may be reckoned among the incidental evils which have resulted from it…

And, more recently, it has been documented in Dr Wearmouth’s interesting books; although readers of them will do well to remember Southey’s important qualification – ‘but in this respect it has only facilitated a process to which other causes had given birth’. #1_835 [1] Most of the ‘contributions’ of Methodism to the working-class movement came in spite of and not because of the Wesleyan Conference.

Indeed, throughout the early history of Methodism we can see a shaping democratic spirit which struggled against the doctrines and the organizational forms which Wesley imposed. Lay preachers, the break with the Established Church, self-governing forms within the societies – on all these questions Wesley resisted or temporized or followed after the event. Wesley could not escape the consequences of his own spiritual egalitarianism. If Christ’s poor came to believe that their souls were as good as aristocratic or bougeois souls then it might lead them on to the arguments of the Rights of Man. The Duchess of Buckingham was quick to spot this, and observed to the Methodist Countess of Huntingdon:

I Thank Your Ladyship for the information concerning the Methodist preachers; their doctrines are most repulsive and strongly tinctured with impertinence and disrespect towards their Superiors, in perpetually endeavouring to level all ranks and to do away with all distinctions. It is monstrous to be told you have a heart as sinful as the common wretches that crawl on the earth. #2_490 [2]

Smollett had pointed out much the same thing, in the high comedy of a coachman, Humphrey Clinker, preaching to the London rabble. And – for their part – hundreds of lay preachers who followed in John Nelson’s footsteps were learning this in a very different way. Again and again Establishment writers voice this fear. An anti-Jacobin pamphleteer, in 1800, laid blame upon the ‘beardless boys, and mechanics or labourers’ who preached in Spa Fields, Hackney, and Islington Green. Among the preachers of the sects he found a Dealer in Old Clothes, a Grinder, a Sheep’s-Head Seller, a Coach-painter, a Mangle-maker, a Footman, a Tooth-drawer, a Peruke-maker and Phlebotomist, a Breeches-maker, and a Coal-heaver. The Bishop of Lincoln saw in this a darker threat: ‘the same means might, with equal efficacy, be employed to sap and overturn the state, as well as the church’. #1_836 [1]

And from preaching to organization. There are two questions here: the temporary permeation of Methodism by some of the self-governing traditions of Dissent, and the transmission to working-class societies of forms of organization peculiar to the Methodist Connexion. For the first, Wesley did not only (as is sometimes supposed) take his message to ‘heathen’ outside the existing churches; he also offered an outlet for the landlocked emotions of Old Dissent. There were Dissenting ministers, and whole congregations, who joined the Methodists. Some passed through the revival, only to rejoin their own sects in disgust at Wesley’s authoritarian government; while by the 1790s Dissent was enjoying its own evangelistic revival. But others maintained a somewhat restive membership, in which their older traditions struggled within the sacerdotal Wesleyan forms. For the second, Methodism provided not only the forms of the class meeting, the methodical collection of penny subscriptions and the ‘ticket’, so frequently borrowed by radical and trade union organizations, but also an experience of efficient centralized organization – at district as well as national level – which Dissent had lacked. (Those Wesleyan Annual Conferences, with their ‘platform’, their caucuses at work on the agendas, and their careful management, seem uncomfortably like another ‘contribution’ to the Labour movement of more recent times.)

Thus late eighteenth-century Methodism was troubled by alien democratic tendencies within itself, while at the same time it was serving despite itself as a model of other organizational forms. During the last decade of Wesley’s life internal democratic pressures were restrained only by reverence for the founder’s great age – and by the belief that the old autocrat could not be far from entering upon his ‘great reward’. There were a score of demands being voiced in dissident societies: for an elected Conference, for greater local autonomy, for the final break with the Church, for lay participation in district and quarterly meetings. Wesley’s death, when the general radical tide was rising, was like a ‘signal gun’. Rival schemes of organization were canvassed with a heat which is as significant as were the matters under dispute. ‘We detest the conduct of persecuting Neros, and all the bloody actions of the great Whore of Babylon, and yet in our measure, we tread in their steps,’ declared Alexander Kilham in a pamphlet entitled The Progress of Liberty. #1_837 [1] And he set forward far-reaching proposals for self-government, which were canvassed throughout the Connexion, by means of pamphlets, and in class meetings and local preachers’ meetings, and whose discussion must itself have been an important part of the process of democratic education. #2_491 [2]

In 1797 Kilham led the first important Wesleyan secession, the Methodist New Connexion, which adopted many of his proposals for a more democratic structure. The greatest strength of the Connexion was in manufacturing centres, and (it is probable) among the artisans and weavers tinged with Jacobinism. #3_197 [3] Kilham himself sympathized with the reformers, and although his political convictions were kept in the background, his opponents in the orthodox Connexion were at pains to bring them forward. ‘We shall lose all the turbulent disturbers of our Zion,’ the Conference addressed the members of the Church in Ireland, when accounting for the secession: ‘all who have embraced the sentiments of Paine…’ In Huddersfield the members of the New Connexion were known as the ‘Tom Paine Methodists’. We may guess at the complexion of his following from an account of the principal Kilhamite chapel in Leeds, with a congregation of 500 ‘in the midst of a dense, poor, and unruly population, at the top of Ebeneezer Street where strangers of the middle class could not reasonably be expected to go’. And in several places the link between the New Connexion and actual Jacobin organization is more than a matter of inference. In Halifax, at the Bradshaw chapel, a reading club and debating society was formed. The people of this weaving village discussed in their class meetings not only Kilham’s Progress of Liberty but also Paine’s Rights of Man. Writing forty years later, the historian of Halifax Methodism still could not restrain his abomination of ‘that detestable knot of scorpions’ who, in the end, captured the chapel, excluded the orthodox circuit minister, bought the site, and continued it as a ‘Jacobin’ chapel of their own. #1_838 [1]

The progress of the New Connexion was unspectacular. Kilham himself died in 1798, and his following was weakened by the general political reaction of the later 1790s. By 1811 the New Connexion could claim only 8,000 members. But its existence leads one to doubt Halévy’s thesis. On Wesley’s death it was estimated that about 80,000 people made up the Methodist societies. Even if we suppose that every one of them shared the Tory principles of their founder, this was scarcely sufficient to have stemmed a revolutionary tide. In fact, whatever Annual Conferences resolved, there is evidence that the Radical groundswell of 1792 and 1793 extended through Dissent generally and into most Methodist societies. The Mayor of Liverpool may have shown sound observation when he wrote to the Home Office in 1792:

In all these places are nothing but Methodist and other Meeting houses and… thus the Youth of the Countery are training up under the Instruction of a Set of Men not only Ignorant, but whom I believe we have of late too Much Reason to imagine, are inimical to Our Happy Constitution. #1_839 [1]

It was in the counter-revolutionary years after 1795 that Methodism made the most headway amongst working people and acted most evidently as a stabilizing or regressive social force. Drained of its more democratic and intellectual elements by the Kilhamite secession, and subjected to severer forms of discipline, it appears during these years almost as a new phenomenon – and as one which may be seen as the consequence of political reaction as much as it was a cause. #2_492 [2]

Throughout the whole period of the Industrial Revolution, Methodism never overcame this tension between authoritarian and democratic tendencies. It is in the seceding sects – the New Connexion and (after 1806) the Primitive Methodists – that the second impulse was felt most strongly. Moreover, as Dr Hobsbawm has pointed out, wherever Methodism was found it performed, in its rupture with the Established Church, certain of the functions of anti-clericalism in nineteenth-century France. #3_198 [3] In the agricultural or mining village, the polarization of chapel and Church might facilitate a polarization which took political or industrial forms. For years the tension might seem to be contained; but when it did break out it was sometimes charged with a moral passion – where the old Puritan God of Battles raised his banners once again – which secular leaders could rarely touch. So long as Satan remained undefined and of no fixed class abode, Methodism condemned working people to a kind of moral civil war – between the chapel and the pub, the wicked and the redeemed, the lost and the saved. Samuel Bamford related in his Early Days the missionary zeal with which he and his companions would tramp to prayer-meetings in neighbouring villages ‘where Satan had as yet many strongholds’. ‘These prayers were looked upon as so many assaults on “the powers of the Prince of the Air”.’ (A similar zeal inspired, on the other side of the Pennines, the notable hymn: ‘On Bradford likewise look Thou down, Where Satan keeps his seat.’) Only a few years later Cobbett had taught the weavers of upland Lancashire to look for Satan, not in the ale-houses of a rival village, but in ‘the Thing’ and Old Corruption. It was such a swift identification of Apollyon with Lord Liverpool and Oliver the Spy which led the weavers to Peterloo.

Two other features of the Dissenting tradition should be noted. While neither was of great influence in the eighteenth century, both assumed new significance after 1790. In the first place, there is a continuous thread of communitarian ideas and experiments, associated with the Quakers, Camisards, and in particular the Moravians. It was in Bolton and Manchester that a ferment in a small group of dissident Quakers culminated in the departure, in 1774, of ‘Mother Ann’ and a small party to found the first Shaker communities in the United States; forty years later Robert Owen was to find encouragement in the success of the Shakers, whose ideas he popularized in secular form. #1_840 [1] The Moravians, to whom Wesley owed his conversion, never became fully naturalized in England in the eighteenth century. Although many English people entered their communities at Fulneck (Pudsey), and Dukinfield and Fairfield (near Manchester), as well as the Moravian congregation in London, the societies remained dependent upon German preachers and administrators. While the first Methodist societies arose in association with the Moravian Brotherhood, the latter were distinguished from the former by their ‘stillness’, their avoidance of enthusiasm’, and their practical communitarian values; ‘the calm, soft, steady, sweet and impressive character of the service [at Fulneck] was such as appeared as a kind of rebuke to the earnestness, noise, and uproar of a [Methodist] revival meeting’. The influence of the Moravians was three-fold: first, through their educational activities – Richard Oastler and James Montgomery (the Radical poet and editor of the Sheffield Iris) were educated at Fulneck; second, through the evident success of their communities, which – along with those of the Shakers – were often cited by early nineteenth-century Owenites; and third, through the perpetuation within the Methodist societies – long after Wesley had disowned the Moravian connection – of the yearning for communitarian ideals expressed in the language of ‘brotherhood’ and ‘sisterhood’. #1_841 [1]

The communitarian tradition was sometimes found in association with another underground tradition, that of millennarianism. The wilder sectaries of the English Revolution – Ranters and Fifth Monarchy Men – were never totally extinguished, with their literal interpretations of the Book of Revelation and their anticipations of a New Jerusalem descending from above. The Muggletonians (or followers of Ludovic Muggleton) were still preaching in the fields and parks of London at the end of the eighteenth century. The Bolton society from which the Shakers originated was presided over by Mother Jane Wardley who paced the meeting-room ‘with a mighty trembling’, declaiming:

Repent. For the Kingdom of God is at Hand. The new heaven and new earth prophesied of old is about to come…. And when Christ appears again, and the true church rises in full and transcendant glory, then all anti-Christian denominations – the priests, the church, the pope – will be swept away. #2_493 [2]

Any dramatic event, such as the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, aroused apocalyptic expectations. There was, indeed, a millennarial instability within the heart of Methodism itself. Wesley, who was credulous to a degree about witches, Satanic possession, and bibliomancy (or the search for guidance from texts opened at random in the Bible), sometimes voiced premonitions as to the imminence of the Day of Judgement. An early hymn of the Wesleys employs the customary millennarial imagery:

Erect Thy tabernacle here,

The New Jerusalem send down,

Thyself amidst Thy saints appear,

And seat us on Thy dazzling throne.

Begin the great millennial day;

Now, Saviour, with a shout descend,

Thy standard in the heavens display,

And bring the joy which ne’er shall end.

Even if literal belief in the millennium was discouraged, the apocalyptic manner of Methodist revival meetings inflamed the imagination and prepared the way for the acceptance of chiliastic prophets after 1790. In London, Bristol and Birmingham small congregations of the Swedenborgian Church of the New Jerusalem were preparing some artisans for more intellectual and mystical millennarial beliefs. #1_842 [1]

Although historians and sociologists have recently given more attention to millennarial movements and fantasies, their significance has been partly obscured by the tendency to discuss them in terms of maladjustment and ‘paranoia’. Thus Professor Cohn, in his interesting study of The Pursuit of the Millennium, is able – by a somewhat sensational selection of the evidence – to proceed to generalizations as to the paranoiac and megalomaniac notion of ‘the Elect’, and the ‘chronically impaired sense of reality’ of ‘chiliastically minded movements’. When messianic movements gain mass support –

It is as though units of paranoia hitherto diffused through the population suddenly coalesce to form a new entity: a collective paranoiac fanaticism. #2_494 [2]

One doubts such a process of ‘coalescence’. Given such a phenomenon, however, the historical problem remains – why should grievances, aspirations, or even psychotic disorders, ‘coalesce’ into influential movements only at certain times and in particular forms?

What we must not do is confuse pure ‘freaks’ and fanatical aberrations with the imagery – of Babylon and the Egyptian exile and the Celestial City and the contest with Satan – in which minority groups have articulated their experience and projected their aspirations for hundreds of years. Moreover, the extravagant imagery used by certain groups does not always reveal their objective motivations and effective assumptions. This is a difficult question; when we speak of ‘imagery’ we mean much more than figures of speech in which ulterior motives were ‘clothed’. The imagery is itself evidence of powerful subjective motivations, fully as ‘real’ as the objective, fully as effective, as we see repeatedly in the history of Puritanism, in their historical agency. It is the sign of how men felt and hoped, loved and hated, and of how they preserved certain values in the very texture of their language. But because the luxuriating imagery points sometimes to goals that are clearly illusory, this does not mean that we can lightly conclude that it indicates a ‘chronically impaired sense of reality’. Moreover, abject ‘adjustment’ to suffering and want at times may indicate a sense of reality as impaired as that of the chiliast. Whenever we encounter such phenomena, we must try to distinguish between the psychic energy stored – and released – in language, however apocalyptic, and actual psychotic disorder.

Throughout the Industrial Revolution we can see this tension between the ‘kingdom without’ and the ‘kingdom within’ in the Dissent of the poor, with chiliasm at one pole, and quietism at the other. For generations the most commonly available education came by way of pulpit and Sunday School, the Old Testament and Pilgrim’s Progress. Between this imagery and that social experience there was a continual interchange – a dialogue between attitudes and reality which was sometimes fruitful, sometimes arid, sometimes masochistic in its submissiveness, but rarely ‘paranoiac’. The history of Methodism suggests that the morbid deformities of ‘sublimation’ are the most common aberrations of the poor in periods of social reaction; while paranoiac fantasies belong more to periods when revolutionary enthusiasms are released. It was in the immediate aftermath of the French Revolution that the millennarial current, so long underground, burst into the open with unexpected force:

For the real Chiliast, the present becomes the breach through which what was previously inward bursts out suddenly, takes hold of the outer world and transforms it. #1_843 [1]

Image and reality again became confused. Chiliasm touched Blake with its breath: it walked abroad, not only among the Jacobins and Dissenters of artisan London, but in the mining and weaving villages of the Midlands and the north and the villages of the south-west.

But in most minds a balance was held between outer experience and the kingdom within, which the Powers of the World could not touch and which was stored with the evocative language of the Old Testament. Thomas Hardy was a sober, even prosaic, man, with a meticulous attention to the practical detail of organization. But when recalling his own trial for high treason, it seemed the most natural thing in the world that he should draw upon the Book of Kings for the language which most common Englishmen understood:

The people said ‘what portion have we in David? Neither have we inheritance in the son of Jesse. To your tents, O Israel…. So Israel rebelled against the House of David unto this day.’

No easy summary can be offered as to the Dissenting tradition which was one of the elements precipitated in the English Jacobin agitation. It is its diversity which defies generalization and yet which is, in itself, its most important characteristic. In the complexity of competing sects and seceding chapels we have a forcing-bed for the variants of nineteenth-century working-class culture. Here are Unitarians or Independents, with a small but influential artisan following, nurtured in a strenuous intellectual tradition. There are the Sandemanians, among whom William Godwin’s father was a minister; the Moravians with their communitarian heritage; the Inghamites, the Muggletonians, the Swedenborgian sect which originated in a hairdresser’s off Cold Bath Fields and which published a Magazine of Heaven and Hell. Here are the two old Dissenting ministers whom Hazlitt observed stuffing raspberry leaves in their pipes, in the hope of bringing down Old Corruption by boycotting all taxed articles. There are the Calvinist Methodist immigrants from Wales, and immigrants brought up in the Covenanting sects of Scotland – Alexander Somerville, who became a famous anti-Corn Law publicist, was educated as a strict Anti-Burgher in a family of Berwickshire field-labourers. There is the printing-worker, Zachariah Coleman, the beautifully re-created hero of The Revolution in Tanner’s Lane, with his portraits of Burdett, Cartwright, and Sadler’s Bunyan on the wall: ‘he was not a ranter or revivalist, but what was called a moderate Calvinist; that is to say, he held to Calvinism as his undoubted creed, but when it came to the push in actual practice he modified it’. And there are curious societies, like the Ancient Deists of Hoxton, who spoke of dreams and (like Blake) of conversations with departed souls and Angels, and who (like Blake) ‘almost immediately yielded to the stronger impulse of the French Revolution’ and became ‘politicians.’ #1_844 [1]

Liberty of conscience was the one great value which the common people had preserved from the Commonwealth. The countryside was ruled by the gentry, the towns by corrupt corporations, the nation by the corruptest corporation of all: but the chapel, the tavern and the home were their own. In the ‘unsteepled’ places of worship there was room for a free intellectual life and for democratic experiments with ‘members unlimited’. Against the background of London Dissent, with its fringe of deists and earnest mystics, William Blake seems no longer the cranky untutored genius that he must seem to those who know only the genteel culture of the time. #2_495 [2] On the contrary, he is the original yet authentic voice of a long popular tradition. If some of the London Jacobins were strangely unperturbed by the execution of Louis and Marie Antoinette it was because they remembered that their own forebears had once executed a king. No one with Bunyan in their bones could have found many of Blake’s aphorisms strange:

The strongest poison ever known

Came from Caesar’s laurel crown.

And many, like Blake, felt themselves torn between a rational Deism and the spiritual values nurtured for a century in the ‘kingdom within’. When Paine’s Age of Reason was published in the years of repression, many must have felt with Blake when he annotated the final page of the Bishop of Llandaff’s Apology for the Bible (written in reply to Paine):

It appears to me Now that Tom Paine is a better Christian than the Bishop.

When we see Dissent in this way we are seeing it as an intellectual tradition: out of this tradition came many original ideas and original men. But we should not assume that the ‘Old Dissenters’ as a body were willing to take the popular side. Thomas Walker, the Manchester reformer, who – a Church-man himself – had laboured hard for the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts – was contemptuous of their timidity:

Dissenters… have as a body constantly fallen short of their own principles;… through fear or some other motive they have been so strongly the advocates of an Overstrained Moderation that they have rather been the enemies than the friends of those who have ventured the most and effected the most for the rights of the people. #1_845 [1]

We see here, perhaps, a tension between London and the industrial centres. The Dissenters at Manchester, the members of the Old Meeting at Birmingham or the Great Meeting at Leicester, included some of the largest employers in the district. Their attachment to civil and religious liberty went hand in hand with their attachment to the dogmas of free trade. They contributed a good deal – and especially in the 1770s and 1780s – to forms of extra-parliamentary agitation and pressure-group politics which anticipate the pattern of middle-class politics of the nineteenth century. But their enthusiasm for civil liberty melted away with the publication of Rights of Man and in very few of them did it survive the trials and persecution of the early 1790s. In London, and in pockets in the great cities, many of the Dissenting artisans graduated in the same period from Dissent through Deism to a secular ideology. ‘Secularism,’ Dr Hobsbawm has written,

is the ideological thread which binds London labour history together, from the London Jacobins and Place, through the anti-religious Owenites and cooperators, the anti-religious journalists and booksellers, through the free-thinking Radicals who followed Holyoake and flocked to Bradlaugh’s Hall of Science, to the Social Democratic Federation and the London Fabians with their unconcealed distaste for chapel rhetoric. #1_846 [1]

Nearly all the theorists of the working-class movement are in that London tradition – or else, like Bray the Leeds printer, they are analogues of the skilled London working men.

But the list itself reveals a dimension that is missing – the moral force of the Luddites, of Brandreth and young Bamford, of the Ten Hour men, of Northern Chartists and I.L.P. And some of this difference in traditions can be traced to the religious formations of the eighteenth century. When the democratic revival came in the last years of the century, Old Dissent had lost much of its popular following, and those artisans who still adhered to it were permeated by the values of enlightened self-interest which led on, in such a man as Francis Place, to the acceptance of a limited Utilitarian philosophy. But in those great areas in the provinces where Methodism triumphed in the default of Dissent, it nearly destroyed the democratic and anti-authoritarian elements in the older tradition, interposing between the people and their revolutionary heritage a callow emotionalism which served as auxiliary to the Established Church. And yet the Methodist rebel was marked by a special earnestness and vigour of moral concern. South and North, intellect and enthusiasm, the arguments of secularism and the rhetoric of love – the tension is perpetuated in the nineteenth century. And each tradition seems enfeebled without the complement of the other.


‘Satan’s Strongholds’

BUT what of the denizens of ‘Satan’s strongholds’, the ‘harlots and publicans and thieves’ whose souls the evangelists wrestled for? If we are concerned with historical change we must attend to the articulate minorities. But these minorities arise from a less articulate majority whose consciousness may be described as being, at this time, ‘sub-political’ – made up of superstition or passive irreligion, prejudice and patriotism.

The inarticulate, by definition, leave few records of their thoughts. We catch glimpses in moments of crisis, like the Gordon Riots, and yet crisis is not a typical condition. It is tempting to follow them into the archives of crime. But before we do this we must warn against the assumption that in the late eighteenth century ‘Christ’s poor’ can be divided between penitent sinners on the one hand, and murderers, thieves and drunkards on the other.

It is easy to make a false division of the people into the organized or chapel-going good and the dissolute bad in the Industrial Revolution, since the sources push us towards this conclusion from at least four directions. Such facts as are available were often presented in sensational form, and marshalled for pejorative purposes. If we are to credit one of the most industrious investigators, Patrick Colquhoun, there were, at the turn of the century, 50,000 harlots, more than 5,000 publicans, and 10,000 thieves in the metropolis alone; his more extended estimates of criminal classes, taking in receivers of stolen property, coiners, gamblers, lottery agents, cheating shopkeepers, riverside scroungers, and colourful characters like Mudlarks, Scufflehunters, Bludgeon Men, Morocco Men, Flash Coachmen, Grubbers, Bear Baiters and Strolling Minstrels totals (with the former groups) 115,000 out of a metropolitan population of less than one million. His estimate of the same classes, for the whole country, – and including one million in receipt of parish relief – totals 1,320,716. But these estimates lump together indiscriminately gipsies, vagrants, unemployed, and pedlars and the grandparents of Mayhew’s street-sellers; while his prostitutes turn out, on closer inspection to be ‘lewd and immoral women’, including ‘the prodigious number among the lower classes who cohabit together without marriage’ (and this at a time when divorce for the poor was an absolute impossibility). #1_847 [1]

The figures then are impressionistic estimates. They reveal as much about the mentality of the propertied classes (who assumed – not without reason – that any person out of steady employment and without property must maintain himself by illicit means) as they do about the actual criminal behaviour of the unpropertied. And the date of Colquhoun’s investigations is as relevant as his conclusions; for they were conducted in the atmosphere of panic in the aftermath of the French Revolution. In the two decades before this there was an important access of humanitarian concern amongst the upper classes; we can see this in the work of Howard, Hanway, Clarkson, Sir Frederick Eden, and in the growing concern for civil and religious liberties among the small gentry and the Dissenting tradesmen. But ‘the awakening of the labouring classes, after the first shocks of the French Revolution, made the upper classes tremble’, Frances, Lady Shelley, noted in her Diary: ‘Every man felt the necessity for putting his house in order…’ #2_496 [2]

To be more accurate, most men and women of property felt the necessity for putting the houses of the poor in order. The remedies proposed might differ; but the impulse behind Colquhoun, with his advocacy of more effective police, Hannah More, with her halfpenny tracts and Sunday Schools, the Methodists with their renewed emphasis upon order and submissiveness, Bishop Barrington’s more humane Society for Bettering the Conditions of the Poor, and William Wilberforce and Dr John Bowdler, with their Society for the Suppression of Vice and Encouragement of Religion, was much the same. The message to be given to the labouring poor was simple, and was summarized by Burke in the famine year of 1795: ‘Patience, labour, sobriety, frugality and religion, should be recommended to them; all the rest is downright fraud.’ ‘I know nothing better calculated to fill a country with barbarians ready for any mischief,’ wrote Arthur Young, the agricultural propagandist, ‘than extensive commons and divine service only once a month…. Do French principles make so slow a progress, that you should lend them such helping hands?’ #1_848 [1] The sensibility of the Victorian middle class was nurtured in the 1790s by frightened gentry who had seen miners, potters and cutlers reading Rights of Man, and its foster-parents were William Wilberforce and Hannah More. It was in these counter-revolutionary decades that the humanitarian tradition became warped beyond recognition. The abuses which Howard had exposed in the prisons in the 1770s and 1780s crept back in the 1790s and 1800s; and Sir Samuel Romilly, in the first decade of the nineteenth century, found that his efforts to reform the criminal law were met with hostility and timidity; the French Revolution had produced (he recalled) ‘among the higher orders… a horror of every kind of innovation’. ‘Everything rung and was connected with the Revolution in France,’ recalled Lord Cockburn (of his Scottish youth): ‘Everything, not this thing or that thing, but literally everything, was soaked in this one event.’ It was the pall of moral equivocation which settled upon Britain in these years which stung Blake to fury:

Because of the Oppressors of Albion in every City and Village…

They compell the Poor to live upon a crust of bread by soft mild arts:

They reduce the Man to want, then give with pomp and ceremony:

The praise of Jehovah is chaunted from lips of hunger and thirst. #2_497 [2]

Such a disposition on the part of the propertied classes was not (as we have seen in the case of Colquhoun) conducive to accurate social observation. And it reinforced the natural tendency of authority to regard taverns, fairs, any large congregations of people, as a nuisance – sources of idleness, brawls, sedition or contagion. And this general disposition, at the end of the eighteenth century, to ‘fudge’ the evidence was abetted from three other directions. First, we have the utilitarian attitudes of the new manufacturing class, whose need to impose a work discipline in the factory towns made it hostile to many traditional amusements and levities. Second, there is the Methodist pressure itself, with its unending procession of breast-beating sinners, pouring confessional biographies from the press. ‘Almighty Father, why didst thou bear with such a rebel?’ asks one such penitent, a redeemed sailor. In his dissolute youth he –

went to horse-races, wakes, dances, fairs, attended the play-house, nay, so far had he forsaken the fear of his Maker and the counsel of his mother, that he several times got intoxicated with liquor. He was an adept in singing profane songs, cracking jokes, and making risible and ludicrous remarks…

As for the common sailor –

His song, his bumper and his sweetheart (perhaps a street-pacing harlot) form his trio of pleasure. He rarely thinks, seldom reads, and never prays…. Speak to him about the call of God, he tells you he hears enough of the boatswain’s call…. If you talk of Heaven, he hopes he shall get a good berth aloft: is hell mentioned? he jokes about being put under the hatchway.

‘O my children, what a miracle that such a victim of sin should become a preacher of salvation!’ #1_849 [1]

Such literature as this must be held up to a Satanic light and read backwards if we are to perceive what the ‘Jolly Tar’ or the apprentice or the Sandgate lass thought about Authority or Methodist preachers. If this is not done, the historian may be led to judge the eighteenth century most harshly for some of the things which made life endurable for the common people. And, when we come to assess the early working-class movement, this kind of evidence is supplemented from a third direction. Some of the first leaders and chroniclers of the movement were self-educated working men, who raised themselves by efforts of self-discipline which required them to turn their backs upon the happy-go-lucky tavern world. ‘I cannot, like many other men, go to a tavern,’ wrote Francis Place: ‘I hate taverns and tavern company. I cannot drink, I cannot for any considerable time consent to converse with fools.’ #1_850 [1] The self-respecting virtues often carried with them corresponding narrowing attitudes – in Place’s case leading him on to the acceptance of Utilitarian and Malthusian doctrines. And since Place was the greatest archivist of the early movement, his own abhorrence of the improvidence, ignorance, and licentiousness of the poor is bound to colour the record. Moreover, the struggle of the reformers was one for enlightenment, order, sobriety, in their own ranks; so much so that Windham, in 1802, was able to declare with some colour that the Methodists and the Jacobins were leagued together to destroy the amusements of the people:

By the former… everything joyous was to be prohibited, to prepare the people for the reception of their fanatical doctrines. By the Jacobins, on the other hand, it was an object of important consideration to give to the disposition of the lower orders a character of greater seriousness and gravity, as the means of facilitating the reception of their tenets. #2_498 [2]

Those who have wished to emphasise the sober constitutional ancestry of the working-class movement have sometimes minimized its more robust and rowdy features. All that we can do is bear the warning in mind. We need more studies of the social attitudes of criminals, of soldiers and sailors, of tavern life; and we should look at the evidence, not with a moralizing eye (‘Christ’s poor’ were not always pretty), but with an eye for Brechtian values – the fatalism, the irony in the face of Establishment homilies, the tenacity of self-preservation. And we must also remember the ‘underground’ of the ballad-singer and the fair-ground which handed on traditions to the nineteenth century (to the music-hall, or Dickens’ circus folk, or Hardy’s pedlars and showmen); for in these ways the ‘inarticulate’ conserved certain values – a spontaneity and capacity for enjoyment and mutual loyalties – despite the inhibiting pressures of magistrates, mill-owners, and Methodists.

We may isolate two ways in which these ‘sub-political’ traditions affect the early working-class movement; the phenomena of riot and of the mob, and the popular notions of an Englishman’s ‘birthright’. For the first, we must realize that there have always persisted popular attitudes towards crime, amounting at times to an unwritten code, quite distinct from the laws of the land. Certain crimes were outlawed by both codes: a wife or child murderer would be pelted and execrated on the way to Tyburn. Highwaymen and pirates belonged to popular ballads, part heroic myth, part admonition to the young. But other crimes were actively condoned by whole communities – coining, poaching, the evasion of taxes (the window tax and tithes) or excise or the press-gang. Smuggling communities lived in a state of constant war with authority, whose unwritten rules were understood by both sides; the authorities might seize a ship or raid the village, and the smugglers might resist arrest – ‘but it was no part of the smuggling tactics to carry war farther than defence, or at times a rescue, because of the retaliatory measures that were sure to come…’ #1_851 [1] On the other hand, other crimes, which were easily committed and yet which struck at the livelihood of particular communities – sheep-stealing or stealing cloth off the tenters in the open field – excited popular condemnation. #2_499 [2]

This distinction between the legal code and the unwritten popular code is a commonplace at any time. But rarely have the two codes been more sharply distinguished from each other than in the second half of the eighteenth century. One may even see these years as ones in which the class war is fought out in terms of Tyburn, the hulks and the Bridewells on the one hand; and crime, riot, and mob action on the other. Professor Radzinowicz’s researches into the History of English Criminal Law have added a depressing weight of evidence to the picture long made familiar by Goldsmith:

Each wanton judge new penal statutes draw,

Laws grind the poor, and rich men rule the law….

It was not (an important reservation) the judge but the legislature which was responsible for enacting ever more capital punishments for crimes against property: in the years between the Restoration and the death of George III the number of capital offences was increased by about 190 – or more than one for every year: no less than sixty-three of these were added in the years 1760–1810. Not only petty theft, but primitive forms of industrial rebellion – destroying a silk loom, throwing down fences when commons were enclosed, and firing corn ricks – were to be punished by death. It is true that the police force was totally inadequate and the administration of ‘justice’ haphazard. It is true also that in the latter years of the eighteenth century, while capital offences multiplied, some juries became reluctant to convict, and the proportion of convicted offenders who were actually brought to execution fell. #1_852 [1] But the death sentence, if respited, was generally exchanged to the terrible living death of the hulks or to transportation. The procession to Tyburn (later, the scaffold outside Newgate) was a central ceremonial of eighteenth-century London. The condemned in the carts – the men in gaudy attire, the women in white, with baskets of flowers and oranges which they threw to the crowds – the ballad-singers and hawkers, with their ‘last speeches’ (which were sold even before the victims had given the sign of the dropped handkerchief to the hangman to do his work): all the symbolism of ‘Tyburn Fair’ was a ritual at the heart of London’s popular culture.

The commercial expansion, the enclosure movement, the early years of the Industrial Revolution – all took place within the shadow of the gallows. The white slaves left our shores for the American plantations and later for Van Diemen’s Land, while Bristol and Liverpool were enriched with the profits of black slavery; and slave-owners from West Indian plantations grafted their wealth to ancient pedigrees at the marriage-market in Bath. It is not a pleasant picture. In the lower depths, police officers and gaolers grazed on the pastures of crime – blood-money, garnish money, and sales of alcohol to their victims. The system of graduated rewards for thief-takers incited them to magnify the offence of the accused. The poor lost their rights in the land and were tempted to crime by their poverty and by the inadequate measures of prevention; the small tradesman or master was tempted to forgery or illicit transactions by fear of the debtor’s prison. Where no crime could be proved, the J.P.s had wide powers to consign the vagabond or sturdy rogue or unmarried mother to the Bridewell (or ‘House of Correction’) – those evil, disease-ridden places, managed by corrupt officers, whose conditions shocked John Howard more than the worst prisons. The greatest offence against property was to have none.

The law was hated, but it was also despised. Only the most hardened criminal was held in as much popular odium as the informer who brought men to the gallows. And the resistance movement to the laws of the propertied took not only the form of individualistic criminal acts, but also that of piecemeal and sporadic insurrectionary actions where numbers gave some immunity. When Wyvill warned Major Cartwright of the ‘wild work’ of the ‘lawless and furious rabble’ he was not raising imaginary objections. The British people were noted throughout Europe for their turbulence, and the people of London astonished foreign visitors by their lack of deference. The eighteenth and early nineteenth century are punctuated by riot, occasioned by bread prices, turnpikes and tolls, excise, ‘rescue’, strikes, new machinery, enclosures, press-gangs and a score of other grievances. Direct action on particular grievances merges on one hand into the great political risings of the ‘mob’ – the Wilkes agitation of the 1760s and 1770s, the Gordon Riots (1780), the mobbing of the King in the London streets (1795 and 1820), the Bristol Riots (1831) and the Birmingham Bull Ring riots (1839). On the other hand it merges with organized forms of sustained illegal action or quasi-insurrection – Luddism (1811–13), the East Anglian Riots (1816), the ‘Last Labourer’s Revolt’ (1830), the Rebecca Riots (1839 and 1842) and the Plug Riots (1842).

This second, quasi-insurrectionary, form we shall look at more closely when we come to consider Luddism. It was a form of direct action which arose in specific conditions, which was often highly organized and under the protection of the local community, and as to which we should be chary of generalization. The first form is only now beginning to receive the attention of historians. Dr Rudé, in his study of The Crowd in the French Revolution, suggests that ‘the term “mobs”, in the sense of hired bands operating on behalf of external interests… should be invoked with discretion and only when justified by the particular occasion’. Too often historians have used the term lazily, to evade further analysis, or (with the suggestion of criminal elements motivated by the desire for loot) as a gesture of prejudice. And Dr Rudé suggests that the term ‘revolutionary crowd’ may be more useful when discussing riot in late eighteenth-century England as well as in revolutionary France.

The distinction is useful. In eighteenth-century Britain riotous actions assumed two different forms: that of more or less spontaneous popular direct action; and that of the deliberate use of the crowd as an instrument of pressure, by persons ‘above’ or apart from the crowd. The first form has not received the attention which it merits. It rested upon more articulate popular sanctions and was validated by more sophisticated traditions than the word ‘riot’ suggests. The most common example is the bread or food riot, repeated cases of which can be found in almost every town and county until the 1840s. #1_853 [1] This was rarely a mere uproar which culminated in the breaking open of barns or the looting of shops. It was legitimized by the assumptions of an older moral economy, which taught the immorality of any unfair method of forcing up the price of provisions by profiteering upon the necessities of the people.

In urban and rural communities alike, a consumer-consciousness preceded other forms of political or industrial antagonism. Not wages, but the cost of bread, was the most sensitive indicator of popular discontent. Artisans, self-employed craftsmen, or such groups as the Cornish tin miners (where the traditions of the ‘free’ miner coloured responses until the nineteenth century), #1_854 [1] saw their wages as regulated by custom or by their own bargaining. They expected to buy their provisions in the open market, and even in times of shortage they expected prices to be regulated by custom also. (The God-provided ‘laws’ of supply and demand, whereby scarcity inevitably led to soaring prices, had by no means won acceptance in the popular mind, where older notions of face-to-face bargaining still persisted.) Any sharp rise in prices precipitated riot. An intricate tissue of legislation and of custom regulated the ‘Assize of Bread’, the size and quality of the loaf. #2_500 [2] Even the attempt to impose the standard Winchester measure for the sale of wheat, in the face of some customary measure, could ensue in riots. When the North Devon Agricultural Society imposed the standard Winchester bushel in Bideford market in 1812, one of its leading members was the recipient of a blood-chilling letter:

… Winter Nights is not past therefore your person shall not go home alive – or if you chance to escape the hand that guides this pen, a lighted Match will do eaqual execution. Your family I know not But the whole shall be inveloped in flames, your Carkase if any such should be found will be given to the Dogs if it Contains any Moisture for the Annimals to devour it… #3_199 [3]

Food riots were sometimes uproarious, like the ‘Great Cheese Riot’ at Nottingham’s Goose Fair in 1764, when whole cheeses were rolled down the streets; or the riot in the same city, in 1788, caused by the high price of meat, when the doors and shutters of the shambles were torn down and burned, together with the butcher’s books, in the market-place. #1_855 [1] But even this violence shows a motive more complex than hunger: retailers were being punished, on account of their prices and the poor quality of the meat. More often the ‘mobs’ showed self-discipline, within a customary pattern of behaviour. Perhaps the only occasion in his life when John Wesley commended a disorderly action was when he noted in his journal the actions of a mob in James’ Town, Ireland; the mob –

had been in motion all the day; but their business was only with the forestallers of the market, who had bought up all the corn far and near, to starve the poor, and load a Dutch ship, which lay at the quay; but the mob brought it all out into the market, and sold it for the owners at the common price. And this they did with all the calmness and composure imaginable, and without striking or hurting anyone.

In Honiton in 1766 lace-workers seized corn on the premises of the farmers, took it to market themselves, sold it, and returned the money and even the sacks back to the farmers. #2_501 [2] In the Thames Valley in the same year the villages and towns (Abingdon, Newbury, Maidstone) were visited by large parties of labourers, who styled themselves ‘the Regulators’, enforcing a popular price on all provisions. (The action commenced with gangs of men working on the turnpike road, who said ‘with one Voice, Come one & all to Newbury in a Body to Make the Bread cheaper’.) #3_200 [3] A Halifax example of 1783 repeats the same pattern of mass intimidation and self-discipline. The crowd was gathered from weaving villages outside the town, and descended upon the market-place in some sort of order (formed into ‘twos’) with an ex-soldier and coiner, Thomas Spencer, at their head. The corn merchants were besieged, and forced to sell oats at 30s. and wheat at 21s. a load. When Spencer and a fellow rioter were subsequently executed, a strong force of military was brought out in expectation of a rescue attempt; and the funeral cart went up the Calder Valley to Spencer’s home village on a road thronged for several miles with mourners. #1_856 [1]

Such ‘riots’ were popularly regarded as acts of justice, and their leaders held as heroes. In most cases they culminated in the enforced sale of provisions at the customary or popular price, analogous to the French ‘taxation populaire’, #2_502 [2] the proceeds being given to the owners. Moreover, they required more preparation and organization than is at first apparent; sometimes the ‘mob’ controlled the market-place for several days, waiting for prices to come down; sometimes actions were preceded by hand-written (and, in the 1790s, printed) handbills; sometimes the women controlled the market-place, while parties of men intercepted grain on the roads, at the docks, on the rivers; very often the signal for the action was given by a man or woman carrying a loaf aloft, decorated with black ribbon, and inscribed with some slogan. A Nottingham action in September 1812 commenced with several women,

sticking a half penny loaf on the top of a fishing rod, after having streaked it with red ochre, and tied around it a shred of black crape, emblematic… of ‘bleeding famine decked in Sackecloth’. #3_201 [3]

The climactic year for such ‘riots’ was 1795, a year of European famine or extreme scarcity, when the older popular tradition was stiffened by the Jacobin consciousness of a minority. As prices soared, direct action spread throughout the country. In Nottingham women ‘went from one baker’s shop to another, set their own price on the stock therein, and putting down the money, took it away’. The Mayor of Gloucester wrote anxiously:

I have great reason to be apprehensive of a visit from the Colliers in the Forest of Dean, who have for some days been going round to the Townes in their Neighbourhood, & selling the Flour, Wheat, & Bread belonging to the Millers & Bakers, at a reduced price.

In Newcastle the crowd enforced the sale of butter at 8d. a lb., wheat at 12s. per boll, and potatoes at 5s. a load, in the presence of the town’s officers: no violence was committed. At Wisbech the ‘Bankers’ (‘a most Outrageous Set of Men, whose numbers make them formidable’) – gangs of rural workers engaged in ditching, enclosure work, etc. – led a riot in the market headed by a man with a sixpenny loaf on a pitch-fork. At Carlisle grain hidden in a warehouse was located, and its contents, as well as the cargo of a ship, were brought to the Town Hall and sold at 18s. a load. In Cornwall the ‘tinners’ swarmed into the farmlands, enforcing their ‘Laws of the Maximum’. #1_857 [1]

Actions on such a scale (and there were many others) indicate an extraordinarily deep-rooted pattern of behaviour and belief. Moreover, they were so extensive that the Privy Council (which was largely concerned with the problem of grain supplies from May to December 1795) could scarcely ensure the transport of supplies from one county to the next. Something in the nature of a war between the countryside and the towns grew up. The people of the rural districts believed that their corn would be sent to the cities, while they would be left to starve. The farmers refused to send grain to market, for fear it would be sold at the popular price. In the ports grain-ships were stopped, since the people believed that factors were sending it abroad. Magistrates connived at the retaining of corn in their own districts. At Witney ‘the Inhabitants… seized some Grain as it was going to be sent out of the Country, brought it back, and sold it at a low price’. Loads of wheat were stopped in Cambridge, and sold off in the market-place. In the West Riding, barges on the Calder and Aire were stopped and impounded by mobs. At Burford the people prevented a load of corn from being sent out of the town, and sold it at 8s. a bushel; a magistrate feared that the people of Birmingham might sally out and attack Burford. At Wells ‘a great many Women’ prevented grain ships from sailing to London. #1_858 [1]

These popular actions were legitimized by the old paternalist moral economy. Although the old legislation against forestallers and regraters had been largely repealed or abrogated by the end of the eighteenth century, it endured with undiminished vigour, both in popular tradition and in the minds of some Tory paternalists, including no less a person than the Lord Chief Justice (Kenyon), who made known his view, in 1795, that forestalling and engrossing remained offences at common law. #2_503 [2] In the popular mind, these offences encompassed any exploitive action calculated to raise the price of provisions, and in particular the activities of factors, millers, bakers, and all middlemen. ‘Those Cruall Villions the Millers Bakers etc Flower Sellers rases Flowe under a Comebination to what price they please on purpose to make an Artificall Famine in a Land of plenty’ – so runs a handbill of 1795, from Retford. ‘The corn factors and the sort of peopul which we call huckstors and mealmen which have got the corn in to there hands and thay hold it up and Sell it to the poor at thare owne price’ – so runs a petition from some labourers in Leeds. #3_202 [3] The great millers were believed to corner the grain in order to enhance its price; in Birmingham a large flour mill, powered by steam, at Snow Hill was attacked in 1795; while London’s great Albion Flour Mills burned down on two occasions. On the first occasion, arson was rumoured, since the Mills were believed to practise forms of adulteration; the people were ‘willing spectators’, and ‘ballads of rejoicing were printed and sung on the spot’. On the second occasion (1811), ‘the populace rejoiced at the conflagration’. #4_55 [4]

Hence the final years of the eighteenth century saw a last desperate effort by the people to reimpose the older moral economy as against the economy of the free market. In this they received some support from old-fashioned J.P.s, who threatened to prosecute forestallers, tightened controls over markets, or issued proclamations against engrossers who brought up growing corn in the fields. #1_859 [1] The Speenhamland decision of 1795, to subsidize wages in relation to the price of bread, must be seen as arising out of this background; where the custom of the market-place was in dissolution, paternalists attempted to evoke it in the scale of relief. But the old customary notions died hard. There was a scatter of prosecutions for forestalling between 1795 and 1800; in 1800 a number of private prosecuting societies were formed, which offered rewards for convictions; and an important conviction for forestalling was upheld in the High Courts, to the evident satisfaction of Lord Kenyon. #2_504 [2] But this was the last attempt to enforce the old paternalist consumer-protection. Thereafter the total breakdown of customary controls contributed much to popular bitterness against a Parliament of protectionist landlords and laissez faire commercial magnates.

In considering only this one form of ‘mob’ action we have come upon unsuspected complexities, for behind every such form of popular direct action some legitimizing notion of right is to be found. On the other hand, the employment of the ‘mob’ in a sense much closer to Dr Rudé’s definition (‘hired bands operating on behalf of external interests’) was an established technique in the eighteenth century; and – what is less often noted – it had long been employed by authority itself. The 1688 settlement was, after all, a compromise; and it was convenient for the beneficiaries to seek to confirm their position by encouraging popular antipathy towards Papists (potential Jacobites) on the one hand, and Dissenters (potential Levellers) on the other. A mob was a very useful supplement to the magistrates in a nation that was scarcely policed. John Wesley, in his early years, and his first field-preachers, often encountered these mobs who acted under a magistrate’s licence. One of the most violent encounters was at Wednesbury and Walsall in 1743. By Wesley’s account the mob was highly volatile and confused as to its own intentions. The ‘captains of the rabble’ were the ‘heroes of the town’: but the only ones identified are an ‘honest butcher’ and a ‘prize-fighter at the bear-garden’ who both suddenly changed sides and took Wesley’s part. The matter becomes more clear when we learn that the mob was backed by the local magistrates, and by a local vicar, who was outraged by Wesley’s local preachers (‘a Bricklayer, and then a Plumber-Glazier’) who had ‘alienated the Affections’ of Colliers from the Church, and called the clergy ‘dumb Dogs’. Indeed, by Wesley’s account, ‘some of the gentlemen… threatened to turn away collier or miner out of their service that did not come and do his part’. #1_859 [1] John Nelson’s Journal gives us an example from Grimsby where it was the minister of the Church of England who –

got a man to beat the town drum through the town, and went before the drum, and gathered all the rabble he could, giving them liquor to go with him to fight for the Church.

At the door of the house where Nelson was preaching it was the parson who cried out to the mob, ‘Pull down the house! Pull down the house!’

But of greater importance than these provincial manifestations of popular feeling upon particular issues was the London mob, whose presence is continually felt in the political history of the eighteenth century and which Wilkes removed altogether from the control of the agents of authority in the 1760s. In a sense, this was a transitional mob, on its way to becoming a self-conscious Radical crowd; the leaven of Dissent and of political education was at work, giving to the people a predisposition to turn out in defence of popular liberties, in defiance of authority, and in ‘movements of social protest, in which the underlying conflict of poor against rich… is clearly visible…’ #1_861 [1] The Spitalfields silk-weavers and their apprentices had long been noted for their anti-authoritarian turbulence; Dr Rudé, in his study of Wilkes and Liberty, notes occasions where industrial conflict slips over into Wilkite demonstration, and where the slogans of the crowd took a republican or revolutionary turn: ‘Damn the King, damn the Government, damn the Justices!’, ‘This is the most glorious opportunity for a Revolution that ever offered!’ For nearly a decade London and the south seemed (in the words of one critic) to be ‘a great Bedlam under the dominion of a beggarly, idle and intoxicated mob without keepers, actuated solely by the word Wilkes…’ #2_505 [2] These were the supporters who:

demonstrated in St George’s Fields, at Hyde Park Corner, at the Mansion House, in Parliament Square and St James’s Palace; who shouted, or chalked up, ‘Wilkes and Liberty’ in the streets of the City, Westminster and Southwark; who pelted Sheriff Harley and the common hangman at the Royal Exchange when they attempted to burn No. 45 of The North Briton; who smashed the windows of Lords Bute and Egremont and daubed the boots of the Austrian Ambassador; who paraded the Boot and Petticoat in the City streets, and burned Colonel Luttrell and Lords Sandwich and Barrington in effigy outside the Tower of London. These are the elements whom contemporaries and later historians have – either from indolence, prejudice or lack of more certain knowledge – called ‘the mob’… #3_203 [3]

They were also the people – tradesmen, servants, coal-heavers, sailors, artisans and wage-earners of all descriptions – who demonstrated for Wilkes on the hustings and who dragged him in triumph through the streets whenever he was victorious.

Dr Rudé is right to rescue the London crowd from the imputation of being mere hooligans and ‘criminal elements’; and the distinction which he draws between the hired ruffians brought in to support the anti-Wilkite candidate, Proctor, and the spontaneous ebullience of the Wilkite majority is significant. However, in protesting against the ‘prejudice’ of historians, he protests too much. For the London crowd of the 1760s and 1770s had scarcely begun to develop its own organization or leaders; had little theory distinct from that of its ‘managers’; and there is a sense in which it was manipulated and called out by Wilkes to ‘operate on behalf of external interests’ – the interests of the wealthy tradesmen, merchants, and manufacturers of the City who were Wilkes’s most influential supporters. Wilkes himself affected a cynical contempt for the huzzas of his own plebeian following: ‘Do you suppose,’ it is said that he asked his opponent, Colonel Luttrell, while watching the cheering throngs on the hustings, ‘that there are more fools or rogues in that assembly?’ And the anomaly between the libertarian aspirations of the crowd and the mob-technique of its management, is further emphasized when we recall that the Wilkite merchants and tradesmen captured key posts in the government of the City, so that the Londoners who mobbed the carriages and broke the windows of the Great knew – no less than the Walsall miners – that they were acting under licence. The Wilkite crowd was in fact at a half-way house in the emergence of popular political consciousness; while its most popular slogan was ‘Liberty!’ many of its members were highly volatile and might equally well swing round to attack ‘alien’ elements or smash the windows of citizens who failed to illuminate them on ‘patriotic’ occasions. #1_862 [1]

This is most clearly revealed in the Gordon Riots of 1780. Here we see a popular agitation which passed swiftly through three phases. In the first phase the ‘revolutionary crowd’, well organized by the popular Protestant Association, marched in fair order behind great banners to present a petition against Catholic toleration to the Houses of Parliament. Those foremost in the demonstration were ‘the better sort of tradesmen… well-dressed, decent sort of people… exceeding quiet and orderly and very civil’. This was Dissenting London, and among them Gibbon described some fanatical ‘Puritans’, ‘such as they might be in the time of Cromwell… started out from their graves’. The refusal of the House of Commons to debate the petition – and Lord George Gordon’s harangues – led on to angry scenes which introduced the second phase. This phase may be described as one of licensed spontaneity, leading on to mob violence informed by ‘a groping desire to settle accounts with the rich, if only for a day’; some of the ‘better sort of tradesmen’ faded away, while journeymen, apprentices, and servants – and some criminals – thronged the streets. #1_863 [1] The cry ‘No Popery’ had reverberated in the popular consciousness since the Commonwealth and 1688; and no doubt swept in many whose sub-political responses were described by Defoe many years before – ‘stout fellows that would spend the last drop of their blood against Popery that do not know whether it be a man or a horse’. The riots were directed in the first place against Catholic chapels and the houses of wealthy Catholics, then against prominent personalities in authority – including Lord Chief Justice Mansfield and the Archbishop of York – who were believed to sympathize with Catholic emancipation, then against the prisons – whose inmates were released – and finally culminated in an attack on the Bank itself. Throughout this second phase, the sense of a ‘licensed’ mob continued: the Wilkite city authorities were conspicuous by their inactivity or absence, in part through fear of incurring popular odium, in part through actual connivance at disorders which strengthened their hands against the King and his Government. It was only when the third phase commenced – the attack on the Bank on one hand, and indiscriminate orgies of drunkenness, arson, and pickpocketing on the other – that the ‘licence’ was withdrawn: the inactive Lord Mayor at last sent a desperate message to the Commander-in-Chief calling for ‘Horse and Foot to assist the civil power’ and Alderman Wilkes himself went out to repel the mob on the steps of the Bank. The rapidity with which the riots were quelled emphasizes the previous inactivity of the City authorities.

We have here, then, something of a mixture of manipulated mob and revolutionary crowd. Lord George Gordon had tried to emulate Wilkes, but he had nothing of Wilkes’s well-judged audacity and splendid sense of the popular mood. He released a spontaneous process of riot, which yet was under the immunity of the Wilkite City fathers. Groups of rioters threw up their own temporary leaders, reminiscent of Thomas Spencer the Halifax coiner – James Jackson, a watch-wheelcutter, who rode a carthorse and waved a red and black flag, and Enoch Foster, a circus strong man, who amused the mob by hurling floorboards through the windows of a Whitechapel house. But this kind of mixture is never seen in the metropolis again. In 1780 the London people, despite their excesses, were under the protection of the libertarian Whigs, who saw them as a counterweight to the pretensions of the Throne: Burke deplored the use of the military in subduing the riots, while Fox declared that he would ‘much rather be governed by a mob than a standing army’. But after the French Revolution no Whig politician would have risked, no City father condoned, the tampering with such dangerous energies; while the reformers, for their part, worked to create an organized public opinion, and despised the technique of unleashing the mob. ‘Mobility’ was a term proudly adopted by nineteenth-century Radicals and Chartists for their peaceable and well-conducted demonstrations.

The last great action of an eighteenth-century mob was at Birmingham in 1791, in a form which should make us especially chary as to generalizations about the ‘revolutionary crowd’. #1_864 [1] Birmingham was perhaps the greatest centre of middle-class Dissent; its Old and New Unitarian Meetings included some of the largest employers in the district; Dissenters played so large a part in the economic, intellectual, and corporate life of the city that the ‘Church and King’ party had long felt the bitterness which came, not from strength, but from waning power and prestige. The ostensible occasion for the riots was a dinner held by middle-class reformers (many of them Dissenters) on 14 July 1791, to celebrate the fall of the Bastille. That night and for the next three days the ‘bunting, beggarly, brass-making, brazen-faced, brazen-hearted, blackguard, bustling, booby Birmingham mob’ ran amuck in the city and its environs, sacking two Unitarian and one Baptist meeting-house, burning or looting a score of houses and many shops of wealthy Dissenters (or supposed sympathizers), and releasing prisoners from the Town Prison. While Dissenters were the chief victims (especially those associated with the cause of reform) ‘it was not always clear’ (Mr Rose comments), ‘whether rich dissenters were attacked because they were dissenters or because they were rich’. The cries of their assailants ranged from ‘Church and King!’ to ‘No Popery!’

As to the authenticity of popular resentment against some of the wealthy Dissenters there can be no doubt. (For example, one of the victims, William Hutton, had earned particular unpopularity in his office as a commissioner for the Birmingham Court of Requests, a court for the enforcement of the payment of small debts.) But there are a number of peculiarly suspicious circumstances in the Birmingham riots which recall John Wesley’s treatment nearly fifty years previously at the hands of the Walsall mobs. First, there is the undoubted complicity of several prominent Tory magistrates and clergy, who encouraged the rioters at their commencement, directed them to the meeting-houses, intervened only half-heartedly, refused to prosecute offenders, and may even have indicated ‘legitimate’ targets for mob violence. Second, there is the small number of effective rioters in the important actions. Apart from miners and others from surrounding villages who joined in the week-end looting, the marauding mob was rarely estimated at above 250, while repeated accounts speak of a hard core of about thirty incendiaries who did most of the serious damage. Third, there is the evidence that this hard core (which may not even have been composed of local men) worked to a definite plan of campaign and was exceptionally well-briefed as to the religious and political affiliations of prominent Birmingham citizens. The riots may have been motivated – as Priestley charged – by ‘religious bigotry’, and the Bastille Day celebrations certainly served as their pretext. But it was a discriminatory outburst, under the licence of a part of the local Establishment, and it should be regarded ‘as an episode in which the “country gentlemen” called out the urban mob to draw the dissenting teeth of the aggressive and successful Birmingham bourgeoisie’. At the same time, it was ‘an explosion of latent class hatred and personal lawlessness triggered-off by the fortuitous coming together of old religious animosities and new social and political grievances’, #1_865 [1] in which the actions of the mob went beyond the limits anticipated at their permissive origin.

But it is a serious error to generalize from the Birmingham riots as to the general hostility of the urban poor to French Revolutionary or ‘Jacobin’ ideas. As we shall see, the welcome to the first stages of the French Revolution came largely from middle-class and Dissenting groups. It was not until 1792 that these ideas gained a wide popular following, mainly through the agency of Paine’s Rights of Man. Thus the Priestley riots can be seen as a late backward eddy of the transitional mob, before the Painite propaganda had started in earnest the formation of a new democratic consciousness. Riots, of course, continued for many years after 1792: either upon specific issues – Bamford’s Passages in the Life of a Radical commences with a roll-call of the riots, at Bridport, Bideford, Bury, Newcastle, Glasgow, Ely, Preston, Nottingham, Merthyr, Birmingham, Walsall, at the close of the Napoleonic Wars – or (notably at Bristol, Merthyr, Nottingham and Derby in 1831 and at Birmingham in 1839) as insurrectionary climaxes to Radical agitation. In the Bristol riots we meet again some of the features of the Gordon and Priestley Riots: the sack of the Bishop’s Palace and the Mansion House, the release of prisoners from the gaols, the looting and burning of unpopular citizens’ houses and shops. But the authorities could find no conspiracy behind the rioters – at the most an excited free-thinking tradesman, Charles Davis, who went about waving his hat on the end of his umbrella, shouting ‘Down with the churches and mend the roads with them!’, and who was hanged for his pains. #1_866 [1] The riots took place, not under the slogan of ‘Church and King!’ but of ‘King and Reform!’ and the King was only coupled with the latter cry because it was believed that he favoured a Reform Ministry. It was not the Dissenters but leading Churchmen (many of whom were West India slave-holders) who were the main target. At the same time, the democratic sentiments informing the rioters should not mislead us into mistaking the Bristol Riots for a politically conscious revolutionary action. Bristol in 1831 exemplifies the persistence of older, backward-looking patterns of behaviour, just as much as Manchester in 1819 exemplifies the emergence of the self-disciplined patterns of the new working-class movement. Ignorance and superstition had been jerked from loyalist into Radical courses; but we get a whiff of the Gordon and Priestley Riots in the words of the Bristol rioter who threw an armful of manuscripts and books from the Cathedral Chapter Library into the fire-declaring ‘there could be no reform without books were burnt’. #2_506 [2]

The true mobs, in the sense of ‘hired bands operating on behalf of external interests’, are the ‘Church and King’ mobs employed from 1792 onwards to terrorize the English Jacobins. #1_867 [1] While these mobs were sometimes directed against wealthy and prominent reformers – as in the case of Thomas Walker of Manchester – they belong to the tradition of the Walsall mine-owners and the Grimsby Parson, and were so highly organized by – and sometimes paid by – ‘external interests’ that it is difficult to take them as indicative of any authentic independent popular sentiment. Moreover, despite the complete licence offered in many places by clergy and J.Ps to anti-Jacobin mobs they rarely involved more than a small group of picked hooligans, and they never sparked off popular violence on the scale of Birmingham in 1791. There were important urban centres – notably Sheffield and Norwich – where the ‘Church and King’ mob acted with very limited success. Nor was it possible to employ these mobs on any scale in London. The acquittal of the Jacobin prisoners in 1794 was the signal for popular triumph on the scale of the Wilkite celebrations. In 1795 the London crowd was revolutionary in mood and (through the London Corresponding Society) was discovering new forms of organization and leadership. Perhaps the crucial encounter was in October 1797, at the height of anti-Jacobin repression, when there was an inspired attempt to destroy Thomas Hardy’s premises when he refused to illuminate on the occasion of a naval victory. The attack was beaten off by a guard of 100 members of the L.C.S., ‘many of them Irish, armed with good shillelahs’. It was an historic victory: as one of the ‘guard’ recalled, ‘I never was in so long-continued and well-conducted a fight as was that night made by those who defended Hardy’s house.’ When Hardy looked back on the incident his own feelings were decided: ‘I do not relish the government of a mob.’ #2_507 [2] And we may see in the events of four years later an ironic sequel. In 1801 London was once again illuminated, but this time it was in honour of the preliminaries of peace which had been signed between Britain and France. This time the mob vented its feelings by breaking every window in the house of a bellicose anti-Jacobin journalist, who refused to illuminate for the peace. There was no popular guard and even the City authorities were tardy in sending protection. The journalist was William Cobbett. #1_868 [1]


The Free-born Englishman

IN 1797 the defenders of Hardy’s house were fighting a rearguard action. In the next few years, when a French invasion was possible, there is no doubt that the patriotic sentiments of the populace threatened the surviving Jacobins with mob terrorism. In Westminster, with its wide franchise, it was still possible to defeat the Radicals in 1806 by deploying the resources of bribery and deference. Francis Place saw servants of the Duke of Northumberland ‘in their showy dress liveries, throwing lumps of bread and cheese among the dense crowd of vagabonds’:

To see these vagabonds catching the lumps, shouting, swearing, fighting, and blackguarding in every possible way, women as well as men, all the vile wretches from the courts and alleys in St Giles and Westminster, the Porridge Islands, and other miserable places; to see these people representing, as it was said, the electors of Westminster, was certainly the lowest possiblé step of degradation…

Beer was given to the crowd, the heads of the butts were knocked in and ‘coal-heavers ladled the beer out with their long-tailed, broad-brimmed hats… but the mob pressing on, the butts were upset, and the beer flowed along the gutters, from whence some made efforts to obtain it’. Place looked on, appalled at this ‘disgraceful scene’. But in the next year (1807) Place and his friends organized a Radical election committee which worked among the people with such effect that Westminster returned two Radical Members, Sir Francis Burdett and Lord Cochrane. #1_869 [1] And from that time forward, the tradition of ‘Radical London’ is almost unbroken. Burdett was able in 1810 to model his tactics upon those of Wilkes, and assume the support of the populace in his contest with the Government. In the main provincial centres much the same is true by 1812: ‘the mob’ (a Sheffield diarist noted), ‘dislike all but a thorough Reformer’. #1_870 [1] By the time that the Wars ended (1815), it was not possible, either in London or in the industrial North or Midlands, to employ a ‘Church and King’ mob to terrorize the Radicals.

From time to time, between 1815 and 1850, Radicals, Owenites, or Chartists complained of the apathy of the people. But – if we leave out of account the usual election tumults – it is generally true that reformers were shielded by the support of working-class communities. At election times in the large towns, the open vote by show of hands on the ‘hustings’ which preceded the poll usually went overwhelmingly for the most radical candidate. The reformers ceased to fear ‘the mob’, while the authorities were forced to build barracks and take precautions against the ‘revolutionary crowd’. This is one of those facts of history so big that it is easily overlooked, or assumed without question; and yet it indicates a major shift in emphasis in the inarticulate, ‘sub-political’ attitudes of the masses.

The shift in emphasis is related to popular notions of ‘independence’, patriotism, and the Englishman’s ‘birthright’. The Gordon Rioters of 1780 and the ‘Church and King’ rioters in Birmingham in 1791 had this in common: they felt themselves, in some obscure way, to be defending the ‘Constitution’ against alien elements who threatened their ‘birthright’. They had been taught for so long that the Revolution settlement of 1688, embodied in the Constitution of King, Lords and Commons, was the guarantee of British independence and liberties, that the reflex had been set up – Constitution equals Liberty – upon which the unscrupulous might play. And yet it is likely that the very rioters who destroyed Dr Priestley’s precious library and laboratory were proud to regard themselves as ‘free-born Englishmen’. Patriotism, nationalism, even bigotry and repression, were all clothed in the rhetoric of liberty. Even Old Corruption extolled British liberties; not national honour, or power, but freedom was the coinage of patrician, demagogue and radical alike. In the name of freedom Burke denounced, and Paine championed, the French Revolution: with the opening of the French Wars (1793), patriotism and liberty occupied every poetaster:

Thus Britons guard their ancient fame,

Assert their empire o’er the sea,

And to the envying world proclaim,

One nation still is brave and free –

Resolv’d to conquer or to die,

True to their KING, their LAWS, their LIBERTY. #1_871 [1]

The invasion scare resulted in a torrent of broadsheets and ballads on such themes, which form a fitting background for Wordsworth’s smug and sonorous patriotic sonnets:

It is not to be thought of that the Flood

Of British freedom, which, to the open sea

Of the world’s praise, from dark antiquity

Hath flowed, ‘with pomp of waters, unwithstood,’…

‘Not to be thought of’: and yet, at this very time, freedom of the press, of public meeting, of trade union organization, of political organization and of election, were either severely limited or in abeyance. What, then, did the common Englishman’s ‘birthright’ consist in? ‘Security of property!’ answered Mary Wollstonecraft: ‘Behold… the definition of English liberty’. #2_508 [2] And yet the rhetoric of liberty means much more – first of all, of course, freedom from foreign domination. And, within this enveloping haze of patriotic self-congratulation, there were other less distinct notions which Old Corruption felt bound to flatter and yet which were to prove dangerous to it in the long run. Freedom from absolutism (the constitutional monarchy), freedom from arbitrary arrest, trial by jury, equality before the law, the freedom of the home from arbitrary entrance and search, some limited liberty of thought, of speech, and of conscience, the vicarious participation in liberty (or in its semblance) afforded by the right of parliamentary opposition and by elections and election tumults (although the people had no vote they had the right to parade, huzza and jeer on the hustings), as well as freedom to travel, trade, and sell one’s own labour. Nor were any of these freedoms insignificant; taken together, they both embody and reflect a moral consensus in which authority at times shared, and of which at all times it was bound to take account. #1_871 [1]

Indefinite as such a notion as ‘moral consensus’ may be, this question of the limits beyond which the Englishman was not prepared to be ‘pushed around’, and the limits beyond which authority did not dare to go, is crucial to an understanding of this period. The stance of the common Englishman was not so much democratic, in any positive sense, as anti-absolutist. He felt himself to be an individualist, with few affirmative rights, but protected by the laws against the intrusion of arbitrary power. More obscurely, he felt that the Glorious Revolution afforded a consitutional precedent for the right to riot in resistance to oppression. And this indeed was the central paradox of the eighteenth century, in both intellectual and practical terms: constitutionalism was the ‘illusion of the epoch’. Political theory, of traditionalists and reformers alike, was transfixed within the Whiggish limits established by the 1688 settlement, by Locke or by Blackstone. For Locke, the chief ends of government were the maintenance of civil peace, and the security of the person and of property. Such a theory, diluted by self-interest and prejudice, might provide the propertied classes with a sanction for the most bloody code penalizing offenders against property; but it provided no sanction for arbitrary authority, intruding upon personal or property rights, and uncontrolled by the rule of law. Hence the paradox, which surprised many foreign observers, of a bloody penal code alongside a liberal and, at times, meticulous administration and interpretation of the laws. The eighteenth century was indeed a great century for constitutional theorists, judges and lawyers. The poor man might often feel little protection when caught up in the law’s toils. But the jury system did afford a measure of protection, as Hardy, Horne Tooke, Thelwall and Binns discovered. Wilkes was able to defy King, Parliament and administration – and to establish important new precedents – by using alternately the law courts and the mob. There was no droit administratif, no right of arbitrary arrest or search. Even in the 1790s, each attempt to introduce a ‘continental’ spy system, each suspension of Habeas Corpus, each attempt to pack juries, aroused an outcry beyond the reformers’ own ranks. If any – faced by the records of Tyburn and of repression – are inclined to question the value of these limits, they should contrast the trial of Hardy and his colleagues with the treatment of Muir, Gerrald, Skirving and Palmer in 1793–4 in the Scottish courts. #1_872 [1]

This constitutionalism coloured the less articulate responses of the ‘free-born Englishman’. He claimed few rights except that of being left alone. No institution was as much hated, in the eighteenth century, as the press-gang. A standing Army was deeply distrusted, and few of Pitt’s repressive measures aroused as much discontent as the erection of barracks near the industrial towns. The right of individuals to bear arms in their own defence was claimed by reformers. The profession of a soldier was held to be dishonourable. ‘In arbitrary Monarchies,’ wrote one pamphleteer,

where the Despot who reigns can say to his wretched subjects, ‘Eat straw’, and they eat straw, no wonder that they can raise Armies of human Butchers, to destroy their fellow creatures; but, in a country like Great Britain, which at least is pretended to be free, it becomes a matter of no small surprize that so many thousands of men should deliberately renounce the privileges and blessings attendant on Freemen, and voluntarily sell themselves to the most humiliating and degrading Slavery, for the miserable pittance of sixpence a day… #2_509 [2]

The ‘crimping-houses’ used for military recruiting in Holborn, the City, Clerkenwell and Shoreditch were mobbed and destroyed in three days of rioting in August 1794. #3_204 [3] At the height of the agitation by the framework knitters for protective legislation in 1812, the secretary of the Mansfield branch wrote in alarm when he learned that the workers’ representatives were proposing a clause authorizing powers of inspection and search into the houses of manufacturers suspected of evading the proposed regulations: ‘if iver that bullwark is broke down of every english mans hous being his Castil then that strong barrer is for iver broke that so many of our ancesters have bled for and in vain’. #1_874 [1] Resistance to an effective police force continued well into the nineteenth century. While reformers were prepared to agree that a more effective preventive police was necessary, with more watchmen and a stronger nightly guard over property, any centralized force with larger powers was seen as:

a system of tyranny; an organized army of spies and informers, for the destruction of all public liberty, and the disturbance of all private happiness. Every other system of police is the curse of despotism… #2_510 [2]

The Parliamentary Committee of 1818 saw in Bentham’s proposals for a Ministry of Police ‘a plan which would make every servant of every house a spy on the actions of his master, and all classes of society spies on each other’. Tories feared the over-ruling of parochial and chartered rights, and of the powers of local J.P.s; Whigs feared an increase in the powers of Crown or of Government; Radicals like Burdett and Cartwright preferred the notion of voluntary associations of citizens or rotas of householders; the radical populace until Chartist times saw in any police an engine of oppression. A quite surprising consensus of opinion resisted the establishment of ‘one supreme and resistless tribunal, such as is denominated in other countries the “High Police” – an engine… invented by despotism…’ #3_205 [3]

In hostility to the increase in the powers of any centralized authority, we have a curious blend of parochial defensiveness, Whig theory, and popular resistance. Local rights and customs were cherished against the encroachment of the State by gentry and common people alike; hostility to ‘the Thing’ and to ‘Bashaws’ contributed much to the Tory-Radical strain which runs through from Cobbett to Oastler, and which reached its meridian in the resistance to the Poor Law of 1834. (It is ironic that the main protagonists of the State, in its political and administrative authority, were the middle-class Utilitarians, on the other side of whose Statist banner were inscribed the doctrines of economic laissez faire.) Even at the peak of the repression of the Jacobins, in the middle 1790s, the fiction was maintained that the intimidation was the work of ‘voluntary’ associations of ‘private’ citizens (Reeves’ Anti-Jacobin Society or Wilberforce’s Society for the Suppression of Vice); while the same fiction was employed in the persecution of Richard Carlile after the Wars. State subsidies to the ‘official’ press during the Wars were administered guiltily, and with much hedging and diplomatic denial. The employment of spies and of agents provocateurs after the Wars was the signal for a genuine outburst of indignation in which very many who were bitterly opposed to manhood suffrage took part.

Moreover, not only freedom from the intrusions of the State but also belief in the equality of rich and poor before the law was a source of authentic popular congratulation. Sensational reading-matter, such as the New Newgate Calendar: or Malefactor’s Bloody Register, recorded with satisfaction instances of the noble and influential brought to Tyburn. Local annalists noted smugly such cases as that of Leeds’ ‘domineering villanous lord of the manor’ who was executed in 1748 for killing one of his own tenants in a fit of temper. Radicals might affect a well-based cynicism. If the law is open alike to rich and poor, said Horne Tooke, so is the London Tavern: ‘but they will give you a very sorry welcome, unless you come with money sufficient to pay for your entertainment’. #1_875 [1] But the conviction that the rule of law was the distinguishing inheritance of the ‘free-born Englishman’, and was his defence against arbitrary power, was upheld even by the Jacobins. The London Corresponding Society, in an Address of 1793, sought to define the difference in status between the English commoner and the commoner in pre-revolutionary France: ‘our persons were protected by the laws, while their lives were at the mercy of every titled individual…. We were MEN while they were SLAVES.’

This defensive ideology nourished, of course, far larger claims to positive rights. Wilkes had known well how to strike this chord – the champion defending his individual rights passed imperceptibly into the free-born citizen challenging King and Ministers and claiming rights for which there was no precedent. In 1776 Wilkes went so far as to plead in the House of Commons for the political rights of ‘the meanest mechanic, the poorest peasant and day labourer’, who –

has important rights respecting his personal liberty, that of his wife and children, his property however inconsiderable, his wages… which are in many trades and manufactures regulated by the power of Parliament…. Some share therefore in the power of making those laws which deeply interest them… should be reserved even to this inferior but most useful set of men…

The argument is still that of Ireton (or Burke) but property-rights are interpreted in a far more liberal sense; and Wilkes rounded it off with the customary appeal to tradition and precedent:

Without a true representation of the Commons our constitution is essentially defective… and all other remedies to recover the pristine purity of the form of government established by our ancestors would be ineffectual.

‘Pristine purity’, ‘our ancestors’ – these are key-phrases, and for twenty years arguments among reformers turned upon nice interpretations of these terms. Which model was pure and pristine, to which ancestors should reformers refer? To the founding fathers of the United States, breaking free from the trammels of precedent, it seemed sufficient to find certain truths ‘self-evident’. But to Major John Cartwright (1740-1824), publishing his pamphlet Take Your Choice in the same year as the Declaration of Independence (1776), it seemed necessary to shore up his case for annual parliaments, equal electoral districts, payment of Members, and adult manhood suffrage, with reference to Saxon precedent. The ‘good, grey Major’ (as he became known nearly half a century later) defined as early as this the main claims of advanced political reformers, from 1776 to the Chartists and beyond. #1_876 [1] And from these claims he never swerved. Incapable of compromise, eccentric and courageous, the Major pursued his single-minded course, issuing letters, appeals, and pamphlets, from his seat in Boston, Lincs, surviving trials, tumults, dissension and repression. It was he who set out, before the Napoleonic Wars had ended, to found the first reform societies of a new era, the Hampden Clubs, in those northern industrial regions where his clerical brother had accelerated other processes of change with his invention of the power-loom. But although the Major’s principles and proposals outlived his own long lifetime, his arguments did not

In a moment, we shall see why. (The answer, in two words, is Tom Paine.) But we should first note that in twenty years before the French Revolution a new dimension was in practice being added to the accepted procedures of the Constitution. The press had already established indefinite rights independent of King, Lords and Commons; and the agitation surrounding Wilkes’s North Briton revealed both the precariousness of these rights and the sensitivity of a large public in their defence. But the second half of the eighteenth century sees also the rise of the Platform, #2_511 [2] – the ‘extra-parliamentary’ pressure-group, campaigning for more or less limited aims, mobilizing opinion ‘without doors’ by means of publications, great meetings, and petitions. Different uses of platform and petition were adopted by bodies as various as Wilkes’s supporters, Wyvill’s county associations, the Protestant Association (which figured at the start of the Gordon Riots), the ‘economical’ reformers, the anti-slavery agitation, agitation for the repeal of disabilities upon Nonconformists. While Wilberforce or Wyvill might wish to limit their agitation to gentlemen, or to freeholders, precedents were established, and the example was contagious. A new cog was added to the complicated machinery of constitution; Erksine and Wyvill, using the familiar mechanical imagery of checks and balances, #1_876 [1] called for ‘Clock-Work Regularity in the movements of the People’. Major John Cartwright went further – the more fuss stirred up, for the most far-reaching demands, among all classes of people, the better:

On the old maxim of teaching a young archer to shoot at the moon [he wrote to Wyvill] in order that he may acquire the power of throwing his arrow far enough for practical purposes, I have always thought that a free discussion of the principle of Universal Suffrage the most likely means of obtaining any Reform at all worth contending for.

For the Major – although he couched his arguments in terms of precedent and tradition – believed in methods of agitation among ‘members unlimited’. In the years of repression, 1797–9, the squire of Boston issued a reproof to the caution of the north Yorkshire reformer. ‘I am but little afraid of your Yeomanry,’ he wrote to Wyvill, ‘but your Gentlemen I dread…. It is fortunate for me that hitherto all the Gentlemen, except one, have been on the other side. My efforts, therefore, have not been maimed by their councils, and I have on all occasions spoken out’:

I feel as if nothing but strong cordials, and the most powerful stimulants, can awaken the People to any thing energetic…. Unless our appeals convince all under-standings, and the truths we utter irresistibly seize on the heart, we shall do nothing…. If you should, in order to get on at all, be compelled to propose mere expedients short of such energetic appeals, I hope in God you will be rescued from the situation by some strong-minded men at your Meeting… #2_512 [2]

Similar constitutional arguments might, then, conceal deep differences in tone and in means of propaganda. But all reformers before Paine commenced with ‘the corruptions of the Constitution’. And their degree of Radicalism can generally be inferred from the historical precedents cited in their writings. The Wilkite, but largely aristocratic, Supporters of the Bill of Rights (and its successors, the ‘Revolution Societies’ (1788) and The Friends of the People (1792)) were content to enforce the precedent of the settlement of 1688. The advanced Society for Constitutional Information, founded in 1780, whose pamphlets by Dr Jebb, Cartwright, and Capel Lofft provided Thomas Hardy with his first introduction to the theory of reform, ranged widely – to the Magna Carta and beyond – for precedents, and drew upon both Anglo-Saxon and American example. #1_878 [1] And, after the French Revolution, theorists of the popular societies dealt largely in Anglo-Saxon ‘tythings’, the Witenagemot, and legends of Alfred’s reign. ‘Pristine purity’, and ‘our ancestors’, became – for many Jacobins – almost any constitutional innovation for which a Saxon precedent could be vamped up. John Baxter, a Shoreditch silversmith, a leader of the L.C.S. and a fellow prisoner with Hardy during the treason trials, found time to publish in 1796 an 830-page New and Impartial History of England, in which Saxon precedent is almost indistinguishable from the state of nature, the noble savage, or the original social compact. ‘Originally,’ Baxter supposed, ‘the constitution must have been free.’ History was the history of its corruption, ‘the Britons having been subdued first by the Romans, next by the Saxons, these again by the Danes, and, finally, all by the Normans…’ As for the Revolution of 1688 it ‘did no more than expel a tyrant, and confirm the Saxon laws’. But there were plenty of these laws still to be restored; and, next to manhood suffrage, the ones which John Baxter liked best were the absence of a standing Army, and the right of each citizen to go armed. He had arrived, by industrious constitutional arguments, at the right of the people to defy the Constitution.

Nevertheless, as Mr Christopher Hill has shown in his study of the theory of the ‘Norman Yoke’, these elaborate and often specious constitutional controversies were of real significance. #2_513 [2] Even the forms of antiquarian argument conceal important differences in political emphasis. From the anonymous Historical Essay on the English Constitution (1771) to the early 1790s, the more advanced reformers were marked out by their fondness for citing Saxon example. Long before this Tom Paine had published his Common Sense (1776) whose arguments were scarcely conducive to the appeal to precedent:

A French bastard landing with an armed banditti and establishing himself King of England, against the consent of the natives, is, in plain terms, a very paltry, rascally original. It certainly hath no divinity in it…. The plain truth is that the antiquity of English monarchy will not bear looking into.

But this was published on American soil; and, as we shall see, it was only after the French Revolution and the publication of Rights of Man that such iconoclasm was heard in England: ‘If the succession runs in the line of the Conqueror, the nation runs in the line of being conquered, and ought to rescue itself from this approach.’ Meanwhile, the thory of the ‘Norman Yoke’ showed astonishing vitality; and even had a revival, in Jacobin circles, after 1793, when Paine was driven into exile and his Rights of Man was banned as seditious libel.

This was, in part, a matter of expediency. Paine’s prosecution revealed the limits of freedom permitted within the conventions of constitutionalism. To deny altogether the appeal to ‘our ancestors’ was actively dangerous. When Henry Yorke, the Sheffield reformer, was on trial in 1795, his defence turned upon this point: ‘In almost every speech I took essential pains in controverting the doctrines of Thomas Paine, who denied the existence of our constitution…. I constantly asserted on the contrary, that we had a good constitution’, ‘that magnanimous government which we derived from our Saxon fathers, and from the prodigious mind of the immortal Alfred’. Even John Baxter, whose ‘Saxons’ were Jacobin and sans-culottes to a man, felt it expedient to dissociate himself from Paine’s total lack of reverence:

Much as we respect the opinions of Mr Thomas Paine… we cannot agree with him, that we have no constitution; his mistake seems to arise from having carried his views no further than the Norman Conquest.

But it was more than expediency. According to legend, Saxon precedent provided legitimation for a constitutional monarchy, a free Parliament based on manhood suffrage, and the rule of law. In coming forward as ‘Patriots’ and constitutionalists, men like Major Cartwright and Baxter were attempting to take over the rhetoric of the age. #1_879 [1] It seemed that if matters were to be posed as bluntly as Paine posed them in Common Sense, then reformers would be forced to disengage from the constitutional debate altogether, and rest their claims upon reason, conscience, self-interest, ‘self-evident’ truths. For many eighteenth-century Englishmen whose minds were nurtured in a constitutionalist culture the idea was shocking, unnerving, and, in its implications, dangerous.

And yet it was necessary that this rhetoric should be broken through, because – even when tricked out in Baxter’s improbable Saxon terms – it implied the absolute sanctity of certain conventions: respect for the institution of monarchy, for the hereditary principle, for the traditional rights of the great landowners and the Established Church, and for the representation, not of human rights, but of property rights. Once enmeshed in constitutionalist arguments – even when these were used to advance the claims of manhood suffrage – reformers became caught up in the trivia of piecemeal constitutional renovation. For a plebeian movement to arise it was essential to escape from these categories altogether and set forward far wider democratic claims. In the years between 1770 and 1790 we can observe a dialectical paradox by means of which the rhetoric of constitutionalism contributed to its own destruction or transcendence. Those in the eighteenth century who read Locke or Blackstone’s commentaries found in them a searching criticism of the workings of faction and interest in the unreformed House of Commons. #2_514 [2] The first reaction was to criticize the practice of the eighteenth century in the light of its own theory; the second, more delayed, reaction was to bring the theory itself into discredit. And it was at this point that Paine entered, with Rights of Man.

The French Revolution had set a precedent of a larger kind: a new constitution drawn up, in the light of reason and from first principles, which threw ‘the meagre, stale, forbidding ways/Of custom, law, and statute’ into the shadows. And it was not Paine, but Burke, who effected the first major evacuation of the grounds of constitutional argument. The French example, on one hand, and the industrious reformers quarrying for pre-1688 or pre-Norman precedent, on the other, had made the old ground untenable. In his Reflections on the French Revolution (1790) Burke supplemented the authority of precedent by that of wisdom and experience, and reverence for the Constitution by reverence for tradition – that ‘partnership… between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born’. The theory of checks and balances upon the exercise of specific powers was translated into the moody notion of checks and balances upon the imperfections of man’s nature:

The science of constructing a commonwealth… is not to be taught a priori…. The nature of man is intricate; the objects of society are of the greatest possible complexity: and therefore no simple disposition or direction of power can be suitable either to man’s nature, or to the quality of his affairs…. The rights of men in governments are… often in balances between differences of good; in compromises sometimes between good and evil, and sometimes between evil and evil…

Radical reformers ‘are so taken up with their theories about the rights of man, that they have totally forgotten his nature’. ‘By their violent haste and their defiance of the process of nature, they are delivered over blindly to every projector and adventurer, to every alchymist and empiric.’ #1_880 [1]

The argument is deduced from man’s moral nature in general; but we repeatedly glimpse sight of the fact that it was not the moral nature of a corrupt aristocracy which alarmed Burke so much as the nature of the populace, ‘the swinish multitude’. Burke’s great historical sense was brought to imply a ‘process of nature’ so complex and procrastinating that any innovation was full of unseen dangers – a process in which the common people might have no part. If Paine was wrong to dismiss Burke’s cautions (for his Rights of Man was written in reply to Burke), he was right to expose the inertia of class interests which underlay his special pleading. Academic judgement has dealt strangely with the two men. Burke’s reputation as a political philosopher has been inflated, very much so in recent years. Paine has been dismissed as a mere popularizer. In truth, neither writer was systematic enough to rank as a major political theorist. Both were publicists of genius, both are less remarkable for what they say than for the tone in which it is said. Paine lacks any depth of reading, any sense of cultural security, and is betrayed by his arrogant and impetuous temper into writing passages of a mediocrity which the academic mind still winces at and lays aside with a sigh. But the popular mind remembers Burke less for his insight than for his epochal indiscretion – ‘the swinish multitude’ – the give-away phrase which revealed another kind of insensitivity of which Paine was incapable. Burke’s blemish vitiates the composure of eighteenth-century polite culture. In all the angry popular pamphleteering which followed it might almost seem that issues could be defined in five words: Burke’s two-word epithet on the one hand, Paine’s three-word banner on the other. With dreary invention the popular pamphleteers performed satirical variations upon Burke’s theme: Hog’s Wash, Pig’s Meat, Mast and Acorns: Collected by Old Hubert, Politics for the People: A Salmagundi for Swine (with contributions from ‘Brother Grunter’, ‘Porculus’ and ad nauseam) were the titles of the pamphlets and periodicals. The stye, the swineherds, the bacon – so it goes on. ‘Whilst ye are… gorging yourselves at troughs filled with the daintiest wash; we, with our numerous train of porkers, are employed, from the rising to the setting sun, to obtain the means of subsistence, by… picking up a few acorns,’ runs an Address to the Hon. Edmund Burke from the Swinish Multitude (1793). No other words have ever made the ‘free-born Englishman’ so angry – nor so ponderous in reply.

Since the Rights of Man is a foundation-text of the English working-class movement, we must look at its arguments and tone more closely. #1_881 [1] Paine wrote on English soil, but as an American with an international reputation who had lived for close on fifteen years in the bracing climate of experiment and constitutional iconoclasm. ‘I wished to know,’ he wrote in the Preface to the Second Part, ‘the manner in which a work, written in a style of thinking and expression different to what had been customary in England, would be received.’ From the outset he rejected the framework of constitutional argument: ‘I am contending for the rights of the living, and against their being willed away, and controuled, and contracted for, by the manuscript-assumed authority of the dead.’ Burke wished to ‘consign over the rights of posterity for ever, on the authority of a mouldy parchment’, while Paine asserted that each successive generation was competent to define its rights and form of government anew.

As for the English Constitution, no such thing existed. At the most, it was a ‘sepulchre of precedents’, a kind of ‘Political Popery’; and ‘government by precedent, without any regard to the principle of the precedent, is one of the vilest systems that can be set up’. All governments, except those in France and America, derived their authority from conquest and superstition: their foundations lay upon ‘arbitrary power’. And Paine reserved his particular invective for the superstitious regard attached to the means by which the continuation of this power was secured – the hereditary principle. ‘A banditti of ruffians overrun a country, and lay it under contributions. Their power being thus established, the chief of the band contrived to lose the name of Robber in that of Monarch; and hence the origin of Monarchy and Kings.’ As for the right of inheritance, ‘to inherit a Government, is to inherit the People, as if they were flocks and herds’. ‘Kings succeed each other, not as rationals, but as animals…. It requires some talents to be a common mechanic; but to be a King, requires only the animal figure of a man – a sort of breathing automaton’:

The time is not very far distant when England will laugh at itself for sending to Holland, Hanover, Zell, or Brunswick for men, at the expense of a million a year, who understood neither her laws, her language, nor her interest, and whose capacities would scarcely have fitted them for the office of a parish constable.

‘What are those men kept for?,’ he demanded.

Placemen, Pensioners, Lords of the Bed-chamber, Lords of the Kitchen, Lords of the Necessary-house, and the Lord knows what besides, can find as many reasons for monarchy as their salaries, paid at the expence of the country, amount to: but if I ask the farmer, the manufacturer, the merchant, the tradesman… the common labourer, what service monarchy is to him, he can give me no answer. If I ask him what monarchy is, he believes it is something like a sinecure.

The hereditary system in general was consigned to the same oblivion: ‘an hereditary governor is as inconsistent as an hereditary author’.

All this was (and has some of the dare-devil air of) blasphemy. Even the sacred Bill of Rights Paine found to be ‘a bill of wrongs and of insult’. It is not that Paine was the first man to think in this way: many eighteenth-century Englishmen must have held these thoughts privately. He was the first to dare to express himself with such irreverence; and he destroyed with one book century-old taboos. But Paine did very much more than this. In the first place he pointed towards a theory of the State and of class power, although in a confused, ambiguous manner. In Common-Sense he had followed Locke in seeing government as a ‘necessary evil’. In the 1790s the ambiguities of Locke seem to fall into two halves, one Burke, the other Paine. Where Burke assumes government and examines its operation in the light of experience and tradition, Paine speaks for the governed, and assumes that the authority of government derives from conquest and inherited power in a class-divided society. The classes are roughly defined – ‘there are two distinct classes of men in the nation, those who pay taxes, and those who receive and live upon taxes’ – and as for the Constitution, it is a good one for –

courtiers, placemen, pensioners, borough-holders, and the leaders of the Parties…; but it is a bad Constitution for at least ninety-nine parts of the nation out of a hundred.

From this also, the war of the propertied and the unpropertied: ‘when the rich plunder the poor of his rights, it becomes an example to the poor to plunder the rich of his property’. #1_882 [1] By this argument, government appears as court parasitism: taxes are a form of robbery, for pensioners and for wars of conquest: while ‘the whole of the Civil Government is executed by the People of every town and country, by means of parish officers, magistrates, quarterly sessions, juries, and assize, without any trouble to what is called the Government’. So that – at this point – we are close to a theory of anarchism. What is required is less the reform than the abolition of government: ‘the instant formal Government is abolished, society begins to act’.

On the other hand, ‘society’, acting through a representative system as a government opened up new possibilities which suddenly caught fire in Paine’s mind while writing the crucial fifth chapter of the Second Part of Rights of Man. Here, after extolling commerce and industrial enterprise, clouting colonial domination (and – later – proposing international arbitration in place of war), hitting out at the penal code (‘legal barbarity’), denouncing closed charters, corporations, and monopolies, and exclaiming against the burden of taxation, he came to rest for a moment on the sins of the landed aristocracy:

Why… does Mr Burke talk of this House of Peers, as the pillar of the landed interest? Were that pillar to sink into the earth, the same landed property would continue, and the same ploughing, sowing, and reaping would go on. The Aristocracy are not the farmers who work the land… but are the mere consumers of the rent…

And this led him on to far-reaching impressionistic proposals for cutting the costs of government, Army and Navy; remitting taxes and poor rates; raising additional taxation by means of a graduated income-tax (rising to twenty shillings in the £ at £23,000 p.a.); and paying out the moneys raised or saved in sums to alleviate the position of the poor. He proposed family allowances: public funds to enable general education of all children: old age pensions – ‘not as a matter of grace and favour, but of right’ (for the recipients would receive back only a portion of what they had contributed in taxation): a maternity benefit, a benefit for newly-wedded couples, a benefit for funerals for the necessitous: and the building in London of combined lodging-houses and workshops to assist immigrants and unemployed:

By the operation of this plan, the poor laws, those instruments of civil torture, will be superceded…. The dying poor will not be dragged from place to place to breathe their last, as a reprisal of parish upon parish. Widows will have a maintenance for their children… and children will no longer be considered as encreasing the distresses of their parents…. The number of petty crimes, the offspring of distress and poverty, will be lessened. The poor, as well as the rich, will then be interested in the support of Government, and the cause and apprehension of riots and tumults will cease. Ye who sit in ease, and solace yourselves in plenty… have ye thought of these things?

This is Paine at his strongest. The success of the First Part of Rights of Man was great, but the success of the Second Part was phenomenal. It was this part – and especially such sections as these – which effected a bridge between the older traditions of the Whig ‘commonwealthsman’ and the radicalism of Sheffield cutlers, Norwich weavers and London artisans. Reform was related by these proposals, to their daily experience of economic hardship. However specious some of Paine’s financial calculations may have been, the proposals gave a new constructive cast to the whole reform agitation. If Major Cartwright formulated the specific demands for manhood suffrage which were to be the basis of a hundred years of agitation (and Mary Wollstonecraft, with her Rights of Women, initiated for the second sex an even longer era of struggle), Paine, in this chapter, set a sourse towards the social legislation of the twentieth century.

Few of Paine’s ideas were original, except perhaps in this ‘social’ chapter. ‘Men who give themselves to their Energetic Genius in the manner that Paine does are no Examiners’ – the comment is William Blake’s. What he gave to English people was a new rhetoric of radical egalitarianism, which touched the deepest responses of the ‘free-born Englishman’ and which penetrated the sub-political attitudes of the urban working people. Cobbett was not a true Painite, and Owen and the early Socialists contributed a new strand altogether; but the Paine tradition runs strongly through the popular journalism of the nineteenth century – Wooler, Carlile, Hetherington, Watson, Lovett, Holyoake, Reynolds, Bradlaugh. It is strongly challenged in the 1880s, but the tradition and the rhetoric are still alive in Blatchford and in the popular appeal of Lloyd George. We can almost say that Paine established a new frame-work within which Radicalism was confined for nearly 100 years, as clear and as well defined as the constitutionalism which it replaced.

What was this framework? Contempt for monarchical and hereditary principles, we have seen:

I disapprove of monarchical and aristocratical governments, however modified. Hereditary distinctions, and privileged order of every species… must necessarily counteract the progress of human improvement. Hence it follows that I am not among the admirers of the British Constitution.

The words happen to be Wordsworth’s – in 1793. And Wordsworth’s also the retrospective lines which recapture more than any other the optimism of those revolutionary years when – walking with Beaupuy – he encountered a ‘hunger-bitten’ peasant girl—

… and at the sight my friend

In agitation said, ‘ ’Tis against that

That we are fighting,’ I with him believed

That a benignant spirit was abroad

Which might not be withstood, that poverty

Abject as this would in a little time

Be found no more, that we should see the earth

Unthwarted in her wish to recompense

The meek, the lowly, patient child of toil,

All institutes for ever blotted out

That legalised exclusion, empty pomp

Abolished, sensual state and cruel power,

Whether by edict of the one or few;

And finally, as sum and crown of all,

Should see the people having a strong hand

In framing their own laws; whence better days

To all mankind.

An optimism (which Wordsworth was soon to lose) but to which Radicalism clung tenaciously, founding it upon premisses which Paine did not stop to examine: unbounded faith in representative institutions: in the power of reason: in (Paine’s words) ‘a mass of sense lying in a dormant state’ among the common people, and in the belief that ‘Man, were he not corrupted by Governments, is naturally the friend of Man, and that human nature is not of itself vicious.’ And all this expressed in an intransigent, brash, even cocksure tone, with the self-educated man’s distrust of tradition and institutes of learning (‘He knew by heart all his own writings and knew nothing else’, was the comment of one of Paine’s acquaintances), and a tendency to avoid complex theoretical problems with a dash of empiricism and an appeal to ‘Common Sense’.

Both the strengths and the weaknesses of this optimism were reproduced again and again in nineteenth-century working-class Radicalism. But Paine’s writings were in no special sense aimed at the working people, as distinct from farmers, tradesmen and professional men. His was a doctrine suited to agitation among ‘members unlimited’; but he did not challenge the property-rights of the rich nor the doctrines of laissez faire. His own affiliations were most obviously with men of the unrepresented manufacturing and trading classes; with men like Thomas Walker and Holcroft; with the Constitutional Society rather than the L.C.S. His proposals for a graduated income tax anticipate more far-reaching notions of property redistribution; but they were aimed at the great landed aristocracy, where the hereditary principle involved in the custom of primogeniture gave him offence. In terms of political democracy he wished to level all inherited distinctions and privileges; but he gave no countenance to economic levelling. In political society every man must have equal rights as a citizen: in economic society he must naturally remain employer or employed, and the State should not interfere with the capital of the one or the wages of the other. The Rights of Man and the Wealth of Nations should supplement and nourish each other. And in this also the main tradition of nineteenth-century working-class Radicalism took its cast from Paine. There were times, at the Owenite and Chartist climaxes, when other traditions became dominant. But after each relapse, the substratum of Painite assumptions remained intact. The aristocracy were the main target; their property might be threatened – even as far as Land Nationalization or Henry George’s Single Tax – and their rents regarded as a feudal exaction dating from ‘a French bastard’ and his ‘armed banditti’; but – however hard trade unionists might fight against their employers – industrial capital was assumed to be the fruit of enterprise and beyond reach of political intrusion. Until the 1880s, it was, by and large, within this framework that working-class Radicalism remained transfixed.

One other element Paine contributed to the nineteenth-century tradition: the true Painite – Carlile or James Watson or Holyoake – was also a free-thinker. ‘My religion is to do good,’ Paine wrote in Rights of Man, and left the matter there. But he saw himself as the champion of these rights against ‘the age of fiction and political superstition, and of craft and mystery’: and it was natural that he should complete his work with The Age of Reason, a sustained invective against State religion and every form of priestcraft. Paine wrote, not as an atheist, but as a Deist; the First Part, written in France in 1793 under the shadow of the guillotine, saw proofs of a God in the act of Creation and in the universe itself, and appealed to Reason as opposed to Mystery, Miracle or Prophecy. It was published in England in 1795, by Daniel Isaac Eaton who sustained no fewer than seven prosecutions and – by 1812 fifteen months of imprisonment and three years of outlawry – for his activities as a printer. Despite the brash provocations of its tone, The Age of Reason contained little that would have surprised the eighteenth-century Deist or advanced Unitarian. What was new was the popular audience to which Paine appealed, and the great authority of his name. The Second Part – published in 1796 (also by the courageous Eaton) #1_883 [1] – was an assault on the ethics of the Old Testament, and the veracity of the New, a pell-mell essay in biblical criticism:

I have… gone through the Bible, as a man would go through a wood with an axe on his shoulders, and fell trees. Here they lie; and the priests, if they can, may replant them. They may, perhaps, stick them in the ground, but they will never make them grow.

It has to be said that there are other uses for woods. Blake acknowledged the force and attack of Paine’s arguments, rephrasing them in his own inimitable shorthand:

That the Bible is all a State Trick, thro’ which tho’ the People at all times could see, they never had the power to throw off. Another Argument is that all the Commentators on the Bible are Dishonest Designing Knaves, who in hopes of a good living adopt the State religion… I could name an hundred such.

But Paine was incapable of reading any part of the Bible as (in Blake’s words) ‘a Poem of probable impossibilities’. For many of Paine’s English followers during the years of repression, The Age of Reason was as ‘a sword sent to divide’. Some Jacobins who maintained their membership of Dissenting or Methodist churches resented both Paine’s book and the opportunity which it afforded to their enemies to mount a renewed attack upon ‘atheists’ and ‘republicans’. The authorities, for their part, saw Paine’s latest offence as surpassing all his previous outrages; he had taken the polite periods of the comfortable Unitarian ministers and the scepticism of Gibbon, translated them into literal-minded polemical English, and thrown them to the groundlings. He ridiculed the authority of the Bible with arguments which the collier or country girl could understand:

… the person they call Jesus Christ, begotten, they say, by a ghost, whom they call holy, on the body of a woman engaged in marriage and afterwards married, and whom they call a virgin seven hundred years after this foolish story was told…. Were any girl that is now with child to say… that she was gotten with child by a ghost, and that an angel told her so, would she be believed?

When we consider the barbaric and evil superstitions which the churches and Sunday schools were inculcating at this time, #1_884 [1] we can see the profoundly liberating effect which Paine’s writing had on many minds. It helped men to struggle free from a pall of religious deference which reinforced the deference due to magistrate and employer, and it launched many nineteenth-century artisans upon a course of sturdy intellectual self-reliance and enquiry. But the limitations of Paine’s ‘reason’ must also be remembered; there was a glibness and lack of imaginative resource about it which remind one of Blake’s strictures on the ‘single vision’. In the Book of Ecclesiastes Paine could see only ‘the solitary reflection of a worn-out debauchee… who, looking back on scenes he can no longer enjoy, cries out, All is Vanity! A great deal of the metaphor and of the sentiment is obscure…’

The Age of Reason was not the only source-book for nineteenth-century free thought. Many other tracts and translations (abridgements of Voltaire, D’Holbach, Rousseau) were circulated in Jacobin circles in the 1790s, the most influential of which was Volney’s Ruins of Empire. This was a profounder and more imaginative book than Paine’s, an original study in comparative religion. Moreover, Volney’s allegory of the evolution of priestcraft was correlated with an allegory of the growth of political despotism; in its conclusions it offered a more general message of toleration and of internationalism than did Paine. Unlike William Godwin’s Political Justice (1793), whose influence was confined to a small and highly literate circle, #2_515 [2] Volney’s Ruins was published in cheap pocketbook form and remained in the libraries of many artisans in the nineteenth century. Its fifteenth chapter, the vision of a ‘New Age’, was frequently circulated as a tract. In this the narrator sees a civilized nation determined to divide itself into two groups: those who ‘by useful labours contribute to the support and maintenance of society’, on the one hand, and their enemies, on the other. The overwhelming majority are found in the first group: ‘labourers, artisans, tradesmen, and every profession useful to society’. The second was ‘a petty group, a valueless fraction’ – ‘none but priests, courtiers, public accountants, commanders of troops, in short, the civil, military, or religious agents of government’. A dialogue takes place between the two groups:

People…. What labour do you perform in the society?

Privileged Class. None: we are not made to labour.

People. How then have you acquired your wealth?

Privileged Class. By taking the pains to govern you.

People. To govern us!… We toil, and you enjoy; we produce and you dissipate; wealth flows from us, and you absorb it. Privileged men, class distinct from the people, form a nation apart and govern yourselves.

A few of the privileged class join the people (the vision continues) but the remainder attempt to cow the people with troops. The soldiers, however, ground their arms, and say: ‘We are a part of the people.’ The privileged class next attempt to delude the people with priests, but these are rebuffed: ‘Courtiers and priests, your services are too expensive; henceforth we take our affairs into our own hands.’ By a curious effect of translation, Volney’s views appeared more radical in English than in French. The notion of the parasitic aristocratic estate or order comes through as the more generalized ‘class’ of the wealthy and idle. From this the sociology of post-war Radicalism was to be derived, which divided society between the ‘Useful’ or ‘Productive Classes’ on the one hand, and courtiers, sinecurists, fund-holders, speculators and parasitic middlemen on the other. #1_885 [1]

Volney’s, however, was a somewhat later influence. Paine dominated the popular radicalism of the early 1790s. It is true that his polemical literalness of mind gave a narrowness to the movement which (with the more sophisticated euphoria of Godwin) was bitterly caricatured by disenchanted reformers when French revolutionary Convention passed, by way of Terror, into Bonapartism. The critique and the caricature, expressed with the combined genius of Burke, Wordsworth, Coleridge, have dominated the judgements of many contemporary scholars, themselves exposed to similar experiences of revolutionary disenchantment in the past twenty-five years.

There was certainly a star-struck, messianic mood among some of the disciples of Godwin and of Paine, which prepared them for the acceptance of facile (and ultimately disenchanting) notions of human perfectibility:

O, PAINE! next to God, how infinitely are millions beholden to you for the small remnant of their liberties… Alexanders, Caesars, Ferdinands, Capets, Frederics, Josephs, and Czarinas have… fought ferociously to enslave mankind; but it was reserved to you… to wave the celestial banners of the rights of man, over the tottering bastiles of Europe; to break the shackles of despotism from the ankles of millions, and destroy those yokes of oppression… for the necks of millions more as yet unborn. #1_886 [1]

Such moods are always to be found in periods of revolutionary excitement. But if the myth of Jacobin ‘totalitarianism’ is applied to the English context, then it is necessary to rebut it with the simplest truths. Paine and his English followers did not preach the extermination of their opponents, but they did preach against Tyburn and the sanguinary penal code. The English Jacobins argued for internationalism, for arbitration in place of war, for the toleration of Dissenters, Catholics and free-thinkers, for the discernment of human virtue in ‘heathen, Turk or Jew’. They sought, by education and agitation, to transform ‘the mob’ (in Paine’s words) from ‘followers of the camp’ to followers of ‘the standard of liberty’.

This is not to dismiss the charges against some English Jacobins, of doctrinaire notions and shallow moral experimentalism, whose most notable expression is in Book III of Wordsworth’s Excursion. These have often been the vices of the ‘Left.’ Paine had little historical sense, his view of human nature was facile, and his optimism (‘I do not believe that Monarchy and Aristocracy will continue seven years longer in any of the enlightened countries in Europe’) is of a kind which the twentieth-century mind finds tedious. But so great has been the reaction in our own time against Whig or Marxist interpretations of history, that some scholars have propagated a ridiculous reversal of historical rôles: the persecuted are seen as forerunners of oppression, and the oppressors as victims of persecution. And so we have been forced to go over these elementary truths. It was Paine who put his faith in the free operation of opinion in the ‘open society’: ‘mankind are not now to be told they shall not think, or they shall not read’; Paine also who saw that in the constitutional debates of the eighteenth century ‘the Nation was always left out of the question’. By bringing the nation into the question, he was bound to set in motion forces which he could neither control nor foresee. That is what democracy is about.


Planting the Liberty Tree

WE must now return to Thomas Hardy and his companions who met in ‘The Bell’ in Exeter Street in January 1792. We have gone round this long way in order to break down the Chinese walls which divide the 18th from the 19th century, and the history of working-class agitation from the cultural and intellectual history of the rest of the nation. Too often events in England in the 1790s are seen only as a reflected glow from the storming of the Bastille. #1_887 [1] But the elements precipitated by the French example – the Dissenting and libertarian traditions – reach far back into English history. And the agitation of the 1790s, although it lasted only five years (1792–6) was extraordinarily intensive and far-reaching. It altered the sub-political attitudes of the people, affected class alignments, and initiated traditions which stretch forward into the present century. It was not an agitation about France, although French events both inspired and bedevilled it. It was an English agitation, of impressive dimensions, for an English democracy. #2_516 [2]

Constitutionalism was the flood-gate which the French example broke down. But the year was 1792, not 1789, and the waters which flowed through were those of Tom Paine. One way of approaching this is by way of some impressions of the north of England in the second half of 1792. In the summer the Secretary at War considered the situation serious enough to send the Deputy Adjutant-General on tour to ascertain the disposition of the troops and their dependability in time of emergency. At Sheffield he ‘found that the seditious doctrines of Paine and the factious people who are endeavouring to disturb the peace of the country had extended to a degree very much beyond my conception’. He saw in Sheffield a ‘centre of all their seditious machinations’: 2,500 ‘of the lowest mechanics’ were enrolled in the principal reform association (the Constitutional Society):

Here they read the most violent publications, and comment on them, as well as on their correspondence not only with the dependent Societies in the towns and villages in the vicinity, but with those… in other parts of the kingdom… #1_888 [1]

In the autumn and winter of 1792, Wilberforce (the Member for Yorkshire) received alarming reports from various correspondents. Wyvill wrote to him of ‘the disposition of the lower people in the county of Durham’:

Considerable numbers in Bernard Castle have manifested disaffection to the constitution, and the words, ‘No King,’ ‘Liberty,’ and ‘Equality,’ have been written there upon the Market Cross. During the late disturbances amongst the keelmen at Shields and Sunderland, General Lambton was thus addressed: ‘Have you read this little work of Tom Paine’s?’ ‘No.’ ‘Then read it – we like it much. You have a great estate, General; we shall soon divide it amongst us.’ #2_517 [2]

In November a correspondent was writing from North Shields direct to Pitt, describing the seamen’s strikes and riots (‘P.S. Shocking to relate, the mob at this moment are driving some seamen or officers that have discovered a reluctance to comply with their mode of proceedings naked through the town before them’) in terms bordering on panic:

When I look round and see this Country covered with thousands of Pittmen, Keelmen, Waggonmen and other labouring men, hardy fellows strongly impressed with the new doctrine of equality, and at present composed of such combustible matter that the least spark will set them in a blaze, I cannot help thinking the supineness of the Magistrates very reprehensible. #3_206 [3]

From Leeds a prominent man wrote to Wilberforce of ‘Paine’s mischievous work… compressed into a sixpenny pamphlet, and sold and given away in profusion…. You may see them in the houses of our journeymen cloth-dressers. The soldiers are every where tampered with.’ ‘The state of the country… seems very critical,’ Wilberforce noted in his diary. And he informed his Leeds correspondent, ‘I think of proposing to the Archbishop of Canterbury… the appointment of a day of fasting and humiliation.’ But from Leeds there came better news: a loyal mob had paraded the streets,

carrying an image of Tom Paine upon a pole, with a rope round his neck which was held by a man behind, who continually lashed the effigy with a carter’s whip. The effigy was at last burned in the market-place, the market-bell tolling slowly…. A smile sat on every face… ‘God Save the King’ resounded in the streets… #1_889 [1]

The streets of Sheffield, however, witnessed scenes of a very different nature. Demonstrations were held at the end of November to celebrate the successes of the French armies at Valmy, and they were reported in the Sheffield Register (30 November 1792), a weekly newspaper which supported the reformers. A procession of five or six thousand drew a quartered roasted ox through the streets amid the firing of cannon. In the procession were –

a caricature painting representing Britannia – Burke riding on a swine – and a figure, the upper part of which was the likeness of a Scotch Secretary, #2_518 [2] and the lower part that of an Ass… the pole of Liberty lying broken on the ground, inscribed ‘Truth is Libel’ – the Sun breaking from behind a Cloud, and the Angel of Peace, with one hand dropping the ‘Rights of Man’, and extending the other to raise up Britannia.

—‘As resolute and determined a set of villains as I ever saw’, remarked a hostile observer.

Here is something unusual – pitmen, keelmen, cloth-dressers, cutlers: not only the weavers and labourers of Wapping and Spitalfields, whose colourful and rowdy demonstrations had often come out in support of Wilkes, but working men in villages and towns over the whole country claiming general rights for themselves. It was this – and not the French Terror – which threw the propertied classes into panic.

We may see this if we look more closely at the events surrounding the publication of Rights of Man. The first popular societies were not formed until more than two years after the storming of the Bastille. There was a general disposition among the middle and upper classes to welcome the first events of the Revolution – even traditionalists argued that France was coming belatedly into line with British notions of the ‘mixed constitution’. Dissenters – and notably Dr Price – were some of the first to turn the French example to account by drawing British parallels and by deriving from the Glorious Revolution the right to bring our own ‘chief magistrate’ to account. The agitation for the repeal of disabilities on Dissenters (the Test and Corporation Acts) reached its climax in the winter of 1789–90; and in the high feelings aroused by this campaign (and the rejection of Repeal) the first provincial Constitutional Societies of the reformers, as well as the first ‘Church and King’ Clubs of their aristocratic opponents were formed. Burke’s Reflections (in which Dr Price was taken to task) was the first major sign of a general reaction and preceded the proclamation of the French Republic and the first terror against counter-revolutionaries. Indeed, Burke surprised many tentative reformers (among whom Pitt as well as Burke himself had once been numbered) and even traditionalists by the heat of his arguments. As we have seen, the ‘Church and King’ riots in Birmingham in the summer of 1791 scarcely belong to the ‘French revolutionary’ era. Although the pretext for the riots was a dinner to celebrate the anniversary of the fall of the Bastille, the propaganda of Jacobins and of anti-Jacobins had scarcely penetrated the populace. From May 1792 onwards anti-Jacobin demonstrations of the kind described by Wilberforce in Leeds were more highly organized, more often composed of the demoralized and the dependent, and more openly directed towards the intimidation of plebeian reformers.

Nevertheless, the Birmingham riots signify a moment of transition. #1_890 [1] The evident complicity and satisfaction of the authorities angered and stiffened the reformers who, in many other parts of the country, had celebrated the fall of the Bastille without molestation. They served also, in a perverse way, as an advertisement of their activities, at a time when the First Part of Rights of Man was gaining in popularity. Lancashire magistrates detected a ‘general ill-humour’, to which the Birmingham events had contributed, and they related this to ‘a very general spirit of combination amongst all sorts of labourers and artisans, who are in a state of disaffection to all legal control’. #2_519 [2] In London in August, perhaps in reply to the events in Birmingham, Horne Tooke, the former lieutenant of Wilkes, presided over a ‘Select Meeting of the FRIENDS OF UNIVERSAL PEACE and LIBERTY’ at the Thatched House Tavern, issuing an Address and Declaration, in the form of a broadsheet, which pointed out in blunt terms the relevance to Britain of the French example.

The pace quickens in the winter of 1791–2, when several of the reform societies – in the provinces and in London – were founded. In February 1792 the Second Part of Rights of Man, with its crucial ‘social’ chapter, was published. In March the Constitutional Society #3_207 [3] was reorganized, with Home Tooke, who was to act as the energetic go-between of different sections of reformers, as a leading spirit. In April a number of Whig peers and parliamentarians founded an exclusive ‘Society of Friends of the People’, one of the aims of which was to offset the unconstitutional extremism of Paine, and whose most important positive contribution was the publication of the report of a committee which investigated, with Fabian thoroughness, the state of parliamentary representation, corruption, and influence. In May 1792 a Royal Proclamation against seditious publications was issued, aimed in particular at Paine. That summer Austro-Prussian armies entered France: the King and Queen were arrested: and the first terror against supporters of the ancien régime commenced. The National Convention met in September, and the first year of the Republic was proclaimed. In November John Reeves founded his anti-Jacobin association: in December Paine was outlawed (in his absence) and Rights of Man was condemned as seditious libel. In January 1793 Louis was executed, and in February war between England and France commenced.

Events strung together baldly in this way can be misleading. What is remarkable is the very dramatic change which took place in the twelve months between February 1792 and February 1793. At the beginning of this year Pitt confidently expected ‘fifteen years’ of peace. More than six months later he still hoped to profit from France’s turmoil while preserving British neutrality. The Proclamation of May 1792 signified the first serious alarm on the part of the Government as to the extent of the Painite propaganda; but this was still regarded as a purely domestic issue. Three factors altered the situation. First, the rapid radicalization of the French Revolution after the September massacres. Second, the direct threat to British interests and to the diplomatic balance in Europe presented by the expansionist fervour of the new Republic. Third, dangerous signs of confluence between the revolutionary exhilaration in France and the growing Jacobin movement at home. In November 1792 the Convention had issued its famous decree of ‘fraternity and assistance’ to all peoples; later in the same month, fraternal delegations attended upon the Convention from London and Scotland, and a deputy (Grégoire) saluted the new republic soon to arise on the banks of the Thames. Paine, in his French exile, was elected deputy for the Pas-de-Calais. By December the expansionist policy of the vacillating Girondins was confirmed in Savoy, the Rhineland, Nice and Belgium, and the slogan was sounded, ‘War upon châteaux; peace to cottages’. The actual occasions for war (the execution of Louis and the control of the Scheldt) came at the conclusion of twelve months which had transformed Pitt from the Prime Minister of economic retrenchment, peace, and piecemeal reform into the diplomatic architect of European counter-revolution. #1_891 [1] And this transformation was not of one man but of a class; of the patricians as well as of the commercial and manufacturing bourgeoisie who had seen in Pitt their hope for economic rationalization and cautious political reform.

It is the third of these factors – the depth and intensity of the democratic agitation in England – which is commonly underestimated. The panic, and the counter-revolutionary offensive, of the propertied in Britain commenced some months before the arrest of the King and the September massacres in France; and when the latter did take place, every organ of authority here used every means to publicize the sufferings of the victims of the guillotine, and of French émigrés, not only from a sense of shock and compassion but also – and, perhaps, mainly – as a means of counteracting English Jacobin propaganda.

For the success of the Second Part of Rights of Man was, in a true sense, phenomenal. The estimate (in a pamphlet of 1793) that sales totalled 200,000 by that year has been widely accepted: this in a population of ten millions. #2_520 [2] The Second Part went immediately into a 6d. edition, sponsored by the Constitutional Society and by local societies. Hannah More complained that ‘the friends of insurrection, infidelity and vice, carried their exertions so far as to load asses with their pernicious pamphlets and to get them dropped, not only in cottages, and in highways, but into mines and coal-pits’. #3_208 [3] In Sheffield it was said that ‘every cutler’ had a copy. At Newcastle (Staffs.) Paine’s publications were said to be ‘in almost every hand’, and in particular in those of the journeymen potters: ‘more than Two Thirds of this populous Neighbourhood are ripe for a Revolt, especially the lower class of Inhabitants’. #1_892 [1] Paine’s book was found in Cornish tin-mines, in Mendip villages, in the Scottish Highlands, and, a little later, in most parts of Ireland. ‘The Northern parts of Wales’, a correspondent complained,

are infested by itinerant Methodist preachers who descant on the Rights of Man and attack Kingly Government. #2_521 [2]

‘The book’, wrote an English correspondent, ‘is now made as much a Standard book in this Country as Robinson Crusoe & the Pilgrim’s Progress.’ #3_209 [3]

At Paine’s trial in absentia the Attorney-General complained that Rights of Man was ‘thrust into the hands of subjects of every description, even children’s sweetmeats being wrapped in it’. Dundas explained that the Royal Proclamation of May 1792 was justified ‘when great bodies of men in large manufacturing towns adopted and circulated doctrines so pernicious in their tendency’. It was clearly stated that the cheapness of the abridged editions was an aggravation of the offence. The Proclamation was endorsed by carefully sponsored meetings throughout the country. Local magistrates and clergy promoted loyal addresses condemning Paine, and societies of gentry were formed ‘to preserve inviolable the GLORIOUS CONSTITUTION of OLD ENGLAND’. Twenty-two thousand copies of a scurrilous pamphlet attacking Paine were printed and subsidized through the Secret Service fund. #4_56 [4] Paine replied to the mounting attack with a stinging Letter Addressed to the Addressers, in which he also took issue with the aristocratic Friends of the People, and poured ridicule upon the use of petitions as a means of reform:

I consider the reform of Parliament, by an application to Parliament… to be a worn-out, hackneyed subject, about which the nation is tired…. The right, and the exercise of that right, appertains to the nation only, and the proper means is by a national convention, elected for the purpose by all the people. #1_893 [1]

This, with a king across the Channel under arrest as the consequence of a National Convention, was revolutionary talk. But before the Letter was published, Paine had crossed the Channel himself, to avoid arrest. His parting shot was a letter, addressed to the Attorney-General, from ‘Paris, 11th of November, 1st year of the Republic’, to be read at his trial. A verdict against him (he said) would mean as much as a verdict against ‘the Man in the Moon’: it would signify in reality a verdict against the rights of the people of England:

The time, Sir, is becoming too serious to play with Court prosecutions…. The terrible examples that have taken place here, upon men who less than a year ago thought themselves as secure as any prosecuting Judge, Jury, or Attorney General can now do in England, ought to have some weight with men in your situation. That the government of England is as great, if not the greatest, perfection of fraud and corruption that ever took place since governments began, is what you cannot be a stranger to…. Is it possible that you, or I can believe… that the capacity of such a man as Mr Guelph, or any of his profligate sons, is necessary to the government of a nation…? #2_522 [2]

But even before Paine had adopted so truculent a tone, his writings had served as a touchstone to distinguish different emphases among reformers. The aristocratic Friends of the People was at pains to affirm its allegiance to the settlement of 1688, to dissociate itself from any notion of National Convention, and from Paine’s ‘indefinite language of delusion, which… tends to excite a spirit of innovation, of which no wisdom can forsee the effect, and no skill direct the course’ (May 1792). #3_210 [3] Christopher Wyvill, the Yorkshire gentleman reformer, published A Defence of Dr Price (1791) against Burke, in which he took occasion to deplore the ‘mischievous effects’ of Paine’s work, in tending to ‘excite the lowest classes of the People to acts of violence and injustice’. #1_893 [1] After the publication of Part Two of Rights of Man Wyvill’s tone hardened. In his nation-wide correspondence with moderate reformers he exerted his considerable influence to urge them to mount a counter-agitation to minimize the effect of ‘Mr Paine’s ill-timed, and… pernicious counsels’. In April 1792 he was urging the London Constitutional Society to dissociate itself from the ‘popular party’:

As Mr Paine… backs his proposal by holding out to the Poor annuities to be had out of the superfluous wealth of the Rich, I thought the extremely dangerous tendency of his licentious doctrines required opposition…

There can be no doubt that it was the sharper spirit of class antagonism precipitated by Paine’s linking of political with economic demands which gave Wyvill greatest alarm: ‘it is unfortunate for the public cause,’ he wrote to a Sheffield gentleman in May 1792, ‘that Mr Paine took such unconstitutional ground, and has formed a party for the Republic among the lower classes of the people, by holding out to them the prospect of plundering the rich’. #2_523 [2]

Wyvill’s supporters in the Constitutional Society in London (of which Paine was himself a member) were outnumbered by Painites. The Society had officially welcomed Part One of Rights of Man, while at the same time passing a general resolution affirming support for the mixed constitution (March and May 1791). Throughout the rest of the year the moderates lost ground to the inflexible Major Cartwright, to the opportunist but adventurous Horne Tooke, to the Jacobin attorney John Frost, and to Paine’s immediate circle. ‘Hey for the New Jerusalem! The millennium! And peace and eternal beatitude be unto the soul of Thomas Paine,’ Thomas Holcroft, the dramatist, wrote ecstatically to Godwin. In the reorganization of the Society in the early spring of 1792 the adherents of Paine gained unquestioned control. Part Two of Rights of Man was officially welcomed – and in particular the ‘social’ proposals – and the Society initiated a very much more vigorous agitational policy. Tooke and Frost assisted Hardy in promoting the Corresponding Society; correspondence was opened with provincial societies and (in May 1792) with the Jacobin Club in Paris; handbills, pamphlets and a cheap edition of Paine were published; the Society opened a public subscription for Paine’s defence, while in November and December 1792 John Frost went as a delegate of the Society to Paris, where he attended the trial of the King. The Painite sympathies of the L.C.S. and of provincial societies in Manchester, Norwich, Sheffield, were equally pronounced. Thomas Cooper, a young Bolton merchant and Unitarian, and a very able propagandist, was overcome with enthusiasm on the appearance of Part Two: ‘it has made me more politically mad than I ever was. It is choque full, crowded with good sense… heightened also with a profusion of libellous matter. I regard it as the very jewel of a book… Burke is done up for ever and ever by it.’ #1_894 [1]

1792, then, was the annus mirabilis of Tom Paine. In twelve months his name became a household word. There were few places in the British Isles where his book had not penetrated. It served as a touchstone, dividing the gentlemen reformers and patrician Whigs from a minority of radical manufacturers and professional men who sought an alliance with the labourers and artisans, welcomed Paine’s social and economic proposals, and looked in the direction of a Republic. Pitt’s long-delayed decision to prosecute Paine signalled the opening of the era of repression. The outlawry of Paine (and the banning of Rights of Man) was preceded and accompanied by a sustained effort by authority to meet the reformers in the field. ‘As we have now got the stone to roll,’ Paine wrote to Walker in the summer of 1792, ‘it must be kept going by cheap publications. This will embarrass the Court gentry more than anything else, because it is a ground they are not used to.’ #2_524 [2] But the ‘Court gentry’ mounted their own publications offensive; and stimulated their own ‘Clockwork Regularity’ in the movements of their supporters. Reeves’ Association for the Protection of Property against Republicans and Levellers only consolidated and strengthened numerous societies of magistrates and gentry already formed in reply to the popular societies. In the winter of 1792–3 these sought to revive and inflame the technique of mob violence, so effective in Birmingham the previous year. In December 1792, a drunken mob was deliberately directed against the premises of Thomas Walker in Manchester: he and his supporters defended themselves successfully by firing into the air. ‘The same contrivances were used as at a contested election,’ wrote Walker: ‘Parties were collected in different public houses, and from thence paraded the streets with a fiddler before them, and carrying a board, on which was painted CHURCH and KING.’ #1_896 [1]

‘Guy Fawkes’-type demonstrations against Tom Paine, on the same lines as that reported to Wilberforce from Leeds, were promoted throughout the country. In the small Pennine weaving township of Ripponden a prosperous lawyer noted in his diary for 7 January 1793 that he paid certain people ‘who carried about Tom Payne’s Effigy and shot at it, 10s. 6d.’ #2_525 [2] A Heckmondwike mill-owner himself impersonated Paine and had himself ‘discovered’ reading Rights of Man among the coal-pits; his mask was transferred to a straw effigy which was dragged around the village and ‘executed’. At near-by Little-town a wooden image of Paine was pounded to bits with a sledge-hammer with such vigour that the executioner’s hands ran with blood. #3_211 [3] In December 1792:

The effigy of Thomas Paine was, with great solemnity, drawn on a sledge from Lincoln Castle to the gallows, and then hanged, amidst a vast multitude of spectators. After being suspended the usual time it was taken to the Castle-hill and there hung on a gibbet post erected for the purpose. In the evening a large fire was made under the effigy, which… was consumed to ashes, amidst the acclamations of many hundreds of people, accompanied with a grand band of music playing ‘God Save the King’…

Even at small market-towns like Brigg and Caistor branches of Reeves’ Association were formed, among whose purposes (to quote the Caistor Society) was the exertion of ‘Vigilance and Activity in discovering and bringing to Justice all Persons who shall, either by publishing or distributing seditious Papers or Writings, or by engaging in any illegal Associations or Conspiracies, endeavour to disturb the public Peace…’ #1_897 [1]

If the distribution of Rights of Man was nation wide, so also was the promotion of anti-Jacobin societies. Hence in England the revolutionary impulse had scarcely begun to gather force before it was exposed to a counter-revolutionary assault backed by the resources of established authority. ‘Thenceforth,’ Georges Lefebvre has noted,

whenever the people happened to stir, their leaders throughout Europe agreed that they must be brought to their senses, as tradition dictated. The very success of the French Revolution provoked outside its borders a development exactly contrary to the series of events which had secured its victory in France. #2_526 [2]

But these carefully fostered demonstrations of loyalty, however popular the momentary bribery and license may have made them, have an increasingly artificial air. Each bonfire of the effigy of Paine served to light up, in an unintended way, the difference between the Constitution of the gentry and the rights of the people. ‘Church and King’ actions signify less the blind pogrom of prejudice against an out-group and more a skirmish in a political civil war. Thomas Walker dismissed the mob which attacked him as ‘wretched tools of a most unprincipled faction’. ‘All… will continue quiet if the people are left to themselves; or rather the Mob, as the people, in my opinion, are with us.’ #3_212 [3]

How far was Walker right? Of all questions, it is the most difficult to answer. And we must address ourselves once again to a brief narrative of the events of the next two years.

After each great shift in popular mood, a hardening and contraction commonly takes place. And this was reinforced in the first months of 1793 by three causes: the execution of the French King, the opening of war, and the commencement of legal persecution of the reformers. Among the latter were a Dissenting minister, the Rev. William Winterbotham, imprisoned for four years for a sermon which scarcely went further than the views as to the Sovereign’s accountability already popularized by Dr Price: and John Frost, the attorney, sentenced to the pillory and to eighteen months imprisonment, in reality for serving as an English delegate to the French Convention, but on the pretext of his saying in a Marylebone coffee-house: ‘I am for equality…. Why, no kings!’ A printer named Holt, at Newark, was jailed for four years for reprinting an early address of the Constitutional Society. At Leicester, the bookseller, Richard Phillips, who published the pro-reform Leicester Herald, was imprisoned for eighteen months, ostensibly for selling Rights of Man. And many humble men were harassed in a score of ways. The authorities exerted themselves, with great success, to post spies in the popular societies. Already, in the autumn of 1792, 186 Manchester publicans had signed a declaration refusing the use of their rooms to ‘any CLUB or societies… that have a tendency to put in force what those INFERNALS so ardently and devoutly wish for, namely, the DESTRUCTION OF THIS COUNTRY’. Those who failed to sign were visited and warned that their licences would not be renewed. Gilt signs were placed over the bars. ‘NO JACOBINS ADMITTED HERE’. ‘The Enymies to Reform in this Town,’ wrote the Secretary of the Manchester Reformation Society to the L.C.S., ‘are exerting all their powers to depress the noble spirit of Liberty…’ #1_898 [1]

The same quasi-legal forms of intimidation were employed in London, where divisions of the L.C.S. were harried from tavern to tavern. ‘An official heresy hunt was soon on foot in almost every town from Portsmouth to Newcastle and from Swansea to Chelmsford.’ #1_899 [1] In Ipswich the magistrates dispersed a ‘Disputing Club’ in an ale-house, ‘consisting of very Inferior People’: in Wiltshire a schoolmaster was sacked for ‘traitorous expressions’: in Northamptonshire villages a house-to-house loyalty canvass took place. Agents were appointed in various districts to visit bookshops and prosecute any found selling Rights of Man: at least one illiterate bill-sticker was imprisoned for posting bills in favour of reform.

Nor did external events make the work of the English Jacobins more easy. There can be little doubt that the French war, unpopular at its outset, reactivated the long tradition of anti-Gallican sentiment among the people. Each fresh execution, reported with copious detail – the September massacres – the King – Marie Antoinette – added to these feelings. In September 1793, also, Paine’s friends the Girondins were expelled from the Convention, and their leaders sent to the guillotine, while in the last week of 1793 Paine himself was imprisoned in the Luxembourg. These experiences provoked the first phase of that profound disenchantment, in an intellectual generation which had identified its beliefs in too ardent and utopian a way with the cause of France. The unity between intellectual and plebeian reformers of 1792 was never to be regained.

In 1794 the war fever became more intense. Volunteer corps were formed: public subscriptions raised: traditional fairs were made the occasion for military demonstrations. The Government increased its subsidies to, and influence over, the newspaper press: popular anti-Jacobin sheets multiplied. In Exeter a handbill was circulated:

… as for them that do not like… the present CONSTITUTION, let them have their deserts, that is a HALTER and a GIBBET, and be burnt afterwards, not as PAINE hath been, in effigy, but in body and person. To which every loyal heart will say Amen.

In Birmingham a scurrilous anti-Jacobin pamphleteer, ‘Job Nott’, addressed reformers:

Do be off – only think of the New Drop – you may be recorded in the Newgate Calendar – transportation may reform you – you deserve to be highly exalted – Did you ever see the New Drop?

In London parishes, where the influence of Reeves’ Association was strongest, house-to-house inquiries were made: in St Anne’s a register was kept with the ‘complexion, age, employment, &c. of lodgers and stranger’: in St James’ inhabitants were called upon to denounce for ‘incivism’ all housekeepers who would not oblige their servants, workmen and apprentices to sign a declaration of loyalty to the Constitution, no tradesman was to be employed who had not been cleared by Reeves’ agents, and publicans were refused licences who failed to report ‘suspected persons’. Collections of flannel waistcoats for the troops were pressed forward by members of Reeves’ Committee, as an auxiliary means of testing loyalty; and from waistcoats collections went on to ‘mitts, drawers, caps, shirts, Welch-wigs, stockings, shoes, trowsers, boots, sheets, greatcoats, gowns, petticoats, blankets…’ #1_900 [1]

The existence of a heresy-hunt of these proportions, in time of war, does not prove the widespread existence of heresy. ‘Loyalism’ at such times always supposes the existence of ‘treason’, if only as a foil to itself. And yet something more than ‘war fever’, or the guilt and uneasiness of the propertied classes, is indicated by the outpourings of tracts and sermons, and the attacks on specific Jacobins in outlying parts. It was in April 1794 that a gang of roughs, armed with cudgels, terrified young Samuel Bamford, as they passed through Middleton – with curses and broken windows for the ‘Painites’ – on their way to Royton. Here they smashed up the ‘Light Horseman’ public house, where reformers were meeting, and beat up those in attendance. Meanwhile the magistrates refused to stir from his home, a few score yards from the scene of the riot, and the parson stood on a hillock pointing out fugitives to the ruffians: ‘There goes one…. That’s a Jacobin; that’s another!’ #1_900 [1] It is as if the authorities sensed some sea-change in the opinion of the masses, some subterranean alteration in mood – not such as to make the English nation Painite and Jacobin, but yet such as disposed it to harbour and tolerate the seditious. Some slight event might be enough to set all that ‘combustible matter’ aflame. Reformers must be watched and intimidated, the societies isolated and ringed round with suspicion, the prejudices of the ignorant whipped up and given licence. In particular, professional men with access to printing-press, bookshop, pulpit or rostrum, who associated with plebeian reformers, were the subject of intimidation.

A confirmation of this sea-change in the attitudes of the inarticulate – or in the structure of feeling of the poor – may be found in an unexpected place. 1793 and 1794 saw a sudden emergence of millennarial fantasies, on a scale unknown since the seventeenth century. Where Holcroft’s ‘New Jerusalem’ was a rational conceit, and Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ was a visionary image (although owing more to the millennarial background than critics have noted), the poor and the credulous found a more literal prophet in Richard Brothers, a retired naval captain on half pay. His Revealed Knowledge of the Prophecies and Times was published early in 1794. His prophecies combined a great knowingness as to the intentions of the Almighty, with the usual paraphernalia from the Book of Revelation, in a language which combined the ‘combustible matter’ of poor men’s dissent with that of a revolutionary era:

All nations have drunk of the wine of the wrath of Babylon’s fornication, and the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her, and the merchants of the earth are waxed rich through the abundance of her delicacies…

Among his visions was that of ‘a large River run(ning) through London coloured with human blood’. A prediction that London was to be destroyed on a certain date coincided fortuitously with a thunderstorm of exceptional severity; John Binns, on his way to a meeting of the L.C.S., took shelter in an ale-house where he found the people (to his amusement and surprise) awaiting the consummation of all things. #1_902 [1] Shortly afterwards Brothers announced that London had been spared only as the result of his personal last minute intervention; and since he obviously wielded such influence with the Almighty his following was doubled at a stroke.

There was published – whether with or without his authority is unclear – an 8-page leaflet of Brother’s Prophecy of all the Remarkable and Wonderful Events which will come to pass… foretelling the Downfall of the Pope; a Revolution in Spain, Portugal, and Germany; the Death of Certain Great Persons in this and other Countries. Also a dreadful Famine, Pestilence, and Earthquake…. In England there was to be ‘sorrow and great woe, mingled with joy unspeakable’; ‘the proud and lofty shall be humbled, even to the dust; but the righteous and poor shall flourish on the ruins of the wicked; the Palaces shall be — — and Cottages shall be —.’ As for the Famine, Pestilence, and Earthquake, these were to be seen as metaphorical:

The Famine shall destroy none but the Caterpillars of Spain and —. The Pestilence shall sweep away the Locusts that eat up the harvest of Industry; and the Earthquake shall swallow up the monstrous Leviathan, with all his train. In all these things the poor, the honest, the virtuous, and the patriotic, shall rejoice.

‘France must bleed afresh, but none but contaminated blood shall flow.’ ‘Italy shall hurl the Antechrist from his throne…’ Turkey and Russia will be plunged in war, ending in the destruction of the Ottoman Porte, the Mahometan Faith, the Russian Empire and the Greek Church. At the end of these signs of mercy, there will be an era of universal brotherhood. ‘All shall be as one people, and of one mind…. The Christian, the Turk, and the Pagan shall no longer be distinguished the one from the other’:

The time is come, and now is the whore of Babylon falling, and will fall to rise no more. Go forth, then, ye Sons of Eternal Light, and instruct the Sons of Ignorance and Darkness….

Then shall there be no more war, no more want, no more wickedness; but all shall be peace, plenty, and virtue.

The influence of Brothers may have been much greater than has been supposed. #1_903 [1] Some of his vague predictions could not fail to appear to be fulfilled, and they were recalled to mind when the French armies were victorious. Members of the L.C.S. used to visit him: they perhaps even prompted him. An M.P. was found (as there usually is) ready to testify as to the authenticity of Brothers’s prophetic powers; William Sharp, the famous engraver and political reformer, became a disciple. The Privy Council regarded him seriously enough to arrest him in March 1795, and to ensure his confinement for the next few years in a lunatic asylum. His followers, like George Turner of Leeds, continued until the turn of the century to agitate for his release (threatening destruction upon the English Babylon if the Prophet remained confined), and they thereby prepared the way for the even greater cult of Joanna Southcott. #2_527 [2] Rival prophetic schools grew up, and there was much thumbing through the Book of Revelation; while Methodist and Baptist Ministers tried to drive out this new heresy. In 1798 a ‘True Baptist’ preacher was wrestling with his flock among the poor of Norwich, Wisbech and Liverpool, dealing out blow for blow from Revelation, and recalling them from too literal an encounter with Apollyon and back to the pilgrimage of the spirit:

The gospel of Christ has no tendency to fraternize mankind in a state of worldly or political intercourse. It calls individuals out of the world, and considers them only as strangers and pilgrims on the earth. As well… might a traveller, who is hastening to his wife and family at a distance, and where all his felicity centres, interfere with the internal regulations of every town and village through which he passeth; as that a christian should intermeddle with the constitution…

As for the Millennium, that was put firmly forward into the next world, when –

The high and the low, the oppressor and the oppressed, shall be reduced to one perfect level. The pampered tyrant, and his indigent vassal; the wealthy peer, and the neglected pauper, shall receive an equitable and impartial sentence… #1_903 [1]

The millennarial spirit which visited Wisbech and Liverpool indicated a restiveness, which authority decried as ‘the spirit of innovation’, an indefinite social optimism of the credulous which was kin to the revolutionary aspirations of the more sophisticated. ‘It’s comin’ yet, for a’ that,’ Burns had written, ‘when man to man, the warld o’er,/Shall brithers be for a’ that.’ ‘Nor Can Man Exist But By Brotherhood,’ echoed Blake; and the same spirit underlies his own ‘prophetic books’ and his own beautiful vision of Jerusalem:

In my Exchanges every Land

Shall walk, & mine in every Land,

Mutual shall build Jerusalem,

Both heart in heart & hand in hand.

The spirit, whether in its visionary or in its superstitious form, is a curious paradox of the advent of ‘The Age of Reason’. But, in its modification of attitudes and nourishment of new aspirations, it was perhaps as long-lasting in its influence as the arguments of Tom Paine.

Perhaps it is a testimony to the quality of elation aroused in 1792 that the popular societies survived the shocks and the witch-hunting of the first months of 1793. Where the societies were well established in 1792, they held most of their ground and even improved their organization: this was true of London, Sheffield and Norwich, and perhaps of Derby and Nottingham. Most societies suffered some loss in membership, and the withdrawal of many of their influential middle-class supporters. Manchester (with Thomas Walker awaiting trial for high treason for defending his premises against the mob) was much weakened, while the Leicester Constitutional Society was disbanded when Phillips was imprisoned. But in both centres more plebeian societies continued after the respectable parent-bodies had failed. (In Manchester the field was shared by Walker’s Constitutional Society, and the Reformation and Patriotic Societies which were alleged to be made up of ‘mechanicks of the lowest class’.) #1_904 [1]

Sheffield, the strongest society, which had recorded close on 2,000 members in 1792, seems to have been little affected. In April it passed a series of outspoken resolutions condemning the war. In May it reported nearly 10,000 signatures collected for a national petition for manhood suffrage. Norwich, an ancient stronghold of Dissent, with an abundance of small masters and of artisans with strong traditions of independence, may even have surpassed Sheffield as the leading provincial centre of Jacobinism, although the records of the movement are imperfect. In August 1792, when the Norwich Revolution Society sponsored a cheap edition of Rights of Man, it claimed to have forty-eight associated clubs. By October it claimed that the ‘associated brethren’ were not fewer than 2,000. #2_528 [2] In March 1793 it remained at the centre of a constellation of small clubs, with ‘between 30 and 40 separate Societies’ in the city, ‘besides many in the country villages’. #3_213 [3] But the tone of a letter sent to the L.C.S. in June suggests that they had encountered difficulties:

… when we consider how many sweat and toil and starve to support it, how can we be persuaded but that there is a contrivance between the land owners and the merchant to hold the people in vassalage; for they eat up the people as they eat bread; – the influence of the aristocracy and hierarchy is becoming very alarming, for they have absorbed and swallowed up the people; but a rumour is spread from the south, and it is terrible to tyrants… #4_57 [4]

The position in London is more difficult to establish. The Constitutional Society appears to have fallen away seriously after the commencement of war; until the autumn of 1793 its activities went little further than the passing of formal motions. The L.C.S. also encountered great difficulties. In the last months of 1792 it had claimed a membership of some thousands. In January 1793 (according to a spy at Hardy’s trial) measures were taken to subsidize the rent for the meeting-rooms of the divisions in Spitalfields and Moorfields, which, although poor, were ‘as many in number as the other divisions put together’. But it proved necessary to re-form the Moorfields division in September, together with another which ‘appeared very violent… at the Grove in Bandy-legged-walk’. The L.C.S. succeeded in collecting only 6,000 signatures to the national petition, despite the energy of the committee – Joseph Gerrald collecting 200 signatures and marks from inmates of the King’s Bench (debtor’s) prison. #1_906 [1] On 30 May 1793 (according to the spy) ‘Mr Hardy proposed to the society to break up for three months. The proposition negatived.’ ‘We have made a stand against the place and pension clubs,’ Hardy wrote, more confidently, to a new Constitutional Society in Leeds in July:

We have been abused in the senate, calumniated in public, persecuted in private, and worried out of public houses, yet we continue meeting numerously entire… and our doctrine makes numerous proselytes… #2_529 [2]

The confidence was not misplaced, for the summer saw a definite revival of provincial correspondence – old societies re-awakening or new societies formed – for which the L.C.S., rather than the Constitutional Society, served as a centre. A Birmingham society, formed in the last months of 1792, cautiously extended its activities in the early summer, and received an especial welcome: ‘the increase of your numbers will soon do away the stigma thrown on your town by the unjustifiable behaviour of a Church and King mob’. From Leeds a new society of ‘a company of poor Mechanics’ asked to be admitted to ‘fraternization’ with the London Constitutional Society:

Aristocratic Tirany and Democratic Ignorance, seem to pervade and overawe the Town of Leeds to that Amazing Degree that in the General we are beheld more like Monsters than the friends of the People, and I believe that this six months past the Ignorant part of the People (through the Insinuations of the Aristocracy and the priests) have expected us to fall upon them and destroy them…. Our numbers amount to near two hundred and we constantly keep increasing…

In July new societies were writing to the L.C.S. from Hertfordshire and Tewksbury. ‘Your fellow citizen, and Co-operator in the glorious cause of liberty’, as the Tewksbury secretary signed himself, described how –

The burning of Thomas Paine’s Effigy, together with the blessed effects of the present war, has done more good to the cause than the most substantial arguments; ’tis amazing the increase of friends to liberty, and the spirit of enquiry that is gone abroad; scarcely an old woman but is talking politics.

In August the L.C.S. was renewing correspondence with societies in Derby, Stockport, Manchester, Nottingham and Coventry – asking them to ‘point out a safer mode of conveyance for our letters than the post’ – and had some plans (shelved for the time being) of asking them to adopt its title and to form a ‘Universal Society’. The Society’s minute-books show well-attended and well-conducted meetings, the formation of new divisions, and an influx of new members into the old. #1_907 [1]

The popular societies had weathered their first storm. But they emerged from it with significant changes in emphasis and tone. Paine’s name dropped into the background, and his outspoken republican tone gave way to renewed emphasis upon restoring the ‘purity’ of the Constitution. (In June 1793, the L.C.S. went so far as to define this in terms of the 1688 settlement.) But while this modification was made necessary by the evident intention of the authorities to prosecute any rhetoric which went beyond these limits, in other respects persecution led to a radicalization of the societies. In the first place, the pace was now being set, not in London, but in Scotland, Sheffield, Norwich. In the second place, while a few ardent members of the professions were taking a leading part alongside artisans like Hardy and Baxter in London – Joseph Gerrald, Maurice Margarot, John Thelwall – the great majority of the reformers organized in the societies of 1793 were artisans, wage-earners, small masters and small tradesmen. And two new themes are emphasized with great insistence – economic grievances and social remedies, and the imitation of French example, forms of organization and of address.

Thomas Hardy, if we may judge from his minute books, was an able and conscientious organizer, an honourable prototype for those scores of voluntary secretaries who were to follow him. According to Binns he ‘dressed plainly, talked frankly, never at any time assuming airs or making pretentions’. Maurice Margarot, a Chairman of the L.C.S., was the son of a wine merchant. He had spent much of his childhood in Portugal and Switzerland (where he had been educated at the University of Geneva) and was sometimes referred to as a ‘Frenchman’. He was energetic and audacious, but badly bitten by the characteristic vice of the English Jacobins – self-dramatization. #1_908 [1] Joseph Gerrald and John Thelwall were closer than any others to having the metal of national leaders and theorists. It was Gerrald, a brilliant pupil of Dr Samuel Parr, the ‘Whig Johnson’ and doyen of West Country learning, who advocated most forcefully the dangerous proposal of Paine – the calling of a National Convention of British reformers. #2_530 [2] It was this threat, of a general combination of reformers, and – an even more serious, and growing, threat – of an alliance between English and Scottish reformers and the United Irishmen, that determined the Government to act.

The dilemma of the authorities arose out of the paradox of constitutionalism. While there was law enough for summary convictions by local magistrates, the Law Officers of the Crown were reluctant to advise major prosecutions. The law of sedition was indefinite, and the Attorney-General was faced with the choice of the appalling indictment of high treason or the lesser charge of seditious libel. But Fox’s Libel Act had reached the statute book in the temperate early months of 1792, making the jury the judge of the matter as well as of the fact. It was, perhaps, Fox’s greatest service to the common people, passed at the eleventh hour before the tide turned towards repression. #1_909 [1] Thus, in England, the Government was faced with a series of obstacles: an indefinite law, the jury system (which humiliated authority by twice acquitting Daniel Eaton and by acquitting Thomas Walker in 1794), a small but brilliant Foxite opposition among whose number was the great advocate Thomas Erskine (who led the defence in several trials), a public opinion saturated with constitutionalist rhetoric and willing to spring to the defence of any invasion of individual liberties.

But Scottish law was different. Here the judges were docile or partisan, the juries could be picked with impunity. Here also the Scottish ‘Friends of the People’ had held a National Convention in December 1792. The Scottish trials of 1793–4 were aimed not only at the very vigorous Scottish Jacobin societies, but also at the societies in England. The first blow was struck in August 1793, when Thomas Muir, the most gifted Scottish leader, was sentenced to fourteen years transportation after a scandalous mock trial. Braxfield, the Lord Justice-Clerk, was more virulent in his conduct than the prosecution: ‘Come awa’, Maaster Horner, come awa’, and help us to hang ane o’ thae damned scoondrels,’ he whispered to a juror who passed behind the bench. In his charge to the jury he treated Muir’s ability and his propaganda among ‘ignorant country people, and among the lower classes, making them leave off their work’, as an aggravation:

Mr Muir might have known that no attention could be paid to such a rabble. What right had they to representation?… A Government… should be just like a corporation; and, in this country, it is made up of the landed interest, which alone has a right to be represented.

One thing, he informed the jury, required ‘no proof’: ‘the British constitution is the best that ever was since the creation of the world, and it is not possible to make it better’. His learned fellow judges concurred in all this, one of them – Lord Swinton – opining that the crime of sedition included ‘every sort of crime, murder, robbery, rapine, fire-raising…. If punishment adequate to the crime… were to be sought for, it could not be found in our law, now that torture is happily abolished.’ #1_910 [1] In September a second blow followed: the Rev. T. F. Palmer, an English Unitarian minister and Fellow of Queen’s College, Cambridge, then ministering in Dundee, was tried at Perth. His ‘crime’ was that of encouraging the reading of Paine, and membership of the Dundee Friends of Liberty – described as a society of ‘low weavers and mechanics’. A bench of crocodiles wept copiously as they sentenced him to their ‘mildest punishment’ of seven years transportation to Botany Bay.

The example was made upon two gifted professional men, who had been unreserved in their willingness to cooperate with plebeian reformers. Both men endured their trials with great firmness and dignity. And the Scottish reformers, over whose heads these sentences now hung, refused to be intimidated. It semed to them possible that greater unity with the English societies might afford them some protection, and they urged an early National Convention. Hardy, Margarot and Gerrald assented, and a Convention was summoned to meet in Edinburgh on less than three weeks’ notice. The L.C.S. appointed Margarot and Gerrald as delegates, confirming them at their first open-air demonstration, in Hackney, on 24 October 1793. Some thousands of supporters attended, together with the curious who were attracted by rumours that the French Jacobins had landed or that ‘Tom Paine was come to plant the tree of liberty’. The Minutes faithfully record the expenses voted for the delegates (£10 for the fare there and back and £4 expenses on the journey, with 9s. per day expenses in Edinburgh), and the Society was hard pressed in the next few weeks to raise these ‘supplies’. And yet it was fare enough to take their delegates as far as the antipodes.

The invitation was at too short notice for the provincial societies to raise the money to send delegates. Sheffield was the exception. On 1 November it sent a biting letter to the London Constitutional Society, criticizing it for its inactivity:

The measures lately adopted in the sister kingdom, measures as opposite to… a free Constitution, as fire and water… have hitherto been viewed only with a degree of apathy by the great bodies of the kingdom, which we little folks in the country look up to for examples, styling themselves patriotic, such as ‘The Society for Constitutional Information in London,’ ‘The Friends of the People,’… that we begin almost to think here, it is time to nip those buds of freedom… lest they should be exposed to the danger of being blighted by those torpid frosts…

It appointed as its delegate to Edinburgh M. C. Brown, a ‘player’ turned attorney, who was also deputed to represent the society at Leeds. The Norwich societies authorized Margarot to represent them, and assisted with ‘supplies’. There is a new note of desperation in the air, to which the Scottish verdicts, the French victory at Valenciennes, rising prices and unemployment, and the actual bravado of calling a Convention contributed. The Birmingham society regretted its inability to send a delegate,

in consequence of Mr Pitt’s war of humanity having almost utterly annihilated our trade in this town, and driven a great number of our best members and mechanics across the Atlantic…. However, upon the whole… it has tended greatly to abate the pride, assuage the malice, and confound many of the devices of the enemies to reform… and has made many proselytes to the cause of liberty.

Sheffield also was feeling the effects of the war:

We have many thousands members, but a vast majority of them being working men, the war, which has deprived many of them of all employment, and almost every one of half his earnings, we have been crippled more than any other in the kingdom. #1_911 [1]

Margarot and Gerrald knew perfectly well the danger they were running. They were rushing ‘supplies’ of moral solidarity to their Scottish comrades which – if withheld at that moment – would have resulted in the demoralization of the Scottish and English movements. And they were challenging Braxfield’s bench to treat Englishmen as they had treated Muir and Palmer. The supplies arrived only just in time. The Convention in Edinburgh had met briefly, at the end of October, and broken up in the absence of the English delegates. Upon their arrival it was hastily re-convened, in greater strength than before, and Margarot, Gerrald, and the Scottish secretary, Skirving, dominated the proceedings. It met through the last two weeks of November and into the first week of December 1793, when it was broken up and its leaders arrested. (Before this, Margarot and Gerrald had applied urgently to Hardy for more supplies to enable them to tour the main Scottish societies: ‘no excuse for recal can be valid, unless founded on fear; and that we must remind you is our concern, not yours’.) The proceedings of the Convention were moderate, if somewhat histrionic; but a more revolutionary colour was given by certain circumstances – the fact of the Convention meeting at all – the presence of observers from the United Irishmen – and the French forms of procedure and address (although the term ‘Citizen’ had long been used in Sheffield) which burgeoned in the pro-Gallican climate of Edinburgh. Minutes were dated, ‘First Year of the British Convention’, and a resolution was passed (whose terms were disputed at the ensuing trials) authorizing the calling of an immediate emergency Convention at a secret place in the event of the suspension of Habeas Corpus, or the introduction of legislation against the reformers. #1_912 [1]

Trials followed, on the pattern of those of Muir and Palmer. Skirving and Margarot acquitted themselves well; they were sentenced to fourteen years transportation. ‘My Lords, I know that what has been done these two days will be rejudged; – that is my comfort and all my hope’, said Skirving, as he left the bar. Margarot, who was accompanied to his trial by a procession holding a ‘tree of liberty’ in the shape of a letter M above his head, overplayed his hand and was too eager for the crown of martyrdom. But he challenged Braxfield with great audacity of having boasted at a dinner-party before the trial that he would have the reformers whipped before transportation, and that ‘the mob would be the better for losing a little blood’. He was, Lord Cockburn (who saw him when he was a boy) recalled, ‘a little, dark creature, dressed in black, with silk stockings and white metal buttons, something like one’s idea of a puny Frenchman, a most impudent and provoking body’. #1_913 [1]

Joseph Gerrald secured bail, returned to London to report to the L.C.S. and to wind up his affairs, and went back to face trial in March 1794. He had no need to do so – his colleagues and friends implored him to jump his bail. His constitution had been weakened by illness when in the West Indies in the 1780s, and transportation was a probable sentence of death, as it proved to be. But he argued that his ‘honour was pledged’, not to the Scottish Courts, but to humbler men who ‘have been brought into similar peril by the influence of my own arguments’. He offered only one provocation, refusing to powder his hair in the ‘loyalist’ fashion, and appearing at the bar ‘with unpowdered hair hanging loosely down behind – his neck nearly bare, and his shirt with a large collar, doubled over. This was the French costume of the day. For the rest, in the view of Lord Cockburn, ‘the manner and tone of no prisoner ever contrasted more strikingly with that of his judges’. #2_531 [2] When Gerrald urged that Jesus Christ had himself been a reformer, Braxfield chuckled to his fellow judges: ‘Muckle he made o’ that; he was hanget.’ Gerrald, who had legal training, followed the example of the other reformers in conducting his own defence. Without withdrawing a syllable of the reformers’ demands, he drew extensively upon Hooker, Locke and Blackstone in arguing the right to agitate for reform. It was a constitutionalist case which exposed the rhetoric of constitutionalism:

The word constitution, constitution! is rung in our ears with unceasing perseverance. This is the talisman which the enemies of reform wield over the heads of the credulous and the simple; and, like old and wicked enchanters, having first bound them in the spell, take advantage of the drowsiness which their arts have created. But to hear placemen and pensioners talking of a constitution, when their whole lives are one uniform violation of its principles is like a monk preaching population… #1_914 [1]

‘When you see Mr Gerrald… making speeches such as you have heard today,’ observed Braxfield, in his ‘charge’ to the jury, ‘I look upon him as a very dangerous member of society, for I dare say, he has eloquence enough to persuade the people to rise in arms.’ ‘Oh my lord! My lord!’ interjected the prisoner, ‘this is a very improper way of addressing a jury…’

Gerrald received fourteen years. He and Skirving died less than a year after their arrival in New South Wales. #2_532 [2] Braxfield and the mysteries of ‘Scottish law’ have received too much credit for these verdicts at the hands of English historians. It was as much a verdict of the English Government as of the Scottish Judiciary. Pitt, Dundas, Loughborough, Thurlow, were at pains to defend every jot and iota of the proceedings in ensuing Parliamentary debates. Dundas thought the judges, in awarding sentence, had exercised a ‘sound discretion’: Pitt, attempting to parry a most damaging assault from Fox, thought the judges would have been ‘highly culpable’ if they had not employed their discretionary powers to punish ‘such daring delinquents’ and to suppress ‘doctrines so dangerous to the country’. (These doctrines, reformers were at pains to point out, were ostensibly little different from ones which Pitt himself had advocated in the 1780s.) And Wilberforce ‘ridiculed the idea of humanity as applying to Mr Palmer although he had not read his trial’; ‘he declared upon his conscience that he did not conceive the sentence ought to be suspended’. #1_915 [1]

Persecution, we know, is a two-edged weapon. Men in the next decade looked back, not to the times of Braxfield, but – like De Quincey – to the ‘times of Gerrald’. The image of Tom Paine across the water, conspiring with the King’s enemies, might inspire fear or hatred. But the image of a sick man, returning voluntarily to face this kind of ‘judgement’, could not. Moreover, in a curious way, national prejudice helped the cause of the reformers. The guilt felt by the moderate ‘free-born Englishman’ was allayed by the thought that such things might happen in Scotland but could not happen ‘here’. The revulsion of feeling among ‘decent, respectable’ Englishmen is indicated by Eaton’s third acquittal (February 1794) and Thomas Walker’s acquittal in April. It was strong enough to stem the opposite sentiments of horror aroused by Robespierre’s Terror. Gerrald and his companions, by their example, contributed materially to the saving of the lives of Hardy, Tooke and Thelwall. By sacrificing themselves, they helped to save England from a White Terror.

The example of the Scottish victims stiffened, rather than intimidated, the English societies. When John Frost (imprisoned in the previous year) was released from Newgate in a state of collapse on 19 December 1793, he was drawn through the London streets in triumph, the crowd stopping outside the house of the Prince of Wales to jeer. John Thelwall, who now replaced Gerrald as the most able theorist of the L.C.S., opened a series of lectures to provide funds for the prisoners’ defence. On 17 January 1794, Gerrald (who was a member of both societies, and who was now on bail) attended a meeting of the Constitutional Society, which was jolted back into activity, voted him with acclamation into the Chair, and passed a resolution ‘to oppose tyranny by the same means by which it is exercised’. ‘Rebellion to Tyrants,’ Gerrald had already reminded English reformers, ‘is Obedience to God.’ Three days later the Globe Tavern was so packed at a General Meeting of the L.C.S. that the floor gave way. A new British Convention, to be held this time on English soil, was proposed. Citizen John Martin presented a defiant Address from the chair:

We are at issue. We must now choose at once either liberty or slavery for ourselves and our posterity. Will you wait till BARRACKS are created in every village, and till subsidized Hessians and Hanoverians are upon us?

Four days later the Constitutional Society resolved that ‘the London Corresponding Society have deserved well of their country’, and ordered that 40,000 copies of its Address be printed and distributed. The effect of the Address was to rally provincial societies. On its receipt, wrote the Bristol secretary, ‘I collected as many friends as I conveniently could that evening – we read – we blushed – we took courage… your second epistle has quickened our courage, and vivified our patriotism… and more, our number is now considerably increased.’ #1_916 [1]

Letters came in from other inactive societies. From Newcastle (for long silent) it turned out that a number of ‘societies’ were in existence, which ‘meet weekly, admitting none but known friends; and have assumed no name but that of newspaper companies’. It is clear that very many other societies existed – or revived – which had no formal correspondence with London, such as the Royston society or the society at Halifax which came forward for the first time, in April 1794, with an apology for the fact that they had ‘hitherto adopted the greatest prudence and circumspection’ in their proceedings:

We wish the public in general to know that in this town and parish there are number of men, who violently oppose… all free discussion…. To see one of the advocates for Liberty in this town, fined, piloried, or imprisoned, would unspeakably gratify their rage…

In the same month an open-air demonstration was held at Halifax ‘at which were many friends from Leeds, Wakefield, Huddersfield, Bradford, and the adjacent neighbourhood’ attended; plans for a general delegate meeting (at Bristol) and a National Convention were approved. In Leicester several clubs and ‘Democratical lectures’ were being held in public houses. In London the L.C.S. and the Constitutional Society had formed a joint committee to call a Convention – although the latter wanted some other name. A successful open-air demonstration at Chalk Farm in April, addressed by Thelwall and others, resolved that any further attempts ‘to violate those yet remaining laws… ought to be considered as dissolving entirely the social compact between the English Nation and their Governors’. #1_917 [1]

This was the harvest, not only of persecution, but also of rising prices and of economic hardship. There is some evidence that the agitation was penetrating the poorer parts of the East End. Where the Hackney meeting in October had been a novelty, Francis Place recalled that the Chalk Farm meeting was attended by an ‘immense multitude… of all descriptions of persons – men and women… in the greatest order I ever witnessed… although they received many insults and provocaations from the Bow Street runners and different police officers and Government spies and reporters… they were thinking and reasoning men’. #2_533 [2] At Sheffield, also in April, a meeting of six or seven thousand was held (the reformers claimed 12,000), to protest against the Scottish sentences; a very young, eloquent, and unstable gentleman from Derby, Henry Yorke, took the Chair and looked forward to the time when ‘the commanding voice of the whole people shall recommend the 558 Gentlemen in St Stephen’s Chapel to go about their business’. ‘Drunken fellows in the night’ were attacking the houses of Sheffield reformers, and the Secretary of the society, Davison, encouraged a plan to furnish ‘a quantity of pikes to the patriots, great enough to make them formidable’. Enormous weight was placed upon this in the subsequent trials of Hardy and of Yorke. The Prosecution offered it as proof of insurrectionary intent: the Defence witnesses denied the fact or pleaded that the furthest intent was self-defence from ‘Church and King’ thugs. In fact, both intentions were probably to be found within the societies. In Edinburgh a fragmentary committee left over from the British Convention was still meeting secretly, and had passed under the control of a former government spy, Robert Watt. A few pikeheads and battle-axes were made, and Watt, in a dying confession, claimed that he had become converted to the cause of reform, and was planning simultaneous insurrections in Edinburgh, Dublin and London. Whatever Watt’s own motives, a score of Scottish weavers and artisans were deeply implicated in his intrigues. #1_917 [1]

These were the circumstances which preceded Pitt’s sudden assault, in May 1794, upon the societies. The leaders of the London Constitutional Society and L.C.S. were arrested, their papers impounded, and a Committee of Secrecy appointed by Parliament to examine them. #1_918 [2] Habeas Corpus was suspended. In Norwich Isaac Saint and other committee members were arrested. In Sheffield (whose delegate to the Edinburgh Convention, M. C. Browne, was already awaiting trial) Henry Yorke and members of the committee were seized. The Secretary of the society, Richard Davison, evaded arrest, and the Editor of the Sheffield Register, Joseph Gales, was also indicted for conspiracy (in June) but escaped to America. In the immediate aftermath of these arrests, with sensational ‘disclosures’ of conspiracy in the House, and rumours of insurrectionary plots and of liaison between the societies and the French, public opinion was stampeded against the societies. Ballad and broadsheet-vendors ran through the streets with sheets headed ‘TREASON! TREASON! TREASON!’ Bills were posted throughout the city. It was in celebration of the naval victory of the ‘Glorious First of June’ that a mob attacked Mrs Hardy’s house; and one London newspaper jeered that ‘the woman died in consequence of being haunted by visions of her dear Tommy’s being hanged, drawn, and quartered’. Some clubs broke up in alarm, while those who stood their corner were occupied in raising funds for the prisoners’ dependants. (Members of the L.C.S. were prosecuted when they sought to raise a fund for the prisoners’ defence.) The Times published a mock account of an English Revolution, in which the prisoners were portrayed in enjoyment of sanguinary power. #1_918 [1] In Lincolnshire ‘ballad-singers were paid, and stationed at the end of streets, to chant the downfall of the Jacobins…’ In genteel company, even silence on the subject of the trials provoked suspicion. #2_535 [2] In Nottingham there was ‘Church and King’ Jacobin-baiting of exceptional violence. As in the previous year, the houses of reformers were ‘broken open and persons dragged out, halters were put round their necks, and they were plunged into the muddy brook by the side of the town’. A loyalist committee paid the ‘navigators’ employed in cutting a new canal to attack the Jacobins, to whom the Mayor refused to afford protection. #3_214 [3] At Failsworth at about this time a leading Jacobin was ‘tied in the saddle of a dragoon’s horse, whilst the mad and bigoted populace stuck pins into his legs’. #4_58 [4]

The London Corresponding Society, however, was far from breaking up. A secret executive committee of nine was set up, whose most active members were Richard Hodgson, a hatter, John Bone, a bookseller, and ‘Citizen Groves’. According to an official memorandum, which had perhaps influenced Pitt in his determination to act, the L.C.S. had been recruiting vigorously throughout the spring. Not only did it number forty-eight divisions in May 1794, but in addition to tradesmen and artisans ‘a new description of Persons has lately appeared among them: viz. several Persons from the Waterside Porters and Shopmen from Warehouses in the City and some Gentlemen’s Servants’. Fifty Irishmen had joined one section in a body, while divisions had been set up in Woolwich and Deptford. #1_919 [1] After the arrests of Hardy, Thelwall, and the other leaders, Hodgson, Bone and ‘Citizen Groves’ were able to rally most of their new recruits. In July it was reported that ‘18 Divisions panicstruck do not meet’, and that delegates had been sent to revive them; but the remaining thirty divisions continued to function. The consequence of persecution was in fact to press further the process of radicalization within the Society. If in August some divisions had ‘gone to sleep’, and if members had withdrawn from others, in the result (an informer noted) ‘the Society, at present, consists chiefly of the daring & the desperate’. The language of meetings had formerly been confined to Parliamentary Reform: ‘Now the intention to overturn the Government of the Country is openly avowed.’ In the autumn, as the shock of the arrests wore off, there was another change of popular mood. The treatment of the prisoners improved, and Hardy noted that the common felons at Newgate began to treat the reformers with respect. ‘The violent proceedings of the Government frightened away many,’ Place recalled:

Many persons, however, of whom I was one, considered it meritorious and the performance of a duty to become members now…. This improved the character of the Society, as most of those who joined it were men of decided character, sober thinking men, not likely to be easily put from their purpose. #1_921 [1]

Meanwhile, the secret executive of the Society went through its own troubles. It had difficulty in finding ‘proper ways and means for safe conveyance’ for its letters to provincial clubs. In August its most able member, Citizen Hodgson, would have been seized on a warrant for high treason if the Bow Street Runners had not ‘laid hold of a wrong person’, which (when reported to the surviving members of the executive) ‘occasioned great mirth’. Thereafter he could only communicate with his executive by letters headed ‘On the Tramp’. On 3 September the Bow Street Runners rudely intruded upon the executive and arrested the acting secretary. ‘Citizen Groves’ challenged their authority, and then led the others to a tavern to make a collection for the family of the arrested man. But on the next day there was a more remarkable occurrence. Groves was accused by Hardy’s foreman of being a Government spy, and defended himself in a formal trial before the full General Committee of the Society. His speech was moving, if a trifle histrionic, in its sincerity. He brought forward many proofs of his devotion, as well as witnesses to his Jacobin character. He was triumphantly acquitted.

But ‘Citizen Groves’ was, in fact, a spy – one of the most able in the long line which runs through Oliver to the Chartist years and beyond. After each meeting of the secret executive, his full reports came in, for the perusal of Pitt or Dundas or the Treasury Solicitor. It is only thanks to his peculiar skill that we are able to describe the events of these months at all. #2_536 [2]

Hardy’s trial came up at the Old Bailey on 25 October 1794. The charge was high treason. And as if to emphasize the horror of the charge, Robert Watt – the genuine conspirator and perhaps ‘double agent’ – had been beheaded in Edinburgh only ten days before. The public, and the jury, knew that the prisoners were on trial for their lives. (The only man in the courtroom who refused to recognize the gravity of the proceedings was John Horne Tooke, who combined the affectation of boredom with irreverent wit, in the true Wilkes manner. When asked if he would be tried ‘By God and his Country’ he ’eyed the court for some seconds with an air of significancy few men are so well able to assume, and shaking his head, emphatically answered ‘I would be tried by God and my country, but—!’) As the trial dragged on, for eight days, the evidence of dangerous ‘conspiracy’ seemed more and more pitiful, and Erskine’s high-handed, even brutal, cross-questioning of the Prosecution’s witnesses, made it appear even more flimsy than it was. The public found in Hardy once again one of those images of independence in which the free-born Englishman delighted: a firm and dignified commoner, defying the power of the State. The circumstances of Mrs Hardy’s death attracted further sympathy. Excitement rose: in the provinces travellers and posts were stopped in the roads and asked for news: on the eve of the day when the verdict came, it was rumoured that Hardy had been acquitted, and Erskine’s horses were taken from his carriage and he was dragged in triumph through the streets. On the final day – as the jury retired for three hours – the streets around the Old Bailey were packed with excited crowds: a verdict of ‘Guilty’ would undoubtedly have provoked a riot. A delegate from the Norwich Patriotic Society, named Davey, was in London to watch the trials. On the news of the acquittal, he posted back to Norwich, travelling all night, and arriving on the Sunday morning during the hours of divine service. He went directly to the Baptist meeting-house in St Paul’s, whose minister was an ardent reformer, Mark Wilks – one of the old-style Baptist ministers who combined an occupation (as a farmer) with his unpaid ministry. Wilks was in the pulpit when Davey entered, and he broke off to enquire: ‘What news, brother?’ ‘Not guilty!’ ‘Then let us sing, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow”.’

The Government persisted with its case against Horne Tooke. But the proceedings were a source of even greater humiliation. The Prime Minister, Pitt, was subpoenaed for the defence, and was forced to admit that he had attended Wyvill’s county meetings for reform. Tooke’s acquittal was followed by a last effort, in December, to secure a verdict against Thelwall. But the result was a foregone conclusion. Not perhaps quite so. Thelwall, who had a dash of the histrionic in his character, had occupied himself in Newgate by writing poems on the theme of Hampden, Sidney and Tyranny:

Within the Dungeon’s noxious gloom

The Patriot still, with dauntless breast,

The cheerful aspect can assume –

And smile – in conscious Virtue blest! #1_922 [1]

At the close of his trial he was seized with the desire to deliver a harangue to the jury himself. ‘I’ll be hanged if I don’t,’ he told Erskine. ‘You’ll be hanged if you do,’ was Erskine’s reply. On Thelwall’s acquittal the charges against the remaining prisoners were dropped.

One might expect to find an immediate access of membership to the societies. But it is difficult to untangle the events of the next year. In the first place, most of the provincial societies had dissolved themselves during the summer of 1794, or else they continued in ‘underground’ forms which have left little trace. (The Committee of Secrecy had advertised clearly enough the danger of correspondence, and the trials advertised the widespread employment of Government spies.) At Sheffield the society remained quiescent, since Yorke was still in prison: his trial did not take place until July 1795, and he was sentenced to two years imprisonment for conspiracy. Moreover, these trials were only the show-pieces. In the provinces the magistrates had considerable powers of summary jurisdiction, and humble reformers could expect no Erskines to come to the defence. #1_922 [1]

Moreover the costs of that defence still had to be met. (At Norwich, where influential citizens still supported the Patriotic Society, two thundering Jacobin Collection Sermons were preached in St Paul’s Chapel by Mark Wilks in April 1795 to defray the expenses of the Trials.) If the acquittals had prevented a general Terror – Hardy was informed, on good authority, that no fewer than 800 warrants against reformers had been drawn up (and 300 actually signed) which were to be served immediately upon a verdict being obtained against him – the trials nevertheless revealed the length to which the Government was prepared to go. And the acquittals drove the publicists of the Establishment to the point of incoherence. Burke, who had taken a hand in the preparation of the Report of the Committee of Secrecy, and who was now in possession of a pension of £4,000 a year, became, after 1794, the intellectual analogue of James Reeves. He regarded one-fifth of the electorate and most of the unenfranchised as ‘pure Jacobins; utterly incapable of amendment; objects of eternal vigilance’. He implied that the acquitted men were ‘assassins’, and urged that the diseases of the body politic demanded the ‘critical terrors of the cautery and the knife’. #2_537 [2]

In the second place, some among the reformers’ leaders had had enough. The Constitutional Society never revived, and Horne Tooke withdrew from public affairs, until the 1796 election. Hardy was much preoccupied with his own affairs after the death of his wife, and did not resume an active part in the L.C.S. And the London society was now torn by dissension. Weeks were spent in wrangling over whether the society ought to have a new constitution, one section arguing that all constitutions were an impediment to direct democracy, the other section arguing that persecution should be met by a stricter internal discipline. (Even the chance use, in a letter, of the words our ‘leaders’, led to a democratical hue-and-cry within the society.) In a welter of personalities, two divisions seceded to form new societies. John Bone became Secretary of a London Reforming Society, which maintained friendly relations with the parent body. John Baxter appears to have initiated the other breakaway, a Society of the Friends of Liberty which specialized in grandiloquent libertarian histrionics. Described by a spy as a ‘mean-looking man… thin-faced, black hair queued, dark brown coat, black snuff waistcoat, about forty’, Baxter appears to have been an advocate of more forceful measures, and he was delivering lectures on Resistance to Oppression: ‘While the whole Power of the State is confided to Men of Landed Property, it may be truly said, they have the means of LIFE and DEATH in their hands.’ A former Newcastle schoolmaster, Thomas Spence, was now gaining a following with ‘another Rights of Man… that goes farther than Paine’s’. The aristocracy must be expropriated of their land, and Spence’s new cooperatives take their place – ‘Do you think Mankind will ever enjoy any tolerable degree of Liberty and Felicity, by having a Reform in Parliament, if Landlords were still suffered to remain?… A Convention or Parliament of the People would be at eternal War with the Aristocracy.’ #1_923 [1]

These tensions were only to be expected. As early as October 1793 the Minutes of the L.C.S. record a motion from one division calling for the expulsion of persons propagating levelling principles. As the cost of living rose – and as the society made headway in East and South London – the ‘social’ question came more and more into the foreground. A characteristic pamphlet of 1794 held up as the consequences of Reform a reduction of taxes and excise, reform of the Poor Laws and Game Laws, an end to restrictions upon trade unions, work for the unemployed, and an end to the press-gang and to the quartering of the military upon publicans. #1_924 [1] Such demands might win universal acceptance in the society, where the more extreme views of Spence and of Baxter might not. But it is clear that the society was also divided upon tactics. Two newcomers to the London leadership may be taken to exemplify the different trends. Place himself, with his sober manner, his great capacity for organization, his intellectual application, and his experience of trade union organization was in the tradition of Hardy. In the summer of 1795 he was frequently Chairman of the weekly General Committee, and according to his own account he saw the main function of the society as that of political education among working men:

I believed that Ministers would go on until they brought the Government to a standstill – that was until they could carry it on no longer. It appeared to me that the only chance the people either had or could have for good and cheap government was in their being taught the advantages of representation… so that whenever the conduct of Ministers should produce a crisis they should be qualified to support those who were most likely to establish a cheap and simple form of government. I therefore advised that the Society should proceed as quietly and privately as possible.

This has too much of hindsight about it: ‘cheap and simple government’ is a phrase from Place’s later Benthamite jargon, whereas the society in 1795 wanted an end to repression, and manhood suffrage, on grounds of liberty and equity. But Place is probably accurate in saying that, as early as 1795, he saw the rôle of the working-class reformers as accessories to middle-class or aristocratic reformers in Parliament. Working men could not hope to bring about reform by and for themselves, but should give support to others ‘most likely’ to win concessions. This was in one sense a far-seeing tactical compromise; but it entailed attending on a crisis – awaiting, perhaps, financial dislocation, food riots and tumults among the populace – rather than a policy of hastening the crisis by popular agitation. It is the policy of those self-respecting tradesmen or artisans who preferred to build bridges towards the middle class than to try and bridge the gulf between themselves and the tumultuous poor. As such, it represents a withdrawal from the agitation among ‘members unlimited’, while at the same time embodying the strengths of self-education and painstaking organization. #1_926 [1]

The other trend is represented by John Binns, a young man from a tradesman’s family in Dublin, who was now working as a plumber in London. He also joined the L.C.S. in 1794, rose rapidly to the Chairmanship of committees and of demonstrations. He belonged to the majority of members who argued that, in the aftermath of the acquittals, the society should propagate its message more widely, and should organize large public demonstrations so that the Government might be ‘compelled to grant a reform’. And the reform for which he was working was, in effect, reform by revolution; although reform was their avowed object (he noted in his Recollections) ‘the wishes and the hopes of many of [the society’s] influential members carried them to the overthrow of the monarchy and the establishment of a republic.’ #2_538 [2]

By March 1795 the society had been reduced, as a result of the secessions, to only seventeen divisions. #3_215 [3] Even more serious, the provincial correspondence had fallen off, so that the movement lacked any national centre. John Thelwall also resigned, ostensibly because (he argued) it was better for him to serve as an independent lecturer and publicist, but more probably because he was wearied of the dissensions. But after the secessions, the society appeared more united and its activity revived. Against the arguments of Place – that public meetings would call down renewed persecution and suspension of Habeas Corpus – the policy of Gale Jones and Binns, for agitation on the widest scale, won the day after a referendum of all London divisions. As a consequence, a great meeting was held in St George’s Fields at the end of June in support of manhood suffrage and annual parliaments. It was certainly the largest reform demonstration ever held in London, even if we scale down the figure of 100,000 claimed by the L.C.S. Citizen John Gale Jones took the Chair, and presented an Address whose flamboyant language is far from the Benthamite recollections of Place:

Are we Britons, and is not liberty our birthright?… Bring forth your whips and racks, ye ministers of vengeance. Produce your scaffolds…. Erect barracks in every street and bastiles in every corner! Persecute and banish every innocent individual; but you will not succeed…. The holy blood of Patriotism, streaming from the severing axe, shall carry with it the infant seeds of Liberty…

The demonstrators, reeling under these sanguinary mixed metaphors, were nevertheless peaceable and orderly, and quietly dispersed. #1_927 [1]

From this time until the end of the year, the society grew apace. It broke out from its fairly restricted circle of artisans and tradesmen, and commanded increasing support among the wage-earning population. Four hundred new members were claimed in June, 700–800 in July: the seventeen divisions of March had grown to forty-one at the end of July and seventy or eighty by October. Meanwhile the two seceding societies also prospered. Auxiliary discussion groups and reading clubs sprang up. Deism and free-thought gained ground, so that Gale Jones was writing in the next year, as a matter of course, ‘Although I do not profess to be a Christian…’ The Society struck token coinage and medallions, in celebration of the acquittals of 1794 and on other occasions. Thelwall was regularly drawing audiences of some hundreds to his twice-weekly lectures, and could not forbear to posture in his letters to his wife:

Two nights I have had nearly six hundred persons…. Two lectures in particular… have shaken the pillars of corruption till every stone of the rotten edifice trembled. Every sentence darted from breast to breast with electric contagion, and the very aristocrats themselves – numbers of whom throng to hear me – were frequently compelled… to join in the acclamations.

Moreover, around the societies there grew up other groups and tavern clubs with a new stridency of republican rhetoric. A ‘Citizen Lee’ (sometimes described as a Methodist) issued from the ‘British Tree of Liberty, No. 98 Berwick-Street, Soho’ a series of inflammatory and provocative tracts whose titles included King Killing, The Reign of the English Robespierre, and The Happy Reign of George the Last. His emphasis (like that of Spence) was upon ‘parochial and village associations’, and he was also one of the few English Jacobins who referred to the guillotine in terms of warm approval. It was probably his output of chapbooks, Jacobinical stories, and broadsheets, which inspired Hannah More to counter-attack with her Cheap Repository Tracts, although D. I. Eaton and several of the provincial societies also engaged in the cheap tract trade. #1_928 [1]

After June 1795 the provincial correspondence also revived. An open-air meeting was held at Sheffield in August, with a Chairman sent down for the purpose from London. An attendance of 10,000 was claimed. #2_539 [2] But Norwich was, in other respects, by far the most impressive provincial centre. Nineteen divisions of the Patriotic Society were active in September, and, in addition to the weavers, cordwainers, artisans, and shopkeepers who made up the society. it still carried the cautious support of the patrician merchant families, the Gurneys and the Taylors. Moreover, Norwich owned a gifted group of professional people, who published throughout 1795 a periodical – The Cabinet – which was perhaps the most impressive of the quasi-Jacobin intellectual publications of the period. Its articles ranged from close analysis of European affairs and the conduct of the war, through poetic effusions, to disquisitions upon Machiavelli, Rousseau, the Rights of Women and Godwinian Socialism. Despite the many different degrees of emphasis, Norwich displayed a most remarkable consensus of anti-Ministerial feeling, from the Baptist chapels to the aspiring philosophes of The Cabinet, from the ‘Weavers Arms’ (the headquarters of the Patriotic Society) to the House of Gurney, from the Foxite Coke of Holkham to the labourers in the villages near the city. #1_929 [1] The organization extended from Norwich to Yarmouth, Lynn, Wisbech and Lowestoft. Some similar movement was arising in the Medway towns, Chatham, Rochester, Maidstone, extending from the surgeons and professional men to the artificers in the docks. Nottingham witnessed a revival, with (once again) some alliance between the manufacturers and the stocking-weavers. And the published Correspondence of the L.C.S. shows activity in Leeds, Bradford, Birmingham, Leominster, Whitchurch (Salop), Melbourne (near Derby), Sunbury (Middlesex), High Wycombe, Truro, and Portsmouth.

‘A new instructor was busy amongst the masses – WANT’: the words are those of the Manchester historian, Prentice. 1795 was the year of crisis, in France and in England alike. The exceptionally severe winter of 1794–5, war dislocation, crop failures, – all sent the price of provisions soaring. May 1795 is the date of the famous Speenhamland decision, regulating the relief of wages in relation to the price of bread. The price of wheat reached impossible heights: 108s. a quarter in London, 160s. in Leicester, while in many places it was unobtainable. During the unprecedented rash of food rioting which swept the country in the summer and autumn, there were several occasions when the Militia took the part of the rioters. #2_540 [2] There were signs of disaffection in the armed forces; Ireland was moving towards rebellion; manufacturers in Norwich, Manchester, the West Riding, petitioned for peace. John Thelwall addressed several of his most cogent lectures to the theme of want. In Jacobin Norwich (he declared) no fewer than 25,000 workers were claiming relief: the poor rates had reached 12s. or 13s. in the pound. The great Spitalfields silk industry, he claimed, was derelict:

Even in my short remembrance, bare-foot ragged children… in that part of the town were very rare…. I remember the time… when a man who was a tolerable workman in the fields, had generally, beside the apartment in which he carried on his vocation, a small summer house and a narrow slip of a garden, at the outskirts of the town, where he spent his Monday, either in flying his pidgeons, or raising his tulips. But those gardens are now fallen into decay. The little summer-house and the Monday’s recreation are no more; and you will find the poor weavers and their families crowded together in vile, filthy and unwholesome chambers, destitute of the most common comforts, and even of the common necessaries of life.

Here is a picture of the passing of old England which – even more than the theme of the ‘Deserted Village’ (which Thelwall also drew upon) – touched deep sources of feeling in the memories of Jacobin journeymen and artisans. #1_930 [1]

On 26 October 1795 the L.C.S. called a further great demonstration, in Copenhagen Fields, Islington, with Citizen John Binns (aged twenty-two) in the Chair. ‘An injudicious proceeding,’ in the view of Place, who refused to take any official part in the meeting. Thelwall was one of the main speakers, using his considerable powers of oratory to keep the crowd in peaceable mood. He was now entertaining a vision of ‘the whole nation… combined in one grand political Association, or Corresponding Society, from the Orkneys to the Thames, from the Cliffs of Dover to the Land’s End’; and the meeting passed a resolution to send deputies to the principal towns throughout the kingdom. (Thelwall himself rejoined the society in November.) The claim that 100,000 to 150,000 attended cannot be dismissed. #2_541 [2] Despite the use of three platforms, or ‘tribunes’, ‘not half of the spectators could get near enough to hear a single word’. This time a ‘Remonstrance’ was addressed to the King – ‘Whencefore, in the midst of apparent plenty, are we thus compelled to starve? Why, when we incessantly toil and labour, must we pine in misery and want?… Parliamentary Corruption… like a foaming whirlpool, swallows the fruit of all our labours.’ ‘The utmost harmony, regularity, and good order prevailed,’ declares the anonymous historian of the Two Acts: ‘it was a day sacred to liberty.’ #1_931 [1]

Three days later there was a day which – if not sacred to liberty – most certainly scared authority. The King, going in state to open Parliament, was hissed, hooted, and his carriage pelted: ‘Down with Pitt!’, ‘No war!’, ‘No King!’, ‘No Pitt!’, ‘Peace!’. Perhaps 200,000 Londoners thronged the streets. Some brandished small loaves on sticks, decorated with black crepe. A hawker in the crowd who was selling ‘The Rights of Man for a penny’ was taken in custody, rescued, and chaired in triumph. The King’s carriage window was fractured, probably by a pebble, but he is alleged to have gasped out as he reached the House of Lords: ‘My Lord, I, I, I’ve been shot at!’ #2_542 [2] On the next day, when the King insisted on attending the theatre, the streets were cleared and he was attended by 100 foot, 200 horse, and 500 constables.

The London Corresponding Society disclaimed all responsibility. But it may well have intended some such demonstration, and in any case could not hope to control the anger of its followers. (In a tavern, on the evening after the riots, a member of the society boasted to John Binns that he had climbed on the carriage and attempted to assault the King.) In any case, the response of the authorities was immediate. A proclamation was issued against seditious assemblies, and Pitt at once introduced the Two Acts. By the first of these it became a treasonable offence to incite the people by speech or writing to hatred or contempt of King, Constitution or Government. By the second no meetings of over fifty persons could be held without notifying a magistrate, who had wide powers to stop speeches, arrest speakers, and disperse the meetings. Yet one more capital offence was added to the statute book – defiance of the magistrate’s orders was punishable by death. A special clause, aimed in particular at Thelwall, enabled reformers’ lecture-rooms to be closed as ‘disorderly houses’.

The interval between the introduction of this Act (10 November 1795) and its receipt of the Royal Assent (18 December) was the last, and greatest, period of popular agitation. The small Foxite oppposition fought every stage of its passage, and for the first and last time campaigned in the country alongside the popular societies. The L.C.S. called an emergency demonstration on 12 November (200,000 claimed this time) #1_932 [1] in Copenhagen Fields: ‘the meeting, as is usual on such occasions,’ recalled Place, ‘was attended by men, women, and children’. But neither the occasion of the meeting, nor the practice of bringing children, were ‘usual’; and the latter is an indication of peaceable intent which became traditional in the later working-class movement. In December, in Marylebone Fields, the society held a final great demonstration, of which there is an account in Joseph Farington’s diary. The speakers at the several ‘tribunes’ included William Frend, Thelwall, and John Gale Jones. Jones, the ‘shabby, genteel’ surgeon, who had some ‘paralytic affection’ with an ‘almost constant convulsive twitching of his head, shoulders & arms’, nevertheless had ‘an excellent voice; sharp, clear, and distinct…’ His speech included a threat that Pitt would be brought to ‘publick execution’:

No tumult took place: nor was any offence given to such as did not hold up hands, or join in the plaudit. #2_543 [2]

In the rest of the country great demonstrations were held, nearly all in opposition to the Acts. ‘My head would be off in six months, were I to resign,’ said Pitt. The major setback was in Yorkshire. Wilberforce, one of the county Members, had worked privately with Pitt on ‘the Sedition Bill – altered it much for the better by enlarging’. (He was careful to uphold his reputation for ‘independence’ by opposing one clause in the House.) Meanwhile in Yorkshire Christopher Wyvill, true to his moderate principles, requisitioned a county meeting to protest, and issued a call, on four days notice – a Friday – to all freeholders of the West Riding to attend at York the next Tuesday: ‘Come forth from your looms, ye honest and industrious clothiers; quit the labours of your fields for one day, ye stout and independent yeomen: come forth in the spirit of your ancestors…’ Wilberforce, on his way to church in London (‘Let me remember the peculiar character of a Christian; gravity in the House, cheerfulness, kindness, and placability, with a secret guard and hidden seriousness,’ he had noted in his diary a few days before), was intercepted by an express message from Yorkshire. Overcoming, without difficulty, his scruples against travelling on the Sabbath, he drove to see Pitt. Pitt said he must attend the county meeting. But Wilberforce’s carriage was not ready. ‘Mine,’ said Pitt, ‘is ready, set off in that.’ (‘If they find out whose carriage you have got,’ said someone in the group, ‘you will run the risk of being murdered.’) In Pitt’s borrowed carriage, he made the ‘forced march’ up to the north. The whole county seemed to be pouring into York, the clothiers, or ‘Billy-men’, riding on their pack-horses. The meeting, once started, was going strongly against the Government when Wilberforce drove into York. He addressed ‘the largest assemblage of gentlemen and freeholders ever met in Yorkshire’ with an eloquence ‘never exceeded’, breathing ‘energy and vigour into the desponding souls of timid loyalists’. Wilberforce’s great reputation for independence and Christian philanthropy won over the West Riding yeomen and clothiers. The assembly broke apart, the vast majority of the 4,000 freeholders supporting Wilberforce’s address in favour of King and Constitution, while ‘that mad fellow Colonel Thornton stood up in his regimentals’, and addressed the ‘York rabble… in favour of the Jacobins… He told them that many of the soldiers were ready to join them whenever they should rise.’ Thornton concluded by ‘throwing off his regimentals to the rabble’, who chaired him in triumph to the Guildhall. #1_933 [1]

It is one of those moments in history which seems to reveal a crisis between epochs. Elections apart, the next massive West Riding meeting to be held in York was to be Oastler’s ‘Pilgrimage’ of the factory slaves (1832). As the York meeting split into loyalist freeholders and seditious non-electors, so nineteenth-century society was to be split, until 1850, between the electors and the workers on the hustings. And it symbolizes another division. ‘Yorkshire and Middlesex between them make all England,’ Fox said. The nonconformist conscience of Yorkshire had proved itself to be vulnerable: where Church and King might fail, Wilberforce and the Methodists could reach. But in Middlesex the traditional dissent of tradesmen and artisans now swung more markedly towards free-thought. And this also was a consequence of the Two Acts, and of the declarations of ‘loyalty’ by leaders of the Church and chapel alike.

It has been argued that the bark of the Two Acts was worse than their bite. The death penalty was never exacted under their provisions. Although Habeas Corpus remained suspended for eight years, it seems that only a few score were detained for any period without trial. #2_544 [2] It was, of course, the bark which Pitt wanted: fear, spies, watchful magistrates with undefined powers, the occasional example. Between the bark and the bite of the Two Acts there remained, in any case, the barrier of an English jury; and Place’s judgement (in 1842) that ‘the mass of the shopkeepers and working people may be said to have approved them [the Acts] without understanding them,’ #3_216 [3] is questionable.

The Acts, in any case, succeeded. The L.C.S. at first risked a policy of defiance: delegates were sent into the provinces in the hope of rebuilding a national organization. John Binns was sent to Portsmouth, the principal naval station, but was recalled when the London committee learned that he was being shadowed and was liable to arrest. John Gale Jones toured the Kent towns – Rochester, Chatham, Maidstone, Gillingham, Gravesend; at Rochester he found a society nine or ten divisions strong, at Chatham when someone in the audience enquired whether the meeting did not exceed the fifty permitted in the Act ‘he was angrily desired by another to leave the room and contribute by his absence to the diminution’. He learned that the Chatham dockers had refused to sign an address to the King in support of the Acts, and had signed a petition in protest instead. The attention of the society to these naval stations throws doubt upon Place’s vehement denial (many years later) that any members looked with favour upon ‘the formation of a Republic by the assistance of France’. These visits to the dockyards may be one among the threads which link the Jacobins to the naval mutineers at Spithead and the Nore in 1797. #1_933 [1]

Jones and Binns then went as delegates to Birmingham, where they were arrested, while addressing a meeting on 11 March 1796. They were tried separately, Jones being imprisoned in 1797, but Binns securing an acquittal. (Dr Samuel Parr, Gerrald’s old master, contributed materially to the verdict, by sitting directly in front of the jury throughout the trial, scowling ferociously and unbelievingly during the evidence for the prosecution, and nodding benignly at every point made by the defence.) Meanwhile, Thelwall, after continuing his lectures under the disguise of ‘Roman history’, lost his lecture-rooms and was forced to end publication of The Tribune. He toured East Anglia, delivering a series of twenty-two lectures in Norwich; but at Yarmouth he and his audience were brutally assaulted by ninety sailors, armed with cutlasses and bludgeons, who had been sent for this purpose from a naval frigate lying in harbour. The London society, with its leaders absent or under arrest, and with only a sketchy correspondence with the provinces, turned in upon itself and entered into a phase of internal dissension and disintegration. #1_935 [1]

The dissension was not uncreative. It arose in part from religious – or anti-religious – issues. These men had pitted themselves against the State: now many of them were eager to pit their minds against the State religion. Place took a hand in the publication of a cheap edition of The Age of Reason. The support given to this by a majority of the society’s committee resulted in secessions by the religious. #2_545 [2] A Jacobin ‘renegade’, William Hamilton Reid, published an account of the society in these years which bears the mark of authenticity. In choosing delegates from the divisions to the general committee, it became common to recommend men as ‘A good Democrat and a Deist’, or ‘He is no Christian’. Clubs and reading-groups had a fugitive existence, hounded from tavern to tavern. One debating society originated in the ‘Green Dragon’ in Cripplegate in 1795 and moved successively to Finsbury Square, Fetter Lane, the ‘Scouts Arms’ in Little Britain, thence to two public houses in Moorfields, and finally, in 1798, to Hoxton ‘beyond the limits of the city-officers’: until its last days the meetings were crowded. A more ambitious venture was the opening of a Temple of Reason in the spring of 1796, at Nichol’s Sale Room in Whitecross Street. Its members furnished it and built up a library. It did not prosper, but it was preparing the soil in which Owenism, a generation later, was to strike. #3_217 [3]

Before we conclude the narrative, we may pause to take stock of the societies and examine what kind of bodies they were. We may take the Sheffield and London societies as examples since they were the strongest, and about them most is known.

The Sheffield Society originated, like the L.C.S., from a gathering of ‘five or six mechanics… conversing about the enormous high price of provisions’. It grew so rapidly that by January 1792 it comprised eight societies ‘which meet each at their different houses, all on the same evening’. ‘None are admitted without a ticket… and perfect regular good order kept up.’ The societies met fortnightly, the General Meeting, ‘at which some hundreds attend’, monthly. There were 1,400 subscribers for a pamphlet edition (at 6d.) of the First Part of Rights of Man, which was ‘read with avidity in many of the workshops of Sheffield’. In March 1792, after four months in existence, the society claimed nearly 2,000 members. In May a new method of organization was adopted:

viz. dividing them into small bodies or meetings of ten persons each, and these ten to appoint a delegate: Ten of these delegates form another meeting, and so on… till at last are reduced to a proper number for constituting the Committee or Grand Council.

These divisions were described, in the Saxon manner, as tythyngs. From the outset local gentry were alarmed at a society composed of ‘persons of the lowest order’, but the reports of outsiders well-disposed to moderate reform, in these early months, laid emphasis on the members’ sober and orderly behaviour. A correspondent tried to reassure Wyvill, in May 1792, that it was composed of ‘persons of good characters… men of sound understanding, with their minds open to information’. A few Quakers were members (although not acknowledged by the body) and ‘a number of Methodists’:

One of the Meetings, at which a person was accidentally present, was conducted with order and regularity, it began with the Chairman’s reading the minutes… and afterwards several Members in succession read selected passages… for the instruction of the Meeting, all in favour of Liberty and peaceable Reforms… #1_936 [1]

Of all societies, in the years 1792–4, Sheffield was most painstaking and prompt in its correspondence. (Since it was technically illegal to form a national society, correspondence – together with the formal admission of members to honorary membership in each other’s societies – was the means by which national association was maintained.) Although, as we have seen, the members had a preference for histrionic talent on the platform – M.C. Brown and Henry Yorke – their own officers were all journeymen or craftsmen in the Sheffield industries. Sheffield was a town of small masters and of highly skilled – and relatively well-paid – craftsmen; and (the Deputy Adjutant-General complained) ‘no civil power’. In 1792 the two magistrates lived out of town, one at a distance of fourteen miles the other ‘having made some efforts during the riots last year relative to some enclosures, the populace burned part of his property, and since that time he has been very little in the country’. #1_937 [1] It was thus an ideal centre for the Jacobin agitation, with little aristocratic influence, many skilled and literate workers, and a tradition of democratic independence. Among the few professional men, there were several who were well-disposed; a ‘Quaker physician’, was among the first members, and two Dissenting ministers gave evidence for the defence at Yorke’s trial; while some substantial master cutlers were reformers. Outstanding in organization, the Sheffield cutlers do not appear to have found a notable orator among their own ranks. But the witnesses, drawn from their committee, at the trials of Hardy and of Yorke are impressive in their solidarity and their refusal to be brow-beaten or tricked in cross-questioning. A witness at Hardy’s trial defined the object of the society:

To enlighten the people, to show the people the reason, the ground of all their sufferings; when a man works hard for thirteen or fourteen hours of the day, the week through, and is not able to maintain his family; that is what I understood of it; to show the people the ground of this; why they were not able.

‘I did not come here to learn my lesson, but to tell the truth,’ another expostulated when cross-examined at the trial of Yorke. It is possible that some of them meditated armed rebellion in the depression (and repression) of 1793–4. Certainly they were intransigent in their opposition to the war, and they were the first to come to the support of Palmer and Muir.

Sheffield had one outstanding advantage; a capable publisher and editor, Joseph Gales, with a weekly newspaper, the Sheffield Register which supported the society. (A more intellectual journal, The Patriot, was also published in Sheffield for a time.) Founded in 1787, it achieved the high circulation for that time of 2,000 weekly in 1794. The ‘democratic’ spirit of the time affected manners as much as politics: ‘democrats’ were dress reformers, rambled instead of hacked in the countryside, abrogated all formal titles, including ‘Mr’ or ‘Esquire’, and – if they were Jacobins – wore their hair short-cropped. In the same way, the democratic journals in the provinces – the Sheffield Register, Manchester Herald, Cambridge Intelligencer (edited by Benjamin Flower, a Unitarian reformer) and Leicester Herald – set new standards in provincial journalism, abandoning the paste-and-scissors copying of the London press, and presenting original editorial articles. The policy which Gales pioneered was also expressed in the opening number of the Manchester Herald (31 March 1792):

We shall spare little room for articles of fashionable intent – for accounts of Court Dresses or Court Intrigues – of Hunting Parties, Drinking Parties or Visiting Parties – interesting only to the Butterflies of Society…

Gales’ journal, his bookshop, and his pamphlet press were an integral part of the Sheffield movement. #1_938 [1]

The Sheffield society was from its inception based on ‘the inferior sort of Manufacturers & Workmen’ in the cutlery industry. #2_546 [2] (Although there is mention of propaganda in the surrounding villages, no collier or rural labourer appears to figure in any committee rôle.) The membership of the London society was, of course, very much more diverse. It drew its members from scores of societies, in the tradition of Coachmaker’s Hall and the ‘Society for Free Debate’ (in which Thelwall served an apprenticeship) or the later societies of ‘infidels’ described by Reid. The L.C.S. was by far the strongest of these, but many groups always continued on its periphery.

The society was organized into ‘divisions’, each to be thirty strong, and to form new divisions at either forty-five or sixty. A delegate from each division attended the weekly General Committee (as well as a sub-delegate without voting powers); and divisions could recall their delegate and had the right to be consulted on questions of principle. The well-kept minute books reveal a lively interchange between the committee and the divisions, resolutions continually coming up from the membership, who jealously watched the committee’s powers. On the other hand, fear of spies after 1794 led to the delegation of considerable powers to an executive, or committee of correspondence of the General Committte, composed of about five members. #1_939 [1]

It is exceedingly difficult to offer an accurate estimate of the society’s membership. Its peaks were achieved in the autumn of 1792, the spring of 1794, and (probably the highest of all) the last six months of 1795. The society itself made large claims, at times in scores of thousands, while historians have made claims which appear a great deal too modest. (It is often suggested that the membership never exceeded the figure of 2,000, which, there is good reason to suppose, was exceeded both in Sheffield and in Norwich.) The position is not made easier by the fact that two leading members of its committee of 1795–6 flatly contradict each other in their reminiscences. Francis Place, who was occasional Chairman of the General Committee, said that in the summer of 1795 there were seventy divisions and 2,000 actually meeting weekly. John Binns goes into more detail. The income of the society (in his account) was for some time over £50 per week: and at 1d. per week this would have required ‘the regular attendance of 12,000 members’. Since many members seldom contributed, or attended only occasionally, he suggests an overall average attending membership of 18,000 to 20,000, ‘the great mass… shopkeepers, artisans, mechanics, and labourers’. When he was occasional Chairman of the General Committee (in 1795–6) the average attendance of divisional delegates and sub-delegates, at Thelwall’s lecture-room in Beaufort’s Buildings, was 160 to 180.

Both accounts were written some decades after the event. Place’s account is more reliable, but it is biased by his desire to underplay the rôle of the ‘agitators’ in the society. The bias of Binns was in the direction of throwing a romantic colour over his Jacobin youth. One of the problems is in estimating the numbers in each division. The rule that divisions should divide at forty-five was not kept in the first years. Surviving records of divisions from the years 1792–4 show extremes of 17 and 170 members, while Hardy, in his sober and reserved replies before the Privy Council (1794), claimed that his own division numbered 600 members. But only 50 or 60 of these actually met each week – a not unusual proportion of non-attending members in a popular movement. Margarot claimed at the British Convention (December 1793) that the society had 12,000 to 13,000 members – almost certainly an exaggeration. In May 1794 a well-informed spy (probably ‘Citizen Groves’) reported: ‘They themselves say that they amount to above 18,000… but this appears perfectly incredible.’ At this time (he reported) the society’s income of £280 per quarter would indicate (at 13d. per quarter per member) a paying membership of around 5,500. In the autumn of 1795 another spy (Powell) reported regularly the weekly divisional statements of new members and of members meeting in divisions. These show that while Place’s estimate of rather fewer than 2,000 regular weekly attenders is accurate, several times that number must have been on the society’s books. At the end of 1795 (Powell reported) ‘a General State of the Society has been made out from the Division Books, it appears there are actually upwards of 10,000 set down’. But he regarded this as a ‘false account’ as it included many who had lapsed since 1794 as well as ‘numbers who enter their names, pay the 13d. & never come to the Society again’. Thus Place and Binns are brought a little closer to each other. Pitt was many things, but not a fool; he would scarcely have sanctioned unpopular treason trials and the Two Acts for fear of a body never more than 2,000 strong. An active membership of at least that number, a paying membership of 5,000, and a paper membership of above 10,000 appear credible for early 1794 and late 1795. #1_940 [1]

The business and finances of the society were conducted with great punctiliousness, and severe attention to democratic principle. At the fateful October meeting which nominated Margarot and Gerrald to attend the British Convention (1793), objection was made to a delegate who volunteered to attend without reward (i.e. at his own expense) as ‘contrary to the principles of our Society’. This – at a time when the society was short of funds – was in emphasis of the principle of payment for services, to prevent the taking over of its affairs by men of means or leisure. On the other hand, Binns recalled, ‘while I was their deputy, travelling on their business, they paid my expenses liberally’. #2_547 [2]

Accounts of the work of the divisions are various. Place, who was most interested in tracing a sober constitutional pedigree, put most emphasis on educational activities: his L.C.S. was not Pitt’s at all, it was a premature Worker’s Educational Association. His division met in a private house: ‘I met with many inquisitive, clever, upright men… We had book subscriptions… We had Sunday evening parties… readings, conversations, and discussions.’

The usual mode of proceeding at these weekly meetings was this. The chairman (each man was chairman in rotation) read from some book… and the persons present were invited to make remarks thereon, as many as chose did so, but without rising. Then another portion was read and a second invitation given. Then the remainder was read and a third invitation was given when they who had not before spoken were expected to say something. Then there was a general discussion.

‘The moral effects of the Society were very great indeed. It induced men to read books instead of spending their time at public houses. It taught them to think, to respect themselves, and to desire to educate their children. It elevated them in their own opinions.’ #1_941 [1]

All this is very well: it is a splendid account of the first stages in the political self-education of a class: and, containing an important part of the truth, it is partly true. But we cannot fail to be aware that Place was also sitting to James Mill for his own portrait, as the White Man’s Uncle Tom. The contemporary reports of spies have a touch of animation which Place has missed. ‘Almost everybody speaks,’ said a London porter, ‘and there is always a very great noise, till the delegate gets up. People grow very outrageous and won’t wait, then the delegate gets up and tries to soften them.’ Moreover, we know that the divisions did not always meet on Sundays in private houses: many divisions, in the poorer districts, were harried from tavern to tavern. And W. H. Reid’s account of club meetings in the later 1790s – with ‘songs, in which the clergy were a standing subject of abuse’, ‘pipes and tobacco’, ‘the tables strewed with penny, two-penny, and three-penny publications’ – seems as credible as (and not incompatible with) the account of Place. #2_548 [2]

Of the social composition of the society there need be no doubt. It was, above all, a society of artisans. Surviving divisional registers show silk-weavers, watchmakers, cordwainers, cabinet-makers, carpenters, tailors. The register of one division, with ninety-eight members, shows 9 watchmakers, 8 weavers, 8 tailors, 6 cabinet-makers, 5 shoemakers, 4 cordwainers, 3 carpenters, dyers, hairdressers, 2 merchants, ribbon-dressers, butchers, hosiers, carvers, bricklayers, frame-work cutters, breeches-makers, bedstead-makers, and china burners, and one stationer, hatter, baker, upholsterer, locksmith, wire-worker, musician, surgeon, founder, glazier, tinplate-worker, japanner, bookseller, engraver, mercer, warehouseman, and labourer, with the remainder unclassified. #1_942 [1] If several of the society’s most active propagandists, like Gale Jones and Thelwall, were medical men. and journalists, most of the committeemen were artisans or tradesmen: Ashley, a shoemaker, Baxter, a journeyman silversmith, Binns, a plumber, John Bone, a Holborn bookseller, Alexander Galloway, a mathematical machine-maker (later to become the leading engineering employer in London), Thomas Evans, a colourer of prints and (later) patent brace-maker, Richard Hodgson, a master hatter, John Lovett, a hairdresser, Luffman, a goldsmith, Oxlade, a master book-binder, while others can be identified as shoemakers, bakers, turners, booksellers and tailors. In June 1794 ‘Citizen Groves’ gave to his employers a revealing account of the society’s social composition:

There are some of decent tradesmanlike appearance, who possess strong, but unimproved faculties, and tho’ bold, yet cautious. The delegates of this description are but few. There are others of an apparent lower order – no doubt journeymen, who though they seem to possess no abilities and say nothing, yet they appear resolute… and regularly vote for every motion which carries with it a degree of boldness. The last description… and which is the most numerous, consist of the very lowest order of society – few are ever decent in appearance, some of them are filthy and ragged, and others such wretched looking blackguards that it requires some mastery over that innate pride, which every well-educated man must necessarily possess, even to sit down in their company; and I have seen at one Oyer & Terminer at the Old Bailey much more decent figures discharged by proclamation at the end of the Session, for want of prosecution. These appear very violent & seem ready to adopt every thing tending [to] Confusion & Anarchy. #2_549 [2]

These English Jacobins were more numerous, and more closely resembled the menu peuple who made the French Revolution, than has been recognized. Indeed, they resemble less the Jacobins than the sans-culottes of the Paris ‘sections’, whose zealous egalitarianism underpinned Robespierre’s revolutionary war dictatorship of 1793–4. #1_943 [1] Their strongholds were not yet in the new mill towns, but among urban craftsmen with longer intellectual traditions: in the old industrial city of Norwich, which had not yet lost its pre-eminence in the worsted industry to the West Riding: in Spitalfields, where the silk industry, with its notoriously turbulent apprentices, was suffering from competition with Lancashire cottons: and in Sheffield, where many journeymen cutlers were half-way to being little masters. Just as in Paris in the Year II, the shoemakers were always prominent. These artisans took the doctrines of Paine to their extreme – absolute democracy: root-and-branch opposition to monarchy and the aristocracy, to the State and to taxation. In times of enthusiasm, they were the hard centre of a movement which drew the support of thousands of small shopkeepers, of printers and booksellers, medical men, schoolmasters, engravers, small masters, and Dissenting clergy at one end; and of porters, coal-heavers, labourers, soldiers and sailors at the other.

The movement produced only two considerable theorists; and they reveal the tensions at its heart. John Thelwall, the son of a silk mercer, was the most important – he straddled the world of Wordsworth and of Coleridge, and the world of the Spitalfields weavers. After the decline of the movement it became customary to disparage ‘poor Thelwall’: in the early nineteenth century he was a figure of pathos – vain, haunted by a not unjustifiable sense of persecution, earning his living as a teacher of elocution. He also had the misfortune to be a mediocre poet – a crime which, although it is committed around us every day, historians and critics cannot forgive. De Quincey, who was brought up ‘in a frenzied horror of jacobinism… and to worship the name of Pitt’ was only expressing the opinion current amongst the next generation of intellectual radicals when he referred to ‘poor empty tympanies of men, such as Thelwall’. The opinion has followed him to this day.

But it required more than an empty tympany to stand forward, in the aftermath of the trials of Gerrald and of Margarot, as the outstanding leader of the Jacobins: to face trial for high treason: and to continue (as Tooke and Hardy did not do) until – and beyond – the time of the Two Acts. To do this required, perhaps, a dash of the actor in his temperament; the vice of the English Jacobins (except for Hardy) was self-dramatization, and in their histrionic postures they sometimes seem ridiculous. But it was an age of rhetoric, and the rhetoric of a parvenu is bound to be less composed than the rhetoric of a Burke. The flourishes of the Tribunes of Liberty (who really were tribunes of real liberty) can surely be forgiven if they served to give them courage. Moreover, in the press of political engagement, between 1793 and 1795, Thelwall was both courageous and judicious. Throughout 1793 he fought a public battle with the London authorities to secure the right to lecture and debate: after being driven from hall to hall, he eventually secured (with the help of a committee of patrons) the premises at Beaufort Buildings which served both as a centre for his lectures and for the general activities of the society in 1794 and 1795. #1_944 [1] On Hardy’s arrest, he immediately rallied the society. When spies attended his lectures, he turned the tables by lecturing on the spy system; when an attempt was made to provoke riot, he led the audience quietly out of the hall. He modified intemperate resolutions and was watchful for provocations. His command over crowds was great, and when at the final demonstration against the Two Acts the cry went up of ‘Soldiers, soldiers!’ he is said to have turned a wave of panic into a wave of solidarity, by preaching the society’s doctrine of fraternization with the troops.

In 1795 and 1796 his lectures and writings have a depth and consistency much in advance of that in any other active Jacobin. He defined clearly an English estimate of events in France:

That which I glory in, in the French Revolution, is this: That it has been upheld and propagated as a principle of that Revolution, that ancient abuses are not by their antiquity converted into virtues… that man has rights which no statutes or usages can take away… that thought ought to be free… that intellectual beings are entitled to the use of their intellects… that one order of society has no right, how many years soever they have been guilty of the pillage, to plunder and oppress the other parts of the community…. These are the principles that I admire, and that cause me, notwithstanding all its excesses, to exult in the French Revolution.

He stood up during Robespierre’s Terror to declare that ‘the excesses and violences in France have not been the consequence of the new doctrines of the Revolution; but of the old leaven of revenge, corruption and suspicion which was generated by the systematic cruelties of the old despotism’. He identified his support neither with the ineffective Girondins nor with the Mountain, criticizing ‘the imbecility of the philosophic and the ferocity of the energetic party’. But on the death of Robespierre he immediately lectured ‘on a parallel between the characters of Pitt and of Robespierre’:

Robespierre unjustly oppressed the rich, that he might support his popularity among the poor. Pitt has neglected, and by his wars and consequent taxes, oppressed the poor, to secure his popularity among the rich…. Robespierre set up a free constitution, and tyrannized in direct opposition to it. Pitt praises another free constitution, and tramples all its provisions under foot. #1_945 [1]

This also required courage.

His twice-weekly lectures, published in The Tribune, combine political education with commentary upon events in a way which looks forward to Cobbett. He expressed a generous spirit of internationalism, arousing his audience with descriptions of the suppression of Poland’s struggle for national independence under Kosciuszco. His radicalism was generally confined within the area defined by Paine; but his emphasis, far more than Paine’s, was upon economic and social questions. He voiced the claim of the artisan for an independent livelihood by moderate labour; denounced legislation which penalized ‘the poor journeymen who associate together… while the rich manufacturers, the contractors, the monopolists… may associate as they please’. #2_550 [2] He disclaimed ‘levelling’ notions and criticized as ‘speculative’ and remote schemes of land nationalization or Pantisocracy. He upheld the independent manufacturer, who might raise himself by ‘the sweat of his own brow’. But ‘production was a mockery, if it was not accompanied with just distribution…. A small quantity of labour would be sufficient to supply necessaries and comforts, if property was well distributed.’ Enemies to wise distribution were ‘land monopoly’ and enclosures, and the ‘accumulation of capital.’ The Rights of Man he extended to The Rights of Nature:

I affirm that every man, and every woman, and every child, ought to obtain something more, in the general distribution of the fruits of labour, than food, and rags, and a wretched hammock with a poor rug to cover it; and that, without working twelve or fourteen hours a day… from six to sixty. – They have a claim, a sacred and inviolable claim… to some comfort and enjoyment… to some tolerable leisure for such discussions, and some means of or such information as may lead to an understanding of their rights…

These ‘rights’ included ‘a right to the share of the produce… proportionate to the profits of the employer’, and the right to education through which the labourer’s child might rise to the ‘highest station of society’. And, among a score of other ideas and proposals which entered into the stream of nineteenth-century working-class politics (for The Tribune and The Rights of Nature were still found in the library of nineteenth-century Radicals), Thelwall tried to trace the ancestry of the eight-hour day as the traditional ‘norm’ for the labouring man.

We can say that Thelwall offered a consistent ideology to the artisan. His further examination of The Rights of Nature consisted in the analysis of the ‘Origin and Distribution of Property’ and the ‘Feudal System’. While, like Paine, he stopped short at the criticism of private capital accumulation per se, he sought to limit the operation of ‘monopoly’ and ‘commercial’ exploitation, seeking to depict an ideal society of smallholders, small traders and artisans, and of labourers whose conditions and hours of labour, and health and old age, were protected. #1_946 [1]

Thelwall took Jacobinism to the borders of Socialism; he also took it to the borders of revolutionism. The dilemma here was not in his mind but in his situation: it was the dilemma of all Radical reformers to the time of Chartism and beyond. How were the unrepresented, their organizations faced with persecution and repression, to effect their objects? As the Chartists termed it, ‘moral’ or ‘physical’ force? Thelwall rejected Place’s policy of educational gradualism, as the auxiliary of the middle class. He accepted an unlimited agitation; but rejected the extreme course of underground revolutionary organization. It was this predicament which was to face him (and subsequent reformers) with the choice between defiant rhetoric and capitulation. Again and again, between 1792 and 1848, this dilemma was to recur. The Jacobin or Chartist, who implied the threat of overwhelming numbers but who held back from actual revolutionary preparation, was always exposed, at some critical moment, both to the loss of the confidence of his own supporters and the ridicule of his opponents.

It is clear that some members of the L.C.S. were prepared to go further. It goes without saying that much will always remain obscure about groups engaged in illegal actions, who took care to commit little to paper. But the revolutionists in the L.C.S. are persistently connected in some way with the name of Thomas Spence. Spence, a poor schoolmaster from Newcastle (where he had developed his theories of land nationalization as early as 1775), came to London in December 1792. He was arrested almost at once for selling Rights of Man, but acquitted. He published and sold tracts, at first from a shop in Chancery Lane, then from 8 Little Turnstile, later still from 9 Oxford Street and finally from a barrow which also sold saloop (hot sassifras). He was, Place recalled, ‘not more than five feet high, very honest, simple, single-minded, who loved mankind, and firmly believed that a time would come when men would be virtuous, wise and happy. He was unpractical in the ways of the world to an extent hardly imaginable.’ Throughout the 1790s he was a source of handbills, chalked notices, broadsheets, and a periodical, Pig’s Meat (1793–6). Between May and December 1794, he was imprisoned under the suspension of Habeas Corpus. Between 1795 and 1797 he supplemented his sale of tracts by dealing in Jacobin token coinage. He was imprisoned again in 1801. On his release, the small Spencean society continued to be a centre for agitation until, and beyond, his death in 1814,

It is easy to see Spence, with his peripheral panaceas and his phonetic alphabet (in which he published an account of his own trial of 1801) as little more than a crank. But there is some sketchy evidence of arming and drilling connected with his shop, adduced at the treason trials of 1794; while in the later stages of the L.C.S. several of its leading members, including Thomas Evans and Alexander Galloway, were undoubted Spenceans. Spence took up Paine’s arguments against hereditary aristocracy and carried them to their conclusion: ‘we must destroy not only personal and hereditary Lordship, but the cause of them, which is Private Property in Land’:

The public mind being suitably prepared by reading my little Tracts… a few Contingent Parishes have only to declare the land to be theirs and form a convention of Parochial Delegates. Other adjacent Parishes would… follow the example, and send also their Delegates and thus would a beautiful and powerful New Republic instantaneously arise in full vigour. The power and resources of War passing in this manner in a moment into the hands of the People… their Tyrants would become weak and harmless… And being… scalped of their Revenues and the Lands that produced them their Power would never more grow to enable them to overturn our Temple of Liberty.

Whether Spence was himself directly implicated in insurrectionary conspiracy (as distinct from general incitement) is not clear. But he certainly believed in the methods of the underground – the secret press, the anonymous handbill, the charcoaled pavement, the tavern club, perhaps the food riot. At his trial he described himself as ‘the unfee’d Advocate of the disinherited seed of Adam’. His propaganda was scarcely likely to win any massive following in urban centres, and never appears to have reached any rural districts. But it was one of his followers, Thomas Evans, who was the first to give to Spence’s agrarian socialism a more general application. In his Christian Polity the Salvation of the Empire, published at the close of the Wars, he demanded:

All the land, the waters, the mines, the houses, and all permanent feudal property, must return to the people… and be administered in partnership, like that of the church.

The emphasis is still upon ‘feudal’, as opposed to commercial or industrial wealth. But the definition of class is clearer than any offered by Paine:

First, settle the property, the national domains, of the people, on a fair and just foundation, and that one settlement will do for all… and produce a real radical reform in everything; all attempts to reform without this are but so many approaches to actual ruin… that will not disturb the relative classes of society.

Evans’s writing really belongs to the post-War years. But he was one of the last Secretaries of the L.C.S. and this reminds us of the importance of the Spenceans as the only English Jacobin grouping to succeed in maintaining an unbroken continuity throughout the Wars. And one other tradition is particularly linked with this grouping. The Rights of Women, and the cause of sexual liberation, were, in the main, championed within a small intellectual coterie – Mary Wollstonecraft, Godwin, Blake (and, later, Shelley). Spence was one of the only Jacobin propagandists to address his writing to working women themselves. The Rights of Infants; or, the Imprescriptable RIGHT of MOTHERS to such share of the Elements as is sufficient to enable them to suckle and bring up their Young is the title of a critique of Paine’s Agrarian Justice, published in the form of a dialogue between a woman and an aristocrat. Since women have found their husbands ‘woefully negligent and deficient about their own rights’, the woman is made to say, ‘we women mean to take up the business ourselves’. And in a later pamphlet, Spence championed the right of the common people to easy divorce:

This subject is so feelingly understood in this country, that it is supposed the Chains of Hymen would be among the first that would be broken… in case of a Revolution, and the family business of life turned over to Cupid, who though he may be a little whimsical, is not so stern an jailor-like Deity.

‘What signifies Reforms of Government or Redress of Public Grievances, if people cannot have their domestic grievances redressed?’ #1_947 [1]

After the Two Acts, ‘some thought it dangerous, others thought it useless, to meet again,’ wrote Place. ‘The whole matter fell rapidly to decay…. The business of the Society increased after its members fell off.’ Deputations from the General Committee had to visit inactive or sluggish divisions: ‘I remember having to attend in this way as many as three divisions on one evening, and having to harangue each of them on their neglect…. The correspondence with the country was also very considerable.’ #2_551 [2]

The society felt itself to be surrounded by spies: if Thelwall went into an oyster-house, or an à la mode beef shop (said Binns), ‘he would conceit that one-half of the boxes in the room had Government spies in them’. ‘No news,’ wrote Blake’s friend and fellow engraver, George Cumberland, ‘save that Great Britain is hanging the Irish, hunting the Maroons, feeding the Vendée, and establishing the human flesh trade.’ He had only to enter a coffee-room and order breakfast when ‘some strange but well-dressed man would seat himself on the opposite side of my box’. #3_218 [3] Thelwall, after being attacked by the sailors in Yarmouth, continued his lecture tour. He was again attacked by ‘sailors, armed associators, and the Inniskilling dragoons’ (and was refused protection by the magistrates) at meetings in Lynn, Wisbech, Derby, Stockport, and Ashby-de-la-Zouch. For a fortnight he was made Editor of the Derby Courier, but he was forced out of the post.

He had at last reached his breaking-point. The ‘artisans, shopkeepers, dissenting ministers, schoolmasters’ who entertained him during his tour of East Anglia and the north were intimidated from every side. In 1797 the invasion scare was growing, armed loyal associations and volunteer corps were formed, as much against internal conspiracy as against the French. #1_948 [1] Thelwall had started to correspond, in 1796, with young Coleridge, who had been editing the Watchman in Bristol, and who liked his Rights of Nature. ‘He is intrepid, eloquent, and honest’, Coleridge was writing to a friend in 1797, and ‘If the day of darkness and tempest should come, it is most probable that the influence of Thelwall would be great on the lower classes.’ But in the summer of 1797 Thelwall’s spirits were subdued; he visited Coleridge at Stowey in July, tramped with him and Wordsworth in the countryside, and envied their peace:

… it would be sweet

With kindly interchange of mutual aid

To delve our little garden plots, the while

Sweet converse flow’d, suspending oft the arm

And half-driven spade, while, eager, one propounds

And listens one, weighing each pregnant word,

And pondering fit reply…

It was the year of the germination of Lyrical Ballads, and the poets were themselves the subject of the attentions of a Government spy, who reported their excited converse with the Jacobin – ‘a little stout man with dark crop of hair and wore a white hat’. Thelwall determined to renounce public life:

Ah! let me then, far from the strifeful scenes

Of public life (where Reason’s warning voice

Is heard no longer, and the trump of Truth

Who blows but wakes The Ruffian Crew of Power

To deeds of maddest anarchy and blood).

Ah! let me, far in some sequester’d dell,

Build my low cot; most happy might it prove,

My Samuel! near to thine, that I might oft

Share thy sweet converse, best-belov’d of friends!

But Coleridge was tiring of the ‘trump of Truth’, and was preparing to break his own ‘squeaking trumpet of sedition’. His reply to Thelwall was friendly but firm: ‘at present I see that much evil and little good would result from your settling here’. #1_949 [1]

Meanwhile the L.C.S., with Binns and Jones awaiting trial, refused to give up. In the General Election of 1796, there was an informal Whig-Radical alliance in Westminster, where Fox declared on the hustings: ‘A more detestable [Government] never existed in British History…. This Government has destroyed more human beings in its foreign wars, than Louis the Fourteenth; and attempted the lives of more innocent men at home, than Henry the Eighth.’ And throughout the next ten years the Foxite opposition (so incomprehensible to historians of the Namier School) was, together with the jury system, the last defence of English liberties. Fox himself carried Westminster without difficulty; and one of Burke’s ‘assassins’, Horne Tooke, polled nearly 3,000 votes. #2_552 [2] In Norwich, the patrician Quaker, Bartlett Gurney, stood with the support of the Patriotic Society against the War Minister, Windham. As in Westminster there was a wide franchise, and he secured a majority of the resident freemen, but was swamped by out-voters imported from London. In Thelwall’s view the ‘labouring freemen’ would have carried the day if Gurney had not been an ineffectual absentee candidate, who even failed to appear on the hustings. In Nottingham, Dr Crompton, with Jacobin support, achieved a respectable poll. #3_219 [3]

The collapse came at the end of 1796. In the autumn of that year the society was still strong enough to publish a weighty Moral and Political Magazine, although Place wisely warned that this would overstrain its finances, and it appears to have drawn largely upon Thelwall for its intellectual resources. Eighteen divisions of the society still paid contributions in January 1797, although in the same month the new Secretary, John Bone (reconciled from the Reforming Society), issued a printed circular to all members, reproving them for their non-attendance. In the summer the society inaugurated the long tradition of open-air political propaganda, taking their example from the Dissenting and Methodist field-preachers: every Sunday they spoke near the City Road, and at Islington, Hoxton, Hackney, Hornsey, Bethnal Green, mixing Jacobin propaganda with the advocacy of Deism and Atheism. They also (says Reid) began the systematic penetration of benefit societies – a development of great importance for the history of trade unionism during the years of illegality. In July 1797 they attempted to defy the Two Acts, by calling a public demonstration in St Pancras: a considerable crowd attended, was dispersed by the magistrates, and six members of the platform (including Binns) arrested. A provincial correspondence still continued, the Norwich Patriotic Society writing in July: ‘We continue firm at our Post… prepared rather to make a Public exit than to abandon…’ But it was more difficult to pass letters: five new addresses were given, of shopkeepers whose mail was unlikely to be suspected, and ‘we think it would be as well to change the address sometimes as above’. After the July arrests, Thomas Evans the Spencean, became Secretary: a meeting of the General Committee, in November, issued a declaration denouncing ‘weak minded persons’ who propagate the view that popular associations are fruitless: it pledged the continuance of the L.C.S. to the uttermost end, but it was signed by only seven persons. #1_950 [1]

But there is some evidence that there were now at least two sections of the L.C.S., one attempting a quasi-legal existence (and still publishing openly its proceedings), the other committed to illegal organization. Some persons – John Binns, his brother, Benjamin, and John Bone – were probably members of both. Historians have scoffed at the evidence of underground activity, and yet, in the circumstances of 1796–1801, it would have been more surprising if this development had not taken place. Working men were not, after all, strangers to these forms of activity; couriers passed regularly, on illicit trade union business, between all parts of Britain. And while the authorities tampered with papers and presented them in selective and sensational manner, there is no evidence to suggest that such documents as those presented in the Report of the Committee of Secrecy of 1799 were forgeries.

The Jacobin ‘underground’ would lead us to the colony of English émigrés in Paris, to the insurrection of Scottish weavers (Tranent 1797), and most of all to relations between the English Jacobins and the United Irishmen, whose smouldering rebellion broke into open war in 1798. But the greatest revolutionary portents for England were the naval mutinies at Spithead and the Nore in April and May 1797. There is no doubt that appaling conditions of food, pay and discipline precipitated the mutinies, but there is also some evidence of direct Jacobin instigation. There were Corresponding Society members among the mutineers; Richard Parker himself, the unwilling ‘Admiral’ of the ‘Floating Republic’ of the Nore, exemplifies the rôle of educated ‘quota-men’ who brought into the fleet the language of Rights of Man and some experience in committee organization. The presence of 11,500 Irish sailors, and 4,000 Irish Marines added another revolutionary ingredient. ‘Damn my eyes if I understand your lingo or long Proclamations,’ wrote one mutineer to the ‘Lord Commissioners of the Board of Admiralty’,

but in short give us our Due at Once and no more at it, till we go in search of the Rascals the Eneymes of our Country.

This may have been the language of the majority. But for a critical week, when the Thames was blockaded, there was talk among the mutineers of removing the fleet to France (where indeed several ships, in desperation, finally sailed). What is remarkable about the conduct of the sailors is neither their ‘fundamental loyalty’ nor their Jacobinism but the ‘wild and extravagent nature’ of their changes in mood. It was this volatility against which Richard Parker, in a dying testament, warned his friends:

Remember, never to make yourself the busy body of the lower classes, for they are cowardly, selfish, and ungrateful; the least trifle will intimidate them, and him whom they have exalted one moment as their Demagogue, the next they will not scruple to exalt upon the gallows. I own it is with pain that I make such a remark to you, but… I have experimentally proved it, and very soon am to be made the example of it

But in the same breath he declared that he died ‘a Martyr in the cause of Humanity’. #1_951 [1]

These great mutinies, and the Irish rebellion of the following year, were indeed events of world-wide significance, and they show how precarious was the hold of the English ancien régime. For the British fleet – the most important instrument of European expansion, and the only shield between revolutionary France and her greatest rival – to proclaim that ‘the Age of Reason has at length revolved’, was to threaten to subvert the whole edifice of world power. It is foolish to argue that, because the majority of the sailors had few clear political notions, this was a parochial affair of ship’s biscuits and arrears of pay, and not a revolutionary movement. This is to mistake the nature of popular revolutionary crises, which arise from exactly this kind of conjunction between the grievances of the majority and the aspirations articulated by the politically conscious minority. But at the same time the attitude adopted by the L.C.S. towards the mutinies remains problematical. There is evidence that sailors attended Jacobin meetings at Chatham and Portsmouth, and that individual L.C.S. members made contact with the ships’ delegates and even harangued groups of mutineers. A shadowy ‘gentleman in black’ is supposed to have been in contact with Parker and his fellows; and this may have been Dr Watson who was certainly at this time working for a French invasion, but who (according to a later deposition) was disowned by the L.C.S. #1_952 [1]

The mutinies posed in the most acute form possible the conflict between the republican sympathies and the national loyalties of the members of the L.C.S. It is at about this time that a pro-Gallican and revolutionary party (which included many Irish emigrants) can be distinguished from the more constitutionally minded reformers, many of whom (like Place) were now falling away. In June 1797, shortly after the mutiny, a certain Henry Fellowes was apprehended at Maidstone distributing handbills to the troops. He was an emissary of the London society, and a letter addressed to John Bone in London reported two divisions of the Maidstone society active (with sixty in attendance), and ordered more handbills (particularly for the Irish soldiers), as well as copies of ‘Bonaparte’s Address’ and Paine’s Agrarian Justice. Following these events, two further Acts were passed, imposing the death penalty for illegal oaths and for attempts to seduce the armed forces from their allegiance. #2_553 [2] Immediately afterwards a Richard Fuller was apprehended and condemned to death for giving an inflammatory address to a member of the Coldstream Guards.

The London society itself had adopted a new constitution, better adapted to underground organization and to the prevention of penetration by spies. Side by side with this, a secret committee was meeting in Furnival’s Inn Cellar, in Holborn. This was quite possibly a centre of the United Englishmen, an organization which was in the main an auxiliary to the United Irishmen – indeed, in England the two appear to be almost indistinguishable. Its communications were by word of mouth or by cypher: its emissaries had pass-words and signs:

… you reached out your left hand to shake hands with his left hand, then pressing with your Thumb the first joint of the fore finger and he pressing the same with you was a sure token – one saying Unity, the other answering, Truth – one saying, Liberty, the other saying Death…

In London, John Binns, Benjamin Binns, and Colonel Despard were among the initiates. Of one of the divisions, which met at the ‘Cock and Neptune’ in Well Close Square, an informer reported it was ‘chiefly attended by Coal Heavers’. If its strength here was among the Irish labourers on the Thames, it was also alleged to have no fewer than fifty divisions in Liverpool and Manchester, with further divisions in the south-east Lancashire weaving villages. #1_953 [1] In Manchester some success was gained in penetrating the Army, where oaths were administered to members of the Light Dragoons:

In a ful Presence of God. I a.b. doo swear not to abey the Cornall but the… Peapell. Not the officers but the Committey of United Inglashmen… and to assist with arms as fare as lise in my power to astablish a Republican Government in this Country and others and to asist the french on ther Landing to free this Contray.

(The Irish lilt is betrayed even in the orthography.) But while secret organization undoubtedly extended beyond the ranks of the Irish, it seems that in the spring of 1798 there were differences of outlook among the conspirators. On the one hand, the native Jacobins appear to have been continuing their work under various disguises. The ‘Friends of Freedom’ in Rochdale and in Royton (summer 1797) appear to have been linked with a centre in Manchester calling itself the ‘Institute for the Promulgation of Knowledge amongst the Working People of Manchester and its Vicinity’. In Bolton (February 1798) a spy succeeded in gaining admission (by means of an oath) to the United Englishmen; the local leader ‘recommended a Book Club as useful to make Proselytes’. At Thornley in February 1798 an Irish priest was approached by a fellow countryman and freemason (a ‘Knight Templar’) who boasted of 20,000 United Englishmen in Manchester: ‘as I was a Holy Father’ (he wrote to the authorities) the man felt that he could safely be entrusted with his secrets. ‘It appears,’ a Bolton clergyman wrote to the Duke of Portland in the same month, ‘that they are not wholly agreed in their wishes of French interference – Some say they can manage their own business themselves…’ #1_954 [1]

In the winter of 1797–8 an Irish priest, Father O’Coigly, passed between Lancashire, Ireland and France, under the name of ‘Captain Jones’. Early in 1798 he came to London, and John Binns was attempting to find a smuggler in one of the Kent ports who would carry O’Coigly and Arthur O’Connor to France when all three men were arrested. A paper was found on O’Coigly, discussing the possible reception of the French in England in the event of an invasion. Although Englishmen had many grievances, they were also anxious lest the French should reduce Britain to a province. Therefore the French were advised that, upon landing, they should issue a proclamation: 1. That the British islands should form ‘distinct republicks’; 2. That each should choose its own form of government; 3. That all who joined the invaders would be given arms; 4. That no contributions would be levied, beyond those necessary for meeting the cost of the invasion; 5. That France would limit her acquisitions to ships and to overseas possessions taken from her by the allies. O’Coigly, who refused, with great heroism, to reveal his associates, was executed. Binns, who bore a charmed life, was acquitted of high treason and – before a lesser charge could be preferred – took refuge under an assumed name in the ‘counties of Derby and Nottingham, where I had many friends’. #2_554 [2]

Sympathy with the Irish rebellion was certainly not confined to Irishmen like Binns. The L.C.S. published, on 30 January 1798, an Address to the Irish Nation, signed by R. T. Crossfield, President, and Thomas Evans, Secretary:


May the present Address convince you how truly we sympathize in all your sufferings…. May Nations… learn that ‘existing circumstances’ have been the Watchword of Despotism in all Ages and in all Countries; and that when a People once permits Government to violate the genuine Principles of Liberty, Encroachment will be grafted upon Encroachment; Evil will grow upon Evil; Violation will follow Violation, and Power will engender Power, till the Liberties of ALL will be held at despotic command…

It is a moving address, which redeems the English from the charge of total complicity in the Irish repression, and which included an appeal to English soldiers in Ireland to refuse to act as ‘Agents of enslaving Ireland’. And it dignified the ‘public exit’ of the society. Evans and the surviving committee members of the L.C.S. were rounded up in April 1798, in the course of a heated discussion as to what action they should take in the event of a French invasion. Thomas Evans took the view that the French Government had betrayed the revolutionary cause, and seemed to be ‘more desirous of establishing an extensive military despotism, than of propagating republican principles’. He therefore proposed that members of the society should join the Volunteers. Dr Crossfield agreed with his strictures, but declared that the L.C.S. eould not defend the bad against the worse. The Bow Street Runners ended the argument. #1_955 [1]

On the previous day, Colonel Despard and three members of the United Englishmen had been rounded up. The alarmist reports as to the strength of this organization given by the Committee of Secrecy of 1799 can certainly be discounted:

Most of the societies through England, which had used to correspond with the London Corresponding Society had… adopted the same plan of forming societies of United Englishmen… and the influence of the destructive principles from which they proceeded, was still further extended by the establishment of clubs, among the lowest classes of the community… in which songs were sung, toasts given, and language held, of the most seditious nature.

But, at the same time, there is no reason why historians should have accepted without hesitation Place’s account, according to which the United Englishmen was stillborn, and never had more than a dozen members. #1_956 [1] Place had long been opposed, not only to illegal organization, but to any form of open agitation, and had favoured a policy of educational quietism. He had withdrawn from the society in 1797, and would certainly not have been in the confidence of conspirators. The evidence as to its existence in Lancashire is strong; and there are informers’ reports in the Treasury Solicitor’s and Privy Council papers on the activities of several London divisions. Two spies claimed to be on a General Committee, with delegates from a scatter of branches in Shoreditch, Hoxton, Bethnal Green; delegates were instructed in military drill (September 1798) in Epping Forest; there was a competing body known as the ‘Sons of Liberty’. #2_555 [2] ‘Fortunately we have no Leader,’ proclaimed the ‘Address from the Secret Committee of England to the Executive Directory in France’, which was found upon O’Coigly:

Some few of the opulent have indeed, by Speeches, professed themselves the Friends of Democracy, but they have not acted they have considered themselves as distinct from the People, and the People will, in its turn, consider their Claims to its Favour as unjust and frivolous….

We now only wait with Impatience to see the Hero of Italy, and the brave Veterans of the great Nation. Myriads will hail their Arrival with Shouts of Joy… #3_220 [3]

The truth would appear to be complex. On the one hand, the ‘myriads’, so far from adopting the stance claimed by the ‘Secret Committee of England’, were caught up by 1798 in the wave of patriotic feeling aroused by the expectation of a French invasion. Indeed, the Volunteer Movement in these years may not have alarmed the French, but it was a very powerful auxiliary force to the other resources of Church and State in repressing native Jacobins. #1_957 [1] Place is probably right that in extremist London circles there were now some congenital conspirators, who lived in a tavern world of paranoiac fantasies, who had few real contacts, and whose Addresses (if they had been believed in France) would have been wholly misleading. One such man was (it seems) Dr Richard Watson, a former member of the L.C.S. whom we have already noted as having been associated in some manner with the naval mutinies. In 1797 he was arrested for smuggling information to France by way of Hamburg. Released in 1799, ‘le Citoyen Watson’ addressed a memorial to the French Directory, describing himself as ‘President of the Executive Committee of the London Corresponding Society, Member of the British Union, and Representative of the Associations of Bath, Bristol, &c.’ Escaping to France, he began to address the British nation in the same grandiloquent tone. #2_556 [2]

But other conspirators were more serious, as Colonel Despard was to testify on the scaffold in 1803. #3_221 [3] By 1797 it is clear that some of the extreme Jacobins had come to despair of constitutional agitation. From this time forward, for more than twenty years, there was a small group of London democrats (Spencean or republican) who saw no hope but in a coup d’état, perhaps aided by French arms, in which some violent action would encourage the London ‘mob’ to rise in their support. It was this tradition which was inherited by Arthur Thistlewood and by another Dr Watson in 1816. Several of the group, including Richard Hodgson and John Ashley (shoemaker and former Secretary of the L.C.S.) took refuge in France in the late 1790s, where they still remained in 1817. Indeed, the return of two members of this group to London in this year was sufficient to provoke an alarmist report to Lord Sidmouth himself. #4_59 [4]

Thus the Jacobin conspirators did exist. And they were in earnest enough to risk their lives and to endure imprisonment and exile. But their kind of conspiracy had a certain stridency and abstract republican zeal which did not run with the grain of the times. Moreover, with the execution of O’Coigly, the defeat of the Irish rebellion, and the arrest of the leading men at London and at Manchester, the conspiracy ceased to have a national existence. In the provinces, where underground organization existed, it either withered in isolation or struck a new kind of root in its own industrial context. In 1799 special legislation was introduced ‘utterly suppressing and prohibiting’ by name the L.C.S. and the United Englishmen. Even the indefatigable conspirator, John Binns, felt that further national organization was hopeless, and attempted to enter into a nonaggression pact with the Privy Council, although this only resulted in his serving a sentence as its guest in Gloucester gaol. When arrested he was found in possession of a ticket which was perhaps one of the last ‘covers’ for the old L.C.S.: ‘Admit for the Season to the School of Eloquence’. #1_958 [1]

By 1799 nearly all the old leaders were in gaol or in exile: among the prisoners were Evans, Hodgson, Bone, Binns, Galloway, Despard, John Baxter. Their entertainment in prison, when contrasted with that of Wilkes thirty years before, left a great deal to be desired. Thomas Evans, by his own account,

was conveyed to the Bastile, and there confined many months in a cell, with the accomodation of a bog of straw, a blanket, and rug; denied books, pen, ink, paper, candle, and much of the time access to fire.

His house was seized by the Bow Street magistrates and his wife and baby confined. He was held for two years and eleven months. The treatment of the prisoners by Governor Aris in Coldbath Fields provoked a scandal, in the exposure of which Sir Francis Burdett took a leading part. The libertarian disposition of the London crowd is shown by the fact that his campaign on behalf of the prisoners won him a popularity only comparable to that formerly enjoyed by Wilkes. For years London’s most popular slogan was ‘Burdett and No Bastille!’ One of the prisoners whose release he helped to secure was Colonel Edmund Despard. The story of nineteenth-century Radicalism commences with these two men. #1_959 [1]

What is the price of Experience? do men buy it for a song?

Or wisdom for a dance in the street? No, it is bought with the price

Of all that a man hath, his house, his wife, his children.

Wisdom is sold in the desolate market where none come to buy,

And in the wither’d field, where the farmer plows for bread in vain.

Thus William Blake, writing Vala, or the Four Zoas in 1796–7. As the Jacobin current went into more hidden underground channels, so his own prophecies became more mysterious and private. Through the years the imprisonment went on: Kyd Wake, a Gosport bookbinder, sentenced at the end of 1796 to five years hard labour, and to the pillory, for saying ‘No George, no war’ (in 1803 Blake was himself to escape narrowly from such a charge): Johnson, the bookseller and friend of Godwin, imprisoned; prosecutions for sedition in Lancashire and Lincolnshire; a Somerset basket-maker imprisoned for saying ‘I wish success to the French’. #2_557 [2] The Duke of Portland, at the Home Office, himself sent out instructions to shut down tavern societies, and to commit to the House of Correction little children selling Spence’s ½d. sheets. #3_222 [3] At Hackney the eccentric classical scholar, Gilbert Wakefield, looked out from his books and offered the opinion that the labouring classes had little to lose by a French invasion: ‘Within three miles of the house, where I am writing these pages, there is a much greater number of starving, miserable human beings… than on any equal portion of ground through the habitable globe.’ #4_60 [4] Fox’s friendship and his own scholarship did not save him from prison. ‘The Beast and the Whore rule without control,’ Blake noted on the title-page of Bishop Watson’s Apology for the Bible: ‘To defend the Bible in this year 1798 would cost a man his life.’ Kyd Wake indeed died in prison, while Wakefield was released only in time to die.

The persecution tore the last Jacobin intellectuals apart from the artisans and labourers. In France, as it seemed to Wordsworth,

… all was quieted by iron bonds

Of military sway. The shifting aims,

The varied functions and high attributes

Of civil action, yielded to a power

Formal, and odious, and contemptible.

– In Britain ruled a panic dread of change;

The weak were praised, rewarded, and advanced;

And, from the impulse of a just disdain,

Once more did I retire into myself.

There commenced, for an intellectual generation, that pattern of revolutionary disenchantment which foreshadows the shoddier patterns of our own century. Balked of their pantisocratic fantasies, the penitents accused the Jacobins of their own intellectual follies. Walking with Thelwall in the Quantocks in the summer of 1797, the poets came to a beautiful secluded dell. ‘Citizen John,’ said Coleridge, ‘this is a fine place to talk treason in.’ ‘Nay, Citizen Samuel,’ replied Thelwall, ‘it is rather a place to make a man forget that there is any necessity for treason.’ The anecdote foreshadows the decline of the first Romantics into political ‘apostasy’ – most abject in Southey, most complex in Coleridge, most agonizing and self-questioning in Wordsworth. ‘I wish you would write a poem in blank verse,’ Coleridge wrote to Wordsworth, in 1799, ‘addressed to those who, in consequence of the complete failure of the French Revolution, have thrown up all hopes for the amelioration of mankind, and are sinking into an almost epicurean selfishness, disguising the same under the soft titles of domestic attachment and contempt for visionary philosophes…’ By this time Thelwall had retired to an isolated farm in South Wales. (Arriving there he was astonished to find himself trailed by a spy. Or was this persecution mania?) It was here that Wordsworth paid him a last visit; and it was in such isolated surroundings as these that he was to depict the Solitary in The Excursion, meditating upon the delusions of those millennarial years. #1_960 [1]

At the other pole, we have the disorganized and persecuted working men, without national leadership, struggling to maintain some kind of illegal organization. Their predicament is well expressed in a letter to the L.C.S. from a Leeds society, written on behalf of about a hundred members in October 1797:

We are chiefly Working Mecanicks as those tradesmen hear who are friends to our cause have few of them Virtue enough to come Publickley forward as the Aristocratic influence is so great that they have got all the trade under their own hand so that they have got Power to distress any tradesman who exposes the Villany of a Corrupt System. There was a very good Society hear about 3 years since but the arbitrary proceedings of our Justices operated in so terrifying a manner on our Friends in general that their spirits have been sunk under the Standard of Moderation & the Sacred flame which had been kindled in their Breasts was almost extinguished…

No publican dare take them in, and they are ‘quite fast’ for membership tickets ‘as there is not a printer in the town who dare do anything for us’. #2_558 [2]

It is wrong to see this as the end, for it was also a beginning. In the 1790s something like an ‘English Revolution’ took place, of profound importance in shaping the consciousness of the post-war working class. It is true that the revolutionary impulse was strangled in its infancy; and the first consequence was that of bitterness and despair. The counter-revolutionary panic of the ruling classes expressed itself in every part of social life; in attitudes to trade unionism, to the education of the people to their sports and manners, to their publications and societies, and their political rights. And the reflex of despair among the common people can be seen, during the war years, in the inverted chiliasm of the Southcottians and the new Methodist revival. In the decades after 1795 there was a profound alienation between classes in Britain, and working people were thrust into a state of apartheid whose effects – in the niceties of social and educational discrimination – can be felt to this day. England differed from other European nations in this, that the flood-tide of counter-revolutionary feeling and discipline coincided with the flood-tide of the Industrial Revolution; as new techniques and forms of industrial organization advanced, so political and social rights receded. The ‘natural’ alliance between an impatient radically-minded industrial bourgeoisie and a formative proletariat was broken as soon as it was formed. The ferment among the industrialists and the wealthy dissenting tradesmen of Birmingham and the northern industrial towns belongs in the main to 1791 and 1792; the peak of ‘disaffection’ among artisans and wage-earners in London, Norwich and Sheffield – whether caused by Jacobin agitation or by hunger – belongs to 1795. Only for a few months in 1792 do the two coincide; and after the September massacres all but a small minority of the manufacturers had been frightened from the cause of reform. If there was no revolution in England in the 1790s it was not because of Methodism but because the only alliance strong enough to effect it fell apart; after 1792 there were no Girondins to open the doors through which the Jacobins might come. If men like Wedgwood, Boulton and Wilkinson had acted together with men like Hardy, Place and Binns – and if Wyvill’s small gentry had acted with them – then Pitt (or Fox) would have been forced to grant a large instalment of reform. But the French Revolution consolidated Old Corruption byuniting landowners and manufacturers in a common panic; and the popular societies were too weak and too inexperienced to effect either revolution or reform on their own. #1_961 [1]

Something of this was felt even by Thelwall, when he visited Sheffield in 1796. He rejoiced at the intelligence and political awareness of the Sheffield ‘Sanscullotterie’. ‘But it is a body without a head. They have unfortunately no leader.’ While several people ‘of considerable property and influence… think with them’, none had the courage to take their part:

If any three or four persons of weight and pecuniary consequence in that place, would but take these honest, intelligent manufacturers and their cause fairly and publicly by the hand (as persons of that description… have done in Norwich), in Sheffield, as in Norwich, the petty tyranny of provincial persecution would presently be at an end… #1_962 [1]

Nor was this a symptom of Jacobin apostasy on Thelwall’s part. He was faced, in 1796, with a real dilemma: on the one hand, the reformist paternalism which when he met it in practice – as in the case of Gurney at Norwich – he disliked; on the other hand, the exposure of plebeian reformers to victimization on a scale which was destroying the movement or driving it underground.

Moreover, the movement badly needed the intellectual resources of those men of the educated middle class, some of whom had been most afflicted by revolutionary disenchantment. It had early lost, through forcible and voluntary emigration, two of its most able propagandists and organizers, Gerrald and Cooper. #2_559 [2] It could not survive for ever on Rights of Man, and the imitation of French forms, or in Roman togas and Saxon smocks. But at its peak, in 1795, the movement was scarcely of four years’ growth; its thinking had to be done in the press of organization, amongst alarms and accusations of treason, with supporters defaulting and with Robespierre punctuating the florid periods of their Addresses with the more taciturn guillotine. Thelwall’s lectures were thought out on his feet, to an audience which always included one of His Majesty’s informers. His best work (significantly) was not done until the comparative calm of 1796 when the movement began to fall apart. It is scarcely surprising that the English Jacobins were guilty of immaturities and suffered through their inexperience, and that many of their speakers made themselves look foolish by their exaggerated postures.

So far, it would seem, it is a record of frustration and of failure. But the experience had another, and an altogether more positive side. Not one, but many, traditions find their origin in these years. There is the intellectual tradition of Godwin and of Mary Wollstonecraft, which Shelley was to reaffirm. There is the tradition of Deism and of free-thought; the Wars had scarcely ended before Richard Carlile commenced the re-publication of all of Paine’s works. There is the tradition of the advanced Unitarians and ‘free-thinking Christians’, carried forward by such men as Benjamin Flower and William Frend, to the Monthly Depository of W. J. Fox. #1_963 [1] There is the tradition of Place, and of the sober, constitutionally minded tradesmen and artisans (some of whom, like Hardy, Galloway and Place himself later prospered as small or large employers) who re-emerged in the Westminster Election of 1807, in support of Tooke’s disciple Sir Francis Burdett, and who from that time remained in active association.

These traditions are embodied not only in ideas but in persons. While some Jacobins retired and others – John Gales, Thomas Cooper, ‘Citizen Lee’, John Binns, Daniel Isaac Eaton and many others – emigrated to America, #2_560 [2] others watched for every opportunity to re-open the propaganda. John Gale Jones and John Frost were members of London debating clubs during the Wars, where they influenced a younger Radical generation; and Jones remained prominent in London Radical circles until the 1820s. #1_964 [1] And in many provincial centres the same continuity can be witnessed. Few centres can boast a record as long as that of George Bown of Leicester, who was Secretary of its Constitutional Society in 1792, was arrested in 1794, and who was still writing as an advocate of ‘physical force’ Chartism in 1848. #2_561 [2] But in many towns like-minded tradesmen and artisans, opponents of the Wars, continued to meet together. The great engraver, Thomas Bewick, recalls the ‘set of staunch advocates for the liberties of mankind’, who met in Newcastle at the ‘Blue Bell’, the ‘Unicorn’, and the News Room. These were ‘men of sense and consequence’, ‘tradesmen of the genteel sort’, ‘bankers’ clerks, artisans, and agents’. Bewick’s particular associates included a shoemaker, a builder, a founder, a white-smith, an editor, a fencing-master, a radical gentleman, and several actors. All were united in condemnation of the war and of its social consequences:

The shipping interest wallowed in riches; the gentry whirled about in aristocratic pomposity, they forgot what their demeanour and good, kind, behaviour used to be to those in inferior stations of life; and seemed now far too often to look upon them like dirt. The character of the farmers was also changed. They acted the gentleman very awkwardly, and could not, in these times, drink anything but wine…. When these upstart gentlemen left the market, they were ready to ride over all they met… on the way; but this was as nothing compared to the pride and folly which took possession of their empty or fume-charged heads, when they got dressed in scarlet… and were called ‘yeomanry cavalry’…. Not so with the industrious labourer. His privations were great… #3_223 [3]

If many among the small masters, clerks, and tradesmen felt hostility to the gentry, capitalists, and large farmers, and sympathy with the ‘industrious labourer’ (and this is an extremely important feature of Radical consciousness for fifty years after 1795), nevertheless they were, like the Leeds tradesmen, intimidated by ‘Aristocratic influence’. Even Bewick, with his puritanical zeal, was careful during the Wars to associate only with those who might ‘set the example of propriety of conduct to those of a more violent turn of mind’, and whose indignation with ‘the political enormities of the times’ was kept ‘within bounds’. Hence, the plebeian Jacobins were isolated and driven back upon themselves, and forced to discover means of independent quasi-legal or underground organization. (In Bewick’s Newcastle, scores of tavern friendly societies were formed during the Wars, many of which were undoubtedly covers for trade union activity, in which former Jacobins contributed to the ‘warm debate and violent language’ of club meetings.) #1_965 [1] Isolated from other classes, radical mechanics, artisans and labourers had perforce to nourish traditions and forms of organization of their own. So that, while the years 1791–5 provided the democratic impulse, it was in the repression years that we can speak of a distinct ‘working-class consciousness’ maturing.

Even in the darkest war years the democratic impulse can still be felt at work beneath the surface. It contributed an affirmation of rights, a glimpse of a plebeian millennium, which was never extinguished. The Combination Acts (1799–1800) served only to bring illegal Jacobin and trade union strands closer together. #2_562 [2] Even beneath the fever of the ‘invasion’ years, new ideas and new forms of organization continue to ferment. There is a radical alteration in the sub-political attitudes of the people to which the experiences of tens of thousands of unwilling soldiers contributed. By 1811 we can witness the simultaneous emergence of a new popular Radicalism and of a newly-militant trade unionism. In part, this was the product of new experiences, in part it was the inevitable response to the years of reaction: ‘I have not forgot the English Reign of Terror; there you have the source of my political tendencies,’ wrote Ebenezer Elliott, the ‘Corn-Law Rhymer’, whose father was a Jacobin clerk at an ironworks near Sheffield, with whom ‘the yeomanry used to amuse themselves periodically by backing their horses through his windows’. #1_966 [1]

The history of reform agitation between 1792 and 1796 was (in general terms) the story of the simultaneous default of the middle-class reformers and the rapid ‘leftwards’ movement of the plebeian Radicals. The experience marked the popular consciousness for fifty years, and throughout this time the dynamic of Radicalism came not from the middle class but from the artisans and labourers. The men of the popular societies are rightly designated Jacobins. Several of their leaders, including Thelwall, were willing to accept the term:

I adopt the term Jacobinism without hesitation – 1. Because it is fixed upon us, as a stigma, by our enemies…. 2. Because, though I abhor the sanguinary ferocity of the late Jacobins in France, yet their principles… are the most consonant with my ideas of reason, and the nature of man, of any that I have met with… I use the term Jacobinism simply to indicate a large and comprehensive system of reform, not professing to be built upon the authorities and principles of the Gothic customary. #2_563 [2]

The particular quality of their Jacobinism is to be felt in their emphasis on égalité. ‘Equality’ is too negative a term (in its usual English connotations) for the sharp, positive doctrines as to the erasure of all distinctions of status which informed their proceedings. The working-class movement of later years was to continue and enrich the traditions of fraternity and liberty. But the very existence of its organizations, and the protection of its funds, required the fostering of a cadre of experienced officials, as well as a certain deference or exaggerated loyalty towards its leadership, which proved to be a source of bureaucratic forms and controls. The English Jacobins of the 1790s initiated quite different traditions. There was a piquancy in égalité, in the outrage to eighteenth-century forms, as when the Jacobin Lord Daer sat with artisans and weavers as plain ‘Citizen Daer’. But the belief that ‘a man’s a man, for a’ that’ found expression in other ways which may still be recalled in criticism of the practices of our own day. Every citizen on a committee was expected to perform some part, the chairmanship of committees was often taken in rotation, the pretensions of leaders were watched, proceedings were based on the deliberate belief that every man was capable of reason and of a growth in his abilities, and that deference and distinctions of status were an offence to human dignity. These Jacobin strengths, which contributed much to Chartism, declined in the movement of the late nineteenth century, when the new Socialism shifted emphasis from political to economic rights. The strength of distinctions of class and status in twentieth-century England is in part a consequence of the lack, in the twentieth-century labour movement, of Jacobin virtues.

It is unnecessary to stress the evident importance of other aspects of the Jacobin tradition; the tradition of self-education and of the rational criticism of political and religious institutions; the tradition of conscious republicanism; above all, the tradition of internationalism. It is extraordinary that so brief an agitation should have diffused its ideas into so many corners of Britain. #1_967 [1] Perhaps the consequence of English Jacobinism which was most profound, although least easy to define, was the breaking-down of taboos upon agitation among ‘members unlimited’. Wherever Jacobin ideas persisted, and wherever hidden copies of Rights of Man were cherished, men were no longer disposed to wait upon the example of a Wilkes or a Wyvill before they commenced a democratic agitation. Throughout the war years there were Thomas Hardys in every town and in many villages throughout England, with a kist or shelf full of Radical books, biding their time, putting in a word at the tavern, the chapel, the smithy, the shoemaker’s shop, waiting for the movement to revive. And the movement for which they waited did not belong to gentlemen, manufacturers, or rate-payers; it was their own.

As late as 1849 a shrewd Yorkshire satirist published a sketch of such a ‘Village Politician’ which has the feel of authenticity. He is, typically, a cobbler, an old man and the sage of his industrial village:

He has a library that he rather prides himself upon. It is a strange collection…. There is the ‘Pearl of Great Price’ and ‘Cobbett’s Twopenny Trash’. The ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’… and ‘The Go-a-head Journal’, ‘The Wrongs of Labour’ and ‘The Rights of Man’. ‘The History of the French Revolution’ and Bunyan’s ‘Holy War’… ‘The Age of Reason’ and a superannuated Bible.

He is ‘of course a great admirer of Bonaparte’. ‘It warms his old heart like a quart of mulled ale, when he hears of a successful revolution, – a throne tumbled, kings flying, and princes scattered abroad. He thinks the dreams of his youth are about their fulfilment.’ He indulges in grandiloquent metaphors about the ‘sun of freedom’ rising above ‘the horizontal atmosphere’, and professes knowledge of Russian affairs.

He recollects the day when he durst scarcely walk the streets. He can tell how he was hooted, pelted and spurned… and people told him he might be thankful if he was not burned alive some night, along with an effigy of Tom Paine…. He makes younkers stare when he tells them about a time when there was no Habeas Corpus… and the Attorney General went up and down the country like a raging lion…. He tells of a man who said… that the king was born without shirt, and was in consequence transported for sedition… #1_968 [1]

The Revolution of which he had dreamed never took place, but there was a revolution of a sort, none the less. It was the loyalists, James Watt the younger complained in 1793, who – by stirring up the mob against reformers – had ‘tampered’ with the ‘lower order of people’:

They little think how dangerous it is to let the people know their power and that the day will come when they shall curse the senseless cry of Church & King, & feel their own weapons turned upon themselves. #2_564 [2]

After the near-famine year of 1795, the change can be sensed in a score of places. In Nottingham, where Jacobins had been ducked in 1794, they were strong enough to meet and defeat their opponents in open combat in the election of 1796. #3_224 [3] ‘At most of the entrances into this town,’ wrote a scandalized loyalist in 1798, ‘a post is set up with a board fixed upon it, on which is written “All Vagrants will be apprehended and punished as the Law directs.” ’Now, over the word ‘Vagrants’ the word ‘Tyrants’ had been pasted, and no one stirred to take it down. #1_969 [1] ‘Long have we been endeavouring to find ourselves men,’ declared the mutineers of the fleet in 1797: ‘We now find ourselves so. We will be treated as such.’ #2_565 [2]

In 1812, looking round him in dismay at the power of Scottish trade unionism and of Luddism in England, Scott wrote to Southey: ‘The country is mined below our feet.’ It was Pitt who had driven the ‘miners’ underground. Men like our ‘Village Politician’ were scarcely to be found in the villages of 1789. Jacobin ideas driven into weaving villages, the shops of the Nottingham framework knitters and the Yorkshire croppers, the Lancashire cotton-mills, were propagated in every phase of rising prices and of hardship. It was not Pitt but John Thelwall who had the last word. ‘A sort of Socratic spirit will necessarily grow up, wherever large bodies of men assemble’:

… Monopoly, and the hideous accumulation of capital in a few hands… carry in their own enormity, the seeds of cure… Whatever presses men together… though it may generate some vices, is favourable to the diffusion of knowledge, and ultimately promotive of human liberty. Hence every large workshop and manufactory is a sort of political society, which no act of parliament can silence, and no magistrate disperse. #3_225 [3]

Part Two


‘In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.’




JOHN THELWALL was not alone in seeing in every ‘manufactory’ a potential centre of political rebellion. An aristocratic traveller who visited the Yorkshire Dales in 1792 was alarmed to find a new cotton-mill in the ‘pastoral vale’ of Aysgarth – ‘why, here now is a great flaring mill, whose back stream has drawn off half the water of the falls above the bridge’:

With the bell ringing, and the clamour of the mill, all the vale is disturb’d; treason and levelling systems are the discourse; and rebellion may be near at hand.

The mill appeared as symbol of social energies which were destroying the very ‘course of Nature’. It embodied a double threat to the settled order. First, from the owners of industrial wealth, those upstarts who enjoyed an unfair advantage over the landowners whose income was tied to their rent-roll:

If men thus start into riches; or if riches from trade are too easily procured, woe to us men of middling income, and settled revenue; and woe it has been to all the Nappa Halls, and the Yeomanry of the land.

Second, from the industrial working population, which our traveller regarded with an alliterative hostility which betrays a response not far removed from that of the white racialist towards the coloured population today:

The people, indeed, are employ’d; but they are all abandon’d to vice from the throng…. At the times when people work not in the mill, they issue out to poaching, profligacy and plunder… #1_970 [1]

The equation between the cotton-mill and the new industrial society, and the correspondence between new forms of productive and of social relationship, was a commonplace among observers in the years between 1790 and 1850. Karl Marx was only expressing this with unusual vigour when he declared: ‘The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord: the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist.’ And it was not only the mill-owner but also the working population brought into being within and around the mills which seemed to contemporaries to be ‘new’. ‘The instant we get near the borders of the manufacturing parts of Lancashire’, a rural magistrate wrote in 1808, ‘we meet a fresh race of beings, both in point of manners, employments and subordination…’; while Robert Owen, in 1815, declared that ‘the general diffusion of manufactures throughout a country generates a new character in its inhabitants… an essential change in the general character of the mass of the people’.

Observers in the 1830s and 1840s were still exclaiming at the novelty of the ‘factory system’. Peter Gaskell, in 1833, spoke of the manufacturing population as ‘but a Hercules in the cradle’; it was ‘only since the introduction of steam as a power that they have acquired their paramount importance’. The steam-engine had ‘drawn together the population into dense masses’ and already Gaskell saw in working-class organizations an ‘ “imperium in imperio” of the most obnoxious description’. #1_971 [1] Ten years later Cooke Taylor was writing in similar terms:

The steam-engine had no precedent, the spinning-jenny is without ancestry, the mule and the power-loom entered on no prepared heritage: they sprang into sudden existence like Minerva from the brain of Jupiter.

But it was the human consequence of these ‘novelties’ which caused this observer most disquiet:

As a stranger passes through the masses of human beings which have accumulated round the mills and print works… he cannot contemplate these ‘crowded hives’ without feelings of anxiety and apprehension almost amounting to dismay. The population, like the system to which it belongs, is NEW; but it is hourly increasing in breadth and strength. It is an aggregate of masses, our conceptions of which clothe themselves in terms that express something portentous and fearful… as of the slow rising and gradual swelling of an ocean which must, at some future and no distant time, bear all the elements of society aloft upon its bosom, and float them Heaven knows whither. There are mighty energies slumbering in these masses…. The manufacturing population is not new in its formation alone: it is new in its habits of thought and action, which have been formed by the circumstances of its condition, with little instruction, and less guidance, from external sources… #1_972 [1]

For Engels, describing the Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 it seemed that ‘the first proletarians were connected with manufacture, were engendered by it… the factory hands, eldest children of the industrial revolution, have from the beginning to the present day formed the nucleus of the Labour Movement’.

However different their judgements of value, conservative, radical, and socialist observers suggested the same equation: steam power and the cotton-mill=new working class. The physical instruments of production were seen as giving rise in a direct and more-or-less compulsive way to new social relationships, institutions, and cultural modes. At the same time the history of popular agitation during the period 1811–50 appears to confirm this picture. It is as if the English nation entered a crucible in the 1790s and emerged after the Wars in a different form. Between 1811 and 1813, the Luddite crisis; in 1817 the Pentridge Rising; in 1819, Peterloo; throughout the next decade the proliferation of trade union activity, Owenite propaganda, Radical journalism, the Ten Hours Movement, the revolutionary crisis of 1831–2; and, beyond that, the multitude of movements which made up Chartism. It is, perhaps, the scale and intensity of this multiform popular agitation which has, more than anything else, given rise (among contemporary observers and historians alike) to the sense of some catastrophic change.

Almost every radical phenomenon of the 1790s can be found reproduced tenfold after 1815. The handful of Jacobin sheets gave rise to a score of ultra-Radical and Owenite periodicals. Where Daniel Eaton served imprisonment for publishing Paine, Richard Carlile and his shopmen served a total of more than 200 years imprisonment for similar crimes. Where Corresponding Societies maintained a precarious existence in a score of towns, the post-war Hampden Clubs or political unions struck root in small industrial villages. And when this popular agitation is recalled alongside the dramatic pace of change in the cotton industry, it is natural to assume a direct causal relationship. The cotton-mill is seen as the agent not only of industrial but also of social revolution, producing not only more goods but also the ‘Labour Movement’ itself. The Industrial Revolution, which commenced as a description, is now invoked as an explanation.

From the time of Arkwright through to the Plug Riots and beyond, it is the image of the ‘dark, Satanic mill’ which dominates our visual reconstruction of the Industrial Revolution. In part, perhaps, because it is a dramatic visual image – the barrack-like buildings, the great mill chimneys, the factory children, the clogs and shawls, the dwellings clustering around the mills as if spawned by them. (It is an image which forces one to think first of the industry, and only secondly of the people connected to it or serving it.) In part, because the cotton-mill and the new mill-town – from the swiftness of its growth, ingenuity of its techniques, and the novelty or harshness of its discipline – seemed to contemporaries to be dramatic and portentous: a more satisfactory symbol for debate on the ‘condition-of-England’ question than those anonymous or sprawling manufacturing districts which figure even more often in the Home Office ‘disturbance books’. And from this both a literary and an historical tradition is derived. Nearly all the classic accounts by contemporaries of conditions in the Industrial Revolution are based on the cotton industry – and, in the main, on Lancashire: Owen, Gaskell, Ure, Fielden, Cooke Taylor, Engels, to mention a few. Novels such as Michael Armstrong or Mary Barton or Hard Times perpetuate the tradition. And the emphasis is markedly found in the subsequent writing of economic and social history.

But many difficulties remain. Cotton was certainly the pace-making industry of the Industrial Revolution, #1_973 [1] and the cotton-mill was the pre-eminent model for the factory-system. Yet we should not assume any automatic, or over-direct, correspondence between the dynamic of economic growth and the dynamic of social or cultural life. For half a century after the ‘breakthrough’ of the cotton-mill (around 1780) the mill workers remained as a minority of the adult labour force in the cotton industry itself. In the early 1830s the cotton hand-loom weavers alone still outnumbered all the men and women in spinning and weaving mills of cotton, wool, and silk combined. #2_566 [2] Still, in 1830, the adult male cotton-spinner was no more typical of that elusive figure, the ‘average working man’, than is the Coventry motor-worker of the 1960s.

The point is of importance, because too much emphasis upon the newness of the cotton-mills can lead to an underestimation of the continuity of political and cultural traditions in the making of working-class communities. The factory hands, so far from being the ‘eldest children of the industrial revolution’, were late arrivals. Many of their ideas and forms of organization were anticipated by domestic workers, such as the woollen workers of Norwich and the West Country, or the small-ware weavers of Manchester. And it is questionable whether factory hands – except in the cotton districts – ‘formed the nucleus of the Labour Movement’ at any time before the late 1840s (and, in some northern and Midland towns, the years 1832–4, leading up to the great lock-outs). Jacobinism, as we have seen, struck root most deeply among artisans. Luddism was the work of skilled men in small workshops. From 1817 onwards to Chartism, the outworkers in the north and the Midlands were as prominent in every radical agitation as the factory hands. And in many towns the actual nucleus from which the labour movement derived ideas, organization, and leadership, was made up of such men as shoemakers, weavers, saddlers and harnessmakers, booksellers, printers, building workers, small tradesmen, and the like. The vast area of Radical London between 1815 and 1850 drew its strength from no major heavy industries (shipbuilding was tending to decline, and the engineers only made their impact later in the century) but from the host of smaller trades and occupations. #1_974 [1]

Such diversity of experiences has led some writers to question both the notions of an ‘industrial revolution’ and of a ‘working class’. The first discussion need not detain us here. #2_567 [2] The term is serviceable enough in its usual connotations. For the second, many writers prefer the term working classes, which emphasizes the great disparity in status, acquisitions, skills, conditions, within the portmanteau phrase. And in this they echo the complaints of Francis Place:

If the character and conduct of the working-people are to be taken from reviews, magazines, pamphlets, newspapers, reports of the two Houses of Parliament and the Factory Commissioners, we shall find them all jumbled together as the ‘lower orders’, the most skilled and the most prudent workman, with the most ignorant and imprudent labourers and paupers, though the difference is great indeed, and indeed in many cases will scarce admit of comparison. #3_226 [3]

Place is, of course, right: the Sunderland sailor, the Irish navvy, the Jewish costermonger, the inmate of an East Anglian village workhouse, the compositor on The Times – all might be seen by their ‘betters’ as belonging to the ‘lower classes’ while they themselves might scarcely understand each others’ dialect.

Nevertheless, when every caution has been made, the outstanding fact of the period between 1790 and 1830 is the formation of ‘the working class’. This is revealed, first, in the growth of class-consciousness: the consciousness of an identity of interests as between all these diverse groups of working people and as against the interests of other classes. And, second, in the growth of corresponding forms of political and industrial organization. By 1832 there were strongly based and self-conscious working-class institutions – trade unions, friendly societies, educational and religious movements, political organizations, periodicals – working-class intellectual traditions, working-class community-patterns, and a working-class structure of feeling.

The making of the working class is a fact of political and cultural, as much as of economic, history. It was not the spontaneous generation of the factory system. Nor should we think of an external force – the ‘industrial revolution’ – working upon some nondescript undifferentiated raw material of humanity, and turning it out at the other end as a ‘fresh race of beings’. The changing productive relations and working conditions of the Industrial Revolution were imposed, not upon raw material, but upon the free-born Englishman – and the free-born Englishman as Paine had left him or as the Methodists had moulded him. The factory hand or stockinger was also the inheritor of Bunyan, of remembered village rights, of notions of equality before the law, of craft traditions. He was the object of massive religious indoctrination and the creator of political traditions. The working class made itself as much as it was made.

To see the working class in this way is to defend a ‘classical’ view of the period against the prevalent mood of contemporary schools of economic history and sociology. For the territory of the Industrial Revolution, which was first staked out and surveyed by Marx, Arnold Toynbee, the Webbs and the Hammonds, now resembles an academic battlefield. At point after point, the familiar ‘catastrophic’ view of the period has been disputed. Where it was customary to see the period as one of economic disequilibrium, intense misery and exploitation, political repression and heroic popular agitation, attention is now directed to the rate of economic growth (and the difficulties of ‘take-off’ into self-sustaining technological reproduction). The enclosure movement is now noted, less for its harshness in displacing the village poor, than for its success in feeding a rapidly growing population. The hardships of the period are seen as being due to the dislocations consequent upon the Wars, faulty communications, immature banking and exchange, uncertain markets, and the trade-cycle, rather than to exploitation or cut-throat competition. Popular unrest is seen as consequent upon the unavoidable coincidence of high wheat prices and trade depressions, and explicable in terms of an elementary ‘social tension’ chart derived from these data. #1_975 [1] In general, it is suggested that the position of the industrial worker in 1840 was better in most ways than that of the domestic worker of 1790. The Industrial Revolution was an age, not of catastrophe or acute class-conflict and class oppression, but of improvement. #2_568 [2]

The classical catastrophic orthodoxy has been replaced by a new anti-catastrophic orthodoxy, which is most clearly distinguished by its empirical caution and, among its most notable exponents (Sir John Clapham, Dr Dorothy George, Professor Ashton) by an astringent criticism of the looseness of certain writers of the older school. The studies of the new orthodoxy have enriched historical scholarship, and have qualified and revised in important respects the work of the classical school. But as the new orthodoxy is now, in its turn, growing old and entrenched in most of the academic centres, so it becomes open to challenge in its turn. And the successors of the great empiricists too often exhibit a moral complacency, a narrowness of reference, and an insufficient familiarity with the actual movements of the working people of the time. They are more aware of the orthodox empiricist postures than of the changes in social relationship and in cultural modes which the Industrial Revolution entailed. What has been lost is a sense of the whole process – the whole political and social context of the period. What arose as valuable qualifications have passed by imperceptible stages to new generalizations (which the evidence can rarely sustain) and from generalizations to a ruling attitude.

The empiricist orthodoxy is often defined in terms of a running critique of the work of J. L. and Barbara Hammond. It is true that the Hammonds showed themselves too willing to moralize history, and to arrange their materials too much in terms of ‘outraged emotion’. #1_976 [1] There are many points at which their work has been faulted or qualified in the light of subsequent research, and we intend to propose others. But a defence of the Hammonds need not only be rested upon the fact that their volumes on the labourers with their copious quotation and wide reference, will long remain among the most important source-books for this period. We can also say that they displayed throughout their narrative an understanding of the political context within which the Industrial Revolution took place. To the student examining the ledgers of one cotton-mill, the Napoleonic Wars appear only as an abnormal influence affecting foreign markets and fluctuating demand. The Hammonds could never have forgotten for one moment that it was also a war against Jacobinism. ‘The history of England at the time discussed in these pages reads like a history of civil war.’ This is the opening of the introductory chapter of The Skilled Labourer. And in the conclusion to The Town Labourer, among other comments of indifferent value, there is an insight which throws the whole period into sudden relief:

At the time when half Europe was intoxicated and the other half terrified by the new magic of the word citizen, the English nation was in the hands of men who regarded the idea of citizenship as a challenge to their religion and their civilization; who deliberately sought to make the inequalities of life the basis of the state, and to emphasize and perpetuate the position of the workpeople as a subject class. Hence it happened that the French Revolution has divided the people of France less than the Industrial Revolution has divided the people of England…

‘Hence it happened…’ The judgement may be questioned, And yet it is in this insight – that the revolution which did not happen in England was fully as devastating, and in some features more divisive, than that which did happen in France – that we find a clue to the truly catastrophic nature of the period. Throughout this time there are three, and not two, great influences simultaneously at work. There is the tremendous increase in population (in Great Britain, from 10.5 millions in 1801 to 18.1 millions in 1841, with the greatest rate of increase between 1811–21). There is the Industrial Revolution, in its technological aspects. And there is the political counter-revolution, from 1792–1832.

In the end, it is the political context as much as the steam-engine, which had most influence upon the shaping consciousness and institutions of the working class. The forces making for political reform in the late eighteenth century – Wilkes, the city merchants, the Middlesex small gentry, the ‘mob’ – or Wyvill, and the small gentry and yeomen, clothiers, cutlers, and tradesmen – were on the eve of gaining at least some piecemeal victories in the 1790s: Pitt had been cast for the rôle of reforming Prime Minister. Had events taken their ‘natural’ course we might expect there to have been some show-down long before 1832, between the oligarchy of land and commerce and the manufacturers and petty gentry, with working people in the tail of the middle-class agitation. And even in 1792, when manufacturers and professional men were prominent in the reform movement, this was still the balance of forces. But, after the success of Rights of Man, the radicalization and terror of the French Revolution, and the onset of Pitt’s repression, it was the plebeian Corresponding Society which alone stood up against the counter-revolutionary wars. And these plebeian groups, small as they were in 1796, did nevertheless make up an ‘underground’ tradition which ran through to the end of the Wars. Alarmed at the French example, and in the patriotic fervour of war, the aristocracy and the manufacturers made common cause. The English ancien régime received a new lease of life, not only in national affairs, but also in the perpetuation of the antique corporations which misgoverned the swelling industrial towns. In return, the manufacturers received important concessions: and notably the abrogation or repeal of ‘paternalist’ legislation covering apprenticeship, wage-regulation, or conditions in industry. The aristocracy were interested in repressing the Jacobin ‘conspiracies’ of the people, the manufacturers were interested in defeating their ‘conspiracies’ to increase wages: the Combination Acts served both purposes.

Thus working people were forced into political and social apartheid during the Wars (which, incidentally, they also had to fight). It is true that this was not altogether new. What was new was that it was coincident with a French Revolution: with growing self-consciousness and wider aspirations (for the ‘liberty tree’ had been planted from the Thames to the Tyne): with a rise in population, in which the sheer sense of numbers, in London and in the industrial districts, became more impressive from year to year (and as numbers grew, so deference to master, magistrate, or parson was likely to lessen): and with more intensive or more transparent forms of economic exploitation. More intensive in agriculture and in the old domestic industries: more transparent in the new factories and perhaps in mining. In agriculture the years between 1760 and 1820 are the years of wholesale enclosure, in which, in village after village, common rights are lost, and the landless and – in the south – pauperized labourer is left to support the tenant-farmer, the landowner, and the tithes of the Church. In the domestic industries, from 1800 onwards, the tendency is widespread for small masters to give way to larger employers (whether manufacturers or middlemen) and for the majority of weavers, stockingers, or nail-makers to become wage-earning outworkers with more or less precarious employment. In the mills and in many mining areas these are the years of the employment of children (and of women underground); and the large-scale enterprise, the factory-system with its new discipline, the mill communities – where the manufacturer not only made riches out of the labour of the ‘hands’ but could be seen to make riches in one generation – all contributed to the transparency of the process of exploitation and to the social and cultural cohesion of the exploited.

We can now see something of the truly catastrophic nature of the Industrial Revolution; as well as some of the reasons why the English working class took form in these years. The people were subjected simultaneously to an intensification of two intolerable forms of relationship: those of economic exploitation and of political oppression. Relations between employer and labourer were becoming both harsher and less personal; and while it is true that this increased the potential freedom of the worker, since the hired farm servant or the journeyman in domestic industry was (in Toynbee’s words) ‘halted half-way between the position of the serf and the position of the citizen’, this ‘freedom’ meant that he felt his unfreedom more. But at each point where he sought to resist exploitation, he was met by the forces of employer or State, and commonly of both.

For most working people the crucial experience of the Industrial Revolution was felt in terms of changes in the nature and intensity of exploitation. Nor is this some anachronistic notion, imposed upon the evidence. We may describe some parts of the exploitive process as they appeared to one remarkable cotton operative in 1818 – the year in which Marx was born. The account – an Address to the public of strike-bound Manchester by ‘A Journeyman Cotton Spinner’ – commences by describing the employers and the workers as ‘two distinct classes of persons’:

First, then, as to the employers: with very few exceptions, they are a set of men who have sprung from the cotton-shop without education or address, except so much as they have acquired by their intercourse with the little world of merchants on the exchange at Manchester; but to counterbalance that deficiency, they give you enough of appearances by an ostentatious display of elegant mansions, equipages, liveries, parks, hunters, hounds, &c. which they take care to shew off to the merchant stranger in the most pompous manner. Indeed their houses are gorgeous palaces, far surpassing in bulk and extent the neat charming retreats you see round London… but the chaste observer of the beauties of nature and art combined will observe a woeful deficiency of taste. They bring up their families at the most costly schools, determined to give their offspring a double portion of what they were so deficient in themselves. Thus with scarcely a second idea in their heads, they are literally petty monarchs, absolute and despotic, in their own particular districts; and to support all this, their whole time is occupied in contriving how to get the greatest quantity of work turned off with the least expence…. In short, I will venture to say, without fear of contradiction, that there is a greater distance observed between the master there and the spinner, than there is between the first merchant in London and his lowest servant or the lowest artisan. Indeed there is no comparison. I know it to be a fact, that the greater part of the master spinners are anxious to keep wages low for the purpose of keeping the spinners indigent and spiritless… as for the purpose of taking the surplus to their own pockets.

The master spinners are a class of men unlike all other master tradesmen in the kingdom. They are ignorant, proud, and tyrannical. What then must be the men or rather beings who are the instruments of such masters? Why, they have been for a series of years, with their wives and their families, patience itself – bondmen and bondwomen to their cruel taskmasters. It is in vain to insult our common understandings with the observation that such men are free; that the law protects the rich and poor alike, and that a spinner can leave his master if he does not like the wages. True; so he can: but where must he go? why to another, to be sure. Well: he goes; he is asked where did you work last: ‘did he discharge you?’ No; we could not agree about wages. Well I shall not employ you nor anyone who leaves his master in that manner. Why is this? Because there is an abominable combination existing amongst the masters, first established at Stockport in 1802, and it has since become so general, as to embrace all the great masters for a circuit of many miles round Manchester, though not the little masters: they are excluded. They are the most obnoxious beings to the great ones that can be imagined…. When the combination first took place, one of their first articles was, that no master should take on a man until he had first ascertained whether his last master had discharged him. What then is the man to do? If he goes to the parish, that grave of all independence, he is there told – We shall not relieve you; if you dispute with your master, and don’t support your family, we will send you to prison; so that the man is bound, by a combination of circumstances, to submit to his master. He cannot travel and get work in any town like a shoe-maker, joiner, or taylor; he is confined to the district.

The workmen in general are an inoffensive, unassuming, set of well-informed men, though how they acquire their information is almost a mystery to me. They are docile and tractable, if not goaded too much; but this is not to be wondered at, when we consider that they are trained to work from six years old, from five in a morning to eight and nine at night. Let one of the advocates for obedience to his master take his stand in an avenue leading to a factory a little before five o’clock in the morning, and observe the squalid appearance of the little infants and their parents taken from their beds at so early an hour in all kinds of weather; let him examine the miserable pittance of food, chiefly composed of water gruel and oatcake broken into it, a little salt, and sometimes coloured with a little milk, together with a few potatoes, and a bit of bacon or fat for dinner; would a London mechanic eat this? There they are (and if late a few minutes, a quarter of a day is stopped in wages) locked up until night in rooms heated above the hottest days we have had this summer, and allowed no time, except three-quarters of an hour at dinner in the whole day: whatever they eat at any other time must be as they are at work. The negro slave in the West Indies, if he works under a scorching sun, has probably a little breeze of air sometimes to fan him: he has a space of ground, and time allowed to cultivate it. The English spinner slave has no enjoyment of the open atmosphere and breezes of heaven. Locked up in factories eight stories high, he has no relaxation till the ponderous engine stops, and then he goes home to get refreshed for the next day; no time for sweet association wtih his family; they are all alike fatigued and exhausted. This is no over-drawn picture: it is literally true. I ask again, would the mechanics in the South of England submit to this?

When the spinning of cotton was in its infancy, and before those terrible machines for superseding the necessity of human labour, called steam engines, came into use, there were a great number of what were then called little masters; men who with a small capital, could procure a few machines, and employ a few hands, men and boys (say to twenty or thirty), the produce of whose labour was all taken to Manchester central mart, and put into the hands of brokers…. The brokers sold it to the merchants, by which means the master spinner was enabled to stay at home and work and attend to his workmen. The cotton was then always given out in its raw state from the bale to the wives of the spinners at home, when they heat and cleansed it ready for the spinners in the factory. By this they could earn eight, ten, or twelve shillings a week, and cook and attend to their families. But none are thus employed now; for all the cotton is broke up by a machine, turned by the steam engine, called a devil: so that the spinners’ wives have no employment, except they go to work in the factory all day at what can be done by children for a few shillings, four or five per week. If a man then could not agree with his master, he left him, and could get employed elsewhere. A few years, however, changed the face of things. Steam engines came into use, to purchase which, and to erect buildings sufficient to contain them and six or seven hundred hands, required a great capital. The engine power produced a more marketable (though not a better) article than the little master could at the same price. The consequence was their ruin in a short time; and the overgrown capitalists triumphed in their fall; for they were the only obstacle that stood between them and the complete controul of the workmen.

Various disputes then originated between the workmen and masters as to the fineness of the work, the workmen being paid according to the number of hanks or yards of thread he produced from a given quantity of cotton, which was always to be proved by the overlooker, whose interest made it imperative on him to lean to his master, and call the material coarser than it was. If the workman would not submit he must summon his employer before a magistrate; the whole of the acting magistrates in that district, with the exception of two worthy clergymen, being gentlemen who have sprung from the same source with the master cotton spinners. The employer generally contented himself with sending his overlooker to answer any such summons, thinking it beneath him to meet his servant. The magistrate’s decision was generally in favour of the master, though on the statement of the overlooker only. The workman dared not appeal to the sessions on account of the expense….

These evils to the men have arisen from that dreadful monopoly which exists in those districts where wealth and power are got into the hands of the few, who, in the pride of their hearts, think themselves the lords of the universe. #1_977 [1]

This reading of the facts, in its remarkable cogency, is as much an ex parte statement as is the ‘political economy’ of Lord Brougham. But the ‘Journeyman Cotton Spinner’ was describing facts of a different order. We need not concern ourselves with the soundness of all his judgements. What his address does is to itemize one after another the grievances felt by working people as to changes in the character of capitalist exploitation: the rise of a master-class without traditional authority or obligations; the growing distance between master and man; the transparency of the exploitation at the source of their new wealth and power; the loss of status and above all of independence for the worker, his reduction to total dependence on the master’s instruments of production; the partiality of the law; the disruption of the traditional family economy; the discipline, monotony, hours and conditions of work; loss of leisure and amenities; the reduction of the man to the status of an ‘instrument’.

That working people felt these grievances at all – and felt them passionately – is itself a sufficient fact to merit our attention. And it reminds us forcibly that some of the most bitter conflicts of these years turned on issues which are not encompassed by cost-of-living series. The issues which provoked the most intensity of feeling were very often ones in which such values as traditional customs, ‘justice’, ‘independence’, security, or family-economy were at stake, rather than straightforward ‘bread-and-butter’ issues. The early years of the 1830s are aflame with agitations which turned on issues in which wages were of secondary importance; by the potters, against the Truck System; by the textile workers, for the 10-Hour Bill; by the building workers, for cooperative direct action; by all groups of workers, for the right to join trade unions. The great strike in the north-east coalfield in 1831 turned on security of employment, ‘tommy shops’, child labour.

The exploitive relationship is more than the sum of grievances and mutual antagonisms. It is a relationship which can be seen to take distinct forms in different historical contexts, forms which are related to corresponding forms of ownership and State power. The classic exploitive relationship of the Industrial Revolution is depersonalized, in the sense that no lingering obligations of mutuality – of paternalism or deference, or of the interests of ‘the Trade’ – are admitted. There is no whisper of the ‘just’ price, or of a wage justified in relation to social or moral sanctions, as opposed to the operation of free market forces. Antagonism is accepted as intrinsic to the relations of production. Managerial or supervisory functions demand the repression of all attributes except those which further the expropriation of the maximum surplus value from labour. This is the political economy which Marx anatomized in Das Kapital. The worker has become an ‘instrument’, or an entry among other items of cost.

In fact, no complex industrial enterprise could be conducted according to such a philosophy. The need for industrial peace, for a stable labour-force, and for a body of skilled and experienced workers, necessitated the modification of managerial techniques – and, indeed, the growth of new forms of paternalism – in the cotton-mills by the 1830s. But in the overstocked outwork industries, where there was always a sufficiency of unorganized ‘hands’ competing for employment, these considerations did not operate. Here, as old customs were eroded, and the old paternalism was set aside, the exploitive relationship emerged supreme.

This does not mean that we can lay all the ‘blame’ for each hardship of the Industrial Revolution upon ‘the masters’ or upon laissez faire. The process of industrialization must, in any conceivable social context, entail suffering and the destruction of older and valued ways of life. Much recent research has thrown light upon the particular difficulties of the British experience; the hazards of markets; the manifold commercial and financial consequences of the Wars; the post-war deflation; movements in the terms of trade; and the exceptional stresses resulting from the population ‘explosion’. Moreover, twentieth-century preoccupations have made us aware of the overarching problems of economic growth. It can be argued that Britain in the Industrial Revolution was encountering the problems of ‘take-off’; heavy long-term investment – canals, mills, railways, foundries, mines, utilities – was at the expense of current consumption; the generations of workers between 1790 and 1840 sacrificed some, or all, of their prospects of increased consumption to the future. #1_978 [1]

These arguments all deserve close attention. For example, studies of the fluctuations in the demand of the South American market, or of the crisis in country banking, may tell us much about the reasons for the growth or retardation of particular industries. The objection to the reigning academic orthodoxy is not to empirical studies per se, but to the fragmentation of our comprehension of the full historical process. First, the empiricist segregates certain events from this process and examines them in isolation. Since the conditions which gave rise to these events are assumed, they appear not only as explicable in their own terms but as inevitable. The Wars had to be paid for out of heavy taxation; they accelerated growth in this way and retarded it in that. Since this can be shown, it is also implied that this was necessarily so. But thousands of Englishmen at the time agreed with Thomas Bewick’s condemnation of ‘this superlatively wicked war’. #1_979 [1] The unequal burden of taxation, fund-holders who profited from the National Debt, paper-money – these were not accepted as given data by many contemporaries, but were the staple of intensive Radical agitation.

But there is a second stage, where the empiricist may put these fragmentary studies back together again, constructing a model of the historical process made up from a multiplicity of interlocking inevitabilities, a piecemeal processional. In the scrutiny of credit facilities or of the terms of trade, where each event is explicable and appears also as a self-sufficient cause of other events, we arrive at a post facto determinism. The dimension of human agency is lost, and the context of class relations is forgotten.

It is perfectly true that what the empiricist points to was there. The Orders in Council had in 1811 brought certain trades almost to a standstill; rising timber prices after the Wars inflated the costs of building; a passing change of fashion (lace for ribbon) might silence the looms of Coventry; the power-loom competed with the hand-loom. But even these open-faced facts, with their frank credentials, deserve to be questioned. Whose Council, why the Orders? Who profited most from corners in scarce timber? Why should looms remain idle when tens of thousands of country girls fancied ribbons but could not afford to buy. By what social alchemy did inventions for saving labour become engines of immiseration? The raw fact – a bad harvest – may seem to be beyond human election. But the way that fact worked its way out was in terms of a particular complex of human relationship: law, ownership, power. When we encounter some sonorous phrase such as ‘the strong ebb and flow of the trade cycle’ we must be put on our guard. For behind this trade cycle there is a structure of social relations, fostering some sorts of expropriation (rent, interest, and profit) and outlawing others (theft, feudal dues), legitimizing some types of conflict (competition, armed warfare) and inhibiting others (trade unionism, bread riots, popular political organization) – a structure which may appear, in the eyes of the future, to be both barbarous and ephemeral.

It might be unnecessary to raise these large questions, since the historian cannot always be questioning the credentials of the society which he studies. But all these questions were, in fact, raised by contemporaries: not only by men of the upper classes (Shelley, Cobbett, Owen, Peacock, Thompson, Hodgskin, Carlyle) but by thousands of articulate working men. Not the political institutions alone, but the social and economic structure of industrial capitalism, were brought into question by their spokesmen. To the facts of orthodox political economy they opposed their own facts and their own arithmetic. Thus as early as 1817 the Leicester framework knitters put forward, in a series of resolutions, an under-consumption theory of capitalist crisis:

That in proportion as the Reduction of Wages makes the great Body of the People poor and wretched, in the same proportion must the consumption of our manufacturers be lessened.

That if liberal Wages were given to the Mechanics in general throughout the Country, the Home Consumption of our Manufactures would be immediately more than doubled, and consequently every hand would soon find full employment.

That to Reduce the Wage of the Mechanic in this Country so low that he cannot live by his labour, in order to undersell Foreign Manufacturers in a Foreign Market, is to gain one customer abroad, and lose two at home… #1_980 [1]

If those in employment worked shorter hours, and if child labour were to be restricted, there would be more work for hand-workers and the unemployed could employ themselves and exchange the products of their labour directly – short-circuiting the vagaries of the capitalist market – goods would be cheaper and labour better-rewarded. To the rhetoric of the free market they opposed the language of the ‘new moral order’. It is because alternative and irreconcilable views of human order – one based on mutuality, the other on competition – confronted each other between 1815 and 1850 that the historian today still feels the need to take sides.

It is scarcely possible to write the history of popular agitations in these years unless we make at least the imaginative effort to understand how such a man as the ‘Journeyman Cotton Spinner’ read the evidence. He spoke of the ‘masters’, not as an aggregate of individuals, but as a class. As such, ‘they’ denied him political rights. If there was a trade recession, ‘they’ cut his wages. If trade improved, he had to fight ‘them’ and their state to obtain any share in the improvement. If food was plentiful, ‘they’ profited from it. If it was scarce, some of ‘them’ profited more. ‘They’ conspired, not in this or that fact alone, but in the essential exploitive relationship within which all the facts were validated. Certainly there were market fluctuations, bad harvests, and the rest; but the experience of intensified exploitation was constant, whereas these other causes of hardship were variable. The latter bore upon working people, not directly, but through the refraction of a particular system of ownership and power which distributed the gains and losses with gross partiality.

These larger considerations have been, for some years, overlaid by the academic exercise (through which all students must march and counter-march) known as the ‘standard-of-living controversy’. Did the living standards of the bulk of the people rise or fall between 1780 and 1830 – or 1800 and 1850? #1_981 [1] To understand the significance of the argument, we must look briefly at its development.

The debate on values is as old as the Industrial Revolution. The controversy on the standard-of-living is more recent. The ideological muddle is more recent still. We may start at one of the more lucid points of the controversy. Sir John Clapham, in his Preface to the first edition of his Economic History of Modern Britain (1926) wrote:

The legend that everything was getting worse for the working man, down to some unspecified date between the drafting of the People’s Charter and the Great Exhibition [1837 and 1851: E.P.T.], dies hard. The fact that, after the price fall of 1820–21, the purchasing power of wages in general – not, of course, of everyone’s wages – was definitely greater than it had been just before the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, fits so ill with the tradition that it is very seldom mentioned, the work of statisticians on wages and prices being constantly ignored by social historians.

To this, J. L. Hammond offered a reply in the Economic History Review (1930) of two kinds: first, he criticized Clapham’s statistics of agricultural earnings. These had been based on totting up the country averages, and then dividing them by the number of counties in order to reach a national average; whereas the population in the low wage-earning counties of the south was more numerous than that of the high wage-earning counties (where agricultural earnings were inflated by the proximity of industry) so that Hammond was able to show that the ‘national average’ concealed the fact that 60% of the labouring population was in counties where wages were below the ‘average’ figure. The second part of his reply consisted in a switch to discussions of value (happiness) in his most cloudy and unsatisfactory manner. The first part of this reply Clapham, in his Preface to his second edition (1930), accepted; the second part he met with dry caution (‘a curve in words’, ‘higher matters’) but nevertheless acknowledged: ‘I agree most profoundly… that statistics of material well-being can never measure a people’s happiness.’ Moreover, he asserted that when he had criticized the view that ‘everything was getting worse’ – ‘I did not mean that everything was getting better. I only meant that recent historians have too often… stressed the worsenings and slurred over or ignored the betterings.’ The Hammonds, for their part, in a late revision of The Bleak Age (1947 edition), made their own peace: ‘statisticians tell us that… they are satisfied that earnings increased and that most men and women were less poor when this discontent was loud and active than they were when the eighteenth century was beginning to grow old in a silence like that of autumn. The evidence, of course, is scanty, and its interpretation not too simple, but this general view is probably more or less correct.’ The explanation for discontent ‘must be sought outside the sphere of strictly economic conditions’.

So far, so good. The most fertile – but loose – social historians of the period had encountered the astringent criticism of a notable empiricist; and in the result both sides had given ground. And, despite the heat which has subsequently been generated, the actual divergence between the hard economic conclusions of the protagonists is slight. If no serious scholar is now willing to argue that everything was getting worse, no serious scholar will argue that everything was getting better. Both Dr Hobsbawm (a ‘pessimist’) and Professor Ashton (an ‘optimist’) agree that real wages declined during the Napoleonic Wars and in their immediate aftermath. Dr Hobsbawm will not vouch for any marked general rise in the standard-of-living until the mid-1840s; whereas Professor Ashton notes a ‘more genial’ economic climate after 1821 – a ‘marked upward movement broken only by the slumps of 1825–6 and 1831’; and in view of increasing imports of tea, coffee, sugar, etc, ‘it is difficult to believe that workers had no share in the gain’. On the other hand his own table of prices in the Oldham and Manchester districts show that ‘in 1831 the standard diet of the poor can hardly have cost much less than in 1791’, while he offers no corresponding wage-tables. His conclusion is to suggest two main groups within the working-class – ‘a large class raised well above the level of mere subsistence’ and ‘masses of unskilled or poorly skilled workers – seasonally employed agricultural workers and hand-loom weavers in particular – whose incomes were almost wholly absorbed in paying for the bare necessaries of life’. ‘My guess would be that the number of those who were able to share in the benefits of economic progress was larger than the number of those who were shut out from these benefits and that it was steadily growing.’ #1_982 [1]

In fact, so far as the period 1790–1830 goes, there is very little in it. The condition of the majority was bad in 1790; it remained bad in 1830 (and forty years is a long time) but there is some disagreement as to the size of the relative groups within the working class. And matters are little clearer in the next decade. There were undoubted increases in real wages among organized workers during the burst of trade union activity between 1832–4: but the period of good trade between 1833 and 1837 was accompanied by the smashing of the trade unions by the concerted efforts of Government, magistrates, and employers; while 1837–42 are depression years. So that it is indeed at ‘some unspecified date between the drafting of the People’s Charter and the Great Exhibtion’ that the tide begins to turn; let us say, with the railway boom in 1843. Moreover, even in the mid-40s the plight of very large groups of workers remains desperate, while the railway crash led to the depression years of 1847–8. This does not look very much like a ‘success story’; in half a century of the fullest development of industrialism, the standard-of-living still remained – for very large but indeterminate groups – at the point of subsistencey.

This is not, however, the impression given in much contemporary writing. For, just as an earlier generation of historians who were also social reformers (Thorold Rogers, Arnold Toynbee, the Hammonds) allowed their sympathy with the poor to lead on occasions to a confusion of history with ideology, so we find that the sympathies of some economic historians today for the capitalist entrepreneur have led to a confusion of history and apologetics. #1_983 [1] The point of transition was marked by the publication, in 1954, of a symposium on Capitalism and the Historians, edited by Professor F. A. Hayek, itself the work of a group of specialists ‘who for some years have been meeting regularly to discuss the problems of the preservation of a free society against the totalitarian threat’. Since this group of international specialists regarded ‘a free society’ as by definition a capitalist society, the effects of such an admixture of economic theory and special pleading were deplorable; and not least in the work of one of the contributors, Professor Ashton, whose cautious findings of 1949 are now transmuted – without further evidence – into the flat statement that ‘generally it is now agreed that for the majority the gain in real wages was substantial’. #1_984 [1] It is at this stage that the controversy degenerated into a muddle And despite more recent attempts to rescue it for scholarship, #2_569 [2] in many respects it is as a muddle of assertion and special pleading that the controversy remains.

The controversy falls into two parts. There is, first, the very real difficulty of constructing wage-series, price-series, and statistical indices from the abundant but patchy evidence. We shall examine some of the difficulties in interpreting such evidence when we come to the artisans. But at this point a further series of difficulties begins, since the term ‘standard’ leads us from data amenable to statistical measurement (wages or articles of consumption) to those satisfactions which are sometimes described by statisticans as ‘imponderables’. From food we are led to homes, from homes to health, from health to family life, and thence to leisure, work-discipline, education and play, intensity of labour, and so on. From standard-of-life we pass to way-of-life. But the two are not the same. The first is a measurement of quantities: the second a description (and sometimes an evaluation) of qualities. Where statistical evidence is appropriate to the first, we must rely largely upon ‘literary evidence’ as to the second. A major source of confusion arises from the drawing of conclusions as to one from evidence appropriate only to the other. It is at times as if statisticians have been arguing: ‘the indices reveal an increased per capita consumption of tea, sugar, meat and soap, therefore the working class was happier’, while social historians have replied: ‘literary sources show that people were unhappy, therefore their standard-of-living must have deteriorated’.

This is to simplify. But simple points must be made. It is quite possible for statistical averages and human experiences to run in opposite directions. A per capita increase in quantitative factors may take place at the same time as a great qualitative disturbance in people’s way of life, traditional relationships, and sanctions. People may consume more goods and become less happy or less free at the same time. Next to the agricultural workers the largest single group of working people during the whole period of the Industrial Revolution were the domestic servants. Very many of them were household servants, living-in with the employing family, sharing cramped quarters, working excessive hours, for a few shillings’ reward. Nevertheless, we may confidently list them among the more favoured groups whose standards (or consumption of food and dress) improved on average slightly during the Industrial Revolution. But the hand-loom weaver and his wife, on the edge of starvation, still regarded their status as being superior to that of a ‘flunkey’. Or again, we might cite those trades, such as coal-mining, in which real wages advanced between 1790 and 1840, but at the cost of longer hours and greater intensity of labour, so that the breadwinner was ‘worn out’ before the age of forty. In statistical terms, this reveals an upward curve. To the families concerned it might feel like immiseration.

Thus it is perfectly possible to maintain two propositions which, on a casual view, appear to be contradictory. Over the period 1790–1840 there was a slight improvement in average material standards. Over the same period there was intensified exploitation, greater insecurity, and increasing human misery. By 1840 most people were ‘better off’ than their forerunners had been fifty years before, but they had suffered and continued to suffer this slight improvement as a catastrophic experience. In order to explore this experience, out of which the political and cultural expression of working-class consciousness arose, we shall do these things. First, we shall examine the changing life-experience of three groups of workers: the field labourers, the urban artisans, and the hand-loom weavers. #1_985 [1] Second, we shall discuss some of the less ‘ponderable’ elements in the people’s standard-of-life. Third, we shall discuss the inner compulsions of the industrial way of life, and the bearing upon them of Methodism. Finally, we shall examine some of the elements in the new working-class communities.


The Field Labourers

THE difficulties of assessing ‘standards’ may be seen if we examine the history, between 1790 and 1830, of the largest group of workers in any industry – the agricultural labourers. #1_986 [1] It is not altogether true (as the Hammonds implied) that the evidence is ‘scanty’. The difficulty lies more often in its interpretation. There are abundant records as to early nineteenth-century wages and prices, but continuous runs of reliable figures for the same job or the same region are more scarce. Anyone who has examined the dense undergrowth of evidence in Sir John Clapham’s Economic History of Modern Britain, with its diversity in regional and occupational practices, may well feel overwhelmed by its luxuriance. And, indeed, Clapham’s chapters on ‘Agrarian Organization’ and ‘Industrial Organization’ are in themselves an education – but an education, not in the interpretation of evidence so much as in its qualifications.

Throughout this painstaking investigation, the great empiricist eschews all generalizations except for one – the pursuit of the mythical ‘average’. In his discussion of agriculture we encounter the ‘average farm’, the ‘average small-holding’, the ‘average’ ratio of labourers to employers, – notions which often obscure more than they reveal, since they are arrived at by lumping together evidence from Welsh mountains and Norfolk corn-lands which Clapham himself has been at pains to distinguish. We go on to encounter ‘the average cottager in an area affected by enclosure’, the ‘average’ loss to rural earnings from industrial by-employments, the gross earnings of ‘that rather vague figure, the average English (with Welsh) labourer’, and so on. We have already seen that this ‘averaging’ can give us very odd results: the 60% of the labourers who, in 1830, were in low-wage counties which fell below the ‘average’ line. #1_987 [1] ‘In any average,’ Clapham admitted, ‘some 50% of the figures averaged may be expected to fall below the line.’ But if the average itself is based on the conventional wage of a worker in regular employment – that is, if the squire looks through his books and informs the Board of Agriculture that the conventional wage of a ploughman or carter is 12s. – then we may expect all or most of the casual labourers to fall below the line.

But it is in his discussion of supplementary earnings and of the effect of enclosures – as Clapham shuttles us between empirical minutiae (‘love reapings’ in Glamorgan and half-acre gardens in Ludlow) and ‘average’ estimates – that we feel we have parted company with social reality:

If the pig and the cottage garden brought in less to the average British labourer in 1824 than in 1794… very possibly the potato patch would, again on the average, balance the loss. Certainly, lost access to commons in those thirty years had worsened the lot of many men in many places, though it is doubtful whether, averaged over Britain, the loss in well-being due to the enclosures of the commons would amount to very much. It has been exaggerated in popular retrospect; for it had little significance in many parts of England; still less in Wales; and in Scotland, for the pure labourer, none at all. #2_570 [2]

Now what is being averaged? The first part of this statement might be of some value if it could be shown that in the same villages where cottage gardens were lost potato patches came in (although we should also examine relative rents). But the second part, which has already passed into comfortable tradition, is not an example of averaging but of statistical dilution. We are being invited to dilute the figures for those parts of Britain where enclosure did take place with those where it did not, divide the sum of this weak solution by the number of counties, and come up with an ‘average’ loss in well-being ‘due to enclosures’. But this is nonsense. One may not take an average of unlike quantities; nor may one divide quantities by counties to arrive at an average of value. This is what Clapham has done.

What he was really doing, of course, was to offer a tentative value judgement as to that elusive quality, ‘well-being’, in the period of maximum enclosure. But to do this, very many more factors – cultural as well as material – should have been brought to bear upon the judgement. Since the judgement springs like an oak out of such a thicket of circumstantial detail – and since it is itself disguised as an ‘average’ – it is easily mistaken as a statement of fact.

Nor are the facts themselves as clear as Clapham implies. Agricultural earnings, through much of the nineteenth century, stubbornly refuse to be reduced to statistical form. #1_988 [1] Not only do we face marked seasonal fluctuations in the demand for labour, but we have at least four different kinds of master-servant relationship. (1) Farm servants, hired by the year or the quarter. (2) A regular labour-force – on the large farm – more or less fully employed the year round. (3) Casual labour, paid by day-rate or piece-rate. (4) More or less skilled specialists, who might contract for the job.

In the first category, declining over this period, there is the most security and the least independence: very low wages, long hours, but board and lodging in the farmer’s household. In the second category will be found some of the best and some of the worst conditions: the ploughman or shepherd kept in security by a prudent farmer, his wife and children given preference in casual work, with milk and grain sold at cheap rates: at the other extreme, teenage farmhands, housed and fed as poorly as any pauper apprentices in the early mills, living in hay-lofts and subject to dismissal at any time: and in between ‘those unhappy men whom necessity has compelled to become the slaves of one man’, living in tied cottages, and ‘bound to work for certain low wages all the year’. #1_989 [1] In the third category there is immense variation: pauper labour: women and children at pauper wages: Irish migratory workers (even textile workers or other urban craftsmen who left their work for the high harvest earnings): and finely graduated piece-rates, such as those for mowing different qualities of hayfield. In the fourth category, we have countless differences of practice, and disguised sub-contracting or family earnings, which play havoc with any statistical table:

Mar. 21


Samson, waterfurrowing in 29 acres





Robert, 1 day sawing tops pollards




May 20


Strangers, hoeing 5 acres of wheat at 3s. 6d.




July 29


Wright, mowing 7 acres of clover





Richardson and Pavely, cleaning farmyard pond




– so runs an Essex farmer’s accounts in 1797. #2_571 [2] ‘I was a hurdle-maker and thatcher, and jobbed at hedging,’ Joseph Carter told Alexander Somerville, referring to the years 1823–30:

The squire shewed as how I got £64 a-year from him for work of that kind for seven years. But then he did not shew that I had most times a man to help me, and two women besides at times. He did not shew that I paid as much as £20 some years for helpers. #3_227 [3]

If the figures ‘do not shew that’, it is impossible for them to show a score of other influences: payments in kind or at cheap rates: gardens and potato patches: the effect of enclosure: the effect of taxes, tithes, game laws, and poor-rates: fluctuations in rural industrial employment: above all, the operation of the Poor Laws, before and after 1834. The incidence of different grievances may be felt quite differently at different times and in different parts. In some areas, and on some farms, payment in kind may be additional to wages and indicate an improvement in standards; but more generally (an agricultural historian has warned us) we should see these allowances as ‘the polite euphemism for truck in agriculture’ – a means of holding wages down or in extreme cases dispensing with money-wage altogether. #1_990 [1]

In all this very difficult tangle of conflicting evidence – between the effect of the Poor Laws here and new potato patches there, this lost common right and that cottage garden – the ‘average’ labourer proves more than elusive. #2_572 [2] But if averages evade us, we may still sketch certain of the general processes at work in many parts of the country. And first we should remember that the spirit of agricultural improvements in the eighteenth century was impelled less by altruistic desires to banish ugly wastes or – as the tedious phrase goes – to ‘feed a growing population’ than by the desire for fatter rent-rolls and larger profits. As such it turned towards the labourer a face of parsimony:

There is a practice which prevails… of giving them drink both forenoon and afternoon, be the work what it will; which is a ridiculous custom, and ought to be abolished without loss of time. What can be more absurd, than to see a ploughman stopping his horse half an hour, in a cold winter day, to drink ale? #3_228 [3]

The arguments of the enclosure propagandists were commonly phrased in terms of higher rental values and higher yield per acre. In village after village, enclosure destroyed the scratch-as-scratch-can subsistence economy of the poor. The cottager without legal proof of rights was rarely compensated. The cottager who was able to establish his claim was left with a parcel of land inadequate for subsistence and a disproportionate share of the very high enclosure cost.

Enclosure (when all the sophistications are allowed for) was a plain enough case of class robbery, played according to fair rules of property and law laid down by a parliament of property-owners and lawyers. Recent scholarship suggests that the rules of the game were kept to more fairly than was suggested by the Hammonds in their great Village Labourer: even very small property-owners received reasonable treatment, many enclosure commissioners acted conscientiously, and so on. #1_991 [1] But, in making these useful qualifications, it is possible to overlook the larger fact that what was at issue was a redefinition of the nature of agrarian property itself. Thus Chambers and Mingay have noted that, in enclosure,

The occupiers of common right cottages… who enjoyed common right by virtue of their tenancy of the cottage, received no compensation because they were not, of course, the owners of the rights. This was a perfectly proper distinction between owner and tenant, and involved no fraud or disregard for cottagers on the part of the commissioners. #2_573 [2]

But what was ‘perfectly proper’ in terms of capitalist property-relations involved, none the less, a rupture of the traditional integument of village custom and of right: and the social violence of enclosure consisted precisely in the drastic, total imposition upon the village of capitalist property-definitions. Of course, such definitions had been encroaching within the village for centuries before enclosure: but they had co-existed with those self-governing and customary elements in the structure of the pre-capitalist village community, which – while they were no doubt crumbling under the pressure of increasing population – persisted with remarkable vigour in many places. Copyhold and even vaguer customary family tenancies (which carried common rights) might prove to be invalid at law although they were endorsed by the collective memory of the community. Those petty rights of the villagers, such as gleaning, access to fuel, and the tethering of stock in the lanes or on the stubble, which are irrelevant to the historian of economic growth, might be of critical importance to the subsistence of the poor.

Enclosure, indeed, was the culmination of a long secular process by which men’s customary relations to the agrarian means of production were undermined. It was of profound social consequence because it illuminates, both backwards and forwards, the destruction of the traditional elements in English peasant society. If one looks at English agriculture in the eighteenth century through the pages of Arthur Young’s Annals of Agriculture, or the various county surveys prepared (at the turn of the century) for the Board of Agriculture, it is possible to suppose that customary sanctions had long lost their force. But if one looks at the scene again from the standpoint of the villager, one finds a dense cluster of claims and usages, which stretch from the common to the market-place and which, taken together, made up the economic and cultural universe of the rural poor.

Professor Chambers has well written:

The appropriation to their own exclusive use of practically the whole of the common waste by the legal owners meant that the curtain which separated the growing army of labourers from utter proletarianization was torn down. It was, no doubt, a thin and squalid curtain… but it was real, and to deprive them of it without providing a substitute implied the exclusion of the labourers from the benefits which their intensified labour alone made possible. #1_992 [1]

The loss of the commons entailed, for the poor, a radical sense of displacement. One encounters an exceptional note of vehemence in some of the protests against enclosure which crop up from time to time in the Home Office papers: as witness an anonymous letter of 1799 addressed to Oliver Cromwell, Esquire, of Cheshunt Park:

Whe right these lines to you who are the Combin’d of the Parish of Cheshunt in the Defence of our Parrish rights which you unlawfully are about to disinherit us of…

Resolutions is maid by the aforesaid Combind that if you intend of inclosing Our Commond Commond fields Lammas Meads Marshes &c Whe Resolve before… that bloudy and unlawful act [it] is finished to have your hearts bloud if you proceede in the aforesaid bloudy act Whe like horse leaches will cry give, give until whe have spilt the bloud of every one that wishes to rob the Inosent unborn. It shall not be in your power to say I am safe from the hands of my Enemy for Whe like birds of pray will prively lie in wait to spil the bloud of the aforesaid Charicters whose names and places of abode are as prutrified sores in our Nostrils. Whe declair that thou shall not say I am safe when thou goest to thy bed for beware that thou liftest not thine eyes up in the most mist of flames… #1_993 [1]

The ‘Combin’d’ of Cheshunt were unusually articulate and determined: they succeeded in raising a counter-petition to parliament, and as a result of their pressure common rights were taken into account in the enclosure award. But the tone of such a letter as this reminds one that enclosure must be seen within the total situation of power and deference in the countryside. Men in the social and cultural station of the authors of such letters could only in the most exceptional circumstances – and with the advice of some men of education and substance – have had recourse to the costly and procrastinating procedures of an alien culture and an alien power. The fatalism of the cottager in the face of this ever-present power, and the uneven, piecemeal incidence of enclosure (when the enclosure of neighbouring villages might be separated by the passage of several decades), go some way towards explaining the seeming passivity of the victims.

Even so, this passivity may be overstated; there has been little research into the actual responses of the poor to enclosure, and such research presents peculiar difficulties, being concerned with the illiterate and the inarticulate enduring distinct experiences in hundreds of different villages over many decades. #1_994 [1] Enclosure-riots, the breaking of fences, threatening letters, arson, were more common than some agrarian historians suppose. But a reason for the very patchy character of resistance by the poor may be found in the divisions within the poor themselves. We might find a clue in a later passage of the letter of the ‘Combin’d’ of Cheshunt:

Whe cannot but say that there is plenty of room for Alterations for Whe cannot see why that Ruskins and a few more of them should run our Common over while there is no room for another to put anything on [If] thou hadst made an Alteration in the rights of Commoning thou instead of being contempabel whould thy Name been as Oderriferous Ointment pour’d fourth to us The voice of us and the maguor part of the parrish is for a regulation of commons rights…

There is evidence at the end of the eighteenth century of increasing pressure on the commons and of an over-stocking, not only by squatters and cottagers but also by large graziers like ‘that Ruskins’. In such a context, the dividing lines between the interests of the very small proprietor and the poor cottager became of critical importance. The small proprietor was interested in the strictest stinting and regulation of common rights: it was in the interest of the cottager or squatter that a more lax definition of custom should prevail. The eyes of the small proprietor (like those of any peasant in any age and country) might glitter at the short-term prospect of outright proprietorship – even the four or five acres which enclosure might bring: but the cottager without any proprietary rights by enclosure lost all. In the long run the gains of the small proprietors might prove to be illusory: but the illusion was sustained during the high price years of the French Wars.

Indeed, both of the major objects of the operation (more food and higher rents) were attained throughout the Wars. Rents rose very markedly in areas of recent enclosure, #2_574 [2] and they were sustained both by higher prices and higher yields per acre. When prices fell, in 1815–16 and in 1821, rents remained high – or came down as they always do, tardily – thereby spelling the ruin of many smallholders who had clung on to their few acre holdings gained from enclosure. #1_995 [1] High rents sustained extraordinary luxury and ostentatious expenditure among the landowners, while high prices nourished higher social pretensions – so much lamented by Cobbett – among the farmers and their wives. This was the meridian for those ‘country patriots’ whom Byron scorched in his Age of Bronze.

But greed alone cannot account for the position into which the labourer was driven in these years. How was it possible, when the wealth of the landowners and farmers was rising, for the labourer to be held at brute subsistence level? We must look for an answer in the general counter-revolutionary tone of the whole period. It is probable that the real wages of labourers had been rising in the decades before 1790, especially in areas contiguous to manufacturing or mining districts. ‘There wants a war to reduce wages,’ was the cry of some northern gentry in the 1790s. #2_575 [2] And the reflexes, of panic and class antagonism, inflamed in the aristocracy by the French Revolution were such as to remove inhibitions and to aggravate the exploitive relationship between masters and servants. The Wars saw not only the suppression of the urban reformers but also the eclipse of the humane gentry of whom Wyvill is representative. To the argument of greed a new argument was added for general enclosure – that of social discipline. The commons, ‘the poor man’s heritage for ages past’, on which Thomas Bewick could recall independent labourers still dwelling, who had built their cottages with their own hands, #3_229 [3] were now seen as a dangerous centre of indiscipline. Arthur Young saw them as a breeding-ground for ‘barbarians’, ‘nursing up a mischievous race of people’; of the Lincolnshire Fens, ‘so wild a country nurses up a race of people as wild as the fen’. #4_61 [4]

Ideology was added to self-interest. It became a matter of public-spirited policy for the gentleman to remove cottagers from the commons, reduce his labourers to dependence, pare away at supplementary earnings, drive out the smallholder. At a time when Wordsworth was extolling the virtues of old Michael and his wife, in their struggle to maintain their ‘patrimonial fields’, the very much more influential Commercial and Agricultural Magazine regarded the ‘yeoman’ in a different light:

A wicked, cross-grained, petty farmer is like the sow in his yard, almost an insulated individual, who has no communication with, and therefore, no reverence for the opinion of the world.

As for the rights of the cottager in enclosure, ‘it may seem needless to notice his claims’:

But the interest of the other claimants is ultimately concerned in permitting the labouring man to acquire a certain portion of land… for by this indulgence the poor-rates must be speedily diminished; since a quarter of an acre of garden-ground will go a great way towards rendering the peasant independent of any assistance. However, in this beneficent intention moderation must be observed, or we may chance to transform the labourer into a petty farmer; from the most beneficial to the most useless of all the applications of industry. When a labourer becomes possessed of more land than he and his family can cultivate in the evenings… the farmer can no longer depend on him for constant work, and the hay-making and harvest… must suffer to a degree which… would sometimes prove a national inconvenience.

As for the village poor they are ‘designing rogues, who, under various pretences, attempt to cheat the parish’, and ‘their whole abilities are exerted in the execution of deceit, which may procure from the parish officers an allowance of money for idle and profligate purposes’. #1_996 [1]

There are, of course, exceptions. But this is the way the grain runs between 1790 and 1810. It was a matter of policy to increase the dependence of cheap reserves of labour – ‘applications of industry’ for the convenience of the farmer at haymaking and harvest, and for the road-making, fencing and draining incident on enclosure. What Cobbett called ‘Scotch feelosofy’ and the Hammonds the ‘spirit of the age’ was endorsed as heartily by landowners as by manufacturers. But whereas it fitted the conditions of the Industrial Revolution like a glove, in agriculture it contested (at best) with older paternalist traditions (the squire’s duty to his labourers) and with the tradition of earnings based on need (the older customs of differentials according to age, marital status, children, etc., which were perpetuated under the Speenhamland system of poor relief); while (at worst) it was reinforced by the feudal arrogance of the aristocracy towards the inferior labouring race. The doctrine that labour discovers its own ‘natural’ price, according to the laws of supply and demand, had long been ousting the notion of the ‘just’ wage. During the Wars it was propagated by every means. ‘The demand for labour must necessarily regulate wages,’ wrote a country magistrate in 1800. And he went on to argue that the poor-rates, by maintaining a surplus population and encouraging marriages – thereby ensuring a supply of labour in excess of demand – brought down the total wages bill. Indeed, he showed himself a pioneer in the science of ‘averages’:

Let us suppose the annual poor-rates, and the amount of wages throughout England added together in one total; I think this total would be less than the sole amount of the wages, if the poor-rates had not existed. #1_997 [1]

The motives which led to the introduction of the various systems of poor-relief which related relief to the price of bread and to the number of children were no doubt various. The Speenhamland decision of 1795 was impelled by both humanity and necessity. But the perpetuation of Speenhamland and ‘roundsman’ systems, in all their variety, was ensured by the demand of the larger farmers – in an industry which has exceptional requirements for occasional or casual labour – for a permanent cheap labour reserve.

After the Wars there is a new emphasis: farmers are very much more willing to listen to the warnings of Malthus against ‘a bounty on population’. Poor-rates had risen from under two million pounds per annum in the 1780s, to more than four millions in 1803, and over six millions after 1812. A bounty on population now appeared, as the Poor Law Commission was to describe it in 1834, as ‘a bounty on indolence and vice’. Landowners and farmers began to regret the lost commons – the cow, the geese, the turfs – which had enabled the poor to subsist without coming to the parish overseer. Some cows came back: here and there potato patches made some headway: the Board of Agriculture lent its strenuous support to the allotment propaganda. But it was too late to reverse a general process: no common was ever brought back (though many more were enclosed) and few landowners would risk renting land (perhaps four acres for a cow at a minimum of £6 per annum) to a labourer. Farmers who had made a doctrine of parsimony during the years of war prosperity were not inclined to be less parsimonious when wheat prices fell. Moreover, the population of the villages was added to by returned soldiers; the labourers were joined by bankrupt smallholders; the work incidental to enclosure fell off; and the concentration of the textile industries in the north and the Midlands further weakened the position of the labourer in East Anglia, the West Country, and the south. New or expanding rural industries (straw-plaiting or lace) might afford temporary relief in certain counties; but the overall decline (most notably in spinning) is beyond dispute. And as domestic employments failed, so the cheap labour of women as field labourers grew. #1_998 [1]

High rents or falling prices: war debt and currency crises: taxes on malt, on windows, on horses: Game Laws, with their paraphernalia of gamekeepers, spring-guns, mantraps and (after 1816) sentences of transportation: all served, directly or indirectly, to tighten the screw upon the labourer. ‘The Jacobins did not do these things,’ exclaimed Cobbett:

And will the Government pretend that ‘Providence’ did it?… Poh! These things are the price of efforts to crush freedom in France, lest the example of France should produce a reform in England. These things are the price of that undertaking… #2_576 [2]

Nor could the labourer expect to find a protector in the ‘average’ parson – who, to Cobbett, was an absentee pluralist, entertaining his family at Bath while an underpaid curate attended services.

For nearly four decades, there is a sense of the erosion of traditional sanctions and of a countryside governed with counter-revolutionary licence. ‘In regard to the poor-rates,’ one Bedfordshire ‘feelosofer’ (Dr Macqueen) wrote to the Board of Agriculture in 1816, ‘I always view these as coupled with the idleness and depravity of the working class’:

The morals as well as the manners of the lower orders of the community have been degenerating since the earliest ages of the French Revolution. The doctrine of equality and the rights of man is not yet forgotten, but fondly cherished and reluctantly abandoned. They consider their respective parishes as their right and inheritance, in which they are entitled to resort… #1_999 [1]

One recalls with difficulty that England belonged to the labourers as well.

In the southern and eastern parishes the long war of attrition centred on the right of poor-relief. After the commons were lost, it was the last – the only – right the labourer had. The young and the single – or the village craftsmen – might venture to the towns, follow the canals (later the railways), or emigrate. But the mature labourer with a family was afraid of losing the security of his ‘settlement’; this, as much as his attachment to his own community and rural customs, prevented him from competing wholesale with the Irish poor (who, unluckier even than him, had no settlement to lose) in the industrial labour market. Even in times of labour ‘shortage’ in the manufacturing districts, his migration was not encouraged. When, after 1834, the Poor Law Commissioners sought to stimulate such migration, principally to the mills of Lancashire and Yorkshire, – perhaps, as a counter-blow at the trade unions – preference was given to ‘widows with large families of children, or handicraftsmen… with large families. Adult men could not acquire the requisite skill for the superior processes of the factories.’ Labour markets were set up in Manchester and Leeds where mill-owners could scan the details of families – age of children – character as a workman – moral character – remarks (‘exceeding healthy’, ‘fine of their age’, ‘willing to take on themselves the part of parents to three orphans’) – like stock for sale. ‘We have numbers of small families,’ one hopeful Suffolk guardian appended, ‘such as man and wife, willing, if you could engage them together, say man at 8s., woman at 4s.’ #1_1000 [1]

The poor-rates, then, were the labourer’s last ‘inheritance’. From 1815 to 1834 the contest continued. On the side of the gentry and overseers, economies, settlement litigation, stone-breaking and punitive tasks, cheap labour-gangs, the humiliations of labour-auctions, even of men harnessed in carts. On the side of the poor, threats to the overseers, sporadic sabotage, a ‘servile and cunning’ or ‘sullen and discontented’ spirit, an evident demoralization documented in page after page of the Poor Law Commissioners’ Reports. ‘It would be better for us to be slaves at once than to work under such a system… when a man has his spirit broken, what is he good for?’ In the Speenhamland counties of the south the labourers had their own bitter jest – the farmers ‘keep us here [on the poor-rates] like potatoes in a pit, and only take us out for use when they can no longer do without us’. #2_577 [2]

It is an apt description. Cobbett, in his invectives against wholesale rural depopulation, was right in his description of causes but wrong in his conclusions. It seems probable that the enclosures – especially of arable land in the south and the east during the Wars – did not result in general depopulation. While labourers were migrating – in ripples, from village to town, and from county to county – the general population rise more than compensated for the loss. After the Wars, when prices fell and the farmers could no longer ‘get vent for our young men in the army or navy’ (a useful disciplinary power, in the hands of a country magistrate), the outcry was about ‘surplus population’. But, after the new Poor Law was put into operation in 1834, this ‘surplus’ in some villages proved fictitious. In these villages the greater part of the labour bill was being met through the poor-rates; labourers were employed for odd days or half-days and then turned back on the parish. ‘If there comes a frost they discharge them,’ said one overseer: ‘when the season opens they come to me, and take ’em back again. The farmers make my house what we call in our trade a house of call.’ Wet weather created a ‘surplus’: harvest a ‘shortage’. Employers, jealous at subsidizing the labour of their neighbours through the poor-rates, would discharge their own men and apply for their labour from the overseer: ‘So-and-so has turned off two of his men; if I am to pay to their wages, he shall pay to yours; you must go.’ It is a system open to endless permutations of muddle, waste, and extortion – and to a few tricks on the labourer’s side as well. But – cunning and sheer mulishness apart – it had a single tendency: to destroy the last vestige of control by the labourer over his own wage or working life. #1_1001 [1]

‘A system’ – the cant phrase of the political economy of the time runs, when brought to bear on Speenhamland – ‘which has broken the bond of mutual dependence between the master and his servant.’ In fact, the southern labourer had been reduced to total dependence on the masters as a class. But slave labour is ‘uneconomic’, especially when it is exacted from men who nourish grievances at lost rights and the inchoate resistances of ‘free-born Englishmen’. It is ‘uneconomic’ to supervise labourers in gangs (although this was done for many years in the eastern counties) – through most of the year labourers must work in twos and threes, with the stock, in the fields, at hedging, by their own initiative. During these years the exploitive relationship was intensified to the point where it simply ceased to ‘pay’ – this kind of pauper labour turned out to be turnip-pilferers, alehouse scroungers, poachers and layabouts. It was easier to emigrate than to resist; for reinforcing the exploitive relationship was that of political repression. Illiteracy, exhaustion, the emigration from the village of the ambitious, the sharp-witted and the young, the shadow of the squire and parson, the savage punishmentof enclosure or bread rioters and of poachers – all combined to induce fatalism and to inhibit the articulation of grievances. Cobbett, the greatest tribune of the labourers, had many supporters among the farmers and in the small market towns. It is doubtful whether before 1830 many labourers knew his name or understood what he was about. As Cobbett rode past the ‘Accursed Hill’ of Old Sarum, he met a labourer returning from work:

I asked how he got on. He said, very badly. I asked him what was the cause of it. He said the hard times. ‘What times,’ said I; ‘was there ever a finer summer, a finer harvest…?’ ‘Ah!’ said he, ’they make it bad for poor people, for all that.’ ‘They?’ said I, ‘who is they?’ He was silent. ‘Oh, no, no! my friend,’ said I, ‘it is not they; it is that Accursed Hill that has robbed you…’ #1_1002 [1]

Throughout the Wars the ‘grand fabric of society’ was supported upon this ‘distressful… rustic base’. ‘It is the wives of these men,’ wrote David Davies, ‘who rear those hardy broods of children who, besides supplying the country with the hands it wants, fill up the voids which death is continually making in camps and cities.’ #2_578 [2] After the Wars, with soaring prices and the return of soldiers to their villages, there was some stirring of revolt. ‘The Burthen that is now laid on us we are Determin’d to bear no longer,’ ran a letter from the Yeovil district, signed with a bleeding heart: ‘Blood and Blood and Blood, A General Revolution their mus be…’ #3_230 [3] But the very violence of such threats points to a sense of impotence. Only in 1816 in East Anglia, where the labourers were frequently employed in large gangs, did serious disturbances break out. The demand for a minimum wage (2s. a day) was united with the demand for price maximums; there were food riots, forced levies for money from the gentry, and the destruction of threshing-machines. But disorder was brutally repressed, and thrust back into the underground of the poaching war, the anonymous letter, the flaming corn rick. #1_1003 [1]

Revolt, when it came, in 1830, with its curiously indecisive and unbloodthirsty mobs (‘the turbulence of demoralized freemen’) was met with the same sense of outrage as a rising of the ‘blacks’. ‘I induced the magistrates to put themselves on horseback,’ recorded the victor of Waterloo,

each at the head of his own servants and retainers, grooms, huntsmen, game-keepers, armed with horsewhips, pistols, fowling pieces and what they could get, and to attack in concert… these mobs, disperse them, destroy them, and take and put in confinement those who could not escape. #2_579 [2]

It was not the Duke, however, but the new Whig Ministry (which was to pass the Reform Bill) which sent Special Commissions down to terrorize the insurgents. And it was the organ of middle-class Radicalism, The Times, which led the outcry for examples of severity. The advice was followed:

On the 9th of January [1831], judgment of death was recorded against twenty-three prisoners, for the destruction of a paper machine in Buckingham; in Dorset, on the 11th, against three, for extorting money, and two for robbery; at Norwich, fifty-five prisoners were convicted of machine-breaking and rioting; at Ipswich, three, for extorting money; at Petworth, twenty-six for machine-breaking and rioting; at Gloucester, upwards of thirty; at Oxford, twenty-nine; and at Winchester, out of upwards of forty convicted, six were left for execution…. At Salisbury, forty-four prisoners were convicted… #3_231 [3]

And it was a Whig Ministry again which sanctioned, three years later, the transportation of the labourers of Tolpuddle in Dorsetshire, who had had the insolence to form a trade union.

This revolt of the field labourers extended more widely into East Anglia and the Midlands, as well as the southern counties, and lasted longer than is apparent from the Hammonds’ account. Few first-hand accounts from the labourers’ side have survived. In 1845 Somerville took down the story of Joseph Carter, a Hampshire labourer from the village of Sutton Scotney (one of the places where the revolt commenced), who was sentenced to transportation for his part, and who had spent two years in the Portsmouth hulks. ‘Everybody was forced like to go,’ said Carter: ‘There was no denying’:

I wor at the meeting across the street there, in that corner house, the night as Joe Mason read the letter to us all, that came from Overton. There was no name to the letter. But Joe said he knowed who it came from. Joe was a good scholard. The letter, I know, came from old D—s; he be dead; and it came out of Newton; never came from Overton. It said we was all to leave off work; and the Sutton men was to go out and stop the ploughs. They was to send home the horses for the farmers to look after them themselves, and was to take the men with them. And they was to go and turn the men out of the barns. And they was all to go and break the sheens as the farmers had got to do the thrashing….

Well; about the letter. Joe Mason read it. We did not then know who it came from. But we knows, all on us now in this here place, that old D—s had a hand in’t. He was a great friend of Mr Cobbett. He used to write to Mr Cobbett. He never got into no trouble about it. He was too good a manager to get other people into trouble to get in himself. No; I do not blame this on Mr Cobbett. I mean old D—s, the shoemaker…

The labourers then collected or extorted money from gentry and farmers, and Joseph Carter was made treasurer:

They said I wor honest, and they gave it to me to carry. I had £40 at one time – £40 every shilling. Some people ha’ told me since that I should ha’ gone off with it. I did think of doing that once. The coach came by when we was up on the London Road, and it did come into my head to get on the coach, and get away from the whole business, with the £40. But I thought about leaving my wife behind, and about what a vagabond they would all call me, and the coach was soon past….

I needn’t ha’ been tried at all. They came to me time and times after I was in Winchester gaol, to get me to speak against the two Masons. They offered to let me clear, if I would only tell what I knowed agin them. Had I told what I knowed, they’d ha’ been hung, as sure as Borrowman, and Cooke, and Cooper, was hung. I was took out with the other prisoners to see they hung. They tried to frighten us by it to tell all we knowed on one another. But I wouldn’t split. So the Masons was only transported, and they transported me, too. Ees the mob took me agin my will; but then that was not enough to make me split, ’cause you see, I stayed with them…. It wor the young fellows did it… #1_1004 [1]

The labourers’ revolt was a true outburst of machine-breaking, with little indication of ulterior political motive. While corn ricks and other property were destroyed (as well as some industrial machinery in country districts) the main assault was on the threshing-machine, which (despite futurist homilies) patently was displacing the already starving labourers. Hence the destruction of the machines did in fact effect some immediate relief. #2_580 [2] But among the ‘young fellows’ it is possible that political ideas of further significance were abroad. #3_232 [3] A ‘scholard’ like Joe Mason may foreshadow George Loveless. Radical cobblers like D———s were to be found in most small market towns. In Norfolk it is tempting to suggest that the agitations of Jacobins and Radicals had left some traces in the villages. The most strenuous efforts were made in Lincolshire in 1830 and 1831 to intimidate labourers who had been reading Cobbett’s Register. #4_62 [4] But if there was a stirring political consciousness, it did not reach the point at which the urban and rural workers could form common organizations or make common cause, until several years after the labourers’ revolt had been repressed. #5_16 [5]

The revolt of 1830 was not wholly without effect. It led to the temporary raising of wages in the southern counties. And, indirectly, it gave a final push to Old Corruption. Many farmers, and a few of the gentry, had been ashamed of the business, had negotiated with the mobs, or given them passive support. The revolt both sapped the confidence of the gentry, and helped to arouse the Reform agitation of 1831-2. ‘The important feature in the affair,’ wrote Cobbett, ‘is, that the middle class, who always, heretofore, were arrayed, generally speaking, against the working class, are now with them in heart and mind, thought not always in act…. Among the tradesmen, even of the metropolis, ninety-nine out of a hundred are on the side of the labourers.’ #1_1005 [1] The aristocracy lost ‘face’: the necessity and urgency of Reform was made plainer. And it is from this time forward that articulate political development can be seen among the rural labourers: pockets of trade unionism in the 1830s: Joseph Arch’s father (‘steady as Old Time, a plodding man’) victimized in 1835 for refusing to sign a petition in favour of the Corn Laws: a scatter of Chartist branches in East Anglia and the south.

But the grievances of the labourers had, as it were, a vicarious existence, twisted in with the other strands which made up the consciousness of the urban working class. Although – unlike France or Ireland – it never gave rise to a coherent national agitation, the ground-swell of rural grievance came back always to access to the land. ‘Times used to be better before Bledlow was enclosed…. We should rejoice to occupy a rood of land, and pay full rent for it’ (Buckinghamshire Labourers’ Petition, 1834). ‘… small allotments of land to labourers to be cultivated with a spade…’ (Essex Labourers’ Petition, 1837). ‘He wished every labouring man to have three or four acres of land at the same rent as the farmers gave. They would pay this, and gladly. (Loud cheers….)’ (speech of Wiltshire labourer, 1845). When the labourer or his children moved into the town it was this aspiration which remained. And when the tithes, the Game Laws, and the threshing machines had been forgotten, the sense of lost rights lingered – or, as Clapham has it, was ‘exaggerated’ in ‘popular retrospect’. We shall see how Cobbett and Hunt, farmers both, helped to shape the new urban radicalism; but rural memories were fed into the urban working-class culture through innumerable personal experiences. #1_1006 [1] Throughout the nineteenth century the urban worker made articulate the hatred for the ‘landed aristocrat’ which perhaps his grandfather had nourished in secret: he liked to see the squire cast in villainous melodramas, and he preferred even a Board of Guardians to the charity of a Lady Bountiful: he felt that the landowner had no ‘right’ to his wealth whereas, if only by foul means, the mill-owner had ‘earned’ his. The response of urban trade unionists to the transportation of the Tolpuddle labourers was immediate and overwhelming; and to the later struggles of Arch’s union scarcely less so. And the yearning for land arises again and again, twisted in with the outworker’s desire for an ‘independence’, from the days of Spence to the Chartist Land Plan and beyond. Perhaps its vestiges are still with us today, in allotments and garden-plots. Land always carries associations – of status, security, rights – more profound than the value of its crop.

We see the influence of this as early as the 1790s, in the Jacobin hatred of the landed aristocracy. This was an enduring characteristic of the radicalism of the artisans, nourished by Paine’s Agrarian Justice and Spence’s propaganda for land nationalization. In the severe post-war depression, Dr Watson and other orators won great support from the unemployed, and the discharged sailors and soldiers who attended the meetings at Spa Fields:

… trade and commerce have been annihilated, but still the earth was by nature designed for the support of mankind. The earth is at all times sufficient to place man above distress… if he had but a spade and a hoe… #2_581 [2]

In the next decade, as Owenism changed its form among its plebeian followers, the dream of a cooperative community upon the land acquired extraordinary force.

And so, to the political myth of English freedom before the ‘Norman bastard and his armed banditti’ there was added the social myth of the golden age of the village community before enclosure and before the Wars:

Here’s that we may live to see the restoration of old English times, old English fare, old English holidays, and old English justice, and every man live by the sweat of his brow… when the weaver worked at his own loom, and stretched his limbs in his own field, when the laws recognized the poor man’s right to an abundance of everything…

– This is Feargus O’Connor, the Chartist leader, who gave to the myth gargantuan dimensions: but Cobbett, Hunt, Oastler and a score of Radical leaders contributed to it. The savage penal code, the privations, the bridewells, of old England were forgotten; but the myth of the lost paternalist community became a force in its own right – perhaps as powerful a force as the utopian projections of Owen and the Socialists. To say it was ‘myth’ is not to say it was all false; rather, it is a montage of memories, an ‘average’ in which every loss and every abuse is drawn into one total. In his youth, ‘Old Robin’ tells the mill-owner (in a pamphlet of O’Connor’s) ‘all those new streets behind Mr Twist’s and Mr Grab’s and Mr Screw’s… were all open fields, and children used to be there at eight, nine, ten, eleven, aye, and twelve years of age, idling their time at play, at cricket, at trap, and marbles, and ball… and leap-frog…’ Then came the time ‘when rich folk frightened poor folk out of their sense with “He’s a cooming” and “They’re a cooming”.’ ‘Who are “they”, Robin?’

Why, Boney and the French, to be sure. Well, that time when rich folk frightened poor folk and stole all the land. This was all common, then, Mr Smith… All reet and left, up away to bastile and barracks was all common. And all folk in Devil’s Dust would have a cow, or donkey, or horse on common, and they’d play cricket, and have running matches, and wrestling….

… They built barrack at one end and church at ’tother… and, at last, almost all folk had to sell cow, to pay Lawyer Grind, and Lawyer Squeeze… and now the son of one of ’em is mayor, and t’other… is manager of bank. Aye, dearee me, many’s the honest man was hung and transported over ould common. #1_1007 [1]

It is an historical irony that it was not the rural labourers but the urban workers who mounted the greatest coherent national agitation for the return of the land. Some of them were sons and grandsons of labourers, their wits sharpened by the political life of the towns, freed from the shadows of the squire. Some – the supporters of the Land Plan – were weavers and artisans of rural descent: ‘faither, and grandfaither and all folk belonging to I worked on land and it didn’t kill them, and why should it kill me?’ #1_1008 [1] Faced with hard times and unemployment in the brick wastes of the growing towns, the memories of lost rights rose up with a new bitterness of deprivation.

We have strayed far from averages. And that was our intention. For we cannot make an average of well-being. We have seen something of the other side of the world of Jane Austen’s novels; and for those who lived on that side the period felt catastrophic enough. ‘When farmers became gentlemen,’ Cobbett wrote, ‘their labourers became slaves.’ If it is possible to argue that there was gain at the end of the process, we must remember that the gain came to other people. In comparing a Suffolk labourer with his grand-daughter in a cotton-mill we are comparing – not two standards – but two ways of life.

There are, however, two relevant points which may be made about these averages. The first is that it is possible, given the same figures, to show both a relative decline and an absolute increase in poverty. Agriculture is an inelastic industry in its demand for labour: if ten labourers were required for a given farm in 1790, there might be ten – or, with improved ploughs and threshing machines – eight in 1830. We might show that the labourer or carter in regular employment increased his real wages over this period; while the increase in population in the village – casual labour and unemployed – led to an absolute increase in the number of the poor. And while this might be most evident in agriculture, the same hypothesis must be borne in mind when discussing the overall national picture. If, for the sake of argument, we take the hypothesis that 40% of the population (10.5 millions) was living below a given poverty-line’ in 1790, but only 30% of the population (18.1 millions) in 1841, nevertheless the absolute number of the poor will have increased from about four millions to well over five millions. More poverty will be ‘felt’ and, moreover, there will in fact be more poor people.

This is not juggling with figures. It is possible that something of this sort took place. But at the same time no such assessment of averages can tell us about ‘average’ human relationships. To judge these, we are forced to pick our way as we can through conflicting subjective evidence. And a judgement on this period must surely take in some impression of the ‘average’ English gentleman. We need not accept Cobbett’s invective – ‘the most cruel, the most unfeeling, the most brutally insolent’ of all God’s creatures. But we surely need not fall back into some of the queerer notions which have recently made a re-appearance: ‘The English country gentlemen were indeed perhaps the most remarkable class of men that any society has ever produced anywhere in the world.’ #1_1009 [1] In the place of this we may offer a Norfolk labourer’s opinion, in an anonymous letter to ‘the Gentlemen of Ashill’ – ‘You have by this time brought us under the heaviest burden & into the hardest Yoke we ever knowed’:

It is too hard for us to bear, you have often times blinded us saying that the fault was all in the Place-men of Parliament, but… they have nothing to do with the regulation of this parish.

You do as you like, you rob the poor of their Commons right, plough the grass up that God send to grow, that a poor man may feed a Cow, Pig, Horse, nor Ass; lay muck and stones on the road to prevent the grass growing…. There is 5 or 6 of you have gotten all the whole of the Land in this parish in your own hands & you would wish to be rich and starve all the other part of the poor…

‘We have counted up that we have gotten about 60 of us to 1 of you: therefore should you govern, so many to 1?’ #2_582 [2]

But it was for the tithe-consuming clergy that the especial hatred of the rural community was reserved. ‘Prepare your wicked Soul for Death,’ an Essex vicar was threatened in 1830, in a letter which enclosed two matches: ‘You & your whole Crew are biggest Paupers in the parish…’ The Rector of Freshwater (Isle of Wight) received an even more explicit intimation from one of his parishioners, in the form of some mild arson, with an accompanying letter. ‘For the last 20 years wee have been in a Starving Condition to maintain your Dam Pride’:

What we have done now is Soar against our Will but your harts is so hard as the hart of Pharo… So now as for this fire you must not take it as a front [an affront], for if you hadent been Deserving it wee should not have dont [done it] As for you my Ould frend you dident hapen to be hear, if that you had been rosted I fear, and if it had been so how the farmers would lagh to see the old Pasen [Parson] rosted at last…

‘As for this litel fire,’ the writer concluded, with equable ill-humour, ‘Don’t be alarmed it will be a damd deal wors when we Burn down your barn…’ #1_1010 [1]


Artisans and Others

IF the average is elusive in agriculture, it is no less so when we come to workers in urban industry. Still, in 1830, the characteristic industrial worker worked not in a mill or factory but (as an artisan or ‘mechanic’) in a small workshop or in his own home, or (as a labourer) in more-or-less casual employment in the streets, on building-sites, on the docks. When Cobbett directed his Political Register towards the common people in 1816, he addressed, not the working class, but the ‘Journeymen and Labourers’. There were great differences of degree concealed within the term, ‘artisan’, from the prosperous master-craftsman, employing labour on his own account and independent of any masters, to the sweated garret labourers. For this reason, it is difficult to offer any accurate estimates of the number and status of artisans in different trades. The occupational tables of the Census of 1831 make no effort to differentiate between the master, the self-employed, and the labourer. #1_1011 [1] After the agricultural labourers and domestic servants (670,491 female domestic servants alone being listed for Great Britain in 1831), the building trades made up the next largest group, accounting perhaps for 350,000 to 400,000 men and boys in 1831. Leaving aside the textile industries where outwork still predominated, the largest single artisan trade was that of shoemaking, with 133,000 adult male workers estimated for 1831, followed by tailoring, with 74,000. (Such figures include the employer, the country cobbler or tailor, the outworker, the shopkeeper, and the urban artisan proper.) In London, the greatest artisan centre in the world, where Dr Dorothy George appears to lend her authority to a rough estimate of 100,000 journeymen of all types in the early nineteenth century, Sir John Clapham advises us:

… the typical London skilled workman was neither brewery hand, shipwright nor silk weaver, but either a member of the building trades; or a shoemaker, tailor, cabinet-maker, printer, clockmaker, jeweller, baker – to mention the chief trades each of which had over 2,500 adult members in 1831. #1_1012 [1]

The wages of the skilled craftsmen at the beginning of the nineteenth century were often determined less by ‘supply and demand’ in the labour market than by notions of social prestige, or ‘custom’. Customary wage-regulation may cover many things, from the status accorded by tradition to the rural craftsman to intricate institutional regulation in urban centres. Industry was still widely dispersed throughout the countryside. The tinker, knife-grinder, or pedlar would take his wares or skills from farm to farm and fair to fair. In the large villages there would be stonemasons, thatchers, carpenters, wheel-wrights, shoemakers, the blacksmith’s forge: in the small market town there would be saddlers and harness-makers, tanners, tailors, shoemakers, weavers, and very possibly some local speciality such as stirrup-making or pillow-lace, as well as all the business of the posting-inns, carriage of farm produce and of coals, milling, baking and the like. Many of these rural craftsmen were better educated and more versatile and felt themselves to be a ‘cut above’ the urban workers – weavers, stockingers or miners – with whom they came into contact when they came to the towns. They brought their own customs with them; and no doubt these influenced wage-fixing and differentials in those small-town crafts which grew into great urban industries – building, coach-making, even engineering.

Custom, rather than costing (which was rarely understood), governed prices in many village industries, especially where local materials – timber or stone – were used. The blacksmith might work for so much a pound for rough work, a little more for fine. George Sturt, in his classic study of The Wheelwright’s Shop, has described how customary prices still prevailed in Farnham when he took over the family firm in 1884. ‘My great difficulty was to find out the customary price,’

I doubt if there was a tradesman in the district – I am sure there was no wheelwright – who really knew what his output cost, or what his profits were, or if he was making money or losing it on a particular job.

Much of the profit came from ‘jobbing’ and repairs. As for carts and waggons, ‘the only chance for me to make a profit would have been by lowering the quality of the output; and this the temper of the men made out of the question’. The men worked at the pace which their craftsmanship demanded: ‘they possibly (and properly) exaggerated the respect for good workmanship and material’; and as for the latter, ‘it happened not infrequently that a disgusted workman would refuse to use what I had supplied to him’. In the workman was ‘stored all the local lore of what good wheelwright’s work should be like’. #1_1013 [1]

Customary traditions of craftsmanship normally went together with vestigial notions of a ‘fair’ price and a ‘just’ wage. Social and moral criteria – subsistence, self-respect, pride in certain standards of workmanship, customary rewards for different grades of skill – these are as prominent in early trade union disputes as strictly ‘economic’ arguments. Sturt’s wheelwright’s shop perpetuated much older practices, and was country cousin to the city industry of coach-building, in which – in the early nineteenth century – there was a veritable hierarchy whose wage-differentials can scarcely be justified on economic grounds. ‘The wages are in proportion to the nicety of the work’, we are told in an 1818 Book of English Trades: for the body-makers, £2 to £3 a week: the trimmers ‘about two guineas’: the carriage-makers £1 to £2: the smith about 30s.: while the painters had their own hierarchy – the herald painters, who adorned the carriages of the great and the ostentatious with emblems, from £3 .to £4: the body painters about £2: and journeymen painters 20s. to 30s. The differentials supported, or perhaps reflected, gradations of social prestige:

The body-makers are first on the list; then follow the carriage-makers; then the trimmers; then the smiths; then the spring-makers; then the wheelwrights, painters, platers, bracemakers and so on. The body-makers are the wealthiest of all and compose among themselves a species of aristocracy to which the other workmen look up with feelings half of respect, half of jealousy. They feel their importance and treat the others with various consideration: carriage makers are entitled to a species of condescending familiarity; trimmers are considered too good to be despised; a foreman of painters they may treat with respect, but working painters can at most be favoured with a nod. #1_1014 [1]

These conditions were supported by the activities of a ‘Benevolent Society of Coachmakers’; and they survived the conviction under the Combination Acts of the General Secretary and twenty other members of the society in 1819. But it is important, at this stage, to note this early use of the term ‘aristocracy’, with reference to the skilled artisan. #2_583 [2] It is sometimes supposed that the phenomenon of a ‘labour aristocracy’ was coincident with the skilled trade unionism of the 1850s and 1860s – or was even the consequence of imperialism. But in fact there is both an old and a new élite of labour to be found in the years 1800–1850. The old élite was made up of master-artisans who considered themselves as ‘good’ as masters, shopkeepers, or professional men. #3_233 [3] (The Book of English Trades lists the apothecary, attorney, optician and statutory alongside the carpenter, currier, tailor and potter.) In some industries, the craftsman’s privileged position survived into workshop or factory production, through the force of custom, or combination and apprenticeship restriction, or because the craft remained highly skilled and specialized – fine and ‘fancy’ work in the luxury branches of the glass, wood and metal trades. The new élite arose with new skills in the iron, engineering and manufacturing industries. This is plain enough in engineering; but even in the cotton industry we must remember the warning, ‘we are not cotton-spinners all’. Overlookers, skilled ‘tenters’ of various kinds who adjusted and repaired the machines, pattern-drawers in calico-printing, and scores of other skilled subsidiary crafts, at which exceptional wages might be earned, were among the 1,225 sub-divisions of heads of employment in cotton manufacture enumerated in the 1841 Census.

If a specially favoured aristocracy was to be found in the London luxury trades and on the border-line between skills and technical or managerial functions in the great manufacturing industries, there was also a lesser aristocracy of artisans or privileged workers in almost every skilled industry. We can see this if we look for a moment through the inquisitive, humorous eyes of Thomas Large, a Leicester stocking-weaver who took part in a deputation to London in 1812 to lobby M.P.s on behalf of a Bill for regulating conditions in the hosiery industry. #1_1015 [1] Once they had reached London, the framework knitters – who had at this time no permanent trade union organization but simply an ad hoc committee formed to promote the passage of their Bill – made contact with trade unionists in London who, despite the Combination Acts, were easily located at their houses of call:

We have engaged the same Room, where the carpinter committee sat [Thomas Large wrote back to his friends in the Midlands] when they brought on the late Trial on the sistom of colting. We have had an opportunity of speaking to them on the subject, they thought we possessed a fund on a permanent principle to answer any demand, at any time, and if that had been the case would have lent us two or three thousand pounds, (for there is £20,000 in the fund belonging to that Trade) but When they understood our Trade kept no regular fund to support itself, Instead of Lending us money, Their noses underwent a Mechanical turn upwards, and each saluted the other with a significant stare, Ejaculating, Lord bless us !!! what fools!!! they richly deserve all they put! and ten times more!!! We always thought stockeners a sett of poor creatures! Fellows as wanting of spirit, as their pockets are of money. What would our Trade be, if we did not combine together? perhaps as poor as you are, at this day! Look at other Trades! they all Combine, (the Spitalfields weavers excepted, and what a Miserable Condition are they in). See the Tailors, Shoemakers, Bookbinders, Gold beaters, Printers, Bricklayers, Coatmakers, Hatters, Curriers, Masons, Whitesmiths, none of these trades Receive Less than 30/- a week, and from that to five guineas this is all done by Combination, without it their Trades would be as bad as yours… #1_1016 [1]

To Thomas Large’s list we might add many others. The compositors and pressmen then stood at the edge of the 30s. line of privilege, having had a particularly hard struggle to organize in the face of the combined London masters. Some skilled men were less fortunate. The type-founders’ combination had been broken up, and their wages in 1818 were claimed to average only 18s. per week, having seen no advance since 1790. The same was true of the opticians and pipe-makers. The Gorgon suggested in 1819 that 25s. might be the wages of the average London ‘mechanic’, when averaged over the year. #2_584 [2] But when in 1824 the Combination Acts were repealed, and the craft unions in the London trades openly showed themselves, we can get an idea of the ‘lesser aristocracy’ by citing some trades which appeared most often in the columns of the Trades Newspaper of 1825: to Large’s list we can add the coopers, shipwrights, sawyers, ship caulkers, wire-drawers, cock-founders, fell-mongers, leather dressers, ropemakers, brass founders, silk dyers, clock and watch makers, skinners, and others. It is an impressive list; and in London as well as the larger cities such men were the very heart of the artisan culture and political movements of these years. By no means all of these trades were equally privileged. Some of the trades clubs in 1825 had fewer than 100 members, and not many exceeded 500. They varied between exceptionally privileged groups, like the upholsterers (who charged ‘enormous premiums’ for admission to apprenticeship) to the shoemakers who (as we shall see) were already in the grip of a crisis which was degrading them to the status of outworkers. #3_234 [3]

Similar important groups of privileged artisans or skilled workers will be found in the provinces, not only in the same trades, but in trades scarcely represented in London. This was true, in particular, of the Sheffield cutlery and Birmingham small-ware industries. In the latter, there persisted far into the nineteenth century the numerous petty workshops, which made Birmingham the metropolis of the small master. Boulton’s Soho works bulks large in the story of economic growth. But the great majority of the city’s population, at the close of the eighteenth century, were employed in very small shops, whether as labourers or as quasi-independent craftsmen. To enumerate some of the Birmingham products is to evoke the intricate constellation of skills: buckles, cutlery, spurs, candlesticks, toys, guns, buttons, whip handles, coffee pots, ink stands, bells, carriage-fittings, steam-engines, snuff-boxes, lead pipes, jewellery, lamps, kitchen implements. ‘Every man whom I meet,’ Southey wrote in 1807, ‘stinks of train-oil and emery.’ #1_1017 [1]

Here, in the Black Country, the process of specialization in the first three decades of the nineteenth century tended to take the simpler processes, such as nail and chain-making, to the surrounding villages of outworkers, while the more highly skilled operations remained in the metropolis of Birmingham itself. #2_585 [2] In such artisan trades the gulf between the small master and the skilled journeyman might, in psychological and sometimes in economic terms, be less than that between the journeyman and the common urban labourer. Entry to a whole trade might be limited to the sons of those already working in it, or might be bought only by a high apprenticeship premium. Restriction upon entry into the trade might be supported by corporate regulations (such as those of the Cutler’s Company of Sheffield, not repealed until 1814), encouraged by masters, and maintained by trade unions under the aliases of friendly societies. Among such artisans at the commencement of the nineteenth century (the Webbs suggested) ‘we have industrial society still divided vertically trade by trade, instead of horizontally between employers and wage-earners’. #1_1018 [1] Equally, it might be that a privileged section only of the workers in a particular industry succeeded in restricting entry or in elevating their conditions. Thus, a recent study of the London porters has shown the fascinating intricacy of the history of a section of workers – including the Billingsgate porters – who might easily be supposed to be casual labourers but who in fact came under the particular surveillance of the City authorities, and who maintained a privileged position within the ocean of unskilled labour until the middle of the nineteenth century. #2_586 [2] More commonly, the distinction was between the skilled or apprenticed man and his labourer: the blacksmith and his striker, the bricklayer and his labourer, the calico pattern-drawer and his assistants, and so on.

The distinction between the artisan and the labourer – in terms of status, organization, and economic reward – remained as great, if not greater, in Henry Mayhew’s London of the late 1840s and 1850s as it was during the Napoleonic Wars. ‘In passing from the skilled operative of the west-end to the unskilled workman of the eastern quarter of London,’ Mayhew commented, ‘the moral and intellectual change is so great, that it seems as if we were in a new land, and among another race’:

The artisans are almost to a man red-hot politicians. They are sufficiently educated and thoughtful to have a sense of their importance in the State…. The unskilled labourers are a different class of people. As yet they are as unpolitical as footmen, and instead of entertaining violent democratic opinions, they appear to have no political opinions whatever; or, if they do… they rather lead towards the maintenance of ‘things as they are’, than towards the ascendancy of the working people. #3_235 [3]

In the south, it was among the artisans that the membership of friendly societies was largest #1_1019 [1] and trade union organization was most continuous and stable, that educational and religious movements flourished, and that Owenism struck deepest root. It was, again, among the artisans that the custom of ‘tramping’ in search of work was so widespread that it has been described by one historian as ‘the artisan’s equivalent of the Grand Tour’. #2_587 [2] We shall see how their self-esteem and their desire for independence, coloured the political radicalism of the post-war years. And, if stripped of his craft and of his trade union defences, the artisan was one of the most pitiful figures in Mayhew’s London. ‘The destitute mechanics,’ Mayhew was told by the Master of the Wandsworth and Clapham Union, ‘are entirely a different class from the regular vagrants.’ Their lodging-houses and ‘houses of call’ were different from those of the tramps and the fraternity of ‘travellers’; they would turn to the workhouse only in final despair: ‘Occasionally they have sold the shirt and waistcoat off their backs before they applied for admittance…’ ‘The poor mechanic will sit in the casual ward like a lost man, scared…. When he’s beat out he’s like a bird out of a cage; he doesn’t know where to go, or how to get a bit.’ #3_236 [3]

The London artisan was rarely beaten down so low – there were many half-way stages before the workhouse door was reached. His history varies greatly from trade to trade. And if we look out of London to the northern and Midlands centres of industry, there are other important classes of skilled labourer or factory operative – miners in certain coalfields, cotton-spinners, skilled building-workers, skilled workers in the iron and metal industries – who are among those whom Professor Ashton describes as being ‘able to share in the benefits of economic progress’. Among such were the Durham miners whom Cobbett described (in the Sunderland area) in 1832:

You see nothing here that is pretty; but everything seems to be abundant in value; and one great thing is, the working people live well…. The pitmen have twenty-four shillings a week; they live rent-free, their fuel costs them nothing, and their doctor costs them nothing. Their work is terrible, to be sure; and, perhaps, they do not have what they ought to have; but, at any rate, they live well, their houses are good and their furniture good; and… their lives seem to be as good as that of the working part of mankind can reasonably expect. #1_1020 [1]

The miners, who in many districts were almost an ‘hereditary caste’, had a reputation as comparatively high wage-earners:

Collier lads get gowd and silver,

Factory lads gets nowt but brass…

Professor Ashton considers it to be probable that their real wages were higher in the 1840s than in any but the best of the war years. But their conditions of work were probably worse. #2_588 [2]

Many such groups increased their real wages between 1790 and 1840. The progress was not as smooth nor as continuous as is sometimes implied. It was closely related to the success or failure of trade unionism in each industry, and unemployment or seasonal short time must be set against ‘optimistic’ wage-series. But if we were concerned only with skilled ‘society men’ in regular employment, then the controversy as to living standards would long ago have been settled on the optimistic side.

But in fact the whole problem presents endless complexities. The student who comes across a confident statement of this order in his textbook –

In 1831 the cost of living was 11 per cent higher than in 1790, but over this span of time urban wages had increased, it appears, by no less than 43 per cent. #3_237 [3]

– should at once scent danger. It is not only that the cost of living indices are themselves the subject of serious dispute – Professor Ashton himself having described the index upon which his own statement is based as being perhaps derived from the diet of a ‘diabetic’. #1_1021 [1] We should also realize that the index of urban wages is based, in the main, upon the wages of skilled workers in full work. And it is exactly here that a host of further problems enter. Why should we suppose, in a period of very rapid population-growth, that the proportion of employed and skilled to casual and unemployed workers should move in favour of the former? Why should the social historian repeatedly encounter evidence suggesting that this was an exceptionally painful period for great masses of the people? How was it – if 1820 to 1850 showed an appreciable rise in the standard-of-living – that after thirty more years of unquestioned improvement betwen 1850 and 1880 – the unskilled workers of England still lived in the conditions of extreme deprivation revealed, in the 1890s, by Booth and by Rowntree?

The first half of the nineteenth century must be seen as a period of chronic under-employment, in which the skilled trades are like islands threatened on every side by technological innovation and by the inrush of unskilled or juvenile labour. Skilled wages themselves often conceal a number of enforced outpayments: rent of machinery, payment for the use of motive power, fines for faulty work or indiscipline, or compulsory deductions of other kinds. Sub-contracting was predominant in the mining, iron and pottery industries, and fairly widespread in building, whereby the ‘butty’ or ‘ganger’ would himself employ less skilled labourers; while children – pieceners in the mills or hurryers in the pits – were customarily employed by the spinner or the collier. The Manchester cotton-spinners claimed in 1818, that a wage of £2 3s. 4d. was subject to the following outpayments:

1st piecer per week








2nd piecer per week








3rd piecer per week








Candles on the average winter and summer per week








Sick and other incidental expenses


















– leaving a balance of 18s. 4d. #1_1022 [1] In every industry similar cases can be cited, whereby the wages quoted by workers reveal a different complexion from those quoted by employers. ‘Truck’, or payment in goods, and ‘tommy shops’ complicate the picture further; while seamen and waterside workers were subject to peculiar extortions, often at the hands of publicans – for example, the Thames coal-whippers who – until a protective Act in 1843 – could only gain employment through the publicans who, in their turn, would only employ men who consumed up to 50% of their wages in the public house. #2_589 [2]

Where a skill was involved, the artisan was as much concerned with maintaining his status as against the unskilled man as he was in bringing pressure upon the employers. Trade unions which attempted to cater for both the skilled and the unskilled in the same trade are rare before 1830; and when the builders, in their period of Owenite enthusiasm, adopted proposals embracing the labourers, the distinction was very clearly marked:

These Lodges should, by degrees, consist of architects, masons, bricklayers, carpenters, slaters, plasterers, plumbers, glaziers, painters; and also quarriers, brickmakers, and labourers as soon as they can be prepared with better habits and more knowledge to enable them to act for themselves, assisted by the other branches who will have an overwhelming interest to improve the mind, morals and general conditions of their families in the shortest time. #3_238 [3]

But we must also bear in mind the general insecurity of many skills in a period of rapid technical innovation and of weak trade union defences. Invention simultaneously devalued old skills and elevated new ones. There is little uniformity in the process. As late as 1818 the Book of English Trades (a pocketbook based mainly on London skills) does not list the trades of engineer, steam-engine maker, or boiler-maker: the turner was still regarded as mainly a woodworker, and the skills of the engineer were united in the ‘machinist’ – a versatile master of many trades, ‘of considerable ingenuity and great mechanical knowledge’ who ‘requires the talents and experience of the joiner, the brass and iron founder, the smith and the turner, in their most extended variety’. Only ten years later there was published The Operative Mechanic and British Machinist, running to no less than 900 pages, showing the extraordinary diversity of what had once been the mill-wright’s craft. And the separation off of new skills can be seen in the formation of the early societies or trade unions which were later to make up the engineers: well-organized trades clubs of mill-wrights at the end of the eighteenth century give rise to the Friendly Society of Iron-moulders (1809), the Friendly and Benevolent Society of Vicemen and Turners (London, 1818), the Mechanics’ Friendly Union Institution (Bradford, 1822), Steam Engine Makers’ Society (Liverpool, 1824), and the Friendly Union of Mechanics (Manchester, 1826).

But the progression of these societies should not lead us to suppose a record of continuing advancement as new skills became established. On the contrary, whereas the mill-wright (at least in London) was an aristocrat, who was protected both by his own organization (which was so strong that it was one of the occasions for the passing of the Combination Act) #1_1023 [1] and by apprenticeship restrictions, and who maintained a wage of two guineas in the first years of the nineteenth century, the repeal of the apprenticeship clauses of the Elizabethan Statute of Artificers in 1814 left him exposed to serious competition. Alexander Galloway, a former assistant Secretary of the L.C.S. and now the leading engineering employer in London, gave evidence in 1824 that after repeal, ‘when a man was allowed to work at any employment, whether he had served one, two, or three years, or not at all, that broke the neck of all combinations’. The old mill-wrights were ‘so overwhelmed by new men, that we could do without them’, while piece-rates and other incentives completed the trade unionists’ discomfiture. Where the mill-wrights ‘used to scoff and spurn at the name of an engineer’, which was thought to be an inferior, upstart trade, it was now the turn of the mill-wrights to disappear. Unapprenticed engineers could be found at 18s. per week; and the introduction of the self-acting principle to the lathe (the slide-rest or Maudslay’s ‘Go-Cart’) led to an influx of youths and unskilled.

Hence even this industry – surely one of the most remarkable for the introduction of new skills – does not show an easy progression in status and in wages commensurate to the pace of technical innovation. Rather, it shows a peak towards the end of the eighteenth century, a rapid decline in the second decade of the nineteenth accompanied by an influx of unskilled labour, followed by the establishment of a new hierarchy and of new forms of combination. The work was highly differentiated, and for some years (as the diversity of names of the early trade unions suggests) it was doubtful which trade would establish precedence. #1_1024 [1] The rise of the skilled engineer, in the machine-making industry, was facilitated by the scarcity of his experience. The labour turnover in the early engineering workshops was prodigious; Galloway, who employed eighty or ninety men in 1824, claimed to have had between 1,000 and 1,500 men pass through his works in the previous twelve years; that is more than a total turnover of the labour force per annum. Agents of foreign employers scoured Britain in the hope of enticing skilled men to France, Russia, Germany, America. #2_590 [2] London employers naturally suffered especially. A foreign agent (said Galloway) ‘has only to watch at my gates as they come out and in, and get the names of the most able men: and many engagements of this sort have been made in this way’. In consequence, the wages of the best men steadily rose until by the 1830s and 1840s they belonged to a privileged élite. In 1845, at Messrs Hibbert and Platt’s (Oldham), the premier textile machinery works in Britain, employing close on 2,000 workers, wages of 30s. and upwards were paid to good men. The engineers (a Methodist workman complained) spent freely, gambled on horses and dogs, trained whippets, and had flesh meat ‘twice or thrice a day’. The wheel had now, however, turned full circle. Where Galloway had been forced to bribe his best men to stay in 1824, the engineer’s skill had now multiplied so far that Hibbert and Platt’s could carefully select only the best-qualified men. ‘I saw,’ our Methodist recalls, ‘many start that were paid off the first day, some at even shorter trial.’ Already the engineer could rely no more on the scarcity of his skill to protect his conditions. He was forced to return to trade unionism, and it is significant that Hibbert and Platt’s was the storm-centre of the engineers’ lock-out of 1851. #1_1025 [1]

We must always bear in mind this overlap between the extinction of old skills and the rise of new. One after another, as the nineteenth century ran its course, old domestic crafts were displaced in the textile industries – the ‘shearmen’ or ‘croppers’, the hand calico-printers, the hand woolcombers, the fustian-cutters. And yet there are contrary instances of laborious and ill-paid domestic tasks, sometimes performed by children, which were transformed by technical innovation into jealously defended crafts. Thus, carding in the woollen industry was done with leather-backed ‘cards’ into which thousands of wire teeth must be set – in the 1820s and 1830s this was done by children at the rate of 1,500 or 1,600 for a ½d., and (we are told of one West Riding clothing village) ‘on almost every cottage hearth little workers who could scarcely walk relieved the monotony of the weary task by putting a tooth into the card for every inhabitant of the village, and calling out each name as the representative wire was inserted’. #1_1026 [1] Less than fifty years later successive inventions in card-setting machinery had enabled the small craft union of Card-Setters and Machine-Tent to establish itself in a privileged position among the ‘aristocracy’ of the woollen industry.

But when we follow through the history of particular industries, and see new skills arise as old ones decline, it is possible to forget that the old skill and the new almost always were the perquisite of different people. Manufacturers in the first half of the nineteenth century pressed forward each innovation which enabled them to dispense with adult male craftsmen and to replace them with women or juvenile labour. Even where an old skill was replaced by a new process requiring equal or greater skill, we rarely find the same workers transferred from one to the other, or from domestic to factory production. Insecurity, and hostility in the face of machinery and innovation, was not the consequence of mere prejudice and (as authorities then implied) of insufficient knowledge of ‘political economy’. The cropper or woolcomber knew well enough that, while the new machinery might offer skilled employment for his son, or for someone else’s son, it would offer none for him. The rewards of the ‘march of progress’ always seemed to be gathered by someone else.

We shall see this more clearly when we examine Luddism. But even so, we are only at the fringe of the problem; for these particular insecurities were only a facet of the general insecurity of all skills during this period. The very notion of regularity of employment – at one place of work over a number of years for regular hours and at a standard wage – is anachronistic. We have seen that the problem in agriculture was that of chronic semi-employment. This was also the problem in most industries, and in urban experience generally. The skilled and apprenticed man, who owned his own tools and worked for a lifetime in one trade, was in a minority. It is notorious that in the early stages of industrialization, the growing towns attract uprooted and migrant labour of all types; this is still the experience of Africa and Asia today. Even the settled workers pass rapidly through a succession of employments. Wage-series derived from the rates paid in skilled trades do not give us the awkward, unstatistical reality of the cycle of unemployment and casual labour which comes through in the reminiscences of a Yorkshire Chartist, recalling his boyhood and youth from the late 1820s to the 1840s.

Tom Brown’s Schooldays would have had no charm for me, as I had never been to a day school in my life; when very young I had to begin working, and was pulled out of bed between 4 and 5 o’clock… in summer time to go with a donkey 1½ miles away, and then take part in milking a number of cows; and in the evening had again to go with milk and it would be 8 o’clock before I had done. I went to a card shop afterwards and there had to set 1,500 card teeth for a ½d. From 1842 to 1848 I should not average 9/- per week wages; outdoor and labour was bad to get then and wages were very low. I have been a woollen weaver, a comber, a navvy on the railway, and a barer in the delph that I claim to know some little of the state of the working classes. #1_1027 [1]

There is some evidence to suggest that the problem was becoming worse throughout the 1820s and 1830s and into the 1840s. That is, while wages were moving slowly but favourably in relation to the cost-of-living, the proportion of workers chronically under-employed was moving unfavourably in relation to those in full work. Henry Mayhew, who devoted a section of his great study of the London poor to the problem of casual labour, understood that this was the crux of the problem:

In almost all occupations there is… a superfluity of labourers, and this alone would tend to render the employment of a vast number of the hands of a casual rather than a regular character. In the generality of trades the calculation is that one-third of the hands are fully employed, one third partially, and one-third unemployed throughout the year. #1_1028 [1]

Mayhew was incomparably the greatest social investigator in the mid-century. Observant, ironic, detached yet compassionate, he had an eye for all the awkward particularities which escape statistical measurement. In a fact-finding age, he looked for the facts which the enumerators forgot: he wrote consciously against the grain of the orthodoxies of his day, discovering his own outrageous ‘laws’ of political economy – ‘under-pay makes over-work’ and ‘over-work makes under-pay’. He knew that when an easterly wind closed the Thames, 20,000 dock-side workers were at once unemployed. He knew the seasonal fluctuations of the timber trade, or of the bonnet-makers and pastry-cooks. He bothered to find out for how many hours and how many months in the year scavengers or rubbish-carters were actually employed. He held meetings of the workmen in the trades investigated, and took down their life-histories. If (as Professor Ashton has implied) the standard-of-living controversy really depends on a ‘guess’ as to which group was increasing most – those ‘who were able to share in the benefits of economic progress’ and ‘those who were shut out’ – then Mayhew’s guess is worth our attention.

Mayhew’s guess is given in this form:

… estimating the working classes as being between four and five million in number, I think we may safely assert – considering how many depend for their employment on particular times, seasons, fashions, and accidents, and the vast quantity of over-work and scamp-work in nearly all the cheap trades… the number of women and children who are being continually drafted into the different handicrafts with the view of reducing the earnings of the men, the displacement of human labour in some cases by machinery… all these things being considered I say I believe that we may safely conclude that… there is barely sufficient work for the regular employment of half of our labourers, so that only 1,500,000 are fully and constantly employed, while 1,500,000 more are employed only half their time, and the remaining 1,500,000 wholly unemployed, obtaining a day’s work occasionally by the displacement of some of the others. #1_1029 [1]

This remains no more than a guess, a grasping at the statistical expression of the complexities of London experience. But it arises from other findings; in particular, that ‘as a general rule… the society-men of every trade comprise about one-tenth of the whole’. #2_591 [2] The wages of society men were those regulated by custom and trade union enforcement; those of the non-society men were ‘determined by competition’. In London by the 1840s there was a clear demarcation between the ‘honourable’ and ‘dishonourable’ parts of the same trades; and trades in which this division was notorious included those of cabinet-makers, carpenters and joiners, boot- and shoe-makers, tailors and all clothing workers, and the building industry. The honourable part comprised the luxury and quality branches: the dishonourable comprised the whole range of ‘cheap and nasty’ – ready-made clothing, gimcrack or plain furniture, veneered workboxes and cheap looking-glasses, sub-contract work (by ‘lumpers’) in the building of churches, contract work for the Army or Government.

In a number of the trades which Thomas Large noted as being both organized and highly-paid in 1812 there was a serious deterioration in the status and living standards of the artisan over the next thirty years. The debasing of trades took many forms, and was sometimes accomplished only after intense conflict, in some cases as late as the 1830s. When William Lovett, who had been apprenticed as a rope-maker in Penzance came to London in 1821 and – finding no employment at his own trade – sought to get work as a carpenter or cabinet-maker, the distinction between the honourable and dishonourable trades was not so marked. The fact that he had served no apprenticeship weighed heavily against him, but after bad experiences at a dishonourable shop, and worse experiences attempting to hawk his own products, he finally gained employment at a large cabinet workshop. When it was discovered that he had served no apprenticeship, the men –

talked of ‘setting Mother Shorney at me’; this is a cant term in the trade, and meant the putting away of your tools, the injuring of your work, and annoying you in such a way as to drive you out of the shop… As soon… as I was made acquainted with their feelings… I thought it best to call a shop-meeting, and lay my case before them. To call a meeting of this description the first requisite was to send for a quantity of drink (generally a gallon of ale), and then to strike your hammer and holdfast together, which, making a bell-like sound, is a summons causing all the shop to assemble around your bench. A chairman is then appointed, and you are called upon to state your business.

Lovett’s explanation of his difficult circumstances satisfied the men: ‘but the demands made upon me for drink by individuals among them, for being shown the manner of doing any particular kind of work, together with fines and shop scores, often amounted to seven or eight shillings a week out of my guinea’. #1_1030 [1] Ten or twenty years later he would not have succeeded in gaining employment in a respectable or society shop: the influential Cabinet-Makers Society (of which Lovett himself became President) had consolidated the position of its members in the quality branches of the trade and closed the doors against the mass of unapprenticed or semi-skilled labour clamouring without. At the same time, the dishonourable trade had mushroomed: #2_592 [2] middlemen had set up ‘slaughter-houses’ or great furniture warehouses, and poor ‘garret-masters’ in Bethnal Green and Spitalfields employed their own families and ‘apprentices’ in making chairs and shoddy furniture for sale to the warehouses at knock-down prices. Even less fortunate workers would buy or scrape together wood to make workboxes or card-tables which they hawked in the streets or sold to cut-rate East End shops.

The history of each trade is different. But it is possible to suggest the outlines of a general pattern. Whereas it is generally assumed that living standards declined during the price-rises of the war years (and this is certainly true of the labourers, weavers, and wholly unorganized workers), nevertheless the war stimulated many industries and made for fuller employment. In London the arsenal, the shipyards, and the docks were busy, and there were large Government contracts for clothing and equipment for the services. Birmingham prospered similarly until the years of the continental blockade. The later years of the war saw a general erosion of apprenticeship restrictions, both in practice and at law, culminating in the repeal of the apprenticeship clauses of the Elizabethan Statute of Artificers in 1814. According to their position, the artisans reacted vigorously to this threat. We must remember that this was a time when there was little schooling, and neither Mechanics’ Institutes nor Technical Colleges, and that almost the entire skill or ‘mystery’ of the trade was conveyed by precept and example in the workshop, by the journeyman to his apprentice. The artisans regarded this ‘mystery’ as their property, and asserted their unquestionable right to ‘the quiet and exclusive use and enjoyment of their… arts and trades’. Consequently, not only was repeal resisted, a ‘nascent trades council’ being formed in London, and 60,000 signatures being collected nationally to a petition to strengthen the apprenticeship laws; #1_1031 [1] but as a result of the threat there is evidence that the trades clubs were actually strengthened, so that many London artisans emerged from the Wars in a comparatively strong position.

But at this point the histories of different trades begin to diverge. The pressure of the unskilled tide, beating against the doors, broke through in different ways and with different degrees of violence. In some trades the demarcation between an honourable and dishonourable trade was already to be found in the eighteenth century. #1_1032 [1] That the honourable trade had maintained its position despite this long-standing threat may be accounted for by several reasons. Much of the eighteenth-century trade was in luxury articles, demanding a quality of workmanship not obtainable by sweated labour. Moreover, in times of full employment, the small-scale dishonourable trade might actually offer better conditions than those of the society men. Thus the Gorgon noted in 1818 of the opticians and type-founders, that there had grown up –

a smaller class of tradesmen, termed garret-masters, who not only sell their manufacture cheaper than those of large capital, and who carry on the trade on a more extensive scale, but they do actually give higher wages to the men they employ. This we believe is the case in all trades… #2_593 [2]

The outline of this demarcation can be seen in the differentiation between the ‘Flint’ and ‘Dung’ tailors, and between the militant and well-organized ladies’ shoemakers, and the workers in the men’s boot and shoe trade. The shoemakers of both groups were, however, among the first to feel the full effect of the influx of ‘illegal’ men. The position of the Londoners was weakened by the growth of the large outwork boot and shoe industry in Northamptonshire and Staffordshire. #3_239 [3] Some incidents in the London shoemakers’ history were recorded by Allen Davenport, a Spencean socialist:

It was in 1810 that I began to work for Mr Bainbridge, and it was then I first joined a shop meeting, for all the shops that I had worked for before were unconnected with any meetings… perhaps they were thought too insignificant… I was kindly received by the members of the fifth division of women’s men [i.e. makers of women’s shoes], then held at the York Arms, Holborn; and in a short time became a delegate…. From the time I became a member to 1813, the women’s men acquired great strength as to members and a considerable increase in pecuniary means. We had at one time fourteen divisions in London; besides being in union, kept up by a well regulated correspondence, with the trade in every city and town, of any importance, throughout the kingdom. But about this time the trade commenced a law suit against a master, for employing an illegal man, and refusing to discharge him. The case was conducted by two intelligent shopmates… assisted by an attorney in the court of King’s Bench… We gained the day, but the prosecution cost the trade a hundred pounds, which was money thrown away, for almost immediately afterwards the law of Elizabeth which made it illegal for a master to employ a man in our trade that had not served an apprenticeship was repealed, and the trade was thrown open to all.

In the spring of 1813 the union held a strike in support of a detailed price-list: ‘every demand of the men was conceded, and we all returned comfortably to our work’:

But some of the more turbulent of the members, intoxicated with the success of our last strike, madly proposed a few weeks after to commence another strike…. This arrogant proceeding brought on a crisis in the trade; the masters who till then had no association, and were strangers to each other, became alarmed, called themselves together, formed an association, and being completely organized, the strike was resisted, the men were defeated, and scattered to the winds and hundreds of men, women and children suffered the greatest privations during the following winter. From this fatal strike, I date the downfall of the power of the men, and the commencement of despotism among the master shoemakers. #1_1033 [1]

The bitterness of the shoemakers’ struggle may be gauged by the extreme radicalism of many of their members throughout the post-war years. The ladies’ men clung on to their position in the boom years, 1820–5; but the recession of 1826 at once exposed their weakness. The organized men were surrounded by scores of small ‘dishonourable’ workshops, where shoes were made up by ‘snobs’ or ‘translators’ at 8d. or 1s. a pair. In the autumn of 1826 several of their members were tried for riot and assault arising from a strike extending over seven or more weeks; a unionist is alleged to have told a ‘scab’ that he ‘ought to have his liver cut out for working under price’. #1_1034 [1] But the boot and shoe workers notwithstanding maintained some national organization, and in the great union wave of 1832–4 the Northamptonshire and Staffordshire outworkers came into the same struggle for ‘equalization’. #2_594 [2] It was only the destruction of general unionism in 1834 which finally deprived them of artisan status.

The tailors maintained their artisan status rather longer. We can take their union as a model of the quasi-legal trades union of the artisan. #3_240 [3] In 1818 Francis Place published the fullest account which we have of their operation. By effective combination the London tailors had succeeded in pressing up their wages throughout the war, although probably lagging slightly behind the advance in the cost-of-living. The figures run (in Place’s average), 1795, 25s.; 1801, 27s.; 1807, 30s.; 1810, 33s.; 1813, 36s. With each advance the resistance of the masters became firmer: ‘Not a single shilling was obtained at any one of these periods but by compulsion.’ At the many ‘houses of call’ of the aristocratic ‘Flint’ tailors books of the members’ names were kept, and the masters used the houses virtually as employment agencies. #4_63 [4] ‘No man is allowed to ask for employment’ – the masters must apply to the union. The work was allocated by rota, and the union disciplined ‘unwork-manlike’ men. The tailors had a dual subscription, the larger contribution being reserved for benefits, the smaller for the needs of the union itself. A twelve-hour day was enforced, except in times of full employment. There were levies for unemployed members, and special levies might be made, in preparation for a strike, as to which the members asked no questions even if the purpose was not explained. The actual leadership of the union was carefully shielded from prosecution under the Combination Acts. Each house of call had a deputy,

… chosen by a kind of tacit consent, frequently without its being known to a very large majority who is chosen. The deputies form a committee, and they again chuse in a somewhat similar way a very small committee, in whom, on very particular occasions, all power resides…

‘No law could put it down,’ Place wrote: ‘nothing but want of confidence among the men themselves could prevent it.’ And in fact the ‘Knights of the Needle’ look extremely strong, at least until the recession of 1826. Their organization could be fairly described as ‘all but a military system’. But concealed within Place’s own account there was a premonition of weakness:

They are divided into two classes, called Flints and Dungs – the Flints have upwards of thirty houses of call, and the Dungs about nine or ten; the Flints work by day, the Dungs by day or piece. Great animosity formerly existed between them, the Dungs generally working for less wages, but of late years there has not been much difference in the wages… and at some of the latest strikes both parties have usually made common cause.

This may be seen as an impressive attempt to keep the dishonourable trade in some organizational association with the status-conscious ‘Flints’. In 1824 Place estimated a proportion of one ‘Dung’ to three ‘Flints’; but the ‘Dungs’ ‘work a great many hours, and their families assist them.’ By the early 1830s the tide of the cheap and ready-made trade could be held back no longer. In 1834 the ‘Knights’ were finally degraded only after a tremendous conflict, when 20,000 were said to be on strike under the slogan of ‘equalization’. #1_1035 [1]

John Wade was still able to speak of the London tailors of 1833 as ‘enjoying a much higher remuneration than is received by the generality of workpeople in the metropolis’. Indeed, he cited them as an example of artisans who by the strength of their combination had ‘fortified their own interests against the interests of the public and other workpeople’. #1_1036 [1] But when Mayhew commenced his inquiry for the Morning Chronicle in 1849 he cited the tailors as one of the worst examples of ‘cheap and shoddy’ sweated industry. Of 23,517 London tailors in 1849 Mayhew estimated that 2,748 were independent master-tailors. Of the remainder, 3,000 were society men in the honourable trade (as compared to 5,000 or 6,000 in 1821), and 18,000 in the dishonourable trade were wholly dependent upon large middlemen for their earnings in the ‘slop’ or ready-made businesses.

London conditions should not be seen as exceptional, although London was the Athens of the artisan. And it is important to notice that there is a pattern of exploitation here which runs counter to the evidence of wage-series compiled from the rates of organized men in the honourable trade. This takes the form both of a break-up of customary conditions and restraints, and of trade union defences. It is generally true that the ‘artisan’ trades go through two critical periods of conflict. The first was in 1812–14, when apprenticeship regulations were repealed. Those trades, such as the shoemakers and tailors, which were already strongly organized in unions or trades clubs, were able in some degree to defend their position after repeal by strikes and other forms of direct action, although the same years saw greater organization among the masters. But consolidation in closed ‘society’ shops between 1815 and 1830 was at a price. ‘Illegal men’ were kept out of the better parts of the trade only to swell the numbers in the unorganized ‘dishonourable’ trade outside. The second critical period is 1833–5, when on the crest of the great trade union wave attempts were made to ‘equalize’ conditions, shorten working hours in the honourable trade and suppress dishonourable work. These attempts (notably that of the London tailors) not only failed in the face of the combined forces of the employers and the Government; they also led to at least a temporary deterioration in the position of the ‘society’ men. The economic historian should see the cases of the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the great lock-outs of 1834 as being as consequential for all grades of labour as the radicals and trade unionists of the time held them to be. #1_1037 [1]

But this conflict between the artisans and the large employers was only part of a more general exploitive pattern. The dishonourable part of the trade grew, with the displacement of small masters (employing a few journeymen and apprentices) by large ‘manufactories’ and middlemen (employing domestic outworkers or sub-contracting): with the collapse of all meaningful apprenticeship safeguards (except in the honourable island) and the influx of unskilled, women and children: with the extension of hours and of Sunday work: and with the beating down of wages, piece-rates and wholesale prices. The form and extent of the deterioration relates directly to the material conditions of the industry – the cost of raw materials – tools – the skill involved – conditions favouring or discouraging trade union organization – the nature of the market. Thus, woodworkers and shoemakers could obtain their own materials cheaply and owned their own tools, so that the unemployed artisan set up as an independent ‘garret-master’ or ‘chamber-master’, working his whole family – and perhaps other juveniles – round a seven-day week and hawking the products on his own account. Carpenters requiring a more costly outlay were reduced to ‘strapping-shops’ where a sickening pace of gimcrack work was kept up under the foreman’s patrol and where each man who fell behind was sacked. Tailoring workers, who could rarely purchase their own cloth, became wholly dependent upon the middlemen who farmed out work at sweated prices. Dressmaking – a notoriously ‘sweated’ trade – was largely done by needlewomen (often country or small-town immigrants) in shops contracted by large establishments. The building worker, who could neither buy his bricks nor hawk a part of a cathedral round the streets, was at the mercy of the sub-contractor; even the skilled ‘society’ men expected to be laid off in the winter months; and both classes of worker frequently attempted to escape from their predicament by direct speculative building – ‘the land,’ as Clapham says, ‘rented in hope, materials secured on credit, a mortgage raised on the half-built house before it is sold or leased, and a high risk of bankruptcy’. #1_1038 [1] On the other hand, the coach-builder, the shipwright, or engineer, who did not Own all his tools nor purchase his own materials, was nevertheless better situated, by reason of the character of his work and the scarcity of his skill, to maintain or extend trade union defences.

A similar collapse in the status of the artisan took place in older provincial centres. There are many complexities and qualifications. On one hand, the boot and shoe industry of Stafford and of Northamptonshire had long lost its artisan character and was conducted on an outwork basis when the London shoemakers were still trying to hold back the dishonourable trade. On the other hand, the extreme specialization of the Sheffield cutlery industry – together with the exceptionally strong political and trade union traditions of the workers who had been the most steadfast Jacobins – had led to the maintenance of the skilled worker’s status in a twilight world of semi-independence, where he worked for a merchant (and, sometimes, for more than one), hired his motive-power at a ‘public wheel’, and adhered to strict price-lists. Despite the Sheffield Cutlers Bill (1814) which repealed the restrictions which had limited the trade to freemen and which left a situation in which ‘any person may work at the corporated trades without being a freeman, and may take any number of apprentices for any term’, the unions were strong enough – sometimes with the aid of ‘rattening’ and other forms of intimidation – to hold back the unskilled tide, although there was a continual threat from ‘little mesters’, sometimes ‘illegal’ men or self-employed journeymen, who sought to undercut the legal trade. #2_595 [2] In the Birmingham industries, every kind of variant is to be found, from the large workshop through innumerable mazes

of small shops and self-employed journeymen, honourable and dishonourable, to the half-naked and degraded outworkers in the nail-making villages. An account from Wolverhampton in 1819, shows how the ‘garret-master’ appeared at a time of depression:

The order of things… is completely inverted. Now, the last resource of the starving journeyman is to set up master; his employer cannot find him work, on which there is any possible profit, and is therefore obliged to discharge him; the poor wretch then sells his bed, and buys an anvil, procures a little iron, and having manufactured a few articles, hawks them about… for what he can get… He might have previously received 10s a week as a servant; but now he is lucky if he gets 7s as a master manufacturer. #1_1039 [1]

In the Coventry ribbon-weaving industry there was another twilight, half-outworker, half-artisan situation: the ‘first-hand weavers’ maintained a poor artisan status, owning their own costly looms, and sometimes employing a ‘journeyman’s journeyman’, while other weavers in the city were employed in workshops or factories at comparable wages: but in the weaving villages to the north there was a large reserve pool of semi-unemployed weavers, working at debased rates as casual outworkers. #2_596 [2]

From one point of view, the true outworker industry can be seen as one which has wholly lost its artisan status and in which no ‘honourable’ part of the trade remains:

Capitalistic outwork may be said to be fully established only when the material belongs to the trading employer, and is returned to him after the process for which the outworker’s skill is required has been completed – the wool given out to be spun, the yarn given out to be woven, the shirt given out for ‘seam and gusset and band’, the nailrod to be returned as nails, the limbs to be returned as dolls, the leather coming back as boots. #3_241 [3]

This, Clapham estimates, was the ‘predominant form’ of industrial organization in the reign of George IV; and if we add to the true outworkers (hand-loom weavers, nail-makers, most woolcombers, chain-makers, some boot and shoe workers, framework-knitters, fustian-cutters, glove-makers, some potters, pillow-lace-makers, and many others) the workers in the ‘dishonourable’ parts of the London and urban artisan trades, it probably remained predominant until 1840.

We shall look at the weaver, as an example of the outworker, later. But there are some general points which relate both to the outworkers and to the artisans. First, it will not do to explain away the plight of weavers or of ‘slop’ workers as ‘instances of the decline of old crafts which were displaced by a mechanical process’; nor can we even accept the statement, in its pejorative context, that ‘it was not among the factory employees but among the domestic workers, whose traditions and methods were those of the eighteenth century, that earnings were at their lowest’. #1_1040 [1] The suggestion to which these statements lead us is that these conditions can somehow be segregated in our minds from the true improving impulse of the Industrial Revolution – they belong to an ‘older’, pre-industrial order, whereas the authentic features of the new capitalist order may be seen where there are steam, factory operatives, and meat-eating engineers. But the numbers employed in the out-work industries multiplied enormously between 1780–1830; and very often steam and the factory were the multipliers. It was the mills which spun the yarn and the foundries which made the nail-rod upon which the outworkers were employed. Ideology may wish to exalt one and decry the other, but facts must lead us to say that each was a complementary component of a single process. This process first multiplied hand-workers (hand calico-printers, weavers, fustian-cutters, woolcombers) and then extinguished their livelihood with new machinery. Moreover, the degradation of the outworkers was very rarely as simple as the phrase ‘displaced by a mechanical process’ suggests; it was accomplished by methods of exploitation similar to those in the dishonourable trades and it often preceded machine competition. Nor is it true that ‘the traditions and methods’ of the domestic workers ‘were those of the eighteenth century’. The only large group of domestic workers in that century whose conditions anticipate those of the semi-employed proletarian outworkers of the nineteenth century are the Spitalfields silk-weavers; and this is because the ‘industrial revolution’ in silk preceded that in cotton and in wool Indeed, we may say that large-scale sweated outwork was as intrinsic to this revolution as was factory production and steam. As for the ‘traditions and methods’ of the ‘slop’ workers in the dishonourable trade, these, of course, have been endemic for centuries wherever cheap labour has been abundant. They would, nevertheless, appear to constitute a serious reversal of the conditions of late eighteenth-century London artisans.

What we can say with confidence is that the artisan felt that his status and standard-of-living were under threat or were deteriorating between 1815 and 1840. Technical innovation and the superabundance of cheap labour weakened his position. He had no political rights and the power of the State was used, if only fitfully, to destroy his trade unions. As Mayhew clearly showed, not only did under-pay (in the dishonourable trades) make for overwork; it also made for less work all round. It was this experience which underlay the political radicalization of the artisans and, more drastically, of the outworkers. Ideal and real grievances combined to shape their anger – lost prestige, direct economic degradation, loss of pride as craftsmanship was debased, lost aspirations to rise to being masters (as men in Hardy’s and Place’s generation could still do). The ‘society’ men, though more fortunate, were not the least radical – many London and provincial working-class leaders came like William Lovett, from this stratum. They had been able to hold their status only by an accession of trade union militancy; and their livelihood provided them with a running education in the vices of competition and the virtues of collective action. They witnessed less fortunate neighbours or shopmates (an accident, a weakness for drink) fall into the lower depths. Those who were in these depths had most need, but least time, for political reflection.

If the agricultural labourers pined for land, the artisans aspired to an ‘independence’. This aspiration colours much of the history of early working-class Radicalism. But in London the dream of becoming a small master (still strong in the 1790s – and still strong in Birmingham in the 1830s) could not stand up, in the 1820s and 1830s, in face of the experiences of ‘chamber’ or ‘garret’ masters – an ‘independence’ which meant week-long slavery to warehouses or slop shops. This helps to explain the sudden surge of support towards Owenism at the end of the 1820s – trade union traditions and the yearning for independence were twisted together in the idea of social control over their own means of livelihood; a collective independence. #1_1041 [1] When most of the Owenite ventures failed, the London artisan still fought for his independence to the last: when leather, wood or cloth ran out, he swelled the throng of street-sellers, hawking bootlaces, oranges or nuts. In the main they were rural workers who entered the ‘strapping-shops’. The London-born artisan could rarely stand the pace; nor did he wish to become a proletarian.

We have not, perhaps, clarified the wage-indices, but have proposed a way of reading and of criticizing such indices as exist. In particular, we must always find out whether figures are derived from society or non-society men, and how far the division, in any trade, has gone at any given time. There were certain experiences common to most trades and industries. Few did not suffer during the post-war depression, and most were buoyant between 1820 and 1825 – indeed, in such a period of fuller employment the dishonourable trades could actually extend their operation and be little noticed, since they did not threaten the position of society men. The twelve months after the repeal of the Combination Acts was a period of exceptional buoyancy, when general prosperity conjoined to aggressive trade unionism led to considerable advances by many groups of workers. In the summer of 1825 a report was published in the Trades Newspaper from the Potteries, which admitted their thriving state in language quite unusual in the Radical or working-class journalism of the time. ‘It would be difficult to point out a period… when the working classes, with the exception of the weavers, enjoyed a greater degree of comfort.’ The Potteries had been swept, in the previous eight months, by a veritable strike wave:

In Staffordshire, the carpenters were the first to strike, and then every other trade turned out in rotation. The colliers knew that the potters could not go on without them, and the moment the latter had obtained an advance, not a pick was lifted, nor a bucket let down…. The potters held out a second time, and played their cards with such address, that an ordinary hand now earns 6s per day, while superior journeymen who work by the piece, are actually in the receipt of £3 per week. Even the tailors doggedly refused to shape or sew, goose or seam, or wad a collar, unless they knew the reason why and wherefore; while the spirited barbers… insisted on an advance of 50%… #1_1042 [1]

Much of this gain was lost in 1826, recovered in the next three years, and lost once again in the early 1830s. And within this wider history there are the particular histories of individual trades. In general, in those industries where much capital, skill and machinery were required, the artisan lost some of his independence but passed by fairly easy stages into becoming a skilled, even privileged, proletarian: the mill-wright became an engineer or metal mechanic, the shipwright’s skill was divided among the shipbuilding trades. In those industries where work could be put out, or where juvenile and unskilled labour could be drafted in, the artisan retained some of his independence but only at the cost of an increasing insecurity and a severe loss of status.

It is the outlook of the artisan which will most concern us when we return to the political history of the post-war years. We may therefore be more impressionistic in our treatment of those who inhabited the lower depths beneath him. In fact, less is known about the unskilled workers, in the first decades of the nineteenth century, since they had no unions, they rarely had leaders who articulated their grievances, and few parliamentary committees investigated them except as a sanitary or housing problem.2 The down-graded artisan rarely had the physique or aptitude to engage in arduous semi-skilled or unskilled labouring. Such occupation groups were either self-recruiting, or enlarged by rural and Irish migrants. Some of these earned good wages for irregular work – on the docks, or as navvies or spademen. These shade into the ‘casualties’, or casual labourers; and the totally unemployed immigrants to the city, who might be reduced, like young William Lovett when he first came to London, to ‘a penny loaf a day and a drink from the most convenient pump for several weeks in succession’. He and a Cornish compatriot:

… generally got up at five o’clock and walked about enquiring at different shops and buildings till about nine; we then bought one penny loaf and divided it between us; then walked about again till four or five in the afternoon, when we finished our day’s work with another divided loaf; and very early retired to bed footsore and hungry. #1_1043 [1]

But such discipline in eking out the last few pennies were rare. Habitual uncertainty of employment, as all social investigators know, discourages forethought and gives rise to the familiar cycle of hardship alternated with the occasional spending-spree when in work. Distinct from the labourers (stablemen, street-sweepers, waterside-workers, unskilled builders, carters, and so on), were those for whom ‘casualty’ had become a way of life; street-sellers, beggars and cadgers, paupers, casual and professional criminals, the Army. Some of the street-sellers were prosperous traders; others were irrepressible scroungers; others, like the costermongers, patterers and ballad-vendors, provide a comic, and devastating antithesis to the sententious theses of Edwin Chadwick and Dr Kay. The mind reels at the expedients by which human beings kept themselves alive, collecting dog’s dung or selling chickweed or writing letters at 1d. or 2d. a time (for love-letters ‘there’s wanted the best gilt edge, and a fancy ’velop, and a Dictionary’). The greater part of the street-sellers, certainly by the 1840s, were desperately poor. Taking a deep statistical breath, we can hazard the view that the standard-of-living of the average criminal (but not prostitute) rose over the period up to the establishment of an effective police force (in the late 1830s), since opportunities for pilfering from warehouses, markets, canal barges, the docks, and railways, were multiplying. Probably a good many casual workers supplemented their earnings in this way. The genuine professional criminal or ‘traveller’ would seem, on his own confession, to have had a splendid standard-of-life: he may be accounted an ‘optimist’. The standard of the unmarried mother, except in districts such as Lancashire where female employment was abundant, probably fell: she had offended, not only against Wilberforce, but also against Malthus and the laws of political economy.

It was a time when a widow with six children between the ages of five and fifteen might, in a mill-town, be counted fortunate; and when a blind beggar was an ‘aristocrat’ of the vagrant fraternity, with whom the sighted and able-bodied sought to travel in order to share in his takings. ‘A blind man can get a guide at any place, because they know he’s sure to get something,’ the blind boot-lace seller told Mayhew. Travelling from lodging-house to lodging-house down from his native Northumberland, and becoming ‘fly to the dodge’ of begging, ‘I grew pleaseder, and pleaseder, with the life, and I wondered how anyone could follow any other.’ When he finally entered London, ‘as I came through the streets… I didn’t know whether I carried the streets or they carried me’. #1_1044 [1]

Other optimists included the highly professional ‘cadgers’, who had as many disguises as a quick-change repertory actor, and who rang the changes according to the state of trade by assuming the distresses of others – the ‘respectable broken-down tradesman or reduced gentleman caper’, the ‘destitute mechanic’s lurk’, the ‘turnpike sailors’:

I… went out as one of the Shallow Brigade, wearing Guernsey shirt and drawers, or tattered trowsers. There was a school of four. We only got a tidy living – 16s. or £1 a day among us. We used to call every one that came along – coalheavers and all – sea-fighting captains. ‘Now, my noble sea-fighting captain,’ we used to say, ‘fire an odd shot from your larboard locker to us, Nelson’s bulldogs;’… The Shallow got so grannied [known] in London, that the supplies got queer, and I quitted the land navy. Shipwrecks got so common in the streets, you see, that people didn’t care for them… #1_1045 [1]

The impostors, who studied the market and were quick to vary the supplies of suffering to meet the jaded and inelastic demands of human compassion, fared better than the genuine sufferers, who were too proud or too inexperienced to market their misery to its best advantage. By the 1840s many of the tricks of the impostors were known; unless he had the knowledge of humanity of Dickens or Mayhew, the middle-class man saw in every open palm the evidence of idleness and deceit And, in the centre of London or the big cities, he might well be right, for he walked through a surrealist world: the open palm might be that of a receiver: the half-naked man in the snowstorm might be working the ‘shivering dodge’ (‘a good dodge in tidy inclement season… not so good a lurk, by two bob a day as it once was’): the child sobbing in the gutter over a package of spilt tea and a tale of lost change might be schooled in the dodge by her mother. The collier who had lost both arms was a man to be envied, and:

There’s the man with the very big leg, who sits on the pavement, and tells a long yarn about the tram carriage having gone over him in the mine. He does very well – remarkable well. #2_597 [2]

Most of the worst sufferers were not there. They remained, with their families, in the garrets of Spitalfields; the cellars of Ancoats and south Leeds; in the outworkers’ villages. We may be fairly confident that the standard-of-living of paupers declined. The thirty years leading up to the new Poor Law of 1834 saw continuous attempts to hold down the poor-rates, to chip away at outdoor relief, or to pioneer the new-type workhouse. #3_242 [3] It was not of one of Chadwick’s ‘Bastilles’ but of an earlier model that Crabbe wrote in The Borough (1810):

Your plan I love not; – with a number you

Have placed your poor, your pitiable few;

There, in one house, throughout their lives to be,

The pauper-palace which they hate to see:

That giant building, that high-bounding wall,

Those bare-worn walks, that lofty thund’ring hall!

That large loud clock, which tolls each dreaded hour,

Those gates and locks, and all those signs of power:

It is a prison, with a milder name,

Which few inhabit without dread or shame.

The Act of 1834, and its subsequent administration by men like Chadwick and Kay, was perhaps the most sustained attempt to impose an ideological dogma, in defiance of the evidence of human need, in English history. No discussion of the standard-of-living after 1834 can make sense which does not examine the consequences, as troubled Boards of Guardians tried to apply Chadwick’s insane Instructional Circulars as to the abolition or savage restriction of out-relief in depressed industrial centres; and which does not follow the missionary zeal of the Assistant Commissioners as they sought to bring the doctrinaire light of Malthusian-Benthamism into the empirical north. The doctrine of discipline and restraint was, from the start, more important than that of material ‘less eligibility’; #1_1046 [1] the most inventive State would have been hard put to it to create institutions which simulated conditions worse than those of garret-masters, Dorset labourers, framework-knitters and nailers. The impractical policy of systematic starvation was displaced by the policy of psychological deterrence: ‘labour, discipline and restraint’. ‘Our intention,’ said one Assistant Commissioner, ‘is to make the workhouses as like prisons as possible’; and another, ‘our object… is to establish therein a discipline so severe and repulsive as to make them a terror to the poor and prevent them from entering’. Dr Kay recorded with satisfaction his successes in Norfolk; the reduction in diet proved less effective than ‘minute and regular observance of routine’, religious exercises, silence during meals, ‘prompt obedience’, total separation of the sexes, separation of families (even where of the same sex), labour and total confinement. ‘I had observed,’ he recorded, in that bastard ceremonial English which one day may be as quaint as the thumbscrew and the stocks:

that the custom of permitting paupers to retain their possession, while residing within the walls of the workhouse, boxes, china, articles of clothing, &c., had been perpetuated… I therefore directed these articles to be taken into the possession of the various Governors… and deposited in the store-room. In effecting this change in the Cosford Union workhouse, Mr Plum found considerable quantities of bread secreted in these boxes (showing how abundant the dietary is), and likewise soap and other articles, purloined from the workhouse stores…. On the morning after this change twelve able-bodied female paupers left the house, saying they preferred labour out of doors.

Neither widows with families, nor the aged and the infirm, nor the sick, – continued Dr Kay, in full Chadwickian cry – should be spared these workhouse humiliations, for fear of sustaining improvidence and imposture, and of sapping the motives to industry… frugality… prudence… filial duties… independent exertions of the labourers during their years of ability and activity….

A notable victory for Dr Kay and Mr Plum! Twelve able-bodied females made frugal and prudent (perhaps transmogrified from pessimists to optimists?) at a blow! And yet, despite all their efforts, incomplete returns from 443 Unions in England and Wales in which the new Bastilles were in operation in three months of 1838 (excluding, among other areas, almost all Lancashire and the West Riding) showed 78,536 workhouse inmates. By 1843 the figure had risen to 197,179. The most eloquent testimony to the depths of poverty is in the fact that they were tenanted at all. #1_1047 [1]


The Weavers

THE history of the weavers in the nineteenth century is haunted by the legend of better days. The memories are strongest in Lancashire and Yorkshire. But they obtained in most parts of Britain and in most branches of textiles. Of the Midlands stocking-weavers in the 1780s:

When the wake came, the stocking-maker had peas and beans in his snug garden, and a good barrel of humming ale.

He had ‘a week-day suit of clothes and one for Sundays and plenty of leisure’. #1_1048 [1] Of the Gloucestershire weavers:

Their little cottages seemed happy and contented… it was seldom that a weaver appealed to the parish for relief…. Peace and content sat upon the weaver’s brow. #2_598 [2]

Of the linen-weaving quarter of Belfast:

… a quarter once remarkable for its neatness and order; he remembered their whitewashed houses, and their little flower gardens, and the decent appearance they made with their families at markets, or at public worship. These houses were now a mass of filth and misery… #3_243 [3]

Dr Dorothy George, in her lucid and persuasive England in Transition, has argued that the ‘golden age’ was in general a myth. And her arguments have carried the day.

They have, perhaps, done so too easily. After all, if we set up the ninepin of a ‘golden age’ it is not difficult to knock it down. Certainly, the condition of the Spitalfields silk-weavers in the eighteenth century was not enviable. And it is true that capitalist organization of the woollen and worsted industries of the south-west and of Norwich early gave rise to many forms of antagonism which anticipate later developments in Lancashire and Yorkshire. Certainly, also the conditions of eighteenth-century weaving communities were idealized by Gaskell in his influential Manufacturing Population of England (1833); and by Engels when (following Gaskell) he conjured up a picture of the grandparents of the factory operatives of 1844 ‘leading a righteous and peaceful life in all piety and probity’.

But the fact of eighteenth-century hardship and conflict on the one hand, and of nineteenth-century idealization on the other, does not end the matter. The memories remain. And so does plentiful evidence which does not admit of easy interpretation. The existence of supplementary earnings from small farming or merely slips of garden, spinning, harvest work, etc., is attested from most parts of the country. There is architectural evidence to this day testifying to the solidity of many late eighteenth-century weaving hamlets in the Pennines. The commonest error today is not that of Gaskell and of Engels but that of the optimist who muddles over the difficult and painful nature of the change in status from artisan to depressed outworker in some such comforting phrases as these:

The view that the period before the Industrial Revolution was a sort of golden age is a myth. Many of the evils of the early factory age were no worse than those of an earlier period. Domestic spinners and weavers in the eighteenth century had been ‘exploited’ by the clothiers as ruthlessly as the factory operatives were ‘exploited’ by the manufacturers in the 1840s. #1_1049 [1]

We may distinguish between four kinds of weaver-employer relationship to be found in the eighteenth century. (1) The customer-weaver – the Silas Marner, who lived in independent status in a village or small town, much like a master-tailor, making up orders for customers. His numbers were declining, and he need not concern us here. (2) The weaver, with the status of superior artisan, self-employed, and working by the piece for a choice of masters. (3) The journeyman weaver, working either in the shop of the master-clothier, or, more commonly, in his own home and at his own loom for a single master. (4) The farmer or smallholder weaver, working only part-time in the loom.

The last three groups all run into each other, but it is helpful if the distinctions are made. For example in the mid eighteenth century, the Manchester small-ware and check trades were largely conducted by weaver-artisans (group 2), with a high degree of organization. As the cotton industry expanded in the latter half of the century, more and more small farmers (group 4) were attracted by the high wages to becoming part-time weavers. At the same time the West Riding woollen industry remained largely organized on the basis of small working-clothiers employing only a handful of journeymen and apprentices (group 3) in their own domestic unit. We may simplify the experiences of the years 1780–1830 if we say that they saw the merging of all three groups into a group whose status was greatly debased – that of the proletarian outworker, who worked in his own home, sometimes owned and sometimes rented his loom, and who wove up the yarn to the specifications of the factor or agent of a mill or of some middleman. He lost the status and security which groups 2 and 3 might expect, and the side-earnings of group 4: he was exposed to conditions which were, in the sense of the London artisan, wholly ‘dishonourable’.

Among the weavers of the north memories of lost status were grounded in authentic experiences and lingered longest. In the West Country by the end of the eighteenth century the weavers were already outworkers, employed by the great gentlemen clothier who ‘buys the wool, pays for the spinning, weaving, Milling, Dying, Shearing, Dressing, etc.’, and who might employ as many as 1,000 workers in these processes. A Yorkshire witness in 1806 contrasted the two systems. In the West Country,

there is no such thing as what we in Yorkshire call the domestic system; what I mean by the domestic system is the little clothiers living in villages, or in detached places, with all their comforts, carrying on business with their own capital…. I understand that in the west of England it is quite the reverse of that, the manufacturer there is the same as our common workman in a factory in Yorkshire, except living in a detached house; in the west the wool is delivered out to them to weave, in Yorkshire it is the man’s own property. #1_1050 [1]

But in the Yorkshire domestic industry of the eighteenth century, the wool was the property, not of the weaver, but of the little master-clothier. Most weavers were journeymen, working for a single clothier, and (however much this was later idealized) in a dependent status. An ‘idyllic’ picture of the clothier’s life is to be found in a ‘Poem Descriptive of the Manners of the Clothiers, written about the year 1730.’ #2_599 [2] The weavers – we do not know whether Tom, Will, Jack, Joe and Mary are journeymen, apprentices, or sons and daughters of the ‘Maister’ – are shown eating at a common board, after keeping ‘time with hand and feet/From five at morn till Eight at neet!’

Quoth Maister – ‘Lads, work hard, I pray,

‘Cloth mun be pearked next Market day.

‘And Tom mun go to-morn to t’spinners,

‘And Will mun seek about for t’swingers;

‘And Jack, to-morn, by time be rising,

‘And go to t’sizing house for sizing,

‘And get you web, in warping, done

‘That ye may get it into t’loom.

‘Joe – go give my horse some corn

‘For I design for t’Wolds to-morn;

‘So mind and clean my boots and shoon,

‘For I’ll be up it ’morn right soon!

‘Mary – there’s wool – tak thee and dye it

‘It’s that ’at ligs i th’ clouted sheet!’

Mistress: ‘So thou’s setting me my wark,

‘I think I’d more need mend thy sark,

‘Prithie, who mun sit at’ bobbin wheel?

‘And ne’er a cake at top o’ the’ creel!

‘And we to bake, and swing, to blend,

‘And milk, and barns to school to send,

‘And dumplins for the lads to mak,

‘And yeast to seek, and ’syk as that’!

‘And washing up, morn, noon and neet,

‘And bowls to scald, and milk to fleet,

‘And barns to fetch again at neet!’

The picture invites comparison with Cobbett’s nostalgic reconstructions of the patriarchal relations between the small southern farmer and his labourers, who shared his board and his fortunes in the eighteenth century. It is a credible picture of a time when, in the Halifax and Leeds districts, nearly all the processes of cloth manufacture took place within a single domestic unit. By the end of the eighteenth century it would require some qualifications. Master would no longer buy his wool in the Wolds (he might now buy his yarn direct from a spinning-mill) and the finishing processes would be undertaken in specialized shops. Nor was the market for his pieces as ‘free’, although the last of the great yeoman Cloth Halls was built at Halifax as late as 1779, and in the 1790s a new pirate cloth hall was set up at Leeds, where interlopers, unapprenticed ‘shoemakers and tinkers’, and self-employed weavers marketed their cloth. The small clothier was becoming increasingly dependent upon merchants, factors or mills. He might, if successful, be a small capitalist, employing fifteen or twenty weavers, many of whom worked in their own homes. If unsuccessful, he might find himself being squeezed out of his independence; his profit being lost in a simple payment for the work undertaken, in working yarn into cloth to the specifications of a middleman. In spells of bad trade he might become indebted to the merchant. He was on his way to becoming a mere hand-loom weaver; and, as competition became more intense, so the Mistress’s domestic economy was lost in the demands of the trade.

These processes were slow and at first they were not exceptionally painful. Hundreds of yeomen clothiers were among those who rode to York to vote for Wilberforce in 1807. The intricate sub-divisions of the industry enabled some small masters to cling on for fifty more years, while others founded small finishing and cropping shops. Moreover, the great increase in the output of yarn laid a special premium on the weaver’s labour; between 1780 and 1820 the clothier’s loss of independence and of status was to some degree disguised by the abundance of work. And if Master’s status was, in some cases, falling to that of his journeymen, that of Tom, Will, Jack and Joe appeared to be rising. As the mills and the factors were searching for weavers, so the journeyman gained some independence of the master-clothier. He might now pick and choose his masters. This was, in wool as in cotton, the ‘golden age’ of the journeyman weaver.

In the earlier eighteenth century the relationships described in the poem are idyllic only in a patriarchial sense. On the debit side, the journeyman had little more independence of his master than the yearly hand on the farm. The parish apprentice, if placed with a bad master, was for years in a position of near-servitude. On the credit side, the journeyman considered himself to be a ‘clothier’ rather than a mere weaver; his work was varied, much of it in the loom, but some of it out and about; he had some hope of obtaining credit to buy wool and of becoming a small master on his own account. If he worked in his own home, rather than in the master’s workshop, he was subject to no work-discipline except that of his own making. Relations between small masters and their men were personal and sometimes close: they observed the same customs and owned allegiance to the same community values:

The ‘little makers’… were men who doffed their caps to no one, and recognized no right in either squire or parson to question, or meddle with them…. Their brusqueness and plain speaking might at times be offensive…. If the little maker… rose in the world high enough to employ a few of his neighbours, he did not therefore cease to labour with his own hands, but worked as hard or perhaps harder than anyone he employed. In speech and in dress he claimed no superiority. #1_1051 [1]

The master-clothier was the peasant, or small kulak, of the Industrial Revolution; and it is to him that the Yorkshire reputation for bluntness and independence may be traced.

In the cotton industry the story is different. Here the average unit of production was larger, and relationships similar to those in Norwich and the west of England may be found from the late eighteenth century. By the 1750s Manchester small-ware and check-weavers had strongly organized trade societies. Already they were seeking to maintain their status, by resisting the influx of unapprenticed labour. ‘Illegal’ men began ‘to multiply so fast as to be one in the Gate of another’. During the summer (the weavers complained, these men ‘betook themselves to Out-work, such as Day labouring’, and in the autumn:

would again return to the Loom, and would be content to work upon any Terms, or submit to do any Kind of servile Work, rather than starve in the Winter; and what they thus submitted to, soon became a general Rule… #2_600 [2]

When the Oldham check-weavers sought, in 1759, to secure legal enforcement of apprenticeship restrictions, the Assize Judge delivered a hostile judgement in which the laws of the land were set aside in favour of the as-yet-unstated doctrines of Adam Smith. If apprenticeship were to be enforced, ‘that Liberty of setting up Trades (the Foundation of the present flourishing Condition of Manchester) [would be] destroyed’:

In the Infancy of Trade, the Acts of Queen Elizabeth might be well calculated for the publick Weal; but now, when it is grown to that Perfection we see it, it might perhaps be of Utility to have those Laws repealed, as tending to cramp and tye down that Knowledge it was at first necessary to obtain by Rule…

As for combinations, ‘if Inferiors are to prescribe to their Superiors, if the Foot aspire to be the Head… to what End are Laws enacted?’ It was the ‘indispensable Duty of every one, as a Friend to the Community, to endeavour to suppress them in their Beginnings’. #1_1052 [1]

This remarkable judgement anticipated the actual repeal of the Statute of Artificers by more than half a century. Although their organizations were by no means extinguished, the weavers were left without any shadow of legal protection when the vast increase in the output of yarn from the early cotton-mills led to the amazing expansion of weaving throughout south-east Lancashire. William Radcliffe’s account of these years in the Pennine uplands is well known:

… the old loom-shops being insufficient, every lumber-room, even old barns, cart-houses and outbuildings of any description were repaired, windows broke through the blank walls, and all were fitted up for loom-shops. This source of making room being at length exhausted, new weavers cottages with loom-shops rose up in every direction… #2_601 [2]

It was the loom, and not the cotton-mill, which attracted immigrants in their thousands. From the 1770s onwards the great settlement of the uplands – Middleton, Oldham, Mottram, Rochdale – commenced. Bolton leapt from 5,339 inhabitants in 1773 to 11,739 in 1789: at the commencement of the Wars—

notwithstanding the great numbers who have enlisted, houses for the working class are not procured without difficulty; and last summer many houses were built in the skirts of the town, which are now occupied. #3_244 [3]

Small farmers turned weaver, and agricultural labourers and immigrant artisans entered the trade. It was the fifteen years between 1788 and 1803 which Radcliffe described as ‘the golden age of this great trade’ for the weaving communities:

Their dwellings and small gardens clean and neat – all the family well clad – the men with each a watch in his pocket, and the women dressed to their own fancy – the church crowded to excess every Sunday – every house well furnished with a clock in elegant mahogany or fancy case – handsome tea services in Staffordshire ware… Birmingham, Potteries, and Sheffield wares for necessary use and ornament… many cottage families had their cow… #1_1053 [1]

Experience and myth are here intermingled, as they are in Gaskell’s account of weaving families earning £4 per week at the turn of the century, and in Bamford’s description of his own Early Days in Middleton. We know from an Oldham diarist that the prosperity did not extend to fustians, the coarsest branch of the trade. #2_602 [2] In fact, probably only a minority of weavers attained Radcliffe’s standard; but many aspired towards it. In these fifteen or twenty years of moderate prosperity a distinct cultural pattern emerges in the weaving communities: a rhythm of work and leisure: a Wesleyanism in some villages softer and more humanized than it was to be in the first decades of the nineteenth century (Bamford’s Sunday school taught him to write as well as to read), with class leaders and local preachers among the weavers: a stirring of political radicalism, and a deep attachment to the values of independence.

But the prosperity induced by the soaring output of machine yarn disguised a more essential loss of status. It is in the ‘golden age’ that the artisan, or journeyman weaver, becomes merged in the generic ‘hand-loom weaver’. Except in a few specialized branches, the older artisans (their apprenticeship walls being totally breached) were placed on a par with the new immigrants; while many of the farming-weavers abandoned their smallholdings to concentrate upon the loom. Reduced to complete dependence upon the spinning-mill or the ‘putters-out’ who took yarn into the uplands, the weavers were now exposed to round after round of wage reductions.

Wage cutting had long been sanctioned not only by the employer’s greed but by the widely-diffused theory that poverty was an essential goad to industry. The author of the Memoirs of Wool had probably the industry of the west of England in mind when he wrote:

It is a fact well known… that scarcity, to a certain degree, promotes industry, and that the manufacturer who can subsist on three days work will be idle and drunken the remainder of the week…. The poor in the manufacturing counties will never work any more time in general than is necessary just to live and support their weekly debauches…. We can fairly aver that a reduction of wages in the woollen manufacture would be a national blessing and advantage, and no real injury to the poor. By this means we might keep our trade, uphold our rents, and reform the people into the bargain. #1_1054 [1]

But the theory is found, almost universally, among employers, as well as among many magistrates and clergy, in the cotton districts as well. #2_603 [2] The prosperity of the weavers aroused feelings of active alarm in the minds of some masters and magistrates. ‘Some years ago,’ wrote one magistrate in 1818, the weavers were ‘so extravagantly paid that by working three or four days in the week they could maintain themselves in a comparative state of luxury.’ They ‘spent a great portion of their time and money in alehouses, and at home had their tea-tables twice a day provided with a rum bottle and the finest wheaten bread and butter’. #3_245 [3]

Reductions, during the Napoleonic Wars, were sometimes forced by the large employers, sometimes by the least scrupulous employers, sometimes by little masters or self-employed weavers working for ‘commission houses’. When markets were sluggish, manufacturers took advantage of the situation by putting out work to weavers desperate for employment at any price, thereby compelling them ‘to manufacture great quantities of goods at a time, when they are absolutely not wanted’. #1_1055 [1] With the return of demand, the goods were then released on the market at cut price; so that each minor recession was succeeded by a period in which the market was glutted with cheap goods thereby holding wages down to their recession level. The practices of some employers were unscrupulous to a degree, both in the exaction of fines for faulty work and in giving false weight in yarn. Yet at the same time as wages were screwed lower and lower, the number of weavers continued to increase over the first three decades of the nineteenth century; for weaving, next to general labouring, was the grand resource of the northern unemployed. Fustian weaving was heavy, monotonous, but easily learned. Agricultural workers, demobilized soldiers, Irish immigrants – all continued to swell the labour force.

The first severe general reductions took place at the turn of the century: there was an improvement in the last year or two of the Wars, followed by further reductions after 1815 and an uninterrupted decline thereafter. The weavers’ first demand, from 1790 onwards, was for a legal minimum wage – a demand supported by some employers, as a means of enforcing fair conditions of competition upon their less scrupulous rivals. The rejection of this demand by the House of Commons in May 1808, was followed by a strike, when 10,000 to 15,000 weavers demonstrated on successive days in St George’s Fields, Manchester. The demonstration was dispersed by the magistrates with bloodshed, and the full vindictiveness of the authorities was revealed by the State prosecution and imprisonment of a prominent manufacturer, Colonel Joseph Hanson of the Volunteers, who had supported the minimum wage bill, for the crime of riding among the weavers and uttering ‘malicious and inflammatory words’:

Stick to your cause and you will certainly succeed. Neither Nadin nor any of his faction shall put you off the field to-day. Gentlemen, you cannot live by your labour…. My father was a weaver; I myself was taught the weaving trade; I am a weaver’s real friend.

The weavers subsequently presented to Colonel Hanson a tribute, in the form of a silver cup, to which 39,600 persons contributed. ‘The effects of this ill-advised prosecution,’ commented the Manchester historian, Archibald Prentice, ‘were long and injuriously felt. It introduced that bitter feeling of employed against employers which was manifested in 1812, 1817, 1819, and 1826….’ #1_1056 [1]

The dates which Prentice singled out are those of the destruction of power-looms (1812, 1826), of the March of the Blanketeers (1817) and Peterloo (1819). With no hope of legal protection the weavers turned more directly towards the channels of political Radicalism. #2_604 [2] But for some years after 1800 an alliance between Methodism and ‘Church and King’ rowdyism kept most of the weavers as political ‘loyalists’. It was claimed that 20,000 of them joined the Volunteers early in the Wars, and that there was a time when a man would be knocked down if he criticized the monarchy or the Pension List: ‘I have two or three individuals in my eye,’ declared a Bolton witness before the Select Committee on Hand-loom weavers in 1834, ‘who were in serious danger for being reformers of the old school.’ It was after the Wars that the real Radical tide set in; and in 1818 a second critical confrontation between the weavers and their employers took place. It was the year of the great Manchester cotton-spinners’ strike, and of the first impressive attempt at general unionism (the ‘Philanthropic Hercules’). Once again the weavers struck, collecting the shuttles and locking them in chapels or workshops, not only in Manchester but throughout the weaving towns – Bolton, Bury, Burnley. The strike ended in short-lived concessions on the masters’ side, and in the prosecution and imprisonment of several of the weavers’ leaders. #3_246 [3] It was the last effective general strike movement of the Lancashire weavers: thereafter wages in most branches continued to be beaten down – 9s., 6s., 4s. 6d. and even less per week for irregular work – until the 1830s.

It is an over-simplification to ascribe the cause of the debasement of the weavers’ conditions to the power-loom. #1_1057 [1] The status of the weavers had been shattered by 1813, at a time when the total number of power-looms in the U.K. was estimated at 2,400, and when the competition of power with hand was largely psychological. The estimate of power-looms rises to 14,000 in 1820, but even then it was slow and clumsy and had not yet been adapted to the Jacquard principle, so that it was incapable of weaving difficult figured patterns. It can be argued that the very cheapness and superfluity of hand-loom labour retarded mechanical invention and the application of capital in weaving. The degradation of the weavers is very similar to that of the workers in the dishonourable artisan trades. Each time their wages were beaten down, their position became more defenceless. The weaver had now to work longer into the night to earn less; in working longer he increased another’s chances of unemployment. Even adherents of the new ‘political economy’ were appalled. ‘Did Dr A. Smith ever contemplate such a state of things?’ exclaimed one humane employer, whose honourable practices were the cause of his own ruin:

It is vain to read his book to find a remedy for a complaint which he could not conceive existed, vis. 100,000 weavers doing the work of 150,000 when there was no demand (as ’tis said) and that for half meat, and the rest paid by Poor Rates, could he conceive that the profits of a Manufacture should be what one Master could wring from the hard earnings of the poor, more than another? #2_605 [2]

‘100,000 weavers doing the work of 150,000’ – this is the essence of the dishonourable trades, as later seen by Mayhew in London: a pool of surplus labour, semi-employed, defenceless, and undercutting each other’s wages. The very circumstances of the weaver’s work, especially in the upland hamlets, gave an additional impediment to trade unionism. A Salford weaver explained these conditions to the Select Committee of 1834:

The very peculiar circumstances in which the hand-loom weavers are situated, preclude the possibility of their having the slightest control over the value of their own labour…. The fact that the weavers of even one employer may be scattered over an extensive district presents a constant opportunity to that employer, if he be so minded, to make his weavers the means of reducing the wages of one another alternatively; to some he will tell that others are weaving for so much less, and that they must have no more, or go without work, and this in turn he tells to the rest…. Now the difficulty, and loss of time it would occasion the weavers to discover the truth or falsehood of this statement, the fear that, in the interval, others would step in and deprive them of the work so offered… the jealousy and resentment enkindled in the minds of all, tending to divide them in sentiment and feeling, all conspire to make the reduction certain to be effected…

The decline of the Yorkshire woollen and worsted weavers followed a parallel course, although it often lagged fifteen or more years behind the changes in cotton. Evidence before the Committee on the Woollen Trade of 1806 showed the domestic system still commanding the woollen industry. But the ‘little makers’ were on the decrease: ‘many which were masters’ houses are now workmen’s houses’; while at the same time merchant manufacturers were bringing a number of hand-looms, as well as the finishing processes, under one roof in unpowered ‘factories’. (‘A factory,’ said one witness, ‘is where they employ perhaps 200 hands in one and the same building.’) The factories – notably those of Benjamin Gott in Leeds – aroused bitter dislike among both small masters and journeymen, because they were creaming the best customers, and in the finishing processes – where the cloth-dressers or croppers were highly organized – they were taking ‘illegal’ men. Wealth, declared one witness, ‘has gone more into lumps’. The journeymen complained that the factories put out more work to out-weavers in brisk times, and dismissed them without compunction in slack, whereas the small master-clothiers still sought to find employment for their own journeymen. Moreover, even before the use of power, the hand-loom ‘factories’ offended deep-rooted moral prejudices. A trade union – the Clothier’s Community or ‘the Institution’ – existed among the croppers and weavers, its avowed purpose being to join with the small clothiers in petitioning for a restriction upon the factories and for an enforcement of apprenticeship. #1_1058 [1]

Neither the ‘little makers’ nor the journeymen received any satisfaction from the House of Commons: their petitions served only to draw attention to their combination, and to the old paternalist statutes which were soon afterwards repealed. In the Leeds and Spen Valley clothing districts the small clothiers were tenacious, and their decline was protracted over a further fifty years. It was in the worsted districts of Bradford and Halifax, and in the fancy woollen district to the south of Huddersfield that the putting-out system was most fully developed by the 1820s; and, just as in cotton, the weavers were the victims of wage-cutting, and of ‘slaughter-house men’ who warehoused stocks of cut-price goods.

Just as the croppers were the artisan élite of the woollen industry, so the woolcombers were the élite workers in worsted. Controlling a bottle-neck in the manufacturing process, they were in a position to uphold their status so long as they could limit entry to their trade. And this they had done with some success, owing to their exceptional trade union organization which reached back at least to the 1740s. In the early nineteenth century, despite the Combination Acts, they had effective national organization, an imposing Constitution, with all the paraphernalia of an underground union, and the reputation for insubordination and lax time-keeping:

They come on a Monday morning, and having lighted the fire in the comb-pot, will frequently go away, and perhaps return no more till Wednesday, or even Thursday…. A spare bench is always provided in the shop, upon which people on the tramp may rest… #2_606 [2]

In Bradford, in February 1825, the festival in honour of Bishop Blaize, the woolcomber’s saint, was celebrated on a magnificent scale. #3_247 [3] In June as if to punctuate the transition to the new industrialism, there commenced the bitterest strike of Bradford’s history, in which 20,000 woolcombers and weavers were involved, and which lasted for twenty-three weeks, ending in total defeat for the strikers. #1_1059 [1] The Combination Acts had been repealed in the previous year. Commencing in demands for wage advances and rationalization, the strike turned into a struggle for union recognition, the employers going so far as to dismiss all children from the spinning-mills whose parents refused to sign a document renouncing the union. The contest was seen to be crucial throughout the country, and up to £20,000 was contributed in support of strike funds. After defeat, the woolcomber was translated almost overnight from a privileged artisan to a defenceless outworker. Apprenticeship restrictions had already broken down, and in the years before 1825 thousands had been attracted by high wages into the trade. While some combers worked in large workshops, it had been customary for others to club together in threes and fours sharing an independent shop. Now they were supplemented by hundreds of newcomers whose unhealthy trade was carried on in their own homes. Although combing machinery was in existence by 1825 it was of doubtful service in fine combing; and the cheapness of combers’ labour enabled the threat of machinery to be kept above their heads for a further twenty years. Throughout this time the combers remained noted for their independence and their ‘democratic’ politics. The union estimated that 7,000 or 8,000 were employed in the Bradford trade in 1825; twenty years later there were still 10,000 handcombers in the district. Many came, in the 1820s, from agricultural districts:

They came from Kendal, North Yorkshire, Leicester, Devonshire, and even from the Emerald Isle; so that to spend an hour in a public-house (the comber’s calling was a thirsty one) one might have heard a perfect Babel of different dialects…. His attachment to rural life was evidenced by the fact that in hay-time and harvest he used to lay aside his wool-combs, take up his scythe… and go to his own country a harvesting…. He was a bird fancier too, and his comb-shop was often transformed into a perfect aviary…. Some combers had a talent for elocution, and could recite with wonderful power…. Others again were so clever at dramatic personation that they even went the length of forming themselves into companies…

– so runs one Bradford account. #1_1060 [1] An account from Cleckheaton is in more sombre terms:

Perhaps a more wretched class of workmen never existed than the old woolcombers. The work was all done in their own houses, the best part of their cottages being taken up with it. The whole family, of sometimes six or eight, both male and female, worked together round a ‘combpot’ heated by charcoal, the fumes of which had a very deleterious effect upon their health. When we add that the workshop was also perforce the bedroom, it will not be wondered at that woolcombers were almost invariably haggard looking… many of them not living half their days…

Their wives also had ‘often to stand at the “pad-posts” and work from six o’clock in the morning till ten at night like their husbands’.

Another peculiarity about these woolcombers was that they were almost without exception rabid politicians…. The Chartist movement had no more enthusiastic adherents than these men; the ‘Northern Star’ was their one book of study. #2_607 [2]

Perhaps no group was thrown so precipitately as the wool-combers from ‘honourable’ into ‘dishonourable’ conditions. The worsted- and woollen-weavers had not known so privileged a status as the eighteenth-century combers; and at first they resisted less stubbornly as their wages declined. As late as 1830, the largest employer of hand-loom weavers in Bradford wrote:

The weavers are of all classes we have to do with the most orderly and steady, never at any period, that I know of, constraining an advance of wages, but submitting to every privation and suffering with almost unexampled patience and forbearance. #1_1061 [1]

Two years later, Cobbett rode through the Halifax district, and reported that:

It is truly lamentable to behold so many thousands of men who formerly earned 20 to 30 shillings per week, now compelled to live upon 5s, 4s, or even less…. It is the more sorrowful to behold these men in their state, as they still retain the frank and bold character formed in the days of their independence. #2_608 [2]

The depression in the Huddersfield ‘fancy’ trade had continued without intermission since 1825. In 1826, 3,500 families were on the list of paupers in Delph in the Saddleworth district, and there was some extension of the ‘industrial Speenhamland’ system (already in operation in some Lancashire cotton districts) whereby weavers were relieved out of the poor-rates while still in work, thereby further reducing their wages. (For two days a week road-work in Saddleworth the weavers received 12 lb. of oatmeal per day.) In Huddersfield a committee of the masters established, in 1829, that there were over 13,000 out of a population of 29,000 who – when the wage was divided between all members of the family – subsisted on 2d. per day per head. But it was a curious ‘depression’, in which the actual output of woollen cloth exceeded that in any previous period. The conditions of the weavers were bluntly attributed to ‘the abominable system of reducing wages’. #3_248 [3]

Once again the decline preceded serious competition with the power-loom. Power was not introduced into worsted-weaving on any scale until the late 1820s; into ‘fancy’ woollens until the late 1830s (and then only partially); while the power-loom was not effectively adapted to carpet-weaving until 1851. Even where direct power competition existed, the speed of weaving only slowly rose to that by which the hand-loom’s output was trebled or quadrupled. #1_1062 [1] But there was undoubtedly a chain reaction, as weavers forced out of plain cottons and fustians turned to fine work or silk or worsted and thence to ‘fancy’ woollen or carpets. #2_609 [2] Power, indeed, continued in many branches of textiles as an auxiliary to hand-loom weaving, for ten, fifteen, or twenty years. ‘In Halifax’, one witness informed the Select Committee (somewhat illogically):

there are two very extensive manufacturers, two brothers [Messrs Akroyd]; the one weaves by power-looms and the other by hand-looms… they have to sell their goods against each other, therefore they must bring their wages as near in point of comparison as possible… to obtain a profit. #3_249 [3]

Here the power-loom might appear as a lever to reduce the hand-loom weavers’ wages and vice versa. From another aspect, the manufacturer was well satisfied with an arrangement by which he could base his steady trade upon his power-loom sheds and in times of brisk trade give out more work to the hand workers who themselves bore the costs of fixed charges for rent, loom, etc. ‘In the event of a decreased demand,’ reported the Assistant Commissioner enquiring into the West Riding in 1839:

the manufacturer who employs power, as well as hand-looms, will, of course, work his fixed capital as long as possible. Hence the services of the hand-loom weaver are first dispensed with.

The conditions of most weavers, from the 1820s to the 1840s and beyond, are commonly referred to as ‘indescribable’ or as ‘well known’. They deserve, however, to be described and to be better known. There were selected groups of weavers who maintained their artisan-status, owing to some special skill, until the 1830s; the Leeds stuff weavers were better situated than most, while the Norwich worsted weavers, whose Jacobin and trade union traditions were exceptionally strong, succeeded in keeping up wages in the 1830s by a combination of picketing, intimidation of masters and ‘illegal’ men, municipal politics, and violent opposition to machinery – all of which contributed to the supersession of the Norwich by the West Riding industry. #1_1063 [1] But the great majority of the weavers were living on the edge – and sometimes beyond the edge – of the borders of starvation. The Select Committee on Emigration (1827) was given evidence of conditions in some districts of Lancashire which read like an anticipation of the Irish potato famine:

Mrs Hulton and myself, in visiting the poor, were asked by a person almost starving to go into a house. We there found on one side of the fire a very old man, apparently dying, on the other side a young man about eighteen with a child on his knee, whose mother had just died and been buried. We were going away from that house, when the woman said, ‘Sir, you have not seen all.’ We went up stairs, and, under some rags, we found another young man, the widower; and on turning down the rags, which he was unable to remove himself, we found another man who was dying, and who did die in the course of the day. I have no doubt that the family were actually starving at the time…

The evidence came from West Houghton, where half of the 5,000 inhabitants were ‘totally destitute of bedding, and nearly so of clothes’. Six were described as being in the actual process of starvation.

It is true that the low wages quoted in these years (from l0s. to 4s.) might represent only one of several wages in the same family, since many wives, girls and youths, worked at a second or third loom. But the wages also concealed further outpayments or deductions. The Bradford worsted weavers in 1835 claimed that from an average wage of 10s. there would be an outlay of 4d. for sizing, 3d. for looming, 9½d. for winding the weft, 3½d. for light, while 4d. more should be added for outlay and wear and tear on the loom. If the outlay for rent (1s. 9d.) and fire and washing (1s. 6d.) were added, this totalled deductions amounting to 5s. 3d., although where the wife or son also worked on a second loom some of these overheads could be spread over two wages. #1_1064 [1] In some cases the loom itself was hired by the weaver, in other cases he owned the loom, but had to hire the gearing or slays for pattern-weaving from the employer. Many weavers were in a perpetual state of indebtedness to the ‘putter-out’, working off their debts by instalments upon their work, and in a condition where they were incapable of refusing any wages however low.

As their conditions worsened, so they had to spend more and more time in unpaid employments – fetching and carrying work, and a dozen other processes. ‘I can remember the time,’ wrote one observer in 1844,

when manufacturers hired rooms in districts, and the warps and wefts were conveyed to them, by horse and cart, for convenience of the weavers, and the employer inquired after the employed; but the case is now diametrically opposite, the labourer not only undertakes long journeys in quest of work, but is doomed to many disappointments. #2_610 [2]

An even more graphic description of all his ancillary unpaid work comes from Pudsey:

It was quite common when trade was not bad to see weavers and spinners going from place to place seeking work…. If they succeeded it was mostly on the condition that they helped to break the wool for it; that is, opened the bales, then fleeces, taking off the coarse parts called the britch, put it in sheets, then go to the mill and help to scour it, then ‘lit’ or dye it… All this was for nothing, except in some cases a small allowance for a little ale or cheese and bread… When the slubber had doffed the first set of slubbing, it often became a serious question as to whose turn it was to have it, and casting lots would frequently be the mode of deciding it… When the web was warped there was the sizing process to go through, and the weavers, as a rule, had to buy their own size…. After sizing the web, one of the most critical of all the processes is to put it out of doors to dry…. A place is chosen, the web-sticks or stretchers are put out, and if frosty, a pick-axe is used to make holes in the ground for posts to hold the ends of the web…. Sometimes might be seen a man and his wife up to their knees in snow going out with a web to dry…

After this, the weaving, late into the evening by candle or oil light, with ‘a boy or girl or perhaps a weaver’s wife, standing on one side of the loom watching to see when a thread broke down, whilst the weaver watched the other side, because if a thread broke, and another “shoit” was picked, a dozen more might be broken’. And after the weaving, there were half a dozen odd jobs to do again, before the piece was taken off by the carrier to Leeds:

All this odd jobbing, we say, was done for nothing…. It was no uncommon thing, too, when the work was done for the weavers to be unable to get paid for some time after…. We cannot wonder that a hand-loom weaver came to be called a ‘poverty knocker’. #1_1065 [1]

Some of these practices did not obtain in cotton, or had long been devolved to specialist processes in worsted. They indicate the obsolescence of the small-scale woollen trade. But in the worsted and fancy woollen weaving districts there were equally time-wasting forms of jobbing. Among the scattered upland hamlets the ‘human packhorse’ was known – the man or woman who hired his or her labour to carry the heavy finished pieces five or even ten miles over the moorland roads. It was in the weaving districts surrounding such centres as Bradford, Keighley, Halifax, Huddersfield, Todmorden, Rochdale, Bolton, Macclesfield, that the largest populations of utterly depressed outworkers were to be found. The Select Committee of 1834 reported that it found ‘the sufferings of that large and valuable body of men, not only not exaggerated, but that they have for years continued to an extent and intensity scarcely to be credited or conceived’. John Fielden, giving evidence to the same Committee in 1835, declared that a very great number of the weavers, could not obtain sufficient food of the plainest or cheapest kind; were clothed in rags and ashamed to send their children to Sunday school; had no furniture and in some cases slept on straw; worked ‘not unfrequently sixteen hours a day’; were demoralized by cheap spirits, and weakened by undernourishment and ill-health. Possessions gained in the ‘golden age’ had passed out of the weaving households. A Bolton witness declared:

Since I can recollect, almost every weaver that I knew had a chest of drawers in his house, and a clock and chairs, and bedsteads and candlesticks, and even pictures, articles of luxury; and now I find that those have disappeared; they have either gone into the houses of mechanics, or into houses of persons of higher class.

The same witness, a manufacturer, could not ‘recollect an instance but one, where any weaver of mine has bought a new jacket for many years’. A coarse coverlid, of the value of 2s. 6d. when new, often did service for blankets: ‘I have seen many houses with only two or three three-legged stools, and some I have seen without a stool or chair, with only a tea chest to put their clothes in, and to sit upon.’

There is unanimity as to the diet of the poor weaver and his family: oatmeal, oatcake, potatoes, onion porridge, blue milk, treacle or home-brewed ale, and as luxuries tea, coffee, bacon. ‘They do not know what it is, many of them,’ declared Richard Oastler, ‘to taste flesh meat from year’s end to year’s end… and their children will sometimes run to Huddersfield, and beg, and bring a piece in, and it is quite a luxury…’ If confirmation was needed, it was brought by the careful investigations of the Assistant Commissioners who toured the country after the appointment of the Royal Commission in 1838. The very worst conditions, perhaps, were those found in the cellar dwellings of the big towns – Leeds and Manchester – where Irish unemployed attempted to earn a few shillings by the loom.

But it is easy to assume that the country weavers in the solid, stonebuilt cottages, with the long mullioned windows of the loom-shops, in the beautiful Pennine uplands – in the upper Calder Valley or Wharfedale, Saddleworth or Clitheroe – enjoyed amenities which compensated for their poverty. A surgeon who investigated a typhus epidemic in a hamlet near Heptonstall (a thriving little woollen township during the Civil War) has left a terrible picture of the death of one such community. Situated high on the moors, nevertheless the water-supplies were polluted: one open stream, polluted by a slaughter-house, was in summer ‘a nursery of loathsome animal life’. The sewer passed directly under the flags of one of the weaver’s cottages. The houses were wet and cold, the ground floors beneath the surface of the earth: ‘It may be fairly said oatmeal and potatoes are well nigh what they contrive to exist upon’, with old milk and treacle. If tea or coffee could not be afforded, an infusion of mint, tansy or hyssop was prepared. Even of this diet ‘they have by no means sufficient…. The inhabitants are undergoing a rapid deterioration.’ Medical attendance and funeral expenses were generally paid from the poor-rates; only one in ten received any medical aid in childbirth:

What is the situation of the wife of the hand-loom weaver during the parturient efforts? She is upon her feet, with a woman on each side; her arms are placed round their necks; and, in nature’s agony, she almost drags her supporters to the floor; and in this state the birth takes place…. And why is this the case? The answer is, because there is no change of bedclothing…

‘How they contrive to exist at all,’ exclaimed this humane surgeon, ‘confounds the very faculties of eyes and ears.’ #1_1066 [1]

The contemporary reaction against ‘the Hammonds’ has gone so far that it is almost impossible to quote such sources, with which these years are all too plentiful, without being accused of pejorative intentions. But it is necessary to do so because, without such detail, it is possible for the eye to pass over the phrase, ‘the decline of the handloom weavers’, without any realization of the scale of the tragedy that was enacted. Weaving communities – some in the West Country and the Pennines, with 300 and 400 years of continuous existence, some of much more recent date but with, none the less, their own cultural patterns and traditions – were literally being extinguished. The demographic pattern of Heptonstall-Slack was extraordinary: in a population of 348, over one-half were under twenty (147 under fifteen), while only 30 were over fifty-five; this did not represent a growing community, but a low expectation of life. In the catastrophic years of the 1830s and 1840s, when the power-loom, the Irish influx, and the new Poor Law, finished off what wage-cutting had begun, there were – alongside the insurrectionary hopes of Chartist weavers – the more gruesome stories: the children’s burial clubs (where each Sunday-school pupil contributed 1d. per week towards his own or a fellow-pupil’s funeral); the dissemination and serious discussion of a pamphlet (by ‘Marcus’) advocating infanticide. But this is not the whole story. Until these final agonies, the older weaving communities offered a way of life which their members greatly preferred to the higher material standards of the factory town. The son of a weaver from the Heptonstall district, who was a child in the 1820s, recalled that the weavers ‘had their good times’. ‘The atmosphere was not fouled by… the smoke of the factory.’

There was no bell to ring them up at four or five o’clock… there was freedom to start and to stay away as they cared…. In the evenings, while still at work, at anniversary times of the Sunday schools, the young men and women would most heartily join in the hymn singing, while the musical rhythm of the shuttles would keep time…

Some weavers had fruit, vegetables, and flowers from their gardens. ‘My work was at the loom side, and when not winding my father taught me reading, writing and arithmetic.’ A Keighley factory child, who left the mill for a hand-loom at the age of eighteen, informed Sadler’s Committee (1832) that he preferred the loom to the mill ‘a great deal’: ‘I have more relaxation: I can look about me, and go out and refresh myself a little.’ It was the custom in Bradford for the weavers to gather in their dinner break at noon:

… and have a chat with other weavers and combers on the news or gossip of the time. Some of these parties would spend an hour talking about pig-feeding, hen-raising, and bird-catching, and now and then would have very hot disputes about free grace, or whether infant baptism or adult immersion was the correct and scriptural mode of doing the thing. I have many a time seen a number of men ready to fight one another on this… topic. #1_1067 [1]

A unique blend of social conservatism, local pride, and cultural attainment made up the way of life of the Yorkshire or Lancashire weaving community. In one sense these communities were certainly ‘backward’ – they clung with equal tenacity to their dialect traditions and regional customs and to gross medical ignorance and superstitions. But the closer we look at their way of life, the more inadequate simple notions of economic progress and ‘backwardness’ appear. Moreover, there was certainly a leaven amongst the northern weavers of self-educated and articulate men of considerable attainments. Every weaving district had its weaver-poets, biologists, mathematicians, musicians, geologists, botanists: the old weaver in Mary Barton is certainly drawn from the life. There are northern museums and natural history societies which still possess records or collections of lepidoptera built up by weavers; while there are accounts of weavers in isolated villages who taught themselves geometry by chalking on their flagstones, and who were eager to discuss the differential calculus. #2_611 [2] In some kinds of plain work with strong yarn a book could actually be propped on the loom and read at work.

There is also a weaver’s poetry, some traditional, some more sophisticated. The Lancashire ‘Jone o’ Grinfilt’ ballads went through a patriotic cycle at the start of the Wars (with Jacobin counter-ballads) and continued through Chartist times to the Crimean War. The most moving is ‘Jone o’ Grinfilt Junior’, sung at the close of the Wars:

Aw’m a poor cotton-wayver, as mony a one knaws,

Aw’ve nowt t’ate i’ th’ heawse, un’ aw’ve worn eawt my cloas,

Yo’d hardly gie sixpence fur o’ aw’ve got on,

Meh clogs ur’ booath baws’n, un’ stockins aw’ve none;

You’d think it wur hard, to be sent into th’ ward

To clem un’ do best ’ot yo’ con.

Eawr parish-church pa’son’s kept tellin’ us lung,

We’st see better toimes, if aw’d but howd my tung;

Aw’ve howden my tung, toll aw con hardly draw breoth,

Aw think i’ my heart he meons t’clem me to deoth;

Aw knaw he lives weel, wi’ backbitin’ the de’il,

Bur he never pick’d o’er in his loife.

Wey tooart on six weeks, thinkin’ aich day wur th’ last,

Wey tarried un’ shifted, till neaw wey’re quite fast;

Wey liv’t upo’ nettles, whoile nettles were good,

Un’ Wayterloo porritch wur’ the best o’ us food;

Aw’m tellin’ yo’ true, aw con foind foak enoo,

Thot’re livin’ na better nur me…

The bailiffs break in, and take their furniture after a fight.

Aw said to eawr Marget, as wey lien upo’ th’ floor,

‘Wey ne’er shall be lower i’ this wo’ald, aw’m sure…’

When he takes his piece back to his master, Jone is told that he is in debt for over-payment on his last piece. He comes out of the warehouse in despair, and returns to his wife.

Eawr Marget declares, if hoo’d clooas to put on,

Hoo’d go up to Lunnon to see the great mon;

Un’ if things didno’ awter, when theere hoo had been,

Hoo says hoo’d begin, un’ feight blood up to th’ e’en,

Hoo’s nout agen th’ king, bur hoo loikes a fair thing,

Un’ hoo says hoo con tell when hoo’s hurt. #1_1068 [1]

The other kind of weaver-poet was the auto-didact A remarkable example was Samuel Law, a Todmorden weaver, who published a poem in 1772 modelled on Thomson’s Seasons. The poem has few literary merits, but reveals a knowledge of Virgil, Ovid and Homer (in the original), of biology and astronomy:

Yes, the day long, and in each evening gloom,

I meditated in the sounding loom…

Meanwhile, I wove the flow’ry waved web,

With fingers colder than the icy glebe;

And oftentimes, thro’ the whole frame of man,

Bleak chilling horrors, and a sickness ran. #1_1069 [1]

Later weaver-poets often convey little more than pathos, the self-conscious efforts to emulate alien literary forms (notably ‘nature poetry’) which catch little of the weaver’s authentic experience. A hand-loom weaver from 1820 to 1850, who then obtained work in a power-loom factory, lamented the effect of the change upon his verses:

I then worked in a small chamber, overlooking Luddenden Churchyard. I used to go out in the fields and woods… at meal-times, and listen to the songs of the summer birds, or watch the trembling waters of the Luddon…. Sometimes I have been roused from those reveries by some forsaken lovesick maiden, who… has poured forth her heartwailing to the thankless wind. I have then gone home and have written…. But it is all over, I must continue to work amidst the clatter of machinery.

It is sad that years of self-education should result only in a patina of cliché. But it was the attainment itself which brought genuine satisfactions; as a young man in the late 1820s his observation of nature appears far more soundly based than his observation of lovesick maidens:

I collected insects, in company with a number of young men in the village. We formed a library…. I believe I and a companion of mine… collected twenty-two large boxes of insects; one hundred and twenty different sorts of British birds’ eggs; besides a great quantity of shells (land and fresh water), fossils, minerals, ancient and modern coins… #2_612 [2]

Samuel Bamford serves as abridge between the folk traditions of the eighteenth-century communities (which lingered long into the next century) and the more self-conscious intellectual attainments of the early decades of the nineteenth. Between these two periods there are two deeply transforming experiences – those of Methodism and of political radicalism. #1_1070 [1] But in accounting for the intellectual leaven, we should also remember the number of small clothiers reduced to the status of weavers, #2_613 [2] sometimes bringing with them educational attainments and small libraries.

The fullest expression of the values of the weaving communities belongs to the history of the Chartist movement. A high proportion of northern and Midlands local Chartist leaders were outworkers, whose formative experiences came in the years between 1810 and 1830. Among such men were Benjamin Rushton of Halifax, born in 1785 and already a ‘veteran’ reformer by 1832. Or William Ashton, a Barnsley linen-weaver, born in 1806, transported in 1830 for alleged complicity in strike-riots, liberated in 1838 and brought back from Australia by the subscriptions of his fellow-weavers, to play a leading part in the Chartist movement, and to suffer a further term of imprisonment Or Richard Pilling, a hand-loom weaver who had transferred to power-looms, and who was known as the ‘Father’ of the Plug Riots in Lancashire. Or John Skevington, local preacher with the Primitive Methodists, stocking-weaver, and Loughborough Chartist leader; William Rider, a Leeds stuff-weaver; and George White, a Bradford woolcomber. #3_250 [3]

The career of these men would take us beyond the limits of this study. But the Lancashire Radicalism of 1816–20 was in great degree a movement of weavers, and the making of these later leaders was in communities of this kind. What they brought to the early working-class movement can scarcely be overestimated. They had, like the city artisan, a sense of lost status, as memories of their ‘golden age’ lingered; and, with this, they set a high premium on the values of independence. In these respects they provided, in 1816, a natural audience for Cobbett. The vexed question of embezzlement of yarn apart, nearly all witnesses spoke to the honesty and self-reliance of the weavers – ‘as faithful, moral, and trust-worthy, as any corporate body amongst his Majesty’s subjects…’ #1_1071 [1] But they had, more than the city artisan, a deep social egalitarianism. As their way of life, in the better years, had been shared by the community, so their sufferings were those of the whole community; and they were reduced so low that there was no class of unskilled or casual labourers below them against which they had erected economic or social protective walls. This gave a particular moral resonance to their protest, whether voiced in Owenite or biblical language; they appealed to essential rights and elementary notions of human fellowship and conduct rather than to sectional interests. It was as a whole community that they demanded betterment, and utopian notions of redesigning society anew at a stroke – Owenite communities, the universal general strike, the Chartist Land Plan – swept through them like fire on the common. But essentially the dream which arose in many different forms was the same – a community of independent small producers, exchanging their products without the distortions of masters and middlemen. As late as 1848 a Barnsley linen-weaver (a fellow transportee with William Ashton) declared at the Chartist National Convention that when the Charter was won ‘They would divide the land into small farms, and give every man an opportunity of getting his living by the sweat of his brow’. #2_614 [2]

At this point we should enquire more strictly into the actual position of the weavers in the 1830s, and possible remedies. It is customary to describe their plight as ‘hopeless’, in a ‘sick’ or ‘obsolete’ trade, fighting a ‘losing battle’ and facing ‘inevitable decline’. It may be said, on the other hand, that until the late 1820s the power-loom was used as an excuse to distract attention from other causes of their decline. #1_1072 [1] Until 1820 it is difficult to establish a case for direct competition between power and hand; although power-looms in cotton were multiplying, it is sometimes forgotten that the consumption of cotton was leaping upwards at the same time. #2_615 [2] Something of the same kind is true for the worsted industry until 1835; and in other branches of wool until the 1840s. #3_251 [3] Thus there were two phases in the hand-loom weavers’ decline. The first, up to 1830 or 1835, in which power was a creeping ancillary cause, although it bulked more largely in psychological terms (and was, in this sense, a lever in reducing wages); the second, in which power actually displaced hand products. It was in the first phase that the major reductions in wages (let us say, from 20s. to 8s.) took place.

Were both phases inevitable? In the judgement of most historians, it would appear that they were, although it is sometimes suggested that the weavers might have received more assistance or guidance. In the judgement of a great many contemporaries – including the weavers and their representatives – they were not. In the first phase of decline there were a dozen contributory factors, including the general effects of the post-war deflationary decade: but the underlying causes would appear to be, first, the breakdown of both custom and trade union protection; second, the total exposure of the weavers to the worst forms of wage-cutting; third, the over-stocking of the trade by unemployed to whom it had become ‘the last refuge of the unsuccessful’. A Bolton manufacturer defined the efficient cause succinctly:

… I find that from the very commencement of the manufacture of muslins at Bolton, the trade of weaving has been subject to arbitrary reductions, commencing at a very high rate. One would suppose that the reward of labour would find its proper level; but from the very commencement of it, it has been in the power of any one manufacturer to set an example of reducing wages; and I know it as a fact, that when they could not obtain a price for the goods, such as they thought they ought to get, they immediately fell to reducing the weavers’ wages.

But at the same time, in Bolton in 1834 – a good year – ‘there are no weavers out of employment; there is no danger of any being out of employment at this time’. #1_1073 [1]

The breakdown of custom and of trade unionism was directly influenced by State intervention. This was ‘inevitable’ only if we assume the governing ideology and the counter-revolutionary tone of these years. The weavers and their supporters opposed to this ideology a contrary analysis and contrary policies, which turned on the demand for a regulated minimum wage, enforced by trade boards of manufacturers and weavers. They offered a direct negative to the homilies of ‘supply-and-demand’. When asked whether wages ought not to be left to find their own ‘level’, a Manchester silk-weaver replied that there was no similarity between ‘what is called capital and labour’:

Capital, I can make out to be nothing else but an accumulation of the products of labour…. Labour is always carried to market by those who have nothing else to keep or to sell, and who, therefore, must part with it immediately…. The labour which I… might perform this week, if I, in imitation of the capitalist, refuse to part with it… because an inadequate price is offered me for it, can I bottle it? can I lay it up in salt?… These two distinctions between the nature of labour and capital, (viz. that labour is always sold by the poor, and always bought by the rich, and that labour cannot by any possibility be stored, but must be every instant sold or every instant lost,) are sufficient to convince me that labour and capital can never with justice be subjected to the same laws… #1_1074 [1]

The weavers saw clearly, Richard Oastler testified, that ‘capital and property are protected and their labour is left to chance’. Oastler’s evidence before the Select Committee, when he was heckled by one of the partisans of ‘political economy’, dramatizes the alternative views of social responsibility:

[Oastler] The time of labour ought to be shortened, and… Government ought to establish a board… chosen by the masters and the men… to settle the question of how wages shall be regulated….

Q. You would put an end to the freedom of labour?

A. I would put an end to the freedom of murder, and to the freedom of employing labourers beyond their strength; I would put an end to any thing which prevents the poor man getting a good living with fair and reasonable work: and I would put an end to this, because it was destructive of human life.

Q. Would it have the effect you wished for?

A. I am sure the present effect of free labour is poverty, distress and death….

Q. Suppose you were to raise the price very considerably, and… could not export your goods?

A. We can use them at home.

Q. You would not use so much, would you?

A. Three times as much, and a great deal more than that, because the labourers would be better paid, and they would consume them. The capitalists do not use the goods, and there is the great mistake… If the wages were higher, the labourer would be enabled to clothe himself… and to feed himself… and those labourers are the persons who are after all the great consumers of agricultural and manufacturing produce, and not the capitalist, because a great capitalist, however wealthy he is, wears only one coat at once, at least, he certainly does seldom wear two coats at once; but 1,000 labourers, being enabled to buy a thousand coats, where they cannot now get one, would most certainly increase the trade…

As to the commission-houses or ‘slaughter-houses’, Oastler favoured direct legislative interference:

You never make a Law of this House but it interferes with liberty; you make laws to prevent people from stealing, that is an interference with a man’s liberty; and you make laws to prevent men from murdering, that is an interference with a man’s liberty… I should say that these slaughter-house men shall not do so…

The capitalists ‘seem as if they were a privileged order of being, but I never knew why they were so’. #1_1075 [1]

‘There is the great mistake’ – weavers, who wove cloth when they themselves were in rags, were forcibly educated in the vitiating error of the orthodox political economy. It was before the competition of power – and while their numbers were still increasing – that the Lancashire weavers sang their sad ‘Lament’:

You gentlemen and tradesmen, that ride about at will,

Look down on these poor people; it’s enough to make you crill;

Look down on these poor people, as you ride up and down,

I think there is a God above will bring your pride quite down.

Chorus – You tyrants of England, your race may soon be run,

You may be brought into account for what you’ve sorely done.

You pull down our wages, shamefully to tell;

You go into the markets, and say you cannot sell;

And when that we do ask you when these bad times will mend,

You quickly give an answer, ‘When the wars are at an end’.

The clothing of the weavers’ children is in rags, whilst ‘yours do dress as manky as monkeys in a show’:

You go to church on Sunday, I’m sure it’s nought but pride,

There can be no religion where humanity’s thrown aside;

If there be a place in heaven, as there is in the Exchange,

Our poor souls must not come near there; like lost sheep they must range.

With the choicest of strong dainties your tables overspread,

With good ale and strong brandy, to make your faces red;

You call’d a set of visitors – it is your whole delight –

And you lay your heads together to make our faces white.

You say that Bonyparty he’s been the spoil of all,

And that we have got reason to pray for his downfall;

Now Bonyparty’s dead and gone, and it is plainly shown

That we have bigger tyrants in Boneys of our own. #1_1076 [1]

The transparency of their exploitation added to their anger and their suffering: nothing in the process which brought troops to Peterloo or enabled their masters to erect great mansions in the manufacturing districts seemed to them to be ‘natural’ or ‘inevitable’.

Historians who assume that wage-regulation was ‘impossible’ have not bothered to present a case which can be answered. John Fielden’s proposals for a minimum wage periodically reviewed in each district by trade boards was no more ‘impossible’ than the 10 Hour Bill which was only won after three decades of intensive agitation and in the face of equal opposition. Fielden had on his side not only the weavers but many of the masters who wished to restrict the less scrupulous and the ‘slaughter-houses’. The difficulty lay, not (as Professor Smelser has it) in the ‘dominant value-system of the day’, but in the strong opposition of a minority of masters, and in the mood of Parliament (which Professor Smelser commends for its success in ‘handling’ and ‘channelling’ the weavers’ ‘unjustified disturbance symptoms’), #2_616 [2] In 1834 the House appointed a Select Committee, chaired by a sympathetic Paisley manufacturer, John Maxwell. He and John Fielden (who was a member of the Committee) ensured that it was well supplied with sympathetic witnesses. The Committee, while expressing deep concern at the weavers’ plight, came to no firm recommendation in 1834: but in 1835, after taking further evidence, it came out with an unequivocal report in favour of Fielden’s Minimum Wage Bill: ‘the effect of the measure would be to withdraw from the worst-paying masters the power which they now possess of regulating wages’. A trial of the measure was essential, and ‘it will at least show that Parliament has sympathised in their distress, and lent a willing ear to their prayers for relief’:

To the sentiment that Parliament cannot and ought not to interfere in cases of this nature, Your Committee is decidedly opposed. On the contrary, where the comfort and happiness of any considerable number of British subjects is at stake, Your Committee conceive that Parliament ought not to delay a moment to inquire, and, if possible, to institute redress.

Your Committee, therefore, recommend that a Bill of the nature of the one proposed by Mr Fielden should be immediately introduced… #1_1077 [1]

Pursuant to these recommendations, a Bill was actually introduced on 28 July 1835 by John Maxwell. The strength of the opposition was voiced in a speech by Poulett Thomson:

Was it possible for the Government of the country to fix a rate of wages? Was it possible that the labour of man should not be free?

Such a measure would be ‘an act of tyranny’. Dr Bowring and Edward Baines (of the Leeds Mercury) advised the weavers to ‘relieve themselves’ by bringing up their children to other employments. John Fielden was written off by Hansard as ‘inaudible’. The Bill was rejected by 41 to 129. Raised again by Maxwell in 1836, its second reading was repeatedly postponed and finally dropped. Reintroduced in May 1837 by Maxwell on a motion for the adjournment, leave to introduce a Bill was negatived by 39 to 82. In the teeth of a laissez faire legislature the manufacturers from Paisley and Todmorden (many of whose constituents were on the edge of starvation) continued to fight. John Fielden moved to introduce a fresh Bill on 21 December 1837: negatived by 11 to 73. But Fielden then stood up in his place and served notice that he would oppose every money bill until the House did something. This time he was ‘audible’. A Royal Commission was appointed, firmly in the hands of that doyen of orthodox ‘political economy’, Nassau Senior, and another stage of ‘handling and channelling’ commenced. Assistant Commissioners toured the stricken districts in 1838, forewarned by Senior that they would have to ‘combat many favourite theories, and may disappoint many vague or extravagant but long-cherished expectations’. Humane and intelligent men in some cases, who enquired minutely into the weavers’ circumstances, they were nonetheless ideologues of laissez faire. Their reports – and the final report of the Commission – were published in 1839 and 1840. The arid report of the Assistant Commissioner for the West Riding suggests that – unless for the use of future social historians – his labours need never have been undertaken:

The general conclusion which I have endeavoured to establish is, that it is the business of legislation to remove all checks upon the accumulation of capital, and so improve the demand for labour; but with the supply thereof it has nothing to do.

But this had also been his assumption. ‘The power of the Czar of Russia,’ it was reported,

could not raise the wages of men so situate… all that remains, therefore, is to enlighten the handloom weavers as to their real situation, warn them to flee from the trade, and to beware of leading their children into it, as they would beware the commission of the most atrocious of crimes. #1_1078 [1]

All this ‘handling and channelling’ had at least two effects: it transformed the weavers into confirmed ‘physical force’ Chartists, and in cotton alone there were 100,000 fewer weavers in 1840 than in 1830. No doubt Fielden’s Bill would have been only partially effective, would have afforded only slight relief in the 1830s as power-loom competition increased, and might have pushed the bulge of semi-unemployment into some other industry. But we must be scrupulous about words: ‘slight relief’ in the 1830s might have been the difference between death and survival. ‘I think there has been already too long delay,’ Oastler told the Select Committee of 1834: ‘I believe that delay that has been occasioned in this question has sent many hundreds of British operatives to their graves.’ Of the 100,000 weavers lost to Lancashire in that decade, it is probable that only a minority found other occupations: a part of the majority died in their natural term while the other part just ‘died off’ prematurely. #1_1079 [1] (Some would have been supported by their children who had entered the mills.) But it was in 1834 that the Legislature which found itself unable to offer them any measure of relief struck directly and actively at their conditions with the Poor Law Amendment Bill. Out-relief – the stand-by of many communities, sometimes on a ‘Speenhamland’ scale – was (at least in theory) replaced by the ‘Bastilles’ from the late 1830s. The effect was truly catastrophic. If Professor Smelser will examine the ‘dominant value-system’ of the weavers he will find that all poor relief was disliked but to the Malthusian workhouse the values of independence and of marriage offered an absolute taboo. The new Poor Law not only denied the weaver and his family relief, and kept him in his trade to the final end, but it actually drove others – like some of the poor Irish – into the trade. ‘I cannot contemplate this state of things with any degree of patience,’ a Bolton muslin-weaver told the Committee of 1834:

I am in a certain situation; I am now at this moment within a twelvemonth of 60 years of age, and I calculate that within the space of eight years I shall myself become a pauper. I am not capable, by my most strenuous exertions, to gain ground to the amount of a shilling; and when I am in health it requires all my exertions to keep soul and body together…. I speak feelingly upon the subject as a man in these circumstances; I view the present Poor Law Amendment Bill as a system of coercion upon the poor man, and that very shortly I shall be under its dreadful operation. I have not merited these things. I am a loyal man, strongly attached to the institutions of my country, and a lover of my country. ‘England, with all thy faults, I love thee still’, is the language of my soul… #2_617 [2]

It was in such weaving districts as Ashton (where the Chartist parson, Joseph Raynor Stephens, made insurrectionary speeches), Todmorden (where Fielden flatly defied the law), Huddersfield and Bradford that resistance to the Poor Law was violent, protracted, and intense.

But when the second phase of the weavers’ decline – full competition with the power-loom – was entered, what remedies were there? ‘What enactment,’ Clapham wrote, ‘other than state pensions for weavers, the prohibition of the power-loom, or the prohibition of training in hand-loom weaving, would have been of the least use it is hard to see.’ #1_1080 [1] These were not among the weavers’ own demands, although they protested against:

… the unrestricted use (or rather abuse) of improved and continually improved machinery…

… the neglect of providing for the employment and maintenance of the Irish poor, who are compelled to crowd the English labour market for a piece of bread.

… The adaptation of machines, in every improvement, to children, and youth, and women, to the exclusion of those who ought to labour – THE MEN. #2_618 [2]

The response of the weavers to machinery was, as these resolutions indicate, more discriminating than is often supposed. Direct destruction of power-looms rarely took place except when their introduction coincided with extreme distress and unemployment (West Houghton, 1812: Bradford, 1826). From the late 1820s, the weavers brought forward three consistent proposals.

First, they proposed a tax on power-looms, to equalize conditions of competition, some part of which might be allocated towards the weavers’ relief. We should not forget that the hand-loom weaver was not only himself assessed for poor-rates, but paid a heavy burden in indirect taxation:

Their labour has been taken from them by the power-loom; their bread is taxed; their malt is taxed; their sugar, their tax, their soap, and almost every other thing they use or consume, is taxed. But the power-loom is not taxed –

so ran a letter from the Leeds stuff weavers in 1835. #1_1081 [1] When we discuss the minutiae of finance we sometimes forget the crazy exploitive basis of taxation after the Wars, as well as its redistributive function – from the poor to the rich. Among other articles taxed were bricks, hops, vinegar, windows, paper, dogs, tallow, oranges (the poor child’s luxury). In 1832, of a revenue of approximately £50 millions, largely raised in indirect taxation on articles of common consumption, more than £28 millions were expended on the National Debt and £13 millions on the armed services as contrasted with £356,000 on the civil service, and £217,000 on the police. A witness before the Select Committee in 1834 offered the following summary of taxation liable to fall annually upon a working man:

No. 1. Tax on malt, £4. 11s. 3d. No. 2. On sugar, 17s. 4d. No. 3. Tea or coffee, £1. 4s. No. 4. On soap, 13s. No. 5. Housing, 12s. No. 6. On food, £3. No. 7. On clothing, 10s. Total taxes on the labourer per annum, £11. 7s. 7d. Taking a labourer’s earnings at 1s. 6d. per diem, and computing his working 300 days in the year (which very many do), this income will be £22. 10s.; thus it will be admitted that at the very least, 100 per cent, or half of his income is abstracted from him by taxation… for do what he will, eating, drinking, or sleeping, he is in some way or other taxed. #2_619 [2]

The summary includes items which few hand-loom weavers could afford, including, only too often, bread itself:

Bread-tax’d weaver, all can see

What that tax hath done for thee,

And thy children, vilely led,

Singing hymns for shameful bread,

Till the stones of every street

Know their little naked feet.

– so ran one of Ebenezer Elliott’s ‘Corn Law Rhymes’. #3_252 [3]

It is no wonder that Cobbett’s attacks on the fund-holders met with a ready reception, and that Feargus O’Connor first won the applause of the ‘fustian jackets and unshorn chins’ of the north by striking the same note:

You think you pay nothing: why, it is you who pay all. It is you who pay six or eight millions of taxes for keeping up the army; for what? for keeping up the taxes… #1_1082 [1]

Certainly, a tax on power-looms seems no more ‘impossible’ than taxes on windows, oranges, or bricks.

Two other proposals related to the restriction of hours in power-loom factories, and the employment of adult male power-loom weavers. The first of these was a powerful influence leading many hand-loom weavers to give their support to the 10 Hour agitation. Heavy weather has been made of this, from the 1830s to the present day, with the men coming under the accusation of ‘sheltering behind the skirts of the women’ or of using the plight of the children as a stalking-horse in their own demand for shorter hours. But, in fact, the aim was openly declared by factory operatives and weavers. It was intrinsic to their alternative model of political economy that shorter hours in the factory should at one and the same time lighten the labour of children, give a shorter working day to the adult operatives, and spread the available work more widely among the hand-workers and unemployed. In the second case, whereas mule-spinning was generally reserved to male operatives, the power-loom more often was attended by women or juveniles. And here we must look further at the reasons for the hand-loom weaver’s opposition to the factory system.

‘Reason’ is not the appropriate word, since the conflict is between two cultural modes or ways of life. We have seen that even before the advent of power the woollen weavers disliked the hand-loom factories. They resented, first, the discipline; the factory bell or hooter; the time-keeping which overrode ill-health, domestic arrangements, or the choice of more varied occupations. William Child, a journeyman weaver victimized for his activities with ‘the Institution’ of 1806, refused to enter a hand-loom factory because of his objections to ‘being confined to go exactly at such an hour and such a minute, and the bad conduct that was carried on there…’

A tender man when he had his work at home could do it at his leisure; there you must come at the time: the bell rings at half past five, and then again at six, then ten minutes was allowed for the door to be opened; if eleven expired, it was shut against any person either man, woman, or child; there you must stand out of door or return home till eight. #1_1083 [1]

In the ‘golden age’ it had been a frequent complaint with employers that the weavers kept ‘Saint Monday’ – and sometimes made a holiday of Tuesday – making up the work on Friday and Saturday nights. According to tradition, the loom went in the first days of the week to the easy pace of ‘Plenty of time. Plenty of time.’ But at the week-end the loom clacked, ‘A day t’ lat A day t’ lat.’ Only a minority of weavers in the nineteenth century would have had as varied a life as the smallholder weaver whose diary, in the 1780s, shows him weaving on wet days, jobbing – carting, ditching and draining, mowing, churning – on fine. #2_620 [2] But variety of some sorts there would have been, until the very worst days – poultry, some gardens, ‘wakes’ or holidays, even a day out with the harriers:

So, come all you cotton-weavers, you must rise up very soon,

For you must work in factories from morning until noon:

You mustn’t walk in your garden for two or three hours a-day,

For you must stand at their command, and keep your shuttles in play. #3_253 [3]

To ‘stand at their command’ – this was the most deeply resented indignity. For he felt himself, at heart, to be the real maker of the cloth (and his parents remembered the time when the cotton or wool was spun in the home as well). There had been a time when factories had been thought of as kinds of workhouses for pauper children; and even when this prejudice passed, to enter the mill was to fall in status from a self-motivated man, however poor, to a servant or ‘hand’.

Next, they resented the effects upon family relationships of the factory system. Weaving had offered an employment to the whole family, even when spinning was withdrawn from the home. The young children winding bobbins, older children watching for faults, picking over the cloth, or helping to throw the shuttle in the broad-loom; adolescents working a second or third loom; the wife taking a turn at weaving in and among her domestic employments. The family was together, and however poor meals were, at least they could sit down at chosen times. A whole pattern of family and community life had grown up around the loom-shops; work did not prevent conversation or singing. The spinning-mills – which offered employment only for their children – and then the power-loom sheds, which generally employed only the wives or adolescents – were resisted until poverty broke down all defences. These places were held to be ‘immoral’ – places of sexual licence, foul language, cruelty, violent accidents, and alien manners. #1_1084 [1] Witnesses before the Select Committee put now one, now another, objection to the front:

… no man would like to work in a power-loom, they do not like it, there is such a clattering and noise it would almost make some men mad; and next, he would have to be subject to a discipline that a hand-loom weaver can never admit to.

… all persons working on the power-loom are working there by force, because they cannot exist any other way; they are generally people that have been distressed in their families and their affairs broken up… they are apt to go as little colonies to colonize these mills…

A Manchester witness whose own son had been killed in a factory accident declared:

I have had seven boys, but if I had 77 I should never send one to a cotton factory…. One great objection that I have is, that their morals are very much corrupted…. They have to be in the factories from six in the morning till eight at night, consequently they have no means of instruction… there is no good example shown them…

‘I am determined for my part, that if they will invent machines to supersede manual labour, they must find iron boys to mind them.’ #1_1085 [1]

Finally, we have all these objections, not taken separately, but taken as indicative of the ‘value-system’ of the community. This, indeed, might be valuable material for a study in historical sociology; for we have, in the England of the 1830s, a ‘plural society’, with factory, weaving, and farming communities impinging on each other, with different traditions, norms, and expectations. The history of 1815 to 1840 is, in part, the story of the confluence of the first two in common political agitation (Radicalism, 1832 Reform, Owenism, 10 Hour agitation, Chartism); while the last stage of Chartism is, in part, the story of their uneasy coexistence and final dissociation. In the great towns such as Manchester or Leeds where the hand-loom weavers shared many of the traditions of the artisans, intermarried with them, and early sent their children to the mills, these distinctions were least marked. In the upland weaving villages, the communities were far more clannish; they despised ‘teawn’s folk’ – all made up of ‘offal an’ boylin-pieces’. #2_621 [2] For years, in such areas as Saddleworth, Clitheroe, the upper Calder Valley, the weavers in their hillside hamlets kept apart from the mills in the valley-bottoms, training their children to take their places at the loom.

Certainly, then, by the 1830s, we may begin to speak of a ‘doomed’ occupation, which was in part self-condemned by its own social conservatism. But even where the weavers accepted their fate, the advice of the Royal Commission ‘to flee from the trade’ was often beside the point. The children might find places in the mills, or the growing daughters turn to the power-loom:

If you go into a loom-shop, where there’s three or four pairs of looms,

They all are standing empty, encumbrances of the rooms;

And if you ask the reason why, the old mother will tell you plain,

My daughters have foresaken them, and gone to weave by steam. #1_1086 [1]

But this was not always possible. In many mills, the spinners or the existing labour force had priority for their own children. Where it took place, it added to the weaver’s shame his dependence upon his wife or children, the enforced and humiliating reversal of traditional rôles.

We have to remember the lack of balance between adult and juvenile labour in the early factory system. In the early 1830s between one-third and one-half of the labour force (all classes of labour) in cotton-mills was under twenty-one. In worsted the proportion of juveniles was a good deal higher. Of the adults, considerably more than half were women. Dr Ure estimated, from the reports of the Factory Inspectors in 1834, an adult labour force in all textile mills in the United Kingdom of 191,671, of whom 102,812 were women and only 88,859 were men. #2_622 [2] The male employment pattern is clear enough:

In the cotton factories of Lancashire, the wages of the males during the period when there is the greatest number of employed – from eleven to sixteen – are on the average 4s. 10¾d. a-week; but in the next period of five years, from sixteen to twenty-one, the average rises to 10s. 2½d. a-week; and of course the manufacturer will have as few at that price as he can…. In the next period of five years, from twenty-one to twenty-six, the average weekly wages are 17s. 2½d. Here is a still stronger motive to discontinue employing males as far as it can practically be done. In the subsequent two periods the average rises still higher, to 20s. 4½d., and to 22s. 8½d. At such wages, only those men will be employed who are necessary to do work requiring great bodily strength, or great skill, in some art, craft, or mystery… or persons employed in offices of trust and confidence. #3_254 [3]

Two obvious, but important, points must be made about this employment pattern. The first – which we have already made in relation to ‘dishonourable’ trades – is that we cannot artificially segregate in our minds ‘good’ factory wages from bad wages in ‘outmoded’ industries. In a system based upon the discontinuance of the employment of adult males ‘as far as it can practically be done’ the wage of the skilled factory operative and the wage of the unskilled worker displaced from the mill at sixteen or twenty-one must be stamped on different sides of the same coin. Certainly in the wool textiles industries, juvenile workers displaced from the mills were sometimes forced, in their ’teens, back to the hand-loom. The second point is that the adult male hand-loom weaver, even when hardship overcame his prejudices, had little more chance of employment in a mill than an agricultural worker. He was rarely adapted to factory work. He had neither ‘great bodily strength’ nor skill in any factory craft. One of the best-disposed of masters, John Fielden, recalled of 1835:

I was applied to weekly by scores of hand-loom weavers, who were so pressed down in their conditions as to be obliged to seek such work, and it gave me and my partners no small pain to… be compelled to refuse work to the many who applied for it. #1_1087 [1]

In the artisan trades of Lancashire in the early 1830s wages were reasonably high – among iron-moulders, engineers, shoemakers, tailors and skilled building workers anything from 15s. to 25s. (and above in engineering). But these rates had been obtained only by the strength of combination, one of whose aims was to keep the discharged factory youth and the hand-loom weaver out. If the weaver could have changed jobs – or apprenticed his children – to any artisan trade, social conservatism would not have prevented this. Against unskilled labouring there was certainly understandable prejudice: it was seen as a final loss of status:

But aw’ll give o’er this trade, un work wi’ a spade.

Or goo un’ break stone upo’ th’ road…

– declares ‘Jone o’ Grinfilt’ at the height of his tribulations.

But even here there were difficulties. The Manchester silk-weaver who expounded the elements of a labour theory of value to the House of Commons had failed in his attempts to get work as a porter (wages, 14s. to 15s). The weaver’s physique was rarely up to heavy unskilled labouring (the wages of bricklayer’s labourer and ‘spademen’ being 10s. or 12s.), and he competed with Irish labourers who were stronger and willing to work for less. #1_1088 [1] And while weavers in the large towns no doubt found ill-paid odd jobs of many kinds, the middle-aged country weaver could not remove his home and family:

The change had a terrible effect on the minds of some old hand-loom weavers…. We have seen an old Pudsey weaver with tears in his eyes while… recounting the good points of his loom. Yes, it was hung on its prods as a loom ought to be, and swung to and fro as a loom should do, the going part easy to put back, yet came freely to its work, and would get any amount of weft in. When that loom first came from one of the best makers in England… the neighbours all came to see it, and admired and coveted it. But now for some time both this loom and another… have all been dumb, and are covered with dust and cobwebs… #2_623 [2]

The story of the hand-loom weavers impinges at a score of points upon the general question of living standards during the Industrial Revolution. In its first stages it appears to provide evidence on the ‘optimistic’ side: the spinning-mills are the multipliers which attract thousands of outworkers, and raise their standards. But as their standards are raised, so their status and defences are lowered; and from 1800 to 1840 the record is almost unrelievedly ‘pessimistic’. If we are to assess standards in these years, not in ‘futuristic’ terms, but in terms of the living generations who experienced them, then we must see the weavers as a group who not only did not ‘share in the benefits’ of economic progress but who suffered a drastic decline. Since textiles were the staple industries of the Industrial Revolution, and since there were far more adults involved in the weaving than in the spinning branches, this would seem as valid a way of describing the experience of these years as any. The customary story, perhaps for reasons of dramatic style, fastens attention upon the multiplier (the mule, the mill, and steam): we have looked at the people who were multiplied.

‘Optimists’, of course, recognize the plight of the weavers; in every account there is some saving clause, excepting ‘a few small and specially unhappy sections of the people, such as the hand-loom weavers’, ‘a small group among a prospering community’, or ‘pockets of technological underemployment’. #1_1089 [1] But, as Clapham well knew, the weavers could in no sense be described as a ‘small’ group before the later 1840s. Weavers were, and had probably been for some hundreds of years, the largest single group of industrial workers in England. They were the ploughmen of our staple industries. At any time between 1820 and 1840 they came third in the occupational lists, after agricultural labourers and domestic servants, and greatly exceeding any other industrial group. ‘No census of them [i.e. looms in the U.K.] was ever taken: but there cannot have been fewer than 500,000 and there may have been very many more.’ #2_624 [2] Estimates for the United Kingdom, taking in looms in cotton, wool, silk, linen, flax, as well as such specialist branches as ribbon-weaving (but excluding framework-knitting) sometimes rose as high as 740,000. But in many families there would be two, three and four looms. The estimate of the Select Committee of 1834–5 that 800,000 to 840,000 were wholly dependent upon the loom may be as close as we can get.

It is the enduring myth of freedom in an obsolete ideology that for the Legislature to do nothing, and to allow ‘natural’ economic forces to inflict harm on a part of the community, constitutes a complete defence. The power-loom provided both the State and the employers with a cast iron alibi. But we might equally well see the story of the weavers as the expression of the highly abnormal situation which existed during the Industrial Revolution. In the weavers’ history we have a paradigm case of the operation of a repressive and exploitive system upon a section of workers without trade union defences. Government not only intervened actively against their political organizations and trade unions; it also inflicted upon the weavers the negative dogma of the freedom of capital as intransigently as it was to do upon the victims of the Irish famine.

The ghost of this dogma is still abroad today. Professor Ashton regrets that financial factors retarded investment in power-looms:

It is sometimes suggested that the ‘evils’ of the industrial revolution were due to the rapidity with which it proceeded: the case of the domestic textile workers suggests the exact opposite. If there had been in weaving a man of the type of Arkwright, if rates of interest had remained low, if there had been no immigration and no Poor Law allowance, the transfer to the factory might have been effected quickly and with less suffering. As it was, large numbers of hand workers continued, for more than a generation, to fight a losing battle against the power of steam. #1_1090 [1]

But, as we have seen, for the power-loom masters it was not a ‘battle’ but a great convenience to have an auxiliary cheap labour force, as a stand-by in good times and as a means of keeping down the wages of the women and girls (8s. to 12s. Manchester, 1832) who minded the power-looms. Moreover, there was scarcely no ‘transfer to the factory’. If the introduction of power had been swifter, then – all other things being equal – its consequences would have been even more catastrophic.

Some economic historians appear to be unwilling (perhaps because of a concealed ‘progressivism’, which equates human progress with economic growth) to face the evident fact that technological innovation during the Industrial Revolution, until the railway age, did displace (except in the metal industries) adult skilled labour. Labour so displaced swelled the limitless supply of cheap labour for the arduous work of sheer human muscle in which the times were so spendthrift. There was little or no mechanization in the mines; in the docks; in brickworks, gasworks, building; in canal and railway building; in carterage and porterage. Coal was still carried on men’s backs up the long ladders from ships’ holds: in Birmingham men could still, in the 1830s, be hired at 1s. a day to wheel sand in barrows nine miles by road, and nine miles empty back. The disparity between the wages of an engineer (26s. to 30s.) or carpenter (24s.) and the spademan (10s. to 15s.) or weaver (say 8s.) in 1832 is such that we cannot allow social conservatism alone to explain it. It suggests that it is the skilled trades which are exceptional, and that conditions in unskilled manual labour or in outwork industries, so far from being ‘specially unhappy’, were characteristic of a system designed by employers, legislators and ideologists to cheapen human labour in every way. And the fact that weaving became overstocked at a time when conditions were rapidly declining is eloquent confirmation. It was in the outwork industries, Marx wrote, that exploitation was most ‘shameless’, ‘because in these last resorts of the masses made “redundant” by Modern Industry and Agriculture, competition for work attains its maximum’. #1_1091 [1]

There is, of course, a ‘futurist’ argument which deserves attention. It is, in fact, an argument which many working men who lived through until better times adopted. However full of suffering the transition, one such working man commented:

… power-loom weavers have not to buy looms and a jenny to spin for them; or bobbins, flaskets, and baskets; or to pay rent and taxes for them standing; nor candles, or gas and coal for lighting and warming the workshop. They have not to pay for repairs, for all wear and tear… nor have they to buy shuttles, pickers, sideboards, shop-boards, shuttle-boards, picking-sticks, and bands and cords…. They have not to be propped up on the treadles and seatboards… or have their wrists bandaged to give strength…. They have not to fetch slubbing, warp their webs, lay up lists, size, put the webs out to dry, seek gears, leck pieces, tenter, teem, dew, and cuttle them; and least of all would they think of breaking wool, scouring, and dyeing it all for nothing too. #2_625 [2]

If we see the hand-loom weaver’s work in this light, it was certainly painful and obsolete, and any transition, however full of suffering, might be justified. But this is an argument which discounts the suffering of one generation against the gains of the future. For those who suffered, this restrospective comfort is cold.


Standards and Experiences


THE controversy as to living standards during the Industrial Revolution has perhaps been of most value when it has passed from the somewhat unreal pursuit of the wage-rates of hypothetical average workers and directed attention to articles of consumption: food, clothing, homes: and, beyond these, health and mortality. Many of the points at issue are complex, and all that can be attempted here is to offer comments upon a continuing discussion. When we consider measurable quantities, it seems clear that over the years 1790–1840 the national product was increasing more rapidly than the population. But it is exceedingly difficult to assess how this product was distributed. Even if we leave other considerations aside (how much of this increase was exported owing to unfavourable terms of trade? how much went in capital investment rather than articles of personal consumption?) it is not easy to discover what share of this increase went to different sections of the population.

The debate as to the people’s diet during the Industrial Revolution turns mainly upon cereals, meat, potatoes, beer, sugar and tea. It is probable that per capita consumption of wheat declined from late eighteenth-century levels throughout the first four decades of the nineteenth century. Mr Salaman, the historian of the potato, has given a convincing blow by blow account of the ‘battle of the loaf’, by which landowners, farmers, parsons, manufacturers, and the Government itself sought to drive labourers from a wheaten to a potato diet. The critical year was 1795. Thereafter war-time necessity took second place to the arguments as to the benefits of reducing the poor to a cheap basic diet. The rise in potato acreage during the Wars cannot be attributed to wheat shortage alone: ‘some deficiency there was, but unequal division between the different classes of society consequent on inflated prices was a far more potent factor…’ The great majority of the English people, even in the north, had turned over from coarser cereals to wheat by 1790; and the white loaf was regarded jealously as a symbol of their status. The southern rural labourer refused to abandon his diet of bread and cheese, even when near the point of starvation; and for nearly fifty years a regular dietary class-war took place, with potatoes encroaching on bread in the south, and with oatmeal and potatoes encroaching in the north. Indeed, Mr Salaman finds in the potato a social stabilizer even more effective than Halévy found in Methodism:

… the use of the potato… did, in fact, enable the workers to survive on the lowest possible wage. It may be that in this way the potato prolonged and encouraged, for another hundred years, the impoverishment and degradation of the English masses; but what was the alternative, surely nothing but bloody revolution. That England escaped such a violent upheaval in the early decades of the nineteenth century… must in large measure be placed to the credit of the potato. #1_1092 [1]

Nutritional experts now advise us that the potato is full of virtue, and certainly whenever standards rose sufficiently for the potato to be an added item, giving variety to the diet, it was a gain. But the substitution of potatoes for bread or oat-meal was felt to be a degradation. The Irish immigrants with their potato diet (Ebenezer Elliott called them, ‘Erin’s root-fed hordes’) were seen as eloquent testimony, and very many Englishmen agreed with Cobbett that the poor were victims of a conspiracy to reduce them to the Irish level. Throughout the Industrial Revolution the price of bread (and of oatmeal) was the first index of living standards, in the estimation of the people. When the Corn Laws were passed in 1815, the Houses of Parliament had to be defended from the populace by troops. ‘NO CORN LAWS’ was prominent among the banners at Peterloo, and remained so (especially in Lancashire) until the anti-Corn Laws agitation of the 1840s.

Meat, like wheat, involved feelings of status over and above its dietary value. The Roast Beef of Old England was the artisan’s pride and the aspiration of the labourer. Once again, per capita consumption probably fell between 1790 and 1840, but the figures are in dispute. The argument turns mainly upon the number and weight of beasts killed in London slaughter-houses. But even if these figures are established, we still cannot be sure as to which sections of the people ate the meat, and in what proportions. Certainly, meat should be a sensitive indicator of material standards, since it was one of the first items upon which any increase in real wages will have been spent. The seasonal workers did not plan their consumption meticulously over fifty-two Sunday dinners, but, rather, spent their money when in full work and took what chance offered for the rest of the year. ‘In the long fine days of summer,’ Henry Mayhew was told,

the little daughter of a working brickmaker used to order chops and other choice dainties of a butcher, saying, ‘Please, sir, father don’t care for the price just a-now; but he must have his chops good; line-chops, sir, and tender, please – ’cause he’s a brickmaker.’ In the winter, it was, ‘O please, sir, here’s a fourpenny bit, and you must send father something cheap. He don’t care what it is, so long as it’s cheap. It’s winter, and he hasn’t no work, sir – ’cause he’s a brickmaker.’ #1_1093 [1]

Londoners tended to have higher standards of expectation than labourers in the provinces. In the depth of the 1812 depression, it was the impression of an observer that the London poor fared better than those of the north and the west:

The Poor of the Metropolis, notwithstanding the enormous price of the necessaries of life, are really living comparatively in comfort. The humblest labourer here frequently gets meat (flesh meat) and always bread and cheese, with beer of some sort, for his meals, but a West Country peasant can obtain for his family no such food. #2_626 [2]

There was, of course, a variety of inferior ‘meats’ on sale: red herrings and bloaters, cow-heel, sheep’s trotters, pig’s ear, faggots, tripe and black pudding. The country weavers of Lancashire despised town food, and preferred ‘summat at’s deed ov a knife’ – a phrase which indicates both the survival of their own direct pig-keeping economy and their suspicion that town meat was diseased – if forced to eat in town ‘every mouthful went down among painful speculations as to what the quadruped was when alive, and what particular reason it had for departing this life’. #1_1094 [1] It was not a new thing for town dwellers to be exposed to impure or adulterated food; but as the proportion of urban workers grew, so the exposure became worse. #2_627 [2]

There is no doubt that per capita beer consumption went down between 1800 and 1830, and no doubt that per capita consumption of tea and of sugar went up; while between 1820 and 1840 there was a marked increase in the consumption of gin and whiskey. Once again, this is a cultural as well as dietetic matter. Beer was regarded – by agricultural workers, coal-whippers, miners – as essential for any heavy labour (to ‘put back the sweat’) and in parts of the north beer was synonymous with ‘drink’. The home-brewing of small ale was so essential to the household economy that ‘if a young woman can bake oatcake and brew well, it is thought she will make a good wife’: while ‘some Methodist class-leaders say they could not lead their classes without getting a “mugpot” of drink’. #3_255 [3] The decline was directly attributed to the malt tax – a tax so unpopular that some contemporaries regarded it as being an incitement to revolution. Remove the malt tax, one clerical magistrate in Hampshire argued in 1816, and the labourer –

would go cheerfully to his daily employ, perform it with manly vigour and content, and become attached to his house, his family, and, above all, his country, which allows him to share, in common with his superiors, in a plain wholesome beverage, which a poor man looks up to, more, indeed, than to any thing that could possibly be granted them by a British Parliament. #4_64 [4]

The additional duty upon strong beer led to widespread evasion: and ‘hush-shops’ sprang up, like that in which Samuel Bamford was nearly murdered as a suspected exciseman until he was recognized by one of the drinkers as a bona fide radical ‘on the run’.

The effect of the taxes was undoubtedly to reduce greatly the amount of home-brewing and home-drinking; and, equally, to make drinking less of a part of normal diet and more of an extra-mural activity. (In 1830 the duty on strong beer was repealed and the Beer Act was passed, and within five years 35,000 beer-shops sprang up as if out of the ground.) The increase in tea-drinking was, in part, a replacement of beer and, perhaps also, of milk; and, once again, many contemporaries – with Cobbett well to the fore – saw in this evidence of deterioration. Tea was seen as a poor substitute, and, with the increased consumption of spirits, as an indication of the need for stimulants caused by excessive hours of labour on an inadequate diet. But by 1830 tea was regarded as a necessity: families that were too poor to buy it begged once-used tealeaves from neighbours, or even simulated its colour by pouring boiling water over a burnt crust. #1_1095 [1]

All in all, it is an unremarkable record. In fifty years of the Industrial Revolution the working-class share of the national product had almost certainly fallen relative to the share of the property-owning and professional classes. The ‘average’ working man remained very close to subsistence level at a time when he was surrounded by the evidence of the increase of national wealth, much of its transparently the product of his own labour, and passing, by equally transparent means, into the hands of his employers. In psychological terms, this felt very much like a decline in standards. His own share in the ‘benefits of economic progress’ consisted of more potatoes, a few articles of cotton clothing for his family, soap and candles, some tea and sugar, and a great many articles in the Economic History Review.


The evidence as to the urban environment is little easier to interpret. There were farm labourers at the end of the eighteenth century who lived with their families in one-roomed hovels, damp and below ground-level: such conditions were rarer fifty years later. Despite all that can be said as to the unplanned jerry-building and profiteering that went on in the growing industrial towns, the houses themselves were better than those to which many immigrants from the countryside had been accustomed. But as the new industrial towns grew old, so problems of water supply, sanitation, over-crowding, and of the use of homes for industrial occupations, multiplied, until we arrive at the appalling conditions revealed by the housing and sanitary inquiries of the 1840s. It is true that conditions in rural villages or weaving hamlets may have been quite as bad as conditions in Preston or Leeds. But the size of the problem was certainly worse in the great towns, and the multiplication of bad conditions facilitated the spread of epidemics.

Moreover, conditions in the great towns were – and were felt to be – more actively offensive and inconvenient. Water from the village well, rising next to the graveyard, might be impure: but at least the villagers did not have to rise in the night and queue for a turn at the only stand-pipe serving several streets, nor did they have to pay for it. The industrial town-dweller often could not escape the stench of industrial refuse and of open sewers, and his children played among the garbage and privy middens. Some of the evidence, after all, remains with us in the industrial landscape of the north and of the Midlands today.

This deterioration of the urban environment strikes us today, as it struck many contemporaries, as one of the most disastrous of the consequences of the Industrial Revolution, whether viewed in aesthetic terms, in terms of community amenities, or in terms of sanitation and density of population. Moreover, it took place most markedly in some of the high-wage areas where ‘optimistic’ evidence as to improving standards is most well based. Common sense would suggest that we must take both kinds of evidence together; but in fact various arguments in mitigation have been offered. Examples have been found of improving mill-owners who attended to the housing conditions of their employees. These may well lead us to think better of human nature; but they do no more than touch the fringe of the general problem, just as the admirable charity hospitals probably affected mortality rates by only a decimal point. Moreover, most of the serious experiments in model communities (New Lanark apart) date from after 1840 – or from after public opinion was aroused by the inquiries into the Sanitary Conditions of the Working Classes (1842) and the Health of Towns (1844), and alerted by the cholera epidemics of 1831 and 1848. Such experiments as antedate 1840, like that of the Ashworths at Turton, were in self-sufficient mill villages.

It is also suggested that worsening conditions may be somehow discounted because they were no one’s fault – and least of all the fault of the ‘capitalist’. No villain can be found who answers to the name of ‘Jerry’. Some of the worst building was undertaken by small jobbers or speculative small tradesmen or even self-employed building workers. A Sheffield investigator allocated blame between the landowner, the petty capitalist (who offered loans at a high rate of interest), and petty building speculators ‘who could command only a few hundred pounds’, and some of whom ‘actually cannot write their names’. #1_1096 [1] Prices were kept high by duties on Baltic timber, bricks, tiles, slates; and Professor Ashton is able to give an absolute discharge to all the accused: ‘it was emphatically not the machine, not the Industrial Revolution, not even the speculative bricklayer or carpenter that was at fault’. #2_628 [2] All this may be true: it is notorious that working-class housing provides illustrations of the proverb as to every flea having ‘lesser fleas to bite ’em’. In the 1820s, when many Lancashire weavers went on rent-strike, it was said that some owners of cottage property were thrown on the poor-rate. In the slums of the great towns publicans and small shopkeepers were among those often quoted as owners of the worst ‘folds’ or human warrens of crumbling mortar. But none of this mitigates the actual conditions by one jot; nor can debate as to the proper allocation of responsibility exonerate a process by which some men were enabled to prey upon other’s necessities.

A more valuable qualification is that which stresses the degree to which, in some of the older towns, improvements in paving, lighting, sewering and slum clearance may be dated to the eighteenth century. But, in the often-cited example of London, it is by no means clear whether improvements in the centre of the City extended to the East End and dockside districts, or how far they were maintained during the Wars. Thus the sanitary reformer, Dr Southwood Smith, reported of London in 1839:

While systematic efforts, on a large scale, have been made to widen the streets… to extend and perfect the drainage and sewerage… in the places in which the wealthier classes reside, nothing whatever has been done to improve the condition of the districts inhabited by the poor. #1_1097 [1]

Conditions in the East End were so noisome that doctors and parish officers risked their lives in the course of their duties. Moreover, as the Hammonds pointed out, it was in the boom towns of the Industrial Revolution that the worst conditions were to be found: ‘what London suffered [in the Commercial Revolution] Lancashire suffered at the end of the eighteenth and at the beginning of the nineteenth century’. #2_630 [2] Sheffield, an old and comparatively prosperous town with a high proportion of skilled artisans, almost certainly – despite the jerry-builders – saw an improvement in housing conditions in the first half of the nineteenth century, with an average, in 1840, of five persons per house, most artisans renting a family cottage on their own, with one day room and two sleeping rooms. It was in the textile districts, and in the towns most exposed to Irish immigrations – Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Preston, Bolton, Bradford – that the most atrocious evidence of deterioration – dense overcrowding, cellar-dwellings, unspeakable filth – is to be found. #1_1098 [1]

Finally, it is suggested, with tedious repetition, that the slums, the stinking rivers, the spoliation of nature, and the architectural horrors may all be forgiven because all happened so fast, so haphazardly, under intense population pressure, without premeditation and without prior experience. ‘It was ignorance rather than avarice that was often the cause of misery.’ #2_631 [2] As a matter of fact, it was demonstrably both; and it is by no means evident that the one is a more amiable characteristic than the other. The argument is valid only up to a point – to the point in most great towns, in the 1830s or 1840s, when doctors and sanitary reformers, Benthamites and Chartists, fought repeated battles for improvement against the inertia of property-owners and the demagoguery of ‘cheap government’ rate-payers. By this time the working people were virtually segregated in their stinking enclaves, and the middle classes demonstrated their real opinions of the industrial towns by getting as far out of them as equestrian transport made convenient. Even in comparatively well-built Sheffield,

All classes, save the artisan and the needy shopkeeper, are attracted by country comfort and retirement. The attorney – the manufacturer – the grocer – the draper – the shoemaker and the tailor, fix their commanding residences on some beautiful site…

Of sixty-six Sheffield attorneys in 1841, forty-one lived in the country, and ten of the remaining twenty-five were newcomers to the town. In Manchester the poor in their courts and cellars lived,

… hidden from the view of the higher ranks by piles of stores, mills, warehouses, and manufacturing establishments, less known to their wealthy neighbours – who reside chiefly in the open spaces of Cheetham, Broughton, and Chorlton – than the inhabitants of New Zealand or Kamtschatka.

‘The rich lose sight of the poor, or only recognize them when attention is forced to their existence by their appearance as vagrants, mendicants, or delinquents.’ ‘We have improved on the proverb, “One half of the world does not know how the other half lives”, changing it into “One half of the world does not care how the other half lives.” Ardwick knows less about Ancoats than it does about China…’ #1_1099 [1]

Certainly, the unprecedented rate of population growth, and of concentration in industrial areas, would have created major problems in any known society, and most of all in a society whose rationale was to be found in profit-seeking and hostility to planning. We should see these as the problems of industrialism, aggravated by the predatory drives of laissez faire capitalism. But, however the problems are defined, the definitions are no more than different ways of describing, or interpreting, the same events. And no survey of the industrial heartlands, between 1800 and 1840, can overlook the evidence of visual devastation and deprivation of amenities. The century which rebuilt Bath was not, after all, devoid of aesthetic sensibility nor ignorant of civic responsibility. The first stages of the Industrial Revolution witnessed a decline in both; or, at the very least, a drastic lesson that these values were not to be extended to working people. However appalling the conditions of the poor may have been in large towns before 1750, nevertheless the town in earlier centuries usually embodied some civic values and architectural graces, some balance between occupations, marketing and manufacture, some sense of variety. The ‘Coketowns’ were perhaps the first towns of above 10,000 inhabitants ever to be dedicated so single-mindedly to work and to ‘fact’.


The questions of health and longevity present even greater difficulties in interpretation. Until recently it was widely accepted that the main factor in Britain’s population ‘explosion’ between 1780 and 1820 was in the declining death-rate, and in particular the decline in the rate of infant mortality. It was therefore reasonable to assume that this was effected by improvements in medical knowledge, nutrition (the potato), hygiene (soap and the cotton shirt), water supplies or housing. But this whole line of argument has now been called in question. The population ‘explosion’ can be seen as an European phenomenon, taking place simultaneously in Britain and in France, and in Spain and Ireland where many of these factors did not operate to the same degree. Second, demographers are now disputing the accepted evidence: and able arguments have been put forward which place renewed emphasis on the rise in the birth-rate, rather than a decline in the death-rate, as the causative factor. #1_1100 [1]

If we accept Dr Krause’s view that the birth-rate rose after 1781 and declined after 1831 and that ‘no important change in the death-rate is indicated’, this by no means provides evidence as to the improving health and longevity of the working class. It is interesting to note that the fertility ratio (that is, the number of children aged 0–4 per 1,000 women in the childbearing age-groups) was highest in 1821; first, in the heartland of the Industrial Revolution (Lancashire, the West Riding, Cheshire, Staffordshire): second, in the worst hit ‘Poor Law counties’ of the south. On the face of it, this would appear to provide confirmation for the Malthusian arguments – so widely held at the time, and so much disliked by Cobbett – that Speenhamland relief and the opportunities for employment in the mills (including child labour) boosted the birth-rate. We do not have to suppose that parents consciously decided to have more children in order to provide additional wage-earners or claims on the poor-rate. A rise in the birth-rate might be explicable in terms of the break-up of traditional patterns of community and family life (both Speenhamland and the mills could weaken taboos against early and ‘improvident’ marriage), the decline in ‘living-in’ among farm servants and apprentices, the impact of the Wars, concentration in new towns, or even genetic selection of the most fertile. Moreover, a rise in the birth-rate is certainly not to be taken as evidence of rising living standards. #1_1101 [1] It was a continual theme of observers in the early nineteenth century that the poorest and most ‘improvident’ among the workers had the largest families; while in Ireland it took the searing experience of the Great Famine to alter the entire marriage-pattern of Irish peasant life. #2_632 [2]

The arguments are complex, and are best left, for the time being, with the demographers. But we have reached a point where the evidence – which has customarily been interpreted upon the assumption that the death-rate was declining – needs looking at afresh. It would seem that medical advances can only have had a minimal influence upon the life expectation of working people before 1800. It is possible that some real decline took place in the mid-eighteenth century in London and other older ‘artisan’ towns, to which the decline in gin-drinking, and early efforts at sanitary improvement and enlightenment contributed. It is also possible that the beginnings of the population ‘explosion’ date from the mid-century, and arise from the decline in epidemics resulting upon ‘changes in virulence and resistance upon which human effort had no influence’. #3_256 [3] The initial population increase was supported by a long run of good harvests, and by an improvement in living standards which belongs, not to the later, but to the earliest years of the Industrial Revolution, As the Revolution gathered pace, and as we encounter the classic conditions of over-crowding and demoralization in the rapidly growing great towns – swollen by a host of uprooted immigrants – so there is a serious deterioration in the health of the urban populations. The infant mortality rate in the first three or four decades of the nineteenth century was very much higher – and at times twice as high – in the new industrial towns as it was in the rural areas. ‘Not 10% of the inhabitants of large towns enjoy full health,’ declared Dr Turner Thackrah of Leeds; #1_1102 [1] and there is abundant literary evidence, much of it from medical men, as to the incidence of disease, malnutrition, infant mortality and occupational malformations in the working population. The evidence is sometimes contradictory, especially as to the effects of child labour in the mills, since when the 10 Hour agitation was at its height in the 1830s doctors sometimes argued from opposing briefs. But it is time that an end was put to the tendency of ‘optimistic’ historians to dismiss as ‘biased’ the evidence of doctors favourable to the demands of reformers, while accepting as ‘objective’ and authoritative the evidence of medical witnesses called in to support the employers’ case. #2_633 [2]

The First Report of the Registrar-General (1839) showed that about 20% of the total death-rate was attributed to consumption: a disease normally associated with poverty and over-crowding, as prevalent in the countryside as in the urban areas. Of ninety-two deaths of adult and juvenile workers in a Leeds woollen mill between the years 1818–27, no fewer than fifty-two were attributed to consumption or ‘decline’, the next two categories being ‘worn out’ or ‘too old’ (9) and asthma (7). It is interesting to examine the more detailed figures presented by Dr Holland, physician to the Sheffield General Infirmary, covering causes of death in the Sheffield registration district in the five years between 1837 and 1842. Out of 11,944 deaths in this period (including infants) the following complaints were each cited as causing the deaths of more than 100 persons in the five-year period:

1. Consumption




2. Convulsions




3. Inflammation of Lungs




4. Decay of Nature




5. Accidents (returned by Coroner)




6. Fever, Scarlet




7. Debility




8. Dentition




9. Inflammation of Bowels




10. Inflammation of Brain




11. Decline




12. Measles




13. Small Pox




14. Hooping Cough




15. Inflammations not distinguished




16. Fever, Common




17. Asthma




18. Croup




19. Paralysis




20. Disease of the liver




We do not need to point to the evident inadequacy in diagnosis (neither gastro-enteritis nor diphtheria are listed). Dr Holland commented that the returns were ‘not much to be depended upon’: ‘decline’, as well as many cases of ‘asthma’, should be attributed to consumption. As for the registration of only one death from ‘want of food’:

The observation of any medical practitioner must indeed be very limited, that has not led him to the conclusion, that the deaths of hundreds in this town are to be traced to a deficiency of the necessaries of life. They may die of disease, but this is induced by poor living, conjoined with laborious exertion.

The Sheffield figures, however, show only sixty-four deaths in the five years in childbirth (where errors in diagnosis are scarcely likely). This represents a dramatic improvement over the previous 100 years, to which the diminution of puerperal fever, improved hygiene and midwifery could have substantially contributed. But if maternal mortality was falling in all classes, working-class mothers were surviving only to give birth to more children whose chances of life, in the industrial centres, were diminishing. And if infant mortality was high, we must remember that the critical period in a child’s life was not 0–1 but 0–5. Thus, of the 11,944 deaths in Sheffield in this period, the age-distribution is as follows:

Under 1








2 to 4




This gives us 6,038 deaths under the age of five, and the remaining 5,906 deaths distributed over the other age-groups. The infant mortality (0–1) rate in Sheffield at this time was about 250 in 1,000, while the 0–5 mortality rate was 506 in 1,000. Much the same is true of Manchester where (Dr Kay noted) ‘more than one-half of the off-spring of the poor… die before they have completed their fifth year’, and where the Registrar-General’s Report (1839) showed deaths in the 0–5 age-groups of 517 in 1,000. But these figures underestimate – and perhaps seriously underestimate – the actual child mortality rate, because the industrial centres were constantly swelled with adult immigrants. Thus the 1851 Census (which recorded birthplaces) showed that ‘in almost all the great towns the migrants from elsewhere outnumbered the people born in the town’; and the deaths of immigrants would have the effect of continually diluting the true facts of child mortality. The growth of the great towns cannot be attributed, before 1840, to a greater rate of natural increase than in the countryside. If the traditional view is true, and the bulk of the population, in the older centres, market towns and villages, benefited in some degree in their health from the products (and sanitary enlightenment) of the Industrial Revolution, those who produced those goods did not. The thought occurs to one that in the high-wage industrial centres generation after generation of children were bred, more than half of whom died before they could scarcely speak; while in the low-wage countryside children were kept alive by the poor-rates to supplement, by migration, the heavy adult labour force of the towns. #1_1103 [1]

There is no reason to suppose that the health of adult factory operatives was below average, and some evidence to indicate that the health of adult cotton-spinners improved between 1810 and 1830 and more rapidly thereafter, as hours were limited, machinery boxed in, and space, ventilation and whitewashing improved. But their children appear to have suffered with the rest of the labour force. In a survey undertaken on behalf of the employers in Manchester in 1833, it was found that the married spinners investigated had had 3,166 children (an average of four and a half to each marriage): ‘of these children, 1,922, or 60½ per cent. of the whole, were alive, and 1,244, or 39½ per cent., were dead’. #1_1104 [1] One may reasonably assume that the 39½% might rise towards 50% by the time that children who were infants at the time of the survey reached the age of five, or failed to reach it. This heavy child mortality among the children of workers who are often cited as beneficiaries of the Industrial Revolution may be attributed in part to the general environmental health conditions. It may also have been due to the characteristic deformation and narrowing of the pelvic bones in girls who had worked since childhood in the mills, which made for difficult births: #2_634 [2] the weakness of infants born to mothers who worked until the last week of pregnancy: but above all to the lack of proper child care. Mothers, for fear of losing their employment, returned to the mill three weeks or less after the birth: still, in some Lancashire and West Riding towns, infants were carried in the 1840s to the mills to be suckled in the meal-break. Girl-mothers, who had perhaps worked in the mill from the age of eight or nine, had no domestic training: medical ignorance was appalling: the parents were a prey to fatalistic superstitions (which the churches sometimes encouraged): opiates, notably laudanum, were used to make the crying baby quiet. Infants and toddlers were left in the care of relatives, old baby-farming crones, or children too small to find work at the mill. Some were given dirty rag-dummies to suck, ‘in which is tied a piece of bread soaked in milk and water’, and toddlers of two and three could be seen ‘running about with these rags in their mouths, in the neighbourhood of factories’. #1_1105 [1]

‘A factory labourer,’ one who was himself a cripple wrote:

can be very easily known as he is going along the streets; some of his joints are almost sure to be wrong. Either the knees are in, the ankles swelled, one shoulder lower than the other, or he is round-shouldered, pigeon-breasted, or in some other way deformed. #2_635 [2]

But the same was true of many industrial occupations, whether conducted within or without a factory. If cotton-spinners were rarely employed after forty (and those who were had been through the long selective process which weeded out the weak), there were also few old miners or old cutlers. Dr Thackrah found a higher incidence of occupational disease among shoddy-workers and rag pickers, while Dr Holland wrote a detailed treatise on the disease and accidents among Sheffield grinders. We have seen the evil working conditions of domestic woolcombers, while weavers were also subject to deformities. The same is true of glass-workers in the Mendips, of bakery workers, and of many of the London sweated trades. Tailors had a characteristic deformity of the shoulders and chest which came from sitting for many hours each day ‘cross-legged on a board’.

Dr Turner Thackrah saw little to choose between the worst domestic employments and the cotton-mills. The children leaving the Manchester cotton-mills appeared to him:

… almost universally ill-looking, small, sickly, barefoot and ill-clad. Many appeared to be no older than seven. The men, generally from sixteen to twenty-four, and none aged, were almost as pallid and thin as the children. The women were the most respectable in appearance…

He contrasted them with the workers in the smaller-scale mills and finishing-shops of the West Riding: ‘the stout fullers, the hale slubbers, the dirty but merry rosy-faced pieceners’. In the cotton-operatives,

I saw, or thought I saw, a degenerate race – human beings stunted, enfeebled, and depraved – men and women that were not to be aged – children that were never to be healthy adults.

He questioned the evidence on health collected by the cotton employers, since most male operatives were laid off in early manhood, and the cotton-spinner whose strength failed would die in some other trade. In both the new mills and many of the older domestic trades, old workers appeared ‘vastly inferior in strength and appearance to old peasants’. #1_1106 [1]

We have to see the multiplier and the multiplied at the same time. Against the undoubtedly large number of children who were factory cripples we have to set the toll of rickets among the children of weavers and of the outworkers in general. By 1830 it was taken for granted that the ‘average’ urban industrial worker was stunted in growth and unfitted by reason of his weak physique for the heavy manual labour reserved to the Irish poor; when out of work the cotton-spinner was helpless, or at the best might hope to be employed ‘in going errands, waiting upon the market-people, selling pins and needles, ballads, tapes and laces, oranges, gingerbread…’ #2_636 [2]

So long as the essential demographic statistics are in dispute, any conclusion must be tentative. Nothing should lead us to underestimate the appalling mortality rates of London during the gin ‘epidemic’ of the early eighteenth century. But it would seem that the living and working conditions of artisans and of some rural labourers were rather healthier in the second half of the eighteenth century than that of factory operatives or outworkers in the first half of the nineteenth. If London and Birmingham show a declining death-rate in these years, this was perhaps because they remained to a high degree ‘artisan’ cities with higher standards of child care and slightly less unhealthy working conditions. In the industrial north, in the Potteries and in most coalfields, infant mortality increased, and life became shorter and more painful. Perhaps in consequence the consumption of alcohol, and the use of opiates, increased, adding to the hazards of occupational disease. And sheer misery may have contributed to raising the rate of reproduction. Dr Holland found ‘the most dissipated, reckless and improvident’ among the worst paid and least organized Sheffield workers: ‘we speak from extensive enquiries when we assert, that the more wretched the condition of the artisans and the earlier do they marry’. #1_1107 [1]

If we accept that the national death-rate – and more particularly infant mortality rate – showed a slight decline over the first four decades of the nineteenth century, we must still ask of the statistics exactly the same questions as we have asked of wages and articles of consumption. There is no reason to suppose that dying children or disease were distributed more equitably than clothes or meat. In fact, we know that they were not. The moneyed man might – as Oastler noted – rarely wear two coats at once, but his family had tenfold the chances of diagnosis, medicine, nursing, diet, space, quiet. Attempts were made to assess the average age at death according to different social groups in various centres in 1842:








































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At Leeds, where the figures were estimated at 44, 27, 19 the aggregate average of the three groups was 21. In Halifax, a large dispersed parish which compared favourably in its death-rate with more concentrated centres, a local doctor calculated the average age at death of ‘gentry, manufacturers and their families’ at 55: shopkeepers, 24: operatives, 22. #2_637 [2]

Demographers would be right to consider this as ‘literary rather than statistical evidence. But it indicates that a substantial decline in infant mortality and increase in life expectation among several millions in the middle classes and aristo cracy of labour would mask, in national averages, a worsening position in the working class generally. And in this view, Dr Holland of Sheffield has anticipated us:

We have no hesitation in asserting, that the sufferings of the working classes, and consequently the rate of mortality, are greater now than in former times. Indeed, in most manufacturing districts the rate of mortality in these classes is appalling to contemplate, when it can be studied in reference to them alone, and not in connexion with the entire population. The supposed gain on the side of longevity, arises chiefly from… a relatively much more numerous middle class than formerly existed…

‘We may be deceived,’ he continued, by the ‘gross returns’:

… into the belief, that society is gradually improving in its physical and social condition, when indeed the most numerous class may be stationary, or in the process of deterioration. #1_1108 [1]


We have touched already on child labour: but it deserves further examination. In one sense it is curious that the question can be admitted as controversial: there was a drastic increase in the intensity of exploitation of child labour between 1780 and 1840, and every historian acquainted with the sources knows that this is so. This was true in the mines, both in inefficient small-scale pits where the roadways were sometimes so narrow that children could most easily pass through them; and in several larger coalfields, where – as the coal face drew further away from the shaft – children were in demand as ‘hurryers’ and to operate the ventilation ports. In the mills, the child and juvenile labour force grew yearly; and in several of the outworker or ‘dishonourable’ trades the hours of labour became longer and the work more intense. What, then, is left in dispute?

But ‘optimists’ have, since the time of the Hammonds, surrounded the question with so many qualifications that one might almost suspect a conspiracy to explain child labour away. There was ‘nothing new’ about it; conditions were as bad in the ‘old’ industries as in the new: much of the evidence is partisan and exaggerated: things were already improving before the outcry of the 1830s was made: the operatives themselves were the worst offenders in the treatment of children: the outcry came from ‘interested’ parties – landowners hostile to the manufacturers, or adult trade unionists wanting limitation of hours for themselves – or from middle-class intellectuals who knew nothing about it: or (paradoxically) the whole question reveals, not the hardship and insensitivity, but the growing humanity of the employing classes. Few questions have been so lost to history by a liberal admixture of special pleading and ideology.

Child labour was not new. The child was an intrinsic part of the agricultural and industrial economy before 1780, and remained so until rescued by the school Certain occupations – climbing boys or ship’s boys – were probably worse than all but the worst conditions in the early mills: an orphan ‘apprenticed’ by the parish to a Peter Grimes or to a drunken collier at a small ‘day-hole’ might be subject to cruelty in an isolation even more terrifying. #1_1109 [1] But it is wrong to generalize from such extreme examples as to prevalent attitudes before the Industrial Revolution; and, anyway, one of the points of the story of Peter Grimes is his ostracism by the women of the fishing community, and the guilt which drives him towards his grave.

The most prevalent form of child labour was in the home or within the family economy. Children who were scarcely toddlers might be set to work, fetching and carrying. One of Crompton’s sons recollected being put to work ‘soon after I was able to walk’:

My mother used to bat the cotton on a wire riddle. It was then put into a deep brown mug with a strong ley of soap suds. My mother then tucked up my petticoats about my waist, and put me into the tub to tread upon the cotton at the bottom…. This process was continued until the mug became so full that I could no longer safely stand in it, when a chair was placed besides it, and I held on to the back…

Another son recollected ‘being placed, when seven years of age, upon a stool to spread cotton upon a breaker preparatory to spinning, an elder brother turning the wheel to put the machine in motion’. #1_1110 [1] Next came the winding of bobbins: and, when ten or eleven, spinning or – if the legs were long enough to reach the treadles – a turn in the loom. So deeply rooted was child labour in the textile industries that these were often held up to the envy of labourers in other occupations where children could not find employment and add to the family earnings; while the early hand-loom ‘factories’ in the woollen industry met with opposition on the grounds that they would lead to child unemployment. If the factory system were to prevail, declared one witness in 1806,

it will call all the poor labouring men away from their habitations and their homes into Factories, and there… they will not have the help and the advantage from their families which they have had at home. Supposing I was a parent and had four or five or six children, and one of them was 14, another 12, another 10; if I was working with my family at home, I could give them employment, one to wind bobbins, another to work at the loom and another at the jenny; but if I go to the Factory they will not allow me to take those boys, but I must leave them to the wide world to perish… #2_638 [2]

By contemporary standards this was arduous, even brutal. In all homes girls were occupied about the baking, brewing, cleaning and chores. In agriculture, children – often ill-clothed – would work in all weathers in the fields or about the farm. But, when compared with the factory system, there are important qualifications. There was some variety of employment (and monotony is peculiarly cruel to the child). In normal circumstances, work would be intermittent: it would follow a cycle of tasks, and even regular jobs like winding bobbins would not be required all day unless in special circumstances (such as one or two children serving two weavers). No infant had to tread cotton in a tub for eight hours a day and for a six-day week. In short, we may suppose a graduated introduction to work, with some relation to the child’s capacities and age, interspersed with running messages, blackberrying, fuel-gathering or play. Above all, the work was within the family economy and under parental care. It is true that parental attitudes to children were exceptionally severe in the eighteenth century. But no case has been made out for a general sadism or lack of love.

This interpretation is validated by two other circumstances: the persistence, in the eighteenth century, of games, dances and sports which would have been scarcely possible if children had been confined for factory hours: and the resistance of the hand workers to sending their children into the early mills, which was one cause for the employment in them of pauper apprentices. But it was not the factory only – nor, perhaps, mainly – which led to the intensification of child labour between 1780 and 1830. It was, first, the fact of specialization itself, the increasing differentiation of economic rôles, and the break-up of the family economy. And, second, the breakdown of late eighteenth-century humanitarianism; and the counter-revolutionary climate of the Wars, which nourished the arid dogmatisms of the employing class.

We shall return to the second point. As to the first, nearly all the vices known to the eighteenth century were perpetuated in the early decades of the nineteenth, but in an intensified form. As Dickens knew, Peter Grimes was as likely to be found in early Victorian London as in Georgian Aldeburgh. The reports of the Children’s Employment Commissions of 1842 showed new-model Boards of Guardians, in Staffordshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire, still getting rid of pauper boys of six, seven and eight, by apprenticing them to colliers, with a guinea thrown in ‘for clothes’. The boys were ‘wholly in the power of the butties’ and received not a penny of pay; one boy in Halifax who was beaten by his master and had coals thrown at him ran away, slept in disused workings, and ate ‘for a long time the candles that I found in the pits that the colliers left overnight’. #1_1111 [1] The mixture of terror and of fatalism of the children comes through in the laconic reports. An eight-year-old girl, employed for thirteen hours a ‘day’, to open and close traps: ‘I have to trap without a light, and I’m scared…. Sometimes I sing when I’ve light, but not in the dark; I dare not sing then.’ Or seventeen-year-old Patience Kershaw, who discussed the merits of different employments:

… the bald place upon my head is made by thrusting the corves; my legs have never swelled, but sisters’ did when they went to mill; I hurry the corves a mile and more under ground and back; they weigh 3 cwt…. the getters that I work for are naked except their caps… sometimes they beat me, if I am not quick enough…. I would rather work in mill than in coalpit. #1_1112 [1]

This is no more than the worst eighteenth-century conditions multiplied. But specialization and economic differentiation led to children outside the factories being given special tasks, at piece-rates which demanded monotonous application for ten, twelve or more hours. We have already noted the card-setting village of Cleckheaton, where ‘little toddling things of four years old… were kept hour after hour at the monotonous task of thrusting the wires into cards with their tiny fingers until their little heads were dazed, their eyes red and sore, and the feebler ones grew bent and crooked’. This might still be done at home, and the evidence suggests that sweated child labour of this sort was if anything increasing throughout the early decades of the century in most outwork industries, in rural industries (straw-plaiting, lace), and in the dishonourable trades. #2_639 [2] The crime of the factory system was to inherit the worst features of the domestic system in a context which had none of the domestic compensations: ‘it systematized child labour, pauper and free, and exploited it with persistent brutality…’ #3_257 [3] In the home, the child’s conditions will have varied according to the temper of parents or of master; and to some degree his work will have been scaled according to his ability. In the mill, the machinery dictated environment, discipline, speed and regularity of work and working hours, for the delicate and the strong alike.

We do not have to rehearse the long and miserable chronicle of the child in the mill, from the early pauper apprentice mills to the factory agitation of the 1830s and 1840s. But, since comforting notions are now abroad as to the ‘exaggerated’ stories of contemporaries and of historians, we should discuss some of the qualifications. Most of them are to be found in a provocative, almost light-hearted, article published by Professor Hutt in 1926. A spoonful of lemon-juice is sometimes good for the system, but we cannot live on lemon-juice for ever. This slight, scarcely documented, and often directly misleading article, has appeared in footnotes until this day, and has been republished in Capitalism and the Historians. #1_1113 [1] Nearly every point which it makes was anticipated and met in the arguments of the 10 Hour advocates; and notably in John Fielden’s restrained and well-documented The Curse of the Factory System (1836).

It would be tedious to go over all the points. It is true – and a point which is frequently cited – that the evidence brought before Sadler’s Committee of 1832 was partisan; and that historians such as the Hammonds, and Hutchins and Harrison (but not Fielden or Engels), may be criticized for drawing upon it too uncritically. With Oastler’s help, Short-Time Committees of the workers organized the collection of evidence – notably from the West Riding – for presentation to this Committee; its Chairman, Michael Sadler, was the leading parliamentary champion of the 10 Hour Bill; and its evidence was published before any evidence had been taken from the employers. But it does not follow that the evidence before Sadler’s Committee can therefore be assumed to be untrue. In fact, anyone who reads the bulk of the evidence will find that it has an authenticity which compels belief, although care must be taken to discriminate between witnesses, and to note the differences between some of the worst conditions in small mills in smaller centres (for example, Keighley and Dewsbury) as compared with conditions in the larger mills in the great cotton towns. There is no basis for Professor Hutt’s assertions that the Factory Commission appointed – on the master’s insistence – in the following year provided ‘effective answers to nearly all the charges made before [Sadler’s] committee’. Much of the evidence before the Commission tends towards different conclusions. Moreover, where the evidence conflicts, one is at a loss to follow the logic by which we are asked to give unhesitating preference to that adduced by the masters (and their over-lookers) as against that of their employees. #1_1114 [1]

Those who, like Professors Hutt and Smelser, exalt the evidence of the Factory Commission (1833) as opposed to that of Sadler’s Committee, are guilty of the same error as that of which the Hammonds are accused. Rightly or wrongly, Oastler and the Short-Time Committee regarded the appointment of this Commission as a deliberate measure of procrastination, and the Commissioners as instruments of the employers. As a matter of policy they refused to give evidence before them. The movements of the Assistant Commissioners in the factory districts were closely watched. They were criticized for dining and wining with the mill-owners and for spending only a derisory portion of their time in inspection. It was noted that mills were specially whitewashed and cleansed, and under-age children removed from sight, before their visits. The workers contented themselves with mounting hostile demonstrations. #2_640 [2] The reports of the Commissioners were subjected to as much criticism from the workers’ side as that of Sadler’s Committee received from the employers.

‘I was requested by one of my neighbours,’ declared one of Sadler’s witnesses,

to recommend the Committee to come to Leeds Bridge at half past five o’clock in the morning, while the poor factory children are passing, and they would then get more evidence in one hour there than they will in seven years examination. I have seen some children running down to the mill crying, with a bit of bread in their hand, and that is all they may have till twelve o’clock at noon: crying for fear of being too late.

Even if we leave the stories of sadistic overlookers aside, there was then commenced a day, for multitudes of children, which did not end until seven or eight o’clock; and in the last hours of which children were crying or falling asleep on their feet, their hands bleeding from the friction of the yarn in ‘piecing’, even their parents cuffing them to keep them awake, while the overlookers patrolled with the strap. In the country mills dependent upon water-power, night work or days of fourteen and sixteen hours were common when they were ‘thronged’. If Professor Hutt does not regard this as ‘systematic cruelty’, humane mill-owners like Fielden and Wood were in no doubt.

Nor are there any mysteries as to the attitude of the adult workers, many of whom were the parents or relatives of the children. As Professor Smelser has shown, #1_1115 [1] there is a sense in which the family economy of the domestic system was perpetuated in the factory. The child’s earnings were an essential component of the family wage. In many case, although probably not in the majority, the adult spinner or worker might be kin to the child working for him. The demand for the limitation of adult, as well as child, hours was necessitated by the fact that they worked at a common process; if children’s hours only were limited, nothing could prevent evasion, or the working of children in double relays (thus lengthening the adult working-day). Only the actual stoppage of the mill machinery could guarantee limitation. If the adults also stood to benefit by shorter hours, this does not mean that they were indifferent to humane considerations nor does it justify the offensive suggestion that the great pilgrimages and demonstrations on behalf of the factory child in the 1830s were hypocritical.

It is perfectly true that the parents not only needed their children’s earnings, but expected them to work. But while a few of the operatives were brutal even to their own children, the evidence suggests that the factory community expected certain standards of humanity to be observed. A spinner in the Dewsbury area, noted for his evil-temper and for striking children with the billy-roller, ‘could not get any one to work for him in the whole town, and he went to another place…’ Stories of parents who visited vengeance upon operatives who maltreated their children are not uncommon. Thus a witness before Sadler’s Committee described how, when he was a child, he was beaten by the slubber. ‘One of the young men who served the carder went out and found my mother’:

She came in… and asked of me what instrument it was I was beaten with, but I durst not do it; some of the by-standers pointed out the instrument… and she seized it… and beat it about the fellow’s head, and gave him one or two black eyes. #1_1116 [1]

This assorts ill with loose statements sometimes made as to the general indifference of the parents. The evidence of both Reports suggests that it was the discipline of the machinery itself, lavishly supplemented by the driving of overlookers or (in small mills) of the master, which was the source of cruelty. To say that practices common to whole industries were continued ‘against the will and against the knowledge of the masters’ does not require refutation. Many parents certainly connived at the employment of their own children under the legal age enacted in 1819 and 1833. It is to the credit of men like Doherty and of the Short-Time Committees that they campaigned imperiously amongst the operatives against such evils, encouraging dignity among the degraded and explaining the value of education to the uneducated. The Factory Movement also involved many thousands who were not factory operatives: the weavers who wished to ‘muzzle the monster steam’: parents displaced from the mills by juveniles, and supported by their children’s earnings. Gaskell saw (in 1833) that the workers’ discontent arose less from simple wage issues than from —

the separation of families, breaking up of households, the disruption of all those ties which link man’s heart to the better portion of his nature – viz. his instincts and social affections… #2_641 [2]

The Factory Movement, in its early stages, represented less a growth of middle-class humanitarianism than an affirmation of human rights by the workers themselves.

In fact, few arguments are so specious as that which proposes that because unlimited child labour was tolerated in the eighteenth century but, in its new and more intense forms, became less tolerable by the 1830s, this is another sign of the growing humanitarianism of ‘the age’. Professor Hayek has referred to ‘this awakening of social conscience’, to this—

increasing awareness of facts which before had passed unnoticed…. Economic suffering both became more conspicuous and seemed less justified, because general wealth was increasing faster than ever before.

Professor Ashton has offered a variant of this argument. The Royal Commissions and parliamentary committees of inquiry of the early nineteenth century –

are one of the glories of the early Victorian age. They signalized a quickening of social conscience, a sensitiveness to distress, that had not been evident in any other period or any other country.

And he has shown unaccustomed strength of feeling in his defence of the parliamentary investigators:

… a generation that had the enterprise and industry to assemble the facts, the honesty to reveal them, and the energy to set about the task of reform has been held up to obloquy as the author, not of the Blue Books, but of the evils themselves. #1_1117 [1]

Blue Books in the early nineteenth century served many purposes, but reform comes low on the list. Parliamentary investigations took place as a routine response to petitions: as a means of ‘handling and channelling’ discontent, procrastinating, or fobbing off ill-behaved M.P.s; or purely from an excess of utilitarian officiousness. Ireland’s decline through misery after misery to the seemingly inevitable climax of the Great Famine was accompanied by the absence of any important measure of alleviation – and by an average of five parliamentary enquiries per year. #2_642 [2] The hand-loom weavers and framework-knitters were duly enquired into as they starved. Eight enquiries in ten years preceded the establishment of the police. (The fact that action resulted in the latter, but not in the former, cases is instructive.) Mr Gradgrind was most certainly out and about after 1815, but as Dickens knew perfectly well he stood not for an ‘awakening of social conscience’ or ‘sensitiveness to distress’ but for efficiency, cheap centralized government, laissez faire, and sound ‘political economy’.

The Blue Books (at least until we came to the great sanitary enquiries) were not the product of ‘an age’ or the fruit of ‘a generation’, but a battle-ground in which reformers and obstructionists fought; and in which humanitarian causes, as often as not, were buried. As for the upper classes, what we see in the 1830s is not a new ‘awakening of conscience’ but the almost volcanic eruption, in different places and people, of a social conscience quiescent throughout the Napoleonic Wars. This conscience is certainly evident in the second half of the eighteenth century. The campaign to protect the climbing-boys, in which Hanway took a part, reached the statute book, against little opposition, in 1788. Every abuse returned during the Wars, and attempts to secure new legislative protection in their aftermath met direct opposition, and were thrown out in the Lords – for, if boys had been dispensed with, their Lordships might have had to make alterations to their chimneys. #1_1118 [1] All Howard’s honourable work on behalf of prisoners left little lasting impression, as conditions reverted after his death. We have noted already how the infection of class hatred and fear corrupted the humanitarian conscience. It is true that Peel’s Act of 1802 stands out against this darkness; but its operation was confined to pauper apprentices, and it was less a precedent for new legislation than an attempt to extend customary apprenticeship safeguards in a new context. What is more important – and was more disastrous for the factory child – was the atrophy of the conscience of the country gentry, the only men who had the authority or the traditional duty to protect the poor.

Nothing more confirms this atrophy, and the profound moral alienation of classes, than the manner of the real ‘awakening’ when it came. Scores of gentlemen and professional men, who gave some support to humanitarian causes in the 1830s and 1840s, appear to have been living in the 1820s in the midst of populous manufacturing districts, oblivious to abuses a few hundred yards from their gates. Richard Oastler himself lived on the edge of Huddersfield, but it was not until the Bradford manufacturer, John Wood, told him about child labour that he noticed it. When girls were brought half-naked out of pits, the local luminaries seem to have been genuinely astonished:

Mr Holroyd, solicitor, and Mr Brook, surgeon, practising in Stainland, were present, who confessed that, although living within a few miles, they could not have believed that such a system of unchristian cruelty could have existed. #1_1119 [1]

We forget how long abuses can continue ‘unknown’ until they are articulated: how people can look at misery and not notice it, until misery itself rebels. In the eyes of the rich between 1790 and 1830 factory children were ‘busy’, ‘industrious’, ‘useful’; they were kept out of their parks and orchards, and they were cheap. If qualms arose, they could generally be silenced by religious scruples: as one honourable Member remarked, of the climbing-boys in 1819, ‘the boys generally employed in this profession were not the children of poor persons, but the children of rich men, begotten in an improper manner’. #2_643 [2] This showed a fine sense of moral propriety, as well as a complete absence of class bias.

But the conscience of ‘the rich’ in this period is full of complexity. The argument that the impassioned ‘Tory’ attacks, in the 1830s, upon the abuses of industrialism, voiced by such men as Sadler, Shaftesbury, Oastler, Disraeli, were little more than the revenge of the landowning interest upon the manufacturers and their Anti-Corn Law League makes some sense in ‘party political’ terms. It is true that they revealed deep sources of resentment and insecurity among traditionalists before the innovations and the growing power of the moneyed middle class. But even a hasty reading of Sybil, of the Hammond’s Life of Shaftesbury or of Cecil Driver’s impressive life of Oastler will reveal the shallowness of any judgement limited to these terms. We seem to be witnesses to a cultural mutation: or, as in the case of eighteenth-century constitutionalism, to a seemingly hollow and conventional rhetoric which took fire, in individual minds, as a deliberate and passionate belief.

Moreover, alongside the older arguments of Tory paternalism we have the newer influence of disappointed Romanticism. In their recoil from the Enlightenment, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey had reaffirmed traditional sanctities, ‘the instincts of natural and social man’. In returning to order, authority, duty, they had not forgotten Rousseau’s teaching on the child. It was in Book VIII of The Excursion that Wordsworth condemned the factory system in contrast to the older rural family economy:

The habitations empty! or perchance

The Mother left alone – no helping hand

To rock the cradle of her peevish babe;

No daughters round her, busy at the wheel,

Or in dispatch of each day’s little growth

Of household occupation; no nice arts

Of needle-work; no bustle at the fire,

Where once the dinner was prepared with pride;

Nothing to speed the day, or cheer the mind;

Nothing to praise, to teach, or to command!

The Father, if perchance he still retain

His old employments, goes to field or wood

No longer led or followed by the sons;

Idlers perchance they were – but in his sight;

Breathing fresh air and treading the green earth:

Till their short holiday of childhood ceased,

Ne’er to return! That birthright now is lost.

The mistake, today, is to assume that paternalist feeling must be detached and condescending. It can be passionate and engaged. This current of traditionalist social radicalism, which moves from Wordsworth and Southey through to Carlyle and beyond, seems, in its origin and in its growth, to contain a dialectic by which it is continually prompting revolutionary conclusions. The starting-point of traditionalist and Jacobin was the same. ‘What is a huge manufactory,’ exclaimed Thelwall, ‘but a common prison-house, in which a hapless multitude are sentenced to profligacy and hard labour, that an individual may rise to unwieldy opulence.’ #1_1120 [1] ‘I detest the manufacturing system’ declared his fellow-Jacobin, Thomas Cooper, who had experienced the early stages of the Lancashire Industrial Revolution:

You must on this system have a large portion of the people converted into mere machines, ignorant, debauched, and brutal, that the surplus value of their labour of 12 or 14 hours a day, may go into the pockets and supply the luxuries of rich, commercial, and manufacturing capitalists. #2_644 [2]

Southey enraged the ‘philosopher’ of manufactures, Dr Andrew Ure, by his even more sweeping condemnation of the manufacturing system as ‘a wen, a fungous excrescence from the body politic’. #3_258 [3] Although Jacobin and Tory are at opposed political poles, sparks of feeling and of argument are continually exchanged between them. The prophets of the ‘march of intellect’ – Brougham, Chadwick, Ure – seem to belong to a different world. Whenever the traditionalist Tory passed beyond reflective argument about the factory system, and attempted to give vent to his feelings in action, he found himself forced into an embarrassing alliance with trade unionists or working-class Radicals. The middle-class Liberal saw in this only evidence of Tory hypocrisy. When Sadler fought (and lost) his seat at Leeds in the Reform Bill election of 1832, a shopkeeper-diarist noted:

… nothing supporting him but a few that are under the yoake of Tyrany and a few Radicals of the lowest order, it is a Bony job that the Old Torey Party is Obliged to turn Radical on any thing and every thing to keepe their sistam… #4_65 [4]

Two years later, and the new Poor Law, which outraged with its Malthusian and Chadwickian provisions every ‘instinct of natural and social man’, appeared to present to a few Tory Radicals an ultimate choice between the values of order and those of humanity. The majority drew back, and contented themselves with schemes for humanitarian amelioration of different kinds: but a few were prepared to associate, not only with Cobbettites, but with Owenites, free-thinkers, and Chartists. Joseph Raynor Stephens actually called for arson against the ‘Bastilles’ and Oastler stirred up civil – and, sometimes, very uncivil – disobedience and, in his rôle as protector of the factory children, even urged the use of industrial sabotage against mill-owners who violated the law:

I will in that event print a little card about Needles and Sand and Rusty Nails, with proper and with very explicit directions, which will make these law-breakers look about them and repent that they were ever so mad as to laugh at the Law and the King. These cards of mine shall then be the catechism of the factory children. #1_1121 [1]

For ten years Oastler trod the edges of revolution; but the title which he gave to one of his periodicals was The Home, the Altar, the Throne, and the Cottage.

We can scarcely attribute this eruption of compassion to an ‘age’ which also jailed Stephens and vilified Oastler. Many of those who really exerted themselves on behalf of the factory children in the earlier years met with abuse, ostracism by their class, and sometimes personal loss. And as Mr Driver has shown, the crucial moment in Oastler’s career was not his awakening to the fact of child labour, but the ‘Fixby Hall Compact’ between himself and Radical trade unionists. The awakening was not, in any case, characteristic of Toryism as a whole: if we wished to anatomize the Tory conscience of 1800 or 1830, we should commence with the squire’s attitude to his own labourers. The humanitarianism of the 1830s can certainly be found to have had a cultural ancestry, both in Tory paternalism and in the more subdued traditions, of service and ‘good works’, of liberal Dissent. But, as an effective force, it crops up only here and there, in individual men and women; Oastler and Bull are no more representative of the Tory than Fielden and Mrs Gaskell are representative of the liberal-nonconformist conscience.

If Tawney was right, and the treatment of childhood and of poverty are the two ‘touchstones’ which reveal ‘the true character of a social philosophy’, #1_1122 [1] then it is the liberal and nonconformist tradition which suffers most severely, in 1830, from this test. It is true that there is a humble twilight world, half-sceptic, half-dissenting, from which much that is best in early Victorian intellectual and spiritual life was to come. But it is equally true that the years between 1790 and 1830 see an appalling declension in the social conscience of Dissent. And above all, there are the proverbial nonconformist mill-owners, with their Methodist overlookers, and their invidious reputation as week-day child-drivers, working their mills till five minutes before midnight on the Saturday and enforcing the attendance of their children at Sunday school on the Sabbath.

The picture is derived, in part, from Frances Trollope’s Michael Armstrong, The Factory Boy (1840), where ‘Messrs Robert and Joseph Tomlins, the serious gentlemen as owns the factory… attends their ownselves in person every Sunday morning to see that both master and children puts the time to profit.’ It is a fictional and coloured picture, belonging, perhaps, more to 1820 than to 1840, more applicable to secluded country mills where the parish-apprentice system survived than to any great cotton town. But still, in the 1830s, the conditions portrayed in Mrs Trollope’s ‘Deep Dale’ in Derbyshire might be found in many secluded valleys on both the Lancashire and Yorkshire side of the Pennines. A fact-finding tour undertaken by a 10 Hour propagandist in the Upper Calder Valley, and in which especial attention was given to the reactions of the local clergy, shows the complexity of any generalization. At Ripponden the vicar refused his support, but the Methodist chapel was loaned for a 10 Hour meeting. At Hebden Bridge an old Methodist lay preacher declared that he was always preaching against the factory system ‘ “for”, says he, “we may preach while our tongues cleave to the roof of our mouths, but we shall never do any good while the system is allowed to go on as it is at present!” ’ But he had made himself so obnoxious that the local Methodist mill-owner at Mytholmroyd always locked the chapel when it was his turn to preach. At Sowerby Bridge, the Rev. Bull, brother to Parson Bull of Bierley (Oastler’s famous colleague in the 10 Hour agitation), refused his support and was confident that the benevolence of the masters ‘cannot be surpassed’. A group of operatives, passing the Methodist chapel built by one of the mill-owners, Mr Sutcliffe, ‘looked towards the chapel and wished it might sink into hell, and Mr Sutcliffe go with it’.

I said it was too bad, as Mr Sutcliffe had built the chapel for their good. ‘Damn him,’ said another, ‘I know him, I have had a swatch of him, and a corner of that chapel is mine, and it all belongs to his workpeople.’ #1_1123 [1]

Cragg Dale, an isolated off-shoot of the Calder, was a veritable ‘Deep Dale’. A Minister of unidentified affiliations declared:

If there was one place in England that needed legislative interference, it was this place, for they work 15 and 16 hours a day frequently, and sometimes all night: – Oh! it is a murderous system, and the mill-owners are the pest and disgrace of society. Laws human and divine are insufficient to restrain them; they take no notice of Hobhouse’s Bill, and they say ‘Let Government make what laws they think fit, they can drive a coach and six through them in that valley.’

He related the story of a boy whom he had recently interred who had been found standing asleep with his arms full of wool and had been beaten awake. This day he had worked seventeen hours; he was carried home by his father, was unable to eat his supper, awoke at 4 a.m. the next morning and asked his brothers if they could see the lights of the mill as he was afraid of being late, and then died. (His younger brother, aged nine, had died previously: the father was ‘sober and industrious’, a Sunday school teacher.) The Anglican curate here gave his unreserved support to the limitation of child labour:

I have seen the poor in this valley oppressed, I have thought it my duty to expose it… I am bound, from the responsible nature of my office, to bring it into contrast with the liberal and kindly truth of the Gospel…. And where oppression is exercised it generally falls most heavily upon those who are least able to bear it… because the widow has no husband, and her children no earthly father… we often find them most hardly used…

As a consequence of his sermons – and of personal protests to the masters – the mill-owners had cursed and insulted him and his daughters in the streets. These exposures were followed by a protest meeting in the valley, which was placarded in Oastler’s characteristic style:

… you are more Tyrannical, more Hypocritical than the slave drivers of the West Indies…. Your vaunted Liberality… I shall prove to be Tyranny your boasted Piety… neither more nor less than Blasphemy…. Your system of ‘Flogging’ – of ‘Fines’, of ‘Innings up Time’, of ‘Truck’, of ‘cleaning machinery during mealtimes’ – of ‘Sunday Workings’, of ‘Low Wages’… shall all undergo the Ordeal of ‘Public Examination’…

‘The very Saturday night when I was returning from the meeting,’ Oastler declared:

I saw two mills blazing like fury in the valley. Their inmates, poor little sufferers, had to remain there until 11.30 o’clock, and the owner of one of them I found to be a noted sighing, praying, canting religionist… #1_1124 [1]

We shall return to the Methodists, and see why it was their peculiar mission to act as the apologists of child labour. #2_645 [2] There can be no doubt that it was the nonconformist mill-owners whom Parson Bull had chiefly in mind when he attacked the ‘race’ of masters:

… a race whose whole wisdom consists in that cunning which enables them to devise the cheapest possible means for getting out of the youngest possible workers the greatest possible amount of labour, in the shortest possible amount of time, for the least possible amount of wages… a race of men of whom Agur would have said:

there is a generation, oh how lofty are their eyes! and their eyelids are lifted up. There is a generation whose teeth are as swords, and their jaw teeth are as knives to devour the poor from off the earth, and the needy from among men. #1_1125 [1]

On the other hand, while the virtual unanimity of complicity on the part of official Nonconformity exposed it to the biblical attacks of Bull and Oastler, as well as of Short-time Committee operatives (some of whom had first learned their texts in the mill-owners’ own Sunday schools), it should by no means be supposed that the Established Church was working unitedly and without remission on the children’s behalf. Indeed, we have it from Shaftesbury himself – who would surely have given credit to the Church if it were due – that with the notable exception of Bull the Anglican clergy as ‘a body… will do nothing’. #2_646 [2]

The claim, then, as to a general ‘awakening of conscience’ is misleading. What it does is to belittle the veritable fury of compassion which moved the few score northern professional men who took up the cause of the children; the violence of the opposition to them, which drove them on occasions into near-revolutionary courses; and – as humanitarian historians have tended to do – it underestimates the part played in the agitation over twenty and more strenuous years, by such men as John Doherty and the workers’ own Short-Time Committee. More recently, one writer has surveyed the issue with that air of boredom appropriate to the capacious conscience of the Nuclear Age. The modern reader, he says, ‘well disciplined by familiarity with concentration camps’ is left ‘comparatively unmoved’ by the spectacle of child labour. #3_259 [3] We may be allowed to reaffirm a more traditional view: that the exploitation of little children, on this scale and with this intensity, was one of the most shameful events in our history.


The Transforming Power of the Cross


PURITANISM – Dissent – Nonconformity: the decline collapses into a surrender. Dissent still carries the sound of resistance to Apollyon and the Whore of Babylon, Nonconformity is self-effacing and apologetic: it asks to be left alone. Mark Rutherford, one of the few men who understand the full desolation of the inner history of nineteenth-century Nonconformity – and who is yet, in himself, evidence of values that somehow survived – noted in his Autobiography the form of service customary in his youth:

It generally began with a confession that we were all sinners, but no individual sins were ever confessed, and then ensued a kind of dialogue with God, very much resembling the speeches which in later years I have heard in the House of Commons from the movers and seconders of addresses to the Crown at the opening of Parliament.

The example is taken from the Calvinistic Independents: but it will also serve excellently to describe the stance of Methodism before temporal authority. This surrender was implicit in Methodism’s origin – in the Toryism of its founder and in his ambivalent attitude to the Established Church. From the outset the Wesleyans fell ambiguously between Dissent and the Establishment, and did their utmost to make the worst of both worlds, serving as apologists for an authority in whose eyes they were an object of ridicule or condescension, but never of trust. After the French Revolution, successive Annual Conferences were forever professing their submission and their zeal in combating the enemies of established order; drawing attention to their activity ‘in raising the standard of public morals, and in promoting loyalty in the middle ranks as well as subordination and industry in the lower orders of society’. #1_1126 [1] But Methodists were seldom admitted by the Establishment to audience – and then only by the back door: never decorated with any of the honours of status: and if they had been mentioned in despatches it would probably have hindered the kind of moral espionage which they were most fitted to undertake.

The Wars saw a remarkable increase in the Methodist following. #2_647 [2] They witnessed also (Halévy tells us) ‘an uninterrupted decline of the revolutionary spirit’ among all the Nonconformist sects. Methodism is most remarkable during the War years for two things: first, its gains were greatest among the new industrial working class: second, the years after Wesley’s death see the consolidation of a new bureaucracy of ministers who regarded it as their duty to manipulate the submissiveness of their followers and to discipline all deviant growths within the Church which could give offence to authority.

In this they were very effective. For centuries the Established Church had preached to the poor the duties of obedience. But it was so distanced from them – and its distance was rarely greater than in this time of absenteeism and plural livings – that its homilies had ceased to have much effect. The deference of the countryside was rooted in bitter experience of the power of the squire rather than in any inward conviction. And there is little evidence that the evangelical movement within the Church met with much greater success: many of Hannah More’s halfpenny tracts were left to litter the servants’ quarters of the great houses. But the Methodists – or many of them – were the poor. Many of their tracts were confessions of redeemed sinners from among the poor; many of their local preachers were humble men who found their figures of speech (as one said) ‘behind my spinning-jenny’. And the great expansion after 1790 was in mining and manufacturing districts. Alongside older Salems and Bethels, new-brick Brunswick and Hanover chapels proclaimed the Methodist loyalty. ‘I hear great things of your amphitheatre in Liverpool,’ one minister wrote to the Reverend Jabez Bunting in 1811:

A man will need strong lungs to blow his words from one end of it to the other. In Bradford and in Keighley they are building chapels nearly as large as Carver Street Chapel in Sheffield. To what will Methodism come in a few years? #1_1127 [1]

Jabez Bunting, whose active ministery covers the full half-century, was the dominant figure of orthodox Wesleyanism from the time of Luddism to the last years of the Chartist movement. His father, a Manchester tailor, had been a ‘thorough Radical’ who ‘warmly espoused the cause of the first French revolutionists’, but who was not the less a Methodist for that. #2_648 [2] But in the late 1790s, and after the secession of the Kilhamite New Connexion, a group of younger ministers emerged, of whom Bunting was one, who were above all concerned to remove from Methodism the Jacobin taint. In 1812 Bunting earned distinction by disowning Methodist Luddites; the next year, in Leeds, he counted ‘several Tory magistrates of the old school, Church and King people, who, probably, never crossed the threshold of a conventicle before, among his constant hearers’. #3_260 [3] He and his fellow-ministers – one of the more obnoxious of whom was called the Reverend Edmund Grindrod – were above all organizers and administrators, busied with endless Connexional intrigues and a surfeit of disciplinary zeal. Wesley’s dislike of the self-governing anarchy of Old Dissent was continued by his successors, with authority vested in the Annual Conference (weighted down with ministers designated by Wesley himself) and its Committee of Privileges (1803). The Primitive Methodists were driven out because it was feared that their camp meetings might result in ‘tumults’ and serve as political precedents (as they did); the ‘Tent Methodists’ and Bible Christians, or Bryanites, were similarly disciplined; female preaching was prohibited; the powers of Conference and of circuit superintendents were strengthened. Espionage into each other’s moral failings was encouraged; discipline tightened up within the classes; and, after 1815, as many local preachers were expelled or struck off the ‘plan’ for political as for religious ‘back-slidings’. Here we find an entry in the Halifax Local Preacher’s Minute Book: ‘Bro. M. charged with attending a political meeting when he should have been at his class’ (16 December 1816): there we find a correspondent writing in alarm from Newcastle to Bunting:

… a subject of painful and distressing concern that two of our local preachers (from North Shields) have attended the tremendous Radical Reform Meeting… I hope no considerable portion of our brethren is found among the Radicals; but a small number of our leaders are among the most determined friends to their spirit and design… and some of the really pious, misguided sisterhood have helped to make their colours. On expostulation, I am glad to say, several members have quitted their classes (for they have adopted almost the whole Methodist economy, the terms ‘Class Leaders’, ‘District Meetings’, etc., etc., being perfectly current among them). If men are to be drilled at Missionary and Bible meetings to face a multitude with recollection, and acquire facilities of address, and then begin to employ the mighty moral weapon thus gained to the endangering the very existence of the Government of the country, we may certainly begin to tremble…

This was in 1819, the year of Peterloo. The response of the Methodist Committee of Privileges to the events of this year was to issue a circular which ‘bears clear traces’ of Bunting’s composition; expressing –

strong and decided disapprobation of certain tumultuous assemblies which have lately been witnessed in several parts of the country; in which large masses of people have been irregularly collected (often under banners bearing the most shocking and impious inscriptions)… calculated, both from the infidel principles, the wild and delusive political theories, and the violent and inflammatory declamations… to bring all government into contempt, and to introduce universal discontent, insubordination, and anarchy. #1_1128 [1]

Wesley at least had been a great-hearted warhorse; he had never spared himself; he was an enthusiast who had stood up at the market-cross to be pelted. Bunting, with his ‘solid, mathematical way of speaking’, is a less admirable character. It was his own advice to ‘adapt your principles to your exigencies’. ‘In our family intercourse,’ a friend of his youthful ministry informed his son:

his conversation was uniformly serious and instructive. Like his ministry in the pulpit, every word had its proper place, and every sentence might have been digested previously…. Sometimes your dear mother’s uncontrollable wit suddenly disturbed our gravity; but he was never seen otherwise than in his own proper character as a minister of the gospel of Christ.

Bunting’s uncompromising Sabbatarianism stopped just short at the point of his own convenience: ‘he did not hesitate, in the necessary prosecution of his ministerial work, to employ beasts; though always with a self-imposed reserve…’ With children it was another matter. We are often tempted to forgive Methodism some of its sins when we recollect that at least it gave to children and adults rudimentary education in its Sunday schools; and Bamford’s happy picture is sometimes recalled, of the Middleton school in the late 1790s, attended by ‘big collier lads and their sisters’, and the children of weavers and labourers from Whittle, Bowlee, Jumbo and the White Moss. But it is exactly this picture, of the laxness of the early Methodists, which Bunting was unable to forgive. When, in his ministry at Sheffield in 1808, his eye fell upon children in Sunday school being taught to write, his indignation knew no bounds. Here was ‘an awful abuse of the Sabbath’. There could be no question as to its theological impropriety – for children to learn to read the Scriptures was a ‘spiritual good’, whereas writing was a ‘secular art’ from which ‘temporal advantage’ might accrue. Battle commenced in Sheffield (with the former ‘Jacobin’, James Montgomery, defending the children’s cause in the Sheffield Iris), from which Bunting emerged victorious; it was renewed at Liverpool in the next year (1809) with the same result; and Bunting was in the forefront of a movement which succeeded, very largely, in extirpating this insidious ‘violation’ of the Lord’s Day until the 1840s. This was, indeed, one of the ways in which Bunting won his national spurs. #1_1129 [1]

The spurs were needed, perhaps, to stick into the children’s sides during the six days of the week. In Bunting and his fellows we seem to touch upon a deformity of the sensibility complementary to the deformities of the factory children whose labour they condoned. In all the copious correspondence of his early ministries in the industrial heartlands (Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, Halifax and Leeds, 1804–15), among endless petty Connexional disputes, moralistic humbug, and prurient inquiries into the private conduct of young women, neither he nor his colleagues appear to have suffered a single qualm as to the consequences of industrialism. #2_649 [2] But the younger leaders of Methodism were not only guilty of complicity in the fact of child labour by default. They weakened the poor from within, by adding to them the active ingredient of submission; and they fostered within the Methodist Church those elements most suited to make up the psychic component of the work-discipline of which the manufacturers stood most in need.

As early as 1787, the first Robert Peel wrote: ‘I have left most of my works in Lancashire under the management of Methodists, and they serve me excellently well.’ #3_261 [3] Weber and Tawney have so thoroughly anatomized the interpenetration of the capitalist mode of production and the Puritan ethic that it would seem that there can be little to add. Methodism may be seen as a simple extension of this ethic in a changing social milieu; and an ‘economist’ argument lies to hand, in the fact that Methodism, in Bunting’s day, proved to be exceptionally well adapted, by virtue of its elevation of the values of discipline and of order as well as its moral opacity, both to self-made mill-owners and manufacturers and to foremen, overlookers, and sub-managerial groups. And this argument – that Methodism served as ideological self-justification for the master-manufacturers and for their satellites – contains an important part of the truth. So much John Wesley – in an often-quoted passage – both foresaw and deplored:

… religion must necessarily produce both industry and frugality, and these cannot but produce riches. But as riches increase, so will pride, anger, and love of the world…. How then is it possible that Methodism, that is, a religion of the heart, though it flourishes now as a green bay tree, should continue in this state? For the Methodists in every place grow diligent and frugal; consequently they increase in goods. Hence they proportionately increase in pride, in anger, in the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, and the pride of life. So, although the form of religion remains, the spirit is swiftly vanishing away.

Many a Methodist mill-owner – and, indeed, Bunting himself – might serve as confirmation of this in the early nineteenth century. #1_1130 [1] And yet the argument falters at a critical point. For it is exactly at this time that Methodism obtained its greatest success in serving simultaneously as the religion of the industrial bourgeoisie (although here it shared the field with other Nonconformist sects) and of wide sections of the proletariat. Nor can there be any doubt as to the deep-rooted allegiance of many working-class communities (equally among miners, weavers, factory workers, seamen, potters and rural labourers) to the Methodist Church. How was it possible for Methodism to perform, with such remarkable vigour, this double service?

This is a problem to which neither Weber nor Tawney addressed themselves. Both were mainly preoccupied with Puritanism in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and with the genesis of commercial capitalism; both addressed themselves, in the main, to the psychic and social development of the middle class, the former stressing the Puritan concept of a ‘calling’, the latter the values of freedom, self-discipline, individualism and acquisitiveness. But it is intrinsic to both arguments that puritanism contributed to the psychic energy and social coherence of middle-class groups which felt themselves to be ‘called’ or ‘elected’ and which were engaged (with some success) in acquisitive pursuits. How then should such a religion appeal to the forming proletariat in a period of exceptional hardship, whose multitudes did not dispose them to any sense of group calling, whose experiences at work and in their communities favoured collectivist rather than individualist values, and whose frugality, discipline or acquisitive virtues brought profit to their masters rather than success to themselves?

Both Weber and Tawney, it is true, adduce powerful reasons as to the utility, from the point of view of the employers, of the extension of Puritan or pseudo-Puritan values to the working class. Tawney anatomized the ‘New Medicine for Poverty’, with its denunciation of sloth and improvidence in the labourer, and its convenient belief that – if success was a sign of election – poverty was itself evidence of spiritual turpitude. #1_1131 [1] Weber placed more emphasis on the question which, for the working class, is crucial: work-discipline. ‘Wherever modern capitalism has begun its work of increasing the productivity of human labour by increasing its intensity,’ wrote Weber, ‘it has encountered the immensely stubborn resistance of… pre-capitalistic labour.’

The capitalistic economy of the present day is an immense cosmos into which the individual is born, and which presents itself to him… as an unalterable order of things in which he must live. It forces the individual, in so far as he is involved in the system of market relationships, to conform to capitalistic rules of action.

But, as industrial capitalism emerged, these rules of action appeared as unnatural and hateful restraints: the peasant, the rural labourer in the unenclosed village, even the urban artisan or apprentice, did not measure the return of labour exclusively in money-earnings, and they rebelled against the notion of week after week of disciplined labour. In the way of life which Weber describes (unsatisfactorily) as ‘traditionalism’, ‘a man does not “by nature” wish to earn more and more money, but simply to live as he is accustomed to live and to earn as much as is necessary for that purpose’. Even piece-rates and other incentives lose effectiveness at a certain point if there is no inner compulsion; when enough is earned the peasant leaves industry and returns to his village, the artisan goes on a drunken spree. But at the same time, the opposite discipline of low wages is ineffective in work where skill, attentiveness or responsibility is required. What is required – here Fromm amplifies Weber’s argument – is an ‘inner compulsion’ which would prove ‘more effective in harnessing all energies to work than any outer compulsion can ever be’:

Against external compulsion there is always a certain amount of rebelliousness which hampers the effectiveness of work or makes people unfit for any differentiated task requiring intelligence, initiative and responsibility…. Undoubtedly capitalism could not have been developed had not the greatest part of man’s energy been channelled in the direction of work.

The labourer must be turned ‘into his own slave driver’. #1_1132 [1]

The ingredients of this compulsion were not new. #2_650 [2] Weber has noted the difficulties experienced by employers in the ‘putting-out’ industries – notably weaving – in the seventeenth century, as a result of the irregular working habits (drunkenness, embezzlement of yarn and so on) of the workers. It was in the West of England woollen industry – at Kidderminster – that the Presbyterian divine, Richard Baxter, effected by his ministry a notable change in labour relations; and many elements of the Methodist work-discipline may be found fully-formed in his Christian Directory of 1673. #3_262 [3] Similar difficulties were encountered by mine-owners and northern woollen and cotton manufacturers throughout the eighteenth century. Colliers generally received a monthly pay; it was complained that ‘they are naturally turbulent, passionate, and rude in manners and character’:

Their gains are large and uncertain, and their employment is a species of task work, the profit of which can very rarely be previously ascertained. This circumstance gives them the wasteful habits of a gamester….

Another trait in the character of a collier, is his predilection to change of situation…. Annual changes are almost as common with the pitman as the return of the seasons…. Whatever favours he may have received, he is disposed to consider them all cancelled by the refusal of a single request. #1_1133 [1]

The weaver-smallholder was notorious for dropping his work in the event of any farming emergency; most eighteenth-century workers gladly exchanged their employments for a month of harvesting; many of the adult operatives in the early cotton mills were ‘of loose and wandering habits, and seldom remained long in the establishment’. #2_651 [2] A few of the managerial problems in early enterprises are suggested by the list of fines at Wedgwood’s Etruria works:

… Any workman striking or likewise abusing an overlooker to lose his place.

Any workman conveying ale or liquor into the manufactory in working hours, forfeit 2/-.

Any person playing at fives against any of the walls where there are windows, forfeit 2/-… #3_263 [3]

Whether his workers were employed in a factory or in their own homes, the master-manufacturer of the Industrial Revolution was obsessed with these problems of discipline. The outworkers required (from the employers’ point of view) education in ‘methodical’ habits, punctilious attention to instructions, fulfilment of contracts to time, and in the sinfulness of embezzling materials. By the 1820s (we are told by a contemporary) ‘the great mass of Weavers’ were ‘deeply imbued with the doctrines of Methodism’. Some of the self-made men, who were now their employers, were Methodists or Dissenters whose frugality – as Wesley had foreseen – had produced riches. They would tend to favour fellow-religionists, finding in them a ‘guarantee for good conduct’ and ‘a consciousness of the value of character’. #1_1134 [1] The ‘artisan’ traditions of the weavers, with their emphasis on the values of independence, had already prepared them for some variant of Puritan faith. #2_652 [2] What of the factory operatives?

It is in Dr Andrew Ure’s Philosophy of Manufactures (1835) – a book which, with its Satanic advocacy, much influenced Engels and Marx – that we find a complete anticipation of the ‘economist’ case for the function of religion as a work-discipline. The term Factory, for Ure:

involves the idea of a vast automaton, composed of various mechanical and intellectual organs, acting in uninterrupted concert for the production of a common object, all of them being subordinated to a self-regulated moving force.

‘The main difficulty’ of the factory system was not so much technological but in the ‘distribution of the different members of the apparatus into one cooperative body’, and, above all, ‘in training human beings to renounce their desultory habits of work, and to identify themselves with the unvarying regularity of the complex automaton’:

To devise and administer a successful code of factory discipline, suited to the necessities of factory diligence, was the Herculean enterprise, the noble achievement of Arkwright. Even at the present day, when the system is perfectly organized, and its labour lightened to the utmost, it is found nearly impossible to convert persons past the age of puberty, whether drawn from rural or from handicraft occupations, into useful factory hands. After struggling for a while to conquer their listless or restive habits, they either renounce the employment spontaneously, or are dismissed by the overlookers on account of inattention.

‘It required, in fact, a man of a Napoleonic nerve and ambition, to subdue the refractory tempers of work-people accustomed to irregular paroxysms of diligence…. Such was Arkwright.’ Moreover, the more skilled a workman, the more intractable to discipline he became, ‘the more self-willed and… the less fit a component of a mechanical system, in which, by occasional irregularities, he may do great damage to the whole’. Thus the manufacturers aimed at withdrawing any process which required ‘peculiar dexterity and steadiness of hand… from the cunning workman’ and placing it in charge of a ‘mechanism, so self-regulating, that a child may superintend it’. ‘The grand object therefore of the modern manufacturer is, through the union of capital and science, to reduce the task of his work-people to the exercise of vigilance and dexterity, – faculties… speedily brought to perfection in the young.’ #1_1135 [1]

For the children, the discipline of the overlooker and of the machinery might suffice; but for those ‘past the age of puberty’ inner compulsions were required. Hence it followed that Ure devoted a section of his book to the ‘Moral Economy of the Factory System’, and a special chapter to religion. The unredeemed operative was a terrible creature in Ure’s sight; a prey to ‘artful demagogues’; chronically given to secret cabals and combinations; capable of any atrocity against his masters. The high wages of cotton-spinners enabled them ‘to pamper themselves into nervous ailments by a diet too rich and exciting for their indoor occupations’:

Manufactures naturally condense a vast population within a narrow circuit; they afford every facility for secret cabal…; they communicate intelligence and energy to the vulgar mind; they supply in their liberal wages the pecuniary sinews of contention…

In such circumstances, Sunday schools presented a ‘sublime spectacle’. The committee of a Stockport Sunday school, erected in 1805, congratulated itself upon the ‘decorum’ preserved in the town, in 1832, at a time of ‘political excitement’ elsewhere: ‘it is hardly possible to approach the town… without encountering one or more of these quiet fortresses, which a wise benevolence has erected against the encroachments of vice and ignorance’. And Ure drew from this a moral, not only as to general political subordination, but as to behaviour in the factory itself:

The neglect of moral discipline may be readily detected in any establishment by a practised eye, in the disorder of the general system, the irregularities of the individual machines, the waste of time and material…

Mere wage-payment could never secure ‘zealous services’. The employer who neglected moral considerations and was himself ‘a stranger to the self-denying graces of the Gospel’ –

knows himself to be entitled to nothing but eye-service, and will therefore exercise the most irksome vigilance, but in vain, to prevent his being overreached by his operatives – the whole of whom, by natural instinct as it were, conspire against such a master. Whatever pains he may take, he can never command superior workmanship….

It is, therefore, excessively the interest of every mill-owner to organize his moral machinery on equally sound principles with his mechanical, for otherwise he will never command the steady hands, watchful eyes, and prompt cooperation, essential to excellence of product…. There is, in fact, no case to which the Gospel truth, ‘Godliness is great gain,’ is more applicable than to the administration of an extensive factory. #1_1136 [1]

The argument is thus complete. The factory system demands a transformation of human nature, the ‘working paroxysms’ of the artisan or outworker must be methodized until the man is adapted to the discipline of the machine. #1_1137 [1] But how are these disciplinary virtues to be inculcated in those whose Godliness (unless they become overlookers) is unlikely to bring any temporal gain? It can only be by inculcating ‘the first and great lesson… that man must expect his chief happiness, not in the present, but in a future state’. Work must be undertaken as a ‘pure act of virtue… inspired by the love of a transcendent Being, operating… on our will and affections’:

Where then shall mankind find this transforming power? – in the cross of Christ. It is the sacrifice which removes the guilt of sin: it is the motive which removes love of sin: it mortifies sin by showing its turpitude to be indelible except by such an awful expiation; it atones for disobedience; it excites to obedience; it purchases strength for obedience; it makes obedience practicable; it makes it acceptable; it makes it in a manner unavoidable, for it constrains to it; it is, finally, not only the motive to obedience, but the pattern of it. #2_653 [2]

Ure, then, is the Richard Baxter of Cottonopolis. But we may descend, at this point, from his transcendental heights to consider, more briefly, mundane matters of theology. It is evident that there was, in 1800, casuistry enough in the theology of all the available English churches to reinforce the manufacturer’s own sense of moral self-esteem. Whether he held an hierarchic faith, or felt himself to be elected, or saw in his success the evidence of grace or godliness, he felt few promptings to exchange his residence beside the mill at Bradford for a monastic cell on Bardsey Island. But Methodist theology, by virtue of its promiscuous opportunism, was better suited than any other to serve as the religion of a proletariat whose members had not the least reason, in social experience, to feel themselves to be ‘elected’. In his theology, Wesley appears to have dispensed with the best and selected unhesitatingly the worse elements of Puritanism: if in class terms Methodism was hermaphroditic, in doctrinal terms it was a mule. We have already noted Methodism’s rupture with the intellectual and democratic traditions of Old Dissent. But Luther’s doctrines of submission to authority might have served as the text for any Wesleyan Conference in the years after 1789:

Even if those in authority are evil or without faith, nevertheless the authority and its power is good and from God….

God would prefer to suffer the government to exist, no matter how evil, rather than allow the rabble to riot, no matter how justified they are in doing so…

(Jabez Bunting, however, unlike Luther, could never have admitted the notion that the rabble could ever be ‘justified’.) The general Lutheran bias of Wesleyanism has often been noted. #1_1138 [1] Wesley’s espousal of the doctrine of the universality of grace was incompatible with the Calvinist notion of ‘election’. If grace was universal, sin was universal too. Any man who came to a conviction of sin might be visited by grace and know himself to be ransomed by Christ’s blood. Thus far it is a doctrine of spiritual egalitarianism: there is at least equality of opportunity in sin and grace for rich and poor. And as a religion of ‘the heart’ rather than of the intellect, the simplest and least educated might hope to attain towards grace. In this sense, Methodism dropped all doctrinal and social barriers and opened its doors wide to the working class. And this reminds us that Lutheranism was also a religion of the poor; and that, as Munzer proclaimed and as Luther learned to his cost, spiritual egalitarianism had a tendency to break its banks and flow into temporal channels, bringing thereby a perpetual tension into Lutheran creeds which Methodism also reproduced.

But Christ’s ransom was only provisional. Wesley’s doctrine here was not settled. He toyed with the notion of grace being perpetual, once it had visited the penitent; and thus a dejected form of Calvinism (the ‘elected’ being now the ‘saved’) re-entered by the back door. But as the eighteenth century wore on the doctrine of justification by faith hardened – perhaps because it was so evident that multitudes of those ‘saved’ in the revivalist campaigns slid back to their old ways after years or only months. Thus it became doctrine that forgiveness of sin lasted only so long as the penitent went and sinned no more. The brotherhood and sisterhood who were ‘saved’ were in a state of conditional, provisory election. It was always possible to ‘backslide’; and in view of human frailty this was, in the eyes of God and of Jabez Bunting, more than likely. Moreover, Bunting was at pains to point out God’s view that –

Sin… is not changed in its nature, so as to be made less ‘exceedingly sinful’… by the pardon of the sinner. The penalty is remitted; and the obligation to suffer that penalty is dissolved; but it is still naturally due, though graciously remitted. Hence appears the propriety and the duty of continuing to confess and lament even pardoned sin. Though released from its penal consequences by an act of divine clemency, we should still remember, that the dust of self-abasement is our proper place before God… #1_1139 [1]

But there are further complexities to the doctrine. It would be presumptuous to suppose that a man might save himself by an act of his own will. The saving was the prerogative of God, and all that a man could do was to prepare himself, by utter abasement, for redemption. Once convinced of grace, however; and once thoroughly introduced to the Methodist brotherhood, ‘backsliding’ was no light matter to a working man or woman. It might mean expulsion from the only community-group which they knew in the industrial wilderness; and it meant the ever-present fear as to an eternity of lurid punishment to come:

There is a dreadful hell

And everlasting pains,

Where sinners must with devils dwell

In darkness, fire and chains.

How, then, to keep grace? Not by good works, since Wesley had elevated faith above works: ‘You have nothing to do but save souls.’ Works were the snares of pride and the best works were mingled with the dross of sin; although – by another opportunist feint – works might be a sign of grace. (A vestigial Calvinism here for the mill-owners and shopkeepers.) Since this world is the ante-room to eternity, such temporal things as wealth and poverty matter very little: the rich might show the evidence of grace by serving the Church (notably, by building chapels for their own work-people). The poor were fortunate in being less tempted by ‘the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, and the pride of life’. They were more likely to remain graced, not because of their ‘calling’, but because they faced fewer temptations to backslide.

Three obvious means of maintaining grace presented themselves. First, through service to the Church itself, as a class leader, local preacher, or in more humble capacities. Second, through the cultivation of one’s own soul, in religious exercises, tract-reading, but – above all – in attempts to reproduce the emotional convulsions of conversion, conviction of sin, penitence, and visitation by grace. Third, through a methodical discipline in every aspect of life. Above all, in labour itself (which, being humble and unpleasant, should not be confused with good works), undertaken for no ulterior motives but (as Dr Ure has it) as ‘a pure act of virtue’ there is an evident sign of grace. Moreover, God’s curse over Adam, when expelled from the Garden of Eden, provided irrefutable doctrinal support as to the blessedness of hard labour, poverty, and sorrow ‘all the days of thy life’.

We can now see the extraordinary correspondence between the virtues which Methodism inculcated in the working class and the desiderata of middle-class Utilitarianism. #1_1140 [1] Dr Ure indicates the point of junction, in his advice to the mill-owner ‘to organize his moral machinery on equally sound principles with his mechanical’. From this aspect, Methodism was the desolate inner landscape of Utilitarianism in an era of transition to the work-discipline of industrial capitalism. As the ‘working paroxysms’ of the hand-worker are methodized and his unworkful impulses are brought under control, so his emotional and spiritual paroxysms increase. The abject confessional tracts are the other side of the dehumanized prose style of Edwin Chadwick and Dr Kay. The ‘march of intellect’ and the repression of the heart go together.

But it was Wesley’s claim that Methodism was, above all things, a ‘religion of the heart’. It was in its ‘enthusiasm’ and emotional transports that it differed most evidently from the older Puritan sects. #1_1141 [1] We might note some of the approved stages in religious experience, taken from a characteristic tract which describes the conversion of a sailor, Joshua Marsden, in the 1790s. These tracts normally follow a conventional pattern. First, there are descriptions of a sinful youth: swearing, gaming, drunkenness, idleness, sexual looseness or merely ‘desire of the flesh’. #2_654 [2] There follows either some dramatic experience which makes the sinner mindful of death (miraculous cure in mortal illness, shipwreck or death of wife or children); or some chance-hap encounter with God’s word, where the sinner comes to jeer but remains to learn the way to salvation. Our sailor had all these experiences. A shipwreck left him ‘trembling with horror upon the verge both of the watery and the fiery gulph… the ghosts of his past sins stalked before him in ghastly forms’. A severe illness ‘sent him often weeping and broken-hearted to a throne of grace’, ‘consumed and burned up sensual desires’, and ‘showed the awfulness of dying without an interest in Christ’. Invited by a friend to a Methodist class meeting, ‘his heart was melted into a child-like weeping frame…. Tears trickled down his cheeks like rivulets.’ There follows the long ordeal of intercession for forgiveness and of wrestling with temptations to relapse into the former life of sin. Only grace can unloose ‘the seven seals with which ignorance, pride, unbelief, enmity, self-will, lust and covetousness bind the sinner’s heart’. Again and again the penitent in his ‘novitiate’ succumbs to obscurely-indicated ‘temptations’: #1_1142 [1]

In spite of all, he was sometimes borne away by the violence and impetuosity of temptation, which brought upon him all the anguish of a broken spirit. After being overtaken with sin he would redouble his prayers…. Sometimes the fear of dying in an unpardoned state greatly agitated his mind, and prevented his falling asleep for fear of awakening in the eternal world.

When the ‘desire of the flesh’ is to some degree humbled, the ‘Enemy’ places more subtle spiritual temptations in the penitent’s path. Chief among these are any disposition which leads to ‘hardness of the heart’ – levity, pride, but above all the temptation to ‘buy salvation’ by good works rather than waiting with patience to ‘receive it as the free gift of God, through the infinite merits of the bleeding Reconciler’. The doctrine of good works is ‘this Hebrew, this Popish doctrine of human merit’. Thus ‘hardness of the heart’ consists in any character-trait which resists utter submission:

God… before he can justify us freely… must wither our gourd, blast the flower of proud hope, take away the prop of self-dependence, strip us of the gaudy covering of christless righteousness, stop the boasting of pharasaical self-sufficiency, and bring the guilty, abased, ashamed, blushing, self-despairing sinner, to the foot of the Cross.

At this point of abasement, ‘all his prospects appeared like a waste howling wilderness’. But ‘the time of deliverance was now at hand’. At a love-feast in the Methodist chapel, the penitent knelt in the pew ‘and, in an agony of soul, began to wrestle with God’. Although ‘the enemy raged and rolled upon him like a flood’,

Some of the leaders, with some pious females, came into the gallery, and united in interceding for him at a throne of grace: the more they prayed, the more his distress and burthen increased, till finally he was nearly spent; and sweat ran off him… and he lay on the floor of the pew with little power to move. This, however, was the moment of deliverance…. He felt what no tongue can ever describe; a something seemed to rest upon him like the presence of God that went through his whole frame; he sprang on his feet, and felt he could lay upon Christ by faith.

From this time forward the ‘burthen of sin fell off’. ‘The new creation was manifested by new moral beauties – love, joy, hope, peace, filial fear, delight in Jesus, tender confidence, desire after closer communion, and fuller conformity…. A new kingdom of righteousness was planted in the heart.’ God’s glory became ‘the end of each action’. But salvation was conditional; the conviction of grace coexisted with the knowledge that man ‘is a poor, blind, fallen, wretched, miserable and (without divine grace) helpless sinner’. #1_1143 [1]

Our sinner has now been ‘translated from the power of Satan to the kingdom and image of God’s dear Son’. And we may see here in its lurid figurative expression the psychic ordeal in which the character-structure of the rebellious pre-industrial labourer or artisan was violently recast into that of the submissive industrial worker. Here, indeed, is Ure’s ‘transforming power’. It is a phenomenon, almost diabolic in its penetration into the very sources of human personality, directed towards the repression of emotional and spiritual energies. But ‘repression’ is a misleading word; these energies were not so much inhibited as displaced from expression in personal and in social life, and confiscated for the service of the Church. The box-like, blackening chapels stood in the industrial districts like great traps for the human psyche. Within the Church itself there was a constant emotional drama of backsliders, confessions, forays against Satan, lost sheep; one suspects that the pious sisterhood, in particular, found in this one of the great ‘consolations’ of religion. For the more intellectual there was the spiritual drama of:

trials, temptations, heart sinkings, doubts, struggles, heaviness, manifestations, victories, coldnesses, wanderings, besetments, deliverances, helps, hopes, answers to prayer, interpositions, reliefs, complaints… workings of the heart, actings of faith, leadings through the mazes of dark dispensations… fiery trials, and succour in the sinking moment. #1_1144 [1]

But what must be stressed is the intermittent character of Wesleyan emotionalism. Nothing was more often remarked by contemporaries of the workaday Methodist character, or of Methodist home-life, than its methodical, disciplined and repressed disposition. It is the paradox of a ‘religion of the heart’ that it should be notorious for the inhibition of all spontaneity. Methodism sanctioned ‘workings of the heart’ only upon the occasions of the Church; Methodists wrote hymns but no secular poetry of note; the idea of a passionate Methodist lover in these years is ludicrous. (‘Avoid all manner of passions’, advised Wesley.) The word is unpleasant; but it is difficult not to see in Methodism in these years a ritualized form of psychic masturbation. Energies and emotions which were dangerous to social order, or which were merely unproductive (in Dr Ure’s sense) were released in the harmless form of sporadic love-feasts, watch-nights, band-meetings or revivalist campaigns. At these love-feasts, after hymns and the ceremonial breaking of cake or water-biscuit, the preacher then spoke, in a raw emotional manner, of his spiritual experiences, temptations and contests with sin:

While the preacher is thus engaged, sighs, groans, devout aspirations, and… ejaculations of prayer or praise, are issuing from the audience in every direction.

In the tension which succeeded, individual members of the congregation then rose to their feet and made their intimate confessions of sin or temptation, often of a sexual implication. An observer noted the ‘bashfulness, and evident signs of inward agitation, which some of the younger part of the females have betrayed, just before they have risen to speak’. #2_655 [2]

The Methodists made of religion (wrote Southey) ‘a thing of sensation and passion, craving perpetually for sympathy and stimulants’. #1_1145 [1] These Sabbath orgasms of feeling made more possible the single-minded weekday direction of these energies to the consummation of productive labour. Moreover, since salvation was never assured, and temptations lurked on every side, there was a constant inner goading to ‘sober and industrious’ behaviour – the visible sign of grace – every hour of the day and every day of the year. Not only ‘the sack’ but also the flames of hell might be the consequence of indiscipline at work. God was the most vigilant overlooker of all. Even above the chimney breast ‘Thou God Seest Me’ was hung. The Methodist was taught not only to ‘bear his Cross’ of poverty and humiliation; the crucifixion was (as Ure saw) the very pattern of his obedience: ‘True followers of our bleeding Lamb, Now on Thy daily cross we die…’ #2_656 [2] Work was the Cross from which the ‘transformed’ industrial worker hung.

But so drastic a redirection of impulses could not be effected without a central disorganization of the human personality. We can see why Hazlitt described the Methodists as ‘a collection of religious invalids’. #3_264 [3] If Wesley took from Luther his authoritarianism, from Calvinism and from the English Puritan divines of the seventeenth century Methodism took over the joylessness: a methodical discipline of life ‘combined with the strict avoidance of all spontaneous enjoyments’. #4_66 [4] From both it took over the almost-Manichaean sense of guilt at man’s depravity. And, as gratuitous additions, the Wesleys absorbed and passed on through their hymns and writings the strange phenomenon of early eighteenth-century necrophily and the perverse imagery which is the least pleasant side of the Moravian tradition. Weber has noted the connexion between sexual repression and work-discipline in the teachings of such divines as Baxter:

The sexual asceticism of Puritanism differs only in degree, not in fundamental principle, from that of monasticism; and on account of the Puritan conception of marriage, its practical influence is more far-reaching than that of the latter. For sexual intercourse is permitted, even within marriage, only as the means willed by God for the increase of His glory according to the commandment, ‘Be fruitful and multiply.’ Along with a moderate vegetable diet and cold baths, the same prescription is given for all sexual temptations as is used against religious doubts and a sense of moral unworthiness: ‘Work hard in your calling.’ #1_1146 [1]

Methodism is permeated with teaching as to the sinfulness of sexuality, and as to the extreme sinfulness of the sexual organs. These – and especially the male sexual organs (since it became increasingly the convention that women could not feel the ‘lust of the flesh’) – were the visible fleshly citadels of Satan, the source of perpetual temptation and of countless highly unmethodical and (unless for deliberate and Godly procreation) unproductive impulses. #2_657 [2] But the obsessional Methodist concern with sexuality reveals itself in the perverted eroticism of Methodist imagery. We have already noted, in John Nelson’s conversion, the identification of Satan with the phallus. God is usually a simple father image, vengeful, authoritarian and prohibitive, to whom Christ must intercede, the sacrificial Lamb ‘still bleeding and imploring Grace/For every Soul of Man’. But the association of feminine – or, more frequently, ambivalent – sexual imagery with Christ is more perplexing and unpleasant.

Here we are faced with layer upon layer of conflicting symbolism. Christ, the personification of ‘Love’ to whom the great bulk of Wesleyan hymns are addressed, is by turns maternal, Oedipal, sexual and sado-masochistic. The extraordinary assimilation of wounds and sexual imagery in the Moravian tradition has often been noted. Man as a sinful ‘worm’ must find ‘Lodging, Bed and Board in the Lamb’s Wounds’. But the sexual imagery is easily transferred to imagery of the womb. The ‘dearest little opening of the sacred, precious and thousand times beautiful little side’ is also the refuge from sin in which ‘the Regenerate rests and breathes’:

O precious Side-hole’s cavity

I want to spend my life in thee….

There in one Side-hole’s joy divine,

I’ll spend all future Days of mine.

Yes, yes, I will for ever sit

There, where thy Side was split. #1_1147 [1]

Sexual and ‘womb-regressive’ imagery appears here to be assimilated. But, after the Wesleys broke with the Moravian brethren, the language of their hymns and the persistent accusation of Antinomian heresy among Moravian communities had become a public scandal. In the hymns of John and Charles Wesley overt sexual imagery was consciously repressed, and gave way to imagery of the womb and the bowels:

Come, O my guilty brethren, come,

Groaning beneath your load of sin!

His bleeding heart shall make you room,

His open side shall take you in…

This imagery, however, is subordinated to the overpowering sacrificial imagery of blood, as if the underground traditions of Mithraic blood-sacrifice which troubled the early Christian Church suddenly gushed up in the language of eighteenth-century Methodist hymnody. Here is Christ’s ‘bleeding love’, the blood of the sacrificial Lamb in which sinners must bathe, the association of sacrifice with the penitent’s guilt. Here is the ‘fountain’ that ‘gushes from His side,/Open’d that all may enter in’:

Still the fountain of Thy blood

Stands for sinners open’d wide;

Now, even now, my Lord and God,

I wash me in Thy side.

And sacrificial, masochistic, and erotic language all find a common nexus in the same blood-symbolism:

We thirst to drink Thy precious blood,

We languish in Thy wounds to rest,

And hunger for immortal food,

And long on all Thy love to feast.

The union with Christ’s love, especially in the eucharistic ‘marriage-feast’ (which the Church collectively ‘offers herself to God’ by ‘offering to God the Body of Christ’), #1_1148 [1] unites the feelings of self-mortification, the yearning for the oblivion of the womb, and tormented sexual desire, ‘harbour’d in the Saviour’s breast’:

’Tis there I would always abide,

And never a moment depart,

Conceal’d in the cleft of Thy side,

Eternally held in Thy heart. #2_658 [2]

It is difficult to conceive of a more essential disorganization of human life, a pollution of the sources of spontaneity bound to reflect itself in every aspect of personality. Since joy was associated with sin and guilt, and pain (Christ’s wounds) with goodness and love, so every impulse became twisted into the reverse, and it became natural to suppose that man or child only found grace in God’s eyes when performing painful, laborious or self-denying tasks. To labour and to sorrow was to find pleasure, and masochism was ‘Love’.

This strange imagery was perpetuated during the years of the Industrial Revolution, not only in Methodist hymnody but also in the rhetoric of sermons and confessions. Nor did it pass unnoticed. ‘The Deity is personified and embodied in the grossest of images,’ Leigh Hunt commented in an essay ‘On the Indecencies and Profane Rapture of Methodism’. ‘If God must be addressed in the language of earthly affection, why not address him as a parent rather than a lover?’ #1_1149 [1] But by the end of the eighteenth century, the Methodist tradition was undergoing a desolate change. The negation or sublimation of love was tending towards the cult of its opposite: death. Charles Wesley himself had written more than one hymn which presages this change:

Ah, lovely Appearance of Death!

No Sight upon Earth is so fair.

Not all the gay Pageants that breathe

Can with a dead Body compare.

The Methodist tradition here is ambivalent. On the one hand, Methodist preachers perfected techniques to arouse paroxysms of fear of death and of the unlimited pains of Hell. Children, from the age that they could speak, were terrified with images of everlasting punishment for the slightest misbehaviour. Their nights were made lurid by Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and similar reading. #2_659 [2] But at the same time, those who could read were deluged throughout the early nineteenth century, with the tracts which celebrated ‘Holy Dying’. No Methodist or evangelical magazine, for the mature or for children, was complete without its death-bed scene in which (as Leigh Hunt also noted) death was often anticipated in the language of bride or bridegroom impatient for the wedding-night. Death was the only goal which might be desired without guilt, the reward of peace after a lifetime of suffering and labour.

So much of the history of Methodism has, in recent years, been written by apologists or by fair-minded secularists trying to make allowances for a movement which they cannot understand, that one notes with a sense of shock Lecky’s judgement at the end of the nineteenth century:

A more appalling system of religious terrorism, one more fitted to unhinge a tottering intellect and to darken and embitter a sensitive nature, has seldom existed. #1_1150 [1]

Over the Industrial Revolution there brooded the figure of the Reverend Jabez Branderham (almost certainly modelled upon Jabez Bunting) who appears in Lockwood’s grim nightmare at the opening of Wuthering Heights: ‘good God! what a sermon; divided into four hundred and ninety parts… and each discussing a separate sin!’ It is against this all-enveloping ‘Thou Shalt Not!’, which permeated all religious persuasions in varying degree in these years, that we can appreciate at its full height the stature of William Blake. It was in 1818 that he emerged from his densely allegorical prophetic books into a last phase of gnomic clarity in The Everlasting Gospel. Here he reasserted the values, the almost-Antinomian affirmation of the joy of sexuality, and the affirmation of innocence, which were present in his earlier songs. Almost every line may be seen as a declaration of ‘mental war’ against Methodism and Evangelicalism. #2_660 [2] Their ‘Vision of Christ’ was his vision’s ‘greatest Enemy’. Above all, Blake drew his bow at the teaching of humility and submission. It was this nay-saying humility which ‘does the Sun & Moon blot out’, ‘Distorts the Heavens from Pole to Pole’,

Rooting over with thorns & stems

The buried Soul & all its Gems.


The utility of Methodism as a work-discipline is evident. What is less easy to understand is why so many working people were willing to submit to this form of psychic exploitation. How was it that Methodism could perform with such success this dual rôle as the religion of both the exploiters and the exploited?

During the years 1790–1830 #1_1151 [1] three reasons may be adduced: direct indoctrination, the Methodist community-sense, and the psychic consequences of the counter-revolution.

The first reason – indoctrination – cannot be overstated. The evangelical Sunday schools were ever-active, although it is difficult to know how far their activities may be rightly designated as ‘educational’. The Wesleyans had inherited from their founder a peculiarly strong conviction as to the aboriginal sinfulness of the child; and this expressed – in Wesley’s case – with a force which might have made some Jesuits blench:

Break their wills betimes. Begin this work before they can run alone, before they can speak plain, perhaps before they can speak at all. Whatever pains it costs, break the will if you would not damn the child. Let a child from a year old be taught to fear the rod and to cry softly; from that age make him do as he is bid, if you whip him ten times running to effect it…. Break his will now, and his soul shall live, and he will probably bless you to all eternity. #2_661 [2]

At Wesley’s Kingswood School only severely workful ‘recreations’ were allowed – chopping wood, digging and the like – since games and play were ‘unworthy of a Christian child’. (‘I will kill or cure,’ said Wesley, who rarely said things he did not mean: ‘I will have one or the other – a Christian school, or none at all.’) A brief glance at the ‘educational’ materials in common use in Sunday schools in the first decades of the nineteenth century exposes their true purpose. The Wesley’s lurid hymns, employed in the adult services, were replaced by Isaac Watts’ Divine Songs of Children, or moralistic variants by later writers. Toddlers were taught to sing that they were ‘By nature and by practice too, A wretched slave to sin.’ The All-seeing God’s ‘piercing eye’ looked upon their most ‘secret actions’:

There’s not a sin that we commit,

Nor wicked word we say,

But in thy dreadful book ’tis writ,

Against the judgement-day.

A characteristic moral story of the time exemplifies the general tendency of this ‘teaching’. #1_1152 [1] John Wise is the son of ‘a very poor man, who had many children, and could scarce get bread for them all by hard labour. He had to work with all his might each day in the week, and lived on oatcake, and oatmeal boiled up with water.’ His father, notwithstanding, was a good ‘prayerful’ man, repeatedly giving thanks for his blessings: for example, ‘Some of us might have died, but we are all in the land of the living.’ John’s mother taught him Watts’ hymn of the work-disciplined sun:

When from the chambers of the east

His morning race begins,

He never tires, nor stops to rest,

But round the world he shines,

So, like the sun, would I fulfil

The duties of this day,

Begin my work betimes, and still

March on my heavenly way.

John’s parents teach him the sanctity of the Sabbath, and deliver various homilies on duty, obedience and industry. Then comes the awful story of Betty, John’s wicked sister, who goes for a walk on Sunday, and comes back wet and muddy, having lost a shoe. Her father rebukes her, and reads to the family Moses’ decree that the man who gathered sticks on the Sabbath should be stoned to death. Betty’s sin is much worse than this man’s, but this time she is pardoned. But worse sins follow: some children play truant from Sunday school and play foot-ball instead! The next Sunday the children are admonished, and told the story of the forty-two children who mocked the aged Elisha and who were torn in pieces, at the behest of a merciful God. The infants then carol another of Watts’ hymns:

When children in their wanton play,

Serv’d old Elisha so;

And bid the prophet go his way,

‘Go up, thou bald-head, go:’

GOD quickly stopt their wicked breath,

And sent two raging bears,

That tore them limb from limb to death,

With blood, and groans, and tears.

In the end, the piety of John and of his father are rewarded by an inheritance from a stranger, deeply moved by their patience and submission to poverty.

One might laugh; but the psychological atrocities committed upon children were terribly real to them. One may doubt the emphasis placed by a recent writer upon the repressive effect of Puritan infant-binding (in tight swaddling clothes) and anal training, although the point cannot be dismissed. #1_1153 [1] But despite all the platitudes repeated in most textbooks as to the ‘educational initiatives’ of the Churches at this time, the Sunday schools were a dreadful exchange even for village dame’s schools. Eighteenth-century provision for the education of the poor – inadequate and patchy as it was – was nevertheless provision for education, in some sort, even if (as with Shen-stone’s schoolmistress) it was little more than naming the flowers and herbs. In the counter-revolutionary years this was poisoned by the dominant attitude of the Evangelicals, that the function of education began and ended with the ‘moral rescue’ of the children of the poor. #2_662 [2] Not only was the teaching of writing discouraged, but very many Sunday school scholars left the schools unable to read, and in view of the parts of the Old Testament thought most edifying this at least was a blessing. Others gained little more than the little girl who told one of the Commissioners on Child Labour in the Mines: ‘if I died a good girl I should go to heaven – if I were bad I should have to be burned in brimstone and fire: they told me that at school yesterday, I did not know it before’. #1_1154 [1] Long before the age of puberty the child was subject at Sunday school and at home (if his parents were pious) to the worst kind of emotional bullying to confess his sins and come to a sense of salvation; and many, like young Thomas Cooper, went ‘into secret places twenty times in a day, to pray for pardon…’ #2_663 [2]

Lecky’s epithet, ‘religious terrorism’, is in fact by no means an excessive term to apply to a society which provided no alternative educational arrangements for the children of the poor – at least until the Lancastrian charity school movement, in which the notion of ‘moral rescue’ was modified by genuine educational intentions and by the utilitarian concern for equipping children for industrial occupations. #3_265 [3] But – and here we come to our second reason – we should beware of giving too bleak and too unqualified a picture of the evangelical churches from the evidence of Sunday school primers, or from the dogmas of such men as Bunting. What the orthodox Methodist minister intended is one thing; what actually happened in many communities may be another. The old ‘Arminian’ Methodists had a more humane attitude to Sunday school teaching; the Methodists of the New Connexion were always more intellectual in their approach than those of the Wesleyan orthodoxy; we have noted that James Montgomery (of the Sheffield Iris) led the fight among the Sheffield Nonconformists to retain the teaching of writing in the Sunday school syllabus. The lay teachers, who volunteered their services, were less likely to be doctrinaire; and there was a continuous tension which could at times produce unlikely results. ‘Even our Sunday Schools’, a Bolton minister wrote to the Duke of Portland in 1798:

may become in some Instances the Seminaries of Faction. We have discovered one if not two who have taken the Oaths of United Englishmen, who are acting in the capacity of S. Schoolmasters gratis… #1_1155 [1]

The ‘quiet fortresses’ of the Stockport Sunday schools, which Dr Ure so commended in the 1830s, nevertheless had been besieged with a vengeance (and to some degree actually displaced) between 1817 and 1820, when the Reverend Joseph Harrison and the Stockport Political Union sponsored a Radical Sunday School movement which must have been staffed, in part, by former teachers and scholars of the orthodox schools. #2_664 [2]

And this should be seen, not only in the schools, but also in relation to the general influence of the Methodist churches. As a dogma Methodism appears as a pitiless ideology of work. In practice, this dogma was in varying degrees softened, humanized, or modified by the needs, values, and patterns of social relationship of the community within which it was placed. The Church, after all, was more than a building, and more than the sermons and instructions of its minister. It was embodied also in the class meetings: the sewing groups: the money-raising activities: the local preachers who tramped several miles after work to attend small functions at outlying hamlets which the minister might rarely visit. The picture of the fellowship of the Methodists which is commonly presented is too euphoric; it has been emphasized to the point where all other characteristics of the Church have been forgotten. #3_266 [3] But it remains both true and important that Methodism, with its open chapel doors, did offer to the uprooted and abandoned people of the Industrial Revolution some kind of community to replace the older community-patterns which were being displaced. As an unestablished (although undemocratic) Church, there was a sense in which working people could make it their own; and the more closely knit the community in which Methodism took root (the mining, fishing or weaving village) the more this was so.

Indeed, for many people in these years the Methodist ‘ticket’ of church-membership acquired a fetishistic importance; for the migrant worker it could be the ticket of entry into a new community when he moved from town to town. Within this religious community there was (as we have seen) its own drama, its own degrees of status and importance, its own gossip, and a good deal of mutual aid. There was even a slight degree of social mobility, although few of the clergy came from proletarian homes. Men and women felt themselves to have some place in an otherwise hostile world when within the Church. They obtained recognition, perhaps for their sobriety, or chastity, or piety. And there were other positives, such as the contribution to the stability of the family and the home, to which we shall return. The Puritan character-structure, moreover, was not something which could be confiscated solely for the service of the Church and the employer. Once the transference was made, the same dedication which enabled men to serve in these rôles, will be seen in the men who officered trade unions and Hampden Clubs, educated themselves far into the night, and had the responsibility to conduct working-class organizations. In analysing the ideology of Methodism, we have presented an intellectualized picture. In the fluency of social life, plain common sense, compassion, the obstinate vitality of older community traditions, all mingle to soften its forbidding outlines.

There is a third reason, however, why working people were exceptionally exposed to the penetration of Methodism during the years of the Napoleonic Wars. It is, perhaps, the most interesting reason of all, but it has been scarcely noticed. It may best be approached by recalling the hysterical aspect of Methodist and Baptist revivalism, and of the smaller sects. During the worst years of the Industrial Revolution, real opiates were used quite widely in the manufacturing districts. And Charles Kingsley’s epithet, ‘the opium of the masses’, reminds us that many working people turned to religion as a ‘consolation’, even though the dreams inspired by Methodist doctrine were scarcely happy. The methods of the revivalist preachers were noted for their emotional violence; the tense opening, the vivid descriptions of sudden death and catastrophe, the unspecific rhetoric on the enormity of sin, the dramatic offer of redemption. And the open-air crowds and early congregations of Methodism were also noted for the violence of their ‘enthusiasm’ – swooning, groaning, crying out, weeping and falling into paroxysms. Southey, indeed, suggested that revivalism was akin to Mesmerism: Wesley ‘had produced a new disease, and he accounted for it by a theological theory instead of a physical one’. #1_1156 [1] Sometimes these symptoms took the form of violent mass hysteria, as in the incident at Bristol recorded in Wesley’s Journal in March 1788 when a ‘vehement noise… shot like lightning through the whole congregation’:

The terror and confusion was inexpressible. You might have imagined it was a city taken by storm. The people rushed upon each other with the utmost violence, the benches were broken in pieces, and nine tenths of the congregation appeared to be struck with the same panic.

At Chapel-en-le-Frith, he recorded in 1786, this hysteria had already become habit-forming:

Some of them, perhaps many, scream all together as loud as they possibly can. Some of them use improper, yea, indecent expressions in prayer. Several drop down as dead, and are as still as a corpse; but in a while they start up and cry, Glory, glory…

Such excesses of hysteria Wesley condemned, as ‘bringing the real work into contempt’. #2_665 [2] But throughout the Industrial Revolution more muted forms of hysteria were intrinsic to Methodist revivalism. Tight communities, miners, hill-farmers or weavers, might at first resist the campaign of field-preaching and prayer-meetings among them; then there might be ‘a little moving among the dry bones’; and then ‘the fire broke out; and it was just as when the whins on a common are set on fire, – it blazed gloriously’. #1_1157 [1]

The example is taken from propaganda in West Riding weaving villages in 1799–1801, when whole communities declared themselves – at least temporarily – ‘saved’. And it is rarely noted that not only did the war years see the greatest expansion of Methodism, notably in the northern working class, but that this was also accompanied by renewed evidence of hysteria. For example, in the years 1805–6, when numbers flocked to the Methodists in Bradford, ‘no sooner, in many cases, was the text announced, than the cries of persons in distress so interrupted the preacher, that the service… was at once exchanged for one of general and earnest intercession’. #2_666 [2] ‘Three fell while I was speaking,’ a preacher of the Bible Christians in Devon noted complacently in his diary in 1816: ‘we prayed, and soon some more fell; I think six found peace.’ The ministrations of this sect among the moorland farmers and labourers were often accompanied by agonies, prostrations, ‘shouts of praise’, and ‘loud and piteous cries of penitents’. #3_267 [3]

Methodism may have inhibited revolution; but we can affirm with certainty that its rapid growth during the Wars was a component of the psychic processes of counter-revolution. There is a sense in which any religion which places great emphasis on the after-life is the chiliasm of the defeated and the hopeless. ‘The utopian vision aroused a contrary vision. The chiliastic optimism of the revolutionaries ultimately gave birth to the formation of the conservative attitude of resignation…’ – the words of Karl Mannheim’s describing another movement. And he also gives us a clue to the nature of the psychic process:

Chiliasm has always accompanied revolutionary outbursts and given them their spirit. When this spirit ebbs and deserts these movements, there remains behind in the world a naked mass-frenzy and a despiritualized fury. #4_67 [4]

Since, in England of the 1790s, the revolutionary impulse was stifled before it reached the point of ‘outburst’, so also when the spirit ebbed, the reaction does not fall to the point of frenzy. And yet there are many phenomena in these decades which can scarcely be explained in any other way. Authentic millennarialism ends in the late-1790s, with the defeat of English Jacobinism, the onset of the Wars, and the confining of Richard Brothers in a mad-house. But a number of sects of ‘New Jerusalemites’ prospered in the next fifteen years. #1_1158 [1] Prophet after prophet arose, like Ebenezer Aldred, a Unitarian minister in an isolated village in the Derbyshire Peak (Huck-low):

There he lived in a kind of solitude, became dreamy and wild; laid hold on the prophecies; saw Napoleon in the Book of Revelation: at last fancied himself the Prophet who, standing neither on land nor water, was to proclaim the destruction of a great city…

and, clothed in a white garment, his grey hair flowing down his shoulders, sailed in a boat on the Thames, distributing booklets and prophesying doom. #2_667 [2] Radical, mystic and militarist contested for the robes of Revelation: the lost tribes of Israel were discovered in Birmingham and Wapping: and ‘evidence’ was found that ‘the British Empire is the peculiar possession of Messiah, and his promised naval dominion’. #3_268 [3]

But the most startling evidence of a ‘despiritualized fury’ is to be found in the movements surrounding – and outliving – the greatest Prophetess of all, Joanna Southcott. It was in 1801 that her first cranky prophetic booklet was published, The Strange Effects of Faith. And the general climate of expectant frenzy is shown by the rapidity with which the reputation of the Devon farmer’s daughter and domestic servant swept the country. Her appeal was curiously compounded of many elements. There was the vivid superstitious imagination of the older England, especially tenacious in her own West Country. ‘The belief in supernatural agency’, wrote the Taunton Courier in 1811,

is universally prevalent throughout the Western Counties, and very few villages there are who cannot reckon upon at least one who is versed in ‘Hell’s Black Grammar’. The Samford Ghost, for a while, gained its thousands of votaries… #1_1159 [1]

There was the lurid imagery and fervour of the Methodist communion, to which (according to Southey) Joanna had been ‘zealously attached’. #2_668 [2] There was the strange amalgam of Joanna’s own style, in which mystic doggerel was thrown down side by side with shrewd or literal-minded autobiographical prose – accounts of childhood memories, unhappy love affairs, and encounters between the stubborn peasant’s daughter and disbelieving parsons and gentry. There was, above all, the misery and war-weariness of these years, and the millennarial expectancy, of a time when the followers of Brothers still lived daily in the hope of fresh revelation – a time when:

One madman printed his dreams, another his day-visions; one had seen an angel come out of the sun with a drawn sword in his hand, another had seen fiery dragons in the air, and hosts of angels in battle array…. The lower classes… began to believe that the Seven Seals were about to be opened… #3_269 [3]

Joanna was no Joan of Arc, but she shared one of Joan’s appeals to the poor: the sense that revelation might fall upon a peasant’s daughter as easily as upon a king. She was acclaimed as the true successor to Brothers, and she gathered around her an entourage which included several educated men and women. (If Blake’s prophetic books may be seen, in part, as an idiosyncratic essay in the margin of the prevailing prophetic mood, his acquaintance William Sharp, also an engraver and former ‘Jacobin’, gave to Joanna his complete allegiance.) But Joanna’s appeal was felt most strongly among working people of the west and north – Bristol, south Lancashire, the West Riding, Stockton-on-Tees.

O England! O England! England! the axe is laid to the tree, and it must and will be cut down; ye know not the days of your visitation… The midnight-hour is coming for you all, and will burst upon you. I warn you of dangers that now stand before you, for the time is at hand for the fulfilment of all things. ‘Who is he that cometh from Edom, with dyed garments from Bozrah; that speaketh in righteousness, mighty to save all that trust in him; but of my enemies I will tread them in mine anger, and trample them in my fury; for the day of vengeance is in my heart, and the year of my redeemed is come.’

Most of Joanna’s prophecies convey little more than an apocalyptic mood, and auguries of catastrophe so vague that they were easily applied to the crises and upheavals of Napoleonic Europe, with Bonaparte himself figuring as THE BEAST. Her manner lacked the revolutionary specificity of Brothers; but her apocalypse was most certainly one in which the sheep were to be separated irrevocably from the goats. ‘The Earth shall be filled with My Goodness,’ the Lord spoke through Joanna, ‘and hell shall be filled with My Terrors…. My fury shall go forth – and My Loving-kindness shall save to the utmost all them that now come unto M E.’

Awake, awake, O Zion, put on thy beautiful garments, O Jerusalem: for the day of the LORD is at hand… I will break down the pride of the Lofty, and I will exalt the Spirit of the Meek…

For the saved there was offered a shadowy Utopia:

When I my people do redeem

From every power of hell and sin,

Your houses I shall build anew,

And palaces bring to your view;

For golden mines I have in store:

The foaming seas shall send on shore

Millions of treasure hid therein,

And mines of diamonds shall be seen…

I’ve gold of Ophir, that shall come

To build Jerusalem up again,

And those that are the first redeem’d

May say, these promises we claim…

There was even an echo of Paine’s ‘Bastard and his armed banditti’, and a suggestion that the land would be returned to the labouring people:

But now the heirs I mean to free,

And all these bondmen I’ll cast out,

And the true heirs have nought to doubt;

For I’ll cut off the bastard race,

And in their stead the true heirs place

For to possess that very land…

It is probable that Joanna Southcott was by no means an impostor, but a simple and at times self-doubting woman, the victim of her own imbalance and credulity. (One’s judgement as to some members of the circus which ‘promoted’ her may be more harsh.) There is a pathos in her literal-minded transcriptions of her ‘Voices’. The long messages which the Lord instructed her to communicate were full of the highest testimonials to the ability of Joanna herself:

For on the earth there’s something new appears.

Since earth’s foundation plac’d I tell you here,

Such wondrous woman never was below…

So flattered by the best of all Referees, she was able to exert upon the credulous a form of psychic blackmail no less terrifying than that of the hell-fire preachers. One day, while sweeping out a house after a sale, ‘she was permitted by the Lord to find, as if by accident’, a commonplace seal. Thereafter her followers – the ‘Johannas’ or Southcottians – were able to obtain from her a special seal, a sort of promissory note that the bearer should ‘inherit the Tree of Life to be made Heirs of God & joint-heirs with Jesus Christ’. The promise of the millennium was available only to ‘THE SEALED PEOPLE’, while the scoffers received more dreadful threats:

And now if foes increase, I tell you here,

That every sorrow they shall fast increase,

The Wars, her tumults they shall never cease

Until the hearts of men will turn to me

And leave the rage of persecuting thee.

Thousands upon thousands (in one estimate, 100,000) were ‘sealed’ in this way. There was, indeed, a market in seals at one time comparable to the late medieval market in relics of the Cross. The emotional disequilibrium of the times is revealed not only in the enthusiasm of the ‘Johannas’ but also in the corresponding violence of feeling of the mobs which sometimes assaulted her under-prophets. Southcottianism was scarcely a form of revolutionary chiliasm; it did not inspire men to effective social action, and scarcely engaged with the real world; its apocalyptic fervour was closely akin to the fervours of Methodism – it brought to a point of hysterical intensity the desire for personal salvation. But it was certainly a cult of the poor. Joanna’s God cursed the false ‘shepherds’ of England (landowners and governors) who conspired to raise the price of bread:

My charges will come heavy against them, and my judgements must be great in the land, if they starve the poor in the midst of plenty…. What I said of Nineveh, Sodom and Gomorrah, what I said of Tyre and Sidon, what I said concerning the Galileans, are now charges against the shepherds of England.

The old imagery of the ‘Whore of Babylon’ was revived with luxuriating confusion, and all ‘the Clergy throughout the land’ were pointed out as the ‘Lovers and Adulterers’ with Jezebel, who ‘adulterate my Bible as an adulterous man would commit fornication with an adulterous woman’. As in all the cults of the poor, there was a direct identification between their plight and the tribulations of the Children of Israel: ‘as close as Pharaoh pursued the Children of Israel, so close will Satan pursue the Sealed People, by temptations within the persecutions without…’ At times all tissue of sense disappears beneath the riot of such imagery; in which the proper nouns of the Old Testament struggle with the rhythms of Ancient Pistol:

Come out! come out! let Sodom feel its doom. Where now is Lot? At Zoar safe! Where is his wife? Is she not salt all? The writing is on the wall – Thou lewdly revellest with the bowls of God…. Let Bel asunder burst!… The saints now judge the earth. The omnipotent is here, in power, and spirit in the word – The sword, white horse, and King of kings has drawn the flaming sword! Rejoice, ye saints, rejoice!… Great Og and Agag where are ye! The walls of Jericho are thou, fall flat! Joshua’s rams horns, the seven and twelve, pass Jordan’s stream…. The Lord’s anointed reigns – The rods or laws of Ephraim, ten unite in one, and hold by Judah’s skirt – The Son of Man o’er Israel reigns – The dry bones now arise…. The bride is come – The Bridegroom now receives the marriage seal. The law and gospel now unite – The moon and sun appear – Caleb and Joshua pass the stream in triumph to restore – Where now thou Canaanite art thou? Where all thy maddened crew? –

Hittites be gone! no more appear to hurt or to annoy;

Now Israel’s sons in peace succeed and Canaan’s land enjoy.

Behold, from Edom I appear, with garments dipt in blood:

My sons are freed, and sav’d and wash’d amidst the purple flood… #1_1160 [1]

The first frenzy of the cult was in 1801–4; but it achieved a second climax in 1814 when the ageing Joanna had an hysterical pregnancy and promised to give birth to ‘Shiloh’, the Son of God. In the West Riding ‘the whole district was infested with bearded prophets’, while Ashton, in Lancashire, later became a sort of ‘metropolis’ for the ‘Johannas’ of the north. #2_669 [2] When the Prophetess died in the last week of 1814, tragically disillusioned in her own ‘Voice’, the cult proved to be extraordinarily deep-rooted. Successive claimants appeared to inherit her prophetic mantle, the most notable of whom was a Bradford woolcomber, John Wroe. Southcottian derivatives passed through one aberration after another, showing themselves capable of sudden flare-ups of messianic vitality until the last years of the nineteenth century. #1_1161 [1]

There is no doubt that the Southcott cult wreaked great havoc in the Methodist camp, notably in Bristol, Lancashire and Yorkshire. Indeed, Joanna’s few essays in theological polemic were directed at the Methodists whom she accused of holding ‘Calvinistic’ tenets, thereby—

making the great Creator and Father of all a being of such cruelty, that no words can express, or pen describe – instead of a BEING whose LOVE is every where and whose MERCY is over all HIS WORKS. #2_670 [2]

The Methodists, of course, had many advantages over the Southcottians: organizational stability, money, the benign attitude of the authorities. What members they lost to the cult were probably soon regained. But this does not mean that we can dismiss the cult as a mere ‘freak’, irrelevant to the stolid lines of social growth. On the contrary, we should see the ‘Johannas’ and the Methodist revival of these years as intimate relations. The Wars were the heyday of the itinerant lay preachers, with their ‘pious ejaculations, celestial groans, angelic swoonings’ #3_270 [3] – the ‘downright balderdash’ which so much enraged Cobbett:

Their heavenly gifts, their calls, their inspirations, their feelings of grace at work within them, and the rest of their canting gibberish, are a gross and outrageous insult to common sense, and a great scandal to the country. It is in vain that we boast of our enlightened state, while a sect like this is increasing daily. #4_68 [4]

As orthodox Wesleyanism throve, so also did breakaway groups of ‘Ranters’ – the Welsh ‘Jumpers’ (cousins to the American ‘Shakers’), the Primitive Methodists, the ‘Tent Methodists’, the ‘Magic Methodists’ of Delemere Forest, who fell into trances or ‘visions’, the Bryanites or Bible Christians, the ‘Quaker Methodists’ of Warrington and the ‘Independent Methodists’ of Macclesfield. Through the streets of war-time and post-war England went the revivalist missionaries, crying out: ‘Turn to the Lord and seek salvation!’

One is struck not only by the sense of disequilibrium, but also by the impermanence of the phenomenon of Methodist conversion. Rising graphs of Church membership are misleading; what we have, rather, is a revivalist pulsation, or an oscillation between periods of hope and periods of despair and spiritual anguish. After 1795 the poor had once again entered into the Valley of Humiliation. But they entered it unwillingly, with many backward looks; and whenever hope revived, religious revivalism was set aside, only to reappear with renewed fervour upon the ruins of the political messianism which had been overthrown. In this sense, the great Methodist recruitment between 1790 and 1830 may be seen as the chiliasm of despair.

This is not the customary reading of the period; and it is offered as an hypothesis, demanding closer investigation. On the eve of the French Revolution the Methodists claimed about 60,000 adherents in Great Britain. This indicated little more than footholds in all but a few of the industrial districts. Thereafter the figures claimed advance like this: 1800, 90,619; 1810, 137,997; 1820, 191,217; 1830, 248,592. #1_1162 [1] Years especially notable for revivalist recruitment were 1797–1800, 1805–7, 1813–18, 1823–4, 1831–4. These years are so close to those of maximum political awareness and activity that Dr Hobsbawm is justified in directing attention to the ‘marked parallelism between the movements of religious, social and political consciousness’. #2_671 [2] But while the relationship between political and religious excitement is obviously intimate, the nature of the relationship remains obscure: the conclusion that ‘Methodism advanced when Radicalism advanced and not when it grew weaker’ does not necessarily follow. #1_1162 [1] On the contrary, it is possible that religious revivalism took over just at the point where ‘political’ or temporal aspirations met with defeat. Thus we might almost offer a spiritual graph, commencing with the far-reaching emotional disturbances associated with the French Revolution and Rights of Man. In the early 1790s we find secular Jacobinism and the millennarial hopes of Richard Brothers: in the late 1790s and the 1800s, Methodist revivalism and the frenzy of the ‘Johannas’, which more than one contemporary witness saw as being part of the same stock, and appealing to the same audience; #2_671 [2] in the aftermath of Luddism (1811–12) a renewed wave of revivalism, giving way to the political revival of the winter of 1816–17. In the latter two years the Primitive Methodists broke through into the framework-knitters’ villages of Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Leicestershire, and the relationship between revivalism and political radicalism appears to have been especially close. On Whit Sunday 1816, 12,000 were claimed at a camp-meeting in Nottingham Forest. From the autumn of 1816 until the summer of 1817 popular energies appear to have been absorbed in radical agitation, culminating in the Pentridge ‘rising’ of June 1817 in which at least one local preacher took a leading part. But the great Primitive Methodist revival which took place in these counties in 1817 and 1818 (‘one of the most remarkable… ever experienced’) would seem to have taken fire after the Pentridge disaster. #3_271 [3] The year of maximum political activity in the post-war decade, 1819, is a year unremarkable for revivalism; while the revivalist fervour of 1831–4 may in part be attributed to the campaigns in the rural counties of the south and east, in the aftermath of the ‘Last Labourers’ Revolt’. #2_672 [1]

The suggestion is tentative. To take it further, we should know more about, not the years of revivalism, but the months; not the counties, but the towns and villages. Moreover, the relationship of Primitive Methodists or Bible Christians to political agitation was very different from that of the orthodox Wesleyans. A close examination of all the churches which experienced revivals shows, however, that their progress was not marked by a steady upward movement, interspersed with occasional steep inclines when mass conversions were made. It was more in the nature of a pulsation, a forward surge followed by a withdrawal. Thomas Cooper’s account of his own conversion in the 1820s may be taken as characteristic: ‘the example was wondrously infectious. Hundreds in the town [Gainsborough] and circuit began to pray for holiness of heart…’ For weeks he felt transfigured, in a ‘heaven on earth of holiness’. Then at length he returned to earth, lost his temper with the children at school where he taught, and his sense of transfiguration was lost:

Similar to my experience was that of scores of our members in the town, and in the villages of the circuit. And such is the experience in all circuits of the connexion. Often, what is called a ‘Revival’ begins with some one or more striving for holiness. The theme kindles desire in others… and sometimes fills a circuit with glowing excitement for many months. But the decline invariably sets in… #2_672 [2]

Cooper gives us the experience. But in terms of the social process we may suppose something like an oscillation, with religious revivalism at the negative, and radical politics (tinged with revolutionary millennarialism) at the positive pole. The connecting notion is always that of the ‘Children of Israel’. At one pole, the chiliasm of despair could reduce the Methodist working man to one of the most abject of human beings. He was constantly warned by his ministers against reformers, as ‘these sons of Belial’: ‘We… ought to wait in silence the salvation of the Lord. In due time he will deliver his own dear peculiar people.’ #1_1164 [1] As such a ‘peculiar person’ his tools were occasionally destroyed, or he was refused entry to trade unions, upon suspicion of being an employer’s ‘nark’. Cobbett pressed the attack upon the Methodists further: ‘Amongst the people of the north they have served as spies and blood-money men.’ #2_673 [2]

On the other hand, as if to baffle expectation, Methodist working men, and, indeed, local preachers, repeatedly emerged in the nineteenth century – in handfuls here and there – as active workers in different fields of working-class politics. There were a few Methodist Jacobins, more Methodist Luddites, many Methodist weavers demonstrating at Peterloo, Methodist trade unionists and Chartists. They were rarely (with the exception of trade unionism in the pits and, later, in agriculture) initiators; this rôle was more often filled by Owenites and free-thinkers who emerged from a different moral patters. But they were often to be found as devoted speakers and organizers, who carried with them – even after their expulsion from the Methodist Church – the confidence of their communities.

One reason for this lies in the many tensions at the heart of Wesleyanism. Just as the repressive inhibitions upon sexuality carried the continual danger of provoking the opposite – either in the form of the characteristic Puritan rebel (the forerunner of Lawrence) or in the form of Antinomianism; so the authoritarian doctrines of Methodism at times bred a libertarian antithesis. Methodism (and its evangelical counterparts) were highly politically conscious religions. For 100 years before 1789, Dissent, in its popular rhetoric, had two main enemies: Sin and the Pope. But in the 1790s there is a drastic redirection of hatred; the Pope was displaced from the seat of commination and in his place was elevated Tom Paine. ‘Methodism,’ Bunting declared, ‘hates democracy as much as it hates sin.’ But constant sermonizing against Jacobinism served also to keep the matter in the front of the public consciousness. In times of hardship or of mounting political excitement all the ‘pent-up hostility’ #1_1166 [1] in the mind of the Methodist working man might break out; and, with the rapidity of a revivalist campaign, Jacobin or Radical ideas might spread ‘like fire in the whins’.

Moreover, we should remember the tension between spiritual and temporal egalitarianism characteristic of Lutheranism. In the Old Testament working people found more than a vengeful authoritarian God; they also found an allegory of their own tribulations. It is this body of symbolism (together with Pilgrim’s Progress) which was held in common by chiliasts, ‘Johannas’, ‘Jumpers’ and orthodox Wesleyans. No ideology is wholly absorbed by its adherents: it breaks down in practice in a thousand ways under the criticism of impulse and of experience: the working-class community injected into the chapels its own values of mutual aid, neighbourliness and solidarity. Moreover, we must realize what incredible mumbo-jumbo those Hebrew genealogies, anathemas, and chronicles must have seemed when set beside the daily experience of weavers or miners. Here and there texts would spring to the eye, applicable to almost any context, and it was as likely that they should appear as figures of the class struggle as of the spiritual pilgrimage. This was the case of the ‘underground’ of 1801, when it was credibly reported that Lancashire conspirators took an oath based upon Ezekiel:

And thou, profane wicked prince of Israel, whose day is come, when iniquity shall have an end,

Thus saith the Lord God; Remove the diadem, and take off the crown: this shall not be the same: exalt him that is low, and abase him that is high.

I will overturn, overturn, overturn it: and it shall be no more, until he come whose right it is; and I will give it to him…

The sword, the sword is drawn: for the slaughter it is furbished, to consume because of the glittering. #2_675 [2]

We see it also in the language of one of the unpaid Ministers of the Independent Methodists of the Newcastle district – a group which broke away after the expulsions of Radical lay preachers in 1819:

Unequal laws, and a partial administration, plant a thorn in every breast, and spread a gloom in every countenance…. It may be justly said of such rulers, Their vine is the vine of Sodom, and the fields of Gomorrah; their grapes are grapes of gall, their clusters are bitter; their wine is the poison of dragons, and the cruel venom of asps. But in the kingdom of the Messiah, peace flows as a river…. The rod of God’s strength, which comes out of Zion, is not a rod of oppression. #1_1167 [1]

In this way even the ‘fortresses’ of the Sunday schools might breed rebellion. A collecting sheet #2_676 [2] of the early nineteenth century from Todmorden, in which all subscribers to the strike fund are listed by their chosen pseudonyms, gives us the feel of this period, when the chapel and the pub made common cause in a moment of industrial crisis:








One who is sorry to see a Man who is crowned with the Silver mantle of time, corroborate the truths of Solomon, Prov. 27th., verse 22nd.








A Salt chap with an Ass








Stand True








Hare and Hounds Inn








Love mercy, do justice








Hang th’ old chap








Jam a Tum’s wife
















Royal George Inn








Tell Old Robertshaw to read the 13th verse in the 22nd chap. of Jeremiah








Eastwood Weavers








If Dick o’ Jos’s wife duzzant give ower burning the Reports, Old Thunderbout Clogs will tell about her wareing half a crown of a Sunday Bustle







A chap bout jacket








Cut his tail off and sew it on again for punishment








But in the years between 1790 and 1830 it would be as ridiculous to describe the participation of rebellious Methodist. lay preachers and others in extreme Radical agitations as a ‘Methodist contribution’ to the working-class movement, as it would be to describe the practice of free love among extreme Antinomians as a ‘Puritan contribution’ towards sexual liberation. Both are reactive cultural patterns; but just as the Puritan sexual rebel (like Lawrence) remains a ‘Puritan’ in his deep concern for ‘a right relation’ between men and women, so the Methodist political rebel carried through into his radical or revolutionary activity a profound moral earnestness, a sense of righteousness and of ‘calling’, a ‘Methodist’ capacity for sustained organizational dedication and (at its best) a high degree of personal responsibility. We see this in those Methodists who took part in the Pentridge rising – one of whom, executed at Derby for high treason, ‘had been the ablest local preacher in the Circuit’. #1_1168 [1] We see it in the better qualities of Samuel Bamford, and in the self-discipline which he brought to the demonstrators of 1819. We see it in Loveless, the Dorchester labourer and ‘Tolpuddle Martyr’. Whenever popular agitation grew in intensity, this form of ‘heresy’ became evident. Indeed, by the 1830s – despite all the attempts of Bunting’s old guard to hold the position by anathemas and expulsions – whole communities, in particular of weavers and stockingers, had come to combine their Methodism and their Chartism.

There were other factors which influenced this process. By the early nineteenth century there was a marked tension between the professionalized Wesleyanism of the stipendiary ministry and the voluntarism of the lay preachers. The secession of the Kilhamite New Connexion had by no means ended the feelings of resentment felt by many laymen at the vesting of the supreme government of orthodox Methodism in the hands of an arbitrarily nominated circle of ministers. Again and again Cobbett lampooned the Methodist Conference as the ‘CONCLAVE’. He presented it as a new bureaucracy, composed of ‘the most busy and persevering set of men on earth’, intent upon preserving their worldly interests, and in perpetuating a new hereditary priesthood, living in comfort off the tributary pennies of the poor. He saw in Wesley’s school, Kingswood, the machinery for perpetuating a new élite. #1_1169 [1] It was the professional ministry, and not the local preachers, whom Cobbett accused of being ‘the bitterest foes of freedom in England’:

… hostile to freedom as the established clergy have been, their hostility has been nothing in point of virulence compared with that of these ruffian sectarians…. Books upon books they write. Tracts upon tracts. Villainous sermons upon villainous sermons they preach. Rail they do… against the West Indian slave-holders; but not a word do you ever hear from them against the slave-holders in Lancashire and in Ireland. On the contrary, they are continually telling the people here that they ought to thank the Lord… not for a bellyful and a warm back, but for that abundant grace of which they are the bearers, and for which they charge them only one penny per week each. #2_677 [2]

Cobbett’s attacks were not wholly disinterested. He had attacked the Methodists, in the same unmeasured way, but for the opposite reasons, in his Tory days, when he discovered that several of Colonel Despard’s associates were Methodists. #3_272 [3] This was one of his consistent prejudices. And he was enraged, in the early 1820s, not only by the high Toryism of Bunting and the ‘CONCLAVE’ but also by the facility with which the Methodist Church tapped the pennies of the very same men who attended Radical demonstrations. But without doubt many of the lay preachers and class leaders shared his dislike of the full-time ministry, as well as of such practices as pew-rents and privileges for the wealthy. And this dislike Cobbett was at pains to foster. ‘A man who had been making shoes all the week,’ he wrote, ‘will not preach the worse for that on the Sunday.’

There are thousands upon thousands of labourers and artizans and manufacturers, who never yet attempted to preach, and who are better able to do it than the members of the Conference, who for the far greater part have been labourers and artizans, and who have become preachers, because it was pleasanter to preach than to work.

The ‘pious and disinterested’ unpaid local preachers (in Cobbett’s picture) were being ‘kept down’ by the ‘haughty oligarchy of the Conference:

The Dons of the Conference scowl upon them; treat them as interlopers; send them off into little villages to preach to half dozens, or half scores; while they themselves preach to thousands. Now, it ought to be a point with the Methodists all over the kingdom to go to hear none but these disinterested men; and, if the Conference shut them out of the chapels, they ought to hear them at their own houses, to follow them into barns or under trees.

The other ‘remedy’ which Cobbett proposed to the Methodists was to ‘withold their pennies’; or, at least, to withhold them from all ministers except reformers. #1_1170 [1]

It is not clear whether many Methodists followed Cobbett’s advice; or whether he gave the advice because it was already being taken. But he certainly helps us to understand the character of the many breakaway sects – notably the Primitive Methodists and Bible Christians – in the first decades of the nineteenth century. Whereas the Kilhamite secession had displayed a vertical split within the Church, in which the more intellectual members had broken away, the secessions of this period were, above all, horizontal splits, in which lay preachers and their congregations severed themselves from the professional ministry. The Bible Christians arose because a zealous layman, William O’Bryan, found that the Methodist Establishment refused to recognize his calling. He took to free-lance preaching in north Devon, ignoring the disciplinary restraints of the society, and was excluded as a ‘walking beggar’. He took his groups of converted with him. To read the biography of Bunting beside that of Hugh Bourne, the earnest mill-wright and joiner (called in to improvise machinery, repair timbering, or do iron work at collieries or ‘mountain farms’ in Staffordshire) who founded the Primitive Methodists, is to pass between two different worlds. ‘Our chapels,’ Bourne recalled, ‘were the coal-pit banks, or any other place; and in our conversation way, we preached the Gospel to all, good or bad, rough or smooth.’ #1_1171 [1] The local Wesleyan Establishment was little interested in the converts whom Bourne and Clowes were making in the pits and pottery towns. The evangelistic zeal which led to the first camp-meetings at Mow Cop (1807 and 1808) was promptly disowned.

Bunting looked down upon the workers from the heights of connexional intrigue; Bourne and Clowes were of the working people. Bunting was intent upon ushering Methodism to a seat on the right hand of the Establishment; the Primitives still lived in the world of hardship and persecution of Wesleyanism’s origin. We can scarcely discuss the two Churches in the same terms. The preaching of the Primitives was as hard as the lives of their congregations; it required (Dr Hobsbawm has said) the sharpest contrast ‘between the gold of the redeemed and the flame-shot black of the damned’. But this was not preached at, but by, the poor. In this and other sects, the local preachers made the Church their own; and for this reason these sects contributed far more directly to the later history of trade unionism and political Radicalism than the orthodox Connexion. #2_678 [2]

There was one other context in which Methodism of any variety necessarily assumed a more class-conscious form: in the rural areas. The chapel in the agricultural village was inevitably an affront to the vicar and the squire, and a centre in which the labourer gained independence and self-respect. Once again, it was the influence of the Primitive Methodists notably in East Anglia – which was to prove most remarkable. But we can see the logic in a pamphlet by an irate country parson of 1805 – several years before the Primitive Methodists were founded. #1_1172 [1] The field labourers converted to Methodism were accused of all kinds of seditious intentions. They say, ‘That Corn and all other fruits of the earth, are grown and intended by Providence, as much for the poor as the rich.’ They were less content with their wages, less ready ‘to work extraordinary hours as the exigencies of their masters might require’. Worse, instead of recouping themselves for the next week’s labour, they exhausted themselves on Sundays walking several miles to hear a preacher. On week-nights instead of going straight to bed, they wasted fire and candles, singing hymns – a sight the parson had been horrified to see ‘in some of our poorest cottages at so late an hour as nine… of a winter’s evening’. Many years later George Howell emphasized the perpetuation of these attitudes among the gentry, when commenting on the case of the Dorchester labourers. Methodism was ‘a shocking offence in those days in many villages, especially in Dorset and other West counties. Indeed, next to poaching, it was the gravest of all offences.’

In all these ways, tensions were continually generated within the heart of a religion whose theological tenets were those of submissiveness and the sanctification of labour. The fullest development of this reactive dialectic belongs to the later history of trade unionism among the miners and rural workers, and to the history of Chartism. But it finds its origin in the decades 1810–30, when such Chartist leaders as Ben Rushton of Halifax and John Skevington of Loughborough went through their formative years. Rushton, a hand-loom weaver born in 1785, and local preacher with the Methodist New Connexion, was active in Radical politics at the time of Peterloo, was probably imprisoned, and either expelled or withdrew from the Connexion at the time of Cobbett’s appeal to Methodists to refuse to pay their dues. He was active again in the Poor Law agitation and on behalf of the hand-loom weavers in the early 1830s. In 1839, at one of the first of the great Chartist camp-meetings (themselves modelled upon the Primitive Methodists) several local preachers spoke along with Rushton. One of them, William Thornton, opened the proceedings with prayer – that ‘the wickedness of the wicked may come to an end’ – and Feargus O’Connor clapped him on the shoulder, saying: ‘Well done, Thornton, when we get the People’s Charter I will see that you are made Archbishop of York.’ Another moved a resolution binding the meeting ‘not to attend any place of worship where the administration of services is inimical to civil liberty… but to meet in such a way and manner in our separate localities in future as the circumstances of the case require’. Ben Rushton seconded the resolution, declaring: ‘For himself he had given nothing to the parsons since 1821, and the next penny they had from him would do them good.’ Another local preacher, Hanson, added his denunciations of the clergy:

They preached Christ and a crust, passive obedience and nonresistance. Let the people keep from those churches and chapels (‘We will!’). Let them go to those men who preached Christ and a full belly, Christ and a well-clothed back – Christ and a good house to live in – Christ and Universal Suffrage. #1_1173 [1]

Men like Rushton, Thornton and Hanson made a contribution to the Chartist movement it is impossible to overestimate. We see it in the character of the camp-meetings, and the fervour of the Chartist hymns, such as ‘Sons of Poverty Assemble’:

See the brave, ye spirit-broken,

Who uphold your righteous cause:

Who against them hath not spoken?

They are, just as Jesus was,


By bad men and wicked laws.

Rouse them from their silken slumbers,

Trouble them amidst their pride;

Swell your ranks, augment your numbers,

Spread the Charter far and wide:

Truth is with us,

God himself is on our side. #1_1174 [1]

We see it in the Plug Rioters who marched into Halifax singing the ‘Old Hundredth’. We see it in the slogans, such as the great banner carried at one Chartist demonstration by the weavers of Rushton’s village of Ovenden: ‘Be not ye afraid of them, remember the Lord, who is great and terrible, and fight for your brethren, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your houses.’ #2_679 [2] We see it in the Chartist chapels; in the Spen Valley, where Deacon Priestley had given wheat to ‘Christ’s poor’, where John Nelson had seen Satan on Gomersal Hill-Top, where Southcottians, Antinomians and Methodist Luddites were to be found at the opening of the century, we now have such a chapel, in the 1840s, at which we have an account of Rushton preaching, from the text, ‘The poor ye have always with you.’ The poor he divided into three classes: the halt and the blind, who were ‘God’s poor’: the idle and reckless, who deserved to be left to look after themselves:

Then, thirdly, there were the poor who had striven and worked hard all their lives, but who had been made poor, or kept poor by the wrong-doing and oppressions of others…. With fiery eloquence he went on to denounce the men who refused political justice to their neighbours, and who held them down till their life was made one long desperate struggle for mere existence.

As his eloquence and indignation gathered force, ‘the feelings of the audience were manifested by fervid ejaculations… until at last one, carried away by Mr Rushton’s strong denunciation of oppressors, cried out, “Ay, damn ’em, damn ’em.” #3_273 [3]

While such men as Rushton brought exceptional moral fervour to the movement in many districts nothing would be more mistaken than to suppose that they were predisposed to favour the ‘moral force’ (as opposed to ‘physical force’) party within Chartism. On the contrary, they served a God of Battles whom the men of the New Model Army would have understood; and more than a few former lay preachers were willing to speak to the text, ‘He that hath no sword let him sell his garment and buy one.’ Rushton – described by a friend as ‘as steady, fearless, and honest a politician as ever stood upon an English platform’ – was willing to lead the Plug Rioters (and to incur another term of imprisonment); and, when in his sixties, he was still campaigning and speaking on behalf of Ernest Jones. The weaver-preacher was in demand until his death; now we find him preaching in worn clothing and clogs at an anniversary service in a weaving hamlet to a congregation in ‘their best clothes, namely, clogs and working clothes, including long brats or bishops’; now we find him tramping many miles every night, in an effort to keep the spirit alive in struggling Chartist branches. (Once a young colleague noted that Rushton’s clogs were worn through to the sock. ‘Ay,’ said the old man, pausing only a moment in his political discourse, ‘but think of the reward hereafter.’) His death, in 1853, was the occasion for a great Chartist funeral; since Rushton had stipulated that no paid priest should officiate, the orations were delivered by Gammage and Ernest Jones. #1_1175 [1]

But Jabez Bunting and Ben Rushton did not belong to the same worlds. It is only by doing violence to the imagination that we can conceive of the Chartist weaver and the authoritarian clergyman as ever having been connected in a common ‘movement’. For who was Rushton but the Adam whom Bunting’s God had cursed?




THE Methodist Revival of the war years mediated the work-discipline of industrialism. It was also, in some part, a reflex of despair among the working population. Methodism and Utilitarianism, taken together, make up the dominant ideology of the Industrial Revolution. But in Methodism we see only the clearest expression of processes at work within a whole society. Many of its features were reproduced in the evangelical movement in all the churches, and in the social teaching of some Utilitarians and Deists. Hannah More held quite as strongly as Wesley to the view that it was a ‘fundamental error to consider children as innocent beings’, rather than as beings of ‘a corrupt nature and evil dispositions’. #1_1176 [1] And in the Sunday schools which were promoted by the Church of England in many villages in the 1790s and 1800s we find exactly the same emphasis (although sometimes with a more paternalist tone) upon discipline and repression as we have noted in the schools of Stockport or Halifax. Their function is uniformly described as being to cherish in the children of the poor ‘a spirit of industry, economy, and piety’; Sunday school teachers at Caistor (Lincs) were instructed to—

… tame the ferocity of their unsubdued passions – to repress the excessive rudeness of their manners – to chasten the disgusting and demoralizing obscenity of their language – to subdue the stubborn rebellion of their wills – to render them honest, obedient, courteous, industrious, submissive, and orderly… #2_680 [2]

The pressures towards discipline and order extended from the factory, on one hand, the Sunday school, on the other, into every aspect of life: leisure, personal relationships, speech, manners. Alongside the disciplinary agencies of the mills, churches, schools, and magistrates and military, quasi-official agencies were set up for the enforcement of orderly moral conduct. It was Pitt’s moral lieutenant, Wilberforce, who combined the ethos of Methodism with the unction of the Establishment, and who was most active between 1790 and 1810 in this cause. In 1797 he expounded at length ‘the grand law of subordination’, and laid down articles for the management of the poor:

… that their more lowly path has been allotted to them by the hand of God; that it is their part faithfully to discharge its duties and contentedly to bear its inconveniences; that the present state of things is very short; that the objects, about which wordly men conflict so eagerly, are not worth the contest… #1_1177 [1]

By 1809 he was satisfied that overt Jacobinism was no longer a danger; but in every manifestation of moral indiscipline he saw the danger of Jacobin revival. ‘We are alive to the political offence,’ he wrote, ‘but to the moral crime we seem utterly insensible.’

In this he was too modest, since his own Society for the Suppression of Vice had clocked up 623 successful prosecutions for breaking the Sabbath laws in 1801 and 1802 alone. #2_681 [2] But his conviction as to the intimate correlation between moral levity and political sedition among the lower classes is characteristic of his class. Prosecutions for drunken and lewd behaviour increased; Blake’s old enemy, Bishop Watson of Llandaff, preached a sermon in 1804 in which he found the rôle of the common informer to be ‘a noble Design… both in a religious and in a political Point of View’. The amusements of the poor were preached and legislated against until even the most innocuous were regarded in a lurid light. The Society for the Suppression of Vice extended its sphere of interference to ‘two-penny hops, gingerbread fairs, and obscene pictures’. #1_1178 [1] Nude sea bathers were persecuted as if they were forerunners of tumbrils and guillotine. ‘With regard to adultery,’ wrote John Bowdler darkly, ‘as it was punished capitally by the Jewish law, some think it ought to be so… among us.’ The Evangelical exhorted the upper classes to reform their own manners as an example to the poor. In ‘Society’ itself the post-revolutionary years saw ‘an increased reserve of manner… fatal to conviviality and humour’. #2_682 [2]

The process of social discipline was not uncontested. The attempt of Dr Bowdler’s supporters to carry new legislation for the imprisonment of adulterers foundered in the House of Commons; unlike penalties imposed upon common Sabbath-breakers, vagrants, tinkers, stage-dancers and tumblers, ballad-singers, free-thinkers and naked bathers, legislation against adultery was open to objection in that it might discriminate against the amusement of the rich as well as of the poor. And other attempts to interfere with the leisure of the people were thrown out by the House of Commons, on slender majorities made up of one part laissez faire inertia, one part Foxite defence of the liberty of the subject, and one part traditional Tory tolerance for ‘bread and circuses’ and dislike for Methodistical ‘fanaticism’. (An irony of the time was the defence by the War Minister, Windham, of bull-baiting against both Evangelicals and reformers – a defence which led to the cry going up, from Satan’s strongholds, of ‘Windham and Liberty!’)

But if the disciplinarians lost a few legislative skirmishes, they won the battle of the Industrial Revolution; and in the process the ‘Irish’ temperament often attributed to the eighteenth-century English poor in town and countryside was translated into the methodical way of life of industrial capitalism. In the countryside this can be seen most clearly in the triumph of the money-economy over the casual, ‘uneconomic’ rhythms of peasant semi-subsistence. In the industrial areas it can be seen in the extension of the discipline of the factory bell or clock from working to leisure hours, from the working-day to the Sabbath, and in the assault upon ‘Cobbler’s Monday’ and traditional holidays and fairs.

Although the economic functions of the eighteenth-century fair were still of great importance – annual ‘hirings’, horse and cattle fairs, sale of miscellaneous commodities – we should not forget their equal importance in the cultural life of the poor. Still, in the early days of the Industrial Revolution, the working man’s year was made up of cycles of hardship and short commons, punctuated with ‘feast’ days when drink and meat were more plentiful, luxuries like oranges and ribbons were bought for the children, dancing, courtship, convivial visiting and sports took place. Until late in the nineteenth century there was still a network of fairs held throughout the country (many of which authority tried in vain to limit or proscribe), at which a fraternity of pedlars, card-sharpers, real or pretended gipsies, ballad-mongers and hawkers were in attendance. #1_1179 [1] A Northumberland diarist of 1750 describes Whit Monday:

… went to Carton Sports – a Saddle, bridle, whip, etc. all to be Gallopt for…. Abundance of young men and women diverted themselves with the game or pastime here that they call Losing their Suppers…. And after all they ended their recreation with Carrouzing at the Ale-houses and ye men Kissing and toying away most of the night with their Mistresses…

Three weeks later there was the Lebberston Sport – ‘a Copper Pan was play’d for at Quoites… there was also a Dove neatly deckt and adorned with Ribbons of divers colours and other fine Trappings which was danced for by the Country Girls…’ #2_683 [2] In 1783 a Bolton magistrate complained that – at a time when oatmeal was selling at two guineas a load—

… there was so little appearance of want in this township that one evening I met a very large procession of young men and women with fiddles, garlands, and other ostentation of rural finery, dancing Morris dances in the highway merely to celebrate an idle anniversary, or, what they had been pleased to call for a year or two, a fair at a paltry thatched alehouse upon the neighbouring common. #1_1180 [1]

It is tempting to explain the decline of old sports and festivals simply in terms of the displacement of ‘rural’ by ‘urban’ values. But this is misleading. The more robust entertainments, whether in their ugly form of animal baiting and pugilism, or in more convivial festivities, were as often, or more often, to be found in the eighteenth century in London or the great towns as in the countryside. They continued into the nineteenth century with a vigour which recalls both the unruly traditions of the London apprentices of Tudor times, and also the very large proportion of nineteenth-century Londoners who were immigrants from the village. The greatest festival of all was Bartholomew Fair, with its menageries, pickpockets, pantomimes of Harlequin and Faustus, card sharpers, plays, exhibitions of wild men and of horsemanship. In 1825 the Trades Newspaper complained:

For weeks previous it is denounced from the pulpit and the press, and stories are raked up of apprentices led away from the paths of honesty, of ruined maids of all-work, of broken heads and brawlings… #2_684 [2]

In the previous decade the authorities had feared that the Fair would become ‘the general rendezvous for sedition and the signal for insurrection’. #3_274 [3]

On the other hand, the Industrial Revolution, which drained the countryside of some of its industries and destroyed the balance between rural and urban life, created also in our own minds an image of rural isolation and ‘idiocy’. The urban culture of eighteenth-century England was more ‘rural’ (in its customary connotations), while the rural culture was more rich, than we often suppose. ‘It is a great error to suppose,’ Cobbett insisted, ‘that people are rendered stupid by remaining always in the same place.’ And most of the new industrial towns did not so much displace the countryside as grow over it. The most common industrial configuration of the early nineteenth century was a commercial or manufacturing centre which served as the hub for a circle of straggling industrial villages. As the villages became suburbs, and the farmlands were covered over with brick, so the great conurbations of the late nineteenth century were formed.

But there was nothing in this process so violent as to enforce a disruption of older traditions. In south Lancashire, the Potteries, the West Riding and the Black Country local customs, superstitions, and dialect were neither severed nor transplanted: the village or small town craftsman grew into the industrial worker. Bamford has testified in his Early Days to the vigour of tradition in Lancashire weaving villages at the turn of the century. There were the tales of witches, boggarts, ‘fyerin’; the furious pugilism and the cock-fighting; the customs, such as ‘pace-egging’ (at Easter) or ‘Riding the Black Lad’; the holidays with their traditional celebrations – Christmas, Shrove-Tide, ‘Cymbalin Sunday’, and ‘Rushbearing’ in August when morris dancers were to be found in Middleton, Oldham or Rochdale:

My new shoon they are so good,

I cou’d doance morrice if I wou’d;

An’ if hat an’ sark be drest,

I will doance morrice wi’ the best.

Or there was ‘Mischief-neet’, on 1 May, when lads would leave signs on the doorsteps of the village women:

A gorse bush indicated a woman notoriously immodest; and a holly bush, one loved in secret; a tup’s horn intimated that man or woman was faithless to marriage; a branch of sapling, truth in love; and a sprig of birch, a pretty girl. #1_1181 [1]

We may set beside Bamford’s picture of the 1790s Joseph Lawson’s reminiscences of a ‘backward’ clothing village in the West Riding – Pudsey – in the 1820s, with the old and new ways of life at a moment of transition. The houses were scattered ‘as if they had sprung up from seeds dropped unawares’, the roads unlighted and unflagged, the groups of houses approached by crooked folds and passages. Rooms are low, windows small without sashes:

There is dense ignorance of sanitary science. A doctor comes into a house where there is fever, and he knocks a pane of glass out with his stick, his first dose of medicine being fresh air.

Most of the houses are without ovens but have a ‘bakstone’ for baking. The stone floors are sanded, furniture is plain and sparse: ‘in some houses there is an oaken chest or kist – a family heirloom, or a small cupboard fastened up in a corner, and a delfcase for pots and plates’. Water is scarce, and on wash-days queues of twenty or thirty may form at the wells. Coal and candles are dear, and in the winter neighbours gather to share each other’s fires. Baking and brewing are done at home; white bread and meat are regarded as luxuries: ‘oatcake, brown bread, porridge pudding, skimmed milk, potatoes, and home-brewed beer, which they always call ‘drink’, are the principal articles of food’.

The sparse routine is broken by occasional ‘tides’ or feasts, when ‘a bit of beef’ is bought, and all go to the fair, where gingerbread, fruit, and toys are sold, there are peep-shows of the Battle of Waterloo, Punch and Judy shows, gambling stalls, swings; and a customary ‘love market’, where the young men court the girls with ‘tidings’ of brandy-snaps and nuts. Very few of the working people can read well enough to read a newspaper; although papers are taken (and read aloud) at the blacksmith’s, the barber’s and several public houses. Much of the news still comes by way of broadsheet vendors and street singers. Old superstitions are a living source of terror to old and young. There are ghosts at Jumble’s Well, Bailey Gallows, Boggard Lane; parents commonly discipline their children by shutting them ‘in cellars and other dark places for the black boggards to take them’. ‘Another most serious and mischievous superstition, everywhere prevalent, was the belief that when any child died, it was the will of the Lord that it should be so.’ Sanitary reformers were regarded as ‘Infidels’. Dog-fighting and cock-fighting were common; and it was also common at feast-times ‘to see several rings formed, in which men stripped to their bare skin would fight sometimes by the hour together, till the combatants were not recognizable…’ Drunkenness was rife, especially at holidays and on ‘Cobbler’s Monday’, which was kept by weavers and burlers as well as cobblers. But there were plenty of less violent pastimes: knur and spell, ‘duck knop’, and football through the streets. The village was clannish within, and a closed community to outsiders from only two or three miles distant. Some very old traditions survived, such as ‘Riding the Stang’, whereby if a man was known to ill-use his wife, or a woman was thought to be lewd, a straw effigy would be carried through the streets by a hooting crowd, and then burnt by the offender’s door. #1_1182 [1]

So far from extinguishing local traditions, it is possible that the early years of the Industrial Revolution saw a growth in provincial pride and self-consciousness. South Lancashire and the West Riding were not rural wildernesses before 1780; they had been centres of domestic industry for two centuries. As the new factory discipline encroached upon the hand-worker’s way of life, and as the Corporation and Coronation Streets were built over Yep-fowd and Frogg Hole and T’Hollins, so self-consciousness was sharpened by loss, and a quasi-nationalist sentiment mingles with class feeling in the culture of the industrial workers (new machines versus old customs, London tyranny or ‘foreign’ capital against the local clothier, Irish labour undercutting the native weaver). George Condy, a leading publicist of the 10 Hour Movement, wrote a foreword to Roby’s Traditions of Lancashire (1830); Bamford was only one among a score of plebeian authors who followed in the steps of the eighteenth-century ‘Tim Bobbin’, in celebrating and idealizing local customs and dialect.

But this was a conscious resistance to the passing of an old way of life, and it was frequently associated with political Radicalism. #2_685 [2] As important in this passing as the simple physical loss of commons and ‘playgrounds’, #3_275 [3] was the loss of leisure in which to play and the repression of playful impulses. The Puritan teaching of Bunyan or Baxter were transmitted in their entirety by Wesley: ‘Avoid all lightness, as you would avoid hell-fire; and trifling, as you would cursing and swearing. Touch no woman…’ Card-playing, coloured dresses, personal ornaments, the theatre – all came under Methodist prohibition. Tracts were written against ‘profane’ songs and dancing; #1_1183 [1] literature and arts which had no devotional bearing were profoundly suspect; the dreadful ‘Victorian’ Sabbath began to extend its oppression even before Victoria’s birth.

A characteristic tract shows the extent of Methodist determination to uproot pre-industrial traditions from the manufacturing districts. #2_686 [2] It had been noted at a Sheffield Quarterly Meeting in 1799 that some members were not ‘altogether free from conforming to the custom of visiting or receiving visits, at the annual Feast’. Such feasts, known variously as ‘Wakes’ (Derbyshire and Staffordshire), ‘Rushbearing’ (Lancashire) and ‘Revels’ (west of England) might in origin have been permissible but had become ‘dreadfully prostituted to the most diabolical purposes’. Time was spent in ‘eating and drinking intemperately; talking prophanely, or at least unprofitably; in laughing and jesting, fornication and adultery…’ The least participation was ‘fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness’. Money was wasted by the poor which might have been saved; many contracted debts. Methodists who mixed in such festivities were exposed to the worldly ways of the unconverted – backsliding was a common result. They should refuse to entertain even friends and relatives (from among the unconverted) who might call; and if such visitors could not be turned from the door they should be entertained only by Bible-reading, holy discourse and hymn-singing:

Oh, Brethren, what are we doing! There is death in the pot. The plague is begun. Wrath is gone forth against fruitless professors. The slumbers of sin are upon us…

Other customary survivals, such as meat and drink at the funeral ‘wake’, came in for equal condemnation. Even the visiting of relatives on a normal Sabbath day could not be condoned, unless in cases of sudden sickness. #1_1184 [1]

The warmth of the argument suggests that in many places, like Bamford’s Middleton, the struggle between the old way of life and the new discipline was sharp and protracted. And Lawson’s account of Pudsey shows the ‘chapel folk’ as a group set apart from the community by their sombre manners. There were many who were brought up in devout families who reacted strongly against their upbringing, as did William Lovett:

… being obliged to frequent a place of worship three times of a Sunday, strictly prohibited all books but the Bible and Prayer Book, and not being allowed to enjoy a walk, unless to chapel… are sufficient to account for those boyish feelings. My poor mother… thought that the great power that has formed the numerous gay, sportive, singing things of earth and air, must above all things be gratified with the solemn faces, prim clothes, and half-sleepy demeanour of human beings; and that true religion consists in listening to the reiterated story of man’s fall… #2_687 [2]

To many men in the post-war generation, such as Lovett, it seemed that it was the Methodists who were uncouth and backward. And this reminds us of the extreme difficulty in generalizing as to the moral tone and manners of working-class communities during the Industrial Revolution. It is clear that between 1780 and 1830 important changes took place. The ‘average’ English working man became more disciplined, more subject to the productive tempo of ‘the clock’, more reserved and methodical, less violent and less spontaneous. Traditional sports were displaced by more sedentary hobbies:

The Athletic exercises of Quoits, Wrestling, Foot-ball, Prison-bars and Shooting with the Long-bow are become obsolete… they are now Pigeon-fanciers, Canary-breeders and Tulip-growers —

or so a Lancashire writer complained in 1823. #1_1185 [1] Francis Place often commented upon a change, which he saw in terms of a growth in self-respect and an elevation in ‘the character of the working-man’. ‘Look even to Lancashire,’ he wrote a month after Peterloo:

Within a few years a stranger walking through their towns was ‘touted’, i.e. hooted, and an ‘outcomling’ was sometimes pelted with stones. ‘Lancashire brute’ was the common and appropriate appellation. Until very lately it would have been dangerous to have assembled 500 of them on any occasion. Bakers and butchers would at the least have been plundered. Now 100,000 people may be collected together and no riot ensue… #2_688 [2]

It is here that evaluation becomes most difficult. While many contemporary writers, from Cobbett to Engels, lamented the passing of old English customs, it is foolish to see the matter only in idyllic terms. These customs were not all harmless or quaint. The unmarried mother, punished in a Bridewell, and perhaps repudiated by the parish in which she was entitled to relief, had little reason to admire ‘merrie England’. The passing of Gin Lane, Tyburn Fair, orgiastic drunkenness, animal sexuality, and mortal combat for prize-money in iron-studded clogs, calls for no lament.

But, between old superstition and new bigotry, it is proper to be cautious when meeting the claims of the Evangelicals to have been an agency of intellectual enlightenment. We have already noted the tendency of the Methodists to harden into a sect, to keep their members apart from the contagion of the unconverted, and to regard themselves as being in a state of civil war with the ale-house and the denizens of Satan’s strongholds. Where the Methodists were a minority group within a community, attitudes hardened on both sides; professions of virtue and declamations against sin reveal less about actual manners than they do about the rancour of hostilities. Moreover, the air of the early nineteenth century is thick with assertions and counter-assertions, especially where the values of handworkers and factory workers were in conflict, or those of the opponents and defenders of child labour. Critics of the factory system saw it as destructive of family life and constantly indicted the mills as centres of the grossest sexual immorality; the coarse language and independent manners of Lancashire mill-girls shocked many witnesses. Gaskell contrasted the idyllic innocence of the domestic workers, whose youth was spent in a pagan freedom which entailed the obligation of marriage only if conception took place, with the febrile promiscuity of the factory where some of the employers enacted scenes with the mill-girls which –

put to blush the lascivious Saturnalia of the Romans, the rites of the Pagoda girls of India, and the Harem life of the most voluptuous Ottoman. #1_1186 [1]

Such colourful accounts were, not unnaturally, resented not only by the employers but by the factory workers themselves. They pointed out that the illegitimacy rate in many rural districts compared unfavourably with that in mill-towns. In many mills the greatest propriety was enforced. If there were ‘Ottomans’ among the mill-owners, there were also paternalists who dismissed any girl detected in a moral lapse.

It is not easy to draw a balance. On the one hand, the claim that the Industrial Revolution raised the status of women would seem to have little meaning when set beside the record of excessive hours of labour, cramped housing, excessive childbearing and terrifying rates of child mortality. On the other hand, the abundant opportunities for female employment in the textile districts gave to women the status of independent wage-earners. The spinster or the widow was freed from dependence upon relatives or upon parish relief. Even the unmarried mother might be able, through the laxness of ‘moral discipline’ in many mills, to achieve an independence unknown before. In the largest silk-mills at Macclesfield, righteous employers prided themselves upon dismissing girls who made a single ‘false step’. A witness who contrasted this with the easier-going manners of Manchester came up with observations disturbing to the moralist:

I find it very generally… the case, that where the mills and factories are nearly free from mothers of illegitimate children, there the streets are infested with prostitutes; and on the contrary, where the girls are permitted to return to their work, afer giving birth to a child, there the streets are kept comparatively clear of those unhappy beings. #1_1187 [1]

The period reveals many such paradoxes. The war years saw a surfeit of sermonizing and admonitory tracts limiting or refuting claims to women’s rights which were associated with ‘Jacobinism’. Women’s subordination in marriage was dictated in the bleakest terms. ‘The Christian scriptures,’ declared Paley, enjoin upon the wife an obedience in marriage ‘in terms so peremptory and absolute, that it seems to extend to everything not criminal, or not entirely inconsistent with the women’s happiness’. #2_689 [2] But the same years see also a stubborn minority tradition, in the main among professional people and radical artisans in the great cities, which set forward claims more far-reaching than any known before the French Revolution. The claims made in the 1790s by Mary Wollstonecraft, William Blake and Thomas Spence were never wholly abandoned; they recur, not only in Shelley’s circle, but also in the Radical publications of the post-war years. They were voiced, self-deprecatingly, in the Black Dwarf; more stridently in Richard Carlile’s publications; most powerfully by Anna Wheeler and William Thompson and in the Owenite movement. #3_276 [3] But it was in the textile districts that the changing economic status of women gave rise to the earliest widespread participation by working women in political and social agitation. In the last years of the eighteenth century female benefit societies and female Methodist classes may have given experience and self-confidence – the claim of women to act as local preachers was a persistent Wesleyan ‘heresy’. But the war years, with their increased demand for labour not only in the spinning-mills but also at the hand-loom, accelerated the process. #1_1188 [1] In 1818 and 1819 the first Female Reform Societies were founded, in Blackburn, Preston, Bolton, Manchester, Ashton-under-Lyne. Samuel Bamford’s account – if we may credit it – suggests a sudden leap forward in consciousness. At a meeting in the Saddleworth district, on the Lancashire-Yorkshire border,

I, in the course of an address, insisted on the right, and the propriety also, of females who were present at such assemblages voting by a show of hand for or against the resolutions. This was a new idea; and the women, who attended numerously on the bleak ridge, were mightily pleased with it. The men being nothing dissentient, when the resolution was put the women held up their hands amid much laughter; and ever from that time females voted with the men at the Radical meetings…. It became the practice, female political unions were formed, with their chairwomen, committees, and other officials; and from us the practice was soon borrowed… [by] religious and charitable institutions. #2_690 [2]

(In Newcastle, at the same time, one of Jabez Bunting’s correspondents was lamenting the default of the ‘pious sisterhood’ who were embroidering reform banners.) The twenty years between 1815 and 1835 see also the first indications of independent trade union action among women workers. John Wade, commenting upon a strike of 1,500 female card-setters in the West Riding in 1835, pointed the moral: ‘Alarmists may view these indications of female independence as more menacing to established institutions than the “education of the lower orders”.’ #3_277 [3]

But there is a paradox of feeling even in this advance. The Radicalism of northern working women was compounded of nostalgia for lost status and the assertion of new-found rights. According to conventions which were deeply felt, the woman’s status turned upon her success as a housewife in the family economy, in domestic management and forethought, baking and brewing, cleanliness and child-care. The new independence, in the mill or full-time at the loom, which made new claims possible, was felt simultaneously as a loss in status and in personal independence. Women became more dependent upon the employer or labour market, and they looked back to a ‘golden’ past in which home earnings from spinning, poultry, and the like, could be gained around their own door. In good times the domestic economy, like the peasant economy, supported a way of life centred upon the home, in which inner whims and compulsions were more obvious than external discipline. Each stage in industrial differentiation and specialization struck also at the family economy, disturbing customary relations between man and wife, parents and children, and differentiating more sharply between ‘work’ and ‘life’. It was to be a full hundred years before this differentiation was to bring returns, in the form of labour-saving devices, back into the working woman’s home. Meanwhile, the family was roughly torn apart each morning by the factory bell, and the mother who was also a wage-earner often felt herself to have the worst of both the domestic and the industrial worlds.

‘Once we could have welcomed you, by spreading before you a board of English hospitality, furnished by our industry,’ the Female Reformers of Bolton addressed William Cobbett in 1819: ‘Once, we could have greeted you, with the roseate countenances of English females…. We could have presented to your view our Cottages, vieing for cleanliness and arrangement with the Palace of our King.’ The Female Reformers of Blackburn took up the same theme – their houses ‘robbed of all their ornaments’, their beds ‘torn away… by the relentless hand of the unfeeling tax-gatherer’ so that ‘borough-mongering tyrants’ might repose on ‘beds of down’ while their families lay on the straw. Above all, they appealed on behalf of their children: ‘we are daily cut to the heart to see them greedily devour the coarse food that some would scarcely give to their swine’. It was natural that they should respond to Cobbett, who was soon to consolidate their support with his Cottage Economy, and also to Oastler, with his emphasis upon ‘the home’. Neither Cobbett nor Oastler gave the least support to the notion of women’s suffrage, nor did the Female Reform Societies raise the demand on their own account. Their rôle was confined to giving moral support to the men, making banners and caps of liberty which were presented with ceremony at reform demonstrations, passing resolutions and addresses, and swelling the numbers at meeings. #1_1189 [1] But even these forms of participation called forth the abuse of their opponents. The ‘petticoat reformers’ of Manchester were described in the Courier as ‘degraded females’, guilty of ‘the worst prostitution of the sex, the prostitution of the heart’, ‘deserting their station’ and putting off the ‘sacred characters’ of wife and mother ‘for turbulent vices of sedition and impiety’. Whatever his view on women’s suffrage, Cobbett had no second thoughts about coming to the Female Reformers’ aid:

Just as if women were made for nothing but to cook oat-meal and to sweep a room! Just as if women had no minds! Just as if Hannah Moore and the Tract Gentry had reduced the women of England to a level with the Negresses of Africa! Just as if England had never had a queen…! #2_691 [2]


Again and again the ‘passing of old England’ evades analysis. We may see the lines of change more clearly if we recall that the Industrial Revolution was not a settled social context but a phase of transition between two ways of life. And we must see, not one ‘typical’ community (Middleton or Pudsey), but many different communities coexisting with each other. In south-east Lancashire alone there were to be found, within a few miles of each other, the cosmopolitan city of Manchester upon which migrants converged from every point in the kingdom; pit-villages (like the Duke of Bridgewater’s collieries) emerging from semi-feudalism; paternal model villages (like Turton); new mill-towns (like Bolton); and older weaving hamlets. In all of these communities there were a number of converging influences at work, all making towards discipline and the growth in working-class consciousness.

The working-class community of the early nineteenth century was the product, neither of paternalism nor of Methodism, but in a high degree of conscious working-class endeavour. In Manchester or Newcastle the traditions of the trade union and the friendly society, with their emphasis upon self-discipline and community purpose, reach far back into the eighteenth century. Rules which survive of the Manchester small-ware weavers in the 1750s show already meticulous attention to procedure and to institutional etiquette. The committee members must sit in a certain order. The doors must be kept locked. There are careful regulations for the safe-keeping of the ‘box’. Members are reminded that ‘Intemperance, Animosity and Profaneness are the Pest and Vermin that gnaw out the very Vitals of all Society.’

If we consider this Society, not as a Company of Men met to regale themselves with Ale and Tobacco, and talk indifferently on all Subjects: but rather as a Society sitting to Protect the Rights and Privileges of a Trade by which some hundreds of People… subsist… how awkward does it look to see its Members jumbled promiscuously one amongst another, talking indifferently on all Subjects…

‘Decency and Regularity’ are the watchwords; it is even hoped that when ‘Gentlemen and Magistrates’ observe such order ‘they will rather revere than punish such a Society’. #1_1190 [1]

This represents the code of the self-respecting artisan, although the hope that such sobriety would win the favour of the authorities was to be largely disappointed. It was in a similar school that such men as Hardy and Place received their education in London. But as the Industrial Revolution advanced, it was this code (sometimes in the form of model rules) which was extended to ever-wider sections of working people. Small tradesmen, artisans, labourers – all sought to insure themselves against sickness, unemployment, or funeral expenses #1_1191 [1] through membership of ‘box clubs’ or friendly societies. But the discipline essential for the safe-keeping of funds, the orderly conduct of meetings and the determination of disputed cases, involved an effort of self-rule as great as the new disciplines of work. An examination of rules and orders of friendly societies in existence in Newcastle and district during the Napoleonic Wars gives us a list of fines and penalties more exacting than those of a Bolton cotton-master. A General Society imposed fines for any member ‘reflecting upon’ another member in receipt of sick money, being drunk on the Sabbath, striking another, ‘calling one another bye-names’, coming into the clubroom in liquor, taking God’s name in vain. The Brotherhood of Maltsters added fines for drunkenness at any time, for failure to attend the funerals of brothers or of their wives. The Glass-Makers (founded as early as 1755) added fines for failure in attending meetings, or for those who refused to take their turn in the rota of officers; for failing to keep silence when ordered, speaking together, answering back the steward, betting in the club, or (a common rule) disclosing secrets outside the society. Further,

Persons that are infamous, of ill character, quarrelsome, or disorderly, shall not be admitted into this society…. No Pitman, Collier, Sinker, or Waterman to be admitted…

The Watermen, not to be outdone, added a rule excluding from benefits any brother sick through ‘any illness got by lying with an unclean woman, or is clap’t or pox’d’. Brothers were to be fined for ridiculing or provoking each other to passion. The Unanimous Society was to cut off benefits if any member in receipt of sick money was found ‘in ale-houses, gaming, or drunk’. To maintain its unanimity there were fines for members proposing ‘discourse or dispute upon political or ecclesiastical matters, or government and governors’. The Friendly Society of All Trades had a rule similar to ‘huffing’ in draughts; there was a fine ‘if any member has an opportunity of fining his brother, and does not’. The Cordwainers added fines for calling for drink or tobacco without leave of the stewards. The House-Carpenters and Joiners added a prohibition of ‘disloyal sentiments’ or ‘political songs’. #1_1192 [1]

It is possible that some of these rules, such as the prohibition of political discourse and songs, should be taken with a pinch of salt. While some of these societies were select sick-clubs of as few as twenty or thirty artisans, meeting at an inn, others were probably covers for trade union activity; while at Newcastle, as at Sheffield, it is possible that after the Two Acts the formation of friendly societies was used as a cover for Jacobin organization. (A ‘company’ friendly society, in 1816, bore testimony to ‘the loyal, patriotic, and peaceable regulations’ of many Newcastle societies, but complained that these regulations were often insufficient to prevent ‘warm debate and violent language’.) #2_692 [2] The authorities were deeply suspicious of the societies during the war years, and one of the purposes of the rules was to secure registration with the local magistrates. But anyone familiar with procedure and etiquette in some trade unions and working-men’s clubs today will recognize the origin of still-extant practices in several of the rules. Taken together, they indicate an attainment of self-discipline and a diffusion of experience of a truly impressive order. #1_1193 [1]

Estimates of friendly society membership suggest 648,000 in 1793, 704,350 in 1803, 925,429 in 1815. Although registration with the magistrates, under the first Friendly Society Act of 1793, made possible the protection of funds at law in the event of defaulting officers, a large but unknown number of clubs failed to register, either through hostility to the authorities, parochial inertia, or through a deep secretiveness which, Dr Holland found, was still strong enough to baffle his enquiries in Sheffield in the early 1840s. Nearly all societies before 1815 bore a strictly local and self-governing character, and they combined the functions of sick insurance with convivial club nights and annual ‘outings’ or feasts. An observer in 1805 witnessed near Matlock –

… about fifty women preceded by a solitary fiddler playing a merry tune. This was a female benefit society, who had been to hear a sermon at Eyam, and were going to dine together, a luxury which our female benefit society at Sheffield does not indulge in, having tea only, and generally singing, dancing, smoking, and negus. #2_693 [2]

Few of the members of friendly societies had a higher social status than that of clerks or small tradesmen; most were artisans. The fact that each brother had funds deposited in the society made for stability in membership and watchful participation in self-government. They had almost no middle-class membership and, while some employers looked upon them favourably, their actual conduct left little room for paternalist control. Failures owing to actuarial inexperience were common; defaulting officers not infrequent. Diffused through every part of the country, they were (often heart-breaking) schools of experience.

In the very secretiveness of the friendly society, and in its opaqueness under upper-class scrutiny, we have authentic evidence of the growth of independent working-class culture and institutions. This was the sub-culture out of which the less stable trade unions grew, and in which trade union officers were trained. #1_1194 [1] Union rules, in many cases, were more elaborate versions of the same code of conduct as the sick club. Sometimes, as in the case of the Woolcombers, this was supplemented by the procedures of secret masonic orders:

Strangers, the design of all our Lodges is love and unity,

With self-protection founded on the laws of equity,

And when you have our mystic rights gone through,

Our secrets all will be disclosed to you. #2_694 [2]

After the 1790s, under the impact of the Jacobin agitation, the preambles to friendly society rules assume a new resonance; one of the strangest consequences of the language of ‘social man’ of the philosophical Enlightenment is its reproduction in the rules of obscure clubs meeting in the taverns or ‘hush-shops’ of industrial England. On Tyneside ‘Social’ and ‘Philanthropic’ societies expressed their aspirations in terms which ranged from throw-away phrases – ‘a sure, lasting, and loving society’, ‘to promote friendship and true Christian charity’, ‘man was not born for himself alone’ – to more thundering philosophical affirmations:

Man, by the construction of his body, and the disposition of his mind, is a creature formed for society….

We, the members of this society, taking it into our serious consideration, that man is formed a social being… in continual need of mutual assistance and support; and having interwoven in our constitutions those humane and sympathetic affections which we always feel at the distress of any of our fellow creatures… #3_278 [3]

The friendly societies, found in so many diverse communities, were a unifying cultural influence. Although for financial and legal reasons they were slow to federate themselves, they facilitated regional and national trade union federation. Their language of ‘social man’ also made towards the growth in working-class consciousness. It joined the language of Christian charity and the slumbering imagery of ‘brotherhood’ in the Methodist (and Moravian) tradition with the social affirmations of Owenite socialism. Many early Owenite societies and stores prefaced their rules with the line from Isaiah (XLI, 6): ‘They helped every one his neighbour; and every one said to his brother, be of good courage.’ But the 1830s there were in circulation a score of friendly society or trade union hymns and songs which elaborated this theme.

Mr Raymond Williams has suggested that ‘the crucial distinguishing element in English life since the Industrial Revolution is… between alternative ideas of the nature of social relationship’. As contrasted with middle-class ideas of individualism or (at their best) of service, ‘what is properly meant by “working-class culture”… is the basic collective idea, and the institutions, manners, habits of thought, and intentions which proceed from this’. #1_1195 [1] Friendly societies did not ‘proceed from’ an idea; both the ideas and the institutions arose in response to certain common experiences. But the distinction is important. In the simple cellular structure of the friendly society, with its workaday ethos of mutual aid, we can see many features which were reproduced in more sophisticated and complex forms in trade unions, cooperatives, Hampden Clubs, Political Unions, and Chartist lodges. At the same time the societies can be seen as crystallizing an ethos of mutuality very much more widely diffused in the ‘dense’ and ‘concrete’ particulars of the personal relations of working people, at home and at work. Every kind of witness in the first half of the nineteenth century – clergymen, factory inspectors, Radical publicists – remarked upon the extent of mutual aid in the poorest districts. In times of emergency, unemployment, strikes, sickness, childbirth, then it was the poor who ‘helped every one his neighbour’. Twenty years after Place’s comment on the change in Lancashire manners, Cooke Taylor was astounded at the way in which Lancashire working men bore ‘the extreme of wretchedness’,

with a high tone of moral dignity, a marked sense of propriety, a decency, cleanliness, and order… which do not merit the intense suffering I have witnessed. I was beholding the gradual immolation of the noblest and most valuable population that ever existed in this country or in any other under heaven.

‘Nearly all the distressed operatives whom I met north of Manchester… had a thorough horror of being forced to receive parish relief.’ #1_1196 [1]

It is an error to see this as the only effective ‘working-class’ ethic. The ‘aristocratic’ aspirations of artisans and mechanics, the values of ‘self-help’, or criminality and demoralization, were equally widely dispersed. The conflict between alternative ways of life was fought out, not just between the middle and working classes, but within working-class communities themselves. But by the early years of the nineteenth century it is possible to say that collectivist values are dominant in many industrial communities; there is a definite moral code, with sanctions against the blackleg, the ‘tools’ of the employer or the unneighbourly, and with an intolerance towards the eccentric or individualist. Collectivist values are consciously held and are propagated in political theory, trade union ceremonial, moral rhetoric. It is, indeed, this collective self-consciousness, with its corresponding theory, institutions, discipline, and community values which distinguishes the nineteenth-century working class from the eighteenth-century mob.

Political Radicalism and Owenism both drew upon and enriched this ‘basic collectivist idea’. Francis Place may well have been right when he attributed the changed behaviour of Lancashire crowds in 1819, to the advance of political consciousness ‘spreading over the face of the country ever since the Constitutional and Corresponding Societies became active in 1792’:

Now 100,000 people may be collected together and no riot ensue, and why?… The people have an object, the pursuit of which gives them importance in their own eyes, elevates them in their own opinion, and thus it is that the very individuals who would have been the leaders of the riot are the keepers of the peace. #1_1197 [1]

Another observer attributed the changes in Lancashire to the influence both of Cobbett and of the Sunday schools and noted a ‘general and radical change’ in the character of the labouring classes:

The poor, when suffering and dissatisfied, no longer make a riot, but hold a meeting – instead of attacking their neighbours, they arraign the Ministry. #2_695 [2]

This growth in self-respect and political consciousness was one real gain of the Industrial Revolution. It dispelled some forms of superstition and of deference, and made certain kinds of oppression no longer tolerable. We can find abundant testimony as to the steady growth of the ethos of mutuality in the strength and ceremonial pride of the unions and trades clubs which emerged from quasi-legality when the Combination Acts were repealed. #3_279 [3] During the Bradford woolcomber’s strike of 1825 we find that in Newcastle, where the friendly society was so well rooted, the unions contributing to the Bradford funds included smiths, mill-wrights, joiners, shoemakers, morocco leather dressers, cabinet-makers, shipwrights, sawyers, tailors, woolcombers, hatters tanners, weavers, potters and miners. #4_69 [4] Moreover, there is a sense in which the friendly society helped to pick up and carry into the trade union movement the love of ceremony and the high sense of status of the craftsman’s guild. These traditions, indeed, still had a remarkable vigour in the early nineteenth century, in some of the old Chartered Companies or Guilds of the masters and of master-craftsmen, whose periodical ceremonies expressed the pride of both the masters and of their journeymen in ‘the Trade’. In 1802, for example, there was a great jubilee celebration of the Preston ‘Guilds’. In a week of processions and exhibitions, in which the nobility, gentry, merchants, shopkeepers, and manufacturers all took part, #1_1198 [1] the journeymen were given a prominent place:

The Wool-Combers and Cotton Workers… were preceded by twenty-four young blooming handsome women, each bearing a branch of the cotton tree, then followed a spinning machine borne on men’s shoulders, and afterwards a loom drawn on a sledge, each with work-people busily employed at them…

At Bradford, on the eve of the great strike of 1825, the wool-combers’ feast of Bishop Blaize was celebrated with extraordinary splendour:

Herald, bearing a flag.
Twenty-four Woolstaplers on horseback, each horse caparisoned with a fleece.
Thirty-eight Worsted-Spinners and Manufacturers on horseback, in white stuff waistcoats, with each a sliver of wool over his shoulder and a white stuff sash: the horses’ necks covered with nets made of thick yarn.

And so on until we reach:

Shepherd and Shepherdess.
One hundred and sixty Woolsorters on horseback, with ornamented caps and various coloured slivers.
Thirty Comb-makers.
Charcoal Burners.
Combers’ Colours.
Four hundred and seventy Wool-combers, with wool wigs, &c.
Forty Dyers, with red cockades, blue aprons, and crossed slivers of red and blue. #2_696 [2]

After the great strike such a ceremony could not be repeated.

This passage from the old outlook of ‘the Trade’ to the duality of the masters’ organizations, on the one hand, and the trade unions on the other, takes us into the central experience of the Industrial Revolution. #1_1199 [1] But the friendly society and trade union, not less than the organizations of the masters, sought to maintain the ceremonial and the pride of the older tradition; indeed, since the artisans (or, as they still are called, tradesmen) felt themselves to be the producers upon whose skill the masters were parasitic, they emphasized the tradition the more. With the repeal of the Combination Acts their banners moved openly through the streets. In London, in 1825, the Thames Ship Caulkers Union (founded in 1794) displayed its mottos: ‘Main et Coeur’, ‘Vigueur, Vérité, Concorde, Dépêche’, which reveal the pride of the medieval craft. The Ropemakers Union proceeded with a white banner on which was portrayed a swarm of bees around a hive: ‘Sons of Industry! Union gives Strength’. (At the houses of masters who had granted them an increase, they stopped and gave a salute.) John Gast’s Thames Shipwrights Provident Union, the pacemaker of the London ‘trades’, outdid all with a blue silk banner: ‘Hearts of Oak Protect the Aged’, a handsome ship drawn by six bay horses, three postilions in blue jackets, a band, the Committee, the members with more banners and flags, and delegations representing the trade from Shields, Sunderland, and Newcastle. The members wore blue rosettes and sprigs of oak, and in the ship were old shipwrights who lived in the union’s almshouses at Stepney. #2_697 [2] At Nantwich in 1832 the shoemakers maintained all the sense of status of the artisan’s craft union, with their banner, ‘full set of secret order regalia, surplices, trimmed aprons… and a crown and robes for King Crispin’. In 1833 the King rode on horseback through the town attended by train-bearers, officers with the ‘Dispensation, the Bible, a large pair of gloves, and also beautiful specimens of ladies’ and gents’ boots and shoes’:

Nearly 500 joined in the procession, each one wearing a white apron neatly trimmed. The rear was brought up by a shopmate in full tramping order, his kit packed on his back, and walking-stick in hand. #1_1200 [1]

No single explanation will suffice to account for the evident alteration in manner of the working people. #2_698 [2] Nor should we exaggerate the degree of change. Drunkenness and uproar still often surged through the streets. But it is true that working men often appear most sober and disciplined, in the twenty years after the Wars, when most in earnest to assert their rights. Thus we cannot accept the thesis that sobriety was the consequence only, or even mainly, of the Evangelical propaganda. And we may see this, also, if we turn the coin over and look at the reverse. By 1830 not only the Established Church but also the Methodist revival was meeting sharp opposition in most working-class centres from free-thinkers, Owenites, and non-denominational Christians. In London, Birmingham, south-east Lancashire, Newcastle, Leeds and other cities the Deist adherents of Carlile or Owen had an enormous following. The Methodists had consolidated their position, but they tended increasingly to represent tradesmen and privileged groups of workers, and to be morally isolated from working-class community life. Some old centres of revivalism had relapsed into ‘heathenism’. In Newcastle’s Sandgate, once ‘as noted for praying as for tippling, for psalm-singing as for swearing’, the Methodists had lost any following among the poor by the 1840s. In parts of Lancashire weaving communities as well as factory operatives became largely detached from the chapels and were swept up in the current of Owenism and free-thought:

If it had not been for Sunday schools, society would have been in a horrible state before this time…. Infidelity is growing amazingly…. The writings of Carlile and Taylor and other infidels are more read than the Bable or any other book…. I have seen weeks after weeks the weavers assembled in a room, that would contain 400 people, to applaud the people who asserted and argued that there was no God…. I have gone into the cottages around the chapel where I worship, I have found 20 men assembled reading infidel publications… #1_1201 [1]

Owenite and secular movements often took fire ‘like whins on the common’, as revivalism had done before.

Engels, writing from his Lancashire experience in 1844, claimed that ‘the workers are not religious, and do not attend church’, with the exception of the Irish, ‘a few elderly people, and the half-bourgeois, the overlookers, foremen, and the like’. ‘Among the masses there prevails almost universally a total indifference to religion, or at the utmost, some trace of Deism…’ Engels weakened his case by overstating it; but Dodd quoted a Stockport factory where nine out of ten did not attend any church, while Cooke Taylor, in 1842, was astonished at the vigour and knowledge of the Scripture shown by Lancashire working men who contested Christian orthodoxies. ‘If I thought that the Lord was the cause of all the misery I see around me,’ one such man told a Methodist preacher, ‘I would quit his service, and say he was not the Lord I took him for.’ Similarly, in Newcastle in the Chartist years thousands of artisans and engineers were convinced free-thinkers. In one works employing 200 ‘there are not more than six or seven who attend a place of worship’. ‘The working classes,’ said one working-man,

are gathering knowledge, and the more they gather, the wider becomes the breach between them and the different sects. It is not because they are ignorant of the Bible. I revere the Bible myself… and when I look into it… I find that the prophets stood between the oppressor and the oppressed, and denounced the wrong doer, however rich and powerful…. When the preachers go back to the old book, I for one will go back to hear them, but not till then…

The Sunday schools were bringing an unexpected harvest. #2_699 [2]

The weakening hold of the churches by no means indicated any erosion of the self-respect and discipline of class. On the contrary, Manchester and Newcastle, with their long tradition of industrial and political organization, were notable in the Chartist years for the discipline of their massive demonstrations. Where the citizens and shopkeepers had once been thrown into alarm when the ‘terrible and savage pitmen’ entered Newcastle in any force, it now became necessary for the coal-owners to scour the slums of the city for ‘candy-men’ or rag-collectors to evict the striking miners. In 1838 and 1839 tens of thousands of artisans, miners and labourers marched week after week in good order through the streets, often passing within a few feet of the military, and avoiding all provocation. ‘Our people had been well taught,’ one of their leaders recalled, ‘that it was not riot we wanted, but revolution.’ #1_1202 [1]


One ingredient in the new working-class community has necessarily evaded this analysis: the Irish immigration. In 1841 it was estimated that over 400,000 inhabitants of Great Britain had been born in Ireland; many more tens of thousands were born in Britain of Irish parentage. The great majority of these were Catholics, and among the poorest-paid labourers; most of them lived in London and in the industrial towns. In Liverpool and in Manchester anything between one-fifth and one-third of the working population was Irish.

This is not the place to rehearse the appalling story of the immiseration of the Irish people in the first half of the nineteenth century. But the disasters which afflicted Ireland came less from the potato-blight than from the after-effects of a counter-revolution following upon the merciless repression of the United Irishmen’s rebellion (1798) far more savage than anything enacted in England; and from the political, economic and social consequences of the Act of Union (1800). In 1794 a clergyman of the Church of Ireland named William Jackson, who was acting as a go-between between William Hamilton Rowan, of the United Irishmen, and the French, was seized in Dublin with a paper outlining the position in Ireland and the prospects of support in the event of a French invasion. The population of Ireland was estimated (erroneously) at 4,500,000, #1_1203 [1] of whom 450,000 were supposed to be Anglicans, 900,000 Dissenters, and 3,150,000 Catholics. Of the Dissenters (‘the most enlightened body of the Nation’) it said:

They are steady Republicans, devoted to Liberty and through all the Stages of the French Revolution have been enthusiastically attached to it. The Catholics, the Great body of the People, are in The Lowest degree of Ignorance and Want, ready for any Change because no Change can make them worse, the Whole Peasantry of Ireland, the Most Oppressed and Wretched in Europe, may be said to be Catholic.

Whereas the anti-Gallican prejudices of the English would ‘unite all ranks in opposition to the Invaders’, in Ireland ‘a Conquered, oppressed and Insulted Country the Name of England and her Power is Universally Odious…’

The Dissenters are enemies to the English Power from reason and Reflection, the Catholics from a Hatred of the English Name….

In a word, from Reflection, Interest, Prejudice, the spirit of Change, the misery of the great bulk of the nation and above all the Hatred of the English name resulting from the Tyranny of near seven centurys, there seems little doubt but an Invasion would be supported by the People. #2_700 [2]

It is arguable that the French lost Europe, not before Moscow, but in 1797, when only a Navy in mutiny stood between them and an Ireland on the eve of rebellion. #3_280 [3] But the invasion, when it came, was of a different order; it was the invasion of England and Scotland by the Irish poor. And Jackson’s brief reminds us that the Irish emigration was more differentiated than is often supposed. In the years before and after ’98, the Dissenters of Ulster, the most industrialized province, were not the most loyal but the most ‘Jacobinical’ of the Irish; while it was only after the repression of the rebellion that the antagonism between the ‘Orangemen’ and ‘Papists’ was deliberately fostered by the Castle, as a means of maintaining power. The emigrants included seasonal harvest-workers from Connaught, fugitive Wexford smallholders, and Ulster artisans, who differed as greatly from each other as Cornish labourers and Manchester cotton-spinners. (The notorious Saturday night brawis were more often between Irish and Irish than between Irish and English; nor were they always religious wars – the rivalries of Leinster, Munster and Connaught were also re-enacted in the folds and courts of Preston and Batley.) Wave followed upon wave of immigration. #1_1204 [1] Between 1790 and 1810 there was still a considerable admixture of Protestants and Ulstermen, many of them tradesmen, artisans, weavers and cotton-operatives, some of them adherents of Rights of Man. As the effects of unequal economic competition under the Union became felt, silk- and linen-weavers and cotton workers evacuated their declining industries for Manchester and Glasgow, Barnsley, Bolton and Macclesfield. In this wave came young John Doherty, who had worked in his teens in a cotton-mill in Meath, and who arrived in Manchester towards the end of the Wars, to become within a few years the greatest of the leaders of the Lancashire cotton workers.

From this time forward it was more than ever a Catholic and peasant migration. The yeomanry of Lincolnshire, a local paper noted in 1811, ‘have for many years made a point of inviting them by public advertisement’. This referred to the seasonal migrants, the harvest workers whose ‘spirit of laborious industry’ was commended, as against the ‘greedy’ Lincolnshire labourer,

who desires to make excessive wages through the necessity of the farmer, and whom half a guinea a day, at the height of the season, will not satisfy,

and who was further reproved for looking upon ‘the Irish auxiliary’ with jealousy. #2_701 [2] As the migration-routes became familiar, so more of the immigrants came to stay. Successive failures of the potato crop, notably the famine of 1821–2, drove forward the migration.

The mass eviction of peasant ‘freeholders’ between 1828 and 1830 swelled the numbers travelling on the crowded boats to Liverpool and Bristol. But England was ‘far from being their Mecca, and is indeed the last place they would willingly approach’. The more fortunate, who could save the passage money, were emigrating to America or Canada, and they were the most destitute who came to this country. Once here, as soon as employment was found, heroic efforts were made to send remittances back to Ireland, and often to raise the small sum needed to bring relatives across and to reunite the family in England. #1_1205 [1]

The conditions which the greater part of the post-war immigrants left behind them were, in the language of the Blue Books, insufficient to support ‘the commonest necessaries of life’:

Their habitations are wretched hovels, several of a family sleep together upon straw or upon the bare ground… their food commonly consists of dry potatoes, and with these they are… obliged to stint themselves to one spare meal on the day…. They sometimes get a herring, or a little milk, but they never get meat except at Christmas, Easter, and Shrovetide. #2_702 [2]

As the cheapest labour in Western Europe, this part of their story is familiar. Page after page of the Blue Books concerned with sanitary conditions, crime, housing, hand-loom weavers, are filled with accounts of the squalor which the Irish brought with them to England: of their cellar-dwellings: the paucity of furnishings and bedding: the garbage thrust out at the doors: the overcrowding: the under-cutting of English labour. Their utility to the employers in the last respect needs no stressing. A Manchester silk manufacturer declared, ‘the moment I have a turn-out and am fast for hands I send to Ireland for ten, fifteen, or twenty families…’ #3_281 [3]

But the influence of the Irish immigration was more ambivalent and more interesting than this. Paradoxically, it was the very success of the pressures effecting changes in the character-structure of the English working man which called forth the need for a supplementary labour force unmoulded by the industrial work-discipline. This discipline, as we have seen, required steady methodical application, inner motivations of sobriety, forethought, and punctilious observation of contracts; in short, the controlled paying-out of energies in skilled or semi-skilled employments. By contrast, the heavy manual occupations at the base of industrial society required a spendthrift expense of sheer physical energy – an alternation of intensive labour and boisterous relaxation which belongs to pre-industrial labour-rhythms, and for which the English artisan or weaver was unsuited both by reason of his weakened physique and his Puritan temperament.

Thus Irish labour was essential for the Industrial Revolution, not only – and perhaps not primarily – because it was ‘cheap’ (the labour of English weavers and farm workers was cheap enough in all conscience), but because the Irish peasantry had escaped the imprint of Baxter and Wesley. Demoralized in Ireland by a sub-subsistence economy or by the conacre system (by which they were reduced to semi-slavery to the farmers in return for the use of a potato patch) they had acquired a reputation for lethargy and fecklessness. Energy was no asset in a land where the good tenant was penalized by the doubling of his rent. In England they were capable of astonishing feats, showing a –

… willingness, alacrity and perseverance in the severest, the most irksome and most disagreeable kinds of coarse labour, such for instance as attending on masons, bricklayers and plasterers, excavating earth for harbours, docks, canals and roads, carrying heavy goods, loading and unloading vessels.

Dr Kay, who made inquiries as to the value of Irish labour among Lancashire employers in 1835, found that English labourers were preferred in all skilled occupations, having ‘that steady perseverance which factory employment peculiarly requires’. ‘The English are more steady, cleanly, skilful labourers, and are more faithful in the fulfilment of contracts made between master and servant.’ Although many thousands of Irish were employed in the cotton industry, ‘few, if any… are ever employed in the superior processes…; they are almost all to be found in the blowing-rooms…’ Scarcely any were placed in ‘offices of trust’, while few ‘attained the rank of spinners’. On the other hand, in unskilled occupations the position was reversed. A Birmingham employer gave evidence in 1836:

The Irish labourers will work any time…. I consider them very valuable labourers, and we could not do without them. By treating them kindly, they will do anything for you…. An Englishman could not do the work they do. When you push them they have a willingness to oblige which the English have not; they would die under anything before they would be beat; they would go at hard work till they drop before a man should excel them…

‘They require more looking after; they talk more at work’ – personal rather than economic incentives are often noted as being of most effect; good-humoured themselves, they worked best for good-humoured employers who encouraged them to mutual emulation. ‘The Irish are more violent and irritable, but they are less stubborn, sullen, and self-willed than the English.’ Their generosity and impulsiveness was easily imposed upon; it is literally true that they ‘would die… before they would be beat’. ‘In his own country he is notoriously lazy and negligent in the extreme; after crossing the channel he became a model of laboriousness and enterprise.’ Paid by piece-rate or gang-rate on the docks or at navvying, ‘they are tempted to overwork themselves, and to ruin their health and constitution in a few years. This is the case of porters, coal-heavers, and many common labourers in London,’ a high proportion of whom were Irishmen. An observer at the Liverpool docks noted the manner in which oats were loaded on to a vessel:

These men (chiefly Irishmen) received the full sacks as they were lowered by the crane off the hitch on their shoulders and carried them across the road. They pursued their heavy task during the working hours of a summer’s day at a uniform, unremitting pace, a trot of at least five miles an hour, the distance from the vessel to the storehouse being fully fifty yards… At this work a good labourer earned, at 16d. per 100 sacks, ten shillings a day; so that consequently he made seven hundred and fifty trips… carrying for half the distance a full sack of oats on his shoulder, thus performing a distance of… forty-three miles…

By the 1830s whole classes of work had passed almost entirely into the hands of Irishmen since the English either refused the menial, unpleasant tasks or could not keep up with the pace. #1_1206 [1]

Thus to an extraordinary degree the employers had the best of a labour supply from the pre-industrial and the industrialized worlds. The disciplined worker at heart disliked his work; the same character-structure which made for application and skill erected also barriers of self-respect which were not amenable to dirty or degrading tasks. A building employer, explaining why the Irish were confined to labouring rôles, gave evidence:

They scarcely ever make good mechanics; they don’t look deep into subjects; their knowledge is quick, but superficial; they don’t make good millwrights or engineers, or anything which requires thought…. If a plan is put in an Irishman’s hand, he requires looking after continuously, otherwise he will go wrong, or more probably not go on at all.

This was the consequence of ‘want of application’ rather than any ‘natural incapacity’; it was a ‘moral’ and not an ‘intellectual’ defect:

A man who has no care for the morrow, and who lives only for the passing moment, cannot bring his mind to undergo the severe discipline, and to make those patient and toilsome exertions which are required to form a good mechanic. #2_703 [2]

The Report on the State of the Irish Poor in Great Britain, which is one of the most impressive essays in sociology among the Blue Books of the Thirties, came to this conclusion:

The Irish emigration into Britain is an example of a less civilized population spreading themselves, as a kind of substratum, beneath a more civilized community; and, without excelling in any branch of industry, obtaining possession of all the lowest departments of manual labour.

The employers found this ‘advantageous’, one master in the Potteries noted, ‘as the native population is fully employed in the more ingenious and skill-requiring works’. Nevertheless, in the view of many employers the immigration ‘has not been an unmingled benefit’. For the Irish displayed the same exuberance and indiscipline in their relaxation as in their work. ‘A large number of the labouring Irish in the manufacturing towns… spend their earnings in the following manner’:

On the Saturday night, when they receive their wages, they first pay the score at the shop… and their rent… and when their debts are thus paid, they go drinking spirits as long as the remnant of their wages holds out. On the Monday morning, they are penniless…

Maintaining a ‘fixed standard of existence, little superior to that which they observed in their own country’, they lacked the Puritan virtues of thrift and sobriety as much as those of application and forethought. Every Saturday night the streets of Manchester, Liverpool and other manufacturing towns were taken over by hundreds of drunken and brawling Irishmen.

Moreover, in a score of ways the Irishman’s virtues and vices were the opposite of those of the disciplined English artisan. The Irish had a sometimes violent, sometimes good-humoured contempt of English authority. Not only were the rulers’ laws and religion alien, but there were no community sanctions which found prosecution in the English law courts a cause of shame. Well-treated, an employer said, they were trustworthy: ‘If one among them is detected in a petty theft, the others will avoid him’. But the Irishman detected in pilfering from unpopular employers or farmers or refusing to pay rent was supported not only by the licence of his compatriots but by their collective force. A Manchester cotton master declared, there is ‘no recklessness of conduct which they do not at times display’. Constantly fighting among themselves, they turned as one man if any individual was attacked from outside. Attempts to seize illicit stills led to wars of cutlasses and brickbats, in which the Irish women were not the most backward. In Manchester’s Little Ireland attempts to serve legal executions for rent, debt, or taxes, had to be conducted like a minor military action against an embattled population. ‘It is extremely dangerous,’ said the Deputy Constable of Manchester in 1836, ‘to execute a warrant in a factory where many Irish are employed; they will throw bricks and stones on the officers’ heads as they are coming up stairs…’ And the Superintendent of the Manchester Watch gave evidence that –

… in order to apprehend one Irishman in the Irish parts of the town, we are forced to take from ten or twenty, or even more, watchmen. The whole neighbourhood turn out with weapons; even women, half-naked, carrying brickbats and stones for the men to throw. A man will resist, fighting and struggling, in order to gain time till his friends collect for a rescue… #1_1207 [1]

These Irish were neither stupid nor barbarians. Mayhew often remarked upon their generosity, their ‘powers of speech and quickness of apprehension’. They adhered to a different value-system tha