Two hundred years ago, a wave of political protest swept through Central Scotland and Ayrshire, part of unrest throughout Britain following the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Maggie Craig is the author of a new history of the events, One Week In April: The Scottish Radical Rising of 1820.
By 1820, living and working conditions for Scottish weavers, spinners, colliers and manual labourers were often brutal. Many had no work; the labour market flooded with demobbed soldiers from Wellington’s army.
Radicals wanted wide-sweeping change: reform of the corrupt Westminster parliament, universal adult suffrage (not necessarily excluding women), annually elected parliaments and the repeal of the hated Corn Laws, which kept the price of bread artificially high, protecting the interests of landowners and grain merchants at the expense of the poor.
The only route to political reform was by sending petitions to the government and Prince Regent in London, asking for something to be done to improve the situation of the working classes.
In 1816, at a meeting in what were then the green fields of the Thrushgrove estate, half a mile or so north of Glasgow Cathedral, 60,000 people gathered to agree the wording of one such petition and call for reform. At the time, it was the largest political gathering ever held in Scotland or Britain. And it was followed by many more.
Three years later, in August 1819, another 60,000 peaceful protesters came together at St Peter’s Fields in Manchester. Panicked by the size of the crowd, local magistrates sent in the yeomanry.
Made reckless by the alcohol they’d been drinking while waiting, these mounted their horses and charged into the crowd, slashing with their sabres. Foot soldiers fired into the throng. Fifteen people were killed, including two women and a child. Over 650 were wounded. With the Battle of Waterloo fresh in the memory, the Manchester massacre was swiftly dubbed Peterloo.
Radicals and reformers throughout Britain were outraged by this attack on unarmed civilians. A month after Peterloo, 15,000 people gathered at Paisley to make their own peaceful protest about the ‘slaughter at Manchester.’ It’s a notable feature of the events leading up to the Scottish Radical War that the cry of ‘remember Manchester’ was so often heard.
There’s evidence of cross-border co-operation between English and Scottish radicals in Glasgow, Carlisle, Nottingham and possibly also in Yorkshire. As it became clear that the hedonistic Prince Regent probably never read any of the petitions, many radical reformers lost faith in what they called moral force, seeing physical force as the only way to achieve their aims.
Towards the end of 1819, secret committees in Glasgow and Paisley sent delegates to a meeting in Nottingham. Plans were laid for a general strike and an armed uprising north and south of the border. Hundreds armed themselves with home-made pikes, the easiest and cheapest weapons for working men to make. With so many demobbed and disaffected veterans in their ranks, there was no shortage of drilling instructors.
Alarmed already by the radical threat, the authorities grew positively paranoid after the Cato Street conspiracy in February, 1820. which had aimed to kill the entire British cabinet at a dinner in London, after which a republican government in the French style would be established.
Even before Peterloo and Cato Street, government spies had been infiltrating radical groups. Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt, the speaker at St Peter’s Fields, warned there might be one in every tavern, quietly taking note of what was being said and who was saying it. Radicals, too, could be paranoid, albeit with considerable justification.
There’s no doubt government agents provocateurs were active in Scotland. In 1816 and 1817, weaver Alexander Richmond betrayed his former radical comrades for 30 pieces of silver from Home Secretary Lord Sidmouth. Warnings were chalked up on walls in Glasgow: ‘Beware of Richmond the Spy’.
It’s unfortunate that the idea of agents provocateurs became a dominant strand of the narrative. People sympathetic to the radical cause, like 19th-century Glasgow journalist Peter Peter Mackenzie, claimed the radicals who took action in 1820 were all “betrayed by infamous spies.” But plenty acted because of a burning and long-frustrated desire to bring about reform.
Overnight, between 1 and 2 April, 1820, thousands of posters were put up throughout Glasgow, Paisley, Ayrshire, Renfrewshire and many surrounding towns and villages.
The Address to the Inhabitants of Great Britain & Ireland called on fellow Britons to come out on strike and arm themselves to fight to regain their ancient rights. “Liberty or Death is our Motto, and We have sworn to return home in triumph – or return no more!” The Address stated it had been issued in Glasgow on 1 April by “the Committee of Organization for forming a Provisional Government.”
Again, there are those then and now who claim this call to arms was written by agents provocateurs although cogent arguments can be made against this view. Sixty thousand people went on strike. All 11 textile mills in Johnstone in Renfrewshire were closed by flying pickets.
Fearing a radical attack on Glasgow, local yeomanry and militias were put on standby. Military reinforcements from the regular army were swiftly called in to ensure the defence of the city at various potential flashpoints. Although there was some direct action in Yorkshire, the radical rising in the North of England fizzled out.
Almost certainly provoked into it by government agents, a group left Glasgow on the night of Wednesday, 5 April, heading for the Carron Ironworks near Falkirk, where they hoped to acquire cannons. Their two leaders were weavers, Andrew Hardie from Glasgow and John Baird from Condorrat at Cumbernauld. They didn’t make it to Carron, clashing with yeomanry and regular army hussars on farmland at Bonnymuir near Falkirk. The radicals fought bravely but were soon defeated and taken as prisoners to Stirling Castle.
On the same day as the Battle of Bonnymuir, a band of weavers led by well-respected local man James Wilson marched out of Strathaven in Lanarkshire, carrying a flag which read ‘Scotland Free, or Scotland a Desart’.[sic] They’d been persuaded they were going to join a large French army readying itself to attack Glasgow. There was no such army.
The crackdown was swift and harsh. With Paisley’s gaol overflowing, five radicals were escorted to Greenock by the Port Glasgow militia, where they were met by a hostile crowd. In the riot which followed, the prisoners were freed but the soldiers of the militia opened fire, killing eight people, including a boy of eight, and wounding many more.
Over the summer of 1820, radicals were tried for treason in courts in Stirling, Glasgow, Dumbarton, Paisley and Ayr. The trials were conducted under English law which, to put it mildly, did not go down at all well in Scotland. Four men were sentenced to death. In one case sentence was commuted to transportation to New South Wales. Nineteen other men and boys, the ones who had fought at Bonnymuir, were also transported.
John Baird, Andrew Hardie and James Wilson were publicly hanged before being beheaded. Prime Minister Castlereagh had called for ‘a lesson from the scaffold.’ All three died bravely. A mere twelve years later, the Great Reform Act of 1832 laid the first paving stones on the long road which eventually led to democracy and universal adult suffrage.
One Week In April: The Scottish Radical Rising of 1820 by Maggie Craig is published by Birlinn on 2 April, 2020, to mark the 200th anniversary of the events.
On Wednesday, 1 April, @BirlinnBooks is holding a virtual book launch on Twitter (and no, this isn’t an April Fool) with videos, Q&As and giveaways. Check Birlinn’s Twitter feed for details and join Maggie for virtual cake.
Maggie Craig writes Scottish historical fiction and non-fiction. She is the author of Damn’ Rebel Bitches: The Women of the ’45, When the Clyde Ran Red: A Social History of Red Clydeside and several historical novels set in Edinburgh and her native Glasgow. Her latest novel is Dance to the Storm.
Photo of the Battle of Bonnymuir memorial: © Maggie Craig
Officer of the 10th Hussars: National Army Museum
A May Day Garland for 1820 (showing politicians dancing round a maypole with executed radicals’ heads impaled above them): Wikimedia
Photograph of former Strathaven Pioneer William Howat in later life, dressed and armed as he had been in 1820: supplied by author
Replica flag in front of the memorial to James Wilson on the site of his home, Strathaven