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Book #3: TOC
The Road To Being Canada
(1815-1867)
Chapter 29, Riots, Oppressive Laws & Royal Scandal

There were certain events that occurred in England during the post-war years which need to be recounted as a background to the development of the "Radical Press" in these years. These events need to be taken in the context of the general discontent that followed the end of the long Napoleonic Wars, 1793-1815. Unemployed soldiers were walking the streets and the businesses that prospered during the war years closed sending more people to the streets. All were left to wonder! Why they should experience these bad times, and -- not others. Convinced they were, that there were certain people responsible for these troubles -- most thought those in government were responsible.

Food shortages brought on riots. Increasingly, the pattern of rioting changed from protests against food shortages or high food prices to protest against unemployment, short time, wage cuts and above all, the machinery held to be responsible for all these evils. These public demonstrations have come to be known as the "Luddite Riots," named after a "Ned" Ludd, an English youth who broke some labor-saving machinery in 1799. In 1813, 13 "Luddites", having been found guilty of felonious acts of violence at the York Assizes in England, were strung up and met their ends.

Then there was the "Spa Fields Riot." On December 16th, 1816, a meeting was called by certain agitators for reform. The meeting took place in the north of London, a place known as Spa Fields. Six to eight thousand people had gathered to hear the stirring speeches. The meeting was peaceful enough but that evening a bunch of rowdies broke into "some bakers' and butchers' shops." This event was by itself not enough to get the authorities too nervous but it came in the wake of two years of sporadic riots and violence, at a time when the excesses of the French Revolution were hardly ancient history. The nervous legislators established "secret committees." These committees prepared reports which the governments used to track down Luddites and those groups that had formed to advance governmental reform. One of these reports concluded that the Spa Field Riot was part of a larger traitorous conspiracy formed for "the purpose of overthrowing, by means of a general insurrection, the established government ... and of effecting a general plunder and division of property." This led to the suspension of the habeas corpus1 and the determination of the authorities to round up the "chief incendiary writers" so that they might be put in "safe custody."

On August 16, in 1819, at a place called St Peter's Fields, in Manchester, England, textile workers gathered; 80,000 people were there to listen to Henry "Orator" Hunt (1773-1835). The magistrates, in a move to arrest the speaker, ordered the cavalry in: "eleven persons, including two women, were killed or died of their injuries; over a hundred were wounded by sabres and several hundred more injured by horse-hoofs or crushed in the stampede."2 This was an event, that to a good many, amounted to an unwarranted abuse of official authority; people died there at Manchester; the events that day are, in folklore, wrapped up in the name -- "Peterloo."

Robert Banks Liverpool (1770-1828), the English Prime Minister of the time (1812-27), took immediate, and, as it turned out, effective steps to assure there would be no more events like "Peterloo." Six Acts ("The Six Acts") were passed into law by Christmas that year, and, by large parliamentary majorities.

This is Paul Johnson's analysis of these acts:

"The Six Acts are often cited, even today, as an archetypal repressive law code by those who clearly do not know what they contained. The first act prohibited unauthorized meetings to train men in the use of arms. The second authorized Justices of the Peace in areas legally defined as disturbed to search for arms, even in private houses, and to seize arms carried by individuals if they had reason to believe the intention was to break the peace. These provisions are still on the statute book [British, 1991]. The third act made it hard for those accused of sedition to postpone trial; Castlereagh accepted an amendment by Brougham to rule out delays by the Crown as well, and this amendment too passed into the law as it exists today. The fourth act provided a stricter definition of seditious meetings and made it difficult to call one of more than 50 people; and it ruled out the use of arms, flags and military formations. Here, again, Castlereagh willingly conceded a Whig amendment that exempted indoor meetings. This act eventually disappeared, but part of it was revived in 1936 Public Order Act to deal with fascism, and that, too, is still English law. The two truly repressive acts dealt with the press, authorizing the seizure of the whole of an issue containing an items of blasphemy or sedition, making the second offence transportable - that was what Southey wanted - and subjecting pamphlets that commented on the news to newspaper duty if they cost less than sixpence. The whole operation was extremely skillful, since it did not involve suspending habeas corpus - always an emotional stumbling block for Parliament - and was put through quickly and overwhelmingly, often with the cooperation of the Whigs. It was also highly effective, ruling out any possibility of a return to the military-style mass meetings of the summer."3
This is G. M. Trevelyan's analysis of these acts, particularly on how they impacted on the public press:
"The Six Acts were not all of a piece. The Act that prohibited drilling was wise and has never been repealed. The Act to prevent large public meetings, at best a pitiable confession of the incompetence of the authorities, ran for five years and was not renewed. The most lasting injury to the community was done by the Act imposing a fourpenny stamp on all periodical publications, even though they were not newspapers. The object was to kill the Radical Press such as Cobbett's Register [William Cobbett] and the Black Dwarf [T.J. Wooler], but incidentally it made it more difficult for the poor to get literature of any sort. The duty was reduced from fourpence to a penny in 1836 as a result of Radical pressure on the Whig Government of that later day, and the remaining 'taxes on knowledge' were repealed in the court of the 'fifties and 'sixties."4
The "Six Acts" did not stop certain of the radical thinkers (and non-thinkers) from planning bloody insurrections. One such radical was Arthur Thistlewood (1770-1820) who with others had a plan, in 1820, to murder the whole cabinet while gathered at Lord Harrowby's house on Cato Street ("Cato Street Conspiracy"). The heads of Castlereagh and Sidmouth were to be cut off, put on pikes and carried through the streets. The bloody plan was almost carried off; Thistlewood and four of his gang were hung in London on May 1st, 1820.5

"Caroline Crisis": For a number of years, Princess Caroline, the wife of the Prince Regent, lived separate from him. They had married in 1795 and a daughter was born of the union, Princess Charlotte. Because of her husband's treatment of her, Princess Caroline became the object of much sympathy. With the death of George III, in 1820, the Prince Regent took the throne as King George IV. However, George IV, though still married to her, would not have Caroline as his queen. Caroline was offered an annuity of £50,000, if she would renounce the title of queen and live abroad. She refused and made a triumphal entry into London. A trial ensued, a special one set up under a special parliamentary bill, Pains and Penalties Bill. It allowed parliament to hear evidence6 of the Queen's misconduct (her adultery with Bartolomeo Bergami);7 this bill allowed her to defend herself but did not enable her to bring charges against the king -- if she could bring such charges, it would have been a long indictment, indeed. The bill had clauses providing for divorce, and others that would strip her of her titles. The population was firmly behind the Queen. Many pamphlets and cartoons were published. While the hearings were underway, mobs gathered daily outside parliament; the King kept well hid in his palace. The Queen's lawyer was Brougham and he put up a splendid defence for the Queen, a defence which had two effects; the first is that the government just simply gave up on their divorce bill (it was becoming, at any rate, politically speaking, a hot potato), the second effect is that Brougham became, in the process, a popular idol of the people. And while she legitimately carried on with her title, at the coronation of George IV on July 19th, 1821, she was turned away at the door of Westminster Abbey; within the month, however, on the 7th of August, she died (likely of stomach cancer); her death put a final end to the struggle, and the scandal.

George Macaulay Trevelyan:

"The 'Queen's trial,' for adultery, took the form of a Bill of Pains and Penalties introduced first into the House of Lords, and conducted there by the examination of evidence as in a Court of Justice. The chief witnesses were Italians of a low type, whom the British people believed to have been suborned. The principal one, Majocchi, broke down under Brougham's cross-examination, and blundered out again and again Non mi ricordo ('I don't remember') -- a phrase that for a generation to come was current coin in England."8
That a member of the royal family was living with another without the benefit of marriage, could come to no surprise to any one familiar of the comings and goings of the family of George III. All the boys had their paramours (including the Duke of Kent). At any rate the Queen's trial came as a comic relief to the sombre tones of "Peterloo" and the "Cato Street Conspiracy."
"The history of the Queen's trial illustrates the law of political hydrostatics, that if the current of public opinion is denied course through constitutional channels, it will make it way out by the sewers. There had been other instances of such abnormal excitement, as when in 1809 the country had risen in fury to support the charges against the King's son, the Duke of York, then Commander-in-Chief, of selling military commissions through his mistress, Mrs. Clarke. These unsavoury controversies, and many others, now well forgotten, gave proof of a savage hatred of the Royal family, due in equal degrees to the bad private character of George III's sons, and to the political position of George III and George IV after him as acknowledged chiefs of the extreme Tory party. The all-important change that afterwords took place in the popularity of the Royal family, was due alike to its retirement from political leadership and to its changed private record."9
In looking to the newspapers of 1820, the Caroline Crisis "swallowed up every other topic from June to November."10

NEXT: [Chapter 30, The English Press And Public Opinion]

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Peter Landry