'Rise like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you;
Ye are many, they are few'
MASQUE OF ANARCHY - PERCY B. SHELLEY.
The Peterloo Massacre which inspired Shelley to write these words which have reverberated down the centuries, took place on August 16th 1819 at St. Peter's Field in Manchester. That fateful day resulted in eleven dead and five hundred grievously wounded, cut down by the sabres of the mounted Yeomanry and Hussars who forced their way through the dense crown of men and women peacefully demonstrating for universal suffrage and parliamentary reform. This barbaric act by the authorities and the arrest of Henry Hunt, Samuel Bamford and others on the platform addressing the assembly of working people, had a far reaching effect throughout England and marked a turning point in its history being followed by the Reform Bill of 1832 and the great Chartist movement leading to the formation of the Co-operative, T.U. and Labour Movement. An account of Peterloo and the description of the day's events, including quotations from he writings of the radical Samuel Bamford, are well outlined in a pamphlet issued by the C.P.G.B. 150 years later, in 1969.
But it is important to recognise that Peterloo also sent shockwaves throughout Scotland where Scottish radicals were also active in demanding change, indeed such profound change, that the authorities feared uprisings, 'insurrection' and worst of all the revival of the plan by the United Scotsmen of the 1790's to "establish a completely independent Scottish Republic" and dissolve the 1707 Act of Union. The Scots therefore had their own agenda as anyone acquainted with the history of the 'Radical War' after 1819 as detailed in "The Scottish Insurrection of 1820" will know only too well.
The fact was that on one side the authorities and military were very well aware of the effect of Peterloo on Scottish radicals. In practical terms, in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars and the victory at Waterloo in 1815, they knew that many of the workers were still capable in the use of arms, ammunition and training of recruits. The senior ranking officer in the Glasgow area, Colonel Northcott, took immediate steps to try and prevent trouble. Firstly, to barricade the Royal Bank with his loyal yeomanry and secondly to position cannon on every bridge across the Clyde to stop radicals moving into the city centre. But Glasgow was not to be the centre for early mass protest, plans were already afoot in Paisley by the Paisley Radical Committee, the strongest in the country. Their own military training had already begun secretly after nightfall, and when news of Peterloo reached them they were confirmed in their opinion of the ruthlessness of the yeomanry. Attitudes hardened and on the outskirts of town 'drilling got brisker than ever'. Protest meetings were quickly organised all over Scotland and in Paisley plans were laid to seize the local Yeomanry's arms and ammunition if the need arose. A mass rally was organised in Paisley on Saturday, Sept 11th 1819 and large numbers of radicals from the surrounding area, including Glasgow, converged on Paisley carrying furled banners. The Glasgow contingent of 300 left the city 'carrying eight flags, edged in black, a token gesture to the dead of Peterloo.' A band from Neilston played 'Scots Wa Hae' and the crowd now numbering 18,000 strong gathered at a meeting place on the outskirts of the town united in their determination to commemorate the victims of Manchester. A local Paisley schoolmaster, Alexander Taylor, chaired the meeting denouncing the massacre. He called for the punishment of the perpetrators and condemned the Glasgow Chronicle for attacking the Manchester radicals. Another speaker called for the rights of workers to assemble in peaceful demonstration and another proclaimed 'Sooner shall the loch crash over Ben Lomond than the sons of Caledonia be silent'.
After the meeting a collection was taken for relatives of the victims of Peterloo and the crowd left the site with bands playing. The Neilston contingent sensed trouble in the town when they saw police in the distance and side-tracked down Storie Street, leaving Paisley in safety. The Glasgow radicals however marched down the High Street with banners waving and became involved in a scuffle at the Cross with the Lord Provost and the local constabulary. This occurred in the early evening and as crowds gathered on the streets stones and missiles were thrown and a riot ensued. At 10 p.m. the Riot Act was read and troops of Hussars commandeered from Glasgow galloped into the town. But the crowds were not deterred so easily and pitched battles occurred which lasted several days. It wasn't until a week later on Sept 18th that an uneasy quiet returned to the streets of Paisley.
Warrants were issued for the arrest of the ringleaders. Alexander Taylor, Chairman of the meeting on Sept 11th escaped the country to Montreal in Canada. He got a job teaching but sadly was robbed and murdered by an English soldier there who was only convicted for the robbery serving just two years in prison.
During the weeks rioting there were many injuries on both sides and damage done to buildings, including the Council Chambers. Gun shops were raided for arms and ammunition, railings torn up for weapons from the front of the Methodist Church in George Street and the calvary's horses were slowed down by the use of planks across the streets. Despite a curfew and a reward offered of 30 guineas for information by the civic authorities, radical feelings still simmered and on Sept 20th the Paisley Council sought permission to establish a permanent barracks in Paisley and until then a rifle corps of two companies was formed, each of 120 men, who would be called to arms by the alarm of the High Church Bell in case of any uprising.
It wasn't long though before the radicals gathered their forces for another demonstration - this time it was held in Johnstone. The 32 flags showed portraits of William Wallace and mottos stressing ' liberty our object, reason our guide'. The marchers went to Elderslie and halted beneath the 'Wallace Tree' playing the Scots national anthem. They then marched back to Paisley 'armed, it is said, with two great battle axes in front'. The authorities were well prepared, troops had been lying in wait for them all day, with sabres drawn, at two inns in Paisley, the Tontine and Saracen. Once again Storie Street provided the radicals with an escape route and they were able to disperse in safety before the calvary could reach them.
There were other demonstrations in Scotland in support of the Manchester radicals at this time, the most notable one being at Kirkcaldy, on Nov 3rd because fourteen resolutions were read out and unanimously adopted by the assembly of 5 to 6,000 people. These resolutions protested at the outrage of the Peterloo Massacre and called 'loudly for justice' and that the radical committees shall 'act in concert' until 'that grand object of Radical Reform be obtained.' One speaker compared Peterloo 'with the horrible massacre of Glencoe' and proclaimed that 'the brave sons of Caledonia shall never suffer those rights to be torn from them which they inherited from their ancestors, obtained by their courage and sealed with their blood.'
1820 proved to be a decisive year for the Radical Committee of Scotland. John Parkhill was elected commisar-general in Paisley and Daniel Bell, previously the drill sergeant, was made Captain. The authorities were now using other tactics to undermine the radicals and by March a spy system, instigated in Scotland by Lord Sidmouth swung into action. The entire 28 man committee of Scottish Radicals were arrested in Glasgow after a meeting on March 21st, even though the Paisley delegate suspected an informer was present. Two hours later the news reached Paisley, the committee there held a brief meeting and decided to disperse and take refuge in the woods of the Gleniffer Braes. It was at this time that the trial took place at the York Assizes of Henry Hunt and the Manchester radicals of Peterloo, arousing further feelings of outrage. Paisley again became the main centre of insurgent activity and fierce street battles. The radicals there were well organised - they printed their own 'Provisional Government of Scotland' banknotes to exchange for arms and ammunition, the Paisley weavers were heavily involved and wove 'webs' or cartridge holders on their looms. The Radical Committee met in the weaver's shop, named 'The Smiddy' in Maxwellton Street.
Fearing the worst after the Paisley riots the previous year, troops were rushed into Paisley and an official proclamation declaring a curfew was put up and promptly torn down by the town people who replaced it with a radical address. Street battles now ensued with the insurgents led by Daniel Bell. During the course of the fighting fire was exchanged and Adam Cochrane a weaver was killed, a woman was also killed and in Lady Lane an old man died from wounds inflicted by the bayonets of the soldiers charging the crowd. These events lasted for days with raids and arrests by the military who eventually in Paisley town numbered 1000 strong. Warrants were issued for arrests of ringleaders whose names were obtained from informers - John Dickie was the secretary of the Paisley Radical Committee and when troops approached his house Mrs. Dickie seized her husbands papers and 'threw them into a kettle and put it on the fire, thus no incriminating evidence was found to convict him. By April 4th unrest in Glasgow caused the authorities to issue a proclamation there as all mills and factories had come to a standstill. Throughout the summer attack and counter-attack by the military continued, culminating in August and September of the hangings of James Wilson, John Baird and Andrew Hardie.
Trials of the radicals in Paisley were held in July 1820 after many arrests. As no Paisley court was large enough to hold the trials, St. Georges Church was converted for the purpose. Radical feeling in Paisley was far from subdued after news spread of the terrible conditions suffered by the prisoners. John Fraser, a Johnstone schoolmaster, described their cell as 'swarming with bugs innumerable, we were 'covered with the bloody tribe from which there was no escape.' What of the 28 members of the Scottish Radical Committee ? They were still languishing in prison in November 1820 uncharged; their fate is still a mystery according to Peter Beresford Ellis writing in 1970.
Those more fortunate in escaping the military had to lie low in the country, sleeping rough; many escaped to Canada and were declared outlaws until the coronation of George IV in July 1821 when the government issued them with pardons. John Parkhill returned to Paisley, settled in Sneddon Street with his family, later writing a History of Paisley. One event of significance occurred in Paisley on 31st October 1822. After these turbulent years the Paisley radicals had not forgotten their fellow radicals in Manchester; a meeting was held in the Saracen's Inn in celebration of Henry Hunts' release from the Ilchester Bastille. An old rare pamphlet still exists with details of this social occasion, the speeches, toasts and full text of all the many Scottish songs, including of course, 'Scots Wa Hae'.
It is known that the Manchester Guardian newspaper was founded as a result of the Peterloo Massacre, and in 1840 two years after the Chartist Movement took root in Scotland, John Fraser the Johnstone schoolmaster, founded the Chartist newspaper. 'The True Scotsman' - the radical voice of that great movement for reform. Today, the action of Salford schoolchildren has led to the Manchester City Council agreeing to replace the old plaque commemorating Peterloo with a new, more informative one, clearly showing the numbers killed and injured.
There is no doubt looking back after 188 years that the impact of Peterloo was felt most keenly by the Paisley radicals. The slogans on their banners also echo the theme of universal suffrage, liberty, humanity and reform that were carried at Peterloo. But strikingly obvious is the fact that the events of 1790 and the United Scotsmen, were still fresh in their memory. The 28 man committee planned to organise a Provisional Government after the armed uprising and believed that Scottish radicals would be the direct inheritors of the Scottish republican ideal. This was fully upheld and supported in Paisley, the centre of the weaving trade in Scotland and also 'the main centre of radicalism.' Unfortunately, the authorities were only too well aware of this and used a large spy network and agent provocateurs to create a false insurrection leading to mass arrests and crushing of the uprising.
Much of this period of Scottish history faded with time, education in Scotland's schools became a succession of English kings and queens. The British Labour Movement remembered Peterloo, but ignorance of the events which closely followed it in Scotland continued well into the twentieth century. We owe a debt of gratitude to Peter Beresford Ellis and Seumas Mac a' Ghobainn for their meticulous research which led to the publication of 'The Scottish Insurrection of 1820' in 1970, republished in 2001, and for the sterling work of the 1820 Society. Interest has been aroused by the work of local musuems and local history projects in schools and communities.
Today we now have a new Scottish Government in Edinburgh with the S.N.P. embarking on their first full session in power ten years after the Scottish referendum. It is certainly timely to reflect on the part played by radicals in our history. April 1820 is referred to as 'the last armed uprising on British soil.' This struggle of workers, denied a voice in the governance of their country, was definitely 'not a regional branch of the English radical movement' nor 'an isolated historical incident', but it was a combination of fierce reaction to their appalling social conditions and a challenge to the very establishment of the 1707 Treaty of Union. Scottish working class history is rooted in the Scottish Radical Movement - in this respect I have tried to show how Paisley played a leading and important role.
1. I make no excuse for using and quoting extensively from "The Scottish Insurrection of 1820". Recommended reading for a full picture of the period.
2. "Peterloo" C.P.G.B. Pamphlet 1969
3. "Radical and Red Poets and Poetry" - compiled by Eddie and Ruth Frow. These two writers have done a wonderful job on English radical history, particularly in Manchester and Salford.
Report of Trial of Henry Hunt and other Manchester Radicals 1820 Glasgow Research Collection, Caledonian University.
(SRSM Colour party at Bonnymuir commemoration)