The Age of George III
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After the end of the French Wars, it became increasingly clear that England was suffering from great social, economic and political upheavals. These problems collectively became known as the 'Condition of England Question'. Many of these problems would have occurred eventually but had been speeded up by the effects of the French Wars on the country. Most of the major changes were the direct result of the French Wars. Others came from natural growth and change. The distress and discontent caused by these enormous changes were manifested in a series of events in the period 1811-19. One of these was the so-called March of the Blanketeers, which followed the Spa Fields Riots.
In February 1817, a radical meeting had been held in Manchester at which Drummond, one of the organisers of the 'March of the Blanketeers' had spoken. Drummond and Baguley were considered to be two of the most extreme of the Manchester radicals. A government agent reported on Drummond's address to the meeting:
Mr. Drummond arose and stated, i.e. asked, what business a man had with £39,000 per annum, and another with £38,000, another with two millions who had lost his senses if ever he had any [George III] - another man with 1,500,000, our illustrious, gracious, good or rather shall I say big fat man [the Prince Regent] - what right have they with this money - whilst those whom they have robbed are starving for want. A great deal he said of a similar nature. Mr. Baguley attempted to prove from the Magna Charta Act what he had stated on the Monday night before respecting the seizure of the King. He would have gone to great lengths if he had not been called to order by the Chairman... (HWC Davis, "Lancashire Reformers", Bulletin of the John Ryland Library, 1926, pp. 74)
Early in March 1817 a 'hunger-march' to London was organised, made up of spinners and weavers from Manchester where trade had taken a downturn, resulting in great distress for the workers. The idea was advocated by two radical reformers, Bagguley and Drummond - neither of whom intended to take part in the march. The idea was that the weavers should march in groups of ten, each man with a blanket on his back and a petition to the Prince Regent fastened to his arm. The petitions contained a request that the Prince would take measures to remedy the wretched state of the cotton trade. . A magistrates' spy reported on the assembly of the marchers in Manchester:
Drummond said . . . . We will let them see it is not riot and disturbance we want, it is bread we want and we will apply to our noble Prince as a child would to its Father for bread. If the whole hosts of hell come against me I will not stir an inch; for so must the soldiers or anything else be that come to oppose so lawful and constitutional a proceeding. Whatever you do behave orderly and show your enemies that decorum they themselves ought to show. Baguley said . . . . Now, gentlemen, if any one breaks the peace we will deliver him up to the first magistrate we come to. (HWC Davis, "Lancashire Reformers", Bulletin of the John Ryland Library, 1926, pp. 76-7)
The march began with an open-air meeting in St Peter's Fields, Manchester, where the magistrates read the Riot Act and arrested Bagguley and Drummond. Between six and seven hundred men set out in drizzling rain but many of them were arrested by the dragoons, Yeo manry and special constables before they reached Stockport. Around four or five hundred got as far as Macclesfield and Leek; most of them were turned back at the Hanging Bridge over the Dove as they were about to enter Derbyshire. Only one man reached London.
The March of the Blanketeers was a clever scheme, combining all the advantages of legality with all the opportunities of development into something else. There was no law to prevent small parties of unarmed men from making their way to London. Providing that they kept on the move, committed no trespass, and did not obstruct the public highway, there was no charge that could be brought against them with any chance of securing a conviction. When the magistrates ordered them to disperse at the beginning of the march, they did so at once because that was what they wanted to do. When the Yeomanry arrested nearly two hundred of them outside Stockport, they did not know what to do with them. The jails were full and there was nothing with which they could be charged, since they had not broken the law. The authorities thought it better to send them home. However, there had always been the chance that a peaceable hunger-march would grow into an army as it moved south and Lord Sidmouth was sure that this was the intention. The protest fizzled out but the Manchester pattern of discontent in times of hardship created great fears of revolution among the ruling classes.
Although the groups of demonstrators were broken up, one man - Abel Couldwell - did manage to get to London and duly presented his petition. the rest either scattered or were put in gaol as vagrants. Since the authorities did not know what to do with them, the men were released - often without trial - after spending varying periods of time in prison. The next manifestation of distress and discontent came in June 1817 with the Pentrich Rising (or Derbyshire Insurrection).
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