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Peterloo and the Pressure for Reform


The nature of disputes in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century fall into two categories: industrial/economic and political.

Industrial disputes include: 1797 naval mutinies; trade union activity centred around the shipping and textile industries; Luddism between 1811 and 1812 in the framework knitting industry of Notts, Leics and Derbys, the woollen industry of Yorks and the cotton industry in Lancs and Cheshire. Interpretations of Luddism vary - some see it as a conservative, reactionary movement, others as part of the revolutionary and insurrectionist spirit, others as primarily industrial. Luddism was characterised by machine-breaking but this was only one tactic among a number tried.

Political activity included: an attempt by Wyvill to revive the Yorkshire Association based on a peace movement; the 1802 Black Lamp conspiracy, the Burdett affair of 1810 which led to the radical MP being imprisoned in the tower; the establishment of Hampden and Union Clubs; Peterloo and the Queen Caroline affair.

The Press

There are three strands which transformed the newspaper press in the late-eighteenth early-nineteenth century: the national press, the provincial press and the radical press.

The establishment of an independent, national, political press can be illustrated by the founding of The Times newspaper in 1785. After 1803 it eschewed government subsidies and took an independent line under its editor John Walter. In 1819 it was critical over the establishment's handling of Peterloo and defended itself by claiming that it was an independent journal.

Provincial newspapers proliferated in the 1780s and 1790s based on the emergent industrial towns of the north. Previously few provincial papers carried original material and existed merely as advertising sheets. There were heavy taxes which prevented their establishment and government repression and censorship. Fox's Libel Act of 1792 allowed libel to be heard by juries rather than judges and was a landmark piece of legislation in the establishment of a provincial press. Early examples were Gale's Sheffield Register, the Manchester Herald, Montgomery's Sheffield Iris and Baines' Leeds Mercury. The new papers had editorial comment, local news reporting, publicised local political meetings, reported on elections, attended Assizes and published reports of parliamentary proceedings.

Radical unstamped press emerged between 1790 and 1840. Initially little more than cheap pamphlets. Government repressive action meant that these had disappeared by the end of the 1790s. They were revived with peace in 1815 with the establishment of the most famous, Cobbett's Political Register which advocated a radical reform programme. The paper was cheap at 2d per copy and achieved a regular weekly circulation of 40,000. Other important radical papers included the Cap of Liberty, the Black Dwarf, the Medusa and the Republican edited by Richard Carlile. The government mounted a counter offensive against these papers but this was ultimately counter productive leading to the proliferation of the unstamped press. The Whig government of 1836 ultimately conceded defeat reducing stamp duty to 1d but by then over 800 journalists and publishers had been imprisoned.