Two hundred years ago in Britain the industrial revolution was transforming manufacturing, but also producing a slum living environment and inhumane working conditions in the new mills and factories. Fewer than 2% of the population had the vote and, up and down the country, there were occurring mass popular meetings calling for parliamentary reform. On August 16th 1819, four years after the battle of Waterloo that had defeated ‘Boney’ (Napoleon Bonaparte), a crowd of 60,000 people gathered at St Peter’s Field in Manchester to hear a reforming speech from Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt.

Three local magistrates, two of whom were Clerics, ordered the local Manchester and Salford Yeomanry Cavalry to arrest the speaker and these civilian troopers, backed by the regular army 15th Hussars, drew their sabres and charged the crowd, leaving an estimated 18 dead – including 4 women and a child – and some 700 injured. Samuel Bamford, the weaver-poet, who had taken part in the protest, spoke-out about what he had seen:

‘Sabres were plied to hew a way through naked held-up hands and defenceless heads; and then chopped limbs and wound-gaping skulls were seen and groans and cries were mingled with the din of that horrid confusion.’

John Lees died three weeks later from the injuries he sustained at St Peter’s Field. He had joined the army at 14-year-of-age and at 17 had been one of the British Army ‘heroes’ who had fought at Waterloo to defeat ‘Boney’. Lees then left the army and returned to Oldham in Lancashire and his old job as a cotton spinner. A number of witnesses stated that John Lees was sober and had offered no violence as the troopers attacked him.

Ironically, it is probable that this Waterloo veteran had his mortal wounds inflicted by his former comrades in arms, the 15th Hussars, some of which were proudly wearing their Waterloo medals as they charged the crowd:

‘Before he died John Lees said he was never in such danger at Waterloo as he was at the meeting, for at Waterloo it was man to man but at Manchester it was downright murder. He was not alone in that assessment. Other people seized upon the presence of Waterloo veterans such as himself in the unarmed crowds, and upon the actions of the 15th Hussars … [and] the savage sobriquet “Peterloo” was bestowed.’
[The Peterloo Massacre, by Joyce Marlow, Panther Books 1971].


Control & Struggle

Many centuries before in England, the early Norman monarchs had ruled with a curia regis (royal court), but in the 13th century the barons had challenged the royal ‘divine right’, demanding that the king’s rule be subject to the ‘common council’ of the realm. Their Magna Carta, however, was only intended to allow the barons a say in decision-making – and the ordinary people, or peasants as they were called, were not included.

There were frequent indigenous revolts against the feudal ‘Norman Yoke’, especially against serfdom, excessive taxes, and a corrupt judicial system. Another issue was the dispossession of the poor from public land by an aristocracy who were intent on securing large estates for private profit. In England, the ancestral memory of this resistance has become embodied in folk legends like Robin Hood.

In 1381 workers and peasants from Kent and Essex revolted against a new poll tax and marched on London. John Ball, a radical priest, questioned why there should be lords and vassals by asking: ‘When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?’ Ball then told the rebels:

‘Good friends, matters cannot go well in England until all things be held in common; when there shall be neither vassals nor lords; when the lords shall be no more masters than ourselves’.

Some tax collectors and nobles were assassinated, but the revolt was suppressed after its leader, Wat Tyler – who was a former soldier in the king’s army – was killed. John Ball was captured and hung, drawn and quartered, but the poll tax was removed.

The Tudors, who ruled through a coterie of royal appointed advisors and administrators, then set England on the road to a centralised – and London, the merchant capital, dominated – strong state. Parliament, which gradually evolved with a House of Lords and the House of Commons in the Palace of Westminster, was at first only called to gain public support for the monarch’s will on matters of national importance. As it evolved, however, parliament threatened to become an alternative form of rule and its victory in the English Civil War opened the way for the domination of emerging capitalism.

Oliver Cromwell’s semi-revolution did break ‘the divine right of kings’, but the following suppression of the Levellers and Diggers ensured that a new elite emerged and dominated. The Levellers, who had fought with Cromwell, had attempted to bring real democracy to England and among their aims and aspirations was to see a broadly based government elected annually on democratic principles.

The Levellers had also wanted Parliament to become a debating and decision-making forum for all the people. Their defeat, by Cromwell, ensured that Westminster instead became a chamber where new establishment factions, with their vested interests, ironed out their differences and then took decisions and made laws that maintained their control and increased their wealth. After Cromwell’s death, these forces made an accommodation with the defeated monarchy and aristocracy – forming a ruling elite who have controlled the life of the nation ever since.

Before the English Civil War, the church and monarchy had determined most people’s lives and afterwards the state gradually assumed the pre-eminent role. The constitutional monarchy, which emerged from 1688, had little to do with democracy and everything to do with keeping power in the hands of the merchants, financiers, land owners and the aristocracy. Those that fought for the rights of the ordinary people, like the Levellers and Diggers, were hunted down and repressed:


The Threat of Revolution

Towards the end of the 18th century Britain’s ruling-class faced revolutions abroad and unrest at home, which proved the greatest threat to their power since the Levellers. In 1781, as an army band played ‘The World Turned Upside Down,’ defeated British solders had marched out of their Yorktown encampment in Virginia and surrendered their weapons. Some of the victorious Americans
thought that many of the British soldiers were drunk, because they ‘were disorderly and unsoldierly’ and ‘their step was irregular and their ranks frequently broken’.

Eight years after the colonial revolt in America, which resulted in the loss of that colony, the Bastille was stormed and the French Revolution of 1789 with its slogans, ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,’ inspired a rapid spread of democratic ideas throughout Europe and the world. William Wordsworth, who had lived in France at the start of the Revolution, recollected the mood of those times in these lines from his poem ‘The Prelude’:

‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven’.

Tom Paine, who had supported America in its fight for independence from Britain and the upsurge in France, wrote ‘Rights of Man’ in support of the two revolutions:

‘Never did so great an opportunity offer itself to England, and to all Europe, as is produced by the two Revolutions of America and France. By the former, freedom has a national champion in the western world; and by the latter, in Europe. When another Nation shall join France, despotism and bad Government will scarcely dare to appear. To use a trite expression, the iron is becoming hot all over Europe. … The present age will hereafter merit to be called the Age of Reason, and the present generation will appear to the future as the Adam of the new world.’
[Rights of Man, by Thomas Paine,
London 1791].

Paine, who had also condemned England for cruelty towards East Indians, American Indians and African slaves, championed national independence, popular rights and revolutionary war. In ‘Rights of Man’ he stated:

‘When the Governments of Europe shall be established on the representative system, Nations will become acquainted, and the animosities and the prejudices fomented by the intrigue and artifice of Courts will cease. The oppressed soldier will become a freeman; and the tortured sailor, no longer dragged along the streets like a felon, will pursue his mercantile voyage in safety.’
[Rights of Man, by Thomas Paine,
 London 1791].

The French Revolution had shown that the old order could be overthrown. Paine’s writings, in the tradition of the Levellers, supported this sentiment. In England, he was condemned for ‘treason’ and his book was promptly banned:

‘Paine was not writing academic exercises: he was calling the dispossessed to action. The Levellers had proclaimed the rights of man in the English Revolution, and were promptly suppressed. Paine wrote in a situation little less revolutionary, and potentially far more dangerous to the ruling class. The most enthusiastic response to the French Revolution came from the victims of the industrial revolution, the small craftsmen and the uprooted countrymen – just those classes among whom the tradition of lost rights lingered longest. To them the rights of man furnished a telling criticism of the constitution from which they were excluded. The tramp of their feet and the mutterings of their illegal discussions is the essential background to Paine’s writings. Despite savage repression, although men were sent to jail for selling it, 200,000 copies of Rights of Man were distributed: a circulation beyond the Levellers’ wildest dreams.’
[Puritanism and Revolution, by Christopher Hill, Panther 1968].

The apprehensive authorities in London then set about constructing an efficient spy network. The Home Office’s Alien Office, originally set up to keep tabs on refugees from revolutionary France, gradually expanded until it was running agents across Europe, including in Britain and Ireland. Information from spies, informers, Bow Street Runners, watchmen, the Customs and the Post Office opening of mail was systematically collected – and regularly used to launch state repression and the activities of agent provocateurs.

The ‘Great Mutiny’ in the Royal Navy

In 1795, six years after the storming of the Bastille in Paris, crowds in London mobbed King George III in his carriage as he rode down Whitehall. This was no show of affection, as his coach was stoned and rocked, the king heard the crowd chanting ‘Peace!’ ‘Bread!’ ‘No War!’ ‘No King!’ A shot was also fired at the king’s coach and some windows of the prime minister’s house in Downing Street were broken.

William Pitt’s Tory government then extended the treason laws to include the articulation of republican philosophy and banned mass meetings. Two years later, in 1797, Royal Navy ships at anchor at Spithead and the Nore hoisted blood red flags. This was normally the signal that ships were about to engage the enemy – but in this case indicated a mutiny that included almost the entire fleet.

This revolt of the ‘Floating Republic’ was not surprising as many seamen were forced into service by press-gangs and treated like prisoners once on board a ship. Under savage discipline, they endured abominable conditions and were often owed large sums of back pay. Many of the sailors who died during the war against revolutionary France, lost their lives from disease or accidents on the large but cramped warships.

Richard Parker was elected President of the ‘Floating Republic’ and he and the delegates from the ships produced a statement to explain their predicament and their subsequent actions to their ‘Fellow-subjects’:

‘Countrymen, it is to you particularly that we owe an explanation of our conduct. His Majesty’s Ministers too well know our intentions, which are founded on the laws of humanity, honour and national safety – long since tramped underfoot by those who ought to have been friends to us – the sole protectors of your laws and property.
The public prints teem with falsehoods and misrepresentations to induce you to credit things as far from our design as the conduct of those at the helm of national affairs is from honesty or common decorum.

Shall we who have endured the toils of a tedious, disgraceful war, be the victims of tyranny and oppression which vile, gilded, pampered knaves, wallowing in the lap of luxury, choose to load us with?
Shall we, who amid the rage of the tempest and the war or jarring elements, undaunted climb the unsteady cordage and totter on the top-mast’s dreadful height, suffer ourselves to be treated worse than the dogs on London Streets?

Shall we, who in the battle’s sanguinary rage, confound, terrify and subdue your proudest foe, guard your coasts from invasion, your children from slaughter, and your lands from pillage – be the footballs and shuttlecocks of a set of tyrants who derives from us alone their honours, their titles and their fortunes?
No, the age of Reason has at length revolved. Long have we been endeavouring to find ourselves men. We now find ourselves so. We will be treated as such.

… You cannot, countrymen, form the most distant idea of the slavery under which we have for many years laboured. Rome had her Neros and Caligulas, but how many characters of their description might we not mention in the British Fleet – men without the least tincture of humanity, without the faintest spark of virtue, education or abilities, exercising the most wanton acts of cruelty over those whom dire misfortune or patriotic zeal may have placed in their power – basking in the sunshine of prosperity, whilst we (need we repeat who we are?) labour under every distress which the breast of inhumanity can suggest …’
[The Great Mutiny, by James Dugan, A Mayflower Paperback 1970].

This communication was intercepted by the Admiralty and kept secret from the public. The mutiny was put down with Richard Parker and 29 other ‘ringleaders’ hanged and many other seamen flogged or jailed. But afterwards, pay and conditions for sailors were improved; this became the authorities formula for handling soldiers and sailor’s unrest – savage repression followed by a few limited concessions.


The United Irishmen

In Ireland, by 1798, the numbers of British forces had risen in a few years from around 14,000 to over 80,000, many in yeomanry and militia units. The reason for this expansion of troops was the emergence of the United Irishmen, who were known to have links with revolutionary France and to be intent on uniting the Irish people and creating a free and independent Ireland.

Many of the Scottish settlers who had flooded into the north east of Ireland from 1609 were Presbyterians. They had also suffered from oppressive landlords and experienced religious discrimination under the Anglican establishment. Some Presbyterians formed their own secret societies to fight back, but they did enjoy some privileges over the native Irish, with their land rights protected by the ‘Ulster Custom’ system of tenure.

A linen industry was also allowed to develop, which gave rise to a prosperous business class. These descendants of the settlers, who had now been in Ireland for generations and regarded themselves as Irish, had developed their own cultural and economic interests, which were different not only from the native Irish but from the English establishment also.

Extensive numbers of Presbyterians had already moved on from Ireland to America, where many had volunteered to join with other colonists to declare, then fight and win, their independence from Britain. Protestant United Irishmen similarly wanted to be rid of British imposed economic restrictions and corrupt political rule. The movement’s leader, Theobald Wolfe Tone, stated that his aims were:

‘To subvert the tyranny of our execrable government, to break the connection with England, the never-failing source of all our political evils and to assert the independence of my country – these were my objects. To unite the whole people of Ireland, to abolish the memory of all past dissensions and to substitute the common name of Irishmen in place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter – these were my means.’

Many Presbyterians and Dissenters (non-conformist Protestants with a strong anti-authoritarian tradition) now supported the United Irishmen. This situation, however, created a dilemma for many of the descendants of the settlers in Ireland, who had been planted in the country to keep it safe for English rule. Tone wanted to resolve their contradictions in a progressive direction and gain Ireland’s independence by uniting them with the native Irish. For a short period, Belfast became a revolutionary centre. On the streets, enthusiastic supporters of the French Revolution had celebrated the fall of the Bastille with parades and flags.

As support for the United Irishmen grew, the city became a haven of enlightenment and religious toleration. Thomas McCabe, a United Irishman who was also a Belfast jeweller, persuaded local businessmen to give up the chance to take part in the slave trade:

‘In 1786, some of Belfast’s richest merchants met to discuss ways in which to become involved in the lucrative British slave trade. As they prepared to sign a document forming a slave-trade company, they were interrupted by McCabe: “May God wither the hand and consign the name to eternal infamy of the man who will sign that document.” The threat worked. Unlike Bristol and Liverpool, Belfast was not drawn into the slave trade.’
[The New Internationalist, No. 255 / May 1994, Article ‘The Riotous and the Righteous,’ by Bill Rolston].

General Lake, the commander of the British forces, said: ‘Belfast ought to be proclaimed and punished most severely as it is plain every act of sedition originates in this town.’

Repression at Home and Abroad

The British authorities then took steps to curb the United Irishmen, closing their papers the Press and the Northern Star, and declaring such publications ‘illegal’. Martial Law, under the 1797 Insurrection Act, was enacted in Ulster and British troops were used to attempt to pacify the country and suppress the United Irishmen:

‘As early as March 1793, General Richard Whyte encouraged his troops, his “charming boys” as he called them, to go on the rampage through Belfast attacking the homes and business premises of known radicals and beating anyone who got in the way. “There are no lives lost” reported Whyte, “but many marks of the sharp edge of their sabres.”
[Indiscipline and Disaffection in the armed forces in Ireland in the 1790s, by Thomas Bartlett, 1985].

Many ‘troublemakers’ were arrested and deported to the colonies or forced to join the Royal Navy. During the protest actions at Spithead and the Nore some 15,000 sailors were Irish – many were former United Irishmen, impressed into the navy, who enthusiastically joined in the mutiny.

In Scotland, the Friends of the People Society and later United Scotsmen societies, organised radical opposition to the establishment status-quo. But the leaders, including Thomas Muir of Huntershill, were arrested and tried for ‘sedition’ or ‘high treason.’ Muir was sentenced to fourteen years’ transportation to Australia. Robert Burns, meanwhile, tried to keep the radical tradition alive through poems like: ‘The Tree of Liberty’ and ‘A Man’s a Man for a’ That.’

In ‘Thanksgiving For a National Victory’ Burns expressed sentiments that could have been about wars in our own time:

Ye hypocrites! are these your pranks?
To murder men, and give God thanks?
Desist, for shame! Proceed no further:
God won’t accept your thanks for Murder!

There was close contact between revolutionary organisations in Britain and those in Ireland. Muir was made an honorary member of the United Irishmen and, in 1792, the Address of the United Irishmen of Dublin to the English Society of the Friends of the People suggested how the future relationship between Britain and Ireland could be created:

‘As to any union between the two islands, believe us when we assert that our union rests upon our mutual independence. We shall love each other if we be left to ourselves. It is the union of the mind that ought to bind these nations together’.

In Ireland, the military authorities were becoming concerned about the increasing evidence of support among the militias for the United Irishmen. At Blaris barracks, near Lisburn, County Antrim, four men from the Monaghan militia were shot after a court martial. The men, Daniel Gillan, Owen McCanna, William McCanna and Peter McCarron were alleged to have made contact with the United Irishmen and to have organised a secret officer structure within their unit. The rest of the soldiers were ordered to witness the executions and to march past the bodies afterwards.

Britain’s rulers had found that holding onto empire often proved more difficult than conquering it in the first place. Gradually strategies, that later would become known as counter-insurgency, were developed. One of these was to harass freedom movements and force them into premature rebellion, which could then be crushed by the superior state forces. Another was the old favourite – divide and rule – and so, in Ireland, the sparks of segregation lit during the plantations were now used by the establishment in attempts to ignite the smouldering animosities between the native Catholics and the descendants of the Protestant settlers.

Predominately Protestant militias were used against Catholic areas, which supported the United Irish, and vice versa. The anti-Catholic Orange Order was formed in 1795 and General John Knox, an Ulster landlord who like Lake advocated taking a hard-line, said that his military operations were designed ‘to increase the animosity between the Orangemen and the United Irishmen … Upon that animosity depends the safety of the centre counties of the North’.

The authorities then helped to arm the Orange Order and encouraged its members to join the state forces. Local ‘loyal’ armed forces of Yeomanry were formed and used to attack the United Irishmen.

In Britain similar units were formed to protect the rich and suppress the poor:

‘The Yeomanry, a mounted force drawn from the upper and middle classes, were created at the beginning of the French wars. Quite useless from a military point of view, the yeomanry was, and was intended to be, a class body with the suppression of “Jacobinism” as its main objective. This objective they pursued with an enthusiasm and an unfailing brutality which earned them universal hatred.’
[A Peoples History of England, by A. L. Morton, Seven Seas 1965].

In Ireland, like at Peterloo, the Yeomanry quickly earned a reputation for cruelty and barbarism as they were used against the United Irish and the population of areas thought to be supporting them.

Rebellion and Defeat

In early 1798 Ireland stood on the edge of rebellion, waiting for the arrival of the French troops, which ‘Boney’ had promised to Wolfe Tone. British attempts to crush the United Irishmen intensified, with hangings, floggings, pitch-cappings, incarcerations and killings becoming commonplace. The authorities were determined to cow the movement into submission – or force it into an early rebellion before the French arrived:

‘In March 1798 the British authorities extended the repression southwards to the province of Leinster. They first arrested the United leaders, then unleashed a systematic terror against the peasantry, burning houses and farms, aiming to terrify them into giving up their weapons. Unable to wait any longer for the French to arrive, and facing a choice of rebellion or being destroyed, some 100,000 people rose in revolt in May and early June 1798.
They rose first in the midlands and southwest, and were followed by the Presbyterians of Antrim and Down. In some places it was as if the whole countryside was on the move. … But within weeks the rebellion began to collapse, overcome by the lack of central organisation, the failure of the French to arrive, and the superior military force of the opposition. At the end of August 1,000 French troops led by General Humbert … landed in Killala, County Mayo. They won some initial victories … but they were too few and too late. The peasantry in much of the country were already crushed.’ [The Cause of Ireland, by Liz Curtis, Beyond the Pale 1994].

Another wave of savage repression followed the defeat of the United Irishmen. Tone was captured and died in prison, with his throat cut, while awaiting public execution.

In the American Revolution the radicals, who had helped initiate it, were marginalized and revolutionary principals – like ‘all men are created equal’ and that the purpose of government was to safeguard these rights – while still being voiced, were never to be fully implemented. Instead, those representing land and business interests took control and under George Washington, a major landowner, the fight was then fuelled by land-hunger and the business opportunities it was thought would accrue if British rule, taxation and restrictive laws were removed. Afterwards, the exploitation of black slaves persisted and the extermination of the native American Indians – and the taking of their land – continued apace.

Like the revolutions in America, France and in the English Civil War, the United Irishmen were composed of a variety of forces with differing motives. The radicals wanted all of Irish society to be reorganised in a democratic way, but others were motivated by hoped for business opportunities. The latter were often inclined to give up in the face of repression and some even changed sides, while the former were inclined to fight to the bitter end and often paid the supreme sacrifice for their temerity.

In 1803, a second rising was launched in Dublin but was soon crushed and the rebel leaders, including Robert Emmet, were executed. Thomas Russell, a former British Army veteran who had served in India, had been a close friend of Wolfe Tone. He was known to be one of the most socially radical Protestants among the United Irish and was detained for 6 years after the first uprising.

After he was released in 1802, Russell, as the Ulster commander, worked with Emmet towards a second uprising. Thomas Russell appeared all over the country covertly organising and promoting revolt, until he was arrested, tried and hanged at Downpatrick in October 1803. But his memory lives on as: ‘The Man from God-knows-where’:


The Enemy Within

Also in 1803, a few months before Emmet and Russell were hanged, Colonel Edward Despard and 6 guardsmen were executed in London, after being found guilty of ‘high treason’. A government spy later claimed that at one time 200 armed soldiers had been ready to launch a coup in the capital. Despard had been a member of the London Corresponding Society (LCS), which in 1798 had appealed to soldiers in Ireland to refuse to act as ‘Agents of enslaving Ireland’.

The LCS went on to say that they sympathized with Irish suffering and stated that:

‘When a People once permits Government to violate the genuine Principles of Liberty, Encroachment will be grafted upon Encroachment; Evil will grow upon Evil; Violation will follow Violation, and Power will engender Power, till the Liberties of ALL will be held at despotic command …’

Ireland had proved a productive laboratory for the development of colonial tactics and repressive methods. The subsequent process of conquest and colonisation around the world made fortunes for those who promoted and controlled it, by plundering natural resources and exploiting native work forces. Those who profited also ensured that laws were enacted back home that allowed British workers to be exploited in a similar way:

‘The great power of the state and the employing class was brought to bear against any attempt by working men to organise to protect their position. In 1719 workmen (but not inventors) were forbidden to take their skills into another country. By an act of 1726 combinations of workers were severely repressed: fourteen years transportation for using violence in labour disputes, death for wilful machine-breaking. But employers had the right to combine, “with the utmost silence and secrecy,” says Adam Smith, to “sink the wages of labour”. … In 1719, when the keelmen of Newcastle struck for higher wages, a regiment of soldiers and a man-of-war were sent to answer them’. [Reformation to Industrial Revolution, by Christopher Hill, 1967].

As the army fought rebellion in Ireland and the French in Europe, the Industrial Revolution, bankrolled by money made from slavery, was to provide a new internal role for the troops. As wool earned huge profits, landowners started turning tenants off the land to make way for sheep and new laws were allowing more and more sections of ‘common land’ to be enclosed.

This greatly increased poverty in the countryside and farm workers joined handicrafts people, who had lost their livelihood to the new methods of production, and others fleeing starvation, including Irish emigrants, to crowd into the disease-ridden industrial towns. There, they were exploited mercilessly by the new captains of industry, who required a plentiful supply of cheap labour for their mines, mills and factories. On starvation wages adults worked long hours in terrible conditions, while children, male and female and as young as seven, were even cheaper to hire and were forced to labour a 15-hour-day.

When efforts were made to better conditions Pitt’s Tory Government brought in the ‘Combinations Laws’, which banned workers from forming trade unions. Inevitably, food riots, machine wrecking and strikes became widespread and by 1812 there were 12,000 soldiers occupying the disturbed counties of Nottinghamshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire:

‘For weeks whole districts on the Lancashire-Yorkshire border were virtually under martial law. And one military command, in particular, established a reign of terror, with arbitrary arrests, searches, brutal questioning, and threats, for which we must turn to Irish history in search of a comparison.’
[The Making of the English Working Class, by E. P. Thompson].

Making Soldiers Deaf

Inside Britain, soldier sometimes sided with the people and government agents repeatedly told of links between soldiers and sailors and revolutionary organisations. In 1795, soldiers were reported to have been the ‘abettors of food rioters’ in Devonshire and in 1800 the Oxfordshire Blues were thanked by the people of Nottingham for their sympathy for the rioters.

In 1816 a Home Office informant said he heard a soldier tell his friends in a pub in Rowley about a letter from his unemployed father who was starving with his family:

‘Charging him if any riot took place in this country for want of work not to hurt none of them. But if compelled to fire, either to fire over their heads, or to shoot the Tyger that gave the order, and to persuade all his comrades to do the same’.

Until 1793, when Britain joined the war against revolutionary France, soldiers stationed in England were billeted among the people in houses and inns. The only barracks were in garrison towns and fortresses. Pitt, the Tory Prime Minister, arguing for a policy of covering the manufacturing districts with barracks, said:

‘The circumstances of the country, coupled with the general state of affairs, rendered it advisable to provide barracks in other parts of the kingdom. A spirit has appeared in some of the manufacturing towns which made it necessary that troops should be kept near them’.
[Parl. Debates, House of Commons, Feb. 22nd, 1793].

In another debate, a few years later, the building of barracks was defended as a means of isolating the soldiers from the people:

‘The Government should act on the maxim of the French comedian: “If I cannot make him [the people] dumb, I will make you [the soldiers] deaf”.’
[Parl. Debates, April 8th, 1796, speaker W. Windham].

After taking up this idea, one hundred and fifty-five barracks had been built by 1815. They were damp and cold with overcrowded living conditions for the soldiers. Life for recruits was to be as harsh and brutish as the buildings in which they were billeted:

‘Once he had taken the Queen’s shilling, the recruit was tamed and cowed into submission by savage drill and remorseless bullying by non-commissioned officers, and the process of “breaking” men, often of poor physique and low health standards, coupled with unhealthy living conditions, gave the army a death-rate many times higher than that of the civilian population. … The common punishment for even the smallest misdemeanour was “pack-drill”, often imposed so ferociously and for so long that the victim was reduced to a state of complete exhaustion. … Deserters were flogged and then branded with gunpowder massaged into the flesh to ensure that the letter ‘D’ remained indelible’.
[Colonial Small Wars 1837-1901, by Donald Featherstone, 1973].

The use of barracks, coupled with cruel discipline and indoctrination, helped to separate soldiers from the feelings of the population. The Army now proved to be an effective instrument for the suppression of popular movements at home. The historian, Professor George Rudé, looked at over a century of popular protests and their suppression by the state forces:

‘From my (no doubt) incomplete and imperfect record of the twenty odd riots and disturbances taking place in Britain between the Edinburgh Porteous Riots of 1736 and the Great Chartist demonstration of April 1848, I totted up the following score: the crowds killed a dozen at most; while, on the other side, the courts hanged 118 and 630 were shot dead by troops’.
[Paris and London in the Eighteenth Century, by G. Rudé, 1970].

Waterloo and Peterloo

In France, the revolution had swept away the monarchy, feudal oppression and fiscal mismanagement – and helped spread democratic ideas across the world. But from the start it had been beset by outside opposition and internal factionalism, which descended into large-scale bloodletting – the terror. Towards the end of the 18th century, the revolutionary leaders, seeking to stem the chaos and terror, began to rely on the army for a measure of stability.

Taking advantage of this situation, Napoleon Bonaparte, then an army general, seized power in a coup d’état. Bonaparte then set France on 15 years of military rule and led the French Army on a course of aggressive imperialism that would see it win many battles and come to dominate much of continental Europe. Britain had been prominent in the opposition to the French revolution and continued that stance against Bonaparte and his French forces, fighting them on
land and at sea.

The decisive battle of the Napoleonic Wars occurred on 18th June 1815, as the armies of the competing imperial powers met at Waterloo. Afterwards, the defeated ‘Boney’ was captured and exiled on the remote island of Saint Helena, in the southern Atlantic Ocean. He died there at the age of 52 on May 5, 1821.

Although there was mass public outrage in Britain after the Peterloo massacre, including sympathy expressed for the victims in some papers, the Tory Government backed the magistrates by implementing new legislation giving them even greater powers. Under the Six Acts, magistrates could: Summarily convict political suspects; Prevent arms training; Search anywhere and Ban meetings. An increased tax was also put on newspapers and radical journals faced drastic penalties for ‘blasphemy and sedition’.

The following year, in April 1820, there occurred a radical revolt in Scotland, when members of Workers’ Union Societies and Radical Committees armed themselves and issued the proclamation of a ‘provisional government’ in Glasgow. The rising was put down and three of its leaders executed. Two of them, Andrew Hardie and John Baird, were army veterans, who had organised a band of armed followers and led them into battle against Yeomanry and 10th Hussars cavalry at Bonnymuir.

Fifteen years later, in 1835, John Wade’s ‘The Extraordinary Black Book – an Exposition of Abuses in Church and State’ stated about the MPs of that time:

‘It is apparent that the vast majority were connected with the Peerage, the Army, Navy, Courts, Law, Public Offices and Colonies. And, in lieu of representing the people, only represented those interests over which it is the constitutional object of a real House of Commons to exercise a watchful and efficient control’.

Ironically, something similar to Wade’s ‘Extraordinary Black Book’ could be written today, as this modern take of the old song ‘The Hard Times of Old England’ shows:


The Struggle Continues

In Britain and Ireland, the suppression of the democratic ideals thrown up by the French Revolution culminated in the defeat of the United Irishmen. The British ruling class survived this revolutionary period by utilising all the means at their disposal. In 1815 at Waterloo the British establishment had finally defeated their greatest external enemy on the continent of Europe; four years later, in 1819, they attacked their enemy within at Peterloo.

To maintain their dominance and control, they unleashed a wave of repression, augmented with draconian laws, spies, informers and agent provocateurs. Police forces in Ireland and Britain were initiated and the army and navy reorganised, with establishment control over all the state forces strengthened. In Britain, in 1824, the Vagrancy Act was decreed to: ‘act for the punishment of idle and disorderly persons, and rogues and vagabonds.’

Actually, it was enacted mainly to deal with the problems that were occurring in England following the Napoleonic Wars, as large numbers of soldiers were discharged on to the streets with no job and no accommodation. The Act, which made it an offence to sleep on the streets or to beg, is still in force – although, it has been amended several times by later legislation.

In our own time, in the second half of the1900s, Britain, again fighting a war in the north of Ireland, also defeated an Argentine invasion force on the Falklands. And many homeless veterans were again on the streets, liable to be prosecuted under the Vagrancy Act. This has happened again and again down the centuries, as youngsters are recruited, then trained and indoctrinated and sent to fight in wars overseas. Afterwards, often suffering from physical and mental wounds, they are left to fend for themselves in Civvy Street – as abandoned cannon fodder.

From the early days of Empire, both at home and abroad, Britain’s establishment had its ‘old boy’ system to help perpetuate its power and control. In the early 1970s, a survey of Britain’s elite found that a large percentages were still ‘old boys’ from public schools:

Army – 86% of officers of the rank of major-general and above.
City – 79.9% of directors of clearing banks.
Church of England – 67.4% of assistant bishops and above.
Judiciary – 80.2% of high court judges and above.
Ambassadors – 82.5% of heads of embassies and legations.
Civil Service – 61.7% of under-secretary level and above.

In 1979, of Margaret Thatcher’s first Tory Cabinet, 19 of the 21 ministers were public school old boys, 6 had been at Eton. Leading up to the Falklands War, opinion polls had shown Margaret Thatcher to be one of the most unpopular Prime Ministers ever. After the ‘great victory’ of the British forces over ‘the Argies’, her popularity soared, allowing her to call a general election in 1983, which she won by a landslide.

The next year, 1984, the ‘old boy’ Tories then inveigled a fight against the strongest section of their enemy within – the miners. Vested interests still prevail and the late Tony Benn, when a Labour MP, explained how the system still controls us today:

‘The British Constitution works in a very subtle way to keep us in our place … And guarantee that the privileges of the powerful are protected from any challenge … The Crown, the Lords, the Honours List and all the paraphernalia of state power play an important part in preserving the status quo.

… We are not citizens, but subjects, for everyone in authority must, by law, swear an oath of allegiance to the monarch before taking up a position. MPs, Cabinet Ministers, peers, judges, police chiefs, and even arch-bishops and bishops, have to swear their homage to the Crown before they can be enthroned. All those in high office got there by an elaborate system of patronage, all done in the name of the Queen. The actual decision in every case is made by the Prime Minister or other Ministers, giving them immense and unaccountable political power.

The power to go to war is a Royal prerogative and Parliament does not even have to be consulted. … Compare a British subject with an American, French, German or Irish citizen and you will find they elect their head of state and both houses of their own parliaments. We are only allowed to elect one house of our Parliament while the Throne and the Lords are occupied by hereditary right of patronage.’
[Sunday Mail (Scotland), 21st April 1996].

There are similarities between Peterloo and the Bloody Sunday shootings of Civil Rights demonstrators in Derry in 1972. The two occasions had only occurred in the first place because people were being denied their basic rights. After both events, ‘Official Inquiries’ were quickly set-up, which cleared the authorities and the troops of any wrongdoing – and instead apportioned blame to those protesting.

Twenty-two years after Peterloo, in 1841, Charles Dickens, one of England’s greatest authors, wrote a satirical new version of the song ‘The Fine Old English Gentleman’ – which has been sung and adapted ever since:

Today, the media, mainly owned by moguls, still plays a key role in maintaining the status quo and in ensuring that only those who are friendly to the interests of big business will get near to the seat of power. We are faced, though, with the presentation of a more sophisticated deception of social equality, because on the surface it would appear that we live in a much more egalitarian society. We still have a long way to go, however, before we can claim that we live in a true democracy – even some of the demands made by the Levellers in the mid-17th century have still to be achieved.

Nowadays, the establishment still battles to maintain their control and fight against their enemies without and within. And we find our lives are increasingly dominated by the neoliberal economic and political agenda, with banks being bailed out with tax-payers money, while those who pay that tax face increasing austerity. In the background multinational companies make obscene profits – and often pay no tax – as the US led ‘New World Order’ forces itself on the rest of the world.

Meanwhile, Westminster Governments are subserviently backing this new market-led imperialism, passing acts and laws to placate the corporations’ requirements and sending our armed forces to fight wars for their benefit. Behind a facade of bourgeois democracy – which gives the illusion of democracy but none of its substance – the ruling class still maintain their supremacy by controlling the state apparatus, including all their forces of repression, as well as the two parliaments at the Palace of Westminster.

Information compiled and written by VFP member Aly Renwick, who served in the British Army for 8 years in the 1960s. His latest novel, Gangrene, is about how the neoliberal economic and political system came to dominance in the UK.


  1. phil newton says:

    Wow Strong stuff

  2. deborah says:

    History; the male’s way of doing things.

    1. jenny Connatty says:

      And what is the female’s way of doing things Deborah?

      In friendship,

    2. David Marchesi says:

      a good point, with “toxic masculinity” mushrooming, including militarism. “Womanism” will, I hope, develop to offer a less violent vision of what people are capable of.

  3. Adrian Brook says:

    Sing John Ball

  4. Adrian Brook says:

    Great article, I was interested to read about about the use of the Yeomanry and the establishment of barracks to separate the soldiers from the feelings of the population. I have heard a similar argument in regard to the formation of an EU army in that it’s easier to deploy foreign troops against your own citizens because there isn’t the emotional attachment. A detachment of French and German troops for example could be used to greater effect against British protesters than British troops who would might be being deployed against their own friends, family, colleagues, veterans or simply be sympathetic to the cause.

    1. jenny Connatty says:

      Yes thank you Adrian – emotional connection is essential if we are to be humane… but we must start with ourselves – working to accept ourselves for how we are now – warts an’all. We do this by a frequent courageous delving into that secret and dark place within us- and we need experienced and wise people to help us do this… only then can we become our own best friend – a person who will not blame others for our suffering but who will take responsibility for what ever we do or say… and look for positive ways to resolve problems. Only then will we find wholesome friendship around us… and unite with a common need for co-operation, sharing and peaceful coexistence.

  5. Mike Lees says:

    Fantastic article – great read.
    We have a real chance for change!!! We must take it for the sake of the human race!!

  6. David Marchesi says:

    the Common People have been the glory of England down the ages, resisting the high and mighty and proclaiming the brotherhood of man based on equality and the “commonwealth” (think about it)- this excellent summary of the struggles reminds me to recommend (again) Mr Renwick’s “Gangrene” There’s something rotten in the state of the UK, and it is high time to deal with it. VFP and its opposition to aggressive ward can be part of the process. Spread the word !

  7. Steve Heaney says:

    What a great article, for too long working class people have been deprived of their history, this succinctly sets the record straight.
    Thank you Aly.

    1. John Lloyd says:

      This is a brilliantly clear account which places Peter Loo in the long historic perspective of the people’s struggle for freedom, a struggle that continues. Thanks Alastair – a great job.

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