Bamford & Peterloo

Bamford & Peterloo

Samuel Bamford and the reform movement after Waterloo

Whatever Mike Leigh makes of Peterloo in his forthcoming film (due for release November 2018), he can hardly ignore the autobiography of Samuel Bamford Passages in the Life of a Radical. Bamford was an eyewitness at Peterloo – perhaps giving the best account as he knew the background and was a superb descriptive writer. He was acquainted with the leaders at Peterloo and was a local organiser on the day, leading the Middleton contingent into Manchester after several weeks of rehearsal.

Bamford was much more than just a witness at Peterloo in 1819, and his memoir is a classic of the

post Waterloo period comparable with de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821). Both are  rooted in the same historical period though Bamford’s memoir is political where De Quincey’s masterpiece is a study of his personal psychology. Bamford’s view of  the working class politics of the time  is unequalled, for Bamford knew the main players in both the reform movement and the shadowy revolutionary underground. He was elected to the Hampden Club meeting in London in January 1817 as the delegate from Middleton, and was noticed by the journalist William Cobbett as a unknown but valuable contributor. E P Thompson commented on Cobbett’s warm description that  “The ‘sensible and modest man from Middleton’  was Samuel Bamford, the weaver* and – when every criticism has been made – the greatest chronicler of early C19th radicalism” (1)

 

Thompson is correct though he is aware that Bamford’s account is slanted by his middle aged shift away from reformism. However  Bamford was present at many of the key reform activities apart from Peterloo- and was a committed activist who the government tried to remove from the scene and imprisoned after the massacre. Bamford had both connections in the reform movement, which allowed him to take part as a local activist in the preparations for the Demonstration in |St Peter’s Field in 1819, and the revolutionary movement, as is clear from what he wrote in his autobiography. This makes the book unique as the only work which provides a window into both the conspiratorial world of would be post Luddite revolutionaries, and the mass reform movement which culminated in Peterloo.

 

Writing later he did not admit his revolutionary connections and in the memoir claimed he remained in the world of peaceful reform agitation and his imprisonment after Peterloo was a vindictive government act which did not establish that he was involved in physical force agitation. Other evidence suggests he was concealing his real views. It is clear he was trusted by revolutionary activists. In a world where known physical force activism carried a death penalty, Bamford was discreet but said enough to sketch a subversive current active north of the River Trent. This makes him a unique eye witness on what happened at Peterloo, and how far the fears of the authorities of a French style violent upsurge were justified. (2)

 

The politics of 1817

 

Bamford was involved with the Hampden clubs and attended the delegate meeting in London in January 1817 but was mainly active in south Lancashire and acted – if only as advisor – on events in Manchester during 1817 which prefigured Peterloo. Thompson argued that the government attack on the reform movement in the opening months of 1817  is a

 

“Coincidence of persecution and confusion (which) is the background to the tangled story of the March of the Blanketeers, the Ardwick conspiracy, and the Pentridge rising” (3),

 

I have argued elsewhere ** that while the story is tangled, there is no direct link between the events in Derbyshire and those in Manchester, and that there is no evidence to justify Thompson’s claim that “There is a sense in which Peterloo followed directly, and inevitably, on Peterloo” (4). Events in Manchester had a different dynamic to that of the village rebels of the Derbyshire-Nottinghamshire border. Nevertheless there were connections and one of the key links was Samuel Bamford.

 

Bamford posed in his memoirs as a convinced constitutional reformer, but despite being in the Hampden club tradition he met with William Benbow and Joseph Mitchell in London, and back in Lancashire after the collapse of the Hampden organisation kept links with these would be revolutionaries. Benbow visited him in Middleton and tried to get him to support the March of the Blanketeers, but Bamford thought the scheme was bound to fail and Benbow appears to have agreed – Drummond and Baggulley who Bamford did not know emerged to lead the March. Benbow remained a physical force activist into the Chartist era, advocating the General Strike.  Benbow is not portrayed as a  major figure by Bamford unlike the other notable figure in Lancashire’s weak revolutionary movement, Joseph Mitchell. Bamford knew him well enough to defend him when he became the most controversial figure in the post war working class movement. Mitchell left Lancashire, only to become unwittingly the underground contact for William Oliver the government spy who penetrated and betrayed the  Pentridge rising – perhaps as an agent provocateur. Mitchell was suspected of being a spy himself and suffered persecution, but Bamford emphatically exonerated him from this charge. Which, of course, shows that Bamford know how to distinguish between the  revolutionaries and the spies who sabotaged the uprisings in the summer of 1817.

Bamford was frequently  visited by men who wanted direct action, and after the Ardwick plotting fled with the fake doctor Thomas Healy fearing he could be blamed for the conspiracy. When returning home he was arrested and taken to London to be interrogated. No evidence could be found to justify a prosecution but he was for ever afterwards suspect in the eyes of the authorities. With some justification, for as Thompson notes  “Bamford was visited that May (ie after returning from arrest and interrogation TF)… by delegates from Derby, Thomas Bacon and (William TF) Turner, both of whom were to be involved in the Pentridge rising” (5). Bamford knew of the revolutionary network but only dropped hints in the memoir, knowing the activities were seditious and after Pentridge had led to executions and transportation.

 

The revelation of Oliver’s activities by the Leeds Mercury showed that the government knew of the Pentridge plot and could have stopped it. This undermined the government’s case for continued repression – juries would not convict if informers were used to prosecute radicals fearing tainted evidence – and as Zamoyski has argued there was no widespread revolutionary movement in Britain. But though the authorities had to scale down repression in 1818, allowing reform to revive, the fear of working class activity intensified particularly in Manchester as the magistrates became increasingly paranoid, watching workers organise. Bamford remained at the heart of the Middleton reform community, and this led him to be centrally involved in the preparations for the demonstration which has become known as Peterloo and an eyewitness on the day. Bamford’s record is a classic which deserves to be widely known. But while it is the truth, is it the whole truth?

Bamford wrote from personal experience, and this is backed up by many other reports (6) and the casualty lists showing that this was a massacre, the crowd was not disorderly and suffered injuries with a dozen fatalities while the forces of the crown went unscathed: Bishop Stanley records sabre wounds to the heads of special constables, who can only  have been attacked by cavalry running amok. The casualty lists have been closely studied and back up Bamford’s view: this was an unprovoked attack on an unarmed crowd.

 

But Bamford was writing later when he had retired from the radical movement, and his protestations of pure constitutional reformism have to be taken as a very partial account: military style drilling on the Moors had a double thrust. Thompson notes with justified scepticism regarding Bamford’s claims of constitutionalism the report of a spy stating that Bamford was involved in purchasing Pikes for a revolutionary group in November 1891, a few months after Peterloo. Tempers were inflamed in the working class areas of South Lancashire after Peterloo, and understandably radicalism had a sharp edge. But how extensive was the revolutionary underground before the massacre? Bamford not only knew of it but was part of it during the troubled years after the end of the Napoleonic wars. His memoirs are a classic document deserving to be better known. But while an accurate picture of what Bamford saw, it is not the whole picture.

 

Trevor Fisher                                                                                       11 5 18

______________________________________________________________________

 

NOTES

(1) E P Thompson – The Making of the English Working Class, 1963-2013 edition p698

 

(2) Adam Zamoyski in PHANTOM MENACE Collins 2014

 

(3) E P Thompson op cit p702

 

(4) Op cit p736

 

(5) Op cit p 717

 

(6) Curiously Thompson (op cit p755) says of the quotation he gives describing Hunt’s arrest that this is from the testimony of a ‘fair minded opponent’. The witness is Bishop Stanley and he was a neutral observer who gave a chilling account of what he saw – his testimony is given on pp 20-21 of Three Accounts of Peterloo ed F A Bruton, reproduced by www.folkcustoms.co.uk in 2014

 

*silk weaver

 

** See www.trevorfisher.info/history’EPThompson, Manchester & 1817

Bamford & Peterloo

Samuel Bamford and the reform movement after Waterloo

 

 

Whatever Mike Leigh makes of Peterloo in his forthcoming film (due for release November 2018), he can hardly ignore the autobiography of Samuel Bamford Passages in the Life of a Radical. Bamford was an eyewitness at Peterloo – perhaps giving the best account as he knew the background and was a superb descriptive writer. He was acquainted with the leaders at Peterloo and was a local organiser on the day, leading the Middleton contingent into Manchester after several weeks of rehearsal.

 

Bamford was much more than just a witness at Peterloo in 1819, and his memoir is a classic of the

post Waterloo period comparable with de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821). Both are  rooted in the same historical period though Bamford’s memoir is political where De Quincey’s masterpiece is a study of his personal psychology. Bamford’s view of  the working class politics of the time  is unequalled, for Bamford knew the main players in both the reform movement and the shadowy revolutionary underground. He was elected to the Hampden Club meeting in London in January 1817 as the delegate from Middleton, and was noticed by the journalist William Cobbett as a unknown but valuable contributor. E P Thompson commented on Cobbett’s warm description that  “The ‘sensible and modest man from Middleton’  was Samuel Bamford, the weaver* and – when every criticism has been made – the greatest chronicler of early C19th radicalism” (1)

 

Thompson is correct though he is aware that Bamford’s account is slanted by his middle aged shift away from reformism. However  Bamford was present at many of the key reform activities apart from Peterloo- and was a committed activist who the government tried to remove from the scene and imprisoned after the massacre. Bamford had both connections in the reform movement, which allowed him to take part as a local activist in the preparations for the Demonstration in |St Peter’s Field in 1819, and the revolutionary movement, as is clear from what he wrote in his autobiography. This makes the book unique as the only work which provides a window into both the conspiratorial world of would be post Luddite revolutionaries, and the mass reform movement which culminated in Peterloo.

 

Writing later he did not admit his revolutionary connections and in the memoir claimed he remained in the world of peaceful reform agitation and his imprisonment after Peterloo was a vindictive government act which did not establish that he was involved in physical force agitation. Other evidence suggests he was concealing his real views. It is clear he was trusted by revolutionary activists. In a world where known physical force activism carried a death penalty, Bamford was discreet but said enough to sketch a subversive current active north of the River Trent. This makes him a unique eye witness on what happened at Peterloo, and how far the fears of the authorities of a French style violent upsurge were justified. (2)

 

The politics of 1817

 

Bamford was involved with the Hampden clubs and attended the delegate meeting in London in January 1817 but was mainly active in south Lancashire and acted – if only as advisor – on events in Manchester during 1817 which prefigured Peterloo. Thompson argued that the government attack on the reform movement in the opening months of 1817  is a

 

“Coincidence of persecution and confusion (which) is the background to the tangled story of the March of the Blanketeers, the Ardwick conspiracy, and the Pentridge rising” (3),

 

I have argued elsewhere ** that while the story is tangled, there is no direct link between the events in Derbyshire and those in Manchester, and that there is no evidence to justify Thompson’s claim that “There is a sense in which Peterloo followed directly, and inevitably, on Peterloo” (4). Events in Manchester had a different dynamic to that of the village rebels of the Derbyshire-Nottinghamshire border. Nevertheless there were connections and one of the key links was Samuel Bamford.

 

Bamford posed in his memoirs as a convinced constitutional reformer, but despite being in the Hampden club tradition he met with William Benbow and Joseph Mitchell in London, and back in Lancashire after the collapse of the Hampden organisation kept links with these would be revolutionaries. Benbow visited him in Middleton and tried to get him to support the March of the Blanketeers, but Bamford thought the scheme was bound to fail and Benbow appears to have agreed – Drummond and Baggulley who Bamford did not know emerged to lead the March. Benbow remained a physical force activist into the Chartist era, advocating the General Strike.  Benbow is not portrayed as a  major figure by Bamford unlike the other notable figure in Lancashire’s weak revolutionary movement, Joseph Mitchell. Bamford knew him well enough to defend him when he became the most controversial figure in the post war working class movement. Mitchell left Lancashire, only to become unwittingly the underground contact for William Oliver the government spy who penetrated and betrayed the  Pentridge rising – perhaps as an agent provocateur. Mitchell was suspected of being a spy himself and suffered persecution, but Bamford emphatically exonerated him from this charge. Which, of course, shows that Bamford know how to distinguish between the  revolutionaries and the spies who sabotaged the uprisings in the summer of 1817.

Bamford was frequently  visited by men who wanted direct action, and after the Ardwick plotting fled with the fake doctor Thomas Healy fearing he could be blamed for the conspiracy. When returning home he was arrested and taken to London to be interrogated. No evidence could be found to justify a prosecution but he was for ever afterwards suspect in the eyes of the authorities. With some justification, for as Thompson notes  “Bamford was visited that May (ie after returning from arrest and interrogation TF)… by delegates from Derby, Thomas Bacon and (William TF) Turner, both of whom were to be involved in the Pentridge rising” (5). Bamford knew of the revolutionary network but only dropped hints in the memoir, knowing the activities were seditious and after Pentridge had led to executions and transportation.

 

The revelation of Oliver’s activities by the Leeds Mercury showed that the government knew of the Pentridge plot and could have stopped it. This undermined the government’s case for continued repression – juries would not convict if informers were used to prosecute radicals fearing tainted evidence – and as Zamoyski has argued there was no widespread revolutionary movement in Britain. But though the authorities had to scale down repression in 1818, allowing reform to revive, the fear of working class activity intensified particularly in Manchester as the magistrates became increasingly paranoid, watching workers organise. Bamford remained at the heart of the Middleton reform community, and this led him to be centrally involved in the preparations for the demonstration which has become known as Peterloo and an eyewitness on the day. Bamford’s record is a classic which deserves to be widely known. But while it is the truth, is it the whole truth?

Bamford wrote from personal experience, and this is backed up by many other reports (6) and the casualty lists showing that this was a massacre, the crowd was not disorderly and suffered injuries with a dozen fatalities while the forces of the crown went unscathed: Bishop Stanley records sabre wounds to the heads of special constables, who can only  have been attacked by cavalry running amok. The casualty lists have been closely studied and back up Bamford’s view: this was an unprovoked attack on an unarmed crowd.

 

But Bamford was writing later when he had retired from the radical movement, and his protestations of pure constitutional reformism have to be taken as a very partial account: military style drilling on the Moors had a double thrust. Thompson notes with justified scepticism regarding Bamford’s claims of constitutionalism the report of a spy stating that Bamford was involved in purchasing Pikes for a revolutionary group in November 1891, a few months after Peterloo. Tempers were inflamed in the working class areas of South Lancashire after Peterloo, and understandably radicalism had a sharp edge. But how extensive was the revolutionary underground before the massacre? Bamford not only knew of it but was part of it during the troubled years after the end of the Napoleonic wars. His memoirs are a classic document deserving to be better known. But while an accurate picture of what Bamford saw, it is not the whole picture.

 

Trevor Fisher                                                                                       11 5 18

______________________________________________________________________

 

NOTES

(1) E P Thompson – The Making of the English Working Class, 1963-2013 edition p698

 

(2) Adam Zamoyski in PHANTOM MENACE Collins 2014

 

(3) E P Thompson op cit p702

 

(4) Op cit p736

 

(5) Op cit p 717

 

(6) Curiously Thompson (op cit p755) says of the quotation he gives describing Hunt’s arrest that this is from the testimony of a ‘fair minded opponent’. The witness is Bishop Stanley and he was a neutral observer who gave a chilling account of what he saw – his testimony is given on pp 20-21 of Three Accounts of Peterloo ed F A Bruton, reproduced by www.folkcustoms.co.uk in 2014

 

*silk weaver

 

** See www.trevorfisher.info/history’EPThompson, Manchester & 1817

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