E P Thompson, Manchester, & 1817
A tangled story
The March of the Blanketeers from Manchester in 1817 has long been an obscure passage in Working Class History. In some historical accounts it is linked to the alleged Ardwick conspiracy and the Pentridge insurrection, all in the same year. However the links between the three incidents are unclear. Nor is it easy to see how these events relate to later developments, notably Peterloo, which like the Blanketeers and the Ardwick episode took place in Manchester over a period of years. In his classic study THE MAKING OF THE ENGLISH WORKING CLASS when outlining the swirl of reform agitation and government repression in 1817, E P Thompson argued that
“This coincidence of persecution and confusion is the background to the tangled story of the March of the Blanketeers, the Ardwick Conspiracy, and the Pentridge* Rising (1)”.
Thompson however does not untangle the story. He makes the statement and then moves into a general discussion of the reform movement mainly in Lancashire and Leicestershire, though as he knows, Pentridge is in Derbyshire. It was only in the section on the Agents Provocateur who were involved in the Pentridge rising (2) that Thompson briefly mentions the Blanketeers (3) and then only to devote 182 words to the initiative. He barely manages – in a footnote of 22 words (4) – to point out that the Blanketeers failed and implies that they are not worthy of attention.
He chooses to downplay the Ardwick Conspiracy. Ardwick does not appear in his index – and it is clear that Thompson does not think effective revolutionary agitation in the area around Manchester ever existed, as the dismissive comment on the nature of the plotters referring to the Ardwick plot indicates. Thompson comments that the “physical force party was always ‘waiting to hear what news had come’ from Birmingham… or London…. or Newport. From one standpoint the story is pathetic. It was out of half a dozen meetings of this sort that the ‘Ardwick Conspiracy’ was built, on the pretext of which several of the most active Lancashire leaders were seized” (5).
Quoting a Chadderton (Oldham) man suggesting that the rebels should meet at the Royal Oak at Ardwick bridge in Manchester “to hear what news had come from Birmingham, Sheffield and any other place from wh. Information was expected” (6), and knowing that no news did arrive, Thompson dismisses the reaction from the authorities. Virtually the only conclusion that he comes to is over the composition of those alleged to have been involved, stating “the men held on suspicion for complicity in the Ardwick conspiracy included a knife grinder, a cooper and a bleacher” (7). What happened to them is of no interest to him. Yet Ardwick in Manchester is in the heart of a major city, and far more likely to be the site of an insurrection than remote villages in mid Derbyshire.
Clearly there was no insurrection in any major city, but whether there was a substantial basis of support in South Lancashire for insurrection or not, the reaction of the authorities in Manchester was a brutally effective pre-emptive stike – but effective only in the short term. In the longer term, it was the first sign that the rebels would not go away. The authorities could and did set in train the machinery of law. But suppression did not work, with the Lancashire rebels, in quite the way the government and local magistrates expected. They did not lie down, and returned in numbers in 1819. What happened to produce the Blanketeers March and the events at Ardwick have major outcomes. These outcomes are profoundly important. They are the background to Peterloo.
The Insurrectionary cul de sac
In 1963, Thompson was a marxist** looking for the revolution that Marx expected to happen in industrial Britain. From this perspective, the Pentridge incident with its dramatic attempt to use physical force and the murder carried out by its leader, Brandreth, tantalisingly but misleadingly suggests the revolution might have been possible. Thompson’s analysis of the Pentridge uprising, in the summer (8th – 9th June) of 1817, which comprises the bulk of section IV of the Chapter on events in 1817, argues for the potential for revolution – if there had been effective national leadership, the classic Leninist belief in organisation which Thompson still held from his experiences in the army and the Communist Party***. He argues “if a major centre had been ‘captured’ by revolutionaries, then insurrection might have spread rapidly to other districts” (8). But this did not happen. And once London had been neutralised by the authorities in early 1817, only Manchester had any potential for this to happen – which makes his neglect of the city and especially the Ardwick incident hard to understand.
Thompson is seeking to rescue the open revolutionaries from obscurity and was justifiably interested in the possibilities of ‘physical force’ activity ie insurrection. There is a long running debate on whether Oliver the spy was an agent provocateur who manufactured the conspiracies we are studying. But this justified approach misled him about the overall direction of the reform movement, which was not revolutionary.
Pentridge was certainly more visible that the Blanketeers or Ardwick events, but in the long run insurrection was a dead end. There was no scope for physical force activity, although this tradition lingered on for thirty years under the Chartists, then remaining as a trace element in the political culture to this day. The important tradition, however, is that of non-violent, peaceful and constitutional protest, which was the main line of approach through from the Blanketeers to Peterloo and beyond. Pentridge and the insurrectionary tradition was marginal at best to the long run historical development.
This is not what Thompson suggests. He argues that the main line of development runs from Pentridge to Peterloo and beyond. When Thompson contends (9) that
“There is a sense in which Peterloo followed directly, and inevitably, upon Pentridge. It was the outcome of an extraordinarily powerful and determined ‘constitutionalist’ agitation, largely working class in character, with a potentially revolutionary context”.
But the context was not revolutionary. In the book he conflates two different currents in what was undoubtedly a ‘powerful and determined’ agitation. But it is not the physical force tradition which leads to Peterloo – the direction of travel was dictated by the constitutionalist wing, not the revolutionary ‘physical force’ wing. Direct action had failed at Spa Fields in 1816, failed at Ardwick – if it was seriously attempted – and failed with bloody reprisals at Pentridge. All attempts at insurrection failed, with no lasting effects, with Cato Street in 1820 the final attempt, and its leader, Arthur Thistlewood ending his life on the gallows. There was no room in British political culture for insurrection or any form of physical force agitation. Thompson rightly describes the tragedies and the high drama of the attempts of men with pikes and flintlock muskets to confront soldiers armed with cannon backed up by cavalry, but this was drama. It was not mass politics and never involved more than a tiny desperate minority.
The initiatives which could bring thousands of working class people to demonstrate were clearly in the peaceful, moral force tradition, From Spa Fields in late 1816 through the Birmingham agitation in January 1817 to the Blanketeers and beyond, it is the peaceful and orderly mass movement which is crucial, and alarming to the authorities. Thompson himself records that in 1818, in Manchester, the spinners organised a demonstration in Piccadilly, Manchester, which an informer noted “was 23 ½ minets in going by. One man from Eich shop is chosen by the People … they obey him as strickley as the armey do their colonel…” and that General Byng, who commanded the troops which stopped the Blanketeers and was still in charge of the Army in the North at Peterloo commented “The peaceable demeanour of so many thousand unemployed men is not natural”, (10) which Thompson rightly notes as a profoundly important, and he devotes three pages to discussing the orderliness of the working class protests – and how this alarmed the authorities.
Peterloo was quite clearly constitutionalist. It was a mass meeting of peaceable, unarmed people unprepared for violence, and much of the horror generated by the massacre came from the attack on women and children. Historians have to explain where the peaceful movement for change comes from – and why this met with a brutal attack by armed men. A protest movement met with state violence is not unusual in British History, but violence had in previous eras suppressed the movement. Even with the revival of the parliamentary reform movement in 1812 and the Luddite era this had been the case. But from 1816 onward the movement cannot be suppressed, and begins to look like the situation in Ireland, but without Fenian violence. Reform becomes a constant element in British Political culture, and as this is the period when this happens, and specifically in 1816-17, the reasons why need explanation.
To do this we have to look at a line of development running for two years or more before Peterloo, coming from the Blanketeers and the tradition of petitioning advocated by the Hampden clubs. The blanketeers did fail in large part to get beyond Stockport, but they showed that workers could mobilise – and it is not accidental that both the blanketeers, who had no high profile speakers but gained a substantial audience, and the reformers addressed by the reform superstar Orator Hunt in 1819 met in St Peter’s field.
Manchester was the epicentre of the reform movement, far more so even than London, and the authorities reacted with fear and repression, both in 1817 and 1819. The Blanketeers were dispersed, the Ardwick tale was produced as a consequence of the realisation that there was massive support for reform, which the authorities could only handle with repression. But the authorities found in 1817 that straight suppression produced only temporary success. They could neither overawe the masses, who remained prepared to demonstrate in thousands, nor rely on juries to convict reformers, which is the story of 1818. The magistrates, feeling they needed a local armed response unit, formed the Yeomanry in Manchester and Salford who were to be so visible at Peterloo. Thus the earlier mobilisation played a major role in unwittingly bringing about the Peterloo Massacre. Contrary to what Thompson was asserting, it is the peaceful mass movement which is the background to Peterloo.
Action, reaction and a turning point in British history
There is a tradition of constitutional agitation in Manchester and South Lancashire which has become obscured in favour of an dramatic but unproductive insurrectionary tradition. But the constitutionalists survived. From the Blanketeers to Peterloo they showed that they could mobilise in significant numbers, and it was not only Shelley that noticed that “ye are many, they are few”. The tangled web which reaches from before the blanketeers through the Ardwick ‘conspiracy’ to – but really around – Pentridge is the story of a struggle between physical and moral force within the reform movement. By the time of Peterloo, the moral force camp had won the argument. How this contest about the best way to achieve reform was conducted, and conducted in appalling circumstances of government violence and brutal repression, is the tangled story of the events of 1817, with the impetus generated in that year running through till at Peterloo it was crushed – and yet triumphed.
Thompson in assessing the evidence from an empirical viewpoint, understood the vital role of the year 1817. He stated with impeccable clarity, that “The repression of 1817 provoked… an accession of strength to the radical reformers, while a large section of middle class opinion held aloof from the government. In 1795 Pitt could present himself as defending the Constitution against French innovation. In 1819 Liverpool, Sidmouth, Eldon and Castlereagh were seen as men intent on displacing constitutional rights by despotic ‘continental’ rule”… In 1817, this world was passing. By 1819, in whole regions of England, it had passed. The defences of deference had been weakened by Dissent and (despite itself) by Methodism. They had been challenged by Luddism and Hampden Clubs. In May 1817 Sherwin carried further Thelwall’s insight into the influence of manufactures on the working man…. the workers have the means of organisation in clubbing their pennies to-gether…” (11).
Thus 1817 was crucial and Thompson understood that the year which saw the blanketeers and the start of mass mobilisations in Manchester made a difference. However he still felt Pentridge was more important. In the early 1960s when he wrote the book, he was working within two traditions, that of traditional English empricism and the Marxism of the Communist Party which he had left, but provided a constructively fruitful theoretical framework. Thompson had been a member of the Communist Party History Group under Dona Torr, and his marxist analysis provided the structure for what would otherwise have been merely a collection of studies. The combination of empiricism and marxism was immensly successful. Few histories have ever matched this book for range and accuracy of knowledge, with empathy and understanding of what made people behave as they did, and an acute awareness of social movement. But the crucial issue is the selection of what facts were important, as no history can ever be all encompassing, and the interpretation of the facts here was through a marxist lens.
Studying the facts had led Thompson to realise the importance of 1817, in undermining and bringing about the fundamental shift in popular feeling that would make parliamentary reform a major element of the British nineteenth century. The change was clear, and the contemporary writers Thelwall and Sherwin had observed the direction of travel and why the changes was happening. But the most dramatic incidents were not necessarily the most important, until Peterloo. Thompson, in his marxist phase, was looking for revolution. But it was not revolution that was happening, and Ardwick is important for that very reason. What happened in Manchester set down pointers for the future. The blanketeers undoubtedly failed, and proved that unarmed men could be dispersed by cavalry. This was never in doubt and was what the authorities expected. But what happened next – which the authorities viewed as the Ardwick conspiracy – reflected the belief in the local and national Tory establishment that any form of working class activity was subversive. They were mistaken in seeing the workers as seeking revolution on the French model. This too was what Marx expected to happen in the nineteenth century, and E P Thompson still saw the events through that prism and thus stressing insurrectionary elements.
Had he revised the book after writing his essay The Peculiarities of the English (1965) he might have changed his viewpoint. But this never happened. He left the events of 1817 still a tangled web which needs to be untangled. The Blanketeers and Ardwick were more important than Pentridge. They deserve to be seen as the pointer to the future which they proved to be, and in particular as the crucial steps toward Peterloo.
Trevor Fisher 18th January 2017
*There are two villages of this name in England. The one in Derbyshire is normally now spelt Pentrich.
** Whether he was marxist after his experiences in CND is a moot point,. Thompson never revised the book though on the publication of the paperback edition in 1968 he implied that this was needed, commenting that “The five years which have elapsed between this book’s first publication and the present edition is too short a period to allow for major redefinitions”, which implies that he recognised that this was needed. As the book had become a classic Thompson never revised it before his untimely death in 1993.
***Thompson had been a soldier in World War Two fighting at Monte Cassino in 1944. He was a member of the Communist Party during the late Stalin era, and though he had left in 1956 over the failure of de-Stalinisation, in the period after leaving he was still in the grip of its ideology. After involvement in CND from 1958 his views on mass movements altered in ways which are still largely unexamined.
(1) E P Thompson, THE MAKING OF THE ENGLISH WORKING CLASS, Penguin Modern Classics 1980 p702. The Chapter in which this occurs is Chapter 15 and Section III containing the quote is entitled “The Hampden Clubs”, though these had ceased to operate effectively by the time of the Blanketeers. Thompson focusses on institutions in London and only sketches the provinces, only briefly touching on Manchester. Section IV – see footnote 2 – deals with Pentridge but without linking to what had happened in South Lancashire.
(2) E P T op cit Chap 15 section IV Brandreth and Oliver
(3) E P T op cit pp711-712
(4) EPT Op cit p712. The footnote states “The ‘Blanketeers’ were in fact prevented from marching by the military, more than 200 were arrested, and few got further than Leek”. All this is true, but failure had is consequences, which Thompson fails to grasp.
- EPT op cit p715.
- EPT op cit p714
- E P T Op cit p705
(8) cit p715
(9) EPT op cit p736
(10) EPT Op Cit p747
(11) EPT op cit p737