The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

London Corresponding Society (L. C. S.)

Category: 18th century

In January 1792 the radical movement among the “low­er classes” produced its first organisation — the London Corresponding Society.

Its main programme was manhood suffrage and equal representation, but in August a Public Address was issued which pointed out that an honest and genuinely representa­tive Parliament could remove the grievous oppressions of the common man: cuts in pensions (pensions at this time were only paid to members of the ruling class), army and secret services would lighten the heavy taxes, laws would be sim­plified and common lands taken from the people by enclosures would be restored.

Sheffield was ahead of London. Its Constitutional Society was formed towards the end of 1791. Sheffield was only one of the places where such societies existed, and soon they were linking up with the L. C. S. which came to be regarded as the central and leading body of a loose federation. It is notable that many of the strongholds of reform were places where trade union activity was of long standing. Thus the Norwich weavers quickly formed a network of branches of the Nor­wich Revolution Society, while in Nottingham and district the framework knitters allied with the more advanced middle- class reformers to establish a Constitutional Society. In 1796 a Tree of Liberty was forcibly planted in the Nottingham Mar­ket Place, while even as late as 1802 the anniversary of the fall of the Bastille was celebrated by chairing the Radical M. P. round the town to the strains of the Marseillaise.

The Government was thrown into panic by this new work­ing class radicalism. A whole series of repressive measures were put into operation. Mob riots were instigated in a num­ber of towns, with the effect that many middle-class reform­ers were frightened into political inactivity. It was a delib­erate and carefully organised attempt by the ruling class to intimidate its opponents, and received the open approval of many leading figures. Pressure began to be put upon pub­licans to refuse the use of rooms for political meetings. There was a general offensive against the printers, publishers and sellers of “seditious” literature. Spies and provocateurs began to be systematically used against the working-class movement. The Government’s policy reflecting a general process of strengthening the state’s apparatus of repression against the working people included the introduction of for­eign, usually German, mercenaries into Britain, the build­ing of barracks to isolate the army from the civil popula­tion, the establishment of the yeomanry as an armed force of the ruling class, a whole series of repressive laws, and the creation of a bureaucratically controlled police force. Taken together these measures reflect the intensification of the class struggle as the working class grew towards maturity.

In May, 1794 seven leading members of the L. C. S. and six of another reform organisation, the Constitutional Socie­ty, were arrested. The most important of them were Thomas Hardy, Horne Tooke and John Thelwall. Hardy, as Secretary of the L. C. S., was the recognised leader of the London rad­ical artisans. Tooke was of special importance because of his long standing and great prestige in the movement and be­cause he was the main link connecting the L. C. S. with the middle-class reform societies. Thelwall was the outstanding lecturer and orator of the movement.

Every effort was made to trick or frighten the arrested men into incriminating themselves or each other. The treat­ment of several of the prisoners was inhuman, and foreshadowed the prison treatment of other democratic leaders.

The various methods of examination and intimidation met with little success, but enough evidence was cooked up with the help of the usual informers to bring the prisoners to trial on a charge of treason. Unfortunately for the Govern­ment the Middlesex juries were not so easy to pack. The first case, Hardy’s, began on October 28th. His acquittal after nine days was greeted with an outburst of rejoicing which spread far beyondLondon. In spite of this setback the Govern­ment decided to continue the trials and the next on the list was Horne Tooke who reduced the case to absurdity by put­ting Pitt in the witness box, where he was forced to admit, very reluctantly, that he had once used language not essen­tially different from that for which Tooke and his friends stood accused. His acquittal, followed by that of Thelwall, completed the rout of the Government. The remaining charges were dropped and 800 warrants prepared for reformers all over the country were scrapped.

The next year, 1795, was one of bitter discontent and mount­ing anger. Food prices soared. Wages lagged far behind, em­ployment was irregular. There were hunger riots all over the country, and in many cases it was found that the troops were openly sympathetic and could not be used against the people.

In spite of all this, and their triumph in the Courts, the Corresponding Society began to decline in influence. For this there were a number of reasons. One was that its strictly legal tactics seemed inadequate to many who were suffering from the effects of war and repression. In the second place, though the war was hardly popular,BritainandFrancehad so often been opposed during the eighteenth century, that it was not difficult to create a strong anti-French feeling and smear the reformers with the accusation of being unpatriotic agents of a foreign enemy. More fundamental, perhaps, was the degeneration inFranceitself. In July, 1794 the Jacobins were defeated and gradually it became clear abroad that the period of revolutionary advance was over. Under the Direc­tory, the Consulate and later the Empire, there was less and less inFranceabout which democrats inBritaincould be en­thusiastic: the clear lines of conflict between privilege and de­mocracy, oppression and liberty, could be traced no longer. As the war dragged on it seemed that whichever side won there was little prospect of the realisation of the splendid hopes of the first few years after 1789. Further, the war was creating boom conditions in certain areas and industries, and it seems probable that this prosperity made some middle- class supporters of reform more ready than formerly to accept a system under which they were prospering.

Finally, there was the continued and cumulative effect of the systematic repression with which the government met every manifestation of radicalism, t became more and more difficult for even small groups of reformers to meet to­gether and few of the activities they might wish to undertake remained legal.

In July, 1797 an Act was passed utterly suppressing and prohibiting, among others, the L. C. S. and all other corre­sponding societies of any city, town or place.

For the next fifteen years working-class radicalism was deprived of any possibility of open expression. But this is far from saying that an end was put to working-class activ­ities.

From The British Labour Move­ment by A. L. Morton and G. Tate

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