The Great Procession

SUNDAY arrived and Jane Davis and her friends got ready to go to a place of worship. In the ordinary way she would have gone to Wesley’s Chapel, like any other visitor to London at that time, and especially would she have been attracted because her new friends were members there. But she felt she could not this day. For when she had passed it she had seen that the preacher was to be the man who had been so bitter the day before. It was the privilege of a lifetime for many Methodists to say they had worshipped at City Road. And before the encounter on the Friday, Jane Davis would have counted it a great privilege herself. But after that she never wanted to see the preacher again. She cared not for his religion or his eloquence. He was a man of no discernment. If he couldn’t see that these men who had been sentenced in that brutal way were worthy of his very strongest effort to free them, then she would have nothing more to do with him. She felt that the finer his preaching the more furious she would be. And she might even have felt impelled to cry shame on him in the midst of the congregation. So she told them that she could not go with them. They, on their part, were determined not to leave her in the lurch. Mr. Thorpe said that there was a chapel somewhere in the neighbourhood of King’s Cross where a very good man was preaching. He was a man whom he knew, whose fervent spirit and loving heart were attracting many people to hear him. If she liked they would go with her. They therefore set out early and took the way up City Road to the Angel. As they neared that hostelry they could see that large crowds seemed to be converging on it. There was some sort of order, and they seemed to be keeping the middle of the road and marching on toward what Mr. Thorpe said was the direction of King’s Cross. They could see one or two banners and there was a man on horseback. They examined the banners. On the first that Jane saw were the word, ‘We will be free’. It made her look again.

‘Those are the words that George Loveless wrote,’ she said. ‘But, of course, they are common enough words. It can’t have anything to do with him.’ And then she saw another banner. ‘Release the Dorchester Labourers.’ Joy! Someone was doing something at last! They joined the crowd that was marching toward King’s Cross, and joined in with the conversation.

‘It’s more than can be expected from any working man,’ said a tall Lancastrian. ‘Seven years’ transportation for what? Just because they formed a Trade Union. Why, we have thousands of men in Unions in Manchester and Bolton and Oldham, and it has spread to nearly every town in Yorkshire. Why don’t they tackle us and bring us before the judges? They administered a secret oath, says the judge, and so for that they must be made an example to others. It would bring the law into contempt, he says, if anybody except the Courts were allowed to administer oaths. Where has he been all his life if he doesn’t know better than that? What about the Freemasons? Don’t they administer secret oaths?’

‘Perhaps they want these men to be an example to the Freemasons,’ said an educated man amongst them. ‘I wonder if they’ll arrest all masons next?’

Aye, perhaps so,’ said another, ‘and send all the House of Lords to Botany Bay. Good riddance to them as well, say I.’

‘This good woman has come from Tolpuddle. She can tell you all about it,’ cut in John Thorpe. ‘She knows the Lovelesses and the Standflelds and Hammett.’

‘Do you now?’ said a Yorkshireman. ‘And what sort of men are they?’

‘God fearing men everyone of them,’ said Jane, her religion being ever uppermost in her mind. ‘George Loveless was a preacher of the gospel hardly equalled anywhere in England I should think. He would stand in the open air on a village green and speak for a long time and hold the people spellbound. And he was always preaching liberty, and the power of faith and things like that.’

‘But that isn’t what he has been sent away for now, is it, hinney?’ said a big brawny Northumbrian who had overheard it. ‘We have preachers by hundreds in the north, and nobody ever says them nay. Nobbut they have had a sore time once or twice when the lads were wanting to mek game on them. Did you hear of our demonstration on Newcastle Moor last Sunday? Ten thousand of us marched along. And didn’t we have a fine meeting? If the Government could be killed by resolution, there wouldn’t be a member of it alive today. We demanded the recall of the men they have sent abroad, and we demanded the dismissal of the Prime Minister and all his followers. That was working men, most of them miners and shipyard workers. They asked me to come along today just to say that they were behind you in this petition. But I’m thinking this is going to be a bigger show than that. I wonder why they didn’t arrest some of us. We believe in administering secret oaths and we’ve done it many’s the time. And we believe in combining to get our wages up. And we won’t be kept under. Well, I’m no churchgoer. Parsons have too good a job and do too little for it, though I have heard that Christopher Hopper that was with John Wesley was a rare good ‘un. But then he was a Methodist and the Church parsons were always in conflict with him.’

‘Aye,’ said Jane, ‘that was what was the matter with our people. Parson thinks he is the only one to talk about religion. And he has about as much religion in his whole body as any of them that has gone, had in their little fingers. James Hammett, who wasn’t a preacher, would pray in the prayer meetings, and you would almost see the heavens opened. He was a grand man. But none of them was a patch on George Loveless. You’ve heard about the poetry he wrote and put out after he had been condemned, I see.’

‘Aye, lass, we ha’e that. And reight good it was too. “And speak the tyrant faction’s doom,” that was it. That’s a good ‘un!’

By reason, union, justice, law,

We claim the birthright of our sires.

‘And we’ll have it yet “for ‘a that “, as owd Bobbie Burns used to say. I think it was that bit o’ verse that made us people in Northumberland so strong for his being set at liberty. We mun sing that song today somehow. Do you knaa a tune to sing it to?’

‘Yes: I think I can start the tune that I’m almost sure George meant it for. It was such a favourite with him. He was always making us sing “All things are possible “, and I think that was the tune he meant.’ And she started the tune ‘Madrid’ there and then—

‘God is our Guide    From field, from wave,’

Not many joined her. The words were not known, but they listened as she went on and sung the verse through and nodded their heads in approval of the sentiment. And when she had sung it once through, they said, ‘Encore; let’s have it again, lass’, and she sang it again. They had picked up the last two lines of each verse which meant so much to them, and they joined in as a chorus. And as they walked down the road they marched to her solo four lines and their two-line chorus—

We raise the watchword Liberty,

We will, we will, we will be free!

And so they came to Copenhagen Fields, where other groups of people had already arrived. The fields had been rented by the London-Dorchester Committee, and the speakers were on a lorry, waiting to address the crowd. Robert Owen, the pioneer of English Socialism, was there. It was he and his friends who had had the foresight to rent the Copenhagen Fields and so prevented the riot which the enemies of the workers expected would break out. Whether they feared or hoped for such a riot I know not. That they expected it is abundantly proved. Joseph Hume, M.P., was there. A parson named Wade was there, leading the procession afterwards. When about forty thousand people had gathered together, all having some knowledge of the events that had taken place, and all being of one mind, long speeches were not necessary. The monster petition containing a quarter of a million signatures was piled on to the cart and, preceded by Mr. Wade and Mr. Owen on horseback, the company formed up into files of four or five and side by side straggled out of the fields and took the way along the Euston Road for their long march. For Whitehall was the objective. As they wearied somewhat of walking with nothing but their conversation to keep them going, someone said, ‘Let us sing Loveless’s song again’.

But somehow this was not the right atmosphere for it. There was all the excitement of the march, and the men amongst them who had been in the army were rather impatient with those who knew nothing about keeping in step. They didn’t want to be marching along with a rabble who knew nothing about order. They looked upon this as a fight for principle, but they wanted it to be conducted on right lines. So they were for ever saying, ‘Keep step’, and some round about were trying to do it. As ever, there were men who had no knowledge of military things, but feeling militant wanted to express it in the terms of the army. Others were simply disgusted with this material way of looking at things. They were all for intellect and reason and argument. And what did it matter whether they made a good show or not in the military sense so long as they made a show at all? The chief thing was that they were thirty or forty or fifty thousand strong. So, although Jane started up Loveless’s song, it seemed too much like a hymn to the majority of those round about, and the hymns were not what they were after. They were not a lot of adjectival Methodists. They were Trade Unionists. They were organized by the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union, and they had delegates from the five other great Unions of the North of England.

As they came to a bend in the road, they could see a great company in front, and Dr. Arthur S. Wade in full canonicals and scarlet hood riding in the van. They could see many of the thirty-three banners which were borne in the procession, and looking behind they saw a great crowd following. Lining the route were cheering crowds all the way along. They spoke of Lord Melbourne’s declaration that he wouldn’t receive any deputation or petition from a procession. Well, if Lord Melbourne wouldn’t receive them, London was bigger than Lord Melbourne. And if his specially-recruited constables should interfere, let them do so at their peril. If Lord Melbourne wanted revolution he could have it. Working men were sick of the treatment they were receiving, and this treatment of the Dorset men was abominable above everything. ‘Not for anything wrong they had done or had intended to do,’ the judge had said these men had been transported, ‘but as an example to others.’

‘Well, we are the others,’ said the brawny Northumbrian. ‘Let him touch us. We can tell pretty well what he means, and he isn’t going to frighten us.’ So on with it.

But Robert Owen, who was the leader of this great demonstration, did not mean that it should give any excuse for the reading of the Riot Act. Theory and action had gone hand in hand with him all his life. Theorist in politics as he was, he was intensely practical in the working out of his plans, and knew well that a little thing may upset the whole of a big scheme. This demonstration had been magnificently organised. The idea was a public-spirited and dignified protest against a miscarriage of justice. It would be fatal to let that develop into any slightest exhibition of violence. He knew that the powerful interests which opposed him would only be too glad to seize on any excuse to misrepresent the nature of the gathering. Lord Melbourne was already talking about the display of force, and Owen had little doubt that soldiers were standing by ready to charge at any sign of the crowd getting out of hand. He kept them to the march. As they neared the Prime Minister’s residence, the whole procession halted, and a few of the leaders went forward as a deputation. They were at once told that the Prime Minister refused to see them, and so well marshalled was the company that almost immediately it was on the march again, and then quietly and in perfect order dispersed. The fact that there was no riot was a great surprise to everybody.

Next day The Times backed up the decision of Lord Melbourne not to see this deputation. It said at this and other times that the excuse for the punishment meted out to these men was ridiculous. Obviously every member of any secret society, even the Freemasons, that fashionable and loyal organization, could be condemned on the same excuse. It was admitted that a secret oath had been administered. The attack had been made on the sentence of seven years’ transportation for so trivial an offence. But although the great newspaper ridiculed the reason for the sentence, it maintained the justice of it. An example had to be made. Combination of this sort against their masters was intolerable, and for attempting to coerce their masters these men deserved it all. Unjust thought it acknowledged the sentence to be on the basis of the crime the men were charged with, the writer of the article was unfeignedly glad that the country was being shown that no nonsense would be stood from these men and others like them, who were making matters so difficult for the masters all over the kingdom.