Do Unto Others As You Would They Should Do Unto You

At the end of October 1818 the first Union Society was formed in Stockport. Its founder was the Reverend Joseph Harrison. He was a local Methodist preacher and teacher who called himself ‘chaplain to the poor and needy’. He was a long-standing reformer who had worked closely with Johnston, Bagguley and Drummond. It was he who felt the need for a declaration of Radical objectives that would not only provide an umbrella- for the dissonant voices of discontent, but would state the means by which the common man could achieve them.

Harrison drew up the most detailed and comprehensive plans for his Union Society in Stockport, as a result of which, he hoped, a network would spread throughout the country. The heady object of the Society was to promote human happiness. Its maxim was ‘do unto others as you would they should do unto you’. Its declaration stated that men are born free, that sovereignty lies with the people and that association (here the union bait) is necessary to preserve human rights. There were twenty-six very long rules which incorporated both the objects of the Society and the standards by which the members should conduct themselves to achieve them. The twenty-fifth was the most important in the Radical context. It stated that with the present corrupt Government it was impossible do unto others as you would they should do unto you’. Therefore, members were expected to work for ‘a radical reform of Parliament by means of suffrage of all male persons-of mature age and sane minds, who have not for any crime forfeited the right of Parliament having a duration of not exceeding one year, and elections by ballot’ A strong emphasis was also placed on the training of the people for power, so that they should not abuse it once they had received it, underlining the Radical belief in the intelligence and perception of the working classes.

Map showing principal towns mentioned in the text.

The system by which the people would receive their training for power was as detailed and comprehensive as the rules. Stockport was divided into twelve districts, each district subdivided into classes of twelve (presumably the biblical influence of the apostles). In the house, or room; of a class leader, duly elected by democratic vote, a meeting was held once a week. There as in the Hampden Clubs, the Radical papers were read out loud and discussion took place on how ultimate human happiness could best be achieved. All views were welcome, as were practical suggestions as to how more groups could be started and funds raised. Funds were from the Start a major problem. Each member paid 1 d a week, but this did not cover one half of the ambitious projects of the Society. As Harrison himself said in 1819, when the conception was spreading fast, As the cause of reform advances, it becomes more and more expensive, and means more and ,more circumscribed.’ He added, ‘The weavers are the best givers; but, alas, they have nothing to give now’—which shows how strong and firm the weavers’ adherence to the Radical cause had become.

Apart from the intimate class meetings, central Union Rooms were rented and the money mostly went in their upkeep. Here the members gathered once a month for a general meeting at which every aspect of the Society; present and future, was discussed. For example, plans were made for libraries, funds permitting, and for electing representatives to present their petitions to the local magistrates and later, it was hoped, to London. At these general meetings the local Radical leaders appeared to give impassioned speeches. But the Union Rooms did not lie idle for the other nights of the month. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday evenings they were open for classes in reading, writing and simple arithmetic. Wednesday the members could, if not exhausted, attend for general reading out loud of important literature, both Radical and Classical.

Harrison’s firm belief in education extended, as has every successful religious or political creed, to the children. On Sundays the Union Rooms were open for them. About this particular move the ‘established’ Methodists waxed furiously. ‘The reformers… have even opened schools to forward their detestable purpose. They have hereby, infringed upon our particular territory as instructors of youth, and carried their, unholy warfare into our very camp.’ Officially, the Union Sunday Schools were not politically inspired. They were there to instil the rudiments of education into a few more of the thousands of children nobody else provided for. But that the atmosphere was political is undeniable. Along with the ABC the children were-taught the simple rights of man, so that if the Radical cause failed in this generation it would succeed in the next.

Harrison’s feeling that a detailed scheme was needed that would draw in the common man was justified in that his hopes for a network went far beyond expectation. As soon as the Stockport Society was under way, similar groups started in the nearby cotton towns. Once the official declaration of the Union Society had been published in the Manchester Observer early in 1819, further societies shot up like grass in a wet summer, not only in Lancashire but throughout the country. They bridged the various reforming gaps and provided the Radicals with an invaluable backbone, much stronger than the Hampden Clubs had been.

An off-shoot of the Union Societies was the formation of the all-female societies, which likewise started in 1819. The first female union was formed in Blackburn by Mrs Alice Kitchen. It was modelled on Harrison’s principles, with its own indoctrination additive, ‘to instil into the minds of our children, a deep and rooted hatred of our corrupt and tyrannical rulers’ Dozens of female unions followed in the wake of Blackburn. It was an interesting phenomenon. The women could have continued to assist their menfolk and to instil radical principles into their children within the framework of the male societies. Yet they decided to go it alone. They organized and ran their own societies most efficiently. They issued their own pamphlets, some of them very high-flown in tone. One particular pamphlet written by Susanna Saxton, wife of John and secretary of the Manchester Female Reformers, was intimidatingly addressed to her ‘Dear Sisters of the Earth’. Although it must be admitted that nowhere in any of the pamphlets, speeches or addresses does the claim for female suffrage appear, was it not implicit in the separate societies? Had the Radical upsurge continued surely there would soon have been a demand from these efficient ladies for their rights. What happened to this female spirit is not within the scope of this book Nor why it went into Victorian decline and remained dormant for the rest of the century; to emerge again in Manchester where the Suffragette Movement was officially born in 1905, when Annie Kenney of Saddleworth and Christabel Pankhurst of Manchester interrupted a Liberal-meeting at the Free Trade Hall and were subsequently imprisoned. But it is worth noting that there was this strong, active, independent female movement in the early nineteenth century, particularly for those who believe that English women have always enjoyed their role as second-class citizens.

The Union Societies, male and female, preached to the already converted, or the willing to be converted. Considerable as their numbers were by early 1819, and they were swelling each week, the majority of the populace remained in a state of uncomprehending or apathetic misery. They had to be stirred. Apart from the meetings, there was another channel through which they could be reached—the printed word. In the days before wireless and television the importance of the newspapers cannot be over-estimated. For even if thousands could not themselves read, they could be read- to, and there were more than sufficient converts to perform this chore. There were six newspapers circulating in the Manchester area in 1819 which is an indication of the importance of the medium. They were all weeklies, selling at a price of sevenpence, fourpence of which was stamp duty. Four of the six were staunchly pro-Government, the Manchester Chronicle, the Exchange Herald, the Manchester Mercury and the British Volunteer. They varied from the reasoned but stodgy, to the unreasoned and downright -boring. The fifth, the Manchester Gazette, for which John Edward Taylor wrote, followed the – middle-class Radical line and was intelligent and interesting if above- the heads of the masses. The sixth was the Manchester Observer. It was founded in 1818 to propagate the cause of Radical Reform. Joseph Johnson provided part of the money, the rest came from subscriptions from sympathizers and the pocket of James Wroe, who became its chief proprietor and editor. It was he who bore the brunt of the subsequent prosecutions. The subeditor, who wrote a great many of the leading articles,- was John Saxton.

There is a tendency today to talk as if popular journalism, as well as mass circulation, came in with Northcliffe. A glance through a copy of the Manchester Observer would dispel this illusion. It had an outraged, emphatic, racy style. One adjective was never used when six would serve It carried the common practice of underlining to a fine art. It used parody: ‘The Prince Regent’s Speech as It Ought to be. It is with regret that I have opened my eyes so late in the interest of myself and my people … I have learnt from experience that splendour is not happiness—that extravagance is not taste—that prodigality is not greatness-.-that pride is not magnanimity … I will no longer tolerate the robbery of the industrious for the luxurious support of the idle and debauched.’ I call upon you to examine.., and to take into your first consideration, the great and vital question of Reform for which a million and a half ‘of my subjects, I am informed, have petitioned’ etc. It hit good and hard, ‘The first thing that would be moved in an honest House of Commons, would be the IMPEACHMENT OF LORD SIDMOUTH for his recent conduct’. It had its poets’ corner, full of verses such as:

Let foes of freedom dread the name,

But should they touch the sacred tree,

Millions of willing swords shall flame,



It had’ its dialect columns, keeping in touch with local roots, a simple sample of which is, ‘un woo, uts o’spark ofeelin? e-thur breast forth distresses othur fello creatures, isnut a reformer, in his hart?’ It provided good foreign coverage: Napoleon’s doings on Saint Helena,1 Mungo Park’s death in the interior of Africa, Simon Bolivar’s declaration of the Republic of Venezuela, and’ numerous letters from the land of the free, the United States. They were mainly on the lines of one from “Your Obedient Servant, Hugh Oldham, 367 Arch Street, Philadelphia’, who wrote: ‘We have no great pension to pay for people to govern or rob the poor; no gagging bills! No suspension of people’s rights!

No occasion here to call upon the people to unite round the standard of liberty and freedom… Nor no paying of £10,000 a year to a graceless son lithe Prince Regent, of course]… but may the sun of heaven shortly shine all its splendour upon my native land England, and expel the whole host of reptile vermin from their hiding holes! N.B porter and Cyder as good as any in England, for three dollars, eighteen gallons, spirits and tobaccos for almost nothing.’ That the Manchester Observer was a paper of dying Regency England, as opposed to oncoming Victorian England, is shown by a regular advertisement appearing on its front page. ‘Dr Hallet’s Anti-Veneral Merone Pills, sold in boxes at 2s 9d, 4s 6d and 11s each, duty included; and given gratis with each box a treatise on the Veneral Diseases; and so simplified that patients of either sex may cure themselves, without restraint or diet or hindrance, or even the knowledge of a bed fellow.’

The Observer’s main function was to spread the Radical message. To this task it applied itself with the utmost seriousness. Either Saxton or Wroe was overfond of quoting Plato, the intellectual touch to impress the masses, but the editorials and lead columns had a tough pugnacious quality. Often they had depth and always they had readability. Whether relaying information about Hunt, Cartwright, Cobbett or local Radicals, whether attacking the Government, the magistrates or Nadin, the words had the vital urgency that carries the eye along. In Union Societies, in public and private houses, hundreds of eyes were carried along. They stored the message, the satire and the Lancashire version of schmaltz, and soon a thousand tongues were repeating them.

Week by week the Manchester Observer captured the mood of the moment. Week by week its circulation increased. By the time of Peterloo it was selling between three and 4,000 copies weekly which was a very high figure for the period. Its influence was not confined to Lancashire. By the end of 1819 it had agents from Glasgow to London, from Nottingham to Whitehaven. Hunt said it was ‘the only newspaper in England that I know, fairly and honestly devoted to such reform as would give the people their whole rights’ This view and the extent of its influence was seconded by the magistrates, if hardly in the same words. Norris in particular was constantly sending copies to the Home Office, with equally constant bleats about the Observer’s seditious effect. But until mid-1819 no action was taken against it, and the paper continued to make trenchant hay while the magistrates frowned

The best the pro-Government papers could offer in response to the Observer’s onslaughts was the gospel of patience and acceptance, synthesized by William Pal in his Reasons Contentment Addressed to the Labouring Part of the British Public. Paley first delivered his Reasons as a sermon from the pulpit of–Carlisle Cathedral where he was Archdeacon. That was in the year 1790 when the discontent was in its infancy, and they passed largely unnoticed But as discontent grew; good reasons for content were in short supply, and by 181 9 Pales had been published as a tract, paraphrased in the pro-Government newspapers and parroted by sympathetic loyalists.

The tract is cogently argued. Paley starts by comparing human life to that most popular analogy, the theatre. From his analogy he draws the immediate conclusion that the wisest advice is never to allow one’s attention to dwell on comparison But if one must dwell it should be realized that providence,: against which it is impious to complain, has contrived that :while fortunes are only for the few, the rest of mankind may be happy without them. Indeed the rest of mankind is much better off without them, because the consequence of liberty induced by riches is the perplexity of choice lie then moves on to the active pleasures of being poor. What joy is there in taking from a large unmeasured fund? And there is the ease with which the poor can provide for their children which, according to, Paley, is contained in two words, industry and innocence’. Whereas with the rich there is real difficulty in finding the jobs which will continue to support their children in the luxury to which they have been accustomed. There is the danger of indulgence through which desires become dead. Paley admits this is a danger to which the poor will never succumb, ‘but the peasant whenever he goes abroad, finds a feast whereas the epicure must be sumptuously entertained to escape disgust’. Although the poor may envy the rich man in his house, they do not realize how little the rich appreciate the luxury of living in a big house. Religion, of course, soothes all inequalities because it unfolds the prospects which make all earthly distinctions meaningless. In conclusion, the life of labour has advantages which compensate for all its inconveniences. It keeps the body in better health and above all it is free from the anxieties that beset great men.

That Paley failed to appreciate that the old paternalistic structure—’God bless the squire and his relations/Who keep us in our proper stations’—had been shattered by-the Industrial Revolution is understandable. That he believed in the structure is also understandable. On the practical level his Reasons simply would not do. There were thousands of spinners and weavers prepared to accept their lot by bfrth. But they could not follow the life of labour because there was insufficient work. Their chances of finding a crust of bread, never mind a feast, for their unjaded palates was growing less every month. Their children were dying without an opportunity of acquiring industry or innocence.

For the prepared-to-accept Paley’s theme was developed by sympathetic loyalists and Tory newspapers into exhortations to be patient but a while longer and things would sort themselves out, or be sorted out for them by their anxiety-beset betters. But facing them was the grave. Urging them from the path of-acceptance with much more exciting and enticing carrots were the Radicals. In the battle of words the Radicals won hands down.

All round, by the end of 1818, the Radical snowball was well under way. The failure of the strikes, and the continuing spread of misery and unemployment, was the well-spring on which they drew. But the buckets by which they hauled, up the water owed nothing to chance and everything to organization Despite the growth of Radicalism, by the end of the year Lord Sidmouthwas feeling happier—at least about Manchester. ‘The combination at -Manchester is now nearly dissolved the arrest of Johnston, Bagguley and Drummond, the failure of the pecuniary supplies, and the admirable arrangements of Sir John Byng, in conjunction with the civil authorities, have effected this fortunate change’ He looked forward to an even happier New Year which shows how – out of touch he-was, spy system or no spy system.

Personally, Sidmouth was deeply unhappy. His younger brother, Hiley Addington, who for -many years had – been his confidant and had acted as a buffer for much- outside hurt, whom he had loved as – greatly as he was capable of loving; had died – during the year. In fact, he wanted to retire, but unfortunately for himself, his memory and his country he was persuaded to -stay on as Home Secretary. Had he retired would Peterloo have occurred? It would have needed a very-strong-minded man to have changed the magistrate system within six months. Although a stronger, clearer minded, more liberal Home Secretary could have given the necessary clear directives to, and left less in the hands of the magistrates. Who was there? Canning? Unlikely to be interested – in the Home Office. The young Robert Peel? Huskisson? Both were strong possibilities and either would have been infinitely better. But the unhappy Lord Sidmouth remained in office.

There was one final event in the year of 181-8 that could have changed the course of Peterloo had it been successful. This was yet another at-tempt to buy the manorial rights to Manchester from Sir Oswald Mosley. The oligarchy had been stirred into action by various scandals, unearthed- by the Radicals, -working and middle class, and by the activities of ‘Nady Joe’ in connection with ‘the Hindley affair’ Two boys had been given stolen property by  minion of-Nadir’s named Hindley, and then arrested on charges of felony. After the affair was made public by the Radicals, Hindiley was dismissed. Although Nadin survived, this and other justified charges of bribery, corruption and incompetence led to a general feeling that the time had come for Manchester to have its own corporation. Mosley offered to sell the rights for £90,000, but this time the deal collapsed from the rearguard action of the oligarchy working on the fears of the small shopkeepers and ultra loyalists. Somebody would have to find the £90,000. Who would it be? Not the interfering Radicals who were mainly too poor to pay taxes but the small shopkeepers who were not. Thus ultimate control of Manchester remained in the magistrates’ hands.

  1. As an ex-reformer, Napoleon was popular with the Radicals. He was accorded much the same respect by Napoleonic war veterans as was Rommel by the Eighth Army in the Second World War.