Document of the Month - April

The Radical Uprising 2nd – 9th April 1820

In the papers of the Murray family of Polmaise and Touchadam held at the Council Archives, there are a series of letters that relate to the April 1820 uprising of weavers and other workers in defence of better pay and increased enfranchisement. William Murray was an army Major and in charge of troops stationed locally. Consequently, the military forces who were ordered to deal with the disturbances arising from the attempted revolt wrote to him constantly. We are fortunate that these letters survive amongst the family papers.

Starting today, we are going to be blogging these letters on the anniversary of their composition to give some idea of the activities in the local area at this time and the response of the authorities to this. What we are hearing here are the voices of soldiers who are very much loyal to the Crown and the Establishment. Unfortunately, we have no records dating from this time that give us an insight into how the men and women from working families locally were feeling during the very tense situation that was prevalent in April 1820.

It may be helpful to provide some background to the events of this time. By 1820, reformist fervour was high in Scotland. Radical ideas had remained in abeyance through the period of the Napoleonic wars. However, after the end of the conflict in 1815, Britain experienced an economic downturn that served to generate renewed interest in reform. In the first decade of the 19th century, the average wage of a weaver in Scotland was halved and continued to fall after this. Weavers, particularly in Scotland, were skilled craftsmen, literate, informed and radical in their outlook. In 1813, in protest at their reduced standard of living, 40,000 weavers went on strike for over two months, a dispute that only ended when the government arrested the leaders of their union and forced the men back to work. News of the slaughter of radical protesters demonstrating in Manchester in 1819, an event that came to be known as the Peterloo Massacre, caused consternation amongst reformists across Britain. Meanwhile, concern was also growing within the Establishment at increasing demands for reform from workers in many occupations. With the horrors of the French revolution very much in mind, the Government was nervous of potential dissent and prepared to employ its spies and agents provocateurs to quash any revolutionary activities amongst the populace.  This was the background to the events of 1820.

Rumours of unrest amongst the population in the Stirling area were already circulating in the early part of the year. A letter was written to William Murray of Polmaise and Touchadam, a prominent local landowner whose family papers are held at Stirling Council Archives, on the 26th February by Alexander Junkin, a Nailmaker in St Ninians warning of potential insurrection:

“...a very alarming circumstance which seems to be at hand & it is at the risk of my life if this is known which I hope you will conciel. The spirit of Rebellion has rained so much in owr 3 United Kingdoms that they have carried on the business in secret by Delegats from every quarter... the first day of March is the day...for the 3 Kingdoms to rise in mass and overthro Government...”

In Glasgow, the local unions had formed a covert ‘Committee For Organising a Provisional Government’ and this Committee was organising opposition to the government and using ex-soldiers such as John Baird, a weaver from Condorrat, to train willing men how to fight. Government spies had already infiltrated this movement by 1820 and a meeting of the Committee at Marshall’s Tavern, Gallowgate, Glasgow, on the 21st March was betrayed to the authorities by one John King, a weaver from Anderston. The Committee was surprised, arrested and detained in secret. So successful was this move that none of the radical associates of the men involved were aware of what had happened.

It is widely agreed by historians that the uprising that followed this was engineered by the authorities to encourage those who were prepared to respond to a call to arms to show themselves so that they could be apprehended and dealt with. The men who instigated the organisation of the events of April 1820, John King, a weaver, Duncan Turner, a tinsmith and Robert Lees, known as ‘The Englishman’ are now regarded as having been working for the government; although they were instrumental in the organisation of what happened, they disappeared after the event and were not tried for their part in it. There is no doubt that the unrest throughout Scotland and the north of England at this time issued from real grievances and a desire for change, it was as a response to these that the authorities sought to entrap men such as Baird and Hardie and this sealed their fate.

On the 22nd March, John King, Duncan Turner and Robert Lees, the Government agents attended a meeting of radicals in Glasgow and reported that a large-scale uprising was about to happen. On the 23rd March, in Glasgow, Duncan Turner revealed plans to establish a provisional government. He also produced a draft proclamation to be posted around the city calling for radicals to refuse to work and to consider rebellion and the establishment of a new regime. The posters duly appeared on the 1st of April. The response was immediate and alarming for the government. Huge numbers of workers in central Scotland went on strike on the 3rd April. There were widespread reports of men banding together and making weapons. Men were seen drilling on Glasgow Green and locally, there was an assembly of around 200 men gathered at Balfron to discuss what should be done to further their cause. Another letter written to William Murray of Polmaise by John Fraser, one of his tenants, spoke of men making pikes in St Ninians:

“A boy last night was disturbed in the act of stealing different articles from soldiers in the Castle, and while under confinement in the Guard room amused himself with drawing the figures of pikes which he said people were making at St Ninians.”

On the 4th of April, Duncan Turner mustered a small group of men at Germiston and persuaded them to march on the Carron ironworks where they were to take the building and provide themselves with more weapons from the stores there. Citing that he had organising work to do elsewhere, Turner passed leadership of the group to Andrew Hardie, a young weaver from Glasgow. Hardie was given a torn card to be matched with that held by another supporter whom he would meet at Condorrat. This man was John Baird, weaver there who was given his half of the card by John King. More men were to be mustered along the way until they had a force capable of storming the works. The two men met and showed their cards at Condorrat at 5 am on the morning of 5th April. Although Baird was disappointed at the small number of men that arrived with Hardie, having been told by King to expect an army, the 30 men continued on through the early morning towards Falkirk. Meanwhile, 16 Hussars and 16 of the local Yeomanry forces had been warned of the approach of the radicals and were mobilised to meet them at Carron. The two groups met at Bonnymuir where King had told the rebels to wait while he went to fetch reinforcements from Camelon. Shots were exchanged and there was a short skirmish that ended when the soldiers charged the small band of rebels and overpowered them. Some of the men were able to escape, but 19 were apprehended and taken as prisoners to Stirling Castle.

Despite the fact that there were further disturbances at Strathaven, East Kilbride, Paisley and Greenock between the 5th and 8th of April, this was effectively the end of the uprising.

In all, 88 men were charged with treason as a result of the uprising but only three paid the ultimate penalty. Special Royal Commissions of Oyer and Terminer were set up at Glasgow to hear the cases. James Wilson was tried at Glasgow on the 29th July and found guilty of one of the charges of treason against him. He was hanged and beheaded in Glasgow on 30th August. 20,000 people turned out to see the spectacle, many of these his supporters.

Andrew Hardie and John Baird were tried on the 4th August. At the trial the Judge advised “To you Andrew Hardie and John Baird I can hold out little or no hope of mercy... as you were the leaders, I am afraid that example must be given by you.”  They were accordingly sentenced to death for their views and beliefs, betrayed by the establishment that they had sought to reform. The rest of the rebels were sentenced to be transported overseas to penal colonies in New South Wales and Tasmania.