On Saturday April 1st 1820 members of the Radical Committee for organising a Provisional Government posted a proclamation demanding the reform in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. So began the Radical Rising, also known as the Radical War or Scottish Insurrection of 1820. It would see some 60,000 workers go on strike across central Scotland, but would eventually end in failure and the execution or deportation of its leaders.
In the wake of the Napoleonic Wars, Britain had entered a period of economic depression. Industrialisation had squeezed the earnings of skilled weavers, who between 1800 and 1808 had seen their incomes halved. On top of this, the punitive effects of the Corn Law artificially inflated the price of bread affecting the lives of all workers. Parliamentary reform had failed to keep pace with demographic change and so the desire for reform, or even revolution, was in the air.
In August of the previous year, the Peterloo Massacre saw a crowd of 60-80,000 protesters attacked by members of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry, resulting in the deaths of 18 with hundreds more injured. The event resulted in demonstrations across Britain. In Scotland, a memorial rally in Paisley on September 11th led to a week of rioting and cavalry were used to control around 5,000 ‘Radicals’. Protest meetings were also held in Stirling, Airdrie, Renfrewshire, Ayrshire and Fife, mainly in weaving areas. Shortly after saw the formation of a 28-man Radical Committee for organising a Provisional Government, which was elected by delegates of local "unions". The Committee decided to arrange military training for its supporters, giving some responsibility for the training programme to a Condorrat weaver with army experience, named John Baird.
The French Revolution was still fresh in the mind of the government who feared that similar events might unfold in Britain. As a consequence the Government sought to suppress calls for reform through spies and agent provocateurs. In Scotland, these agents infiltrated the Radical Committee and so when they met in a Tavern in Glasgow March 21st 1820 they were raided and arrested. It was reported a few days later that those arrested had confessed to a plot to split Scotland from England and restore the Scottish Parliament.
At a meeting on March 22nd the weaver John King addressed a crowd of around 20, which included another weaver called John Craig, the tin-smith Duncan Turner, and "an Englishman" called Lees. There King told them that a rising was imminent and all present should hold themselves in enthusiastic readiness for the call to arms. The next day Turner revealed plans to establish a Provisional Government and sent a draft proclamation to print. Lees, King and Turner went round encouraging supporters to make pikes for the battles and on April 1st the pamphlets were distributed throughout Glasgow.
The Proclamation, which was signed "By order of the Committee of Organisation for forming a Provisional Government. Glasgow April 1st. 1820." Stated:
"Friends and Countrymen! Rouse from that torpid state in which we have sunk for so many years, we are at length compelled from the extremity of our sufferings, and the contempt heaped upon our petitions for redress, to assert our rights at the hazard of our lives." by "taking up arms for the redress of our common grievances". "Equality of rights (not of property)... Liberty or Death is our motto, and we have sworn to return home in triumph - or return no more.... we earnestly request all to desist from their labour from and after this day, the first of April [until] in possession of those rights..." It called for a rising "To show the world that we are not that lawless, sanguinary rabble which our oppressors would persuade the higher circles we are but a brave and generous people determined to be free."
On Monday April 3rd a strike took force across a wide area of Scotland including Stirlingshire, Dunbartonshire, Renfrewshire, Lanarkshire and Ayrshire, with an estimated total of around 60,000 stopping work.
Reports were made of men carrying out military drill in Glasgow while foundries and forges had been raided, and iron files and dyer's poles taken to make pikes. In Kilbarchan soldiers found men making pikes, in Stewarton around 60 strikers was dispersed, in Balfron around 200 men had assembled for some sort of action. Pikes, gunpowder and weapons called "wasps" (a sort of javelin) and "clegs" (a barbed shuttlecock to throw at horses) were offered for sale.
In Glasgow John Craig led around 30 men to make for the Carron Company ironworks in Falkirk, telling them that weapons would be there for the taking, but the group were scattered when intercepted by a police patrol. Craig was caught, brought before a magistrate and fined, but the magistrate paid his fine for him.
Rumours spread that England was in arms for the cause of reform and that an army was mustering at Campsie commanded by Marshal MacDonald, a Marshal of France and son of a Jacobite refugee family, to join forces with 50,000 French soldiers at Cathkin Braes under Kinloch, the fugitive "Radical laird" from Dundee.
Government troops were ready in Glasgow, including the Rifle Brigade, the 83rd Regiment of Foot, the 7th and 10th Hussars and Samuel Hunter's Glasgow Sharpshooters. In the evening 300 radicals briefly skirmished with a party "of cavalry", but no one came to harm.
The Battle of Bonnymuir
The next day, Tuesday April 4th, Duncan Turner assembled around 60 men to march to Carron, while he carried out organising work elsewhere. Half the group dropped out, however the remaining twenty five, persuaded that they would pick up support along the way, set out under the leadership of Andrew Hardie. They arrived in Condorrat, which was on the way to Carron, at 5am on April 5th. Waiting for them was John Baird who had expected a small army, not this bedraggled and soaking wet group. He was persuaded to continue the March to Carron by John King, who would himself go ahead and gather supporters. King would go to find supporters at Camelon while Baird and Hardie were to leave the road and wait at Bonnymuir.
The authorities at Kilsyth and Stirling Castle had however been alerted and Sixteen Hussars and sixteen Yeomanry troopers had been ordered on 4 April to leave Perth and go to protect Carron. They left the road at Bonnybridge early on April 5th and made straight for the slopes of Bonnymuir. As the newspapers subsequently reported:
"On observing this force the radicals cheered and advanced to a wall over which they commenced firing at the military. Some shots were then fired by the soldiers in return, and after some time the cavalry got through an opening in the wall and attacked the party who resisted till overpowered by the troops who succeeded in taking nineteen of them prisoners, who are lodged in Stirling Castle. Four of the radicals were wounded".
The Glasgow Herald mocked the small number of radicals encountered, but worried that "the conspiracy appears to be more extensive than almost anyone imagined... radical principles are too widely spread and too deeply rooted to vanish without some explosion and the sooner it takes place the better."
The end of the Rising
On the afternoon of April 5th, before news of the Bonnymuir fighting got out, Lees sent a message asking the radicals of Strathaven to meet up with the "Radical laird" Kinloch's large force at Cathkin. The next morning a small force of 25 men followed the instructions and left at 7 a.m. to march there. Among them was the experienced elderly Radical James Wilson who is claimed to have had a banner reading "Scotland Free or a Desart" [sic]. At East Kilbride they were warned of an army ambush, and Wilson, suspecting treachery, returned to Strathaven. The others bypassed the ambush and reached Cathkin, but as there was no sign of the promised army they dispersed. Ten of them were identified and caught, and by nightfall on April 7th; they were jailed at Hamilton.
Large numbers of those arrested were imprisoned in various jails across central Scotland. On April 8th The Port Glasgow Volunteers, who had served in Paisley during the strike, returned to Glasgow as an escort for five prisoners to be taken on to Greenock jail. They met minor hostility while marching through the town of Crawfurdsdyke, but as they approached the jail the situation escalated.
While handing over the prisoners stones were thrown at them from higher ground to the south of the jail, forcing them to seek shelter A hostile crowd gathered, and shots fired in the air failed to calm the situation. The Volunteers continued to be assaulted as they returned along Cathcart Street, as stones and bottles were thrown at them from an ever increasing crowd. As they approached Rue End Street they fired sporadically into the crowd, killing and wounding several of them. The mob pursued the Volunteers into Crawfurdsdyke, then returned to break open the jail. A magistrate urged the crowd to desist, but with no forces to resist them, agreed to release the prisoners who then escaped. A large group set off to burn down Port Glasgow, but were halted at that town's boundary by armed townsfolk who had barricaded the Devol's Glen Bridge. Greenock magistrates arrived, and dispersed the crowd.
The rising by this point was now over and by the end of April hundreds of Radicals fled to Canada. 88 men were charged with treason. James Wilson, Andrew Hardie and John Baird were convicted and sentenced to death. Wilson was hanged and beheaded on August 30th, watched by some 20,000 people, first remarking to the executioner "Did you ever see such a crowd, Thomas?". Hardie and Baird were executed on September 8th, also by hanging and beheading, which would be the last beheading in the UK. May hundreds more were transported to penal colonies in New South Wales or Tasmania.
The effect of the crushing of Rising was to effectively discourage serious Radical unrest in Scotland for some time. However, the cause of electoral reform continued, and with the Scottish Reform Act 1832 Glasgow was given its own Member of Parliament for the first time.
These scenes were built by Dan Harris as part of a series of models on people and protest. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to see them first.
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