Following the Napoleonic Wars England was immediately plunged into economic hardship. In the industrial textile towns of the North wages fell sharply as the factory system took hold, traditional handloom weavers being some of the worst affected. Weavers, who could have expected to earn 15 shillings a week in 1803, saw their wages cut by two thirds or more. Then came the Corn Laws of 1815. Intended to protect British agricultural workers from cheap foreign imports, they actually caused an increase in grain prices and a decrease in supplies, only adding to the poor’s woes. These hardships were then further compounded by poor harvests the following year, which resulted in food shortages during the winter of 1816-1817. As discontent led to riots, Lord Liverpool’s government were facing growing demands for social, political and economic reform.
Meanwhile, in Manchester, a spirit of new radicalism was dawning. Initially inspired by the writings of Thomas Paine and the French Revolution, political discussion, which at one time was confined to London coffee houses, had been taken up by the labouring classes. Although the Napoleonic Wars put a dampener on radicalism for a period, the economic depression following the defeat of Napoleon and growing discontent with the political system caused a new radical movement to appear. For the first time, the North (more specifically Manchester and South Lancashire) was a hotbed of political activism amongst the working people.
With considerable input from Northern Radicals, a Reform Bill for universal suffrage was drafted and presented to the House of Commons in January 1817 by Thomas Cochrane. When this was rejected on procedural grounds, the Prince Regent’s coach was attacked on his way back from parliament. This combined with the fallout from the Spa Fields Riots the previous November caused the government to embark upon a number of measures to repress the radicals, including the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act.
Early in March 1817 a ‘hunger-march’ to London was organised, advocated by two prominent Manchester radicals, Samuel Drummond and John Bagguley. Designed as a way of drawing attention to the problems of the Lancashire cotton workers, it was proposed that weavers and spinners would march in groups of ten (in order to avoid any accusation of mass assembly), each with a blanket on their back and a petition to the Prince Regent fastened to their arm. As well as keeping them warm at night the blanket would indicate that they were textile workers. On the way to London the men hoped to hold meetings and gain the support of other textile workers – they aimed for 100,000 marchers by the time they reached the capital.
On 10 March 1817 around 5,000 marchers, mostly spinners and weavers, convened in St. Peter’s Field, near Manchester. Reports claim that there was also a large crowd of onlookers, perhaps as many as 25,000 people in total.
Before the march had even departed magistrates read the Riot Act. The King’s Dragoon Guards broke up the meeting and 27 people were arrested, including Drummond and Bagguley, throwing the meeting into disarray. Nevertheless, several hundred men set off in the drizzling rain but the cavalry pursued and attacked them - hardly any got further than Macclesfield and most no further than the River Mersey at Stockport. Many marchers scattered, dropped out or were taken into custody by police and yeomanry; the majority were turned back or arrested under vagrancy laws before they reached Derbyshire. In Stockport, over two hundred were arrested but with the gaols full the authorities had nowhere for them and simply sent them home.
During the scuffles an incident left several marchers with sabre wounds and one innocent bystander was killed, although reports differ as to whether he was shot or sabred across the head by a mounted soldier, succumbing to his injuries several days later. Unconfirmed reports claim that one sole marcher, variously named as ‘Abel Couldwell’ or ‘Jonathan Cowgill’ reached London and handed over his petition.
Of those demonstrators who were arrested, many were released – often without trial – after spending varying amounts of time in prison. Although this protest fizzled out, the pattern of discontent, radicalism and insurrection in Manchester created a fear of revolution amongst the ruling classes. As a direct result of the Blanketeers March and subsequent conspiracy alarms Manchester magistrates formed the short-lived Manchester and Salford Yeomanry, intended to combat any future attempts at insurrection. It became infamous two years later for its role in the Peterloo Massacre.