Hupfel - Tract Spitalfields.jpg
Hupfel - Tract Spitalfields.jpg


Tract distributed to the Lords by the Spitalfields silk weavers the 9 July 1823

This tract was given to the Lords by a committee of silk weavers before they entered the Houses of Parliament to vote on the repeal of the Spitalfields Acts, on 9 July 1823. Passed in 1773, the main clause of those laws empowered the justices of the peace of London to enforce lists of prices negotiated between the silk manufactures' Masters and Men. The parliamentary debates over their repeal were opened on 9 May by the violent critiques of David Ricardo, who said that they served to 'cramp the freedom of labour itself.' He easily convinced the Chamber of Commons to do away with those old regulations that he believed contradicted the principles of political economy.

The bill thus passed to the House of Lords, who were much more sceptical about these arguments, and inclined to recognise the beneficial effects of the Spitalfields Acts in terms of political stability. That is why the weavers displayed on the front of their tract, on either side of the traditional emblem and motto of the trade, a soldier and a sailor, to underline their patriotism during the Seven Years War. Their loyalty to the King is then directly related to the prosperity produced by the Spitalfields Acts, as opposed to the 'speculative measure' prescribed by political economy. In doing so, the weavers summoned the traditional agreement on which the acts rested, that consisted in granting industrial regulations in return for a promise from the workers not to engage in any political activity.

This attitude was harshly criticised by most of radical political leaders, such as Francis Place or William Cobbett, who depicted the Spitalfields weavers as 'base dogs.' However, a large majority of the Lords approved the weavers’ arguments and adopted amendments which led its proponents to drop the bill. It was nonetheless reintroduced the following year, in May 1824, and finally passed 17 June. The repeal caused terrible industrial damage to the London silk industry, but also disoriented politically the silk weavers’ community. Indeed, the repeal of the Combination Laws, passed just a few days before, meant that the workers’ movement would now rally around the large politicised associations that were emerging in the northern industries and towns. Many weavers were reluctant to join this movement, as it implied abandoning their traditional repertoire of collective action, but the repeal of the act made that repertoire increasingly ineffectual.


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At the beginning of his memoir, Passages in the Life of a Radical, Samuel Bamford noted the development of Hampden reform clubs throughout the country from 1815 and the spread of Cobbett’s direction of the people ‘to the true cause of their sufferings – misgovernment; and to its proper corrective – parliamentary reform. Riots soon became scarce, and from that time they have never obtained their ancient vogue with the labourers of this country.’ There is a good deal of over-simplification in Bamford’s claim, but it is nonetheless true that one long term development in Britain was a gradual decline of rioting, both in the recourse to moral economy rioting, in which there was often extensive complicity with the local authorities, and in respect to mass rioting – as in the Gordon Riots in London in 1780, or in the Church and King riots in Birmingham in 1791 – albeit with some striking resurgences in the early 1830s, both in agricultural and urban areas.

Rural rioting remained a feature of Britain in much of the first part of the nineteenth century, although its policing and the response to it became more vigorous and more retributive – as in attempts to suppress the Swing riots in 1830 and 1831. At the same time, explicit political organisation and campaigning outside parliament, which was an elite experiment in the 1770s and developed more artisanal forms in the 1790s, and to which the government responded by attempting to shut down the activity, gradually shifted its focus. Through the 1810s and 1820s, the scene of popular organisation moved from London into the industrial towns of the Midlands and North of the country, marked by the emergence of Chartism as a Northern political movement. At the same time, after a long period where gentleman leaders, such as Major Cartwright, Sir Francis Burdett, William Cobbett, and Henry Hunt, voiced, led, or sought to lead popular protests against the restriction of the franchise, and on a range of other issues (such as flogging in the army and navy, the conditions of prisons, and the Corn Laws), popular movements with a greater egalitarianism in their leadership slowly emerged (although people like Daniel O’Connell led the most powerful Irish popular organisations, and Fergus O’Connor clearly played a very prominent role in the Chartist movement). More generally, people began to conceive of their organisations and movements in more national terms. Increasingly, people wanted organisation, participation, and an organised voice – and they wanted to turn momentary reaction into more systematic pressure on the political elite to widen the franchise and meet their concerns. They sought this both in respect to trying to secure parliamentary reform and with respect to the protection of their rights and their interests in their work.

The government responded to popular unrest arising from the hardships associated with the end of the Napoleonic war at first with repression: it blocked and dispersed the ‘blanketeers’ march from Manchester to London (March), protesting about economic conditions, and did the same against marchers from Derbyshire and Nottingham in June 1817. Over the next three years - with Peterloo (August 1819), the repeated suspension of habeas corpus, an act making attacks on the King treasonable, the passing of the repressive ‘Six Acts’ (to stop disorder, outlaw military training, control public meetings, and to strengthen powers against the free press (1819), culminating in the discovery of the Cato Street conspiracy to blow up the cabinet - relations between the government and the people deteriorated dramatically, albeit with the government clearly having the upper hand.

The 1830s, however, began with rioting and unrest following the resistance by the King and the Lords to the proposal for electoral reform, and then witnessed the dismay of many working people at the very narrow character of the change secured by the 1832 Reform Act. At the same time, there was an increase in organisation around people’s trades, and with attempts to provide a national organisation to bring these together for a more powerful political voice – as in the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union experiment in 1834. Repression followed suit, with the Tolpuddle Martyrs being transported for seven years for swearing an oath on joining an agricultural union.

Nonetheless, there was limited reform, there were acknowledged radicals in Parliament, which made the widespread association of radicalism with sedition untenable, and there was a gradual process of extending some tolerance towards labour organisations. At the same time, there was a flourishing of ideas about different models of social order, with an emerging socialist movement. By the 1840s the popular political press was well established, trade unionism and friendly societies provided a basis for certain forms of collective representation in both the workplace and in respect to government, and the Chartist movement vacillated between those committed to direct action and the mobilisation of members in a Grand National Holiday – or general strike – and those who sought more constitutional and moral force methods to achieve their ends, for which national monster petitions to Parliament played a major role. Both strategies failed in the end – despite government fears of a general uprising in 1848. But it is clear that the political world had moved a long way from the more deferential and repressive 1790s. The spectrum of political ideas had been enlarged dramatically, the organisation of people for political and economic ends had become firmly entrenched in the political system, and, while there remained those with more revolutionary aspirations, the dominant objective around which popular participation was mobilised, was the reform of the franchise and the parliamentary system. The people now clearly wanted a say in the exercise of political power.