Norwich radicals at the time of the French Revolution by Paul Harley

Below is a copy from the Maids Head website, which is taken from A Place in History by Peter Sargent :

By the late 18th century, unrest was once again in the East Anglian air. Radicals met at the Maids Head and the Bell Hotel, in Orford Place. They demanded a new social order. The government of William Pitt the Younger cracked down on radicals. Such was Norwich’s reputation for dissent it was known as the ‘Jacobin city’ – a reference to the Jacobin extremists of revolutionary France. In 1794, with Britain in a desperate war with the French and fearful of domestic unrest, the Government suspended habeas corpus. This ancient legal right, enshrined from the days of Magna Carta, was an ordinary person’s protection against arbitrary arrest. To Norwich liberals its suspension was proof of government corruption. By the mid-1790s it is estimated the various radical societies had more than 2,000 members in the city.

Why was Norwich so radical?

The city was home to many textile workers. Most of them laboured from home, and enjoyed independence not known elsewhere. Norwich’s relatively broad electoral franchise meant a larger proportion of people from humble backgrounds had the right to vote for city officials. It led to a politicised population, ever ready to take to the streets to fight for their rights. To the mid-18th century writer Gilbert White it was a “great fractious manufacturing town”. In 1740 riots over the price of grain and fish had rocked the city, while in 1766 armed citizens had just about restored order after another bread riot. Also, the city had a long history of religious dissent. Baptists, Quakers and non-conformists had thrived there since the 17th century. Baptist minister Mark Wilks was a convinced radical, and he was not alone.

Of course, only a minority of Dissenters were revolutionaries, but their traditions made them receptive to new ideas. Ideas can be dangerous. None more so than those generated by the 1789 French Revolution. Initially it was welcomed by many in Britain as the dawn of a liberal era. Soon though, the violent excesses of the French radicals alienated many people. Politician Edmund Burke led the conservative backlash with his book Reflections on the Revolution in France. But the spark was ignited by a Norfolk man. Thomas Paine, born in Thetford in 1737, published The Rights of Man, partially to rebuff Burke. A clarion call for democracy, it inspired many throughout Britain – and appalled many others for whom democracy meant mob rule. Soon the London Corresponding Society was formed, a body of radicals influenced by Paine, and established links with other societies nationwide.

And in Norwich?

Historian E P Thompson, in his groundbreaking 1963 work The Making of the English Working Class, described Norwich as “by far the most impressive provincial centre”. From groups of working people gathering to discuss events, a number of societies mushroomed. They included the Norwich Revolution Society and the Norwich Patriotic Society. Members initially came from different walks of life. Grand patrician families supplied sympathisers from the Quaker Gurneys, bankers and founders of Barclays, plus manufacturer William Taylor, a renowned intellectual who preferred translating German romantic works to commerce. He was known as “Godless Billy” for his views. Soon after the 1789 uprising he visited Paris and returned brimming with enthusiasm for the revolution and its ideals.

Most activists were artisans, wage-earners, small masters and tradesmen; self-employed people without an unsympathetic employer who could sack them. These “urban craftsmen with long intellectual traditions” – in Thompson’s phrase – were radicalised. As they moved to the left they demanded democracy, an end to monarchy and aristocracy, and opposed the State, war and taxation. At their height the 40 or so societies boasted 2,000 members. They had links with colleagues in Wisbech, King’s Lynn and Great Yarmouth. Meeting in places such as The Bell – headquarters of the Revolution Society – and The Weavers Arms, home of the Patriotic Society, this was a grass roots movement. An intellectual journal, The Cabinet, provided a vehicle for radical views.

What was the reaction?

As war broke out in 1793 the government retaliated. The radicals became unpopular, as many saw them as traitors. So-called ‘Church and King’ mobs harassed known radicals, and many were arrested. As habeas corpus was suspended in May, 1794, radicals from London to Scotland, and Sheffield to Norwich were arrested. Isaac Saint and other Norwich committee members were hauled in. Juries proved reluctant to convict in such political cases. When two London men were acquitted of high treason that October, Norwich delegate Jonathan Davey was at the Old Bailey for the trial. He rode through the night back to Norfolk, and arrived at St Paul’s Baptist Chapel as minister Mark Wilks was in the middle of a service. “Praise God from whom all blessings flow,” declared Wilks when Davey told him the news.

But it did not result in eventual victory for revolutionary ideals. The mood changed, as Britain’s fight with first Revolutionary, and then Bonapartist, France became a battle for national survival in the 1790s and early 1800s. With Britain threatened by French invasion, most people rallied to protection of hearth and home. Diehards like Wilks kept their faith, preaching sermons. But when London radical John Thelwall toured East Anglia, things turned ugly. Although Thelwall spoke 22 times in Norwich, at Great Yarmouth he and his audience were attacked by sailors armed with cutlasses and cudgels. The magistrates at Lynn and Wisbech refused him protection.

Below the information is summarised from: Norwich since 1550 ed Carole Rawcliffe, Richard Wilson, Christine Clark. ch7 Politics by Mark Knights

French Revolution and Norwich

Sir Thomas Beevor in April 1789 proposed a toast at the Independent Club to ‘the friends of freedom all over the world and success to the Third Estate of France in their noble struggle for liberty’ (before the fall of the Bastille).

In November 1789 The Norwich Revolution Society was founded (dissenters at its core). One member, William Taylor visited France in 1790 and read his translations of French National Assembly decrees to members. The Revolution Society also helped to found and coordinate subsidiary clubs among the population. During 1792 they claimed to have a membership of more than 4,000 and as many as 40 clubs in the city which would send delegates to meet at the main club at the Bluebell Inn.

In March 1792 delegates from the political societies joined together as the United Constitutional Societies, communicating with the London Society for Constitutional Information. Men of ‘the lowest description’ were read extracts from Thomas Paine’s (a Norfolk man) The Rights of Man and other popular radical works. The Revolution Society didn’t want violent revolution, stressing that ‘riot and disorder are no part of our creed.’

By 1793 Norwich clubs declared for universal male suffrage and claimed that landlords and merchants ‘eat up people as they eat bread.’

They sent Maurice Margarot to a radical convention in Edinburgh and then paid £20 for his defence costs (he was sentenced to transportation when the authorities broke up the convention).

Once the Louis xvi had been executed in France (1793 and with the Jacobin Terror) The Revolution Society disbanded and its secretary Isaac Saint publican of the Pelican Inn was arrested.

More reformist clubs emerged – in 1795 The Norwich Patriotic Society was formed and agitated for electoral reform. Within a year it had published a manifesto (probably by Richard Dinmore) asserting that ‘the first grand principle from which all others flow is equality’. But from 1795 the Patriotic Society was up against laws which restricted press freedom and freedom of assembly. It invited London radical John Thelwall to lecture to a crowd of over 4,000. By 1800 the society had vanished. There was also plenty of ‘loyalist’ agitation against the French Revolution in the city and the French wars had a highly detrimental affect on the weaving industry at that time.

Famously in 1796 the urban electorate gave the government an anxious moment. Bartlett Gurney, a respectable Quaker banker from a leading Norwich family, boldly stood against William Windham, the sitting Whig MP for the city, who was Secretary of State at War in Pitt’s wartime cabinet. The result was highly dramatic. Windham kept his seat, but only just. He had a majority of 83 votes, surviving only through support from 321 ‘out-voters’ – freemen who had left the city but returned to support the sitting candidate. Within Norwich itself, Gurney actually won the suffrage. He obtained 122 more votes from the city freemen than did Windham. Nonetheless, the Secretary of State had survived.

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