Why did people resort to violent protest 1750-1900 and how successful where they?

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Why did people resort to violent protest 1750-1900 and how successful where they?

  • Understand the Reasons for the Captain Swing and Luddite movements

  • Assess how successful these protests were

  • Explain why there were riots in Trafalgar Square in 1887

  • Assess the Impact of these Riots

Violent protests by the working class and clashes between rioters and the army and police were common in this period.

Riots broke out in London…; at Bridgeport… there were riots over the high prices of bread; at Bury by the unemployed to destroy machinery; at Newcastle by miners; at Preston by unemployed weavers; at Nottingham by Luddites; at Merthyr on a drop in wages; at Birmingham by the unemployed (Life of a Radical, Samuel Bramford, 1859)
There was great unrest when the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815, as the following account shows:

The author of the above extract was present at the Peterloo Massacre in 1819, when people protested against high food prices and unemployment caused by the use of machines.

Handloom weavers, protesting at Peterloo, were also influenced by the French Revolutionaries’ ideas. The flying of the tricolour and the singing of the French Rev national anthem were signs that the protesters were influenced by France. This frightened the English aristocracy who ran the government.

The Peterloo Massacre (or Battle of Peterloo) occurred at St Peter's Field, Manchester, England, on 16 August 1819, when cavalrycharged into a crowd of 60,000–80,000 that had gathered to demand the reform of parliamentary representation.

15 people were killed and 400–700 were injured. The massacre was given the name Peterloo in ironic comparison to the Battle of Waterloo, which had taken place four years earlier.

The Luddites and Captain Swing

Luddites were workers who wrecked machinery in textile factories, angry that machines were taking away their jobs. They tried to destroy steam driven shearing machines. The machine could do the work of many workers.

Sir… I shall send 300 men to destroy them and we will burn your building to ashes… murder you and burn all your housing. Signed by the General of the Army of Redressers, Ned Ludd

(Letter sent to a Huddersfield Manufacturer, 1812)

‘Captain Swing’ is the name given to the rioters of the 1830s. Swing men tried to destroy the property of land-owners in protest at unemployment. The following letter was sent to employers in 1830:

Sir, Your name is among the Black Hearts in the Black Book and this is to advise you, and the like of you, to make your Will. You have been the Blackguard Enemies of the People. Ye have not done as ye ought.


(Letter from ‘Captain Swing’ to a Kent farmer 1830)

Why did the protestors fail?

The failure of these early protest movements may be explained by several factors:

  • The protesters were campaigning against inevitable change in technology, which could not be reversed.

  • Land owners, the special constables and the army crushed them because they were frightened of violence turning into revolution.

  • Almost all government and opposition MPs were against the protesters because the MPs were mostly landowners.

  • The working class had no money to organise a proper protest movement

  • Many workers were doing very well out of technological advancement, most workers did not support the machine breakers.

Further attempts to improve the lives of workers

Between 1850 and 1870, the ‘workshop of the world’ provided more work for higher wages for more people. Skilled workers bought their homes and trade unions gave them their own ‘welfare state’.

At three o clock the men from the East End made towards Trafalgar Square. When the procession reached the end of St Martin’s Lane the police, mounted and on foot, charged, striking in all directions. At four o’clock the procession of men from South London reached the Westminster Bridge, and the police made for them: they freely used their weapons and the people, armed with iron bars, pokers, gas pipes and even knives resited.

(Reynolds’ News, 20 November 1887)

However, with trade depression after 1870, there was rising unemployment. Many felt that society offered no solution to their grievances and they demonstrated in London and elsewhere.

Social Campaigners

The riots failed to stop unemployment, but they did encourage many people to think about the conditions of poverty in which the low-paid, the sick and the unemployed were forced to live. Charles Booth visited the East End of London and reported how people lived in great poverty because of large families, old age, sickness, low wages or unemployment. Booth’s brother William Booth began the Salvation Army to care for the poor of Britain’s cities.

The report showed that 31% of people lived below the poverty line, fixed at an income between 18 -21 shillings a week. Seebohm Rowntree made his own survey of York, where he was the main employer (owning chocolate factories). He hoped to prove that Booth’s findings did not apply outside London. To his horror he found it was the same in York.

Women were able to take a role in social improvement. Middle class women would go to working class homes and sold carbolic soap at a hugely reduced price. Elizabeth Twining set up the first mother’s meeting in London in 1850. They established penny banks for clothing and doctors funds and were taught to find cheap nutritional food.

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