Threatened with exclusion from many civic buildings and institutions from the early 1790s, radical societies moved outside to hold mass meetings in politically resonant sites, often resulting in major disputes with local authorities. They drew precedents from election hustings, the mass agitation in support of renegade politician John Wilkes in the 1770s and the demonstrations before the Gordon riots of 1780. Later known as the ‘mass platform’, this tactic was the origin of the modern demonstration, with many of the same features: a hustings or platform upon which famous orators and local political leaders gave speeches, large crowds assembled in a carefully chosen square or field, brought together by processions with banners and bands of music.
Mass meetings were designed to create a sense of solidarity, disseminate a political message and demonstrate the extent and potential of the movement to its opponents.
This page examines how radicals and trade unions defended the freedom to meet and to move in the agitation following the end of the Napoleonic wars, when local and national elites introduced even more legislation against meeting to call for political and trades’ rights.
Find out more about processions and procession routes in Manchester and Leeds on the next page: processions & marches
The March of the Blanketeers, 10 March 1817
On Monday 10 March 1817, over five hundred men from Manchester and its surrounding towns met in St Peter’s Fields. Carrying blankets to sleep in at night, they set off to present a reform petition to the Prince Regent in London. The March of the Blanketeers evinced a bold determination to represent the grievances of the unrepresented, legally and directly, to the source of national power. The movement was the march, and the march was the movement.
The Manchester magistrates arrested the leaders on St Peter’s Fields, but not before about several hundred men had set off. About two hundred were arrested at Stockport bridge, but the postmaster of Macclesfield reported that multiple ‘groups of about twenty or thirty’ arrived in his town by four o’clock in the afternoon. That some got as far as Leek in Staffordshire, thirty miles from home, and one man apparently managed to reach London, was testimony to a belief in the connection their determination to defend the right to petition.
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Postwar radical societies and networks
The three mass meetings on Spa Fields in London, organised by the Spenceans during the winter of 1816-17, electrified the political atmosphere. Magistrates reported the intense interest among radicals in the latest news from London, and the events brought Henry Hunt to popular fame.
Northern radicals’ relationship with the metropolitan reformers was complex. There was some attempt at national co-ordination, but it was hampered by financial and logistical constraints as well as ideological differences. The northern radicals looked towards London when a meeting of deputies was held at the Crown and Anchor, a well-established centre of metropolitan radicalism, on Wednesday 22 January 1817. Deputies from the North were sent from Manchester, Bolton, Stockport, Ashton-under-Lyne and Liverpool, and also from the smaller town of Leigh and the radical villages of Royton and Middleton (the fact that the latter two had a deputy each whereas other large towns did not or could not afford to send any is testimony to the significance of radicalism in their political histories). There were no representatives from the West Riding; the depression that hit the woollen industry in the winter of 1816 meant that none could afford to travel. Radical societies had not had a central meeting of delegates since the Edinburgh Convention of 1794. Though the rhetoric may have alluded to the commonwealth and the corruption of Westminster, it is evident that the delegates could not and did not want to be an ‘anti-parliament’.
In the event, Samuel Bamford, representing Middleton, felt disappointed by the London meeting, although it strengthened his faith in Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt and reaffirmed the radicals’ rejection of the limited measure of household suffrage as advocated by William Cobbett and Sir Francis Burdett. After Spa Fields, Manchester soon became one of the main focal-point for radical activity, and the weight of extra-parliamentary pressure shifted to northern England.
 T. Parssinen, ‘Association, convention and anti–parliament in British radical politics, 1771–1848’, EHR, 88 (1973).
Printers and booksellers provided an important point of contact for postwar radicals, a node co-ordinating the campaign for an unstamped press and freedom of the press. In Manchester, J. Molineux and Co of St Mary’s Gate took on the dangerous mantle of printers of radical pamphlets and handbills. Molineux’s Office co-ordinated the distribution of the subscription books, and Molineux himself was appointed President of the ‘General Union’ at a meeting at the Marquis of Wellington pub at the Garratt, on 10 December. One of the subscription books to the new Hampden Club in 1816 lay for signatures at 7 Swarbrick Street south of Piccadilly. This was the home and workshop of David Ridgway, a fustian cutter. Thomas Nadin, who had taken on the role of ‘thief catcher’ from the now retired notorious Joseph Nadin, described where he purchased the pamphlet as ‘a small room with a small flat window … a kitchen behind, and the shop forms the parlour’. Ridgway was described as staying ‘generally upstairs’ at his work unless he was called down to sell some printed material. This kind of dual occupation and the half-public/half-private space on a ‘small narrow street’ offered another type of space for radical activities. In 1821, Ridgway was tried and imprisoned for twelve months for having sold Richard Carlile’s seditious pamphlet ‘An Address to the Reformers’.
 TNA, HO 42/156/6-7, depositions of ‘No1 and no2’ spies, 10 December 1816.
 Manchester Archives and Local Studies, M9/40/2/80, Manchester rate book, 1816; Annual Register, 63 (1821), p.472.