legislation against political meetings


Legislation passed throughout this period increasingly restricted when and where political groups could meet and defined what constituted ‘legitimate’ versus ‘seditious’ collective action.

The attitude of William Pitt the Younger’s government to the rise of mass public meetings was encapsulated in the 1795 Seditious Meetings Act and further legislation in 1799 against corresponding societies. Reaction to organised labour took the form of the Combination Acts of 1799-1800, which prohibited oath-bound groups from collective bargaining. Lord Liverpool’s Tory government reacted to the postwar ‘mass platform’ radical movement with another seditious meetings act and the suspension of habeas corpus act in 1817.

The Peterloo Massacre on 16 August 1819 gave them the ideal opportunity to clamp down on collective action further in the ‘Six Acts’ passed at the end of that year. 1819 indeed marked a turning point, as the events of that year shifted governments’ focus away from prosecuting for seditious libel towards the problem of unlawful assembly.

Chartist agitation provoked the government to pass two royal proclamations, one in November 1838 against night-time torchlight meetings, and another on 3 May, which enabled magistrates to ban daylight Chartist assemblies virtually at will. Again this was as much about the freedom to meet in public spaces as it was about deciding the level of ‘sedition’ in firey Chartist orators’ speeches on the platform. Eileen Yeo’s description of the effect of the 1839 Royal Proclamation is instructive: ‘the potential, and to some extent previously existing, landscape for the culture of working-class movements was being enclosed’.[1]

[1] E. Yeo, ‘Culture and constraint in working–class movements, 1830–1855’, in E. and S. Yeo (eds), Popular Culture and Class Conflict, 1590–1914: Explorations in the History of Labour and Leisure (Brighton: Harvester Press, 1981), p.160.

1795 Seditious Meetings Act

1819 Seditious Meetings Act and the ‘Six Acts’





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