Before and after Peterloo: Carlile, Hibbert, Wedderburn
After 1797 there was little discussion of parliamentary reform in the House of Commons, nor open public disorder, for more than a decade. It was in 1816, when the end of the Napoleonic Wars coincided with anti-government riots about food prices in Ely and Littleport, and at Spa Fields, Islington, that class conflict rose to the top of the national agenda. William Cobbett reported that numbers attending mass reform meetings multiplied at this time from 500 to 30,000.56 March of the following year saw Richard Carlile, ‘one of the most important British working-class reformers of the nineteenth century’,57 give up his attempt to earn a precarious living as a journeyman tin-plater and begin his journalistic career. His first articles were written under the pseudonym ‘Plebeian’ for Sherwin’s Weekly Political Register.
Carlile was born in Devon in 1790 to a father who worked as a shoemaker and a soldier, and a mother who kept a small shop. He acquired a rudimentary education at a charity free school until he was 12, but in his early teens, when working for a local chemist, he read classical literature in translation and Paine’s writings; he also taught himself Latin.58 He switched to tin-plating, which he thought would be more remunerative, but at 21 and desperate for work, he moved with his young wife to London, where they lived in dire poverty. There were four reasons why he turned into a full-time radical in 1817: (1) the suppression of rebellious stockingers and day labourers in Derbyshire; (2) the politically motivated trials (and popular acquittals) of Thomas J. Wooler and the Spencean Dr. James Watson; (3) Carlile’s reading of Constantin Volney’s Les Ruines on Meditations sur les Revolutions des Empires (1791), available in English since 1792 (and which also profoundly affected Shelley, especially in Queen Mab);’9 and (4), the examples of Robert Owen, Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt, Cobbett’s Political Register and Robert Wedderburn, whom we shall meet again later in this section.60
After four months’ imprisonment in 1817, Carlile ran a bookshop crammed with political and deist pamphlets and tried one revolutionary newspaper, The Gracchus. It was followed by The Gorgon, which was briefly an important organ of early trade unionism, the title chosen with an ironic reference to the way that the conservative press had often disparaged radicals by comparing them with the snake-haired villainess of mythology.61 This newspaper advertised meetings of ‘The Philanthropic Hercules’, the loose federation of workers’ unions formed in 1818 (see further pp. 446 and 467).62 (Figure 13.1) On May 30th 1818, it ran an article on the abuse of charitable bequests which were supposed to fund schools, but were commandeered as personal profit by parish clergy and municipal corporations. In much of England ‘there are erected what are termed Free Grammar Schools, for the instruction of poor children in Latin and Greek, gratis’. These were set up for praiseworthy motives. But they are neglected, teach few, and
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in which these places are conducted at present, is contrary to the intentions of their authors.63
But Carlile himself knew the power of displaying a command of Latin, conducting an extensive discussion, including a five-line quotation in Latin, of Horace’s Satires I, when defending Cobbett against criticisms.64
Carlile most outraged the authorities by illegally republishing works by Paine,6’ but he was at his most creative with classical material in The Medusa, the successor to The Gorgon, just before and after Peterloo in 1819. On 24th July, The Medusa prints a comparison of constitutional models dependent on Aristotle’s Politics, which introduces the Resolutions passed at the meeting of the Radical Friends of Reform at Smithfield on 21st July. Then a parodic poem on 31st July teems with classical references. But on 16th August 1819, mounted yeomanry charged into a crowd of tens of thousands at St. Peter’s Field, Manchester, who had amassed to hear Henry Hunt and other radicals address them. Eighteen people died of sabre wounds or trampling and crushing injuries. Carlile was present.
His first response in The Medusa, on 21st August, is a pseudo-Lucianic ‘Dialogue in the Shades’ between Paine and Pitt. But the idea of the classical underworld suggested a more adventurous trope. In order to report on the aftermath of the Peterloo ‘murders’, he uses the form of imaginary letters sent to Medusa by her sister Gorgons, using their authentic names Euryale and Stheno. They have access to both the murdered in the underworld and the courts where the events of that day were being processed judicially. The first letter, from Euryale to Medusa, was printed in the issue of 15th September:
I have just left the banks of the Styx, where there several unadmitted shades deploring in the most heart-rending terms, the barbarity of the m____rs.
As soon as the massacre at M________r became known to me, I obtained
an indefinite leave of absence from Pluto and hastened to London ... You and I, who have seen nations rise and fall, have scarcely ever seen such hellish proceedings as have lately occurred in the B__t_sh Pandemonium,
On 26th September (279), the third Gorgon sister, Stheno, writes ‘from the Styx’ to Medusa as well: ‘As soon as the late inhuman massacre became known to us here, we held a conclave for the purpose of advising those oppressed slaves in Britain’. She is outraged that the murderers are not to be prosecuted. Lamia (a notoriously bloodthirsty monster) has been advising that they should be assassinated. Stheno has dissuaded Lamia, but recommends instead, ‘Let them meet, let them unite, let them ARM, and demand redress and justice, and a restitution of those rights which have been so long unjustly withheld from them’. Stheno’s rallying cry is a response to the exoneration by the Prince Regent of the magistrates involved. He had thanked them via the Home Secretary, Lord Sidmouth. Robert Wedderburn had openly called for the abolition of the monarchy,66 and Carlile wrote (in his own voice, not a Gorgon’s), ‘Unless the Prince calls his ministers to account and relieved his people, he would surely be deposed and make them all REPUBLICANS, despite all adherence to ancient and established institutions’.67 There was a genuine danger of armed unrest, with rebellions in West Yorkshire and Lancashire in the autumn of 1819.
On 13th October (279-80), Euryale writes again to Medusa. She attended the Coroner’s Inquest and was appalled at the peremptory treatment of the murders, before hastening to the Prince’s bizarre palace at Brighton, the scene of debauchery. She describes the sleeping Prince, with his ‘bloated features’, in insulting terms. She encountered hanging over him the shade of Brutus, ‘the illustrious patriot of the Ancients’, who in a ‘prophetic frenzy’ recited a malediction, praying that the Prince die a terrifying death. A week later, Stheno, from the Styx, protests against the current crackdown on freethinking of any kind (18th October, 294). Confused by establishment figures calling the violence of Peterloo dictated by ‘the Word of God’, she had sent to the upper world for a copy, but the message went to the wrong country, and the Koran arrived instead of the Christian Bible. When she did get the ‘Word of God’ as read in England, she found it so full of ‘murders, incests, &c.’ that she was shocked. On 13th November (310—11) Euryale writes to Medusa of her concern that the British reformers are splitting into factions; she reiterates that armed force may be necessary (she cites the examples of the two Roman Brutuses and Wat Tyler). She concludes by saying that she hopes to be able to update her sister on the ‘Mission of Brutus’ shortly.
This confrontation between George IV (he became King in January 1820) and newspapers like The Medusa was ridiculed by caricature artist George Cruikshank in ‘Coriolanus Addressing the Plebeians’ (29th February 1820) (Figure 13.2). Cruikshank likens it to the face-off between the legendary early Roman statesman Caius Marcius Coriolanus, known to his readers from Plutarch via Shakespeare, and the plebeian class at Rome. Three of the Cato Street conspirators, who in February 1820 had planned to kill the Prime Minister and his cabinet, are arranged under the banner ‘Blood and Thunder’: Thomas Preston, Dr. James Watson and Arthur Thistlewood. Beside them are Carlile and Cobbett, who is holding Tom Paine’s bones. Among the more moderate reformers lining up are the satirist William Hone and the creator of the caricature, Cruikshank himself. They sport the red cap of the Roman freedman.
FIGURE 13.2 ‘Coriolanus Addressing the Plebeians’ by George Cruikshank (29th February 1820), reproduced by courtesy of the British Museum. ©The Trustees of the British Museum.
Carlile’s Gorgons fulfil several subversive functions. By appropriating the Classics-laden rhetoric of the ruling class, he draws attention to cultural apartheid while undermining it. As a critic of Christianity, the mythical personae allow him to sidestep the pious bombast which the government was using against the radicals. By using the speech-within-a-speech form (Brutus quoted by Euryale) for expressing the desire for the Regent to die a horrible death, Carlile might have thought he could have defended himself personally against a charge of sedition. As immortals, the Gorgon sisters not only have long memories of the history of revolts against tyrants, but Stheno, at least, can move instantaneously between places to witness an inquest in Manchester and the (heavily guarded) bedchamber of the Regent. But the letters are also funny, and Carlile knew as well as anyone that collective laughter in the face of oppression can be politically effective.
Unsurprisingly, by the time the November issues came out, Carlile had already been convicted of blasphemy and seditious libel in one of the 75 prosecutions for those crimes brought in England in 1819 alone.68 He was fined and incarcerated in Dorchester until 1825. He continued publishing the Republican from prison, but the Medusa ceased. The Prince Regent, who had once asked of a man, ‘Is he a gentleman? Has he any Greek?’69 was not assassinated, and the moment of greatest threat to the established order passed. After the Cato Street conspirators were hanged and beheaded or deported, new repressive legislation (‘The Six Acts’) meant that all British radicals found themselves in gaol. Carlile’s wife Mary-Anne loyally moved into Dorset Prison with him, and in 1823 they had a daughter whom they named Hypatia after the ancient pagan intellectual. She died in infancy.70
The imprisoned Carlile acquired a large ‘republican and infidel’ following. His keenest supporters, in London, Salford, Stalybridge and Glasgow, founded ‘zetetic’ societies (from the ancient Greek verb zetein, to seek out or enquire after), which investigated the truth of existence by scientific and non-Christian methods.71 The emphasis of his work fell increasingly on free thought once he began collaborating ‘as Infidel missionary’ with the Reverend Robert Taylor, an anti-clerical mystic who had been imprisoned for blasphemy after lecturing in London pubs on the immorality of the Church of England. Carlile promoted Taylor’s published works, written in prison,72 notably his Syntagma (1828) and Diegesis (1829). These argued that all religions were similar, based on solar and astral myths and sacrificed heroes, and that honorific titles such as ‘Christ’ and ‘Lord’ were merely the equivalents of epithets applied to Bacchus, Apollo, Adonis and Jupiter.73
In 1830, Carlile founded the Rotunda in Blackfriars Road, to nurture revolutionary sentiment against the ‘aristocratical or clerical despotism, corruption and ignorance of the whole country’.74 It became the recognised centre of London working-class radicalism, featuring spectacular ‘infidel’ dramas, in which Taylor showed that the gospels rewrote primordial Mithraic and Bacchic mysteries.75 Carlile and Taylor were re-imprisoned, but the work at the Rotunda was continued by their Bolton-born disciple and sex equality activist, Eliza Sharpies, who became Carlile’s common-law wife. She led the mysteries in the persona of Isis, dressed in flowing gowns, with white thorn and laurel leaves underfoot.76
Carlile’s intellectual mentor, on the other hand, was Julian Hibbert, whose death in 1834 shattered him. Hibbert was one of the most mysterious radicals on the post-Peterloo scenes, not least because, although highly educated and privately wealthy, he was tightly embedded within the working-class political community from which Carlile became distanced as his theological interests deepened.77 In 1828 Hibbert published an edition of Plutarch’s On Superstition, with other material including Theophrastus’ character portrait of the ‘Superstitious Man’, which was adopted and much used by less erudite freethinkers. Hibbert humorously states that he regards ‘no book so amusing as the Old Testament’ and closes his preface ‘by consigning all “Greek Scholars” to the special care of Beelzebub’.78 He attaches dazzlingly erudite polemics on how religion is used to sedate what Burke called ‘the swinish multitude’, on all the individuals falsely accused of impiety from Xenophanes, Socrates and Aristotle via Julian the Apostate to the 19th century, and the many definitions of the word ‘god’.79 But Hibbert was active in radical politics as well. He was treasurer to the Victim Fund run by the agitators for the freedom of the unstamped press; the Chartist William Lovett recalled:
He was a person of extreme liberal views both in politics and religion; indeed, he used frequently to say that he could wish to practise the good found among all religions, but had no faith in any of their creeds. He belonged, I believe, to an aristocratic family; had received an excellent education, and was, I understand, a capital Greek scholar. From my intimate knowledge of him I know that he possessed a kind and generous disposition, and that he was ever foremost in helping the downtrodden and oppressed without show or ostentation.80
Hibbert personally funded several of the legal defences of the radicals imprisoned after Peterloo, and had almost certainly furnished the arguments from Plutarch used by Robert Wedderburn, the mixed-race son of a Scottish planter in Jamaica by his African slave woman, when tried for blasphemy in May 1820.81 (Figure 13.3)
A Unitarian preacher, and follower of Thomas Spence, Wedderburn had described Jesus Christ as a ‘republican’ and ‘reformer’ and compared him with Henry Hunt. Hunt was himself at the time in prison following Peterloo. A transcript of Wedderburn’s trial including his speech, with learned notes, was simultaneously published. It is an uncompromising defence of freedom in discussion of scripture: ‘Tyrannical and intolerant laws may exist and be enforced in times of darkness and ignorance, but they will be of little effect when once the human mind is emancipated from the trammels of superstition’.82
FIGURE 13.3 ‘Robert Wedderburn (1762—1835)’, by Becky Brewis (2019) after engraving by unknown artist © Becky Brewis 2019.
The publication was edited by George Cannon, under the pseudonym Erasmus Perkins: a middle-class, educated radical, Cannon later became a notorious pornographer. With advice from Hibbert, he almost certainly wrote some of Wedderburn’s plea—Wedderburn says that he had been unable to write it because his work as a tailor had wrecked his eyesight, and a court clerk read it out. Footnotes enhance the publication’s air of erudition and authority. Amongst quotations from the Christian Fathers, and references to Roman myth, there is a discussion of the derivation of the two ancient Greek roots of the Greek word blaspheme (which Paine had also discussed; see above, p. 273), and a long note on the Delphic oracle. Plutarch is cited for arguing that it is better to deny the existence of a Supreme Being than to ‘entertain degrading and dishonourable notions of him’.83 Wedderburn’s court appearance persuaded the jury to recommend ‘mercy’, resulting in a sentence of‘only’ two years in Dorchester gaol.