Passages in the Life of a Radical (London, 1859) provides an invaluable record of an increasing sense of class consciousness and unity of purpose among large sections of the artisan and labouring classes in Britain during a very specific time frame (1816-21). The author Samuel Bamford (1788-1872) describes an era of growing political unrest in which he was directly involved as a working man, activist and reformist radical. In a brief introduction to the account, Bamford acknowledged his interest:
‘The writer was a partaker in most of the scenes he will describe. They are vividly impressed on his memory; some of them are also interwoven with the feelings of his heart.’
In other words, Passages in… was not written to provide an objective chronicle of events. Parts of the text are didactic or polemical in tone and content. At one point, Bamford launches an impassioned appeal for a more egalitarian society (‘cheap food for the hungry, – cheap clothing for the naked…cheap rents for the farmer, – cheap education for everyone…’).
Elsewhere, Bamford provides an overview of the unrest that was spreading across Britain’s industrial towns and cities. The factors causing this were unemployment, the high price of basic foodstuffs and the limits of the franchise: at this time very few people had the right to vote and power remained in the hands of a privileged and wealthy elite.
Bamford also allows us behind-the-scenes access into the everyday or routine life of a political activist. His descriptive passages make it possible to ‘know’ – in the absence of visual records – what it was like to attend a typical meeting of working men indoors in early-nineteenth-century London: ‘many would be speaking at once, and the hum and confusion would be such as gave an idea of there being more talkers than listeners.’
But Passages in the Life of a Radical is perhaps best-known today for the eyewitness testimony it provides of the Peterloo Massacre, which took place on 16 August 1819. Bamford was among the estimated 60,000 men and women who assembled on St Peter’s Fields in Manchester to demonstrate peacefully for Parliamentary Reform and a repeal of the Corn Laws. Many of those present had attended to hear the popular radical orator Henry Hunt (1773-1835) but whilst Hunt was speaking from the platform – and acting on the orders of local magistrates who had become anxious when they realised the size of the crowd – mounted yeomanry moved in to arrest him. A sea of people closed ranks around the platform in an attempt to block the arrest; the yeomanry panicked and charged the crowd. As Bamford explains:
‘The cavalry were in confusion: they evidently could not, with all the weight of man and horse, penetrate that compact mass of human beings; and their sabres were plied to hew away through naked held-up hands, and defenceless heads; and then chopped limbs, and wound-gaping skulls were seen; and groans and cries were mingled with the din of that horrid confusion.’
Within a few short moments of panic and mayhem (‘in ten minutes from the commencement of the havoc, the field was an open and almost deserted space.’) fifteen people were killed and more than 400 wounded. Roughly a quarter of those wounded were women.
Some ten days later, Bamford was arrested and charged with a breach of the law relating to the gathering at St Peter’s Fields. He was sentenced to twelve months in prison. His account of the trial includes some brief explanation about the social and political conditions informing the original peaceful protest as well as witness testimony of events on the day: ’She likened her house to an hospital after a military slaughter.’
Passages in the Life of a Radical, p.344
You can find out about the Peterloo Massacre and the campaign to recognise the sacrifice of the pioneer campaigners for justice, equality and voting reform here. To read more about Samuel Bamford, click here.