Towards the end of the 18th century , inspired by the American and French Revolution and the publication of Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man, political reform societies were established across Britain; Paine’s work became very popular in Perth. In April 1792 a group of young Whigs founded The Society of the People, Associated for the Purpose of Obtaining a Parliamentary Reform. Its purpose was the extension of the franchise as well as some parliamentary reform. An earlier created society, The London Correspondence Club (25 January 1792) was more radical than the Friends of the People and unlike the latter which was dominated by the wealthy, was composed of artisans and workers. By November of 1792, 87 branches of the Friends of the People were operating in Britain and many were far more radical than the original group created by the Whigs – this led to division in the Whig Party. Amongst these groups are included the Glasgow based Associated Friends of the Constitution of the People (September 1792) and The Sons of Liberty and Friends of Man operating in Partick.
In July 1792 the Friends of the People Society of Edinburgh came into being. This group set its subscription rates lower than its English counterparts and so allowed for a far wider membership base. Members came from many professions including: shopkeepers; artisans; weavers; tailors; cobblers; brewers; bakers; tanners; butchers; and, hairdressers. Soon other groups were set up in Scotland. Branches of theFriends of the People operated independently but came together in conventions.
The earliest known reform movement in Perth was the Perty Society for Parliamentary Reform. The Friends of the People Branch in Perth was formed on 14 August 1792 with a meeting at the Guildhall. The purpose of that society was to achieve “A free and Equal Representation of the People (and) A Short Duration of Parliaments”. Weavers, hatters and other workers and tradesmen flocked to join the society so that by October of 1792 it could claim 1200 members and send 9 delegates to thre first Scottish Convention (Edinburgh); it is worth noting that Dundee only had 3 delegates to that same convention.
It was not just workers that were inspired to join the Friends of the People in Perth, several clergymen became active in its ranks. Amongst this group are included: Reverend John Wilson (Minister of the Antiburgher Church at Methven); Jedidiah Aikman (Assistant New Licht Burger Minister in the Wilson Church; and, David Sangster (Minister of the Relief Church). Other Perth-based political animals that came towards the cause of parliamentary reform were those active on the abolition of slavery such as George Meliss.
Between December 1792 and October 1793, three general conventions took place in Scotland. The last one was a British-wide convention.
At the first convention (December 1792) Thomas Muir a Glasgow lawyer spoke eloquently and was a key figure. He was soon to be sentenced by Lord Braxfield after a corrupt trial and transported (14 years) to the convict colony of Botany Bay in Australia for what the state described as stirring up discontent amongst workers. The second convention saw a Unitarian Minister, reverend Thomas Fyste Palmer come to the fore – he too was transported (7 years). Whilst he was in prison he took visits from thirty-two of the Perth radicals – Palmer was locked up in the Tolbooth in Perth awaiting trial which began in Perth on 12 September 1793.. The all-British convention of October 1793, issued a manifesto demanding universal male suffrage with annual elections. It even expressed solidarity with the French Revolution. This was too far for the government, which broke up the convention, arrested many leaders and transported them along with Thomas Muir (1765-99).
The societies grew more radical and in the summer/autumn of 1792 many riots and demonstrations were seen across Britain. Perth and Dundee were the scene of some of these demonstrations. In Perth on 26 November 1792, ‘A Tree of Liberty’ was erected in the town and demonstrators cried for ‘Equality and Liberty’and for the end of monarchy and aristocracy – huge meetings were held on both Inches.. The inspiration for the action came from the news that General Dumourier had entered Brussels as the French Revolution progressed onwards. Radicals implored the people of Perth to celbrate and to illuminate their windows accordingly. The Duke of Atholl caught up in the demonstrations was forced to join the radicals and shout for liberty and equality. That night the steeple bells of Perth kept up a chorus until the next day.
Whig figures within the Friends of the People condemned these demonstrations and direct action – many radicals were expelled. In Perth, the ruling class attempted to organise counter-demonstrations of government support – this backfired. At these meetings, pro-reformers manged to get debate going and pass reformist resolutions. At the second of these supposed pro-government meetings wher 2000 or so Perth residents were in attendance (st. John’s Church),
Whilst many in the Perth society were happy just calling for reform, others began to correspond with the National Assembly in France and look to more radical methods. In Perth, some of the radicals (Walter Miller, Grant and others) advocated the raising of funds to buy arms and so seize what they demanded by force. These different approaches led to tension within the Perth Friends of the People. Spies and police informers kept the authorities abreast of the developments and those in power began to fear the potential for rebellion in Perth. Despite the climate and repression, the radicals expanded in number.
One figure for government scrutiny was James Wylie. His mail was intercepted and the Lord Advocate described Wylie to the Home Secretary as the “most intemperate revolutioner in Scotland“.
Some of the radicals anger was directed to individual politicians such as Henry Dundas. His effigy was put on trial in Crieff and subsequently burned. At Scone his effigy was hung up on a gibbet, while in Perth the effigy was blown up with gunpowder – those involved probably included William Bissett a local surgeon and James Wylie, a merchent – both members of the friends of the People.. It has already been mentioned that the Duke of Atholl was intimidated by radicals in Perth, but that was not the only attack on him. On 6 November 1792 at the Perth Hunt Ball, demonstrators at that event, upon seeing the Duke of Atholl were recorded as calling for him to be sent to the guillotine.
The Friends of the People opposed war with France and in Perth after a meeting at the Guildhall (January 29 1793) printed a pamphlet, A Solemn Protestation Against War. Slowly the changing climate led to a reduction in political activity, so that in October 1793 only one delegate (Robert Sands) went from Perth to the All-British Convention.
“The triumph of liberty and reason over despotism, ignorance and superstition.”
Whig Club, Dundee
The Napoleonic War brought economic stagnation, widespread unemployment and growing political discontent. War with France led to an increase in state repression of the reform groups, whilst at the same time the government ignored reformist petitions.. Nevertheless, many radicals continued their work. These activists suffered attack, arrest and imprisonment. Notable figures like Thomas Hardy, John Tooke and John Thelwell were even sent to the Tower of London. Slowly the suppression of the movement had effect and the Friends of the People was wound down as a society. Still, the radicals continued, now in more clandestine ways – secret societies ofUnited Scotsmen (and United Irishmen) were formed. The United Irishmen were more radical than their Scottish counterparts, but after a delegation of the former arrived in Scotland, the United Scotsmen too became revolutionary. Support for theUnited Scotsmen was strong amongst the working classes in Scotland. As well as electoral reform the United Scotsmen advocated a Republic. By the mid-1790s there were more members in the United Scotsmen than the actual Scottish electorate – about 3000. The United Scotsmen for security and safety operated in cells or groups of 16 or less.
One of the aims of the United Scotsmen was the attainment of Annual Parliaments and Universal Suffrage. Those joining the United Scotsmen pledged:
“that I will preserve in my endeavours to obtain an equal, full, and adequate Representation of All the people in Greta Britain.”
In Perth, the radicals also set up a cell structure. Nevertheless, governemnt spies and informers saw to it that individuals and groups were attacked and prosecutions arranged. David Sangster and the reverend Geary (Methodist preacher) were both subject to attacks. One of the government spies (known as J. B.) gave details to the authorities of a plot by Walter Miller and others to acquire arms. Miller’s home was searched for guns and bayonets that he was supposed to have obtained from Birmingham for the purposes of sedition. Five fouling pieces were found and espite interrogation, Miller refused to speak.
Whatever the distorrion of the authorities, it was clear that many of the radicals were looking to armed revolution as the means for the advancement of society. Reports circulated around Perthshire of one group of twenty men secretly drilling with guns in Auchterarder. Similar reports concerned other areas. Perthshire and Scotland was a volcano of revolutionary activity. As the ruling class became more concerned so did their repression – in Perthshire and across Scotland the class war was being fought on a daily basis.
Walter Miller, Robert Sands were amongst many radicals arrested and implicated in what became known as the ‘Pike Plot’ . This involved the ordering of some 4000 pikes. Sands spent 7 months detained in Edinburgh awaiting trial for the ‘Pike Plot‘. Another Perth born activist, Robert Watt, found himself arrested and stood trial for high treason. Mass arrests and trials gradually led to the radicals pursuing more cautious approaches.
In 1797 the Militia Act was passed. This act which allowed for the conscription of young men into the British Army was opposed strongly in Scotland. August 1797 saw many protests against the act in Scotland – several protestors were killed during this period.
The United Scotsmen increasingly looked overseas for support. A plan for 50,000 Dutch troops to land in Scotland and occupy the central belt was only thwarted when the British Navy defeated the Dutch fleet at the Battle of Camperdown in October 1797. France might have had more luck if it looked to Scotland, instead it attempted to assist a rising in England which never came.
That same year the United Scotsmen rose against the British government, but troops sent to Scotland from England soon crushed their rebellion. The aim of the rebels had been to set up a republic with Thomas Muir as its President. In the aftermath, the leadership of the United Scotsmen were tried – many were transported or imprisoned. Persecution of the United Scotsmen when on for some time; the last trial before the courts took place in 1802 (Thomas Wilson). The government proscribed the United Scotsmen and tightened up its control of the press as part of their measures to destroy the radicals. Even up to 1820, the struggle continued. With James Wilson in a leadership position, the radicals once again attempted a rebellion – 1820.
The end of the Napoleonic War allowed for the opening up of political activity. In 1816, James Turner’s estate of Thrushgrove, just outside Glasgow was the scene of rallies demanding the widening of political representation. As the British economy moved into a period of distress, so the demands for reform were fuelled. So mush so that radical conversations often moved to armed rebellion. Since many of the reform groups were infiltrated by police spies and informants, numerous court cases arose as a consequence of the radical mutterings. However, in many instances juries refused to convict those placed before them.
In April 1820 posters appeared across Glasgow declaring the establishment of a provisional government and calling for revolution. Groups of weavers and other workers, armed with pikes, gathered ready for the rebellion. Andrew Hardie led a group towards Falkirk before being put to flight by the military at Bonnybridge. Mass arrests followed, three were executed for treason and others were transported.
Perth Museum & Art Gallery has on exhibit a certificate of membership of The Revolution Club of Perth from 1790.
A List of the Perthshire Radicals:
Alexander Paul (Junior)
Robert Watt – revolutionary or police informer
Reverend John Wilson
Acknowledgement must be given to the excellent and detailed thesis written by Valerie Honeyman – Perth: A Very Dangerous Place?: Radicalism in Perth in the 1790s. (2003) – Perth & Kinross Archives (AK Bell Library, Perth).