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1820 insurrection

The late 1700s through to the 1800s saw brutal repression of the reform groups. Execution and transportation being the norm for dissent. Bad harvests, chronic unemployment and soaring food prices caused destitution throughout the working class. Riots took place and ever severer punishments imposed. The Glasgow Advertiser, reports that six baker boys of good character were transported without charge, trial or conviction, for making a disturbance. In Glasgow on the 15th February 1800, hungry and angry crowds attacked meatsellers and grocers shops in Argyle Street, Townhead and Calton in an attempt to feed themselves. As usual the troops were sent in to disperse the crowds.

A short lived lull during the war against Napoleon soon ended with the Corn Law Act of 1815, plus a fresh wave of unemployment once again increasing the destitution. Once more demands for reform grew in strength. There were more riots in Glasgow, Dundee and Perth, jails filled to overflowing. In 1817 the Rev. Neil Douglas was indicted for preaching in an Anderston church against the Libertine Regent. Due to incompetence of the government spies the case collapsed.

During 1819 and 1820 Glasgow was expanding taking in districts such as Bridgeton, Calton and Anderston. The population was around 147,000, most of the work was in mills and factories. The normal working day started at 5.30am, and it was a 14 hour day. Child labour was common, children as young as 6 years of age would be employed as machine operators, the wage would be a shilling a week. There was wide spread unemployment with abject poverty. Women and children sleeping rough was not an unusual sight.

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United Scotsman Societies

Those working for reform were not intimidated and grew in strength and numbers. In spite of Government repression thousands of pamphlets appeared, one such pamphlet by Margarot reached 100,000 copies. There were meetings both secret and open. With the enforcement of the Militia (Conscription) Act, secret and revolutionary United Scotsman Societies, sprang up. The workers seeing the Army as the instrument of oppression used by the Authorities against the people. The Societies spread rapidly. When ever a Branch reached 16 members another was formed. Their National Convention met every 7 weeks, usually in Glasgow. On the Glasgow Green workers went through military drill for the day of the Revolution.

One Sunday morning in 1820 a document appeared on walls all over Glasgow. It stated 'Friends and Countrymen! Rouse from that state in which we have sunk for so many years, we are at length compelled from the extremity of our sufferings, and the contempt heaped upon our petitions for redress, to assert our rights at the hazard of our lives.' There was also a call to arms signed, 'By order of the Committee of Organization for forming a Provisional Government. Glasgow April 1st. 1820.'

A footnote read; 'Britons - God - Justice - the wish of all good men, are with us. Join together and make it one good cause, and the nations of the earth shall hail the day when the Standard of Liberty shall be raised on its native soil.' Government agents spread stories that the workers in England were already armed, and that Kinloch of Kinloch was on his way from France with 50,000 troops: 5,000 of which would be camped on the Cathkin Braes and would seize the city's banks and other institutional centres. They would also arrest any reactionaries. Of course this was a deliberate attempt to get the Reformers to act knowing the weakness of the Reformers arms and the superior forces at the authorities' disposal, allowing them to destroy the Reform movement and execute its main activists.

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Andrew Hardie

There was considerable excitement and discussion in working-class districts. More and more courageous young men formed groups of volunteers all in the hope of liberation from poverty and destitution. Their arms and equipment however never matched their courage. Many Glasgow weavers answered the call of 'The Committee for the Formation of a Provisional Government', among them was a young man named Andrew Hardie. Andrew Hardie and about eighty other young men met at Fir Park (now the Necropolis), behind the Cathedral. They were informed by an alleged comrade from England that they were to march to Falkirk to meet up with reinforcements from England. After the forces met they were to take over the Carron Ironworks where there would be arms. Of course there were no such English reinforcements.

Hardie met Baird at Condorret and become sworn comrades and were unanimously elected leaders of the small band. Marching through the night to Castlecary, by which time their numbers were down to about half the original number. Some of the original group were government agents and had left the group on the pretext of organising further support from other areas. The reinforcements from England nowhere to be seen, soon the less courageous seeing the odds against them slipped away one by one. The small band left would have been aware that it would be impossible for them to take the Carron Ironworks and that they had been mislead and no doubt would have abandoned the project. Before they could make that decision, just at the hill of Bonnymuir a troop of Hussars from Stirling Castle confronted them. The small band of ill equipped and ill armed weavers and artisans decide to fight rather than surrender. It was a fierce, grim and bloody battle, all of the band were either dead or wounded before the surrender. The Commander of the Hussars was wounded and his horse shot from under him. By nightfall all the Reformers had been rounded up and imprisoned in Stirling Castle. Later taken to Edinburgh to be tried as traitors. The Gazette announced to all of Europe that the treasonable Provisional Government of Scotland had been annihilated. The false proclamation of the authorities had succeeded, it had brought the Reformers into open conflict with the forces of the Crown, they could now be tried for high treason and executed rather than transportation.

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James Wilson

Another reformer was James Wilson, a much respected man in the district of Strathavon. He would be 60 years old at the time of the 'Proclamation'. His home was a meeting place for all advanced thinkers of the district. In the early morning a day or so after the 'Proclamation' Wilson was roused by a man calling himself Shields, who earlier by fallacious promises had gathered about 30 volunteers. Shields stated that the 'Provisional Government' was meeting with success right across the country and they must all take up arms and support the struggle. Wilson at first was not convinced, Shields cursed and swore, calling him a coward and stated that he would be shot. Wilson unwillingly agreed. Shields insisted Wilson took with him a rusty old sword that was hanging on the wall. The little band set off, Wilson carrying an old tattered banner that had been picked up on route. The banner read 'Scotland free - or a desert'. After marching some distance Shields slipped away. When Wilson noticed this he was suspicious and called for the project to be abandoned. Wilson had reached his home when he was surrounded by police, taken to Hamilton barracks and then in irons to Glasgow.

Wilson was brought to trial on the 20th July 1820 charged with treason. The jury could not agree on a conviction. Those against, agreed a guilty verdict when the others agreed to unanimously recommend mercy. It was known that Wilson was a peace loving man and would never harm anyone. Considering his age and demeanour and merely 'technically guilty', it was never thought that the law would be so merciless. However the government afraid of growing demands for reform were out to deter the people from supporting the reformers. Wilson was sentenced to be executed within 40 days. All pleadings for mercy on his behalf from prominent and respected men failed. On the 30th of August 1820, Wilson was taken from his cell and bound, calmly he read and requested the audience join him in singing the 51st Psalm, this was solemnly done. He was taken to the scaffold outside the Justiciary Hall where about 20,000 people had assembled. Surrounding the scaffold were the Rifle Brigade, the 33rd Regiment of Infantry and the 3rd Dragoon Guards. A little while after being hanged he was cut down and the axeman severed his head. Prior to his execution Wilson had requested that his remains be buried 'in the dust of his fathers' in the village of Strathavon. He was lead to believe that his request would be granted. His relatives came in mourning to witness the execution and claim his remains but instead the authorities gave the order that the remains should be carted to the paupers ground near the High Church and to be buried there under the watchful eye of the Sheriff-Officer. However that night Wilson's daughter and niece, disinterred the body and with the aid of others carried it back to Strathavon for an honoured burial.

Of those arrested at the battle of Bonnymuir, Andrew Hardie was the first to be tried. The trial was a travesty of justice with an English barrister prosecuting and government spies giving false testimony. Andrew Hardie was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged, beheaded and quartered. A few more preliminaries saw the death sentence given against all remaining eighteen prisoners with John Baird being singled out as being equally guilty as Hardie.

Before the execution date of 8th. of September, all the prisoners with the exception of Hardie and Baird were granted mercy and transported to New South Wales, and eventually pardoned in 1832 by William IV.

On the 8th of September 1820 the gallows stood ready in the square off Broad Street under the walls of Stirling Castle. While waiting to be taken to the scaffold, Baird and Hardie were asked if they would like a glass of wine. They accepted and rose to their feet, Hardie said 'Here is to a speedy deliverance to our Country', and Baird responded with, 'Amen! and may the homeless wind that wafts o'er our silent graves blow to our countrymen their true and legitimate rights'. The Sheriff then asked if they intended to address the crowd from the scaffold. When they replied they would, the Sheriff stated he would refuse their request. This caused some protest from the courtroom. The Sheriff then agreed they could say a few non-political words.

Once placed on the drop of the gallows Baird addressed the silent crowd saying, 'Fellow countrymen, it is our dying prayer that you may all worship God according to your respective creeds, ... Although this day we die an ignominious death by unjust laws our blood, which in a very few minutes shall flow on this scaffold, will cry to heaven for vengeance, and may it be the means of our afflicted countrymen's speedy redemption'. An infuriated Sheriff stepped forward to silence Baird, but a roar from the crowd seemed to stop him. However, Baird said no more.

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The fate of Hardie and Baird

When the crowd again became silent, Hardie spoke saying, 'Yes, my countrymen, in a few minutes our blood shall be shed on this scaffold, and our heads severed from our bodies on the block you all see on that other scaffold, for no other sin but seeking the legitimate rights of our ill used and down trodden beloved countrymen'. At this the furious Sheriff stepped forward and ordered him to stop, '-such violent and improper language'. Again the crowd roar, 'Murder! Murder! Murder!'. Hardie continued, 'My friends, I hope none of you are hurt by this exhibition. Please, after it is over, go quietly home and read your Bibles, and remember the fate of Hardie and Baird'. Hardie, turning to the Sheriff said, 'Sheriff, what we said to our countrymen we intended to say, no matter whether you granted us liberty or not. So we are now both done'.

They were allowed to embrace each other and then the murder in the name of justice took place. After hanging from the scaffold until dead, the hangman, Tam Young and the masked headsman carried the bodies over to the second scaffold. Hardie's head was first placed on the block and was removed with one blow, with Baird, however, the headsman missed and smashed the jawbone, the second blow removed Baird's head. After these gruesome events the scene from the crowd when breaking up was one of screaming, shrieking and some feinting amid cries for vengeance.

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An honorable burial

The dismembered bodies were buried in a single grave outside Stirling Castle, where they remained for 27 years. It was then decided by Glasgow Radicals to give them an honourable burial. A party of Radicals travelled from Glasgow to Stirling to find the grave, but the grave was unmarked. However an old man named Thomas Chalmers, pointed out a particular spot claiming this to be the grave. After much doubt and considerable digging they came upon the bones of two bodies. The old man had been accurate in his pinpointing the spot as the bones could be identified by the smashed jawbone of Baird. They were disinterred and reverently buried in Sighthill Cemetery in the north of Glasgow and an inscribed monument erected by public subscription.

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Next: Cotton spinners' strike, 1837

Updated: 09/01/2006 | Site editor | Legal