British History in the Long 18th Century Seminar: Institute of Historical Research, University of London, December 14 (2011)
This paper is about the spaces and places of popular politics in northern England from 1789 to 1848. During this period, and for the first time, hundreds of thousands of Britons became involved in extra-parliamentary political pressure of various kinds. Their aims were principally to press for parliamentary reform and suffrage, but their campaigns also encompassed other issues, especially concerning employment regulations and wages, and welfare and the poor laws. Collective action developed into larger or new forms. Radical societies in the 1790s, the ‘mass platform’ of the 1810s, and ‘monster meetings’ of the 1840s gathered together thousands of working people on particular sites that were to gain political significance. Networks of delegates from across regions and the country attended conventions, committees, and trades unions. Working people developed new methods of self-help, from friendly societies to Owenite Socialist co-operatives to the Chartist Land Plan.
The popular politics of Britain during the French Revolution has become so well mined by historians that ‘1790s studies’ has almost become a subject in its own right. Most historians of the 1790s focus on loyalist attacks on radicals’ freedom of speech, in particular the legislation against seditious writings, burnings of books and effigies of Thomas Paine, the arrest of radical leaders and shutting down of radical newspapers, and other loyalist outbursts that hit the headlines. This focus on ideas and language is in part a product of the rich wealth of surviving textual material from this decade, from pamphlets to newspapers to correspondence to printed sermons to cartoons. Studies of semiotics were fuelled further by the ‘linguistic turn’ of the late 1980s and early 1990s, which emphasised the agency of words and text. Significantly, much of the debate about the ‘linguistic turn’ was conducted by historians of the popular politics of the ‘age of reform’.