1st April 1820

The Radical War begins

Scotland went on strike in April 1820. Conditions for the average worker had been declining for years, industrialisation had put many out of work, and those who still had jobs were seeing their wages flatline. Worse, the large number of unemployed meant there would always be someone else who could do their jobs, and employers took advantage of this by cutting their wages.

At the same time, food prices were rising, making life difficult for all but the well off. Several demonstrations had already been put down with force, but what came to be known as the Radical War, or Scottish Insurrection of April 1820, was dealt with in a particularly harsh manner. This is perhaps not surprising: it was later revealed that the government itself had had a hand in stirring up dissent so that it had an excuse to exercise its power and, it hoped, end things once and for all.

Workers go on strike

It began on 1 April with the erection of signs in Glasgow demanding a national strike and the formation of a provisional government. A proclamation from the king, George IV, printed in the London Gazette sought to uncover the culprits, promising “our most gracious pardon to any person concerned in affixing and publishing [the signs], except the authors and printers thereof” so long as they gave information that would help in the apprehension of the culprits. If they did, they’d also be eligible for a reward of £500.

Nonetheless, two days later – on Monday 3 April – work ground to a halt as workers across the central belt of Scotland went on strike. Things quickly got worse when strikers started making their own weapons, and workers marched on one of the country’s primary weapons manufacturers, the Carron Company in Falkirk. The Glasgow Chronicle of 8 April reported that this had been “for the purpose of seizing the cannon there; but the Carron Company had, we understand, taken the precaution of sending all their small pieces of ordnance down the Forth to Edinburgh Castle, for security, leaving only a few 24-pounders, loaded with grape, for the defence of the works”.

News was slow to spread, but The Sun reported on 10 April, on the basis of reports sent four days earlier, that “Calton and Bridgetown were kept in constant ferment by accounts of pretended Radical victories obtained at Kilsyth, Paisley and other strong holds of the disaffected. About 200 men assembled in Calton and Bridgetown of whom about one-half were armed with pikes, blunderbusses, and pistols. In Tradestown 60 assembled at the sound of a bugle armed with pikes.”

Government propaganda

Much of the news printed in the London papers was received from the government’s own Home Department, which naturally gave the government the upper hand in the propaganda war. On 14 April, commenting on the above excerpt from The Sun, which was also printed in its own paper and many others, the Stamford Mercury noted that the fact it had come from the Home Department “excited some alarm in London” since surely the Home Department – better known as the Home Office today – “would not issue a bulletin on such a subject unless great importance were attached to it.” However, “accounts which have subsequently arrived from the North… do not afford any sanction to the step of publishing a Government Bulletin. The audacity of some seditious miscreants has certainly been great, in attacking or resisting the Military acting under the law; but their confidence had been short-lived; their puny efforts have been crushed in an instant; and ‘the rebellion’ has crumbled into a dread of punishment, and a hiding and sneaking from the strong arm of justice, which is at present used with undisputed sway.”

The Stamford Mercury went on to carry reports excerpted directly from Scottish newspapers. The Glasgow Journal of 5 April reported that “the greater part of the men who had been cheated by their besotted leaders returned to their work”.

Arrests and trials

Several of the marchers were arrested, brought to London and tried at the Old Bailey, where their leaders were found guilty and sentenced to death for treason. Although some were granted a reprieve, three of them – James Wilson, Andrew Hardie and John Baird – were executed. Wilson was hanged and beheaded on 30 August. Hardie and Baird met the same end on 8 September. Almost two dozen others were transported to Australia.

The day after Wilson’s execution, the Carlisle Patriot reported that “the person who was to decapitate [him after his hanging was] seated before him with an axe and knife, dressed in a black gown and cap, having his face covered with black crape… the crowd gave tremendous shouts of disapprobation, by hissing and calling out ‘a murdered man!’ The shouts were so general and so loud near the place of execution that those on the outside, fearful that a rescue was [to be] attempted, and that the military were acting against them, ran off in every direction…”

Wilson’s execution

The crowd that had assembled to see Wilson’s execution numbered in the tens of thousands, and Wilson himself asked the executioner whether he’d ever seen such a mass of people. The executioner said that he had, and asked Wilson to let him know when he was ready to die. When Wilson gave the signal, the trap door opened and he fell to his death. He was left hanging for half an hour before the axeman took him down. The Carlisle Patriot continued, “the person in a mask appeared on the scaffold, which produced another noise from the crowd, and having felt for the disjointed part of the neck, elevated his axe, and, at one blow, severed the head from the body, which fell into the box [coffin]… He then elevated the head by the ears, exclaiming, ‘Behold the head of a traitor!’.”



Other events that occured in April

FREE Scotland history newsletter

Don't miss our weekly update on Scotland's fascinating history. We promise never to sell your data to anyone else, and there's a super-easy unsubscribe link on the bottom of each email so you can leave whenever you want.