The Paisley Radicals

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The Paisley Radicals

The Radical War is a much neglected part of our past, both here and in England. It makes you wonder why ………

The background is that Paisley was filled with brilliant political thinkers and the weavers were famed for falling out on the subject of political reform after one too many drinks at the inn. The radicals had been agitating for better wages and conditions for workers but by 1820 people were working for less than it cost to live and many were starving. Given that the French revolution was still fresh in people’s minds, radicals were organising themselves into groups, many of them still armed after the Napoleonic Wars and training others (e.g. on Glasgow Green).

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In 1820 there was a rally of some 60,000 people at Peterloo in Manchester, seeking the reform of Parliamentary representation. Government cavalry charged at the crowd with sabres, 14 were killed and hundreds were injured. The reverberations were felt throughout the UK, radicals were outraged and the government was extremely nervous. They assumed that Glasgow would be a rallying point, placed cannons at every bridge and filled the city with troops.

The radicals in Glasgow nonetheless produced and posted hundreds of notices inciting people to meet in Paisley, the natural home of radicalism in Scotland. Paisley wasn’t the only place things were happening. These were not now protests but part of a much wider uprising that planned to attack and take major buildings and institutions across the nation. Sadly the radical organisations were filled with government spies that misinformed and subverted radical intentions. Many groups were arrested before they left the meeting points. In Paisley however, the weavers and their Glasgow and Inverclyde friends really rose to the occasion and the fight lasted several days till sheer numbers of government troops won the day. Ringleaders were arrested and were transported to Greenock for trial. In one last act of Scottish defiance, the good people of Greenock staged their own uprising, rescued the Paisley prisoners and spirited them away.

Which was very good really because across Scotland people were being shipped off to penal colonies or executed for far less. If you Google Radical War, Peterloo Massacre, 1820, Baird, Hardie and Wilson (three who were executed), you’ll find info about Paisley among it. There are no doubt a few books now that you could look for, mostly inspired by the 1820 Society. But Paisley was definately a very important part of that political movement and uprising and should be very proud of its thinkers and its brave defiance of an oppressive government. In the end the radicals failed to take over the country, but they forced political reform and paved the way (often in blood) to the wider democracy we now enjoy. The very least we owe them is remembrance.

thanks to Anne for letting us know more about this part of our history