When Jane Austen died at Winchester on July 18, 1817, her homeland seemed to be on the cliff edge of violent revolution. Yet, however much you might enjoy and admire Jane’s writing skill and subtle satire, in none of her novels is there a hint of the popular disturbances and widespread extreme distress that characterise the last years of her life. For most of her contemporaries, Regency England was a long way from the tranquil country depicted in Pride and Prejudice or Northanger Abbey.
Until the final, decisive defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in June 1815, Britain was still at war with France and had been so continuously for the previous 12 years. From a patriotic point of view, the world-wide war with France and its allies was enormously successful for the British. At the expense of the Dutch, they took over the South African colonies at the Cape, conquered Ceylon, and achieved effective commercial control of the East Indies through possession of Singapore. Taking advantage of Spain’s decline, they also won commercial dominance in its former Central and South American empire. Their crushing naval triumph at Trafalgar in 1805 had secured British rule over the world’s oceans for the next century.
Only from as late as 1811, when British troops were sent to the Peninsula, did they take on a continental military role. Until then Britain’s preference was to pay its Austrian, Prussian and Russian allies to take on Napoleon’s armies. In other words, British victories and British gains were won relatively cheaply, though the subsidies forced an increase in taxation, notably the novelty of income tax, levied at two shillings (10p) in the pound.
Yet at the same time as these huge overseas successes, at home there were dozens of riots, bloody disturbances and much misery caused only indirectly by the demands of prolonged war and its immediate aftermath. Mechanised and steam-powered innovations were destroying cottage industries and replacing them with urban textile mills. Particularly in the Midlands and the North, “Luddites” wrecked new machinery that had robbed them of their employment and incomes. Simultaneously, enclosure of common land deprived country folk of their livelihoods and security. Finally, there was a huge increase in the prices of necessities, especially bread, but no comparable improvement in wages. Typical of the time, was the gathering of a desperate “mob” at Brandon in Suffolk in 1816 who started out on a march to London carrying a banner declaring ominously “Bread or Blood”.
News of the murder of the Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval, in the lobby of the House of Commons on May 11, 1812, was greeted with joy in the more depressed parts of the country. Before his death, Perceval had been in favour of making machine-breaking a capital offence.
“Luddite” was a term derived from a fictional village idiot, Ned Ludd, who was reputed to have smashed his loom to pieces in a fit of technophobia. Henceforth, all acts of deliberate destruction of new, labour-saving machinery were described as Luddite. The first of such attacks took place at Nottingham early in 1811 and continued until the autumn of 1816 in Leicestershire; but the so-called Luddites in the Midlands, Lancashire and Yorkshire, contrary to the fears and false assumptions of the Tory government, were unconnected, uncoordinated and mostly unpolitical.
When Luddite machine-breaking was made a capital crime in 1813, Byron was the only member of the House of Lords to speak against the Bill. More troops were called out to quell domestic civil disturbances than Wellington then commanded during the Peninsula campaign. As a result, dozens of “Luddites” were transported or executed, at least one mill owner was murdered, and many factories damaged or even destroyed.
However, the protestors were deeply divided amongst themselves: there were gentlemen radicals who wanted only parliamentary reform, such as manhood suffrage, and believed only in peaceful petitioning; and, at the other extreme, republican revolutionaries who hoped to incite a popular uprising which would overthrow Lord Liverpool’s Tory government. In December 1816, a London mob rampaged through the streets of the capital in what became known as the Spa Fields’ Riots, though they were quickly dispersed by the military.
A stone thrown at the window of the Prince Regent’s passing coach gave Lord Liverpool the pretext to pass a series of “gagging laws” through Parliament in 1817. Habeas Corpus was suspended; seditious meetings banned; and attempts made to “seduce” soldiers or sailors declared treasonable.
In March of that year the first protest march in English history started out from Manchester. Carrying blankets, rugs, and rolled-up coats on their backs, about 5,000 “Blanketeers” set off on the road to London. Most of them were scattered by soldiers at Stockport; only one actually reached the capital.
Finally, just days before Jane Austen’s death, well-informed in advance by its spies and informers, Lord Liverpool’s government was pleased to provoke an armed insurrection to take place in Nottinghamshire. What has been described by one historian as “the first entirely working-class political uprising” in the country’s history, led by a fierce, unemployed stocking-weaver called Jeremiah Brandreth, “the Nottingham captain”, these mainly Primitive Methodists were persuaded that they were merely a tiny contingent of a mass movement from the North to descend on London. However, before they had even covered the 14 miles to Nottingham, they were confronted by 18 mounted Dragoons and fled in panic.
Brandreth and two other leaders were rounded up, tried for treason, hanged and beheaded, but spared by the Prince Regent from quartering. Fourteen more of the so-called “Pentrich rebels” were transported to Australia. The owner of the village of Pentrich, the Duke of Devonshire, ordered that the cottage homes of all rebel tenants should be demolished.
In fact, many of these post-war demonstrations of desperate, hungry men were to some extent the result of a volcanic eruption in 1815 of Mount Tambora on Sumbawa island in the Dutch East Indies. Such was the extent and density of the ash cloud expelled that harvests throughout Europe were devastated by a climatic disaster. And Lord Liverpool’s protective tariffs on corn imports served only to exacerbate the misery of the poor in Britain.