Ludds On Tour #1: The Mother Of All Lock-ins (London, 1817)
As an on-and-off member of political parties and groups over the last few years, I’ve been used to meeting in council back-offices, small community halls and the occasional pristine Quaker Meeting House. I could not imagine any of them holding their AGM down the pub. But this was exactly where the Hampden Club, one of the most radical and widespread political organisations of the time, would gather its members, first in London, then in chapters throughout the country.
It’s hard to understate the significance of the pub to daily life in Georgian England: they were civic centres that served as Town Hall, dining room, living room and wedding venue to their local communities. As such, they were often the most lavish building in the area. Michael Parkin, in The Making of A Radical, describes the Crown and Anchor on Arundel Street, the site of the meeting:
“Enriched Carved Cornices circled the ceiling, which featured two large moulded centrepieces of carved flowers supporting the room’s chandeliers… festoons cascaded from the walls of an arched recess at the western end of the room, with the walls adorned with a frieze of eight panels… reportedly capable of hosting concerts, balls and banquets for at least 2000 people.”
The fanciest pub in London was an appropriate meeting place for a group that aimed to bring working and middle-class progressives together. The Hampden Club took its name from Parliamentarian English Civil War general John Hampden, who, as one of the members of Parliament that Charles I tried to arrest, was and is held as a symbol of parliamentary independence (he’s the guy behind the slamming of the doors on the Queen’s messenger, one of the many bizarre rituals at the State Opening of Parliament). It had an eccentric mix of members: there was Major Cartwright, a naval officer who’d been kicked out for his political opinions, and Francis Burdett , an MP from the self-named Radical group who won his seat of Westminster after challenging his opponent to a duel and shooting him in the leg. Also present was Tommy Bacon, friend of Jeremiah Brandreth and one of the masterminds behind the Pentrich Rising (the event some historians call the last event of the Luddite Rebellion, and wot I talk about in the show).
The members were gathered to debate the subject that was central to their cause: electoral reform. The proportion of the country who could vote at this time was laughably small: more than half the Members in parliament were elected by 100 voters or less. Like so many progressive causes, the Hampdens had to decide whether to triangulate their position for a broader appeal, or stick to their principles. The motion for a more “radical” bill to be submitted by Burdett, demanding universal male suffrage, vote by secret ballot and redrawing of gerrymandered constituencies, defeated a more “moderate” one that kept some property requirements for voting and an open ballot (ie one that could be influenced by bribery or threats). It’s hard to imagine any of these ideas as radical now, but the Times’ contemptuous description of the bill as “endeavouring…not only to overthrow the constitution directly and openly, but to subvert the very nature and habits of Englishmen”, and its ultimate defeat in Parliament, reminds me of that Mark Steel quote:“there are some people who think centre ground is a pretty horrible place”.