There Once Was a Terrorist

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On 5 September 2001 the Scottish Parliament spent the afternoon debating an item from the distant past. Gil Paterson of the Scottish National Party moved that the Parliament recognise the sacrifice of three martyrs – James Wilson from Strathaven and John Baird and Andrew Hardie from Glasgow – who were hanged and beheaded in the 1820 rising, which fought for social and economic justice, workers’ rights and an independent Scottish Parliament.

The event they were commemorating has largely been obliterated by history, partly because governments do not willingly make public their criminal conspiracies. And this was a conspiracy so complete that it could almost be the source of the plot in GK Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday. It is a story that starts with the weavers of Glasgow in the early 19th century, and ends in Sydney with a royal pardon to 19 former convicts.

In the years when the Industrial Revolution began to turn workshops into factories, Glasgow handloom weavers were skilled artisans, with the leisure to learn to read and think. The Scottish Parliament had been dissolved in 1707 and national identity was being rethought, especially under the influence of the poet Robbie Burns, the radical ideas of Tom Paine, and the successful revolutions in France and the United States. The Protestant Covenanter tradition was one of societies, of groups meeting in serious conversation, of people coming together for earnest purpose – ideas were to be debated and then acted upon.

Since the late 18th century there had been workers’ strikes in Scotland with dissenters sent to prison or transported for ‘sedition’. After the Napoleonic wars ended, times became hard in Britain, with former soldiers looking for work at the same time as the Industrial Revolution was rapidly supplanting the old skilled trades. Real wages fell. In 1816, Glasgow weavers were earning a bit over £1 a week. By 1820 it had dropped to between 55 and 60 pence.

As a young man, one weaver, James Wilson, had made a loom that could knit stocking stitch, and so became known as ‘Purlie’ or ‘Perlie’ in praise of his ingenuity. In his old age he became a mentor to many of the younger men – meetings of the Scots Radicals were often held at his house. They would discuss the implications of Tom Paine’s The Rights of Man and read the radical English journal Black Dwarf and consider that they too had the right to be equal. Strikes against reduced wages and a movement for equity led to arguments that Scotland should once more be free of England, with its own parliament elected by all men. This was not, however, the same as high treason, which was the charge brought against the dissidents.

English spies had been busy observing the dissidents and on 18 March, 1820 the Glasgow police told the Home Secretary that ‘the organising committee of the rabble’ was planning a meeting to plot insurrection. On 21 March the entire committee of union delegates was arrested, but news of their arrest was kept secret. Oddly enough, the arrested unionists were never seen again, and it was widely believed that they had been government spies.

On 2 April, 1820 a proclamation was posted around the streets of Glasgow, signed ‘By order of the Committee of Organization for forming a Provisional Government’. It urged armed insurrection:

Equality of Rights (not of Property) is the object for which we contend, and which we consider as the only security for our LIBERTIES and LIVES. Let us show to the world that We are not that Lawless Sanguinary Rabble which Our Oppressors would persuade the higher circles we are – but a BRAVE and GENEROUS PEOPLE, determined to be FREE. LIBERTY or DEATH is our Motto, and We have sworn to return home in triumph – or return no more!

The call to arms was the creation of spies, not workers, yet urged by their supposed leaders, the next day central Scotland went on strike. Rumours spread that 50,000 French had landed to support the revolution. Agents provocateurs urged the Radicals to take up arms against the English. Some marched, and there was a skirmish of sorts between workers and the cavalry at Bonnymuir, but the Scots were outclassed.

One person who did not take part in the uprising was the 63-year-old James Perlie Wilson. Nevertheless he was arrested and tried for high treason. Nineteen men were sent as convicts to Sydney. In prison they wrote ballads of the military action. My ancestor, Allan Murchie, was careful to praise the King for granting him his life.

James Perlie Wilson, Andrew Hardie and John Baird were convicted and sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered. Such was the fury of the crowd on the day of their execution that their bodies could not be mutilated, and they died quickly. As the news of the spies’ actions in provoking the insurrection became public, the outrage grew. In 1835 the Bonnymuir rebels were granted a royal pardon. Their lives are commemorated in a memorial at Sighthill cemetery.

The 19 men sent to Sydney joined other prisoners of political (and trade union) conscience. They led quiet lives here, and prospered. Some of them were able to arrange for their wives and sweethearts to join them. Allan Murchie’s fiancée Elizabeth Marshall was able to join him, and they were married at the new church of St James in King Street, Sydney. He signed the register in a confident, educated hand. She could only make her mark.

Although trade unionists and other political prisoners were a minority in the convict population of New South Wales, their sense of justice provided a foundation for the way this country once led the world in creating decent working conditions for ordinary people. Long before the stonemasons formed the Eight Hour Day movement in 1856, trade unionists from Scotland, Wales and England were transported to Australia because they fought for the kinds of rights that we took for granted – until John Howard decided to turn the clock back 200 years.

In the debate in the Scottish Parliament, Gil Paterson said, ‘There is a lesson for all of us who work for a political purpose in the fact that those men of 1820 worked for a political objective and saw in political change the potential for social and economic justice.’

The significance of what happened in 1820 is that this legitimate political action was amplified into treason through the acts of spies and the conspiracy of government. Their tale is worth telling now as this country slips into a time when conspiracies and spying on citizens are seen as legitimate behaviour.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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