Michael Donnelly

Erased From History

Alexander Rodgers: Poet, Orator and Radical and the Bridgeton Female Reformers.

When the recently executed Glasgow History Paintings by Ken Currie were first exhibited the artist was accused of creating a myth of a clothed-capped proletarian saga which bore no relation to reality past or present. Anyone even remotely acquainted with the literature would know that far from romanticising the past Ken was compelled by sheer embarrassment of riches to compress and select eight episodes, where eight hundred would have barely sufficed. We live in a time of sell out and betrayal, where elected representatives of the people publicly proclaim their shame for our “inglorious past” and prefer instead to play the sycophant to monarchs our ancestors strove to abolish while rehabilitating the reputations of some of the worst exploiters and profiteers of the past. Those who have participated in the current struggle to defend Glasgow Green from the claws of the developers will I hope take strength and courage from these two extracts from our suppressed history. Every step we have taken confers honour upon ourselves, shame upon our adversaries, and reaffirms that their struggles even in their current half remembered state were not in vain.

After the gradual demise of the Association of United Scotsmen in the early years of the 19th century, much of their organisational expertise was channelled into industrial struggle, playing a crucial role in the underpinning of Scotland's three major early Trades Unions, the Cotton Spinners, the Calico Printers and the Handloom Weavers. Political agitation however, remained a proscribed activity for almost twenty years.

It was not until 1814 with the end of the War and application of the spur of mass unemployment created by the disbanding of regiments that popular discontent with the political status quo burst forth. The first occasion was one of great historic and symbolic significance, the five hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn. On the 24th June 1814 several hundred weavers from the village of Bannockburn and the surrounding area marched to the historic borestone with flags flying and the words of Burns’ long suppressed anthem on their lips.

News of this act of defiance with its unmistakable political overtones spread like a forest fire through the old west of Scotland strongholds of the United Scotsmen. The difficulties encountered in Glasgow in 1815 and 1816 in attempting to stage a mass campaign have been well documented. The resulting mass meeting at the estate of Thrushgrove in October 1816 reclaimed the right of the ordinary citizens to free speech and ignited the suppressed forces of Scottish radicalism. One of the first leaders to emerge from that struggle was the weaver Alexander Rodger, who became the poet laureate of the movement and one of its finest orators. Several weeks after Thrushgrove he helped to establish the Bridgeton Reform Association which later became the Bridgeton Political Union. A radical reformer, Rodger was a regular contributor to Cobbet’s Political Register and other radical papers including the movement’s own journal “The Spirit of the Union” to which he contributed some of his finest satirical songs. In this speech made at the inaugural meeting Rodger reflects on the horrific poverty endured by the workers in the post-war recession.

Two years later the work of the pioneers had borne fruit and Glasgow stood on the brink of revolution as the workers prepared to risk all in an attempt to overthrow a ruthless and oppressive government. In that moment of supreme crisis a very remarkable phenomenon took place. All over the west of Scotland working class women and girls broke free from the dead weight of sexual and domestic oppression to insist upon and demand a role in the agitation. Their activities reveal the astonishingly effective propaganda carried out during the twenty-five years since the suppression of the British Convention. By means of underground literature in the form of ballads, chapbooks and pamphlets the workers of lowland Scotland had acquired a very accurate knowledge of the iconography of their Sans Culotte idols. In the villages of lowland Scotland extraordinary scenes occurred as female reformers re-enacted with considerable flair and panache, the formal processions and ceremonial of revolutionary France and linked them, as Burns had intended, to the words of his anthem “Scots Wha Hae.”

Bridgeton, then as now, was in the vanguard and the account of their spirit, audacity and discipline in the face of overwhelming odds ought to inspire in us all a contempt for the mean spirited sycophants who now masquerade as labour leaders in this city.

A speech by Alexander Rodgers at the inaugural meeting of the Bridgeton Reform Association, held in the Relief Meeting House, John Street, November 8th, 1816.

“We cannot look around us but we see starvation, misery and woe depicted in every countenance; a keen feeling of what we have already suffered, and a fearful foreboding of what is yet reserved for us, tortures and distracts every mind. Markets are rising, winter is fast approaching and wages are so low that with all our exertions we are utterly unable to provide for the exigencies of the day, far less supply ourselves with sufficient clothing to resist the inclemencies of the season.

It would be altogether impossible to draw even a faint outline of the thousandth part of misery and wretchedness which exist at present in this once happy and flourishing country.

Only to enter into the cottage of the mechanic, once the abode of cheerfulness and contentment, and there you will see wretchedness in its fullest perfection. There, behold the husband spiritless and dejected, worn out with want and fatigue, toiling incessantly 16 or 17 hours every day, he earns about one shilling in all that time; on that he must subsist; himself a wife and perhaps four or five children who are equally unable to work as want.

Behold the wife, pale emaciated and heart-broken, dropping a tear of silent and bitter anguish upon her innocent, unconscious and half-famished children.

See the other children, ragged and shivering with cold, huddling together round an almost fireless grate, and sending forth their heart-piercing cries for bread while there is not a single bite to divide among them.

Is this a fancied, is this a too highly coloured picture? No; it is drawn from real life, and the melancholy experience of many even here at present could attest to its truth. From what grand source can all these evils spring with which we are so dreadfully afflicted?

We are told from the pulpit, and very gravely too, that they are national judgments for national sins. I sincerely believe this to be the truth. I believe that we are at this moment suffering for the sins of apathy, negligence and unconcern, which this nation has hitherto manifested for its best interests.

It is now time for every man in the country who is not interested in preserving the system of corruption, to open his eyes to the real causes of all the sufferings and privation, which we have hitherto so patiently endured.

The Grand Cause appears to be the non-representation of the People in Parliament. Whenever a Parliament becomes independent of the People, (who are the basis of all legitimate power) it becomes corrupt. No wonder then that we have been engaged in such ruinous wars - no wonder that we have to pay such a load of taxes, to support such a load of sinecureists, pensioners and placemen; and no wonder that the nation now groans under such a burden of unsupportable debt, the tenth part of which would crunch any other nation of the world to atoms.

Is the House of Commons as it is now composed recognised by the Constitution? Does not the Act of Settlement (which is an essential part of the constitution) expressly declare that “neither place-man, nor pensioner, nor any person holding an office, or deriving a salary from the Crown, has a right to sit in the Common’s House”? And is it not a notorious fact, that officers both of the Army and Navy, and the Ministers of the Crown, are members of that House?

Either the Act of Settlement must be a dead letter, or the House of Commons is not the House of the People.

If we are still Britons - if a drop of Scottish blood still runs in our veins - if we are the sons of those “Scots wha hae wi’ Wallace bled,” then let us show to the world that we are as determined to resist domestic oppression by every lawful means in our power, as they were to resist the slavery laid upon them by a Foreign Tyrant. Our weapons are already in our hands, these are reason, truth and justice; and how powerful are these even in the hands of a weak man? How much more powerful must they be, when wielded by a whole People, determined and ready.”

Reprinted from the Glasgow Chronicle, November 1816.

The Female Reformers of Bridgeton

Glasgow Chronicle, 11th November 1819.

“On Monday last was celebrated, with unusual enthusiasm, the third anniversary of the Bridgeton meeting for Parliamentary Reform, held 8th November 1816. The present celebration was, I understand, originally intended to be confined to members of the “Bridgeton Union.” But on Saturday evening it was resolved by the Committee of Management, to admit as many friends to the cause as the place could contain. This being made known on Monday morning, a host of applicants rushed in from all quarters of the village, for tickets of admission; and by mid-day about three hundred were dispersed of at the trifling sum of sixpence each.

At six o’clock in the evening, the company began to assemble, and continued increasing till after seven, when about four hundred were present. Many were denied admittance for want of room. Among the company was a considerable number of well-dressed females, which added novelty and grandeur to the scene. At seven the Gentleman who had been Preses of the meeting about to be commemorated, was unanimously called to the Chair; and the business commenced by an address from him on the purport of the meeting - the general aspect of Public affairs - the object of the Reformers - a recommendation to good order etc. and he concluded by toasting the “Radical Reformers of Bridgeton” and may the 8th of November, 1819 recall to their remembrance with the liveliest emotion of joy, the day which gave rise to the public expression of their sentiments.

This was followed by “Scots Wha Hae wi Wallace bled” from a select band of instrumental musicians.

Shortly after it was announced that a deputation from the “Female Reformers” were in waiting, who desired an audience of the chair, which being of course granted, they were ushered in amidst the loud plaudits of the assembly. One of them presented a beautiful flag to the Preses, bearing the inscription: “A present from the females in Bridgeton to the Union.” The figures were on the one side a female addressing a young man “Go where freedom calls you,” on the other a mother presenting her son the Bill of Rights, motto “For this your fathers bled; nourish it and cherish it.” Another of the females carried a splendid cap of Liberty, which she placed with great gravity and formality on the head of the Preses, which he wore during the night. Both these actions were accompanied with suitable addresses from the respective females; the purport of which was an approbation of the proceedings of the Unions - an exhortion to persevere in their attempts to recover their just rights - and a pledge, on their part, of co-operation and support.

About eight o’ clock the company were served each with a three-penny pie, bread and cheese and jugfulls of wholesome liquid from the crystal fountain; all spiritous liquors and directly taxed commodities being excluded.”