The Enemy Within

Countering Revolution


‘The bright old day now dawns again;
the cry runs through the land,
In England there shall be dear bread
- in Ireland, sword and brand;
And poverty, and ignorance,
shall swell the rich and grand.’

Charles Dickens 1841 


The early Norman kings had ruled in England with a curia regis (royal court), but in the 13th century the barons’ Magna Carta had demanded that the monarch’s rule be subject to the ‘common council’ of the realm. The Tudors, who continued to rule through a coterie of royal appointed advisors and administrators, then set England on the road to a centralised - and London, the merchant capital, dominated - strong state. Parliament, which gradually evolved with a House of Lords and the House of Commons which sat in the Palace of Westminster, was at first only called to gain public support for the monarch’s will on matters of national importance. As it evolved, however, parliament threatened to become an alternative form of rule and victory in the English Civil War opened the way for the domination of nascent capitalism, backed by Cromwell and other landed gentry. After Cromwell’s death, these forces made an accommodation with the defeated monarchy and aristocracy - forming a ruling elite who have controlled the life of the nation ever since.

While parliament was gradually to insist on appointing the royal advisors, the constitutional monarchy which emerged in 1688 had little to do with democracy and everything to do with keeping power in the hands of the financiers and people of property. Cromwell’s semi-revolution had broken ‘the divine right of kings’, but the following suppression of the Levellers ensured that the triumphant parliament was dominated by this new elite. The Levellers had attempted to bring real democracy to England and among their aims and aspirations was to see a broadly based government elected annually on democratic principles. The movement had wanted Parliament to become a debating and decision making forum for all the people. Their defeat ensured that Westminster instead became a chamber where establishment factions, with their vested interests, ironed out their differences and then took decisions and made laws that maintained their control and increased their wealth.

Towards the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries the ruling class faced revolutions abroad and unrest at home, which proved the greatest threat to their power since the Levellers. In 1781, as an army band played The World Turned Upside Down, defeated British solders had marched out of their Yorktown encampment in Virginia and surrendered their weapons. Some of the victorious Americans thought that many of the soldiers were probably drunk, because they ‘were disorderly and unsoldierly’ and ‘their step was irregular and their ranks frequently broken.’

Eight years later the French Revolution of 1789 with its slogans ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’ inspired a rapid spread of democratic ideas throughout Europe. William Wordsworth, who had lived in France at the start of the Revolution, recollected the mood of those times in these lines from his poem The Prelude:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven.



Rights of Man

Tom Paine, who had supported America in its fight for independence from Britain and the upsurge in France, wrote Rights of Man in support of the two revolutions:

Never did so great an opportunity offer itself to England, and to all Europe, as is produced by the two Revolutions of America and France. By the former, freedom has a national champion in the western world; and by the latter, in Europe. When another Nation shall join France, despotism and bad Government will scarcely dare to appear. To use a trite expression, the iron is becoming hot all over Europe. ... The present age will hereafter merit to be called the Age of Reason, and the present generation will appear to the future as the Adam of the new world.[1]

Paine, who had also condemned England for cruelty towards East Indians, American Indians and African slaves, championed national independence, popular rights and revolutionary war. In Rights of Man he stated: ‘When the Governments of Europe shall be established on the representative system, Nations will become acquainted, and the animosities and the prejudices fomented by the intrigue and artifice of Courts will cease. The oppressed soldier will become a freeman; and the tortured sailor, no longer dragged along the streets like a felon, will pursue his mercantile voyage in safety.’[2]

The French Revolution had shown that the old order could be overthrown. Paine’s writings, in the tradition of the Levellers, supported this sentiment. In England, he was condemned for ‘treason’ and his book was promptly banned:

Paine was not writing academic exercises: he was calling the dispossessed to action. The Levellers had proclaimed the rights of man in the English Revolution, and were promptly suppressed. Paine wrote in a situation little less revolutionary, and potentially far more dangerous to the ruling class. The most enthusiastic response to the French Revolution came from the victims of the industrial revolution, the small craftsmen and the uprooted countrymen - just those classes among whom the tradition of lost rights lingered longest. To them the rights of man furnished a telling criticism of the constitution from which they were excluded. The tramp of their feet and the mutterings of their illegal discussions is the essential background to Paine’s writings. Despite savage repression, although men were sent to jail for selling it, 200,000 copies of Rights of Man were distributed: a circulation beyond the Levellers’ wildest dreams.[3]

The apprehensive authorities then set about constructing an efficient spying network. The Home Office’s Alien Office, originally set up to keep tabs on refugees from revolutionary France, gradually expanded until it was running agents across Europe, including in Britain and Ireland. Information from spies, informers, Bow Street Runners, watchmen, the Customs and the Post Office opening of mail was systematically collected and regularly used to launch state repression - and the activities of agent provocateurs.

1: Rights of Man,
by Thomas Paine,
London 1791

2: Ibid - Rights of Man,
by Thomas Paine.

3: Puritanism and Revolution,
by Christopher Hill,
Panther History 1968.



The Great Mutiny

In 1795, six years after the storming of the Bastille, crowds in London mobbed King George III in his carriage as he rode down Whitehall. This was no show of affection. As his coach was stoned and rocked, the king heard the crowd chanting ‘Peace!’, ‘Bread!’, ‘No War!’, ‘No King!’. A shot was also fired at the king’s coach and the windows of the prime minister’s house in Downing Street broken. William Pitt’s Tory government then extended the treason laws to include the articulation of republican philosophy and banned mass meetings.

Two years later, Royal Navy ships at anchor at Spithead and the Nore hoisted blood red flags. This was normally the signal that ships were about to engage the enemy - but in this case indicated a mutiny that included almost the entire fleet. Their revolt was not surprising as many seamen were forced into service by press gangs and treated like prisoners once on board a ship. Under savage discipline they endured abominable conditions and were often owed large sums of back pay. Many sailors who died during the war against revolutionary France lost their lives from disease or accidents on the large but cramped warships.

The delegates from the mutiny ships tried to explain their predicament and their subsequent actions to their ‘Fellow-subjects’:

It is to you particularly that we owe an explanation of our conduct. His Majesty’s Ministers too well know our intentions, which are founded on the laws of humanity, honour and national safety - long since tramped underfoot by those who ought to have been friends to us - the sole protectors of your laws and property. The public prints teem with falsehoods and misrepresentations to induce you to credit things as far from our design as the conduct of those at the helm of national affairs is from honesty or common decorum.

Shall we who have endured the toils of a tedious, disgraceful war, be the victims of tyranny and oppression which vile, gilded, pampered knaves, wallowing in the lap of luxury, choose to load us with? Shall we, who amid the rage of the tempest and the war or jarring elements, undaunted climb the unsteady cordage and totter on the top-mast’s dreadful height, suffer ourselves to be treated worse than the dogs on London Streets? Shall we, who in the battle’s sanguinary rage, confound, terrify and subdue your proudest foe, guard your coasts from invasion, your children from slaughter, and your lands from pillage - be the footballs and shuttlecocks of a set of tyrants who derives from us alone their honours, their titles and their fortunes? No, the age of Reason has at length revolved. Long have we been endeavouring to find ourselves men. We now find ourselves so. We will be treated as such.

... You cannot, countrymen, form the most distant idea of the slavery under which we have for many years laboured. Rome had her Neros and Caligulas, but how many characters of their description might we not mention in the British Fleet - men without the least tincture of humanity, without the faintest spark of virtue, education or abilities, exercising the most wanton acts of cruelty over those whom dire misfortune or patriotic zeal may have placed in their power - basking in the sunshine of prosperity, whilst we (need we repeat who we are?) labour under every distress which the breast of inhumanity can suggest...[4]

This communication was intercepted by the Admiralty and kept secret from the public. The mutiny was put down, the ‘ringleaders’ hanged and many other seamen flogged or jailed, but afterwards, pay and conditions for sailors were improved. This became the authorities formula for handling soldier’s and sailor’s unrest - repression followed by a few limited concessions.

4:The Great Mutiny,
by James Dugan,
A Mayflower Paperback 1970.



The United Irishmen

In Ireland, the numbers of British forces had risen in a few years from around 14,000 to over 80,000 by 1798, many in yeomanry and militia units. The reason for this expansion of troops was the emergence of the United Irishmen, who were known to have links with revolutionary France and to be intent on uniting the Irish people and creating a free and independent Ireland.

Many of the Scottish settlers who had flooded into the north east of Ireland from 1609 were Presbyterians. They had also suffered from oppressive landlords and experienced religious discrimination under the Anglican establishment. Some Presbyterians formed their own secret societies to fight back, but they did enjoy some privileges over the native Irish, with their land rights protected by the ‘Ulster Custom’ system of tenure. A linen industry was also allowed to develop, which gave rise to a prosperous business class. These descendants of the settlers, who had now been in Ireland for generations and regarded themselves as Irish, had developed their own cultural and economic interests, which were different not only from the native Irish but from the English establishment also.

Extensive numbers of Presbyterians had already moved on from Ireland to America, where in 1776 many volunteered to join with other colonists to declare, then fight and win, their independence from Britain. Protestant United Irishmen similarly wanted to be rid of British imposed economic restrictions and corrupt political rule. The movement’s leader, Theobald Wolfe Tone, stated that his aims were: ‘To subvert the tyranny of our execrable government, to break the connection with England, the never-failing source of all our political evils and to assert the independence of my country - these were my objects. To unite the whole people of Ireland, to abolish the memory of all past dissensions and to substitute the common name of Irishmen in place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter - these were my means.’

Many Presbyterians and Dissenters (non-conformist Protestants with a strong anti-authoritarian tradition) now supported the United Irishmen. This situation, however, created a dilemma for many of the descendants of the settlers in Ireland, who had been planted in the country to keep it safe for English rule. Tone wanted to resolve their contradictions in a progressive direction and gain Ireland’s independence by uniting them with the native Irish. For a short period, Belfast became a revolutionary centre. On the streets, enthusiastic supporters of the French Revolution celebrated the fall of the Bastille with parades and flags.

As support for the United Irishmen grew, the city became a haven of enlightenment and religious toleration. Thomas McCabe, a United Irishman who was also a Belfast jeweller, persuaded local businessmen to give up the chance to take part in the slave trade:

In 1786, some of Belfast’s richest merchants met to discuss ways in which to become involved in the lucrative British slave trade. As they prepared to sign a document forming a slave-trade company, they were interrupted by McCabe: ‘May God wither the hand and consign the name to eternal infamy of the man who will sign that document’. The threat worked. Unlike Bristol and Liverpool, Belfast was not drawn into the slave trade.[5]

General Lake, the commander of the British forces, said: ‘Belfast ought to be proclaimed and punished most severely as it is plain every act of sedition originates in this town.’

5: The New Internationalist, No. 255/May 1994,
Article The Riotous and the Righteous,
by Bill Rolston.




The British authorities then took steps to curb the United Irishmen, closing their papers the Press and the Northern Star, and declaring such publications ‘illegal’. Martial Law, under the 1797 Insurrection Act, was enacted in Ulster and British troops were used to attempt to pacify the country and suppress the United Irishmen:

As early as March 1793, General Richard Whyte encouraged his troops, his ‘charming boys’ as he called them, to go on the rampage through Belfast attacking the homes and business premises of known radicals and beating anyone who got in the way. ‘There are no lives lost’ reported Whyte, ‘but many marks of the sharp edge of their sabres.’[6]

Many ‘troublemakers’ were arrested and deported to the colonies or forced to join the Royal Navy. During the protest actions at Spithead and the Nore some 15,000 sailors were Irish - many were former United Irishmen, impressed into the navy, who enthusiastically joined in the mutiny.

There was close contact between revolutionary organisations in Britain and those in Ireland. In 1792 the Address of the United Irishmen of Dublin to the English Society of the Friends of the People suggested how the future relationship between Britain and Ireland could be created: ‘As to any union between the two islands, believe us when we assert that our union rests upon our mutual independence. We shall love each other if we be left to ourselves. It is the union of the mind that ought to bind these nations together.’

Back in Ireland, the military authorities were becoming concerned about the increasing evidence of support among the militias for the United Irishmen. At Blaris barracks, near Lisburn, County Antrim, four men from the Monaghan militia were shot after a court martial. The men, Daniel Gillan, Owen McCanna, William McCanna and Peter McCarron were alleged to have made contact with the United Irishmen and to have organised a secret officer structure within their unit. The rest of the soldiers were ordered to witness the executions and to march past the bodies afterwards.

Britain’s rulers had found that holding onto empire often proved more difficult than conquering it in the first place. Gradually strategies, that later would become known as counter-insurgency, were developed. One of these was to harass freedom movements and force them into premature rebellion, which could then be crushed by the superior state forces. Another was the old favourite - divide and rule - and so, in Ireland, the sparks of segregation lit during the plantations were now used by the establishment in attempts to ignite the smouldering animosities between the native Catholics and the descendants of the Protestant settlers.

Predominately Protestant militias were used against Catholic areas which supported the United Irishmen and vice versa. The anti-Catholic Orange Order was formed in 1795 and General John Knox, an Ulster landlord who like Lake advocated taking a hard-line, said that his military operations were designed ‘to increase the animosity between the Orangemen and the United Irishmen ... Upon that animosity depends the safety of the centre counties of the North.’

The authorities then helped to arm the Orange Order and encouraged its members to join the state forces. Local ‘loyal’ armed forces of Yeomanry were formed and used to attack the United Irishmen. In Britain similar units were formed to protect the rich and suppress the poor:

The Yeomanry, a mounted force drawn from the upper and middle classes, were created at the beginning of the French wars. Quite useless from a military point of view, the yeomanry was, and was intended to be, a class body with the suppression of ‘Jacobinism’ as its main objective. This objective they pursued with an enthusiasm and an unfailing brutality which earned them universal hatred.[7]

In Ireland, the yeomanry quickly earned a reputation for cruelty and barbarism against the United Irishmen and the population of areas thought to be supporting them.

6: Indiscipline and Disaffection in the armed forces in Ireland in the 1790s,
An article by Thomas Bartlett
In Radicals, Rebels and Establishments,
by Appletree Press, 1985.

7: A Peoples History of England,
by A. L. Morton,
Seven Seas Books 1965.



Rebellion and Defeat

In early 1798 Ireland stood on the edge of rebellion, waiting for Wolfe Tone to arrive with French troops. British attempts to crush the United Irishmen intensified, with hangings, floggings, pitch-cappings, incarcerations and killings becoming commonplace. The authorities were determined to cow the movement into submission - or force it into an early rebellion before the French arrived:

In March 1798 the British authorities extended the repression southwards to the province of Leinster. They first arrested the United leaders, then unleashed a systematic terror against the peasantry, burning houses and farms, aiming to terrify them into giving up their weapons. Unable to wait any longer for the French to arrive, and facing a choice of rebellion or being destroyed, some 100,000 people rose in revolt in May and early June 1798.

They rose first in the midlands and southwest, and were followed by the Presbyterians of Antrim and Down. In some places it was as if the whole countryside was on the move. ... But within weeks the rebellion began to collapse, overcome by the lack of central organisation, the failure of the French to arrive, and the superior military force of the opposition. At the end of August 1,000 French troops led by General Humbert ... landed in Killala, County Mayo. They won some initial victories ... but they were too few and too late. The peasantry in much of the country were already crushed.[8]

Another wave of savage repression followed the defeat of the United Irishmen. Tone was captured and died in prison, with his throat cut, while awaiting public execution.

In the American Revolution the radicals, who had helped initiate it, were marginalized and revolutionary principals - like ‘all men are created equal’ and that the purpose of government was to safeguard these rights - while still being voiced were never to be fully implemented. Instead, those representing land and business interests took control and under George Washington, a major landowner, the fight was fuelled by land hunger and the business opportunities it was thought would accrue if British rule, taxation and restrictive laws were removed. Afterwards, the exploitation of black slaves persisted and the extermination of native American Indians - and the taking of their land - continued apace.

Like the revolutions in America and in England in the 17th century, the United Irishmen were composed of a variety of forces with differing motives. The radicals wanted all of Irish society to be reorganised in a democratic way, but others were motivated by hoped for business opportunities. The latter were often inclined to give up in the face of repression and some even changed sides, while the former were inclined to fight to the bitter end and often paid the supreme sacrifice for their temerity.

In 1803 a second rising was launched in Dublin but was soon crushed. The rebel leaders were executed, including Robert Emmet and Thomas Russell, a former British soldier and close friend of Tone, known as the ‘man from God-knows-where’.

8: The Cause of Ireland,
by Liz Curtis,
Beyond the Pale Publications 1994.



The Industrial Revolution

In 1803, 7 months before Emmet and Russell were hanged, Colonel Edward Despard and 6 guardsmen were executed in London, after being found guilty of ‘high treason’. A government spy later claimed that at one time 200 armed soldiers had been ready to launch a coup in the capital. Despard had been a member of the London Corresponding Society (LCS), which in 1798 had appealed to soldiers in Ireland to refuse to act as ‘Agents of enslaving Ireland’. The LCS went on to say that they sympathized with Irish suffering and stated that:

When a People once permits Government to violate the genuine Principles of Liberty, Encroachment will be grafted upon Encroachment; Evil will grow upon Evil; Violation will follow Violation, and Power will engender Power, till the Liberties of ALL will be held at despotic command...

Ireland had proved a productive laboratory for the development of colonial tactics and repressive methods. The subsequent process of conquest and colonisation around the world made fortunes for those who promoted and controlled it, by plundering natural resources and exploiting the native work force. Those who profited also ensured that laws were enacted back home that allowed British workers to be exploited in a similar way:

The great power of the state and the employing class was brought to bear against any attempt by working men to organise to protect their position. In 1719 workmen (but not inventors) were forbidden to take their skills into another country. By an act of 1726 combinations of workers were severely repressed: fourteen years transportation for using violence in labour disputes, death for wilful machine-breaking. But employers had the right to combine, ‘with the utmost silence and secrecy’, says Adam Smith, to ‘sink the wages of labour’. ... In 1719, when the keelmen of Newcastle struck for higher wages, a regiment of soldiers and a man-of-war were sent to answer them.[9]

Now, as the army fought rebellion in Ireland and the French in Europe, the Industrial Revolution, bankrolled by money made from slavery, was to provide a new internal role for the troops. As wool earned huge profits, landowners started turning tenants off the land to make way for sheep and new laws were allowing more and more sections of ‘common land’ to be enclosed.

This greatly increased poverty in the countryside and farm workers joined handicrafts people, who had lost their livelihood to the new methods of production, and others fleeing starvation, including Irish emigrants, to crowd into the disease-ridden industrial towns. There they were exploited mercilessly by the new captains of industry, who required a plentiful supply of cheap labour for their mines, mills and factories. On starvation wages adults worked long hours in terrible conditions. Children, male and female and as young as seven, were even cheaper to hire and were forced to labour a 15-hour-day.

When efforts were made to better conditions Pitt’s Tory Government brought in the ‘Combinations Laws’, which banned workers from forming trade unions. Inevitably, food riots, machine wrecking and strikes became widespread and by 1812 there were 12,000 soldiers in the disturbed counties of Nottinghamshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire:

For weeks whole districts on the Lancashire-Yorkshire border were virtually under martial law. And one military command, in particular, established a reign of terror, with arbitrary arrests, searches, brutal questioning, and threats, for which we must turn to Irish history in search of a comparison.[10]

9: Reformation to Industrial Revolution,
by Christopher Hill,
Weidenfeld and Nicolson 1967.

10: The Making of the English Working Class,
by E. P. Thompson.




Soldier often sided with the people and government agents repeatedly told of links between soldiers and sailors and revolutionary organisations. In 1795, soldiers were reported to be ‘abettors of food rioters’ in Devonshire and in 1800 the Oxfordshire Blues were thanked by the people of Nottingham for their sympathy for the rioters. In 1816 a Home Office informant said he heard a soldier tell his friends in a pub in Rowley about a letter from his unemployed father who was starving with his family: ‘Charging him if any riot took place in this country for want of work not to hurt none of them. But if compelled to fire, either to fire over their heads, or to shoot the Tyger that gave the order, and to persuade all his comrades to do the same.’

Until 1793, when Britain joined the war against revolutionary France, soldiers stationed in England were billeted among the people in houses and inns. The only barracks were in garrison towns and fortresses. Pitt, the Tory Prime Minister, arguing for a policy of covering the manufacturing districts with barracks, said: ‘The circumstances of the country, coupled with the general state of affairs, rendered it advisable to provide barracks in other parts of the kingdom. A spirit has appeared in some of the manufacturing towns which made it necessary that troops should be kept near them.’[11] In another debate, a few years later, the building of barracks was defended as a means of isolating the soldiers from the people: ‘The Government should act on the maxim of the French comedian: “If I cannot make him [the people] dumb, I will make you [the soldiers] deaf”.’[12]

One hundred and fifty-five barracks had been built by 1815. They were damp and cold with overcrowded living conditions for the soldiers. Life for recruits was to be as harsh and brutish as the buildings in which they were billeted:

Once he had taken the Queen’s shilling, the recruit was tamed and cowed into submission by savage drill and remorseless bullying by non-commissioned officers, and the process of ‘breaking’ men, often of poor physique and low health standards, coupled with unhealthy living conditions, gave the army a death-rate many times higher than that of the civilian population.

... The common punishment for even the smallest misdemeanour was ‘pack-drill’, often imposed so ferociously and for so long that the victim was reduced to a state of complete exhaustion. ... Deserters were flogged and then branded with gunpowder massaged into the flesh to ensure that the letter ‘D’ remained indelible.[13]

The use of barracks, coupled with the cruel discipline and indoctrination, helped to separate soldiers from the feelings of the population. The Army now proved to be an effective instrument for the suppression of popular movements at home. The historian, Professor George Rudé, looked at over a century of popular protests and their suppression by the state forces:

From my (no doubt) incomplete and imperfect record of the twenty odd riots and disturbances taking place in Britain between the Edinburgh Porteous Riots of 1736 and the Great Chartist demonstration of April 1848, I totted up the following score: the crowds killed a dozen at most; while, on the other side, the courts hanged 118 and 630 were shot dead by troops.’[14]

11: Parl. Debates,
House of Commons,
Feb. 22nd, 1793.

12: Parl. Debates,
House of Commons,
April 8th, 1796,
speaker W. Windham.

13: Colonial Small Wars 1837-1901,
by Donald Featherstone,
David and Charles 1973.

14: Paris and London in the Eighteenth Century,
by G. Rudé,
London 1970.



Waterloo and Peterloo

As an 18-year-old John Lees had fought at Waterloo, but then left the army and returned to Oldham in Lancashire and his old job as a cotton spinner. The industrial revolution was transforming manufacturing, but also producing a slum living environment and inhumane working conditions in the new mills and factories. Fewer than 4% of the population had the vote and, up and down the country, there was occurring mass popular meeting calling for parliamentary reform. In 1819, four years after the battle that defeated Napoleon, Lees joined a crowd of 80,000 people who gathered at St Peter’s Field in Manchester to hear reforming speeches from Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt and other speakers.

Three local magistrates, two of whom were Clerics, ordered the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry Cavalry to arrest the speakers. These civilian troopers, backed by the regular army 15th Hussars, drew their sabres and charged the crowd, leaving 11 dead and some 500 injured. One of the crowd, Samuel Bamford the weaver-poet, told what he had seen: ‘Sabres were plied to hew a way through naked held-up hands and defenceless heads; and then chopped limbs and wound-gaping skulls were seen and groans and cries were mingled with the din of that horrid confusion.’[15]

Waterloo veteran John Lees died three weeks later from the injuries he sustained at St Peter’s Field. Ironically, it is probable that his mortal wounds had been inflicted by his former comrades in arms, the 15th Hussars, who were proudly wearing their Waterloo medals as they charged the crowd:

Before he died John Lees said he was never in such danger at Waterloo as he was at the meeting, for at Waterloo it was man to man but at Manchester it was downright murder. He was not alone in that assessment. Other people seized upon the presence of Waterloo veterans such as himself in the unarmed crowds, and upon the actions of the 15th Hussars ... [and] the savage sobriquet ‘Peterloo’ was bestowed.[16]

Although there was mass public outrage at the massacre, including sympathy expressed for the victims in some papers, the Tory Government backed the magistrates by implementing new legislation giving them even greater powers. Under the Six Acts magistrates could: Summarily convict political suspects; Prevent arms training; Search anywhere and Ban meetings. An increased tax was also put on newspapers and radical journals faced drastic penalties for ‘blasphemy and sedition’.

15: Chronicle of Britain,
Chronicle Communications Ltd 1992.

16: The Peterloo Massacre,
by Joyce Marlow,
Panther Books Ltd 1971.



Military Punishments

Army officers were often as frightened of their own soldiers as they were by any enemy and requiring instant obedience, they enforced stern discipline to maintain their control. The Mutiny Act of 1690 had stipulated that soldiers committing ‘crimes’ like mutiny, desertion or sedition should be tried under military, not civil law. Crown forces were empowered to set up courts martial to deal with these offences. Over following centuries British soldiers were punished in a variety of ways. The ‘wooden horse’, which often caused rupture; the ‘log’, which was an iron weight chained to the leg; pack and porcupine drill for hours on end, spread out over days and sometimes weeks.

Of all the punishments, flogging was the most dreaded. Calling out the Militia for Duty was a soldier’s song in the Victorian era. In one of the verses the colonel tells his men:

You are her Majesty’s soldiers now,
And if you dare to wrangle,
The cat-o’-nine-tails is your doom,
Tied up to the triangle.

Flogging was barbaric, as even a few lashes could rip a man’s flesh to the bone. In 1831 a soldier in the Scots Greys, Alexander Somerville, wrote to the press because he was concerned about his regiment’s riot training. He was apprehensive ‘that while the Scots Greys could be relied upon to put down disorderly conduct, they should never be ordered to lift up arms against the liberties of the country and peaceful demonstrations of the people.’ Charged with writing a ‘seditious letter’ to a paper, Somerville was sentenced to 150 lashes and later described his ordeal:

The regimental sergeant-major, who stood behind, with a book and pencil to count each lash, and write its number, gave the command, ‘Farrier Simpson, you will do your duty’. The manner of doing that duty is to swing the ‘cat’ twice round the head, give a stroke, draw the tails of the ‘cat’ through the fingers of the left hand, to rid them of skin, or flesh, or blood; again to swing the instrument twice round the head slowly, and come on, and so forth.

Simpson took the ‘cat’ as ordered; at least I believe so; I did not see him, but I felt an astounding sensation between the shoulders, under my neck, which went to my toe nails in one direction, my finger nails in another, and stung me to the heart, as if a knife had gone through my body. The sergeant-major called in a loud voice, ‘one’. I felt as if it would be kind of Simpson not to strike me on the same place again. He came a second time a few inches lower, and then I thought the former stroke was sweet and agreeable compared with that one. The sergeant-major counted ‘two’. The ‘cat’ was swung twice round the farrier’s head again, and he came on somewhere about the right shoulder blade, and the loud voice of the reckoner said ‘three’. The shoulder blade was as sensitive as any other part of the body, and when he came again on the left shoulder, and the voice cried ‘four’, I felt my flesh quiver in every nerve, from the scalp of my head to my toe nails. The time between each stroke seemed so long as to be agonising, and yet the next came too soon... [17]

Other rank and file soldiers were ordered to administer such punishments. They were usually revolted by their participation, like this ex-drummer: ‘At the lowest calculation, it was my disgusting duty to flog men at least three times a week. From this painful task there was no possibility of shrinking, without the certainty of a rattan over my own shoulders from the Drum-Major, or of my being sent to the black hole ...’ The ex-drummer then described his flogging of other soldiers:

After a poor fellow had received about one hundred lashes, the blood would pour down his back in streams ... so that by the time he had received three hundred, I have found my clothes all blood from the knees to the crown of my head. Horrified by my disgusting appearance, I have, immediately after the parade, run into the barrack-room, to escape from the observations of the soldiers, and rid my clothes and person of my comrade’s blood.[18]

17: The Rambling Soldier,
by Roy Palmer,
Penguin Books Ltd 1977.

18: The British Soldier,
by J. M. Brereton,
Bodley Head 1986.



The ‘Bloodybacks’

There was growing public opposition to the flogging of soldiers and in 1834 a Royal Commission, headed by Lord Wharncliffe, was appointed to examine Military punishments in the Army. The report represented the establishment consensus and argued in favour of flogging: ‘The opinion of almost every witness whom we have examined, is that the substitution of other punishments for corporal punishment in Your Majesty’s Army, upon actual service, and in the field, is impracticable, and if practicable, would be insufficient for the maintenance of proper discipline.’

A motion to reform corporal punishment in the armed forces was debated in the House of Commons. It was defeated, with 227 votes against and only 94 votes in favour. The Duke of Wellington, the former Army Commander-in-Chief and now a Cabinet member, vigorously supported flogging:

British solders are taken entirely from the lowest order of society, ... I do not see how you can have an Army at all unless you preserve it in a state of discipline, nor how you can have a state of discipline, unless you have some punishment ... There is no punishment which makes an impression upon any body except corporal punishment. ... I have no idea of any great effect being produced by anything but the fear of immediate corporal punishment. I must say, that in hundreds of instances, the very threat of the lash has prevented very serious crimes...[19]

Wellington, who had once called his men ‘the scum of the earth’, also said of his soldiers: ‘I don’t know what they do to the enemy, but by God they frighten me.’ So often were British soldiers flogged that they became known throughout Europe as the ‘bloodybacks’. It was Napoleon, Wellington’s great enemy, who described his English opponents as ‘la perfide Albion!’ The French, whom Wellington’s army often faced in battle, claimed they could distinguish the British dead by the scars on their backs inflicted by floggings.

19: From the Report from
His Majesty’s Commissioners for Inquiring
into the System of Military Punishments
in the Army (1836)



Terror of the Cat

Most of the public, on the other hand, were opposed to the corporal punishment of soldiers. In Perth, in Scotland, local washer women carrying stones in their skirts attacked a public flogging, forcing the officers to flee and administered a ‘handsome flogging’ to the bare posterior of the unfortunate adjutant, whom the women managed to catch. Military recruitment squads were often subjected to a variety of taunts, including:

Q - Why is a soldier like a mouse?
A - Because he lives in constant terror of the cat.

An anti-recruitment broadsheet from the time showed an illustration of a flogging and ends with the message: ‘YOUNG MEN OF ENGLAND! As you value your own self-respect, don’t let yourselves be bribed by a contemptible bounty of £5 or £6, into voluntarily submitting to this gross degradation. If you do, you must not complain if the punishment of your folly is scored in stripes on your bloody and lacerated back.’

In 1867, Arthur J. Otway proposed another motion in Parliament that British soldiers should no longer be flogged in peacetime:

He pointed out that, far from having diminished, military flogging had actually increased. In 1833 there had been 307 cases; but in 1864 528 men had received a total of 25,638 lashes; in 1865 441 men had suffered 22,275 lashes. One man had been flogged for a ‘miscellaneous’ offence, while another had recently died in hospital after this punishment. Men were entrapped into the army when drunk by some wily recruiting sergeant, and when, sobered up, they ran from the trap, they were flogged. In 1865 seventy-two men had been flogged for desertion, and seventeen for habitual drunkenness. Yet when it came to officers, how different was the picture! A captain serving in India was so drunk he had to be forcibly removed from the table of an Indian sovereign - but all he received was a reprimand.[20]

Parliament again proved unsympathetic, as the establishment, intent on protecting their vested interests, maintained the right to control soldiers through severe punishments. It was not until fourteen years later, and then only under strong pressure from reformers, that the Army Discipline Act of 1881 abolished the flogging of soldiers - although it was to continue in military prisons till 1907.

Other punishments were then substituted, like the dreaded Field Punishment Number 1, where the defaulter was lashed in an X formation to the wheel of a gun carriage. He was left like that for many hours a day, doing fatigues and pack-drill during periods of release and fed only bread and water. Archie Baxter, who underwent this punishment as a conscientious objector, described his ordeal: ‘My hands were tied together and pulled well up, straining and cramping muscles and forcing them into an unnatural position ... I was strained so tightly ... that I was unable to move a fraction of an inch ... The pain grew steadily worse until by the end of half-an-hour, it seemed absolutely unendurable.’ Soldiers called the new punishment, ‘the crucifixion’.

20: The Strange Death of Private White,
by Harry Hopkins,
Weidenfeld and Nicolson.



A Soldier’s Execution

While flogging was the most feared punishment for soldiers, the ultimate penalty was execution - usually after a court-martial and by firing squad. Both floggings and firing squads were meant to frighten and intimidate other soldiers and these punishments took place surrounded by elaborate ceremonies - with the other soldiers ordered to parade and witness the scene. In a few instances the wrongdoer was handed over to the civil courts.

One such case was that of Patrick M’Caffrey, an 18 year-old Irish recruit to the Cornwall Light Infantry in 1861. His story gave rise to the most sung, and certainly the most subversive, song ever written about a soldier in the British Army. The soldier’s name appeared in a variety of spellings and recent versions of the song were called McCafferty:

When I was 18 years of age,
Into the British Army I did engage;
I left my home with the good intent
To join the forty-second regiment.

To Fulwood Barracks then I did go,
To serve my time in that depot.
From troubles then I was never free;
My captain took a great dislike to me.

When posted out on guard one day,
Some soldiers’ children came along to play;
From the officers’ mess my captain came
And ordered me to take their names.

I took one name instead of three,
On neglect of duty, they then charged me;
Ten days’ CB with loss of pay,
For doing my duty - the opposite way.

With a loaded rifle I did prepare,
To shoot my captain on the barrack square;
It was my captain I meant to kill,
But I shot my colonel against my will.

At Liverpool Assizes then I stood,
I held my courage as best I could;
But the judge he says McCafferty,
Go prepare yourself for eternity.

Well I had no father to take my part,
Nor loving mother to break her heart;
I had but one friend, and a girl was she;
Who’d have laid down her life for McCafferty.

So come all you officers and NCO’s,
Take some advice from one who knows,
It was only lies and a tyranny,
That made a martyr of poor McCafferty.

While containing slight inaccuracies, like naming the regiment as the 42nd rather than the actual 32nd, the song tells the basic story. M’Caffrey must have been a remarkably good shot; his one bullet fired at Captain Hanham killed both him and Colonel Crofton, who was walking alongside Hanham on the barrack square. On Saturday, 11 January 1862 in front of a crowd estimated at 30,000 to 40,000 M’Caffrey was hanged outside of Kirkdale Gaol, in Liverpool. The crowd were clearly on his side and yelled and hissed at the public executioner Calcraft (who five years later hanged the Manchester Martyrs, Larkin, O’Brien and Allen).

Fellow squaddies were also sympathetic to M’Caffrey, because they too suffered under the harsh discipline and petty harassment that had led to the soldier’s actions and tragic end. The song has been sung ever since, in various versions, by soldiers in the army - even though it is thought to be a chargeable offence to be caught singing it (I remember learning the words to this song in 1967 on late night buses back to the Tidworth Garrison after drinking sessions in nearby Salisbury. I was told the song could only be sung when there was nobody [in authority] around). The authorities’ dislike for McCafferty was probably compounded by the song being set to the same tune as The Croppy Boy, an Irish rebel ballad that commemorates the crop-haired United Irish supporters of the French Revolution.



The Constabulary

Throughout the 19th century all of Ireland was part of the United Kingdom and there were barracks full of British soldiers in most parts of the country. Political developments followed a familiar path as constitutional politicians like O'Connell and Parnell waged campaigns for land reform and national rights. When peaceful requests, then protests, came up against a wall of hostility, intransigence and repression from the landlords and the British establishment, underground movements like the Young Irelanders and the Fenians emerged to carry on the struggle by violent means.

In ‘policing operations’ instances of yeomanry savagery, militia indiscipline and disaffection and the troops use of brute force often proved counter-productive. Soldiers were anyway continually required for wars in far off places and all this suggested that a new ‘policing force’, mainly drawn from the indigenous population, was required - one that would be more precise, disciplined and politically acceptable.

Also, as communications improved, so the truth became harder to hide and greater effort was required to provide explanations for the seemingly never ending outbreaks of anti-government violence in Ireland. For the British authorities, who were attempting to ascribe all violent acts to ‘bandits’ and ‘outlaws’, making a constabulary the prime upholders of ‘law and order’, rather than soldiers, could help to maintain this fiction - so reducing potentially embarrassing political events to issues of crime and criminality.

In 1812 the newly appointed Chief Secretary of Ireland, Sir Robert Peel, arrived in Dublin and advocated setting up a country wide police force. Two years later the Peace Preservation Force was used for the first time in Middlethird, County Tipperary. It was later supplemented by a county constabulary, but these two forces were amalgamated as the Irish Constabulary (IC) in 1836 and brought under central control. Peel later moved back to Westminster to become the Home Secretary and in 1829 he initiated the Metropolitan Police.

From London ‘British democracy’ was manifested as the model for legitimate government as the ruling class sought to maintain their dominance at home and abroad. But there was a crucial difference in Britain and Ireland between the ‘force and consent’ (using Gramsci’s characterization) needed to establish the ruler’s hegemony – and consequently how ‘law and order’ was applied.

Inside Britain, while the establishment ensured their interests predominated, Westminster promoted the concept that the state forces were neutral and acted in the interests of all the people. In fact, dissident voices and actions were categorised as being against the ‘national interests’ and ignored or crushed, but as the ruling elite established their dominance and authority, they did create a cohesive state system which most people gradually adhered to. Following this pattern, the police in Britain developed as an area-based unarmed force which sought the consent of the people among whom they operated. There was a measure of local control over the police, who carried truncheons instead of firearms and whose main task became the prevention of crime (law). In the background were units like the Special Branch - initially formed in 1883 to combat Fenian bombings - and paramilitary units with access to arms, whose main task was upholding the status quo (order).

In Ireland, where the legitimacy of British rule was always suspect and never carried the moral authority of state rule back home, the emphasis between force and consent was very much the other way around. The IC were centrally controlled, armed and acted mainly as a repressive force - upholding British rule (order), with the prevention of crime (law) a secondary role. In 1839, a Commission of Inquiry was looking into the setting up of a police force for England and Wales. After examining the police in Ireland the commission reported that: ‘The Irish constabulary force is in its origination and action essentially inapplicable to England and Wales. It partakes more of the character of a military and repressive force, and is consequently required to act in greater numbers than the description of force which we consider the most applicable, as a preventive force...'[21]

21: First Report of the Commissioners
appointed to inquire as to
the best Means of Establishing
an Efficient Constabulary Force in the
Counties of England and Wales, 1839.



Colonial Police

In 1847 Scottish ex-soldier Alexander Somerville, who had been flogged for writing a ‘seditious letter’ to a newspaper while serving with the Scots Greys, visited Ireland. Somerville, who came from a poor working class background, was especially incensed by the landlords:

A large number of the worst Irish landlords, Somerville believed, had ‘brought Ireland to a condition unparalleled in the history of nations.’ As a class, he thought that they stood ‘at the very bottom of the scale of honest and honourable men.’ Indeed, ‘the Irish landlord is only a rent eater, and his agent a rent-extractor, neither of them adding to the resources of the farm - not even making roads or erecting buildings.’

While in England, rural depopulation was said to be due to the attractions of urban industrial employment, in Ireland such employment was unavailable, and ‘clearances’ were forced, coercive and intolerable. Somerville complained of how the present time was an opportunistic one for evictions: ‘We have England paying out of English taxes all those armed men, and providing them with bullets, bayonets, swords, guns and gunpowder, to unhouse and turn to the frosts of February those tenants and their families.’[22]

Somerville, noting that many of these armed men were police, wrote that: ‘One of the first things which attracts the eye of a stranger in Ireland ... and makes him halt in his steps and turn round and look, is the police whom he meets in every part of the island, on every road, in every village, even on the farm land, and on the seashore, and on the little islands which lie out in the sea.’ Somerville continued:

These policemen wear a dark green uniform and are armed; this is what makes them remarkable, armed from the heel to the head. They have belts and pouches, ball cartridges in the pouches, short guns called carbines, and bayonets, and pistols, and swords.[23]

In 1867 Queen Victoria honoured the IC, for its part in defeating the Fenian movement, by granting that the prefix ‘Royal’ be added to their name. Later G. Garrow Green, an RIC cadet, wrote about his training: ‘To readers unacquainted with the corps, I may say that it is a military police peculiar to Ireland, and officered in much the same way as the Army ... I may say that the Royal Irish Constabulary Depot differs in no respect from an army infantry barracks...’[24]

Continually fed information from a network of spies and informers the RIC used this, combined with their local knowledge which they augmented during policing (law), to great effect during counter-insurgency offensives (order) against political opponents:

The fact is that the really effective influence upon the development of the colonial police forces during the nineteenth century was not that of the police in Great Britain, but that of the Royal Irish Constabulary ... from the point of view of the colonies there was much attraction in an arrangement which provided what we should now call a ‘paramilitary’ organisation or gendarmerie armed and trained to operate as an agent of the ... government in a country where the population was predominantly rural, communications were poor, social conditions were largely primitive, and the recourse to violence by members of the public who were ‘against the government’ was not infrequent. It was natural that such a force, rather than one organised on the lines of the purely civilian and localised forces of Great Britain, should have been taken as a suitable model for adaptation to colonial conditions.[25]

This pattern of the army, acting as back-up to a paramilitary police force, became the prototype for maintaining British rule in other parts of the Empire. Sir Robert Peel, who instigated the first police forces in Ireland and Britain, was later the British Prime Minister at the start of the Famine and the starving Irish people who received the attentions of Britain’s armed forces made little distinction between his ‘Peelers’ and British soldiers. The nationalist leader Daniel O’Connell nicknamed him ‘Orange Peel’ and commented that Peel’s smile was ‘like the silver plate on a coffin’.

22: Letters from Ireland during the Famine of 1847,
by Alexander Somerville –
edited by K. D. M. Snell,
Irish Academic Press 1994.

23: Ibid - Letters from Ireland during the Famine of 1847,
by Alexander Somerville.

24: In the Royal Irish Constabulary,
by G. Garrow Green,
Dublin 1905.

25: The Colonial Police,
by Sir Charles Jefferies,
Max Parrish London 1952.



Bourgeois Democracy

In Cromwell’s time Gerrard Winstanley had likened government to a gang of thieves. Almost two centuries later, in 1835, John Wade produced The Extraordinary Black Book, an Exposition of Abuses in Church and State. In it, he produced an ‘Analysis of the House of Commons elected in 1830’:

  • Relations of peers, 256.
  • Placemen and pensioners, 217.
  • Officers in the Army, 89.
  • Officers in the Navy, 24.
  • Lawyers, 54.
  • East India interests, 62.
  • West India interests, 35.
  • Bankers, 33.
  • Agricultural interests, 356.
  • Miscellaneous, 51.

It was clear that little had changed since Winstanley’s time and Wade went on to state: ‘Many of the members [MPs] belonged to several classes or interests, and have been enumerated in each, which swells the nominal number of individuals. It is apparent that the vast majority were connected with the Peerage, the Army, Navy, Courts of Law, Public Offices, and Colonies; and, in lieu of representing the People, only represented those interests over which it is the constitutional object of a real House of Commons to exercise a watchful and efficient control’.

In 1841, six years after Wade produced his Extraordinary Black Book, Charles Dickens wrote a satirical ‘new version’ of The Fine Old English Gentleman, about the power and corruption of that time:

I’ll sing you a new ballad, and I’ll warrant it first-rate,
Of the days of that old gentleman who had that old estate;
When they spent the public money at a bountiful old rate
On ev’ry mistress, pimp, and scamp, at ev’ry noble gate,
In the fine old English Tory times;
Soon may they come again!

The good old laws were garnished well with gibbets, whips, and chains,
With fine old English penalties, and fine old English pains,
With rebel heads, and seas of blood once hot in rebel veins;
For all these things were requisite to guard the rich old gains
Of the fine old English Tory times;
Soon may they come again!

The good old times for cutting throats that cried out in their need,
The good old times for hunting men who held their father’s creed,
The good old times when William Pitt, as all good men agreed,
Came down direct from Paradise at more than railroad speed,
Oh the fine old English Tory times;
When will they come again!

In those rare days, the press was seldom known to snarl or bark,
But sweetly sang of men in pow’r, like any tuneful lark;
Grave judges, too, to all their evil deeds were in the dark;
And not a man in twenty score knew how to make his mark,
Oh the fine old English Tory times;
Soon may they come again!

The bright old day now dawns again; the cry runs through the land,
In England there shall be dear bread - in Ireland, sword and brand;
And poverty, and ignorance, shall swell the rich and grand,
So, rally round the rulers with the gentle iron hand,
Of the fine old English Tory days;
Hail to the coming time!

Dickens’ lyrics are still relevant to us today. In our recent past we have witnessed the British Army and a colonial style police force - the RUC - wage a ‘dirty war’ and use internment, torture and ‘shoot-to-kill’ against the Irish people. At the same time the Tory Government of Margaret Thatcher launched British paramilitary police units against her ‘enemy within’ - the miners. This shows how little things have changed over the centuries.

We are, however, faced with the presentation of a more sophisticated deception of social equality. On the surface it would appear that we live in a much more democratic society today, but we still have a long way to go before we can claim that we live in a true democracy - even some of the demands made by the Levellers in the mid-17th century have still to be achieved. The media, predominately controlled by the state or owned by moguls, still plays a key role in maintaining the status quo and in ensuring that only those who are friendly to the interests of big business will get near to the seat of power. Vested interests still prevail and Tony Benn, when a Labour MP, explained how the system still controls us today:

The British Constitution works in a very subtle way to keep us in our place ... And guarantee that the privileges of the powerful are protected from any challenge ... The Crown, the Lords, the Honours List and all the paraphernalia of state power play an important part in preserving the status quo.

... We are not citizens, but subjects, for everyone in authority must, by law, swear an oath of allegiance to the monarch before taking up a position. MPs, Cabinet Ministers, peers, judges, police chiefs, and even arch-bishops and bishops, have to swear their homage to the Crown before they can be enthroned. All those in high office got there by an elaborate system of patronage, all done in the name of the Queen. The actual decision in every case is made by the Prime Minister or other Ministers, giving them immense and unaccountable political power.

The power to go to war is a Royal prerogative and Parliament does not even have to be consulted. ... Compare a British subject with an American, French, German or Irish citizen and you will find they elect their head of state and both houses of their own parliaments. We are only allowed to elect one house of our Parliament while the Throne and the Lords are occupied by hereditary right of patronage...[26]

Before the English Civil War, the church and monarchy determined most peoples lives and afterwards the state gradually assumed the pre-eminent role. The ruling class survived the revolutionary period at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries by utilising all the means at their disposal. To maintain their dominance and control, they unleashed a wave of repression, augmented with draconian laws, spies, informers and agent provocateurs. Police forces in Ireland and Britain were initiated and the army and navy reorganised, with establishment control over all the state forces strengthened.

Today, our lives are increasingly dominated by multinational companies and the US led ‘New World Order’, with Westminster Governments subserviently backing this new imperialism and passing acts and laws to placate the corporations’ requirements. Behind a facade of bourgeois democracy, which gives the illusion of democracy but none of its substance, the ruling class still maintain their dominance by controlling the state apparatus - including parliaments at the Palace of Westminster, as well as the forces of repression.

26: Sunday Mail [Scotland],
21st April 1996.



......................© 2004 Aly Renwick / TOM....................


Now read chapter three of Oliver’s Army
Britannia Waives the Rules

The Truth of Empire