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Flags of Political Reform in 19th Century Britain

Last modified: 2012-05-24 by rob raeside
Keywords: chartist | skelmanthorpe flag | red flag | black flag |
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The Black Flag

From Clive Bloom's ' Terror Within - Terrorism and the Dream of the British Republic' (2007) ISBN 9780750942959:

P.128 " On 15th November 1816 John Castle carried the black revolutionary banner into the first of two meetings at Spa Fields, London. The area was notorious for its seditious meetings and violence seemed likely. A second meeting was called for 2 December. Surrounding this demonstration were large numbers of police directed by the chief magistrate of Bow Street, Sir Nathaniel Conant...[ speeches by Henry Hunt and James Watson ]...The magistrates and Bow Street Runners who were mingling with the crowd finally decided to act and a general tussle began in order to arrest the leaders of the meeting and seize their flags and banners...[ riots and violence ensued as people marched on the Tower of London ]"

P.130 [ In 1817, in response to the agent provocateur / spy William Oliver ] - " It was rumoured that the whole of the north was about to rise and 200,000 men were to capture Nottingham, march on the Trent to Newark and take boats to London, where the black flag would be raised and the provisional government installed."

The Black Flag and the Flag of the USA

P.134..." the courts were always willing to spend inordinate time establishing the meaning of captured standards and such evidence was regularly paraded into courtrooms as proof of revolutionary purpose. Indeed, the use of flags as a form of defiance by civilian rioters had been noted in 1780 during the street battles between the London mob and the regulars outside of the Bank of England. Here, rioters flew the black flag of rebellion alongside flags representing the United States as the world's first republic. The American flag would be paraded at many radical meetings thereafter.

David B. Lawrence, 23 July 2009


The Red Flag

From Clive Bloom's ' Terror Within - Terrorism and the Dream of the British Republic' (2007) ISBN 9780750942959:

P.125 [ In 1811-12 there was widespread civil disorder in the north of England encouraged by radicals ]..." At Middleton, near Oldham, during this period there was full-scale guerilla warfare (a tactic adopted by the Spanish during the Peninsula campaign being waged during the same years). One newspaper from Oldham reported, 'A body of men consisting of from one to two hundred, some armed with muskets with fixed bayonets, and others with colliers picks, marched into the village in procession (headed by a man who) waved a sort of red flag. The same men also fired two volleys at a cavalry regiment and began reloading for a third before fleeing. They left four local men dead.'" [Notes refer to John Foster, 'Class Struggle and the Industrial Revolution' 1979 Methuen, London]

The Red Flag in Wales and the Viola Tricolor (Heartsease)

P.136 " Welsh insurrectionists at Merthyr Tydfil in 1831 used a sheet covered with calf's blood that they had ritually slaughtered and although this may be the first understood use of the red flag for overtly political purposes, red flags had been signs of rebellion since the Nore Mutiny. Wild Heartsease, a violet flower worn in buttonholes, may also have had secret revolutionary connotations during the 1830's."

David B. Lawrence, 23 July 2009


The Tricolor in England and the Chartist Flags

From Clive Bloom's ' Terror Within - Terrorism and the Dream of the British Republic' (2007) ISBN 9780750942959:

P.134..." The flag that infuriated the authorities the most was the tricolour of Revolutionary France, adapted across England, Wales and Ireland as the flag of rebellion, its colours changed to local needs. The tricolour was revolution, symbolic of everything Jacobinical, and therefore prime evidence of nefarious intent. Such flags had to be seized at all costs. At the trial of Watson, much was made of the flags and banners displayed on the day of the Spa Fields Riot. What indeed was the intent in displaying a 'green, white and red' tricolour other than provocation and incitement, especially when the banners declared 'Justice, Humanity and Truth' or 'Nature, Truth and Justice', as John Stafford, chief clerk at Bow Street attested when acting as prosecution witness ? Stafford's opinion under questioning was that these flags stood for a call to 'insurrection'....
....The Flag of the English Republic was red, white and green in horizontal bars. It is possible that the same colours were displayed at Peterloo. At the time of Brandreth's revolution, Oliver ['Oliver the Spy'] had spoken of 'Sir Francis Burdett waiting in the wings to lead the new British Republic with its red, white and green tricolour'. The Chartists adopted the triclour and its colouring from the late 1830's onwards. Claims that they made horizontal the vertical form of the French flag are unlikely, as the horizontal version existed to allow for slogans, which they certainly employed. The Chartists did, however, sometimes use the French version of the tricolour. James Linton's Chartist journal, The cause of the People, carried the flag with the wording ' Fraternity - Liberty - Humanity.' the importance of flags and banners was most significant during the Chartist disturbances [ - follows a list of radical slogans found on such flags ] ... The English tricolour and its colours were still being carried as late as George V's jubilee in 1935, where two maverick households spoiled the celebrations by flying the red, white and green of the revolution.

David B. Lawrence, 23 July 2009


The Tricolour and the Suffragettes

From Clive Bloom's ' Terror Within - Terrorism and the Dream of the British Republic' (2007) ISBN 9780750942959:

P.136 " All tricolours, however, owe their origin not to heraldry or conquest but to the rationalist and deist principles of the Enlightenment, where proportion and colour stood for equality of relationship and the symbolic unification of people, nation and principle. The suffragettes adopted the tricolour to the green, white and violet of 'Give Women Votes'...."

David B. Lawrence, 23 July 2009


The Tricolour and other radical flags and Radical Religion

From Clive Bloom's ' Terror Within - Terrorism and the Dream of the British Republic' (2007) ISBN 9780750942959:

P.141 [Robert Wedderburn was the son of a slave and her Scottish owner, and wrote a book - 'The Horrors of Slavery' - and knew Thomas Spence and shared his radical ideas whilst being more religious] - he had been a Methodist and become a Unitarian. Where the altar would normally have been in a church, there were pictures of Tom Paine, Toussaint L'Ouverture, a skull and crossbones, a red flag and the red, white and green flag of the British Republic. Fiercely passionate about his origins, he wrote to the slaves in Jamaica urging them to rebellion and the setting-up of a republic, by implication arguing for revolution at home...."

David B. Lawrence, 23 July 2009


The Tricolour in Ireland

From Clive Bloom's 'Terror Within - Terrorism and the Dream of the British Republic' (2007) ISBN 9780750942959:

P.193 [ Charged with sedition after their failure to instigate the 1848 Rising, O'Brien and Meagher were released on bail and fled to Paris in the hope of making an alliance the newly re-established French Republic - ] - "While in Paris they met the acting president, Alphonse de Lamartine, who presented them with a green, white and orange tricolour, based on the French design. It had been designed by Meagher and eventually became the flag of 1916 - the flag of the republic in 1922..."

David B. Lawrence, 23 July 2009


The Skelmanthorpe Flag

"The Huddersfield Daily Examiner", 10 April 2006, reports the history of the flag known as the Skelmanthorpe Flag.

"The first half of the 19th century was a period of political agitation. Events ranged from the Peterloo Massacre in 1819 to the last Chartist Petition of 1848, which took place at a time when revolutions were occurring all over Europe. From 1819 the villagers of Skelmanthorpe were at the forefront of political struggles and a special flag, known as the Skelmanthorpe Flag, was woven in this year at a house on Radcliffe Street. The flag, which was later taken to many rallies and demonstrations all over Huddersfield, proclaimed: "Skelmanthorp will not rest Satisfied with the Suffrage being anything but Universal."

This was later taken up by the Chartist movement. Chartism was an umbrella movement which drew together many different groups with various aims and grievances. Chartists were called that because they devised a six-point charter which detailed their demands. These were: universal male suffrage, annual parliaments, vote by secret ballot, abolition of property qualifications for MPs, payment for MPs and equal electoral districts. None of these were realised in the lifetime of the movement, but all except annual parliaments are now law. The Chartists disbanded after the failure of their third petition in 1848, just two years after the hated Corn Laws had been repealed. Some believe that after the repeal of the Corn Laws Chartism's popularity declined. Thus, many historians argue that for many followers Chartism was purely a knife and fork question."

Source: http://ichuddersfield.icnetwork.co.uk
Ivan Sache, 19 April 2006

In my opinion, the Skelmanthorpe Flag is more properly described as a banner, rather than a flag. This banner, which is privately owned, commemorates the Peterloo Massacre, which was a massacre of a number of people at a gathering held in Peterloo, Manchester, to protest the lack of representation of the populous industrial areas in the north of England in Parliament. An image of it may be found in the National Banner Survey, a collection of the People's History Museum in Manchester.

It is divided into four quadrants and contains the words: "SKELMANTHORP Will not rest Satisfied with the Suffrage being anything but Universal" in the top left quadrant. In the bottom left, "May never a cock in England Crow, Nor never a Pipe in Scotland blow, Nor never a Harp in Ireland Play, Till Liberty regains her Sway. In the top right quadrant is the slogan "Truth and Justice Pouring Balm into the Wounds of the Manchester Sufferers." In the bottom right quadrant, is a drawing of a man looking up at an eye in the sky and a further slogan on a scroll, which is too indistinct to read on the above referenced web site.

The term flag seems to have originated from an article "Skelmanthorpe's Flag of Freedom" in Hirst Buckley's Annual 1926 and also in Politics and the People - A Study in English Political Culture c.1815-1867 by Vernon, but is more correctly described as a Chartist banner in the research paper cited as my source number (1) below, by probably the most authoritative current source in the United Kingdom in this area.

Sources:
(1) University of Manchester, Arts Faculty, History Research Working Paper Number 45, Note, this document was located on the University of Manchester's web site at http://www.arts.manchester.ac.uk/subjectareas/history/ on 19 April 2006, but does not have any title pages, as it is a "working paper" and it is thus not possible to cite it correctly.
(2) Collections of the People's History Museum, Manchester, no catalogue number, title "banner, Peterloo. Skelmanthorpe Flag." as consulted on the People's History Museum web site, 19 April 2006.
Colin Dobson, 19 May 2006

Here are full details of this and also other things I've done on this subject. 'Why are there no Chartist banners' is probably the best for this subject. The People's History Museum ran the National Banner Survey in 1998-9 (pre-web), which was an inventory of 2,500 banners in UK museums and you can access some of the information on our web site www.phm.org.uk (follow links to Collections).

  • 'The Norwich Plumbers Emblem', Social History Curators Group Journal, No.14,1987
  • 'The Banner Collection of the National Museum of Labour History' in Robina McNeil and John S. F. Walker (eds.) The Heritage Atlas 2: Textile Legacy (1995)
  • 'Radical Rhymes and union jacks: a search for evidence of ideologies in the symbolism of 19th.c.banners', University of Manchester, Working Paper in Economic and Social History, No.45, 2000
  • 'Why Are there No Chartist Banners? The 'Missing Link' in 19th Century Banners', Social History in Museums, Volume 25 (2000)
  • (With Karsten Uhl) 'Banners -An Annotated Bibliography', Social History in Museums, Volume 27 (2003)
  • 'Radical Banners as Sites of Memory : the National Banner Survey', in Paul A. Pickering and Alex Tyrell (ed.) Contested Sites Commemoration, Memorial and Popular Politics in Nineteenth Century Britain, (Ashgate Press, 2004)

Dr Nick Mansfield
Director, People's History Museum Head Office
103 Princess Street
Manchester M1 6DD
Registered as National Museum of Labour History in England no. 2041438. Registered charity no. 295260

The inscription by the slave, which the article says is too indistinct to read, actually reads: "Am I not a man and brother." The flag is on display at the Tolson Memorial Museum, Wakefield Road, Huddersfield (the A642/A629) about a mile SE of the town centre.
Frank L. Appleyard, 27 January 2009

The image of the slave was designed by the potter, philanthropist, and early British Abolitionist Josiah Wedgwood, and rapidly became a symbol of the Abolitionist movement in the UK and the US.
Ron Lahav, 27 January 2009

An image of the flag online at can be found at http://www.panoramio.com/photo/1651412
James Dignan, 27 January 2009


Other flags of political reform in 19th Century Britain

The article on Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peterloo_Massacre has two images which I believe are part of the Flags of Political Reform in 19th Century Britain. These images are:
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_Massacre_of_Peterloo.jpg - here one can see a white background with a bordered golden fringe with some text across the flag.
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Peterloo_Massacre.png - here one can see several flags (white with lady, a red one, a green one and what seems to be a light maroon one)
Esteban Rivera, 10 August 2009

I don't think that the first of these is a 'real' flag. I've got a slighter larger reproduction in a book, and the inscription reads 'Loyal Man chester] / Yeomanry/ [a crown] / Be Bloody, bold & Resolute / "spur yr proud Horses & / Ride [illegible] in blood". The regiment involved in the massacre was the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry Cavalry, not the Loyal Manchester Yeomanry (which never existed).  Although many yeomanry regiments did not carry 'regulation' standards, I don't think they would have been able to get away with an inscription like that, and the terms of the inscription, allied to the fact that the troops carry cleavers rather than swords and have skull-and- crossbones badges, the speech of the officer on the left, and the fact that it was drawn by Cruikshank, a noted political cartoonist mean, I think, that it is all exaggerated for effect to make a satirical political point, not to be an exact depiction of what happened that day.
Ian Sumner, 11 August 2009

I am familiar with this particular piece of political comment and you are perfectly correct. I am not for a moment condoning the employment of armed soldiers against unarmed civilians, but this was, as you surmise, a piece of blatant propaganda designed to rouse a sense of revulsion in the reader and was, in no way, intended to be an accurate representation of the "Peterloo Massacre".
   This incident caused the Government of the day (not to mention the Horse Guards) considerable embarrassment, and I can just imagine what would happen to any Yeomanry colonel who permitted such a tactless (to put it mildly) guidon to be displayed by his regiment? Incidentally, according to the information I have the flag read "spur yr proud horses and ride GLADLY in blood"?
Christopher Southworth, 11 August 2009

Several chartist flags are illustrated on the mural discussed at:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-17278034
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-17276428
David B. Lawrence, 13 March 2012