AS I have shown over the last few weeks, Scotland’s Radical War or Scottish Insurrection of 1820, centred on Glasgow, was a long time coming, and events in England and the influence of Englishmen in particular proved crucial in the run up to that revolutionary year.

After the huge meeting on Glasgow Green in October 1816, the radical movement transformed as weavers and men from other trades formed societies, usually based on workers’ unions, to campaign for political change and better conditions for workers. The movement started in and around Glasgow and there was much talk of revolution – many of the radicals were former soldiers who had returned from beating Napoleon to find no jobs for them.

People who previously had no interest in politics joined these societies and the authorities became so alarmed at their growing influence that in early 1817 Glasgow’s magistrates ordered the arrest and imprisonment of 26 leading figures in the societies.

In England, talk of reform was seen as suspicious but it happened anyway. William Cobbett, Francis Place, Sir Francis Burdett and Major John Cartwright all dared to campaign for reform. The latter’s Hampden Clubs, named after John Hampden, a leading Parliamentarian in the Civil War, were particularly influential, and his manifesto was music to the ears of the Scottish radicals – he advocated universal suffrage and secret ballots. The Scottish radicals went further – many of them wanted an end to the Union, and that was anathema to the Scottish merchants and upper classes who were doing rather well out of the growing British Empire.

Unemployment had soared and in December 1817, jobless men rioted in Glasgow and were brutally put down by specially recruited “constables” – mostly former soldiers. As we have seen, job creation schemes were tried, with Sir Walter Scott, no less, suggesting that jobless weavers from the west could be brought to Edinburgh to make a new road at Holyrood – it is known to this day as the Radical Road.

One tragic event in England brought radical fervour to a peak. On the morning of August 16, 1819, a massive crowd began to gather in what was then St Peter’s Field, but is now St Peter’s Square, in Manchester to hear the reformer Henry Hunt speak.

Local magistrates read the Riot Act and when the huge crowd refused to disperse, hundreds of armed troops and cavalrymen charged them, pistols and sabres at the ready. By mid-afternoon, as many as 500 people had been injured and at least 15 people – including four women and a two-year-old child – were killed in what became known as the Peterloo Massacre.

Despite the widespread revulsion at the massacre, the British Government’s crackdown on radicalism continued apace, and the notorious Six Acts were passed which included a law limiting all public meetings to just 50 people. In Glasgow, the response was for the union societies to become a secret underground movement which had a central committee and strong links with the English radicals.

Knowing that they faced death, imprisonment and transportation, the radicals continued to campaign for reform, and looking back after 200 years, we can only marvel at the immense courage they showed. The process of politicising working people made its mark most on Glasgow, and has never left the city, and I contend that the first quarter of the 19th century was the real genesis of Red Clydeside.

In late 1819 and early 1820, Glasgow became a hotbed of radical thought and preparation for action – radical committees met and former soldiers led drill exercises with pikes as the weapons of choice.

As Professor Sir Tom Devine wrote in his excellent work The Scottish Nation, A Modern History: “There can be little doubt that an armed revolt was being planned against an intransigent government which once again had met even moderate demands for reform with repression and judicial retribution.”

There were open confrontations on the streets of the city between jobless men and the special cavalry which the Town Council had stationed in Glasgow. An outbreak of typhus hit the city but still did not stop the radicals. When King George III, above, died on January 29, 1820, there was a brief respectful halt to the radicals’ activities, but only a short one.

The radicals had a problem, however. Their secret societies had been infiltrated by spies and possibly agents provocateurs, and it was one of those spies, a weaver called John King, who reported on the plans being crafted by the central coordinating committee. They were already calling themselves the provisional government of Scotland and made it clear that ending the Union was one of their priorities.

Like a modern-day Judas, King went to a committee meeting in the Gallowgate on March 21, and slipped out to betray them, with 28 radicals promptly arrested by a large force of Glasgow police officers. The police commander, James Mitchell, had been in constant communication with the Home Secretary in London, Lord Sidmouth, and after the arrested men were interrogated, he wrote to Sidmouth that the committee “confessed their audacious plot to sever the Kingdom of Scotland from that of England and restore the ancient Scottish Parliament ... If some plan were conceived by which the disaffected could be lured out of their lairs – being made to think that the day of ‘liberty’ had come – we could catch them abroad and undefended ... few know of the apprehension of the leaders ... so no suspicion would attach itself to the plan at all.

“Our informants have infiltrated the disaffected’s committees and organisation, and in a few days, you shall judge the results.”

This passage from the Sidmouth letter is often used as evidence that the Radical War of 1820 was actually a put-up job by a UK government quite used to such tactics. To this day no one knows for certain whether what happened next was planned by agents provocateurs sent in by the Government or simply by the radicals realising that the time for action had come.

On the morning of April 2, Glaswegians and people in many other towns and villages woke up to posters that had been plastered on walls the previous night.

Find out next week what it said and how the Radical War played out with Glasgow at its centre.