ON the morning of Sunday, April 2, 1820, posters were seen on walls all over Glasgow and in many other parts of central and south west Scotland.

Each poster carried the masthead “Address to the Inhabitants of Great Britain and Ireland” and they had all been put up overnight and carried the place and date of their origin – Glasgow, April 1, 1820.   

The address read: “Friends and countrymen, roused from that state in which we have been sunk for so many years, we are at length compelled from the extremity of our sufferings, and the contempt heaped upon our petitions for redress, to assert our rights at the hazard of our lives and proclaim to the world the real motives, which (if not misrepresented by designing men, would have united all ranks) have reduced us to take up ARMS for the redress of our common grievances.”

Later it stated: “Let us show to the world that we are not that lawless sanguinary rabble which our oppressors would persuade the higher circles we are – but a BRAVE and GENEROUS PEOPLE, determined to be FREE. LIBERTY or DEATH is our motto, and we have sworn to return home in triumph – or return no more!”

The poster went on to politely request soldiers to consider joining the ranks of the Radicals and also invited all workers to take part in a general strike: “We earnestly request all to desist from their labour from and after this day, the first of April, and attend wholly to the recovery of their rights and consider it as the duty of every man not to recommence until he is in possession of those rights which distinguishes the FREEMEN from the SLAVES.” 

With a ringing admonition against plunder and pillage, the document was signed “By Order of the Committee of Organisation for forming a Provisional Government”.

There is still huge debate as to whether the Radical War of 1820, otherwise known as the Scottish Insurrection, was actually caused by spies and agents provocateurs sent by the Government to infiltrate the secret societies that had sprung up across Scotland. There can be no doubt, however, that the posters were the work of Radicals, most probably weavers, and the months of secret preparations for an armed revolt now came to fruition, albeit only briefly.

There is also no doubt that the war began and was largely concentrated in and around Glasgow and its suburbs. The Home Office in London was informed that almost the whole population of workers in Glasgow had gone on strike, and later estimates put the figure of men downing tools on the Monday at 60,000. 

The rising was to have been part of a UK-wide revolt against the government of the day, and the Glasgow action in particular struck fear into the hearts of the authorities. Lord Provost Henry Monteith – more about him next week – and the bailies recoiled in horror as rumours spread that French troops were coming over to aid the revolution, and that 5000 of them would be billeted at Cathkin Braes.

Radicals from England were said to be already marching on the Carron Iron Works near Falkirk to seize cannons made there, and that the first task of the Radicals would be to occupy Glasgow and its treasury.  

According to Renwick and Lindsay’s History of Glasgow, the authorities promptly called out every troop and cavalryman in west central Scotland: “So seriously was the proclamation regarded that the Rifle Brigade, the 80th and 83rd Regiments of Foot, the 7th and 10th Hussars, several regiments of Yeomanry, and the Glasgow Sharpshooters, a body commanded by Samuel Hunter, editor of the Glasgow Herald, were all ordered to be under arms in Glasgow and its neighbourhood. All shops were ordered to be shut at six o’clock, and the streets to be cleared by seven.”

By Tuesday, April 4, it was clear the there was no major revolt, never mind an armed one, in England, and the Radicals in Glasgow began to melt away as they knew that the entire forces of the UK Government would now be focused on them.     

The “armed revolt” was tiny, to be frank. Two former soldiers, John Baird and Andrew Hardie, took command of a small force of mainly weavers that gathered on Glasgow Green. Rudimentary weapons were issued to the 40 or so men present and they began a drill exercise.

Baird and Hardie then persuaded their men to march to Carron, still hoping that English Radicals would join them there. It was not to be – in the so-called Battle of Bonnymuir, highly-trained and well-equipped cavalrymen of the 10th Hussars were joined by Falkirk Yeomanry in a one-sided conflict in which the Radicals took a savage beating.

Some 18 or 19 of them, including Baird and Hardie, were taken prisoner and marched to Stirling Castle.

Meanwhile, James Wilson, a weaver from Strathaven, led several dozen men from his area in a march to Glasgow. They carried a banner identifying themselves as the Strathaven Union Society 1819 on one side with the message “Scotland Free or a Desart [sic]” on the other. Wilson had been a leading figure in the 1790s reform campaigns and clearly hoped this would now be the turning point. 

Tragically for him, he found no French troops, and no Radicals either, so turned his men round and marched home to Strathaven where he was arrested.

In Greenock on April 8, the townsfolk stormed the local prison and freed five weavers from Paisley who had been incarcerated there. The militia turned out and opened fire on the crowd, killing eight people including eight-year-old James MacGilp. 

The Radical War was over, and the authorities were determined such an uprising would not happen again. At show trials over the summer, some 85 men were charged with crimes such as treason, but most were found not guilty or not proven.

Wilson, Baird and Hardie were all found guilty of capital offences. Wilson was the first to die, hanged and beheaded in front of 20,000 people in Glasgow, and such was the revulsion at this judicial murder that influential people petitioned for mercy to be shown to the other two – they did not get it, and Baird and Hardie were executed in similar fashion in Stirling on September 8, Hardie’s last words being: “I die a martyr in the cause of truth and justice.”