1820 Insurrection.

Ten Years’ Experience of a Betheral’s Life by John Parkhill, 1859, Paisley.

Printed at the ‘Paisley Herald’ Office.

John Parkhill was the real name of the author ‘Arthur Sneddon’ who lived in Paisley in early 1800’s. He wrote various memoirs, two of which hold his account of the rampant radicalism of the 1820 Insurrection which followed the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester. The government use of agent-provocateurs, yeomanry, Hussars, informants and spies and capital punishment or transportation were strategies to undermine mass action of striking workers on Clydeside and elsewhere and armed insurrection to improve their lives. Alex B Richmond’s detailed account of Government Spies in Glasgow 1816-20 can be read here:

Ten Years of a Betheral’s Life is in the SoR collection and pages 100-112 are scanned here containing his account of the 1820 Insurrection in Paisley.

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John Parkhill, was one of the local Radicals, and states regarding the movements in Paisley at this time to overturn the British Government by force of arms : — ” I am now coming to the most eventful period of my life. Reform — Radical reform — was at this time, 1820, becoming the universal cry; and I, poor fellow, got into its meshes. In the street where I resided (Maxwellton) the inhabitants were all Radicals throughout. The association had been divided into sections or unions ; and I happening to go to a meeting one night, before I knew where I was was made a member. Several speeches were made, quite sensible in the main, for things had not got into the rabid state to which they afterwards attained ; and I thought that some sport might be had although reform did not prove to be the upshot of the affair, nor yet a ‘ psalm in the Grassmarket.’ The unions still increased ; and such was the temerity of the young aspirants after political fame, that the old leaders to a man had resigned and left the field to the young politicians already alluded to. Training after nightfall became quite common ; and officers, if not appointed, were talked of Pikes, guns, and pistols were getting in readiness ; and over and above drill, large public meetings added to the general agitation ; whilst the fatal meeting at Manchester, on the 16th of August, 1819,(Peterloo) was a culminating plan in the insurrectionary movement. Our drilling got brisker than ever’’.

Another of his books – The Life and Opinions of Arthur Sneddon an Autobiography – includes a more detailed account of John Parkhill’s participation in the 1820 Insurrection and the dramatic overturning of the existing social order. Pages of the Autobiography are included in Brown’s, History of Paisley Vol 2 and gives us a detailed account of their training and organising strategy across Airdrie, Crossmyloof, Glennifer, Condorrat, Strathaven, but leaves out key details of administrative targets and planning. A detailed description of the Radical Cleg (thrown missile) and the Wasp (a hooked pike) are given and other techniques the people used defending themselves and families against Cavalry like planks of wood across the streets to topple the horses. The Riot Act had been read increasingly over the months and the Government knew of the ‘seditious attempts to disturb and endanger the public peace’ and gave notice that all such illegal meetings would be immediately resisted by military force.

Archive.Org has sections of his Autobiography relating to his role in the Radicals which you can read here Pages 188-199;

After wandering about the country, under hiding, for some time, Parkhill sailed for Montreal. He remained fourteen months in America. Leaving New York on 20th August, he landed at Liverpool twenty- one days thereafter. On coming to Paisley, as trade had improved, and a Kings Amnesty was offered radicals, he at once obtained work.

A Betheral is the butler to a Minister who looks after the house , the wine and the sick. In Chapter X – Retrospective of my Betheral’s Life – Parkhill refers to the last witch trials of Europe, in Renfrew:

I have more than once given my opinion that there are no infidels in our land, and that the idea of infidels so common in the religious world is much akin to the belief in witchcraft entertained by our pious forefathers. Ministers in these auld times were the great upholders of witchcraft, and the deadliest enemies the poor auld wives had to contend with. Sessions, Presbyteries, synods, and assemblies were constantly on the lookout for victims. Witness the doings of the Paisley Presbytery in reference to the old worthy midwife, Maggy Lang, and the rest of the Bargarran witches. They rested not neither in the pulpit nor otherwise, until they had them burnt at the Gallowgreen of their Presbyterial seat. [Parkhill,1859;77]

For full account of the Bargarren Witch Trials and also of the Poll Tax see;

The History of Paisley Vol 1 Page 352 – 359 in the SoR collection.

Gordon Pentland has situated the accounts of the 1820 within the concept of contesting social space in this highly readable essay; ‘’’Betrayed by Infamous Spies’’? The Commemoration of Scotland’s ‘Radical War’ of 1820.’

This has allowed the martyrs to be imagined and re-imagined in a number of different ways and recruited to a range of political narratives: as the innocent victims of rancorous Tory persecution and as an object lesson in the strengths of British popular constitutionalism; as heirs to the Covenanters and as exemplars of the continuing constitutional duty to resist tyranny; as prototype proletarian revolutionaries; and, latterly, as insurrectionary republican nationalists. Historically, it has been this last interpretation that has been the most marginal, and previous commemorations have instead been used to lend a peculiar Scottish inflection to pan-British political languages and to integrate a distinctive Scottish episode into a British history of liberty. When parliamentarians reopened the debate in the Scottish parliament, they simply opened a new chapter in commemorative contests that have been going on for nearly two centuries’. University of Edinburgh, Gordon Pentland 

Audrey Canning’s essay makes the links with republicanism.

There is no doubt looking back after 188 years that the impact of Peterloo was felt most keenly by the Paisley radicals. The slogans on their banners also echo the theme of universal suffrage, liberty, humanity and reform that were carried at Peterloo. But strikingly obvious is the fact that the events of 1790 and the United Scotsmen, were still fresh in their memory. The 28 man committee planned to organise a Provisional Government after the armed uprising and believed that Scottish radicals would be the direct inheritors of the Scottish republican ideal. This was fully upheld and supported in Paisley, the centre of the weaving trade in Scotland and also ‘the main centre of radicalism.’ Unfortunately, the authorities were only too well aware of this and used a large spy network and agent provocateurs to create a false insurrection leading to mass arrests and crushing of the uprising. – See more HERE:

More on the 1820 insurrection HERE:


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