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John Thelwall: Radical thoughts on Slavery, Empire and Landscape

A Pedestrian Excursion Through Several Parts of England and Wales

John Thelwall’s account of his rambles
Between the years of the naval mutinies
of 1797 and the 1801 Peace of Amiens:

‘The cottages in general, are small, wretched and dirty. Some of them are built of brick, others are plastered and may exhibit nothing but miserable mud walls, equally naked without and within. They are wretchedly and scantily furnished; and few have even the advantage of a bit of garden. To complete the catalogue of misery, there is a workhouse in the parish, in which a number of deserted infants are consigned to captivity and incessant application…’

And even though Citizen John was being pursued,
Followed and shadowed by spies,
With consequent anxiety,
Thelwall could still write that …

‘The vivacity of conversation made the miles pass unheeded under our feet. We canvassed various subjects of literature and criticism, the state of morals and the existing institutions of society. We lamented the condition of our fellow-beings, and formed Utopian plans of retirement and colonisations. On one subject, and only one, we essentially differed – America. I cannot look towards that country with all the sanguine expectations so frequently cherished. I think I discover in it much of the old leaven. Its avidity for commercial aggrandisement augurs but ill even for the present generation; and I tremble at the consequences which the enormous appropriation of land may entail upon posterity.’

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Ghost Mills Walks

Free, but just a few places left only – contact me if you wish to go: 9.45 – approx 13:00 FRIDAY SEPTEMBER 13TH
A leisurely walk along the towpath follows past old mills to Bowbridge and thence Stroud.
Uncovering a colonial landscape whilst in the footsteps of that ‘Jacobin fox’, ‘the most dangerous man in Britain’, John Thelwall, who left London, fed up with William Pitt’s prying spies, and walked to Nether Stowey. He stayed with Coleridge and Wordsworth for ten days, in that hectic summer that would lead to the Lyrical Ballads, before walking to Stroudwater.
Here he stayed with sympathetic clothiers and dyers, visiting Chalford, Uley, Nailsworth and Bowbridge, writing poems on the hoof.
We recreate his stay in that annus mirabilis of 1797, with a performative walk from Chalford to Bowbridge, whilst uncovering a colonial landscape.
John Thelwall was a colleague of THOMAS SPENCE – and we have a show about Thomas as part of the Stroud Theatre Festival in the evening.

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Being John Thelwall

I first opened the pages of EP Thompson’s
Making of the English Working Class
On my 21st birthday in 1972:
It seemed to sit quite easily along
With the glass bottomed pewter tankard –
A traditional 21st father-son present back then:
Key of the door and welcome at the local too;
The glass bottom so I could see the King’s shilling,
And escape enlistment in some past imperial war –

The tankard now holds used paint brushes in the shed,
But the book sits on my shelf like a Bible:
But it wasn’t just the text that changed my life,
It was the picture on the cover of the labourer,
Foregrounded in late summer contentment,
Basket of blackberries, billy cock hat,
Puffing Billy, Locomotion, or some such,
Steaming and smoking along behind …

Like any sacred text, it is a product of its time,
But today, in 2019, I return to its pages,
Church bells ringing as I sit in the garden,
Hot on the trail of John Thelwall,
Like some government spy, checking the index,
To find, initially, this strange amalgam
Of Foucaultian-Augustan-Post Modernist-self-reflexive text:
Thelwall’s record of his Privy Council interrogation,
In the presence of no lesser personages
Than Prime Minister William Pitt,
The Home Secretary and the Lord Chancellor …

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Peterloo-Wiltshire Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt Walk

Peterloo Memorial Walk 2019
About thirty of us braved Manchester weather on August 16th on a performative walk around Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt’s birthplace in Wiltshire. Pictures here tell the picture of the day.
We carried out a dialogue between 2019 and 1819 as we processed: the poem below from Robin Treefellow gives a flavour of how memorialization of Peterloo can reach out to the new Extinction Rebellion generation.

Chalk and Treason

To the chalk
we must go walk.
On the chalk where vipers bugloss brightens
we must go to rebel, debate, and reinvent
This green island
owned by a small land owning minority.

So depart that moribund Houses of Parliament
mired in out-dated oppositional bun throwing.

To the high dreamy chalk we must go like the bees to nectar
discovering what Britain dreams:
dreams like a giant with ammonites in its beard.
When we have lost our way,
when the ways are all privatised,
when society is manacled to linear profit centred greed:
to the chalk we must go walk.
In walking by the yellow of toadflax and melliot
there is waking,
with waking we can change.
This green island where feudalism has gone on too long,
equality,
the earth common to all,
we must learn from the biotic knit of ground sward
and abandon the tenure under our hidden landlords.
For Britain dreams!
The land will be free of chemicals,
to breath and flourish.
So shall our life return
Rude and willed,
modernisation discarded by the road where mugwort grows.
O Albion calls us all
to remember!
freedom, green of leaf and brown of root.
freedom, bright as flowers by the way.

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Peterloo and Revolution

REVOLUTION 1819-2019

This was the time when the age of Marx replaced that of Burke,
The time when the ‘swinish multitude’ and ‘the mob’ became a working class,
When there was not just the economic revolution of school textbooks,
But also a presence of a possible political one,
A time when Tom Paine’s The Rights of Man (sic),
Viewed as seditious and libellous
By the nation’s rulers,
Could sell 200,000 copies in a year,
When the population was only around ten million,
And so many could not read – but they listened,
And learned and remembered,
Despite the patriotic cavalcades
And violent contrived disruption of ‘Jacobin’ meetings,
Despite the show trials and government spies,
The arrest of booksellers, the banning of political meetings,
The censorship and illegalisation of criticism of government or monarchy.
This was our land in the 1790s:
Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women,
Pitt’s repression at home and war abroad,
Food riots all around our five valleys
(‘We might as well be hanged as starved’),

http://radicalstroud.co.uk/the-1766-food-riots-and-the-hangmans-noose/

The Naval Mutinies of 1797
(“An attempt was made to give to the ships
in mutiny the name of ‘The Floating Republic’.”)
‘Secret Jacobin springs’ were rumoured:
‘Jacobin emissaries and the Corresponding Society …
Jacobin management and influence is at the bottom of this evil’;
The Red Flag was hoisted;
Richard Parker was elected President by the mutinous delegates:
‘… We are not rebels to our country, our country are rebels to us.’
‘I and my brother delegates are all united, and acting in the cause of humanity;
and while life animates the heart of Dick Parker, he will be true to the cause.’
Anything else to rock the ship of state?
Riots against the Militia Act in Scotland,
Wolfe Tone and rebellion in Ireland –
When more people were killed by the army
Than in the ‘Reign of Terror’ in Paris …
Pamphlets such as King Killing;
The Happy Reign of King George the Last;
100, 000 people meeting at Copenhagen Fields, Islington;
The King’s carriage attacked:
‘No War! No King! No Pitt!’
This sung to the tune of ‘God Save the King’ at Drury Lane Theatre:
‘And when George’s Poll
Shall in the basket roll,
Let mercy then control
The Guillotine.’

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Henry Hunt and Peterloo

‘With Henry Hunt, we’ll go my boys,
With Henry Hunt, we’ll go,
We’ll mount the Cap of Liberty,
In spite of Nadin Joe.

On the 16th day of August
Eighteen hundred and nineteen,
A meeting held in Peter’s Field
Was glorious to be seen,

Joe Nadin and his big bulldogs,
As you might plainly see,
And on the other side,
Stood the bloody cavalry.

With Henry Hunt, we’ll go my boys,
With Henry Hunt, we’ll go,
We’ll mount the Cap of Liberty,
In spite of Nadin Joe.’

So how did a Wiltshire gentleman farmer
End up on the hustings at Peterloo?
How did a seemingly egotistical,
And self-regarding rhetorician,
End up being eulogized by the North,
And revered by the industrial working class?

Tell me, Mr. Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt,
Up there, on the hustings and platforms,
In your self-centred, narcissistic white hat,
How did it happen?

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Happy Birthday Thomas Spence

Coming events cast shadows before,
Fings are wot they used to be,
Not so much a la recherce des temps perdu
As deja flippin’ vu:
London on Thomas Spence’s birthday,
(June 21st 1750)
Today June 21st 2019:
No need to try and slip through wormholes of time,
The present has caught up with the past:
Central London still owned by the aristocracy,
Not so much the old Paris Situationists’ cry,
‘Underneath the pavements the beach!’
As ‘Pavements owned by the dukes!’
Record numbers sleeping rough,
Nicked for ‘Loitering’ and ‘begging’
Under the 1824 Vagrancy Act,
‘Royal Ascot’ (Queen Anne 1711);
An antique selection method of an antique prime minister …
But the longest day dawned well,
With a message from Keith Anderson
At the Thomas Spence Society,
Wishing him a happy birthday,
With poems and songs and well wishes for our walk;

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