The Scottish general strike of 1820

Pete Cannell recounts the first general strike in the history of capitalism. This article was first published on www.edinburghandlothiansmayday.wordpress.com.

Two hundred years ago the west-central belt of Scotland was the epicentre of a remarkable social and economic transformation.  In a period of just seven decades, new capitalist industry had developed at an unprecedented rate. The new workshops and factories drew workers off the land from the Highlands, rural Lowlands and Ireland.  In 1780 there were just two cotton spinning mills in Scotland – by 1834 there were 134. The number of handloom weavers rose from 25,000 in 1780 to 78,000 in 1820. But conditions for this newly formed working class were grim.  Towns and cities grew rapidly; for example, the population of Glasgow expanded by 45.9% in just ten years from 1811 to 1821. Living conditions were poor, wage rates were falling, and hunger and disease meant that mortality rates were high.

State repression of worker class organisation was harsh.  In August 1819 when workers gathered at Peterloo in Manchester to demand parliamentary representation 18 were killed and several hundred injured by sabre wielding troops and the local militia.  However, just over eight months later on 1 April flyers went up in Glasgow and surrounding towns calling for workers to strike.  The flyers were signed ‘By order of the committee of organisation for forming a provisional government’ and the Address demanded the vote for all adult males and annual parliaments.  The tone was uncompromising:

‘In this present state of affairs we earnestly request of all to desist from their Labours, 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 FREEMAN from the SLAVE; viz: That of giving consent to the laws by which he is governed.’

The Address went on to call on soldiers to join with citizens in the fight against despotism. 

There was a massive response.  Neil Davidson notes that the Lord Provost of Glasgow wrote to the Home Office in London that: 

‘Almost the whole population of working classes have obeyed the orders contained in that treasonable proclamation by striking work.’ 

The first general strike in history is often attributed to 1842 after the Westminster Parliament rejected the working men’s Charter.  However, if a regional general strike requires workers to down tools over an extended geographical area, across multiple industries and in support of unified demands, then April 1820 in west-central Scotland was the first general strike in the history of capitalism!

The strike ended on 9 April, by which time 60,000 workers on the Clyde had struck.  Some walked off the job immediately. In Glasgow, mill workers were picketed out on the second day.  On the same day, 300 armed men shut down all the mills in Paisley. At the same time, there were attempts at insurrection in a number of places across the region.  There was an expectation that risings would take place simultaneously in North West England, but this didn’t happen.

A memorial plaque

A plaque now marks the site of the battle of Bonnymuir, where 40 insurrectionists were surprised by a troop of Cavalry and 18 captured and taken to Stirling. 

When the strike ended employers attempted to victimise the workers who had been involved.  There was strong and active resistance. Neil Davidson writes:

‘Barr and Co. in Greenhead, for example, attempted to reduce wages by 8% after the return to work, but the men staged a further stoppage of six or seven weeks – seven times the length of the original strike – until they were accepted back on their original wages.’

For much of the last 200 years, the general strike of 1820 has been hidden from history.  The failed insurrections and the executions that followed are better known. However, it’s part of our history and part of the radical Scottish tradition that we can learn from and remember with pride.

For further reading on the events of 1820 try ‘The Scottish General Strike of 1820’ by Neil Davidson which is included in New Approaches to Socialist History edited by Keith Flett and David Renton. I’ve drawn heavily on Neil’s chapter for this article. The Radical Rising: The Scottish Insurrection of 1820 by Peter Berresford Ellis and Seumas Mac A’ Ghobhainn deals with the use of government agents suspected of calling for the rising prematurely in order to flush and persecute the leadership as well as the unjust trials that followed. For a hugely detailed account of the development of industrial capitalism in central Scotland, try Andreas Malm’s Fossil Capital.

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