1820 History – Scotsman Article – 23 September 2021


In Greenock recently I visited the memorial to those who had been killed on 8th April 1820 during the Radical War or Rising of 1820, call it what you will. It’s poignant as the eight names displayed contain three teenagers and an eight-year-old. They’d been part of a crowd seeking to free prisoners who’d been captured in Paisley and were being taken by militia to the jail nearby. The prisoners all escaped but they paid with their lives.

Yet not just in Greenock but across Scotland it’s a part of our history that’s little know. Shamefully I confess it was the first time I’d been to the memorial, but others have thankfully kept the memory alive. It’s surprising in some ways but not in others as we’ve a tendency brought about by not having our own media to learn history through a London lens.

That’s why most will have heard of the Peterloo Massacre but not of Greenock and only a few more of 1820. Yet Peterloo which occurred the year before was the precursor for it. When the innocent protestors in Manchester were slain by Yeomanry, radicals across Britain and Ireland vowed not to be so supine or accept their fate with equanimity.

Huge demonstrations took place across Scotland and particularly outside Paisley where crowds flocked from Ayrshire, Renfrewshire and Glasgow. September 1819 saw crowds fight with police and military, and Paisley under curfew for almost a week.

In December 1819 plans were made for a pan-UK rising in April 1820. The Cato Street conspiracy in February 1820 saw English radicals set up by government agents and detained in huge numbers. The rising due to start in England and be notified to Scotland by the mail coach’s non-arrival, never took place. Though disturbances did break out in parts of northern England.

In Scotland it proceeded anyway, as Tom Johnston described it, a strike from which it was hoped a revolution might spring. It didn’t but the memory deserves to be kept alive. The youngsters as well as Baird Hardie and Wilson, the last prisoners to be hung then beheaded.