The Age of George III
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There had been attempts to increase the number of voters in Britain since the 1760s but these efforts had come to nothing. The Society for the Promotion of Constitutional Information had been established by Major John Cartwright in 1784 as part of the campaign for parliamentary reform but with the onset of the French Wars many of the reform clubs had ceased to operate.
Thomas Paine encouraged the re-establishment of the Society for the Promotion of Constitutional Information in 1791. The result was the setting up of Corresponding Societies throughout Britain, the first one appearing in Sheffield, followed in the next month by the London Corresponding Society. The Corresponding Societies represented a substantial minority of the working population and their aims were to
The London Corresponding Society attracted many ex-Wilkesites and craftsmen, and the Societies became a feature of the unrepresented industrial towns Other societies existed in Manchester, Leeds and Edinburgh for example. The Corresponding Societies printed pamphlets, held meetings and corresponded with France, sending delegates to advise the National Assembly and welcoming and entertaining French delegates. They also adopted French fashions and called each other 'Citizen'.
Up to 1793 when Britain became involved in the French Wars, the Government saw no harm in the Corresponding Societies but nevertheless kept its eyes and spies on them although it took little action against them. In 1793 the Societies hit trouble, their members being seen as traitors, French agents and a threat to law and order. The word 'reform' became suspected as treasonable and people wanting reform were labelled 'English Jacobins'. Their numbers were small and most of them were peaceful moderate reformers.
The Corresponding Societies were only just beginning to ask for social and economic reform; the industrial revolution was in its infancy and so were the demands for reform in living and working conditions. Many Corresponding Societies were also local trade clubs with subscriptions of 1d per week They fulfilled not only a political function but also acted as friendly societies. Men like Wyvill and Wilkes were philosophical radicals who wanted constitutional reform for its own sake whereas many working men wanted constitutional reform as a first step towards social and economic betterment for themselves and their families.
Demands for reform were if long-standing in Britain. It had its roots in Wilkes and learned from the County Associations. The French Revolution merely invigorated, but did not cause, the growing English reform movement. It did give a new dimension because it helped put a democratic emphasis on its demands. The main appeal of the reform movement was to the lower orders, particularly skilled craftsmen and artisans rather than to labourers. The reformers demanded, like Major John Cartwright and John Horne-Tooke,
By 1792, enough Corresponding Societies existed for them to call a National Convention in Edinburgh in December that year.
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Last modified 12 January, 2016
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