City at the Heart of Radical Politics; from Toxteth Riots to Shooting the Prime Minister, Liverpool Radicals Helped Shape British Politics Peter Elson Reports

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Byline: Peter Elson

IT probably will not come as too big a shock to find that Liverpool played a large part in the radical politics of Britain.

As some readers will also know, the only assassination of a British prime minister was by Liverpudlian, John Bellingham.

However, it is more of a surprise to learn that Bellingham's actions in shooting dead Prime Minister Spencer Perceval, on May 11, 1812, were widely celebrated in the industrial North West.

When the vicar of Bellingham's local church of St Mark's gave a sermon deploring the murder, he received threatening letters from local Luddites.

In all too typical Liverpool fashion, what was an embittered personal vendetta turned Bellingham into a national hero for some.

Bellingham was a Liverpool merchant who was imprisoned in Russia over a disputed debt.

Sore about the lack of effort by the British government to free him, he sought vengeance by murdering the PM.

Coincidentally, the prime minister had just initiated much tougher laws against the Luddites, who were weavers attacking mills in protest at the mechanical looms destroying their livelihood.

Hence the Luddites hailed Bellingham as a hero.

This fascinating story is retold in a new book, A Radical History of Britain, by Dr Ted Vallance, of Liverpool University.

"Harsh conditions breed more violent brands of radicalism, which is how Bellingham was brought into the Luddite fight," says Dr Vallance, 33.

"It was rough justice by 'the people' in return for the lives of Luddites who were executed.

"Luddites were very active in the Lancashire mill towns. Their radical behaviour turned into warfare with mill owners. More soldiers were stationed in the North West than in Spain during the Peninsula war.

"Liverpool's reputation as a centre of radicalism grew alongside the city's growing importance as an international port in the 18th and 19th centuries."

Everyone remembers the Toxteth riots which began for more complex reasons yet became associated with the wider national political mood, he believes.

"Liverpool is a very interesting place for this subject, particularly if you also look at a figure like William Roscoe.

"He shows the way in which parliamentary reform was combined with other causes for which Liverpool is more famous, such as slavery." Roscoe was far more rational than many radicals and realised that sudden change was not only to the authorities distaste, but also that of a conservative public.

He developed an agenda similar to the Chartists' later in the mid-19th century for political and social reform.

"While Wilberforce worried about African slaves, Britain had its wage slaves," says Dr Vallance.

"Contemporary radicals often made the point that you could not talk about the evils of Africa without also referring to the evils of the factory system." Liverpool's mid-19th housing conditions were so appalling that life expectations here were 15 years below average - worse than during the Black Death.

"Liverpool, though, is a port city, not a manufacturing centre, so it does not lend itself well to political movements like Chartism in Manchester," says Dr Vallance.

"Because of this different kind of economic base, organised protest is easier to initiate in an organised labour force in single industries like cotton.

"Even though Liverpool suffered grinding poverty, it's special cultural outlook and cosmopolitan make-up meant it was not homogenous." Liverpool's sectarian divisions added another layer as the population did not see itself in class terms, but religious and ethnic.

"Liverpool has a long tradition of people seeing themselves in ways other than class," says Dr Vallance.

"Not least that of protestants versus Catholics and English versus Irish." The fear was about the Irish connection and how it would play out in Liverpool diverted the attention of radicals. …