Equality is the soul of liberty; there is, in fact, no liberty without itFrances Wright

In her book “Frances Wright and the ‘great experiment’”, Margaret Lane notes that very few people today have heard of Frances (Fanny) Wright, despite being a famously notorious figure on both sides of the Atlantic. Her views during the first half of the 19th century shocked both her peers and, in fact, whole countries! Even today she would not have gone unnoticed in voicing her opinion in her own indomitable style – just like a typical Dundee wifey!  Lane writes ‘If ever she is referred to, it is with the innuendo of an old-fashioned joke…”  So, who was Fanny Wright, and what did she do that was so notorious?

Frances (Fanny) Wright was born in the Nethergate in Dundee on 6 September 1795, in the middle of very Revolutionary times.  Her father, James Wright was a wealthy linen manufacturer and bit of a political radical himself, so it seems the apple didn’t fall very far from the tree!  James believed that taking huge risks paid off (when they worked) and he even found himself under police surveillance because of his antics.  Despite the crackdown on ‘radical ideologies’, James frequently attended secret political meetings of a radical nature. We read that he was almost caught red-handed with radical literature, and had to take a wee boat out into the Tay and dump it all in the river.

Unfortunately, Fanny never really knew her parents, as both James and his wife died within a few months of each other, when Frances was barely two years old.  Orphaned at such a young age, her mother’s sister took her to live in England, where she was taught until she was 16.  By then, she had learned much by way of philosophy and politics, forming some fairly radical opinions of her own.  She returned to Scotland to live with her great-uncle, and it was this time which inspired her to write and study even more.

By the age of 18, she had written her first book, but the sight of so many poor people boarding an emigrant ship in Glasgow which was on its way to America really shook her to the core.  For the first time, she had seen for herself the peasant farmers and their families who had been forced from their lands by the rich and powerful.  She wrote that she swore an oath to herself ‘to wear ever in her heart the cause of the poor and the helpless; and to aid in all she could in redressing the grievous wrongs which seemed to prevail in society’.

If America was such a ‘land of the free’, Fanny wanted to see this for herself, so she made secret plans for herself and her sister Camilla to travel to America by boat.  She was 23 at this point, and required a larger platform from which to preach her ideas – notions and concepts that did not fit in with the America of 1818.  She spent 2 years going around America with her sister, speaking out against organised religion, greed, capitalism and universal education, before briefly returning to Scotland.  From there, she went to France, where she wrote ‘Views of Society and Manners in America (1821).

When her writings were published in America, it cemented her into the history books as an established social reformer – the books were translated into numerous languages and sold around Europe and the Americas.  She went back to America in 1824 with an influential Revolutionary War hero from France, and his travelling party.  This time, she was mixing in much more influential circles, meeting Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who were the 3rd and 4th US presidents! Her political activities still continued, as she focused on rights for women, creating a furor with her ‘outrageous’ views on legal rights for married women and the right for equal education.

Something she detested whilst in America, was slavery – especially in the South.  Nothing filled her with horror quite like what she felt upon seeing the conditions of the slaves she saw in the Mississippi.  She wrote: “The sight of slavery is revolting everywhere.  But to inhale the impure breath of its pestilence in the free winds of America is odious beyond all that imagination can conceive.”

She was the first woman in America to act publicly against slavery, in 1825 she bought a tract of land twenty miles outside one of the Mississippi River trading posts named Memphis and there she established a commune she called Nashoba.  Its purpose was to discover and then to demonstrate how slaves could be responsibly educated and then freed without undue cost to their owners. Fanny had received a healthy inheritance from her parent’s death, a lot of which was used to build Nashoba, but her wealth didn’t stop her from getting stuck in with all the manual labour that needed to be done, such as clearing forestland, building cabins and tending to the surrounding lands.

Dealing with unexpected social and financial issues, as well as the burden of so much physical labour, she became physically weakened and contracted malaria. The illness was so severe that she had to move to Ohio because the heat was making her worse. Frances later went to Europe to improve her health and returned to America in January of 1828. By that time Nashoba was in financial collapse, and Fanny admitted that, despite having a manager to oversee the plantation whilst she was convalescing, there was no way it could be rescued.

Despite Nashoba being dedicated to the abolition of slaves, its ‘radical’ teachings saw it accused of being a love-camp.  Topics such as birth control, abolition of slavery and the death penalty and the trappings of organized religion made her detractors uncomfortable. Nashoba’s manager, James Richardson was openly living with a woman of colour, which, at the time, created a scandal which sent shockwaves from America to Europe!  With rumours that ‘anything goes’ at Fanny’s love camp, it became somewhat of a farce.  Her sister, Camilla, was sick, and, in her absence, had married the only other white man at Nashoba.  Amidst a flurry of criticism, mockery and personal humiliation (not to mention the fact that she had spent most of her wealth on funding this project), she was forced to abandon her plans, and it subsequently collapsed.  In doing so, she paid for the slaves she had emancipated to go back to Haiti.

Her critics called her ‘The Great Red Harlot’, not only because she had red-hair, but she was alleged to have had many illicit romances and dressed ‘inappropriately’ for the time (bodices, pantaloons and an above-the knee dress).  Her failure with Nashoba, as well as the onslaught of continuous persecution for her radical views saw Fanny begin to recede from the constant scrutiny of the public eye.  She married a French physician and had a daughter the following year, but she later divorced her husband.  He gained control of all of her resources, and what followed was a lengthy and protracted divorce, made worse by the restriction of cash from any lectures she spoke at, and any royalties from her writings, which went directly to him instead!

Health problems swiftly began to follow, and she eventually died in December 1852 from complications following a fall on an icy staircase in Ohio.  It’s a little ironic to think that she moved to Ohio from Mississippi because the heat and malaria were killing her, yet it was the ice that ultimately sealed her fate.

Despite everything, Fanny Wright stood up for what she believed in, and campaigned hard for things that were far ahead of her time.  She shouldn’t be seen as any kind of ‘old fashioned joke’ – she was a woman ahead of her time, progressive, modern and radical…and not afraid to stand up for the rights of others less fortunate than herself.  Maybe we should all take a leaf from her book.

 

Special thanks to Ashley Todd.

Sources:

Women in History of Scotland – electricscotland.com

Frances Wright – Wikipedia

Frances Wright and the ‘Great Experiment’ – Margaret Lane, 1972, Manchester University Press

National Women’s History Museum – www.nwhm.org

When the Scottish Reform Act was finally passed into law in 1832, none were more jubilant than the folk of Dundee.  Known as a ‘radical toon’, Dundee is said to have been of significant help to the cause of Reform.  Once the news had hit the town, it quickly spread to the Radicals, who prepared to celebrate with an ‘illumination’.  An illumination was the preferred way to celebrate events, and involved lighting up pubs and homes until they were as bright as they could be.  Usually, gunpowder would be ignited in the streets to add further illumination and excitement.

The Reform Act sought to change the way the landscape of politics and voting was to be decided, so, as you could imagine, many of the self-appointed burgh officials weren’t particularly keen on the new legislative changes.  This being said, there was no “official” celebration of the Act – the illumination celebration was very much a public affair.  The weekend proceeding the news of the Act’s passing was one of excitement, happiness and a great deal of fun.  It was the end of June, and a perfect time for an outdoor celebration.  Pubs and Inns took part, helping to light up areas of the centre as people partied into the early hours.

Despite all the revelry, some believed that this party was not quite up to the standard of such a prominent event, and preparations were soon under way for a party on Monday night, much bigger and brighter than the first.  Arguments against allowing this new party to go ahead were heard by the Town Council, but it was decided to allow the celebrations to continue without interruption unless things got out of control.  Perhaps, already sensing their loosening grip on the city, the Town Council agreed purely to avoid a rebellious riot.  Whatever they were thinking, nobody could have foretold the events that soon unfolded.

Monday certainly lived up to its hype.  The hills of Fife burned with celebratory fire as Dundee’s harbour was festooned with sailing vessels covered in flags, illuminated by a multitude of buildings and fires all the way into the centre of town.  Still in need of more illumination, a tar barrel was placed inside and old boat and the barrel set alight.  From there, the burning boat was hauled up Union Street to the corner of Nethergate as people whooped and cheered, shooting pistols into the air.  Whilst it all seems a bit crazy to us, this was just how our ancestors partied!

The atmosphere was said to have been one of happiness and relative peace as the fire was topped up and the boat pulled in a circle through the Nethergate, Tay Street, Overgate and then High Street, nearby where the Town House stood at this time.  As the party roared into the latter part of the evening, people began to disperse – it was Monday night, after all, and many would have had work in the morning.  As late evening turned to night, things took an unexpected turn that had disastrous consequences.

The Police Force, alongside Special Constables, commandeered the fire, pouring water on it to extinguish not only the flames, but the party, too.  By this point, it is estimated that there were still around 200 people enjoying the party, which had, by all accounts, been fairly incident-free.  As people tried to prevent their fun from being stopped, it is alleged officers handled the revellers somewhat roughly.

This did not go down well with the people of Dundee, and they turned from party animals into an angry mob, pelting the Police with sticks and stones, forcing them away from the fire.  The sudden disruption saw approximately 40 people arrested and put into the cells overnight; the party now well and truly over.  In the morning, almost everyone was let away by the Justices, with the exception of three men whom the Justices were confident had assaulted Police Officers the night before.

Many people took objection to this, and, as news spread of the three men’s detainments, crowds began to gather outside the Town House.  It did not take long for things to get as rowdy as they had the previous evening; crowds threw rocks, stones and threats at the doors of the Town House, but the Justices refused to budge on their position.  In scenes that echoed those of less than 24 hours before, a flaming boat was heaved from the harbour once again and placed against the doors of the Town House.  Here, the story seems to take an unlikely turn which was instrumental in what was to become total chaos.  It is said that when one of the Justices went to the Police Offices to release the men and quell any more tension, the key to the cells could not be found.

The already-mad crowd became as inflamed as the fires they had set and tore along to the Police Offices filled with rage.  Grabbing a thick plank of wood, they relentlessly battered at the locked doors of the Police Office until they finally yielded.  As the doors flew open, anyone who wasn’t a prisoner fled through the back doors, fearing for their lives.  The mob, by now completely uncontrollable, released the prisoners and began tearing the place apart.  The office itself was completely destroyed, with everything that could possibly be removed taken into the street and set alight.

Meanwhile, some of the men had broken into the Superintendent’s house, smashing all his windows, destroying his belongings and throwing things out into the street before attempting to set the house on fire.  Thankfully they didn’t succeed, but destroyed a grocery owned by another Police Officer on their way back into the centre.  In the early hours of Wednesday morning, Dundee was still at the hands of the rioters.  With not enough officers to suppress the mobbing men, Police presence was non-existent and reinforcements had been called in from Perth in the form of the 78th Highland Regiment.

The Lord-Lieutenant of the County at the time, the Earl of Airlie arrived on Wednesday morning, a few hours before the arrival of the 78th Highland Regiment, in an attempt to try and bring about some peace and order.  Amidst the burnt rubble and wreckage of what used to be the Police Office, he stood talking to the angry mob as they continued to shout at him and throw things at him from the charred, cooling remains of the fire.

Surprisingly, things took an unexpected turn, and the mob seemed to eventually warm to the Earl and began to settle down.  The 78th Highland Regiment made their presence very well known that day and night, just in case it all got a bit rowdy again, but it seemed that a 2 day riot was enough for any one person, and the streets fell quiet.  Although many people, including Police Officers were hurt, there appears to be no mention of any deaths as a result of the riot, which is unusual considering how out of hand it got.

7 men were eventually singled out and tried for the outbreak; the three original prisoners who had been detained for the first attack on Police Officers, and 4 others who had been identified as being involved in the jail-break and destruction of the Police Office.  The first 3 were lucky; Thomas Kettle, James Barnet and John Jolly were sentenced to 6 months in Dundee Jail after pleading guilty to rioting, but the other 4 pleaded not guilty, but were found guilty anyway.  James Findlay and John Tomlinson were sentenced to transportation to Botany Bay for 14 years.  17-year old George Haggart was sentenced to transportation for 7 years.

In returning their guilty verdict, the jury had recommended mercy for the 4th accused, watchmaker James Findlay.  It was unclear his level of involvement, and his alibi was more credible than the others, but they were still certain he had something to do with it, however minor.  He was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment in Bridewell Prison.

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George Mealmaker was a Dundonian, born in 1768 from a humble background, but gained some affluence as a hand-loom weaver. He was most famous for his radical activity in forming the ‘Friends of Liberty’ in the 1780s, a group formed in support of the ideals of the French revolution. Mealmaker was an active and extreme member of this group, producing writing containing radical and revolutionary ideas, as well as holding regular meetings and speeches, decrying the current political agenda.

In 1793 Mealmaker wrote Dundee address to the Friends of Liberty, in which he criticisted the ‘despotism and tyranny’ of the British Government. Despite admitting that it was he who wrote it, his friend and fellow founder of the Friends of Liberty Thomas Palmer was arrested and found guilty of preparing the text for publication and circulating it. The authorities claimed that the pamphlet was “calculated to produce a spirit of discontent in the minds of the people against the present happy constitution and government of this country, and to rouse them up to acts of outrage and violence”. For this, Palmer was sentenced to fourteen years penal transportation to Australia.

Mealmaker continued to be outspoken and published several writings on revolutionary ideas, and after being made secretary of the Dundee friends, he spread propaganda urging the militia not to fight against France. Although he was brought before the magistrates for this, no charge was laid against him. Others across Scotland in groups such as the Friends of Liberty including Thomas Muir, William Skirving, Maurice Margarot and Joseph Gerrald all met the same fate and were transported to Australia, and were collectively known as the Scottish Martyrs to Liberty. After this period of several outspoken radicals being deported to Australia, radical activity quietened in the next few years, no doubt the desired effect of the deportations!

Mealmaker did not remain quiet however, and continued to be outspoken. He delivered sermons in London and continued to produce writing, and was quick to join the ‘United Scotsmen’ in 1796 who began to organise in imitation of their Irish namesakes. Mealmaker himself wrote the group’s constitution which asserted its whole aim to be ‘to secure Annual Parliaments and Universal Suffrage’ – a very radical aim in the eyes of the current political elite. He also published The Moral and Political Catechism of Man in 1797, his most famous and influential work, which promoted such radicalism at length. The powers that be reacted, and in January 1798, Mealmaker himself was tried for sedition and administering unlawful oaths. After a very prejudiced hearing, at which the two charges were not distinguished, he was sentenced to transportation to Australia for fourteen years.

You can read the full text of his trial here, and also the trials of the Scottish Martyrs to Liberty Here. This quote from Mealmakers address to the court after his sentence has been passed is telling enough:

“He said he thought his sentence hard, considering it had only been proved against him that he had published Catechism, which he solemnly declared was merely intended as simple or abstract political propositions, and with no view to injure the country. He said, however, he saw that he was to be another victim to the pursuit of a parliamentary reform; but he could easily submit, and go to that distant country, where others had gone before him. He did not fear it. His wife and children would still be provided for, as they had been before; and the young Mealmaker would be fed by that God who feeds the ravens – As to the Court, he had nothing to say, but, he thought the Jury had acted very hastily, for if he was rightly informed, they had only taken half an hour to consider the whole of his case. They knew best whether their conscience said they had done him justice; but there was a day coming, when they would be brought before a Jury where there was no partial government, and where the secrets of the heart were known. – He begged now to take his leave of them all.”

When Mealmaker first arrived in Australia at Sydney in 1800, he upheld his political interests. There were rumours of convict rebellion, but he claimed not to be involved. He was no doubt looking forward to being with the other members of the Friends of Liberty who had been transported earlier. However, only Maurice Margarot of the original five Scottish Martyrs was still in captivity. William Skirving, Joseph Gerrald and Thomas Muir were dead and Thomas Palmer had finished his sentence and was just about to travel back to Britain.

It was his weaving trade, and not his political beliefs which shaped his new life. Mealmaker made a success of the weaving industry there, and received a conditional pardon for his work there. Unfortunately, Mealmaker’s life did not have a happy ending. In December 1807 the weaving factory where Mealmaker was supervisor was destroyed by fire. On 30th March 1808, Mealmaker, destitute and apparently a drunkard, died from alcoholic suffocation.

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Whether any of the parties were found guilty, we don’t know, having not looked at the court records. But back in the 1980s there were just as many suspicions, and likely backhanders and deals going on. So much of the corruption and greed that went on from our elected officials we will never know, but occasionally our councillors and MPs are taken to trial and questioned, as with this case where two councillors and an ex Lord Provost of the city were accused of corruption. It still took 16 years to come to trial, when the original deal was alleged to have taken place back in 1964, with this report in the Glasgow Herald from 1980:

political corruption trial in dundee

In 16th century Scotland, a series of riots began to unfold along the East coast. Believed to have started in Fife, the riots quickly escalated and involved hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of angry protestors. Shipping ports were raided by weapon-wielding locals who assaulted crew members and destroyed grain-exporting ships. Granary deposits, warehouses and stores were broken into and their contents stolen as dozens of men, women and children fought for their ill-gotten supplies. The reasons behind the riots were not so much about the cost of grain, but more to do with the perceived shortage of it, as we continued to export it in massive quantities, often leaving very little for those at home.

The fact that the riots around this time featured in predominantly Jacobean-supported towns and burghs lends itself to the opinion that perhaps the riots were not so much about the fear of food shortages, and perhaps had more to do with the idea that people were opposed to trading our supplies with those who did not support the Jacobite cause. Whilst there is no evidence to directly support this, it is a widely-believed theory, and one which casts a different light on the proceedings at that time.

Anyone standing in the way of the rioters were beaten, and, in some extreme cases, killed. In Dundee, alarmed traders and officials called upon armed forces to attempt to quell the rabble after extensive damage was caused to ships, storehouses and shops. In their efforts to gain the upper hand, troops fired upon the rioters, causing at least one reported death. The Riot Act had been formed, declaring that any group of twelve or more people, deemed to be unlawfully assembled, were required to disperse or face punitive action.

Meal riots were not uncommon, and were not restricted to Scotland, hence the introduction of the Act in 1714. However, the proclamation of the Act itself was not without peril, as it required local officials to read aloud the conditions of the Act to the rioters, giving them one hour to disband or face punishment of death. The problems with the implementation of Act were many: in the first instance, it was difficult to find officials who were brave enough in the smaller districts to stand and read the Act to the rioters. Secondly, trying to shout over a screaming, rioting rabble of people was sometimes impossible. Thirdly, the part of the Act which was to be read was sometimes never read in full, allowing for those convicted to appeal their case and return to their communities without charge. Adding to this, and probably the most frustrating aspect for those trying to police the riots was that it was very difficult to round up every single suspected rioter, meaning that many walked away without apprehension or charge.

Attempts were made, however, to make “examples” of some of the apprehended rioters, and those unfortunate enough to be sentenced were “transported” out of the country for years at a time. In more extreme cases, some were never allowed to return. It must be noted that capital sentencing was never actually carried out, despite repeated threats of the death sentence. Thomas Gilkie, an influential Dundee rioter, along with others from surrounding areas found himself stripped of his burgess-ships and was banned from trading within his locality.

The wording that had to be read out to the assembled gathering was as follows:

“Our Sovereign Lord the King chargeth and commandeth all persons, being assembled, immediately to disperse themselves, and peaceably depart to their habitations, or to their lawful business, upon the pains contained in the Act made in the first year of King George the First for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies.

God Save the King!”

What made matters worse was that, if, for any reason, the paper on which the Act was written was stolen or damaged during the reading, it was deemed that the Act was never read, and the rioting continued.
To this day many jurisdictions that have inherited the tradition of English common law and Scots law still employ statutes that require police or other executive agents to deliver an oral warning, much like the Riot Act, before an unlawful public assembly may be forcibly dispersed.

Because the authorities were required to read the proclamation that referred to the Riot Act before they could enforce it, the expression “to read the Riot Act” entered into common language as a phrase meaning “to reprimand severely”, with the added sense of a stern warning. The phrase remains in common use in the English language.

On 4th December, 1816, there was yet another meal riot in Dundee, described at the time by Sheriff Duff as “one of the greatest in modern times”. For four days, a mob raged through the town, robbing and pillaging as they went, causing untold damage to people and property.