- Dundee History Archive, People & Politics
- 18th century, crime, Friends of Liberty, Mealmaker, politics, radicals, revolution
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.