The winter of 1791/2 witnessed a new development in extra-parliamentary politics with the foundation of a series of radical reform clubs organised by working men. The membership of these clubs consisted mainly of artisans, journeymen, mechanics, small shopkeepers and tradesmen. The subscription rate was low - a penny a week.
One of the first was the Sheffield Society for Constitutional Information, established late in 1791. Within a few months it was claiming more than two thousand members. For the first time many of the demands were explicitly economic. One of its first secretaries described the aim of the society as
‘to show the poor the reason, the ground of all their complaints; when a man works hard for thirteen or fourteen hours of the day, the week through, and is not able to maintain his family’.Into the writings of the period came a note of class antagonism:
‘While the rich enjoy almost all the benefits, the poor undergo all the labour.’The London Corresponding Society
The Sheffield Society’s arrangement into divisions was copied by the most famous of the working-men’s associations was founded by Thomas Hardy (1752-1832) a master shoemaker and devout Dissenter. In October 1791 he met with a few friends at the Bell Inn off the Strand. On 25 January the London Corresponding Society was founded. The admission test was an affirmative reply to three questions of which the most important was:
‘Are you persuaded ... that every adult person, in possession of his reason and not incapacitated by crimes, should have a vote for a Member of Parliament?’The membership fee was one shilling, followed by a penny a week. Within a fortnight 25 members were enrolled, and the sum in the Treasurer’s hand was 4/1d. By late 1792 it was claiming over 800 members, each committed to manhood suffrage and parliamentary reform ‘by all justifiable means’. Members were organised into 29 cells spread across London. These local divisions also functioned as adult education classes, with regular ‘readings, conversations and discussions’. Their seriousness and stamina differentiated them sharply from the riotous Wilkites of the 1760s.
In January 1792 the Sheffield Constitutional Society distributed copies of part 1 of Rights of Man at 6d each. Paine gave up his profits to finance a cheap edition.
At the same time radical newspapers circulated: the weekly Sheffield Register and the Manchester Herald as well as pamphlets by men such as Daniel Eaton and the bookseller Thomas Spence (1750-1814).
The reforming movements were overwhelmingly urban and flourished in towns with a large proportion of skilled men such as Sheffield cutlers and Norwich weavers. They were not a working class movement in the sense in which the term later came to be used. They were composed of independent artisans, journeymen, small traders - very similar to the Parisian sans-culottes. ‘Skilled men could read and they were encouraged by events in France to think’. They had considerable revolutionary potential. The authorities were particularly alarmed that the membership of the London Corresponding Society doubled in the month following the French victory at Valmy in September 1792.
In response to plebeian radicalism, a group of Foxites formed their own association, the Society of Friends of the People in April 1792. Its leaders included Charles Grey (a future prime minister), Sheridan, Thomas Erskine and Samuel Whitbread (the younger). Fox, for tactical reasons, did not join. The subscription was two and a half guineas and the policy adopted was deliberately moderate - more equal representation and more frequent elections. They repudiated any connection with Paine.
On 30 April Grey gave notice in the House that he intended to move for reform. Pitt replied that he and his associates were connected with people who wanted revolution rather than reform. Burke applied the word ‘Jacobin’ to the reformers.
These reforming societies were not an English phenomenon alone. For the first time Scotland was widely involved in political reform. In July 1792 the Lord Provost of Glasgow presided over a meeting in which representations in favour of equal representation, frequent elections, and universal suffrage were adopted. Edinburgh founded its own branch of the Society of Friends of the people - the leader a young advocate called Thomas Muir.
In Ireland the Revolution had its greatest impact among the Ulster Presbyterians.