William Blake's radical politics

The French Revolution inspired London radicals and reformers to increase their demands for change. Others called for moderation and stability, while the government tried to suppress radical activity. Professor Andrew Lincoln describes the political environment in which William Blake was writing.

Iain Sinclair explores the historical background to William Blake’s radical writings. Filmed on the South Bank of the River Thames, Vauxhall, London.

Poverty

In Blake’s London, the condition of the poor and their children was beginning to receive more attention from social reformers. Improvements in hygiene and medical knowledge had led to increased life expectancy, but the rise in the population, poor harvests and war created serious hardships. Orphans and the illegitimate children of the poor could be sold into apprenticeships that offered meagre prospects; young boys were used to sweep chimneys (by scrambling up as ‘climbing-boys’); prostitution and dire housing conditions were continuing problems. Some philanthropic initiatives attempted to address these issues, but asylums and charity schools were often linked to the exploitative apprenticeship system. In 1788 David Porter tried to initiate legislation to protect apprentices, but the resultant bill was drastically diluted by the House of Lords. The cause was taken up by others, including the Society for the Bettering of the Condition of the Poor. Such moves were accompanied by a new drive to improve the education of the lower orders, initiated in the 1780s by the Sunday School movement. But even as these reforming movements gathered pace, children were beginning to be sent from London workhouses to labour in northern cotton mills.

Report into employing boys as chimney sweeps

Report into employing boys as chimney sweeps [page: 16-17]

From the report made by the Parliamentary Committee on the employment of children as chimney-sweeps, 1817.

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William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience

‘The Chimney-Sweeper’ in Songs of Experience.

‘The Chimney Sweeper’ from Songs of Innocence and Experience, 1794.

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Radicalism in London

Blake’s view of philanthropic responses to poverty was probably always ambivalent. The outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 gave a new political urgency to his views. In London a range of new radical groups emerged, demanding major changes to the political system. The London Society for Constitutional Information, dormant since the 1780s, revived under the leadership of middle-class intellectuals; but many groups were formed or joined by working men. The London Corresponding Society (‘LCS’, formed January 1792, to provide links between radicals) drew most of its members from the artisan class. It helped to spread the influence of Paine’s plain-speaking Rights of Man (Part I, 1791, Part II, 1792), which called for universal adult male suffrage and a redistribution of wealth through taxation. Followers of Thomas Spence, who demanded land nationalisation, were mostly journeyman and labourers. Blake was employed as an engraver by the Unitarian bookseller Joseph Johnson, who was associated with a group of prominent radicals including Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft (author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1792), and William Godwin (author of Political Justice, 1793). The revolution widened the range of voices contending for change, and led some radicals to adopt, as Blake did, ‘prophetic’ modes to envisage a turning point in history. But unlike many of these radicals, Blake saw recourse to law as a problem in itself. The social problems he saw around him seemed to require a complete liberation from existing political systems, and a transformation of the sense of human potential.

Suppressing radical activity

The calls for radical change met vigorous opposition. Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) sounded an early alarm about the consequences of revolution. From 1791 the ‘Church and King’ movement ushered in a range of anti-radical campaigns, and after the publication in February 1792 of Paine’s Rights of Man (Part II), a Royal Proclamation against Seditious Writings was issued. Radical activity was monitored by a nationwide network of informers and spies, while local voluntary organisations sprang up, such as John Reeves’s Association for Preserving Liberty and Property against Republicans and Levellers (the ‘Crown and Anchor Society’, founded November 1792). LCS members who attended the radical British Convention in Edinburgh in 1793 were sentenced to 14 years transportation. In 1794 LCS members Thomas Hardy, John Thelwall and John Horne Tooke were tried for treason but acquitted. On 26 October 1795, Thelwall addressed a public meeting near Copenhagen House, attended by several thousand people, at which Richard ‘Citizen’ Lee sold his Handbill ‘King Killing’. Three days later stones were thrown at the state carriage carrying George III to the opening of parliament. In response the government introduced the Treasonable Practices Act and the Seditious Meetings Act, designed to stifle radical activity. Among the many publishing initiatives designed to counteract the spread of radicalism, the ‘Cheap Repository’ tracts, published from March 1795 onwards, were particularly important. The evangelical Hannah More wrote many of these works, including simple moral tales and ballads, recommending to labouring class readers the virtues of patience, hard work, respect for social superiors and acceptance of the status quo.

Hannah More's Cheap Repository Tracts

Hannah More's Cheap Repository Tracts [page: The Riot' pp. 12-13]

Hannah More's simple moral tales and ballads recommended to labouring class readers the virtues of patience, hard work, respect for social superiors and acceptance of the status quo.

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Blake’s Lambeth

During this period of turmoil Blake moved from Poland Street in Soho to 13 Hercules Buildings, Lambeth, in autumn 1790 (he stayed until 1800). He lived in some comfort: his house was one of the largest in its row, accommodating a studio and a printing press on the ground floor. Here he received guests such as John Gabriel Stedman, author of The Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam (1796), for which he produced some illustrations. He continued to receive engraving work from Joseph Johnson (including illustrations for Mary Wollstonecraft’s Original Stories, 1791). Other projects included a huge number of watercolour designs for an abortive edition of Edward Young’s poem Night Thoughts. Lambeth was still partly rural, but had its share of social problems. There were alms-houses, workshops of the Philanthropic Society, and an Asylum for orphaned girls; overcrowded housing and grim factories were beginning to appear. The nearby Albion flour mill was an example of the ‘dark Satanic Mills’ Blake would later condemn in his poem ‘Jerusalem’. In Lambeth, helped by his wife Catherine, he produced some of his most daring illuminated works, including The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Songs of Experience, America, Europe, and The Book of Urizen. The radicalism of such works was potentially dangerous to Blake. On 10 December 1792, a Lambeth group affiliated to Reeves’s Crown and Anchor Society decided to ask every local householder to sign a declaration of loyalty. Blake risked being prosecuted for sedition, with possible imprisonment and ruin. His illuminated works were produced in small numbers, and while some were apparently on sale in Joseph Johnson’s bookshop in St Paul’s churchyard, most were probably sold privately. The latest ‘Lambeth books’ are dated 1795.

  • Andrew Lincoln
  • Andrew Lincoln is a Professor of English at Queen Mary, University of London. His research interests include William Blake, ideas of progress and the culture of war in eighteenth-century Britain.

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