honeThe Printing Press from William Hone (Political House that Jack Built, 1819)

Joseph Swann, originally from Stockport but living in Macclesfield, was a hatter who had encountered hard times in 1819 and gave up his artisan profession and started hawking newspapers and periodicals around the North of England. In October 1819 he was accused of publishing ( in his case this meant merely selling) the works of Carlile and Sherwin. He was also accused of attending a reform meeting at Macclesfield in July 1819 where he had tried to ‘ excite in the minds of the King’s liege subjects a spirit of discontent, dissatisfaction and sedition ‘ He was given bail; but he had spent eight weeks in prison without charge. He was re-arrested in December 1819, and separated from his pregnant wife, and chained to other prisoners. Cobbett quotes from Swan’s own testimony:

That on the 10th of January your Petitioner was dragged the public road linked to chain with a number of other to Chester a distance about twenty miles and on 12th he was taken into Court instead of being tried on the for which he had traversed at the Knutsford Sessions and on which he was prepared to defend himself.

It was a stitch up. Swan knew nothing about the charges of blasphemy and sedition that had been added since his arrest. It seems that, according to the government, it was merely the words in the pamphlet that were sufficient for the charges.

Swann was to receive an unbelievably severe sentence for his crime of selling pamphlets –Cobbett suggested that it was two publications in total -and attending a meeting, at which he claimed never to have spoken. In Chester prison, he also suggested that he was a victim of an agent provocateur. He had he not spoken at the meeting, but a man called Buckley, who was the ‘head and front’ of the offence was not on trial but had been seen regularly on the streets of Macclesfield afterwards. Swann wondered why and left it to others to provide the answer. He was clearly a stubborn and sarcastic individual; it is equally clear why he was given a salutary lesson.

Owning a poem that contained the following was one of the charges against him:
‘Off with your fetters; spurn the slavish yoke
Now, now or never, can your chain be broke
Swift then rise and give the fatal stroke’
It was the last line that put Swann in prison. It was all a little ironic. He entered the court in chains himself.

At his trial in January 1820, Swann (‘a low, vulgar looking fellow’ (Staffordshire Advertiser) ‘this dangerous individual’ (Chester Courant) showed no deference at all to the court. When sentenced, he was defiant:

Swann with a vast deal of apparent sang froid, held up his Radical emblem- a white hat bound with crepe and exclaimed ‘Han ye done? Is that all? Why I thowt ye’d a got a bit of hemp for me and hung me!’

He was, according to the hostile ‘Investigator’ (1820) a little stupid but also one of the ‘most determined radicals we have met’. His contempt for the death penalty was always a worry for the authorities; in the end that was all they had as a deterrent, and would usually hope the contrition and humility just before execution which was required by the lower orders all of the time, and the newspapers would be gleeful when it happened.



for more about this.

He received three sentences for seditious conspiracy, seditious writing and blasphemy which were ordered to run concurrently at a staggering four and half years. It would be fair to say that Swann was Britain’s most severely punished political protester during the Regency period. This sentence in Chester goal was double the tariffs received by William Cobbett (two years for libel in 1810), Henry Hunt (two and half years in Ilchester for sedition after Peterloo in 1820) or Richard Carlile (Three years in Dorchester in 1819 for seditious libel).

His wife and four children survived on nine shilling a week, and a one off payment of ten pounds from Richard Carlile, whose October 1819 edition, denying the divinity of Christ was being hawked by Swann when he was arrested. Swann also claimed the magistrates were ashamed of what had been done to him and tried to get the authorities to remit the rest of the sentence. The prisoner was reluctant to ask for clemency because he wanted to show ‘the severity with which an individual might be treated under a free government which was said to be the envy of surrounding nations and the admiration of the world’. Sarcasm was certainly one of Swann’s skills.

In November 1831, Swann was still active selling unlicensed radical newspapers, according to the newspaper ‘The Poor Man’s Guardian’ This time he received three months’ incarceration with hard labour in the Knutsford House of Correction. He would neither hold his tongue, nor thank the judge for his sentence. Swann was not going to be part of the choreography of contrition that re-assured the establishment that their grip on people’s minds was firm. He was then dragged out of the court by force, declaring that he would not stop hawking these newspapers, and his next port of call would be the judge’s house.

Swann and thousands of like him deserve to be remembered as a friend of liberty as much as any radical journalist or reforming Member of Parliament. Over 120 ordinary people suffered prison sentences for selling Carlile’s Republican alone. Some of those ordinary people were Swann’s father, wife and son, who also sold these pamphlets. Swann had never met Carlile and did not have and formal business or political relationship with him. It was a matter of principle. Intimidation cannot stop free speech- whether it comes from reactionary governments or groups of people invading bookshops trying to suppress free speech.

I have two books on Radical Britain

The Dark Days of Georgian Britain is a Social History of the Regency

Radical Victorians is a study 19 reformers whose idea were mostly unheeded while during their lifetime

My other books on Radical Britain here 

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