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Flags of Political Reform in 19th Century Britain

Last modified: 2009-08-08 by rob raeside
Keywords: chartist | skelmanthorpe flag | red flag | black flag |
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The Black Flag

From Clive Bloom's ' Terror Within - Terrorism and the Dream of the British Republic' (2007) ISBN 9780750942959:

P.128 " On 15th November 1816 John Castle carried the black revolutionary banner into the first of two meetings at Spa Fields, London. The area was notorious for its seditious meetings and violence seemed likely. A second meeting was called for 2 December. Surrounding this demonstration were large numbers of police directed by the chief magistrate of Bow Street, Sir Nathaniel Conant...[ speeches by Henry Hunt and James Watson ]...The magistrates and Bow Street Runners who were mingling with the crowd finally decided to act and a general tussle began in order to arrest the leaders of the meeting and seize their flags and banners...[ riots and violence ensued as people marched on the Tower of London ]"

P.130 [ In 1817, in response to the agent provocateur / spy William Oliver ] - " It was rumoured that the whole of the north was about to rise and 200,000 men were to capture Nottingham, march on the Trent to Newark and take boats to London, where the black flag would be raised and the provisional government installed."

The Black Flag and the Flag of the USA

P.134..." the courts were always willing to spend inordinate time establishing the meaning of captured standards and such evidence was regularly paraded into courtrooms as proof of revolutionary purpose. Indeed, the use of flags as a form of defiance by civilian rioters had been noted in 1780 during the street battles between the London mob and the regulars outside of the Bank of England. Here, rioters flew the black flag of rebellion alongside flags representing the United States as the world's first republic. The American flag would be paraded at many radical meetings thereafter.

David B. Lawrence, 23 July 2009

The Red Flag

From Clive Bloom's ' Terror Within - Terrorism and the Dream of the British Republic' (2007) ISBN 9780750942959:

P.125 [ In 1811-12 there was widespread civil disorder in the north of England encouraged by radicals ]..." At Middleton, near Oldham, during this period there was full-scale guerilla warfare (a tactic adopted by the Spanish during the Peninsula campaign being waged during the same years). One newspaper from Oldham reported, 'A body of men consisting of from one to two hundred, some armed with muskets with fixed bayonets, and others with colliers picks, marched into the village in procession (headed by a man who) waved a sort of red flag. The same men also fired two volleys at a cavalry regiment and began reloading for a third before fleeing. They left four local men dead.'" [Notes refer to John Foster, 'Class Struggle and the Industrial Revolution' 1979 Methuen, London]

The Red Flag in Wales and the Viola Tricolor (Heartsease)

P.136 " Welsh insurrectionists at Merthyr Tydfil in 1831 used a sheet covered with calf's blood that they had ritually slaughtered and although this may be the first understood use of the red flag for overtly political purposes, red flags had been signs of rebellion since the Nore Mutiny. Wild Heartsease, a violet flower worn in buttonholes, may also have had secret revolutionary connotations during the 1830's."

David B. Lawrence, 23 July 2009

The Tricolor in Wales

From Clive Bloom's ' Terror Within - Terrorism and the Dream of the British Republic' (2007) ISBN 9780750942959:

P.136 ..." In Wales, the tricolor colours of red, white and green were associated with the revival of druidism at the end of the eighteenth century, with radicals such as Richard Price mixing in druid circles. After the Chartist uprising in Newport in 1839, the Welsh language and its symbols fell under suspicion, but this only gave rise to a mythology of Welshness whose symbolic (and considered ancient) colours conveniently matched those of the French Republic. Welsh Chartists also carried tricolours in horizontal stripes of blue, white and purple, or white and green, adorned with the motto 'Universal Liberty'."
[ I am wondering if the book has a typo here - surely 'blue, white and green' and 'purple, white and green']
David B. Lawrence, 23 July 2009

The Tricolor in England and the Chartist Flags

From Clive Bloom's ' Terror Within - Terrorism and the Dream of the British Republic' (2007) ISBN 9780750942959:

P.134..." The flag that infuriated the authorities the most was the tricolour of Revolutionary France, adapted across England, Wales and Ireland as the flag of rebellion, its colours changed to local needs. The tricolour was revolution, symbolic of everything Jacobinical, and therefore prime evidence of nefarious intent. Such flags had to be seized at all costs. At the trial of Watson, much was made of the flags and banners displayed on the day of the Spa Fields Riot. What indeed was the intent in displaying a 'green, white and red' tricolour other than provocation and incitement, especially when the banners declared 'Justice, Humanity and Truth' or 'Nature, Truth and Justice', as John Stafford, chief clerk at Bow Street attested when acting as prosecution witness ? Stafford's opinion under questioning was that these flags stood for a call to 'insurrection'....
....The Flag of the English Republic was red, white and green in horizontal bars. It is possible that the same colours were displayed at Peterloo. At the time of Brandreth's revolution, Oliver ['Oliver the Spy'] had spoken of 'Sir Francis Burdett waiting in the wings to lead the new British Republic with its red, white and green tricolour'. The Chartists adopted the triclour and its colouring from the late 1830's onwards. Claims that they made horizontal the vertical form of the French flag are unlikely, as the horizontal version existed to allow for slogans, which they certainly employed. The Chartists did, however, sometimes use the French version of the tricolour. James Linton's Chartist journal, The cause of the People, carried the flag with the wording ' Fraternity - Liberty - Humanity.' the importance of flags and banners was most significant during the Chartist disturbances [ - follows a list of radical slogans found on such flags ] ... The English tricolour and its colours were still being carried as late as George V's jubilee in 1935, where two maverick households spoiled the celebrations by flying the red, white and green of the revolution.

David B. Lawrence, 23 July 2009

The Tricolour and the Suffragettes

From Clive Bloom's ' Terror Within - Terrorism and the Dream of the British Republic' (2007) ISBN 9780750942959:

P.136 " All tricolours, however, owe their origin not to heraldry or conquest but to the rationalist and deist principles of the Enlightenment, where proportion and colour stood for equality of relationship and the symbolic unification of people, nation and principle. The suffragettes adopted the tricolour to the green, white and violet of 'Give Women Votes'...."

David B. Lawrence, 23 July 2009

The Tricolour and other radical flags and Radical Religion

From Clive Bloom's ' Terror Within - Terrorism and the Dream of the British Republic' (2007) ISBN 9780750942959:

P.141 [Robert Wedderburn was the son of a slave and her Scottish owner, and wrote a book - 'The Horrors of Slavery' - and knew Thomas Spence and shared his radical ideas whilst being more religious] - he had been a Methodist and become a Unitarian. Where the altar would normally have been in a church, there were pictures of Tom Paine, Toussaint L'Ouverture, a skull and crossbones, a red flag and the red, white and green flag of the British Republic. Fiercely passionate about his origins, he wrote to the slaves in Jamaica urging them to rebellion and the setting-up of a republic, by implication arguing for revolution at home...."

David B. Lawrence, 23 July 2009

The Tricolour in Ireland

From Clive Bloom's 'Terror Within - Terrorism and the Dream of the British Republic' (2007) ISBN 9780750942959:

P.193 [ Charged with sedition after their failure to instigate the 1848 Rising, O'Brien and Meagher were released on bail and fled to Paris in the hope of making an alliance the newly re-established French Republic - ] - "While in Paris they met the acting president, Alphonse de Lamartine, who presented them with a green, white and orange tricolour, based on the French design. It had been designed by Meagher and eventually became the flag of 1916 - the flag of the republic in 1922..."

David B. Lawrence, 23 July 2009

The Skelmanthorpe Flag

"The Huddersfield Daily Examiner", 10 April 2006, reports the history of the flag known as the Skelmanthorpe Flag.

"The first half of the 19th century was a period of political agitation. Events ranged from the Peterloo Massacre in 1819 to the last Chartist Petition of 1848, which took place at a time when revolutions were occurring all over Europe. From 1819 the villagers of Skelmanthorpe were at the forefront of political struggles and a special flag, known as the Skelmanthorpe Flag, was woven in this year at a house on Radcliffe Street. The flag, which was later taken to many rallies and demonstrations all over Huddersfield, proclaimed: "Skelmanthorp will not rest Satisfied with the Suffrage being anything but Universal."

This was later taken up by the Chartist movement. Chartism was an umbrella movement which drew together many different groups with various aims and grievances. Chartists were called that because they devised a six-point charter which detailed their demands. These were: universal male suffrage, annual parliaments, vote by secret ballot, abolition of property qualifications for MPs, payment for MPs and equal electoral districts. None of these were realised in the lifetime of the movement, but all except annual parliaments are now law. The Chartists disbanded after the failure of their third petition in 1848, just two years after the hated Corn Laws had been repealed. Some believe that after the repeal of the Corn Laws Chartism's popularity declined. Thus, many historians argue that for many followers Chartism was purely a knife and fork question."

Ivan Sache, 19 April 2006

In my opinion, the Skelmanthorpe Flag is more properly described as a banner, rather than a flag. This banner, which is privately owned, commemorates the Peterloo Massacre, which was a massacre of a number of people at a gathering held in Peterloo, Manchester, to protest the lack of representation of the populous industrial areas in the north of England in Parliament. An image of it may be found in the National Banner Survey, a collection of the People's History Museum in Manchester.

It is divided into four quadrants and contains the words: "SKELMANTHORP Will not rest Satisfied with the Suffrage being anything but Universal" in the top left quadrant. In the bottom left, "May never a cock in England Crow, Nor never a Pipe in Scotland blow, Nor never a Harp in Ireland Play, Till Liberty regains her Sway. In the top right quadrant is the slogan "Truth and Justice Pouring Balm into the Wounds of the Manchester Sufferers." In the bottom right quadrant, is a drawing of a man looking up at an eye in the sky and a further slogan on a scroll, which is too indistinct to read on the above referenced web site.

The term flag seems to have originated from an article "Skelmanthorpe's Flag of Freedom" in Hirst Buckley's Annual 1926 and also in Politics and the People - A Study in English Political Culture c.1815-1867 by Vernon, but is more correctly described as a Chartist banner in the research paper cited as my source number (1) below, by probably the most authoritative current source in the United Kingdom in this area.

(1) University of Manchester, Arts Faculty, History Research Working Paper Number 45, Note, this document was located on the University of Manchester's web site at on 19 April 2006, but does not have any title pages, as it is a "working paper" and it is thus not possible to cite it correctly.
(2) Collections of the People's History Museum, Manchester, no catalogue number, title "banner, Peterloo. Skelmanthorpe Flag." as consulted on the People's History Museum web site, 19 April 2006.
Colin Dobson, 19 May 2006

Here are full details of this and also other things I've done on this subject. 'Why are there no Chartist banners' is probably the best for this subject. The People's History Museum ran the National Banner Survey in 1998-9 (pre-web), which was an inventory of 2,500 banners in UK museums and you can access some of the information on our web site (follow links to Collections).

  • 'The Norwich Plumbers Emblem', Social History Curators Group Journal, No.14,1987
  • 'The Banner Collection of the National Museum of Labour History' in Robina McNeil and John S. F. Walker (eds.) The Heritage Atlas 2: Textile Legacy (1995)
  • 'Radical Rhymes and union jacks: a search for evidence of ideologies in the symbolism of 19th.c.banners', University of Manchester, Working Paper in Economic and Social History, No.45, 2000
  • 'Why Are there No Chartist Banners? The 'Missing Link' in 19th Century Banners', Social History in Museums, Volume 25 (2000)
  • (With Karsten Uhl) 'Banners -An Annotated Bibliography', Social History in Museums, Volume 27 (2003)
  • 'Radical Banners as Sites of Memory : the National Banner Survey', in Paul A. Pickering and Alex Tyrell (ed.) Contested Sites Commemoration, Memorial and Popular Politics in Nineteenth Century Britain, (Ashgate Press, 2004)

Dr Nick Mansfield
Director, People's History Museum Head Office
103 Princess Street
Manchester M1 6DD
Registered as National Museum of Labour History in England no. 2041438. Registered charity no. 295260

The inscription by the slave, which the article says is too indistinct to read, actually reads: "Am I not a man and brother." The flag is on display at the Tolson Memorial Museum, Wakefield Road, Huddersfield (the A642/A629) about a mile SE of the town centre.
Frank L. Appleyard, 27 January 2009

The image of the slave was designed by the potter, philanthropist, and early British Abolitionist Josiah Wedgwood, and rapidly became a symbol of the Abolitionist movement in the UK and the US.
Ron Lahav, 27 January 2009

An image of the flag online at can be found at
James Dignan, 27 January 2009

Chartist flag in Wales

There exists a different flag for Wales which was used by the chartists in their uprising (and subsequently by Welsh republicans). It consists of a tricolor arranged vertically of blue white and green. Blue represents the sky (and heaven) white peace and green the earth (or the common people). It was supposed to represent a new order when the common people of Wales would be united under the sky.
Muiris Mag Ualghairg, 19 June 2000

I think you will find that the Chartist flag was a light purple, white and green horizontal tricolour, with the words "Universal Liberty" in English on the white strip. This flag was used by Chartists in England and Wales, but in Wales there was a armed rising by Chartists, I suppose carrying this flag. Here is a photo of such a flag (but without words).
David Cox, 4 May 2002

I have found a reference to just such a flag, in a popular history book about The Newport Rising of 1839 called " The Man From The Alamo " by John Humphries pub Wales Books, Glyndwr Publishing ISBN 1-903529-14-X . The sources he refers to in his notes are " The Merthyr Rising " by Gwyn A Williams pub Croom Helm, London ISBN 0-85664-493-5 (but I have searched those pages quoted without success) and an article about Morgan Williams in the " Merthyr Express " 5th May 1956 (which I don't have access to).

On Page 50 of " The Man From The Alamo " John Humphries, in describing the political turmoil of the 1830's, mentions..." One of these was Morgan Williams, eventual leader of the Merthyr Chartists, and another John Thomas, his co-editor of the bi-lingual newspaper 'The Workman - Y Gweithiwr', launched the same year as the Tolpuddle Martyrs and considered Wales' first working class newspaper....Morgan Williams was born at Penrheolgerrig in 1808,...A weaver by trade, he was credited with designing the Chartists' green, white and blue banner and was secretary of the Merthyr Workingmen's Association, formed in October 1838 to fight for the Charter. But after the disastrous Merthyr Riots of 1831, it was not surprising that he remained firmly planted on the 'moral force' wing of the Chartist movement. " [i.e. he objected to the use of violence for political ends - as did most Chartists, hence the later split into two groups after the Newport Rising: the National Charter Association being abandoned by many who went on to form the Complete Suffrage Union].

"Only one issue of 'The Workman - Y Gweithiwr', for May 1st 1834, has survived, and only four pages of that [it is in the National Library of Wales]. The curious ambiguity contained in its pages, if characteristic of other issues, reveals its co-editors Morgan Williams and John Thomas as campaigners in the Owenite socialist tradition sending out confused messages about trade unionism, self-reliance, co-operation, education and the environment."
David B. Lawrence
, 17 April 2007

Regards a Welsh Chartist Tri-Colour:
    Green to represent EARTH.
    Blue to represent Heaven
    and White to represent Justice.
The Colours of the Gorsedd Ynys Prydain?
The slogan 'CYFIAWNDR' was printed across it.

Designed by Hugh Williams, the Old Rebeccite, who I believe is buried in Llangenech.
Information from Silurian Republic Gweriniaeth y Siluriad 2 Aug 1988.
Gethin Gruffyd, 20 July 2007

I've just read Gethin's comment about the Gorsedd colours added to the discussion of the blue, white, green triband that featured in the 1839 Newport Rising, so it is quite timely that I have just come across a reference implying just such an idea. The book is " A Welsh Heretic - Dr William Price, Llantrisant " by Islwyn ap Nicholas. Price was a renowned free-thinker who appointed himself Arch-Druid and outraged his neighbours by publicly worshipping nature, practising nudism and also the wearing of strange costumes for the purpose. He typically wore green trousers, a scarlet waistcoat and a white tunic all of a strange design which he insisted was men's Welsh national costume - except for the fox fur that he wore on his head as a symbol of him being a healer. Famous for introducing cremation and defending the practice in court, it is rather less well known that he fled to Paris in 1839 after a warrant was issued for his arrest as the leader of the Chartists in eastern Glamorganshire who on the eve of the insurrection decided not to march to Newport.

Since a fair number of free-thinkers embraced neo-druidic activities and declared themselves to be resurrecting the ancient religion and bardic culture of Wales, it is a fair bet that the blue, white, green triband is derived from the colours ascribed to the orders of the Gorsedd of Bards as Wales' sole national institution at that time. Dr Price described them as blue for the order of Bards, derived from the summer sky ; white for the order of Druids, [derived perhaps from winter] ; green for the order of Ovates, derived from spring growth. [In the modern Gorsedd the Arch-Druid wears a purple robe as well - maybe even a source for the violet, white, green flag?]

There is another possibility that is kind of linked to Druidic lore: druids are associated with trees, usually oak trees, and some Welsh currency in circulation early in the 19th century symbolises the nation with a druid's head on it encircled by oak leaves (instead of the monarch?). But also in many European countries the oak tree was the chosen "Liberty Tree" , a symbol of the radical meetings that might be held beneath its boughs, and certainly in Wales the link between neo-druidry and republican sentiment was well known. But the oak was not the only choice for liberty tree, and in Wales there seems to have been a Christian alternative for those who found neo-Druidism objectionable - the "Draenen" - a thorn tree. Thorn trees yield a wealth of political symbolism quite besides the idea of the idea of the thorns that crowned Jesus on the cross, e.g., bare branches bursting unexpectedly into blossoms after the desolation of winter suggest hope for political aspirations. But there are two "Draenen" in the Welsh dictionary - " Y Ddraenen Wen " is the hawthorn, which yields a symbolic colour scheme of red, white and green - " Y Ddraenen Ddu " - is blackthorn whose berries can be various shades of blue through to purple, or even interpreted as black. So maybe these Welsh blue / violet / red triband flags are actually referring to these ?
David B. Lawrence, 31 October 2007