Post card to Cinderloo. Fake News, and 200 Years of the Secret State.

Dear Tom

Fake news

Just so you know the Shrewsbury Chronicle and other newspaper publishers have come up with a new idea which will come to be known as ‘fake news’ in years to come. It basically means they will make fantastical stories up to discredit your good cause in the expectation that people who don’t know any better will believe them.

Yours

Ian  

While researching “Cinderloo” in 2004 I was intrigued by an extract from a letter published in the Shrewsbury Chronicle of 9th February 1821. Describing the morning after the disturbances had reached their bloody climax, it claimed that

the rioters assembled on the same ground, provided with ammunition stolen from the works, with about 150 small arms and three pieces of cannon, the whole drawn up in regular array, having a centre body, and right and left wings, with close and even front. In this position they waited till 12 o’clock, when their patience began to be wearied, and they gradually dispersed. Had the military met them in the morning, without doubt the mischief and loss of human lives on both sides would have been great.

I earnestly wished it was true…. Our Shropshire forebears heeding Shelly’s call to “Stand ye calm and resolute”, prepared to take up arms against overwhelming odds and make the ultimate sacrifice for their social and economic emancipation.

Unable to find corroborative evidence that this extraordinary show of defiance actually occurred, I concluded with disappointment that the story was most likely fictional: local gossip or a flight of fantasy, written in jest maybe, or for a bet.

In the jaded political atmosphere of 2020, however, a less innocent explanation comes to mind: was this an early example of “fake news”, a deliberate ploy to demonise those with the temerity to take a stand against the “natural order of things”?

In the decades before Cinderloo – and in the 200 years which have followed it – the British State and the elite interests it protects sought to emasculate popular movements, employing methods which did not shy away from such allegedly “un-British” tactics as dishonest propaganda, spying, sabotage and the sanctioning of criminal acts, including murder.

Following the French Revolution Britain’s rulers became infamous for operating a range of repressive measures, including press censorship, imprisonment without trial, the Combination Acts (which effectively banned trade unions), and the notorious “spy system” to observe and entrap potential revolutionaries. The actions of agents provocateurs like Oliver the Spy from Pontesbury, Castles and Edwards resulted in executions, imprisonment and transportation for those they first encouraged then betrayed. Protests sparked by poverty and injustice – very often local grievances – were portrayed in the Tory press as elaborate, ungodly and unpatriotic revolutionary plots. Paid informers sent “sensational stories of an impending general insurrection” to the Home Office,[i] creating an atmosphere where the massacre at “Peterloo” (and its local echo: the “justifiable homicide” of William Bird and Thomas Ingle, and the judicial murder of Thomas Palin) could be readily justified by Sidmouth and his Cabinet colleagues.

The snippet of correspondence in the Shrewsbury Chronicle may thus offer a brief glance at an ultimately unnecessary example of this approach. Without further concrete evidence we will never know for sure.

[1] G.D.H. Cole and R. Postgate, The Common People 1746-1946, Methuen, London (1968), p. 222.

Ian Thomas is the son of a Telford miner and lives and works locally. In 2004  he wrote his dissertation Cinderloo: Riot, Repression and Revivalism in the East Shropshire Coalfield which remains as the most comprehensive exploration of the events of 1821 and is available here https://cinderloo.com/learning/resources/ to read

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