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‘A Malignant Spirit’: Lord Sidmouth on reform societies

Lord Sidmouth’s speech in the House of Lords before the Habeas Corpus Suspension Bill is read for the second time – 24 February 1817. Habeas Corpus protected citizens against imprisonment without trial. The government suspended Habeas Corpus in 1817 to attempt to fight what they saw as a threat from radicals during the years running up to the Peterloo Massacre.

Performed by Mark Kitto.

Archives Alive: Peterloo

The Archives Alive: Peterloo project is a collaboration between Royal Holloway, University of London, and The National Archives, supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. This series of short films forms part of a wide programme of activity marking the 200th anniversary of the massacre – an important milestone in the history of the struggle for rights and representation – and its aftermath. Find out more on The National Archives’ blog.



Unhappily, for a long series of years, but more especially since the commencement of the French revolution, a malignant spirit has been abroad in the country, seeking to ally itself with every cause of national difficulty and distress.

During the war it had been incessantly busied, not in aggravating our defeats, for we had known none, but in denying our victories, and misrepresenting them as the triumphs of our enemies. On the arrival of peace, its activity has redoubled; and, while the people are suffering under a heavier pressure of distress than had been felt, perhaps, at any former period, it has employed itself in exaggerating calamity, and fomenting discontent. 

That the distress arose, in a great degree, from unavoidable causes, would be denied by few; yet this malignant spirit has represented to the ignorant and credulous, that their sufferings were to be attributed not merely to the ministers of the day, but to defects in the constitution.

The efforts that have been made, and nobly made, to mitigate every cause of complaint, have been treated as worse than nothing, and as increasing the evil they were intended to remedy; and this evil agent, whose deliberate purpose seems to be to destroy all that is valuable, has at length plainly told the people that peaceable entreaties are vain, and that by open violence alone can their grievances be redressed.

These seditions have been spread over the country with a profusion scarcely credible, and with an industry without example; in the manufacturing districts they have been circulated by every possible contrivance; every town has been overflowed by them; in every village they are almost innumerable, and scarcely a cottage has escaped the perseverance of the agents of mischief; … and the public mind has, in a manner been saturated with the odious poison. 

Clubs had also been established in every quarter under the ostensible object of parliamentary reform. A very large proportion of them indeed have parliamentary reform in their mouths, but rebellion and revolution in their hearts.

My object will ever be to employ the civil power, and never to call in the aid of the military but in cases of absolute emergency; but on this occasion the civil power is incompetent to preserve tranquillity; and soldiers are posted as to be ready in every part of the metropolis.

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