Few people will have heard of Robert Peddie. He is today an almost entirely forgotten figure. But, in the early months of 1840, most readers of the newspapers knew who Peddie was. He was one of those Chartists, and one of the worst kind too … a madman who tried to launch a national uprising. Robert Peddie was a Scotsman, an Edinburgh staymaker, a married man & doing quite well. He was also, quite genuinely, a man of radical opinions and, benefitting from a good education, able to speak eloquently at public meetings. But Peddie was also a romantic. He dreamed of Britain transformed by revolution. And he dreamed of Peddie leading that transformation. But Peddie did more than just dream. He actually tried to lead an insurrection in the West Riding in the early hours of Monday, 27 January 1840. So Robert Peddie was one of those men identified by Dorothy Thompson as a true Chartist insurrectionist – a man who, armed with a pistol and a dagger, actually tried to start a revolution.
The problem for Peddie and the small band of men that he led out into the market square on that fateful night was that the magistrates knew all about their plans. An informer had been blabbing to them. This man was called James Harrison; he was later to go to prison himself for horse-stealing. But, at this moment, Harrison, with £80 of magistrates’ money in his pocket, was able to spill the beans about everything he had learned at the meetings Peddie had called to plan the rising. That night the Chartists were quickly rounded up by special constables, and Peddie went on the run. He escaped the clutches of the law for just five days. In March Peddie stood trial for sedition, conspiracy and riot. To no one’s surprise, he went down. Three years hard labour in the prison at Beverley. The hard labour meant the treadwheel. Peddie refused to do this. He was thrown into ‘the black hole’, with only bread and water to survive on. And, if that wasn’t enough, his piles were really playing him up.
When Peddie eventually got out of prison, armed like a few other Chartist prisoners with a book of poems to publish, he was determined that all that suffering wouldn’t have been for nothing. The poems got published as The Dungeon Harp. They’re all very Robert Burnsy. If he never wrote another poem, Peddie certainly made another speech. Lots of them in fact. He did lecture tours in Scotland. He spoke on platforms in Newcastle in 1848. He was still at it in Newcastle in 1854, proclaiming his support for the People’s Charter. And then he disappeared.
When I wrote about Robert Peddie more than twenty years ago, I hadn’t got a clue what had happened to him. From time-to-time, I wondered; but I didn’t think I’d find out. And then yesterday, I did … thanks to digitized newspapers. I made a search in the Newcastle Guardian for Robert Peddie. I wasn’t optimistic. But the Newcastle Guardian was on my side, determined to give up its secrets. Within five minutes I had discovered what happened to Robert Peddie, the Bradford insurrectionist.
Robert Peddie, I knew, earned his living as an auctioneer. And, on 7 July 1866, the Newcastle Guardian reported the death of an auctioneer called Robert Peddie. How did I know that this was the same man? Because his doctor was none other than … R.G. Gammage, the author of the first history of Chartism. So what had caused Peddie to expire? It’s a particularly sad story. Robert Peddie died suddenly in his lodgings in Spring Garden Lane in Sunderland after a heavy drinking session. Dr Gammage was sent for when he became unwell, but could do nothing to save him. The cause of death was given as apolexy.
Spare a thought for Robert Peddie. Misguided he may have been, but he was a poet and a true Chartist. Whilst William Cuffay is celebrated today and the subject of much interest, Peddie is a forgotten man. Let’s remember, too, the Chartist who died alone in his lodgings after a drinking spree.
Radical Politicians and Poets in Early Victorian Britain: The Voices of Six Chartist Leaders (1993), pp. 59-75 tells Peddie’s story.