(9 December 1790 – 10 February 1843)
Richard Carlile was an English journalist and an important agitator for the establishment of universal suffrage and freedom of the press in the United Kingdom.
Struggle for freedom of the press
Born in Ashburton, Devon, Carlile became a chemist’s boy and a tinman’s apprentice.
In 1810 he employed Henry Hetherington – who went on to become a prominent Chartist.
Carlile’s struggles for freedom of the press and free speech began in 1817, when the Habeas Corpus Act was suspended, and William Cobbett, publisher of the ‘Political Register’ prudentially went to America.
Carlile sold the prohibited radical weekly ‘Black Dwarf’ throughout London, printed thousands of Southey’s ‘Wat Tyler’, and William Hone’s ’Parodies on the Prayer Book’, and his own imitations of them, for which he got 18 weeks in prison.
This was the first of a series of prosecutions, initiated by William Wilberforce‘s Society for the Suppression of Vice, which resulted in imprisonments amounting to nine years and four months, and which included sentences for publishing his ‘Political Litany’ and Tom Paine’s works, and a journal, ’The Republican’ (1819-26). Carlile’s wife and sister were imprisoned with him; and over twenty volunteer shopmen in all went to jail.
Carlile was due to speak alongside Henry Hunt at the meeting in St Peter’s Fields Manchester, on 16 August 1819, where thousands gathered to demand reforms in political representation, and was thus a witness to what became known as the ‘Peterloo Massacre‘, when cavalry charged into the crowd, killing 15 and injuring hundreds.
Carlile managed to escape on the mail coach to London and publish the first full eyewitness account in ‘Sherwin’s Weekly Political Register’ two days later, reporting the ‘Horrid Massacres at Manchester’.
Carlile also published a famous print of the scene. The massacre is commemorated by a small plaque close to the site.
By 1821, Carlile was a declared atheist (having previously been a Deist) and published his Address to Men of Science, in favour of materialism and education.