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William Frend: A radical to remember

Frend's founding texts of the British anti-war movement deserve to be better-known, writes Mike Marqusee – and that was just the beginning of his work

August 1, 2014
7 min read


Mike MarquseeMike Marqusee 1953–2015, wrote a regular column for Red Pepper, 'Contending for the Living', and authored a number of books on the politics of culture, on topics ranging from cricket to Bob Dylan.


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The 35-year-old Cambridge lecturer William Frend was putting the finishing touches to Peace and Union, his pamphlet on political reform, in early 1793 when the hostility between Britain and the revolutionary regime in France broke into outright war. At the last minute, he added two fiercely urgent appendices.

The first was on the execution of the French King, the pretext for war: ‘Let us strip the subject of figures of rhetoric and no Englishman need be alarmed at the execution of an individual at Paris.’ Louis, he noted, had been ‘accused of enormous crimes, confined as a state prisoner, tried by the national convention, found guilty, condemned and executed. What is there wonderful in all this?’ His view was clear. ‘It is in short no business of ours and if all the crowned heads on the continent are taken off it is no business of ours.’ Frend added that the British would be ‘unworthy’ of their own constitution ‘if we denied to any nation the right of settling as it pleased its own internal government’. 

In the second appendix, his indignation was unbridled. Walking in the countryside shortly after the outbreak of war, he encounters ‘a group of poor women going to market’, wool spinners who have just learned that the price of their labour is to be reduced. ‘We are to be sconced three pence in the shilling. We are to be sconced a fourth part of our labour. What is all this for?’ they cry. Frend says he did not ‘dare to tell them what it was for, nor to add insult to misery. What is the beheading of a monarch to them?’

Haunted by the women’s complaint, he yearns for ‘the warning voice of an ancient prophet’ to ‘penetrate into the inmost recesses of palaces and appal the haranguers of senates’. But he knows that to those in power, ‘Three pence in the shilling for spinning conveys no ideas to them. They know not what a cottage is. They know not how the poor live, how they make up their scanty meal.’

So he suggests ‘an easy method’ to turn the problem around. ‘Let the first magistrate, the peers, the representatives of the people, the rich men of the nation, all who are for war be sconced one fourth part of their annual income to defray the expense of it. Let them be the first sufferers, let the burden fall on them not on the poor.’ He concludes: ‘Let others talk of glory, let others celebrate the heroes who are to deluge the world with blood, the words of the poor market women will still resound in my ears, “We are sconced three pence in the shilling, one fourth part of our labour. For what?”’

Issued at the onset of what would be 22 years of blood-letting between the two countries, dragging in populations across the globe, Frend’s appendices to Peace and Union stand as founding and still inspirational texts of the British anti‑war movement, and deserve to be better known.

‘Every right violated’

Frend was summoned in May 1793 to appear in the Cambridge University vice chancellor’s court on charges arising from his pamphlet. His trial consumed eight days, with much quibbling over procedural matters and details of evidence.

Frend, supported by a sometimes vocal group of student admirers, among them the young Coleridge, insisted that ‘every right of an Englishman has been violated in this Trial’. The prosecution’s primary objection was to Frend’s critical treatment of the established religion in the main bulk of the pamphlet, where indeed he had spoken bluntly: ‘Ecclesiastical courts, ecclesiastical rank and titles, ecclesiastical dress are all repugnant to the spirit of Christianity . . . The simplicity of the gospel admits nothing of this sort.’

Frend had already abandoned a career in the Church of England to embrace Unitarianism and his views in this regard were well known. However, as the prosecutor made clear, what made these sentiments unacceptable was the specific context in which they were published: a national emergency in which unity against an external threat was paramount. ‘What was the state of this country when the Pamphlet was written?’ he asked. ‘What was then the situation of our established Government? Not only of our Political, but of our Ecclesiastical Government? Was it ever known, since the beginning of this century, to be in greater danger?’ 

On the seventh day the judge, Vice Chancellor Isaac Milner, asked Frend to sign a prepared recantation. ‘I would as soon cut off this hand!’ was the defendant’s reply. The next day Milner passed sentence, banishing Frend from the university.

Milner was a Fellow of the Royal Society, a collaborator with the scientist Humphrey Davy, and according to Thomas de Quincey an ‘eloquent and benevolent’ opium user. He was also an Anglican priest and co-author of a seven volume church history. He supported his former pupil Wilberforce’s anti-slavery efforts and considered himself a man of liberal mind. But like others at this moment, he rallied to an establishment in mortal peril.

He asked: ‘Did the Pamphlet make its appearance at a time when every well-wisher for his country entertained the most serious apprehensions for its safety and tranquillity? … At such a critical time as this, did the Author of this Pamphlet inculcate the necessity of Peace and Good Order? Or did he exhort the lower ranks of people to be patient and submissive in bearing the additional burthens which might be necessary to repel by force, the unjust attacks of an outrageous and insolent enemy?’ 

New life in London

Frend left Cambridge for a new life in London, where he worked as a private tutor and joined the radical London Corresponding Society. He associated with the anarchist philosopher William Godwin, the London reformers Horne Took and Burdett, and also knew William Blake. In the early 1830s, his home served as the London base for the historic European tour of the Bengali reformer, Ram Mohan Roy, hailed as ‘the founder of modern India’. 

Frend never wavered from his conviction that Britain was run by a ‘usurping oligarchy’ in need of radical transformation, and remained active in social and humanitarian causes until his death in 1841. For many years he was the chief actuary of the Rock Life Assurance Company – in the days when insurance companies were mutual benefit societies and actuary science was a progressive social endeavour. He published popular tracts on algebra and astronomy, as well as essays on taxation, the national debt, paper money and the slave trade. 

In 1819, he wrote a short prophetic essay, circulated only in private to friends, with the fulsome title of ‘Is It Impossible To Free the Atmosphere of London in a very considerable degree from the smoke and deleterious vapours with which it is hourly impregnated?’ 

Frend suggests the observer ‘take a few turns on Blackfriars Bridge’ at various times of day, to see ‘the effect of the vomitories of smoke’ that had sprung up in the city in recent years. At night he notes the ‘volumes of flame issuing forth, as from so many volcanoes’ with ‘a vast variety of manufactories, forges, glass-houses, etc’ belching out ‘matter of a most deleterious nature’.

Frend argued that the remedy to this emerging public health catastrophe lay in the design of efficient models for dispersing industrial effluents. Most importantly, he believed these adaptations must be paid for by those who were profiting from the new industries. He describes a neighbour whose factory was fouling the local air because he could not be bothered to build a better chimney: ‘The smoke when it reached the top of the works was of no further concern to the owner.’ He concluded by calling for legislation to control factory emissions because ‘the expense of doing it is trifling in comparison of the profits of the works’.

So on top of all his other claims, Frend must also be recognised as among the first to articulate the principle that ‘the polluter should pay’.

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Mike MarquseeMike Marqusee 1953–2015, wrote a regular column for Red Pepper, 'Contending for the Living', and authored a number of books on the politics of culture, on topics ranging from cricket to Bob Dylan.


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