Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.


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.

  share     tweet  

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’.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.

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.

Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke

The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana

Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth

Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company

You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild

Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University

This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback

Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein

Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up

Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement

‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic

Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden

There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright

Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones

‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression

Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death

‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum

The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes

Naomi Klein: the Corbyn movement is part of a global phenomenon
What radical writer Naomi Klein said in her guest speech to Labour Party conference

Waiting for the future to begin: refugees’ everyday lives in Greece
Solidarity volunteer Karolina Partyga on what she has learned from refugees in Thessaloniki

Don’t let Uber take you for a ride
Uber is no friend of passengers or workers, writes Lewis Norton – the firm has put riders at risk and exploited its drivers

Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project

Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power

What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains

The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme

Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it

The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going

A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism

Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase