Johnstone History Museum
Johnstone History Society • Scotland

Johnstone - The “Cap of Liberty” and the “Radical Rising”
The end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815 brought economic depression and social unrest. In 1816 some 40,000 people attending a meeting in Glasgow Green to demand more representative government and an end to the Corn Laws which kept food prices high. The Industrial Revolution had affected hand-loom weavers who saw their wages slashed. Artisan workers sought action to reform what they saw as an uncaring government leading to demonstrations and protest. As industrial distress deepened, the demand for reform grew more insistent but the government only replied by measures of suppression. The French Revolution had produced a profound effect on political thought throughout the country - “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” was an explosive slogan - with an appeal that carried across frontiers. It was hope to the underprivileged and oppressed but terror to those in power.

One such demonstration which had been peaceful, was attacked by local yeomanry, named the “Peterloo Massacre” of 16th August 1819, and sparked demonstrations across Britain. In Scotland , a memorial rally in Paisley on 11th September led to a week of rioting and cavalry were used to control around 5000 “Radicals.” The whole country was restless and discontented and in a mood for demanding a more just social order. Johnstone did not escape the turmoil of events, culminating in what was termed the “Radical War” in 1820.

Frank Taylor in “Johnstone and Co-Operation” (1916) refers to a great meeting in Johnstone, recorded as having taken place on 1st November 1819. About one o’clock the people from Paisley and neighbouring villages arrived with bands playing and flags flying. Mr Brodie from Kilbarchan was called to the chair, and a handsome young woman placed a splendid Cap of Liberty on his head, amid the enthusiastic plaudits of the assembled multitude. With regards to what happened at this meeting it is told that speeches were brief and few, the day being extremely cold , and there were evidently a great number of pistols in the meeting, and all the men were armed with sticks. The military were in readiness, but the people dispersed quietly.

The following comes from an anonymous letter to the Editor in the Greenock Telegraph, Tuesday, March 6, 1866, on the front page - “You will never heard of Baird and Hardy, who lost their lives through the Reform Bill (John Baird and Andrew Hardie, hanged on 8 Sept. 1820, for their leading role in the Radical War of that year) ; and look at what the ladies did in the Brig of Johnstone (the general name used at the time for the town) and round that neighbourhood to get the Reform Bill passed - went through Johnstone with the Cap of Liberty placed on one of their heads, to a public meeting on the banks of the canal, when all the Great Reform men were to meet and speak on the Reform Bill, and give up drinking tea and coffee, and made snow soap, so as to keep down the Revenue to get the Bill passed.”
(Signed) An Observer Of The Times.

With regards to an article in the Paisley and Renfrewshire Gazette, July 2, 1887, entitled “James Speirs and John Fraser, Two Old Johnstone Radicals”
the following was found -

It appears that on Saturday, 1st April 1820 (All Fools Day), some copies of a flaming address or proclamation purporting to be issued “By Order of the Committee of Organisation for forming a Provisional Government, “ reached Johnstone, and a few of these were put up in various parts of the town, including the pillars at the entrance to the Chapel of Ease, now the Parish Church, on the following Sunday.

This Proclamation of some length , couched in strong terms, called on the people to assist “in seeking to replace to Britons those rights consecrated to them by Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights, and sweep from our shores that corruption which has degraded us below the dignity of man.” It called on all proprietors of public works to stop their works till this “Provisional Government “ got their rights. Copies of this bill were handed out, and one given to John Fraser on the Saturday evening named, hence the connecting of Fraser with the Radical movement.

On Monday, 3rd April, a large crowd of persons gathered together in Johnstone about ten o’clock in the forenoon, and proceeded to the various cotton mills in the town, of which there were thirteen (others say fourteen) at that time, and demanded that these should be stopped. Mr Houstoun and the other proprietors refused to stop their works , but the excitement was so great that during the course of the day, the mills were all stopped, and continued so till Thursday. The mob paraded the streets of the town, moving from the Old Mill at the foot of Collier Street, which they visited first, to the School Green, where a meeting was held, and the Proclamation read by a man named James Walker, who had taken it down from the church gate for the purpose. This meeting was presided over by a preses, who had been chosen, named Robert Parker. From the School Green the crowd proceeded by way of what is now Quarry Street, to the Hagg and Cartside Mills . A man named John Lang from Kilbarchan, had told the people that in Glasgow (where similar bills had been posted up, as well as many other places), the people had risen and the mills stopped. This turned out to be false. For several days after this, the town was in great excitement, and the ring leaders soon found it necessary to disappear. In the course of the evidence taken at Spier’s trial, it came out that several men had been supplied with pike heads by a man whom they met at night at the canal bridge. The authorities soon took active steps to quell the disturbance. A true bill was found against James Speirs, John Lang, James Walker, Robert Parker, John Young, John Smellie, and James Nixon. The first two were indicted ; Spiers was tried and acquitted, Lang was dismissed. The others were not found and could not be taken into custody ; they had found it much to their advantage to get out of the way. Judging from the evidence, Walker and some others seem to have been the instigators, while Spiers, who was a young man of twenty- six, seemed to be amongst the crowd, just as any of the others were, not particularly taking an active part. The evidence of Mr William Houstoun was much in favour of Speirs. The trial was of considerable length, many witnesses being examined. It was held at Paisley. The Foreman of the Jury was Sir Michael Shaw- Stewart, Bart.; and Mr James Coats, manufacturer, was one of the jurymen. This then, is a rough outline of the disturbance in connection with Mr John Fraser, the Old Radical, was four months in prison at Paisley. Mr James Spiers was the grandfather of Provost Love of Johnstone.

It is generally understood, and has been stated in the public prints that John Fraser was tried at Paisley in 1820 for High Treason, and acquitted by a “public spirited jury,” as it has been phrased, but, although he was connected with the Radical movement in Johnstone at that time and imprisoned in Paisley, he was not put on trial, having been examined as a witness in the Trial of James Spiers, weaver, in Johnstone, as evidenced in the Third Volume of “Trials For High Treason In Scotland” (Edinburgh 1825) the events of which have been briefly narrated.

Intimation of the court proceedings appeared in the London Weelky Journal, Sat., 8th July 1820 - High Treason - Special Commission, Paisley .
On Friday Bills of Indictment were found against the following persons - James Speirs, weaver in Johnstone ; John Lang, weaver in Kilbarchan ; John Smellie, weaver in Elderslie ; James Walker, weaver in Johnstone ; Robert Parker, shoemaker in Johnstone ; and James Nixon, Elderslie.

James Speirs and John Lang , the only two persons out of the six who are in custody, were brought up and informed that the true bills for High Treason had been found against them. They named Francis Jeffrey and J.P. Grant, Esq., Advocates, as their Counsel and Messrs P and J Jacks, writers, as their agents. The prisoners are to be arraigned on Saturday, the 22nd inst. and their trials will take place in a few days afterwards. After this the Court proceeded to Ayr (from Glasgow paper, July 2).

According to the Trial papers legal proceedings began at Paisley , Sat., 1st July 1820, the prisoners indicted for High Treason . After being served with copies of their indictments the Court adjourned till 22nd July, when on that date James Soeirs and John Lang were severally arraigned, by reading the indictment. Their trial was arranged for Tuesday, 1st August 1820, the Crown intended to proceed first with the Trial of James Speirs and John Lang was removed from the Bar.

From a broadsheet published 1820, giving “A Full and Very Particular Account of the Trials before the Special Commission which opened at Paisley, Tuesday, 1st August 1820” - The Court met for business in the George Street Church and was opened about nine o’clock and in a few minutes was crowded with people, who eagerly pushed into the Court Hall for the purpose of hearing the Trials.

The Lord President addressed the Court ; after which James Speirs, weaver, in Johnstone, and Robert Lang, weaver, Kilbarchan, were brought into court.
The prisoners were brought from the Jail to the Church in a coach, escorted by a party of Hussars, and entered under a charge of two Police Officers. Spiers was first put to the Bar.

The indictment having been read over, charging him with being chosen and acted as a member of a committee who commanded a mob which went and stopped the cotton works at Johnston and neighbourhood on the 3d of April, to this indictment Spiers pleaded Not Guilty.

As Robert Lang was summoned as an evidence against the prisoner, Mr Grant objected to him being in court, and he was taken out of court.

John Fraser, who had been confined four months on a similar charge to that of the prisoner, gave evidence on the part of the Crown and was set at liberty. The evidence on the part of the Crown closed at half-past twelve o’clock, and the Court adjourned till the next morning.

Wednesday - Eleven witnesses were examined on behalf of the prisoner ; and their evidence generally went to show that Spiers, although present at the meeting on the School Green at Kilbarchan on the 3d April last, took no charge of the business, neither did he make a speech & etc.

After retiring for a fourth time, the Jury immediately returned with a verdict of Not Guilty. The huzzaing commenced by the crowd out of doors the moment the cheering commenced in the Church, and the Sheriff was ordered to go out and take means to preserve the peace.

The Lord Justice Clerk , in an impressive speech dismissed him from the Bar - Spiers served several years as Lance Sergeant of the 26th Regiment of Foot (Cameronians), but left the service owing to a pain in his breast.

John Lang was then put to the Bar - the Jury found him Not Guilty, and after a suitable admonition from the Lord Justicd Clerk, he was dismissed from the Bar.
An immense crowd surrounded Mr Grant and Mr Sandford on their leaving the Court. The multitude amounted to about 10,000.

John Fraser, when called as a witness against James Speirs said - “I have been confined in gaol for months on a charge of Treason, and I wish to know whether I appear here as a principal, or as a witness. I do not know that I may not yet be brought to trial. “ Lord Advocate - “ We certainly have no intention to try this prisoner. I understand the law to be, that if a man is to be examined as a witness, he is not afterwards liable to be tried.”
When examined by Mr Hope - Q - “Where did you live before your apprehension ?”
A - “In a house that I had taken from Mr Campbell.”
Q - “Where was that house ?”
A - “At the back of the new Street, Johnstone.”

Fraser then described his trade of occupation as a teacher, and had been some time in Johnstone. He admitted knowing James Spiers who lately lived in Johnstone. When asked when he was apprehended Fraser said “On the 10th April (1820) if I recollect.”

Fraser stated he met Spiers on the evening of Saturday, 1st April 1820, on the main street of Johnstone, between 10 and 11 o’clock.

He was standing speaking to an accountant when Speirs came up to them and said he had an address or bill. They entered a shop and placed it on a counter and Fraser read it. The paper was then returned to Spiers. They left the shop and Fraser returned home. He told his wife and she wanted to see it. Fraser went to Spiers house which was nearby but he wasn’t in and Fraser left a message with his wife for him to bring it over to Fraser’s house.

Spiers camthat night and brought the address with him and gave it to Fraser, then left. Fraser read it over to his wife and a neighbour. Spiers took it away the next morning, after it was returned to him by Fraser’s wife. Fraser described the paper, which he thought was dated 1st April 1820, with Glasgow place name on it, and it was addressed to “The Inhabitants of Great Britain and Ireland, having come from ‘The Committee of Organization for forming a Provisional Government.” It requested them “to take up arms,” for redress of their grievances, and to procure a voice in choosing representatives.”
Another person William Reid was present at the first time Spiers showed the paper to him (Fraser). Spiers did not comment on the paper, according to Fraser, it was dark but he couldn’t remember who suggested they should go into a shop to read it. There was scarcely anything passed between them Fraser maintained and, as he already said, he was going home, There were no further questions put to the witness Fraser , who was understood now to be at liberty.

His wife Marjory Fraser (nee Roy) was also called as a witness . She backed her husbands story in so far as her involvement in it.

When they left the court at the George Street Church, John Fraser and his wife walked along the canal bank back to Johnstone. He recalled on his release “Waiting in a side room for my wife, who soon came, we walked out to the open air and to Johnstone, by the canal bank. The crowd recognised me, shouted and cheered.”

The Introduction of “A Memoir of John Fraser of Newfield,” by his son James Roy Fraser, published in the Paisley and Renfrewshire Gazette, 22nd March 1879, states that John Fraser was born in Johnstone about 1794, at the land known long afterwards as “Pinkerton’s Burned Corner, “ now occupied (1879) by “Mr. R. Smith’s handsome building.”

This refers to that of Robert Smith, Clothier and Hatter, 59 High Street, corner of Church Street, as mentioned in Watson’s Directory of 1879. This property with its famous clock, became the Co-Operative building, now Iceland supermarket. “Pinkerton” is believed to be Doctor John Pinkerton, surgeon and druggist, mentioned in Fowlers Directory, 1829, as having premises at 56 High Street, and house at Newfield. He was a long friend of John Fraser’s father, John Fraser later buying his house. The name “Pinkertons Burned Corner” suggests that the premises suffered from a fire, perhaps being burned down, and left for a while in that state, before new building commenced , replacing it with Smiths.
John’s parents originally came from Inverness-shire - Thomas Fraser and his wife were firm Jacobites and “sacredly cherished the Gaelic book.”

In earlier years Thomas Fraser was pressed into the Royal Navy and served in the First American War, being detained for some time as a prisoner. On board ship he was hospital assistant to the surgeon, where he acquired a knowledge of drugs, dressing wounds, and simple practice, which qualified him on his settling in Johnstone, where he cane into contact with Dr. Pinkerton, and started the business of a druggist.

John Fraser, after a course at the Johnstone schools, went to Paisley Grammar, but a severe accident prevented him from completing his education there. He instead attended the Green School in Johnstone, leaving there to work for 3 years in various Johnstone cotton mills. John became a school teacher teaching in Kilbarchan, then moved briefly to Neilston, before returning briefly to Johnstone. He took up the position of a teacher at Glenmill, a roadside school in Kilmacolm Parish, between Kilbarchan and Kilmacolm. He then returned to Johnstone,where he became an accomplished teacher. His first school room was in George Street nearly opposite the hall, which shortly afterwards was built by him to accommodate his rapidly increasing classes.

The Paisley and Renfrewshire Gazette, 29th March 1879 Records the Second Portion of “A Memoir of John Fraser of Newfield” by his son James Roy Fraser, describing John Fraser’s removal from Glenmill to Johnstone, (about 1819) - “Removed to Johnstone, we took up House in a part of that now occupied by James Barnett, Esq. (1879), the parents of the now eminent Isaac Holden, Esq. we’re our immediate neighbours.”

Watson’s Directory 1879 - records James Barnett, of Finlayson ,Bousefield & Co, residing at Lilybank House. He was the head of the counting house staff of Messrs Finlayson & Bousefield, Flax Mill, Johnstone.

Watson’s Directory 1876 - 1877 confirms that he was resident at Lilybank House at that date. The 1881 Census confirms that James Barnett, Cashier Flax Mills, is resident in Lilybank House, Brewery Street, Johnstone which had been made up of 4 separate inside apartments at that time.

So it seems that John Fraser on his return to Johnstone resided in Lilybank House, which is still there today.

The Paisley and Renfrewshire Gazette, March 8, 1879, In reporting John Fraser’s obituary, stated that - A letter addressed to Mr Fraser was - before his arrest , and on suspicion merely - opened at the post office and found to be from James Speirs, then hiding in Dumfries-shire, but who, from the information given of his whereabouts in this letter, was apprehended and afterwards tried for High Treason in Paisley, escaping with the skin of his teeth. The letter had been sent by Spiers to Mr Fraser for the purpose of having the information of his hiding place made known to his wife ; but though there was nothing of an illicit nature in the letter, the authorities believed Mr Fraser to have been secretly involved in the riot or revolt, and to have been the author of a handbill that had been issued calling for arms. Mr Fraser was ultimately found to be free from the remotest connection of the breach of the peace and was liberated with a stainless name.

Sylvia Clark’s “Paisley, A History “ mentions that John Fraser’s letter from James Spiers was intercepted by Miss Mary Hodgert ; the post-mistress at the Black Bull Inn. Her father was Robert Hodgert (also spelt Hodgart), the owner and post-master of the Black Bull Inn also.

In John Fraser’s Memoirs , it mentions that at the time of his arrest, when he opened the door, “Mr Brown, Fiscal, and a Court Official, having a sword in his hand along with Mr Hodgart (Snr) of the Black Bull Inn presented themselves “We apprehend you, “ they exclaimed, “on a charge of High Treason.”

Robert Hodgart (Snr) was there in his capacity as Lieutenant Robert Hodgart of the Johnstone Volunteer Infantry, date of his commission being 4 Jan. 1820. He had seen previous service in the Renfrewshire Yeomanry Infantry (first commissioned as an Ensign , Dec 13, 1803).

Dr John Pinkerton was the Regimental Surgeon. Hodgert later became a Captain in the 2nd Regiment of Renfrewshire Local Militia, May 6, 1811, serving until it’s disembodiment after the Battle of Waterloo, 1815.

In the trial papers (p. 178) with regards to James Speirs - By declaration at Paisley, 29th April 1820, in the presence of Alexander Campbell, Esq., Sheriff Substitute of Renfrewshire :
“Compared James Speirs, weaver in Johnstone, in the Abbey Parish of Paisley, who being examined, declares he is twenty-six years of age, married : that he left Johnstone upon Thursday the sixth current (April 1820) because he had heard that some Dragoons had been looking for him and he thought it well to go out of the way, and he travelled to Ecclefechan in Company with John Smillie, weaver in Slates, and declarant has remained at Ecclefechan ever since, till he was apprehended there by a person calling himself William Crichton : that Smillie went to Carlisle last Saturday.”

William Crichton was a Corporal of Police from the town of Paisley.
Also mentioned was that Spiers had been a soldier in the 26th Regiment of Foot (Cameronians).

A character witness at the trial Malcolm Fraser - had been a Serjeant & Serjeant Major in the 26th Regiment, stated that he knew James Speirs upwards of 6 years in the regiment. He had very fair character, joined as a boy, was L/Cpl., Full Cpl., Ordinary Serjeant and a Drill Serjeant. He left due to a “Complaint of the Breast.” Would have been very promising had he continued. His Commanding Officer was Captain Hall, a Captain at the Depot. He was some time employed in the Recruiting Service.”

According to the authors of The Radical Rising = The Scottish Insurrection of 1820, (pub. 2916), “ Spiers was to have an unhappy end. In 1850, while living in the Sneddon district of Paisley, he fell on hard times. A public fund was raised by “The Friends And Admirers of James Speirs” and realised about £20, but in 1852 Spiers died in great destitution .”

The civil authorities with assistance of the military , managed to restore order after the revolt and disorder of 1820.

King George IV was crowned King on 19th July 1821 and the following appeared in The Sun newspaper, 3rd August 1821 - Kilbarchan - The Kilbarchan, Lochwinnoch, and Johnstone Troop of Renfrewshire Yeomanry Cavalry, commanded by Sir W.M. Napier Bart; The Kilbarchan Company of Volunteers, commanded by Mr. Napier of Blackstoun ; and the Johnstone Company commanded by Mr Houstoun of Johnstone Castle, assembled at Milliken Lawn, in honour of the Coronation of His Majesty. After performing various evolutions, the two Companies and the Yeomanry marched to their headquarters where a feu-de-join was fired, and His Majesty’s health drank.

The Yeomanry and the Kilbarchan Company were drawn up at the Cross of the town (Kilbarchan) ; most of the houses were tastefully decorated with flowers, and flags with appropriate devices were displayed at the windows. A similar feeling of loyalty manifested itself at Johnstone.

Two years later, enthusiasm for the visit of King George VI to Scotland, the first visit by a reigning monarch in two centuries, increased the Kings popularity in Scotland, and thanks to Sir Walter Scott, by the inclusion of a tartan pageantry, restored tartan to become part of Scotland’s identity once more.

The Reform Bill became law in 1832, but change had still further to go.
John Fraser became a major figure in the Chartist movement, which led to further reform. Along with Paisley Abbey Minister , Patrick Brewer, both argued against those who would take up arms. Fraser resided for a time in Edinburgh and started his own newspaper “The True Scotsman,” in opposition to “The Scotsman” newspaper, with universal suffrage the motto of his newspaper.

John Fraser was a gifted musician, and the “Fraser Family” began performing highly successful musical tours throughout the country including Canada and America. He was a leading light in the development of the Johnstone Co-Op movement.

With regards to Newfield, the Paisley and Renfrewshire Gazette, 12 July, 1879, in the Eleven Portion of his father’s memoirs, John Roy Fraser stated - “While at Bristol about Christmas time, (1846), my father received intimation of his purchase of Newfield House.

The property was particularly dear to him from early and intimate associations with its founder Dr. Pinkerton of Johnstone, a medical practitioner, who, during a long life, was greatly respected in the district. On this account, my father had given instructions to secure Newfield whenever it cane into the market.
In the summer of 1847 we therefore took up our abode at Newfield.”

John Fraser died on Monday, 3rd March 1879, as reported in the Paisley and Renfrewshire Gazette, March 8, 1879. A large number of people assembled at Newfield on Friday, 7th March, and followed the hearse to Kilbarchan to his last resting place in the graveyard of the old “Relief” Church, which later became Kilbarchan East. He was buried beside his mother and father as well as his wife, who,pre-deceased him a few years earlier.

In celebration of his life his son Mr. James Roy Fraser published a detailed sketch of his life entitled “A Memoir Of John Fraser,” which is a fitting tribute to his late father.

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