The ‘blanketeers’ were a group of weavers, mainly from Lancashire, who in March, 1817, controversially intended to march from Manchester to London to petition the Prince Regent (later King George IV).
One of a series of protests which came amid the economic hardship facing England in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars (they would eventually culminate in the infamous Peterloo Massacre of 1819 in which 11 people died in Manchester), participants in the so-called ‘blanket march’ hoped to bring to the attention of the Prince Regent the poor state of the textile industry in Lancashire,
They were also protesting against the recent suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act (this was done in the wake of the Spa Fields Riots in late 1816 and an attack on the Prince Regent’s coach a couple of months earlier).
About 5,000 weavers gathered at St Peter’s Field in Manchester – each carrying a blanket on their back, both for sleeping under during the journey (they apparently hoped people would provide shelter along the way) and to identify their association with the textile industry (hence the name ‘blanketeers’).
Thousands more spectators came to see off the men who intended to march in small groups of 10 to avoid accusations of an illegal mass gathering (meetings of more than 50 had been banned). Each group leader would carry a petition tied around his arm.
They didn’t get far. The Riot Act was read and troops sent in – the King’s Dragoon Guards – who initially arrested more than a score of people including key reform movement leaders Samuel Drummond and John Bagguley.
Several hundred men did manage to set off but the cavalry set off in pursuit. Some were taken into custody by police, and most were turned back including some 300 who reached Stockport. But there is a story, albeit apparently rather a dubious one, that one marcher – some report his name as ‘Abel Couldwell’ – did reach London and handed in his petition.