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SPIES are everywhere. Honest working men live in fear of the heavy-handed knock on the door that will signal their arrest and incarceration. Nazi Germany in the 1930s? No, it's Britain in the early decades of the Industrial Revolution.

Scared stiff by the prospect of a nationwide insurrection that would put their own necks on the block, the British Government reacted savagely against any sign of working-class insubordination or disaffection.

Ever mindful of what had happened to their own kind in France during the worst excesses of the French Revolution, they flooded the manufacturing regions with troops and snoopers.

Those Government agents reported on any hint of trouble - and if they failed to find it, they weren't averse to inventing scare stories to feed back to the Home Office to justify their own existence. And the soldiery could be ruthless in stamping it out.

Workers, too, were frightened. Forever hungry and living a hand-to-mouth existence, they feared for their livelihoods as mechanisation took an iron grip on the cotton industry. Despite laws outlawing trade unionism, they were becoming increasingly organised and militant, demanding not only better working conditions but parliamentary representation, too.

It was a recipe for confrontation, and confrontation there was in plenty during the first half of the nineteenth century, from the bloody massacre of Peterloo in Manchester in 1819 to what almost turned into a Chartist insurrection twenty years later.

Midnight meetings on the moors. Men - and women - armed with pitchforks and staves, drilling in secret. Arms on open sale among the cabbages and potatoes in the cotton-town markets.

Pitched battles in village streets. Riots and tumult in the cities. There was never a dull moment in 19th-century Britain.

2017 | Admiral Nelson | Read about the Industrial Revolution