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Mealmaker, Georgefree

(1768–1808)
  • Bob Harris

Mealmaker, George (1768–1808), weaver and radical, was born on 10 February 1768, the son of John Mealmaker, weaver, of the Seagate, Dundee, and Alison Auchinleck. Of Mealmaker's early life and education there is no direct information. Similarly, it is possible only to speculate about the sources of his political radicalism. A description of him from 1793 as 'a common unlettered weaver' reflects more the patronizing assumptions of the writer than reality. Dundee was an important centre for the linen trade in Scotland by the later eighteenth century, and the weavers were an increasingly prosperous, literate, and culturally aware part of the Scottish labouring classes. That Mealmaker was reasonably successful and competent as a weaver is suggested by his later important contribution to an attempt to establish a weaving industry in New South Wales. (He was also described as a 'manufacturer' in the local parish register, OPR S3 282/9, p. 214.) The other roots of his radicalism may have been religious. Dundee and its environs were relatively unusual in Scotland in this period in that their radicalism was fed by strong religious currents. Local ministers who made an important contribution to radicalism included Thomas Fysshe Palmer, the Unitarian. Mealmaker was himself a member of the Relief congregation, and was almost certainly the author of a radical sermon from Dundee published in London in 1795. This sermon drew on, and gave violent expression to, a radical and apocalyptic tradition in Presbyterianism which resurfaced under the impact of the French Revolution among some (but far from all) Secessionist and Independent congregations. In addition, in November 1793, as the Dundee delegate to the third Edinburgh convention of Scottish radicals, he strongly supported an unsuccessful motion for a general fast and day of humiliation. His speech was lengthy and described by one observer as in the style of a 'Tent Sermon' (Brims, 58).

Mealmaker's role in radical politics in Scotland in the 1790s was that of a committed and articulate activist. He joined the local Friends of Liberty society at its inception in early 1791. In 1793 he was the author of a broadsheet entitled Appeal to their Fellow Citizens, issued by the society, which sought to exploit the hardship and downturn in trade caused by the outbreak of war against revolutionary France to draw support to the radicals. This broadsheet, which came very close to accusing the government of tyrannical intentions and advocated democratic elections, was the tool which the ministry used to convict and transport Palmer, as a leading radical of some social standing, for sedition in September 1793. Mealmaker also became caught up in the aftermath of the exposure of the Watt plot to seize Edinburgh Castle of the following spring, having his house raided and papers seized, and, after fleeing to Arbroath, being arrested and taken to the Scottish capital for examination. On this occasion he was fortunate, the authorities believing his story that he knew nothing of Watt's plans for an armed rebellion.

Mealmaker's career thereafter mirrors the course described by Scottish radicalism in the mid- to later 1790s. In 1795 he was responsible for the re-establishment of the Dundee Friends of Liberty, which had ceased to meet following the severe repression of 1793–4. He was also, from 1796, an early member of the clandestine Society of United Scotsmen. Mealmaker's role in this society was an important one, especially among the Fife and Forfarshire weaving villages. Henry Dundas was to describe him as one of the 'Ringleaders' of the society (NA Scot., RH 2/4/83, fols. 21–2). He was also the United Scotsmen's principal ideologue, writing and causing to be published and circulated The Moral and Political Catechism of Man. It was also under his direction that the Resolutions and Constitution of the Society of Scotsmen, which followed closely those of the more numerous and menacing United Irishmen, were printed and distributed in the counties of Forfar, Perth, and Fife. A meeting of four delegates of the society from Cupar, Kirriemuir, Brechin, and Coupar Angus was held in his house in 1797, and Mealmaker was appointed to represent them on a national committee. From the fragmentary and unilluminating sources which survive, it appears that he also played an important strategic role in a network of radical printers, booksellers, and activists which kept the flame of radicalism and radical political argument alive in Scotland in difficult and often dispiriting conditions in the later 1790s.

Arrested in November 1797, Mealmaker was the principal victim of the inevitable wave of repression which followed the authorities' growing concern, fuelled by fears that the violence and disorders in Ireland would spread to Scotland, over the activities and threat posed by the United Scotsmen. Refusing to reveal anything significant to the authorities, protesting his innocence of any ambition other than the pursuit of parliamentary reform, and before a hostile court, Mealmaker was found guilty in 1798 of sedition and administering illegal oaths under legislation passed in 1797. He was sentenced to fourteen years' transportation. The conviction brought to an end Mealmaker's brief married life with Marjory Thoms (d. 1843?), a Dundee woman whom he had married on 23 November 1795 and with whom he had two daughters.

In New South Wales, Mealmaker may have made contact with fellow radical ‘martyrs’, including Palmer. On two occasions in the eighteen months after his arrival, he clashed with the authorities. In 1803, however, he received a conditional pardon, and became involved, as manager, of an attempt to develop a weaving industry in the colony at Parramatta. The attempt ended in failure when the factory was burnt down in 1807. Mealmaker died at Parramatta on 30 March the following year in poverty—he did not leave any property or money to pay his funeral expenses. His end was a sad one, caused, apparently, by him suffocating by 'drinking spirits'. From 1805 communication between Mealmaker and his wife appears to have lapsed. She was to learn of her husband's death only in 1811.

Mealmaker's committed and principled radicalism was forged through a lively tradition of discussion and self-education which flourished among some skilled sections of the labouring classes in the 1790s. His political commitment started amid his books and papers—he described these on one occasion as the 'labour of years, which I accounted more valuable than their weight in gold' (Roe, 286)—and he looked to political education as the best means of effecting reform. His political ideology and outlook, which were formed from an amalgam of Paineite republicanism, radical Presbyterianism, and a commitment to religious freedom and democratic parliamentary reform, distanced him from the mainstream of Scottish radicalism of this period, which was more moderate in tone and aims. What changed during the 1790s, and what shaped his political activities, was not so much his stance but the political conditions and possibilities confronting radicals.

Sources

  • M. Roe, ‘George Mealmaker, the forgotten martyr’, Royal Australian Historical Society Journal and Proceedings, 43 (1957), 284–98
  • State trials, vols. 23–4
  • NA Scot., JC 26/281
  • NA Scot., RH 2/4/83
  • NA Scot., S4/282/5, p. 178
  • NA Scot., S3/282/13, p. 168
  • The moral and political catechism of man, or, A dialogue between a citizen of the world and an inhabitant of Britain. By George Mealmaker, M.B. C—N. To which is added, a narrative of the arrest, examination, and imprisonment of the author, for supposed treasonable and seditious practices; with copies of two letters written by him to the magistrates of Arbroath, during and after his confinement (1797)
  • A sermon: delivered in Dundee, Febuary 26th, 1795. By G M — M… B… C… N (1795)
  • H. W. Meikle, Scotland and the French Revolution (1912)
  • N. J. Gossman, ‘Mealmaker, George’, BDMBR, vol. 1
  • J. Brims, ‘The convenanting tradition and Scottish radicalism in the 1790s’, Covenant, charter and party: traditions of revolt and protest in modern Scottish history, ed. T. Brotherstone (1989), 50–62
  • The Dundee register of merchants and traders (1782), 26
  • TNA: PRO, CO 201/54

Archives

  • NA Scot.
W. Cobbett, ed. T. B. Howell & T. J. Howell, 34 vols. (1809–28)
National Archives of Scotland, Edinburgh
National Archives of the United Kingdom, Public Record Office, London
J. O. Baylen & N. J. Gossman, eds., , 3 vols. in 4 (1979–88)