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After the Battle of Waterloo, Joseph returns home from serving in the Duke of Wellington's army to Manchester and his close-knit family headed by parents Joshua and Nellie. Joshua, son Robert, daughter Mary and daughter-in-law Esther all earn a living from manual labour in a cotton mill. An economic depression makes work impossible for the traumatised Joseph to find, and threatens the family's livelihood altogether. The family are sympathetic to the then-radical campaigns for equal civil and political rights for all free men, and against the Corn Laws that prevent them from buying cheaper imported grain.
Joshua, Joseph and Robert attend political meetings where local agitators including John Knight, Samuel Bamford and John Bagguley speak out against the system of government. Meanwhile, the local authorities, led by magistrates Colonel Fletcher, Reverend Hay, Reverend Ethelston and Mr Norris, and Deputy Chief Constable Nadin, spy on the radical movement and wait for an excuse to arrest its leaders. Likewise, Home Secretary Lord Sidmouth is determined to suppress radical politics. When a disgruntled Londoner smashes the window of the Prince Regent's coach, Sidmouth uses this as a pretext for suspending Habeas corpus.
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