Thursday, 15 August 2019

Peterloo: 200th anniversary

With the 200th anniversary of the unprovoked attack by the forces of the local state on an unarmed crowd in Manchester while there is no question about the significance of the event, there are important questions about what the impact of the ‘massacre’ was in the short and longer term and what its continuing significance is for democracy today.  This post examines those issues.
Habeas Corpus  was revived early in 1818 and the Seditious Meetings Act lapsed in July. However, economic distress returned in late 1818 and radicalism revived in 1819 reaching its peak in the ‘Peterloo Massacre’.[1] The Thistlewood group may have failed to raise London during the Spa Fields riot but continued with its conspiratorial plans. They considered plans for a rising in London in October 1817 and in February 1818 plotted to assassinate Sidmouth and other members of the government.[2] In 1818, Thistlewood was imprisoned for a year for challenging Sidmouth to a duel.[3] The rest of the group, led by the Watsons, mollified their tactics and continued their mission in association with Henry Hunt making significant progress in Lancashire.
Although the industrial districts of Lancashire were one of the centres of radical reform, by 1819 there was mass mobilisation in all the major cities. A massive meeting of workers had assembled on St. Peter’s Field to see off the ‘Blanketeers’ from Manchester in 1817. The following year saw strikes aimed at restoring falling wage levels showing workers’ discipline and organisation, with meetings and marches in Manchester and Stockport.[4] Pressure created by poor economic conditions reached a peak in 1819 greatly boosting the appeal of radical politics amongst cotton weavers in south Lancashire. Mass meetings for parliamentary reform and for the repeal of the Corn Laws took place in Stockport and Manchester during the first half of 1819. By July, workers were drilling on the moors outside working-class districts in Lancashire, something paralleled in other parts of the country and as many as 2,000 workers paraded in semi-military formation along the High Road from Manchester to a reform meeting in Rochdale.[5] These preparations were primarily aimed at improving organisation for a mass meeting at St. Peter’s Field originally planned for 2 August and delayed until 9 August.[6] The meeting in Manchester was part of a broader national effort for July and August 1819 that saw large meetings in Birmingham, Leeds and London.[7]
The local ruling elite in Manchester had already prepared for mass radical action. In July, the local magistracy formed an ‘Armed Association for the Preservation of the Peace’ and enrolled Special Constables. A letter from Joseph Johnson, one of the leaders of the Manchester Patriotic Union, to Henry Hunt asking him to chair the meeting was intercepted by government spies and interpreted as meaning that an insurrection was planned. The government responded by ordering the 15th Hussars to Manchester and local yeomanry was also mobilised. Local magistrates had already been advised by the Home Office that the intention of the meeting to elect a MP was a serious misdemeanour and this encouraged them to declare the meeting planned for 9 August illegal.[8] If this was intended to discourage radicals, it failed. Hunt and his supporters were determined to assemble and a new meeting was organised for 16 August.
Assembly points were announced where people in the towns and districts surrounding Manchester could gather and then march in disciplined contingents to the meeting on 16 August. This was an expression of local and community identities as well as demonstrating respectability as proof of their right to manhood suffrage.[9] The local radical committees made it clear that no weapons were to be carried by the contingents but they were drilled in the fields round Manchester, buttressing the authorities’ fears. Manchester’s ten magistrates met at around 9.00 am to discuss what action to take on Hunt’s arrival but after ninety minutes had come to no firm conclusions. They then moved to a house on the south-eastern corner of St. Peter’s Field to allow them to observe the meeting. Concerned that the meeting might degenerate into a riot or more seriously rebellion, a substantial number of regular troops and militia yeomanry were deployed.[10]
There was a confident and festive atmosphere as the contingents gathered and prepared to march. Bands played and banners were unfurled. Oldham’s banner was of pure white silk with the inscriptions: ‘Universal Suffrage, Annual Parliaments--Election by Ballot’, and ‘No Combination Acts’ while Saddleworth’s was jet black with ‘Equal Representation or Death’ in white over two joined hands and a heart. One of the banners carried by the Stockport contingent read: ‘Success to the Female Reformers of Stockport’. It has been estimated that women made up about 12 per cent of the crowd was and a particular feature of the meeting was the large number of women present. By the time the contingents assembled on St. Peter’s Field, they were packed in so tightly that one contemporary commented that ‘their hats seems to touch’, and numbered 60,000 people, six per cent of the population of the county of Lancashire and up to a half of that in the immediate area round Manchester. The casualty list suggests that most lived within a three miles radius of the centre of the city.[11]
At around noon, several hundred Special Constables were sent into the field and formed a corridor through the crowd between the house where the magistrates were watching and the hustings of two wagons lashed together. Whether this was intended by the magistrates to provide a route that could be used to arrest the speakers or not, some in the crowd pushed the wagons away from the constables and pressed around the hustings to form a human barrier. Hunt arrived at the meeting shortly after 1.00 pm and was joined on the hustings by John Knight, a cotton manufacturer and reformer, Joseph Johnson, the organiser of the meeting, Thacker Sexton, managing editor of the Manchester Observer, Richard Carlile and George Swift, a reformer and shoemaker. There were also a number of reporters, including John Tyas of The Times whose account was widely used in contemporary accounts, John Smith of the Liverpool Echo and Edward Baines Jr., the son of the editor of the Leeds Mercury.[12] Seeing the enthusiastic reception that Hunt received, William Hulton, chairman of the local magistrates decided to arrest him and others on the platform.
Jonathan Andrews, the Chief Constable, expressed the view that he would need military assistance given the crowd round the hustings. Hulton then sent two letters, one to the commanding officer of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry and a second to Lieutenant-Colonel Guy L’Estrange, overall military commander in Manchester asking for support since he considered ‘the Civil Power wholly inadequate to preserve the peace.’ It was the Yeomanry that arrived first at about 1.40 pm. With instructions to escort Deputy Constable Joseph Nadin to the hustings with the arrest warrant, the militia set off down the narrow corridor formed by the Special Constables but quickly got bogged down by the crush. The Yeomanry, inexperienced in crowd control, panicked and began hacking the crowd with their sabres. Nadin reached the hustings and arrested Hunt, Johnson and several others but by this time matters were out of control.
Hulton saw these events as an assault on the Yeomanry and when the regular troops arrived at 1.50 pm, they were ordered to disperse the densely packed crowd. The Hussars formed line across the eastern edge of the Field and charged into the crowd while the Cheshire Yeomanry moved from the southern edge of the Field at about the same time; the result was carnage but within ten minutes the crowd was dispersed. Peace was not finally restored in Manchester until the following morning and in Stockport, Oldham and Macclesfield rioting continued during that day. Eleven of the fatalities occurred on St Peter’s Field. Others, such as John Lees of Oldham, died later of their wounds, and some like Joshua Whitworth were killed in the rioting that followed the crowd’s dispersal from the field. Of the 654 recorded casualties, at least 168 were women, four of whom died either at St Peter’s Field or later as a result of their wounds.[13]
There was a wave of public support for the radical cause and even The Times attacked the actions of the Manchester magistrates. The mass movement for reform was not appreciably set back by the Peterloo massacre and this demonstrated the moral bankruptcy of aristocratic government. A huge crowd estimated by The Times at 300,000 lined the streets of London to greet Hunt after his release from jail. There were meetings all over England, especially in the north-east counties where more than 50,000 miners marched into Newcastle from surrounding districts. In October and November, workers across the country stocked pikes and other weapons to defend themselves and their meetings. Drilling and armed demonstrations were reported in Newcastle, Wolverhampton, Wigan, Bolton and Blackburn. The massacre reinforced radical imagery of abusive state power contrasting the uncontrolled passions of repressive state apparatus in the role of Edmund’s Burke image of the hellish mob with the restraint, order and moral purity of the people. Sir Francis Burdett’s ‘Address to the Electors of Westminster’, published in the Black Dwarf nine days after the massacre, made clear the unconstitutional, unchristian and un-English violence of the authorities in turning on a defenceless people. The radical movement may have held the moral high ground but, for Hunt and the radical leadership, the problem was how to translate this into practical actions. Most radicals, who maintained a constitutionalist stance, relied on the government responding to the threat of physical force by conceding reform.[14] This increased support for firm government action when public order and property were threatened and was anyway unlikely to succeed. The radical leadership failed to harness this backlash against the government and within weeks lost the initiative. In Lancashire, radicalism was riven by division between the majority who supported Hunt and a conspiratorial minority and by the arrest of key figures on 22 December 1819.[15] Threatening violence was one thing, translating it into open rebellion another. What radicals from Hunt to Feargus O’Connor never satisfactorily resolved was: ‘What happens when the government says no?’
By contrast, the authorities locally and nationally responded to Peterloo decisively and the use of violence was officially endorsed. The Manchester magistrates held a supposedly public meeting on 19 August, so that resolutions supporting the action they had taken three days earlier could be published. Cotton merchants Archibald Prentice, later editor of The Manchester Times and Absalom Watkin organised a petition of protest against the violence at St Peter’s Field that also questioned the legitimacy of the magistrates’ meeting and within a few days it had collected 4,800 signatures.[16] Parliament was not sitting between 13 July and 23 November 1819 delaying any parliamentary scrutiny of the government’s actions. Liverpool and Sidmouth had advised the Manchester magistrates against taking any precipitous action and may have been privately appalled by the magistrates’ rashness, but they had little choice but publicly to approve their actions.[17] On 27 August, Sidmouth informed the magistrates of the thanks of the Prince Regent for preserving the public peace. Such was the centrality of the magistracy to effective government that Liverpool was prepared to risk temporary excoriation by supporting them. Those involved in the assault on the crowd were also exonerated. Later, in April 1822, a test case was brought against four members of the Manchester Yeomanry at the Lancaster Assizes but the court ruled that their actions had been justified in dispersing an illegal gathering and they were acquitted.[18]
The government did not intend to give in to radical demands for parliamentary reform as was made very clear by the Prince Regent at the opening of Parliament in November 1819:
I regret to have been under the necessity of calling you together at this period of the year; but the seditious practices so long prevalent in some of the manufacturing districts of the country have been continued with increased activity since you were last assembled in parliament.
They have led to proceedings incompatible with the public tranquillity, and with the peaceful habits of the industrious classes, of the community; and a spirit is now fully manifested, utterly hostile to the constitution of this kingdom, and aiming not only at the change of those political institutions which have hitherto constituted the pride and security of this country, but at, the subversion of the rights of property and of all order in society.
I have given directions that the necessary information on this subject shall be laid before you; and I feel it to be my indispensable duty, to press on your immediate attention the consideration of such measures as may be requisite for the counteraction and suppression of a system which, if not effectually checked, must bring confusion and ruin on the nation.[19]
Repression was re-imposed and coercive legislation, the ‘Six Acts’, was quickly introduced in December 1819. The Seditious Meetings, Training Prevention and Seizure of Arms Bills were designed to prevent intimidation and violence.[20] The Newspaper Stamp Duties and Blasphemous and Seditious Libels Bills were intended to curb agitation in the radical press.[21] The former increased the stamp duty on newspapers and cheap pamphlets to 4d while the Misdemeanours Bill restricted the right of appeal of those charged with such offences. This gave the government powers to deal harshly with even slight expressions of discontent. However, ministers resisted calls for an increase in the standing army but did mobilise loyalist support with the Home Office using the loyalist press as a counterweight to the often seditious publications in the radical press. Loyalist public meetings were hurriedly called, loyal addresses heaped praise on the government and volunteer forces were organised by local elites. This proved highly successful but marked the last occasion when ministers felt they could rely on loyalist support and propaganda to regain and sustain control. Peterloo had highlighted the tenuous nature of authority in industrial and urban Britain and led, in the 1820s, to a fundamental review of how best to maintain law and order.[22]
The leading Whigs were unanimous in their denunciation of the brutality, but were divided on how closely they should involve the party in the popular protest movement being promoted by incensed radicals. The few Whig initiatives achieved little. Earl Fitzwilliam supported the Yorkshire county meeting on 14 October. It adopted the resolutions he drafted: the right to public assembly and condemnation of unlawful interference with it and a demand for an inquiry into Peterloo.[23] This spurred further Whig meetings in nine English counties--Norfolk, Cumberland, Yorkshire, Hertfordshire, Durham, Westmorland, Berkshire, Cornwall and Herefordshire--in October and those in Surrey, Northamptonshire, Wiltshire, Northumberland and Essex in November were unsuccessful, while in Hampshire and Middlesex they were cancelled when an emergency session of Parliament was announced. The dismissal of Fitzwilliam as Lord Lieutenant of Yorkshire on 21 October angered Whigs of all opinion and even Lord Grey, their far from animated leader, encouraged attendance for a robust parliamentary campaign. Distaste for the barbarity of Peterloo and the government’s reaction to it reinforced Whig belief that an effective measure of parliamentary reform was essential. On 18 February 1820, Lord John Russell argued the case for transferring seats from boroughs disfranchised for corruption to unrepresented industrial towns, specifically calling for the disfranchisement of Grampound. He withdrew his motion when government ministers accepted his proposals and Grampound was disfranchised in 1821, but its seats went to the county of Yorkshire.[24]
[1] Read, Donald, Peterloo: The ‘massacre’ and its background, (Manchester University Press), 1958, remains a useful study while Walmsley, R., Peterloo: the case reopened, (Manchester University Press), 1969, is a detailed study that over-reacts in its defence of government, local and national, Marlow, Joyce, The Peterloo Massacre, (Rapp and Whiting), 1969, Reid, R., The Peterloo Massacre, (Heinemann), 1989, Phythian, Graham, Peterloo: Voices, Sabres and Silence, (History Press), 2018, Riding, Jacqueline, Peterloo: The Story of the Manchester Massacre, (Head of Zeus), 2018, and Poole, Robert, Peterloo: The English Uprising, (Oxford University Press), 2019, provide contrasting narratives. Manchester Region History Review, Vol. 3, (1), (1989) contains several useful articles; Poole, Robert, ‘”By the Law or the Sword”: Peterloo Revisited’, History, Vol. 91, (2006), pp. 254-276, is the most recent reappraisal. See also, Bush, M. L., The Casualties of Peterloo, (Carnegie Publishing Ltd.), 2005.[2] ‘Trials for High Treason’, London Courier and Evening Gazette, 16 June 1817, pp. 5-6. ‘State Trials’, Morning Chronicle, 17 June 1817, pp. 1, 2, 3, 4..[3] ‘King v. Arthur Thistlewood’, Morning Chronicle, 15 May 1818, p. 2.[4] ‘Striking for Wages’, Morning Post, 21 July 1818, p. 2, [5] ‘Reform Meeting at Rochdale’, Morning Advertiser, 29 July 1818, p. 2, suggests a procession of at least 5,000 people; see also, ‘State of the Disturbed Districts’, Morning Post, 2 August 1819, p. 2.[6] ‘State of the Disturbed Districts’, Morning Post, 4 August 1819, p. 2.[7] Peterloo Massacre containing A Faithful Narrative of the Events, which preceded, accompanied and followed the fatal Sixteenth of August 1819….Edited by an Observer, 3rd ed., (James Wroe), 1819 Ibid, Bamford, Samuel, Passages in The Life of A Radical, Vol. 1, pp. 176-226, remains a central, if written in retrospect, narrative of events on 16 August 1819. Bruton, Francis Archibald, Three Accounts of Peterloo and The Story of Peterloo, (The University Press, Manchester), 1921, prints eye-witness accounts by Rev Edward Stanley later Bishop of Norwich and written in 1821, Sir William Jolliffe, first Baron Hylton and a Lieutenant in the 15th Hussars first published in 1847, and John Benjamin Smith, businessman and strong advocate of Free Trade, probably written in the decade before his death in 1879 and strikingly corroborative of Bamford’s account.[8] ‘Manchester Meeting’, Morning Advertiser, 5 August 1819, pp. 2, 4.[9] Navickas, Katrina, Protest and the Politics of Space and Place, 1789-1848, (Manchester University Press), 2016, p. 82[10] The military presence consisted of 600 men of the 15th Hussars, several hundred infantry, a Royal Horse Artillery unit with two six-pounder cannons, 400 men of the Cheshire Yeomanry, 400 Special Constables and 120 cavalry of the relatively inexperienced Manchester and Salford Yeomanry. The Manchester and Salford Yeomanry was largely made up of local merchants, manufacturers, publicans and shopkeepers, all rabid opponents of the radical movement.[11] Ibid, Bush, M. L., The Casualties of Peterloo, p. 19.[12] Detailed accounts of the meeting included those u ‘Manchester Reform Meeting’, Leeds Mercury, 21 August 1819, p. 3 ‘The Manchester Meeting’, Morning Post, 19 August 1819, p. 2, ‘The Manchester Meeting and its Dispersion by Force of Arms’, Liverpool Mercury, 20 August 1819, pp. 7, 8, [13] Ibid, Bush, M. L., The Casualties of Peterloo, pp. 30-31.[14] Demson, Michael, and Hewitt, Regina, (eds.), Commemorating Peterloo: Violence, Resilience and Claim-Making during th Romantic Era, (Edinburgh University Press), 2019, Morgan, Alison, Ballads and Songs of Peterloo, (Manchester University Press), 2018.[15] The Trial of Henry Hunt, Esq, John Knight, Joseph Johnson and others for Conspiracy, (W. Molineux), 1820.[16] Hansard, House of Commons, Debates, 29 November 1819. Vol. 41, cc357-370, detailed the presentation of the Manchester petition.[17] Cookson, J. E., Lord Liverpool’s Administration, 1815-1822, (Scottish Academic Press), 1975, pp. 178-199, Mitchell, Austin, The Whigs in Opposition, 1815-1830, (Oxford University Press), 1967, pp. 125-137.[18] ‘Bishop Stanley’s evidence at the trial in 1822’, in ibid, Bruton, Francis Archibald, Three Accounts of Peterloo and The Story of Peterloo, pp. 25-38.[19] Hansard, House of Lords, Debates, 23 November 1819, Vol. 41, cc1-3.[20] Hansard, House of Commons, Debates, 2 December 1819, Vol. 41, cc594-678. Hansard, House of Lords, Debates, 2 December 1819, Vol. 41, cc578-594, Hansard, House of Commons, Debates, 6 December 1819, Vol. 41, cc757-804, Hansard, House of Commons, Debates, 7 December 1819, Vol. 41, cc816-851, Hansard, House of Commons, Debates, 8 December 1819, Vol. 41, cc863-878. [21] Hansard, House of Lords, Debates, 6 December 1819, Vol. 41, cc706-755, Hansard, House of Lords, Debates, 10 December 1819, Vol. 41, cc977-989.[22] Gardner, John, Poetry and Popular Protest: Peterloo, Cato Street and the Queen Caroline Controversy, (Palgrave Macmillan), 2011, pp. 11-102, examines the cultural response to Peterloo by Samuel Bamford, William Hone and Shelley.[23] Smith, E. A., Whig Principles and Party Politics: Earl Fitzwilliam and the Whig Party, 1748-1833, (Manchester University Press), 1975, pp. 347-353. See also, Barber, Brian, ‘William Wrightson, the Yorkshire Whigs and the York ‘Peterloo’ Protest Meeting of 1819’, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, Vol. 83, (2011), pp. 164-174. See also the debate on the state of the country, Hansard, House of Commons, Debates, 30 November 1819, Vol. 41, cc517-569.[24] Hansard, House of Commons, Debates, 18 February 1820, Vol. 41, cc1612-1614, Hansard, House of Commons, Debates, 28 April 1820, Vol. 1, c39, Hansard, House of Commons, Debates, 9 May 1820, Vol. 1, cc237-241, Hansard, House of Commons, Debates, 19 May 1820, Vol. 1, cc480-520, Hansard, House of Commons, Debates, 5 June 1820, Vol. 1, cc863-868, Hansard, House of Commons, Debates, 12 February 1821, Vol. 4, cc583-606, Hansard, House of Commons, Debates, 2 March 1821, Vol. 4, cc1068-1076, Hansard, House of Commons, Debates, 5 March 1821, Vol. 4, cc1077-1078, Hansard, House of Lords, Debates, 11 April 1821, Vol. 5, cc151-153, Hansard, House of Lords, Debates, 10 May 1821, Vol. 5, cc626-633, Hansard, House of Lords, Debates, 14 May 1821, Vol. 5, cc693-698, Hansard, House of Lords, Debates, 21 May 1821, Vol. 5, cc853-858, Hansard, House of Lords, Debates, 24 May 1821, Vol. 5, cc973-974, Hansard, House of Commons, Debates, 30 May 1821, Vol. 5, cc1043-1046.