This post owes a great deal to my friend Robert Poole's brilliant article, ‘”By the Law or the Sword”: Peterloo Revisited', History, 91 (2006): 254-276. The Wikipedia article on Peterloo is also extremely good and takes account of modern research including Poole's article.
There is an interesting discussion of Peterloo in Melvyn Bragg's 'In Our Time' programme on Radio 4.
In 1819 radical reformers made serious attempts to stage a series of mass demonstrations.
In January there was a parliamentary reform meeting of about 10,000 at St Peter’s Fields in Manchester at which Henry Hunt was the principal speaker. Banners bearing the mottoes ‘Rights of Man’, ‘Universal Suffrage’ and ‘No Corn Laws’ were displayed.
The authorities were deeply alarmed. On 2 March, following reports that radical leaders were arming themselves with pikes, Henry Hobhouse, the permanent undersecretary at the Home Office, wrote to the Oldham magistrates that the evidence confirmed the Home Secretary, Sidmouth’s, opinion that
‘your Country will not be tranquillized, until Blood shall have been shed either by the Law or the Sword.’ (Quoted Poole, 265).In June there were a series of meetings in the industrial districts of Lancashire, Yorkshire, the Midlands and the west of Scotland. These peaceful meetings pounded the same theme: the sufferings of the people were due to the inadequacies and extravagance of government, and the remedy lay in annual parliaments and manhood suffrage.
In June and July, there were mass meetings at Stockport (where the cap of liberty was displayed), Oldham, Leeds, Birmingham, London and Manchester. At Birmingham on 12 July the crowd elected by a show of hands the radical baronet Sir Charles Wolseley as
‘legislative attorney and representative of Birmingham’.Note: Birmingham did not have any MPs in this period. The crowd's action was seen by the government as a direct challenge to parliament. On 30 July a royal proclamation against seditious meetings proclaimed that this was a ‘gross violation of the law’.
A similar meeting was planned for Manchester,
‘to consider the propriety of adopting the most LEGAL and EFFECTUAL means of obtaining a REFORM in the Commons House of Parliament’.The wording seems to show that the reformers were anxious to distance themselves from illegality. Nevertheless the local magistrates issued warnings against it. The Manchester Radical Union decided to postpone the meeting until 16 August. They would not elect a representative but would be addressed by Hunt.
Historians sympathetic to the Manchester magistrates stress that they had a genuine dilemma. The meeting itself was not illegal, but the crowd numbered at least 50,000, though the fact that it included many women and children is one indication among many that its intentions were peaceful. The demonstrators faced an inadequate peacekeeping machinery. There was no regular police force. The forces available were the special constables and the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry. In reserve and out of sight were 6 troops of the 15th Hussars; nearly whole of the 31st regiment; several companies of the 8th; a troop of Horse Artillery.
|A map of St Peter's Field |
and surrounding area
on 16 August 1819.
The magistrates decided to arrest Hunt on the hustings before he could speak. It was a grave mistake to decide to use the Yeomanry. They were a raw volunteer group, hastily formed after the Blanketeers’ March, and consisted almost exclusively of cheesemongers, ironmongers and newly enriched manufacturers. They had no expertise in crowd control. As Hunt was arrested and bustled away, the Yeomanry found themselves hemmed in. They panicked and started to hack about them. The Hussars were then called in. The crowd began to flee in panic, and were trampled or beaten down with the flat of swords, or sabres and slashed by the troops. Conservative estimates suggest that four hundred were wounded (a quarter of them women and children, nearly half by sabre wounds). Two women and nine men were killed.
The event was promptly named the 'Peterloo Massacre' and though it was mild by continental standards, it was shocking in the British context. Cruikshank's caricature (below) shows one strand of British opinion. The text reads:
'Down with 'em! Chop em down my brave boys: give them no quarter they want to take our Beef & Pudding from us! ---- & remember the more you kill the less poor rates you'll have to pay so go at it Lads show your courage & your Loyalty.'
However, many thought the actions of the Hussars were justified and some local authorities, such as those of Salford, moved swiftly against radicalism.
Though the Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, in private thought that the magistrates had been ‘injudicious’, the government felt it had no alternative but to support them. They congratulated them for
‘their prompt, decisive and efficient measures for the preservation of the public peace’.However, the event was widely reported in the press (this was the first time journalists ‘covered’ an event at which they were present), and protest meetings were held around the country. After some hesitation the Whigs took up Peterloo as a political issue and addressed protest meetings - there were nine of these in October and November. This made it a party matter, with the Whigs using it to broaden their basis of support. The Prince Regent condemned their demand for a public enquiry.
Here is Shelley's response in his poem The Masque of Anarchy.
The Six Acts
Parliament met in November. The alarms were over except in Scotland, but because the issue had become a party matter, the government felt that it had to address the issue. Emergency legislation was passed. With the exception of the Grenvillites, the Whig opposition voted against it.
- Training Prevention Act A measure which made any person attending a gathering for the purpose of training or drilling liable to arrest. People found guilty of this offence could be transportated for seven years.
- Seizure of Arms Act A measure that gave power to local magistrates to search any property or person for arms.
- Seditious Meetings Prevention Act A measure which prohibited the holding of public meetings of more than fifty people without the consent of a sheriff or magistrate.
- The Misdemeanours Act A measure that attempted to reduce the delay in the administration of justice.
- The Basphemous and Seditious Libels Act A measure which provided much stronger punishments, including banishment for publications judged to be blaspemous or sedtious.
- Newspaper and Stamp Duties Act A measure which subjected certain radical publications which had previously avoided stamp duty by publishing opinion and not news, to such duty.
Robert Poole sums up Peterloo thus:
'Whatever the causes of Peterloo, it was not a battle but a massacre, limited and inefficient by historical standards perhaps, but most decidedly a massacre in spirit.'
The Cato Street Conspiracy
After his acquittal after the Spa Fields, Arthur Thistlewood was imprisoned without trial in February 1818 for disturbing the peace (he had demanded satisfaction of the Home Secretary; to keep him out of the way Sidmouth paid the costs of his imprisonment out of his own pocket). He came out after a year and joined a London conspiratorial group. At meetings held in the loft at Cato Street he planned to assassinate the cabinet as it sat to dinner in February 1820 at the home of Lord Harrowby, the President of the Council (the heads of Sidmouth and Castlereagh were to put on pikes and paraded through city and a provisional government was to be proclaimed). However, an agent provocateur, George Edwards, had already informed the authorities. Thistlewood and four co-conspirators were hanged at Newgate.
|The arrest of the Cato Street conspirators|
Though the Cato Street conspiracy was amateurish, it showed that the established order was in some danger. As Wellington informed his cabinet colleagues in 1819 a reduced and scattered army of now only 65,000 home-based men could not effectively control a concentrated rebellious outbreak. The behaviour of the crowds at the executions of the conspirators did not seem to bode well. After Peterloo, Manchester was patrolled by troops.
The most dangerous moment the government faced was not the Cato Street conspiracy but the Queen Caroline affair.