Protests and fake news during the Regency era: The Peterloo Massacre

Lately, when we open a newspaper or turn on the television, we’re frequently presented with images of people taking to the streets in protest. And while this might feel like a relatively modern phenomenon, people banning together to try to fight an injustice goes back centuries, if not thousands of years.  Today, I’m going to talk to you about one of the most memorable protests in British history, the Peterloo Massacre.

The protest that became known as the Peterloo Massacre took place in Manchester, England in 1819. But before I tell you about the events of that day, I need to take you back a few years earlier to March of 1817. That’s when newspapers reported that 30,000 men marched into Manchester and seized the North Mail, demolished two factories, and set fire to an entire street of buildings. However, this was Regency era propaganda or as some people might refer to it today, fake news. It simply wasn’t true and the Manchester Mercury, the local paper for the area, set the record straight. One reason the piece of propaganda might have been created was that Manchester did not possess a volunteer force of yeomanry cavalry that existed in other smaller towns in Britain. It was defenseless against unruly mobs of people and, at that time in British history, there had been social and political unrest. So, not long after this story was released in the papers advertisements were posted for volunteers to form a unit and by September of 1818 the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry cavalry was formed. The Manchester Cavalry assisted the civil power in the area and was under the leadership of Major-Commandant Thomas Joseph Trafford, Esq. This group of men wrote themselves into history less than one year later.

Unrest had been growing among working people in manufacturing areas since the end of the Napoleonic war. When the war ended, these people had hoped their lives would improve, however they still were faced with high taxes, rising food prices, and unemployment. They first tried to address this with angry riots. Journalist William Cobbett wrote pieces that explained that misgovernment was responsible for these problems and helped them see that parliamentary reform was the key to improving their situation. People sympathetic to reform began to organize into local clubs. They wanted less waste of public money by both the government and the Church of England, fair taxation, and an end to restrictions on trade. In order to do that, they knew they needed to have a voice in government with workers’ interests represented in Parliament. At the time, Manchester did not have representation in the House of Commons. They knew they needed to change that.

In July of 1819, a notice went out in Manchester announcing a meeting that would be held in St Peter’s Field on August 9th. The point of the meeting was “to take into consideration, the most speedy and effectual mode of obtaining radical reform in the Commons House of Parliament and to consider the propriety of the unrepresented inhabitants of Manchester electing a person to represent them in Parliament.” The local magistrates feared they would have a riot and posted a notice banning the meeting, stating it was an illegal meeting. Reformers discovered the only illegal aspect of the meeting was the intention to elect a representative, so they proposed another meeting on August 16th. This time the intention was to determine what were the legal and effectual means of obtaining reform in the House of Commons. With the removal of the election, the meeting was not contested.

The meeting was to be chaired by Mr. Henry Hunt, the famous radical speaker. Mr. Samuel Bamford (1788-1872), who was another leading radical, wrote about his experiences that day in his memoirs and recounted that Mr. Hunt advised them that the meeting should be as morally upright as possible. He stated that this time they would disarm their opponents with a display of cleanliness, sobriety, and decorum. “In short, we would deserve their respect by showing that we respected ourselves.”

The people planning on attending this meeting met on evenings and Sundays on local moors to practice walking in time with each other so that they would arrive at St Peter’s Field in an orderly manner. This was to be a peaceful assembly where, according to Mr. Bamford, those that brought sticks were told to leave them behind. Some of the working-class radicals who were seeking reform had frequently been taunted by the press about their ragged, dirty appearances. Men, women, and even children walked together to the Field that day wearing some of their best clothes. Women who were active in trying to bring about reform were often ridiculed and called whores for being involved in something that wasn’t their business. On this day, many decided to wear white as a sign of purity of character and motive. It was to be a pleasant summer outing. At a number of trials that took place afterwards both objective and radical observers recalled that the crowd had been peaceful until the Manchester cavalry rode in. It was then that this peaceful assembly took a horrible, deadly turn.

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“Britons Strike Home!!” Illustration by George Cruikshank, 1819. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Mr. Bamford wrote about the day in his memoir, Passages in the Life of a Radical. This is his account of what took place.

“In about half an hour after our arrival the sounds of music and reiterated shouts proclaimed the near approach of Mr. Hunt and his party; and in a minute or two they were seen coming from Deansgate, preceded by a band of music and several flags.

Their approach was hailed by one universal shout from probably 80,000 persons. They threaded their way slowly past us and through the crowd, which Hunt eyed, I thought, with almost as much of astonishment as satisfaction. This spectacle could not be otherwise in his view than solemnly impressive. Such a mass of human beings he had not beheld till then. His responsibility must weigh on his mind. The task was great, and not without its peril. The meeting was indeed a tremendous one.

Mr. Hunt, stepping towards the front of the stage, took off his white hate, and addressed the people. We had got to nearly the outside of the crowd, when a noise and strange murmur arose towards the church. Some persons said with was the Blackburn people coming, and I stood on tiptoe and looked in the direction whence the noise proceeded, and saw a party of cavalry in blue and white uniform come trotting, sword in hand, round the corner of a garden wall, and to the front of a row of new houses, where they reined up in a line.

‘The soliders are here,’ I said; ‘we must go back and see what this means.’ ‘Oh,’ someone made reply, ‘they are only come to be ready if there should be any disturbance in the meeting.’ ‘Well, let us go back,’ I said, and we forced our way towards the colours. 

On the cavalry drawing up they were received with a shout of goodwill, as I understood it. They shouted again, waving their sabres over their heads; and then, slackening rein, and striking spur into their steeds, they dashed forward and began cutting the people…

‘Stand fast,’ I said, ‘they are riding upon us; stand fast.’

The cavalry were in confusion: they evidently could not, with all the weight of man and horse, penetrate that compact mass of human beings and their sabres were pied to hew a way through naked held-up hands and defenceless heads; and then chopped limbs and wound-gaping skulls were seen; and groans and cries were mingled with the din of that horrid confusion.

Many females appeared as the crowd opened; and striplings or mere youths also were found. Their cries were piteous and heart-rendering, and would, one might have supposed, have disarmed any human resentment: but here their appeals were in vain.

In ten minutes from the commencement of the havoc, the field was an open and almost deserted space. The sun looked down through sultry and motionless air. The curtains and blinds of the windows within view were all closed.

The hustings remained, with a few broken and hewed flag-staves erect, and a torn and gashed banner or two dropping; whilst over the whole field were strewn caps, bonnets, hats, shawls, and shoes, and other parts of male and female dress, trampled, torn, and bloody.

Several mounds of human beings still remained where they had fallen, crushed down and smothered. Some of these still groaning, others with staring eyes, were gasping for breath, and others would never breathe more.”

I found conflicting reports on the number of people killed that day. The numbers ranged from 10 to 20 people that were killed and there were approximately 654 people injured. After being horrified by the events, John Cam Hobhouse, a politician and friend of Lord Byron, joined efforts with other radicals and established the Metropolitan and Central Committee to financially assist those who were injured or lost the bread winners of their families. The pamphlet they put out to help them solicit donations listed the deceased as follows: John Ashton and John Ashworth were sabred and then trampled on by the crowd. William Bradshaw and Joshua Whitworth were shot. Thomas Buckley was sabred and stabbed with a bayonet. Robert Campbell was a Special Constable and was killed by a mob in Newton Lane. Mary Heys, James Crompton, and William Evans were trampled on by the cavalry. John Lees, Margaret Downes, and Edmund Dawson died from sabre wounds. William Dawson was sabred, crushed, and killed on the spot. Two-year-old William Fildes was ridden over by cavalry when his mother was carrying him across the road when she was struck by a trooper of the cavalry galloping towards St. Peters Field. Sarah Jones was killed and had a bruise to her head. Arthur Neil was inwardly crushed. And, Martha Partington was thrown into a cellar and killed on the spot.

Samuel Bamford was imprisoned that day for inciting a riot along with Mr Hunt, Joseph Johnson, Mr. Knight, Mr. Saxton, Dr. Healey, Mr. Jones, Mr. Swift, Mr. Wilde, Mrs. Gaunt, and Mrs. Hargreaves. He remained in prison for one year.

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Mr. Samuel Bamford led a group from his native Middleton to St. Peter’s Field. Following his imprisonment, he emerged as a prominent voice for radical reform. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

After all that bloodshed, the magistrates and the cavalry gave justification to the Home Office for their actions and faced no consequences from the British government who believed they were justified in using military force. In January of 1820 new laws were introduced that banned any meeting of more than 50 people without the consent of the local magistrate. But as news of the massacre spread, people across Britain were outraged of the indiscriminate killing of men, women and children. Even George Cruikshank, who had once mocked the female radicals, now created cartoons highlighting sympathy for those who gathered together to stand up for fair treatment by the British government.

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My story ideas often come from historical events and the Peterloo Massacre played a part in the plot of ONE WEEK TO WED, the first book in The Sommersby Brides Regency romance series. This is the story of widowed Lady Charlotte Gregory who believes you can’t fall in love twice in a lifetime. But that belief is tested when she meets the dangerous Lord Andrew Pearce and he brings her respectable, lonely world back to life. One night, they find themselves alone and give in to their desires only to find their secret passion leads to shock, scandal

…and a sudden marriage of convenience.

You can pick up ONE WEEK TO WED at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Google Play, iBooks, and kobo.

Resources and more information:

Bamford, Samuel, Passages in the Life of a Radical. (1844)

Hobson, James, Dark Days of Georgian Britain. (2018)

Anonymous, The Metropolitan and Central Committee Pamphlet. (1820)

Sarah Irving has done some great research on Women at the Peterloo Massacre. You can read about her findings here on the Manchester’s Radical History Blog.