[Marxism] Peterloo: The Story of the Manchester Massacre

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Dec 18 07:12:46 MST 2018

LRB, Vol. 40 No. 24 · 20 December 2018
Opprobrious Epithets
by Katrina Navickas

Peterloo: The Story of the Manchester Massacre by Jacqueline Riding
Head of Zeus, 386 pp, £25.00, October, ISBN 978 1 78669 583 3

I visited the set of Mike Leigh’s Peterloo last year. Jacqueline Riding, 
who was acting as a consultant on the movie and has now written an 
account of the event it commemorates, showed me round the recreated St 
Peter’s Field. Actors wore the military regalia of the 15th regiment of 
hussars and the 13th regiment of foot; there was a wood-panelled room, 
like the one from which the Manchester magistrates had looked out over 
the crowd. I walked away from the hustings to gauge whether it would be 
possible to hear a speaker from five hundred yards. As an exercise in 
historical accuracy, it was pretty impressive, even if this wasn’t 
Manchester but Tilbury Fort, on the Thames Estuary. The Victorians 
filled the area behind what is now St Peter’s Square with grand 
buildings such as the Free Trade Hall (now a hotel) and Manchester 
Central railway station (now a conference centre). Leigh’s set designers 
therefore built early 19th-century Manchester in an Elizabethan fort on 
the Thames. The post-production editor was busy on his laptop erasing 
the passenger ferries, power station and wind turbines on the horizon. I 
have never been in a place layered with so many structures ranging from 
the 16th to the 21st century. But after the crowds of extras assembled 
and the cavalry began to charge, I was transported to Manchester in 1819.

The French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars had exacerbated the divide 
between a rapidly expanding population of industrial workers and the 
governing elite. Unemployment surged after the demobilisation of 
soldiers when war ended in 1815; a severe depression in the textile 
industry combined with food prices kept high by the protectionist Corn 
Laws (introduced in 1815) brought the poor to the brink of starvation. 
The stark new multistorey cotton mills of Manchester and Salford 
employed more and more men, women and children. Textiles, however, were 
still mostly produced in the traditional way by handloom weavers, 
working at home or in small workshops in the towns and villages 
surrounding Manchester, which the French industrialist Léon Faucher 
described as the ‘industrious spider, placed at the centre of a web’. 
Though they were at the forefront of the industrial revolution, 
Manchester and Salford were still governed by a medieval structure of 
lords of the manor, borough-reeves and constables. Like most other 
centres of manufacturing in Britain, Manchester had no MPs. And in 
common with most of the British population, the majority of its twenty 
thousand residents had no vote.

To a large extent, up until 1776, no one seems to have cared all that 
much about this absence of parliamentary representation. The American 
Revolution, in which an economic argument that there should be ‘no 
taxation without representation’ became a political demand for liberty, 
changed everything. Major John Cartwright (who was later to advise the 
Manchester radicals) and Thomas Paine were influenced by the American 
programme in their arguments for domestic reform, Take Your Choice! and 
Common Sense. Yet it was the French Revolution that made the working 
classes begin to see universal manhood suffrage, equal representation 
for all towns, the secret ballot and other democratic reforms as a 
solution to their ills. Paine translated the revolutionary attack on the 
Ancien Régime into British terms in Rights of Man. ‘Corresponding 
societies’ sprang up promoting parliamentary reform among ‘members 

The loyalist reaction against this popular agitation was severe. William 
Pitt the Younger’s government legislated against ‘seditious’ meetings 
and writings, and imprisoned leaders of reform societies and printers of 
the radical press. ‘Church and King’ was the watchword of magistrates 
and manufacturers, who employed spies to root out any evidence of 
radical sympathies. After 1815 a new generation of local activists began 
to campaign alongside veterans of the earlier struggle. Reform societies 
organised large-scale open-air meetings addressed by speakers, and drew 
up petitions to Parliament. Petitions were the unrepresented’s only 
legal form of complaint: the right to petition the monarch and his 
ministers formed the bedrock of the constitutional settlements agreed 
after the Restoration of 1660 and the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Local 
leaders such as Samuel Bamford of Middleton and John Knight of 
Manchester were supported by men of higher social status, such as Henry 
‘Orator’ Hunt, a gentleman farmer originally from Wiltshire. Hunt was 
politically ambitious and a populist in the old sense of the word. He 
came to national attention when he delivered rousing speeches at the 
mass demonstrations on Spa Fields in Islington in the winter of 1816-17. 
The involvement of a republican group, the Spenceans, and the rioting 
that followed the meeting on 2 December dissuaded moderate reformers in 
Parliament such as Sir Francis Burdett from supporting the popular 
agitation. To his credit, Hunt stuck to his principles and to the 
campaign. At the third meeting on Spa Fields in February 1817, 
commenting on Parliament’s rejection of a petition for parliamentary 
reform, he addressed the masses:

These persons have long been in the habit of designating the people by 
the opprobrious epithets of rabble, swinish multitude, and other 
degrading names. Now however … they call you a well-disposed, a good 
sort of people; but say that you are deluded: and pray what is it you 
are deluded by? – Why, by the truth.

On 10 March 1817, hundreds of marchers led by the more militant 
Manchester reformers – John Bagguley, Samuel Drummond, John Johnston and 
William Benbow – set off from St Peter’s Field for London to petition 
the prince regent to dismiss his ministers. The radicals went out of 
their way to demonstrate their knowledge of legal and constitutional 
precedent. Taking Major Cartwright’s advice to separate into groups of 
ten and carry individual petitions listing only twenty names, they tried 
to keep within the bounds of the 1661 Act against Tumultuous 
Petitioning. Only a few marchers managed to get any distance from 
Manchester; most were arrested while still on the field and the others 
were rounded up on the road south, at Stockport or Macclesfield. When a 
stone was thrown at the prince regent’s coach on his way back from the 
opening of Parliament that same month, Lord Liverpool’s Tory government 
enacted another round of repression, suspending the Habeas Corpus Act, 
thus enabling imprisonment without trial. Released from solitary 
confinement in late 1818, the Manchester leaders, along with other 
radicals across the country, renewed their campaign of mass 
demonstrations calling for parliamentary reform.

The Peterloo Massacre has been subject to many conflicting 
interpretations, but the basic narrative of what happened on the day is 
now generally agreed. On Monday, 16 August 1819, more than sixty 
thousand men, women and children from Manchester and the surrounding 
region attended a mass meeting at St Peter’s Field. Henry Hunt joined 
local reformers on the hustings to give speeches considering ‘the 
propriety of the “Unrepresented Inhabitants of Manchester” electing a 
person to represent them in Parliament’. A group of local magistrates, 
watching from the upstairs window of a house overlooking the site, 
issued a warrant for Hunt’s arrest and read the Riot Act, though it is 
unlikely that anyone heard them. Shortly after the meeting started at 
one o’clock, the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry cavalry (consisting of 
volunteers recruited from local publicans and shopkeepers) charged into 
the crowd, attempting to execute the arrest warrant. The inexperienced 
yeomanry broke their line and couldn’t extricate themselves, so the 
military commander, Lieutenant Colonel L’Estrange, ordered his hussars 
(regular troops, not volunteers) to clear the field. As many as 18 
people were killed and more than 650 are recorded as having been 
injured, many of them severely wounded by sabres. Newspaper reporters, 
including John Tyas, who had been sent from London by the Times, dubbed 
the event the ‘Peterloo Massacre’, an ironic reference to the Battle of 
Waterloo four years earlier. The Tory government reacted by passing the 
Six Acts, restricting political demonstrations and other activities 
deemed seditious. Hunt and nine local leaders were tried at York for 
high treason; Samuel Bamford, John Knight, Joseph Healey and Joseph 
Johnson were sentenced to a year in prison on the lesser charge of 
seditious conspiracy; Hunt got two and a half years. The repercussions 
of the legislation and the trial were felt nationally, and the popular 
democratic movement was effectively crushed for a decade until the 
unrest preceding the Reform Bill of 1832, which finally brought some of 
the changes to the electoral system that the radicals had demanded.


Peterloo occupies a contradictory space in British political history and 
cultural memory. It has been celebrated by the left and the trade union 
movement, and bypassed by conservative narratives. Leigh said he made 
his film in part because he had not been taught about Peterloo at 
school. The massacre’s status in the history curriculum has waxed and 
waned depending on which party was in charge of the ‘national story’, 
and on whether what was in fashion was a British history defined by 
monarchs, battles and empire or one more interested in perspectives 
‘from below’. In Manchester, the meaning of Peterloo has been contested 
from the outset. It took more than 150 years for any sort of memorial to 
be established on the site, a discreet plaque on the side of the Free 
Trade Hall. The Conservative-controlled council had declined to organise 
any official commemoration of the 150th anniversary in 1969. According 
to Terry Wyke, a local historian, this was in part an attempt to prevent 
the local Labour Party from using the occasion as a platform for their 
own political programme. It wasn’t until Labour regained control of the 
council that the blue plaque was finally put up, in 1972. Even then, in 
order to appease opposition by local business owners, its wording was 
bland, with no mention of the violence inflicted on the crowd: ‘The site 
of St Peter’s Field, where on 16 August 1819, Henry Hunt, Radical 
Orator, addressed an assembly of about 60,000 people. Their subsequent 
dispersal by the military is remembered as “Peterloo”.’ After lobbying 
by the Peterloo Memorial Campaign, the blue plaque was replaced in 2007 
by a red one with a more forthright text: ‘On 16 August 1819, a peaceful 
rally of 60,000 pro-democracy reformers, men, women and children, was 
attacked by armed cavalry resulting in 15 deaths and over 600 injuries.’ 
A stone memorial designed by the Turner Prize winner Jeremy Deller has 
been commissioned as part of an extensive programme of lottery-funded 
commemorations to mark next year’s bicentenary.

Questions remain about the build-up to 16 August and who was at fault 
that day. Donald Read’s exposition of events, published in 1958, remains 
a standard text. Read regarded Peterloo as a massacre, but argued that 
it resulted from mistakes made by a panicked magistracy rather than from 
premeditation or government diktat. Robert Walmsley’s Peterloo: The Case 
Reopened (1969), published on the 150th anniversary, sought to exonerate 
his ancestor William Hulton, chairman of the Lancashire and Cheshire 
magistrates. Walmsley claimed the justices were the real victims of 
Peterloo, framed by a Radical conspiracy devised by Hunt, Samuel Bamford 
and the newspaper editor Richard Carlile, a ‘free-thinker’. The TLS 
published an acerbic review of Walmsley’s book whose anonymous author 
was later revealed to be E.P. Thompson. In The Making of the English 
Working Class, the second edition of which was published in 1968, 
Thompson depicted Peterloo as a bloody class conflict orchestrated by 
the magistrates and, most likely, by the Home Office.

More recently, Robert Poole has argued that the magistrates were given 
mixed messages by the Home Office. In March 1819, a few months before 
protesters gathered on St Peter’s Field, Henry Hobhouse, permanent under 
secretary to the home secretary, Lord Sidmouth, sent a private letter to 
Colonel Ralph Fletcher, a Bolton magistrate, informing him of ‘the 
opinion long since formed by his Lordship that your Country will not be 
tranquillised, until Blood shall have been shed either by the Law or the 
sword. Lord Sidmouth will not fail to be prepared for either 
alternative.’ When consulting the government solicitors about the 
legality of the August meeting, however, Sidmouth engaged in some 
‘pragmatic backpedalling’, urging the magistrates to find a legal 
solution. But the months of correspondence between the magistrates and 
Hobhouse that preceded this apparent volte-face had inclined the 
magistrates towards the tactic of responding to mass assemblies with 
force. Recent doctoral research by Nathan Bend into Sidmouth’s private 
correspondence shows he had been preparing for a parliamentary inquiry 
which was to be used to justify repressive legislation. The movement was 
to be crushed by both the law and the sword.

Riding’s fast-paced account sticks roughly with Poole and Bend’s 
interpretations, but puts a little more emphasis on the home secretary’s 
desire to crush the popular movement. She agrees that Peterloo was a 
massacre. Conservative interpretations have previously indulged in some 
pedantry about this because the number of deaths did not reach the 
proportions familiar to us from the 20th century. But this fails to take 
into account the scale and manner of the injuries inflicted on the 654 
people whose names are listed in the register of the relief fund set up 
soon afterwards to support the victims.

Riding relays some of the horrifying detail recorded in the relief book, 
though she doesn’t list the names of the 18 now known to have been 
killed: John Ashton, William Bradshaw, Thomas Buckley, James Crompton, 
Edmund Dawson, Margaret Downes, William Evans, William Fildes, Samuel 
Hall, Mary Heyes, Sarah Jones, John Lees, Arthur O’Neill, Martha 
Partington, John Rhodes, Joseph Whitworth, and two special constables, 
John Ashworth and Robert Campbell. There were undoubtedly many more 
injured people who didn’t seek medical attention or relief for fear of 
being arrested or dismissed for having attended the meeting. The 
proportion of women injured was particularly high, reflecting another 
significant aspect of Peterloo’s place in the story of democracy. 
Working-class women in Lancashire and Cheshire had formed their own 
political societies campaigning for parliamentary reform early in 1819; 
though they were not committed to female suffrage, it was a bold advance 
in women’s political activism. The leader of the Manchester Female 
Reform Society, Mary Fildes, was on the hustings of Peterloo alongside 
the male speakers. The high number of casualties suggests that the 
women, who were dressed in white, were targeted by yeomanry who saw them 
as transgressing their domestic role.

Riding does a decent job elsewhere of filling in the gaps and her 
account serves as a corrective to Leigh’s departures from the record. In 
particular, she gives a more nuanced account of Hunt’s relationship with 
the provincial radical movement, drawing on the work of John Belchem, 
Hunt’s biographer. Leigh’s film imagines the Manchester radicals 
talent-spotting Hunt at a meeting in London. In fact Hunt was in 
Manchester for several days in January 1819 and had already addressed a 
meeting of eight thousand people at St Peter’s Field. Riding rightly 
notes that the January meeting can be seen as a dress rehearsal for the 
August rally. Joseph Johnson, secretary of the Patriotic Union Society, 
which organised both events, met Hunt in January and the two 
corresponded afterwards.

The 16 August meeting was not a one-off demonstration disconnected from 
London radicalism. It wasn’t merely a complaint about the economic 
conditions in the Manchester cotton district either. It was part of a 
much bigger programme of popular agitation: Hunt and other ‘gentleman 
leaders’ had already addressed several mass meetings in London, 
Birmingham, Leeds, Stockport and other major manufacturing towns. Riding 
suggests that Hunt saw the Manchester meeting as ‘the first of many such 
mass demonstrations across the country, increasing in strength and scale 
until they culminated in one great “monster” meeting in the capital’. 
The meeting at St Peter’s Field was scheduled for 9 August but was 
postponed after the Manchester leaders took legal advice in anticipation 
of the magistrates’ response. Their initial plan had been to emulate a 
meeting at Birmingham, which had voted to elect its own MPs, but this 
was deemed to be verging on sedition. They therefore proposed instead 
merely to ‘consider the propriety’ of electing a representative. The 
radicals were determined to stay within the law. The actions of the 
magistrates and military in Manchester placed them outside it.

In Riding’s book, individual members of the elite are described much 
more fully than any of the working-class reformers, a top-down approach 
that is shaped by Riding’s reliance on archival material of Home Office 
correspondence and published trial reports. Popular radicalism is 
refracted through the perspective of the brutish Joseph Nadin, the 
deputy constable of Manchester, and his special constables; of Sidmouth 
and Hobhouse; of the prince regent (whose character is sketched as if by 
the caricaturist George Cruikshank); of the members of the Manchester 
and Salford bench; and of the informers and agents provocateurs who were 
determined to unearth signs of Jacobinism among the starving handloom 
weavers of industrial Lancashire. Riding is careful to add the proviso 
that spies must often have been providing exaggerated information 
because they wanted to be paid, but she still tends to use their reports 
to carry the narrative forward. Challenging their veracity is crucial, 
however, since it is easy to be drawn in by their more salacious claims. 
(The informer known as ‘E.H.’, for example, reported that ‘the Jacobins 
are more determined than ever, either to have what they want, or to shed 
the blood of those who oppose them.’) Less attention is paid to the 
radicals’ own writings, or to witness statements, newspaper reports and 
speeches. Samuel Bamford’s well-crafted autobiography, Passages in the 
Life of a Radical (1844), is relied on for details of the radicals’ 
preparations for St Peter’s Field, but not used to give a fuller picture 
of his fellow activists.

There is much more to find out about the handloom weavers and artisans 
from the cotton towns of Oldham, Rochdale, Ashton-under-Lyne, Stockport 
and elsewhere who formed a large proportion of the casualty lists. They 
are not understood as individuals, and not heard loudly enough as a 
collective, an omission that reflects historians’ current ambivalence 
about ascribing Peterloo’s causes to class conflict. Riding’s concluding 
chapter outlines the progress of the democratic movement through the 
Reform Acts, Chartism and the suffragettes. But on the question of 
whether Peterloo had ‘any lasting impact’, she merely says that it 
‘certainly drew national attention to the conditions of the working man, 
woman and child in the manufacturing districts of Great Britain.’ 
Peterloo is the story of a moment of terrible repression by the few of 
the many, and we shouldn’t be afraid of saying that the working-class 
demonstrators were in the right.

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