Peterloo in its historical perspective, part 2

As a result of the industrial revolution, a new class, the urban proletariat, was emerging onto the political and social scene in 1819.

Lalkar writers

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Coloured engraving depicts the Peterloo massacre with Henry Hunt and others on the platform in St Peter’s Field, Manchester, as the yeomanry cavalry attacks the assembled crowd.

Lalkar writers

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To mark the bicentenary of the Peterloo massacre, we are producing a most enlightening presentation on the subject of Peterloo given to the Stalin Society in London in July 2019. Read part one.


Government in 1819

1. The national government

Nationally, the Tories had been in power since 1783 and were to continue in power until 1830 (including very brief periods of coalition government with the Whigs), when, after the death of George IV (the Prince Regent until 1820), a period of Whig party administrations began which finally saw the enactment of many of the reforms (at least partially) to parliament and voting, to the Poor Law, to taxes and to local government that had been demanded since before 1819 but which came more to the fore after the national scandal of the massacre of ‘Peterloo’ and under pressure from the industrialists.

It was not until 1846, however, that prime minister Sir Robert Peel finally heeded the arguments of the increasingly powerful industrial bourgeoisie and repealed the Corn Laws, splitting the Tory party in the process.

The function of the national government in the 18th century was to wage war abroad when needed and to keep order at home by the exercise of force against the labouring classes – and not much else. The latter part was made more difficult when industrialisation suddenly created large bodies of workers assembled together in one place with a new awareness of their need to act together in their common interest and of their ability to organise themselves to do that.

Reality is always in advance of consciousness, however, and the old ruling class and governing parties did not appreciate immediately the potential of this new force, while the workers’ employers were just interested in keeping the stopper on the bottle as far as possible.

The Home Office, with the responsibility of keeping peace at home, had just 23 people on its payroll in 1819, excluding the home secretary but including a housekeeper. The main actors in the Home Office in 1819 were Lord Sidmouth, the home secretary (formerly plain Mr Henry Addington, who, while briefly PM in 1801-02, had introduced the income tax in order to help pay the £800m cost of the wars with France), and his permanent under-secretary, Henry Hobhouse, an ambitious lawyer and former barrister who had taken part in the prosecution of the Luddite rebels.

Sidmouth appointed and exercised authority over the magistrates throughout the country, who were unpaid volunteers from the clergy and landed gentry responsible for imposing law and order locally. He also controlled a network of spies, both directly and via payments to magistrates for them to appoint their own spy networks, all reporting back to him in Whitehall.

The armed forces had a role in enforcing law and order at home, as well as in waging war against enemies abroad. As home secretary, Lord Sidmouth was responsible for appointing the officers who oversaw the troops stationed in the regions for this purpose.

In 1816, Sidmouth appointed General Sir John Byng as commander of the northern forces. Sir John was responsible for the area around Manchester, but chose to live the other side of the Pennines, in Yorkshire, where he found a large house with commodious stables and a substantial estate, Campsmount, by Campsall village, which enabled him not just to grow corn but also to stable his many horses.

Sir John was a keen follower of the turf, breeding and racing horses, and his new home was ideally placed for the race courses in York, Doncaster and Pontefract. He was a veteran of Wellington’s Peninsular campaign and of Waterloo, and had also served in Ireland at the time of the Irish rebellion of 1798.

He was a very experienced soldier and officer, both at home and abroad. Sidmouth approved of him and, at their very first meeting, instructed his secretary, Henry Hobhouse, that Sir John should be sent copies of all the letters which crossed his (Sidmouth’s) desk regarding the northern region.

Sidmouth regularly received reports from his own and the magistrates’ spies in the Manchester area, and relied upon these for the information upon which to decide his actions relating to that area.

2. Parliament

Then as now, Parliament consisted of the Houses of Lords and of Commons. The House of Lords included all the hereditary peers and senior bishops. The House of Commons consisted of elected members of parliament (MPs), who must be commoners and not peers (though they could be and often were the sons of peers, waiting to inherit the main title).

To become an MP, or to vote for one, there was a property requirement of owning or renting property of a minimum annual rental value of £300. The constituency boundaries had not changed since 1660, with the result that places which no longer had populations returned MPs, while the new industrial towns returned none.

The majority of MPs were elected by just 154 voters, some of whom sat in House of Lords. What became known as ‘rotten boroughs’ were plentiful, where MPs’ seats were at the disposal of the local aristocrat/chief landowner.

Old Sarum, a hill with sheep as its main population and just six voters, returned two MPs to parliament; in three boroughs, two members were sent to parliament by just one voter in each; 12 members were returned by just 11 voters in total; while Manchester, Salford, Bolton, Blackburn, Rochdale, Ashton, Oldham and Stockport had not one MP between them.

The whole of Lancashire had just four MPs: two elected for the county as a whole and two for Liverpool.

No MPs were paid unless and until they were given an appointment to a post in government. MPs often had to expend money to buy a seat or votes, but Parliament was seen as a route to power and influence (then money). Parliament voted an annual civil list of sinecurists.

For example, in 1816 Lord Arden was given £39,000 and Earl Bathurst £33,000. Senior churchmen were also well paid. The Bishop of Durham, for example, received £24,000 a year (multiply these sums by 125 to get equivalent figures for today).

In the same year, the government put aside a fund of £42,000 for the relief of distressed areas, calculated to be enough for every poor person in the country to have tuppence worth of soup.

The system cried out for reform.

3. Local government

The form of local government prevalent in 1819 would be unrecognisable to us now, accustomed as we are to the shape given to it by the Local Government Acts of the mid to late 19th century, which established for the first time town councils for the new industrial cities, divided roles between the towns and counties, and which still substantially shape our idea of what local government should be today, even though much has been altered (and altered again) by later amending acts, especially since WWII.

In 1819, much of local government followed the same pattern as in feudal times. Larger settlements and market towns were recognised and given powers of self-government by royal charter, but otherwise local government was predicated upon rural communities with small villages or towns where all were known to each other.

So Manchester, which had never been more than a very small town before industrialisation, was in 1819 still governed by the lord of the manor, who called the local men of property (owning or renting property with an annual rental value of £30 or more) to an annual court leet, which then elected the boroughreeve (the town’s first citizen) for one year from among their ranks.

To keep law and order, the boroughreeve (the premier townsman, one Mr Edward Clayton in 1819) had the assistance of a permanent, paid deputy police constable (in 1819, this was Joseph Nadin, a former master spinner who had long been in post and who had enriched himself by corruptly selling tickets of exemption from parish duties), who in turn could enrol volunteer special constables when the need arose.

Police commissioners were similarly elected each year, and they had responsibility for cleaning and maintaining the streets. There were also church wardens to organise the parishes, and beadles as a paid workforce under the deputy constable.

All the electors and the elected had to satisfy a property qualification, which was generally the same as that required of prospective MPs. It was a ramshackle arrangement which worked only because the elected officers and the 17 volunteer magistrates (led by the chief magistrate of Salford, the Reverend Mr Hay, who was relied upon by Sidmouth as a stern judge at the time of the Luddite rebellion) and one stipendiary magistrate (Mr Norris in 1819) with whom they had to work were all drawn from the same limited pool of men – mainly aristocrats and other landowners who were all high Tories and high Anglicans.

4. The yeomanry

A new factor in Manchester in 1819 was the Manchester and Salford yeomanry. Yeomanry were amateur cavalry, self-appointed and recruited usually from the landed gentry of the counties where they existed, subject to the approval of the home secretary.

The Cheshire yeomanry was of longer standing and was a well-trained and well-equipped force under the command of Sir John Leicester, who paid for their uniforms himself. His second-in-command was Colonel Townshend.

To become a member of any Yeomanry meant you had to be wealthy enough to own and keep a horse and equip yourself with a sabre, the cavalryman’s sword, and (usually) a uniform. In Manchester, the new yeomanry was of a rather different composition from most county yeomanry, and had nothing whatsoever to do with landowning farmers, the yeomen of old.

Formed in 1817 in response to the Luddite rebellion, it was made up of a few manufacturers, many publicans and a variety of different tradesmen. They were under the command of Thomas Trafford and Hugh Birley, both manufacturers.

They were enthusiastic but relatively untrained and inexperienced. The fact that they were predominantly petty-bourgeois may explain their zeal on 16 August 1819 (having greater insecurity and a greater fear of the workers than the professional soldiers or their aristocratic commanders), when they were the force that inflicted the greater part of the injuries suffered by those attending the fateful and fatal meeting on St Peter’s Field.

Working-class resistance: strikes, petitions and the movement for parliamentary reform

Technological change and economic hardship fuelled popular unrest, both before and after 1819.

1. The Luddites

The first example of resistance to the new conditions of work was found in the Luddite rebellion of 1811-13. That rebellion was unfocussed, with no national organisation, and it concentrated on destroying the machines that textile workers saw as destroying their livelihoods.

Beginning in Nottinghamshire in 1811, the movement spread to Lancashire and Yorkshire. Although sporadic outbreaks continued till 1817, the rebellion effectively ended with the mass trials in York in 1813 (after Parliament in 1812 made frame-breaking a capital offence), which resulted in 17 hanged and many transported.

At one time, there were more soldiers fighting the Luddites than were fighting Napoleon’s forces. Lord Byron, speaking in the House of Lords in February 1812, opposed the proposed law to make frame-breaking a capital offence, denouncing what he considered to be the government’s insane policies and ruthless repression, and said about the plight of the working class:

“I have been in some of the most oppressed provinces of Turkey; but never, under the most despotic of infidel governments, did I behold such squalid wretchedness as I have seen since my return, in the very heart of a christian country.”

2. The blanketeers

The most striking example of a petition to government by workers desperate for relief from their plight was that of the ‘blanketeers’ in 1817.

In 1817, the focus of unrest had become concentrated in the new and rapidly expanding cotton-spinning and weaving areas of Lancashire, in particular the town rising to be Britain’s industrial hub: Manchester, the first ever town built on industrial mass production by machine power. Manchester: spinning sheds and weaving mills, ever increasing in size; in the centre the counting, where the many thousands of cotton workers lived. (GH Wood, The History of Wages in the Cotton Trade during the Past Hundred Years, 1910)

In the town centre alone there were 43 factories, employing 12,940 workers in total, varying in size with five housing 400-700 workers, three with 800-1,200 and the largest with 1,215. There were some 20,000 spinners in Manchester’s spinning mills in 1819, and as there were twice as many handloom weavers to machine-spinners nationally at that date it can be estimated that there were 40,000 handloom weavers in Manchester then, working individually or in small weaving sheds.

There were only about 11,000 power-loom workers in the whole country, and handloom weavers outnumbered power-loom workers nationally by 22 to 1 in 1820. There are no figures to show how many of the latter were working in Manchester in 1819, but there were likely to be a greater proportion of power-loom workers there than the national average, given Manchester’s pre-eminence as the hub of innovation. (GH Wood, ibid)

During the 22 years of war with France, there had been a demand for workers both in the army and the navy, and also in industries servicing the war effort, although demand for cotton products fluctuated after 1810. After Waterloo, in 1815, when the bogeyman and ‘tyrant’ Napoleon had been defeated by that celebrated, bloody and costly victory, and the average Briton looked forward to a time of peace and plenty, there was instead a perfect storm of adverse events: a sudden downturn in all trade as the demand for war materials was removed from the market; an increase in men looking for work as soldiers and sailors were discharged from army and navy; the Corn Laws, and a disastrous harvest around the world following a volcanic eruption in Indonesia in 1815, which effectively stopped summer in 1816.

Adverse conditions during the last years of the war had been played down while the need for national unity in the face of the enemy had worked its magic on the majority of the population. After 1815, there was no longer any way to divert the workers from focussing on their own, most pressing needs.

Handloom weavers were some of the worst affected by the adverse trade conditions during the final years and following the end of the Napoleonic wars. Weaving was a skill which was easy to learn, and weavers could set up their looms at home in an atmosphere of independence, without having to ask anyone else for employment or to submit to factory discipline.

Many Irish immigrants, as well as discharged soldiers and sailors, chose this occupation, joining the many already established in the trade. The newcomers may have had the illusion that they could prosper in the way that handloom weavers had prospered in the past, but in truth theirs was a doomed trade, destined soon to disappear under the force of competition from the power loom.

In the meantime, they were more piece-workers than independent artisans, often having to work in insanitary weaving sheds, not even independently at home as had formerly been the practice and was still the cherished ideal.

This new type of handloom weaver was just one step away from being true working-class – a proletarian, rather than a petty bourgeois like the established, skilled weaver with a customer base for the more expensive cloths requiring the greater skills to make.

With spinning machines producing more yarn more quickly than ever before, it might be thought that there would be plenty of work for more weavers, but the collapse of trade after the end of the war, along with the quadrupling of taxes, the doubling of rents during the last years of the war and the increase in the handloom weavers’ numbers, meant that it was very difficult for the newer weavers to make a living: their living standards were the most depressed of all the workers.

The Times reported (in 1819, but conditions would not have been better during the slump of 1817) about one area where the workers lived:

“It is occupied chiefly by spinners, weavers and Irish of the lowest description … Its present situation is truly heart-rending and over-powering. The streets are confined and dirty; the houses neglected and the windows often without glass. Out of the windows the miserable rags of the family … hung up to dry; the household furniture, the bedding, the clothes of the children and the husband were seen at the pawnbrokers.”

And with nothing else left, the family then made bedding out of sacks stuffed with wood shavings and lived in cellars, living almost entirely on potatoes or on oatmeal mixed with salt

A return of wages and prices in the Manchester area, which was prepared for the prosecution at the trials following Peterloo, showed how handloom weavers’ wages had halved between the years of 1810 and 1819, while living costs had gone up.

Based on a working week of six days of up to 16 hours per day, wages for different levels of weaving in 1810 were between 12s and 21s per week and in 1819 between 6s and 11s 3d, whereas the weavers’ staple diet of potatoes and oatmeal, based on the cost in 1810 being the base rate of 100, in 1819 cost 110. (Tables of wages and prices reproduced in the Reports of State Trials 1888, I, Appendix G and reported in both the Manchester Mercury and the Manchester Gazette in January 1820)

The figures for 1817 were in many instances worse, with weavers’ pay varying from 5s 7d to 11s 1d, with five out of ten categories paid less in 1817 even than in 1819, and the cost of potatoes and oatmeal was 20-30 percent more than in 1810 and thus more than in 1819: only 1812-13 were worse years for pay and prices.

Machine spinners in the factories were complaining in 1819 that their wages also had halved since 1810, but they were receiving 15s per week in 1819 (down from 30s in 1810) and so were receiving in 1819 the wage that the handloom weavers were then demanding.

But the handloom weavers long maintained a petty-bourgeois mindset and looked to petitions to the crown and the government as a means of obtaining relief from their plight. The weavers had not been interested in politics until the depth of their distress made some of them turn towards the ideas of the reformers, and in 1817 they prepared a petition to the Prince Regent which for the first time looked for a political remedy to their problems.

Their petition began by recalling the failure of the economic agitations of the war years, then found the cause of the sad state of affairs to be political, and hence its remedy to lie in political reform:

“Your petitioners, before the last war, neither felt nor feared difficulties or privations; but during its continuance have frequently experienced both, and have repeatedly applied to your Royal Father, your Royal Highness, and the House of Commons, for redress, which applications, we are sorry to say, have in our humble, but firm, belief, not received the attention which their importance merited; so that now, when the waste of war is over, our sufferings are become both more general and deeper than ever …

“This state of things we … attribute to the rapid increase in taxation, which has been quadrupled, together with the increase of rent, which has probably been doubled during the war; which, together so nearly absorb the whole produce of the kingdom, as to leave a quantity very far short of sufficient to keep your petitioners in existence, and therefore their lives are now become a burden and a plague to them …

“Your distressed petitioners are … convinced, that if the House of Commons had really emanated from and been wholly and annually appointed by, the people at large, this war, and the taxation resulting therefrom, would long ago have received sufficient check … Your petitioners therefore, humbly but fervently pray, that your Royal Highness will instantly dismiss from your councils all those ministers who have advised or devised such cruel, such unjust measures, and call to your councils men who are declared or avowed friends to conciliatory measures – to parliamentary reform – and a general and very considerable retrenchment in every part of national expenditure.

“Our lives are in your hands – our happiness, in great measure depends on you. If you procure the adoption of measures calculated to relieve us, you may then safely rely upon our support and gratitude – WITHOUT THIS WE CAN NEITHER SUPPORT YOU NOR OURSELVES.” [The ‘unjust measures’ referred to are discussed below]

It was decided to take this petition to the government in London by hand, and it having been discovered that an old law of Charles I’s time made petitions submitted by no more than ten people legal, it was decided that the petitioners would walk to London in groups of ten, each group carrying a copy of the petition and each marcher taking just a blanket for his covering by night, otherwise relying on supporters and sympathisers en route to provide the group with the necessities of food, drink and shelter as they travelled. They were the forbears of the Jarrow marchers of the 1930s.

The men were to gather on St Peter’s Field on 2 March 1817, before setting off. The principal speakers and organisers were three working-class radicals: John Bagguley, John Johnston and Samuel Drummond (of whom more anon). Twenty-four hours before the planned march was to begin, deputy constable Nadin was ordered to arrest Johnston along with the printer of the petitions, one William Ogden.

By 10.00am on the day of the meeting, Rev Hay estimated that 12,000 marchers were on the streets of Manchester. The magistrates had earlier asked for help from Sir John Byng, but he was reluctant to intervene initially, though on the day he was present with a squadron of cavalry on a street next to St Peter’s Field, where between 40,000 (Manchester Gazette) and 60,000 (The Times) people were gathered.

There were also the rest of the cavalry regiment, the King’s Dragoon Guards, five mounted troops of the Cheshire yeomanry, a detachment of the 85th infantry regiment and two companies of the 54th nearby.

General Byng was in command of all, in order to “present the best order among the troops, to prevent any wanton use of them … I am therefore answerable for their appearance there,” he said.

Bagguley and Drummond arrived at 10.00am and both spoke from the makeshift hustings before a collection was taken. Byng had agreed that the magistrate Holland Watson and the boroughreeve, Mr Green, would go into the crowd with his own troop of cavalry and Watson would read the Riot Act demanding that the workers disperse. The other troops would move at Byng’s command, and Nadin would have special constables ready to accompany each troop.

As the marchers began to leave, now grouped in fives, Byng sent a message to the magistrates, gathered nearby, and waited for their answer. When the reply came, Byng led his troop to the hustings cart. According to plan, Watson and Green went ahead and read the Riot Act, to jeers from the crowd.

Nadin and his specials moved in on the hustings, followed by the (very experienced) King’s Dragoon Guards, who in a ‘neat’ movement wheeled and turned and surrounded the hustings cart, isolating it from the crowd, so that in seconds Nadin had Drummond and Bagguley in irons.

Hundreds had left the field already, unaware of what happened after. They were intercepted before Stockport by John Lloyd and a second troop of Cheshire yeomanry, 163 being taken prisoner there and 180, who had evaded Lloyd and the yeomanry, being arrested in Macclesfield, the next town on the route to London.

A few groups who reached further were persuaded to go back home. Revd Hay was jubilant that “The proposed attack on Manchester has been averted.”

Just one man reached London and presented his petition, which Sidmouth had seen before, of course, when it was sent to him by his spies. There were no injuries to any of the forces of law and order, though there were reports of such circulating.

The arrested marchers were interviewed, but Sidmouth regarded them as naive and misled, so only the leaders were prosecuted. The marchers were mainly uneducated, underfed, badly clothed, unarmed and unemployed.

One man was killed by a sabre cut in the field, though Byng had instructed his men to use only the flat of their sabres. More were trampled by the horses. There was spoken and written criticism of the military operation against an orderly gathering of unarmed workers and a widespread view that it was only luck that prevented larger casualties.

Nothing was done by the government in response to this petition, and nothing came, either, of the implicit threat by the weavers contained in the last sentence.

Petitions were not the means of obtaining redress. What was needed was representation, and that needed reform of Parliament.

3. Parliamentary reform: reformers and radicals

In 1812, the country had been closer to national rebellion than at any time since the Civil War: only severe repression (and the hanging of the Luddites) plus the unifying effect of the war against France had stopped it.

Demands for the reform of Parliament became clearer after 1812, and were voiced by men from the middle and upper classes: Sir Frances Burdett, baronet and MP; William Cobbett, writer and publisher of the Political Register and, after 1816, a cheaper version for workers, the Twopenny Trash; Henry Hunt, west-country landowner who fought and lost the Bristol election in 1812 as a radical.

There was also Major John Cartwright, who had published a book in 1776 called Take Your Choice, which set out four demands that were later to be adopted by the radicals and the Chartists. These were for MPs to be elected from areas of equal population, for universal male suffrage, for secret ballots, and for annually-elected parliaments.

He was too far ahead of his time; it was not until 1919 that these reforms all were achieved (save for the annual parliament, abandoned as impractical). The French Revolution frightened the ruling class too much to consider reform, and then the war with France pushed it off the agenda.

Cartwright was roused to action in 1812 by the arrest of 38 men in Manchester who had met to discuss a petition for parliamentary reform, and he set off to finance their defence. When the case against them failed he went on to visit the new industrial towns of the north. He visited towns in eight counties in 29 days and returned with a petition for parliamentary reform with 130,000 signatures. He saw the two nations that England had become.

Sir Frances Burdett and Major John Cartwright founded the Hampden Club in London in 1812 for members dedicated to parliamentary reform; it was open only to men with property having an annual income of £300 or more (the same as for MPs), and it did not prosper.

Cartwright in 1816 set up local Hampden clubs in country districts and manufacturing towns which would be open to all men without restriction, with workers paying penny subscriptions. These were popular, being organisations that were legal when unions formed by working men were outlawed.

Cartwright planned a London rally of delegates from the clubs. Henry Hunt also planned a mass meeting in London, and on 15 November 1816 he spoke to a large crowd in Spa Fields in Southwark. Hunt spoke again there on 2 December, and this time some of his hearers ran amok.

News of this meeting and of the speaker was carried back to the northern towns, and was greeted with some workers there also going on the rampage. Spies reported all these events (with some exaggeration) to Sidmouth, who believed that an insurrection centred on Manchester was being planned.

In 1817, Sidmouth also received news of strikes in the north, as well as of Hampden club meetings in many of the northern towns, though these meetings were peaceful and orderly.

There were also reformers and radicals in the ranks of the workers. Chief among them were Samuel Bamford and John Bagguley.

Bamford, the secretary of the Middleton Hampden club, was a handloom weaver and a worker-poet who organised decorous meetings to discuss reform (he boycotted the ‘Blanket March’); he was a worker, but a petty-bourgeois artisan, not a member of the new industrial working class.

John Bagguley, even though barely 18 years old in 1817, was that new phenomenon, a literate member of the working class (having been raised by literate parents, products of the Sunday schools for workers which had first been set up by the followers of the methodist John Wesley, who was the prophet for the working classes of the late 18th and early 19th centuries).

Bagguley was already a writer and a teacher of cotton workers and their children. He said of himself: “I am a leveller, a reformer and a republican.” He was an eloquent orator who travelled around the industrial towns of Lancashire and attracted large numbers (up to 3,000) of the poor, distressed and despairing workers to his out-of-town meetings, where he addressed his listeners in the language of reform and often too of violence and revolution.

He had two companions when he addressed these meetings: Samuel Drummond, son of Irish immigrant parents, and John Johnston, discharged from the navy and now a Salford tailor.

John Knight was a small-time cotton manufacturer from Manchester and an ardent and veteran reformer who filled a place between the wealthy reformers and the workers. He tried to warn these younger reformers against using seditious language.

By 1817, both Bagguley and Bamford, when they were organising meetings of workers, were wary of the spies of Nadin and his special constables, but Bagguley inadvertently had become friends with a spy from another quarter: an employee of William Chippindale, spymaster and manufacturer from Oldham, who worked with the Bolton magistrate, Col Ralph Fletcher.

The Home Office spies (managed by Sidmouth’s brother and unofficial deputy secretary Hiley) as well as the spies of the magistrate Rev Hay (chief magistrate of Salford and Manchester), of Joseph Nadin and of the clerk to the Cheshire magistrates, John Lloyd, all reported to Sidmouth of the dangers of workers in the north banding together and organising an armed insurrection.

Sidmouth became anxious about the Hampden clubs as well. In January 1817, a meeting of delegates of provincial Hampden clubs was organised in London, chaired by Cartwright, which included Samuel Bamford as well as Cobett and Hunt.

They discussed reform: Cartwright and Cobbett wanted the vote for householders only, but Hunt and Bamford wanted one man, one vote. Hunt won and his reputation grew in the northern towns.

4. Repression

On 28 January 1817, at the opening of Parliament, Hunt presented a petition for reform at the Palace of Westminster among enthusiastic crowds.

After the Prince Regent had addressed Parliament, on his way back to his residence, something – possibly a potato – was thrown at his carriage, breaking a window but causing no injury. Later that day, the damage was reported to the House of Lords by Sidmouth as caused by the bullet of a gun aimed at the Prince.

No culprit could be found, but Sidmouth used the event to crack down on the Hampden clubs and the mass meetings which alarmed him.

In February 1817, acts were passed which curtailed the right of public meeting (the prior sanction of the magistrates was required, who could arrest anyone speaking sedition) and all societies which formed links with ‘fraternised branches’ or which sent delegates as their representatives to other societies were made illegal.

Sidmouth then persuaded Parliament to suspend the Habeas Corpus Act – which prevented arrest and detention without trial. Result: a grip on the internal affairs on the nation unrivalled in time of peace at any time before or since.

Ballads, the popular means of spreading news and views to a largely illiterate population, compared the tyranny of Napoleon, whom the British soldier had defeated at Waterloo, to that of the new-minted tyrants at home.

In January and February 1817, there was scarcely a day when a meeting of workers was not organised outside Manchester, and other nearby towns as well. John Bagguley was attracting audiences of over 3,000.

He called for petitions to the king, but also for blood and revolution and for the English workers to follow the Irish lead (1798). He it was that adopted the idea that ten people could (under an old law from Charles I) take a petition to Parliament for re-instatement of habeas corpus and for parliamentary reform without it being an illegal assembly, and organised the blanketeers.

Before the march, Bagguley, Drummond and Johnston had held frequent meetings of growing size, assuring their audiences that they would be joined by workers from Yorkshire and Scotland. After the meeting of 2 March, six more of the most prominent of the working-class radicals were arrested and imprisoned, including Bamford, who had had nothing to do with the ‘Blanket March’.

Even the upper- and middle-class reformers were aware of the further curtailment of their civil liberties and the interception of their correspondence. Cobbett left England for the USA. The prisoners from Lancashire were interviewed and half were released by the Privy Council, including Bamford, half remaining in prison for unspecified periods.

The workers’ leaders were charismatic but inexperienced. No benefit had been achieved for the northern worker following the blanketeers’ debacle: he was still poor and unemancipated and the laws governing him were unchanged.

Arguably, no other outcome could have been expected, as the government was not likely to interfere further with the market by legislating for wages, nor could it wipe out the national debt incurred in the war: that was now a fact.

Reforming Parliament was a matter of political will, however, and every new struggle by the workers helped to bring it nearer the top of the agenda.

5. Strikes

The summer of 1817 was fine and the harvest good so prices of wheat fell. Trade improved. Sidmouth released Drummond and Knight and some other radicals, Bagguley came out of solitary confinement and was later released, and habeas corpus was restored.

But the economic benefits were not shared either with industrial or agricultural workers, whose condition did not improve. It was only a lull before the next storm.

In 1818, agitation for reform continued, but Sidmouth became ill and his brother Hiley (chief spymaster) left the Home Office, weakening Sidmouth’s hold on affairs. Henry Hobhouse, a relatively young and ambitious lawyer (who as a barrister had played a prominent role in the prosecution of the Luddites, calling for the severest punishments) had just been appointed permanent under-secretary to the Home Office; he was to play a crucial role in the events leading up to August 1819 in the increasingly long and frequent absences of Sidmouth.

Hobhouse had known John Lloyd, another barrister and clerk to the Cheshire magistrates, during the period of the capture and prosecution of the Luddites. They now began to work together again and were in regular correspondence.

One of Lloyd’s letters shows his awareness of the workers’ plight, though he did not become any more sympathetic to the radicals or reformers as a result. He wrote: “it is known that the manufacturers do not pay their work people proper wages according to their profits”.

He gave figures: in 1813 imports of cotton were 141,500 bags of raw cotton; in 1817 this had risen to 477,160 bags: “£8 million worth of bags converted to £32 million worth of cloth”. He continued: “If the present system is continued much longer the only difference between the work of the people of the cotton planters [ie, the slaves on the plantations] and the work of the people of the cotton manufacturers will be the colour of their skins.”

In 1818 even the spymaster Mr Chippindale was moved to point out to his magistrate, Col Fletcher, how bad conditions were for weavers in his own town of Oldham. Chippindale observed that manufacturers did nothing to allay the extreme suffering very low wages caused, yet the weavers continued to conduct themselves in an orderly way.

But by summer of 1818, strikes were beginning: of builders, then of colliers, spinners and weavers. When one remembers that all forms of workers’ unions were illegal and strikers could be prosecuted as parties to ‘a conspiracy to increase wages’ (a capital offence), then the courage of the workers in striking is the more remarkable; it is an indication of their desperate position as well as of their growing awareness of their own industrial muscle.

Bagguley was now based with an uncle in Stockport where he had set up day and evening literacy classes for workers, much to the chagrin of Lloyd, as Bagguley was now well placed to join his cause of reform with that of the striking workers.

There was violence on the streets of Manchester and Stockport. Lloyd took 20 prisoners on 17 July from a crowd of protesting strikers outside a factory where blackleg spinners were employed, with the help of dismounted Manchester yeomanry.

Bagguley wrote to the press to denounce the tyrannical behaviour and Hobhouse believed he should be arrested at once. As Hay did not respond to his requests for action, as chief magistrate for the area, Hobhouse asked Lloyd instead, who was happy to oblige, especially as Bagguley was again addressing crowds of thousands outside the town, but Lloyd could not persuade the solicitor general, Mr Topping, that any of the proposed charges would stand up in court.

Hay was increasingly ill and so handed most of his functions to the stipendiary magistrate, Mr Norris, including that of reporting to government. Johnston, Drummond and Bagguley were now addressing the strikers’ meetings in Stockport and promoting the slogan ‘Death or Liberty!’

Norris wrote to recommend that the government should send artillery to the town, writing: “If the thing continue a day longer it will be necessary to put every mill on its defence and many lives will be lost. In short, I do look to some bloodshed in this affair and perhaps it may be for the best.”

On 3 September 1818, there were processions of strikers through Stockport and a separate mass meeting of 3,000, including spinners (but not weavers), addressed by Bagguley, Drummond and Johnston, as well as by some of the spinners. Lloyd was present and heard calls for blood as an answer to their problems.

At last he had the evidence of sedition he sought, and he made notes of the speeches and straight away asked for and got bench warrants for the arrest of Bagguley, Drummond and Johnson for sedition, and of five spinners for a conspiracy to raise wages.

News of Lloyd’s looking for them reached the three young agitators and they fled. All were caught, Bagguley last as he waited in Liverpool for money to pay for a passage to the USA, booked on a ship about to leave.

Soon after they were locked up in Chester Castle, the factories re-opened, the miners went back to work and the spinners did too. Sidmouth passed a message to Lloyd that he wished “such conduct in the course of loyalty and due subordination were initiated in other parts of the kingdom”.

By contrast with Lloyd’s decisive actions, the Manchester magistrates were dithering. The Rev Hay, who had been so harsh with the Luddites, was now old and infirm, and passed the work of leading the magistrates on to Norris, the newly-appointed stipendiary, who was indecisive.

St Peter’s Field

Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt walked into the vacancy left by the imprisonment of Bagguley and his associates. Physically striking as well as vain, with a powerful voice, he was a charismatic orator and loved to address the crowds.

He habitually wore a white hat so that he could be easily spotted in the crowd, and had chosen parliamentary reform as his cause. He was from a prosperous farming family of the south west and until 1819 he had never visited the north and knew nothing of the industrial working class.

Reports of him had reached Manchester’s radical reformers since 1817, and in the absence of their usual speakers, one of these radicals, Joseph Johnson, a brush-maker, wrote to invite Hunt to address their next meeting on St Peter’s Field on 18 January 1819.

Hunt accepted and on the day he rode through Manchester to the Field in an open barouche in his trademark white hat, rousing cheers for his cry of “Liberty or death”, as well as hisses from the manufacturers who saw him go by, with the veteran John Knight being placed beside him by the locals who knew Knight of old.

He spoke to an enthusiastic crowd of 10,000 workers and reaped the harvest sown by Bagguley as he criticised the recent arrests and trials as well as the treatment of the blanketeers in 1816, and denounced the hangings of striking Derbyshire workers in 1817 as bloody and unfeeling murders.

It was a triumphant first day for him in the north.

Bagguley had spent two years becoming accepted as the leader of the working class in the north, and it was his organisation and persistence that had resulted in St Peter’s Field becoming a focal point for the working class of Manchester and the surrounding towns. Hunt had no understanding of the working class and only the cause of parliamentary reform linked him to Bagguley and the other radicals and their followers; he had no concern for the workers, only for the opportunity to speak to a crowd on the subject nearest to his heart.

In April, Bagguley and his friends were put on trial at Chester spring assizes, indicted with conspiracy and unlawful assembly. He did not expect justice from a jury “consisting of nothing but baronets and esquires”.

They had already spent seven months in jail, when bail had been set at an impossible £2,000; when Burdett had offered to raise the sum he was told that he was not allowed to do so, as not coming from the county where the charges had arisen.

Unsurprisingly, Bagguley and the other two were found guilty: and were sentenced to two years’ imprisonment, with another two on a recognisance of £500. Bagguley was thus removed from the scene just when his years of preparation were about to bear fruit with the organisation of the biggest meeting for reform ever to have been seen in Britain.

In 1819 it was clear that, with or without Bagguley, Manchester was sitting on the edge of violence for the third successive summer. In February 1819, there were mass meetings on the subject of reform in both London and Birmingham. In June 1819, there were strikes again in Manchester and other northern towns: builders, then colliers, and spinners came out.

It was understandable that Norris was fearful. Hay was away more, so Norris was in charge in Manchester. Sidmouth was also absent on health grounds, so that affairs in the Home Office were left increasingly in the hands of Henry Hobhouse.

He had encouraged Lloyd to take the initiative and use strong measures against Bagguley. He now sought to encourage Norris, writing on 12 June 1819: “Yourself and your brother magistrates may depend on being supported by His Majesty’s government in an act of vigour, temperately considered and firmly executed.”

In June there was a meeting of 20,000 outside Stockport, and two weeks later some 40,000 turned out at Blackburn. Both meetings passed without incident. The Stockport magistrate, Mr Prescott, had been moved by a deputation to him of 4,000 starving weavers, but wrote to a neighbour that “the state of the district is now truly alarming”.

The scale and frequency of such meetings were increasing. Lloyd asked Hobhouse what should be done if the ‘Cap of Liberty’ (symbol of the French revolution increasingly adopted by the reformers at their meetings) were to be carried on a pole and erected at the Stockport meeting.

On 18 June, Hobhouse wrote: “This symbol gives a character to the meeting which cannot be mistaken … If it shall be displayed again with impunity, it will be a subject of regret – And if the magistrates shall see an opportunity if acting with vigour they will recollect that there is no situation in which their energy can be so easily be backed by military as at Manchester, where the troops are at hand, and may be kept on the alert, if the civil power should appear likely to stand in need of their assistance.” [Our emphasis]

The message from Hobhouse was clear: act firmly, use force if necessary, and the government will back you.

Others, also, were seeing the potential power in the hands of the northern workers. Hunt wrote to Joseph Johnson, now part-owner of the Manchester Observer and leading light in the Manchester Patriotic Union, the newly-formed society for reformers in the town.

Johnson was flattered by the attention and immediately invited Hunt to come and chair the meeting planned in Manchester for 2 August. Johnson wrote of his town that “nothing but ruin and starvation stare one in the face, the state of this district is truly dreadful, and I believe nothing but the greatest exertions can prevent an insurrection. Oh, that you in London were prepared for it.”

Hobhouse, on intercepting and reading the letter, made sure that Sir John Byng had the 15th Hussars on the march to Manchester at the earliest opportunity. Hunt replied to Johnson accepting the offer of chairmanship provided “that the largest assemblage may be procured that was ever seen in this country”.

Johnson was keen to oblige. He was already planning to involve the established reformers such as John Knight and Samuel Bamford, and to recruit others to organise mass groups of workers from the surrounding towns – Middleton, Saddleworth, Oldham, Stockport, Bolton and the rest – and have them march simultaneously on Manchester on 2 August, preceded by bands and banners and with each contingent carrying a cap of liberty.

Johnson wrote on 18 July to Hunt that he should prepare and deliver a ‘Declaration of Rights’ at what could be, with proper organisation, the most important and impressive meeting the country had ever seen.

The stage was set for a showdown between these two opposing views (peaceful meeting versus insurrection) and two opposing forces (workers en masse versus the forces of law and order).


To be continued.