A General Insurrection is Seriously Meditated

From the end of May the signs of impending revolution, in loyalist eyes that is, mounted Weekly. For from May onwards the Radical activity not only revived, but grew in momentum. It was triggered off by Lord Sidmouth’s refusal to present the Manchester and Stockport Remonstrances of January and February to the Prince Regent. People felt, and the Radicals obviously encouraged them to feel, that this refusal made clear the Government’s indifference to their plight. The cry of Parliamentary reform acquired extra, meaning. The snowball would have begun to roll anyway, given the growing strength of the Union Societies, the deepening distress, and the untiring efforts of Knight, Saxton, Healey, Bamford, Johnson and the rest. As it was, Radical organization, the fine weather and the refusal coincided. The result was a flood of meetings from Blackburn in the north of ‘the affected area’, to Macclesfield in the south. The purpose of most of them was the same, radical reform of the House of Commons. This was expressed in its highest form at a Blackburn meeting on July 5th: ‘to unite in re-establishing a government in its pristine purity, which was founded on the principles of eternal justice and the Rights of Man’.

Map showing principal towns mentioned in the text.

For using this pristine purity, among many other statements, John Knight was later indicted for sedition. Statements at a Stockport meeting on June 28th also led to indictments against Sir Charles Wolseley and the Reverend Harrison However, the law as it stood was not wholly on the magistrates’ side. Once indicted, provided he could furnish the bail demanded, the utterer of the seditious statements was free to go about his business uttering further seditious statements if he chose, until his trial came round He was also legally able to postpone his trial and the practice was known as ‘traversing in a misdemeanour’. It was a practice to which all magistrates objected strenuously. Of course if you could not furnish bail you languished in gaol, as did Johnston, Bagguley and Drummond for months after their indictments in 118. They were finally tried, and sentenced to prison in the spring of 1819 which removed them from the Peterloo scene.

The June Stockport meeting was the largest in the area outside Peterloo, over 20,000 people attending This was not surprising considering Stockport’s long-standing militancy but the leap in attendance underlines the invaluable work done by the Union Societies Wolseley made his customary reference to the storming of the Bastille—’and heaven knows I would assist in storming the English Bastille’—while Harrison urged the people to blow up, or down, the barrier of corruption. Both were speaking metaphorically, but the remarks could be interpreted as a call to arms, and by the magistrates they inevitably were.

Three meetings were held with different slants. Two of them had ominous undertones for the Government. The first of these was held at Oldham on June 7th, presided over by the tireless Knight. It was attended by deputies from twenty-two towns in Lancashire, North Derbyshire and the West Riding of Yorkshire Their unanimous declaration was ‘for the formation of Union Societies in every town and village in the Kingdom, for the purpose of acquiring and diffusing political information, and also for the frequent holding of public meetings and district meetings in order to connect completely and harmonize their political understanding and feeling’. The words conjured up the dreaded combination of the working man on a much more formidable scale than before At a meeting in Leeds the following week delegates came from Manchester, Rochdale, Huddersfield, Stockport, Oldham, Staleybridge, Wakefield, Macclesfield, Ashton-under-Lyne, Gee’Cross, Lees, Moseley, Holmfirth, Failsworth, Heyside, Whitefield, Leigh, Middleton, Treakie . Street, Barnsley, New Mills;, Royton, Bury Heywood, Todmorden and Blackburn. If the Leeds delegate himself is added, this was already seven up on the Oldham meeting. The feelings of cohesion and harmony were-spreading fast.-

The third meeting, which made, no specific demand for Parliamentary reform, was held in Manchester on June 21st. It was organized by a non-political body of ‘distressed weavers’. The weavers’ plight by mid-1819 had reached a new level of desperation. The cotton trade was almost at a standstill. On the higher levels masters were making considerably fewer thousands. At the middle level luxuries were out. At the in-between level small time masters or the more fortunate of the ‘independent’ spinners and weavers were struggling to make ends meet. ‘While on the lowest rung the hand-loom weavers were sitting in their damp cellars with nothing, unable to buy more yarn because there was no market for the cloth they had already made. And those who still possessed -a market were selling at such a low price that the week’s wages barely bought a pound of potatoes and a loaf of bread. The most dreadful aspect of hand-loom weaving was that people-were still pouring into it. The wages and conditions, the warnings of the articulate weavers, were overridden by a combination of the convictions ‘I-shall-succeed-where-others-have-failed and ‘it-can’t-happen-to-me’, and by the desperate lack of employment.

At the June meeting the weavers asked either that some means be devised for the amelioration of their present conditions, with the old plea for a minimum wage, or that arrangements be made or their emigration to the northern states of America. The idea of emigration’ was viewed favourably by both Government and some Radicals, with one difference. John Knight was an advocate of subsidized emigration'(so were the middle-class Radicals). If there was no work for people in this country, money must be provided for them in the far-flung Empire where they could establish model Radical communities. Lord Sidmouth agreed that ‘the parts of the world to which the views of such persons should be directed are Upper Canada, Ceylon and the Cape of Good Hope’. But he—here lies the difference—did, not agree about the subsidy. The destitute emigrants could find their own way to this interesting collection of countries. It was still a crime for an artisan to emigrate, so those who should direct their views elsewhere were the unskilled workers who would relieve the Government of an unwelcome burden. However, while the distressed weavers’ leaders were addressing the meeting, John Saxton arrived on Saint Peter’s Field and asked permission to speak. This being granted, he launched into a passionate tirade, on emigration equalling transportation. He then urged the weavers to stay in Lancashire and ‘fight the good fight at home, by means of Parliamentary reform. He met with great success, and the ease with which he swung the weavers from thoughts of America to support for the Radical cause did not lessen the loyalists’ fears.

As July came in the two forces, Radical and loyalist, were ranged against each other like avalanches on ‘twin peaks, both hanging precariously over the abyss of ‘distress Throughout July the abyss deepened, the Radical avalanche gained strength, and the loyalists became correspondingly convinced, that it would come crashing down upon them Or at least the local loyalists did. For each force was in two sections, national and local. Whereas the Radical sections were for once acting cohesively, the loyalist ones were not. Both Government and local: loyalists were pursuing the same end of halting the Radical avalanche, but they did not pursue it in the same spirit.

It was the spirit of the local loyalists that finally and inevitably led to Peterloo. By the beginning of July they had a month of hectic Radical activity behind them. ‘The emotion and reaction this induced was expressed by Norris: ‘The working classes are beset by reformers, who by the licentiousness of the press and of their speeches, are inculcating every species of dissatisfaction and even insurrection and rebellion in which the whole may very shortly end… I fear it is now too late, and that the remedy for the present state of things must be (in the first instance) more violent than information or indictments.’ Any awareness of these economic reasons, which made it possible for the Radicals to inculcate every species of dissatisfaction, reasons of which Norris himself had been aware not so long ago, had vanished. Gone, too, was any inclination to weigh what the Radicals were actually doing in the revolutionary stakes, against what they might infer in their wilder speeches. He could now only see a cauldron containing but one possible brew, insurrection and rebellion. Every action the Radicals took during July, mild or wild, judicious or injudicious, was pre-judged on the basis of impending revolution. Not by Norris alone. The ultra loyalists had reached his conclusion months before, and had been urging the violent counteraction he now favoured. As July wore on, more of the moderate loyalists, the men who also appreciated the economic roots and even something of the traumatic social upheaval that had overtaken Lancashire, were sucked into the general panic.

Searching for pikes had by the beginning of July become an obsessive occupation, and the knowledge of the caches that were supposed to litter the area did not soothe the more panicky loyalists. Supposed is the operative word. Post-Peterloo the Solicitor General’s Office compiled a dossier on weapons, pikes in particular. To read it is high farce, for what it proves is that there weren’t any. There were scores of reports from all points north, south, east and west of Manchester, typified by Etheiston’s statement that The lead stolen the other day was to make balls, and the young man Iwas employed by the Reformists to steal it.’ But Ethelston produced no balls, nor any of the longed-for evidence. The conviction that such pikes and balls did exist was still firmly held by the magistrates however, even if it was not taken too seriously by the moderate loyalists.

One branch of Radical activity, also starting at the begin-fling of July, provided panic suction for even the moderates. This was the drillings. The magistrates were inundated with reports of men drilling in quasi-military fashion; 300 men on Oldham Edge, standing to attention, standing at ease; 500 men on Saddleworth Moor ditto; 200 men at Chadderton being ‘instructed by old soldiers; in Royton hundreds being trained by beat of drum; in Middleton by bugle. What could the participants possibly be doing except training for insurrection, armed of course, with their pikes stuck somewhere up their jerkins? In fact there was no need for the spies to report. The drillings were held openly. Had anybody on the loyalist side stopped to think it would surely have struck them as being unlikely that anyone should train for armed insurrection in broad daylight, knowing that spies were watching from every gorse bush and jutting rock. But this sudden outburst of quasi-martial activity was a provocative act, calculated to make every loyalist ask the reason why. As most-of them were past ‘reasoning it was doubly provocative.

Provocation was not the intention. The drillings were linked with the decision to hold a mass meeting in Manchester on August 9th. This meeting was to be part of an all-out Radical effort, and the invitation was sent to Hunt by the Patriotic Union Society at the beginning of July. As soon as the invitation was despatched, the local leaders and the Union Societies set to work organizing the meeting. Uppermost in many of their minds was the manner of the crowds’ arrival at, and their conduct during, the meeting. The problem was posed by Bamford: ‘We had frequently been taunted by the press, with our ragged, dirty appearance, at these assemblages; with the confusion of our proceedings, and the mob-like crowds in which our numbers mustered; and we determined, for once at least, these reflections should not be deserved; that we would disarm the -bitterness of our political opponents by a display of cleanliness, sobriety and decorum, such as we had never exhibited-before’

At the earlier January meeting on Saint Peter’s Field, certain parts of the crowd had arrived in contingents with bands playing and carrying banners. Could not the idea be developed so that everybody arrived in contingents, marching on to the field like a military parade? But military discipline was not achieved by accident and the idea was hit upon, of training a nucleus of volunteers in the military arts of keeping – in step and marching in rank. There were sufficient ex-soldiers among the Radicals to make the scheme practical, with a disciplined nucleus the rest of the contingents would remain in order.

Nobody apparently considered the effect such martial activity – would have upon their opponents. Or if they did they dismissed it as negligible. Or perhaps the originators of the scheme simply did not anticipate the enthusiasm with which it would be received. And when the volunteers turned up in their thousands they were swept into the general enthusiasm. People certainly did respond to the call. Sedentary spinners and weavers, incarcerated fourteen hours a day in the factories and cottages, leapt at the organized opportunity to breathe the high clear air of the moors and the sweet fresh air of-the fields. The lure of the drum beat and the sound of the bugle were not without their attractions either. Among those who attended the drillings was John Lees. Desperation had finally driven the undecided, the indifferent and the non-political to the temporary shelter of the Radical fold. As a Waterloo veteran, John could well have been one of ‘the old soldiers’ who instructed the volunteers. By the end of July as many as 2,000 people were parading along the High Road from Manchester to Rochdale near Slattocks. There was no attempt at concealment, it would have been difficult to conceal 2,000 people anyway, but it was not a sight, seen or reported, to calm any loyalist.

In the event, on the fatal day, Bamford’s hopes for the decorum of the crowds’ assembly went beyond expectation. As for disarming the bitterness of his -political opponents that, alas, did not succeed. The training period sent up loyalist temperatures, either because they did not know or simply could not accept the Radical explanation for it, while the: effect of the disciplined arrival on the magistrates was disastrous. If the value of the drillings was doubtful, innocent as their intent, admirable as their organization might have been, the whole Radical organization behind Peterloo proved a two-edged weapon. When Hunt accepted the invitation to attend, the meeting originally scheduled for August 9th, he asked that it should be ‘rather a meeting of the county of Lancashire, than of Manchester alone… ‘I think by management the largest assembly may be procured that was ever seen in this country. ‘The request was made by Hunt the vain, Hunt the demagogue, Hunt the theatrical. It was a request to which the Lancashire Radicals, from Johnson, Saxton, Knight, Bamford and Healey down to the newest recruits such as John Lees, were only too ready to accede. Lancashire’s pride as much as its desperation and reforming zeal was at stake. On August 9th its inhabitants would show to the rest of England a face battered but unbowed.

The manner in which the crowds would deport themselves was taken care of by the drillings. But the massive crowds which were to provide the largest assembly ever seen on England’s soil had to be informed of the precise moment. The publicizing, and as it turned out re-publicizing of the meeting, was a major achievement of communication. Once informed of the meeting’s date, assembly points had to be set up from which the people, could march to Manchester in their disciplined contingents. Their organization was a magnificent piece of staff work. Each village was given a time and place to meet, from which its members would proceed to their named assembly points in the larger towns such as Oldham, Rochdale, Middleton, Stockport, and thence to Saint Peter’s Field. The routes they would variously take were also worked out, although on the day several contingents took the wrong turning in the winding streets of Manchester. If funds permitted each contingent was to have a band, not only because music was stirring and festive but to help the marchers keep in step. Then there were the banners, for this was to be a serious as well as a festive occasion. The rest of England must know clearly why Lancashire was holding its meeting. Men and women set to work weaving and embroidering the banners, with all their native skill. ‘Clothing was left to the individual. If one possessed a best suit it should be worn, but as thousands of the marchers were destitute the emphasis was on cleanliness and tidiness. Finally, there was the matter of the dispersal. The contingents would be arriving in phased order, but as thousands of people streamed off the field simultaneously there might be confusion. Half-way return points were therefore set up. Should a person be separated from the main ‘body of his contingent, he should make for the half-way point, so that each group could march back into its respective town as proudly and in as good order as it had marched out. The emphasis on the discipline of the return journey was also to prevent any post-meeting eruptions in the streets of Manchester, or any diving into public houses.

About this meticulous organization the magistrates knew little, either ‘while it was in progress or after the massacre had taken place. Three years after the event counsel was to ask, ‘How was it known that you were to assemble on Oldham Green? By what means’ did you learn that?’ The cagey reply he received was, ‘I do not know. It was represented up and down the country.’ But if the magistrates were unaware of the thoroughness of the Radicals’ preparations, as early as the first week in July they were sufficiently alarmed to hold a meeting at the Police Office. It was also attended by the Constables, the Boroughreeve, the churchwardens and other members of the oligarchy. After the meeting the following declaration was issued:

We the undersigned being seriously impressed with a sense of Danger which threatens the community from the designs and practices of the disaffected, deem it indispensably necessary to declare our determination to support the constitution of the Country, and to co-operate with the local Authorities of these Towns for the Preservation of the Public Peace.

There then followed a list of reasons explaining why the patriotic citizen should carry out his duty and support the measures to be adopted. Of these measures the vital one was point six: ‘To strengthen the Civil Power, a. Committee be selected by the Magistrates for the Division, and the Boroughreeves and the Constables of Manchester and Salford, from the gentlemen who sign the declaration’.

Seven days later the Committee came into being. It was just such a self-defeating body as inevitably is organized in times of panic and unreason, rejoicing in the title of the Armed Association for the Preservation of Public Peace. It was more generally known as the Committee in Aid of the Civil Powers, and its first action was to implore loyal citizens to offer their services by enrolling at the police offices. Several hundred citizens of the ultra-loyalist variety duly enrolled. It was their action in supporting the Committee in Aid of the Civil Powers which precipitated Peterloo. The magistrates were in control, but they were subjected to six weeks of the Committee members and supporters, a cross breed yapping at their heels like terriers, baying revolution like bloodhounds, with the emphasis on blood. The Manchester Observer’s comment on the Committee was that ‘Havock’ was being cried and ‘the Dogs of War’ let slip. It was valid. After Peterloo the same view was upheld by John Edward Taylor, as spokesman for the middle-class Radicals, when he accused the Committee in Aid of the Civil Powers of being ‘the original instigators of the massacre’.

While the Committee members were rushing around preparing to man the barricades, heightening the alarm in their rush, the Government was not entirely unalarmed or inactive. It knew of the planned all-out national Radical effort, and in the face of this, on July 7th, Lord Sidmouth sent a circular to all Lord Lieutenants ordering them to return forthwith to their counties. (Few Lord Lieutenants spent much time in the counties over which they presided.) To Lord Derby, as Lord Lieutenant for Lancashire, he wrote specifically asking him to put the Yeomanry Corps in a state of readiness, to assist the magistrates if required, though as usual he was equally emphatic in his hope that the civil powers would be able to cope without military assistance, amateur or regular. As a result of this letter, on July 12th, orders were sent to the commanders of the Liverpool Light Horse, the Aston Cavalry, the Oldham Cavalry and the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry Cavalry; ‘to use their utmost exertions to have the Corps under their respective Commands in readiness, to obey the first call they may receive from the magistrates’.

For three years Sidmouth and the Government had been insisting that the deep-rooted Radical intent was revolution. Radical activity was manifestly increasing. So the decision to put the third force of law and order on the alert was not unreasonable. However, the Government did not act in the weeks preceding Peterloo as if it anticipated imminent revolution. Having apparently forgotten or allayed its own fears, it also forgot that those of the Manchester magistrates were far from allayed. The alerting of the Yeomanry Corps proved a most disastrous decision. For in the event the only one to be called upon was the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry Cavalry.

Since the Blanket March the members of the MYC had been prancing around Manchester on their ill-controlled horses Ill-controlled because, being amateurs who had to work for a living, the MYC had insufficient time to acquire the equestrian arts. Their lack of horsemanship was crucial at Peterloo. But even more crucial was the attitude that had built up over the past two years. The MYC were not only disliked for their posturing and strutting and arrogance, but they were ridiculed. ‘Stupid boobies of yeomanry cavalry’ was among the milder epithets thrown at them. The Manchester Observer’s description, ‘The yeomanry are generally speaking the fawning dependents of the great, with a few fools and a greater proportion of coxcombs who imagine they acquire considerable importance by wearing regimentals, was typical of much of the invective Small men with small minds assuming superiority deserve ridicule. But once they are given power, the ridicule that burned them will scald the ridiculers.

At the first taste of power, on receipt of the letter from Lord Derby, the MYC leapt into action. They sent their sabres to be sharpened. That Sidmouth knew of this action before Peterloo is doubtful. What he would have made of it had he known is even more open to doubt. Being 200 miles away from the mounting hysteria in Manchester, unaware of the two-year build-up of hostility between MYC and populace, he would probably have considered the action a trifle over-zealous but showing the right spirit. After Peterloo it assumed deadly importance. No other yeomanry corps sent their sabres to be sharpened. The MYC had never sent theirs to be sharpened before, only to be cleaned. So what prompted the action other than hopeful bloody use of the sabres?

The only other specific action the Government took was at the end of July. This was to issue a proclamation in the Prince Regent’s name condemning, though not banning, seditious assemblies and the practice of drilling. Occasioned by the Manchester magistrates’ fears, it was an indeterminate action leaving everybody in the air as to when a meeting became seditious, and offering no reasons why drilling should cease.