All the Gaols of The County Are Remarkably Crowded

From the melting pot of old and new, from attitudes untempered by flexibility Peterloo occurred. But the collision course merged slowly, and until the early months of 1819 it was by no means inevitable.

In the first phase, from Waterloo to the end of 1816, radical activity centred on London. Since the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 the people had possessed the right to petition the reigning monarch about their grievances. The best and most obvious way to air and obtain further support for grievances was the mass meeting This was the main weapon used by the Radicals Bills were posted announcing a meeting usually in Spa Fields, the traditional home of grievances, with Henry Hunt, Sir Francis Burdett or Arthur Thistlewood ‘in the chair’. On the prescribed date thousands of people flocked to Spa Fields to hear the chairman and other speakers expound the points of the petition, for the reform of Parliament or the repeal of the Corn Laws. After the petition had been enthusiastically adopted the crowds went home, while it was carried to the Prince Regent who usually expressed a strong feeling of surprise and regret at his subjects’ intransigence and stated that ‘the difficulties and prevailing distresses were to be attributed to unavoidable causes’. The Prince Regent was of course acting as stand-in for the reigning monarch, George III, who had been mad for years.

Map showing principal towns mentioned in the text.

It was during this period that Hunt gained his national reputation. He became known as ‘Orator’ Hunt, and the white hat he adopted as a symbol of the purity of the radical intentions became

equally renowned. Throughout the country radicals old and young took to wearing white hats. During these months Lancashire was forming its Hampden Clubs and holding its own meetings but these were small in comparison with those in London It was not until early 1817, when the clubs had formed a solid kernel of working-class radicalism, when Bamford and his contingent came down to London and swung the vote to universal suffrage that the emphasis began to switch to Lancashire.

Up to the end of 1816, Liverpool’s administration, while hardly smiling benevolently on the radically inspired activity, did not openly interfere. Their acquiescence rose partly from a genuine distaste for imposing restrictions so soon after the long French wars, partly from their constant hope that the people would subside to a peaceful level of their own a cord. The acquiescence ended with a meeting at Spa Fields in December 1816. This was organized by the Spenceans although Hunt and Burdett were involved, typically wasting time in quarrelling over the terms of the petition. When they finally arrived, Thistlewood was already addressing the crowds and there was considerable confusion to say the least. Part of the crowd, inflamed by the Spencean advocacy of violence, surged off to roam the streets It was from this disorganized roaming that ‘the plot to seize London scare originated, and the Government took fright.

The reports of the plot were wild enough There was to be a sudden rising-in the dead of night, the Tower of London and the barracks would be stormed and the rest of the country merely waited the signal to follow suit Whether the Government believed these reports or whether they seized upon them with heartfelt gratitude as the means of stamping out radicalism is difficult to assess. No tangible evidence of the means by which London was to be taken was produced. No caches of weapons were discovered. No detailed plans were unearthed, and by this time the spies were hard at work. Certainly the Government professed to believe the reports of imminent revolution, that such was the radical object. To this Cobbett made his famous reply, ‘They sigh for a plot, oh how they sigh! … They are absolutely pining and dying for a plot!’ Whether, they realized it or not, they were. The reaction was concrete and typical, a regression to the pattern set by the great mentor Pitt in the early days of the French Revolution. ‘The System of Alarm’ was re-introduced, whereby the Government announced it was in possession of fearful facts against which repressive measures had to be introduced for the good of the country, and when one set of fearful facts had evaporated another was produced.

The reports of the plot to ‘seize London provided the first fearful set, and early in March 1817 Habeas Corpus was suspended. Sidmouth’s reasons for the suspension were as typical as the action. A traitorous conspiracy to overthrow the Government had been discovered, occasioned by a spirit which had ‘long prevailed in the country but especially since [the dread shadow] the commencement of the French Revolution’. Therefore immediate suspension was necessary ‘for the security of His Majesty’s peaceable subjects, the maintenance of our liberties, and the perpetuation of the blessings of the constitution.’ The vital liberty of Habeas Corpus excepted, that was.

The effect of the suspension was immediate. No more mass meetings were called. Few fiery squibs or explosive articles were written. The probability of arrest and imprisonment without reason or trial made the game too dangerous to play. The Lancashire Hampden Clubs started to disintegrate. Bamford writes of local radicals taking to the hills or the homes of safe friends, visiting their wives and children at’ dead of night for fear Of arrest. However, the subversion did not stop. Open meetings might be out of the question, but that did not prevent secret ones. In Manchester people assembled under the guise of Benefit Societies (still legal), botanical meetings, meetings for the relief of imprisoned reformers etc. In Oldham they were camouflaged as ‘mowfin aetins’ where hardy souls regaled themselves, with muffins, cheese, beer and discussion.

One person the Government did rid themselves of, at least corporally, was Cobbert. At the end of March 1817 he fled to the United States For this action he has been strongly criticized. Almost certainly he would have been arrested had he continued to edit the Political Register and the ‘Twopenny Trash’. His voice would not have been heard whereas from the United States, allowing for the delay in transport, it was. But by taking himself out of the country at this vital period he lost influence His ever-present financial difficulties—he had Inever recovered from the debts accrued during his two years in Newgate—probably influenced his decision., There was talk of the Government claiming back stamp duty on the ‘Twopenny Trash’ which would have bankrupted him. He was ever a man who believed in cutting his losses before they cut him. Bamford, who admittedly always liked Côbbett ‘despite all his faults’, said he fled the country to escape imprisonment. This was the general Radical view, as no toast was complete without reference to ‘our absent friend Cobbett and may he soon return to carry on the good fight’. Distance did lend perspective to Cobbett’s pen. His articles from the States were among the best he wrote, and, they were still widely read. Nonetheless he was an absent friend and it was the Government’ rather than the radical -movement that gained.

March 1817 burst with dramatic activity. As Habeas Corpus was being suspended, the Blanket March or March of the Blanketeers took place in Manchester. It ‘was organized by three characters we have not yet met, the Holy Trinity of Johnston,1 Bagguley and Drummond. They were Lancashire Radicals of the wilder ilk. Their wildness did not extend to the Spencean advocacy of violence but they were not averse to using its threat. They lacked patience and any sense of the political art of the possible (in Bagguley’s case the impatience was that of youth, he being only seventeen in 1817). They wanted reform now, not next year. They wanted power for-the people now in the siiple belief that once they had it Utopia would be achieved. All three worked devoutly and suffered greatly for the radical cause, and they were genuinely working class and had no financial backing. But their simple passionate beliefs and actions were the sort that frightened off the moderates, and gave credence to the middle-class Radical contention that the working-class Radicals did not possess the intelligence to rule the country.

The Blanket March showed both sides of their characters. It was both naïve and well-conceived. The issue was not Parliamentary reform but the distress in the area, so it was basically an economic not a political gesture. The idea was that volunteers would take the usual petition to the Prince Regent personally so that he would hear from the lips of the distressed themselves the true story of the terrible conditions prevailing in Lancashire. For the long march from Manchester to London the volunteers were to provide themselves with blankets to keep themselves warm at night. Hence the name. The idea had appeal and novelty; though the likelihood of many volunteers being allowed to reach London demonstrates the Holy Trinity’s disregard for the stark facts of life in -1817. However, they were not as naïve as all that, and the underlying theme of the march was the threat of violence. The Holy Trinity assumed that thousands- of volunteers would reach London and their very number would force the Prince Regent to listen to them. A few days before the match, Johnston hinted at the need to reinforce the threat when he said: ‘You will be easy prey if you have nothing but your open hands.’ The men who volunteered for the march, and the main support, came from the spinners, though some weavers were involved. But the spinners were the agitators in 1817, their militancy spreading down from the factory elite.

The local Radical- leaders, Knight, Johnson, Saxton- and Fitton, neither approved of, nor participated in, the scheme. However, they did not condemn it as they did not wish to alienate potential or active supporters. But Bamford poured icy water on the whole idea, and noted with satisfaction that nobody from Middleton attended the Blanket Meeting Many spinners from Oldham did, as it was already a strong trade unionist town. There is no evidence that John Lees was among them. It seems unlikely as the wholesale participation in Radical gestures, moderate or extreme, was still in its adolescence. However, on March 10th, 1817, between 10,000 and 30,000 people assembled on Saint Peter’s Field, Manchester,–this being the traditional home of Lancashire grievances, the nearest open space to the centre of the area’s heart Exact attendance figures are impossible to produce, as estimates vary wildly according to source But even at the lowest level of 10,000 it was the largest meeting yet organized in the area.

In the event Bamford’s scorn was justified. While Bagguley and Drummond were addressing the crowd, the- magistrates who had no intention of letting thousands pour out ofManchester, sallied forth and read the Riot Act. The platform was then surrounded, the leaders arrested and the crowd dispersed On the Riot Act being read an element of farce entered the proceedings. Between- 300 and 1,000 men (again figures vary according – to source) hurriedly left. Saint Peter’s Field and marched to Piccadilly (Manchester has one too) en route for London A troop of cavalry followed them. The stragglers were picked up at Longsight, about a mile from the city centre. Another batch was apprehended at Stockport where it had decided to camp for the night. Less than half reached Macclesfield, a mere handful arrived at Ashbourne in Derbyshire, a distance of forty-six miles; and one solitary soul is supposed to have battled on to London. Bamford unkindly tells of the man with £50 in his purse, collected from sympathizers and the volunteers themselves, who was sent on in advance to procure food and lodgings, and who disappeared with the money, and thus. ‘for want of the necessaries’ ended the Blanket March.

There were several repercussions, two of which had a vital bearing on Peterloo. The first was intangible in that the magistrates had their novel reading of the Riot Act and the successful dispersal without casualties at the backs of their minds two years later. The second was concrete. Shortly after the Blanket March, the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry Cavalry was formed. Its purpose was to assist magistrates in the future to maintain order in the unruly, seditious, Radically traduced city. The MYC, as it came to be known locally, was an amateur body, a cross between the Territorial Army and the Home Guard. From the start there was hostility between the MYC and the Radical populace because each feared the other. The Radicals feared the day when the MYC would use their actual power; the MYC feared the day when the Radicals would assume power and the roles be reversed.

The final incident of March 1817 was the ‘Ardwick Conspiracy’. Following the reports of the plot to seize London, a similar conspiracy was unearthed in Manchester. Bamford, who should be explicit because he was arrested as a result of it, is vague. Deliberately perhaps, he can be as vague as a summer cloud at times, but more likely he knew, little ‘about it. Ardwick, now a part of central Manchester, was then on the fringe of the built-up area. At the end of March a secret meeting was held there. Bamford did not attend, though he professes (vaguely) to have heard about it. The plan supposedly was to ‘Make a Moscow of Manchester’, i.e burn the town as the Russians had burnt Moscow in 1812, for the radical organizations to pour in, distract the military (note the Northern practicality; the military were to be distracted, not stormed as in London), release the prisoners from the New Bailey prison, and link up with the rest of the country; According to one of the many rumours circulating at the time, the Ardwick conspirators may have had the concrete idea of releasing the imprisoned Blanketeers from the New Bailey. However the Government produced nothing more definite than one spy’s report of ‘traces of an intention to issue proclamations, absolving the King’s subjects from their allegiance and denouncing death against their opponents… [but he] had not found any evidence of preparation of these proclamations’. The Leeds Mercury said categorically, ‘it is altogether a paper insurrection’. Paper or not the Government again believed, or chose to believe, that insurrection was just around the corner, and used both the Blanket March and the Ardwick Conspiracy to justify ,further suspension of Habeas Corpus.

The Manchester magistrates were not idle either. After the Ardwick Conspiracy they arrested not only Bamford but ‘Doctor’ Healey and several other local leaders. That the magistrates were alarmed by the reports is unquestionable. But by their precipitate arrests they exhibited all their failings. They neither checked their facts nor sifted the evidence, such as it was. They swallowed the reports in one-gulp, and by so doing put themselves in an awkward position. For later Lord Sidmouth requested, ‘that in the future, when the names of persons, whose arrest is recommended by the Magistrates, are transmitted to me, they may always be accompanied by Depositions, stating as fully and precisely as possible the grounds upon which it has been deemed expedient to advise such a measure’. However displeased and annoyed Sidmouth was privately, the system remained. The magistrates continued to recommend arrests, Sidmouth to accept their recommendations and complain, if he thought fit, afterwards. Nobody thought of doing anything differently beforehand. Forewarned was always forearmed in this period but it never produced foresight.

Bamford recorded what it was like to be the under-dog at the receiving end of the magistrates’ power and panic with Habeas Corpus suspended. He was summarily arrested by Nadin and lodged in the grim New Bailey prison in Salford. Together with Healey and six other men he was taken to London by coach in the custody of a King’s Messenger. On the long journey they were all encased in leg irons. From Bow Street they were conducted to Coldbath prison. During this time no specific charge was made against them and their wives and children were left to fend for themselves, with no knowledge of their whereabouts or when, if ever, they were likely, to be released.

Bamford’s wife, Mima, a sterling character, made determined efforts to ascertain what had happened to ‘our Sam’, and with Sam as a husband she was accustomed to fending for herself and neither she nor the child starved. The first person she contacted was John Knight who gave her the cold shoulder. As the doyen of local Radicalism he stood an excellent chance of being arrested himself, and to be seen harbouring the wife of a man just arrested would not lessen those chances. But, for this action and one or two others, Bamford never forgave him.

Sam in fact was being interrogated in the Secretary of State’s office in Whitehall. Of the interrogators he has left pen portraits. The man who first addressed him was ‘a tall, square and bony figure, upwards of fifty years: of age; and with thin and rather grey hair; his forehead was broad and prominent, and from their cavernous orbits looked mild and intelligent eyes. His manner was affable, and much more encouraging to freedom of speech than I had expected.’ This was Lord Sidmouth. Sitting next to him was ‘a good-looking person in a plum-coloured coat, with a gold ring on the small finger of his left hand, on which he sometimes leaned his head as he eyed, me over’. This was Viscount Castlereagh. These interrogations were Bamford’s introduction to ‘the upper classes’. During them he exhibited the other side of the ambitious, intelligent, working-class North-country coin, a certain envy and respect for those upper classes. It was a trait in Bamford that was to harden with success. In the same way as he found Lord Sidmouth affable and more sympathetic to freedom of speech than he had imagined, with later success he was to find other members of the aristocracy better than anticipated.

Healey enjoyed his interrogations. He was asked to spell his name. He replied, ‘Haitch, hay, haa, l hay, y’. The strong Lancashire accent baffled the Privy Councillors so he was asked to write it down. Being barely able to write, he produced one of his cards which said, ‘Joseph Healey, Surgeon, Middleton, Please Take Spoonsful of This Mixture Each Hours’. Somebody had inserted 200 tablespoons each 2 hours in the blank spaces. The Privy Councillors enjoyed ‘a great titter’, and Healey roared with laughter, delighted to find them ‘such a merry set of gentlemen’. Apart from underlining Healey’s unswervingly simple, unabashed character the incident sheds an interesting light on the Privy Councillors themselves. Habeas Corpus was suspended. Healey had been torn from his home and taken to that very room without charge or trial at the dictates of the Councillors. Revolution was supposedly just around the corner. Yet the atmosphere was relaxed. The merry set of gentlemen could enjoy their titter.

After, several interrogations -Bamford and three others were released on bail at the end of April, the Privy Councillors being unable to prove High Treason or anything else against them. The rest, including Healey, were sent to prison, and with Habeas Corpus suspended the incarceration was for an unknown period. (It was after the release of Bamford that Sidmouth wrote his disapproving letter to the Manchester magistrates.)

The next incident to shake the Government was the ‘Pentrich Revolution’ which occurred three months later in June 1817. It was not Radically inspired, though its leader Jeremiah Brandreth was a friend of Cobbett’s. It did not take place in Lancashire but on the Nottinghamshire—Derbyshire borders, and it had no direct bearing on Peterloo. But it was part of the unhappy atmosphere in England, and shaped Peterloo to the extent that it became firmly lodged in the magistrates’ minds as another instance of the possibility of insurrection. In reality Pentrich was a sorry affair. Brandreth acquired only a handful of supporters and travelled but a few miles on the revolutionary road before tamely collapsing. But Pentrich helped to convince the Government that the country was on the brink of revolution and they must thus keep Habeas Corpus suspended. It also brought to a head the business of spies and agents provocateurs.

Brandreth and three other leaders were-sentenced to death. On the scaffold one of them cried out, ‘This is all Oliver and the government.’ Oliver was the most famous spy of the period. He was a failed builder who drifted into the job of Government spy. His only qualifications appear to have been that he possessed a vivid imagination and that he was an actor manqué, ready to play whichever role suited him, composing the plot as he went along. That Sidmouth should employ such untrained, unsuitable characters has already been condemned. But once having employed them he failed to back them up efficiently. Oliver, for example, playing his role to perfection, was arrested as a genuine Radical, the magistrates not having been informed by the Home Office that he was in their area. It was this ill-timed arrest that led to his exposure, a job undertaken in the best journalistic traditions by the Leeds Mercury. Once the storm broke it was quickly taken UP in Parliament by Whig and Radical members, Burdett included. The charges levelled at the Government were not only the disgracefully un-English one of employing spies, but the more serious one of deliberately sending out agents provocateurs to stir up trouble, to create Pentrich Revolutions. That Oliver acted as an agent provocateur, or tried to, is not in doubt. Both Bamford and Archibald Prentice have described the atmosphere in Lancashire in those oppressive months of 1817, when you could only talk to tried and trusted friends because the whole area was infested with spies. They wrote specifically of Oliver’s activities, both claiming they helped save Lancashire ‘from the follies perpetrated in Derbyshire’. But that Sidmouth deliberately sent Oliver out as an agent provocateur now seems doubtful. However, at the time belief in the Government’s culpability was widespread, and this did not improve its relationship with the populace.

1817, therefore, drew to ‘a close with the rift wider yet and widening. Habeas Corpus was still suspended. The Government no doubt felt it had acted wisely, following the only course open to it, and that by continued suspension it was nipping the Radical bloom in the bud. Its later apologists have argued that the suspension provided a breathing space, forcing all passions to simmer. But prolonged simmering can burn the pan. And Liverpool’s was the last British Government that deemed it necessary or wise to suspend Habeas Corpus in time of peace.

Beneath the ill-advised repressive measures which stiffened resistance were Cobbett’s favourite causes. The Government’s attitude to the root economic cause remained rigid. That all the ills were economically induced was their unmelodic theme throughout the period. In this assessment they were not correct. The basic rights of man were in flood, too. But they would have been correct in assuming that the rights of man interest only a small section of the human race. The majority are interested in their own basic interests, and survival. So if the Government had done anything to back up their own diagnosis by removing just a, few of the economic grievances they could ‘have been home and partially dry. But they continued to fail to make an incision in the economic canker. Thus month by month they drove more people into, the Radical fold. For a short while the tide of human rights merged with economic grievances; which is a formidable combination.

  1. Johnston, Christian name John, is not to be confined with Joseph Johnson. Johnson is much the more important character in the Peterloo story.