1819 opened with what turned out to be a dress rehearsal for Peterloo. The fallible theatrical dictum of ‘good dress rehearsal, bad show’ this time proved true.
As the New Year dawned, the local Radical leaders held a meeting at which they decided the time had come both to test and prove their growing strength. Accordingly they wrote to Hunt asking for the honour of his attendance at a public meeting to be held on Saint Peter’s Field on January 18th. The avowed purpose of the meeting was to petition the House of Commons for the immediate repeal of the Corn Laws. But the fact that Hunt accepted the invitation underlines the mounting importance of Lancashire in the Radical field. Because Hunt had never previously left the South.
The Manchester Observer ran both the full text of the invitation and Hunt’s acceptance, which was in his usual fulsome tone. He began on a noble note: ‘Although my absence from home at this time will be attended with considerable inconvenience to myself personally, yet I feel now, as I ever have, and I trust I ever shall, that no private consideration ought to prevail, when put in competition with a great public duty.’ He continued by expressing his reluctance to be present at a meeting where yet another petition was to be considered for presentation to the House of Commons: ‘A House is no respect differently constituted from the last, which treated the Prayers and Petitions of the People with contempt and derision’. Yet, ‘the irresistable impulse to become better acquainted with the bravest of brave reformers, the men of Lancashire’ impelled him to accept the invitation
By means of the public correspondence, John Lees and the thousands of undecided Lancastrians learned that the famous ‘Orator’ Hunt was to honour their county with his presence. As a result of reading this information, or having it read to them, some people turned up from curiosity or interest. However, the attendance on January 18th was not high, about 10,000 people. But if the time of year is taken into consideration, together with the facts that Manchester is a cold damp place in early January, and that the Union Societies were in their infancy, it was not a bad figure. What was encouraging to the Radical leaders was the organized manner in which parts of the crowd arrived, with bands playing and banners fluttering. Such organization, which had not been seen before, provided further proof of the growing strength of the movement.
Hunt, not slow to note such proof, addressed the crowd with his usual confidence and magnetism Pursuing the theme of his acceptance letter, he urged them to draw up a Remonstrance, addressed directly to the Prince Regent, rather than sending yet another petition to the House of Commons where it was sure to be kicked out. The idea was enthusiastically adopted3 and a Remonstrance and Declaration were later drawn up. These two documents, which went far beyond the avowed purpose of the repeal of the Corn Laws, present the working-class Radical case at its coherent best
After the meeting had dispersed peaceably, Hunt attended a dinner at the Spread Eagle Inn in Manchester. Such dinners were customary, serving both social and propaganda purposes. From the social angle an invitation gave local Radicals lower down the ladder a feeling of importance, and it might induce influential people sympathetic to the cause to contribute some much-needed money. From the propaganda angle, the speeches and toasts were fully reported in the Manchester Observer. Thus John Lees and the anonymous thousands like him learned of the growing importance of the movement, and its constant care for their problems. The toast after this January dinner was typical: ‘The source of all legitimate power, the people; the Rights of Man; the immortal memory of Hampden, Sydney and Russell; the immortal memory of Tom Paine; the venerable father of reform, Major Cartwright; our banished countryman William Cobbett and may we all witness his speedy-return; the beautiful Lancashire witches; the brave Reformers of Lancashire; the poor weavers of Lancashire, and may the day soon arrive when their labours may provide not only sufficient to supply their wants but to give them the comforts of life.’ The only discordant note was the Lancashire witches, as sad a bunch of women as ever graced Lancashire soil. Was their inclusion a back-handed compliment to the Female Reformers? Or did they qualify because they had fallen foul of authority?
The dress rehearsal was an all-round success which means that the other side, the magistrates, behaved with good sense and restraint. In January, although they were alarmed by the entry of the gladiator Hunt into their arena, although they wrote copious letters to the Home Office, although they had troops standing at the ready in barracks on the 18th, they did not, call upon those troops. Thus the meeting dispersed peaceably. For their forbearance and restraint they received Lord Sidmouth’s highest congratulations. Throughout this first visit of Hunt to Manchester they continued to show restraint. He remained in the city for some time after the meeting, and his presence did not pass without further incident.
On the evening of January 22nd Hunt went to the Theatre Royal. As he entered the auditorium, a large section of the audience gave him a standing ovation.-As the people continued to stamp and cheer, the loyalist section, called for the National Anthem to be played. After some indecision -the band finally obliged. The loyalists then -claimed that Hunt hissed during the playing of ‘God Save, the King’. This charge he denied and it does not sound- in character. For one thing he had a prudent strain, and for another, one can imagine Hunt bellowing but not hissing. However, as a- result of the alleged hissing, several officers of the 7th Hussars surrounded Hunt and forcibly ejected him from the theatre. He was not a man to be thus treated in any circumstances, but to do so in full view of his supporters was asking for trouble. Hunt reacted predictably and immediately. He sent for Bamford and asked him to supply a dozen, or so stout Middletonians so that he could make a further visit:-to the Theatre-Royal, with them acting as a bodyguard, should further insult be offered to his person. Bamford- obliged. The word ‘predictably, when applied to Hunt meant ‘publicly, so that the whole of Manchester knew of his return visit. On the appointed night, Bamford and his bodyguard arrived to find the theatre closed on the magistrates’ orders. A large crowd, having heard of the prospect of an alternative entertainment to that on stage, had gathered and were milling around the theatre. So were Nadin and his minions and the magistrate Sylvester. But no violence occurred. Neither Nadin nor Sylvester interfered when Hunt, never one to miss an opportunity, addressed the assembled throng.
‘During this address Bamford quotes. Hunt as saying that the authorities only wanted a pretext to let the bloody butchers of Waterloo loose upon the people. One wonders if Hunt really said this, or whether the idea of January as a dress rehearsal for Peterloo also went to Bamford’s head. The ‘bloody butchers of Waterloo’, in retrospect, sounds almost ‘too coincidental. After the uninterrupted harangue the crowd broke up Bamford and his stout Middletonians went carousing until midnight, while Hunt returned to his lodgings at the Spread Eagle Inn. There he was again attacked by sundry officers of the 7th Hussars and the odd loyalist who entered his room and challenged him to a fight.’ Again nothing came of this incident, apart from Hunt writing to the Duke of York as Commander-in-Chief of the 7th Hussars, and taking out a warrant against one’ of his attackers for assault on his person—in both cases unsuccessfully. Shortly afterwards Hunt left Manchester. But there was to be a kick-back-to the Spread Eagle attack. It occurred the day before Peterloo. It involved one James Murray who had participated in the incident, and it was not to improve the Radical prospects for that day.
The January meeting, and ‘the various incidents described above, revealed new undertones to the situation. There was nothing illegal in suggesting a Remonstrance rather than a Petition, but it was more definite and aggressive. Whether Hunt actually used ‘the bloody butchers’ phrase or not, the language of the Radicals was also becoming aggressive.- In this context Bentham was later to say that Radical language far outran Radical intentions and this, retrospectively, is true But to the magistrates and loyalists on the spot, to whom a Radical was ‘a libelous, seditious, factious, levelling, revolutionary, republican, democratical, atheistical villain’—to quote a contemporary letter—all the villains were growing too big for their boots and needed putting back in their places. The only way they could think of doing this was by violence, such as the attacks on Hunt. In January these were only the seeds of violence, but there was little indication that the – – Government, magistrates or loyalists would either uproot them or shrivel them to death from lack of water. It was from January that attitudes started to harden until the gap between loyalist and Radical was so wide as to be insurmountable, and led with sad inevitability to Peterloo.
At the beginning of the cold, wet month of February there were one or two small meetings to keep the Radical flag flying. Royton had one organized by the energetic William Fitton, to -protest against the Corn Laws and paper money and to call for, needless to say, a radical reform of the House of Commons. But the next important meeting was held in mid-February on Sandy Brow in Stockport. It was organized by the Reverend Harrison, with John Knight and John Saxton also on the platform. This meeting was attended by the military, which perhaps indicates that the magistrates currently regarded Stockport as the premier sink of seditious iniquity, or were particularly frightened of Harrison’s influence. After a Remonstrance, again not a Petition had been passed, a further resolution was proposed to aid. Messrs Johnston, Bagguley and Drummond then awaiting trial. Towards the end of the meeting a scuffle broke out, as some of the troops tried to seize a Cap of Liberty,1 The, attempt was a failure and, encouraged by their success, the crowd swarmed to the Wind Mill Rooms where the customary public dinner war to be held. The troops, constables and magistrates followed them. The crowd refused to disperse, so the Riot Act was read. As nobody took any notice the magistrates asked Harrison to use his influence to disperse the crowd, which he did, assuring them that- neither he nor- any of the’ leaders was in danger of arrests The crowd then swarmed to the Market Place where the Riot Act was again read, and this time the troops dispersed them. But half an hour later the crowd had regrouped, and the Riot Act was read a third time before the day came to an end.
There was more than sufficient incident, in this February day further to alarm magistrates and loyalists. Equally, there was an indication of how rowdy meetings and post-meeting occurrences could be kept under control, by the continued good sense of the magistrates, and co-operation between them and the Radicals. In Stockport even the Manchester Observer spoke of the demeanour of the magistrates being such as to entitle them to the thanks of the friends of liberty.
Unfortunately, the brows of Mr Norris and others, whose jurisdiction covered Manchester rather than Stockport, grew considerably more furrowed as a result of this meeting. Norris wrote a long letter to the Home Office in which he regretted the attempt to seize the Cap of Liberty, as to the Radicals it might have taken on the appearance of a triumph.: As such they certainly regarded it. Lancashire and Cheshire’s very own poet, Bamford, soon composed a set of commemorative verses,- one of which ends with a particularly excruciating couplet.
Then proudly let our banner wave
WI’ freedom’s emblem o’er it,
And toasted be the Stockport lads,
The lads who bravely bore it
And let the ‘war-worn’ Yeomanry,
Go curse their sad disasters;
And count, in rueful agony,
Their bruises and their plasters.
-In his letter to the Home Office, Norris thought’ he -saw in the Stockport meeting a prelude to the repetition of last summer’s dreadful occurrences. How right he was! But apart from tentatively suggesting that the Government might do something to alleviate the economic conditions, particularly those of the weavers, and by so doing remove the cause for their adherence to the Radical movement; and asking if the forthcoming Parliamentary debate on the cotton trade – could not be postponed, now not being a good time to air and thus exacerbate grievances, he had no fundamental suggestions as to how the rot could be stopped.
Neither had Lord Sidmouth, who made soothing noises in reply. He regretted that assistance could not be afforded either by the legislative or executive branch of Parliament to the labouring classes, and that the cotton debate could not be postponed because of pressures from the Opposition. But be had the helpful thought that should Norris’s fears about a repetition of 1818 be correct, the experience then gained would stand him and his fellow magistrates in good stead. Finally, as always, there was the comfort of the law: ‘It should be proved by legal proceedings that a seditious speech is not to be made with impunity.’
For the next two months there was a respite from meetings, which did not mean that either Radicals or magistrates were idle—far from it. In March a declaration of the objects and principles of Harrison’s Union Society appeared in the Manchester Observer, and the models mushroomed. Among them, at the end of March, was the Patriotic Union Society in Manchester. All the leading Radicals were members, with Johnson, then Knight, as its Secretary and Wroe as its Treasurer. Its foundation was vital to Peterloo, as the fatal invitation to Hunt was issued by its members.
It was from the end of March that the magistrates began to be convinced, to quote. Norris, ‘that a general insurrection is seriously meditated’. Their conviction was probably linked with the spread of the Union Societies. Like a pair, of bloodhounds Norris and Ethelston started sniffing for the weapons that would prove the revolutionary intent. The weapon they, alighted upon was the pike which their spies were despatched to unearth. They had little success. By the end of April only one pike had been produced whose purpose could have been anything. But the lack of success did not deter Ethelston or Norris from their gloomy convictions, of impending revolution. Many loyalists increasingly shared such a conviction on even less concrete evidence.
- The Cap of Liberty had originally been the symbol of granting a slave his freedom in Roman times. It was increasingly carried by the Radicals as a symbol of their desire to be set free from misery and oppression.