I Never Saw Such a Corpse as This in All My Life

For the remainder of the week the atmosphere in Manchester was tense and taut, the town in a virtual state of siege. Armed pickets remained on duty at the possible trouble spots. There were barriers and troops covering the toll gates. On the day after Peterloo, Constable Moore spread the rumour that thousands of men armed with the inevitable pikes were marching on the town centre. The Exchange was abruptly closed, notices were posted ordering the people to stay indoors, and Major Dyneley was called out with his artillery to meet-the advancing hordes. But as he reported in his customary racy style: ‘[We] came-at a pretty sharp trot thro’ the Town but I am sorry to say the report proved unfounded in respect of Pikes, and the Mob which were only gathering together, dispersed: It would have been a pretty thing to have caught them armed. I should of course have opened fire upon them immediately.’

The next day there was again a general turn-out for the troops, but by now even the ever eager Dyneley was -growing chary of the alarms He wrote ‘we had a thousand reports brought in from the country, one of which was that the mob intended to attack the Barracks, and seize the Arms. I was in consequence ready all night, slow matches lighted etcetera. We had a false alarm about 11. The rest of the night was quiet. We shall have the same bother I have no doubt tonight, little or any of our information can be relied upon.’ Dyneley never had the longed-for opportunity to knock the enemy for six. There were sporadic acts of violence from ‘the mob’. There was trouble in the New Cross area on the 17th, 19th and 20th, and there were riots in Stockport and Macclesfield on the 17th But Dyneley either arrived too late or was too far from the scene of action, and the violence remained disorganized angry outbursts.

If ever the lack of revolutionary intent among the Radicals was proven it was in the days and weeks immediately after Peterloo. There was a core of the more angry, militant or outraged who considered the time was now past for self-approving consciences It was they, together with the inevitable hoodlums, who threw stones at constables’ houses and formed the mob Major Dyne-ley would have liked to have fired upon But of disciplined dedicated revolutionary action there was none. Nor was there concerted, lawful reaction Bamford and some friends tried to organize a meeting on Tandle Hill shortly after the 16th to discuss what measures should be taken, but only a handful of people responded to the call. Thirty years later Bamford was to write passionately (and on this score he was still passionate however much his other views had changed) ‘If the people were to rise and smite their enemies was not this the time? Was every enormity to be endured, and this after all? Were we still to lie down like whipped hounds, whom nothing could rouse to resistance? Were there not times and seasons, and circumstances, under which the common rules- of wisdom became folly, prudence became cowardice, and submission became criminal? and was not the present one of these times and seasons? It was astonishing that men could eat and sleep and the voice of their brothers’ blood crying from the ground did not make I them miserable.’ The season had not come because the English temperament is notoriously infertile revolutionary ground, although it can be brought to bloom, and because in this instance the seeds had neither been firmly planted nor nurtured. There were many who wept for the dead and injured, some who wept for themselves, but the majority were too stunned, shocked or frightened to take action. They suffered from mass concussion.

While their followers were thus suffering from concussion, the Radical leaders continued to languish in solitary confinement within the grim walls of the New Bailey prison. On August-24th they were joined by ‘Doctor’ Healey, arrested earlier in the day, and on the 26th by Bamford whose arrest was conducted as if he were Public Enemy Number One. He was wakened from his bed at 2 o’clock in the morning by Nadin who informed him that he had a warrant against him for high treason Bamford dressed, said good-bye to Mima and his little daughter, and came downstairs to find a posse of foot soldiers and a group of Hussars waiting to escort him to the New Bailey. (Why the magistrates delayed a week before arresting such desperate villains as Bamford and Healey, was never made clear.) High treason was the heady charge the magistrates hoped to lay against the prisoners, but they were ‘dissuaded’ by important Treasury Solicitor-officers hastily sent from London. This altering of the charge and preparing of a watertight case was the reason the prisoners were left for eleven days. Each had an individual interrogation on August 20th which produced one result. Being dragged off the hustings, beaten, insulted and flung into solitary confinement had proved too much for the unstable romanticism of Joseph Johnson. He offered to produce the private correspondence between himself and Hunt (they had avoided the official postal service when possible, knowing that the Government was intercepting and opening their correspondence). Hunt said there was nothing in the correspondence that would help the Government, and he was not afraid of anything he had written to anyone, but the idea of Johnson thus betraying him, turning King’s evidence while he was under a charge of High Treason, was monstrous.

The magistrates wrote to Sidmouth to give him the good news about Johnson, and were cautiously told that they might inform Johnson that his case would be considered according to the information disclosed. But the magistrates’ joy at-(possibly) finding incriminating evidence against Hunt was short-lived. The correspondence was not delivered to them. On her husband’s arrest Mrs Johnson, a young woman in her early twenties, immediately gave all his private papers to a lawyer. He refused to hand them over to the magistrates. On receiving this information, the Home Office told the magistrates that it was not deemed right to make any distinction between Johnson and the other prisoners. They also thought that if Johnson really wanted to show penitence he could use his influence as part owner of the Manchester Observer to stop the venom of that newspaper and its grossly libellous ‘Peterloo Massacre’ publications. Poor Johnson, who had neither the conviction of Saxton or Knight or Healey or Bamford, nor the courage (or arrogance) of Hunt, was released on bail before the other prisoners. For this he reaped Hunt’s charge of deserting’ his friends and the censure that, ‘among all the political apostates I have ever known, and they are, many, and some of them very vile indeed, I never knew one that I believe would have been so poor and mean a creature as this Johnson’. But his lack of the necessary qualities to endure hardship and disaster did Johnson no good. He was indicted just the same.

On August 27th the prisoners were finally brought for examination, the charge being reduced to seditious conspiracy to overthrow the Government. Bail was allowed in such cases (to the chagrin of magistrates everywhere). But the sums required on August 27th were enormous. For Hunt and Johnson it was £1,000 each, with two sureties of £500, for the rest £500 with two sureties of £250. It was at this point that Johnson was            released. So was Moorhouse, though at his door Hunt laid no charges of apostasy. Sir Charles Wolseley was ready to provide the bail money for Hunt but he was not given the opportunity; While Sir Charles was on his way to Norris’s house to present the bail money, Hunt and the leading prisoners were put into a coach and sent off to Lancaster Gaol ‘for want -of- bail’. Incidentally the heavily pregnant Elisabeth Gaunt was released. The magistrates had confused her with Mrs Fildes of the Female Reformers. After the poor woman had lain in solitary confinement for over a week they finally discovered their mistake and released her. Mrs Fildes, who could have been arrested for she was on the hustings and was a prominent Radical, escaped this fate. Having made one blunder, not overlooked by the Radical press and critics in general, the magistrates had not sufficient confidence to arrest the right woman.

Whether sending Hunt to Lancaster was a wise move is a moot point. The carriage was escorted by Nadin and a troop of cavalry with swords drawn. With this conspicuous, bodyguard it attracted large cheering crowds for most of the fifty miles from Manchester to Lancaster. At Preston Nadin paid for the prisoners’ meal from his own pocket, an action Hunt noted with surprise. The surprise was short-lived. Nadin quickly reverted to more accepted character. Just outside Preston the coach nearly overturned and Nadin, as Hunt recorded with some pomposity; ‘poured forth volley of oaths, which for atrocity and vulgarity exceeded all I had ever heard before or since;… I sat perfectly quiet during this disgusting scene, and heard with horror his beastly epithets and dreadful imprecations’. On arrival at Lancaster gaol the prisoners were conducted to, again to quote Hunt, ‘a spacious dirty room’ without a tap with which to wash themselves, and which all were to share. Hunt objected strenuously-and was eventually given a separate cell. It was during the journey to Lancaster that Bamford recorded first glimpsing Hunt’s feet of clay. He carried ‘his earnestness and vehemence with him everywhere’, which Bamford found both annoying and tiring. And the tremendous welcome that greeted them en route was ‘cast like flowers at the feet of one who was excessively egotistical, and I really doubted whether he who loved himself could -really love his country for its own sake’. Other more acid comments were to follow over the months and year.

In Lancaster the prisoners were treated to a visit from James Murray. He was brought into the communal cell to see if he could identify anyone as having been present on White Moss. None of them had been, and wisely Murray refrained from identification. They were also visited by Sir Charles Wolseley and Mr Harmer and Mr Dennison, the two solicitors who were to play a large part in the Radical attempts to indict the magistrates on legal grounds. Harmer and Dennison helped draw up charges against three of the constables for perjury and against the MYC for maiming. But the Grand Jury refused to entertain the complaints. However, one true bill was admitted against Richard Owen, the man who had signed the affidavit for the Peterloo arrests, but it eventually came to nothing. At Lancaster the bail was reduced slightly, and met by Sir Charles Wolseley. Hunt and Knight were quickly released, the rest shortly afterwards. Sir Charles provided the bail money for nearly all the Peterloo arrested, not only the leaders but the lesser fry whom the magistrates had hoped to trap by the large sums demanded. As Hunt said: ‘In this affair Sir Charles Wolseley did more to serve the cause of Liberty and the People, than was done by all the Aristocracy and all the Country Gentlemen of England put together.’

On the journey back from Lancaster Hunt’s horse, Bob, died near Preston. The animal was buried under a weeping willow with a headstone inscribed, Alas! Poor Bob!!!’ Thousands of people attended the funeral, almost as many as attended Peterloo, and left as weeping as the willow. (Rather gruesomely, seven years later, the remains of poor Bob were dug up, and his bones were made into snuff boxes. A special one was made from his knee cap, a silver lid was fitted, and presented to Hunt.) This unexpected demonstration of the English love for animals (one had thought it of more recent Victorian origin) prompts the question: Why did the magistrates never publish the horses’ casualties at Peterloo? There was a complete list supplied by Colonel L’Estrange.

1 Officer’s Charger cut by sharp instrument.

1 Troop Horse stabbed between the ears by a pointed weapon. 1 ditto cut in the head.

1 ditto wounded in the side by a pole with a spike.

1 ditto wounded in the side.

4 ditto struck by stones.

9 of the 15th Hussars.

1 Officer’s Charger cut by stones.

2 Troop Horses cut by a sharp instrument.

8 dittostruck by stones.

11 of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry Cavalry.

20 Grand Total.

Surely such touching information as wounded between the ears by a pointed weapon would have wrung a few hearts, converted some waverers to the official cause?

Hunt finally left Lancashire in the second week of September, but not before penning a farewell message to the Brave Reformers of Lancashire from, of all places, Smedley Cottage, the home of that vile apostate Johnson. In his message Hunt stated his pledge not to drink a drop of taxed beer, spirits, wines, tea or coffee until the murderers of Peterloo had been brought to justice. This affirmation was connected with several Radical plans formulated immediately after Peterloo, to hit the Establishment where it hurt most—their pockets. The idea of abstinence had been mooted before Peterloo. On the day before, the Reverend Harrison had preached a sermon in-Stockport in which he said: ‘The government have starved the people, and therefore it is fit that the people should starve the government.’ (Such sentiments earned him an extra prison sentence on top of his indictment for the June Stockport meeting.) After August 16th the idea of boycotting taxed beverages was adopted with enthusiasm, by the Radical leaders anyway, and had it succeeded it would have deprived the Government of a large part of their income. But its adoption by the Lancashire masses, from the harshness of their lives notably heavy drinkers, was less than whole-hearted. Immediately after Peterloo it received limited support. At the Oldham Wakes, for example, the Radicals went so far as to brew their own beer. But Saxton expressed the common sentiment when, he said that he would attend-a meeting at any time, or make a speech, or move or second a resolution for Parliamentary reform, but a resolution for personal reform in the matter of a little cordial, he neither could nor would entertain. Surprisingly, Hunt, who liked the good life, kept to his pledge, extra proof of the sincerity of his Radicalism. He even produced an ersatz coffee made from roasted corn, but it was undrinkable.

Hunts journey from Manchester to London was a further trail of ‘Hail the Conquering Hero’. His entry into the capital on September 13th was greeted by the delirious enthusiasm of not less than 300,000 people, or so The Times estimated. He addressed the crowd, of course, urging them to remain peaceable however violently their feelings were justifiably running,, reiterating his pleas for abstention from taxed beverages ‘until public justice is done to the community, and the blood of the sufferers at Manchester is avenged’.

The blood of one Manchester sufferer finally slowed to a standstill in the early hours of 7th September; At 1.30 in the morning John Lees’s fight for life ended.

The day after Peterloo, with those hideous injuries, he went to work. His father saw him at 8 a.m standing at the top of the landing in the family factory. But he was obviously far too ill to work, his shirt was soaked in blood, so his father sent him home (the house was just across the street from the factory). Later in the day somebody in the Lees household decided John should see a doctor. Accordingly he went to the surgery. The doctor advised rest and poultices, and for the next eleven days John stayed in bed until 2 o’clock in the afternoon, struggling downstairs at this hour. His step-mother said he was ‘very poorly, that he threw up everything he ate, that be suddenly grew very cold and could not stop shivering, and that he could find no ease from the pain of his wounds. By Saturday, September 3rd, he could no longer struggle out of bed, and leeches were applied to his temples. He had by this time lost the use of his left arm and the sight of his left eye. Slowly and agonizingly the life ebbed out of him. The woman who laid him out said she had seen many dead people in her life, but never such a corpse as his. The top of his right shoulder was absolutely black. His back was as if he had been tied to a halberd and flogged, not a piece of unbruised skin to be seen. His left foot was dotted with purple spots and lumps. The elbow bone was protruding from the arm. As he was put into the coffin the blood poured from him, and the next day his body was in a state of high putrefaction. The immediate cause of death, as certified by the local surgeon, was a suffusion of blood to the lungs.

It was John’s stamina, ability to endure pain, and will to live that earned him his minor immortality. That and his father’s anger and determination. There had already been several inquests on Peterloo victims, but these had occurred immediately after the day, the authorities had rushed them through with verdicts such as the one on little William Fildes—’fell from his mother’s arms’—and the Radicals had been given no opportunity for intervention. As soon as it became known that the surgeon required an inquest on John Lees, his father was contacted and asked if he would allow the Radical solicitors to represent him, free of charge. Robert Lees understood the implications of this request, that an all-out effort was to be made, over the dead body of John, to prove that the magistrates had acted illegally at Peter-loo. He entered the lists because he thought his son had been murdered and he wanted to help expose the culprits. His action required courage. Hundreds of Peterloo victims had feared to go to the Royal Infirmary because of what the authorities might do to them. Here was a humble cotton spinner defying authority; Agreed he had strong support from Messrs Harmer and Dennison, but Robert risked possible repressive action from the magistrates, or financial boycott or pressure from local loyalists.

The inquest opened at the Duke of York Inn, Oldham, on 8th September. From the start it was a tragi-comedy with moments of farce. The Radicals had rounded up four coachloads of witnesses and brought them from Manchester. The small room was packed with the jury; officials, reporters and spectators. The Radical intent was obvious to the authorities, and their first countermove was the delaying tactic. Mr Harmer opened the proceedings, addressing himself to the gentleman in the presiding chair.

HARMER      I presume, Sir, you are the Coroner?

BATTYE        No. I am clerk to the Coroner, Mr Ferrand, who is at Lancaster.

HARMER      Then you attend to take the Inquest as his Deputy?

BATTYE        Yes, I came to take it in his stead.

HARMER      Are the jury sworn, sir?

BATTYE        Yes, they are sworn.

HARMER      May I be favoured with their names?

BA1TYE         No, I shan’t tell you. I should like to know what is your


HARMER      My name is Harmer. Now I presume you can have no objection to tell me your name or to give me the names of the Jury?

BATTYE        I won’t answer any questions.

HARMER      What motive can you have for refusing your name, or

keeping those of the Jury unknown tome?

BATTYE        I shall answer no questions.

STRANGER  (calling out from the packed assembly) His name is Battye.

BATTYE        Yes, that is my name, and I tell you I shall not proceed upon this Inquisition now. I shall adjourn it until Mr Ferrand comes. –

HARMER      I think I have had trouble enough upon this business. I have rode 18 miles and gone to Manchester, all to oblige you, and you are not satisfied even now. You    have all behaved very ill to me. I do not know what you would have.

What Mr Battye would have acting under orders, was adjournment. The proceedings were duly adjourned until September 25th when they were to be resumed at the Angel Inn in Oldham. There Mr Ferrand, the Coroner, presided and immediately made his bias evident by ordering that no notes of the proceedings were to be published until after the inquest and any possible further legal proceedings had been concluded. The injunction was to prevent any publicity damaging to the magistrates. It led to some spirited exchanges between Mr Ferrand and various gentlemen of the press:

FERRAND Who are you taking notes for?

REPORTER I am taking notes for the Statesman.

FERRAND     I thought I told you that you were not to take notes.

REPORTER I never understood, Sir, that your injunction applied to me.

FERRAND Have you sent your notes to London?


FERRAND Have they been published?

REPORTER I hope so. I sent them for that purpose. I can’t answer whether they have been published or not.

FERRAND Then I shall not suffer you to take another note.

The reporters for The Times and the Morning Chronicle were both expelled from the court-room (the local authorities were most injudicious in their dealings with The Times). Despite, or because of, these injunctions, evidence most damaging to the magistrates began to spread. The aim of the authorities was, in the first place, to prevent any such evidence being given. In addition to the stalwart efforts of Mr Battye and Mr Ferrand, they were supported by barrister named Ashworth, briefed by Constables Andrew and Moore and Boroughreeve Clayton. Ashworth parried the Radical attempts to show that troops had attacked the crowd by constantly saying that until it could be proved who had struck John Lees, it was, not permissible to bring in further witnesses on the theme of attack. ‘Shew me a principal and then I will accede to the possibility of there being accessories’. But a principal proved impossible to show. Dozens of people could say they had been near John Lees, or had seen him injured, but none could name the MYC member responsible. Despite the efforts of Ferrand and Ashworth, despite the squashing tactics—

‘Did you know John Lees?


‘Do you know anything of his death?’

‘No, I do not.’

‘Then what do you know?’

‘I only know of myself being wounded.’

‘That is not evidence and I shall not hear it.’

—the witnesses continued to get in their statements about standing peacefully on Saint Peter’s Field one minute and being slashed, hacked and trampled under foot the next. In fact the Radicals tended to call too many witnesses who had no connection with John Lees. On one occasion Harmer, who was a Londoner, stepped straight on Ferrand’s Lancashire pride by strenuously objecting that this was not how the law was interpreted in London. Despite these minor Radical aberrations, the proceedings continued to go badly from the magistrates’ point of view, and on October 7th Ferrand transferred the inquest to the Star Inn, Manchester. When this effected no improvement, on October 13th he ordered an adjournment until December 1st. His excuse for this inordinately long delay was that the jury were tired and needed a rest. His reason was to prevent further damaging evidence being given. With a month and a half to think things over he hoped many Radical witnesses would fall by the wayside.

The Radicals immediately applied to the King’s Bench for a mandamus to compel the Coroner to proceed forthwith. They might have obtained it, for Ferrand had no valid reason for calling an adjournment. However, during the course of their application, an irregularity came to light. It was shown that Ferrand and the jury had not viewed the body of the dead John Lees at the same time. This irregularity, the bench concluded, made the proceedings of the inquest null and void. As Archibald Prentice commented: ‘The Coroner, by omitting to observe the law, placed himself above the law!’ Although many signatures were collected in Manchester protesting against the employment of Ashworth by the Boroughreeve and Constables on the grounds that his -fees were to be paid from the rates; although several jury members wrote to Ferrand and said that if a verdict had been asked for ‘they would have returned one of wilful murder; although Robert Lees presented a petition ‘To the Honourable the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, in parliament assembled’, requesting that the case of his dead son be re-opened and re-examined, it never was.