Manchester Knew Nought of Misery until Now

The all-out national Radical effort consisted of four major meetings, in Birmingham, Leeds, London and Manchester, to take place in the months of July and August. They were to demonstrate how much national support the Radicals already had, and to attract as much further national attention as possible, so that the Government would be forced to take more than note. It will thus be seen that the only meeting to go down into popular history, Peterloo, was but part of a general plan

The first meeting was held at Newhall Hill in Birmingham on July 12th. Major Cartwright and Wooler of the Black Dwarf were present, but Hunt was not. As the great Radical cry was Parliamentary reform, particularly for the unrepresented towns, the Birmingham Radicals decided to elect a ‘legislatorial attorney to underline the cry of ‘all the unrepresented people of the Empire’ The legislatorial attorney thus elected in lieu of a real candidate, ready and waiting for his hour of call to the reformed Parliament, was Sir Charles Wolseley (not himself present as his mother had just died) The Government was surprised, not to say alarmed, by this move, and the Solicitor and Attorney General’s offices were immediately put to work to consider its implications. Their considerations had a direct bearing on Peterloo. The Birmingham Radicals claimed that 60,000 people attended the meeting. As with all figures of the period it was an exaggeration, but it was a large and successful meeting, probably of about 30,000. Its success-was counter-reactive, as was every step in these weeks, in sending Radical confidence and loyalist fears upwards. The British Volunteer’s comment on the election of Sir Charles Wolseley was, for a current Tory paper, nicely observed. As Birmingham ‘had for so long been employed in manufacturing other descriptions of counterfeits, why so much displeasure at their making a Brummagem Member?’

The second meeting was held on Hunslet Moor, near Leeds, on July 19th. Of the four it was the least successful. It was held at midday which was said to be a bad hour for the workers. However, the time factor does not hold water as an alibi. Peter-loo was held at the same hour and the workers managed to turn up there.

The third meeting took place at Smithfield on July 21st, with Hunt as the principal speaker. It was important, not just because it was held in London, but because of its resolutions. In the post-Peterloo trials the Government seized upon one of the resolutions, namely, ‘that from and after the 1st day of January, 1820, we cannot, conscientiously, consider ourselves as bound in equity by any future enactments which may be made by any persons styling themselves our representatives, other than those who shall be fully, freely and fairly chosen by the voices and votes of the largest proportion of the members of the state’. The Government embroidered this claim as evidence of Hunt’s revolutionary intent, that he intended to urge the Manchester crowds along the paths of anarchy as from January 1st, 1820. As he never had the opportunity of speaking at Manchester, nobody knows what he would actually have said.

It was also at Smithfield that the Reverend Harrison of the Union Societies was arrested, on charges arising from his Stockport speech on June 28th.1 The Manchester magistrates were to adopt a similar proceeding at Peterloo, that is arresting a Radical leader from the hustings while the meeting was in progress, so it is worth noting that Harrison’s arrest was effected without military assistance, because part of the magistrates’ case after Peterloo was that they could not possibly have arrested the Radical leaders Without military support.

Harrison’s arrest was not only a shaky precedent for the magistrates It had another repercussion, detrimental to the Radicals, inflammatory for the loyalists. Harrison was brought back from London to Stockport on July 23rd in the custody of a constable named William Birch. Nearing Stockport, Birch was shot. Lord Sidmouth learned ‘with great horror  the atrocious deed whereby the life of William Birch has been endangered if not destroyed’. The blame was immediately laid at the Radical door, as it happens unjustly, but as Hunt wrote to Johnson, gloomily regretting the incident, ‘It will give the villains of the press such a handle’. It did. On July 31st the British Volunteer wrote that it had ‘just received information that the assassination of Mr Birch was a preconcerted plot, on the part of about a dozen individuals’. The Volunteer was wrong on all counts. Birch was not dead. There was no preconcerted plot, nor were a dozen individuals involved. The shooting was the unprompted, solo act of a distraught and starving young weaver named William Pearson. By August 7th, the Volunteer was admitting that it had been wrong about a conspiracy against Birch, but the damage had been done. Ethelston expressed the loyalist reaction thus: ‘I am not an alarmist but I think I foresee in this only a prelude to future Bloodshed’. In fact Birch recovered, and on August 13th His Royal Highness the Prince Regent was graciously pleased to grant him a pension of £100 a year. The wretched Pearson was sheltered by friends for a time, but on August 17th he was charged with maliciously shooting at William Birch with a pistol and subsequently hanged.

The shooting of Birch put a pint of boiling water in the already steaming cauldron. Several gallons more were added on July 31st when the official announcement of the intended meeting in Manchester appeared in the Manchester Observer.

It was Johnson who wrote the fatal letter to Hunt on behalf of the Patriotic Union Society of Manchester. It was full of foreboding and depression. ‘Trade here is not worth following,’ he wrote. ‘Everything is almost at a standstill, nothing but ruin and starvation stare one in the face. The state of the district is; truly dreadful.’ He also made the interesting and revealing statement that, ‘I believe nothing but the greatest exertion can prevent an insurrection.’ To an extent it backs up the loyalist contentions, but it also shows that the loal Radical leaders were aiming to prevent such revolution. Inviting Hunt may have been one, method by which they hoped to do this. He was the idol who could sway the crowds, stay the lurching avalanche and keep it on a stable, legal, Radical course. Hunt privately accepted the invitation, adding his hope that the meeting be made the largest assembly ever seen on England’s soil, and that it be well publicized. His wishes were carried out. As we have seen, preparations started, at the beginning of July. At the end of the month the official announcement appeared:

The public are respectfully informed, that a MEETING will be held here on MONDAY the 9th August, 1819, on the Area near ST PETER’S CHURCH, to take into consideration, the most speedy and effectual mode of obtaining Radical Reform in the Commons House of Parliament, being fully convinced, that nothing less can remove the intolerable evils under which the People of this Country have so long, and do still, groan; and also to consider the proprietry of the ‘Unrepresented Inhabitants of Manchester’ electing a Person to represent them in Parliament; and of the adopting of Major Cartwright’s Bill.

HUNT, ESQ in the Chair.

It will thus be seen that Manchester had no intention of being left behind Birmingham in electing a ‘legislatorial attorney. It was this announced intention that led to the days of legal hair-splitting, to the postponement of the original meeting, and in a way to the disaster of Peterloo.

The Solicitor and Attorney General’s offices had been considering the matter of the ‘legislatorial attorney’. They passed their findings on to Lord Sidmouth who then wrote to the Reverend Hay, summarizing the legal position and conclusion. It was the most crucial of the many hundreds of letters that passed between the Home Office and the Manchester magistrates. The vital section read:

I have now to acquaint you that the Attorney and Solicitor General have given their opinion that the Election of a member of Parliament without the King’s Writ is the high misdemeanour and that the parties engaged and acting therein may be prosecuted for a conspiracy. Lord Sidmouth therefore hopes that if such an election should be attempted at Manchester, measures will be taken for, bringing the offenders to justice. From the opinion of the law officers it follows that a Meeting held for the purpose of such an election is an unlawful conspiracy.-But if the meeting

is not convened for the unlawful purpose, the illegality will not commence until the purpose is developed and of course after the crowd has been collected, when it must be a question of prudency and expedience, to be decided by the magistrates on the spot, whether they should proceed to disperse the persons assembled. Lord Sidmouth has no doubt that the question will be judiciously decided by the Magistrates of Manchester.

Thus Birmingham’s decision to elect a ‘legislatorial attorney’ unwittingly contributed to the disaster of Peterloo, because the Radicals did change their plans so that the meeting was, without any shadow of doubt, of lawful purpose, and to ensure that the magistrates could not act until after the crowds had collected. It hardly needs saying that Lord Sidmouth should have had doubts about the judicious decisions the Manchester magistrates were likely to take.

On the same day, July 31st, as the Radical announcement appeared, the magistrates published their counter-blast, without having seen the official text, but assuming what its contents would be and acting on the Home Office’s advice.

Whereas it appears by an advertisement in the Manchester Observer paper of this day, that a PUBLIC AND ILLEGAL MEETING is convened for Monday, the 9th day of August next, to be held on the AREA NEAR SAINT PETER’S CHURCH in Manchester. We, the undersigned Magistrates, acting for the Counties Palatine of Lancaster and Chester, do hereby caution all Persons to abstain AT THEIR PERIL from attending such ILLEGAL MEETINGS.

The wording is interesting. If the last underlined sentence is considered, the grammatical sense of abstaining at one’s peril is—go or else! Hunt, the Manchester Observer and the Radicals in general were quick to seize upon the error which doubtless nowadays would be called Freudian. Ironically amused as the Radicals were by the wording, they took the warning seriously. Their reaction too was legal. Everybody connected with Peterloo was so busy trying to interpret the law that it can truly be said to have been a most legal disaster, a wreck that smashed on England’s greatest strength and greatest weakness, the supremacy of the established law. The Radicals sent John Saxton to Liverpool to consult Mr Ranecock, a counsel sympathetic to the cause, on their right to hold the meeting and of the magistrates to ban it.

In the meantime, the Home Office was bombarding the magistrates with further legal consideration and advice. Having again consulted the Attorney General, Lord Sidmouth was of the opinion that there was great difficulty in pronouncing the meeting of the 9th illegal beforehand, as-the Radicals had not stated that they wanted to elect a representative to Parliament, but they merely wanted to consider it, which was not illegal. He therefore thought the magistrates should reconsider their ban. The’ next day the Solicitor General was considering when and how the meeting might become illegal, and whether the magistrates could use force in dispersing it. But in his next letter Lord Sidmouth, on reflection, was convinced ‘of the inexpedience of attempting forcibly to prevent the meeting of Monday even should they utter sedition or proceed to an election of a representative, it will be wisest to abstain from any endeavour to disperse the mob, unless they proceed to an act of felony or riot’.

As it turned out, the legally bemused magistrates were saved from the ignominious position of having to retract and allow the meeting of the 9th to take place. Mr Ranecock had come to a different conclusion from the Solicitor General. He thought the Radicals were on tricky legal ground in considering the propriety of electing a representative. Accordingly, on August 4th, the Radicals published a further annonncement to the effect that they had considered the magistrates’ warning. Although they could see no reason why the meeting should be banned, they had decided not to hold it. They, therefore, requested the Boroughreeve to convene a further meeting. Not surprisingly the Boroughreeve, Edward Clayton, failed to respond to this call. On August 7th Norris received a letter from Lord Sidmouth congratulating him on the postponement of the meeting, which his Lordship thought the magistrates should regard as a personal triumph. His Lordship was already out of date. For on August 6th the Radicals called another meeting of their own accord. The amended text ran:

A REQUISON having been presented to the Boroughreeve and Constables of Manchester, signed by above 700 inhabitants, requesting them to call PUBLIC  MEETING ‘to consider the propriety of adopting the most LEGAL and EFFECTUAL means of obtaining a REFORM in the Commons Houses of Parliament and they having declined to call such a meeting therefore the undersigned Requisitionists give NOTICE that a public meeting will be held, on the area, near St Peter’s Church, for the above mentioned purpose on Monday the 16th instant—the Chair to be taken by H. Hunt Esq, at 12 o’clock.

Hundreds of signatures followed, with the final note: ‘The signatures of Householders, who have since come to the Office of the Observer, have exceeded one Thousand, which for want of time and room, we are compelled to omit.’

  1. Wolseley was soon arrested on the same count. Archibald Prentice’s comment was: ‘Sir Charles and Harrison were found guilty of having breathed together and imprisoned’.