That Anomalous Hermaphrodite Race Called Parson-Justices

In Manchester it was a question not so much of what had done for grandfather as for antecedents long mouldering in their graves.

In a judicial decision of 1360 Manchester had been classified as a market town. In a charter dating from the same period her government was put in the hands of the Mosleys of Rolleston Hall in Staffordshire. According to the terms of this charter the head of the Mosley family appointed a steward who in turn appointed a jury; known as a Court Leet, from the freemen of the town, who in turn appointed a corps of officials headed by a Boroughreeve and two Constables. The steward’s duty was to collect rents for the Lord of the Manor, the Court Leet’s to make bye-laws for the market users, the Boroughreeve’s to distribute endowed charities and to call and preside over public meetings, while the constables’ was to keep order within the market town.

Since 1360 very little had happened to the structure of Manchester’s government. It had ambled along comfortably until the middle of the eighteenth century: As the effects of the, Industrial Revolution began to make themselves felt, a few citizens became aware of the dangers of continuing to impose a medieval system on the fast expanding and violently changing town. In 1763 attempts were made to bring the system more up to date. The plan was to provide a corporation equally divided between high and low Anglicans and Dissenters. But the scheme came to nothing, the High Anglicans refusing to share the power they already possessed. In 1770, however, something was accomplished. By an Act of Parliament Manchester obtained a police commission which was authorized to clean the streets, supervise the lighting, provide fire engines and a night watch, of constables. But the Act also preserved the rights and prerogatives of the existing medieval charter, so what began as an attempt towards incorporation, to the vesting of local amenities and authority in representative local hands, drifted back to the same old elite. Then in 1807 Sir Oswald Mosley, the head of the family, offered to sell his manorial rights for £90,000. The elite countered with an offer of £70,000 and no compromise being reached, the deal fell through. The judicial system, which was carried out by the magistrates, was a little more up to date having been instituted in Tudor times. In Manchester’s case the magistrates were from Lancashire and Cheshire.

In 1815, therefore, the second largest city in England, with an overall population of just under 200,000 was still owned by the Mosley family. Its day-to-day government was in the hands of men with no qualifications but old-established background. Moreover, there were too few of them to deal with the problems, while in times of unrest the magistrates were empowered to enter the city and take absolute control.1

Who were the men who possessed such daunting power and responsibility? Among the magistrates, who held the most daunting power, it had become an unwritten rule in Lancashire that no manufacturer could serve on the bench. So they were landowners and clergymen. Theoretically, this ruling was to keep the bench unbiased in the many industrial disputes with which it had to deal. Practically, as critics, radical and otherwise, pointed out, it meant that the bench was composed: of men entirely divorced from the problems not only of the masses but also of the respectable citizens. The magistrates were all High Anglican and High Tory. For as the establishment of the Protestant supremacy had been a bitterly fought battle, and the Anglican church was, in the words of Pitt the Younger, ‘an essential part of the constitution’, the two were one and the same. It was for this reason that Anglican clergymen in general, and magistrate-clergymen in particular, were regarded with such hatred and bitterness by the masses, and attacked so unmercifully by the Radicals. By propping up the Establishment so stoutly Anglican clergymen had grown further and further away from the feelings: and needs of their flock, and by so doing had left the field wide open for the Nonconformists.

The three most important magistrates were the Reverend William Robert Hay, James Norris and the Reverend Charles Wicksted Etheiston. Hay was born in 1761, went to Westminster School, then up to Oxford. He qualified as a- barrister on the Northern Circuit but, receiving few briefs, abandoned the -law and entered the church. –In 1802 he became rector of Ackworth near Pontefract, and Chairman- of the Salford Quarter Sessions—posts which he still held at the time of-Peterloo. He was an ambitious man who gave more attention- to his job as chairman than as rector. Rightly so, for success as a magistrate was more likely to, and indeed did, bring rewards than slogging away as a country parson.-On the surface he was smug, complacent and self-righteous-but the papers and correspondence he left behind disturb the image. The Reverend Hay wanted not only to be righteous but to be loved and respected for his righteousness. After Peterloo he was detested, and if the righteousness was never destroyed it was dented. For his great personal weakness was that he was not complacent enough, and in his letters to the Home Office there is an explanatory self-justification of his actions not shown by the other magistrates.

James Norris, born c. 1774, was a local barrister who lived in Manchester. His legal knowledge, according to a contemporary radical, was co-extensive with the weakness of his judgment. According to Sir John Byng, the officer commanding the Northern area, he was an amiable man but timorous. Ethelston, born 1767, was a less amiable character. Educated at Manchester Grammar School and Cambridge, he took holy orders and became vicar of Cheetham Hill (then near, now in, Manchester), and later a fellow of Manchester’s Collegiate College. He aspired to poetry, writing A Pindaric Ode to the Genius of Great Britain and The Suicide with Other Poems—an interesting contrast in subject matter. He was prominent in the foundation of the National, i.e., Anglican, Schools and a Book Repository for circulating Anglican tracts. He needed to Ibe, asthe Dissenters had earlier founded the Lancasterian Schools (named after their founder, Joseph Lancaster), and, of course, outnumbered Anglicans by two to one in the area. Ethelstôn’s christianity did not run towards charity to his fellow men. ‘Some of the reformers ought to be hanged, and some of you are sure to be hanged—the rope is already round your necks’ was typical of comments. He as the type of magistrate who made Lord Sidmouth employ his own spies. For Etheiston believed every report, however wild or unsubstantiated, supplied by his numerous spies and transmitted them ad hoc to the Home Office.

Among other magistrates empowered to enter Manchester and take command of the town in times of unrest were William Hukon and Thomas William Tatton. Hulton was a prominent local landowner. He was chairman on the fatal day of Peterloo, but apart from acting with anything but a clear head, and apparently possessing some conscience, he leaves no strong impression. Tatton came from Wythenshawe Hall (Wythenshawe was then well outside the Manchester boundaries and is now the site of a 1930s model corporation housing estate). He emerges as a bluff, stupid man of few words. He answered most questions at the post-Peterloo trials with a ‘Yes’ or a ‘No’. Advisedly, as he admitted in his deposition to the Treasury Solicitor, though nowhere else, to being short-sighted so hardly the most qualified witness of what occurred on Saint Peter’s Field on August 16th, 1819. Individually or combined the magistrates were not calculated to fill one with enthusiasm as to their qualities of intellect or judgment. It will also be noted that only one of them, Norris, was resident within the 1819 boundaries of Manchester, another point on which contemporary critics seized as evidence of the magistrates’ divorce, this time physical, from the problems of the town.

The men in control of the general administration of the city were also Tory and Anglican but much less church in their attitudes. They were drawn from the merchants and manufacturers and tended to be Pittites, in favour of limited Parliamentary and economic reform in so far as it affected Manchester and cotton. The Boroughreeve in 1815 was Hugh Hornby Birley. In the Pfttite tradition he presided over the anti-Corn Bill meeting in Manchester, representing the masters’ view that the Bill would cause a rise in prices and a consequent demand for higher wages. But the office of Boroughreeve, unlike that of magistrate, was for a limited period only. By 1819 the holder was Edward Clayton, a calico printer of no lasting imprint. However, Hugh Hornby Birley was to play an even more vital role at Peterloo as commander of one troop of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry Cavalry. The two Constables by 1819 were John Moore Junior, a retired wine merchant, and Jonathan Andrew, a manufacturer. Moore was a gentle character, more interested in abstract science than flesh and blood beings. The bitterness, hostility and finally the violence that surrounded his days of office distressed him greatly. Although one sympathizes with his distress, he did nothing to lessen the bitterness and hostility that led to the violence. Temperamentally he was quite unsuited for the office. Jonathan Andrew was made of slightly sterner stuff but he had no understanding or appreciation of the spirit within the area.

The most important office in the day-to-day maintenance of law and order was that of the paid Deputy Constables. (The other posts were unpaid though the perquisites were obviously immense.) Upon the paid post of Deputy Constable more and more power had devolved, mainly due to the laziness of the various Constables over the years. If in 1819 the Boroughreeve and Constables were nice, weak men, the Deputy Constable, Joseph Nadin, was neither.

Born in 1765, Nadin began life as a spinner before finding his métier as a policeman, eighteenth-century version. From the start he was a renowned thief-catcher with the reputation for turning every offence into a felony. The rewards for a successful felonious charge were 40s plus a Tyburn ticket. A Tyburn ticket exempted the holder from any public office in the town of residence. Between 1816 and 1819 the selling price among the public-spirited citizens of Manchester was 350s to 400s. From his frequent sales Joseph Nadin amassed a tidy fortune. He had been appointed Deputy Constable in 1803, the oligarchy being impressed with his prowess in thief-catching. Unfortunately, the qualities required by a good eighteenth-century policeman were not the same as those required for dealing with political agitators. It was Nadin who had arrested John Knight and the Tthirty-eight weavers in 1812, in the same summary manner as he used towards the lowest pickpocket or murderer. As Deputy Constable with virtually unlimited powers of arrest, and holding corruptible power in a dozen other ways, he took a rake-off from all the brothels for example, Nadin was a force to be reckoned with. For twenty years he was said to be ‘the real rider of Manchester’ Retrospectively this is an inaccurate assessment, as in the final analysis, power lay with the magistrates, not Nadin

However, to the populace Nadin represented ‘power’, because it was he they came into contact with The magistrates, Boroughreeve and Constables were shadowy figures in the background, disliked but distantly, whereas Nadin was anything but shadowy; He was over six foot in height with, according to – Bamford whom he twice arrested ‘an uncommon breadth and solidity of frame’. His voice was loud-and coarse, his language even coarser. John Lees could not have told you who the magistrates were, but he could have named the Deputy Constable without, hesitation, and sung one of the many songs that circulated.

With Hunt, we’ll go, we’ll go,

We’ll bear the flag of liberty,

In spite of Nady Joe.

The oligarchy would have done well to have sacked ‘Nady Joe’. Such an action did not occur to them because he appeared to save them so much trouble, ruling the city with his iron fist. But it was an illusion. Nadin’s corrupt, bullying, one-man band’ reaped a harvest of bitterness that helped drive more people into the Radical fold

The final link in the shaky; obsolete maintenance of law and order was the military. The magistrates had the power to call upon regular troops in those self-defined times of unrest. The frequent presence of the military was not appreciated’ by the populace. Nor was the- behaviour of many of the officers. The Radical newspaper, the Manchester Observer, was to ask early in 1819 of the 7th Hussars currently stationed in the area, Are these heroes aware they are now in England? Or does the delirium produced by the unexpected results of the battle of Waterloo still possess their faculties? Do they still ‘suppose themselves in an occupied country?’ The answers were No, Yes and Yes. Many officers strode around Manchester, arrogant, disdainful, supremely disinterested in the lives of their fellow Englishmen, regarding all Radicals as ‘the enemy’. Typical of this breed was Major Dyne-ley of the Royal Artillery. But not all were of his ilk. There was among the 15th Hussars a young Lieutenant, nineteen-years-old at Peterloo, named William George Hylton Jolliffe, and his later account of the day shows a different attitude. And the officer commanding the Northern District, Sir John Byng, had none of Dyneley’s arrogance or blinkered military vision.

Byng, born in 1772, was a veteran of the Peninsular Wars and Waterloo. He had the calmest, coolest and most liberal head of any major loyalist in the area. Throughout years 1816-20 Byng was much less in favour of the use of military force than were the Manchester magistrates. Or any magistrates in fact; those of Manchester merely happened to live in the county where the unrest was at its highest and most organized. All magistrates looked upon the military as an automatic extension of their authority, rather than as the second arm it was supposed to be, for use only in direst emergency. One cannot entirely blame them, for in the last resort what else had they to rely upon except the military? One can only say, as the Radicals said repeatedly, that the whole system needed drastically overhauling. Accepting the system as it stood, Byng’s calmness and coolness, soothing the overwrought nerves and fears of the magistrates, almost certainly saved Lancashire from bloodshed in 1818. Unfortunately he was not present at Peterloo.

The loyalist side was not an entirely cohesive body, though as human beings usually find it easier to defend than attack, it had more overall coherence than the Radical side. But there was a split in outlook. On the one hand were the magistrates, clergymen and landowners, drawn from the strata least affected by the Industrial Revolution. With them almost to a man were the merchants, again drawn from the least affected because best established segment of the cotton hierarchy. On the other hand were the manufacturers, in the main as new a body as the working classes. Those actually in control of Manchester came from the longer established families, but they represented the new industrial power structure. Their lives revolved around cotton and they were well aware of what was occurring in the factories, and the implications of the Radical and trade unionist demands. In 1817 and 1818 the split widened. The magistrates, with their divorce from the practical problems of industry, showed some sympathy towards the struggles of the weavers and spinners. Although this time they were not supported by their normal allies, the merchants. They joined forces with the manufacturers in clinging to the old ways and refusing to give an inch to any demands. The manufacturers themselves were split. They might show a single obdurate face to the working-class distress, but the Nonconformist and Whig among them were less than enchanted with the actions of the High Tory; High Anglican oligarchy. And all of them were anti-Government when it hit their pockets, for example over the Corn Laws and cotton import duties. But in the years leading up to Peterloo, although divisions of viewpoint and interest existed, ranks were closed sharply in the face of the Radical upsurge.

At the bottom of the loyalist pyramid were the grass rooters who always supported the oligarchy. They were men who had either acquired or inherited a little money, received a little education and wanted these prerogatives kept within limited hands; the men who had the greatest fears of losing their small comforts, of being dragged down to starving weaver or spinner level. They included shopkeepers, publicans, watchmakers, insurance agents, tobacconists, farriers, horsebreakers and brewers. One hundred and twenty men, drawn from such occupations, played the most vital role at Peterioo as members of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry Cavalry.

  1. Some towns were incorporated, as, for example, Nottingham. Although its local magistrates bombarded the Home Office with reports during the Luddite period, they had not the same power to act as had those of Manchester. This, it has been contended, helped save Nottingham from a Peterloo.