The Alarm in All the Neighbouring Towns Begins To Be Excessive

For the last week before August 16th, the Select Committee had something else to raise their blood pressures. This was the presence of Hunt in Manchester, a presence which arose by accident, though the magistrates were not prepared to believe that anything Radical occurred by accident. On August 3rd Johnson wrote to Hunt to tell him of the decision to cancel the meeting of the 9th, but the letter failed to reach Hunt in time. He arrived in Stockport on August 8th, believing that the meeting was to take place on the following day. The manner of his arrival did nothing to decrease the magistrates’ alarm. Hunt was greeted by large, enthusiastic crowds whom he promptly addressed from the Union Rooms. Similar large, enthusiastic crowds lined the route from Stockport to Manchester where he was to stay at Smedley Cottage with Mr and Mrs Johnson and their children. As soon as it was known that Hunt had reached Smedley Cottage, larger crowds gathered outside. The magistrates imagined themselves faced with the prospect of seven days 8f Hunt appearing here, there and everywhere, drawing the crowds like the Pied Piper. Remembering the drillings and those (undiscovered) caches of pikes, might he not sound the awaited call to insurrection during the week?

In fact, Hunt, on learning that the meeting was postponed until the 16th, decided to go back home and return for that day. Or at least he said that was his instinctive reaction. He also said he was reluctantly persuaded to stay by Johnson: And I can with great truth affirm that it was one of the most disagreeable seven days that I ever passed in my life’ It sounds reasonable Johnson would have liked having the conquering hero in, his house. He and the other local Radical leaders wanted interest in the meeting maintained at a high pitch, which Hunt’s presence guaranteed. Whereas Hunt, whose vanity was only too aware of his interest value, with his inherent respect for the law, and a not unnatural desire to keep out of prison, had no wish to become involved in a possible contretemps before the meeting. (Hunt’s respect for the law and fear of imprisonment were appreciated by the Home Office: All the demagogues feel extremely sore on the subject of criminal prosecution, and Hunt in particular observes extreme caution for the sake of avoiding them.’)

– For the seven days, although the magistrates ordered the constables to keep Smedley Cottage under close surveillance, there was little to report. On August 11th Hunt issued An Address to the Reformers of Manchester and its Neighbourhood, but apart from that he kept quiet. The Address was mainly a firm and restrained injunction as to how the people were to behave on August 16th.

You will meet on Monday next; my friends, and by your steady, firm and temperate deportment, you will convince your enemies, that you feel you have an important and imperious public duty to perform … The eyes of all England, nay, of all Europe, are fixed upon you: and every friend of real Reform and Rational Liberty, is tremblingly alive to the result of your Meeting on Monday next. OUR Enemies will seek every opportunity, by means of their sanguinary agents, to excite a Riot, that they may have a pretence for SPILLING OUR BLOOD…. Come, then, my friends, to the Meeting on Monday, armed with NO OTHER WEAPON but that of a self-approving conscience; determined not to suffer yourselves to be irritated or excited, by any means whatsoever, to commit any breach of the public peace.

This was not hypocrisy. Privately, Hunt was as sincere in his desire for a peaceful meeting as his public utterances indicated, and even the Home Office believed he meant to ‘deprecate disorder’. The exhortation to come armed only with an approving conscience referred not so much to the possibility of pikes as to the known drillings. In a letter to the editor of the Star in London, published on August 14th, Hunt, after a deal of injured explanation as to the Radical innocence in the Birch shooting, said, ‘playing soldiers is said to be very much the fashion round here’. Later, after a description of the terrible distress in the area, he repeated the phrase: ‘For want of better employment I believe it is too true that they, many of them, pass a considerable portion of their time in what they call playing soldiers’. Although he expressed his surprise that the manoeuvres had only been hinted at in the Government newspapers, when they were being openly discussed in the Lancashire area, it is clear that he did not approve of ‘playing soldiers’, and that he was worried that such martial activity might include the odd weapon or two.

Hunt’s temperate injunctions did nothing to soothe the magistrates or the majority of loyalists. They were but smoke to cover the deep-laid Radical fire of insurrection.

The final week-end before Monday, August 16th, therefore arrived with the two local avalanches facing each other: the Radical one, firm, confident, with only slight tremors; the loyalist one ready to crash at any minute. The Radicals had tremors because they knew that extra troops had been moved into the area. They knew that the Committee in Aid of the Civil Powers had been breathing fire for weeks. They could see Mayor Dyneley and his breed striding around Manchester, contemptuously eyeing ‘the enemy’. They could see the members of the MYC swelling with power like mating roosters, their sharpened sabres glistening at their sides.’ The Manchester Observer expressed another fear on Saturday, August 14th: It is rumoured, but we trust it is merely rumour, that the meeting will not be permitted to take place; and that the military have orders to prevent it. Surely those in authority here, will never pursue measures so notoriously illegal as to attempt to suppress by force, a meeting held for the most legal purpose; we cannot think it—we will not believe it; until we have positive demonstration of the Fact. Should we, however, be deceived, we shudder at the probable consequences of such an improper interference.’ Their shuddering-was to be only too justified, but the Radicals believed, from the leaders down to John Lees and the anonymous thousands who were preparing to attend Monday’s meeting, that nothing really would happen. They were scratching their opponents as they had scratched them a hundred times in the past. That havoc was truly to be cried this time was inconceivable.

The main loyalist emotion during the final week-end was one of panic. Apart from the few extremists who were looking forward to possible bloodshed, to putting the bastards down once and for all, there were hundreds who genuinely believed that the Manchester Bastille was to be stormed on Monday, that the entry of thousands of Radicals into the city would plunge the streets into anarchy. Several loyalists sent their families to the safety of Liverpool, and the talk was of making a desperate stand for the values all true Britons cherished. But they were working from the premise that the Radicals would start the trouble, either by undisciplined accident or, more likely, from violent intent. That the havoc would be started by their representatives was as much beyond the loyalist belief, panicky or passive, as that of the Radical masses.

Over the final week-end, the Select Committee of magistrates sat in almost continuous session which cannot -have done any of their nerves good. They would have been better employed getting some sleep. Almost to the end they continued to discuss the propriety and expedience of stopping the meeting. Was not a multitude in columns with flags a tumultuous assembly in itself? But how were the columns, which would be approaching Manchester from every angle, to be stopped? From a practical point of view the idea of banning the meeting was dead,- and on – the late evening of August -13th a request- was sent to Colonel L’Estrange for the assistance of the military on the 16th. Another idea which was being mooted by the magistrates was to arrest Hunt before the meeting On-this subject the Home Office had given its usual qualified advice: ‘His lordship thinks that if you find good ground for issuing -a warrant it will be advisable not to forbear from doing so in the expectation of his giving you a better opportunity, unless some other reason for forbearance presents itself’. In the end the magistrates chose to forbear, though Hunt himself presented them with a golden, if double-edged, opportunity on August 14th, by offering to surrender himself to them.

Hunt’s explanation for going to the New Bailey, where the magistrates were, was that having heard of their plans to arrest him, he wanted to clarify the situation. Either they could arrest him, which he surely -thought most unlikely, as the public reaction, although an unknown factor, would undoubtedly be a noisy, and immense one (and his enemies said he only offered to surrender himself ‘in order that his bail- might be accepted on Monday before the meeting assembled’; or they could state that they had no charge against him. The latter was what happened; ‘Mr Wright appeared surprised at my application [Mr Wright being one of the magistrates]… and he called Nadin and asked him … Mr Nadin who appeared surprised at the question said, “None whatever.” So off Hunt drove, back to Smedley Cottage, ‘conscious of having performed an important public duty by depriving the authorities of every fair pretence for interfering with the meeting’.

On Sunday morning, August 15th, the kick-back from the January affair at the Spread Eagle Inn occurred. It took the form of an attack on John Shawcross, James Murray and a Mr Rhymer and his son. But principally the attack was on James Murray, who was a well-known and well-disliked special constable and spy, well remembered for his participation at the Spread Eagle, contemptuously referred to as ‘Gingerbread Jack’. The four men left Manchester about a quarter past twelve on the Saturday night on the road to Middleton. At Harpurhey, about two miles from the city centre, they saw shadowy figures and heard voices in the darkness. They continued on their way for a further two miles, until they were on the edge of White Moss, where they again heard voices, and ‘a great huzza echoing from the silent, swampy ground. This time they decided to investigate, and followed the tracks across ‘White Moss until dawn was breaking. As the full light of day spread, they were able to see four or five hundred men at their drilling exercises. Unfortunately for all concerned, the four or five hundred men could also see them. The Rhymers managed to escape, but Murray and Shawcross were set upon by the drillers. Both were kicked, beaten and knocked unconscious. Shawcross admitted that in his case it was only for a couple of minutes, after which time he scrambled from the hedge and proceeded back to Manchester and a surgeon. Murray’s own testimony was that he was left unconscious for several hours, and that when he recovered his senses he prayed for his life and said, ‘This conduct, gentlemen, does not look like Reform in Parliament. It appears to me to be wilful murder.’ Which, in the circumstances of being knocked unconscious, and being surrounded by his assailants, was very civil of him. He was then asked, ‘Will you beg pardon and never be a Kingsman again?’ After declaring, under pressure of course, that he would have no more to do with King or constabling, he was allowed to make, his escape. A post-Peterloo witness interrogatedon the subject made the following comments:

Q: You found that he [Murray] was dead wounded?

A: He was gone, and they told me it was 3 o’clock he went.

Q: Nearly dead?

A: No, he walked home. He was seen afterwards staring out of a window.

Whether Murray was dead wounded or somewhat beaten up, there is no doubt that he was attacked, and that news of the attack was relayed to the magistrates whose fears and anger it only served to increase. The connection between the Spread Eagle affair and the beating-up was not discovered until later—not that the magistrates would have been impressed had they known this. An act of violence had occurred which was proof of the Radical intent, a sign of that imminent insurrection. The Radicals themselves greatly regretted the incident. Bamford wrote, ‘[it]  probably eradicated from the minds of the magistrates and our opponents generally, whatever sentiments of indulgence they might have hitherto retained towards us’.

Just before midnight on August 15th, Norris penned the final pre-Armageddon letter to the Home Office: ‘The magistrates, the military, and the civil authorities of Manchester have been occupied nearly the whole day in concerting the necessary arrangements for the preservation of the peace to-morrow, and for the safety of the town in case riot should ensue … As at present advised, we do not think of preventing the meeting, yet all the accounts tend to show that the worst possible spirit pervades the country … I hope peace may be preserved, but under all circumstances it is scarcely possible to expect it; and in short, in this respect we are in a state of painful uncertainty’

As this letter represented the feelings of the entire Select Committee of Magistrates, who were in charge of the morrow’s welfare, the auguries could not be called rosy. One person who was not troubled by pessimism or painful uncertainty was Lord Sidmouth. Early on August 13th he had departed for his favourite resort, Broadstairs although he was preparing to return to London on the night of the 17th, ‘for the purpose of receiving on Wednesday morning the account of what passes at Manchester on Monday’.