The Most Numerous Meeting That Ever Took Place in Great Britain

The thousands of people who threw open their windows, or stood on their doorsteps, or peered from their damp cellars, on the moors, in the hills and valleys and streets, at dawn on August 16th, must have thought the weather was on their side. The sky was a cloudless blue, and the sun was rising hotly. A grey sky and no sun would have been better, for fewer people would have made the long march to Manchester in cold soaking rain, and even at the eleventh hour Peterloo might have been a different story, But it was the sort of day the English like to imagine fills their summers. People dressed themselves and told their children to behave themselves and ate their breakfasts, meagre or more plentiful, and packed their dinners, if they had any, and started for the assembly points.

Map showing principal towns mentioned in the text.

Among the thousands was John Lees. He left his father’s house between 8 and 9 o’clock in the morning, and according to Robert Lees ‘was hearty as ever he was since he was born’. With him went his step-brother Thomas Whittaker, for his father had recently remarried. The two young men walked to Oldham Green which was the main assembly point for Oldham itself, Lees, Saddlleworth, Moseley and Royton. The Green was already overflowing with thousands of men, women and children in their most presentable clothes. The Oldham contingent was the best dressed of all. As a centrepiece it had 200 women in white dresses, which must have presented a very pretty spectacle, contrasting with and relieving the browns and blacks of the menfolk. Oldham also had what was generally agreed to be the most beautiful banner of the day. It was of pure white silk, emblazoned with the inscriptions Universal Suffrage and Annual Pa rliaments, Election by Ballot and No Combination Acts, Oldham Union.

Soon the Lees, Saddleworth and Moseley contingents came down from the high moors, led by ‘Doctor’ Healey. The Lees’s banners had the inscriptions No Boroughmongering and Unite and Be Free, Taxation Without Representation is Unjust and Tyrannical. If Oldham’s was the most beautiful banner of the day Saddleworth’s was the most startling. It was pitch black, with the inscription Equal Representation or Death in staring white paint over two joined hands and a heart. When Bamford saw it a few-hours later on Saint Peter’s Field he said it was ‘one of the most sepulchral looking objects that could be contrived’, adding. ‘The idea of my diminutive friend [i.e., Healey] leading a funeral procession of his own patients, such it appeared to me, was calculated to force a smile’. It did not raise a twitch on the magistrates’ lips, and the Equal Representation or Death lettering was later used as evidence of revolutionary intent against Healey. The Royton contingent, which had a large female section’ ‘.had two banners, in red and green silk, with the wording Liberty is the Birthright of Man and Labour is the Source of Wealth, Royton Female UnionLet us DIE like men and not be SOLD like slaves.



At 9 a.m the signal was given by John Knight, who had organized the Oldham assembly, and the columns swung off the Green and on the road to Manchester. En route they picked up the Failsworth and Chadderton contingents so by the time they reached Saint Peter’s Field they were nearly 10,000 strong, the largest procession outside Hunt’s.

Of the gathering in Middleton we have the most detailed account, recorded by Bamford. Middleton proper, as he called it, was the assembly point for the adjoining villages and hamlets of Back o’ the Brow, Barrowfields, Boarshaw, Stakehill and Thorn-ham, Hopwood, Heabërs, Birch, Bowlee, Heatons, Rhodes, Blackley, Alkrington, Little Park, Tongue, Parkfield, Wood Street, Middleton Wood and Heywood (some of these names still exist, though all have been swallowed up by Middleton proper, Oldham or sprawling Manchester). By 8 o’clock the whole of Middleton was up and about, either to join the procession or to see it leave. Of the marchers every hundred men and women had a leader whose orders they were to obey. The leaders in turn were to obey the orders of ‘the principal conductor’, Bamford himself, who had a bugler to assist him in sounding the well-rehearsed calls to halt, right wheel, left wheel, etc. Each leader, Bamford included, had a sprig of laurel in his hat, to distinguish him, ‘and as ‘a token of amity and peace’. A few hours later the laurel was to litter Saint. Peter’s Field. Middleton had two banners, a blue one and a green one, both made of silk. The blue one bore the inscriptions Parliaments Annual and Suffrage Universal while the green one had Unity and Strength and Liberty and Fraternity. The latter was carried by Thomas Redford whose name was to go into the Peterloo annals. Middleton also had a Cap of Liberty which was of crimson velvet, with a tuft of laurel and the word Libertas on it.

Before the procession left, Bamford addressed the crowds. He left a long account in Passages in the Life of  Radical which two witnesses, one loyalist, one Radical, confirmed. (although more briefly than he). ‘Samuel Bamford stood, and said, “Friends and neighbours, I have a few words to relate. You will march off this place quietly. Not to insult anyone but rather to take insult. I do not think there will be any disturbance or anything to do, if there is, it will be after we come back. There is no fear, for this day is our own.’ Bamford finished his own account thus: ‘I also said, that in conformity with the rule of the committee, no sticks, or weapons of any description, would be allowed to be carried in their ranks.’ The Government was to try and make much of sticks after the event, to prove that the crowds were armed; and Bamford admitted that the committee had over-ruled his own feeling on the subject. This, bearing in mind the, previous day’s assault on Murray at ‘White Moss, and its probable effect on the magistrates, was that they should carry cudgels, at the very least to protect ‘the colours’. But more placid views than his prevailed and the Middleton contingent set forth, as Hunt had urged, armed only with their self-approving consciences.

Their procession was soon joined by the Rochdale one, ‘and a shout from ten thousand1 startled the echoes of the woods and dingles; Then all was quiet save the breath of music, and with intent seriousness, we went on.’ On through Rhodes to Black-icy, through the sun-filtered woods, up the mossy banks, down into the ldoofs (the vernacular for a valley) to Harpurhey where they stopped for welcome refreshment. Here at the toll gates the roads forked to Collyhurst and Newtown. Although Bamford may have said, ‘There is no fear, for this day is our own’, he did have fears. He half anticipated that the magistrates might try to stop their entry into Manchester at the Harpurhey toll gates, as indeed the magistrates had considered doing. Once safely on the high road to Collyhurst his fears evaporated slightly, though his temper rose. The cause of his ire was two messages sent by Hunt, requesting Bamford’s contingent to lead him on to Saint Peter’s Field. Bamford said he received two such messages, though Hunt mentions only one. According to Bamford he ignored the first request as he did not wish his column to become entangled in the long hollow road through Newtown, ‘where, whatever happened, it would be difficult to advance, or disperse’. But when the second message arrived, ‘to administer to the vanity of our “great leader” he ordered the column to about-wheel and take the lower road through Newtown. Whether these were Bamford’s emotions at the time, or whether it was his retrospective opinion of Hunt speaking, is a moot point, for pre-Peterloo nothing had occurred to reveal Hunt’s feet of clay.

In Newtown, which was already an excessively depressed slum area, the poorest of the poor, the Irish weavers, came-out to greet the procession. Many of the Irishmen looked adoringly at Middleton’s green banner which was their national colour, the emblem of the homeland they had left in desperation only to find greater distress in Lancashire. As a nice gesture, before proceeding the Middleton band played Saint Patrick’s Day in the Morning, and it is interesting to note that the Irish weavers were not among the participants at Peterloo. In the event Bamford’s contingent took a wrong turning at Shude Hill in Manchester, thus missing Hunt’s procession and forfeiting the honour of escorting their great leader on to the field, an error which did not displease Bamford. Or so he implies, though again one is not certain of his emotions at the time.

The first contingent actually to arrive on Saint Peter’s Field was from the, ever eager, ever militant town of Stockport, at about 11 o’clock (though individuals, and small unconnected groups, had been gathering since 9 a.m.). The Stockport contingent numbered 1,500 people according to loyalist witnesses, 5,000 according to the Radicals. It carried a Cap of Liberty and two banners, with the inscriptions Annual Parliaments and Universal Suffrage, Vote By Ballot, No Corn Laws and Success to the Female Reformers of Stockport. One of the loyalist witnesses of Stockport’s arrival was a gentleman named Francis Philips. He had enrolled as a special constable in response to the appeals of the Committee in Aid of the Civil Powers, and was one of the few loyalists to rush into print after Peterloo. Philips, on duty at Ardwick Green, noted emphatically that ‘nearly half the men carried stout sticks, and one particularly attracted notice from his audacious appearance, having on his shoulder a club as thick as the wrist, newly cut, with the bark on and many knots projecting’.

As the Stockport contingent took up its position, the narrow streets of Manchester were jammed with further oncoming processions. Countless witnesses later testified to the gaiety and discipline of the marchers. The solemnity with which the Middleton contingent, and presumably the others, had left their assembly points had changed to laughter and happy expectation as they neared their goal. Archibald Prentice, watching from a house in Mount Street which overlooked Saint Peter’s Field, had never seen a gayer spectacle. Another eye-witness, also in Mount Street, was John Benjamin Smith, later Liberal MP for Stirling and Stockport. When he saw the children in the crowds taking their fathers’ hands he observed: ‘These are the guarantees of their peaceable intentions—we need have no fears.’

En route to the field, the Oldham contingent, with John Lees in their midst, passed the house of James Murray in Withy Grove. From the manner in which he leapt from window to window to observe what was happening Murray cannot have been as grievously wounded on White Moss as he tried to make out. At 10.30 a.m the Oldham contingent passed by, but the Saddleworth section sounded the bugle to halt, right outside his house. They then proceeded to confer for half an hour, according to Murray, though it sounds a long time. After which lengthy wait the bugle was again sounded and the procession marched off, shouting, hissing, hooting and waving their sticks and banners at his house. One assumes ‘Doctor’ Healey gave an extra wave of the pitch black flag.

The barouche that was to take Hunt and the other leaders to Saint Peter’s Field did not arrive at Smedley Cottage until midday. Why it was so late when the meeting was advertised to start at this hour is not clear. Perhaps the leaders believed the crowds would be unlikely to be assembled at the advertised time, or perhaps it was Hunt working on the principle of the late dramatic arrival. Neither side made an issue of the delay, though surely the magistrates could have made something sinister out of it? After agreeing that Johnson would move the Resolutions and Remonstrances, that John Knight would second them and that Hunt would be the only, speaker, the party climbed into the barouche. From the start progress was slow as they were accompanied by, to quote Hunt, ‘an immense multitude’. (It may have been as protection in case the multitude was less than immense that Hunt sent the message to Bamford, though equally he may, in his eyes, have been doing Bamford a favour by asking him to lead the hero’s procession.) Hunt’s procession was soon joined by the Manchester Female Reformers, headed by. Mrs Fildes. The Manchester ladies, like the Oldham ones, were dressed all in white. The idea was that the ladies would precede Hunt on to Saint Peter’s Field (presumably after the Middleton contingent). The ladies tried to walk in front of the barouche but this was soon found to be impractical, due to the immensity of the crowds and the narrowness of the streets. Most of the ladies therefore fell in behind the barouche, I a, position which they maintained. ‘with some difficulty the whole way to the hustings’. In the crush one can appreciate their difficulty, and tenacity. However, Mrs Fildes herself was lifted into the carriage at Hunt’s suggestion, and rode by the side of the coachman bearing her colours she was carrying a white flag bearing the words Manchester Female Reformers and a figure of justice—in most gallant style. ‘Though rather small’, Hunt commented, ‘she was a remarkably good figure, and well dressed, and it was considered she added much to the beauty of the scene.’ One notes his constant eye for showmanship, not to say female pulchritude.

Hunt’s procession also went through Withy Grove, and the indefatigable Murray said he thought Hunt stood up in his carriage as it passed his house, and that certainly there was a tremendous hissing and hooting towards him, and an applauding of Hunt. Murray finished his testimony of the morning’s dreadful happenings by stating that the direct route from Smedley Cottage to Saint Peter’s Field was down Shude Hill to Nicholas Street, and that by passing his house and going down the Exchange and Deansgate, Hunt’s procession went at least a mile out of its way. It seems unlikely that Hunt went out of his way in order to stand up in his carriage as he passed Murray’s house, whereas it was highly in character that he should take the long route via the Exchange and Deansgate, two of Manchester’s major thoroughfares. Quite what point Murray was making in this particular assertion, other than that he was a much maligned, injured Character, is unclear. Perhaps it was to underline the loyalist contention that the Radicals wanted to intimidate the citizens of Manchester, if not seize the city. For after Peterloo, counsel was to ask another witness why the Oldham contingent took the long way round. The witness said because they did not know of any other. After further harrying on the lines of ‘What! Not one among thousands of you knew the most direct route?’, the matter was quietly buried.

While Hunt’s procession, with its attendant thousands and ladies in white was making its slow progress, the long way round, to Saint Peter’s Field, local leaders were addressing the crowds already assembled. As the hot sun beat down, the atmosphere grew more sultry; with no breath of cooling wind, the waiting crowds were ready to cheer anything and anybody. They cheered ‘Doctor’ Healey who told them to be steady and firm and waved his hat at them. They cheered Messrs Wild and Swift who also addressed them. Both these men were to stand trial after Peter-loo, but not much is known about them before the day, except that Wild was a Methodist and his religion was used as further evidence of Methodism equalling sedition. Both spoke to the crowds on the lines of—Gentlemen, your worthy chairman will soon be here, and you must not attempt to create any riot or disturbance until his arrival. This was later, interpreted by the magistrates as—but you may do so after his arrival. This was obviously not the intention, as all the speakers made sure that they underlined what Hunt had already urged, namely that the crowds should be steady, firm and temp rate, and I not let themselves be irritated. The loudest cheer, before Hunt’s arrival that was, was given to the Royton contingent as it marched on to the field with its band playing Rule Britannia.

The general intention was to place the banners round the hustings to form a focal, proud and welcoming display for Hunt. In fact half the total banners—there were about sixteen in all, with many more Caps of Liberty—seem to have been round the hustings, and half with their contingents in the field. This may have been because the-same thing happened to other leaders as happened to Bamford on his arrival. He found the hustings occupied by men whom he did not know, and who spoke to him sharply. If he, as a prominent local Radical, did not know them they could not be of import and, in a huff, he withdrew his banners. Being the romantic, ardent, volatile creature he was, Bamford’s pique’ soon evaporated on contemplating the crowds, who had congregated together for the solemn purpose of improving the lot of their fellow men.

By 1 o’clock, Saint Peter’s Field must have presented an impressive sight, thousands of people standing patiently in the stifling heat. Hunt himself; in mare restrained prose than usual, was as much astonished and impressed, as personally gratified, by the scene that met his view as his barouche finally turned on to the field just after 1 o’clock. Only in his estimate of the crowd did he lean towards his customary exaggeration, giving the figure of between 180,000 and 200,000 people. For once he may be forgiven, because all the estimates vary wildly, and he was not alone in pushing the figure upwards. The lowest figure, given by the short-sighted magistrate Tatton, was 30,000. Bamford estimated 80,000, the Manchester Observer 153,000. The Annual Regisler printed the figure of 80,000 while. The Times gave both 80,000 and 100,000. It was Hukon, the chairman of the magistrates, who gave the figure of 60,000, and this became the generally accepted one. An astonishing figure it was too, being 6 per cent of the total population of Lancashire. Of the people in the south-east area of the county, upon which the meeting drew, about one in two were present.

As Hunt’s barouche made its slow way through the crowds; to the accompaniment of the massed amateur bands’ rendering of See the Conquering Hero Comes and a steady roar of 60,000 voices, as the banners were held aloft in the still air, the afternoon seemed set for the greatest Radical triumph to date. For truly the largest assembly seen not only on Lancashire’s but on England’s soil had been gathered together.

  1. Exaggeration on Bamford’s part. The Oldham contingent was the largest at 10,000. Middleton and Rochdale was about 6,000 strong.