The most wicked and seditious part of the country

There were people who had definite views on what was necessary to combat the existing conditions and prevent their further deterioration. They were a small section of the community in comparison to that represented by John Lees, but by 1815 their efforts had already helped to earn Manchester and the surrounding area the reputation of being the most turbulent and seditious in the country. Reforming activity had gone hand-in-hand with the Industrial Revolution Its first major, outbreak was in the 1790s, inspired by the French Revolution and the works of Tom Paine.

Map showing principal towns mentioned in the text.

The practical platform in those early days was the repeal of the religiously discriminating Test and Corporation Acts1 and a moderate reform of Parliament. But the masses in 1790 were earning high wages and were caught up in the patriotic fever of the onset of the French wars. They showed their disapproval of reform by stoning the houses of the Jacobins. The authorities, with the people behind, them, acted swiftly and harshly and reforming zeal lost its impetus. The violence that erupted between 1810 and 1812, the period of the Luddite Riots, was not instigated by the reformers, and the riots in this instance did not originate in Lancashire, though they soon spread there, but in Nottingham, the mill burning, machine breaking and food rioting that occurred in these years was wholly economically inspired. However, the experience of mass unemployment and starvation swung the people away from their previous wholesale loyalty to King and Country and the established order. In 1812 it had not swung them towards anything specific, but it was in this year that political agitation reared its head again.

The doyen of the working-class reform movement in the area was John Knight. Born in 1763 he was a Yorkshireman who spent most of his life on the Lancashire side of the Pennines. Originally he was a weaver, a small-time but successful master. In early manhood he became convinced that the ills of his adopted county and the country at large stemmed from the corruption of an unrepresentative Parliament Over the years he spent the greater part of his money in furthering the cause of Parliamentary reform. Knight had conviction and a full measure of Yorkshire determination, with an equal measure of Tyke caution. The authorities considered ‘him wild, as they did anybody with similar ideas, but he was not by nature rash. Being convinced that he was ‘right and holding a minority view, he had to stick his neck out sometimes but on the whole he proceeded with cautious, dogged perseverance.

In. 1812 he considered the time ripe for further, action. In June of that year he organized a meeting at a public house in Manchester attended by thirty-eight weavers. In a small room they hammered out a petition to the House of Commons and an address to the Prince Regent; urging the necessity of Parliamentary reform. As they were finishing they were arrested and charged with holding an unlawful meeting for a seditious purpose. At their subsequent trial the case against them was not proven. But the arrests put a further temporary stop to reforming zeal. On the release of the thirty-nine men, only the convinced, dogged Knight remained politically active. However, there was one difference between these arrests and those of the 1790s. This time the people neither stoned the houses of Knight or the other weavers, nor showed their approbation of the authorities’ actions in any way. It was a difference appreciated, literally and metaphorically, by Knight and one which encouraged him to carry on. The times were maturing with him.

Between 1812 and 1815 there was a political lull, partly because the economy picked up as the French wars entered their last phase and markets re-opened, partly from the feeling that the titanic struggle was coming to an end and the hope that peace would bring prosperity. The passing of the Corn Bill, re-opened the field for the reformers. The anti-Corn Bill meetings were again economically inspired. But the emotions aroused made more converts to the theme that they would always be against us until we-had a voice in the governing of our country.

That the people had no say in the election of their representatives, that England bore no relationship to the democracy she was supposed to be, was incontestable. No borough had been enfranchised since Newark in the time of Charles II. The franchise had never been arranged with equity and justice—the. Tudors had been great ones for creating new boroughs wherever it suited their patronage. Since the time of Charles II the centres of population and activity had changed beyond measure. But in 1815 of 489 English seats in the House of Commons, 293 were returned by the southern and south-western counties including London. As a specific example, Cornwall with a diminishing population returned 44 members, while Lancashire whose population had leapt over the 1,000,000 mark, had only 14 for the entire county. Manchester, the second largest city in England, had no member of Parliament. The same pattern existed throughout the country: long established rural areas returned umpteen members while Birmingham, Leeds and the fast rising industrial cities were unrepresented.

Manchester had been represented in Cromwell’s time as a reward for stalwart support in the Civil War. But when the sitting member died during the Restoration, Charles II declined to renew the representation as a punishment for opposition. In 1774 efforts had been made to buy a seat in Parliament so that Manchester should have a member to represent her problems. These attempts, which came to nothing, were not organized by reformers of the John Knight ilk. They were the work of the more forward looking of the reactionary elite that governed the, town. Thus the people who became known first as radicals, then Radicals with a capital, were neither original nor alone in considering that not all was for the best in the best of all possible parliaments.

The younger Pitt had entered Parliament as a reformer (though he could not count upon the Manchester loyalists as his supporters; they merely wanted- their city represented in the system – as it stood). However, Pitt’s reforming aims had been limited to the lessening of the rottenness of the most rotten boroughs, of which the most famous was Pitt’s father’s constituency of Old Sarum which had not a single voter within its boundaries; to the curtailing of the vagaries of election date and -place, which had led to the classic eighteenth-century example of two candidates postponing and removing the poll from Winchester to the Isle of – Wight when they found the campaign not going to their liking; and to the curbing of the most outrageous forms ofbribery and patronage—election ‘expenses’, i.e., bribing of voters, in some cases had reached £40,000.

Where the radicals differed, and why from the start they roused such Establishment opposition, not to say terror, was in the extent and scope of their aims. The earliest and most consistent of the radicals was Major John Cartwright, born in Nottinghamshire of an old-established family in 1740. Cartwright possessed the ideal temperament for the missionary or reformer: limited intelligence, no sens of humour, extreme obstinacy and great courage. It was Cartwright who first expounded the idea of the need for a completely new system based on democratic representation, rather than moderate reform of the existing one; By 1815 he was the national doyen of the radical movement, ‘the old heart in London from which the veins of sedition in this country are supplied’.

In 1812 Cartwright founded the Hampden Club in London. Qualifications for membership were the same as for the House of Commons, one had either to be the owner of or heir to £33 – per annum from landed property; and the subscription was two guineas. The declared aim was to gather-together rich and influential reformers to discuss future plans and to provide leadership for the rest of the country. By 1815 his dream of rich and influential leadership had come to nothing. He was, sadly, the only member to turn up at a meeting. Undeterred, he decided to establish provincial Hampden Clubs Their object was to channel and provide with leadership the disorganized working-class unrest. There were no qualifications for membership and the subscription was reduced to one penny a week. Cartwright travelled hundreds of miles up and down the country, by coach and on horseback. He was already seventy-five years old but like John Knight, who incidentally was known as the Cartwright of the North, he had conviction and determination. The county in which he had the greatest success in establishing the clubs was Lancashire

The first provincial Hampden Club was founded in August 1816, in Royton, a small cotton town nine miles from Manchester. Its leading figure was William Fitton, a surgeon of great physical and mental energy; a devotee of Tom Paine, with a biting line in sarcasm and an ardent belief in the rights of man. He was one of the many local figures who helped shape Peterloo. Other clubs soon mushroomed in the cotton belt, in Oldham, Rochdale, Ashton-under-Lyne, Middleton and Stockport—the latter, lying just over the Cheshire border, had a reputation second only to Manchester as a sink of seditious iniquity.

The secretary of the Middleton club was Samuel Bamford, the most human character directly connected with Peterloo if only for the reason that we know most about him. For he grew up to be a bad poet and a good prose writer who left behind several autobiographical books, notably Passages in the Life of a Radical. Bamford was born in Middleton in 1788. He came from a family of weavers who represented another thread in the working-class Lancastrian weft, literate and articulate by tradition. The young Samuel was educated at the local Methodist school and the Free Grammar School of Manchester. Free that was to children of reasonable standing (his father at the time being governor of the workhouse—he later lost the job because of his radical views) and intelligence. Bamford’s schooling was not of course full time. As all working-class children of the period, even those fortunate enough to receive schooling, he learned the family trade from babyhood,- and spent half his youth weaving and half in the class-room.

Temperamentally Bamford was headstrong, roman-tic, idealistic, touchy and intelligent. Physically he was 5 ft. 10 in., lithe and well-proportioned. His features were irregular, he had what he called ‘a snubby nose’, but the whole made a most pleasing impression, particularly on the ladies. His early manhood was stormy. Before he was twenty Bamford had an illegitimate child by a Yorkshire lass but fortunately she did not ask him to marry her, being content with an allowance. His lusty sexual instincts, coupled with an eagerness to sample life, made him well known in the shady, haunts of Manchester. With thousands of spinners escaping from the steaming oppression of the factories, and thousands of weavers emerging from their damp cellars, the shades were luridly coloured. In one short alley, alone, there were forty-seven brothels. But at the ripe old age of twenty-three, having worked on a collier in the meantime, Bamford decided it was time for him to settle down. Accordingly he married his local Middleton sweetheart Jemima, known to everybody as Mima. At the wedding feast ‘a being which was dearest to me of any in the world save my wife’ had a place of honour, his baby daughter by Mima. However, he did settle down, and even if the lusty, roaming instincts remained he enjoyed a long, happy married life.

In the Years before and after his marriage Bamford read voraciously, his reading matter including the poems of Robert Burns and Cobbert’s Political Register, both of which influenced 1im. Cobbett planted him firmly on the road to which his family background had guided him, by teaching him to question the causes of the current distress and to try and seek the answers. Following in Burns’s footsteps he began to write the poems in the local vernacular which were to make him Lancashire’s ‘Weaver Boy’. By 1816 he had left the security of a warehouse in Manchester and started up as a cottage weaver. Mima, in fact, seems to have done most of the weaving, and not all hand-loom weavers were destitute.

A stalwart supporter of the Hampden Club established in Oldham was Bamford’s friend, ‘Doctor’ Healey. Born at Bent in 1780, Healey was a quack doctor in the eighteenth-century sense of one who practised medicine, often very well, without being qualified. He was virtually illiterate but he possessed a great sense of justice and injustice. A diminutive fighting cock of a’ man, he had the strongest of Lancashire accents and the true simplicity that does not change, for better or worse, whatever the circumstances. He behaved in exactly the same, cocky, friendly manner whether he was urging workers to strike in Oldham, being questioned by Privy Councillors in Whitehall, addressing an open-air meeting, or offering snuff to a distinguished prosecution barrister at the post Peterloo trials.

The Manchester Hampden Club was founded, after, the rapid growth of those in the cotton towns and villages, in October 1816. In the year up to Peterloo this pattern was repeated, the cotton towns remaining in the-van, but Manchester gaining the plaudits or disasters by virtue of being the centre of the area. John Knight was closely associated with the foundation of the Manchester club. Among those who assisted him, or became prominent in its affairs, were John Thacker -Saxton and his wife Susanna, and Joseph Johnson. Saxton, born 1776, had been connected with the cotton trade but by 1816 had found an outlet for his writing talent. He was to play an important part on the Manchester Observer, the Radical paper founded in 1818. He was a vigorous,., consistent, determined Radical with the supposed-journalistic weakness for the bottle. His wife Susanna shared his views and determination and later became secretary of the Manchester Female Reformers. Joseph Johnson, born 1791 and therefore the youngest of the prominent local radicals, was a brush- maker. He was a vain, indecisive, romantic character who cherished a dream of building Jerusalem in Lancashire’s still green and pleasant land, with himself as a leading prophet. After Peterloo, when the dream turned to nightmare, he came down from his euphoric cloud and disintegrated. But between 1816 and 1819, and particularly from 1818 onwards when he put money into the Manchester Observer and became its part owner, he was a leading and influential figure.

The proceedings of the Hampden Clubs were similar throughout the area. Originally meetings were held in a house or cottage, say Bamford’s in Middleton, where, the tougher, more idealistic, enthusiastic and lively minds would gather. 1816 produced a dreadful harvest. As predicted, the Corn Bill caused the price of bread to rocket and with it everything else, except wages. This added distress made more people turn towards the Hampden Clubs as an organization offering solutions. With increased membership chapels were rented for the meetings. These were usually held twice a week after work. When everybody was gathered the best reader would impart the news and views (mostly views) from Cobbett’s Political Register which were then discussed. A travelling delegate might appear to tell of the other Lancashire clubs or those over the border in Yorkshire. At some point in the earnest discussions, which often lasted into the small hours, refreshment would be provided in the shape of beer and muffins.

During the endless discussions another concept was rekindled —that of universal suffrage, the right of every adult of sound mind to participate in the government of that society of which he was a member. The idea had been voiced as early as 1792 by a London shoemaker named Thomas Hardy, had flourished briefly and then been trampled on by Pitt’s ‘Gagging Acts’ as having obvious affiliations with the French Revolution, and had lain dormant ever since. But in 1816, in Hampden Clubs up and down south-east Lancashire, it was given the kiss of life. The importance of this resurgence cannot be over-emphasized. For Cartwright himself, the doyen of radicalism, did not envisage the mob, the labouring classes, or the common people as they were variously called, sharing in the election of his reformed Parliament. The mob would continue to be guided by their betters, though their betters would include a much larger and more balanced section of the-community than before. In fact, although Cartwright’s demands outraged (or in some cases amused) the existing power structure, they were basically as paternalistic as that structure. But Cartwright had helped to rouse the sleeping tiger and he should not have been surprised when its brain started to tick. His conception of limited household franchise was not sufficient for the members, of the Hampden Clubs for they were not householders in franchise terms. Consequently, ‘Equal Representation’ became one of their battle cries. When Bamford attended a Radical meeting in London in early 1817, it was his faction that swung the vote to acceptance of universal, not household, franchise. It was not only the first time the Northern influence made itself felt, but the first time the voice of the mob for whom the reforms were intended was clearly heard.

Every adult of sound mind did not include women, although from the start they were active in the clubs’ affairs. In 1816 and early 1817 they had not yet founded their own clubs and their efforts were devoted to furthering the aims of their menfolk. They spread the good word, cleaned the chapels and prepared refreshments. They were also frequent attenders at the open-air meetings that became another method of spreading the radical gospel. Here it must be stressed that, even at the height of their success, membership of the Hampden Clubs was limited. John Lees, for example, was not a member and probably knew only vaguely of their existence. The hard, convinced core knew they had to spread their message by wider methods. Open-air meetings were one of these.

Some of the meetings were held on the moors. People walked from the surrounding villages and towns, up the cart tracks that wind through the lumpy grey-green hills with their short stumpy trees, across the boggy springy turf where the rivers and springs flow, to the rolling high moors around Saddleworth where the black rocks jut and the wind always blows. The moorland meetings were not graced by the military’s attendance, but at those held in the towns troops were often present. On one rain-drenched occasion near Rochdale a weaver observed sardonically of the watching soldiers: ‘as the water was already running over at the muzzles of their guns, they might squirt us, but they could not shoot us’. With or without the military’s presence the crowds at – these alfresco meetings increased. Some people attended because they were interested in what the Radicals had to say. They warmed to the interesting new theme that men are born free, equal and independent; that the source of all legitimate power was the people; that only through the support of the people themselves—would equality and independence be achieved, that the first step on the road lay in the reform of the corrupt Houses of Parliament. Some people attended because an Outdoor meeting was an event in the dreary, oppressive round of life. Some went simply to hear the speakers. And the movement was throwing up some thumping good orators who larded in the boring facts of economic grievance and the unrepresentative state of Parliament with spice and drama, and indulged in vitriolic Attacks on the Establishment, national and local.

John Lees may have attended an alfresco meeting in, the early days of 1817. ‘Doctor’ Healey was operating in the Oldham area and was a big draw. If he did attend John came away no more a confirmed or convinced radical than on arrival. Neither economic- distress not Radical organization had mounted sufficiently for mass adherence to the movement, although the ripples were fast spreading.

There was another force, another spirit’ at work in south-east Lancashire. This was the embryonic trade union movement. Its roots were more deeply embedded in the Industrial Revolution than the Radical movement’s. (Again it was Lancashire’s industrial cradling position, not chance, that put the county in the union vanguard and later led the first Trades Union Council to be held in Manchester in 1868.) The reasons and aims that motivated both trade union and radical movements to a great extent – Overlapped, but in 1.817 they were pursuing different courses;

The hard core of trade unionists lay in the factories among the spinners. The majority of spinning tasks might be menial, the majority of spinners leading degrading lives, but the Industrial Revolution had created a small number of highly skilled jobs. It was the new spinning elite that led the demand for improved conditions and higher wages. Against them were the Combination Acts whose repeal the Radicals also favoured. These Acts, passed in 1799 and 1800, made illegal any combination of working men for any purpose.2 They were unleashed by the fear of French Revolutionary echoes in England, but the fear of working men combining had long been felt. By the end of the eighteenth century there were already forty Acts of Parliament forbidding combinations in various forms. There was, however, as always in England, a loophole in that the Benefit Societies, into which the working man could pay a subscription to cover him in times of sickness, remained legal. They thus became the cover for trade union activities.

1818 was a year of union-motivated activity and will be examined later as it was very much part of the Peterloo story. Let it suffice to say here that there were two working-class impulses. The Radical movement was convinced that all solutions lay in Parliamentary reform. The trade, unionists were certain that the redress to economic grievance lay in economic weapons, and that the combined power of the masters could only be countered by the combined power of the working man. Neither group was helping the other.

Both groups would have encountered far less enthusiasm, indeed might not have come into being at all but for the influence of a third force—Methodism. The Methodists were the first to utilize the talents of the ordinary man, and the first to emphasize a respect for individual, worth rather than inherited wealth. They brought Enthusiasm into the Age of Reason and, most important, they started the first Sunday Schools.

Significantly, the Lancashire radicals and reformers all came from Methodist or Nonconformist backgrounds. It was also Methodism that had made John Lees semi-literate while his father Robert could neither read nor write. As a small boy John went to a dingy little Sunday School in Oldham, a garret at the top of somebody’s house. Hundreds of little boys and girls in Manchester attended in other garrets and cellars. They were laboriously taught to read an write, albeit the word of God. But having devoured the Bible the brighter among them could, and did, pass on to other reading matter. The material, most of them passed on to was radical in context. Because Methodism had imparted the revolutionary idea that Jack was as good as his master. As Bamford wrote, ‘The Sunday schools of the preceding thirty years had produced sufficient working men of sufficient talent to become readers, writers and speakers in the village meetings for parliamentary reform.’ It was on the lines established by Methodism that Major Cartwright based the structure of the Hampden Clubs.

In the Manchester area Nonconformists outnumbered Anglicans by two to one. The sect that had a particularly strong influence were the Unitarians. They were the most radical in outlook This was partly because of their precepts, partly because they had not won their freedom of worship until 1813, and having fought this battle for so long were in good trim to take up another cause. Dissenters in general had been granted freedom of worship in 1689 as a reward for stalwart support in the ‘Glorious Revolution’ that established the Protestant Supremacy in England. The Dissenting tradition took the edge off the extremities of all reformers (a) because such sweeping revolutions Methodism were able to occur legally and (b) because the Establishment, however much it disliked reform, accepted the legal right to Dissent and consequently, if subconsciously, the concept of dissent.

However, over the years, and particularly in the Radical upsurge between 1816 and 1820, Dissent to the Government and loyalists equalled sedition. Dissent equalling sedition equalled Methodism.

  1. These Acts prevented any non-Anglican from holding public office. In practice loopholes had been made for certain Dissenters, but large sections of the population, Nonconformist, Catholic and Jewish, were disbarred from public life.
  2. Theoretically they also made illegal the combination of masters but in practice it was the workers who were penalized.