The Town Has Been Deluged With Placards

The stage was set for Peterloo. But several props had not yet been placed. A crucial one occurred on July 23rd. On this day, before any announcements, postponements and re-wordings of intended meetings, the Select Committee of Lancashire and Cheshire Magistrates was formed. It was a protective, herd-instinct gathering of the clans. From July 23rd the Select Committee took control of the medieval market town of Manchester. It was therefore they who were at bed-rock responsible for Peterloo.

Their first act, on the day after their formation, was to file bills for seditious libel against James Wroe as editor of the Manchester Observer. Presumably togetherness gave them confidence, because Norris had been bleating about the seditious influence of the Observer for months. But the bills did not deter the Observer from its usual lively course. It continued to sound off at full blast. In the last weeks before Peterloo, the verbal warfare reached new heights. This battle was as important, and had as great an effect, as the physical preparations.

The Observer itself obviously devoted columns to the meeting, its cancellation, the correspondence with Hunt, and the reasons why the meeting was necessary. The reasons were covered from all angles and for all tastes. There were straightforward, serious editorials. There were pretty vicious, if amusing, attacks on the loyalists’ incompetence and panic handling of the situation. There was a series of dialect discussions between such characters as ‘Bill o’thowd Rappurs ut wur in th’ Warkheawse un Sam Simple’, in which the matter might be gift-wrapped but remained fiercely political.

Map showing principal towns mentioned in the text.

The loyalist papers, until the last few weeks, devoted little spice to the Radical activities. This was understandable and sensible. Why give the enemy more publicity? But when they were forced to enter the lists they did not canter forward with aplomb. Their lines of attack were either imitation Paley (Do not listen to the Radicals, accept your lot which will soon be improved) or, with the semi-realization that accepting your lot was at the moment difficult, vicious and unamusing onslaughts on the Radicals. Apart from their failure to present their own case skilfully, there was an element of Nero fiddling while Rome burned. Much space was devoted in the British Volunteer, for example, to theatrical reviews of the Minor Theatre in Spring Gardens where such items as a new ballet dance called Tommy Titmouse, Miss Usher performing on a tightrope, and a rendering of ‘The Monk’s. Cowl’ were being billed. Grand balls at Carlton House received similar large coverage. Moments do arrive when that sluggish, unerudite, unintellectual body known as ‘the people’ demands something more than Tommy Titmouse, or Miss Usher on her tightrope, or the vicanous pleasures of reading about the toffs. Of such a moment the Manchester Observer, and the middle-class Radical paper, the Manchester Gazette, were aware. The loyalist newspapers were apparently not.

Apart from the newspapers attacking and counter-attacking, posters, squibs, bills and proclamations of various shapes and sizes were very much part of the scene. Just before Peterloo the Observer commented: ‘The town, it is notorious, has, for the last fortnight, been deluged with Placards, some of which even Solomon, were he now living, could not possibly understand.’ The Observer was referring to the attempts to blacken Hunt’s character which it preferred not to understand. For in the placard war the loyalists were as active as the Radicals, and those that have survived are perfectly comprehensible.

Both sides used several methods of attack, and Manchester’s citizens, gathering in groups where the placards were posted, or listening to the squibs being read in the public houses could take their pick. The reformers asked: ‘Oh! ye sinking Manufacturers and Shopkeepers, is it the starving Labourers who have ruined you; or is it DEAR provisions and HIGH rents and taxes?’ To this the non-reformers replied: ‘Oh! ye sinking manufacturers and shopkeepers, is it these canting Reformers who will preserve you? or is it KIND MASTERS and plenty of employment?’ There were the straightforward loyalist admonitions: ‘To THE REFORMERS at this critical juncture it is incumbent upon you most seriously to consider the consequences of the steps you take. Yet a little further and you will plunge the country into all the horrors of Civil Warfare. They began this way in the French Revolution—they waited nothing but peaceable reform! and Liberty—reasonable Liberty! they ended by sinking into a tyranny morer galling than that which they had endured.’ This, and a great deal more, was signed by one who ‘thanked heaven above all mercies that he was born A BRITON’. There were the injunctions to such interesting subdivisions as the Men, the Poor, the Industrious, the Reformers, and the Women of England—the latter being admonished to reform their families without troubling with reforming the nation.

The most vicious, lively and prolific attacks were on Hunt himself. He was by now the devil incarnate, the man who would whip up the mob, produce the pikes and set insurrection ablaze.

Ergo he was the man on whom as much mud as possible must be flung. With Hunt it was not difficult to find the mud. The first obvious line of attack was his adultery. This was linked, by dredging back to 1807, to a matter of adulterated beer. In 1807 Hunt had gone into business as a brewer in Bristol. His beer was later condemned as being adulterated. Hunt admitted this, while claiming it was due to the malpractice of his partner and underlings whom he had trusted. The explanation sounds reasonable. Watering beer does not seem any more in character than hissing at National Anthems. That he was a poor businessman all Hunt’s forays into business prove. The affair produced such attacks as, ‘Sure this can never be our Orator, Henry Hunt. He, good man!!!, is honestly labouring day and night to keep our Constitution pure and unadulterated. The Brewer was day and night infusing -poison into the Constitution of all his fellow subjects.’ Lastly there were the imputations against the genuineness of Hunt’s reforming zeal and his integrity as a whole. This produced the unlikely insinuation that Hunt was in the Governments pay. ‘Is it not moreover strange that Sir Charles Wolseley, Harrison, Fitton and Knight—to say nothing of Bagguley, Drummond and Johnston—should be apprehended- for -words spoken at Public Meetings, and that Mr Hunt who at the late meeting in – Smithfield, recommended you to resist the Payment of Taxes, should escape?

Knight and Fitton were both indicted for words spoken at the Blackburn meeting on July 5th. Again presumably togetherness -had given the magistrates confidence, because Knight and Fitton had been ‘persons of turbulent and seditious disposition… wickedly and maliciously devising and intending to excite tumult’, to quote part of the indictment, for a considerable time. The charges did not affect the indomitable Knight’s attendance at Peterloo, but Fitton did not lead the Royton contingent. Previously he had been as active as Knight, so possibly there was some other reason for his absence, but it seems probable that the charge kept him away. Incidentally, in the indictments, both Fitton and Knight were described as ‘labourers’, presumably to suggest that nobody of standing could be a Radical. The Manchester Observer redressed this by stating that Fitton was a surgeon and Knight a manufacturer, which the-former was and the latter had been.

Continuing the theatrical analogy there was one vital prop whose absence greatly affected the day of Peterloo. This was Sir John Byng. Mr Donald Read1 has said that the decision to dispense with Byng ‘was perhaps the most important single decision leading to the bloodshed of Peterloo’. But -how much of a decision, as opposed to an accumulation of emotion and circumstance, was it?

At the end of July, on the announcement of the meeting for August 9th, Norris travelled to Pontefract for a conference – with Byng One can imagine the confrontation Norris had the baying of the Committee in Aid of the Civil Powers in his ears, plus his own conviction of imminent insurrection. Byng had his cool, practical eye on the situation. After the conference he wrote calmly to Lord Sidmouth: ‘I have little expectation that Mr Hunt or his Associates will either say or do that which will authorize interference. They will be too cautious and fearful to try our strength’. His assessment was correct, although the Radicals would have said it was not fear that held them back, but good sense and legality. What Byng could not assess correctly was the atmosphere in Manchester entwined with the magistrates’ state of mind. The former he failed to appreciate because he was not in Manchester, and the latter because it was beyond his cool, calm comprehension.

However, Byng realized something of the magistrates’ fears and panic, as expounded and demonstrated by Norris, and he agreed to come to Manchester before August 9th to discuss the disposition of troops. (Incidentally, the 15th Hussars, whose role was so vital and fatal at Peterloo, were only moved into the area at the beginning of July.) In the event, Byng did not travel to Manchester. When the meeting of August 9th was cancelled, the magistrates immediately wrote to him telling him his presence was no longer necessary, but, curiously, not why. Then a few days later, they learned that Hunt was en route to Manchester. Jumping to the conclusion that the cancellation was a trick, that the meeting was to take place on the 9th after all, they again wrote to Byng requesting his immediate presence. Due to other duties Byng was unable to oblige, which was just as well, because the cancellation was genuine. Then on August 10th, Hay wrote a curiously apologetic, defensive and incoherent letter to Byng, even by his self-explanatory standards. After rambling explanations as to why the magistrates had first called for Byng and then told him not to come, the letter finished with the information that they definitely no longer required his presence. The final paragraph gives an indication of the letter’s confused quality: ‘Such was the aspect of things at the moment at which I applied to you, and I am happy to say that aspect has materially altered from reports which we have since received, and in such a degree as to do away with the propriety of applying to you in any further instance in the same vein as in the first instance we felt it our duty to do.’

A letter from Byng to Hay crossed the one from Hay to Byng. In this Byng opened with the tart information that he had a violent headache, due to the oppressiveness of the weather but not helped, one infers, by the behaviour of the Manchester magistrates. After presuming that the meeting of the 9th had dispersed peaceably so that his presence had been unnecessary, or that something had occurred so that dispersal forces had not been required, he asserted that he had the fullest confidence in the officers commanding the troops in and near Manchester. So that should a serious disturbance occur he could not see what good his presence would do. In a slightly more placatory tone, he asked the magistrates to believe that he stayed not where he was (in York) from the unworthy motive of avoiding the city that had given him so little pleasure in the past, but rather because he thought himself better placed where he was with a regiment at his disposal. As a footnote he added, with some astringency, ‘My attention at this moment is being particularly called to two other quarters’. A reminder that Manchester was not the only disturbed area under his command.

Generally the impression gained is that Byng was not anxious to dash to Manchester. With reason, either he heard nothing from the magistrates—there were past bleats from the Home Office to the magistrates ‘to make more frequent communication to the General, though you have nothing to impart to him, since it is important that in making the disposition of his troops in his extended district that he should know as well where mischief is not imminent as where it is’. Or he received frantic and unnecessary appeals to drop everything and descend on Manchester. Byng stated that he had the fullest confidence in his subordinates, so would his presence have made so much difference? The answer is undoubtedly ‘yes’. He would have been with the magistrates, whereas the officer actually in command, Colonel L’Estrange, was not. Byng, as the ‘officer commanding the Northern area, had an authority that Colonel J2Estrange, however efficient, did not. Byng would almost certainly not have sanctioned the action that started the havoc, the unleashing of the rwc on Saint Peter’s Field. But whether the magistrates decided to dispense with Byng (a decision implying a certain resoluteness of mind), or whether the situation arose from amixture of Byng’s coolness, the magistrates’ vanity, hurt pride and injured authority, safely ensconced in York Byng stayed, leaving the onus for August 16th on the unreliable shoulders of the Select Committee.

  1. Donald Read, author of Peterloo, the Massacre and its Background, the first book to deal in depth with the circumstances leading up to Peterloo, as opposed to the day itself, a study invaluable to historian and student.