Then You Shall Have Military Force

The thousands attending the meeting were not the only ones up early on August 16th. Lieutenant-Colonel Guy L’Estrange, the officer commanding the Manchester district, was also about at first light. Early on August 14th he had received the request from the magistrates for military assistance on Monday. On the 15th he received another communication stressing the urgent need for his assistance, which was probably induced by the attack on Murray at White Moss. Over the week-end he accordingly made his plans; He had available four squadrons of cavalry of the 15th Hussars, comprising about 600 men, with several hundred infantrymen in the whole of the 88th Foot and several squadrons of the 31st Foot (this being his own regiment). Then he had a detachment of the Royal Horse Artillery, Major Dyneley’s regiment, with their two six-pounder guns. In addition he had the amateur Cheshire Yeomanry Cavalry at full strength with eight corps, at least 400 men, and three troops of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry Cavalry, two of which, comprising 120 men, were actually used.

L’Estrange’s plan was to ring the area of Saint Peter’s Field with troops The mounted detachments, amateur and regular, were to provide his first line to disperse the crowd (if necessary, of  course). His infantrymen were the second line, should the situation turn to riot. Because, without horses or sabres, they would have to use firearms which he wanted to avoid. The artillery was only to be used in the extreme instance of the insurrection the magistrates, but not he himself, so gloomily anticipated. He disposed his forces thus: two squadrons of the 15th Hussars and one troop of the MYC were in Byrom Street; another squadron of the Hussars was in Lower Mosley Street, as escort to the Royal Artillery and their guns; with a final squadron held back at barracks. The 31st Foot was concealed in Brasenose Street, while the 88th were ‘in ambush’ in Dickinson Street. Most of the Cheshire Yeomanry were in St John Street, with one troop also held back at barracks. L’Estrange himself later testified that ‘the remaining two troops of the Manchester Yeomanry were in Mosley Street under Major Trafford’.. The Yeomanry’s own deposition said they were under the command of Major Trafford in Portland Street. Their statement is more or less correct. More or less, because one troop was in Pickford’s Yard commanded by Hugh Hornby Birley. The Yard was just off Portland Street, so one can forgive the slight mis-statement. Mosley and Portland Streets are close, so maybe they both meant the same thing to L’Estrange, though one feels a commander making a vital deposition after the event should have been strictly accurate.

From early morning of the 16th the plan was put into action. The Cheshire Yeomanry assembled on Sale Moor, an area of flat heathland on the Cheshire/Lancashire border, at 9 a.m. to ride to their positions in St John Street. The 15th Hussars paraded in field service at 8.30 a.m. before riding in at 10 a.m. to take up their positions in Byrom and Lower Mosley Streets. Among them, dressed in the blue uniform with yellow facings, the Busby bag with scarlet plume, was the nineteen-year-old Lieutenant Jolliffe. The other forces had taken up their positions by mid-morning with the exception of the MYC. They, under their overall commander Major Trafford, did not assemble early. Once assembled they did not, alas, proceed to their allotted positions and wait patiently as the hours went by and the Radical processions streamed into Manchester. Members of the MYC, in their blue uniforms with white facings, were seen by countless witnesses in public houses, being entertained by Mr Birley or entertaining themselves. Whether Hugh Hornby Birley plied them with drink because he thought they needed Dutch courage, or to prove what a fine fellow he was, or to keep them out of mischief, one does not know. But it was an act a wise commander would not have performed. There is no evidence that any other troops, amateur or -regular, were drunk, but that many members of the MYC were by the time they finally took up their positions is indisputable. It was considerably to add to the disaster of-the day.

About 400 special constables, men who had responded to the call to aid the Civil Powers, were also about early. They assembled in St James’s Square under the orders of John Moore, as senior of the two Constables whose official duty it was to preserve order in the town Moore escorted 200 of the special constables to Saint Peter’s  Field, where he drew half of them up in a double row around the already erected hustings (consisting of two wagons pushed together); while the other half were formed into a line to  provide an avenue of access between the hustings and a certain Mr Buxton’s house, at 6, Mount Street. This house, situated full on to Saint Peter’s Field, had been selected as the loyalist headquarters. The notorious Nadin was also involved in the organization of the special constables, presenting himself at Mr Buxton’s house at midday, at which time the meeting was scheduled to start. Of the other 200 special constables, some were scattered around Manchester to protect vital property from possible attack, while others (as Francis Philips) were posted at the approaches to the town to report to the magistrates on the numbers and mood of the advancing Radical hordes.

The magistrates themselves, after their exhausting weekend, were at the Star Inn by 10 a.m. ‘There they had an hour’s discussion before proceeding to Mr Buxton’s house to watch and wait for the contingents to arrive. They reached the house in time to see the first contingent from Stockport march on to the field, an area according to them as smooth and bereft of all inanimate objects as a billiard table. Prior to the 16th, on their instructions, one Thomas Horrall who rejoiced in the title of Assistant Surveyor of the Paving of the Town, had employed scavengers to collect every stone, brick or possible missile from the field and surrounding streets. The scavengers also removed the lamp posts in Windmill Street, ‘so that the Reformers might be destitute of every means of resistance’. The notion of the Radicals uprooting the lamp posts is a feasible one, there were some strong men among them. But the more interesting question is—resistance to what? The magistrates overlooked it when they later put forward Mr Horrall’s activities as evidence that the Radicals must have come armed with their own stones.

The effect the oncoming contingents had on loyalists, as opposed to radical (though not necessarily Radical) witnesses, was divided. Some interpreted the cheerful, disciplined processions as evidence that the whole town of Manchester was in danger. Jeremiah Smith, the headmaster of Manchester Grammar School, sent the boys home after breakfast which must have pleased them, but shows that he acted before anything had happened. Other loyalists testified that they shut up their shops, closed their windows and bolted their doors after seeing the contingents go by, particularly Hunt’s. However, Lieutenant Jolliffe, waiting patiently with the dismounted Hussars in Byrom Street, saw several Radical processions pass along Deansgate, including Hunt’s. He did not record anything about them that caused him to panic. The most reliable unbiased witness was the Reverend Edward Stanley, Vicar of Alderley for thirty-two years, later Bishop of Norwich. He came upon the scene by accident, happening to have business with Mr Buxton on August 16th. He arrived at 6, Mount Street about 10 o’clock, and soon, much to his surprise, so did the Select Committee of Magistrates, Boroughreeve Clayton, Constables Moore and Andrew, Nadin and sundry other loyalists.-Finding himself at the centre of activity he stayed to watch. He can be classified as the most reliable unbiased witness because he saw the whole scene from exactly the same position as the magistrates, and because of his background and temperament. From upbringing he was part of the Establishment, and he had no Radical affiliations or sympathies. Temperamentally he had a logical mind; he later became President of the Manchester Statistical Society. His account was only one man’s view of Peterloo, but because of that background and temperament it was a most precious one for the Radicals on whose side it came down heavily.

Thus, to sum up, the position soon after 1 o’clock as Hunt’s barouche finally arrived on the edge of Saint Peter’s Field was as follows. Everything was concentrated on this area. The rest of Manchester was like a ghost town. The streets that had been filled with the Radicals’ processions were empty and silent. Shops were shut, doors bolted, windows barred. On Saint Peter’s Field, an area of roughly 14,000 square yards, were 60,000 men, women and children. The mass of the crowd was packed round and backwards from the hustings, so tightly that ‘their hats seemed to touch’. Then there was a more open area, containing thick pockets but through which one could pass with reasonable freedom. On the outskirts of the field were heavy fringes of spectators, people who had come from curiosity to see how great the crowds were, what Hunt was like and what he would say. In No. 6, Mount Street, staring down on the scene, were the magistrates and other loyalists. Finally, there was the tight ring of 1,500 troops, mounted and foot, amateur and regular, – with two six-pounder guns ready to rattle into action. It must be stressed that the crowds were not aware of the soldiers surrounding the field. The Manchester Observer might have spoken of the authorities preventing the meeting and shuddered at the possible consequences. Bainford might have experienced similar fears. But all the Radicals seem to have meant pre- or post-meeting trouble not a dispersal of the actual assembly.

It took Hunt a considerable time to make his way from Peter Street to the hustings through the adoring multitudes. It was approximately 1.20 p.m when his barouche came within dismounting distance. Immediately there was minor trouble. Round the hustings was a double line of special constables armed with their stout black batons, bearing the royal insignia in gold, Honi Soit qui mal y pense, Dieu et mon Droit, George III. For a few minutes they refused to give way and allow Hunt access, but finally they cleared a small path. Among those who prepared to mount the hustings were Hunt himself, John Knight, John Saxton, Joseph Johnson, Mrs Fildes, Richard Carlile (the noted Devonshire Radical who had come up especially for the meeting) and several reporters. These included John Tyas of The Times, Edward Barnes Jr of the Leeds Mercury and John Smith of the Liverpool Mercury. The presence of Tyas and Smith (for Liverpool was not a noted Radical town) shows the success the Radicals were having in their attempts at attracting national attention This Manchester meeting was the first one to be covered by special correspondents from important distant newspapers.

As the Radical leaders stepped from the barouche, one of them noticed a heavily pregnant woman at the front of the crowd. Due to her condition, the stifling heat and the tightly packed bodies she was in a distressed, fainting state. He accordingly helped her into the barouche where she could rest and be safe. The gentleman could have been Hunt, ever gallant towards the fair sex, though it seems unlikely, as the woman, Mrs Elisabeth Gaunt, later said she did not know who put her into the barouche and even in a fainting condition she would surely have recognized the great leader. ‘Whoever put her there did her the greatest possible disservice. She was to be far from safe and to pay for this chivalrous act with twelve days solitary confinement in prison. A late arrival on the hustings was Joseph Moorhouse, the Stockport Radical who had acted as host to Hunt in that town. Moorhouse had trapped his hand in the door of the barouche and stopped to receive medical attention. He may soon have wished that his injury had delayed him even longer.

Before Hunt finally mounted the hustings there was another minor incident, later blown up to great proportions by the magistrates. They claimed that the hustings were moved twice, once before, and then upon, Hunt’s arrival. Their sinister interpretation of the first movement was that Hunt’s strongest supporters, literally that was, had tried to get themselves between the constables and the hustings to block the avenue of access to Mr Buxton’s house. The simple explanation of this first incident, never fully explained by either side, would seem to be that constables and stalwart supporters were jostling for position as near the hustings as possible. Of the second movement Hunt said that having surveyed the wagons he realized their position was such that, light though the wind was, his voice would be carried away from the crowd. He therefore ordered the realignment so that as many as possible of those who had come to hear him would be able to. Again the magistrates interpreted the move as an attempt to block the avenue of access. On this subject the Reverend Stanley’s comment was: ‘there seemed to be free and uninterrupted access to and from the hustings’, at all times that was.

The realignment and/or movement of the hustings was in any case of academic interest, one of the water-sieving explanations remembered after the event. For the Reverend Hay stated: ‘Long before his [Hunt’s] arrival, the magistrates felt a decided conviction that the whole bore the appearance of insurrection, that the array was such as to terrify the King’s subjects, and was such as no legitimate purpose could justify.’ The magistrates had been pacing up and down at the windows of Mr Buxton’s house since 11 o’clock, knowing that thousands of people would soon fill Saint Peter’s Field, expecting riot and insurrection. But what terrified them as the crowds did fill the field was not the threatening rush of the mob, nor the producing of pikes, nor any sign of riot or insurrection. It-was the reverse. It was the lack of ‘natural violence. It was the beautifully disciplined manner in which the crowds arrived and maintained their ranks while waiting for Hunt. By the bitterest of ironies, therefore, the very success of the Radical organization caused their doom, and made the magistrates take the first steps on, one can hardly call it the road, so quickly did events occur, but on the ravine to disaster. Only in the numbers can allowance be made for the magistrates’ panic, and then not much, but probably neither side anticipated such a splendid turn-out. Having surveyed the scene for nearly two hours the magistrates reached their panicky conclusion. ‘They were in control, they alone,and for God’s sake they had to do something.

What they did was to justify the necessity for drastic action by getting one Richard Owen and thirty other loyalists (including Francis Philips) to swear and sign an affidavit for the arrest of Hunt and the Radical leaders, which they did by no means unwillingly. Thus, ‘Richard Owen, hath this day made oath before us, His Majesty’s Justices of the Peace… that Henry Hunt, John Knight, Jos. Johnson and—Moorhouse at this time (now a quarter past one o’clock) have arrived in a car, at the area near St. Peter’s Church and that an immense mob is collected and he – considers the town in danger’.

A conclusion had been reached. Hunt was to be arrested. The crowds would then disperse as had the Blanketeers after the arrest of Johnston, Bagguley and- Drummond in 1817. The magistrates also had the more recent arrest of Harrison from Smithfield to comfort them. However, there were several factors they did not take into account. There were at least 30,000 more people on Saint Peter’s Field than there had been in 1817. There was no Sir John Byng to disperse the crowds as skilfully as he had in that year. Harrison, chaplain to the poor and needy, stalwart hero of the Union Societies though he might be, was no Hunt, no nationally idolized demigod. And in any case the arrest of Harrison had not broken up the Smithfield meeting. Did the magistrates truly imagine that 60,000 people who had been preparing for weeks, who had marched miles into Manchester, would calmly watch as their demigod and everybody else on the hustings were hauled off to prison? Who knows? Perhaps the Radicals would have maintained their discipline; Hunt claimed emphatically that the arrests could have been peacefully effected had not the military been used. But it seems-more probable that once the arrests had been decided upon, some sort of chaos and possibly bloodshed would have been inevitable. This was the first juncture at which the absence of Sir John Byng was regrettable. He would have taken the many different factors into account, and could well have counselled against the arrests.

First Hunt had to be arrested. Accordingly the Boroughreeve was called for. The shadowy personality of Edward Clayton emerged from the ranks of special constables round the hustings, and entered Mr Buxton’s house. In his presence Hulton, as chairman of the magistrates, handed the warrants to John Moore, as senior of the two Constables whose job it was to preserve order. But Moore was not accustomed to doing the dirty work so he called for Nadin who was also down in the ranks of the constables. With the warrants in his possession, Nadin made a gesture towards making the arrests. He re-passed down the line of constables towards the hustings, and then quickly returned to Mr Buxton’s house. With him came half the constables who were supposed to be helping in the arrest. All this to-ing and fro-ing between hustings and house seems absolutely to uphold the Reverend Stanley’s statement that the avenue of access was never blocked. The to-ing and fro-ing, particularly of Nadin who always spelled trouble to the Lancashire masses, caused a slight panic among the crowd nearest the hustings. But a special constable called out, ‘It is a false alarm.’ However, another one said, ‘Wait, you’ll see something now.’ This latter was sadly to prove true.

Back in Mr Buxton’s house the following conversation ensued:

HULTON: (with his hand on Nadin’s arm, very chummy in the moment of stress). Is it not possible for the police aided by the Special Constables, to execute the warrant?

NADIN: Never with those Special Constables, nor with ten times the number, nor with all the Special Constables in England.

HULTON: Cannot it be executed without military force?

NADIN: It cannot.

HULTON: Then you shall have the military force. For God’s sake don’t sacrifice the lives of the Special Constables.

So the second conclusion was reached. The military were required to arrest Hunt, but there was no need to worry, had not the military also been required to arrest Johnston, Bagguley and Drummond? Hulton accordingly wrote two messages which were despatched forthwith, the first to Colonel L’Estrange, the second to Major Trafford. The message L’Estrauge received read thus: ‘Sir, as Chairman of the Select Committee of Magistrates I request you to afford those Magistrates military protection in the execution of their duty, as they conceive the Civil Powers wholly inadequate to keep the same. Wm Hulton’. The message Major Trafford received was slightly longer and politer: ‘Sir, as Chairman of the Select Committee of Magistrates I request you to proceed immediately to. No 6 Mount Street where the Magistrates are assembled. They conceive the Civil Powers wholly inadequate to preserve the peace. I have the honour to be Sir, yr obt humble svt. Wm. Hulton’.

A vital question, which was not answered in any of the later innumerable depositions, testimonies, inquest and trials, is why the magistrates sent two messages. L’Estrange was the commander in charge of the troops the magistrates were calling for. So why did they send a message to Major Trafford? There were several other officers as senior in rank as Major Trafford lurking around Saint Peter’s Field, but they did not receive a separate message. This is the second juncture at which Byng’s presence would have made a difference. It is unlikely that he would have authorized the message to Trafford. Did the magistrates send this second request because Trafford was the commander of their very own Manchester and Salford Yeomanry Cavalry? Was it a case of chauvinism? Whatever motive prompted this seemingly unnecessary second message, the fact that Trafford received the individual request was the final kick down the ravine. For now distance played a part. LEstrange was in Byrom Street; while Trafford was in Pickford’s Yard. L’Estrange had to organize his other troops, so although he started for Mr Buxton’s house almost immediately upon receipt of Hulton’s message, it was not physically possible for him to reach the field before the MYC.

On receipt of his request Major Trafford decided not to lead his brave men personally. It was a decision that saved him from much of the hatred and notoriety that descended upon the man to whom he designated the honour, his second-in-command, Hugh Hornby Birley. Given the order to advance by Birley, the MYC in Pickford’s Yard were only too ready to oblige. They leapt, clambered or were pushed on to their horses, half or very drunk as most of them were, drew their sabres and, according to Birley; set off at an easy trot through Nicholas Street. Other witnesses were not so certain as to the easiness of the trot. As they turned into Cooper Street the trot, even according to Birley, became brisk. He says it was because they heard loud shouts coming from Saint Peter’s Field and therefore had to get to the magistrates’ assistance as quickly as possible. At the head of the troop was Edward Meagher, the yeomanry’s trumpeter, who was to earn as great a hatred as Birley for his subsequent actions. Another man called Tom Shelmerdine also loomed large in local infamy. But the yeomanry cavalryman who caused the-first Peterloo death remains unnamed.

The main body of the MYC trotted briskly or ‘galloped furiously as though they were flying’, according to whether you were a yeomanry cavalryman or an onlooker, down Cooper Street. But one man, presumably more drunk than the rest, was left behind. Even the MYC admitted that the unnamed member, having been detained, was following on at a hard gallop. Among the passers-by in narrow Cooper Street, was a Mrs Ann Fildes (no connection with Mrs Fildes of the Female Reformers). Ann Fildes had in her arms her two-year-old son William. She retreated against the houses as the main body of the cavalry swept past, clutching William to her. Assuming the rush over she stepped forward still clutching her son, whereupon, in the MYC’s choice wording, she ‘came into contact’ with the horse of the lone rider. The contact threw her to the ground and stunned her, while William fell from her, arms and was killed. Whether through hitting his head on the cobbles or being trampled upon by the horse with whom he had come into contact was not clarified. It did not matter anyway. He was dead. It was bitterly appropriate that the first death of Peterloo should have been that of a two-year-old child whose mother was not even at the meeting.

The majority of the MYC were obviously unaware of the child’s death, but it is doubtful that they would have been perturbed had they known. Cooper Street led them straight into Mount Street. They drew up near Mr Buxton’s house, about 100 yards from the hustings. Even Hulton admitted that they arrived ‘in a certain degree of confusion’. He said it was because their horses were raw and unused to the field, but dozens of other witnesses attributed the confusion to intoxication. One Radical when asked why he had come to this immediate conclusion said simply, ‘Because they rolled about on their horses.’

The time was now 1.40 p.m. Hunt had finally started to address the crowds who had been waiting so eagerly and patiently for him. Hunt himself said that he had scarcely uttered more than two sentences before the MYC arrived. Stanley agreed that he had only been speaking a minute or two, and a Radical witness more quaintly said: ‘I could not have read two chapters of the Bible before the soldiers turned up.’ The intent of what Hunt managed to say was inevitably queried. Although ear-witnesses’ accounts vary slightly, there was agreement that Hunt told the crowds to continue to conduct themselves peaceably and quietly. But the magistrates’ later interpretation-one firmly says later (Stanley, in the same room as they, and not known to be deaf, stated it was impossible to hear what Hunt said because of the noise from the crowd)—was that his exhortation to maintain order was a subtle form of incitement to riot. The Quarterly Review, for example, compared the words with Mark Antony’s oration over Caesar’s dead body: ‘Good friends, sweet friends, let me not stir you up to mutiny.

As the MYC galloped on to the field, there was a stir, among the crowd. The first cry; before the horses were seen, was that the noise heralded the arrival of the Blackburn contingent. But this soon changed to a general cry of ‘The soldiers, the soldiers’, and the stir became something of a panic sway. Hunt reacted firmly and sensibly, shouting, ‘Stand firm, my friends, there are only a few soldiers, and we are a host against them.’ Then, pointing to the disordered halt of the cavalry, he laughed and again said, ‘Stand firm, my friends. They are in disorder already. This is a trick. Give them three cheers.’ The crowds responded happily to their leader’s injunctions, a great cheer poured forth, and the panic subsided. Unfortunately, the magistrates chose to interpret Hunt’s quick, firm action in suppressing incipient panic as yet a further sign of the riot that had not yet but must soon materialize. They heard the cheers as ‘a most marked gesture of defiance’.

For a few minutes everything hung in the balance. The MYC were rolling about on, and trying to control, their frightened horses who were neither trained for, nor used to, the noise of battle, as were the steeds of the regular troops. The crowds were cheering and transferring their attention back to Hunt who was preparing to resume his speech. In these few minutes the magistrates themselves seem to have had doubts about the wisdom of sending the MYC to effect the arrests. Would it not be wiser to wait for the arrival of L’Estrange and the regulars? But they were worried by the removal of half the special constables from that contested avenue of access between the hustings and Mr Buxton’s house. If they waited further might not the avenue be completely blocked? And the MYC were stout fellows so, after only a few minutes’ pause, just after 1.40 p.m they were ordered to accompany Nadin, Clayton, Moore and Andrew and the special constables to execute the arrests.