In the autumn of 1819 the Radicals appeared to be in a stronger position than ever. True, their leaders were awaiting trial for conspiracy. True, the Government showed no signs of repentance or lessening of their repressive grip But the weight of public opinion was with them Attack and condemnation poured on the Government from all sides Cobbett was back in their midst Hundreds of people had joined Union Societies as a result of Peterloo Many new societies had been formed, particularly in the Midlands and North-East Thousands more people, if not advocates of Radical Reform, accepted that something must be done to alleviate the distress, and reform the structure of Parliament The wind of change was blowing hard It was the Radicals who had started the breeze that Peterloo had fanned. It was they who would rightly and righteously continue to mark the path until it reached Eldorado
Such was the appearance of the Radical movement In fact dissension shattered its fragile coherence almost from 16th August The Radicals realized that Peterloo had presented them with the greatest opportunity of all, but how they should react, what steps should be taken to seize the sad opportunity to further the grand design, were matters on which they could not agree. The dissension, apart from the usual personal quarrels such as the choice of route for Hunt’s triumphal entry into London in September, and who should pay for the subsequent dinner, was between those who advocated a violent, and those who urged a non-violent response. The former were led by the Spenceans, Thistlewood and Doctor Watson. Protest meetings at which the actions of the magistrates were condemned, however strongly, and demands for an enquiry did not satisfy them. They called for simultaneous meetings throughout the country, and recommended that the crowds should come armed. Hunt was strongly opposed to such an idea. He agreed that at any immediate mass meeting the crowd would have to be armed to prevent another Peterloo. But, as he did not-want the blood of more innocents on his head, the sensible course was not to hold any such meetings. The Huntite faction (much the stronger) won the day. If ever Hunt’s personal lack of revolutionary zeal and intent was in doubt, it was quashed by his actions after Peterloo. He put his faith in Parliametary redress. The pressure of public opinion, kept well on the boil by the Radicals, would force Liverpool’s administration to hold an enquiry, would see that the leaders had a fair trial, and would lead to Parliamentary reform. The Manchester Observer followed the Hunt line—it was not entirely devoted to passion-rousing descriptions of Peterloo—urging its readers to support all moderate condemnations, such as the Declaration and Protest.
There was a hot-headed element in Lancashire, which is not surprising as the Lancastrians had been the recipients of the magistrates’ conduct at Peterloo. This element was fanned along by Thistlewood and Watson, and it started breakaway Union Societies. (The Union Societies were Huntite.) But the new societies did not attract many members and, although they tried to organize simultaneous meetings on the Spencean lines, they met with little success. Joseph Johnson expressed the majority view when he said: “The Manchester Reformers see the necessity of resting on their oars, and waiting the decision of Parliament on that subject [i.e., Peterloo] before they meet again.’ On the matter of the meetings the Manchester Observer urged its readers to ‘Stay at Home and spare the effusion of blood’.
If the inherent defects of the Radical leaders, their lack of revolutionary intent, their inability to face the challenge of potential power, and the practical signs of breakdown were present in the autumn of 1819, they were not as yet apparent.
When Parliament reassembled on November 23rd, the Government gave strong evidence that it still regarded the Radicals as a potent, coherent force. With the reassembly, the Huntite expectation of Parliamentary redress was firmly quashed. For one week later, on November 30th, the first of the famous (or infamous) Six Acts was introduced. Lord Chancellor Eldon was a prime mover in their drafting; Sidmouth actually introduced them; while it was the unfortunate Castlereagh whose name become most linked with them and on whom the greatest popular hatred fell.
The Six Acts were the Training Prevention Bill, which made any person attending a gathering for the purpose of training or drilling liable on conviction to transportation for a maximum of seven years or imprisonment for a maximum of two; the Seizure of Arms Bill which gave the magistrates ‘in certain disturbed counties’, very firmly including Lancashire, on the oath of only one witness absolute power to search any property or person for arms and seize any found therein or on; the Misdemeanours Bill which prevented delay in the administration of justice; the Seditious Meetings Prevention Bill which prohibited the holding of public meetings of more than fifty people without the consent of a sheriff or magistrate in addition, even if official consent were obtained, the people then attending had to live within the area and were prohibited from carrying banners or flags, or arriving in military array. Should the magistrates decide to disperse such a meeting the people had fifteen minutes only in which to obey their command before it became illegal. Finally there was the Blasphemous and Seditious Libels Bill which provided much stronger punishment, including banishment for publications judged to be blasphemous or seditious; and the Newspaper and Stamp Duties Bill which subjected ‘certain publications’, i.e., sheets such as ‘The Twopenny Trash’ and the Radical tracts which, had previously avoided stamp duty by publishing no hard news, to such duty. It also imposed further regulations to check ‘the abuse arising from the publication of blasphemous and seditious libel’
By the end of 1819 all the Acts were law, the last ‘two being rushed through Parliament on 30th December. It has been suggested, that the Acts, could have been more repressive. It is true that Habeas Corpus was not again suspended. But the Acts provided -a virtually water-tight blanket over the Radical activities. They could no longer legally hold meetings, and their press was truly muzzled. The only section of Radical activity that was not directly affected was the Union Societies. The Government, although most anxious to break this backbone, had been unable to think of a specific proposal against them. But in any event the Societies were crippled. Cheap tracts were part of their disseminating life-blood, and these were taxed out of existence by the Newspaper and Stamp Duties Act.
The Government’s reasoning behind the Six Acts was simple. The mass of the people were not at heart seditiously inclined, which was true, to wit the lack of revolutionary upsurge post Peterloo. They had merely been deluded by the Radicals, which was less true. So what was needed were measuresto prevent access to the Radical delusions. Deprived of such access the people would cease to dabble in matters which they did not understand and leave them to the men who did, and England would return’ to its good old Tory paternalism. Lord Ellenborough expressed this view succinctly: ‘He would say that he saw no possible good’ to be derived to the country from having statesmen at the loom and ‘politicians at the spinning jenny.’
The influence of the Manchester magistrates’ demands for positive action were visible in the Acts. The Government consulted them about the Seditious Meetings Prevention Bill, in their capacity as Peterloo experts. The Misdemeanours Bill was influenced by their demands.for a swifter administration of justice in such cases as Hunt’s. The,magistrates were sent early copies of the Six Acts for their approval. Their opinions were not decisive, but they were much appreciated by the Government. Conversely, the Government’s anxiety to consult :them did much to soothe their injured feelings of being left to hold the Peterloo baby. In January 1820, the Government added the final soothing touch by appointing Hay to the rectorship of Rochdale, which was then one of the richest livings in the country. The fact that Hay had applied for the position early in June 1819 when the living was not actually vacant (though the vicar was seriously ill), and had returned from his interview in London most unhopeful of getting it, made the appointment doubly provocative. Everybody, rightly, interpreted the move as the Government’s seal of approval on the magistrate’s actions at Peterloo. The appointment demonstrates how secure, only five months after the event, the Government suddenly felt, and with apparent reason.
The Grey/Whig reaction to the Six Acts was inevitably quail-fled. They opposed the three Bills against the holding of public meetings and the muzzling of the press with a vigour they had not shown in years. They made a valuable amendment to the Misdemeanours Bill so that lengthy delays on either side were no longer possible. That was the extent of their opposition.
The heaviest Parliamentary attacks came from a renegade, radical Whig, the Honourable H.G. Bennet, member for Shrewsbury. The interest of Bennet to this story was his association with the middle-class Radicals. It was Bennet who presented Parliament with a petition from Manchester requesting an enquiry into Peterloo, a petition signed by nearly 7,000 people, good, rational and sincere men, of deep religious impressions, and of sedate and sober character’. But it was Taylor, Shuttle-worth, the Potters, Prentice and company who organized these rational, sedate, sober Mancunians into signing the petition. It was they who supplied Bennet with the accurate information, the irregularities of the magistrates’ conduct, and the accumulation of proven discrepancies in their statements, that gave weight to the petition.
Early in December 1819, Bennet introduced another important motion. This was for an enquiry into the state of the manufacturing districts, covering the Glasgow area and the West Riding of Yorkshire but with the focus on south-east Lancashire Much of what Bennet said in his very long speech reflected the views and remedies of the middle-class Radicals; the urgent need for a revision of local government; the rising standards of education that made the people -no longer prepared to accept oppression and suffeing without hope br explanation; their turning now, as never before, towards a Parliament in which they would have a voice. Bennet did not, of course, get his enquiry, or one into Peterloo. He was an able, Sincere, intelligent man, with strong reforming instincts (he had been a fierce opponent of the suspension of Habeas Corpus, had helped expose Oliver and had introduced Bills to curb the employment of boy chimney sweeps). Many of the views and remedies he would have reached of his own accord. But the meeting with the Manchester reformers occasioned by Peterloo pushed him along the road and made him an early spokesman for the later, formidable ‘Manchester School’.
The Acts’were accepted by the Huntites in a spirit of resignation. Parliament had failed them so what could they do? Apart from violent reaction, or holding meetings, now illegal, which would inevitably lead to bloodshed, there was little-they could do. But the meekness with which the Radicals resigned themselves to the inevitable was another matter. The calls in their hour of darkness could have been- a deal more -clarion than they were. Hunt, urged his followers to cherish the principles of liberty, to show patience, forbearance and fortitude, and to despair not. For, ‘if our cause be just, Heaven will yet assist us in obtaining that cause’. When politicians start invoking heaven, and nothing else, disaster is on hand. –
By the beginning of 1820 the Radical movement as such had virtually ceased to exist. It had been a most spectacular collapse. Six months before it had half England rousingly, fervently within its ranks and now there was next to nothing. The Six Acts provided the death blow, but a strong movement should have been able to survive them. The root answer lay within the leadership. They were not men capable of leading the country. They could rally discontent but they could not hold it together when faced with disaster, or a slight lessening of the distress. This was another factor that went against the Radical movement. By early 1820 business had heaved itself out of the vacuum in Manchester. Over the country as a whole the economy picked up slightly. Conditions were still bad, but they were not now sufficiently bad for the waverers to retain interest in Parliamentary reform. With no clarion calls, no staunch leadership to guide them, thousands of people slipped back into apathy. Even the depressive, panicky Manchester magistrates began to take heart. Norris said, ‘The great body of radical reformers seem to retire from their work of disturbing the peace.’
However, if only the stalwart kept their beliefs, the Radicals remained in the public eye throughout 1820. The first of the eyecatching events occurred at the end of February. It was the Cato Street Conspiracy, that ridiculous, absurd, wild, tragic counterpoint to Peterloo. The instigators of the plot were Thistiewood and Watson, and they later claimed that their intention was to avenge the innocent blood shed in Manchester. The scheme they devised in their role of avengers was drastic to say the least. It was to kill all the members of the cabinet while they were at a working dinner. However, the Government was forewarned. They had an informant, and the question whether he turned informer or was an agent provocateur on the lines of Oliver was raised. Certainly the Government knew of the plot well in advance because in January the Duke of Wellington had ‘just heard that Lord Sidmouth had discovered another conspiracy!’ Anyway, a false cabinet meeting was arranged, the conspirators were arrested in a stable in Cato Street off the Edgware Road, and duly tried and executed.
The Cato Street Conspiracy should have presented the Government with a glorious vindication ‘for their diagnosis of, and measures against, the Radical canker. For Thistlewood and Watson were noted Radicals, and nothing could have been more revolutionary than a plot to annihilate the entire cabinet. To an extent it did. The final Spencean outrage convinced some moderates what the earlier Spencean/Huntite quarrels had led them to suspect, namely that no Radical could be trusted. But the conspiracy had another effect which reflected on the good sense of even more of the moderates. Not all the conspirators were Spencean devotees of violence, one or two being ‘reasonable’ men. That the effect of Peterloo could have been so traumatic as to plunge them into the melodrama of Cato Street, made many people re-ask the basic questions. What circumstances within the country had led to Peterloo and then, the conspiracy? And what was the Government doing to remedy these circumstances? The answer was nothing. True, it had reacted with new-found vigour to the concrete circumstance ofPeterloo. But the Six Acts were negative insomuch as repressive, coercive action is by self-definition. Not one step had been taken to consider or meet the conditions in the manufacturing districts on which the Radicals had battened and fattened. Towards what everybody, Government included, agreed was the root cause, i.e., the parlous state of the country’s economy, the Government’s attitude remained what it long had been. The depression was the result of the French wars. It was unavoidable and irredeemable. It must run its course and could not possibly be affected by Government interference. Liverpool’s administration soldiered serenely on after Cato Street, but the questions remained unanswered and the conspiracy, curiously, helped rather than hindered their ground-swell.
The next event was the trial of ‘Hunt and his Associates’. This opened in York on Thursday, March 16th, and closed on Monday, March 27th, 1820. Indicted were Henry Hunt, John Knight, Joseph Johnson, John Thacker Saxton, Samuel Bamford, Joseph Healey, James Moorhouse, Robert Jones, George Swift and Robert Wild, for an Alleged Conspiracy to Alter the Law by Force and Threats and for Convening and Attending an Illegal, Riotous and Tumultous Meeting at Manchester on Monday, 16th August 1819.’ Mr Justice Bayley presided. The nature of the indictment made certain that no discussion of the magistrates’ right to disperse the meeting, or of the wc’s actions during the dispersal, would be entertained. The trial was concerned only with the motives of ‘Hunt and his Associates’ in convening the meeting and the manner in which it had assembled.
Several of the accused walked from Manchester to York for the trial, among them Bamford and Healey. Admittedly both were great walkers, but lack of funds prompted the long march as much as love of fresh air. One hundred and forty still ardent Radicals also walked to York to appear as witnesses for the accused. Bamford and his witnesses went as a body, and he recorded that the ascent of Blackstone Edge, ‘the backbone of the English Alps’, tried the marching qualities of the women, and by the time they reached Leeds two of them were exhausted. At Leeds they were joined by other foot contingents from Stockport, Hyde, Ashton-under-Lyne and Staleybridge, and Healey’s brigade from Saddleworth. From Leeds the two exhausted females, and others, male and female, lame from the haul over the Pennines, were sent on by coach. But the majority ‘passed through Tadcaster and arrived at York in a compact body at night fall on Tuesday, March 14th’.
Healey had a bad cold throughout the trial, probably caught on the windy Pennine uplands. He sat, as Bamford recorded, ‘opposite the judge, with a handkerchief thrown over his head, the corners drooping on his shoulders, exactly as the flaps of his lordship’s wig drooped on his’. It was to alleviate his cold that Healey had the snuff he passed so freely round the courtroom, and which Scarlett, the chief prosecuting counsel, politely declined.
The Radicals defended themselves, Hunt most ably. Sydney Smith, who attended the trial, was ‘much struck by his boldness, dexterity and shrewdness’, in his own defence speech But, typically, Hunt had to make a further speech which did not help. Mr Justice Bayley believed that he would have been acquitted had he rested his case after his defence speech. Before the verdicts, there was a widespread belief that Hunt would go free. Bayley’s summing up was in favour of an acquittal, for all the accused.
– However, he laid stress on the drillings and banners. It was almost certainly those well-intentioned, but ill-advised, drillings, together with the proud banners with their cries for Equal-Representation, Let us Unite and be Free, Let us die like men and Not be Sold like Slaves, that frightened the jury, as they had frightened the magistrates.
Saxton, Moorhouse, Jones, Swift and- Wild were acquittedSaxton’s plea that he had been on the hustings as a reporter rather than a Radical- being accepted. But Hunt, Johnson, Knight, Healey and Bamford were found guilty on the count of assembling with unlawful banners at an unlawful meeting for the purpose of exciting discontent. They were not, however, sentenced until May 15th, after a motion for anew trial had been refused. The appeal and sentence were heard and given in London, which meant further walking and further expense. Before he left, Healey : had some circulars printed which announced that ‘Joseph Healy* would be under necessity of taking his departure for London, to receive judgment in the court- of the Kings Bench; and he was entirely without funds to carry him up, he would thankfully receive whatever sun-is the friends of reform contributed for that purpose. Bamford considered this an outrageous, begging gesture but the friends of reform rallied round to the extent of £20, proving yet again that he who ask outrageously often receives.
* Healey’s name was spelt with or without the final e.
Once in London, Bamford’s disapproval of Healey did not lessen. When they were called to the bench Healey cried out in the manner of Luther, ‘My name is Doctor Healey. I will never flinch, so help me God.’ Such dramatics Bamford considered misplaced. But there was worse to come. Each man had to read his own appeal, but Healey of course could barely read. Each time he stumbled, he looked supplicatingly at Bamford and hissed, ‘Prompt, Bamford, prompt.’ In the end Bamford, unable to endure this mortifying example of North Country ignorance in front of southern witnesses, shouted, ‘Throw down that paper, man, and speak off-hand.’ This Healey cheerfully did. A final action of Healey’s, unconnected with the court-room, justifiably earned Bamford’s condemnation. For Healey (and Joseph Johnson) attended the execution of Thistlewood which occurred while they were in .London. Bamford, apart from being ahead of his time in disliking public executions, rightly said that such a spectacle, the death of a fellow Radical (however much they personally disliked and disapproved of the Spenceans) was the last place a respectable Radical should be seen.
The sentences finally passed on the Radicals were as follows: Hunt, two years and six months’ imprisonment in Ilchester gaol, Johnson, Bamford and Healey one year in Lincoln. All four prisoners had to give security for their good behaviour for five years after their release. John Knight was not actually sentenced on the Peterloo charge. He received two years’ imprisonment for his attendance at a meeting in Burnley on November 15th, 1819.
Apart from the Radicals directly connected with Peterloo, the Government was busily imprisoning other leading figures. By the middle of 1820 Sir Francis Burdett had been fined £2,000 and sentenced to three months’ imprisonment for his post-Peterloo pronouncements. Sir Charles Wolseley and the Reverend Harrison were sentenced to eighteen months each for their speeches at Stockport prior to Peterioo, with Harrison receiving a further two years for his sermon urging abstinence from taxed beverages. James Wroe, the editor of the Manchester Observer, was sentenced to twelve months’ imprisonment, plus £100 fine for seditious publication. Richard Carlile, one of the few on the Peterloo hustings who escaped arrest, had this oversight rectified in the shape of a three-year sentence for publishing the works of Tom Paine. Finally, after a long delay, Wooler of the Black Dwarfand Major Cartwright were sentenced for their parts in the election of Birmingham’s ‘legislatorial attorney’. Wooler received fifteen months’ imprisonment, but Cartwright escaped with a fine of £100. Maybe his advanced years made the Government show clemency or maybe they were simply exhausted.