What Do Reasonable People Think Of The Manchester Business?

The weight of condemnation fell as heavily upon the Government as upon the Manchester magistrates. For who was in ultimate control of the country’s well being? Who was ultimately responsible for the actions of their servants? Lord Liverpool and his administration.

From Sidmouth’s flying start the Government continued to uphold the magistrates actions, at least to the extent of accepting their version. As Castlereagh cheerfully admitted the Government’s sources of Peterloo information were Hay, L’Estrange and Sir John Byng (who was not present). More important for the magistrates, though still not in the autumn, months of 1819 sufficient to soothe them, was the stonewall manner in which the Government refused to take note of anybody else’s version. The Government may never have published an official account of the magistrates’ justification, but equally it never permitted an enquiry into Peterloo to be held, despite constant demands.

Privately, however, the Government was not nearly so enthusiastic in its approbation. Sidmouth remained true to character by publicly hoping that ‘the proceedings at Manchester would prove a salutary lesson to modern reformers’. The Duke of Wellington told him with relish: ‘Lord Sidmouth, the Radicals will impeach you for this, by God they will!’ And Sidmouth’s recent excellent biographer, Philip Ziegler, has written that his complete upholding of the magistrates showed, ‘his insensitivity, lack of political acumen and underdeveloped social conscience’. Lord Liverpool made no such public utterance as Sidmouth’s. Privately he wrote to Canning that the magistrates’ actions were ‘most injudicious’ and ‘when I say that the proceedings of the magistrates at Manchester on the 16th were justifiable, you will understand me as not by any means deciding that the course which they pursued on that occasion was in all its parts prudent.’ Canning himself expressed the Government’s view more cynically. ‘To let down the magistrates would be to invite their resignation, and to lose all gratuitous service in the Counties liable to disturbance for ever’. While Lord Chancellor Eldon, that most devout upholder of the status quo, said ‘Without doubt the Manchester magistrates must be supported; but they are very generally blamed here.’

Lord Carlisle, no noted Radical, said of the Government’s behaviour after Peterloo that it was ‘characterized by downright insanity. If there was little tact or deftness, no impartiality or feel for the public’s sense of outrage, there was method in the madness. It consisted of we’re still in charge of the boat, boys, so let’s ride the storm. The Government’s actions after Peterloo demonstrated a firmer grip on the helm. By sending Mr Bouchier of the Treasury Solicitor’s office to Manchester they also showed that the day had at least convinced them of one thing—that further reliance should not be placed upon any judicious decision the magistrates might take. Officially Mr Bouchier was sent to help collect evidence against Hunt and the others arrested, but undoubtedly his job was to keep the magistrates out of further trouble. Had Mr Bouchier, or someone of equal authority, been sent before the 16th to ‘advise’ the legally bemused, panicky magistrates there could well have been no trouble to keep the magistrates out of.

A friend of Canning’s comment on the Governmental behaviour was: ‘The House of Commons seems equally determined upon two points; first that it should always stumble; second that it shall not fall.’ To the opposition, Radical, radical, or Whig, Peter-loo presented the most excellent stick with which to try and trip the Government into a fall. For one of the important aspects of ‘the Manchester Massacre’ was that it marshalled ‘reasonable’ censure, i.e., as opposed to committed Radical attack. By early September the weight of this reasonable censure had started to mount. The first most important poundage was The Declaration and Protest issued from Manchester. This stemmed from a meeting called by the ultra loyalists on August 19th at the Police Office in Manchester. The entering, which was organized and chaired by Francis Philips, was quickly adjourned to the Star Inn where a vote of thanks was given for the magistrates’ actions. It was supped to be a public meeting of the inhabitants of Manchester and Salford and the surrounding neighbourhood. The vote of thanks was supposed to represent the views of numerous and – highly respectable citizens. But the adjournment to the Star Inn made certain it was a private meeting where the views only of the ultras were expressed. Just what was said, as opposed to what was published, was only made public because John Benjamin Smith, an eye-witness of Peterloo, and later Liberal MP, somehow managed to gain entry.

The text of the Declaration and Protest ran thus:

We, the undersigned, without individually approving of the manner in which the MEETING held at St. Peter’s on Monday, the 16th August was constituted, hereby declare, that we are fully satisfied, by personal observation or undoubted information that it was perfectly peaceable;—that no seditious or intemperate harangues were made there;—that the Riot Act if read at all, was read privately, or without the knowledge of the great body of the Meeting; and we feel it our bounden duty to protest against, and to express our utter disapprobation of, the unexpected and unnecessary Violence by which the Assembly were dispersed.

We further declare, that the Meeting convened at the Police Office on Thursday, the 19th August, for the purpose of thanking the Magistrates, Municipal Officers, Soldiery etc was strictly and exclusively private;—and in order that its privacy might be more completely ensured, was adjourned to the Star Inn—It is a matter of notoriety, that no expression of dissent from the main object of the Meeting was there permitted.

We therefore deny that it had any claim to the title of a ‘numerous and highly respectable Meeting of the Inhabitants of Manchester and Salford, and their neighbourhood’—and we hereby invite those who have presumed so to style it, to join with us in giving the Inhabitants at large of Manchester and Salford, and their neighbourhood, a public opportunity of expressing their real opinion upon the subject.

The invitation was not accepted, even though the undersigned numbered 5,054 people. The importance of the Declaration and Protest was that it was organized by the middle-doss Radicals and its signatories could not be dismissed as Radical riff-raff; for they included many solid respectable citizens, previous supporters, whether actively or passively, of the oligarchy. Among them were over a hundred of those big, bad wolves, the cotton manufacturers. All felt that this time the magistrates had gone too far. Among the cotton masters and other businessmen who signed many felt angry not wholly or solely on account of the loss of life on August 16th. They felt strongly that by their precipitate actions the magistrates had aggravated the already bad economic situation. With the town still in a virtual stage of siege, with hostility and fear on every side; a vacuum had been created that made normal business impossible. One action that had particularly infuriated the businessmen was the shutting of the Exchange on August 17th on no other evidence than Constable Moore’s panicky and as it mmcd our unfounded, report that thousands of pikemen were advancing on the town. A further way by which the respectable citizens demonstrated their disapproval of the magistrates’ actions and their sympathy for the Radicals (in this instance) was by generous contributions to the various Relief Committees.

The activities of the middle-class Radicals were not confined to organizing the Declaration and Protest. With Saxton in prison, it was John Edward Taylor who edited the pamphlets of ‘The Peterloo Massacre’ issued under the auspices of the Manchester Observer. The pamphlets, which appeared for fourteen consecutive weeks from August 28th, price twopence, contained eye-witness accounts, details of the prisoners’ examinations and indictments, the throwing-out of the bills presented at Lancaster against the Manchester authorities, and the inquest on John Lees. They had a wide circulation and did much to spread the true story’. All the middle-dass Radicals were active in the various relief committees, collecting and distributing money to buy food for those unable to work through injury and misting with the legal expenses of the less important of those indicted.

Above all Peterloo acted as a political catalyst for them. It took the 16th August to spur them into action, but they did not miss the opportunity presented. The eyes of England were currently focused on Manchester. The cause was a righteous one, so onward Christian soldiers. By exposing the panic actions of the magistrates, they also exposed the antique structure of Manchester’s government, a national disgrace in the Liverpool era. By obtaining over 5,000 signatures to the Declaration and Protest they underlined the gap, not only between the antique structure and the masses it had mown down, but between it and the solid, respectable citizens. Pererloo brought them firmly into local politics, and once in, they worked with tenacious grip. The massacre also presented them with the opportunity to plead the cause of moderation. Although Hunt was not to be blamed for the actual attack, although he had shown personal courage and restraint on the day, had not his methods led inevitably to the tragedy? With moderate, reasoned, intelligent, radical leadership Peterloo would not have occurred, and there would be no possibility of its repetition. While personally abhorring the tragedy, politically they could not but welcome it.

To the Whigs Peterloo also presented a splendid opportunity. To what had seven years of Liverpool’s administration led? To the slaughter of the innocents of Saint Peter’s Field. It has been nicely said that Peterloo stirred the Whigs from their ‘sulky hibernation’. However, the emerging hedgehog, with the face of Lord Grey, had to inch forward with extreme caution for the Whigs were even less of a political entity than parties then were. Grey himself headed the largest faction and was official Leader of the Opposition, but there were several powerful splinter groups and Grey’s task was to create a party, keep the various factions happy and condemn and utilize Peterloo. It was an impossible task and en route the most right-wing faction, headed by Lord Grenville, broke away, giving their whole-hearted support to the Government. (Lord Liverpool found the support of his former adversary most comforting, as well he might.) Long-term this was an undoubted blessing for the Whigs. They had spent far too many years trimming their sails to the unstable whims of Grenville. Once this shackle was finally unchained, and they found they could survive without it, their traditional liberal tenets swam to the surface. But short-term Grey manoeuvred within the existing framework and was thereby considerably hampered. In addition to the strangling effects of the Grenvilleites and his other right wings, Grey had a further bit and bridle on his post-Peterloo activities. This was shared by everybody riding the Whig horse, himself most definitely included. It was a dislike and fear of the Radicals as great as the Government’s. If the Whigs tore too hard into the magistrates and Government’s conduct they might seem to be approving of, and thereby creating support for, the Radicals. Yet they had to condemn this conduct, so some over-lapping with the Radicals was inevitable. The Government, in its turn, was not slow to attack and condemn such association as political opportunism. Lord Chancellor Elden, wrote contemptuously: ‘They are fools enough to think they can overturn the administration with the help of the Radicals, and that they can then manage the Radicals’. This was not in fact Grey’s strategy. He aimed to attract support away from the Radicals and to overturn the Government without their help. And when the Radicals tiled to associate themselves with the Whigs they met short shrift. But because the focus of attention was Radically inspired, because of the inevitable overlapping, it was a difficult course for Grey to steer.

However, by September the Whig hedgehog was on the move. Meetings were organized to discuss the massacre, but great stress was laid upon the fact that there should be nothing in the conduct of the meetings to suggest an imitation of Hunts mass efforts. The most important Whig backed meetings were held at Norwich on September 23th, in York City on September 27th in York County on October 14th and in Durham County on October 21st, In Norwich, 2,626 people ‘exclusive of a list containing nearly 100 names which some malicious and evil disposed person has stolen from the Town House Tavern, signed and contributed to a subscription list for the Manchester sufferer&. The contributions ranged from £5 to 2d and the signatures included A Friend to Humanity, An Enemy to Despotism, A Friend to the Poor all over the world, A Poor Man, A Radical Reformer and A Cavalry Man Who Detests Murder. The York County meeting was graced by the presence of the Lord Lieutenant, Lord Fitzwilliam, and the Duke of Norfolk, among other notables. The tone of the speeches was as cautious as the general Whig attitude, particularly in regard to the magistrates’ conduct, which necessitated ‘a strict enquiry’ but nothing more censorious. On the less difficult ground of the throwing-out of the bills against the constables and the MYC, and the conduct of John Lees’s inquest (and the final quashing blow was yet to come), the attack was stronger. The presence of Lord Fitzwilliam did much to convince that section of popular opinion, which had not already been convinced, that Peterloo had been an outrage. For his attendance, for betraying the duties of his office, Fitzwilliam was dismissed from his Lord Lieutenancy. This action increased popular conviction that the Government was trying to disperse a nasty stench, and made him into a temporary hero: To the Whigs it appeared as further proof of the Government’s increasing despotism. Since when had England been a country only of the authorized version?

Apart from trying to associate themselves with Whig activities, the Radicals were busy of their own accord. They, too, held protest meetings, starting with one in Westminster on September 2nd. At this Sir Francis Burdett, hauled off his fence by Peterloo, was the main speaker. His theme was that the Manchester meeting had been entirely legal, that the crowd had been wantonly attacked, and that such attack was the natural consequence of a non-representative Parliament. It was from this meeting that the Metropolitan and Central Relief Committee, the most important of the relief organizations, emerged. Other meetings, attended by crowds of up to 50,000, were held in Paisley, Birmingham, Leeds and Newcastle.

In November the Radicals were strengthened by the return of one of their heaviest guns—William Cobbett. By October Cobbett had decided the hour had come for resettlement in his native land. Accordingly he booked a passage from the United States, the ship being due in Liverpool on November 20th. On receiving this great news the Manchester Radicals planned a grand reception. However, the magistrates stepped in immediately and, with strong ‘guidance from the Government, firmly. There were to be no more ‘unusual processions and multitudes of people’. On landing in Liverpool Cobbett was greeted by enthusiastic crowds and a strong warning to avoid Manchester. Wisely he accepted the warning and altered his route. There was an element of grisly farce attached to Cobbett’s return. With him from America he brought the bones of Tom Paine. The American authorities had refused to allow the body of Paine, the atheist revolutionary, to be buried in hallowed ground. Cobbett decided this was monstrous. He -also came to the conclusion that thousands of Englishmen would welcome the opportunity to pay homage at the shrine of the begetter of the Rights of Man. Accordingly he dug up the bones and brought them back to England. The first difficulty was encountered at the Liverpool customs. It was with extreme reluctance that the customs officers allowed this peculiar piece of baggage entry. Having secured re-admission for Tom Paine, Cobbett found that nobody was interested in re-interring him. Over the years Cobbett tried to raise funds for a national mausoleum, and in the end his son finally sold the bones (for very little) when he was clearing his father’s debts. The whole subject became a macabre joke. Byron was among the many who joined in the black comedy:

In digging up your bones, Tom Paine,

Will Cobbett hath done well;

You’ll visit him on earth again.

He’ll visit you in hell.