The Ghosts of Peterloo

EP Thompson's landmark essay exonerating the Peterloo martyrs and incriminating the authorities.

Submitted by R Totale on August 25, 2019

The 150th anniversary of the massacre at St Peter’s Fields, in Manchester, on August 16 1819, saw the appearance of three new publications, two of which may be described as occasional. The first is a well-presented folder of plans, prints, and broadsides, prepared by the Manchester Public Libraries.

The second is a popular account (“the first book for the general reader”, as the blurb has it) by Miss Joyce Marlow. The bias of her book appears to be, like her maternal descent, of “Radical, Unitarian, small mill-owning stock”; and the general reader may sometimes find that her folksy narrative – “Bamford’s wife, Mima, a sterling character, made determined efforts to ascertain what had happened to ‘Our Sam…” – tends to cloy.

Miss Marlow offers some general background to explain what led up to Peterloo; this is second-hand and generally over-simplified. But her narrative of the events of the day itself is closely observed, well-written, and deftly employs a little original material. On this account her book deserves to find some readers; although the first book for the general reader must remain, as it has always been, Samuel Bamford’s Passages in the Life of a Radical.

Bamford’s evidence is not, of course privileged and beyond reach of examination. He was one of the crowd ridden down by Yeomanry and Hussars – a thing likely to induce bias in the victims. And he was later found guilty before a special jury at York Assizes for “assembling with unlawful banners, at an unlawful meeting, for the purpose of inciting the subjects of our lord the king, to contempt and hatred of the government”, and sentenced to one year’s imprisonment. This clear decision in an impartial court of justice suggests him not only as a biased but also as a compromised witness. No matter such as this escapes the watchful eyes of Mr Robert Walmsley.

Mr Walmsley’s Peterloo: The Case Reopened is not so much occasioned by the anniversary; it is, in itself, an occasion, and is – the blurb tells us – the “the fruit of half a lifetime’s research”. The 585 pages of this fruit swing from the impeccable bough of the Manchester University Press. Mr Walmsley, a Manchester antiquarian bookseller, first had his interest in Peterloo aroused some thirty years ago during the course of research into the family history of the Hultons of Hulton. William Hulton (1787 – 1864) was chairman of the magistrates who overlooked the field of Peterloo and gave to the Yeomanry the fatal order to advance.

In the course of his researches Mr Walmsley became convinced, not only that William Hulton had been unfairly treated by historians, but that he and his fellow magistrates were the victims of nothing less than a Radical conspiracy to falsify the events of the day – a conspiracy fostered by Hunt, Bamford and Richard Carlile, furthered by Archibald Prentice (author of Historical Sketches of Manchester) and John Edward Taylor (before he sobered down and founded the Manchester Guardian), and in which John Tyas (the correspondent of The Times who witnessed events from the hustings), the Rev. Edward Stanley, and dozens of others were witting or unwitting accessories – a conspiracy so compelling that even Donald Read, in his sober and by no means radical study of Peterloo (1958), failed to detect it.

It is necessary to make clear what Mr Walmsley’s book is not, as well as what it is. It is not a general interpretative account of Peterloo within its political or local background. Nothing is said of radicalism or reaction before January 1819; very little is said about the government of Manchester in 1819, or to explain the character, role, or reputation of such important acts as Joseph Nadin or Henry Hunt before they emerge on the 1819 stage. This is not a book for the general reader, unless he has taken the precaution of reading (at least) Bamford – or Prentice – and Dr Read beforehand. Nor is it, altogether, a book for the scholar, although it has competent scholarly apparatus, adequate footnotes and bibliography, and a very good index. It is not based on extensive newly discovered evidence, although Mr Walmsley introduces interesting new material from the Rev W R Hay (the prominent clerical magistrate), and from William Hulton himself. In particular there has been no new search of Home Office, legal, or military papers in the Public Record Office.

Mr Walmsley is interested, chiefly, in the events of the day of Peterloo, and even more closely in the events of one half-hour of that day – between 1.14 and 1.45 pm – from the time when Henry Hunt arrived on the hustings to the time when the field was empty of all but shawls, bonnets, sticks, and cavalry adjusting their saddle-girths. Obsessively he rides up and down that field and its environs, obsessively he rides up and down the five or ten minutes between the arrival of the Yeomanry at the edge of the field and the dispersal of the crowd, summoning witnesses in the newspaper press of the weeks following, dragging them back by their collars, making them pace over the yards before and behind the hustings, cross-examining reminiscences and confronting them with conflicting depositions, galloping off into the suburbs of the twentieth century to interrogate suspicious stragglers, lke F A Bruton, the author of the careful The Story of Peterloo (1919).

At the centre of the obsession is this: what happened on that day was unintentional, and the crowd (or part of it) was the first aggressor. The magistrates in their house overlooking the hustings were justly alarmed by the proceedings, both by tumults which had preceded August 16 and by the radical rhetoric and military array of the crowd on that day. With a nice sense of legalistic propriety, they waited until Hunt and his fellow speakers were on the hustings and then ordered the constables to arrest them; this Joseph Nadin, the deputy-constable, refused to do without military aid.

The magistrates sent for Yeomanry and Hussars, and the Yeomanry arrived first, fortuitously; the Yeomanry were ordered to support the constables in the execution of the warrant, and they advanced in reasonable order and without aggressive intention or action into the crowd; but the crowd then closed in upon them in a menacing manner and the Yeomanry were assailed, at some point close to the hustings, by brickbats and sticks hurled by a portion of the crowd. Most of the Yeomanry kept their heads until Hunt and his fellows had been arrested, and then, increasingly assailed by brickbats and hemmed in on all sides by a threatening crowd, were forced to beat off their attackers (with the flats of their sabres) in self-defence. The magistrates, observing their predicament in the midst of a threatening multitude, were forced to order the Hussars to come to their rescue and to clear the field. All followed on. And the radicals have made party-political propaganda out of their own aggression ever since.

Did the Yeomanry ride quietly up to the hustings to effect the arrests, or did they (as “radicals” mythologise) begin to strike out with their sabres from their first entry into the crowd? Were they attacked, before they reached the hustings, by sticks and brickbats? The overwhelming majority of witnesses to these events may be suspected of “prejudice”, as parties to the event, since the greater part belonged to the crowd who were ridden into, and the remainder belonged to the magistracy, special constables, and the Yeomanry who did the riding. Their evidence is not therefore worthless, since they were subject to cross-examination in the courts, and betrayed the customary signs of veracity or inconsistency.

However, historians, from 1819 until 1969, have attempted to simplify the extreme difficulties of sifting this evidence (and the reports of partisan newspapers on either side) by looking for witnesses who cannot be accused of belonging, in any obvious sense, to either contesting party. There are a few such observers: uncommitted and merely curious spectators on the fringes of the crowd. Householders whose windows overlooked the field. And (notably) several press reporters who were afforded places on the hustings – John Tyas of The Times, John Smith of the Liverpool Mercury, Edward Baines of the Leeds Mercury – and the Rev. Edward Stanley, a clergyman who had private business on that day with Mr Buxton, who owned the house which the magistrates chose as their headquarters, and who stayed on to observe the whole affair from a window directly above the magistrates.

Mr Walmsley’s infinitely nice legalisms and remorseless battering away at the evidence accusatory of the Yeomanry almost impels us to fall into the trap which he has spent half a lifetime in baiting. He almost succeeds in distracting our attention from the actual attack on the crowd, and the nature of that attack. Give or take some emphasis this way or that, the events that preceded this attack are as follows.

A peaceable and fairly good-humoured crowd was assembled, and Hunt began to address it. Immediately the magistrates sent for the Yeomanry to assist the civil power to arrest the speakers in the midst of the assembly. The Yeomanry – local shopkeepers, dealers, dancing-masters and the rest (several of whom were probably drunk) rode fast towards the hustings, fanning out in disorder among the crowd as they came up to it.

As they reached the thickest part of the crowd, the more disciplined or more humane probably only brandished their swords to make the crowd give way, but others struck out, and not only with the flats. The evidence of any brickbats being thrown at them until at least several minutes after they had reached and surrounded the hustings is excessively thin. Hunt – who until that moment had exerted himself for order and to prevent panic – was then arrested.

Up to that moment, the situation had still not passed beyond control, but simultaneously with that moment (Hunt disappeared as if he had been shot, said one witness) the cry went up from the Yeomanry – “Have at their flags!” – and the Peterloo Massacre really began. Some feeble attempts were made by the crowd to defend the costly embroidered banners and Caps of Liberty which the female reformers had worked over so carefully, and which the reformers had carried so many miles to the meeting. The Yeomanry struck out right and left and the special constables, not to be deprived of their share of the trophies of the field, joined in. The magistrates, seeing the Yeomanry in “difficulties”, ordered the Hussars to clear the field. On the edge of the field, some of the people, finding themselves still pursued, made a brief stand.

Mr Walmsley, who has so much to say about unidentified Stockport militants, has almost no comment to offer on this – a moment of unrestrained aggression which cannot by any special pleading be offered as self-defence. Nor is there much conflict of evidence about this, the real “flashpoint”. Scarlett, who led the prosecution against Hunt, remained unconvinced about any attack upon the Yeomanry until this moment, and declared in a subsequent parliamentary debate: “Had they [the Yeomanry] stopped then no real damage would have been done, but they then began to attack. Tyas reported:

“As soon as Hunt and Johnson had jumped from the wagon a cry was made by the cavalry, ‘Have at their flags’. In consequence, they immediately dashed not only at the flags which were in the wagon, but those which were posted among the crowd, cutting most indiscriminately to the right and to the left in order to get at them. This set the people running in all directions, and it was not until this act had been committed that any brickbats were hurled at the military. From that moment the Manchester Yeomanry Cavalry lost all command of temper.”

Not even Captain Birley, the scarcely impartial witness who commanded the Yeomanry on the field, disputed the fact of this attack on the flags. His account (through the medium of Lord Stanley) declared that, when the magistrates’ warrant had been executed,

“[c]onsiderable tumult prevailed, and a struggle ensued between the constables and those persons in the cart, who wished to save the caps of liberty, banners, etc. Some of those who resisted were taken into custody, and the soldiers cut with their sabres. In doing this, it was possible that some persons had been hurt, but not intentionally.”

It would perhaps be legalistic to point out that the magistrates’ warrant was for the arrest of Hunt and not of a Cap of Liberty. We are bereft of independent witnesses to describe the sensation of being “hurt, but not intentionally”, since neither Tyas (who himself had been arrested, in error) nor the Rev. Edward Stanley was fleeing on the field. We must, perforce, supply the hiatus in Mr Walmsley’s account, by drawing upon the evidence of some of these biased victims to describe the temper of these moments:

“William Harrison (cotton spinner): We were all merry in hopes of better times.
Coroner: Were you not desired to disperse?
Harrison: Only with the swords – nobody asked us to disperse – only trying to cut our heads off with their swords.”

“The soldiers began cutting and slaying,” went on Harrison, “and the constables began to seize the colours, and the tune was struck up; the all knew of the combination”. Amidst such music, few paused to distinguish between flats and sharps.

“Coroner: Did they cut at you near the hustings?
Harrison: No; as I was running away three soldiers came down upon me one after another; there was whiz this way and whiz that way, backwards and forwards … and I, as they were going to strike, threw myself on my face, so that, if they cut, it should be on my bottom.
The Coroner: You act as well as speak?
Harrison: Yes; I’m real Lancashire blunt, Sir: I speak the truth; whenever any cried out ‘mercy’, they said ‘Damn you, what brought you here’.”

Another witness related how a special constable jumped on the hustings, “took up the President’s chair, and beat it about those who remained”. Some of the crowd, hemmed in on all sides by Yeomanry, crawled under the crats which formed the platform for the hustings. According to one witness, John Lees (who later died) was one of these:

“Jonah Andrew (cotton spinner): I saw several constables round him, and beating him with truncheons severely. One of them picked up a staff of a banner that had been cut with a sword, and said, ‘Damn your bloody eyes, I’ll break your back’.”

This “self-defence” was pursued by Yeomanry and specials to the edges, and beyond the edges, of the field. Hunt, as he was taken to the magistrates’ house, ran the gauntlet of special constables’ batons, and (according to an independent witness, J B Smith): “General Clay with a large stick struck him over the head with both hands … The blow knocked in his hat and packed it over his face.” Even in the side streets around the field the cavalry pursued the people, cutting at them and saying, “Damn you, I’ll reform you”; “You’ll come again, will you?”

Outside one house in Windmill Street, “special constables came up in great triumph, before my door, calling out: ‘This is Waterloo for you! This is Waterloo!’.”

Mr Walmsley is of course wrong to suppose that the sober accounts of Peterloo by Bruton and Read represent, even if unwittingly, a perpetuation of the “radical” myth. A radical interpretation of the day, derived in part from witnesses such as those just quoted, would be far more savage than anything published since Bamford or Prentice. It would see it as a clear moment of class war. Nor were the warriors only on the side of the magistracy.

If Mr Walmsley had examined the Home Office papers, he would have found evidence that both before the day (among those drilling on the moors) and afterwards (among those threatening vengeance) there were indeed most unpacific “militants” among the reformers. Bamford was – at least after Peterloo – very probably among them, although he gives himself a more sober character in his reminiscences. If the report of a spy is to be credited, he was still, three months later, venting his feeling in revolutionary rodomontade, and giving in tavern the toast: “May the Tree of Liberty be planted in Hell, and may the bloody Butchers of Manchester be the Fruit of it!” As late as April 1820, there was a fierce tavern brawl in Oldham between soldiers and townsmen, when one of the latter proposed the toast: “May the skin of every loyal man be taken off his back and made into parchment to beat the Reformers to arms!”

Undoubtedly among the huge crowd which assembled on that day there were some who felt obscurely that something large might come of it, and come suddenly to the raising of the poor and the throwing down of the rich. As one of the contingents marched in that morning, they passed Roger Entwisle, an attorney and clerk to the race-course, and later a witness against Hunt: “Thou hast got a good coat to thy back”, one of the marchers shouted, “but I shall have as good a one as thee before tonight is over.”

All this was around, before and after Peterloo. But on the day itself the vast crowd was, definitively, under Hunt’s control and subjected to his egotistical but emphatically constitutionalist strategy. He had spent the previous week in Manchester, seeing some of the leaders of contingents, and ensuring that his orders for peace and discipline were understood and would be obeyed. They were obeyed, and women and children came with the men upon the field. Hence Peterloo was not only a massacre, but a peculiarly cowardly one.

Miss Marlow had discovered letters of Major Dyneley, who commanded the two field-pieces which were held in readiness in the wings on the day: “The first action of the Battle of Manchester is over”, he wrote, “and I am happy to say has ended in the complete discomfiture of the Enemy.” He had been “very much assured to see the way in which the Volunteer Cavalry knocked the people about during the whole time we remained on the ground: the instant they saw ten or a dozen Mobites together, they rode at them and leathered them properly.”

A radical interpretation, however, would re-examine with the greatest scrupulousness those parts of the received account which exonerate from blame in these events, not only the government but also the magistracy; or which assume that the magistracy were guilty only of panic or ill-judgement, and that once they had sent the Yeomanry upon the field, all happened fortuitously. Both Prentice and J E Taylor offered arguments against this at the time. The official Papers Relative to the State of the Country, published by government in November 1819, and offering a selection of the letters of magistrates to the Home Office, depositions, etc, should be regarded as being just as much a party statement – and should be examined as scrupulously – as any radical account.

Historians have not, generally, done this; although the Papers were selected and published in order to prevent any parliamentary enquiry; the information (Lord Liverpool admitted privately) “may be laid safely, and much more advantageously, by Government directly rather than through the medium of any committee”. Many of the questions asked by J E Taylor in his brilliant and scathing Notes and Observations, Critical and Explanatory on the Papers Relative to the Internal State of the Country (1820) have never found a satisfactory answer.

These questions are of the order most difficult to resolve; questions of intention – did the magistrates intend beforehand that an armed dispersal should take place? – and of complicity – did Sidmouth (the Home Secretary) assent to, or know of, any such intention? Mr Walmsley himself quotes important passages from a private, justificatory account which the Rev. W R Hay drew up for Sidmouth on October 7th 1819, and which was hitherto unpublished. In this he described the actions of the select committee of magistrates which was in almost continuous session in the days leading up to August 16:

“The Committee continued to meet, and did so on Saturday, [August] the 14th, Sunday and Monday. Prior to the Saturday, different points had been discussed as to the propriety of stopping the Meeting and the manner of doing so. They were of the opinion that Multitudes coming in columns with Flags and Marching in military array were even in the approach to the Meting a tumultuous assembly; and it was for a little time under consideration whether each Column should not be stopped at their respective entrances into the Town, but this was given up – It was considered that the Military might then be distracted and it was wished that the Town should see what the Meeting was, when assembled, and also that those who came should be satisfied they were assembled in an unlawful manner.”

“Being satisfied”, the account continues, “that in point of Law [the Meeting] if assembled as it was expected, would be an illegal Meeting, we gave notice to Lieut-Col L’Estrange … of our wish to have the assistance of the Military on the 16th.”

This is a clear enough statement of the magistrates’ intention, although it does not amount to proof. It is abundantly evident that magistrates and military had a contingency plan for dispersing the meeting; and, at the very least, it would appear that Sidmouth was informed of this plan, from a letter in the Home Office papers dated August 18, in which Sidmouth conveyed to General Sir John Byng his satisfaction in the judgement of Colonel L’Estrange, the military commander on that day: “His Judgement has in Lord S.’s mind been evinced by his employing the Yeomanry in the Van agreeably to the Plan on which I know intended to act.” A contingency plan, it is true, does not amount to a fully-proven intention, even when the first part of it – the assembling of the military forces – is put into effect.

But there is altogether too much circumstantial evidence, as well as rumour, circulating on the Sunday and the Monday morning, to allow one to discount the possibility of such a fully-formed intention: the clearing of the field by the authorities, early on Monday morning, of all stones: the industrious preparation by the magistrates of depositions from prominent citizens that they were alarmed by the banners and military array of the crowd: the rumours such as those which reached the ears of J E Taylor:

“early in the forenoon on August 16th persons supposed to be acquainted with the intentions of the magistrates distinctly asserted that Mr Hunt would be arrested on the hustings, and the meeting dispersed. I myself was more than once told so, but could not conceive it possible …”

The fact that such rumours (and, perhaps, specific instructions) were well-known to the friends of authority can be detected in the evidence of an “official” witness, Roger Entwisle, the attorney, in the unschooled days of the Oldham inquest, held soon after Peterloo, when under cross-examination by Mr Harmer (on behalf of the family of John Lees):

“Q: Now, how is it, Sir, that after all your dreadful apprehensions of danger you go immediately into the midst of it [the meeting]?
A: I was close to the special constables all the time. I was well aware that there was an understanding between the military and civil power, and that they would not act against the civil power – (hesitatingly) – I mean, that they would not act unless there was occasion.
Q: Oh! Then, you knew there was an understanding between the military and civil power, did you?
A: I knew that the special constables were to be upon the ground, and I knew that as long as I was with them I should not suffer. I knew they were to be there, and I saw them come close in.
Q: Who told you of the arrangement, upon your oath?
A: I saw the arrangement. I knew they were summoned to meet in the morning.
Q: Where did you say the arrangement was made between the military and special constables?
A: Why I knew the military would be – No, I did not say an arrangement between the military and the civil power.”

The counsel acting for the authorities extricated, for a time, the twisting and turning Entwisle. But Mr Harmer, many pages afterwards, switched back to the point:

“Q: Well then I will ask you no more. Stop, I will just ask you now, whether the understanding that you have talked of, was not that the people were to be dispersed?
A: No. I heard of no understanding of that. It was merely from common report, that I heard the understanding was, the civil power was to be there; and if they could not disperse them, the military were to do it.
Mr Harmer (to the Witness) – Well, I shall ask you no more questions, Sir.”

The intention was expressed, the contingency plan was prepared, the military forces were assembled, the rumour sand more-than-rumours were circulating: and yet we are still invited to believe that the dispersal of the crowd was fortuitous, and that the magistrates determined to send cavalry into the midst of it to arrest the speakers because one Richard Owen, a pawnbroker, swore an affidavit that Hunt had arrived and that “an immense job is collected and he considers the town in danger”. (The affrighted Richard Owen, in his alternating role as a special constable, is supposed to have signally distinguished himself on the field by capturing the black flag of the Saddleworth contingent – “Equal Representation or Death” – the mere sight of which so many official witnesses at subsequent proceedings testified as having thrown them into consternation and alarm.)

There is a simpler explanation than Mr Walmsley’s for Peterloo. There was a plan. It was put into operation. The magistrates knew, for some hours, and perhaps days, before Hunt arrived on the hustings, what they intended to do; the special constables were expecting the arrival of the Yeomanry; the Yeomanry did, on the field, very much what was expected of them, although neither as efficiently nor as decorously as the authorities might have wished; and the regulars performed a part in which their officers (like Major Dyneley) were well versed.

This case has not been established, but it seems, at the least, open to enquiry. If established, it would not necessarily exclude the authorities from any larger historical defence. The magistrates were faced with a new phenomenon of which they had no understanding. The crowd was not attending a Whitsun walk nor even a miners’ gala. Its size, its discipline, its high morale, were ominous to the old order. Neither in the magistrates’ room nor in the crowd did men look forward complacently to 1832 and all that; it was more natural, in 1819, when two incompatible social forces confronted each other, to remember 1789.

Some such historical defence might be offered. Mr Walmsley, however, would not wish to offer it. His zealous partisanship is, in a serious sense, worthy of the Peterloo tradition; and his book, which has turned over the ground freshly, will certainly join the enduring literature of the event. But he cannot allow a line of investigation, nor even of defence, which must also show that Hulton of Hulton (who denied that the magistrates had any prior intention of dispersing the crowd) was a liar.

But Mr Walmsley, in his zeal, has provided evidence for this as well. William Hulton had some sort of stiffening about him which some of his fellow magistrates lacked – an absence of humanitarian cant and a contempt for general opinion. He offered no maudlin apologies for Peterloo; indeed, he later recalled it as the “proudest day” of his life, and many years afterwards he kept a Cap of Liberty, captured upon the field, in his study. A gentleman of Hulton’s breed and station does not lie; he merely has so great a hauteur, so great a distance between himself and the seditious plebs, that it is a matter of utter indifference to him whether this or that is true of them or not.

Twelve years after Peterloo, and after fact upon fact had been disputed for as long, Hulton could throw off a public letter containing a manifest farrago of mis-statements about the day – “two people were killed in St Peter’s Field – one, a woman, who having personated the Goddess of Reason, was trampled to death in the crowd … On the succeeding day, an old pensioner was beaten to death with portions of his own loom, because he had expressed a loyal attachment to the King.” He was as inflexibly convinced, in 1831 as he had been in 1817, that the defence of “this vast aegis” of our liberties required the hunting of Jacobins and the sharpening of swords.

The defeat of the Tories in South Lancashire in the Reform election of 1832 led only to an adjustment of tactics. “A few despondent individuals”, Hulton of Hulton later recalled, then met in a common pot-house in Newton-le-Willows: “It occurred to them that it was their duty to call up every friend to the monarchy and the Church to counteract the machinations of the enemies to both.”

As a result of that meeting, “the foundations of the South Lancashire Conservative Association were laid … and from that stem at Newton, Conservative associations had branched out all over Her Majesty’s dominions.” It is well to remember that British Conservatism has not only been made by the great, the well-endowed, the fluent. It has also had its stubborn, provincial grassroots.

This essay was originally published in People for the People (1973), a collection of essays edited by David Rubinstein and introduced by Michael Foot. It was then republished online in August 2019 by Tribune.