A Radio Four discussion by Melvyn Bragg and three historians about the Peterloo Massacre. The discussions attempts to show that bloody day in August 1819 in the context of growing social and political tension and resistance. As such it also covers other personalities and events both before and after Peterloo that are often overlooked.
Note: Melvyn Bragg interrupts a lot in this segment and often appears to do so without a fully formed question in mind. So, I've dealt with this in two ways, either typing out what I believe he meant to say based on the context of the discussion and the replies, or failing that cut out the interruptions.
In addition while this talk on Peterloo is important particularly as it relates the other events of political and economic change that surround the meeting on St. Petersfield it does still contain some myths which I've decided to respond to via footnotes.
coordinated European opposition to Napoleon, but at home he repressed the
reform movement and popular opinion held him responsible for the Peterloo massacre
of peaceful demonstrators in 1819.
outrage and condemnation of the government’s role in the massacre.
children in St. Peters Field Manchester turn into a bloodbath? How were the
stirrings of radicalism in the wake of the Napoleonic wars dealt with by the
British establishment and what role did the Peterloo massacre play in bringing
about the Great Reform Act of 1832?
of History at the University of Exeter, Sarah Richardson Senior Lecturer in
history at the University of Warwick and Clive Emsley Professor of History at
the Open University.
time of great anxiety for the British government and the spectre of descent and
so on. We can trace it back, I know you historians want to back to Adam, but let’s
start with the French Revolution in 1789 and kick that off into what we’re
going to talk about.
members of the British establishment because there is a comparable movement of
British radicalism which looks to France for inspiration. Though in part that
movement is actually indigenous and looks back to earlier British traditions.
Britain goes to war with Revolutionary France in 1793, and the war goes badly. And
in the context of an unsuccessful war in the context of anxiety about
radicalism at home and indeed in Ireland as well, there’s the growing use of
what according to some commentators is repression against signs of radicalism. And
that in a way provides the context, the long context for Peterloo.
Treasonable Practises Act, we have Seditious Meetings Act. I mean really
ferocious suppression of any sort of free speech, any real assembly, any
written work. At the same time to be fair one has to say that the government
was terrified that they were going to be invaded by the powerful French, that
they were going to be overturned, the Monarchy wrecked, the whole system would
be wrecked, so there was a real threat. We can look back now and say oh the Liberals-
a really serious threat going on.
important point on which historians are very divided. Um, historians are very
divided as to the extent to which the governments sentiments rested also on a
wide springing of a popular conservatism.
and they’re being held down by a brutal and oppressive government. Such an you
know that that’s not the case. There is an important populist radical stream
and there’s an important populist conservative stream. And both of them
actually interact right through the end of the 18th and the early 19th
Richardson can you tell us about the ideological impact of the French
Revolution, develop what Jeremy said into works which were around at the time,
I’m thinking principally of say Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man.
is extremely influential, it encapsulates this concentration on universal rights,
so ties in with this idea of reform. I think that whilst Jeremy’s right that
some of the traditions of radicalism go back, the emphasis is coming out of the
Enlightenment and ideas to do with what’s happening in France are about universal
rights, rights for everybody. Rights that don’t rely on Aristocracy, don’t rely
on birth, don’t rely on income but the rights that you were born with, and this
is something that clearly the working-class radical movements pick up on.
but you can please bring along another writer- he’s very useful and also
important in America and in France as well as in this country. The idea of
rights was in itself we just – listeners might just thing well there you are-
but it was a radical idea wasn’t it, you didn’t have power because of privilege,
you didn’t have power because of divine right, had rights because you were a human
being born, where by being born were given you.
of political rights and civil rights this is a very radical idea. The British
constitution is really based on property, on the idea that interests are
represented that people aren’t represented, numbers aren’t represented but interests
are represented and you are represented virtually by the fact that in Parliament
for example you have members from across the country, they’re not necessarily
voted in by the whole population but they are representing that population via
Parliament of people.
sweep that system away that individuals have rights, that you should be able to
participate as a citizen in the country and voting rights are one aspect of
that, that can be recognised.
the events at Peterloo? Peterloo 1819 war finishes 1815, big industrial unrest started
before that. You have the Luddites and then the Blanketeers marching, smashing
machines, resenting the fact that machines were taking away their jobs and
children and women and so on. And I mean anti Industrial Revolution turning
into political action especially up in the north.
industrial, and in some way quite conservative in resisting change that clearly
this feeds into the political unrest, the fact that these people have no
rights, they’re not represented, their interests aren’t being represented
meetings against the Acts that have been put in -as Jeremy said in the beginning-
during the French wars.
this context, because its one of the largest protests in the country, around 10,000
people and its just a couple of years before Peterloo in 1817. And again, the
magistrates send in soldiers to stop this march. That the Manchester textile
workers are trying to organise a march to London to present a petition to the
Prince of Wales, Prince Regent to ask him to intervene in the economic
distresses in the country.
wars and about the appetite for radical politics, how were they surviving when
habeas corpus was suspended, when the Treason Acts and so forth. How were they
how do they keep going?
talking. And it… part of the radical movement does appear to go underground,
there is an interesting debate among historians, I mean no one is quite agreed
on the extent to which English radicalism is almost entirely constitutional and
uhh the alternative view is that there is an extremely strong underground revolutionary
element within English radicalism.
now, we have this sort of Constitutional element which we’ll be coming to at
Peterloo, and then we have the real revolutionaries and it could be suggested
that there were before Peterloo there were a couple of attempts at which could
be called revolution in this country.
1790’s. There looks to be a group of individuals who are working towards a
revolution within the country in the late 1790s. in 1801 you get the conspiracy
of Colonel Despard, who was a comrade in arms of Nelson but is executed with
several members of the Guards for attempting to kill the King, or at least that
was the story.
sort but you get Luddism. And Luddism is infected with these radical ideas or
would seem in certain areas to be infected with the radical political ideas and
that’s an interesting new departure, that you have industrial action linked
with political ideology.
response is to send troops. Thousands and thousands of troops are deployed in
Nottinghamshire and in the Yorkshire area, so in the absence of a major police
force, I mean this is the pre age of –
of troops against what appears to be this umm working-class movement which has a
political tinge which they don’t understand.
Manchester Patriotic Union society, and given what happened, given what became
thought of by some as terrible, they the Manchester Patriotic Union Society
called this meeting and at the end of their meetings they sand Rule Britannia
and God Save the Queen, which might surprise somebody thinking this was a bunch
of terrible radicals. Can you just tell us what they were after? This outfit
the Manchester Patriotic Union Society?
on the political agenda. As we’ve seen the government shows no interest in
advancing, - it’s a Tory government they’re interested in repressing this sort
of move they’re not interested in legislating or changing anything. So they’re
trying to use numbers, they’re trying to use peaceful protest, and they’re trying
to raise consciousness by inviting important speakers like Hunt, also John
Cartwright whose another leading radical to try and spread the message so it’s,
they’re really trying to get reform on the agenda.
monarchy, to get it into a particular local context you have this booming city,
a massive city of Manchester, with no representation in Parliament whatsoever,
and you have a couple of houses, literally a couple of houses in Wiltshire
which sends up an MP. So this is, this is what they’re on about. Clive Emsley
one of the members of the Manchester Patriotic Union Society spoken of was
Henry Hunt, can you tell us something about him?
Wiltshire farmer a real John Bull character, famous for his pugilism. And he’s
a fantastic speaker, and can hold a crowd and convince a crowd and has
reputation as the finest radical orator in the country. That’s the reason why if
you want to get a mass meeting then you get orator Hunt with his big white top
hat to come and address them.
hunting, shooting, farming, fishing John Bull man going to Manchester, he went
there to address them on what were then thought to be radical though
other radicals, this underground revolutionary element is continuing at the
same time. And Hunt knows them and certainly in London he is involved in a
meeting at the end of 1816 which leads to serious disorder. But Hunt actually
manages to control the bulk of the crowd while the extremists are all for
storming the tower.
before him of radicals who want to work within the system to reform it, and
many of whom are strong in the north and its no accident that the major
reforming movement of the 1780s is the Yorkshire Association. The north of England
has a very powerful reforming-the constitutional reforming tradition.
with the magistrates, they were going to be on St. Petersfield, we’re told that
up to 50,000 people turned up, there are masses of eye witnesses, it was
massively reported. They got their on the day in their best clothes as we
understand, which is a factor because this is a celebration, and they were told
no weapons and so on.
through to the speeches and then what happened?
50,000 people by midday and another 10,000 people by an hour later. The magistrates
are watching, there are a number of middle class commentators are also
watching. But its fair to say the majority of the people almost all the people
in the square are working class. Who’ve come there in their best clothes to listen
to the speakers and peacefully.
the speakers arrive and there’s a platform at one end, they’re taken towards
the platform in order to begin their speeches about 1:30.
Manchester Female Patriotic Union called Mary File, which is the female reform
movement that’s set up, there’s a number of these set up around the country. So,
women are important as participants in the crowd, but also speakers, she’s up
on the platform with Hunt and Carlile and other leading Manchester radicals. And
the press is there, the Times has sent its reporter, the local press are there
so they’re also in the square.
Manchester is in great danger and there’s going to be disorder so they decide
to send the police in to arrest the speakers. The police turn to the magistrates
and say we can’t go in unaccompanied we need soldiers, so you have the Manchester
and Salford Yeomanry who’ve been set up I think after the Blanketeer protests and
Manchesterers wanted their own local militia partly as Jeremy said because there’s
no police force so therefore, they want their own militia in order to control disorder.
Hussars as well around there backing them up. So, they send the soldiers in,
the crowd resist and try and stop them from getting to the platform, link arms.
And that’s when they get the sabres out, the horses out and basically slash
down the crowd and kill a number of people, official estimates say eleven but-
out by Michael Bush says that they’ve done the sums again and that its
seventeen and over six hundred wounded.
you tell us a little bit more about that and what was their relationship with
the Hussars, the regimental cavalry that backed them up, these men some of whom
had fought at Waterloo? Actually, some of the people who had been killed fought
at Waterloo as well. Its all very complicated, just tell us about the Yeomanry
and then what part the Hussars play.
mistake, because the Yeomanry were generally speaking Millowners or the sons of
Millowners or farmers the sons of farmers. These were, these were local
volunteers who trained once a month or whatever. And this is, this is almost a
kind of manifestation of class war. Because these are people who employ the
individuals in the crowd. And so sending those individuals into the crowd who
are not as well trained by any stretch of the imagination as the regular
cavalry, with this potential for class hostility was an astonishingly stupid
thing to do.
was very interesting, the Hussars the professionals, the regimentals, deeply disapproved
of what the Yeomanry did.
lieutenant Joliffe wrote an account in which he describes, and indeed The Times
reporter describes the Yeomanry cavalry cheerfully sabreing people and the
regular cavalry being ordered not to do that, specifically not to do that.
problem for the soldiers of sitting on a horse in a very dense crowd, and
certainly the regulars were told to use the flats of their blades, so they’re
having to control their horses with their left hand, and twist their wrist
given the structure of a sabre grip, twist their wrists to bring down the flat
of the blade.
can slice an ear or whatever but an extremely difficult thing to do even for a
good swordsman on a horse.
there, and they were arrested and rather surprisingly the journalist from The
Times was arrested- that wasn’t surprising, what was surprising was that the
editor of The Times went through the roof and insisted on publishing everything
he could about how black a day it was, and this was very influential, can you
talk us through that?
isn’t a conservative establishment in which everyone has the same opinion. I mean
The Times is a conservative newspaper but it is equally horrified at what is
going on as a lot of reformers are. The newspapers reported it fully, they
brought home to a national and indeed international audience because people
abroad were able to understand what had happened by reading the London newspapers
that something had happened in the provinces.
the 18th century the reporting in the London press, the national
press of what happened in the provinces was generally quite small, quite modest
and by having reporters actually physically there, you know these are early
days for having newspaper reporters, most newspapers had no reporters they
essentially just used cut and paste, taking reports from other newspapers
elsewhere. By actually sending reporters by actually then when their reporters
got arrested taking local Manchester press reports-
and published them through the London press they made Peterloo- I mean Peterloo
anyway was very important- but they made it an incredibly totemic moment
through the newspapers.
then which, which had an importance?
Oh yes absolutely, I mean for one thing it provokes extremist radicals, it also
it embarrasses a lot of the conservative establishment. And I think the
government is in a bit of a quandary, I mean what, what can we really do about
this? We’re scared about the potential for some form of insurrection, some
extreme radicalism. But we can’t start criticising our magistrates, or
prosecuting our magistrates.
also a very serious impact on the well even on members of the Manchester
Yeomanry cavalry. Less than ten years after leading the cavalry, the Manchester
Yeomanry cavalry a cotton manufacturer HH Burleigh is actually calling for
Parliamentary reform at a mass meeting in Manchester. Which is an interesting volte
crudely and I do apologise won. Henry Hunt in the white top hat the John Bull,
two and half years in prison, Richard Carlile newspaperman six years in prison.
His wife kept on publishing his newspaper, she’s put in prison while pregnant
for two and a half years, his sister she’s put in prison for two and a half
years. So, in that sense the clampdown continues.
suppression of the press because trials were published and therefore there’s a
further inflammation of public opinion from his trial. Tell us about that
one of the few people that escapes from Peterloo, from the square. He manages
to get to London, he’s harboured by local radicals and then he gets to London
an account in his own newspaper. He gets six years as you say where Henry Hunt
gets two and a half, because he is prosecuted for publishing seditious libel. And
is an incredibly important piece of political theatre, I think. Because one of
the things he does in his trial for example is read out Tom Paine’s Age of Reason because trials can be
reported verbatim and while you cannot publish accounts of Peterloo without
being chucked in prison or arrested-
lot of censorship and the government introduces six Acts after Peterloo in
order to further repress the press.
repression were introduced as a result of Peterloo.
on newspapers, to try and tax them out of existence. So, you’re driving the
radical press underground.
stanzas from a very long poem by Shelley, he’s over in Italy, and he gets word
of it he really wakes up and dashes it off. He writes it in 1819 but its censored
until 1832, but did it have any effect? Is he engaging yet another constituency
with this? Presumably it was passed around.
opinion is helped by responses such as Shelley’s to feel that the government system
in some way is corrupt. I mean in practical terms there are very serious issues
in British society, I mean how do you manage economic difficulties, how do you
manage political change, and sometimes the emotional response isn’t always
emotional response because it was such an appalling mishandling of a situation.
And I, I mean looking forward the, the climate of opinion helps to make it very
very difficult, to defend what increasingly to many people seems to be
indefensible. Which is the political system which is the representational
aftermath of Peterloo if you look is that actually the government gets its way.
I mean people say oh sorry oh dear oh dear, but there are six Acts that come
in. Tax the newspapers out of existence, absolutely no meetings whatsoever,
tying everybody’s hands, and then it isn’t as if Peterloo’s the end of something,
could be said to be the beginning of something, because a year later we have
the Cato street conspiracy. Just tell us why that was important Clive.
celebratory welcome for him, and the extremists with whom he’d had these slight
links in 1816 and 1817 who went by the name of the Society of Spencean Philanthropists.
They followed a kind of proto Communist Newcastle schoolmaster called Tom Spence,
who felt everyone should get back to the land and we should stop all this
industrialisation and there should be equality.
son and a former militia officer called Arthur Thistlewood. And these people
have already attempted at least one coup d’état, and after Peterloo they are
incensed and say something must be done.
massacre brought reform, but its 13 years before there’s reform which actually
carries on the theme that the governments still in charge. The Whigs are an absolutely
rotten opposition, Tories got Wellington their great Icon and despite how much
he might have been disliked so very quickly Jeremy, so sorry we’ll have to do
this bit again some other time. Why did it take so long to get to the Great
Reform Act which wasn’t all that great anyway when you think about it, but
still why did it take so long?
important conservative populist side which we haven’t talked about, second of
all because the radicals and reformers are divided and third of all because
what historians need to do is look at processes as well as structure. Structure
demands change as it were but the process of getting change is much much more
complicated. Incidentally it leads to a whole lot of big riots. Peterloo was
not a riot the riot was by the Yeomanry, the riot was actually by the Yeomanry,
but there are big riots in the 1830s in Bristol and in Nottingham by pro
reformers and that is very interesting because the relationship there between
popular activism and for political change is a complex one.
going to introduce change, and the basic fact is the Whigs are not in power,
they’re the only party that is going to embrace any sort of change and so that
is the straight answer why you don’t get reform until the 1830s.
can you just amplify that into two paragraphs?
and the idea of the English Constitution, still being generally speaking
superior and the English being superior to everybody in Europe.
is absolutely right, Whigs aren’t in power, Tories aren’t going to introduce
it. No two ways about it and as you say 1832 is not I mean people think of it
in the 19th century as a great reform act, the practicality is that
most males still don’t have the vote, women of course don’t have the vote and
its only some parliamentary boroughs that get the vote. Though Manchester crucially
number of males lose the vote in 1832. Which is something that is conveniently
forgotten very often, in the notion of a progressive linear development in the
vote in British society.
about that stampede, there you go, Sarah Richardson, Clive Emsley and Jeremy
Black thank you very much indeed and next week we will be talking about Heaven.
1: There is a myth about Waterloo that lays the blame for the violence squarely on the shoulders of the Yeomanry, a volunteer militia while laying praise on the regular military for discipline and restraint. There is strong evidence that individual members of the Hussars and infantry behaved more humanly, Lieutenant Joliffe whose account was very important in exposing the establishments version of events as largely fictitious also contains references to the army attacking and dispersing the crowd.
the Hussars ... however, the far greater amount of injuries were from the
pressure of the routed multitude." Burton Three Accounts of Peterloo 1921
Additionally many of the wounds in the casualty lists included blows to the head from special constable truncheons or bayonets which were used exclusively by the regular infantry.
2: I don't understand the point that's attempting to be made here, first the number of slashing wounds recorded and eye witnesses show that most Hussars seem to have ignored this order. Second, using the flat of blade while very difficult is not a benevolent act. In addition to the conceded dangers of the edge of the sabre, cavalry sabres had weight to them so even if a person is not cut by a blow from a sabre the act of being struck is still highly injurious.
3: Generally speaking the more outspoken reforming MPs tended to be Whigs, and it would be a Whig government that passed the Reform Act of 1832. However this was far from unanimous, much of the opposition to the Six Acts by Whig MPs was less concerned with civil liberties and more motivated by fears of it enflaming insurrection. And the prosecution at the trial of the Peterloo speakers was one James Scarlett a Whig MP.