In this show we are going to cover one of the key events in the lead into the period of Victoria’s life. It was very much a pebble that started a landslide throughout the Victorian era. We will be talking about Manchester and the Peterloo massacre.
The United Kingdom in 1819 was not a happy place. In fact it teetered on the brink of disaster. If you’ve listened to my episodes on the year without summer 1816, and heard about the climate disasters that caused food shortages and famines world wide, then you will know that not only was Britain struggling with a post Napoleonic War slump, but it was doing it during a period massive climate disturbance. Against the backdrop of all the daily struggles, a historic even occurred. The notorious Peterloo Massacre.
Against the backdrop of all the struggle, a historic event occurred. The notorious Peterloo Massacre. Food rioting had continued since 1816 as desperate people tried to get food. Remember when I say desperate, I mean really desperate because they and their families were literally starving to death with no prospect of employment, and when I say people I mean huge portions of the population.
There was a popular song written in the 1820’s called “Hand Weavers Lament” sung quite often by the Lancashire weavers that captures the feeling of the masses during the period up to 1830. [QUOTE] You gentlemen and tradesmen, that ride about at will, Look down on these poor people; its enough to make you chill, Look down on these poor people, as you ride up and down. I think there is a God above will your pride quite down. Chorus You tyrants of England, your race may soon be run.You may be brought to account for what you’ve sorely done. You pull down our wages, shamefully to tell. You go into markets and say you cannot sell and when that we do ask you when these bad times will mend. You quickly give an answer ‘when the wars are at an end’ [END QUOTE]
Well the wars were over, but times were desperately hard for nearly everyone outside the upper class, or the upper middle class. The climate disaster caused by Mt Tambora and the post war economic collapse had left people utterly destitute.
The problems in British society were more deep rooted. The main view people usually have when they talk about the industrial revolution is that everyone except a few aristocrats started out poor, but then the industrial revolution happened and everyone got richer. If pressed they might say that perhaps people working in the factories had it hard, but in the end everyone was better off. This kind of fits with the history as an upward progress view that a lot of people have. You know the kind you see on the wall chart at school. We start off with the stone age, and they are really badly off and it is terrible, then comes the farmers and everyone is better fed, then the Egyptians and this people from the bible with the complicated names, and then there’s the Greeks and Romans and things get really good, and those ungrateful barbarians ruin it all for everyone, but then we get to the middle ages and the Reneissance, and then the enlightenment which is when we doing amazing science, then the industrial revolution happens and everyone gets better food and clothes, then we get the craziness of WW1 and WW2, then we finally get to now at the top of the chart.
As you carry on listening to this show you will start to notice how silly this wall chart really is. History isn’t a march of progress, although a lot of Victorians might have claimed it was. Instead, the chart we talked about is really showing a history of the development of technology. That’s fine, I’d accept that for most purposes the development of writing is a really fantastic achievement and the phonetic alphabet is superior to the hieroglyphic one. The problem with this chart, is it really doesn’t take account of individuals and what we might call everyday realities. Think of history as more like a tide coming in on a beach in a cove. Most of the time, the tide is coming up the beach, so it is rising, but sometimes the waves retreat a little bit more than the previous waves did. Perhaps some of the tide washes over a beloved sandcastle and cuts some people off from shore. At the end of the day the tide is in, the fishing boats can go out and everyone is basically better off, but a few trapped people drowned along the way.
Maybe not my best metaphor, but I think you can see why the wall chart is a bit off. What I’m saying is that even if society appears better off, it doesn’t mean individuals or even huge numbers of people in society can’t be worse off even as technology improves. A lot of it depends on your perspective. For those of us living in the modern Western World (including Australia) looking back, the industrial revolution was great, we got railways, refrigeration, modern medicine, mass education and sanitation, but those weren’t immediate or universal. Plus we also got unbelievably deadly weapons by historical standards. Guns like the Martini Henry, effective out to 400 yards firing 12 rounds a minute. That was welcomed by the Victorian British soldier, but it brought deaths to tens of thousands of people around the world. The views of a Native American or the Australian Indigenous people’s on how the wall chart really looked, and where they appeared on it, would be very different.
I’m going to quote from historian E.P.Thompson on how uneven the gains of the industrial revolution actually were [QUOTE] In fifty years of the Industrial Revolution the working class share of the national product had almost certainly fallen relative to the share of the property owning and professional classes. The average working man remained very close to subsistence level at a time when he was surrounded by the evidence of the increase national wealth, much of it transparently the product of his own labour, and passing, by equally transparent means, into the hands of his employers. In psychological terms this felt very much like a decline in standards. His own share in the benefits of economic progress consisted of more potatoes, a few articles of cotton clothing for his family, soap, candles, some tea and sugar and a great many articles in the Economic History review [END QUOTE]
Now as I’ve often said reality is far, far more complicated. Even if this linear progress view was right, it still meant upheaval for people swept along with the tide. But ask yourself, do you really think the bulk of the population knew about the macro economic changes, the future potential, or that they would have cared if they did, when they and their 8 year son were working 12 hour days for pennies in immensely dangerous conditions whilst their wives and daughters did piece work, scrimped and schemed to make tiny amounts of food last for weeks. In my view it is a persistent failure of economists that they can’t understand what is good for the wider economy can have no effect on large numbers of individuals. There was real anger out there in Britain in the period known as old corruption after the Napoleonic Wars. The pressure for reform was intense, but the resistance was stubborn.
Journalist William Hazlitt was vitriolic about the Tory government. I’m going to give you a quote of Hazlitt’s from the abridged quote in Simon Schama’s History of England. Hazlitt gave a scathing description of a Tory who was [QUOTE] a blind idolator of old times and long established customs…. A Tory never objects to increasing the power of the Crown, or abridging the liberties of the people, or even calls in question the justice or wisdom of any measure of government. A Tory never objects to increasing the powers of the Crown, or abridging the liberties of the people or even in calls in question the justice or wisdom of any measures of government. A Tory considers sinecure places and pensions as sacred and inviolable, to reduce or abolish which would be unjust and dangerous….accuse those who differ with him on political subjects of being Jacobins, revolutionaries, and enemies to their country. A Tory highly values a long pedigree and ancient families, and despises low born persons (the newly created nobility excepted), adores coronets, stars, garters, ribbons, crosses and titles of all sorts. A Tory deems martial law the best remedy for discontent….considers corporal punishment as necessary, mild and salutary, notwithstanding soldiers and sailors frequently commit suicide to escape from it, sees no hardship a persons being confined for that years in Fleet prison, on an allowance of 6p a day for contempt of the Court of Chancery. A Tory is averse to instructing the poor, lest they should be enabled to and reason and reads no poetry but birthday odes and verses in celebration of the battle of Waterloo. [END QUOTE]
There’s quite a lot of journalistic exaggeration in there, and as Schama rightly notes a lot of the Whig reformers could be pretty aristocratic. Plus Hazlitt was a man who went on a 4 day grief stricken bender when he heard Napoleon had lost Waterloo, so he’s not exactly unbiased when it comes to the establishment. What makes it so compelling is there are lots of sources that back a lot of this up. The Tory government, and the Prince Regent were dead set against any kind of reform.
So if you were a poor worker or unemployed soldier who sees that there is no way the government is going to bring in reforms to help, what do you do? Anger and frustration build up. What’s the old phrase of John F Kennedy’s? Those who make peaceful change impossible make violent revolution inevitable.
One of the places the dam was about to break was in Manchester. During the Victorian period it could rightly claim to have been one of the most important cities in the world. At the moment, all you need to know is that Manchester was becoming a mass industrial city, was experiencing colossal economic upheavals and massive unemployment, especially amongst the hand weavers & ex-soldiers, at a time when it was struggling to cope with mass immigration and huge urban growth.
Cotton from around the world flowed into Liverpool docks and then into Manchester. India, America, or Egypt all sent cotton to Manchester where it was transformed by the great engines of industry – machine and human. Washing, bleaching, spinning, dying, packing. Manchester had an unquenchable thirst for cotton to feed its machines. That thirst stretched to humans to run the factories and mills, in conditions that were slavery in all but name. Like any boom town, it grew and grew. Farm houses and fields were buried under urban sprawl. Hills were flattened, and trees felled. Maps could barely keep up with the changes. Poor Irish mingled with desperate English labourers. They were joined by Scots fleeing the Highlands or Glasgow, along with Greeks in the 1820’s and Italian’s in the 1840’s. In 1801 it was the second largest city in the United Kingdom. Urban planning and sanitation was completely absent. Levels of squalor amongst the poor were shocking. It was the very definition of the boom town, one of the first in the world.
It is ironic to note that many major towns and cities were, according to Thompson, experiencing a decline in standards of planning, sanitation and overall quality of life compared to the early first wave of industrial development in the 1770s, and were markedly less wholesome than the country living patterns they replaced despite the rural poverty and hunger.
Machester was also experiencing religious upheaval with a huge mix of church of England and non-conformists butting heads. The non-conformists were typically Baptists, Quakers, Presbyterians, Unitarians and other dissenters. Often these religious networks helped industrialists make fortunes especially amongst the Quakers, who networked furiously. The downside of these tight knit religious groups was that they viewed success as coming from God, so therefore poverty was a result of sin or being pre-ordained by God, especially for the Calvinists. Some of more extreme non-conformists viewed long hours and long wages as a divine requirement, and Manchester suffered badly from a lack of public spaces like parks, gardens or public squares. This had the impact of making sanitation even harder and air quality lower, quite apart from making the lives of most citizens pretty bleak.
It was a deeply unsettled city and had experience riots and demonstrations since at least 1812 with little evidence of change for the better for the bulk of the population. The rich were becoming increasingly screened off from the poor, and had little knowledge of the hellish life in the slums and hidden courtyards. None of the rich had to queue for water from a public drinking tap whilst standing in an open sewer. Probably the tap was shared by several streets, and whilst you have to watch your children play in the garbage. Perhaps you can see why the army was such an attractive prospect after all.
But for the desperate people, there was hope. His name was actually Henry Hunt. Radical speaker. Champion of reform and the people. A wealthy gentleman farm, he was criticised by the establishment for his activism, and nearly everyone for his peacock like vanity, but no one on any side doubted his bravery or his gift for oratory. He was scheduled to speak at a rally in Manchester. The crowd were excited and chanted jaunty slogans like “Unity and Strength” and also “Liberty and Fraternity” but most provocatively of all to the establishment, “No corn laws” Many mothers and children were there, some luckier ones with food for picnics. Henry Hunt wasn’t the only reformer by any means. Church groups and workers groups were present. Some religious groups lined up with the establishment, whilst others sympathised with the poor. Strangely some of the establishment were more frightened if the great demonstration wasn’t a violent rabble, but a peaceful and well ordered one. It hinted to the establishment mind that the Waterloo veterans in the amongst the demonstrators had been drilling them in military training and that could only mean one thing..…revolution.
Naturally this caused the Manchester authorities to go into a panic. Because if there is one thing the British establishment have always hated, it is any suggestion that the population is entitled to protest. They were expected to bare their terrible situations with appropriate fortitude, keeping calm and carrying on, and not moan about starving to death and threaten their betters with disorder. This wasn’t a trivial point. It was a rigid cultural belief. As real to many as the notion of say the right to freedom of speech is today. The authorities believed in a hierarchy, usually with God and Monarchy at the top. To disturb that order, was to create anarchy and the kind of murder they associated with the middle ages and the French revolution, or to invite dictatorships in the style of Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte, or Tsar Alexander. If you are still struggling to get into the aristocratic mindset, you might like to think about the Samurai. Imagine you went in your time machine to convince a British aristocrat that there should be a labour rights movement, votes for all and the abolition of the old social order. He says the whole point of the restricted voting system is to prevent the population having a say because are a dangerous, uneducated, stupid mob who would vote to steal property without working for it, and ruin the country. You can’t get him to agree. Perhaps he keeps talking about the natural order of things, about breeding and class, and the need for an organised society based on custom. You perhaps experience the modern feelings of disgust?
Well now imagine you went to Japan in your time machine. You meet a young Samurai whose lord has told him he has shown cowardice in a conflict of some kind. You listen and it is a trivial fight in a village. The young Samurai was clearly outnumbered and it was sensible for him to back down. He insists that he has dishonoured his family and his Lord. He didn’t display adequate fortitude and his Lord has lost face, bringing great shame on his family. He is adamant that he will commit Sepuku and is grateful that his Lord is allowing him this honour to redeem himself with a good death.
To a modern person, it is crazy, we wouldn’t commit suicide just because we back down from a fight where we were outnumbered and sure to lose. But the young Samurai might reply “that’s because you are weak. Inferior. You have no concept of honour or loyalty or duty, or a good death.” A lot of modern people, especially if they watch martial arts movies and listen to podcasts, pretty much go “I don’t agree, but I accept that was the Samurai culture and it was very rigid and they weren’t going to give it up for anyone. I totally understand how this was part of their identity.” Yet those very same hypothetical listeners struggle with the idea that the world view of the British upper or middle class property owner of the early 1800’s was just as fundamental to him and he wouldn’t flex it anymore than the Samurai would. Now when you’ve got your head round that, you need to think how you would react if you lived in New York city and a group of ISIS supports announced they were going to have a march supporting the abolition of the US government and the establishment of a really hard line theocracy. And 60,000 of them are going to be turning up for this march. Because for the Manchester authorities and the wider establishment, that’s exactly what this protest felt like.
There’s a circular issued by the Methodist Committee that shows just this mindset, expressing [QUOTE] strong and decided disapprobation of certain tumultuous assemblies which have lately been witnessed in several parts of the country in which large masses of people have been irregularly collected (often under banners bearing the most shocking and impious descriptions) calculated both from the infidel principles the wild and delusive political theories and the violent and inflammatory declamations to bring all government into contempt and introduce universal discontent, insubordination and anarchy. [END QUOTE]
There’s one big difference though, and that’s the mindset of the Samurai was built around a really conservative philosophy. It was one that didn’t include a political system with checks and balances that was designed to provide mechanisms for social and legal change. The British system did have what you could call the safety valves of the enlightenment, freedom of the press, and the rule of law. Feudal Japan couldn’t create reformers like Henry Hunt or a free press, capable of changing the minds of the aristocracy and the establishment. Can you imagine 60,000 Japanese peasants turning up outside the Shogun’s castle or the Emperors Palace and demanding land reform? But in Britain there was a view that you certainly were allowed to do this kind of protest by long establish right and custom. The population felt their ancient liberties to assemble and protest weren’t being respected. Later, after Peterloo, at the trial of Henry Hunt, the Judge introduced proceedings by stating that the right of assembly and petition did exist, but it had to be done in a formal way and be called by the Lord Lieutenant of the County to present a petition to the King or Parliament. You can imagine how often that would happen in practice. He expressly stated that it couldn’t just be an assembly called by anyone, otherwise anyone could decide to assemble a group of protestors and that wasn’t constitutional; he made the comparison to ancient Athens and pointed out that yes the citizens certainly could assemble to discuss laws as per the Ancient Athenian constitution, but they didn’t let just everyone do it, why slaves were rightly excluded he chortled. I can’t imagine that made Henry Hunt feel reassured when the trial opened.
In the run up to the protest, one local magistrate, had written to the Home Office expressing his concerns about revolution and got this reply from Henry Hobhouse, under secretary at the Home Office [QUOTE] strongly confirms the opinion long held by his Lordship that your Country will not be tranquillised, until Blood shall have been shed either by the Law or the Sword. Lord Sidmouth will not fail to be prepared for either alternative, and is confident that he will be adequately supported by the Magistracy of Lancashire. [END QUOTE]
Throughout June the Home Office had been urging the magistrates to make mass arrests at protest meetings, but the magistrates seem to have been worried that mass trials would blow the cover of their net work of informants and sources. The Home Office was clearly getting exasperated at the lack of arrests, but the magistrates were in a serious bind. The meetings during June were all peaceful, with no weapons or incitements to violence or anything else that could justify arrests.
Minds made up, the local magistrate issued a warrant for Henry Hunts arrest. Now since this is before Sir Robert Peel formed the first police force, getting someone to perform the arrest was tricky. The local court staff and thief takers wouldn’t be up for the job in front of the huge crowd. The special constables sworn in weren’t going to be up to the job either. Instead they decided the best thing was to send in the yeoman cavalry. Naturally as this was a military deployment against unarmed civilians in a potentially tense situation, it would have to be handled delicately. Sadly for everyone, the situation at Peterloo was going to be very different from previous protests. The government had wanted to take a very strong line with the reform movement in Manchester, but the local authorities wanted to be even tougher than perhaps the government planned.
The problem the government and local authorities had is that they don’t have a police force in the way we understand it today. Instead there was a patchy arrangement of local constables, sworn in for specific events and perhaps local court officers and thief takers to back up the magistrates.
The city of Glasgow has established a actual police force in 1800, but it was tiny. Less than 100 men, and that was if you included the 68 back up city watchmen. The city of Manchester was huge and the demonstration was expected to be up to 60,000 people. That’s a huge number even for a modern police force. The special constables that the Manchester authorities appointed didn’t have access to the huge array of tools that modern police had. They had at best, horses, clubs of some form and maybe sabres with none of the complex logistic and planning resources a modern police force has available.
That’s might still sound pretty nasty, but if there’s only a few hundred of you against a crowd of 60,000 well that wouldn’t seem a whole lot would it? Maybe it’ll be ok, and the crowd will be peaceful, but what if it isn’t? The press of that huge number of people alone could overwhelm a small number of constables or the yeomanry. To put it in perspective, those numbers are almost as large as a couple of French corps at Waterloo. When you look at it just on the numbers, it is terrifying to deal with even if you are committed to minimising any risk of people getting hurt and the Manchester Authorities certainly weren’t by the way.
So if you are the authorities what do you do? Well you turn to the one institution that you know you can rely on. You turn to the military. Now there’s a problem with using soldiers like this. There’s a great quote from the new Battlestar Galactica about this problem “There’s a reason you separate military and the police. One fights the enemies of the state, the other serves and protects the people. When the military becomes both, then the enemies of the state tend to become the people,”
The government had appointed Sir John Byng, Earl of Stafford, as military commander of the northern forces. He was a tough military veteran of Waterloo, where he had commanded the 2nd Guards Brigade, which was involved in defending Hougemont. He was ok with taking this command. He arranged to make sure he has overwhelming forces for the job too. He arranged to have the 15 Hussars, the Dragoon Guards, the 88th Foot and the 31st foot ready on a war footing and he persuaded the Duke of Wellington to give him a couple of 6 pounder horse artillery. It isn’t exactly the choice you would think a government would make to lead a peace keeping police action against its own citizens. Still, the government precisely didn’t really see them as their own citizens. They were viewed as potential rebels and traitors. The idea of legitimate protest for much needed political change simply wasn’t recognised.
Another big problem was a split in command. On previous occasions, when the military were sent to Lancashire to put down protests, senior military officers usually took control of the local yeomanry and militia’s away from the control of the local authorities and firmly subordinated them to the military command structure. Responsibility was clear.
The Earl of Stafford didn’t take critical step. His predecessor, Sir Thomas Maitland when he had put down the luddite rebellions had taken over command of the local yeoman, and constables, and put them firmly under military command, not under civilian command. The Earl of Stafford didn’t do that. The local yeoman, the local cavalry and the local constables were all answering to the local magistrates. The professional soldiers were all under the command of Earl of Stafford. That’s going to be a huge issue in this narrative, because in a stroke of appalling timing, on the day of the Peterloo massacre, the Earl of Stafford wan’t there.
On previous occasions, when the military were sent to Lancashire to put down protests, responsibility was clear. On the day of the protest, the military and civilians were answering to very difficult people, with very different idea’s of what to do. But at Peterloo, that critical clarity of mission and rules of engagement weren’t present. The Earl was supreme military commander of the north, so he would obviously be able to outrank any civilian or militia officer if he wanted. But what about his deputy Col L’Estrange? Was he supposed to assume command, or just hang back and wait for a call for help, or was he supposed to defer to the local authorities?
When the orator Henry Hunt had arrived in Manchester, the authorities had panicked a little and overreacted with some hysteria. This got to the point of seriously annoying the Earl, who felt they were jumping at shadows. Basically he told the authorities, look don’t keep asking for soldiers if there’s nothing going on. You’ve got your men, I’m going to be in York for a while and that’s absolutely nothing to do with attending the famous horse races, but you’ve got my deputy Lt Col Guy L’Estrange, and a good size force there so stop bugging me every five minutes. The magistrates then sent him a letter saying basically yes you’re right, sorry to have been so jumpy we don’t need you here because everything seems to have calmed down.
On the fateful day of the meeting, whilst the Earl attended the famous York races, a huge crowd formed in Manchester as planned. Henry Hunt himself had taken the precaution of even going to the authorities the weekend before the event and they told him, nope its all fine. Go ahead there are no plans to arrest you and this is all legal.
On 16th August 60 – 80,000 people gathered on St Peter’s Field, an area in Manchester at a meeting for parliamentary reform. Now when I’m talking about St Peter’s Field, I’m not talking about a field in the countryside outside the city. It was actually a large city square. It was surrounded by a maze of streets and a really big street called Peter’s Street that runs through it.
The local authorities were present with the constables and yoeman cavalry. The local magistrates were often inexperienced and in total there were 400 special constables armed with long wooden truncheons. They also deployed 60 yeomanry troops from Manchester with another 420 from Cheshire in reserve. These didn’t anything like the standard of discipline the military had. They were notorious in the city for being recruited from shopkeepers and tradesmen. They were often seen as young, perhaps they were over excited by the imagined status the military uniform gave them. Some sources saw them as hotheaded young men, or the armed wing of the Tory party. They were referred to as a joke, or drunk and almost acting as mafia style enforcers for local businesses against the workers who wanted better wages. Quite a few owned pubs or were ironmongers. Another striking thing is that they all had really elaborate uniforms. At least as fancy as the finest of the line cavalry regiments, paid for by their local aristocratic commanders. They were sort of like toy soldiers for the local gentry. Elaborately dressed, badly trained and with a lot of new members.
My personal view is that these are absolutely not the people you want facing a dangerous crowd control situation. Their colonel had even had the sabres specially sharpened to ensure they had the combat edge. They were looking for trouble, and you know what they say – if you go looking for trouble, you will find it.
The crowd was absolutely huge. Those figures I gave you are estimates. No one really knows. They were from all over the city and local area. The organisers had expressly told people attending it was to be peaceful demonstration to pile the pressure on the authorities, but also because the authorities couldn’t disperse a peaceful meeting by reading the riot act if there wasn’t any violence. The crowd had everything to lose from violence and nothing to gain. Some even turned up in their Sunday best clothes. There are women’s protests groups present and members of the churches. This was devastating for local businesses. Mills and factories found their workforce had deserted them for the day. Profit was at risk. Local Tories had sent some of their families away from the city for safety from the expected revolution.
The protestors know the authorities really want to arrest Henry Hunt, reassurances or not, so they decide to form what was basically a human chain around the area he was going to be speaking. That way no constable could physically serve an arrest warrant on him. All this was being closely watched by government agents and spies. One spy caught by the reformers and given a beating, which inevitably seemed to confirm this was the beginning of a revolution that would march burn the city and bring about a reign of terror complete with madam guillotine. Those of you who listened to my joint show with Shawn Warswick on the American History podcast when we covered the American War of Independence, might notice how strikingly similar the response of the British authorities was.
Just after 1:00pm the Yeomanry received an order that the Chief Constable had an arrest warrant which he needed assistance to execute, and sixty cavalrymen of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry, led by Captain Hugh Hornby Birley, moved into the crowd. Captain Birley was a real establishment kind of guy. He wasn’t just leading the yeoman cavalry, he was also a local magistrate and a mill owner. Pretty soon they get stuck by the sheer weight of people.
The regular army were watching this. They are not really that impressed with the yeomanry. See lots of those yeoman knew the army were Waterloo veterans, and the wanted a bit of that reflected glory.
Col L’Estrange had really carefully deployed his troops. There were a maze of streets, but if you imagine for a moment that St Peter’s field is at the centre of a box, then just around the sides of that box on nearby streets, the government forces are deployed along each side. You’ve got the Manchester Yeomanry on the right hand side near the top corner, you’ve got the 31st Regiment at the top of the box, you’ve got the Cheshire Yeomanry on the left side edge of the box, and you’ve got the 15 Hussars and more Yeomanry down at the bottom. Tucked away in some of the side streets, you’ve got the Royal Artillery and the 88th Regiment (Connaught Rangers).
Apart from the Yeomanry, these were really good troops.The regiment watching most closely at first was the 15th Hussars. It had battle honours most regiments would give their right arms for. Parts of the regiment fought the best cavalry in the French Imperial Guard Grenadiers à Cheval of the Old Guard at Waterloo and supported the mighty charge of the heavy brigade. Col Dalrymple commanding was wounded in action and knighted. This was a regiment whose honour in military terms was second to none. It is a fascinating regiment. If you wanted to write a military history of the Victorian period, you could do a lot worse than doing it from the point of view of the 15th Hussars. They served in most of the key parts of the Empire from Scotland and Ireland to India and Afghanistan and in the Boer War. They were even in Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. They weren’t local youths or hotheaded wannabe soldiers. They were the real deal and now they have a decision to make.
The 15th Hussars were supported by the 88th, tucked away in side streets. It was the hard fighting Irish regiment that Wellington often used as his elite chock troops. They were famous for being the spearhead of urban assaults and were nicknamed The Devils Own and had been present at the storming of Cuidad Rodrigo and Badajoz. I’m not sure how they were suitable for policing a peaceful protest, but to put down an urban rebellion they were a perfect choice. The artillery was hidden, and L’Estrange has effectively deployed his men so that they could act against the crowd from multiple directions, and respond rapidly. It was an almost perfect military deployment for attacking a military enemy in a nurban setting. But these aren’t an enemy force. They were a crowd of unarmed civilians, so the military simply waited to see what the civilian authorities will do.
Just after 13:00 the Yeomanry received an order that the Chief Constable had an arrest warrant which he needed assistance to execute. Immediately things started going wrong. They are going to keep going wrong and lead to one of the most notorious incidents of the age, one that would be instrumental in collapsing a lot of the old political order further down the road. It was the first in the chain of dominoes and right here, the first domino was pushed over. The note was supposed to go to Col L’Estrange as well, but it got to the Manchester Yeomanry first and a group of them immediately tore off towards the crowd. In their desperate rush, one of the riders crashed into a young woman, knocking her two year old son out of her arms and he died from the fall. The first death of the day was a two year old child.
At about 13:40 60 cavalrymen of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry, led by Captain Hugh Hornby Birley, moved into the crowd itself. Now they could see a crowd of up to maybe 60,000 people. They tried to push through to get to the platform to execute the warrant, but can’t get through the crowd, so they started hacking at people with their sabres, and they are trapped by the press of people. The yeomanry were clearly trapped. What were the 15th Hussars to do? Charging the civilians sounds to us like the ultimate act of cowardice. A peaceful civilian crowd, and yet the regiment was only a around 600 strong that day so were out numbered literally thousands to one. The scene was deeply confused. The regimental website is clear that the 15th were present and says the following [QUOTE] Conflicting eye-witness accounts exist as to whether the civilian deaths were caused by volunteer soldiers, the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry, or by the regular troops (the 15th Hussars). The yeomanry were first on the scene, arriving at 13:40, and as they advanced into the crowd panic ensued, the horses rearing and the inexperienced amateur soldiers drawing their sabres and striking out. When the 15th Hussars arrived on the scene at about 13:50, the yeomanry soldiers were in danger of being overcome by the angry crowd. Inquiries into the massacre concur that the regular troops attempted to minimise the violence – an unnamed officer of the15th Hussars attempting to strike up the swords of the Yeomanry, crying – “For shame, gentlemen: what are you about?” Many hundreds of civilians were sabred and trampled by the horses in the melee. [END QUOTE]
That quote is a bit incomplete shall we call it. At about 13:50, Lieutenant Colonel Guy L’Estrange commanding the 15th Hussars arrived; was met by the local magistrate who he ordered them into the field to disperse the crowd with the words: “Good God, Sir, don’t you see they are attacking the Yeomanry; disperse the meeting!”
This is a positive order to the officers of the regiment. They have been told that the Yeomanry cavalry are under attack and they were being ordered in to the rescue. That seemed right to Col L’Estrange, he was here to support the civilian authorities, they were under attack and asking for support, so what else was he supposed to do. Some officers diaries definitely agreed with this view.
The cavalry formed a long line and charged. The powerful veterans of the Peninsular Wars and Waterloo, were about to unleash the same kind of powerful charge they had visited on Napoleon’s finest. Almost immediate as they hit the crowd, the Cheshire Yeoman Cavalry charged in from the other direction and also hit the crowd. They laid about themselves with sabres. There’s a I’m not sure if fascinating is the word. Maybe compelling. A compelling spreadsheet you can download that has the names of the injured and many victims or key witness and soldiers. It gives you the occupations, their role and how they were injured, and you can see row after row of “sabre cut to the head. Sabre cut to the arms, sabre cut to the breast.” These are all consistent with blows coming from above. I’ve not got a full source, but it is likely the 15 Hussars would be armed with the brutal 1796 light cavalry sabre. It was a ferocious weapon and the crowd naturally panicked. People began to down in the press, and they got trampled by other people or by the horses. One victim is described as having fallen into a cellar when the press of the crowd broke the railings and shoved her in. The list of casualties is horrific. Hundreds trampled on, some get crushed or have bones dislocated or end up spitting up blood for days. If you got a sabre cut to the face for instance, you could be horrifically maimed, fall to the ground and then get trampled.
By this point, people were desperate. Absolutely desperate. They are trying to get out of this square and race for the main exit. The exit where Col L’Estrange, the clever military veteran has deployed his trump card; the 88th. His highly disciplined shock troops. They are there, waiting for the crowd, bayonets fixed. Despite being horrifically outnumbered, the 88th can be relied on to be absolutely rock solid. That’s when the word bayonet starts appearing in the list of injuries on that spreadsheet and so does the word shot.
This is pretty different from the shall we say popular history you get of this event. It is sometimes portrayed as if this was an important event, where a local magistrate lost their head and the cavalry and yeomanry lost control and the crowd panicked. The 88th and Royal Artillery are almost unmentioned. Sometimes there are just occasional references to “the infantry” It is almost in some accounts half a tragic accident. A situation that got out of hand.
When you dig deeper though, you can see this for what it was. This was a well planned military operation that worked just the way it was supposed to. The only problem was that it should never have been the plan in the first place. If it had been used against a load of French troops, it would have been perfect. But this was the inevitable outcome of the military deployment Col L’Estrange chose. Now he and the authorities might have said “well we never planned to have it actually unfold this way. We expected the crowd to let the soldiers do a simple arrest, overawed by military power, and there would never have been any need to actually commit the regular troops.”
The problem there is that the plan made it unavoidable. Once the request for military aid went out, the plan had to evolve the way it did. There were no radio’s to recall orders to the 88th or to call for a path for escaping civilians, and reading these sources you get the feeling that the authorities wouldn’t have wanted to anyway. If you’ve actually looked at how Napoleonic tactics work, like we have in the past shows in a lot of depth, you will see this is the combined arms system working like clock work. Col L’Estrange hits an enemy with an unexpected cavalry charge, causing panic, and forcing them in the direction he wants them to go, a 2nd charge from another angle magnifies the chaos, and the whole enemy force loses cohesion, panics and runs only to be hit by disciplined infantry. The only difference between this and a full Napoleonic action is that the 88th did’t give regular volleys and the Royal artillery don’t pour canister and shrapnel fire into the panicking mass.
The military were doing exactly what they are designed to do, and just like the Battlestar Galactica quote says, this is exactly why you don’t put them in this kind of situation. When the crowd finally escaped, the casualty figures that we know of are horrific. There’s probably a lot of people who were also injured and didn’t get into the official reports, but we can put the figures of civilian very accurately from the casualty returns that were kept.
The Guardian newspaper published a centenary edition article on the massacre that I’m going to quote [QUOTE] 654 people were sufficiently injured to require medical treatment. The figure is that precise because, in the following weeks, names, addresses and details of injuries were drawn up by newspapers, radicals and a relief committee set up to raise funds to help the wounded and their families. Contrary to the assertions of the authorities, fewer than a quarter were crushed in the crowd: more than 200 were sabred, 70 battered by truncheons, and 188 trampled by horses. [END QUOTE]
One of the victims was [QUOTE] James Lees, 25, had fought at Waterloo and was now a weaver with two children. He received two deep sabre cuts to the head, but when he went to the infirmary a doctor asked him whether he had had enough of political meetings. Lees said no, and was promptly turned away. Before he died, three weeks later, he told a relative: “At Waterloo there was man to man, but here it was downright murder.” [END QUOTE]
That’s pretty heart wrenching isn’t it. He was a Waterloo veteran and now he was dead, killed by comrades who had also fought at Waterloo. One special constable at the scene of the massacre watching bodies being moved, and recognising the injured Lee being moved, laughed at him saying “This is Waterloo for you”
Pretty quickly after this, the city of Manchester experienced riots, and the authorities started pushing their version of events. Magistrate William Hay wrote to the Home Office on the night of the massacre to say [QUOTE] The Riot act was read, and the mob was completely dispersed, but not without very serious and lamentable effects….one of the Manchester Yeomanry, Mr Hulme, was, after the parties were taken, struck by a brick-bat; he lost his power over his horse, and is supposed to have fractured his skull by a fall from his horse. I’m afraid that he is since dead; if not there are no hopes of his recovery. A special constable by the name of Ashworth has been killed – cause unknown; and four women appear to have lost their lives by being pressed by the crowd; these, I believe, are the fatal effects of the meeting. A variety of instances of sabre wounds occurred but as to their effect, save in one instance deposed to before Colonel Fletcher, we have no account. [END QUOTE]
The official view was that the crowd was a dangerous mob. The high casualty figures were ridiculed by the Prime Minister George Canning in Parliament, who also said that the whole event was the fault of a mob trying to tear down society, whilst government friendly press like the Aston Manchester Herald wrote poems praising the actions of the yeoman and soldier.
The official view is that the crowd was throwing missiles at the Yeomanry but that won’t stand up, so the line is then “well these were dangerous revolutionaries and they ignored the magistrates ordering them to disperse so what did you expect.” The authorities claimed the magistrates had actually read the riot act, but no one seems to have heard and and anyway, the riot act gave an hour for the people hearing it to cease their activity and disperse so that wouldn’t work. Still the local authorities gave the troops a hearty thank you and naturally enough the Prince Regent wrote to send his congratulations. A junior officer, Lt Jollifee of the 15th said [QUOTE] The Hussars drove the people forward with the flats of their swords but sometimes, as is almost inevitably the case when men are placed in such situations, the edge was used … I must still consider that it redounds to the humane forbearance of the men of the 15th that more wounds were not received.[END QUOTE]
Now there’s a few nuggets in there to pick up on. Herding panicking crowds of enemy soldiers was a job of light cavalry to get them to move to where they needed to go and maintain the panic. The idea was say you wanted panicked French troops off a bridge and they started running, but got pressed in, you didn’t want to actually kill them and clog up the bridge, you wanted to keep them panicking and running so you beat them with the flat of the blade. I can sort of see how that might actually be a possibility. If the Hussars had actually gone in at the full gallop when they charged, points first, and swinging to kill, then the casualties would have been enormous. Far higher than the actual total, but the injuries show the hussars certainly did switch to sabre slashing with the sharp edge of the blade, so the Lt is at best downplaying events to put a better gloss on them.
Not that the authorities were in the mood to ask searching questions or ask why crowds weren’t left with escape routes if all that was supposed to happen was serving an arrest warrant. The official stitch up was in. Henry Hunt, Samuel Bamford and others were put on trial at York assizes on 16 March 1820 charged with illegal assembling.
An event like this can’t just be arm waved away though just because the government said it was fine. Many locals would remember the event for their entire lives. Journalists, and reformers were outraged and determined to force the issue into the lime light. The Manchester Observer ran the headline ‘The Peterloo Massacre‘ The Duke of Wellington remained unmoved by the idea of reform, saying “Beginning reform is beginning revolution”
There was a national outcry, but the government and local authorities reacted with increased troop presence, and harsh legislation was passed against trade unions. Stamp duty was increased on pamphlet’s and newspapers. This is astonishingly similar to the early response of the British Government to the American colonists before the War of Independence.
This is actually one of those fairly major events in British history that no one has ever heard of. It is a touch stone in the story of the labour movement. One of the sources for this episode is the epic classic work “The making of the English Working Class” by EP Thomas. It is a little dated, but still an amazing historical work and on the cover of the edition I’ve got is the famous print “The Manchester Reform Meeting Dispersed by Civilian and Military Power.” from August 1819 – a depiction of the event. That was the kind of impact this event had at the time, and still has. But as Thompsons approach rightly points out, we mustn’t only think of this as a grand political event. For everyone there, this was a personal event too. How did the magristrates feel as they gave the order to disperse the crowd? What about the parents with children, suddenly receiving a cavalry charge? How did the troops feel later as they returned to barracks, to clean blood and mud off their blades and boots? Did any think back to Waterloo and wonder how it had come to this? Or were the lower class the enemy of society, as terrifying to them as Al Qaeda was on the day after 9/11.
There’s been a fair intense debate in academic circles over who was fundamentally to blame for the massacre. Was it just the magistrates panicking? Or were they already thirsting to crack down on the protestors? Was it the fault of Byng for failing to be present to command the military and take control of the situation? Did the Home Office really urge restraint and was caught flat footed by the event, or did the Home Office encourage the magistrates to take strong action? Publicly the Home Office seems to have counselled restraint, but there are hints in the Home Office Secret Papers of the period between Lord Sidmouth at the Home Office and Byng is slightly ambiguous and could be read in a number of different ways. I think if you want a firm answer, you’d need to read the papers themselves and consult some specialist academics.
To no one’s surprise, the Prince Regent confirmed his position as the most loathed person in the country by declaring his thanks to the authorities for [QUOTE] prompt, decisive and effective measures for the preservation of the public peace. [END QUOTE]
The loathing for the Prince Regent was well expressed in a phamplet called “The Political House that Jack Built” in 1819. It was written by William Hone. He had long been an establishment critic and had been subject to political prosecutions in 1817 for targeting the Prince Regent. He was surprisingly acquitted and continued his exposure of corruption. He said of the Prince and aristocracy [QUOTE] The Dandy of Sixty, who bows with a grace, and has taste in wigs, collars, cuirasses and lace, Who, to tricksters, and fools, leaves the state and its treasure, And, when Britain’s in tears, sails about at his pleasure’. [END QUOTE]
Above this was a picture of the Prince Regent by the brilliant illustrator Cruikshanks. You might want to remember that name because he will be illustrating Charles Dickens books amongst many other things. To truly capture the likeness of the Prince Regent he drew a fat, aging dandy in a red military coat stretched over tight over his enormous belly, with skin tight white breeches, and a corkscrew hanging from his pocket to symbolise his immense drinking.
The establishment remained profoundly touchy about the incident for a long time. Even as late as the 1870’s murals from Ford Maddox Brown were not allowed to include references to Peterloo if they were going to decorate the new town hall.
The shockwaves from the event couldn’t be ignored so easily. John Edward Taylor was a journalist, and was sued for libel by the leader of the Manchester Tories, John Greenwood. Greenwood lost, and Taylor used the winnings to found the Manchester Guardian newspaper, which would go on to become the world famous Guardian newspaper – a noted left of centre paper that prides itself on investigative journalism and scientific fact, although its editorial stances are not always up to the standards of its best journalism. Still as Manchester rose to power during the C19th, so did the prominence of the Guardian. It was quoted in Parliament by Sir Robert Peel, and led the opposition to the Boer Wars.
The city of Manchester would be key to the labour and reform movement during the C19th. It was a lynch pin of industry, a powerhouse of the world, an economic giant, an oppressive city full of brutal poverty, disease and pollution. It would be visited by Vicroys, Grand Dukes, merchants, inventors and industrialists keen to learn how to copy its successes, as well as thousands and thousands of immigrants desperate to become as the novel said “a Manchester man.” The C19th version of the American dream, where a hardworking decent man joined the ranks of the mill owners through work, cleverness and industry.
Manchester would inspire artists and see more injustices such as the widely hated execution of Irish Fenians for the alleged murder of a police officer. It would inspire books and the world changing work of Engels and Marx. It would never forget Peterloo, and the events would be remembered from that day to this. Manchester would change beyond recognition but her spirit, industrious, clever, resilient, yet somehow slightly rebellious without being revolutionary would surely remain the same across the centuries.
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