Peteloo – What We Don’t Know Considered

 

PETERLOO – Old Corruption’s Darkest Hour

WHAT WE DON’T KNOW CONSIDERED

 

(i)

(ii) For the Blanketeers. See files – www.hockleyandbeyond- history – Prelude to Peterloo and Remembering the Blanketeers

(iii) No police meant troops were used for crowd control.

(iv) Poole cites ‘the casualties of Peterloo’, Michael Bush, Lancaster 2005

3660

The Peterloo Massacre in Manchester on August 19th 1819 took place in plain sight with abundant eye witness evidence. Yet as Robert Poole has argued in a critical essay, there is much that we do not know about why the massacre took place. He commented “There is… no need for argument about the broad outlines of Peterloo: Whether or not the magistrates were responsible for it, whether the government was implicated, whether there was a massacre or a battle and so on. .. The evidence of the three hundred eye-witnesses and the six hundred or more casualties tells heavily against the authorities… So: what don’t we know about Peterloo?

 

… We have to admit that it remains hard to explain why the magistrates were so set upon confrontation, and why they failed to respond to the Home Office’s late change of stance against Forceful intervention (i). It was a high risk strategy, in some ways out of character for a somewhat jittery and alarmist group of men. In 1817 (ii) they had relied upon police work, informers and the experienced regular troops stationed in the North to frustrate the march of the Blanketeers…. Some of the leading magistrates had a background in the suppression of the 1798 Irish rebellion and its aftermath, …so tended to think in military rather than political terms….

 

William Hay and his collegues seem to have been genuinely convinced that …. as in 1817 serious political disorder had been averted by prompt and forceful action. Even so, to send in amateur local troops …. before any of the expected trouble had materialised, was quite a thing and we still need a full explanation of it.” (1)

 

It has frequently been argued that national politics are crucial in explaining why Peterloo happened . E P Thompson was right to argue that “we can no more understand the significance of Peterloo in terms of the local politics of Manchester than we can understand the strategic importance of Waterloo in terms of the field and the orders of the day” (2). But there is no real evidence that the massacre was ordered by government, and it is clear that the local leadership took the decisions which led to the tragedy, acting on ambiguous signals from Westminster. The government left the operational decisions to the men on the spot, and if they planned violence extensive research has not found evidence which proved premeditation. Military preparations in themselves were standard practice and do not prove intent (iii). What is important is that local politicians were given carte blanche to do what they wanted, once government agreed the event itself was not illegal. However while Westminster politicians could not control events from 200 miles away, they agreed to supply military force and allowed the magistrates to make decisions that this could be used without limits.

 

The authorities and their consciousness

 

The local context is therefore more important than national decisions, and scholarship has discovered much about community tensions in South Lancashire beyond the conventional accounts of working class unrest, for example, the key role of loyalism in Lancashire through the work of Katrina Navickas (3). As Navickas has shown, Loyalism had a life of its own, sustaining a beleagured local elite which was controlled the magistrates in charge of the forces in St Peter’s Fields where the demonstration met. The Manchester elite knew it could rely on the support of the High Tory government in Westminster, whatever operational decisions they made.

 

Thompson argues as if sharing the same thought world means that government was complicit, writing that the rapid endorsement of Peterloo by Westminster suggests that, “If the Government was unprepared for the news of Peterloo, no authorities have ever acted so vigorously to make themselves accomplices after the fact… Demands for a parliamentary inquiry were resolutely rejected… the Lord Chancellor (Eldon) was of the ‘clear opinion’ that the meeting was ‘an overt act of treason’… If the Manchester magistrates initiated the policy of represssion, the government endorsed it with every resource at its disposal” (2 again). The little word ‘if’ plays a crucial role in these sentences. There is no doubt the key decisions were taken locally and on the day, with government in a subordinate role. However all the key players locally and natinally were Loyalists, and shared a European wide narrative of paranoia. This intensified after the end of the French Wars as Adam Zamoyksi has argued (4) despite the triumph of reaction after 1815. Paranoia did not need evidence, only a trigger to set off a reaction, and Peterloo was for those who feared revolution a pile of tinder which only needed a match. While the relationship of the local and national leadership has raised many unresolved questions the magistrates were in their own terms preventing a forest fire.

 

The Magistrates decided to be aggressive, but as Poole has argued, the reasons why they did so have never been satisfactorily explained. Since it is not possible to argue that the massacre was caused by disorder, actual or potential, and the key actors in the tragedy were based in Manchester and Salford and drew on local experiences, the actions of local players were crucial and their reading of the Manchester crowd must be brought into focus. It is clear that the authorities had handled the Blanketeers successfully when they mobilised in St Peter’s Square in 1817, and it is a central issue why the admittedly larger crowd in 1819 produced a violent response which has not been satisfactorily explained.

 

This cannot be explained by a rational calculation by the authorities, nor in the context of the working class movement after the Napoleonic wars. Objectively, while there were revolutionaries they were too few to make a difference and after Pentridge in 1817 the government could not sustain an anti- revolutionary stance. In Manchester, the attempt to argue the Blanketeers led to a revolutionary plot at Ardwick, while not a pure invention, had fallen flat when Bamford and others had been taken to London and cleared of revolutionary intent. The belief that the crowd at Peterloo posed a violent threat rested on a climate of opinion amongst Loyalists which saw no distinction between moral and physical force, ignoring the distinction that the demonstrators themselves made in defining themselves as constitutionalists.

 

The over-riding context which has to be explained is the shared assumptions of the Manchester magistrates and ministers notably Liverpool and Sidmouth, all of whom can be seen as Pittites, a brand of Loyalism confined to the old High Tory party, and then not shared by a new brand of Tory epitomised by the two Robert Peels. But they had no influence on events in 1819. The belief system of Loyalism was shaped by the Revolutionary wars themselves, and it is clear that for Pittite Tories they were still fighting the battles fought by Pitt the Younger years after his death.

 

What has to be explained is why this group of politicians feared working class mobilisation when this posed no real threat of violence. The legal justification for using violence was disorder, amounting to treason, but neither charge stands up to close examination, whatever Eldon claimed. The constitutional right to meet was unquestionable. So what did the High Tory politicians, locally and nationally, fear was happening? To what extent did Pitt the Younger, dead for over a decade, cast a shadow over St Peter’s Field in 1819?

 

The workers and their consciousness

 

It is equally strange that there are questions unanswered about the crowd which gathered in St Peter’s Field in both 1817, both for the Blanketeers, and 1819 for what became Peterloo. The motives of the demonstrators are misunderstood, though their leadership made clear and decisive statements which need close examination.

 

Moreover, there is a wider shift in public attitudes that needs to be established. The old deference was under strain following the wars with France. Though Linda Colley (5) has argued that the national culture was not shaken by the French Wars, this is highly questionable. It is true the reformers wanted reform, not a French Style Revolution, and there were few republicans outside the small group of Spenceans. But this was a period in which the legitimacy of the rulers to rule was challenged, and by democrats who were not Jacobins. The nature of the challenge was far from obvious and the assumption by the Loyalist community that this was revolutionary and needed strong measures to combat was an a priori statement of faith. But the movement was extensive and growing. The crowd in 1819 had grown in numbers since the Blanketeers in 1817. The Loyalists were afraid and felt they had to act.

 

Nevertheless the belief that mobilisation was created by the emergence of working class politics has to be questioned. Poole rightly argues that “Activists on the left, who have (with justification) embraced Peterloo as part of the ‘making of the English working class, often think in terms of a continuing progressive movement…. But in what ways was the radical movement actually a product of the industrial revolution or an accessory of ‘progress’? Taking place as it did in the capital of the factory system, Peterloo has naturally been incorporated into narratives about the effects of the industrial revolution….. The authorities however saw the march … as an invasion of ‘strangers’ from the ‘country districts’ … and the evidence from the casualty lists for once bears them out. It was carried principally by handloom weavers…. though Manunians from the inner industrial districts… were also well represented among the casualties” (6) (iv). The role of Peterloo and the mobilisations of 1817 and 1819 were indeed represented by Thompson as part of the ‘Making’, though he underestimated the importance of the Blanketeers*. However it is questionable whether either the aims or methods of the protestors were part of a modern anti-capitalist movement. The major aim was Old Corruption, which was seen to be rooted in the Unreformed Parliament, and suprisingly given the abysmal consequences of industrialism, the main enemy was perceived as the High Tories who controlled Manchester and the government, not the factory owners. Indeed if there was a clear political line devised by the Reformers, arguably it was class collaborationist.

 

This is suggested by the declarations made in Manchester and Oldham in early 1819, in which factory owners are conspicuous by their absence. Both are published in Donald Read’s 1957 book on Peterloo, (7) and are heavily focussed on parliamentary reform, and the relief of distress which was believed to follow from this. Read comments that “the radical programme in 1819 rested on two basic and logically connected points. First, it was a protest against distress – against low wages, high prices, and unemployment; and second, it was the assertion of a theory of fundamental rights”. (8) The three key slogans on the banners in Manchester were Annual Parliaments, Universal Suffrage and Repeal of the Corn Law, with Vote by Ballot almost as popular – though the area had no M Ps, the reformers were aware of corruption at elections and wanted a secret ballot to prevent bribery and intimidation. The Oldham statement prioritises Annual Parliaments, Universal Suffrage and Election by Ballot, but also stresses the Corn Law and high prices for ‘agricultural products’ was the ‘proof that the interests of a few Land Proprietors, preponderates in our Legislative Assemblies, over the interests of millions of labourers. (9)

 

There is no mention of the employers in either document, though the more extensive Manchester document attacks the standing army – calling for a militia force – echoing radical demands going back to the late C17th, and fear of a Cromwellian or Monarchical absolutism based on armed force. The document states fundamental rights going back to Magna Charta and a (largely imaginary) ancient constitution, and attacks the Bank of England for issuing paper money. A lengthy appeal to the Prince Regent, as in 1817 thought to be a guardian misled by parliamentary advisors, shows a trust in that individual hard to equate with his known High Tory Politics. The Manchester document argues that the system oppresses all the urban classes, including the manufacturers, stating that the government employs spies to “foment and excite disturbances amongst the oppressed and starving manufacturers and labourers of the united kingdom’, using ‘corrupt and sinister influence to gain over the majority of votes of a venal senate, composed of the agents of the great Borough pensioners …. to pass cruel and oppressive laws, – to starve the honest and industrious labourers, manufacturers and mechanics, and to rob the wretched peasant of the hard earnings wrung from the sweat of his brow” (10). Exactly how the manufacturers can be regarded as starving is unfathomable, and if this word refers to the factory owners then the reformers had not been studying the careers of men like Arkwright and the Peels.

 

The attempt to build a broad class alliance including the Factory Owners, if these are the manufacturers mentioned, and the farming interest, here defined as ‘peasants’ though peasants had long since vanished, made much of the wealth of the landowners who benefitted from the Corn Laws, shows that the grasp of economics was limited and did not fully how poverty was generated, though Joseph Johnson showed a more sophisticated grasp of rural issues in a letter to the Manchester Observer of June 19th 1819. But radicals were drawing on the polemical literature of the time, notably the papers produced by William Cobbett and other radical journalists.

 

These rightly saw taxation and food prices as crucial to exploitation, though low wages were a vital part of the generation of poverty. But radicals targetted the obvious venality of the governing classes, defined as Old Corrupton by William Cobbett. It was clear that the Tory Interest had gained from the French wars, though the wars were not fought to make them rich. However the taxes levied to pay for the wars were of benefit to the Tory Interest, and arguably to no one else. As the burden of the war continued after Waterloo, the Reformers could and did made this a major target. The increasing use of paper money Cobbett made an issue in 1819 by his pamphlet Paper Against Gold, arguing for a gold standard and popularising fiscal issues. The tax burden and the national debt arising from the French Wars were certainly a working class interest, which Read suggests was made more topical by a three million pound increase in taxation in 1819.

 

This pointed toward the larger question of Old Corruption. Certainly in 1819 the radical Manchester Observer argued for Cheap Land and Cheap Government, and an Ashton meeting of June 14th 1819 complained at £22,000 spent on snuff boxes as presents to government allies, and an extra £10,000 voted to the Prince Regent for looking after his father (11). There was a continuing attack on a standing army: though after 1815 as a move towards precisely the Cheap Government some radicals were campaigning for, the services had been savagely reduced at the end of the wars, causing massive unemployment and misery and fuelling protests, notably in London. Peace, Retrenchment and Reform would be a slogan for Gladstonian liberalism. It was not devised till well after Peterloo.

 

Read suggests “the banners on the hustings at Peterloo reflected no empty platitudes: ‘Annual Parliaments’, ‘Universal Suffrage’, ‘No Corn Laws’, ‘No Borough Mongering’, and the rest of the slogans which they carried were the outward expressions of a coherent and highly developed programme of reform”. (12). Up to a point. There is no doubt that for a poorly educated and largely illiterate labouring population, the radicals had developed a high level of political debate. But it was confined to addressing constitutional issues, and was weak on economics. It was not class conscious as a socialist would see issues, and the elements which suggested that an alliance of factory owners and labourers was possible, were not tenable in the reality of the Factory System of the time. Peel the Elder’s attempt to limit child labour in the factories in 1802 passed as it was only limited to apprentices, historically a concern of parliament as apprentices tended to riot, while Peel’s more significant 1819 Cotton Mills and Factories Act was seen by contemporaries as an extension of the Statute of Artificers of 1562, paternalistic legislation which relied on the master to regulate his own workforce and was a failure. A Robert Peel and his son could have successful parliamentary careers, but they could not convince the Tory Party they supported that factory legislation had to be enforced to be effective. Shaftesbury would face the criticism that a limitation to the working day would wipe out the profits of the factory owners, and this was a generation after the ending of the Regency. The Younger Peel initially opposed Shaftesbury as initially did Cobden, the high priest of Manchester Laissez Faire.

 

The political realities of Manchester in 1819 argued against there being an alliance for reform by middle and working class interests. Even though it was in the interests of the manufacturers to secure an MP for the city and other industrial cities they did not support reform as it was tied to working class interests. But it was not until the 1832 Reform Bill that class politics would become clear, with the working class left in the cold. In 1819 Reformers still believed that the alliance was possible and that cheap government was a slogan that would provide such an alliance.

In the fraught conditions of the Long Regency**, it was not anti-capitalist politics which brought masses of people onto the streets to support reform in this period, but a less class oriented and more wide spread campaign which did have the potential for a cross class alliance – the Campaign against the objective Cobbett and every other radical journalist had in their sights in this period: Old Corruption. The objections to Old Corruption were widespread and rooted in a widely held sense that government in the Long Regency was run to benefit aristocrats and a limited group of wealthy and a-moral exploiters of public revenue. This was a widely felt objection to the state of the country particularly after the wars with France. Yet it did not provide a cross class alliance in the towns where the glaring absence of political rights for those not in the High Tory elite was obvious.

 

The most difficult question to answer about Peterloo is why this was the case – and why instead of a successful campaign against Old Corruption, the reformers failed to draw in the middle classes in numbers. The old guard felt their interests were served by violent repression as Old Corruption operated to crush the reform movement. In doing so they confirmed what a correspondent to the conservative Manchester Mercury wrote a week before the demonstration: “the Constitution’s become rotten at the core: there’s foul play at headquarters: the Parliament! Sir, the Parliament! Corruption’s at the very helm of the State…” (13)

 

Of all the questions which arise from Peterloo, why it was not possible to bring about a broad movement for reform is at the core. Peterloo was undoubtely class politics. Class politics are unavoidable in answering the question, but they are not the full answer. Even some Whigs and a mass of journalists and polemicists attacked brutality which showed the unacceptable face of the status quo. Yet overall there was no backlash and the Liverpool government move to even more Pittite Repression. They were playing to a script which saw revolutoin on the streets of Manchester, and this conception remains at the heart of the controversy, underpinning both left and right wing interpretations. But the shock waves generated by Peterloo gained their force from the unreality of this view, making the politics of this demonstration a clash of misconceptions. As the two hundreth anniversary of Peterloo, the key factors can now be teased out as mixing rational and irrational motives which make Peterloo a poisoned chalice which remains as tipping point historical event which lit up the dark background of Regency politics with a flash that has never been forgotten.

 

21 6 17

 

*On Thompson and the Blanketeers, see Hockley and Beyond, History Section, E P Thompson, Manchester and 1817. Personal essay by the author.

** The Regency was 1811-1820, but the Madness of King George meant the political climate changed earlier, and the start of the French Revolution in 1789, or perhaps the events of 1792 which alarmed British opinion, make the era run most logically from the start of the political earthquakes in France.

 

(1) Robert Poole What don’t we know about Peterloo pp14-15, IN Robert Poole Ed, Return to Peterloo, Manchester Centre for Regional History 2014

 

  1. E P Thompson The Making of the English Working class, 1963/68, Penguin classics 2013, p750

 

(3) Katrina Navickas, Loyalism and Radicalism in Lancashire, Oxford University Historical Monographs, 2009

 

(4) Adam Zamoyski, Phantom Terror,

 

  1. Linda Colley, Britons, 1707- 1837, 1994, 3rd Ed Yale 2009.

 

  1. Poole op cit p15-16

 

  1. Donald Read, Peterloo The Massacre and Its Background, Manchester University Press 1957, MUP and August M Kelley, Clifton New Jersey USA 1973. The Manchester Statement of January 18th 1819 is on pp 210-216, the Oldham Statement of June 7th 1819 is on pages 216-217, Signed John Knight..

 

  1. Read op cit p40

 

  1. Read op cit p216

 

  1. Read op cit p214

 

  1. Read op cit pp 42-43

 

  1. Read op cit p46

 

(13) Manchester Mercury, August 10th 1819, quoted Read op cit p41

 

 

 

 

PETERLOO – Old Corruption’s Darkest Hour

WHAT WE DON’T KNOW CONSIDERED

 

(i)

(ii) For the Blanketeers. See files – www.hockleyandbeyond- history – Prelude to Peterloo and Remembering the Blanketeers

(iii) No police meant troops were used for crowd control.

(iv) Poole cites ‘the casualties of Peterloo’, Michael Bush, Lancaster 2005

3660

The Peterloo Massacre in Manchester on August 19th 1819 took place in plain sight with abundant eye witness evidence. Yet as Robert Poole has argued in a critical essay, there is much that we do not know about why the massacre took place. He commented “There is… no need for argument about the broad outlines of Peterloo: Whether or not the magistrates were responsible for it, whether the government was implicated, whether there was a massacre or a battle and so on. .. The evidence of the three hundred eye-witnesses and the six hundred or more casualties tells heavily against the authorities… So: what don’t we know about Peterloo?

 

… We have to admit that it remains hard to explain why the magistrates were so set upon confrontation, and why they failed to respond to the Home Office’s late change of stance against Forceful intervention (i). It was a high risk strategy, in some ways out of character for a somewhat jittery and alarmist group of men. In 1817 (ii) they had relied upon police work, informers and the experienced regular troops stationed in the North to frustrate the march of the Blanketeers…. Some of the leading magistrates had a background in the suppression of the 1798 Irish rebellion and its aftermath, …so tended to think in military rather than political terms….

 

William Hay and his collegues seem to have been genuinely convinced that …. as in 1817 serious political disorder had been averted by prompt and forceful action. Even so, to send in amateur local troops …. before any of the expected trouble had materialised, was quite a thing and we still need a full explanation of it.” (1)

 

It has frequently been argued that national politics are crucial in explaining why Peterloo happened . E P Thompson was right to argue that “we can no more understand the significance of Peterloo in terms of the local politics of Manchester than we can understand the strategic importance of Waterloo in terms of the field and the orders of the day” (2). But there is no real evidence that the massacre was ordered by government, and it is clear that the local leadership took the decisions which led to the tragedy, acting on ambiguous signals from Westminster. The government left the operational decisions to the men on the spot, and if they planned violence extensive research has not found evidence which proved premeditation. Military preparations in themselves were standard practice and do not prove intent (iii). What is important is that local politicians were given carte blanche to do what they wanted, once government agreed the event itself was not illegal. However while Westminster politicians could not control events from 200 miles away, they agreed to supply military force and allowed the magistrates to make decisions that this could be used without limits.

 

The authorities and their consciousness

 

The local context is therefore more important than national decisions, and scholarship has discovered much about community tensions in South Lancashire beyond the conventional accounts of working class unrest, for example, the key role of loyalism in Lancashire through the work of Katrina Navickas (3). As Navickas has shown, Loyalism had a life of its own, sustaining a beleagured local elite which was controlled the magistrates in charge of the forces in St Peter’s Fields where the demonstration met. The Manchester elite knew it could rely on the support of the High Tory government in Westminster, whatever operational decisions they made.

 

Thompson argues as if sharing the same thought world means that government was complicit, writing that the rapid endorsement of Peterloo by Westminster suggests that, “If the Government was unprepared for the news of Peterloo, no authorities have ever acted so vigorously to make themselves accomplices after the fact… Demands for a parliamentary inquiry were resolutely rejected… the Lord Chancellor (Eldon) was of the ‘clear opinion’ that the meeting was ‘an overt act of treason’… If the Manchester magistrates initiated the policy of represssion, the government endorsed it with every resource at its disposal” (2 again). The little word ‘if’ plays a crucial role in these sentences. There is no doubt the key decisions were taken locally and on the day, with government in a subordinate role. However all the key players locally and natinally were Loyalists, and shared a European wide narrative of paranoia. This intensified after the end of the French Wars as Adam Zamoyksi has argued (4) despite the triumph of reaction after 1815. Paranoia did not need evidence, only a trigger to set off a reaction, and Peterloo was for those who feared revolution a pile of tinder which only needed a match. While the relationship of the local and national leadership has raised many unresolved questions the magistrates were in their own terms preventing a forest fire.

 

The Magistrates decided to be aggressive, but as Poole has argued, the reasons why they did so have never been satisfactorily explained. Since it is not possible to argue that the massacre was caused by disorder, actual or potential, and the key actors in the tragedy were based in Manchester and Salford and drew on local experiences, the actions of local players were crucial and their reading of the Manchester crowd must be brought into focus. It is clear that the authorities had handled the Blanketeers successfully when they mobilised in St Peter’s Square in 1817, and it is a central issue why the admittedly larger crowd in 1819 produced a violent response which has not been satisfactorily explained.

 

This cannot be explained by a rational calculation by the authorities, nor in the context of the working class movement after the Napoleonic wars. Objectively, while there were revolutionaries they were too few to make a difference and after Pentridge in 1817 the government could not sustain an anti- revolutionary stance. In Manchester, the attempt to argue the Blanketeers led to a revolutionary plot at Ardwick, while not a pure invention, had fallen flat when Bamford and others had been taken to London and cleared of revolutionary intent. The belief that the crowd at Peterloo posed a violent threat rested on a climate of opinion amongst Loyalists which saw no distinction between moral and physical force, ignoring the distinction that the demonstrators themselves made in defining themselves as constitutionalists.

 

The over-riding context which has to be explained is the shared assumptions of the Manchester magistrates and ministers notably Liverpool and Sidmouth, all of whom can be seen as Pittites, a brand of Loyalism confined to the old High Tory party, and then not shared by a new brand of Tory epitomised by the two Robert Peels. But they had no influence on events in 1819. The belief system of Loyalism was shaped by the Revolutionary wars themselves, and it is clear that for Pittite Tories they were still fighting the battles fought by Pitt the Younger years after his death.

 

What has to be explained is why this group of politicians feared working class mobilisation when this posed no real threat of violence. The legal justification for using violence was disorder, amounting to treason, but neither charge stands up to close examination, whatever Eldon claimed. The constitutional right to meet was unquestionable. So what did the High Tory politicians, locally and nationally, fear was happening? To what extent did Pitt the Younger, dead for over a decade, cast a shadow over St Peter’s Field in 1819?

 

The workers and their consciousness

 

It is equally strange that there are questions unanswered about the crowd which gathered in St Peter’s Field in both 1817, both for the Blanketeers, and 1819 for what became Peterloo. The motives of the demonstrators are misunderstood, though their leadership made clear and decisive statements which need close examination.

 

Moreover, there is a wider shift in public attitudes that needs to be established. The old deference was under strain following the wars with France. Though Linda Colley (5) has argued that the national culture was not shaken by the French Wars, this is highly questionable. It is true the reformers wanted reform, not a French Style Revolution, and there were few republicans outside the small group of Spenceans. But this was a period in which the legitimacy of the rulers to rule was challenged, and by democrats who were not Jacobins. The nature of the challenge was far from obvious and the assumption by the Loyalist community that this was revolutionary and needed strong measures to combat was an a priori statement of faith. But the movement was extensive and growing. The crowd in 1819 had grown in numbers since the Blanketeers in 1817. The Loyalists were afraid and felt they had to act.

 

Nevertheless the belief that mobilisation was created by the emergence of working class politics has to be questioned. Poole rightly argues that “Activists on the left, who have (with justification) embraced Peterloo as part of the ‘making of the English working class, often think in terms of a continuing progressive movement…. But in what ways was the radical movement actually a product of the industrial revolution or an accessory of ‘progress’? Taking place as it did in the capital of the factory system, Peterloo has naturally been incorporated into narratives about the effects of the industrial revolution….. The authorities however saw the march … as an invasion of ‘strangers’ from the ‘country districts’ … and the evidence from the casualty lists for once bears them out. It was carried principally by handloom weavers…. though Manunians from the inner industrial districts… were also well represented among the casualties” (6) (iv). The role of Peterloo and the mobilisations of 1817 and 1819 were indeed represented by Thompson as part of the ‘Making’, though he underestimated the importance of the Blanketeers*. However it is questionable whether either the aims or methods of the protestors were part of a modern anti-capitalist movement. The major aim was Old Corruption, which was seen to be rooted in the Unreformed Parliament, and suprisingly given the abysmal consequences of industrialism, the main enemy was perceived as the High Tories who controlled Manchester and the government, not the factory owners. Indeed if there was a clear political line devised by the Reformers, arguably it was class collaborationist.

 

This is suggested by the declarations made in Manchester and Oldham in early 1819, in which factory owners are conspicuous by their absence. Both are published in Donald Read’s 1957 book on Peterloo, (7) and are heavily focussed on parliamentary reform, and the relief of distress which was believed to follow from this. Read comments that “the radical programme in 1819 rested on two basic and logically connected points. First, it was a protest against distress – against low wages, high prices, and unemployment; and second, it was the assertion of a theory of fundamental rights”. (8) The three key slogans on the banners in Manchester were Annual Parliaments, Universal Suffrage and Repeal of the Corn Law, with Vote by Ballot almost as popular – though the area had no M Ps, the reformers were aware of corruption at elections and wanted a secret ballot to prevent bribery and intimidation. The Oldham statement prioritises Annual Parliaments, Universal Suffrage and Election by Ballot, but also stresses the Corn Law and high prices for ‘agricultural products’ was the ‘proof that the interests of a few Land Proprietors, preponderates in our Legislative Assemblies, over the interests of millions of labourers. (9)

 

There is no mention of the employers in either document, though the more extensive Manchester document attacks the standing army – calling for a militia force – echoing radical demands going back to the late C17th, and fear of a Cromwellian or Monarchical absolutism based on armed force. The document states fundamental rights going back to Magna Charta and a (largely imaginary) ancient constitution, and attacks the Bank of England for issuing paper money. A lengthy appeal to the Prince Regent, as in 1817 thought to be a guardian misled by parliamentary advisors, shows a trust in that individual hard to equate with his known High Tory Politics. The Manchester document argues that the system oppresses all the urban classes, including the manufacturers, stating that the government employs spies to “foment and excite disturbances amongst the oppressed and starving manufacturers and labourers of the united kingdom’, using ‘corrupt and sinister influence to gain over the majority of votes of a venal senate, composed of the agents of the great Borough pensioners …. to pass cruel and oppressive laws, – to starve the honest and industrious labourers, manufacturers and mechanics, and to rob the wretched peasant of the hard earnings wrung from the sweat of his brow” (10). Exactly how the manufacturers can be regarded as starving is unfathomable, and if this word refers to the factory owners then the reformers had not been studying the careers of men like Arkwright and the Peels.

 

The attempt to build a broad class alliance including the Factory Owners, if these are the manufacturers mentioned, and the farming interest, here defined as ‘peasants’ though peasants had long since vanished, made much of the wealth of the landowners who benefitted from the Corn Laws, shows that the grasp of economics was limited and did not fully how poverty was generated, though Joseph Johnson showed a more sophisticated grasp of rural issues in a letter to the Manchester Observer of June 19th 1819. But radicals were drawing on the polemical literature of the time, notably the papers produced by William Cobbett and other radical journalists.

 

These rightly saw taxation and food prices as crucial to exploitation, though low wages were a vital part of the generation of poverty. But radicals targetted the obvious venality of the governing classes, defined as Old Corrupton by William Cobbett. It was clear that the Tory Interest had gained from the French wars, though the wars were not fought to make them rich. However the taxes levied to pay for the wars were of benefit to the Tory Interest, and arguably to no one else. As the burden of the war continued after Waterloo, the Reformers could and did made this a major target. The increasing use of paper money Cobbett made an issue in 1819 by his pamphlet Paper Against Gold, arguing for a gold standard and popularising fiscal issues. The tax burden and the national debt arising from the French Wars were certainly a working class interest, which Read suggests was made more topical by a three million pound increase in taxation in 1819.

 

This pointed toward the larger question of Old Corruption. Certainly in 1819 the radical Manchester Observer argued for Cheap Land and Cheap Government, and an Ashton meeting of June 14th 1819 complained at £22,000 spent on snuff boxes as presents to government allies, and an extra £10,000 voted to the Prince Regent for looking after his father (11). There was a continuing attack on a standing army: though after 1815 as a move towards precisely the Cheap Government some radicals were campaigning for, the services had been savagely reduced at the end of the wars, causing massive unemployment and misery and fuelling protests, notably in London. Peace, Retrenchment and Reform would be a slogan for Gladstonian liberalism. It was not devised till well after Peterloo.

 

Read suggests “the banners on the hustings at Peterloo reflected no empty platitudes: ‘Annual Parliaments’, ‘Universal Suffrage’, ‘No Corn Laws’, ‘No Borough Mongering’, and the rest of the slogans which they carried were the outward expressions of a coherent and highly developed programme of reform”. (12). Up to a point. There is no doubt that for a poorly educated and largely illiterate labouring population, the radicals had developed a high level of political debate. But it was confined to addressing constitutional issues, and was weak on economics. It was not class conscious as a socialist would see issues, and the elements which suggested that an alliance of factory owners and labourers was possible, were not tenable in the reality of the Factory System of the time. Peel the Elder’s attempt to limit child labour in the factories in 1802 passed as it was only limited to apprentices, historically a concern of parliament as apprentices tended to riot, while Peel’s more significant 1819 Cotton Mills and Factories Act was seen by contemporaries as an extension of the Statute of Artificers of 1562, paternalistic legislation which relied on the master to regulate his own workforce and was a failure. A Robert Peel and his son could have successful parliamentary careers, but they could not convince the Tory Party they supported that factory legislation had to be enforced to be effective. Shaftesbury would face the criticism that a limitation to the working day would wipe out the profits of the factory owners, and this was a generation after the ending of the Regency. The Younger Peel initially opposed Shaftesbury as initially did Cobden, the high priest of Manchester Laissez Faire.

 

The political realities of Manchester in 1819 argued against there being an alliance for reform by middle and working class interests. Even though it was in the interests of the manufacturers to secure an MP for the city and other industrial cities they did not support reform as it was tied to working class interests. But it was not until the 1832 Reform Bill that class politics would become clear, with the working class left in the cold. In 1819 Reformers still believed that the alliance was possible and that cheap government was a slogan that would provide such an alliance.

In the fraught conditions of the Long Regency**, it was not anti-capitalist politics which brought masses of people onto the streets to support reform in this period, but a less class oriented and more wide spread campaign which did have the potential for a cross class alliance – the Campaign against the objective Cobbett and every other radical journalist had in their sights in this period: Old Corruption. The objections to Old Corruption were widespread and rooted in a widely held sense that government in the Long Regency was run to benefit aristocrats and a limited group of wealthy and a-moral exploiters of public revenue. This was a widely felt objection to the state of the country particularly after the wars with France. Yet it did not provide a cross class alliance in the towns where the glaring absence of political rights for those not in the High Tory elite was obvious.

 

The most difficult question to answer about Peterloo is why this was the case – and why instead of a successful campaign against Old Corruption, the reformers failed to draw in the middle classes in numbers. The old guard felt their interests were served by violent repression as Old Corruption operated to crush the reform movement. In doing so they confirmed what a correspondent to the conservative Manchester Mercury wrote a week before the demonstration: “the Constitution’s become rotten at the core: there’s foul play at headquarters: the Parliament! Sir, the Parliament! Corruption’s at the very helm of the State…” (13)

 

Of all the questions which arise from Peterloo, why it was not possible to bring about a broad movement for reform is at the core. Peterloo was undoubtely class politics. Class politics are unavoidable in answering the question, but they are not the full answer. Even some Whigs and a mass of journalists and polemicists attacked brutality which showed the unacceptable face of the status quo. Yet overall there was no backlash and the Liverpool government move to even more Pittite Repression. They were playing to a script which saw revolutoin on the streets of Manchester, and this conception remains at the heart of the controversy, underpinning both left and right wing interpretations. But the shock waves generated by Peterloo gained their force from the unreality of this view, making the politics of this demonstration a clash of misconceptions. As the two hundreth anniversary of Peterloo, the key factors can now be teased out as mixing rational and irrational motives which make Peterloo a poisoned chalice which remains as tipping point historical event which lit up the dark background of Regency politics with a flash that has never been forgotten.

 

21 6 17

 

*On Thompson and the Blanketeers, see Hockley and Beyond, History Section, E P Thompson, Manchester and 1817. Personal essay by the author.

** The Regency was 1811-1820, but the Madness of King George meant the political climate changed earlier, and the start of the French Revolution in 1789, or perhaps the events of 1792 which alarmed British opinion, make the era run most logically from the start of the political earthquakes in France.

 

(1) Robert Poole What don’t we know about Peterloo pp14-15, IN Robert Poole Ed, Return to Peterloo, Manchester Centre for Regional History 2014

 

  1. E P Thompson The Making of the English Working class, 1963/68, Penguin classics 2013, p750

 

(3) Katrina Navickas, Loyalism and Radicalism in Lancashire, Oxford University Historical Monographs, 2009

 

(4) Adam Zamoyski, Phantom Terror,

 

  1. Linda Colley, Britons, 1707- 1837, 1994, 3rd Ed Yale 2009.

 

  1. Poole op cit p15-16

 

  1. Donald Read, Peterloo The Massacre and Its Background, Manchester University Press 1957, MUP and August M Kelley, Clifton New Jersey USA 1973. The Manchester Statement of January 18th 1819 is on pp 210-216, the Oldham Statement of June 7th 1819 is on pages 216-217, Signed John Knight..

 

  1. Read op cit p40

 

  1. Read op cit p216

 

  1. Read op cit p214

 

  1. Read op cit pp 42-43

 

  1. Read op cit p46

 

(13) Manchester Mercury, August 10th 1819, quoted Read op cit p41

 

 

 

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