Peterloo – searching for the reasons why

Peterloo- Searching for the Reasons Why – Vers 2

The Peterloo Massacre on August 16th 1819 stands out in nineteenth century history as the most notorious example of political violence on mainland Britain. Indeed, it is a unique episode in this period of the British state using lethal force on an unarmed and non-violent demonstration. The sheer volume of eye witness evidence proves beyond doubt that this was a massacre, but the reasons why it happened remain obscure and the action of the authorities still attracts supporters – and at the time the High Tory government of Lord Liverpool was fully behind the local politicians, the organisers of the demonstration being prosecuted while no action was taken against the magistrates who issued the orders for military action. The government’s unquestioning support of the actions of both the magistrates and the military, after the event, raises the issue of whether the massacre had been preplanned, at local or government level or both.

 

Whether it had been intended is one of the questions which remain to be answered. As E P Thompson said in his 1963 classic The Making of the English Working Class, (1) “If the Government was unprepared for the news of Peterloo, no authorities have ever acted so vigorously to make themselves accomplices after the fact”. The government reaction casts suspicion over the authorities reaction to the massacre, raising questions over half a century after Thompson published his book. However it is clear that rather than being planned in Westminster, at the heart of the debate is the issue of what the magistrates did on the day – they undoubtedly issued the fatal order to send troops into the crowd.

 

Thompson is aware of the local political context, but argued that “We can no more understand the significance of Peterloo in terms of the local politics of Manchester that we can understand the strategic importance of Waterloo in terms of the field and the orders of the day”. But while the deployment of troops had a wider significance than a localised dispute, and had to be approved by government, the presence of troops in St Peter’s Field did not mean their use was pre-planned. Thompson himself notes that in other demonstrations troops had been called out but kept away from the crowd. (2) It was common practice for magistrates to have troops available for use – they had no police force. The question is why they were used in 1819.

 

The evidence at the time on the decision to order troops into the crowd was ambiguous and contested. One argument in defence of the authorities was that the use of troops was justified by the threat of disorder, which the authorities believed was preplanned by the organisers. But if the authorities knew of planned disorder, they had the power to ban the assembly taking place. The right of assembly was not unqualified, and even if there was only an assumption that mobilising a large crowd was intended, implicitly, to lead to violence the meeting could be stopped. This had happened after demonstrations in Spa Fields, London, in December 1816. Following the Spa Fields riots, demonstrations in February and March 1817 were indeed banned (3). Though this followed real and serious violence in London, the authorities could have no doubt they had the power to ban the assembly of large numbers of people if they suspected disorder would break out.

 

Indeed, a first attempt to organise a demonstration and elect an unofficial representative – as had already happened in Birmingham on 2nd July 1819 – was ruled illegal by the Manchester magistrates and this meeting was called off, showing that the authorities had the ability to prevent a demonstration happening. Any risk of violence would have allowed the meeting to be banned, but the lack of advance action to stop the meeting suggests the authorities did not have any such evidence. It was certainly not an argument that was pressed strongly. The main defence arguement for military action, was that on the day there was a threat of violence and this justified the use of military force. The authorities of course did not have a police force, and only a military presence could deal with a large assembly of people and enforce the reading of the Riot Act.

 

The organisers and other defenders of the meeting after the event argued disorder was neither intended nor took place on the day, and that the violence was entirely caused by the orders of the magistrates to send the troops into the crowd to arrest the speakers. How the magistrates made that fatal decision are at the heart of the continuing debate on what took place.

The questions posed by that decision, which undoubtedly led to the massacre, centre on several separate but related issues: firstly- did the magistrates intend to suppress the meeting by violence, unjustified by any threat to public order, given that the balance of evidence of eyewitnesses was that disorder had not happened by the time the order to send in the troops was made? Secondly, were they acting independently of the government, or did Liverpool’s ministry, notably the Home Secretary Lord Sidmouth, know and approve of what happened in advance. In other words, did Westminster politicians plan with the magistrates to take exemplary action to suppress the growth of the movement for parliamentary (and other) reforms? Thirdly, even if there was no preplanned move to suppress the demonstration by force, did the authorities miscalculate and over-react, accidental misjudgements which nevertheless would be sufficient to place the blame for what happened at their door?

 

Peterloo was, however, not merely an accident like the Hillsborough disaster when football fans died as a result of police miscalculations which led to overcrowding in a stadium. Peterloo cannot be discussed as an issue of crowd control. The meeting was political, and there was massive ideological polarisation at the time and afterward. Thompson is right that the political context is unavoidable, but at the heart of the controversy is what actually happened on the day.

Historians have largely abandoned the nineteenth century positivist belief that interpretation flows from factual evidence: the selection of facts and their interpretation are always contentious. Nevertheless, when the sheer bulk of factual evidence on the events of August 16th is as voluminous as it is, there is a temptation to believe the facts speak for themselves. With Peterloo, the debate is still live because on many key issues, it is still not clear what happened and any attempt to assume the facts are fully known is misleading. The temptation to assume otherwise must be resisted and the facts scrutinised.

 

In a relatively recent essay, however, Robert Poole argued that the facts were largely established and interpretation of motives should now be the historical focus. His 2012 essay What don’t we know about Peterloo, (4) put forward a sophisticated argument that historians should accept that we know what happened and put effort into explaining why, focussing on the actions of the magistrates. It is an important viewpoint and this paper will examine it from the standpoint that it cannot be assumed that the facts are not unproblematic. The crucial section of Poole’s essay (5), setting out his perspective is broken down below, with each stage in the argument examined in the subsequent section. The key argument is in section B below

 

A – The Magistrates’ case

 

The authorities* were genuinely fearful about the drilling practicised in advance on local moors,

but the collection of dozens of expressions of preconcieved alarm… was part of the authorities preparation for the use of force against a meeting which they had already decided was a stage in a planned rising. … The core of the magistrate’s case was not that they had responded to actual violence but that they had acted to pre-empt expected violence. … justified not by what happened on the field but by the claim that the meeting itself was unlawful. … this enabled the organisers to be indicted for intending to provoke a riot, … by their insistence on delivering inflammatory speeches to an excitable mass of non-electors”.

 

B. The issues for debate.

 

There is then no need for argument about the broad outlines… whether… 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, at least so far as the events of the day are concerned. So: what don’t we know about Peterloo?” (Emphasis in the original TF)

 

C. The state of mind of the decision makers.

 

… We have to admit that it remains hard to explain why the magistrates were apparently so set upon confrontation, and why they failed to respond to the Home Office’s late change of stance against forceful intervention. It was a high risk strategy in some ways out of character for a somewhat jittery and alarmist group of men”.

 

D . The Lessons of the march of the Blanketeers

 

In 1817 they had relied upon police work, informers and the experienced regular troops stationed in the north to frustrate the march of the Blanketeers on London and to entrap the most militant radicals in a plan for an armed rising”.

 

(Refers to his own paper of 2009 for supporting evidence. The Armed Rising was the Ardwick conspiracy, if this existed).

 

E. The secret networks of the Manchester elite

 

Some of the magistrates had a background in the suppression of the 1798 Irish rebellion, … as Katrina Navickas (6) has shown, so tended to think in military rather than political terms. As well as dominating Manchester’s ramshackle institutions of local government they associated in a secretive network of orange and masonic lodges, and some had a high-Tory and even Jacobite political background that encouraged them to see themselves as an inner governing elite responsible to no-one. “ (Emphasis TF)

 

F. The Beliefs and Justifications of the Manchester elite.

 

William Hay and his colleagues* seem to have been genuinely convinced that the outwardly peaceful character of the Peterloo rally was merely a cloak for a deep-laid rebellion in the near future and that as in 1817 serious political disorder had been averted by prompt and forceful action”.

 

G. The continuing puzzle.

 

Even so, so send in amateur local troops against the largest mass gathering Manchester had ever seen, and before any of the expected trouble had materialised, was quite a thing and we still need a full explanation of it”.

Reponses to the issues raised.

 

A. The collection of expressions of alarm would be useful to support a decision to ban the demonstration, as public fear of potential disorder could justify a banning order. However to carry weight the decision should have been pre-emptive, not taken on the day. The argument that the action was to pre-empt violence by stopping the speakers could only be sustained by evidence of potential public order offences. There never has been strong evidence that actual disorder was planned which could have supported a decision to prevent the demonstration, something the magistrates did not attempt to do. They chose to wait for disorder on the day, and whether this did take place, or was about to take place, is a factual question. If it did, the law allowed the magistrates to prevent it.

 

It was the responsibility of the magistrates, not the military or the government, to take action on the day. The actual decision was in fact to arrest the speakers, not to clear the square. The massacre happened because the troops could not get to the speakers without cutting down unarmed people. The belief that the meeting was de facto revolutionary even if peaceful was with little doubt a strong factor in the minds of the magistrates, and some took the view that any demonstration of this size was de facto a revolutionary threat even if there was no sign of disorder. This was never going to be a strong argument to justify the violence which took place, and the main argument in defence of the order to the troops was that the crowd behaved violently, and this is an issue for factual examination.

 

The Home Office ruled the meeting was lawful and so the meeting itself could not be seen as illegal: but though it was legal to meet, the extent and purposes of the meeting qualified this. The magistrates could in law act to stop disorder, but if the magistrates had cause for suspicion of potential violence it was wise policy to ban the demonstration, and arrest the organisers beforehand – not in the middle of a mass demonstration.

 

If Poole is arguing the authorities had evidence for preparations for disorder, this is a factual question which has to be examined as such. What evidence is there that this is the case?

Such preparations would be unlawful, and if the magistrates did proceed with the meeting anticipating disorder there are serious questions on whether they were intent on exemplary punishment by allowing it to go ahead – if they had solid grounds to expect violence.

 

B, While Poole is justified in arguing the magistrates are central to Peterloo, and Donald Read also believed the magistrates bore the prime responsibility, it is highly questionable to dismiss the role of the government, especially Sidmouth. Poole is assuming too much to dismiss the argument on the ‘broad outlines’.Whether there was a massacre or a battle is very relevant. It is still contended that the crowd had come mob handed prepared to riot, and it was argued that the violence was started by the crowd thus classing the outcome as a ‘battle’. The question is whether the violence was started by the crowd, justifying the action of the magistrates.

 

The defenders of the troops were to claim they had been attacked first, and then responded. This was hard to justify given the order to advance was not to quell actual rioting, and even harder to see how a crowd that contained women and children was intent on violence, but this is one of the issues that has to be addressed, as extremists in a crowd can ignore the effect on other people, and the facts are in dispute.

 

C. The role of government especially Sidmouth and the military under General Byng needs close attention, What change of stance by Home Office is Poole referring to? Was Peterloo out of character as Poole suggests? There is evidence that the political decision makers, locally and nationally were men who were not unwilling to use armed force. (The authorities in this section Poole refers to are clearly the local magistrates of Manchester-Salford, acting on the day).

 

The historical debate has tended to suggest that the outcome was less politically willed at government level than produced by local decisions. But these may reflect wider national policy directions. The role of government, especially Sidmouth, is ambiguous. The Home Office never questioned the deployment of troops and left final decision to the magistrates. This was logical as in a pre electronic age there was no ability to be in touch with events on the day. The key questions revolve around what the magistrates decided. But they did so in a highly charged and very political context, expecting at the very least to be exonerated by the government. Whether this had been planned before hand is a relevant question.

D. The Blanketeers had indeed been dispersed. But while the lessons seemed to be that the authorities were able to handle a mass demonstration, the Blanketeers as such were a small group – 5000 is one estimate, but unlikely to have been more than a few hundred (7) . And they were dealt with by regular troops with minimal bloodshed – one bystander killed. It appears that the magistrates concluded that the Blanketeers had posed a serious threat and they needed more forces at their disposal – one magistrates estimated that 12 000 people attended to send the marchers on their way (8), and this shook the confidence of the authorities in their ability to control such large numbers. As one of the lessons drawn by the magistrates in 1817 was the need for extra cavalry, and hence the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry were set up, a volunteer force which was to be deployed at Peterloo, and indeed only existed for just such a purpose.

There is more to the Blanketeers and the Ardwick conspiracy than Poole gives credit for. (Was the alleged Ardwick conspiracy a ‘plan for an armed uprising’?) and the actions of the organisers seems to have convinced the magistrates, that the opposition was now formidable. The military seems to have been more confident, if General Byng’s absence on the day is anything to go by. There is an issue of why the methods of 1817 did not work in 1819, although the sheer size of the crowd in 1819 – estimated at 60,000 – may have panicked the magistrates.

E. It is highly relevant that Manchester was an unreformed city whose mushroom growth had let it without proper governance and policing. In this context the limited personell of the elite and their secretive networks are very relevant. They were also a beleagured minority- the immigration of large numbers of dissenters and catholic Irish had left the Tories as a minority group which had everything to lose by reform of national and civic government. The state of mind and assumptions of the power elite in Manchester need careful examination.

F. What the magistrates believed in and after the Blanketeers and the events of 1817 (Ardwick, the Pentridge rising) has to be established, though there is no doubt that they did believe they faced a revolutionary challenged, if perhaps not actual immediate insurrection. It is very much to the point that the Tory ministry also believed they were facing organised revolution. The Green Bag Commitee of early 1817 had said as much, and through the next turbulent five years this was the assumption of the ministry, only abandoned when Liverpool resigned and a new breed of Conservative but reformist Tory politician came to power dedicated to conservation via reform. However in the post war years 1815 – 1822 fear of revolution was endemic in British elite politics.

G. This is not only a fair point, but the heart of the continuing conundrum. What made the magistrates – or magistrate – believe it was a good move to send troops into a tightly packed and orderly crowd? The magistrates made this decision, in the knowledge the military would carry out the order. However the role of regular troops and their commanders has to be factored into the equation to get a full picture. The absence of Byng is significant, as he clearly did not think there was a major threat of disorder or he would not have occupied himself at a horse race.

 

Poole’s general point is however sound. To order troops to arrest the platform when a mass of men, women and children, unprepared for violence, stood in the way was unbelievable folly. The chances of cavalry forcing their way through without serious consequences were astronomically remote. Either the magistrates panicked, and fearful men do panic, or they were oblivious to the dangers or – worse – were deliberately taking the opportunity to punish the crowd and make an example which would cow the workers. Why the magistrates chose to do this, from whatever viewpoint the massacre is viewed from, has never been satisfactorily explained. It is a remarkable fact given the volume of evidence and substantial body of research, that mysteries remain.

 

The mysteries do not just involve the Establishment. Precisely what the reformers were aiming at also remains obscure. Poole rightly argues “We do not really know what the radicals thought they were doing at Peterloo. They could not possibly have anticipated the actual outcome… the established consensus was to turning up mob-handed was not legitimate politics. How were boots on the ground expected to translate into political change?” (9) Poole notes that compared to the March of the Blanketeers some 27 months earlier, the meeting had no real visible strategy.

However the major questions involve the government and the local magistrates – given that the reformers had no conscious revolutionary intention and were not expecting disorder. And while there are many questions about the government’s behaviour, the biggest questions revolve around the actions of the magistrates and their decisions, and the facts remain in dispute. Whether they had evidence violence was planned, or simply believed that this would develop inexorably as the day progressed, what the magistrates did was irresponsible at best. To bring the meeting to a conclusion, reading the riot act and dispersing the crowd was the logical way forward – but even whether the reading of the riot act took place is in dispute* and needs scrutiny. However whatever course the magistrates followed, they had placed themselves in a position where fatalities were almost inevitable. Seeking to arrest the speakers when the military were on the edge of the crowd some distance from the hustings and with a tight packed crowd blocking their way was asking for serious trouble. Whether planned or simply neligent and out of their depth, the magistrates trigged the disaster. But whether they did so with malice aforethought is the issue which has yet to be fully explained.

Trevor Fisher 03 02 17

* there is an unresolved issue over whether the Riot Act was actually read out. While of little practical use as without loudspeakers it could hardly be heard in a crowd of c60 000 the technical issue is in dispute. It generally held, buy Navickas (below) and others that it was read by Rev Charles Wickstead Ethelston, the magistrate vicar, but whether he did so is in dispute.

(1) E P Thompson The Making of the English Working Class, Gollancz, 1963. Penguin Classics 2013, p750

(2) Notably (op cit p745) at what he thinks is the first open air reform meeting, in Burslem in January 1817, when “troops were held at a short distance, out of sight”. The magistrates had called for their presence, but they were not used.

(3) See Op Cit pp 694-696. Footnote p696 indicates the Two Acts and suspension of Habeas Corpus were in force, but the law already allowed magistrates to ban assemblies likely to cause violence. The Habeas Corpus suspension Act passed on March 4th 1817, re-enacted in July and did not expire till January 1818. Curiously despite the discussion, Spa Fields is not in Thompson’s index.

(4) Robert Poole What don’t we know about Peterloo? IN Poole R, Ed. Return to Peterloo- Manchester Region History Review, Vol 23 2012, Reprinted 2014 p1-18.

 

(5) Poole Op cit pp14-15

 

(6) Katrina Navickas Lancashire Britishness…. IN Poole R Ed 2012-14 p40- and extensively in Loyalism and Radicalism In Lancashire 1798- 1815 Oxford 2009

(7) Poole suggested there were ‘thousands who had prepared for the march on London” (French Revolution or Peasant’s Revolt, Labour History Review, Vol 74, No 1, April 2009, p7). Marjie Bloy (http://www.victorianweb.org/history/riots/blanket.html, downloaded 28 11 16) believes “between six hundred and seven hundred men set out in the drizzling rain…” The second estimate is more realistic.

(8) Poole op cit 2009 estimates 25,000.

Poole op cit 2012=14 pp16-17

* SEE Appendix PERSONALITIES – Blanketeers – Personalities – establishment TF)

see also

Donald Read, Peterloo, The ‘Massacre’ and its background, MUP 1958, reprinted with additional note 1973, pix (not given, but after original pviii) – the Ziegler book is Addington, Collins 1965).

 

 

Peterloo- Searching for the Reasons Why – Vers 2

The Peterloo Massacre on August 16th 1819 stands out in nineteenth century history as the most notorious example of political violence on mainland Britain. Indeed, it is a unique episode in this period of the British state using lethal force on an unarmed and non-violent demonstration. The sheer volume of eye witness evidence proves beyond doubt that this was a massacre, but the reasons why it happened remain obscure and the action of the authorities still attracts supporters – and at the time the High Tory government of Lord Liverpool was fully behind the local politicians, the organisers of the demonstration being prosecuted while no action was taken against the magistrates who issued the orders for military action. The government’s unquestioning support of the actions of both the magistrates and the military, after the event, raises the issue of whether the massacre had been preplanned, at local or government level or both.

 

Whether it had been intended is one of the questions which remain to be answered. As E P Thompson said in his 1963 classic The Making of the English Working Class, (1) “If the Government was unprepared for the news of Peterloo, no authorities have ever acted so vigorously to make themselves accomplices after the fact”. The government reaction casts suspicion over the authorities reaction to the massacre, raising questions over half a century after Thompson published his book. However it is clear that rather than being planned in Westminster, at the heart of the debate is the issue of what the magistrates did on the day – they undoubtedly issued the fatal order to send troops into the crowd.

 

Thompson is aware of the local political context, but argued that “We can no more understand the significance of Peterloo in terms of the local politics of Manchester that we can understand the strategic importance of Waterloo in terms of the field and the orders of the day”. But while the deployment of troops had a wider significance than a localised dispute, and had to be approved by government, the presence of troops in St Peter’s Field did not mean their use was pre-planned. Thompson himself notes that in other demonstrations troops had been called out but kept away from the crowd. (2) It was common practice for magistrates to have troops available for use – they had no police force. The question is why they were used in 1819.

 

The evidence at the time on the decision to order troops into the crowd was ambiguous and contested. One argument in defence of the authorities was that the use of troops was justified by the threat of disorder, which the authorities believed was preplanned by the organisers. But if the authorities knew of planned disorder, they had the power to ban the assembly taking place. The right of assembly was not unqualified, and even if there was only an assumption that mobilising a large crowd was intended, implicitly, to lead to violence the meeting could be stopped. This had happened after demonstrations in Spa Fields, London, in December 1816. Following the Spa Fields riots, demonstrations in February and March 1817 were indeed banned (3). Though this followed real and serious violence in London, the authorities could have no doubt they had the power to ban the assembly of large numbers of people if they suspected disorder would break out.

 

Indeed, a first attempt to organise a demonstration and elect an unofficial representative – as had already happened in Birmingham on 2nd July 1819 – was ruled illegal by the Manchester magistrates and this meeting was called off, showing that the authorities had the ability to prevent a demonstration happening. Any risk of violence would have allowed the meeting to be banned, but the lack of advance action to stop the meeting suggests the authorities did not have any such evidence. It was certainly not an argument that was pressed strongly. The main defence arguement for military action, was that on the day there was a threat of violence and this justified the use of military force. The authorities of course did not have a police force, and only a military presence could deal with a large assembly of people and enforce the reading of the Riot Act.

 

The organisers and other defenders of the meeting after the event argued disorder was neither intended nor took place on the day, and that the violence was entirely caused by the orders of the magistrates to send the troops into the crowd to arrest the speakers. How the magistrates made that fatal decision are at the heart of the continuing debate on what took place.

The questions posed by that decision, which undoubtedly led to the massacre, centre on several separate but related issues: firstly- did the magistrates intend to suppress the meeting by violence, unjustified by any threat to public order, given that the balance of evidence of eyewitnesses was that disorder had not happened by the time the order to send in the troops was made? Secondly, were they acting independently of the government, or did Liverpool’s ministry, notably the Home Secretary Lord Sidmouth, know and approve of what happened in advance. In other words, did Westminster politicians plan with the magistrates to take exemplary action to suppress the growth of the movement for parliamentary (and other) reforms? Thirdly, even if there was no preplanned move to suppress the demonstration by force, did the authorities miscalculate and over-react, accidental misjudgements which nevertheless would be sufficient to place the blame for what happened at their door?

 

Peterloo was, however, not merely an accident like the Hillsborough disaster when football fans died as a result of police miscalculations which led to overcrowding in a stadium. Peterloo cannot be discussed as an issue of crowd control. The meeting was political, and there was massive ideological polarisation at the time and afterward. Thompson is right that the political context is unavoidable, but at the heart of the controversy is what actually happened on the day.

Historians have largely abandoned the nineteenth century positivist belief that interpretation flows from factual evidence: the selection of facts and their interpretation are always contentious. Nevertheless, when the sheer bulk of factual evidence on the events of August 16th is as voluminous as it is, there is a temptation to believe the facts speak for themselves. With Peterloo, the debate is still live because on many key issues, it is still not clear what happened and any attempt to assume the facts are fully known is misleading. The temptation to assume otherwise must be resisted and the facts scrutinised.

 

In a relatively recent essay, however, Robert Poole argued that the facts were largely established and interpretation of motives should now be the historical focus. His 2012 essay What don’t we know about Peterloo, (4) put forward a sophisticated argument that historians should accept that we know what happened and put effort into explaining why, focussing on the actions of the magistrates. It is an important viewpoint and this paper will examine it from the standpoint that it cannot be assumed that the facts are not unproblematic. The crucial section of Poole’s essay (5), setting out his perspective is broken down below, with each stage in the argument examined in the subsequent section. The key argument is in section B below

 

A – The Magistrates’ case

 

The authorities* were genuinely fearful about the drilling practicised in advance on local moors,

but the collection of dozens of expressions of preconcieved alarm… was part of the authorities preparation for the use of force against a meeting which they had already decided was a stage in a planned rising. … The core of the magistrate’s case was not that they had responded to actual violence but that they had acted to pre-empt expected violence. … justified not by what happened on the field but by the claim that the meeting itself was unlawful. … this enabled the organisers to be indicted for intending to provoke a riot, … by their insistence on delivering inflammatory speeches to an excitable mass of non-electors”.

 

B. The issues for debate.

 

There is then no need for argument about the broad outlines… whether… 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, at least so far as the events of the day are concerned. So: what don’t we know about Peterloo?” (Emphasis in the original TF)

 

C. The state of mind of the decision makers.

 

… We have to admit that it remains hard to explain why the magistrates were apparently so set upon confrontation, and why they failed to respond to the Home Office’s late change of stance against forceful intervention. It was a high risk strategy in some ways out of character for a somewhat jittery and alarmist group of men”.

 

D . The Lessons of the march of the Blanketeers

 

In 1817 they had relied upon police work, informers and the experienced regular troops stationed in the north to frustrate the march of the Blanketeers on London and to entrap the most militant radicals in a plan for an armed rising”.

 

(Refers to his own paper of 2009 for supporting evidence. The Armed Rising was the Ardwick conspiracy, if this existed).

 

E. The secret networks of the Manchester elite

 

Some of the magistrates had a background in the suppression of the 1798 Irish rebellion, … as Katrina Navickas (6) has shown, so tended to think in military rather than political terms. As well as dominating Manchester’s ramshackle institutions of local government they associated in a secretive network of orange and masonic lodges, and some had a high-Tory and even Jacobite political background that encouraged them to see themselves as an inner governing elite responsible to no-one. “ (Emphasis TF)

 

F. The Beliefs and Justifications of the Manchester elite.

 

William Hay and his colleagues* seem to have been genuinely convinced that the outwardly peaceful character of the Peterloo rally was merely a cloak for a deep-laid rebellion in the near future and that as in 1817 serious political disorder had been averted by prompt and forceful action”.

 

G. The continuing puzzle.

 

Even so, so send in amateur local troops against the largest mass gathering Manchester had ever seen, and before any of the expected trouble had materialised, was quite a thing and we still need a full explanation of it”.

Reponses to the issues raised.

 

A. The collection of expressions of alarm would be useful to support a decision to ban the demonstration, as public fear of potential disorder could justify a banning order. However to carry weight the decision should have been pre-emptive, not taken on the day. The argument that the action was to pre-empt violence by stopping the speakers could only be sustained by evidence of potential public order offences. There never has been strong evidence that actual disorder was planned which could have supported a decision to prevent the demonstration, something the magistrates did not attempt to do. They chose to wait for disorder on the day, and whether this did take place, or was about to take place, is a factual question. If it did, the law allowed the magistrates to prevent it.

 

It was the responsibility of the magistrates, not the military or the government, to take action on the day. The actual decision was in fact to arrest the speakers, not to clear the square. The massacre happened because the troops could not get to the speakers without cutting down unarmed people. The belief that the meeting was de facto revolutionary even if peaceful was with little doubt a strong factor in the minds of the magistrates, and some took the view that any demonstration of this size was de facto a revolutionary threat even if there was no sign of disorder. This was never going to be a strong argument to justify the violence which took place, and the main argument in defence of the order to the troops was that the crowd behaved violently, and this is an issue for factual examination.

 

The Home Office ruled the meeting was lawful and so the meeting itself could not be seen as illegal: but though it was legal to meet, the extent and purposes of the meeting qualified this. The magistrates could in law act to stop disorder, but if the magistrates had cause for suspicion of potential violence it was wise policy to ban the demonstration, and arrest the organisers beforehand – not in the middle of a mass demonstration.

 

If Poole is arguing the authorities had evidence for preparations for disorder, this is a factual question which has to be examined as such. What evidence is there that this is the case?

Such preparations would be unlawful, and if the magistrates did proceed with the meeting anticipating disorder there are serious questions on whether they were intent on exemplary punishment by allowing it to go ahead – if they had solid grounds to expect violence.

 

B, While Poole is justified in arguing the magistrates are central to Peterloo, and Donald Read also believed the magistrates bore the prime responsibility, it is highly questionable to dismiss the role of the government, especially Sidmouth. Poole is assuming too much to dismiss the argument on the ‘broad outlines’.Whether there was a massacre or a battle is very relevant. It is still contended that the crowd had come mob handed prepared to riot, and it was argued that the violence was started by the crowd thus classing the outcome as a ‘battle’. The question is whether the violence was started by the crowd, justifying the action of the magistrates.

 

The defenders of the troops were to claim they had been attacked first, and then responded. This was hard to justify given the order to advance was not to quell actual rioting, and even harder to see how a crowd that contained women and children was intent on violence, but this is one of the issues that has to be addressed, as extremists in a crowd can ignore the effect on other people, and the facts are in dispute.

 

C. The role of government especially Sidmouth and the military under General Byng needs close attention, What change of stance by Home Office is Poole referring to? Was Peterloo out of character as Poole suggests? There is evidence that the political decision makers, locally and nationally were men who were not unwilling to use armed force. (The authorities in this section Poole refers to are clearly the local magistrates of Manchester-Salford, acting on the day).

 

The historical debate has tended to suggest that the outcome was less politically willed at government level than produced by local decisions. But these may reflect wider national policy directions. The role of government, especially Sidmouth, is ambiguous. The Home Office never questioned the deployment of troops and left final decision to the magistrates. This was logical as in a pre electronic age there was no ability to be in touch with events on the day. The key questions revolve around what the magistrates decided. But they did so in a highly charged and very political context, expecting at the very least to be exonerated by the government. Whether this had been planned before hand is a relevant question.

D. The Blanketeers had indeed been dispersed. But while the lessons seemed to be that the authorities were able to handle a mass demonstration, the Blanketeers as such were a small group – 5000 is one estimate, but unlikely to have been more than a few hundred (7) . And they were dealt with by regular troops with minimal bloodshed – one bystander killed. It appears that the magistrates concluded that the Blanketeers had posed a serious threat and they needed more forces at their disposal – one magistrates estimated that 12 000 people attended to send the marchers on their way (8), and this shook the confidence of the authorities in their ability to control such large numbers. As one of the lessons drawn by the magistrates in 1817 was the need for extra cavalry, and hence the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry were set up, a volunteer force which was to be deployed at Peterloo, and indeed only existed for just such a purpose.

There is more to the Blanketeers and the Ardwick conspiracy than Poole gives credit for. (Was the alleged Ardwick conspiracy a ‘plan for an armed uprising’?) and the actions of the organisers seems to have convinced the magistrates, that the opposition was now formidable. The military seems to have been more confident, if General Byng’s absence on the day is anything to go by. There is an issue of why the methods of 1817 did not work in 1819, although the sheer size of the crowd in 1819 – estimated at 60,000 – may have panicked the magistrates.

E. It is highly relevant that Manchester was an unreformed city whose mushroom growth had let it without proper governance and policing. In this context the limited personell of the elite and their secretive networks are very relevant. They were also a beleagured minority- the immigration of large numbers of dissenters and catholic Irish had left the Tories as a minority group which had everything to lose by reform of national and civic government. The state of mind and assumptions of the power elite in Manchester need careful examination.

F. What the magistrates believed in and after the Blanketeers and the events of 1817 (Ardwick, the Pentridge rising) has to be established, though there is no doubt that they did believe they faced a revolutionary challenged, if perhaps not actual immediate insurrection. It is very much to the point that the Tory ministry also believed they were facing organised revolution. The Green Bag Commitee of early 1817 had said as much, and through the next turbulent five years this was the assumption of the ministry, only abandoned when Liverpool resigned and a new breed of Conservative but reformist Tory politician came to power dedicated to conservation via reform. However in the post war years 1815 – 1822 fear of revolution was endemic in British elite politics.

G. This is not only a fair point, but the heart of the continuing conundrum. What made the magistrates – or magistrate – believe it was a good move to send troops into a tightly packed and orderly crowd? The magistrates made this decision, in the knowledge the military would carry out the order. However the role of regular troops and their commanders has to be factored into the equation to get a full picture. The absence of Byng is significant, as he clearly did not think there was a major threat of disorder or he would not have occupied himself at a horse race.

 

Poole’s general point is however sound. To order troops to arrest the platform when a mass of men, women and children, unprepared for violence, stood in the way was unbelievable folly. The chances of cavalry forcing their way through without serious consequences were astronomically remote. Either the magistrates panicked, and fearful men do panic, or they were oblivious to the dangers or – worse – were deliberately taking the opportunity to punish the crowd and make an example which would cow the workers. Why the magistrates chose to do this, from whatever viewpoint the massacre is viewed from, has never been satisfactorily explained. It is a remarkable fact given the volume of evidence and substantial body of research, that mysteries remain.

 

The mysteries do not just involve the Establishment. Precisely what the reformers were aiming at also remains obscure. Poole rightly argues “We do not really know what the radicals thought they were doing at Peterloo. They could not possibly have anticipated the actual outcome… the established consensus was to turning up mob-handed was not legitimate politics. How were boots on the ground expected to translate into political change?” (9) Poole notes that compared to the March of the Blanketeers some 27 months earlier, the meeting had no real visible strategy.

However the major questions involve the government and the local magistrates – given that the reformers had no conscious revolutionary intention and were not expecting disorder. And while there are many questions about the government’s behaviour, the biggest questions revolve around the actions of the magistrates and their decisions, and the facts remain in dispute. Whether they had evidence violence was planned, or simply believed that this would develop inexorably as the day progressed, what the magistrates did was irresponsible at best. To bring the meeting to a conclusion, reading the riot act and dispersing the crowd was the logical way forward – but even whether the reading of the riot act took place is in dispute* and needs scrutiny. However whatever course the magistrates followed, they had placed themselves in a position where fatalities were almost inevitable. Seeking to arrest the speakers when the military were on the edge of the crowd some distance from the hustings and with a tight packed crowd blocking their way was asking for serious trouble. Whether planned or simply neligent and out of their depth, the magistrates trigged the disaster. But whether they did so with malice aforethought is the issue which has yet to be fully explained.

Trevor Fisher 03 02 17

* there is an unresolved issue over whether the Riot Act was actually read out. While of little practical use as without loudspeakers it could hardly be heard in a crowd of c60 000 the technical issue is in dispute. It generally held, buy Navickas (below) and others that it was read by Rev Charles Wickstead Ethelston, the magistrate vicar, but whether he did so is in dispute.

(1) E P Thompson The Making of the English Working Class, Gollancz, 1963. Penguin Classics 2013, p750

(2) Notably (op cit p745) at what he thinks is the first open air reform meeting, in Burslem in January 1817, when “troops were held at a short distance, out of sight”. The magistrates had called for their presence, but they were not used.

(3) See Op Cit pp 694-696. Footnote p696 indicates the Two Acts and suspension of Habeas Corpus were in force, but the law already allowed magistrates to ban assemblies likely to cause violence. The Habeas Corpus suspension Act passed on March 4th 1817, re-enacted in July and did not expire till January 1818. Curiously despite the discussion, Spa Fields is not in Thompson’s index.

(4) Robert Poole What don’t we know about Peterloo? IN Poole R, Ed. Return to Peterloo- Manchester Region History Review, Vol 23 2012, Reprinted 2014 p1-18.

 

(5) Poole Op cit pp14-15

 

(6) Katrina Navickas Lancashire Britishness…. IN Poole R Ed 2012-14 p40- and extensively in Loyalism and Radicalism In Lancashire 1798- 1815 Oxford 2009

(7) Poole suggested there were ‘thousands who had prepared for the march on London” (French Revolution or Peasant’s Revolt, Labour History Review, Vol 74, No 1, April 2009, p7). Marjie Bloy (http://www.victorianweb.org/history/riots/blanket.html, downloaded 28 11 16) believes “between six hundred and seven hundred men set out in the drizzling rain…” The second estimate is more realistic.

(8) Poole op cit 2009 estimates 25,000.

Poole op cit 2012=14 pp16-17

* SEE Appendix PERSONALITIES – Blanketeers – Personalities – establishment TF)

see also

Donald Read, Peterloo, The ‘Massacre’ and its background, MUP 1958, reprinted with additional note 1973, pix (not given, but after original pviii) – the Ziegler book is Addington, Collins 1965).

 

 

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