Reaction, Reform and Peterloo- underlying issues

Reaction, Reform and Peterloo – underlying issues

The Peterloo Massacre was the outcome of a struggle not merely between Reformers and Conservatives, but tensions within the Reform Movement on the one hand and divisions within the Conservative interests – the Loyalists – on the other. The tendency has been to see Reform as one movement, and Conservatives as one monolithic reactionary bloc on the other. There is a more complex reality to be unearthed.

Even a sophisticated thinker such as E P Thompson in THE MAKING OF THE ENGLISH WORKING CLASS – still the key text and rightly influential over half a century after it appeared – sees the Reform Movement is seen as one block in 1817 with the Pentridge* Rising as the basis of Peterloo.


Thus Thompson says on the reform movement in the crucial year 1817

This co-incidence of persecution and confusion is the background to the tangled story of the March of the Blanketeers, the Ardwick Conspiracy, and the Pentridge rising”. (1)

And further connects the Pentridge rising with Peterloo, arguing (2)

There is a sense in which Peterloo followed directly, and inevitably, upon Pentridge. It was the outcome of an extraordinarily powerful and determined ‘constitutionalist’ agitation, largely working class in character, within a potentially revolutionary context”.

There was no potential for revolution in England in 1817, and the constitutional agitation had nothing to do with insurrectionary plotting, which working class people saw as a dead end. The Blanketeers who marched in May 1817 were constitutionalists, and it is this tradition which was attacked violently in St Peters Field on August 19th 1819. The influential perspective endorsed by Thompson linked reform to insurrection. Paradoxically this is what paranoid Loyalists believed was happening, justifying Peterloo while ignoring the divisions within the reform movement. Constitutionalism was the creed of both demonstrations in St Peter’s Field, 1817 and 1819, and no interpretation can be valid which fails to clarify the divisions within the reform movement, and place the emphasis firmly on non insurrectionary constitutional mass activity.

Similarly the Loyalist camp which was in charge of the government through most of the Regency period, firmly so after the French wars, was not monolithic, and certainly did not control an absolutist state on the model of the French monarchy – until the ancien regime cracked in 1789. Britain, or England to be precise, was certainly moving into a phase of repression after 1792 – but never came anywhere near absolutism. This fact was paradoxically one of the root causes of Peterloo. The regime lacked real machinery for control at local level.

Background 1792-1816

It is true that the picture of a repressive and reactionary regime developing up to 1816 painted by Thompson remains valid. He contends that “between 1792 and 1815, 155 barracks were constructed, many of which were deliberately sited in the ‘disaffected’ districts of the Midlands and north. England, in 1792, had been governed by consent and deference, supplemented by the gallows and the church and king mob. In 1816, the English people were held down by force” (3)

This is an acute comment, though the shift from a deferential society is overstated, C18th governance was a system depending on armed force as much as a brutal penal code, as Thompson recognised in his later writing. But armed force was not the key to domestic control apart from the Luddites at the end of the Napoleonic wars, and the law was more important than armed men in maintaining control. Even here there were weaknesses in the system, notably trial by jury. The key factor in understanding Peterloo is that the state could not rely on systematic repression, Indeed, the big question which will be addressed in this book is the issue left unresolved by Thompson’s gnomic assertion. What happened after 1816?

A view of Loyalism as sustained in the 1790s by popular support and legal repression is valid, and in one of the best sections of the book – Chapter 4, The Freeborn Englishman – Thompson outlines the tension between the official line that England was not a despotic state, a key dogma shared across the political culture, and the reality of Pitt’s policies. Pitt knew armed force in the domenstic context was an unreliable element to be used sparingly. It was after Pitt’s demise that force was increasingly used by Pitt’s successors, especially against the Luddites C1811-c1816. But after 1816 it was clear that military force was seriously limited.

There are a number of factors needing to be brought into focus. The stress across all parties on anti – despotism meant the authorities did not have an efficient police force and could neither handle large demonstrations nor use detectives to chart insurrection and other subversive elements. From 1817-19 both factors were in play, with the role of magistrates crucial. The Oxford History of England comments that “the weakness which made the government ferocious was its lack of any agents of central authority save the armed forces. But in consequence knowledge of local conditions and men was, under the advice of the Home Office, important in the administration of the law” (4). While accurate, this underestimates the role of the magistrates, who were more than just legal agents. At Peterloo, it would be magistrate decisions that proved fatal. Magistrates must be seen as critical to what happened in post war England at local level.

Military force and court actions used against the Luddites earlier proved sufficient to cope with working class unrest despite the difficulties of the state to penetrate the Luddites with spies. But the military operated within a public culture resistant to purely military action on the home front. Whether it was the rioting against ‘crimping houses’ for forced recruitment in the 1790s or the widespread hatred of flogging to maintain military discipline, the rhetoric of the ‘Freeborn Englishman’ showed a reality of resistance to heavy handed government intervention. Thompson rightly notes that as late as 1818 a Parliamentary Committee saw in Bentham’s proposed ‘Ministry of Police’ something which would make “all classes of society spies on each other” (5) . Spies were notorious that year, and the revelations about Oliver and other agents provocateur in 1817 intensified fears of a police force.

State power had blunt instruments. Firstly, the authorities could only handle large demonstrations with the C18th methods of militia or regular troops – this formula worked in 1817 but would go disasterously wrong at Peterloo. The militia and other semi professional bodies were unreliable, as with the special constables who chose to go home during the Pentridge rising in 1817. This meant that regular troops and cavalry were deployed against demontrations, and using armed bodies of men for crowd control was a high risk strategy.

Secondly, the lack of a detective force meant the authorities were in the dark over working class activity, and more so after the Oliver revelations backfired and meant juries would not convict where the presence of spies was established. By 1818 Sidmouth had to reduce the role of informers, so that neither government nor magistrates lacked hard information on what the radicals were doing. During 1818 Sidmouth and the Home Office reduced the level of repression, something Thompson and others rarely acknowledge. The law of diminishing returns had set in with few convictions to be set against a failure to detect major conspiracies, which clearly did not exist**, and Sidmouth had to adjust the policies being pursued, particularly with moderate Whigs like Earl Fitwilliam, Lord Lieutenant of Yorkshire highly critical.

Thirdly, and crucially in Manchester, the shift in policy had the disasterous effect of intensifying the paranoia which Zamoyski rightly sees (6) running through Loyalist groups at every level of British society, though he does not focus on local authorities like magistrates where paranoia was particularly intense. Making concessions to the Whigs and public opinion in the jury system had the effect of raising tension among the Loyalist community, particularly magistrates, especially in Cheshire and South Lancashire around Manchester and Salford. The paranoia the local magistrates felt had no easing off with the abatement of reform activity in 1817, and through 1818 with strikes especially in South Lancashire the local Loyalists had no reason to think that working class activity was diminishing, and they were right. Though this was not revolution in the insurrectionary sense, to a Loyalist all working class activity was revolutionary, although the constitutional reformers were adamant that – following Major Cartwright and the Hampden club strategy – they were operating rights granted by the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and Westminster politicians had to agree. This disjuncture between what the law and the London authorities believed to be the case, and the view of the local magistrates which held all mobilisation was revolutionary and did not require evidence of subversive intent to require violent suppression, was at the heart of the decisions which led to the Massacre.

By the summer of 1819 the attitudes of the reformers, the Westminster authorities and the military forces they controlled, and the local magistrates in Manchester and Salford formed a complex pattern which has yet to be fully explained. What matters is not simply the decisions on the day of the demonstration, but the decisions which were made before the crowd began assembling. The Loyalist community at local level exhibited acute internal conflict, suspicious that the Westminster authorities were under estimating the working class threat. The working class people who were mobilising to demonstrate for parliamentary reform did not consider that they posed a threat.

As the Westminster authorities upheld the constitutional right to demonstrate for reform, but also sanctioned the presence of military force against riot or insurrection – the traditional formula, used successfully against the blanketeers in 1817 – the stage was set for tragedy. The working class movement had shown itself able to mobilise tens of thousands, and was more alarming as these were well organised and focussed. They faced local magistrates – backed by government though to an unknown extent – prepared to use force to re-establish control. If the massacre was not actually planned, it was a disaster waiting to happen.

2nd May 2017

(1) E P T Making of the English Working Class (1968) p702

(2) E P T| op cit p736

  1. E P T op cit p663

(4) J Steven Watson, The Reign of George III, Oxford History of Enland Vol 12, 1960 p361

5) E P T opposition crimping houses led to rioting in London in 1793, p88, to policing in parliamentary debate as late as 1818 op cit p89. Flogging was opposed by Cobbett in his journal, reflecting popular opinion, which earned him a prison sentence 1810-12 for criticising the flogging of militia men, who were not officially part of the regular army and could not serve overseas.

(6) Adam Zamoyski, Phantom Terror, political paranoia and the creation of the modern state,1789-1848, Basic Books 2015

*the spelling used by Thompson. Today normally spelt Pentrich

** See June 2nd Paper, history writing Blanketeers, BMI Paper Talk Vers 2

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