Two 19th Century Scoops: Part II – Peterloo, August 1819

This week we hear from Library and Digital Assistant Ruairí Lewis on some fascinating examples of local, Leeds newspapers making their mark on the national stage.

On top of our extensive local newspaper collection in the Central Library, Leeds Libraries also have access to the British Newspaper Archive’s 19th Century Newspapers database. This gives library users access to a huge range of digitised 19th Century newspapers including the Leeds Mercury and the Chartist Northern Star, completely free and accessible from home with a library card. Have a look at our online resources here to find out more: Online resources 

Local does not mean insular, so here is part two of two ground-breaking scoops from the local newspaper the Leeds Mercury that had national scope and interest, all accessed online using 19th Century Newspapers. (Part one can be found elsewhere on the blog)

Peterloo, August 1819

The Mercury was not the first or only paper to report on the Peterloo Massacre of 16 August 1819, but it had the unusual distinction of a reporter on the scene. Reporters at the scene of major events are ubiquitous now, but in the early 19th Century this was something of an innovation. This reporter was none other than the son of the Mercury proprietor, Edward Baines, who later became editor himself before a career in parliament.

Since the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, a primary aim of the more radical popular reformers was universal manhood suffrage. A key figure in this movement was Henry Hunt, a wealthy Wiltshere farmer who was drawn into the reformist camp during the war period. Hunt was an early advocate for mass politics (as opposed to underground or conspiratorial forms of organisation such as Jacobinism or Luddism). To this end, he spoke at public rallies up and down the country in favour of political representation for workers and in August, called the people of Manchester to action.

There is an air of foreboding in the Mercury’s reporting leading up to the rally. The dire economic situation had set the stage for an open confrontation between reformers and the state, with workers increasingly desperate for action to alleviate the pain of unemployment and destitution.

The Mercury wrote:

The Meeting of the Radical Reformers of Manchester, about which some apprehensions were entertained, did not take place on Monday last, but was deferred to the next Monday under the following circumstances

Those circumstances were a “public notice, pronouncing the public meeting to be illegal” and the warning that “all persons [were] to abstain at their peril from attending such illegal meeting”. This led to the postponement of the rally, but Hunt nevertheless arrived in Manchester to great popular approval, including shouts of “Hunt for ever”. Hunt, while a dangerous radical in the eyes of the state and property owners, stressed the constitutional means and motives of his agitation, even asking supporters massed to greet him to depart “and not to permit themselves to be provoked into any irregular conduct.”

The reorganised meeting was allowed to go ahead, with another warning from municipal officers for “peaceable and well-disposed inhabitants” to “keep their servants and children indoors.” Baines described the reformers as “equally on alert” as the armed volunteer yeomanry who were ready to “act at a moments notice”

The Mercury reported:

An immense multitude gathered together, relying with confidence on each other’s peaceable intentions, and certainly not expecting, that the precautions taken by the magistrates to preserve the peace, would be employed to destroy it, and convert a peaceful assembly into a scene of terror and alarm, danger and death.

Baines detailed the irony of Hunt exhorting the crowd to maintain “perfect order” to prevent disturbances before the workers of Manchester and their families were routed by the yeomanry’s cavalry charge.

Hunt’s constitutionalism was soon overtaken by events. The Mercury details at least one retaliation against a shop owner who had his windows broken after being accused of vandalising radical flags. Soldiers were on the scene immediately and fired upon the crowd.

Baines’ reporting provides crucial details on how the Peterloo massacre occurred, and specifically who perpetrated it. He emphasised the moderation of the regular soldiers compared to the indiscriminate violence and “vigour” of the volunteer yeomanry. In contrast, the special constables apparently demonstrated sympathy with their fallen “friends and neighbours.” This suggests something of the character of the yeomanry, a volunteer force led by a local factory proprietor Hugh Birley and overseen by a large landowner, Thomas Trafford. As representatives of the two primary groups of property owners in 19th Century Britain, defending against the pretensions of the working poor was worth the price of infamy.

While the Massacre shocks us today, and shocked Baines enough at the time to demand that “the laws of England are not to be executed by the sword,” there were many who saw the actions of the Manchester shop owners and traders who staffed the yeomanry as a courageous defence of social order against hooligans and fanatics. The yeomanry was formed in 1817 as a direct response to Lancashire weavers (later named Blanketeers) who aimed to march to London en masse to present their grievances to the Prince Regent.

While Baines and likely much of the Mercury readership were shocked by the violence, they did not miss an opportunity to remind radicals that perhaps some due moderation would have been in order. The Mercury wrote, “We trust that it [the Peterloo Massacre] will induce the reformers to abstain from the use of flags or any other symbols, which are only calculated to excite suspicion and give rise to unfounded alarms.” Not only did Baines argue against the use of flags, they also “earnestly recommend that for the present these frequent meetings be entirely discontinued.”

Newspapers are crucial sources in forming a coherent chronology of historical events, but equally important, they contain insights into the anxieties and interests of their writers and readers.

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