Friday, 10 May 2019

Peterloo and its place in the Chartist memory

Hunt Memorial - from the Northern Star (20 August 1842)
So much is being written about Peterloo in this bicentenary year that I am reluctant to pitch in. But I think it is worth commenting on the ways in which memories of the 1819 massacre were co-opted by the Chartists a generation later, and the lessons that they held for radicals 20 or 30 years on.

Peterloo was, of course, not just within living memory. Despite the massive political upheavals that took place in the intervening years, it remained fresh in the minds of those who had been there and those who had heard about it with a sense of horror, even at second or third hand in radical broadsheets and newspapers.

Down the years, Peterloo veterans and their supporters continued to commemorate both the anniversary of Peterloo – 16 August – and the birthday in November of “Orator” Henry Hunt, whose arrest had served as the pretext for the yeomanry cavalry charge that left as many as 18 dead and 650 badly injured.

Some of these commemorations were relatively small in scale and local in scope. Veteran radicals John and Nancy Clayton of Charlestown, both of whom had been sabred at Peterloo, held an annual dinner to mark the event, and there must have been similar community events across Manchester.

But there were also larger events on or as close as possible to the contested ground of St Peter’s Fields itself – marches and rallies serving as a show of force and defiance, and providing a forum in which the demands of 1819 could be asserted once again.

Jeff Kaye, author of a forthcoming book on Captain Hugh Hornby Birley, the commander of the yeomanry on that fateful day, has noted that, at least at first, mounted troops were deployed to bar those wishing to commemorate Peterloo from St Peter’s Fields. So every year, crowds would assemble at Birley’s Chorlton Mill to jeer at their tormentor.

At some stage, however, attempts to prevent radical gatherings on St Peter’s Fields must have lapsed. In the summer of 1838, in the year the People’s Charter was first published in London, and just weeks after it was launched at great meetings in Birmingham and Glasgow, there was a “great demonstration” in St Peter’s Fields to mark the 19th anniversary of Peterloo.

A crowd that “could not have been less than 20,000” according to the Morning Chronicle (20 August, 1838) and which “could not consist of fewer than between 20,000 and 30,000 persons”, in the view of the Northern Star (18 August, 1838) gathered at New Cross, marching down Oldham Street and Mosley Street, round St Peter’s Church, “the band playing the Dead March in Saul” before thronging St Peter’s Fields and the streets around it.

Following the election to the chair of Richard Moore, a veteran Manchester radical who had been involved in the republican cause since the 1790s, the names of the Peterloo dead were read to the crowd by Edward Curran, himself a veteran of that day and a prominent activist in radical causes.

The meeting then heard from William Benbow, best known for his advocacy of a “grand national holiday” or general strike, who quoted approvingly a resolution from the Glasgow meeting that had called on the weavers of England, Scotland and Ireland to stop work until the franchise was granted.

It ended with an address by Henry Vincent, just 25 but already recognised as the London Working Men’s Association’s best speaker, who explicitly linked Peterloo to the cause of the People’s Charter and to the Manchester meeting then being planned at which the petition would be adopted.

“Methinks even now the departed spirits of the murdered patriots of Manchester hover over us, bidding us go forward in the great work until you are placed in the position that you ought to attain; until you have made England what she ought to be – a Democracy,” he concluded dramatically.

That November, as the Northern Star reported (17 November, 1838), the Claytons once again played host to their comrades and neighbours. “About fifty real Radicals and their wives, the principal part of whom were sufferers on that fatal field, sat down to supper.”

Chartists continued to call on memories of 1819 throughout the 1840s. There are, in fact, no fewer than 300 mentions of Peterloo in the pages of the Northern Star (British Newspaper Archives collection), and of course a significant number of activists from 1819 remained active in the radical cause throughout the period.

In 1842, Feargus O’Connor laid the foundation stone of a Henry Hunt memorial on Every Street in Manchester – a great stone obelisk standing 30 feet high and intended to hold a statue of Hunt. In its address, the organising committee referred to O’Connor as “the successor” to Hunt – and thousands watched as he placed copies of Hunt’s work and a full-length portrait of himself in the foundations (Northern Star, 2 April 1842).

Indeed, O’Connor stood very clearly in the gentleman orator tradition of Hunt and must have seen much of himself in the radical leader. Hunt had dedicated himself selflessly to the cause, helped revive the Great Northern Union within which were the future germs of Chartist organisation, and died worn out by his efforts in 1835. O’Connor was very aware that he was carrying forward the banner that Hunt himself had raised.

But if Peterloo was an inspiration to radicals and to their leaders, it must also have been a dreadful warning.

Whatever his failings, O’Connor was not a coward. Physically courageous, and no stranger to the inside of a prison cell, he was not easily cowed by the voice of authority. So when he climbed on to the platform at the Chartist monster meeting on Kennington Common on 10 April 1848 to tell his thousands of followers to go peacefully to their homes, he did not do so lightly.

The death threats he claimed to have received, the personal warnings issued by the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, and a keen awareness that not far away thousands of troops – infantrymen, cavalry and artillery – were deployed in the capital that day must have weighed heavy on his mind.

As he asked the crowd: “You know that I have all my life been a man of courage, of firmness, of resolution; but how should I rest in my bed this night if I were conscious that there were widows awake mourning for husbands slain? How should I feel if I thought that by any act of mine I had jeopardised the lives of thousands, and thus paralysed our cause? How, I ask, would you feel if you conscious that you had been parties to my death?”

It is not hard to imagine that, for O’Connor, the spectre of Peterloo loomed large that day.

Sources and resources on Peterloo

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