The Napoleonic War had a devastating effect on England, food prices soared and taxes imposed on food items meant that the textile workers who had previously had a good living found themselves unable to feed their families. In 1812 there were food riots in many of the towns around Manchester. Potatoes being sold at a food market in Shudehill, Manchester were forcibly removed by some women, and the Civil and Military powers had to intervene. Carts carrying loads of food were robbed.
To add to the problem weavers found that their once lucrative and highly skilled work was now able to be done much quicker, cheaper and by less skilled workers on the new power looms in the factories that were being built around the North West. Consequently their earnings either dropped or disappeared altogether.
The factories became the focus of hate and many were attacked, in the manner of the Luddites who were operating in Nottingham. Burton's Mill in Middleton near Manchester was attacked by several thousand men; three of the crowd were killed by the musket fire from the armed guards. The crowd then turned on Emanuel Burton's house and burnt it down. A mill in Westhoughton was then burnt down, for which three men, one reported to be between 12 and 16 years of age were hanged.
Lord Byron, in a speech in the house of Lords said "whilst these outrages must be admitted to exist to an alarming extent, it cannot be denied that they have arisen from circumstances of the most unparalleled distress: the perseverance of these miserable men in their proceedings, tends to prove that nothing but absolute want could have driven a large and once honest and industrious body of the people into the commission of excesses so hazardous to themselves, their families and the community."
In 1817 the state of unrest in the country was so bad that the Government, no doubt mindful of the recent fate of the ruling classes in nearby France, suspended Habeas Corpus, after a stone was thrown through the window of the Prince Regent's coach. Parliament passed the 'gagging acts' which banned meetings of more than fifty people. Union Societies were illegal under the combination acts of 1800, the large and growing manufacturing towns had no representation and ordinary people had no vote.
Magistrates in Manchester decided to form the Manchester and Salford Yeoman Cavalry. The commander was Major Thomas Trafford, and his second in command was Captain Hugh Birley, a local mill owner, whose mill was the scene of violent confrontation in 1818. The Yeomanry consisted of over 120 men from the local area; their occupations included shopkeepers, brewers, publicans and other men of property with Tory views and a hatred of Radicals and reformers.
Habeas Corpus was restored in 1818 and the campaigning for universal suffrage renewed. Meetings were held in many of the cotton towns, and the men began drilling and marching on the moors above the towns.
At a meeting in Oldham Deputies from various towns in Yorkshire, Lancashire and Derbyshire agreed to nine resolutions, and stated: that "this Meeting is convinced that the labouring part of the people of this country cannot long preserve their existence: and if they must die, either by starvation or in defence of their rights, they cannot hesitate to prefer the latter."
At a meeting of distressed workmen in St Peter's fields, Manchester on 21 June 1819, an almost identical idea was included in a petition to Parliament which stated " since your petitioners must die, it is surely immaterial to them whether they die by famine or by the sword"
At a meeting at Sandy Brow, Stockport, on 28th June 1819, Sir Charles Wolseley ... observed, that as long as the blood of life flowed in his veins, so long would he continue to be a friend to the cause of liberty, "Gentlemen, I am not a new man in the cause - I was at Paris during the taking of the Bastile, and I can assure you I was not idle on that glorious occasion --- I therefore think that the man who has been engaged in the destruction of Bastiles in a foreign land will not be inactive in endeavouring to annihilate those dungeons of despotism in his own."
Samuel Bamford relates in his "Passages in the Life of a Radical" how at a meeting in Saddleworth he proposed that the females that were present at such meetings should by right be allowed to vote along with the men, this resolution being passed, from then onward women voted along with men at the Radical meetings. Women formed female political unions, and attended the meeting at St Peter's Fields under their own banners.
A meeting was called for 9th August 1819 to be held in Manchester, to "consider the propriety of the unrepresented inhabitants of Manchester electing a person to represent them in Parliament" this was intended to be the largest political reform meeting ever held, people from all the towns around would attend. The Government and Prince Regent would be forced to heed their demands for annual Parliaments and Universal Suffrage.
The Boroughreeve Mr. Edward Clayton and the Magistrates declared that a meeting for such a purpose was illegal, and therefore banned it from taking place.
The reformers postponed their meeting until the following week and dropped the subject of electing a legislatorial representative from their literature.
Henry 'Orator' Hunt who was to chair the meeting published a proclamation inviting people to attend on the new day, and urging them to come to the meeting "armed with no other weapon than that of a self-approving conscience; determined not to suffer yourselves to be irritated or excited, by any means whatsoever, to commit any breach of the public peace."
Samuel Bamford in "Passages in the life of a Radical Reformer" gives a detailed account of the preparations and journey into Manchester, of the Middleton marchers. The Magistrates, fearful that such a large assembly might become uncontrollable called in a large military presence, consisting of 600 men of the 15th Hussars, 400 men of the Cheshire Yeomanry Cavalry, several hundred infantrymen, a detachment of the Royal Horse Artillery with two six-pounder guns and the 120 men of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry. In addition 400 Special Constables had been sworn in.
At about 11am the Magistrates led by their chairman William Hulton, met at Mr. Buxton's house in Mount St. overlooking St Peter's Field. Reports of the size of the crowd vary dramatically from that of one of the magistrates at Hunt's trial who estimated 30,000, to the editor of the Manchester Observer's estimate of 153,000. The true number lies somewhere between.
The magistrates ordered a path to be cleared between the house and the hustings, and the special constables formed two lines to clear the path. The speakers arrived at 1.20pm, Henry Hunt, Richard Carlile, John Knight, Joseph Johnson and Mary Fildes, also several newspaper reporters took their place on the hustings. The Magistrates decided that the town was in danger and may or may not have read the riot act, Eye-witnesses later swore that they had not heard it, although the Magistrates swore it was read. Deputy Constable Joseph Nadin was ordered to arrest Henry Hunt and the other leaders, but Nadin replied that this could not be done without the aid of the military. Hulton then wrote two letters and sent them to Lieutenant Colonel L'Estrange, the commander of the military forces and Major Thomas Trafford, the commander of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry. The Yeomanry were the first to receive the order, and made their way to the field. Captain Hugh Birley gave the order to draw their swords, and about sixty of them began to advance through the crowds to the hustings along the path cleared by the constables. Eyewitnesses have stated that the Yeomanry were drunk, and using their swords to slash at the peaceable crowd to clear their path, but the report of the Captain of the Yeomanry states that swords were not used until the crowd began to throw stones and brick-bats.
Many witnesses attested that the crowd were peaceable and did not throw stones until the Yeomanry began slashing and trampling the panicking people as they tried to escape. Even the Manchester Mercury, not known for its support of Radicals, printed a letter supporting the fact that the crowd were peaceable. On reaching the hustings they arrested the speakers and newspaper reporters, including Henry Hunt, John Knight, Joseph Johnson, Mary Fildes and John Saxton.
Colonel L'Estrange on reporting to the Magistrates was ordered to rescue the Yeomanry from the crowd, and the 15th Hussars and Cheshire Yeomanry rode onto the field, many people were trampled under the horses in the confusion.
People running from the scene were prevented by infantry stationed in the nearby streets and alleys. By 2pm the main part of the crowd had been cleared from the field. Leaving the dead and wounded. Eleven people died at the scene although others died later from their injuries and over 600 were injured.
Richard Carlile escaped to London to report the incident in Sherwin's Political Register, under the title "Horrid Massacre at Manchester" Carlile's shop was raided by the authorities and he was arrested and imprisoned for publishing a Radical view of the events.
The Manchester Mercury, a newspaper of the day with no love for the Radical movement, gave the incident barely one column, and reported the meeting thus:
....and some preliminary business had been entered upon, altogether occupying about twenty minutes, when the bugle sounded and the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry Cavalry, who , pursuant to instructions, had been in attendance about ten minutes, advanced in full charge through the multitude, and surrounded the Orators upon their own stage...
... the necessary ardour of the troops in the discharge of their duty has led, we lament to say, to some fatal and many very serious accidents.
Lord Sidmouth sent a message to the Magistrates informing them of the thanks of the Prince Regent for their prompt action "for the preservation of the public tranquility."
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