Lessons From History and Organising for the Present
The End Times of Albion, Part 6A
by Seneca III
The England of 1819 was in many ways similar to the England we find today. The Napoleonic wars which began in 1803 had ended at Waterloo some three years previously on 18th June 1815, and a war-weary people began to look inward at the state of political affairs at home after dealing with the dictator Bonaparte.
What soon became apparent to them was that all was not well. By the beginning of 1819, the pressure generated by poor economic conditions, coupled with the relative lack of suffrage in Northern England, had enhanced the appeal of political radicalism. In response, the Manchester Patriotic Union, a group agitating for parliamentary reform, organised a demonstration to be addressed by the well-known radical orator Henry Hunt.
Shortly after the meeting began, local magistrates called on the military authorities to arrest Hunt and several others on the hustings with him, and to disperse the crowd. Cavalry charged into the crowd with sabres drawn, and in the ensuing mayhem 15 people were killed and 600-700 were injured. The massacre was given the name Peterloo in an ironic comparison to the Battle of Waterloo, which had taken place four years earlier.
Peterloo’s immediate effect was to cause the government to crack down on reform, with the passing of what became known as the Six Acts. It also led directly to the foundation of The Manchester Guardian (now The Guardian), but had little other effect on the pace of reform. Peterloo is commemorated by a plaque close to the site, a replacement for an earlier one that was criticised as being inadequate, as it did not reflect the scale of the massacre.
In 1819 Lancashire was represented by two members of parliament (MPs). Voting was restricted to the adult male owners of freehold land with an annual rental value of 40 shillings or more, and votes could only be cast at the county town of Lancaster by a publicly spoken declaration at the hustings. Constituency boundaries were out of date, and the so-called Rotten Boroughs had a hugely disproportionate influence on the membership of Parliament compared to the size of their populations: Old Sarum in Wiltshire, with one voter, elected two MPs, as did Dunwich in Suffolk, which by the early 19th century had almost completely disappeared into the sea.
The major urban centres of Lancashire, with a combined population of almost one million, were represented by either the two county MPs for Lancashire, or the two for Cheshire in the case of Stockport. By comparison, more than half of all MPs were returned by a total of just 154 owners of rotten or closed boroughs. Of the 515 MPs for England and Wales 351 were returned by the patronage of 177 individuals and a further 16 by the direct patronage of the government: all 45 Scottish MPs owed their seats to patronage. These inequalities in political representation led to calls for reform.
Exacerbating matters were the Corn Laws, the first of which was passed in 1815, imposing a tariff on foreign grain in an effort to protect English grain producers. The cost of food rose as people were forced to buy the more expensive and lower quality British grain, and periods of famine and chronic unemployment ensued, increasing the desire for political reform both in Lancashire and in the country at large.
Against this background, a “great assembly” was organised by the Manchester Patriotic Union, formed by radicals from The Manchester Observer. The newspaper’s founder Joseph Johnson was the union’s secretary. He wrote to Henry Hunt asking him to chair a meeting in Manchester in August 1819. Johnson wrote:
“Nothing but ruin and starvation stare one in the face; the state of this district is truly dreadful, and I believe nothing but the greatest exertions can prevent an insurrection. Oh, that you in London were prepared for it.”
Unknown to Johnson and Hunt, the letter was intercepted by government spies and copied before being sent to its destination. The contents were interpreted to mean that an insurrection was being planned, and the government responded by ordering the 15th Hussars to Manchester.
The mass public meeting planned for 2 August was delayed. The Manchester Observer reported it was called “to take into consideration the most speedy and effectual mode of obtaining Radical reform in the Common House of Parliament” and “to consider the propriety of the ‘Unrepresented Inhabitants of Manchester’ electing a person to represent them in Parliament”. The magistrates, led by William Hulton, had been advised by the acting Home Secretary, Henry Hobhous, that the election of a member of parliament without the King’s writ was a serious misdemeanour, encouraging them to declare the assembly illegal as soon as it was announced on 31 July. The radicals sought a second opinion on the meeting’s legality, which was that “The intention of choosing Representatives, contrary to the existing law, tends greatly to render the proposed Meeting seditious; under those circumstances it would be deemed justifiable in the Magistrates to prevent such Meeting.”