This illustration by renowned caricaturist George Cruikshank appears on the title page to ‘The Free-born Englishman…’, a satirical poem published in 1819. The caricature and poem are a comment on the ‘Gagging Acts’, the repressive measures introduced by the government following the Peterloo Massacre.
What were the ‘Gagging Acts’?
On 16 August 1819, thousands of peaceful protestors for parliamentary reform gathered at St Peter’s Square, Manchester. Ten to 20 protesters were killed and hundreds injured as the meeting was violently broken up by volunteer soldiers.
In the aftermath of what became known as the Peterloo Massacre, the government issued Six Acts, colloquially named the ‘Gagging Acts’. In short, the Acts aimed to suppress those fighting for political reform and to impede public criticism of the state and potential uprisings against them. Ultimately, they censored and denied freedom of speech.
In spite of this crackdown, however, critical opinion did still surface in print. Often, as shown here, authors chose to remain anonymous. Although the publisher of ‘The Free-born Englishman’ is named, the author uses a satirical pseudonym. Cruikshank is also unnamed.
Cruikshank’s visual satire
Cruikshank’s caricature is an unmistakable attack on the state. Government and royalty are vividly associated with bloodshed and physical and intellectual oppression.
In the centre is ‘John Bull’, an exaggerated characterisation of the quintessential Englishman whom Cruikshank perfected over the course of the Regency period. By image association the scene links the Six Acts, balancing on the Englishman’s head, to the denial of freedoms: his mouth is padlocked shut, his ears plugged, his body chained, and his hands trapped in a clamp. The room he kneels in is sparse and rundown, indicating financial struggle and intellectual restraint: the fireplace is without coal and the empty bookcase appears hastily looted. ‘M T’, to be read as ‘empty’, labels the bookcase drawers.
Peterloo motifs are incorporated throughout the scene. Bloody sabres, the weapon used to attack the crowd at Peterloo, are propped up against the ‘Pillar of Restriction’. Another bloody sword made from ‘Manchester steel’ pins the Bills of Rights and Magna Carta, key symbols of British freedom during this era, to the table. Castlereagh, one of the figures Percy Bysshe Shelley attacks in ‘The Mask of Anarchy’, is seated on top of the papers. He is portrayed as half man, half predatory bird of prey.
The Prince Regent is more subtly linked to Peterloo and the Six Acts: his initials, ‘G.R.’ appear at the top of the bookcase. The Union Jack flag that crowns the pillar is tattered and torn, embroidered with the word ‘Distress’, and below it lie the three white feathers of the Prince’s heraldic badge.
The Gagging Acts and the publication of ‘The Mask of Anarchy’
The ‘Gagging Acts’ halted the immediate publication of Shelley’s ‘The Mask of Anarchy’. Leigh Hunt feared that such a radical and anti-state poem would undoubtedly lead to his arrest and prosecution. The maximum sentence was daunting: 14 years transportation to Australia. Shelley’s poem was not published until over a decade after Peterloo, in 1832.