Shown here are newspaper cuttings of two radical letters written by Reformers in response to the Peterloo Massacre. On 16 August 1819, thousands of peaceful protestors for parliamentary reform gathered at St Peter’s Square, Manchester. Ten to twenty were killed and hundreds injured as the meeting was violently broken up by volunteer soldiers.
More about the first letter
‘Letter from Hunt’ is from radical orator Henry Hunt, who famously addressed the crowd at Peterloo. It was composed from prison in Manchester as, following the Peterloo Massacre, Hunt was held on a disputed charge of high treason. In spite of his imprisonment, however, this letter reveals that Hunt was still able to publicly voice his controversial opinions. Hunt exploits this fleeting opportunity to his full advantage to make several key points.
Firstly, Hunt assures readers that he is in good health and spirits, a possible tactic to strengthen supporters’ morale and disappoint the opposition. Secondly, he emphasises that the crowd was ‘perfectly peaceable and good humoured’. Thirdly, he passionately condemns the state, law, king and cavalry:
The blood of the poor murdered people sits heavy on their heads, and will haunt their guilty souls as long as they live
Lastly, Hunt makes several ‘verbal’ threats to the opposition. He draws on the Old Testament principle of an ‘eye for an eye’ to warn that as, ‘They have struck the first blow’, there may be a public demand of ‘blood for blood’.
More about the second letter
‘To the Electors of Westminster’ is written by Frances Burdett, a pro-reform, independent politician. This letter is firstly of interest because it exposes how quickly news of Peterloo spread. It became national knowledge in less than 3 days: Burdett learnt of it from a newspaper, and dates his own letter as 22 August.
To begin, Burdett respectfully expresses his ‘shame, grief and indignation, at the account of the blood spilled at Manchester’. However, the main object of his letter is to rouse England’s reformers to respond ‘loudly’. Rhetorical questions and evocative language are heavily drawn on - ‘Is this England? This a Christian land? A land of freedom?’ – as Burdett charges all those who stay silent as complicit in the state’s oppressive and bloody regime against freedom.
Burdett makes an appeal to patriotism and nationalism which, during this period, is typically used by the opposition to critique reform. Here, Burdett positions the yeomanry’s actions, and the state and royal sanctioning of them, as distinctly un-‘English’, in conflict with England’s intrinsic ‘laws and liberties’.