Official report into the 1820 riots that followed a government crackdown on dissent, which had included the suspension of Habeas Corpus
Peterloo Report, 1820
RB.23.b.4235 (1), pp.24-25
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What was the public mood at the end of the 1700s?
Following the French Revolution in 1791, public demand for political reform in England grew, inspired by such books as Paine's Rights of Man. The corrupt electoral system, in which MPs could come to parliament almost arbitrarily (through the so-called 'rotten boroughs') clearly needed an overhaul.
The relationship between Britain and France worsened after the execution of Louis XVI in January 1793. A war with France was increasingly likely to protect European interests, but it was the French who declared war on Britain in February 1793. This allowed Pitt, the iron-fisted Prime Minister, to introduce sweeping restrictions. He suspended habeas corpus in 1794-5 and again for three years from April 1798. It was an offence to bring the king or government into contempt, to agitate amongst workers, or for any society to meet in secret. Public meetings were limited to 50 people in specially licensed premises, and many societies were banned. It would be decades before parliamentary reform was seriously considered.
Who fought against these repressive measures?
Ironically, the process some wanted to reform, such as the rotten and pocket boroughs, occasionally allowed radical MPs into Parliament. One such was Francis Burdett. His father-in-law, the banker Thomas Coutts, bought the borough of Boroughbridge in 1796 and gave the seat to Burdett. Between 1809 and 1819 he doggedly pursued electoral reform. He wanted ratepayer franchise, equal electoral districts, single-day elections and shorter Parliaments. In 1810 he was imprisoned in the Tower, but received a huge wave of public support.
Burdett's lack of success caused the Spenceans to take stronger action. They organised meetings at Spa Fields, Islington, in November and December 1816, with Henry Hunt as speaker. Hunt, known as 'Orator', drew crowds of 10,000 of more. He wore a white top hat, representing the purity of his cause, and flourished a Cap of Liberty on top of a pikestaff. The first meeting was peaceful but the second degenerated into a riot. When the Prince Regent's coach was attacked in January 1817, the usual repressive measures were introduced: habeas corpus was suspended again, seditious meetings banned and printers of seditious material arrested.
How did the Peterloo Massacre come about?
John Cartwright had, since 1812, set up a series of Clubs named after the Civil War leader, John Hampden. He wanted to unite radical reformists, like Hunt, with moderates, like Burdett.
The Manchester Hampden Club organised a meeting at St Peter's Fields in August 1819, to deal with Parliamentary reform. Hunt was the main speaker. Estimates of the crowd-size vary but it was upwards of 60,000.
The magistrate, fearing a riot, ordered the local yeomen to arrest Hunt. The crowd resisted and the yeomen charged, killing 11 people and wounding 400. Local reporters soon called it the Peterloo Massacre.
What was the reaction?
Francis Burdett wrote an open letter to his constituents showing his indignation. "Is this England?" he wrote, "This a Christian land? A land of freedom?" He planned a protest meeting, challenging Parliament to interfere. "Whether the penalty of our meeting will be death by military execution, I know not; but this I know, a man can die but once, and never better than in vindicating the laws and liberties of this country."
The Tory Government under Lord Liverpool reacted with the "Six Acts" to suppress radical newspapers and seditious meetings and reduce the chance of an armed uprising. The government infiltrated the extremists. In February 1820, the Spenceans, acting under false information, plotted to assassinate members of the government whom they believed were dining at the home of Lord Harrowby. When they assembled in nearby Cato Street they were arrested. Five were transported whilst five others were hanged and beheaded.
By 1820 Parliamentary reform was no further advanced than it was when Paine's book had come out in 1791.