Reassessing Peterloo

Posted by Nick Efstathiadis in ,

By Philip Lawson | Published in History Today Volume: 38 Issue: 3 1988

Peaceful protest or planned provocation? Philip Lawson re-examines 19th-century England's most famous law-and-order massacre with the aid of a key eyewitness account.

 A painting of the Peterloo Massacre published by Richard CarlileA painting of the Peterloo Massacre published by Richard Carlile

The events at St Peter’s Field in Manchester August 16th, 1819, are so thoroughly documented it would seem that little more could be said on the matter. Indeed, in the highly charged historical debate covering Peterloo, as it is now known, the events of August 16th themselves occasionally appear irrelevant to broader ideological analyses being undertaken. There is a mythology surrounding the name Peterloo which has attracted and repelled students of the period in equal number over the last 150 years or so. The simple fact of interchangeable terms, like incident, massacre, demonstration or riot, frequently used as a suffix to Peterloo merely underlines the contention surrounding the issue.

Contention, however, lies at the heart of the appeal of Peterloo to any one who first comes across this episode in English history. It offers a case study in the polarity of contemporary documentation, which subsequent historical writing has dutifully mirrored. At first sight, the issue appears cut and dried which in its crudest form presents two competing sides of interpretation: the government or official view versus the reform or radical position. From the 1820s on, contemporary pamphlets and prints presented both sides of this case, encouraging the idea of rivalry which scholarship of the 1980s still perpetuates. It is a pattern of historical analysis in which two very differing, and adversarial views of Peterloo, can be discerned. In brief, one side argues that the reformers went too far in their protest or demonstration at St Peter's Fields and that in the aftermath of Peterloo, support for the established order was reaffirmed by the mass of the population. On the other side there exists the view that a legitimate movement of popular constitutionalism ended in a massacre, betrayed on all sides by middle-class equivocation and a corrupt and repressive political system.

This gulf of historical interpretation has not really narrowed one inch since 1819, and may never do so in light of the deep cleavages in the way scholars perceive the evolution of England's socio-political structures in the modern period. Yet it is not the purpose of what follows to recite or summarise all the accounts and arguments that have emanated from the historical debate on Peterloo, but to consider some fresh evidence from an account of the action on August 16th by a special constable, one Robert Mutrie, on duty for the day in St Peter's Field, that reveals some interesting correctives to present knowledge of Peterloo. Mutrie prepared the account for his brother-in-law, Archibald Moore, who worked as the factor to the first and second Marquess of Bute in Scotland.

To present a brief historical analysis of the events of August 16th, 1819 is no simple matter, for there is not really a clear cut consensus about the motives and aspirations of the crowd and its policing forces in the literature on Peterloo. There is, however, general agreement about the narrative. No one argues with the fact that certain radical leaders, led by Henry Hunt, called a reform meeting on that day, and approximately 60,000 people attended the gathering at St Peter's Field. It is also accepted that the throng found itself policed by mounted yeomanry, special constables supported, in turn, by regulars of the 15th Company of Dragoons. Some short time after Orator Hunt began speaking, the yeomanry, supported by mounted regulars, charged into the crowd, ostensibly to arrest the principal speaker. In the ensuing melee, eleven people were killed and some 400 or so injured. So far so good; but after this point, and years of debate, agreement ceases to exist.

All other questions relating to Peterloo still exercise historians today. The incompetency and the fear of the officials involved, for example, is a favourite launching pad for discussion and judgement. On the other side, the nature and collective consciousness of the crowd has offered a focus for investigation. Were the reformers placid or belligerent on August 16th? Were they armed? Or were they in fact helpless? Though the sheer violence of the dynamic between the crowd and the authorities is well enough documented, how much of what really motivated the authorities to intervene in such a volatile situation is based on conjecture?

Every one of these queries has been given a good airing. In fact such has been the torrent of information on Peterloo, that the question now begged is how can such historiographical discrepancies exist when so much appears to be known of the actual events? The answer certainly lies, in part, with contemporary reporting of Peterloo which in its vague and erratic form more often muddies rather than clarifies the waters of understanding. Contemporary reporting, as Mutrie put it, covered 'all sides of the question', and revealed the whole spectrum of prejudice and tension between the crowd and its police. In a caption to a popular engraving, for example, the action of authorities was condemned as 'a wanton and furious attack by that brutal armed force The Manchester and Cheshire Yeomanry Cavalry'. In its report of August 19th, 1819, The Times was more circumspect, admitting that trouble occurred but only 'after Hunt had spoken for about ten minutes' and the Manchester Yeomanry Cavalry rode up to the hustings, and surrounded it ... At the other extreme, there resides what might be termed the ultra- establishment view. In the Manchester Mercury of August 19th there is a story of one reporter witnessing a 'band' of men marching into town, whose leader 'bore a large club'. The Courier reinforced this vision of an animated crowd, threatening and unified, with a similar report on the 19th:

What scholars have made of such evidence is one of the most sumptuous meals on the menu of British history in the modern period. The argument today swings back and forth across the ideological spectrum much as it did then, and it is worth highlighting two points in particular, that scholars of Peterloo always raise to reinforce their case. First, were participants in the reform meeting ready and armed for confrontation with the policing forces, and, second, did the authorities, from Home Office down, concoct a plan to deliver a smashing blow to the reform impetus in North West England?

On the first issue, armed radicals, Mutrie's account is most informative. Indeed, perhaps historians should now turn the usual question of who was armed on its head, and ask, in its stead, who did not bear arms? For it seems apparent that everyone and his dog carried some sort of weapon at Peterloo. The yeomanry had sabres, the regulars swords and firearms, the special constables batons and staves, and those in the crowd nearest to the speakers shouldered sticks or even 'pistols'. In reserve, there was obviously an infinite supply of stones to supplement this primitive arsenal. The motive for the policing authorities to carry weapons of one sort or another is straightforward. The reason why the crowd might do so seems more tangential. From Mutrie's description, however, some important revisions to the oft repeated story of August 16th, 1819, emerge. In the first place this was not a pacific gathering of casual observers interested in reform, even if such was the intent of the organisers. A verifiable portion of the crowd in attendance at St Peter's Field were prepared for violence and had armed themselves accordingly.

The nature of the conflict envisaged can only be postulated from Mutrie's description, but there is a very modern ring to parts of his account. The action of the yeomanry looks very much like that of snatch squads so familiar to scenes of urban arrest in Britain today. The clear inference to be drawn from Mutrie's description, and other contemporary evidence in the press, is that nineteenth-century radicals may also have been familiar with this policing tactic and took suitable precautions. Armed radicals in the crowd stood around the hustings and, as soon as the yeomanry charged and attempted to snatch Hunt, they were met with swinging clubs and a barrage of stones. In the ensuing scuffles, Mutrie attempted to retrieve a 'souvenir' (a common practice), and managed to lay his hands on a. cap of liberty which, much to his surprise, was lined with tin and could not be stuffed in his pocket. It was not the floppy bonnet atop a popular standard that he expected, and that appears in many contemporary depictions of the scene. Nevertheless this was all the 'plunder' Mutrie acquired, for he had more pressing concerns to attend to.

Mutrie's concern for his livelihood sheds light on the second area of revision offered by his account – the question of concerted action by the authorities. Mutrie's experience as a special constable in the crowd hardly conformed to what might have been expected. In fact, in the light of his experiences, there can only be one negative answer to the query over coordinated policing of Peterloo. The Magistrates, yeomanry and special constables may have known what they were doing and where to stand; in Mutrie's case this amounted to 'keeping an open passage betwixt the House where the magistrate was stationed and the Hustings'. The dragoons, on the other hand, followed their own strategy, 'without previous knowledge of what was done'. If they had liaised with anyone, the constables patrolling the crowd were oblivious to the outcome. For after the Manchester Yeomanry charged into the crowd and laid about radicals and onlookers 'with the backs of their sabres', the 15th Dragoons followed suit to remarkable effect. A hundred or so constables, including Mutrie, with shouldered staves were mistaken for radicals and 'laid on our backs', presumably by the horses. A chaotic scene then developed in which Mutrie suffered the additional ignominy of being bladed twice more on the head, courtesy of both the yeomanry and the regulars.

This state of affairs did not represent the ideal concerted plan of action by the authorities often depicted in accounts of Peterloo. Panic, confusion and ineptitude might be a better precis. Two sides here in an ideological confrontation had had a go at each other with unedifying results. It had happened before Peterloo in popular protests and would do so again in the 1820s and beyond. Mutrie himself did not hang around long after being struck by a blade, preferring the safety of horseback in the mopping up operation in the streets surrounding St Peter's Field. As can be seen from his description, the aftermath proved more arduous than breaking up the original gathering. The common eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century problem of regular military personnel, in this Case the Hussars, acting as policemen all came to the fore in the hours after the dispersal of Hunt's assembly. Not the least of these difficulties was the reluctance of the magistrate to read the Riot Act before the miLitary could use their firearms with intent to kill if required. The reasons for the reluctance was certainly appreciated by contemporary opinion of which Mutrie formed a part. He knew what the consequences of reading the Riot Act in the heated surroundings of St Peter's Field would be, and his description conveys the grim reality of the rule of thumb in these circumstances:

The moment it was read Capt B ordered the infantry officer to form a hollow square in the centre of the Cross, we all took shelter in the square when the word was given to fire in all directions – the square then opened and the horses charged every way upon the crowd – my mare grew quite mad and carried me over the back of many a poor Devel – two people were shot in the first charge just opposite my room window.

Thus, the carnage occurred, and the tragedy completed.

In his conclusion on the outcome of Peterlon Mutrie made the unintentionally prophetic comment that 'this does not look like peace'. How true: there would be several more lost battles before the radicals won the war for reform: though few other confrontations have quite lived up to the mythology surrounding Peterloo. Any assessment of what new light Mutrie sheds on the events of that day has, of course, to be tempered with his reliability as a witness. Mutrie can be doubted simply because of his obvious bias in his role as a const- able, and his reluctance to display hostility even towards the yeomanry responsible for 'the rough usage'. But such outright condemnation would be unfair to the main body of his testimony. Mutrie had no axe to grind against one side or the other in his account. It is characterised by cold realism and, more pertinent still, was not written for public consumption with one ideological intent in mind. Mutrie corroborates evidence recited across the historiographical spectrum on Peterloo. The mood of mutuaI antagonism, increased, in turn, by the number on both sides carrying weapons, is a good example of this. The attack of the yeomanry on the constables is another. Mutrie also gives the cold-blooded facts about how the troops opened fire on the riotous crowd after it had been dispersed, leaving it quite open for the reader to decide whether or not it represented a massacre. The fear of the magistrate Norris, who 'was very averse that we should commence hostilities' is presented in the most dispassionate light, as is the scene of mayhem after the Riot Act was read. In almost every aspect of the depiction of Peterloo, in fact, this document offers a unique contribution to present knowledge of the events on that day. It enriches a debate that will long continue to focus scholarly attention on the 'most dreadful day' – Monday August 16th, 1819.

Reassessing Peterloo | History Today

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