The Massacre of Peterloo, Manchester, 16th August 1819

The Peterloo Massacre - Manchester 16th August 1819


'NOTES & OBSERVATIONS, Critical & Explanatory, on the Papers Relative to
the Internal State of the Country, Recently Presented to Parliament
to which is appended,
a REPLY to Mr. Francis Philips's
'Exposure of the Calumnies circulated by the Enemies of Social Order ...
PAGE LIST (below) with LINKS

Page 147-153

&c., &c.


Shortly before that period, the restrictions imposed upon the Prince Regent at the commencement of his Regency expired, and his Royal Highness having announced his determination to continue in office, the ministers who had been chosen by his father, a number ot` individuals belonging to that party in this town, which was distinguished by its attachment to the politics of those ministers, presented to the boroughreeve and constables a requisition to call a public meeting, for the purpose of conveying a complimentary address to: the Prince Regent, on his assumption of full authority, and of thanking him for continuing in his service the ministers who were then in office. The 8th of April, 1812, was the day appointed for the meeting. There can be no doubt, that, when this measure was resolved upon, its friends thought themselves secure, if not of the support, at least of the neutrality, of the labouring classes; and took it for granted, that having none to oppose them but persons of their own station, the game was entirely their own. But the time was one of general distress, and the hopes of a great portion of the kingdom had been anxiously fixed upon the period, when the Prince, emancipated from the trammels of unconstitutional restrictions, would adopt that system of policy, to which the friendships and the opinions of his previous life were thought likely to incline him. Those hopes were blasted, and the poor saw nothing but a determination to persevere in that course of conduct, which had resulted in the sufferings they were enduring. Nor were the respectable whigs of the town disposed to coincide in an address, such as they concluded it was intended to propose, for the adoption of the assembly; and another address was prepared, which it was intended to move as an amendment. Several hand-bills were published, calling public attention to the approaching meeting, and calculated to ensure such an attendance, as that its decision should express the unquestionable opinion of a majority of the inhabitants of Manchester. The ministerial party were exceedingly inveterate on account of the publication of these handbills. Shortly after the day on which the meeting was to have taken place, the late Mr. John Leigh Philips said to the gentleman by whom two or three of them (but not that which was called inflammatory) were written, "If we cannot convict you of libel, we can harass you by prosecution."

One of these hand-bills, published on the morning of the day when the meeting was to have been held, has been frequently represented as inflammatory; and, by those who wished to mislead the public, it has been stated as the cause of the attack which was afterwards made upon the Exchange. But, when the requisitionists found that they were likely to be in a minority - that they could no longer carry whatever public measures they might think proper to propose, they had not the magnanimity to await that decision, for which they themselves had called. The pretext, that the staircase leading to the large room at the Exchange was too weak to sustain the pressure of the crowd, was stated by the committee of that establishment, as a reason for refusing to the town's oflicers the use of it; and at the time fixed for the holding of the meeting, when some thousands of persons were assembled in St. Ann's Square, to proceed to it, hand·bills were distributed amongst them, by the beadles, announcing that the meeting would not take place. In the mean time, a large party, who had come with the view of attending it, not finding the dining room at the Exchange open, had gone into the news room. Alarmed by their appearance, the subscribers hastily withdrew; many of them, however, afterwards returned, and attempted to persuade the populace to retire. This they refused to do, but remained in full possession of the room, for more than two hours, without proceeding to any act of violence. In the mean time, attempts were made, by the leaders of the party which was waiting in St. Ann's Square, to find the town's officers, by whom the meeting had been summoned, in order to request them to hold it at some other place ; but none of those gentlemen were to be met with. After this, several individuals were successively recognized by the crowd, as amongst the number of those who had signed the requisition, and were invited to proceed with the meeting, and to take the chair, which they one and all refused : though a few days afterwards they mustered secretly, at the police office, and there voted, that address to the Prince, which they durst not submit to the judgment of a general meeting of their fellow townsmen, even though appointed at their own request. It is not surprising, that by such proceedings as these, the populace should have been irritated; they, as a part of the inhabitants of Manchester, were called together by the requisition - they came to the exercise of a constitutional right - they wished to have given expression to their opinions, with respect to that system of policy which they believed to be the cause of their distress; and their appearance produced - not a manly and rational conflict of independent opinion - not the relinquishment of an obnoxious proposition - not a fair and open trial of strength, between two opposing parties; - but a pretended abandonment of the meeting, upon a futile and unsatisfactory pretext, whilst at that very time it was no doubt determined, that the object of the proposers of the meeting should be secretly carried into effect..

But, however that may be, the naked fact, that the people, felt themselves insulted and trifled with, by the conduct adopted towards them, is sufficient to account for the irritation which they felt, and to this irritation I have no diiiiculty in asserting, that the attack upon the Exchange was to be attributed. I have already said, that for a very long period after they were in possession of the Exchange, (so long indeed as any expectation remained, that a public meeting would take place,) the conduct of the populace was peaceable. It is more to be lamented than wondered at, that they should subsequently proceed to riot. The windows and chairs of the Exchange building were broken, the maps torn from the walls, and set on tire in the middle of the room. But the fire was, by the spirited exertions of a few of the subscribers, extinguished, before it had done any mischief to the building itself. No circumstance has ever come to my knowledge, calculated to give the slightest character of premeditation to this injurious outrage; and I am confident I do not err, in referring to the proceedings of the day, as the sum and substance of its origin. The tumultuary proceedings of the evening are fairly attributable to the same cause; and I am wholly unable to conceive, how any impartial person can shew to be at all probable, the existence of any connection whatever, between the proceedings here on the 8th of April, which clearly originated in a distinct political transaction, and those attacks on the factories at Middleton and West Houghton, which were as clearly caused by an hostility to the use of steam looms.

I have no reason to believe, that the atrocity of the Middleton riots can be palliated by any attempt to prove, that the tricks and machinations of hired spies had any share in producing them. They originated in severe distress, exasperated by a short-sighted prejudice against the introduction of newly-invented machinery, which the populace fancied was calculated to aggravate the sufferings they were enduring. The attack of the mob upon the factory, and their destruction of the house of one of its owners, were crimes of the greatest enormity: much, therefore, as the consequences were to be deplored, no doubts were entertained of the legality of the conduct pursued. However humanity might grieve, at the death of those who were shot by the military, Justice was satisfied.

But at West Houghton, where a steam loom factory was set on fire, and burnt down, the case was widely different. This outrage was debated (as appeared by evidence on the trials of the rioters) at a meeting which took place on Dean Moor, near Bolton, the 19th of April, 1812, sixteen days before the scheme was put in practice. At this meeting (which was very speedily reduced to numerical insignificance, by the desertion of a considerable proportion of those who had at first attended it) there were present, during the greater part of its duration, and up to the time of its close, not more than about forty persons, of whom no less than ten or eleven were spies, reputed to be employed by Col. Fletcher. On this occasion, these spies were armed, and disguised with blackened faces. And when some persons wished to retire from the meeting, on finding the wicked purpose upon which it was bent, they were prevented from so doing, by a rear guard, formed chiefly of the armed spies, and marched by force towards West Houghton, where a considerable detachment of military were in ambuscade, awaiting their approach. Upon this occasion, the spies were provided with white caps, to put on when they should come in contact with the military, in order that being recognized, they might not be hurt.

But all the exertions of the spies were insufiicient to enable than to carry their plan into effect. The unfortunate victims of their diabolical machinations could not, at that time, be induced to act; one by one they slunk away from the meeting, till the spies were left alone. So that, when a detachment of the local militia; which was sent from Bolton, at midnight, to pick up stragglers, had succeeded in apprehending a considerable number of supposed Luddites, they were, upon examination, every man of them, proved to belong to the corps of black-laced spies, and consequently dismissed.

The occurrence of circumstances like these, sixteen days before the burning of the factory took place, renders it not a matter of presumption, but of absolute certainty, that that alarming outrage might have been prevented, if to prevent it had been the inclination of either the spies or their employers. '

I am not aware, that the truth of the preceding statements, which I have abridged from Dr. Taylor's Letter, and which have now been before the public nearly seven years, has ever been at all questioned. But however that may be, I know that proof of them can be given upon oath, to such an extent as must be absolutely decisive of their veracity. At the special commission held at Lancaster, for the trial of the rioters of that period, eight persons were capitally convicted. At Chester, though fifteen were condemned to death, two only were ultimately executed. But the conduct pursued at Lancaster formed a striking contrast with this dignified lenity. There, every person convicted, MAN, WOMAN and CHILD, were consigned to the hands of the EXECUTIONER. One of these VICTIMS WAS A BOY SO YOUNG AND CHILDISH, THAT HE CALLED ON HIS MOTHER FOR HELD, AT THE TIME OF HIS EXECUTION, THINKING SHE HAD THE POWER TO SAVE HIM.

Upon this transaction my mind has often dwelt, until my imagination has pictured the whole dreadful scene to my fancy. The dreadful apparatus of death - the scarcely human form and visage of the executioner - the agonized and convulsed expression which glared in the countenance of the prisoners, as a hurried and fearful look askance at the surrounding objects, gave them a melancholy assurance that they stood on the verge of eternity; - all these images have passed before my mind, until I have shrunk with horror from the dreadful imagery. But there is still another object - a CHILD - a victim young in years, yet younger in capacity - the executioner approaches him - he too must die - the fatal cord is bound around his neck - from gloomy and lethargic apathy, the dreadful consciousness of his approaching fate bursts upon his mind - he recollects the protector of his helpless childhood - the ties which first bound him to life are the last to be severed - he cries to his mother - that being who gave him existence, to save him - but—the fatal drop falls! - DEATH arrests the half-uttered sentence, which quivers in a stifled echo on the lip of expiring infancy!

That heart must indeed be callous - destitute of human feelings and affections, that can coolly look upon death as a fit punishment for the crimes of a boy; but, where it was known, that those crimes were not the consequence of depravity of disposition or character; - that, of tender years and weak capacity, "he had fallen in the practice of a hellish slave," we cannot but lament, that the severity of justice was not at once relaxed, that the suggestions of mercy might be eagerly adopted.*

Language cannot furnish a term, nor the mind of man conceive an idea, sufficiently expressive of my feelings, or I believe of those of the public, with respect to the infamous agents, and the yet more infamous prompters, by whom this carnival of death was spread; but though they have hitherto silenced the voice of conscience, andstifled every sentiment of remorse, the time will come, when their deeds shall rise in judgment against them; at that time, when the hand of death presses coldly and heavily on their hearts, how dreadful will be their retrospections!

*One of the Birmingham rioters was Daniel Hose. He was brought to the bar on a charge of setting fire to the house of John Taylor, Esq.; but being only sixteen years of age, the counsel for the prosecution hoped that he might yet be useful to society, and called no evidence against him. He was of course acquitted.
But this leniency was exhibited by reformers.


Transcribed PAGES from 'Notes & Observations ...'




(inc. footnotes)

Return to top

'NOTES & OBSERVATIONS, Critical & Explanatory, on the Papers Relative to the Internal State of the Country, Recently Presented to Parliament; to which is appended, a REPLY to Mr. Francis Philips's 'Exposure of the Calumnies circulated by the Enemies of Social Order ...'
by a 'Member of the Manchester Committee for Relieving the Sufferers of the 16th August 1819 (Ascribed to John Edward Taylor)
Pub. Dec1919

Transcribed by Sheila Goodyear 2019

LINK to full .pdf document of 'Notes & Observations ...' on the Internet Archive website to read or download.
LINK to .pdf file of 'Exposure of the Calumnies...' on the Internet Archive website to read or download

Peterloo project Menu Page
Peterloo project
Peterloo Project Pages
on our companion website,