The Massacre of Peterloo, Manchester, 16th August 1819

The Peterloo Massacre - Manchester 16th August 1819

William Fitton - 'The Lost Reformer'

by Anna Mayall

On the evening of Monday 16th August 1819, when the dust in St Peter’s field had settled and the crowds dispersed, four men contemplated the terrible events of Peterloo from a New Bailey prison cell in Salford1. Henry Hunt the eminent radical orator and his Manchester host Joseph Johnson were seized from the hustings as the cavalry had charged. Stalwart John Knight, Lancashire’s “Father of Reform” fled the field only to be snatched from his home hours later2. A fourth man however is far less familiar. Despite lifelong dedication to the “National Cause” and efforts arguably as great as any of his cellmates, the memory of William Fitton of Royton has faded into relative obscurity3. Lacking the high profile trials or self-publicity which have preserved characters like Samuel Bamford and John Bagguley for almost two centuries, Fitton’s identity has dimmed and his contribution is regularly and lamentably overlooked.4

Almost two-hundred years on an unexpected gift presented me with his name for the first time, and in turn a truly fascinating story. As the bicentenary of this infamous and world-changing event approaches, it seems only fitting to remember a man so central to its occurrence, so dedicated in his altruistic endeavours and yet so seldom celebrated for his efforts.

For over a decade I’ve explored my own family history, navigating a tree which centres on Manchester and Oldham. Amidst the many generations of desperately poor weavers and cotton workers there have been whispers of Peterloo of course, but no tangible connection to the event itself. In 2017 however, I was given a document by my mother, a treasure far older than any other historical ephemera we’ve gathered. It was a beautiful letter, fragile as tissue paper and covered with the elegant, spidery cursive of a long-gone Lancashire doctor; William Fitton.

It had belonged to my late Grandad, Lawrence Holt, a Manchester lad born and bred, from whose much loved but long-neglected stamp collection it was rescued. No indication of its significance to our family was provided, nor any obvious suggestion of its historical value, but research has revealed much. Exploring the history of this letter has provided me with a vivid insight into the turbulent and poverty-stricken lives of my Lancastrian ancestors. Perhaps more importantly, it has demonstrated the terrific efforts of the men and women who fought for their right to a better life.

In the letter, written on 23rd October 1836, William Fitton writes to John Fielden Esq. of Todmorden; a cotton manufacturer, Radical and champion of parliamentary reform. Since 1832 Fielden had been MP for Oldham, a position he had secured at its creation alongside his ally William Cobbett the influential radical pamphleteer. The pair were authors of their own success, both instrumental in the passing of the First Reform Act which had finally enfranchised Oldham and many other swelling industrial centres. The act represented the first step towards a political reformation long advocated by the Radicals of Peterloo, but fell far short of their ultimate goal of universal suffrage. So long after the pitiable 1819 meeting in Manchester there was still much to fight for.

Fitton writes a year after the death of Cobbett, a man whose specific branch of radical politics he had adopted and would faithfully promote until his own death some years later. With an Oldham seat empty, the assiduous Royton surgeon evidently set about finding a replacement. Writing to his remaining MP, Fitton assures Fielden that he would step forward himself if only he were in a “suitable position to do so”. As a man of modest property and considerable political experience, it’s unclear what prevented Fitton from standing for election at this time. With the support of many local reformers, and the respect of Oldham’s remaining MP, Fitton would have been an obvious choice.5 No doubt William Cobbett himself would have supported the loyal reformer whose wit and youthful brilliance had made such an impression when the pair first met in London some nineteen years before. What better man to step into his shoes than Mr Fitton “a man whose information is as extensive as any man in Lancashire and who is as famed for his scrupulous veracity as for the extent of his information”!6

Fitton had emerged as a political activist as early as 1812 but it seems his radicalisation began far earlier.7 He was born in 1793 to local doctor Edward Fitton and his wife Ann.8 The following April, as revolution raged over the channel in France and local opinion turned swiftly against resident Jacobins, tensions erupted very close to home. In an incident with many striking similarities to Peterloo, the so-called “Royton Races” saw at least two of Fitton's uncles arrested for sedition.9 Thomas “Mechanicus” Taylor and his brother Joseph were leading members of the Royton “Friends of Reform” who met on this occasion to discuss a petition intended for the Houses of Parliament.10 The committee met on Sandy Lane, at Joseph’s Inn “The Light Horseman” where they would soon fall foul of a local informant. The Vicar of Royton had tipped off a half-cut band of local loyalists who were eager to confront any individuals seen to be questioning the will of the authorities. The pub was surrounded by the “church and king” mob from Oldham, as well as a throng of riotous hangers-on as many as 4,000 in number. In the ensuing violence, half a dozen local liberals were seized, including Thomas, Joseph and their brother-in-arms, the radical leader and Peterloo veteran John Knight.11 In a curious foreshadowing of Fitton and Knight’s experience years later, the peaceful reformers were dragged to the New Bailey in Salford to languish in jail cells contemplating their dubious offence.

Evidently, both Fitton and his cousin James Taylor “The Royton Poet” were exposed to the question of reform from an early age.12 With their hometown a hub of radical activity and a family at the head of local activism, it’s unsurprising the pair would both adopt the cause in later life.13 Fitton would also strike up a lasting friendship with John Knight which would endure until the latter’s death in 1838.14 It certainly seems that although William Fitton acquired a trade from his father, it was from his mother’s family he found his calling.

Twenty two years later, on the 16th September 1816 a “numerous and respectable” meeting was held in Royton.15 Several resolutions were passed which determined, in essence, that the government was failing in its responsibility to uphold the rights and liberty of the people and that only the as-yet unrealised dream of parliamentary reform could address this tremendous concern. The heavy burden and bold endeavour involved in carrying these resolutions into effect was bestowed upon a newly-formed committee of seven local men. Amongst them was twenty-three year old William Fitton and his good friend and fellow surgeon John Kay.16

In this period, perhaps as a result of his appointment to the committee in Royton, William Fitton took dramatic steps to solidify the reform movement in Lancashire. He is credited with the founding of the very first Radical “Hampden Club” outside of London, and therefore delivering Major John Cartwright’s message of liberty to the people most directly concerned: the northern labouring workforce. John Knight and Samuel Bamford soon followed suit by setting up their own clubs in Manchester and Middleton.17 In his personal recollections the radical journalist Archibald Prentice notes that in December 1816, it was from meetings at Bamford’s club that Fitton “a very honest and intelligent man” was sent forth as a radical missionary, successfully “awakening demand for reform” in the West Riding of Yorkshire.18

As 1817 dawned, Fitton’s wide-reaching activism first caught the attention of his hero Cobbett whose writings were fast becoming a leading radical authority across the country.19 Bamford recalls the event of their meeting, likely for the first time, at a groundbreaking gathering in London that January. He notes that Cobbett gave preference above all to “our friend Fitton of Royton whose sarcastic vein had particularly pleased him”. In a speech ridiculing Manchester’s gentry, Fitton’s “just and able observations” of the so-called “Order of the Pig-tail” tickled Cobbett to the the extent that he laughed “until his sides shook”.20 Such was his impression of the young surgeon that equally warm sentiment was echoed in his Political Register, the cheap Radical newspaper which was by this point “read on nearly every hearth in South Lancashire”.21 From this point onwards, the letters, speeches and political endeavours of Royton’s own “ultra-radical” would regularly feature. For better or worse Fitton must now have been a household name.

The historian and cartographer Edwin Butterworth remembers Fitton briefly in his Oldham histories, stating that the Royton orator gave his first public address at a rally in Preston aged just twenty-three.22 This may have been the first occasion young Fitton came into contact with William Hulton, then High Sheriff of Lancashire, the very man who would set a mob of sabre-wielding yeomanry on defenceless crowds at Peterloo.23

Over the course of the next two years, Fitton would be ever-present amongst the leaders of the movement, frequently attending meetings in Oldham, Stockport, Blackburn, Rochdale, Lydgate, and in Manchester where in 1819 the tide of bureaucratic anxiety would finally overflow on the field of Peterloo.

On one such occasion, Fitton would appear at St Peter’s field in March 1818, at a meeting presided over by James Wroe, the editor of the Manchester Observer.24 There he joined the ranks of many leading radicals including William Benbow, Samuel Drummond and John Bagguley, authors of the calamitous Blanketeer march of the previous year. Others present were the charismatic quack doctor, Joseph Healey of Oldham25 and an ageing radical later immortalised by cabinister minister George Canning as “the reverend and ruptured” William Ogden”.26

Fitton returned less than a year later, appearing before a crowd of 10,000. The vast meeting, a peaceful dress-rehearsal to Peterloo, was chaired by his friend John Knight, and addressed (for the first time in Manchester) by Radicalism’s most beloved front-man, the orator Henry Hunt. Reverend Joseph Harrison, the movement’s self-proclaimed “chaplain on the field of battle” spoke on this occasion, as did the “radical missionary” Joseph Mitchell and co-founder of the Manchester Observer, John Thacker Saxton.

Despite the peaceability of the gathering, ever-growing support for the reformers was drawing the attention of the country’s leading men. By now, Fitton’s name was present in correspondence between panicked Manchester magistrates and Lord Sidmouth himself. In a letter to the Home Office, William Norris labels Fitton (like his uncles before him), a “veteran Jacobin of Royton” for a speech celebrating “the demise of the church and king mobs”.27

In February 1819, as both crowds and political tensions increased, Fitton’s shrewd actions at a pivotal meeting in Stockport demonstrated his good sense and a continued commitment to peaceful protest. Now chairperson himself, Fitton addressed a crowd of over 12,000 local workers on Sandy Brow. It was here that a body of cavalry led by the bailiff William Birch attempted to reach the hustings. In a move repeated at Peterloo to more deadly effect, the mounted authorities pushed through the vast assembly, striking at women and children alike in order to seize the symbolic ‘liberty cap’ from the reformers. At a dinner held that evening Reverend Harrison toasts the conduct of the chairman “for his manly and judicious endeavours to impress upon the minds of the people...the necessity of acting lawfully”.28 For his trouble, Fitton was reported to the Home Office once again, this time by Stockport’s own local enemy of reform, the magistrates' clerk John Lloyd.

By contrast, Fitton has been criticized for baiting the authorities in a letter published in July 1819.29 Therein he mocks the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry, and soon-to-be villains of Peterloo, for their paranoia at a destitute workforce supposedly armed with pikes. In a statement which seems more like sarcasm than provocation, Fitton teases that “half a dozen hungry, angry weavers would eat a whole corps of yeomanry” given the chance. After several years of uninterrupted protest, perhaps it was these frustrated words which led to Fitton’s eventual arrest in early August 1819, rather than one more radical speech as was claimed.30 Officially, he was indicted as one of “the most zealous reformers” for “sedition uttered at Blackburn” along with Knight, Mitchell, Saxton and editor Mark Wardle.31 Unsurprisingly, at the same time, a second indictment was made against the latter and James Wroe for libels published in their respective papers.32

In the dead of the night on Monday 2nd August, Fitton was taken from his home by half a dozen men and a constable brandishing a pistol.33 He was driven to the New Bailey in Salford, appearing at the Manchester Sessions the following day. With no prior warning of the indictment and in no position to defend himself, Fitton agreed to a trial at the next sessions and requested he be granted bail. Despite a charge of £1000, a sum greater even than those imposed on Hunt after Peterloo, he was freed as three Royton businessmen came to his aid.34

Within days of his arrest, Fitton was back in the thick of things. The date of a monster meeting in Manchester had been released and then revised, delaying orator Hunt’s dramatic return to St Peter’s field by a week. He would reside for the time being at the house of Joseph Johnson, brushmaker and co-founder of the Patriotic Union Society responsible for calling the groundbreaking meeting.35 On 10th August, the day after Hunt’s triumphant return to Lancashire, Fitton and Knight were welcomed to Johnson’s home at Smedley Cottage to plan for the events ahead.36

Six days later the political hammer-blow fell and the voice of reform was temporarily hushed as seventeen people were murdered and hundreds more seriously injured at Peterloo. The question of whether William Fitton was present on that fateful day in August remains unclear, but a scarcity of evidence to confirm this may explain why his memory is similarly lacking from most histories of the period. There are, however, reasons to believe he marched to Manchester that day, as he had done so many times before. With only a tiny percentage of the participants of Peterloo now named, it would be a mistake to assume his absence has been unequivocally established.

By nightfall the local authorities had rounded up many prominent reformers and William Fitton was amongst them.37 How and where he was apprehended for a second time is unclear, but the speed with which he was taken supports the idea that he was in Manchester that day. Certainly, records suggest that his presence, along with “every man of note not needed elsewhere”, was expected.38 Although a Royton contingent marched to Manchester on the16th, it was not led by William Fitton, and his apparent absence has been attributed to a fear of the pending indictment.39 However, this concern did not prevent John Knight’s attendance, nor does it mean that Fitton would have avoided such a vital meeting altogether. In addition, there is at least one eye-witness account which names Fitton as being amongst those on the hustings.40 Curiously, Samuel Bamford reports that he approached Fitton in Royton the day after the event, which suggests that he was quickly freed or apprehended at a later date. Either way, Bamford’s account demonstrates once more the surgeon’s peaceable attitude. The Middleton poet claims that both Fitton and his friend John Kay were in direct opposition to any suggestion of retaliation against the authorities.41

After Peterloo, as the liberty of the country was stifled to unprecedented levels with the introduction of the Six Acts, Fitton’s political activity certainly lessened. He was bailed out once again, this time by the radical baronet Sir Charles Wolseley and was never imprisoned for the offence brought against him at Blackburn.42 Samuel Bamford affirms that the country reformers all retreated at this point, and that both Fitton and Kay were “seldom visible beyond the circle of their own village”. In addition to the restrictions now pressing upon the reformers, Fitton’s attention may have been drawn away from political activity at least in part as a result of the birth of his first son. The infant, who must have been born in the very days or weeks surrounding the massacre at Manchester, was poignantly named Napoleon.43 The baby died in January the following year, but such was the desire of his parents to preserve the name, that it was bestowed upon a second son born in 1821.

In a final show of solidarity as the shroud of the Six Acts was drawn across the country, a group of reformers including Wolseley, Knight and Fitton emerged to attend the farcical but ultimately fruitless inquest of John Lees, an Oldham mill worker who died from wounds inflicted at Peterloo.44

Whether or not Fitton was present on the day of the massacre remains to be seen but his contribution to the politics surrounding it cannot reasonably be denied. His name is as commonly mentioned at northern radical gatherings as many of the men we now remember as leaders of the movement, all of whom seemed to have regarded him with great gratitude and respect. Even the most significant adversaries of Radicalism considered Fitton with much concern, his activities being reported to the Home Office in London by spies and magistrates alike. Along with many key reformers, Fitton’s liberty was suppressed in the weeks leading up to Peterloo as the authorities sought to smother what they viewed as the ever shortening fuse of civil disobedience. They feared revolution and considered Fitton as culpable an agitator as his more celebrated comrades.

For several years after the tragedy at St Peter’s Field, William Fitton withdrew to Royton and took no obvious part in local politics. However, perhaps his greatest contribution to the reform movement came later when he returned to public life in support of John Fielden and William Cobbett. As “chief advisor” to the Cobbettite reformers in Oldham, Fitton’s role in local politics would be instrumental. The party of men relying on Fitton’s guidance Butterworth calls the “truest supporters of the cause of radical reform of any party in the county".45 They were Cobbett and Fielden’s most committed promoters, backing the Oldham duo throughout the 1820’s and 30’s and during the introduction of the First Reform Act in 1831. Significantly, Crompton, Chadderton and Fitton’s hometown Royton owe their very inclusion into the borough of Oldham to the canny Lancashire surgeon.

William Fitton died after a short illness on 15th November 1840. An obituary published days later remembers him as a “devoted and ardent friend of the Liberty of man”, claiming that “few private persons have devoted more time and talent to serve their country”.46

As a genealogist I had hoped to find a connection between myself and the author of this letter. What I find instead is a stranger who dedicated his life to the freedom of working people, a handful of whom, my own ancestors, lived just doors away.

Perhaps the most distinct and and affecting portrayal of William Fitton comes from his friend and idol William Cobbett in an article published in December 1832 when the latter was elected MP for Oldham. Cobbett, who was initially absent from celebrations in his honour declares that it was our very own “Mr Fitton” who represented him that day, delivering an opening speech to electors in his stead. He praises the oration of his eloquent representative, claiming that all present, Whig, Tory and anti-slavery man alike, had barely heard “so able a speech before”. Reminiscing, Cobbett also recalls the “very great talent...rare knowledge and prudence” of the young delegate he met in London fifteen years before, who he claims “kept steadily on, most disinterestedly pursuing the great object” ever since. In a final gesture to the Royton surgeon, Cobbett writes “I, in this public manner, beg him to accept my thanks for his able support upon this occasion, and...assure him that though this support could not add to the warmth of that friendship I have long felt towards him, it gives him an additional claim to my gratitude.”47



  • 1 Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser, 19 August 1819, final column.
  • 2
  • 3 Fitton “as active as Knight”, The Peterloo Massacre, Joyce Marlow, p. 122
  • 4 As an example, Robert Reid’s book The Peterloo Massacre which references Bamford 36 times, Knight 23 and Hunt 72, doesn’t mention William Fitton once.
  • 5 Dover Telegraph and Cinque Ports General Advertiser, 7 January 1837, p. 2, col. 3 and Leicester Herald 07, January 1837, pp 2, col. 3.
  • 6 Cobbett's Weekly Political Register, 4 May 1833, pp. 300-5
  • 7 Nottingham Review and General Advertiser for the Midland Counties, 27 November 1840, p. 4, col 3.
  • 8 William Fitton names his father Edward in his 1840 will. His was baptism on 15 July 1793 in Shaw near Oldham confirms that his mother was Ann. It appears Edward and Ann (Taylor) were married on 3rd January 1786, at St Mary in Oldham.
  • 9 Chester Chronicle, 25 April 1794 and
  • 10
  • 11
  • 12
  • 13 Loyalism and Radicalism in Lancashire, 1798-1815, Katrina Navickas, p. 36
  • 14 The Northern Star and Leeds General Advertiser, 22 September 1838, p. 7, col. 1
  • 15 Liverpool Mercury, 13 September 1816, p. 83, col. 2
  • 16 Manchester Times, 19 February 1848, p. 7, col. 1
  • 17
  • 18 Historical Sketches and Personal Recollections of Manchester, Archibald Prentice, p. 89
  • 19 Manchester Times, 19 February 1848, p. 7, col. 1
  • 20 Passages in the Life of a Radical, Samuel Bamford
  • 21 Cobbett's Weekly Political Register, 25 January 1817, p. 99
  • 22 Historical Sketches of Oldham, Edwin Butterworth, p.172
  • 23 Leeds Mercury, 08 March 1817, col. 2
  • 24 Lancaster Gazette, 14 March 1818, last col.
  • 25
  • 26 Manchester Times, 19 February 1848, p. 7, col. 1
  • 27 Loyalism and Radicalism in Lancashire, 1798-1815, Katrina Navickas, p. 36
  • 28 Black Dwarf, 24 February 1819
  • 29 The Story of the Manchester Massacre: Peterloo, Jacqueline Riding, p.195
  • 30 Peterloo: The Case Reopened, Robert Walmsley, p. 81
  • 31 Hampshire Telegraph, 9 August 1819, col. 2 and Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser, 7 August 1819, col. 3
  • 32 Exeter Flying Post, 05 August 1819, col. 2
  • 33 Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser, 7 August 1819, col. 3
  • 34 Leeds Intelligencer, 13 September 1819, col. 2
  • 35
  • 36 Morning Post, 13 August 1819, col. 1
  • 37 Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser, 19 August 1819, final column.
  • 38 Morning Post, 04 August 1819, col. 3
  • 39 The Peterloo Massacre, Joyce Marlow, p. 122
  • 40 Statement of Charles Wright, TS 11/1056, 16 August 1819
  • 41 Passages in the Life of a Radical, Samuel Bamford
  • 42 Leeds Intelligencer, 13 September 1819, col. 2
  • 43 Napoleon Fitton Chackwick, baptised 26th September 1819 at St Paul’s Church, Royton
  • 44 Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser, 29 September 1819, col. 3. Notably, Thomas Woolfenden, a
  • schoolmaster and registrar who was named as an executor in Fitton’s will, was a member of the jury.
  • 45 Historical Sketches of Oldham, Edwin Butterworth, p.172
  • 46 The Carlise Journal, 28 November 1840, p. 3
  • 47 Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register, 22 December 1832, pp 724-725.
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