The 16th of August 1819 saw what has become known as the “Peterloo Massacre” (Wroe, 1819) at St Peter’s Field, Manchester where between nine and fifteen men, women and children were killed and hundreds of people were injured.
Over 60,000 people had gathered at a mass rally, organised by radical reformers, where they were addressed by a well-known radical orator, Henry Hunt. The Manchester & Salford Yeomanry tried to arrest Hunt and, in the process, charged the crowd knocking down a woman and killing a child. William Hulton, the chairman of the Cheshire Magistrates summoned the 15th Hussars to disperse the crowd who were charged at, sabres drawn, where the fatalities and injuries ensued.
On 16th September 1819, one month to the day after the atrocity, the people of Norwich addressed the Prince Regent, by way of an address read at St Andrew’s Hall, Norwich. In this address, read by the Mayor of the City, Nathaniel Bolingbroke, the “citizens and inhabitants of the City of Norwich” expressed their “… shame, and grief, and indignation at the cruel outrages which have lately been committed at Manchester”.
It is noted in the 1819 Norfolk Chronicle Newspaper Selections (Norfolk Chronicle, 1819) that the address was “afterwards presented to the Prince at Carleton House”, the town residence of the Prince Regent.
The events in Manchester, and the feelings of the people of Norwich, at that time should be understood in relation to the context of social and political events leading up to that point.
Britain at the time
The late 18th and early 19th centuries had been a period of huge transition: beginning with the loss of the American colonies following the American Revolution (1775-83), the rebellion by the United Irishmen on behalf of Irish autonomy (1799), the Napoleonic Wars (1783-1815), and the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution intensified class distinctions when wealthy landowners built large farms and introduced improved farming methods. Fewer agricultural workers were needed as a result so most moved to towns and became the workforce of the Industrial Revolution. On top of this, the end of the Napoleonic Wars brought economic disaster, depression and mass unemployment. Agitation for social reform grew and the government’s response to this agitation was repression of the people.
At this point in the early 19th century, only 11% of adult males had the vote with very few in the industrial north, which had been hit worst by the repressive Corn Laws. In 1817, 750,000 people petitioned Parliament for manhood suffrage to be introduced; the request was flatly rejected by the House of Commons. In 1819, the country experienced a second slump in the economy whereupon radical reformers sought to mobilise huge crowds of people to force the government to back down from their 1817 decision.
A tale of two cities
The cities of Norwich and Manchester were vastly different at the turn of the 19th century. Manchester began expanding at an astonishing rate at this time as people flocked to the city for work from around the United Kingdom as part of a process of unplanned urbanisation brought on by the Industrial Revolution. The population, in 1821 (Office for National Statistics), was 108,016 and by 1835, Manchester was described as “without challenge, the first and greatest industrial city in the world” (Hall, 1998).
By contrast much of Norwich’s industrial and commercial life was already in decay and the population was less than half that of Manchester (50,288) (White, 1864). The city had begun to expand beyond its walls and living conditions were unsanitary: there was no supply of clean water and the city was hit by epidemics of various diseases including smallpox which killed over 500 people in the year of Peterloo.
The Prince Regent
The life of the Prince Regent, by contrast to most of his subjects, was one of riotous, boisterous and drunken frivolity. George, the eldest child of King George III and Queen Charlotte, was appointed as Prince Regent in February 1811 following the Regency Act of the same year. This appointment was as a direct result of the deterioration of the King’s mental health that rendered him unfit to rule. The Regent let his ministers take full charge of government affairs, playing a far lesser role than his father, and the principle that the prime minster was the person supported by a majority in the House of Commons, whether the king personally favoured him or not, became established (Bagehot, 1872).
The Language of the People of Norwich
It would appear, from the words of the Norwich address, that the Prince’s lack of involvement in affairs of government, was recognised as a “limited Monarchy” and that they had “long observed, on the part of the King’s Ministers, a settled and systematic purpose to deny, harass and suppress the petitioning of the People”. The language used in the address ranges from flattery of the Prince (“a generous Prince”, “the natural mildness and generosity of your Royal Highness’ disposition”), through horror at the barbarity which occurred in Manchester (“Blood has been shed. Bodies have been mangled. Lives have been destroyed”, “the Outrages at Manchester”) to utter disdain at the “gross and wanton violation of the Rights and Liberties of the People” and his Royal Highness is petitioned to “displace, for ever, from your Royal person and Councils, those equally weak and violent Ministers who have presumed, on this occasion to connect your Royal Highness’ noble nature, with the massacre at Manchester.”
Repercussions of Peterloo
Reaction in both London and national newspapers shared the horror felt in the Manchester region. Sadly, it would appear that the heartfelt petition of the people of Norwich fell on deaf ears as the government passed new legislation, the Six Acts, which was aimed at gagging radical newspapers and preventing large meetings for the purpose of radical reform.
In 2018 the British film “Peterloo” was premiered at the BFI London Film Festival in Manchester. The director, Mike Leigh, said that he was truly delighted that his drama would be shown “where it all happened” (Korsner, 2018)
In 2019, on the 200th anniversary of the massacre, Manchester City Council inaugurated the Peterloo Memorial, eleven concentric circles of local stone, engraved with the names of the dead.
Written and compiled by Samantha Kimber, NRO blogger
Bagehot, W. (1872). The English Constitution. London: H S King.
Hall, P. (1998). The First Industrial City: Manchester 1760-1830. London: Widenfeld & Nicolson.
Korsner, J. (2018, August 16). London Film Festival to Premier Mike Leigh’s Peterloo drama – in Manchester. Retrieved from What’s Worth Seeing: http://whatsworthseeing.com/london-film-festival-to-premiere-mike-leighs-peterloo-drama-in-manchester/
Norfolk Chronicle. (1819, September 16). 1819 Norfolk Chronicle Newspaper Selections. Retrieved from The Foxearth & District Local History Society: http://www.foxearth.org.uk/1819NorfolkChronicle.html
Office for National Statistics. (n.d.). National Census & Registrar General’s Mid-Year Population Estimates. Crown.
White, W. (1864). History, Gazetteer & Directory of Norfolk, and the city and county of the city of Norwich. Retrieved from Archive.org: https://archive.org/details/historygazetteer00whit
Wroe, J. (1819, November 13). Manchester Digital Collections. Retrieved from The University of Manchester: https://www.digitalcollections.manchester.ac.uk/view/PR-R-00002-29748-00098/1