John Lees was a 22-year-old cotton spinner. There were many like him in the north of England. He attended the St Peter’s Field meeting on Monday 16 August 1819, where 80,000 people had come to hear Henry Hunt call for a reform of parliament. It was a peaceful and family-orientated crowd. John may even have attended more in curiosity than support- he certainly did not envisage any danger. He placed himself the front of the hustings. He would have had nothing in his hand except for a stout walking stick to negotiate the cobbled roads from his home town Oldham to St Peter’s Field in Manchester.
When the Manchester and Salford yeomanry cavalry received orders to arrest Hunt and the others on the platform, they galloped into a crowd that had no means of escape. John was slashed on the arm by a member of the cavalry, and then clubbed by more than one of the special constables that prevented the crowd exiting, and was then trampled by a horse. He died a lingering and painful death a result of these wounds on 7 September 1819. John was an ex-soldier who had fought in the Battle of Waterloo — from which the name Peterloo was created as an ironic comparison. There were fourteen other victims.
The authorities were determined that neither the government, magistrates nor soldiers would be blamed for the massacre . There were no plans for any official enquiries or government compensation, so the protestors and their allies decided to employ sympathetic lawyers James Harmer and Henry Denison to represent the family at the inquest. The lawyers for the Lees family wanted to prove the cavalry culpable, and shine a spotlight on the behaviour of the Manchester magistrates, who they accused of incompetence and malice . The legally required inquest would be their only chance to make these points. In the end, the inquest was sabotaged by the authorities.
There was a lot wrong with the inquest, starting with the failure of the coroner Thomas Ferrand to turn up for the first three days, which led to an adjournment. The radicals felt that the government was prevaricating, allowing enough time to pass for anger to subside. George Battye, the deputy coroner, barely managed to hide his contempt for Harmer and the inquest started each day with recriminations between the coroner and the newspapers, who were determined to report the proceedings. When he forbade publication of details, he was ignored.
Harmer called the first witness – Robert Lees, John’s father. Robert Lees was a successful cotton factory owner in Oldham, more interested in profit than protest. Mr Lees reported that John had gone to the demonstration without his father’s consent-his son was not a radical, and he had no reason to believe that he would have attended.
When he returned home injured, but sent him away angrily when he realised that his son was unable to work. He told his John to report to the overseer. It was a strangely cold reaction to his son’s bloody and bruised appearance, his inability to move freely, and the lack of a shoe. Mr Lees admitted that his indifference to his son’s condition was due to his anger, but also his belief that John’s stepmother would look after him.
His stepmother Hannah was more observant; he had come home on the Monday night with a cut that had gone foul, his shoulder could not be moved and he could not hold down his food. However, he continued to live as normal. Despite his mother’s comments that he was not a regular drinker, he was seen in various public houses over the next few days. The government offered up a witness to say that he was drinking on the Wednesday after the event and had even offered to show people the cut on his elbow, although it was common knowledge that governments and private individuals were ready to buy witnesses who were prepared to say anything.
As the week passed, his condition became worse. By Wednesday the twenty-fifth, he was seeing the local doctor who dressed John’s arm and cleaned his cuts. His left food swelled and developed purple spots, and he lost the ability to use his left arm and eye. He took to his bed more or less permanently after Sunday 29 August and by Sunday 5 September, his father had changed his mind about his son getting better. John died on Tuesday morning after two days of cold, rigid, monosyllabic agony.Such were his internal injuries that Betty Ireland said ‘he was still bleeding when they put him in his coffin’.
A surgeon at the inquest, Mr Basnett, agreed that the wounds were caused by external injuries, and that the loss of his left eye and left leg suggested a spinal injury; but it was still difficult to link it to the actions of the cavalry. It was caused, said the surgeon, by ‘cutting and maiming’ – but by whom?
When witnesses were asked why Lees had not complained more, it was suggested that he was still afraid about how his father would react. Betty Ireland, who knew John and saw his injuries, agreed with the stepmother, but neither had the medical knowledge to testify that the wounds were caused by sabre cuts and crushing.
The government case was that Lees had not died as a result of his wounds at Peterloo, but that he had failed to look after himself, the mortification of his wounds was caused by his drinking and his apparent lack of concern showed the truth of this. There was also no evidence of a named or known individual attacking him, so murder was not a verdict that could be supported.
The government’s case went badly. John’s half brother, Thomas Whittaker, with whom he had shared a bed since John’s demobilisation from the army in December 1818, never saw him drunk, or even drink spirits. Another eyewitness , John Wrigley, had been at St Peter’s Field, close to the hustings surrounded by women and children, and he saw Lees slashed in the arm by a sabre. Lees had made no attempt to attack the cavalry.
Friends, acquaintances and strangers all gave the same evidence. John Lees had offered no violence, was sober, and was clearly not a revolutionary. He had seen a doctor, he had carried on for a while – he had after all, joined the army aged 14 and fought at Waterloo aged 17 – he was a tough, resilient man – but he seemed to have died of wounds caused by cutting and maiming, and there were a considerable number of witnesses to this happening to others as well. The Riot Act, which would have legally privileged the cavalry’s action, was had not been heard by anybody. The Manchester and Salford cavalry had struck him down illegally.
One witness, when asked why he could recall so little, pointed out that it was every person for themselves. But the evidence for deliberate killing was mounting up. Harmer was able to produce one Daniel Kennedy, who neither knew nor saw John Lees but, as a cutler, had received orders to sharpen the blades of the cavalry in time for the St Peters Field meeting, initially scheduled for 9 August. Another damning witness, who talked to Lees after the attack, was William Harrison: ‘He told me he was at the Battle of Waterloo, but he was never in such danger as at this meeting, for at Waterloo it was man to man, but in Manchester it was downright murder’.
On 13 October the coroner ordered a long adjournment. He claimed to be worried about the health of the jury. During the six-week break it was discovered that the inquest was null and void due to the failings of the coroner.
In November 1819 the Court of King’s Bench determined that the original inquest was illegal, because it was held not by the coroner, but by his deputy, and the coroner and jury had not seen the body at the same time. Sidmouth the Home Secretary forgave Ferrand and the inquest lapsed; no verdict was ever made. Lees’ representatives had many more witnesses who were never heard. The government had realised that with new repressive laws, no admission of guilt, and the passage of time, Peterloo was a storm that could be seen out.
They may have been right at the time-but in the long run they were wrong!.
This is an abbreviated and modified version of a chapter of my book on the subject of the poor and oppressed of Regency Britain. Perhaps you could recommend it to your local library?
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If your interest extends to the radical movements of the Victorian era, then consider Radical Victorians. Publishers details here. My blog here.
New Georgian Book available from January 2023 also. See my blog for all books.