“Briton’s strike home”








He told me he was 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”………..William Harrison, 27th September 1819, Inquest of John Lees

John Lees, born about 1797, was the son of a successful cotton master, Robert Lees, of Oldham. He started spinning for his father aged about 14, but in 1812 he suddenly enrolled into the army that was fighting Napoleon. We don’t know why, but the reasons was never good. It might have been a family problem; his father was a formidable figure; however, he fought in France and was at Waterloo, and at the age of 19 he was an “old soldier”, demobilised by the state who had no further need for him, and grudgingly accepted by his father in his former job as a cotton spinner. This was an unsentimental age about children’s work, and it is clear that John had to work. He also shared a bed with his half brother, Thomas Whittaker, and lived less than a hundred yards from his spinning machine.

On Monday 16th August, he did not appear at work until past six o’clock in the evening and his father was angry. John had been to the mass protest for the reform of Parliament at St Peter’s Field. His father was angry; the meeting, though legal, came with warnings from the authorities about the danger; he had done no work today and was clearly in no fit state to do any this evening. He send his son angrily to report to the overseer, as John held his bloodied head and injured arm. John decided to minimize his injuries to his father, who was in any case, not interested

John was to continue as normal for a few days. A few days later he was to be seen in the pub, neither drunk nor sober, but in the phrase of a friend  “ lightish”. He offered to show people the wound on his left arm. John, as normal, stuck to beer and brandy with water, he was never a big drinker and never took spirits.

It took a week before he started to refuse drinks and then he started throwing up his food. He was constantly hot; his wound was not healing and his left arm and leg were numb. His left foot went purple. By Thursday 2ndSeptember   he took to his bed and never got up again, dying in the early hours of the morning of 6th September, blind in one eye, lame, retching with a putrid wound on his left elbow and his lungs suffocated with fluid.

How had John Lees died? He was killed by the malice and incompetence of the magistrates of  Manchester, who ordered the amateur, angry and intoxicated Manchester Yeomanry cavalry to charge the 80,000 crowd  of which John was a member on Monday 16th August. He had travelled, walking stick in hand to negotiate the rough cobbles between Oldham and Manchester, and arrived just before the main speech at 1pm. He was surrounded by women and children, out for the day to support a cause they believed in. They were the weavers and factory workers of Manchester and surrounding towns whose standard of living had collapsed over the last two years and now believed that reform of political representation was part of the solution.

It was decided by the magistrates to arrest Henry Hunt, the main speaker, and that the army was needed to do this. Unfortunately for the 400 crushed and 11 killed, the first people to get the order where the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry, who hated the protesters and were  hated back in return. They slashed their way through the crowd with the newly sharpened swords, and John was one of their victims. At his inquest, witnesses saw him sabred by the soldiers on the arm, then beaten by the special constables   and trampled by a horse. He was one of hundreds. He  limped away back to Oldham. He expected no sympathy from his father, but his worried mother watched him decline and die.  Betty Ireland, a servant, saw the bruises and festering wounds; he was bleeding internally when he died..” he was still bleeding when they put him in his coffin”

The government inquest was a farce. The assertion that John had died from wounds received at Peterloo were not believed; it was argued that his drinking and failure to see a doctor were the real cause. As the Inquest drew to an inevitable conclusion of deliberate killing, it was discovered that the Coroner had made procedural errors; he had not viewed the body at the same time as the jurors; he had not sworn in the jury himself , as he had not bothered to turn up for the first two days. The Inquest was cancelled and no verdict was reached. As it was a “mistake”, the government forgave the coronor, but it meant that there was no justice for John Lees, or any other victim of Peterloo.

There are two chapters in my book on Peterloo. Available from November 30th, 2017.

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