Victim blaming by a hostile media is not a new thing, as the aftermath of the Peterloo massacre of August 1819 shows. The Government plan was to delay the opening of Parliament, use repressive legislation and make sure that the official inquests for the victims came to nothing. A propaganda attack was also needed as well.
Character assassination was left to the newspapers. The Morning Post was one of the most virulent anti-reform publications, and on November 9 1819, while the claims for compensation were being demanded for the families and the injured of Peterloo, it published the most unpleasant letter from its imaginary correspondent “Humphrey Horrify”. Clearly was based on the radical reformer Henry Hunt, one of the victims of Peterloo. Hunt was the main speaker, and was dragged off the stage by force at the beginning of the demonstration. Hunt had been writing to newspapers- mostly the more reasonable Manchester Observer– demanding compensation for the victims. The Daily Mail-sorry- Morning Post was having none of it. It reported back on Horrify’s “victims”
Diggory Dunderhead is a bit dim. He was only at Peterloo to collect his wages; 18 pence ( 1 shilling and sixpence) for a week’s work is a deliberate understatement; he was probably on 6 shillings, but this would not be enough to live on. He and thousands of others were working every hour in the day and were still poor, and they had had enough. Diggory is a weaver and these men and their families were starving by 1819, and they made up a fair number of the co-operative crowd at Peterloo.
His poverty is a joke. He was thirteen children under three; impossible of course, but an indication that this was responsible for his own poverty. In the style of Monty Python’s “Four Yorkshiremen” sketch, his cardboard- cut -out boss” Squire Jollychops” hits him with a blow that cut off his ears and his hand.
The joke falls flat with the humorous assertion that the swords had been especially sharpened. This part was true. John Lees was battered and slashed at Peterloo and died a few weeks later of his injuries. One of the witnesses at his inquest, a cutler called Daniel Kennedy, was employed to sharpen the swords of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry Cavalry and had completed 63 by the day of the massacre.
The Morning Post had not finished. Many of the injured were of Irish origin, had moved to Manchester and transferred their linen weaving skills to cotton. By 1819 they were living on salt and potatoes with the added bitterness of racial prejudice.
Miss Goggle is Irish and a drunkard (“perfectly sober”). Her companion, Mr O’ Wriggler is another stereotypical Irishmen. That many of the Irish, like many of the working class, enlivened their miserable lives with alcohol may have been a little funny , but the mutilation of a woman at Peterloo was not. Their “truth” is that Goggle is a chancer who is just claiming compensation with the support of dangerous radicals. Its a familiar slur.
Another terror for the Manchester Post was female radical reformers.
It isn’t clear which the female reformers is being referred to, but it may be Mary Fildes, who shared a platform with Henry Hunt but her fictional name, Tear Sheet, tells us a lot. She is married, but clearly refuses to behave like women were meant to. Most of the readers of the paper (circulation 4,000, but they would be the people that really mattered) would recognise the reference to a women of “debatable virtue” from Shakespeare’s Henry IV. works at a lathe- a traditional masculine occupation- and her claim to have had her legs blown off was just to take money off the gullable.In reality, none of the injured at Peterloo received more than £3, and that did not even come from public funds. This is the “victim as scrounger” scare which seems to accompany any tragic event where the poor and powerless are injured-even today
And finally it gets very silly.
Mr Harmer was one of the lawyers who tried to prove the guilt of the Cavalry in the death of John Lees. Unfortunately, due to the mistakes of the coroner (he had failed to turn up on the first few days and had not viewed the body at the same time as the jury) the proceeding was declared null and void. The coroner was forgiven by a government that was at best relieved and at worst complicit.
There is a lot more on these subjects in my book. It has two chapters on Peterloo
Who Killed John Lees?
The Radical Women of Peterloo
Details of the other chapters here
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