Remembering Peterloo

View of St Peter's Place, 1819

I’m writing this on the anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre, which took place here in Manchester on August 16th 1819.

The events of that day took place on St Peter’s Fields, close to the present day site of the former Free Trade Hall.

Much has been written about Peterloo. It is a significant event in the history of democracy. Similar events continue to take place on the world stage. It has an international dimension.
While it’s an important chapter in Manchester’s story, it’s more than local history.

Maxine Peake recently performed the poet Shelley’s work The Masque of Anarchy, written in response to the shocking events of that day. Today, on the anniversary, she will read the names of those who died. Eighteen died and as many as seven hundred were injured when the cavalry charged the crowd. They had gathered to listen to the orator Henry Hunt. Intended…

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“He was still bleeding when he was put in his coffin”. John Lees is killed, 1819.

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?

More details  here. 

My other book on the period is a social history of the period 1780 to 1840 focussing on the transport and hospitality industry.  Publishers details here. My introduction to the book here.

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.

Who shot Edward Vyse in the head? The Corn Law Riots, 1815


In 1815 the soldiers and sailors won the war against Napoleon but the government handed the victory to the landlords. They had profited from the high price of   grain during the war blockade, and so the government passed the Corn Law to forbid the import of Wheat until it reached 80 shilling a bushel. This was a de facto ban; it meant that the aristocrats could continue to benefit from high prices and the high rents that they supported.  It was passed by the Commons and Lords with the building surrounded by bayonets. The poor of London rioted because they knew that, having had 20 years of high food prices and poverty, the end of the war was not going to make their life easier.

The rioters were politically literate and aimed for the houses of those MPs who had actively supported the Corn Law. None of them died but their property was severely damaged. Two innocent bystanders did outside the house of Frederick John Robinson MP in Old Burlington Street. From earlier evening on a Tuesday his house was surrounded by a mob of about 60 throwing .Robinson was paying the price of introducing the Corn Bill to Parliament. However, his price was less than that of nineteen year old midshipman Edward Vyse, who was walking past the house and was hit with a shot from the pistol that was designed to scare the mob of boys outside. He died immediately at the scene.

Although this was a partisan class based piece of legislation, the rule of law meant that there would be an inquest, and an attempt to find the killer. One witness at the inquest was an Edward Howe, a messenger at the Board of Trade who asked one of the mob if he feared the soldiers shooting at them-“No, they dare not fire ball” he replied. It is clear that the rioters did not think they were living in a despotic state where the military fired at civilians.  Perhaps he also though that the firing of lethal shot was not part of the traditional choreography of the urban riot.

On the second day of the inquest a Corporal   Richard Burton gave evidence about the action of the six soldiers stationed there. The officer himself stressed that he was taking the advice of the constable, the civil power, and they both agreed to fire powder only. At eight thirty, when most of the Right Honourable member’s windows had been broken and his shutters were under attack, the soldiers opened fire, bit the balls of their cartridges so they were only producing smoke, and the young “rioters” cheered.

In this case, the cheerful rioters were wrong. About 10pm Edward Vyse, aged about 18, a navy midshipman, was shot in the head by persons unknown who were defending the Robinson house. Edward had been walking past the house, not towards it, in full uniform; there was no rioting or disturbances at that time-lots of witnessed attested to this. He had been killed instantly by a single cartridge ball from a pistol. A witness saw a soldier in the parlour wearing a foraging cap, who seemed to be responsible for the death. There were two other shots.

Corporal Burton admitted that there was at least one soldier with a foraging cap in the parlour at the time of Vyse’s death. There seemed to have been a real contradiction in evidence here; a soldier had fired under duress from the mobs attack at 8.30- but Edward Vyse had been killed at ten while he was merely passing the house, not trying to enter it. He father, a respectable artisan printer appeared as a sorrowful witness, backing up this narrative of events. The jury, clearly knowledgeable about these inquests, asked the coroner to keep the soldiers separate from Burton until the inquest continued. The Coroner regretted that he had no such power to do so.

Evidence from the Butler, James Ripley, suggested it seems that the fatal shot had not come from a military weapon but from rifles belonging to the household that had been loaded with the day before. Around 9pm an unidentified soldier had borrowed the rifle from Ripley and it was this that had been discharged into the street at about 10pm at Edward Vyse.

Corporal Burton could not offer any information about which of the six privates had fired the shot, so they we questioned individually. The witness George Ulph, private in the third regiment of Guards, was issued with 21 rounds of ball which he returned the next morning. He had not even fired shot. William Graves had returned all but one of his cartridges; he still had the balls he had bitten off in his pocket at home.

 With four soldiers left, the coroner separated those who had been nearest to the shooting from those who had been further way, and those further away were interrogated. These two could account for their ammunition, had never seen the man in the foraging cap, and were dismissed. Mathews and Herbert were clearly in the frame.

It proved impossible to prove who did the shooting. The Jury’s verdict was that Vyse was unlawfully murdered by persons unknown, and that the actions of the military were unconstitutional, as they had permission neither to enter   the house nor fire on the civilians outside.

James Ripley, the butler who provided pistols, Mathews and Herbert who were nearest the parlour and Richard Burton the corporal in charge must have breathed a sigh of guilty relief.

More details here
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Let them eat stale bread. The diet of the poor in the Regency

James Hobson

Britain was running out of bread in 1800.The Napoleonic blockade was beginning to have an effect and British domestic production had not yet started to increase. Bread filled the bellies of the poor; children had dry bread for breakfast; workers had bread and cheese for their lunch; the workers wife’s had bread and lard ; drinkers had a salted herring and a slice of bread in the pub; everybody had  bread was the main accompaniment for scraps of bacon. Only on Sunday afternoon did bread not rule the house.

Something needed to be done, so in 1801 the government passed the Stale Bread Act. This did not, as the name may suggest, ban the sale of bread that was old and hard. Indeed it was the opposite; it was fresh bread that was banned. Bakers had to keep all loaves for 24 hours before selling them. This logic here was sound, but brutal. Stale bread did fill people up more, and added about 20% to the stomach filling capacity of the loaf. The government believed that up to 50% of all bread sold in the streets of London was hot, and eaten immediately as a snack. This indulgence by the poor could no longer be allowed

Bread consumption fell. Stale bread was also less pleasant to eat, so the government was also able to stop poor people being greedy. However, the Act lasted less than a year. Like many governmental panic measures through the ages, it turned out to be impossible to enforce. The government did try; they had draconian punishments for bakers and offered rewards to people offered fresh bread. They would receive half of the 5 shilling fine; the other half would be given to the poor. A second offence would mean that the bailiffs would take all   of the baker’ property. Many criminals made a living entrapping bakers into breaking the law.  

News of the arrest of bakers was always popular. People were very suspicious of them throughout the eighteenth century.  They were accused of   giving short weights (hence the bakers dozen being 13). Local city authorities, not usually ready to interfere in business, were more than happy to raid bakers and check their weights and measures. Some towns like Derby insisted that the bakers put their initials into each loaf so the bakers could be tracked down if necessary.

People did not, as a rule bake their own bread, so the bakers had a near monopoly. Most fireplaces in Britain were calamitously   inefficient   and it made no economic   sense to use fuel to bake at home. By 1800 poor people could no longer buy small amounts of flour at a reasonable price, as it was more profitable for millers, who were as unpopular as the bakers, to sell it to middlemen.

Bread consumption was reduced by people starving and living off other staples. The potato was unpopular; some people still believed that it was poisonous   and many resented the link with the Catholic Irish. It was regarded as watery and tasteless; outside of Lancashire, it was merely boiled to death. The North West had the advantage of a potato   industry in from the early eighteenth century, and then later on, am Irish diaspora which knew slight more about the tuber through regular and monotonous contact.

 By 1812, large numbers of farmers in Scotland were saved from death by the potato, and the working classes of Manchester were living off potatoes, bread, bacon, gruel, tea and beer- a similar diet to the Irish farmer, who had the same but probably a little more milk.

 Millers and bakers were still the scapegoats after 1815, when the government artificially maintained the price of wheat by banning imports until the price reached a level that could maintain aristocratic rents and profits. Most   rural riots in the period 1815-1817 would converge on the millers. Armed with sharpened agricultural implements, they would demand that prices returned to an earlier level. In towns, sellers in the markets would have their food stolen as a protest at the price. The normal cry was   “Bread or Blood” , often with a loaf on a stick as a symbol of the problem and a way of breaking windows.


My three books are above. 

Radical Victorians 

The Dark Days of Georgian Britain