A background to the ‘Peterloo’ film

Peterloo is on the front cover of my 2017 book the ‘ Dark Days of Georgian Britain’ as it was the key element of the Regency Period 1811-1820.

The film is excellent; those with reservations would say it was a little wordy, as there are quite a few political speeches by a large ensemble cast, but the film is still a testament to what we could, for the first time call ‘working class’ protest and establishment response.

My book is a comprehensive review of the events and attitudes that made Peterloo happen and some of the more immediate consequences.


First, the two chapters specifically about Peterloo

Chapter 13 PETERLOO -Who Killed John Lees?
Joseph Lees died after being beaten up at the mass meeting at St Peter’s Field ( Peterloo). However the government were able to prove “otherwise”. This chapter looks at the victims of Peterloo, how they were treated by the government that was not going to take responsibility for the poor or the actions of their own soldiers.
Chapter 14-The Women of PETERLOO
What’s more frightening that a radical? A women radical! Despite the difficulty in finding evidence, here we have the story of Alice Kitchen, Nancy Prestwick and Mary Fildes and others This is my favourite chapter of the book.
Chapter 1- The Darkness Years
This is an overview of the problems of the period 1811-1820. It was a time of austerity, climate change and poverty, with all the major institutions of the government being rotten and in need of reform. Sound familiar?. It was certainly for a major reason for the Peterloo protest, which was new and frightening for the ruling classes. They were not used to calls for political change

Chapter 2- The Poor Weavers
This chapter looks at examples of real people – Thomas Holden of Bolton, the Luddites and their refusal to accept that they should starve to death as industrialisation and the new attitudes of employers made their life miserable. Sound familiar ? Many Peterloo protestors were hand loom weavers and workers in the early factories, and they were suffering from the effects of industrialisation

C. Page 1 top Cruikshank_-_Peace_and_Plenty

Chapter 3- Making Life Worse
The Tory government made life worse for the poor after 1815 because of their political beliefs. This chapter deals with the rich avoiding income tax, high prices for bread and scandalous National Lottery which took money from the poor and gave it to the rich. We meet MP William ” Billy Biscuit” Curtis, who made a fortune for himself but tried to cut benefits for the poor. Thank heavens that kind of thing doesn’t happen now!

Chapter 4-Why People Rioted
This deals with the rioting of 1816. Some of it was old style rioting that had been common for centuries…but there were new developments which worried the establishment

Chapter 5- Bread and Potatoes

Three thousand words on bread and potatoes? Remember that was a large proportion of the diet of the poor…and it is an interesting story. You will be amazed at how much bread people ate, and how many ways you could justify other people not eating much. Much of the population of Manchester was subsisting on this diet around the time of the protest

Chapter 6-The Poor Law
The British had a quite a generous benefit system before the Poor Law was made harsher in 1834- that’s the Poor Law people study at school. The system is explained here, with lots of examples of the poor suffering. One family are evicted by having their roof removed and their house flooded with excrement…and yes, the landlord did get away with it!

Chapter 7- Cold Charity
The rich loved to help the poor…but with huge strings attached. I remain unimpressed throughout this chapter.. hence the title ! You will see William Wilberforce in a new light when you read what he thought was acceptable treatment of Britain’s war heroes- one of them was John Lees, hero of Waterloo and victim of Peterloo

Chapter 8- Old Corruption- The General Election, 1818
The 1818 General Election is covered in some detail the corruption the collusion, the rioting, the bribery and the intimidation. And it was regarded at the time as a better than average election.

Chapter 9- All About The Money
This chapter shows that in order to achieve anything in the Regency you needed money. Most things were for  sale  – parishes, army ranks, seats in parliament, everything. You will met a lot of rich people who took taxpayers money for imaginary jobs.

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Chapter 10- The Disgusting Prince Regent?
What were the main personal failings of the Prince Regent? Its all in this chapter, which therefore has to be quite long . He also represented a rotten system. He did not know the meaning of money, as it all came from the poor taxpayer.

Chapter 11- Arthur Thistlewood- The Gentlemen Revolutionary
Arthur was born a minor gentlemen and ended up being hanged for trying to assassinate the cabinet. This chapter tells the story of him and his revolutionary friends in the Regency. He may have planned to parade the streets of London with the Home Secretary’s ‘s head in a bag, but you may still like him, albeit as a very flawed human being. He was directly inspired by the cover up at Peterloo to attempt his coup in 1820

Chapter 12- The New Revolt of the Peasants
In 1817, the poor tried new ways of overthrowing their oppressors, that scared the establishment more because they were “political” riots. So the punishments were more severe. John Bagguley, mentioned in the film , is dealt with here, and what happened to him after he was beaten up in his cell

Chapter 15- The Freeborn Englishmen?
Britain was freer than most, but in the Regency that was put under great strain. People were imprisoned without trial. We meet William Ogden , 74, manacled in goal without charge for months with a 30 pound weight. His crime- wanting a reform of Parliament.

Chapter 16-The Punishment Didn’t Fit the Crime
This is a well-known regency topic. In my version, real people suffer at the hands of a floundering system that was at the end of its time. Reform did come- just not then. We meet Horace Cotton, who worked at Newgate with those condemned to die. He was a real charmer.

P newgate. hanging page7bottomChapter 17- Retribution
Fancy a trip to Newgate or a Prison hulk? We meet the poor in prison, including one man in gaol for stealing a cucumber.


  • Adultery
  • Suicide
  • Body Snatching
  • Discrimination against Irish migrants
  • Currency Crisis

It’s an interesting read…promise! If you like the film , you will like the book- ask your library to stock one!


The Manchester militia at Peterloo were useless, reactionary and vengeful.

image001In March 1817, there was ‘panic’ in the North of England as 30,000 men assembled on Kersal Moor then marched into Manchester, seizing the North Mail, demolishing two factories and setting fire to a whole street of buildings. This was according to the papers. It was untrue; the Manchester Mercury, being a local paper, stopped the panic by pointing this out.

It did not hide the fact that Manchester was undefended by a volunteer force of yeomanry cavalry that existed in other, smaller towns in the United Kingdom; indeed this may have been one of the reasons for the spread of rumours. It was a febrile atmosphere, and there had been real social and political protest.

By late 1817, such a force was being created. The Manchester and Salford Yeomanry cavalry were a new, angry organisation. Most volunteer militias had been formed in the 1790s and had some experience of successful action. The Manchester cavalry was a much more recent militia force, formed in 1817 in a blind panic after the Blanketeers’ meeting at St Peters Field and the social tensions in Manchester and Salford.

An advertisement in the Chester Courant advised that anybody who wanted to be a Sergeant Major or Trumpeter in the new unit should report to a named office of the local constables. This already filtered the type of people who would apply. In May 1818 and (again in 1819) the Officers of the new unit were sponsoring a competition at the Manchester Races for horses belonging to their members. Perhaps they knew that they were recruiting inexperienced riders and soldiers and felt that they need to motivate them to do better.

By September 1818, the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry were on official service. Weaver’s strikes in Blackburn had spread to Manchester and the unit was readied for action, but were not needed. Small wage increases were obtained by the weavers and fustian workers of Manchester, Chadderton, Middleton and Failsworth and the Manchester Yeomanry supported the authorities when employers blacklisted 200 weavers. The Leeds Intelligencer, an ultra Tory paper, declared that the Cavalry has ‘marched to ensure tranquillity’ and the rest of the papers followed with exactly the same words the next day. The Cavalry stayed long enough to allow the employers not to honour a second pay rise that had been promised as part of the original settlement.

The Manchester Yeomanry were also involved in assisting the civil power in Burnley in the same month. There were thirty-six of them, under Captain Hindley. Seven men who broke into the Burnley House of Correction to rescue a strike organiser were imprisoned in Lancaster Castle. Their role seemed to involve not much more than merely turning up in the town and allowing the locals to regain control. This was a national, not local piece of news and it is the first time that the Manchester Cavalry made a national impression; the second was much more tragic.

There was more than one Manchester political demonstration led by Henry Hunt in 1819. He was there in January 1819 and some of the events may explain the Cavalry’s hatred of him in August. Hunt was the lead speaker amongst a crowd of 10,000 people carrying red caps of liberty and banners reading ‘Rights of Man’ ‘No Corn laws’ and ‘Hunt and Liberty’. The actually meeting was ‘on the ground near to St Peter’s Church’. Hunt and the other speakers had their hustings on a scaffold near this land, which was actually being used by the Manchester Cavalry for their training. The events of August proved that they did not train particular well there.

I am sure that this did not endear them to him; in any case, after an hour the scaffold collapsed, with no injury except to Hunt’s ego. Hunt then repaired to the local Windmill public house where he tried to continue his ‘harangue’, but he was ejected by the landlord who reminded him that he had a licence to sell beer, not spread sedition. Another possible perspective is that this man’s livelihood depended on a licence issued by the same magistrates who were opposing Hunt today.

Of the 101 members of the Manchester yeomanry present at Peterloo whose occupation is known, thirteen were publicans. Sixteen were involved in the upper echelons of the Manchester cotton trade and were therefore on the side of capital rather than labour, and the rest were high-class workmen and shopkeepers who depended on the patronage of the rich.

In June 1819, the Cavalry were being preening and ornamental at the celebrations for the King’s birthday, still not having taken part in any real action. The newspapers in the summer of 1819 contain mostly sporting news about the officers in the unit; this changed on 13 August 1819 when the radical reformers were back in Manchester. The Morning Post reported that the Manchester authorities were concerned about more men congregating in the hills, marching using bugles and practicing with pikes. This was the insurrectionary army that they partly feared and they partly conjured up for their political advantage. Manchester was tense, according the Tory papers, and ‘the Manchester Yeomanry Cavalry were in arms all today’. All this was done in the belief that Hunt was about to do something in Manchester-but he then left town. It’s no surprise that when the Yeomanry Cavalry were told to take the leaders from the hustings at Peterloo, they really wanted to get him.

I have two books on this period. This blog is an excerpt from the Dark Days of Georgian Britain, a social  and political history of the period 1815-1819. My new book is Passengers- Life in Britain During the Stagecoach Era  which covers a bigger period, 1780-1840, is a bit less ‘political’ and uses as is theme transport, hospitality, work and social attitudes.

Also available is my book on Victorian radicalism. Details here

Climate Change in the Regency -the terrible summer of 1816

Today there is no doubt what happened to the weather in Europe and North America in 1816- it was the worse summer weather that has been known in living  memory. In Europe it is called the Year without a summer and in the Americas, sometimes “Eighteen- hundred and froze to death”. The  cause is known too; the eruption of Mount Tambora in present day Indonesia. We now know that volcanic eruptions cause wet and cold summers and that it leads to poor harvests. It happened in the 1880s when Krakatoa erupted. The more scientific discussions around that time  identified 1816 as being the worst example of climate change caused by volcanic eruptions. The first use of the expression ” year without a summer” dates to the early 1880s too.
At the time of course, it was much harder to gain that perspective, but there are some indications that people thought 1816 was different enough to cause concern. In both the USA and Britain, panic about the weather did not start until the middle of the year. Indeed in the USA, most of the continent had experienced the mildest January and February that anybody could remember. However there was unseasonable snow in April, May was cold and June was the coldest in memory, killing recently planted crops and destroying any green living thing.
People in Britain knew about patterns in the weather, but nobody could remember conditions like this. In July 1816 the Cambridge Chronicle reported that “The oldest man living does not recollect such unseasonable weather as we have lately experienced”. This would include the dreadful summers of 1812 and 1799.Many other newspapers asked their oldest readers about the weather and got the same answer- it was never as bad as this
Newspapers were generally sceptical when their correspondents queried the “ alteration of the seasons” People naturally turned to early records to convince themselves that the extraordinary weather was within normal bounds, despite it being within nobody’s experience. It was pointed out that the summer of 1695 consisted of three sunny days only. The Perthshire Chronicle related that terrible cold summer of 1698, but even then there was not snow at the end of May. It went as far as describing 1816 as an “unnatural season”; but for most of the time, most people simply thought that they were unlucky.
Reporting the weather was commonplace and important in regency newspapers; people’s lives depended on it, but there were still many examples of weather beyond normal expectations. July was a month of snow, hail and thunder all over Britain . In that month in Cumbria, two inch hailstones smashed 700 panes of glass at Sir James Graham’s glasshouses at Netherby ; more rain than could ever be remembered fell in Glasgow. On August 5th, in the village of Fettercairn, Scotland a mere 12 miles from the German Ocean ( North Sea) there was five foot of snow, and even the oldest residents could only remember any snow up to June. Ten Children in Spilsby, Yorkshire, were blackened head to foot as torrential rain poured down the chimney, pushing out the soot. In Manchester it rained heavily for 28 days in July and did not rain in 3, which is bad, even for Manchester.
It was the same all over North Western Europe .In July 1816 Mary Shelley was writing Frankenstein in Lake Geneva, the incessant rain and lightening keeping her indoors, and she wrote her famous novel about a creature being brought back to life by electric fluid ( lightening)
Newspapers remained optimistic about the wheat crop but by late August prices were spiralling out of the reach of the poor. Luckily, September was better and premature crops were left to grow in the fields. Harvests were still being brought in October ; by the 10th it looked in many parts of Britain as there was no sunlight at all.
People looked for reasons. They noticed the visible spots on the sun and believed that this was responsible- it was relevant but it was not the cause. For some it was an unexpected visitation from heaven, although there was no obvious blaming of people or sin . On the 30th August 1816, the Leicester Chronicle printed a letter using astrology to explain the poor weather, but prefaced the letter with “the present WEATHER is so much at present subject to enquiry, that we doubt not our readers may derive some amusement from this letter!”.
Prayers were held in church ,especially in July, when the rumour spread that the word was about to end dues to weather and the clearly visible sunspots. There are more details on my blogpost;


Hay and Clover were in such bad condition that they were composted into manure; they was no summer  work for haymakers. This, from the Carlisle Patriot July 1816;



The poor still suffered. A clergymen writing in the Western Daily Press ( October 1879) retold the story of the oldest residents, who remembered women and children picking tiny out pieces of wheat from the fields on St. Thomas’s day- December 21st. They were desperate.


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An early industrial slum; Angel Meadow, Manchester in the Regency

61l1BkkmGRL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_The Regency period was the time that population pressure and industrialisation turned a formerly rural areas into slums. The area called Angel Meadow in Manchester was one such place. In an 1802 advertisement-admittedly trying to sell property- described the area  as “An airy and pleasant place”. By 1844 Friedrich Engels called in “Hell upon Earth”. This was a remarkable transformation in 42 years, and it mirrors much of the social and environmental effects of industrialisation, which have their early roots in the Regency.
One of Britain’s first factories was in Angel Meadow . Richard Arkwright built Shudehill Mill between Miller Street and Angel Street in the 1780s, using the River Irk to transport raw cotton. By 1800, with population pressure growing, parcels of land were being sold off around the established church and roads. 1802 was particularly busy. Spinning Machinery from a factory in Back Lane, and Spinning Jennys from another factory were auctioned as well as existing houses with their sitting tenants.
However, it was mostly parcels of land that were being sold off. At the Commercial Inn, 2 houses and a plot of land were auctioned off, adjoining the Baptist Chapel in Angel Meadow. All of the advertisements mentioned the new turnpike road from Manchester to Blackley. One 1807 advertisement in the “ Manchester Mercury” advertised building plots owned by Thomas Carrill Worsley Esquire, saying that existing tenants were respectable and there was plenty of scope to build more because of the new transport links- in this case a new Turnpike road.


Manchester Mercury 15 December 1807
The contradiction was clear. Lots of housing were changing hands and the rent they brought it was clearly shown on the advertisements. These houses were very likely to be divided up. The air was clear and the tenants mostly respectable and the transport links were good and improving. So unregulated capitalism would ruin it with cheap uncontrolled housing attracting, by default, desperately poor people.

The area between Miller Street and Angel Street is already developed; most the land transactions in the 1800 for areas bounded by Angel Street and Back Lane.


All three fields are now full of houses. It is particularly dense in the areas that were already covered in housing in 1808.
( Thanks to the Friends of Angel Meadow for the maps)

Large scale sell offs continued until about 1815, when the financial slump brought a temporary stop to the exploitation of the Meadow. Two or three auctions a year were recorded by the Manchester Mercury; mostly in local public houses such as the still standing Weavers Arms (http://pubs-of-manchester.blogspot.co.uk/2010/04/63-angel-angel-st.html).

Small parcels of land were still sold off; existing tenanted houses were sold off but it was made very clear that most of these properties were “messuages” – that  they had added outhouses and land that could be developed. Mount Street was a particular focus for sales and New Mount Street is mentioned for the first time in 1815. Clearly the was becoming unrecognisable.
By 1820 the newspaper reports had also become unrecognisable. It became a crime report rather than a financial balance sheet. Bad publicity for Angel Meadow starts then and seems to go on for a century. Margaret Grimes was murdered by John Dunn in January 1820; apart from that, the residents of Angel Meadow seemed to specialise in stealing and handling stolen good and waylaying strangers who knew less of its growing reputation.


Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser 07 January 1826

This “respectable person “ remained unnamed. Another victim, William Taylor seemed less innocent as he travelled through Angel Meadow in 1823. He met a stranger called Anne Lacey, who invited him to buy drinks for her at the Bears Head and then invited him home, pointing out that that they would be alone. When they got there, there was a gruff looking villain warming himself by the fire. William was perturbed but still gave Anne money to go out and buy gin. It took Anne a worrying long time of 45 minutes to produce the gin. When it and they were drunk, and the strange man at the grate had obligingly gone upstairs, Anne went out into the dark night to direct William to a lodging house. He was set upon by four men and robbed of £70. In the same year, Edward Griffiths, a “traveller out of Yorkshire”, came back to his lodging at the Bridgewater Inn and found it looked and bolted .A kind stranger called Thomas Goulding guided him through the dark streets where he was assaulted and robbed.
In 1823 Edward Venables was found with a stolen horse, taken a fair distance from Angel Meadow but it was thought safe to hide it there. In 1824 a gang of eight local men raided Sidebottoms Warehouse, broke a window and used giant hooks that were normal used to rescue people from the River Irk to fish out 93 pieces of calico which they hid (unsuccessfully) in a house in Sharp Street
This was only the reported crime. In 1823, the Manchester Courier bemoaned the inability of the local constables to do anything about crime. A local thug had recently impersonated a constable to get a thief liberated from a citizen’s arrest. The paper believed that the authorities had already given up on the area and left the “ Villains that infest the purlieus of vice in Millers Lane and Angel Meadow” to their own devices.
The even poorer and even more desperate were moving in. Many of these were Irish immigrants, although the main migration had not started by 1825. They too challenged the authorities and solved their disputes with violence


21 May 1825

The worse was not over for Angel Meadow. By the 1830s epidemic cholera would arrive and add to the endemic diseases of poverty. The fate of Angel Meadows was important enough to be mentioned by the Hammond’s, whose book “The Town Labourer” described the effect of proto capitalism on the urban environment. Referring to the early 1830s, the Hammond’s commented that
“Manchester still had its Angel Meadow, but they were no longer meadows, and the only angel that came near them was the Angel of Death”

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