In 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