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

A hostile media attack the victims of injustice- Peterloo, 1819

61l1BkkmGRL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_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 gullible. 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 

Here are my other books for consideration. Details here 

“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.