Protesting MPs: Peterloo and its aftermath

The Green Party MP Caroline Lucas is due to appear in court tomorrow after her involvement in anti-fracking protests during August.  In a public statement Lucas argued that she ‘firmly believe[s] in the right to peaceful protest.’ She is, of course, not the first MP whose commitment to a cause has led to arrest and prosecution.

Among the most famous cases are those associated with the radical movement in the early 19th Century. After the end of the Napoleonic wars, popular calls for Parliamentary reform were growing in strength but not getting far thanks to opposition from Lord Liverpool’s Tory ministry. Events took a tragic turn on 16 August 1819 in what became known as the ‘Peterloo Massacre’.

The Manchester Patriotic Union had organised a pro-reform rally to take place in St Peter’s Fields, Manchester. The campaigners were calling for universal suffrage and increased representation; at this time, of course, the right to vote was held only by a small minority and the newly industrial towns in Lancashire had very little parliamentary representation, whereas the infamous ‘rotten boroughs’ elected several MPs despite few, if any, constituents. The rally was intended to be peaceful and thousands of men, women and children turned up in their Sunday best to hear the speakers. However, with crowds of between 60,000 and 80,000, the local magistrates began to panic. Before any speeches had taken place they decided to arrest the speakers and sent cavalrymen, armed with sabres, through the crowd to do so. The figures vary but at least 11 people died and around 400-600 were injured in scenes that horrified onlookers and were widely reported across the country.

The magistrates were particularly anxious to arrest Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt, a ‘gentleman farmer’ and campaigner for reform with a great reputation as a public speaker. He was firmly in favour of peaceful protest, however, and had previously prevented crowds he addressed from becoming violent. He was arrested on charges of high treason (later lessened to ‘sedition’). Despite large amounts of public support he was found guilty and sentenced to 30 months in prison. Hunt was not deterred from his campaign and in 1830 was elected to represent Preston. Whilst in Parliament he opposed the Whigs’ famous 1832 Reform Bill for not going far enough, and even voted against it. He lost his seat in 1832 and did not sit in the Commons again.

Immediately after Peterloo, the Liverpool ministry cracked down on protests through the ‘6 Acts’. These included restrictions on public meetings, newspapers and charges for those whose writings or public speaking were considered to incite rebellion. The 6 Acts were passed easily by the government and even the opposition Whigs were divided on their response to Peterloo (for more, see our ‘Explore’ article). The Acts did prove very effective in stifling public calls for reform.

Radical and Reformist MPs and campaigners fell prey to them. One, John Cam Hobhouse, was a young Whig and friend of Byron. At the time of Peterloo he had yet to win a seat in Parliament, but his criticism of the Liverpool Ministry, in particular by writing that only the military prevented ‘the people from walking down to the House, pulling out the Members by the ears, locking up their doors, and flinging the keys into the Thames’, led to his imprisonment by the Commons for breach of privilege in 1819. If anything, this helped his ambition to enter Parliament. He became a national radical hero and was elected for the radical borough of Westminster in 1820. He later became a minister in several Whig governments.

One of the members for Westminster at the time of Peterloo, Sir Francis Burdett, was also caught out by the 6 Acts. Burdett was an extremely wealthy MP, and his radicalism had a ‘patrician’ strain. After Peterloo he launched a campaign against Liverpool’s government, calling them ‘Bloody Neros’ in one pamphlet. This led to a charge of seditious libel. In a widely-publicised case the judge directed the jury to find him guilty and he was later sentenced to three months in prison and a fine of £2000. He considered the sentence fairly lenient, and was ‘cheered by the populace on his way to his genteel and undemanding incarceration.’ Burdett later turned against the radicalism of his younger days and finished his parliamentary career as a Tory.

EP

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