Who Killed Cock Robin? Peterloo and Satire

Our blog series to mark the bicentenary of the Peterloo Massacre continues today with the first of several pieces from Dr Katie Carpenter, who is an AHRC Creative Economy Engagement Fellow with the Citizens Project at Royal Holloway, and the Parliamentary Archives. Katie has been researching Peterloo in the Parliamentary Archives as part of the Citizens Project’s forthcoming Massive Online Open Course, From Peterloo to the Pankhursts and the Parliament & Peterloo exhibition, which is now open to the public in Westminster Hall, UK Parliament, until 26 September 2019. Katie has identified several important documents relating to Peterloo and in this series will share them with us. Appropriately, ahead of our event this evening, which features a paper on Peterloo and satire from Professor Ian Haywood, first up she offers a discussion of the satirical nursery rhyme, Who Killed Cock Robin?: A Satirical Tragedy or Hieroglyphic Prophecy on the MANCHESTER BLOT!!!

The public outrage at the Peterloo Massacre, and the government’s oppressive response, saw an outpouring of protest. This protest took many forms, including speeches in Parliament, petitions to the House of Lords and the House of Commons, and the establishment of a relief committee to assist the injured and families of the deceased. However, some of the most evocative protests were in the form of satire.

The already macabre nursery rhyme Who Killed Cock Robin? follows the tale of the murdered Cock Robin, killed by bow and arrow by the Sparrow. According to Iona Opie, the first printed version of Who Killed Cock Robin? was in Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book (1744). It has been suggested that it was originally a satire referring to the failed ministry of Robert Walpole in 1742, although this is unsubstantiated.

(c) House of Lords Library

In 1819, the radical writer John Cahuac published a satire of Who Killed Cock Robin?, giving it the sub A Satirical Tragedy or Hieroglyphic Prophecy on the MANCHESTER BLOT!!! This satire is not as well-known as William Hone’s post-Peterloo satire The Political House that Jack Built, also based on a nursery rhyme, and Cahuac has been described as ‘almost entirely forgotten today’. (Michael Demson, ‘Remembering John Cahuac: Post-Peterloo Repression and the Fate of Radical-Romantic Satire’, Romantic Circles, romantic-circles.org/) The tale, however, is an evocative account of the Peterloo Massacre.

(c) House of Lords Library

It begins, ‘These are / THE MANCHESTER / SPARROWS, / Who kill’d POOR ROBINS, / Without Bows or Arrows’ with an accompanying image of two soldiers on horses slashing through a crowd. A woman carrying a young child tries to flee. The Robins, in this case, represent the innocent men, women and children who died as a result of the violence in St Peter’s Field on 16th August 1819. The Sparrows represent the armed yeomanry who charged through the crowds.

(c) House of Lords Library

A chilling account of the violence of the day is told through the nursery rhyme: ‘To prove we were no / feather-bed Soldiers / We first cut their heads, / and then their shoulders’. The magistrates who oversaw the massacre were likened to ravens, who cared little for the sufferings of the poor, preferring to let them starve than have parliamentary reform: ‘Let Radical Birds, / who piteously cry– / We’ve no work, want food,– / Let them starve–let them die.’

The government was depicted as ‘THE BIG-WIG CREW, / who decided, AT SIGHT, / That SPARROWS might lawfully / kill ROBINS outright.’ The accompanying image depicted major figures in British politics as birds, such as a duck, Lord Quack-mouth (Sidmouth), a hawk, Lord Castle-hawk (Castlereagh) and a rooster, Duke Crow-Well-in-Tune (Wellington).

(c) House of Lords Library

The poem ends, however, with a rallying cry for the ‘robins’ to pull together. In an accompanying image, ‘The Robin’s Guardian’, Lady Justice is shown asleep on the grave of Magna Carta and Habeas Corpus, as the scales of justice favour the Crown over the people. But the ominous tone of the poem is counterbalanced with a message of hope to the people, as the poem tells us, ‘She [Justice] will at last awake / in DREAD ARRAY, / And strike her Big-Wig Foes / with Terror and Dismay.

At the end of the rhyme, Cahuac prophesies that justice will come for the ravens, which, when awakened, ‘Shall strike with vengeance / the merciless Crew, Who prais’d the bold  SPARROWS / for the blood they drew.’ Although there was never any punishment of the soldiers present at the meeting, nor the government which refused to condone their violent actions, Cahuac was right about something else: ‘For sooner or later / some REFORM must take place, / Or these RAVENS will be ousted / without any grace.’ It would take more than a decade for this to become true. The Duke of Wellington was ousted from power in November 1830 because of his unrelenting opposition to parliamentary reform. The Whig ministry of Earl Grey which replaced him finally passed a Reform Act in 1832.

KC

Further Reading

  • Who Killed Cock Robin? A Satirical Tragedy or Hieroglyphic Prophecy on the MANCHESTER BLOT!!! 2nd ed. London: John Cahuac, 1819.
  • Iona Opie, ‘Cock Robin’ in The Cambridge Guide to Children’s Books in English ed. V. Watson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).
  • Michael Demson, ‘Remembering John Cahuac: Post-Peterloo Repression and the Fate of Radical-Romantic Satire’, Romantic Circles, https://romantic-circles.org/praxis/shelley_politics/praxis.2015.shelley_politics.demson.html

For more blogs in our Peterloo series click here.

Check out our video: The Peterloo Massacre in context

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