The Man in the Moon: Peterloo and Satire continued

Our blog series to mark the bicentenary of the Peterloo Massacre continues today with Dr Katie Carpenter‘s second piece about the satirical depiction of the tragedy. Today she discusses The Man in the Moon by William Hone. If you missed the rest of the series and would like a some context to this blog click here to see previous posts.

I lately dream’d that, in a huge balloon

All silk and gold, I journey’d to the Moon,

Where the same objects seem’d to meet my eyes

That I had lately left below the skies;

So begins William Hone’s satirical pamphlet The Man in the Moon, first published in 1820. The story starts as a man dreams he travels to the moon, only to find that society there is markedly similar to that on earth, with social inequality, class hypocrisy and political radicalism. It continues with a parody of the speech given to Parliament by the Prince Regent – depicted as the Prince of Lunataria – in autumn 1819.

The Man in the Moon, London 1820 – available via the British Library website

Hone was a writer, pamphleteer and bookseller who reached great levels of fame in the first quarter of the nineteenth century. In 1817, he was put on trial for blasphemy for three separate parodies that he had written and published that year. There was a separate case and trial for each publication and the trials were held on three consecutive days in December 1817. He was acquitted by the jury on all counts during each of the three trials.

For some observers, these acquittals were more than victories for Hone; they were also milestones in establishing the freedom of the press. 1817 was a year of political unrest, seeing the March of the Blanketeers, the suspension of Habeas Corpus and the Pentrich Uprising. As the Liverpool Mercury put it, ‘This is the triumph which the nation has obtained at the close of a year of most serious struggles against misrepresentation and all the arts of corruption, aided by a phalanx of spies, informers, and plot-manufacturers: and we owe this triumph to the steady resolution of William Hone’ (Liverpool Mercury, 26 December 1817).

A caricature of George IV of the United Kingdom as Prince Regent, by George Cruikshank, illustrating The Political House that Jack Built by William Hone (1819)

The Man in the Moon, like Hone’s more famous pamphlet, The Political House that Jack Built, was written partly in response to the Peterloo Massacre. In The Man in the Moon, as the Prince of Lunataria makes his speech to ‘That reverend body of Moonarian sages’, he alludes to a number of major political events that took place leading up to the fateful meeting in St Peter’s Field, Manchester in 1819. For instance, the satire refers to the Luddite attacks on textile machinery.

CONSPIRACY and TREASON are abroad!

Those imps of darkness, gender’d in the wombs

Of spinning-jennies, winding-wheels, and looms,

In Lunashire-

The Prince also refers to the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, and the strained economy that prompted the highly controversial Corn Laws.

Five years ago, you know,

            our sad condition

Was partly owing to

            ‘the quick transition

From war to peace’- then.

            we had ‘scanty crops’

The most striking reference to the Peterloo Massacre is accompanied by an illustration – by George Cruikshank – of armed soldiers stabbing civilians through the mouth with bayonets.

‘And though the Radicals,

            may still want food,


            will stop their pain’

The Prince’s speech ends with a reference to the cause Hone championed: freedom of the press.

Vile ‘two-p’nny trash,’

            Bespeak abomination.

Oh! they are full of blasphemies

            and libels,

And people read them

            oftener than their bibles!

Questions about the freedom of the press were heightened by the passing of the Six Acts in the aftermath of Peterloo: the oppressive legislation which had the intention of quashing radicalism in the nation. Amongst these six pieces of legislation were the Blasphemous and Seditious Libels Act, which established harsher punishments for those convicted of publishing blasphemy or seditious material, and the Newspapers and Stamp Duties Act, which intended to drive radical publications out of business.

According to Hone’s biographer, Frederick W. M. Hackwood, ‘The political celebrity which accrued to William Hone may be attributed to the folly of the mistaken policy of the Government in his case. Had his Parody squibs been allowed to run their day, in a short time after publication but a few would have been in existence, and those mostly hidden away in the libraries of collectors.’ (Hackwood, William Hone: His Life and Times, 218-19)

Instead, the government’s reaction meant that Hone’s work acquired considerable notoriety, and by 1821 The Man in the Moon was already in its 27th edition.


Further reading

  • Ben Wilson, The Laughter of Triumph: William Hone and the Fight for the Free Press (2005)
  • Frederick W. M. Hackwood, William Hone: His Life and Times (1912)

Katie Carpenter is an AHRC Creative Economy Engagement Fellow with the Citizens Project at Royal Holloway, and the Parliamentary Archives, who has been researching Peterloo as part of the Citizens Project’s forthcoming Massive Online Open Course, From Peterloo to the Pankhursts and the Parliament & Peterloo exhibition.

Check out our video: The Peterloo Massacre in context

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