The Inquest into the death of John Lees

Our blog series to mark the bicentenary of the Peterloo Massacre continues today with Dr Katie Carpenter‘s third piece, which considers the inquest into the death of a young man following the infamous event at St. Peter’s Field in August 1819. Katie’s previous pieces and others in this series can be found here.

There was never an official parliamentary inquiry into the Peterloo Massacre, that dark day on 16 August 1819 when yeomanry armed with sabres slashed their way through a crowd of around 60,000 people gathered to campaign for political reform. There was, however, an inquest into the death of a former soldier, John Lees, a 22-year old man from Oldham. His death was particularly poignant, not least because he had served at the battle of Waterloo: the event after which the massacre at St Peter’s Field was satirically dubbed ‘Peterloo’.  

Lees received serious injuries at the meeting but did not die that day. He managed to attend work in a factory hours later. However, he became increasingly unwell in the week following the massacre, before eventually succumbing to his injuries at half past one in the morning on 7 September 1819. The securing of an official inquest had the potential to be a major victory for the opponents of Peterloo, as, if done thoroughly, it would investigate the conduct of the magistrates and the cavalry. Unfortunately, this proved not to be the case, and ultimately the inquest proceedings were declared illegal, according to Lees’ brother, owing to ‘the negligence of the Coroner’ (Petition of James Lees, (presented 15 May 1821) Votes and Proceedings (1821), Parliamentary Archives, HC/CL/JO/6/148, 473).

The controversy over this inquest, the proceedings of which were published, has provided a wealth of detail about Lees’ death, and the subsequent actions of the local authorities. According to his father, Robert, who spoke at the inquest, Lees had walked for eight hours from Oldham to St Peter’s Field accompanied by Joseph Wrigley. When asked about his son’ health that morning, his father said that he was described ‘as hearty as ever he was since he was born’. Wrigley had witnessed how Lees received the injuries that would prove fatal: ‘I saw him receive a cut on the back of his right arm from a sabre; he was parrying off the blows of one of the military, and another came and cut him; he had his right arm up over his head protecting it with a walking-stick.’ (The Whole Proceedings before the Coroner’s Inquest at Oldham, &c. on the body of John Lees ed. Joseph Augustus Dowling (London: Printed for William Hone, 1820), 12; 34).

The Whole Proceedings Before the Coroner’s Inquest at Oldham, &c. on the Body of John Lees, Who Died of Sabre Wounds at Manchester, August 16, 1819 – reproduced courtesy of British Library

Betty Ireland, the wife of a shoemaker, helped attend to the body after his death.  Whilst giving her testimony at the inquest, she stated: ‘I have seen many dead people, but I never saw such a corpse as this, in all my life.’ His body, Ireland claimed, was unusually discoloured and Ireland stated that she thought ‘his inside was putrified [sic]’ (The Whole Proceedings, 22). She also noted that his body continued to bleed as it was put into his coffin.

On 16 December 1819, Sir Francis Burdett presented a petition to the House of Commons from Robert Lees. In this petition, Lees noted that the inquest was initially prompted by his son’s doctor, who certified that ‘his death was occasioned by violence’. Mr Earnshaw, the doctor, was present at the inquest, but as a Quaker, he was unable to swear the necessary oath before being examined, and thus could not give evidence. In his petition to the Commons, Lees pointed out a range of suspicious proceedings that took place during the course of the inquest. Initially the Deputy Coroner, Mr Battye, viewed the body and led the proceedings before being replaced by Mr Ferrand, who did not see the body during the inquest. The petition stated, however, that later ‘secretly and clandestinely, in the middle of the night, … [he] had the grave of the deceased opened for the purpose of seeing the body’ (Petition of Robert Lees (presented 16 December 1819), Votes and Proceedings (1819), Parliamentary Archives, HC/CL/JO/6/146, 32; 23; 33). According to James Harmer, the lawyer hired by Robert Lees, this was without notice to the jury or the Lees family.  

Robert Lees accused Ferrand of deliberately stalling the proceedings ‘without any reasonable or probable cause, and merely, as the Petitioner believes, to harass and tire out the witnesses, who came day after day a considerable distance to give testimony’. Ferrand’s objectivity seemed questionable and allegedly he was unwilling to hear all of the evidence: ‘the Coroner throughout evinced a manifest partiality for the Magistrates and Yeomanry Cavalry of Manchester, to whose illegal and violent conduct the Petitioner attributes the premature death of his son: that, among other things, the said Mr. Ferrand refused to allow the witnesses to give in evidence numerous acts of violence and atrocity committed’ (Petition of Robert Lees, 32; 33).

Ultimately, these proceedings were declared invalid owing to the actions of the coroners. There was never another inquest, and so the Lees family did not obtain the justice that they desired for John, nor did any of the other victims of the Peterloo Massacre.  


Further reading

  • Robert Reid, The Peterloo Massacre (London: Windmill Books, 2018)

You can find our Peterloo 2019 blog series here. Special thanks to our partners, the Citizens Project at Royal Holloway, UoL and the Parliamentary Archives.

On 12 August the Citizens Project launched their free Massive Open Online Course, From Peterloo to the Pankhursts. Click the link for further information on how to get involved and what the course entails.

Check out our video: The Peterloo Massacre in context

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