Manchester and the Lancashire peerage: the background to Peterloo

In the latest blog from the Georgian Lords, Dr Charles Littleton considers the influence of some of the local grandees in parts of Lancashire, their potential impact on the drive for reform in the early 19th century and how they may have helped contribute to Peterloo

This month the country will be marking the bicentenary of the ‘Peterloo Massacre’. On 16 August 1819 a crowd of 60,000 Mancunians gathered peacefully in St Peter’s Fields to hear Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt deliver a speech for political reform. The tragic events of that day, when a panicked Manchester magistracy sent cavalry into the midst of the crowd to arrest Hunt, has been often told and has remained vivid in the memory of activists and reformers for the last two centuries.

Hunt came to Manchester to advocate universal manhood suffrage and equal parliamentary representation. The citizens of Manchester had examples of the unreformed political system close at hand. They could contrast their own lack of parliamentary representation with the town of Newton-le-Willows. Lying about 20 miles from central Manchester, this town had returned two Members to the Commons since 1559, regardless of the size of its population. In 1801 there were 1,455 inhabitants of the borough, of whom only about 40 held the franchise. In reality, though, the decision who would be returned to Parliament lay wholly with the Leghs of Lyme Hall. Since 1661 this family had been the lords of the manor, a position which gave them the right to appoint the returning officer for the borough’s elections. The last challenge to the Leghs’ dominance had been as far back as 1690 when the tiny electorate actually had to go to the poll to choose between competing candidates of different parties.

Nearby Wigan had an even larger population than Newton – 10,989 in 1801 – and an electorate of about 100 freemen of the borough. For the 1768 election William Cavendish-Bentinck, 3rd duke of Portland, and his election agent Sir William Meredith, 3rd Bt., worked diligently to build an interest in the borough. Portland’s candidates were victorious in 1768 and 1774, but the expense of keeping about 100 freemen satisfied soon led him to abandon the borough. Portland was a newcomer to Lancashire borough politics. It is not even clear why he chose Wigan, usually a difficult borough, in which to build an electoral interest for the Whigs. One noble family whose links with Lancashire were longer-lasting and involvement in county politics more secure were the Stanleys, earls of Derby. They had been the leading family in Lancashire since Thomas Stanley was created earl of Derby after the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. Consistently appointed lords lieutenant for the county, the Stanleys had long exerted a preponderant influence in the selection of the knights of the shire. There were no contested polls for Lancashire between 1754 and 1818, and these ‘elections’ always returned one member of the Stanley family to represent the county.

Another local grandee, Francis Egerton, 3rd duke of Bridgwater, also controlled a pocket borough – but this was at Brackley in Northamptonshire. His profound influence on the lives of Mancunians stemmed from his inheritance of an outlying estate in Worsley, in the coalfields west of Manchester. As soon as he came of age in 1757 he devoted his attention to developing this part of his inheritance. Between 1759 and 1795 Bridgwater oversaw the passage of five Acts of Parliament authorizing him to build canals to link his coalfields both eastwards to Manchester and westwards to the Mersey, and thus to Liverpool and the Trent and Mersey Canal. Bridgwater and his allies, such as his brother-in-law Granville Leveson-Gower, 2nd Earl Gower (the future marquess of Stafford), overcame objections made by the Stanleys and others concerned with the encroachment on their own lands. Bridgwater’s canals, considered one of the greatest engineering feats of the late 18th century, did not only benefit himself, but abetted Manchester’s economic growth. Part of the deal Bridgwater made with Parliament to see his canal bills through was that he would charge a lower rate for his coal shipped to Manchester. His canals provided fuel to power the Industrial Revolution there and transport links to ship the goods produced in the city.

The peers whose estates neighboured Manchester had varying effects on the burgeoning industrial city. On the one hand, some were emblematic of the need for reform in the contemporary political system, with its pocket boroughs controlled by over-mighty landowners; while others could prove as entrepreneurial as any Manchester mill-owner and contribute to the town’s industrial growth. There were (as far as we know) no peers present in St Peter’s Fields on 16 August 1819, but they were undoubtedly there in the minds of the reform leaders and the thousands of Mancunians gathered on that fateful day.


Further Reading

Hugh Malet, Bridgewater: The Canal Duke, 1736-1803 (1977)

History of Parliament: Commons, 1715-54; 1754-90; 1790-1820: constituency articles on Lancashire, Newton, Wigan, Preston, Clitheroe

Georgian lords 2
For more on
the events preceding the Peterloo Massacre see our short video

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