On this day in 1819 the massacre that was soon dubbed ‘Peterloo’ by the press occurred on St Peter’s Field in Manchester. The Manchester and Salford Yeomanry and the 15th Hussars, a British Army cavalry regiment, killed at least 18 people and injured a further 600+ after being called to disperse a crowd of over 60,000 people who were meeting on the site to peacefully protest in favour of electoral reform. We have been commemorating the bicentenary of this infamous moment in British history with a blog series relating to events surrounding the massacre and records held in the Parliamentary Archives that relate to the massacre and its aftermath. In this piece Dr Katie Carpenter, an AHRC Creative Economy Engagement Fellow with the Citizens Project at Royal Holloway, and the Parliamentary Archives, continues the series by discussing the legislation that was quickly passed as a consequence of the tragedy…
‘[A] Government of Force instead of a Government of Law’. So complained the inhabitants of Southwark in a petition to the House of Lords in response to new legislation rushed through Parliament following the Peterloo Massacre. Before Peterloo, there was intense paranoia from the government and the monarchy that there would be a mass uprising in Britain similar to the French Revolution. The official government standpoint was that the meeting at St Peter’s Field was illegal and that the magistrates were justified in sending the Yeomanry into the crowd. To some, including the Prime Minister Lord Liverpool and the Prince Regent, this mass meeting was symptomatic of a dangerous revolutionary spirit in the country that needed to be restrained by legal apparatus. New legislation was hastily passed and received royal assent the end of 1819. These new repressive laws came to be known as the Six Acts.
Each of these Acts sought to reduce the chance of a second incident like the Peterloo Massacre. The Training Prevention Act made it illegal to attend a meeting for the purpose of receiving training in weapons. Punishments for attending such a meeting included imprisonment for two years or seven years transportation. The Seizure of Arms Act extended the powers of local magistrates. It allowed them to enter private property for the purpose of seizing weapons and arrest the owners. The Misdemeanours Act speeded up the process of convicting someone who was accused of a crime by minimising opportunities for bail. Opportunities to delay pleading or demurring at the King’s Bench in Westminster or Dublin were restricted to four days. The final two Acts, the Newspaper and Stamp Duties Act and the Blasphemous and Seditious Libels Act, sought to counter radical activity in the press.. There will be more on these in the next blog in this series.
As these Bills went through both Houses in late 1819, petitions came in from across the country objecting to the loss of rights. Many of these petitions were presented to the House of Commons, and the originals were lost in the fire of 1834 which destroyed most of its early records. Some of those that were presented to the Commons were ordered to be printed, and thus were repeated in the Votes and Proceedings and still survive. In addition to these printed documents, two original petitions against the Six Acts remain intact, as they were presented to the House of Lords, whose records escaped the fire: one from Rochester, and one from Southwark.
The petition signed by ‘the citizens and inhabitants of Rochester’ was presented to the Lords on 15 December 1819. Here, the Six Acts were described as ‘subversive of the British Constitution’ with ministers accused of being intent on ‘destroy[ing] the Rights of the People’. The petition from Southwark, presented to the Lords less than a week later on 21 December 1819, specifically protested against the Seditious Meetings Bill. These petitioners described the proposed Bill as an attempt ‘to abrogate those rights and liberties by measures which prevent the people from meeting together to discuss their grievances, and petition’.
Both these petitions specifically demonstrate the link between the Six Acts and the Peterloo Massacre, and the desire to seek an official inquiry. The Rochester petitioners sought to ascertain ‘the Circumstance that led to the late dreadful Events at Manchester, so that the Magistrates might either stand justified to the World, or be brought to condign Punishment; but the Petitioners have witnessed with Horror, that the Public Call for Enquiry has been refused; thus proclaiming to the World, that the killing and maiming of Numbers of our Fellow Creatures was a Subject not deserving of investigation’. Similarly, the Southwark petitioners ’have felt the greatest indignation, in common with their fellow citizens, at the conduct pursued by His Royal Highness The Prince Regent’s Ministers, who having refused all enquiry into the fatal proceedings at Manchester, now propose with violent hands to subvert the constitution, and by severe penal laws to deprive the people of the privileges enjoyed by them from Time immemorial’.
Whilst the Six Acts were passed by Lord Liverpool’s government with the intent of quashing mass meetings and political radicalism, these petitions suggest that they united people in opposition to them. As the Rochester petition pointed out, ‘they fear the present Administration will revolutionize this once happy Country’.
- Votes and Proceedings, the official printed proceedings of the House of Commons, bound in volumes. They are available at the Parliamentary Archives in the HC/CL/JO/6 series.