Dr Janette Martin writes:
The University of Manchester Library has digitised a second tranche of unique documents and rare printed material relating to The Peterloo Massacre. These include a collection of handbills, placards and handwritten letters gathered by the notorious Rev. William Robert Hay (1761-1839). Rev. Hay was one of the ten magistrates present who ordered mounted soldiers into a crowded field to arrest Henry Hunt on 16 August 1819. That afternoon at least 15 people were killed and around 700 were injured by sabres and truncheons or trampled by horses or the panicking crowds. As evening fell Hay hurriedly wrote to Lord Sidmouth, the Home Secretary, setting out the magistrate’s version of events. In it he seriously downplayed the number killed and the types of injuries inflicted on the crowd. Not only were Hay and the other magistrates praised by the Prince Regent for their part in the massacre, they were also rewarded financially. In January 1820, the Government appointed Hay as Rector of Rochdale, which was one of the richest livings in England. There was no public enquiry into the killings.
Rev Hay was an avid opponent of radicalism and made it his business to collect handbills issued by both those loyal to the government and those issued by reformers. Two of my favourite items are oversized loyalist handbills, published in the days leading up to Peterloo, attacking what they see as outrages by radical agitators. The language used is powerful but what is striking is how big they are. Such publications were designed to be pasted on the wall – measuring 29 inches by 20 inches they could not fail to attract the attention of those passing by! Note the final entreaty on the first handbill to ‘Fear God, Honour the King’.
How did these papers end up at The John Rylands Library? We know from correspondence between Dr Henry Guppy (the first Librarian at The John Rylands Library) and A. P. Wadsworth (then editor of the Manchester Guardian) that the collection arrived at the Library in 1940 as a way of keeping it safe and available to researchers. Chetham’s Library in Manchester also holds material collected by Rev. Hay including 17 scrapbooks of newspaper articles, letters, poems, advertisements and random ephemera.
Another highlight of our Peterloo collection is a recently acquired Report of the Metropolitan and Central Committee appointed for the relief of the Manchester sufferers … (London: printed for William Hone, 1820), ref. R233016.
This printed pamphlet documents the activities of the London committee who worked alongside the Manchester Relief Committee to coordinate the best distribution of aid. In the weeks following the Peterloo Massacre money was collected to help the injured and the families of the dead. There was no Welfare State to assist those whose health and livelihood had been destroyed and voluntary subscriptions were crucial in saving many of those hurt in the massacre from complete destitution. Many victims hid their injuries from unsympathetic employers and parish officers who refused to support destitution caused by political activity. The appendices of this volume record the names, addresses, occupation and injuries of those caught up in the violence. It offers a poignant reminder of the many lives that were blighted by Peterloo. But most of all, it’s an important corrective to the official record which downplayed the number of dead and injured and tried to pass off the event as a riot.
Those familiar with the streets and building of Manchester will surely be fascinated by the various maps and plans of the site. English MS 1197/85, Plan of St Peters Field with the Avenues leading thereto, shades the undeveloped area of Manchester known as St Peter’s Field as blue and intriguingly gives the height of the wall surrounding the Friends Meetings House (which was scaled by some of the escaping crowd).
I particularly like the 1919 stylised Plan of Peterloo which not only gives the position of the relative groups of military, magistrates, hustings and people, but also depicts them in relation to buildings which are standing today. I find this immensely helpful when trying to get a sense of where the site is – the wall of the Friends Meetings House that faces Bootle Street is one of the few built structures dating from that period that remains to this day. The Portico Library is another.
The University of Manchester Peterloo collection can now be accessed online. We hope the sources will be widely used in the Manchester History Festival. If you require further information on any items in this collection please contact Janette Martin.
With many thanks to the imaging staff at The John Rylands Library and to our summer work experience student, Caitlin Rutherford from Brighouse High School, for her work on the project.