The shame of Peterloo

In 1818 Hone published an account of his three trials, but he wisely decided not to publish any further parodies based on religious texts, in spite of his acquittals. The overall situation in the country, however, was still exceptionally tense. In the wake of the Luddite riots, secret societies of workingmen sprang up throughout the North, angered and embittered at government repression and the refusal to grant suffrage. Physical violence was resorted to on a number of occasions. In early June 1817, a group of workers in the village of Pentrich in Derbyshire decided to take matters into their own hands. Most were out of work after being laid off by the Butterley ironworks as a consequence of the decrease in production after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Led by an unemployed stockinger named Jeremiah Brandreth, a small force of men armed with a few pikes, scythes and guns set off on what was to be an abortive march to Nottingham by way of the Butterley works. They were faced down by a factory agent and a few police constables at the works and managed to get through to Giltbrook but were scattered by a group of 20 soldiers. Retribution was, as usual, heavy. Twenty-four were sentenced, three to transportation to Australia to serve out a 14-year prison sentence and 11 for life; the three ringleaders, including Brandreth, were publicly hanged and then beheaded in Derby.

With historical hindsight, however, the most significant incident from a sociocultural/sociopolitical perspective was the Peterloo Massacre[1] on 16 August 1819. It was of central importance in defining future relationships between the mass of the lower middle and working classes and the all-powerful upper middle and upper classes (who constituted a small minority of the overall population of Britain). I shall go one step further in this subsection and argue that the Peterloo Massacre was also a decisive factor in the development of what had by then become the ideology of the legitimate language. After this shameful demonstration of military violence on the part of the authorities, the government was faced with two options. Either it could refrain from further use of violent repression and cooperate constructively to find a solution to the burning question of parliamentary reform, or it could step up the violence and increase the gulf between the polite, refined sector of society and the vulgar. The first reaction would have required it to admit that the central issue in social class distinctions was not language but the hugely unequal distribution of wealth and the political disenfranchisement of more than three quarters of the population. The second reaction, which was the path that was taken, retained the bogus distinction between refined and vulgar language and adopted the tactics of hegemonic discourse to insist on a unique “standard language”. This second path helped to consolidate a discourse archive that lasted well into the twentieth century. However, before I present my arguments, we first need to sketch very briefly what happened on 16 August 1819.

Discontent at the totally inadequate parliamentary representation for the industrial north of England was not only channelled into the occasional desperate local outbreak of violence such as that at Pentrich, recounted at the beginning of this subsection. It also led to the peaceful organisation of groups agitating for parliamentary reform. The Lancashire cotton industry was, as we have seen, hit hardest by the change from handloom weaving to factory- based power-loom production, and the towns and villages around Manchester were urbanising at an alarming rate. Despite a population of almost one million, Manchester had no parliamentary representatives; there were merely two MPs for Cheshire and two for Lancashire. The Manchester Patriotic Union was formed to petition for more adequate representation in Parliament, and, more generally, for a wholesale reform of the parliamentary system. To this end the union organised a demonstration to be held in Manchester on 2 August and to be attended by delegations from the greater Manchester area. The radical orator Henry Hunt was invited to speak to the crowd on the question of parliamentary reform. The organisers chose as their venue a large stretch of wasteland called St. Peter’s Field, which was scheduled for development to link up the two ends of Peter Street, Manchester (see fig. 9.1). There was a certain amount of symbolic significance in the choice of venue. It

A map of St. Peter’s Field showing the positions of those involved around 1 p.m. on 16 August 1819

figure 9.1. A map of St. Peter’s Field showing the positions of those involved around 1 p.m. on 16 August 1819

was relatively central in Manchester and big enough to support a large crowd. Such a venue documented the intention of the organisers to make their feelings and wishes heard publicly and in the open.

Manchester magistrates informed Lord Portland, the home secretary, about the planned demonstration, and a letter to Henry Hunt was intercepted and copied. The crucial sentences in the letter are given as follows:

Nothing but ruin and starvation stare one in the face, the state of the district is truly dreadful, and I believe nothing but the greatest exertions can prevent an insurrection. Oh, that you in London were prepared for it. (quoted in Reid 1989: 115)

Amazingly, the Home Office interpreted this to mean that an insurrection was actually being planned, and the local magistrates were instructed to ban the demonstration.

The organisers, on the other hand, were determined to make sure that the demonstration was orderly and nonviolent. Arms of any description were strictly forbidden, and the different groups from different locations around Manchester were allotted different parts of St. Peter’s Field in which to stand. They were drilled prior to the demonstration on how they should dress, how they should march to Manchester and where they would be stationed. The drill was interpreted by spies as military training for an insurrection. The demonstration was originally planned to take place on 2 August, but was put

off for organisational reasons till 9 August, when it was banned by the local authorities. On learning that the meeting was not for the purpose of electing an MP for Manchester but to discuss the intention of doing so, the home secretary, Lord Portland, criticised the grounds on which the local authorities had taken their decision, and the demonstration was finally held on 16 August. This gave the authorities sufficient time to organise an inordinately large military presence, including cavalry from the Cheshire Yeomanry and the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry. Hustings were set up on two farm carts in the middle of the field, and when Hunt arrived St. Peter’s Field was packed.

Observing from a house on the corner of Windmill Street and St. Peter’s Field, the magistrates saw Hunt mount the hustings, whereupon they gave orders that he and three others should be arrested. Because of the thickness of the crowd, letters were sent to the commanders of the two yeomanry cavalry units that military assistance would be required, whereupon riders from the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry charged to St. Peter’s Field, knocking down a woman and her two-year-old child and, as a consequence, killing the child. On reaching the field they literally cut their way through to the hustings to make the arrests. The crowd began to disperse, and rioting occurred in the streets for most of the day. Fifteen fatalities were reported, 11 of them in St. Peter’s Field, and between 400 and 600 are estimated to have suffered injuries.

The following aspects of the organisation of the demonstration need to be borne in mind: [2]

The ideology of the legitimate language, however, can only be indirectly connected to such sociopolitical incidents and events as the Peterloo Massacre. It is clear that the government had an option as to how to act at and after Peterloo, and, with hindsight, made the wrong choice in advising the magistrates to arrest Hunt and the organisers. Not only were the prisoners tried and convicted of sedition, but the government clamped down swiftly and ruthlessly on any further claims to reform Parliament by passing the so-called Six Acts on 23 November of the same year. The six acts were (1) the Training Prevention Act (or Unlawful Drilling Act), to prevent people from attending a meeting for the purpose of receiving training or drill in weapons; (2) the Seizure of Arms Act, to empower magistrates to search any private property for weapons; (3) the Misdemeanours Act, to speed up the administration of justice by reducing the opportunities for bail; (4) the Seditious Meetings Prevention Act, to prevent public meetings concerned with “church” or “state” matters; (5) the Blasphemous and Seditious Libels Act (or Criminal Libel Act), to provide more punitive sentences; and (6) the Newspaper and Stamp Duties Act, to stiffen the taxes on publications that formerly escaped duty.

The Blasphemous and Seditious Libels Act, which tried to prevent texts such those published by Hone, did not attempt to redefine the terms “sedition”, “blasphemy” and “libel”, but to increase the sentences drastically. However, this did not prevent Hone from publishing one of his finest and most audacious parodies in December of that year, The Political House that Jack Built, lampooning the government and the prince regent for the tragedy of Peterloo. One wonders how Hone escaped the rigours of the law, until one realises that the text is cleverly built into the simple frame of the children’s rhyme The House that Jack Built. It is not therefore blasphemous, nor does it incite others to insurrection of any kind (i.e. it is not seditious), but it does come quite close to libel at times, particularly in its representation of the prince regent.

My argument is that social class distinctions and the politics based on social class at the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth hinged on language and education, and the argument runs as follows: [3]

political repression that was partly justified by being in a state of war up to 1815 was simply intensified and extended to maintain those class distinctions. But, at the same time, it became increasingly difficult to provide a linguistic justification for the distinctions themselves.

4. After Horne Tooke and Hone, the authorities were unable to define what “vulgar” language was and were thus unable to sustain a distinction between the legitimate language and illegitimate forms of language without reverting to outright violence and repression.

However, before the concept of the legitimate language could be put to use as a symbol of national pride and unity, the ruling classes were faced by the challenge of Chartism, as we shall see in the following subsection.

  • [1] The term “Peterloo” was coined by the radical Manchester newspaper, the Manchester Observer, in ananalogy with the slaughter at the Battle of Waterloo and based on the fact that it took place on St. Peter’s Field.
  • [2] The demonstration was a well-planned and thoroughly rehearsed eventdesigned to attract attention to the demands made by the organisers. It wasneither a desperate local resort to violence by a group of malcontents such asthe Pentrich rising, nor was it deliberately organised violence in the face of adesperate situation such as the Luddite machine wrecking and riots. 2. The demands made were for (a) adequate parliamentary representation forthe Manchester area, (b) universal male suffrage, (c) a secret ballot ratherthan openly casting one’s vote at the hustings, (d) repeal of the Corn Lawsand (e) annual parliaments. 3. Inviting Henry Hunt to chair the meeting was equivalent to documenting thenational scale of the grievances against government’s refusal to considerparliamentary reform. Arresting Hunt before he even had a chance to speak,convicting him of sedition and then sentencing him to 30 months in Ilchesterprison exceeded the letter of the law. 4. Although it is debatable whether Lord Sidmouth’s reinterpretation of thepurpose of the meeting actually did constitute an annulment of the decisionof the local authorities to ban the meeting, there was no pressing need todisperse it, since it was obviously not an armed insurrection. Ordering Huntand the organisers to be arrested while he was on the hustings rather thanafter the demonstration was an act of folly, given the fact that an estimated60,000 people were packed into St. Peter’s Field and the roads leading to it.
  • [3] Throughout the 1790s, the social class in power, the gentry and the aristocracy, attempted, often unsuccessfully, to convict people of libel and seditionon the grounds that their writings constituted examples of vulgar languagethat was liable to corrupt their readers. 2. Their justification was that only those who had received a classical educationand displayed refined language were capable of governing the country. 3. After the end of the Napoleonic Wars and under immense pressure frombelow to reform Parliament and introduce universal male suffrage, thepoliticolinguistic justification for upholding a distinction between themselvesand the lower middle and working classes began to waver. As a result, the
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