It’s 1819 and we’re in the north of England. At last count–that was in 1780–only 3% of the population of England and Wales was allowed to vote. But that’s guesswork. A later count, in 1831, will estimate it at 1.35%. Voter registration won’t start until 1832, which may be why the numbers are a little hazy.
Can we say that not many people have the right to vote and leave it at that?
With such a thin slice of the population having any semblance of political power, and with wealth highly concentrated, this is a time when you can talk about a ruling class and not have to explain who you mean or argue about whether you’re seeing the world through Marxist-inflected spectacles. So let’s be bold and say that some elements of the ruling class see the value of expanding the vote in order to release a bit of the political pressure that’s been building in the country. Or to put that another way, they think it might help avoid a revolution.
But reform itself sometimes leads to revolution, and since we’re in the present tense here we–and more to the point, they–have no way of knowing what will happen next. Will reform avoid a revolution or set one off?
Tough choice. The French Revolution is still too recent, and it was too bloody and too scary, for the ruling class as a whole to take risks. So reform–at least the kind that came from the top down–gets put on hold, leaving it in the hands of scary, bottom-up radicals.
So who can’t vote?
That’s an easier question than who can. The list includes:
- The working class
- The poor in general, in case category one left any of them out
- All or most or–well, at least much of the middle class
I chased Lord Google all over the internet trying to find some solid explanation of who can vote, and the answer was always murky. I finally found a House of Commons Library paper called “The History of Parliamentary Franchise,” which doesn’t answer the question but does at least explain why Lord G. is so evasive.
Sorry–using the present tense for the nineteenth century gets awkward when I drag the twenty-first century Lord Google into it, but a commitment’s a commitment. We’ll stay with it if for no better reason than that it’ll give you a chance to watch me tie myself in knots.
First, who can vote depends on whether you’re talking about England, Wales, Ireland, or Scotland, because they all have their own rules. After that, it depends on where in those four nations you live. In England, at least, the boroughs–in other words, the towns–set their own rules. Or at least the ones that have the right to send an MP to Parliament do. They don’t all have that right. In the counties, the rules seem to be consistent, but I wouldn’t want to put money on that.
What’s important is that no matter where you live, the right to vote depends on wealth, property, and influence. And some MPs aren’t even elected, so even if you have the right to vote it doesn’t necessarily get you much.
According to the House of Commons Library, “Uncontested elections were common and in some seats an election had not taken place for many years. Parliamentary seats were often considered as property and remained in the control of a family from one generation to the next. This persisted until the beginning of the twentieth century.”
(Votes won’t be cast by secret ballot until 1872. That’s not strictly relevant, but it’s interesting.)
If you’re getting a picture of an undemocratic country, let me add another detail to the picture: Voting is only for the House of Commons. The upper house, the Lords, is hereditary.
Why does anybody care about the vote?
Nineteenth-century Britain is a country with multiple problems, and the people who suffer most from them don’t have a lot of ways to change their situation. Or if they’re risk-averse, any ways.
Britain’s busy turning itself from a rural country into an industrial one. Huge numbers of people who can’t make a living in the countryside are desperate enough to pour into the cities, hoping to make a living, but the cities aren’t prepared to house them. People are packed in on top of each other and sanitation verges on nonexistent. Wages, hours, and working conditions in the factories (and elsewhere) are terrible, and strikes are illegal: The Combination Acts mean you’re risking three months in prison if you and your co-workers walk off the job in any organized way, or prepare to, although you’re still welcome to quit your job individually and go starve somewhere.
No, I’m not being dramatic. People live close enough to the margin that we’re often talking about eating or not eating. Or ending up in the workhouse, which sets you only a small step above starvation.
The acts won’t be repealed until 1824 and 1825. Union organizing and what the National Archives call labor unrest–a term that takes in everything from riots to organizing a union –won’t break into the open until the 1830s. And here we are, stuck in 1819.
You notice how subtly I reminded you of the date?
A few years ago, in 1815, the Napoleonic Wars ended. This means a lot of former soldiers are now out of work.
Thanks, guys, you’ve been positively heroic. Hope you find jobs somewhere.
Wages fell in England’s textile towns, and the taxes that were introduced to support the war didn’t, they walked into the peacetime years like zombies. The country entered a postwar depression.
And if that isn’t enough trouble, the Corn Laws were passed in 1815. During the Napoleonic Wars, the country couldn’t import wheat from Europe and British farmers grew more of it. Then the wars ended and since landowners dominated Parliament they passed laws to protect their wheat market. The Corn Laws banned imports unless the price of domestic wheat went from high to astronomical.
Then the 1816 harvest was bad, leading to a winter of food shortages and riots.
Several strands of discontent wove themselves together: low pay, the Corn Laws, a political political system that shut out the voices of anyone other than landowners. The north–the center of the industrial revolution–became a center of radicalism among working people.
In 1817, a hunger march was organized, to go from Manchester to London. That’s 209 miles if you take the M40, which hadn’t been built yet. Each marcher carried a petition to the Prince Regent and a blanket to sleep in at night (and to mark them all as textile workers). They were called Blanketeers, and 5,000 of them gathered to start the march on St. Peter’s Field, near Manchester, with a larger crowd to see them off. One estimate puts the crowd at 25,000. The gathering was broken up by the King’s Dragoon Guard, which arrested 27 people, including the leaders, and injured several. One–a bystander–was killed. Several hundred people set off anyway, but the group thinned out, with some dropping out and many getting arrested or being turned back under vagrancy laws.
Legend has one lone marcher reaching London and handing in his petition, but since he’s named both as Abel Couldwell and as Jonathan Cowgill, he may be mythical. Or I may be doing him a disservice.
Also in 1817, two hundred Derbyshire labourers marched to Nottingham in order, their leader said, to take part in a general insurrection. Three of the leaders were executed for treason. This did not calm the nerves of people in power.
The Manchester and Salford Yeomanry was formed. Its purpose was to put down any insurrection that wandered into view.
Are we done with the background yet?
Yup. Finally. It’s August 16, 1819, and the Manchester Patriotic Union Society has called a massive meeting calling for political reform, once again at St. Peter’s Field.
About 60,000 people turn up. A few years earlier, in 1802, Manchester’s population was 95,000, but people have come from other towns and cities. This is a big deal and a lot of preparation’s gone into it. Their banners call for an end to the Corn Laws, for universal suffrage, and for political reform.
What kind of political reform?
Several kinds. Not only can’t most of the individuals here vote, the north as a whole is under-represented in the Commons. And in spite of its size, Manchester doesn’t have its own Member of Parliament. So this is about both class and region.
At this point, no one’s calling for women to have the vote. When they say “universal suffrage,” they’re talking about men.
Yeah, I know. History’s a real kick in the head, but we don’t get to rewrite it.
The organization involved is impressive. As Samuel Bamford, a handloom weaver who walks from Middleton, later wrote about the journey, every hundred men have a leader, who wears a sprig of laurel in his hat so you can spot him, and a bugler relays the orders given by the man at the head of the column. Everyone’s warned not to carry sticks or weapons. Only the very old and infirm are allowed walking sticks.
Together with marchers who join them from Rochdale, there are about 6,000 of them.
“At our head were a hundred or two of women, mostly young wives, and mine own was amongst them. A hundred of our handsomest girls, sweethearts to the lads who were with us, danced to the music. Thus accompanied by our friends and our dearest we went slowly towards Manchester.”
And in case you think the emphasis on looks only applies to women, Bamford will also write, “First were selected twelve of the most decent-looking youths, who were placed at the front, each with a branch of laurel held in his hand, as a token of peace; then the colours: a blue one of silk, with inscriptions in golden letters, ‘Unity and Strength’, ‘Liberty and Fraternity’; a green one of silk, with golden letters, ‘Parliaments Annual’, ‘Suffrage Universal.’”
That “Liberty and Fraternity” is an echo of the French Revolution and may not have helped calm ruling class nerves either, in spite of the emphasis on peaceful, laurel-branched, weaponless demonstrating.
One eyewitness will later describe the gathering at St. Peter’s Field as “large bodies of men and women with bands playing and flags and banners. . . There were crowds of people in all directions, full of humour, laughing and shouting and making fun. It seemed to be a gala day with the country people, who were mostly dressed in their best and brought with them their wives.”
The local magistrates, though, are less poetic than Bamford and less happy with the gathering than the second witness. They’ve pulled together four squadrons of cavalry (that’s 600 men), several hundred infantrymen, the Cheshire Yeomanry Cavalry (another 400), a detachment of the Royal Horse Artillery (no numbers given), two six-pounder guns, all Manchester’s special constables (again, 400), and 120 men from the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry–a kind of amateur cavalry. In other words, a shitload of soldiers and cops and would-be soldiers are on standby.
And their weaponry.
The main speakers arrive and the magistrates decide that Manchester’s “in great danger,” so they order Manchester’s deputy constable to arrest the speakers.
“Can’t do it without the military,” the deputy constable says (although he doesn’t use those words).
“Right,” the magistrates say, “no problem,” although I’m still making up the dialog.
They order in some of the military, and the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry are closest and get the order first. Sixty of them ride into the crowd, which links arms to protect the speaker. Later on, eyewitnesses will claim the yeomen were drunk and the officer in charge will swear they moved erratically because the horses were spooked by the crush of people.
Either way, sabers are drawn. The Yeomanry knock down a woman and kill a two-year-old child. The speaker and a few leaders are arrested, along with some nearby newspaper reporters.
Always go for the reporters.
Someone in authority decides that the Yeomanry need defending and sends in some of the professional soldiers.
Within minutes, the field is clear and 18 people are dead. Somewhere between 400 and 700 men and women are wounded.
One of the organizers (who’s also a publisher), Richard Carlile, avoids being arrested, is hidden by local radicals, and skedaddles on the first coach back to London, where he gets the story into print as fast as he can. By our standards, that’s none too fast but it’s fast enough to piss off the authorities, who raid his print shop and confiscate every bit of paper they can get their hands on.
The Manchester Observer also reports on what happened and is the first to call it the Peterloo Massacre, echoing the Battle of Waterloo.
Carlile and the Observer’s editor, James Wroe, are arrested and sent to prison, Carlile for blasphemy and seditious libel and Wroe for producing a seditious publication.
I have no idea where blasphemy comes into it.
The massacre’s legacy
The Peterloo Massacre is over, and thank all the gods I don’t believe in we can shift to the past tense to talk about its impact.
The government got busy and passed six acts–known, creatively, as the Six Acts–that were designed to keep anything like Peterloo from happening again. Not the massacre part, mind you. The radicalism. The mass meeting. That pesky damn press, or as Lord Castlereagh described it, “The treasonable, blasphemous, and seditious branch of the press.”
Which branch was that? The branch that sold papers to “the lower orders.”
It wasn’t just the ruling class you could talk about without argument back then. The class structure was clear, identifiable, and right in your face. To challenge it was to join the ranks of the treasonable and blasphemous et ceteras.
It was “utterly impossible for the mind of man long to withstand the torrent of criminal and seductive reasoning which was now incessantly poured out to the lower orders.” Castlereagh said.
Newspapers were already taxed, and that mattered because the higher the price, the less likely working people were to buy them. But the more radical papers had avoided the tax by, at least officially, publishing opinion instead of news.
A tax was now slapped on them regardless of what they published. Game over.
The penalties for publishing blasphemous and seditious material and generally making the authorities mad went up. They now included transportation, which is another name for exile.
Four other acts were aimed at suppressing mass meetings and protesters who used weapons. That makes five acts, so we’re missing one. Let’s say it outlawed pineapple on pizza, and like so many laws that overreach, it didn’t work. We’re still plagued by the stuff.
Of the six acts, Parliament’s website considers five to have been mostly ineffective. The one that had an impact was the newspaper tax, which stayed in place until 1836, when it was reduced from 4p to 1p, before being abolished in 1861.
Even so, for a while there every significant leader in the parliamentary reform period was jailed and reformist meetings were effectively banned, which doesn’t make the acts sound insignificant to me.
But that doesn’t mean the game went to the anti-reform forces. Either in spite of the repression or because of it (these things are as likely to backfire as the reforms that are meant to avoid revolution), the massacre fueled the anger that led to the Reform Act of 1832, which didn’t address the deeper issues but smoothed out a few of the worst political inequities and expanded the franchise by an inch or two.
The deeper issues were left to the people who organized the trade unions, the Labour Party, and the movement for universal suffrage.
Women’s involvement in the Peterloo gathering was significant. They helped organize it, they marched, and they were targeted by the soldiers. Women’s political groups were starting to form. You can legitimately draw a line from Peterloo to the later struggle for women’s rights in the workplace, within marriage, and in the voting booth.
Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote The Masque of Anarchy about Peterloo. The last stanza is:
Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you–
Ye are many–they are few.
No publisher was brave enough to touch it and it didn’t come out until a decade after his death.
For a glimpse of today’s Tandle Hill, where marchers from Oldham and Saddleworth gathered to walk to St. Peter’s Field, see the Bloggler.
Many thanks to the assortment of people who’ve been pushing me in the direction of writing about this for some time now. The next chapter in the history of British voting rights is the Chartists, and I’ll get to that before too long. Really I will.
If you want to follow the story more or less from beginning to end–and with apologies for referring you to myself (especially when we already know I’m long winded), you can find more posts on the history of voting rights by following the links: The roots of the English parliament, The rotten borough and the history of British voting rights, Suffragists, Sufragettes, and votes for women.